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The Great Game

Chapter Eighteen

"Everything is therefore in the power of destiny, who is the lord of gain and loss, of success and defeat, of pleasure and pain." Kama Sutra-Chapter II: On the Acquisition of Charma, Artha, and Kama

Fletcher-the old gardener-ran as fast as his arthritic knees would allow him, bursting into the main house and knocking Pomeroy into a nearby potted plant.

"The master! The master! Quick!" Fletcher yelled, darting about frantically in circles. Pomeroy's years of army training instinctively took hold and he hurried to the library, throwing its doors open with the gardener close on his heels.

William, Charles and Richard had been mired in deep discussion all morning. What had begun as a detailed analysis of Melbourne's next strategy in the Great Game, had derailed to more personal territory. Charles and Richard had been made privy to William's impending nuptials and were in the midst of heartily congratulating their old friend, when the commotion interrupted their good wishes. Upon hearing the library doors open, all three raised their heads in unison at the unexpected intrusion.

Catching his breath, Pomeroy announced, "Beg your pardon my Lord, but we have an urgent situation..."

Fletcher spoke haltingly, "Miss Bennet...she is in the chapel... there was a scream...a man..."

All three men sprang to their feet, as William began snapping orders, "My pistols, Pomeroy, quick! Where the hell are Melbourne's men! Gather them all! Let us be off!"

A veritable throng of servants and gentlemen sprang out of the house and quickly made its way toward the far gardens and chapel beyond. Chambermaids, footmen and an anxious

Mrs. Reynolds milled about the front steps, some chatting nervously, others wringing their hands, a few praying silently. Pomeroy had chosen to follow his master in the mad rush to assist Miss Bennet.

William arrived at the chapel doors first, only to find them barred from within. Without a second thought, he signaled to the men around him and soon the ancient wood let out several creaks as a half dozen powerful shoulders rammed against it. With a final protesting groan, the wood splintered, gave way, and the group tumbled into the chapel's entrance.

All together a dozen men crowded the chapel's nave and in unison the entire group froze in their steps. Some gaped at the sight greeting them, others caught and held their breaths, yet no one spoke.

Standing before the stupefied throng, on the altar steps, was Miss Elizabeth Bennet; her dress in tatters, one shoulder entirely bare, skin bathed in sweat and hair wildly disheveled.

She held a sword in both her hands, its point firmly lodged into the neck of Mr. William Collins, a trail of blood oozing out of his jugular. Collins lay sprawled in a shaken, cowering and blubbering mess. Without taking her eyes off her victim, she spoke-her voice deadly calm, "Gentlemen, I present you your Russian spy. He is unfortunately, rather English."

She heard several pistols being cocked and allowed herself to gaze out at the group of men now circled about her.

Her eyes met William's and the look she threw him blazed with anger and contempt. Slowly, she let the sword dangle from her hand and stepped toward him. Standing a few feet away from his still and silent figure, she locked him in a fierce gaze. Several men turned away, shocked and unaccustomed at the display of raw female bravery before them.

While her eyes held William prisoner, with a quick flick of her wrist, Elizabeth flung the sword at his feet. The clang of metal against marble reverberated harshly throughout the chapel.

"As you can see, Lord Pemberton, I did not lie...about my fencing skills."

Turning to the men around her, she spoke loud and clear. "I suggest you interview Lady Louisa Hurst, before she disappears."

Casting a sympathetic look toward Bingley, she added, "I am very sorry, Charles."

Scattered murmurs of surprise, astonishment and frank admiration, rose about her. With a swish of her skirts, Elizabeth turned about and walked down the aisle. Rays of colored light reflected off her tangled curls; she looked magnificent; a warrior Boadicea*. And right there and then, several hardened souls were struck, for the very first time, by her beauty.

As Melbourne's operatives gathered about the pale and diaphoretic Collins, Richard turned to Charles standing listlessly beside him and asked, "Sweet Jesus, where did she learn to fight like that?"

"She has been fencing for years. Probably could put some of us to shame."

"Bear, she has put us all to shame, damn it. The woman single-handedly caught our Russian spy, identified his accomplice, and all under the nose of Britain's finest. We shall be eating crow for months. I need a drink, but not as badly as William. Have a look at him. The lady is obviously displeased and I have a sinking suspicion it has nothing to do with Collins. I am sorry about your sister, by the way."

Charles nodded his head in silence, attempting to assimilate the multitude of disparate facts, all unveiled within one morning.

After barking several orders to the group, William hurried after Elizabeth. He was stunned at the turn of events, more importantly he was outraged at himself for not assuring her safety. She could have been killed. Any other woman would have been killed. I have failed her in a most essential and elemental manner; I have not protected her from harm.

* Also known as Boudicca, a queen of the ancient Iceni tribe in present day Norfolk, England, who led a revolt against the Romans. (d. AD 62)

Mentally lashing himself, he strode down the nave, wishing to gather her in his arms, comfort her and soothe away the horrific experience she had survived.

As he neared the vestibule, a slow realization took hold; she had been enraged at seeing him. But why? With a sinking heart, he halted at the shattered chapel door and watched her receding figure among the gardens. Her hair blowing in the soft breeze, she walked proud and defiant, then, suddenly, she paused, and slowly, very deliberately, retraced her steps. His heart beat wildly in relief; for a horrific moment he had been certain she would not turn around, would walk out of his life.

Though her gown was torn, her hair tangled, she carried herself with simple yet undeniable dignity. As she neared the demolished chapel door, her eyes locked on his, in turn searching, questioning and accusing. It was not until she stood in front of him, that he reached out and attempted to cover her bare shoulder.

"Do not touch me." Her voice was icy.

His hand froze in mid-air, while words of concern and worry tumbled out of his mouth, "Elizabeth, did he harm you in any way? Do you hurt anywhere?"

"Yes. I hurt, but not in the manner you think." He raised his hand again, to touch her cheek, to tuck away a loose strand of hair, his mind not registering her tone, her deliberate message. She stepped back and clenched her jaw, narrowing her eyes at his continued insistence.

"Must I repeat myself? I do not want to be touched, William."

He let his hand drop and dangle listlessly by his side. "As you wish."

"Wishes... I wish for you to speak to me openly and honestly, to tell me the truth once and for all."

William was taken aback by her request. Ranjit's words rang in his head...utter truthfulness. His negligence to unveil the truth, his obstinate procrastination, had swept them up and created a storm of inordinate proportions. He felt powerless against its furor. She knew...but who had told her? Unexpectedly an old conversation with Ranjit drifted into his awareness.

"The female of the species..." And an intuition came to him, the guess became a foreboding and grew into a horrible certainty. "It was Helena, was it not?"

He had been expecting Helena's retaliation, had been awaiting her next strike, thinking himself the only intended victim. And had been caught unawares, blindsided by exquisitely timed cunning and cruelty. A surge of vicious anger welled up within him.

"She meant to harm you, Elizabeth. She is a vicious and vindictive woman, surely you did not believe everything she said?"

"I do not know what to believe any longer!"

"Why do we not both return to the house, rest and regain our wits. This is neither the time nor the place to be discuss ing our private affairs," he stated flatly, lowering his eyes, feeling out of balance, losing control of the situation and abhorring every instant of it.

Interpreting his suggestion as an order, Elizabeth's simmering anger flared again. "Must you perpetually evade me?

What is it that you are so afraid of? A man of your caliber? Or do you simply not respect me enough to confide your inner thoughts? I am not demanding the moon, William! Marriage is a solemn vow and I do not see how I am to comfort, honor and keep you in sickness and in health if you insist on creating battlements around your past, your present and most of all your heart!"

Blood suddenly began pumping hard though his body. He felt himself hanging in mid air, ten feet off a bottomless cliff, with no footing underneath.

How dare she attack me in such a manner?

In a voice reflecting centuries of blue-blooded arrogance, he answered, "My god, your manners are impeccable, are they not? When a gentleman declares his affection, is he mandated to rip open his soul as well? Pardon me for my prevarications Elizabeth. I see that I have offended your delicate sensibilities."

"Prevarications? Tell me, were you Helena's lover? Is Wickham your half-brother? Did you shun your own father? And are you expecting the birth of an illegitimate child in India?"

The shaking was there in his gut, just below the edge of feeling. He stood still, forcing it out of his muscles, fighting it. His throat held onto his words and would not release a single sound.

She stared at him, eyes wide, awaiting his answer. "Tell me, damn you."

Air seemed to come hard, as if he had to think, to remember to draw each breath into his chest.

Her chin tilted up, "You cannot deny any of this...can you? Your pride and arrogance will not allow you to speak-a deadly combination when mixed with dark and secret demons.

A shame, really. You see, I would have accepted your past, your mistakes, and with time, even an illegitimate child. But what I cannot allow is the subterfuge, the lack of trust in my own person. As for gentlemanly behavior, you have deviated greatly from the basest definition of a gentleman's behavior. You have risked my reputation, my family's good name, all because of selfish possessiveness and jealousy. You have alienated my father in a show of masculine posturing and yet you dare to mock my manners? How can you presume to treat me in this manner after I gave you my body and my all? The entire situation is beyond comprehension; it borders on the very edge of reason. Surely you do not expect me to accept all of this, smile and carry on as if nothing had transpired? I cannot. There will be no wedding. I decline your proposal, William. Do you understand? Have I made myself sufficiently clear?"

The shudder inside him threatened violently. He felt afraid. It anguished him and revolted him at the same time. He wished to cradle her, smooth her hair and wipe away her anger, her hurt. But he did not dare touch her. She did not want it, not now.

He stared at her until his vision seemed to go dim and finally let himself descend slowly to solid ground. "You do not know me and, therefore, you have no right to judge me."

Her laugh was loud and fierce, "Touché! The sagacity you display is astounding, William. I do not know you, precisely because you will not allow it. Perhaps I am being proud, selfish and unduly cruel, but right now, at this very moment, we are at an impasse, one that leaves me with little desire to further our acquaintance. I do not care to continue this conversation now or at a later time. Goodbye."

He made no answer. For a long time he said nothing. They stood in a charged stand off; two stubborn spirits, locked in an impassable hold. Then, speaking in a formal tone, as if she were a newly introduced stranger at a formal soirée, he said, "You have made your decision. Goodbye, Elizabeth."

She turned briskly and walked away.

As her form receded from view, a heavy weight seemed to overtake his limbs. He did not move. He did not follow her. He let her leave like a soul leaving a body, torn and bruised. And while his mind urged him to run after her, clarify truth from cruel lies, his limbs remained paralyzed. Darkness seemed to settle within him, mixed with sorrow, grief and agonizing pain.

She has found the courage to walk away, where I have been a coward in not entrusting her with my past, my secrets.

He was pitifully unprepared to face the wrath, the accusations of someone so very dear to him. In doing so, he would have to confront his own deeply buried demons and the very thought was petrifying. As rays of sunlight wove about her receding form, he began feeling a raw anguish cruelly striking and tearing apart at his heart. In allowing her the dignity to leave, he was meeting a slow and agonizing death. He could feel his heart splintering into hundreds of shards, his pride unraveling limply around him and still he did not walk through the battered chapel doors. Like a convicted prisoner meeting his end, William strode back, instead, toward the altar. As he joined the phalanx of men on the altar steps, the old commanding officer returned, his mask became secure once again and few would have guessed at the broken man weeping silently beneath.

~ * ~

As the sun set over Pemberley's gardens and its surrounding fields and forests, the great house resumed, once again, its familiar rhythm. A rhythm carved out over decades and oiled by century old traditions and wealth. It was not until the last carriage had clattered over the pebbled drive, that a gray melancholy drifted over the entire house; insinuating itself into the aged cracks and crevasses of honeyed brick and mortar. Its plangent mood drifted through empty hallways and vacant chambers, and resonated in the footsteps of servants.

A sense of suspended animation hung about; as if a lovely celebration, filled with color and revels had been suddenly made to disappear.

As night fell on the eventful day, below stairs Charles Wilkes nursed a tankard of ale, all sheepish truculence at having lost his three-shilling bet to Mrs. Fenton. Pemberley's vast kitchens were eerily silent after the upheaval of previous days. Servants spoke in hushed tones of the arrest of Mr. Collins and Lady Hurst. Whispers relating to charges of attempted murder and treason floated about. The news was titillating and scandalous; for once, the country had proven more exciting than London.

Mrs. Reynolds sighed at the prospect of Pemberley being without a mistress once again. To make matters worse, she had been advised by William that Lady Helena was soon to be leaving for the Americas with Mr. Wickham. On closer reflection, she admitted to herself that perhaps the loss would not be gravely felt; Lady Helena had neither been liked nor particularly well respected. Perhaps 'tis for the best. She hurried off to see to the last of her ladyship's packing arrangements.

It was not until her ritual brandy nightcap that she permitted herself to reflect on William; he had become cold and distant once again, which meant he was suffering. If only he were a little boy and I could soothe away his worries. Meditating on the unfair miseries life could throw one's way, Mrs. Reynolds, broke her ritual and permitted herself a second glass of brandy. After all, it has been a most strenuous day.

Pomeroy paced back and forth in the front drawing room, his mind awash with images of Miss Bennet. Damn! The woman had courage! If England had had more soldiers like her, maybe Napoleon would have been defeated sooner. What a fine mistress she would have made! What is it with the master anyway? Shame about his father being dead, the old man would have given him a swift kick in the behind all the way to Hertfordshire!

He stopped by the dimming light emanating through a large window and gazed out onto the circular drive. If he closed his eyes, he could envision the Bennets' carriage leaving and her bonneted profile staring straight ahead, refusing to look back. Damn proud woman! But oh so splendid...

Over the ensuing weeks and months, news of Miss Bennet's dramatic feat of courage traveled throughout the countryside and spread to London. As William Collins and Lady Hurst languished in Newgate prison, awaiting their trial, the Bennet name became part of society's latest on-dit, to the delight of Fanny Bennet and distress of everyone else in the family.

Soon, young ladies of the ton were flocking to fencing academies throughout London. As with any passing fashion and gossip, the furor eventually subsided and Miss Elizabeth Bennet was left with the true legacy of her visit to Pemberley; a tarnished reputation.

Lady Helena sailed to the Americas accompanied by Mr. George Wickham. During the fateful ocean crossing, Mr. Wickham came across a love letter in her possession, signed by William Darcy. Assuming that she and Lord Pemberton had not put an end to their old liaison, he became enraged.

An altercation ensued, resulting in Lady Helena being accidentally thrown overboard. The Atlantic waters were very chilly that night and she did not survive the ordeal. The unfortunate event was judged to be an accident and Mr. Wickham cleared of any wrongdoing. He settled himself in New York and began to sample the finer offerings of American haute society.

Upon her return to France, Charlotte Lucas found her fiancé, Mr. Le Comte de Sèvres, to have met an untimely end in the arms of his latest mistress. A month following his funeral, she and Richard were married in a quiet ceremony in Alençon. The young newlyweds set off for a threemonth honeymoon throughout the continent. Following their return to England, the couple established themselves at Matlock manor, where Richard proved once and for all that reformed rakes do, indeed, make the best of husbands.

As for Charlotte, many who had been acquainted with her for years, remarked on a new fluidity to her walk and a warm glow to her complexion.

Charles performed his brotherly duty and hired the very best of legal representation for his sister. It was rumored, however, that only the king's intervention would lessen Lady Hurst's sentence. He and Jane settled quietly at Netherfield and soon announced the upcoming arrival of their first child.

Richard waged a large sum of money on the date of arrival of the Bingley heir, hoping to recoup his previous losses at White's Betting Book.

Following her hasty departure from Pemberley, Elizabeth received several letters from William Darcy. They lay unopened, in the escritoire of her bedchamber at Longbourn.

As months went by, the frequency of his letters slowed to a trickle.

In the spring of 1832 , William, accompanied by Georgiana, boarded the "Eclipse" and set sail for India. Following his departure, the flow of letters stopped altogether.

~ * ~

May 1832, Longbourn.

The nights were the worst. She would lie awake in the moonless darkness-longing and burning-her heart in flames. She yearned for the solace of his caresses, his beautiful hands and if she closed her eyes, sometimes she could almost feel his tingling touch, ever so light. Some days it was as if the stars were weeping with her, as she tumbled into a deep valley that had once been her heart. Other times she would lie awake reading long novels by the candlelight. The heroines inhabiting her books all seemed to merge into one inchoate voice-a sisterly voice. For a brief moment, they reminded her scornfully that she too had once played a real part in the game of love and now suffered because of it. In wanting to leave her tiny bourgeois existence, in longing for something larger, something that literature told her could be romantic love, she had not been told the truth; once she was cracked open everything would change and there was no returning.*

William Darcy had transported her to a mythical and heroic territory, one she had longed to discover, to occupy. He had led her to an exotic place where she had briefly known feverish pleasure and intense happiness, where ordinary existence seemed to disappear-but no one had warned her of its dangers. The true story beneath the story. She felt betrayed.

As the weeks and months flowed by, winter melted into spring. Time seemed to dissolve, to atrophy, and cease to be real. Twice she attempted to write a long letter, crafted ever so carefully to achieve the right tone, to relay her deepest thoughts, and twice it remained unfinished.

The days were spent in laconic somnambulism, as if she were hypnotized. Sometimes the sheer act of waking, of placing her feet on the cool floor by her bed was torture. She ate because she had to, she spoke because it was expected, but she could no longer taste her food and words lost their meaning. Day would blend seamlessly into night and finally, spent from dwelling in muted sorrow and exhausted from battling her blunted grief, she would give in to slumber, only to go to him...along the road of her dreams.

In the morning she would wake, hoping for a hint of solace or a tinge of peace, but instead her mind would dwell on the same question, in a circular pattern with no beginning or end... If love has no color, why do I feel so deeply stained by him?

~ * ~

May 1832, Simla, India.

The melancholic notes of plaintive chanting drifted toward Georgiana as she and William gazed toward the river's shoreline, observing the ritual purification rites from afar. Brother and sister stood side by side as the evening sky turned from shades of amethyst to mulberry and settled into an iridescent indigo. A flower-laden offering floated gracefully in the river's current, gliding on the reflection of snowcapped Himalayan peaks.

She had not expected the colors of India to be so intense, so beautiful. It was as if someone had spilled a giant box of watercolor around her, into the river and beyond. Cobalt flowed into azure, then turquoise into jade, advancing in brilliant ribbons to the shore. Clouds caressed the white peaked mountains, glowing and dissolving as they passed by. The air seemed vivid, soft and yet full of sweetness.

As mourners rose out of the river and slowly retraced their steps toward the town, a hushed stillness settled on the riverbank, leaving William and Georgiana alone in their thoughts.

The last leg of their journey from Calcutta to Simla had been spent in sorrowful silence. Word had reached them upon disembarking in the great port, that Alia and her infant child had both succumbed to fever.

William had arrived too late. Fate had decreed that he would not set eyes on his daughter. Strangely, his mind understood the loss, but his heart felt devoid of any true emotion. It was as if the child had never existed, had been a mere figment of his imagination. He mourned Alia's passing at such an early age, young, beautiful and full of life. Yet after loving Elizabeth, his relationship with Alia had been reframed into its true significance; one of mutual physical pleasure and nothing else. Perhaps the very distinction, helped distance and dull any real sentiments.

The courtesan had been the product of a mixed union, a half-caste, yet her Indian family in Simla had insisted on following local rituals. The infant had been buried according to custom and Alia, cremated by the river's edge. Today marked the ceremonial thirty-first day since her death, a day of remembrance and purification. William and Georgiana had been welcomed with the cool politesse afforded to highranking foreigners. But William felt like an imposter-lost in a limbo between opposing cultures; and the thought struck him that Alia must have experienced the same lack of belonging in her short life.

Georgiana stood by his side, with an ease, which spoke of a new found closeness between herself and her brother. The sea voyage had deepened and forged a previously delicate bond of love. As they sailed from port to port, William had instructed her of India, its customs and its people, touching briefly on Alia. How does one speak of a former mistress to one's maiden sister? At first he had been at a complete loss, until Georgiana herself opened the doors and gently led him through the sensitive maze.

As the weeks flowed, he had acquired a new respect and admiration for her character, her personal brand of courage. Despite the loss of her mother, she had managed to learn from those around her. Georgiana possessed excellent observational skills and along with a peaceful disposition and keen mind, she had somehow managed to filter the good from the bad in her own life journey.

The same observational skills fuelled her love of art. She undoubtedly possessed a raw talent and tentatively, had broached her plans to William. She wished to study in Florence for a year, staying with a distant aunt. At first, William balked at the notion of postponing her London Season. Georgiana, however, was an adept negotiator, a Darcy trait, no doubt, and managed to outmaneuver her brother until he finally agreed.

Despite their renewed closeness, certain topics, by silent agreement, were not touched on. Yet Georgiana longed to fling them open; her female intuition told her they held the key to William's sorrow. She promised herself, that by the end of their journey, she would at least attempt to loosen the lock on his sadness and melancholia.

She stood enraptured, absorbing the intensely opulent array of colors, scents and sounds arrayed before her, committing each to memory. Her thoughts returned to William and the unknown woman. She wondered at the depth of his grief and guessed that he was experiencing not one loss, but many.

She observed him closely. He was truly and forcefully beautiful. Her artist's eye took in the angular planes of his profile, the eyes of black velvet, the loose curls of midnight hair. Michelangelo's mastery could not have created a more superb tribute to the human form, and yet he seemed imbued with a cool, granite like quality, as if some life force lay trapped beneath a layer of impenetrable rock. "I shall always remember this voyage, William. India captures the imagination like no other."

He stood silently, listening to her words but not hearing. She continued, "How can one paint an English countryside, a still life, after having witnessed this? William? You have not heard a word of what I have said." She sighed and moved toward him, linking her arm through his.

Upon registering her touch, he looked down at her, momentarily surprised at her nearness. A shadow of a smile flitted across his lips. "Forgive me. My mind was elsewhere."

She stepped on her tiptoes and kissed him gently on the cheek. "You think too much."

He gazed down at her pensively, at the soft light in her eyes. Months spent in travel had altered Georgiana in subtle ways; a new warmth to her smile, a lightness in her step and an overall confidence signaling the onset of womanly maturity. During a recent burra-khana thrown in his honor by the Foreign Office, he had noticed the attention she drew from other men. It had left him feeling excessively protective, uncomfortable and very old. Perhaps the study of art in Florence for a year is not such an inconceivable idea after all... "Since when have you acquired such wisdom, Georgiana?"

"Why, I was born with it; mother used to say as much..." There...she thought...I have finally said it. Said her name. Mother. It was high time for her brother to begin facing some truths. The prospect was daunting. Yet, over the last months, he had shown her a tender and considerate side. Awkwardly at first, but now the glimpses were more frequent. Sweet William. She smiled to herself. How very different from the mythical hero she had drawn in her mind while he had been away. Taking a deep breath, she forged on, "Do you think of her often?"

"Yes," he answered quietly, as the flowered offering floated before them, carried away on the river's gentle current.

Georgiana tucked her hand into his and spoke in a hushed voice. "I can feel her, you know."

He closed his eyes at her words and let out a long sigh.

Her soft voice continued, "Look around, William. She is in the setting sun; in the movement of the wind...she is everywhere. And when I paint, I feel as if I am capturing a wisp of her. Sometimes it is a color, other times a simple brush stroke, but the one constant is...she is always there."

"You paint for mother?" He gazed at her, not understanding her meaning.

She smiled gently, "No, she comes to life through my paintings, like a faithful, comforting light."

"She comes to life in my dreams, Georgiana, in my nightmares. She is like an ever present shadow." He had never spoken of his tortured dreams to anyone. The words, now that they were acknowledged, felt strangely innocuous.

"I know," she said simply, tightening her hold on his hand.

"You do?" he asked, startled at her answer.

"Your cabin is next to mine on the clipper and quite often I hear you speak and thrash about in your sleep. A few times, I have almost ventured out and woken you, but with your healthy dose of Darcy pride and all..."

He smiled at her words and gently touched her cheek. "I am beginning to regret bringing you along..." he teased. The magical sounds of a strumming sarangi drifted toward them. "Death and grieving are approached very differently in India..." she observed pensively, wanting to draw his thoughts back to the topic closest to their hearts.

"Death is not a fearsome prospect to followers of the Hindu faith. They believe everyone has been born and died before. Reincarnation allows the inevitable to seem natural; death is like falling asleep, and birth, waking up from that sleep-the soul itself being immortal."

"How very beautiful... I see it as a luminous, self-existent entity-never dying. I think I would paint it as an opalescent light. When I hear you speak, you make it appear serene, an almost consoling center of one's being. What do you believe, William?"

He was silent, unable to formulate his answer, unsure of the answer itself. "How did you come about your ideas, Georgiana? Have you read extensively?"

She gave him a long look, "Following mother's death, father spent much time in discussion with me. You were gone by then." William withdrew his hand but she appeared not to take notice and continued, "He used to say it comforted him to speak of such things to me. We soothed one another, I suppose."

William shook his head, he had no inkling of his late father's relationship with Georgiana. "You and he managed to hold civil discussions?"

"Oh yes. It was only with you that he lost his temper. I still recall the famous rows at Pemberley. But once you left, he spoke of you with great pride and admiration. He spoke of you often, William. He also devoted much time to my studies, my interests, encouraged my art. He was a good father."

"And Helena?" William spit out vehemently.

"Yes, Helena...she was hardly ever there. She spent most of her time in London and eventually they became estranged. Did you not know?"

"No. I did not." How much more had he missed? Perhaps he had labored under a series of false misconceptions, silent assumptions fed by pride and anger. Perchance he had created a reality far removed from the truth. If so, what other realities lay distorted in his life?

"Perhaps you need to enlighten me further-about my years away from England."

"Why, I should be delighted!" She smiled radiantly. "Shall we return to the guest house?"

"The carriage and Ranjit await, Georgiana. I shall meet you in a little while. I should like to be alone for a few moments."

"You need to say goodbye?" She ventured tentatively.

"Yes, something like that."

She walked back to the carriage, filled with new hope and an innate sense of satisfaction. Looking back, she glimpsed William's tall form framed against the indigo sky and suffused by the rays of a full moon. She had forgotten to tell him of mother and the shimmering rays of moonlight. Perhaps she no longer needed to. Perhaps he finally understood.

* Passage adapted from Mme. Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Chapter Nineteen

"A king, who has conquered the six enemies of mankind, becomes master of the whole Earth." Kama Sutra-Chapter V: About the Love of Persons of Authority

Matlock Manor, June 1832

Framed by the cadre of carved and polished wood, he stood and observed her intently, his two aging wolfhounds circling about him.

Clad in wispy layers of primrose yellow, she was sitting placidly in the sun-drenched drawing room. Her head was tilted to one side, while her fingers flitted about, carrying graceful waves of lightly colored silk threads. He could not discern the pattern she was creating, as the embroidery frame was angled away from him, but the silks were spring hues: rose, citron, ivy-green and sky-blue, all tastefully complementary.

He handed his hat and gloves to a servant hovering nearby and slipped quietly into the room. Upon spying her, the wolfhounds rapidly changed allegiances and settled themselves protectively at her feet. She lifted her head and smiled at him with dazzling warmth. Despite months of marriage, her smile held a sublime brilliance, an enchanting power, which he found utterly disarming and strangely disorienting.

"What are you working on?" he asked, taking a seat by the fireplace, stretching his long legs and attempting to channel his rampant thoughts into chaste streams.

She smiled again without looking up. "A table runner for the breakfast room. You know I cannot sit idle for long, chéri; I need to stay occupied. How did your visit with the new steward transpire?"

"Very well." He watched her from beneath lazy eyes, taking in her poise, her innate sense of style and wondering for the thousandth time how a rogue like him had ended up with such a diamond of the first water. Hauling himself out of the deep and comfortable chair, he came to stand behind her, depositing a soft kiss at the juncture of her neck and collarbone.

"I shall lose my concentration, Richard..." she purred. Ignoring her plea, he nibbled lightly on her ear lobe.

"That, dearest wife, is precisely my goal." He glanced at the scene of bountiful spring blooms spilling across the stretched expanse of white linen and, for a moment, tilted his head to survey it with a critical eye.

"From what little I know of embroidery, and believe me love, it is very little, this appears to be a fine rendering. Where is the pattern from which you work? I should like to see the entire picture."

"In my head," she answered.

"Ah, another hidden talent of yours, dear Charlotte. Is there anything you do not do well?"

"Flatterer...you are after something again. Let me guess..." she answered, shaking her head in feigned exasperation. Richard grinned disarmingly. "On the contrary, you have a fine eye for color and design."

She leaned back, scrutinizing the stretched cloth with a critical eye. "It is very strange... I have never been able to capture my visions on paper or canvas. But through my needle, pictures flow easily onto the fabric. It is like that with Elizabeth and her pianoforte, she plays best without sheet music."

He kissed the top of her head. "Not strange at all. Both you and Elizabeth have found your artistic media."

She looked up at him, her needle suspended in mid air, "Richard, I have been thinking..."

"Yes?"

"Since William will be returning to England in August, perhaps you and Charles should speak to him."

Richard smiled ruefully. "Ah yes, William... I have run through several possible scenarios in my mind, as has Charles."

"And?"

"And none call out to either of us as being the right ones. William is...a complex man. He has many layers...his inner workings are heavily guarded."

"No man is impenetrable," she answered with quiet assurance.

"Surely he will listen to his friends... I know that he has written to Elizabeth, many times, but he failed to visit her in person. Franchement, ce n'est pas comme il faut!"** Richard sighed deeply and moved away from her chair.

"True, true, but Elizabeth has not answered any of his letters. Why, Jane believes she has not even read them! The lady is being proud and obstinate!"

Charlotte drew a charming moue. "I do not wish to take sides, but everyone is concerned about her well-being. It is as if the light has been extinguished within her. On our last visit, she was but a shell of her former self; moving through her paces with oppressive politeness and flat detachment; so very unlike her. She seems to have stopped feeling. And no one appears to be able to penetrate through to her. I am no stranger to grief, Richard, and what I witnessed at Longbourn reaches beyond simple grief. I am certain she loves him still and is dreadfully hurt by all the events. Surely something can be done to help reconcile the two? William is older, more experienced. He has traveled the world, studied extensively, led men on dangerous missions... He should be the one to make the first step."

Richard sighed again. She had broached a subject that had led to frequently heated debates between the two. He held a deep belief that the inevitable passage of time would help heal old wounds between William and Elizabeth. And if healing were impossible, perhaps each party would eventually gravitate toward greener pastures. Though where those pastures would be, he had no idea.

Trying to steer the conversation into a different direction, he asked, "What of Philippe?"

"Interesting you should enquire about him... I received a letter from Paris today."

"And?"

In her typically forthright manner, Charlotte answered. "He proposed marriage to Elizabeth several weeks ago. She refused."

Richard strode toward the brandy decanter and poured himself a generous portion.

"Well, well... Your brother is certainly a most persistent pup. Was he attempting to salvage her reputation and thereby portray himself as the gallant champion of a distressed maiden?"

"Neither. I believe in his own way, he cares for her. But being Philippe, he will soon recover from his infatuation. I know my brother well. Though his feelings are not shallow, they also lack true depth. It is all about his satisfaction, in the end. Doubtless he is nursing his sorrow in the salons of Paris, as we speak."

"And the sordid details will be immortalized in his mediocre poetry...which we shall have to endure, yet again," he muttered under his breath.

Charlotte chose to ignore his commentary. Despite Richard's cynical approach toward her brother, she sensed a sympathetic camaraderie between the two men and hoped with time it would flourish into a closer friendship. She laid down her needle and began tidying the colorful silk threads while Richard's mind returned to more pleasurable pursuits; he began admiring the spare and meticulous movements of her long fingers, thinking longingly how the same fingers played at night on his skin, in the privacy of their bedchamber.

"It rarely ceases to amaze me how very different the three of you are," she said.

"You mean William, Charles and I?" Richard held up his brandy glass to the light, assessing its amber coloring and smiled a little at her implied question.

"I suppose George Wickham too, in the old days," she added.

"We are indeed very different, are we not? It is like this, you see... Imagine a great long wall blocking a path. Wickham would approach it and find some stealthy way of going around it, or under it, without getting caught. Charles, on the other hand, would locate whoever was in charge of the wall and sweet talk his way past the man."

Charlotte's eyes twinkled as she interrupted him, "And you would come to it, shrug your shoulders in that rakish fashion and decide you did not really need to go that way after all."

Richard paused his drink in mid air, throwing her a surprised look. "How well you have come to know me, my love..."

"But what of William?"

His answering smile was somewhat rueful. "William Darcy would approach the wall, analyze it to the thousandth degree and failing to find a logical solution, would proceed to bash his head into the wall until it fell down-like a mad spring ram. And therein lies the conundrum, Charlotte."

"But is he not adept at espionage and diplomacy?"

"William was first and foremost a commander of men. His troops admired his courage, skill and indomitable willpower. We all did, Charlotte and to a large extent, still do; a man does not lose such traits once he leaves the army. He had a particular skill with languages and, combined with an analytical mind, was an invaluable asset to the Foreign Office. As for diplomacy-the type of negotiations required in Simla, the Himalayas and tribal territories, did not follow society's rules. Rules were made and broken, alliances rarely secure and secrecy presided over diplomacy. In truth, of the four of us, Charles was, and continues to be, the most adept man at negotiations of any kind-particularly within the labyrinthine machinations of high society."

He took a long swallow of brandy and continued, "Though William reported to a higher command, essentially, during reconnaissance missions, he was the authority; each mission's success or failure rested entirely on his shoulders. At base, William has always detested the specter of a higher authority above him-he resents it with a fierce passion. He is a born leader and thrives on force majeure. However, he had the misfortune to fall in love with a woman who is willing to challenge him in those very areas; a combustible pairing, in my opinion."

Charlotte had listened to him intently, absorbing the layered meanings behind his words. She understood instinctively that Richard was divulging the inner workings of a man whose friendship he both prized and respected. She found herself feeling grateful for his show of trust in her and glowed inwardly with pride at his own display of thoughtfulness.

She was slowly beginning to recognize the depth of character which Richard took great pains to mask beneath a light and insouciant exterior. And with each revelation her love and admiration for him grew.

Tucking away the last of the silk threads into her sewing basket, she rose and moved toward him. "What of the bonds of friendship which bind all three of you? Surely he would grant due consideration to your words of advice?"

"Our friendship was forged in Cambridge and solidified in India-we shared a strong sense of duty toward England and, I suppose, a deep belief in a rigid code of honor. Though we did not speak of it. Men rarely do, Charlotte, we act on it instead."

She stood in front of him and laid both her palms on the soft folds of his riding jacket. Her voice dropped to a hushed whisper, "Then you must appeal to William's sense of honor, Richard."

His translucent gray eyes fastened on her searchingly. She was beseeching him and Charles to test the strength of those very bonds, to reach beyond their boundaries and challenge William as both an officer and a gentleman.

"Perhaps you are right, darling, maybe we can create a small ripple in the entire situation. Yet, I have my reservations... He resents others meddling in his personal affairs, he is proud and secretive to a fault."

Charlotte's arms fell dejectedly to her side and she looked crestfallen. Gently, he grasped her hands and, turning them over, kissed each palm in turn.

"Do not despair, sweet; Charles and I shall think of something. We shall speak to him in London. Satisfied, mon choux?" He gathered her in his arms and swept her out of the room, murmuring huskily in her ear, "Now I have you, my lovely..."

Charlotte peered up at her handsome husband through long and silky lashes, "Am I in danger, dear sir?"

A pair of dark brows arched diabolically above smoky eyes. "The very worst kind, I fear."

She lowered her gaze, as he began directing her up the stairs, in plain view of a footman and two giggling maids.

Striving to maintain a sense of decorum, where little existed, she whispered to him, "I suppose I shall have to reward you for your upcoming troubles in London..."

"Aye," her husband replied in a whisper as he guided her past the landing, toward their bedchamber, "I shall expect a most bountiful down payment, for a start..."

"Libertine."

"Wench," he countered, closing the door with a soft thud.

~ * ~

Netherfield, July 1832

"About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate sir Thomas Bertram...***" Charles' voice drifted toward his young and very pregnant wife on a lazy summer afternoon in Netherfield's gardens.

Seated under the welcoming shade of an old and gnarled apple tree, Jane observed him from beneath the brim of her straw sun hat. She took in the intense cerulean blue of his irises and the tiny detailed lines about his eyes and mouth, belying years of easy laughter.

Charles read exceptionally well; his voice was pleasing and modulated, warmed by a rich timbre that had the overall effect of lulling his audience into a contented calm. Occasionally, he would glance at her with solicitous concern, ascertaining for himself that she was comfortable and in good spirits.

Though she basked in the contentment of his love and attention, she was far from feeling at ease. The expected date of her confinement had come and gone a week prior; the baby was large and appeared to be in no particular hurry. Dr. Quigley came daily along with Perpetua, the midwife. Both hummed and hawed, poked and prodded, dispensing comforting words, assuring her the happy event was imminent, only to return the very next day and repeat their ministrations anew.

Charles threw a quick glance at his wife's distended middle and stifled a sigh. He was becoming somewhat anxious over her increasing size, while wondering in amazement at her ready ability to accommodate its ballooning state. In his eyes, her beauty had not disappeared; rather, it had blossomed to grand proportions, like those of a queen bee.

He closed the book and laid it down on a small wrought iron table by his side. "How are you feeling, love?"

"Bulbous...darling and ready to burst at any instant. I am a little tired as well, baby kept me up all night with kicking,"

She saw his eyebrows furrow in concern and added soothingly, "Do not look so worried, Charles, Dr. Quigley reassures me it signifies the babe is happy and well."

She reached for a glass of lemonade nearby, took a long sip and continued, "Lizzy was by earlier this morning, on her way to Meryton. She seemed decidedly brighter; she even began giving me orders about this and that, which can only mean that her old spirits are returning. I think her work at the parsonage schoolhouse was a brilliant idea. She speaks of the children with such pride and affection."

Charles smiled at his young wife's enthusiasm. "Yes, I have noticed the change in her as well. And under her tutelage, Meryton's population will soon be filled with young scholars. A most progressive notion, would you not agree?"

"Indeed... Charles... You and Richard do intend to speak to William in London, on his return, right?"

He nodded in the affirmative, though deep down both he and Richard did not relish the thought of confronting their old commander. But a promise was a promise and he would not relinquish his word. He rose and stood by her chair, tenderly rearranging a pile of soft pillows behind her back.

"I have heard from Edward Gardiner, William's boat is due to arrive in three weeks." Jane let out a long sigh. "She promised me that she would at least look at the letters."

"Good," Charles answered with finality, then added under his breath, "about time..."

"Now, Charles Bingley, let us not begin this discussion anew. I have told you repeatedly that we are dealing with two stubborn and exceedingly well-matched spirits and let me remind you, lest you have forgotten, that my little sister, single-handedly uncovered one of England's..."

"Most notorious spies...I know. How could I forget, Jane. My sister has been sent to America for her part in the Game." Jane reached out and lightly stroked his arm. "I am sorry about Louisa, love. But is it not wonderful how Hurst has stopped drinking and finally taken matters in his own hands? They will have a chance at a new life abroad."

She clutched her side, as a contraction seemed to ripple through her entire person. Despite being a seasoned soldier and no stranger to pain and suffering, Charles' tolerance for Jane's discomfort was waning by the day; he winced along with her, sure his own innards were contorting in sympathy at her plight. Bending down, he kissed her lightly on the cheek.

"Sweet, there must be something we can do to bring on labor more quickly..." he murmured.

Jane eyed him innocently. "Well, Perpetua, the midwife, did take me aside this morning and suggested a few remedies."

Charles' face brightened instantly. "And?" "We have already tried the spiced mulled cider, the herbal teas...a brisk walk is out of the question since I can barely waddle...which leaves her last suggestion," Jane paused delicately and threw him a coy glance, "She referred to it as stirring the honey pot..."

Charles turned a bright shade of crimson. "Surely she did not mean...harrumph...that is to say...how could one...well, I suppose...but I could never...oh, bollocks!"

She raised her brows at his words, while her eyes twinkled merrily. "It is worth a try, darling..."

After regaining his composure, her devoted husband had to agree, that indeed, it was well worth a try.

Perpetua's advice was taken to heart and acted upon that very evening with much tenderness, humor and bravado. Charles, after all, was no stranger to following orders. And once the task was accomplished to his satisfaction, being a most dutiful husband, he decided to repeat it, once again...for good measure.

~ * ~

Longbourn, one week later

It was as if a heavy veil had slowly lifted. It had happened gradually, the opaque heaviness receding little by little into a thin gossamer wispiness, until one day, upon awakening, she realized that it had disappeared entirely. She felt lighter, unencumbered and cautiously hopeful. Her despondency had become replaced by a steadfast sense of purpose, displacing the insignificant daily nothings, which had filled her previous existence. Is it the uncomplicated joy of teaching small children, exposing myself to their innocent trust and young spirits? Or, perhaps, witnessing the recent birth of Jane's daughter and the brilliant happiness spilling out of Netherfield has reaffirmed my faith in life.

With spring having flowered into a warmly languid summer, she had experienced the potent pull of nature, its renewal and gentle rebirth seducing both her mind and body; as if awakening her from a long and sad slumber. She began taking long walks, revisiting favorite haunts, resuming her fencing lessons and rediscovering the exhilaration of galloping on her mare across the countryside. She found herself, once again, sparring with her father over current affairs and laughing at her younger sisters' antics. Her mother, she avoided with calculated detachment. Fanny had been devastated at the turn of events between her daughter and William; simply put, her chance at being connected to an Earl of the realm had slipped away and for that she blamed her tempestuous child. An occasional twitch of conscience would spring up and remind her of Elizabeth's loss, her melancholia, but Fanny resolutely pushed it away, convinced her daughter was paying a fair price for her brief dalliance.

After months of living in a dull, sepia toned inner landscape, Elizabeth tentatively stepped into the world again, breathing in its fresh air with thirsty gulps and absorbing the hope found in its lambent light. And finally, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, she bundled William's unread letters into a leather satchel and set off on her mare. Without intending to, she found herself in the wooded grove, by the stream, where they had shared a kiss in autumn. Letting her horse graze nearby, she sat on a fallen log, perhaps the same one as before, she was no longer sure...the memory had faded.

She opened her satchel and withdrew the pack of letters, arranging them by date of delivery on her lap and silently, she waited.

The forest was hushed and quiet save for the soothing sound of stream water floating by and flies buzzing about. Her pain had dissipated and become replaced by a familiar ache, familiar yet bearable, almost comforting in its presence. She knew beyond a doubt that once she viewed each missive and read its bold script, she would run the risk of cutting open old wounds. But what is life without risk, anyhow? He has taken a gamble in writing to me; I owe him at least the civility of hearing his side, however belated my intent.

With a slight tremor, she opened the first letter. In the peaceful solitude of the summer wood, she pored over every folded sheet of white parchment. Suddenly hungry for answers, for knowledge, she buried herself in his words, as if plunging into the deep mass of his revelations. He wrote of his childhood at Pemberley, the great love he had held for his mother, the tumultuous relationship with his father. He wrote of Georgiana's birth and his mother's death, of Helena and her schemes. He wrote of India, his training and missions, of the men he had killed in the course of battle and of the beauty and magic found within its ancient culture.

Yet, most of all, he wrote of his love for her.

She read each letter in turn and having finished, sat still for a very long time, letting his words, his bared emotions and his one constant repeated message, wash over her. William had opened his soul through his writing, pouring it out and scattering its entire contents, for her to peruse, to interpret, to judge-and accept or reject. It was a complete act of faith and trust. An act of courage. But is it enough?

Each letter ended with a profession of his devotion, his admiration and tender respect. She recognized the sweet and generous man she had glimpsed during their first night together. His writing was suffused with a poetic eloquence, which at first struck her as astonishing, but on closer reflection, was not. Beneath the warrior's persona lay a gentle soul, a word artist's soul, one that had been crushed and repressed through the circumstances of his life.

And yet, her intellect screamed out in outrage...I need to see him, hear his voice and touch him, to truly feel and accept the impact of his words. She had told herself, during months of self-inflicted anguish, that her previous feelings had been an aberrance, a temporary fascination with his seductive power.

But as the sun slowly set over the horizon and lengthening shadows began playing on the forest floor, Elizabeth discovered her emotions were not obedient pupils, complying with her rationalizations and yielding to any objectivity.

The realization was both liberating and cruel. He promised her freedom within the vast reaches of his devotion and affection. A freedom she longed for as a parched earth longed for rain. Yet, they were but two imperfect entities, man and woman, and nothing was for certain. Can I live with the unknowns of the future, with the specter of hurt, disappointment, even failure lurking at every turn? Gazing down at his last letter, her eye was caught, once again, by his ending passage.

"I have attempted to estimate the influence of reason upon love and found that it is like that of a raindrop upon the ocean. Elizabeth, I may truly never know how and why I came to love you so, but of this I am certain; I am yours and yours only, forever. Precious beloved, life is so fleeting, so fast the lonely hours flow by...I await your answer, hoping dearly that someday we shall be reunited again, you and I."

There truly was no absolute, no definite, simply a journey... where a man and woman sought an elusive perfection, one beyond a mortal's grasp-but insisting, like all lovers, again and again on its possibility. At long last, her own heart understood...and only then did the tears begin to flow.

~ * ~

The English Channel, off the coast of St. Malo, northern France, August 1832.

The sharp staccato on William's cabin door announced Jack O'Malley's presence; no one else on ship dared to knock with such insistence. William rose stiffly from his desk, strewn with maps and papers and moved to open the door.

Despite numerous ports of call and an easy voyage, his large frame was unaccustomed to cramped spaces and his entire body cried out for the surety and firmness of solid ground.

The Irish captain stood framed in the arched doorway and smiled broadly, "Fine day at sea, not a cloud in the sky; all the sails are hung out to dry and she is moving fast. I reckon if we continue on this course we should make landfall one day ahead of schedule, old boy."

"You wished to speak to me, Jack?"

"Hrmmph. Yes. It is time you and I had a few words."

Jack settled himself in a leather chair across from William's desk and stretched out his legs.

William assessed the older man with mild curiosity. An easy informality had settled between the two over the six-month journey. Georgiana's presence had loosened some of their earlier constraints. But Georgiana had been deposited into the delighted hands of Aunt Lucinda, in Florence, for a course of study in Italy. Yet despite her absence, the newly forged camaraderie between both men had continued to flourish and grow. William now considered Jack a close and trusted friend. He leaned back on his chair and rubbed the tauntened muscles of his neck.

"You have my undivided attention."

"Good," the older man answered gruffly, "you and I have known each other for four years-if I am not mistaken?"

"Yes."

"I shall speak plainly then."

"Pray continue." William furrowed his brow; Jack was known for his direct style and rarely took time with preliminaries- a trait, which William both enjoyed and respected. What is the captain brewing? Immediately he felt his body tense with anticipation.

"'Tis time I retire, old boy, I have a hankering to find myself a nice little wife and settle on the coast."

William's dark eyes regarded him speculatively. He steepled his long fingers under his chin and leaned back on the chair. "This news is somewhat surprising, Jack. Just last year you proclaimed you would like to die at sea."

Jack cleared his throat, "I intend to continue sailing-for pleasure, mind you. You have been very generous Darcy and for that, I thank you."

William nodded his head in silence, keeping his gaze fixed intently on the other man. "You have something else to tell me," he stated unequivocally.

Jack swallowed hard and looked at him sheepishly. "How did you guess?"

William's lip curled in a half smile. "I compensate you well, Jack, but not well enough to retire on the coast and sail a pleasure vessel for the rest of your years. Besides, you are far from being an old man. Now tell me, how did you really make your fortune, captain?"

The other man closed his eyes briefly and taking a deep breath, began. "'Tis connected with your father."

William's chair scraped harshly on the wooden floor, the sound was jarring. "My father?"

"Haul in your halyards, mate! Hear me out, first. Your father and I were acquainted for many years-even prior to your birth. My working for your fleet was no coincidence-it was part of his plan."

"What plan, O'Malley?" William asked in a deadly quiet voice.

"The grand plan to assure your safety and protection. He was worried about your involvement in the Great Game.

His concern was not only for the Russians' devious plans, but he did not trust the head boys in Simla. In fact, in the end, he did not even trust the Home Office in London. So he devised a network of people to keep an eye on you, with minimal interference, of course."

William's blood was seething. "Of course. Who else, was part of the master plan? Dammit Jack, who?"

"In every household of anyone possibly connected to you, there were men, operatives if you will, who were sworn to protect you."

William's eyes blazed with anger. "I want names."

Jack raised a pacifying hand in the air. "Now look, these people all reported to me, save for one. They are all good men, loyal and honest. Why, two are even my cousins...Quentin and Shamus, the twins."

"Who was the other senior man?" William blurted out through clenched teeth.

"Ranjit-he reported directly to your father."

A loud crack resonated through the room as William's fist smashed on the desk, toppling his inkwell and scattering a flurry of papers about the cabin. "RANJIT?"

"Calm yourself man. Our mission was to provide protection, until such a time as the Great Game was ended or you bowed out of it and settled down. I reckon the Game will continue, but correct me if I am wrong-you will no longer be a player. Time for the mission to fold. My work is completed. And thanks to the lovely Miss Bennet, it seems like at least one chapter of the Game is over. By the way, I hear she is quite the lady. Do you have any plans to get leg shackled soon?"

"Devil take it O'Malley, stay out of my personal affairs!" William's head was spinning with shock as each new revelation hit him. Why had my father gone to such unprecedented measures and great cost, to protect my life? He felt his eyelids prickle and shutting his eyes, attempted to harness his control, recover some even ground under the tumult of his raging emotions. He exhaled slowly.

"Why? Tell me why! Did he have so little faith in me that he felt obliged to create a web of deceit, an illusion of safety around his heir? You and I both know that death lurked around every corner while I was away on missions in India.

No man could ensure the safety of another even with a phalanx of bodyguards... Hold... Wait a minute... Bear, Wolf and Jackal... Were they in on this?"

Jack nodded his head silently, "Not in the way that you think-your father did not pay them, rather, he corresponded with each, keeping close track of your comings and goings. He knew the other three would protect you with their lives, as you would them. He referred to some silent code of honor. Only Wickham strayed." "Yes, only Wickham, his bastard son."

"Wickham was not his, but sired by your uncle Henry and a gypsy. When Henry left for the continent and was subsequently killed, your father took Wickham under his roof. He was but a babe. Your mother knew and approved. As for the other matter, understand, it was never related to a lack of confidence in your soldiering, or in you as a man. On the contrary, he was mighty proud of you. You were his only true heir, his first-born son. He did this, I am convinced, out of fatherly love. He saw it as a chance at obtaining atonement, if you will, for the loss of your mother and his mistake with Helena. The old Earl's sense of responsibility ran deep and true. He was a good man. Yes, he made a foolish mistake with the Polish countess. But he tried, in his own way, to set things right. I do not think he would have survived your loss in India. I spent hours in discussion with him about these very subjects. Much thought and planning was poured into the entire venture. He deliberately surrounded you with men, who in some way, would make up for the loss of the father figure you repudiated earlier in life."

"One can never truly replace a parent, Jack." William whispered hoarsely and, turning away from the man who had become a stranger in his eyes, he spoke softly, but one could not miss the note of distinct command in his voice.

"Once we reach England, I give you your leave. You are dismissed, captain."

"Aye, my Lord," Jack replied resignedly, then, pausing momentarily, he added, "He often referred to you as The Eternal Wanderer. It is time you came home, William." Turning on his heels, he strode out of the cabin.

~ * ~

His forehead resting on the cool wood paneling of the cabin, he struggled to calm his heart, to make sense of Jack O'Malley's words; in order to rearrange the toppled vision of his universe.

Minutes passed, suddenly the skin on his neck rose in a familiar sensation-without turning he whispered, "I did not call for you Ranjit."

"No, you did not, Sahib, but I heard you nonetheless."

William turned and stared at the man who had been his friend, mentor, teacher and trusted servant for years-a constant presence in his life. He felt as if the last leg of a chair had been kicked from under him.

Ranjit observed him with customary calm. "He sent me to watch over his own seed, so that it would flourish and grow-and survive when he was gone."

William took a deep breath and moved across the room to put more distance between Ranjit and himself. He began pouring brandy into a crystal goblet and in that ritual action, seeking evenness. Balance. He could not, for the moment, think farther than that.

Ranjit's voice rose behind him. "What are you afraid of, Sahib?"

William's chiseled profile, proudly arrogant, strong and defiant turned toward the older Indian. "Afraid?" he asked, piercing him with a dagger of a stare.

"Fear comes of fighting against. Always go with, not against. Face the truth, become one with the situation."

William turned away, feeling as if he were drowning in a frozen ocean. The slow burn of ice, from his fingertips to his limbs, reached to his brain...until all sensation was gone. Until he felt nothing. I do not understand. His mind grasped frantically for answers but none came easily, or perhaps he did not wish them to. He could not fight, he could not flee, instead, he froze; hoping for a mad instant, to become a shadow and disappear into darkness. Complete and utter darkness. Something within him stirred, a survival instinct as old as time. Have I not been hiding for years behind carefully erected walls-a veritable fortress-afraid to seek out the truth?

Georgiana, with her artist's eye and sisterly love, had brought him nearer to understanding his mother's loss; Jack's revelations had illuminated recessed corners of his past, dispelling silent and erroneous beliefs. And now, Ranjit had thrown down the last challenge. My father had loved me, wishing to protect me from harm.

William had rigidly held on to old sufferings, wallowing in righteous pride and misconceptions. Perhaps, after all these years, he had been mistaken to judge his father as being selfish and despotic. Men made mistakes, but men could be forgiven. Hell, have I not made grave mistakes, as well?

He turned toward Ranjit and stood facing him without a word. He felt everything inside slowly warm, flame and ignite one by one. Meticulously erected barriers came crumbling down, fusing into molten lava and flowing away, out of the cracks in himself, until there was nothing left. As tremor after tremor washed over him, William's body shook with the effort of restraint, until all that remained was a curious sense of lightness and peace.

Ranjit stood by the door, not moving, his face an impassive mask. And when his master's shaking subsided, the old servant bowed in a deep and respectful salaam and departed the stateroom in complete silence.

~ * ~

He leaned back against the mast, dark hair ruffling in the wind, white sails billowing about him. He thought of her and their first meeting on his ship. Elizabeth.

Two days had elapsed since hearing O'Malley's groundbreaking revelations. Both Jack and Ranjit had tacitly allowed him space, privacy, until William sought each one out in turn and began rebuilding the enigma that had been his father. And in doing so, he learned of himself.

Each day, each hour at sea brought out a new disclosure- some painful, others humorous, all enlightening. He wondered if every man, at some point in his life, underwent such a cycle of self-renewal. Perhaps it was a right of passage. Within the inner workings of his mind, he found himself caught in a maze of mirrors and, he who had prided himself on self-knowledge, lost himself entirely, relinquished control and approached each reflected image with an open mind.

Each step an initiation.

He let go of familiar wars, infantile arguments and old anxieties. In doing so, he discovered a new patience and stamina, both curiously resonant and numinous.

William's view of loving a woman, the at once heroic and exotic vision he had clung to, became replaced by a blank canvas; welcoming, well lit, awaiting Elizabeth. If she will have me.

As the clipper hurtled closer to England, he began understanding that he had been afraid of being consumed by a woman in the same manner his father had been obsessed by Helena. He had long viewed women as the true predators and he had been fearful of losing himself, his bearings, by shouting his need for a woman's love. But now he could no more resist it than a famished man could refuse nourishment.

Loving Elizabeth was the route to living the life he had not had the courage to choose. Deep within, he believed in destiny and fate and somehow, Elizabeth, with her unique brand of courageous beauty, intelligence and passion represented the muse who could enable him to believe in a new self.

In writing to her, he had reached out his hand, fully aware that the gesture itself, alone, was not enough. He needed to see her, speak to her and hold her in his arms.

There was a time for introspection and there was a time for action. Now, newly emerged from deep sorrows and secret shadows, William resolved to choose action.

As the outline of London's docks came into view with all its dirt, filth and grime, the world around him shone, gleaming clear as a just washed window. Once the ship had safely docked near the East India yard, William stepped out of his seafaring clipper onto dry land. Thoughts of Elizabeth warmed his heart like a constant sun...he was coming home.

~ * ~

Meryton, the Parsonage Schoolhouse. August 1832

"And who among you knows the name of the boot shaped country?"

Several hands shot up in the classroom as Elizabeth smiled at the scrubbed and eager faces before her. "Crispin, let us hear your answer."

The freckled boy stood up and very slowly enunciated, "IItaly, M-Miss Bennet."

"Very good, Crispin, you may sit down."

His voice piped up again, "M-Miss-is it true there are pirates around the coast of I-Italy and tigers and bears in the mountains?"

A deep-timbred voice answered from the back of the diminutive schoolroom. "A fast clipper, with a good crew can outrun any pirate ship, my boy. As for tigers, India is by far the best place for hunting those nasty creatures. And I do believe there are mountain regions in Italy..." William walked up toward the map and pointed to northern Italy, "...right here, which would offer fine bear sightings."

A dozen mouths fell open at the sight of the towering darkhaired man. Elizabeth stood speechless behind her desk. She had expected his return, but not this soon. Not in such a manner-striding into her neat and tidy schoolroom, invading her haven.

With a hitch in her voice, she spoke to the awe-struck assembly. "Children, please stand and greet Lord Pemberton.

His lordship is newly returned from India." The children rose, with a loud scrape of chairs on the wooden floor and offered a well practiced welcome to the tall and elegantly dressed stranger.

William looked at her intently and mouthed the words, "May I?"

She nodded her head in assent, not understanding to what she was acquiescing and strangely, not caring. As if floating in a weightless dream, she sat down behind her desk, clenching her hands together in a futile attempt to prevent their trembling.

He stood a few feet away by a slightly worn map of the world and patiently, calmly, answered each child's questions.

He displayed a warmth, an openness of manner, which left her bereft of words. He had walked into her world as if all was well, as if months had not fled by, as if an Earl's presence in the village schoolhouse was both natural and expected. Right there and then, she realized something integral in him had changed, but as much as she tried, she could not define it. As he fielded each question in turn, she scrutinized his features. An officer's face...framed by the light of day, his dark eyes were narrowed in concentration at the children's enthusiastic queries. The classic aquiline face, which had invaded her dreams night after night, was etched with handsomeness and enhanced by a compellingly masculine severity-a mythological pagan quality of virile strength and grace, now curiously altered. He looked surprisingly young as if something had been lifted. She wanted to reach out and touch him, to ascertain for herself that it was indeed William Darcy.

The church bell rang and she rose automatically out of force of habit to dismiss her class for the day. One by one, the children slowly filed out, stalling, as children are wont to do when told to leave a new game-one just begun. A last straggler, little Emma, trailed behind the group and, throwing a quick glance in Elizabeth's direction, ran up to

William and tugged at his coat tails. "My Lord, will you come back tomorrow and tell us more stories of India? Please?"

William smiled as Elizabeth had rarely seen him smile before, all boyish enthusiasm and warmth, and bending down at the knees, his eyes level with the child's, he tweaked her nose playfully. "If Miss Bennet agrees, poppet, I should be honored to return and tell you more stories."

A pair of vivid blue eyes fastened on Elizabeth; she nodded her head in answer to the silent plea. Satisfied, Emma skipped out of the schoolroom and rejoined her classmates.

The children's presence had provided a welcome and unexpected buffer for their sudden reunion. With their exit the buffer dissolved into thin air, leaving behind a dense and uncomfortable silence.

William's earlier ease seemed to have evaporated. He felt overwhelmed by her nearness, by the sheer wealth of her standing beside him. He was struck once again by the incredibly powerful attraction coursing between them. A rare gift. After months of celibacy he yearned to dissolve himself within her in a haze of sublime sensual delight. In all fairness to both of us, how can I?

With a Herculean effort he stilled his urges and gazed at the display of simple and poignant female beauty before him. She was attired in a cream summer gown, a light calico, strewn with tiny pink and moss green flowers. Reading her like a poem, he took in the finely detailed lines about her eyes, her mouth. She was thinner, more delicate, than he had remembered. There was about her an aura of sublimated sadness. It touched him to the core.

She moved first, lifted her bonnet from its perch on the desk and tied its ribbon under her chin.

"You came," she stated simply, her voice low and unfaltering.

"Yes," he answered. "I traveled directly from London; we docked yesterday afternoon."

"How did you know to find me here?"

"I stopped at Longbourn and spoke with your father."

"I see," she said quietly. "Why are you here, William?"

He gazed at her with eyes filled with remorse and spoke softly. "I am here to ask for your forgiveness."

Fighting back the urge to burst into tears, she waved away convention, politesse and intent on a response she had been creating for months. She began, "I tried in vain to forget you, to erase the memories, the mark you left upon me...but I could not. You haunted me in my dreams and invaded my waking hours. You had woven a spell over me- one of exotic riches and boundless promise. And then you shattered it. I had visions of our love and great passion mellowing over decades and growing old together, but it proved to be an illusion. You broke my heart, William."

He was stunned by her words. He had braced himself for spirited anger, but her calm accusations cut to the quick. He looked into her splendid eyes, so full of clouds, and replied,

"It was no illusion, Elizabeth. What we shared, however briefly, was true and just. I was wrong not to trust you." He ran his hand through his hair, pausing for a moment to find the right words. "You have been a victim of my unpardonable lapse of honor. I owed you honesty from the start. I should have believed in our love, its resilience, gathered you in my arms and told you all, everything."

He took a step toward her but halted as she moved away. Silently praying she would hear him out in full, William lowered his voice and continued. "During those few precious days we grew close, closer than I have ever allowed myself to be with anyone else. In you I found a friend, a lover and an essential part of myself. At your side I realized I could feel again, face my past remembering both joy and sorrow, and all this you accomplished by being there, by simply being you, Elizabeth."

She could feel the seductive pull of his voice begin working its persuasive magic.

Sensing her mellowing, he paused for breath, then continued. "So much of this, I did not grasp at the time. Now, I am beginning to comprehend, little by little. I am prepared to answer and explain every question and in doing so, hopefully begin to dispel some of your fears, your worries and regain your precious trust. You had me wrapped in rainbows, Elizabeth, and marked with such sweet surfeit that I am yours for always. Please, beloved, forgive me." As each word escaped from his lips, she could feel it pluck with ravenous fingers at her heart and strike new chords of longing. She did not wish to battle with him, yet she could not capitulate easily and remain true to herself. She felt trapped. With an instinct carved out of months of anguish, she struck out.

"What are you seeking?" she demanded, holding on to the last shreds of her composure.

"Your love," he answered quietly.

"Sometimes love dies."

"My love did not die, but I cannot speak for yours, Elizabeth."

Fool! She told herself and closed her eyes, fighting not to give in to the surging tide of need and want coursing through her nerves.

"Have you outgrown your need for armor, then?" she challenged him again, her voice gentler this time.

"Yes," was his reply.

Fool...she repeated to herself again, but the thought was without conviction. After the space of a few heartbeats, she said, "I need to think about this. I shall see you out." It is a very small room, she thought, as she moved across its length- particularly when one walked toward a door one did not want to reach. William followed her in silence, his mind desperate to find a way of saying... "I cannot let you go again. I cannot bear to lose you one more time."

She stretched out her hand toward the door handle. For a suspended moment he stood so close behind her that she could feel the warmth of his skin, his exotic scent-and then, his long-fingered hands came to rest, steady and firm and final, about her waist.

She could have stopped it all, even then-demolished the feelings, the sensations assaulting her anew. She had a choice-that of closing her eyes to the jewel bright gate and scented garden beyond, with its promise of new freedom; or facing the possibility of a long and dark vista beyond the one she had barely emerged from.

She had only to ignore his hands-their strong and insistent heat-open the door and walk ahead of him down the schoolhouse steps along the winding path-all the way back to Longbourn. And wish him farewell. Goodbye. And with every step a part of her would wither and die.

They stood together, motionless, for a very long time. She was aware of nothing in the world but the weight of his hands on her waist and her own primitive thankfulness that he had finally touched her, as if she had been preparing for this moment for months. Then, with a volition of their own, her hands flitted to her bonnet, untied its ribbon and let it fall to her feet. He let out a long breath and turned her slowly around to face him. An awkward silence fell about them as both struggled to make sense of the tumult and restrained passion enveloping them.

"I..."

"I am..."

"You first," Elizabeth said, her voice very quiet.

William swallowed before speaking, thinking he had not felt this awkward since adolescence. "Thank you...for not walking away," he whispered, his breath sweet and warm on her cheek.

She rested her palms on his chest, as if bracing herself. "Hear me out, William. I am perfectly able to continue on my own without your help or intervention."

"Yes, I know," he answered, his lips brushing her forehead.

"I may have few freedoms, but in giving and receiving love, I have a choice. If your intent is to claim me, then you have misjudged me. I shall walk out of this room, having chosen my own path. Know this... Beneath the softness lies a core of iron. In loving me you must embrace both. If you cannot, then please go away; find happiness in the arms of another and I shall wish you well."

He bent his forehead to hers, closed his eyes and murmured, "There will never be anyone else. I love you, Elizabeth Bennet. I love your fierce independence, your fiery spirit and your sensual soul. Let me love you."

She closed her eyes and let herself fall into his embrace, sinking into his strong arms, as if arriving in the safest harbor- for mending. Her fingers traced the planes of his face with a feather light touch, tipped with heat. She cupped his face with her hands and kissed him, scarcely touching her lips to his. Her eyes, open and luminous, locked his in a powerful hold. She feathered kisses over his cheeks, his eyelids, temples, his nose-returning to his mouth, touching softly, stroking lightly.

William had been kissed before; they had kissed before, but not like this. Ah, never like this. Every fiber within him sizzled with the awareness of an intensely suppressed desire and a profoundly sweet devotion. Together, they shared a deep, hard, open mouth communion, their bodies resuming a long, slow dance...like two pilgrims returning home again to the Promised Land.

"Ask me anything, anything at all..." he breathed into her ear, inhaling the scent of her tumbled hair.

Floating on a blissful cloud, safe in his arms, she gazed up at him and traced the silver scar on his chin, "Let us start with this...how did you acquire the scar, William? Did it involve tigers, lions or bears?"

He let out a throaty chuckle. "Promise, you will not tell anyone, my very reputation is at stake... I slipped on a cake of soap on the boat."

She laughed as she had rarely laughed before, releasing a coiled up mass of tension, months in building. She was laughing at him and, whereas in the past William would have reacted with haughty mortification, he joined her, chuckling low and deep, grinning from ear to ear.

As their shared jubilation died down, he held her clutched possessively in his arms and said, "Is life not absurd, beloved? My turn, now. The question has been nagging me for months. How in the Lord's name did you ever learn to fence like a master?"

She tilted her head toward him and raised her brows defiantly,

"A combination of practice and horrid temper."

"Is that a warning, my love?"

"Most definitely, dear sir. Consider yourself duly warned," she answered with a playful smile.

As he caressed her cheek with the back of his hand, his face turned serious. A question had been weighing heavily on his mind, since hearing the news during a brief stop at Le Havre on the clipper's return journey.

"Elizabeth, I recently learned that Philippe proposed marriage to you several weeks ago. News travels fast, you see. I...very selfishly...need to hear why you declined his proposal." She was deeply touched by his underlying uncertainty; its presence in a man accustomed to having his own way was all the more indicative of his transformation. She traced the outline of his lips with her fingers and answered huskily,

"Would I let a pauper enter where a king had stood before?" Is she saying yes? His mind shouted, while his heart beat in a wild tattoo. Is it too soon to broach the question? Hell and damnation, I have traveled halfway around the world in the last months. The exile away from her has been brutal. Never again. She felt like heaven in his arms, silky warm and lightly scented. She was irresistible and he adored her. Intensifying his steely hold on her waist, he gazed at her with liquid eyes,

"In that case, Elizabeth Bennet, will you become my wife?"

She answered him with a kiss.

Embracing her tightly in his arms, William steadfastly refused to relinquish his clasp. "I have been wanting to..." his hesitation was minute as he discarded the inappropriate verb on the tip of his tongue, "hold you." He grinned. "You see how badly circumspect my choice of word is?"

A suspended anticipation strummed in the air about them. The clattering sound of carriage wheels drifted through an open window, reminding them of the outside world beyond the schoolroom door. Elizabeth was completely and utterly lost in the potent heat of their bodies where they met and touched-the insistent presence of his arousal pushing through the thin folds of her gown.

"Elizabeth," he whispered hoarsely, "look at me. Was that a yes?"

"What was the question, again?" she mumbled absently, nibbling on his lips, her hands flitting across his broad chest.

Alighting his fingers on her lips, effectively blocking another kiss, he drew away for a fraction. "Will you be my wife?"

She looked into his eyes, unsure if the gleam she perceived was humor, anger, or some innocuous reflection of light from the window. "I...need more time. All of this is so sudden. I envy you your certainty, William. Surely you cannot presume to waltz into my classroom unannounced after being away for nine months and expect me to rush into your arms and say...yes, all is forgiven...yes, I shall marry you?"

"We seem to have reached an impasse." He retained his hold on her waist, though his grip loosened.

"Notice, you are in my arms, love and it has actually been nine months, three weeks and five days to be precise. Most importantly, I am extremely reluctant to let you go again."

She knew she ought to answer his remark, but her attention had wandered once again; drawn to the dark silk curls of his hair where they touched his starched neckcloth. Her mind flooded with memories of its sleek texture under her fingers, its fragrance.

Awareness finally broke through as she stood encircled in his embrace; she did not feel trapped by him, his maleness, his promise of love and devotion. With a mere motion of her body, she was free to walk away. No, William was no longer casting a possessive spell; she was paralyzed by something raging within her.

Sensing a swift change in her mood, his eyes seemed to darken and fastened on hers. "How much time do you need? Months, days...hours?"

"I-I do not know," she replied honestly.

"I see."

He dropped his arms and moved away, perching himself on a pupil's desk, dwarfing the small table with his tall frame. His gaze drifted away, surveying the length of the schoolroom, the faded map of the world hanging on the wall. When his eyes met hers again, his tone was quiet, modulated, as if oblivious to their prior embrace.

"Very well, I am content to wait, Elizabeth. But where do we go from here?"

He was handing her the reins-seemingly with no conditions attached. This from someone accustomed to being in complete command. He was accomplishing it without drama, or rancor-an elegant acknowledgment of their equality as partners. She was being allowed to set the pace and he would graciously follow. Elizabeth sensed it was a matter of time, of adjusting to the changes each one had undergone; the answer itself was inevitable. People spoke of falling in love. Perchance it was indeed a leap, a free-fall into the unknown and marriage represented the cushion, the ultimate end-point. Perhaps it was possible to find some semblance of freedom through sharing the life and love William offered.

She nibbled on her lip, deep in thought at his query and finally announced with a slight smile, "I brought a picnic hamper along, intending to go for a swim after school today. Would you like to join me, William?"

He smiled inwardly at her youthfulness, thinking they were speaking of different things.

"Were you intending to go alone?"

"Yes. It is quite safe and secluded; few people know of it."

"You will not find my presence intrusive?" he enquired, sensitive to her need for solitude in the past.

"On the contrary, it will be a most pleasing diversion. And thank you for the consideration."

"In that case I shall ask my awaiting carriage to proceed on to Netherfield and happily escort you on your picnic."

Scooping up the hamper, William offered his arm and the couple walked out of the schoolhouse together.

It was not until they had crossed the stone bridge leading out of Meryton, that Elizabeth remembered she had left her bonnet behind, but by then, it was too late to retrieve it. Under the beating rays of sultry afternoon sun, the countryside was hushed and empty. Save for a lone farmer driving by in his wagon and the distant sound of barking dogs, they walked uninterrupted. Both were lost in the magic of their shared conversation, unaware of their surroundings, yet deeply in tune with each other's presence, as if attempting to bridge with words the chasm which had separated them. Elizabeth spoke of her family, her pupils, and Jane and Charles' new daughter. She observed on Charlotte and Richard's apparent felicity in marriage and the astonishing changes Charlotte had wrought in her husband's behavior. William listened intently, asking a question here and there, but for the most part remaining silent. A part of him was deeply envious at his friends' new-found happiness; the remainder within him rejoiced.

They strolled contentedly in silence for a while and finally reached the shaded woods. Elizabeth led them on a narrow path strewn with pine needles. The air was blessedly cool and refreshing in contrast to the dusty heat of the road. Sensing it was his turn to lead the conversation, William began speaking of his ocean journey and of India. He touched lightly on Alia's and the infant's death, surprised to hear that the news had reached her some time ago.

The Home Office had sent a dispatch to Netherfield while he was at sea. She did not press him on the subject and for that he was grateful. It was as if she instinctively knew to stow it away for another time. He spoke of Georgiana and her decision to study art in Florence for a year, smiling as Elizabeth enthusiastically agreed with the plan and pointed out all its merits. She and his sister would undoubtedly find friendship in the future.

The path meandered past an abandoned woodcutter's hut, crept up a steep hill and descended onto a wide bank. At its foot, as if created by a caprice of nature, a crystalline blue pond beckoned. It seemed to reflect the forest around it, fed by a babbling stream nearby. William stood still at the crest of the hill, stunned by the bucolic scenery arranged before him. She grasped his hand and slowly led him toward the pond. The hill sloped gently toward the water's edge; it was grass-covered and lushly carpeted with daisies, buttercups and clover. They waded ankle-deep though the wildflowers until Elizabeth sank down in their midst, clasped her arms around her knees and gazed fondly about her.

"My father taught me to swim here as a little girl."

"Does it have a name?" William asked, setting down the picnic hamper and joining her amidst the wildflowers. She looked at him quizzically. "How did you guess it had a name?"

"If I were a little boy, I would have given it a name," he answered simply.

"Over the years I have re-christened it many times depending on whim and whimsy. Recently, I have been calling it Miranda's Lake after the Tempest." William raised an eyebrow at her answer. "I take it you will change the name soon, right?"

She burst out laughing. "Absolutely." She opened the hamper and, spreading out a small cloth on the grass, proceeded to arrange bread, wine, cheese and strawberries before them.

"I am afraid our luncheon will be a rather humble affair," she announced, offering him a goblet of wine. They shared sustenance in silence, relishing their newfound closeness in the warmth of the afternoon, surrounded by the buzzing of bees and dragonflies and the sweet smell of clover.

Lying sprawled amidst the grass and wildflowers, his jacket discarded, William squinted his eyes against the sun and observed her. She is without a doubt one of the loveliest women I have ever set eyes on. The awareness had dawned on him slowly over the months. Elizabeth's beauty did not follow the rules of fashion. In fact, it existed simply because it flaunted those very rules. She was possessed of an intoxicating vitality laced with natural sensuality. Her body was subtly provocative, promising of deeply hidden riches, but graced with the face of a Madonna.

As she finished the last of her strawberries, she licked her lips-bee-stung lips, ripe and luscious. A feverish ache settled in his loins, a desperate longing predicated by their long separation. She sat before him, rosy-hued, her dark lashes shadowing over flushed cheeks. Her beauty alone is not responsible for the magnitude of my attraction, the depth of my love. Gifted with a sharp intelligence, she was playful, challenging, inquisitive and unreservedly candid. She was the first woman he had met who equaled his appetite in bed-and they had barely begun their sensual journey. Like the sweetest addiction, she could make him forget his past and offer a soft respite from the demands of duty and reason. She had become an exquisite fire in his blood, as necessary to life as the blood itself.

Her voice broke through his reverie. "Shall we swim now?"

"Swim?" He looked at her, surprised, his mind rifling through all the tantalizing possibilities a dip in the small pool promised.

Her brows rose in challenge at his response. "You do swim, William?"

"Yes. Though I have not since..." Elizabeth's face flushed with color at the remembrance of his mother's death. She rose, shaking out her skirts and knelt down by his side, laying her hand on his cheek. "How unfeeling of me. I am truly sorry. If you would rather not...we can remain in the shade and..."

"And?" he asked playfully, stretching out his arms and capturing her in a light hold, willing his mind to shut down old memories.

Both paused, suspended in that excruciating moment before passion takes over all reason. William's experience and newly acquired resolve where all things relating to Elizabeth were concerned pierced through his mounting arousal. He caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers. "We should not be here alone, Elizabeth... We should go back- you to Longbourn and I, to Netherfield."

"We should." Her voice was hushed, fragrant with strawberries and clover.

He drew a deep breath of restraint, attempting to ignore her rounded shoulders, the softness of her arms and the tantalizing swell of her breasts, all so close. "Lord, this is difficult..."

"It does not have to be," she answered huskily, undulating her body against his.

"But your reputation..."

"Is less than stellar, now. Since Pemberley, I have become inured to other peoples' notions of propriety. I have accepted the tinge of scandal associated with my name and made my peace with it."

He lowered his eyes, attempting to focus on their conversation, ignoring the growing arousal in his loins. "I am so deeply sorry. I should have thought through the repercussions for you and your family."

Elizabeth had dreamt of this moment for months and was filled with a fiercely impatient longing. I have missed you so. Upon glimpsing him in her schoolroom, she had been struck dumb by the sheer magnitude of the fire-the very life force burning between them. The simple story of a simple love between man and woman.

Her refusal to accept him was entirely in the name of self-preservation. He was willing to wait patiently, a final act of trust and surrender. I cannot guard my soul forever. It was time to emerge from the shadows where she had dwelled and enter his promised garden. She needed him-plain and simple-and decided at that moment, she would not resist. Like a general on a vital mission, she began her final onslaught.

"William...please be quiet...and kiss me," she commanded.

He groaned, insistent desire pounding in his brain as her lush form settled above him. "Is that an order?"

"Fine," she, answered, busily undoing the knot of his neckcloth.

"I shall have to kiss you then."

"Elizabeth, I promised myself not to proceed any further until I had an answer. Will you marry me, dammit?" he hissed though clenched teeth.

She responded by grinding her hips against his turgid arousal. He was scarcely breathing, inflamed with restrained fervor, not certain if he would survive their reunion.

"Do not...do that...again," he whispered huskily.

Her fingers worked away at the buttons of his vest, followed by his shirt, until his torso lay exposed, bronzed and sculpted in the sunlight. She sighed and, bending her head, flicked her tongue in smooth strokes over his skin. His arousal surged higher; he could feel it spiking insistently in fevered pulsations.

Suddenly he froze; she was carving "Y-E-S" with her tongue, branding him with her acceptance on her own terms.

Letting out a long sigh, he grasped her wrists and pulled her up to a sitting position. She sat straddling him, muslin petticoats pushed up against her belly, eyes blazing with determination.

"I need to hear you say it, my love," he demanded quietly, silently wondering if any other man had ever experienced such a truculent response to a marriage proposal. He smiled inwardly. Fine...two can play the game.

"I want you, now, without any preliminaries," she stated, her voice silky smooth and tinged by impatience. She swayed in provocative allure above him, a tempting siren.

"Where would you like me, darling?" he answered, his voice dropping an octave while her fingers struggled with the concealed placket of his breeches. The sturdy twill was stiff and unyielding.

"I am sorry, I have never done this before..." she said, her tone apologetic and on the brink of exasperation.

"You need more practice, beloved. Here..."

He shifted position, guided her fingers and showed her how to undo the buttons. His movements were deft for a man with such large hands. The tented breeches opened and revealed him in splendid priapic glory.

She gazed in awe. It has been so very long...and she was well beyond sense and sensibility. Instead, waves of longing washed over her with an insistent rippling current. Before she could move a muscle, he raised himself and with quicksilver agility, rolled her beneath him.

"Now then..." he said, husky and low, well attuned to female arousal and knowing instinctively that the beautiful woman beneath him required immediate satisfaction. His fingers gently parted the folds of her drawers. Her flesh beckoned, succulent and drenched.

"Please hurry...darling," she pleaded, her voice a wisp of sound.

"Is this a race, Elizabeth?" he answered, dragging in his breath, and moved forward cautiously, zealously controlled, acutely aware of his need for restraint. She arched her body in response, lifting her hips off the fragrant carpet of crushed grass and wildflowers.

"Say it, beloved..." He moved forward, the barest distance.

She sighed and whispered, "Yes..."

He kissed her lips, inhaling her gasp as he drove in a fraction further. Slowly...gently...

"I shall..." she whimpered, lost in a pink-clouded and sweetscented heaven.

He lifted her hips and flexing his powerful thighs, eased his way deeper. She gasped, sobbing softly in pleasure, "marry..."

He was flooded with the exquisite sensation of being poised at the mouth of her womb. If this is not heaven, it is a very good approximation... Lightly gripping her hips, with expert finesse and tremendous affection, he dove a fraction deeper.

"You..." she whispered, her violet eyes half lidded, her smile almost beatific as she met his gaze.

His dark lashes lowered as did his voice and he half-sighed, half-groaned, "Thank you."

He rocked his hips delicately, in the gentlest of movements.

Elizabeth hovered on the verge of abandon-every susceptible nerve within her humming against his opulent invasion. She felt stretched taut to her very limit. She could feel his pulsations against her walls, the sensation fluttering at the very center of her core, her universe. It was a monstrous rapture, one created by their unerring fit, their passionate love and some grand union beyond her understanding.

Her eyes opened wide-burning iridescent amethyst and brimming with wetness. With a loud cry she shattered in a lavish climax. Delirious from pleasure, she lay beneath him, her body a strumming receptacle of pure sensation. "William...sweet William," she murmured.

He began to withdraw and she shook her head, pleading, "No, no...please."

He tilted his hips and she drew him in, eager, impatient for more. They began a luscious flux and flow, settling into a fluid rhythm-he, gauging the exact measure of her need, her wishes-she, meeting him thrust for thrust. The cadence of his lower body matched the melodic litany of his words...whispered love words...for her alone.

He brought her pleasure over and over again, exploring the silken perimeters of her heated interior. He was careful at first in deference to her youth, her inexperience, but as her responses became more impetuous, more fevered, he loosened his own tightly held reins. They made love as if consumed by a ravenous passion, a greedy lust grown heavy and insatiable over months of waiting. Rolling from position to heated position, amidst the crush of clover and wildflowers and the wish and wash of skin on skin, their cries were wild and joyous. Until finally, William withdrew and reached his release in a hot, deep, hammering surge of waves, leaving him breathless, sweat-sheened and utterly shaken. They lay exhausted, side-by-side, their clothing long discarded, and smiled at one another with the secret, conspiratorial bond of two well-satiated lovers.

Touching the peony tips of her nipples with a brushing caress, he murmured, "Two weeks..."

She rose and oblivious to her nudity in the glaring light of day, answered, "Eight weeks, darling, my mother would collapse under a shorter deadline..."

She began moving toward the water's edge. His voice trailed behind her, "Three weeks, then..."

She dove in with a small splash and disappeared under water. William sprang up, momentarily panicked. What if she... She resurfaced further away and treading water, called out to him, "Six weeks, dearest and that is my final offer!" He shook his head in amazement at her stubborn spirit. Standing proud and tall, a bronzed satyr, startlingly male in the sunfilled meadow, he took a deep steadying breath and dove into the pond.

They floated, holding hands in the azure blue stillness, her hair fanning out in a dark halo. William could not remember feeling so contented, so replete in his life. The moment was precious and exquisite, one he would cherish for years to come. And she was an integral part of it. She was his cool water, his warm sun, the birdsong and grass and flowers. She was his water nymph, his goddess.

"William..." Her voice drifted toward him. "I want this to go on forever."

He clasped her hand tighter, filled with desperate tenderness and on the verge of tears. The air felt cool and fresh on their skin when they rose out of the water and climbed onto the bank. The heat of the sun would dry them in no time at all. Elizabeth sat on the grass; William sprawled at her feet, his head on her nude lap.

"It outshone my dreams..." she whispered, stroking his hair with a gentle touch.

"Mmmm..." he agreed, lost in delirious happiness.

"You swam again, after all these years," she began tentatively, unsure how to approach the topic, but feeling a growing need to delve into its mystery.

He opened his eyes and gazed at her with sweet tenderness. "She drowned, Elizabeth, and I have had nightmares for years ever since. You see, I tried to save her and I let go of her hand... I could not hold on."

"And you have carried that guilt all these years? Perhaps, she did not wish to live, William. Perhaps it was her decision to let go?"

"But her eyes..." He choked on his next words, unable to continue.

"Hush... I know what happened with Helena and your father. It must have been devastating for your mother to have a younger mistress flaunt herself in front of society and in her own home. From what I have heard, their marriage began as a love match and your father strayed. The pain must have been too much to bear. You must forgive yourself, William. She was not yours to save. And you must make peace with it-once and for all."

"You make it sound so very simple, beloved."

"Analysis is not always the key, William. Close the door love and let us begin a new chapter together." She kissed him lightly on the forehead, wiping away a lone tear on his cheek, so incongruous against the lean power of his body, his compelling presence-yet, an essential part of him. She realized he had a great capacity to love and be loved, but his chances to truly express it had been blunted by life's events. Still, love had happened at last. He had given and she had given, like a spring flowing from the ground bestowing life to the natural bounty around it.

"Your heart was not damaged in a day and it will not be healed in a day. But let me love you, William, and in doing so, perhaps I can ease your pain, little by little, day by day."

He made a raw sound in his throat and lapsed into silence. She continued stroking his hair, her touch soothing and comforting, gently walking him to peace, both body and soul. Until at long last, he closed his eyes, his dark curls cradled in her lap and he fell into a blissful sleep.

* Lust, Anger, Avarice, Spiritual Ignorance, Pride and Envy.
**Frankly, it is not right!
***Jane Austen: Mansfield Park

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