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When Duty Calls
[WIP - Regency/R]

Chapter 8

The day prior to the wedding Longbourn House was full of guests reunited to celebrate the marriage of Miss Elizabeth Bennet to Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. The mother of the bride, completely disregarding her husband's recommendations about holding a small and simple assembly with the closest friends, invited a great number of acquaintances that were gathered to give the couple their good wishes on their nuptials. As soon as he arrived, Mr Darcy apologized for not having attended dinner the previous night and introduced his cousin to his bride and her family.

"Miss Bennet, I am so happy to make your acquaintance at last," bowed Colonel Fitzwilliam.

"At last, Sir?"

"Yes. I have heard so much about you."

Elizabeth was momentarily worried by his words. The colonel was probably aware of her past conduct and she was concerned that, perhaps, given the particular nature of her engagement to Mr. Darcy, he had formed some sort of prejudice against her. Her greatest fear was that he would find her unworthy of his cousin -albeit his good opinion was not something she had sought in any way... or an inappropriate mistress for the grand Pemberley. However, her concerns were dissipated when the charming colonel entered in the conversation with ease and the engaging manners of a well bred gentleman.

"My cousin here tells me that you play and sing, Miss Bennet," said the colonel.

"A little but very ill. I wouldn't wish to excite your anticipation."

"I am sure you are too modest. Darcy informs me that you play the pianoforte exquisitely."

"Oh no, Sir," Elizabeth said, giving her fiancé and inquiring glance. The gentleman appeared unmoved to that comment, yet she could detect the faintest of pink on his cheeks. "I fear your cousin has grossly exaggerated my talents, for some mischievous reasons of his own."

Col. Fitzwilliam exchanged an amused look with his cousin. "I assure you, madam; Darcy never exaggerates. He always expresses what is in his mind, sometimes too forthrightly, I fear," he added with a soft chuckle. "If he praises you, it is because he has found you deserving of the compliment."

Elizabeth stared at her husband-to-be with a puzzled expression, obtaining only an uncomfortable smile in return. He seemed desirous to let the matter die. As he offered his arm to join the rest, Elizabeth was left to wonder if the colonel's assurances were true. They could not be. She was absolutely certain that Mr. Darcy was not an admirer of her musical talent and the proof had been the gentleman's apathy and general lack of attention whenever she played or sang. Could she have been wrong? With a shake of her head, she discarded the idea entirely and proceeded with the conviction that her illustrious fiancé had never been keen on her performance.

Constant interruptions and a house crammed with guests made almost impossible for Elizabeth to call apart her fiancé and discuss the matter that has been the cause of so much distress during the past weeks in privacy. When she was not busy helping her mother attending their guests, Darcy was engrossed in conversation with the other gentlemen and she could not approach him. The groom-to-be was also desirous for some moment alone with his fiancée, although for entirely different reasons. After a month's separation, all he wanted was to show her how much he had longed for her in these weeks they had been apart.

The morning passed in that fashion, lunch reunited them all at the dining room and coffee afterwards divided the party in different rooms of the house. Elizabeth was chatting with her cousins when Darcy brought his coffee cup himself and gave it to her with a,

"Would you care to join me in private for a moment, Elizabeth? There is something I wish to tell you."

Elizabeth made her excuses and left her party, leading the way to a small sitting room that was rarely occupied by the family and that, to their fortune, was now empty. As soon as they entered the room, Darcy pushed the door closed, took her hands in his and softly kissed her fingers.

"Elizabeth, you know not how much I have missed you these past days. Will you forgive me for neglecting you?"

"Your absence was justified, Sir. There is nothing to forgive. I hope that you are completely recovered from your cold."

"I am, I thank you. Am I forgiven, then?" he murmured lovingly as he stepped closer.

"You are, sir." Elizabeth smiled faintly. After a moment of hesitancy, she said, "I ... I waited for you last evening."

The expression she saw in Darcy's face was one of such happiness that even Elizabeth found herself mesmerized by this unusual display of intense emotion. He held her hand in his and asked her in a most tender, hopeful voice,

"You missed me?"

"Sir, I -"

Completely mistaking her meaning and not doubting for even a second that she had longed for him as much as he had longed for her, Darcy was consumed by an immeasurable joy and he completely forgot himself, claiming her lips for a deep, passionate kiss. Elizabeth was brought against his solid chest in an embrace that was so feverous that she was rendered helpless in his arms. He held her tightly and kissed her fervently, his passion fuelled by her acceptance and reciprocation. For the first time their ardours were attuned, both tasting and feeling, going beyond anything they had experienced before. She opened her mouth to his probing tongue and allowed his hands to press her fully against his body, as her fingers touched his face and hair. He had never been so unrestrained or she so cooperative, returning his kisses and caresses with equal appetite.

But as Elizabeth's initial surprise faded, so did her responsiveness. While, physically, she did not find him unpleasant, Elizabeth was not in love with him and her resentment for being forced into this undesired marriage was too fresh in her mind to allow her to enjoy the zest that his embrace gave her. She was torn by opposite sensations, where abhorrence mingled with sensual pleasure. In her confusion, she was not even sure why she was permitting this conduct or why she was surrendering to his seduction so easily. Was this just submission to the man that was exercising his right to have her? Or was it her own desire for him blossoming inside of her? She did not know. She only knew that there were moments when me she was as eager to kiss and desirous to touch but there were times when she wished he would just let her go.

"Lizzy! Lizzy!", Mrs. Bennet's steps were heard behind the door. "Hill! Hill! Have you seen Elizabeth? Oh, where is that girl when I need her?"

The couple ended their activities abruptly and remained frozen behind the door, looking at each other with wide eyes. They stayed that way, in a close embrace, until the fading sounds of steps on the corridor told them that there was no danger of being caught.

"I think it would be better if we returned to the others," she said, flushed and agitated.

Darcy told her to go ahead. He needed more time to regain his composure.

~ * ~

At some point in the afternoon, Elizabeth was asked to play the piano, a request that she accepted gladly and without hesitancy. She had been enduring her Aunt Philips' advice on marriage and household duties for more than an hour and she was more than desirous to give up her tedious company. She sat in front of the instrument where she was immediately joined by Col. Fitzwilliam, who pulled up a chair and sat next to her.

She had been playing for five minutes when her fiancé joined them. This was the first time he approached her after their interlude in the sitting room and Elizabeth was still in awe at how the gentleman had lost so easily his usual self control in those few minutes they had been together. He had seemed unable to meet her eyes and practically turned his back to her as he asked her to quit the room. Elizabeth was not completely unfamiliar with certain reactions that were inherent to his sex - though she had never been this close to a man to experience them, not even on their previous meetings -, and wondered if the exchange had affected him to that degree. This led to her pondering if her power over him was bigger than she had imagined. Her devilish side told her that that was exactly the case. So, thus stimulated by a sensual surge which her fiancé's caresses and kisses had induced into her, Elizabeth, in her best spirits, was tempted to use her new power against him, and set out to tease him, knowing that just a little provocation would suffice.

"Mr. Darcy, do you mean to frighten me, sir, in coming all this way to hear me?" She smiled coquettishly, "I may not have your sister's proficiency, yet my stubbornness will not allow me to stop, even if my performance does not meet with your approval. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me."

"I didn't know that was possible," Darcy returned her smile.

"So you deny that that was your chief purpose?"

"You cannot believe me capable of that." Her fiancé responded playfully, also in an excellent mood, "though I believe I know your disposition well enough to say that, occasionally, you find pleasure in expressing opinions that are not your own. Am I wrong?"

"How shocking, sir!" Elizabeth laughed at his precise description of herself. "You have just told your cousin not to believe a word I say. That is very ungenerous of you, Mr. Darcy."

"I speak nothing but the truth. Take this conversation as an example. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing would find anything wanting in your executions, yet here you are accusing me of disliking them. The truth is, madam, I have always found all your performances exceedingly enjoyable, something of what you are perfectly aware, as my cousin acquainted you with this particular when I introduced him to you earlier in the day." Darcy enunciated with a daring smile. "So who is the one that is being ungenerous?"

Elizabeth did not shy away and replied with that sweetness combined with archness that her future husband had always found so enchanting, "beware, Mr. Darcy, you are stepping into dangerous ground. You are provoking me to retaliate and expose your true character to your cousin."

"Pray let me hear what you have to accuse him of," the colonel begged, amused at their playful banter. Even if this marriage was arranged, the sparkles were undoubtedly there. He had never seen a young couple better suited for each other. Darcy looked so much more alive when in his fiancée's company and Miss Bennet seemed enchanted by her betrothed's presence. "I know my cousin to be the possessor of a very fastidious nature. I'd like to know how he behaves among strangers."

"Should I tell him, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth looked archly at her fiancé. "This knowledge may shock your relations."

"I am not afraid of you, madam."

Accepting the challenge, Elizabeth continued. "We met at a ball. Let us say that he did not look comfortable when he first arrived at the Assembly Rooms. He only danced four dances, never sought an introduction and only spoke to those of his party."

"Darcy!" laughed the colonel, "when will you learn? Balls are amusements!"

"You know I do not share your talent of conversing easily with people you have just met."

"I beg to differ," replied Colonel Fitzwilliam. "You have the ability; you will just not take the trouble."

The gentleman half smiled. His cousin knew him too well.

"Mr. Darcy." Mrs. Bennet called him from the card table, startling the young couple. "Will you not join us? We need another player."

Darcy, repressing the urge to roll his eyes at the interruption, glanced at this cousin with pleading eyes. "Fitzwilliam?"

"Oh, no cousin, I decline the honour," the colonel shook his head. "You know I am not fond of cards. And you are far better player than I. Go you, you must not keep your mother-in-law waiting."

The proud groom-to-be hesitated for a moment, but at Mrs. Bennet's second summon he had no other choice but to accept the annoying lady's request. Elizabeth was observing him too closely and he knew it would appear extremely rude to slight the mother in front of the daughter. He squared his shoulders and joined her at the card table, grateful that tomorrow he was leaving Meryton and its inferior population forever.

Elizabeth then found herself alone with the gallant colonel. "Well, Colonel Fitzwilliam, what do I play next? My fingers await your orders."

The colonel asked her to play a simple Scottish air. As her hands moved deftly along the keyboard, the conversation proceeded in the following manner,

"Is your family in London at the time?"

"No, they are in Oxford for the winter. They have a residence there."

In having so little information about her new family, Elizabeth had a plethora of questions to ask the good natured gentleman. Her fiancé had not extended himself much on the subject and all she knew about them was that they were wealthy, that the colonel was the second son of an Earl and that Darcy's aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh --known by her authoritative temper-had expressed her disagreement with Darcy's choice of wife. This was a matter of great concern for Elizabeth because, in some way, she felt slighted by their absence. She feared that their contempt -if that was the reason why they were not attending their own nephew's wedding-- would be just another stone in the rocky road that already was her connexion to this proud man.

"You and your cousin seem to be very close, Colonel Fitzwilliam."

"We have always been, since our childhood," said the colonel. "I like to visit him whenever my duties in the Regiment allow me some spare time. I also share the responsibility of the guardianship of Miss Darcy with William, so, as you see, we have many interests in common."

"Indeed? Mr. Darcy told me she has just turned sixteen. Pray, what kind of guardians do you make? I know from experience that girls her age might be difficult to handle. Does she give you much trouble? Because if she is anything like her brother, I'm sure she probably likes to have her own way in everything."

The colonel's face sobered as he stared at Elizabeth in a way that made her wonder why he should be uncomfortable with the subject. He did not reply immediately and seemed to ponder his next words with great care.

"You need not to be frightened, madam, this is not the case. Georgiana is a sweet girl. She will give you no trouble. I grant you."

Elizabeth realized that her statement has been misinterpreted and quickly tried to rectify her words. "I am sorry, Sir, I fear I have expressed myself very ill. It was not my intention to insinuate that Miss Darcy was ill tempered."

The colonel exhaled, realizing where her fears resided. "Do not trouble yourself on that account, madam. Miss Darcy is most tractable. But you were right when you described my cousin's disposition. He likes to have his own way very well. But so we all do. In his case, though, it is much easier, because he's rich."

And rich people enjoyed the power of doing whatever they wanted, was Elizabeth's immediate thought. Her marriage on the following day was a painful example of that.

Elizabeth returned her attention to the pianoforte and played the rest of her song in silence. The colonel then selected the next one. It was not a difficult song and it allowed her to continue with their conversation.

"I have heard so much about Miss Darcy. She is a great favourite with some ladies of my acquaintance, who only had words of praise for her; Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley. Do you know them?"

"I do, a little. I am better acquainted with their brother, Mr. Bingley, a very pleasant man and a great friend of Darcy's."

"They are indeed good friends." Elizabeth said dryly. "I have seen that Mr. Darcy takes prodigious care of him."

"My cousin always takes prodigious care of those he cherishes. He's exceedingly dedicated to his friends and family." That comment was delivered with a meaningful glance in her direction, to which Elizabeth responded with a blush and by averting her eyes from the colonel's. "Bingley lost his father at a young age and Darcy became a sort of mentor for him. He usually takes care of him in those points where he most wants care."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows, her curiosity awakened. "Pray tell, what points are those? Mr. Bingley is a man of fortune."

The colonel was perfectly aware that it was Bingley's capricious heart what usually kept Darcy on his guard. Still he thought that sharing this knowledge with Miss Elizabeth would be extremely inconvenient. "Indeed he is, and a most shrewd business man, I must say. Yet he has the tendency to get himself into scrapes of some sorts. Usually Darcy is there to help him when matters get rough on that edge. From what I've heard, my cousin's good advice served Bingley very well recently. I believe he is very much indebted to him."

Col. Fitzwilliam's disclosure, though vague and imprecise, was immediately connected with the events occurred in November, when the 'courtship' between Jane and Mr. Bingley was abruptly interrupted by the departure of the Netherfield party. It had to be that, Elizabeth was almost certain of it, because if Mr. Bingley was a successful business man who did not need his friend's advice on that field, then his deficiency had to be related to more personal and intimate matters. His heart, perhaps? Elizabeth needed confirmation that her assumptions were correct, therefore she insisted.

"Scrapes? I cannot imagine Mr. Bingley involved in a fight! He seems to be a very kind, sensible man."

The colonel laughed at her immediate and completely inaccurate conclusion. "Bingley cannot kill a fly, I grant you, less enter in a scuffle of any sort. He's a most pacific person and the possessor of a great heart." With a sigh, almost as an afterthought that he had never intended to voice aloud, he added, "I fear that that is the area where he most wants care."

Elizabeth was now more certain that her deductions were right. "So he has an inconstant heart."

"Let us say that in romance, he tends to flick like a candle in the wind. He's fortunate that Darcy is usually there to advise him before he precipitates decisions he would surely regret. Not long ago he dissuaded him from making a most imprudent mistake; one that I assume would have caused Bingley great suffering."

Elizabeth silently pondered the implications of this last statement. The colonel, after watching her for a moment, enquired why she was so thoughtful.

"I was meditating on what you just told me. What was so objectionable about this lady that Mr. Darcy had to interfere?"

"I honestly don't know, madam. My cousin was very discreet on the matter; therefore I assume he does not want it to be generally known."

The information she had just received could not be clearer and she instantly deduced that this lady the colonel was referring to was Jane and the 'imprudent decision' from which Mr. Bingley had to be dissuaded must have been the marriage proposal he was planning to make to her dear sister. The gentleman, though unaware of it, had just confirmed one of Elizabeth's greatest fears: that Mr. Darcy had indeed been the one responsible for taking Mr. Bingley away from Netherfield with the only purpose of separating him from her sister Jane.

"I did not know that Mr. Darcy had the right to determine in what manner his friend was to be happy."

"I hope you don't suppose his interference officious," he chuckled. "I am certain that whatever is that he did, it was done with the best intentions."

Though this was said in jest, Elizabeth could not bring herself to reply without expressing how she truly felt about her future husband. She looked at Jane and her heart swelled with indignation for what Darcy had done to her sister.

Her only question was 'why'? Why was he doing this? She understood why he was espousing her, it was his duty after what he did, but why Jane? What harm had she inflicted upon him to wish her this misery? What were those strong objections based on? Jane was all goodness and loveliness! She could not find a reason that would justify such abominable behaviour towards her sister. For Elizabeth, it was his capricious pride and selfishness that had not only ruined her own life by forcing her into this marriage, but also, for no reason at all, had destroyed the happiness of the most generous soul in the world.

Elizabeth could not concentrate in the piano anymore. The room started to spin about her at such speed that she thought she would become ill.

"Miss Bennet, are you unwell?" Colonel Fitzwilliam frowned in concern. She had turned exceedingly pale.

"I am not, worry not. 'Tis I am just a little tired, is all. This has been a very long day."

"True. I think it is time for us to leave. Remember, we have a wedding to attend tomorrow morning," he said with a gentle smile that Elizabeth forced herself to return.

Elizabeth was in such state of distress that she did not know how she was going to find strength to stand and join the others. She could not think, she could not breathe. Tomorrow she was marrying a monster.

To her relief, Darcy announced his leave not much after that. Dutifully, Elizabeth accompanied his party out of the house and said her farewells to them at the door. Col. Fitzwilliam headed toward the carriage, leaving Darcy a moment in privacy to say goodnight to his bride.

"Elizabeth," he took her hand in his. "We are to be married tomorrow. I want to tell you that, despite the circumstances and everything that had happened between us, I am very happy with this union." She refused to meet his eyes so he misinterpreted her discomposure for nervousness for the wedding. "My dear." he raised his hand to caress her cheek. "There is nothing to fear."

Elizabeth almost shuddered in repulsion.

Darcy raised her hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss on it. "Until tomorrow, my love."

Chapter 9

"Lizzy, it is time to get up, my dear." Mr. Bennet knocked the door of his daughter's bedchamber.

"I am awake, father," Elizabeth replied from the bed.

Of course she was awake; she had not slept at all the previous night. How could she sleep when she was about to marry the most cruel man in the world? The man that, for no apparent reason, had denied Mr. Wickham what rightly belonged to him? The man that purposely destroyed Jane's only chance for happiness and whose lascivious actions had ruined her own life?

All through the night, overwhelmed by the most profound despair, Elizabeth had prayed for some sort of miracle to occur, that something extraordinary would happen or that someone would come to rescue her from her woeful fate. But to no avail, the time had come and in only a few hours, she would be the new Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the wife of the man she detested the most.

Elizabeth rose from her bed and walked towards the window. Contrasting with her gloomy spirits, the morning presented itself prodigiously beautiful and clear. The sun was shining brightly and the pristine snowy layer that covered the grounds of Longbourn was of the purest white she had ever seen. A bottomless bitterness possessed her heart as she looked at the perfect landscape that seemed extracted from a fairy tale storybook. She had imagined that the day she would marry Mr. Darcy would be a sombre and rainy day but no, it was the most scintillating winter day ever.

With a deep sigh of resignation, she started to get ready for her wedding ceremony.

~ * ~

In his room at the Inn, Darcy was as anxious as any man on his wedding day could be. He woke up very early and began his toilette with the meticulousness that was inherent in him. He had the barber come to his room to shave him and then he dressed himself in the tailored suit he had brought from London especially for the occasion.

Someone knocked the door and Darcy allowed him in. It was his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. "Darcy! Are you not ready? You shall be late for your own wedding!"

Darcy rolled his eyes at his teasing. "It is still early, Richard."

"Are you nervous?" The colonel sat on a chair and observed his cousin as he made, with his usual coolness, the last adjustments in his appearance.

"A little, not as much as I thought I would be," Darcy answered as he inspected his cravat.

"I truly admire your capacity to remain unmoved to everything around you. This is a most extraordinary event for any man and here you are, calm as you were just going to attend church."

Darcy merely smirked in reply and tugged at his waistcoat.

"I believe I must be honest with you," said the colonel, "When you first told me you were engaged and in what circumstances, I feared for you happiness. Everyone was against the match and you confronted an entire society to marry the lady. But after meeting your fiancée, I realized she was worth the trouble. I must tell you, my friend, you are indeed a very fortunate man; Miss Bennet is an extraordinary woman. I have never seen a better suited couple."

"I thank you." Darcy smiled proudly.

"And she seems quite fond of you, I must say."

Darcy's smile broadened to a wide grin. "I believe she is."

~ * ~

The piano played the first chords and the crowd reunited in Longbourn's chapel turned around to see the bride. There were sighs of admiration at her entrance, smiles and even some tears from the proud mother that was giving her first daughter away in marriage to that noble gentleman. Holding the crook of her father's arm, Elizabeth walked down the aisle, apparently serene and composed yet possessed by the greatest downheartedness. This was it; there was no turning back now.

At the end of the aisle, her future husband awaited for her. There he stood, looking so handsome, so proud. As she took the last steps to her horrible destiny, Elizabeth made promise to God and to herself that no matter what evils came upon her during her marriage, she would never cry in front of him, she would never give him the pleasure of seeing her broken and at his mercy for making the most miserable woman in the world.

The ceremony proceeded uneventfully. Elizabeth recited her vows without feeling them and allowed her husband to kiss her hand when she was declared his wife. The overwhelming dread with which she had started the morning was now gone and replaced with an emptiness so immense that made her insensible to everything around her. She felt a spectator at her own wedding, possessed by some sort of extracorporeal sensation that made the entire scene appear unreal to her, a scene on which she had not participation, where the pale woman in a white wedding gown was someone completely unknown to her, a poor soul whose tragic fate she pitied. Not really hearing them, Elizabeth politely accepted the greetings of the well-wishers as she walked outside the chapel on the arm of the man that was now her husband.

With feelings that were the exact opposite of those of his bride, the happy groom was barely capable of containing his joy. His exterior remained solemn and haughty; accepting the compliments with a polite smile, but inside he felt he was the most fortunate man that had ever walked this Earth. Elizabeth was his at last.

The wedding breakfast was unsurprisingly brief as the couple intended to have an early departure so they could arrive in London before nightfall. After saying goodbye to the Bennets, Darcy turned to his cousin, thus allowing Elizabeth more privacy in the farewell to her family.

The unhappy bride was barely containing her tears when she embraced each member of her family. 'I will not cry. You will never make me cry, Mr. Darcy'. she commanded herself, resolute to keep her promise of never crying in front of her husband. She kissed her Papa and her Mama - both with misty eyes - and each one of her younger sisters. When Jane's turn came, Elizabeth could not but feel that she was somehow betraying her sister. Gathering all her strength, she looked into Jane's eyes and said,

"I will miss you so much, my dearest Jane. My life will not be the same without you by my side."

Jane, knowing her sister's dissatisfaction with this marriage, replied with teary eyes. "I wish you the greatest happiness, Elizabeth. You deserve nothing less."

Elizabeth felt a touch on her arm and turned around.

"It is time to go, Mrs. Darcy," her husband said with evident pride.

"Yes, sir," she gave Jane one more quick hug and stepped into the carriage.

Darcy climbed into the coach and sat by her side. Elizabeth was expecting him to do just that but she had hoped that he would sit opposite to her. As the carriage began to roll up the road, the reluctant bride leaned out the window to wave to her family one last time, silently saying goodbye to her old life.

"Elizabeth, you have been so very quiet. I hope you are feeling all right, my dear," Darcy said a moment later, speaking in his most tender voice.

"I am well, sir. Just a little tired. I will be fine soon," she replied, emotionless.

"I know this is very difficult for you, dearest. I perfectly comprehend your feelings."

She showed him the faintest of smiles.

Darcy took her gloved hand in his and moved closer to give her a quick kiss on the lips. She responded to it but immediately turned her face away to direct her eyes on the scenery outside the carriage, a sight that she now found of great interest. Noticing her paleness, the groom did not insist with his seduction, and attributed her present lowness of spirits and detachment to the tension of the wedding and the pain of leaving her family behind. About an hour later, Darcy noticed that her eyelids were becoming heavy and with great tenderness, he put his arm her shoulder and gently pulled her closer to his body. A few minutes later, completely exhausted by the stress of holding back her emotions and the lack of rest of the previous night, Elizabeth fell asleep.

~ * ~

Elizabeth felt someone moving next to her and imagined that Lydia had once again crawled into her bed during the night, as she usually did when the weather was this cold and the hearth in her room had died out. Her little sister was too lazy to restart the fire but Elizabeth never complained when she joined her, in fact she welcomed her additional warmth she furnished as they cuddled together under the covers. In these distressful times, when the world seemed against her and her future looked so dark, the notion that she was sharing her bed with her youngest sister and not the man that would soon become her husband was exceedingly comforting. Consoled by these thoughts, she snuggled against the source of warmth, vaguely taking notice that her pillow felt unusually woolly this morning.

But soon reality struck her with the intensity of a lightning bolt, for it was not Lydia the one providing the warmth and comfort she so desperately needed --it was her odious husband-- and the woolly fabric on which she was resting her head was not her pillow, it was, in fact, Mr Darcy's coat. She immediately sat up and began to arrange her clothes and the blanket that was covering her and her husband.

"My dear, forgive me if I woke you up." Darcy accommodated himself on the seat to observe her. "Do you feel rested now?"

"Yes, quite rested."

His gloved hand traced her pale cheek. He smiled lovingly at her and after being granted a weak smile in return, he leaned in to kiss her, something he did with great tenderness. Elizabeth's reply was mild to say the least, almost deprived of emotion thus discouraging him to infuse more passion to the kiss. Her lips were cold and unresponsive and her general passivity was becoming a matter of preoccupation for the young groom. For a man that had fallen in love with her liveliness of spirit and had been fantasying about repeating the interlude of the previous afternoon since he sat on the carriage, he found his bride's behaviour utterly disfavouring.

"Are you unwell, dearest?" He asked sweetly as he looked into her eyes, searching for a sign of illness. He thought she looked exceedingly pale. "We can remain a little longer in our next stop if you need time to rest."

The prospect of staying at an inn -where he might suggest they proceeded with the consummation of their marriage-seemed more frightful than remaining with him inside the coach, where they were at least in public. "No, that would not be necessary, I am perfectly well, sir."

Elizabeth removed herself out of his hold and turned her eyes to the fields outside the window. She was not inclined to speak -nor did she have anything to say at this point-- so the task of making idle talk was left to the groom, who made a few comments about the ceremony and the wedding breakfast. Elizabeth replied briefly but civilly at his praise at her mother's cooking efforts and accepted his compliments on her appearance with an insincere smile. He tried other subjects, obtaining a similar -and quite uncooperative, in fact-response from his bride.

After a few attempts at making conversation, Darcy dropped the effort entirely. Practically no word was said until they reached the outskirts of London.

~ * ~

The Darcy carriage stopped at the door of the townhouse. The house was big, elegant, far more than what Elizabeth had expected. She could but feel small and out of place before such grandeur and the enormity of the building only served to increase her feeling of loneliness and defencelessness.

The presentation of the new mistress of the house to the staff was conducted with the formality these extraordinary events habitually had. The newlyweds were received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Turner, who after a few words from the master, introduced Elizabeth to the servants that were lined up expecting to meet the new Mrs Darcy.

Elizabeth noted that her husband was exceedingly solicitous towards her. His behaviour since they left Meryton had been radically different to the one he had displayed before their marriage. His manners had softened considerably, he was all kindness and gentility, personally seeing after her needs and doing all that was in his reach to make her feel comfortable.

Once they were done with the formalities, Darcy escorted her to her bedchamber so that she could rest and freshen up for dinner.

"Is there anything you need, my dear?" he asked gently. "Your trunks are being unpacked by your maid. Please, do not hesitate to ring for help if you are in want of something."

"Thank you, Mr. Darcy," she replied, meeting his eyes for only a second.

"Dinner will be served in two hours, is that agreeable with you?"

Elizabeth nodded silently.

"I will come for you at that time, then."

"Yes, sir."

Darcy raised her hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss on it. There so many things he wanted to say, he was so desirous to kiss her and show her how happy he was with their union that he would have followed her into her chambers to have a brief taste of the nectar of her lips, but his wife's abnormal dullness was puzzling him and preventing him to act upon his most primal desires. His disquietude for his new stature was also a reason for his lack of passionate determination as Darcy, though perhaps more experimented in the matters of the flesh, was also newlywed, therefore just as inexperienced as his wife in hymeneal protocols.

Hence the couple parted at the door, the bride disappearing hastily into her chambers, the exceedingly puzzled groom silently walking towards his. In both cases a tight knot was starting to tie inside their stomachs, bringing more tension to what had been a tiresome and stressing day.

Once alone in her rooms, Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked around in an attempt to take in the particularities of the place that she thought would become her personal torture chamber in the days to come. The room was exceedingly handsome and Elizabeth was certain that she would have loved it in other circumstances. The walls were covered with an exquisite fabric in the faintest shade of peach, with matching curtains and furniture. The bed was as beautiful as it seemed comfortable. There was an enormous fireplace warming up the space and a lovely bouquet of flowers was situated on one of the tables.

Two girls appeared from her dressing room and Elizabeth recognized one of them as Elsie, the girl that the housekeeper had introduced her as her new lady's maid. With great solicitousness they helped her out of her dress and showed her the dressing room where a warm bath awaited her. Elizabeth was not used to all this luxury and was a little shy as her maids tended to her. Yet she could not complain. They were attentive, efficient and discreet. All her instructions were followed with precision and celerity and Elizabeth did not fail to ascertain Elsie's skill with the brush and ribbons. Her hair was beautifully done.

When the time came, Darcy went for her as he had promised to escort her to the dining room. The couple dined in awkward silence, each one preoccupied with their own thoughts of the night ahead. The exquisite dishes the cook had carefully prepared for the occasion were practically left untouched as the groom, though apparently calm, was consumed by anxiety and the dread the bride was feeling had swept her appetite away.

Always observant of etiquette, Darcy asked his wife if she would prefer to spend some time in the music room drinking coffee before retiring. In all honesty, he was hoping she would refuse his suggestion because that would give him permission to skip other formalities and take her directly to their chambers to make love to her. He was pleasantly surprised when his bride declined his offer and unwittingly granted him his impious little wish. Little did he know that her decision had nothing to do with her haste for consummating their marriage. Her reasons, while connected with carnal procedures, had an entirely different motivation: if what would follow was inevitable, she saw no point in delaying it. The sooner it ended, the better.

"Shall I join you in half an hour?" he asked in a tender voice as they reached her chambers.

"Yes, sir," Elizabeth replied quietly. Without even a courtesy, she disappeared into her rooms.

Alone in her bedchamber, Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her chest, at loss of what to do. The knot that was twisting her stomach was getting tighter, creating a very unpleasant sensation through her entire body, taking her almost to the point of nausea. In only half an hour, her husband would be there with her and all those things she had been wishing would not happen would finally occur. Her eyes rested on the bed, the place where her husband would take her virtue away, where he would finally possess her and shuddered at the thought of his hands upon her, of him making his way towards parts of her body that no one had ever touched.

There was a soft knock at the door and Elizabeth startled, her heartbeat speeding up at the thought of her husband joining her in her rooms so soon after their departure. Certainly it could not be him, he had just left! When she realized that the sound came from her dressing room and she allowed Elsie to enter.

"I've finished unpacking your things, ma'am."

"Thank you, Elsie."

"Which night gown would you prefer for tonight, ma'am?" she asked as she presented Elizabeth with the three she selected. Two were among Elizabeth's belongings; the third one she was told was a present from the master. It was a beautiful nightgown made of ivory silk and Spanish lace that Elizabeth thought was perfect for the occasion. Yet, she chose the one her aunt Gardiner gave her, probably not as fashionable and expensive, but that would surely make her feel more at ease.

The young girl laid it over the bed and waited for instructions.

"Thank you, Elsie. That will be all."

"Good night, Madam," the girl made a courtesy and left.

~ * ~

As soon as he entered his chambers, Darcy was immediately joined by his valet, who came holding the night shift and robe he had chosen for his master in this special occasion. With his usual efficiency, the servant moved around the room, helping his master to undress and into his night clothes. When he was done, he bid the master good night.

Having bathed and shaved before dinner, there was not much that Darcy could do until the time to join his bride came. He still had long ten minutes to wait and was becoming increasingly fidgety by the minute, so he poured himself a glass of port hoping that a little liquor would help placate his jittery spirit. Slightly soothed by the beverage, he walked towards the window and stared into the night.

Darcy knew that the success of this night would depend entirely on him, not only in terms of his pleasure, but also that of his bride. Being a reserved man that despised licentiousness, Darcy's experience with the fair sex was quite short, just occasional encounters with paid women that had instructed him on the basics of lovemaking that took place in his early twenties. The frequency of these meetings decreased significantly when he became the master of Pemberley and in the past couple of years he had lived of life of chastity. Despise these limitations he knew enough to know that women tended to be a bit reluctant when exposed the particularities of intercourse for the first time. He was also aware that the deed could be painful and that it was the man's mission to raise his bride's passionate sensibilities before proceeding with the act. Therefore, with this concern in mind, he had commanded himself to remain calm and be gentle in front of her beauty and repress his manly desires until his wife was ready to receive him.

After some agonizing minutes, the anxious groom took a deep breath and marched towards his wife's bedroom. The time had come.

~ * ~

Elizabeth sat by her vanity, slowly brushing her hair, blankly staring at the woman in the mirror as if she weren't herself, wishing she would wake up from this nightmare that had started in the woods behind her home and that had lasted two torturous months.

Albeit her immeasurable misery, Elizabeth was not physically afraid of what would happen tonight. Her mother had been quite sensible in her speech about what occurred in the marriage bed. She was told that, though painful the first time, she should not fear it, as intimacy could turn quite pleasurable once she became acquainted with her husband. Her mother's advice -with a forlorn look in her eyes-was that a husband should never be discouraged from coming to his wife's chambers. Her recommendation was exactly the opposite, that he should be invited to come as often as possible, as men are usually happier in wedlock and treated their wives much better when their stomachs were full and when satisfied in bed with certain frequency. Mrs. Bennet's words brought Elizabeth back to happier times in Longbourn, when it was known that her father still visited her mother's quarters. Her Mama was less screechy and annoying, her nerves much calmer, and her father less sarcastic and contemptuous with his wife. All that changed after her mother miscarried her sixth child halfway through her confinement, a boy apparently, three years after Lydia's birth. That fateful occurrence ended every intimacy between her parents and as years progressed, they became the bitter old couple that rarely expressed any sort of affection for each other and showed each other little respect.

No, what Elizabeth was feeling now was not fear or dread. It was an emptiness that was so vast that could not be measured. She felt trapped in a life she did not want where she belonged to a man she did not love. There would be no affection, happiness or respect ahead, only darkness, loneliness and pain.

Her duty was to obey, to accept, to surrender. In only a few minutes, her husband would be there to claim his rights over her and there was nothing she could do to stop him.

There was a knock on the door and she knew that the time had come. God helped her.

Chapter 10

"Come in."

The door that connected to Darcy's chamber opened and her husband came in. Elizabeth did not turn to greet him, she remained sitting in front of her vanity, unmoving, her eyes fixed on the mirror, observing her ghostly reflection and following her husband's as he walked toward her.

No words were exchanged, just a faint smile from her and an intense look from him as their eyes met on the glass for only an instant. Elizabeth quickly averted her sight in discomfort while Darcy, mesmerized by her appearance, swept his eyes over figure in silent admiration. He came to a halt behind her and brushed his fingertips on the curls that now fell on her back, a sight that was as new for him as it was enticing.

Feeling a little self conscious under his consuming gaze, Elizabeth closed her wooden shawl over her chest. The silk gown was revealing and her robe she was wearing over it, though of excellent taste, was too thin for the time of the year. Compared to her husband, and though appropriately dressed for the occasion, she felt she was not covered enough. He was wearing a thick velvet robe in dark blue and underneath it she could see the pristine white of his night shift. Without the many garments and undergarments that she usually wore when in company, Elizabeth felt rather exposed in front of him.

Darcy stood behind her in complete bewilderment. The sight of his beautiful wife exceeded any expectation he had had of this night and he found himself unable describe his sentiments about this unique occasion. After a moment, though, he felt he was composed enough to place his hands on her shoulders and bent to kiss her cheek.

"You are so beautiful, my dearest, so lovely." He whispered close to her ear.

Blush spread over her cheeks, her 'thank you' almost lost to his ears.

He gave her another kiss, now a little lower, in the tender skin of her neck just under her ear. She immediately tensed and held her breath, securing her shawl even tighter over her bosom, too uncomfortable to enjoy his attentions.

"Are you pleased with your rooms?" he enquired as he lifted his head.

"Yes, sir."

"You can change whatever you please." He offered kindly.

She nodded silently.

"Come," Darcy, noticing certain reluctance from her part, extended his hand to her, leading the way to the sofa, "let us sit together."

Once situated on the sofa, Darcy asked Elizabeth if she wanted some wine, offering she declined with a shake of her head.

Darcy took her hand in his, and made a few comments about the house, to which Elizabeth responded with monosyllables, nods and faint smiles. Then came some compliments on her appearance, speech which he accompanied with tender caresses on her face. For her demeanour and her heightened colour, Darcy assumed that she was receptive to his attentions and moved his seduction a little further. He moved closer and gave her a soft kiss on the lips.

Though not exactly participative, Elizabeth did not reject the kiss. This encouraged him to go a little further, drawing her closer to his body, enveloping her in his arms, making careful yet deliberate advances over her silhouette.

Elizabeth remained passive to his loving impetus, allowing him to proceed at his will. She knew her duty was to accept, to let him do as he pleased, but she could not bring herself to enjoy the pleasure that his touch gave her or reciprocate his kisses or caresses. Her pain was too fresh, her indignation high. As his ardour grew, so did her repulsion. She endured his touch for as long as she could, until, almost nauseated, she placed a hand on his chest and gently pushed him away from her.

The bride's unwillingness was misinterpreted by the inexperienced husband. He mistook it for maidenly embarrassment so instead of enquiring the reasons for this detachment she had been overtly displaying since the wedding ceremony and that he had failed to recognize as such, he opted for slower approach. He knew that if he wanted this night to be a pleasurable one, for both himself and his bride, he would have to rein his virile urges and wait until his lady was more receptive of his attentions. In an attempt to distract her, he poured two glasses of wine with the hope that the red spirits would bring some serenity to his reluctant wife.

One more time Elizabeth declined his offer, leaving her glass untouched on the table. Darcy was puzzled by her behaviour to say the least. The mood had turned uncomfortably dull and the atmosphere of warmth and romanticism that Darcy would have liked to propitiate to his wedding night seemed impossible to be achieved. His bride's aloofness was increasingly discouraging and he found himself at loss of how to revert the staleness that had now possessed them. Darcy had expected a certain remiss from Elizabeth's part, but never this passiveness and absolute lack of participation he was obtaining now.

With his passions cooled for the moment, Darcy reverted to conversing ---an activity he had never been particularly good at-- hoping that a confession of his most secret sentiments would help Elizabeth understand the motivations that had driven him to their present stance. He began by telling her of the struggles he went through early in their acquaintance and how emotions that he had repressed from the very beginning had developed even against his better judgement.

This unexpected declaration was listened in astonished silence by the young bride. Her husband spoke well, but with more pride than tenderness. Pride for what he conquered, for what he overcame to have her. That's how Elizabeth learned that he had always been a most fervent admirer of her beauty and wit, but that it had been the inferiority of her status and her connections that had kept him from courting her while he resided at Netherfield. It became clear to her that marrying her was sort of degradation, but that, despite those endeavours he had previously expressed, was something at what he, in some way or another, had always aspired.

What vexed Elizabeth the most about this speech was the fact that her husband seemed convinced that this 'heartfelt' admission would be favourable received by her; that she would feel honoured of being the recipient of this admiration he had been, until now, reluctant to avow even to himself. His obliviousness and insensibility only served to exasperate her further because the gentleman seemed to be purposely dismissing the reasons why they had to marry. He spoke as if his un-gentlemanlike behaviour in the woods had never happened, as if their marriage had been of mutual accordance. Was his memory so short that he forgot that she was forced to marry him? That she had never desired to be his wife? She glared at him, so confident and proud of his achievements, realizing that her husband didn't have the slightest idea of how she felt about him. He knew nothing about her feelings and had been too selfish and vain as to enquire. For him, their marriage was a favour that he was bestowing on her and one that she, for all the reasons he had previously enunciated, should be honoured to receive.

No, her husband didn't know how much she hated him.

Completely oblivious to the strong resentment his declaration had just cemented inside his bride's heart, Darcy was now convinced that his honest and perfectly correct confession had persuaded his bride of his attachment to her and propitiated the correct atmosphere for seduction. With the consummation of their marriage as his main objective, the groom moved closer, thoughts and attitude centred in introducing his wife with the first steps of lovemaking. He put his hand on her waist and leaned in to kiss her. But against everything he had imagined, this time he was faced with her immediate rejection. Elizabeth turned her face away before he lips touched hers and rose from the sofa, heading directly to the other end of the room.

"Elizabeth, is anything the matter?" Darcy enquired, puzzled by her behaviour.

"I can't proceed with this," she replied with her back to him.

Feeling it has been his impetuousness that had scared his wife; Darcy followed her and attempted to calm her. "My dear, please forgive me, I was carried away."

She looked around, as if searching for a way to escape from this, to escape from him. Soon she realized there was nowhere to run.

"I know you are nervous, my sweet," he stepped closer and took her face in his hands. "There is nothing to fear."

He tried to kiss her, but Elizabeth pulled away. "Pray, stop."

"Elizabeth?" He frowned.

"I am sorry, sir, I cannot do what you are expecting me to do." She finally declared.

"What do you mean?"

Even in her distress, she forced herself to be polite. "I know this is not the right moment to inform you of this particular, but I cannot, I will not proceed."

"Elizabeth we are husband and wife." his eyes followed her as she walked away from him one more time.

She turned to face him, resolution in her features. "I have never desired this union, Mr. Darcy, and you had certainly never considered my opinion on the matter."

"You did not?" he blanched.

"No, never."

Darcy was astonished. He just stared at her, incredulity and shock preventing him from elaborating a reply.

"Perhaps I should had expressed this sooner, acquainted you to my feelings, but I thought you were aware of how I felt about you and this marriage. I am sorry if I caused you pain, it was not my intention. I'm sure that if the sentiments you had just expressed which had prevented the acknowledgment of your affection are true, then you will have no difficulty in overcoming that feeling after this explanation."

"I don't understand, madam," he replied, slightly vexed at this unexpected turn of events, "So if you do not mind, I would like to hear the reasons why I am being so uncivilly rejected. We took an oath this morning and I cannot conjecture the grounds for your change your mind only a few hours later."

"You do not?" Elizabeth cried in disbelief, her voice charged with sarcasm. "You seem to have forgotten the true reason why we are now married, sir. Tell me, Mr Darcy; is that not an excuse for incivility if I am being uncivil?"

Darcy swallowed visibly, recalling an incident he chosen to leave behind many weeks ago. Being a practical man, he saw no point in dwelling on what could not be changed. "I am very aware of the mistake I made at the time and I have apologized for my actions. I had long decided to forget that moment in benefit of our future happiness, madam. Perhaps you should do the same and try to start our marriage letting go of past resentments." He preached.

Elizabeth was not in generous disposition to forgive the mishap that had, in her opinion, ruined her life. "Of course, recalling that incident would not serve your convenience and discussing it would defeat you from the object that you are so eager to achieve tonight." His speechlessness encouraged her to proceed. There were too many reasons for her present irritation and she was going to enunciate them all. "I have other provocations, you know I have. Do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of my most beloved sister?"

"Your sister?" Darcy frowned with confusion.

"Yes, my sister Jane. Can you deny that you separated Mr. Bingley from her?"

As she pronounced these words, Darcy changed colour. "I have no wish to deny it. I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister. It seems that towards him I have been kinder than towards myself."

Elizabeth's incredulity increased on noticing that he was admitting his blame on this matter yet it was something for which he felt neither remorseful nor repentant. "How could you do that?"

"I do not think this is the appropriate moment to discuss this subject, madam." Darcy's expression darkened.

With great consternation, Elizabeth realized that his insufferable pride did not allow him to see any fault in his reasoning. "Tell me, sir, why did you marry me if you find me and my family so decidedly beneath your kind?"

His colour rose as he struggled to appear composed. "You are completely unaware of the reasons that motivated me to marry you, Mrs. Darcy."

"You married me because you could not contain your lust and assaulted me!"

"You are mistaken." Darcy forced himself to reply calmly, "The reason why I consented to marry you is because-"

"Because you were forced to do it!" she accused angrily. "You compromised my honour and vanished and you only returned because my father chased you like a hound!"

Darcy's temper snapped and he replied with a face pale with anger and his disturbance visible in every feature. "You know nothing about my feelings! I had no reason to feel obliged by your father's request, I consented to marry you because I wanted to do it! Do you want to know the true reason why I married you, Mrs. Darcy?"

Elizabeth looked at him with such disdain that he felt compelled to express sentiments that he had not been yet ready to admit to himself and that his wife, in her hatred, was not ready to hear. Loosing any composure he had left, he declared,

"I married you because I love you!" Elizabeth's eyes widened in shock at the unexpected confession but Darcy continued, too furious to stop himself. "I've been in love with you since the day I met you. And that love felt completely wrong. You had the most unfortunate relations and I knew that I was marrying against the wishes of my family and the rules of society." His frustration became evident in his voice as his own anguish overcame him. His tone softened and, for the better or the worse, he poured everything that was in his heart. "I admired you and the passion I felt was beyond my control. I was not my own master anymore. That's why I kissed you in the woods. One instant alone with you and I lost every control I have endeavoured to achieve in those few weeks I spent in your company. I came to London to forget you but thoughts of you continued to haunt me day and night. I became the slave of a woman I knew I could never have. So when your father arrived with his petition, I realized I couldn't deny my feelings any longer. My only hope was that one day you would come to love me as much as I love you."

"Love you?" she cried, incredulous. "How could I develop such extraordinary feeling for the man whose selfishness had brought so much misery to so many? After all you've done to me and to my sister; I could never love someone like you, sir. Still it is not merely in these affairs where my dislike for you was founded. I had long decided my opinion of you when I heard Mr. Wickham's story of your dealings with him! How can you defend yourself on that subject?"

Darcy stared at her for a moment, colour draining from his face, then began to pace the room looking exceedingly disturbed. "You seem to have great interest in that gentleman's concerns!"

"Who knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?"

"His misfortunes!" Darcy repeated, consumed by pain and jealousy. "Yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed."

"And by your infliction! You reduced him to his present state of poverty and treat his misfortunes with contempt and ridicule!"

"And this is your opinion of me!" He faced her, stopping in his walk, his eyes fixed in hers with implacable resentment. His wife, the woman he loved, was insulting him and defending his biggest enemy on his own wedding night. "This is the estimation in which you hold your own husband. My faults according to this are heavy indeed! But perhaps these offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession."

"My pride!?" Elizabeth protested.

"Yes, madam, your pride! I'm sure that had I decided to marry you before your father's request then perhaps you would have accepted me if I had courted you and, had I concealed my struggles and flattered you. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence." He said with haughty contempt. "I am not ashamed of the feelings I related, they were natural and just! Do you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself for a hasty marriage arranged under the most shameful circumstances?"

Elizabeth addressed her husband in her coldest, most severe tone. "You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy. Allow me to remind you that I wouldn't be trapped into this union had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner. Had I not been forced by my own father, no proposal from you would have ever been accepted." Darcy's expression mingled incredulity and mortification but she went on. "From the very beginning, your manners impressed me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. I may be married to you, Mr. Darcy, but I will never, ever be your wife!"

His expression darkened when her meaning sank in. "Are you denying your vows, Mrs. Darcy?"

Elizabeth knew she could not stop him for claiming his rights over her so she hoped that her voice wouldn't betray the fear she suddenly felt. She could keep the pretence of felicity in front of others, look after his household, yet she knew she could not take the last step that will make her belong completely to him.

"I am perfectly acquainted with the obligations that come with the married state, sir." She swallowed, glanced at her bed, then back at her husband. "If it is your wish to proceed with the consummation of our marriage, I shall offer no resistance in the fulfilment of my duty. But do not expect me to pretend I welcome your advances."

That was the last thing he wanted to hear. When he was finally able to find the words to reply to this enunciation, Darcy's tone was cold and controlled, almost deprived of emotion, but his eyes were a faithful reflection of the pain he felt.

"You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. I have never imposed myself upon a woman before and I grant you, it shall not occur now. Please forgive me for leading you to this uncomfortable situation. I will do my best effort to make your life in this house a pleasant one. Good night, Mrs. Darcy."

After a short bow, he left.

Chapter 11

Her husband disappeared into his rooms and Elizabeth found herself alone in her bedchamber, her hands shaking, her stomach revolted after the intense argument they had just shared. The tumult of her thoughts was painfully great. In this perturbed state of mind, Elizabeth sat in front of the window seat wrapped in a thick blanket, staring into the night with empty, glassy eyes, wishing she could be home. Never before she had never felt so desolated and lonely, so vulnerable and trapped. She felt imprisoned in this enormous and strange house, at the mercy of an insensible and cruel husband, with no one to turn to and nowhere to run. Nothing could appease her distressed soul. There was no Mama and no Papa there to shelter her, no Jane to console her, no Aunt Gardiner to bring her comfort and wisdom in this distressful moment.

"I will not cry. You will never make me cry, Mr. Darcy." She tightened her hold on her legs as her body rocked back and forward. "Oh, Dear Lord, what am I going to do?"

~ * ~

On the other side of the door, the rejected husband paced his room like a caged beast. He was angry, his heart was wrenching with frustration, jealousy and hurt. He felt shunned, insulted and in pain. Too distressed to elaborate a coherent thought, Darcy walked towards the sitting area and poured himself a brandy in an attempt to bring some clarity to his boisterous spirit. He drank it in one shot, his eyes watering as the strong liquid burned his throat.

The entire scene played in his mind over and over again: The wounding spitefulness of his wife's words, her disdain and rejection, her contempt and the unfairness of the accusations she had thrown about Miss Bennet and Mr. Wickham.

"At least in that I may defend myself." Darcy muttered as he walked decidedly to his desk.

After grabbing paper and pen, he composed the letter that would expose his soul to the woman who had just torn his heart apart.

~ * ~

Darcy was awakened by the coldness of his bedchamber. The fire had died out long ago and the rejected groom laid over the bedcovers, still wearing the same nightshift and robe he wore the night before. He had staid up for a good part of the night, writing, until, as the grandfather clock chimed four, exhausted after purging his rawest feelings on the letter to his bride, he went to bed. There was where dawn found him, in a bitterness of spirit impossible to overcome.

Fortunately he had asked his valet not to come early to him. He was not ready to face anyone yet. As he observed his reflection on the mirror, the dark shadows under his eyes, Darcy acknowledged, with great acerbity, that this was not how he had imagined his first day as a married man would be. He thought he would wake up with his bride in his arms, feeling her warmth and softness, holding her after a night of love and passion where they would have learnt the delights of intimacy between lovers. Her words had shattered his dreams of the perfect honeymoon he had envisioned for them, his plans to take her to the opera in their best fashions, or expectations about long walks through Vauxhall Gardens or enchanting tours around Regent Park in the phaeton holding hands under the furry blanket. He thought he would show her the world, share with her everything he possessed and sketch their life together. But this reality could not be more different and painful. In only a moment of verbal sparring, all he had wished for had been destroyed by his wife's hurtful speech.

His wife, Darcy thought with bitterness. Even though he was married to her, Elizabeth would never be truly his wife.

Darcy dressed without the assistance of his valet. When he was sure that he looked composed and presentable for company, Darcy descended to the morning room where he would wait for his 'wife' to come down for breakfast. Despite his resentment and pain, he could not show her the discourtesy of not waiting for her on her first day in a strange house. Although he would have preferred to spare himself the pain of seeing her again so soon after their quarrel, this was the gentlemanlike thing to do.

But Elizabeth never came.

~ * ~

Elizabeth rolled to her side and opened her eyes to the half darkness of her rooms. It was late in the morning, she could tell by the rays of sun that peeked through the heavy draperies. Tired and drained of thoughts and emotions, she struggled to come out of her slumber.

'I wish this was all a bad dream', she thought with increasing tribulation, yet she knew it was not. She was the new Mrs. Darcy and nothing would change this circumstance.

She pulled the covers up to her nose and closed her eyes again, not ready to wake up to her new and most displeasing reality. Waking up would signify starting to live a life she was not yet ready to face and starting a marriage she had never desired. All she wanted at that moment was to close her eyes and sleep forever.

Noises in her dressing room alerted her to the presence of her maid.

"Good morning, madam." the girl made a quick courtesy when she saw the mistress coming.

"Good morning, Elsie" Elizabeth smiled weakly.

The maid continued arranging her belongings.

Elizabeth spoke in an even voice. "Please inform Mr. Darcy that I will not come down for breakfast. I have a very bad headache."

"Yes, ma'am." The girl stared at her for a moment, then headed for the door.

"And please," Elizabeth added before she left, "bring me some tea when you return."

~ * ~

Darcy was still waiting for Elizabeth in the morning room when the lady's maid arrived and informed him about his wife's indisposition.

"Thank you." he replied in a voice deprived of emotion. "It will be better if we allow her some rest."

Not much later, he left for his club.

When Elsie returned with a tray with tea and pastries, Elizabeth was standing by the window clad in her nightclothes.

"Your tea, ma'am." she placed it on the table of the sitting area.

Elizabeth took her seat quietly, pondering if she should inquire about her husband. That would be the proper thing to do, even if she had little interest in knowing about him. "Is Mr. Darcy already downstairs?

"Yes, ma'am. He came down early for breakfast and waited for you in the morning room. When I informed him about your indisposition, I believe he left the house."

"Thank you, Elsie. That will be all."

Elizabeth was left alone with her thoughts. 'He loved me all this time'. This man, who had never shown any real partiality for her until he kissed her two months ago, who was forced to marry her because of her father's intervention, had been in love with her from the earliest moments of their acquaintance! Never, not in her wildest dreams, had she dreamt that the gentleman that was now her husband had professed such profound regard for her.

In other circumstances, Elizabeth would have been almost gratified to know that she had unconsciously inspired such strong feelings on a man like him. However his pride, his abominable pride and his admission for what he had done to her sister Jane and Wickham that he had not attempted to deny, his shameless avowal of his dislike for her family had made her overcome any pity she might have felt for him after his heartfelt confession.

Despite all theses undeniable faults of character, Elizabeth had to admit that, even after their brutal argument, his behaviour toward her had been exceedingly gentlemanlike. He still waited for her in the breakfast room that morning, though perhaps this civility had the only purpose of keeping the pretence of connubial felicity in front of the servants. He did not impose on her physically either, as was his right, and had been generous enough to spare her from her conjugal obligations on their wedding night. That was indeed an unusual behaviour for a man with his selfishness and who had declared himself to be resentful and unforgiving.

Still, these scarce and truly unimportant points in his favour were not enough to redeem him from his past offences. True love cannot be selfish, Elizabeth told herself, and should be bestowed without inflicting the loved one any harm. The affection her husband had proclaimed to feel, if genuine, had been misplaced and professed in the most inadequate way. His past actions spoke of his unkindness and his wounding words were a clear evidence of his disdainfulness and ruthlessness. Yet there was nothing she could do to change her destiny now. He was her husband, and as much as she disliked this circumstance, she would have to face him every day for the rest of her life.

It was not until later in the evening, during dinner, that the couple saw each other for the first time that day. They addressed each other with forced civility and each struggled to maintain their composure in front of the other's coldness. Practically no word was spoken during the meal and, once finished; they went to the music room where they stayed for the minimally required time. Elizabeth embroidered, Darcy read. When she could take no more of their mutual coldness and indifference, Elizabeth announced she would retire and her husband escorted her to her rooms.

That was their first day as a married couple.

~ * ~

The following days proceeded in similar fashion. Darcy went to his club or fencing in the mornings, afternoons were spent in his study and in the evening he would join his wife for a silent dinner. Elizabeth kept to her rooms almost all day long, leaving them only for walks toward the music room or brief visits to the snowy gardens of the house.

For five days, they followed this senseless routine. Resentment, pain and anger were still too fresh inside their hearts to let them go. Neither had the strength nor the wish repeat the scene of their wedding night so they avoided each other as much as they could. And in those times when they met, the animosity and tension between them was insupportable. All those hurtful words were back and their unhealed wounds were reopened. They did not trust themselves to be civil in the other's presence so practically no words were exchanged. Each one blamed the other for their present misery and neither was willing to take the first step to revert the sorrow that had now possessed them.

But on the sixth day, things changed for the better. Elizabeth decided she would become insane if she continued with her life as it was and pulled herself out from her current inertia. She rose early and, for the first time since her wedding, she joined her husband in the morning room.

Darcy rose immediately when he saw his wife. This was an unexpected but not at all unwelcome surprise. "Good morning, Mrs. Darcy," he said with a smile. "It's a pleasure to have your company this morning. I hope you slept well?"

"I have, thank you," she kept her eyes down.

He pulled out a chair for her and they had their breakfast together. There was still too much awkwardness for them to feel completely at ease, yet in this occasion they were able to leave their coldness behind. They were not as tense or defensive as they had been in their previous encounters and by the end of the meal they had managed to make some polite and amiable conversation. It was then that Elizabeth informed her husband about her interest in learning more about the household, a comment that Darcy received with genuine delight. For once, Elizabeth returned his smile.

Darcy then showed Elizabeth the entire house and reintroduced her to Mrs. Turner, the housekeeper. Once he felt that his wife was comfortable, he left them to converse in privacy.

That evening they spent some time together before dinner and, once again they were able to chat without the usual tension of the previous days. Elizabeth, revitalized with her new occupations, talked with enthusiasm about her meeting with the housekeeper. Darcy listened to her comments and answered all her questions with reflective eyes. He was relieved that they could at least be civil to each other and pleased that she was trying to face her new role with a better disposition. Perhaps it was not much but it was a start.

Elizabeth now found herself quite busy during the mornings. She became acquainted with the servants and began to take the first decisions about the household's administration. She discussed the menu with the cook every day and learned her husband's favourite dishes. In only a few days, with the assistance of Mrs. Turner, the housekeeper, she felt confident enough as to run the house by herself.

Those meetings with the housekeeper were very enlightening for Elizabeth. As she learned more about the household, she learned more about her own husband.

"How long have you been working for the Darcys?"

"For more than sixteen years. I came on the year Miss Darcy was born."

"A long time indeed."

"Yes," the housekeeper smiled in fondness at the remembrance. "And those were very pleasant times for us. The late Mrs. Darcy was still alive and the children were as happy as they had ever been."

"I have seen a portrait of her. She was a very handsome woman."

"Very handsome and kind. Miss Georgiana looks very much like her, though it was the master the one who inherited her temper and disposition. She was a determined, very strong woman and owner of the most generous heart."

Elizabeth was not ready to hear any sort of praise about her husband so she turned her attention to the vase in front of her. "You present us every day with such beautiful flowers, Mrs. Turner," she gave the lovely bouquet her personal touch. "Where do they come from? The weather is so cold that they cannot grow in the garden."

"No, madam," replied the housekeeper, "these are from the orangery. It is not as large as Pemberley's but it provides us with a good variety of flowers and fruits all through the year."

"Have you ever been at Pemberley?" the new mistress had heard so much about that house that she was intrigued about it.

"Only once, several years ago, when Mrs. Reynolds' daughter fell ill. I went to replace her while she was away. It's a beautiful house. You shall see it soon. The master is very fond of it and spends most of the summer months on his estate."

Elizabeth smiled and looked away, troubled by her own thoughts. She would love to be in the countryside again but the thought of leaving for Pemberley only brought uneasiness. Her Aunt Gardiner praised the beauties of Derbyshire with such enthusiasm that Elizabeth was more than desirous to see them. But, at the same time, leaving for the north would only increase the distance between her and those she loved.

~ * ~

The second week of marriage passed as uneventfully as the previous one. The young husband, more resigned to his circumstance as the days passed, observed his wife's progress with a mixture of sorrow and relief. He was pleased that at least she no longer appeared distressed but he knew for sure that she was not happy with her present life. Though still suffering because of their argument on their wedding night, Darcy did not censure her any more. He had had his share in the discussion and he recognized his blame in the whole affair. His only hope now was that, one day, they would come to an understanding and become the married couple they ought to be. But, before that, his own wounds would have to heal.

"Mrs. Darcy," he addressed her one night during dinner. "There are some matters concerning family interests that as my ... " he cleared his throat with a soft cough "... as the mistress of the house you should be acquainted with. I would like to introduce you to them. Would tomorrow morning be convenient?"

"Yes, sir." She smiled.

On the following morning, at the appointed time, Elizabeth joined Darcy in his study. They were in conference for about two hours, where Darcy introduced her to all the particulars about the family. He started with the pin money that was required for running the household and for her personal use.

"Now we are in your most capable hands, Mrs. Darcy," he smiled.

Elizabeth was in stupor about the amount of money she was receiving. Still she tried to appear unaffected by it as she did not want her husband to think she was poor girl with little knowledge in these matters.

"I believe this should cover all," he noticed her expression, "but if you are in need of something else, do not fear asking."

"I will, sir."

"Do you wish to see the family jewellery? You may want to select something for your personal use."

"I thank you, but not at the moment." She replied as a faint blush appeared on her cheeks. She did not want him to think she was eager to flaunt his wealth on her. "I am not used to wearing expensive jewellery."

"The appropriate occasion will come, I am sure. Georgiana will be home on the following week. In her letters she expressed her wish to become friends with you. Perhaps you two may visit some shops together. Knowing your preference for the outdoors, I am sure that you will be more than pleased to leave the house, if only for a few hours."

"That will be agreeable, yes," she replied briefly. There were things she would like to do, visit her relatives or leave the house for a walk in the park, but she doubted her husband would approve of those activities.

Darcy then proceeded to acquaint her with the properties they owned, heirlooms, the churches and schools they supported, the relation they had with their tenants and servants and some of the duties that were expected from her as the Mistress of Pemberley. Elizabeth felt a little overwhelmed with the dimension of his -their- fortune and the influence that she would have over other people's lives from now on. With no little pride, she accepted her new responsibilities and was honoured that this man had chosen her to perform such a significant role.

During these hours they remained together she noticed how different he was from the man she knew, how his manners had softened how easy it was for her to converse with him now. She was impressed by how deeply committed he was to his family and name and by the way he included her in every subject, asking her opinion in every matter. Contrary to what she had always thought about him, he could be generous and sensible when he wanted and now she understood the enormous weight he carried over his shoulders -- a weight that he would now share with her.

"These livings you mentioned," she enquired, her curiosity piqued. "Are they all taken?"

"All three. The one in Kympton was vacant for six months about a year ago, when the old parson died unexpectedly. But he has been replaced earlier this year."

That was the parsonage Mr. Wickham mentioned, Elizabeth recalled, the one that Darcy had denied him. The remembrance of this incident was enough to upset her, once again putting her in an unfavourable disposition with her husband. Her smile disappeared from her lips as she fidgeted in her chair.

Darcy noted her sudden change of countenance and was puzzled by it. At a loss of how to understand it, he told her that they were done with the matters he needed to discuss with her. Elizabeth rose, he did the same and they parted. When they met at the dining table again, the awkwardness was back and the little understanding they had been able to achieve was not there any more.

~ * ~

The morning that followed, after her daily conference with the housekeeper, Elizabeth decided to take another turn around the house to become better acquainted with the rooms and galleries, especially those of the west wing, that were rarely used this time of the year because of their larger dimensions. Her husband was not at home, she understood, so there would be no chance she would cross paths with him.

Elizabeth first explored a small sitting room that she thought was particularly handsome. She was told it was used only when the larger dining room was occupied with banquets so the ladies could retire to converse while the gentlemen remained smoking at the dining table. The fabrics on the walls and furniture were light, in shades of gold and brown and the furniture was more stylish and luxurious than the family's habitual quarters.

Following that lodging was the main dining room, one of the largest stances of the house. She was told it was usually closed at this time of the year so Elizabeth never imagined she would find such a frightful sight in its interior when she opened the door.

Before her astonished eyes was her husband with another man, both shirtless, dishevelled and sweaty, circling each other over a square carpet. They had white wraps around their hands which were closed into fists as they held them up near their faces. Punches came and went from one to the other, never really hitting target due to the fighters' quick reflexes and practiced defence techniques. Elizabeth recalled seeing a quarrel when she was much younger, when the two eldest Lucas boys fought over the possession of a ball during a game one Saturday afternoon their families were picnicking together. But the scene that she was viewing was completely different to that innocent scrape between to whimsical lads. This was a boxing lesson between two grown up and very fit men, where the contenders studied each other, planned their strategy and attacked with an acuteness she had never witnessed before. Mesmerized by her husband's figure, she stared transfixed at the way the muscles of back and arms ripped and tensed with every move he made. There she stood, hypnotized by their dangerous dance, rooted to the spot by an invisible force, struck by the virile grace of Darcy's posture and the ferocity in his eyes.

The battle suddenly intensified as the boxers exchanged a quick succession of blows directed to the most solid areas of the opponent's body.

"My goodness!" Elizabeth gasped when she heard the dry sound of fists impacting on flesh as well as the grunts and exhalations that are usually result from these exertions. Her voice was recognized by her husband, who immediately turned to see her, thus distracting his attention from his contender for the fraction of a second. The next punch the master threw hit him squarely on the chin.

The young wife watched horrified how her husband wobbled back and brought his hand to his mouth which was now bleeding with profusion. The master stepped closer to see if the injury was of relevance, then chastised his pupil for letting his guard down and allowing external factors to divert him from the sparring. Having seen enough and a little overwhelmed by the violence of the encounter, Elizabeth fled out of the room.

Later in the day, deeply mortified for the inconvenience she had caused and conscious that her presence there had played an important role in her husband's injury, Elizabeth went to Darcy's study with the intention of apologizing. She found him with a glass of scotch in his hand and an unfriendly look in his eyes. The bruise on his chin was painfully evident, as was the cut he sported on his lower lip.

"Mr. Darcy," she began with great repentance. "I want to apologize for intruding in your lesson. I am afraid I caused your laceration."

Darcy said nothing which was not surprising since he had never been overly talkative. Elizabeth saw herself in the necesity to further conversation.

"It was utterly incorrect form my part to venture into that room without knocking." She said, feeling the awkwardness of his silence. "I am truly sorry. It shall not occur again."

"There is no reason for you to apologize, madam. It was not your fault." He replied sternly as he left his glass over the table.

"I believe it is, sir."

"No," his voice was almost a growl. "I averted my eyes from my opponent. If there is someone to blame for my injury is my own inattention."

Elizabeth would hear none of this and walked towards him, mostly moved by the compassion she felt for seeing him in physical pain, completely innocent to the fact that was approaching dangerous ground. The glass her husband had been nursing contained his third scotch and the blow he had received earlier in the day had left him in the most unfavourable mood. Though unbeknown to her, Darcy had resumed the practice of boxing -a sport he had not exercised in months-in an attempt to exorcise the anger and frustration he felt for the failure of his marriage. Today's practice and the consequent injury had not placated those morbid feelings, it had intensified them. Unaware of this particular and oblivious to the perils to which her noble pursue was exposing her, Elizabeth joined him at his post near the window and tried to offer him some comfort.

"I shall bring some ice for that bruise, it will help to stop the swell." She raised her hand to his face to inspect the cut, but Darcy pulled back before she could touch him.

Surprised by his abruptness and not quite understanding why he was refusing her, Elizabeth stared at him with wide, preoccupied eyes. His, on the other hand, were darkening with enmity. It took her a moment to comprehend that the alleviation she was offering was unwelcome. Also, the strong scent of liquor in his breath told her that he might not be fully on his senses. Elizabeth decided it was best to quit the room at once.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have come," she turned to leave. "If you would excuse me,"

But Darcy caught her by the arm before she could proceed any further. He spun her around so they were face to face and brought her closer until they were barely half a step apart.

Their gazes locked, scared orbs fixed on tortured ones. She submitted wordlessly to his hold, unable to move or protest, completely overpowered by the intensity of his eyes. He leaned down slowly, almost unwillingly, as if fighting against himself now, resisting the pull of inner demons that were drawing him to her. There was raw desire in his eyes, but also pain and anger. His attitude disquieted her, not because she feared him, but for her own conflicted emotions. She swallowed hard and prayed he would stop before they both did something they would surely regret.

Darcy must have felt the distress and helplessness that irradiated from her and was able to achieve some clarity in his inebriated state. The hold on her arms eased and he let her go, returning to his post at the window, ignoring her completely. Elizabeth left her room with haste.

When they met later at the dining table, the couple acted as if the incident had not happened. The subject was never discussed again.

~ * ~

Days passed slowly at the Darcy townhouse, bringing very little changes in the newlyweds' lives. For nearly three weeks, Elizabeth had been the new Mrs. Darcy and although the relationship between husband and wife was not no longer strained, it was stagnant, detained in a dullness that neither could let go. Their routine was the same, they were polite whenever they were in each other's company, but there was no progress, no determination to improve their present reality, just the frustrating sensation that happiness had been denied to them, that things might never be rectified.

The grey and rainy days that followed did very little to uplift Elizabeth's lowness of spirits, neither did the news that came from Longbourn. In her hand she held the letter that Jane sent to her. Life at home had not changed much since she left. Her mother was still suffering because of her nerves, Lydia was as silly as ever and Kitty bought a new bonnet. Lady Lucas invited them all to supper and cards and there was a small ball celebrating the end of the winter where even her taciturn sister Mary was tempted to dance. Life continued, but she was not there to share it with those she loved.

Elizabeth's excessive longing for her family was taking a toll on her. She missed the sisterly quarrels, the chatting during dinner and her conversations with Jane. Mostly, she longed for her sister Jane. She needed her balance, her counsel, her kindness and wisdom. The Darcy townhouse was comfortable and lacked of nothing, but it was so terribly big and quiet. Being used to living in a house with six women, her present dwelling seemed so empty that it only increased her feeling of loneliness. She also missed her Aunt Gardiner and visiting her was her most desired wish but she was afraid her husband would deny his permission to call on her if she asked him.

As she looked at the rain, thin and grey over the naked gardens, Elizabeth recalled Charlotte's words during the gathering at Longbourn, referring to her marriage to Mr. Collins:

'By the end of the day we had been together for only five or ten minutes. I feel quite content with my situation'.

A sole tear ran down her cheek and Elizabeth wiped it with tremulous fingers. She had never expected that such a thing would happen to her. And by God, she was not at all content with her situation.

Standing at the threshold, unnoticed to Elizabeth's eyes, Darcy had been observing her for a long while. He had been there, in a daze, unable to tear his eyes from her gloomy figure. He saw her looking outside the window with sorrow, he heard her sigh and saw her tears. It broke his heart to see her so miserable. All he wanted at the moment was to hold her and promise that everything would be better if they stayed together. But he knew she would never allow him to get close to her. Loving her the way he did, the awareness of her unhappiness was as frustrating as it was painful. There was not much he could do but watch her from a distance and suffer the agony of being close to her and having her out of his reach.

However, Darcy knew that he could not just stand there and be silent witness her suffering. His wife's liveliness was extinguishing before his eyes. He had to do something. Taking a deep breath, Darcy made a most heart wrenching decision; one that he hoped would change their lives for the best.

Chapter 12

The winter time began to fade. The days became longer and the weather, though still cold, was pleasant, announcing the spring to come.

The warmth of the new season brought Miss Darcy back from Bath where she stayed for three weeks in the company of her cousin, the Earl's eldest son, and his wife, allowing the newlyweds some privacy after their wedding.

Georgiana was happy to be back at home but at the same time nervous about meeting her new sister-in-law. Shy by nature, Georgiana was experiencing the fears that usually accompanied introductions of this calibre. Although in this case, other circumstances had been the means of increasing her worries, making her even more apprehensive about the formidable encounter. In his letter, her brother did not comment on his first weeks of marriage. Darcy was not one who expressed himself with much effusiveness but Georgiana had somehow expected more cheerfulness in a newlywed or at least some expressions that showed he was happy with his new stature. His missive was brief, bringing up only trivial matters and empty of the warmth he usually transmitted when he wrote to her. The fact that Elizabeth didn't write to her only served to increase her apprehension for the meeting. She enquired after her -Georgiana had no courage to write to her directly and her brother never asked her to do so- yet Darcy's reply was succinct and polite, informing her of his wife's welfare and transmitting her salutations and well-wishes during her stay in Bath.

"Welcome home, dearest." Darcy held her by her shoulders, at an arm's length. "You look much grown since you left."

"I am so happy that I am back. I missed you dearly." Georgiana smiled warmly at her brother. She saw no distress in his features and her doubts about his felicity began to fade. "Where is Mrs Darcy?"

Darcy was able to keep his smile on his face when he replied. "In her rooms. She will be here in a moment."

Upstairs, the young wife readied herself for the meeting with her new sister with great despondency. This had not been a good day for Elizabeth. Her moodiness was the product of the news she received from Longbourn that came in the shape of a most unpleasant letter her mother had decided to send her. Mrs. Bennet, who had not written one single line since her wedding, chose this first correspondence to express her wish to be invited to Pemberley where she expected to spend the summer months. Elizabeth could almost imagine how vexed her intolerant husband would become if this information fell in his hands. His dislike of her mother had always been painfully evident and Elizabeth did not want to suffer the aggravation of witnessing his disdainful expression if she shared this circumstance with him.

Mrs. Bennet also reserved an entire paragraph to describe Jane's present misery. She blamed her for not being able to secure Mr. Bingley's affection and dared to compare her current situation with Elizabeth's. She even congratulated her second eldest for her success in securing the match to Mr. Darcy. What kind of mother could rejoice in her daughter's disgrace? How could she insinuate that Jane had done that on purpose? Her mother's words hurt her and the selfishness and lack of tact angered her beyond limit. In that woeful mood, the new Mrs. Darcy joined her husband and sister for tea.

"Miss Darcy," Elizabeth entered the room. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance."

Georgiana dropped a deep courtesy. She had expected her new sister to address her with more familiarity, but the distance with which Elizabeth had begun the conversation forced her to reply in the same manner. "The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Darcy."

"I hope your journey back home was a pleasant one." Elizabeth sat on a chair placed opposite to the sofa where Georgiana and Darcy had chosen to sit.

"It was, thank you."

"I have never been in Bath before. Is it as beautiful as I hear?"

"Yes, very beautiful."

"I assume there are many amusements for young ladies like you to be fully entertained."

"Yes, there are."

"Did you attend the theatre during your stay?" Elizabeth attempted to expand the conversation.

"Twice, yes."

The new Mrs. Darcy asked a few more questions, extracting similarly brief replies from her sister-in-law. Not in the best of spirits, Elizabeth was becoming exceedingly vexed at the girl's apparent aloofness. This conversation reminded her so much to those she had had with her husband while they were still engaged. She struggled to find subjects; he stared out of the window. It seemed that the Darcys had not been educated in the basics of politeness and social etiquette. Not willing to carry on with the conversation all by herself, she decided not to say anything else and concentrated on drinking her tea.

Darcy, noticing that this first meeting between sisters was not proceeding the way he had expected, made his contribution to sustain the dying colloquy. "My uncle owns a very handsome house in Royal Crescent. Perhaps we could go there in the future."

"Oh, yes," Elizabeth said without enthusiasm, "that would be agreeable."

"The architecture is indeed most extraordinary," he pointed out. "Albeit the city is not as fashionable for gentry and nobility as it used to be. Now they tend to prefer the seaside."

"I can imagine," his wife replied to what she thought was an extremely snobbish remark.

"My cousin Edward said he will stay until the end of March. He likes Bath very much." Georgiana commented.

"Pray, tell me, Miss Darcy, what is your favourite diversion while in Bath?" Elizabeth enquired, trying to show interest in her sister's occupations. Perhaps the girl would take notice of her incivility and show her the courtesy of inquiring about Elizabeth's tastes for a change.

Georgiana hesitated for a moment, then, after a glance at her brother, replied with a simple, "I do not usually leave the house. I like to play the piano."

Elizabeth pursed her lips as she waited for Georgiana to elaborate further. When that did not happen, she tried one more question. "Do you join your cousin there very often?"

"Not too often. Sometimes I vacation in Ramsgate."

The moment these words came out of her mouth, Georgiana paled and looked at her brother, who now seemed preoccupied. Foreign to the reason of their sudden altered humour, Elizabeth tried another subject, but for some unexplainable reason, Miss Darcy seemed unable to compose sentences that contained more than three words. Becoming increasingly annoyed, Elizabeth decided she had had enough.

"If you will excuse me," she rose suddenly, "I must see a few things with the housekeeper. Shall I see you at dinner, Miss Darcy?"

"Yes, you shall," the girl smiled timidly.

"Perhaps you should go upstairs to refresh yourself and rest before dinnertime," Darcy offered gently. "You must be tired from your trip."

Georgiana did as she was asked and they all met later at the dining table.

At dinner, things did not improve. If Elizabeth thought that Miss Darcy's arrival would bring relief to her distress and sensible conversation, she was in for utter disappointment, because frustration was the only thing she obtained. Georgiana, not feeling completely at ease in her presence yet, was very reserved and spoke only when addressed during the meal. Elizabeth's efforts to make the young girl talk seemed fruitless and her patience was running short.

To add more fuel to the growing fire, Elizabeth sensed that, since Georgiana's arrival, Darcy's eyes were constantly on her. She felt observed, judged. Was he displeased with her behaviour? Or maybe he did not think she was good enough to be in his sister's company? He could not expect her to be lively and amiable in front of such discouraging companion. After three weeks of loneliness, of conversing only with her husband and the servants and discussing only household related matters, Elizabeth was desperate for sensible conversation with another woman that did not belong to the staff. But, Miss Darcy did not oblige and appeared unable to provide her with at least some inconsequential talk.

When they moved to the music room, Darcy politely asked his wife if she would delight him and his sister with a song at the pianoforte. This was the first time he had asked her to play since their wedding. It was a well intended request motivated by his desire to give more warmth to the evening, but one that Elizabeth chose to interpret the worst possible way. In her troubled state of mind, she imagined he was merely trying to expose her in front of his most accomplished sister. In fact she had heard so much of the young girl's supposed proficiency that she would have liked to give up the honour and let the girl entertain her brother. But, recalling her vows, Elizabeth did what was asked. In an even darker disposition, she sat in front of the instrument, and played.

From his armchair, Darcy observed his wife with reflective eyes. How he had longed to hear her play. He had heard her practicing a couple of times from his study, but he had never ventured closer to watch her perform. He did not want to importune her with his presence so he had denied himself the pleasure and limited himself to listen from afar. He had always been a keen admirer of the gracefulness of her figure as her fingers moved over the keyboard and particularly loved how her brow furrowed in concentration when she was faced with a difficult passage. Albeit he had been tempted to ask her to play several times, he did not think wise to voice such request until now; as things had not been well enough between them. But tonight things seemed different. There was something unusual about her, a new sparkle, something he could not decipher that had driven his eyes towards her all night long and that made it impossible to look elsewhere. Was it a blush on her cheeks? Or that loose lock of hair on the nape of her neck? Whatever it was, it was an appealing change that he found enticing.

Since that day he saw her in tears, Darcy had been increasingly concerned about her welfare and happiness. As time passed, her mood improved and her liveliness seemed somehow restored. She seemed reconciled with her new life, more comfortable, more at ease. Georgiana was already home and he was certain that with his sister's company, things would improve. That was what his wife needed, the company of another woman. His sister was still too timid when in her presence but once she overcame her shyness, he was sure they would become good friends. In time, all would be well.

But Darcy's wrong assumption put him off guard and did not prepare him for what was to come.

As soon as Elizabeth finished her song, Georgiana, tired from her trip, made her excuses and retired to her bedchamber, leaving the couple to themselves. Elizabeth left the pianoforte and went to the settee to work on her embroidery.

Darcy was the first to break the silence, praising his wife for her performance. Elizabeth accepted the compliment with an insincere smile.

"I received a letter from Longbourn this morning," said Elizabeth a few minutes later.

"I hope it contained good news," Darcy said, taking pains to sound interested.

"Nothing has changed much since I left. But one cannot expect it to be different; it is, after all, a confined and unvarying society."

The gentleman recognized his own words and did not like how they sounded on her lips. "I recall going to very pleasant assemblies at Lucas Lodge. Has Lady Lucas not organized such events during the winter?"

"Yes, she has. There was even a ball at the Assembly rooms, too. But you know how it is for my mother and my youngest sisters, it is never enough for them."

"I can well imagine," he smiled and returned to his book.

"Mama also tells me that the regiment is about to leave Meryton. They will probably encamp in Brighton for the summer. You can imagine Lydia's and Kitty's despair with the news, they are almost as miserable as Jane has been since Mr. Bingley's departure."

Darcy stole a quick glance in his wife's direction. He did not like her tone. She spoke about her family as if talking about gardening. After a moment of reflection he realized that, if he was not careful, this conversation would end in an argument and that was the last thing he wanted. He chose not to reply and just nodded circumspectly.

But Elizabeth was not willing to let him go easily and resumed her attack.

"Mr. Darcy," she began in an extremely civil manner, "will you go to your club tomorrow morning, as usual?"

The insincere amiability in her tone made him even more suspicions. "No, I will not."

Elizabeth exhaled noisily and shook her head.

Darcy observed her for a moment and then said, "I thought you may like to go to the park tomorrow morning with Georgiana. You have stayed indoors for too long. I shall be delighted to accompany you."

"It took you a long time to allow yourself to be seen in my company," Elizabeth replied without raising her eyes from her embroidery.

"Mrs. Darcy," he commanded himself to remain calm. "It has been so cold these past weeks that I did not think it prudent to leave the house."

"Oh," she lifted her eyebrows innocently. "And you choose to inform me of your decision just now. I made plans for tomorrow morning." She was lying. There were no plans. She just wanted a good fight.

"I thought you would welcome a walk in the park .You have always enjoyed walking in the past. It was not my intention to interfere with your schedule." As much as he tried not to, Darcy was becoming annoyed with her unfair attack. "Perhaps you can change your plans and accompany us to the park."

"Of course," she stopped embroidering and faced him angrily. "My plans are of no consequence to you and can be changed whenever you decide to tour the park with me."

Following the wisdom of the biblical proverb(*), Darcy preferred to leave before the quarrel broke out. He rose, tugging his coat down in an attempt to keep his temper in check.

"Madam, I will not make an argument out of a simple stroll in the park. We shall leave it for another time when you are better disposed to enjoy it. Now, if you excuse me," he bowed, "I will retire. Good night, Mrs. Darcy."

~ * ~

Later that night, Darcy sat in front of the fireplace of his bedchamber, his chin resting on his fist, his legs outstretched and crossed in front of him. It was past midnight and his eyes were fixed on the fire, thoughts lost in memories of moments shared with his wife.

As much as he had tried to overlook it, it was time to acknowledge the truth that he, until now, had refused to accept. Elizabeth had been forced to marry him. She had never desired to be his wife. An unfortunate incident -for which he was the only one to blame--, had thrown them together almost against their will. He was confronted by her father and in what he thought was an act of generosity, he had accepted his duty, assuming that his stature and importance would make her forget his past misconducts. His stupid pride had blinded him to reality and Darcy proceeded with the arrogant belief that Elizabeth would be honoured for marrying such an important person, for marrying him.

But in reality, Darcy had come to realize, the feelings he inspired in her were exactly the opposite. Elizabeth hated him. His wife despised him. The playfulness and liveliness he had fallen in love with had disappeared under his influence and replaced with a bitterness of spirit that was consuming his beloved's heart. A less pig-headed fellow would have listened to the warnings he was given and acted in a manner that would have assured him the earning of her affection. A wiser man would have noticed the incompatibility of their dispositions. What could have been a union for the advantage of both became a permanent source of mutual suffering. Instead of him nurturing from her alacrity, he had condemned her to his dullness; and she, who should have benefitted from his understanding of the world, was now living a life of isolation and sorrow.

The last thing Darcy desired was to cause pain to the woman he loved so desperately, but he was. The more he thought about it, the only way he found to cease her suffering was to remove himself from her presence. Georgiana was home now and she could keep her company. It was time to search for Bingley and try to right the wrong he had done to his friend and his beloved's sister. If he was the cause, he would be the solution.

And if things didn't improve between him and his bride when he returned, he would have to let her go.

~ * ~

Elizabeth couldn't sleep and rolled restlessly in bed, consumed by the remorse caused by the conduct she had displayed earlier in the day. She knew she had been unfairly vicious in her attack to her husband but she couldn't control herself in his presence any more. She was feeling lonely, isolated and tired of keeping with this pretence of marriage.

As bad as it had been, her inexcusable behaviour of today had finally made her realize something of great importance. She could not continue with her life as it was anymore. It was not only unfair for herself but it was also for her husband.

Until now, she had blamed Darcy for every wrong that had happened in her life, yet, at this point, she could not deny her own fault on this affair. She had deceived him. In those weeks they were engaged, she had never acquainted him with her opinion about their marriage or enunciated the faults of character that had solidified her dislike for him. She had kept him in the dark about her true feelings and thrown them at his face at the worst possible moment. For his obliviousness she was the only one to blame.

There was another fact that should be taken into consideration, one that she also believed to be equally relevant and that was his excellent treatment of her person, a behaviour he had consistently and uniformly displayed since their engagement. With the exception of their wedding night, where they both lost every degree of composure, Mr. Darcy had acted like the perfect gentleman and had been the model of decorum. Another man would have demanded that she fulfilled her conjugal duties or shipped her home to her father, rejected and dishonoured, at the first disagreement. But Mr. Darcy had not. Despite his self acknowledged tendency to resentment and intolerance, even after their quarrel and her refusal to accept him into her bed, he had treated her with respect and made her the mistress of his home and fortune.

These days in his home had given her the chance to see an entirely different side of him, one more generous and passionate, so unlike the proud and selfish man she had met in Hertfordshire. Contrary to what she had ever expected, with her he had shown himself as incredibly patient and tolerant, even in front of her mistreatment, and readily shared with her everything he possessed. Perhaps Darcy was indeed like his cousin had portrayed him, prodigiously caring of those under his superintendence and maybe it was time to accept, once and for all, this other much positive facet of his character and benefit from what she could learn from him.

She was now Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, the mistress of the grand Pemberley, a role at which she had never aspired but that had been granted to her nonetheless. However, she would never be able to fulfil this role if she was in permanent war with its master. It was time give him a chance and try to see him in a better light. Her future happiness depended on it.

(*)Proverb 17:14. The beginning of strife is like breaching a dam, therefore stop contention before quarrelling breaks out.

Chapter 13

After the unfortunate incident of the previous night, the newlywed couple behaved in a more guarded manner towards each other on the day that followed. Elizabeth was feeling guilty for provoking the argument and Darcy, not wishing to repeat a scene of that kind again, was even more reserved and quiet than usual.

Elizabeth also regretted her behaviour towards Georgiana. A night reflection had made her realize that she had been too quick in her judgement of her new sister and that she had condemned the poor girl with the same arbitrariness which she had judged her brother. Knowing that her conduct of the previous day had been exceedingly lacking, Elizabeth contrived to give her new sister another chance. In this more amiable disposition, she was able to put the young girl at ease and conversation, though a little strained at the beginning, came more fluidly and effortlessly as they spent more time together. This proved Elizabeth that the she had been wrong in her assumptions, that the girl was more shy than proud and that had been her intolerance and impatience what had prevented them to start their friendship the day before.

"I learned to play the piano forte when I was little," said Miss Darcy. They had just discovered they shared passion for music and were discussing their preferences. "I try to practice as often as I can. William always encourages me to do so."

"My mother always told me that I do not practice as much as I should, that is why I don't play well enough."

"Oh, no," Georgiana said with vehemence, "I think you played beautifully last night, so faithfully."

"No," Elizabeth shook her head, "I know I slurred my way in the difficult passages. It is a beautiful instrument, though."

"Yes, it is. My father gave it to my mother for their wedding anniversary. That was the year before she died."

"Did that happen a long time ago? Your brother never speaks of them."

"I was nine when she died, and my father passed away on the year that followed."

"I am so sorry."

"Yes, it was very sad," Georgiana said pensively and then, she inhaled deeply, as if trying to erase those painful memories from her mind. "Poor William assumed the responsibility of raising me at a very young age. He has always been so very kind towards me. He gave me a pianoforte for my sixteenth birthday. It is at Pemberley."

"He is indeed generous. I would have liked to have had a brother," Elizabeth offered with a smile. "I have four sisters, so you can imagine I was raised in a very noisy household."

"Mine was so quiet!" Georgiana said with a short laugh. "William and my cousins were much older and they never paid much attention to me. When I was of age, I was sent to school, so I am afraid my childhood was very lonely."

"But he pays you a good deal of attention to you now. He's so caring. I have never seen a brother more considerate with his sister." Elizabeth replied, remembering how the eldest Lucas son usually treated his sisters. When comparing them to Darcy, her husband was indeed the model of brotherly affection.

"Indeed he is. He's most protective, and very patient and forgiving, too." Georgiana added with an uneasy smile. "I have not always been the good sister I should, but that had not lessened his opinion of me."

Elizabeth wondered why Georgiana would say something like this. She would never imagine that this angelic creature would bring trouble to anyone, even less to the brother for whom Georgiana seemed to profess a blind adoration. For a moment, it seemed that Georgiana would say something else, but the girl remained silent, and appeared uneasy. Elizabeth preferred not to ask any more questions and rang for tea. For the rest of the afternoon, they chatted animatedly and they agreed to go shopping together in three days time.

~ * ~

For the first time in weeks, dinner was a relaxed if not merry event. The three of them conversed easily and Darcy was satisfied that his wife and sister were enjoying each other's company so well.

"Georgiana," Elizabeth asked her sister once they were in the music room. "Would you like to join me at the piano forte? I thought we could play a duet."

"A duet?" Miss Darcy asked with some apprehension.

"Yes," Elizabeth rose and extended her hand to her. "I have been playing alone for too long and I would like to share the responsibility of entertaining your brother with someone else."

Darcy looked up and saw his wife's playful eyes upon him. He smiled his approval to her suggestion and encouraged his sister with a "go dearest. I would love to hear you play."

The ladies sat in front of the instrument. After a brief deliberation, they selected a duet by Mozart which they both knew. But as they had never played together, the song didn't start with the precision it should. They made a second attempt and by the third one, though the melody had not been mustered, they were giggling uncontrollably. Soon they gave up all pretence of proficiency and surrendered to their mirth, laughing heartily at their fruitless attempts to play the very ill-executed song.

Sitting on his chair, Darcy was exceedingly delighted with their exhibition even if the performance, in terms of musical excellence, was extremely lacking. It had been years since the Darcy Townhouse was blessed with the sound of joy and laughter and he was happy that it had been his sister and wife the ones that had restored some of the warmth the mansion had lost when his mother passed away.

From her stance at the piano Elizabeth was granted a most remarkable and quite unprecedented image as she beheld, for the first time, her husband's toothy grin. 'He is so handsome when he laughs'!, she noticed, thoroughly amazed. He was always so reserved and serious that she had though him incapable of feeling or expressing emotions in any way connected to mirth and gaiety. It was comforting to know that he could achieve a certain level of amusement when the occasion deserved it.

The gentleman felt her eyes on him and smiled as he bowed his head in a silent expression of gratitude for making Georgiana --and himself-- so happy this evening. Elizabeth smiled in return and their joyful expressions were still there when they looked away.

This interlude with her new sister gave Georgiana enough confidence to try a song all by herself. Elizabeth returned to the sofa, this time choosing to sit at the end that was closest to her husband's armchair.

"That was outstanding, Mrs. Darcy. Thank you." He leaned closer to speak without distracting his sister.

"You are too generous, sir," she replied archly. "I played very ill indeed."

"I was not referring to the song," he whispered.

Elizabeth felt her cheeks go warm and immediately turned her attention to the player. When she dared to look back at her husband, he was observing his sister, with a most appealing expression of placid joy adorning his features.

Miss Darcy was done with her song and returned to her seat while hearing the praise of her brother and sister. A second round of coffee was served and it was then when Darcy made an announcement that none of the ladies had expected to hear.

"Mrs. Darcy, Georgiana," he began. "There is something I must tell you both. For the past few weeks I have been neglecting some ... investments that I must see to. I would rather not leave so soon after our wedding, Mrs. Darcy, but I fear that my personal intervention is required if I want this business to be resolved satisfactorily."

Elizabeth was taken aback by this intelligence yet she braved the news with tolerable equanimity. Now that things seemed to be changing for the better, that she was willing to try to improve her relationship with her husband, he was leaving. But, after the spectacle she had staged on the previous night, she could not blame her husband for wanting to quit her company forever. Perhaps this lapse apart was what they needed.

"Leave?" Georgiana cried. "Why? You two just married!"

Darcy stole a quick glance at his wife, noticing a faint blush across her cheeks. "I know, my dear. But if I could find another way to resolve this matter without leaving I would certainly do it."

"And when are you departing, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth sounded unmoved by the news.

"Tomorrow, at dawn."

"So soon." She observed.

"Yes. I do not wish to delay it any longer."

There was a tense silence as the couple stared at each other. Georgiana sensed that they needed some privacy and tactfully excused herself from their company. Before leaving, she went to say good-bye to her brother.

"Good night, brother. I shall see you at breakfast."

Darcy raised a dubious eyebrow. "I know you are a good sleeper, young lady. I shall not be offended if you are not in time to bid me good-bye."

"I shall do my best, but in case I am not there in time ..." Georgiana rose to her toes and kissed her brother's cheek. "... Godspeed."

Darcy chuckled and kissed her forehead. "Good night, my dear. Be a good girl to your sister while I'm gone."

"I will. Good night, Elizabeth."

"Good night, Georgiana."

Darcy went to table and offered his wife a glass of sherry. She accepted it with a smile.

"Your business has arisen rather unexpectedly, Mr. Darcy."

"Not really," he served himself some port. "This matter has been preoccupying me for quite some time and I have been delaying my departure since. But be assured that I would not leave if it were not absolutely necessary."

"I sincerely hope I am not the reason for your delay to leave, sir."

"No, madam, not at all."

"I would not forgive myself if I were the cause of distracting you from your responsibilities."

He was struck by her comment, yet he could not detect resentment or animosity in her tone. Not sure of how to interpret her meaning and not willing to start a discussion that apparently neither desired, he chose to reply sincerely. "Mrs. Darcy. I do not regret any moment I have been with you."

Elizabeth blushed and looked down. Surely there were moments in her company that he regretted sharing with her and he was just being polite. "Thank you, sir. How long are you going to be away?"

"A week perhaps, or a little longer. It will depend on the condition of the roads."

She was silent for a moment, pondering if it would be wise to ask her next question. Would her husband object if she visited her family during his absence? Surely he would. Her relatives had never met with his approval and she was almost certain that he would not regard her request to call on her uncle that resided in the least fashionable side of London with favourable eyes. Yet, she wanted to make this one attempt. If her solicitation was denied, then she would have to resign herself to give up -perhaps for ever-of those she loved most. After clearing her throat, she began,

"Mr. Darcy, I know my following request will quite possibly meet with your disapprobation, but I feel obliged to elaborate it nonetheless. If you do not find it inconvenient, I would like to ask you if you could be so kind as to give me your permission to visit my aunt and uncle that reside in Cheapside during your absence. I am most desirous to see them."

Darcy, who had been holding his breath on hearing the solemnity of her initial approach, slowly released his air. Truth be said, he had been afraid -terrified in fact-that she would ask his authorisation to leave for Longbourn and reside there until his return. Had that been the case, he would have readily obliged, even if her eagerness to quit his house would have left him extremely disappointed.

But it had been the last part of his wife's petition that had mortified him the most and made him feel greatly ashamed of himself. His wife had just asked his consent to visit her family and what was worse, she was almost certain that her solicitation would be denied. And for that horrid preconception, he was the only one to blame. Elizabeth probably thought he held her prisoner in his house, that he was some sort of tyrant that was trying to separate her from those she loved most. Was she so far from the truth? Not really. Prior to his marriage his thoughts had wandered in that direction in more than once and resolved that Elizabeth should be completely detached from her family immediately after the wedding ceremony. Not long ago he would have considered her solicitation extremely inappropriate and quite possibly given a reluctant acquiescence or -more likely-- express his fervent disapprobation.

Properly humbled by her speech, Darcy replied in a rather shaky voice, not able to keep from his tone the hurt inflicted by the acknowledgement of his own faults. "Of course, Mrs. Darcy. I will be very happy if you and Georgiana visited them. I am sure that she shall be delighted to make their acquaintance."

Elizabeth noticed his troubled countenance and realized that perhaps her doubtfulness might have caused him pain. She saw no way to rectify this without hurting him even more, so she smiled at him and thanked him for his kindness.

"I am most certain that they will appreciate her company as well."

They stayed in the music room a while longer but little conversation was made. As Darcy escorted his wife to her chambers, she gratified him with the following words,

"I shall not bid you goodbye to you now, sir, as I intend to join you for breakfast tomorrow morning, before you leave."

"I look forward to it, madam."

~ * ~

It was an hour before dawn when Darcy awoke at the sound of his valet moving about his dressing room, readying his personal items for this trip. Once he dressed, Darcy dismissed his man and wandered about his chambers, wondering if Elizabeth was already awake. He doubted it. It was too early and although she said she would come down for breakfast, it was improbable that she would wake up so early to see him depart.

He was about to quit his chambers when he recalled he was leaving something behind. He walked towards his desk and opened the drawer. Inside, the letter he wrote three weeks ago was still waiting to be delivered. It had been so long, so many things had happened since he wrote it, that he almost forgot about it. 'Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy' was written on the outside, in a very tight handwriting. As he held the paper in his hand, he pondered if it would be wise to give the letter to her now that he was leaving. It had been written in such bitterness of spirit that Darcy feared it would only make things worse. Perhaps he could rewrite it in a more neutral and amiable prose and mail it from his first stop. No, he was delaying this too much. She deserved an explanation and he wanted, he needed to tell the truth. Time would tell if he did the right thing or not.

Darcy had his breakfast alone. He knew that it was too early for Elizabeth to join him but he had wished, nay, hoped he could see her before his departure. But he could not blame her for not being there. He was only the husband she despised.

~ * ~

Elizabeth awoke with a start.

"Good Lord! I overslept! I hope he is not gone by now!"

She jumped out of the bed and rushed to her dressing room in search of her maid. Where was the girl? How could she forget to ask her own maid to wake her up? There was no time to ring for her now so she started a frantic search of her dress.

Being one of five sisters, and with Longbourn's limited staff, Elizabeth was more than used to doing her own toilette. Yet there was not time to make herself presentable this morning so she threw away her night cap and hastily slid her feet inside her slippers while tying her robe around her waist. Without an instant to loose, she ran to her vanity and grabbed her brush, realizing that there was no time for pins or intricate hair styles and decided that letting her hair loose would have to do. In that wild state, she left her chambers to sprint down the halls towards the main entrance of the house.

"Please, let me be there on time," she prayed as she rushed down the stairs with her robe flapping behind her. Her efforts proved to be effective and she reached the hall in time to see her husband being helped with his cape and gloves.

Darcy was about to give up his hopes of seeing his wife before his departure when he heard the sound of steps resounding on the hall. He was more than pleased when the sight a very dishevelled Elizabeth, running toward him, appeared in front of his eyes.

Now in full view of her husband and servants, the young wife realized how unladylike her behaviour was and stopped in her tracks, gliding on the polished marble as she tried to come to a full halt. Trying to recover her composure, she stood tall, took a deep breath, then walked towards Darcy as dignifiedly as she could while attempting to put some order in her hair. She was certain she was a wretched sight yet it could not be helped. Little did she know that, to her husband, though flushed and agitated, she was the most beautiful sight he had ever beheld.

"I am sorry, Mr. Darcy," her chest was still heaving. "It was my intention to join you for breakfast but I ..."

"You overslept," he pointed out smilingly.

"Yes!" She laughed.

Darcy became incapable of any coherent thought when he heard her laugh. All he could think at that moment was to kiss her and carry her back to his bedchamber. But recovering himself, he offered gallantly, "My solitude during breakfast has been amply rewarded by your enchanting appearance. Thank you for coming to bid me good-bye."

"It is my pleasure, Sir," she smiled brightly.

Somehow during their conversation the manservant had vanished and the couple was left alone. With every second, Darcy was fighting the urge to take her in his arms so he decided to put an end to his agony and end the meeting.

"I must leave, Mrs. Darcy," his words caught at his throat.

"Have a pleasant journey, Sir." Elizabeth smiled amiably at him. "Please take good care of yourself."

"I will."

Darcy stepped closer and looked at her with an intensity that made her temperature rise. Without taking his eyes from hers, he took her hand and brought it to his lips.

"Good-bye, madam."

He was gone in a heartbeat. Elizabeth then found herself alone at the door, observing the chaise as it rolled up the street. When she looked down, there was a letter in her hand.

The sun was rising on the horizon on that foggy morning. Sitting by the hearth of her bedchamber, Elizabeth read the letter that Darcy had given her with tremulous hands and conflicting emotions.

The letter began with the enunciation of Darcy's reasons to separate Jane from Mr. Bingley. On a first read Elizabeth thought his explanation extremely insufficient as she could not believe him so completely unsuspicious of her sister's attachment. Yet on a second perusal, she was able to accept his point of view.

'... Her look and manners were open, cheerful, and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard, and I remained convinced from the evening's scrutiny, that though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them by any participation of sentiment.'

'...I shall not scruple to assert that the serenity of your sister's countenance and air was such as might have given the most acute observer a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be easily touched'.

Charlotte had once madea similar observation during the Netherfield ball, one that Elizabeth had dismissed also as inaccurate. Jane, though owner of the sweetest disposition, had never been overly demonstrative with her sentiments and to the common observer she might have looked uninterested in Mr. Bingley's attentions. Darcy's interpretation of Jane's attitude was completely wrong, so was his interference, but now she realized that he based his actions on a misapprehension. He had misunderstood Jane's behaviour and his only wish had been to protect his friend's heart.

'...The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly, betrayed by herself, by your three younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father.'

The segment in which he elaborated about her family provoked a certain irritation at the beginning but soon this sentiment mutated into reflective acceptance. As mortifying as it was to admit it, Darcy's reproach had merit. His contempt was not ill-founded and the proof of it was her own embarrassment at the distateful behaviour her family had systematically exhibited during the Netherfield ball.

Mr. Wickham and his connection with the Darcy family were also brought into light. That was how she learned the truth about Wickham's true character and how he had abused his condition of being the late Mr. Darcy's godson.

'...Mr. Wickham wrote to inform me that, having finally resolved against taking orders, he hoped I should not think it unreasonable for him to expect some more immediate pecuniary advantage, in lieu of the preferment by which he could not be benefited. He resigned all claim to assistance in the church, were it possible that he could ever be in a situation to receive it, and accepted in return three thousand pounds.'

At this point of her reading Elizabeth was overwhelmed by a strong sense of shame. Without even bothering to know the other side of the story, Elizabeth had chosen to believe Wickham's words. There had been so many inconsistencies in his tale she had chosen to dismiss that she could not think of her behaviour without feeling partial, prejudiced, absurd. Her husband had never denied him the living that was established in his father's will, it was Mr. Wickham the one who did not want it. Darcy's comportment was correct in every sense, he gave Wickham compensation, and still the unscrupulous gentleman came back for more.

'... she was taken from school to Ramsgate and thither also went Mr. Wickham, undoubtedly by design; for there proved to have been a prior acquaintance between him and Mrs. Younge, my sister's companion at the time, in whose character we were most unhappily deceived. By her connivance and aid, he so far recommended himself to Georgiana, whose affectionate heart retained a strong impression of his kindness to her as a child, that she was persuaded to believe herself in love and to consent to an elopement. She was then but fifteen.'

What hurt her most was to learn what Wickham did to Georgiana. The poor girl had her feelings manipulated by that rascal at such tender age. She was fortunate to have such a caring brother that was there to protect her and offer his comfort her after that horrid experience. Had it not been for Darcy's timely intervention, Georgiana's life would have been ruined.

'... I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood, he has imposed on you; but his success is not, perhaps, to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of every thing concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination. I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me was a strong inducement. And I am afraid that, after what happened tonight, I can now affirm that his revenge has been complete indeed.

Elizabeth was now overcome by guilt. How wrong she had been! How despicably she had acted! She, who had always prided herself of discernment, was duped by a scoundrel's sweet talk. 'Your loyalty belongs to your husband', her aunt Gardiner had told her before her wedding. Elizabeth had most incautiously ignored her sound advice and persisted in her hate for a man whose only crime was his reserve and stoicism. To gratify her vanity, pleased by the preference of one, offended by the neglect of the other on the beginning of their acquaintance, she had courted prepossession and ignorance allowing a man to flatter her, to poison her mind, and willfully became the instrument of his revenge.

With her soul full of pain and remorse, for the first time since her wedding, Elizabeth cried.

chapter 14

Elizabeth remained in her rooms until late in the morning. She had cried so much, her eyes were so red and swollen that she could not allow anyone to see her in such a wretched state.

The letter she knew by heart now. Every time she perused its lines her remorse was increased and the anger and resentment she had once felt for her husband were turning now against herself. She had condemned him unjustly and treated him with a cruelty she had not imagined she possessed.

Above all, she felt foolish, prejudiced. Wickham was lying through his teeth yet she never stopped to considerate the impropriety of such communications to someone he barely knew or reasoned about the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done. Even after his indecorous proposition during the Twelfth Night party at Longbourn, she had persisted in advocating for him in his fallacious tale.

However, while she had acquitted Darcy in what Wickham was concerned, regarding his other fault --his participation in the separation of Jane from Mr. Bingley--, Elizabeth was still wavering between forgiveness and resentment. His intentions may have been honourable, but his methods were wrong. If Jane was suffering, it was his fault and she was not ready to forgive him for bringing so much sorrow to her most beloved sister.

However Elizabeth's greatest grudge against her husband was so deeply rooted inside her heart that she could not find room for forgiveness yet. It had been the impropriety of his actions what had placed them both in this situation and because of this; their marriage had been founded in lies and disrespect.

Yet, though she still held these circumstances against him, her initial perception of him had been greatly changed by his letter. Albeit sometimes driven by the wrong preconception, Darcy's motivations were deprived from malice and he always had the best intentions at heart. He was a good man with a generous, noble disposition whose aptitudes as a husband and as a master were undeniable. In these three weeks of marriage Darcy had shown more sense than her father had in a lifetime. If she compared them both, Darcy's understanding was superior and he was far more caring, responsible and respectful of those under his care, even when faced with an ill-tempered wife. Elizabeth had never been blind to her father's behaviour, though she had preferred to forget what could not be overlooked. She had always found his methods highly reprehensible, in particular the way he exposed his own wife to the contempt of his children. Instead of restraining Mrs Bennet's foolishness and his youngest daughter's wild giddiness, he preferred to laugh at them. As for the rest of her family, they were a hopeless case. Catherine with her irritability, Lydia and her carelessness, they all were so ignorant, ill-behaved and vain. But how could they improve when no one cared? How could those girls meliorate when they were constantly indulged by a silly mother and ignored by a disregardful father? No one in that household, with the exception of Jane, had common sense.

By noon, Elizabeth emerged from her chambers and joined Georgiana in the morning room. Miss Darcy was struck by the redness in Elizabeth's eyes but imagined that her tears were caused by her brother's departure. Determined to help her sister to ease her longing for her absent husband, Georgiana worked hard to improve the new mistress' mood.

~ * ~

Darcy's journey to Wales was slower and more tedious than he had expected. The roads were in poor conditions and a problem with one of the horses delayed him in ----ton for a day longer than planned. The inconvenience was not at all unfortunate, as this additional day at the inn surprised him with a letter from his wife and sister that he would have otherwise missed.

Now in the warm comfort of the inn, Darcy lay stretched in an armchair holding the letter in his hands. According to Georgiana's words, his wife and sister were enjoying each other's company very much. Perhaps he would have preferred something more personal from Elizabeth's lines but as he did not expect her to write to him at all, he was satisfied with at least receiving this brief note.

Dear Sir,

I am glad to know that you are in good health. The weather has been uncongenial these past few days therefore your sister and I have been preoccupied about your welfare.

Georgiana is a delightful companion and I am being pleasantly distracted with her company. All she talks about is her wonderful brother and the things she would wish us to do when you return home.

Please let us know that you are well.

Yours,

EBD

He folded the letter as his thoughts drifted to the one he gave her on the day of his departure. Surely she read it but, what would be her opinion of it? Nothing about her last letter was giving him a clue. He hoped, no, he wanted her to believe his words and forgive him for what he had done.

These days of solitude and reflection made him realize that his behaviour towards her had been unpardonable since the day they first met. Their encounter in the woods, his disastrous comportment on their wedding night and his participation in the separation of Miss Bennet and Bingley. He had come to realize that what he had initially felt for Elizabeth had not been love, merely a capricious desire to possess something he could not have regardless the consequences.

But now he was a changed man. He had learned from his mistakes. His infatuation had grown into the purest and deepest affection and he was going to become a better man for his wife. With his spirits somehow uplifted with the news of the day, for the first time in weeks, he went to bed with a smile.

~ * ~

One morning, upon her return home after calling on the Gardiners with Georgiana, Elizabeth found a letter from her husband addressed to her. She excused herself and went to read the missive in private.

My dear Mrs. Darcy,

I am happy to inform you that the business that has separated me from my family has concluded in a satisfactory way. I will probably be on my way to London by the time you read this letter.

The words I received from you gave me great pleasure. It is very important for me to know that you and Georgiana understand each other so well. She is too shy for her own good and I had always hoped that the appropriate companionship would improve her reserved temperament. I am very pleased to know that she had found that person in you.

If the weather allows me to travel faster, I will arrive home by the end of the week. I am very anxious to see the two ladies that are so dear to me.

Yours faithfully.

FD

Elizabeth traced her finger over the written words. 'The two ladies that are so dear to me'. Was he being sincere or was this said only out of politeness? With a shake of her head Elizabeth told herself that she should not be making conjectures about implied words and be grateful that her husband had at least showed her the courtesy of expressing himself thus. With a smile, she folded the letter and put it away together with the one that had brought the light into her darkness.

Though unbeknown to her yet, the arrival of this letter marked the beginning of a transformation that would change her heart forever and this incipient warmth she was now feeling would soon develop into something more intense and deeper.

~ * ~

"Darcy!" Charles Bingley was all astonishment when he joined his friend in the parlour. "What on earth are you doing here?"

"It is good to see you too, Bingley" Darcy showed an uncertain smile.

"Forgive me, Darcy. Where are my manners? Do you want something to drink? Tea? Anything stronger? I would like some brandy myself."

Darcy eyed him suspiciously, Bingley seemed extremely fidgety in his presence. "Brandy will be fine."

"So, what are you doing so far from home?"

"I had some business in the country and decided to make a detour to visit my good friend."

"Oh." Bingley poured the drinks, seeming a bit sceptical at his friend's explanation.

The gentlemen sat in opposite chairs and not a word was said for a while. Bingley could not bring himself to look at Darcy's eyes and the other gentleman was not sure of how to bring up the subject he wanted to discuss with his friend. Darcy cleared his voice and began,

"Bingley, I have something to tell you ..."

"I know you are married, Darcy."

This was the first time that Darcy saw Bingley addressing someone in such an unfriendly manner.

"If that is the reason why you are here, merely to communicate me the news, then you could have spared yourself the trip. A simple letter would have been sufficient. Though, as your friend, I would have preferred to have been invited to the ceremony. Perhaps I was mistaken and we are not such good friends after all." The younger man said with obvious pain in his voice.

That blow hurt Darcy more than he had expected. He cared a lot for his friend and it pained him to be the cause of his suffering. "That is not the reason why I am here."

Bingley did not say a word. He just stared at him with implacable resentment.

Darcy thought better to go directly to the point. If he was going to lose Bingley's friendship forever, then there was no point in delaying the deliverance of the news that he knew for certain would put him in a most unfavourable mood against him.

"The motive of my journey is an entirely different one. It has nothing to do with my nuptials. It concerns, in fact, your truncated marriage proposal to Miss Jane Bennet." Bingley just stared at him, waiting for him to elaborate further. "I made a mistake, Charles, one that I regret enormously."

"What kind of mistake?"

"I fear that my advice to you concerning her affections had been completely defective. I made a poor judgement of her emotions and wrongly believed that she was not a willing recipient of your regard thus compelling you to make an erroneous decision. I believe that my interference and ill advice had caused you and her great pain. It was a shameful cruelty against you both and for that I apologize."

"Is this some sort of perverse joke, Darcy? You said that she was not the right woman for me, you convinced me that she did not care about me." Bingley retorted harshly.

"I was wrong, I am sorry for the pain I've caused you."

"Forgive me, my friend," Bingley's anger did not ease after Darcy's apology, "but this makes no sense at all. You objected Miss Bennet's connections, her entire family, even her disposition, and here you are, married to her sister. I cannot understand why what is wrong for me is right for you."

"You do not know the facts that produced my marriage to Elizabeth."

"I am sure nobody forced you to do it." Bingley smirked mirthlessly.

Darcy looked down, but not quick enough to prevent his friend from seeing the pain in his eyes.

"You were?" He said incredulous. "Good Lord, Darcy! What happened?"

"Charles, it doesn't matter any more. The reason why I travelled to the end of the world searching for you is to tell you that Jane Bennet loves you and her heart is broken with longing for you."

"Jane is suffering?" Bingley rose and paced the room, his face red with anger. "Darcy, she must think I am a rake that flirts with every girl he meets!"

"No, she does not. Remember that she is your angel and is incapable of any malicious thought. And she loves you."

"How are you so sure about that?" Bingley was beginning to hope.

"I have the best source of information," he said with a sad smile.

"Yes, you do. So you are married now to Miss Elizabeth, well, Mrs. Darcy now. I am sure Caroline must be chewing her liver at this very moment," he said after a smirk, though Bingley's smile quickly disappeared from his face. "But you do not seem exceedingly comfortable with your present circumstance. Are you unhappy in your marriage?"

"No, I am not unhappy," he answered defensively.

"Oh, hang it, Darcy!" Bingley blurted effusively, "You may think I am a heedless fool, but I am not. I saw you staring at her numerous times and there were moments in which I thought you were quite smitten with her. You know, I always thought you two well suited for each other, that she was the right woman for you, that she would cheer you up. Yet I knew you would never act upon this attraction. Of course you would not. You are above these primitive emotions such as love and passion, aren't you? You are so bloody obsessed with propriety and protocol that you can't permit yourself to feel attracted to someone who doesn't belong to your same snobbish circle. I can imagine how torturous this must be for you, married to a woman you want to love and admire but that you cannot because you believe her so beneath yourself."

Darcy looked away, overcome by shame, not because he thought Bingley's words were deliberately wounding, but because they had faced him with faults of character he had been reluctant to accept.

"Me and my stupid pride," he said finally, without raising his eyes.

"I'm sorry," Bingley replied with remorse at his abruptness, "it was not my intention to hurt you."

"But you are in the right, my friend. I have thought myself above her and my shameful behaviour towards those around me I have come to regret. My ... the woman I love despises me and I deserve every fraction of her contempt."

Charles Bingley had always been the owner of a candid, very generous disposition and as much as Darcy's actions had wounded him, he was not one to hold grudges against his dear ones. "I am sure it is not as bad as you say. I also observed her most carefully while in Hertfordshire and I can assure you that she was not displeased with you at all. She was constantly teasing you, Darcy, even in front of your rudeness. Women tend demonstrate their feelings in the most incongruent ways and I can assure you Miss Elizabeth's behaviour was at times utterly discrepant. One moment she was ignoring you, then she was quarrelling with you, the next she was she was purposely seeking your attention. For two people that had tried so hard to avoid each other, you two had bumped heads far too often."

Darcy looked up, though his smile did not quite reach his eyes. "I hope you are right."

But Bingley's thoughts were already directed to the subject that mattered most, at least for him. "Does Jane really love me?"

"Yes, she does." Darcy said sincerely. "I apologize for my actions, Charles. I should have never interfered."

"Then, I assume, I have your blessing." Bingley said smilingly, leaving all past resentments behind.

"Do you need my blessing?" Darcy chuckled at his friend's teasing.

"No, but I will like to have it all the same."

"Then go to it."

Darcy sat in his carriage recalling his meeting with Bingley two days ago. He was quite pleased with the outcome of their conversation and hoped that his friend would gather his courage and approach Miss Bennet as soon as possible. Now on his way home, all what he wished was to have the opportunity to prove to his wife that he was worthy of her.

~ * ~

It had rained heavily all day long. In fact, it rained uninterruptedly since the day before and there was no other activity for the ladies of the Darcy Townhouse than to stay at home and read, play the piano and do whatever was in their minds to keep themselves occupied. Elizabeth was embroidering a handkerchief with Darcy's monogram that she wanted to give to her husband after his arrival while Georgiana practised a new song at the pianoforte. The young girl faltered on the same note for the third time and muttered in frustration at her inability to concentrate on the music.

"Georgiana, patience is a virtue," Elizabeth voiced amiably. "If you put your heart in what you are doing you will achieve your goal easily."

"I know. I just can't keep my mind in the music. I am truly concerned about William. According to his last letter he should have arrived yesterday evening. I fear something must have occurred to him, the weather has been so unpleasant." A loud thunderclap followed her words, adding dramatics to her statement.

"Do not fear, my dear. Your brother knows how to take care of himself. He was probably delayed by the rain. I am sure he is safe and sound and will be home as soon as may be." She tried to transmit to the girl a confidence she didn't feel.

"I hope you are right." She sighed. "But what if he's trapped in this storm and something terrible happens to him?"

"I am most certain that he thought wiser to stop and wait until the weather improved. He is probably at the inn, comfortably sitting in front of a big hearth, reading his favourite book."

"But I would rather be in your much appreciated company," came a deep voice from the door.

"William!" Georgiana ran to him. "We were so worried about you!"

Darcy chuckled at her enthusiasm and took her hands in his. His eyes met his wife's over Georgiana's shoulder. "I just wanted to be at home."

Elizabeth moved to greet him as Georgiana released her hold on him.

"Welcome home, Mr. Darcy," she smiled genuinely.

He took her hand and kissed it. "I am glad to be here."

"Brother, look at yourself!" cried Georgiana. "You are soaking wet!"

Elizabeth looked down at her husband's body and noticed the state of his clothes. They were wet, muddy and crumpled, as if he had been exposed to the inclemency of the weather. His face looked tired and the growth of his beard told her that he had not shaved that day.

Darcy released Elizabeth's hand. "Please forgive my untidy appearance, but I had a most eventful trip. The carriage got stuck in the mud outside of Town and we had to push it in order to continue our journey. I did not have time to stop to make myself presentable."

Elizabeth smiled at him as she brushed some of the mud he had on his coat. A pointless task, she admitted, because the rest of his clothes were quite covered by it. As she did this, Darcy's nose began to itch and he barely had time to turn away from her before a forceful sneeze erupted from him in a most un-gentlemanlike manner.

"Lord!" Elizabeth startled. "You'll catch your death in those clothes. Come, I must see you out of them as soon as may be."

The moment the words had had left her mouth Elizabeth realised that her perfectly innocent and well intended suggestion had been so poorly phrased that it could be readily misinterpreted by her spouse, who was now looking at her with an expression similar to amusement. A statement that would have been completely innocuous in an ordinary marriage sounded almost improper when said by a wife who had never been intimate with her own husband. There was no way she could rectify it without exposing herself to further ridicule so instead of explaining what she truly meant, Elizabeth turned to one of the footmen in the hall and instructed him to summon Mrs. Turner immediately.

In an instant, Darcy was surrounded by people. His wife, his sister, his housekeeper and a couple of servants were fussing around him and urging him up the stairs, all looking exceedingly concerned about his health and exchanging opinions about what should be done to prevent him from falling ill. Mrs. Turner suggested a hot bath, Elizabeth said camphor should be applied to his chest and Georgiana reminded everybody of how irritable her brother could become when he had a scratchy throat. Darcy, on the other hand, was excessively diverted by their efforts and allowed them to guide him to his rooms while his mind fantasized about the most agreeable prospect of being, one day, undressed and tended in bed by his wife.

One day.

~ * ~

During dinner, much recovered after a warm bath and a cup of hot tea, Darcy related to his family some of the misfortunes he suffered during his trip to Wales. Elizabeth followed his tale with interest, not failing to notice how much his countenance had improved after his rest, though still feeling a little concerned for him whenever he sniffed his nose. What she didn't know was that the sly gentleman sometimes did that on purpose, just to draw her attention to him and stimulate her motherly instincts that were aroused whenever his attitude betrayed the possibility of a malady befalling upon him, even if it was an imaginary one.

However, it was not just her husband's sly playfulness what Elizabeth was failing to puzzle out. There were much deeper feelings moving her to act the way she was than mere sympathy or an innate wish to protect the ill. If she had stopped to analyze in depth her own heart, she would have realized that she was genuinely excited for having him home. Still, after spending so many weeks convincing herself of her dislike for him, she was not ready to recognize this incipient happiness she was allowing herself to feel for what it was and continued in her belief that she was just getting used to her new life.

Amongst the topics they discussed during dinner, Georgiana commented her visit to the Gardiners.

"Oh brother, they are such delightful people, so refined and well-bred."

Darcy glanced at his wife, who had her eyes upon him and was scrutinizing his reaction to Georgiana's comments about her relations. "I believe you once told me your aunt grew up in Lambton, Mrs. Darcy."

Elizabeth heard no disapproval in his tone. She was glad for it. "Yes, she did."

"So close to Pemberley!" Georgiana commented enthusiastically. "Is it not a lovely coincidence?"

"Indeed it is. Pray, what is her maiden name? Perhaps I am acquainted with the family."

Elizabeth hesitated. Her aunt's family did not move in the same circles her husband did. "I doubt it, sir, they left Lambton many years ago."

"They have three children, you should see them, William," interjected Georgiana. "They are so charming."

"Mrs. Darcy, you must invite them to dine here with us." Darcy once again he addressed his wife. "I am most desirous to make their acquaintance."

Elizabeth was happily surprised by his suggestion. "I shall send word to my aunt, then. When would you like them to come?"

He paused for a moment, as if considering what he was to say. "I do not have any specific preferences, though it would be better if they come within the sen'night. If you do not find it inconvenient, I would like us to leave for Pemberley by the end of the following week."

Georgiana immediately expressed her joy about the news, but Elizabeth did not look as pleased as her sister. "I see no inconvenience, sir."

Darcy felt in the obligation to explain his motives to his wife and give her an exit in case she did not want to dwell in Derbyshire with him. "The sowing time is about to begin, my presence is required there. But if it is your desire to stay in London for a little longer, I would see no inconvenience in ..."

"No, no," Elizabeth hurried to say. "I am most desirous to return to the countryside."

"You will love it, Elizabeth," Georgiana said excitedly. "We have this delightful tradition at Pemberley that occurs at the beginning of the season. The family distributes baskets with food and grain among the tenants and we have this wonderful picnic in the prairie. I used to accompany my mother in her curricle when I was little, but since she died, this task was left to Mrs. Reynolds. Now we will be able to do it together!"

Elizabeth was caught by Georgiana's enthusiasm and began to feel increasingly excited herself. "I truly look forward to do this with you."

"The best part is the race of ploughs," continued Miss Darcy, "It's most entertaining."

"I can imagine." The new Mrs. Darcy looked at her husband and asked in a teasing voice, knowing that a gentleman of his rank would never belittle himself in the practice of those humbling labours. "Do you complete in this race sir?"

"No, madam, I fear that my skills with the plough are quite short." He replied with a smile. "I'm more useful with the axe."

"Indeed?" That would be a more interesting prospect, Elizabeth thought, to see her husband entranced in such a manly pursuit.

"He's most proficient!" Georgiana commented. "He can cut a log in just two strikes."

"Not so few, dearest," Darcy amended.

"That is something I would like to see, sir." Elizabeth said archly.

"Then I cannot but oblige, madam." Darcy bowed his head in acceptance of the challenge.

"I am so happy that you will finally come to Pemberley, Elizabeth," Georgiana added. "I am most certain that you will love the house and grounds."

"I am sure I will. I have heard so much about it that I cannot wait to finally see your home."

It was Darcy the one who replied. "It will be your home too, Mrs. Darcy."

~ * ~

Following her husband's request, with no little trepidation, Elizabeth invited her aunt and uncle to dine at the Darcy Townhouse. While she was sure they would never embarrass her and was convinced that their manners would meet with Darcy's approval, she was afraid her haughty husband would think them unworthy of coming to his house because of their dwelling and her uncle's occupation. But she was satisfactorily surprised when they entered in fluid conversation with her husband. Whether it had been purely Darcy's effort to accept them or sincere amiability from his part, Elizabeth could not deny his merit and was grateful for the kindness and cordiality he was showing towards her relatives. On the other hand, her relations showed themselves as intelligent and sensible, and every sentence and expression marked their taste and good manners. For Elizabeth, it was consoling to know that she had some relations of which she should not be ashamed.

The conversation at the dining table was lively and rounded mostly on fishing and the Darcys forthcoming departure to Pemberley. It was then when Darcy surprised his wife with another stroke of civility for which she had been completely unprepared. Before her astonished eyes, her husband extended an invitation to the Gardiners to come to visit them at Pemberley on the following month.

"Elizabeth, your husband is a very charming man." Mrs. Gardiner placed her hand on her niece's forearm. The gentlemen were slightly apart and Georgiana was playing the piano forte, so they were now able to talk freely.

Elizabeth was not so sure of how to reply so she just smiled.

"He is all ease and friendliness, no false dignity at all. I cannot believe that this is the same proud Mr. Darcy you told us about."

"I fear my early opinion of him was based on first impressions."

"So he improves on acquaintance?"

"I cannot say he improves, for in essentials he is the man he ever was. Though by knowing him better, his disposition is better understood."

"Did you discuss with him that sad story about Mr. Wickham? From what I have seen of him," continued Mrs. Gardiner, "I really cannot imagine him capable of such cruelty."

"I am afraid that we have been deceived on that matter. It did not happen in the way Mr. Wickham told us."

"It is good to hear it, my dear. I am relieved that you conversed with him and eased your worries right at the beginning of your marriage. Carrying those concerns inside of you might have ruined the trust and respect a woman should feel for her husband."

Elizabeth's embarrassment about how the truth emerged was still too fresh to comment on this subject.

"And are you getting along well, my dear? I know your nature. After such an unconventional wedding I did not know what to expect. When I did not hear a word from you during the past weeks I grew very concerned for your happiness."

Even though Elizabeth knew no one could hear her, this was not the most appropriate place to make an honest disclosure about her marriage to her aunt. "We are just beginning to know each other. I have no complaints, though. This is a very comfortable house and Mr. Darcy is most attentive to me."

That was not the answer Mrs. Gardiner was expecting, though she understood that it was the only one she was going to receive. "I am happy to hear it. He seems a very sensible man."

"Indeed he is. And I cannot deny that his manners have softened since our marriage. He is less reserved than he was before."

"I am sure we must give you all the credit for this!" laughed Mrs. Gardiner.

Elizabeth blushed. "I do not know what you mean."

Mrs. Gardiner's response was interrupted by her husband, who addressed her from the other end of the room.

"My dear," Mr. Gardiner told his wife, "Mr. Darcy is insisting that we take our children with us to Pemberley. I am sure that he does not know what he is getting himself into with that invitation."

"That is very generous of you Mr. Darcy. But we would not wish to impose on your hospitality by visiting with three children." Mrs. Gardiner replied.

"Mrs. Darcy and I shall be delighted to receive all your family, would we not?" Darcy asked his wife.

"Of course, sir. Nothing would please me more."

"Then, it is done," Mr. Gardiner said with a smile. "We shall meet you at Pemberley."

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