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The Great Game

Chapter Six

Part One

"A woman, who meets a man in a lonely place, and puts up with the touch of his..., but pretends on account of the indecision of her mind, not to be aware of it, should be conquered by patience and continued efforts..."

Kama Sutra: (Chapter III; Examination Of The State Of A Woman's Mind.)

No. 4 Russell Square.

"Oh Lizzy! I so want you to savour this moment with me!" Jane implored in a dreamy storybook voice. Sitting by a mirror in the warmth of Elizabeth's room, she brushed her hair with long even strokes, her rhythm steady and unbroken, despite the unmistakable hint of excitement in her voice.

"But are you certain you love him?" Elizabeth prodded, astonished at her sister's news, delivered on the first night of her arrival at Russell Square.

"As aunt Madeline says, there are no certainties in life. I don't know...when I am with him, I feel enveloped in a blanket of warmth, safety and surety. If that is not indicative of love and affection - what is? I can attest to you that he is good-natured and kind. He's responsible and loyal to a fault, particularly to his friends and family. He is handsome, strong, and cuts a fine figure. Oh! And Lizzy! He sings in a lovely tenor. He quotes beautiful poetry... But mostly, there is a solidness, a permanence about him which is both comforting and anchoring."

Elizabeth sat quietly on her bed, chin resting on her knees, observing her sister pensively. Finally, she ventured,

"I see you have given this much thought. Tell me Jane, has he kissed you?"

Jane flushed delicately, casting down her eyes.

"Well, yes," she answered softly.

"And?"

"It was very pleasant," Jane replied.

Elizabeth smirked, "Pleasant?"

Jane smiled sheepishly, fixing her eyes on the cream and pink rug, focusing on its cabbage rose design. "Very well. It was delightful. He appears to be quite skilled in such matters. I positively tingled."

"I see. Is there more?" Elizabeth enquired, her eyes beginning to sparkle mischievously.

"More?"

"In reference to his skill in such matters, of course."

"Is there supposed to be more?" Jane asked innocently.

"Oh. Jane! You goose! Did you progress beyond kissing?"

With gentle playfulness, and a refined delicacy of manner, Jane finally met her sister's eyes, "No, but I suspect he wanted to, because he had to suddenly... excuse himself. When he reappeared, after some time, he had regained his composure."

Following a suspended pause, the two sisters burst out laughing. In doing so, the growing bubble of tension which had arisen between them disappeared, and became replaced by comfortable amicability.

Elizabeth took in her sister's soft-colored flush, her crystalline blue eyes. She was all that was generous and considerate; a creature where grace and spirit united to a high worth, where manners were equal to heart and understanding. She was flaxen-haired softness, pure hearted and trusting; the classic English beauty with a heart of gold. But as her family had found out over the years, Jane's lack of guile did not preclude a quiet inner strength; a well-defined conviction of right and wrong, which had guided her since childhood.

As Elizabeth sought out the changing patterns of wind and waves in her life, Jane was the compass, pointing the way. Sitting on her bed, observing her intently, Elizabeth was struck with a sudden understanding; Jane strove for security and safety in marriage, she, on the other hand, prized freedom and autonomy in life. Jane's goals were attainable, hers, on the other hand , seemed nearly impossible. Therein lay the difference.

"Does Father know of Charles' intentions?" she enquired.

Jane paused her brush mid-stroke, "I believe he suspects, but nothing more. After all, Charles was a frequent visitor at Longbourne in the last two months. Lizzy, Charles has yet to propose. He has hinted at it, circled around it, but I believe he is waiting for the right moment to appear. I so adore his romantic nature."

"Let's hope he doesn't tarry long, Jane. I for one would go batty with all this anticipation." Smiling at her sister, she softened her voice; " Here I go, putting myself in your shoes! You are a most patient creature, possessing a trait sadly lacking in my own nature." She paused momentarily, then continued, "And let me hazard a guess, Mother is waxing poetic over his fortune."

Jane shot her sister a pained look. "Lizzie, you must not speak so harshly. Mother is a practical woman and wishes to see us comfortably settled."

"Oh balderdash! You and I know both know that Mother thinks of herself first, the remainder of her family is an inconvenient afterthought. We are but mere punctuation marks in the long tale of woe that is her life."

Although unconvinced by her sister's outburst, Jane did not respond. Instead, she sat calmly brushing her hair, until the rose colored walls absorbed the worst of Elizabeth's ferment.

Impatiently throwing aside the counterpane covering her bed, Elizabeth hopped onto the floor and, barefoot, clad in her night rail, began pacing the room.

"So it's settled then. You love him. He loves you. You will marry. End of story."

Realizing the harshness of her words, she moved toward her sister, wrapping her arms about her, and rested her chin on Jane's flaxen hair. Both young women looked into the mirrored glass, at the image reflected back before them; nature's contrasts evident in their coloring, their very countenance, like spring and fall.

Gentling her voice Elizabeth whispered, "You deserve all that is best, kind and just. I did not intend to speak so harshly Jane. Please forgive me."

She laid her cheek against her sister's hair, feeling Jane's warmth envelop her in a deep sense of tenderness and caring. Jane's kindness and quiet nature held the power to soothe her like no other. Their gentle sustenance could temper her sharpest edges, her wildest impulses. As a little girl, Elizabeth would climb the cherry trees, and Jane would act as the lookout, protecting her, and later, the nurse, tending to her cuts and bruises.

Her sister had been a nurturing influence throughout her life, as their mother was often too encumbered, too overwhelmed, to trouble. Elizabeth had often wondered what lay at the source of Jane's wellspring of goodness. Recently, she had decided it was a gift, given to her family by a greater power to atone for glaring deficiencies in other areas.

Speaking to the reflection in the glass, Elizabeth continued, " I will not pretend that relinquishing our closeness is without pain. I feel frightened somehow, Jane. Frightened of being alone and envious of him already, yet I haven't made his acquaintance. You have brought precious grace into my life. And I know, without a doubt, that I must let go, but that knowledge stings like the sharpest thorn." Smiling wryly, she added, "Look at me, such a childlike possessive creature."

Jane gazed into the mirror, at the tangle of blond and brown locks, curiously rich-colored where they intermingled, her voice a calming balm, she answered,

"You are not losing me, Lizzy... Think of it as gaining a wonderful older brother."

Long after her sister had repaired to her own bedchamber, Elizabeth sat by the flickering light of the dimming room. Slanted rays of moonlight mixed with the diminishing candlelight. Despite Jane's mollifying words, she felt alone, sadly abandoned. Jane's impending betrothal seemed to have disassembled a transparent web of friendship, love, and security the sisters had shared throughout their life.

Perhaps her thirst for adventure, her meager attempts at autonomy, were made possible by the constant presence of Jane's unfailing support over the years. And now, all was changing; constellations were shifting, her universe was realigning itself, into a new and unknown order. Deep within herself, she clung to the knowledge that Jane's love would follow her throughout life's journey. However, she now realized a new distance would ensue. And it was this very real divergence, this aching separation which fed her grief.

She sat on her bed, a forlorn figure, tears flowing down her cheeks. She sat staring at nothing in particular, for a very long time.

Finally, wiping away her tears, she rose and moved toward a carved chest of drawers. Within its uppermost compartment lay a box; blue and silver striped, tied with an elaborate silk ribbon. It had arrived earlier in the afternoon, accompanied by a simple white card.

A replacement for the bonnet lost at sea.

Fitzwilliam Darcy

Within folds of tissue lay the softest, wispiest cashmere shawl her hands had ever touched. Letting it fall between her fingers - she thought of water, rain. Yet unlike water, it was woven in delicate shadings of lavender, plum, hyacinth... its edge outlined by a silvery leaf design. She had read of such shawls from Kashmir - so fine, they could pass through a ring.

Curious, she removed a simple pearl circlet from her finger and began threading the fine material through. Indeed, like a thin ribbon, it passed through the ring, pooling into a ripple of waves on the ground. She stared at the puddle of lilac rainbow lying by her feet. She could not accept it. An offering from a gentleman was unseemly. An offering from William Darcy, Earl Pemberton, went beyond unseemly. How devious of him to term it a replacement...He appeared to be taunting her, playing some unknown game where he, alone, possessed intimate knowledge of the rules. She felt like a small pawn on a chessboard, powerless, strangely hollow. No, she would not accept the box and its contents. She would not play his game.

Picking up the shawl, with every intention of returning it to its box, she brushed it against her cheek, letting the weightless softness caress her skin. An exotic perfume seemed to envelop her senses; bergamot, cardamom, orange spice, myrrh?...Tempting, hypnotic...Against her will, she wrapped it about her shoulders, surprised by its warmth. No, she could not, she would not...Overcome by a heavy leaden fatigue, she stumbled toward the bed, and settled herself atop the counterpane. Cocooned in a lavender cloud, surrounded by the sweet pungency of exotic spice, she felt strangely comforted, warm and secure. With a drawn out sigh, relinquishing the last fibers of her inchoate thoughts, she succumbed to a deep and satisfying slumber.

No. 13 Grosvenor Square

As the Gardiners' party wove through an assorted collection of puddles, a fine mist of rain began to fall, covering the snaking line of carriages behind them with a subtle glitter. Greeted stiffly by a disdainful footman, they were hurriedly ushered past impeccably trimmed topiaries, rows of fluted columns, through an elaborately carved portico and deposited into a cramped anteroom. A crowd was already beginning to form. Two rows of black and gold liveried footmen flanked the entrance hall, like proud chessmen on the black and white marble floor.

The grand dining salon, the stage for Lady Catherine de Bourgh's intimate soirée in honour of her newly returned nephew, was situated on the second floor. Ascending the opulent staircase, Elizabeth was struck by the vast number of portraits flanking its walls, interspersed by gilded mirrors. Some were of Lady de Bourgh at her peak, others as a young girl - one particularly elaborate rendition had her posing as Diana, the Huntress. Lastly, almost as an afterthought, hung her wedding portrait.

Turning to her aunt, Elizabeth asked, "Tante Madeline, who is the little man in puce?"

Madeline Gardiner peered at the painting, at the shortish man clinging to his wife's arm - his face a picture of fear and disbelief, "Oh! That would be Lord de Bourgh. He died many years ago, no one quite knows of what."

Lady de Bourgh sat in the celadon drawing room, resplendent on a raised dais, swathed in yards of yellow satin and lace - a large canary diamond at her throat. Her skin appeared parchment-like, lined not in the gentle softness of women her age, but rather in the broad strokes of one unused to laughter. Black, beady eyes darted shiftily back and forth across the room. She reminded Elizabeth of a raven.

By her side stood a pear shaped man, dressed in multihued finery and festooned with chains and several pocket watches. He was supported by curiously thin black clad legs, lending him the appearance of a most colorful hen.

Charlotte bent her head toward her aunt and murmured, "The dandy by her side, that would be her second husband?"

Madeline whispered back, "Not at all. That, ma chérie, is Mr. Willie Collins, her lapdog. Do not cross him; his talent for gossip is as prodigious as his wardrobe." Elizabeth stifled a giggle; she so enjoyed her aunt's perceptive audacity.

"Madeline and Edward Gardiner!" The wrinkled woman rasped loudly, "Well, well, and your nieces, I presume," she added, intently eyeing each young woman.

"You," She pointed a gnarled, bejeweled finger at Charlotte, "Must be François Lucas' daughter. You have his regal bearing."

"And you," She narrowed her eyes accusingly toward Jane, "Are the reason our dear Charles Bingley has been rusticating in the country."

Elizabeth could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.

"Now, you are..." before Lady de Bourgh could continue, Elizabeth, interrupted,

"Miss Charlotte Lucas' cousin, just another country lass, of the lesser gentry, Lady de Bourgh. And sadly devoid of the Lucas regal bearing. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, and that of your fine entourage."

Lady de Bourgh's head snapped back in surprise and before she could respond, the party moved on beyond the dais, pushed along by a swelling tide of fawning well-wishers.

"Willie, find out the name of that impertinent chit for me," she hissed through gritted teeth.

As the group settled in a corner of the cavernous room, and the Gardiners were greeted by several acquaintances, the incident seemed to pass.

Elizabeth felt a gentling hand on her elbow, "Lizzie, she customarily treats everyone in such a fashion. Aunt Madeline forewarned me."

Elizabeth answered bitterly, "Don't you see Jane, we don't belong here. The only reason the Gardiners were worthy of an invitation, is uncle Edward's business ties to Earl Pemberton's shipping empire." Hesitantly she added, "Well, perhaps once you and Charles are married, you too will be accepted by her circle. She seems fond of him. But I certainly never will be a part of all this." Her eyes swept over the luxurious furnishings, the multitude of people, "And, neither do I wish to- as dazzling and magnificent as it all appears..." Her voice trailed off as she heard Jane catch her breath.

Elizabeth found herself under the smiling gaze of an astonishingly handsome man of rather imposing size. His reddish blond waves of hair seemed to form a halo about his head. Bending over, he deposited a lingering kiss on her sister's hand, holding it a little longer than convention allowed.

She desperately searched for a sour note in his looks, his manner, anything. But despite her valiant attempt, she failed. And such was the power of Charles Bingley, that she soon found herself melting under his warm azure- blue eyes and the honeyed tones of his voice.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet! Finally, we meet! I have heard the most wonderful tales... all delightful of course! I feel as if we've known each other for some time!"

By the time Charles and Jane made their way toward the refreshment table, Elizabeth was more than a little smitten and utterly charmed by Charles Bingley.

Chapter Six

Part Two

Momentarily alone, she scanned the room and observed a small commotion ripple through the crowd. William Darcy, the guest of honor had arrived. Bodies swarmed and jostled, like a pack of flies to honey, angling for a better glimpse, a word, a nod.

Stories of his exploits had filtered into London for years, now a lucky few could claim first person knowledge of the Earl. Starkly masculine in simple black and white formal wear, he stood a full head taller above the crowd; a magnetic saturnine presence.

Against the softer, paler crowd, his angular features seemed harshly delineated. Stepping into a shadowy corner, she observed him from afar. He moved with the grace of a god, impossibly assured, impossibly controlled, expertly navigating the throngs of well wishers - a nod here, a word there.

He drew and captured her awareness, until the crowd, the room itself faded from her mind. She moved out of the shadow, to catch a closer glimpse. Studying the deep-set eyes, she was struck by their foreign heavy-lidded singularity - the eyes of a Persian prince - down turned edges whispering of a distant melancholy, a hidden sadness. She wondered if anyone else noticed the Moorish blackness of his irises, his plangent aura. Then, as if catching himself, a curtain of icy control descended, the brooding Persian prince disappeared and the Englishman returned.

His gaze swept across the room, passing her over, as if she were not there. Strangely disappointed, she averted her eyes, and made her way toward a small party, with Charles at its center. It wasn't until her head was turned, that he let his eyes rivet back to her silk clad form and its tantalizingly sinuous sway. The hooded eyes closed momentarily, as if savouring a cherished memory.

Charles beamed at Elizabeth's approaching figure, motioning to a rakishly elegant Richard Fitzwilliam, he said,

"Allow me to introduce an old friend of mine, we served in India together, Viscount Matlock, Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Tilting her head up at the tall, lanky man, she smiled politely, "Is there a height requirement for joining the Indian Army, your lordship?"

Richard Fitzwilliam laughed heartily, his grey eyes sparkling in the candlelight. His manner was open, amused, and devil-may-care. She felt positively blinded by his vibrant energy. Richard's attention, when focused on females, was notorious for its rousing potency. Patently aware of its seductive strength, he had refined it over the years, tuning it to an exquisite pitch few could resist.

Richard thrived on the excitement of possibility. What made his heart beat, his pulse thrill, was not what might happen but what, despite all appearances, would not. He lived on empty promises, creating and weaving intricate webs, with women at their very centers, then walking away.

"How very astute of you, Miss Bennet. I assure you, though height is not a requirement for service in India, on more than one occasion, it has proven to be a distinct advantage."

As the Gardiners and Charlotte joined their growing group, further introductions ensued. Through the banter, light talk, tinkling laughter, Richard eyed Charlotte appraisingly.

He'd noticed her earlier, a tall woman with a curious walk; regal and stiff through the hips, as if purposefully distancing the world with her stride. Oh to loosen up the unyielding rigidity of those very hips...

Stay away, another voice whispered deep inside, she's virgin territory.

His tastes ran to the neglected wives of the ton, an occasional actress, a high-priced courtesan but rarely young virgins. Though his bedroom prowess was legendary, he was not in the business of deflowering young maidens. To his practiced eye, despite her coolness of manner, Charlotte was as yet unplucked and therefore off limits.

Nonetheless, he could still play the game, a very little.

Sauntering up to her, the outline of his breeches leaving little room for speculation, and an indolent smile gracing his handsome face, he drawled,

"Half-filled with radiant heat, the other half full of ice..."

"I beg you pardon, my lord?"

"I see you are carrying both a shawl and a fan...Do you enjoy extremes in climate? Or perhaps we are both expecting hot and cold this evening, Miss Lucas?"

Meeting his grey eyes head-on, she countered smoothly,

"On the contrary, my lord, one must be prepared for every eventuality, 'tis the mark of an evolved individual, n'est-ce-pas? It appears to me that it is your lordship who has been caught unawares by the climatic extremes this evening."

Expertly snapping open her fan, she said breezily, "Elizabeth, let us take a turn about the room, it has suddenly become a little warm here."

The two women sashayed away, leaving an amused and mildly intrigued Richard Fitzwilliam behind.

"He is entirely too dangerous," Elizabeth whispered.

Charlotte shook her head in disdain, "Ah... rakes. They amuse."

Dinner was announced and the bejeweled, perfumed, colorful mass slowly trickled into the awaiting dining room.

All around William people were conversing, their voices a lilting hum filling the room's yawning proportions. They were seated at long tables, covered in creamy linen, set with gleaming silver and goblets of wine that sparkled crimson and scarlet through the cut planes of crystal. Gilded candelabras teetered precariously in clusters of roses and gardenias, emanating a pungent perfume and shimmering candlelight. Chandeliers strung with hundreds of candles, dangled like magnificent pendants over the crowd. Their ambient light was reflected in bared collarbones, the clefts of women's breasts, the bright facets of their jewels, their eyes. Complexions glowed, illuminating the plainest of guests. The entire effect was stunning.

Amidst the light, sat William Darcy, dark eyes masking all true thoughts - halfheartedly listening to Willie Collins' banter. Across from him, partially shaded by an elaborate floral arrangement, fidgeted Caroline Bingley, lips set in a thin line, eyelashes batting rapidly, as if blinking away her despair. She could hardly tear her eyes away from the dark man.

She had been a mere girl of sixteen when he had departed for India. Sixteen and madly in love with the young William Darcy. Charles' return, his stories of their adventures, his frank respect and admiration for the man had raised what had been a young girl's dream into a dangerous fantasy, an obsession of gargantuan proportions. And now he had returned, a dark, mysterious, devastatingly handsome man. And she was lost.

As course after course was served, he had looked right through her, as if she were transparent, as if she did not exist. With every minute trickling by, she felt her heart sinking further into empty despondency, made worse by Charles' apparent infatuation with his latest conquest. The blond country lass.

Plates, silverware and crystal glasses were whisked away by hovering servers, replaced by more of the same, in a silently orchestrated ballet. Time seemed to stretch and strain interminably, until the head butler cleared his throat and announced officiously,

"Chef Michelin presents his dessert creation, in honor of Lord Pemberton's return to England, the Maharajah's Meringue!"

Louisa clapped her hands in delight, as two servers wheeled in a silver trolley atop which sat a three foot confection in the shape of a mountain; mounds of whipped cream, and meringue topped with candied flower petals.

"Look, Caroline! Little chocolate men on horseback at its base! How quaint! A veritable work of art!"

Voices oohed and aahed, heads turned toward the mountain of sugar and cream and its creator, a rotund French man, bowing ceremoniously.

At that very moment, Elizabeth chose to look at William across the room, and found herself caught in a piercing dark gaze. His lips seemed to curve almost imperceptibly, into a smile, as if sharing a private moment with her, tinged with wry humor at the enfolding spectacle. Their eyes met, locked and held. They appeared drawn by a primeval disturbance, two souls communicating with one another through the tiny spark of a moment's gaze. Caroline followed the path of William's eyes, to where it ended far down the table. Like the voyeur of a clandestine meeting, she was shocked by the intensity of the shared communication.

Elizabeth's jaw ached from mandatory smiles, her temple throbbed from want of fresh air in the crowded room, she needed to breathe. And now she found herself ensnared in a silent gaze by that man. She felt strangely trapped in a foreign awareness; the possibility that he could fathom her thoughts and through his expression, his look, somehow shape them. The realization, to her consternation, was not without pleasure or anticipation.

The sound of Jane's voice nearby pierced through her trance-like state. She looked away, angry with herself for being the first one to break their silent interplay. As the gentlemen regrouped for cigars and port, and the ladies repaired to the drawing room, she extricated herself from the maddening crush and escaped to a terrace off the dining room.

The rain had stopped and cleared any heaviness permeating the evening air. The night felt cool and crisp, blessedly refreshing. Braced against the balcony railing, she gulped its fresh sweetness, drinking it in and feeling the previously oppressive tension ebb away from her shoulders. Suddenly, a deep voice echoed behind her.

"I see we are of the same mind, Miss Bennet."

A familiar voice.

"I... was in need of fresh air, it was..." she stammered, aware of the closeness of his form, his scent; spices, bergamot...

"Stifling in there, was it not?" He finished for her. "You did not ride this morning," he stated, his tone almost accusatory.

She frowned at him, not understanding, "But it was raining."

"Ah, what is a little rain, Miss Bennet, for someone like yourself?" She opened her mouth to reply and he moved closer still, the scent, heady and exotic, filled her nostrils.

Angling for something to say, she offered, "What an honour... having a dessert created to commemorate your exploits in India."

"In truth, Miss Bennet, I live in dread of such moments, of audiences, false pretenses - it's all rather meaningless, don't you think?"

She was taken aback by his frank admission,"How cynical of you, my Lord."

Edging closer still, he took in her youthfulness, her innocence. The Persian eyes returned, "You'll find that cynicism is rampant in this world, Miss Bennet."

His voice became low and husky, "You returned the shawl. Why?"

She moved away a step, and raised her chin defiantly, "I am not in the habit of accepting gifts from gentlemen. Surely you must understand."

"I assure you, it was meant merely as a replacement."

She shook her head, "I'm afraid we're at an impasse, your lordship."

"Then I shall wait patiently, along with the shawl, until you change your mind."

She squared her shoulders resolutely, "I rarely reverse my decisions, or my opinion."

"How curious, Miss Bennet, neither do I."

A heavy silence ensued. She breached it first, "It was a lovely shawl, a work of art, truly."

He leaned against the balustrade, supported by one elbow, hips thrust out, and watched her intently, "There exists an ancient Indian tale about Kashmiri shawls. Would you like to hear it?"

She smiled tentatively. Perhaps.

He began, his voice low and deep. "It is said the first shawl was born of the loom of a fanciful weaver,"

His maleness, the exotic dangerous strength of him began assaulting her senses.

" One day, he dreamt of Woman...The shimmer of her tears, the drape of her tumbling hair..."

She felt strangely lulled by the seductive hoarseness of his voice. He paused, she held her breath, then, he continued,

"The color of her many moods, the softness of her touch..."

Leaning toward her, he gently fingered a loose ringlet of hair. She stood riveted by his touch, his nearness, her senses shouting incoherent words.

"And all these , he wove together."

Letting the ringlet escape from his hand, he ran his thumb along the curved line of her jaw, his fingertip was cool beneath her chin, and his eyes were hot.

"He couldn't stop. He wove for many yards. And when he was done, he sat back and smiled..."

He rested his thumb lightly on the soft fleshiness of her lips.

"And smiled..."

Slowly, as if in a trance, she opened her lips and flicked his skin, with her tongue. The husky voice deepened.

"And smiled."*

Languorously, he drew away. Raising her gloved hand; he turned it over and placed a kiss on her covered wrist, her hidden pulse. Beneath the dark curtain of his lashes, his eyes swept over her hair, grazed over her lips... aphrodisia.

Summoning his fraying mastery, he lowered his voice to an intimate whisper, soft like the rustle of sheets.

"And thusly... Ends the story of the shawl. Good night, Miss Bennet."

She was left alone on the misty terrace, heart pounding with a primal rhythm at her throat, terrified, exhilarated, torn... the taste of him lingering on her tongue.

** Ancient Indian tale based on the creation of the Sari, altered for purposes of this story.

Chapter Seven: Part One

The man who is ingenious and wise, who is accompanied by a friend, and who knows the intentions of others, as also the proper time and place for doing everything, can gain over, very easily, even a woman who is very hard to be obtained.

Kama Sutra: (Chapter V; Of Friends and Messengers)

She wandered back toward the hum of voices filtering from the drawing room. Her steps were slow, almost meditative in their deliberate nature. No, she wouldn't even think of her reaction to the taste of him. A curious tingle seemed to have insinuated itself under her skin, it hovered there; a poised and persistent thrum, begging for attention. The sensation was heady, disconcerting and tinted with a hint of shame.

She halted by an open doorway flanked by two footmen clad in red and gold; a colorful frame for the teeming mass of after-dinner guests beyond. Satiated on fine wines and rich food, the crowd's conversation had mellowed to a low-pitched murmur, like the contented purring of a cat. Her eyes scanned the gaudy throng of bejeweled gowns, pale faces, and fashionably jaded expressions. He was standing by a window, midnight black hair bending toward Richard Fitzwilliam, in apparent deep conversation.

The feeling was worse than she had imagined - she couldn't tear her gaze away from him, despite the very real knowledge, the agonizing conviction, that it would be prudent to do so. She felt cruelly suspended between caution and adventure, ill balanced, her footing precarious. Oh! How she hated being placed in such a position by someone else, by a man, by any man.

The grossly insulting impropriety of his behavior toward her grew - and she felt her temper unfold. She sensed it spreading its wings. She willed to drag it back into submission, some semblance of self-control, but it flew free, and ignited into a roaring blaze. Shoulders squared, mind steeled for battle, she marched into the unsuspecting tableau - only to glimpse him disappearing through an archway, with Viscount Matlock following close at his heels.

~ * ~

He'd seen her standing by the doorway, her hands fidgeting with her fan - the only indicator marring her mask of self-assurance.

He was at a complete loss.

Part of him desperately wanted her - the other wanted what was good for her. Within the complex battleground of his mind, the two entities prepared for a formidable duel. He felt drenched in the sensual memory of her skin, her lips, the momentary flicker of her tongue. Predatory desire stretched itself to its full length, and challenged the hunter, the gatherer, mocking and taunting the net of logic, discipline and well-laid plans, which had protected him in the past. And he did not know why. Why this young ingénue should suddenly disturb his much vaunted equilibrium. The reason behind his uncharacteristic behavior and his disordered thoughts, that maddeningly elusive sub-text, lay outside of his reach. And it tormented him to no end.

He forced himself to concentrate on Richard's words.

"I fail to see why Charles must propose to her this very evening. Why, it goes against the man's supposedly romantic nature. The very essence of romance is ambiguity, the unknown. With one simple question, all romance vanishes!"

Darcy regarded his friend with sardonic amusement. "I fail to see the logic in your argument, Wolf. Perhaps it's clouded by your impending loss at White's Betting Book?"

Richard raised his champagne flute in a mock toast, "Touché, my friend. My loss and hundreds of others'! Who would have thought, Bingley, ensnared by a mere blonde country lass."

"Don't underestimate the power of innocence, my friend."

"Ah. Innocence... a rare commodity among the ton." His eyes roamed the room, alighting on Charlotte's form. She caught his gaze and once again he raised his glass, this time, in a taunting salute. With a Gallic shrug of her shoulders, she turned away.

Richard continued, "I should have known... Bingley's very pulse beats matrimony. The odds were always in his favor. We've been had." Sighing deeply, he shook his head. " I for one, refuse to be leg-shackled. The trouble with wedlock, you see, is that there is not enough wedding and too much locking - out."

Darcy raised a fine dark eyebrow at his friend. "You have no plans to marry, Wolf? What of the estate?"

"In due time, my man, when I am old and gray. Until then I shall happily travel alone, while sampling London's finest delicacies. Nothing in the world compares to the heartfelt devotion of married women. A fact lost on most married men. "

As the two men continued to be uninterrupted in their conversation, Darcy cleared his throat and asked,

"Tell me, Wolf, if a woman is given - say - a gift, these days, is it bound to be misconstrued in any way?" Richard's eyebrows flew up in astonishment. William Darcy, his old commander, asking him a question concerning proper deportment? Most intriguing.

Shrewdly narrowing his eyes, he enquired, "Who is she? An actress... no...not your style... a courtesan... You always did move swiftly, Panther, but this sets a new record. Barely two weeks and you have one hooked! Or are we talking of more than one?"

William shot him an annoyed look. "I don't deal in multiples, that is your claim to fame. She's an acquaintance. Nothing more."

Richard smirked, "If she is not family or your betrothed- and even you cannot act that quickly - then a gift is decidedly a faux pas, my man. Your time in India seems to have clouded any social acumen you may have possessed."

William muttered under his breath, "Hell, Bonaparte gifted Josephine with several Kashmir shawls..."

Richard burst out laughing, "Right, and look what happened to him!" After a pause, he added softly, "Who is your Josephine, Panther?"

To William's relief, at that very instant, a disquieting sight caught his trained eye. Earlier in the evening he had observed the same footman approaching several people, one by one. William could not help but note the urgency of his manner, his walk. Now, the very same man was darting hurriedly out of the drawing room. He had shared his observations with Richard and the two had kept a close eye on him throughout the evening.

"Are you thinking what I am thinking?" William asked, his tone alert.

"Strikes me as a somewhat irregular activity at a soirée such as this. Think something's afoot?"

William nodded his head, "I can't quite place my finger on it. But there appears to be trouble brewing. Come, let's follow the man." Matrimony, Bonaparte and Josephine were quickly forgotten as the two men strode out of the room.

~ * ~

Charles clicked the lock softly into place, and turned around to study Jane. She sat demurely on a blue velvet chaise-lounge in the secluded salon, settling her skirts delicately about her. He stood by the door, arms crossed on his chest and beamed. The look was suffused with such love and sheer delight, that Jane's breath hitched, and became shallower in anticipation of his next move. But he stayed still.

Several minutes passed.

He continued standing, gazing at her, as if contemplating a work of art, overcome by its beauty. His dream had become reality, and reality sat in the flesh but a few feet away from him. Charles Bingley, the gentle giant, was completely overwhelmed. Softly, she asked,

"Charles, I am a living breathing being... darling."

He opened his mouth as if to speak - shut it - and shook his head. Jane smiled at him in encouragement. Finally, he took a few steps and knelt on one knee by her side.

"Sweeting, please forgive me, I wanted to commit this moment to memory. To remember the shine in your eyes, the smile on your lips, the lovely way your fingers flit about your skirts."

He bent toward her, grasping her delicate fingers in his hand, his thumb circling over her skin. She found the warm hypnotic motion of his skin on hers, delicious. He continued, his voice low and hoarse.

"I love you, only you. I love you to the level of every day's most quiet need.... Jane, angel of mine, will you consent to be my wife?"

She drank in his earnest face, the handsome features framed by a halo of reddish -blond waves softly backlit by candlelight. Momentarily, she hesitated, and took a step back in her mind, reculer pour mieux sauter... He embodied a clarity of soul almost blinding in its luminescence. His promise of love, security and friendship beckoned, and pulled her in. And so Jane leapt into the light, into the warmth of his promise and she did so without looking back. Reaching out, she stroked his cheek, the gentle planes of his flesh, and answered softly,

"Yes, my love."

She waited, expectant. Overcome by emotion, Charles did not hear her answer; rather, he read it in her eyes, in the touch of her fingers over his skin.

Raising himself, he angled his body over hers and lowered her onto the blue velvet, following her down. Melding himself to her soft curves. She knew his body was hard and muscular, but she'd never had it pressed against her, limb against limb, down her entire length. The sensation was both shocking and tantalizing in its intimacy.

She became enveloped in feather light kisses on her temple, her forehead, on her lips. Charles kissed her with a passion far removed from their stolen kisses in the country. He took her mouth in a hot, heated rush, a sweetly primitive ravishment that left her senses reeling. And so they kissed, taking, giving, and haltingly pausing for breath.

Ensnared by her burgeoning passion, Jane was unable and unwilling to contain it. Tentatively at first, then with growing urgency, she matched his deep kisses, the loving caresses of his skilled hands, savoring, enticing, then indulging once again. The surging wave washed back and forth; hot tide rising steadily between them. She opened her eyes and met his, only inches away. Their gazes flickered in unison toward the locked door. Her lids fell; searching lips met hungrily again, and the tide rose higher.

Jane was sure she was on fire, every fiber of her being aroused into a bright burning flame. Head tilted back, fingers sinking into Charles' hair, she gasped as she felt his lips slide from her own, trace her jaw, and settle at her throat. Gasped once again, as he found the pulse at the base of her throat, and licked. Her breathing fractured as he trailed lower, between her breasts. She arched her back, graceful, swan-like, eager for more.

His hands shifted to her waist; strong, powerful hands, expert in their deliberate movements. He tightened them strongly about her slender form, clinching her, and then both hands slowly slid upward. A sinuous tantalizing glide, brushing, and finally closing about her breasts.

A low rumble of satisfaction escaped from deep within him. Her slender form had belied the curvaceous woman beneath. She raised her head, recapturing his lips, and he tasted her again, tasted her newfound delight as his thumbs cruised gently over the blue silk of her gown, over and over her nipples, relishing her response.

She felt him glance at her and opened her eyes. His hands eased, and he smiled a beguiling smile, asking for permission, to go further... She smiled back.

Not a word was spoken.

His long fingers reached with surprising delicacy for her neckline, and slipped beneath. A part of her brain shouted in protest; she shut it out, locked it away, compass and all.

Her breasts felt full, heavy and swollen. He eased the thin silk down her shoulders and let it pool about her waist. Lovingly sweeping his gaze over her face, he reached for the bow securing her chemise. It was a plain white satin bow, which gave easily; one tug and it broke free.

He hesitated, letting his hand fall away from the dangling ribbon. She caught his gaze and grasping the edge of fine linen, slowly drew it down. His eyes followed the path of falling away white, and rested on the pale pink skin revealed beneath. She saw the intense concentration on his face as he raised one hand and delicately trailed his fingers over her naked breast. He circled round and round, until she was panting, aching hot.

"Charles, please," she whispered.

He complied with her demand, filling both his hands, closing his fingers around her heated flesh, gently at first, then tighter. A softly pleading moan escaped her lips.

"Shhhh..." his voice soothed.

He kissed her lips deeply; deeper than before, as if all their previous kisses were a mere prelude to what was about to follow. He drew back and left her suspended for an exquisite moment. Then, swooping down, his lips touched her warm skin, drawing the soft flesh into his mouth.

She tensed. He suckled, and she lost the rhythm of her breathing.

Sensation grew, peaked, and became unendurable. He drank in her growing tension, reveling in the sensual arch of her back, the innocently demanding pressure of her hips against his groin. Momentarily he raised his head, and a satisfied grin spread across his handsome face. Then, amidst a gentle mewling of protest, he switched to the other side, repeating his sensual assault, while his hand possessively cupped and stroked his newfound treasure.

Charles feasted, lost in a great warm void of pleasure and she followed, spinning down along with him, in an exquisite flight of abandon.

Chapter Seven: Part Two

William and Richard followed the weaving footman, down a darkened hallway, toward a far door. They watched him fumble in his pockets, retrieve a key and place it in the door's outer lock. Without a backward glance, he disappeared into the endless maze of the mansion's passageways.

With stealthy fluid grace, both men approached the door. Darcy turned to Richard,

"Ready?"

Richard nodded his consent.

Darcy turned the key and opened the door, leaning in to reconnoiter the room, Richard a pace behind him.

In the hazy luminosity of the small salon - a most astonishing tableau greeted both men. One, which would sear onto their minds for many nights to come.

Recumbent on a blue velvet chaise lay the splendid form of Jane Bennet, seductively bared from the waist up- eyes closed and head tilted back in apparent rapture. Charles' profile hovered, suspended, like a hummingbird above a honeyed flower, poised over the tip of a perfectly plump and rounded breast.

Clearing his throat loudly, Darcy swung around to block Richard's view. But it was too late. The rake was regaled with a delicious view and chuckled behind him. In the split second it took for both men to back out of the room, Charles lifted his head, and met their eyes with a look of pure shock. As the door closed, both men turned and came face to face with Lady de Bourgh, Mr. Gardiner, and a trailing, huffing and puffing Mr. Collins.

With a decidedly annoyed expression pasted on her face, Lady de Bourgh demanded icily,

"And what, pray tell me, is the meaning of this, William? Why have I been called out of my soiree, to attend a meeting in the blue salon? Most inopportune timing."

Darcy's mind ran swiftly through the recent series of events. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a flash of orange silk ducking into a nearby passage. And a most unpleasant realization dawned on him,

"Why, my dearest aunt, I haven't the slightest idea. As for Richard and I, we were taking our leave of Mr. Bingley and Miss Jane Bennet - congratulating them on their impending nuptials. They should be out momentarily," he added, raising his voice.

"Bingley? Proposal? Kindly enlighten me!" she spit out vehemently.

Charles chose this moment to open the door, only to be shocked once again. This time, a veritable crowd greeted the astounded man. Behind him, the sitting form of Jane could be glimpsed, eyes-cast down, cheeks flaming red.

Before anyone could utter a single word, Darcy turned toward his friend and shook his hand with such forceful pressure, that Bingley winced.

"Charles, let me felicitate you, once again, on your impending marriage."

"Good show, my man." Richard reached over and clapped Charles on the back.

Lady de Bourgh peered from one face to another, most displeased with the recent turn of events. Resignedly, she sighed.

"Well, I suppose we should return to the drawing room. Let me add that I do not take pleasure in surprises. This was intended to be Lord Pemberton's soirée, and not an engagement celebration. Nothing will rain on my nephew's parade. I simply forbid it. Mr. Bingley, before you take your leave this evening, I would like to have a word with you. That is all." She swung round in rustle of yellow satin, motioning for Mr. Collins to follow.

Mr. Collins eyed Bingley pointedly, "I will have you know that I am now two hundred pounds lighter because of all this."

"You too Collins?" Richard smirked.

As the illustrious duo disappeared down the hallway, Edward Gardiner asked in a quiet voice, his countenance serious and somewhat reproachful.

"I trust everything was in order, Earl Pemberton, when you... aah... congratulated Mr. Bingley and Jane on their impending nuptials."

"Everything was as expected, Edward," Darcy announced, his tone permitting little room for speculation.

Sighing heavily, Edward leaned past the door- jamb and gave his niece a perceptive look.

"Well, in that case, dearest Jane, Charles - you have my heartfelt wishes for a happy future. I presume you will be leaving for Longbourn soon?"

'In a fortnight, Mr. Gardiner." Charles responded, having finally found his voice. "I intend to speak to Mr. Bennet very soon, indeed," he added in grateful tone, "Thank you sir, for your kind wishes."

Edward Gardiner took his leave, unsure of what precisely he had witnessed. His experience and wisdom told him to leave it be. Bingley was an excellent match for Jane. He had an uncomfortable feeling that William was shielding his friend. If that were so, Bingley could not have found a more powerful protector. Edward trusted and respected William Darcy, and because of this very fact, he chose to quiet his doubts and enjoy the last of the evening. He would ask Madeline to speak to Jane; after all, women's matters had never been his forte.

As Edward's form receded from view, Charles slumped against the wall, looking as if he'd been emotionally flayed. Jane rose and stood rigid, flushed - her eyes clouded with turmoil and brimming with tears.

An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Darcy grappled with a swirl of mixed emotions; his reaction to the unfortunate incident would have far reaching effects. He could feel her pain, her mortification and somewhere, within the walled fortress of his heart, a surge of sympathy at her plight welled up and grew.

She and Charles, had been most certainly the intended victims of a well-thought out plan to cast aspersions on her character. Though the couple's actions had been less than prudent, his role was not to pass judgment on their indiscretion. Turning toward Jane, he lifted her hand with such gentle consideration, that momentarily her breath was taken away. He deposited a courteous, respectful kiss on her hand.

"Miss Bennet, My heartfelt congratulations on your proposal. Charles is the very best of men, and a long time friend of mine. From what I have heard, he is also the luckiest of men to have found such a lovely future wife."

He could feel Jane's hand relax its clenched tension. "As far as the small incident earlier this evening, please believe me, 'tis already forgotten and in no way has altered my good opinion of yourself. I will also personally vouch," he threw a meaningful stare at Richard, " that no word of this shall taint the happiness which you both deserve. If I can be of any assistance in the future, please, do not hesitate to call on me. Good evening, Miss Bennet."

Jane held back her tears and smiled.

He was suddenly blinded by the resemblance between sisters. Swallowing hard, he turned to face Charles and was crushed in a massive bear hug, as the other man huskily said to him, "Thank you."

Richard Fitzwilliam stood, mouth agape, startled not at having witnessed the compromising situation, but rather, at William Darcy's reaction to the events. Finally regaining his footing, he drawled,

"Well, I don't think I can stand much more drama this evening. Shall we return to the awaiting crowd, before the gossips set their tongues wagging?"

Firmly grasping both Charles and Jane by the elbows, he navigated the somewhat stunned duo back toward the drawing room.

Darcy waved them on, suddenly needing a few minutes of quiet to gather his thoughts. The pair disappeared down the hallway, Fitzwilliam anchoring each one. The brilliance of their earlier bliss, their happiness, had become slightly dulled, but its essence remained nonetheless intact.

Left to himself, William felt enveloped in wistful melancholy. His friend's newfound happiness served as a bittersweet reminder of an aching void in his own life.

He began walking back, footsteps echoing hollowly on the marble floors, and turning around an archway, suddenly collided with a seething, flying mass of silk and chestnut waves. Elizabeth. Steadying her by the shoulders to prevent a fall, he felt a surge of startling energy beneath his fingers.

"Miss Bennet, we meet again."

"Unhand me, your lordship." An icy voice commanded, in complete contrast to the heat beneath his skin. He released his hold. She continued, her eyes blazing with fury, " I wish to speak to you in private. Now."

"I believe there is no one about, at present," he answered, slightly amused.

"I will speak in truths, Lord Pemberton. It is my express wish to never experience a repetition of the incident on the balcony this evening."

"You found the incident, unpleasant? Miss Bennet?" he asked, a patronizing edge to his voice, as if he was privy to some inside knowledge she had yet to attain.

She clenched her fingers around her fan, fighting the urge to hit him with it. Narrowing her eyes, she demanded,

"What are you about?"

A pair of finely carved brows rose in unison, "About, Miss Bennet?"

"Yes, precisely what do you hope to gain from me?"

He tilted his head, eyeing her intently. Several recourses lay ranged before him - impulsively choosing the riskier one, he forged on.

"To be completely frank, Miss Bennet, I am unsure. We seem to meet in the most interesting circumstances and I am beginning to wonder if perhaps there is not a greater power at work here."

She'd anticipated several responses - but not this one. Unsure of his intended meaning, feeling herself losing ground, and losing the edge of her anger, she changed tacks.

"I refuse to be dictated to, where that shawl is concerned."

"Once again, the intent was innocent. If I have offended you by my actions, I offer my sincerest apologies. "

She lifted her chin defiantly, "The timing of your apology leaves much to be desired, my lord."

The woman was incredibly stubborn! Exasperated by the turn of the entire evening, William countered sarcastically,

"You appear to be demonstrating a certain rigidity of thinking, Miss Bennet. How surprising, I would have thought you more progressive in this area."

The tone of his voice, the words themselves, rekindled her anger. It boiled and spilled over with a splash. She blurted out,

"A young lady does not accept gifts from gentlemen, your lordship. It is a mark of poor breeding or worse. You speak of progressiveness, yet your actions and words are insulting and serve to remind me of how little true choice I have in life. I find you offensive, presumptuous, and unbearably self-opinionated, Lord Pemberton. How surprising, I would have thought someone with your wide experience and stature would not deliberately take advantage of an innocent woman. I now see that I was sadly mistaken. Good evening, my lord."

In a furious swirl of silk skirts, she sashayed down the hallway, leaving William Darcy feeling as if he'd been caught in a particularly savage sand storm, without cover, in the middle of the desert.

Chapter Eight: Part One

"A wise woman should only renew her connection with a former lover if she is satisfied that good fortune, gain, love and friendship are likely the result of such a reunion."

Kama Sutra: (Chapter IV: About Reunion With A Former Lover)

Simla, Northern India.

Ensconced in the Himalayan foothills, the town of Simla, with its cool and moderate climate, offered a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of the mainland. Shaded glens and sylvan glades wove down in graceful slopes to cultivated valleys below. Snow covered Himalayan peaks towered to the North, while pine-scented forests spilled onto foothills dotted with scarlet rhododendrons run wild.

What had been primitive wilderness once long ago, was slowly being invaded by all manner of Britishness. A steady European influx was flexing its persuasive muscle, altering the natural landscape with new architecture, hosts of galas, burra-khanas, and grand fairs. Its temperate climate and proximity to strategic mountain corridors had entrenched Simla as the summer capital of the Indian Government and the year round base of the Chief Command of the Indian Army, yet amidst the frolic and frivolity, government work had to be done. As with any bureaucratic machine, the work continued day and night, rarely grinding to a halt. Hidden beneath the superficial bureaucratic cliques, coteries and their attendant insignificant intrigues, the town possessed a darker side; it was whispered that Simla's walls had eyes, ears and tongues.

Colonel Henry Wotherington, Director of Military Intelligence, sat drumming his fingers in an impatient staccato on the gleaming surface of his ordered desk. Surrounded by stuffed leather chairs, unadorned carpets, wall maps and military memorabilia, the room spoke of an efficient, masculine air. A side door opened silently admitting a whiskered officer.

"You're late Benchley. What news?"

The underling saluted smartly and pausing for a deep breath, began speaking.

"He is in London by our calculations, putting his affairs in order. All operatives have been placed on alert since our last dispatch."

"What of the girl?" Wotherington asked sharply.

"She has been debriefed, sir, and is now retired from official duty."

Wotherington stroked his cheek pensively, "A most unfortunate incident... when is her confinement?"

"It is expected in six months sir. We... have been unable to confirm the identity of the father."

Wotherington grunted in response, his swift mind attacking the next issue at hand.

"What of the maps?"

Colonel Benchley's colour rose, he stared fixedly at the ground.

"They are, once again, in our possession, sir."

"It took us- what- three years to retrieve them?" Colonel Wotherington spit out at his underling. "One hell of an embarrassment for our department Benchley! And they're bloody worthless at this point, with every Russian officer worth his salt having had three years to explore the secret pass they've been itching to control for years. The Great Game has made us all look like Great Fools, my man! We should count our lucky stars that the Home Office hasn't collapsed the entire project. We could have been cashiered, you know, sent to toil in the kitchens of some remote Punjabi regiment."

Colonel Benchley's colour rose to a crimson shade, "There is a new, unfortunate development, sir."

"You have my undivided attention," the other man replied caustically.

"The maps - appear to be inauthentic. Professor Kilman has verified that they are forgeries of the most exceptional calibre."

"WHAT! Well I'll be damned! Who the blazes has the originals then? We've..."

"S-s-sir" Benchley stammered, "If I may interrupt, we believe he has them in his possession..."

Colonel Worthington's head snapped up.

"Well, this is a fine bloody mess we have on our hands, Benchley."

"Sir?"

"Let me enlighten you, if what you say is correct, The Game is being played out in London as we speak. It remains to be seen who gets to the documents first, if at all."

"I suppose all we can do is wait and see, sir." Benchley answered in a diminutive tone, wishing to disappear into the woodwork.

Bracing both arms on his massive desk, Wotherington leaned toward his subordinate and locked him in a steely gaze.

"You are stating the obvious Benchley; please don't insult my intelligence any further. Have Decker contact the General immediately, tell him we have a situation. Dismissed."

Portnam Square, London.

"Sahib, the mem-sahibs have arrived," Ranjit announced quietly.

William looked up at the sound of his servant's voice, his face shadowed by the flickering flames of waning candlelight. His eyes appeared strained and fatigued, the result of enforced hours spent burying his mind amidst the convoluted details of his business affairs.

"You missed your Kalari exercises, sahib. Shall we restart tomorrow?" Ranjit enquired, a note of admonishment in his tone.

William raised his brows in sardonic amusement, "Who is the true master here, Ranjit?"

The older man remained calm, dignified, his expression unfathomable.

"Shall I escort them into the study?"

Raising himself to his full height, William stretched his broad shoulders, and tiredly rubbed the stiffness at the back of his neck. "No, no, give me a moment."

Weighted down by a deadly anticipation, he strode into the grand hallway.

She stood fidgeting with the ribbons of her bonnet while it dangled gracelessly from her slender hand. He stepped into the light and her eyes suddenly widened, like the eyes of a startled doe; gentle eyes, the colour of gray blue rain, brimming with inchoate emotions.

The moment hung suspended, heavy, ponderous, charged with the passage of eight years.

She had been nine years old, a pixie of a girl, when he left and now... she was in the first bloom of womanhood. William was overcome with feeling at the sight of her. She was graceful, willowy, reminding him of the swaying bough of a poplar tree.

Eight years of letters, laboriously transported across oceans, had nurtured a delicate bond between brother and sister. Each had created an illusory image of the other, gleaned from descriptions here, conjectures there, transferring buried hopes, ideals, from one to the other. And with his first glimpse, he realized he'd frozen her in his mind as a little gamine, and was jarred by the lithe and ethereal beauty of her. She had nothing of their mother, owing her wispy elegance to some generous ancestor, and for that, he was immeasurably grateful.

She, in turn, had drawn him in her mind as larger than life, a mythical hero high on a pedestal, and was shocked to find him possessing human proportions. Yes, he was dark and imposing, but not the giant she had feared in her dreams. And with sudden sadness, she realized he was the very image of their father.

The recognition lasted but a few moments, yet it felt like hours. Suddenly the bonnet was flung in the air, its ribbons cascading in a balletic freefall as it alighted on the marble floor.

"William!" She exclaimed and hurled herself across the expanse of bare marble, into his awaiting arms.

"Georgiana..." he whispered softly, enveloping his arms about her slender form, stroking her hair, his heart breaking open with a wrenching, piercing pain. He tightened his protective hold on her and she buried her face into his broad frame. And so they stood, clasped, enfolded in one another.

Ranjit backed away without a sound, leaving the duo to savour the exquisitely bittersweet emotions elicited by their reunion.

Minutes trickled by, punctuated by the hushed ticking of the carved grandfather clock standing sentinel-like in a corner of the hallway. As she wept quietly, he attempted to absorb her tears. Instead, he found himself caught in a tide of pooled sorrows. The effect of his absence on her life hit him with cruel force. A deep guilt began insinuating itself into his being, amplifying the earlier pain into a harsh and ruthless reality.

The clock's chimes resounded about them and he raised his head, remembering with a jarring shock that they were not alone.

Above his sister's ash blond tresses, he witnessed himself reflected in the cool, icy stare of another woman: the widowed Helena, Lady Pemberton, his stepmother.

As warm and soft as Georgiana felt in his arms, the woman staring back at him was arctic coldness; a northern wind, biting and chilling. Swathed in layers of black bombazine, hair severely pulled back from her face, she was the picture of propriety; a grieving widow. Yet, to William, the sober dress, its severe cut, only served to accent the pearly sheen of her pallor and her devastating Slavic beauty.

With an inward shudder, he readied himself for battle. She spoke first, her accent thick, foreign, untainted by English gentility.

"It has been a long time, William."

Challenging her gaze head-on, he answered tonelessly,

"Indeed, it has, Helena."

~ * ~

Later, that very evening, Georgiana lay buried under a voluminous array of feathered quilts and bed coverings, her long blond braid snaking down and disappearing under a mass of whiteness, while he sat by her bedside.

Dinner had proven less arduous than anticipated as Georgiana was brimming with questions about India, and Helena maintained a semblance of civility. He noted that both women vied for his attention; one in a subtle underhanded way, the other, with childish exuberance. Some of his earlier guilt had receded into a recessed corner of his mind as he observed the polite and courteous exchanges between both women. They had reached a truce, a common understanding, one he could not quite grasp as it lay within the boundaries of a world still unfamiliar to him.

"One more story, William..." she begged in a voice heavy with sleep. " ...about the Bengal tigress... or the scar on your chin..."

He stretched his long legs out before him with a stifled groan, and ran his hand through his hair, a wavy strand falling across his forehead. She had knocked on his door an hour earlier, unable to get to sleep and he'd followed her back to her chamber, reprising what had been an old childhood ritual, the telling of stories.

"I seem to recall having written about those already," he answered, smiling indulgently in her direction.

She peeked at him from her mountain of downy warmth. Clad in a loose fitting white shirt and buff breeches, he reminded her of the young man of days gone by, before her world had been irrevocably altered. She shut her eyes, for a moment pretending that all was well again, that nothing had changed.

In a soft hushed baritone, he began.

"Let me tell you how India's most glorious epic poem, the Ramayana, came about..."

She repeated the word softly, "Ramayana..." as if relishing the foreign texture of the sounds on her tongue.

His lips upturned in a faint smile, "Perhaps Ranjit could instruct you in Hindustani?"

"Oh, I should like that very much..." she answered back, her voice woolly with drowsiness.

"One day, a wandering sage, Valmiki, was walking along the banks of the river Tamasa. He happened upon a dove flying in beautiful symmetry with its mate. Suddenly, the male dove was shot down by a hunter, and he watched the female dove fly in anguished circles over her love, screaming out her lamentations. The sage felt great pity at the sight of the fallen bird. He was so moved by what he had seen that he began pondering the poignant beauty and cruelty of life. And so, the melody of his poem was born from a heart of love and pity for the wounded bird and its love...*"

William's voice trailed off. He let the sentence hang in mid-air and sighed in relief as the rhythmic rise and fall of her breath announced she had finally sunk into peaceful slumber.

"Sweet dreams, little one," he whispered, bending over and readjusting her bed covers.

Carrying the candlestick before him, he strode back toward his bedchamber, with a heavy step and a heavy heart, his mind refusing to analyze all the tangents, the possibilities arrayed before him. Suddenly he felt very old, older than his years, and grasping futilely for the wisdom which age is meant to grant the chosen few. A sharp knife-like sliver of light appeared before him on the carpeted hallway.

He stopped dead in his tracks.

She stood framed in the doorway of her bedchamber, hair carefully arranged about her shoulders, a shimmering peignoir exposing the curves beneath.

"Kochanie**..." she began, her voice low, seductive, with a hint of pleading.

"Helena. Don't." He commanded brusquely. In the dimmed light, his arrogantly virile profile, the aristocratic blood apparent in every angle, every line, overcame her, and she lost her well-rehearsed words.

"B-b-but..." she stammered, disbelieving his reaction, unused to refusals. In a feeble attempt to sway him, she reached out her hand, the sleeve of her peignoir falling away, revealing an expanse of tempting white flesh.

"No!" he growled furiously, "Have you no shame, madam?" He strode past her without a further glance, long, jungle-cat strides, down the cavernous hallway, slamming the door behind him. It wasn't until she heard the definite click of a turning lock that she retreated to her chamber: defeated, furious and devastated at the turn of events.

Chapter Eight: Part Two

Nicolas' Fencing Academy, London

"Excellent progress Mademoiselle Bennet! Now if you could just remember the finer points of balance and lunging we covered today - you should take Master Bailey by surprise in Meryton. You are intending to continue your lessons in Meryton, oui?"

Elizabeth laughed out loud at the French fencing Master, cheeks flushed from the pleasure of exertion. She stood to the side of the open room, foil still in hand. Around her the walls of the Fencing Academy sparkled with a glittering array of rapiers, broad swords, foils, epées, and a large hanging banner stating boldly; "Honneur aux Armes!"

The cavernous room was filled with various youths, men, and a few women clad in split skirts, all learning to open vistas in the bodies of imaginary opponents. It had been two years since Nicolas' Academy had opened its illustrious doors to women. At first, the fairer sex had ignored the sport, but recently its popularity among the fashionable set was growing. Though she was no slave to fashion, Elizabeth had been instantly drawn to the sport.

Captain Hippolyte Nicolas continued, his tone crisp and clipped with a hint of superiority. "The value of the art lies in its ability to exercise the body, quicken one mentally, train the eye to be alert and, pardonnez-moi Mademoiselle, it teaches one to keep his temper under control."

She laughed again, eliciting a grudging smile from the Frenchman's stern features.

"Don't worry Capitaine Nicolas. I shall continue my lessons in Meryton- how else to keep my famous temper in check?" she teased.

"Very well, Mademoiselle. Ah! Here is your groom. Till your next London visit then!"

Turning about to hand Quentin her foil, her eye was caught by a newly arrived pair readying for scrimmage.

Both men were masked. One, tall and slight in form, the other sporting a highly defined and muscular physique. The salute over, the fencers readjusted their masks and began a graceful, circling dance. Where the slim man was quick -footed and nimble, the other man's style held a lethal energy. He seemed to dominate with pistol-shot lunges combining the precision of a rifle with the agility of a wildcat. Metal scraped against metal. Suddenly, with lightning precision, he struck his foil against the breastplate of his opponent. It would have been a lethal blow, had there not been a button on the foil's tip.

The opponent backed away, bowed and lifted his mask. Elizabeth gasped. A mass of blond hair tumbled out. Laughingly, as if aware of all eyes trained on her, the woman exclaimed in a foreign accent,

"Well done George!"

The second mask was lifted and a pair of blazing green eyes framed by jet black hair was revealed. He had a beautifully chiselled, classical face. Perhaps the handsomest she had ever seen.

"Not up to your usual mettle today, Helena?" he drawled, his voice hoarse, whispery, and strangely discordant to Elizabeth's ears. She peered closer at his face, the features spoke of a similarity to someone she knew, but could not place. Catching her stare, George Wickham turned in her direction and executed a gallant bow. Elizabeth blushed. The woman laughed and in a mocking tone, loud enough for all to hear, said,

"You cannot resist audiences, can you George!"

Casting a swift but thorough sweep over Elizabeth's retreating figure, he replied,

"I can resist anything but temptation, my dear. Ready for a rematch?"

Royal Opera House, Haymarket

Elizabeth sat perched on the edge of her fauteuil, leaning over the balcony of a private box on the opera's grand tier, utterly and completely lost in the soaring anguish of Medée***. As Maria Malibran, the celebrated mezzo-soprano sang in a stunning unbroken legato - she could feel the purity of tone, the smoothness of every vowel touch down within her. She soared, transported on the crest of music, soared along with the wild, uninhibited and vengeful Medée as she unleashed her wrath on those about her.

The true spectacle of the evening was not the London premiere of Charpentier's Medée, but rather, the unfolding theatrics in the amphitheatre, the galleries and private boxes. An assembly of the mighty, noble, venerable and wise had gathered this evening, joining a bejewelled mass of fops, wits, would-be-wits, wives and mistresses. A heady mélange of the very best and the very worst London haute society had to offer. Everyone came out to see and be seen. Monstrous chandeliers illuminated the frescoed theatre, the teeming throng of packed bodies, intensifying the garnet and gold of velvet curtains, and the hazy luminosity of dust and powder in the air.

Sitting by Elizabeth's side, Charlotte coolly scanned neighbouring boxes through her opera glasses, blatantly ignoring Richard Fitzwilliam's smouldering looks from a box across the theatre.

Charles, having been invited by the Gardiners to share their box, sat in a darkened recess, holding his betrothed's hand, hidden within the folds of her skirt. Jane's face was set in a private smile; a reaction to Charles carving sensual designs on the palm of her hand. As the performance unfolded, his touch became more intimate and her smile deepened.

Madeline cast a watchful eye on the enthralled duo, sighing to herself. She had quickly elucidated that Charles' romantic nature was not limited to verse or song alone. And very gently she had teased out of Jane the extent of their relationship. After a long discussion with Edward, Charles was approached on the matter, and a special license had been obtained. The wedding date was set for six weeks at Netherfield. The couple was delighted, the Gardiners relieved, and the Bennets somewhat bemused by the entire affair. This was to be their last evening in London and Edward had purchased an opera- box to mark the occasion.

William Darcy barely registered the music. He had been observing Elizabeth from his vantage point across the proscenium. As she watched the rich display on stage, he watched her eyes. Watched as they changed from joy to sorrow following the music's haunting notes. What was it with her eyes? Perhaps it was their reflection of simple truths, of a woman's faith, of her trusting youth.

Mesmerized, he contemplated her from afar, beholding not what others saw but what she added to the world about her. Something secret within him thinned and shattered. He had not meant for it to happen - except something - like petals falling, entered him. It breathed within the rocky darkness within him, breathed until it bloomed. His heart, that lonely hunter on a lonely hill, had found her. He no longer desired the tangible woman alone, rather, he was now determined to somehow capture her essence, the essence of her spirit, wishing to cradle it, caress it and become enveloped within the purity of her private soul.

Her lashes flickered, as if batting away a tear and she tilted her head, in the slightest of motion. And suddenly her eyes turned sharply sideways, toward him, reminding him of the statue of a Goddess...Lakshmi**** and locking him in a questioning gaze. Her mouth softened into the barest of smiles. And his hooded Moorish eyes momentarily widened in shock. He had been found out. At that moment all stopped being a game. Perhaps it had never been one after all.

She felt drawn out by him, pulled out of her magical opera world, out of Medee's pain and suffering, by the sheer magnetic spell of his black stare. It held her captive with unflinching power. The feeling was exquisite - complete as a swoon.

She longed to speak to him, to offer an apology for her hasty words, and to thank him for his kindness toward Jane. A part of her still reeled in disbelief at Jane's revelations. The irony of it all. Steadfast Jane, her trusted moral compass, the champion of sense over sensibility, had been swept away on a romantic tide of grand proportions. While she, the adventurous younger sister, chastised a man for a minor impropriety. The very same man, who later saved the day, and the Bennet name. She was indebted to William Darcy, yet again. However, the sharp edge of her pride, her earlier assessment of his nature, had been tempered, diminished, and replaced by grudging admiration for his generosity of spirit.

As the curtain of red velvet came down with a thud of theatre dust, polite clapping rippled through the crowds. A slow procession began filtering out for the all-important intermission promenade. The Haymarket Opera House distinguished itself by row upon row of mirrored looking glass flanking its galleries. Strategically placed couches dotted the expanse of mirrors, and once occupied by lucky denizens, the effect was of loveliness reflecting upon itself. As Elizabeth's party wended its way through the crush of perfumed bodies, she was momentarily separated from Jane and Charles and found herself face to face with William Darcy, walking in the opposite direction, against the flow.

"Miss Bennet, I trust you are enjoying the performance this evening?" The deep voice addressed her, polite, restrained.

"Yes, very much, my lord," she answered, unsure how to proceed with the conversation. Finally, tilting her head up toward him, she looked directly into his eyes, beyond the hidden walls, and willed herself to step into their inner depth. Her voice heavy with heartfelt gratitude, she began,

"I wish to thank you for your kindness and generosity toward my sister, your lordship..."

His eyes widened in surprise. He had not expected her to capitulate so suddenly. He wasn't prepared for her thankfulness. Once again, she'd taken him by surprise. For a brief moment he lost his bearings. Finally, clearing his throat, he countered,

"Your sister is deserving of both kindness and generosity, and Charles is a good friend, Miss Bennet." Wishing to draw out their interlude, he offered, "May I escort you back to your box?"

"Yes, thank you," she answered.

They wove through the crowd, walking side-by-side, without touching, seemingly unaware of the jostling bodies about them. The first call bell rang, and oblivious, they continued walking. Darcy, elegant and imposing, strolling silently beside the fair-skinned woman. She, a vision of shapely femininity with a spirited energy to her step.

"I..." she faltered as they neared the curtained entranceway of her opera-box.

"Yes?" he answered solicitously, a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

"I wish to apologize for my abominable behaviour at the soirée...I have a quick temper, at times."

The smile played again, darkly sensual.

"Yes, I have observed it on a few occasions by now."

"Was I terribly horrid?" she asked innocently.

"Let me see... Having experienced typhoons, avalanches and sandstorms...No, I must say you were somewhat tame in comparison."

She burst out laughing. Wind chimes again. She became aware of a new, burgeoning intimacy between them. "You are a keen observer, my lord."

"I observe what interests me, Miss Bennet," he said in a low voice.

The second bell rang. The crowds thinned to a mere trickle and she replied,

"Now, you see, at this juncture in the conversation I could retort with a perfectly scathing and impertinent comment, but..." He became lost in the movement of her open lips as she enunciated her last word.

"But...?" he prompted.

"I choose not to, this evening." She countered, raising her eyebrows. Then realizing the intensity of his gaze, his nearness, she blushed.

Swallowing hard, restraining himself from gathering her in his arms and kissing her senseless, he replied,

"Indeed, I now consider myself the luckiest of men, Miss Bennet. We seem to have achieved a truce, if I'm not mistaken."

"Truce it is, my lord," she responded.

As the dampened sounds of the orchestra's overture wafted toward them, her eyes widened in astonishment; they were now completely alone, standing reflected in the mirrored gallery.

"The second act ..."

"Has begun." He completed her unfinished thought. "I must take my leave, Miss Bennet. Perhaps we shall see each other at the Netherfield Ball?"

"The Ball? Ah! Yes, of course, the Engagement Ball. You w-will be attending?" she stammered artlessly, not wanting to end their conversation.

"Why, I would not miss it for the world. Good evening, Miss Bennet." He bowed elegantly and strode down the open gallery, black coat tails swinging majestically behind him.

Madeline Gardiner greeted her with a questioning look.

"Lord Pemberton escorted me to the box, tante," she whispered, settling herself beside her.

"Ah." Nodded the older woman. "Strange he would choose to attend this particular opera, Lizzie," she added in a hushed tone.

"Why?" Elizabeth enquired, her interest piqued at her aunt's comment.

"The storyline mirrors his past. His father, you see, had a most public affair with a young Polish countess. William's mother was devastated. It was quite the grand scandale."

"What happened, tante Madeline?"

"Anne Darcy was crushed with grief and..." Madeline halted, realizing she'd spoken without thinking.

"And..." Elizabeth leaned toward her aunt, the opera forgotten, her face tense with concentration.

"It's quite tragic, really... William's mother died rather suddenly - she drowned."

Elizabeth's breath hitched in horror, she could feel herself bathed in cool perspiration.

"An accident?" she whispered.

"No, not an accident. William attempted to save her, but it was too late. You see, Lizzie, your uncle and I were there, at the picnic, and we saw it with our own eyes." Madeline reached and stroked Elizabeth's cheek, wishing the conversation had not taken such a dark turn. "Now, now... It was a very long time ago, and I had but forgotten it, my child."

Throughout the remainder of the evening, she tried in vain, but could not focus on the stage. She sought out his box, but he had disappeared.

Despite the colourful spectacle both onstage and around her, she felt strangely detached, marked with empty solitude, as if in leaving he had taken an essential energy with him. Her aunt's words swirled in her mind. She found herself no longer questioning his motives, but beginning to understand the plangent melancholy of his eyes, wishing she could somehow soothe away the grief of his past, heal the scars of his inner wounds. It wasn't until the final act that a realization dawned on her; not once had he touched her, not even a graze. And yet, she could have sworn the feel of him was palpable on her skin, a lambent whisper... a gentle caress. Surrounded by the closing bars of magnificent music, the rousing applause of the audience, she sat still, a hand resting lightly on her cheek, lost in a private dreamscape.

*Adapted from "Bliss Divine" by Sri Swami Sivananda
** Polish translation; " My love..."
***Medée: Opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, first premiered at Paris Opera in 1693. A grand tragedy sung in lyrical style, involving elaborate sets, graceful dance elements, all incorporated into a five-act drama. It tells the story of Medée, and her revenge on finding her husband, Jason, to be unfaithful with a beautiful younger woman, Creuse.
**** Lakshmi: Indian Goddess, who becomes Sita, the wife of Rama, hero of the Ramayana.

Chapter Nine: Part One

"It is said by some that there is a fixed time or order between the embrace, the kiss... but Vatsyayana, however, thinks that anything may take place anytime, for love does not care for time or order."

Kama Sutra: (Chapter III: On Kissing.)

Longbourn, Hertfordshire

Mr. Bennet stood in his wife's peach colored bedchamber, pondering the countless ways Fanny Bennet managed to avoid connubial felicity. She lay on her bed, hair arranged in a nest of rags, her skin slathered with green paste, and what appeared to be potato slices, covering each eye.

"Mr. Bennet, is that you?"

"Were you expecting someone else, Fanny? I hope you are not intending to wear those potatoes to the Ball, my dear," he enquired dryly.

"Oh stop it Thomas! I'm following Hill's beauty regimen, if you must know. The potatoes are meant to draw any bad humors away, they diminish puffiness."

An entire potato field would not be suficient, dear wife. Clearing his throat, he continued,

"I've come to speak to you about Jane. I am somewhat discontented with the timing of these nuptials. Everything appears rushed. Is there something I should be aware of?"

Fanny snapped back, her voice decidedly shriller,

"Thomas Bennet! She is marrying an excellent man! Jane has always been the model of propriety. I am positively insulted by your allusions. 'Tis not Jane we should worry about, but your Lizzie! That girl has a decided surfeit of energy. If she's not riding, she's fencing, if she's not fencing she's running about busy with a myriad projects, and when she sits still she reads some god forsaken authors! And here I thought the trip to France and Charlotte's good influence would settle her! No! She returns full of conceited independence. Mark my words, Thomas Bennet, there is not a man living who will be able to harness that girl!"

Having perfected the art of solemnly hearing his wife without listening to a word she said, Thomas Bennet retraced his steps toward his chamber, while Fanny's voice, oblivious to his exit, followed him down the hallway.

Netherfield, Hertfordshire.

"Mademoiselle Jane, how kind of Monsieur Bingley to invite us to stay as house guests on the occasion of the Ball! He is a most generous man!" Marie exclaimed through a mouth full of pins as she put the finishing touches to Jane's coiffure.

Standing before a cheval mirror, dressed in cream peau de soie, Jane blushed prettily. She knew full well the reason behind Charles' generosity of spirit; he chose every opportunity to be with her before the wedding, showering her with affection and stealing away for a few moments of forbidden bliss. She sighed. The physical tension between them was growing daily. Perhaps a short sojourn away from him might offer some relief. Perhaps not.

After her first foray into passion, she had made several feeble attempts to restrain Charles' ardor, but found herself easily swayed by his adoring nature. He was a most physical man, possessing an impulsivity of spirit she found irresistible. Her own reactions to his tenderness had taken her by surprise. She relished them in privacy, never having imagined possible that a man's love could affect her so deeply.

She had spent years as a model of propriety, and now, on the verge of joining the ranks of married women, she felt secretly and deliciously wayward. An entirely new world had opened itself, one she had not known existed, and she basked in a sense of wonder at its discovery. She smiled again; a woman's smile, private and enigmatic. Marie quickly cast her eyes down, having caught Jane in her reverie, and correctly guessed its source.

"I simply detest these horrendous corsets and dropped waists Marie!" Lizzie exclaimed, flouncing into the room. "One can hardly breathe! And these wide skirts, they do nothing but put more distance between the wearer and the rest of the world. I hereby proclaim, ladies, that we are moving backwards with the new fashions!"

Marie turned her head toward Elizabeth and dropped her jaw in surprise. Several hairpins fell out, scattering on the floor about her.

"Oh la la! Mademoiselle Elizabeth, que vous êtes belle ! Et quelle poitrine!"

Jane craned her neck. Taking in Elizabeth's voluptuous figure accented by a tightly molded ball gown, she stifled a giggle, "Ah yes, lovely!"

Clad in a low-cut jade green silk gown with black lace overlay on its skirt, Elizabeth stomped about the room, clenching her fists, "Ooooh! I can just see the entire town of Meryton peering at my bosom tonight. Quick, get me a shawl Marie!"

"Sacrilège Mademoiselle! Mme Gardiner would be most unhappy if you covered up this beautiful gown. She gave it to you as a gift. You must not disappoint her."

"But I feel like a huge green apple!" Elizabeth lamented.

"And who will you allow to have the first bite, Mademoiselle?" Marie teased. Elizabeth stopped her rant and burst out laughing, while Jane dissolved in a fit of giggles.

Richard Fitzwilliam lounged in a corner of the cream and verdigris ballroom, surrounded by soft strains of orchestra music, a languid smile on his face. What an improvement over the London scene. Rows of French doors had been thrown open, allowing the sweet fragrance of Netherfiled's late summer gardens to mingle with the scent of candles, floor wax and perfumed guests. Accustomed to the jaded moues of the London ton, he'd been pleasantly surprised at the fresh, glowing faces about him. Charles and Jane were well liked in the area, and guests appeared genuinely at ease, mingling easily, laughing, and bantering. The effect was refreshing, like a drink of cold spring water.

He was ruminating once again on his favorite topic du jour- Charlotte. The elusive nature of the girl fascinated him to no end. Indeed, he was quite obsessed with her entire person. What piqued his considerable ego was the undeniable fact that prior to setting eyes on her, obsession had been a state he prided himself in creating in other women. He followed her form as she expertly maneuvered through a quadrille, noting with wry humor the missteps of her partner, that peacock of a man, Willie Collins.

His eyes roamed the room and alighted on Jane and Charles. Even from afar, he could detect the love-lit eyes of his old friend as he bent solicitously toward his betrothed. The sight made him shiver. Charles was a lost cause, lost in the bliss of upcoming matrimony. What a pity, and he'd been such a fine rake in the making.

Swirling his champagne glass pensively, he looked for William. Earl Pemberton was late in arriving, as he'd been detained in London on business matters. The man perplexed him. He'd noted a decided change in him since his return from India, but could not elucidate its nature. Perhaps it was somewhat connected with the delicious brunette... Like every other man in the ballroom he'd noted her entrance along with the stupendous lushness of her figure. Unlike her sister, she was not a classical beauty, but she possessed a raw spirited energy which he found most alluring. In the words of the ton she was an Incomparable.

Pity she did not belong among the ton's ranks.

She had veritably mesmerized William at the opera. Half of the ton present that evening, Richard included, had noted it with great relish. Earl Pemberton was not only an intriguing curiosity, but considered among those in the know as the best catch of the upcoming Season. His actions were being closely monitored by hungry mammas throughout London. In fact, Earl Pemberton's undivided attention towards a certain brunette had garnered a brief mention in the society column the very next day. Richard chuckled to himself. He had wisely refrained from commenting upon it to his friend. After all, William rarely read the society columns and harbored a strong distaste for idle gossip.

As the quadrille ended, the first waltz was announced, and he watched Philippe Lucas, newly arrived from France for the occasion, bow gallantly over Elizabeth's hand, leading her onto the dance floor. A smooth operator... Richard pondered, observing the younger man. And a damn fine dancer... he mused as the couple moved with fluid grace around the room, exchanging light pleasantries, comfortable in each other's presence.

Richard observed William entering the ballroom. William Darcy cut a starkly elegant figure in formal black attire, a single diamond pin in his cravat. Richard raised his glass in William's direction and received a coolly acknowledging nod in return. He watched with growing interest as his friend quickly scanned the dancers; his eyes alighting on Elizabeth's figure, her upturned face, her shining eyes.

William's face took on a brooding look at the sight of the couple waltzing across the room. He motioned a nearby servant, and grasping a Champagne flute, downed it in one swallow. He strode toward Richard, long leonine strides, jungle ready, stalking. A triumphant smile lit up Richard Fitzwilliam's face. He was well acquainted with that walk. Touché! It was the brunette after all...

Caroline Bingley stood by Louisa, impatiently tapping her fan on her wrist and gritting her teeth. "Green, Louisa, is such a difficult color..."

"Unlike the fetching orange of your gown, Caroline, which truly sets off your hair and deepens the color of your eyes, my dear."

"How kind of you. And these new dress- shapes require a slim figure, wouldn't you agree?"

"Why, I am in absolute agreement! One risks appearing entirely too vulgar if the dress reveals one's... Oh dear! Mr. Hurst is into the punch bowl again. Pardon me Caroline, I must intercept him."

~ * ~

The evening wore on, and a happy glow settled on the crowd. The Ball was pronounced a success as the young betrothed couple were toasted and lauded by all. A few tongues wagged here and there, their curiosities piqued by the short engagement, but were quickly silenced by Fanny Bennet during one of her many perambulations about the ballroom.

A second waltz was announced and Elizabeth found herself addressed by William Darcy. She had not seen him enter the room, and found herself surprised by his sudden presence.

As the music swelled about them, she could feel the strong clasp of his hand on her waist, her gloved fingers. She tried to glance away from his darkly arrogant profile, as dictated by the waltz's proper form. But the firm set of his well- formed lips, the curved line of his silvery scar drew her gaze, and she could not.

His movements were assured, powerful and sweeping. He danced beautifully, with masterful grace; his breath warm on her skin. He did not speak. Instead, she felt him caress her with his eyes, caress her with what could be. Possibilities...His intense gaze held the uncanny ability to make the rest of the world fade away in the periphery, leaving the two of them alone. Though he was a tall, broad shouldered man, he moved with surprising skill and elegance. She felt a warm impassioned tide sweep through her veins. Madness... she told herself, while lost in the thrill and tremble of his touch.

Unsettled by the sight of her revealing gown, he chose to focus on her eyes. Golden brown, flecked with deep purple. Lilacs. Hyacinths. He felt himself enter deeper and deeper into her gaze, into a place beyond other places, beyond the rhythmic movement of their bodies. As the music played on, their silence became utterly lovely, as if in saying nothing, they were exchanging dream words, unspoken melodies.

Uncomfortably aware of their shared intensity of feeling, Elizabeth resolved to break the silence.

"Jane and Mr. Bingley appear the very picture of happiness..." she began.

"Yes, indeed," he replied and fell silent.

"It is your turn to say something, my lord."

He smiled. "You speak by rule, while dancing, Miss Bennet?"

She arched her brows in response. "Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would appear odd to be silent for the entire dance."

"Silence allows one to concentrate on the pleasure of the dance itself, and the pleasure of a partner's company."

"Are you stating your own feelings or wishing to gratify mine?"

"Both," he replied in a low voice, bending his head toward her and drawing her nearer. "I have noted you take great pleasure in silence and solitude from time to time. We are both of the same mind, you see."

"Your mind is a veritable Minotaur's maze, my lord, and I would never pretend to know it." She countered back.

He did not answer, rather, drew her a little closer as they circled about the room.

His rich deep-timbered voice whispered in her ear, "Can one truly know anyone else?"

She locked his gaze with hers. "Who are you? A philosopher, a proper English gentleman, or an adventurer?" The words tumbled out of her mouth, without restraint.

"Perhaps all three, Miss Bennet," he answered. A faint smile came and went.

To her surprise, he spoke again, "I believe it's my turn, now."

"Turn?"

"To offer my regrets for the abominable lack of decorum I displayed ...my time away has rusted any social acumen I may once have possessed."

Her eyes sparkled merrily. "Does polite society present you with untold challenges, my lord?"

Excavating a devastatingly beautiful smile from deep within, he answered, "Well, it's the female element I'm having the most trouble with, it seems."

She became completely lost in his eyes and did not reply.

"One female in particular. There, I've been unmasked," he whispered gently.

"Bringing truth to light...an admirable test of skill and courage, your lordship."

"Thank you, Miss Bennet," he replied as the music reached its finale, "Perhaps we shall dance again?"

"Perhaps," she answered quietly.

His grave eyes drank her in. He craved to possess her silk-clad body, her entire being, and carry her away without further prelude. But he could not. Overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings, he took his leave more abruptly than intended. The imprint of her skin, of her slender waist, was seared on his hands, while the image of her hyacinth flecked eyes danced seductively before him. Purple had become the color of his longing.

"I'm feeling particularly generous this evening..." drawled Richard as he approached Philippe, standing by a pillar, jaw clenched, his eyes fixed on William and Elizabeth.

"I beg your pardon?" Philippe asked, annoyed at being pulled out of his jealous reverie.

"Take my advice: don't walk into the lion's den, my boy. You won't come out alive." With that, Richard turned around and went in search of Charlotte.

Chapter Nine: Part Two

Richard came upon her outside the ballroom, by a secluded alcove. She was standing with her back to him and he crept up silently behind her. She turned, and jumped at his startling presence so near.

"Have no fear, Miss Lucas, I am not known to bite...unless invited to." He drawled, a mischievous sparkle in his eye.

They were alone, a rare occurrence. He had encountered her on several occasions in London, but never alone. He was fascinated by her candor, her fresh unfeigned sophistication. She did not play games, and he, the master of intrigue, thrived on them. If nothing else, this alone tempted, amused and drew him in. He felt compelled to seek her out for more. Leaning against the wall, he observed her under his lashes, and before he could craft another comment, she spoke,

"The answer is no, my lord."

"What?" he blurted out, perplexed, his brows furrowing.

"No, I will not be your mistress."

He opened his mouth to retort, then snapped it shut.

Looking about him to ascertain they were indeed alone, he moved nearer and swept a wayward tendril of hair from her cheek. The motion was gentle, almost possessive.

"Another mistress would result in serious damage to my health, Miss Lucas," he answered quietly.

She frowned, blushing lightly, "I see. I must have mistaken your intentions, then."

"Perhaps," he offered, mesmerized, wondering what the taste of her lips would be on his own.

Her cheeks colored further, "No. Not perhaps, Lord Matlock. I might as well inform you that I have accepted Comte de Sevres' offer of marriage this week, and I shall be returning to France shortly."

He stood still. His face momentarily lost its careful veneer and Charlotte received a shocking glimpse of a younger, devastated Richard.

"De Sevres! Why, he's as dull as last week's leftovers, and older than your father. Surely you can do better!"

Charlotte was livid. "He's a good man. He is respectful, kind, sincere and I have his assurance of faithfulness - something you, my lord - have no notion of."

Richard burst out laughing! "He's a fool, and so are you in choosing to believe him!"

Charlotte flung her hand out in fury, intending to slap his insolent face, but with a lightning-quick reflex, he caught her hand, the small tendons of her wrist, and held her there.

"Not so fast," he whispered hoarsely, "this will only take a minute."

Tilting her chin with his free hand, he deposited a light kiss on her mouth. She did not resist. He neared his tall lanky body, and molded himself against her, deepening the kiss. The intensity of his own reaction took him by surprise. He stroked her like a beautiful violin, pulling, teasing, and making musical love with his lips on hers. He felt his senses being called upon in some mysterious way: stirred and completely rearranged. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead on hers, their breaths mingling.

"Congratulations on your engagement, Miss Lucas," he whispered hoarsely and disappeared as stealthily as he had arrived.

~ * ~

The house was darkly silent, steeped in the exhausted slumber of wilted guests and weary servants. Everyone slept. Almost everyone.

William crept down the grand staircase, his formal waistcoat, jacket and cravat discarded long ago. A once crisp white shirt, partially unbuttoned was tucked loosely into his black trousers. Sleep eluded him once again, his usual insomnia held a heated edge; he was restless. Dawn was but a few hours away, and he could not get her out of his mind. A soft glow seemed to emanate from the library's partially opened door. Perhaps a fire still burned in the grate? His footsteps led him towards the light.

To his complete and utter surprise, the library was occupied.

She sat curled up on a sofa near the last dying embers radiating from the fireplace, candelabra by her side. Deeply engrossed in a book, she appeared to be eating an orange. Her hair flowed down about her, curling like a luxurious chestnut blanket around the whiteness of her dressing gown.

He stepped into the room without a sound, watching her fingers lift a slice of peeled translucent flesh and place it into her open mouth. He watched her lips close about the pulp and juice, and release a tiny explosion of spray- the citrusy aroma wafted toward him. There was no chance of turning back. He knew without a doubt that he would stay and make his presence known. The realization, clear, crisp and complete, rose like a new dawn from somewhere within.

"Miss Bennet..." he said softly.

She snapped her head up with a start and met his eyes. Shock, surprise, and questioning expectancy registered on her face in quick succession.

"My lord!" she answered, almost choking on the fruit.

"You prefer reading to sleeping?"

"I... My mind was preoccupied after the Ball and so I came to read."

"There is nothing finer than the improvement of one's mind by extensive reading."

"I was not searching for improvement, my lord. Rather, I was seeking the solitary enjoyment and peace of mind that reading can bestow upon a person." She retorted mildly. Yet, the corners of her mouth tilted up like a comma around some beautiful phrase. If he had needed an invitation, there it lay before him.

He strode closer and she registered his nearness, the careless déshabille of his attire. Her heart began pounding in an insistent staccato.

"And what book is keeping you awake in the wee hours of the night?"

She held out the slim leather-bound volume.

"Ah. A Sentimental Journey by Sterne. May I?" he enquired.

She nodded her head in acquiescence. Standing tall before her, he began reading in a warm, deep baritone.

"...And looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage-"I can't get out," said the starling. I stood looking at the bird; and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side...with the same lamentation of its captivity-"I can't get out" said the starling..."

He paused and peered at her. Closing the book with a soft sound, he held it out to her without saying a word. A fire log fell, crackling loudly, a punctuation in the heady silence.

"Elizabeth."

She frowned at the intimate sound of her name on his lips, uncertain where he was leading.

"Would you care to join me for a walk outside?"

"Now, this very moment? Dressed like this?" she asked, incredulous at the proposal.

"Yes."

"But..."

" 'Tis a warm late summer night..." he added, a note of soft persuasion in his voice.

"Very well." She rose from the sofa, and clutching her dressing gown about her, followed him out.

They walked down the terraced steps onto the gardened pathways bordering Netherfield. The stars were shining, a late summer moon was out and myriads of fireflies flitted about quietly. As they strolled side-by-side in the silver edged night, the smell of loam, of rich moist earth rose about them. They stopped at the outer border of the gardens, by a small iron gate. William pulled on its rusted handle, and it gave way with a creak. He walked through, on to the other side, and turning, held out his hand.

"Come," he said, quietly commanding.

She halted, unsure, feeling herself being drawn deeper and deeper by his gaze, his voice. Then, hesitantly, she found herself taking his hand, pulled in by his spell and stepped through the gate.

They walked hand in hand, suspended in some strange intimacy, to a nearby grove birches and poplar trees. He released his hold, turned, and stood between her and the moon beyond.

The late summer breeze ruffled his hair, billowing his loose fitting white shirt. He lifted his hand and leaned it on a nearby tree trunk. The front of his shirt, like the flap of a tent, fell open, revealing a dark sprinkling of hair on chiseled muscles. Twilight's glow slanted strands of moonlight across his face, his broad shoulders and drew her glance. Her eyes flickered down. She looked away, then glanced again. Her vision traced the naked line of his flesh, to where her lips would linger if she dared.

With three simple words he broke the silence between them.

"Shall we dance?"

He reached for her once again and drawing her toward the center of the grove, began a slow waltz. It was nothing like before. As the wind fell silently on the tall trees about them, he drew her closer, her leggy warmth spreading and gently lacing around his thighs. Circling round and round, he drew her nearer. He held her taut, cheek to cheek, the scent of her warm against his beating chest, redolent of orange blossoms. And she had another fragrance about her, that of a fresh young woman-angel. How beautiful...he thought, while waltzing in the moonlight. They circled back and forth, the mellow night enveloping them in a translucent veil.

Suddenly, he released her and backed away. She stopped still, disoriented, her head spinning from everything. He strode toward the tree and leaned against it.

"Dance, Elizabeth," he said.

She stood still, like a puppet without strings, arms dangling helplessly by her side. She felt equal measures of expectancy, fear and awe. The air about them changed, a stronger breeze brought along with it a distinct aroma of rain. And still she stood, frozen, uncertain. Softly, fine misty raindrops began to fall - a tranquilizing cadence.

He leaned against the tree, crossing his arms, and contemplated her standing before him. Perhaps it was the rain, or perhaps it was his restrained passion that touched her. Regardless... She tipped her face up to the night and flicked her tongue out, tasting the rain on its tip. Stretching her arms high above her head, she began a sensual swaying dance. A wood-sprite stealing the wild song from the rain, the air. Her hair began flying, then whirling about her. She spread her arms wide, and gloriously undulated across the blue blackness of the night.

Rain began falling harder, soaking through the whiteness of her robes, outlining her curves with devastating lushness. The sprite-woman became garden wet with rain. And still she danced, blissfully unaware. He stood under the canopy of trees, mesmerized by the divine nimbus of her - from head to foot - she seemed to move in balance, in perfect harmony in the moonlight.

She swayed nearer, and nearer and stopped, panting, breasts heaving, beside him. Her face utterly beautiful and joyful in its newfound freedom. Her breath felt warm and sweet on his skin. He reached out and swept a strand of wet hair away from her temple; touching her as he would the wild buttercups in the meadows.

He leaned toward her, cradled her face in his strong hands, and gently brushed his lips against hers. Tangerine lips. He withdrew a hair's breath, and she came to him. The petal surprise of her tongue entered his mouth and found its way though the dark. They tangled; angling, tasting hesitantly at first, then deeper, wet and soft.

His body merged with hers, hip to hip, thighs whispering, grazing one another. And she began undulating back and forth, in a sensual sarabande, connecting with the pounding beat within his loins. He molded himself to her, gently at first, then harder, insistent, and filled her with hot cloud kisses - cumulus, stratus, nimbus.

His mouth was wet with her, full of her orange-blossom essence. His hyacinth girl...He moved his hand lightly over her shoulders, followed the smooth curve of her back, her thighs, stroking, caressing. The tip of her tongue brought him back. It became the tip of his world. He wanted to taste it all. And he guided her artfully, with exquisite restraint, consummate finesse, through a landscape he created for her alone; taking her deeper and deeper into that hallowed place where no words would do.

Elizabeth had been soaring earlier, held aloft in the strange freedom of her solitary dance and now she felt herself carried down to a warm liquid place. As she ran her hands lightly over the long smooth muscles of his back, basking in their strength, their power, she felt herself open to him; drawn in by a new melody, savage and primitive.

He led her further, leading with his hips, his throbbing hardness against her softness. Pulling her in. A few layers of cloth the only barrier between them. Her legs were like water; she might have fallen if his arms had not held her in their steely embrace. A haunting song rose about them. A nightingale? A frog moaned in the distance. She kissed him and kissed him, wanting to gather his darkness in her hands, to cup it like water and drink from it, pause, and drink again.

His tongue, his insistent driving hips, told her a delicious, primeval story; thrusting in and out, along with the wet hot rhythm of the summer cicadas... Vibrato, crescendo...Piano, pianissimo....

Silhouetted against the rain soaked night, they swayed back and forth, entwined. He became her moonlight and she, his love song.

Chapter Ten: Part One

"A man should marry such a woman as will love him ever afterwards."

Kama Sutra: Part III (Observations on Betrothal and Marriage)

As the morning crept gently into the heavy air, the smell of moss and warm grasses rose up from the earth. The stars grew colorless, drooping off into western darkness and the late summer moon paled in a sky tinged with amethyst.

"Elizabeth," he whispered between rasping breaths, "we had better return."

The words were difficult to utter but not as wrenching as disentangling himself from her clasp. He was torn between prolonging their embrace, their dreamlike moment, and the very real risk of being found alone in Netherfield's gardens.

"Of course," she murmured, her words muffled by the crumpled linen covering his chest. Willing herself to open her eyes, she experienced a sudden and violent return to reality. She gazed down at her dressing gown - damp with rain, hanging limply about her.

"I must look a fright," she stated listlessly, her voice sounding flat and blunted.

Deaf to the change in her tone and floating along on a heady current of powerful emotions, William smiled in the darkness, and reached for her hand.

"On the contrary, you have never looked more beautiful."

She withdrew her hand with a jerking movement, as if scalded by unexpected heat. Her fingertips fluttered to her lips and her eyes widened in horror.

"Dear Mother of God, what have I done?"

His muscles stiffened at her reaction, as if a sudden rush of chilled and unpleasant wind had hit him. He had been light-years ahead of her; planning with a rapidity, a swiftness, which took him by complete surprise. The consideration, the very possibility that she would be frightened, shocked or mistake his intentions, had not entered into his consciousness. So unwavering was William in his conviction that his finely honed mind had proudly shut out any probability of denial or refusal.

Her reaction took him by force.

The carefully polished veneer of pride and mastery - cracked. He began flaying himself mentally for his lack of perceptiveness. Grasping for control, he resorted to what was bred in the bone. He stopped and stood in front of her - effectively blocking her path.

"Look at me," he ordered. It was a distinct command. "Please." He added, softening his voice belatedly.

She angled her head slowly toward him, clenching her teeth at his swift assumption of authority. How dare he? Gone was his restrained passion, replaced instead by grave concern and something akin to tenderness in his eyes. She mistook it for pity - and her resentment grew. Gentling his voice, he forged on.

"Don't be afraid. No harm will come of this, Elizabeth. I won't have it any other way. Trust me."

She unclenched her jaw long enough to say hoarsely. "What do you speak of, my lord?"

She hated pity, hated feeling belittled by him and what she assumed was his lordly superiority. Pushing their brief interlude aside, she was faced with the undeniable fact that by acknowledging his rank, any previously closed distance between them had widened once again; it gaped open, a deep chasm, with her standing resolutely on one side, he, on the other.

"William, please, call me William."

She did not answer his entreaty. Instead, circling around his tall form, she continued walking toward the terrace. A moment later, with a few long strides, he caught up with her and entreated once again.

"Elizabeth."

She swung around, her eyes filled with anger and hurt.

"Don't you see? It is all I have to give. Don't force my hand. Surely, you are made of finer stuff than this?" She flung her arm out, as if with one motion she could sweep away the night about them.

He reached for her and grasped her wrist. She flinched at the pain.

"What do you speak of? Forgive me, but I am completely lost as to your meaning!"

She laughed, the sound strangely harsh and cruel to his ears. Where had the wind chimes gone? He released his hold.

"Lost? You? The great Earl? Don't play me for a fool. The only one lost is I. I lost my bearings in the garden, and thankfully nothing more!"

"E-Elizabeth..." He began, his voice faltering.

"Please! Don't!" She answered. They had reached the main house. Picking up her skirts, she stepped across the threshold and walked in, head held high, shoulders squared, holding on to the remaining shreds of her dignity.

Not until she was safely ensconced in her bedchamber, did she let go. Her back slid against the heavy oak of the chamber door and she crumpled into a helpless heap on the floor. A tremble ran through her body. She was cold, wet and terrified. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. How could he treat her so? Deep down she grasped and held on to the silent assumption that Lord Pemberton had meant to seduce her and discard her like any lightskirt. Why else would someone of his stature deem her worthy of his attention without a proper courtship? As his aunt had proclaimed, she was but a mere country girl. But somewhere within her lingered the very real fear that had he not disentangled himself from her, she would have followed him, wherever he intended to lead. Acknowledging her own weakness fuelled her anger further.

His forehead pressed against the paneled oak, jaw tensed, William stood helplessly, at a complete loss. He knew what lay beyond the oak barrier. He could feel her; sense her pain, her fear. Damnation! Where had he erred? What had happened? Had she misunderstood his intent? More importantly, what in the hell was his intent? God, he wanted her. Wanted to gather her in his arms, and speak tender words, love words... soothing, comforting. The reality of her youth, her innocence, dawned on him. Hell! He'd virtually seduced a young virgin in the garden. What must she think of him? For years he'd shut his heart to women, and at his first attempt to reach out, the woman had shut the door on him. How pathetic!

Sensing a presence behind him, he swung out furiously.

Ranjit steadied him with a calming hand. "Sahib, an urgent post arrived from London while you were out." He handed William a large envelope, and began walking down the darkened corridor. Something made him halt, pause and turn to his master.

"Sahib, she is young. You have lived through several lifetimes, and she is just beginning her journey. Give her time."

William heard, but did not acknowledge his words. Instead, he furiously tore open the envelope and began reading. Ranjit waited expectantly.

"We must leave within the hour for London. Get everything underway."

The older man nodded his head. "As you wish."

In the privacy of his bedchamber, he sat at a writing table, dawn's light filtering with tentative rays. His quill pen hovered, poised, above the white paper. When she woke again, he would be gone... What to write? He was utterly exhausted and spent, as if returned from a long mission. He smiled wryly to himself. He must be growing soft... His mind returned to the task at hand. He was avoiding putting ink to paper... A heated internal battle raged on. Finally, reason was conquered and his heart won out.

Dearest Elizabeth, The night has disappeared, beloved, and another day is set free...

The stable bells rang, signaling a new day, and slowly the house stirred. William, fully dressed, marched down the hallway and slipped a folded white sheet beneath Elizabeth's door. He paused momentarily, then ran down the grand stairway, black traveling cape swinging behind him.

~ * ~

She had stood in her darkened room and watched the unfolding spectacle under the moonlit sky, observing their dance, the passionate caresses, the intimate kisses; her heart splintering at each touch. Unable to tear her eyes away, she felt like a spectator at a tragic and macabre play. She watched until the pain of witnessing their passionate intimacy cleaved at her with a ferocity transcending mere emotion, hurling her toward a deep, dark void filled with numbness. Nothingness. Unable to sleep, she stole down the long hallway, stopping briefly at her door, wondering if the lovers lay together behind the paneled oak. A corner of white paper caught her eye. She paused, a flicker of indecision crossing her mind, then bending down, she gently withdrew the thin paper from under the door and quickly retraced her steps to the safety of her own chambers.

London, Viscount Melbourne's Chambers.

In the forest green paneled room, thick with the smell of pipe smoke and power, a steely voice rang out.

"Darcy, I am most impressed with your expedient response to my summons. Brandy?"

"No, thank you." William answered, setting himself on a tooled leather chair facing the massive carved mahogany desk.

"Curious as to the nature of our meeting?"

"Somewhat." William answered in a neutral tone.

The older man took a long puff on his pipe and observed his visitor with a keenly intelligent stare.

"George Wickham has come forward."

"You have my undivided attention." Darcy answered, clenching his jaw.

"It seems he has some new facts on your troupe's last mission in Kashmir."

"I'm fully aware of all the facts, Lord Melbourne."

"Are you?" The older man asked, his tone somewhat sarcastic.

Darcy furrowed his brow, deep in thought. The last mission was seared with excruciating detail onto his mind. A decade earlier, Britain and Russia had begun a mad chase to uncover several secret passes in the Himalayas. Knowledge of new passes across the mountains would give significant economic and military advantage to the power in question.

And so the Great Game had begun. One foreign explorer, who subsequently had been brutally killed by the natives, had successfully mapped out such a secret pass. The British had sent Darcy's elite troupe to recover the plans and ensure their safe return to Simla's High Command. The retrieval had been difficult and dangerous but miraculously, not one life was lost during the first leg of the mission. Lieutenant George Wickham had been given the all- important task of transporting the plans on the last leg of their journey with a small group of trusted men.

He never arrived in Simla. He was intercepted by Russians, his men killed and himself wounded. The maps changed into enemy hands. Wickham soon sold his commission and began a life of surprising luxury in Calcutta , eventually returning to England. Suspicions abounded, a task force and military tribunal were set up to investigate the incident. The entire debacle had been a great loss for the British, erasing a decade of work. Darcy's regiment was quietly dismantled. He stayed on for three years, dividing his time between his trading fleet and covert investigative work in Simla. All came to naught. The plans were never found and Wickham's duplicity remained in question.

Viscount Melbourne cleared his throat. "It appears that Captain Wickham suffered from a most unfortunately timed transient amnesia during the military tribunal."

Darcy raised his eyebrows at Melbourne's statement.

"The maps he handed to the Russians were well executed copies, fakes."

Darcy jumped to his feet upon hearing the news.

"WHAT?"

"Ah. Finally, the renowned Darcy control swept aside. You do remind me of your father, my boy."

"Did he switch the maps?" Darcy growled under his breath, pacing the room ferociously.

"Apparently so. Not only did he switch them, but he brought them back to England."

"Where are they?"

"According to Wickham, he gave them to your father, and they are somewhere in your ancestral home, Pemberley."

William was silent, his mind quickly sifting though the facts.

"So Wickham first betrayed his country to the Russians, got away with his life, a large fortune, and his freedom. What do the authorities intend to do about it?"

"At this point, absolutely nothing."

"Pardon?" William muttered through clenched teeth.

"Wickham is entirely too valuable at present."

"Why?"

"You are most relentless in your questioning, Darcy." The older man smiled. "We have followed Wickham's every move for the past three years, abroad and here. We knew of the map transfer to your father. You see, William, your father never retired from service, he continued working for us till his last days. The Russians quickly found the maps to be inauthentic and came sniffing here. And they are still here, convinced you know the whereabouts of these damn plans. After all, you are his only legitimate heir."

"Do you mean to tell me that the Foreign Office in Simla was deliberately sent on a wild goose chase while London knew of these maps?"

"Unfortunately.Yes. Before you go on a rant, let me explain. We have strong suspicions that there has been a Russian infiltration among us, at a very high level of government or society, perhaps both, in fact. It is our hope to uncover their identity. To this purpose, Wickham has agreed to cooperate with us. In fact he has worked for us in the past three years."

Darcy laughed. "You trust the traitor? Why?"

"Because, if it weren't for us, he would be in debtor's prison, or have hung long ago for treason. We ... hrmm... persuaded him to cooperate. And now we need your help and cooperation as well."

"And if I refuse?"

"You won't. Your sense of honor and responsibility is too strong. Your father used to say as much." The older man announced flatly.

"Leave my father out of this."

"Ah. But we can't you see. Your father for some peculiar reason known only to himself, refused to divulge the hiding place of these maps. He began playing his own game toward the end of his life, convinced he was the only one capable of uncovering the Russian infiltration. No, no, he died of natural causes. We're not barbarians, you know. I am sure in due time, and with your help, we will find these maps. At present, our first priority is to uncover the Russian spies among us, before any further damage ensues."

"What do you propose?"

"We need to gather your family, your acquaintances, business contacts and close the circle. We suggest a week-long house party at Pemberley, following Bingley's return from his honeymoon. Our department has prepared a guest list. We anticipate most will attend. After all, who would miss the chance of being a guest of the new Earl's at Pemberley?"

William scanned the list, his eyebrows rose at the names. "Your men have been most thorough. What is the risk involved? I refuse to put Georgiana in the middle of this."

"The risk involved is minimal and we believe quite acceptable to all innocent parties. You are the prey here, remember. Now, to protect your person, we shall have a small contingent of specially trained men posing as servants..."

William interjected impatiently. "I don't need your protection."

"That, my boy, remains to be seen." The older man replied.

"One more point, Wickham must attend. He is crucial to the operation."

"You're hiding something from me." William said in a low tone.

Viscount Melbourne sighed resignedly. "Very well, it must appear as if Wickham and you have reconciled, this adds credibility to your supposed knowledge of the maps. Come now, Darcy, he is your half-brother after all. Your father would have wished it so."

William pinned him with a look darker than the blackest night sky.

Chapter Ten: Part Two

Wedding Chapel, Meryton. (One month later)

Ave Maria
Gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena...

Elizabeth's voice rang out, warm and mellifluous, accompanied by the soft sounds of the church organ and dulcet tones of Meryton's choir. Banks of roses and lilies scented the air, while sunlight shone through stained glass windows in gleaming shafts of turquoise and rose, highlighting the red gold curls of Charles Bingley and the seed pearls of Jane's satin wedding gown. Elizabeth looked on at her sister, and smiled, singing her love, wishing to envelop the new couple in a cloak of peace and contentment. Her song was her wedding present to Jane and Charles, and she poured her very soul into the ancient hymn.

Ave, ave dominus
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus

Tall, slender, her pale beauty ethereal in the luminous sunlight, Jane was gloriously radiant; her happiness so plain, it brought tears of hope and joy to many an eye. Charles stood rapt, eyes glistening, a dazzled expression on his handsome features.

William sat, dark and solemn, a few pews back, heart swelling against his lungs. He could not breathe - he felt it in his throat. He felt it throttle his very thoughts. He had not seen her for an entire month. The wait had been long and arduous. She had not responded to his letter. She did not wish to see him again... His logic stated with unequivocal conviction. Yet his heart refused to accept the reality. He wavered between denial and cruel truth in a slowly excruciating torture. If only she didn't sing so beautifully... perhaps he could begin to forget her. Now, upon hearing her voice, he was lost once again. He looked at her in spite of himself. He wanted those singing eyes, the rose tenderness of her lips. He yearned to divine the delicate sound inside of her. Most of all, he wanted to cup her virgin secret, the light in her and its infinite ability to lift him, race through his solitude and unchain the deepest part of him.

Ave Maria
Mater Dei
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus

She saw him sitting behind the Gardiners, tall, dark, and arrogantly handsome. She tried to focus on the nave of the chapel, but taunting rays of light glistened on his blue-black hair. And so, instead, she poured her longing into her singing, imbuing it with a plangent depth, rich with meaning. She had accepted his silence as a cold dismissal of her presence in his life. As the weeks passed, her anger slowly became replaced by guilt at her dismissal of their moonlight interlude. And gradually, the guilt began fading, turning instead to newfound knowledge. She had been a victim of her own pride and presumptions; she had not let him explain his intentions... for fear of losing some piece of herself. And now, her heart was singing with a thousand voices, yearning to reach out to him, revel in his touch again. For she now knew, without a doubt, to taste his kisses was to taste the desert sand, and to dream dreams of the Himalayas; she needed to leave a part of herself behind.

Et in hora mortis nostrae
Et in hora mortis nostra
Ave Maria...

Their paths did not cross until the Wedding Breakfast came to an end, and crowds spilled out onto Netherfield's terrace and gardens. He found her sitting on a stone bench, under a weeping willow, staring off in the distance.

"Miss Bennet."

She turned sharply at the sound of his words. "My lord," she answered, her voice strangely hollow.

"You sang beautifully today." He began, at a loss for words.

"Thank you." She answered, her eyes flicking to the ground at her feet.

"May I have a minute of your time?"

"Certainly."

He sat by her side, at a respectful distance.

"If I have offended you..." He said, his tone gently caressing.

"Offended?" She tilted her head at him, meeting his eyes, startled by their intensity in the bright light of day.

"...With the letter and my poor attempt at..."

"What letter?" She asked brusquely.

"On the morning following the... ball... I was called away urgently to London, and I left a letter - I slipped it under your door."

She looked at him perplexed. "I have never received a letter, my lord."

His eyes widened, and took on a boyish look of jubilation. The transformation was so unexpected that Elizabeth, in spite of herself, smiled.

"In that case, will you permit me to recite what I wrote that morning?" The question hung suspended between them, laden with hope, tinged with meaning.

"Yes, I would like that, very much."

He began in a deeply intimate voice,

"The night has disappeared, beloved, and another day is set free,
Another day of yearning for the one I may never see.
What care I for the lovely morn? The blue and cloudless skies?
The night is forever mine without the dawn of your eyes..."

"How very beautiful, and first thing in the morning, after a sleepless night..." She teased, but her eyes were radiant.

"There's more...but I seem to have suddenly forgotten the rest... My heart is breaking, for it woke from dreams of you...No, no...wait... A dying moonlight, a waking day, a calm on all but me... an echo to my heart...I'm sorry, Elizabeth, for the life of me, I can't remember the rest. I'm afraid I do not possess Charles Bingley's talent at recitation." He smiled sheepishly at her, the boyishness twinkling in his eyes for a few moments, before disappearing once again.

Her eyes danced with merriment at his unexpected display of vulnerability. His fleeting boyishness was utterly devastating, so completely incongruent with his dark physicality. The contrast added an entirely new dimension to his persona. Who was this man? The intended meaning of his words registered. She looked down on the ground before her, its pebbles a shining ribbon amidst the grass. Were his sentiments true? Or was he toying with her? Sensing her indecision, he resumed speaking, adding apologetically,

"My pathetic attempt at writing a ghazal..."

"A ghazal?"

"A Persian love poem."

Her mouth formed a perfectly rounded "O". It took all his self-restraint to refrain from kissing it senseless.

He drew nearer. He was so near, that she gave in to a tantalizing urge, reaching up to run her fingertip over the silken blackness of one brow. He raised his hand instead, clasping her fingers and brought them to his mouth, feathering a soft kiss on her skin. Both felt the same inexplicable thrill and his fingers closed over hers with more force than he intended.

"Excuse me," he instantly said, but did not release his grip. Rather, he rose, and placing his other hand under her arm, he drew her from the bench as though she were more fragile than moonbeams.

They stood intimately close. Finally, William's better judgment brought him back sharply to time and place. He moved back half a step and said in a normal voice, which took enormous effort to produce under the circumstances.

"Perhaps we should..."

"...resume where we left off..." she interjected, the words reverberating boldly in her ears.

"Would that be before, or after, you closed the door?" He asked intently, his dark eyes delving into hers.

"Why before...my lord," she answered, a smile flitting across her lips.

"William," he murmured.

It took her several seconds to respond. When she did, her voice was imbued with sumptuous possibility.

"William," she finally replied.

The Gardiners, out for a post-reception stroll, had witnessed the entire interchange, hidden from view by the shade of a nearby mulberry tree. Edward turned to his spouse, whispering conspiratorially,

"I cannot imagine what has led to such an astonishing transformation in the man."

Madeline arched an amused brow at his query.

"Can you not?" she answered, leaving the question suspended in the air like a delicate cloud of mist.

~ * ~

Charles Bingley, the great bear of a man, was nervous. Netherfield was quiet again, quiet with the hushed anticipation of his wedding night.

His valet had scurried and fussed, throwing him knowing glances, until Charles, with uncharacteristic curtness, dismissed him. Filled with nervous anticipation, he paced the blue rug, stopping from time to time in front of his mirror; adjusting the part in his curly hair, tightening the sash around his robe. The unbearable anticipation of the past month had become replaced by a cold fear - this was no skilled courtesan or lusty wench - this was his beautiful, virginal Jane.

He had fantasized about their first night time and again, but being Bingley, had glossed over the details, now he wasn't sure how to proceed. He had considerable skill and knowledge at his disposal, but lacked a strategy. Damn, where was Darcy when a friend needed him? He shook his head at his own thoughts. Was he a complete and utter lunatic to require his friend's advice at such a time?

Jane stood at the connecting chamber door, smiling. She could read him so easily. Her earlier hesitation had disappeared on witnessing her husband's unease. She smiled at his disarming nervousness.

"Darling," she said quietly. He turned sharply at the sound of her voice, tumbling over a small chair.

"Damn..." he muttered under his breath, flustered at the sight of his wife clad in a softly draping cream peignoir.

She looked about the room, deciding where best to sit. Her eyes rested on the bed, coverlets invitingly turned down on one side. She walked toward it, her curves deliciously outlined by the moving silk, and sat down. Charles stood rooted to the floor.

"Charles..." She implored, holding her hand out. Suddenly a frown crossed her forehead, she sprang up and whipped the covers off the bed, exclaiming, "I knew it! It felt too lumpy! What is all this?"

Arrayed under the down coverlet, lay a colorful assortment of feathers, bells, and silk ties... Jane picked up a large carved jade ring, with a jeweled knob on one side.

"Isn't this lovely! But too large for my finger, perhaps my wrist?" Charles strode toward the bed and grabbed the ring from her hands, his face beet red.

"Remind me to challenge Richard Fitzwilliam to a duel tomorrow!"

Jane paused, and a slow blush crept up her cheeks. "Oh. I see."

Then, unable to resist the temptation, she slowly withdrew a long feather from the bed and playfully tickled Charles on the nose.

He burst out laughing.

The tension in the room subsided and his old confidence returned in full force... to Jane's utter delight and complete satisfaction.

Hours later, the couple lay in a satiated, warm tangle of limbs, Charles playfully curling Jane's hair around his fingers, basking in the newness and ardor of their shared intimacy.

"Love..." she whispered, her voice heavy with sex and fulfillment, "if you're not too ...er... tired, could we try that again? If you don't mind of course."

He chuckled, "Why would I mind? Pleased to be of service, my lady."

"Not as pleased as I," she purred.

"Wait till I have my way with you next time..." he ran his fingers over her neck, down the cleft between her breasts.

"You mean it can be better? Impossible!"

He laughed. "It will be better and much slower, and longer. But you must promise not to scream."

Jane's eyes flared with astonishment. "I didn't scream!"

"Yes, you did," he whispered into her ear as his hand skimmed across her stomach.

"How can I face the servants tomorrow?"

"Who said you're leaving the bed tomorrow," his hand began a skillful assault of her throbbing flesh. "I intend on keeping you in bed all week long, fully occupied."

She began writhing her hips to his rhythm, panting.

"As long as we agree on the agenda... darling wife," he added, lowering his head.

"Which is?" She moved her hips higher.

"Everything you want... twice." He tipped his head, held her taut, and delicately licked her, "But you must promise to be very quiet." He drew her in his mouth, and suckled.

"If you insist, my love," She answered, arching her back as the first ripples of ecstasy shot through her belly and thighs, and Charles smiled through the taste and scent of her; replete, content, and most pleasantly astounded at his young wife's unbridled sensuality.

Continue reading The Great Game here


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