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When Duty Calls
[WIP - Regency/R]

chapter 21
A ray of sunlight entered through the curtains illuminating the room with a dim light. In their bed, the lovers rested with the peacefulness which usually follows a night of lovemaking.

Elizabeth was the first one to wake up, stirred by the unusual but very pleasant sensation of a heavy arm wrapped around her and the warmth of a masculine body so close to hers. Lying by her side, her husband was still asleep. Yes, her husband. And she was now his wife, in every sense. Now she understood the meaning of the word, what it meant to belong, to possess, to be possessed, to share. Last night he had loved her, pleasured her, stripped her from her modesty and showed her the secrets of the union between lovers, between man and wife. Last night he had been the most gentle of gentlemen, considerate, loving, meticulous and even deliberate in the art of lovemaking but also a passionate lover. He made her feel things she had never experienced and taught her pleasures she had never imagined that existed.

Blush spread over her cheeks as she recalled the activities in which they had been engaged during a great part of the night. The first time, his tentative advance, her apprehensiveness, his tenderness. She had not been at all comfortable with what was happening, the initial pain had been intense and her own desire for him was embarrassing her. Then came the awkwardness of parting from each other, the sweat, the blood, his seed draining out of her. He left the room for a moment, allowing her some time to refresh herself, to compose herself and then they sat together on the window seat. They talked, they held each other. The natural thing to do then was to make love again. His ardour was awakened and he dutifully stirred hers. They made love intently, naked and unreserved and this time there was no embarrassment or pain. This time she did not silence her cries of pleasure and he gave free reign to his. They made love like lovers do.

She glanced at the state of the bed and she could not repress a smile from coming to her lips. Her husband, entangled in the sheets, was quite a sight, too. It was so strange to see him like this, dishevelled and relaxed against his usually sober and neat appearance. She had always thought him to be handsome, but to see him like this au naturel, was a very welcomed change, certainly a most pleasant sight. Taking care not to wake him up, Elizabeth adjusted the blankets around her and moved closer to him.

"I want my horse saddled immediately," Darcy said suddenly.

Elizabeth's lips twisted up in amusement.

"No, no, the green one."

So the man that was so taciturn when awake was an avid talker when asleep? Elizabeth giggled, there was no way she would repress her mirth after such an exhibition. Her movements awakened her husband and a sleepy Darcy raised his head. He blinked several times and smiled when his eyes met hers. He fell back on the pillow and caressed her arm with his fingertips.

"Good morning, my love," his voice was hoarse.

"Good morning."

"May I inquire what is that you find so amusing?"

"You talk in your sleep," she said in a sweet voice.

"That's impossible."

"How do you know?"

"I just know."

"Oh, yes, you do. You just asked for your horse to be saddled."

He rolled onto his back, taking her with him so her head would lie on his shoulder. This move partially uncovered Elizabeth and himself.

"Elizabeth," he chuckled at her efforts to keep them both a decent sight, "what are you doing?"

She succeeded in covering her back and rear, but this exposed one of his legs and ... almost the rest. "Someone may come."

"Who?"

"My maid, for sure," she pulled the blankets over him. "She comes every morning and asks if I want some tea before assisting me to dress."

Darcy helped her to accomplish the task and put her arm around his waist as he accommodated her body next to his. "After what happened last night? I do not think she would dare to enter your chambers if you do not ring for her first."

Elizabeth frowned, unconvinced after his explanation. Her maid was quite constant in her routine.

"Come here, dearest," he whispered as he hugged her close to him. He gave her a long, lingering kiss as his hand traced her spine under the covers. Elizabeth responded with the same tenderness, but the kiss was abruptly ended when they heard noises coming from her dressing room.

"Elsie?" Elizabeth asked tentatively.

"Good morning madam," the maid replied as she picked up Elizabeth's clothes in the adjoining room. The mistress could hear her footsteps approaching. "Would you like to drink some tea before getting dressed?"

"I thank you, but no," it was Darcy the one who replied. "I shall drink it downstairs."

The couple heard a loud gasp and the door that separated the dressing room from the mistress' chambers was closed two seconds later.

"William!" Elizabeth was still in shock.

In one swift move, Darcy rolled over her. "That will teach her to wait until she is called."

~ * ~

This was one of the rare occasions when Georgiana reached the breakfast room before her brother and sister. The couple arrived quite late, with an odd look on their faces and said a quiet good morning to Miss Darcy as they took their seats at the table. Their interaction was unusual enough as to draw the girl's attention and Miss Darcy was left to wonder what might have caused this uncommon behaviour. Darcy attacked his breakfast with a voracity that was uncommon in him and Elizabeth alternated small bites of her meal with loving glances at her husband, who returned them with equal adoration.

Darcy, after informing that he had matters to attend with his steward, excused himself from the ladies. "I shall return by noon," he told his wife as he rose. "We can go for a walk in the park later, if that is agreeable to you."

"I shall be delighted," she smiled.

Once again Miss Darcy was surprised by the behaviour of her otherwise circumspect brother. He kissed both ladies' cheeks before departing.

"William is in much better spirits this morning," Georgiana commented after her brother left. "I wonder what happened to him."

Elizabeth sipped her tea, hoping that her sister would not notice the blush that was warming her cheeks.

"After what happened yesterday," Miss Darcy proceeded, "I thought that his dark mood would last forever. That fire at the mill had him most preoccupied."

"What Fire?" Elizabeth looked up.

"There was a fire that occurred on the night of his arrival. I understand it was put off by the time he got there."

"I didn't know," Mrs. Darcy replied, shocked by this intelligence.

"That is why he was so dreadfully serious yesterday and left so early in the morning. I believe there was not much damage. Thank Heavens it did not affect him that much and he recovered his spirits rather quickly. William can turn very fastidious when concerned about something."

Elizabeth silently buttered her toast. If only Georgiana knew the reason for her brother's excellent mood in this particular morning!

Georgiana continued to talk, this time telling her sister of the figurines she had just received from her dressmaker in London. But Elizabeth could not pay her any attention, her mind entertained with other concerns that she considered of much greater importance than Miss Darcy's preference for lace and velvet. Once again she had mistaken her husband's attitude. Indeed, she had developed an extraordinary capacity to misconstrue Darcy's behaviour and assume the worst. With no fundamental reason or proof, only because she noticed certain aloofness from Darcy's part upon his return home, she, without hesitation or doubt, had declared his detachment to be the product of his desire to annul their marriage and confronted him on the subject. Not once had she paused to think if there might be other reasons for his unseeing behaviour and had voiced a petition that most certainly must have caused him enormous distress.

How much she had mistaken his true nature! How impulsively she had acted! This was a lesson of humility that she would never forget. She was a married woman of one and twenty, the mistress of a grand estate, the wife of an illustrious gentleman. It was time to leave her childishness and impulsiveness behind and behave like the lady she ought to be.

~ * ~

True to his word, Darcy returned from his errand and readily took his wife to the park for a stroll through the beautiful gardens of Pemberley. He guided her across his favourite path, one that she was also particularly fond of, sheltered by a long line of Spanish oaks. She had her arm around his waist, his was around her shoulders and they both sported dreamy smiles on their faces.

"Elizabeth, may I ask you a question?" Darcy enquired as they entered the grove.

"Of course."

"Why on earth did you think I wanted an annulment?" Darcy asked bluntly, without a hint of reproach in his voice. He was exceedingly puzzled that she had thought he might want to get rid of her when he -according to his own interpretation-- had repeatedly shown her how much he appreciated her company. Perhaps he had not been effective in transmitting his affection in the past and if that had been the case, he did not want to repeat his old mistakes. A lesson in husbandly behaviour might be necessary in order to give his wife a better assurance of his attachment to her.

Elizabeth had expected this question to come, but not so soon after their reconciliation and blushed in embarrassment at her own stupidity for thinking that such had been her husband's wish. "Oh, dear, what must you think of me?"

To this he chuckled as he held her close to him. "That you look beautiful when you are this flushed."

The joke did very little to ease her mortification. "I should have been more understanding and less judgemental of your attitude. You were so serious and detached when you arrived that I believed you were displeased with my sister's behaviour and that you wanted to end every connection to her and her husband. When you did not come down for dinner and left directly in the following day, I thought you did not want to be close to me. I was not informed about the fire until this very morning and when I learned you were gone, I imagined I was the cause of your departure. Will you forgive me for thinking so ill of you?"

"My love, I am the one that should be begging for forgiveness! It was my attitude what had driven you to form that erroneous conclusion. I should have been more considerate upon my arrival and I apologize for neglecting you. My behaviour was inexcusable. I had a most eventful journey and was truly fatigued when I arrived home. The moment I lay my head on the pillow I fell asleep and did not wake up until the following day. "

"So you rode in the rain, for me?" Elizabeth asked, her playfulness somehow restored after his explanation.

"And I would do it again, if I knew you were waiting for me." He looked at her with loving eyes.

Elizabeth smiled at him and he gave her a quick kiss. "I received two letters from Longbourn today. One from Jane and one from my father."

"Good news, I hope?"

"Oh yes, my father told me that they received a note from Lydia informing them she and her husband had already reached their destination. It seems that Wickham has purchased a commission in the Regulars and they will be stationed in ---shire for some time."

"Hmm, good for them," Darcy looked down at the ground.

Knowing his dislike for that subject, Elizabeth brought up a more pleasant one. "Jane told me they are already planning the wedding. Poor Jane, my mother is driving her mad with her nerves. If she is acting as nonsensical as she was when she was planning our wedding I fear that Jane will ..." she trailed off as she realized that she was bringing up a painful memory.

Darcy sighed, his eyes fixed on the path ahead. "I know that you did not deserve to be married the way you were. I am ashamed of what I did then. If I could turn back the clock, I am certain I would do things differently this time."

"Let us forget about those days, we should think of the past only if it gives us pleasure."

He shook his head. "As much as I would like to forget it, I know I never will. 'Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner', you said. You were so right in your reproof. My behaviour towards you at the time was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence."

"You were not the only one whose conduct was reproachable. I deceived you and treated you very unkindly in the first days of our marriage."

"No, you were right in everything you said. I had been a very selfish being all my life. I was raised with good principles but followed them with pride and conceit. But you changed all that, dearest, you taught me a lesson, hard to accept at first, but one that I needed to learn. You made me face my own failures and showed me how wrong I was. If I am a better person now, it is because of you. "

That was a subject too painful to be discussed any further so they walked in comfortable silence for a while. The path made a turn towards the bridge and as they crossed it, Elizabeth asked,

"I have a question to ask you, too."

He glanced at her.

"It is about your letter. Why did you wait so long to give it to me? It would have helped to settle things earlier. I accused you of things for which you were not responsible and held them against you for too long a time. Had I known the truth sooner, things might have been different."

He shrugged. "I am not certain why I kept it for so long. Perhaps I was afraid that you would not believe my words. The pain was too fresh to risk bringing all those sad memories back again. Then I almost forgot about it, until the day I left."

"Yes, maybe it was for the best. We both needed some time apart to reflect on what we wanted. I say that the letter and those days of separation did a lot to improve my opinion of you."

"I am glad that I made the right decision, then."

Elizabeth lifted her face to his and he gave her the kiss she was demanding. Here, they left the lane and crossed the lawn in the direction of the lake. Elizabeth stopped to pick up some wild flowers under the vigilance of her enamoured husband. She had formed a lovely bouquet of buttercups and brought it close to her nose with a coquettish glance at him.

"When did you fall in love with me?"

He grinned; she was the picture of loveliness. "I cannot recall the precise moment, but I assure you, it was very early in our acquaintance. Before I realize it was happening, I was already in love."

She pursed her lips, not convinced by his words. "My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners, they were far from appropriate. I abused you in such abominable way that I cannot understand how is that you have continued to love me all this time."

"You brought light and passion into my life. Though I was hurt for some time," he stepped closer and held her in his arms, "I never stopped loving you. I was decided to win your love no matter how much it would cost. And you? When did you fall in love with me? I know you did not love me when you married me." He chuckled at the blush that had suddenly reddened her cheeks. "In fact, you hated me."

Very embarrassed, Elizabeth answered. "I do not know precisely, it came on so gradually. But what I know is that I was never indifferent towards you. You were always vexing me or annoying or unsettling me. But I believe I began to like you the first time I saw you laugh."

Darcy raised his eyebrows. "And when was that?"

"The night before your departure to Wales, when I played that duet together with Georgiana. I found you quite handsome at the time, very agreeable. That was the day when I realized that I did not dislike you at all."

"So you did not dislike me at that time," he smiled, "but when did that sentiment change into love?"

"I am not certain, I told you, but I know that when I gave you the handkerchief I was already in love."

Darcy tried to recall the precise date. It was soon after their arrival at Pemberley, before the Gardiners' visit. "That was more than a month ago. How insensible of me. Had I known ..."

"Do not blame yourself. I am not certain that we were ready to understand each other as we do now."

"I believe I would not change anything that I have lived by your side." He paused and frowned. "Well, perhaps just one thing or two." Elizabeth giggled and he kissed the top of her head. "Bingley has written to me too; he has invited us to stay at Netherfield before the wedding. When would you like to go? If it pleases you, we can journey to Hertfordshire in a week or two. I know that you miss your family."

"I miss them dearly, but I will rather stay here for some time with you, now that we ..." She blushed and looked down.

Darcy lowered his lips to her ear, sending tickles all through her body. "Now that we are truly husband and wife?"

"Now that we discovered our love for each other," she was bold enough to say, "I would rather not share you with anyone ... for a while."

He was overwhelmed by her confession and reacted in the only manner he knew. He brought her closer to him and gave her a soft, sensuous kiss. "Beware, madam, do not express such thoughts while we are so far away from the house," he murmured into her ear, "It arouses in me the urge to love you and if you continue with this, I shall carry you through the park and towards your chambers in the same manner I did last night."

She was delighted. "Mr. Darcy! Would you do that?"

"I am a man of my word. Do not challenge me, for very little provocation will suffice."

They were both smiling when their faces got closer for a kiss that promised to be hungry and naughty. His lips touched hers and as he brought his hand up to cup her cheek, Elizabeth raised her arm to embrace his neck, bumping the edgy bone of her wrist against Darcy's broken knuckles. Until now Darcy had managed to conceal his injury from her but this time he could not react fast enough and gasped in pain.

"What happened?" Elizabeth enquired, preoccupied.

"Nothing," Darcy quickly moved his hand out of her view.

"You sounded hurt."

"I'm fine." He hid it behind his back.

"You weren't just now. William, is there anything wrong?"

"Not at all. Well, my hand hurts a little. It must have been the long ride."

Darcy's words made Elizabeth recollect a passage of her father's letter where he enquired after the progress of her husband's injured hand. She had thought of asking Darcy later, but now that the subject was brought up by the man himself, she saw no reason to delay the disclosure.

"It cannot be. My father inquired if your hand was already healed, which means you were hurt when you left London."

"It was ..." His eyes looked everywhere but her face.

"Let me see it."

Darcy showed her his healthy hand, hoping that her curiosity would be satisfied and that she would drop the subject entirely.

"'Twas the other one."

He reluctantly gave her his right hand. As she examined it carefully, Elizabeth noticed his swollen knuckles and traces of what had been a large bruise. She brushed her fingertips over the swell, making Darcy wince almost imperceptibly. How was that she had not noticed it before?

"I am not a doctor, but the bone appears to be broken."

"It's healing just fine, there is no reason for concern." Darcy tried to explain without giving much information.

"What happened?" She insisted.

"It was an accident."

"What sort of accident?

"I ... I accidentally hit something." He almost mumbled, resembling more like a child that was caught in mischief by his observant mother than the Master of a grand estate.

Having witnessed a boxing lesson before and knowing how violent the sport could get, Elizabeth was at loss for what might have caused an injury of this magnitude. In his previous boxing matches, Darcy had come out without severe wounds to lament -except that one cut on his lip when he was distracted by her presence--, even less in his hands, which were usually protected by wraps.

"How can you accidentally hit something? Pray tell, what exactly did you hit?"

"Wickham's face," he answered sheepishly.

She gasped. "Why?"

"He deserved it."

And then he covered her mouth with his, preventing any further questioning on that subject.

~ * ~

Darcy avoided the subject of Wickham during dinner -Elizabeth would never address the topic in front of Georgiana-and later, after they retired, efficiently distracted Elizabeth with other activities that were far more pleasurable than discussing the rascal that had brought them so much misery in the past. Upon her enquiry, Darcy vaguely mentioned meeting the officer before the wedding, and just as she asked for more details on this encounter, Darcy proceeded to nibble her neck, making her forget completely what she was asking and why. Elizabeth did not insist on the matter later as she and her husband were too happy planning their future and learning little things about each other to ruin this new acquired felicity by constantly bringing up the unpleasant subject of Mr. Wickham. But being a curious woman, Elizabeth could not live in ignorance and decided that if she would not learn the truth from her evasive husband, she could at least try to collect information from a more collaborative source. If there was something more behind Darcy's broken hand, her aunt Gardiner surely would know.

Elizabeth had the satisfaction of receiving an answer to her letter as soon as she possibly could and her doubts were readily evacuated. She learned, in full detail, Darcy's role in the recuperation of Lydia and his efforts to produce her marriage to Mr. Wickham.

"... He did not extend himself on the particulars of how he broke his hand and asWickham also sported an ugly bruise in his face when he and Lydia were brought to us, I imagine Darcy suffered some provocation from Wickham's side. Your husband does not seem a violent man. Nothing was to be done that Darcy did not do himself. Wickham's debts were paid, amounting, I believe, to considerably more than a thousand pounds, another thousand in addition to her own settled upon her, and his commission purchased. Both your father and uncle battled Darcy for a long time on this respect, which was more than either the gentleman or lady concerned in it deserved. But at last they were forced to yield, and instead of being allowed to be of use to Lydia, they were forced by your excellent husband to put up with only having the probable credit of it. Your letter this morning gave me and your uncle great pleasure for now we are allow to give praise where it is due.

The reason why all this was to be done by him alone, was readily explained. Darcy said that it was owing to him, to his reserve and want of proper consideration, that Wickham's character had been so misunderstood, and consequently that he had been received and noticed as he was. Perhaps there was some truth in this; though I doubt whether his reserve, or anybody's reserve, can be answerable for the event. Once the matter was settled, Darcy made us promise that not one word of his intervention on this sad affair would be transmitted to you. As for why he requested this, I can only guess, although I assume that him not wishing to give you more reasons for distress must have been his first motivation. His second one must have been the deep affection he professes for you as I have never seen a young husband more anxious to return home to his wife...'

The content of the letter threw Elizabeth into a flutter of spirits, but soon this sentiment turned into shame as she acknowledged the reprehensible behaviour that her husband's honourable quest had inspired on her. Darcy left Pemberley with a noble pursuit, he embarked himself in the most unpleasant search of finding and finally bribing the man whose very name was a punishment for him to pronounce and marry him to a woman he surely abominate and despised, and all the time, Elizabeth had thought he was leaving her!

For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Certainly he had done much. Elizabeth was ashamed to think how much. She understood that Darcy's great sense of what was right and wrong had probably been his principal inducement, but, like her aunt insinuated, Elizabeth intuited that he had also done it for her. And this only served to increase her mortification because all that time he had been serving his honourable cause she had doubted not only his affection, but also his nobility and his strong sense of duty towards those for whom he cared.

Decided to rectify this situation as soon as may be, Elizabeth was roused from her seat and strode to her husband's study to clear this one last misunderstanding and thank him for all he had done.

Darcy was sitting at the desk, reading a letter when Elizabeth entered. Without saying a word, she went directly to his chair and gave him a long, sweet kiss.

"Mmmmm," the astonished husband was still savouring the kiss on his mouth. "May I inquire to what do I owe this delightful display of affection?"

"It is a sign of gratitude for what you did. You are the very best of men. Thank you."

"At your service, Madam." There was a world of wickedness in his smile. "I think I will face the most impossible tasks if I am to be rewarded in this manner every time. And, pray, what action of mine has inspired your gratitude on this occasion?"

"You found Wickham, arranged his marriage to Lydia and restored my family's honour," she acknowledged.

Darcy leaned back on the chair, his smile gone. "Who told you that?"

"My Aunt Gardiner ..."

Darcy rose and walked around the desk, putting some distance between them. "I did not know she was so little to be trusted. I am sorry you were acquainted with a situation that, if seen in mistaken light, might have caused you uneasiness."

"Please do not blame my aunt," Elizabeth begged. "Once you told me about your hand and how you got it broken, I could not rest until I learnt all the truth. Why did you keep that from me? Why did you not tell me the true reason for your departure?"

He hesitated, not sure she would understand why he chose not to tell her. "I was not certain of my success. I did not want to raise your hopes on a subject that was causing so much distress." "But you succeeded, and yet you did not tell me! All that time I tortured myself with the thought that you were gone to London with the only purpose of annulling our marriage!"

"I never imagined you would think me capable of that," he replied with feeling.

Elizabeth felt as if an enormous breach was forming between them and expressed herself with the frustration the situation generated in her. "I once again misunderstood your attitude and misjudged you."

There was so much hurt in her voice that Darcy could not help but feel ashamed for, once again, being the cause of her suffering. Only now he realized the misery she must have endured for believing him gone because of her. "I am so sorry, my love, it was a mistake, a wretched mistake. I should have acquainted you with my plans. Will you ever be able to forgive me?"

Elizabeth saw true repentance in his eyes. She was not willing to permit her anguish to grow out of proportion and allow this subject to ruin the felicity that she and her husband had acquired after so much struggling. Here they were, quarrelling over something that, for the better or the worse, was what had triggered their current understanding. She was able to find amusement in a situation that was, now that it was already cleared, exceedingly ridiculous.

"We are a hopeless case, are we not?"

Darcy sighed and walked towards her. He put his hands around her waist as he agreed with her statement.

"Indeed we are helpless. Did you realize all the despair we would have spared ourselves if we had been a little more communicative and actually express our true feelings to each other?"

"Indeed!" Elizabeth snuggled herself in his arms. "We must change that, at once!"

"I promise I will never keep you in the dark about my doings or my feelings, my love." Darcy murmured as he held her tightly against his chest.

"And I promise that I will never doubt you again. If one day I find myself in a similar predicament, I shall ask you directly and not just assume the worst."

They sealed the pact with a kiss that quickly grew in passion. "You know, I must confess that while your proposition shocked me, it was not a fateful occurrence. You wouldn't be standing here in my arms at this very moment had you not asked me to annul our marriage. That conversation really settled things between us. Only God knows how long it would have taken for me to try to kiss you."

"I was thinking exactly the same thing," Elizabeth smiled flirtatiously. "Perhaps I should ask for annulments more often."

"I will be happy to oblige," he murmured with lust as he pressed himself against her.

Even though she was still a rather inexperienced wife, after almost a week of satisfying her husband's carnal demands with astonishing frequency, she had learnt to detect when his ardour was aroused and in consequence, her own desire for him was stirred.

Darcy was kissing her with a hunger that he had, until now, reserved for their bedroom. His entire demeanour told Elizabeth that he was indeed considering the possibility of making love to her right there, in broad daylight, in his study, before tea.

"William," she gasped when his lips nibbled her earlobe. "I do not think this is the appropriate place."

"I beg to differ."

Chapter 22

Three months later.

The excitement Elizabeth felt about returning home built up gradually with every mile the carriage rolled towards Meryton. Of course, she was happy with the prospect of seeing her beloved ones again, but at the same time she felt a little apprehensive about the reunion. The dislike some members of her family had for Darcy was not foreign to her, neither was her husband's opinion of her relatives. Certainly, some things had changed radically since her wedding day and the recent understanding between her and her husband, particularly the one reached thank to their frequent colloquies, had cleared many preconceptions Elizabeth had elaborated about Darcy's supposed disapprobation of the Bennet clan, yet her fears could not be helped. Her mother was still her mother, Kitty and Mary were still Kitty and Mary and, above all, Darcy was still Darcy. If they all behaved like their most unpleasant selves and did not repress certain very annoying traits, their visit could end in a disaster.

"Let's see how they behave", Elizabeth thought with a glance at her husband, who was observing the landscape from his seat next to her, in that serious, sedate manner of his. Albeit she had learned to understand his true nature and now she could see beyond his natural reserve, she knew that those who were not acquainted with the peculiarities of his temper could mistake his aloofness for improper pride or hauteur. She had been one of them, and this unintelligence had brought them great pain. Their marriage, especially the connubial felicity they had acquired, had done wonders to improve his temper --he was indeed much livelier than before-yet Elizabeth knew that Darcy would never be as merry as Charles Bingley or a charmer like other young men she had previously met. She only hoped that her family did not resent him for that.

"I have instructed the coachman this morning to head directly to Longbourn," Darcy commented a moment later. "We are to spend the day with your family and depart for Netherfield after dinner. I have already sent word to your father, they should be expecting us."

Elizabeth was delighted -yet a little mystified-- with this change of plans. "Indeed! I thought we were going directly to Netherfield and then attend dinner at Longbourn!"

"I know how much you long to see them. I saw no purpose in delaying the reunion."

Truly, Darcy was the very best of men. Elizabeth could not let this perfect example of thoughtfulness pass without reward. She moved closer to him and bestowed a noisy kiss on his cheek, a gesture that the exceedingly pleased husband received with a satisfied grin. From her seat facing the couple's, Miss Darcy smiled bashfully at their interaction. She was becoming used to seeing them act so affectionately with each other and could not help but wonder if one day she could be just as happy in marriage.

Not much ensued before they crossed Longbourn's gate. One by one, alerted of the entrance of the Darcy carriage, the Bennets came out to greet the former Miss Elizabeth and her illustrious husband and sister.

"My dear Lizzy!" Mrs. Bennet cried as she embraced her second eldest. "I am so happy to see you!" Then, addressing her son-in-law with great pomposity, she added, "and you Mr. Darcy, what a pleasure to see you again. You must forgive us, for we are greatly unprepared to receive you. Mr. Bennet did not inform me of your change of plans until a while ago and I have not had time to prepare your favourite dish, but I am sure Hill's roast will do well, even if it's not as elaborated as the meals you are used to taking at Pemberley!" Darcy opened his mouth to say that all the trouble was unnecessary, but Mrs. Bennet, in her excitement, proceeded with her uninterrupted prattle. "Oh! Where are my manners! Miss Darcy!" here the mistress of Longbourn made a quick courtesy, "I am so delighted to meet you at last! Come into the house, you must be tired! This is a most unpleasant summer with so much rain, good for the crops but bad for our spirits, we practically cannot leave the house ..."

Mrs. Bennet would not shut her mouth and as they entered the house, Elizabeth threw an apologetic glance in Darcy's direction, deeply mortified to see him exposed to the obsequious affability of her mother. He bore it, however, with admirable calmness.

Elizabeth's amazement at her husband conduct did not cease during the day as he continued surprising her with his constant endeavours at civility. While not one to overflow with mirth, Darcy was the epitome of good breeding and amiability, so much that he even listened to Mary's exceedingly poor performance at the piano forte without displaying any signs of dislike -which would have been deserved-and not once did she see him frown with displeasure or shrug his shoulders in his usual manner when a situation was not of his liking. If it occurred, he was considerate enough to do it out of everyone's sight.

After tea, the newcomers were directed to the upper rooms so they could rest and change before dinner. The Bingley party was also expected later in the evening as Mrs. Bennet had planned a great feast to lavish her sons-in-law with the excellence they deserved.

As they waited for the arrival of the other guests, Mr. Bennet, desirous to separate himself from the ladies' incessant chat about wedding preparations and Pemberley's grandeurs, called Darcy to his library to have some sensible conversation with the only other male resident in the house. At least, while Darcy had never been an effusive conversationalist, he was certainly more intelligent and educated than Bingley and able to provide him with more interesting and entertaining subjects that would not be exclusively about lace, food, sports or Jane's angelic disposition.

"Well, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Bennet began as he poured his son-in-law a glass of port. "I have a confession to make, and consequently, an apology to you is in order. When you first became engaged to my daughter I was afraid that your marriage of duty would result ... hmm ... not in the best way. I was truly concerned about my daughter's felicity as I thought that despite the regard you claimed to profess for her at the time, you would not be able to live in harmony with her, that she would never achieve a tolerable level of happiness as your wife. But I was wrong. As a parent, I could have not wished a better life for a child of mine. You certainly started on the wrong foot yet you managed to revert a very unpromising beginning and turn it into a happy marriage. Elizabeth is glowing with happiness right now, and so are you, as I can see. My sincere apologies then, Sir. I should have had more faith in you. And after what you have done on Lydia's behalf, I do not think that there is nothing you can't accomplish when you set your mind on it."

Darcy smiled with pride, but also with certain discomfort. He had been raised with good principles, educated to always do what he thought best, and he did not think that the praise he was receiving from his father-in-law, though perhaps deserved, was at all necessary.

"I thank you, Sir, but there is no reason to apologize. My past conduct to your family and your daughter has been far from irreproachable and you had every right to believe me unworthy of her."

"Son," Mr. Bennet said sincerely. "If there is one word that cannot be connected to your person is unworthiness. I could not have parted with her to any one less worthy."

Darcy bowed his head in acceptance of the compliment and quickly addressed another subject that he had been eager to discuss with his father-in-law. "May I ask you a question, Sir?"

"Of course."

"Why did you inform Elizabeth of my injured hand?"

"My Lizzy is a curious creature, is she not?" Mr. Bennet smiled mischievously. "I did not inform her; I only inquired about how you were recovering from your unfortunate accident. I hope you are not offended."

Judging by his austere look, Darcy seemed to be precisely that. "I had made up my mind not to inform her of my participation in the affair yet the intelligence with which you provided her in mentioning my injured hand excited a confession that I had not intended to make."

"I apologize for my intervention. It was not my intention to be meddlesome. I sincerely hope I did not force you two into an argument."

Quite the contrary," Darcy muttered quietly before sipping his port, a thin smile curbing his lips. Mr. Bennet's eyebrows arched up.

Hill knocked the door at that moment, announcing the arrival of the Netherfield party.

"Come, young man, finish your drink." Mr. Bennet urged his son-in-law. "You shall need it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"When you have to face a room full of the silliest women in England every day like myself, you will understand."

Darcy choked on his drink.

~ * ~

"Darcy! It is so good to see you!" Bingley shook his friend's hand with his usual enthusiasm as they met in the hall.

"Bingley," Darcy smiled back. "Congratulations on your engagement."

"Thank you! I am the happiest of men," Bingley beamed with joy. "I cannot believe that in only a few days Jane will finally be my wife."

Darcy turned then to greet the rest of the party with a formal bow. "Miss Bingley, Mrs. and Mr. Hurst."

"Mr. Darcy, it has been so long. We were desolate without your company this winter. Were we not, Louisa?" Miss Bingley dropped a courtesy.

"Quite so, Mr. Darcy," replied Mrs. Hurst. "Congratulations on your marriage."

"Thank you," Darcy bowed his head.

"I say, Sir, your news reached us so unexpectedly that we could hardly believe it when we heard of it," Miss Bingley held Darcy's arm as they walked towards the drawing room where the ladies were sitting. "I must confess it was a little bit of a shock for all of us. We knew of your admiration for Miss Eliza's fine eyes, although we never imagined than such an uneven alliance would result from it."

However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying, "I cannot imagine why."

"Well, Sir," she sneered, disregarding the fact that critiquing the wife was not the best method of recommending herself to the husband. "You cannot deny that her connections are not what one would say 'suitable' for a man of your stature. This must be a great sacrifice from your part, but of course you are a true gentleman, and I dare say the finest one. You tolerate her unfortunate relations with great equanimity."

"If I do not object to them, then they should be nothing to you." Darcy disengaged himself from her hold. "Allow me to remind you that they'll soon become your relatives, too, Miss Bingley, so in the meanwhile, I would appreciate if you spoke of my family with more consideration. Now if you would excuse me, I must join my wife."

The ladies welcomed Mr Bingley's party and after the usual formalities were exchanged, they all then moved to the dining room to enjoy the delicacies that Mrs. Bennet's cook had prepared for her dignified guests. If Elizabeth still had any reservations regarding her husband's behaviour towards her relatives, that night Darcy showed her that he had indeed changed. He was civil and polite, entering into conversation with an easiness that was unusual in him and showed incredible patience when faced with her mother's occasionally silly remarks.

While her husband was the model of decorum during supper, another person at the table became the source of Elizabeth's uneasiness. Contrary to what she had imagined, it was not her own mother that inspired this reaction. Mrs Bennet had been, in her own way, uncommonly agreeable all through the evening. Rather it was Miss Bingley the one tempting the limit of her patience.

Albeit Caroline paid Elizabeth every possible civility --she would never offend her in front of the others-- Elizabeth felt there was false amiability in her tone. She did not believe this because she wished it; it was founded in the marked difference in her manner of address when speaking to the Darcys by birth than to the ones by marriage. It was quite obvious now that Miss Bingley's dislike of her had been originated in jealousy and Elizabeth could not help feeling how unwelcome her marriage to Darcy must be to her. Fundamentally, it had ruined her chances for social escalating.

Despite Miss Bingley's attempts to irritate Elizabeth, dinner passed uneventfully. It was in fact, a very pleasant event. Once they were done, the gentlemen remained at the dining table for cigars and port while the ladies removed themselves to the drawing-room for coffee. There Elizabeth would receive another, if not greater, tax on her forbearance from Miss Bingley's part.

"Mrs. Bennet," Caroline began, not one in the habit of brooking disappointment. "You must be proud. Three daughters married in so little time. It is indeed a most extraordinary accomplishment."

"Indeed! It is delightful thing, to be sure, to have three daughters so well married," replied enthusiastically Mrs. Bennet. "First Lizzy, then my dear Lydia and now Jane has become my new source of joy."

"I can imagine," Miss Bingley proceeded with exaggerated politeness. "Pray, tell, how Mrs. Wickham is doing? It must be very hard for her, being so young, to be settled so far away from her family."

In the gentlemen's presence Caroline would not dare to mention Wickham, but away from her brother's and Darcy's censoring stares, she would not waste the chance to abuse her hostess's stupidity by bringing up a subject that she knew would please the mother but that surely would distress the other members of the family that were still mortified by Lydia's shameful behaviour.

"Oh, my dear child!" The mistress of the house bit the hook and replied with forlorn eyes, oblivious to the malice behind Miss Bingley's inquiry. "It is so very hard to have been deprived of the dear girl in such a way. She is gone to Newcastle, wherever that is, and they are to stay there I do not know how long. Mr Wickham's regiment is there. I suppose you have heard his being gone into the regulars. Thank Heaven he still has friends that are willing to provide for him!"

The effect that Miss Bingley's remark produced in the rest of the party was the desired one. While Mrs. Bennet lamented the loss of her favourite daughter, Georgiana paled, embarrassed for both her sister and herself, Jane shifted in her seat with discomfort and Elizabeth, though apparently collected, was barely containing her vexation at Miss Bingley's ill-intended choice of subject. Kitty and Mary would not dare to open their mouths, neither too eager to discuss the elopement that had caused the family so much distress. Even Mrs. Hurst, who had been backing all her sister's comments with encouraging gestures, wisely chose not to support her in this one, aware of the indelicacy of bringing such an unpleasant topic to what was supposed to be a night of celebration.

Even without the endorsement of the others, Miss Bingley, unrelenting in her pursue of annoying and discrediting the new Mrs. Darcy, continued to vent her frustration against her for stealing the man and the position to which she had aspired for so many years.

"My dear Eliza," Miss Bingley stirred her coffee with delicate fingers. "Tell us about Pemberley. I am sure that it must have been very difficult for you to become accustomed to your new position as mistress of such a grand estate."

There was nothing that Elizabeth hated most than when Caroline called her 'Eliza'. There was something in her tone that made her think she was purposely infusing it with contempt and she absolutely detested it. "Not at all. It is a beautiful and very comfortable house."

"I am sure that you missed your family and friends very much, being married so outside your circle," Miss Bingley continued.

Elizabeth flashed her a false smile. "A little, at the beginning. But my husband and sister have made my life very enjoyable."

"Of course," Caroline was all sweetness when addressing Miss Darcy. "Dearest Georgiana. I am most certain that the company of an accomplished young lady such as yourself has been of invaluable help for the understanding of the new Mrs. Darcy's duties."

"In fact, it was quite the opposite. I have learned so much from my sister." Georgiana's eyes went from one lady to another. Mrs. Bennet, who was attentively following the conversation, seemed increasingly vexed at Miss Bingley's choice of words.

"Do you still play the piano forte every day, my dear?" Mrs. Hurst joined the conversation in an attempt to steer the colloquy towards safer shores. Her sister was becoming too obvious with her attack and the annoyance that this circumstance was producing in the others was becoming noticeable.

"Almost every day," replied Georgiana. "Elizabeth assists me in that, too. She is an extraordinary interpreter."

At that point of the conversation the door of the dining room opened and the gentlemen joined them in the saloon. Charles sat by Jane's side, Hurst chose a distant chair where he could doze off, Mr Bennet was stationed near the mantelpiece while Darcy stood behind his wife. Guided by the imprudence of bitterness and resentment, Caroline continued, too coiled in her own wickedness to realize that her words and attitude were testing the patience of more than one person in the room.

"Pemberley is a beautiful house," she cried. "I am sure, Eliza, that a long time will pass before you learn to manage it with the expertise it requires. Longbourn is a lovely little place but it cannot be compared to such a magnificent house and grounds. No previous experience could have prepared you for the demands of such a grand estate."

Elizabeth tensed up, her lips pressed in a thin line. Until now she had refrained herself from answering, but this comment had touched the limit of her tolerance. She was about to reply when she felt her husband's hand on her shoulder and a gentle squeeze that told her not to enter in an argument with the other lady. Not surprisingly, it was Mrs. Bennet who first lost her wits.

"No indeed. I have educated my daughters very well, Miss Bingley. My Lizzy is perfectly capable of managing even the greatest palace. I am sure she runs the place as well as the Queen runs St James," Mrs. Bennet declared, sounding distinctly annoyed.

Caroline stared with eyes wide open. Kitty snorted noisily and Bingley could not repress a chuckle from bubbling up. Even Hurst, who everyone thought asleep, opened one eye to check on Miss Bingley's reaction to their hostess's outburst.

"Of course she is, Madam." Darcy squeezed her wife's shoulder one more time. "My wife is an excellent Mistress and Pemberley could not be in better hands. The place has certainly blossomed since her arrival." Elizabeth looked up and Darcy smiled down to her. "An ability that she has inherited from her mother, I am sure."

Elizabeth raised an amused eyebrow, not knowing if she should be offended by his remark or proud of her husband's manner of dealing with her mother and Miss Bingley.

"Mr. Darcy!" Mrs. Bennet laughed. "You are indeed a charmer! I never imagined you could be so obliging. I can hardly wait to visit my daughter's new home. Perhaps we can travel north this winter. What say you, Mr. Bennet?"

"I think that we should wait for Mr. Darcy's invitation before venturing ourselves on such a long trip, my dear," answered Mr Bennet. "After all, you will surely be occupied visiting your daughter settled at Netherfield."

All eyes were on Darcy when he replied. "I shall be honoured to receive you as our guests this winter, Mrs. Bennet." He looked down and showed his wife his most engaging smile. "Christmas would be an excellent time for them to visit us. Would you not agree, my love?

From then on, Caroline did not speak if not directly addressed.

~ * ~

That night, at Netherfield, Elizabeth was sitting at her vanity brushing her hair. Darcy joined her a moment later, having changed into his nightclothes, and sat by her side on the long bench, facing the opposite direction.

"You have beautiful hair," his fingers played with a silky curl. "I love it when you have it loose."

Elizabeth turned to him. "And you are a wonderful and caring man. Thank you for your intervention this evening. I would have strangled dear Miss Bingley had you not interfered."

"I noticed that," he chuckled, "You should not pay attention to what she says."

"I cannot help it. She was extraordinarily venomous tonight, more than the usual." She left the brush on the vanity. "Are you certain you want my family to visit us at Christmas time?"

"Of course, I wouldn't have invited them if I did not want them to come. Why do you ask?" her question surprised him.

"Well, you know how difficult my mother can be. I would not wish to see you lose your patience with her."

"My love, your family is my family now and I accept them the way they are. Even your mother, when well guided, can be pleasant to be with." He paused, then said as an afterthought, "... and Pemberley is a very big house, I know where to disappear if the occasion requires it."

Elizabeth laughed. "And leave me all by myself, entertaining our guests?"

Darcy held her by the shoulders and pulled her back until she was practically lying on his lap. "I'll tell you what we can do: We shall invite the Bingleys along and Charles and I would take care of your father while you and Jane entertain your mother. Is that fair enough?"

"Bingleys?" Elizabeth frowned. "Does that include Miss Bingley?"

"No, that only includes Mr. and the future Mrs. Bingley. I would prefer that our first Christmas together only includes the closest family. Unless you want to invite the Gardiners. I would be delighted to have them there, too, if that pleases you."

"And my Aunt Philips?" Elizabeth said mischievously as her fingers played with the ties of his nightshirt.

Darcy immediately detected her teasing and slowly moved his hand to her waist, where he knew she was particularly ticklish. "Do you want her to come?"

"Well..." she continued in an innocent manner, "... I want to know all the possible hiding places Pemberley can offer and I believe this will be an extraordinary opportunity to become acquainted with them."

"If you wish, I will show them to you when we return home." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Elizabeth giggled. "What a delightful idea. If I am acquainted with them, then I would be able to locate you more easily and hide with you. I believe I shall invite the Lucases along too so that way you will be forced to ... NOOOOO!"

That was provocation enough to begin his attack. Grinning devilishly, he tickled her mercilessly and she laughed and squirmed and wrestled with him until they both fell on the floor.

Darcy grabbed her hands and placed them on each side of her head, holding her firmly against the floor. "Then I shall invite Mr. Collins and Miss Bingley and lock you with them in the music room while your sister Mary plays."

"Mercy! I beg you, have mercy!" Elizabeth laughed and tried to free herself.

He leaned over her. "No Philips?" Elizabeth shook her head. "No Lucases?" She shook it again. "Do you love me?" She smiled and nodded. "Will you continue to tease me?" She nodded more vehemently and Darcy grinned broadly. "That is why I love you so much."

Chapter 23

"Elizabeth, wake up." Darcy sat at the edge of the bed and gently touched his wife's face. "We are expected at Longbourn for breakfast."

"Mmmmmm." Elizabeth groaned and rolled to her side, with her back to him.

Darcy chuckled at his wife's newly developed ability of sleeping like a rock, condition that had become more noticeable since their arrival at Hertfordshire. Perhaps it was the hot and humidity of the weather, he imagined, as she had been perfectly normal while they were still at Pemberley. He climbed onto the bed and lay by her side, propped on his elbow. "My love, your mother is expecting us. She will lecture us endlessly if we are late again."

He gave her a soft kiss on the shoulder, extracting no visible response from her. Realizing that he was not having the desired response he changed his tactic.

"Eliza Bennet. Wake up!" he said firmly.

"That was very ungenerous of you, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth did not move or open her eyes.

"Lizzy, I beg you, please wake up," he continued dramatically.

Elizabeth turned to face him with an amused expression. "You never called me Lizzy before."

"Then I shall use it more often. I managed to wake you up." He smiled at her.

"I am so tired," she rolled onto her back. "And it is your fault, you know that."

Darcy smiled self sufficiently, perfectly aware that it was his -their-- newlywed carnal appetite what usually kept them awake until late in the night. He admitted his fault on this matter, surely he never wasted the chance of engaging his wife in long sessions of lovemaking before going to sleep, but Elizabeth also shared the responsibility for their sleeplessness. When the act was not initiated by him, he would receive some sort of inducement from his passionate wife. It was her endeavours which resulted in last night's wakefulness and he, being the devoted husband he was, could not but oblige.

"You never complained before." He kissed the tip of her nose. "And you also know that," he said as he brushed his lips over her cheek, "I would wake you up much earlier in the mornings if I didn't make love to you every night."

"You do it all the same," She sighed before his mouth covered hers.

Albeit he was fully clothed and ready to leave, Darcy did not stop his seduction. His lips travelled all the way down her neck to her chest, and after proceeding to undo the ties of her night gown, he went directly to her breasts where he indulged himself for a moment. But for some reason, a moment later, he stopped abruptly and lifted his head to study her bosom with frowned brows.

"What?" Elizabeth enquired.

"Am I wrong or have these grown larger?"

"Have they?" Now that he mentioned it, her breasts had become more sensitive lately and there were moments when they ached. Perhaps her monthly course was about to start. It always made her feel awkward a few days earlier. But now that she thought of it, she had not had her courses since ...

"Absolutely." He stared at her breasts with a new found reverence.

"I cannot imagine how you can tell the difference."

"Well," he replied with a cheeky smile. "I have been a fervent admirer of your cleavage since I first lay eyes on you."

She gasped in astonishment. "You said that you were bewitched by my eyes!"

"Those too, and your lips. But these two ..." he planted a kiss on her nipple "... have fascinated me from the beginning of our acquaintance."

Once her husband was settled on the matter of lovemaking, he wasn't easily dissuaded yet nonetheless she reminded him of the early engagement at Longbourn of which he had been so insistent several minutes before.

"Mr. Darcy, I thought you said that we were late for breakfast." Elizabeth sighed with pleasure.

Darcy was already getting rid of some garments. "Do not worry. I know how to deal with your mother."

~ * ~

"Mrs. Bennet, please forgive us for our late arrival. I have been busy attending some urgent business that could not be delayed," Darcy apologized to his mother-in-law on arriving very late for breakfast at Longbourn.

"Oh no, Mr. Darcy, do not distress yourself. I sincerely hope that no serious matter has occurred," replied a very concerned Mrs. Bennet.

"No, Madam, not serious, but important enough as to require my personal and immediate intervention. I must say that I am fortunate that it has been readily resolved to my satisfaction." Darcy said this with such conviction that Elizabeth had to bite her lip in order to not blurt out a chuckle.

"Lizzy," said Mrs. Bennet as they took their seats at the table. "Now that you are married to a gentleman of great consequence, you will have to learn that you come second to his obligations."

"Yes, Mama." Elizabeth hid her smile behind a napkin.

Hill and one of the maids brought a basket with warm toasts to the table, slices of fresh meat and boiled eggs. Elizabeth realized that something was upsetting her stomach because she became dizzy the moment the food was served on her plate. The first one to perceive her discomfort was Jane.

"You look pale, Lizzy," the eldest Miss Bennet declared. "Are you unwell?"

All eyes were now on the Mistress of Pemberley. Darcy looked preoccupied; Jane seemed to share his concerns while Mrs. Bennet studied her daughter carefully with curious but knowing eyes.

"I am perfectly fine," was Elizabeth's reply, although her tone did not transmit much security.

"Are you sure?" Darcy touched her hand. It was unusually cold. "Perhaps we should call a doctor."

"Please, do not distress yourself, I am perfectly well."

~ * ~

The afternoon brought more guests to the house. The Gardiners had come to attend the wedding and were to stay at Longbourn for the following fortnight. Once they changed from their travelling clothes, the family moved to the garden to enjoy the sun of that lovely summer afternoon.

The gentlemen remained under the shade of a large tree while the ladies walked the gardens and chatted about the wedding to come. With enamoured eyes, Darcy followed his wife's steps until a comment from Mr. Bennet redirected his attention to his party. When he turned his eyes to his wife one more time, he saw something that was distinctly wrong with Elizabeth. She was not facing him directly, but from the expression that appeared in Jane's and Mrs. Gardiner's faces, his wife was unwell. Her head was bowed, her hand pressed against her forehead and she had reached out to find support in her sister.

"Elizabeth!" Darcy ran towards her. "My goodness! What is the matter?"

"I am fine now." The weariness was not leaving her and she held his forearms in an attempt to steady herself. "I .... I am well."

"No, you are not." Darcy's voice was charged with concern. There was no colour in her cheeks and he saw that she could barely stand on her own.

"Perhaps I have been in the sun for too long. That is all." Elizabeth showed him a weak smile.

Darcy put his arm around her waist to hold her upstanding. "Let us go inside the house. Are you sure you can walk?"

"I can, yes." She leaned against him and everyone entered the house behind them.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was taken to the parlour, the freshest room in the house while a servant was sent to Meryton to fetch the village's apothecary. Mrs. Bennet remained locked with her for some time, not allowing anyone else in. On the other side of the door, the anxious husband awaited with the others, overwhelmed by the deepest concern for his wife's condition.

When the doctor finally arrived, Mrs. Bennet left her daughter's side so she could converse with the physician in privacy. She was surrounded by the other members of the family, who readily enquired after Elizabeth's health, but she said nothing, just that Mrs. Darcy was well and that she would be herself soon. Darcy's distress was such that he didn't notice the placid smile Mrs Bennet exchanged with her husband as she linked her hand with his forearm.

The doctor only stayed for half an hour. He addressed the family before leaving.

"She is well," said the good doctor, and then, lifting his eyes to the tall gentleman that was standing behind the others, he added, "Mr. Darcy, may I have a word with you?"

Darcy's stomach made a turn, but his exterior remained immutable. "Certainly."

The doctor led the anxious husband slightly apart from the rest. "Your wife is perfectly well, sir. Some dizziness is expected to happen on occasion. The hot weather obviously does not help much, under the circumstances, but I am certain that this condition will be improved during the course of the following weeks." Darcy's heart skipped a beat after this intelligence but the physician continued, unaware of the distress his words were producing on the young gentleman. "She should drink a lot of liquid but not if she feels too ill. If she feels tired, she must rest although I would advice you that she doesn't stop her morning walks, of which I know she is very fond. That you may see her now."

Darcy had never heard such an amount of nonsense in his life yet, he expressed his gratitude for the recommendations. "I thank you, Sir."

The doctor said his farewells to the others. "Good day to everyone."

Elizabeth was sitting in an armchair that was placed near the window when Darcy finally entered the room. She was smiling calmly at him and her eyes transmitted a serenity he had not seen before. Even though she was not as pale as earlier in the day, Darcy could see that her complexion was too languid to believe her completely recovered from whatever was affecting her and the doctor's comforting yet utterly confusing diagnosis had done very little to settle his turbulent spirits. He walked towards her and pulled up a chair for himself.

"How are you feeling?" he sat in front of her.

The seriousness in his tone startled her. There was concern in his voice but also another sentiment that Elizabeth had never imagine she would see reflected in her husband's eyes: fear. Darcy seemed terrified.

"I am now."

"I am glad to hear it," Dracy struggled to appear calm, he even attempted to smile but it did not linger in his lips long enough to be convincing. His eyes dropped to his hands, where they remained as he tried to think of what to make of this new and very distressing circumstance.

Fitzwilliam Darcy was a man of fortune and a great fortitude of character, used to have his own way in everything. Usually, when a situation was not progressing to his satisfaction, or was completely beyond his control, he tended to detach himself until he could fully comprehend the extent of what was happening. He had also suffered the loss of his parents at a young age, an event that had rendered him irremediably anxious in the face of illness so whenever anyone close to him fell prey of a malady, he was prone to expect the worst. His wife was ill and there was nothing he could do to remedy it. He was beside himself with worry, feeling helpless and unable to comfort her. Incapable of controlling his distress anymore, Darcy went to the window, where he stood observing the landscape, away from his wife's watchful eyes, not wishing to scare her with fears that might possibly be ill founded, but that nonetheless he could not repress.

Elizabeth sensed his predicament, his inability to deal with this sudden fear he was now feeling for her sudden indisposition. She could not keep him in such misery for so long, so she called him.

"William, will you please come here?"

He came but remained standing a little afar.

"Will you not sit down?"

He obliged but reluctantly.

"Have you talked to the doctor?"

"Yes."

"And what did he tell you?"

"Nothing that I could understand clearly. He said something about the hot weather, liquids and some other things that could not be related with what happened to you earlier in the day."

"So that's all you know? My mother did not talk to you?"

Darcy swallowed. "Is there something more I should know?"

Elizabeth was grateful that her mother, who was usually very indiscreet, had been able to keep the secret. "Yes."

Darcy bolted from his chair and started to pace the room. "I should have never allowed a country doctor to see you. I shall send a servant to London directly to bring my personal physician ..."

Elizabeth rose and walked towards him. "William, there is nothing wrong with my health."

"Elizabeth," his voice betrayed the anguish he felt. "You nearly fainted and you look very ill."

"My dear," she took his hand. "I am perfectly fine. We are perfectly fine."

"We?"

"Yes. I believe I am with child."

There was a moment of silence before he parroted, "With child?"

Her nod confirmed it. "My mother suspected as much, and the doctor agreed with her."

"But he is not certain."

"Well, almost certain. He said I must wait until the baby starts to move to be sure, but he told me he has seen this so many times that he can positively assure that I am with child. So does my mother. After all, she has been in this condition six times."

An expression of heartfelt delight diffused over Darcy's features. He raised his hand to cup her cheek as his smile became broader. Nothing else was said then, they just stood there, closely embraced, both too happy to express what they felt in words.

"Should we go to announce the news to the family?" Darcy kissed the top of his wife's head. "That is, if your mother did not inform them the news already."

Elizabeth lifted her face to him. "Yes."

On the other side of the door, Miss Darcy, the entire Bennet clan and half a dozen of servants, all sporting happy smiles, were waiting for the couple to emerge and express their happiness for their good fortune.

~ * ~

Two days later.

On one sunny day of July, Miss Jane Bennet and Mr. Charles Bingley were united in Holy Matrimony. All the family and friends were gathered in a lovely ceremony that married the third Bennet girl of that year.

"Dearly beloved ..." Reverend Hopkins began his sermon.

As the bride and groom recited their vows, overlooking every rule of propriety, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy reached out for his wife's hand and raised it to his lips. Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy looked up at him, a smile of happiness brightening her face as she slid her hand through the crook of his husband's arm and leaned her head on his shoulder. The ceremony was evoking so many memories, some of them painful, some of them of pure joy as the couple recalled the promises they made six months ago, under so different circumstances. They glanced at each other and they both inwardly re-recited their own vows, knowing that this time they were sincere and heartfelt. They thanked God that, together, they had been able to overcome all the obstacles that were presented to them and that they had been able to grow to love and respect each other in the way they did now. When the ceremony ended, the Darcys left the church arm in arm with the conviction that now they were better persons because of the other and that their lives had been blessed with the joy that only true love could bring.

"Oh, Mr. Bennet!" Mrs. Bennet observed the newlyweds as they left the church. "Three daughters married and a grandchild. God has been so good to us."

"Yes, indeed He has."

Epilogue
Longbourn, 7 years later.

Once again Longbourn was a crowded house. During the course of the years, one by one, all five Bennet girls had left their home to find their own life with their husbands gradually taking away the liveliness of the household. The mistress of the estate could not be happier with this circumstance, marrying them well had been her most desired wish but as time went by, the emptiness of the rooms and the remembrance of those happy days with the constant noise of her chatty daughters around made her wish all her girls were back to bring Longbourn back to its glorious and happier days.

The grandchildren didn't take too much to come and fill the empty house with laughter. The first one came from Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, a fine boy named Andrew who was now six years old. Three years later the Darcy's were blessed with a second child, Emily -Millie, as they called her -- who in her only three years of life had succeeded in turning the solemn Pemberley household upside down.

The Bingleys had also contributed to the enlargement of the family by producing two of the most well behaved children anyone had ever seen. Edward, to be five years old, was named after Jane's dearest uncle and their second offspring, Josephine, was a beauty with golden locks and the sweetest of dispositions. The couple was happily established in Derbyshire in an estate they acquired only thirty miles away from Pemberley

Mrs. Wickham had only produced a son, Brandon, now four years old. There was little chance she would bear another child with her husband as Lt. Wickham was constantly away with his regiment and the young wife had given up the tiresome task of following the drum with him. The youngest Bennet girl did not complain much about this circumstance, for this circumstance allowed her the chance to return to Longbourn at will, where she would share with her mother the responsibility of looking after her only son. She was a frequent visitor of her eldest sisters' estates as well, appearing unannounced at their homes several times a year and abusing their hospitality until she was subtly asked to leave.

Mary was the last of the Miss Bennet's to leave the nest. She never attended balls or assemblies so the chances that she would find a suitable husband were scarce. But against everything her family had been expected, the taciturn Miss Mary was able to find love in the person of Mr. Robert Pickford, the new curator of Meryton's church and was expecting her first child.

The occasion that had reunited all five sisters at Longbourn this time was the christening of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet sixth grand-child, George Michael Lucas, the son of Catherine Bennet and George Lucas, Charlotte's second youngest brother. Invited to the party were also Mr. and Mrs. Collins, who attended the ceremony with their two boys, Phillip and Steven. Also in attendance was Charlotte's sister, Maria Lucas who had recently married Mr. James Carey, a young attorney from a neighbouring town.

Longbourn was now brimming with the joyful sound of children running about the house and the incessant chat of ladies that were acquainting each other with what their lives had been during the months they had been apart. Elizabeth and Jane saw each other with certain frequency, their wealth and the proximity of their homes allowed them that privilege, but the rest did not have that luck and used these family gatherings to learn the latest news. When formalities were over, the gentlemen chose to enjoy the breeze of the gardens while the ladies preferred to reunite in the shaded interior of the house to share their conversations in the comfort of Longbourn's rooms.

"Darcy," Bingley addressed his brother in law, "how is your sister? I understand she is due in very little time."

"She might have made me an uncle by the time we return home." Replied Darcy with a smile.

"More children," sighed Mr. Bennet as he observed the boys running around the lawn, "I have never seen so many of them together in years. It reminds me when my girls were little and we invited the Lucases along to our house. Had I known that I was to suffer in this same manner again, I would have reconsidered giving my daughters in marriage."

"The only relief I can give you, sir," Bingley patted his father-in-law's back, "is that you should enjoy this relative peace now that there are only six of them. In only a few months you'll have seven grandchildren to sport to your neighbours, perhaps a few more if Darcy and I work on it."

"I will not object to more additions to the family," Mr. Bennet replied with a laugh, "as long as they return to their own home every night. That is the advantage of having Kitty married so close to Longbourn. She leaves after supper and we can have our peace back."

Darcy chuckled at his father-in-law's pretended irritability. Albeit he constantly complained about them, it was known that Mr. Bennet adored his grandchildren. "Come now, Mr. Bennet, I thought you enjoyed the little ones visiting you and playing in your library."

"Allow me to remind you it had been your children the ones that had used it as a playground. I have been told that Pemberley's library suffered because of their mischief, too."

"For some reason they are exceedingly fond of that room. Although I am afraid it is not to enrich their minds with its extraordinary contents and vast knowledge." Darcy grinned and shook his head. "Emily is particularly attracted to the higher rows of shelves. Before us coming here, she was silently playing in the library while I was reading. I was distracted for only a minute and by the time glanced back at her, she was reaching the sixth row. I had never imagined that someone so small could climb so high in so little time. And as soon as her feet touched the floor again she ran away to pick up the globe from the desk. When she sets something in her mind, she will not stop until she gets it."

"She resembles so much my Lizzy at that age, a little monster in the costume of a girl, but so adorable that it was impossible to punish her. Do you still have to lock the door of the music room?"

"We try to keep it closed, but somehow she always manages to get in. Mrs. Reynolds has a weak side for her and likes to indulge her every whim. It is not easy to be severe when an entire household is willing to spoil her. But what really amazes me is that she is so silent when she is up to mischief that it is impossible to know what she is doing until it is too late. I cannot imagine what will become of us when she expands her vocabulary." Darcy said with an apprehensive smile.

"When girls start talking they do not stop until the day they die. I have six good examples to show you." Mr. Bennet pointed to the house. "I believe they are in the drawing room right now."

"I say, Darcy, your daughter is a very spirited child." Bingley reflected with an amused air.

"Bingley, you are being too generous. That girl is inexhaustible." Darcy shook his head in resignation.

"Just like my Lizzy, I told you." Mr. Bennet declared and the gentlemen laughed.

At that moment Andrew Darcy and Edward Bingley came running. Panting behind them was Phil Collins, too heavy to keep the other's pace. The lads passed between the gentlemen and hid behind a tree.

"Boys!" Darcy called them. "I told you not to run around the guests."

"But, Papa," Andrew replied from their hiding place. "She is chasing us and will not leave us in peace."

"Son, that is not ..."

He stopped as the subject in discussion suddenly appeared beside them, running at an amazing speed for someone her size. Darcy caught her in motion and lifted her up.

"I thought you were having your nap, young lady," Darcy tried to appear stern as he scolded his little daughter. Emily hugged him lovingly and Darcy's frown was replaced with a huge grin.

"Man, your daughter has you eating from her hand." Bingley smiled.

"Just like her mother. It is impossible to be severe with any of them." The proud father replied.

"Darcy." Bingley pointed at the girl's feet. "I think something is missing here."

The gentleman looked at his daughter's feet and rolled his eyes when he realized that she was barefoot, again. He excused himself from his party and walked towards the house, carrying his precious daughter in his arms.

~ * ~

With no servants at sight that could take care of Emily, Darcy followed the sound of feminine voices and laughter that came from the drawing room and quickly located his wife. He hesitated before entering, not sure he wanted to interrupt the ladies in their domain. He stepped in nonetheless and upon being noticed, the chatting ceased and more than ten pairs of eyes focused on him.

"Is anything the matter, my dear?" Elizabeth asked sweetly.

"No, I ..." he glanced around, deciding that making a quick exit was the best thing to do. "Forgive me for the interruption. Excuse me."

The chatting and giggling was resumed the moment he left the room. Father and daughter looked at each other, Emily too comfortable in her father's arms to think of going to her mother's and Darcy knowing better than to venture himself alone in a room full of Bennet women.

"There you are, Miss Millie," Mrs. Hill saw them from down the hall. "I've been looking for you the whole afternoon."

Darcy smiled gratefully at the loyal maid. Since their arrival, his children had tried her patience with every possible method but she still looked after them with the same dedication and adoration with which she had served their mother when she was a child. "I fear that this little lady has left something behind in her escape."

Hill noticed Emily's dirty stockings because of the lack of shoes. Her heart swelled with love for this adorable little girl that reminded her so much of the spirited Miss Lizzy she had helped to raise. "Allow me, sir, I will change her and take her to bed."

"Thank you, Mrs. Hill." Darcy and handed his daughter to the servant.

"Come here, little one." Hill bounced her in her arms and Emily started giggling. "Hill will take you to bed and tell you a very nice story. Do you know that you are the loveliest young lady there could be? Just like your Mama, lovely and witty."

As they walked away, Emily glanced at her father over Hill's shoulder with her huge brown eyes smiling at him. With a broad smile, Darcy returned to his party.

~ * ~

As she did every night before going to bed, Elizabeth Darcy went to the room where her offspring slept to check if they were resting peacefully. Andrew had grown so big, he so much resembled his father that it warmed up her heart to know she was raising a fine man such as her husband. Her daughter Emily was very much the little angel, when asleep, because, when awake, she was the little devil. Everyone told her that Emily looked very much like herself but Elizabeth knew that her daughter had also inherited her husband's character. Andrew, possessor of Darcy's looks, was the one that inherited his mother's disposition. He was active, merry and, though well behaved and respectful, he had the ability to tease and enchant his elders with his witty remarks. Emily, on the other hand, had her father's pride and hauteur combined with Elizabeth's enchanting personality and charisma. The result was extraordinary. With her only three years of age she had the ability to raise an entire household and demand things from servants that knew should not oblige her but that just could not resist her authority.

Elizabeth looked around the room and a smile of contentment came to her face. This had been her room, eight years ago. Eight years! So many things had happened, everything had changed so much since that day since she left that she could not imagine her life as it was before meeting her husband. A marriage of duty. Who would imagine it would end so happily?

The door opened and Darcy came into the bedroom. "My love, are you not coming to bed?"

"I was seeing if our little angels were asleep," she smiled at him.

Darcy stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. He glanced at his sleeping children with a placid smile. He was so proud of them.

Elizabeth sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder. His hands linked over her stomach as she spoke. "They are growing so fast, they are so much their own selves."

"Indeed. Andrew is already a little man. You should have seen him yesterday when your father showed him his atlas, listening as he told him of the world's greatest wonders. He said he would be an explorer when he grew up and discover new territories around the world. He has your sense of adventure." As Darcy spoke, Elizabeth smiled with fondness as she brushed a lock of hair off Andrew's forehead. "Millie is the one, I fear, will give us more trouble. She has this innate stubbornness and independency that I do not know from where it comes."

She arched an eyebrow in amusement. Couldn't her husband see that their daughter was exactly like him? And if he did notice the resemblance, he would never admit it. "She was the prettiest baby I have ever seen. If only they would remain small for a little longer."

"Well," Darcy bent his head to kiss his wife's neck, "We can always have some more, if that is your wish. You know I do not mind providing them."

A low, sensuous moan of approval escaped Elizabeth's throat when she felt her husband's hand moving up to her bosom. "And you are quite proficient at it."

Darcy placed his hands on her waist and turned her around to give her a sensuous kiss. "Shall we go to our bedroom, Mrs. Darcy? I fear that this is not the most appropriate place to proceed with this."

She smiled archly. "Mr. Darcy, I will be delighted to oblige."

Exactly nine months later, Patrick Darcy was born to the utter joy of his mother and father.

The End


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