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The Great Game

Chapter Sixteen: Part One

"A girl should be taken as wife, and also given in marriage, when fortune, signs, omens and the words of others are favourable... for a man should not marry at any time he likes."

Kama Sutra: Part III, Chapter I (On Marriage)

William closed the library door behind him and moved toward a tantalus* sitting on his desk. With each step taken, he inventoried his carefully prepared words; marshalling his self-command, patently aware that its mettle would be tested as never before.

"Brandy, Elizabeth... Mr. Bennet?" he asked, his voice precisely modulated and well mannered.

Thomas flinched at the Earl's use of Elizabeth's first name, and remaining steadfastly by the fireplace, replied curtly, "No, thank you." He had observed him closely throughout the evening and his fury at the younger man's self-possession was growing. How did he dare appear cool and composed in the face of such circumstances?

Elizabeth nodded her head in the negative, while William poured himself a generous portion and came to stand by her side. His nearness to her person, was meant to send a deliberate message to the senior Bennet.

"We owe you an explanation," he began.

"I'm all anticipation," Thomas Bennet replied sarcastically.

Undeterred by his tone, William forged on, "As you know, Elizabeth and I were riding yesterday afternoon and were accidentally caught in the rainstorm. We eventually found shelter in one of my gamekeeper's cottages... where we were forced to spend the night."

"How very convenient." Thomas replied, tensing his jaw, his indignation apparent in the tone of his voice.

William regarded him thoughtfully. Throughout his tenure in India, his enemies and allies discovered, very rapidly, that he was near impossible to intimidate. Though he detested direct confrontations, finding conflict distasteful and much preferring the circuitous routes of diplomacy, once cornered, he would not back down; he was fearless. Delving into a deep well of cultivated patience, he continued,

"While traveling through the surrounding forest, we were shot at. Thankfully, the sniper missed. We, as yet, do not know his identity or his motive. The combination of poor weather and the shooting made our seeking refuge in the cottage an unfortunate necessity."

Thomas Bennet laughed out loud at William's words. The sound was ugly and harsh.

"And you expect me to believe this cock and bull story?" he spit out vehemently.

Darcy's eyes darkened at Bennet's tone and derogatory words, yet his face remained impassive, "Yes, I do," he said quietly.

Pacing angrily about the room, Thomas spoke in a barbed voice, "Let me tell you something, young man. I was not born yesterday. You have stealthily pursued my daughter since that god-forsaken Channel crossing, without obtaining my permission for courtship. You orchestrated, with elegant finesse I might add, this entire country house gathering to deliver her into your predatory clutches. Then, you had the gall to whisk her away to a secluded cottage, under the pretense of a storm and a shooting. And, you had the temerity to accomplish all this under the very nose of her family. I find myself excessively diverted by your imaginative display of techniques in the art of seduction, Pemberton, but do give my intellect a modicum of credit. A very little will suffice."

Elizabeth stood dumfounded at his words. She had never witnessed her father in such an unbridled state. The nature of his accusation alluded to unspoken and hidden topics, ones which were not discussed between fathers and daughters. Discomfited and embarrassed, she whispered, alarmed, "Father..."

"Silence!" he hissed, halting a few feet away from her, "You, young lady, have nothing to say in this matter, you have behaved abominably, shaming your entire family. Where has all your breeding, your education, your very pride gone? How could you Lizzie!"

Darcy was furious. Thomas Bennet had breached several rules and conventions, and in doing so raised the stakes of the match to an entirely new level. No one stood up to the seigneur** without consequences. Draping his arm protectively about Elizabeth's shoulders, he countered, his tone civil and deadly calm,

"I believe Elizabeth can speak for herself. I regret that you choose to interpret the events in such a negative manner. May I remind you, sir, that you are presently in my home, on my land and I will not stand for such disrespectful conduct toward Elizabeth's person."

"She is not your property, yet, Pemberton. She happens to be my daughter. Did he force you, Lizzie? Did he? Answer me, this instant!"

Elizabeth's eyes widened in shock, "Father! That is enough!"

William tightened his arm about her shoulders. This was no longer a game of thrust and parry, but outright war; something he was most familiar with. With a voice devoid of emotion, he skewered Thomas Bennet with a dark look, "I will have you know that Elizabeth has accepted my marriage proposal. I had every intention of asking your permission for her hand. As of now, I do not. Your conduct this evening has been unacceptable, and trespassed the bounds of politesse.*** Elizabeth shall remain at Pemberley until the wedding. She will be properly chaperoned by my aunt and her sister Jane. If you wish to discuss this further, in a civil manner, I will gladly hear out your apology. Otherwise, please be advised that I have nothing further to say to you. As for your family, they are welcome to stay until the wedding. But mark my words, sir, my generosity has its limits. Good night."

Swinging around, his arm possessively draped about Elizabeth's shoulders, he escorted her out of the library. With each step taken, she felt herself ripped away from her old world and hurtled into another; hazy, filled with unknowns, beyond her control. Her resentment at the display of masculine posturing grew, and was replaced by a seething anger. She felt cruelly divested of dignity and honor, what was worse, both men were at fault. Disentangling herself from William's protective hold, she climbed two steps of the grand staircase and turned around, facing him at eye level.

"I've had enough! I am no one's chattel, do you hear!" she announced in a fiery voice, "You were not speaking to an Indian Maharajah, William, but my father! He is a good and decent man, and I care for him deeply! Perhaps you have difficulty understanding such an emotion, given your own history with your father! I have agreed to marry you, but not be ruled by you! As for remaining here until the wedding...where did you get such an idea? Why was I not consulted? Have you set the date and ordered my dress without my consent as well?"

She leaned toward him, her hands on her hips, "Remember, none of this would have transpired if you had held your prodigious jealousy in check over Philippe! Your actions triggered these events, through no fault of mine. And now, I am left paying the price. Where is justice in all this, I ask you. Now, leave me please, I need time to gather my thoughts and cool my own temper." Turning around in a swirl of skirts, she began climbing the curving stairs, her back ramrod straight, chin haughtily tilted in the air.

"Elizabeth...we need to announce the engagement...in the drawing room, this evening."

Half way up the staircase, she leaned against its carved balustrade and shot back at him, " Do we, now? Perhaps you could curtail your carefully laid plans, my lord. Since I was not consulted, I prefer the announcement not be made this evening! There has been entirely too much commotion for one night, and frankly, I find myself not wishing any further company. Good night!" Raising her skirts, Elizabeth nimbly ran up the remainder of the stairs, and disappeared from view.

Ignoring Pomeroy's presence at the foot of the stairs, William turned toward the drawing room. Suddenly, he felt very tired and very old. Where had he failed? What had gone asunder? His hand on the gilded door knob, he stopped, and without turning, announced to the butler in an irritated voice, "If you value your position, you will kindly wipe that grin off your face, Pomeroy."

The distinguished butler swallowed hard. His master was rarely known for harsh words, he adjusted his visage into a bland and neutral expression, but the delighted twinkle in his eyes remained.

~ * ~

It was well past midnight, and the entire house slumbered. Wearing a quilted black silk robe, a three- branched candelabra balanced in one hand, William crept down the servants' stairs. As a young boy, he'd spent many happy hours ensconced in the warmth of Pemberley's cavernous kitchens, and tonight he was looking for comfort and solace. He was famished, filled with doubt and misery. Misery he was well acquainted with, but doubt was an entirely new emotion. Rather than steering toward the library, his steps led him instead to the familiar smells which harked back to simpler days.

The evening had not unfolded according to plan. Reflecting on his entire time in England- very little had The strong sense of order he had developed and prized in India, seemed to disappear into oblivion once he set foot on English soil.

Melbourne's men, after extensive questioning, had cleared every guest present- all were accounted for during the stormy night; by deduction, the enemy lurked beyond Pemberley's gates. This very fact, alone, should have resulted in peace of mind, yet somehow, it failed to bring any sense of calm. As the guests had been apprised of the shooting incident, many had tactfully made plans to leave the very next day. The house party had come to a premature termination. Somehow, William experienced a deep sense of failure at the course of events; the feeling sat uncomfortably on his shoulders.

Elizabeth's father had excused himself early in the evening, and upon closer reflection, it became apparent to William that he had indeed misjudged his intellect. The man deserved a full accounting of his actions. Yet, the very thought of baring his soul to an other male, made him cringe. The act required an inherent trust which old Bennet had yet to earn...but was the same not true of him, did he not have to earn Bennet's trust as well? The argument dueled back and forth in his mind, in a seemingly endless battle.

Finally, his thoughts turned to Elizabeth, his betrothed, now sleeping under his very roof; angry...no, furious...at his actions, his words. Would the events of the evening tarnish the purity of their love? Damn...he felt uncomfortably pulled by opposing forces, separate tangents. He was no stranger to responsibility, having jumped readily at the challenges India had laid at his feet. Yet, the realm of tactical maneuvers, espionage, diplomacy and the merchant fleet offered a safe distance, a level of protection against emotional involvement. Now, he felt embroiled in new and heady feelings. His cool detachment, which had served him so very well in the past, was losing its effectiveness. Hell, had lost its effectiveness the minute Elizabeth Bennet tumbled into his arms, weeks ago, at sea. He felt like a lone high wire artist, high above the crowds, his equilibrium pole long discarded, the safety net long gone.

Hungry for sustenance, hungry for Elizabeth, and desperate for inner peace and calm, Darcy swung open the heavy doors before him.

To his complete and utter astonishment, the large kitchen was occupied. Were they destined to meet only at night, in clandestine situations?

Under a hanging rack of gleaming pots and pans, bundled in a blue night robe, sat Elizabeth. Perched contentedly by a heavy oak table, she was devouring the remnants of a chocolate cake. Curiously, William's tormenting burden of worries seemed to lighten at the sight of her.

He stood in the doorway, framed by the glow of the candelabra, his face half in shadow, flickers of light reflecting in his dark curls.

She looked up, momentarily pausing her laden fork in mid air. "Hullo, William," she muttered through a mouthful of cake, waving her fork in his direction, motioning him to sit down. He couldn't help but smile at her artlessness and youthful innocence, so different from the insatiable enchantress of the previous night.

"I see you found the kitchens..." he said gruffly, unable to erase traces of his brooding humor.

Choosing to ignore the irritated tone of his voice, she answered, "Uhumm... and the cake...it's the very last piece,"

"Are you planning to share - or do I need to beg for a morsel?" He asked, softening his voice and hoping with all his heart that her earlier anger had disappeared.

As if reading his mind, she spooned a dollop of chocolate filling on her fork and leaning over, offering him a taste, "Here, have some cake...On closer reflection, after the events of this evening, I have decided to grant you a reprieve."

William accepted her offering, letting the chocolate filling slide down his throat. Sitting back on a wooden chair, he crossed his arms and enquired, "A reprieve? Forgive me, but I am not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner."

"Flexibility of mind is a virtue - one you shall have to acquaint yourself with, William, if you intend to wed me."

"Oh, I intend to, very much - dearest," he said quietly, focusing on the chocolate smeared on her upper lip, amused and piqued by her words. She was exhibiting a playful side tonight; one he was not familiar with, but suddenly wanted to explore. Perhaps it would offer succor from the evening's happenings.

"Ummm... what does one call this creamy center?" she said, licking her lip in a sensuous half moon.

"Ganache, chocolate ganache..." he murmured.

"I'm thirsty," she announced, her voice child-like and at odds with the sensuous curves outlined by her robe. She knew she was goading him, yet, part of her felt justified after witnessing the arrogantly territorial stance he had displayed before her father.

"I know the perfect wine to accompany your midnight feast, come, follow me," he said, reaching across the table and extending his hand. Neither spoke for a few moments, each remembering the same words, uttered weeks ago, on another night, in a garden.

"Very well," she answered with a light smile, and without taking his hand followed him out the door.

Walking along a lengthy corridor, they came upon a smaller rounded doorway, oddly set in a corner. The door was well hinged, well oiled and opened noiselessly. With the light of the candelabra flickering across carved stone steps, he led her down a narrow staircase. An immediate coolness enveloped them as they descended to the base of the stairwell. Another door beckoned and Elizabeth found herself standing in a spacious wine cellar.

To her surprise, it was well lit with several wall sconces, as if in readiness for their arrival. William led her to a small tasting room, its walls paneled in bricks, furnished with an elegant table, four oversize upholstered chairs and a soft pile Persian rug. The atmosphere was hushed and luxurious. In one corner stood a generous cupboard, filled with gleaming glassware, sparkling invitingly in the candle glow. He waved her to a chair and bending low, brushed the last of her chocolate from her lip.

"I'll be right back," he murmured, licking the remnants of creamy filling from his finger, "and then, you can advise me of my reprieve."

*Tantalus: A stand in which decanters of brandy or wine could be kept.
** Seigneur: Lord
***Politesse: Polite convention or behavior.

Chapter Sixteen: Part Two

Settling herself among the soft cushions, Elizabeth luxuriated in pleasant anticipation. Hidden deep in the bowels of the great house, William at her side, she felt, once again, safe and content. Her earlier anger had slowly dissipated, replaced by a solid resolve to achieve a truce, with the sincere hope of not relinquishing her own deeply ingrained beliefs.

Part of her understood that she had witnessed a territorial battle between two males who cared deeply for her happiness. One aspect of her was flattered, the other, somewhat apprehensive. She felt emotionally bruised by her father's comments, yet deep down, the optimistic side of her nature was filled with hope. Hope that with time and further discussion, her father would grant them his blessing. Enveloped in a cloak of buoyant optimism and innocent faith, she allowed the memory of her father's words to dissolve into a fine vapor and vanish away.

William returned a moment later, a dusty wine bottle in his hand.

"I've decided that your earlier commanding tone was a result of wanting to protect me from harm - a misguided use of your power, darling." She announced softly, intent on making him fully aware of her stand. Despite their short acquaintance she held a deep trust in his ability to hear out her innermost concerns.

"Misguided?" he murmured with a well bred smile, as he wiped the bottle clear with a towel and expertly pried its cork open; the sinews and tendons of his wrists and forearms outlined vividly. In the flickering shadows of their underground refuge, he looked tall, powerful and darkly sumptuous in his silk robe. Elizabeth felt a frisson travel down her spine and land with a vibrant tingle in her very core.

He offered her a crystal glass of ruby colored wine - his fingers touching hers lightly. The earlier coolness of the cellar seemed to dissipate.

"To the improvement of my inflexible and misguided mind, at the hands of Miss Bennet, a most talented teacher," he countered quietly, raising his glass toward her, a smile curling the fullness of his lips. Touché, Elizabeth my love, you've won this round.

Momentarily taken aback by his easy capitulation, she answered, "You're toying with me...and I do not like it, William. I was anguished earlier, not at your intent, for I know you to be kind and well-meaning, but at the manner in which you carried out your designs."

He sat on a chair across from her, his robe gaping open. With a start, Elizabeth realized that beneath the layer of black silk, he was entirely nude.

"Manner?" He smiled at her over the crystal rim, entirely unaccustomed to being challenged so relentlessly by a woman.

"Yes, manner...haughty, arrogant, all-knowing...so very superior. You spoke earlier of sharing, not conquering...obviously you need more practice."

"Oh?" His mind analyzed the full meaning of her words, while his body reacted violently to her nearness in the secluded room.

"I am perfectly capable of speaking for myself, looking after my own interests, even my safety."

"Really?" he said, his voice exquisitely mild.

"I can fence, I'll have you know!" she snapped.

"Yes, no doubt," his mouth formed a faint smile. Lounging back in the soft chair, he stretched his legs before him and in doing so, divulged the extent of his arousal, blatant even in the subdued light.

"I shall insist, from here on end, on equal say in matters which concern us," she demanded, trying not to look at the tempting dimensions of his erection.

"Do you require a signed contract, Elizabeth?" His mouth quirked into a wider smile.

"Would you grant me one, if I wished?" She gazed at him intently, fully prepared to call his bluff.

He sat upright - the smile disappeared, and his gaze lay stripped bare, dark and intense.

"If I could grant every one of your wishes, your slightest whim, believe me, I would."

She sighed, relieved, and leaning back in her chair, took a long sip of wine, "Thank you, that is eminently more suitable, much better, indeed...Tomorrow, I shall speak to my parents, on my own. Knowing father as I do, I expect he will repair to Longbourn; he needs time to mull over the events...Mmmm this is lovely wine...I consent to stay at Pemberley, however, we must do something about my chaperones, they have been most remiss in their duties this evening...aah, and one more thing, William, you owe me a clarification."

"Concerning?" he answered in a velvet smooth voice.

"Concerning your past, your parents, Helena, and this entire espionage affair, don't scowl at me so."

William shook his head in amazement at her words. Lord she was formidable in her demands.

"I'm sorry," he grimaced, "I find myself unaccustomed to such remonstrations. The last time a woman spoke to me in this manner, I was ten years old and had stolen an entire peach pie, from the kitchen...Mrs. Reynolds was fit to be tied."

Elizabeth took another sip of her wine, and her voice softened at the image of his boyhood scolding. "You painted me into a corner, leaving me with little choice."

He sighed. "I did."

The two simple words were so reluctantly uttered that Elizabeth found herself smiling,

"Perhaps I will indulge you after all."

His gaze slowly came up and met hers. Oh she was good...very good. Grudgingly, his respect and admiration for her stamina grew - tenfold.

A minute passed, two, followed by several more. The hush enveloping them was thick and dense.

New ground had been laid, a bridge between two powerful entities. And Elizabeth understood that a battle of wills had transpired, yet there were no true victors. The realization settled on her like a cool wind presaging a summer storm. An alarm bell rang somewhere in her mind, but she paid it little heed.

Basking in the seductive potency of her newly found strength, she moved on towards an end that held little doubt and spoke of much promise. She realized he was plagued by inner demons, which fed his indomitable willpower. Such a shame...in a perfect world she would have met him earlier, before he had suffered any of his losses. Yet another voice reminded her gently; he would not have become the man he was today...

"Are you acquiescing because you desire me?" The brashness of her words was surprising, even to her own ears.

"No...yes...I don't know," he sighed, rifling his hand through his dark curls. He was losing ground.

Sinking back in his chair, he gazed at her under heavy lashes. Her degree of perception was unnerving for one so young, and at that very moment his esteem for her person deepened once again, and without further ado he took the plunge, "Have you ever considered yourself in the role of savior? Because, I get the distinct impression, this very minute, that you are..."

His words struck at her very core. How much had it cost him to utter those words? More importantly, what did he need rescuing from?

She rose and walked the few steps to his chair, settling herself on his lap. She murmured into his neck, deliberately keeping her tone light and airy, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet, philanthropist...it possesses a certain charm." Her fingers skirted along the edge of his silk robe, gently pushing it aside.

He shifted, nudging his erection between her thighs. His mind was a hotbed of flames. How could one so young, so inexperienced, strip him of every carefully acquired layer, down to his bare essentials? She was utterly exquisite and damn intuitive.

He stroked her hair, twirling a chestnut strand around his long fingers, marveling at the intensity of their contact, at their mutual heat in the coolness of the wine cellar- it was all suddenly beyond comprehension.

"Ranjit was mistaken..." he whispered into her hair.

"Really?" she mumbled, her hand circling round and round his flat nipple.

"Your soul is older than mine - you fooled us - enchantress," he whispered, nibbling on her tender earlobe.

"You make me sound like a decrepit old hag..." she breathed in a low contralto that sent his blood soaring.

"On the contrary, my love, I was referring to you having been a houri* in a previous life. It was a compliment." William answered, his erection pressing into her bottom.

"I do adore compliments...and you," she murmured, shifting gently and rubbing against his arousal.

"Finally, we're in agreement." He lifted her slightly and turned her lithe body so she was facing him, straddling his thighs.

"Kiss me, Elizabeth," he demanded hoarsely. He was entitled to a consolation prize, after all.

She obliged, teasing his mouth with lips wet from ruby wine, fragrant with chocolate. He groaned, forgetting his words, lost in the innocent beauty of her touch, feeling as if their meeting, their inevitable mating, had been written in the stars, since they were born. Nothing could change it. Nothing could touch them, neither past nor future, nor any awareness of the present beyond the enchanted circle that enclosed them. Suddenly, as if to prove him wrong, she withdrew, and looked at him with a sad and questioning look in her eyes.

"Darling, what is the matter? Tell me, and I'll make it right." he said, his voice heavy with want, wine and sweet longing.

Stroking his cheek, she ventured tentatively, "Am I terribly wanton, to be needing you so much? Well bred young ladies are not meant to have such urges, let alone carry them out in the arms of mysterious and handsome men..." She needed a last reassurance before he carried her away to that liquid place again.

William sensed her hesitation, and desperately wishing to allay it, cupped her face gently in his hands, "Look at me, we are betrothed, soon to be man and wife. Physical passion is a gift, to be honored, cherished and sampled with joy. India opened my eyes to this, years ago. When we are together, we reprise an ancient rhythm, and when I am deep within you, we enter a place beyond other places, beyond the body; we are making love."

With a gentle hand, William caressed her shoulders in fluid strokes, tracing the contours of her breasts, her ribs, and her belly. Letting her night robe pool at his feet, he opened the pearl buttons of her nightgown, and edged the white cambric from her shoulders. His hands cradled her breasts while his lips trailed hot, openmouthed kisses, down the curve of her throat, tracing her collarbone and bending lower. Licking one tight nipple, he curled his tongue about it and drew it into his mouth, then suckled, deep and deeper.

Worshipping at her breast, he murmured over and over,

"You're so beautiful...so very beautiful..."

Lost in a liquid fire, Elizabeth arched her back and let William feast, hypnotized by the deeply melodious notes of his voice, his love words. He possessed an incarnate power to move her beyond worldly concerns, and transport her to a realm where torture and delight were one - where her whole being strained towards the fulfillment of a desire she was just beginning to understand.

As his lips became more demanding and his hands more eloquent, she succumbed to a deeper craving; one which yearned to explore new territory. Slowly, she slithered off his lap and knelt on the soft Persian rug, at his feet. Her fingers began delicately untying the black silk sash of his robe.

He sat, lounging casually, resplendent in the muted light, waiting and watching her every move.

She smiled at him, and enthralled, touched him reverently, sliding her fingers down his entire length - then up again - intently studying the object of her attention with fierce concentration.

"You have a beauty mark, right here..." she whispered, moving closer and flicking her tongue against him, wet and light. Softly, she closed her lips over him and gently drew him in. He was luscious, hot and baby-soft, incredibly responsive, and she held him, teased him, playing him like a flute. She felt his strength, his virility, and the most elemental part of him, in the very center of her being. She wanted to capture him, hold him there, poised, forever. She wanted...

"Enough." William said on a suffocated breath, easing her fingers open, tangling his hands in her hair and moving her away, "I've been longing for you all day."

In a swift motion he pulled her back on his lap and discarded her nightgown.

"Up..." he ordered quietly, lightly touching her bottom, as she rested her hands on his shoulders and raised herself on her knees.

"Are you as famished as I am?" he whispered hoarsely, kissing her mouth and fondling her nipples.

"Yes," she murmured against his mouth, a wild thrill coursing through her body at the promise of his words.

He smiled languidly, letting his finger trail along the rim of her melting wet core. She was more than ready.

"No sense in waiting, then," he whispered, guiding his erection into place, and before he had time to adjust himself, she slid downward, impatient.

"There," she purred, her mouth inches from his, her eyes shadowed in the candlelight, "much better. We seem to be well suited in the essentials..."

He thrust upward fractionally, impaling her that last distance more, resting against the mouth of her womb. She sighed deeply, "A very good fit, William."

"Tailor made, dearest Elizabeth," he murmured as she gently undulated against him. He had never experienced such a sense of belonging, of rightness with anyone else, and yet a quiet voice whispered insistently in his mind, pulling him back with difficulty, to reality.

"Ahh... there is one item...in the contract..." he grasped her around the waist, raising her until she was balanced on the crest of his erection.

"No, William...don't," she pleaded petulantly, trying to lower herself onto his rigid shaft.

"You must promise - never to chastise me in front of our servants, as you did with Pomeroy, earlier this evening," he said, resisting her struggles, his powerful arm muscles flexing under her weight.

"You have a cruel side!" she protested, eyes ablaze with smoldering ire.

"I like to view it as playing fair, my love. A modicum of respect for my authority will go a long way toward a loyal and well run household."

"And when the servants are not present?"

"The rules change, darling - all's fair," he smiled a devastating smile, "I can respond to orders exceedingly well... in private."

She shut her eyes against the aching urgency pulsing within her, understanding at base, his request.

"Very well, I shall capitulate. Can we stop this game now?"

"Finally, the lady is enlightened..." he murmured, releasing his grip and allowing her to slip downward, enjoying every fraction of liquid ecstasy

* Houri: a beautiful young woman found in the Muslim equivalent of Paradise.

Chapter Sixteen: Part Three

Elizabeth began a slow, exultant rhythm, while he matched it, feeling his way fluidly and skillfully. The sensations were mind numbing, all-consuming: he was hot, huge and rock solid. His jaw locked and his teeth clenched as she clung to him. She was still incredibly tight, and he dug deep into all his expertise, to hold on and not spontaneously combust from their delirious friction.

Elizabeth had spent years riding, her training had been exemplary and she used it to great advantage. She rode him steadily, savoring her control, never breaking stride. She reveled in her sense of female power, relishing the changing emotions on his face with keen pleasure.

He could feel her tightening around him, feel her coiled tension, feel it condense about her. He galloped with her, his pulse thundering, trapped in her relentless driving rhythm, she was urging him on, deeper, faster...and he let her have her way. As she braced her arms on his shoulders, and rode him with glorious abandon, he murmured to himself, "El loulabi...the Sixth Manner...*"

She was on the brink, too far gone to question his words. He watched her intently, waiting, as the world seemed to swirl away from her and coalesced into a potent point of pleasure. Her breasts filled his hands, swollen and tight. She opened her knees wider to take him even deeper. He released her, sliding one hand over her bucking hip, knowingly caressed her damp curls, paused...and whispered hoarsely,

"May I?"

Lost in a delirious haze of carnal need, she nodded her head and he touched her sex lightly. A feather light pressure. Then, he smiled possessively as the first jolting spasms echoed deep within her, the sound of her panting scream muffled by the thick brick walls of the wine cellar. Rigid, embedded to the hilt, he caught her as she collapsed, replete, into his arms. And as the last ripple eddied away in the nether regions of her body, he spoke,

"Love, would you like me to carry you upstairs - so you can sleep?"

She shook her head in the negative, not wishing to part from his warmth, the strength of his enveloping body around her.

Rubbing her back, he whispered tenderly in her ear, "A sip of Bordeaux, then?"

"Why are you?..." The question hung silently between them.

He chuckled and kissed her lightly, "Your pleasure is my pleasure, dearest Elizabeth."

"You are too good, William," she mumbled, burrowing into his chest, floating on a sybaritic cloud.

In answer, he wrapped her legs around his waist, and cupping her bottom, rose in a smooth and powerful motion.

"Oh my, so strong..."

"The better to please you, my lady."

He walked toward the wooden door and braced her lightly against it. With a deep thrust of his hips, he pinned her, impaling her on his magnificent erection.

Her body wrapped around him like a ribbon, and he began a delicious rhythm...short, smooth and rolling thrusts... ending with deep, long ones...beautifully cadenced, melodious, the pattern repeating again and again. His mouth brushing over hers, his tongue thrusting in and out, he felt his entire body strumming like a violin. Degree by degree, thrust by thrust, the tempo intensified; became driving, pounding, faster. He could feel her crescendoing into an intense spiking sensation, yet he kept the rhythm, in perfect control, until she climaxed wildly again, pinned between the door and his pounding heart.

A rivulet of sweat ran down his forehead as his eyes focused intently on hers. Thrusting deeply and circling his hips in a slow steady motion, he murmured between gasping breaths,

"Again?"

"I...can't."

At her words, deeply embedded within her, he carried her to the soft rug and eased them both down on its thick pile.

"Trust me, my love...you can," he whispered hoarsely.

Balanced above her on his elbows, having regained control of his breathing, he began speaking softly into her ear: intimate endearments, how silky and sweet she felt, how much he wished to satisfy her...love words, dream words, like the notes of mating birds...and little by little he began repeating the entire erotic rhythm, once again...until Elizabeth nearly fainted with delirium.

His heart and mind were awash with the pleasure of her peaking over and over, touching the center of her very existence...as if feeling the warmth of the sun and the fire of the moon.

An hour, a month, a year later...Elizabeth didn't know which...she opened her eyes to see his face poised over hers, mysterious in the shadows. As she lay, glistening, sated and replete beneath him, with the throb of his last thrusts continually echoing within her, she twined her hand through his, and whispered,

"I want to feel you..."

And kneeling above her, flagrantly erect and full of priapic glory, he erupted over her burning breasts; hard, tight and explosive, one hand twined in hers, the other limply tangled in her long hair, his body shuddering in exquisite release.

They made love once again...and found themselves lying side by side on the soft rug, bathed in the flickering glow of waning candlelight. He was leaning on one elbow, his free hand resting lightly on the curve of her waist, as she raised a finger and ran it slowly down the dark trail of hair on his taut abdomen. With a soft laugh that was a half groan, he stopped her, caught her hand and caressed her finger with his lips.

She didn't speak until he carried her up the narrow stone stairs, bundled in her nightgown, having left the wine cellar bathed in the musky scent of sex. Her cheek resting against his chest, she whispered,

"What if someone sees us?"

"Shhh... there's no one about, close your eyes, sweet." He offered a silent pardon for his untruth as a sleepy night porter saluted him down the hallway. Climbing swiftly up the stairs, he nodded away two of Melbourne's men as they quickly hid in the shadows. Coming across Ranjit's silent form lurking outside the guest suites, he briefly met his eyes, as the old Indian servant melted into the darkness.

He carried her to her bed, tucking her under voluminous coverlets. She fell into a peaceful slumber almost instantly, fatigued by the excess of their loving, unfamiliar with such sustained and intense intimacy.

Unable to leave her chamber right away, he sat by her bed, his legs up on the coverlets. In the lavender silence of her room, he wondered why, after every speck of desire had been satisfied, there remained within him a fierce and aching heat, a powerful need to wrap himself around her, again, never letting her go.

She was sweet as marzipan, and willfully strong like the toughest of warriors. Perhaps her magic resided in the mystery of those very polarities.

Their mutual attraction was fiery, intense, and to his knowledge, extremely rare. It also harbored a degree of danger if they were to remain under the same roof- tonight had proven it. As the lengthening light of dawn began breaking, William pondered their situation and came to a resolution. The Bishop of Matlock owed him a favor, it was time to call it in. They would marry within two weeks, convention be damned! He swore softly. Suddenly she rolled over and opened her eyes.

"I'm here," he whispered in reassurance, taking her hand, and gently kissing her palm, "always and forever...Elizabeth." She smiled at his tenderness, and it was as if the sun had already risen.

Sighing, she closed her eyes, and returned to her peaceful slumber, her face calm and smooth, the sweep of dark chocolate lashes fringing closed eyelids as celestial and ethereal as Da Vinci's angels.

No... two weeks was far too long, a few days at the most.

His mind made up, William stood, and quietly crept out of her chamber, closing the door softly behind him.

* From the Perfumed Garden, a sacred Tantric 16th Century text translated by Sir Richard Burton in 1886. Lord Pemberton, would have read it in its original language during his travels in India.

Chapter Seventeen: Part One

"Woman is a monogamous animal...she loves but one... she likes to feel herself alone in the affections of one man...and cannot bear rivals."

Kama Sutra: Chapter IV (On The Acquisition Of The Girl Thereby)

The Pemberley kitchens were teeming like a busy beehive, as the cook, serving maids, and scullery maids darted about. Charles Wilkes, the night porter, sat leaning against a heavy oak counter sipping on his habitual cup of chocolate after a long night shift.

"I tell yea, the master was carrying her upstairs and she looked right tumbled, she did," he chuckled under his breath, "reminded me of the old days when..."

Mrs. Fenton, the head cook, stomped towards him, hands on hips, a scowl of disapproval painted on her face, "Hush now, Charlie, if Pomeroy or Mrs. R. hear you gossiping like this - you'll be out on your bottom faster than you can say..."

She halted mid sentence as the butler and housekeeper appeared around the pantry doors. The entire room silenced, and everyone went about their duties double time. Suddenly a bell rang - one of thirty arranged in a row above the doors.

"Who's assigned to Lady de Bourgh this morning?" Mrs. Reynolds enquired in a raised voice.

"Not I!" a voiced piped up.

"Not I!" another chimed in.

"Well, she must belong to someone." Mrs. Reynolds answered with a tinge of annoyance.

"I'll see to her, ma'am," Sarah, a plump red-haired maid replied. "She hasn't thrown anything at me, yet."

"Pot of chocolate, warm biscuits arranged in a row...not touching...preserves, but only blueberry, and stewed prunes...hurry Sarah...you know how she takes great pleasure in timing us!" Mrs. Fenton muttered readying a heavy tray while Sarah flitted about.

Pomeroy scanned the vast room, ascertaining all was in order. An ex-army man, he prided himself on an efficiently run operation below stairs. Approaching Mrs. Reynolds, he whispered conspiratorially,

"I've reconnoitered the wine cellar and tasting room, only her nightgown remained."

Unruffled by his words, Mrs. Reynolds gave him a questioning look, "And?"

"I disposed of it, with great discretion, no sense in having the laundry staff spreading rumors."

Mrs. Reynolds threw him a satisfied look, "Thank you, one can always rely on your steady mind, Pomeroy. I expect the master will make an announcement today."

"How long till the wedding, do you reckon?" Pomeroy enquired.

Mrs. Reynolds furrowed her brow, considering his question carefully. She was well acquainted with William; once his mind was made up, little stood in his way.

"I give him... a week or two...at the most." Both moved away from the kitchen toward the vivarium* and continued their conversation away from prying ears.

Having overheard a snatch of the conversation, Charlie turned toward the cook, "I bet you three shillings there will be a betrothal announcement by the end of the day."

Mrs. Fenton winked at him, her hands dusted with flour, "Don't bet too hard Charlie. She's a feisty one by all accounts, and unless she agrees, there'll be no announcing 'nothin!"

"Feisty is true, you should'a heard her...even with the thick walls and all... scared the daylights out of me!"

"Charlie Wilkes! You have the tact of a turnip!" Mrs. Fenton waved her rolling pin at him, "Hold your tongue or you'll end up in the pickling vat, head first!"

Upon hearing her threat, Charles Wilkes, night porter, held his tongue in check - temporarily. By mid-morning, the entire staff at Pemberley had heard of the master's tryst, in the wine cellar, with the lovely Miss Bennet.

~ * ~

On a secluded stretch of the south lawn, far from the prying eyes of servants, two men dressed in traditional Kalari combat tunics, circled one another in a series of graceful movements. From afar, they appeared to be enacting an ancient dance, yet as one drew nearer, their steps took on a fierce and lethal energy. Here, among the mist-laden expanse of green, the traditional boundary lines between master and servant seemed to vanish. Instead, the taller and superbly fit man deferred with humility to his master and mentor.

"The warrior who walks in disguise does not reveal himself to his enemy. His passions will not betray him, but his silence can be dangerous, even treacherous to those who are not foes."

Ranjit's words rang out in the morning air as both men moved within an imaginary ring. A shadow stirred at the edge of Wiliam's sight and his body flew backwards in response to Ranjit's strike, riding on its force and slipping outside of it.

"The Kalari warrior must carry truth within him." Ranjit's voice was calm and inexorable as he altered his footing in one fluid motion.

William let his words wash over him. Ranjit tested him daily, demanding the limit of William's reserves. Over the years, the morning ritual had become a strange game; a contest between them. The older man challenged his thoughts, his beliefs, pulling on invisible strings and in doing so, unearthing subtle discords and weaknesses. Kalari had become an essential part of him, he craved it like the dry earth thirsted for rain.

"What are your intentions concerning the young woman?" The question arose gently, as unexpected as one of Ranjit's strikes. William felt himself flush, and his body flooded with a guilty heat.

"Ah," Ranjit's voice continued, "the question gives you disharmony."

William did not know how to respond. He had convinced himself of the purity of his love and of his intentions toward Elizabeth. Yet, with the new day, a gnawing remorse had infiltrated itself into his thoughts. He had compromised her reputation - twice. He had alienated her father with his words and actions. He had woven a heady web of sensual desire about them, clouding judgment, propriety, and rendering himself an obscure mystery to the one person who mattered most.

How long could one sustain such subterfuge without consequences destroying its fragile balance?

Ranjit struck again. William leaped out of the way, pivoted and struck back, his hand stopping a hair's breath away from the older man's neck.

Ranjit's voice wove softly in the morning air, "She is very desirable...you lust for her...she distracts you. But is your passion for her the universal force of life? A delicate question. You must strive to meet the essential principles within yourself; courage, compassion, courtesy...honor, loyalty....and absolute utter truthfulness. By attaining these, you will know, but not till then."

Like every lesson Ranjit had taught him, the concept was simple yet agonizingly complex. The older man spoke of inner peace while instructing in violence.

Peace eluded William, he had felt it momentarily in Elizabeth's arms, buried deep within her body, entwined in the safety of her soft and fragrant skin. Yet it had been imbued with a fleeting quality, and looking back, he questioned whether the wondrous sensation had been real or a mere illusion. Deep within, he cringed at the presence of his buried darkness; a pitch black obscurity, shading the light she had brought into his life and distorting his path toward courage, honor and most of all, truthfulness.

"You must take the ruthless center within yourself, and make stillness, serenity of it. Harness your life force, but do not scatter it. Let it flow, but do not waste it. The art I teach you has no beginning and no end, it is a gift. Use it with wisdom."

The lowered pitch of his mentor's voice signaled the end of the lesson. William bowed deeply, and closed his eyes, letting Ranjit's last words settle like a cool rain on his awareness.

~ * ~

Scattered leaves drifted about in colorful swirls as Elizabeth walked among Pemberley's meandering paths. The recent storm had deposited a veritable rainbow of hues on the carefully manicured greens and borders, as if nature was defying the ordered symmetry imposed by man. It was yet early in the morn, as she ventured past a small maze of clipped hedges toward the periphery of the formal gardens.

Following her morning ablutions and a hastily swallowed breakfast in her bedchamber, she had been drawn outdoors, pulled in by the quiet solitude which only nature could bestow. She needed to be alone with her thoughts... Her body felt curiously sated but her mind and heart yearned for more. Traces of guilt over her secret tryst with William lingered, floating randomly amidst her other thoughts. Their presence, rather than being intrusive, was strangely neutral.

Perhaps William's tender words were a soothing balm, perhaps she was slowly beginning to understand and accept his eastern beliefs. Regardless, though she distinctly felt their presence, they held no power to harm her; William's strength, position, his intense energy seemed to protect her, and for that she was grateful.

She hungered for his nearness, for his touch, the warm sense of safety she experienced in his arms. Yet, as he continued to lead her into new vistas, the burden of his inscrutability seemed to deepen; its very presence a silent, unanswered question. She knew him intimately but she knew so very little of him.

Could one individual truly know another? Or should she declare him a mystery and begin her journey by his side, guided by faith and love?

It was with a sense of hazy incompletion that Elizabeth came upon a larger than life bronze statue in the far gardens. Displayed before her was the figure of an older man, holding a miniature portrait in his hand. The sculptor had caught an air of pensive melancholy in his chiseled features, the tilt of his head, the turn of his wrist. Illuminated by rays of morning sun the statue appeared almost lifelike.

She walked nearer, and smiled in recognition; Edward Darcy...of course. The man seemed to trail her everywhere as she explored the far reaches of Pemberley.She wondered for a moment where he lay buried, and if William had perchance visited his final resting place. An accented voice suddenly interrupted her reverie,

"Good Morning Miss Bennet, I see we are both early risers." Her tone was silvery cool - like the gray pewter of her morning gown.

Elizabeth turned around and nodded politely, "Good morning, my lady." She'd had little chance to speak to William's stepmother during her brief stay at Pemberley, now fate had orchestrated an ideal opportunity.

Helena motioned to a nearby bench, "Come, Miss Bennet, let us sit for a while. The air is not overly chilly and we have a fine view of the statue from here. I often sit on this bench and think of my Edward. Wonderful resemblance isn't it? He had it commissioned three years before his death, an Italian sculptor, his name escapes me now..."

"Yes, it appears very well executed," Elizabeth answered graciously.

"See how he is holding that rounded object and gazing at it pensively? It's a miniature portrait of my likeness, you know." Helena smiled to herself, sighed, and adjusted her pelerine as a cool breeze lifted up a swirl of bronze, red and ochre leaves about them. "Since we find our selves alone, I wish to enlighten you where the Earl is concerned, as promised," she added, quieting her voice.

Elizabeth's stomach lurched. A sense of dread settled over her like a bleak cloud, and she had an unwavering sensation of being trapped between the statue and Helena's insistent presence on the bench. She ought to leave, now, walk away...and yet, something strong and tensile held her back.

"Having closely observed you in the last days, it has come to my attention that you hold more than a passing tendre** for the Earl. Am I correct in my assumption, my dear?" Not waiting for Elizabeth's response, she pressed on. "Pity, really. Rather than see you suffer unnecessarily, I would like to offer you some advice, woman to woman."

"And if I do not wish to hear any of this?" Elizabeth raised her chin defiantly.

Helena's lips twitched in sardonic amusement. "Oh, believe me, Miss Bennet, you will want to hear what I have to tell you."

She reached into the pocket of her gown, withdrew an official appearing letter, and began fingering it delicately, turning it over back and forth in her manicured hands- as if taunting Elizabeth with its very presence.

"You must be asking yourself why I would go to these lengths on your behalf. In truth, I feel deeply sorry for you, Miss Bennet, and find myself wishing to atone for some earlier sins I committed in life. In saving you, perhaps I will be saving myself, a little, if you understand...Regardless, William is my step-son and though I have a duty to be loyal to the man, I cannot stand idly by as he ruins yet another life."

Elizabeth held her breath - feeling a slow trickle of fear insinuate itself under her skin.

"In my hand, I hold a letter from the Foreign Affairs Minister in Simla, advising William that a young woman is claiming to be carrying his child - a courtesan - his exclusive mistress for the last two years. She accuses him of leaving, without any offer of help or support for herself or the child. Charming, wouldn't you agree?"

A deeply buried survival instinct came to the rescue and Elizabeth countered back, "I am aware of the woman. If William had known of the child, he would have told me. When did the letter arrive?"

"Yesterday." Helena narrowed her eyes and like a poisonous snake, struck again, "Well, well, I see that you and William are on rather intimate terms. Would it surprise you to know he has a half-brother, Mr. George Wickham, a by-blow of his father's youthful...exuberance with a gypsy woman? Edward had the boy raised on the estate and provided for him generously. He, unlike his son, had a deep sense of responsibility. George followed William to India, even serving in his regiment, and was wounded during a dangerous mission. Somehow, he was falsely accused of treason, and rather than coming to his rescue, William testified against him, his own blood kin, can you imagine?"

Elizabeth swallowed hard, fighting the rising taste of bile assaulting her senses. A wave of nausea traveled through her belly, and her heart began beating erratically. She was suddenly overcome by a sense of impending doom, an intense urge to flee anywhere, but instead, she sat as if paralyzed by the other woman's words.

Her voice faltering, she answered, " I-I am aware of Mr. Wickham's history, perhaps it is you, my lady, who has the facts muddled. Given Mr. Wickham's unsavory past, I can understand William's reluctance in divulging his blood connection to the man."

Helena burst out in harsh laughter, "Oh, you are so very young and nave, Miss Bennet! Allow me to enlighten you further, then."

"The young Earl and I have known each other for over a decade. I first met him when he was eighteen. We were lovers. Shocked? Surprised? Really Miss Bennet, you know so little of the world. I was a widow, away from my home country, and needed... consoling; something which William performed with admirable skill, even for his young age...For three years we had a delicious liaison, mind you, he was not exclusive at all. No...I was but one of many; he carved quite a name for himself in the boudoirs of London. Lord Matlock wouldn't hold a candle to him, even now. His reputation was...legendary.

But I digress. Eventually, his father noticed me and we fell in love. His wife was living at the time, but as in many arranged marriages, they had an understanding. Following his wife's tragic death, Edward and I married, and shared several wonderful years. But there existed one problem, you see; William saw his father as poaching on his property. Such a possessive soul... He was furious and angry with his father for stealing his woman. To spite him, he joined the army and left for India. His father was devastated. He attempted several reconciliations; to no avail. William eventually drew George to India with false hopes of glory and success. Edward Darcy lost both his boys. The loss cast a dreadful pall over his life, and he died a sad and broken man, all his letters to William, returned, unopened."

Elizabeth curled her fingers into fists, in a vain attempt to overcome her trembling. A vice-like grip, growing stronger by the minute, seemed to tighten about her throat. She was fighting for her breaths. With the last of her will power, she cleaved through the suffocating sensations and whispered,

"I don't believe you. You mean to harm me with these falsehoods and gross untruths! You are but a tyrannical woman, intent on vengeance! William is your stepson; you hold no claim on him as a man ! You had no right to obtain his letter "

"Really?" Helena made a scornful sound, "I am astonished at your lack of perception concerning the ways of high society, Miss Bennet. Then again, you do not belong to our world, do you? Perhaps this explains your distinct lack of acumen."

She rose and faced Elizabeth's seated form on the bench. "William Darcy is a predator. His army code name was "Panther". Remarkably suitable...he is cunning, swift, marking his prey with diligence, stalking relentlessly, and finally striking when least expected. He uses innocents to feed his insatiable appetite, and once through, discards them without a thought. Did you really think he had any intention of marrying you, a common country chit?"

"I need proof..." Elizabeth whispered hoarsely.

"Proof?" Helena's voice rose to a shrill pitch. With a disdainful flick of her wrist, she threw the letter onto Elizabeth's lap. "Here, here's your proof. Mr. Wickham will gladly corroborate all my statements and as for William and I...for the sake of delicacy...I shall allude to just one minor fact. He possesses a most interesting beauty mark, and you and I both know where it is, don't we?"

Her eyes brilliant with sadistic pleasure, she swept over Elizabeth's figure carefully; taking in the young woman's limp and defeated form. Helena's smile was dazzling.

"And that card, Miss Bennet, takes the trick, don't you think? Good day." With a triumphant swish of her skirts, she glided away, down the path and disappeared from view.

Elizabeth sat frozen like a lifeless doll for what seemed like an eternity. At long last, she rose and stumbled to the nearest shelter offering refuge, Pemberley's small chapel. If she had stopped but for a moment, by the effigy of Edward Darcy, fourth Earl Pemberton, she would have noted the profile etched on the miniature portrait. The likeness was not a young woman's, but rather, that of his beloved son, William.

*Vivarium: a place to keep live animals, in this case, an aquarium to hold live fish for later consumption.
*Tendre: tender feelings, lacking the depth of true love.

Chapter Seventeen: Part Two

In the musty stillness of the ancient chapel, she sat enveloped by a dark shroud of silent shock. She wanted to scream and shout, but no sound would leave her lips. She had lost her voice. Instead, her hands gripped the well-worn pew, white knuckled, like those of a drowning sailor clenching onto a floating piece of driftwood. Awash in surging waves of anger, she pitched and tossed; directionless, in that no man's land of sudden unexpected grief.

Slowly, painfully, questions began bearing down one by one; cruel, insistent, and logical queries without apparent answers. They swooped down upon her, like a black flock of birds, obliterating any semblance of order in her life. And as each one cleaved its way into her brain, dry heaving sobs began escaping from her throat, like the sounds of a wounded animal; primitive, fierce and raw. They echoed in the hollow stillness of the chapel, ricocheting off stone walls and reverberating in its stained glass windows.

She grappled and wrestled with plausible explanations, wearing out one possibility after another, until all that remained was a profound sense of betrayal and outrage. It found its own life deep in her viscera; an acute searing pain, relentless, and offering no respite. She felt assaulted, vulnerable, and powerless all at once.

The scale of her misery was greater than anything she had experienced in her life. Nothing had equipped her to deal with its magnitude. A part of her wanted to quarrel with him, to prove to him that he had been wrong not to tell his all, not to entrust her with his past. Another wanted to rant and rave at his transgressions, inflicting the same pain he had imposed on others. She ached to lay his soul bare, and enter into its cryptic folds, wander among its secrets. But she could not. Not now. Hearing Helena's cruel words had rendered her feeling broken and worthless and she could not risk venturing into his unknown world any further.

For a short, magical time, she had given herself to him in body and spirit. She had been touched by the poet's song he had created for her alone; only to find there had been many others before her, and the song was merely an arrangement of words and notes, which in the end spoke for nothing but itself.

Like a cracked and flawed foundation, his secretive betrayal began shifting and swaying the delicate framework of her fledgling love. She sat for a long time, feeling its frailty bow under the pressure of her shock, her anger and her loss of trust, until the entire configuration warped, buckled and came crashing down.

She could not...she would not... accept his marriage proposal.

She felt herself falling, weightless, into a black void without light or hope. And while she fell a strange realization struck her; she was choosing the censure of society over being trapped in a tarnished and imperfect love, a love whose essence had been degraded and lost its nobility. And despite being hurtled into an unknown chasm, in the act of choosing, she held on, however tenuously, to her freedom.

~ * ~

As her thoughts reluctantly attempted to grasp the embryonic dimensions of a new reality, two hushed voices drifted toward her from the vestibule. She was no longer alone. As if by instinct, she sloped down in her pew, not wanting to be found, not ready to face the outside world. The voices grew louder, and distinct; those of a man and woman.

"Douschenko, in vain I tried, but the heavy rain ruined my aim. Will you forgive me?"

"In due course...but I shall have to dream up a suitable punishment: perhaps chains and whips, and a sinful little toy I recently encountered at Mme Vergée's. You need to be taught a lesson."

The male voice chuckled softly,

"Oh, you are divinely wicked, yes, I have been a very naughty boy..."

"Indeed, you have. Now, to the matter at hand, I strongly suspect the plans to be hidden somewhere in the house. I overheard a chambermaid stating that prior to his death the Earl had the staff rearrange several rooms, no doubt to confuse any prying eyes. The question remains...which rooms, and where within those rooms?"

"I am sure your fine mind can disentangle the puzzle in no time."

" May I remind you that time is a precious commodity which we hold in limited supply...no matter, I shall head off to the house again. Even if we return empty handed, at least it has been great fun outwitting these alleged espionage experts! Imagine, Melbourne's men posing as footmen, how amateurish! There will be other opportunities, if not, we shall have to create them. Your people have been most patient to date, but I do not wish to antagonize them with further extended waiting. Let's meet up in London, darling, we shall strategize again... and I await our evening of games, with great anticipation!"

~ * ~
Numbly waking up from her dark sorrow, Elizabeth turned her head, and carefully peered over the pew's backrest. The couple had their backs turned, but their identities were unmistakable. Her breath hitched as the import of the words she had overheard sunk in. Feeling herself thrust into a new and dangerous dimension, she witnessed an amorous kiss between the pair, and soon the woman disappeared through the chapel door. Slowly, with excruciating awareness of her every move, Elizabeth sunk down on her knees, onto the bare stone floor. Her body felt heavy and weary, as if she'd traveled a great distance. She edged her way carefully along the full length of the pew, intent on staying out of view, hoping the man would soon leave the chapel.

She closed her eyes and prayed, her heart thudding in a wild tattoo. She was sure he could hear her heart beat, it drummed so loudly in her chest. Suddenly her shoulder dislodged a small bible left on the pew and it fell to the floor with a soft thud, echoing through the still silence. She froze, holding her breath. A chill slowly crept down her spine, and tingled at its very base. She listened for any sound of falling footsteps but to her relief, there were none. She let out a long breath and to her horror, a familiar voice floated toward her,

"Well, well what have we here? Have you lost something, Miss Bennet?"

Elizabeth let out a piercing scream, and propelled by a surge of adrenalin, scrambled to her feet and began running toward the door. A vice like grip clamped onto her mouth, and wrenched her body backwards. The pain in her neck was searing. She attempted to kick, writhe free, but to no avail. Her assailant overpowered her, and she remained a prisoner in his clutches.

An oily voice breathed into her ear, "You, young lady, need to be taught a lesson..."

Something in Elizabeth's mind snapped...another male taking control, overwhelming her, reducing her to a mere wisp of her former self!

A swell of anger as she had never experienced, rushed through her and overflowed like a molten volcano. Suddenly a blood filled urge to crush and humble her enemy grew and exploded. And as a primitive Amazon potency surged through her veins, feeding her exhausted body and mind with renewed power, she struggled out of his hold, hurtling herself toward the chapel doors.

Only to find them locked.

A maddening laugh assaulted her ears as her assailant swaggered toward her, a light sword dangling carelessly in his hand. She scanned the chapel walls frantically and her eyes fixed on a second sword hung by the doors above the Pemberton coat of arms. Harnessing her self-control, she turned to the man,

"Surely, you will not attack an unarmed opponent. Even you, sir, would profess a degree of honor in this regard?"

The reptilian eyes narrowed and weighed her words carefully.

"You realize I may have to kill you?"

"Oh yes," she answered.

"In that case, Miss Bennet, let the duel begin!"

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