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When Duty Calls
[WIP - Regency/R]

Chapter 1

The 26th of November was a date that would remain in the memory of the villagers of Meryton for a long time. Gentlemen as fine as Mr. Charles Bingley rarely showed any interest in the region and in those few occasions when they did approach those latitudes and chose one of Meryton's finest houses to settle in, they never honoured the town with a magnificent event such as the ball Mr. Charles Bingley and his sisters hosted on that date.

For some, the highlights of the evening were the musicians Mr. Bingley brought from London, to others the exquisite food. The matrons of the village certainly saw this gathering as a great opportunity to expose their daughters to eligible suitors while the younger ladies were thrilled for being given the chance to admire the numerous officers present at the event. For those less inclined to frivolity, it was a good opportunity to observe the other's behaviour and form opinions on matters they thought were of great importance yet were none of their concern. Miss Mary Bennet's poor performance at the pianoforte was criticized by many, as was her mother's mercenary -and inebriated- remarks on how the fortune of her eldest, once Mr. Bingley proposed, would put her other daughters in the path of other rich men.

As the brightness of the stars faded and the first rays of dawn gradually tinted the sky, the last candles worn off, a silent army of servants took over of the rooms of Netherfield Park, returning the mansion to the neatness of which the master's sister was so obsessive. The ladies of the house retired when the last carriage rolled out of the pebbled road whilst Mr. Hurst, unable to climb his way up in his drunken state, was assisted upstairs by two strong footmen so that his manservant would take care of him. The master of the house, Mr. Charles Bingley, and his closest friend, Mr. Darcy, remained in the library for one last meeting before going to bed.

The subject of their conversation did not transpire among the others, but some of the servants that were walking around that room could have sworn that the name 'Miss Bennet' was mentioned several times during the men's conference. The reason was more than obvious; the master seemed quite besotted with the young lady. Yet, for motives foreign to their understanding, Mr. Bingley stormed out of the room demanding his trunks to be packed and the carriage to be ready for him and his party to depart for London on the following day, at noon. Netherfield house would be vacant once again.

Not as disturbed as his friend after the brief meeting, the taciturn Darcy also headed for his rooms with the conviction of having done what he thought was the best for his friend. As he lay on his bed and revisited their conversation, Darcy knew at heart that everything he had said was in his friend's best interests. Bingley's propensity to fall in and out of love was at times worrisome. He believed that his friend needed some time away to reflect on his recently born affection for Miss Jane Bennet and meditate on the inconvenience of a union with her. He did not think her connections were inappropriate, not for Bingley. His fears resided on the possibility that Bingley's sentiments might not be reciprocated, as the beautiful Miss Bennet, while receiving his friend's attentions with pleasure, lacked the effusiveness that most women her age would display when a suitor of Bingley's calibre showed any partiality for them.

It did not help that the entire village was speculating on a union between the young couple. Darcy was certain that, by the time the rooster crowed that morning, Meryton's population, with Mrs. Bennet at the lead, would be already setting the date for Bingley's wedding ceremony and elaborating the most intricate plans to throw the young lovers into each others paths.

While his friend's welfare was a valid motivation, another reason urged Darcy to flee from Netherfield, one not as altruistic as his first cause but equally related with matters of the heart. A young lady had caught his eye. And this lady in particular had him completely bewitched. Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest of the Bennet family was the most alluring woman he had ever met in his eight and twenty years of life.

Miss Elizabeth did not possess her sister's ethereal beauty or her graceful figure, or even her delicate attitude, yet she had this unusual charm, a sense of strength and determination that he found enchanting. Darcy had denied the attraction when he first met her --he was, after all, a man of sense and education-- but after spending a few weeks in her society, Darcy had fallen under the spell of Miss Elizabeth's fine eyes and enticing wit and became her most fervent -if silent-- admirer.

The lady in question, Darcy assumed, appeared to be equally attracted to his noble person. Not many ladies of his acquaintance would engage themselves in conversation with a man like him without feeling intimidated by his superior mind or would take such delight in challenging him into philosophic debates. Yet, the brave Miss Bennet did not fear him. In fact, she seemed to find pleasure in provoking him and their conversations usually became a battle of wits which he both found physically stimulating and mind invigorating. On more than one occasion he even dared to imagine that she was blatantly flirting with him because she always seemed to find a way to draw his attention to her, even when he was writing a letter or reading a book whilst in her company.

Still, Darcy knew he would never be able to act upon his growing attraction for the lady. Unlike his contemporaries, he was not a flirt; he had been raised with good principles and strict morality. He was taught to always respect the difference between classes and had the conviction that well bred gentlemen such as himself should never encourage false hopes in ladies of inferior birth. Yet, despite all this, he felt he could no longer suppress his urges. He was constantly thinking of her during the day and dreaming the most inappropriate fantasies during the night.

The consequences of his infatuation did not take long to surface. The previous evening, in the presence of the population of Meryton that was attending the ball, against his better judgment, he had singled her out. Despite being a man of honour that never acted upon his primal desires, he had asked her to dance.

Darcy was not the type of man that would easily fall for a woman however charming. Granted, he was a keen admirer of the feminine beauty; his aloofness shouldn't be mistaken with lack of interest in the fair sex, still he was no Bingley and certainly not the kind of man that would fall in love at the drop of a hat. Yet in barely a few weeks in her society, this lady had tempted him to act against everything he thought sacred and break every rule society imposed. Not a good thing to happen to a young, vital man with passionate disposition and ripe in his masculinity. The grip Miss Elizabeth Bennet had of his most feverous sensibilities was the strongest that he had ever felt before and Darcy knew he had to leave before this infatuation turned into real love.

The worst part of this affair was that, in his denial, he never realized that the bug of love was already crawling towards his heart. Soon he would be receiving the first bite and it would not take long before this sentiment that was still unknown to him would start to itch.

All the reasons aforementioned were enough to persuade him that fleeing Netherfield at once was the best course of action to take. Once in Town, he and his friend -he should not forget that his chief purpose was to help Bingley-- would be freed from the temptation that the Bennet sisters posed. London would keep their minds occupied and they would forget everything related to this unimportant village and those who resided in it.

Fully convinced that this was the right thing to do, Darcy drifted into a restless sleep.

He dreamt of a young lady with rosy lips and fine eyes. Her ivory skin was soft beneath his hands, her naked breasts firm against chest, her hair smelled of roses as it spread over the pillow. It was a dream of moist and warmth, of bodies trembling under the sheets, of legs entangling and hips rocking as the imaginary lovers coupled after a long time of separation. Insatiable in her lovemaking, this Elizabeth showed Darcy unimaginable pleasures, speaking words of admiration and lust as she held him, nails digging into his back, begging him to give her his very soul. He wanted to oblige her, but he could not. Because as it usually happened in his dreams, the much needed release never came, not with her. She would tempt him, provoke him, push him to the crest of the wave only to abandon him at the last minute and fade into the night before his turbulent waters met her shore. If he was fortunate, his seed would be wasted over the sheets. But most of the times he did not even had that painful luck and he would wake up alone, hard and utterly frustrated, cursing the evasive lady with the fine eyes, his damned fate and those stupid society impositions.

~ * ~

The family and guest did not wake up until close to tea time the day that followed the ball. To Darcy's dismay, apparently after some late night musings, Bingley had reconsidered his decision of leaving for London on the following day and wanted to make a quick call on the Bennets, if not to propose, to ask Mr. Bennet's permission to court his daughter. Again, Darcy endeavoured to dissuade him.

"You met her barely two months ago, Bingley. Do you not think 'tis a bit soon to be thinking of marriage?"

"Two months is more than enough time to sketch someone's feelings, especially my own."

"You say you know your feelings, but are you certain of hers? Do you think your sentiments are corresponded with equal intensity?"

"Well ... she ..." Something in Darcy's tone made Bingley realize that things might not be as he had imagined. He had noticed a certain detachment from the lady's part, but attributed it to her serene and amiable temperament. "She may not have expressed it directly, but I am sure that she ... that she has the deepest regard for my person."

Darcy remained silent, observing Bingley's serious countenance, and he knew his friend was making his own estimation of the situation. He had planted the seed of doubt and if he knew his friend well enough, Bingley's confusion was such that he would be now questioning his own feelings for the lady.

"Perhaps you are in the right, my friend, regard is not love." Bingley said after a heavy sigh. "I should meditate my decision a little longer."

At that point, Caroline and Louisa made their appearance so the conversation turned towards the ball they hosted on the previous night. With their usual sarcasm, they recalled the forwardness of Miss Lydia towards the officers, Mrs. Bennet's remarks to Lady Lucas and Miss Mary's disastrous performance at the piano-forte. Their amusement was Bingley's mortification and with every word they pronounced his doubts about proposing to sweet Jane increased.

By supper time, the conversation revolved around their plans for the Season and they plays they would attend in London. Darcy, Caroline and Louisa were now convinced that in a new setting, distracted by the social activities of the season, they were sure Bingley would forget, once and for all, about Jane Bennet.

~ * ~

The morning of their departure found Mr. Darcy walking the gardens to stretch his legs, a usual practise of him before a long carriage ride. Outdoors and without the incessant chat of the Bingley sisters at the breakfast table he was able to direct his thoughts towards more pleasurable subjects.

Of course, the other Miss Bennet -his Miss Bennet- became the centre of those thoughts he had sworn to keep at bay. Another dream had haunted him during the previous night which was the reason for his jittery state that morning. It was slightly different to the others. Elizabeth was not waiting for him in his bed as it usually happened, this time she was a nymph of the woods that tempted him to follow her into the darkness of an enchanted forest. And followed her he had -how could he ever deny her?- chasing her into the woods until he finally caught her and silenced her laughter with a hungry kiss. Soon they were making love against the trunk of an old tree, her skirts up to her waist, legs wrapped around him as she accompanied the sensuous movements of his hips. The setting was different, but the ending the same. The lady vanished in their coupling and Darcy was once again left alone and unfulfilled.

The mere recollection of that dream was enough to induce him to the previous night's state of arousal, so he dismissed these sinful thoughts and concentrated in the obligations he would have to face once in London. He had already scheduled meetings with his solicitor. He also had several social engagements to attend, alone and with his sister, tickets for the best plays in Town and even a couple of balls that he could not miss. It would be a busy winter where he doubted he would have time to think of his nymph of the woods.

Darcy's musings took him quite away from the house in the direction of the village. During his walk, he crossed a lady that had been introduced to him the day his party had had tea at Lucas Lodge, a certain Mrs. Rigby --if he wasn't mistaken-- and her silly daughter, who saluted him with pompous a courtesy and exaggerated enthusiasm. Darcy paid little attention to their unnecessary explanation of the reason for their presence there -something to do with mushrooms- and proceeded up the road until he realized he was reaching the bifurcation that led to Meryton. One road would take him to the village; the other would send him directly to the Bennet estate, not far away behind the curve. With a frown, he realized he had never intended to come this far away from Netherfield and he would be delaying the departure for London if he didn't make haste in returning to the estate. With this concern in mind, he turned on his heels and left the main road to take a narrower footpath that he knew was a shortcut to Netherfield.

As he walked, carried on the breeze that blew in his direction, Darcy heard the faint sound of voices coming from the Bennet house, engaged in what seemed to be a very unpleasant argument. As the sound grew louder, he recognized Mrs. Bennet's shrieks, begging for her husband's assistance on a matter that remained unintelligible to his ears, as well the enraged replies from one of the daughters, mingled with he honk and cackling of the gooses and hens that had surely been scared away in the discussion. Darcy let out a smirk on hearing the cry of the name 'Lizzy!' for he knew now which one of the rebellious Bennet girls had chosen this day to defy their mother. A part of him was glad that he would never be in any way connected to this family while the devil in him could not but be proud of this young woman and her indomitable spirit. Perhaps she would not make a submissive wife; yet he was envious of the man that would face the interesting challenge of taming her.

With a shake of his head, Darcy discarded all thoughts of wives, taming, coupling in the woods and other unchristian recollection that usually came attached to Miss Bennet's name and resumed his walk back to Netherfield. He had not walked for more than tree minutes up the path when he heard the approaching sound of a person moving in the vicinity. In a matter of seconds, some twenty yards ahead of him, Miss Elizabeth came into sight, running as though the devil were chasing her, gathering her skirts and swiftly jumping fallen log before she crossed the path in the direction of a large tree a not far into the grove. There she stopped, looked around and hid behind the tree with her back pressed to the trunk, her chest heaving in agitation.

Puzzled by her unseemly behaviour, Darcy approached her. "Miss Bennet?"

The lady had failed to spot him in her frantic run; in fact she had never imagined she would find someone in the grove, at this hour, least of all the most unpleasant guest at Netherfield Park.

"Mr. Darcy!" she cried, resting her hand on her racing heart. "Lord! What are you doing here?"

The gentleman pointed at the path ahead. "I was on my way back to Netherfield." And then, noticing her obvious distress, he offered. "May I be of assistance?"

"No, I thank you sir, I am well."

Even when he thought this was no affair of his, the gentleman in him could not just leave her in that state, breathless, perhaps in need of help while unescorted in the woods.

"Madam, I know you are fond of walking, but I believe you should not be wandering about this place on your own. May I escort you back to your house?"

To this, Elizabeth cried an emphatic 'No!"

Darcy was startled by her conviction and chose not to ask any questions, assuming her negative was related to the argument he had heard earlier. The situation was as amusing as it was intriguing to him; as Darcy could not guess what conduct from the usually well bred Miss Elizabeth could have provoked such fierce reaction on her mother and forced the daughter to a hasty escape. But just at that thought came into his mind, he heard the voice of Elizabeth's most insupportable progenitor crying out her name.

"Lizzy!" Mrs. Bennet's shrieks came from the main road, "Where are you, child! Lizzy, come back to the house at once!"

Elizabeth's eyes widened and looked at Darcy with an anguished stare. "Please help me," she whispered, "she must not find me."

Astonished by the bravado of such a request, Mr Darcy hesitated for a brief second. Yet in taking a second look at her he nodded and pointed at the tree where she had been hiding to then assume a more casual posture as he pretended to walk the path towards Netherfield. They were lucky that Mrs. Bennet did not take this route as she continued her way down the main road. Darcy approached Miss Bennet to inform her that the coast was clear.

"You are safe now, Miss Bennet," he told her as a small smile graced his handsome features. "I believe your mother must be already crossing the bridge towards Meryton."

Elizabeth returned his smile, but only briefly. She did not like the fact that the gentleman had witnessed the latest family scandal; it had been enough embarrassment with the spectacle they had offered during the Netherfield Ball.

"Thank you, sir. I am sorry for the inconvenience I have caused you."

He bowed. "I'm at your service, ma'am."

She replied with a brief curtsey and stood there, waiting for him to proceed with his walk. But the gentleman seemed to have other plans, because he was not moving.

"You can leave now, I am well."

Darcy did not move. "I am still of the same mind. You should not remain here alone."

"I appreciate your concern, sir, but I know these woods very well. I can find my way back home when I wish, nothing will happen to me."

"Miss Bennet," he stepped closer, "you seemed to have been running for your life just a moment ago."

She offered him a nervous, uncertain smile. "You must be wondering why."

"I am sure the reason that motivated you to escape into the woods and hide from your mother is serious enough."

Elizabeth fiddled with her dress as her growing frustration brought tears to her eyes. She was chewing her bottom lip with such insistence that Darcy thought she would draw blood at any moment.

"It is, sir," she finally said. "I cannot return to the house at this moment."

"Why?" Darcy stepped even closer until they were both barely a few feet apart, sheltered by the shadow of the old oak tree.

"It is a matter of private nature, sir."

"Pray, forgive me," Darcy assented, "I should not have ..."

Before he could finish, they heard voices coming in their direction. "Lydia, wait for me!

~ * ~

Darcy and Elizabeth looked at each other, her eyes round with horror. In a quick move, Darcy grabbed Elizabeth by the shoulders and pushed her against the tree, hiding behind the trunk with her.

"Kitty, you are slower than an old cow!" Lydia sat heavily on the fallen log that Elizabeth had jumped barely a few minutes earlier. "Do you think she headed in this direction?"

"I care a fig which way she went. I am going back home!" Kitty protested as she approached her sister, limping from her right leg.

"Mama said we cannot return home until we find her,"

"I have a pebble in my shoe."

"Lizzy must be sitting at the top of Oakham mount by now, hiding under a rock," Lydia snorted as her sister sat by her side and proceeded to remove her boot, "Besides, can you blame her? Lord! I know I would be running away if Mr. Collins had proposed to me as well."

Darcy looked at Elizabeth, who glanced back at him, a faint blush spreading across her cheeks.

"Poor Lizzy," giggled the second youngest Bennet sister as she turned her boot upside down to remove the pebble, "can you imagine what her life will be when she marries him?"

"Sermons all day long. That will be so tedious! I can never marry a parson. I want to marry an officer, a tall, handsome one, and travel around the world ..."

Kitty also discarded her stocking and wiggled her toes to the fresh air. "Souderson seemed attracted to you during the ball, you danced four dances with him."

"What? No! I shall never accept an offer from such a milksop, he is not five and twenty and already loosing his hair. Denny is more of my liking, but my favourite is Mr. ..."

"Lydia! Kitty!" Mrs. Bennet called her daughters.

"Oh my, there she comes again," Lydia huffed. "We are here, mama!"

"Have you not seen Lizzy?" Mrs. Bennet panted as she walked up the path.

"No, she is not here," Kitty hurried to put her stocking back on. "We have searched everywhere."

"Inside the woods?"

"Behind every tree and underneath every stone. She must have left on the opposite direction, mama." Lydia smiled angelically, amazed at her capacity to fool her mother. "Perhaps she went to Aunt Phillips's house."

"That child will be the death of me!" cried Mrs. Bennet. "She will be our ruin! Mr. Collins is speaking of leaving Longbourn never to come back again. I must convince him to stay. Oh, dear Lord, help me!" she glanced heavenwards. "How could she be so insensible?"

"Mama," Kitty interjected, struggling to put on her boot, "if Lizzy does not want to marry him, you cannot force her."

"Of course I can. I can and I will." Mrs. Bennet urged her girls to stand and herded them back to the house. "You must stay home and entertain Mr. Collins while I convince your father to talk some sense into Lizzy's head. You know our estate is entailed to that man, so Lizzy is our only salvation. Your father will not live forever and I refuse to live the rest of my life depending on my sister's charity. "

The voices faded as they reached the main road and Darcy left his post to see if it was safe to step out of their hiding spot. Elizabeth kept her eyes down, too embarrassed to say a word.

"So this is the reason why you were hiding?"

She nodded quietly.

Although he found the idea of Elizabeth married to another man utterly repulsive, Darcy could not deny the logic of Mrs. Bennet's reasoning. If that was the state of affairs and Longbourn was indeed entailed away to Mr. Collins, marrying one of her daughters to this silly little man was the prudent thing to do in this case.

"Did your father give his consent?"

"Not yet, sir."

"Perhaps he never will," he stated thoughtfully.

"You do not know my mother, sir," she said in between sobs. "She can be very insistent."

Darcy offered his handkerchief so she could dry her eyes. Her cheeks were flushed with anguish and her body trembled with frustration. Even in front of her despair, Darcy could not but admire the strength and determination Elizabeth was showing in front of adversity. Not many women in her position would have the braveness to reject a proposal that would secure their future and that of her family. But here she was this fine lady, ready to fight the cruel impositions of her mercenary mother and dictates of an unfair society.

"You are cold," he said, noticing her shivers. She was, in fact, not dressed for being outdoors in this cold day of November.

"I am fine, sir." Albeit she was freezing -in her haste she failed to grab a shawl or coat-, Elizabeth would never admit it to the gentleman. The situation was awkward enough.

"No, you are not. Here. This will do." Darcy removed his great coat and placed it over her shoulders.

"Thank you," she said softly. She had no other choice than to accept it.

The warmth of the coat offered her some comfort, yet it was not enough to ease her distress and mortification. Everything had been so very wrong these past days that Elizabeth could not imagine what new mishap could possibly happen to increase her current misery. Her life fell apart with the arrival of Mr. Collins and from then on it had been a series of unpleasant misfortunes that culminated in a furtive meeting in the wood with a man whose arrogance she disliked most passionately.

"I am sorry, sir," she could not contain herself any longer and broke into tears. "I don't know what to do."

Darcy's heart broke at the sight of her despair, urging him to move even closer to offer some comfort to her distressed soul. And disregarding any rule of propriety, he allowed his emotions to govern over his judgment and brought her against him so she could rest her head on his chest and cry at will. Momentarily forgetting who her comforter was -for some unexplained reason he seemed to have lost his usual repulsiveness-- Elizabeth did not resist him: in fact she willingly leaned against his heart wordlessly accepting both his commiseration and warmth.

"You must not fear," he reassured her. "Things will be fine soon."

Now calming, Elizabeth looked up at the gentleman. "I hope so, sir. I dearly hope so. But I cannot imagine how."

An unexpected hiccup made her jolt, provoking a giggle from the lady and a chuckle on the gentleman.

"What must you think of me?"

Darcy brushed his thumbs over her cheeks, his thoughts not as clear as they had once been. Here she was, his nymph of the woods, fragile yet fearless, defying the odds, standing so close to him that could almost feel her breath on his lips, warming his heart in a way he had not felt before. Her hands were on his chest surely feeling the rushed beating of his heart. They stood, frozen in time, their eyes locked, both enchanted by the same spell. Elizabeth's fingers spread over the fabric of his coat and Darcy thought his heart could explode with the emotion.

"Elizabeth," her name flowed easily from his lips.

His eyes dropped to her mouth, red and inviting and he was drawn to it like iron to an enchanted magnet. Their lips met, softly and tentatively at first, then with increasing ardour as passion replaced judgment, as feelings that had unconsciously been denied and repressed overwhelmed them. Fantasies imagined on sleepless nights flooded into Darcy's mind and he forgot about rules, obligations or honour. He was just a man and she was just a woman, alone in this world, moved by their most inner desires.

But the dream ended as abruptly as it began when Darcy was shaken awake when the lady pushed herself out of his embrace. She stepped back, her wild face flushed, her hand on her chest, whispering an ashamed,

"Sir, you must not..."

Darcy realized the gravity of his actions -even though he was sure that the lady had been a willing recipient of his attentions at some point- and apologized for his forwardness.

"I am sorry, Miss Bennet, I don't know what came over me, I have never done something like this before."

"I must return to the house," Elizabeth said with a shaky voice.

She returned him his coat and glanced around, looking even more lost and fragile than when she had come. Certainly, the kiss has perturbed her beyond measure and now she found herself in an even more unpleasant predicament. Her choices, Darcy thought, were equally unattractive. Either she wandered the woods alone and unprotected from men like himself or she returned to the house to face her mother's inquisition. And that, for a man as proud as Darcy, was certainly a low blow that made him wonder who was less of a gentleman, if he or the ridiculous Mr. Collins.

"Madam," he said earnestly. "You have the right to be offended and I offer you my sincere apology for imposing myself on you. There is nothing I can do to change what I just did. I can only beg for your forgiveness."

Elizabeth nodded quietly and hurried towards home, leaving him alone with his emotional tumult. Surely the refined gentleman in Darcy was ashamed of his actions, but the passionate male was still enjoying in the sweet taste of her lips against his.

The gentleman remained in his post for only a moment, then resumed his walk back to Netherfield Park. Unfortunately for him and Elizabeth, they weren't alone in the grove as they had thought they were. Mrs. Rigby and her silly daughter -the town's greatest gossipers-- had ventured into the woods to collect the last mushrooms of the season. They had witnessed the entire encounter, not missing one single detail from their hiding point behind the bushes. Mrs. Rigby could not be happier with her fortune. Miss Elizabeth Bennet and the pompous Mr. Darcy had just provided her with something interesting to talk about during the rest of the year.

Chapter 2

Elizabeth's worries about becoming the new Mrs. Collins did not live long. Her father ignored her mother's insistences and cries of indignation, and supported Elizabeth in her decision of refusing Mr. Collins' proposal. The rejected parson decided to leave the Bennet's household and found refuge at Lucas Lodge, where he, after only a few days of enjoying their hospitality, turned his attention towards Charlotte Lucas.

The news about the departure of the Netherfield party came in the shape of a note that Miss Bingley sent to 'dearest' Jane. It was a short missive in which Caroline expressed her delight at being able to finally return to Town, and where she made it clear that she had no intention of ever returning to Hertfordshire.

Elizabeth, though surprised by the suddenness of their removal, saw nothing there to lament. This meant that the inscrutable Mr. Darcy was not in the neighbourhood anymore and that Jane, upon Mr. Bingley's return, would be able to see her intended without the vigilance of his sisters or his friend.

But Jane's interpretation of the letter was entirely different from that of her sister's. Nothing in Caroline's lines assured her that Mr. Bingley fostered plans to come back to Netherfield in the near future. Jane's construction of Miss Bingley's message left her with little doubts that their departure was definitive. She was inclined to believe that Mr. Bingley had some other interests in mind that would keep him entertained in London.

"The passage that particularly hurts me is the one where she mentions Miss Darcy," said Jane after reading the first lines of the letter. "Evidently, Miss Caroline aspires to become her sister. It is now clear to me that she neither expects nor wishes me to marry her brother. She is perfectly convinced of Mr Bingley's indifference towards me and, suspecting the nature of my feelings for him, she is kindly putting me on my guard."

"I think it is exactly the opposite. Miss Bingley knows that her brother loves you and sees you as a threat to her designs to join the Darcy family."

Jane shook her head. "It cannot be."

"Jane, we are neither rich enough nor grand enough for them. That is why she urged him to return to London. You pose an obstacle to her plans of becoming a member of the Darcy family. What best way to dissuade him than keeping him as far away from you as possible?"

"Then, how can I have expectations about him when his own sisters wish him to be married to someone else?"

"You should not care about what they think, Jane. Mr. Bingley will come back to ask you to marry him and then you will prove Caroline that she was wrong."

"Oh, Lizzy!" Jane embraced her sister as her anguish took the best of her, "The whole winter! So many things may happen in three months!"

Elizabeth gave her sister a comforting embrace. It broke her heart to see Jane in such misery but there was not much she could do to change what had happened. Her only hope was that Mr. Bingley would be man enough to ignore his sisters' influence and return to Netherfield to continue his pursuit of Jane's heart.

Days passed slowly after that. Winter was upon them and there was not much the family could do to entertain themselves except reading, embroidering and taking an occasional walk into the village. For a few days, even when Elizabeth had not mentioned her encounter with Mr. Darcy to another living soul, she was on pins and needles in worry that it would somehow become public. She had this unpleasant sensation that one morning she would wake up to an angry father ready to confront her about the incident and that the entire village would be pointing their fingers at her and doubting her morality.

Equally distressing where her thoughts of the gentleman that had put her in such a delicate position. Her recollection of their encounter in the woods and the sensations it awakened were so tumultuous and contradictory that they barely allowed her to sleep. There was anger for sure, and remorse, but also confusion for sentiments she knew she should dismiss as inappropriate but which infused too much heat into her veins, making the task of forgoing them impossible. There were times when her lips tingled at the memory of that kiss, when the mere recollection of his lips pressed against hers was enough to build a powerful warmth that would start in her stomach and then spread over her chest.

She could not understand why this gentleman occupied such a predominant space in her mind. Elizabeth knew in her heart that she did not like him, that she could never admire a man like Mr. Darcy. Not that she considered him ill-favoured, no. In fact, Elizabeth could not disallow the handsomeness of his features or the attractiveness of his physique. Yet, these inarguable attributes were not enough to compensate his flaws. The gentleman was proud - inappropriately proud, arrogant and rude. Undeniably, he was the owner of a sharp wit, his movements were full of manly grace, even his handwriting - she spied once a letter he was writing to his sister -was clear and neat. Yet all these positive traits inherent to his person paled when faced to faults of character so evident that could be neither overlooked nor forgiven. His honour had been questioned several times and his true nature had been exposed in both his deals with Wickham and in his assault to her person.

As days progressed, the memories of that encounter started to fade. Elizabeth became her usual self once again, free from preoccupations about indecent encounters or images that should never be part of a young lady's thoughts. But, this brief time of happiness did not last long. Ten days after the gentleman had left Hertfordshire; her worst nightmare finally became true.

Elizabeth was in Meryton on an errand for her mother, blissfully ignorant of the rumour that had been spread over the village like the outbreak of a bad disease. She noticed some signs that something was wrong along the way, but Elizabeth never connected the ill disposition of the villagers with her presence there. Mr. Owen, the milliner, usually a very amiable man, barely spoke two words to her. Judgemental eyes followed her everywhere. But what ensued after she reached home was even worse.

Longbourn was in uproar when Elizabeth arrived at the house. Mrs. Bennet was lying on the sofa crying in earnest while Mrs. Phillips tried to comfort her.

"Oh, sister! She is our ruin! Lizzy will ruin us all! First she refuses Mr. Collins and now she is Mr. Darcy's mistress!"

Elizabeth hastily approached her mother "Mama, what happened?"

"You should be ashamed of yourself, Lizzy." Mrs. Phillips turned around with a furrowed brow. "We never expected such horrid behaviour from you! It is a fortune that the gentleman implied is not one of those reckless soldiers!"

"What?" cried Elizabeth. "I don't understand!"

"Do not pretend to be innocent," her aunt rejoined. "You and your lover have been unmasked!"

Elizabeth paled at the accusation, guessing the subject that caused such a dramatic scene. "It cannot be ..."

Mrs. Phillips returned her attention to her sister, whose hand she was patting energetically. "You must stay calm, Fanny, or you will suffer a stroke. See? Lizzy says it cannot be. I am certain that this was a misunderstanding."

"Misunderstanding? There is no misunderstanding!" shrieked Mrs. Bennet. "They were seen together in the woods! Kissing of all things!"

"Then," Mrs. Philips replied with the solemnity the case demanded, "Measures should be taken. Something should be done to rectify this calamity."

It took Mrs. Bennet a moment to interpret her sister's words and understand what this suggestion implied, but as soon as she guessed her meaning, Mrs. Bennet's calculating mind was awakened and she forgot of despair and fatality and quickly saw a way to obtain profit from this crisis. Smelling salts were pushed aside and the servants fanning their mistress were dismissed. She sat up, her face lit up at her good fortune.

"They must get married!" she gasped. "Oh, sister! What a wonderful idea! Mr. Bennet must run post haste to London and make that man marry my Lizzy!"

Mrs. Philips was startled for an instant, but soon saw the wisdom - and the opportunity - in her sister's declaration. With five daughters to get rid of, what best than use this situation to marry one of them off? And to a rich man like Mr. Darcy, of all means! Perhaps this was not the best way to do it, but as she already knew, there was no scandal that could not be covered with a few coins.

"Indeed he should, Fanny. That man should be called on his recklessness."

Mrs. Bennet clapped enthusiastically. "We shall have a winter wedding!"

Elizabeth witnessed the scene with stupor. The entire village knew of her misfortune and her most mercenary parent saw her disgrace as a vein from where she could extract gold.

But Elizabeth knew that this was not the end of the matter. There was one more person she would need to confront. She glanced at her father's study and saw him standing by the threshold, glaring at her with stern and jaundiced eyes. No invitation needed to be voiced. Elizabeth lowered her head and headed for her father's sanctuary as scared and penitent as a prisoner taking his last steps to the gallows. The door was closed behind her and Elizabeth steeled herself for the worse.

"Is this true, Lizzy?" Mr. Bennet asked. While he had been determined to give her the chance to explain, his words failed to conceal his disappointment.

Elizabeth could hardly speak. What was there to tell? She could not accuse Mr Darcy of abusing her, could she?

"Father," she began, and in a submissive and remorseful tone, she told him about the argument she had with her mother because of her refusal of Mr. Collins' proposal and how she happened upon Mr. Darcy in her escape. Mr. Bennet listened quietly, hands clasped behind his back, his countenance grave.

His reaction to this woeful tale was not what Elizabeth had expected. There was no anger or spite, or ill-tempered shouting, just the bitter disappointment of a parent who had just seen the downfall of his favourite child.

"So ... you accepted his kiss," her father affirmed, saddened by her confession.

"Yes, for an instant ... once I realized what was happening, I pushed him away. I'm so sorry, papa, it was a wretched mistake. I don't know what came over us."

Mr. Bennet rubbed his fingers on his forehead in an attempt to think of the best solution to their dilemma. With a sigh, he thus proceeded. "Very well, child, we shall discuss this no further. What is done is done and there is nothing we can do to change it. Your reputation has been seriously compromised. I fear your mother is right. I must sojourn to London and have a serious conversation with Mr. Darcy. I only hope he is a man of honour and that he accepts his duty."

For the second time that day, Elizabeth thought her heart would stop. "Are you contriving for me to marry him?"

"I have no other choice, Elizabeth."

"There must be another way." Elizabeth insisted with increasing desperation. "I could travel to London. I can live with my aunt and uncle for the winter. I'm most certain they will take me in. Everything will be forgotten when I come back!"

"The matter is finished, Elizabeth. As much as it pains me, I see no other way to solve this without disgracing us all. I shall depart for London tomorrow morning."

The definiteness in her father's voice told Elizabeth that was the end of their colloquy. She bowed her head, tears brimming her eyes, in silent submission.

"Go now," he dismissed her, "stay in your room. I shall deal with your mother myself."

Elizabeth obeyed. When she reached her bedchamber, she flopped herself on her bed and cried until she fell asleep.

~ * ~

London's agitated life did very little to distract Darcy. When the excitement of the arrival passed and he fell once again in a tedious routine, he grew uninterested of his surroundings even when faced with the diversity of amusements that the social season offered.

Bingley was in no different state. His mood was quite dull lately and Darcy found it impossible to cheer him up. He was constantly mentioning Netherfield and Miss Jane in their conversations despite Darcy's efforts to deflect their chats towards safer subjects. The Bingley sisters, on the other hand, were more direct when the name of a certain lady was mentioned and would usually dismiss the topic as tedious and unsuitable to their liking. Poor Bingley, with no one to share his misery and overwhelmed by the memories of his beloved, decided to leave Town and depart for Conwy, his cousin's estate where he would stay for the rest of the winter.

His friend's lowness of spirit and sudden departure made Darcy reflect upon his own actions, forcing him to reconsider the advice he gave Bingley regarding Miss Jane Bennet. Bingley was displaying an unusual consistency in his affection for the lady -Darcy never imagined it would last beyond the carriage ride to London- so perhaps it was true love from his friend's part. If Bingley's love survived the winter, maybe it would be convenient to let the lovers reunite and allow things to progress on their own. But if Bingley had forgotten the subject upon his return from Wales, then Darcy would be proved right and Miss Jane Bennet would become just another name in the long list of women with whom Charles Bingley had been infatuated.

Two days after Bingley's departure Darcy found a visitor waiting for him at his Townhouse when he arrived home after spending the morning in his club.

"Richard!" Darcy smiled at his cousin, Col. Richard Fitzwilliam. "I thought you were in Scotland. What a pleasure to have you here."

The cousins shook hands. Darcy poured two glasses of port and handed one to Richard as they sat down to converse about the latest news.

"What brings you to London?"

"My regiment is encamped in __shire for the remaining of the month so I decided to pay you a visit. I must join them in two days time. Tell me Darcy, how was your stay in Hertfordshire?" inquired the colonel.

"Nothing out of the ordinary." Darcy shrugged. "These small villages are very much alike."

"When will you learn to enjoy yourself, cousin?" the colonel chuckled, "I thought that spending more time in Bingley's company would liven you up."

"Bingley's spirits had been uncommonly low these days."

Fitzwilliam's brows frowned with concern, for he knew Bingley to be a cheerful fellow. "Is anything the matter with him? Is he in good health?"

"Yes, he is in good health, but his heart has suffered another disappointment."

The colonel smirked. "Yet again?"

"He is travelling to Wales for the winter, trying to forget this young lady he met in Hertfordshire." Darcy's eyes were fixed on the hearth as he spoke.

"He'll forget her within the blink of an eye, as he always does."

"I fear in this case it might not be as easy as we think."

"If that's the case and his affection is real, then why must he forget her?"

"Well.... the lady was not appropriate for him." Without giving away many details, Darcy told his cousin the story Bingley and the beautiful girl he met during their stay in Netherfield Park.

~ * ~

Three days after Col. Fitzwilliam's departure Darcy found himself alone in his townhouse reading the letters his steward had sent him to update him with the latest news from Pemberley, his estate in Derbyshire. His sister Georgiana was in Bath, visiting some acquaintances and with Bingley out of town, Darcy's outings were restricted to his club and an occasional walk in the park.

Many of his acquaintances were already there; invitations for dinners and other events weren't lacking yet all these exclusive and supposedly interesting events were dismissed as boring and unattractive. To complete the unpleasant picture, Darcy's mere presence in Town was enough to situate him once again in the centre of the husband hunting market, making him the object of desire of ambitious mothers that wanted to secure the future of their daughters. The Season was politics adorned with feathers and lace. Everyone talked about everyone, backgrounds and connections were investigated and compared and young ladies were exhibited by their mothers like mares at Tattersalls (*).

Even surrounded by the most beautiful women of this country, Darcy could not stop thinking of the young girl he had met during his visit to Hertfordshire. Every lady he was introduced to seemed unattractive and unqualified when opposed to Miss Elizabeth Bennet. None of them had her liveliness of spirit, her natural beauty or her sparkling wit. Even those of superior breeding, 'accomplished' according to Miss Bingley standards, failed in comparison with the enchanting Miss Bennet. He knew the incident was still fresh in his mind, yet despite his greatest efforts to leave it behind, there was not a day he could pass without remembering their kiss in the woods or night where she would not show herself in his bedroom while he slept. The woman had to be a sorceress, Darcy reflected, as there was no other possible explanation for this long lasting infatuation. What kind of spell had his nymph cast on him?

Darcy's reverie was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was his butler, announcing there was a gentleman requesting an audience with him.

"I'm not expecting anyone. Did the gentleman give you his name?"

"Mr. Thomas Bennet, sir."

Darcy's mind went blank for an instant but soon it was flooded by hundreds of images which he would have wished never to be compelled to face. He could only conjure on one reason that could have brought Mr. Bennet to knock at his door and with no little trepidation he realized that his worst nightmare had just come to life. With a few differences, this incident resembled what he had suffered in Ramsgate and very much alike that case, the mishap had reached the ears of the victim's guardian. The first occurrence had been resolved with a generous check; would Mr. Bennet require a pecuniary compensation for the inconvenience as well? Darcy was at loss as what to believe. He knew he was not blameless in this affair yet he found himself wishing the man that he was about to face did not have a mercenary inclination. He was also aware that simple minds were easily corrupted and was certain that if Mr. Bennet's was not of the mind of requesting a lieu, his calculating wife had surely instructed him with the numerous advantages they could obtain from this transaction if they played their cards well.

"Sir?" the butler insisted.

Darcy looked up, startled. "Show him into the parlour, I shall be there in a moment."

The gentleman squared his shoulders and straightened his tailcoat. With a deep intake of breath, he headed to the parlour, praying that the other man was not carrying his shotgun with him.

~ * ~

Mr. Bennet waited in the parlour of the Darcy townhouse with increasing uneasiness. He had come to London with one sole purpose in mind, and that was confronting the man who had taken unwanted liberties with his second eldest daughter and to 'negotiate' a reparation for the damage the gentleman's conduct caused to his child's reputation. His choices on the matter were scarce and unappealing and he knew in his heart that whatever the outcome of this meeting was, he would never be completely satisfied by it. It would be either disgrace to his name and family if the gentleman refused to accept his obligation, or to see his most beloved child married to a man she could neither love nor respect.

Mr. Bennet was not foreign to the knowledge that there was not much he could do if Darcy refused to comply with his request to marry his daughter. Calling him to a duel was not an acceptable choice for the elder gentleman, as he knew that he would never survive a match against the young and athletic Mr. Darcy.

He was also aware of the fact that Darcy could very well choose to fulfil his obligation in different ways - in case he admitted his wrong - without feeling the necessity of marrying his daughter. He could offer to employ her as a governess in his estate or even to marry her to an acquaintance who owed him a favour. Granted, Mr. Bennet did not want his Lizzy to suffer such cruel fate. As a father, it was his obligation to protect her and assure her the best possible future under the circumstances. Even if his heart told him that he should slap that air of superiority from Darcy's face, he knew he had to be smart and patient and that he needed to come to an understanding with the younger gentleman if he wanted this subject to be resolved to his satisfaction.

"Mr. Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again." Darcy entered the library and saluted his visitor with a polite bow.

"I wish I could say the same, sir. You can be certain that my presence here is anything but pleasurable to me," Mr. Bennet stood firm.

Darcy maintained his composure despite the unfriendly greeting. "I can imagine the reason that brings you here. Be certain I am at your service." He gestured to the decanter and said, "Would you like something to drink before we start?"

Mr. Bennet studied his opponent for an instant. At least he was not pretending the 'incident' did not happen. "Yes, thank you."

"Port or brandy?"

"Brandy, Sir. I think that we will both need something strong."

Darcy poured the drinks. He gave Mr. Bennet his goblet and gestured his guest toward a comfortable arm chair.

Mr. Bennet kindly refused to seat. Instead he squared his shoulders and went directly to the point. "I have been informed that you and my second eldest daughter have had a very improper encounter before your hasty departure from Hertfordshire. That you somehow..." he paused here "...imposed on her. What do you have to say?"

"Unfortunately, sir, it is the absolute truth," Darcy said with contrition. "Be not alarmed, sir. You have my word as a gentleman that my behaviour, though blameworthy, had not compromised your daughter's virtue in any way."

Mr Bennet felt a rush of anger in his veins at the young man's hypocrisy. How dared he talk of the word of a gentleman! "My daughter informed me of what transpired between the two of you. Her version agrees with yours, that it was merely a stolen kiss, but that does not make the circumstance less reproachable." He paused to observe Darcy's reaction, though his expression remained unreadable. "I shall go to the point. You were discovered, sir, and my daughter's honour was compromised."

Darcy's face blanched. "This is a very unfortunate circumstance, indeed. It was never my intention to importune your daughter, sir. I wholeheartedly apologize."

Mr Bennet lost all the composure that he could have withstanding. "Mr. Darcy, your apology is of no use in this case. This 'unfortunate' mishap as you so lightly describe it has seriously damaged my daughter's reputation. You were seen by others, sir, and those who witnessed your actions had no scruples informing the rest of the village of the occurrence. As I have already stated, my daughter's reputation has been practically ruined and if you do not care to do anything to repair this 'unfortunate circumstance', I fear the 'circumstance' will affect her life forever."

Darcy remained silent, looking at the elder man without uttering a word.

"Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet continued. "I came to London not for one minute doubting that you, sir, are indeed a man of honour. My daughter's welfare or complete disgrace is in your hands. Now what are you going to do?"

The young gentleman walked towards the window and stared outside for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Mr. Bennet was not merely requesting a compensation for his daughter's misfortune; he wanted her honour to be restored. And there was only way to accomplish that: marrying her to the gentleman that had put her morality in question thus cleaning her name and that of her family.

He had never imagined he would find himself in a predicament such as this. He was Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley, proud of his name and position, but whenever Miss Elizabeth Bennet was concerned, his superior breeding and self-control faded away and he was just a man exposed by the raw intensity of his feelings. He had always set very high standards for himself and was proud of his accomplishments, still in this case, he had failed. A moment of weakness had allowed his emotions to rule over his reason and miserably affected another human being, one that happened to be a woman he admired, the woman that, until now, he did not permit himself to love.

I came to London to forget her and now here is her father requesting me to marry her. Would that be such an ill fate? Darcy reflected introspectively. Certainly, it was not. He did not see anything fateful or wrong about marrying the beautiful Miss Elizabeth Bennet. On the contrary, the mere idea of espousing her was becoming increasingly attractive.

Darcy turned slowly and faced the elder man, his decision made. "Mr. Bennet, I suppose that you are suggesting that I must marry your daughter in order to preserve her honour."

"Indeed I am, sir, and I am happy that we understand each other so well."

Even on the verge of admitting defeat and granting the other man his wish, Darcy could not repress his absurd pride. "Mr. Bennet, as you know, my position in society is very much above the one of your family and you can imagine how much it will be affected if the news of this 'incident' is spread into my social circles."

"Yes sir, I am aware of that." Mr. Bennet answered, waiting for his foe to elaborate more on the subject. This was not the moment to lose his temper.

"As you said before, I am a man of honour. I was raised with good principles and have followed them all my life. As a man that takes full responsibility for his actions, I inform you that I know my duty. I will marry your daughter, Mr. Bennet."

Mr. Bennet slowly released the breath he was holding. It was done.

Darcy sensed that the matter was not over yet. Despite the relief he saw on Mr. Bennet's features, the upset parent did not look happy.

"You seem unsatisfied with the outcome of this conversation, sir," Darcy grunted with a frown.

"Unsatisfied? Indeed I am, sir. How could I ever be satisfied?"

The bitterness in Mr. Bennet's tone was clear. "Your daughter will be making a most advantageous marriage. Is that not good enough for you and your family?"

"Do you think I could be proud of giving a most beloved child in marriage under the present circumstances? What father will find pleasure in forcing his daughter to marry a man she does not love, a man she dislikes so much?" Mr. Bennet's words did not fail to startle the proud groom-to-be. "A man whose reckless behaviour leads me to think that, whenever the opportunity arises, will run after the first pretty face that crosses his way? No father would wish his daughter such an unpleasant destiny," he finished angrily.

Darcy could not believe what he just heard. Elizabeth disliked him? He, a rake?

"Sir, I perfectly comprehend your feelings. I understand your concerns for your daughter's welfare and happiness. But I can assure you, she will never suffer from such an infliction from my person."

The father of the bride let out a chuckle of pure bitterness. "Forgive me, Mr. Darcy, you may think me naïve. Yet, I am not. You strayed once."

"You misunderstand my nature, I ..." Darcy attempted to explain himself.

"Spare me the words, young man. I fear I have seen enough of this World to know the likes of you never change. It is not the first time a wealthy man takes too many liberties with a maiden that he would never take with ladies of his same rank. I have seen it happen many times."

Even though Darcy understood the foundation of Mr. Bennet's concern, he could not allow anyone to insult him in that manner. In his defence, Darcy said, "Mr. Bennet, I fear you have every reason to distrust my words and suspect future indiscretions, yet I feel obliged to explain the circumstances that forced me into that behaviour. I am not a rake, I assure you. My misconduct that day was the result of a moment of weakness."

"Weakness?" echoed the enraged father scarcely believing Darcy's impudence.

"I profess the most profound regard towards your daughter." Darcy finally admitted.

Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows, not for one minute believing Mr Darcy could be attached to Elizabeth in any way. Regardless, Darcy continued, with the conviction of a man that knew to have the best intentions at heart.

"I have been her most fervent admirer since the day I met her. I feel the deepest regard for your daughter, sir. As my wife, she will be forever respected and cherished."

Mr. Bennet could not believe what he just heard. "Indeed!"

Darcy dropped his gaze momentarily, then looked at Mr Bennet in earnest pledge. "I give you my word."

The mode of Darcy's declaration convinced Mr. Bennet of the sincerity of his speech. Perhaps the other gentleman was mistaking lust with affection; still, this was more than Mr. Bennet had expected to hear from Darcy's lips. If he truly cherished his daughter or at least his feelings were close to this emotion, Elizabeth would be able to achieve some happiness in the future.

"I believe you, young man, and it gives me some comfort ... under the circumstances."

"I am glad, sir."

"Well son, it is settled." Mr. Bennet sighed and inwardly thought, "Do not fool yourself, Mr. Darcy, things will not be as easy as you imagine." Aloud, he said, "You have my daughter's hand, sir; you must now win her heart."

(*)The first bloodstock's auction house, founded in 1766 by Richard Tattersalls. The company is world renowned for selling the best thoroughbreds and hunting horses.

Chapter 3

The night following Mr. Bennet's visit found an insomnious Darcy lying in his bed, staring blankly at the canopy above him as the words expressed by his future father-in-law resounded in his head. 'You must now win her heart'. This statement really took him by surprise, as Darcy had never imagined that he would have to earn Elizabeth Bennet's regard. Not that he thought she already loved him, but he had always assumed that the lady in question held him in some esteem. Apparently his assumptions had been inaccurate. Still, Darcy was sure that winning her affection would not be an impossible task, in fact, he felt quite confident of his success. No doubt, he was one of England's most eligible bachelors and he was certain that Elizabeth would not fail to understand the importance of her future husband and the advantageous position this marriage would bestow upon her. And if the passion he had felt on her lips that morning they kissed had not been just a figment of his imagination, Elizabeth had more interest in his person than she had dared to admit to her father.

While Darcy did not deny the reprehensibility of the actions that produced their engagement and the possible consequences it might bring, as time passed, he felt more comfortable with his present circumstance. He was marrying the most desirable woman he had ever met. Even more, he was perfectly persuaded he was engaged to the lady of his dreams. If he left aside her unsuitable social status and absolute lack of connections, Elizabeth Bennet possessed every quality he wanted in a spouse: beauty, spirit, strength, charm and impeccable manners. A woman that he knew would become an excellent wife and a great mistress of his estate, able to provide him with healthy heirs.

Despite the fact that these qualities made of Elizabeth an appropriate match to him, Darcy was perfectly aware that the news of his engagement to someone so beneath himself would provoke an adverse reaction among certain members of his family. The strongest opponent, he was most certain, would be his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park. Not just because he knew that she would purposely dismiss each and every one of Elizabeth's qualities, but also because of her undying expectations of a union between the houses of Rosings and Pemberley. His uncle, the Earl of Matlock, though known for being a liberal man, might also display some reticence to the match, especially if his sister Catherine of Rosings succeeded in convincing him of his bride's unsuitability. In case the Earl expressed any objection, Darcy knew he could enlist Col. Fitzwilliam's help in the task of obtaining his uncle's grace. His friends and London's society usually followed whatever the Earl determined so if that obstacle was overcome right from the start, his felicity with Elizabeth would be assured.

The only serious inconvenience that might result from this alliance, and one that could not be overlooked, was the new and most undesirable connection that would be established after his nuptials with Elizabeth. That was indeed a matter of concern for him and one that he would have to resolve immediately after his marriage. Darcy would be forever connected with people below his rank, whom not only did he disdain, but also considered so beneath himself as to persuade him that they would never meet with his family's approval.

However, there was one member of his family who would be more than delighted with the match: his sister Georgiana. Certainly, she would be one to be greatly benefited from the union. Elizabeth's liveliness would perfect to help Georgiana overcome her shyness. Darcy was absolutely sure that the girl would love Elizabeth from the moment they became acquainted, so he fostered no concerns on that score, in the same way he was confident of the instant affection Elizabeth would develop for his sweet Georgiana when they finally met.

These reflections convinced him of the importance of persuading Elizabeth of the necessity to quit all appearance of connection and avoid unnecessary communication with her family once they married. With Georgiana in particular, these measures were not enough. His dear sister could be neither exposed to the wildness of the youngest Bennet girls nor to the vulgarity of their progenitors. Any eventual contact that might occur would have to be under his personal supervision and always overseeing that Georgiana's permeable mind would not receive any sort of negative influence from his future in-laws.

Deep inside, Darcy reckoned his bride may show some reluctance to this imposition at first, yet he was most certain that Elizabeth would quickly accommodate herself to her new circumstance and admit that keeping these connections would not beneficial to her new role of Mistress of Pemberley. In more than one occasion he had seen her show embarrassment for her sisters' and her own mother's ill behaviour -the Netherfield ball was the latest and most outstanding reminder of their lack of manners- so Darcy had no doubt that Elizabeth would immediately appreciate his efforts in separating her from them. With time, all would be well.

~ * ~

The father of the bride called on his future son-in-law the next morning to arrange his daughter's settlement. Albeit Mr. Bennet knew that Darcy was a wealthy man, he was most favourably impressed by the size of the gentleman's fortune and, most of all, with the extraordinary generosity he showed in the settlement of Elizabeth. True, he was still concerned about her happiness as he feared that Mr Darcy's insufferable pride and Lizzy's sometimes unconquerable stubbornness --or the combination of the two---would make their connubial felicity more difficult to achieve. Still Mr Bennet had faith that the newlyweds would eventually arrive at a mutual understanding once they had become better acquainted with each other's whimsicalities and faults. All in all, Mr Darcy seemed to be a kind man -when his recurrent obnoxiousness was repressed-- and the combination of his strong character and his affection for his daughter would certainly contribute to Elizabeth's eventual taming.

If not, God helped them.

~ * ~

Mr. Bennet returned to Longbourn to announce the positive conclusion of his business in Town. At home, a small crowd of six women were anxiously awaiting his news, some of them with unguarded optimism and others with bleak despair.

"Oh, Lizzy, what wonderful news! You will be so rich!" Mrs. Bennet cried overflowing with delight. "I knew Mr. Darcy was an honourable man and that he would consent to marry you. Oh! Now I have to plan the biggest ceremony in Meryton's history!"

"No, Mrs. Bennet, I fear you will not," Mr. Bennet interjected. "I have merely agreed to a simple ceremony."

Mrs. Bennet readily protested. "What? No, no, Elizabeth deserves the ...."

"Hush, Mrs Bennet. Given the unusual circumstances that produced this marriage, common sense forbids us to think grand. A small ceremony will do."

"Can we not have a wedding breakfast? I see no harm in it," Mrs Bennet insisted.

Mr Bennet beheld his wife from behind his reading glasses. Her face betrayed such unbearable distress that he took pity on her. "Very well. But only with the immediate family."

Mrs. Bennet wasted no time and readily accommodated this little concession to her own ideas of what was grand or small. There was so much to do and so little time, so she rushed to her desk and settled herself to the task at hand.

"I must start the planning of the wedding reception. There are so many friends that I wish to invite. Oh, where will I find the white lace? I shall write to my sister in London post haste! I am sure she will have no trouble in directing me to the best shops."

"Mrs. Bennet," her husband protested. "Mrs. Bennet! There will be no lace! No friends! We must prevent the 'scandal' from reaching the circles in which your daughter shall move once she becomes Mrs Darcy."

Elizabeth, who had been witnessing the entire scene, almost cringed when they mentioned the name that soon would become her own. Mrs. Darcy, Elizabeth thought with despair. The name sounded odious when coming from her father's mouth. All in all, she could forgo her mother's enthusiasm. Elizabeth had long learned to accept her necessity to secure her offspring's future. Yet she could not believe that her good father still persevered in his intention of marrying her to Mr. Darcy while knowing how she felt about the gentleman.

"Papa, please, do not force me to do this!" she begged one last time.

"My darling, Lizzy." Mrs. Bennet walked toward her daughter, addressing her in her kindest voice, much to Elizabeth's astonishment as she was not used to being the recipient of her mother's sweetness. "Your father is in the right. You shall marry the gentleman, and all shall be well. No scandal, I promise." Giving a little shriek of pleasure she said, "Just imagine, a house in Town, the carriages, the clothes! You will be rich!"

"Lizzy, my dear," Mr. Bennet tried to ease his daughter's worries, "Mr. Darcy seems to be a good man. I know he is a proud sort of man, but he is not as disagreeable as you presume. He has behaved very generously in consenting to this marriage, and I dare say, he will take good care of you. You must try your best to accept him. One day you will learn to appreciate his qualities." He gave a sideways glance at his wife and sighed with resignation while she moved euphorically about the room. "Well, at least he has some qualities to be credited with."

Elizabeth could hardly believe her ears. Her father held Mr Darcy in his good regard?

"And when am I supposed to marry this 'superior gentleman'?" Elizabeth asked in an icy tone.

"By the end of January. Mr. Darcy shall confirm the date on his next visit," replied Mr. Bennet, steeling himself in front of his daughter's grief.

Elizabeth paled. In less than two months she would marry a man that she was perfectly persuaded she would never be able to love. Seeing no other choice but to accept her fate, Elizabeth took a deep breath and assented. "I am sure Mr Darcy is the last man in the world I would have expected to be prevailed upon to marry," she said with contrition. "Yet I shall do as you wish."

~ * ~

"Lizzy, you must try to calm yourself. It is no use rebelling against what has already been decided. On the contrary, you must embrace what is to come," Jane told her sister before they went to bed that night. "I am sure Mr. Darcy is indeed a good man after all and eventually you shall learn to love him. Our father wouldn't force you to marry him if he did not think him respectable."

"Respectable?" cried Elizabeth. "He's a rascal with no consideration for the feelings of others. I do not think his conduct is at all respectable or gentlemanlike."

"Perhaps his actions were not gentlemanlike at the time," Jane answered thoughtfully. "But he is Mr. Bingley's good friend. I am sure that speaks better of him."

"The man is so arrogant and proud ... and resentful, he even confessed that himself!" she affirmed with her usual eagerness. "I know I will never respect him, much less love him."

Jane was very much aware of her sister's inclination for dramatics and her tendency to exaggeration yet she had to make her understand that she needed to make the best of her present circumstance. "Lizzy, there is no way you can escape this wedding. If you don't try to soften your opinion of him you shall be exceedingly unhappy!"

Her sister's words of wisdom might have helped Elizabeth in other occasion yet in this case they did not serve to change her mind. "I know, Jane. 'Tis only I have always wished to marry for the deepest love and respect and now I am to wed the man I hate most!"

"You should do as Papa said. You must dismiss the bad qualities and see him for the good ones."

"He has none," Elizabeth replied stubbornly.

"I am sure he has many. Let us see ..." Jane said thoughtfully, "... he is tall."

Making her best effort, Elizabeth agreed, "Indeed he is. But I cannot account it as an asset, it is mere ... good fortune."

"Tall is a thousand times better than short and meaty," Jane teased. "Now, it's your turn."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her sister's insistence, yet came up with a virtue she could not deny the gentleman had. "Well, he is ...fit."

Again, Jane made a gesture of encouragement.

"And presentable, he's always impeccably groomed and dressed." Elizabeth added with a little more enthusiasm.

Jane smiled at her sister's progress. The day would come when Elizabeth Bennet would admit to herself and others that Mr. Darcy was indeed a handsome man. "And rich, you should not forget that one."

"Oh, that is his best side!" Elizabeth laughed feigning herself mercenary.

"Lizzy!"

"That should suffice for now," declared a satisfied Elizabeth. "Three compliments are more than enough."

"I am sure you will discover that Mr. Darcy has many more good sides, Lizzy."

"Maybe," she shrugged. "Perhaps he improves on closer acquaintance."

"He will."

"Thank you, Jane," Elizabeth smiled at her sister, "you are indeed an angel."

Jane took her sister's hand in an attempt to offer her more comfort. "Well, there is one thing in his favour with what he should be particularly credited, Lizzy."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at the appearance of Jane's mischievous smile.

"At least he is not Mr. Collins."

Elizabeth giggled at her sister's unexpected attempt at humour. Indeed, Mr. Darcy was no Mr. Collins.

Chapter 4

Elizabeth sat by the window seat of the drawing room observing the perfect blanket of snow that covered the landscape of Longbourn's garden, preparing herself for the arrival of her husband-to-be. Anybody seeing her would say that she was the picture of sadness.

What will I do now? Elizabeth wondered as she thought of every possible method that would help her escape her unpleasant future. When her father departed for London in pursuit of Mr. Darcy, she had never imagined that their meeting would result on an engagement to the man for whom she had so little respect. In fact, she had secretly hoped, nay, wished that the gentleman would refuse to consent to enter an alliance of any sort with her. Even with the knowledge that his negative would damage her reputation forever, Elizabeth was fully convinced that total disgrace was better than an unhappy, forced union to the man she hated most. All the most horrid destinies she had thought of -and Elizabeth was universally known for having an extremely fertile imagination--, were more appealing than the prospect of marrying Mr. Darcy.

With a melodramatic sigh of resignation, Elizabeth accepted that soon she would become the new Mrs. Darcy. If she wanted to assure herself a minimum amount of happiness as a married woman, she should at least try to see her future husband in a more benign light.

Following Jane's advice, Elizabeth focused on the task of pointing out her future husband's most positive assets. At least he is not Mr. Collins, she recalled her sister's words. The gentleman had to possess other qualities besides being tall and fit and presentable and rich. Brow furrowed in concentration, Elizabeth tried harder. Well, she could not deny he was handsome, not in the traditional way, but handsome nonetheless. He also had a distinguished air that occasionally she found quite becoming. He was a good reader and though they had not conversed much, he has shown her he was the possessor of an informed and sharp mind. He was a skilled rider and an elegant dancer, too. No, Darcy and Collins could not be compared, neither physically nor mentally. The sensations that the parson produced in her were close to repulsion while Darcy ... she could not decide yet because it was mostly confusion what she felt when she thought of him. Even her body had this distracting tendency to react involuntary to his presence, most of the time warming up and unsettling her stomach when he was close. Sometimes her feelings for him were close to annoyance, other times it was just uneasiness. Still there was one emotion that she knew was never connected to Mr. Darcy's person, and that was indifference. No, she may not have felt attracted to the gentleman yet she knew she had never been indifferent to him.

But she had never been indifferent to Mr. Wickham either, Elizabeth reflected with a loud sigh, this way putting an end to this brief lapse where she allowed herself to portray her future husband in a better light. And as it usually happened when the charming officer came into scene, her fiancée didn't stand a chance and was one more time depicted in a less generous way. Wickham was equally tall, and handsome -in the traditional way, Elizabeth decided-- and ever more amiable. Wickham did not take advantage of defenceless maidens. Mr. Wickham was ten times more gentlemanlike than Mr. Darcy.

Fully convinced that she would never be able to love or respect her future husband, Elizabeth left her post at the window and went to the kitchen to help Hill with the preparations for the arrival of her illustrious fiancée. All charitable thoughts of the proud Mr. Darcy were promptly dismissed as unsuitable and inaccurate and the gentleman was placed once more at the top of her list of the most detestable people she had ever met.

Mr. Darcy arrived at Longbourn two hours later, carrying the papers his solicitor had prepared for Mr. Bennet to sign. The engaged couple greeted each other with awkwardness, quite expected given they way they parted the last time they were in each other's company. Darcy, though apparently calm, was not completely at ease with his present circumstance and preferred to stick to formalities when in the company of his in laws. The unhappy bride-to-be was as cold and distant as civility allowed.

No social engagements where planned during the gentleman's visit so Darcy and Elizabeth would have plenty of time to spend in each other's company. However, Elizabeth tried to avoid her fiancée's presence the best she could but all her efforts seemed to be in vain, as her mother was constantly scheming against her. She contrived to come up with most unusual situations possible in order to leave the young 'lovers' by themselves.

On one occasion, Mrs Bennet even ambushed Elizabeth, calling her to the library where she knew Mr. Darcy was reading a book. Elizabeth had no other choice but to sit by him and make some futile attempts at conversation that the gentleman seemed at best uninterested to discuss. When she was done commenting the weather and the most common topics, the lack of participation of her partner told her that he might be above these trivialities. So she concentrated her efforts on a subject that was of her particular interest and started a line of questioning especially designed to disturb her fiancée.

"Did you happen to see Mr. Bingley during your stay in London, Mr. Darcy?"

Darcy lifted his eyes from his book and shifted his body to face her. He responded briefly, not wishing to extend himself on this matter. "Yes, I did."

Not satisfied with his succinct reply, Elizabeth insisted. "He and his sisters were well, I hope, when you left London."

"Perfectly so, I thank you." He offered with a smile and returned his eyes to his book.

Elizabeth did not avert her gaze from his face and wondered what was so important about his reading that he could not distract his attention from it for more than a second. She was asking about his good friend, a subject that she imagined would also be of Darcy's liking and one of which she was eager to learn more.

"And ... did Mr Bingley mention if he had plans of returning to Hertfordshire in the future?"

"I doubt it. Bingley is in Wales for the winter. I do not believe he will be back in the immediate future."

"Oh." Elizabeth was slightly startled by this intelligence. "Then it would be better for the neighbourhood if he let go the place entirely if he has no intention of ever returning to Netherfield, for then we might possibly get a settled family there."

"Perhaps he might do so as soon as he finds an eligible purchase offer for it."

Elizabeth detected certain discomfiture in the gentleman's attitude, yet she could not pinpoint what could be causing it. Recalling Jane's recommendations --yet again--, Elizabeth concentrated her efforts in searching a theme that might be of Darcy's preference and that could also satisfy her own curiosity for her future life. If Mr. Bingley was not a suitable topic for him, then maybe he would be more inclined to discuss his own sister. If that one did not manage to catch his interests either, then it was time to drop the conversation entirely.

"I have heard that your sister is a very accomplished young lady." Elizabeth offered with a conciliatory smile.

"She is, indeed."

"I recall Miss Bingley saying that she plays the pianoforte exceedingly well. I suppose she practices a good deal."

"Undoubtedly," Darcy smiled with affectionate praise of his sister's proficiency. "She does practise very constantly. No excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice."

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, wilfully understanding this comment as a subtle ill judgement of previous performances of hers that he had had the chance to hear. The gentleman knew she rarely practised as he had never seen her sitting at the pianoforte in these days while he was a guest at her home.

But Darcy's interpretation of their conversation was an entirely different one. To him, Elizabeth's enquiries were a demonstration of her interest for learning more about his life and not for what they truly were: a desperate attempt at livening up a boring and unsubstantial colloquy with the man she was about to wed and who was making not even the slightest effort in becoming more acquainted with the likings of his future wife.

Increasingly vexed by his aloofness, Elizabeth made her last attempt. "Mr. Darcy, when am I going to be acquainted with your excellent sister?"

"Soon."

Elizabeth stared at him, her annoyance now barely repressed. Apparently, her fiancée was not keen of this subject either. If he did not want to talk, why should she importune him any further? Turning her eyes to her needle work she replied with a brief,

"Right."

Thus they remained, in polite indifference, like a long time married couple that had nothing to say to each other, until Mary announced supper was being served and the couple removed themselves to the dining room.

~ * ~

The morning of Darcy's departure Elizabeth received another dose of discomfort, again by her mother's designs. Darcy was politely saying his good-byes when Mrs. Bennet scolded Elizabeth while in his presence.

"Lizzy!, What are you doing there, child!" she shouted, "What are you thinking that you are not walking your fiancée to his carriage?" Mrs. Bennet pushed her daughter closer to her betrothed. "Go, girl, go and give him a proper goodbye. After all, the man came this far only to see you."

Mr. Bennet pressed his palm to his cheek and shook his head. He had indeed married the silliest woman in England.

"Mama!" Elizabeth blushed at her mother's vulgarity. Darcy's dislike at Mrs. Bennet's poor choice of words also became painfully evident in his features. Fearing another inappropriate suggestion or merely the repetition of the previous one, Darcy offered Elizabeth his arm and spared his fiancée further embarrassment.

"Would you do me the honour of accompanying me to my carriage?" he said wearily.

Elizabeth nodded, showing him a brief, shy smile. As they reached the coach, Elizabeth noticed that her family had deserted the porch in an attempt to give them some privacy. Despite the apparent courteous gesture, she knew that such civility would not come without a price and was certain that her mother -and probably her youngest sisters, too-were hiding behind a curtain, spying each one of her moves. And Elizabeth was not willing to provide them with any sort of amusement at her expense and hoped that her fiancée was of the same mind. But given her bad fortune of these past days and the gentleman's inclination for forwardness, Elizabeth doubted she would have that luck.

But this time fate seemed with her, as, against everything she had expected, Darcy did not attempt to kiss her. He was all politeness and addressed her in his kindest voice.

"My dear Miss Bennet," he smiled. "I know that you are not entirely happy with this engagement, but under the circumstances, I think that it would be best if we become better acquainted with each other."

She sighed, relieved that he had been so thoughtful. "I know, sir. I beg you to have patience and allow me some time to adjust. I will try my best in the future."

"So will I, madam. I know my own behaviour to be completely lacking. I shall do my best to convince you that I am not the ogre you believe I am. "

Elizabeth showed him a sad smile. "Have a safe trip, sir."

"Thank you." Darcy took her hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss on her bare skin.

Somehow disquieted by the unexpected gesture, with reddening cheeks, Elizabeth quickly removed her hand from his grip and stepped back, allowing him room to climb on his carriage. While able to appreciate his consideration and self control this time, the brush of his mouth on her skin was enough to make her shivery and left her wondering how it would have felt if it had been applied on her lips. Indeed she was concerned with the involuntary fluttering of her heart whenever the gentleman was around. One moment she was wishing he did not touch her and the next she was hoping he would!

Darcy noticed her obvious confusion and found the sudden blush exceedingly becoming. He reckoned it would still take some time, but he knew he was on the right path to win his lady's heart.

Chapter 5

Darcy sat in the library of his townhouse, the book he had been reading forgotten on lap, his eyes fixed on the hearth, mind reflecting on his first meeting with Elizabeth after their engagement. Undoubtedly, his trip to Longbourn had a much better outcome than he had expected. Elizabeth might not have shown herself completely content with his presence upon his arrival but her attitude towards him had softened considerably in those three days they remained in each other's company. Though perhaps not at the speed he would have wished, Darcy felt that they were making some progress. That this journey to obtain Elizabeth's love would be a lot smoother and swifter than he had first imagined he had no doubt. The only inconvenience he feared might ruin this swift progress was the presence of her family around them, even though in this visit they had been kind enough to spare him from their repulsive company several hours a day.

But all this would come to an end after the wedding. Elizabeth would be removed from Longbourn to his townhouse and there would be no more Mrs. and Miss Bennets to endure. Once they became husband and wife, Elizabeth would be freed from their undesired influence and she would be able to concentrate her attention on him.

Yes, we shall be very happy.Darcy let out a sigh of contentment. Very happy indeed.

"Brother?" Georgiana asked softly from the door. "You have been so quiet since your return ... is anything the matter?"

Darcy extended his hand, inviting her to join him. "Come here, my dear, I have something to tell you."

Georgiana sat on the armchair opposite his.

"Forgive me if I've been distant lately," he reckoned.

Miss Darcy knew her brother was the owner of a taciturn disposition, yet these past days he had grown uncommonly quiet. "It doesn't matter."

Darcy was not sure of how his sister would take the news so he chose a direct approach. "Georgiana, I am engaged to be married."

"Engaged? Engaged to whom?" The girl was all astonishment. Her brother had not yet expressed to have taken interest in any lady of their acquaintance and she could not fathom who the recipient of that honour might be. The first two possible names that came to her mind were not of her liking and for a moment she feared for her brother's happiness.

"You are not marrying Anne, are you?"

Darcy chuckled at his sister's expression. Georgiana tended to knit her brows in a most adorable manner when concerned. "No, dearest, I am not marrying Anne, or Caroline Bingley, if that is what you fear."

Georgiana exhaled in relief. "Thank Heavens!"

"I met this charming young lady during my stay in Hertfordshire," Darcy elaborated. "Her name is Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

"Oh, yes, I do recall you writing about a certain Miss Bennet while you were staying at Netherfield. She was ill and her sister nursed her. You never mentioned her again so I did not think that she had made any impression on you."

"Miss Jane Bennet stayed at Netherfield for a few days because of a cold but it was Miss Elizabeth who looked after her." Darcy preferred not to acquaint his sister with the undesirable facts that had led to his engagement. He proceeded with his narration, noticing that Georgiana was all excitement about this tale. "Miss Elizabeth's kindness towards her sister and other attributes that she possesses convinced me that she will make a most suitable wife."

"Do you love her?" Georgiana enquired, still preoccupied about her brother's happiness.

Darcy carefully chose his next words. He could not disappoint her innocent soul. "Dearest, my feelings for Miss Elizabeth are beyond everything that I have ever felt before."

Incurably romantic at her sixteen years of age, Georgiana sighed dreamily. "Oh, William! This is wonderful! When shall I meet her? Can I accompany you to Hertfordshire on your next visit and make her acquaintance?"

"My dear, that is also my fondest wish, but I fear this meeting would have to wait until after the ceremony."

"So I won't be able to attend your wedding?"

"No, darling. You must return to school."

Though disappointed, the submissive and well bred girl would never challenge her brother's designs. She recovered quickly and looked at Darcy with renewed adoration. "Thank you, brother; I have always wanted a sister. I shall be counting the days until I finally meet her."

Darcy smiled to his sister. "She is also desirous to meet you as well, she even expressed that herself. I am most certain that you will become close friends once you finally become acquainted. Now, why don't you play something for me? I have not heard you in a long time. That song I heard you practicing this morning sounded very well."

Georgiana's countenance brightened up and she rushed to the pianoforte. As he observed her, Darcy reflected on how much she had grown in these past two years. His little girl was not so little anymore. One day he was sending this angelic creature to school and the next summer he received back a young woman blossoming with feminine beauty. The changes had occurred so quickly that they had taken him completely unprepared.

Having become an orphan at a young age and always living in the country and later at the university, Darcy's experience with the opposite sex was scarce to say the least. Though not physically innocent, he was perfectly aware of the difference between one night of pleasure and understanding women's emotions. His sister was a young woman now, ready to face this world of rules and etiquette. It was perfectly clear to Darcy that she needed another of her kind to confide in, to look up to, and he wagered Miss Elizabeth would be the perfect person to fulfil that role. But, of course, things were never that easy. While Elizabeth represented the epitome of good behaviour to follow, her sisters exemplified exactly the opposite. Jane, however, was the exception, but Kitty and Lydia's wildness was something to which Darcy would never expose his dear sister.

No, Georgiana would not meet his bride till after his wedding, when he would be at leisure to superintendent their friendship. Once Elizabeth was fully under his care and supervision, then everything would be right in his world.

~ * ~

Before Elizabeth could realize it, Christmas has passed and New Year was upon her. Family commitments forced the engaged couple to spend the Nativity celebrations at their respective homes so their communications were limited to a few, brief letters with inconsequent content. Darcy remained in London where his closest acquaintances and relations were gathered for the Season and Elizabeth was at Longbourn, celebrating what she thought would be her last Holidays in the company of her dear ones.

Elizabeth tried her best to be more considerate with her fiancée when Darcy returned for his next visit, two days after Christmas. The weather was getting very cold so the couple was forced to stay indoors most of the time. In a crowded house, there were little chances that Elizabeth would be left alone with the gentleman, so she rejoiced her self in that happenstance. But, on the other hand, the constant presence of her relatives around him exposed her fiancée to the rest of the Bennet clan for the majority of the day.

This meant that Mr. Darcy was present for each of Mrs. Bennet's outbursts, witnessed every silly discussion between Kitty and Lydia and listened to every ill played song that Mary practiced at the piano forte. And in each one of those embarrassing situations, Elizabeth had the chance to witness his reaction. She did not like what she saw. While she never heard him say anything against her family, in more than one occasion she had spied him rolling his eyes at Mrs. Bennet's silly remarks or smirk at her father's cynic -and at times inappropriate-- comments about his own wife. Elizabeth knew that her mother's behaviour was at time downright uncivil but it bothered her to an extreme that Mr Darcy would make so evident his disdain for a family that soon would become his own.

However, rain and cold weather could not protect her from her dull lover for ever. For on Darcy's second afternoon at Longbourn, with everyone busy with their daily chores, the young couple was left on their own in the silence of the drawing room. The task of making conversation, as always, was left to Elizabeth. She enquired about London, subject to which Darcy responded briefly and then she asked about Pemberley's vast collection of books, obtaining a polite but even shorter reply.

"How does your sister, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth made one last attempt at civil conversation.

"I left her in perfect health, I thank you."

"Did she spend Christmas with you?"

"Yes, she did. She sends you her best wishes for the Holidays."

"I thank you. Pray, send her my warmest salutations." Elizabeth replied courteously. "Will she accompany you on your next visit?"

"I am afraid she will not. She is very busy with her lessons and I would not want her distracted from them." Darcy replied with an easy smile.

"I hope the wedding does not interfere with her progress."

"It will not, I grant you. She'll remain at school until after the ceremony."

Elizabeth just stared at him for nearly a minute, stunned that her fiancée thought that some etiquette lessons and musical tuition were more important than their wedding. She was clearly disturbed by this last intelligence. Having nothing else to say and becoming increasingly vexed with his aloofness, she concentrated on her needlework and left the gentleman the trouble of finding a subject about which they could converse.

Several minutes later, Darcy stated in a casual voice, "This is a very comfortable house."

"Indeed it is," Elizabeth replied while embroidering.

"I suppose that this must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in the summer;" he looked around, "the windows are full west."

"It is warm, yes," Elizabeth explained politely, "though we never sit here after dinner at that time of the year. As you see, it is quite pleasant during the winter and the view of the gardens is very pretty."

"Yes, fine indeed." Darcy observed with interest.

Again, they were silent. Elizabeth embroidered on quietly while Darcy drummed his fingers on the armrest of the sofa, apparently unaffected by the lack of conversation. The only sounds in the room were those that came from Darcy's fingers and the occasional crackles of the wood burning inside the hearth. Darcy rose and stroked the fire with the poker. He then joined her on the sofa and cleared his throat, bringing up the subject that they had both been avoiding and the one that should have been discussed from the very beginning.

"Elizabeth, I believe that we should make some ... plans for the wedding and ... afterwards."

Elizabeth kept her eyes down. This was a subject she was not eager to discuss. "Why, of course, Sir." Seeing he had fallen into another silent moment she encouraged him by asking, "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Well, yes, but before we dwell on them I must ask a favour of you," he smiled as he took her hand, "I would like you to call me by my Christian name, if that's agreeable to you." Elizabeth knew his initials were FD, that was how he signed his letters, but she did not have a clue what the F stood for. She faced him directly, her eyebrows arched, her voice deprived from the sarcasm she would have liked to inflect on it as she said, "Indeed, Sir. With pleasure ... if you would be so kind as to mention it to me."

Darcy blinked a couple of times and gulped in embarrassment at his lack of tact. He had been engaged to this woman for a fortnight and he had not condescended to tell her his given name.

"It is Fitzwilliam, but my family calls me William."

Elizabeth looked at him, but said nothing. Darcy waited expectantly, waiting for her to continue talking, or at least to say his name, but she didn't.

"I have been thinking that we could travel to London for the ... mmm ... wedding night and stay at the Townhouse for about a month. As soon as the weather is warmer, we shall depart for Pemberley." He waited for her reaction but she only observed him without uttering a word. "Georgiana will go from school directly to Bath, where she would stay with my cousin so we can ... mmm ... have some ... privacy and then she will join us later for our trip to the North. Is that agreeable to you?"

Elizabeth, face ablaze, immediately looked at her lap as she felt her temperature rise. "Yes, that would be ... agreeable."

Darcy resumed the rhythmic drumming of fingers. Elizabeth also noticed that his other hand, the one resting on his thigh, was also patting his leg insistently. He once again rose to stroke the fire, poking it energetically for a couple of minutes. He turned around to face her, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead, apparently preoccupied by something he seemed reluctant to share with her. He stayed in this manner for a good moment and suddenly joined her at the sofa, this time sitting much closer than before.

"Elizabeth, may I kiss you?"

So this was the reason for his previous uneasiness, Elizabeth reflected as her face grew hotter. At least this time he had the consideration of asking before throwing himself on her. "Someone may come."

He glanced at the door to check if the coast was clear. "Your mother is upstairs taking a nap, your father is locked in his library, your sister Jane said she would be in the kitchen helping Mrs. Hill with tonight's meal and Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty mentioned the still room. I believe we are all alone, madam."

She glanced at him and offered him an uneasy smile. So the gentleman had not remained oblivious to everything that happened around them.

"There's still Mary," she objected.

The fading sound of a poorly executed melody on the piano forte anticipated Darcy's answer that Miss Mary was indeed momentarily busy.

With a sigh of resignation, Elizabeth finally admitted that her meddlesome family had deserted her when she needed them most. She had run out of excuses. "Then, sir, I believe you may, if that is you wish."

Darcy moved closer, until his thigh touched hers. "Yes, it is. Is it yours as well?"

Elizabeth fiddled with her fingers nervously. This was a right he had that she knew she could not refuse him. "Sir, I am not certain if I ... if we should, I mean ..."

Her words died in her lips when the gentleman pressed his mouth against hers. Momentarily petrified, Elizabeth was so stiff that she forgot to breathe during the few seconds the contact lasted. It was so brief that Elizabeth wondered if he had ever touched her at all. Certainly he had, because her lips still tingled at the trail of emptiness she felt when he parted and her body had warmed up in such a manner that she could not attribute it to any other thing than that. This kiss felt nothing like the first one he had given weeks ago; it had been far more unsettling, though she could not tell if it was because her dislike for the kisser had grown since that day or if it was because the contact had not been long enough.

Darcy gave the door another glance to make sure there was no one around. He leaned down again and this time his advance was much slower, pausing just before his lips touched hers. There he waited for tortuous seconds, sensing her tension. He felt her breathing faltering as he advanced that last inch.

But instead of capturing her mouth as she had expected, he aimed at her right cheek, brushing his lips against the tender skin near the corner of her mouth. He lingered there for only an instant, then moved to the other side to repeat the gesture. It was only when he felt that her body was losing its initial tension that he attacked her lips fully, pressing his mouth firmly against hers. As he urged her to respond, he lifted his hand to hold the back of her neck while his other hand rested on her waist. After a deep intake of air -she was almost dizzy for holding it for so long-- Elizabeth parted her lips, finally surrendering to Darcy's perseverant stimulation. Her tremulous sigh mingled with his warm one. She was melting in his arms and Darcy was tempted to go further -God knew he wanted to lose himself in her-yet he did not. He kept the exchange rather chaste for his and Elizabeth's sake. He was not willing to risk a second confrontation with his future father in law about another misbehaviour, neither did he wish to scare his reluctant wife-to-be.

Completely out of breath, Elizabeth placed a hand on her fiancée's chest and gently pushed him away as she struggled to return to the real world. Darcy let go of her, allowing her to regain her composure. For a first lesson, this was enough. He would have a whole life time to instruct her in the ways of love.

Their timing proved impeccable, as not two minutes later Mr. Bennet entered the room looking for Darcy. The couple was already sitting at a prudent distance and behaving in every way propriety imposed.

"Mr. Darcy, here you are. Will you join me in the library? There is something I would like to show you."

"Of course," said Darcy exceedingly pleased with himself.

Mr. Bennet observed his daughter, not noticing she was a little flushed. "And Lizzy, I believe Jane needs you in the kitchen."

Elizabeth managed a "yes, Papa" before leaving the room as hastily as she could.

Chapter 6

The day prior to New Year, Mrs. Bennet had the pleasure of receiving her brother and his wife, who came as usual to spend the festivities at Longbourn where they would stay until Twelfth Night. Mr. Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man, greatly superior to his sister, as well by nature as education. His wife, who was several years younger than Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips, was an amiable, intelligent woman, a favourite with all her Longbourn nieces. Between the two eldest and Mrs. Gardiner existed a particular regard.

Meryton was a small town but it by no means lacked in social activities. Assemblies and small balls happened from Christmas to Twelfth Night and the Bennets were eager attendants to these events that usually reunited the village's most prominent families such as the Lucases and the Philipses.

It was during these gatherings that Elizabeth was able to realize at how much her status had changed since her engagement to the Master of Pemberley was announced. Before the 26th of November, she was an unattached girl without much consequence in life who enjoyed herself freely at balls. An unfortunate incident suddenly transformed her into the village's black sheep and a fortnight later, when her 'condition' had been rectified and she had become the bride-to-be of a rich man, she quickly turned into Meryton's most fortunate citizen. Undeniably, her mother had great responsibility in this transformation as she never failed to enumerate the advantages her daughter would obtain once she espoused the illustrious Mr. Darcy as well as how the status of the family would be elevated when it finally became connected to one of the richest clans in Derbyshire.

When the engagement was at Longbourn, officers never failed to attend, including the charming Mr. Wickham, a favourite among the Longbourn ladies. Mrs. Gardiner was rendered suspicious by Elizabeth's warm commendation of him and narrowly observed them both every time the gentleman came to the house, something that happened too often to her liking. Her dear niece was engaged to another man and the preference she was showing for the young officer was plain enough to make her a little uneasy. She resolved to speak to Elizabeth on the subject and warn her of the imprudence of encouraging such an attachment.

Her surprise was great when she heard directly from her niece's lips the sort of connection that Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy had. Yet despite this shocking disclosure, Mrs. Gardiner thought it was her duty to give her niece the best advice.

"This is a serious accusation, Lizzy, are you certain that Mr. Wickham is telling you the truth?" asked an incredulous Mrs. Gardiner. "As far as I know, the Darcy family is much respected and I am inclined to believe that there might be some falsehood in his affirmations."

"I am most certain, Aunt. I see no reason why Mr. Wickham would lie to me. His explanation was so detailed and precise that I cannot doubt the veracity of his tale."

Elizabeth's aunt was not foreign to the part of Derbyshire from where Wickham was native, as she had spent several years in the village of Lambton, barely six miles away from the grand Pemberley. She also knew the late Mr. Darcy's character perfectly well and was aware that the gentleman was known for his honourable disposition. About his son, she knew very little, although she recalled having heard that the young Fitzwilliam Darcy was formerly spoken of as a proud, ill-tempered boy.

"So he said he was denied the living the late Mr. Darcy promised him," Mrs. Gardiner affirmed, trying to understand.

"Aye. Mr. Darcy disregarded his father's will and condemned poor Mr. Wickham to a life of poverty! He is always treating all of us with such contempt and disdain that I do believe him capable of that and more!"

"My dear, please reconsider your sentiments for your future husband. Do not allow your admiration for Mr. Wickham to blind you."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth blush instantly.

Elizabeth's reaction to her statement proved Mrs. Gardiner that she had not missed the mark. In her kindest voice, she attempted to put some sense into her niece's head. "Lizzy, you are too a sensible girl to merely fall in love with one man just because he's the enemy of the one you were forced to accept. Seriously, I must put you on your guard on the imprudence of allowing any prior sentiments you harboured for Mr. Wickham to interpose between you and your future husband."

"Aunt, I do not love Mr Wickham just as I do not love Mr Darcy." stated Elizabeth with conviction.

"Then, if I were you, I would not encourage his coming here so very often or listen to every malicious word he says about your fiancée. It is not sound. You are engaged to a man of great consequence, Lizzy, you must not let your fancy for a red coat run away with you."

Elizabeth offered her aunt a self-conscious smile. "I see what you mean, dear aunt, I should keep my distance."

"That would be the wisest thing to do in this case. You have sense, my dear, and we all expect you to use it. Mr. Wickham's differences with Mr. Darcy should not be of your concern."

"Perhaps you are in the right, but I cannot simply dismiss his accusations as if they had never happened." Elizabeth's dislike for her fiancée's actions did not allow her to see her own faulty behaviour. "If they are true, then that means I am to marry a most unscrupulous man."

"There is always the possibility that Mr Darcy might have had some very good reasons behind his actions that Mr. Wickham had failed to transmit. In doubting your future husband's character you are jeopardizing the felicity of your marriage."

"I cannot think of a reason why an honourable man would deny another man what rightfully belongs to him."

"Lizzy, my dear," Mrs. Gardener stated sweetly yet firmly. "Mr. Darcy will soon be your husband and your loyalty belongs to him. Do not enter the married state while doubting his honour. This is a matter you'll have to clarify sooner rather than later. "

Elizabeth pondered her aunt's words and saw the wisdom of her advice. It was a subject of delicate nature that should not be taken lightly. "Perhaps I should talk to him before the wedding."

"That would be the best," said Mrs Gardiner satisfied. "I am glad I could be of service, Lizzy. Now if you would excuse me, I must talk to your mother." She smiled and moved to the other side of the room.

Elizabeth barely had time to reflect on her aunt's advice when Mr. Wickham approached her sporting a most engaging smile.

"Miss Bennet, finally I see you on your own. I have been waiting to talk to you since I arrived at your house."

She could not help herself and smiled broadly at his gallantry. "Thank you, Sir. I have been desirous to converse with you as well."

"I've heard the rumours of your engagement to Mr. Darcy. Allow me to offer you my congratulations on your good fortune. I sincerely hope that you find more happiness and prosperity than myself when joining the Darcy family."

Elizabeth shook her head, her expression revealing her displeasure for her new stature. "Thank you, Sir. I am sure that prosperity is something that I will always have after my marriage, but I fear that happiness will be more difficult to obtain."

"Miss Bennet, do not despair. Mr. Darcy can be very generous when he wants to be and this marriage will situate you in a most advantageous position."

"All the wealth in the world cannot compensate the misery that grows from an unhappy union," she said with a sigh of resignation.

"I believe it is only a matter of patience and cleverness. If you are smart as to overlook his pride and haughtiness, you can obtain many benefits from this alliance. I am sure Mr. Darcy he will treat you very well and you will lack for nothing"

"That is what everyone keeps telling me. I am not mercenary, sir. Money doesn't buy happiness."

"Oh, madam, you would be surprised of how much it helps," Wickham said warmly.

Elizabeth returned his smile, knowing that the officer had a point there. "I hope you are right."

"I know I am. With time, you will accommodate yourself to your situation, I am sure. Perhaps we can even see each other again in the future." Wickham eyed her suggestively as he bent to speak. "You know, sometimes, the happiness that cannot be achieved in wedlock can be found elsewhere."

Elizabeth felt an unpleasant shudder coming up her spine as the officer came too near for comfort and whispered those words close to her ear. She was not certain of what he meant with this last statement, but she feared that his insinuation -and her allowing him to express it-- had crossed the boundaries of decorum. She knew the Twelfth Night was a night for recklessness, yet in this case, the gentleman has taken his forwardness a bit too far. Did Mr. Wickham think she was a loose woman? The entire village was acquainted with the inappropriate behaviour in the woods with Mr. Darcy, so there was a chance that he would believe her capable of some sort of indecency. Increasingly disturbed by this intelligence, she decided to finally follow her aunt's advice and end this conversation in as dignified a fashion as possible.

"I am sure that as soon as my future husband and I are better acquainted, our way to felicity will be assured. Now if you will excuse me," she made a quick courtesy, "I must join my family."

Wickham watched her go, his self sufficient smile persisting on his lips. 'I hope she makes you miserable, Darcy. She is so indignant with you for forcing her into this marriage, that she might choose me as her lover in the future. If I play my cards correctly, I will be soon enjoying the charms of two Bennet sisters. With that thought, Wickham walked towards Mary King, pausing only to give a lustful glance in Lydia Bennet's direction.

As she walked away from Wickham, Elizabeth caught sight of Charlotte entering the house in the company of her new husband, who immediately left his wife and went to greet the lady of the house. Having married Mr. Collins a fortnight before and planning to depart for Hunsford in two days time, Charlotte barely had time to see her friend.

"Lizzy! It is so very good to see you. I have heard your distinguished fiancée has been a frequent guest at Longbourn the past weeks. Come," she took her friend's hand and walked away from the crowd, "you must tell me all there is to know."

"There is not much to say, he merely ... visited me," Elizabeth replied unenthusiastically.

"I see you are still displeased with this wedding." Charlotte shook her head at her friend's unrelenting and frankly nonsensical hatred for her future husband. "You are such a fool, Lizzy, to persist in your dislike for a man of Mr. Darcy's consequence."

"Charlotte, I do not love him."

"Love and marriage only coincide in romantic novels, Lizzy. In ordinary life we cannot expect to be that fortunate."

Elizabeth was aware of her friend's rational nature yet she had imagined that the pragmatic Mrs Collins would have at least developed some feelings for her new husband since her wedding. "Are you not happy in your marriage?"

Charlotte's smile faltered and lost all sincerity. "It has barely started, so I cannot say much on that account. Mr. Collins is a good man, greatly devoted to his clerical duties, who spends most of his time studying the texts and attending his parish. I cannot complain. By the end of the day we have only spent five or ten minutes together." On seeing Elizabeth's sympathetic expression, Charlotte added, "I may sound unromantic to you, Lizzy, but I find myself quite content with my situation."

"I'm happy that you are, Charlotte." Elizabeth secretly hoped that she would never feel the same way about her own spouse. Although, for some reason, she feared her destiny would not far from that of her friend's.

"I am sure you and Mr. Darcy will have a very happy union as well. Although I fear I must put you on your guard about a very important matter: some members of Mr. Darcy's family are vehemently opposing to this marriage."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth frowned.

Charlotte glanced around to be certain that no one could hear her. "Mr. Collins has let it drop to me that Lady Catherine was quite incensed with the news of Mr Darcy's engagement to you and was travelling to London this very week to talk him out of what she thought was a folly on his part."

"Oh." Elizabeth was at loss of words. She had never expected that Darcy's family would oppose the match.

"She claims that Mr. Darcy is betrothed to her daughter, Miss Ann de Bourgh. Apparently, their marriage had been planned from their cradles."

Seemingly distressed with this notion, Elizabeth was quick to reply. "Yes, I heard that before, though I never knew it to be a definitive fact. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why would he not marry someone else?"

Charlotte's eyebrows arched up in astonishment. This was a most unexpected turn. Was Eliza softening to this marriage? Did her friend find her betrothed less repulsive now that someone else was claiming her ownership on him? Charlotte let out a chuckle at her friend's hypocrisy and wondered how much truth there was in Elizabeth's affirmations about hating Mr. Darcy.

"I was merely stating that your marriage might start on the wrong foot. Do not worry, Lizzy. Mr. Darcy will marry you and only you." Charlotte teased her friend.

This comment only served to puzzle Elizabeth even more. Charlotte had always succeeded in unsettling her and making her doubt her own feelings for her disagreeable fiancée.

Mrs. Collins, noticing her friend's confusion, decided not to insist on this delicate subject and chose another one of which she was interested in learning more.

"And how is Jane doing? Is she still suffering the loss of Mr. Bingley?"

"I am afraid she is. Jane has been so sad since he left. I don't know if she will be able to forget him."

"I am sorry it went off. But these things happen so often, Lizzy. Men such as Mr. Bingley easily fall in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when some circumstance draw them apart they forget them quite as easily. I am sorry for Jane because, with her temperament, she may not get over it immediately."

"My suspicion is that in this case there was no accident. I believe they were officiously separated."

"Do you mean by his sisters?"

"And his friend." Elizabeth stated resentfully.

"The man you are about to marry in about two weeks," Charlotte stated, slightly crossed at her friend's incapability to see the benefits that this union would bring to her and the rest of her family. "You are such a simpleton, Lizzy. This is a great opportunity that you cannot miss! You must talk to Mr. Darcy and acquaint him with your sister's feelings for Mr. Bingley! I am most sure he would help you to reunite them!"

"I have tried before, Charlotte, but he has avoided the matter thus far. I believe that Mr. Bingley is very far away now. He is not coming for the wedding either."

At that moment, Mrs. Bennet called her daughter and Elizabeth and Charlotte dropped their conversation to join Elizabeth's mother and listen to her rambling about her daughter's upcoming nuptials.

~ * ~

"Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Sir," the footman announced.

Darcy turned around and squared his shoulders, readying himself for the declaration of war that would surely derive from this meeting. His aunt rarely left Rosings, and Darcy was very much aware of the reason that would compel the capricious and authoritarian Lady Catherine de Bourgh to leave her estate and come as far as London without previous invitation or announcement.

"Lady Catherine." He bowed when his aunt entered the room. "I hope you had a pleasant trip. You are very welcome."

"I must warn you, Darcy, this is not a courtesy visit," she began in a very imposing tone, obviating greetings and politeness. "I report of an alarming nature reached me a week ago. I have been told that you, my nephew, are engaged to be married to a girl from Hertfordshire."

"You were well informed. I am engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet and I plan to marry her by the end of the month."

"Darcy, this cannot be! You are engaged to my Anne!"

"No, Aunt, I am not." Darcy stood firm, facing his aunt with resolute air. "It has never been a wish of mine to spouse my cousin nor have I encouraged the supposition that such event would ever take place. Whatever reason you have to believe that it has been in my mind to marry her is purely an assumption of yours."

Lady Catherine was all astonishment at this declaration. "You cannot deny it has been a favourite wish of your mother as well as mine. By not humouring to our designs you are going against the express desires of your friends and family! I demand that you dissolve this betrothal to this woman of lower birth and announce, once and for all, your engagement to my daughter."

The gentleman commanded himself to remain civil at his aunt's irreverent plea. "Lady Catherine. Much as I would like to honour my mother's wish, I am very much attached to Miss Bennet. I have given my word and I will not withdraw it."

"Do not dare to defy me, young man. I am acquainted with who this Elizabeth Bennet is and what transpired during your interlude. How could you forget yourself in that manner? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy?" cried her Ladyship. "I understand, though. I have seen more than one young man seduced by the arts and allurements of these young ladies with upstart pretensions of name and fortune. I can see this Miss Bennet has played her cards well. I thought that you were above such weakness, Darcy."

Darcy took a deep breath in an attempt to control the indignation that his aunt's words provoked in him. "You are misconstruing the facts, madam. My feelings for Miss Bennet are of an entirely different nature."

"That is what you believe now that your ardour still governs you. She is a woman of inferior stature, nephew, of no importance in the world. She would never fit among us. She will never be able to acquire the finesse and sophistication that only comes when born in privilege. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to remove her from the sphere in which she has been brought up."

Darcy hesitated before replying, his aunt's words expressing fears that he had not yet allowed himself to admit. "I do not consider her situation beneath that of mine. She is a gentleman's daughter. So far we are equal."

"True. But who is her mother? Who are her uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."

"Lady Catherine," he said, close to the point of losing his patience, unwilling to discuss Elizabeth's connections with his aunt. That would be an argument that he may not be able to win. "I will marry Miss Bennet regardless of what you or the others might say."

"I will not be interrupted!" Lady Catherine stomped her walking stick on the floor. "Can you not see how this alliance will disgrace you in the eyes of every body? You will be slighted, censored! Your name, and hers, would never be mentioned by any of us."

"Those are great misfortunes indeed. Whatever her connections may be, if I do not object them, they can be nothing to you."

Her ladyship was highly incensed by this affirmation. "Have you thought of your sister? Have you stopped to consider the consequences that your actions will have on her? Can you not see? Georgiana will be out in two years! Do you want her to be laughed at? Make her the contempt of the world because of this unfortunate relation?"

"Enough!" He raised his voice, his remaining composure lost at his aunt's vicious attack. "You have insulted me and my fiancée with every possible method. I must beg you to be importuned no further on the subject."

Lady Catherine was stubborn and liked to have her own way but by no means was she stupid or inexperienced. On seeing that her nephew stood his ground, she softened her tone and tried a different approach. "Darcy, I know that you will not come to your senses now, but once you are tired of her, you shall see your mistake. This passion you now feel will wear off within the first year of marriage. I am sure that, by then you will finally realize the inadequacy of this woman. A man of your connections and influence can obtain an annulment easily enough."

"I am sorry to disappoint you, but in marrying Miss Bennet, I shall not find cause to repine."

"Are you then determined to have her?" Lady Catherine looked seriously displeased.

"I am."

"I had hoped to find you reasonable. But, depend upon it, I will carry my point." She turned around and left the room.

This extraordinary visit had left Darcy in such discomposure of spirits that he could hardly think of anything else. Lady Catherine had just enumerated each one of Darcy's fears that he had not dared, until now, to admit to himself. She had just addressed him on his weakest side and thrown the evils attached to this connection right at his face. Still he was ready to fight and face this misstep with his head high. He was certain of his affection for Elizabeth and absolutely sure that this sentiment would never fade. But, would that be enough? Would his love for her be strong enough to survive the rejection of an entire society? He knew he would be able to overcome these struggles, but could he expect this same fortitude from his future wife?

Would she fit into his world?

Chapter 7

Elizabeth sat on her bed staring at the piece of paper that rested on her lap, her misery now elevated to astronomic proportions. Of all the things that could have gone wrong in her life these past weeks - and by God that there had been so many - this was one should be qualified as the most frustrating.

Since her conversation with her aunt about a week before, when she was advised to approach her future husband about his dealings with Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth had thought of a very eloquent speech where she would bring up the subject in the best and most appropriate way. She even wrote a couple of drafts of her dissertation and rehearsed it at least ten times until she was certain that she would sound curious - albeit temperate - without appearing doubtful of his honour or judgemental of his actions. Even her reactions to whatever his excuse might be had been practiced in front of a mirror and she had come up with expressions that she thought would make her look understanding of his motivations yet fair to all the parts involved.

But all that trouble had been in vain, as the gentleman, in the shape of a brief letter that had arrived that same morning, had just informed her that he was not coming to visit her until the wedding. This left Elizabeth with no other choice than to wait till then to learn the truth about his transactions with Mr. Wickham.

'What will I do now?" Elizabeth thought with despair, "I cannot write to him about this subject and certainly I cannot discuss it on our wedding night!'

Again, she took Darcy's letter in her hand. His motives for not coming to Longbourn were reasonable enough, yet she hated him for delaying this conversation. She read his letter for the eleventh time.

Dearest Elizabeth,

I know that I should be by your side now, and that is my greatest wish at this moment, but an unfortunate health problem has prevented me from riding to Meryton this week. For the past days I have suffered from a severe cold that has forced me into bed and thwarted my so desired journey. I would have travelled regardless but thought it wise not to risk my condition and let a simple head cold turn into something worse. You can imagine my despair at the thought of not seeing you until the wedding but I do not wish to attend the ceremony in poor health.

If no unforeseen circumstances arise, my arrival in Meryton will be on the evening of January --, two days prior to the wedding. My cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, will accompany me. We are to stay at the inn in Meryton, as we do not wish to impose upon your family's hospitality.

With this letter I enclose a small proof of my regard for you. I had planned to give it to you in this failed trip but the motives I expressed before have prevented it. I sincerely hope it is of your liking. Please accept this little piece of my heart.

Yours sincerely,

FD

Elizabeth looked at the gold heart-shaped pendant resting in her palm. Please accept this little piece of my heart. She was absolutely certain that that line was merely a formality, an inconsequent and polite phrase delivered with the intention of sparing her feelings from his absence. It was obvious that he did not mean these words to be taken in the way she would have wished them to be expressed, yet her romantic heart could but swell at the significance they would have acquired had things been different. It was in moments such as these when she wished that he had not insulted her at the assembly, that he had not been the causer of Mr. Wickham's misfortunes, and that he was not the proud and disagreeable man he could be on occasions. In moments like these she dreamt she was marrying for love, that this was not a union forced by duty and that this pendant was the wedding gift of a man violently in love with her and not the token from an absent fiancée she had not yet grown to respect.

Admiring the intricate pattern, her fingers traced the delicate filigree absentmindedly as she allowed herself, even for an instant, to forget his wrongs and find her husband-to-be less repellent. In this benign mood, Elizabeth turned the pendant over and saw the inscription neatly engraved in the back.

'To my Love. F.', she read.

His words caught her off guard for she had never expected to read such an impassioned declaration directed at her, not from Fitzwilliam Darcy. Undoubtedly the gentleman must be suffering from some sort of deep infatuation. That was the only explanation she could find for his previous behaviour, still Elizabeth was absolutely certain that he was not in love with her. He could not be, no. Their engagement had been so short; their meetings scarce, making it impossible for anyone to develop true feelings in such a short time. However, the words, nay, the gesture only served to increase her confusion as she had always thought Mr Darcy to be cold and distant, incapable of genuine or profound affection.

But then, these little moments happened when she least expected, meaningful glances that she had only seen him bestow upon her, words and attitudes that contradicted every previous notion she had formed of his character that made her think that perhaps ... perhaps there were much deeper sentiments hidden behind Mr Darcy's sober and distant exterior. The intensity of his eyes when he looked at her as well as the passion he transmitted when he kissed her never failed to astonish her. He always conveyed such variety of emotions when he was with her that he would leave her confused and wondering about the source of such passion.

'To my Love, F." she read again. Could Mr. Darcy really be in love?

~ * ~

A few days after Lady Catherine's visit, Darcy had the chance to feel the adverse impact that his marriage to Elizabeth would make on his life. His aunt, as she had threatened, went directly to his uncle in search of an ally to stop his wedding. Consequently, the Earl was now against the match and Darcy knew that without the approval of the Matlock party, the acceptance of Elizabeth into his social circle would be significantly more difficult to obtain. He knew that London's main gossipers had their mouths full of him and his 'particular' engagement and he did not want this to interfere with their future happiness as a married couple or affect his dear sister's presentation in society. Even some of his associates in different investments were threatening to withdraw their partnerships if his situation was not clarified soon. Alone in his fight and overwhelmed by these obstacles, Darcy convoked his cousin the colonel to help him rectify the wrong that his aunt's spitefulness was causing him.

"Fitzwilliam, thank you for coming on such short notice," Darcy greeted his cousin.

"I came as soon as I received your letter." The colonel sounded concerned. "I see you are much recovered from your cold."

"I am well now." Darcy went to the subject that preoccupied him immediately. "I need your help. I am afraid I am in need of a friend in this crusade."

"You are indeed, Darcy. Aunt Catherine went directly to my father to speak to him. I am afraid he is quite incensed with your decision. You must revert this as soon as may be."

"I know, I know. Her ladyship had no scruples in spreading her venom amongst her most influential acquaintances." Darcy ran his hand through his hair, this simple gesture betraying the anguish he felt. "I have already spoken to my closest friends. Not many of them are willing to understand my position yet I'm sure your father's good word and blessing will settle things. I never imagined that Catherine would be so vicious in her defamation."

"You can count with my help," the colonel declared.

Darcy smiled in appreciation for his cousin's assistance. "Good. We shall sojourn for Oxford on the morrow."

"It is not advisable to travel in bad health, Darcy. I would recommend you to stay at home."

Darcy shook his head. "This is my fight, I cannot abandon it."

The good colonel placed his hand on his cousin's shoulder in a supportive gesture. "We shall conquer this, fear not. You know father has a weak side for you. You have always been his favourite nephew. He will understand as soon as he knows your side of the story. Now, my friend, why don't you tell me everything?"

Darcy disclosed the whole affair to his cousin, beginning with the Assembly in Meryton, his encounter with Elizabeth in the woods and Mr. Bennet's visit.

"Darcy! What on earth possessed you?" Cried the colonel as he poured himself a glass of Scotch. "There are a few places you can go if you are in need of feminine company. I've heard of one that is visited by some very high ranked gentlemen."

"You are starting to sound like Aunt Catherine."

"I have never seen you lose your wits over a woman before." Fitzwilliam chuckled at Darcy's defensiveness. "But then, this was bound to happen sooner or later. You are eight and twenty, no one can withstand such impeccable behaviour throughout an entire life without taking a faux pas. I dare say it was time you allowed some passion into your dull existence."

"My life is not dull," Darcy protested.

The colonel smiled. That arrow had just hit the target. "Oh yes it is. Or at least it was until you met this lady. I have never seen a man of your age so self-righteous and restricted. You don't like balls, you never flirt and you rarely partake in the amusements of the Season. For Heaven's sake, Darcy, I have seen women throw themselves at you and you never yielded."

"You know that I find all sort of dissolute behaviour utterly reproachable."

"Indeed. For you, it's only propriety and, occasionally, sports. But look at yourself now. You spend a couple of months in the country and one woman from a God forsaken village in Hertfordshire has reborn you to passion and emotion. It only took this Miss Bennet and her bright eyes for you to feel compelled to break those stupid rules you have imposed on yourself and act, for the first time, upon your true feelings. And that, my friend, is called love."

Darcy stared as his glass for a while, reflecting on his cousin's words. There was no denying the feeling anymore. "I guess you are right. It must be love."

"Well, cousin," said the good colonel, "it's about time you allowed someone into your heart. I was starting to think there was no room there for passion." At his cousin's crossed expression, the colonel deflected the subject. "Pray tell me, what of your Miss Bennet's feelings? Is she happy with this 'arrangement' as much as you are?

Darcy frowned, not sure about what to reply to his cousin's inquiry. "Well, she ... we ... she seemed a bit reluctant to accept it at the beginning, which is quite understandable, giving the circumstances. But then, when I visited her, she seemed ... agreeable with the situation."

"Agreeable?"

He hesitated for a moment, then continued, as if persuaded by his own words. "I believe she is, yes ... she never expressed herself on the contrary. But do not worry on that account, cousin; we understand each other quite well. I can positively affirm that Elizabeth's regard for me is growing every day."

"I am most certain that that must be the case," said the colonel with a smile. "After all, she is making a most advantageous marriage."

A smug smile came to adorn Darcy's face. That was exactly the case.

"Though I grant you, you were quite fortunate that her father didn't blow your head with a shot gun when he came after you," the colonel added in a teasing tone.

Darcy chuckled at this comment, thankful that his cousin was bringing some levity into the discussion. "Indeed. Though I'm happy with the outcome of my conversation with my father-in-law, I would not wish to see anyone else in the same position. I guess I never imagined myself to be the recipient of an angry father's wrath."

"I recall a time when I saw myself in a similar situation." Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled fondly at the memory of his reckless years of youth. "I was lucky I could jump out of Lady Ashcroft's balcony before her husband could see my face."

"But your naked butt is a sight he'll never forget," Darcy chuckled. "You almost lost your sable in that one."

"And my trousers. I was fortunate that I could get the chance to grab my clothes before jumping."

Darcy recalled the incident as if it were yesterday. His cousin was seduced by this beautiful lady during a ball, that convinced him that her husband was out of Town-or he had seduced her, it was never clear who initiated the affair--. Apparently Lord Ashcroft's trip was a good deal shorter than she had imagined and he came home in time to find the then Captain Fitzwilliam entangled in bed with his wife. Fitzwilliam showed up at the Darcy townhouse in the middle of the night, half dressed, requesting his cousin's assistance to hide him from the search party the upset Lord had sent after the officer that had just vacated his wife's quarters. A very detailed lie had been invented to serve as his alibi and also to distract Darcy's own father from the young officer's folly.

Now feeling more at ease, the groom-to-be allowed his mirth to come out as he resumed the tale of his own nightmare. "I think that what terrified me the most about this whole affair was my argument with Aunt Catherine."

"You must tell me, Darcy. I am sure she had her feathers ruffled. Mother told me she made quite a scene when she called," the colonel smirked.

"It was worse than you can imagine, Fitzwilliam. She even threatened me with a dangerous weapon." Darcy smiled cheekily.

"Pray, don't tell me that she brandished her walking stick like a sword," laughed the colonel.

"No." Darcy said in between chuckles. "If that peacock over her head had not been dead, I am sure that it would have flown on my face and eaten my eyes out!"

~ * ~

With every mile the carriage rolled towards Meryton, Darcy's mood darkened. It had been raining heavily for the last couple of hours making their journey slow and tedious.

"It is getting worse. Perhaps we should stop until the rain subsides," said Col. Fitzwilliam, looking out of the window of the carriage.

"Blasted weather," muttered Darcy. "At this speed we are not going to arrive in Meryton until late night. We are expected at Longbourn for dinner and we cannot show ourselves there at midnight."

"We will not arrive on time anyway. We must find refuge or we will suffer an accident."

"You are right," Darcy rapped the roof of the carriage with his walking stick. Proceeding their journey under the icy rain would not only be dangerous for them but an unnecessary discomfort for the men outside. Darcy instructed the coachman to find shelter at the nearest inn where they would stay until the following day.

~ * ~

Elizabeth paced her bedroom like a caged animal.

"Lizzy, try to stay calm. I am certain they are delayed because of the weather," said Jane.

"I know, Jane. But I had hoped to talk to him about Wickham before the wedding. Now I will not have the opportunity of speaking with him in private."

"Perhaps we can manage some minutes of solitude for you two tomorrow. I can help you. I can distract our mother while you find a quiet place where you can converse with Mr. Darcy," Miss Bennet spoke with her usual sedateness.

"I fear that it will be impossible." Elizabeth protested, feeling helpless and frustrated. "The house will be full of people tomorrow and we hardly see each other at all!"

"Then you must speak with him on the way to London." Jane offered kindly. "You will have plenty of time alone in the carriage ride."

"What? Oh, Jane, no." She dismissed the thought with a heavy sigh. "I wouldn't risk an argument on that subject on my wedding day while trapped with Mr. Darcy in a carriage in the middle of nowhere. What if he gets angry? What if we start an argument we cannot stop? Where am I going to escape?"

"Lizzy, calm yourself! I am sure that you will find the right moment to talk to him. Please do not trouble yourself any longer; every thing will be fine in the end."

"Do you think so?"

"I have faith that that is what it's going to happen. And in only a couple of days you'll forget about this whole affair and live happily ever after with your husband."

v Elizabeth felt a little more at ease after her sister's comforting words. But what Elizabeth didn't know was that dear Jane had never been particularly good at foreseeing the future and in this case, her divination could not be more wrong.

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