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A Long Road To Happiness

Chapter Nineteen

Mr. Bennet had posed the correct question to Darcy about his visit. There had been but two choices from which to pick, and he had quickly surmised that the man had travelled to Longbourn for a specific reason: either to ask Elizabeth for her hand or ask her father for it.

Although there was a chance that Darcy had already spoken to Elizabeth in London and then travelled to Longbourn to speak to him, the way he had cast his eyes about upon his arrival at Longbourn led Mr. Bennet to deduce otherwise. What he learned from the gentleman, though, was that Darcy had travelled to Pemberley more than two weeks ago. As such, he had not seen Elizabeth at all.

Therefore, a good guess had been made, and a more reasonable one, for in any case he could not have come out and told Darcy he believed him wanting to ask for his daughter's hand. Mr. Bennet enjoyed studying people. And Darcy was proving to be a most interesting subject. His reputation among the populace of Meryton had certainly gotten off to a dubious start. And Mr. Bennet had really paid the man little heed until recently. Now, to suddenly find him intimately involved with his family on several fronts, he was happy to acknowledge that he liked him. To quite a degree. He was a straightforward man with a very reserved nature, which had obviously contributed to earning him the mistaken label of being full of pride. Mr. Bennet found him honest and recognized that he held strong values that he did not just speak of, but lived by.

He was reminded of what Elizabeth had said in his study about the man: 'He is the very best of men'. At the time he had thought her comment made from pure emotion but he now recognised that his daughter's very good judgement and common sense had been speaking that day. Mr. Bennet chuckled in anticipation of a most interesting evening.

It was sheer disbelief that hit Darcy with a monumental force when Mr. Bennet had told him of Elizabeth's trip to London. From the height of hope he had fallen into a wretchedly woeful state. But disguise was his aim and he had tried to rally to avoid any appearance of being nonplussed or despondent. He knew not how well his subterfuge had been.

He had retired to freshen up, and some time alone had proven a useful tool in pulling his emotions together. An effort to understand the unusual mood that had overtaken his disappointment was attempted as he had earlier stretched out in the bath. There was a measure of disbelief and a tinge of dismay over all the difficulty in getting here only to be beaten again by bad timing and fate, which had now turned into his nemesis. As the steam had curled up and surrounded his neck and face, he had closed his eyes to the frustration and tried to let it go.

Now, as the colours of the evening sunset were framed in the window, Darcy stood buttoning a fresh shirt in an upstairs room at Longbourn. The air had grown cooler, and he moved to close the window, thus bringing the wispy curtains to stop their light frolic in the evening breeze. Certainly Darcy had never presumed to be in the position in which he now found himself. It has left me somewhat unsettled. He was expected downstairs momentarily to sit and eat with Mr. Bennet, and also two of Elizabeth's sisters, whom he had never spoken to before. Far more astonishing, he was spending the night at Longbourn. I'm not even sure whose room this is. There was a definite feeling that Elizabeth should be here when he was in her house. He felt almost as if he was skulking about behind her back. Overall, as he watched his reflection in the mirror, he judged his mood was now undoubtedly anxiousness.Darcy's reaction to all of this was to tie his cravat a little too tight. He decided it was time for him to be going downstairs.

As Bingley was the only man dining in his townhouse, there was no separation of the sexes after dinner. He readily escorted Mrs. Bennet on one arm and Jane on the other into a more intimate room off of the dining room that was used for entertaining smaller groups. It was, however, still grand by any standard. A pianoforte could be found in the corner and, as they had on most evenings during their stay, Elizabeth and Miss Bingley took turns at the keys. Elizabeth would usually play first as Miss Bingley preferred the opportunity to outdo her afterwards. On this particular evening, they switched their established order, and while Miss Bingley played, Elizabeth sat by her mother, engrossed in a book. Charles and Jane sat away from the others and this afforded them a chance for some private conversation.

After some discussion of the weather and the health of each other, Jane's fiancé lowered his voice to avoid being overheard. "I understand that Mrs. Tate escorted you through the house."

"Yes, Charles. She was very thorough and most helpful. It was considerate of you to suggest it."

"You may go to Mrs. Tate with any sort of question, Jane. She is most reliable and has been with our family since I was a boy." Jane smiled in understanding and Charles continued, "And how did you find everything? Was it to you liking?"

"Oh my yes! Need you even ask such a question, sir?"

There was a silence between them and then he continued, "So, she showed you the master suites then?" He was obviously trying to come around to some specific topic and was having some trouble in doing so. "Yes, Charles." He again paused before asking, "And she spoke to you about my instructions?" Jane was certain he was uncomfortable with this subject. His eyes did not meet hers but they scanned the room as if it held some great interest for him.

"Which instructions might those be, Charles?" she teased.

His checks reddened slightly and he answered, "Regarding changes to the room, Jane."

"Oh, of course she did, Charles," was her reply. He rallied his courage to look at her and professed most sincerely,

"Jane, my dearest, I want you to do whatever you might like with those rooms. It matters not to me what you purchase or the cost. All the expenses will be paid by me. I will not have them coming from your pin money."

When she made to protest, he shushed her. Spying Mrs. Bennet's gaze upon them, he continued in an even lower voice, "My only wish is that you are content with them. I would desire you to always be well pleased during the time you spend within those rooms."

As he searched her eyes, the double meaning of his words did not escape Jane, although she was unsure if he had intended for it to be so.

She had coloured upon hearing them but displayed to Charles a hitherto unknown trait when she responded. "I would suppose, my dear sir, that, whether the furnishings are new or old or even the brightest shade of orange that, as long as I am with you, my time within those rooms could be nothing but agreeable."

With an expression that was initially inclined towards incredulity, but quickly changed to approval, Charles Bingley reassessed his fiancé and concluded that he might well be in an even better position than he had supposed. "Now this topic is most certainly to my liking," he whispered. Another look over to his future mother-in-law assured him that they were not being observed.

"You enjoy discussing fabrics, do you, Charles?" Jane asked while she followed Miss Bingley's skilled fingers move with precision over the pianoforte.

"We are discussing more than that, Jane, as you well know."

"Ah yes, we are also discussing furniture!" Jane smiled at him with a newly found boldness that he found very alluring.

"Madam, the only piece of furniture that my conversation pertains to is the one with four posts."

The only physical indication that Jane had heard Mr. Bingley's whispered innuendo was a widening of her eyes as she sat very still. It was fleeting, and before she responded she scanned the room to see if they were being overheard.

When she felt quite safe, she ventured assuredly, "I believe you enjoy teasing me about such things!

"What I enjoy, Jane, is a discussion about our contentment in the marital suite."

There was much satisfaction for Mr. Bingley with the intimate undercurrents exchanging between them. He absentmindedly reached for Jane's hand and held it in his while he traced his fingers randomly across her palm and up and down her wrist. Her composure was becoming ruffled by these sensations and after some moments Bingley caught her mood and changed his ministrations, although his new activity was no help in reclaiming her poise. Mr. Bingley had raised her hand to his lips and begun placing wayward kisses discreetly on her palm and wrist.

But Jane's reply was all the encouragement that was required to continue the conversation. "Hummm, pray sir, tell me your opinion. Will we be content?"

His answer was so low that even Jane had to strain to hear him. "As each day goes by, I grow to believe it more and more. We need only to..."

Just then Mrs. Bennet's attention turned towards the couple and Bingley released Jane's hand.

She interrupted him with, "Whatever are you speaking of so secretly? One would think you did not want the rest of us to hear!"

"We were discussing the re-decorating of the master suites, Mama. I was just asking Mr. Bingley if he did not wish to see what I might choose."

"Indeed, I need not," Charles gave his reply, "for if it pleases you it will most certainly please me."

Mrs. Bennet was quick to make her opinion known. "As it should be, Mr. Bingley. What man has any interest in such trivialities? That is what women are for."

Throughout the ebb and flow of this topic, Miss Bingley's playing had become forced. She had not known that her mother's suite was to be refitted. The only one who seemed to notice this change was Elizabeth, who had stopped her reading to observe Miss Bingley. Resting her gaze upon Mr. Bingley next, she was unexpectedly addressed by the gentleman in a playful tone. "Lizzy, I must say again how unfortunate it is that Darcy had to return to Pemberley. I can only imagine his disappointment when he discovers your paths have crossed."

While his sister came even closer to fumbling in her playing with this remark, Elizabeth wondered at what he said. It is as if he jokes about Fitzwilliam. She could not understand why Mr. Bingley would do such a thing and the remark that followed completely baffled her.

"I dare say, you must catch up on your sleep, for if Darcy does return to Town while you are in residence, we will want you well-rested!"

Dinner at Longbourn was a protracted affair for Darcy, not literally, but in his mind. While the meal was fine and plentiful, the company was odd. He sat to the left of Mr. Bennet, at one end of the table, and to the right of his daughter Mary at the other, while across from him was Catherine, or as she was called by all, Kitty. Mr. Bennet was skilled at the appropriate small talk that should accompany a meal, but his daughters behaved quite differently. The eldest, Mary, did not speak to encourage replies but rather stated opinions, mostly dealing with biblical or moral topics that Darcy found best left untouched. Each time she spoke, Darcy diverted his attention to his plate in an effort to avoid being the focus of her remarks. Kitty, on the other hand, uttered not a word, excepting the times she was pointedly asked by her father to respond to some remark. Throughout the meal, Darcy found her with her head down, trying to appear unnoticed, while sneaking glances at him. Several times while she was attempting to eat, as she was riveted to his image, she missed her target and with her aim off course, she would hit her chin or her cheek and spill her food.

No one was more relieved than Darcy when the meal concluded and he was rescued from the company of the young ladies. Mr. Bennet suggested that he might prefer to join him in his study and leave his daughters to "their own devices", as he put it. It was all Darcy could do to keep from sprinting towards the doorway. But his manners were always foremost in his mind, and he bid the girls a polite adieu before he followed their father out of the room.

The first impression that Darcy got when he entered Mr. Bennet's study was that the man was very well read. There was not an empty space along any bursting bookshelf; in fact, voluminous stacks of books were haphazardly left along the very edges of the shelves and across all the available table space in the room. While Darcy took the opportunity to survey his collection and make approving comments as he progressed, Mr. Bennet poured them both a healthy after dinner drink and took a seat in one of the leather chairs in the room.

A quick glance over to Mr. Bennet caused Darcy to belatedly fathom that he might have left one ordeal only to step into another. I may have stepped from baking in the heat to burning in the flames. Mr. Bennet settled them with their brandies, and in an attempt to ease any awkwardness that his guest might be feeling, he pointedly asked Mr. Darcy about his estate and what had been occupying his time there recently.

Under Mr. Bennet's gaze, Darcy began to speak of Pemberley. He did so without any hint of pomposity. Mr. Bennet came to realize that this young man was responsible for an estate the size of which he had never fully understood. And more notable to Elizabeth's father was an understanding that Darcy knew of its management in the greatest detail. There was not a question that Mr. Bennet posed that was not only answered but was responded to with such a volume of information that he could not but impressed with the gentleman.

The man could not have broached a better subject, for few things delighted Darcy more than talking of his beloved Pemberley. Mr. Bennet peppered him with questions occasionally, but for the most part sat back and listened as the gentleman opened up and became quite relaxed in talking about his home. All while he spoke, Darcy communicated the sense of connection he shared with his land. The distant manner that quite often cloaked the gentleman fell away, replaced with a passion as he rendered colourful images of Pemberley. His desire to accurately describe even those everyday bits of life that were so often taken in stride, resulted in the mundane being transformed into the interesting.

Clearly displaying the confidence he held in his knowledge of Pemberley, Darcy was the epitome of a well-to-do landowner, and yet, through the whole of the conversation there was not an indication of vanity. There were no signs of the pride that he had been labelled with on other occasions. It had been a lengthy narrative, and Mr. Bennet was moved to observe, "I must say, sir, I was unaware of the extent of your property. I can imagine that you must find it difficult to be away for any length of time."

"Yes, although as you might be well aware, at certain times of the year there is less of a demand, however this season is not one of them. In fact, I should be there now. And I cannot see myself being away for too long." He looked as if he wished to say more but fell silent.

"Dare I venture then, Mr. Darcy, that your business must be of some importance for you to have left Pemberley just now?" Mr. Bennet's eyes were fixed upon the gentleman as he had no wish to miss his reaction. Mr. Darcy grew very solemn. In fact, Mr. Bennet's statement led him to make an unconscious decision. He allowed himself to be led by correctness and bowed to the subtleties of etiquette.

"Most definitely, Mr. Bennet, sir. As you must be fully aware of by this point, I have very deep feelings for your daughter. I have travelled for two days with one particular question to ask her. It has been most disappointing to discover she has gone to London."

And on that note he began a tale that Mr. Bennet did not find wholly surprising but nevertheless had some revelations that left him momentarily startled.

In fact, Darcy initially had no intention of discussing in such detail what he revealed to Mr. Bennet. But, as the evening had progressed, he found himself more open and at ease with the gentleman than he had expected. An ally in Mr. Bennet, Darcy perceived, could benefit him greatly, not just in the next few weeks, but quite possibly in the years to come. And, as he had weighed just what he might say, he came to the understanding that he would be best served by an honest approach.

Moreover, he found that he genuinely liked the man. His fondness for Elizabeth's father, however, did not keep him from shrewdly judging to avoid many of the finer details of the history he shared with the gentleman's daughter. There were some points within Darcy's narrative that Mr. Bennet could not but help to exclaim or comment about. One such time was when he spoke of Hunsford and revealed that he had asked for Elizabeth's hand while she was there. When her strong rejection, without the specifics, was disclosed, Mr. Bennet noted, "Ah, yes! That would be my Lizzy. She speaks with conviction whether it is her sound judgement or her emotions ruling the moment."

And when his letter of explanation regarding Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth's mistaken understanding was related, Mr. Bennet grew pensive. He had now been made aware of some rather sensitive business of Darcy's and did not take the confidence lightly. Eventually, he asked with some amount of irony, "So, sir, you do not hesitate to connect yourself with a family that will relate you directly to such a man?"

In a frank declaration, Darcy replied that he was not only unconcerned about it, he believed he might be in a more favourable position to wield some influence over the man, should his behaviour require censure.

Finally, Darcy spoke of his recent stay in London. There were reflections upon his previous behaviour towards Elizabeth, and how he had attempted to clear a path for a true friendship to develop between them. He expressed his great hope that the time he spent being reacquainted with Elizabeth had developed into a preference on her part.

Mr. Bennet had already settled upon the depth of Darcy's admiration for his favourite daughter and, when evidence to such affection was so patently within his speech and equally spread across his face, Mr. Bennet was seized by a twinge of remorse. It was ephemeral, to be sure, but very real and for the moment it was there, more painful than he would have expected.

Elizabeth's father had witnessed in his daughter the very partiality that Darcy sought. Mr. Bennet knew that within his dearest Lizzy there was a passion for the man that now sat before him. He should immediately have been happy and his conscience should have been eased, to know that his daughter would be married for love and live without material concern. And yet, his heart would not let it be so.

Mr. Bennet now knew, even before Darcy went any further with his declaration, and there was no doubt that he would continue, that this was a major turning point in the way of life at Longbourn. Events from recent weeks had already set much into motion, but now, knowing full well what Darcy was going to say next, the reality of change, of growing older, of letting go was a force that overtook him. Nothing will ever be as it was again.

Darcy noticed a change in Mr. Bennet; he had grown quiet and introspective. While he had been all ease and openness this evening, something had clouded his humour. Darcy suddenly became anxious. In fact he had no need to worry. Elizabeth's father was a practical man when it came to what was the inevitable concerning his daughters, and after his brief moment of self-indulgence, he rallied to face reality. "Should I take it, then, that you will be leaving Hertfordshire in the morning?"

Darcy looked to Mr. Bennet and posed the question that very nearly stuck in his throat. "Yes, sir, I shall go to London early tomorrow to call on your daughter while she is in Town. I cannot say with any certainty that she will accept another offer from me. But knowing all that I have told you, were Miss Elizabeth to agree to marry me, would we have your consent?" He had managed to ask and now he could only hope that the response from Mr. Bennet would be favourable.

Mr. Bennet had stood and begun to pace the room. His hands were before him and he was tapping his index fingers together in habit as his thoughts were quite engaged. When he spoke to the gentleman it was with appropriate fatherly concern. There were some pointed questions placed before Darcy that were answered without hesitation by his daughter's suitor to his liking. Then he sat back down and, pouring them another brandy, Darcy was given Mr. Bennet's answer.

And while Mr. Bennet was in the position to guess with some confidence what his daughter's answer would be, Elizabeth's father would not let on to the man who held her passion if he would receive the answer he sought from her.

Chapter Twenty

It was still dark when Darcy threw back the covers and got out of bed. Sleep had been elusive and he had passed the time in observation of the slow progress that the moon's shadows made across the ceiling. A shiver ran through him as the chilly air, a first sign of the season's change, and the colder floorboards made contact with his exposed toes. Finally, dawn's light broke through the darkness; as Darcy pulled back the curtains, the faint glow of a sunrise gilded the horizon with the beginning of a new day.

With the light filling the room, there was no need for a candle; Darcy actually enjoyed the half-light as the surrounding greys transformed into colour. He dressed quietly and the only noise that could be heard as he packed what little he had brought with him was a pair of doves greeting the morning. With another glance at the peaceful situation, he appreciated it to be the same sight that had greeted Elizabeth all the years of her life. A feeling of intimacy coursed through him and although she was miles away, he believed he had just shared something very personal with her. Another final look across the Hertfordshire countryside was indulged in before he grabbed his bags and made his way downstairs.

He was greeted by Hill, who always rose before dawn and prided herself in being the first awake in the household each day. She made certain that Darcy's man had readied his horse and saw to it that the gentleman ate a full breakfast; she cooked it herself, for Hill knew travelling on the highway to be a hard business and one where stamina was important.

While he finished his coffee, his morning's preference, Darcy unexpectedly heard the sound of measured footsteps, which preceded Mr. Bennet's entrance into the dining room. He rose to greet Elizabeth's father and expressed his surprise at the gentleman's appearance at such an early hour.

"Well, Mr. Darcy," he replied, "I do find that I am an early riser on occasion and last night I made a promise to myself that I might give you a proper send off."

Thanks were then given to Mr. Bennet for his consideration and hospitality before Darcy indicated that he was prepared to depart. As the two men walked through the house and out the door, Mr. Bennet could not but say some parting words to his guest.

"It was most agreeably unexpected to have you here, Mr. Darcy." He looked at him pointedly and continued, "I have taken much pleasure in the acquaintance, sir. I do wish you the very best of luck in London, for I would greatly enjoy seeing you again!"

Darcy could not but smile at the gentleman and his wry sense of humour. "Indeed, Mr. Bennet, the sentiment is mutual." As Mr. Bennet watched him ride away, he did very much wish that Darcy fared better with his offer to Elizabeth than had Mr. Collins. For not only was Mr. Darcy in possession of all of the good common sense that Mr. Collins lacked, but he had not one bit of the absurd in him that Mr. Collins held a monopoly on.

Mrs. Bennet had begun the morning flustered and fussing, for she was worried about all that had to be done. It was to be a hectic and busy day for them. Mrs. Gardiner would be joining them in their full round of appointments today, so they were obliged to first go to Gracechurch Street. Lingering over breakfast was not an option by Mrs. Bennet's way of thinking.

"Jane, please do not take another bun," her mother instructed her, "for we have not the time."

"But, Mama, I have not yet had one," Jane protested as she felt her stomach grumble. She placed a large pastry on her plate.

"Well, never mind, for you must pay attention to your figure these days in any case. It will not hurt you to skip your bun."

"But I am hungry!" she exclaimed.

"My dear, we must make haste or there can be no hope of completing all that we must do today," her mother insisted.

Elizabeth was prepared to voice her opinion when Mr. Bingley entered the dining room with his usual cheerful morning greetings. After addressing all of the ladies, with particular attention to his intended, he took his place at the table and inquired after their day.

Mrs. Bennet immediately answered with, "Oh, Mr. Bingley, we have a terribly busy schedule! There are many appointments that we must keep." She paused to pointedly look at Jane. "In fact, we were just preparing ourselves to leave as we must depart immediately or we shall be late to our first stop."

At this point Jane gave in and abandoned her tea and bun. She gave her fiancé a courteous goodbye and then rose to follow her mother, who had made her way towards the doorway. But as she turned, she gave Charles a parting smile and rolled her eyes towards her mother in a silent message, which they both understood. Elizabeth quickly made the appropriate farewells and hurried along after them, afraid of being left behind.

The ride to Gracechurch Street seemed twice as long for the sisters, what with a one-sided conversation from their mother about how much must be fitted into the hours of the day. When at last Mrs. Gardiner was with them, she tried to calm Mrs. Bennet down with assurances that they would indeed see to all that must be done. She then succeeded in diverting her onto the topic of possible menus for the wedding breakfast, which was to be held at Netherfield. The sisters were relieved to see their mother's attention redirected and were most grateful to their aunt.

When they arrived at the first stop, which was a fitting for Jane's wedding gown, they eagerly awaited seeing her in it. While she was changing, Elizabeth allowed herself the indulgence of lingering over the rows and rows of laces and the selection of buttons and beads that were displayed in the shop. She considered the fabrics in bolts along one of the walls. Her hand ran across a beautiful lightweight silk that she especially favoured and she imagined it made up in a design she had seen in a sketch. She knew just what lace she would pick and how she might like it to fit. Then she sighed for she realized it was not for her to be choosing such things.

Suddenly she heard exclamations behind her and turned to see Jane surrounded by women; Mrs. Gardiner, Mrs. Bennet and the shop assistants had rushed up to her as she emerged from the fitting room and executed an excited twirl. Elizabeth's ability to see was obscured until they parted. As they did, Jane appeared as a vision in her gown.

The striking dress set off her figure, but it was the look of contentment on her face that perfected the picture. Her audience was silent for several moments and then they all enthusiastically spoke their opinions at once.

Although the gown looked magnificent, in fact there were many adjustments to be made and it took the party well over an hour to see to them all. When finally they emerged onto the street, Jane indicated her hunger.

Mrs. Bennet would have none of that. "Oh really, Jane." She was most chagrined. "It is nowhere near time to eat. If we stop now then we shall surely not have time for all that must be done today." And she would hear no more of this topic from her eldest daughter.

So the party continued on and went from one location to the next, browsing, comparing, searching and choosing many of the items for the master suite. While Jane's discomfort grew, she was grateful that Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner were there, for they interceded on her behalf while she felt weakened from hunger and easily influenced. In the end she had chosen what she preferred but it was not without some amount of diplomatic intervention.

While the day had dawned crisp and cool it had warmed up considerably and it was a hot and dusty ride for Mr. Darcy. He was impatient to get to the City as quickly as he might. By the early afternoon he was happily submerged in a tepid bath, cleaning off the grim from the highway. He contemplated what he might do and decided that the close relationship he had with Bingley would allow him to call in unannounced immediately, for they had just lately enjoyed such privileges back and forth. He was satisfied with this plan although he began to feel some anxiety as each minute passed. He quickly dressed and made his way over to his friend's house.

Bingley greeted him warmly but with some surprise. After they exchanged the proper cordialities Darcy asked after Elizabeth. His disappointment was extremely severe upon hearing that she was out, however Bingley gave him a reprieve for that very evening by extending an invitation for Darcy and Miss Darcy to dine with them. Mr. Darcy could not but accept with gratitude and soon thereafter departed to spend some time with Georgiana.

It was well past midday and luncheon has been skipped so they might call in to the milliner and choose Jane's wedding bonnet. No decision could be made, however, as the young lady was unable to concentrate on the task, despite the insistence of her mother to attempt a more concerted effort. The shopping party decided they would head back to Gracechurch Street where they all, especially Jane, would refresh themselves with food and drink before proceeding with the rest of their calls. In fact, as it was well past the hour to dine, it was not only Jane who was feeling the effects from a lack of food.

The traffic was congested and the pace was slow. Progress towards the Gardiner's residence was nearly non-existent. More so, the temperature of the day did its best to heat the interior of the carriage to a most uncomfortable level. Soon, Jane whispered to Elizabeth of her light-headedness. Not much longer after that Jane felt the need to rest her head upon her sister's shoulder. Mrs. Gardiner could see that Jane was in some distress and suggested that they instead return to Mr. Bingley's house, as it was much closer. This was no easier task than trying to get to the Gardiners' home and it was only after lengthy delays that they found themselves back where they began. Jane had closed her eyes and appeared to be dozing. She was roused to climb from the carriage and found that she needed some assistance to ascend the stairs at the doorway.

"Please, let me go to my room and rest. And, do not say anything to Charles about this. I insist!" As weak as she was feeling, this was spoken quite forcefully and with the aid of her sister she slipped upstairs quite unnoticed.

Elizabeth had accompanied Jane into her room, settled her onto the bed with mounds of pillows propping her up and had the maid see to getting her something light to eat immediately. No sooner had her sister gotten some food into her than Jane slid away into a peaceful slumber. Elizabeth dismissed the maid, moved a chair closer to the bed and picked up a book from the dresser. It was not too long before she heard a light knock and saw her mother enter. They conversed in low tones and agreed that Mrs. Bennet would inform Mr. Bingley that the ladies had had a particular trying day and they might all refrain from presenting themselves downstairs this evening. Elizabeth would stay with Jane in her room where they might eat together when she woke up.

Mrs. Bennet thought that she would retire early for her nerves had returned with determined annoyance. And, she could not fail to mention as she bustled away, they would have to finish all the appointments they put off this afternoon first thing tomorrow.

Not thirty minutes later Mr. Darcy stood in the foyer straightening his jacket one more time as he looked around the house. He did not see whom he had hoped to see but he heard a familiar voice exclaiming upon his arrival. "Mr. Darcy, this is most unexpected. I believe my brother was attempting to surprise me." Caroline Bingley was delighted by this unexpected turn of events. This was a most agreeable alteration to her evening.

"And Georgiana! It is a pleasure to have you accompany your brother." She turned back to Darcy. " But whatever are you doing in Town? I believed you to be in Derbyshire, sir!"

"I have returned to see to matters which are quite urgent. I do not expect to be here but a few days," the gentleman replied. By this time Bingley had heard the commotion and was seen coming to greet Darcy.

"Charles, thank you again for the invitation."

Charles gave him a sheepish grin but said nothing as they went to gather in one of the drawing rooms before dinner. Mr. Darcy expected to see some, one, any of the Bennets present and was puzzled by their absence.

Darcy looked expectantly at Charles and silently asked the obvious.

"Oh, uh Darcy, I am afraid that there are only the four of us dining this evening." Charles looked as if he expected to be hit by a flying wine glass and he proceeded quickly with a great amount of sympathy, "Jane and Miss Elizabeth and their mother all are quite exhausted after the day they had. Shopping! Who could imagine that it would tire one out to such a degree?"

Upon hearing this news Darcy's heart proceeded to spiral down into the depths of despondency, for he had again been beaten by circumstances that were out of his control.

His face grew dark and while Charles understood what his friend was experiencing, Miss Bingley did not and she jumped into the conversation and said, "So, you see, sir, you have saved Charles and I from dining alone this evening. We now have a complete party for dinner and an evening of whist," and with that she gave Darcy what she believed to be a rather seductive smile, took his arm and allowed him to lead her into the dining room.

It was all the gentleman could do to hold his tongue and proceed through dinner in a respectable manner. At one point in the meal he had the irrational notion to excuse himself and go searching through the rooms upstairs until he located Elizabeth so that he might have his say then and there. Of course he could not, but when the notion resurfaced as they were retiring for after-dinner drinks, he was sorely tempted to do just that.

Elizabeth was not aware that Darcy had called in and that he was, in fact, at this moment partaking of a brandy downstairs. It would not even enter into Miss Bingley's mind to inform Miss Eliza of their company and Mr. Bingley was under the impression that all the ladies were in fact quite exhausted and resting, therefore he would not presume to disturb Elizabeth. Needless to say, Darcy and his sister said their goodbyes before it was necessary to sit down at the card table.

And so it was that the evening passed without the two would-be-lovers crossing paths.

But the gentleman was undeterred and his determination to somehow come face to face with the woman he loved and thus speak his mind was raised again the next morning.

During breakfast Mr. Darcy made a most acceptable suggestion to his sister. "Georgiana, I was most disappointed to discover Miss Elizabeth and her party indisposed last night. I very much wanted you to meet her sister. I was thinking perhaps we ought to make another attempt to call on them this morning. What do you say?" He knew what her response would be before she spoke and she quickly returned to her room to change into a more presentable dress.

With all but Miss Bingley seated around the dining table enjoying a full breakfast at a more leisurely pace than the day before, Mr. Bingley observed to the three women through sips of his coffee, "Your company was greatly missed last night." While his sentiment was genuine, his disposition suggested a hint of humour.

Mrs. Bennet piped up quickly, "Yes, Mr. Bingley, we do apologize. The day left us all indisposed and it was beyond our control."

"Dinner would have been much more interesting had you been able to join us," he added mysteriously.

Jane smiled at the compliment. "Thank you, sir."

"In fact," he continued as if Jane had not spoken, "I was not the only one who was disappointed to be deprived of your company." His attention rested fully upon Elizabeth. "Dearest Lizzy, Georgiana was saddened by your absence as well."

Elizabeth looked up, her interest teased by the mention of Miss Darcy. She had not known the young lady was to dine with them last night or she might have come down to spend some time with her. Before she could say as much, Bingley charged on, "And of course her brother was equally disappointed."

Her brow furrowed closely and she frowned. No! It cannot be. Elizabeth studied Mr. Bingley for signs of jesting, and while there was great good humour in his comportment, it was painfully obvious that he was not joking. She said simply, "Mr. Bingley, do you mean to say that Mr. Darcy dined with you last night?"

"Yes! He has only just returned to the City. I might say though," he added with a chuckle, "the gentleman showed no great inclination to dally afterwards. Why, he had no time to linger and visit at all! A quick brandy and he was off! One would think his only intention was to secure a lavish meal at my expense." Then, he spoke as if it were only Elizabeth he was addressing, "Unless he had something else entirely on his mind."

"Oh that Mr. Darcy! I know he is a close friend of yours, sir, but really! He is a little too snooty for his own good. Why, everyone in Meryton knows of..."

"Mama!" Elizabeth said rather loudly and succeeded in quieting her mother. Mrs. Bennet finished her tea with a satisfied expression, knowing her point had been made.

Shortly afterwards, bonnets and gloves were slipped on, and the ladies shared the carriage with Mr. Bingley, dropping him off outside the offices of his solicitor, before they continued on to complete their appointments from yesterday.

Brother and sister made the short ride to Mr. Bingley's townhouse and were shown into the sitting room. They did not wait long before Miss Bingley entered and greeted them both with much extravagance, for two visits from Mr. Darcy in such a short time was very welcome.

"Miss Bingley, we have come to call on Miss Elizabeth, and her sister and mother. Georgiana is most eager to see her and meet your brother's fiancé."

"Why, Mr. Darcy, they have gone out. All of them. They busy themselves to no small measure with appointments here and there, buying who knows what!" She leaned forward and revealed rather candidly, "To be honest the tranquillity that prevails when they are out suits me just fine."

Lord! Mr Darcy thought, not again. Gone for the day! And now he was obliged to pass time with Caroline Bingley. He would have to stay at least an hour to avoid appearing rude. He was beginning to form an impression that the higher power in control of his destiny had a very warped sense of humour.

Before they made their farewells, however, he was presented with one bit of information that he deemed more valuable than all the crown jewels combined and it was Miss Bingley who unwittingly disclosed it. She had coyly mentioned that she was to dine alone as her brother and the ladies were expected at the Gardiners this evening. Mr. Darcy was under the impression that she was fishing for an invitation from him but he would not offer her what she desired.

Instead he left her with the parting words, "Ah, Miss Bingley, how fortunate then that you will be able to enjoy more of the tranquillity that you relish."

Before he followed his sister into the carriage, Mr. Darcy gave instructions to the driver and off they set in the opposite direction of their house.

Georgiana peered through parted curtains and asked, "Fitzwilliam, we are not going home?"

Her brother looked through her, as if she were not there. He was deep in thought and it was only after she repeated her question that he apologised.

"I have another stop I would wish to make. Please, will you indulge me?" he asked mysteriously. Georgiana smiled in agreement as he did not usually request her approval.

Soon they stopped in front of a house that Georgiana had never before been to. Her brother requested that she wait in the carriage momentarily and then he proceeded to the door. She watched as he disappeared inside but it was only a few moments later that he came back and collected her with the explanation that there was a lady and gentleman that he wished for her to meet. They spent a most pleasant hour inside and when they left Georgiana was well pleased.

With their shopping done and an equal distance between Gracechurch Street and Mr. Bingley's residence, there was some debate as to whether to return and freshen up at his house or continue on to Gracechurch Street and send the carriage round for the gentleman.

Mrs. Bennet was anxious to get to her sister's home and discuss all they had seen and purchased today, but Jane felt it imprudent to make Charles ride over on his own, especially since he had never been to her aunt and uncle's home before, so they opted to return and all ride over together.

Elizabeth was secretly grateful, for she felt dull and wilted and was much in want of a bath. As she was choosing what to wear, Jane came into her dressing room, looking quite stunning in a new gown she had purchased on their first day of shopping.

"Jane, that is most becoming on you. I am glad you decided to buy some new things."

"Thank you, Lizzy," she answered and then proposed, "Why do you not wear your new dress? The deep burgundy colour suits you so well."

"Do you not think it too fancy for dinner with our aunt and uncle?"

"Certainly not! After all we are in London. Let me call the maid to help you, for we will need to go soon." The suggestions that Jane made to Elizabeth about her appearance seemed to bring to light some kind of premonition she must have had as to what was in store for her sister at Gracechurch Street that evening.

Mrs. Gardiner too went to extra care with the preparations for the evening. She had instructed her help to insure every detail was perfect. She had seen to the flowers personally and there were several stunning arrangements in the dining room and the sitting room. The atmosphere lent itself to putting their guests at ease so they might enjoy the night. As she stood back and surveyed the completed arrangements, she smiled inwardly in anticipation of the night ahead.

Mr. Gardiner heard a carriage and opened the door to Jane and the rest of her party. Charles Bingley was introduced and it was a very cordial greeting and hearty congratulations that he received from both Jane's aunt and uncle.

Mrs. Gardiner complemented Jane on her dress. "You look quite handsome tonight, my dear," she said as she placed a kiss on her cheek.

Elizabeth came into view and she stepped over to her niece and looked approvingly at her. "My dearest Lizzy, how stunning you are tonight. You make quite a sight indeed."

"Thank you, aunt," she replied sincerely while refraining from speaking what she thought. How I do wish that a certain gentleman might be here to regard me with equal praise.

They all were led into the sitting room where a good humour prevailed upon the party. As they sipped a first glass of wine, the bell announced new arrivals, and only moments later more guests could be heard stepping into the foyer.

Elizabeth and Jane exchanged questioning looks, for as to their knowledge no others were expected. Mr. Gardiner had gone to greet the guests and as he returned to the room Elizabeth looked up and saw the very tall figure of a man entering the room behind him.

An undeniable rush swept though her when the identity of the gentleman was certain. It is him! She looked shyly upon the face of the man she had desired to see since the moment they had last parted, before she diverted her glance to the carpet. She was overwhelmed by her emotions and pressed her hand to her stomach in an attempt to steady herself.

Darcy followed Mr. Gardiner into the room with one goal in mind. He was not disappointed; he spotted Elizabeth with a glass of wine poised to her lips, the colour of the drink matching the shade of her gown, creating a luminous picture that evoked agreeably discreet situations that Darcy had savoured in private too many times to recall. He noticed her reaction upon seeing him before she turned away. All of Darcy's deepest emotions began to compete for attention as he did his best to appear composed and unaffected to all in the room but one. With a furtive gaze, he focused his attention resolutely upon her, determined from the beginning to insure that the opportunity that this night offered would not be a frustrating exercise that produced another disappointment. The mere idea of such an outcome caused him to bubble and boil under the surface of his cool exterior as he stood transfixed upon Elizabeth's image.

When courage persuaded Elizabeth to sneak another peek at Darcy, her eyes were drawn into the darkness of his and, without being touched physically, a force of indescribable strength held her motionless as the meaning of his powerful devotion to her presence was obscured behind his shadowy, smouldering countenance.

Chapter Twenty-one

Elizabeth was struggling to remain composed. Fitzwilliam's presence at Gracechurch was wholly astonishing. While she had wished she might see him this night, she would never have allowed herself to think he would be member of their party, believing her expectations would have led only to more disappointment.

But it seemed she had been mistaken. Indeed, he had joined them, he had brought Georgiana and he most certainly had not disappointed her. He had rendered her speechless. Her emotions needed to recover; at the moment they had a will of their own and would not heed her request to calm down. She had been reduced to a silent figure, standing apart from the others, but realising that Georgiana was waiting to be welcomed, she collected herself enough at least outwardly to smile in greeting at the young woman.

When Fitzwilliam began to speak to Charles and everyone joined in the formalities of welcoming the newest arrivals, Elizabeth set her wine aside, went to Georgiana's side and displayed her natural warmth in a friendly reception.

Mrs. Bennet missed all but the fact that the unagreeable gentleman had joined their party this evening. She pulled Jane aside and exclaimed, "Jane! Have my brother and sister lost all sense in inviting that horrible man to dine with us?"

"Shh, Mama! He will hear you."

"It matters not to me if he does!"

"Please! At the very least Miss Darcy will hear and she seems to be such a lovely young girl."

"Well, perhaps you are right." After watching the retiring young lady in conversation with Elizabeth, she wondered, "How is it Mr. Darcy has what appears to be a refined and well mannered sister, so opposite of his own character?"

"Mama, Mr. Darcy is nothing like what you suppose. He has, in fact, had the responsibility to raise Miss Darcy on his own for many years now. What you see in her is a product of his efforts."

After some further consideration of Miss Darcy, Mrs. Bennet pronounced, "Well, there is always the oddity in every situation. Obviously, Mr. Darcy's sister is a perfect example of that!"

Jane merely sighed and proceeded to join her sister's group and become acquainted with Miss Darcy. From the moment that Darcy saw Elizabeth, he was inwardly moved to admire her and as he did so, the sweetest sensations flowed through him. His heart beat faster and his breath drew quicker. He had begun to think that this moment might never happen, so unfortunate had his luck been of late. And yet, he was here, looking upon Elizabeth as she stood conversing with his sister.

Had Darcy been told she could look even more handsome than when he last saw her, he would not have believed it. But on this night she was possibly more attractive and alluring than he could have ever remembered. Beautiful. He could not keep his eyes off of her. He was aware that his end of the conversation was failing, and he was grateful with his ability to even hold some sort of a coherent conversation with anyone in the room, so affected was he by the sight of her. Perhaps no one notices my attention wanders to one particular woman.

All the others present, except one particularly opinionated woman, watched the two who were not yet a couple with varying degrees of interest while they skirted about each other in a mating ritual as old as time. While discreet pairs of eyes followed the progress of events, as it were, the two people in the room with the greatest need to mingle were currently the furthest apart and had yet to even speak.

While he had done the best to disguise his partiality, which he felt certain must be obvious to everyone present by the sideways glances continually bestowed upon him, Darcy proceeded nonchalantly to make his way over to Elizabeth.

She had moved to the far end of the room and had included Mrs. Gardner in her conversation with Georgiana. He stood some ways back as he did not want to interrupt the interaction that his sister was obviously enjoying. And more than that, he was a little apprehensive. Once he addressed her there would be no turning back. He was leaning towards a preference to remain suspended in this indeterminate state, with ignorance as to his future, for the possibility of it ending hideously wrong was genuine; he did not know what Elizabeth might say to his offer. His illogical reasoning led him momentarily to consider that he might be better off not knowing the worst, if that was to be his fate. Nonsense! I have come here to secure Elizabeth's hand and I will not be dissuaded from my purpose. I will not leave this house until that is exactly what I have done.

Elizabeth was well aware of every move Darcy had made since his entering the sitting room. While she had tried to be discreet, she was certain that it was apparent to everyone, especially Fitzwilliam, that she was watching him. As she spoke to his sister, Elizabeth lost sight of him, but knew instinctively that he had walked up behind her. In the past she would have considered this to be his way of eavesdropping to find some measure of disapproval with her. I am wiser now.

Tonight she knew he was showing some consideration towards his sister, whom he most wished to become more at ease in company. The idea that he was nervous to approach her never entered Elizabeth's mind. At this point, there was a break in the conversation that allowed Elizabeth to turn and set her dazzling eyes upon the man she loved.

She was struck by how handsome he was and a strong urge washed over her to reach out to him. She suddenly recalled the evening in the study across the hall and reminded herself how pleasing the gentleman's touch could be.

Her thoughts brought an impish smile slowly across her lips, which only served to propel Darcy further into the depths of rapture. Her head inclined one way and he saw her eying his cravat, whereby he became concerned that it needed adjusting. He was altogether unaware of the notion she entertained as she stood in contemplation of him, for she was being coaxed by the pleasing idea of a merger between her tender lips and his tantalizing neck.

When Darcy saw Elizabeth absorbed in regarding him, it soothed him like honeyed wine. Her smile indicated she was waiting for his address and he could no longer remain silent. Stepping forward and bowing elegantly, he never removed his eyes from her. "Miss Bennet, how very good it is to see you again. I hope you are well."

"Thank you, yes I am, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth found their use of such formal address somewhat amusing after having been more intimate in the not too distant past. "And surely you, sir, must be well, for you appearance could not lie."

A low chuckle came from him in response to Elizabeth's forwardness; he found it, and her, utterly charming. "Miss Bennet, I know I should not be surprised by your candour, but you do have a way of catching me unaware!"

"Why whatever do you mean, sir?"

"Surely I need not remind you of a certain morning in my carriage?"

"Why, Mr. Darcy," came her saucy reply, "I had formed the impression that you enjoyed my company in your carriage. Perhaps I was mistaken."

Darcy stepped closer, for although they had been speaking in hushed tones that did not invite any eavesdropping, what he was about to say was not to be heard by anyone but her. "Elizabeth, your company pleases me greatly, whenever and wherever I have the privilege of being with you."

He was watching her with a discriminating eye and Elizabeth was compelled to look down and study her hands in front of her. As she examined the fabric of her gloves, Fitzwilliam's hand came into view, and it was with some disbelief that he laid it on top of hers and, much like the technique a pianist would employ, Darcy tickled down the outline of her knuckles before his finger paused and then returned the way it had come. It sent a spark flying up her arm and through her body.

The result was that Darcy saw her shiver and he relished that he had made it happen.

She was completely flustered by his attentions and blurted out in nervousness, "You do find me at a disadvantage, Mr. Darcy, for I did not know you were in town until this morning." Taking a deep breath, she looked directly at him, but was thinking of his finger, still resting on top of her gloved hand, until the strength of his emotions that were secreted within the depths of his dark eyes revealed themselves to her. She quickly forgot about her hands as she was now utterly lost in powerful gaze.

They were both deliriously weakened from the intensity of the moment and allowed it to overtake them. The episode had transformed into a wordless encounter and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Darcy and Elizabeth stared at each other without another word passing between them, neither willing to break the spell that had fallen over them. Each was trying to convey a personal message with their silent discourse, but neither could be sure their meaning was clear. A most unwelcome interruption caused the interlude to be prematurely broken.

"Dinner is served."

They simultaneously scowled at the source. I simply do not believe this. It was the most horrible thing Elizabeth had ever heard. Not yet!

Darcy, realising there was no ignoring it, did the only thing he could and offered to escort the two ladies he loved into dinner. With Elizabeth on one side and Georgiana on the other, the three proceeded into the dining room.

The disruption of their private moment was eased somewhat, for much to her delight, Elizabeth found herself seated directly across from Darcy, who was next to his sister. This arrangement had been well planned by Elizabeth's aunt as she aimed to please her niece and her niece's suitor.

It was most agreeable to the two who were so desperately in love. While Georgiana was engaged in conversation by Jane and Mr. Bingley on her other side, Darcy and Elizabeth spun a cocoon around themselves and became oblivious to all else at the dining table. Both were quite happy to be nourished by the appetising intimacy they created for themselves. Their conversation was of little consequence and neither would later remember what had been said. It was simple looks and expressions that were their true communication.

It was a very private experience in a very public setting. After the meal, there was an unwelcome parting of the ways while certain social customs were adhered to. As the men ambled off one way, the ladies began to make their way back into the sitting room.

Elizabeth was in the back of the group and felt a hand lightly upon her elbow. She knew without looking that it was Fitzwilliam, and slowed with his touch. As she continued to look straight ahead, he whispered behind her, "Elizabeth, I wish to..."

But at that moment, Mrs. Bennet turned back and fussed for Elizabeth to hurry up and join the ladies. With her mother watching them both,

Elizabeth looked back and said pointedly, "I will be waiting for you," before she left his side.

When the ladies were quite alone, Jane immediately went to her sister. She kept her voice low to avoid it being overheard. "Lizzy, did you have any idea that he was coming tonight?" There could be no misunderstanding of who he might be.

With equal discreetness Lizzy replied, "No, of course not, Jane." They stared in the direction of their aunt, who appeared to be ignoring them.

"Did he say why he came to town?"

"No, I do not think he did."

"Did he say how long he would stay?"

"No, I do not believe he did."

"Lizzy!" Jane exclaimed and drew some attention to them, before she lowered her voice again. "What did you talk about?" she insisted.

Elizabeth blushed at hearing this question and admitted to her sister that she could not remember, whereby her sister gave her a look of incredulity.

"What are you speaking of? Jane? Lizzy?" Mrs. Bennet was eyeing them suspiciously.

"Nothing, Mama!" Jane said airily and the sisters joined the others.

Finally the men returned to the company of the ladies but Elizabeth found it impossible to manoeuvre herself anywhere near Darcy while he was speaking to Mr. Bingley and Georgiana. But from across the room he again caught her eye and smiled one of those smiles he could produce that left her somewhat senseless. She blushed and looked down.

When she looked up at him again he was still regarding her openly. Then she saw him incline his head and direct his eyes towards the doorway. At first she did not understand but then when he repeated his actions she took it to mean he wanted her to leave the room with him.

She furrowed her brow and quickly shook her head "no".

He thereby nodded his head 'yes' and in a very definite way. She could only mouth 'no' quite clearly and hope that he understood a clandestine tête-à-tête would be impossible, for the Gardiners' home was too small for interludes of that sort to pass unnoticed.

He then set a determined look upon his face and walked over to her. "Elizabeth," he addressed her quietly.

But before the matter could proceed any further, and quite by surprise, Mrs. Bennet made it known she was fatigued and that she desired to return to Mr. Bingley's home.

The look upon Mr. Darcy's face at this announcement was not to be described. Elizabeth will not be taken from me now. Mrs. Bennet would not prove to be an obstacle in the path of his objective. After all he had gone through he would not be stopped. This will not do and that is all there is to it.

As Mrs. Bennet rose and encouraged Jane to follow suit, Darcy acted without further thought to anything but the quest he had been pursuing for far too long.

"Mrs. Bennet!" came his deep, rich voice in a loud address from across the room.

She turned in some amazement toward the gentleman, hardly able to believe that terrible man was addressing her so abruptly. "Please, madam, I would ask for your indulgence for a few minutes."

This was met with a mixed reaction from those present when Darcy's voice boomed across the room. Charles Bingley smiled openly at the thought of what was to come, Jane was just plain taken aback, Georgiana looked confused at her brother's outburst and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner remained quite calm and waited for events to unfold further.

Elizabeth's reaction was to neither move an inch nor to look at anyone. She kept her eyes fixed upon the clock on the mantle. Mrs. Bennet, to whom his comment was directed, did not know how to answer.

At last she sank back down into the cushioned seat and said, "Sir?"

"Mrs. Bennet," he continued, "I would request your permission to speak with your daughter privately." She looked as if she did not understand his application and she turned towards Jane. It was then she received a revelation that hit her like a thunderbolt and she reassessed the gentleman in a more positive light, with an emphasis on his fortune.

She looked knowingly to Elizabeth, who still would not meet anyone's gaze, and she answered the gentleman. "Of course, Mr. Darcy!"

"Mr. Gardiner, may we step into your study?"

"Most certainly, Mr. Darcy!" he answered generously, and in high spirits he stepped over to the doorway and gestured towards the room across the hall.

Turning to the woman next to him, Darcy applied to her in the most gentle of manners, "Elizabeth, would you step into the other room with me please?"

Elizabeth was now looking down at the floor and trying to find her voice, so overcome was she with what was unfolding. She could feel warmth spreading across her cheeks and she was nowhere near a lit hearth. Every pair of eyes was no doubt upon them both at this moment.

But from all of this one clear and concise thought came to her. Fitzwilliam Darcy is a very private man who would not chose this course if any other were available to him. She realised he must be very resolved in his mind and she would certainly not do anything to embarrass him.

So she pulled herself together, looked past everyone in the room, stared straight into his dark, shining eyes and said with an equal amount of tenderness, "It would be my pleasure, Fitzwilliam." She took the arm he offered and let him lead her out of the room, across the hall and into the study, where the door quickly shut behind them.

They left behind a stunned room.

Mrs. Bennet bustled over to the doorway and stood transfixed for some time upon the spot where her second daughter had vanished, before turning and looking from one person to another. She now appreciated that she was the only one of them who had not understood what existed between Elizabeth and Darcy. As she began to fan her bosom with her handkerchief, a multitude of ideas were reflected upon with an ever-increasing sense of delight. Elizabeth was rapidly gaining favour with her mother.

Mr. Gardiner quickly offered further refreshments and Jane was the first to accept another glass of wine. Charles Bingley, pleased as punch, paced the room with his hands clasped behind him, and Georgiana sat next to Mrs. Gardiner and they began a quiet talk.

Darcy led Elizabeth into the study and over to one of the sofas. "Please, Elizabeth, would you sit down?" She quickly did as he requested and watched him take a reflective turn around the small room.

When his attention was again upon her, he saw her look of open curiosity. Darcy walked over to her, turned away and then turned back, only to be confronted by her fine eyes still upon him. He was lost for several moments before he could reciprocate by imparting to her a look of open admiration.

There was little doubt what he wanted to say, but it intrigued Elizabeth just how he would go about it. She was considering how she might prod him to begin when he spoke.

"I went to Longbourn two days ago," he said, wondering that it had only been two days for it felt like an eternity. "I saw you father and he was most kind to allow me to stay the night."

"You stayed at Longbourn?" she asked him with some disbelief. "Indeed I did, Elizabeth."

"I cannot imagine that."

"Nor can I, even though I was there. It was empty and lonely without you, much as my life has been since I last saw you."

To this comment she could make no reply although she accepted that it was a tremendous compliment. More than that, she knew if Fitzwilliam said it, it must be the truth. Her heart began to beat wildly and she was concerned that it would be so loud as to distract the gentleman from his purpose.

When she made no further comment, he asked, "Do you not have any interest as to my reasons for calling into Longbourn?"

"Oh indeed, I have, sir, but I would expect that you would reveal them at your own pace and I would not wish to rush you," she answered with a coy smile that melted what resolve he had to handle the matter exactly as he had planned.

Instead Fitzwilliam plunged forward, abandoning the speech he had drafted over the last two days. He went to Elizabeth with some momentary hesitation; he knelt on one knee in front of her. Slowly taking hold of her hands and enfolding them within his own, he gave her a look that was so full of love and adoration that Elizabeth nearly shouted 'yes' before he posed his question.

She smiled at him again and gently squeezed his hands in encouragement, for Fitzwilliam not speaking.

He was savouring a triumph, for it appeared he had finally achieved the unachievable. At this very moment Elizabeth was friendly, awake and apparently eager to hear this proposal. Never before had all three of these elements been in play when he had been about to declare his intent. It seemed to him an encouraging sign to proceed without further delay.

As she continued to regard him frankly, he began, "Elizabeth, if it were not for you, I would not be the man I am today. I said one day we would speak of what happened at Hunsford." He saw her expression change; an unease was spreading over her.

He held on tightly to her hands and continued, "Your reproof to me that evening, "Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner," was well applied."

When he saw that she had turned in embarrassment, he said, "No, do not look away," His hand reached up and held her chin, turning her back to face him.

At first her eyes shifted away but when he said, "Look at me," she met his gaze and he saw there was anguish in her eyes. I do not want to hurt her, and yet some things must be said tonight, and then put to rest forever.

"My manners, my conduct and my expressions during the whole of it, even now, are painful to me. I have been a selfish being all my life. As a child I was given good principles but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you dearest, loveliest Elizabeth." He moved his hand from her chin and began to stroke her cheek. "You taught me a lesson and you showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."

Elizabeth spoke with a very shaky voice that held a great deal of emotion, "Please we need not speak of that evening. I have long been most heartily ashamed of what I said to you." The last of her words faded away and were barely audible, as her voice broke.

"I believe you are right, we should speak of it no more." Then he paused and saw that tears were threatening to spill over. He quickly retrieved his handkerchief, for as she blinked wet trails began down her cheeks. He leaned quite close and dabbed them away while forcing himself to keep from sweeping her up and kissing away all of her suffering.

"I have had many months to think of how much I loved you. I was afraid my love would wither away and die before it could ever live. My heart burned at the thought of living my life without love, because I had failed to win yours and I knew there could never be another like you."

Now Elizabeth's tears were streaming unabashedly down her face and she began to catch her breath from the effect of her emotions.

Darcy again dried her face with all the tenderness of a man fervently in love and, finding the vantage most preferable, leaned very close to her and asked, "Elizabeth, am I a foolish man to hope that your feelings for me have changed? I admit mine have changed, for I was greatly mistaken in what I thought it was to love. These months have taught me what the depths of love really can be."

His words had produced a mixture of responses from her. The pain she had felt upon first hearing his words had diminished, but he saw a different collection raw, exposed feelings overtake her. They were those of a woman truly moved by his words. It was etched implicitly on her face and there was no denying its authenticity.

It was with some difficulty that she declared, "My feelings for you have changed." Unable to say much more she simply entreated him, "Fitzwilliam, ask me please, what you brought me in here to say."

"While I do not consider myself worthy of you, if you will consent to marry me I will spend the rest of my life in a blissful attempt to prove myself."

Elizabeth gave a valiant attempt at speaking through her tears, "Fitzwilliam Darcy, I could only hope that I might be worthy of your love. As we have become more familiar, I have grown to know you better, and I have come to respect you and hold you in the highest regard. Truly I can say there is no better man than you."

"Elizabeth," he then asked her again desiring to hear her answer, "Will you marry me?"

"Fitzwilliam, I thought it would be obvious to you. Yes," she told him confidently, "yes, I will marry you." She then gave him a brilliant smile, which he returned with a slight wince.

"Would you mind if I got up now?" he laughed as his legs had stiffened up on him.

He stood, and without so much as asking, took Elizabeth's hand and pulled her to stand. He kept pulling, bringing her straight into his arms, where he held her possessively. They did nothing more but discover how satisfying the arms of one who loves you can feel when holding you close. His heart declared to her, "You have just made me the happiest man in

all of England." Elizabeth's arms encircled his neck and as he leaned down towards her they shared the first of many kisses as a betrothed couple, an unhurried demonstration of their love that gradually increased to a fiery tempo that caused them to pull back in amazement. Were he to doubt at all the truth in his statement, it was confirmed when, for the first time, she murmured softly against his lips, "I love you, Fitzwilliam."

His free hand was swirling the stray hairs behind her ear when he responded, "And with that sweet declaration, I am also the most fortunate man in the world. For not only have I given my love to a woman who will treasure it, she has trusted me with hers in return."

Elizabeth felt his arm along the small of her back and the strength of his hand as it tightened around her waist and he pulled her closer against him. With their faces perilously close, neither could resist the lure of another languid indulgence of their emotions. She spied the hint of a triumphant smile on Fitzwilliam's lips before the hidden fire within him grew intense and they were drawn together again. As their desire increased with their touch, this kiss continued on without any interruption to exclaim at its growing potency and they let the exhilaration of their love take them away from all else but each other.

The End

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