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Daniellas Bureau; A Fanfic & Desktop Site

Marry In Haste, Repent At;

Version II; Volume VIII.


Author's Note: I must warn you of the violence in this chapter, as death comes on wheels to a certain character. Despite the implication, no horses were harmed in the making of this scene. Enjoy.

Chapter XXIX.

"Its an absolutely stupid idea, Cavendish! Particularly in your condition!"

Lord Saffron Walden gave his fellow member of the Four Horse Club a glance full of disapproval. Despite the fact that he had swallowed copious amounts of wine, port, brandy, and whiskey, he still felt and believed himself to be in full possession of his sensibilities.

Now he stood up from his chair, looked down his fine, patrician nose at his colleague, and snorted derisively. "Such concern for my safety, Winslow! Afraid I might win?"

Whether or not Lord Winslow privately agreed with this opinion of Lord Saffron Walden's, did not matter. However, that he was to accept this slur at his skill as a carriage driver did. He too rose up from his chair, a little unsteady, it must be said, drained the last contents of his glass, and tossed it, with good aim, into the fire. "I can race you any day, Cavendish! Sober or drunk! And still beat you by a yard too, I'll wager!"

Thus challenged, Lord Lucius was not about to forsake his pride now. He too drained his drink and tossed the glass into the fire. "You're on!" he cried aloud, disturbing the other occupants of the room from their alcohol induced slumbers.

"Any one else care to join us?" he asked, giving each remaining member who was currently residing in the London residence of the club a mocking glance.

Within ten minutes all ten of them were outside the building and standing in the crisp, early morning London air, clothed in their outdoor coats, the long riding apparel of carriage drivers, and shouting for their horses and equipage. Lucius, the most richly and impressively attired of them all by far, was the first to have his wants attended to.

His yellow and black carriage, with the coat of arms of his family engraved in gold, along with four black horses, was shepherded out of the stables, its attendants quietly holding the reins, waiting for their master to take sole command.

A single, graceful- despite his quietly contained drunkenness -leap, and Lucius was aboard the step, and the reins were in his hand. He waited for the other gentlemen- in various stages of drunkenness -to also mount, then flicked his whip. Like a sudden clap it sounded in the silent cold morning air, the equivalent almost of a starting pistol; and they were off.

Through the gates to the London roads, the file of carriages rode at a sedate pace, keeping a respectable line until they had reached the boundary of the town. Now comfortably on country roads, the riders set their own pace. Lucius, being by luck of the exit from the club, in the lead, galloped ahead with his set, keeping a constant whip on their pace, and a hand on the reins.

Any evidence that a scarce hour ago he had been drinking the rest of his gentlemen colleagues under the table, was entirely gone. In its place was the exhilaration that came with the thrill of participating in such a risk-taking, high powered sport. The horses in front of him were the best trained out of all the club's steeds, having come from his own pedigree bred stables.

He gave the back of his coach a cursory glance, turning round a second later with a smile of satisfaction. No one had emerged yet from the last turn of road. He was ahead of all, including that detestable little fellow Winslow. Fancy he having the nerve to challenge a Cavendish to a race! What chance did a piffling Winslow have against him?

He reached and gained another corner, whipping his horses into a frenzy of activity. The first stage of the race was almost at an end, by his memory, the first pub out of London having always been counted as a suitable marker for all their races. Lucius wanted to be the first by a long way to reach it. He checked behind him again, and seeing nothing, allowed his horses to set their own pace. He was content to coast for a little while. After all, what was the fun in winning if there was no one behind you to witness your triumph?

As the countryside seemed to race past him in the opposite direction, Lucius felt the need to fortify his parched throat. Transferring the reins to one hand, he reach into one of the deep pockets of his greatcoat with the other. Producing a well-worn leather coated flask, he balanced the container between his thighs, and pulled the stopper his eyes not taking off sight of the road ahead for a second. He raised the flask to his lips and took a satisfying long drink of the liquid contained therein.

Elizabeth! The name suddenly crossed his mind, appearing out of nowhere in his drunken tumble of thoughts and senses. She was the reason behind this carriage race, a deception to rally some seconds to his forthcoming duel. Lucius was thankful that the damn gentleman farmer had delivered the note in private this time, for the lack of support from his peers for the first was most embarrassing.

How that Darcy fellow had managed to get her sister out of his house was incredible. In hindsight he perhaps should have expected something of that manner to occur, rather than the hoped for easy outcome of his wife returning compliantly to his side. Elizabeth had never been so willing, something which he both admired and felt irritated by in equal measures. He was almost relieved that matters had resolved themselves in such a fashion, for he was fast becoming tired of the affair.

Added to this, ever since her desertion, he had found that staying at the club catered far more for his pleasures- whether carnal or other -than returning home ever did. Unlike the other gentlemens' facilities his father's patronage had left him, the Four Horse had never once kicked him out, even though he drank more than any other member there, and refused to pay his debts, of gambling and honour. It was also easier to just collapse once drunk in the nearest armchair of whatever room he happened to be in, and he could be assured of not being disturbed until morning.

The sound around him of horse hooves galloping seemed to double abruptly. Lucius secured his flask, and turned briefly to check the identity of the carriage behind him. Why, it was that fool, Winslow! He turned, and tossed the tail end of his whip upon his four steeds, speeding them up. He would not allow that fool to outstrip him! Not on a race which he had first laid down the challenge for!

Fortunately for the Earl, the horses were well rested and well fed, having been in the care of the stables of the club for many weeks now. They quickly picked up the pace. The sound of their hooves pounding upon the hard, rough road was intense and loud now. Lucius cheered them on, turning in mid flight to check again at the distance between him and the rest, laughing when he saw Winslow attempt, and fail, to make his horses go any faster, in order to outstrip his rival.

The road however, was about to bestow Winslow an advantage. It widened, allowing space for two carriages to ride side by side. Added to this, was the early hour at which they had begun this impromptu race, meaning that few public or private carriages, would be meeting this train of ten, all in a struggle to reach the pub first. Winslow saw his opportunity, and grabbed it with both hands. He whipped at his horses, and swerved them across the road, into the empty space alongside Saffron Walden's equipage.

Whether it was due to the amount of alcohol which he had consumed, the draining of his energy reserves by the race's extreme taxing on his body, or the quickness and skill of his opponent, Lucius noticed the change instantly. One second there was nothing beside him, the next there was. Four horses now became eight, one carriage now became two.

A race for supremacy ensued. The wheels rumbled on, the hooves pounded in synchronous time. The engraved coats of arms faced each other off, preparing to join in their own private duel, while their current holders raced each other across the countryside, trusting on their steeds to edge the gap for them, at which point Lucius let out a sudden howl of triumph. as his horses had managed to edge out a lead from Winslow. Casting a glance of arrogant posturing at his opponent, the Earl flicked his whip again, making the gap widen.

Later, it was said that no one was quite sure exactly when tragedy had struck. Astutely observing all witnesses to be, quite frankly, drunk out of their senses, the investigators had been content to leave the uncertainty at that. Indeed, it could be argued that no witnesses could be relied upon to know the exact time, except for the victim himself. And he had been in no condition to answer or refute anything. Whatever the condition of the roads, or the state and energy of the horses, the hand of God had come upon the master of the lead carriage. And his command could no longer be ignored.

Lucius, still triumphing over the knowledge that he was outstripping his rival, had forgotten that there was still some considerable length of road to overcome in the race to the first pub and stables outside of London. Whether it was due the intake of alcohol both before and during the ride, or the drain upon his internal energy resources, Lord Lucius would soon no longer be in a position to comment.

The road before him suddenly quadrupled. He blinked, but his drunken stupor prevented his mind from properly comprehending what was in front of him. His horses, having better instincts than their master at present, had slowed down, but were not allowed to remain thus for long. A strike of the whip made their speed quicken once more, and they left their master to their fate.

The barrier ahead of them, was in fact, a crossroads. Divided into four turnings, it presented the choices for which county to enter next after London and its environs. And from two of the county outskirts, came two carriages, both of them post chaises and, fortunately for all concerned, devoid of passengers. The collision was now inevitable.

Lord Winslow was the lucky one. He had not consumed enough alcohol to be insensible, and had spotted immediately the obstacles which were soon to cross his and Saffron Walden's paths. He slowed down his horses, letting them remain on the other side of the wide road, but some distance behind those of the Earl. A minute or so before the crossroads, he too foresaw the inevitable. Crying aloud in horror, he halted his carriage.

The move was not a moment too soon. The other eight carriages behind, seeing an obstruction in their path, also halted, their lords dismounting from the steps in skilful leaps, their drunkenness done away by the approaching horror. They just had time to reach the edge of Winslow's carriage, and thus be in sight of the crash when it occurred. A fearfully loud crack disturbed the silence of the morning, followed by the squealing of horses. Then a thud, at the conclusion of which, all standing turned their heads away.

It was some hours later, after the authorities and coffin makers had been called to the site, that a trail of mourners followed the coffin-bearers up the streets of London to the imposing house on Hanover Square. Robertson opened the front door, and greeted the sight of the coffin with confusion.

When he learned the identity of the person inside, that confusion slipped behind his servant's mask of composure, and he swept back into command. Directing for the coffin to be laid in state upon the Dining Room table, he went below stairs to inform the rest of the household staff.

The Earl of Saffron Walden's lawyers turned up within the next hour. Seeking out the Butler, they asked if they could pay their respects to the Countess. When Robertson replied that she had disappeared, the men of law looked perplexed themselves.

Following the Butler to his rooms below stairs, they took out the long piece of parchment that contained the last Will and Testament of their late client, and consulted again the lines which spelled out the nature of inheritance. Five minutes was all that was needed to confirm their first opinions.

Their client had no living family member that belonged to the Cavendish direct line. That left the sole inheritor to be the Lady Saffron Walden, Countess. Respectfully, they inquired after her whereabouts. Robertson answered in all honesty that he did not know.

The lawyers received this reply in silence, then turned to face each other and mulled over its contents for a while. Finding inspiration, one of them turned back to the Butler.

"Do you happen to have any information regarding the whereabouts of any members of the Countess' immediate family?"

"Yes, I believe there are some letters from the mistress' father in the late master's Study," Robertson replied, before showing the trio of lawyers the way to the room. The letters in question concerned a discussion of the marriage settlements and other arrangements which took place shortly after the Earl had obtained his consent, when he returned to town in order to attend his own father's funeral.

Ten minutes later, the lawyers had found what they needed to begin their search for the Countess, and Robertson had closed the door behind them. With a sigh, he walked to the Dining Room. Standing at the head of the coffin, he reflected over the details of his master's last movements, or at least, what he had heard from the witnesses who carried him back home.

Not for one moment did Robertson feel any semblance of loss. Young his master may have been, but by no means a good one. He had been most abusive to his wife. Robertson had almost cheered when he had learned of Lady Saffron Walden's successful escape from the Earl's clutches. And now she was the sole holder of all his fortunes.

And what a good landlady of them she would make, Robertson decided.

Chapter XXX.

Mr Andrew Bennet, Esquire, had been, as of almost an hour ago, comfortably ensconced within the private sanctum that was the Library of his home, Longbourn. Very few people were allowed beyond the door of this hallowed place nowadays.

Mrs Bennet, who had never thought there was a need to ask for permission in the first place, had long given up the practice of barging in unannounced to tell her husband about the latest new neighbour they had acquired, or of a new suitor for his remaining three unmarried daughters.

Netherfield, previously the only vacant property within three miles, was now let by his eldest daughter and her husband, and the event of regiments or new gentlemen taking residence in Meryton had not occurred for some months, much to Mr Bennet's relief. There had been a time when his door had not been barred to one member of his house, but that daughter was long married, and had not set foot in Longbourn since her sister's wedding.

Now, however, someone else had possessed the nerve to come into his library. The man in question had turned out to be one of the lawyers of his son in law, the Earl of Saffron Walden. Mr Bennet had been very surprised, and very concerned upon learning this information, and had forgotten for a moment, the strict instruction of who was and who was not, allowed into his Library. When he learnt of the nature of the news which awaited him, these two conflicting emotions increased in their effects, and gained a third; relief.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Elizabeth had long been her father's favourite, out of all his five daughters. This position had not changed upon her marriage, indeed quite the contrary. His need for her wit, her sense, her companionship, doubled the moment he realised that he would no longer see her every day.

Mr Bennet had been forced to resort to letter writing. It was a custom which, usually, he loathed to indulge himself in; indeed, if it had been any other person, he would not have given himself the bother, but to Elizabeth he always wrote. Out of all of his daughters, he had always looked forward to receiving and replying to missives from her pen.

However, he had noticed from her first letter to him, that something had changed since her marriage. Something of herself had been lost, vanished suddenly without a trace. Too precious to put a name towards, and too slight to be noticed by any except those who truly knew her, as he did.

Mr Bennet had naturally become puzzled by this discovery. For many a month he had tried to work it out, and reach a satisfying conclusion. The one that he did eventually reach however, was not altogether satisfying. Quite soon after the event, Andrew Bennet came to regret giving his consent to their marriage.

Something about the Earl had not sat right with him, even during the period of betrothal when his daughter had assured him that this marriage was what she wanted. This something had turned into a certainty, albeit an unidentifiable one, when he received his first letter from her after her marriage, for it was not like her usual letters to him when she was away. It tried to be, and from that attempt he caught the counterfeit nature of her new style.

Elizabeth however, had not bestowed him with a confidence as to what it was, that, her father believed, was quietly destroying her. And, though he felt that he knew the something was connected to the Earl, Mr Bennet had kept silence upon the matter.

And now his son in law was dead. The manner of his death had further confirmed Mr Bennet's suspicions, but the information which he discovered along with it, advanced them even more so. His daughter, he was now to learn, was no longer living in any of the houses of her late husband, and had not for quite some time.

Where she was living, the lawyers had absolutely no idea, and, to their surprise, neither had Mr Bennet. He did however, relieve them of the burden of finding out. Andrew thanked them for their information, and promised to have his daughter contact them as soon as her location had been discovered.

Alone once more in the privacy of his Library, Mr Bennet leant back into the confines of his armchair and pondered the puzzle he had just been set. Within moments, he had reached only one, inalienable conclusion. Only one daughter could possibly know where his favourite was.

Or at least, have a certain amount of suspicion.

Darcy returned to Pemberley shortly after seeing to it that the news of Lydia's departure from Brighton did not spread to the papers or the realms of society. He arrived alone, with assurances from his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, that he would follow when word reached them of the Earl's agreement to keep a certain appointment involving duelling pistols. Still quartered at his barracks, the Colonel was occupied in training in his men for the martial engagements in Spain. He could not while his time away in Derbyshire, waiting for the Earl to come.

He entered his home to be welcomed by his sister, who had been waiting on the landing, and descended the stairs at a hurried pace to rush into his arms. He glanced upwards as he returned her gesture of affection, to find and meet Elizabeth's eloquent glance of hesitancy with a reassuring look of his own. The Countess then quietly withdrew from her place upon the upper hall, leaving him to the task of providing comfort for his sister.

When all of Georgiana's worries had been assuaged, for the moment at least, Darcy left her to the care of her music masters, before seeking out Elizabeth. He found the Countess in the Library, pleasantly occupied in the study of one of the many leather bound volumes which belonged to that room. At least that is what he determined when he first entered, however a glance proved that her pose was merely an appearance of studiousness not unlike the occasion one evening at Netherfield, when Miss Bingley had attempted to gain his favour by studying the second volume of the work which had been held in his hands for much of the night, though he could suppose that Elizabeth's motives were beyond such scruples.

Closing the doors behind him, he advanced to seat himself beside her at the other end of the sofa, his fingers then reaching out to gently pry the book from her hand. "Elizabeth?"

She glanced at him solemnly, a little nervous and embarrassed still from the memory of the emotional encounter which had taken place between them shortly before his departure. Silently he gathered her into his arms and in a steady, softly spoken tone began to relate all that had occurred during his time in London. Nothing was concealed from her, not Lydia's impetuously reckless behaviour, the reaction of Mr and Mrs Gardiner to her arrival upon their doorstep, under his escort, their gratitude for his actions, along with Bingley's curiosity regarding how he came to learn of the affair, offset by his concern for his wife. He finished with detailing the contents of the note he had left in the Earl's house, and the short conversation he and his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam had before he left for Derbyshire.

Upon receiving the details about the nature of duel and where it was to take place, Elizabeth drew back a little to glance at her companion in some concern. "He will not come here..."

Darcy shook his head, before gently interrupting her. "No, the cottage is situated on the boundaries of my estate, a good ten miles from this house. I alerted the household when we first arrived to the dangers of his character, you can be assured that they will not admit him." He paused, as he caught sight of the other fear within her heart, captured clearly across her fine eyed countenance. "He will not harm me, Elizabeth, I will not give him the chance."

Elizabeth descried the steadfastness of his conviction in his own handsome visage, and attempted to adhere to her usual lighthearted manner. Though it was not in her nature to increase her vexations by dwelling on them, to fret over unavoidable evils, or augment them by anxiety, her present disposition was in such a turmoil over the thought of what one well placed gunshot might do to her life, as that of many others in her companion's charge and care, that such adherence proved somewhat difficult to achieve.

Darcy too was not above feeling some anxiety over the affair himself, so it was for the relief of both concerned that he sought to change the subject of their discourse. "Though I do not wish to appear arrogant in the confidence of my aim, I do propose that we discuss what will happen a year from that appointment. What is your view on the matter?"

It took a moment or two for Elizabeth to divine what he could be alluding to, for her to recall that it was a convention of society that mourning for a husband should last a year, to allow for no question or scandal to arise in determining the parentage of any heir born thereafter. That many in society refused to follow this custom was freely discussed amongst their peers, and though her companion's spoken preference might seem unfeeling in the wake of a certain intimate yet chaste exchange between them during their last parting, she knew that it was said out of a desire to cause her comfort, rather than assuaging any concern on behalf of society.

"You would consent to such a period of delay?" she asked softly, choosing her words with care, for though there had been many an allusion, formal words regarding the matter had yet to be exchanged.

"My affections and wishes will remain forever unchanged," he assured her, "Elizabeth, I ardently admire and love you. I beg of you that in a year from now, you will do me the great honour of bestowing upon me your hand."

Never before had she imagined herself to receive an offer such as this while in a position which should caution her to refuse. Feeling all the more than the common awkwardness and anxiety over their situation, she forced herself to speak, knowing that while her fluency in such might be deficient, her sentiments were of a such a similar nature to his own, that they could not fail to be understood. "Fitzwilliam, I love you, and I do believe that can I return your feelings, but to speak of such an event taking place a year from now, dependent on the pressing appointment which will determine if our marriage takes place at all......"

Her voice faltered as he brought a hand to cup her cheek, his fingers tenderly tracing her features. "I understand, my love, and I will remain true to my word, as you shall see. I merely wish to give you the liberty which your husband has long denied you, to enjoy the world which your first marriage should have welcomed you into, and which he did all he could to isolate you from. I am of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, one who would happily retreat from Society if not for the duties demanded of me by family, or the desire to show them how happy I am with you by my side. I wish you to be sure of this affection, before settling for matrimony once more."

Elizabeth managed to catch one of the fingers which traced the contours of her mouth, kissing it softly. "Fitzwilliam, I will not be settling. Nor do I have a desire to observe those customs which society deem appropriate as a mark of respect, for it is an emotion which I no longer feel for him. There will be talk, as there always is whenever a match is made, but the talk will only live as long as we allow it to affect us, so we should not let such cares dictate the timing of events."

The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself upon the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. But neither could ignore the inalienable truth that there was one event which would dictate the time of all those affairs that followed. The encounter between Darcy and the Earl, the duel that would this time end in a death.

Everyday at Pemberley was now a day of anxiety; but the most anxious part of each was when the sights and sounds of a carriage could be discerned about the estate. Through such means of transportation, whatever part of good or bad was to be told, would be communicated and every succeeding day was expected to bring an arrival of importance. Each vehicle was treated with suspicion, be it a post chaise, a privately hired or owned equipage carrying visitors to the estate, be they tenants or tourists or representatives from the neighbouring estates.

One sight and sound brought a letter from Mr Bingley, the contents of which drove Darcy to seek Elizabeth after they had parted for the morning, he being called away to deal with an affair on the estate, and happening to meet with the express rider upon his return. He found her in the sunken dutch garden which was situated by the house, a prettyish plot of land, with a fountain surrounded by knots of green and wildflowers.

"Elizabeth, I have here a letter from Bingley," he began as he stood before her.” He asks me if I learned of the affair concerning your youngest sister from Pearlcoombe Abbey, as he understands from his wife that she has had no word of correspondence from you since we were at Rosings. Why have you not written to her or your family? You know I have no objection to your doing so."

The Countess blushed. "I confess that I have been too embarrassed to do so. There is a certain amount of anxiety as to what they might think, and how they will feel about what I have concealed from them for so long. I never told Jane of my troubles, Fitzwilliam. I had no desire to burden her, or cloud her serene view of the world."

Darcy instantly understood, but placed the letter from his friend in her hands. "Write to her, my love. She may have news from other quarters that will better inform us why the Earl has not kept his appointment." In his note of challenge to her husband he had proposed a certain date, which he believed would be convenient for all concerned. This day had passed without a syllable of reply from Saffron Walden. Nor had they received any news from other quarters which might provide a reasonable explanation as to the delay regarding the Earl's response.

It was this letter which Jane received but an hour or two before her father arrived most unexpectedly.

Like his favourite daughter, Mr Bennet enjoyed walking in preference to a horse or the carriage, when the distance was not so great that the need of either became a necessity. So he walked the three miles he needed to cover, arriving at the door of Netherfield, well before any note could have been sent to let them know he was coming.

"Papa," Mrs Bingley cried when he had been announced and entered into her and her husband's presence. "We had not expected you."

Mr Bennet could not help but smile at the sight of his eldest daughter. Jane looked perfectly happy and contented with her first marriage, that was easily ascertained by her sweet smiling face, and the adoring devotion of her equally besotted husband. In this match at least, he could comfort himself that he had not erred in bestowing upon Mr Bingley his consent to wed his one of his daughters.

"I always pride myself, Jane, on coming into one of my children's houses when I am least expected. Now, I will dispense with formalities, for I can see yet without spectacles and I can see you are both perfectly well. I came to inform you of a sad event, and ask a question which pertains to it."

Here Mr Bennet paused, ensuring that he had his audience's full attention before proceeding any further. "I was informed, by one of his lawyers a few hours ago, that the Earl of Saffron Walden has passed on from the world of the living."

Jane gasped, turned to look at her husband, who was likewise amazed, then she sent a glance to Mr Bingley, full of meaning, and one which Mr Bennet had expected to occur.

"Out with it, Jane," Mr Bennet immediately remarked, causing his eldest to look upon him with surprise. "Where is she? Where is my Elizabeth?"

Jane glanced to her husband once more, who nodded solemnly. Then she turned back to her father, realising that she was about to give him the second shock of this morning. "She is living under the protection of Charles' good friend, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy."

Andrew Bennet sat back in his chair, his expression belying the full nature of the surprise he was currently experiencing. For a full minute, he uttered not a word. Then he steepled his fingers, and remarked quietly, "Tell me everything you know, both of you."

Jane related the entire story which had been relayed within the contents of Elizabeth's letter to her, with Charles adding his own view, for Darcy had also replied to his own missive. The skill of their telling was quite lost upon Mr Bennet, too concerned as he was, with the actual events he was hearing. Elizabeth had met Mr Darcy quite frequently over the past year, first for the wedding of Jane, then at Kent, through a mutual relation, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Somehow during these meetings, Mr Darcy had discovered the secret which Elizabeth had kept from all her family, that her husband was abusing her, and had offered her an escape. Then one night in London she had walked out of Hanover Square, and into his house in Grosvenor. Since then, she had been a guest of him and his sister.

"Where is she now?" Mr Bennet asked, in that same quiet tone.

"With Darcy and his sister in his country estate. Pemberley in Derbyshire," Bingley replied.

Andrew asked for the direction, and having obtained it, took leave of his eldest daughter and son in law. Upon his return to Longbourn, he ordered for his carriage and horses, bade his wife and daughters goodbye, and set off on the road to Derbyshire.

Chapter XXXI.

Andrew Bennet leaned back into the comfortable furnishings of his carriage, his mind held no humour at present for the green woods and hills of the country which was passing by him outside the equipage. Instead, his mind continued to focus upon the mystery of his daughter, and her location, which he was to visit today.

He had met Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy first at Lucas Lodge, just after Michaelmas last year. Then it had been a brief introduction, for it was rare one gained a better acquaintance with a stranger at Lucas Lodge, while beside the presence of its owner, Sir William.

That night, all Mr Bennet had been able to say for certain concerning Mr Darcy, was that the gentlemen did not talk as much as his friend, and that therefore, counted in his favour. But now however, that initial opinion was hardly one with which to form a proper judgement on the man who was, according to his eldest daughter, 'protecting' his favourite from her 'vile' husband. So Andrew thought back to the second occasion when both he and the gentleman in question had been present: at the Netherfield Ball.

Then Mr Darcy had also been silent, rarely crossing Mr Bennet's path, although Andrew could just recollect seeing him escaping Mr Collins somewhat successfully. After that, he realised, he had not seen Mr Darcy again until the gentleman had returned from London to attend his best friend's wedding.

Andrew recalled his memory of that day back to his mind, and found, to his frustration, that he had not spoken to Mr Darcy then either. He had seen his daughter talking to him, and the young girl beside him, who he had since learnt to be his sister. But not once could he recall ever speaking to the man himself.

The carriage negotiated the passage of another passing briefly beside it, then resumed its normal pace, though Mr Bennet noticed nothing of the uneventful incident. Having established that he had no personal experience with the gentleman in question to form an opinion of his character from, Andrew now set about recollecting what others had said of him.

The first comment he recalled, was from his dear wife, who had, on the first night of his being in the neighbourhood, pronounced Mr Darcy to be the most disagreeable man she had ever met! Andrew was inclined to discount that particular judgement however, on the grounds that his wife had only formed it because the man had failed to dance with any of their daughters.

So he turned to the second opinion he had heard. That also was not from one who could be counted on to give a judgement unmarred by personal emotion. His youngest, Lydia, before her misadventure in Brighton, had mentioned Mr Darcy doing something which had reduced Lieutenant Wickham to the state he was in now.

While Andrew had formed as much of an opinion about that officer as he had about Darcy, he was not inclined to accept the judgement of his youngest daughter either, for he knew that she would not give an impartial opinion on any gentlemen who did not pay the amount of attention she wished from them, or who was not wearing a soldier's garb.

Thus Mr Bennet was left with the final opinions he heard, from Jane and Bingley, just before he left their house for Derbyshire. From the friend he had established that Mr Darcy was held in high respect, and counted on for his intelligence and judgement. From his daughter, he had learnt that Mr Darcy was by nature reserved, but within the company of those he knew, could be very amiable.

Further, he was an excellent brother, and had been in the possession of his family's estates since the age of three and twenty. This amount of information, in Mr Bennet's opinion, was not enough to form an entire judgement upon his character, but it would suffice for the moment, though it came from two people who were anxious for Mr Bennet to have a good opinion of Mr Darcy in the first place, for he was Elizabeth's apparent saviour.

At this moment, Andrew was brought out of his ruminations, by the gentle rise of the carriage, as its wheels and horses passed over a bridge. He glanced outside, and uttered a quiet gasp of astonishment. This had to be his destination, and what a destination it was.

Pemberley House looked to be a fine building, situated within its grounds as if it had been there since the dawn of time, though Mr Bennet could tell from the style of architecture that only the outside at least was fairly new. As the carriage came closer, further examination proved the building to be older than its exterior facade, for the shape spoke back to the time of Queen Elizabeth and beyond. Its owner certainly had taste and discernment, if nothing else, Andrew could now feel able to conclude.

The carriage halted at the front Palladian styled entrance, and a footman came out from the inner courtyard to open the door and let down the steps so Mr Bennet could descend. Once on the ground, Andrew presented his card to the man, whereupon he was asked to follow and wait in the hall until he had notified the master of his arrival.

Silently Andrew followed the footman through the archway into the inner courtyard, up the stairs and into the Entrance Hall. All the while his mind was at work, observing the decoration, both of the exterior and interior, speculating if these could give him a clue as to character of the master who owned them.

So far all Mr Bennet could discern was Mr Darcy's taste, which, like many things he had discovered recently, was not what he had expected. Having heard from his cousin Mr Collins that his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh was Mr Darcy's aunt, Andrew had sometimes imagined the interior of Pemberley to be similar to what he had heard about Rosings Park. But the reality was very different, displaying a taste more suited to the current fashionable tastes, rather than the past fancy for Baroque.

"Mr Bennet?" a female voice queried now, bringing him out of his musings. Andrew looked up to encounter the gaze of the woman whom he presumed to be the Housekeeper. "Mr Darcy and Lady Saffron Walden will see you now."

Andrew followed her through various rooms, all of an equally elegant, yet understated wealth, until she halted at last, in a room which he could not fail to like.

"Mr Andrew Bennet, sir," the housekeeper announced then, just as Andrew finished his rapid survey of the finest Library he had ever seen.

"Thank you, Mrs Reynolds," replied a deep voice, which brought Andrew to take a look now at its owner. "Could you please see to it that Georgiana is informed, and that none disturbs us unless sent for?"

Mrs Reynolds merely curtseyed in reply, and Mr Bennet watched her exit the room out of the corner of his eye. The rest of his gaze was turned upon his daughter, and Mr Darcy. When he had first entered the room, he had seen them seated near each other on the same sofa.

Now however, Elizabeth had remained in her seat, while Mr Darcy stood behind, his hand resting on the ornate gilded edge. His face was welcoming, though it held a sense of caution, and the hand, Andrew noticed, frequently strayed near to his daughter.

"Mr Bennet, you are welcome," Mr Darcy began. The tone, Andrew noticed, held a modicum of caution. "Mr and Mrs Bingley, I presume, informed you of your daughter's presence as a guest of myself and my sister?"

"They did, much to my surprise," Andrew replied, his eyes flicking briefly to his silent daughter. He had never seen her expression more tightly controlled before. "I came to inform you, Lizzy, of an event which I myself was informed of only a few days ago. I decided to save the lawyer a trip, believing that I could deliver the news better than he."

This at last brought Elizabeth out of her silence. "What has happened, Papa?" she asked softly, countless answers racing through her head, none of them good, for fear of tempting fate.

"Your husband had suffered an accident," Andrew continued, observing all the while, the faces of his daughter and Mr Darcy, who had taken his daughter's hand in his. "He was racing, I believe, with his friends from one of his clubs, and his carriage collided with another. I am afraid he did not survive, Elizabeth."

His daughter heard these words with outward composure at first, Elizabeth could not believe that she was to be so fortunate. She had not thought that such an event would occur for good many years to come.

It had been three years and five months of marriage, and now, it was finally over. Three years of torment followed by five months of happiness, the like of which she had never experienced before. She glanced up at Darcy, saw the same expression of joy, relief and love as she displayed, clearly marked upon his features, as light signalling day. Thoughts and dreams raced through her mind, some turning into hopeful reality as she gazed upon his face.

Suddenly she felt a light touch on her hands, which caused her to look and see a precious gemstone entwined in a antique metal band had been slipped on to her finger.

He had not asked, nor knelt before her, but they had no need for such formalities. Since their removal to Pemberley they had carried out all the appearance of a marriage, save for the union which holy vows and their own moral principles prevented them from consummating. On his return from London, while they waited for her late husband to make an appearance in the neighbourhood for the appointment with a pair of duelling pistols, enough conversation had passed between Fitzwilliam and herself to render any further superfluous. Rising from her seat, she directed an eloquent smile towards her betrothed, then another to her father, before leaving their presence.

Back in the Library, Mr Bennet now turned his gaze from the double doors from whence his daughter had quitted the room, to the man standing before him, with a new understanding. He had seen Mr Darcy clasp his daughter's hand when he had spoken of her husband's accident, and therefore had not missed the silent movements of said hand to a pocket, drawing something out, then slipping it on one of the bare fingers of her left hand, just as he had observed his daughter's reaction to it. That Elizabeth received the gift with just as much surprise as he, could not be denied. Yet, at the same time, delight had come over her face, whereas Andrew's features had held only astonishment.

"I see my daughter has once again, managed to surprise her father," he now remarked, watching the gentleman opposite him carefully.

"I hope that this time, it does not prove to be an unhappy one," Mr Darcy said, somewhat astutely, thought Mr Bennet.

"That rather depends on a number of things, Mr Darcy," Andrew commented, resuming his seat as he did so. "But you have at least one point in your favour at this moment."

"And what is that, if I may ask, sir?"

"You may ask. An excellent Library." He smiled briefly, then leaned back, steepling his fingers together, regarding the young man before him with all the appraisal of a future father in law. "Begin your request."

Darcy came forward and sat down upon the armchair opposite. "Mr Bennet, I humbly ask you for the blessing of your daughter Elizabeth's hand. Almost from the first moment of our acquaintance, I have come to feel for her a passionate regard. I knew she was married, and therefore, I kept these feelings to myself. Now, however, that she is free, I would wish for the chance to openly express them to her, as a husband should."

"Mr Darcy, that is not a sufficient explanation," Mr Bennet said, immediately after he had discovered that those words were apparently to be all he would get without some prompting on his part. "You have neglected to explain to me why you felt it necessary to take her from her establishment to your house."

"When I realised that I was in love with her," Mr Darcy continued, clasping his hands together to conceal his nervousness, "I could not fail to observe that she was not happy. One day I saw what I feared might be a clue to her unhappiness, and could not prevent myself from asking her outright. She confirmed my fears. From that moment, I confess, sir, I was lost. I swore to myself that I would help her, using all that was in my power to do so."

He paused, his gaze turning to the hearth between them, its embers slowly dying. "I offered her the chance to escape," he continued, the tone of his voice absent, displaying to Mr Bennet that his mind was not on the scene before his eyes, but on those which had occurred in the past. "I offered it with honourable intentions, as nothing more than an opportunity for her to find some safety and sanctuary, for a long as she needed it. At first, she was reluctant, fearing he would find out. But then, when she felt she could bear it no longer, she came.

"I treated her as an honoured guest, and not once forced my affections upon her notice.........."

".........but always there was this understanding between us," Elizabeth continued, unconsciously echoing her suitor's words to her father, from only an hour before. After that he had sought out his daughter, finding her wandering the immediate grounds of the estate, a habit of hers formed at Longbourn. Upon catching sight of her, it gladdened his heart to see her doing so without that wistful nostalgia which he had so often observed upon her countenance whilst in the company of her late husband the Earl. "Both of us knew what the other felt, and I knew that he would never openly display those feelings unless I gave him permission.

"For awhile I was confused, thinking that I looked upon him with those feelings merely because I knew of his, and felt guilty of not reciprocating. But soon I realised that they ran far deeper than that. I love him, Papa. I know the difference now, between a passing fancy and everlasting feelings. He is nothing like the Earl. If you only knew his generous nature. What he did to help Lydia is not the only danger to this family which he has averted. She was in the Earl's grasp, and could have been ruined by him, if it were not for Mr Darcy's swift actions. But it is not merely gratitude which has awakened my regard for him. There is an ease between us, an empathy of understanding and intellect. In his company, in his arms," she blushed, "I have never felt so safe. He is the best man I have ever known."

"Well, my dear," said Mr Bennet when she ceased speaking, "I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not have parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy a second time, especially as I grew to hold misgiving over the first."

He remembered the first time he had heard a petition from someone asking for his favourite's hand, the doubt in his worth which he had never been able to shake from him, despite all her assurances to the contrary. The horrible feeling which grew in the pit of his stomach when he learned the vile truth of that marriage. Guilt and self-incrimination were no longer strangers to him, he had experienced the like of these emotions only too recently during Lydia's misadventure in Brighton. He was not afraid of being overpowered by the feeling, for his was conscious of all his faults.

But at least in this he could make reparation. A chance meeting in London, followed by further acquaintance at Netherfield and Rosings had given him such. Of Mr Darcy, he felt that at last, he had found a man who understood his daughter well, and loved her dearly. He could see it upon his face, and hear it in his voice all through the interview in the Library. Now with Elizabeth, he could see that all those feelings were returned. Not only that, but she was happier than she had ever been. In this union there would be no concealment, no misery, no abuse. He would be able to visit her without finding that something from her character had been misplaced. For she had found it once more, in wild and untamed beauty of Derbyshire.

Time passed on. A year of tomorrows, and Mr Bennet was called to Pemberley once more, this time in the company of all his family, along with his acquaintances in London, those who knew or could claim a kinship with the families of the bride groom, whose union was to take place in the private chapel on the estate. Once a Catholic family, an ancestor had installed such a room within his palatial home before the Reformation, which respect and tradition had kept from being transformed into a hall or ballroom or some other grand chamber which would suit.

Here amongst the oaken pews, a profusion of crimson and purple velvet cushions, the aisles, banners, craved arches, inscriptions, a couple stood before the altar to have their vows of fidelity recited and blessed by the chaplain, their mode of dress very fine, as more than one member of the attendants would comment to another during the ball which was to break the fast in celebration of the union that evening.

After the ceremony was performed and the registers signed, the groom led his bride through the upper family corridor to the bedroom wing beyond, where their chambers lay, for a more private reverence of their own. A coupling which one had once looked towards with fear, knowing nothing but abuse would be derived from it, only coming to learn later, that there was a pleasure to be enjoyed within it. This neglect in her education was remedied over a period spent in the company of her love, who sought to increase the intimacy between them by degrees, until she led him to the altar through her eagerness, instead of through gratitude or any other emotion which might have been shaped by her previous union.

Now in the sanctity of their room did he take her in a tender-hearted embrace, and bestow upon her lips a kiss of ardent passion, one which due to his careful tuition, she could not fail to return. Pressing his fingers against her back, he gently drew apart the fastenings of her gown, before taking her hands in his to guide her in removing his coat. His lips continued to caress her own as each layer of clothing was shed from their forms, until nothing shielded their flesh from each other's loving gaze.

Elizabeth found herself captured by the emotion within Fitzwilliam's countenance as he drew back from her swollen lips to seek out the adornments in her hair, withdrawing them one by one until the glorious dark locks cascaded down to her waist. Coiling one such around his finger, he brought the strands to his mouth, as though a pilgrim at some holy shrine. With another tender gesture to her wrists he gathered up her hands in his own and led her to the bed, guiding her to lie before him while he hovered above. Bending forward, he pressed them against his chest as he began an exploration of her soft skin.

She could feel the pounding of his heart as his lips stroked kisses against her neck, then to the valley of her breasts. When his mouth suckled at her nipple she could not check herself from moaning aloud in pleasure. As she instinctively arched herself towards his attentions he paused for a moment to smile at her, an eloquent response to her unchecked exultation. His hands let go of her own, allowing her clutch at his head, coiling the dark hair she found there between her fingers, as she sought to express all the joy which his adoration arose within her.

Gradually his lips slipped from her soft full mounds to the slim canvas of her waist, rousing more cries of joy from her, even a laugh when his tongue dipped into the hollow recess of her belly. In curious wonderment she watched him descend further, exploring the most intimate folds of her body, until the tension which had been steadily building within her reached its peak and sent her into a cascade of pure bliss.

Awed by the wave of sensual feelings which he had woken within her, she could scarce believe that such emotions were able to rise inside her body as frequently as the waves of the sea would sweep across the shore. Yet when he returned to level his face with her own, as he guided her into achieving what would be the most intimate of unions, Elizabeth felt the pleasure rise inside her once again, accompanying his thrusts, until they both found that peak.

"Will it always be like this?" she asked him wondrously after he had gathered her into his arms with a brilliant smile at being able to bring her pleasure where nothing but fear had previously existed.

"I swear to ensure it is so," he whispered, before kissing her again.

Chapter XXXII.

It was with great reluctance that they rose from the bed almost half an hour later. The presence of friends and family in the public rooms below could no longer be ignored. Darcy proved his worth as a lady's maid, helping Elizabeth put back on the white gown and undergarments which only minutes ago he had gently removed from her body. It was to the credit of Sarah that her hair was restored to its previous sculpture of pins and other adornments.

When Elizabeth was dressed, she turned to admire her new bedchambers, which she had not seen until this moment. Like the rest of Pemberley's interior, they reflected a subtle elegance and understated wealth, along with a sense of neutrality, making the mood of the room suitable to both night and daylight.

Her observation complete, she turned to watch her husband once more. She still could not believe what had happened only hours ago. No longer did she need to fear about the Earl finding her. He was no more. Instead she was the wife of the best man she had ever known.

She smiled as she watched him arrange his cravat without the assistance of his valet, in front of her dressing mirror. For all the trappings of his wealth, he was perfectly capable of looking after himself, unlike others who needed a servant for everything.

Her eyes ran down his body, taking note of how well he looked in his formal wedding clothes. Her mind supplied the images her eyes at present could not; of his bare sculpted chest, and the look upon his face as he took her. He had held her so gently. The memories were still so vivid, in all their senses. Of his lips upon her skin, exploring her intimately. Of the caresses his hands applied, each touch arousing her to a greater degree of passion and feeling. Most of all, how it felt when he entered her, and what a contrast his technique was from the Earl's.

What had always felt as an intrusion, now felt like the sweetest of pleasures. Combined with the expression upon his face, and the feeling conveyed by his dark eyes, their joining seemed to her almost hallowed, as profound and as deep as if it were a holy communion. He gazed at her with such intensity as they lay joined, striving for their ultimate pleasure together. In his view, she felt herself to be infinitely precious to him. And she could help but return that feeling, just as equally upon him.

He turned suddenly, his ministrations upon his cravat complete, catching her gaze. Elizabeth could not help but blush as she tried to put her delightful recollections to the back of her mind and focus on the present. Retrieving his jacket from the chair where it had been thrown shortly after they had entered her bedchamber, he made his way over to her, putting it on as he did so.

"Do I please you, my Elizabeth?" he asked her softly, his voice lingering over her name, in that way which delighted her so.

"Always, my Fitzwilliam," she replied, bestowing upon him the same endearment to his own first name, making Darcy marvel once more at how no one else could speak it and touch him so profoundly as she.

They stood there, close together but not touching, the longing desire of wanting to repeat their lovemaking evident in what little space there was between them. Their dark eyes, so in tune now with the thoughts, wishes, dreams and feelings of the other, that no more words needed to be said, conveyed their desire to the other, and the mutual regret that familial duty, along with the duty as master and mistress of the house, called them back downstairs.

Darcy bent his head so their foreheads touched, closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. He would have liked nothing more right now than to take his bride back to the bed they had only just risen from, but he knew the guests were waiting for them below. They had delayed their reappearance too long already. Reluctantly he straightened up, and resolved to take only her hand.

"Ready, my love?" he asked her regretfully.

Elizabeth silently assented, equally regretful, and allowed him to lead the way out of their room.

Upon their entrance into the Ballroom, all guests present fell into silence, their eyes eagerly turned to the appearance of their hosts. Before the Darcys' entrance, their minds had already established that this second wedding for the Countess of Saffron Walden was quite clearly a love match, making all but those who knew the couple the most wonder now what the first had been like, and speculate on how long they had been in love before the announcement of the engagement.

The eyes of the guests remained upon their hosts as Darcy took his lady out for the first dance of the evening. The number of couples would have been quite inferior to the size of the room, had not the number of those guests who were still talking been sufficient to fill the rest of the space. It was a credit to the mastery of the orchestra present that the sound of the guests' chatter did not drift above the music, enabling the intricate movements of the first dances to be performed according to each of its participants' skills in the art.

Darcy and Elizabeth themselves remained oblivious to the speculation surrounding them, and the interest their absence had attracted. They had obeyed the call of duty to show themselves present at the dance; whether their minds were actually there with them was quite another matter, and not up for negotiation. Their movements were as perfect as usual, both having become accustomed to dancing almost as soon as they could walk. But their eyes rarely removed from the countenance or form of each other, and the expression upon their faces was nothing short of pure contentment.

Around them the guests observed them, their minds busily attempting to calculate what vast amounts of fortunes were now combined. If Saffron Walden was said to be one of the richest earldoms, then so was Mr Darcy said to be one of the richest men in the kingdom. Apart, both of them could have been a very eligible prize for anyone, but together the fortune that would be bestowed upon any children from their union was even more powerful.

Already some were contemplating the worth of the next generation, trying to puzzle out if any of their families could ever hope to connect themselves so rich an alliance. As for those who were not altogether inclined towards monetary value, they watched closely the faces of the bride and groom, speculating with their creative eye how long the love which was so clearly divined from their manners and expressions, had existed between them, what the real character of the late Earl had been like, and how even more dashing the addition of a title made the master of Pemberley now.

Of the family present, there was just an equal confection of mixed reactions. Mr and Mrs Bingley stood next to their friends and siblings in the dancing line, each content with the match that their closest friends had made, and how happier each looked now. From the side lines, Mr Bennet watched them, his smile behind a face of perfect composure, as he bore his wife's ceaseless chatter about their new son in law with tolerable equanimity.

A short distance away, a equally taciturn gentleman stood with his wife, although she was far more suited to him than Mrs Bennet was to her husband. The Earl of Matlock watched his only nephew with contentment, glad that he had managed to make a match equal both in terms of wealth and a meeting of minds. His wife observed with him, her eyes generally more on her niece, as her mind foresaw the next great society hostess, her future successor.

A little distance away from them stood the Viscount and his wife, their son and heir, his own mind equally approving of his cousin's match. The Viscountess stood quietly beside him, her thoughts on her own wedding day, remembering that the new mistress of Pemberley looked just as happy as she. Like her mother in law, she pictured the future, lending her prayers that her cousins would have much happiness.

On the opposite side of the Ballroom stood Colonel Fitzwilliam, also pleased with the result of many months of private speculation and concern between himself and his wife. As for himself, he was still revelling in his own recent love match, having found in Charlotte all that he could ever have wished for, along with all the joy of discovery that she saw in him the same.

Charlotte, who had never expected to fall in love, was now pleased to note that the expression upon her friend Elizabeth was very similar to that of her own. She felt the caress of her husband's hand upon her own and looked up, quietly accepting his request that they dance the two next. Charlotte cast one final look to her friend, wishing her every happiness.

By one of the balconies nearby, stood a woman who was undecided about whether to be angry or content with this current situation. Lady Catherine de Bourgh had always entertained high hopes that her daughter would marry her nephew Darcy, and that together they would unite the two powerful estates of Rosings and Pemberley. Learning of his engagement had, understandably, given her much shock and pause for thought.

She had been quite saddened to lose her godson so soon, though equally angry at the nature of his death. She had always disapproved of his passion for that dreadful club. And now she had even more reason to do so. Now she was in a quandary as to whether or not approve of the union which had been the result of Lucius' death. That the vast wealth of the Saffron Walden's had not gone out of the family was welcome news, but that it had put an end to her own plans for her nephew was quite a different matter.

There was no one now, within the family, to wed dear Anne, which meant that Rosings would soon be lost to the Fitzwilliam family forever. Oh, Lady Catherine was shrewd enough to know that the next generation might bring it back into the family once more, but also wise enough to realise how unlikely that event could also be. Therefore, she stood before one of the balconies, her eyes constantly on her nephew and his bride, and wondering how she did not foresee this coming in time to work the match to her own advantage.

The reactions to the match of the remaining daughters of the Bennet family were just as different. Mary stood silently, refusing every request she received to dance, wondering when her mother would finally become reconciled to her wish to receive the veil. Kitty observed her sister and new brother in law with some wistfulness, hoping that, one day, she would be just as blessed as Elizabeth, and have a husband who loved her as much as Darcy evidently adored her sister.

As for Lydia, she was mourning the lack of redcoats among the guests, the caution and restrictions which her father had placed upon her behaviour after she returned from London. More than a year had passed since her daring escape from the late Earl of Saffron Walden's townhouse, a year spent in the confined and unvarying society that was to be had now at Longbourn. No walks into Meryton, no balls or assemblies, or militia quartered. She had not even been allowed to persuade the Bingleys to host a ball before they quitted Netherfield for one of the estates which Lizzy had been left by her late husband.

The music drew to a close, causing the dancing couples to part and perform their bows and curtseys. Darcy eagerly rose up to take possession of his wife's gloved hand, leading her away from the dancing, in quest of an empty balcony. The journey seemed long, as they passed guests and family on their way, all wanting to shake their hands and congratulate them on their nuptials, but eventually they reached their goal.

Darcy swept them out into the balmy night air, the curtains closing behind them, giving them a privacy albeit somewhat brief, for their duties as host and hostess forbade them from seeking to linger in such a state, however much their hearts and minds might desire it. Smiling, he took her other hand and led her to the railing before them.

"Four years ago today," he began speaking, his mouth by her ear, his voice seeming to Elizabeth a tender caress, while his hands worked an equal enchantment upon her gloved arms. "I was standing here, without any idea of the happiness that awaited me. If someone had told me what lay before me, I would never have believed them. For I could never have imagined such contentment was to come." He turned to face her, drawing into his arms. "Thank you, Elizabeth, for giving me everything I could ever have hoped and dreamed for, and more."

Elizabeth smiled, her eyes misty with tears of joy. "Four years ago today," she echoed, her own mind remembering what had happened to her then, now seeming so long ago. "I stood in my bedchamber at Hanover Square, despairing of ever escaping my husband. I had thought myself to be in love, and instead of enjoying such an emotion, I had become disillusioned with the whole idea of it.

"If someone had told me then what awaited me, I would never have believed them. I did not think that I could ever be that fortunate." She blinked away her tears, taking a deep breath, before finishing her sentiments. "Thank you, Fitzwilliam, for teaching me to believe in love again, and to know that it existed for myself, as well as others. Thank you for making me feel safe once more, and for appreciating my true self, and not the character I had put to forth in order to endure the Earl."

When she had finished, her eyes were not the only ones misty with tears. Darcy could not say anything in reply, so choked with emotion was he. Instead, his expression supplied what his voice could not, as he took her into his embrace, his lips finding hers for a long, eloquently satisfying, passionate kiss.

Later, when the day had long since turned into the next, and the ball had drawn to a close, with all its guests ensconced in their rooms, the Darcys moved once more to the bedchamber of the mistress of the house.

Darcy dismissed their sleepy servants, locking the door behind them. He stepped back up to Elizabeth, the meaning in his gaze unmistakable. At the same time, their arms drew around each other, followed shortly by a meeting of their lips. His hands explored her dark hair, seeking out hairpins, letting them fall to the floor to be tidied away upon the morrow.

Elizabeth deftly undid his cravat, then drew apart the buttons of his shirt, until the material revealed his bare chest. Her fingers slipped inside, their attentions upon his skin causing him to shiver with pleasure, in anticipation for what further delights were to come.

Silently they divested each other of their clothes, and moved to lie upon the bed. Darcy's lips sought her own once more as they covered themselves with silken sheets, rolling amongst them and the cushions in what was felt to be by now a well known dance to their bodies, but nonetheless still as enjoyable and momentous as the first which was but hours old.

Elizabeth met him move for move, kiss for kiss, caress for caress, passion for passion. She moaned her every pleasure, as his lips and hands worshipped at her breasts, her stomach, her arms and thighs, and that most secret part of her, one which he was becoming to know very intimately.

He too soon found himself moaning his own pleasure, as she returned to him the same caresses and same kisses in the same places upon his body. She felt nothing but contentment now, and of the sweetest and most profound kind. Her eyes caught and held his as he entered her, never parting from them as he began to shift in and out of her, drawing them closer and closer to mutual communion.

A long time afterwards, when they had exhausted all their strength for such delightful activity, they remained awake in each others arms, content just to hold each other, as their minds imagined their future, and what further delights awaited them.

And what a future it was to be. Their union would forever be contained in legend, to be recounted in countless different ways, never able to fully capture the joy and contentment they enjoyed, but always to be attempted. To be forever treasured by others, and held as the ideal meeting of loves, minds and souls.

The End.

© Danielle Harwood-Atkinson 20212003-2020. All rights reserved.