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When Duty Calls
[WIP - Regency/R]

chapter 15

For nearly three days the staff of the Darcy Townhouse was dedicated to the preparations for the departure of the family to Pemberley. Mr. Darcy usually travelled light in equipage when going on his own but now that his wife and sister were accompanying him the quantity of accoutrements had become considerably larger. Even the minimal detail was observed and everything was being readied with meticulous care to make the journey of the travellers a comfortable one.

Elizabeth's anticipation about this trip was only eclipsed by the concerns she felt about the one night the travellers would spend on the road. It was not unusual for wealthy people to take separate chambers when travelling but Elizabeth was not sure if this would be the case. Even though she was almost certain that Mr. Darcy would not suggest the consummation of their marriage at an Inn, her complete ignorance of his plans troubled her exceedingly. What if there were not enough accommodations for all of them to have different bedchambers and she would have to share the room with him? This was something she could not ask him directly. She would feel terribly embarrassed and asking Georgiana which the modality was would alert her sister about a situation that Elizabeth did not want to be generally known.

But Darcy eased her concerns a few days before their departure, during supper, and everything seemed right in the world after that.

"Mrs. Darcy, if it is not an inconvenience to you, I would like your maid and my valet to leave on the day previous to our departure with the majority of the trunks. They will pass the night in the same inn we will be staying and see that everything is ready for our arrival," said he.

"I see no inconvenience with that, sir. One of the other maids can assist me in the meantime."

"They will stay for the night and leave on the following morning, unless you would wish your maid to wait for you there. If that is the case, Foster can continue by himself. That way our trunks would be at Pemberley and everything unpacked when we finally arrive there."

This was one of the things that always surprised her about her husband. Darcy was not like the other men of his rank who always travelled with a retinue of servants to assist them in every thing. He was quite independent and self-sufficient. "I do not think it would be necessary. I can manage by myself," answered Elizabeth.

"Well then. You must instruct her about any specific requests you might have about your rooms."

"I will, thank you, sir," she showed her appreciation with a smile. Not much needed to be said to understand what he implied with this.

"You should not concern yourself about the accommodations, Elizabeth," commented Georgiana. "The inn might not be luxurious but it is very comfortable. The owners are delightful people and always treat us with great consideration."

Elizabeth was sure that this inn was far more luxurious than any other she had visited before.

~ * ~

Great was the excitement of the travellers when the day of the departure finally arrived. The carriage was loaded with efficiency, blankets were provided for the comfort of the occupants and when everything was ready, off they went to Pemberley.

They travelled at good speed during the first day, stopping only to rest and give water to the horses. The carriage was far more comfortable than any other Elizabeth had ridden before but the jolts and leaps left her tired and stiff by the time they reached the inn.

Elizabeth found herself alone in her bedroom that night, readying herself for bed. Her husband had noticed her worn countenance and requested a light supper to be served in a sitting area destined for their private use. She practically did not touch her meal, nor did Georgiana, and when fatigue and her growing nervousness took over, Elizabeth announced that she was retiring for the evening.

She had many reasons to feel distressed. The following day she was going to be introduced as the new mistress of Pemberley. Certainly there were speculations about her arrival, both among tenants and the servants and Elizabeth was not sure she would be able to meet their expectations. Her marriage to the master had started in the worst possible way and she feared that her role as the mistress of such a grand estate would result equally disastrous.

There was another motive that was similarly disturbing and that was a matter of great preoccupation for Elizabeth: her husband and her duties as his wife. Her relationship with Darcy was cordial now, polite but distant, but she knew that things would have to progress in a more intimate direction sooner or later. They would now be in his ancestral home and after nearly two months of marriage, it was her husband's right to demand that she provide him with an heir to his name and fortune.

However the idea of fulfilling her connubial duties and allowing her husband into her bed was not as unpleasant as it had once been. While not in love with him, Elizabeth had finally learned to see him with positivity. He had proved her to be a good man, sensible and noble and that his appearance was not at all ill-favoured, she could not deny. He was a fine man, yes, but was she ready to belong completely to him?

A knock at the door interrupted Elizabeth's rambling about the gentleman she had espoused. Sure it was only the maid with the tea she had requested; she removed the last pin from her hair and walked towards the door.

"Mr. Darcy!" she cried on seeing that it was none other than her husband. Though completely covered in her nightclothes, she was not as presentable as she would have liked to be in his presence. She closed her shawl over her chest.

The gentleman's surprise was great, too, for he had not expected to startle her in this manner or to find her so informally attired. "Forgive me if I am disturbing you, it was not my intention to importune you ... I ..."

Elizabeth noticed his discomfort and, though not completely calmed herself, tried to put him at ease. "No, please, you are not, I was just ..."

Darcy did not want her to misunderstand the reasons for his presence there so he quickly collected himself and explained his motives for coming to her room. "I was concerned about your health. You looked unwell during supper so I wanted to be certain that you were in need of something."

"I am fine now, I thank you,"

"I am glad to hear it. I have just returned from the stables ... I ... I went to see if the men were settled and if the horses were properly taken care of." His words did not come as fluidly as he would have wished.

Such a demonstration of consideration and attentiveness could not be overlooked. As a sign of gratitude for his preoccupation, she invited him in. "I ordered some tea. Would you like to join me?"

Darcy hesitated for a moment, then entered the room. "Thank you."

He walked silently towards the hearth, feeling the awkwardness of the situation. He felt like an intruder while in his own wife's chambers. But then their marriage had been defined by unusualness. Her state of attire was also particularly disturbing. Though completely decent, she was in her nightclothes, her hair was loose and he was not used to seeing her like this. It was in the same way pleasing as it was unsettling. As a sort of distraction, Darcy took the poker and stroked the fire.

"Will you not sit down?" she offered.

The gentleman removed his overcoat and did so. They remained silent for a moment, in that same manner they used to during their engagement, both a little nervous and unable to begin a normal conversation. Not much later the maid brought the tea Elizabeth had ordered and after asking her to bring another cup for her husband, Elizabeth did the honours.

"Are you pleased with your rooms?" He asked her quietly, his eyes meeting hers for only a second.

"Yes, they are very comfortable," she replied with a smile.

"I am sorry that the ride tired you so much. Perhaps we were travelling too fast. I shall instruct the coachman to go slower tomorrow."

"Oh no," Elizabeth was quick to answer. "Do not alter your plans on my account. In general, the speed never affects me. I am sure I will be fine after a night's rest."

He did not reply and pensively stirred his tea.

She realized that he was not at ease, and thought that, perhaps, he was feeling as uncomfortable as she was for being together, alone, in her bedchamber. Even in her nervousness, Elizabeth compelled herself to sound cheerful. "Pray, tell me about Pemberley."

Darcy looked up at her and smiled, so very pleased that she was showing interest in learning of the place that had seen him grow up and that would soon become their home. He told her about the house, the park and the lake and how he used to run from Pemberley to Lambton in the horse-chestnut season when he was a young lad. With surprise, Elizabeth learned that the manor had 65 bedrooms and a kitchen that was so big that all the staff could be accommodated there. Her husband's favourite room was the library but he was also very fond of the green sitting room, where his mother used to attend to her correspondence. He rode every morning around the estate, he occasionally fished in the trout pond but what he liked most was to walk across the grounds when the day was fresh and clear.

Elizabeth followed his words with attentiveness, feeling the contagious excitement he transmitted as he told her about the house where he was born. He spoke of Pemberley with such fondness, his eyes brightened up and his smile broadened in such an appealing way that she could not but be caught up in his tale and duplicate his excitement for heading to this marvellous house from which she had heard so much.

While she thought Darcy's narrations of Pemberley exceedingly entertaining, most of all, Elizabeth was drawn to him more than to his tale. Talking about his estate seemed to invigorate him, as if a new and much positive force was being infused into him. He was sitting back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, his tail coat unbuttoned and his cravat not as neatly tied as it usually was because of his constant tugging. He was probably as tired as she was, desirous to remove his travelling clothes and refresh himself after the long journey, but instead he was there with her, seeing if she was fine. She considered the gesture extremely kind.

"I will tell you no more, I shall let you discover it for yourself," Darcy said when she enquired about history of the house.

"That would be my pleasure," her eyes smiled at him.

"I better let you rest now," Darcy rose, "it is getting late and we have a long day ahead tomorrow."

Elizabeth nodded and left her chair to accompany him to the door.

"Good night, madam. Thank you for the tea," he bowed.

"You are welcome. Good night, sir."

Darcy stopped under the threshold and paused for a moment before speaking in a sedate, low voice, "Mrs. Darcy, you should not fear tomorrow."

She nodded smilingly.

He was gone and Elizabeth was left alone with her reflections. With that simple phrase, her handsome husband had just washed away every concern she had felt about her presentation as the new Mistress of Pemberley on the following day. It was truly amazing how her conception of Darcy had changed these past few days, how she had been able to see a goodness that she now knew had always been there but that she had refused to accept. Thoroughly content after their meeting, Elizabeth went to bed, warmed by the idea that tomorrow was going to be a very good day.

~ * ~

Now with her fears diluted by the reassuring words of her husband, Elizabeth was more inclined to enjoy the rest of the trip to her new home. The speed did not trouble her, neither did Darcy's presence across her in the carriage.

"Derbyshire is a beautiful country, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth observed as she looked outside the window. "I have never seen such lovely scenery before."

"I am very happy you are enjoying it. This part of the country is particularly handsome. My favourite part is the Peak District. I thought we might go there, in the future," he smiled.

"That would be very agreeable." Elizabeth returned his smile. "I have heard so much about it that I cannot wait to finally see the beautiful peaks by myself. Are they as tall as I've been told?"

"Some of them are very tall, yes."

They were now passing a small village with several small houses spread along the stone road. Elizabeth leaned on the window and stretched to observe a mill that she found most interesting because of its unique disposition. Darcy noticed that she was not in the best accommodation to admire the scenery and invited her to sit by his side.

"You will have a much better view of the road ahead," he commented as he made room for her in his seat.

"Thank you." With the support of his hand, Elizabeth moved to sit next to him.

For some time, they travelled in silence. Elizabeth was fascinated with the view and was an eager observant of every remarkable spot of the landscape. But then, the restlessness of the night before and the rocking of the carriage made her feel drowsy. She closed her eyes and her head fell back against the seat of the carriage. Her husband noticed and put his arm around her shoulder, cradling her against his body.

"Come, Mrs. Darcy, you shall be more comfortable this way."

Elizabeth leaned her head on his shoulder and fell asleep.

About an hour later, Elizabeth began to stir. As she came out from her slumber, she nuzzled her face against the form on which she was comfortably laying. She opened her eyes and saw Georgiana, who was fast asleep on the seat opposite to her. Oh yes, they were in the carriage on their way to Pemberley, she recalled drowsily. But as she became more aware of her surroundings, she also realized that she was not lying over the cushions as she had thought, that she was, in fact, resting on her husband's torso and that her arm was around his waist. He was asleep, she could tell by his breathing, which was slow and deep. From what she could discern, he was in a semi-reclined position, stretched across the carriage, with his back against one side of the carriage and his long legs almost touching the other side. He had both arms around her, his hands linked on the small of her back and his chin resting on the crown of her head. She had never felt so comfortable in her life. She sighed in contentment and stayed very still so she would not disturb him.

Darcy was awakened suddenly by a movement of the carriage, a little numb because of his awkward position and some additional weight that seemed to have fallen upon him. He tried to move but when he realized that Elizabeth was lying over his chest, he remained still, not wishing to wake her up and end this special moment. He kissed her hair very softly let out a deep sigh as he directed his eyes towards the window.

"Are we still very far away, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked, her head still resting on his chest.

The gentleman startled at the sound of her voice, as he had been completely sure that she was still sleeping. He tilted his head to observe her just as Elizabeth raised hers to meet his eyes. Darcy's heart melted at the sight of her beautiful smile directed at him. "We are to arrive very soon," he said and shifted a little his position so both of them could be more comfortable.

Elizabeth's smile grew wider and Darcy linked his hands on her back again. She rested her head on his chest once more and re directed her gaze at the lovely scenery outside the carriage. Thus they remained until Georgiana broke the spell with a ...

"There! Pemberley's gate!"

The couple straightened up, a little embarrassed of being caught in such an intimate position. They had been comfortably looking outside of the window for more than fifteen minutes, completely oblivious to the presence of the third occupant of the coach.

"Oh, dear, I am sure I am a wretched sight." Elizabeth smoothed her clothes and raised her hands to her hair, the apprehension of the night before coming back once again.

"On the contrary, madam, you look perfectly well." Darcy's voice was reassuring. "Do not be afraid, everything will be all right."

The carriage drove along and Elizabeth observed in wonder the appearance of Pemberley woods. The park was large, and neatly kept. She had never seen such variety of trees and so handsomely distributed. They gradually ascended for half a mile. At the top, the wood ceased and there, standing on the opposite side of the valley, Elizabeth finally saw Pemberley house.

The sight before her was breathtaking. It was a large, handsome, stone building that stood proud on rising ground, framed by a ridge of high woody hills. A stream came down from the right and grew into a small lake of inartificial appearance as it approached the house. Elizabeth had never seen a place for which nature had done more, where natural beauty had been so little altered by awkward tastes. This was Pemberley. This would be her home.

They descended the hill, crossed the bridge and the carriage came to a halt at the main entrance. In front of the door, the servants were aligned to receive the master and his bride.

Darcy descended first and helped the ladies out of the coach.

"Shall we, Mrs. Darcy?" He placed her hand on his arm and covered it with his.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. "Yes, Mr. Darcy."

Chapter 16

Elizabeth walked through the grounds of Pemberley with a radiant smile. Before her an impressive park unfolded in an explosion of greens, where trees and plants blossomed in colourful frenzy creating a vision that seemed to be formed in Heaven. Never in her life had she imagined she would fall in love with a place but she had, helplessly, with her husband's magnificent property. Everything at Pemberley was beautiful, fascinating. The manor, the grounds, the woods, every single room, every piece of furniture and adornment.

These first days at Pemberley had opened Elizabeth's heart and mind. A new warmth was spreading inside of her, finally displacing those old sentiments of dissatisfaction and bitterness that she had harboured inside her chest since her engagement to Darcy was announced. But it was not merely the house that inspired these much richer and positive feelings in her; the master of the estate --her husband-- was also greatly responsible for this radical change in her disposition. Her life at Pemberley, as brief as it had been, had allowed her to see a different side of him which she had not had the chance to witness before and that had helped her to understand him better. Being raised in such grandeur could make anyone develop a strong sense of pride and superiority. And Darcy was very proud of his ancestral home, of his name an his origins. Yet, despite his fortune and power and with a battalion of servants ready to grant him even his smallest wish, Darcy was not as spoiled or arrogant as he could have been. There was a certain severity in his demeanour, an air of ascendancy and distinction that could not be refuted, but Elizabeth considered it according to his stature of master of such a grand estate. He was responsible for so many things and so many lives that someone with half his sense of duty and commitment would have felt overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility that lay over his shoulders.

It was here at Pemberley where Elizabeth received a more detailed insight about her husband's life and character. Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, was all praise for her dear master. In their meetings, while introducing the mistress to the particulars of the household's administration, Mrs. Reynolds acquainted Elizabeth with glimpses of Darcy's childhood and youth. She learned the sorrow he had felt when the previous Mrs. Darcy died and how quiet and reserved Darcy had grown when his father followed barely a year later.

"It must have been difficult for him to take care of a young girl and this estate at such young age."

"Indeed it was. He was not 23 when that happened," said the housekeeper. "But he is very determined and faced his responsibility with the same strength and determination he has always shown."

"Mrs Turner told me he was a very nice-tempered child."

"Yes, Madam. He was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted boy in the world." Elizabeth smiled in acknowledgement. "I have never had a cross word from him, and I have known him since he was four years old. And he has grown into this handsome, fine man. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw any of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men."

How different this sounded now that she knew him better! A month ago, when Mrs. Turner had told her these same things, Elizabeth had refused to acknowledge them as true. For her, Darcy had always been ill-tempered, capricious and selfish. She had rejected any notification of his good character as false and any sort of praise was discarded as untruthful. But now, barely one month later, she found herself desirous to learn more about this man that was captivating her heart; about the husband that she was growing to love.

The first week at Pemberley had been quite busy for the new mistress. Not only Mrs. Reynolds had kept her occupied with household matters, but Elizabeth had also been immersed -together with Georgiana- in the planning of one of the traditions of the estate: the distribution of grain and baskets among the tenants for the beginning of the sowing time.

Elizabeth had never felt so useful in her life. The amount of grain that was distributed was considerable, as were the baskets of food and fruit for the families. Every thing was received with great joy. She spent a wonderful day touring the estate in the phaeton, with Miss Darcy, going from one farm to another, conversing with the tenants and learning more about their families and lives. It did not surprise her now that the Darcys were so respected and admired by those who depended on them. Her arrival was received with enthusiasm and she was welcomed with praise and good wishes on her marriage to the master.

The festivities lasted until the following day when all the tenants and families that resided at Pemberley were invited to a picnic, courtesy of the master of the estate. The gathering was in the southern prairie that was destined for the plantation of wheat where the so anticipated race of ploughs that Georgiana had described while they were still in London took place. Darcy was an eager observer and an enthusiastic applauder of the winner.

Darcy did partake in the log cutting contest, obtaining an honourable second place to the region's most famous woodcutter, Mr. Sims, also known as Big Tom. As he returned to their spot under a large tree, the Master of Pemberley received the cheerful applause of his wife and sister who celebrated his near victory. His trophy was a well needed glass of lemonade handed by his wife.

With all contests done, the families settled on their blankets to proceed with the picnic. They were all having a wonderful time. The day was pleasant, sunny and the conversation cordial. A lover of the outdoors and populous events, Elizabeth felt this was one of the happiest days she had had in months.

The members of Darcy family rested on their spot, observing the picturesque image children playing the field. Elizabeth who had planned an extra entertainment for the day, called her sister's attention with a ...

"Georgiana, have you ever flown a kite?"

Miss Darcy looked at her with a diverted smile. "No, I had not had that pleasure."

Elizabeth rose quickly. "Then I will be happy to instruct you. Come with me."

The eyes of both brother and sister followed her as she walked around the tree until she returned with the rhomboidal artefact she loaded in the coach with the rest of their things that morning. Grinning like a child, Elizabeth passed by them with her precious cargo and took her sister's hand, dragging her down to the prairie with her. Smiling broadly himself, Darcy observed his dearest ladies scampering down the hill with the blue kite in hand. It was excessively diverting to watch them, so happy and alive with the colourful contraption flapping behind them.

"Mr Darcy!" Elizabeth called him. "Are you not coming?"

That was an invitation he could not refuse, so Darcy followed his wife's lead at a lazy pace, more inclined to enjoy the pleasure of watching her play with the kite than flying the thing himself. Elizabeth was undoubtedly a runner, Darcy observed with mirth, and let out a chuckle as she gained the speed necessary to elevate the kite high in the sky, task that was performed effortlessly. Everyone seemed delighted with this new entertainment she was offering them, especially the children. The tenants and their families fell in love with her liveliness and spontaneity while the master of estate was happy just with watching her merriment.

Once the kite was doing twists and turns in the air, Elizabeth passed it to Georgiana, who following her sister's instructions, learned the particularities of kite flying. They were engaged in the task for nearly half an hour, and then passed the kite to one of the older boys that were gathered around them.

The ladies returned to their place under the tree to refresh themselves after the exertion. This time Darcy returned her the courtesy and served his athletic wife a cold drink.

"Madam," he said smilingly as they sat on the blanket that was laid on the grass for them under the shadow of the tree, "I did not know that flying kites was one of your many accomplishments. That was indeed beautiful."

"Thank you." Elizabeth smiled brightly at her husband. She had feared that he would find the activity unladylike, or inappropriate for the mistress of his estate, but it had been the opposite, and she was grateful that he had not been offended by her conduct. "My father taught me when I was a child. He always wanted to have a son and when he suffered his fifth disappointment, he instructed me on some of the many activities he would have liked to share with a boy. Flying kites was one of them."

"That leaves me to wonder what other exertions that are usually reserved to men you are able to perform."

"I fear this is the only one, sir. I am terribly afraid of weapons and I find fishing exceedingly boring."

"Do you not ride?" Darcy enquired with interest. Perhaps one day they could ride together around the estate.

"No, sir, I do not. Jane is the rider of the family. My father tried to teach me when I was little, but I had a fall and I have refused to sit atop a horse ever since. Walking is so much safer, and more invigorating, I dare say."

"But so tiresome!" Georgiana laughed. "I could teach you, Elizabeth, or William might, he's an excellent horseman. I am most certain that there is a suitable horse here at Pemberley for you. What say you, brother?"

Darcy stole a glance in his wife's direction and noticed her evident displeasure for the activity Georgiana was proposing. Albeit he would have loved to educate her in the art of horseback riding, he could not force her if that was not her inclination. "I would be happy to instruct you, Mrs. Darcy, but only if you are agreeable with it."

"Sir, I thank you, but I fear I must decline," Elizabeth said with some apprehension as she did not want him to feel slighted after his kind offer. "But be certain that if one day I find myself in the necessity to learn, I will readily ask you to teach me."

"It will be my pleasure," he said with a smile.

The Darcy family remained under the tree nibbling the cold meat and fruits that had been prepared especially for the day which had been a wonderful day so far. They had been blessed with excellent weather and Elizabeth commented on their good fortune.

"Indeed, we have been very lucky," Darcy replied as his eyes remained on the prairie, his interest caught by the families that were sharing this picnic with them. "I did not know that the Simpson's baby was already born."

"Oh, yes," Elizabeth looked at the group, sitting slightly a part from the rest, under the shadow of a tree. "About a fortnight ago. I met them yesterday. I believe this is their fifth child."

"It is," Darcy observed with a frown. "Mr. Simpson is a good man but has been unlucky with his crops during the last two seasons. I heard their cow died this winter."

"Oh, how unfortunate." Elizabeth commented.

"I will speak to Mr. Rawson. We can lend them one of our milking cows for the summer. With the baby and so many small children, they will certainly need it."

"That is very generous of you," Elizabeth appreciated his gesture. Her husband was indeed a liberal and generous landlord.

"They have always been excellent tenants. His family has been working our land for many years now, it's the least I can do for them. I know that we can come up with a fair arrangement." Darcy moved back his body until he was reclined on one elbow on the blanket.

As he did this, Elizabeth's attention was drawn to his form, so long and fit. Her eyes travelled his body, from feet to head, and she was particularly delighted by the effect that the soft breeze produced in his hair. There was something boyish about his appearance today, perhaps his sport clothes were making him look younger or maybe it was easiness in his manners that she found increasingly appealing. He seemed entertained by the sight of a group of children that were playing in the field; he was smiling pleasantly and let out a chuckle when the boys fell in a tangle of legs and arms during their playful wrestle. Elizabeth could not take his eyes off her husband and was caught completely unprepared when he suddenly glanced at her and saw her staring at him.

She quickly averted her eyes, then looked back again only to find that his eyes were still fixed on her. With great agitation, she realized that she was blushing intently and prayed that he would attribute her heightened colour to the sun and the breeze. Butterflies played in her stomach and her heartbeat became uncommonly fast. The smile she showed him was the shyest one and the one that he gave her in response was slow ... unusual, different to any she had seen before. At length, he looked away, leaving Elizabeth to meditate about the confusion she suddenly felt.

~ * ~

Two weeks had passed since Elizabeth arrived at Pemberley. Two weeks of discovery, of growth, of feelings blossoming like the trees in the spring.

Elizabeth was now possessed by emotions that were as enticing as they were disquieting. She was happy, but at the same time anxious, restless, afraid. The reason for these contradictory sentiments? Her husband, of course. He was the object of her dreams during the night and the only thing she could think about while she was awake.

Her change of mind was not the consequence of these last days in his society. It came to happen gradually, and was nesting firmly inside her chest. The mere presence of her husband made her feel warm and her heart skipped a beat whenever Darcy bestowed upon her one of his charming smiles. She now found herself seeking his company and learning more about his tastes and costumes in order to find new ways to promote his happiness. Could this be love? Elizabeth asked herself, almost dismissing the possibility. How could it be love when she had felt so strongly against him in the past?

However, as impossible as Elizabeth believed it to be, these sentiments she had been developing steadily and systematically since she received Darcy's first letter were now turning into the deepest affection. Her condition was undeniable and she was now ready to admit that she was helplessly in love with him. This made her feel vulnerable, insecure, lost, for it was not the acknowledgement of her own heart what troubled her, but the unawareness of his. After so many fights and misunderstandings, of wounding words exchanged in a fit of anger, she could not expect him to hold her in the same estimation. Darcy had loved her once, but what if this feeling had been destroyed by her past offences?

His current demeanour did not give her a clue of where his heart resided. Darcy was civil, considerate and polite, a perfect gentleman whose actions spoke of correction and propriety, but there were no signs that the passion he had declared to feel for her still existed. Occasionally, he would touch her hand during a morning walk, there were times when she felt his intense gaze upon her, when she could intuit glimpses of desire in his eyes, but those looks vanished before could she could decipher what they truly meant. He had never tried to kiss her again and she feared now that he never would.

How could she win back the affection of a man that was so uncivilly rejected? Was this a hopeless case? She was completely at loss of what to do and sighed in helplessness at her inability to think properly in what her husband was concerned.

"That was a big sigh, Mrs. Darcy."

Elizabeth startled and looked at the entrance where she saw the object of her musings leaning against the doorframe of the morning room. "Mr. Darcy!"

"Is anything the matter? You seem ... preoccupied." He left his post and walked slowly towards her.

"I am all right, sir." She rose from the settee where she had been sitting.

"I hope you are not displeased with Pemberley."

"No, not at all."

"Do you like your new home, then?"

Darcy stopped in front of her. His eyes went to her bosom, where he noticed the gold, heart shaped pendant he gave her during their engagement and that she had never worn before. A placid smile graced his countenance in appreciation at the unprecedented event. He was enticed to trace the golden chain with his fingers but immediately recognized the imprudence of such a move and recoiled, clasping both hands behind his back to avoid temptation, and lifted his eyes so she found his stare disrespectful.

"Yes, I do." Elizabeth blushed, aware of his eyes scrutinizing her. "There are very few who would not approve."

"But your good opinion is rarely bestowed and therefore more worth the earning," he stated with a smile.

"Thank you." As a way to distract herself from his unnerving presence, Elizabeth turned to the settee, where she had left her embroidery. "There is something I wanted to give you ... I ... I have been working on ... here," she picked the cloth up. "I have a present for you."

"For me?" he asked, the dimples he rarely showed now in full display.

"I started this while you were away, but with the trip and the picnic I was not able to finish it until today." With trembling fingers and a shy smile, she gave him the pristine cloth she had embroidered for him.

Darcy's fingertips brushed her hand as he took the piece to examine the delicate handwork. "It is beautiful. I have never received such lovely gift. I thank you."

Elizabeth almost jumped at the contact, and made a conscious effort not to withdraw her hand too quickly. Truly, she did not know what was happening to her. Her face felt hot and her heart was beating so loud that she feared Darcy would hear it from where he stood. She knew he was staring at her, but she just could not bring herself to look up. When she finally dared to glance at him, she saw his eyes shining brightly. Their gazes locked, the moment froze in time and for an instant, Elizabeth thought he might ...

"Mr. Darcy." Mrs. Reynolds' voice startled them both.

"Yes?" Darcy turned towards his housekeeper.

"Your carriage is ready, sir."

"Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds." He then addressed his wife. "I am going to Lambton on some business; I thought that perhaps you would like to accompany me."

"That would be agreeable, yes," said she when she found her voice. "I shall ask Georgiana if she would like to come with us."

Elizabeth's suggestion, voiced out of pure nervousness for the prospect of being alone with him, ruined her husband's expectations about a ride to the village in the sole company of his adorable wife. He had thought that after the intimate moment they shared in the ride to Pemberley Elizabeth would be more receptive of his person, in fact he had noticed a substantial change in her demeanour since they arrived at Derbyshire, and harboured expectations about beginning a slow and subtle courtship. Sharing a pleasant ride with her in the narrowness of the phaeton, on the lovely road to Lambton -so propitious for romanticism-- would have been the perfect opportunity to start. However, this sudden refusal to be alone with him warned him that he might have made the wrong assumptions. Certainly the inclusion of a third person in their party was a clear indication of her unwillingness to spend an un-chaperoned time with him. Sighing at the wasted opportunity, Darcy watched her leave the room hastily, finding consolation in the fact that at least he had obtained a beautiful token from her this day. He carefully folded the cloth and put it away in his breast pocket, very close to his heart.

~ * ~

Once in Lambton, Darcy left the ladies at the milliner and went to attend some business with his solicitor. He joined them an hour later for a walk around the village. In the street, a gentleman approached them. He was a large man, Elizabeth noticed, who seemed to be very well acquainted with her husband and sister.

"Darcy! What a pleasure to see you again!"

"Lord Archer," he bowed.

The gentlemen exchanged pleasantries and polite inquiries about their health and families were made. When Lord Archer greeted Georgiana, he expressed his surprise on seeing how much grown she was since he had last seen her. His eyes then went to the third person in the party, waiting for an introduction.

"My lord," Darcy stated with solemnity, "Allow me to introduce you to my ..." he stopped to clear his throat, "Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy. We married two months ago. Mrs. Darcy, Lord Archer's estate neighbours ours on the east."

Elizabeth dropped a courtesy. "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord."

"Oh yes, I have heard the news! Congratulations, my friend!" Lord Archer said effusively. "But this is not done, Darcy, you married two months ago and kept her all for yourself?" He took Elizabeth's hand and kissed it gallantly. "My dear Mrs. Darcy. I am delighted to make your acquaintance. This happy event deserves a celebration. I shall ask Lady Archer to send round an invitation for dinner. I am sure that she will be enchanted to meet the young lady that has conquered Mr Darcy's heart."

"The pleasure will be mine," Elizabeth replied politely.

The gentlemen conversed a little longer, mostly about matters concerning their estates, until Lord Archer announced his leave. "Well, I shall leave you now. I hope we would see each other again soon."

Lord Archer was gone and Elizabeth was left to meditate about what just happened. With great consternation, she realized that her husband had purposely avoided the word 'wife' during the introduction with the other gentleman. 'I may be married to you, but I will never be your wife' she told him on their wedding night. She never imagined her words would be taken in such a way! Oh, how much pain he had caused him! Elizabeth was deeply mortified and consumed by remorse. Would he ever be able to forgive her?

"Is there any other place you would wish to go?" Darcy's voice distracted her out of her thoughts.

"Oh, no," Elizabeth replied. "We can go back now."

He observed her for a moment, as if studying her, with an almost imperceptible frown on his brow, but said nothing else. He offered his arm to her and they walked to the carriage.

Chapter 17

Two weeks had passed since Elizabeth's arrival at Pemberley. The third began. With all the daily employments already fulfilled, the mistress of the house was now free to enjoy the lovely day in the terrace while she read the correspondence she had just received from Longbourn.

The first part of Jane's letter contained disturbing news. Lydia had received an invitation from Mrs. Forster, the wife of the Colonel of the regiment, to accompany her to Brighton. The lady, Elizabeth recalled, was a very young woman, and very lately married, who shared Lydia's good humour and exuberant spirits as well as some of her youngest sister's wild volatility.

Perfectly aware that her family's importance and respectability was at stake, Elizabeth was tempted to send a word to her father to remind him of the improprieties and general disdain of all restraint that marked Lydia's character and warn him about the imprudence of letting her leave under the superintendence of a most insensible companion. Yet with Lydia already gone, there was not much Elizabeth could do. As specified in the letter, Jane had attempted to explain to Mr. Bennet the unavoidable evils to which Lydia would be exposed while in Brighton and was faced with her father's usual unconcern for his daughter's upbringing. Lydia was now merrily swimming in a sea of redcoats. The only thing left for Elizabeth to do was pray that her most ill-behaved sister would stay out of real mischief during her stay in Brighton.

However, Elizabeth's vexation did not live long. The second part of the letter delivered such excellent news that it brought flutters to her heart: Mr. Bingley had returned to Netherfield and had asked for Jane's hand in marriage. Her eldest sister did not dwell extensively on the details of the proposal but Elizabeth could guess that her joy was immense.

This understanding, while making her extremely happy, did not fail to baffle Elizabeth. The last thing she had heard about Bingley was that he would be in Wales for the winter and had no intention to ever return to Hertfordshire. She considered his present behaviour exceedingly inconsistent, although she thought best not to speculate about the reasons for Mr Bingley's sudden change of heart if the consequences of his impulsiveness were in Jane's benefit. What truly mattered was that he was at Longbourn, that he had proposed and that Jane's heart was overflowing with glee.

Exceedingly happy with the news, Elizabeth folded the letter went back to the house to have a word with the housekeeper while dreaming of a future encounter with her dear sister on the occasion of her travelling for Longbourn to attend her wedding. Her only preoccupation now was whether her husband would allow her to leave Pemberley or not. She imagined he would, Darcy had always been extremely kind and generous with her, although she was not sure he would be inclined to accompany her. He had never been fond of her relations and her intuition told her that he might not be willing to make such a long trip to meet those he hardly tolerated.

As she walked, Elizabeth's thoughts went to her husband and his trip the past month. It was indeed a remarkable coincidence that Darcy had been in the same region where Mr Bingley had resided not so long ago. But what was even more extraordinary was that Mr Bingley had sojourned to Longbourn and proposed to Jane not much after Mr Darcy had left the country.

Albeit suspicion had never been in Elizabeth's nature, in this case she recognized that the connection between these facts was too strong to be dismissed. Darcy was acquainted with her sister's true feelings and a few weeks later he travelled to the country where the man Jane loved dwelled. And now, merely a fortnight later this man was proposing to her sister? This could not be just a happy coincidence. With her curiosity excited by these conjectures, Elizabeth unfolded the letter and one more time perused the paragraph that contained the delightful news. Jane's words could not be clearer.

'I know not how I am to bare this happiness, my dear Lizzie, for this exceeds all my expectations. You should have seen him when he arrived, he was such a wretched sight! Would you believe that he called on us directly upon his arrival from Wales? He told me he wanted to come sooner, but the awful weather in the region kept him from departing in time. He also confessed to me that when he went to town last November, he really loved me, and nothing but a persuasion of my being indifferent would have prevented his coming down again.'

Darcy had never disclosed the reasons of his journey to Wales. He had merely stated he would be away attending some business. But now, after reading Jane's letter, Elizabeth was inclined to believe that this 'business' he satisfactorily resolved was more related to the rectification of the wrong he had inflicted on her sister and his friend rather than some investment he had in the Land of Song. This was something that should be clarified immediately, so Elizabeth folded the letter and went in search of her husband.

She found Darcy in his study, reading some papers after his daily meeting with his steward. This was not a place where Elizabeth would generally approach him, so his surprise when he saw her coming was great. He composed himself quickly enough and received her with a smile.

"Mrs. Darcy, what an unexpected pleasure," Darcy rose to greet her. "What can I do for you?"

Her fingers played with the piece of paper in her hand. "I ... I have just received this letter from Longbourn."

"I hope that everyone is in good health."

"Oh, yes, they are in excellent health, Sir."

"I am glad to hear it. Good news I hope?" He slowly walked towards her.

"Excellent news," Elizabeth replied. "Jane told me that Mr. Bingley has just returned to Netherfield. He arrived from Wales and rode directly to Longbourn to propose to her."

"Indeed?" Darcy's eyebrows arched up.

"They are now engaged and Jane and all my family are exceedingly happy."

He said nothing else and stood in front of her, sporting an innocent smile. This only served to increase Elizabeth's discomfiture, for she was determined to reach to the bottom of this subject yet she did not want him to think that she was questioning his actions or doubting his word.

"It is my suspicion that Mr. Bingley did not go to Longbourn by design, Sir. I have reasons to believe he was somehow persuaded to do it."

"I am afraid I am at a loss for your meaning, Mrs. Darcy," Darcy mumbled with a frown.

Elizabeth shook her head slightly at her incapability to elaborate her thoughts in a manner where she would not sound offensive. "Mr. Darcy," she began the most conciliatory tone she could muster. "My intuition tells me that your trip to Wales and Mr. Bingley's coming to Hertfordshire soon after are intimately connected and now I feel that I should make amends with you for a circumstance that pleases me exceedingly and that I suspect you promoted."

Darcy averted his eyes for a moment. When he dared to look back at her, he was biting his lower lip to repress a smile. "I fear I have been discovered."

"So you are, indeed, responsible for their engagement?" she asked hopefully.

"No, Mrs. Darcy, as much as I would like to take the credit for that, I cannot. I only acquainted Bingley with your sister's true feelings for him. What happened next was Bingley's own doing."

"But you admit you sojourned to Wales with the chief purpose of talking to Mr. Bingley and not to attend some important business as you contrived to make me believe." The words came out of her mouth so fast that she could not stop them.

For Darcy, no business was more important than his wife's happiness. He looked guilty of charge as he finally admitted, "You may say that, yes."

Elizabeth stared at him for a moment, too overwhelmed for words. She had held this affair against him for weeks when truly it had been already rectified long ago by Darcy's own hand. The joy and gratefulness she felt for his interference were only shadowed by the shame she experienced for being so resentful and prejudiced. She knew not how to reward him for her own foolishness. After a short internal deliberation, she took a step forward and rose to her toes to give Darcy a quick kiss on the cheek, an attitude that had always pleased her father and that she hoped would have the same effect on her husband.

"Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for making my sister so happy." She presented him with her best smile.

Darcy was completely unprepared for such an affectionate gesture coming from his wife and stared at her in a state of complete bewilderment. There was no clear thought in his mind at the moment, just the tingling sensation of her lips on his cheek that had awakened dormant passions he had struggled to keep at bay since the travesty of their wedding night. His sight dropped to her mouth and Elizabeth's eyes illuminated when she realized he was coming closer ...

"They are here, the Gardiners are here!"

The spell was broken and Darcy straightened up immediately at the interruption. Slightly dazed, he glanced at the door to see his sister calling him. "What?"

"The Gardiners! There is a carriage crossing the bridge," the girl replied. "It must be them!"

The gentleman quickly recollected himself from his almost faux pas and addressed his wife with great formality. "Yes, of course, I believe we should go out to receive our guests, Mrs. Darcy."

Everything had happened so fast that Elizabeth was not certain of how to interpret it. She could have sworn that Mr Darcy was going to kiss her and now he was guiding her towards the door with an aloofness that he had not displayed in a long time. Darcy, on the other hand, was berating himself for being so incautious and allowing his desire to govern him. They were making such progress that he could not risk a wrong move that would ruin the ground he had won so far.

~ * ~

"I am so happy to have you here!" Elizabeth embraced her aunt and uncle with great joy. "Did you have a pleasant journey?"

Darcy came closer to greet the newcomers and express his delight in having them as guests. "Welcome to Pemberley, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner. It is a pleasure to have you here."

The three Gardiner children descended from the coach and after greeting their dear cousin, with great curiosity observed the tall gentleman who they had been told owned this magnificent estate.

Mr. Gardiner introduced his three children to the Master of Pemberley. The two eldest, Robert and Mathew responded with great civility, the little girl just watched from behind his mother's skirts.

"Do you ride, Robert?" Darcy asked the eldest Gardiner.

"Aye, sir, but not as often as I would like."

"Perhaps we can ride together one of these days, if your father consents to it."

The boy glanced at his father, who agreed with a smiling nod. "I shall be delighted, sir."

"And these two are Mathew and Mary Ann," Mr. Gardiner pointed at smaller ones. "They had been talking endlessly for the past few miles but it seems they are a little tongue tied just now."

Mathew, the youngest of the boys, just six years old and much bolder than his little sister, attempted a, "Papa said we would go fishing. Are you going to take us?"

"I would be honoured to take you," replied Darcy. "And Miss Mary Ann, do you like to fish as well?"

The four-year-old girl nodded.

"Well, let us go into the house, everyone," Elizabeth took her little cousin's hand. "I am sure that you are all tired and in need of some tea."

Mrs. Gardiner linked her arm with Elizabeth's as they walked towards the house. The gentlemen were walking several yards ahead. "Lizzie, your husband is growing in charm every time I see him and he has such a good disposition with children."

"Yes," Elizabeth said proudly. "Indeed he has."

"Have you received the happy news from Longbourn?"

Elizabeth beamed. "I did and I am delighted for Jane."

Mathew ran towards the gentlemen and Elizabeth saw him tugging at the tail of Darcy's coat. Darcy bent to hear what he had to say and then glanced at his wife.

"Cousin Lizzie!" Mathew called her, "Mr. Darcy says he will take me to ride but only if you come with us!"

"Oh, no sir," her eyes smiled to her husband, "you will not make me ride a horse even if you get down to your knees and beg. But I promise I will accompany you and watch from a safe distance."

"Your company is lure enough, my dear," he replied with a grin, "we shall start with the riding lessons as soon as may be."

~ * ~

That night, sleep was avoiding Elizabeth. She rose from bed and walked towards the window to observe how the silver light of the full moon illuminated the gardens below. Her first thought was that her restlessness was created by the excitement of the arrival of her family, but now she knew that that was not the reason, that the real motive for her agitation was beyond her bedroom wall.

Soon after supper, tired after their long journey, the Gardiners retired to their bedchambers, leaving Elizabeth alone with her husband in the music room. There was nothing unusual about that occurrence; in fact they had been left unaccompanied in several occasions, yet in this one in particular Elizabeth's agitation had reached extraordinary proportions.

She was working in her embroidery -her most imperfect work, for sure-- while Darcy was reading a book in the farthest end of the sofa. Instead of focusing in the stitches, Elizabeth's thoughts were engaged on the kiss Darcy almost gave her earlier in the day. She had been expecting him to proceed with what Georgiana had so untimely interrupted, or at least address the subject, but her ever evading husband adhered most conscientiously to his reading without paying much attention to her. At length, when she announced that she was retiring, he closed his book and escorted her to her room in perfect silence.

These were the things that puzzled her most about Darcy's behaviour. For the majority of the time Darcy was attentive and considerate when in public, but the moment they were left in private he would retreat to his taciturn self and become the aloof gentleman she met in Hertfordshire. At this rate, the distance the senseless distance that had been established between their wedding night would never disappear. Oh, how she wished he would just come to her and embrace her! Every day that passed it became more difficult to hold back her love for him and watch him go every night knowing he would not come to her later.

What was keeping him from joining her? Disappointment? Resentment? His good opinion once lost was lost forever, Darcy had told her once. Yet she felt that she had lost more than that. She had lost the affection of the husband with whom she had fallen in love and now she would have to live the rest of her nights dreaming of a life of marital bliss that had been denied to her by no other than herself.

With sorrow, Elizabeth walked towards the door that separated their bedchambers, wondering what her husband was doing now. Sleeping like a child, surely, while she was consumed by anguish and uncertainty. Her fingertips brushed the dark wood, slowly tracing the elaborate patter until they reached the doorknob where they rested, tempted to turn it and step into Darcy's chambers.

She could almost feel him on the other side, so close and yet so far away. After a frustrated sigh, Elizabeth abandoned her unrewarding pursue and went to bed alone, wishing she could be lying in her husband's arms.

~ * ~

Darcy could not sleep. As it was happening to him every night, his wife's image was taking over his thoughts. Too anxious to close his eyes and lay still, he walked to the window and looked up at the bright moon that illuminated the gardens with its silvery luminescence. Was she sleeping? Was she as restless as he was?

How long must I endure this agony? That moment he spent in the music room after dinner in Elizabeth's company had been torture. Sitting there with her alone, away from curious eyes, pretending he was reading a book was the most ridiculous thing he ever had done in his life. Well, the second most ridiculous thing, as he had adopted a similar attitude earlier in their acquaintance, when Elizabeth was nursing Jane during her stay at Netherfield. Yet, as absurd as this conduct was, keeping this senseless distance that existed between them was the only way to accomplish the rewarding task of waiting for her to be ready for him. While grateful that Georgiana interrupted what could have ruined everything he had struggled for, there were moments he wanted to kill his sister for her ill-timing!

All what Darcy wished at that moment was to have a full marriage with his wife. It was not only desire nor lust. He wanted to love her completely, hold her in his arms, kiss her and share with her all this passion and devotion he felt for her. It would be so easy to just go and ...

With resolute air, Darcy strode towards the door that connected to his wife's bedchamber convinced that this game needed come to an end. But the moment he was faced with the massive door, all courage instantly abandoned him and he stood immobile, blankly staring at the pattern carved in the wood, unable to turn the doorknob. His fingertips brushed the polished bronze as one thought in his mind: what if she rejected him again? What if she still hated him? No, that could not be, her smiles told him that she did not. But Darcy had learned from experience that sometimes appearances were deceitful and that a smile, as radiant as it was, did not mean love.

He leaned his head against the door and wished he were not such a proud coward. He could almost sense her presence on the other side. She was just there, but still untouchable. After some endless minutes of painful indecision, he went to bed, wishing he could be lying in his wife's arms.

~ * ~

The first week of the Gardiners visit was thoroughly enjoyed by all the inhabitants of the grand house. The manor was now full with the happy bustle of children running down the halls, of early morning preparations and kaleidoscope of activities especially designed to entertain the guests. Each day offered a new amusement and both the master and mistress of the house were occupied in the task of granting the Gardin ers a joyful stay a t Pemberley.

These arrangements, while exceedingly diverting for some, were utterly frustrating for the newlyweds. Both Darcy and Elizabeth sensed that there was a palpable progress in their relationship, that this new closeness they were experiencing was extremely beneficial for their marriage yet they could not but suffer the torment of not having enough time away from the rest to promote greater intimacy.

On her part, Elizabeth was now doing everything in her power to show her husband her growing regard for him. She would rise early to join him in the morning room for breakfast and bid him farewell at the door every time he departed for his morning ride around the estate. To her fortune, Darcy was very precise in his routine, which rendered him awfully predictable so Elizabeth had only to memorize his steps and plan a stratagem to encounter him in the halls as often as possible. Darcy seemed to appreciate these 'coincidental' meetings and showed pleasure in her company, but, in Elizabeth's eyes, there was no particular indication that he understood these signs as an invitation to approach her.

However, this detachment that Elizabeth imagined her husband was experiencing was not what she thought. Darcy was neither indifferent, nor oblivious nor unaffected by her gradual change of behaviour. He was just unsure of how to proceed. He was in fact thoroughly moved by her much more amiable demeanour and was now all anticipation about meeting her every morning and see her smiles directed especially at him. Like Elizabeth, Darcy was always contriving ways to promote encounters whenever their daily obligations separated them only to suffer the uncertainty of not knowing if she would welcome a more direct advance over her person if he dared to try. His main objective now was to show that he respected her and that he was willing to wait a lifetime for her to be ready for him. His only wish was it would not take so long.

~ * ~

One night after supper, the Gardiner children were already in bed and the family was gathered in the music room listening to Elizabeth play a song at her husband's request. Once she finished her performance, Elizabeth joined her aunt and uncle on the sofa and they all listened to a song that Georgiana had been practising all week.

Darcy, who was sitting slightly apart from the rest, was so lost in thoughts that he did not even notice that he was being the object of the others' observation. The only thing that was in his mind at that moment was his wife and a marriage that seemed to be detained in time. At this point his frustration was such that Darcy was not even thinking of consummating their marriage. The idea, as enticing as it was, was still a distant and practically unachievable fantasy for him. After so many months of unfruitful wedlock he was reaching the point where a quick taste of her lips would suffice. But even something as little as a peck on the cheek was being denied to him. They were constantly exposed to the scrutiny of guests and servants, so stealing a kiss from his wife had become an endeavour almost impossible to achieve.

Despite these inconveniences and interruptions that were constantly thrown on their way, Darcy felt that all this trouble was not in vain. His attentions, if not overtly reciprocated, were at least welcomed. Elizabeth's manners were engaging and playful, if not flirtatious and encouraging, so much so that he could almost affirm that she was now seeking his company. However, as much as he would like to interpret this new attitude as an invitation to more intimate exploits, he could not just get rid of everyone and jump into her bed without being certain that she would be completely agreeable with this circumstance. He couldn't risk -and wouldn't survive- another rejection, so his behaviour, though less formal, was always within the limits of propriety. .

'Lord! I am wooing my own wife!'Darcy reflected, both amused and frustrated by the thought. It was indeed a most unusual circumstance, even more when this conjecture came from a newlywed's mind.

"A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Darcy," said Elizabeth, who had been observing her husband the whole time while he stared intently at a vase on the table.

"I beg your pardon?" He came out of his reverie.

"You seem preoccupied, sir, is anything the matter?" She asked kindly.

"No madam, not at all. I was merely distracted, my mind was wandering."

"And dare I ask to where it was wandering, sir?" she arched an eyebrow in that manner he adored. "What subject had driven you away from your sister's music? You have always been a faithful admirer of her talent."

"Well," he smiled sheepishly and quickly thought of an excuse for his inattentiveness, "I was thinking that we could have a picnic tomorrow, by the pond."

"A picnic?"

"I am sure that the children will enjoy if I take them fishing. I thought that this time we can make it a family event and that, perhaps, I could persuade you and Mrs. Gardiner to accompany us."

"It will be my pleasure, sir." She smiled broadly at his gallant invitation, honoured that he would include her and her aunt in this activity that was usually reserved for men.

"Good." Darcy returned her smile.

When it was time to retire, as he did every night, Darcy offered Elizabeth his arm and escorted her to her bedchamber. They walked the gallery in silence, both experiencing an overwhelming desire to disclose everything that was in their hearts but waiting for an opening from the other to start. Yet nothing was said, no glances were exchanged, no encouraging signs were delivered. Another opportunity would soon be lost.

Once they reached her rooms, Elizabeth released her husband's arm and stood before him, smiling, waiting for him to bid her good night. He would usually bow his head and end the evening saying a formal 'sleep well, madam' before heading for his own chambers. But tonight there was something distinctly different about his demeanour, he was fidgety, constantly glancing around, as if desirous to do something but undecided of how to proceed. Darcy shifted his weight from one foot to the other and took her hand hesitantly. There he stood, staring at her hand in his, a million words crossing his mind but unable to express what he wanted to say. After some of the most uncomfortable seconds of his life, Darcy cleared his throat and when he was sure his voice would sound even, he said a hoarse 'good night'.

With her hand still holding her husband's, Elizabeth rose to her toes and placed a soft kiss on his lips. "Good night, sir."

Completely bewildered by this unprecedented event, Darcy stood in his spot while he observed how his wife calmly turned away from him and entered her bedchamber. She had just kissed him, his wife kissed him. Grinning at his good fortune, Darcy headed for his chambers with a new spring on his step.

Chapter 18

The picnic that Darcy had suggested the night before took place by the carp pond that was situated beyond the grove, rather distant from the house. The children were very excited about fishing and spending a day outdoors so the gentlemen headed that way soon after breakfast while the ladies joined them some time later, followed by a line of servants carrying the baskets with food and drink.

"I believe they are enjoying themselves very much from what we can hear from here." Mrs. Gardiner was amused by the giggles and laughs that were coming from behind the bushes, where the children and the men were gathered.

"Indeed! They seem to be greatly entertained." Elizabeth smiled.

"I can't imagine what they are doing to make such ...."

Mrs. Gardiner was interrupted by the sound of a big splash, a clear indication that someone had fallen into the water. The screams and giggles of the children grew louder, as well as Mr. Gardiner's resounding laughter. With expressions that mingled concern and amusement, the ladies hurried to the pond to see what had just happened. They arrived just in time to see a completely drenched Darcy emerging from the pond.

"Good God!" cried Mrs. Gardiner, almost losing her countenance.

Mr. Gardiner extended his hand to assist Darcy out of the water while Georgiana covered her mouth so as not to laugh overtly at the sight of her dignified brother in such a precarious situation. To Elizabeth, the entire scene seemed surreal, and stood petrified, mouth agape, watching her grinning husband as he stood on firm ground and shook the water from his hair.

"Dear Lord! What happened?" enquired the astonished Mistress of Pemberley.

"I ... hmm ... I was trying to fetch something for Mathew and I fell into the water," replied the wet and thoroughly diverted husband.

Elizabeth was still too shocked to entertain the idea of the Master of Pemberley falling into a pond because of a six-year-old child.

"Something?"

"Yes." Darcy said as he walked towards his wife with one hand behind his back and a naughty smile on his face. Behind him, Mathew covered his giggles with both hands.

Recoiling several steps at Darcy's somehow compelling advance over her person, Elizabeth contrived to answer with all the self-assurance she could muster, which was not much due to the absurdity of their current situation. "Indeed? What, pray tell, what was that you were trying to fetch that had thrown you so unceremoniously into the water?"

By then the gentleman was standing before her, water dripping from his clothes, eyes shining with mischief. "This," declared Darcy as he presented her a frog not two inches from her nose.

Elizabeth screamed at the sight of the fat, greenish and decidedly horrible animal so close to her face and jumped back in horror. The rest of the party erupted in hysterical laughter.

"Mr. Darcy! How could you!" cried an agitated Elizabeth while placing her hand on her bosom. "You ... you ..."

Her protests lived short. While she attempted to compose a suitable speech to chastise her irreverent husband, Darcy took hold of Elizabeth's chin and pressed his fingers to her cheeks, forcing a most enticing pout on her lips. There he planted a firm, noisy kiss, much to Elizabeth's -and everyone's-- surprise.

Darcy released his wide eyed and absolutely stunned wife and bowed formally. "Now, if you will excuse me, madam, I shall make myself presentable for lunch."

He then handed the frog to Mathew and marched towards the house, looking so very pleased with himself. Elizabeth stood perplexed, Georgiana was drying tears from her eyes and the children were rolling on the grass from laughing out loud.

Mr. Gardiner, exceedingly amused by the whole scene, rubbed the back of his neck while thinking aloud, "I say, that was a very good way of silencing a woman."

~ * ~

The picnic progressed as planned when Darcy returned in dry clothes. Everyone enjoyed the day thoroughly, the mistress of the house perhaps not as much, as the kiss her husband gave her earlier in the day had driven to a state of troubled muteness. Her attitude should not be mistaken as displeasure for Darcy's actions, on the contrary, she was more than glad that he had taken such an enormous and completely unexpected step, yet she could not but fret about what may come afterwards. Did that mean that all their past grudges were already overcome and they were finally set on the route towards a loving marriage? Would Darcy come to her bedroom to consummate a union that should have been established long ago?

The mere thought of having Darcy in his bed, making love to her, made Elizabeth blush and tingle with nervousness and anticipation, so much that she could not bring herself to open her mouth in front of the rest. She sat in troubled silence, meditating on what the future might bring, her heart all flutters and her mind wild with images and sensations that she had not felt since her engagement, when she was given a brief but ardent sample of how intimacy with her husband could be.

No matter how unsettling these thoughts were, after so many weeks of loving Darcy from afar, Elizabeth felt her patience and efforts had been finally rewarded. She had kissed him, he had kissed her and their intentions and expectations, albeit not voiced directly, had been tacitly expressed and acknowledged by one another. The only thing that was left to do to finally settle things between them was to talk about their true and deepest feelings. Elizabeth would tell Darcy that she loved him and he would -hopefully- confirm to her that he still loved her and everything would be fine from then on.

But, against everything that Elizabeth had expected, Darcy did not come to her that night. He did not seek her in privacy to discuss the subject either and continued with his usual routine as if nothing extraordinary had happened. In a certain way -although she had carefully prepared herself to receive him that night- she was happy that he did not come to her bed. This did not mean that he did not want her to become his wife in every sense. Rather, she sensed that there were some things they needed to discuss before taking that one last step towards complete intimacy.

Elizabeth rose early on the following morning, determined to approach her husband and have this one last conversation with him. He was not there when she arrived at the morning room, it was too early even for him, so she went to the green sitting room, the one she knew he was so fond of, to wait for him until he came down.

"Elizabeth." Darcy appeared at the door, some time later. "I've been looking for you."

His voice startled her, not just because she did not hear him coming, but because this was the first time he had called her 'Elizabeth' since their wedding. This was a clear indication that something much more significant was about to happen and Elizabeth cursed and her voluble heart for speeding up and contributing to increase her agitation in a moment when she needed all the calmness she could accomplish.

"My dear, are you unwell?" Darcy walked towards her and she rose to greet him. "You were so quiet yesterday, after the picnic."

Elizabeth was all flutters and butterflies in her stomach. Her mind was a complete void. She so desperately wanted to express something meaningful about her marriage but she could bring herself to open her mouth. Her throat was dry and her knees shaky. She swallowed and fixed her eyes on his cravat.

"Is anything the matter?" his voice was soft and tender as he lifted his hand to play with a lock of her hair.

"I am fine, sir." Elizabeth whispered.

"Good." Darcy moved his hand to gently rest it on her cheek. "I wouldn't forgive myself if you were unhappy."

"I am not unhappy, sir, not at all."

His other hand came to cup the other side of her face. She lifted her eyes and met his dark, more passionate ones. Undoubtedly the time had come and she held her breath when he finally came closer.

"I am going to kiss you, Elizabeth," he murmured as he leaned down.

"I know" she breathed out just before his lips touched hers.

The first contact was brief and gentle but soon he came back, inclining his head to the other side, this time kissing her more intently. Her mouth opened to his as Elizabeth released an unsteady sigh, and fell into his embrace when his arms enveloped her. The kiss went on and on, slowly growing in passion but with the sweet tenderness of two lovers' first kiss.

When they finally parted, Darcy brought her against his chest and rested his chin on the crown of her head, eyes closed, still unbelieving that this had indeed happened.

"Tell me I am not dreaming, Elizabeth."

She raised her head to look at him with bright eyes. "You are not dreaming, William."

A slow smile appeared in his face. This was the first time he had heard his name coming from her lips and it pleased him exceedingly. He claimed the nectar of her mouth again, this time losing himself in an ardent kiss where they both released the love and passion that had been locked inside of them for too long.

They stood there, tightly embraced for some time, neither of them wanting to let go of the other. Elizabeth sighed in delight against his chest as Darcy's hands gently stroked her back.

"The others must be inquiring about us." Darcy whispered against her temple.

"Mmmmm. I am sure they are." Elizabeth made no attempt to disengage herself from his embrace.

Darcy chuckled softly and kissed her forehead. "As much as I wish to stay this way forever, I fear that we can not leave to Georgiana the responsibility of entertaining our guests."

Elizabeth looked up and smiled. "I imagine you are in the right."

He gave her one last kiss. Reluctantly, they parted and walked together towards the morning room.

All eyes turned to them when the couple entered the room with an arm around the other's waist and a dreamy look in their eyes. Elizabeth looked down and Darcy coughed and muttered a serious 'good morning' to everyone as he took his place at the table. Soon the conversation turned to the plans for the day.

~ * ~

A dark storm had formed in the horizon, forcing the family to stay indoors for the rest of the afternoon. They were all gathered in the drawing room when Mrs. Reynolds came with an express for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth moved to the window to read it in privacy. The letter was from Jane and it contained most distressing news.

"Dearest Lizzie,

I hardly know what I would write, but I have bad news for you that cannot be delayed. What I have to say relates to poor Lydia. An express came at twelve two nights before, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she was gone off with one of his officers; to own the truth, with Wickham!

Imprudent as a marriage between Mr. Wickham and Lydia would be, we are now anxious to be assured it has taken place, for there is but too much reason to fear they are not gone to Scotland. Colonel Forster came yesterday, having left Brighton the day before, not many hours after the express. Though Lydia's short letter to Mrs. Forster gave them to understand that they were going to Gretna Green, something was dropped by Denny expressing his belief that Wickham never intended to go there, or to marry Lydia at all, which was repeated to Colonel Forster, who, instantly taking the alarm, set off from Brighton intending to trace their route. He followed them as far as London where he lost trace of the couple. With the kindest concern he came on to Longbourn, and broke his apprehensions to us in a manner most creditable to his heart.

Our distress is very great. With you so advantageously married, it would not be derisory to speculate that Mr. Wickham's attachment to my poor sister is solely mercenary; and that his running off with her has the ulterior motive of obtaining some sort of monetary advantage. I cannot think so ill of him, Lizzie, although the suspicions that this might be the case were accentuated by Colonel Forster's understanding that Mr. Wickham is not a man to be trusted. He warned us to expect the worst. My poor mother is really ill and keeps her room. As to my father, I never in my life saw him so affected. I truly hope, dear Lizzie that this unpleasant circumstance does not have an evil influence in your marriage. I would be truly sorry if Lydia's infamy ruins your chances at happiness with your noble husband.

I beg you, my dear Lizzie, to ask my uncle to come here as soon as possible. My father is going to London with Colonel Forster to try to discover Lydia's whereabouts. What he means to do, I am sure I know not; but his excessive distress will not allow him to pursue any measure in the best and safest way, and Colonel Forster is obliged to be at Brighton again to-morrow evening. In such an exigence my uncle's advice and assistance would be every thing in the world; he will immediately comprehend what I must feel, and I rely upon his goodness."

Adieu.

J.'

On reading such dreadful news, Elizabeth's knees trembled under her and she reached for the closest chair where she sat, all colour gone from her face. Mr. Gardiner, who had been sitting with Georgiana slightly apart, noticed her niece's uncommon behaviour and approached her while expressing her concern for seeing her so ill.

"Lizzie, are you unwell?"

A sob prevented her from elaborating a coherent reply.

"Lizzie!" her aunt insisted, "What has happened?"

From the other side of the room, alerted by Mrs. Gardiner's preoccupied voice, Darcy rushed to them only to find his wife, pale and shaky, apparently immersed in a misery of the acutest kind.

"Good God, Elizabeth, what is the matter?" cried Darcy, with more feeling than politeness, increasingly concerned by his wife's attitude.

"There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well," Elizabeth replied, endeavouring to recover herself. "I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn ..."

Here Elizabeth burst in tears, unable to contain her anguish any longer. She could not speak and handed her aunt the piece of paper she was holding. Darcy knelt before her and insisted, taking her hand and speaking in a tone of great gentleness and compassion.

"Elizabeth, pray, tell me what happened."

"It is a letter from Jane." Her tears were rolling down her cheeks. "It's Lydia. She left Brighton, she has left all her friends." She made a pause and took a breath before proceeding. "She has eloped with Mr. Wickham."

Darcy was fixed in astonishment and made no discernable gesture until he heard Georgiana's gasp from the other side of the room. He rose and addressed his sister in a low voice. "Georgiana, please take the children to the music room."

The girl gathered the children and hastily walked out of the room.

"When I consider that I might have prevented it!" Elizabeth cried in amore agitated manner. "I, who knew who he was! Had I explained some of what I knew, this could not have happened. But it is too late now, too late to save her from disgrace."

"I am grieved, shocked." Darcy paced in earnest meditation. "But it is certain, absolutely certain?"

"They were traced as far as London but not beyond. They have certainly not gone to Scotland."

"What has been done?" Darcy enquired, "What has been attempted to recover her?"

"My father is gone after them and Jane has written to beg uncle's immediate assistance." Elizabeth explained. "But nothing can be done; I know very well that nothing can be done. How is such a man to be worked on? How are they even to be discovered? I have not the smallest hope. It is every way horrible!"

Darcy shook his head in silent acquiescence. He knew very well how Wickham could be worked on. He looked at his wife's teary face and his heart wrenched for seeing her in such distress, this time caused the same rascal that had once attempted to ruin his and his own sister's life with his mercenary aspirations. If there was someone responsible for Elizabeth's present misery, Darcy thought, was none other than himself and his mistaken pride, for letting men like Wickham walk freely amongst their society.

From her part, Elizabeth was beyond herself with grief. Darcy stood with an expression of steady gravity, and one clear thought came to her mind. She had disgraced him and his noble house. Their eyes met for a moment, Elizabeth's full of sorrow, Darcy's darkening with animosity against the man that had caused him and his loved ones so much pain.

"I should leave you now," he told his wife, "there are some businesses I must attend."

Elizabeth nodded silently, knowing what that meant. She had lost him.

"Mr. Gardiner," said Darcy as he quitted the room, "may I have a word with you?"

~ * ~

Elizabeth was curled on the sofa of her bedchamber, overcome by sadness and frustration, wondering what her life would be once her husband made up his mind and threw her out of his house.

Perhaps it was not meant to be, Elizabeth reflected with sorrow as she took a retrospective glance over their whole acquaintance, marked by so many contradictions and misunderstandings that made any prospect of connubial felicity impossible to achieve. It was painful, exceedingly painful to acknowledge that the little power she had gained over Darcy was now sinking under such proof of family weakness that had provided him with a most irrefutable reason to annul a marriage that should have never taken place. This same morning she had dared to hope and could not but sigh at the perverseness of fate that showed her how valuable her husband was now when all love must be in vain. Damn Lydia and damn Wickham, they have just ruined her only chance at happiness.

Elizabeth heard a knock at the door and thinking it was her chambermaid, she answered her to come in. Her surprise was great when she realized that, for the first time since her wedding, the door that connected to her husband's chambers was opening, and dried her tears and smoothed her nightgown, cursing herself for her pathetic appearance. Now in Darcy's presence, Elizabeth endeavoured herself to appear composed and welcomed him with a weak smile that did little to conceal the humiliation and shame she felt for sister's reckless conduct.

Darcy sat quietly by her side, his brow furrowed with unavailing concern, at a loss for how to provide consolation to such distress. "Elizabeth," he took her pale hand in his, "there is something I must tell you."

"Pray, go ahead," she replied after a sniff.

Every second he held her he felt more and more powerless. He had contrived a plan that he hoped would remedy this wretched affair and had he been more certain of his success, Darcy would have disclosed to Elizabeth the true reasons of his departure. Yet it was not in his character to offer false hopes when the odds were against him and preferred not to torment his heartbroken wife with vain expectations about a favourable resolution that he was not sure he would be able to achieve.

"Tomorrow I am leaving for London with your uncle. Your aunt will depart on the day that follows, with the children, accompanied by a manservant. There are some urgent matters in Town that I must attend." Darcy expressed with evident restraint.

Elizabeth nodded in understanding as she was possessed by one most dreadful thought. 'He does not want to be near me and I cannot blame him. He will ask for an annulment.'

Unable to see her like that, so cold and helpless on the sofa, Darcy kindly escorted her to her bed, where he tucked her in, and sat by her side. There he remained for a long while, holding wife's hand until he thought her asleep. He leaned over to kiss her forehead, whispered a silent 'I love you' and left for his rooms to ready himself for the unpleasant trial he was about to face.

The anguished wife opened her eyes the moment her husband vacated her chambers, consumed by the pain of knowing that she had lost him forever. She did not blame him, though, or find his behaviour faulty in any way. A man of Darcy's consequence, defined by his integrity and his inclination for propriety would never accept such connection to be maintained. Lydia's behaviour had invariably stained the Bennet's name and in consequence, Darcy's. Her husband may have not voiced his opinion yet, but of one thing Elizabeth was sure: Darcy's only wish was to break every connection he had with her and her disgraced family.

Alone in the darkness of her rooms, Elizabeth closed her eyes, and prayed.

Chapter 19

Mr. Darcy arrived in London and immediately started his search of Mr. Wickham. The only connection he had with the runaway officer was Mrs. Young, who he found through Mr. Smithson, an attorney that still preserved the acquaintance with her. He directed Darcy to the small apartment in South London where the lady resided. There, Darcy found her in poor health, and faced with her uncooperativeness; was forced to ease her hardships with few coins in order to be pointed to the address where Wickham and Miss Lydia were lodging.

According to Mrs. Young's pronunciations, the couple was dwelling under the same roof, unmarried, living a life of profligacy and licentiousness, so Darcy's harboured little hopes of saving his sister-in-law from social disgrace. To make matters worse, word had already been spread of Wickham being in Town, circumstance that had alerted some of Wickham's creditors, who were also set to hunt the ruffian. This compelled Darcy to act with haste in order to find the scoundrel before his predators and marry him to Lydia before the scandal acquired higher dimensions. Not only was his wife's happiness at stake, but also his name and the respectability of those who depended on him.

Darcy's sense of responsibility towards this affair was great indeed. Certainly, Miss Lydia would not have represented an interesting prey for Wickham had she not been the sister-in-law of the powerful and rich Master of Pemberley. He was perfectly aware that Wickham's main aim was to obtain money from this transaction and it troubled him exceedingly that the officer had chosen to dishonour the girl instead of heading directly to Gretna, where he could have married Lydia immediately, that way assuring his inclusion in the Bennet family and in consequence, establishing his connection to Pemberley house. This only reinforced Darcy's suspicions that Wickham's debts were much larger than he had initially imagined. Perhaps, knowing that Darcy would never offer the money to pay them freely, the scoundrel had used Miss Lydia as a pawn to situate himself in a more advantageous position and demand a pecuniary compensation in order to restore -even if precariously-the girl's honour. This spoke volumes of Wickham's unscrupulousness, of how far he would go to obtain what he wanted. Darcy imagined that their unresolved grudges had also been sufficient encouragement and it afflicted him exceedingly that he had used his wife's sister to fulfil his revenge against him.

"Well, well, well. Look who's come," Wickham opened the door and looked at the other gentleman with a smirk. "Mr. Darcy, the master of the grand Pemberley, in flesh and blood."

"Wickham." Darcy replied with less amiability.

"Did you lose your way? You are most certainly out of your usual sphere." With an overdone caravan, Wickham allowed Darcy inside. The gentleman stood quietly in the centre of the room, observing his surroundings with displeasure. "So, my friend, what brings you to this less fashionable side of London?"

"George? What is that noise? Who is here?"

When Lydia Bennet came into sight all dishevelled and clad still in her nightclothes, Darcy was overcome by a sense of failure and guilt as he had never felt before. Albeit this was not too different from what he had expected to find, witnessing her in this state was much harder than he had thought. The last time he had seen his sister-in-law she was this reckless and yet happy lass that noisily displayed her excitement for her sister's wedding. Darcy may have disapproved her juvenile and unrestrained exuberance and her inclination for forwardness, yet he had never wished her any ill. Certainly he had never desired this kind of future for her. She was only a child and it was painful to see her innocence corrupted by an unscrupulous man whose only object was to obtain profit from her dishonour.

Lydia felt the gravity of Darcy's stare on her and looked down in shame while closing her robe around herself. Until now she had never stopped to think of the consequences of her doings, but seeing her illustrious brother-in-law, who had never spared one minute of his time to look down at her, coming this far to find her, made her realize the concerns she must have inflicted on her dear ones. Yet despite Darcy's presence there and his good intentions -if that was his reason for his being there--, she did not think that what she did was so terribly wrong neither did she want to leave George's side.

"Madam," he bowed.

"Mr. Darcy," her courage rose at his stare full with disapprobation. "What are you doing here?"

"The report of you disappearance reached me a few days ago and since then I have commissioned myself to the task of finding you and returning you to your family. I am here to offer you my assistance and provide you of everything you may need to sojourn back home."

"I don't want to go back to Longbourn."

"Miss Lydia," Darcy insisted, "I feel I am obliged to warn you of the disgraceful of your present situation. This may taint your reputation forever as well as that of your family."

But Lydia would not hear reason and persisted in her decision to stay by Wickham's side. "I do not care about them. I love George and he loves me and we are to be married soon. Tell him, George."

Darcy looked at Wickham, who stared back with a self sufficient half smile. "Lydia, darling," said the officer, "Go inside. I have some matters to discuss with your brother here."

Lydia nodded and disappeared into the other room.

Wickham went towards the table and poured himself a glass of wine. "As you see, she's quite attached to me."

"I cannot believe you disgraced her like this."

"You are such an idealistic fool, Darcy. I didn't do anything she didn't want me to do."

"Then there is only one way to rectify this." The officer smirked. "Marriage, I know. But that will not preserve the scandal in which your name will be involved if I make this affair common knowledge."

"What do you want?"

"I have debts." Wickham said nonchalantly.

"I have already been informed of this circumstance," Darcy remained unmoved. "And I will take care of that."

Wickham looked his companion of youth with a triumphant smile, what only served to increase Darcy's exasperation. "This is most surprising, Darcy. What an extraordinary change in your disposition. You denied me the pleasure of becoming your brother once because you did not find me suitable enough for your sister and here you are, conceding me the unthinkable in order to marry your wife's. From where does this new generosity come? Have the lavish joys of matrimony made you more sensible to other's needs?"

Darcy did not reply and looked at Wickham with thunder in his eyes.

"Pray tell me, how is your lovely wife? She is one fine woman, is she not?" The other gentleman struggled to keep his temperament in check, but Wickham continued, unaware of the danger to which his words were exposing him. "Oh, cheer up, Darcy, we are going to be brothers, so let us speak frankly. I recall she was quite desolate with the prospect of marrying you when I last saw her. Has she changed her mind? I assume she has not or otherwise you would not be here, turning the city upside down in search of her lost sister. Or perhaps you are doing this to be in her good grace?"

"Be careful, Wickham." Darcy closed hands into tight fists.

The anger in Darcy's eyes became plain evident and Wickham realized that he may be not so far away from the truth. "I wager you are. I cannot blame you, my friend, for trying. If she is anything like her sister, I can only imagine the pleasures she'll ..."

Blind with rage, Darcy advanced over Wickham and launched a powerful blow that hit him squarely on the face, throwing the astonished officer several yards away until he fell flat on the floor in a most ungracious way. Against everything his boxing master had taught him, Darcy's punch was delivered from the heart and not the mind and hit his opponent with such force there was a cracking sound of breaking bone that no one could tell if it came from Wickham's face or Darcy's hand.

~ * ~

At Pemberley, the mistress was wild with preoccupation for her lost sister but also for her family, especially for Jane who she knew was carrying the weight of directing Longbourn all by herself. Her father was gone, her mother was incapable of exertion and poor Jane, so recently engaged to a man of great consequence, was now in charge of the household, of her younger sisters while trying to secure a match that could be dissolved if her fiancée decided to end his connection with the disgraced family. Although Jane had assured Elizabeth that her engagement to Bingley did not peril after Lydia's folly, that the gentleman had taken the news tolerably well and was providing her with every assistance in his power, Elizabeth could not but fret at what the future might bring if this wretched affair was not resolved satisfactorily. Bingley could very well undo his engagement and leave Hertfordshire to never come back and --Elizabeth feared the most-- her marriage to Mr. Darcy might be dissolved within the blink of the eye.

About her husband, Elizabeth knew very little. Darcy only sent a brief letter upon his arrival in London, but since then, there had not been news from him. This only served to increase her concerns about his decision of annulling their marriage and end every connection with the attainted Bennet family.

A sennight after Darcy's departure, an express arrived at Pemberley containing important news. Mr. Bennet wrote to inform his second eldest that Lydia had been found and that her wedding to Mr. Wickham was scheduled to take place in a week's time. Elizabeth was also informed about other unpleasant details, like Mr. Wickham's debts as well as the shameless cohabitation in which the couple had indulged before being found. Even though her father did not extend himself too much on the subject, Elizabeth deduced from his words that the payment of Wickham's debts should be credited to her dear uncle, who she knew for certain had played an important role in Lydia's recovery.

Lydia's reputation would be somehow restored after her wedding to Mr. Wickham -as well as the rest of the family's-- if the matter was handled with discretion. Despite this, Elizabeth had good reasons to be concerned. What would her husband say when he found out about this new connection that would be established when her sister became the new Mrs. Wickham?

Four days after Mr Bennet's express, Elizabeth received a brief note from Darcy informing his wife that he was being retained by some unexpected business he needed to resolve. Albeit he was all politeness and that his letter with a 'Dearest Elizabeth', Elizabeth's doubts weren't appeased. There were no words of affection or any clear indication of when he would return to her. Even his handwriting seemed slightly different. Darcy's words seemed rushed and were deprived from its usual neatness, denoting an agitated frame of mind.

"Elizabeth, is anything the matter?" Georgiana asked, concerned for seeing her sister so disturbed.

"Oh no," Elizabeth quickly folded her husband's letter. "Everything is fine now. They were found. My sister Lydia and Mr. Wickham are surely married by now."

"That is good news, though you do not seem happy with it since you are crying."

"No. It is not that. I am very happy for her," she dried her tears. "I am just distressed for learning that they were living together without being married. Lydia is such a foolish girl."

"

Do not blame her. I know how deceitful Mr Wickham can be. He can be most persuasive. I ..."

Miss Darcy hesitated and Elizabeth instantly recognized the source of her distress. They had never discussed Georgiana's interlude with Wickham, in fact the girl did not know that her sister -in-law was already aware of that circumstance, who readily put her at ease.

"I know what he tried to do, Georgiana. Your brother told me soon after our wedding."

Georgiana blushed intently. "I am so ashamed. I cannot forgive myself for almost surrendering to his charms and disappointing my brother so badly."

"Oh no, my dear. Do not blame yourself for what happened. You were only a child then and fortunately you have a loving and caring brother who was there for you. I was also deceived by George Wickham once."

"Elizabeth, you must not worry. Your sister is about to be married and everything will be well. I am sure that as soon as William is back you will be happy again."

Elizabeth smiled unfeelingly. What she was dreading was her husband's reaction to the news. She knew it would be difficult for him to tolerate her sister's shameful behaviour, but would he endure the trial of being George Wickham's brother-in-law?

~ * ~

"Everything is resolved now," said Darcy. "Tomorrow I shall meet with the last creditor and this subject would be settled once and forever.

"I am not sure if I am doing the correct thing, Mr. Darcy. You are taking all the responsibility of what has happened upon your shoulders. As much as I dislike this affair, she is my daughter and I am the one that must assume the scoundrel's debts." Mr. Bennet said gravely.

"Mr. Bennet, I will hear nothing of it. Had I exposed Wickham's character before, your daughter would have been spared of this inconvenience. I have also purchased a commission in the regulars for Wickham, he was promised an ensigncy in General ----'s regiment, now quartered in the North."

The younger man seemed determined to assume all the responsibility no matter what Mr Bennet said, so Mr. Bennet conceded his point. "I dare say it is an advantage to sent him away so far from this part of the kingdom. I shall be exceedingly happy if I don't have to see that rascal's face ever again. I am only concerned for my poor Lydia, I don't think that girl has come to realize the trouble she brought upon herself. She has always been a reckless child, this was prone to happen sooner or later."

After what almost happened to Georgiana, who could have suffered Lydia's fate, Darcy was not in the place to judge his father-in-law for his want of severity in parental guidance. Still, he was perfectly aware that Miss Lydia could have been benefitted with more restraint during her education and always found reproachable the liberality and general permissiveness that Mr. Bennet bestowed on his children.

"Your hand looks much improved now," Mr. Bennet commented a while later.

Darcy raised his hand, so carefully wrapped in white linen, and inspected it through narrowed eyes. Certainly it was still swollen and ached whenever he tried to move his fingers, but it was not nearly as bluish as it was three days ago. "At least I can now write without blotting the entire sheet."

"You did what many people would have liked to do, knock George Wickham unconscious," Mr. Bennet chuckled, "Pity it cost you a broken hand."

"It was worth the inconvenience, I grant you," Darcy laughed too. "Sir, I fear I have to ask you a favour, if you would be so kind as to grant it to me."

"My friend, I am indebted to you for life. Pray, go ahead."

"I will ask you not to tell anything about this to Elizabeth. I do not want her to know about my intervention on this affair."

"Why not?" asked a surprised Mr. Bennet. "I am sure this will have a remarkable influence in her best understanding of your character."

That was exactly the reason. Darcy wanted her to love him for himself, not out of gratitude for rescuing her sister. "I have very good reasons for it, trust me."

"As you wish, young man, as you wish." Mr. Bennet nodded in acquiesce. "And how are you two getting along? Has my stubborn daughter realized already that you are not the monster she thought you were?"

Darcy smiled sadly. "We are coming to an understanding now, Sir. But I fear that this affair came to happen in the least appropriate time."

"I am sorry to hear that, son. You two deserve to be happy. Hopefully things will change soon."

~ * ~

Two days later all, matters concerning Lydia's unfortunate affair were resolved and the wedding finally took place. The couple was married in a discreet and simple ceremony and immediately afterwards the newlyweds departed to the North, where Wickham's new regiment was encamped. Now Darcy only had to dine this last time with the Gardiners and he would be able to return home to his wife.

"I say, it was a very nice ceremony," Mr. Gardiner said while cutting some bread.

"Indeed." Mr. Bennet poured himself more wine. "We were the only ones there so it was plain by force. I still don't understand how it is that Lydia had come to believe that all her friends and the regiment would be there. That girl has less sense in her head than a plough horse."

"But she did look very pretty." Mrs. Gardiner commented while passing the potatoes. "Even though we had so little time to find her something suitable for the occasion, I think she was a lovely bride. Don't you think so?" The question was meant for Mr. Bennet, who was sitting by her side.

"Yes, I do. I must say that I was impressed with the colour of her gown." It was Darcy the one who responded while engaged in the task of cutting his meat. Three pairs of astonished eyes were now focused on him. "It matched perfectly with the purple colour on Wickham's eye."

Chapter 20

The difficulties Darcy had faced during the trial that was finding Wickham and Miss Lydia and producing their wedding had left him little time to reflect on what had occurred before his departure from Pemberley and in consequence, his relationship with his wife. Now on his way home, an affair that he would wish to be much clearer was still as confusing as it had been before.

The correspondence Darcy exchanged with Elizabeth during these last days did very little to settle things between them or give him an indication of how to proceed when they finally reunited. His broken hand did not allow him much chance to write and in the impossibility of transmitting the true reasons for his departure, Darcy preferred not to risk a deterioration of his condition by writing a letter that would only contain trivialities and inaccurate reports of his whereabouts in London. After so many disagreements and misunderstandings, he finally understood the necessity of having a much deeper and meaningful communication with his wife. So far his marriage had been unconventional enough and it was high time that they transform it into the union of understanding and mutual respect that he so much dreamt of.

While Darcy was perfectly aware that talk to his wife was the best course of action to follow, he did not have an inkling of how to approach Elizabeth on the subject of intimacy. At this point he was not certain if she held him responsible for her sister's elopement, if she loved him or not, and if she would be inclined to accept him in her bed. Nothing was certain between them. They had never discussed his first letter, or their feelings or anything concerning their marriage. Though together, they had lived separated lives.

What Darcy knew for sure, though, was that he could not be expected to behave with the same detachment he had before their first kiss as a married couple. He had achieved such extraordinary level of closeness with his wife these past weeks that it was time to end their ridiculous courtship and move things towards complete intimacy. His most inner sensibilities had been stirred by their kisses and he had been brought back to those days of complete enchantment that marked the beginning of their acquaintance, when his heart swelled with the prospect of romancing the delightful Miss Elizabeth Bennet, when his ardour was awakened by the mere thought of the lady with ivory skin and rosy lips. The carnal deprivation he had suffered these past months had taken a toll on him and was now all anticipation for the moment when Elizabeth would become his.

A jolt in the carriage took him out of his reverie. The coach came to a halt and he could hear the voices of the coachman and the footman saying something about the wheel. Darcy descended to inspect the damage, hoping that it wasn't serious enough to delay his journey.

"Unfortunately the wheel is broken, Sir," the coachman declared with resignation. "We cannot continue without repairing it."

"How far away from the inn are we?" enquired Darcy.

"Not much, Sir, I believe it's only two or three miles."

Darcy cursed his damned fate. "Do you think it can be repaired over night?"

'I don't think so, sir, they will have to make a new one," replied the coachman, knowing his master's haste to return home.

"Then I shall walk ahead with the footman and send you some help," the gentleman announced. "I will hire a chaise to continue my journey. You must head for Pemberley as soon as the wheel is repaired."

"Aye, sir."

But Darcy's hopes of having a speedy and comfortable return home were shattered when he arrived at the inn and was informed that there was no available carriage, forcing him to continue his journey on horseback. He found a fairly suitable horse and galloped towards his next stop until it became too dark to go on. With the first light of the following morning, he finally reached the road to Pemberley.

To the inconvenience of riding an entire day with a broken hand that was just beginning to heal, Darcy had to add another source of discomfort that made his journey even more unpleasant. This was most certainly an exceedingly hot and humid summer, with frequent storms of short duration but of great intensity that occurred when they were least expected. Before long, Darcy was caught in a heavy downpour. Drenched to the bone and on a much slippery road, the pace he wanted to impose on his horse decreased considerably, making his trip considerably slower and eventful.

By the time he arrived home he was tired, hot, and with a very bad headache.

~ * ~

"Mrs. Darcy." Mrs. Reynolds addressed the mistress in her sitting room.

"Yes?"

"I believe the master is coming. One of the footmen saw a rider approaching the house. He looks very much like Mr. Darcy."

Elizabeth rushed towards the window to see the newcomer and was granted with the unmistakable sight of her now beloved husband. Wild with excitement for the prospect of seeing him again, she hurried to the main entrance to greet him.

In less than a minute, Elizabeth was at the door, where she was met by Georgiana, watching Darcy as he galloped towards them.

"Mr. Darcy, welcome home," Elizabeth offered with a smile. If only there would not be so many servants around, she would have jumped into his arms instead of addressing him so formally.

"Madam," he smiled too, but weakly and tiredly.

"Good God, William!" said Georgiana, placing a hand on his arm. "You look awful! Have you been riding in the rain again? Why did you not bring the carriage? This is a most unhealthy habit you are acquiring, one day you will become seriously ill!"

Darcy did not have the patience to reply with amiability at his sister's well intended -albeit meddlesome-- scold in front of the servants. The exasperation in his tone was so evident that both ladies almost startled when he spoke. "The blasted wheel broke, Georgiana, and there was no carriage at the inn. I had to ride from ---shire to Pemberley."

Miss Darcy was not used to see her brother in such a foul mood and refrained to say anything else. Mrs. Darcy, on the other hand, was so shocked by the whole scene that she did not know how to approach him. She wanted to comfort him, but he seemed ... unwelcoming.

"You look unwell," she said quietly.

Darcy's expression immediately softened when he heard her sweet voice and he replied in a much kinder, gentler manner. "I am fine, only a little tired."

"Then you must rest."

He nodded and showed her the faintest of smiles as he offered her his arm.

As they entered the house, Georgiana excused herself from their company and the couple walked through the halls in silence. When they reached his rooms, Elizabeth released Darcy's arm and told him she was going to ring for a servant.

"Are you sure you are not ill?" Elizabeth asked with genuine concern.

"Do not worry. I am perfectly well," he said with feeling as he took her delicate hand in his.

A footman appeared at the gallery and Darcy quickly withdrew his hold, much to Elizabeth's disappointment. "Shall I see you at supper, then?"

"Yes, you shall," he said and bowed before he disappeared into his chambers.

During the entire evening, Elizabeth waited for her husband to join her, but he never came. He did not descend for dinner and when she enquired after him, she was told that the master was still resting. She even thought of going to his bedchamber to see if he was well but as she had never stepped inside his rooms before, Elizabeth did not think appropriate to intrude into his personal domain while he was still at rest. All she could do now was to wait for him to come to her and hope that this sudden and completely unexpected detachment he was displaying did not mean that her worst nightmare was finally coming true.

~ * ~

Darcy slid into the hot tub and sighed as the tension slowly left his body. He only needed to rest for a moment and he would be ready to join his wife and sister for dinner. The warmth of the water did marvels to recover his aching muscles and he left the tub renewed and invigorated. But once in his bedroom, his large bed became a tempting sight that was unable to resist. Perhaps he could lie down for a while, until supper. He let his body fall on the mattress and closed his eyes ....

... Mmmmmmh. I am feeling much better now. Darcy rolled onto his side and hugged the pillow. Slowly, he opened his eyes and remained there, enjoying the warmth of the bed for a little longer. Just what he needed: a short nap to recover himself from his exertions. With a lazy smile, he stretched his body and observed how the sunlight peeked through the heavy draperies of his bedroom. His smile disappeared immediately as he realized that the sun NEVER entered through his window in the evenings and that it had to be early in the morning. Absolutely wild for having slept all night through, he jumped out of the bed to ring for his valet and began a frantic search of his clothes.

Foster appeared in his room only seconds later, pleasantly surprising Darcy with his efficiency and almost superhuman haste.

"Good timing, man. I fear I overslept," said Darcy while getting rid of is robe.

"Good morning, sir. I must....."

"What time is it?"

The conscientious valet glanced at his fob watch. "Only six thirty, sir. I..."

"Good, still early, so there is no reason to run, then." The gentleman was relieved that he had not slept until too late.

"Excuse me, Sir," the valet interrupted on realizing that his master was not paying him much attention. "Mr. Rawson is here to see you."

Darcy was aware that his steward would never come this early to see him unless there was some sort problem in the estate. "Is anything the matter?"

"I believe there was a fire in the mill, Sir," Foster said circumspectly.

"Good Gracious! I want my horse saddled immediately."

Darcy dressed as fast as he could and left the house.

~ * ~

"Mrs. Reynolds, have you seen Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth had been looking for him for more than an hour and couldn't find him.

"He left early, Madam."

"Oh." Elizabeth was exceedingly surprised that he had left the house without informing her.

"Mr. Rawson came to see him this morning. I believe there was a problem in the mill and they headed in that direction with the first light. It's improbable that he will return for lunch."

"Thank you."

Darcy's sudden departure only served to increase the concerns that had been the cause of her sleeplessness during the time he was gone. In so many months of marriage, this was first time Darcy had shown himself so unconcerned of her person and she could only conclude that his unseeing behaviour was caused by the unfavourable connection that her sister's new stature had imposed on him. Not even after the terrible argument of their wedding night he had left her alone for breakfast. And now, on the morn of his first day at home after a long absence, he had left the house without previous notice.

Feeling that her panic was starting to dominate her, Elizabeth took a deep breath and commanded herself to remain calm. But despite her best endeavours, her anxiety would not recede and those horrible thoughts of annulments and uncertain futures away from Pemberley and her beloved husband continued to torture her. Her heart did whisper that this was not the case, that she should have more faith in his esteem, even when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it. How could she depend on him preserving his affection for her after she had rejected him so brutally? What reasons would he have to continue a marriage that she had refused to consummate? Even if Lydia's marriage had been concluded on more honourable terms, the damage caused to Elizabeth would have been equally disastrous because to every other objection Darcy had voiced against her family now she would have to add this dreadful alliance with the man whom he so justly scorned. Fitzwilliam Darcy brother-in-law of George Wickham? Impossible!

So this was to be her fate? After having everything, a formidable husband, a magnificent house, she would have to return to Longbourn and live with the remembrance of what she lost? Survive on her family's charity? No, she could not suffer such humiliation. She would find employment as a governess and die an old maiden rather than return to Longbourn, scorned and humiliated by her husband's demission.

Darcy returned from his errand late in the afternoon, but Elizabeth had no chance to speak with him. He seemed distracted when he arrived, concerned by matters she was unaware of and, in appearance, too busy to pay attention to her. They met briefly in the hall where he stopped to greet her --kindly and smilingly-- but he quickly made his excuses and disappeared inside his study with his steward. She saw him again during supper and even that meeting turned out to be an extremely distressing event.

"Mr. Darcy, you did not have the chance to tell us about your trip to London," Elizabeth asked as they dined.

"All went well, I thank you," Darcy responded politely but succinctly.

"Did you happen to see my father and uncle during your stay? My aunt told me that you were invited to dine with them the night before your departure." She almost said 'after the wedding' but fortunately she corrected herself before the mishap.

Here Darcy blinked a couple of times before replying, pondering what to say. He chose to honour his decision of not telling her of his involvement in this dreadful case and did not disclose anything regarding his visit to the Gardiners that would betray the true reasons for him being in London.

"Yes, briefly."

"I hope you found them in good health," Elizabeth elaborated on seeing that he would not.

"They were in perfect health."

After such evident demonstration of unwillingness to expand their conversation, Elizabeth abandoned her attempts at colloquy and turned her attention to her meal, which was left untouched, except when toyed around her dish. The rest of the repast was spent in uncomfortable silence, Elizabeth's heart consumed with anguish and uncertainty about a future she imagined would be exceedingly unpromising.

As soon as they finished dining, a very distracted Darcy excused himself from the ladies and headed for his study. Determined to find out the reasons behind her husband's wondrous behaviour, Elizabeth told Georgiana that there was something she needed to discuss with her brother and followed Darcy to his private domain. With a racing pulse and unsettled stomach, she stared at the massive door, readying herself for the worst. She took a deep breath, and knocked.

"Forgive me for imposing upon your privacy," she began after she was allowed in. "But there is something I must tell you."

Elizabeth was overcome by nervousness, so much that she almost felt ill. He husband's puzzled expression did not help to settle her spirits and her courage dwindled, giving way to an increasing incertitude. "But, if you are too busy, I can come back later", se said, now ready to flee out of the room.

"Oh no, please, stay, it can wait," Darcy hurried to say. Whatever was that had brought her to his door; it had to be important as she looked extremely distressed. "Pray, go ahead."

Seconds of painful hesitation followed, where Elizabeth could not compose herself enough to speak. But when the words finally came out, she said the worst possible thing she could have told her husband.

"Sir, I ... Mr. Darcy, I ... well ... that is ... if it is your wish to annul our marriage, I will present no objections."

The shock that Darcy felt after her unexpected declaration almost made his heart stop. Truly, he had never expected to hear a petition of that nature delivered by his beloved wife's lips. Driven to a state of mute astonishment, there was no coherent thought in his mind and he just stared at her, thinking of what to reply to her statement. He was not sure that he had understood correctly and wondering if he had heard right, endless seconds later, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, he asked,

"Annul?"

Elizabeth could not bring herself to speak and too nervous to even look at him, kept her eyes down while her husband rose from his chair and walked towards the window.

"Do you want an annulment, Elizabeth?" he enquired gravely as his eyes perused the darkness of the gardens.

"Sir," she replied with great agitation, "My condition in life is not the same since my youngest sister's elopement and the disrepute that has befallen upon my family may, in consequence, dishonour your house. Lydia's imprudent marriage to Mr. Wickham has brought a most undesirable connection and I cannot expose you or Georgiana to such shame. The poor girl has suffered too much in the hands of that scoundrel to have to endure the disgrace of calling him brother. As for you..."

"Elizabeth, answer me," he demanded sharply as he turned towards her. "Do you want to annul our marriage?"

"No!" she cried, but immediately composed herself. "... I mean, I think it's for the best, Sir. I do not wish to see you displeased or dishonoured because of me."

Darcy decided this was his last chance to disclose his true feelings. He addressed her in a voice thick with emotion, hoping that she would not break his heart a second time.

"You are too generous to trifle with me. If your sentiments towards me are the same they were in our wedding night, please tell me so at once. My affections and wishes had remained unchanged. If it is your desire to annul our marriage, I will accept your decision and never insist on it again. But I beg you, madam, to not use your connection with Wickham as an excuse to spare my feelings. Simply tell me what you truly want."

"My feelings," she couldn't face him directly, experiencing all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety for his situation now that she realized the pain that her petition must have caused him. "My feelings are so different. I ..." Elizabeth was finally able to lift her eyes and was instantly disarmed by the apprehension she saw in his. "I do not want to hurt you any more."

Elizabeth, who had had been resisting the urge to run into his arms, finally surrendered to her own need to embrace her husband. She could see his anxiety, his despair brightening his eyes and walked toward him. They met halfway and their bodies joined in a tight embrace.

"Please do not go," he whispered into her hair.

"I will never leave you, William. Please forgive me. I have hurt you so much."

The next instant they were kissing, hungrily, fervently. Longing, love, desire, everything was unleashed and poured in an ardent and completely unrestrained kiss. Slowly, anguish and longing subdued and the kiss turned slow and gentle, deep, sensual, the kind of kiss that was the portal for something more intense and intimate.

Breathless, Darcy pulled back and eased his hold on her, bringing her head to rest close to his heart. It was too much, too many emotions released and he needed a moment to compose himself. But now that she was allowed to speak and breathe, Elizabeth blessed him with one of the most beautiful words he had heard in his life.

"I love you, William," she said with tenderness that he found utterly touching.

"And I love you, Elizabeth," said he, joy illuminating his face. "You are most precious to me."

Again, they kissed, tenderly, as if their happiness were too much to keep it from bursting out of themselves. This time Elizabeth was the one who ended the kiss. She held his face in her hands and pulled back until their eyes met.

"I want to be your wife."

Not much else needed to be said for him to understand what that meant. In only an instant, she was swung into his arms and carried through the house as the sounds of their laughter echoed in the halls.

"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth tightened the hold on his neck as her husband climbed the stairs, "What will the servants say?"

"Madam," he grinned, "I could not care less."

Their lips met the moment he stepped on even ground. They kissed all the way down the gallery and until they reached the door of her bedchamber where Darcy struggled with the doorknob while trying not to drop her. They both chuckled against each other's mouths but didn't break the kiss.

"Allow me, Sir," an astonished -yet apparently immutable-- footman completed the task for him.

"Thank you." Darcy's nod was as dignified as possible. Elizabeth hid her face in the crook of his neck.

Still smiling because of their encounter with the servant, Darcy stepped inside his wife's bedroom and pushed the door close with his rear.

"I believe the entire household will be talking about this tomorrow, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth laughed as her husband deposited her on the ground.

Darcy stepped closer and placed his hands on her waist. "So let us give them a good reason to talk, Mrs. Darcy."

His lips came to cover hers and he brought her closer to him, pressing her to his body. There was nothing chaste about this kiss, it was full of desire and passion and Elizabeth was consumed by the ardour of his embrace.

"Shall I leave you alone so you can ... change?" he murmured against the soft skin under her ear, inwardly hoping that she would refuse his gallant offering.

"I ... I ..." Elizabeth could not think clearly and was having trouble to come up with a coherent reply. "I would rather not part from you just now."

Thoroughly touched by her candour and innocence, the besotted husband raised his hand to his wife's face to caress the velvety skin of her cheek. He kissed her, again and again, sometimes sweetly, sometimes more passionately, always trying not to pressure her, until he felt her responding with more confidence.

"You do not know how many times I have thought of tearing your door apart and come to your rooms to make love to you," he said as he moved his attentions to her neck.

"You do not know how many times I waited for you to come to me," she responded in between sighs.

There was something extremely arousing about his wife's honest confession; to know that she had desired him as much as he had wanted her only served to fuel his passion to a point where he could not wait anymore. He ignored his endeavours to proceed with care and began to struggle with buttons of his tailcoat, which he readily removed, followed by the waistcoat until he was only clad in his shirt and trousers.

While Darcy had already discarded some of his garments, Elizabeth was very much dressed and showed no signs that she would disrobe herself from her clothes. She was timidly helping him with the knots of his neck cloth. She did not seem unwilling to undress, on the contrary, she simply appeared to be shy. Should he ask her? Should he help her? Given her inexperience in these more intimate affairs, perhaps she just needed an indication that she should start. With that concern in mind -and some others that the author would rather not mention due to their wanton content-- Darcy dutifully dedicated himself to the most rewarding task of assisting his bride to get rid of her clothes. His fingers found his way to her back and he began to undo the ties of her dress while applying some very distracting kisses on her mouth and cheek.

"I am not very much acquainted with the fastenings of women's clothing," Darcy said a moment later, "but I think I'm done with this."

Elizabeth had already felt the unmistakable sensation of her gown loosening around her bosom and realized that she should be more participative or otherwise Darcy might feel discouraged by her lack of collaboration. Even though she was blushing to the roots of her hair with the prospect of being undressed in front of her husband, she gathered her courage and eased the sleeve of her dress off one shoulder, a task in which Darcy readily assisted her while pressing his mouth once again on hers. The gown reached the floor in an instant.

The lovers paused to look at each other, both a little breathless and flushed, eyes full of love and desire. Elizabeth stepped closer and placed one hand on his heart, openly inviting him to come to her. Darcy quickly understood her meaning and bent to carry her in his arms to take her directly to the bed. There they fell and lay together, facing each other, their gazes locked, smiles of love and affection betraying repressed emotions that should have been expressed sooner and that could not be contained anymore.

"You are who I love most, dearest." Darcy's fingertips brushed her cheek.

"And I love you with all my heart," she answered feelingly.

Their mouths joined, gently at first but with growing passion as Darcy moved closer to lean partially on top of her, reintroducing his wife to sensations that she had not felt since their engagement, more precisely, since the day prior to their wedding, when they shared that brief yet passionate interlude in one of Longbourn's rooms. His hands were now touching her with no restraint and the bulge of his trousers became a very tangible evidence of his state of desire. On sensing no withdrawal or displeasure from Elizabeth's part, he was tempted to go forward and tentatively moved his hand down her leg to lift her petticoat so he could touch her under the fabric. But unfortunately for the aroused husband, it was not the tender skin of his wife's thigh what he found, but the rougher linen of her pantaloons. Darcy inwardly cursed lady's fashions for putting so many obstacles in his unrelenting pursue of his wife's womanhood and for an instant he wished they were more like the savages from those science books that walked around this world deprived of all the restraints that polished societies imposed on his class.

The young wife shared his frustration, but for different motives. With her body inflamed by passion, she was overcome by the necessity to feel him and hold him yet she found she was incapable to exteriorize her desire for him. Oh, how she wished she would be more immodest show her husband how much she wanted him! Touch him with the same liberality he was touching her! Alas, but no, she was told that it was not appropriate for a young lady to overtly display such libertine behaviour in front of a gentleman of her husband's stature, and remained passive, almost prudish in front of his ardour, even when her heart and body were begging her to act with less restraint.

Darcy was reaching a point where he knew he could not hold back much longer. Something about his wife's attitude was driving him mad with lust. Though not extremely demonstrative, her sighs, her little whimpering whenever he touched her, the goose bumps in her skin and her flushed countenance told him that she was enjoying herself exceedingly and that stimulated him to a higher level. Despite his best endeavours to not overwhelm his virginal wife with his hymeneal appetites, Darcy was a red blooded male, a man ardently in love who was more than ready to surrender to his most primal instincts and perform a ritual that is as old as time. Breathless, with his mind fogged by desire, Darcy rolled off his wife and sat on the bed to remove his shirt.

Now free from her husband's possessive hold, seeing that he was distracted by his own clothes, --he had been considered enough to have undressed himself with his back turned to her-- Elizabeth also got rid of most of her remaining garments and hurried inside the bed, pulling the covers up to her chin. Her husband joined her under the covers a moment later, as naked as the day he was born, and moved closer until he touched Elizabeth under the sheets. He felt the delicate skin of her legs against his rougher ones, their toes touching, playing, and the warmth of her hip against his thigh.

They smiled at each other, he more calmly, she, with some apprehension. Her eyes alternated glances at his face, his naked chest and broad shoulders recognizing parts of him that, until now, had remained hidden to her eyes.

"Do not fear, my love," he whispered as he applied some soft kisses over her face.

"I do not."

His lips touched hers, and Elizabeth responded, but with unexpected shyness. This didn't discourage her devoted husband, who insisted; now with a much longer and deeper kiss. He was advancing so slowly and so respectfully that Elizabeth could not but feel grateful for his patience and soon began to loose the last remains of maidenly embarrassment she had left as she acquired the boldness of a woman willing to give herself to her man.

"Let me see you," he asked as he lowered the bed sheets from over her chest.

She nodded her consent with a bashful smile. Darcy proceeded to uncover her slowly, revealing the thin chemise she was still wearing. Elizabeth's breathing became laboured and so did her husband's at the sight of the white linen tightening over her breasts with every raise of her chest. He lowered his face to them, kissed them over the fabric and then, with delicate fingers, he undid the buttons so he could expose them to his sight and touch.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and sighed at the first contact of his hands on her chest. His fingertips gently brushed her nipples and caressed the supple skin of her bosom. His lips followed suit, with some restraint at first, but then more licentiously as he satiated his thirst for her on her flesh.

Not much time passed before Darcy's hand advanced over other parts of her body that were completely new to him. While his mouth indulged in his wife's creamy breasts, his fingertips drew circles on her abdomen stirring goose bumps on her skin. He then took a much bolder route, brushing her side, teasing her with sensuous moves but never touching where he knew she was not ready to be touched. Elizabeth held her breath at this not so subtle insinuation but remained passive, receptive, honouring the promise she made to never again reject him from his lovemaking pursuits.

At this point Darcy stopped every caress and looked seriously at his wife, a silent question in his eyes. His erection was brushing her thigh and the fire of his stare told her exactly what he wanted. She understood that the time had come, and pressing her palm to his cheek, whispered an inviting 'come to me'.

Darcy rolled on top of her, fully covering her body with his. They lay still for a moment, both delighting themselves in the wonderful sensation of feeling skin against skin. What followed happened naturally. Her legs parted and out of pure instinct and lust, she moved invitingly under his weight. His reaction did not wait long to come with one hand, guided himself into her.

Elizabeth gasped at the first contact of their fleshes, more out of newness than displeasure. It was in fact a combination of novelty and anticipation, also arousal and perhaps a little fear for the unknown. As slowly as his passion allowed him, Darcy moved further into her but stopped when his wife's body tensed by what he supposed was maidenly discomfort. There was an instant where he considered how to proceed without hurting her, though he knew it was impossible. He moved his body, hesitated when she tensed again and almost retreated.

"Make me your wife, William," she urged him in between breaths, ready and desirous to become one with her husband.

With a moan that muffled her heave, Darcy pushed himself all the way in. He began to move slowly but steadily and as the initial pain was replaced by more satisfactory sensations, Elizabeth rejoiced in the indescribable feeling of having her husband inside of her. With their bodies united in an ancient dance, they moved and breathed against each other until an unknown force beyond their control guided them to the peak that finally sealed the union of man and wife.

They made love several times that night, each time with less reserve and more confidence, until in total exhaustion and bliss, their bodies surrendered to their tiredness and they fell asleep so close to each other that they were only one.

~ * ~

Fitzwilliam Darcy stirred in the darkness, awakened by the delicious sensation of having his wife sleeping in his arms. Smiling drowsily, he brushed his fingers along her body and closed his eyes again, this time certain that he was not dreaming; that she was indeed there.

"I love you, my wife," he whispered against her shoulder.

"And I love you, my husband," she responded drowsily.

With a content sigh, he fell asleep again.

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