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The Great Game

Chapter Eleven: Part One

"Now, in a case of a young girl, there are three sorts of kisses: the nominal kiss, the throbbing kiss, the touching kiss."

Kama Sutra: Chapter III (On Kissing)

Longbourn

Thomas Bennet peered at Elizabeth over his newspaper. Seated in the primrose colored dining room, he was enjoying a rare moment of peace and quietude on the morning following Jane's wedding. Exhausted from the previous day's festivities, the remainder of the household was not expected to make an appearance till much later, if at all. The entire wedding had been more trying than Thomas Bennet had anticipated. Fanny's colorful histrionics throughout the day had peaked and eventually overflowed, unsettling even his staunchly hardened countenance. He sighed, looking over toward Elizabeth. She gave him a quick smile in return, while helping herself to the sideboard where a hot plate of steaming pancakes, ham and sausage beckoned deliciously.

"You're up early Lizzie. Going riding?" He enquired, noting her café au lait riding habit. He was immeasurably relieved to see her wearing a split skirt rather than her habitual breeches. Fanny's furor over her customary riding attire must have finally registered with his daughter.

Elizabeth settled herself across from him, separated by a simple vase of early autumn roses. She began buttering her warm pancakes, and answered in a modulated tone, "I promised Earl Pemberton a visit of the surrounding countryside before he leaves for London today."

Thomas Bennet lowered his newspaper and folded it with deliberate precision. An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Like most, Thomas had heard and read of the Earl's exploits in India. He was familiar with Edward Gardiner's rising position in the Earl's merchant fleet. He viewed the man with distant respect tinged by a modicum of curiosity: a wealthy aristocrat, exotic, adventurous, out of his reach, and most definitely out of his league. Elizabeth's words took him by surprise. Why the interest in his Lizzie? He'd felt prickly all morning, images of his eldest daughter in her new husband's arms unsettling his mind. With a harsher tone than intended, he responded curtly,

"I see."

Elizabeth's lashes fluttered in surprise. Her father rarely displayed any strong emotion, Fanny Bennet having an exclusive monopoly in that particular arena. Surely riding with the Earl was allowed? Rules were laxer in the countryside and she had rarely felt constrained by her father's insistence on propriety in the past. Once again, Fanny had demarcated that territory very early in her life, but only when it suited her machinations. He must be brooding over Jane...she mused. Hoping to assuage his melancholia, she decided to bring it into the light,

"It's strange, knowing Jane will no longer be here, knowing she's at Netherfiled. I miss her already."

"Don't change the topic so quickly, child," he said quietly.

Her spine stiffened in response, "What is it, Father?"

He braced both arms on the table and rose, fixing her with an intense glare.

"What exactly is the nature of your relationship with the Earl?"

She was taken aback by his direct attack.

"I...we are acquaintances. I met him on the Channel crossing, then in London a few times, at the ball and...yesterday."

"Is he courting you?" he demanded briskly.

She cast her eyes down on the table linen, a flush spreading across her cheeks. She did not answer. In truth, she was afraid of voicing her answer. A part of her feverishly hoped this was, indeed, a beautiful courtship; the shawl, their moonlight dance, the ghazal, all seemed to reach beyond mere gallantry. In fact, she felt distinctly and deliciously pursued by a most skilled and dangerous hunter.

Were his arrows those of desire or of true love?

The answer eluded her grasp.

Perhaps her fear lay in her own indecision about the Earl.

Thomas Bennet gentled his voice, noting her apparent discomfiture.

"Please forgive my brusqueness. I am concerned only with your safety and happiness. Your mother and I have allowed you much latitude, Lizzie, perhaps too much. William Darcy is no green country squire. He's a seasoned soldier, a skilled diplomat, extremely wealthy and worldly. I presume he will replace his father in the House of Lords. He's a powerful man, child. I am somewhat surprised his interest lies in my little girl - when he could have his pick of any rich and titled heiress in London."

His words cut to the quick. She'd harbored similar thoughts herself. Somehow hearing her father's voice express them clearly and bluntly - crystallized each burgeoning doubt in a painful manner. William Darcy's wealth and power appeared to grant him immunity against the vagaries of class distinctions. Yet, she was acutely aware of society's views in such matters. Did she possess the fortitude to withstand attacks from the wicked tongues of the ton if their acquaintance flourished?

At the same time, her woman's pride bristled upon hearing such a casual dismissal of her suitability. She was no great beauty, like Jane, but over the years she'd learned that men were pulled in her direction. Little girl, indeed!

"What are you insinuating, Father?" she whispered, her eyes round with accusation.

Her clear, intense gaze momentarily disarmed his train of thought. His fatherly instinct, so often dormant over the

past years, combined with a male awareness of predatory behavior toward his favorite daughter, seemed to awaken a new sense of protectiveness, one he was not entirely comfortable with.

"I am implying that a wide divide exists between his situation and ours. I do not wish to see you hurt, child."

"I can look after myself, Father," she answered defiantly, rising from the table with a jarring scrape of her chair on polished hardwood, her eyes burning with a steely fire.

Thomas Bennet was struck, once again, by her sheer independence of spirit - a quality he admired above all others. She embodied a strength, an inner fire, which he'd always aspired to, but had yet to achieve in his lifetime. William Darcy's interest intensified the possessive tug he'd nurtured over the years toward his daughter. He yearned to grasp on to her unique spark a trifle longer, knowing that in the end, another male would be the recipient of its entire glory. He did not want to relinquish his tenuous grasp. It embodied one of the few pleasures in his life. And yet, deep down he knew... for Elizabeth to flourish, he had to release his hold. There in lay his conundrum. Was the Earl to be trusted? Was he a good man? Was he capable of offering her that which she deserved?

He answered her with a resigned sigh, "It's a man's world, Elizabeth."

He circled the table, deposited a light kiss on her forehead, and quickly took his leave.

She remained standing, a crumpled napkin clenched tightly in her hand, her mind working through what had been both spoken and left unsaid. Her father was not a demonstrative man. He had not kissed her in years. A bittersweet realization settled somewhere deep within, landing like a cool mist of rain, tempering the harsh reality of his last words; in his own circuitous way, her father had admitted to loving her, very deeply.

Chapter Eleven: Part Two

Seated on her gray mare, Elizabeth waited in the autumn morn. Her heart felt heavy. Her mind reverberated with unanswered questions, doubts, and a sinking sensation that her world was spinning out of her reach.

Had she been right in acknowledging her attraction to the Earl? Had she been unduly presumptuous in encouraging him?

Upon hearing his attempt at poetry, her heart had melted. Despite her inexperience, she knew she had mysteriously fallen in the hands of a man who oddly blended power with sensitivity, who embodied unbearable lightness in a sea of darkness; whispering of sensual promise and raw intensity.

How could one not succumb to his potent charm?

Instinctively, she sensed his finesse, his delicate skill, had been honed by years of experience.

How many other women had been affected by his touch? Would she be the last? More importantly, was she the recipient of heartfelt emotion or a beautifully crafted seduction?

She heard his approach before her eyes discerned his figure in the distance. The thud of powerful hoof beats echoed thunderously in her heart as she squinted in the early morning sun. Astride on his large Arabian, in buff breeches and tweeds, he seemed, from afar, the very picture of a country gentleman.

Until he came into clear view.

Then his magnificent classic beauty crystallized; a patrician nose, bone structure so splendid any sculptor would weep with envy, heavy dark brows slashing above deep-set eyes, remarkable for their luminosity, and his tall, broad-shouldered frame, elegant yet unmistakably feral. He was no ordinary man; he was extraordinary in his startling physical presence. Elizabeth's eyes lifted to the sharp-cut planes of his face. He smiled.

A soul-stopping smile.

Pulled in by its luxurious warmth, she began feeling her earlier doubts dissipate. Like billowing clouds chased away by a strong wind, they disappeared into the morning sky, leaving her with a sense of weightlessness, tinged with a delicious anticipation of the unknown

He pulled up alongside her mare. "Good morning, Elizabeth," he said, his voice deep and rich. Aviral's skin glistened with sweat. He must have galloped from Netherfield... she thought.

"Good morning, William," she answered lightly.

"You lead, I follow," he said quietly. She was momentarily taken aback, her mind weighing his words. Then, urging her mare, she broke into a canter, down the tree-lined lane, into the open fields, William keeping an easy pace behind her.

As they cantered along the open vistas, flanked by a forest on one side and flat-topped hills and dales on the other, he breathed deeply, the air slipping like dry white wine down his throat and into his lungs. The rich earthy aroma of the woodland, fallen leaves and crisp morning air was both heady and intoxicating. With Elizabeth as guide, they traversed the picturesque countryside at a brisk pace. He, but a few strides behind her, observed her riding with a seasoned eye.

She was riding astride. He smiled wistfully; wishing for a moment for the breeches she had worn in London. She was a skilled rider - completely at ease on her mount, holding her reins with a casualness only the best riders developed. Her chestnut brown hair tied simply by a ribbon, she seemed in harmony with the natural beauty of their surroundings. She knew the terrain intimately, occasionally pointing out features of interest to him. Yet, mostly, they rode in silence - enjoying their unfettered solitude, both aware of an unusual sensation. Unusual for William as he hadn't felt it for years, equally unusual for Elizabeth, as she normally sought it out on her own. They both felt - comfort.

Pulling up by a small clearing near the forest edge, she pointed to a nearby stream, its breeze rippled waters visible through the trees.

"Why don't we stop here and let the horses rest?"

They tethered both animals near the stream, allowing each to graze near the water's edge. Elizabeth rested on a fallen trunk, while William leaned against a tree. A rich layer of leaves carpeted the woodland floor - shades of russet, orange, and tawny pink. It had been a particularly fine summer; the leaves were dry and crackling - satisfying. Fronds of gold and apricot fell about them as a light breeze rustled through the trees. Elizabeth smiled whimsically, held out her hand - and let a leaf land delicately on her outstretched palm. A dog barked in the distance. She turned to William, a beguiling smile radiating across her features, and spread her arms out.

"Welcome to my home! I've been bringing my horse to this stream since I've been old enough to ride."

He slid down the trunk and sat on the carpet of moss and scattered leaves, his back against the tree, one long leg bent at the knee.

"I suddenly find myself in the presence of a wood nymph," he said softly.

She laughed and his heart somersaulted at the sound. "I'm happy outdoors, if that is your meaning." He gave her a long, searching look.

"You would find the Himalayas most appealing..." And in his rich, deep voice, he began telling her of his time in India. He spoke of the majesty of the mountains, the magic of its people. She listened, enraptured by his words, the warmth in his eyes. He seemed to bring the sights, sounds and scents of the distant and exotic land into the clearing. He touched on the exploration of the mountain passes and was surprised at her grasp of the facts. She was obviously well read and had a probing intellect.

"The secret passes of the Himalayas figure prominently in tribal legends; ogres, fairies, evil demons and mysterious abductions of people who have vanished without a trace, never to be seen again. Many natives view the passes as a sacred legacy from their forefathers, protected by vengeful spirits against foreign explorers."

"Why attempt to cross them, then?" Elizabeth enquired, fascinated by his tales.

"Because, whichever power gains mastery of the mountains can potentially control the Far East. Alexander the Great proved it. His exploits are venerated by many a British soldier in the East."

"The missions sound extremely dangerous, William."

"Therein lies their appeal for many."

"Danger holds appeal for you?" she asked innocently.

He smiled at her question. "It did, at the beginning. There is a certain seductive appeal in testing one's limits, tempting the gods. But I believe its glow has worn off, personally at least. There comes a time to return to one's homeland, to one's duties..."

"What of Britain's conquests abroad, surely there is much work to be done in India. I have read of barbaric local customs, such as suttee."

"I, too, at first, fervently believed in converting to our British ideals. But, over time, I have begun to question our quest for supremacy. Do we have the right to erase ancient cultures, customs, in the name of progress?"

Elizabeth looked at him with wide-eyed astonishment. "Surely, you do not condone burning widows on their husband's funeral pyres? Your views would not garner much support in the House of Lords!"

He was taken aback by her boldness of expression. Young women did not as a rule express such blunt opinions. "Are you a bluestocking, Elizabeth?" He asked, his tone gently teasing.

Her cheeks colored at his seemingly innocuous question. Bluestockings were regarded with a measure of disdain by many men, particularly in the fashionable London ton.

"Is a woman not entitled to her own opinions?" she demanded in a bristly tone.

"I respect women with strong opinions," he said, "...as long as they don't deviate too far from mine," he added with quiet authority.

She raised an eyebrow at his response. Arrogant man! But oh so charmingly arrogant! "In the interest of harmony, we shall have to agree to disagree. Perhaps I need to travel to India and see what you speak of myself. Maybe, one day, I will." She announced with a youthful conviction he found strangely arousing.

"Perhaps, you will...one day. Although, there is much contentment to be found in staying in the countryside and raising a family, I imagine."

She felt her cheeks warming. What was he alluding to? "I don't believe family and travel need to be mutually exclusive."

Good, he thought, she has strong ideas, but a remarkable fluidity of mind as well.

"No, of course not." He replied noncommittally. "Speaking of travel and family, I will be hosting a gathering at my country estate in Derbyshire, in three weeks, in honor of Jane and Charles. I was hoping to personally extend an invitation to you and your family."

"My entire family?" Her eyes widened in astonishment.

"Why, yes. Pemberley can easily accommodate several dozen guests."

She laughed, tossing her head, a few brown curls escaping from her hair ribbon. "As you well know, having met the entire clan at the Bingley wedding, I have three younger and highly spirited sisters. My mother can be an insufferable bundle of nerves, and my father's wit is known in the area for its bite and sarcasm. Consider yourself duly warned."

"Thank you for your consideration, Elizabeth. They cannot be worse than the Bengali tigress Richard and I hunted down in Kashmir."

"The tigress... Is that why you have a scar on your chin?" She couldn't resist the question. It had been a topic of conversation in many salons in London.

He flashed her a devastating smile. "No, I'm afraid I cannot divulge the story behind the scar...yet."

"Why ever not?" she teased. "I'm sure there are several bets in White's Book as to its origin."

"You know of the Betting Book?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

"Everyone knows of the Betting Book! Now, will you divulge the story?"

"No." he answered firmly.

"You are most cruel. You're playing with me."

"No, I detest playing games, Elizabeth." He answered quietly, his tone serious suddenly, his eyes darkening.

She looked away, feeling a heavy sensation descend upon her. Changing the subject she asked.

"Tell me of your family."

"There's not much to tell. 'Tis just myself and my little sister, Georgiana."

She looked puzzled. "But, I thought..."

"Yes, I have a step-mother, Helena. She is not family, Elizabeth. Both my parents are dead. My father died last year," he answered curtly.

His expression changed, the eyes hooded, masked. She was treading on delicate territory, yet she felt compelled to continue.

"And your mother?"

He interrupted her brusquely, rising swiftly to his feet, flicking leaves from his breeches.

"English officers do not discuss their mothers; it's considered a sign of weakness, or bad form. Both, I imagine." He smiled a melancholy smile, then added, wanting to soften the abruptness of his words, "Someday, I will capitulate and tell you of my mother."

He stood before her, extending his hand. "Come. We should be on our way." It was a distinct command, speaking of years of authority.

"I'm not accustomed to taking orders," she replied, tilting her chin upward and not accepting his offered hand.

His lips curled in a slow upturn, while the smile eventually reached the jungle blackness of his eyes. "And I am not accustomed to such spirited defiance. But, I do admit it is most alluring."

He stepped nearer and ran his finger along the line of her jaw, savoring the simple beauty of her closeness, while ignoring her defiant stance.

"You are so very beautiful..." he said at last. With the yellow gold forest behind her, the ochre and russet leaves framing her dark beauty she seemed to suddenly belong to the trees, the leaves, to the silvery stream rippling behind her.

"Have I told you I adore you?" he stated quietly, his voice deep, soft and very near. He wasn't aware of his own words at first, but her sharp intake of breath brought their reality to his consciousness. He had not intended to declare himself so soon. Had she woven a spell around him?

She gazed back at him directly, her eyes dark and luminous. She felt herself pulled in several tangents.

Damn the man! Why did he have such a potent effect on her? Why was he so maddeningly seductive? Was adoration the equivalent of love?

Against her embattled will, she felt herself fill with light, and the earth around her appeared to shimmer. A heat rose through her body, fanned by the deep timbre of his voice, the autumn morning, and tinkling sound of the stream. A dragonfly flew near and through the dappled shadows of the clearing, hovered above them.

William debated inwardly how long to savor this stunningly absolute suspension of time, gauging it against the delicious possibilities of the unknown. Until meeting Elizabeth, he had never let his emotions become involved. The pursuit of pleasure and women had been predictable, easily maneuvered. He knew how he would feel before, during and after. Only variations and subtleties changed. Now, suddenly, he did not know.

This was no ordinary woman.

His emotions were becoming excruciatingly overwhelming. He gazed at her ravenously, feeling perilously close to losing control. But his years in India had tempered his urges, had taught him the rituals of self-restraint, and he called all his expertise into play.

He would proceed with infinite care, slowly, cautiously - she was an innocent.

He had always preferred experienced women in the past; expectations were clear, complications rarely arose. Young virgins were new and unexplored territory. He swore silently to himself.

Hell! This was no simple dalliance! He yearned to infiltrate every fiber of her being. He desired to possess her very essence, to cradle her in his arms and protect her from harm.

Summoning his self-command, he stilled his rampant urges and willed his heartbeat to a slow and even tempo.

Bending toward her sitting form, he kissed her softly. His mouth touching hers was all that young girls dream - possessive yet gentle, moving across the softness of her lips like a fragrant breeze. A slow, patient kiss, gently exploring hinted textures, radiating wonder and discovery. He leaned back, taking in the forest, the beauty of the woman before him and leaning closer again, his lips brushing hers, his breath warm against her mouth, he said,

"Thank you for this morning..." savoring each and every simple word, then he added hoarsely, "...we should be loving."

And suddenly, he laughed, embarrassed and secretly chagrined at his words, "I meant to say leaving..." And she laughed too; relieved he shared in her sense of bewilderment.

"A slip of the tongue..." She said.

"Yes, Elizabeth, a slip of the tongue." He replied softly, extending his hand once again toward her.

She rose this time, taking his hand, her earlier resistance to his authority obliterated by his words; the playing field had been equalized for a time. Curiously, she felt a surge of female power, a strange energy, knowing that somehow she held the ability to disturb his vaunted equilibrium. Perhaps elements of the game remained? Acutely aware of each other's proximity, a shifting tension between them, they moved together in silence to untie the horses.

Soon, their figures could be seen galloping toward Longbourn, framed by the changing colors of the autumn countryside, each one lost in thoughts of the other.

Chapter Twelve: Part One

"The following are the causes of the destruction of a woman's chastity: absence of restraint...want of caution in her relations with other men... living in a foreign country... the company of loose women."

Kama Sutra: Chapter VI ( About The Women Of The Royal Harem)

Vauxhall Gardens*, London; three days later.

The two dark haired men entered through Vauxhall's main gate and strolled along the Grand Walk, joining a teeming throng of revelers, fashionables, demi-monde and commoners. Ambling down the tree-lined avenue, past statues, illuminated fountains, flowered walks and hidden arbors, the pair wended their way toward the Central Grove and its Gothic Temple. An orchestra played this evening, the closing night of the Gardens for the season. Supper boxes arranged in semicircular rows about the Grove overflowed with merry guests. A balloonist was expected to ascend into the sky and London's fashionable world had come out in full force to witness the aerial excursion.

A strategically situated supper-box was awaiting the duo and soon both men were seated in full view of the crowds milling about. They made a striking pair; one tall and saturnine, the other shorter in stature but possessing a muscled physique. Both men's features were etched with strong, taut lines, as if a magnetic current existed between the two.

Sipping on a glass of burgundy, Wickham turned to his companion and enquired in a tone dripping with sarcasm,

"Public enough for you? Frankly, I'm disappointed in your choice of venue - Vauxhaull lost its cachet years ago."

"I am neither seeking nor expecting your approval. You gave Melbourne your word, now play the part."

"And which part might you be alluding to?" Wickham smirked, " The reconciled half-brother, the retired soldier, or your step-mother's paramour?"

"Bloody hell, Wickham, behave yourself! If I am not mistaken, she happens to be your step-mother as well." William muttered through clenched teeth, a throbbing pulse apparent at his temple.

"Ah. But since very few are aware of the facts, 'tis a mere technicality; one which adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the equation."

"You have no scruples."

"Very true, and I have never pretended to, my man," he answered, taking another sip of wine. "You've outlined my role at Pemberley quite clearly, but I do have one request...concerning the bed chamber assignment...to spare us any undue discomfort..."

"Fine," William interrupted, "I don't give a damn what clandestine activities you and Helena engage in. I will, however, demand discretion on your part, for Georgiana's and our guests' sakes."

Wickham's lips curled in a lazy smile, "Have you ever known me to be indiscreet?" he drawled. "And how is my dear little half-sister?"

"She's well. You are to stay away from her. Understood?" William commanded.

"Perfectly. By the way, I have noticed a surprisingly large number of Bennets on the guest list. Would one of these be a certain luscious brunette, last seen at the Opera House with an enthralled Earl at her side?"

William stared at the crowds strolling before them, focusing his entire energy on retaining the last shreds of his self-control. Hellfire and damnation! He could throttle the man! Instead, he remained silent, refusing to grant him the satisfaction of an answer. The import of William's silence was not entirely lost on Wickham. Sensing the limit of his dinner companion's patience, he raised his hand in mock peace, "Very well, I shall desist. You always were possessive of your women, Panther. A pity, really, I, on the other hand, don't mind sharing. Look, there goes that Coulter fellow in the balloon!"

Both men turned their heads toward the colorful spectacle floating up in the night sky. A hissing blue magenta flame lit up the Gardens as the balloon hovered above the captivated crowd.

"A magnificent rise - wouldn't you say?"

"Yes, magnificent" William agreed, for the first time that evening.

Netherfield; a week following the wedding.

James opened the heavy front door letting in a gust of early autumn chill along with the imposing forms of the Earl of Matlock and Pemberton, newly arrived from London. Divesting the travelers from their dusty cloaks, hats and canes, he escorted the pair to the drawing room, clearing his throat with slight embarrassment.

"Master Bingley is still ... ahemm...occupied, my lords. Perhaps I can offer you brandy while you warm up by the fire?"

Richard Fitzwilliam settled himself in a commodious armchair, flicking specks of dust from his breeches.

"A double please, if you don't mind, James," turning to William he grinned impudently in his direction, "the devil, and it's only mid-day. 'Gives an entirely new meaning to rusticating in the country."

William appeared not to have heard his words. Standing by a recessed window, he looked pensively towards a grove of poplars and birches in the distance. His return to Netherfield had brought back vivid memories of Elizabeth and their shared moments. They had parted on friendly terms, a week earlier, with the promised meeting at Pemberley soothing the ache of their adieus. Despite this, he felt raw; exposed to a new vulnerability, which he found strangely disconcerting. Truth be told, he longed to ride to Longbourn , sweep her onto Aviral and gallop away, far away. But he could not. Minutes trickled by. James came and went, solicitously looking after the men's comfort.

Suddenly, the doors burst open and Charles strode in; curly hair disheveled- hastily tying the sash of his dressing robe, a self-satisfied grin on his face. William turned from the window and asked, irritation lacing his voice,

"What took you so long?"

With customary good nature, Charles ignored his tone and moved toward the brandy decanter, pouring himself a generous drink. Thinking William the only occupant in the room, he announced jubilantly,

"I swear, I think I've sired an heir!"

Richard, partially hidden in the recesses of his fauteuil, raised a glass in mock salute.

"Congratulations, Bear! And you've only been married a week! Can the poor woman ambulate?"

Charles' color turned crimson. Richard, unable to resist, continued, "Shall we place some bets on her date of confinement?"

To his complete surprise, William registered for the first time Charles' discomfort, taking in his disheveled appearance, the ruddiness in his cheeks. Blazes! He was distracted! This was Bear's honeymoon, after all.

"Our deepest apologies for disturbing your honeymoon. Under normal circumstances I would have waited, but there's a matter of considerable urgency we need to discuss."

The topic of Bingley's progeny was quickly forgotten as William outlined, in precise detail, his visit with Lord Melbourne, Wickham's dealings in London and the upcoming party at Pemberley. The territory was familiar; all three had shared in complex missions in India. Yet, a sense of discomfort crept into their discussion. This operation was being staged on homeland soil, family and loved ones were involved, uncertainties abounded. An hour later, following a heated discussion analyzing possibilities and permutations, William rose to take his leave.

"We must be on our way, Charles. Please give our best to your lovely wife."

Charles escorted the pair out the door, a concerned frown on his face.

"You are certain the risk is minimal, Panther? Having a wife changes one's view of these operations. I will not allow her safety or that of her family to be jeopardized."

"I share in your concerns. We're dealing with probabilities. It is highly possible that the other side will not even show itself. In such a case, the only certainty I can offer is that the grouse hunting promises to be most excellent."

"And Wickham absolutely must attend?" Charles asked for the third time in the course of their discussion.

"That point, unfortunately, is not open for negotiation. I hope I can count on your civility where he is concerned?" William enquired, pointedly looking in Richard's direction.

"But, can we count on his?" Richard muttered under his breath.

"That, remains to be seen." William answered as they exited the hallway. Richard threw one last volley at his old colleague,

"Oh and Bear...until today, I've held the notion that honeymooning was a decidedly overrated occupation. Obviously, I was mistaken."

Suppressing a chuckle, James closed the heavy door before his flustered master could formulate a suitable reply.

* Vauxhaull Gardens: The Gardens formally closed on the last day of August each year. For the purposes of the story I have "extended" their season to the end of September.

Chapter Twelve: Part Two

Pemberley, Derbyshire

William's two weeks at Pemberley had granted him seclusion but little solace. Within setting foot at his ancestral home - peace of mind had flown - and no measure of relief could be found from his powerful memories. Wisps of conversations, events, faces, and whispers followed him throughout the great house. Recollections of images, fragments of music, infiltrated his thoughts despite valiant attempts to dissipate each and every one. His mother's harp and pianoforte seemed to call forth from the music room, while his father's portrait stared sardonically from its perch above the dining room mantelpiece.

As each day flowed painfully into the next, William's insomnia worsened and grew. When his body finally succumbed to restless sleep, his slumber was inevitably filled with recurrent nightmares. The disturbing dreams populated his subconscious like familiar yet uninvited guests; their taunting presence disrupting years of imposed self-control, of hard-won equilibrium. Phantom scenes repeated themselves over and over; the picnic at Lake Windermere, his mother's form tumbling into the water, her dark skirts swirling about...and the horrid instant where she let go his hand...and he lost her. He would wake, bathed in sweat, his heart pounding, unable to draw a single breath. Slowly, excruciatingly, the sensations would subside; leaving him feeling empty and despondent.

Despite the unending array of planning, activity, and distractions in preparation for the week-long festivities, he could not dislodge the potent images from his mind. He resolved to long rides on Aviral, deep into the forests of his childhood, hoping to erase plaguing memories with long excursions in the picturesque countryside. But distance and weariness proved to be poor antidotes to his suffering and his restless agitation persisted.

His past was colliding fearfully with his present.

He sensed the strange conflagration to be beyond his control - a situation he both detested and deplored. Georgiana proved to be a small respite in the darkness of his weeks, yet her sunny smiles held little power against the tide of black emotion swirling within. He marveled at her lightness of spirit and her effortless absorption in the minutiae of living. Perhaps youth and being a woman had somehow protected her from the fallout of losing both parents. He was struck by the irony of it all; the older brother, an experienced soldier returned to nurture his sister, instead, was being comforted by her. Helena- he avoided studiously - and she, in turn, treated him with cool civility. A silent understanding existed between the two. Each one sensed a confrontation was inevitable, but each bided their time; two entities circling one another, awaiting the right moment to strike.

Upon closer reflection, William, accepted that some of his present turmoil involved Elizabeth. Part of him refused to acknowledge the tumult he was experiencing might be that of tender passion. He had been without love for so long in his life, that his capacity to recognize its presence, its very essence, had atrophied. A reticence lingered, honed by years of bachelorhood, years of being pursued by women rather than being the hunter. His considerable male ego balked at the notion of surrendering to love. Yes, he envisaged a future alongside her... but his calculating, logical self viewed it as a series of clear tasks to be accomplished with efficiency; focused goals, preset and attainable, with him in effective control.

Nothing had prepared him for the fitful disquietude of experiencing daily life, while longing for her nearness, aching for her presence. The emotion was brutally primitive and visceral.

So many loose ends, intangibles...

And tomorrow, she was due to arrive along with thirty guests in the middle of a covert espionage operation. Torn between duty to his country, his family, and the woman who was capturing his heart and imagination, William simmered with restlessness, finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a veneer of polite conventionality.

The entire household sensing his unusual state of mind, treaded lightly about. Ranjit, alone, maintained his calm façade, though even he was inwardly surprised at William's ferocity and seething undercurrents during their habitual Kalari exercises.

As William stalked into Pemberley, on the eve of the guests' arrival, weary yet wound up in both body and spirit, a pile of crimson leather luggage emblazoned with gold seals greeted him in the grand entranceway. He groaned inwardly; Lady de Bourgh and her retinue had arrived a day earlier than expected. How like his aunt to throw a wrench into his well-laid plans.

~ * ~

The clinking of silver on fine china reverberated in the claret dining room, and echoed in its deeply coffered ceiling, while Edward Darcy's distinguished face peered at his assembled family from a large oil canvas above the fireplace.

"Since we are dining en famille this evening," Lady de Bourgh announced in clipped tones, "I will air my views plainly. The chit is eminently unsuitable. Her family belongs to the lesser gentry. We cannot afford to dilute the Darcy bloodline with countrified stock. Your father would have been appalled, William."

Georgiana swallowed a bite of her roast capon hastily and steadfastly peered at the gold filigree on her plate. She had always been frightened of her aunt, and this evening's heated discussion concerning William's future was proving excessively disconcerting. She was aware that William was expected to marry some day but had been shocked upon hearing her aunt's words. Who was the woman in question?

Helena, smiled unctuously to herself; she had been instrumental in educating Lady Catherine on William's recent interest in the Bennet girl. London's socialites were abuzz following the Earl's attentions at the Opera; it was even rumored that they had been seen riding unchaperoned in Hyde Park. Only she knew of the letter, her trump card.

"Care for more pigeon pie, Georgiana?" Helena queried smoothly, all grace and courtesy as befitted her station in the family.

"No, thank you, I fear my appetite is somewhat diminished this evening."

Ignoring his aunt's scathing words, William peered at his sister with concern, "Are you well, Georgiana?"

"Yes, yes, just a little apprehensive, what with all the guests arriving tomorrow. 'Tis all."

"I demand an answer to my query, William." Lady Catherine interjected haughtily.

William placed his fork carefully by his plate, while his right hand grasped the thick silver handle of his dinner knife. His knuckles were white with fury, yet his face betrayed nothing.

"Your interest in the Darcy bloodline is most heartwarming, dearest aunt. I must, however, point out that as undisputed head of this family, I refuse to be dictated to. My private affairs shall remain private. I will ask you to refrain from intruding into these matters. As for the young lady in question, she is an acquaintance, and not my betrothed. In her defense, she remains eminently suitable regardless of your expressed opinions. If you'll excuse me ladies, I have much to attend to before our guests' arrival tomorrow. Good evening."

William rose and strode out of the dining hall. Lady de Bourgh remained speechless for several minutes. Finally, rising, she turned to Helena and sputtered angrily, "Well! I never...He is just like his father! I suddenly feel unwell. Where is my vinaigrette*?" A footman escorted her solicitously out of the room, leaving Georgiana and Helena alone at the long table.

"Gooseberry fool, for dessert, Georgiana?" Helena enquired softly, a triumphant note to her voice.

"No, thank you, I think I shall repair to the music room and practice the pianoforte. I'm working on a piece by a new composer. You might know him Helena; he hails from Poland."

"Who is he?" Helena enquired, mildly interested.

"Frederic Chopin." Georgiana answered while quickly exiting the room, a relieved expression on her face, leaving her stepmother to savor her bittersweet victory in solitude.

~ * ~

As carriages discharged their occupants onto Pemberley's glorious surroundings, Mrs. Reynolds stood below stairs, a tablet with a sheaf of paper clasped in her capable hands. Like a general at a military exercise, she directed volleys of instructions to servants, valets, maids, footmen and under-footmen as they scurried about. The scene was one of organized mayhem. Turning toward a red-haired footman, she held out her hand, stopping him in mid-stride.

"Didn't I see you come by, a moment ago, headed in the opposite direction, young fellow?"

"No, ma'am, I'm Quentin with the Gardiner Party. Their coach is due any minute; we rode ahead. My twin brother Martin is with Lady de Bourgh's retinue." He smiled sheepishly, "We're identical twins, ma'am."

"I see, my mistake." Muttered the unflappable Mrs. Reynolds. Glancing at her papers, she peered at him under her spectacles, "You have been assigned to the bachelor's quarters. There will be a briefing of the entire staff in one hour. Attendance is mandatory. Now off you go." She waved him on and resumed her post. Quentin tipped his hat in her direction and ran off toward the stables.

~ * ~

The Gardiners' traveling coach clattered over a stone bridge overlooking peaceful green fields and a meandering river. Elizabeth peered out her window, awestruck by the verdant beauty of the surrounding countryside. They had traveled through wooded vales punctuated now and then by dramatic cliff tops. The jagged outcroppings of rocks and steeper slopes, held a rugged splendor in comparison to the soft rounded hills of home. She sensed a deeper mystery in the land, whispering of ancient tales and legends.

Lost in her thoughts throughout the journey, she had muttered occasional stilted responses to the Gardiners' questions. The older couple had eventually resorted to a quiet conversation, leaving Elizabeth cocooned in her own inner world. The remainder of her family had ridden ahead in a rented coach, and was to meet them at Pemberley. She was thankful for the Gardiners' generosity in allowing her to share their coach; the thought of dealing with her mother's inane chatter and her father's caustic innuendos was enough to induce a migraine.

She had dreamt of this moment for several weeks. Their last interlude had left a warm imprint on her mind, and she wished to reprise its tenderness. William, his presence, his words, his heady mix of strength and mystery, had infiltrated her daily thoughts. It was as if a fine silver thread had woven itself into the fabric of her mind, tugging and pulling insistently. The sensation was both intoxicating and unsettling. She longed to confide in Jane, to ascertain for herself that her wits were not addled. She needed confirmation that her insatiable thirst reached beyond mere desire. Yes, Jane would know...She had hardly spoken to her sister since the wedding; after a week at Netherfield, the Bingleys had repaired on a tour of the Lakes and were due to arrive at Pemberley today. Strange... how her entire family was convening at William's ancestral home...

Suddenly, a phalanx of trees dusted with ochre, ruby and olive-greened foliage framed her first glimpse of Pemberley.

Rising out of misty water, the classic façade of golden stone seemed to shimmer in the late afternoon sun. Graced by distinguished lines, its rows of windows appeared to reflect the surrounding forest, gardens and an ornamental lake. The entire tableau was one of poetic symmetry, as if the ancient stone patina and its surrounding natural backdrop had existed in balanced harmony for centuries.

How beautiful... Elizabeth caught her breath at the sight, grateful for the wide brim of her bonnet, lest the Gardiners catch her astounded reaction.

As the Gardiners' coach pulled up the circular drive, William turned to a fidgeting Georgiana beside him. The duo had stood for the past hour greeting guests on the front portico; Helena had pleaded a headache and had not joined the pair.

It was a fine autumn day, sunny and warm; the air redolent of pine needles and scattered leaves. Georgiana petted a small Bichon at her side. The puppy was a gift from William and had given her hours of enjoyment in the past weeks. Turning to her brother, she asked teasingly,

"May I be released from duty now?"

William smiled at his sister. She was a lovely mix of charm and mischievousness and the two had grown considerably closer during their shared time at Pemberley. A flicker of worry crossed his eyes; she was his sole responsibility and her safety was paramount this week.

Melbourne's men were stationed throughout the house in various roles. They were well trained and trustworthy. Both Charles and Richard had been briefed and at the last minute Mrs. Reynolds had been brought into the fold. Few details escaped her shrewd eyes and she had begun questioning the large presence of new staff at Pemberley. William had been surprised at her easy acceptance of the operation, until she reminded him, none too gently, that the previous Earl had shared in similar activities during William's tenure in India.

Yes, the stage was set, carefully and expertly. He fervently hoped no detail had been overlooked. The most difficult element, one he was battling internally, was to allow the drama to unfold on its very own accord. Elementally, it required relinquishing control and reacting to the events as they occurred. Not unlike your relationship with Elizabeth... he mused, suddenly struck by the similarities in both situations.

"Wait, there is one more party I would like you to greet." His tone, warm and expectant, made Georgiana take notice.

She observed a middle-aged couple alighting from the carriage, followed by a young, shapely woman in a wide brimmed bonnet. As the woman tipped her head, Georgiana was struck by her eyes; they could only be called beautiful - fringed by thick long lashes, they were infused with a rich warm depth, flecked with violet lights. How very unusual...

She noted how the eyes fastened themselves on William and seemed to acquire a veritable glow. Ah, she must be the one, I like her already...she thought, and decided to make a concerted effort to make her feel welcomed at Pemberley.

"Georgiana, allow me to introduce, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and...Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Georgiana curtsied prettily, and answered, "A pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Pemberley." She hesitated for a brief moment, then, catching her brother's enraptured expression, she scooped her Bichon and retreated into the house. She had an entire week to acquaint herself with Miss Elizabeth Bennet, best leave the two alone for now. William hung back, accompanying Elizabeth up the steps. As they were crossing the threshold, he turned toward her and enquired, his voice a mere whisper,

"Welcome to my home, Elizabeth...I hope you approve of it."

She smiled, her lips curling in a sumptuous upsweep, "What is there not to approve?"

*Vinaigrette: a small ornamental bottle or box for holding smelling salts.

Chapter Twelve: Part Three

Dinner had been a splendid affair. Under Mrs. Reynolds' watchful eye, the eight course meal, served a la russe, satisfied the most exigent of palates. A palpable anticipation hung in the air; many of the assembled guests had never set foot at Pemberley and were unaccustomed to its understated elegance and refinement. With baited breath, they awaited what other delights the week would bring forth. Jane and Charles, as the feted newlyweds, remained the focus of attention. Several parties noted the young couple's joyous felicity, apparent in Charles' enamored gazes and Jane's radiant glow.

As the gentlemen rejoined the ladies in the pale yellow drawing room, Richard raised his voice and turning toward Elizabeth, announced loudly,

"Miss Bennet, do sing for us, your rendition of Ave Maria, at the Bingleys' wedding, simply took my breath away."

Elizabeth felt a slow blush rising in her cheeks. The evening had been most trying in more ways than one. She had kept a worried eye on her mother, monitoring her from afar. To her relief, her mother's usual propensity for creating drama, where none existed, seemed tempered this evening. Her father had kept his distance and seemed little inclined to conversation, spending his time studiously examining various oils hung about the room. Her parents' uncharacteristic behavior, rather than soothing her frayed nerves, had the opposite effect; she felt taut with worry and apprehension.

Elizabeth was unaccustomed to such large gatherings, preferring a more intimate setting and quiet conversation with guests who shared common interests. The diversity of those assembled puzzled her. On the surface, each guest seemed connected to the Bingleys in one manner or another. Yet a strange undercurrent of unease infiltrated her senses, as if she was being watched by inquisitive and prying eyes.

William's very near presence had been disconcerting. Few opportunities had arisen for them to be alone, as a result she had resigned herself to the occasional smile, a furtive look, and once as he brushed by her skirts, the gentle touch of his hand on hers. How could she survive an entire week of this? Taking a deep breath, she responded to Richard's request, unable to dispel a note of irritation in her voice,

"I shall oblige, Lord Matlock, however, I refuse to submit to your flattery."

"My flattery was entirely sincere, Miss Bennet," Richard Fitzwilliam countered back, surprised at her sharp reply.

"'Tis an old maxim in the schools, that flattery's the food of fools..." she answered, with a raise of her eyebrows and moved toward the pianoforte.

Richard, gave her a long hard stare. The woman quotes Swift without missing a beat...

Elizabeth flicked a quick look toward William. Leaning against the fireplace mantle, splendidly attired in midnight blue wool flowing smoothly over his tall muscled form; he appeared very much the lord of the manor. A damask waistcoat in subtle tones of eggshell called attention to his tautly honed torso. He stood clean - shaven, bronze skinned, his dark obsidian eyes capturing hers for a brief moment. She wondered if anyone else noted his caressing gaze.

Richard registered the look with shock. He studied Elizabeth more closely. She was graced with a delicate beauty, but certainly not exceptional. What shone, instead, was a frank and lively mind, a youthful freshness of spirit. Her nature appeared as full of caprice as the English weather: clouds, sun, clouds...Yet, there was an underlying strength; this woman would play the game on her own terms or not at all...He suspected beneath the gentle façade lay a sensual and fiery soul; a woman who would make a man crawl through hell on his hands and knees. Blazes...Panther best keep his head about him this week...

Moving toward a large window swathed in pale avocado velvet, he scanned the room, and noticed Helena gritting her teeth at William's look of longing. George Wickham, standing by her side, appeared to register her reaction and with a quick look about him, rubbed the small of her back in an erotically possessive manner. The scoundrel is enjoying every minute of this...

Richard 's eye caught a feathered hair confection shaking with apparent indignation in a recessed corner of the drawing room. He smiled to himself, nodding his head. Caroline Bingley's attempts to look like a bird of paradise had failed again this evening. She appeared to be in a heated discussion with her sister Louisa, who in turn, was happily lost in the last of her syllabub.

Suddenly, the elegant form of Philippe appeared at Elizabeth's side. Richard wondered at the wisdom of inviting the ardent pup to Pemberley, given his apparent interest in Elizabeth. Lord Melbourne must have had his reasons for including the young man. Edging nearer he overheard their exchange,

"Why don't I accompany you on the pianoforte..." Phillippe murmured. He proceeded to sit himself at the pianoforte and leafed through a stack of sheet music. Gazing up at Elizabeth with an infatuated smile, he enquired quietly, "Handel's Ask if Yon Damask Rose, Elizabeth, just as we sang in Alençon?"

She graced him with a smile of relief, while Phillipe's nimble fingers struck Handel's opening chords.

Richard chuckled softly to himself. How precious! What an interesting week lay before them!

Suddenly, a sharp tap on his back caught his attention.

"What are you laughing at, my lord?"

"Ah. The fair Miss Lucas," he drawled, raking her over with his eyes. Dressed in icy blue peau de soie she looked fresh and dewy. She surprised him with a warm smile, one which to his utter astonishment, reached her eyes.

"May I have a word with you, in private?"

He raised his eyebrows at her request, mildly intrigued. "Right this moment?"

"Would it be a great inconvenience?" she queried smoothly.

"No, not at all," he answered, following her out the drawing room, his interest piqued.

He motioned to a small salon, and closed the door behind him.

Charlotte seated herself on a delicate Bergère chair and smoothed her skirts about her. Richard leaned languidly against the wall, externally dégagé, internally wondering what possible motives lay behind her unusual request. She looked him squarely in the eye, and began in a calm voice,

"I will get straight to the point. As you know, I am betrothed to Mr. Le Comte de Sèvres, we are to be married in three months. You, my lord, have demonstrated an inordinate interest in my person since our very first meeting."

She paused as if gathering her thoughts, Richard's lip curled in a half-smile, "please, do continue, you have my undivided attention."

"Since my future husband is elderly, and I will not be returning to England for some time, I would like to ask you for a great favor..."

"Yes?" he encouraged, shifting uncomfortably in his breeches.

"Would you grant me the privilege of your company for one afternoon, privately, and introduce me to..." she paused haltingly, taking a deep breath, she continued, "the pleasures of the flesh?"

"WHAT? Are you out of your mind?"

"You appear surprised, my lord, surely, this is not the first time you have been propositioned?" she asked, taken aback by his reaction.

Richard was completely astounded by her proposal. Had he misread her? Impossible! Years of female liaisons had attuned him to the smallest nuances in the behavior of the opposite sex. He could read women exceptionally well. He always had. Until now. Suddenly the flow of power shifted. His entire axis tilted and he felt...at a loss, as if his wings had been cruelly pinned by some external force. He was furious at her foolish proposal, yet equally furious at himself for his reaction.

"You're out of your depth, Miss Lucas. Virtue is its own reward," he answered her, his voice hushed and menacing.

"Yes, I know. I have my reasons."

"No, you do not know!" he said harshly, drawing near and standing above her, his expression fierce and wolf-like. His voice became silky smooth, like the blade of a well- polished knife. "What would your future husband say, if he found you to be not so innocent on your wedding night?"

She plucked nervously at her skirts, casting her eyes down. "He need not know. Marie assures me there are ways..."

"Oh really! What of honesty, decency, respect, being true to one man - or was that a game, Charlotte?"

She flinched at his tone, at his intimate use of her name.

Slowly, tears welled up in her eyes, and Richard's heart splintered. He could not bear to see her cry. He, who had been immune to female wiles and histrionics in the past...

"I found out he has a mistress and intends to keep her," she said, her voice dull and flat.

Richard burst out laughing. The sound was harsh and jarring, seeming out of place in the rose colored salon. He rifled his hand through his hair and began pacing the length of the salon. "I could have told you that. De Sevres is renowned for his generosity to his ladies. And there are more than one, let me assure you. He is famous for his lavish gifts, to make up for his lack of... shall we say... stamina."

"How do you know?" she whispered back, appalled at his words.

"I spent some time in Paris. We frequented the same ... establishments."

Charlotte's cheeks turned pink, a fact which Richard registered with bittersweet satisfaction. "Finally, you have the temerity to blush!" he stopped his pacing and fixed her with an angry glare, "my answer to you is NO!"

"N-no?" she stammered, incredulous at his refusal, "but you're a rake... rakes never say no."

"Well this one just has!" he announced flatly.

Her expression changed and tears flowed down her cheeks. "Please forgive me. I needed to know your true intent. I would never have carried out my request."

Richard stopped dead in his tracks, furious at her words.

"My TRUE intent? I was merely granting you the same attention I would any handsome woman in my presence."

Even as he uttered the words, they reverberated falsely in his mind, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. How dare she toy with him? Another voice answered back; did you not toy with her as well? Was her intent to turn the tables on him? If so, she had succeeded superbly! More importantly, what the blazes did he seek from her?

Deep within him, a burgeoning realization slowly grew and took hold. The feeling was new and raw. It grasped him with possessive force. And where, in the past, he would have fled into the arms of yet another woman, another night of drink and games, he remained still. He let the sensation wash over him, reveled in its warmth.

He cared for her, very much.

He longed for the gentling influence of her spirit, the elevating companionship she seemed to offer from afar.

"I see," she said flatly, slumping in her chair, her figure like that of a discarded doll.

Against his will, against years of bachelor habits, he found himself drawn toward her suddenly fragile form. He simultaneously wanted to run like the devil and strip open his soul. With a fluid motion, he crouched down beside her and placed his hand gently on hers.

"Charlotte..." he murmured, "this is... very new for me...this feeling...I'm at a loss... Oh Hell!...let's begin anew."

She gazed into the depths of his gray eyes. "I don't understand," she finally replied.

"You deserve much better than de Sevres. You deserve much more than the old me, but..."

She was hanging on his every word, "But?"

He smiled for the first time. It was not his old rakish grin, rather, a sweet and gently tempered version. She felt herself melting. "But, allow me some time... to court you... break off the engagement with de Sevres...stay a while in England...or perhaps I could go to France. I need to speak to your father... Let us go about this...properly," he shook his head, "let me gain your trust..."

"How?"

"By showing you and myself that I can relinquish my old ways..." he raised her hand and kissed it tenderly, respectfully.

"You already have begun..." she whispered, smiling through her tears.

"I have?" He enquired, puzzled, his voice throaty and his heart slamming in his chest.

"By saying no, this evening. I confess that I was both shocked and hurt by your refusal, but now, I see it's true merit. I was prepared to give you a severe scolding if you had said yes." She rose, and gently touched his cheek. He leaned his cheek into her hand, overcome by emotion. They stood together, connected by the touch of skin on skin.

"Woman, you don't know how much this refusal has cost me..." he answered with a vestige of his old rakish grin.

She gave him a studied look, which slowly melted into a smoky gaze. "Oh. I believe I have some inkling of the cost, my lord."

"I suspect you do, my lady," he countered, as his eyes swept over her with sweet longing, "let us repair to the drawing room, lest I change my mind."

"Yes, let us," she agreed with a gentle smile. They exited the rose salon side by side, moving together without touching, in the smoothest of harmonies.

Chapter Thirteen: Part One

"By union with men, the lust, desire or passion of woman is satisfied, and the pleasure derived from the consciousness of it, is called their satisfaction."

Kama Sutra: Part II, Chapter I ( Kinds of Sexual Union According to Dimensions, Force of Desire or Passion)

On the following morning, Elizabeth woke up to the chirping of birds outside her window and stretched deliciously. A warm sense of contentment traveled down her spine and settled in her toes. She looked about and momentarily lost her bearings. The comfortable cocoon around her was feminine, luxurious and entirely foreign. Its wall coverings were dotted with a pattern of violets and buttercups, mixed with abundant ferns and leaves. A soft mauve color was repeated in the velvet of the curtains, punctuated with forest-green and topaz tassels. She felt as if she'd woken up in a spring-like bower. Pemberley.

Tossing aside her bedcoverings, she reached for a nearby robe and walked toward a French door at the end of the room. It overlooked the eastern façade of the house. Gingerly, she edged open the door and was immediately greeted by a gust of crisp autumn air. Pulling her dressing gown securely about her, she stepped onto the cool stones of the small Juliet balcony.

Spread out before her, lay the herb and kitchen gardens of Pemberley, with flower bordered paths leading to an orangerie and a forested area beyond. The flowerbeds, even this late in the season, were rampant with color: mixed borders of long-legged chrysanthemum, yellow and white petunias and dahlias. Each path between the gardens was carefully raked clear of fallen leaves. A servant was bending low in the herb garden, basket by his side, gathering a few last hardy greens for the day's menu.

She breathed in the bracing air, and caught sight of a rider cantering by a grove of birches in the distance. He was hatless, astride a gleaming black Arabian. William on Aviral. His gaze traveled over the windows, balconies, and arrested on her form.

Her heart danced at the sight of him. From afar, he seemed youthful, almost carefree in the autumnal landscape. Yet, she didn't move or make a sound, she stood still, absorbing the sight of him on his ancestral land. Without breaking stride, he lifted his arm in salute and cantered off toward the stables, leaving her strangely shaken.

"Good morning, Lizzie," a voice behind her beckoned, "may I share your morning chocolate since Charles has gone off with the hunting party?"

Elizabeth turned around and took in Jane's soft smile and glowing complexion. Her sister had grown even more beautiful since her wedding, and seemed to possess a deeper calm, a satiated self-assurance that Elizabeth found intriguing.

"Of course," she answered. Looking about the room she was surprised to find a breakfast tray set out by the now lit fireplace: steaming chocolate, jams, jellies and warm biscuits.

"Funny..." she mused, "I haven't even rung the maid and the tray is already here, it's almost as if they anticipated my awakening. How considerate!"

The two sisters settled themselves by the fire. "Yes, the staff is very well trained here. 'Tis a beautiful setting, grand, yet naturally elegant. Charles tells me William's mother had exquisite taste. You can almost sense her touch in every corner of the house."

Elizabeth was silent, reflecting back on William's reluctance to discuss his mother and the facts she had gleaned from Madeline Gardiner. Finally, she looked at her sister searchingly, "Jane, you seem so very...different...are you happy?"

Jane colored delicately and stirred her hot chocolate thoughtfully, " I am beyond happy. Charles is the very best of men. I truly love him."

"How does one know? Is love a place one enters all of a sudden? Does it have dimensions?"

Jane laughed. "You and your scholarly thoughts! I suppose it is a place of sorts. Once you cross its threshold, it has depth and height, feels warm and safe - like no other place on earth. But it exists in your heart, Lizzie. You cannot will it or command it. Once the time comes, you will simply know."

"I wish it were that simple," Elizabeth sighed at Jane's words.

Taking a deep breath, Jane stopped spreading jam on her biscuit and ventured the question which had been plaguing her for weeks, "It is simple, as long as you do not complicate it. It's William, isn't it?"

"Have I been so very transparent?"

"No, I think you've done a marvelous task of being subtle. It's him. He appears to be absolutely besotted with you. Charles and I have discussed it at length. Beneath Charles' jovial exterior, lies a keenly observant mind, you see. He's known William for years, and has never seen him affected to such an extent by any woman. "

"There have been...other women?"

Jane hesitated; Charles had asked her to keep certain facts in confidence and she had given her word, agreeing that Elizabeth should hear about William's past from the man himself, yet her sister was no fool, she deserved at least a partial answer, "I would be lying if I denied it. From the sketchy facts I have been told, there have been others, but none matter at present, except you."

Elizabeth seemed to accept her ready answer, for which Jane was inwardly thankful.

"Why me? He could have anyone, really! He's rich, powerful, handsome as sin..."

"Oh fiddle-dee! And you are a sight for sore eyes, empty-brained, and entirely lacking in accomplishments?" Jane chided teasingly, "Do not begin questioning your undeniable charm, little sister, or I shall give you a sound thrashing!"

"Perhaps, you haven't changed after all," Elizabeth grinned widely at Jane's words.

Jane ignored her reply and reached for another biscuit, "Lord, I'm famished these days..."

"I imagine married life gives one an appetite..." Elizabeth teased gently, unsure how to approach Jane on more delicate and intimate topics.

"Marriage to Charles certainly does..." Jane offered with a chuckle, as she devoured another biscuit. Her answer seemed to open the door for Elizabeth and she spent the next hour questioning her sister, and listening intently to Jane's newly acquired wisdom in the fascinating field of marital relations.

~ * ~

Under the warming rays of mid-morning sun, a sweep of multi-hued peaks and valleys wrapped around the group of men in a colorful and endless vista. A steady wind, invigorating but not chilly, seemed to sweep voluminous clouds across the cerulean sky. It rifled through the fields of grasses, bending branches and drifting splashes of colored leaves across the landscape. It caught the long tails of William's gray-colored sporting coat as he pointed his fowling musket toward two plump birds flying in the air. His gaze narrowed as he trailed their swiftly weaving path with his gun. His stance was poised and relaxed, entirely at ease balancing the long-handled musket.

Boom!

His shot released a cloud of black smoke and echoed across the valley. One of the birds, the larger one, spiraled down onto the grassy stretch of field. William nodded to the gamekeeper, who in turn gave the signal to a spaniel standing on guard nearby. The dog sprang through the shrubs and grasses, its brown and white coat glistening in the sun's rays. Grasping the grouse gently in its jaws, it trotted back triumphantly to the gamekeeper. Mr. Jevons accepted the grouse with a throaty chuckle and after examining it, placed it in a leather pouch by his side.

Glancing up at his master, his wrinkled face squinting against the sun, he said, "an admirable shot, your lordship, and a mighty fine bird as well."

William acknowledged his compliment with a nod and handed off his musket for reloading. Though he appeared externally composed, deep within, he was a seething bundle of fevered nerves and tension. Despite constant and vigilant observation by Melbourne's undercover men, nothing untoward had transpired the previous evening. The knowledge that a traitor moved within his closest circle was slowly eating away at his innate sense of control and order. That alone, would have been sufficient to discompose the most resilient of men, however, what stirred the embers of his turmoil, was the insolent presence of Philippe Lucas at Pemberley, so near Elizabeth. The young pup's longing glances, charming innuendos, and adeptness at the pianoforte grated at William's possessive pride. Elizabeth, in turn, appeared amused and flattered by his attentions, which only served to increase William's ferment. If only one could dispose of the Frenchman as easily as a flying grouse...he brooded.

The hunting party continued on, walking against the wind across the open moor in a wide line. Behind them, grooms attired in dark green Pemberley livery trailed the entourage while leading several saddled horses.

Thomas Bennet strode beside Edward Gardiner at one end of the wide line. He turned to his companion and said in a quiet voice, "He's an excellent shot."

"Indeed, years in the Indian cavalry have honed his skills, no doubt. Most generous of Lord Pemberton to arrange all this." His eyes swept the open vistas, "I must say, it's quite the estate."

"His holdings appear quite vast, what with the merchant fleet and the estate. A large responsibility for someone his age. He's not yet thirty, if I'm not mistaken."

Edward shot him a keen glance. "No, he's twenty nine. Remarkable man, really, multitalented: fleet owner, army officer, diplomat. From what I can gather, he's utterly competent at anything he undertakes."

"Including women, I imagine." Thomas Bennet muttered under his breath. He had witnessed the Earl's subtle attentions toward Elizabeth last evening and was infuriated. The man was using his considerable skill and stature to ensnare his daughter without a proper request for courtship. At a deeper level, Thomas found the Earl's mysterious opacity disquieting. Men like Charles Bingley were an open book and an easy read. William Darcy, on the other hand, was an obscure puzzle.

Thomas Bennet prized clarity of mind and soul above all else. He thrived on inner calm and peace. By a stroke of misfortune, he had married a woman who challenged his inner equilibrium on a daily basis; he did not wish the same fate on his favorite daughter. She deserved a strong, and solid man. William Darcy possessed physical strength, social and financial stature, but could he grant her the security and peace of mind she deserved?The answer eluded him, and until such a time as it was clarified, he was suspicious and distrustful of the man.

Edward was silent - taking in the import of the other man's words. Slowing his pace, to put more distance between the rest of the group, he replied,

"Now, Thomas. Look here - the man's a gentleman."

"That remains to be seen." Thomas Bennet replied - motioning to one of the young boys for his musket. He cocked it and followed the path of a new pair of grouse, zigzagging in the air.

Boom!

His shot rang out and missed, while the escaping birds careened wildly across the blue expanse of sky.

"Blast," he muttered under his breath, flinging the musket none too gently at the young servant by his side.

"Thomas..." Edward ventured, surprised at his old friend's uncharacteristic loss of control, "he may be the old Earl's son, possessing his intellect and physical prowess, but mark my words, he is not his father where women are concerned."

Thomas Bennet turned to his friend, giving him a wry smile. "Count your blessings - you have only two daughters, instead of five, my friend."

Chapter Thirteen: Part Two

A bountiful luncheon had been spread out on linen covered tables in the ivy-covered gazebo. As the weather had warmed, several wicker chairs had been brought out and arranged in pleasing groupings under large parasols, dotting the grounds by the gazebo and perennial gardens. Helena walked about the bucolic scene, politely seeing to everyone's comfort, an air of cool detachment hanging about her person, as if she were an observer rather than an integral part of those assembled. Georgiana had set up an easel overlooking the scene and appeared engrossed in her watercolors.

The hunting party had returned after a successful morning, all were assembled by the gazebo or lounging on wicker chairs, enjoying the last of the glorious fall weather. All save for William. At the last minute, he'd been called away to a tenant's cottage. The older widower had fallen while repairing some loose roof shingles and William, concerned for his well being, had ridden over with his steward to ensure the man was well looked after.

Lady de Bourgh, presiding at a laden table in the gazebo, turned to Caroline Bingley and announced in an irritated tone, "I don't see why he felt compelled to ride there himself and desert his guests. I have always considered these tenants a nuisance at best, and quite expendable. The man can look after himself, surely. William's mother possessed the same strange ideas concerning charity. Little did they help her in the end."

Caroline Bingley chimed in, "I am in complete agreement, Lady de Bourgh, the Earl has a competent steward who is more than capable of handling any emergencies arising on the estate. It is a matter of rearranging his priorities."

Lady de Bourgh gave her a shrewd glance, "yes, he certainly requires some assistance in that area. Assistance a proper wife would be able to offer in due time. Come, my dear, let us take a turn about the gardens."

Richard reclined lazily in a wicker chair, a contented fatigue settling in his bones. The morning's hunt had proven invigorating. He felt a strange new sensation, as if life was beginning anew; cleaner, crisper and inexplicably lighter. He had slept soundly the night before, eschewing his customary liquid nightcap. Visions of Charlotte had permeated his dreamscape; pleasantly warm images of her at Matlock Manor, riding across his forested vales, warming his bed... He sat up with a sudden realization; he'd never considered bringing a woman to his ancestral home! Hell, this truly must be love.

He scanned the strolling and lounging guests, settling on Charlotte and Elizabeth, walking side by side on a serpentine path in the distance. Picking a blade of grass by his feet, he chewed pensively on its tip...No new clues had emerged so far. The assembled guests appeared to behave in a most agreeable manner. Perhaps Melbourne and his intelligence had been mistaken. Or perhaps the other side was in no hurry, was biding its time. Perhaps a little stirring up of action was required. He smiled to himself. Brilliant idea, my man! Rising from his chair, he clapped his hands and proclaimed in a booming voice,

"I announce a challenge! Every man present must gather a bouquet of flowers and present it to the lady of his choice. Upon such presentation, the lady in question may bestow a kiss on her admirer, but only if the flowers are to her liking! Gentlemen, you have a quarter of an hour to accomplish your task. On your marks, get set, go! Oh, and please do not decimate the Earl's greenhouse!"

Elizabeth turned to Charlotte, shaking her head, "He is incorrigible! I pity the woman who lands him!"

"All beasts can be tamed, Elizabeth." Charlotte replied, enigmatically, "what in the Lord's name is Philippe up to! Oh, no! He just walked into the lake, clothes and all! And he's picking water lilies. Franchement! Il est fou!"

Philippe emerged from the pond, wet breeches, and white shirt clinging to every lithely muscled aspect of his body. His jacket had been discarded prior to the aquatic excursion. He strode, dripping wet, damp hair outlining his youthful and handsome features. His eyes shone with a devilish glint. He looked irresistible. Elizabeth laughed despite her good judgment. With an elaborate bow, he held out three dripping water lilies, his offering.

"For the fair maiden..." He drawled charmingly.

"Oh, my! You have gone to great lengths, dear sir!" she exclaimed, laughter ringing in her voice.

He neared her, splashing a few droplets onto her gown. "I patiently await my reward,"

Elizabeth chastely turned her cheek in his direction; instead, Philippe circled his arms about her waist and arched her backwards in a dramatic dip, depositing three kisses on her mouth.

"One for each water lily!" he whispered huskily.

Elizabeth was astounded by his impulsive behavior, squirming in his arms she exclaimed indignantly, "Philippe! Let me go this instant! I am not your puppet!"

He let her down with an exaggerated moue. "I am crushed! I shall have to go and drown in my own sorrows."

Charlotte was seething, "You will do no such thing. I've had enough. Before you make a greater fool of yourself and insult Elizabeth any further, go and get out of these clothes! Wait till papa gets a word of this!"

"For your information, big sister, I do not care a fig what papa says! Elizabeth, I meant no harm...friends?" He beseeched her, full of boyish charm.

"Friends, now go..." she waved him away and resumed her walk with Charlotte, shaking her head at his wild antics. Philippe strolled away in a practiced swagger, halted and turned toward both women, throwing Elizabeth a last heated look. The sun's rays backlit his handsome form, outlining with perfect clarity the full extent of his arousal.

William observed the scene from atop a knoll in the distance. As he witnessed Philippe emerging from his pond, the young man's hands holding Elizabeth's waist, their kisses... the mixed emotions, which had been bottled up during the previous weeks at Pemberley, then dangerously shaken upon witnessing Philippe's flirtations, detonated. They seeped into the cracks and crevasses of his carefully controlled exterior, pushing through his thinning mesh of self-discipline and finally exploded in a rushing torrent of anger and jealousy.

How dare he! On his land, with his woman!

Suddenly, where reason had been holding the reins, passion took over, and like a phoenix rising out of a bed of ashes it seized William in a blood-filled rage. Giving Aviral a swift kick, he galloped toward Charlotte and Elizabeth, heedless of the crushed plants left in his path. He jumped his stallion recklessly across a thorny border and drew to a sudden halt, by the two women.

Jaw set with fury, eyes blazing black, he reached down and in one powerful arc scooped Elizabeth onto his saddle, and spurring his stallion, rode away.

The entire maneuver was conducted with such speed and alacrity that for a moment Charlotte wondered if it had been just a dream. Slowly, realization dawned on her. Furtively looking about, she was relieved to find no other witnesses to the spectacle. Charlotte stood for a long time, absorbing the meaning of what had transpired. Mon Dieu, I must speak to Richard about this...

As she hurried toward the great house, the air about her suddenly changed and became cool. Sunlight dimmed and darkness seemed to appear from nowhere. Blue lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating a squall line of racing clouds, presaging the rolling crash of thunder. As if on cue, a torrential downpour dropped down on the assembled guests. As servants scurried to bring in chairs, parasols back into the house and guests ran in unceremoniously, all thoughts of Richard's challenge were forgotten. The English weather had once again exerted its capricious influence.

She couldn't talk, she was gasping for breath as he held on to her waist with a fierce grip. As the storm broke, and sheets of rain began to lash about them, she felt her body paradoxically settle into William's taut musculature. The horse rode on, heedless of the driving rain and increasing winds. Her bonnet tore off her head, releasing her hair in wild curls and still they rode, pushed by William's fury and the wild elements of nature unfolding about them. Finally, he slowed to a walk as they entered a dense wood, the trees offering partial cover against the rain. She was soaked to the marrow, her heart was lurching in fitful spurts and she was furious at his mad escapade. Yet, at the same time, she felt wildly exhilarated.

William brought Aviral to a stop, and lifting her easily from the saddle, repositioned her so she was astride but facing him. His eyes were unfathomable, dark, fierce and lethal, his rasping breath warm and spicy on her skin.

"You are a foolish and passionate man, William," she said angrily.

He cupped her face in his gloved hands and whispered hoarsely, "and you belong to me...do you understand?"

Before she could answer, his mouth crushed on hers with animal-like fury; his tongue engulfing her, thrusting madly with unleashed lust. She felt completely claimed, plundered as if his wild tongue was searing him permanently onto her mouth. His kiss was long and hot, reaching down to the very depth of her soul, paralyzing in its intensity. He pulled her tighter against his torso, hiking her skirts, straddling her legs over his powerful thighs. She could feel the throbbing mass of his erection, and the intimate contact of his male arousal renewed her waning power. Lacing her fingers through his wet curls, she met his driving tongue, thrust for thrust, taking and giving back in turn.

They began a sinuous rhythm on the horse, unaware of the increasing rain, the enveloping darkness around them. Suddenly, Aviral nickered, pricked his ears and pranced restlessly. William opened his eyes and drew himself out of his blood filled lust. He slowly regained his senses and felt the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. A branch snapped loudly nearby, and he heard the soft but unmistakable click of a cocked gun. With lightning speed he bent over Elizabeth, whispering harshly,

"Get down! Get down!"

A bullet whizzed past his shoulder. Keeping a crouched position, he spurred Aviral on, down the wooded path. Sensing the apparent danger, the animal rode at a frightening speed. Elizabeth, semi recumbent under William's weight felt entirely helpless, her heart beating in a frightened staccato.

They rode for what seemed an interminable amount of time, following snaking paths through the densely wooded forest, until a small cottage loomed ahead, hidden deep in the woods. Between gusts of wind, a high-pitched peeping drifted from the building. Elizabeth recognized the sound of young grouse; it must be a game-keeper's cottage...

As the building's form materialized from the gray haze of rain, William dismounted, and gathered Elizabeth in his arms,

"Are you alright?" he asked, frightened at her pallor, the bleak look in her eyes.

"I'm fine. The shot... it was a poacher, right?" Even as she worded the question, she knew deep down it rang false.

"No, not a poacher Elizabeth, let's get inside, out of the rain, and I will attempt to explain everything. Can you walk? I have to tie Aviral up."

"Of course. I'm perfectly fine. I have never fainted in my life."

He stood her up gently, as the rain pelted around them.

"There..." she announced haughtily. Then taking her first step toward the small cottage, her figure swayed on the cobbled path, she swooned precariously and promptly fainted into a crumpled heap on the ground.

Chapter Thirteen: Part Three

Elizabeth woke to the sound of a crackling fire and the tantalizing smell of sizzling bacon. She was lying upon a soft pallet on the floor, covered by two thick blankets. The rough wool felt strangely coarse and prickly against her skin. Startled, she pulled the blankets up to her chin. She was stark naked beneath the double layer of wool! What had happened? Her head ached and she felt a bitter taste in her mouth.

From her vulnerable position on the ground, she looked about her. The cabin was crude and simple, but clean and organized. Tools were hung neatly on one wall and sacks of grain lay stacked beneath them in tidy rows. A small stove sat in one corner, its pipe stack rising through the roof. Cozy flames crackled within its opening.

She turned her head and caught her breath; William stood with his back to her, his torso bare, a wool blanket wrapped around his hips. He was rummaging through a high wall cupboard. The light from the stove flickered across his broad expanse of shoulders, his muscled back and accented its dip down to his narrow hips. He was utterly splendid, large...and very close.

Keeping her eyes partly closed, she observed him through a curtain of heavy lashes. The dim light and small room enhanced his size, casting his musculature into heightened relief. She experienced a strange flutter deep in her belly. For the first time, she noticed her clothes hung on a peg on the wall, beside his cloak, shirt and breeches. They hung innocently, side by side. She and William had been stripped to their most natural essentials, leaving a man and woman, alone, in a hidden cottage.

She must be dreaming... she decided, experiencing an unusual flood of warmth. She would wake any moment and it would all disappear. It was, nonetheless, a lovely dream...

"Would you like some tea?" A deep baritone enquired. She opened her eyes - no, not a dream after all. Drawing the rough wool around her chin, she answered in a raspy voice,

"Yes, thank you."

He moved about the room with casual familiarity and feline grace, seemingly unaware of his state of undress, putting her at ease. Bringing over a wooden crate, he turned it upside to make a table, and set two cups with a tin of biscuits, scrambled eggs and a side of sizzling bacon before her.

The cottage was well stocked...At a complete loss for words, she spoke the first thought that came to mind,

"You can cook!"

He laughed at her remark. The sound was husky and rich, seeming to fill the entire cottage. Kneeling down by the make-shift table, he offered her a steaming cup of tea, "Surprised? One of my hidden talents, Elizabeth. Here, have some tea, I put extra sugar in it. How do you feel?"

"Naked," she answered, her tone accusatory and petulant.

He let out a long sigh, and gave her a searching look, "I'm sorry. I simply had no choice. You were unconscious and wet to the core. It would have been dangerous to leave you be. Would it help if I said that my thoughts stayed chaste and pure while I undressed you?"

"No," she answered honestly.

The lady was being difficult...a voice chimed in his mind. As is her right ...another answered. "Here, have a biscuit, you need the sustenance," he offered solicitously, wishing to soothe her discomfort away. Her agitation was plainly obvious, as was her lush beauty - the image of her voluptuous nude body etched in his memory.

The blanket closest to her skin had been tied toga style, allowing her to sit up, which she did, cross legged, covering her legs with the other length of wool. William glanced away as she arranged herself, but as their simple meal progressed, he found it increasingly difficult to ignore her sumptuous breasts straining against the gray wool, and the swirl of chestnut curls on her bare shoulders. She had beautiful skin...With effort, he kept his gaze politely focused on her eyes.

"I owe you an apology..." he began.

"You owe me several!" she interrupted curtly, "What were you thinking, spiriting me away like some barbarian."

While she'd been unconscious, he had asked himself the very same question. After some reflection, he had re-established his bearings, gathered his wits and analyzed the entire scenario. Yes, he had undoubtedly acted like a complete and utter fool, without regard to her safety or her reputation, intent on assuaging his own possessive jealousy. In the quietness of the cabin, with her inert form lying helplessly by the fire, his indomitable will and pride had taken a veritable lashing, leaving him humbled and intent on making amends.

"I am truly sorry, Elizabeth. My behavior was horrid and inexcusable. Will you find it in your heart to forgive me? I was a victim on my own green-eyed monster," he offered with an apologetic smile.

"You have nothing to be jealous of! It was but a mere game, devised by your dear friend Lord Matlock, I'd like to add. Philippe is an impulsive young man, and his actions though witless, were innocent."

William took a sip of his tea, and stared at her intently. "He desires you."

"How do you know?" she shot back, exasperated by the turn of the conversation, and aware of an increasing heaviness in the room. She was strongly affected by his physical presence, the honed swells of his bronzed torso, a mere foot away from her. A practical, cautioning voice began whispering to her; she batted it away into a recess of her mind.

"Suffice it to say, I know," he answered.

She adroitly changed the topic, moving to what she perceived would be safer ground, "The shot was deliberate, wasn't it?"

His eyes hooded, taking on a cautious look, "Perhaps..."

"If you think I will allow you to withhold information from me, William, you are sorely mistaken!" she announced in an angry voice, "I demand an explanation this instant! Or... or... I shall leave this cottage, and walk back in this storm, to Pemberley, on my very own! Do you hear!" her voice had risen to a cresting crescendo.

William was taken aback by her tirade, entirely unaccustomed to such display of spirit in the fairer sex. The diplomat in him understood all of a sudden that he had met his match; her mind was swift, incisive and missed little; coupled with a steely will, the entire combination resulted in a formidable opponent.

He raised his hand - a peace sign - and began explaining the background of the Great Game, leading up to George Wickham, and the developments in London. He spoke little of his father, yet Elizabeth sensed, that in time, he would divulge the deeper pain of that particular relationship. She had pressed him enough for one night...she mused. After some time, he stopped talking and sat quietly, looking at her with a mixture of relief and tenderness.

"You are a wonderful listener, Elizabeth," he said quietly.

"Thank you. Now, I wonder, if there is anything of value I can offer to this mission... anyway I can become useful..."

"No," he said in a commanding tone, "I forbid it, the danger is too high. We have already exposed too many innocent parties as it is. Upon my return, I shall dismiss the guests on some pretext. Melbourne will have to devise a new strategy for capturing his Russian infiltrator."

"But you are so near...to achieving your goal," she stated pensively.

"No, my mind is made up. I will not allow it."

"As you wish," she acquiesced, her own mind tucking away all the separate threads of information for later perusal, "Our absence will be duly noted. What are we to do? Will they send a search party?"

"Not in this rain, Aviral's prints will have been erased by now. There is nothing to do - except be thankful that we have found food, shelter and wait out the storm."

As if to underline his words, the wind rose outside, rattling the single window of the cottage, while gusts of rain pelted restlessly against the shingled roof.

"We'll deal with the consequences in due course. I'll think of something."

She clutched her blankets tightly about her, retorting testily, "Think of something! I am afraid that is simply not acceptable."

She rose, draping the blankets with an attempt at dignity and began pacing the length of the room. She did not go far, the cottage's dimensions being modest in nature.

William observed her with an amused grin. Any other woman, would be simpering or frightened right now, but not Elizabeth! Instead, she displayed an astonishing capacity for fortitude. He admired her courage, her strength in the face of multiple dangers and unknowns. As he marveled at her stamina, thoughts of espionage, corruption, complexities and their consequences were measured against one another and dismissed.

He began considering their immediate future. He had hoped to obtain her father's permission for courtship, and a subsequent marriage proposal this week. Now, as a result of his impulsive actions, their situation hung in a precarious balance. Regardless of his stature, his diplomacy, Elizabeth's reputation would be irrevocably affected. Only one recourse remained; one which he had both wished and planned for. He hoped with all his heart, she would accept his proposal and overlook its precipitous nature. Satisfied with his swift analysis, he made a decision, knowing precisely what his next move would entail.

She stood staring out the window, her shoulders set at a resolute angle. Suddenly, she felt a pair of strong arms enfold her - the feel of his warm skin on hers was galvanizing.

"Elizabeth," he murmured, his breath warm on her shoulder.

She shuddered at the delicious promise in his voice, realizing by its timber, its slight tremble, that both she and William were entering a new dimension of their relationship. Oddly, rather than feeling trepidation, she felt a deep calm envelop her being. Perhaps this was what Jane had alluded to, earlier...

"Turn around...please," he asked quietly. She turned slowly and he laced both his hands through hers. A flooding warmth seemed to surround her, as if by his touch, they were connected in a candescent circle.

"Through my rashness, I have hastened something very precious, to me...to us. I was hoping to allow this to unfold slowly, naturally, savoring every exquisite moment..." he paused, his eyes searching hers, delving deep into their violent shadings, "You deserve to be in a beautiful room, right this moment, swathed in silk, not in a game-keeper's hut bundled in a rough wool blanket..."

"Why?" she whispered.

"Because, every woman should have lovely memories of her marriage proposal," his eyes captured hers, locked and held.

"Is this a proposal, William?" she asked, delicately arching her brows.

He ran his thumb along the line of her jaw, "What do you think?"

"Convince me, then, my lord," she challenged, her heart beginning to beat violently.

His voice became low, husky and seductive. "Aah... the lady needs convincing,"

"Yes, I believe she does," Elizabeth answered with a provocative tilt of her head.

Holding her hands clasped tightly in his, he bent down and touched her lips in a velvety brushing kiss. The contact registered deliriously in their brains, and both sighed. She smiled - then, shaking her head - laughed softly. God, how he loved her laugh.

"Is that a yes, Elizabeth?"

"You haven't posed the question," she chided huskily, her eyes sparkling.

His tone became serious, earnest. "Will you become my wife?"

"To have and to cherish..." she began.

"...and obey..." he added wryly.

She extricated her fingers from his clasp, and lightly touched his lip with her fingertip, "I'd like to negotiate the last one, please."

"Negotiate?" He enquired hoarsely- willing to give her the moon on a silver platter at that very moment.

"Yes, establish ground rules and such..."

He opened his mouth and captured her finger between his teeth, flicking his tongue around its tip. Her breath hitched.

"Perhaps, we'll negotiate...later," she said in a husky contralto, as he suckled on her flesh. When he disengaged her moistened finger, she was panting.

William was intimately acquainted with that particular sound, its nuances; the complexities of female arousal. He waited, well mannered, even under the duress of his throbbing intoxication.

"I need more kisses, William," she implored fervently.

He began slowly unraveling the blanket.

"Maybe we shouldn't..." she whispered.

He stopped - the gentleman again - seconds passed... Elizabeth was torn, utterly ravenous for his touch, yet acutely aware of their precarious situation. Later...she thought...I'll answer principle later...and capitulated to her burgeoning need,

"No, no, never mind..." she urged him huskily.

He drew in a deep steadying breath as the blanket slid away from her skin and pooled at her feet.

"Are you certain?" he equivocated, a fragment of reason still operating in the hotbed of his arousal.

"And you?" she whispered, while he traced the curve of her collarbone, his eyes devouring her odalisque form.

"I'm not completely mindless...yet," he answered tensely.

"Really?" she replied, her hand moving to untie the knot at his waist. She tugged at the material, following its path as it slid over the flat plates of his abdomen, grazed his thighs and landed with a dusty thud at his feet.

William stood utterly splendid; tall, bronzed, musculature perfectly modeled - an Eastern god in the flickering light - his erection...monumental.

"Impudent woman..." he teased with a devastating smile.

"Liar," she whispered, her eyes fixed on his rampant manhood.

She reached out tentatively, to feel its broad glistening tip; soft, silky, engorged...hot. He tensed his jaw at her light touch, counting backwards in Arabic. He drew a sibilant breath, understanding she needed time to accustom herself - to him - but it was excruciating torture.

"You're so very ...imposing." She muttered, fascinated, attempting to encircle her fingers about him.

He grasped her hand and gently but firmly, drew her away, "Elizabeth...please."

She was intent on tasting forbidden fruit, and casting aside responsibility and conscience. Due largely to a sexual appetite whetted by the tantalizing woman before him, William Darcy reached a decision. He decided there are times in life when events needed to run their course - and he set about to do what he did exceedingly well.

Leading her silently by the hand, to the pallet lying on rough wooden planks, he gently lay her on her side, and joined her.

The effect she had on him was devastating; he felt a building, reckless delirium, as if it were his first time. He'd played at love in the past; lushly, expertly, with a light touch and a light heart - his emotions never involved. It was a game, pure and simple - where skill, exotic opulence, and erotic sensation, all combined to enhance the most exquisite of sport. Here, now, a new element overshadowed his familiar responses - spurned by her courage and openly innocent giving.

The game had come to an end, when Elizabeth entered his life.

She looked wildly desirable, framed by a magnificent curtain of hair - the curve of her hips highly defined against the darkness about them. She was natural, surprisingly unselfconscious and incredibly seductive; a siren with creamy thighs and pearly skin. He fought the desire to bury himself inside her, without preliminaries, and reminded himself forcefully of her innocence.

"You are truly exquisite...where have you been all my life?"

Chapter Thirteen: Part Four

She smiled at him, feeling herself suspended in a heady and dense atmosphere. He edged closer, and they touched, skin to skin. He began depositing kisses over each curve of her cheek, each tender earlobe, the dip of her nose, over her rosy lips, moist and shiny in the firelight. Her skin felt softer than silk. He tangled his hands into the intricate twists and whorls of her chestnut curls, while whispering to himself...slowly...slowly.

"Mmmm...." she purred, dissolving in a daze of sensuality, "What are you doing to my hair?"

"Playing," he answered with a cat-like smile.

"You are more beautiful then the Himalayan sunrise..." he whispered against her skin, as he trailed kisses down her arm, toward her fingertips, licking each one in turn.

His explorer's hands began their own journey, following every fold and gentle contour of her body's landscape- while his kisses intensified; becoming darting, fierce and flaming. Alighting on the lush plumpness of her breasts, he covered her taut nipples with his tongue and gently suckled.

She couldn't breathe.

"More..." she begged, her voice a sighing whisper, her hands entangling in his dark curls, pressing him to her heart.

Once again, William obliged. Her skin tasted salty sweet, laced with a faint fragrance of orange blossoms. She felt herself liquefying, her breaths came panting, her hands began circling insistently across his broad back. Attuned to her responses, his tongue delved lower, flitting across the curve of her belly, meandering lower, and slowly, he began a delicious and exquisite story.

She arched her hips in response, momentarily dislodging him from paradise. He chuckled softly, and raised his head, "Mmmm...you taste of summer and strawberries...and cream," he murmured seductively.

She fluttered her hands in response, impatiently skittish under a divine surge of sensations. Elizabeth was flushed and trembling. He found her eagerness sublimely enchanting. He bent low and increased his rhythm, carving her name out into the folds of her pulpy moistness. He could feel her pleasure rising, tightening in concentric spheres, faster and faster, until it focused on one vibrant spot.

Her mind was in tumult... she didn't want him to stop. Somewhere in its deepest recesses, she realized she was at the mercy of a master; practiced, skillful and accomplished as he expertly took her higher and higher. Everything seemed to disappear and finally, exquisitely, coalesced in a blinding first climax.

"Oh God..." she whimpered, distraught, bewildered.

"Hush..." he murmured, gently kissing her cheeks, her closed lids, and cradling her in the safety of his arms, "It's allowed."

As the remnants of her release strummed deliciously through her body, she glanced up and inquired huskily, "Is it always this good?"

He brushed a tendril of hair from her temple. "Oh, yes. There's more, if you wish... and it gets better."

She answered him with a kiss, luxuriously aggressive.

She's hotter than the Indian sun...he thought, as his fingers flitted across her belly and moved to open her fully, parting her soft flesh - carrying her down to that liquid place, again.

William's mouth suckled rhythmically on her nipple as his long expert fingers, glazed in pearly liquid, pushed toward her core. She sighed, feeling herself dripping with juices, her blood singing, as his mouth teased her nipples into ecstasy and his fingers played a tender adagio, magical in their expertise.

He seemed to know exactly where to touch her, how lightly, how slowly, how deeply. She moaned as he dove deeper, feeling herself reaching another peak, straining, and convulsing into a divine flow as exquisite light filled her brain. He smiled - satisfied - a predator's smile.

Resting his forehead against hers, he whispered, "How do you feel?"

"Lovely..." she purred like a lioness in heat.

"Good, ready for more? It gets even better, my love." he announced, self-assured.

At his words, she felt as if she'd been favored by the gods.

"Are you always this confident, Lord Pemberton?" she whispered with a drawn out sigh.

"William," he breathed into her ear, "and...Yes." His hands cupped the curves of her hips and positioned her kneeling astride his body.

"So...modest," she teased lightly.

"We're long past modesty, darling," he answered in kind.

"Oh...good," she replied.

His gaze dwelled on her disarming appeal, her fresh innocence underlying a steamy sensuality, and his heart melted. He guided her into place above his form, spreading her legs to accommodate him. Gently, languorously, he forced the engorged crest of his erection into her pulsating cleft, whispering lovingly,

"Careful now, as you go down..." Her eyes were half-closed, her hair tumbling artlessly about creamy shoulders and rosy flushed breasts, "Elizabeth...open your eyes...look at me."

"Yes," she whispered haltingly caught in the insatiable need of the moment.

"Gently..." he cautioned, his hands under her hips, arresting her progress. She felt incredible - warm, tight - all liquid pressure. He felt himself disassembling. He'd always had a reputation for superb control, but he felt his restraint slipping. Clenching his jaw - he willed himself to proceed with exquisite care, inch by inch. He could feel her flesh parting for him. Locking his gaze on hers, he focused on her luminous eyes shot with violet.

"Not yet, sweet, you'll be hurt." He eased her down a tiny distance, his taut throbbing shaft feeding on her liquid pressure.

"You won't hurt me, William, please...this is too slow..." her eyes flashed darkly, "I'll die if you make me wait any longer."

In spite of the exquisite torture of it all, he smiled, "Look at me, darling, look. I won't let you die," he whispered hoarsely, allowing her to slide a marginal distance, "Just for the first time...aah yes..." he groaned, "After that...you'll be fine."

"I'm fine now," she answered petulantly, struggling against his steely hold.

Lord, she was feisty...his mind screamed as he felt the tense, taut yielding of her flesh.

"A minute more, my love, please," he soothed her gently, while praying silently in Hindustani for continued control over his extreme arousal.

Crawlingly, the seconds passed, as the storm lashed about them, raindrops beating against the lone windowpane. Every sensation goaded almost beyond bearing, tense, stretched, luminous. William's deliberate penetration became the rapt focus of every fevered nerve.

He stopped at her barrier - the pressure intensified.

"Don't move," he pleaded sliding his hands from her hips, he cradled her face - searing the moment in his mind for years to come.

"I love you...Elizabeth," raising his head, he tilted toward her, catching her mouth in a fierce kiss - while simultaneously thrusting his hips and breaching her maidenhead.

She was gossamer thin, from years of riding.

Elizabeth caught her breath at the searing pain - sharp like the flick of a knife - soon subsiding into a delicious warmth as William slid home...to where he most wanted to be.

She felt blissfully filled and stretched, to the very finite limits of ecstasy.

Half-breathless, his brow beaded with wetness - he paused, "Are you..."

"I'm fine, William," she whispered - feeling exquisitely distended and impaled by his length.

She gazed at him lovingly, resting her hands on the bronzed smoothness of his broad chest, finally understanding his patience, his generosity. He remained still within her, letting her accustom to his invading presence, relishing her velvety warm envelope.

He soothed her with tender kisses, murmuring comfortingly in the soft cadence of Hindustani...gentle love words. His heart beat thundered in his ears, his breath rasped in his throat. He opened his eyes to a poignant display of enthralling female beauty... perfection...Elizabeth...so close. He could feel her presence pulsing through his engorged veins, glissing smoothly, shimmering through him.

Buried deep within her- he held her clasped tightly and in a lithe motion, rolled over, bracing himself on his elbows above her.

"Hold on, my love...I'll take you somewhere you haven't been..." he slowly withdrew and glided back in, "Yet."

He began a gentle tempo, pampering, coddling, withdrawing carefully, pulling her along in a deliberate rhythm - the most ancient of movements. He was gliding in and out, indulging her deeply; rising, breaking, falling - diving deep into her melting core, discovering a world of land and water. She arched up to meet him as he rode above her, melding into his surge and swell.

As he sensed her appetite shift to a higher plane, he allowed his previously tightly reined desire to uncoil, like a feral sleeping beast, finally awakening. He urged deeper, farther, their mating becoming unladylike, ungentlemanlike - gasping, groaning. He was unable to disentangle his mind from his body... and still it was not enough.

Her desire was startling; she was wildly erotic, unrestrained as a tropical typhoon. Their tongues in each other's mouths, their breaths coming in quick shallow gasps, William's rhythm became rapacious, urgent, spiking through his brain. He drove into her again and again, with a fevered urgency, an animal longing, which left him reeling; breathless, tumbling and falling - unlike anything he had ever experienced.

What began as an urge to satisfy swelling primal needs became a desire to unite deeply with her, to lose himself in the shockingly strong harbor of her depths.

His musky, spicy scent enclosing Elizabeth in a heady cocoon, she felt herself dazed, as if carried to a great height and dropped straight down...I'm flying...her mind sang. She was almost there. As his magnificent body continued its magical glissade - she felt herself soaring, beyond the confines of the cabin, beyond the constant pressure of earthly concerns, into breathless friction and breathing sighs.

As his body dove into hers, she could feel his joy, binding with hers, steadily rocking and rolling through cannonball bursts until she collapsed in a heap of violent, rippling pulsations; his voice murmuring the sweet, throaty song of...I love you.

When she climaxed, he slowed his rhythm and looked deep into her wet and darkening irises, meeting her fierce and shining gaze as her entire body rocked with pleasure - cresting over and over again.

His entire concentration focused like a blade tip on the conflagration of their bodies, his brow bathed in sweat, William leaned into a last deep down stroke, mating with her on an intimately primal level - beyond the bounds of reason. Only raw feeling prevailed, a divinely pagan sensation. With impeccable timing, he withdrew in the wake of her release and spilled his seed on her naked abdomen; his ejaculation so explosive, so violent, that he was left acutely shocked...gasping like a man coming up from near drowning.

He drifted into her arms, unable to tell if they were one body or two, settling his mouth on hers.

Bathed in muskiness, panting, he regained enough breath to speak, "Imagine a life time...a lifetime of this..."

In response, her hands slid down his back, cradled his hips and guided him back in.

Wearing a luxurious half-smile, she demanded, "I want more."

William was pleasurably astounded at her ravenous desire, yet, she was untutored, and he did not wish to mar her first experience with undue pain. With delicate consideration he offered a compromise,

"Most men do not possess the stamina to..."

"You're not most men, William, are you? I can feel you, darling. " she whispered huskily, "I want you again..."

"You are becoming the consummate negotiator, Elizabeth..." He answered, deciding right there and then that her virgin appetite called for immediate satiation.

"If you say so..." she replied with a hungry kiss, feeling him pulse and grow within her.

"Is that a yes, William?" she asked, as he began moving within her by stealthy degrees.

As the night storm raged about them, they consummated their volatile passion, sometimes with insatiable fury, sometimes with sweet tenderness, and always for William, with the critical nuances of a connoisseur of the arts, until Elizabeth's mercurial intemperance was finally sated.

Lying in his arms, the warm effluent of their passion pressed between their bodies, her thoughts raced like the wind outside. She was overwhelmed by his kindness, his generosity in spirit and in love, almost without self...

A tear welled up in her eye and trickled down her cheek. He kissed it away, without saying a word. She turned her head to catch the changing light of the dying fire, as he watched her eyes, in silence.

Slowly Elizabeth drifted off into a light sleep, enfolded in William's arms, languidly floating on a musky cloud. And when she woke, he was still there. He hadn't moved, he was rapturously gazing at her, lost in the open ocean of her eyes.

She felt herself drawn deeper and deeper, gaze by gaze, into a place beyond the pale...Nirvana.

Chapter Fourteen: Part One

"At the end of sexual congress...the man should apply with his own hand to the body of the woman some pure sandalwood ointment, or ointment of some other kind. He should then embrace her..."

Kama Sutra: Chapter X (Of The Ways To End Congress)

As the gray light of dawn filtered through the fog - streaked window, Elizabeth's lids fluttered open. Her awakening was like a slow untangling from the webs of a sensual dream. She buried her nose into the soft cocoon of blankets, catching a lingering scent of William: bergamot, spices...musk. Her eyes sought him out as he sat by the pallet and bundle of blankets. He was leaning against the rough plank wall, already dressed, hair beautifully disheveled, his white shirt open at the throat and revealing a dusting of curly black hair. He was smiling slightly, his face lit with tenderness and a calm quiet dignity.

"Good morning," he said softly.

The sound of his voice brought back the night of pleasure, a rush of erotic sensation startling in its intensity. He had initiated her into a new world with a generosity, a delicate finesse which had given her time to learn and to want all of him. She could not say whether it was his passion or his gentleness, which had touched her more. They had loved, talked and laughed, sharing sweet and amorous words almost till dawn. Finally, in an exhausted tangle of limbs, each had succumbed to slumber - their brief sleep almost a ceremonial act.

She felt as if she had experienced an immense transformation; yet, she could not define it...it was too chrysalis, forever dividing her life into before and after. She'd come alive - as if a secret power flowed beyond the confines of what had been, until now, a sheltered young woman's life.

While her mind grappled with new realities, her flesh awoke to heavy aches and pains in entirely foreign regions of her body. She was tender, swollen, throbbing - saturated in layers of muskiness. Her eyes widened and she winced as her nerve endings registered the assaulting sensations.

Attuned to the nuances of her gaze, William rose with graceful energy and reappeared by her side with a basin of warm sepia colored liquid, and a towel. The notion of touching her again brought back the possibility of keeping the magic of the night intact, and alive. Without saying a word, both understood it would not be enough; they needed to reach beyond the physical, beyond the touch of skin on skin.

Kneeling by her side, his white shirt gaping as he leaned toward her, he ventured gently, "Bliss has a price, my love...I wish I could absorb all your discomfort, in some way."

Elizabeth prided herself on a high ability to withstand physical aches and pains. But this was very different Her discomfort was an intense and visceral invasion. His kindness and tender compassion touched her deeply, and her eyes filled up with tears.

William leaned over, the width of his shoulders blocking the morning light, and brushed away stray curls of hair. He cupped her face in his hands and said in a soothing whisper, "it's quite natural and expected... after the first time, do not be distressed, sweet."

He stroked her cheeks with his thumbs, soothing, comforting, the smooth curves of his fingers feeling like butterfly wings on her skin. His tranquilizing motions were all the more potent when contrasted against his virile physicality.

At base, William felt deeply responsible for having been the cause of her distress. As idyllic as their first foray into passion had been, he now wished he could turn back time and proceed at a much slower pace.

She nodded her head, too distraught to answer.

"I have something to make it a little better - and we ought to tidy you up, darling," he said softly, "may I?"

She nodded her head again, feeling strangely helpless.

He peeled away the upper portion of her blankets and dipping the towel into the warm liquid, began wiping her face, the soft skin of her neck, the planes of her collarbone; gentle, smooth and lulling strokes, an adoring aubade* intended to melt away her pain.

Under his solicitous manner, the mollifying delicacy of his hands and their hypnotic circular motion, she began feeling almost weightless, as if floating on a cloud. One by one, her muscles relinquished their tension. She had never been ministered to in such a loving manner; the sensation was new and life giving.

With a slow and steady hand, William bathed each arm, the palms of her hands, her small and delicate fingers. Pausing momentarily, he gently lifted the blanket away from her breasts and continued his tender ablutions. Layer by layer, his earlier guilt lifted and was replaced by a sense of wonder and privilege at being the first man to discover the taste, the feel, and the sheer magnificence of her woman's body. She had been untouched, unspoiled. The very thought of another man sharing intimacies with Elizabeth made his blood turn cold. She was his, and his alone. Tracing the flowing curve of her waist, her abdomen, he laved her satiny soft skin, until it glowed an ivory pink.

"This may hurt a touch..." he said quietly, lifting the lower aspect of the blankets. Her legs were pressed together, chaste and defiant, her face a study in tension.

"I can't," she said.

"Love, we've known each other in the most intimate of ways, please, allow me, it will alleviate your discomfort."

"But..." He stopped at her words, trying to place himself in her position.

"You are as beautiful in the morning light, as in the glow of evening...don't be ashamed...Shhh..." he cajoled, gently parting her thighs and applying the warm compress to her most intimate area. She flinched, gasping at the searing sensation.

Soon, it dissipated, and settled into a warm languor that traveled to her marrow. He traced the curves and hollows of her legs, trailing over her slim ankles. Lord, she had beautiful legs... It wasn't until she was fully uncovered, lying in innocent splendor on the rough gray blanket, that he felt his control slipping. She let out a soft sigh and curled her toes. At that movement, so artless, so minute, he was seized by a violent desire. He paused and attempted to master his breathing, to redirect the blood flow toward his brain.

"Don't stop..." she purred, like a contented cat.

"I...need a minute," he said with a note of strain in his voice.

She raised herself on her elbows, her hair spilling about her breasts, a tantalizing offering.

"What do you see?" she questioned, unsure how to interpret his response.

"I see you, Elizabeth," he answered, unable to formulate further words. He saw her in all her naked radiance, in the harsh morning light, and he was struck dumb. How could a man feel humble with all this wealth spread out before him?

William sensed that no riches, opulence, or amount of gold could replace the pure beauty of truly loving a woman. In cleansing her love-stained skin he had touched on a primal ritualistic chord, that of rebirth. Love had happened at last in his life, he had given and she had accepted his offering. It had grown with marvelous ease, like a spring flowing from the ground.

She reached out and laced her fingers through his hand, "William?"

"Yes?" He answered, lost in a haze of barely controlled desire.

"Thank you." She said simply.

"For?..." he replied in a hushed voice.

"All this. I never knew...and now I do." She finished with a sigh, and bringing his hand to her mouth, she deposited a light kiss on his warm skin, pressing her cheek against it. He had soothed, had used his hands to bring ease to her body, and in doing so, to her soul. After a gift like this, she thought, there was no turning back.

He watched her intently, reading her like a poem, attending to the flickers within her eyes. He'd never been thanked before, by a woman. Her words of gratitude made him smile inwardly, but the sensation was short-lived; she had not said yes to his marriage proposal, she had not professed her love. Yet, at a fundamental level he sensed they were meant for each other.

Elizabeth sat up on the tangle of blankets, turned his hand palm up and traced its lines.

"Who are you?" she finally asked, her eyes dark, intense in her questioning.

"I'm yours." He answered.

"For always?"

"Yes."

"I know so little of you..." She began.

"What do you wish to know?" He said quietly, his voice intense and serious.

"I'm at a loss. I truly do not know where to begin." She admitted frankly.

"Ask away, Elizabeth, you have my permission." He kissed her hand in turn.

"Truly?"

"Absolutely." He answered with a curve of his lips.

"Indeed, I have a vast number of questions swirling in my head, and I know in due course you will answer many, but after last night..." she blushed delicately.

"Yes..." His voice became husky.

"Would it be presumptuous of me to...to enquire if you had a harem in India?"

William chuckled softly, taken aback by her curiosity. "What have you been reading, Elizabeth?"

She was mildly flustered by his response, "Well, there have been tales floating about you in England for years...and one of them made mention of it. If not a harem, then other women?"

He grasped both her hands in his, "Look at me, I did not have a harem in India. I was a soldier at first, then a diplomat and finally the merchant fleet took up most of my time. I avoided Calcutta society like the plague."

"I was not referring to society ladies, William." She responded, her voice a little cool.

William considered his situation carefully. Societal conventions allowed men much sexual freedom in both India and England. The same rules did not apply to women. It was a given, and usually not discussed in the presence of young ladies. Yet Elizabeth was not like the others, she deserved an answer. At a deeper level, he knew beyond a doubt that this would set the tone for trust and honesty in their relationship. The elemental male within him hesitated to divulge delicate details. Following an inward struggle, he overcame his reluctance and began an edited version, one which he fervently prayed would satisfy her curiosity, and leave his pride intact.

"There was a woman in Simla..." he began, " she was a courtesan, a half-caste, her name was Alia."

"Was she very beautiful and accomplished?..." Elizabeth enquired, his words surprisingly painful to her ears.

"Yes, she was," he responded softly.

"And?"

"And we parted one day. I returned to England. Since first meeting you on my ship, I have been celibate."

She yearned to ask him whether he had loved her, what other women had graced his bed over the years. But she could not. Instinctively, she knew there were others; his skill, his meticulous control, hinted at wide experience even to her untutored person. For a man of his stature to have allowed such questioning spoke of unusual generosity. She would have to be satisfied, for now.

He gently pulled her to a stand, a naked odalisque, and in doing so, her foot caught the edge of the basin, spilling its tepid contents onto the cottage floor.

"Oh dear..." she said, watching the fluid seep into the cracks of the floor boards, "how clumsy of me." They stood for a moment like uncertain adolescents, unable to converse, as raw sexual tension overwhelmed them. Taking a steadying breath, William spoke first; his years of experience coming to the rescue.

"I'll clean up, after we break our fast. I'm afraid it will only be dry biscuits this morning. Oh, and let us make you presentable... before I devour you...dearest Elizabeth, instead of the biscuits."

She swallowed hard, and her lips curled up in a woman's smile, "Your appetite is ...prodigious."

He shifted uncomfortably, and walked toward the window, attempting to temper his growing arousal. Damn...he felt like a rutting stallion ...no other woman had ever affected him so. She needed rest, comfort and reassurance, and all he desperately wanted was to bury himself deep within her, again and again. Drawing on his thinning reserve of self-discipline, he focused on a tree branch outside the window, attempting to slow his breathing, the fevered tempo of his heartbeat.

Noting his discomfiture, Elizabeth steered to a safer subject, a questioning frown creased her forehead and she asked, "What was in the warm water, William?"

"Tea, it was all I could find." He replied without glancing at her, glad for the turn in conversation and the respite it offered.

"Tea?" Her eyebrows arched in surprise.

"Why, yes, the tannins found in tea have medicinal properties."

She nibbled on the corner of her lip, "Oh my, I shall never look at a cup of tea in quite the same manner again!"

Her flip remark seemed to burst the bubble of tension in the small room, he turned toward her, his eyes shining with mirth, and his laughter filled the cottage with a richly vibrant baritone. The sound traveled out into the nearby forest, reaching Aviral's ears. Attuned to his master's voice, the stallion neighed in response, reminding the young couple that the outside world, with all its attendant uncertainties, risks and dangers, beckoned once again.

*aubade: a poem or musical piece reflecting the dawn.

Chapter Fourteen: Part Two

Following the heavy rains, the forest glistened and gleamed under a scent of crushed leaves and pine needles. William stood in the crisp air, by the cottage door, holding her closely clasped in his arms. Elizabeth's head was nestled in a particular spot beneath his chin, one she had discovered the previous night and where she seemed to fit with natural ease. The cabin had been tidied in mutual silence, and now fully clothed, respectable once again, both were struggling to grasp on to the last threads of their shared illusion, knowing in the end, that the exercise was both senseless and futile.

"Look...over there," he whispered, inhaling the scent of her hair. She turned her head and caught sight of two fawns behind a clump of bushes. As they watched the two animals, a doe eased out protectively behind a line of evergreens and affixed the young couple with an intent stare. Aviral, tied to a nearby tree, nickered impatiently and in a swift move, the doe followed by her young, bounded away.

"Let's be still, for a little longer," she whispered, not moving, "tell me one more time - how you came to love me so."

"Elizabeth..." he answered, gently chiding her, " you haven't answered my earlier question. I need to know your intent, when I speak to your father today."

She was silent.

"You feel rushed, pressed beyond measure, am I correct?" He enquired patiently.

"Yes. I feel caged. Not by you, William, but by what is expected of us given the circumstances of yesterday and last night. I despise it so!"

He tilted her chin up toward him, "Look at me. It is my last intention to make you feel imprisoned...however...your reputation, your family's good name...your sisters' futures are all at stake here. If you chose to defer your decision, each day would cast shadows, aspersions on those you love and most of all on your good character. That, Elizabeth, is a high price to pay for a measure of freedom."

"I am fully aware of the implications, William," she answered with a long sigh, her lip trembling, "but I am so very frightened."

"Frightened?" he asked, attempting to grapple with the intricacies of her emotions when all seemed crystal clear in his own mind.

"You must understand, it's like this...I may enjoy riding bareback but I need to be sure of my horse, his temperament, whether he is likely to throw me off the saddle. I need to feel secure in my ability to handle the horse, otherwise, the risk is too high, and I will refuse. Call me a cautious adventuress, if you will."

"I see. In matters of life and love, security is relative, dearest Elizabeth. It is something I learned in India, over and over again," he ran his fingers over the curve of her cheek, "as for trust and respect, they are earned. I intend to earn those in your eyes if you need me to, but love happens."

Gently, he outlined the vermilion border of her lips, "Yet, I don't believe I should have to earn or prove my love to you. Knowing another confers wisdom, but truly loving another confers enlightenment. I ask that you open your heart and allow me in. In doing so, I promise to recognize your freedom and need for autonomy."

One by one, he smoothed away the lines of worry creasing her forehead, "In the East, they speak of Yin and Yang; the opposing yet complementary forces, water and fire, light and dark. Among many things, one represents woman, the other man. In joining, the forces attain a universal wholeness, a superior consciousness, that of cosmic union...samadhi. In you, my love, I feel that I have truly found my Yin, and when we are together..." he stroked her hair tenderly, his voice hoarsening, " when we are together, as man and woman, I believe the whole is much greater than the sum of both parts. I can't be any plainer with my words, and I fervently hope...it is enough." He let his hands drop by his side, and stood gazing at her, waiting for her answer.

As William spoke, she had listened intently to his words, letting their meaning gently settle in her mind, attempting to absorb the full extent of his wisdom. For she knew, deep down, that before her stood a man who had seen and lived in a world far removed from hers, and somehow had woven his experience into a tapestry of deep and exotic riches.

Was this not what she yearned for? To escape the rigid confines of her everyday life and reach for something higher? Could one truly find freedom in the arms of a loved one?

At that very moment, she felt exquisitely torn, pulled in two opposing directions; relinquishing what little control she had in her life for the sake of sharing her life with another. Silent tears pooled in her eyes, and trickled down her cheeks.

William's heart was beating in a fevered staccato. Gentle, be gentle with her...He remembered Ranjit's words, concerning old and young souls and, taking a deep breath, he spoke once again.

His dark eyes locked onto hers, his voice deep and low, "Elizabeth, I have traced the contours of your body with my fingers. I know your taste, and the scent of you." Her cheeks flushed at the intimacy of his words and still the tears came.

"And when we make love, I feel your language; not the language of spoken words, your language, Elizabeth. Your soul speaks to me, my love. I hear it, and I understand it. I watch the layers of you become thinner, sometimes so fragile that I could break through them completely, without a word."

Her breath hitched. He was so very near to the truth of her inner turmoil.

"But I choose not to. My wish is not to conquer, my darling, but to share. The key to you remains always with you. Any door you open I shall gladly walk through. As for myself...my lock grows weaker."

At that instant something thin and brittle within her cracked and disintegrated, leaving in its wake an incandescent light. Her face streaked with tears, eyelids and lips swollen from last night's passion, she whispered softly,

"Yes, William. I will."

And it was enough.

He dipped his head toward her and touched his lips to hers. Their kiss was fluid fire, a lyrical variation of the melodies they had created during their night of passion. His tongue glided in and out, drawing sweet and silent words into her. She was dripping honey, sweet like a ripe fig. She sighed against him, throaty and low, fitting her body sinuously within his. He was stunned by his need for her, something seemed to slip from him, go to her and without choice or question, wrapped itself around her.

"Darling...I cannot get my fill of you...." he whispered hoarsely, his hand alighting on her breast, stroking her nipple between his fingers, while his tongue resumed its wild flying dance; gulping, gasping, reaching, and reaching higher... until he became entirely lost in the wet honeyed depths of her mouth, her words echoing in his mind... yes, yes, yes.

As the forest slowly came to life, and the morning sunlight reflected on the last wet leaves, William kissed Elizabeth and she kissed him in turn. The birds about them quieted their song, as if cocking an invisible ear to hear the loving wetness pass between their mouths. Their kiss was full of promise and glory...even the ground squirrels were dazzled.

Chapter Fifteen: Part One

" The following are men who generally obtain success with women: men who speak well, who have secured their confidence, men who know their weaknesses, men who are celebrated for being very strong, enterprising and brave, men whose dress and manner of living are magnificent, and men who are well versed in the science of love."

Kama Sutra: Part V ( Of Men Who Have Success With Women)

As Richard and Jevons, the gamekeeper, led their horses toward the cottage, a sensuous and tantalizing sight greeted both men. If Elizabeth's reputation had suffered through her unexplained absence from Pemberley, the amorous exchange witnessed by each man had effectively sealed her fate. Richard was astounded, the gamekeeper merely curious and embarrassed for his master.

"Darcy," Richard Fitzwilliam intonated clearly, shifting astride his chestnut stallion, " Ahem...Darcy!" he repeated, after some prolonged throat clearing.

His words finally registered with the young lovers, standing clenched in a searing embrace by the cottage door. William lifted his head, and threw a dark scowl in his direction.

Reluctantly, he disentangled Elizabeth's arms from his waist. Her face flushed, breathless, she looked furtively about the wood and noted with a sinking heart Richard's knowing smirk, while the gamekeeper, seated on a gray gelding, appeared keenly engrossed in a pack of birds flying overhead. An uncomfortable silence ensued, finally broken by William's voice,

"I see the search party has arrived," he announced with barely masked irritation.

"We set out at the crack of dawn. Jevons and I decided to travel east knowing the cottage offered convenient shelter from the storm. Three other parties are scouring your lands as we speak," Richard replied tartly, irked by William's lack of gratitude at being found so expediently.

Raking Elizabeth with his eyes, he added sardonically, "I am delighted to see you looking so well, Miss Bennet, it must have been quite an ordeal, with the storm and all."

Having recovered from her earlier mortification, she met his eyes with a clear and defiant gaze, "On the contrary, Earl Pemberton was most gracious in ensuring my comfort and safety."

Before Richard could reply, William threw a warning glance in his direction. He placed a possessive hand on the small of her back, and guided her to a spare horse which the duo had thoughtfully brought along; a bay mare grazing quietly near Aviral.

Bending toward her, he whispered, "Are you comfortable enough to ride on your own?"

The full meaning of his question made her previous blush turn crimson. Swallowing hard, she answered, "Of course!" and was soon sitting sidesaddle on the mare.

The foursome rode back toward Pemberley, setting an easy pace, mindful of Elizabeth's well being.

As they cantered through autumn forests, open fields and moors, she observed William's countenance undergo a determined change; his posture stiffened and the planes of his face hardened, their lines becoming harsher and fiercer. The tender and solicitous man of earlier transformed into a forbiddingly commanding presence. His demeanor became cold and detached. A sense of apprehension cast its lengthening shadow onto Elizabeth's mind. Was William preparing himself for battle? If so, who lurked beyond enemy lines?

Slowly, the undulating land became dotted with flocks of ducks and grazing sheep. Finally, behind a strand of trees, rose the cream-colored walls of Pemberley. Outlined by saffron rays of morning sun, its elegant façade imparted a warming glow. Yet, despite the beauty of her surroundings, Elizabeth's sense of foreboding did not recede. As they cantered across the forecourt, a few peacocks scattered haughtily out of the way, while grooms and footmen came running hastily upon catching a glimpse of the arriving party.

William approached Elizabeth's horse and circling his hands about her waist, set her down gently beside him. She was perfectly capable of dismounting on her own, but he simply needed to touch her again, however briefly. He gazed at her intently, noting for the first time, the tired lines etched on her delicate features, the lacy pattern of blue veins under her eyes. Ignoring the curious stares of surrounding servants, he tenderly brushed a stray curl from her forehead.

"A footman will escort you through the service entrance - so as not to cause a fracas. I highly recommend a bath, change of dress, and rest. You must be exhausted...you'll need your strength when we face the guests...and your family. I shan't speak to your father without your presence."

He raised her hand to his lips and deposited a light kiss. "Rest well, love." His momentary warmth was quickly replaced by a shuttered detachment as he strode away.

Elizabeth, too tired to utter a word, smiled wanly and followed the awaiting footman into the great house.

Richard witnessed the entire exchange with a pensive look. Only he, Bingley and Jane had been privy to Charlotte's recounting of Darcy's escapade. The remainder of the guests, including the Bennets, had been advised that Elizabeth and the Earl had ridden out, become caught in the storm, and likely spent the night with a tenant family on the estate. The news was greeted with a touch of skepticism, but no scandal had erupted...yet.

As the other search parties had yet to return, Richard followed William into the house. Now that Elizabeth's temperance was no longer present, Darcy strode into the great hall with leashed furor. He was seething inwardly, on the verge of boiling over. An unknown enemy had shot at him and Elizabeth. With a house full of undercover agents, his dearest friends and family nearby, the situation was becoming unsettling. His sense of responsibility, finely honed during campaigns in India, was being tested to its finite limits. The protection and safety of dozens of people was dangerously beyond his power or control; a situation he detested. Perdition! He never had control from the very beginning of this operation. Let Melbourne and his damn plans go to hell!

Throwing his black leather gloves at a nearby footman, he barked out orders to Pomeroy, the butler, threw a curt nod in Mrs. Reynolds'direction, and bounded up the grand staircase, two steps at a time while Richard followed closely behind.

~ * ~

In the hushed privacy of Darcy's bedchambers, Ranjit silently went about preparing his master's bath, while William paced back and forth. Richard lay sprawled on a green velvet settee, observing his friend with a faintly amused air. The situation called for a degree of seriousness, but his old friend's unusual behavior added much needed levity.

"One shot you say, Panther, and it missed at close range...an incompetent marksman by the looks of it...thank your lucky stars neither of you were harmed...and no clues as to his identity?"

William let out an exasperated sigh, rifling his hand through his hair. "We could barely see through the sheets of rain. I'll send out some men later today to examine the area. Whoever it was, was observing us for some time, followed us...but why?"

"Precisely my sentiments...why? If they suspect you to be hiding the plans, you are much more useful alive than dead. Perhaps the intent was to maim, in order to withdraw information. A botched job, Darcy; the work of a novice, at best. We should ask Melbourne's men to retrace everyone's whereabouts at the time of the shooting. It would help eliminate some suspects," Richard replied.

Tearing impatiently at his neckcloth, William flung it on a nearby chair and resumed his restless pacing.

Richard cleared his throat and asked the question that had been hovering at the tip of his tongue since coming across the couple's heated embrace in the woods.

"What of Miss Bennet?...What are your intentions?...I don't mean to pry, but old Bennet was fit to be tied last night. Jane hovered on the verge of tears all evening and that mother of theirs flapped around until she dissolved into a rather dramatic swoon! One could have staged it all at Drury Lane, if you ask me."

Darcy stopped pacing and looked out the floor to ceiling window. His voice quieted,

"She has accepted my marriage proposal."

Richard let out a long sigh, "I see...well, let me be the first to congratulate you, my man. I must admit, everything seems rather sudden. Tell me, had you planned on this all along or did... aah... circumstances precipitate the decision?"

"For some time now, my mind has been made up. She is the finest of women; intelligent, kind, beautiful, and decidedly strong willed..." William answered, continuing to stare out the window, "in the end, she required...a little...convincing."

"Aahh... and you obliged, Panther?" Richard replied, raising a knowing eyebrow in his friend's direction. Whereas most Englishmen abroad had sampled at one time or another India's exotic riches, William had approached the study of the sensual arts with accustomed seriousness and exactitude, becoming a veritable master. Despite eventually limiting his interest to a well-known courtesan, his sexual prowess had become the stuff of legend in Simla.

"That is none of your concern, Wolf." William responded quietly, an undeniable threat lacing his reply.

Sensing his old commanding officer's unbridled tension, Richard retreated behind a polite façade, " Sound decision...lovely woman...truly...I shall excuse myself...let's strategize later this evening... right."

Divesting himself of his white shirt, his back turned to Richard, William barely heard his words. As Richard carefully edged out of the room, he caught sight of William's muscled back; a number of faint but definite pink lines were etched onto the surface of his bronzed skin. Ah, the marks of a woman... a well pleased woman, no doubt. How very obliging of you, Panther.

Chapter Fifteen: Part Two

Charlotte sat among the fragrant orchids, potted palms and lemon trees of Pemberley's orangerie. The air was tepid and aromatic, redolent of sweet perfume and rich soil. Dressed in a pale pink muslin gown embroidered with tiny rosebuds, she seemed lost in a book resting lightly on her lap. Her mind was elsewhere, floating in and out of pleasant images involving Richard: his smile, his graceful yet elegant form, and the mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

He crept up behind her, placing both his hands on her eyes, and bending down, kissed her cheek. She jumped in surprise, spilling her book onto the flagstone floor.

"Richard!" She exclaimed, a smile spreading on her features.

"Darling...I've missed you so..." he whispered, kissing the curve of her neck.

She turned away, gently restraining him from further advances, "You shared breakfast with me, this morning..."

"Sweet, it seems like an eternity. This courtship will be the death of me!" he whispered hoarsely.

She smiled at his words, and his petulant moue. They had stolen deliciously intimate moments yesterday in the perfumed orangerie, and she had secretly hoped to come across him again. Richard's ardor was undeniably exhilarating; his skill and his reputation as a rake of the first order, well deserved. Yet her mind was firmly set; kisses and caresses were allowed, but everything else would have to wait till their wedding night. She had made her intent clear, despite valiant and creative attempts on his part to sway her mind.

Over the course of several conversations, she had discovered him to possess a swift intellect, an irreverent sense of humor and a surprisingly tender heart, all well hidden and masked behind a degage exterior. She found him entirely fascinating; drawn in by the challenge of uncovering a rich cache of multiple facets and layers. In truth, Charlotte was falling in love, her crisp and rational mind embracing the entire situation with surprising ease and delight. Perhaps the perfect alignment of love, passion, tenderness, and caring was not a fairy tale concept after all.

She patted the seat beside her, and Richard, like an obedient puppy, settled his tall form close by her side.

"Tell me about Elizabeth and the Earl... I heard the servants talking earlier."

Richard let out a long sigh, and recounted a brief summary of the events.

"Alone?" Charlotte whispered, horrified.

"Yes."

"Oh, mon Dieu! It's terrible !"

"The shooting, or their night alone?" He asked with a sardonic grin.

"Both!" she said, tapping him on his arm.

"Well, it seems a marriage proposal ensued. He's quite enraptured by her. Never seen the man in such a state. Quite shocking, really, if you ask me..." Richard muttered under his breath.

"Shocking? Do elaborate."

"Well, I've known him for years... always the cool, distant, enigmatic man. His emotions were rarely involved; made him a damn fine army commander. Now, he's all gooey-eyed..."

Charlotte smiled at his admission. "Do I detect a note of apprehension?" she teased lightly.

He threw her a sheepish look, "Perhaps. If the great William Darcy has been felled by the doe-eyed Miss Bennet - where does that leave a poor rake like me?"

"Why, at my feet...mon cher." Her lips curled in a lovely smile.

He groaned, unused to such blatant female control, where he'd always been the one to make and break the rules, the one to walk away.

"Charlotte...I will go mad..." He said hoarsely, and with a lithe movement, lifted her onto his lap, onto his sizeable erection.

Tilting her head up resolutely, she demanded, "Richard... put me down this instant."

"Not yet, chérie, you've tortured me enough, now it's my turn..." He kissed her delicately and let his fingers slide over her breasts. Her breathing changed its cadence and he smiled inwardly, well versed in the nuances of female arousal. "Aaahh, a little of your own medicine. Now let me whisper in your ear some of the delectable things I shall perform on our wedding night..."

"May I remind you that you haven't proposed yet."

"A mere technicality, my dear," he whispered, as he massaged her nipple through the thin muslin.

She wiggled insistently, attempting to get away from his grasp.

"Don't move..." he groaned, "please."

"Tu es un grand méchant loup!"* she whispered, kissing him lightly on the nose.

"There are two words I'd like to say to you..." he answered back, nibbling on her ear, his hand alighting on her other breast.

"Oh?"

"Gretna Green." He squeezed her nipple lightly and expertly ground his hips onto hers. Her breath hitched again, and with the last shreds of her willpower she muttered,

"No."

"No?" he whispered, and captured her mouth in a devastating kiss. After a few minutes, she disengaged herself and panting, flushed, she capitulated...a very little.

"Not Gretna Green...but perhaps a special licence can be arranged, once you've spoken to my father?"

And all of a sudden, Richard's day took on a decidedly brighter hue.

~ * ~

Elizabeth turned the corner and hurried down a long gallery, her slippered feet racing across the Aubusson carpets. After a long and leisurely bath in her chambers, she had slept all afternoon and now was late for dinner. Dressed in a simple blue velvet gown, her hair coiled in a braid on her crown, she appeared youthful and fresh.

Her magical night with William had taken on a surreal quality. Yet, deep within, she felt irrevocably altered, a new awareness of herself, the hidden nuances of her body. She felt it in the sway of her hips, in the sumptuous feel of her velvet gown against her skin; colours, textures, scents all seemed to have taken on a more vibrant, more immediate quality. Her previous definition of pleasure had been forever altered. There were degrees she attained with William, a sensual range, and a scope, which calibrated years beyond past experiences. How exquisite...she thought...and how very vulnerable one felt, having tasted it for the first time. How could something which felt so right, be considered wrong? She was torn between the joyous discovery of physical pleasure at the hands of a loving man and the strict dictates imposed by society. Inexplicably, she felt closer to God's kindness than she had before. Had she truly sinned? Her heart beat in trepidation at facing her family. If only she could wave away the onslaught of questioning, judging glances, the sheer torture of being the focus of wagging tongues...then all would be well. But it was not to be. As she struggled with her tangled emotions, matters of espionage and missing plans surfaced, only to be forced into a dim corner of her brain. William had expressly refused her help, her cup was full...let others solve the riddle.

Embroiled in her own turmoil, she failed to see Louisa and Helena standing in the gallery, observing a large portrait. At the last minute, both women moved aside for fear of being knocked over by Elizabeth's flight down the hallway.

"Miss Bennet, why the hurry?" Louisa drawled as Elizabeth halted her steps. "Dinner has been delayed by a quarter of an hour. Did your maid not advise you?"

"Oh, my apologies, I did not see you standing here."

"Really?" Helena drawled in her heavy accent. "We were remarking on the resemblance between William and his late father," she added.

Elizabeth glanced at the large portrait, set in a heavy gilded frame before her. She was immediately struck by the family resemblance; a strong chin, dark wavy hair, a haughty profile and the same hooded eyes. Before she could formulate an answer, Helena continued,

"He was an extraordinary man, my Edward..." Her voice cut through the silence enveloping the long gallery.

"Very much like his son, I would presume," Louisa chimed in.

"Some would disagree with your assessment, my dear Louisa..." Helena answered, her voice flat, unemotional and neutral.

Overcome by intense curiosity at the turn of conversation and angered by Helena's cutting remark, Elizabeth blurted out,

"How did he die?"

Helena dropped her voice, "He died of a broken heart -over his estranged son. As the years went by, William's arrogance and indifference became unbearable, and then, he had a heart attack."

Elizabeth was horrified at her words, "Surely, that cannot be true!"

Helena gave her a dazzling smile, which stopped short of reaching her eyes, "Forgive me, Miss Bennet, my words were overly harsh. I am still grieving for the loss of my beloved husband. Let me warn you, there is much you do not know of the young Earl. Perhaps you and I should have a little tête-à-tête, sometime? I would be happy to shed light on the man." In a drift of perfume and insincerity, Helena glided gracefully toward the dining room, Louisa's voice trailing behind them,

"Don't mind me, ladies, I shall join you shortly...these paintings are most fascinating..."

Together they walked, stopping at a pair of ten foot carved doors flanked by a footman and Pomeroy, Pemberley's distinguished butler.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and stepped into the room.

The dining room was high-ceilinged, its walls richly adorned in claret silk, a long linen draped table anchored the room, set with flickering candlesticks. Consciously averting her gaze from her family, she focused her eyes on William, standing at the head of the table, an elaborate marble fireplace behind him. Tall, elegant, and dark, his eyes captured hers and sent her a palpable message of strength and encouragement. She was to be seated on his left, Helena on his right. A definite frosted enmity seemed to exist between the Earl and his stepmother, Elizabeth noted. Not surprising after the woman's scathing words, earlier. Louisa fluttered in at the last minute and the formal service began.

Sitting by William, her own family relegated to the other end of the dining room, she was struck by the richness of her surroundings. The table was laden with gold rimmed monogrammed plates, cut glass goblets in three sizes, silver plate and crystal accessories, some of which she was entirely unfamiliar with. The scent of lily and rose flower arrangements all of a sudden seemed cloying. She felt suffocated, as if in a tight , constricting and confining corset- with no room to move, no room to breathe, and suddenly she felt as if the heavens were about to weep.

Attempting to gain control over her treacherous emotions, she cast her eyes down, and her fingers began flitting over the silverware aligned in perfect precision by her plate. Slowly, she began tracing the "P" engraved on its shank, over and over. The grooved incision seemed to be a cool and cruel reminder of the aged ancestry, the august familial bloodline dating hundreds of years. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the enormity of her decision, she turned to William, a look of confusion and dread colouring her delicate features. He sat impassively, a picture of detached decorum, but his eyes flickered momentarily toward her and he dropped his hand under the table. Reaching for her cold palm, he began rubbing it in a soothing circular motion. As the warmth of his hand worked its magic, he reprised the silent aubade of the morning on her soft skin, and she felt her waning spirits revive under his touch.

The party dined on leek soup, baked salmon, game pies, various salads and finally, thin glistening slices of strawberry tart, followed by chocolate cake and lacy lemon cookies. Conversation flowed in a stilted manner, until Charles put his considerable talent to good use. Like an overactive border collie, he came to the rescue - teasing, nudging, and prodding everyone into a false sense of joie de vivre. Soon, the conversation was alive with talk of the hunt, politics, recent happenings among the ton and of course, the weather.

Elizabeth could feel her father's censuring stares in her direction. She flinched at her mother's incessant chatter and thanked the gods for her placement near William at the table.

The Earl sat quietly, observing the spectacle unfolding before him. He ate little, his appetite stilted by the myriad events of the past two days. He was concerned for Elizabeth, her happiness, her well being. He longed to reach out and enfold her in his arms, comforting and soothing her worries away. To his consternation, the simple touch of her hand had been electric, reminding him of their earlier unbridled passion. As she tasted various foods before her, he forced himself not to gaze at her mouth, the flitting of her tongue over her lush lips. Despite the complex situation arraigned before him, he found himself inexplicably drawn in by a fierce sensual tension, one which sorely tested his self-control.

As the servants removed the last of the service, William rose, and announced in a deeply authoritative voice, " Miss Bennet, Mr. Bennet, I request your presence in the library; we shall rejoin the rest of the party in the drawing room, shortly."

Scattered whispers broke out along the table, as Elizabeth exited the room. Helena clenched her teeth, while Lady de Bourgh threw a dagger-like stare at her nephew. William ignored both women as he strode past. Mrs. Bennet began fanning herself furiously, prompting several people to attend to her comfort for fear of a repeat of last evening's theatrics. Jane sat in silence, distractedly shuffling the last of her strawberry tart. Charles leaned toward his wife, and whispered,

"All will end well, don't you fret my darling."

She gave him a wan smile, and was suddenly overcome by a wave of nausea. Charles noticed her pallor and soon ushered her out of the dining room, to the comfort and safety of their bedchamber. Neither broached the subject of William and Elizabeth, but it hung like a dense fog between them, a heavy opaque curtain, clouding the crystal brightness of their happy existence.

*Tu es un grand méchant loup: translation...You are a big bad wolf.

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