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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 11

Mr. Bingley arrived at the door of Darcy's London townhouse during a torrential rain. He was greeted by the owner of that domicile, who had been pacing in an agitated manner for the past hour, awaiting his friend's arrival.

"Well?" Mr. Darcy asked impatiently as a servant helped Mr. Bingley with his coat. "Do not keep me in suspense, man! Has she heard from her relations? Will she be coming to Town?"

Bingley smiled, a great self-satisfied grin. "Is this how you greet your friend newly returned from the wilds of Hertfordshire? Do you not first ask after his health, or that of his fiancée?"

"Yes, yes, yes," Darcy said with barely concealed irritation. "How was your trip to London, Bingley? How is Miss Bennet, Bingley? While you are at it, Bingley, will you not tell me of the health of your entire future family?"

"I thank you for enquiring, Darcy. Let us see. Well, the trip from Hertfordshire was beastly long, the weather inclement; Miss Bennet is as lovely as ever; Mr. Bennet has a cold, alas. . ."

When he could see from Darcy's scowl and gritted teeth that his friend could no longer bear to be kept waiting, Bingley finally said, "Oh, yes, and Miss Elizabeth received a letter from her aunt and uncle Gardiner not four days past saying they would be delighted to host her in London after their stay at Longbourn."

Darcy's countenance lit up with a relieved smile. He clapped Bingley heartily on the back and, having obtained the intelligence most important to him, was now at liberty to hear the rest of Bingley's news, although he listened with very little interest. In fact, his mind was turning rapidly. He would need more details. When, exactly, would Elizabeth be arriving? How long would he need to wait before calling on her? And what ever was he to do to occupy himself until she arrived?

Whilst most of England looked forward to the Yuletide season with eager anticipation, there were those among our acquaintance who were equally ready to see it banished. Chief among them, of course, was Mr. Darcy. But in Hertfordshire, Elizabeth's thoughts ran along similar lines. She professed delight that her aunt, uncle and young cousins would be arriving shortly to spend Christmas with her family, but in reality she was counting the days until they could leave. She could scarce believe her change of heart. Of course, there had not ever been a time when she wished never to see Mr. Darcy again, even when she was most infuriated with him, but now her expectations of seeing him were so great, there was little else that could hold her attention. Jane Bennet, too, was anxious for the time to pass, as she was keen to join her sister in Town and reunite with her fiancé, who was likewise keen to see her.

Not surprisingly, Miss Bingley was just as impatient for the season to pass, for celebrating as she was this year with the Hursts and Mr. Bingley only served to point up that another year had come and gone without her having secured a wealthy husband, especially as Mr. Darcy had lately been invited to join the festivities. In fact, perhaps the only one of the group actually looking forward to the Yule this December was Mr. Hurst, who was pleased with any excuse to overindulge in food and drink.

When at last the much-maligned Christmas celebration had come and gone, the two eldest Bennet sisters were bundled into the series of carriages that had transported the Gardiner family and their retinue to Longbourn for the trip to London. Jane had been early on informed by Mr. Bingley of the reason for her sister's recent enthusiasm for a visit to Town, and she could not but approve. She had always liked Mr. Darcy, even when he had earned the disapprobation of the entire town, for she felt he was entirely misunderstood, and now that she was apprised of his affection for Elizabeth, her own increased for him.

Upon their arrival on Gracechurch Street, Jane had a note sent to Mr. Bingley at the Darcy townhouse. He read it eagerly, then showed it to his friend. "There! You see, Darcy? They are here! And we can call on them tomorrow morning."

"It is still early. Why not today?"

Bingley laughed heartily. "No, I think it best if we give them time to refresh themselves. Besides, we need not appear so eager. Tomorrow morning will do nicely."

The following day, as early as could be deemed proper, Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy called upon the Gardiner household. They were a great object of curiosity to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, who knew of Mr. Bingley's engagement to Jane, but nothing of Mr. Darcy. That gentleman's eyes were immediately locked upon Elizabeth, who, blushing, found it difficult to return such an ardent gaze, though she felt it and was exceedingly flattered, and so smiled demurely to indicate her acquiescence to his attentions. However, she had no more than an opportunity to receive a gallant bow from Mr. Darcy and a brief kiss upon her hand when, upon learning that he was in fact the Mr. Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, Mrs. Gardiner found that she had much to talk about, for she had passed an exceptionally happy part of her girlhood in the village of Lambton, not five miles distant from Pemberley. As a result, while Mr. Bingley and Jane had the pleasure of a more intimate exchange, Elizabeth was resigned to listening to her aunt and her admirer discussing the merits of the Derbyshire countryside. Had she but known, Mr. Darcy, too, was chafing at the barriers between them, and wished only that he had the rights that Mr. Bingley did, to a more personal conversation with his sweetheart.

Finally, when Mrs. Gardiner excused herself to see to the feeding of her youngest, and whilst Mr. Gardiner was immersed in conversation with Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy was free for some moments to approach Elizabeth.

"Miss Elizabeth," Darcy began in a low voice, "please allow me to express my joy at seeing you once again. It seems a very long time since I have had the pleasure of your company."

"Indeed, sir," Elizabeth said, matching his tone, to his great delight, "it seems far too long." Easily forgot were thoughts of the argument with which they had parted, for each was desirous rather to recall the kisses and caresses that preceded it. They both grew warm at the memory, and Mr. Darcy found he had best change the subject.

"Might I enquire after the health of your parents?"

"They are well, I thank you."

"And all your sisters?"

"All in good health, sir."

Having thus successfully calmed himself and dispensed with the niceties, Darcy was impatient to make some real progress in his courtship of Elizabeth. "Would you and your aunt and uncle do us the honor of dining with us at my townhouse? Would tomorrow be acceptable?"

"I am very sorry," Elizabeth said with real regret, "but tomorrow we are to go to the opera."

"Then I will go as well, for I have a box. Will you and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner care to join me there?" The thought of having Elizabeth beside him in the dark was tantalizing, but her relations would be necessary as chaperones.

Elizabeth smiled, and Darcy's heart stood still. "You are too kind. I will ask my aunt."

"And then perhaps a light dinner afterward?"

"It is a very generous invitation," laughed Elizabeth. "Pray, let us now ask my aunt and uncle, and you may be content with having an answer."

The plans were made, to everyone's satisfaction. Jane owned that she would rather stay at home with the children, and Mr. Bingley offered to keep her company under the watchful eye of the youngsters' governess. When the night of the performance arrived, Darcy contrived to sit next to Elizabeth, much to the amusement of her aunt. Jane had insinuated to Mrs. Gardiner that the two were on their way to becoming a couple, and the elder lady, having seen for herself the attraction between them, had quickly taken the hint, deciding to give them a little more freedom than she would have under other circumstances, for she trusted Elizabeth's judgment, and Darcy as a gentleman; perhaps this was a miscalculation on her part, though she was not to know it. Thus she manoeuvred her husband to sit beside her at the front of the box, and gave her niece and her beau the rear to themselves.

Darcy could not have been more pleased. Once the lights were lowered, and the orchestra had begun the overture, whilst the attention of the audience was fixed upon the stage, his attention was entirely fixed upon Elizabeth. He took her gloved hand in his own, lightly caressing the fingers, and then pressed them to his lips. A quiet sigh escaping Elizabeth encouraged him further, and he turned her hand over, and gently kissed its palm. He silently cursed the silken material, which denied him access to her skin, but she was too quick for him. Gently withdrawing her hand for a moment, she swiftly and silently returned it without the offending garment. Abundantly grateful, he pressed his lips once again to her bare palm, then lightly touched it with his tongue. Her sudden intake of breath was hidden from her relations by a crescendo in the music, and he felt emboldened to proceed further, so he slid his lips to her wrist, and thrilled to feel her pulse pounding in time to his own.

Without releasing her hand, Darcy leaned toward Elizabeth and softly touched his mouth to her ear. In such proximity he could now feel the increased agitation of her breathing, and more closely appreciate the stimulating sight of her ivory bosom rapidly rising and falling above the low cut of her gown. "Miss Bennet," he whispered, causing her to shiver in delight, "there is no lady here tonight more beautiful, nor more desirable." He allowed his lips to circle her ear, then pulled at her lobe with his teeth before pressing a kiss on the delicate skin just below.

Elizabeth felt unbearably warm, and completely insensible to anything but Mr. Darcy. It was therefore indeed fortunate that he was paying sufficient attention to the opera to be able to indicate to her when it was time to put her glove back on, and he withdrew from her completely in adequate time before the intermission so she could catch her breath. Thus when it was time to obtain some refreshments with the Gardiners, she was tolerably composed, though still somewhat weak in the knees. Happily, though, Mr. Darcy was willing to lend her his arm, and the two animatedly discussed with Elizabeth's aunt and uncle their pleasure in the first act. That their pleasure had nothing to do with the opera itself completely escaped the notice of Elizabeth's relations.

When the second act began, knowing now what Mr. Darcy was about, Elizabeth was not loath to assist him. So when he once again reached for her hand, to his delight he found it already sans glove, and rewarded her by delicately biting the tip of each finger before gliding his lips down the inside of her arm almost to her elbow. And just when she thought that she could no longer contain her excitement, his own hand came to rest upon her leg, just above her knee. His fingers stroked lightly the fine fabric of her gown, occasionally pausing to grasp her thigh, the heat of his hand setting the flesh beneath afire, dipping his hand between her legs as he progressed slowly upward, drawing ever closer to the center of her pleasure, then, teasingly, retreating.

Elizabeth felt perilously close to letting out a moan of such magnitude as would drown out the soprano currently displaying her vocal range on stage. Sensing the danger by the change in her breathing, Darcy reluctantly removed his hand and contented himself once more with caressing hers. And thus they stayed until shortly before the end of the second act, when it was again advisable for Elizabeth to put her glove back on.

During this intermission, Darcy once more enthused to the Gardiners about his enjoyment of the performance, with Elizabeth nodding her agreement throughout, though neither of the two could have named a single character or lyric or, in fact, any detail of the plot. Still, the Gardiners were satisfied, for they were great devotees of the opera, and professed their delight to each other that their niece was so enthused about the experience.

Though Elizabeth knew not what to expect during the third act, she nevertheless removed her glove, and was not surprised when Mr. Darcy grasped her hand in his own. Still, beyond a gentle fondling of her fingers, he made not a move to further his caresses. Confused, she turned toward him only to find his face mere inches from his own, gazing at her intently. "Miss Bennet," he whispered huskily, lowering his eyes to her lips, but still he remained motionless. Growing impatient, Elizabeth used her free hand to clasp his neck and pull him toward her, their lips meeting in a frenzied kiss. Darcy was greatly surprised, but not unpleasantly so, at the intensity with which she kissed him, her tongue sliding into his mouth with exceptional hunger. Such was his astonishment that it was he who first broke the embrace with a sigh, fearful that he would no longer be able to restrain his own passion. While he had been the aggressor, he had felt himself in control of the circumstances. But confronted with the fierceness of her ardour, he felt the danger, and thought it best to put an end to their dalliance lest they be unable to stop in time for the end of the performance. And so he gently stroked her face, first one cheek, then the other, and kissed her once warmly upon the lips, then sat back in his chair with her hand firmly between his two, for the duration of the opera, or rather until it was time for her to retrieve her glove.

After the performance, and the subsequent enthusiastic discussion which served to assure the Gardiners that yes, it was a memorable evening for their niece, one which she would be happy at any time to repeat, the party drove to the Darcy townhouse for dinner. In the face-to-face setting of the meal, Darcy found it impossible to engage in further covert intimacies with Elizabeth, and had to content himself with a chaste kiss upon her gloved hand as she departed. Both went to their solitary beds that night and lay awake for hours, though they had a shared amusement in the thought of what dismal failures the Gardiners were as chaperones.

The days that followed were a source of both pleasure and pain to Darcy: pleasure, because he was able to call upon Elizabeth every day and spend hours in her presence, and pain, because he was never able to be alone with her. In the Gardiners' home there was always an aunt or uncle or sister or governess pleased to act as chaperone. They could go out walking, of course, but in a large city there were no isolated groves or secluded fields into which they could wander unnoticed. So they passed their time becoming better acquainted, which was in any case to Darcy's advantage, for Elizabeth found more to like about him with each passing hour. They spoke of books, and poetry, and plays, and places they had visited. Still, while he was pleased to nurture their growing relationship, it was also his dearest wish to continue what had been developing so promisingly during the opera.

With that foremost on his mind, he invited the Gardiners as well as Jane and Mr. Bingley for dinner one evening at his townhouse. He had a sympathetic co-conspirator in Bingley, who, as an engaged man, had far more latitude in his interactions with his beloved and could sympathize with the desperate straits in which Darcy had found himself. So after dinner was complete, as they all conversed in the sitting room, Bingley addressed his fiancée thus:

"Jane, dearest, have you yet had the pleasure of touring the upper floors of this remarkable structure? No? Oh, I promise you they are well worth seeing. The artwork is outstanding, the furnishings second to none! Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, could I persuade you as well? Splendid! Let us all go!"

So they all stood and left the room as a group, laughing and chattering away, yet Darcy grasped Elizabeth's hand as she began to leave, and held her back, waiting until the others were heard walking up the stairs. Once the rest of the party was safely out of sight, Darcy wasted no time, for he estimated he had ten minutes, perhaps fifteen minutes at best. He pulled Elizabeth to a darkened alcove off the opposite corner of the room. "I have waited far too long for you, Miss Bennet," he growled out, as he crushed her comely figure to his chest and his mouth descended upon hers.

"Pray, call me 'Elizabeth,'" she managed to gasp out beneath his lips before the pleasure of his embrace took her breath away.

"Elizabeth!" he cried in triumph, and then said no more. If their interaction at the opera had been play, they were now in deadly earnest. Elizabeth's arms locked about Darcy's neck, and in turn his arms encircled her waist, his hands roaming possessively across her bottom. Their mouths twisted ferociously upon each other, their tongues mingling in desperate need. With a groan he pushed her up against the wall, pressing his arousal against her thighs so that she may feel how very urgently he wanted her. His tongue, his lips, his teeth - though careful not to mark the delicate skin - blazed a path down her throat, until finally his mouth grazed across the upper reaches of her breasts, as he filled his hands with their weight, stroking her nipples with his thumbs through the material of her gown.

Elizabeth was no longer capable of conscious thought; she was overcome with desire, simply responding to every pressure, every stroke. The now-familiar dampness and throbbing between her legs were growing apace. His lips returned to hers, and she clutched his hair, and moaned against his mouth, and luxuriated in every blossoming feeling. As if from a distance she thought she heard him say,

"Elizabeth, oh sweet Elizabeth, how I love you!"

Suddenly there was a clamour at the front door. Cursing to himself, Darcy found it necessary, if thoroughly lamentable, to separate, panting, from Elizabeth, and they gathered their wits, and straightened their clothes, and went together, though at a respectable distance, to investigate the cause. There, in the doorway, pale and obviously unwell, stood a slight young woman. "Georgiana!" Darcy cried, and rushed toward her. He had barely reached her when she collapsed into his arms. Darcy called the servants for assistance as he carried the unconscious form of his sister up the stairs to her bedroom. Elizabeth, astonished and terrified, wished she could be of help, but knew not what to do. So she stood in the foyer, watching the bustle of the servants as they brought in the girl's luggage, and was therefore the first in the household to encounter the smirking visage of Mr. George Wickham.

Chapter 12

Had Elizabeth never met Mr. Darcy, she might have thought the man before her the handsomest she had ever seen. To be sure, he was extremely well-favoured: tall, with thick, wavy hair, dazzling blue eyes and regular, white teeth. But about those eyes Elizabeth could see some unpleasant signs of dissipation, rare for so young a man, and there was a hardness about his mouth that she could not like. Moreover, with the arrival of Georgiana, it was certain that he was in fact Mr. Wickham, about whom Mr. Darcy had written some extraordinary and very unflattering things.

Mr. Wickham looked on Mr. Darcy's guest with a great deal of interest. Here was a lovely woman in the bloom of youth, yet she was not the wan, regal sort of female usually favoured by high society. Indeed, quite the opposite. She had a most earthy, almost country air about her, with, he noted to his pleasure, a well-rounded bosom emphasized by a slender waist; yet, she was obviously a lady gently born, not some common wench. And with her colour high, her lips full and her breathing somewhat irregular, she showed signs of great passion that he found irresistible - certainly nothing like that skinny slip of a girl he had married. He put forth his most charming demeanour.

"How unfortunate to be meeting you under such circumstances, Miss...?"

Elizabeth looked upon him coldly. "We have not been introduced, sir."

Mr. Wickham, undeterred, stepped closer and flashed her his most brilliant smile. He could smell her scent, a light gardenia, and it entranced him further. "Yes, but how very awkward to be standing here with no one to do the honours. Surely it would hurt no one if I were to introduce myself." He bowed gallantly. "George Wickham, at your service, madam. And you would be...?"

"Not interested in addressing a man to whom I had not been properly introduced," Elizabeth replied scathingly.

He laughed delightedly and eyed her with even greater appreciation. Mr. Wickham dearly loved a challenge, and one so shapely, even more. "Yes, I see you are determined to observe the proprieties. Well, no matter. I shall enjoy the pleasure of your company, identified or not, until our host decides to join us. Alas, there he is now!"

Mr. Darcy's reappearance at the top of the stairs was a great relief to Elizabeth. The scowl upon his countenance, however, was frightening to behold. But his displeasure was not for Elizabeth; it was for the way Mr. Wickham was looking upon her, for he stood far too close, his gaze bearing too much resemblance to that of a hungry cat stalking a bird, and Darcy would not have it continue.

"Mr. Wickham," Darcy spat as he made his way down the stairs. "You will be pleased to know that your wife is resting comfortably in her rooms upstairs. And now I must ask you to wait for me in the study, as I have guests I must attend to."

Wickham was made not at all uneasy by Darcy's demeanour. His smile stayed upon his lips as he replied, "I understand completely, Darcy, as I have already had the genuine pleasure of encountering one of your visitors. Will you do the honour of introducing us, since the young lady has refused to speak with me for lack of a proper introduction?"

"I will do no such thing. The young lady has shown uncommon good sense in refusing to speak with you. Now I ask you again, please wait for me in my study, while I say good-night to my guests."

Bowing his acquiescence, Wickham moved as if to leave, but before doing so, he quickly grasped Elizabeth's hand and placed a kiss upon it. She pulled it away swiftly in distaste, but still he grinned, having accomplished his object, and added, "I do so look forward to meeting you again, madam." Then, with a wink at Mr. Darcy, he quit the room.

The rest of the party, having encountered Mr. Darcy upstairs with Georgiana, hesitantly made their way downstairs. Mrs. Gardiner had been of immeasurable help soothing the young girl, and Mr. Gardiner likewise in calming her brother, but now that Georgiana was sleeping, all felt the wisdom of a speedy departure. At their approach, Mr. Darcy said to Elizabeth in a low voice,

"This is not the way I would have our evening end, but there is no help for it. May I call upon you tomorrow?"

"Of course," she responded quietly, "I understand."

"Elizabeth," he whispered with longing, but the appearance of the rest of the party made it impossible to speak further, so he placed a chaste kiss upon her hand. Murmuring a few words of apology to his other guests, he bid them all good-night, and with that they left the townhouse.

His countenance grim, Darcy strode to the study, where Wickham was already seated comfortably by the fire. He did not rise as Darcy entered, but merely inclined his head in acknowledgment. Darcy did not waste a moment.

"And what are you doing here on my property?"

"Why, I would have thought it clear: I am accompanying your sister, who was desirous of visiting her beloved brother." He examined his well-manicured fingers. "After all, while you have kept me from Pemberley, you have never forbidden me to enter the townhouse."

"An oversight I must correct," muttered Darcy. He was wondering why he had had no word from Stanton on this visit, and worried that something might have happened to the man. "How could you travel such a long way with Georgiana so obviously out of sorts?"

"We had passed a quiet Christmas at Alston House, but she was restless and unhappy, poor lamb." His accent savoured strongly of sarcasm. "When we first set out to travel, it was just for a brief holiday, a change of scenery. But she grew lonely for her family, and insisted that we visit, so we altered our destination at the last minute."

That would explain why there had been no notification from Stanton. "But she is unwell! A trip such as this from ________shire, and in the winter, as well! It is unwise to risk her health in this manner!"

"There is nothing wrong with her!" Wickham waved away Darcy's concerns. "She is only with child."

"With child!" Darcy reeled as if he had received a blow. "So soon!"

"What did you expect? She is young and healthy, and I," Wickham said with a leer, "have been a most attentive husband."

Darcy felt sick, and turned from Wickham to hide his pallor. His sister was little more than a child herself, and now she was about to bear one of her own with this swine of a husband.

"Yes, she is with child," Wickham repeated, "a necessary evil, I fear. Noisy, bothersome, unclean things, children. But where would we be without our heirs, eh, Darcy?"

Darcy swung around to face him, his heart pounding. Did he know? It was impossible to tell from Wickham's manner whether he referred only to his own circumstances, or if he were aware of his stake in Pemberley's future.

Wickham laughed. "My, have I hit a nerve, Darcy? Yes, I am well on my way to having an heir - she is four months gone, I reckon. Tell me: does it make you uneasy to think of Wickham heirs frolicking upon ancient Darcy grounds?"

Darcy won the struggle to compose himself. He had no proof that Wickham knew about the will. And if he was indeed ignorant, there was no sense in rising to this obvious provocation.

"Of course I am pleased to see Georgiana," Darcy replied, pointedly ignoring Wickham's last comment. "Can you tell me how long she is planning to stay?"

"We will be here for a fortnight." At Darcy's raised eyebrows, Wickham added confidently, "What will you do, brother? Have me removed bodily from your house? What will your sister say?"

This was indeed a problem. Wickham was already in the house, his wife ensconced in her own rooms upstairs. He could have the man cast out, of course, but what would be the toll on Georgiana? Darcy had lost this battle, but it was the only ground he was willing to cede.

"Very well. I will tolerate your presence for Georgiana's sake for the next fortnight, but no longer. I will have the servants place you in the room next to hers. While you are under my roof, I expect you to behave in an exemplary manner, is that quite clear?"

"Yes, father," Wickham smirked in a demeanour Darcy remembered well. Sighing with satisfaction, Wickham relaxed back into his chair. "Will you not offer me a brandy?"

"No, I will offer you no spirits, save a glass of wine at dinner. Now, it has been a trying evening, and I believe this interview is over."

"Come now, Darcy, it could not have been such a trying evening for you with such an alluring young lady as guest." He leaned forward, his eyes alight. "Do tell, brother! What is her name, and when will we next have the pleasure of her company?"

Darcy cast an icy look upon the man, and his jaw tightened forbiddingly. "You can have no interest in that young lady, sir," he ground out. "You are a married man, and it would do you credit to remember it."

Wickham eyed Darcy with surprise. This was not just about his marriage to Georgiana; no, there was something more at play here. In all the years they had known each other, he had seen Darcy passionate about many things - his family, his honour, Pemberley - but never about a woman. It was therefore imperative to find out more about her.

"As you say. But should she visit again, you cannot very well let us share the table the whole evening without introducing us. And then, my curiosity will be sated." Though my other desires will not be. Not yet, he added to himself, smiling,

On Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth and her relations shared what they knew of the current situation at the townhouse. As discreetly as possible, Elizabeth informed the others that Mr. Wickham was not a man to be trusted, and that his interest in his young wife had apparently been purely mercenary. This greatly shocked Mrs. Gardiner and Jane, who, in turn, related what they had seen of Mr. Darcy's sister. It was Mrs. Gardiner's opinion that the girl appeared to be in a delicate way. Elizabeth shook her head sadly. With such a man for a father, what kind of future could the child anticipate? All her delight at her moments alone with Mr. Darcy faded at the turn which the evening had taken.

Early the next morning, Mr. Darcy called upon Elizabeth. She was immediately struck by the urgency with which he requested that they find a few minutes to themselves. She directed him to the courtyard which, while still in full view of the house, would allow them to speak with some degree of privacy.

"Elizabeth," he sighed, kissing her hand and holding it to his chest. "Pray forgive the unpleasantness with which we were confronted last night. I was not expecting my sister, and you can imagine my displeasure at the presence of her husband."

"To be sure," Elizabeth said sympathetically.

"Their arrival interrupted our conversation," and at this Elizabeth blushed deeply and lowered her eyes, for she readily recalled that it was not so much a conversation as a seduction, as very little indeed was being said, though much was being done, "but I had not finished. In fact, there is much more to be expressed."

Startled, she looked him full in the face. He continued, "Before I continue, there is one explanation I feel you deserve, one more thing I must reveal so that I may have no secrets from you. Other than my solicitor, no other living person is aware of what I am about to say, and I trust in your discretion."

Elizabeth nodded.

"When Miss Bingley, however crude her method, wrote that I was motivated by my need of an heir, she was correct. It is imperative at this time. But she was not aware of the reason, and it is this: If I fail to marry and sire an heir, my estate, Pemberley, which has been in the Darcy family for countless generations, will pass to Georgiana and her family. My late father, in a well-meaning bid to protect my sister, unknowingly placed the future of our family heritage in the hands of that scoundrel Georgiana married. And now, she is with child."

Elizabeth could only gasp at this confirmation of Mrs. Gardiner's supposition.

"The ramifications of this could be years ahead, of course, but should anything happen to me, should I fall victim to accident or illness or something more malevolent, the man I detest most in this world, who has already stolen from my sister her youth, who is already attempting to gamble away her fortune, will have the pleasure of my ancestral home, and will surely be its ruin.

"So you see, my motives when I first asked you to marry me were not the purest. It is true: I was seeking to protect that which was mine, and I did not look past my own selfish interests. And for that I sincerely beg your pardon. But now. . ." He smiled then, taking her other hand, pressing them both against him. "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth. Will you not allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you? I cannot live without you, your beauty, your laughter, your vital being; losing Pemberley would be nothing to losing you. I promise that I will make you the happiest of women, if you would but make me the happiest of men. Pray, tell me that you will forgive my previous clumsy efforts and say that you will be my wife!"

"So you do love me!" she said in wonder. "Did you not also love me when last you proposed?"

"Of course I did, darling Elizabeth. But I was too involved in myself to notice."

"Do you know," said Elizabeth, her eyes filled with tears, "that I do not even know your given name?"

Darcy smiled tenderly. "It is Fitzwilliam, my love, an old family name."

"Well, then, Fitzwilliam, I will marry you." Darcy's joy was great, but he was not yet satisfied, for he recalled that she had told him that only the deepest affection would induce her to marry.

"And do you perhaps care for me a tiny bit?"

She smiled. "Perhaps a very little." His face fell, and she could not bear his disappointment. He was still unaccustomed to being teased. She touched his face gently and added, "No, no, my dearest Fitzwilliam, I will not torment you. I do love you," she said, surprising herself, "and I would be proud to be your wife, and bear your children."

Heedless of their situation in the Gardiners' courtyard or who might be watching, Darcy cradled Elizabeth tightly to him and kissed her lips, not with the hunger of the previous night, but with the greatest devotion. Then she whispered playfully, "Do you not think you must write to my father as soon as may be? For the sooner we are wed," and for emphasis she employed her tongue against his ear, "the sooner we can begin those efforts necessary to produce your heir."

At this suggestion and its accompanying gesture, Darcy felt his blood stir violently. Indeed, he could not wait for such an opportunity! He thought it best to release her from his embrace, lest it become too amorous for their public location, though he retained his hold on her hands. Smiling, he said, "It is my fondest wish, I assure you, Elizabeth! I am embarrassed to say that I already am in possession of a special license, so sure was I of your agreement to my last proposal."

"And do you see what came of that!" she laughed, then grew more serious. "Truly, Fitzwilliam, we must decide where and when to marry, for I know that you would have it be sooner rather than later. I would prefer to marry from Longbourn, with all my family about me, yet if necessity means we must marry from London, then I shall content myself with Jane and the Gardiners."

Darcy was torn. He would marry Elizabeth today, of course, were it possible, but he was attempting to be realistic. How lovely it would be to have Georgiana at his wedding, now that she was in Town! But the presence of his sister would also mean the presence of his brother-in-law, and he was loath to have that man's attendance spoil the most joyous day of his life. He was also reluctant to deprive Elizabeth of the company of her relations, little as he liked them.

"What say you to this: that today we send an express to your father asking for his consent, and plan to marry from Longbourn in a fortnight's time, after my sister and her husband have departed for _______shire. I will miss her presence at my wedding, but it cannot be helped. You may still stay here in Town, and purchase all you need - for I cannot bear to part with you even for that short a time! - and at the end of the fortnight, we will return with Jane and Mr. Bingley to Hertfordshire. Does this meet with your approval?"

It did not take long for Elizabeth to agree to this scheme, for she was also unwilling to be separated from Mr. Darcy now that they had come to an understanding. She advised, however, that she write her own letter to Mr. Bennet for, she was unhappy to say, her father was still under the impression that she could barely tolerate the man she was now planning to marry! Darcy's eyebrows rose at this, but he acquiesced, seeing the wisdom of it, though disappointed once again that he had made such a poor impression. She also extracted from him a promise that they would tell no one, save Jane and Mr. Bingley, of their good fortune until they had received an answer from Mr. Bennet.

"Will you also do me the honour of introducing me to your sister?" Elizabeth asked. "If she is feeling ready for visitors, of course."

"She is much better today, I thank you. Her weakness yesterday was only a result of her delicate condition and the distance which she had traveled. I would like to invite you and the Gardiners to dine with us tomorrow night, so that you might meet her, and they might see that she is well. You will like her, Elizabeth, she is a charming girl," his face darkened, "although she has made a poor choice of husband, and I fear she will live to regret it."

"Let us not think on that now, Fitzwilliam," she soothed, "for we each have a letter to write. Ah, think of my mother, poor soul! She will be all nerves, for she will surely not be able to plan a grand wedding with so little notice."

His spirits high once more, Darcy escorted Elizabeth into the Gardiners' house, and with a promise to call later to collect her letter, departed to write his letter to Mr. Bennet.

In a less light-hearted vein, Elizabeth sat down at the writing-table to compose a letter to her father. She did not fear her father's opposition, but he was going to be made unhappy; and that it should be through her means - that she, his favourite child, should be distressing him by her choice, should be filling him with fears and regrets in disposing of her - was a wretched reflection. She sought to soften the blow as much as possible.

Dear Papa,

Do not distress yourself at the arrival of this express. I am delighted to say that Jane and I continue very happy and healthy here on Gracechurch Street, and I do hope that this letter finds you and our entire family in good health.

Papa, I have some intelligence that may cause you some sorrow, but I wish to assure you that it is the best possible news for me: Mr. Darcy has asked me to marry him, and I have agreed. I know this will come as a terrible shock to you, for you only know him as a "proud, unpleasant sort of man," and may recall that I have, in the past, disliked him. I wish to assure you that, in truth, Mr. Darcy has no improper pride. He is perfectly amiable, with many exceptional qualities. What is more, he loves me most dearly, and I have grown to love him as well. I pray I may conquer your incredulity, and reconcile you to the match, for I know I shall be truly happy wed to Mr. Darcy.

He is writing to you separately to request your permission, and I beg you, Papa, please do not disappoint him, or me. Our plan is to be married from Longbourn just two weeks hence, as Mr. Darcy had the foresight to obtain a special license. I know it is not what Mama would have wanted in planning for a wedding, but I am sure she will do admirably.

I send you all the love I can spare from Mr. Darcy, and add only that I look forward to seeing you in a fortnight.

Your devoted daughter, Elizabeth

Darcy's letter was more complicated, for he knew, as Bingley had told him, that there was little love for him in Hertfordshire. It took several attempts ere he was satisfied with the conciliatory tone of the missive: gentlemanly, apologetic and, above all, not in the least haughty. It was also difficult keeping his relationship with Elizabeth a secret from Georgiana. He longed to share this important intelligence with her, as well as to demonstrate to her what a happy marriage of true equals could look like. But it would have to wait. In the meantime, he was able to tell her that she soon would have the pleasure of a new acquaintance, and she looked forward to the following day, when Miss Bennet and her family would join them for dinner.

True to his word, Mr. Darcy returned to Gracechurch Street that afternoon to obtain Elizabeth's letter, and send the two out together as an express. Now that she was his fiancée, Elizabeth looked even lovelier and more desirable to him, were that possible. Sitting in the parlour with the Gardiners, he watched her impatiently whilst she demurely attended to her needlework, and lamented that he could not count on another blissful evening such as the one they had enjoyed at the opera when their chaperones had been less than vigilant; further, in his own home his beloved sister and detested brother-in-law were now an additional impediment. He ached to find a way to hold her, to kiss her, to allow his hands to wander over her lush body.

He could not know that Mr. Wickham's thoughts were much along the same lines.

Chapter 13

The following day, Mr. Darcy received the expected letter from Mr. Stanton, telling him much of what he already knew: that the Wickhams were traveling together for a few weeks. But it contained another piece of intelligence that made him very grave: that Lord M________ had begun to call in his debts. Darcy, knowing full well that Wickham would be short on ready cash thanks to the interference of his bankers, did not doubt that the Wickhams' sudden decision to travel had been greatly influenced by his Lordship's actions.

Further confirmation was obtained that afternoon, when Georgiana, suffering the fatigue frequent among women in a delicate state, excused herself, and Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham were left alone in the parlour.

"Damned if I don't find myself in a bit of a bind, Darcy," Wickham began, strolling about the room. "The bank has apparently put a hold on Georgiana's account, and no one can seem to explain what has gone awry. You would not know aught of that, now, would you?"

Darcy made no response, but continued to read his book.

"I happen to have some rather urgent outstanding accounts I must settle," Wickham continued, "and I cannot see how I can do that when I have been cut off."

"Oh, but surely with careful administration of the estate you can manage something," Darcy replied indifferently.

"Certainly. The estate. Well, but I am in need of something a bit more immediate." Wickham began to pace nervously. "Could you not..."

Darcy looked up and said calmly, "No, I could not. That gold timepiece you have there, your ivory-handled walking stick, your many silk cravats - I think you could find a way to pay your debts quite handily."

Wickham's handsome face curdled into a petulant scowl. He knew Darcy had something to do with the frozen assets, but he could not prove it, and there would certainly be no further assistance from him. Wickham finally retreated, muttering something about seeing after Georgiana, but he was in a foul mood indeed.

When the party from Gracechurch Street arrived for dinner, Mr. Darcy was chagrined. There was no help for it: he would have to introduce Mr. Wickham to Elizabeth. Further, he could not introduce her as his fiancée, a title he was anxious to use, and it contributed to his irritation.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet, may I present Mr. George Wickham. Mr. Wickham, Miss Bennet."

"Miss Bennet, it is my great pleasure to be introduced to you at last."

Darcy watched in exasperation as his brother-in-law lingered a little too long over Elizabeth's hand, and attempted some witty remark, but he was gratified that Elizabeth appeared unaffected. Indeed, she seemed completely impassive as she bestowed upon her fiancé a gentle smile, and Darcy could not but be heartened by it, until he spotted Wickham eyeing them with interest.

At dinner, Mr. Darcy was careful to place Elizabeth as far away from Mr. Wickham as the number of guests permitted. It was rare indeed when he wished he could have more visitors in attendance, to better fill out the table, but the Gardiners, Miss Bennet, Mr. Bingley and Georgiana would have to suffice.

Throughout the evening, when he was not obligated to attend his wife, Wickham cast a calculating look upon both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. He noted that Darcy looked upon Elizabeth with powerful longing whenever he thought no one was watching. This amused Wickham greatly. For it seemed to him as if Miss Bennet did not return Darcy's ardour, as she conversed and laughed with those around her, but did not bestow any particular consideration on him. (It was indeed Wickham's misfortune to have missed those occasions when Elizabeth slid her fingers discreetly along Darcy's arm, or, when, sitting so near to each other at table, she mischievously squeezed his muscular thigh, for throughout her face remained unchanged and her manner perfectly correct.) This lack of attention toward his erstwhile friend did not surprise Wickham in the least, for he had always known Darcy to be a dreary prig of a man around the fairer sex.

Likewise, Darcy was also observing Mr. Wickham. When Georgiana was occupied with her meal, he espied Wickham staring at Elizabeth with barely concealed hunger. It was thus difficult for Darcy to attend to Mr. Gardiner's questions about the quality of the fishing at Pemberley, or Bingley's remarks about his upcoming wedding. He thought he would go mad, enjoying Elizabeth's company, and yet unable to declare himself to the world, or at the very least to do some damage to his brother-in-law's perfect visage.

After the meal, they retired to the salon, where Darcy attempted to encourage his sister to play for them upon the piano-forte, without much success.

"Please, Mrs. Wickham," cajoled Elizabeth gently, "I have heard so many wonderful things about your playing from your brother. Will you not indulge us?"

"Very well," Georgiana said reluctantly, though with a shy smile at Elizabeth, "I will play, if you will turn the pages for me."

Elizabeth readily assented, and the two approached the instrument. Darcy beamed, relishing the collaboration of the two women he loved most in the world. Wickham, too, was content, for he was free to appreciate Elizabeth's attributes under the guise of gazing affectionately upon his own wife.

After two exceptionally well-played pieces, Georgiana insisted that Elizabeth play next, despite her entreaties to the contrary. "I play very ill, indeed," Elizabeth said, laughing, "and am loath to follow such a capital performance!"

"Nonsense! Do allow me to turn the pages for you, Miss Elizabeth."

There was no way to refuse; the man had already approached the instrument. Elizabeth bit her lip. "I thank you, Mr. Wickham."

And thus for the space of two songs, Mr. Wickham had a most delightful and unobstructed view of Elizabeth's bosom rising and falling as she sang at the piano-forte. Midway through the second song, he looked up, and, seeing Darcy's angry eyes upon him, smiled broadly and purposely ran his tongue slowly along his bottom lip, returning his gaze once again to that most tempting sight. Darcy was furious, but could do nothing, and his helplessness fueled his frustration.

Elizabeth declined to sing more than two songs, and the party departed soon after for Gracechurch Street, but not before Georgiana had extracted from Elizabeth a promise to call on the morrow. Mrs. Wickham knew her husband would be from home, though she had no idea of his destination, and sought to spend her time alone better acquainting herself with her new friend.

The next day, Elizabeth arrived at the appointed hour and was shown into the parlour. To her surprise, she was greeted not by Mrs. Wickham, but by Mr. Darcy.

"Allow me to apologize, Elizabeth," Darcy said once the servant had quit the room, "but Georgiana is indisposed this morning. I understand that it is common among ladies in her condition. She had hoped to be able to pass an agreeable hour with you, but she is feeling very poorly, and now finds herself quite unable to leave her chambers. She hopes you will understand."

"Of course. I do hope she will feel better soon."

"As do I. You realize, of course," he continued, casually closing the door, and approaching her with a smile, "that with Georgiana confined to her rooms, and Mr. Wickham, thankfully, out making himself unwanted elsewhere," and here his voice dropped provocatively, "you and I are very much alone." He took her hand.

"Really. And what of the servants?" Already it was becoming difficult to think, for he had removed her glove and was kissing each finger, one by one.

"The servants will come when I call them. And not before."

"I see." Guiding her to the settee, he sat down upon it, and pulled her onto his lap. Then there was no more conversation. Their lips met ferociously, impatiently, their hands clutching at each other. It was a long while before they moved apart, if only to draw breath.

When finally his urgency for her was somewhat satisfied, he sighed, "I have missed you terribly, Elizabeth," and applied his mouth to her neck, while his fingers stroked her thigh.

"But you have seen me every day, Fitzwilliam, and I dined here just last night."

"But I have not been able to touch you, like so." And he ran his thumb across the peak of her breast. Her breath caught in her throat. "Or kiss you, like so." And he drew his lips down from her collarbone, stopping at her disappointingly modest décolletage. He frowned. "I must say I do prefer your evening dress, my love. These morning clothes are far too demure for my taste."

Elizabeth thought it was growing very warm in the room, or at least the part of the room in which they sat, for her face was very flushed, and she suddenly felt unbearably overdressed, as his hands had begun a more vigorous exploration of her person: first, undeterred by her presumably too-high neckline, sliding his fingers beneath to touch the quivering, silken skin, and then, creeping up beneath her petticoat to caress her stockinged calves and just barely graze her thighs. Becoming obvious, too, was the force of his arousal, pressed as it was so intimately against her bottom, more rigid, more insistent than she had felt it before. He noticed a change in her demeanour and was sure of its cause.

"Do you feel that, dearest Elizabeth?"

Indeed, how could she not? She nodded.

"That is the full measure of how very desperately I want you," he whispered hotly, "my eagerness to join with that treasure which lies hidden beneath your skirts."

"Oh," was all she could manage. That self-same treasure was even now aching and wet. She was infinitely glad to be sitting down, else she might faint, though being situated atop his unrelenting manhood was making her all the more light-headed. His mouth once again captured hers.

At that moment, Darcy was sure that he would have given half his fortune to have had the right to lift her skirts and plunge himself into her moist depths then and there on the blasted settee. However, reason won out, and he said resignedly, "Elizabeth, I fear I must now let you go, for if we proceed in this fashion, I will surely disgrace you before our wedding, and I will not have that." True to his word, he gently removed her from his throbbing lap and took several deep breaths. Then, leaning his forehead against hers, he sighed mournfully, "When do you think we might hear from your father?"

"Any day now, my love, I assure you," she soothed. They spent several minutes without speaking, allowing their overheated bodies to return to normal. Then they rose, and, straightening their clothes and their hair - with a glance at each other and the mirror for reassurance - walked out of the salon together, speaking of the weather and other mundane matters.

For the next two days, Darcy and Elizabeth agreed to limit their time together, though it pained them both. Elizabeth went shopping for her trousseau, regretting not being able to reveal the true purpose of her new garments to her aunt. Still, Mrs. Gardiner was a clever woman, and she suspected more than Elizabeth was willing to tell.

When the post arrived on the third day, Elizabeth found a letter from her father. She was filled with trepidation, lest it contain a refusal to grant his consent, but she need not have worried, for it read thus:

My dearest Lizzy,

I confess I was much surprised when I received your letter and that of Mr. Darcy. Such a match would never have entered my mind. In truth, my first thoughts were, "Is she out of her senses, to be accepting this man? Has she not always hated him?" But upon re-reading your missive, and especially Mr. Darcy's, I was forced to conclude that there is a real attachment there, and real respect, which must lay the foundation for a successful marriage. (You will forgive me if I have been remiss in following my own advice!)

Therefore, I have given him my consent. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse any thing which he condescended to ask. I now give it to you, if you are resolved on having him - and I have no doubt you are. Lizzy, you are nothing if not stubborn, and having once decided upon a course of action, I am certain that you would take it, consent or no.

This is true, smiled Elizabeth. She would marry Mr. Darcy if she had to fight all of Napoleon's army for the privilege.

Your mother, of course, has been in hysterics since the arrival of the express, and will be, I am afraid, until the nuptials themselves take place. So, for the sake of all of us, do hurry back to Longbourn Saturday next, Lizzy dear, and we will see you properly wed, before you and your Mr. Darcy find it necessary to run off to Gretna Green.

The rest of the family is well, though Lydia is heartily jealous of your good fortune, for you will have more fine clothes and fine carriages than even Jane. But we can always hope that your marrying Mr. Darcy will throw your sisters into the path of other rich men (your mother's words, my love, not mine).

Your affectionate father, &c

Elizabeth could have leapt with joy. Knowing that Mr. Darcy had also received such a letter, she wished she could rush to his home to share the good news. But with even their engagement still unannounced, this was impossible. It was therefore a stroke of exceedingly good luck when not an hour later a note arrived from the Darcy townhouse in a feminine hand.

Dear Miss Elizabeth,

I was indeed sorry not to be able to visit with you the other day. Pray, forgive this fragile woman!

Would you do me the honour of calling on me at two o'clock this afternoon? I have some news that I would share with you.

Yours sincerely, Georgiana Wickham

At precisely 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth arrived at the Darcy home and was greeted by the butler, who seemed puzzled at her presence. Close behind him appeared Mr. Wickham, who said, in a friendly voice, "That will do, Vickers. I will show Miss Bennet into the parlour myself."

Once inside the room, Elizabeth chose not to sit upon the settee, for it was impossible not to think on the delightful interlude she had shared there with Mr. Darcy but three days past. She resisted the urge to replay the passionate things he had whispered to her, for Mr. Wickham was watching her closely, and she felt uneasy.

His smile was warm, but she did not return it. She was particularly distressed when he reached behind himself and closed the parlour door, in much the same fashion as Mr. Darcy had during her last visit, though she was comforted to see that he neglected to lock it. Nevertheless, she moved in order to place the settee between them.

"I am come to see Mrs. Wickham, sir," she said.

"Indeed. Well, Mrs. Wickham is from home at the moment, as is her brother. I believe he has taken her to the seamstress to purchase gowns that will better accommodate her new figure."

Elizabeth frowned. "But she specifically requested that I call at this time. Her note indicated something of import she wished to discuss with me."

"Ah, that," Wickham said, chuckling, "I must admit, Miss Bennet, that I had one of my lady friends pen that particular note, as I trusted that you were not familiar with Mrs. Wickham's hand and would not catch the ruse. And it worked, did it not?"

"If you mean that your object was to lure me here under false pretenses, Mr. Wickham, then yes, it has worked."

Wickham walked closer to Elizabeth, eyeing her with interest all the while. "Come now, Miss Bennet. Am I such a poor substitute for my wife? Or perhaps you prefer the company of my brother?"

Elizabeth could not help flushing red at this suggestion, much to Mr. Wickham's amusement. Still, she made no reply.

"Yes," he laughed, "I see you have noticed how he looks at you! Yes, it is so unusual for such a cold fish. I must say I have never seen him enamoured of any lady, but now he cannot take his eyes from you. Though I can't say that I blame him," and with that he let his eyes roam over her form, to her mortification.

"I do believe I will be leaving now, Mr. Wickham," Elizabeth said, moving toward the door. "I have no intention of staying here when Mrs. Wickham is not at home. It is not proper."

"Do you always do what is proper, Miss Bennet?" he asked, stepping in her way. "Do you never wish you could do something that loosed the strictures that society has placed upon you?"

Retreating once more behind the settee, Elizabeth replied, "No, sir, I am quite happy with things the way they are. And now it is time for me to leave."

"I will have my say, Miss Bennet," Wickham said, in a less friendly tone, and Elizabeth froze. Perhaps it would be better to hear him out.

"I do not what your hopes are, but despite the way Darcy leers at you, I know one thing for certain: he will never marry you. It pains me to say this, but it is true. You are too far beneath him, as he considered me too far beneath Georgiana. I have determined quite easily that you have no connections in Town, and your nearest relation is in trade. Darcy's honour, his precious family name. . .those are the things that are significant to him. You may have struck his fancy for now, and Lord knows I understand his fascination, but he will soon talk himself out of his infatuation and end up marrying some pale-faced daughter of the ton."

Elizabeth looked at him impassively. She was relieved that she had not given away her own feelings for Mr. Darcy and now needed only to let Mr. Wickham say his piece.

"I have seen enough of you to know that you and I are kindred spirits, too full of life, of spirit, to be constrained by the rules that govern the decisions of milksops like Darcy and his ilk. Become my mistress, Elizabeth" Wickham declared in an intimate tone, to her great shock, "and I will promise you a life of great adventure and passion beyond your wildest imaginings!"

Having thus concluded, he smiled at her in expectation. It took Elizabeth several breaths before she could speak.

"How dare you, sir!" she finally spit out. "That is the most offensive speech I have ever heard a gentleman make, and you may be assured, I have heard many. I am a gentleman's daughter, sir, and what you have just suggested is completely unpardonable. And you, so newly married to such a kind and gentle soul! You should be heartily ashamed of yourself. I have heard you out, Mr. Wickham, though you have not deserved it, and now, I will be leaving."

She made to leave, but Mr. Wickham was too quick for her, and grabbed her wrist.

"Do be reasonable, Elizabeth," he hissed. "You have naught in the way of a dowry, and you are too attractive to be wasted upon some gentleman farmer in the wilderness of Hertfordshire, for that is the most which you may expect. I can give you so much more: fine gowns, jewels, servants for your every whim! And in return you will merely save me from a tedious existence with that scrawny schoolgirl I married."

"Unhand me, Mr. Wickham!" Elizabeth demanded, frightened but equally furious. He did not, but rather tightened his grip upon her and took hold of her other wrist. "Leave me be!"

He just laughed, and leaned into her, pressing her against the mantel. She tried to scream, but found her mouth covered with his, his breath stinking of spirits.

Drawing back slightly, he said, chuckling, "I will wager you have never been kissed by a man before, Elizabeth. How do you like it?"

Instead of her reply, a woman's shriek was the last thing George Wickham heard before his world went black.

Chapter 14

Elizabeth, in her infinite relief, could only stand agape at the stranger before her: a lady of about her mother's age, but tall and imperious, and wielding a heavy-looking, carved walking stick.

The lady looked not at Elizabeth but at the prone body of Mr. Wickham. Her lip curled in disgust, and she poked at his unmoving form with her stick as one might at the remains of a particularly disgusting creature found along the side of a road. "Still alive," she sighed, sounding disappointed. "A great pity."

Finally she turned her attention to Elizabeth and examined her with some curiosity. "Has Mr. Wickham been imposing himself upon you, young lady?" she asked, her tone not entirely sympathetic.

Elizabeth, tears in her eyes and blushing violently, could but nod.

"Hmph," snorted the great lady, for it was obvious by her regal bearing, demeanour and wardrobe that she was a personage of some import. "That is what Mr. Wickham is best known for, I fear, for wherever he goes, there are young ladies imposed upon.." She clucked her tongue in disapproval. "Can I assume that you are unharmed?"

"Yes, ma'am," Elizabeth choked out.

"Well, then, you can have nothing to complain about," the lady said dismissively. "Now, I have come a vast distance, and I must refresh myself before my nephew returns home." And with that, she swept out of the room, leaving behind a bewildered Elizabeth and an unconscious Mr. Wickham. With a nervous glance at his form sprawled on the floor, Elizabeth hastily followed the lady out of the parlour.

Vickers, aghast, was standing in the doorway. There was much to attend to before Mr. Darcy returned! Mr. Wickham was face down on the Oriental rug (should he be moved? Was he bleeding? Would it leave a stain?) - and a distressed Miss Bennet was pacing the foyer (should he offer her something for her present relief? A glass of wine, perhaps?). Worst of all, Mr. Darcy's aunt had just paid an unannounced visit to the townhouse, and she already seemed seriously displeased. Perhaps it had been a mistake to tell her that Mr. Wickham was in the parlour with a young lady, but the gentleman was, after all, married to her niece, and she had, after all, enquired as to who exactly was at home. He sighed. It was going to be a very difficult day indeed.

Before Vickers could decide aught, a noise at the front door alerted him to the arrival of his master. Sighing heavily once more, he went to attend Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Wickham.

"Miss Bennet!" Darcy exclaimed upon seeing his fiancée. His smile faded upon his face, however, as he beheld her pale visage. In a case of particularly poor timing, Mr. Wickham also chose that moment to return to consciousness, groaning loudly from the parlour.

"George?" Mrs. Wickham queried as she moved quickly toward the sound. "George?"

"Is that my nephew?" a voice called from upstairs.

Darcy could scarce believe his ears. What was his aunt doing in London now? It did not bode well for him, he was sure. But all other concerns were nothing if Elizabeth was in distress.

"Elizabeth, what is it?" He took her hands tenderly, heedless of who might see, or hear. "Why are you shaking?"

"I will tell you why, Darcy," said the stately lady as she descended the stairs. "She has been put upon by that miscreant you call 'brother.' I came upon them in the parlour when I arrived."

Darcy frowned at her, then turned to Elizabeth and asked, "Is this true? Why were you here alone with Mr. Wickham?"

Drawing the note from her reticule with trembling hands, Elizabeth said, "I thought your sister had requested my presence, Fitzwilliam. Had I but known, I would never have come..."

Darcy read the note, his face growing darker. He knew not the hand, but was keenly aware that it was not his sister's.

"Who is this woman that she dares speak to you with such familiarity?" demanded Darcy's aunt. Darcy would have answered, but he was interrupted by a voice from the parlour.

"George is injured!" Georgiana cried, providing support for her unsteady husband as the two entered the foyer. He seemed to be nursing a large swelling at the back of his head, and his nose bled slightly from falling upon it. "Oh, someone please help him!"

Darcy had no idea how Wickham came to be so ill-treated, but he would be damned if he would sully himself helping that reprobate. With a slight gesture, Darcy indicated that Vickers should assist, and the servant and a burly footman complied with alacrity, relieving Georgiana of her burden and aiding Wickham to seat himself in the nearest chair. Georgiana fell to dabbing at his bloody nose with her handkerchief, and exclaimed, "Who ever could have done such a thing?"

"I did, you simpleton!" Her aunt's voice pierced the silence. "Darcy, you still have not identified this young woman!"

"Lady Catherine, may I present Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth, this is my aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Aunt Catherine," Darcy added deliberately, "You have just had the pleasure of meeting my fiancée." He smiled at Elizabeth, and she understood: he too had received a letter from her father. She gave a trembling smile in return.

"Your fiancée?" Three voices queried in unison.

"Yes, my fiancée. I am sorry, Georgiana, for not having shared this important intelligence with you sooner, but we were awaiting Mr. Bennet's blessing."

Lady Catherine spoke slowly. "Then it is true. Well, I am glad I have come."

Darcy peered at her warily. "Indeed?"

"I heard from my vicar, Mr. Collins, who had it from his mother-in-law, Lady Lucas, that you had asked for the consent of her neighbour to marry his daughter. And this is the lady from Hertfordshire," she concluded, looking down her nose at Elizabeth. The latter was immediately convinced that Lady Catherine had not come to deliver her personal congratulations.

Darcy cradled Elizabeth's hand in the crook of his arm, and laid his own hand protectively upon hers. "Yes, Aunt, this is the extraordinary lady with whom I have chosen to share my life," he replied, his steely tone belying the affection of his words.

"I see," Lady Catherine said coldly. "Then perhaps I should not have intervened when Mr. Wickham imposed himself on her, for their sort deserves each other."

"Aunt Catherine!" snapped Darcy.

"George!" Georgiana, who had been gently tending her husband's wounds, pulled away from him, horrified. "George! To what does Lady Catherine refer? What did you do to Miss Bennet?"

"Nothing, I did nothing, I swear!" Wickham protested. With four sets of accusing eyes upon him, however, he finally allowed, "I but gave her a friendly kiss, you know, to welcome her into the family, for we shall be sister and brother, shall we not?"

Elizabeth gasped, and Darcy took her meaning immediately. There was nothing brotherly about the kiss, he was sure. And the idea that Wickham had touched what was his in such a way made Darcy do the unthinkable.

"You did not know she would be joining the family, you blasted pig!" Darcy stepped up to Wickham, his face grim. "Swords or pistols?"

"Pardon?"

"I said, 'swords or pistols.' I challenge you, sir. You have insulted the honour of fiancée, as well as my sister. I demand satisfaction"

The uproar was immediate.

"No, Fitzwilliam!" cried Elizabeth. "No good may come of this! Pray, stop, I beg you!"

At the same time, her Ladyship howled, "I will not have it! The Master of Pemberley will not endanger himself to duel a low-life rogue over some grasping hussy."

And Georgiana sat upon the floor, sobbing into her handkerchief.

Darcy was still standing over Wickham, his countenance deceptively calm, but his eyes violent. "Swords or pistols!" he insisted once again, leaning his face into Wickham's. "Come, tell me now! Swords or pistols?"

Wickham, still recovering from Lady Catherine's blow, seemed to be attempting to make his choice, his head moving from side to side, his hands weighing invisible options. "Swords? Pistols? You know I cannot best you in either." Unexpectedly, his eyes rolled upward, and with a groan, he slumped back into his chair, seemingly insensible to the world.

Darcy snorted in disgust. "You coward - you are not worth my trouble," he spat, and turned see Elizabeth seated on the floor with Georgiana, who was clinging to her in her grief. "Come, Elizabeth, I will call the carriage to take you home while I sort all this out."

"No, Fitzwilliam, I think I had better stay. I think I may be of use."

"Yes, by all means, stay, Miss Bennet," Lady Catherine sneered, "the better to get your hooks even deeper into the family."

There was a limit to the pandemonium Darcy was willing to accept, and he had just reached it. Thus, the Master of the House spoke:

"Vickers! You and Andrews will assist Mr. Wickham in reaching his chambers. Andrews will stay with him to ensure he remains out of trouble. Elizabeth, would be so kind as to escort Georgiana to her rooms - her maid will show you the way - and pray, stay with her until she is comforted? Thank you - I promise we will speak again after I have had the opportunity to talk to her Ladyship. And Lady Catherine, would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the study, where we may speak privately?"

Once the servants had gone off with Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth and Georgiana had made their way upstairs, Darcy accompanied his aunt to his study, his exceptional breeding and self-control successfully keeping his anger under good regulation.

"Now, your Ladyship," Darcy said, offering her a chair, "you are rather far from Rosings, are you not? Will you be at de Bourgh House to enjoy the Season, or is there some other reason to which I owe the pleasure of your visit?"

"I have come here, nephew, to prevent you from making a terrible mistake. Have you learned nothing from your sister's disastrous union? Do you not see what trouble has already been stirred up by that country upstart?"

"First of all, Aunt, Elizabeth is not some country upstart, she is my fiancée, and if you ever passed some time with her, you would learn that she is exceptional in many ways. Second, I am sure, since you were witness to the events in the parlour, that you are aware that none of what occurred was Elizabeth's fault. Wickham lured her to the house with a note purporting to be from Georgiana, and Elizabeth innocently came to call."

"I do not think Miss Bennet does anything innocently, Darcy. Mark my words, she is after your fortune!"

Darcy laughed. "Were that the case, madam, she certainly would have accepted me the first time I proposed. But my words were so clumsy, my reasoning so selfish, she had to deliver me a set-down, else I would never have learned to value her good opinion."

"You proposed twice?" Lady Catherine was incredulous. "That is absurd. My dear boy, a Darcy could never be that desperate! Besides, if you are finally ready to wed, if it is an heir you seek, now is the time to marry your cousin Anne. You have been formed for each other, engaged since infancy, and you must now put a stop to this nonsense and take your rightful place beside her!"

"I will do nothing of the kind!" Darcy said firmly. "That engagement was a conceit of yours and my mother's, but it has naught to do with me. I would never hurt Anne, but I have never promised her anything, and I am convinced that we would not be happy together. I love Elizabeth, and we are engaged."

"Yes, but no one knows of that engagement, short of a few family members. It would be easy enough to find her price, nephew, to buy her father's silence and pretend this never happened. Do it," she hissed, "before you get yourself in any deeper."

Darcy stared at his aunt stone-faced. "I think you have said quite enough, madam. You have insulted my fiancée, the woman I love. We will be married, and it is all the same to me if you wish us well or not. I can have nothing more to say to you. I wish you good day." And with that, Darcy gestured to the door.

Lady Catherine arose, her dignity intact, but her face full of rage. "You are making a mistake, Darcy. Any fool can see that." And she quit the room, calling for her coat. The sound of the front door closing was welcome to Darcy.

Once he had sufficiently composed himself, Darcy sat in his study for a long while, poring over all that had transpired. He then called a servant to fetch Elizabeth.

"How is Georgiana?" he asked when Elizabeth appeared before him. He kissed both her hands and invited her to sit, which she did, gratefully.

"She is sleeping, my love, but there will be some difficult times ahead of her, to be sure."

"I agree. And that is why I have decided to send Mr. Wickham back to Alston House tomorrow, and to keep her here in Town."

"A wise decision, Fitzwilliam."

"There is one thing more, I fear, Elizabeth," Darcy said gently. "I will be going with him, to ensure that he does not go astray."

Elizabeth stared uncomprehendingly. "But our wedding. . ."

Darcy smiled, attempting to put her at ease. "Fear not, my darling Elizabeth. I will be in Hertfordshire for our wedding. There is nothing that could possibly keep me away."

"But what if something should happen to you, Fitzwilliam?" Her eyes filled with tears. "It is a long way to _______shire, and I do not trust Mr. Wickham."

"Fear not, milady," Darcy said, kneeling beside her and pressing her hands to his heart. "You are my world. I will marry you Saturday next."

"I am in earnest, my love. I have a dreadful feeling that something could go terribly wrong." There was a long, mournful silence. "Fitzwilliam," she said suddenly, "Dearest, do not some couples. . . anticipate their vows?" She blushed hotly, but continued in a low voice, "Could this not be the case for us? Tonight? We will be married in a week in any case, and if something. . . if something should go awry on your journey, we might still have the chance of providing an heir of your own for Pemberley. . ."

"No!" He sprang to his feet and faced away from her.

Elizabeth was astonished at the vehemence of his reaction.

"No, I could never dishonour you in that manner. We will wait until after the wedding. We must. Trust me, Elizabeth, everything will be fine."

She quit her seat and circled around to face him. Taking his hand in both of hers, she said gently, "My darling, there would be no dishonour. If everything does turn out all right as you say, then no one need be the wiser. But if, Heaven forbid, you are accosted on the road to Alston House, or if you should meet with some treachery, do you truly wish Mr. Wickham's child to be the sole heir to Pemberley?" She saw when he stiffened that she had made her point. His head drooped.

"But to ask you to bear a child alone - an illegitimate child at that - I could not. . ."

"There would be no question of your child's legitimacy, Fitzwilliam. You have only to write a letter to your solicitor, a letter that I would retain in secret unless it was necessary to reveal it, acknowledging your paternity. You could also give me the special license to hold as proof of your intentions. And I would never be alone, for I am confident that my family would stand by me, come what may." In truth, she was not at all secure in the unwavering support of her family. With three daughters still to be married after Jane weds, it was possible they would shun her altogether. But she knew that Jane would never spurn her, and that was enough. "Think on it, my love: your child - the Darcy heir and no other - would inherit Pemberley."

Darcy was torn as he had never been in his life. He never would have asked such a thing of Elizabeth - it went against everything he believed as a gentleman. And yet, she would do this for him, something that could result in nothing but misery for herself - so greatly did she love him. Dare he accept? Dare he. . .?

Elizabeth could sense that he was vacillating. "Let me write a note to my aunt," she said, wrapping her arms about him, "saying that Mrs. Wickham is in distress and needs my comfort. There is no untruth in that. I will have my clothes sent over."

Then she added, in a whisper that completely broke his resolve, "And you can come to me in the night."

"Yes," he said simply.

Chapter 15

The letter to her aunt having been sent to Gracechurch Street - with circumstances explained not quite fully - Elizabeth found that she saw little of Mr. Darcy for the remainder of the afternoon. He was continually rushing hither and thither, giving orders to the servants, supervising preparations for his trip with Mr. Wickham. From time to time he would pause, and they would share a long look, but she would inevitably turn away, discomfited and blushing, for his gaze was so intense, and she was considering what the night would bring. She wondered if it was as heavy on his mind as it was on hers. Finally Elizabeth decided it would be best to avoid him altogether until dinner, for she could not bear to know his thoughts.

She could still not believe she had proposed anticipating her vows with Mr. Darcy. What was she thinking! Immediately upon leaving his study she had felt very foolish, vulnerable, and frightened, and was ready at any moment to dash into his study, interrupt his business, and beg him to allow her to withdraw her offer. It would be easy enough; Elizabeth had no doubt he would generously understand her change of heart. But each time she caught a glimpse of Mr. Wickham - now recovered from his assault and free from his burly escort - as she sat with Georgiana, she was certain that she had chosen rightly, for he seemed to be studying her with narrowed eyes and a degree of malevolence that made her very nervous indeed. It was to her great relief when he sighed dramatically and quit the room, and she was able to spend some time alone with her future sister.

It was unfortunate, however, that Georgiana had learned of Elizabeth and Darcy's engagement in almost the same breath in which she found out some unpleasant things about her husband: that he had attempted to impose himself upon another woman - his future sister, no less - and that he was not man enough to stand up to a challenge from his wife's own brother. It made Elizabeth's attempts at conversation understandably awkward. But soon enough, her gentle coaxing, combined with Mrs. Wickham's long-starved need for intelligent female companionship, won out, and the two relaxed into a comfortable discussion of books and music.

When it came time to dine, Mr. Darcy decided that it would be best for all if Mr. and Mrs. Wickham did not join him and Elizabeth, but rather take a tray in Georgiana's rooms, for it was clear that the young bride and her beleaguered spouse had much to discuss. Georgiana stared sullenly across the little table at Mr. Wickham. Her appetite was non-existent, but her husband's was hearty as ever, and he filled and re-filled his plate with gusto while she toyed with her food.

"It is providential indeed that you fainted when you did, George, for Fitzwilliam seemed sincere about calling you out."

"Providential, hah!" Wickham laughed. "Providence had naught to do with it. Cunning, however, was all. Is your husband not a clever man, my dear? It is no simple matter to feign a swoon convincingly when challenged!" She gasped, but he ignored her, and continued, "Nevertheless, there will be no bloodshed now, and you need not worry about your precious brother's health." He wiped a bit of gravy from his chin. "Besides, there need never have been cause for a challenge, in any case. I did nothing wrong."

"But surely Aunt Catherine would not have struck you had there been no cause, George."

Mr. Wickham snorted. "I will wager that that old woman has been waiting to smite me for years! She never liked me, Georgiana, never approved of me, even when your sainted father was alive." Seeing her pout, he sighed. "I have said it before, my pet: Miss Elizabeth but mistook a friendly gesture for something more malignant. It is not my fault! I tell you true, Georgiana, that there can be no other woman for me but yourself. Will you not believe your own husband?" He smiled ingratiatingly. "Come now, have I not made you a happy wife?"

She frowned. "Yes, but. . ."

"Well, then, there is nothing to worry about, my dove. Now, there is just this little matter of my return to Alston House. Could you not persuade your brother that I am better off here tending to my burdened wife than all alone at my estate?"

"I am sorry, no, George. I fear that Fitzwilliam has taken great offense at your gesture toward Miss Elizabeth and does not want you in the house. He wants to know you are settled back in ______shire before he marries. It is not what I prefer, you know, but. . ."

"Then why not stand up to your brother for once," an edge crept into Mr. Wickham's voice, "and tell him that you want your husband here with you." His cheerful demeanour fled. "I do not wish to go to Alston House," he said petulantly. "I will be lonely and bored. I would much rather stay in Town for the remainder of the Season. Besides, I cannot see Lord M_______ at this time, I. . ." At Georgiana's quizzical stare, he offered, "I. . .alas, I am not in his good graces right now. I fear I. . .won a rather large sum from him when last we gamed together, and he has taken to sulking about it. Rather childish of him, really."

Georgiana continued to look upon him doubtfully. She loved George, really she did, but his recent behaviour seemed to bring his entire character into question. Perhaps it was just this awkward time for them, while she was with child and frequently indisposed, that made him so unlike his usual gallant and amusing self. Likely it would be a good thing for him to return to Alston House without her, to experience the sort of loneliness she felt when he forsook her to go out with his friends. It was settled; she had no intention of trying to persuade Fitzwilliam otherwise.

She rose and pulled the cord to call the maid. "Come, let us get your baggage packed."

"So that is how it lays, eh, Georgiana? Ready to be rid of me already, are you?" Mr. Wickham rose abruptly. "It is very clear to me: your brother and future sister have turned you against your own husband! I am disgusted. You will regret this!" Ignoring her protests and deaf to her tears, he stormed from the room.

~ * ~

Mr. Dorsett peered out the window of the hack coach in curiosity. The gentleman's note had declared it an emergency, and promised a fat purse if he came at once. Now, upon his arrival at his destination, Mr. Dorsett smiled in approval as he gathered his things, descended from the coach and surveyed his impressive surroundings. He rubbed his hands together in glee; if this house was any indication, truly, his reward would be great! He wondered briefly at the nature of the emergency - for in his line of work there could be several possibilities - but whatever its character, he was confident in his ability to perform his services to the gentleman's satisfaction. And Mr. Dorsett did not mind the lack of intelligence in this regard, for he dearly loved an intrigue. He gave a discreet knock upon the door. When it opened, he handed the manservant a note, and the man nodded and led Mr. Dorsett into the house, closing the door soundly behind him.

Mr. Dorsett was not disappointed. By an hour after his arrival, he had already re-entered the hackney and returned home, his coat pocket satisfyingly full. He chuckled. In any other circumstance, his labours, in his opinion, would not have merited such generous compensation. Well, no matter. There would be time enough to ponder the significance of his actions, and the gentleman's motivations. For now, he was content to take his newly acquired wealth home and conceal it under his mattress, before he went out to reward himself with a fine meal and an even finer bottle of brandy.

~ * ~

At precisely midnight, Elizabeth found herself in her bedchamber and facing Mr. Darcy, who was clad only in a nightshift and robe. He took her face between his hands and kissed her, ever so gently, upon the lips. Shivering, she locked the door and, looking uneasily about the room, settled into a chair beside the fire. Darcy took note of her demure nightgown and nervous demeanour and smiled sadly. How distant was their present situation from the passionate night at Pemberley that he had envisioned not so very long ago!

He sat down in the chair opposite hers and took her hands in his own. "This is not what I would have wanted for us, Elizabeth, surely you know that."

"Do not think on it a moment more, Fitzwilliam. I love you, and it is for the best."

"Come." He pulled her onto his lap and kissed her warmly. "My darling, we do not have to do this, if you are at all uneasy. There is no guarantee that I will get you with child tonight, after all, however ardent my attempts may be. And even if I do," he kissed her neck, causing her to tremble with delight despite her anxiety, "I may, in the end, survive my perilous journey with Mr. Wickham, and then you may wish we had waited for a more suitable time."

"No," she said firmly. "I want this, and you are not to dissuade me."

"I would not dream of it," he breathed against her ear. There was a lengthy silence as she leaned against him and he absently stroked her arm, and Elizabeth began to think that perhaps he would not want her under these tense and awkward circumstances. But she did not reckon with the power that her meagrely clad body wielded over him, perched upon his lap as she was. In another moment she felt a familiar stirring beneath her, and could readily perceive its heat through the thin fabric of her nightgown. A small moan escaped her. It was all the encouragement Darcy needed. For in truth, there was not a moment when he did not want her, most desperately, and he had lacked only the assurance that she did not wish to reconsider.

He began casually toying with the ribbon on the neckline of her nightgown. Unexpectedly, with a guttural sound that to Elizabeth's startled ears approximated a growl, he parted the neckline open, pulling it off her shoulders and freeing her breasts for the first time to his greedy eyes. It seemed to him that he had been awaiting this moment his entire life, though he had known her but three months. And he was not disappointed. Her rounded bosom gleamed golden in the soft firelight, the excited buds grown hard against the touch of first his fingers, and then his lips, then his tongue. Her breath came in short gasps, and she started to writhe upon him, clutching at his robe, her movements feeding and increasing his longing. His arousal grew and stiffened until it was almost painful, making a change of position most necessary.

He briefly thought to bring her to the bed as she was, the two of them attired properly in their nightclothes, but the thought of propriety seemed the height of absurdity to him at the moment, and so, setting her upon her feet, Darcy pulled her gown completely down and off, following its progress to the floor with his hands and mouth against her hot skin. Impatient now, he lifted her in his arms and carried her the short distance to the bed, gently resting her atop the rumpled sheets. Self-conscious, she pulled the blankets about her and turned her eyes from him, but he could not help but stare fixedly at the intoxicating sight of Elizabeth, his Elizabeth, naked and panting in the bed, her hair tumbled wildly across her shoulders and bosom. Her modestly averted gaze gave him the time to divest himself, most eagerly, of his robe and nightshirt. His return to her arms was like a battle joined, the two of them caressing and kissing and biting in the fiercest manner, quite unable to sate their yearning to touch each other.

Finally he lay atop her, every inch of her body in contact with his, and while she was consumed with desire, he was near crazed with it. For this was the culmination of all those tormenting, amorous dreams he had had of her, the fulfillment of months of wanting. He brought his hand betwixt her thighs and silently exulted, knowing with the moist contact that she was ready for him. Darcy had never lain with a maiden, but he had heard that particular care must be taken not to cause undue pain. It was necessary, then, for him to be conscious of his actions at this time, and calm his urgency, for he must warn her. He drew back slightly and whispered against her ear, while his hands continued their provocative explorations, "Ah, dear heart. Do you know what you are to expect at this time?"

"No," she moaned, "but I would not have you stop now."

"It grieves me greatly, my love, but what follows will undoubtedly hurt. It is what is necessary to proceed. It should not pain you for long, though, and I swear I will be gentle. Do try to relax, my sweet."

True to his word, he restrained his ardour, formidable though it was, and pressed himself slowly across her welcoming threshold, breaking through her maidenhead and burying himself within her. It was not until she cried out that he stopped, and held her tenderly as he kissed away the tears that had fallen upon her cheeks.

He held her thus until her tears stopped flowing, and he sought her eyes by the flickering light of the single candle. "I am well, I am well," she whispered, but he was doubtful, and would have remained motionless, or might have even withdrawn. But, sighing his name, she seized his head between both her hands, gripping his hair with her fingers, and drew him down to kiss him with such fervour that he forgot all but his lust for her.

And so he began to move within her, driving ever deeper and more rapidly, grasping her bottom, pulling her tightly against him. Her gasps and groans mingled with his own as he slid his lips from her mouth to her throat to her breasts, employing his fingers amidst her womanly folds, finding the center of her pleasure, till she was almost faint with wanting.

"I need. . .I need. . .Oh, Fitzwilliam, please," for she had no name to give her hunger, having never experienced its like before. Soon enough she discovered what she had been searching for, and it was like a spring blossoming and overflowing. But Darcy did not have the luxury of enjoying her achievement, for it did not take long before he reached the same ecstatic, mindless state, and her name was upon his lips, but it issued forth instead as a throaty groan as he spent himself within her.

For a long while they remained motionless where they lay, tangled with the sheets and each other, until he kissed her cheek and ventured, in a quiet voice:

"Did I hurt you, Elizabeth? Pray, tell me truly."

"Perhaps a little. But do not worry," she laughed huskily, "the pleasure was well worth the pain."

"I am so sorry. . ." he began, but she hushed him with a hand to his lips, and he kissed her fingers. She rested her head upon his shoulder, and he relaxed onto the pillows.

They drifted off, still entwined, until, some two hours later, Elizabeth came awake suddenly, bewildered as to her whereabouts. It took her hazy sensibilities several minutes before she recollected all that had transpired between herself and Mr. Darcy, and she blushed in the dark thinking on it, although not without a great deal of satisfaction. His warm body still lay pressed against her.

With a contented purr, she nestled closer to him. To her astonishment, her slight movement served to awaken not only him, but his manhood as well, and he was soon kissing and caressing her body with an enthusiasm hampered neither by sleepiness nor by their previous vigorous undertaking.

"Shall we not have another go at it, my love?" he whispered, his voice deep and sensual. "For I would ensure that my seed has taken!"

"Hateful man!" she cried in jest, swatting playfully at him. For a moment they laughed like children together, but ere long their appetites grew, and they became serious, moving on to more adult pleasures.

"It will not hurt so much this time," he assured her, but Elizabeth was already beyond caring as Darcy's hands and lips once again roamed across her silky skin to arouse all her most sensitive places. With the meagre experience gained just hours before, she used her hands to advantage as well, sliding them across his broad shoulders and down to the narrowness of his waist, and finally to his firm bottom, to his infinite enjoyment. Gathering her courage, she hesitantly touched fingertips to his arousal, curious at to the source of all that heat, and was instantly alarmed at his size. Still - she reasoned, with what little left of her brain that was yet capable of reason - it had once fit inside her, and she had not been rent asunder, so surely she had no cause to fear otherwise.

And he was correct: when this time he took her, it did not hurt so much as before. Indeed, she found herself easily accustomed to his manhood, despite its bulk, and thought its fullness quite satisfying. Therefore when he began to move, she now moved in concert with him, to their mutual pleasure, and when his clever fingers began once again to stroke the source of her delight, it did not take long before she was completely insensible to anything but his touch, and reached a blissful completion with a wordless cry. Mere moments later, his face buried against her neck and his hands gripping her shapely hips, he experienced his own shuddering rapture.

Their breath ragged, their bodies slick and heated, they panted and sighed with contentment. Darcy feathered Elizabeth's face with kisses as he observed that she was already beginning to doze off. But he could not yet allow himself slumber, for there was one more thing he must know, to put his mind at ease: "Were you terribly disappointed with Mr. Dorsett, my sweet?"

"Not at all," she smiled drowsily. "He could not have performed with more eloquence had he been Mr. Collins."

"I am satisfied, then," he whispered, kissing her forehead. "Sleep well, Mrs. Darcy."

Chapter 16

Mr. Darcy gazed in wonderment upon his sleeping wife in the thin light of the cold London dawn. It was only a month ago that he had thought in despair that she would never be his, that she was lost to him for ever, and now, here she was, his bride, naked in the bed beside him after a night of most glorious love-making. His blood stirred at the mere memory of it, and he smiled at his own lustfulness.

As he toyed with a lock of her hair, the very hair which had set him afire on many occasions, he reflected on his decision to marry Elizabeth before he left for ______shire. Of course, it had been Elizabeth herself who had offered to anticipate their vows, but each time he had seen her in the townhouse whilst going about his business, she could hardly look upon him. He had felt all the weight of her mortification, and had been ashamed of himself. At his desk, finishing some last-minute correspondence, he had drawn out the special license which he had gone to such trouble to procure, and stared at it at length. If it were not meant for exactly such a situation, then of what use could it be? Thus, he had called upon his personal secretary - whose family had served the Darcys for generations, and who accepted all his master's orders with nary a raised eyebrow - and instructed the man to find a clergyman outside of Town who would respond to a most generous offer for services rendered. There was no need, Darcy reasoned, to inflame the gossips of London by having a Town vicar perform the hasty service; word would get 'round soon enough, for the announcement would be printed in the papers ere long. By dinner time, Darcy's secretary had returned to say that Mr. Dorsett would appear, as instructed, at 10 o'clock.

When Darcy had tenderly told Elizabeth of his decision, and of the impending arrival of Mr. Dorsett, she had wept with relief and gratitude. Would she miss not having a proper wedding in Hertfordshire? he had wanted to know; no, she had insisted, it mattered not a whit to her. She had, however, asked tentatively if her relations in London could not attend the ceremony. So a note had gone to Gracechurch Street, where, most fortuitously, Mr. Bingley had also been dining, asking if the residents thereof could please attend a most important late-night soiree at Darcy House. Filled with curiosity, the party had arrived at the appointed hour, and Elizabeth had been granted some time alone with Jane and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner to relate some shocking news: that she and Mr. Darcy were engaged, and that the wedding ceremony would take place that very night. Quite naturally, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had been concerned about the sudden nature of the affair, but Elizabeth had assured them that yes, her father had approved of the match, and yes, Mr. Darcy had obtained a special license nearly two months prior. (That he had possessed the license such an extraordinary amount of time seemed to have escaped notice.) They had been all astonishment that the marriage could not have waited until their return to Hertfordshire, but Elizabeth had explained in general terms Mr. Darcy's imminent departure for ______shire and their desire to be wed prior to his removal from Town. Mr. Bingley, whom it had been left to Mr. Darcy to apprise of the reason for his attendance, had been filled with joy on his friend's behalf, for he had long known of Darcy's affection for Miss Elizabeth and could not have been more delighted to stand up for him.

Darcy's happiness would have been complete, then, but for the presence of Mr. Wickham. Still, he had been desirous of having his sister attend, and he could not exclude his brother-in-law, for Georgiana's sake. So upon the arrival of Mr. Dorsett, the entire group had retired to the drawing room, and watched as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy made Miss Elizabeth Bennet his wife. Elizabeth could not have been more content, for while she had not been surrounded by the whole of her family as she might have wished, she did have her dear Jane by her side, as well as her Aunt Gardiner. And true, Mr. Dorsett would not have been the ideal choice of any of the assembled to perform the ceremony, yet no one had complained, and in fact all had seemed charmed by the brief service. All except one, that is: for all the while, Mr. Wickham had maintained upon his face a look so sour it could have curdled milk, and had chewed his lip at the sight of the bejeweled heirloom ring Mr. Darcy had bestowed upon his bride.

After the ceremony was over, and once congratulations and wine had flowed freely, the Gracechurch Street party had gone home, and Mr. and Mrs. Wickham had retired to their separate rooms. Mr. Darcy had given the newly minted Mrs. Darcy a substantial amount of time to prepare herself, knowing she was nervous and still overwrought by the suddenness of it all; his single request had been that she not braid her beautiful hair, but leave it loose about her shoulders. But still, they had agreed that he would come to her, as they had planned even before the wedding, so that Elizabeth would not have been overwhelmed as well by being in Darcy's own chambers.

The results, Darcy mused, had been even more satisfying than in his fondest imaginings. And now, as the daylight grew stronger, he could see more of his beloved Elizabeth, her tousled hair tumbled upon her lovely breasts. Darcy could not resist rendering the sight before him even more palatable to his insatiable gaze, for as much as he was fond of her hair, what lay beneath was ever so much more appetizing. At first he stealthily moved her tresses lock by lock, until he reminded himself with a grin that he now had the right to touch that delectable skin, so he employed his entire hand to sweep her hair completely aside, permitting his palm and fingertips to skim across her bountiful breast and graze its bud, which once thus excited, proved far too tempting a delicacy. He could abstain no longer.

And so it was that Elizabeth awakened to a most agreeable sensation, that of her husband's lips and tongue breaking their fast upon her breasts, and his hands seemingly everywhere else upon her body. Murmuring sweet endearments, Darcy kissed her most ravenously, as if he had not already been well fed twice the previous night, but she would not deny him, nor did she want to. That he was more awake than she worked to his advantage, for he appeared this morning to be in a great hurry for the satisfaction her lush body could grant him, and before she knew it, he was already atop her and deep within her. When she wrapped both her arms and legs about him, in a futile effort to draw him even closer, and moaned his name, he completely lost conscious thought, and became merely a function of his desires, plunging into her ever more urgently, ever more forcefully. It was not long before she cried out in completion, and with one great, final thrust, his hoarse voice soon joined hers.

There was little time, however, for them to bask in their bliss, for the servants were certainly already awake, and too soon it would be time for Darcy to begin his journey with Mr. Wickham. "I must return to my bedchamber to ready myself for the day, my love," he sighed. "I will see you at breakfast." And so saying, he kissed her once, twice, thrice, and left her bed to retrieve his nightclothes, and having donned them, departed her room with a regretful glance.

Mr. Darcy came down to breakfast in a contented mood, and his bride followed by mere minutes. His greeting to her, "Good morning, Mrs. Darcy," was the height of propriety, but the look he gave her caused her colour to rise and her breath to catch in her throat. The Wickhams were present at breakfast as well, and though Georgiana appeared somewhat peaked, Mr. Wickham seemed well rested and hungry. The extent of his hunger showed in his eyes as well as his laden plate, for as the Darcys sat down, Wickham stared at Elizabeth with lascivious eyes, as if just by his glance he could discern what had transpired between her and her new husband in the privacy of her bedchamber.

"Do have something to eat, Darcy," Wickham said, his gaze still fixed upon Elizabeth. "There is something at this table to satisfy a man of even the greatest appetites." He felt rather than saw Darcy's glower upon him, and smiled to himself as he casually returned his eyes to his plate.

Elizabeth had missed the exchange, engaged as she was in asking her new sister how her night had been, and whether Georgiana could manage to perhaps take a little nourishment. Darcy helped himself to breakfast, but kept his eyes suspiciously upon his brother-in-law lest the latter affront his bride yet again.

"We leave within the hour," Darcy announced at the conclusion of the meal. There was one more thing to which he must yet attend. He had the previous day, amidst the preparations for his departure as well as the wedding ceremony, received an express from Mr. Stanton which contained some ominous intelligence: that Lord M_____'s men were abroad and looking for Mr. Wickham. While it sealed his decision to take Mr. Wickham from Town, it also gave him another urgent concern, which was the removal of Georgiana from Darcy House. For this, he must entrust his concerns to Elizabeth, without unduly frightening her, and request that she bring his sister back with her to the Gardiners' until their departure for Hertfordshire. "Wickham, do finish your preparations for our travels," he said, then added, "Elizabeth, may I see you in my study?"

"Of course. Georgiana, Mr. Wickham, please do excuse me."

Once in the study, Darcy closed the door and swept Elizabeth into his arms for a fierce kiss. She was taken by surprise, as she would have thought him sated by their interlude just an hour previous, but she could not have known of his jealousy or his possessiveness, for during breakfast he had kept his feelings well hidden from her.

She examined at him questioningly, but rather than reply to her unasked question, Darcy said, "I have a favour I must ask of you."

Considering what she had been prepared to gift him only the day before, she was amazed that he felt he must request anything. "You know you have whatever is in my power to give you, Fitzwilliam," she said significantly, her eyebrows raised.

He smiled at her. "Only this: that you return to Gracechurch Street, rather than taking up residence here at this time, and take Georgiana back with you to watch over her."

"Of course, I will ask my aunt. But do you not wish me to consider this my home? And would Georgiana not be more comfortable in her own home as well?"

"Do not make yourself uneasy, sweet Elizabeth, nor be disappointed. It is my dearest wish that you make yourself at home here and at Pemberley. And perhaps Georgiana would be more comfortable in a familiar setting. Nevertheless, I have reason to be concerned that there are those looking to settle her husband's debts, and I would have both of you out of the house should they come knocking. Do you think your aunt will approve?"

"I have no reason to believe otherwise. Do let me send a note to her, straightaway."

The note was sent, and an immediate consent was returned. Thus, within the hour, as Darcy had declared, the entire party stood in the foyer of Darcy House making ready to depart. As the baggage was being loaded, there was an interruption, for Lady Catherine had once again arrived unannounced. She looked askance at the activity around her, and demanded an explanation.

Darcy pursed his lips and said briefly, "Mr. Wickham and I are traveling back to _____shire, so that he may be settled once again at Alston House and that I may... assist him in reviewing his accounts. For I am not acquainted with his steward," he added, "and I would assure myself that Georgiana is in good hands."

"I see," Lady Catherine replied. "And why is this young woman still here?" she said, indicating Elizabeth. "Why have you not sent her on her way?"

"Lady Catherine, once again I have the pleasure of giving you the most joyous intelligence: Elizabeth and I were married last night. You may now refer to her as 'Mrs. Darcy.'"

"'Mrs. Darcy'! Upon my word, I will do no such thing! Heaven and earth - of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted? There can be no foundation for this hasty union. You will get an annulment immediately, Darcy, you must. I insist upon it!"

"Heed me well, your Ladyship," Darcy said in reply, his voice steady but his countenance clouded. "Elizabeth and I were married last night, with a special license, in a room full of witnesses. There will be no annulment!"

"No, no! Do you not consider that a connection with her must disgrace you in the eyes of everybody? It is not too late, you know - before you consummate. . ." Lady Catherine paused in her tirade, and peered at her nephew. "Surely you have not yet consummated this travesty of a marriage?"

Mr. Wickham was greatly entertained. He would love to ask the same question of his brother-in-law - would in fact relish knowing the details, for he had ideas of his own on exactly how the deed should be done - but he feared Darcy's steel. He waited expectantly for Darcy's reply.

"That is quite enough, Lady Catherine!" Darcy snapped. "This is a very improper conversation, and I will not dignify it with a response! Elizabeth is the wife I have chosen, and if you cannot give her the respect she deserves in her own home, I must request that you leave our house and not return."

"This is your final resolve! Very well. I shall now know how to act. I came to try you, Darcy. I hoped to find you reasonable; but, depend upon it, I will carry my point. You are no longer welcome at Rosings, nephew, and all avenues of my influence are now closed to you. You are, in fact, as dead to me as your young sister here, who made a similarly poor decision. Mark my words, you will have cause to regret your ill-advised choice." With that, her Ladyship fairly flew from the house, leaving in her wake a silence comparable to the aftermath of a violent storm.

Darcy turned toward his wife and took her hand. "Pray, pay no mind to Lady Catherine, Elizabeth. It is unfortunate that she does not approve of our marriage, but her opinion holds no sway over me. I have no regrets, you know that."

Managing a smile, Elizabeth responded, "I do, Fitzwilliam."

Mr. Wickham watched the interaction carefully. If he was hoping for some sign of discord, he would be disappointed. Likewise, if he hoped for an outward display of affection, in that too he would be disappointed. He could not perceive the tightness with which Darcy held Elizabeth's hand, nor see the intensity with which they looked at each other. Instead, turned his attention to his own wife, and said cheerfully,

"Well, my dear, so your brother and I are off on our excursion. Do not fret over me, my pet, for your George always knows how to manage for himself, does he not?"

Georgiana grudgingly agreed, and accepted his kiss on her hand with resignation. She hoped when finally she returned to Alston House, George would have settled down somewhat, and she was trusting Fitzwilliam to help bring that about.

"Goodbye, George. You will write to me, will you not? I will be so lonely without you."

"Of course, Mrs. Wickham, of course." I doubt I will have anything more interesting to do, he thought, with your brother watching me like a hawk.

While the Wickhams were saying their goodbyes, the Darcys were doing the same, though what passed between them was considerably more intimate. But prying eyes would have seen naught amiss, for the whole of their warmth was in their whispered conversation:

"Darling Elizabeth, every day I am gone from you will be a torment, every night an agony. I will write to you every day, I swear it."

"I will count on it," she sighed. "I will wait impatiently for your return, my love, and for many such encounters as the one we enjoyed last night."

"And this morning," he added with a smile, and for a while neither said anything, though each had the same thoughts, at which they both coloured. Finally Darcy said,

"We must go. Take care of yourself, dearest, and of Georgiana."

"I will. But you must see to yourself, above all, Fitzwilliam," she whispered urgently. "Do not let your guard down for a moment. I will not be satisfied until you are safe in my arms again."

"Nor will I." And with that he kissed her hand, and signaled for Wickham and the servants.

Once they were gone, a teary Elizabeth turned to Georgiana and said, with a liveliness she did not much feel, "Now then, shall you and I not be off to Gracechurch Street?"

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