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A Long Road To Happiness

Chapter Seven

Elizabeth put aside her pen and greeted her with a smile, but Mrs. Gardiner could not return it; instead, she looked upon Elizabeth with motherly concern. She seated herself beside her niece.

"Lizzy, where did you go today?" she began.

"Was my message not delivered, Aunt?" Elizabeth preferred to evade such a direct question.

"Yes, of course. Your uncle received your note, and informed me that you were a guest of Mr. Darcy's sister and were spending the day in her company. I must say that it created more questions than it answered." The look upon her face made Elizabeth understand the error of her judgment in this matter.

Elizabeth looked shameful. "I am truly sorry for that. I gave no other details because I could not imagine how I might explain such a situation."

"You uncle told me that Mr. Darcy called upon him this morning. He left about the same time as you, it seems." Her aunt was a very perceptive person, and in any case Elizabeth knew she could not deceive her.

"I suppose it would be best if I explained myself. I did not intend to cause concern to anyone." She smiled faintly in embarrassment, for she was unsure exactly how her aunt would react to one particular aspect of her story.

For her part, Mrs. Gardiner listened with care and without interruption, only interjecting "Lizzy!" when her niece revealed that she had hidden in Mr. Darcy's carriage. Elizabeth made it clear that she had insisted on accompanying him on his business to be of some help to her family. She told her aunt about his steadfast refusal of her request, and of his indulgence of her bold actions.

Mrs. Gardiner was a sensible woman. While she realized that her niece had acted recklessly, she knew that Elizabeth could never be compared in any way to Lydia in disposition and character. Even so, she had risked her reputation, and her aunt felt compelled to scold her for it. "You are most fortunate. Mr. Darcy grants you leniency that many others under his scrutiny would not receive. He has the sense and compassion to understand what motivated your actions today, but I am afraid you will lose his respect if you stray too far from what is acceptable. Take care, Lizzy, for your sister's folly now reflects upon you, and you will have to be vigilant in your conduct to overcome its effect."

Mrs. Gardiner then considered what a puzzle Mr. Darcy was. She and her husband had already noted his amiable, if somewhat reserved, personality. He had strong principles; this had been confirmed today when he visited Mr. Gardiner. He must possess some measure of judgment to have assessed Lizzy's conduct as an emotional response to our grief. And he was obviously not insulted by her imprudent behaviour, for he responded by taking her to his home to meet his sister! A most honourable and highly revealing response. Both the Gardiners realised that there was some underlying facet they were unaware of in his relationship with their niece. Mrs. Gardiner had her suspicions, but as she had never observed the two together, she could not confirm them. She thought it might behoove her to question Elizabeth further.

"My dear, I believe you have a contradictory attitude towards Mr. Darcy. You described him as full of pride, even undesirable as an acquaintance, when we visited Meryton. You had no wish to tour Pemberley with us, and yet it is clear from what occurred today that Mr. Darcy would not have objected to your visit. You felt yourself on close enough terms with him to place yourself in his carriage without his permission. And finally, you agreed to spend the day at his home in the company of his sister."

She paused to look very seriously at her niece. "Lizzy, what is really going on? I would not presume to pry into your private affairs, but I wonder if perhaps you could benefit from some guidance."

Elizabeth sighed deeply, rose from her chair and lay down across the bed. There is nothing for it but to tell her all. She used a pillow to prop her head up comfortably and prepared to tell her aunt what she had told only to Jane. She began by relating what she had learned concerning Mr. Wickham's past behaviour.

Her aunt showed no astonishment upon hearing this news; that very day, Mr. Darcy had related to her husband the unseemly history of Wickham's dealings with his sister and how his pride had spurred him to keep it concealed. He had used his feeling of responsibility for this inaction to justify his offer of help in locating Lydia. The rest of Elizabeth's story of Wickham's lies she took in stride, for she now knew all too well what sort of character he was. It did, however raise Mr. Darcy's standing further in her estimation.

Elizabeth then moved on to her general opinion of Mr. Darcy, relating it from their first meeting in Meryton. Her aunt said little to this portion of her discourse, but glanced every so often at her with a hint of an amused smile. Finally Elizabeth spoke of her visit to Hunsford and the time she spent at Rosings. She recounted Mr. Darcy's attentions in calling on her at Hunsford and meeting her during her walks in Rosings' park, and that she observed his manner there to be as it had been in Hertfordshire. She then reached the part that she knew would be most shocking to her aunt.

"He made me an offer of marriage while we were in Kent." She searched her aunt's face for signs of astonishment, but noted only mild curiosity. "Surely you must see why I refused him."

Mrs. Gardiner felt that now was the time to make some specific inquires.

"May I ask your reasons, Lizzy?"

"Well, I did not love him, and I have always said I would only marry for love."

"And...?"

"And there was his abhorrent behaviour to Mr. Wickham," she responded with a grimace.

"But Lizzy..." her aunt began.

"Yes, I know what you are thinking, but I did not...I was not...It was only later, in Mr. Darcy's letter, that he made me aware of all that had occurred between Mr. Wickham and his family."

Her aunt looked perplexed. "What letter, Lizzy?" "He wrote to me immediately after my refusal. He defended himself on the matter of Mr. Wickham by revealing their history. Upon reading this, I grew ashamed, for some of my remarks to him were very strong. I know now that I made my initial judgments about Mr. Darcy based on George Wickham's lies."

Mrs. Gardiner looked at her without speaking; she knew that silence was the best inducement for Elizabeth to continue.

"I fear that what I might next tell you will put Mr. Darcy in an unfavourable light. I have not even told this to Jane. But I would prefer you to judge matters with full knowledge. He assisted Mr. Bingley's sisters in keeping their brother from Jane! He told Mr. Bingley that he did not believe Jane held any special regard for him, and last winter he knew of her presence in London and kept it from his friend."

For the first time her aunt's face showed signs of disapproval.

Elizabeth continued, "To be sure, I believe him when he declares that he thought Jane had no special regard for Mr. Bingley, but I find the rest of his behaviour there difficult to forgive."

She started to say more when her aunt spoke up. "His actions do not seem to fit his temperament. What could he care about the state of their affections?"

"He felt that Jane was not a suitable match for Mr. Bingley, and did not want his friend to make an inferior connection."

"What? That is a conflict, Lizzy, for he then proposed to you. I am afraid this is all a bit puzzling." Her aunt was working through all of the information. "What were Mr. Darcy's objections, Lizzy? Did he state them?"

"Indeed he did, and in his proposal too! He felt that our position in society was beneath his, and of course Mr. Bingley's as well, and he made it clear that this would not matter so much if not for the lack of respectability and manners in certain members of our family."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, and Mrs. Gardiner nodded in understanding. She sat quite still with her eyes closed for a good while, and it was plain to her niece that she was carefully sorting through this new information to put it in its proper perspective.

Elizabeth lay quietly waiting for her aunt to speak. "I expect that you did not accept that explanation too kindly, " she said at last. "I admit, I did not. As I said, I replied rather cruelly, and I regret it now." She paused briefly and then continued quickly in a confidential tone. "I do not know what to make of his recent actions. He is most cordial, even kind. And attentive and friendly; you have observed as much. Why, he has come to help find Lydia when he obviously detests dealing with Wickham! And for what purpose? Aunt, he was at Longbourn with Mr. Bingley not two days ago. They visited with Jane for much of the afternoon. Both of them learned of our situation with Lydia that day. And Jane writes that Mr. Bingley stays at Netherfield and asks permission to call on her."

Her aunt looked astonished at this. "Oh? But you spoke of seeing Mr. Bingley in Lambton! Do you mean to tell me that the gentlemen were at Pemberley, and then in Hertfordshire but two days later? And now Mr. Darcy is here in London and Mr. Bingley stays to be with Jane?"

Suddenly, Mrs. Gardiner looked to be in no doubt of her opinion. Everything had fallen into place in her mind, and she set about the task of sorting out her niece's thoughts. "Lizzy, listen to me carefully, for what you have told me has given me some fresh understanding." She continued, "I do not believe these gentlemen went to Hertfordshire by mere chance. I believe they intended to call upon you or Jane, or more likely both of you. If they called together at Longbourn, it is obvious that Mr. Darcy has altered his opinion on Mr. Bingley's feelings for our dear Jane. Perhaps he even spoke to his friend about it. In any case, he seems to have made an effort to amend his actions towards them. And I suspect that when he heard of this affair with Lydia and Wickham he came straight to London, to call upon your uncle today to offer his assistance."

She paused here momentarily. "I believe he may have other reasons for these actions. There is a chance, Lizzy, that he may still be in love with you. You must stop and consider your position very carefully. Firstly, if this is the case, how do you feel about it? If you are still of a mind that you do not want his attentions, then you must not give him any further hope; to do so would be cruel and very unfair. If you are uncertain of your own wishes, then you must be guarded in your actions, but you need to allow yourself time to judge how you feel about him by spending time with him. Of course, if you have concluded that you are in love with him now, then you must do your best to confirm the state of his heart. But keep in mind, he may no longer hold the affection for you that he once had."

Her aunt moved to the bed and sat next to her niece. "Lizzy, hear me well! Mr. Darcy is not like the carefree young gentlemen you enjoy meeting at dances in Meryton. He has had to accept important responsibilities from a relatively young age, and he takes them quite seriously. Is it not perhaps possible that the traits that you judged so quickly as conceit and superiority are in fact a more reserved maturity as a result of the duties that have befallen him at a young age? Perhaps he does have a degree of self-importance. Still, it would be understandable in his position. And my dear, consider this. Every man reacts differently to being in love. Even one who holds as high a station as Mr. Darcy could find himself overwhelmed by his feelings. Perhaps his reaction was to draw back so as not to act irrationally. And Lizzy, perhaps the gentleman is just a little shy." Her aunt smiled at her now. "These changes you have noted in his manner may be intentional, and made for your benefit."

Elizabeth listened to all, then revealed, "I know not what to think at present, Aunt." Although she had found him in her thoughts with some regularity of late, she did not believe herself in love with him.

Mrs. Gardiner responded, "Be careful, Lizzy. If he should be considering a renewal of his attentions to for you, he will do so with great caution, for no doubt your refusal has not been easy for him to accept. I doubt that a man such as he is accustomed to being refused anything. Lizzy, every man has a certain degree of pride. Were Mr. Darcy to renew his suit and again receive a rejection from you, he would not raise the question a third time. Think carefully, child, and know your own heart."

Then her aunt patted Elizabeth affectionately on her arm. "We must be very late for dinner. Your father plans to return to Longbourn in the morning. Let us go and spend some time with him tonight." Elizabeth took a few minutes to freshen up, and decided to finish her letter to Jane when she retired that night. It would give her time to think on all her aunt had said.

In another part of London, although it may as well have been a hundred miles from Gracechurch Street, sat another young woman from Longbourn. Lydia Bennet was bored. She had been confined in these rooms all day, in fact for several days now, without amusement of any kind save one. And while that was most enjoyably diverting, she had grown somewhat weary of the same drab wooden walls and the same view from the grimy window. As she sat on the window seat and watched the scene on the alley below, she wondered again just when Wickham would begin arrangements for their marriage. "Dearest, what do you write? Is it plans for our wedding?" Lydia turned and watched him as he meticulously formed his words onto the page.

Wickham made as if not to hear her, which was impossible given the small size of the room and the strength of Lydia's voice. "My dear, when will we go out to shop for my wedding dress? I will need to have time for it to be fitted. We must think of it soon." Lydia persisted in an attempt to have some conversation.

At this point, Wickham put down his writing pen and reached for the decanter of wine. He refrained from answering Lydia directly, as he needed to regain his patience. Lydia was most enjoyable in certain respects, but she had other qualities that were beginning to diminish her desirability. He poured yet another glass for himself, and Lydia approached and beckoned for hers to be filled as well. She looked over his shoulder to ascertain just what it was that he wrote, but he artfully concealed the page from her view. "Lydia," he replied, "you know I only wait for some final details from the regiment before we marry. I expect them any day now. It will happen soon enough." He looked at her and smiled. "And you are correct about your dress. You must choose it soon so that it is ready for the ceremony. We shall make some time to go out, perhaps tomorrow. How would that suit you?" Wickham knew that she required reassurance about a wedding, although she had so far been contented with that much and nothing more.

Lydia beamed as a child would at the promise of a new toy. She flopped down upon the bed and continued, "Of course my father will pay for everything. We may shop for whatever I like! I am to be married, and will need ever so many new things as a married woman." She noticed he had resumed his task. "Dearest," she spoke now in a tone that she assumed, in her youth and inexperience, to be alluring. "Why do you work so hard on your letter? It would do you good to take some rest from it. Come over here to me. Surely I can offer you something that your letter-writing cannot?" With that, Lydia loosened her dressing gown so that it fell off her shoulders and threatened to continue down to her waist.

Wickham looked upon Lydia with a lust fired by her youth, as well as the amount of wine he had consumed. And as Wickham was a weak man, he easily abandoned his letter for the promise of pleasures more immediately available.

~ * ~

In yet another part of London, although it may as well have been a thousand miles away from the room where the illicit lovers were hidden, Fitzwilliam Darcy sat deep in thought, not following the conversation of his sister and his cousin. They had roused him several times in vain attempts to coax him, but had eventually given up and continued without his participation. Finally, Georgiana moved towards the pianoforte and the Colonel joined her to serve as page-turner.

Darcy observed, but did not really see them. His mind was retracing the lanes and alleyways where he had spent the day in search of Wickham. He thought of Mrs. Younge, and of the shock on her face when she recognised him in the doorway. He was most frustrated by her resolve to conceal her former partner in crime. There was no doubt that she could lead him to the pair; it only required sufficient inducement on his part. He intended to return tomorrow with enough money to loosen her tongue.

He flinched at the idea of this sordid business. It went against every principle he believed in. The beauty of Georgiana's music suddenly brought his attention back to the present. He listened to her performance with enjoyment. She had a natural talent that constant practice had polished into a genuine expertise. The parental side of his heart swelled with pride.

Darcy thought of Elizabeth in this room. She was here, today. Georgiana had told him that they had taken turns playing for each other's entertainment. He imagined her sitting at the instrument playing a favourite song of his and looking to him to seek his approval. She would have no fear of misreading it, for the way I would choose to bestow it would leave no room for misunderstanding.

He pulled himself out of this fantasy and wondered with some embarrassment how one woman was able to reduce him to such a state of yearning. He was amazed to find that he had to take several deep breaths to regain his composure. At times these daydreams seized and stole away his very ability to function. But he welcomed them, and worse still, he had no real wish to overcome the desires that overpowered him. He only longed to share them with the woman he loved. He recalled their physical proximity in the carriage, and thought how easy it would have been to simply take her in his arms and hold her against him. He imagined removing her hairpins, one by one, and stroking her hair as it cascaded down her shoulders. He envisioned her surrendering to him beneath a tender kiss upon her lips. He thought...

He groaned, and then looked quickly across the room. The pair at the pianoforte was engrossed in the music and paid him no heed. He sat for several minutes more until he was certain he had regained his composure, then excused himself to retire for the evening.

~ * ~

Back at the house in Gracechurch Street, Elizabeth had finished her letter and lay in her narrow bed, listening to the unfamiliar noises of the great City. Her room was dark, but a gap in the curtains allowed a reflection from the street to cast a strip of light across the bedclothes. This day had been filled with too many events for her to give proper attention to each. Her mind settled upon one idea, only to jump to another before she could finish her inspection of the first. She wanted to think about Lydia, about Jane and Mr. Bingley, about Georgiana, and about Mr. Darcy.

And she did, but in fragments that she could not stitch together into a satisfactory result. Elizabeth sighed heavily. Her aunt's words kept filling her head, and she had made some logical conclusions as a result. I must attempt to identify my own feelings for him. But she could not give her own feelings the careful consideration they deserved. She only knew that she could not stop the thoughts of him that seemed to invade her mind with greater frequency. No longer were they disapproving and unfavourable. Far from it. Now she imagined his voice, deep and even gentle; his figure, trim and muscular; his hair, dark and unruly; his face, most attractive, especially the dimples; his chin, strong and manly; his neck, in need of kissing... Wait! Good Lord, what am I allowing myself to think? She felt the heat of her own blushes. Surely I do not desire to kiss Mr. Darcy's neck, nor any other part of him? Or do I?

Chapter Eight

Mr. Bennet set off early the next morning to return to Longbourn. He left with a great deal of despondency, for at Mr. Darcy's particular request, he had not been informed that help was being received from another quarter. He feared that the chance of locating Lydia was growing slimmer with each passing hour. His hope had dimmed, and it was evident in the way he wore his disappointment. Both his wit and wisdom seemed to have deserted him. He appeared to have aged several years in mere days; he walked more slowly, and carried himself with the stooped posture of an old man. He said his farewells with a heavy heart and did not look back as the carriage pulled away. Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle held out hope that Mr. Darcy's knowledge might prove the key to finding Wickham, but believed that by abiding in his request to keep his assistance a secret, they were avoiding giving Mr. Bennet any false hope.

The ladies of the household then settled in the sitting room, where the windows had been opened, to enjoy the surprisingly fresh air in the City this morning.

Despite all her sorrows over Lydia, Mrs. Gardiner smiled to no one in particular, remembering with some enjoyment all that Elizabeth had made known to her last night. She reconfirmed in her mind the conclusions that she had previously reached, and felt certain that she was not mistaken. She checked her desire to express joy for either of her nieces, as it was quite a premature notion, but she had no little amount of confidence that she would be able to do just that before many more weeks could pass. She then elected to keep these facts to herself; her husband need be informed of the particulars only when something more tangible occurred.

Elizabeth sat across the table working on a complicated piece of stitchery. She glanced up every few minutes and wondered at the amused look that was spread upon her aunt's face. She said not a word about the events they had discussed in such detail last night. Unfortunately, she was forced to remove more than one stitch, as her mind persisted in straying from her work.

This did not go unnoticed by Mrs. Gardiner, who hoped that whatever thoughts were causing her niece's distraction was pleasant indeed. Mr. Darcy had not spent his morning entertaining even the thought of idleness.

He had left the house and met with his banker before many men in the City had even met with their breakfast. Returning to Mrs. Younge's residence, he quickly bargained down her demands as far as he could, then paid her half the sum they agreed upon. Darcy did not for a moment put any credence in her information; she would only receive the other half when he had confirmed that her story was true. He wasted no time in proceeding to the address that he had paid so dearly for.

Miss Lydia Bennet, on the other hand, was not occupying herself usefully this morning. She had not even made an effort to dress; she sat at the table in her dressing gown, before the scattered remnants of her breakfast. She looked with annoyance to Wickham, who was again writing his correspondence, anxious to finish it for the morning post. Lydia sighed dramatically. She took up a spoon and began to tap out a favourite jig against her teacup. Wickham stopped his writing and scowled at her; Lydia returned it with a grand smile, for she had gained the attention she sought. "My love, can you amuse yourself in a more quiet way?" Wickham inquired.

Lydia ceased her tapping. "Are we to go out today? You promised we would. And a gentleman always keeps his promises. Oh, I do so want to begin shopping for my wedding."

"Then so we shall. I will finish my correspondence so that you and I may spend the afternoon in pursuit of the perfect bridal gown." Wickham then turned back to his writing with no further comment. Since they would not be going out until the afternoon, Lydia could find no reason to bother with getting dressed, and instead took up a spot at the window to pass the time.

~ * ~

Back in the picturesque countryside of Hertfordshire, Jane had partaken of a hasty breakfast. She expected to see Mr. Bingley quite early this morning; he had offered to escort her, Kitty and Mary into Meryton so that Jane could oversee some arrangements for the household in lieu of her mother, who was still indisposed. This would be the fourth day in a row that Mr. Bingley had called upon her. As cautious as she preferred to be, she was beginning to feel some confidence in his regard.

The sound of a horse brought her attention to the window and her heart quickened at the sight of the very man she had been thinking of. Jane hurried to the door and greeted him with her customary reserved smile, then brought him inside to take a cup of tea before they set out for Meryton.

As they sat in the parlor waiting for Kitty and Mary, she noticed that he did not seem to wear his normal cheerful disposition, but had an air of anxious unease. This was enough to set Jane off on a series of doubts about Mr. Bingley's newfound feelings for her. It put her out of sorts, and although she did her best not to display it, her normally serene appearance was altered, and her mood began to take on a bit of a nervous edge. With these undercurrents present, the four set out on their walk into Meryton.

Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had set aside this morning to pay a visit to Georgiana Darcy. She was such a sweet girl, and Caroline in particular liked to consider herself an excellent example to dear Georgiana of just what a polished young lady ought to be. Mr. Bingley's sisters had yet to receive any correspondence from their brother, and hardly expected it; he was known to be very negligent in such tasks. Therefore, they hoped to gain some information from Georgiana regarding Charles' - and Mr. Darcy's - current visit to Netherfield. Their speculation had not abated, but rather swelled, on this subject. As the women alighted from their carriage and ascended the steps of the Darcy family's magnificent townhouse, Caroline Bingley could not help but wonder yet again at what it would be to call it her home.

The morning post in Gracechurch Street brought another letter from Jane. Elizabeth read it to her aunt while they drank a cup of late morning tea. It held no news of any real significance, but both women expressed their approval upon learning that Mr. Bingley had again called upon Jane and was expected back tomorrow, which would have already passed! Elizabeth wondered aloud about Lydia and hoped that Mr. Darcy would have some success today, with which her aunt concurred.

Darcy now strode through a narrow cobblestoned alley that teemed with all manner of humanity and beasts. Smells such as he had never encountered before now introduced themselves to his awareness, for the confined area was strewn with rotting produce, horse droppings, and an uncountable number of persons who seemed never to have bathed in their lives.

A pack of barefooted, runny-nosed children were chasing a cart drawn by a horse whose weeping sores were being attacked with some enthusiasm by swarms of flies. A pair of dogs broke into a fight

directly in his path, only to be stopped by a swift kick from a stout woman who had stepped from a doorway. She gave Darcy a toothless smile and a wobbling curtsy. Two men, only now weaving their way home from a night of merrymaking, jostled past him.

Darcy heard a vague "Sorry, Guv!" under the breath of one of them. Then suddenly from an upper window came a bucketful of dirty water, splashing the drunken men and initiating all manner of foul language directed skyward. Darcy filed away a few choice phrases that he had not heard before.

Up in her room, Lydia had long since lost interest in the limited view. She was considering if she should choose a gown with short sleeves, as it was summer after all, or if she should perhaps opt for the new fashion of longer sleeves. She decided that, since she had such nice arms, short sleeves would be best.

As she looked to Wickham to observe him shaving, she missed seeing a man of her acquaintance as he stepped into the building.

A knock upon the door alerted those within that lunch had come and Lydia flung open the door, as she was famished. To her utter disbelief, there stood Mr. Darcy. And he most definitely did not bring luncheon.

Darcy was greeted by a most deplorable sight; there stood Miss Lydia

Bennet, her hair in disarray, wearing no more than a dressing gown with much of her breakfast upon it. Behind her, he glimpsed a very unkempt apartment, then a half-shaven Wickham, who wore the look of a man who had just lost a hundred-pound wager. Darcy tactfully diverted his eyes from the unmade bed.

"Madam, since we last met, your situation has changed. Would you be so good as to tell me how I should address you? Is it still Miss Lydia Bennet, or may I now call you Mrs. Wickham?" Darcy said this with no attempt at kindness, and only the barest intent of civility.

Lydia was still somewhat shocked and did not respond; Wickham stepped forward to stand beside her.

"Darcy, what are you doing here?" He gave Wickham a hard, cold look.

"I am here on behalf of Miss Bennet's family, who have been sick with grief and searching frantically for her since she disappeared from Brighton." He paused for only a moment. "But my question has not been answered. How shall I address you, Madam?"

Lydia had no wish to answer until she had regained some measure of her senses. She noticed the landlord standing behind him and found enough presence of mind to say, "Well, and what of you? Don't just stand there. Where is my lunch? I am starving!"

Mr. Bingley's sisters had just sat down to luncheon with Georgiana Darcy. Caroline decided to attempt some general inquires that might satisfy her specific curiosities.

"Georgiana dear, how have you been coping? Have you been keeping busy with your music and your reading?" She replied that she had, whereupon Miss Bingley continued, "And what have you heard from your brother? No doubt he is a much more considerate correspondent than mine!" The Bingley sisters exchanged a knowing smile.

Georgiana looked confused. "Miss Bingley, my brother has not had the need to write to me, for he has been in town these three days past."

A look of disbelief passed between the sisters. "Georgiana, do I hear you correctly? Mr. Darcy is here? In town?"

"Indeed, he has come to oversee business of some urgency."

"But he only just went to Netherfield with Charles. Pray, where is my brother?"

"I do not know, Miss Bingley." Georgiana was a little frightened now by the turn in Caroline Bingley's attitude. "I must assume he is still at Netherfield."

The sisters exchanged a look of some alarm, for they were both thinking the same thought. With Mr. Darcy here and Charles left to his own devices, there is the likelihood that he will get himself into much trouble without proper supervision. As if it were not enough that Caroline had to worry about her brother cavorting around the countryside with the attractive Jane Bennet, she was about to be handed an even more alarming piece of news.

Georgiana attempted to continue. "I was so happy that Fitzwilliam came to London unexpectedly. And it was most fortunate, for I was able to make the acquaintance of Miss Bennet. My brother met her by chance and took the opportunity to bring her here. We enjoyed a lovely afternoon yesterday."

"Miss Bennet?" Caroline choked. She cleared her throat and said, "To which Miss Bennet do you refer, Georgiana?"

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet, of course."

Caroline laid her fork aside; she had completely lost her appetite. Their luncheon was much shorter than any of the party would have expected.

When the sisters were safe in their carriage with the door closed behind them, Miss Bingley turned to Mrs. Hurst. "Louisa, what are the chances of Mr. Darcy unexpectedly encountering Miss Elizabeth Bennet in the great city of London?"

"I find the likelihood of it quite remote, sister," replied Mrs. Hurst.

"As do I sister, as do I," Caroline responded dejectedly.

It was a lovely morning for walking into town, although by all appearances neither Jane nor Bingley seemed to be enjoying it much. Their conversation was lagging, and what little they said was of no consequence. Kitty and Mary had put a discreet distance between themselves and the couple, but could still be seen on the path ahead.

Suddenly Mr. Bingley spoke rather loudly into the silence. "Miss Bennet, I must tell you how much I have enjoyed these last few days. I am only sorry that I did not return to Hertfordshire sooner." He glanced sideways at her and saw that she looked down at the path, but with a smile upon her face.

This was encouragement enough and he continued, "And may I say that the time I have spent with you has been very special to me. I would be most sad to see it end."

Jane looked up with some dread of where the conversation might now be headed. "Are you planning to leave again, Mr. Bingley?"

"Why, no! What I mean is, well, I don't want it to end. I, umm, oh!" He fell quiet again as they continued to make their way towards Meryton.

Odd! Very odd indeed. Jane was trying to sort out what in the world might be on Mr. Bingley's mind when he stopped suddenly and turned to face her in the middle of the road.

He swallowed once, then plunged forward. "Miss Bennet, I love you." Almost belatedly, he took her hands and confessed, "I believe I have loved you from the first night we met. At the dance in Meryton. Do you remember?"

It was a silly question, for of course Jane remembered. But he was flustered and nervous. "Yes, Mr. Bingley, I have very fond memories of that night," Jane managed to reply calmly in the middle of what she hoped would turn into a proposal of marriage.

"As do I, Miss Bennet." He stood silent again but did not move, clasping her hands in the middle of the rutted road until a cart came upon them and forced them to step to one side. Under the shade of a broad tree, Jane smiled encouragingly up at him, waiting for him to continue.

He was about to speak when he realized he no longer held her hands in his. He took them up again; his nervousness made him feel safer looking down at them. He finally managed to say, "I would not wish to consider spending any more time without you. It is unacceptable to me. I hope it is for you too." With that, Bingley lifted his eyes to hers with open adoration. "Jane, if you will consent to be my wife, you will make me the happiest man in the world. Will you, Jane? Will you marry me?"

Her face broke into the most radiant smile; Bingley was sure he had never before seen such beauty on any woman. And her words were more wonderful than any he had ever heard. "Mr. Bingley, you do me the greatest honour. For if I was given but one wish to be granted, it would be to marry you."

Bingley brought Jane's hands up and kissed them with much affection. Jane, in turn, placed her hand upon his face, sending him an unmistakable message with her eyes. It was all the permission he required to lean towards Jane and kiss her with a passion that surprised them both. They were interrupted by the lowing of a cow in the pasture close by.

"Mr. Bingley, you must be a mind reader, for not only did you ask me the only question I wanted to hear, you kissed me exactly the way I would wish you to."

The rest of their walk into Meryton was much more pleasant; the now-engaged couple strolled, arm in arm and deep in relaxed conversation.

~ * ~

Darcy was frustrated. He was also tired and in need of a bath. All he could wish for was to get home. When at last the carriage stopped, he bounded up the stairs and continued on briskly until he reached his dressing room. He peeled off his clothes and dropped them on the floor, from whence his valet immediately retrieved them and commissioned them away to the laundry. Surrounded now by the warm water of his bath, he allowed himself to relax. His eyes closed but he did not sleep, for his mind was still sorting through all that must yet be done.

He needed to speak with Mr. Gardiner as quickly as possible. He thought of sending a note, then decided better of it. He would just call in Gracechurch Street and, if necessary, wait for the gentleman if he were not at home. He had to confess that this was not a plan without merit, for if Mr. Gardiner were out, perhaps he would be able to spend some time with Miss Bennet.

He sighed and sunk lower into the tub at the thought of her. He could not help but relive their intimate time alone in his carriage. What might have happened had I held her hand longer? He invented an imaginary scenario that was most gratifying; in it, not only was she no longer wearing her gloves and bonnet, but he was bestowing a multitude of kisses on the exposed skin of her hands and her neck once the offending garments had been tossed aside. Elizabeth was enraptured by his attentions. Of course! But in fact he knew his private desires could never have played out as he dreamed. It would be nothing short of insupportable. Darcy accepted this, which was why he could only let it happen in his mind.

He opened his eyes to stave off a more satisfying idea that began to form as he pictured himself savouring the taste of her soft lips. Damn it man! Why do you torment yourself so? He could not afford the luxury of succumbing to such imagery when there were other matters of much greater importance that demanded attention. He stood up with a heavy sigh and accepted his robe from his valet.

Not one hour later Darcy rang the bell in Gracechurch Street and was led into the study while the servant went to fetch Mr. Gardiner. He did not look forward to relaying all of the specifics, as the details were most disagreeable. But he knew Elizabeth's uncle to be a sensible man and felt certain that he would appreciate the truth regarding his niece.

Mr. Gardiner entered the study and the gentlemen greeted each other with courtesy. Darcy then wasted no time coming directly to the point. "Sir, I have come to inform you that I have discovered the location of your niece. I have seen her and spoken to her today, and to Wickham as well."

His host's face showed both relief and apprehension at these words. "As it is at this moment, they are not married. However, I feel that this entire matter may be settled tomorrow in a manner that will suit everyone involved."

At this statement, Mr. Gardiner opted for large brandies for them both and they lost track of the time as they sat in deep conversation.

Elizabeth was well aware that Mr. Darcy had called and was talking with her uncle. She had changed to a new dress that she was very fond of; now she was in the midst of having the maid rearrange her hair. She handed the girl a dark green ribbon to lace through it. Her aunt came in and looked at Elizabeth's reflection in the mirror. "Lizzy, did you know that Mr. Darcy has come?" Mrs. Gardiner was certain this fact had not gone unnoticed by her niece, for she felt confident that her current preparations were for his benefit.

"Yes, aunt. He has been speaking with my uncle for quite a long while, do you not agree?" Elizabeth asked.

"Indeed he has. I cannot help but think he has brought news about Lydia. Hurry and finish; we will wait in the sitting room and speak to them when they are through." Her aunt paused before leaving and adjusted the ribbon slightly. Then she smiled and said with some thoughtfulness, "You look especially nice today, my dear."

As planned, they waited in the sitting room, and were presently rewarded by hearing the door to the study open and the sound of the gentlemen's footsteps as they approached. Darcy entered the room first; on seeing Elizabeth seated with her aunt, he immediately greeted them with a deep bow. He moved to seat himself in the chair closest to her, keeping his eyes fully upon her person.

Mr. Gardiner related the news of Lydia, in terms more general than specific, and Darcy's attention was distracted from Elizabeth when he was called upon to answer several questions pertaining to the situation. He did so with some reluctance, as he felt this awkward topic was best left to be discussed privately amongst the family.

Mrs. Gardiner began to believe they could benefit from a change of conversation; at the same time, this would afford her niece the opportunity to speak with the gentleman about more suitable and pleasant topics. She was of a mind to help advance whatever progress might be made between them this evening.

Darcy knew not the exact direction their conversation took, for when he allowed himself the luxury of gazing upon Elizabeth again, her loveliness eclipsed all other thoughts that competed for his attention. He could not recall being asked to stay for dinner or how he had responded. However, he must have accepted, for he found himself most advantageously seated across from her in the dining room. Here, he was able to enjoy long, uninterrupted views, which he committed to memory. He completely missed the look that passed from husband to wife as the apparent attraction their guest had for their niece was laid out right before them.

He was prepared to linger after the meal was finished, and Mr. Gardiner suggested they dispense with formalities and join the women back in the sitting room. No sooner had they settled in with their coffee than Mrs. Gardiner was called to see to some specifics about the children. She astutely judged the mood between the young people and requested assistance from her husband.

This is a most welcome development. Darcy was considering what he might say to take advantage of it when Elizabeth spoke.

"Mr. Darcy, do you really believe that all can be resolved for my sister? Do you expect it will happen as soon as tomorrow?" She looked at him with an expression of complete trust and hope that his help would be able to set everything right.

He did not want to reveal anything that would hurt Elizabeth. She could not, nor would I allow her to have a full understanding of her sister's present situation. He was more than usually guarded in his response. "I do believe so, Miss Bennet. I would like to see her here with you by tomorrow evening."

Elizabeth said nothing in reply, but when he looked closely he saw she had grown quite solemn. He thought it best to change the subject. "My sister truly enjoyed your visit yesterday. I dare say she would be pleased to spend some time with you again, Miss Bennet. And I would welcome it as well. Georgiana could well do with the companionship of intelligent and suitable young ladies."

Elizabeth could not hold back her smile; in light of the ill-considered actions of her sister, this was indeed a most gracious compliment. "You are very generous, Mr. Darcy. I thank you. I would enjoy furthering our association. " She gave him a smile filled with gratitude.

Darcy had a curiosity that he wished to satisfy, but he could not think how to go about introducing the topic. He rose from his seat and paced the floor with great deliberation. Finally he sat down beside her, fixed his eyes on hers and spoke in the same manner as she remembered he had done in private conversation the day before. His bearing spoke of the same self-assurance that had resulted from their informality. "Why did you not accompany your aunt and uncle on their visit to Pemberley?" He searched her face earnestly, as if he might divine the answer from it.

Elizabeth hesitated, not knowing how to respond. This question is most unexpected. She felt herself begin to colour.

"Miss Bennet, you seem to be blushing. I hope my directness has not offended you."

"Oh no," she responded hastily, and without thinking touched his arm as if to set him at ease. She looked down with amazement at her hand as it rested against the fine fabric of his jacket, then stole a look up to find him watching her. If I didn't know better I'd think he was trying to provoke me. She answered him as she moved her hand away. "I wanted to avoid creating a disagreeable situation."

His face clouded and he moved closer. Once again Elizabeth felt the intense power of his scrutiny. She feared that, were she to let it, it could overtake her quite easily. "And in what way would your presence there be disagreeable?"

It was a most inopportune moment for her to find her eyes roaming his neck. It has all the appearance of being very attractive. But his cravat is in the way... She tried to clear this thought away, with limited success.

Her thoughts succeeded in further unraveling her composure. "Please, sir!" she said softly, "do not jest with me." She lowered her voice. "Surely you understand what I mean." Her face was close to his again, and she could not help but wonder how his lips would feel upon hers. No doubt quite pleasing, but I would imagine quite determined in their purpose...

Darcy was looking at her now in a way that left Elizabeth feeling a distinct tightness in her chest. I am unsure where his thoughts might be taking him. He continued to look upon her with intensity. "Miss Bennet, I assure you that at whatever time you choose to make a visit to Pemberley, I would not only welcome you..."

The door to the parlor swung open as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner returned. It was a most unfortunate time to interrupt them. Elizabeth and Darcy did a poor job of trying to appear as if nothing out of the ordinary had been transpiring between them, but as they themselves could not be certain, it was impossible to convince anyone else. Only a few minutes more of conversation passed before Mr. Darcy bid them goodnight.

Chapter Nine

Long after their niece Elizabeth had gone upstairs to bed, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner remained awake. He was a man who preferred not to keep secrets from his wife, and there was no detail of Lydia's circumstances that he did not share with her. Mrs. Gardiner found she was so disgusted and appalled with her youngest niece that she would be hard pressed to be polite once they brought her home. Uncaring, selfish girl! She held Mr. Wickham in even lower regard, if that were possible; the knowledge that he had never intended to marry Lydia was too reprehensible to imagine. Vile scoundrel! They could now only pity Lydia the husband she must have.

There was already an agreement to be honoured; certain particulars about the arrangements must be kept confidential at Darcy's request, although the Gardiners found his insistence on taking full responsibility much more than was required. They thought it best to wait as Darcy had suggested until they were certain that everything had been secured, then send an express to Mr. Bennet for his approval. It had required a good deal of negotiation for Darcy to finally reach an understanding with Wickham.

The reluctant bridegroom had been quite firm in his requirements and, while he did not receive anything near the sum he demanded, Darcy's funds were depleted sufficiently by the time the men shook on it. He had needed more patience than he thought he owned to deal with Lydia, who understood only that she would be married in a fortnight and would be forced to stay with her relations until then. She was lost as to the reason that Mr. Darcy had to be involved at all.

As dusk came and a light drizzle began, Darcy's carriage stopped in front of the house on Gracechurch Street. The driver retrieved Lydia's trunk as Darcy escorted her up to the door.

When she reached to open it and enter unannounced, he blocked her arm, gave her a look of disapproval, and rang the bell. They were shown into the foyer properly; Mrs. Gardiner came forward to greet Lydia, but without the same warmth that she would have shown her in the past. Out of the corner of his eye, Darcy saw Elizabeth standing at the top of the stairs. She seemed to communicate her appreciation to him with a look of gratitude. As she moved closer it was evident that her tears threatened to spill over, but she regained her composure and greeted her sister with a warm embrace.

"Oh, Lydia. We have all been so worried about you. It is such a relief to finally have you here," Elizabeth spoke with some emotion.

"Lizzy! It is good to see you too," Lydia responded. She looked back and forth between her aunt and her sister, then let a long pout spread across her face. "Well," she said at last, "I am waiting!"

"Waiting, Lydia?" Elizabeth began. "For what?" Mrs. Gardiner finished.

"For your congratulations, of course!" She looked at the bewildered women and continued, "On my engagement. I cannot believe that you would be so thoughtless!"

They looked at her with utter disbelief. Mrs. Gardiner rescued a most uncomfortable moment by turning to Darcy and thanking him most sincerely for his help in assisting her niece home. Elizabeth joined her in expressing her thanks, then both women turned to look at Lydia with the same expectation. Not only did she refuse to take their hint, but she plopped into a chair most ungraciously and announced, "Lord, I am so hungry! When will we eat, Aunt?"

They held their verbal assault upon her until after dinner that night. The burden that the family had endured as a result of her actions was repeated many times by both her aunt and her sister.

Although Lydia stayed in the room and seemed to hear their words with little comment, they believed that in fact she had hardly listened to them at all. Mr. Gardiner employed himself that evening in putting down the particulars of the arrangements that had been entered into on his behalf, then had a servant undertake to arrange its express delivery to Mr. Bennet.

Upon receipt of this express the next day Mr. Bennet read it through twice before he went out into the garden in search of solitary reflection. Here he lingered for a good long while, until by chance he saw Jane approaching. He was secretly relieved to have her company, for he had decided he ought to share the letter with her. She read it aloud at his request, and they discussed its contents and the action it required. When at last he fell silent, Jane began, "Father, we have been searching for you." She then looked about the garden.

" 'We', my dear? Who else is here?" Mr. Bennet inquired, with a gesture that indicated that the garden was otherwise empty.

She smiled and looked away for a moment. "Father," she began again, "Mr. Bingley would like to speak with you. I thought it would be best for me to speak to you myself beforehand. So much has happened that I did not know how you might react to another piece of unexpected news."

Mr. Bennet paused and looked at his oldest daughter with genuine parental love. He could fairly guess where this was leading, and only felt sorry that she had not been able to enjoy her happiness as fully as she deserved because of Lydia's misbehaviour. He resolved not to let her moment be ruined.

"Your Mr. Bingley wishes to speak with me, does he? I hope he has not been displeased with the dinners he has been taking here these last few days. No? That is not it? Then perhaps he wishes to discuss his plans for another ball at Netherfield? No, I suppose that is not it either, is it?"

"No, Father, it is not, " Jane answered shyly.

"Well, Jane, wherever your Mr. Bingley is hiding, go and fetch him so that I may hear what he has to say."

Jane quickly disappeared, to be replaced a moment later by Bingley. The two gentlemen had a most productive discussion, then shook hands and began walking together towards the house. Jane watched them through an upstairs window. I never believed that this would happen. She went downstairs to meet them with the greatest joy, finally able to let the news of their engagement be made known to all.

Although Lydia had not had much else to say, she had expressed her immediate desire to shop for her impending wedding to both her sister and aunt. She was promptly and firmly informed that she would have to wait to see what monetary arrangements her father would undertake for the purpose. Silence and head-shaking were all that met her assurances that her father must buy her whatever she required.

Mr. Wickham was to call upon Lydia late this afternoon, and most of the household expected it to be an uncomfortable affair. Mrs. Gardiner had no choice but to be away on a previous engagement, and thus Elizabeth would be the first of their family to speak to him since the disastrous events at Brighton. For her part, she could not imagine how she ought to act towards him, and said as much to her aunt, who wisely advised her to adopt an attitude of reserved courtesy. The two women agreed to allow him no unsupervised time with Lydia.

When Wickham finally did call, he showed no discomfort or embarrassment at all. He displayed every degree of charm and courtesy to both Lydia and Elizabeth, and when he suggested a walk to the park, he wisely included Elizabeth before she could raise any objection.

As their party took the long way around to reach the park, Darcy arrived again at Gracechurch Street, this time for a different purpose. He had come this afternoon to call on Elizabeth, and he had spent a good portion of the day reconfirming to himself his desire to pursue her regard and win her love. The servant who answered the door knew him now and welcomed him inside; as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were both away from home, he announced that he would inform Miss Bennet of his arrival.

Darcy was then escorted to the study and seated himself to wait, assuming Elizabeth would be receiving him momentarily. He was unaware that no one was currently at home.

The servant was unaware that Miss Bennet had gone for a walk, and he began searching the house for her. Elizabeth was relieved to see the Gardiner house just up ahead; their walk had been too long, even without Lydia's gushing over Mr. Wickham through the entire exercise. She went up the steps first and opened the door.

The three entered and gathered in the foyer; Elizabeth anticipated that Wickham would say his goodbyes, so she removed her bonnet and gloves while she stood waiting beside her sister. When he heard the sounds of people entering the house Darcy rose, expecting to be received at last; instead, he was made privy to a most offensive exchange.

First he recognized Wickham's unctuous voice. "Lydia, my dear, before I go let me correct my negligence. I have not yet told you how lovely you look today."

Elizabeth saw him smirk at her sister in a way that was hardly appropriate. "That dress is most becoming, and it does benefit to your figure, if it were possible to improve upon it." His familiarity of manner verged on offensiveness.

"Dearest, you know well all that is concealed beneath this dress. I believe you only mean to tease me!"

How appalling. Darcy believed Lydia actually thought Wickham's crude comment to be a compliment.

Surely Elizabeth does not! He heard her say quite clearly, "Lydia, watch yourself! That is most improper."

"Oh, Lizzy, you're such a prude! And you cannot tell me what to do in any case. I am to be married, and then I will rank above you. Besides, my darling husband and I have no secrets." Darcy could not know that he was fortunate to have missed the smile Lydia coyly shot at Wickham.

"My Lord, Lydia! Must I remind you that Mr. Wickham is not your husband? And the entire nature of this conversation is most unsuitable."

"Oh, Lizzy! You must be jealous, for you have only had a proposal of marriage from Mr. Collins! Do not fret, dear sister, I will teach you how to catch a handsome husband!" Lydia turned Wickham, linked her arm in his and moved to the door. "Come dearest, let us say goodbye."

Darcy could scarcely believe what he was hearing; had another word passed, he would have been out in the foyer to give his opinion of it all, consequences be damned. But there was no more conversation.

Elizabeth turned to hide her shame and saw that the study door was slightly open, although the room had not yet been lit. She escaped with a sigh of dismay, hoping the dim room would act as sufficient shelter. I simply want to hide away. She did not believe that her sister had spoken the words she had just heard. I cannot imagine what would possess her to behave in such a disreputable manner. She was equally shocked by Mr. Wickham's forwardness. It is unforgivable. "Dear God, I don't believe it," she said to herself. "Why, Lydia, why? What have you become?" She stamped her foot in frustration. "I hardly know, but I believe the two of you deserve each other. Oh! Were I able to force some sense into you I would..." Elizabeth broke down and began to cry, as much from humiliation for herself as in grief over her sister.

Darcy could see her clearly in the dimness; she stood facing a wall lined from floor to ceiling in bookshelves. She began to shake uncontrollably, and suddenly he could endure it no longer. I cannot stand back. I must...

Once he decided to make his presence known he moved towards her with some haste, and said simply, "Elizabeth." He stood close behind her; she did not turn, but her back stiffened. As he suspected, she had not known that anyone else was present.

She was unable to stop her sobbing, but she quieted herself somewhat.

"Please, Elizabeth," he whispered, so softly that she knew he was closer to her than might be prudent. She felt the touch of his hands, first caressing the back of her neck and then moving to her shoulders and following their curves down to her arms. She opened her mouth in an attempt to breathe, for suddenly she felt light-headed.

"Do not turn around, Elizabeth. If you have disapproval in your eyes, I could not bear to see it," he murmured into her silky dark hair. Darcy brought his face so close that she felt his warm breath upon her cheek, her ear, and her neck.

She was still shaking, but he could not know that it was now because she sensed his closeness and its heat inflamed her. He moved closer still, and she could feel his chest pressed lightly against her back. His hands moved slowly down her arms and finally grasped hers tightly. As their fingers entwined, she felt a delicious surge of pleasure.

Without thinking, Elizabeth leaned into him and allowed him to support her body. At the same time, she crossed her arms in front of her, which brought his arms up to surround her. Darcy rested his head lightly against hers and kissed a curl above her ear. She heard him say quietly, "Calm yourself. You must not allow this to overwhelm you. I am here for you."

With that he tightened his arms around her, pulling her even closer into his protective embrace. He held her that way for some minutes, gently brushing his lips next to her ear and scattering light kisses all about her neck and cheek. She did not realize she had inclined her head back against his shoulder, which allowed him this pleasure with greater ease. Elizabeth said not a word, but stood with her eyes closed and gave herself up to his nurturing. She did not trust herself to speak until he implored her gently, "Tell me that I have found a way to ease your distress."

Elizabeth barely turned her head and whispered against his mouth, "You have, Mr. Darcy." It only took the slightest of movements to bring their lips together. It was unclear who had taken the initiative, but the result was a tentative kiss, carefully restrained against the eagerness they both felt. They parted quickly and might have continued on had she not become worried about their detection. He did hear her say softly,

"Mr. Darcy, I must go now," as she reluctantly pulled herself away from the security of his arms. She turned and looked at him with an expression that caused his heart to jump, then lifted his hand to her face and guided it to caress her with great tenderness. He took the chance to brush away a final tear that trailed down her cheek before she walked away.

For his part, Darcy would have gladly stayed as they were forever. I would have welcomed an intrusion. He knew this was a desperate position. At least we would have reached some certainty! As it stood, there was still no agreement between them at all. Then the old doubts grasped him yet again, and with them came another thought that was more logical. This might be only another impulse on her part. Was she reacting to the moment? He feared then that he might have done the unthinkable. Did I take advantage of her in her weakness?

As he tried to make sense of all that had just happened, the unexpected occurred. He heard Elizabeth returning to the room, and was completely confused as to her intention.

"Why, Mr. Darcy! Good heavens! What are you doing in here? And in the dark!" She called loudly for the servants to light the room and make their guest comfortable, then offered him refreshment. "I was not aware that you had called. Have you come to see my uncle? I believe he is still out," she said somewhat archly.

"Thank you, Miss Bennet. I actually came to see you," he answered, with a hint of amusement in his own voice.

"Then sir, you have achieved your purpose, have you not?" She smiled at him, this time most alluringly, letting him know clearly that their previous interlude was indeed foremost in her thoughts.

Chapter Ten

They had only to wait a few minutes longer before the servants were finished with their duties in the study. Elizabeth sat on a sofa and watched their progress. Mr. Darcy sat on another sofa and watched her, quite closely. He noted that she began to fidget, tapping a single finger; it alerted him to the fact that she seemed to be experiencing some nervousness. He had not believed her to be so unaffected as she portrayed when she first re-entered the room.

When the servants left and they were at last alone again, each turned at once to look at the other. They were sharing at least some of the same thoughts, and it was impossible to avoid the current of emotion traveling between them now. It was no easy matter to extinguish the passion they had both allowed to burst forth only minutes ago. Each attempted to commence a conversation but abandoned the effort before it began. Still their eyes rested upon each other and savoured this unexpected privacy, not knowing if the other felt the same sentiments. They gave up any attempt to speak and sat in silence, each recalling how it had felt to be in the other's arms. Perhaps if neither one spoke the silence would preserve forever their unique moment of harmony, even if it never occurred again.

From Mr. Darcy's point of view this was, of course, totally unacceptable. I must have this woman. He was now more determined than ever to proceed, somehow, on a course to achieve such a result. He rose from his seat. "Miss Bennet - Elizabeth, please allow me to get you some wine. I believe you could benefit from it." He did not wait for her reply, but poured a full glass and handed it to her. She is quite flushed, even now. As she sipped it, he moved back toward the bookshelves, taking up the same spot that would forever be etched in his memory.

"Are you well? Will you not speak to me?"

"Yes Mr. Darcy, I am well," she said, still openly appraising him. Her gaze held not even a hint of demureness; the look she cast upon him was that of a woman who did not regret the degree of intimacy they had unintentionally shared.

He found this more than a little provocative, and although he was not certain that she understood this herself, he had no doubts as to its effect upon him. "I must thank you for not abandoning me in the dark," he ventured.

"That would have been quite unforgivable, sir."

He continued, "I believe, Elizabeth, that our association is now somewhat more complicated. It must be discussed. We cannot leave it as it stands." His freedom of address did not escape her notice.

"I agree with you, sir," she said evenly. With an edge of uncontrolled emotion in her voice, she confessed, "It is all so unexpected. I cannot think where to begin."

His face broke into a rather attractive smile as he suggested, "Perhaps you might start by calling me by my given name?"

"I am not sure that would be proper, sir," she mused as she admired his dimples.

"Are you not?" he replied, with a note of feigned hurt in his voice, and raised a hand to his chest as though he were in pain. "It is of no concern to anyone but you and myself. I find it completely proper, and it would please me greatly." His eyes sparkled with amusement. "It need be only when we are alone."

"Oh, and do you intend that to happen some regularity?" Elizabeth gamely teased him back, but her resistance melted under his admiring gaze and she heard herself replying, "Very well, if you would like."

A smile played upon her lips. He can be so very agreeable. He had an unmistakable boyish charm that, when in evidence, was irresistible. And the consequence of his devastatingly good looks was unavoidable. He moved to sit beside her, and again raised the topic that pursued their thoughts and made their pulses race.

"Nevertheless, I am concerned that I may have forced myself upon you in an unwelcome manner. I would never wish for that, Elizabeth." He watched her closely in an effort to detect her thoughts. "You must not allow yourself to think that."

She fixed his eyes in hers and said, "I could have stopped you, had I wished to, but it never entered into my mind to attempt it. And your description is flawed. There was no force in your actions; they were kinder and more caring than I have ever experienced." She looked down with a trace of embarrassment.

"Elizabeth," he whispered. "Look at me." He stared deeply into her eyes, took her hand and raised it to his lips, and very properly placed the chastest of kisses upon it. "I respect and admire you greatly, Elizabeth. My intentions are nothing but honourable." Then he graced her with another unabashed smile. "Not without a great deal of feeling, however!" He continued to hold onto her hand.

Elizabeth was again beginning to lose control of her ability to think clearly, but before she could reply a servant entered. "Excuse me, ma'am, a note has arrived for you." She accepted it and, after reading it, looked at Darcy keenly.

The servant was waiting for her direction.

"What of my nieces and nephews? They have eaten?" she inquired.

"Yes, and your sister with them."

Elizabeth heard his reply. Of course Lydia would wait for no one when hunger overcame her.

"They are upstairs now with their maid preparing for bed. I believe your sister has retired." No doubt to avoid speaking with me.

"Mr. Darcy, it appears that I have been abandoned this evening. My aunt and uncle have accepted an unexpected invitation to spend the evening with friends. I will dine alone unless you consent to take pity on me."

Darcy accepted the invitation with alacrity, and it was decided they would be served informally in the room where they now sat. Elizabeth gave some instructions to the servant, excused herself to put the children to bed, and left Darcy alone to contemplate the amazing events of the last hour.

He now found himself in the most astonishing of situations. He had merely hoped to pass some time conversing with Elizabeth and display his attentions to the criticisms she had made at Hunsford. To think that he had proceeded to act so boldly and yet still held her good esteem was more than he could have imagined. He wore the satisfied look of a gentleman who had just enjoyed a most delightful intimate encounter with a desirable woman. The most desirable of women. And he ventured to believe that Elizabeth had enjoyed their interlude as much as he had.

She did not slap me. She placed my arms around her. She kissed me back. That was hardly a one-sided response. I have now been invited to a private supper with her. He could only wish fervently that their affairs would continue along this favourable path.

She found him in great good humour when she returned. He offered her another glass of wine, which she declined, before taking one himself. Trays of meats, cheeses and breads and also of salads had been placed on a side table, and they both partook of an assortment of the selections. It was enough for a dozen people; the cook had been overzealous in her preparations.

Elizabeth did not allow the conversation to languish too long. "I dare say the matter from which all this began has been somewhat overshadowed."

"Indeed, Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy agreed.

She found the sound of her name upon his lips more than agreeable; when he said it, it sounded like the most beautiful name in the world.

"You heard, then, all that was said in the foyer?"

"I did," he replied, and wondered if discussing it would upset her.

"But one more word and I would have intervened." Elizabeth remained at least outwardly collected in her emotions. "It is quite distressing. My aunt and I have spoken with Lydia, and, if I may be honest, we have been less than gentle in our remarks. She listens, but it has no effect. Her behaviour remains unaltered, and we can think of nothing else to say to reprove her."

"I can well imagine, Elizabeth. I had to speak to your sister at great length to persuade her to return here." He hesitated again, for he feared that what he wished to say might be inappropriate; she urged him silently to continue. "You must not dwell on your part in this. Your efforts have been nothing but admirable. Do what you can, and then you must let it go. There will always be some whose character cannot be improved, and what they make of their lives will be of their own consequence."

She sighed deeply; she knew his counsel was sound, even wise. The more time Elizabeth spent with him, the more evident his excellent qualities became. To think of all that is within this man that I failed to see. She noticed a smile begin to spread over his face again; as she watched, it increased to a fairly evident grin. His thoughts had turned to a subject more agreeable than her sister. "Might I ask what amuses you so?"

"Pray, I think it is best I do not say," he baited her.

"Oh please, sir, I would like to know what has so brightened your face."

He passed the back of his hand across his mouth in an effort to disguise his increasing delight. He was not usually so carefree with his remarks, but tonight was special. "I was considering what your reaction must have been at the moment you received your offer of marriage from Mr. Collins!"

He had a way of rendering her incapable of speech, and he had just done it again. Her mouth flew open, and she doubted she had heard him correctly. This gave him even more reason to laugh.

"You see," he continued with a chuckle, "I did think it best kept to myself."

Finally she said, "I assure you, his proposal was quite seriously made." She gave him a somewhat perplexed look, and he laughed aloud now without attempting to hide it. She sat calmly and observed him, feeling more than a little like laughing herself.

At last he recovered some measure of control and managed to say, "I am sure that it was. I apologise if I have offended you by mentioning it!" He nearly lost his composure again, and finally said, "There is just something about it...and yet, if I may be so bold, never would there have been a more mismatched couple! I believe he is better served by his next choice; the time I spent in their company at Rosings and Hunsford confirmed that."

Suddenly it became obvious that they were again thinking the same thing, of his own offer to her at Hunsford and all that had passed between them that day. Darcy's expression sobered quickly.

Elizabeth looked at him with concern. "Oh no!" The colour drained from her face and she rose from her seat. "Please, please let me speak." But she could do no more than stare at him. "May I impose upon you to pour me another glass of wine?"

He refilled her glass, and before she spoke she took more than one fortifying sip. "I have had much time to ponder the remarks I made. They must have caused you great pain, and I wish I had never said them. I should not have spoken to you as harshly as I did. You must believe me when I tell you I am heartily sorry for it." Elizabeth's distress was clearly written on her face.

Somewhat more collected but with no less emotion, she said, "I have had many sleepless hours as a result of my behaviour that day. It is most important to me that you accept my apology." She waited for him to respond.

He rose to his feet. "I cannot accept what is not necessary," he began, but when he saw her face fall, he corrected his course. "I will most certainly accept your apology, Elizabeth." He took the glass from her and placed it on the table, then enclosed both of her hands, much smaller than his own, within his.

They found themselves quite close together once more. It was not the most proper situation for a man and a woman to find themselves in, unless the said couple had an understanding.

"If you do not mind, I would prefer not to discuss that day now." Darcy was a tall man, and she felt all the power of his height as he stood beside her. It was one more thing that reminded Elizabeth of the way he stirred her emotions. "Let us leave that for another time."

The mood had changed again, quite suddenly. The intensity that Elizabeth felt in his touch returned, rekindling all that it had already awakened in her. The heady rush of desire began to overwhelm her again. She was vaguely aware that he had gently pulled her hands around him to encircle his body.

He then let them go and brought his own hand up to her face, his touch so light that she could scarcely feel it as he traced the back of his fingers around her chin and down her neck. His other hand found her waist and pulled her firmly towards him. He looked upon her now with bold desire that fired Elizabeth to her core.

He slipped his hand behind her neck and buried his fingers in her hair, giving her a look of tremendous longing that she returned before he placed the most amorous of kisses upon her lips.

This was nothing like their earlier attempt. This was untamed and tempestuous, an intoxicating blend of vehement emotion that left Elizabeth lost in its swirling depths. She would never forget the feeling of his lips searching hers so urgently. Their bodies had closed the scant space between them, and the sensation of being against him like this was extraordinary. They pressed closer, and as her hands tightened around his waist, his kisses continued to inflame her, taunting her with her own unexpected desires.

Darcy hardly dared to want more than what he had just taken. But I do not yet have her. She is not really mine. As soon as he could find the strength within him, he would pull away and raise the subject. But not yet, not just yet.

He focused his concentration, moving his mouth slowly down her neck, where he brought his lips to rest upon the base of her throat. A gasp of pleasure escaped from her.

She heard him whisper, "Elizabeth, I adore you." Then he begged her, between kisses, "Please, Elizabeth, I have not heard my name on your lips. Will you not say it?"

He heard her call quietly, "Fitzwilliam..." and it only ignited a higher degree of passion within him. He covered her neck, her face, and her lips with expressions of his love as she repeated his name over and over again, and the sound of her voice was like fuel to him, feeding a blaze out of control.

They could not, however, continue such activity, for neither their location in the Gardiners' study nor their present lack of understanding permitted it. More importantly, the more Darcy considered all that had occurred, the more he doubted the absolute safety of his position. He was still concerned that Elizabeth was reacting to the highly emotional events of the day. I will not rush into another premature declaration without being certain of her approval. While she had not resisted his advances, he had not been able to detect any particular partiality towards him prior to their inception. Her response has been all eager acceptance. But how will she feel about all this on the morrow?

Thus it was the case that when Darcy bid her a bittersweet and highly proper farewell at the end of the evening, he left without that which he so desired, but also with an even stronger determination to pursue her with all his heart.

The family was at breakfast the next morning when Mr. Bennet's reply was delivered. The servant handed it to Mr. Gardiner; he read it with many pairs of eyes upon him, and then made it known that Lydia's father approved of the arrangements.

"Oh, I am so very happy! Now we may go and shop for all my new things!" Lydia smiled brightly and took a huge bite of a roll.

"Lydia, your father writes that he will pay for your wedding dress and no more. He believes, let me see," her uncle scanned the text and found the passage he sought, "yes, as he states, and I quote, Lydia has only just been outfitted with a new wardrobe for her trip to Brighton. As she saw fit to conclude that trip prematurely, I am of no doubt that her new clothing for that adventure has had little wear and will serve her well." Mr. Gardiner put the pages down and looked around the table.

"This is unfair!" Lydia began. "I cannot be married without a new wardrobe." She now looked to her uncle as if he ought to offer to supply her with one.

"My dear, pass me the sausage, would you please?" he asked his wife.

The platter was duly passed, and Mr. Gardiner said no more on the subject. Lydia sat with a dejected look upon her face, and even refrained from eating for a few minutes to emphasize her point.

"Oh, my apologies Lizzy, there was a note for you inside as well." Mr. Gardiner handed it down the table to her. Elizabeth opened it instantly, and as she read a smiled formed across her face.

"It is the very best of news," she cried. "Jane writes that Mr. Bingley has proposed and yesterday they spoke to Papa. They are to be married! Is it not wonderful?"

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner agreed it to be welcome news indeed, and expressed their happiness for Jane. Lydia chewed in silence and continued to pout.

Later that morning Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth sat together, working on their sewing. Lydia's mood had brightened somewhat, as Mr. Wickham was expected later, and she was playing with the children on the floor.

"Lizzy, you mentioned at breakfast that Mr. Darcy had called last evening," Mrs. Gardiner said. She was curious about the change she had detected in her older niece.

Just then, her nephew interrupted. "He did! I saw Auntie Lizzy with him last night."

Elizabeth's face turned the colour of the scarlet fabric she was stitching. She looked with alarm at the boy. Oh no! Oh please, do not expose us.

"They were eating supper in the study," was all he had to add before he went back to his game with Lydia.

Elizabeth took up her teacup and slowly sipped the liquid, regaining her quickly lost composure. Thank the heavens! "Indeed, he stayed and dined after I received your note. I hope you do not mind." Elizabeth turned to her aunt and saw that she was examining her with great curiosity.

"And how is Mr. Darcy? I hope he is well," she probed gently.

Elizabeth made no attempt to conceal her feelings now; her smile was so vibrant that it alone practically confirmed her aunt's suspicions. "He is quite well, aunt. Truly, there is nothing about him that needs improvement," came her reply, and Mrs. Gardiner was thrilled when she saw the blush of love rising upon Elizabeth's face.

Chapter Eleven

Elizabeth took her morning tea in the study to gain the opportunity for some solitary time so she might write to Jane. As she expressed her joy and offered her congratulations to her dearest sister, she could not refrain from posing questions about all the plans that must now begin for the wedding.

While in the midst of this occupation her thoughts drifted to Fitzwilliam. It is satisfying to think of him by his given name. And to know he wished it so pleased her immensely. I feel a little indiscreet with the arrangement. But she would not consider changing it. She continued on with the slow pace of her letter writing as an irrepressible smile spread across her face.

But it vanished soon enough with her next thought. What is to be done about Lydia? She had yet to speak to her about yesterday and was still unsure what she might say to her would have any influence. She tried to gather some thoughts but found she was distracted by memories of the previous evening.

All that she had previously believed, and believed with conviction, about Fitzwilliam had been proven false. Well, not all. Elizabeth knew that she had not been completely mistaken in her initial judgment of him. The pride that had been on the surface, exposed to the scrutiny of those newly acquainted with him, was real but it had concealed the complexity of what lay inside him.

What she had failed to see was the depth of the man's character. And, she now firmly deemed it was his strength of character that had compelled him to change. She knew it with the same degree of certainty that she had in her feelings for Fitzwilliam.

Her eyes fell upon the bookcase and she remembered with vivid clarity all that he had said and done while they stood there. I still dare not believe all that has happened between us. His attentions had been full of concern. I could never have imagined how satisfying it would be to be ministered to in such a way. She dared to think further. I would welcome the thrill of it all again. Her heart quickened and she raised her hand to feel it beating wildly. It was inevitable for Elizabeth to now wonder if Fitzwilliam would renew his offer. She wanted to feel with certainty that he would. But I cannot. Regardless of his open display of affection towards her, she was not so foolish as to discount the affect her words had on him at Hunsford. She assumed that he had an inclination to proceed slowly with whatever may be developing between them. But there was no doubt on her part what her answer would be should he renew his offer.

With great difficulty, she pushed these reflections from her mind to focus again on her letter. It did, however, require a greater length of time to complete the lines than would be normal; such was her concentration this day. Therefore, it was a good deal longer before she returned to the rest of the family.

Mr. Wickham was to join the ladies for the midday meal and as they waited for his arrival Mrs. Gardiner detected an uneasy air between the sisters. While these times were a strain for all the family, she was concerned that perhaps some other issue was at fault.

"How was Mr. Wickham's visit yesterday Lydia?" she ventured to her niece.

"Very nice Aunt, we walked the long way through the park," she answered Mrs. Gardiner but looked to her sister when she responded. Elizabeth said nothing nor did she even look up from her sewing, which she had resumed with some eagerness.

"Did Lizzy go along with you?" Mrs. Gardiner next asked of Lydia, whereby Lydia nodded her head and Elizabeth continued to be engrossed in her sewing. She now tried Elizabeth. "Lizzy, what of you? Did you find the walk refreshing?"

Lydia looked keenly to her sister to see what she would say and heard her reply,

"Not enough to wish repeating it any time soon. I will say I found certain aspects of it thought provoking and was enlightened by the relationship of my sister and her fiancé." With that Elizabeth gave Lydia a severe look.

"Indeed, in what way?" Mrs. Gardiner stopped her work to pay close attention.

Elizabeth smiled most insincerely at Lydia and said, "Oh, just the little nuances and subtleties that exist between the intended couple." And with that she would say no more.

The relationship of the sisters continued along in this fashion over the course of the days that followed. There were no more repeated scenes like that which had occurred, but there was only the minimum measure of courtesy extended to Lydia by her sister. This hurt Lydia as much as it was possible for her suffer, but she found it easy to forget once she was with Mr. Wickham. Shopping for the wedding clothes had left her distracted as well, and now that she was outfitted she paraded around her room in all the finery on a daily basis.

Mr. Gardiner had replied to Mr. Bennet's letter the very day it was received. There were particulars about the dischargement of Mr. Wickham's debts and of his entry into the regulars to advise the family. The letter had been received and the contents revealed to Mrs. Bennet and his daughters.

Upon hearing that the regiment was quartered in the North, she launched into a lengthy outburst bemoaning her daughter's departure for parts so distant. Then she appealed to her husband that the newlyweds come to Longbourn after the wedding ceremony. She desperately wanted to see her daughter and show off her married state around Meryton. Mr. Bennet began with a complete refusal, but came around to agreement when Jane went to lengths to persuade him to allow Lydia to be noticed by her family on the occasion of her marriage.

Mrs. Bennet then began to promote the possibility of going to London to be at the wedding, whereupon each time this subject was broached, Mr. Bennet quitted the room without comment and escaped to his study. Had he given in to his proclivity, there would not be an hour of the day Mr. Darcy would not but be by Elizabeth's side. However, with the distasteful possibility of putting himself in a social situation with Wickham, he had refrained from attempting to call on the lady as often as he would wish.

There had been an invitation to lunch with Georgiana one day. After the young ladies had retired to the music room he conveniently made his presence available to them. A most pleasing hour had been spent in her company. They had never been alone that afternoon and yet it was, at times, as if it was only the two of them in the room. There were lingering moments when their eyes met, and would not be drawn away. The language of these looks was as provocative to Darcy as was his memories of their kisses, for they held a promise of more such delights.

He had also called to see Elizabeth and they had enjoyed a pleasant walk through the park. He recalled a particular point with much amusement: As they walked along a path adjoining the lake, there was a family of ducks, the chicks nearly grown and ready to leave their parents, for it was late summer now.

"Elizabeth, I observe Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner taking exceptional care with their children. Their devotion is to be admired. The attention they give them is most uncommon in the parental context."

"Yes, parenting varies greatly with the individuals Fitzwilliam. My aunt and uncle maintain that attention from the maternal and paternal figures is of great importance and they attend to their child rearing with great seriousness." She had smiled at him when she spoke of this and then added, "I would have to agree with their approach for they are having excellent results with their efforts."

He had looked upon her with a gleam in his eye and a wicked grin upon his face and said, "I could not agree with you more Elizabeth. And, if I might say, I believe that you will one day make an excellent mother."

Elizabeth lost her capability to speak from this interchange. She was completely stunned. He then saw the colour rise on her body. It went from her chest to her neck and then all the way to her cheeks and her forehead. He had quickly diverted his eyes from her, for at that moment, to look upon certain parts of her that were flushed would have been highly suggestive. When the conversation resumed, an entirely new topic was approached.

He enjoyed reflecting on this for he found great delight in the conversation as well as her reaction.

The night at the Gardiners had been a turning point for Darcy. Every time he evoked a detail of it, it was sweet torment. Ruminations of what it would be to hold Elizabeth in his arms was no longer only in his imagination. Now, when he thought of her, there was certainty to the smoothness of her skin, the flavour of her kisses and the heat of her body. When he recalled the richness of her hair as it tangled between his fingers or the way she shivered when his lips sought hers, he knew the satisfaction of these acts. And then, he tortured himself in recalling her touch upon him and her light breath as it mingled with his and the heartwarming fulfillment he received as they embraced so secretly.

But, in fact, the meetings between them were not of the same nature as that special night. No similar opportunities had presented themselves and Darcy knew to continue along in that way would be testing his resolve. He was only human, and he rightly judged his weakness for Elizabeth to be great. What they had shared together only strengthened his love but he meant it when he told her of his intentions and he would honour his word. He did not want her reputation compromised.

And yet simply stealing away and seizing time alone seemed innocent enough; they were harming no one with a few stolen kisses. An engagement would go a long way in easing any furore over such activity. Indeed, it was his wish. And a marriage would allow me to lock the door and send everyone away, except Elizabeth! And that was his goal.

With all that had happened, Mr. Darcy had come to a conclusion. My limit has been reached. He could endure no longer without Elizabeth as his wife. He had determined to wait only until after Lydia and Wickham's wedding and then again request his lovely Elizabeth's hand. I believe I shall ask her before she can leave the church.

It was not possible for him, however, to avoid the occasion to dine one evening with Caroline Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, as their presence in London could not be entirely ignored. Thus they were received one evening at Mr. Darcy's home. Mr. Darcy was of a mind to raise a particular subject and waited until all were enjoying the fine meal that was prepared. "I am afraid I have been remiss in my congratulations to your brother," he began, for Elizabeth had informed him of the engagement between Miss Jane Bennet and his good friend.

Caroline Bingley looked upon him with some confusion, "Why Mr. Darcy, whatever do you speak of?"

"Now Miss Bingley, you must be teasing me. Surely you know to what I refer." But he suddenly realised that she might not be unaware of the state of her brother's affairs.

"Sir, I am afraid you have the advantage over me. Pray, what is it? This is most mysterious, is it not Louisa?" Caroline found this to be quite amusing. But when Miss Bingley looked to her sister, she saw comprehension dawn on her face and with it a look of mortification and dejection.

Caroline looked to Mr. Darcy again and tried to remain composed, "Sir, enough of this jesting. I insist you explain your comment."

"I must apologise, for when I first spoke, I assumed you to be informed. I now realise that this must not be the case and that your brother has once again neglected his letter writing duties. I suppose one cannot blame him in this case for his distraction must indeed be great." He then looked to each of his guests before he announced, "It is not every day that one becomes engaged to Miss Jane Bennet."

There was an inability to speak from both sisters and while Mr. Hurst was silent, he continued to consume his meal without allowing any interruption. The sisters stared awkwardly at one another and found no words that would be appropriate to voice their thoughts at this moment. Mr. Darcy then continued on in conversation with Georgiana until his guests again ventured to participate.

The mood of certain members of the party had deteriorated considerably, and an early night was made of the evening.

Enough days had passed that there remained but one before Lydia's wedding. When they were assembled for their morning meal, Mrs. Gardiner ventured to Lydia about her plans with Mr. Wickham, for they had kept to the agreement that the couple would spend no time alone, and Mrs. Gardiner was to insure oday was no exception. Lydia then let it be known that Mr. Wickham would not be calling on her today as he had much to do with finalizing his preparations for departure up North to meet his new regiment. She intended to pack her trunks this morning so all would be in readiness for tomorrow. This news was initially met with no mistrust by any of those who heard it.

It was not until later in the afternoon that Elizabeth began to ponder some specifics. They came to her without any solicitation on her part; indeed the doubts they produced were most unwelcome. Once her concern was alerted she quickly sought out her aunt and found her supervising the play of her children.

"Aunt, please I must speak to you with some urgency. It concerns Mr. Wickham," she spoke with a measure of distress in her voice. "Lizzy, what is it? I am always on guard when it comes to any dealings with that man."

"While I cannot give any evidence, his actions worry me." When her aunt looked unclear about her meaning, she continued, "It is only speculation, but, oh Lord, dare I say, I think that perhaps Mr. Wickham has the intention of abandoning Lydia."

Her aunt's face immediately took on a grave look. "Be careful Lizzy, for this is indeed too serious to be imprecise. Tell me exactly why you have come to this assumption." With this her aunt clasped Elizabeth's hand for the possibility was too much to bear.

"Yesterday, Mr. Wickham called very early. Do you recall? He was gone before morning tea. This was unusual; he always makes his visits later in the day and he usually extends them for lengthy periods. Yesterday's visit could not have been more than half an hour." Her aunt listened with growing concern. "I overheard his remarks when he said his goodbyes to Lydia. Both his words and his conduct were altered."

Mrs. Gardiner interrupted her here to interject quickly, "In what way Lizzy?"

Elizabeth looked to her knowingly and continued, "He has always spoken in a rather forward way to Lydia, one which I find somewhat inappropriate. Nevertheless, Lydia finds it charming. Upon his departure yesterday, he was formal, to the point of being rather distant and his words were odd."

By now her aunt was shaking her head for she knew that she would not like whatever was about to be disclosed to her.

"Let me recite this as precisely as I can, for I do not wish to make a mistake," and then, with great concentration, she slowly recited Mr. Wickham's parting words.

I must go now, Dear Lydia.As it is said, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" and this moment is indeed that.When we meet again, we shall regard each other very differently,for our lives are at a crossroads, which will take us to new beginnings.I can only say to you, my wish for the future, for you and I,is that our choices bring us happiness. Good Bye My Dear.

"When I heard him speak, I assumed he was just rambling on with more of his gibberish. I thought it a rather silly speech. But now, I see it could have a very different implication."

Mrs. Gardiner sat still and spoke not a word. Her eyes rested upon her children. "If he intended to flee, he would by now have more than a full day's advantage. And, if we did not suspect, he would be gone a full two days before we would discover it tomorrow." Elizabeth paused, for all she said grieved her. "Perhaps I make too much of it all. My imagination is far too active, do you not think?"

Mrs. Gardiner looked grimly at her. "Indeed, your imagination may be working at a pace too great to suit us, but I think it best, because of our duty to protect Lydia, to insure Mr. Wickham has not left her." With that she rose, called for the maid and explained that her children would need to be supervised this afternoon as she and her niece had urgent business taking them away from the house. They spoke not with Lydia, leaving the maid to pass the message on to her. Within five minutes they were out of the house making great haste down the street towards Mr. Gardiner's warehouses.

Once Mr. Gardiner had been located, the story was quickly told to him, and it was agreed that they ought to confirm Mr. Wickham's whereabouts. But, while Mr. Gardiner had a general knowledge of where his rooms where, no specifics had ever been passed on to him. So, the group hastened in Mr. Gardiner's carriage to Mr. Darcy's townhouse as they found it necessary to garner the information from that gentleman. They could only hope he was at home.

Mr. Darcy was exceedingly surprised to find the assemblage that had gathered in his foyer. He allowed his eyes to meet Elizabeth's and perceived immediately that all was not well. Then he detected the mood of the whole party. Even so, he offered them refreshment, which was declined quickly by Mr. Gardiner, before the purpose of their visit unfolded. Elizabeth was made to repeat her speech, which she had already delivered twice in the course of an hour. She did it with anguish for she had already some premonition as to how this day might end.

Mr. Darcy received it in much the same way as her Uncle. And he agreed that it would be prudent to ascertain that Mr. Wickham was honouring his agreement. After he had hastily grabbed his walking stick and hat, the party descended the steps of his townhouse. Mr. Darcy politely took Elizabeth's arm to guide her and asked discreetly, "Are you well Elizabeth?"

Her appearance was more than subdued; she seemed wholly dispirited. She nodded her head as he handed her into the carriage.

Instructions were relayed to the driver whereby the carriage took off with some speed, now with Mr. Darcy in the party sitting quite comfortably close to Elizabeth. He gave her more than one look of open concern while they rode through the streets. When they at last stopped, the curtains were drawn and the ladies were admonished not to leave the safety of the carriage.

The driver was instructed to guard the ladies through flood, fire or famine and then Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner dashed down the lane with great speed.

The landlord lazed in the doorway of his establishment and recognised the polished gentleman that was fast approaching him. He straightened up to greet him but before he could utter a word, Darcy was upon him.

"We would like to speak with Mr. Wickham. Is he in his rooms?" Mr. Darcy was not going to wait for a reply; he began to enter the building. But the words of the landlord stopped him. "Mr. Wickham? No Sir, he was gone yesterday morning. Bright and early. All his things gone with him. And before I could collect his back rent. He hadn't come back and I say good riddance." The man brightened somewhat when Mr. Darcy flipped a coin to him.

"Thank you Sir, thank you very much indeed," the landlord called.

As they made some haste back to the carriage, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner exchanged some remarks about Mr. Wickham that would have been highly improper to be repeated in front of the women.

Chapter Twelve

The driver had taken his duties to heart. As the ladies waited within the safe confines of the compartment, he had shooed away many a beggar child and curious passer-by, all of whom tried to get a closer look at the carriage or the occupants within. They were certain it was the property of someone wealthy and important; they witnessed the imposing men as they had hurried away.

The gentlemen were first seen returning by Mrs. Gardiner, who was looking for them through parted curtains. She spoke ominously under her breath, "Oh no!" She knew that Wickham had not been found simply by looking at the men.

Elizabeth's attention had been directed out of the carriage window on the other side. She had been absently watching as some men attempted to load barrels onto the back of a cart. But upon hearing her aunt, she looked the other way. Her heart fell for there could be no mistake in interpreting the look that her aunt gave her.

At that moment a most unpleasant feeling begin to overtake her, one of equal disbelief and hopelessness. She rightly sensed that this was plunging her into a deeper state of grief than she had experienced upon initially hearing of Lydia's plight while she was in Lambton.

Darcy could be heard instructing the driver once again. Then the carriage door opened and both gentlemen quickly climbed in. Before anyone could speak, there was a lurch forward and they were off.

"Oh Lord! Is it true then? Mr. Wickham is gone?" Elizabeth first searched Mr. Gardiner's face before turning to Mr. Darcy. Neither gentleman spoke.

Mr. Gardiner gave a curt nod and looked upon his wife with the bleakest of expressions. Darcy's face was stern and expressionless masking the rage that was seething within him. He picked out a spot across from him, above Mrs. Gardiner's head and simply stared.

Elizabeth began to pull on the finely stitched edges of her handkerchief. Very soon she had broken a thread and was loosening it to making the end unravel. Her brow was creased in worry as she looked from one to the other in the carriage compartment.

It was not offered up where they were going and a tense silence descended over them. This time the ride was short, with one or two quick turns before stopping in the same general area, only a few streets down. The gentlemen alighted without ceremony and the women saw them get their bearings before Darcy directed Mr. Gardiner which way to proceed. Then the carriage door was closed and Elizabeth and her aunt were once again left alone.

As the gentlemen hastened down another lane, they brushed past two young women in dresses that were perched quite hazardously along the edges of their shoulders. The 'ladies' called out to them as they went past but their offers were fully ignored. It was to Mrs. Younge's house they went to try and obtain any information that she would release.

Discovering the correct doorway, they rapped loudly and pushed their way inside when the door was cracked open. Mrs. Younge stood off in a dim hallway giving the appearance of a trapped animal. They bombarded her with questions of the scoundrel Wickham. She was unhelpful in the extreme, professing no knowledge of his movements or whereabouts. As they knew her to be proficient with her lies, the gentlemen elected not to believe her and spoke to her as they would not to any other woman of their acquaintance. It was made very clear of the consequences that would come about if it were discovered she was concealing him.

Still, she maintained her story and the gentlemen had no choice but to depart without gaining any information.

As they made their way back to the carriage, the 'ladies' in the lane goaded the gentlemen with vulgar promises, but were again rebuffed, as they swept past. More malevolent comments about Mr. Wickham were traded back and forth between the gentlemen as they began walking back and this time the man's poor mother was unintentionally slandered in the process.

Once they had begun to make their way back to Mr. Darcy's residence, the mood amongst them had descended even further, if it was possible. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged their dismal thoughts without words, so well did they know each other. Darcy retained his impenetrable mask to disguise his fury. Elizabeth did not need to question the gentlemen; it was only necessary to read their faces and ascertain the facts. She challenged the events of the last hours with incredulity. They are not to be believed. And yet, there was nothing else she could do but accept the nightmare that had unexpectedly been thrust upon her, her sister and the rest of her family.

Elizabeth withdrew into herself and gradually began to fall apart. The confined space of the carriage began to close in around her and she found it difficult to breathe. She endeavoured to hide this from the party by tucking her shaking hands under her legs, but it was apparent by the strain upon her face that she was experiencing some trauma. No one as yet understood the depths of her malice.

The obvious course to proceed with was to discuss the possibilities and the scope of action that might be taken. When they reached Darcy's home, Mr. Gardiner agreed to his suggestion to come inside where they might discuss matters further. At first Mrs. Gardiner felt the ladies should return to Gracechurch Street, but immediately that was vetoed for their anguish would be impossible to disguise and Lydia would be alerted immediately to the trouble.

So, as Elizabeth remained silent, it was settled by the other three that they should accompany the gentlemen inside. Darcy offered her his arm as the climbed up the steps to the entrance. As she slipped her hand through he felt her fingers tighten against him. He hand went to hers, covering it in a gesture that went entirely unnoticed by her. She set her concentration upon watching the steps as she took them slowly, one by one.

When they had gathered in the foyer, the butler approached Darcy and inquired about opening the main drawing room to receive the guests. Darcy made it known they would retire to his private rooms; he did not want to cross paths with his sister, for she had no knowledge about the business with Wickham and it would surely not do her any good to discover the situation.

They were led down one of the many hallways that wove through his house. He paused outside a doorway, politely allowing his guests to enter before him. Once they stepped inside, it was evident that this was his personal domain, a kind of combined study and library that had the signs of his daily use throughout. There were well-worn leather chairs and sofas arranged around a carved marble fireplace. A stack of books, each book-marked by the reader, was haphazardly arranged on an end table. Several broadsheets were on the seat of one of the chairs.

Correspondence, both opened and unopened, lay in neatly divided piles upon a beautifully inlaid desk that stood in the opposite corner of the room. Thick carpets covered the floor and bookcases lined the walls, which were rich, dark wood; the entire atmosphere was intimate, secure and masculine.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner took it all in and felt they knew Mr. Darcy better from this rare glimpse into the realm reserved for his privacy. But Elizabeth could not. Her distress had not decreased and she was barely aware of where she was. As her thoughts repeatedly anguished over the matter at hand she detected in herself signs of heightened emotional torment. She wished it were not so, but her attempts to reverse the affect that Mr. Wickham's disappearance had on her were in vain.

Darcy had succeeded in regaining some measure of his faculties that had been lost to him while in the carriage; he now attempted to make Mrs. Gardiner and Elizabeth comfortable as he fully understood the angst they must be experiencing. Each was pressed to have some wine.

Elizabeth suspended twisting her handkerchief long enough to reach out and accept the proffered glass. But she was unable to hold it so severely were her hands shaking.

"My God, Elizabeth, you are quite ill!" he exclaimed with no regard to the familiar form of address he used in the company of her relatives. Her condition elicited some great concern from Darcy. He quickly took the glass away and sat close by her, taking her hands in his to stop their shaking. He noticed that they were extremely cold. "Mrs. Gardiner, please, will you hand me that blanket?" Mr. Darcy indicated to a deep blue cashmere rug that was folded across the back of the one of the sofas.

He placed it around Elizabeth's shoulders and wrapped her up. He then took up her hands again as he studied her in mute fretfulness.

The Gardiners traded looks across the room that displayed astonishment at Mr. Darcy's words and actions. But the welfare of their niece was foremost upon their minds and they now approached her and looked upon her with open concern. Mrs. Gardiner had moved to the other side of Elizabeth and placed an arm around her shoulders. She saw no response from her and the shaking continued.

It was clear Darcy was becoming quite agitated. Seeing Elizabeth ill affected him to the highest degree. He stood up and began to pace as he thought of what he might do. He saw she still shivered. After studying her for some moments Darcy insisted to Elizabeth's aunt, "I know not what to do madam, what might relieve her distress?"

"Lizzy? Are you all right, dear? Come now, this will all be sorted out. It is not for you to become so upset," Mrs. Gardiner looked at her with some concern before she rose and went to her husband's side. She was about to suggest that they return home with their niece when Elizabeth spoke.

In a voice so small that they could barely hear her, she said, "I know, but I cannot...." She broke off there and began to cry. Not with a wailing or a great burst of emotion, but in silent tears that began to roll from her eyes that increased in volume and would not cease to flow.

Darcy had returned to her side, and he had no sooner settled next to her before Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner saw Elizabeth's hand reach out from under the blanket and find his. Another look passed between husband and wife, this one questioning just what the current status was between the pair. Her suffering was weighing heavily on the man who loved her. He automatically took out his crisp handkerchief with his free hand and dabbed at the tears on Elizabeth's cheeks, unaware and unconcerned as to how this might look to the Gardiners. His only thought at that moment was to comfort Elizabeth.

She raised her eyes and they looked at each other. Elizabeth leaned intuitively into him as he opened his arms and held her close. Darcy began to speak softly to her. Only Elizabeth heard his soothing words. It was apparent that his ministrations eased her distress to some degree; she had stopped crying.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were extremely worried about their niece. She was not prone to such degrees of emotional expression. They were also most seriously interested in that which was exchanging between her and Mr. Darcy.

Once again husband and wife shared a silent thought. This one was of understanding as they watched him console Elizabeth with a kindness that spoke volumes of his feelings for their niece. His worry over Elizabeth was extreme, to the point of placing himself in an amount of agony. His gestures and remarks to their niece confirmed that he held a deep attachment for her and that they shared a certain closeness that was more that just friendship. The man's gallantry was evident and yet they knew it was not without some audacity that he proceeded with his ministrations.

Darcy was lost to all else but Elizabeth's well being. He repeatedly found himself drawing back from a natural urge to quietly stroke her hair or kiss the top of her head. He knew his actions to be somewhat daring and he could only hope that the Gardiners would view it as chivalrous rather than disrespectful.

The protective and responsible side of Mrs. Gardiner emerged and, as heart warming as it was to observe the gentleman clear partiality for Elizabeth, she now stepped in. "I believe Mr. Darcy that Lizzy has experienced some degree of shock from this business. It might be best if we were to take her home," she said looking towards her husband for his acquiesce.

Mr. Gardiner was still considering what had been disclosed by Mr. Darcy's actions towards Elizabeth. Whatever else might happen tonight, he wasn't leaving until they had a talk.

Mr. Darcy's attention returned to Elizabeth and they observed that he succeeded in getting her to nod her head in agreement to some suggestion he made. Mr. Darcy then announced, "I have offered the use of a room for Miss Bennet to rest. She has agreed to let me call for my physician. Perhaps we could let her retire while we wait and talk of the business at hand?" he offered. "I do not think it would be best for her to go anywhere just now. She is happy to rest upstairs where she can recover. Does this meet with your approval sir?" he asked Mr. Gardiner.

Neither Mr. Gardiner nor his wife could find any fault with this proposal. They observed Mr. Darcy address Elizabeth and within his deep voice was the gentlest of tones. "Would you like to rest upstairs for a while now Elizabeth?"

Not only had he again addressed her by her Christian name, he had quite smoothly taken over in matters concerning their niece's needs. While he had petitioned for their consent, it almost seemed as if Mr. Darcy would carry on whether he received it or not.

There was a very slight nod of her head and he was pleased to hear a faint, "Thank you Fitzwilliam."

Darcy continued, "Elizabeth, I'll be back in a moment." He quickly took charge of the situation and summoned staff to prepare a room. When he returned two maids who were to assist the ladies with whatever they might require trailed along behind him. Darcy would not permit anyone else to help Elizabeth upstairs; he insisted upon doing it himself. Had they been alone, he might have swept her up in his arms and carried her. As it was he placed his arm around her and supported her weight as she walked at a careful pace up a grand staircase to the second floor.

Mrs. Gardiner was hovering at her other side, prepared to offer further assistance should her niece require it.

Elizabeth could scarcely believe that she was now being taken upstairs to a bedroom in Mr. Darcy's house. Yet, as unlikely as it seemed, she could not find the strength to object nor the will to argue about it. With the strong arm of Mr. Darcy around her and her aunt on the other side, she walked slowly, still shaking, up the stairs. She was thankful to see that she was led to a room very close to the top of the stairs for she believed herself in some threat of collapsing if she did not lie down soon.

When they reached the door, Darcy instructed the maids, "One of you will stay with Miss Bennet at all times when Mrs. Gardiner returns downstairs. I want to be called immediately if there is anything that is required." He grudgingly released Elizabeth, bowed to Mrs. Gardiner and disappeared the way they came.

As the maid turned down the bed, Mrs. Gardiner wrapped her arm around Lizzy to steady her. Then, with their help, her boots were removed and she was assisted under the covers, fully clothed and with the cashmere rug still around her. One of the maids brought a carafe of water and some glasses to the nightstand and then disappeared through the dressing room door.

Mrs. Gardiner smiled said, "My dear, it would do you best to close you eyes and rest. You have been greatly shocked by these events."

Elizabeth tried to give her aunt a smile but she could not quite form one.

"Since you find yourself somewhat speechless, perhaps now would be a good time to make an observation." Her eyes were twinkling and she spoke in a lowered voice to avoid being overheard. "I am greatly impressed by Mr. Darcy and his actions towards you Lizzy. He cares for you deeply and desires to please you. I suspect there is nothing he would not do for you! There is no doubt that he is a man severely in love. I believe that he could make you a very happy woman." Her eyes narrowed somewhat although the sparkle in them remained. "I also believe that there has been some progress in your relationship with him than you have kept to yourself. I am pleased that you have discovered your feelings for him, but you must be mindful of the consequences of indiscreet behaviour. I know you are a intelligent young woman and will act accordingly."

While Elizabeth was being seen to upstairs, Mr. Darcy swiftly penned a note to his physician and had it dispatched immediately. Then it was left to the two men to endure an uncomfortable silence that lead to an awkward exchange.

Mr. Darcy began with, "Mr. Gardiner, sir, I---" but then he looked to the gentleman and knew not how to smoothly broach the subject. This was coupled with a case of nerves that had unexpectedly appeared.

Mr. Gardiner was compelled to try. "Mr. Darcy, sir, I believe that ... there ... is ... something---" he sputtered.

"Mr. Gardiner," he tried again, gesturing with the wine decanter. As he refilled his guest's glass and gained some seconds to regroup his thoughts, he began again hesitantly, acting against all his instincts to guard his privacy. "Sir, you may have noticed some degree of familiarity that exchanged between your niece and I." Any unrealistic hope that it might have slipped by Mr. Gardiner was dashed when he saw the look on the gentleman's face.

"Indeed Mr. Darcy, that was quite clear. As was your genuine concern for her well-being." Mr. Darcy tipped his head in deference to the observation. "However, unless I am mistaken, you have come to no understanding with Elizabeth and as such your actions could be deemed as improper. Perhaps you might correct me if I am wrong about your relationship."

"No sir, you are quite correct. But may I say, in confidence and in my defence," at with these words Mr. Gardiner nodded an agreement of secrecy, "that the only obstacle that has prevented me from securing your niece's affections and coming to an agreement is this business with Wickham. I have earnestly wished to speak to her about this matter but felt the timing was most inappropriate."

"I fully understand your logic, sir; there is no need to defend yourself to me. But if you feel the way you profess, which is worse? To proceed under less than ideal circumstances or to jeopardize Elizabeth's character by impulsive displays that, if I may be so bold, are acted upon first and thought about afterwards?"

"You are correct again. I greatly admire and respect Miss Bennet and I have no wish to put her reputation at risk. My actions were possibly careless in that regard. But my intent was genuine sir. I was, and am, worried about her." He looked earnestly towards the doorway that Elizabeth had left through as he rubbed his fist against the grim expression upon his mouth. When he again took up the conversation his voice was full of frank sentiment. "Sir, be not concerned that any actions like those you witnessed tonight would be repeated at any time in public. I would not normally consider such informal relations at all but that my concern for her superseded my better judgment. My intentions are nothing but honourable."

Would he not consider repeating such relations with Elizabeth? As Darcy spoke, he felt the paradox between his admission to Mr. Gardiner and his actions. The night he had shared with Elizabeth at the gentleman's home was thrust into the forefront of his thoughts. They had been in much the same predicament on that evening; Elizabeth had been highly upset and he had reached out and comforted her. He believed Mr. Gardiner would view the events of that night even more severely than those he witnessed today. And yet, nothing could be more truthful when he said his intentions were honourable.

Mr. Gardiner smiled into his glass to see the great man squirming uncomfortably before him. It was not his desire to make Mr. Darcy uncomfortable; he only wanted to ascertain if the perceptions that he and his wife held were true. But I see no reason why the man should not contemplate his actions towards Lizzy. It can only serve to remind him of her vulnerability. And along with it put some caution into his relationship with her. "That, sir, was never in doubt. I'm certain I speak for Elizabeth's father as well as the caring uncle I am when I say that, for everyone's sake, it would be opportune to see this settled sooner rather than later." He observed Mr. Darcy for signs of assent.

"Indeed it was my intent to attend to these matters tomorrow, immediately following the ceremony. However, now it seems that my plans must once again be put aside until Wickham is found and made to honour his agreement."

"Mr. Darcy, sir, surely you must realize there is only so much you can do. You have long surpassed any responsibility that you might have held in this matter. I can see no reason for you to inconvenience yourself any further."

Mr. Darcy smiled ruefully and confided to Mr. Gardiner, "Were I able to feel that way sir, I would drop the matter now. But, it simply is not the case. I will hold myself personally responsible for finding the man and, if necessary, dragging him to the church by the scruff of his neck. Only then will I be freed of the duty I so strongly own."

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