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The Great Game

Prologue

"The extent of the love of women is not known, even to those who are the objects of their affection, on account of its subtlety, and on account of the avarice and natural intelligence of womankind."
Kama Sutra, by Vatsayayana (Part VI: About Courtesans).

Simla, Northern India, 1831.

Ballooning black skirts floated like the broken wings of a hundred drowning ravens. Her gray hair, wet and matted, grew darker against her shadowed face. An ashen hand gripped him, clawed his skin, then lost its hold and slowly receded into murky darkness.

Damnation! The torment had returned. Shaking away the horrific image, he willed it to a recessed corner of his sub-consciousness.

He woke to a lilting chorus of cicadas and the mournful tones of deep-throated frogs, nature's instruments tuning at dawn. With a single powerful motion he swung out of the bed, pulling away the gauzy netting with untamed fury. An ochre stream of light greeted his hooded eyes. Moving through the room like a caged panther, he swept up a black silk robe, lying carelessly abandoned on the floor like an ink stain on a sea of crimson and indigo, a reminder of last evening's passion. He draped the robe over wide, deeply muscled shoulders.

As the gentle whistle and call of morning birdsong drifted about him, he composed himself on the balcony , greedily breathing in pine-scented air from the mountains. In the distance, the Himalayan peaks shifted colors from apricot to saffron and finally lit up, blazing white in the fresh matin* light. He closed his eyes, and waited for the calm to envelop him. Visualizing the Karakoram Range to the East and the mountains of the Hindu Kush to the West, he regulated his breathing to the rhythmic flow of his heart. Ranjit's patient lessons.

Behind a shroud of opalescent veil, she stirred. Her sculpted fingers caressed sheets of white silk in a luxurious to and fro motion. Intricate patterns of filigreed henna graced the slender hand, a cinnamon lace glove searching for the comfort and pleasure of warm flesh.

She opened her eyes. His aquiline profile was backlit by the rising sun, its stark lines imbued with patrician refinement. She caught her breath, startled by his essence: an air of impenetrable and formidable strength. He was indeed a great man, her burra- sahib.**

Quietly, without turning, he sensed her awakening, and smiled. "Stay... don't go."

At the sound of her voice, he stiffened through the black silk. Staring ahead, he whispered more harshly than intended, "I leave for Calcutta today."

Languidly, her eyes followed the line of his open robe as it dipped below the honed swell of his chest, outlined sharply carved abdominals and serpentined to a dark tangle of hair.

"I shall long for you, all of you", she murmured through the phantom curtain.

"And I you." He replied in a gentler tone, as if applying salve to a stinging wound.

"May the gods go with you burra- sahib...Namaste." Her voice quivered.

Without a backward glance, he strode out of the pavillion and with him went the unmistakable scent of maleness. The space was left somewhat barer, smaller, and less significant.

An elderly ayah shuffled by, balancing a laden tray. Furtively averting her eyes from his sculpted body under the billowing cloth, she stopped, placed her tray on the cool marble floor and bowed in a deep salaam. He acknowledged her with an imperceptible nod, and continued down the long corridor. With a tentative turn of her head, she caught a last wave of streaming midnight silk, as it disappeared beyond a pillar.

The ayah gathered herself and discovered her mistress sobbing, curled on the divan, a honey-brown comma imbeded on pure white parchment. Alone. Swiftly crossing over rich Bokhara carpets, she flung open the bed curtains and peered in, concerned. Sighing, she rested the tray on a low mahogany table and offered soothingly, "You must grieve, little one, but do not drown in tears. He will return. Here, drink your elixir."

The young woman reluctantly looked up and reached for her goblet.

"Chup!*** You are mistaken, Maya. I shall never see him again and it will be my torment. Leave me now."

Grasping the offering, she rose and stumbled across scattered rugs strewn with dancing bells, their gleeful sounds mocking her every footfall.

Her eyes settled on a leafy palm resting in a dim corner. Deliberately, she edged towards it and with a decisive flick of her wrist, poured out the contents of the goblet into the black earth.

A few amber drops stained the richly patterned rug, leaving behind them a trail the colour of blood.

*matin: morning
**burra-sahib: great man
*** Chup!: silence!

Chapter One

"She should make every endeavour to unite herself with prosperous and well-to-do men, and with those whom it is dangerous to avoid, or to slight in any way."

Kama Sutra: ( Part VI: Of Different Kinds Of Gain)

Calcutta, India, a month later.

The city sweltered. Pregnant monsoon clouds hung low and gray, heavy with the promise of reprieve from dusty heat. Not a leaf turned. An oppressive stillness permeated the air as his carriage clattered down Chouringhee road. As he rode past the Writers' Building, seat of the East India Company, a cynical smile curled his lips. On its steps, Brahmin priests stood chanting while a grouping of British merchants jostled past.

Calcutta , a city of contrasts: East meeting West, old and new, gentle yet brutal. Opening his window , he inhaled the unmistakable scents of rotting vegetation, crowded bazaars, sewage and dust, softened by the fragrance of jasmine, frangipani and orange blossoms. As dhoolie* carriers glided past, he spotted a European curricle bowling down the roadway followed by two camels and their keeper. India was indeed a land of paradoxes. And if one opened his mind - as he had over the last eight years - an enchanted garden beckoned, seduced and finally gripped its visitor with sweet savagery.

The wharf was chaotic. A cacophony of exotic voices, pungent odors and vivid images assaulted the senses. Hysteria reigned, a result of too many people crowded in too little space.

"Sahib, is this the one?" The dhoolie boat man enquired pointing to a ship anchored somewhat further in the distance.

"Yes, it is the one," he replied in Hindustani, as they weaved and bobbed among a multitude of hulls. His eyes focused appraisingly on the ship's lines. The clipper stood proud and tall - taller than the others - in the inky blue waters of the Hooghli** river.

She was three- masted, long, elegant and strong. As they neared the hull, his nostrils were assaulted once again by the smell of water, grease and jute overlying pungent saltiness.

All three hundred and thirty feet lay spread before him, an impressive length by any maritime standard. Brass guns, twelve on each side, glowed in readiness like proud sentinels. With her speed and gun power, the ship could hold its own in enemy waters.

The clipper's name, Eclipse, shone emblazoned on the hull. She was the jewel of his fleet. He'd acquired her two years earlier. She had sailed from New York, out of the Gavin and Teller Shipyard and by some twist of fate her first owner had become bankrupt. He, in turn, had need of a fast steam-powered ship to compete in the increasingly heavy Euro-Indonesian trading routes. And she had shown her mettle straight away. A six - month navigation to London was shortened by half. At first, she had been greeted by skepticism in Southampton, but now, to his amusement, her design was being copied by several shipyards. Progress held a potent allure in England.

Jack O'Malley, captain of the Eclipse, stood on the main deck observing his new arrival intently. A shock of graying black hair framed his scraggly, sea-weathered face. His bulky frame belied a physique of pure muscle. He and the ship's owner had acquired a friendship of sorts over the last two years of their mutual acquaintance. O'Malley's initial reluctance to captain a ship for an unproven Englishman, had slowly been replaced by grudging admiration. Following several inquiries among Calcutta's civil and military circles, O'Malley had been astonished by the Englishman's complex and colorful history in India.

The young man had arrived in India eight years prior, a green cavalryman enlisted in the prestigious Skinner's Horse Regiment. He had distinguished himself rapidly and risen to second-in-command, eliciting admiration in some quarters and envy in others. Under him, a small elite force of specially trained cavalry- men was formed. The troupe earned a reputation of legendary proportions as a result of several successful missions in the treacherous wilds of the Karakoram and Himalayan Ranges. He had acquired the alias "Black Panther" among his fanatically loyal men and more significantly, among the Bengals.

Further to these achievements, O'Malley's intelligence became murkier. Following five years of service, the elite force was disbanded for undivulged reasons. The Englishman sold his commission and began diplomatic work for the Foreign Office in Simla.O'Malley's investigations failed to uncover the true nature of his dealings in the the hill sation town. However, during frequent trips to Calcutta, the Englishman began investing heavily in merchant shipping. Three years later, he'd acquired a significant fleet of ships, and with it, considerable wealth.

The "Black Panther" was rumored to be as rich as a nabob.

The Irish captain had grown to hold the Englishman in high esteem. He concurred with the fleet owner's agressive yet principled approach to Indian trade. O'Malley held a strong aversion to opium trading and had been relieved to find the same principle governing his superior. Silk and tea were their primary cargo. The fleet of schooners and clippers was renowned for its impeccable seafaring record, the cleanliness of its ships and a dedicated group of seamen.

But one question remained in his mind: what kind of man was the "Black Panther"?

Despite weeks spent together at sea between Calcutta and Bombay, on the clipper's shorter journeys, the man remained aloof, an impenetrable wall of civility masking a tangle of feral complexity. There hovered about him an air of brooding mystery, like a riddle trapped in the centre of a Chinese puzzle. The man was an enigma. This, in turn, left a bittersweet sense of incompletion; blunting the fine edge of their friendship. And yet, that same friendship had grown, anchored by a common love of the sea and a shared set of ideals concerning fairness, the treatment of their crewmen, and trust.

As the dhoolie boat neared, O'Malley ordered his mid-shipman to drop a rope and wood ladder. He watched as the man swiftly manoeuvered up the wooden slats, taut sinews straining, muscles rippling with predatory grace. O'Malley smiled to himself... yes, the name suited him very well indeed.

They stood facing each other, the Englishman a full head taller. O'Malley executed a smart salute and led his guest down a narrow companion way. The Englishman noted with satisfaction several deck hands scrubbing the ship's pine boards into pristine paleness. Below deck, Spanish mahogany gleamed alongside brass fittings. On its owner's insitence, the entire clipper was impeccably maintained. Its outfittings were rich and tasteful but stopped short of opulence.

In no time, the pair found themselves comfortably ensconced in the captain's quarters. The cabin was commodious and airy, warmed by curtained portholes and scuffed leather furniture. A mahogany roll-top desk was set against a wall filled with myriad navigational maps and charts. The cabin overflowed with bookshelves, and almost as an afterthought, a small bed stood discreetly in one corner.

In the privacy of his quarters, O'Malley dropped his official mask and, grinning widely, greeted the owner of the ship with a hearty slap on the back.

"Welcome aboard Darcy! Any objection to my lighting a pipe?"

William Darcy waved his consent and settling his tall frame in a leather chair, stretched out his limbs with startling grace. An amiable silence ensued, O'Malley scrutinizing Darcy through a gray haze of tobacco smoke. Finally, clearing his throat, he offered,

"Shall I call for luncheon to be served? The galley has outdone itself with steak and kidney pie among other delicacies, or we can settle for vindaloo curry."

Darcy peered at the Irishman and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Are you suggesting I partake of the sacred cow, Jack?*** Surely you're jesting my man, Vindaloo curry without question."

Jack O'Malley grinned, his blue eyes crinkling and sparkling in the dimmed light of the cabin. His palate, like Darcy's had become hardened and desensitized by the pungent flavours of the East- rendering traditional British fare bland and predictable.He was also known as a chaffer among his crew and found Darcy to be an easy target for raillery in private. Darcy, in turn, did not take kindly to such sport.

"When do you expect to set sail?" he enquired.

"As soon as this last monsoon passes over. It should be a light one, 'tis the tail end of the season. I expect a fortnight at the latest. Will you remain on board?"

"I intend to, Jack. My secretary, in Calcutta, has attended to the last details of our operations with extreme efficiency. Ranjit, my manservant, is arriving with the trunks tomorrow; he will accompany us to England. Therefore, the sooner we depart , the better. Save for the Smythe burra-khana **** which I have no intention of attending, there remains little tying me to this city, to this land in fact..." he added quietly.

"Aaahh, the Calcutta matrons are yapping at your heels again? No fair skinned , golden haired beauty accompanying you home, Darcy?"

Darcy curled his lip in a sardonic half-smile. The heavy British influx of mem-sahibs*****had been a hindrance to his merchant activities. When in Calcutta , he had been expected to circulate among the cream of displaced British society. Among the matrons, ravenous for eligible marriage material, he was considered a superb catch. It was a situation he abhorred, and determinedly avoided at every turn.

"If you must know, I hold a distinct preference for dark haired beauties. Now, shall we partake of that fine French brandy?"

Following a bountiful four course meal, the men traded news.

"... Earl Grey is heading the Whig majority, and that chap Viscount Melbourne has replaced Peel as Home Secretary....They've had their share of riots, particularly in Wiltshire and Dorset, a group of farmers...." O'Malley recounted the several month-old intelligence , as they savored a second decanter of fine brandy. "I have brought copies of the Times to keep you amused during the voyage."

"What of the London scene, Jack?"

"The usual scandals and gossipmongering. There is one report you may find noteworthy. Earl Pemberton, died several months ago. They say he distinguished himself as Castlereagh's****** right - hand man. A genius at diplomatic affairs, I'm told. And a fine man in more ways than one! Following his first wife's death, he married a Polish countess thirty years his junior. It is rumored his virility was never in question."

O'Malley let out a throaty laugh, then continued in a conspirational tone, "Great speculation exists concerning his son. Some believe he is in India, others..."

Darcy swirled his brandy and eyed O'Malley with a calculating, hooded gaze.

"He is in India , Jack," he murmurred.

O'Malley shot the other man an astounded look. He was stupefied; Darcy's gaze and unexpected words were unnerving. He could feel the other man's tension, coiled deep within him, and it made his own skin prickle in a most uncomfortable manner.

"It appears you are acquainted with him, then?"

Darcy's jaw tightened, a muscle flickered in his temple. Finally, raising his eyes, he met the Irishman's questioning blue orbs head - on, and answered trenchantly, his tone dripping with bitterness.

"Yes, I am acquianted with both parties, rather initmately , I'm afraid."

A prolonged silence ensued, one which O'Malley instinctively did not breach.

"Earl Pemberton, was my father, you see, and I....... am his only legitimate son."

O'Malley jumped to his feet in a violent burst of emotion. "Hellfire and damnation Darcy! All this time you've been a Viscount and nary a soul was privy to the knowledge?"

Darcy closed his eyes, leaned back against the dark leather, hesitated momentarily, then forged on.

"Few were acquainted with the facts. The information was suppressed intentionally in many circles, in an attempt to safeguard certain delicate operations..."

Captain Jack O'Malley whistled softly. A self-satisfied smile colored his worn features. Finally, a piece of the insufferable puzzle had been uncovered!

" You don't say... Is it possible?...The Great Game?*******...and you a player?... who would have surmised it? Is the entire fleet operation a front?"

Darcy observed his captain long and hard, momentarily perplexed by his friend's rapid surefire conclusions. He was possesed of a fine intellect, that O'Malley...

"Not at all, the fleet is real and belongs to my family and the Earldom."

O'Malley's eyes glazed over pensively. "First a cavalry man, then an intelligence officer transformed into a merchant prince and now, an Earl. Well I'll be damned!"

Darcy rose, stretching to his full height, commanding, his eyes locking intentlly on the captain.

"This discussion shall remain strictly between us , Jack. I have entrusted you with my life. Do not trifle with it. Understood?"

The Irishman nodded solemnly, in full knowledge of the implied threat lurking beneath the words.

"I shall not disappoint."

Darcy strode toward the door.

"One last request..." O'Malley added.

"Pray continue," Darcy replied his hand on the latch.

"I promised Edward Gardiner, your London manager, to safely escort his two young nieces and a chaperone from Le Havre to England. Any objection?"

Darcy shook his head. "That, captain, is a distraction I intend to ignore. You may do as you wish. Gardiner is a fine, hard-working man, and we owe him a return favour. However, do not expect me to amuse two simpering, empty-headed lasses. I have more important matters to attend to."

With a curt nod, he left the quarters, shutting the door firmly behind him.O'Malley was left standing alone amidst his maps, charts and books, a web of disconnected thoughts enmeshing his mind.

"Yes , my lord," he whispered softly, under his breath.

Re-lighting his pipe, he began pacing the quadrangular room, matching his steps to the gentle swell of the late afternoon tide, impatiently awaiting the first drops of rain which would herald the last monsoon of the season. He did not have to wait long. A whipping gale raced across the harbour, whisking furled sails into a frenzied flutter. As an eerie green phosphorecense descended over the water. The pitter patter of fat raindrops could be heard on wooden decks. The storm had broken, and the dry earth would breathe once again.

*dhoolie: palanquin, also small covered boat.
**Hooghli river: river in Calcutta which empties into Bay of Bengal, site of large port.
*** the cow was sacred in India and not consumed for food.
**** burra-khana : large social gathering or assembly.
*****mem-sahib: foreigh woman, lady.
******Lord Robert Casltereagh: British foreign Secretary 1812-1822.
*******The Great Game: Espionage battle between Russia and England during 1800's over control of Asia.

Chapter Two

"He who knows how to make himself beloved by women, as well as to increase their honor and create confidence in them, this man becomes an object of their love. But he who neglects a girl, thinking she is too bashful, is despised by her as a beast ignorant of the working of the female mind."

Kama Sutra: ( Part III: Of Creating Confidence in the Girl)

Le Havre, Northern France. Three months later.

The stylish equipage and two pairs of matched grays ground to a halt amidst the bustle and fracas of Le Havre. Joining the ranks of a multitude of thriving European ports, Le Havre distinguished itself by a heavy and dense atmosphere unmistakably permeated by the smell of rotten fish. Copper rays of late afternoon sun shone in a valiant but ultimately failing attempt to lighten the dirty, fetid and mud spattered landscape

"Regardez Mesdemoiselles! Qu'il est beau!" Exclaimed a bubbly voice behind a bright straw bonnet peeking out of the carriage. A second bonnet, lined in cornflower blue silk peered out, its owner shading her eyes with a gloved hand, and delicately wrinkling her nose.

"Indeed, Marie...it appears to dwarf all the other ships, but oh, that unbearable stench. I shall be glad once we are out at sea."

Turning toward the young woman, the maid fluttered on, "Oh, Mademoiselle Bennet, I have heard such delicious gossip about its owner. The footman Henri, you see, is friendly with Paul at the wharf who is on best terms with Jean... They say the ship's owner is a rich nabob from India, a merchant prince, no less. It so happens he is traveling on board, but he is very mystérieux, and has an Indian servant who practices black magic... Ooooh how romantic!"

"Nonsense, Marie," admonished a crisp voice beside the girl, " Your romantic notions are but a product of an overactive imagination. Now where is Philippe? Was he not riding alongside?" Charlotte rapped impatiently on the padded door with her fan, alerting the coachman to his duties. A small step was unfolded followed by a bevy of crisp colors, taffeta and muslin alighting from the carriage, blinding rainbow hues amidst the grayness, dirt and grime of the docks.

Three bonnets turned in unison, as a horse rider cantered toward their conveyance. His posture, the turn of his wrists, the stylish slant of his smile all suggested a studied insouciance. As a teetering mountain of trunks was herded onto the quay, the rider dismounted gracefully from his chestnut gelding. Soft sandy curls tumbled about his face, accenting the fashionable pallor of his skin. His gaze skimmed over his sister, her maid, and slowed languidly over Elizabeth Bennet's form.

"Chère cousine, my heart is in ruins at the anguish of losing the pleasure of your scintillating company."

While Elizabeth's cheeks colored, her cousin, Charlotte, muttered under her breath, "And my stomach shall turn if I hear any more pathetic poetry."

In an inpatient tone, she declared, "Philippe, let us not tarry any further and bid our adieus. This ship will not wait all day. And you are intending to visit London in a few weeks?"

Throwing his sister a wounded look, he answered, " But of course, Charlotte, ma petite soeur. Do you doubt your dear brother's word?"

Raising her eyebrows, her mouth curved into a silent but unmistakable "oui", and spinning on her heels, she strode toward the gangway. Elizabeth suppressed a giggle, her eyes dancing with merriment.

"Philippe, you are most insufferable! I beg you to stop, or you will have me dissolving into a fit of giggles... Au revoir, mon cousin."

She halted momentarily, as he deposited a lingering kiss on her outstretched hand. Lowering her voice, she murmured, "...and thank you for a wonderful sojourn. I shall miss Alençon, very much."

With well-versed sensuality, he allowed her gloved hand to slide through his fingers, a caress, and observed her receding figure. As the trio headed toward the awaiting ship, his face fell. He sighed, a deeply drawn out Byronic sigh, and remounting his gelding, cantered away.

Jack O'Malley stood stiffly, hot and uncomfortable in the starched uniform required for the occasion. Rivulets of sweat ran down his sideburns onto the whiteness of his high collar. This last leg of the journey had been long and uneventful, save for some rough weather around Gibraltar. As often happens by the end of a long sea voyage, the crew was tiring, itching for reprieve from the harshness of life on board. Despite the accompanying discomforts, Jack knew he could never return to his previous life on dry land; no, he could not go back, as there was nothing more enticing, more adventurous, and enslaving than the life at sea.

William Darcy continued to baffle the Irish captain. Save for that first evening in Calcutta, O'Malley had finally surrendered any real hope of unlocking the mystery behind the man, and philosophically accepted Darcy's need for silence in matters personal. Curbing his Irish curiosity had been a daunting task, but in the end, his sense of decency had prevailed and he resisted. Whatever the man had to hide was his own business and his alone.

O'Malley's eyes lit up in pleasant surprise as he spotted two comely young women and their maid in the distance. Life at sea had its deprivations and he looked forward to setting foot on British soil and frequenting his favorite London haunts. And though his tastes ran to more earthy fare, he did not fail to appreciate the refined beauty of the taller woman and the fine eyes of her companion.

As he personally escorted the trio to their cabins, an invitation was extended for the women to join him at the evening meal. Marie excitedly piped in, "Monsieur le capitaine, will the owner of the ship attend as well?"

"No, he prefers to dine alone, he is most preoccupied at present...with pressing business matters and all. He sends his heartfelt apologies for not welcoming you personally aboard. In all likelihood, you will not see him during this voyage." O'Malley improvised, feverishly hoping Darcy did not overhear his comments. Having seen to the women's comfort, he disappeared below, performing a last check of the tea and silk cargo cramming the 'tween deck.

"Franchement! How ungracious of the man. Imagine, sending the captain in his stead..." Marie muttered under her breath as she bustled about Charlotte's spacious cabin, unpacking her belongings.

Elizabeth stood quietly by the open porthole of her quarters, breathing in bracing salty air. The breeze blowing in from the Channel was a welcome reprieve from earlier pungent assaults on her senses. Gingerly, she tested her sea legs against the gentle to and fro motion of the boat, then, moving toward the bed, she bounced on its feather mattress, a girlish look of pleasure illuminating her face. Such luxury... She ran her hand over the smooth teak wood of the bedpost, absorbing its silky texture. It would all too soon come to an end. Sighing, her eyes fell on a small writing desk beckoning in the corner. Settling herself before it, she began.

Dearest Jane,

You deserve a longer letter than this; but it is my unhappy fate seldom to treat people as they deserve. Here I sit aboard the "Eclipse", a most presumptuous name for a ship. Was it truly four months ago that we parted? It seems much longer. Now that I can no longer plead ignorance of my impending return, I am struck by how very different the world appears. Earlier, my life seemed to be but a succession of busy nothings. Now, the vacuous boredom has been replaced by color, texture, and meaning. Jane, I can finally breathe...

"Mademoiselle, you'll be late for the meal! Hurry along!" Marie's voice rang out over an insistent rapping on the door.

Tucking a stray tendril of hair behind her ear, Elizabeth hurried along the passage. Suddenly disoriented by the

multitude of doors before her, she chose an ornately paneled one and lightly touched its handle. On hearing two male voices, she paused.

"My lord, I beg you to reconsider. These are lovely young women and your disregard of their presence on board is in very poor taste!"

A deep baritone answered contentiously, "I've had my fill of bird-witted, simpering females in Calcutta. I don't perform to strangers, Jack. And kindly refrain from my lording me in private, it's most aggravating!"

"Aye, as you wish." The other voice replied.

Bird-witted females, indeed! A sudden rush of color suffused her face, accompanied by an angry pounding in her temple. Momentarily, she considered entering the room and challenging the insolent baritone. Good breeding prevailed. As she slowly edged backward, Captain O'Malley burst through the door. But for a moment, she glimpsed a tall, darkly arrogant profile. The door shut with a bang and she faced Jack O'Malley's startled blue gaze.

"Right. Ahemmm...Miss Bennet, shall we proceed to the dining saloon?"

Extending a gracious arm, he conducted her down the corridor, mentally flaying the man they had left behind.

Ensconced in the warmth of her bed, she hovered in that no man's land between night and morning, waiting for her body's circadian rhythm to greet a new day. Her entire being felt taut, coiled in a tight spiral. The spacious cabin of the previous evening seemed confining, as if its wooden panels were closing in and suffocating her. Strangely, the scent of oiled teak, the creaking of wooden boards, and rhythmic splash of waves against the ship's hull failed to lull her back into slumber. Rather, it seemed to punctuate the finality of her return journey. She was going home. Relinquishing her warm cocoon, she hurried through her morning ablutions. The water's bracing coolness began teasing away the last cobwebs entangling her mind. Dressed in a simple blue serge, a woolen pelisse and yesterday's bonnet, she tiptoed out of her room, mindful of not waking the others. She had to get some air, and propriety be damned!

Standing guard behind the ship's wheel, second-mate Brodie blinked away his surprise at the sight greeting his eyes. It wasn't everyday a young woman appeared on deck in the wee hours of the morning. Ogling her with a look of barely restrained hunger, he enquired, "And a good mornin' to you ma'am, may I be of assistance?"

Pulling her pelisse closely about her shoulders, she shook her head.

"No, thank you. Where are we, may I ask?"

"Near Boulogne-sur-Mer, we should be reaching the Thames estuary by evening, if this nor' westerner keeps its course... best keep away from the guard ropes, 'mam, the deck is mighty slippery. "

She smiled, "Thank you."

A lean dark presence, solid and sinewy, stood silently on deck; striking a stance which spoke of authority and command. His dark charcoal hair ruffled in soft waves about the upturned collar of his cloak. Leaning against the main mast, arms akimbo, long legs splayed and hips thrust out for balance, he seemed to be riding the deck. The rhythmic noise of breaking waves against the ship's flank echoed about him, and failed to soothe away the insistent thrumming in his head. He watched the waves, as if lost in the magic monotony of existence between sky and water, and he watched the woman on his ship. His eyes followed her gradual progress toward the bow, until she stopped, and held on to a taut halyard.

He had slept little. The tormenting dreams had returned and he was becoming, once again, accustomed to insomnia. The prodigal son. He smiled ruefully. Hundreds of men had gone before him and many more would follow, bringing back with them memories of death, disease and great adventures. Having tasted the exotic unfettered freedom of the Far East, how many would contemplate returning? After the untamed wilds of the Himalayas, the sultriness of Simla and Calcutta's riches, how could he brave the airless salons of the ton, Pemberley's pastoral quietude and painful memories? Brave them, he must. He had little choice in the matter. His mind returned to the woman on the bow. He stood and watched in silence. And rather than breaching the gray quietude between them, he continued to contemplate her, unobserved.

What a curious young woman, out on deck at the break of dawn, unaccompanied.

Everything around him was in motion: dove-gray and rose clouds, billowing sails, cresting green waves, even the bow with its carved prow - as it sliced through the morning swell. Everything but her. She stood still; blissfully unaware of the forceful eddies of energy swirling about her.

Her blue gown billowed in the watery breeze; darting, snapping, its hem flying above her boot-tops one minute, then settling demurely the next. Hide and seek. Playing. The movement of material, the whipping skirt with a mind of its own, mesmerized him. His gaze swept over her.

She was not exceptional.

Behind him, the bridge began teeming with life. Several voices rose and fell as the morning watch changed hands. Halyards jingled rhythmically. A bell rang deep in the bowels of the ship. She turned her head at its sound, and for an instant, her profile crystallized, framed by the coral light of dawn.

No, there was nothing exceptional about her beauty.

She parted her lips, as if drinking in, gulping, the cool mistiness, like a nomad parched for water on the desert plain.

A proper lady with a thirsty, hidden soul.

The wind changed, gusted, and as it flew across the sails hung out to dry, the boat heeled sharply to starboard. He rebalanced his stance and noted with satisfaction her instinctive tightening response. She was cautious. Then, as if to prove him wrong, she untied the ribbon at her throat. Caught up by the wind, bonnet and ribbons plummeted toward the sea, releasing behind them a mad cascade of curls.

His breath hitched. She was too close to the edge. Instinctively, his muscles tightened, memories of flight and fight embedded deeply within their fibers.

Time slowed. He and the woman became marooned in its languid dimension.

Blindly, she edged to the fore, as if propelled by some folly and leaning over the ropes - let go of the halyard. He sprang forward - lunging with lightning speed across the deck - and caught her with a steely grip around the waist, clamping his hand on the halyard as the ship lurched again. For a moment in time she dangled, suspended, as if in mid-air. He pulled her in. Her body collided with a hard wall of tightened muscles, male flesh, and a steadily beating heart. Belatedly realizing her foolishness, she uttered the first thing that flew into her mind.

"My bonnet..."

"...is drifting away as we speak..." a deep-timbered voice finished her words.

Their eyes followed the streak of blue silk as it weaved, bobbed and vanished, swallowed by a cresting wave.

He could feel her diaphragm heaving up and down. Her waist was slender; she felt more delicate then he'd presumed. She was warm, soft and feminine. Her hair, brushing his chin, smelled of orange-blossoms. India. She lifted her head and he found himself gazing into burning brown eyes, flecked with gold, and he could have sworn - violet. Her eyes narrowed accusingly.

"I was under the impression that I was alone on deck, obviously, I was mistaken. I have a strong distaste for being spied upon, sir." She announced, her voice tinted with sarcasm. She was frightened, he realized, trying desperately not to show it. He'd witnessed it many times in his men, in the desert, in the mountains.

After deftly manoeuvering her toward a safer area, he loosened his grip and with unexpected reluctance, relinquished her waist.

" I had no intention of spying, I assure you. I merely prevented your meeting the same fate as your bonnet, Miss Bennet."

"How do you know who I am? We have not as yet been introduced, sir." She answered testily; only too aware of the impropriety surrounding their brief acquaintance.

"I make it my business to know the identity of everyone aboard." He inclined his head toward her with an imperceptible bow. "William Darcy." She waited for the accompanying polite conventions. But there were none. Instead, he motioned to the quarterdeck.

"Shall I escort you to your cabin, Miss Bennet?"

"Do I have a choice in the matter?" She snapped back. He was startled at the firmness of her tone, for one so young, an ingénue. With visions of her toppling overboard assaulting his mind, he answered more firmly than intended.

"I'm afraid you do not. I insist you refrain from strolling about deck unescorted. A ship at sea can be treacherous, in more ways than one."

Grasping her by the elbow, as if she were a wayward child, he led her back to the companionway. She was swept over by feelings of embarrassment over her foolish escapade, made worse by his admonishment. And finally, a dawning realization settled. That voice... belonged to the rudely elusive ship-owner. In a tone dripping with sweetness, she enquired,

"And which bird do I remind you of, sir? The macaw, the ungainly albatross, or perhaps a pelican?"

They had reached the corridor; he released her elbow and stopped in his tracks, his mind swiftly placing the biting comment in its proper context.

"Ah. I see your tongue is more cutting than the guillotine Miss Bennet - the effect of education or perhaps a fiery temper, I wonder?"

She opened her mouth as if in reply, hesitated, then shut it with an audible snap. He had momentarily stripped her of her most valuable weapon.... Words. Defeated, she resorted to the last of her arsenal. Raising her chin imperiously, she swung past him in a swirl of blue skirt, down the corridor, giving him a silent cut.

William Darcy watched her movements with sardonic amusement. No, she was not an exceptional beauty - but she had spirit.

Once inside the safety of her quarters, she gritted her teeth and began pacing the room, angry with herself for not retorting smartly to his insult, for almost falling overboard and most of all, for needing his rescue. Finally, depleted, she settled by the writing desk, staring at her unfinished letter, toying absentmindedly with a carved penknife.

Perched forlornly on the small chair, she bristled at the calm assumption of authority William Darcy had displayed. His arrogant conviction that she would do exactly as he wished, irked her beyond means. The knowledge that despite this, he possessed a compelling magnetism - she resolutely attempted to push away. But certain vivid sensations prevailed: the feel of his powerful hands on her waist, the steel of his muscles slamming into her body, a lock of dark hair falling over one eye, and the silvery line of a scar sweeping across his square chin. She attempted to summon Philippe's smiling hazel eyes - to no avail. Superimposed on Philippe's pale skin was the rich sun burnished color of William Darcy and his exotically dangerous gaze. A soft knock echoed through the room. Believing it to be Marie, she answered.

"Come in."

The door opened and a turbaned, magenta-robed man entered her quarters. He could not have been more than forty, yet his eyes looked ancient.

"Salaam, mem-sahib... I have brought you a warm breakfast tray, and the good wishes of Darcy-sahib. Where shall I deposit it?" His voice was gentle, mellifluous, like honey. Tantalizing scents wafted toward her from the heaping tray. She hesitated, then deliberately picking up her quill pen, she spoke, her voice sounding frayed and out of kilter.

"Kindly inform your master that the mem-sahib has suddenly lost her appetite. Thank you, that will be all."

A tiny glint of amusement flickered in his dark eyes, or perhaps she had imagined it. Bowing, he retraced his steps, carrying out the laden tray. Dipping her quill into the inkstand, she continued her letter.

...Today I met a man. I am not attracted to him; rather, I am distracted by him...

Chapter Three

"Desire, which springs from nature, and which is increased by art, and from which all danger is taken away by wisdom, becomes true and secure. A clever man, depending on his own ability and observing carefully the ideas and thoughts of women...is generally successful with them.

Kama Sutra: ( Chapter V: About Men Who Have Success With Women)

London, England.

As his carriage clattered over Westminster Bridge and turned right toward Charing Cross, the city's incessant din became magnified, reminding him of an ocean's hollow roar. Ah... the sound of London... That ever-present reverberation, which announces to visitors and residents alike that London is up and doing. He had but forgotten it; only to have his senses overpowered by its boastful energy. Outside his window, the carillon of bells, the pounding and rattle of wheels and horses' hooves, the cries of shrieking dustmen, barking dogs and howling cats-all blurred into an indefinable boom of deafening and ever-present sound. It was intimate yet remote, like the noise of life itself. As multihued images sped by his window, Darcy felt a covert savagery emanating from the din, from the throngs of citizens and animals - a defiant and untamable force.

After silently observing the spectacle unfolding before him, Ranjit turned to his master, and raising his voice, enquired, "Sahib, how does one converse in this infernal noise?"

Darcy gazed at his faithful servant reclining stiffly on velvet squabs.

"Conversation in midday is out of the question, but thankfully becomes tolerable with the evening hour. However, if necessity arises, one can always shout and add to the general commotion."

Ranjit nodded his head. "It makes the sound of crashing waves at sea pale in comparison."

They continued in restrained silence. Dusk was fast approaching and with it, buildings took on a dark secret life of their own, long ranks of blind windows flowed by, like ink-stains on blotting paper.

"This city is full of shadows, Sahib," Ranjit offered quietly in Hindustani.

Darcy gave him a penetrating look. "Your eyes are attuned to many details. Yes, this is indeed the world's capital of dust, mud and soot. And darkness. We're entering a veritable theatre of dissipation and vice, Ranjit. I'm already beginning to find my morals corrupted ...and we've been here but a few hours. Soon you shall be pining for the colors of India, my man, and so will I."

Ranjit's eyes flickered with a smile; he knew what his master could only perceive. London's shadows were the very fuel of its luminous energy; nothing existed in this world without contrast.

Night had descended around them as the equipage swung into Portnam Square, halting before a coolly elegant gray façade. A swift shadowy movement behind leaded glass caught Darcy's eye. Word had been dispatched from the docks; they were expecting him.

He stepped out of the carriage. His mind had replayed this very moment time and again. Yet nothing had prepared him for the overwhelming sense of loss and sorrow, which enveloped him like a dark cloak. India had indeed been a grand escape, a great adventure, but now it seemed to disappear into a mere gossamer dream. He halted momentarily, then squaring his shoulders, swiftly ran up a short flight of steps. As his hand connected with the cool metal knocker, a tall beak-nosed butler opened the door. His haughty mien was accented by formidably expressive eyebrows; imbued with a life of their very own. The same eyebrows arched in astonishment at the sight of the new Earl.

Eight years had wrought significant changes; this was a man standing before him, where there once had been a mere young lad. Grown to an imposing height, the man's exceptionally strong shoulder line narrowed to slim hips. Neither the severely elegant tailoring of his jacket, or its subdued coloring, could hide the strength and power residing beneath.

Following a prolonged pause, where each man sized the other, Darcy offered, "Bixby, I'm delighted to find you in attendance after all these years."

"Your lordship," Bixby bowed after recovering his carefully cultured composure, only to have it challenged once again by the sight of a Hindu stranger standing silently behind his master.

Sensing his surprise, Darcy motioned toward Ranjit, "May I introduce Ranjit, my manservant - he will take on the duties of valet."

"My lord?.... Winters will be..." Bixby replied, his composure ruffled beyond measure.

"Ah. Winters, my father's valet... yes, I had forgotten... well, he can certainly instruct Ranjit in his duties for the present time."

"As you wish, my lord," Bixby replied, his mask inscrutably affixed once again, while within, he seethed at the upheaval and gossiping which would result below stairs.

Turning toward the domino lineup of uniformed servants, William scanned each face. Most were foreign to him; some scrubbed clean and expectant, others frankly curious and hesitant. And one particular visage, lined, ringed by a cloud of gray, beamed at him with shining eyes. William held her gaze and his eyes lit up momentarily; warm boyhood memories of spices, the tantalizing scent of baking and kind gentle words rushed back to greet him.

"Mrs. Brandle, and how is your sister, Mrs. Reynolds, faring at Pemberley?"

"Very well, my lord," Then, softly, she added, "Welcome home."

No. 10 Cavendish Square, London.

"The trouble with cucumber sandwiches, Caroline, is that they make one wish for more..." Louisa Hurst announced while popping yet another delicate morsel into her mouth, "...Unlike tomato, which are most satisfying."

"Indeed..." answered Caroline, sitting ram-rod straight upon the velvet loveseat of the drawing room, her spidery fingers toying absent-mindedly with an embroidery needle, "Pardon me, Louisa, I was woolgathering."

"If you ask me, you've collected an entire herd of sheep by now. He's back isn't he? I heard from Biggers this morning, who's on best terms with Bixby. Well, the Season shall prove to be most entertaining. And I, for one, am exceedingly thankful all that is behind me."

Settling her amply rounded bottom against a fringed pillow, she eyed her sister's pale long face speculatively. "What of Crispin Alvanley? He's perfectly charming, has six thousand pounds a year, is the second son of an Earl, and his father and older brother are quite sickly. With perseverance, and the Lord's timely intervention, he would suit quite well."

Caroline turned bitterly upon her sister, "Yes, and he's harmless, with nothing to like or dislike in him. We'll live in the country, he'll go shooting and hunting all morning, play at cards, then make queer faces in the evening. Louisa, I simply can't bear the thought of such a life. And soon I'll be twenty four and on the shelf."

"And do you suppose life with William Darcy would prove to be a great adventure?" Louisa enquired shrewdly.

Caroline's face contorted into a rapt expression, "I have heard tales of his slaying a Bengal tiger...He is said to have a scar on his chin..."

"Caroline Bingley, such an excessive display of feeling is bound to be ruinous to your health, let alone your complexion. We have no evidence of the new Earl's good character. The man is a complete stranger, even to his own family. As for his fortune, well yes, I will admit it is most appealing... But there seems to hover a certain incongruity about the entire picture... it is entirely too opaque."

Louisa eyed her sister, assessing the effect of her words. Finally, satisfied at having prevented yet another futile foray into fantasy, she continued, "I am told Lady Catherine de Bourgh is throwing a lavish soirée in honour of his return... only family and the closest of acquaintances, of course. Do you think that horrible widow, Helena, will attend? La, don't glare at me so; it can leave permanent lines, you know."

Caroline threw her a withering sidelong glance, which her sister, in turn, studiously ignored. Louisa had developed a remarkable resiliency against her older sister's piercing looks. Caroline's glances were finely honed weapons - with the ability to shame, command and apprehend by a mere narrowing of her lids or a flick of her pale brows.

"You are right Louisa, I seem to have lost my good sense. How careless of me! I shall go and read Byron's The Corsair, and attempt a recovery from my affliction."

Arising from the crimson loveseat like a vestal high priestess garbed in russet, Caroline Bingley swept out of the room, leaving Louisa to the last of the gooseberry tarts.

Firmly pushing her sister's dilemma aside, she contemplated the pleasure a fine array of pastries and sandwiches could bring to a woman's life. Burrowed contentedly in a mountain of pillows, Louisa let out a satisfied sigh. The pursuit of such pleasure had become a necessary balm to her existence. Necessary, as her husband of two years had proven to be fonder of the bottle and London's gaming hells* than of his wife. Not that she was terribly inconvenienced by it all. Mr. Hurst was amiable enough when sober, which was a rare occurrence; the remainder of the time she merely pretended he did not exist.

Instead, she divided her time between planning elaborate meals with her cook and managing Hurst's finances. Few were aware of her quickness with numbers or the fine agility of her mind. With the help of Mr. Nettle, Hurst's able and most accommodating man of business, she had proven herself to be a shrewd investor, doubling their capital in a mere two years. Of this fact, Hurst was blissfully unaware, which pleased Louisa to no end. Upon hearing the mantle clock chimes, she patted her elaborate blond ringlets into place and snatching a last crumpet, hurried toward the study, where Mr. Nettle awaited with the latest figures.

*Hells: term used to denote London's gaming rooms.

Chapter Four

No.12 Portman Square, London.

Flames flickered behind an ornate grate casting oblong shadows onto rows of bookshelves and richly tooled leather furnishings. He sat behind a carved mahogany desk of imperious proportions. Piles of papers surrounded him, blocks of white against the masculine burgundy dimness of the room. All was silent save for the spurt and crackle of dry logs, and the occasional scratch of his quill pen on parchment. It was an ordinary study, filled with the usual books, collections and paintings; subdued by the heaviness of port-wine curtains shut against the outside world. Ordinary, safe for the enormous blue white tiger skin lying by the fire, and cushions of brilliant crimson and gold scattered about the room.

As more trunks arrived from the ship, a decidedly exotic air began permeating the London town home, to the consternation of Bixby, and the fascination of the remaining servants. Oriental artifacts had become all the rage in the ton's salons; but were usually poorly executed replicas. The authenticity of the Earl's exotic treasures whispered of strange and spellbinding adventures, which aroused the usually sublimated curiosity of the staff.

A soft knock echoed through the room. Bixby entered and announced solemnly, "Viscount Matlock has arrived, my lord." Without raising his head, Darcy answered, "Show him to the study, Bixby."

Turning smartly on his heels, Bixby was shocked to find the Viscount standing directly behind him. Unnerved by such a display of stealth, he glumly allowed the tall man through. Darcy looked up and locked eyes with Richard Fitzwilliam, fourth Viscount Matlock.

Three years had passed since the duo had shared adventures in India. Dangerous missions, covert maneuvers and perilous operations few men could imagine or boast of. At the time, the Viscount had been Colonel Fitzwilliam, a member of Darcy's elite troupe. Sharing a harmony of mind and thirst for bold exploits, the two had been inseparable. All changed when Fitzwilliam's eldest brother died of a tragic hunting accident, necessitating his return to England.

This was new territory for both men; they were no longer marooned in the Himalayan foothills, bent on survival. Rather, the heavy study walls lined with dusty book spines spoke of ancestry and duty, creating a deep chasm where none had previously existed. Each man stared silently at the other, wondering if the bonds of friendship would hold here in England.

An undercurrent of competition had often insinuated itself into the solidness of their mutual camaraderie, and its presence, this evening, was strangely palpable.

Both men were tall, but where Darcy was broad shouldered and imposing, Richard Fitzwilliam cut a leaner, more sinewy frame; the effect was entirely rangier. Despite this, a leashed strength was reflected in startlingly pale gray eyes, framed by a shock of black hair.

Neither man spoke.

Finally, Darcy rose from behind his desk and extended his hand in greeting. Giving way to a mischievous impulse, Richard spun around and drove his right elbow into the other man's midriff with a force that would have felled a camel. It should have been a crippling blow- but it wasn't. With lightning speed, Darcy caught Fitzwilliam's elbow before it could connect, and using the force of his opponent's thrust, he bent, twisted and hurled Viscount Matlock across the room, where he landed near the tiger skin. The motion was smooth and continuous, executed with deadly precision. As Richard crashed onto his right shoulder, with a quick reflex, he tucked his body and rolled, coming to rest on his back. In combat, he would have ricocheted back into action, but this time, he lay still on the expanse of white fur, catching his breath.

"I see civilized life hasn't made you soft, Panther." He grinned widely, feeling as if three year's separation had just vanished, "Where the blazes did you learn that move?"

Darcy laughed out loud, his face boyish for a moment. "Ranjit is a master at Kalari,* he taught me well. I decided since coming back to England, I'd best be prepared against the likes of you, Wolf."

He extended his hand, helping his friend up, "Pax.**"

"Pax." Richard agreed, as he grasped Darcy's hand and vaulted to his feet. The tension had evaporated; both men immensely pleased that the bonds of friendship still held.

Richard peered down at the magnificent pelt which had cushioned his fall, "Is this the man-eater we hunted and killed in Kashmir?"

"The very one, some tigress she was..."

Dusting off his jacket, he eyed Darcy mockingly, "Wait till you meet the ladies of the ton, my friend."

Darcy raised an eyebrow in return, " I've had some experiences in Calcutta - it makes one's stomach churn."

"Calcutta, Darcy, is a tame wasteland in comparison to London. Here, the man-hunters are thirsting for fresh blood, and you my man, are superb prey."

"I'm not in the business of hunting for pleasure, at present. The household remains in half mourning, and you know how I detest meaningless social functions."

Richard clapped his friend on the back, belatedly realizing his faux pas. "My regrets, I forgot about your father, it's been a year now. My deepest condolences."

"I said the household is in mourning Wolf, my father was lost to me years ago. I grieve no more."

Richard nodded his head in understanding. Many a sleepless night had been spent on duty with William in the Himalayan foothills, and over months he had pieced together his story. Even now, thinking of it, sent a chill down his spine. Remembering the purpose of his visit, he lightly steered the conversation onto safer ground. "Shall we repair to White's and remove ourselves from all this doom and gloom? There's someone I'd like you to meet. He arrived from Hertfordshire with the express hope of renewing your acquaintance."

Darcy shook his head. "I need to see my London manager briefly. He resides in Russell Square. Let us leave together now, and I shall join you at White's shortly. Who is he, by the way?"

"It shall remain a surprise! Perhaps I can also introduce you to Mme de Tourvelle's delicious salon later this evening, what do you say Panther?" Richard asked as both men walked down the hallway, their polished Hessians echoing sharply against marble tiles.

"Is she a tigress, Wolf?" Darcy enquired, a cynical smile curling his lip.

Richard snickered softly, reaching out for his hat from Bixby's outstretched hand, angling it fashionably, he threw a rakish grin in Darcy's direction,

"Only between silk sheets, my man." He declared glibly, noting the arch of Bixby's eyebrows. The two darkly cloaked men exited Portman Square and were engulfed into the waiting London night.

No. 4 Russell Square, London

Running her fingers lightly over the white expanse of damask, she caught her uncle's eye across the dinnertime sparkle of crystal and silver. Edward Gardiner smiled benevolently at his favorite niece, pondering for the thousandth time how such a lovely and intelligent creature came to be Fanny's daughter. Her eyes shone back at him with an open, respectfully admiring gaze - and momentarily he was reminded of a younger Madeline. A week had elapsed since the young women's arrival to Russell Square; and their contented family life had been infused with a glow of color, freshness and feminine peals of laughter.

"Lizzy, I'm delighted to hear that you will grace us with your presence for a few more weeks. Inviting Jane to join us was a splendid idea, Madeline, one I am sure none of you will regret. Now, please excuse my departure, as I am expecting Earl Pemberton this evening. We have much business to discuss."

Madeline Gardiner enquired gently, "Edward, I was hoping for an introduction, if the Earl would consent. His generosity to our family has benefited us immensely. I would like to thank him personally for your advancement in the shipping company. After all, if it weren't for the Earl we would still be residing in Cheapside."

"Your wish is my command, dearest Madeline," Edward answered, gracing his wife with a tender smile. Elizabeth marveled once again, at the delicate yet masterful manner, which Madeline displayed in dealing with her husband. He was several years her senior and, to her knowledge, had never strayed from her warm devotion. In moments of unguarded reverie, she imagined the Gardiners were her parents. Such moments were rare, however, as she found with time that return to reality left a bittersweet afterglow.

"He will be arriving within the hour, ladies," Chuckling, he added, "I'm sure we are but one of the few stops he'll be making this evening."

Madeline shook her head, reprimanding softly, "Edward, the girls..."

"Are now young adult women, tante Madeline!" Announced Charlotte with her usual sang-froid, "With Philippe as a brother, I am exceedingly well versed in all manner of vice and pastimes gentlemen partake in."

Elizabeth blushed at her cousin's comment, her mind flying back to memories of Alençon and Philippe's stolen kisses. Her thoughts were interrupted abruptly by Edward's startling words.

"William Darcy is indeed the most generous of men. His ships' crews are loyal to a fault. When in India, during his cavalry days, it was said men would take bullets for him. Quite astonishing, really! Now I must bid you a pleasant evening, as business and paperwork await."

Elizabeth sat rooted in her seat. An Earl! A cavalry officer! She felt her entire person tense upon hearing the startling news. Though the sting of their first acquaintance had mercifully dissipated, she felt a deep apprehension at meeting him again. A sense of guilt had insinuated itself, layered with a disquieting awareness of her response to his nearness; the extent of which she had never experienced with any man, including Philippe. Her mind returned to Philippe and the innocent flirtations the two had shared in Alençon. Though he made her laugh and added spice to mundane happenings, she knew there was no hope for a future at his side. For one, even with her limited experience, she did not entirely trust his sincerity, and within the depths of her heart she held a strong conviction that she was fated for more.

"Lizzie, you're in the clouds. Do come join us for coffee in the drawing room, my dear," Madeline smiled indulgently at her niece.

If it had not been for the naked cupids cavorting over the mantelpiece, the Gardiners' drawing room would have joined the ranks of every other drawing room on Russell Square. As it was, whimsical touches of French flair and panache imbued it with a spirit of warmth, liveliness and style. Drifting back to the conversation, Elizabeth caught Charlotte's words.

"Marriage is a narrowing business, tante Madeline." Charlotte announced, while nibbling on a dainty pastry.

Quirking her eyebrows, at her niece's solemn proclamation, Madeline enquired politely, "How so, my child?"

Demonstrating a distinctive coolness of manner, Charlotte continued, "One has a list, narrows it down, until but one name is left and voila!"

Madeline laughed delightedly at her response. " I wish it were that simple, Charlotte. It is precisely the business of narrowing which can result in broken dreams, broken hearts and a great degree of vexation."

Charlotte waved her hand in that manner typical of the French, "Pah! I have my criteria well thought out. It will simply be an exercise in logic and mathematics. I hold few romantic notions, chère tante. A husband should firstly be respectful, then sensible, moderately intelligent, and able to provide safety and security. His occasional presence in the marriage bed, to sire an heir, is to be tolerated - the rest is best left in the hands of poets and novelists."

Choking back her laughter, Elizabeth peered at her aunt, anticipating a reprimand. Madeline stirred her coffee with great thoughtfulness and deliberation, contemplating her niece over the gilded rim of china.

"Charlotte, why settle for flannel when one can have silk?"

Before Charlotte could fashion a response to her aunt's provocative comment, Edward Gardiner appeared at the drawing room door.

"Ladies, permit me to introduce William Darcy, Earl Pemberton."

Elizabeth's heart slowly spiraled down to her slippers and sank with a splash. Her eyes seemed to seek him out with a will of their own. And she found herself regarded by a haughtily amused stare. He appeared to tower over Edward's portly frame. Impeccably attired in a midnight navy jacket, waistcoat and buff breeches above polished Hessians, he radiated a raw potent energy under a veneer of correctness. His sun-darkened skin glowed in direct contrast to the Wedgwood blue and cream of the drawing room. The deep timbered voice began speaking and she had to force herself to focus on his words. Was he speaking English? No. He spoke French.

"Mme Gardiner, enchanté de faire votre..."

She lost her train of thought, confusion set in, and thankfully cleared, as his voice returned to English and familiar territory.

"Miss Bennet, delighted to make your acquaintance," She could have sworn a mischievous glint shone in his eyes, then disappeared. Perhaps she had imagined it.

Edward motioned to his wife, "Madeline, do come and join us in the study. You wished to share a few words with our distinguished guest."

Upon the trio's exit, Elizabeth rose suddenly and turning to Charlotte blurted out, "Charlotte, would you be terribly affronted if I repaired to the music room?"

"Pas du tout!" her cousin answered, waving her away, "I shall start on my list."

'What list?" Elizabeth asked on her way out.

"The husband-narrowing list. On hearing tante Madeline this evening, I believe my earlier notions will require revising."

Surrounded by lavender paneled walls, with no one about but the solid comfort of her piano forte, she allowed the cool feel of ivory smoothness soothe her jangled nerves. Why should she feel so unsettled, so aflutter? After all, she was no stranger to the presence of males. She prided herself on the strength of her composure, and its liberal dosing of good sense. Perhaps this strange man had inexplicably uncovered a crack, a crevasse within her, and with this knowledge she felt naked and exposed. If so, he had accomplished it smoothly and masterfully, with a few mere words, a touch, a look. He had breached the fault and somehow straddled it, without her permission. She felt intimately invaded within herself. Searching for a comforting musical piece in her mind, her fingers struck the opening chords of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonataand as the music flowed, like mellow wine in her veins, she lost herself in its soulful cadence.

Having taken leave of the Gardiners, Darcy reached for his silver tipped cane and gloves. Upon overhearing Beethoven's strains wafting down the corridor, his fingers stopped in mid air. Turning to the hovering butler, he enquired with unmasked curiosity, "Who possesses such a talented hand at the piano?"

"That would be Miss Elizabeth Bennet, your lordship."

Against his better judgment, as if pulled by an unknown current, he retraced his steps - past the study, past the drawing room, to a far door. Gently opening it, he peered in.

She was seated at the pianoforte, bathed in muted candlelight, all soft limbed and soft lipped, a long strand of chestnut hair resting lightly on her breast. Delicate yet strong fingers flitted over the ivory keys. She was playing without sheet music, from memory. He remembered the Moonlight Sonata; remembered maternal fingers flying over another keyboard, long ago.

Leaning against the doorframe, he listened, enraptured, drinking in the fine web of solitude she had woven around her. Muted rays of golden light appeared to radiate from her person, creating an incandescent glow, and for an exquisite moment he was dazzled by her splendor. He yearned to be the lock of hair sweeping her soft skin, the ivory of the keys caressed by her touch, the air she drank through parted lips. Her hair, her hands, her lips. He wanted to possess each one in turn, and then, together, as a whole. Silently, his hand trembling against the metal handle, he edged out of her private space and closed the door without a sound.

*Kalari: Ancient form of Hindu combat
**Pax: Peace

Chapter Five

"Women should be judged by their conduct, by the outward expression of their thoughts, and by the movement of their bodies."

Kama Sutra: (Part V; Of The Characteristics Of Men And Women. )

White's Club, No.37-38 St. James Street, London.

In the billiard room, the carved mantel clock ticked softly, its cadence muted by the room's furnishings and absorbed by thick Persian rugs blanketing the floors. Darkly paneled walls were hung with bucolic renditions of the countryside, speaking of tolerable taste and dignified decorum. Tall narrow windows lined one wall, and at this time of night, were obliterated by heavy forest velvet drapes, fringed and tied with ornate gilt tassels. This chamber was one of many in the gentlemen's sanctum known as White's Club, whose humble beginnings as a Chocolate House in 1693 had been replaced by a preeminently upper-class distinction. Its loftiness was mirrored in the hauteur of the footmen, the hushed silence of its hallways, and the age-old burnish of its gilded tassels. It reverberated in the mannerisms and diction of the men gracing its hallowed rooms. Most were scions of ancient and wealthy families, steeped in the myths and traditions passed on through the centuries.

Amidst the oppressively rarified gentility, stood William Darcy, leaning lightly on his cue stick, bronzed, muscular, black hair curling unfashionably long over his neck cloth. He wore white shirtsleeves, and a midnight blue waistcoat, having discarded his tailored coat three shots prior -feeling unduly restricted in his movements. A bronze anomaly amidst a sea of paler faces and slighter forms. Yet, he was undoubtedly one of them; welcomed, accepted, elevated by some for his exploits in India, by others for his vast wealth. But mostly because he'd joined their ranks; he was an Earl.

His concentration was focused intently on the cue ball and several multicolored balls. He was mapping out his next strategy, like a general readying for battle. Richard Fitzwilliam lounged in a dim corner, silently observing his friend's game. Anyone entering the room would have been reluctant to breach Darcy's intense thread of concentration.

Anyone but Charles Bingley.

A loud and merry voice pierced the hushed stillness.

"Darcy, old boy!"

William cocked his head and relaxed his iron grip on the cue stick; a bemused expression flitted across his face. In three giant strides, Charles crossed the room and crushed his old friend and commanding officer in a hearty embrace. Witnessing the greeting, Richard shook his head; 'twas not the fashion for such open demonstrations - but this was

Bingley, after all, and he was an exception to the rule.

Captain Charles Bingley had returned from India two years prior, having inherited a substantial fortune. During two heady London Seasons he had charmed his way into la crème of London society. A tall, burly, reddish-blond man, he was known for his jovial good humour, high spirits and intensely romantic nature. Over two years he had managed to desperately fall in and out of love a dozen times; leaving in his wake several broken hearts. Perhaps it was his sweet nature, or propensity to quote great poets, or his tendency to launch spontaneously into ballads in a lovely tenor; whatever the reason, his reputation did not suffer. Peers, matrons and even the broken-hearted denizens brushed his amorous escapades away with indulgent good humor. Bingley, after all, had never risen to the title of a rake: that dubious distinction belonged to Richard Fitzwilliam.

If Darcy was dark moonlight, Bingley was the shining sun. And perhaps because of these very differences, each man was drawn to the other. During his cavalry days, Bingley had provided much needed levity and amusement among the elite corps. He was known as "Bear", a moniker he secretly detested, convinced it lacked cachet. Much to his annoyance, the name had trailed him back to England, and hostesses would often refer to him as that "golden bear" or that "sweet bear of a man- Bingley".

Charles had arrived in India full of glorious dreams, endless possibilities and a deep thirst for excitement- but despite distinguishing himself over several missions, and being the best crack shot in the regiment - he had laid his dreams to rest once Darcy's elite troupe was disbanded by the High Command. He returned to England, a little more cynical, a little jaded, the fine edge of his optimistic nature somewhat tempered.

But being Bingley, he soon replaced his old dream with a new most pleasurable vision: that of falling in love and finding the perfect wife. Meeting with little success in London, he repaired to the country. For despite having his head in the clouds, his feet were firmly planted on the ground. The pettiness and superficial machinations of the ton had all too soon become transparent. As the rest of society drifted toward London in search of amusement, new experiences and advancement, he swam against the current and sought out the countryside in pursuit of his dream.

"Late again, Charles." Drawled Richard Fitzwilliam, elegantly stretching his lanky frame on a leather chaise, "Who is she this week?"

Darcy resumed his billiard game, as men are wont to do, even after a prolonged absence. Bingley fixed Richard with an unrelenting glare, then melted into starry-eyed eloquence.

"I will have you know she is beyond words..."

Richard rolled his eyes. "You're down in the Betting Book* again, Charles. They're predicting, based on your rather disheartening past record, no nuptials for another year. Odds are three hundred to one."

Undeterred, Charles forged on, " Her name is Jane, she walks in radiance, like the pristine night filled with starry skies... and best of all, she is arriving in London tomorrow!"

Darcy stretched across the green felt of the billiard table, one leg suspended in the air behind him, sliding his cue stick back and forth across his right hand. Upon hearing Bingley's comments, he raised a slim dark eyebrow in his friend's direction.

"Jane... a rather plain name, Charles." He jabbed good-naturedly at his old friend.

Before Charles could fashion a retort, the mantle clock struck eleven times and a shadow fell across the billiard felt. Distracted, Darcy raised his head and suddenly met a pair of stark green eyes, fringed by thick black lashes. The man was of average height , but superbly built and expensively attired. He was leaving the club and had looked in on the billiard room. Tipping his hat to the startled trio, he acknowledged the group with a sarcastic, "Gentlemen." His voice was raspy, almost whispery. As swiftly as he had arrived, he disappeared into the sombrous hallway.

Darcy remained perfectly still, cue stick delicately balanced against his hand. Bingley and Fitzwilliam, however, sprung into action, lunging behind the retreating figure, but were immediately halted by the sound of a sharp, deep-voiced command, "Don't."

As the two men reluctantly retraced their steps, Darcy hit his intended target, scattering the multi-hued balls with a thundering clash and pocketing the red one; betraying his suppressed emotion by a slight throb of a vein, at his temple.

Placing his cue stick back on the wall rack, he turned to the duo, "Gentlemen, I'm in sudden need of a stiff drink."

They spent several hours at White's that night; imbibing fine brandy, reminiscing of cavalry days, observing Richard lose at the gaming tables, reaffirming the ties binding their friendship. As the mantle clock chimes announced the passing hours, each one's thoughts would return to the man they had glimpsed that evening; the man who all three had learned to trust only to have that trust disgracefully ripped to shreds. The singularly brilliant cavalry man, who could ride like the wind and fight like a savage - the Jackal - Lieutenant George Wickham. As if by silent mutual agreement, not a word was spoken of the man.

~ * ~

The entire household slumbered. Dawn, on the verge of its crepuscular awakening, was slowly creeping in as Elizabeth silently tiptoed out of the house on Russell Square and made her way to the stable. Quentin, the young groom, had held true to his word and awaited with two saddled horses. Soon, their shadowy mounted figures could be glimpsed through patches of morning London fog, weaving in and out amidst an empty maze of streets, toward the Park. The ghostly veil of white and grey misty clouds seemed to hang over housetops one minute, and conceal facades and doorways the next. As she rode through the hushed streets, the world itself felt suspended, whispering of secrets and fading footsteps.

The mysterious foggy cloak extended over the vast reaches of the deserted Park- wisps of smoky grey and violet drifted about, hazy wandering shadows over the expanse of green. Dismounting her horse, she unsaddled the dapple-grey mare, and ignoring her groom's astounded expression, reseated herself on the supple flesh... bareback...adjusting the skirts of her riding habit over chamois breeches hidden beneath.

"Miss Bennet..." the young man stammered, ""tis not prudent..."

She cut him short with a dazzling smile. "Quentin, be a dear, and remain here, by the Serpentine. There's no one about and I shall be cautious. I rode this way in France, if you must know."

"But this is London! Miss!"

With a quick flick of the reins, she took off at a canter and soon broke free into a gallop - enveloped in the dim cloudscape.

As her body melded into unified rhythm with the mare's graceful strides, the city seemed to dissolve behind her. Ancient shapes loomed out of the violet haze. She was flying with the wind, running free, swallowed by a primeval force that had hovered over the Park's winding greens for centuries. She was the wind, the crystalline shafts of light, the undulating movement of dawn colors. Uplifted in the numinous mist, her heart took wing and soared.

For a moment, the mist melted, the curtain lifted and another rider appeared galloping on a black horse. Where the woman was poetry in motion, his gallop spoke of unleashed fury, violent release, as if horse and rider were bursting through the borders, the very limits created by nature. His head was bare, coal black hair streaming with the wind, mirroring the stallion's mane, racing tail. The Arabian's glistening leathered muscles, its rasping lungs, spoke of untamable force and energy. Their communion was such, that the distinction between man and beast was blurry.

He saw her first, startled at the sight of flying petticoats on bareback, noting with male appreciation the undulating movement of her lower back, her hips, as she swayed in rhythm with the horse. Yet, sensing a kindred soul with a taste for freedom, he kept a respectful distance.

Until she lost her plumed riding hat... having broken free, it flew to the ground. Something in the turn of her head, the release of cascading curls, tugged at his memory.

He slowed to a canter, and swallowed hard at the sight of her profile. She reined her horse in, arcing into a wide turn, and caught sight of the male rider.

Mesmerized , she watched him break into a blazing gallop, watched the magnificent piece of horseflesh and man come swooping toward her. Suddenly, the rider grasped his saddle horn with one hand and slid down the stallion's flank, his body hanging precariously over the green. It was a dangerous, reckless manoeuvre, for a sudden swerve or misstep by the horse would pitch the rider headfirst into the ground at deadly speed. But rider and horse held rock steady as the man deftly plucked the fallen hat off the ground, as if it were a delicate desert flower, then pulling himself back onto the saddle, slowed and halted to a stop a few feet away from Elizabeth.

It was him.

Overcome by a swirl of emotions, breathless and reckless from her own gallop- she relinquished her light hold on propriety, and remaining straddled, skirts riding against her thighs, allowed herself to break into a radiant smile, eyes lighting up in pure unadulterated pleasure at his display of horsemanship.

Hair ruffled, face flushed with exhilaration, William returned her smile with a rare grin, a flash of white straight teeth. Momentarily she glimpsed a much younger man, an almost innocent man. And she was hit by a sudden urge: asking him to repeat the feat once again, so as to observe him more closely and commit each detail to memory. He startled her by extending her plumed riding hat, his hand inadvertently grazing her own . The intimate brush left both parties feeling disconcerted.

"Your hat, Miss Bennet."

To his astonishment, she burst into laughter, clear tones echoed in the dawn quietude, ricocheting off surrounding trees. She had possibly the most beautiful laughter he had ever heard. Like wind chimes. Light tinkling melodies of uncertain tunes on a breezy summer day. India, again. No pattern, no rhythm, random like the wind. Suggesting a happiness he couldn't quite grasp, its reality a distant past in his own life. For a pained moment, he was not sure whether she was laughing at him or with him.

"We must stop meeting like this, your Lordship," she said.

He tilted his head sideways, surprised at her open manner, her display of liveliness and recklessness so early in the morn. Most unexpected. Her equestrian skills spoke of a physicality unseen in young women of the day, of a thirst for adventure and freedom. And of a youthful disregard for safety. She was evidently a stranger to danger; he, on the other hand, had been intimately acquainted with its various incarnations for years. A surge of protectiveness welled up within him. The sudden thought of harm coming her way, shot through his spine and settled uncomfortably deep within his viscera. Tightening his jaw, he answered her in a firmly reprimanding tone.

"And you, Miss Bennet, must stop losing your hat. There is a limit to how many feats a gentleman can perform, to ensure the rescue of your hat and...of your person."

Elizabeth could not fail but note the disapproving tone of his voice. Ignoring it, she continued airily, "Somehow, I don't believe you to be anywhere near your limit. Is this how one rides in India, my Lord?"

The woman was deliberately goading him! And belatedly, he realized just how much sheer sensuality was sitting before him; hair tangled seductively about her shoulders, cheeks flushed, eyes dancing, and the shapeliest legs he'd ever seen. His eye was no stranger to beauty, India had awakened his senses and tuned them to a fine pitch. No, she was not beautiful in the classical fashion of the day. Instead, this morning, she was real, earthy, and raw. Luscious enough to eat. Feeling his body respond violently to the tantalizing sight before him, he reined in his desire, counted to five in Arabic and answered her query,

"No, that move belongs to a sport called buzkashi, an Afghani form of polo."

"Polo?"

"An equine sport played in India, which hasn't made its way to England yet. Rather than using a mallet and ball, buzkashi is played with a headless goat." He answered, inwardly disbelieving the conversation he was having with this woman, at the break of dawn, in the middle of London's largest park, while she sat straddling her horse.

"How barbaric!" she exclaimed, settling her hat back on her head, and seemingly unaware of the effect she had on him.

"Indeed. Think of it as a cross between fox hunting and the battle of Waterloo."

They began a slow walk toward the Serpentine. William shifted in his saddle, silently grateful for the slow pace, as anything faster would result in significant harm to his person.

"Do you often ride this early?" she enquired innocently.

"Yes, I'm an early riser, Miss Bennet," he replied, adding, "You should not ride here unescorted, it is not safe. I presume you brought along a groom and left him somewhere?"

She tossed him a defiant glance, and with more than a hint of impertinence answered back, "Of course I brought along a groom. London can be dangerous in more ways than one. And contrary to your perception, I am not a brainless chit, my Lord."

His head snapped back with the vehemence of her reply. Rather than be offended at such a display of willfulness, he smiled inwardly, and his respect for her person grew.

" Touché! Do you always ride bareback, Miss Bennet?" he added, unable to resist taunting her a little.

"Only when the fancy strikes me. The sidesaddle is a monstrous invention, in my humble opinion."

Changing the flow of conversation adroitly, she asked, "Your horse is an Arabian, if I'm not mistaken. He seems excessively large and tall for the breed, the length of his stride is... astounding."

Darcy was momentarily startled. She had knowledge of Arabians? In his experience, most women held no more than a tepid interest in matters of horseflesh. Recovering his composure, he continued, "He is of Arab descent, belonging to the Kehilan strain, therefore his large size. I purchased him in India; Aviral is his name."

"Aviral" She rolled the word in her mouth savoring its foreign texture, the vowels long and smooth against her tongue.

"He who never stops. He earned the name early in life as he was known for throwing riders and continuing for miles; a dangerous habit when riding in the desert. I trained him out of it. Despite this, he has no true vice in him; a mouth of velvet, the manners of a prince, perhaps a touch of royal temper on occasion. What I admire about him most is his mix of fierce intelligence, affection and loyalty, priceless attributes in my opinion."

"Priceless in a horse as well as a human, my Lord," she added.

They reached the awaiting groom. He'd been pacing nervously back and forth by his horse. He had spied the lone male rider some time ago, but having seen nothing untoward about his manner, had chosen to remain at his post. Judging by their discussion, the two appeared to be acquainted.

The fog had lifted, London was awakening to another day. Elizabeth dismounted her mare, letting her skirts settle about her, demure once again. As her hems grazed the ground with a swooshing sound, they seemed to mark with finality an end to her moment of freedom. Masks of formality and convention replaced their earlier camaraderie.

As Quentin re-saddled her horse, she felt a sharp pang of loss for her brief morning escape. The encounter seemed already shrouded in the distant past, as if it had never occurred. Darcy observed her transformation, fascinated by the apparent change a pair of breeches astride a horse could effect in a woman. And how quickly the reverse brought on an air of distinct conventionality.

"As you seem to be in capable hands, Miss Bennet, I shall bid you a good day. Perhaps we shall ride again, in the morning. Permit me to suggest your groom bring along a regular saddle next time. You would not wish to make headlines during your stay in London," he announced, his voice clipped and polite, yet spiced with a hint of humor.

With a quick nod, he swung his stallion round and rode away.

It wasn't until he neared Portnam Square, that a realization struck him; the groom had seemed vaguely familiar. Tucking the information for perusal at a later date, he made his way back into the warmth of the townhouse.

His head ached, his mouth felt wooly after a night of too much brandy and no sleep, and yet he felt strangely elated following the morning ride; the vision of her riding in the fog had left a deliciously erotic imprint on his psyche.

As the day wore on, the image slowly faded, but her laughter, the sound of wind chimes, persisted and echoed melodiously in his mind.

* Betting Book: Infamous book at White's Club where members would pen their entries and wager whose wife would be the first to beget an heir, who would marry or die first, or which young lady would succumb to the charms of various club members.

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