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As Fate Would Have It

Chapter Eight
Officious Interference

Elizabeth's homecoming was the great commotion Mr. Darcy had predicted. Her family was so relieved to see her that there were few questions, and those few were easily answered with the vague truths they had rehearsed. Elizabeth was coddled, Mr. Darcy was thanked and the atmosphere at Longbourn was jubilant.

Just as Elizabeth was starting to become complacent with regard to the whole incident, she was suddenly overcome with panic when Mr. Bingley exclaimed, "Darcy! Have you injured your head?"

With everyone's attention upon him, Mr. Darcy gave an embarrassed shrug. "It is nothing of consequence, Bingley."

"Are those purple stitches?" Bingley persisted inquisitively as he moved to examine the sutures more closely. "I say, Darcy, what kind of doctor did you see? Or is this the latest London trend? Purple stitches, indeed. I rather like them! That is the neatest, tidiest sewing I have ever seen, but of course you only see the best of doctors."

Once she had realized their secret was still safe, Elizabeth could not help herself from delighting in the admiration of her work. It was far more personally gratifying than the praise of some trivial floral sampler. She smiled smugly at Mr. Darcy - until she noted the gleam in his eye as he looked directly at her and spoke.

"Yes, I am very particular about a doctor's medical skill but I have recently come to appreciate something more ..."

Mr. Bingley looked at Mr. Darcy questioningly, waiting for him to continue.

He was still staring at Elizabeth when he added, "A good bedside manner. Yes, a good bedside manner is most important."

Elizabeth blushed and turned her head. She was disappointed no clever retort came to her mind, but then decided it was probably best to let the subject drop. Mr. Darcy was proving himself very adept at innuendo. His cleverness challenged her in ways she found oddly exciting.

She watched with interest as Mr. Darcy endeavored to occasionally participate in conversations. While she viewed some of his mannerisms more favorably simply by virtue of her enlightenment, there also was an unmistakable change in his demeanor toward her family. He would never be the jovial gentleman Mr. Bingley was, and this made her appreciate his effort all the more.

That night as Elizabeth relished the comfort of her bed, she was surprised how restorative distance from the events, perhaps aided by a touch of denial, seemed to be. The simple truths would become reality but for the shadow of a secret shared.

~ * ~

The dinner party at her Aunt and Uncle Philips' honoring the militia had been unavoidable. Elizabeth was apprehensive about coming face to face with Mr. Wickham as her confidence in her own abilities had been shaken by the events in Kent. After two full days of rest, she could no longer plead fatigue and she knew if she used her ankle as an excuse, she would risk further house confinement. Besides, Mr. Wickham had to be reckoned with at some point.

Her outward calm demeanor belied the inner turmoil she felt as Mr. Wickham stood before her. His fine countenance, good figure and pleasing address, now tarnished by the truth, no longer appealed to her, and she felt a sudden resurgence of shame for her previous lack of discernment.

"Mr. Wickham," she politely curtsied.

"Miss Bennet. How do you do? You are looking lovely as always. It is such a pleasure to see you. I am very glad you have returned safely. I heard of your mishap and rightfully worried for your well-being." He greeted her with his usual affable air, which she now fully recognized as the affectation it truly was. She was appalled he thought a few kind words would reestablish him in her good graces and that simply by renewing his attentions to her, her preference would be secured.

"I am well, thank you. My ankle remains somewhat sore at times but otherwise I am in good health, thanks to Mr. Darcy."

"Darcy? Yes, I had heard he put himself out--"

"Whether or not he was put out - you will have to ask him." Her anger caused her to interrupt him. She was growing more furious by the second, though whether she was angrier at Mr. Wickham and his presumptuousness, or at herself for once having succumbed to his duplicitous manner, was open to debate.

"As I mentioned before Darcy is capable of acting the gentleman if and when he feels so inclined. I am sure the opportunity to play the hero to an attractive lady was too tempting a boost for his already over inflated self-opinion," Wickham laughed and looked at Elizabeth as if he expected her to join in his derision. Elizabeth felt pangs of guilt for having once encouraged such scornful remarks about Mr. Darcy.

Fighting back any outward signs of animosity, and strengthened by the desire to defend Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth answered, "That is an astonishing statement coming from you, Mr. Wickham, but since I know the truth of the matter, I suppose I should not be surprised. I have come to learn initial impressions may be deceiving but I do feel that eventually true character is revealed. I will always be grateful for Mr. Darcy's assistance, but he had risen in my esteem prior to that occasion." Her calm tone hid her anger well, but with any luck, her words would discourage him from endeavoring to further their acquaintance.

Elizabeth watched Mr. Wickham's malevolent expression at her remarks with some trepidation. The sudden feral look in his eyes as she defended Mr. Darcy was frightening and she feared she might have said too much. His agitation passed but Elizabeth remained guarded. "As I mentioned before Miss Bennet, I am glad you are well." He resumed his gentle accent and hastily excused himself.

The rest of the evening passed with a polite distance between them and the appearance of congeniality. They parted with a civility Elizabeth was certain neither of them felt.

~ * ~

Elizabeth's ankle was healing quickly but it still impeded her ability to escape the confines of home. She had to limit her fresh air excursions to the immediate gardens, which, while pretty and inviting, were hardly an adequate substitute for her customary long walks. Moreover, this left her vulnerable to her mother's attention.

Mrs. Bennet's latest point of interest was the return of the Thompson family's eldest son, who had been away at Cambridge and now returned to take over the family estate. To her mother, he was of prime eligibility being a single, relatively handsome gentleman with three thousand pounds a year -- all of the qualifications she required for a suitable husband for one of her daughters. Being relatively handsome was a bonus -not an absolute necessity. Mr. Bingley's return had rejuvenated Mrs. Bennet's hopes for Jane making a match with him, thus leaving Elizabeth to be paired off with Mr. Thompson's three thousand pounds. While he was a pleasant enough gentleman, Elizabeth knew she had no other feeling for him but friendship.

Elizabeth found herself taking extra care preparing her appearance for dinner that evening. She laughed at herself as she adjusted her gown and hair for the umpteenth time. She was finally ready to acknowledge that she was looking forward to seeing Mr. Darcy again. She was becoming aware of her awakening romantic sensibilities and her curious responsiveness to his commanding physical presence in all of its forms: his tall stalwart frame so deceptively lithe; his light musky scent reminding her of the forest on a clear day; his strong broad shoulders and muscular arms that had carried her effortlessly; the deep refined timbre of his voice that could be as tender one moment as it was authoritative in another; his magical hands that wielded power with a simple wave and ignited a spark within her with his slightest touch; and his dark penetrating eyes that focused upon her with an intensity that at once made her feel uneasy and exhilarated. She smiled as she considered the man she formerly only ridiculed was now constructed into a paradigm of manly perfection. She wondered if love turned all sensible people into silly irrational creatures. And there it was ... love. She loved him. She finally admitted her feelings to herself and it was wonderfully liberating.

Elizabeth knew Mr. Darcy was exactly the sort of man in disposition and talents who would most suit her. She now knew she had been mistaken in attributing his power merely to his affluence. She had seen beyond the trappings of his wealth and found a man of steadfast and honest character. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, answered all her wishes.

Her high hopes for a pleasant evening came to fruition owing in part to two major turns of good fortune. One was that the Thompsons were unable to attend, limiting the dinner party guests to the Philips' and the gentlemen from Netherfield, thus sparing Elizabeth from her mother's match-making endeavors, at least for the night. The second also involved her mother. It seemed having come to her daughter's rescue had raised Mr. Darcy's merit in her mother's estimation, and she had ceased her constant derision of the gentleman.

In spite of Mrs. Bennet's new-found tolerance for Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth had been concerned when she discovered he was seated next to her mother during dinner. Dissatisfied with her own position at the far end of the table, she surreptitiously kept an eye on them during most of the meal. She was surprised to see them engaged in what appeared to be lively conversation throughout. She was unsure whether that spoke well of her mother's behavior or ill of Mr. Darcy's state of mind. Maybe his head injury had been more severe than she had thought, and had knocked the sense right out of the man. Her opportunity to talk with him finally came when he positioned himself conveniently by her side as she was overseeing the card tables.

"How was your dinner, Mr. Darcy?" she asked politely.

"My dinner was excellent, Miss Bennet, thank you. At first I was a little disappointed with the seating arrangements, but once I was settled, I found myself enjoying the meal immensely. When plied with the right questions, your mother is a fount of information," he answered with a wry grin.

"I am having a difficult time conceiving a topic on which my mother could inform you, Mr. Darcy. Could it be the hiring of good help or the art of designing menus? Pray, do tell, I am fully curious." Elizabeth was utterly intrigued now.

"While she might be knowledgeable regarding such topics, I was referring to one of far greater interest." He paused dramatically causing Elizabeth to raise her brow at him in mock censure. "You, Miss Bennet," he said pointedly.

"Me?" she exclaimed in surprise.

"Yes, you. Let me see if I can remember it all." His hand stroked his chin and he had that hint of a smile she had come to admire. "Hmm... You once stole the turkey that was to be served for dinner. You smuggled a litter of kittens under your bed. You were banned from the stables when you were caught riding the carriage horses." He playfully admonished her with a tsk-tsk and shake of his head before continuing, "Your recent ankle injury was not your first, as you once sprained your ankle when you fell out of a tree. You used to cry when quail was served at meals." He paused for a moment. "Oh, and a gentleman you find ...interesting, a Mr. Thompson has moved back into the area," he added solemnly as he fidgeted with his cuff.

Elizabeth laughed, though she was mindful of the change in his countenance with his last statement and she had every intention of correcting her mother's faulty conjecture. "If you managed to elicit such extraneous tales from my mother during one dinner, Mr. Darcy, it is a wonder you ever had the opportunity to actually consume anything of sustenance. In addition, you should not believe everything my mother says."

"Really? Pray tell which of her anecdotes was lacking in veracity? I must know."

"I will tell you merely to make my point. I did not steal the turkey, I set it free. It was puppies not kittens. Kittens would have been much easier to hide and I am sure I would have succeeded with that! I was not banned from the stables. My father simply reminded me carriage horses are not meant for jumping fences. I did not fall out of the tree, I jumped. And Mr. Thompson is a friend of the entire family and that is the full extent of our acquaintance."

"I am very glad you were able to clarify those points so eloquently, Miss Bennet. Very glad indeed." He smiled that disarming smile of his and Elizabeth suddenly felt warm all over.

As the gentlemen were leaving, Mr. Bingley announced his sisters had arrived from London earlier in the day. He extended an invitation to the ladies of Longbourn to join them for tea the following afternoon. Mrs. Bennet assured him Jane and Elizabeth would be happy to accept, and indicated everyone else had previous engagements.

~ * ~

Upon greeting their guests, the Bingley sisters hardly masked their reluctance to serve as hostesses for such company. Having partaken of the light refreshments and having listened to Miss Bingley enumerate all the superiorities of London society, Elizabeth excused herself under the pretense of freshening up. She had deliberately delayed her return to the drawing room believing that hobbling up and down the Netherfield hallways and admiring the art was preferable to the pretentious ramblings of the Bingley sisters. She promised herself to return to Jane's side after a short respite.

Masculine voices from the library caught her attention as she passed the open door. It wasn't her intent to eavesdrop but the voices were loud...

"I agree. It is a wretched situation, Darcy, and had you not told me, I would not have ever imagined it possible."

"I have dealt with situations such as this my entire adult life. You know me well, Bingley, I will not be force- marched to the altar."

"But do you really think she planned that whole elaborate scene? I had not thought her capable of such deceit."

"I doubt her ankle was really injured at all but I placated her by pretending it was."

Elizabeth gasped in horror. She could not force herself to listen any longer. All she could think of was escaping this nightmare. She turned to run but her lame steps faltered as the words thundered in her ears, echoing over and over again. She blindly made her way back to the sitting room and graciously excused herself from the ladies' company professing sudden illness. Her stricken countenance supported her claim, and Jane insisted on accompanying her home, in spite of Elizabeth's protests for Jane to stay.

Somehow she managed to contain her tears until she was behind the sheltering doors of her room whereupon they flowed freely and unabated as she sobbed into her pillow.

Mr. Darcy believed her injury was a contrived plot to get him to the altar? That did not make any sense. She had turned down his offer of marriage. Did he think she had come to regret her refusal and was now seeking his fortune? After all they had been through, how could he think her capable of such deceit? It was his own reputation he was protecting by preventing a scandal. How had she so blatantly misconstrued his manner? But she knew what she had heard. As wounding as those words were to hear, she could at least be thankful she had heard them before she foolishly allowed her own feelings to be known. What a triumph for him that would have been. Trembling and anguished, Elizabeth pulled the covers closer around herself, seeking comfort in the soft warmth. Within the confines of her cocoon, she would grieve, and she promised herself when she emerged she would better protect her fragile heart.

Chapter Nine
It Ought To Be So

Darcy left his lathered stallion to the care of the groom as he hastened back to Netherfield to bathe and change before the Miss Bennets' afternoon visit. He was eagerly awaiting their arrival, and hoped for some time alone with Elizabeth. He had sensed her gradual warming to him and he had every desire to promote it further. His life being what it was, patience was not a virtue he had ever had need to practice, and he was finding it quite taxing to do so now.

He heard a strange rustling sound as he rounded the corner of the walking path and was greeted by the unexpected sight of Miss Bingley, sprawled rather inelegantly on the ground before him.

"Oh, Mr. Darcy, thank goodness you happened along! I tripped and fell while on my morning walk. I seem to have injured my ankle. It is so very painful. I do not think I can walk on it," Miss Bingley said, all the while smiling coyly up at him. "No, I am quite sure that I cannot walk," she insisted.

"Yes, well ... it is fortunate I came along," he answered warily, noting her odd pleasure as she declared her pain.

"Do you not want to look at it ... to see how badly it is injured?" she said as she pulled her skirt up far higher than needed to reveal her ankle.

"No," he practically shouted. "That will not be necessary. I can see you are uncomfortable." He tried to make his lie sound convincing. What can she be about, he wondered.

She smiled up at him.

"I am certain your brother will be very concerned..."

She nodded.

"I think it best that you remain here and rest while I inform him." He watched her smile turn to a frown. "I am sure he will want to assist you himself."

"But, Mr. Darcy ... don't you want to carry me in your arms to the comfort and privacy of my chambers?" she cried disappointedly to his rapidly retreating back.

center>~ * ~

"Darcy, I really am sorry. I do not know what has come over my sister," Bingley lamented as he nervously paced back in forth in his library. "First, she shows up here with Louisa and Hurst unexpectedly -- nay uninvited -- complaining about anything and everything ... and now this!"

"I am sorry too, Bingley. Her behavior is disturbing and I must tell you, though you will not like hearing it, last night she spoke inappropriately and tried to follow me into my room. After her aggressive behavior this morning, something must be done. I have tried to overlook her forwardness, but it has escalated to the point where I can no longer ignore it." Darcy's frustration had reached the level that even his desire not to offend his friend could not silence him any longer.

"I agree." Bingley nodded. "It is a wretched situation, Darcy, and had you not told me I would not have ever imagined it possible."

"I have dealt with situations such as this my entire adult life. You know me well, Bingley, I will not be force- marched to the altar," Darcy said vehemently.

"But do you really think she planned that whole elaborate scene? I had not thought her capable of such deceit."

"I doubt her ankle was really injured at all but I placated her by pretending it was."

"I will talk to her later, after the Miss Bennets leave. I think it would be best for her to return to London," Bingley announced resolutely.

Darcy nodded in agreement. He did not want any potential impediment to his courtship of Elizabeth, and the vitriolic Miss Bingley could easily become one. He had not forgotten her ill-mannered displays when in Elizabeth's company in the past.

The gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room only to discover the Miss Bennets had just departed due to Miss Elizabeth Bennet's sudden illness.

"I must say Miss Eliza did look dreadfully ill, did she not Louisa? Yes, she looked positively dreadful," Miss Bingley said spitefully. "It is just as well that you were not exposed to whatever it was she has come down with."

center>~ * ~

It had been three long days since Darcy had last seen Elizabeth. He had called daily at Longbourn with Bingley but she never made an appearance and the gentlemen were told she was not feeling well enough to take visitors. Her illness was spoken of only in vague terms.

While out on his customary early morning ride, he wasn't surprised to find he had unconsciously headed toward Longbourn. Elizabeth had been on his mind almost constantly, and he was beginning to lose patience not knowing of her well-being.

He was pleasantly startled by the sight of the very woman who consumed his thoughts. He watched her slowly strolling through the middle gardens of Longbourn, a short distance in front of him.

"Elizabeth," he said softly with relief, as his eyes took comfort in the beauty that had been denied him all those past days.

In his hurry to see her, he hastened upon her unaware.

"Miss Bennet, you are well?" He knew immediately by the distressed look on her face all was not well. She was not pleased to see him.

"Good day, Mr. Darcy," she said coldly, avoiding his eyes.

"I have been very worried about you. Your mother and sister said that you were not well enough for visitors. Is it your ankle? Perhaps a specialist from London should examine it." His concern poured out as he spoke.

"That will not be necessary, I thank you. My ankle is nearly mended," she answered abruptly as she headed in the direction of the house.

"I am very glad to hear that." He followed her closely. After having waited days to speak with her, he had no intention of letting this opportunity pass, although he was greatly troubled by her mood.

"Miss Bennet ... I had hoped to speak with you. Actually there is much that has been on my mind for awhile now."

She stopped on the landing, turned and startled at his nearness. "I do not think there could be much left for us to say to one another, Mr. Darcy." She cut him off curtly.

"But ..." he stuttered, bewildered by this change in her. Her words were spoken in anger, but there was something else in her expression he was unable to identify.

"There have been enough words between us, Mr. Darcy. I perfectly understand your feelings." Her bitterness was wounding.

"You do? Then why -"

"I am grateful to you, sir, for rescuing me, but have no wish to force any further actions that neither of us desire."

His first impulse was to angrily lash out at her, to protect himself and mask his vulnerability, but similar behavior at Hunsford had only resulted in more angry words from her in return and a lifetime's worth of regret on his part. He refused to make the same mistake again. If these were to be his last words to her -- that thought clenched his gut -- he was determined he would make sure she did perfectly understand his feelings. Damn society's strictures.

"I have said and done many things I will regret for the rest of my life, especially concerning you, Miss Bennet. Please forgive my frankness but I will not carry the additional regret of not having told you exactly how I feel." He looked off into the distance as he spoke, unable to look into her eyes for fear of what he might see in them. "If you perfectly understand my feelings, then you know that I love you, my affections and wishes remain unchanged, or rather they continue to grow. From the beginning, I have been mesmerized by your laughter and wit, captivated by your grace and beauty and awed by your intelligence and compassion. I cannot claim to know much of love. My parents had a marriage of convenience; nearly everyone I know has had the same. I never had any other expectations of my own situation but that it would be similar -- that is, until I met you - and the whole world and my place in it was upturned. Your bright, lively spirit illuminated the dark corners of my existence revealing its emptiness." He still could not bear to look at her other than an occasional furtive glance.

"Nothing could have prepared me for the disappointment and anguish I felt when you refused me. I tried to be angry with you, but my devotion rightfully turned my furor on myself. If you had not already earned my respect, you would have then for having the integrity to refuse me and the courage to reproach my behavior. You properly humbled me. Since then, all I have wanted to do is show you your reproofs were being attended to." His voice began to falter. "Your letter gave me hope and then ... with all that we have shared ... I thought you had ... that we had ... I suppose I was wrong yet again."

She had been silent throughout his speech. When he finally found the courage to look upon her, he saw tears streaming down her face, her lips quivering and worst of all was the anguish in her once sparkling eyes ... all because of him.

"It was never my intention to hurt you, Elizabeth," he choked out. "I must go." He turned quickly, needing to escape while he still had any semblance of control over his leaden limbs. He descended two steps before he felt the surprisingly firm grip of her hand on his upper arm. He slowly turned to face her, his eyes moist. Their faces were nearly level. Elizabeth reached up, gently held his face between her soft hands as she slowly closed her eyes and pressed her warm lips upon his. Her kiss was whisper soft at first, but grew in depth and passion as he responded instinctively. He moaned as his hesitant hands reached for her waist to draw her closer. She enchantingly melted into his embrace.

He held her possessively against his chest while his frantically beating heart pleaded with his arms never to let her go. "Does this mean ..." were all the words he could manage. Her nod was the only assent he needed in that moment. They stood quietly clinging to each other for some time as the acute torrent of emotions subsided.

One cannot pass so quickly from the depths of despair to the euphoric peaks of exultation unscathed. His sense of reality had become fragile, and he needed to hold fast to her warm body to confirm she was his and all was not a dream. Her slow steady breaths soon regulated his own, and secured him in their unity.

In spite of his overwhelming happiness, he was still troubled by her earlier anger. His head slanted down to rest gently against hers, and his hand lightly stroked her back, while he bravely asked the question that weighed heavily upon him. "Elizabeth, I am afraid to ask this, but I must -- I need to understand what has happened. Why were you so angry with me?"

After a long pause she finally spoke. "I overheard a private conversation you had with Mr. Bingley in his library." Her voice was muffled as she spoke into his coat.

"Yes," he encouraged her to continue.

"And you said you thought my injured ankle was a contrivance to ..." Her voice faltered.

He tightened his arms around her as he began to comprehend what she had heard. "We were speaking of Miss Bingley and something she had done that morning ... not you, my darling Elizabeth." He wanted nothing more than to continue to reassure and comfort her, but his own feelings were still so raw that he lacked the restraint that had so typically defined his character. He held her by the shoulders and gently pushed her away from him just enough to see her face. "Have you so little faith in me ... in my constancy?" His insecurity was as audible in his voice as it was visible on his face.

She reached up to soothingly stroke his cheek. "Fitzwilliam," she said his name softly for the first time. "I do trust you. It was me that I did not trust. These feelings of love are so new and profoundly overwhelming. I felt so vulnerable having admitted to myself my feelings for you. It was my own doubt ... I could not reasonably expect you to forgive me ... after I lashed out and said those hurtful words ... that you could possibly still care."

If he had not been duly placated by hearing his name then surely the words that had followed ensured it. Her declaration of love was all he had hoped for. His voice now confident, he reassured her. "I will always love you, Elizabeth."

~ * ~

Elizabeth's impassioned kiss had opened a veritable Pandora's Box for Darcy. He had had difficulty enough keeping a reign on his libido when he was unsure of her feelings, but now that he was secure in her regard and had experienced a taste of her own passion, it was well nigh impossible.

It had only been one week since they had surprised everyone with the announcement of their engagement. When in public settings, Darcy's comportment was circumspect and proper with little evidence of the passion that lurked beneath his sedate demeanor, other than his intense stares and tendency to remain by Elizabeth's side. However, when away from the prying eyes of others, his guard was immediately abandoned as he indulged his desire for his enthralling betrothed. The intimacy of their private, stolen moments had been steadily escalating to the point Darcy knew he was in danger of not being able to restrain himself, and quite frankly he did not want to restrain himself any longer. Elizabeth was so responsive and enthusiastic to his every touch he was left wondering what was between the covers of those infamous books in the highest reaches of Mr. Bennet's library. The subject of their wedding date had become a pressing issue for him, but he needed to proceed with caution and employ his considerable debating skills. He also could not disregard his continuing fear of something, anything, taking her from him again.

He had chosen to bring up the topic while they were out walking with Elizabeth's younger sisters who were acting as escorts. Fortunately, they had wandered down a different path. One byproduct of his previous ignoble behavior while in Hertfordshire last fall was her sisters were a little afraid of him and gave them a wide berth when it came to their chaperoning duties. "I would like to discuss our wedding date, Elizabeth," he began.

"Yes, I suppose that would be a good idea. There are numerous preparations to be made," she answered enthusiastically.

"I would like to marry soon. I can see no point in a long engagement."

"Really?" she grinned. "How is it that I am not very surprised by that? Very well, sir, what do you think about two month's time?" she offered generously.

"Three days," he announced firmly.

"Three days?" she laughed. "Surely you jest, Fitzwilliam! Why we could not possibly-"

"I will ride to London immediately. Tomorrow I will obtain the license and settlement papers and return the next day with Georgiana and my cousin. We will marry the following day. Nothing could be simpler."

"Why such haste?"

"I could tell you it is because your mother is driving me close to madness with all of the wedding plans or the social obligations of the engagement are overwhelming or I could tell you that you taunt my self-control every time we are together ... and I would not be lying." He kissed her and used her passionate response to illustrate his point. "Elizabeth, you know we cannot continue like this," he said softly in her ear as he trailed his warm finger along the neckline of her gown while enjoying the rise of her deep breath in reaction to his intimate touch.

"So, am I to understand you are marrying me because you can no longer control your passion?" she teased.

"I am marrying you because I love you beyond comprehension, because you bring joy to my life and challenge me in ways I never thought possible. I am marrying you in three days because I no longer wish to control my passion, Elizabeth. There is a very big difference," he replied and emphasized his words with a deep kiss. He had quickly learned his private declarations had a decidedly alluring effect on her. As he admired her lovely countenance he was overwhelmed with the thought that she would soon be his. "But the real truth of the matter is this ... there are no guarantees in this life and having experienced the death of loved ones at an early age - " Elizabeth gasped and he stroked her arm comfortingly as he continued. "I do not mean to imply I think anything is going to happen to either of us. I just do not see any logical reason to delay what we both ... together ... have decided that we desire. I do not want to waste any precious time."

He waited a few moments. "What say you, Elizabeth? Three days?" he questioned earnestly while lightly caressing her cheek with the backs of his fingers.

She smiled up at him through misty eyes. "Three days is perfect!"

After what seemed to him to be an all too brief affirmation of their concordant decision, they resumed their walk back to Longbourn, upon which she reminded him they still had the arduous task of convincing her father and mother.

"I do not think your father enjoys this commotion any more than I do. It is my belief the offer of lessening the duration of the engagement activities coupled with an open invitation to visit us and our quiet, well stocked library at Pemberley will win your father's approval. Now about your mother, she does seem eager to please me," he grinned.

"Are you suggesting I leave this in your hands?"

"I convinced you, did I not?"

"Yes, and I am very distraught that you find me so easy to persuade." Elizabeth looked at him peevishly. "If this is any indication of the outcome of our future debates... then I shall never have my way. This is a wretched beginning," she pouted.

"Come," he called to her as he took her hands in his and gently pulled her under the shelter of a large oak tree. He smiled mischievously as he bent and placed her delicate arms around his neck. "You may always have your way with me, my love."

~ * ~

As fate would have it, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy escorted his radiant bride, the new Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, out of Longbourn church three days later. If the sky was a clear crystal blue on that bright spring morning, it totally escaped his notice. He only saw the brilliance of Elizabeth's sparkling eyes. The warmth he felt was not born of the sun, but from the nearness of her body as he kept her close to his side the entire morning. If the church bells chimed harmoniously in tribute to their union, he did not hear them. If there was idle talk of his great fortune and his fine carriage, he was oblivious to it. He heard only her delightful laughter. He smelled only her fragrance as he lovingly leaned close to whisper in her ear. He was only aware of his rapturous wife and the keeping of his abiding promise. His mind was most agreeably engaged with thoughts of the many ways he would show her how very much he loved her.

Epilogue
Superior Execution

Darcy stood spellbound by the sight of Elizabeth, lit only by the red and amber glow of the hearth. The radiant light embraced the curves of her figure visible through the thin veneer of her silky white gown. Jealous of the flame's intimacy with the body he alone should covet, he moved close to her so only their warm, heavy breaths filled the distance between them. Her eyes sparkled like jewels, enticing him to claim the treasure that she offered. He now measured his wealth in the bounty of her body and soul, and his coffers overflowed.

Her happiness was the key to his own and never more particularly so than on this their wedding night. In his haste to rejoin her, he had taken a moment to consider how a new wife might wish to view her husband at such a time. He realized he had no idea how he should dress to please her. He had removed his coat, groomed and loosened his cravat. Eventually, he would discover her surprising preference for him with a shadow of a beard, tousled hair and shirtless, but presently he was reassured of her pleasure when she sighed his name against his bare throat, and quivered as he stroked her back. With a sudden need to see her eyes, he lifted her chin. Would that she always look at him so. From the beginning he had reacted powerfully to her, and now her alluring smile flared his passion. He drew his thumb across the soft bow of her lip before he gently pressed his own moist lips upon hers. As her lips parted under the pressure, he retraced the path of his thumb with his tongue. Her soft moan provoked his urges and his kisses became more demanding, as he let his need for her be known. Pulling her tightly to him, he pressed his hips firmly against hers. Terms of endearment fell lovingly from his lips as he continued his adoration.

Elizabeth found security in his sheltering arms and her fears slowly dissolved in his affection. Darcy was a man of few words, but those he spoke to her were honest and heartfelt. She knew of no poet's words as passionate and his were for her, and her alone. Any feelings and desires left unspoken, he more than eloquently demonstrated to her through his ardent actions. Giving in to her own desires, she covered his handsome face with kisses, her fervent lips exploring his contours, while her hands caressed the richness of his dark wavy hair. Her finger lightly traced the new scar on his forehead. He had reassured her that he would never be sorry for it because the man with the scar was the better man, and the one with whom she had fallen in love. She kissed the scar reverently and resumed her devotion to his proud, smiling lips.

In the privacy of their union, inhibitions were finally dropped. The layers between them slowly fell away, as inquisitive hands and eager eyes sought new discoveries. He swept her up into his arms and she nestled her head against his bare chest. A mantle of silky curls bathed his shoulder in warmth as he carried her to the lush finery of the bed.

His eyes traveled over her splendid form, perusing every peak and valley. She shivered and flushed under the intensity of his gaze. Mindful of her modesty, he covered her with his body and coaxed her with tender kisses across her face and down her neck. Feeling her hesitancy ebb, he could not resist moving lower to the rounded curves of her breasts. As he kissed a trail of circles over her smooth, creamy skin, he teased her with occasional playful nips until her clasp on his hair tightened and he indulged her silent plea.

His open mouth drifted back up to her throat, coming to rest over the sensitive spot where her blood pulsated feverishly just beneath the surface. Her soft moans of pleasure drove him to more determined action. He nipped, sucked and gently bit as she writhed beneath him. He raised his head to admire the evidence of his ardor, the small red imprint of his mouth that marked his claim upon her sumptuous body.

The room was warmed by the fire, but Elizabeth was only aware of the tingling heat Darcy created as he touched each new area, awakening dormant sensations. She was quickly learning that stripped of societal constraints and the weight of responsibility, Darcy was a spontaneous and enthusiastic lover. He seemed to have a myriad of exploring hands, countless probing tongues and endless searching lips intent on finding all of her secrets, even secrets she had not known she held. The heavy weight of his body at once pressed her down and lifted from her cries for more - though she knew not what she craved. She was shaken by the force of her ravenous hunger for him.

Her mind and body were equally engaged in their intimate endeavors and she yearned to explore more of his inspiring figure. She was the sculptor hovering over him and his body was the masterpiece magically forming under her hands as she traversed every plane. Images she had sketched in her mind were now completed as she admired him wholly. Her articulate fingers traced the patterns of the thick veins in his arms and kneaded his well-defined muscles. As her hands sculpted his torso, the potency of his physique enthralled her. He was beautiful - contrasting shades of dark against light, strength versus tenderness. Sweeping her hands lower, she daringly blazed a new path along the taut ridges of his abdomen. His muscles contracted reflexively to her touch and she marveled at her mastery of this art, feeling the shape of him change with her persistent stroking. Emboldened by her success and his aroused response, she was inspired to place her mouth where her hands had been.

Darcy could no longer remain passive. Frantically, he pulled her back to him, capturing her mouth with a searing kiss. Her long flowing hair cascaded over him, binding him to her just as tightly and securely as corded ropes. He was her willing captive and there was no ransom for his wildly beating heart that now belonged to her.

Breathless and reeling from his attentive love making, surging pleasure dueled with her continuing ache, making her increasingly impatient. As if he sensed her frustration, he moved to press his weight more fully upon her. His caressing hand relieved some of her tension, but only briefly, as a new fire was sparked, burning hot and deep within her.

Their intimate dance continued, building to a crescendo. The flickering firelight cast a single silhouette upon the wall, the disparity of their forms was lost as they melded into one. He swallowed her cries as he filled her, gently at first, stroking, and enticing her sleeping synapses to awaken to his insistent movement. Maidenly uncertainties were forgotten in the shadow of love's pleasures.

His passion raged beyond his control. He was falling toward ecstasy with all sensation converging and pooling as he was surrounded by all that was her. He buried his face in the pillow of her hair that filtered the savagery of his cry, and she clutched his shuddering body to her.

"I am yours," she whispered softly into his ear. Her caressing warm breath flowed through him, leaving him weightless and contented in her arms.

His love was now written on her body, carved and etched in an intricate pattern made beautiful by lasting pureness. A covenant composed with abiding passion, uniting her to him. The quintessential reality that she returned his love in equal measure was more than simply good fate - it was divine.

The End


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