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As Fate Would Have It

Chapter Five
A Singular Accident

Darcy rode through the woods following the footpaths in a methodical search pattern. Competently, he kept his focus on his task, pushing aside his increasing worry for Elizabeth's safety and concern for the notable fading light of day. His rational and pragmatic mind told him she could not have gotten far on foot.

His attention was arrested by a distant sound coming from deeper in the woods. It would be just like Elizabeth to be lured off the common path, he thought as he tied his horse securely and headed in the direction of the noise. He walked through the dense foliage, sticks and leaves crackling under his boots. He called out her name again and again, and was finally rewarded by the sound of her muffled voice calling back to him.

"Mr. Darcy! Be careful. Do not ..."

His step suddenly faltered and the next thing he knew he was falling down a steep slope. Grasping at anything to stop his descent his hand griped a tree root but it quickly gave way with the weight of his body.

"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth kneeled at his side.

He found himself sprawled on the ground of a deep, narrow pit.

"Mr. Darcy, are you injured?" she asked with apparent concern.

"Only my pride," he answered - which takes a regular beating around you, he thought as he stood and brushed himself off. "This must be a hunter's pit." He studied the fifteen foot high walls of earth that surrounded them. "And you, Miss Bennet, are you injured?" he asked, suddenly realizing that she must have fallen into the pit as well.

"I am afraid I injured my ankle when I fell and that is why I could not climb..." she blushed and her words faltered. "Oh dear," she exclaimed, her eyes widening in surprise. "You are bleeding, sir ... your head."

He brought his hand up to where his forehead ached and felt a small laceration. "I must have hit my head when I fell. I will be fine."

"We need to bandage it to staunch the bleeding, sir."

Before he could negate her solicitations, he felt blood streaming down his face and he knew the cut was deeper than he first suspected. He immediately began to untie his cravat. "Do not worry; it is just a small injury," he reassured her. "We can use this. Will you, please?" he asked as he ripped it into strips and handed her one.

"Silk?" Elizabeth queried curiously as she fingered a strip of the torn cravat.

"Yes, well the linen gives me a rash," he replied sheepishly.

Elizabeth grinned as she tied the long narrow strip securely around his head. Her mirth was a welcome change from the tension he had read on her countenance and easily worth the slight embarrassment such an unmanly confession had cost him.

"Do you always give your rescuers this much trouble, Miss Bennet?" he teased with the hope of encouraging her further.

"Is that not the duty of the damsel in distress?" she answered and batted her eyes at him in the most alluring way.

"May I?" Darcy asked as he bent to examine her ankle. She nodded and he carefully removed her shoe to fully inspect the injury. He tried to keep his mind on assessing her injury, instead of the delicate arch of her foot resting in his hand and her adorable toes just visible under her stocking. Her toes! "Ha! They are not colored!" he exclaimed boldly.

"Excuse me?" she asked puzzled by his outburst.

"Your toenails ... You told me they were colored."

Elizabeth laughed. "I did not say they were colored. I asked you --you who claimed to have seen them; which you had not -- what color they were to prove my point."

"Where did you ever learn of such things?" he asked, not certain he was prepared for her answer.

"Extensive reading does improve the mind. That was a little something I discovered in one of my father's books." Her chin lifted slightly with her pronouncement.

"In one of your father's books?"

"Yes, you know the ones on the highest shelves in the remote corners? Did you never discover your father's best books, Mr. Darcy?" she questioned with that pert look that never failed to excite him.

"That is a question that defies a respectable answer, Miss Bennet," he chuckled and shook his head.

Darcy examined Elizabeth's ankle and concurred it was probably a slight sprain. He immobilized it to the best of his ability with another strip of his cravat. When she thought he wasn't looking, he had seen her wince, confirming his suspicion the injury was painful, but she had not complained.

Once again he surveyed their surroundings. "It appears there is only one way out of here and that is up. If you can hold on securely to my back, I will be able to carry you up. You cannot bear weight on your injured ankle and I cannot climb with you in my arms. We are losing light quickly, so there is no time for me to go for assistance. We have no other options, Miss Bennet."

Elizabeth studied the pit surrounding them. "I agree, sir," she replied resolutely.

Darcy took a moment to admire her determination. Beauty and bravado. Who would have thought it such a potent combination?

She listened attentively and followed his instructions. He was grateful the task at hand required his utmost concentration and effort; therefore he had not time to focus on the feeling of her legs wrapped tightly about his waist ... too much. He concentrated on the placement of his hands and not her arms securely grasping his bare neck. Certainly the pounding of blood through his body was due to the exertion of the climb, not the exquisite sensation of her full breasts pressed firmly against his back.

After they safely emerged from the pit, Darcy guided Elizabeth to rest on a fallen log while he retrieved his horse.

"Jane!" Elizabeth suddenly called out in alarm. "She is waiting for me. Oh dear ... I know she must be terribly worried. I have to go to her, Mr. Darcy, I have to ..."

Darcy placed a hand on Elizabeth's arm to calm her. "Mr. Bingley and I encountered her... waiting for you at the post station." His voice was reassuring, his words carefully chosen so as not to reveal the severely distraught state of Miss Jane Bennet. "We were surprised because we thought you had departed London days ago," he continued. He and Bingley had deliberately set out three days after the ladies in an attempt to conceal their pursuit.

"Our travel plans were altered due to inclement weather. This has all been so unsettling that I had not even thought to wonder how it was you came to discover my plight. What were ... I mean how ..." Elizabeth stammered obviously puzzled.

"Mr. Bingley and I were traveling to Netherfield for a hunting party and that is how we happened upon your sister. She told us of the post delay, your walk about and the ... delay in your return," he spoke cautiously. "As to your sister, it was decided that Mr. Bingley would escort Miss Bennet back to Longbourn in his carriage in which he and I were traveling. I set out on horseback promising to find you and return you safely."

"Jane ... she was well?" Elizabeth's concern was still apparent.

Darcy had previously observed the closeness of the two sisters and knew Elizabeth would predict Miss Jane Bennet's distress over the situation. With a thoughtful look to her, he wondered if it was too much to hope that she would ever be this concerned about his welfare. "Miss Bennet, I believe you know Mr. Bingley is quite devoted to your sister and will do everything to ensure her safety and happiness," he said warmly, knowing instantly his words had been precisely what she needed to hear.

"I believe you are right!" She nodded.

Her delighted smile brought a luster to her eyes that nearly took his breath away. He felt a pang as he realized his next words would likely undo all of the reassurance he had just imparted. Daylight was fading and he knew he had no other alternative.

"We must make haste if we are to find shelter before nightfall. There is not time to make the journey all the way back to town, but I remember passing a small cabin up ahead. We will try for that, if you approve." He hoped his confidence overshadowed the grimness of their situation.

He watched as she hesitated and the implication of his words registered. His heart ached at her stricken expression. This was not how it was supposed to be. Damn the Fates that had forced this upon them. It had only been a few weeks since her angry declaration that he was the last man in the world that she could marry. He knew he was making progress, but he needed more time. In spite of this compromising position, he would ensure she would not be bound to him for any reason other than love -- ardent love as he still felt for her, through all of their trials and yet this additional tribulation. He knew now that he could never be happy with anything less than her love.

After what seemed an eternity to him, she finally stood and took one small unsteady step toward him, her eyes suspiciously shiny.

"Mr. Darcy. I am so sorry. This is entirely my fault." Her voice wavered.

He shook his head as he reached for her hand and would not let her continue. "There is no need. Come, Miss Bennet," he spoke tenderly. And she did.

Chapter Six
A Prodigious Deal of Care

The inside of the cabin fully reflected its unused state. While it was free of clutter it was also lacking in amenities and Mr. Darcy found himself seated on the only chair while Elizabeth inspected his head wound.

"How does it look?" he queried.

"I am afraid the bleeding has not stopped," she answered, unable to hide her concern about the oozing wound.

"It will need to be stitched then."

She nodded. "But we have to do something until you can see a doctor."

"No. It cannot wait. Do you happen to have a needle in that little bag of yours? Georgiana often carries her needlework with her." He glanced around the cabin. "I doubt we will find much of help in here."

Flummoxed at the thought of where he might be going with this conversation, she hesitated to answer. The deep red, bloody stain, saturating the bandage that had already been reinforced twice, held her attention.

His focus returned to her, his eyes questioning, as he waited for her response. Unable to speak, she finally nodded her head.

"I will be forever grateful that you are an accomplished lady and travel with your needlework close at hand," he said sardonically, a small smile trying to make light of the situation.

She removed her needle and various threads from her reticule to hand them to him but he shook his head, his hands remained firmly by his sides.

"Surely you do not expect me to stitch the wound?" she cried in disbelief.

"I certainly cannot do it," he motioned to the awkward location of the wound. "So you are my only hope."

"But sir, I have never..." she stammered and searched for appropriate words. She was suddenly aware of the gravity of the situation as she could see he was struggling to remain in control, but his blood loss was weakening him. She drew in her breath and summoned every ounce of courage. "Very well, you are correct. I must be the one to do it." Elizabeth surprised even herself with the confidence her voice carried.

"It must be done quickly, Miss Bennet, as the light will be leaving us soon," he reminded her. They had searched the cabin for candles and firewood upon entering and finding none, had been resigned to do without.

It was decided that Mr. Darcy would lie on the bed for the procedure while Elizabeth sat on the chair. His increasing unsteadiness as he moved towards the bed alarmed Elizabeth, and she slowly exhaled when he finally reclined. He was a large man and she knew she would be hard pressed to lift him should he fall.

Now that her mind was set to her task, she felt her composure quickly return.

"Mr. Darcy, where is your flask?"

He slowly opened his eyes at her question and she explained before he could answer.

"This will be very painful without any anesthetic. I thought some fine brandy or whatever you carry might dull the pain a bit. We can also use some to cleanse around the wound and needle."

He fumbled to retrieve the flask from his coat pocket. She gently pushed his unsteady hand aside and pulled out a fairly large, ornate, silver flask. She carefully removed the cap, handed it back to him and watched him take a deep drink.

"I will get everything in order while you finish that." She headed for the door, limping.

"Miss Bennet?" he called quietly, questioning her move.

"That is Doctor Bennet to you, sir!" she laughingly replied over her shoulder. "I am going to get the water from your saddle. When I return, we will begin, so please continue with the anesthesia." She flashed him a warm, reassuring smile.

He nodded reluctantly. "Please be careful."

She was touched by the concern in his voice. "I will." It had been obvious all along he was accustomed to taking charge of situations and was unused to relinquishing that control. She admired this aspect of his character that at one time she would have declared domineering. On this day, it was most comforting.

~ * ~

Elizabeth winced as she carefully removed the bloody bandage, exposing the gaping wound. She struggled to push the overwhelming thoughts of how it was she found herself in this distressing position, about to attempt a frightfully foreign task, on a man, who only weeks ago she had disliked, but who now was rapidly growing in her esteem.

His eyes appeared glassy as the brandy took quick effect due to his blood loss, earlier exertion and the lack of food.

"Do not blame me if this leaves a scar on your handsome face," Elizabeth warned as she readied the needle with the purple thread he had selected.

"So ... you think I am handsome?" He grinned, the brandy decreasing his inhibitions. "I am not at all concerned about some trifle of a scar, Elizabeth. We men wear our scars as a badge of honor."

She chose to overlook his use of her Christian name given their current situation and his nearing intoxicated state. Besides, she was starting to enjoy this lighter side of his character.

"You, sir, being an honorable man... I suppose you have a few?" she laughed.

"Loads of them," he said proudly between sips of brandy. "See this?" he asked as he pulled up his left shirtsleeve and pointed to a small thin line on his forearm. "That happened when I was a lad of eight ... fell out of a tree ... the tallest tree at Pemberley."

"Of course it was the tallest tree," Elizabeth couldn't help her smirk.

He continued to turn and adjust his clothing to expose his surprisingly numerous scars and recounted the history of how he had obtained each one. Elizabeth enjoyed the image of a young Mr. Darcy, full of mischief. It wasn't until he pulled up his shirt and lowered the waist of his breeches to expose a long jagged scar on his right hip that she began to lose her composure. She felt her face flush. She knew he was unaware of the impropriety of his actions, and she knew she should look away, but she could not draw her eyes from his firm abdomen. She was spellbound by the thin trail of dark hairs that compelled her eyes to follow their path downward. She was sure her expression gave her far-from-pure thoughts away, but fortunately he was so caught up in telling the story of the scar he did not notice, or so she hoped. She hardly knew what he said -- something about an escapade with his cousin, a bull and a fence.

"We caught the devil for that," he laughed.

In her desperation to regain control of her composure, the actual sewing of his wound now seemed a welcome distraction from her thoughts and his exposed body.

Elizabeth felt him stiffen with each piercing of the needle through his skin, but he did not flinch and made no sound. He really was a strong and brave man. As she pulled the thread taut, she carefully tied off the last knot and inspected her work. Her fingers lightly traced the outline of the wound. "I think that will suffice. The bleeding has stopped. I hope it does not become infected. These conditions are hardly -"

He interrupted her nervous ramble by catching her hand in his, and gave it a reassuring squeeze as he held it next to his cheek. "Thank you, Elizabeth."

His heartfelt gratitude touched her, and it took great effort to remain composed. "Doctor Bennet," she reminded him. "You are welcome," she added softly as she dressed the wound with the last strip of his cravat. "Now you must rest," she commanded.

"Yes, Doctor Bennet. Anything you say, Doctor Bennet," he answered mockingly.

She hobbled about as she tidied up their surroundings as best she could, aware of his attention on her every move. When she finished, she seated herself once again in the chair, folded her arms in her lap and closed her eyes.

"You are not going to sleep in that chair, Elizabeth."

She could not see his face well due to the darkness, but could tell by the commanding tone of his voice that Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of his domain, who brooked no opposition, was back.

"I will be fine here," she responded, in what she hoped was an equally imperious tone.

"I will not have it," he said more forcefully.

"What do you suggest?" She immediately regretted her question knowing full well that he would state the obvious.

"There is but one bed, if you can even call it that, and we will have to share it."

"It would not be proper ..." she stammered.

"What of this entire event has been proper, Elizabeth? This is called survival, and we still have a long journey ahead. We both need to be well rested tomorrow." He slid to the far side of the bed and patted the space next to him.

She crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head in defiance.

"You cannot spend the entire night in that position. You will further damage your ankle," he said, reminding her of her injury.

"I will elevate it," she answered, stubbornly.

"You will be cold."

"I am quite comfortable."

"I will be cold," he whined.

She could not contain her laugh which only encouraged him to continue. "I will be cold -- and my wound will become infected because of it and that will be your fault," he whined again.

"That will not do, Mr. Darcy! I have young cousins and therefore am quite immune to such ploys! Do you not have any better arguments or has the brandy impaired your thoughts?" she challenged him.

"I am more coherent than you think, Elizabeth," he answered, surprising her with the provocative tone of his words.

She refused to answer or move.

"Very well then, if you will not sleep here ... then I will not sleep here." He slowly started to rise, moaning as he pressed his hand against his head.

Elizabeth rushed to his side to guide him back down. "You are being ridiculous, sir." She sat on the edge of the bed while she adjusted his bandage. The tension between them dissipated as he stared at her intently. His dark eyes were just visible in the fading light as they pleaded with her.

"I need you to trust me, Elizabeth." He spoke so earnestly she felt a tightening in her chest.

"I do," she whispered.

He pulled her gently down beside him. "I will see us through this safely," he said with confidence as he lightly stroked her hand.

She felt him relax and impulsively asked, "What tale will you tell of the acquisition of your newest scar?"

"This one was earned in the knightly service of rescuing my lady," he answered softly.

She stifled her gasp as she slowly turned to face him. He was already asleep.

She was exhausted but could not clear her mind. How had she come to be in such an inconceivable position? She sighed, her eyes blinking, straining to see in the darkness of the night. She considered the events that had led her to this point, and aside from falling into the pit, which obviously had not been a deliberate act, she could not find fault with any of the decisions she had made. Upon reflection, there truly had not been many decisions at all, as most of the circumstances had offered no options. What had happened to her sensible, orderly and predictable life? Were the Fates so determined to wreak havoc?

She turned to look upon the man sleeping quietly beside her. The room was lit only by the night sky creeping through the lone window but their closeness allowed her to make out the outline of his handsome features. She laughed at the memory of his pleasure in her declaration of admiration.

Fate.

She would not deny that he was controlling, obstinate, proud and reserved. In an age when gentlemen were valued by their fortune and rank, it was not surprising he was so. He was also intelligent, honest and had a wry sense of humor. In addition, he had demonstrated he could be tender and thoughtful. All things considered, she supposed there were actually much worse futures than sharing a lifetime with such a man. She smiled down at him and carefully, caressingly repositioned the lock of hair that had fallen over his wound. Her finger traced around the purple stitches. She had closed the wound; it would heal.

Fate, she thought again.

Just when she thought she had calmed herself enough to sleep, her eyes fell upon his bare abdomen where his shirt had fallen open. Her mind now raced with his words my lady and countless images of him. She felt herself flush and her pulse quicken. Suddenly pictures from her father's books that had guided her self-study of human anatomy flashed before her. The radiant heat from his body warmed her palm, tempting it ever closer to his exposed flesh. "Oh!" She retracted her hand in alarm, just before touching him. What would Mr. Darcy think of her if he knew her thoughts, she wondered in horror, certain this must be the beginning of her fall into the abyss of wantonness?

Another hour passed until sleep finally overwhelmed her thoughts... Fate.

Chapter Seven
Tempting Consideration

As Darcy slowly awoke the next morning, he was aware of his doubly painful head from both the wound and the after effects of too much brandy. However, his pain was easily brushed aside as the pleasures of the rest of his body registered in his mind.

Elizabeth ... he sighed. Somehow during the night, she had entwined herself all over and around him. Her head was nestled on his chest and shoulder. Long dark curls had escaped their confines and she was on her side with her hip and leg draped over his. Most surprising of all was how her arm disappeared under his shirt and her hand was tucked into the waist of his breeches.

While his body reveled in the feel of her embrace, his eyes feasted on her full round breasts spilling out of her low cut gown. If he strained his head just the right way, he could glimpse the edge one dusky pink nipple, and his mind completed the picture. He stifled a moan as his morning arousal was heightened by his now fully functioning senses.

Her hair tickled his neck, and he wound one of the renegade curls around his finger. Her curls allured him to the point of obsession. He had admired them from the moment he had first laid eyes on them at the Meryton Assembly. As she had walked away from him, they had bounced enticingly around her pale, slender neck, taunting him for some cruel words he had spoken in haste that were now long forgotten. He yearned for the privilege and honor of seeing her hair unbound, to touch it and caress it.

Her steady, even breathing told him she was still deep in sleep, giving him time to cherish the moment and formulate a plan.

What he wanted to do was kiss and fondle every inch of her enticing, lush body, starting with her eyes and lips, and ever so slowly work his way down. Even with the hindrance of a head wound and residual effects from too much brandy, he knew he was ready, willing and able. If her hand was just a little lower, there would be no choice, he told himself.

If she woke and discovered their position, she would be furious and would never forgive him. He had asked for her trust and she had willingly given it. He would not betray her - no matter how tempting her body was. It is in such moments that great promises are made. Darcy avowed to win her love. He wasn't above this painful metamorphosis if in the end he got what he wanted and knew he was better for it. The next time -- for he was that confident -- the next time he awoke with her by his side, they would be husband and wife, and he would demonstrate to her how very much he loved her. But for the present, she had trusted him, and that trust carried a high price.

What he should do was what he did do. After one last, good long look, absorbing and memorizing all of what he felt and saw, he slowly and cautiously extricated himself from her hold. In compensation for his self-sacrifice, he ever so carefully traced his fingers across her partially exposed breasts, hovering but not quite touching. He lightly kissed her full pink lips and left the small cabin.

~ * ~

He had been in the company of countless handsome women, bedecked in the finest jewels and most fashionable attire, surrounded by the most opulent ballrooms London had to offer, but nothing had ever held him as captive as the sight of Miss Elizabeth Bennet appearing in the doorway of that ramshackle cabin in the middle of nowhere; her clothes rumpled, smudged and in disarray; her dark riotous curls framing her pale, lovely, face; and her bright eyes searching ... for him, he hoped. Artless in her manner, alluring in her simple, unadorned state, all the finery of wealth was superficial in comparison to her natural beauty.

Her slight, timid smile surprised him because she was usually so self-assured. He was suddenly conscious of his own appearance, and quickly raked one hand through his own disheveled hair while his other hand passed over the stubble of his beard.

"Good morning, Miss Bennet," he managed to say as he neared her. "Please forgive my appearance." He saw her immediately stiffen and worried about what he had said wrong.

"Only if you forgive mine," she replied curtly.

It dawned on him she had mistaken his intention and he quickly answered, "There is no forgiving such beauty, Miss Bennet." He was pleased to see her blush and she appeared at ease again. "Your ankle, is it feeling any better?"

"Yes, thank you. It is less painful, and the swelling has gone down considerably. How does your head feel, sir?"

"My wound is healing, but it is the inside of my head that is still suffering from the side effects of the anesthesia. I am afraid I do not remember much of what transpired last night. I hope I was not too much of a bother," he fished.

Elizabeth laughed. "Oh, no ... quite the contrary! You are rather entertaining when you are ... in your cups," she said with a wry grin.

"What did I say?" His eyes widened in alarm. "What did I do?"

"I think I shall not tell you ... such details might prove a useful tool in the future."

He considered bribing her with tales of her own misdeeds but decided against it. The memory of her embrace was too precious for him to risk it being tarnished if she expressed regret. Her reference to the future had not escaped his notice, so whatever he had said or done must not have truly offended her.

"Miss Bennet, I think we must discuss our plan. I have given the matter much thought, and I think vague but truthful answers will serve us best. All will be explained in simple truths; I found you, you were injured, it was too late to travel, therefore we stayed at a small lodging near the posting station and waited until the morning to travel. We avoid detailed explanations but remain truthful. Everyone will be so pleased you are safe and well, they will not be concerned with the particulars," Darcy explained confidently.

Elizabeth readily agreed with the plan and seemed more at ease, although she did attempt another apology, but Darcy once again would not hear it.

Sharing his mount, they followed the direction of the road back to town, but stayed just out of sight amongst the trees. They quietly waited a very short time in the cover of the woods for the next post coach from London to pass, and inconspicuously followed it at a safe distance. Arriving at the closest town, their rumpled appearance was easily explained by travel. Passengers would assume they were continuing their journey, and everyone else would assume they had just arrived on the coach.

It had been decided Elizabeth would ride in the post coach, and Darcy would follow on horseback. There was enough time before the coach departed again for them to amend their appearance in the rooms Darcy had secured, and also to eat a hearty meal.

Parting from her was surprisingly difficult. His hand lingered on hers as he gently assisted her into the post coach. The tremor of her lower lip gave her brave smile away and he desperately wanted to believe that she felt the same reluctance. It was hard to put a reign on his eagerness when everything about her captivated him so. He had previously misinterpreted her lively spirit, and now his voice of reason reminded him to proceed with caution. Thus far, timely remembrances of her reproofs had held him in reserve, but their shared intimacy of the past twenty-four hours had increased his yearning to declare himself.

"I will follow." He did not trust himself to say more.

"Thank you," was her quiet reply.

He mounted his stallion and rode in the position of guard, assuming his natural role of noble and formidable protector.

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