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Mr. Wickham, who was not given to introspection, chafed at the silence in the carriage. He was bored. And besides, he was eaten up with curiosity as to how his brother's hasty wedding to the delicious Miss Bennet had come to pass...

His Brother's Keeper

Chapter 17

"'Tis a fine day to travel," Mr. Wickham began. "What luck that we have had no rain, eh?" But Mr. Darcy simply stared expressionless out the carriage window. After a pause of some minutes, Wickham addressed him a second time with:

"It is your turn to say something now, Darcy - I talked about the weather, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the coach, or the distance we must travel."

Darcy frowned, and replied coldly, "I see no reason to engage in banal conversation with you."

"Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that a winter landscape is much less appealing than the scenery of the spring. But now we may be silent."

"Do you talk by rule, then, while you are traveling?"

"Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would be odd to be entirely silent for such a long journey together, do you not think so?"

In reply Darcy made a grunting noise and returned to gazing out the window. It was a posture very familiar to Mr. Wickham, who, through long association with Mr. Darcy, was well acquainted with his moods. He knew that Darcy would frequently cope with uncomfortable social situations by positioning himself by a window. Whether the man was, in fact, deep in thought was beside the point. It was enough to give the appearance of being so, the better to discourage unwanted attention. Many men did this, of course, but Darcy had elevated it to a fine art.

In this situation, however, Darcy genuinely had much on his mind. He needed to think clear-headedly about his brother-in-law, and what the next few days would bring. Once they reached Alston House, Darcy's intention was to sit Wickham down with his steward, and listen as the man explained his management of the estate. It was not usual practice, of course - most gentlemen could trust their stewards sufficiently to allow them free reign, and most gentlemen had little interest, in any case - but what did Wickham really know of this man, whose loyalty had been to the previous owner? Darcy needed to assure himself of the fellow's integrity and ability. Otherwise, he was prepared to replace him as soon as may be.

Then there was the stickier matter of Lord M______. Darcy knew him to be a dangerous man. Although he had feigned disinterest when Wickham had raised the subject at the Townhouse, Darcy was now seriously concerned about His Lordship. Exactly how much was he owed? It must be considerable for him to send collectors out looking for Wickham. Darcy owned that this subject was more urgent than estate concerns, and would have to receive his immediate attention upon reaching _____shire. He also reconciled himself to using the substantial time alone on the journey for broaching the subject with Mr. Wickham.

More pleasant thoughts were reserved for Elizabeth. His Elizabeth - he could say that now! He smiled dreamily. Having spent one glorious night in her arms, it was unthinkable for him to do otherwise. Yet here he was, on a lengthy journey with the man he hated the most in the world, resigned to being without her for a week at minimum. He wished he could pass the time revisiting those heavenly hours following their marriage ceremony - he had by now conjured a vision of her asleep in the bed beside him, with naught but her hair to cover her, and could easily progress to what occurred thereafter - but at the moment he was not alone, and certainly did not wish to appear discomposed, or to have to account for a sudden change in his physical demeanour, which was already threatening to become obvious.

Mr. Wickham, who was not given to introspection, chafed at the silence in the carriage. He was bored. And besides, he was eaten up with curiosity as to how his brother's hasty wedding to the delicious Miss Bennet had come to pass. After about half an hour of listening to the relentless pounding of the horses' hooves upon the road, he glanced once again at Mr. Darcy, and perceived that the man's manner had softened, perhaps in response to some pleasant daydream. And so, Wickham said amiably,

"It is difficult to leave the ladies behind us, is it not, Darcy? I am an old married man, and my wife is already with child. But you, brother! I daresay it will be quite some time before the bloom is off that particular rose!"

"What? Of what do you speak?" Was Wickham addressing him? Darcy reluctantly turned his thoughts away from Elizabeth and focused on the smiling countenance of his traveling companion.

"Elizabeth, man!" Wickham laughed at Darcy's distraction. "Well, I must say I was surprised at your choice. While I hardly expected you to wed Miss de Bourgh as your aunt has always insisted - though I will admit her fortune would be a substantial inducement for any other man - I fully expected you to wed some pallid society miss, or even that Miss Bingley, as Georgiana had always feared. But, no! You have found yourself a red-blooded, well-rounded country girl with the sort of charms that are certain keep you happy at home! Well done, Darcy, well done! Come now, confide in me," he added, grinning widely, his enjoyment of the subject leading him to momentarily forget the danger of asking such a question, "is she as lively in private as she is in company?"

There was a brief, stony silence, then the ominous sound of a pistol being cocked. Wickham looked with alarm upon his companion's eerily composed visage, then glanced to Mr. Darcy's side, where the weapon was aimed directly at himself.

"If you value your life," Darcy said slowly, "you will never again make such improper references to my wife. It offends me, and that is reason enough for you to desist, even if you were not married to my own sister."

Darcy paused a moment, then continued casually, "You know, it would be a small matter for me to kill you here and now, for I have already called you out in the presence of witnesses, and had you not swooned like a girl, I would have finished you off yesterday morning. Besides," he added with a slight smile, "no one would question my right to defend myself in the close confines of a coach. Do I make myself understood?"

Wickham went ashen, for he had no doubt of Darcy's earnestness, or his skill with firearms. He had not even suspected the man was armed; he would not make that mistake again. "Pray, do forgive me," he said carefully, and with far more decorum than was typical for his address, "I meant no disrespect. I will endeavour in the future to be more circumspect with regard to Mrs. Darcy."

While Darcy put the weapon away, Mr. Wickham remained on his guard, pondering his companion's alarming response. Darcy had always been a very private man, even at school - he had never shared intelligence about his conquests, had there been any - but he would hardly threaten to shoot someone over an impertinent question. Could there be other grounds for his reaction? Could he perhaps be embarrassed? Wickham smiled inwardly. Is it possible...my word! Is it possible that the great Mr. Darcy had been incapable of sufficiently entertaining his lusty new wife on their wedding night? Wickham thought back to Lady Catherine's question just before they had set out on their journey, and Mr. Darcy's irate reaction. Had the marriage even been consummated? Oho, now there was a reason for being so short-tempered! Settling back into the cushions, Mr. Wickham began to wonder when Elizabeth might become bored enough with her rich stick-in-the-mud husband to start looking for diversion elsewhere. He hoped he would be in the vicinity when it happened.

Back in London, Caroline Bingley ignored the worried looks emanating from her brother as the carriage bore them to Gracechurch Street. She could not bear another day sitting at home, attending the same visitors who called every other day. It was all so dull. Miss Bingley craved novelty, and she had not yet called upon Georgiana since the girl had reached Town. True, her dear Georgiana was now Mrs. Wickham, and out of some of the ton's good graces for marrying the son of a steward, but she was still Mr. Darcy's beloved sister, and Miss Bingley had not yet surrendered the notion of perhaps winning his affections: this, despite his not having called upon her alone, save on that one occasion, when. . . Well, never mind that. He had stayed civil, even pleasant in social situations, had he not? And Caroline prided herself on her single-mindedness; after all, while Mr. Darcy remained unmarried, he was still fair game, so to speak. So when Miss Bingley discovered that Mrs. Wickham was staying at the house on Gracechurch Street, she insisted on accompanying her brother on his daily visit to Miss Bennet. Of course, the dear boy had tried to give her some "important" piece of intelligence regarding Miss Eliza Bennet, but Caroline would not hear a word of it. Ever since Mr. Darcy had compelled her to pen that mortifying letter to Miss Eliza, she had forbidden the hated name to be mentioned in her presence.

Upon their arrival in the Gardiners' parlour, Miss Bingley determined that she would show the Bennet sisters how a true lady comported herself, despite her disdain for one among their party. After greeting Jane and especially Georgiana with warm effusions, she therefore turned to Elizabeth and simpered in an imitation of affection, "Miss Eliza, it has been far too long. I trust you are well?"

Elizabeth looked at her quizzically. "Very well, Miss Bingley, I thank you. But it is Mrs. Darcy now."

"Mrs. Darcy!" Caroline exclaimed, growing pale. She laughed nervously. "I beg your pardon, I must not have heard you a-right."

"Forgive me, Miss Bingley, I thought your brother would have told you." Elizabeth looked askance at Mr. Bingley, but he was already engaged in lively conversation with Mr. Gardiner. "I suppose he could be excused, though, since it was just last night that Mr. Darcy and I were wed."

Caroline, horrified, looked to Georgiana for confirmation, and the girl provided it readily. "Indeed, you cannot imagine how delighted I was when my brother and Elizabeth married yesterday at the townhouse. Brother wished for the wedding to take place before he traveled to Alston Hall with George, so impatient was he to call Elizabeth his own!"

"But...but the banns! No one in Town has mentioned. . . I have heard nothing!"

"No, you would not have," Elizabeth explained gently. It was clear Miss Bingley had suffered a great shock. "Mr. Darcy obtained a special license some time ago, and we had a private ceremony late last night." In truth, it would be a shock to all of London, for Elizabeth and Darcy had been seen in public together but once, at the opera. While rumours and speculation had been intense at the opera house and shortly thereafter, Elizabeth's subsequent absence from the public eye had largely quieted them. There would be some talk now, without doubt!

Miss Bingley simply stood staring at Elizabeth for a while, feeling quite the fool. Was it truly that great a surprise? she asked herself. After all, Caroline had known for months what Mr. Darcy's intentions were - after overhearing his conversation with her brother at Netherfield, and later writing that letter on his behalf. It was just the passage of time and her own view of Elizabeth as unworthy that had persuaded her to deem the whole scheme impossible.

"Well, then,. . . Mrs. Darcy," Miss Bingley said slowly, painfully, "it seems I must wish you joy. Please accept my heartiest congratulations." Her voice trailed off to almost a whisper.

Although the words were said without much sincerity, Elizabeth understood that it was the best Miss Bingley could manage, and graciously accepted her good wishes. Mrs. Gardiner, seeing the awkwardness of the situation, rang for some tea, and Georgiana helpfully offered to play on the pianoforte.

And so the visit passed with as much amiability as could be expected. Miss Bennet, usually occupied solely by her fiancé, made an effort to involve his sister in conversation as much as possible. Jane and Georgiana's presence was a relief to Miss Bingley, for had the other ladies not been there, she feared she would have spent the entire call agog at the new Mrs. Darcy, unable to speak. As it was, Caroline spent an inordinate amount of time stealing sly glances at the wedding band that claimed Elizabeth as Mr. Darcy's, and wondering why it could never have been hers.

Miss Bingley had rarely felt more miserable than when she left the cozy Gracechurch Street household. Usually a call on a family of inferior standing left her feeling very pleased with herself indeed. But spending the morning with three married ladies - one of whom was barely 16! - and an affectionate affianced couple only served to accentuate her single status. She was not getting any younger, this was her fifth Season, and she had no prospects.

"Do not say a word, Charles," Caroline said tiredly on the way back to the Hursts' townhouse. "I know you tried to warn me this morning. It is my own fault I was taken by surprise. Please leave me in silence."

Mr. Bingley felt a rare sympathy for his sister, for usually his compassion was reserved for the victims of her caustic wit. He had not considered what life would bring her after his marriage to Jane, and resolved to be more thoughtful of Caroline in the future.

After luncheon, Elizabeth felt the necessity of informing her parents of her recent nuptials. There was no easy way around it, for they were sure to be made angry: her mother, because she had been deprived of the joy of showing off her daughter's auspicious match, and her father, because he was likely to be suspicious of the reasons for it to have taken place with such haste. It would certainly savour strongly of an elopement, and Elizabeth knew how much he would disapprove. Still, it could not be helped, and after several failed attempts, Elizabeth sent off the following missive:

Dearest Papa,

It grieves me deeply to be a source of disappointment to you and Mama, but Mr. Darcy has been called away on business of a most serious nature, and we found it prudent to marry here in Town last night. It was not what any of us would have called ideal, but we were happy to have as witnesses my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, as well as Jane and her dear Mr. Bingley.

We are expecting to return to Hertfordshire as planned Saturday next, unless Mr. Darcy's business detains him, and we hope to celebrate with you then. Please endeavour to be as much comfort as you can to Mama, and I will do my best to make amends when I see her.

Your loving daughter, Elizabeth Darcy

Elizabeth examined her signature, the first time she had signed a letter thus, and mused at how odd this married life felt, and how empty without her beloved. She folded the correspondence and melted the wax, smiling wryly, for she knew the Darcy seal, if note was taken of it, would surely cause a disturbance among her family even before the letter was opened.

Somewhat later in the day, a great distance away, Darcy's coach stopped at an inn for the night. After a tense dinner at which little was said, Darcy saw Wickham to his room, and set a footman to guard the door for the night. He then retired to his own chamber and stared at his lonely bed. Declining to enter it until exhaustion claimed him, he sat instead at the small writing-table and penned a note to Elizabeth, as he had promised, pouring out the feelings he had held in check all day and vowing to write to her again upon reaching Alston House.

After sealing Elizabeth's letter, Darcy sat for a long while staring at nothing. He was baffled. He had finally allowed Wickham to discuss the substance of his debts to Lord M______, and apparently the whole of it was a little in excess of three thousand pounds. Not a small figure, to be sure, one which Wickham was not quite in a position to pay, but hardly an amount that would influence a man of Lord M_______'s wealth to engage in the sort of pursuit that Mr. Stanton had implied. Darcy wondered at its significance.

When they awoke early the following morning, Darcy, who had been tormented all night with unfulfilled dreams of his wife, appeared haggard, while Wickham, who had had no such torments, was vigorous and well rested. They climbed into the coach shortly after breakfast. The trip was difficult for Darcy, as he did not trust Wickham enough to allow himself to doze. Instead, he closely observed the man seated across from him as Wickham whiled away the first two hours looking out the coach window and whistling to himself. Thankfully, there were no awkward attempts at conversation.

As the third hour of their journey commenced, however, Wickham, who was seated facing rearward, appeared to grow uneasy. His discomfort grew over time as he glanced again and again out the coach window.

"I say, Darcy," Wickham declared, a nervous note in his voice, "is it possible that we are being followed?"

Darcy nodded. It would appear that Lord M_____'s men had found them.

Chapter 18

Georgiana could not believe how comfortable she was fast becoming at the Gardiners' home. True, the accommodations were considerably less grand than those she had always been accustomed to, and quite a bit noisier, with the young Gardiners frequently underfoot under the watchful eye of their governess. Still, it was the warm embrace of family unlike any she had ever encountered.

She gave her brother full credit for trying his best to provide a loving home for her after the passing of their parents, but while he was a very affectionate elder brother, he was also a young gentleman with other interests. Consequently, he was not at Pemberley as much as she would have liked, and her care had been often left to governesses and, later, to dancing-masters and piano-masters and all manner of tutors. Oh, how she had longed for a mother to cosset her, and sisters with whom she could share secrets!

All this Georgiana found in abundance on Gracechurch Street. For Mrs. Gardiner was like the mother she had never known, her own having died shortly after her birth; the dear woman spent with Mrs. Wickham all the time she could spare from her own children. And Jane and Elizabeth were the best of sisters, so different from each other but each so full of affection and amusements. Georgiana would play for them upon the pianoforte, and they in turn would entertain her with stories of growing up in a household full of girls. Even Mr. Bingley was a revelation. She had not wished to marry him, that much was true, though she knew Fitzwilliam had at one time entertained such notions, but she found dear Mr. Bingley to be charming and relaxed in a way her own brother had never been - as if Fitzwilliam were so constrained by trying to be a father to her that he had missed out on the joy of being a brother.

At night, Georgiana would lie awake in the room she shared with Elizabeth, wondering if she would have been so ready to abscond to Gretna Green with George had the love she had been seeking been provided for her at home. She even began to suspect that perhaps she might not have married George at all, and was ashamed of herself. George loved her! She loved him! Their marriage was a happy one, was it not?

But the more she saw of the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, and Mr. Bingley and Jane, and even the brief time she had been exposed to the love between Elizabeth and her brother, Georgiana began to think that perhaps her marriage was not so happy after all. George was more likely to ignore her or patronize her than to compliment her or admire her for her accomplishments, though he had been ready enough with his flattery before they had eloped. And since she had got with child and had been unavailable for his manly affections, he had been downright cold. And frequently absent, she added to herself. In this manner Georgiana converted the delights of her days into the miseries of her nights.

For her part, Elizabeth enjoyed introducing her new sister into her family, and was pleased with the acceptance she saw on both sides. Clearly, the girl was starved for the kind of affection that neither Mr. Darcy nor Mr. Wickham could give her. Elizabeth was particularly pleased to see Georgiana blossom under the care of Mrs. Gardiner, who, in addition to all her other motherly attributes, seemed to know exactly which foods would appeal to a woman in a delicate state who had previously declined much of what had been set before her.

Thus, after just three days on Gracechurch Street, Georgiana had already lost some of the pallor that had attended her arrival in Town, and had even acquired a measure of that admirable glow which characterized a healthy woman in her condition. She felt well enough to accompany Elizabeth on a few of her frequent walks about the park, though Elizabeth found herself moderating her pace to allow her new sister to keep up.

It was after one such walk that Elizabeth returned to the house to discover that the post had come, and in it was a letter from Mr. Darcy. She noted that another letter had arrived for Georgiana, and the latter triumphantly declared it to be from Mr. Wickham. In the enthusiasm of youth, Georgiana broke the seal the minute the missive was handed to her, and eagerly scanned the contents. After a moment, her face fell. It seems that she was not well pleased by the brevity of her beloved's correspondence. At Elizabeth's questioning glance, Georgiana turned to her and read,

My dear Mrs. Wickham,

We are arrived safely at the Hound & Boar. The food is passable: I found the mutton a little tough. The trip was long and boring, and Mr. Darcy is not the most amiable traveling companion. In fact, he is supremely dull. I wish I were back in Town.

Your husband, George Wickham

"That is all he says, Elizabeth," Georgiana sniffed. "He does not send his love to me, does not state that he misses me. He only complains of the food and companionship."

Elizabeth smiled sympathetically. "Perhaps that is just his way, Georgiana. There are some men who find it difficult to express themselves, especially in writing. Pray, do not be troubled. See, he does call you 'my dear.'" This was all the comfort Elizabeth could provide the girl, for she was doubtful that Mr. Wickham was capable of any feelings deeper than that.

"Fitzwilliam always writes such lovely letters," the young girl responded wistfully. "Perhaps you will share yours with me."

Elizabeth declined politely, feeling that whatever was contained in her husband's communication was meant for no eyes but her own. In this conjecture she was proved quite right, as she discovered a few minutes later alone in her room.

Darling Elizabeth,

It is only hours since we parted, and already it seems like weeks. As I sit tonight in my lonely room at the inn, the cherished memory of your love is my only companion.

Ask me not what I have eaten, for food has lost all its savour since I have tasted the sweetness of your lips and skin. Indeed, I could give you no details at all of our journey, for before my eyes I see only your beauty: your sparkling eyes, your delightful smile, your welcoming arms, and yes, those lovely, hidden parts of you that I alone can claim to have seen, that I alone may enjoy. Greedy man that I am, I long to see all of you, as the Lord made you, every day; I long to have you, in my bed, every night; and I am distraught at my enforced absence.

My word! Elizabeth grew quite warm and flushed at the foregoing text, and was heartily glad she had not opened the letter in company, or - heaven forbid! - allowed Georgiana to read it along with her. She fanned herself with the sheets before continuing:

From the very beginning of this infernal expedition, I could think of nothing save coming home to you, my love, for wherever you reside, there is my home. Donne's words never rang truer:

"Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun."*

I cannot wait to "end where I begun:" in your embrace, my dearest. Pray, do not attempt to write to me, as we will be traveling - endlessly, it seems, though I know it will be less than a week - but know that you are always in my thoughts. And I will see you in Hertfordshire as we agreed, for nothing short of death itself will prevent me from reuniting with you.

Your adoring husband, FD

Dear, dear Fitzwilliam! Elizabeth's eyes filled with tears as she re-read his passionate missive. He had said nothing of his task, mentioned nothing of Mr. Wickham. She knew not whether he was unworried, or more likely that he did not want her to fret and was withholding information she might consider disturbing. She desperately wished him to be safe, but could know nothing of his circumstances until he wrote to her once more.

That evening, when Georgiana questioned her about the letter, Elizabeth would only say that Mr. Darcy was well and had promised to write again soon.

But the next day came, and then the next, and neither woman heard aught from her husband. Georgiana was merely frustrated, and pouted a great deal, but Elizabeth had begun to feel alarmed over what may have happened. Nothing short of death itself... Her husband's words chilled her. It took all her energy to present a brave face to Mrs. Wickham on a daily basis, for she could not reveal her trepidation, especially since it was Mr. Wickham who was the source of all her anxiety.

Elizabeth did, however, receive a letter from her father. It read:

My Dear Lizzy,

You can imagine my astonishment at your latest letter. It was, in fact, almost as outrageous as your previous correspondence, in which you announced to me that you were in love with Mr. Darcy, of all people, and intended to marry him. And now I discover that you are already wed!

I must confess that I am somewhat distressed by this turn of events, Lizzy, for the fortnight's warning you gave us previously was little enough for a respectable wedding, and you are aware that I frown on hasty unions. I know not the urgent circumstances surrounding these nuptials - I can only hope that your Mr. Darcy, who has seen enough scandal in the youthful elopement of his sister, knows what he is about, and pray that he has not disgraced you in any way - but at least the special license eliminated the mortification of a trip to Gretna Green.

As it is, however, there is nothing that I can do, for the man is already your husband. I can draw some small solace from the fact that you are properly wed to one of the wealthiest men in the Kingdom, that your Aunt and Uncle were there in our stead to bear witness, and that the entirety transpired at no expense at all to us.

As for your mother, she might not be as understanding as I am. Once she recovered from her raptures at having a daughter so well married, she quickly realized that she had been robbed of the opportunity to mount a wedding breakfast the likes of which had never been seen in Meryton. She took to her bed, and called Hill for her salts, and we had no peace at all for at least a full day and night. Although she has calmed, I must warn you that when you do finally arrive in Hertfordshire, she will be sure to embarrass you and Mr. Darcy with her effusions and exclamations, and I cannot but say that you both deserve it.

Your affectionate father, &c

This letter was all that Elizabeth could hope for from her parents. She knew they would be displeased at not having been in attendance, even angry at the covert nature of the wedding, but as they had always wished her married to a respectable man, she felt they could at least be satisfied with the outcome. "Perhaps," she said later to Jane, "they may now even forgive me for declining the offer from Mr. Collins!"

Days passed away, and soon it was less than a week before Elizabeth and Jane were due to return to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth could no longer hide her fretting, and even her aunt and sister were at a loss to comfort her.

"Oh, Jane, I fear something terrible has happened to Fitzwilliam," she wept one evening in Jane's bedroom. "He vowed to write to me every day of his journey, and I have heard from him but once."

"Pray, Lizzy, do not be alarmed. It is a long distance to _______shire, to be sure, but it is on public roads, and they will only travel in daylight."

"You do not understand! I do not trust Mr. Wickham; I fear that he knows...something that could entice him to cause harm to Fitzwilliam."

"Come now. He is your husband's brother. What could possibly persuade him to treat Mr. Darcy ill?"

Elizabeth hesitated. She knew she ought not to speak of what Mr. Darcy had confided to her about Pemberley, but the burden was too great for her to say nothing at all. Instead, she shook her head and answered:

"I am sorry; I am not at liberty to reveal the details. Let me only say that the inducement would be great indeed, and Mr. Darcy is aware of the danger. The two have an unfortunate history, and there is no love between them. Nor does Mr. Wickham appear to be inhibited by his marriage to Georgiana. No, he is a man who is not above sinking to base tactics to achieve his aim." Elizabeth stopped there. She would not unduly trouble Jane by telling her of the forged note that had lured Elizabeth to Darcy House...or what had come after.

"This is grave, indeed! And does this have anything to do with Mr. Wickham's removal from Town?"

"Yes, it does. It is also contributed to the necessity of our marrying before Mr. Darcy departed. And I can say no more. But you must trust me when I say I have misgivings."

"Yet there is nothing to be done! Lizzy, I am so sorry. I can only hope that all will turn out for the best."

The following morning Elizabeth lingered in her bedroom long after Georgiana had gone down to breakfast. Tears streamed down her face. The return of her monthly courses, so frequently a mere inconvenience, was this time a cause for near heartbreak, for her mother had once told her that when her courses stopped, she would be with child. She knew that should something happen to Fitzwilliam now, there would be no possibility of saving Pemberley from Mr. Wickham. Their hasty wedding had been for naught. "Beloved Fitzwilliam, why have you not written to me?" she whispered in her anguish. After half an hour, she quieted. Drying her tears and washing her face, Elizabeth composed herself before heading resignedly down the stairs.

Upon reaching the breakfast room, she was greeted by an extraordinary sight. There stood a man in military attire, about thirty, not handsome, but in person and bearing most truly the gentleman. His arms were about Georgiana, and she was sobbing. When Georgiana espied Elizabeth, she pulled herself from the officer's embrace and rushed to her sister's arms, crying, "Oh, Elizabeth! Such dreadful news! He has been shot - dear Lord, he is dead!"

*Excerpt from A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, by John Donne, 1611.

Chapter 19

At Georgiana's exclamation, Elizabeth's blood ran cold. She clutched her weeping sister to her breast, but stared unseeing straight ahead. "Fitzwilliam?" she choked out, awaiting confirmation of her worst fears.

The officer looked at her quizzically and bowed. "Your servant, madam."

Seeing the confusion, a subdued Mr. Gardiner hastened to explain. "Elizabeth, may I introduce Colonel Fitzwilliam, cousin to Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Wickham. Colonel, this is my niece, Mrs. Darcy."

Elizabeth turned terrified eyes upon the new arrival. "He is dead?"

Colonel Fitzwilliam replied solemnly, "I am sorry to be the one to bear the news, Mrs. Darcy. But your brother, Mr. Wickham, has indeed been killed."

"Mr. Wickham!" Elizabeth's relief was so great she nearly swooned, but she was not insensible to the crying girl in her arms. A quick glance at her aunt brought the older woman to her side, and Mrs. Gardiner gently led Georgiana to a chair, holding fast to her hand and providing a handkerchief. Elizabeth then took a great gasping breath of air before continuing, "But what of Mr. Darcy? Is he well? Where is he?"

"He is well, Mrs. Darcy, but he was unable to accompany me to Town." The Colonel drew out a thick packet and said, "He asked me to give you this letter, which should explain all."

Elizabeth was torn. She wanted desperately to read Darcy's letter privately, but felt compelled to remain to comfort Georgiana. Fortunately, her aunt took pity on her, and nodded her encouragement. "I beg you to excuse me," Elizabeth said gratefully, and curtseying, fled the room.

Alone in her room, Elizabeth sat upon the bed, her hands shaking. She broke the seal and read,

Dearest Elizabeth,

I pray that my cousin's arrival will not have unduly alarmed you, though I shall suppose it has. I hope you will forgive me for not having written to you sooner - for I never break my promises - but you shall see there have been extenuating circumstances.

By now you have heard of the unfortunate death of Mr. Wickham. I will now attempt to convey to you all that which brought it about.

On our first day's travels, I learned from Mr. Wickham that he owed Lord M______ but three thousand pounds. Mr. Wickham had found himself unable to pay these debts, for unbeknownst to him I had frozen the assets in his account. (I feared Georgiana would soon be penniless had I not intervened). It occurred to me, however, that this sum, while substantial to those of lesser means, was a pittance to someone of Lord M_____'s wealth. I grew concerned that there might be another reason that his Lordship was so keen on catching up with Mr. Wickham.

Toward that end, after writing to you from the Hound & Boar, I sent an express to my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, asking him to meet us at Alston House straightaway. I knew him to be wintering in a neighbouring county and reckoned if he left immediately, he would arrive around the same time as we did, and might provide some support should we find we needed it. In fact, some hours into our travels, Mr. Wickham became aware of a carriage following us. It did not attempt to gain ground on us, but kept pace with our coach as we progressed along the road. Nor did it stop at any village along the route. When of necessity we stopped to rest the horses, I was prepared for the worst, for I did not leave Town unarmed, nor did my men. The carriage stopped as well, and now that we could see the livery clearly, we knew it of a certainty to be Lord M_______'s.

You can surely imagine my trepidation, my beloved. And yet when the coach's occupants did approach us, they did not do so with weapons drawn. They introduced themselves as his Lordship's emissaries and requested most politely that Mr. Wickham give Lord M________ the honour of his company the following evening. Further, they intimated that they were also present to ensure "by whatever means necessary" that we did not detour on our journey to ________shire. You understand, then, that this was not a truly a request, but a command, one which we felt compelled to obey, lest we discover a more unpleasant side of his Lordship's amiable agents.

True to their word, the men kept their distance from us the remainder of the day, but stopped at the same inn where we intended to spend the night. Thus I had no opportunity to send a communication to you, as they assigned a man to guard our door. In any case, I did not wish them to know that there was something in this world dearer to me than my own life - you, beloved Elizabeth - nor where that prize resided.

At these words, Elizabeth found it necessary to stop reading, for her eyes had filled with tears. Reaching for her handkerchief, she steadied herself and continued:

We had no choice but to accommodate Lord M_______'s wishes. The following day we continued our journey, arriving at Alston House in the early afternoon. Colonel Fitzwilliam had arrived just two hours previous. His Lordship's men remained outside the property, but we knew full well that they had remained, waiting. And when evening fell, and Mr. Wickham, the Colonel and I left the estate for Lord M_______'s, their carriage fell into place right behind us.

The irony of the situation did not escape me; knowing my feelings for the man, you may well ask why I felt obliged to accompany Mr. Wickham. I asked myself the same question - in essence, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - and received in answer the image of my sweet Georgiana, who was innocent of all evil but might have to answer in some manner for her husband's iniquities. I thought perhaps I could find out the reasons for his Lordship's displeasure and cajole or bribe him, for it was apparent to me that Mr. Wickham on his own was out of his depth, deathly afraid of Lord M______ and incapable of lucid argument. In fact he seemed quite relieved to have the two of us along.

Lord M_______, a man of perhaps fifty, with hair almost completely grey, greeted us in his study and offered us spirits, which we accepted. Mr. Wickham, unwisely, I thought, downed his drink in one swallow. The Colonel and I imbibed little, however, for we felt all the necessity of remaining clearheaded. His Lordship then began a short recitation of his history with Mr. Wickham, emphasizing their shared amusements, their camaraderie. "You were a dear friend to me, George," he repeated. He then nodded to a servant, who left the room. Wickham was clearly alarmed at where this might be headed, perhaps noting as I did that his Lordship had used the past tense when speaking of their friendship. Lord M_______ continued by enumerating the debts Wickham had incurred, and I tallied them in my head. They were slightly more than Wickham had told me, but not by much. Surely his Lordship would listen to reason.

So I tried. I offered to cover Mr. Wickham's debts, then doubled the offer. Lord M_______ only laughed. "Quite noble of you, Mr. Darcy," he said, but he refused. Finally I offered him ten thousand pounds to release Mr. Wickham from his debts. At that point, there was a knock upon the door, and his Lordship called out for the newcomer to enter. A woman of about my age stood in the doorway, very beautiful, and expensively dressed and ornamented.

"Mr. Wickham, I believe you already know my wife," his Lordship said. He then introduced Lady M______ to the Colonel, then to me. She looked at me from head to toe with a frank gaze I found unnerving and highly improper, as if she were assessing me for some service I might perform for her.

Despite the disgraceful nature of Lady M_______'s actions and the terrifying dénouement still to come, Elizabeth found herself smiling at the thought of the services her Mr. Darcy was indeed quite fit to perform. She shook off the smile, embarrassed at the direction her thoughts had taken, and continued,

By this time Wickham had gone completely pale and for once displayed no pleasure at the sight of an attractive woman. Ignoring him, Lord M________ said to the room in general, "My wife has recently informed me that she is with child." This, too, was exceedingly inappropriate, and I wondered at his reasons for exposing Lady M_________ thus to strangers, when he added, "Quite a conundrum for me, of course, knowing as I have for years that I am incapable of siring one."

Good Lord! The whole of the story at once became shockingly obvious to Elizabeth.

I will spare you the mortifying details of how his Lordship came to know this, as it is not fit for a lady to hear. He then turned to Mr. Wickham and said calmly, "You have disgraced my wife, sir, and I demand satisfaction."

I attempted in every way to dissuade his Lordship from this course of action. While I had said those very words myself but a week prior, I would never have killed Mr. Wickham, but simply taught him a lesson that he would not soon forget. I knew, however, that Lord M______ would intend his duel to be to the death, and I also knew he would prevail.

Alas, it was all arranged: pistols at dawn on the field of honour. I served as Mr. Wickham's second, with Colonel Fitzwilliam at my side. His Lordship has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent shot; Wickham had no chance at all.

The Colonel will tell Georgiana that Wickham's last thoughts were of her, although in truth we know not what he was thinking, but that his last words were, "Shall we now return to Pemberley?" It could be that he was back in a happier time, when we were boys, or perhaps he looked forward to being permitted back on the grounds. There is even the possibility that he was aware of Georgiana's role in my father's will. We shall never know. We had him interred in the town cemetery. Only the Colonel, the vicar and I were in attendance.

Lord M_______ has decided not to divorce his wife, but to accept her child as his own. This, not because he has forgiven her - indeed, I feel quite sorry for her now - but because his Lordship is in need of an heir, and his wife has provided one for him, the natural father of which is most conveniently dead. We can be grateful for this decision, for it spares our family the further scandal that may have resulted had he gone forward with a divorce. As it is, there are only a handful of us who know the truth: Lord and Lady M_______, the Colonel and myself. Georgiana will not be told of the child; let her not remember her husband, for all his faults, as the father of a bastard by another man's wife.

I now find myself at Alston House, working with the steward and arranging for the disposition of the estate. He is an honest man, but not of high intelligence, and any losses the estate suffered were due to incompetence rather than theft. No matter; we must sell it, for Georgiana cannot stay here alone, especially in her condition. It is my wish to bring her back to Pemberley to live with us. I hope, my love, that you agree. I have failed her once, and I must not fail her again. Will you not help assist her with proper mourning attire and provide what comfort you can?

Now, I have promised you that I would be in Hertfordshire by Saturday, and by G-d I will. This death in the family will, of course, preclude our having a wedding celebration after all. But we will at least have each other. And that, my love, is all I ever wanted.

Until Saturday, I remain,

Your devoted husband, FD

Feeling completely drained, Elizabeth said a small prayer of thanksgiving that Mr. Darcy had survived and would meet her as planned. Such a horrible experience! She would waste no tears on Mr. Wickham, but poor Georgiana! Gathering the pages of her letter, she folded them carefully and tucked them into a drawer of her desk. Then she hurried downstairs.

The scene was much as she had left it, though Georgiana had quieted and was now seated next to Mrs. Gardiner, resting her head on the woman's shoulder. Elizabeth approached Colonel Fitzwilliam.

"Do forgive me for not having greeted you properly, sir," she said in a low voice, "but I am afraid I had received quite a shock."

"I understand, Mrs. Darcy. These are not the circumstances under which I would want to meet my new cousin. Please allow me to offer you my congratulations on your marriage to Darcy. I must confess I did not even have an inkling that he was enamoured of any young lady, though now that I have met you, I can see why he felt the need to act so quickly."

Elizabeth had to smile at his smooth flattery. It was obvious that the Colonel had a great deal of charm, which on any other occasion, she would have been happy to meet with light banter of her own. "I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Colonel. I know little of Mr. Darcy's family, although I have met your aunt, Lady Catherine."

"Then I must apologize," the Colonel said, grimacing, "for I would hate for you to think that she is representative of the entire family."

"Mr. Darcy wishes for Georgiana to return to Pemberley with us. Do you think she will acquiesce?"

The Colonel was thoughtful. "I believe she will. Clearly she cannot be on her own, and the only alternative would be for her to live at Matlock with my parents. I cannot help but think she will be happier with you and Darcy."

Elizabeth nodded. The poor girl had already been through so much already, by the tender age of 16.

The day passed away calmly, and Elizabeth was grateful, for Georgiana's sake, for Mrs. Gardiner's comforting presence and Colonel Fitzwilliam's steadying influence. Mrs. Wickham's new gowns, so recently purchased under happier circumstances upon her arrival in Town, were ordered dyed black.

To no one's surprise, Georgiana ate little and excused herself for bed earlier than usual. Elizabeth followed her up the stairs. "Do you wish to be alone, my dear?" she asked her sister.

"I really would rather not, Elizabeth, if you are inclined to join me."

The two sat on the bed, and Elizabeth waited for her companion to speak. Georgiana toyed with her wedding ring. Finally, she drew a deep breath and said,

"That is all it takes, Elizabeth. One moment you are a wife, and the next, a widow." Her eyes, not long dry, were once again wet with tears. "We had so little time together!"

Elizabeth could say nothing to this, but held Georgiana's hand in both of hers as she wept. Soon the girl spoke again, her manner growing more composed as she looked down at her lap.

"And yet, these last few months, George had been so different. He was not the amiable gentleman he was when we first fell in love. He frequently abused spirits and stayed out late into the night." She scowled. "It was that horrid Lord M_______'s influence! Left to himself, George would never have spent so much time gaming, and drinking, and. . ." She could not continue; left unspoken was the painful knowledge that Mr. Wickham had also been unfaithful.

"This is not the moment to speak of such things," Elizabeth answered gently. "Let us remember Mr. Wickham for the joy he brought you, however brief it was." There would be time enough, she reasoned, for Georgiana to acknowledge her husband's faults, but one must not speak ill of the dead - certainly not when he was so recently departed.

After a while, Elizabeth broached the subject of the future. "Georgiana, Fitzwilliam and I desire you to come home with us to Pemberley. You cannot live alone, especially not with the baby coming, and it is your home, too, after all. Will you not say you will come?"

A thoughtful silence hung in the air. Finally, Georgiana agreed. "In truth, there is no other place left for me. Alston House would not be a home, not without George..." Tears threatened again. "There are too many memories there."

"And would you also like to accompany us to Hertfordshire? For Fitzwilliam will be meeting us there on Saturday as he promised. We will not be continuing to Pemberley immediately, as Jane's wedding is fast approaching. You would certainly be welcome at Longbourn, our home, or at Netherfield, where Mr. Bingley resides."

"Perhaps...." Another thought occurred to her. "No, you have had no time alone together! I do not wish to be in the way; I could not intrude..."

"Please do not concern yourself about that, my dear. We do not wish you to be alone."

"I am not even certain I am ready for such a lengthy journey. I was dreadfully ill during the carriage ride from Alston House to Town." Georgiana's frown suddenly disappeared. "Elizabeth, I need not be alone! I can stay at Darcy House here in Town for a few weeks, with my cousin to keep me company. I have not had the pleasure of his presence for so long! You do not know him - he is a most good-natured, entertaining fellow. Yes, I will stay here with him, for now. Then, when you have had a chance to settle into Pemberley, the Colonel can accompany me north."

Elizabeth smiled. "It would appear to be a perfect plan. Very well, then, I will make the trip with Jane, and look forward to being able to welcome you back home."

With Georgiana thus comforted, Elizabeth went back downstairs. The entire party, Gardiners and guests alike, were still gathered in the parlour, talking quietly. Elizabeth approached her sister, who was in conversation with Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Gardiner.

"Jane, do you think perhaps we could leave for Longbourn tomorrow? This week has been very trying for me, and I am anxious to return home." She turned to Mrs. Gardiner and added, "Dear Aunt, you have been so very gracious. It is really only two days early - that would not be any inconvenience to you, would it?"

Mrs. Gardiner assured her it would be no trouble at all, Jane readily agreed to the change in plans, and - to no one's surprise - Mr. Bingley gallantly volunteered to return early to Netherfield as well. Elizabeth conveyed to the Colonel Georgiana's desire for him to remain at the Darcy townhouse for a few weeks, and he consented with alacrity, for he was more than fond of his young cousin, and was determined to be of service to her in whatever manner she required.

And so, the following day, the separation, so agreeable to almost all, took place. Colonel Fitzwilliam came to convey a grateful Georgiana back to the townhouse, both of them promising to call frequently at the house on Gracechurch Street. Elizabeth and Jane departed for Longbourn, with Mr. Bingley on horseback accompanying the ladies' carriage. The Gardiners, in turn, pledged to come to Hertfordshire for Jane's wedding three weeks hence.

All that was lacking, Elizabeth thought with a sigh, was Mr. Darcy.

Chapter 20

"Mr. Bennet! Mr. Bennet! My dear, you must come at once!"

Mr. Bennet intended to do no such thing. He was secreted in his library, as was his habit at this particular time of day. Alas, that very habit enabled his wife to locate him all too quickly, and she pounded on the door with such vehemence that he was forced to open it.

"Mr. Bennet! What do you think? There is a coach arriving, a very grand coach. I have never seen its like! Who do you suppose is calling? It may be an important visitor. Perhaps I should change my gown; it is soiled. Oh, where is Hill? Hill! Hill!"

Rolling his eyes, Mr. Bennet's curiosity was piqued sufficiently that he deigned to investigate that which had so discomposed his wife. Sure enough, a handsome coach was pulling into the drive, accompanied by a lone rider. Squinting at the man, Mr. Bennet felt the rider uncannily resembled Mr. Bingley. After a moment, he was certain of it. While his wife fussed about her apparel, Mr. Bennet went out to meet the new arrivals.

To his surprise, he saw his two eldest daughters dismounting the carriage, assisted by Mr. Bingley. His delight was supplanted by concern, however, when he espied the mourning dress worn by his Lizzy, and immediately feared that she had become a widow ere she had an opportunity to be a proper wife. He embraced his daughters fervently, and was greatly comforted by Elizabeth's placid demeanour. Nevertheless, Mr. Bennet felt it improper to enquire after her loss out on the drive, so he resigned himself to remaining in ignorance for the time being. He knew it would not last long, for the moment the ladies were seen by his wife, the question would undoubtedly arise.

In this supposition Mr. Bennet was proved correct. Mrs. Bennet cried out in glee when first she saw her daughters, not only because she had not seen them in weeks but because they had been the occupants of the finest coach ever to pass their gates. But the very next words to fly from her mouth were, "Good Lord! Who has died? Lizzy! What are you keeping from us? Are you married in truth?"

Elizabeth quickly explained in quite general terms the loss of Mr. George Wickham. Mrs. Bennet, true to her character, lost all interest when she discovered that the deceased was not part of her own family. "Oh, well, my dear," she said, patting her daughter's hand in an insincere show of commiseration, "I am indeed sorry to hear it. But from what I have heard, Mrs. Wickham is still young, pretty, and rich, and doubtless she will quickly find herself another husband after her mourning is over."

Embarrassed by her mother's ill-breeding in front of Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth hastened to change the subject. She apologized to her parents for not having notified the family of the ladies' imminent arrival, having just decided the day before to leave London. Then there was the matter of accommodations, for it would take a few days for Netherfield to be ready for its master. So Mr. Bingley was welcomed to stay at Longbourn until such time as his own estate could receive him, for Mrs. Bennet would not hear of him staying at the inn in Meryton. Hill bustled about, readying the chambers for the sisters and their guest.

It did not take more than five minutes after everyone was settled, however, for Mrs. Bennet to realize that mourning Mr. Wickham would indeed affect the Bennet family - to wit, there could be no wedding celebration on Saturday as planned. How put out she was! How vexed! She had already arranged for the hall, the food, and the musicians. What would she tell Mrs. Long and Lady Lucas? How they would smirk! All of Meryton was due to turn out for this grand event, and now it would not take place. "This is all your fault, Lizzy," she sniffed. "First, you married in haste in London, and did not even give me the pleasure of accompanying you to the warehouses. Now I will be the joke of the entire town, for we cannot even hold a simple wedding celebration because your brother-in-law had the bad luck to die."

"Do consider, my dear," Mr. Bennet interjected with some humour, "I doubt very much if Mr. Wickham would have wanted to disrupt your festivities in quite this way."

The next days passed without incident. Mrs. Bennet, deprived of fawning over her rich son-in-law, settled for fussing over Mr. Bingley, who would be her son-in-law soon enough. Mr. Bingley, faithful to his nature, bore it admirably. As a married woman, Elizabeth found herself the object of curiosity among her three youngest sisters, and of jealousy to Kitty and especially Lydia, although they would not have had the disagreeable Mr. Darcy as husband for all his money and his grand estate.

By late afternoon Friday, having in her sojourn to London quite forgotten the commotion attendant with living in a house inhabited by five daughters and a mother whose nerves attacked her on a daily basis, Elizabeth felt the necessity of some solitude, so, the weather being unusually fine, she took the opportunity of walking out. Smiling, she traced her familiar paths, and stopped when she came upon the isolated grove she had last entered but a month prior. How much had happened since then! She thought fondly on this crowded cluster of trees, for it had once witnessed a passionate encounter between her and Mr. Darcy, which even now made her blood stir and her colour rise, and before then, it had been the scene of a chance meeting that had apparently made quite an impression on the man. It still being the dead of winter, nothing much had changed here, save Elizabeth herself. Far from the opprobrium in which she had held Mr. Darcy at the time, he was now dearest in her heart, and her only wish was for him to be back with in her presence. Tomorrow could not come soon enough for her.

At the sound of hoof beats, Elizabeth looked up. She could hear the horse swiftly approaching the grove, but could discern nothing of it or its rider as she stood amongst the trees. Not wishing to be taken unawares, she moved out for a better view.

The rider halted his steed and wasted no time dismounting, tossing the reins carelessly across the saddle. He strode toward the glimpse of skirts which had caught his eye at the edge of the grove, and within moments Elizabeth was in his arms.

Elizabeth would have cried out, but there was no time as his mouth descended upon hers. Her surprise was great, but her joy greater. Here was Darcy, in her arms, a day earlier than expected! It mattered not at all to her that he was disheveled and grimy from the road, for it was obvious that he had ridden hard, rather than traveling in the comfort of a carriage, the sooner to reunite with her. Nor did it bother her that he smelled of sweat and horses, for it seemed to suit his current attitude, and she found it curiously arousing.

But if she had thought she had ever tasted his passion for her, his desperate hunger for her in the past, she was mistaken, for he was not the least bit gentle with her now. His wild kisses bruised her lips, his hands clutched at her flesh through her gown. He moaned her name, and groaned his need and gave her no respite from his ardour. Impatiently, he tore the bonnet from her head and sank his fingers into her hair, pulling out what pins he could find. Elizabeth did not object, for her desires were quick to rise to his, goaded by her longing for him during his absence, her week-long anxiety for his well-being, and those terrifying moments when she thought him dead. Still, the ferocity of his greeting astonished her.

Without interrupting his assault on her mouth, Darcy wrapped his arms about her and easily lifted her up, moving with her back into the dense shelter of the grove. Once within the confines of the trees, he immediately pressed her to the cold ground and covered her body with his own, moving feverishly between her legs, tugging at her skirts. Elizabeth could feel the urgency of his arousal against her hips and was shocked to realize that he intended to take her right there in the woods. What she found even more shocking was that she did not intend to stop him.

Hence, when he hesitated, and stared full into her eyes, she seized his face between her hands and kissed him with a thirst equal to his own, sliding her tongue into his welcoming mouth. Requiring no further encouragement, he eagerly pushed her skirts up about her hips, released his straining manhood from his breeches, and, without preamble, thrust himself into her.

This time there were no caresses, no endearments - indeed, no words at all, for their mouths were otherwise occupied, lips, tongue and teeth assailing each other's skin. They tangled there on the ground, locked panting and growling in a primitive, animal-like fervour. Elizabeth was scarcely aware of her surroundings, though the earth was hard beneath her, her bed of leaves barely softening the blow each time Darcy plunged into her; and though the cold air nipped at her exposed skin, she felt it not, for even had her pelisse and the riding coat that Darcy wore not afforded some protection, she was still abundantly heated by his passion. Their ardent play did not last long, however, for once his overwhelming need to be inside her had been satisfied, Darcy spent himself with a cry, far sooner than he would have liked. He recovered slowly, as if rising from deep water, and gently pulled her skirts back into their proper place, and kissed each heated cheek, before adjusting his own garments.

Darcy wondered at the frenzy that had gripped him the moment he espied Elizabeth in the grove. He had ridden all day, stopping only at Longbourn to ascertain her whereabouts, and, having discovered that she was out walking, hoped to find her among her favourite haunts. In this he was not disappointed, for he too had fond memories of this particular grove. Yet upon seeing his wife, he had set upon her, enflamed, feeling as if he would die if he did not have her without delay. He was mortified at having not attended to her needs at all - not for privacy, or for comfort, or for pleasure - and swore to himself that he would not ignore them in the future. Gathering her into his arms, he spoke earnestly:

"Pray, forgive me, my darling. I never dreamed I would behave so selfishly. I am heartily ashamed of myself."

Elizabeth could not reply, so breathless was she. Darcy helped her to her feet and, never releasing her hand, walked with her to his horse.

Suddenly Darcy realized that, though one hunger had been sated, another remained. He had not eaten a thing since breakfast, and was ravenous. "Will you ride?" he asked, conscious that it was necessary to return to Longbourn without delay.

"No!" Elizabeth replied in an instant, for in truth she found the stature of his horse quite alarming. "I am very fond of walking," she added with a smile for his benefit.

"I know," said Darcy, matching her smile. So he took the reins and walked beside her, allowing the horse to trail along behind.

Mr. Darcy's arrival at Longbourn was cause for great excitement, though the somewhat disheveled condition of the gentleman and his wife drew some curious stares. Lydia, less tactful than most, was heard to snicker, "Lud, Lizzy! What have the two of you been at?" But Elizabeth found it easy to ignore her sister, for what was of greatest import at the moment was instructing Hill to prepare tea for Mr. Darcy, and whatever remained of luncheon. For his part, poor Mr. Darcy found himself the subject of both Mrs. Bennet's effusions and her disapprobation, as that good woman could not decide whether she was more delighted that her daughter had gotten married to such a fine gentleman, or discontented that she had not been able to involve herself in the details of the union. Considering all the other trials he had lately been through, Mr. Darcy bore it admirably.

Only a few weeks later, the entire family gathered in the church in Meryton for the nuptials of Jane and Mr. Bingley. Mr. Darcy, who had once been the means of separating the couple, did gladly stand up for his dear friend, and most warmly and sincerely wished him and the new Mrs. Bingley joy. Indeed, no one could have been happier that day than the blushing bride and her handsome groom, except for perhaps the bride's mother, who not only got rid of her eldest daughter in grand style, but also had the exceedingly good fortune to be able to show off to the entire neighbourhood not one but two wealthy sons-in-law, worth five and ten thousand a year, respectively.

Epilogue

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

As Darcy waited for Elizabeth to finish her song, he had an unmistakable sense of déjô vu. What was it about this scene that was so familiar to him? Impatiently anticipating the concluding notes of his wife's performance (who knew this piece would be so blasted long?), he suddenly realized that he was, in fact, living the dream he had had when he had dozed off more than a year prior at Lucas Lodge. His self-satisfaction increased, and he nearly laughed aloud. How mortified he had been that evening at the direction his musings had taken during that brief interlude! Yet, here he was, more content than he had ever thought he would be, for in addition to every other source of happiness, asleep in the nursery was their first child, Edward Bennet Darcy, heir to Pemberley.

At first, Darcy had shared Elizabeth's sorrow that their wedding night had not left her with child, despite Mr. Wickham's death rendering it no longer an issue of great urgency. However, after some consideration, Darcy realized it was for the best, and he thought with no little pleasure of the attentions he could pay to his wife to bring about the desired result. Their passionate frolic in the grove had occurred before he had known of Elizabeth's disappointment - and in any case he had hardly been thinking clearly at the time - but as an afterthought he was relieved that no offspring had resulted from that particular congress, for he wished not to be embarrassed when in the future he recalled the circumstances of his child's conception.

No, to Darcy's great luck, his seed did not take during any of his many amorous encounters with Elizabeth while in Hertfordshire: not at the inn at Meryton, to which Mr. Darcy and his bride wisely removed themselves upon his first arriving; nor at Netherfield Park, when that estate became available to its master and his guests; nor upstairs at Longbourn, whilst the rest of the family was occupied with the Bingley's wedding breakfast; nor - thankfully! - in that secluded little outbuilding where the Bennet's gardener kept his tools. Instead, Darcy could date Edward's conception to a night early in their return to Derbyshire.

Perchance it might have even been their first night at Pemberley, one which, with some minor exceptions - Elizabeth's lack of virginity being one of them - had been just as Darcy had once envisioned it. The nightgown he had long ago ordered in London, the day he had taken Georgiana shopping, had been finally given to his beloved, and when Elizabeth emerged from the dressing room, he had been gratified to see that she filled it out most sumptuously. Most intoxicatingly. He had gone weak with desire, for the gown had revealed more than it concealed. "I would not have believed it possible, my love," he had whispered, "but every day you grow more beautiful," and crushed her to him, his lips upon hers in a kiss that sent her reeling. The sight, the feel of her in that sheer gown had provoked him to carry her to his massive bed in a great hurry, and Elizabeth had not been of a mind to complain.

Darcy had slid his hands along the exquisite material of the nightgown, teasing the equally silky skin beneath, lingering on the areas he knew gave her the most pleasure: her supple thighs, her taut belly, her perfect breasts. And now that Elizabeth was no longer a maiden, Darcy had had no compunction against carrying out his original intention, which was to grasp the fine fabric and rend the delicate garment from bodice to hem, completely revealing her glorious body to him in one bold motion. This had startled Elizabeth utterly, but she had not for a moment mourned her fine gift, for Darcy's action had been so incredibly arousing that she could think of nothing but having him inside her without delay. He had been most pleased to oblige her, and both had found the experience - as well as the rest of that night - exceptionally rewarding.

Were that, in fact, the occasion of Edward's conception, Darcy could think on it forevermore with fondness and satisfaction, and no small measure of pride. And he did so rather often, just as he was doing now, as the final notes of Elizabeth's aria filled the music room. Darcy rose from his chair and approached his wife with a purposeful grin, and she quickly understood from his expression that whatever dulcet sounds issued next from her throat would be in a far more intimate setting. She smiled and stood up as his arms closed about her. The Darcys were one happy couple, indeed.

And what of our other acquaintances?

After the shock of Darcy's marriage to Elizabeth, Miss Bingley benefited greatly from a softening of her manner. Her newfound vulnerability made her more appealing to the more worthy gentlemen of the ton, and before the Season was over, she had secured the affections of a Mr. Pendleton, who, while neither as wealthy nor as handsome as Mr. Darcy, had the advantages of a kind heart, an even temper, and a house in the best part of Town as well as a modest estate in Northamptonshire. They were married that August.

To Lord M______'s satisfaction, his wife delivered him an heir, and while there were some who dared to whisper amongst themselves their suspicions about the boy's paternity, none was so bold as to accuse the couple of any impropriety, for they had heard rumours of the force of his Lordship's wrath, and did not care to test him. As for the marriage, alas, Lord M_______'s gratitude to his wife did not extend past the birth of the child. He withdrew from her his generous monetary support - and what little affection he had at one time deigned to grant her - and she soon took to drinking, and aged remarkably badly. His Lordship, on the other hand, continued unrelentingly in his illicit pursuits, and died a singularly unpleasant death from an affliction acquired from a "lady friend."

Georgiana came to live once more at Pemberley, and in due time was delivered of a healthy baby girl she named Anne after her late mother. Darcy was abundantly grateful that a boy had not resulted from the ill-fated union, for Georgiana had been determined to name a male child after her late husband, and - his final, noble attempts to save his brother notwithstanding - Darcy was relieved not having to dandle upon his knee a nephew named "George Wickham."

THE END

(c) 2007 Held by author.


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