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Marry In Haste, Repent At;

Version 2: Volume Six

Chapter XXI.

The note came during the morning, as they gathered at the breakfast table, and though Darcy took care to conceal the effects of its contents from them, both Georgiana and Elizabeth could not fail to realise its significance. Deliberately he lingered within the room, laying the note with great care carelessly aside, folded into its original thirds as if such protection would protect the two he loved most in the world from seeing its contents.

That one line of ink could serve to drive such terror into the hearts of two women and such trepidation into his own would have been considered laughable was it not for the meaning behind its vague innocuousness. A mere notification it seemingly appeared to be; consisting of the discovery of a second and a meeting declared to occur within a few days hence. The second was not named nor indeed was the letter signed, but there was no doubt as to whom the sender could be.

Arrival of such a note required him to send a few notes of his own: an acknowledgement to the sender of the first, then one to his cousin informing him of the first and the occurrence of the meeting in a few days hence, followed by another to his solicitors, just a precautionary one they must understand, and finally an express to his housekeeper at Pemberley for it would not do for the gamekeepers to be chasing after their own master should an alarm was raised that several personages were witnessed to be fighting on the estate.

Colonel Fitzwilliam visited the townhouse in due course, and soon it was no longer possible to conceal the departure of the master of the house and his cousin for the former's estate in the north country for a unspecified number of days. As the valet and various other servants concerned themselves with the master's luggage, those servants by no means unaware of the frequent amount of sword practise taking place in the ballroom or the reason for it, a fair amount of discussion was undertaken regarding the event within the kitchens, whilst the butler admitted one of the solicitors concerned with the Darcy estates into the master's study.

Meanwhile the ladies of the house were left to amuse themselves, though such in itself was not without some difficulty. Neither could be easy until the matter concerning the gentlemen was over and done with, but nor could either of them wish for the matter to begin any sooner than it was arranged to do so. Each feared that the other would suffer some resentment and ill feeling for the existence of such a meeting, and both wished most earnestly to assure the other that such would not be the case. A certain dread in talking of the matter also existed, but just as much there was an embargo on every other subject, leaving them to find consolation in a book or wandering about the room in a silence which both desired to remain undisturbed by anything except the entrance of the gentlemen to announce their departure.

That event was feared equally by the ladies and when the moment arrived both tried to pretend to those involved that no trepidation was felt. Understanding and respecting their mutual desire to appear steadfast before them, the gentlemen took care that their farewells were not of long duration; the meeting was only to result in au premier sang after all. Even so, the brother was surprised by his sister's heartfelt embrace just as much as he was by the Countess's appearance within the entrance hall only a moment after they had left the drawing room.

"You will take care of yourself, will you not?" she quietly asked him, as he and the Colonel halted by the half opened door, from which a view of the carriage could just be descried.

"I will," he replied to her in the same manner, taking her hand in his, "I swear it." He followed this vow by raising her hand to his lips where he pressed a further assurance on her slender fingers.

Then with one last parting look exchanged between them, so full of unspoken eloquence yet failing in being immediately comprehended, they were gone.

Due to the generosity of the Darcy family a tenant cottage upon their Derbyshire land was a highly prized commodity, eagerly sought after and feverishly taken residence of whenever the privilege was granted. Though there was scarcely a scarcity of families or cottages, it so happened that a dwelling upon the estate chanced to be unoccupied at this time which entirely suited the purposes of its master and his cousin.

In terms of a dwelling for themselves it was hardly adequate for more than an occupation of passing duration, yet it would suit as a place to house them for the length of their visit to Derbyshire, whilst allowing their arrival at the estate to remain unnoticed by those belonging to the surrounding families, who would desire to pay call on the master if they learned of his presence within the neighbourhood.

Leaving the carriage at one of the Inns outside Ashbourne the gentlemen had switched to horses, arriving at the cottage as fast as such steeds and the changing of them at the various staging posts on the way would allow. Their valet and batman were likewise left behind, for neither gentlemen were incapable of attending to themselves, nor did they desire to involve more people in this matter. That both men were not in ignorance of the duel was clear, however each chose to respect their master's wishes and kept to their own counsel concerning the event.

Arriving but a day before the intended meeting was scarcely enough time to survey the lay of the land and prepare themselves for the duty, but Darcy had not spent five years being master of his own estate without acquiring intimate knowledge of the property. In his youth his father had encouraged him to take an interest in every particle of the estate he was to inherit, establishing not only a knowledge of the land and its tenants which was to prove invaluable, but a pride and a love for a property which had belonged to his family for centuries.

Thus he knew before his and his cousin's arrival that the dwelling they were to take temporary possession of was currently vacant, as well as being situated within a considerable distance from the other occupied houses upon the estate. He also knew that it was surrounded by fields which were not used for grazing or farming, allowing for an appropriate field of battle on which for the duel to take place. These fields were further enclosed by the large circle of woods which marked the limits of the environs for the Darcy estate, and the trees would help to prevent the sound of the duel from being carried towards the more populated areas.

Upon arrival the cousins tested this theory by engaging in a light sword practise until their limbs lost their stiffness from being astride a succession of horses for so long. Satisfied that none save their opponents would serve to disturb them, both undertook to survey and prepare the cottage for the length of their stay, before taking in some sustenance and performing their ablutions in order to refresh themselves for the ordeal ahead of them.

Neither expected the duel to proceed smoothly, indeed it was common knowledge that few duels rarely did, for though the gentlemen involved could reasonably be expected to conduct themselves in a gentlemanly manner, the reputation of their opponents was both unknown on the one hand and utterly reprehensible on the other. That the Earl had undertaken to behave himself in a manner best befitting his rank once the challenge was presented argued well in his favour, but his treatment of Elizabeth as well as his reputation in being a member of the Four Horse Club, a gambler and a rake caused a concern in the cousins about the possibility of ungentlemanly conduct once battle commenced.

Nevertheless, there was considerable surprise and a healthy amount of concern felt by both cousins when the Earl's second became recognizable.

"Wickham," Colonel Fitzwilliam growled as the pair brought their horses to a halt and dismounted to greet their opponents on equal footing.

That the newly commissioned Lieutenant was a little discomposed by the sight of the two cousins caused some satisfaction to Darcy and Fitzwilliam, but did nothing to lessen their concern. The Colonel's grim gaze remained upon him as he and the Earl made their way towards them, coming to a halt two paces before each other, before the latter handed his weapon of choice to the Colonel for inspection.

Reluctantly removing his eyes from Wickham, Colonel Fitzwilliam took the other sword from his cousin and held both weapons before him, surveying their weight and appearance, making sure that they were similar in all respects so as to deny both combatants an advantage from their choice of steel. The sight of him holding both swords aloft spoke well of his career in the army as a man of not just rank but ability as well.

After some minutes the Colonel handed the weapons back to his cousin and the Earl, before asking the latter if he wished to make an offer of appeasement, as was customary in such proceedings. That such offer was declined caused little surprise, whereupon Colonel Fitzwilliam laid out the rules of conduct for the duel.

"Gentleman, I require you to shed your coats, jackets and waistcoats, as well as any other weapons which you may have about your person that could provide either of you with an unfair advantage in respect of your opponent," he intoned. "When ready, salute each other both allowing your weapons to meet, whereupon my sword shall hold yours steady, until I raise it, declaring the commencement of the duel. The engagement shall end when one of you delivers au premier sang to the other in such a manner as to declare that honour is satisfied. Are both of you agreeable to these conditions?"

Both Darcy and the Earl declared that they were, whereupon both disarmed themselves, handing their weapons over to their seconds so they could shed their appropriate garments. When they were ready the swords were reclaimed and the seconds retrieved the garments to remove them to where the horses were stabled, so the piles of clothing would not impede either combatant. Colonel Fitzwilliam and Wickham then returned to the field of battle, the latter taking up a distant position from the Earl so as to not hinder him. Meanwhile the Colonel waited for his cousin and the Earl to make themselves ready, so he could advance his sword for commencement of the grim business.

In due course both combatants pronounced themselves ready, and the Colonel withdrew his sword, placing the curved blade underneath and in between theirs. With a look towards both in order to ascertain that they were indeed ready to face each other, he raised the trio of weapons to the heavens, and then took his own away, before assuming a suitable distance.

The duel had begun.

Wickham's hand shook as he attempted to take aim. Though his pistol possessed a rifled barrel and the benefit of sights, his nerves were such that both advantages were rendered useless in his constantly shaking grip. His distance from the gentlemen did little to reduce the fierce sight of their combative movements, or the harshness of the duel, which perhaps was the origin of his condition.

It had started out reasonably enough. Within a few moves both opponents were determined to be equally matched in skill and strength, parrying each other's weapons with an elegance which belied the brutality of the engagement. In time however their circling of each other became more pronounced, their thrusts and parries turning fast and vicious. A grim silence settled over the field, broken only by the steel which sang its cruel accompaniment to the battle.

Eventually the seconds were obliged to increase their distance as the duel gradually transformed from an elegant fencing display into an engagement more familiar of a war torn bout. Colonel Fitzwilliam was no stranger to such sights, indeed his vigilance increased as he was well aware of the brutality that would come to plague the duel and while he knew his cousin would be able to handle the matter, having fenced with him on many an occasion, he was unsure as to what the Earl might do if the opportunity arose. As for Wickham, nothing in his life had prepared him to witness such a sight.

Although this turn within the duel relieved him from the Colonel's grim and distrustful gaze, Wickham was unable to quell the rising fear within himself regarding the fight. Ever since he had heard about the event from the Earl of Saffron Walden after their initial encounter in Brighton, he had become determined to reap some benefit from the ordeal, as well as seeing it as an opportunity to avenge himself upon the man who was the means of ruining his best chance for happiness in life.

Retiring from Ramsgate, annoyed by the ill timing of his arrival and thus disruption of his sister's seduction by which he would gain her fortune of thirty thousand pounds, Wickham found himself forced to seek another form of living which would grant him access to society, the only circle in which he could hope to better his reduced circumstances. The desire to revenge himself upon Darcy could have been accomplished by such a goal, for the knowledge that they would exist in the same circles would no doubt be galling to his former childhood friend.

Yet it did not grant him complete satisfaction, for it would not serve to diminish anything which belonged to Darcy, or belittle his reputation as one of the richest and eligible men in Derbyshire. Seducing Georgiana would have accomplished such, while achieving his aims, although he would have preferred the girl to possess a little more spirit, as he would have needed to secure himself with a child to ensure Darcy would not be able to rid his sister of him and he did not fancy bedding a shy young woman. To be thwarted at the last hurdle was thoroughly distasteful to him and his desire for revenge only increased.

Encountering him again in Meryton had been an unexpected surprise. If it had not been for his meeting with an old friend who was a member of the militia, Wickham would never have joined the regiment. As it was he barely had enough money for the price of an officer's commission. While such employment allowed him to mix in society, he was also required to perform various duties that vexed him greatly, until he learned how to delegate most of them to his sergeant.

Station in Meryton served to allow him access to pleasing society and naive yet knowing ladies, though none with a fortune that served to tempt him. Not even Miss King and her ten thousand pounds was consolation for losing out on Miss Darcy's thirty. However, it did provide him with another encounter with his former childhood friend, and the chance to learn that Darcy was not perfect, having witnessed how his seemingly arrogant behaviour disgusted all of Meryton.

However it was not until the militia moved to Brighton that he acquired more information about his former childhood friend. That Darcy had lowered himself to the consideration of taking a mistress was astonishing, though from what he knew of Miss de Bourgh, Wickham was not wholly surprised. But to take her now before he was even married to his cousin, and without any consideration for his most beloved sister, was astonishing, not to mention the determination to fight a duel with the cuckolded husband. Upon being asked to act as second, he realised the opportunity it would give him to rid himself not only of his former childhood friend, but to avenge himself as well, by marrying Georgiana and through her inherit Pemberley.

The pleasure behind such a possibility caused him to ignore the fact that he knew Darcy was a skilled fencer and Colonel Fitzwilliam would doubtless be his second, both of which were proved within minutes of his and the Earl's arrival upon the field of combat. As his fear in witnessing the ferocity of the duel grew, so did his determination to follow through with his plan, for he would never forgive himself if he missed out upon this opportunity.

Steeling himself, Wickham continued the observe the parries and thrusts exchanged, the slight tightening of their garments as sweat soaked their shirts and breeches. Anxiously he examined both the Earl and his former childhood friend, searching for the first signs of exhaustion to appear within their expressions or figures.

Then suddenly with one bold stroke, the whole duel turned. Deftly, his former childhood friend managed to trap the Earl's sword with his own, before sweeping the weapon in an upwards motion, to stroke apart the shirt sleeves, letting blood from the flesh once concealed beneath.

Saffron Walden dropped his sword as his hand moved to clasp the wound. Darcy rested his own weapon whilst Colonel Fitzwilliam broke from his place of observation to examine the cut. A few minutes later he turned to his cousin and uttered a few words, though from his distance Wickham could not hear their import.

As Darcy began to talk, his former childhood friend had little time to spare any curiosity for what he might wish to say. Seeing the Colonel still engaged with the Earl, leaving Darcy unprotected, Wickham realised now that this was the perfect moment in which to carry out his revenge. Steadying his hand, he raised his weapon, his fingers cocking the trigger.

Within seconds the sound of gunshots thundered through the surrounding countryside.

Chapter XXII.

At the Darcy townhouse on Grosvenor Square two young women anxiously awaited the return of the gentlemen who had been obliged to leave the house so suddenly. Though it was not usually so reasonable as to expect their return from such a distance, the circumstances of their absence rendered its length to be of as short a duration as possible.

It was the circumstances behind their absence which caused the concern over their return, preventing either of the ladies capable of finding anything to occupy their mutual preoccupation. Not one of their many accomplishments could serve to garner their attention for no more than a brief attempt, nor could any member of the household tempt them to partake of sustenance.

By the evening of the last day they were reduced to wandering the length of the drawing room, whose windows happened to provide a good view of the road, should a certain carriage bearing a certain crest, happen to arrive. Outside in the privileged area of Grosvenor Square, the residents were all close to retiring, allowing for the sounds of the vehicle to be immediately ascertained upon its as yet hoped for arrival.

Whilst Georgiana managed to inject a little serenity to her features which her companion found to be eerily similar to that of her elder sister, Elizabeth's anxious was easily betrayed by her anxious expression and restless pacing, broken by the occasional lingering at the window, though her fine eyes had yet to remove themselves from a close examination of the glassy panes even when she was walking.

As the shadows lengthened her mind became plagued by the worst imaginings, that the duel would not end with au premier sang, but in the death of her champion, whereupon her husband would come to seize her from this refuge and drag her back to the marriage bed and all its horrors. Or her champion were declared the victor but the courts discovered the duel and decided to make an example of him. She knew not what to hope for, even victory would open up a window into the unknown for her, for while it perhaps granted her a freedom, it would be at the behest of one man making demands on another.

So much was to be decided, and without leave or consideration granted to what she might wish. Yet she did not know what she desired to happen, which frustrated her just as much as the fact that the decision was out of her hands. In being her father's favourite she had acquired an independent spirit which was so fiercely crushed by her husband these past two years that she had been forced to rely on others to affect her wishes, even live in ignorance of what those wishes were. She held little doubt that Mr Darcy was acting in her best interests, but even when she herself knew not what they were, it was difficult to derive comfort from that.

In the hearth flames crackled against the combination of wood and coal, producing a heat which neither of the women appeared to feel. Turning mid pace, Elizabeth caught sight of the flames and for a moment watched them dance to a tune none could hear. Within them was a certain pulse of their own, almost hypnotic in the attraction and her gaze remained fixed for a time until she realised that the beat she heard belonged not just to the flames, but to a series of hooves and carriage wheels.

Both women rose from their seats as they heard the equipage come to a halt outside the house, the noise of the servants as the household dealt with the arrivals. Driven to give a mite of comfort to each other in this moment where everything was both hoped and despaired for, Georgiana went to Elizabeth's side and took her hands in her own. It was in this pose that the grim features of Colonel Fitzwilliam greeted them as he entered the room.

From the first stroke of blades Darcy knew he was facing a formidable opponent. The Earl possessed an elegant but firm style, with a hint of barely restrained steel, similar to his cousin who would return from the continent sometimes needing to vent his emotions in a pitched engagement in which few would chose to bear the brunt of. He had been on the receiving end of such many an occasion and the one which he was facing now was different in only one respect; he knew he cousin's moves. Saffron Walden was unpredictable in that he had never faced him before.

A silence settled over the field of play, broken only by the striking of blade against blade, as each of them closely observed the other, waiting for each facet of their fighting style to be revealed. Education in fencing begun from youth allowed for the gentlemen to develop a certain way of mastering the skill, one which was honed by their lives and shaped by their characters, calling for them acquire certain habits of reflex or technique which inevitably became the hallmark of their victory or defeat. Whilst the Earl's displayed the fierceness which he had occasion to vent upon his wife, Darcy's was one which belied his usual abhorrence, for his elegant and gentlemanlike nature disguised the sheer skill with which he now fought.

That Saffron Walden was initially surprised by his opponent's style was evident, but soon the peer became accustomed to the hard firmness which his own ferocity had unleashed. What he meant to achieve in this bout few could discern including himself, least of all Darcy, despite being privy to the Colonel's description of the disdain with which he had received the note. Honour alone dictated that the Earl must conduct himself as any gentleman would in such an encounter, no matter distasteful a duel was considered by them. Sabotage was out of the question, as was the failure to appear or allow an unfair advantage to be gained by either side.

With every stroke it became clear that cowardice would not feature in this engagement, which seemed determined to lengthen as those involved continued to exchange blows. As soon as it appeared that one had gained an advantage, it would be evened out by a move from the other. Responses sharpened, the speed of the strikes increased as each resorted to the hope that if skill would not determine the result of this duel, fatigue would.

Despite his focus on the Earl, Darcy was aware of his cousin withdrawing to stand a further distance, and Wickham likewise some space away from the fight. His presence at the engagement had served to distract him from the moment he and his cousin first caught sight of him. That his former childhood companion would allow this entanglement to proceed without some deceitful action on his part was impossible, but nor could Darcy pay the attention he deemed necessary upon that scoundrel without disadvantage to himself within the duel. Ramsgate had been a close run thing, occurring only last summer, an affair which was doubtless still haunting their minds. So thwarted from having nearly achieved all his desires, Wickham would undoubtedly be eager to ensure nothing would stand in his way a second time.

But for now, he would have to rely on his cousin to keep watch on the scoundrel, while he attended to prevent the Earl from achieving the revenge which was desired by his second. Darcy wondered briefly if Saffron Walden had been treated to the tale of the soldier's misfortune, but ignorance or no, it would not lessen the peer's desire to rid himself in some honourable fashion of the man who had made himself his wife's champion.

Au premier sang, whilst being nothing in terms of wounds as to account for full revenge upon either opponent, it would at least leave both alive and able to continue managing their estates, the memory of the encounter haunting them for the rest of their lives, depending on which result they achieved. Few soldiers took pleasure in killing, gentlemen even less so; though the hunt was a part of their daily lives, there was more a sense of providing industry within ones' estate rather than sport about it. Thus the sight of blood was what some became accustomed to, though it maybe their first letting of such liquid via the blade of a sword.

In time the weather turned the light about them into a contrary fellow, uncertain and inconstant. Perhaps it was that instant which caused the following for with one bold stroke, the whole duel turned. Deftly, Darcy found a moment to trap the Earl's sword within his own, before sweeping the weapon in an upwards motion, to stroke apart the shirt sleeves, letting blood from the flesh once concealed beneath. The Earl dropped his sword as his hand moved to clasp the wound, while Darcy rested his own weapon as his cousin broke from his place of observation to examine the strike.

"A clean cut," the Colonel reported to both parties, his experience on the battlefield answering as credit for his judgement. "I hope we can agree that the terms for the conclusion of the duel have been met gentlemen?" Receiving nods from both, he turned to his cousin. "Do you have anything you wish to say, Darcy?"

"Yes, if the Earl would consent to the following, then I will consider my honour satisfied," Darcy replied, before taking a moment to compose himself, as a part of him idly wondered where the other second had disappeared to. He was not comfortable with the idea of Wickham being about his lands once more unobserved, but there was little he could do about it at present. One scoundrel at a time.

"Firstly, I would have him relinquish all of his wife's possessions over to her care. For the time being she is a guest of my sister, so I would wish that these were taken to my house in town as soon as possible. Second, I would have him to take the trouble of never contacting his wife again, either by sight or epistolary form. All further necessary communication shall be dealt through my solicitors."

Whatever Darcy had been about to say next was lost, not to due any objection on the Earl's part, but by the sound of gunfire. Within seconds the sound of gunshots thundered through the surrounding countryside.

Barely had the cousins chance to ascertain the source of the first, before a second sounded, this time from a more immediate range, as they caught sight of their companion swiftly withdrawing a previously concealed weapon from the sash about his waist and firing. The direction of the gun sufficed to pinpoint the source of the first shot, and they turned in time to see the shooter receive the second, collapsing where he stood. Despite his injury the Earl kept his weapon poised upon the fallen scoundrel in the event of the fellow rising to cause injury again.

"I agree to your conditions, Mr Darcy," the Earl said. "I apologise for my concealing a weapon, gentlemen," he further remarked to his companions, "but in light of my short acquaintance with my second, I thought it a wise precaution."

"I think, sir, that neither my cousin or myself would argue with that sentiment," Colonel Fitzwilliam replied. He turned to his cousin. "Darcy, did you happen to see where the first shot fell?"

Some distance off, his cousin shook his head, glancing about the ground as he did so, managing to catch a glint of something small and metallic in the afternoon light. Bending down, he picked it up with care, knowing the bullet would be still be warm. Examining the object in his hand, it was astonishing to consider how small a thing could be responsible for ending a life. A close run thing it had been as well, landing in the long blades of grass before his feet.

"Honour is satisfied, gentlemen," Darcy remarked, feeling that there was nothing more to be said or done by any of them. His gamekeepers would take care of the body. "Let us quit the field."

Georgiana gave a grateful cry when she saw the figure of her brother emerge from behind their cousin's form. As the siblings embraced each other, Elizabeth's gaze remained fixed upon the colonel, fearing to ask what was the source of his discomfort.

"I am gravely displeased, ladies," the Colonel remarked, "to find you both awaiting our return. Have you not glanced at the fine timepieces which grace this and many other rooms, that display the lateness of the hour?"

"Do save your admonishings when we are all in more of a humour to deal with them, Richard," Darcy replied quietly, "you're beginning to sound like our Aunt, or her parson. And the ladies are not the only ones in need of sleep. I suggest we all retire, we can discuss everything in the morning."

Colonel Fitzwilliam executed a perfectly military salute before his cousin, finishing the move with a bow, making Georgiana laugh, if a little nervously, for the countess was not the only one who detected there to be some unease about the gentlemen. "I bow to my General, and shall obey his orders with equanimity."

The three remaining followed him into the hall and up the grand staircase to the bedrooms above, Georgiana's arm in the crook of her brother's, Elizabeth a little distance behind them. Upon the landing, the Colonel bade them a good night before retiring to the room usually reserved for him. Darcy escorted his sister down the hall to her own, then returned to the Countess, whose anxious gaze he had been aware of ever since he had first caught sight of it upon his return.

Coming to stand before her, he reached out and took her hands in his. "He will never trouble you again, I swear it." Seeing her countenance was yet to be comforted by his assurance, Darcy raised her hands to his lips and bestowed a gentle kiss about the slender fingers. "Goodnight, Elizabeth."

How long she stood alone in that hallway after he left would forever be insensible to her, although it could scarcely have been a matter of minutes. Barely able to believe all that had occurred she turned to enter her chambers somewhat at a loss with what to do with herself. Sleep was out of the question; though she knew that her body and mind were doubtless in need of the rest it would provide, she felt unable to compose either of them to perform such an endeavour at present.

She was grateful that Mr Darcy had sought to reassure her concerning the Earl, but her mind still hungered for a more complete understanding of what had happened to make him give her such an assurance. The Colonel's grim visage still preyed upon her thoughts, causing her to speculate at the cause, unable to help herself from imagining that something grave must have occurred, that he disapproved of all his cousin had done in regards to her situation.

Distractedly she prepared herself for bed, knowing that she would be unable to sleep but at a loss for what else to do with herself. Catching sight of her form within a nearby mirror, her fingers paused in their movements, as she suddenly recalled what a part of her had resolved to do upon his return. Though she felt in no way prepared for such a notion, she doubted time would reconcile her to the idea either, and if it would serve to the make the hours pass by more swiftly, as well as perhaps settling forever how she was to spend the rest of her life, it would suffice.

Turning, she walked towards the door that led into his chambers, trying to ignore the abrupt pounding of her heart as her shaking hands turned the knob and entered the room.

He was situated upon one of the armchairs by the fire, an open leather bound volume in his hands, from which he looked up in surprise at her entrance. Before he could lay the book aside and rise to his feet, she advanced to stand before him, her hands clasped before her waist.

"You must have had a difficult day," she uttered hesitantly, uncertain as to how she should initiate matters, for her husband had always begun first, she had become accustomed to responding, or enduring his ministrations as was usually the case when he was involved. "I came to offer you comfort."

Darcy gazed at her, observing the nerves splayed about her form, from the shaking of her hands to the fear in fine eyes, his mind at loss as to her meaning. Then her fingers clasped the gown she was wearing, whilst her head turned slightly in the direction of the bed, and suddenly he realised her intentions.

Rising from his seat, he crossed the room to fetch his dressing grown, which he swiftly placed about her, before taking her hands in his, tenderly prying the material of her gown from their grip. "No, no."

Elizabeth paled as she looked at him. "Do you not desire me, sir," she found herself asking, even though she could not deny herself to be relieved that he refused to follow through with her request.

"I do," he confessed, causing her to raise her eyebrows in shock at his quietly spoken candour, "which is precisely why I refuse. I would not have you come to me as the spoils of war."

"How else should I come to you, sir?" she uttered curiously.

With care he raised her hands gently to his lips, repeating his actions from their last encounter in his hallway. "As a consequence of your own desire and affection."

She glanced at him incredulously. "How can I feel such an emotion? There is nothing within the act which I cannot fear."

"I do not deny possessing some apprehension of the event myself," Darcy remarked quietly. "I desire nothing more than to give you pleasure, yet I worry that my attentions will remind you of that person whom I wish you to forget."

Elizabeth stilled, startled by a single word of his, that she barely comprehended the rest of his speech. "Pleasure?"

Darcy nodded, before guiding her to join him in the armchairs before the fire. "As I foresee neither of us accomplishing a great deal of sleep tonight, perhaps you would wish to hear about the result of my encounter with him earlier today."

She turned to him in surprise. "You do not wish me to leave?"

"I would not have a distance grow between due to any embarrassment either of us might suffer from this conversation," he replied.

"Thank you," Elizabeth acknowledged the sincerity in his response.

She remained seated as he related the details of the event which had called him away from the townhouse. The tale roused from her several emotions, astonishment at the presence of Mr Wickham, concern over the Earl's formidable nature as an opponent, relief in hearing of her companion's deft winning stroke, followed by the details of his demands made to her husband and the Earl's agreement. Horror at the way in which his second attempted to revenge himself, surprise at who had calmly returned the gunfire. Though the act was shocking, it was a facet of gentlemanly conduct which she had never expected from her husband. For the Earl to protect her champion and agree to his conditions was quite incredible.

"What happens now?" she asked when her companion reached the end of his tale.

"In a few days, we shall attend my cousin's wedding," Darcy informed her. "Richard informed me that the date has been set and the special license obtained. He asked me to tell you that Miss Lucas requests the pleasure of your company upon the day, she would be honoured if you would stand up with her."

"Are you sure my presence will not disrupt the ceremony and its celebrations?" Elizabeth queried.

Darcy shook his head. "Though you may find it difficult to believe, few have heard of your removal from the Earl's house. Aside from visits to his club he has rarely been seen himself. No invitation has been sent to his place and since he has accepted my conditions, I doubt he will try to attend the event himself. Only family and friends have been invited, despite the protests of those refused from the ton. Your solitary appearance, even in the company of me and my sister will attract little attention."

"And afterwards?" Elizabeth questioned.

"I would like to show you Pemberley, if you would wish to see it," he revealed. "It has many woods and hills, full of untamed beauty, nature and culture in harmony, wildness and artifice, which I hope you will enjoy."

Relieved that he held no desire to be rid of her, she replied, "then I shall not be happy until I have seen it."

Chapter XXIII.

A few days later, at the barracks of the 2nd Life Guards, the marriage of Miss Charlotte Lucas to Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, took place. Though the groomsman was the younger son of one of the most illustrious personages in the land, invitations to the ceremony and the celebrations after it had been reserved for family and friends only, making the occasion a quiet and intimate affair, one whose peace was not at all disturbed by the presence of the Countess of Saffron Walden without her husband.

Those present were happy to be introduced to her and not one inquired after her husband, a lack of concern which Elizabeth would have found strange and curious, if it were not for her preoccupation concerning what they thought of her arrival in the company of Mr Darcy and his sister.

Since that night, when she woke to find herself reclined in an armchair across from his sleeping form, much of their conversation continued to occupy her thoughts. That he would do so much for her without expecting anything in return, save perhaps for her affection, despite her actions, was remarkable. He had every reason to dispose of her, having been presented with her distrust of his noble motives in becoming her champion. She realised after he had gently refused her, that her actions could have offended him, thus she was highly relieved to learn that he still wished for her company, even intended to take her to Pemberley.

His behaviour to her never wavered from its gentlemanly manner during the days which had followed that night. When she woke that morning to encounter his sleeping form seated across from her, the desire to study him had overcome her self-conscious embarrassment at the possibility of being discovered by him or by a member of the household in such a situation.

here was a vulnerability of youth about him which his waking form rarely displayed, serving to remind her just how young he still was, though older than herself, but still two years the Earl's junior. An uncommonly handsome man, she was unable to deny that she found him so, intelligent, cultured, elegant, and a gentleman. His responsibilities were many, acquired by him so soon after his coming of age. He was the only heir to all the wealth and property that his family inherited, yet unlike the Earl and many others, he refused to squander or neglect what he was entrusted with. Instead he had nurtured everything, improving and adding, whilst still retaining all the goodness within his character.

As she gazed upon his youthful handsome form, considering all of this, Elizabeth could not deny that she possessed a certain fascination, an attraction even, for him, which might be called a promising inclination for love. She did not doubt that if she had met him before the Earl, she would have allowed herself to care for him, perhaps as deeply as he professed to care for her. But she could not deny that the influence of her husband's behaviour towards herself had tainted her own feelings to such a degree that she felt unable to allow them free reign over her, as she once did.

Before she had met Mr Darcy, she had despaired of ever finding contentment, let alone happiness in her life. Even in the early days of their acquaintance, as he continued to cultivate her company, she had no expectation of acquiring such emotions. But now she could not deny that she was approaching the former, or the possibility that time could induce her into the other. He had given her the hope and the confidence to believe so.

And would time also give her the chance to love him, as he desired? To approach him with a view to pleasure not just for him but for her also? At the moment Elizabeth did not know, but for the first time she could not deny that it was a possibility, and a tempting one at that. Yet, she was still married, though the Earl chose to disregard those holy vows, and a part of her hesitated to do the same. However, she could not help but consider the price her feelings would pay upon such an activity nor why she should continue to stay true to a man who did not honour her with the same fidelity. Especially as she had already cast aside the seeming appearance of such faithfulness by leaving him.

Rousing herself from her thoughts, she followed Mr Darcy and his sister out of the church into the carriage for the short drive to the Fitzwilliam family townhouse, where the wedding breakfast was to take place, in a vast ballroom that rendered the one in which she had witnessed Mr Darcy and his cousin taking sword practise rather small until the former informed her that his an ancestor of his uncle had ordered his architect to enlarge the room in question.

Once there, she was kindly received by the Uncle and his wife, who made little mention of her husband other than that his father had been a great man, and it was a shame that his son had not succeeded such expectations. Charlotte was very glad to see her, having last parted from her at Rosings uncertain as to what the Earl might do.

"There was nothing that could be done, which he did not do himself," Elizabeth spoke of Darcy as she replied to her friend's enquiry. "I wonder, has your husband confided in you regarding recent events?"

Charlotte nodded. "I must say that I am surprised, Lizzy, for I recollect that you once saying that you would never marry but for the deepest love. Yet the behaviour of the Earl is such that I do not blame you for leaving his household. Considering his character even when compared to his connections and situation in life, it is unfair in comparison to what most people can boast upon entering the marriage state."

Elizabeth smiled. "I recollect you saying once that you were not romantic, that you only ask for a comfortable home!"

"I know," Charlotte conceded. "But I think in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable." She chuckled before adding, "in all seriousness, what do you intend to do now?"

"I do not know," Elizabeth confessed. "In a few days we travel to Pemberley, where I imagine my days will be spent until....." she paused, unsure as to what would occur.

"Do you see a future in this?" Charlotte queried. "The Earl is not without funds and he is in need of an heir. Has...." she paused, uncertain of airing the question.

Elizabeth was not insensible of what her friend was reluctant to say, though it was something which she had not considered herself. Before her marriage divorce was something she knew to be impossible through her gentle but impoverished circumstances. Faced with the example of her parent's marriage every day, she had resolved to marry for love. The Earl had robbed her of such innocent naïveté, but still her mind had not considered forming an opinion upon it. "I don't know, Charlotte. Mr Darcy has never suggested such to me. As for the Earl, in our last conversation he was more concerned about bending me to his will than granting us the freedom to marry elsewhere."

"And if it were to happen?" Charlotte queried.

"I still don't know," Elizabeth replied. "Mr Darcy may be certain of his feelings for me, but I do not know my own with regards to him for certain, and I doubt such trials would allow me to realise them. I need time, Charlotte and that what I hope the woods and hills of Pemberley will give me."

Whilst Elizabeth was contemplating her feelings, her champion's mind was equally preoccupied, though his emotions were more concerned with the fanciful possibilities which his former childhood friend's attempt at sabotage had prevented him from voicing. But for Wickham's interference, he would have surprised the Earl and his cousin by asking the former to divorce his wife, a notion Saffron Walden could easily afford, though Darcy feared to impose upon Elizabeth, in view of the difficulties which the civil and ecclesiastical trials would place upon her.

Despite his previous resolve of demanding such an act from the Earl, Darcy felt a little relieved that he was prevented from mentioning the matter to Elizabeth. Divorce would have required that an impartial witness observe their 'improper' relationship, though it was hardly such in any sense of the word, and report it to the courts, where they would be required to endure lengthy trials. That the result would grant her a freedom to marry made the act tempting, but the publicity of the affair would forever taint them far more than their current situation would.

Throughout the day of his cousin's wedding, anyone who spoke to him would have found him a distracted object. All through the ceremony, and the celebrations which followed, Darcy's mind was frequently elsewhere. At first it alternated between wondering what the woman he loved was thinking, and what their own ceremony might be like, if he was ever lucky enough to be allowed to ask for her participation in one. Such an occasion could only arise from the Earl's demise, an act which he had prevented himself from performing only days ago.

Performing his office as his cousin's groomsman, he was in an easy position to picture himself at such a ceremony, with Elizabeth by his side. He had rarely called by her first name since he had first confessed his feelings, using it only when they were alone, and even rarely then. He knew not what kept him from doing so, but he suspected that the fact that they were not married, and, at present, had little hope of ever being so, had something to do with it.

Yet despite this, the image of what she might look like in white lace, was imprinted upon his mind during the entire ceremony of his cousin's. Already, he had sworn to himself that he would try to spend the rest of his life with her, no matter what possible scandal would be created in Society from it. He loved her too much for prudence, too much to care what anyone else thought of the sight.

When the ceremony was over, he reluctantly came out of his dream, and followed the rest of the guests out of the church, his eyes keeping close watch over his sister, presently talking with their Aunt Matlock, and for a possible sight of the Earl. If he had found out about this- indeed it was impossible for him not to be aware, the notice having been contained in the national broadsheets for some time -then the less chance could be entertained of him showing up at Grosvenor while they were out. Not that he doubted the ability of his staff to refuse the Earl admittance, he just preferred that they were not tested in such a fashion.

By the time he had emerged on to the street, he had discerned no sign of the Earl. Darcy collected his sister and the Countess, then directed their carriage to the Matlock townhouse, where the celebrations were to take place.

At the home of his Aunt and Uncle's, the trio made his way to his cousin and his bride, presented their felicitations, wishing them every happiness. He repeated the message to Sir William and Lady Lucas, introducing his sister, before granting her wish to participate in the dancing that was taking place.

He managed to keep his attention occupied upon Georgiana during that dance, but it drifted once again when they separated to mingle among the guests. Darcy asked Elizabeth if she would care to dance, assuring her that the sight would not be talked of as improper or extraordinary, but was still forced to accept her gracious refusal. She confessed herself not inclined for such amusement, causing him to remain by her and Georgiana's side instead, as they talked with their mutual acquaintances, until his attention was called to a commotion which had flared up at the entrance to the Ballroom, which several footmen had gone over to try and sort out.

His eyes followed their journey, and perceived instantly the trouble that was to come before anyone else was even aware. Carefully, his mind considered the options available, before he made his way over to the source.

"Is there a problem, Milburn?" Darcy questioned the butler, when he had arrived at the scene.

Mr Milburn, having known his master's nephew almost from the moment he was born, gratefully turned to him now. "This gentleman insists being admitted, Mr Darcy, but we have no notification of his invitation to this event."

Darcy, keeping his face expressionless, turned to the Earl of Saffron Walden, the origin of this possible crisis, who was at present in the middle of the secure grip of several footmen, who despite their restraint were unable to prevent the figure of the peer from displaying his inebriated condition.

"Lord Saffron Walden," he began in a composed voice, "do you perhaps have some paper about you that gives legitimacy to your admittance here? The event was so rapidly arranged that I fear my Aunt and Uncle had not the time to send proper invitations to everyone."

"I have my wife's invitation,” the Earl replied angrily, thrusting a piece of embossed card in front of Darcy's face, "which as her husband I should have been included on, as a matter of courtesy."

Darcy took the card from him, pretending to carefully examine the words. A moment's glance was all it took to realise the error. "This is your card, my lord, no invitations were sent to Hanover Square for this affair."

"May I ask then," the Earl began, his tone still threatening, "if my wife is here? Because, if she is so, I would like to speak to her."

"Do I need to remind you of the conditions which I imposed upon you but a few days ago, your Lordship?" Darcy remarked imperiously. "I shall speak frankly, for you reek of wine and perfume and your inebriated figure would be better occupied at either a club or a brothel, I suggest you return to which ever establishment previously entertained you today."

"Please, your Lordship," Milburn began respectfully, "you must leave now. You have no reason to be here."

"No I will not," the Earl began, resisting the outreached hands of the footmen surrounding him. "She is here, I know it! I want to see her!"

"I am afraid you will have to look elsewhere," Darcy replied, before silently motioning the butler and footmen to use all necessary force in order to evict the intruder.

The Earl continued to resist a while longer, until he accepted the futility of escaping the footmen's grip. He was dragged out of the house, crying aloud for his wife the entire time.

When he was out of his sight, Darcy turned back round, and to his relief, saw that the incident had not been noticed by any of his Uncle's guests, or indeed the Countess. Taking to account the proportions of the vast ballroom in which the reception was being held, this was no extraordinary notion. Then, after praising Milburn for his proficiency, he walked back into the crowds, making his way to his sister.

"Georgiana," he uttered when he had reached her and Elizabeth who were still in the company of his Aunt, Uncle, Charlotte and Richard.

"What is it, William?" Georgiana asked, turning to face her brother and seeing his concerned face.

"I am afraid we must be going," Darcy remarked, turning include all in the farewell he was making. "I apologise for us not being able to stay any longer. I have a business appointment to attend to."

"Georgiana," their Aunt began, "if you wish you could stay with us, and return to William tomorrow."

"I am afraid that will not be possible," Darcy replied, as Georgiana encountered his look, understanding at once. "My steward has expected us at Pemberley for quite some time. I had planned for us to leave for Derbyshire on the morrow."

"Then we expect to hear from you both by pen soon," the Earl of Matlock remarked, granting them leave to depart.

Darcy repeated his congratulations to his cousin, then made his farewells, followed by sister and the Countess, before quietly leading her out of the Ballroom, and then, when he had made sure the road was devoid of the Earl, to their carriage outside. Only once inside there, did Miss Darcy feel that she was allowed to speak her mind.

"What is the matter, William?" she asked as the carriage set off. "Why the sudden desire to go to Pemberley?"

"Elizabeth's husband appeared,” Darcy replied, causing Elizabeth to gasp as he told them both what had happened between him and the Earl only a few minutes ago. "He was drunk, a state which I have seen him in before, which causes me to doubt that we have seen the last of him. I had planned for us to go to Derbyshire soon anyway." He turned to Elizabeth. "Do you object to our leaving town so soon?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "Not at all. I told you that I would not be happy until I have seen that untamed beauty which you spoke of. I have seen Charlotte married, there is little to keep me here."

"Then to Pemberley we go," Darcy declared.

Chapter XXIV.

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter which had nothing at all to do with the intrusion of the Earl at Charlotte and Richard's wedding breakfast only the afternoon before. As she had not set eyes on him, and her departure with the Darcys occurred almost immediately, she felt little need to acquire a fear over what might have happened had they remained at the townhouse.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent. Though Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills- and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned.

"What do you think?" Georgiana asked her, knowing that her brother never would, not while he remained content in staring at their guest in silent awe, the beauty of his home paling in comparison to the brightness of her countenance.

"I do not think that I have ever seen a place for which nature has done more, or where natural beauty has been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. I like it very much indeed."

Georgiana smiled at the praise. "We always advise guests to see this prospect of it, because it shows the house to its best advantage. Modesty aside, we think that it is a beautiful home also."

"I can see why." Elizabeth turned to look at the view once more.

"You truly like it?" Darcy asked, still looking at her.

"I fear you would find me over extravagant in my praise, when I have barely seen any of it, sir," Elizabeth replied in a teasing manner.

"But your good opinion is worth the earning," he returned, causing her to blush, and his sister's smile to widen.

Another minute was spent in silent appreciation, then the carriage continued its journey. They descended the hill, crossed the bridge, and drove to the door. As the view appeared before Elizabeth, the carriage stopped once again, and the footmen and stable hands came out of the servants door and entrance to unpack and help the occupants exit to the ground. When she had touched the stone cobbled floor of the courtyard, Elizabeth took another chance to gaze at the building, detecting the signs that showed the house being remodelled over several generations, until the front of the present design had been added. So far nothing had appeared to change her initial impression of the building.

Darcy came to her side then, and Elizabeth followed him and his sister up the staircase to the entrance. Here they were greeted by the housekeeper; a Mrs Reynolds, a respectable-looking elderly woman, much less fine and more civil, than she had any notion of finding her, who looked upon her master and young mistress with a mixture of motherly devotion and true appreciation of the characters they had come to be.

She greeted Elizabeth with a knowing expression, one which put her in mind of her Aunt Gardiner; a most perceptive relative, whose advice Elizabeth had contemplated consulting on more than one occasion since she left the Earl's house. Her hesitancy on initiating such a correspondence however was her concern over how her Aunt would react to what she had done. She had no desire to lose the woman's previously good opinion over something which might be resolved in time, as she had said to Charlotte only yesterday.

Mr Darcy had introduced her with her full title, mentioning her stay to be of an indefinite nature, as a guest of himself and his sister. Whether Mrs Reynolds actually believed that, seemed to be by her look, another matter, but she merely nodded before proceeding with her traditional conversation for when the master returned.

They made their up the stairs to their rooms to change out of their travelling clothes. Mrs Reynolds came with them, talking with her master about all that had occurred upon the estate in his absence, and detailing any thing which could be counted as business that would immediately require his attention.

Elizabeth's own attention meanwhile was divided between Georgiana, who pointed out an object or two now and again which she thought her companion might want to have a look at, and observing the relationship between the two people in front of them. Mrs Reynolds had clearly been with the family for quite some time, probably since Mr Darcy was very young, that much could Elizabeth gather from their manners to each other. He respected her judgement, and she his. The country household obviously were of the same opinion as those of the town; in that their current master was the best they had ever known.

At this moment they reached the room that was Mr Darcy's, coming to a halt as he delivered his final instructions to his housekeeper, and told Elizabeth and Georgiana that he would be in the music room, when they wished to join him. He then entered his room. Miss Darcy continued on with them, until she came to her own chambers, and then Elizabeth was left alone with Mrs Reynolds.

"May I confirm, ma'am, that you met my master when he was in London after a short stay with Mr Bingley?"

"Yes, that is right," Elizabeth replied, surprised. Mrs Reynolds smiled at her, noticing the sentiment.

"I have known him since he was four years old," she explained, as they continued to walk down the corridor to another bedchamber. "And I have had the privilege of his regular correspondence whenever he is away." She paused then, bringing them to a halt. "And these are your chambers, ma'am. I shall wait for you so you won't get lost trying to find the Music Room in this big old house."

"Thank you," Elizabeth replied, putting her hand on the door. Before she opened it however, she turned back to the housekeeper and added, "Mrs Reynolds, I was wondering if you could call me Miss Elizabeth? Whenever I hear the word ma'am I always feel positively ancient."

"Of course, Miss Elizabeth," she replied, smilingly. "I would be happy to."

Elizabeth nodded in thanks, then opened her door and stepped inside. Once again, she found herself uttering a gasp in appreciation at the sight which came upon her. The room was beautiful. Lofty and handsome, with furniture of suitable wealth to its proprietor, all of it far more elegant and tasteful than the furniture of his Aunt's, and those of her husband.

Untying her bonnet, she handed it to Sarah, who had been waiting for her arrival, her happy face and chatter instantly conveying the impression that she was just as pleased with their new location as her mistress was.

Elizabeth soon discovered that nothing had changed in way her maid had been regarded from the town to the country; again she had a room to herself, and was treated with the precedence as befitted her position as a maid of a Countess. A great contrast once more, to how those in the Earl's households had treated her.

When Elizabeth had finished dressing, she met Mrs Reynolds outside once more, her nervousness a little lessened by the housekeeper's welcoming expression, and the treatment of Sarah. Mrs Reynolds informed her that she would be available whenever Elizabeth might need her, for any reason, no matter how insignificant it may seem to her, and that she could ask anything she liked of her.

"I was wondering," Elizabeth began then, emboldened by this warm reception, "if you would be so kind as to give me a tour of this house when you are free?"

"Of course, I shall be happy to," Mrs Reynolds replied. "But the master or Miss Darcy would be just as happy to show you the place as well you know."

"I do not wish to trouble them," was the quiet reply.

Mrs Reynolds refrained from mentioning that it would be no trouble, realising privately that it would have the added benefit of her gaining an opportunity to learn more about this young woman that her master had mentioned in almost every letter to her from the moment he had met her. "Would tomorrow morning be agreeable?" she inquired instead.

"If you are free, then yes, that would be wonderful."

By this time they had reached the Music room, and Mrs Reynolds opened the door, ushered her in, and then departed. Elizabeth entered the room just in time to see Mr Darcy bestow on his sister the present of a new grand pianoforte. She watched him lead his sister into the room, with her hand covering her eyes, whilst the other was clasped by her brotherly guide, before he took her hand away from her face. Georgiana at first was surprised then overjoyed at the gift, exclaiming over it, before going to embrace its bearer.

Elizabeth could not help but smile at such a lovely family scene. Here was a gentleman who clearly adored his sister, and to whom the affection was not only readily returned, but also deserved. He was fast becoming, she realised suddenly, the best man she had ever known.

Mr Darcy noticed her presence then, and the moment was forgotten. "Were you pleased with your chambers?" he asked in greeting, while his sister came to lead her friend to a seat.

"Yes, they were lovely, thank you. But I would have been just as content with a guest room. There was no need to open up one of the principal chambers."

"No more than what you deserve," he replied, before offering to ring for a light tea, as they had taken luncheon at the Inn in Lambton, which had been their last stop before reaching the estate.

They spent the first evening much as they had spent their last proper one in town, the day before the Fitzwilliam wedding. After dinner, in which Elizabeth found her admiration of the place and its master rising once more, for every inclination of hers, his sister and himself had been catered to, they retired to the Music room, where Georgiana honoured them with a recital.

Darcy persuaded her to honour them with one herself, before they mutually agreed to call it a night, in accordance with the great number of hours spent travelling that day.

Elizabeth conducted her ablutions, then sank into the fine four poster bed, all the while thinking how much she liked the place, and its owner. And how safe she felt, both in Pemberley, and in his presence.

Far away from the principal chambers, in the servants quarter of the house, Kate Reynolds heard the clock on the mantle of her hearth chime the hour, and laid aside her book. Silently, she rose from her chair and made her way out of her rooms, in search of her master.

Attuned as she was to his habits, she knew that despite the hour, and the noise which indicated that the maids who attended to the Countess and Miss Darcy had been sent for, her master was not yet retiring to his bedchambers. She also knew that he would want talk to her.

Kate Reynolds had become the housekeeper after the death of her predecessor, Mrs Ellard. Her character, and the late Lady Anne's had naturally complimented each other, which had led to her forming a close relationship with her master and mistress. She had helped the young Mr Darcy though the loss of his mother, when he was only a lad of fourteen, and through the gradual transition of control over the estate, until he had assumed final authority, five years ago.

If this experience had taught her anything, it was that her master was often a very lonely young man. And sometimes, too used to his own company. Over the years Kate had earned the privileged position as one of his confidants, a place hard to earn from a man who had been dealt somewhat of a harsh and tragic past.

She admired the man he had become, and respected his authority as master of the family estates, but at the same time had earned the right to confront him when he was wrong, and guide him when he felt out of his depth. She also had that rare ability among servants; the gift to anticipate his wants, and have them answered as soon as they were asked for.

Kate reached the Study and knocked upon the dark wood of the door. A strong male voice, her master's, called her in a few moments later.

"Ah, Kate," he began when she had closed the door, "I am glad it is you, for I have been meaning to talk with you."

"Yes I thought you might," she replied, coming to take the offered seat nearby him. He turned to face her as she settled into the confines of the armchair.

"The Countess is not just here as our guest," he said. "She is also here under my protection."

"Protection?" Kate repeated, knowing her master wished to confide further, and thus encouraged him to do so.

"Yes. You recollect that I once wrote to you about my suspicions regarding her husband? Well, in Kent, she confirmed them."

Kate gasped. "He has actually been abusing her?" Despite knowing he master's suspicions when she had been in the company of Miss Elizabeth, Kate had forgone looking for signs of evidence to support his theory, as she had wanted to make sure of her own impressions regarding the young woman.

"I am sorry to say that he has, almost from the first day of their marriage, as far as I can gather from the little she has felt able to tell me. In Kent I offered her the chance to leave him, if she wished. She came to my house but a day after we had returned to London."

He paused there, and Kate let him remain in silence for a while, as she gathered the conclusions she had drawn so far together. She recognised at once that there was a lot which her master was not telling her.

She knew him to be a kind and generous man, gallant almost to a fault at times, and, while little practised in the art of performing to strangers, reluctant to trust until it had been earned, his loyalty, once given, was everlasting. His concern however, had always been to present himself to society as nothing more remarkable than a rich gentleman, devoted to his sister.

Yet, the position which he had put himself into now, was a complete contrast, which had the possibility of resulting in damaging consequences, not only to his reputation, but that of his sister and that of the Countess as well. This would present quite a puzzle to any of those who did not know him as well as Kate herself did.

To wilfully abandon his previous exemplary conduct in order to take up with the wife of one of the richest Earls in the Kingdom, would appear shocking to every judging member of Society, and would instantly lessen his and his sister's chances of marrying into material and respectable families, equal to their own wealth and pedigree.

This was an opinion which her master could not fail to be aware of, otherwise he would not be the man that Kate knew him to be. She also knew, that, in respect and out of devotion to his sister, he would never have considered entering into such an arrangement, unless he had another reason than gallantry behind his motives. Such a reason she intended to discover if she could, during this conversation with her master, however unconsciously or purposefully he allowed her to.

Mr Darcy spoke once more. "Since then, she has remained under my protection. I had intended for us to remain in town longer, but when the Earl appeared at Richard's wedding, I realised that it would be best if we left when we did. I would ask that if anyone does inquire after her, anyone that you do not know to be of my acquaintance, that yourself and the rest of the household staff refrain from revealing her presence here, and bar that person from admittance."

"Of course sir," Kate replied. "Anything else?"

"Yes." He paused, and spoke the next words uncertainly, as if he already knew what impact they would make. "She is to be treated not only as an honoured guest, but as the mistress of the estate. This is not something she requires, but I wish it to be so."

"I understand, sir," Mrs Reynolds allowed herself a small, knowing smile. She then rose from her chair. "Goodnight, master William."

"Goodnight Kate," he replied, smiling at her fondness for that particular title of his youth, "and thank you."

Mrs Reynolds closed the door, and made her way back to her rooms. As there were still other servants about, even at this late hour, she refrained from letting her feelings show until she had entered the little sitting room that she was entitled to as Pemberley's housekeeper. Then she allowed a smile to grace her features, as she recalled the softness about the master's features when he spoke of her, the tenderness in his voice, the sincerity and wistfulness in his instructions concerning the Countess' role whilst she resided in the house. Whether he was aware of such emotions or not, it was clear to her that he cared very deeply for the Countess. All that remained now, was to determine if such a degree of attachment was returned.

Section Seven

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