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The great Game

Chapter Twenty

"So long as lips shall kiss, and eyes shall see...So long lives This, and This gives life to Thee."

Kama Sutra: Concluding Remarks by Sir Richard Burton.

Pemberley, October1832

Tossing aside a mountain of ivory coverlets, Elizabeth swung her bare legs out of the bed, onto the coolness of the Persian rug beneath her feet. The morning of her wedding had arrived... greeting her with lazy rays of matin sun. Her emotions swirled in a colorful pastiche of giddy excitement and strumming nervousness; she was reeling inside and the day had barely commenced.

Taking a deep and steadying breath, she inhaled the unmistakable scent of fresh paint laced with the fragrance of several flower bouquets. Arranged in cut crystal vases, they perched elegantly on the windowsill, carved mantel, and French marquetry tables scattered about the room. William's touch...he had wished her to feel at ease on her first day at Pemberley. The entire suite had been lovingly redecorated and luxuriously refitted for the new mistress of the house. On her arrival yesterday, a charming bower of soft taupes, creams, and greens greeted her in a warm and scented welcome.

The day had been spent in a flurry of last minute planning, arrangements and fittings - reflecting the controlled chaos of the last six weeks. Six weeks of barely restrained madness and little time to spare for William. If not for the burgeoning anticipation of today, she would have felt strangely bereft and empty. He was so near, and yet so far. Yesterday, he had scarcely been able to approach her vicinity, yet, the knowledge that he slept but a short distance away, had comforted her immensely.

Elizabeth smiled to herself, recollecting William's initial calm, followed by his puzzlement, growing into frustration at their inability to be alone, and finally culminating in repeated suggestions of elopement. If not for the occasional soothing caress and stolen kiss, she suspected they would have long made the journey to Gretna Green. Yet, each one held on to a shared sense of honor and responsibility toward their family and friends; the wedding festivities marked an important tradition, a rite of passage, and a long needed celebration for the occupants of Pemberley and its vast estates. And therefore today, she and William would oblige.

As if holding on to the last vestiges of her girlhood, she closed her eyes and spun around the room, her white nightrail backlit by the autumn sun, the morning light glinting off her braided hair. Stopping suddenly, she let out a long sigh, the folds of white settling about her legs and hips, momentarily outlining her womanly figure.

A deeply masculine chuckle intruded into her reverie. Her eyes flew open, and widened in shock at espying William's tall figure leaning against her dressing room door. His hair was damp, as if he'd just returned from a swim, curls plastered to his forehead. He looked charmingly disheveled, almost boyish, sporting a white shirt open at the collar, and biscuit breeches topped off with polished Hessians. His lean powerful body dwarfed the room with its compelling presence. Her heart lurched.

"William..." she whispered, furtively glancing about, "you, shouldn't be here, darling. The maids are expected at any moment!" She clapped her hands over her mouth, but her eyes shone mischievously.

"Good-morning, my beautiful bride. I wanted to be the first to greet you on our day. I trust you slept well?"

"Yes, very well, thank you," she answered. "and you, William, did you sleep at all?"

He strode toward her, hands clasped behind his back. "Funny you should enquire, but my nights are no longer full of great dark empty spaces. I feel decidedly rested and refreshed this morning. Now close your eyes, love, for a moment."

"Is that an order, my lord?" she murmured, shutting her eyes tight. He paused, smiled, and standing behind her, lightly moved aside her long braid. "Not at all, merely a polite suggestion," he answered.

Elizabeth could feel the coolness of precious stones clasping her neck. He edged aside her nightrail, exposing the curve of her shoulders. Kissing her lightly, he feathered his mouth over the arch of her neck, the soft spot behind her ear, inhaling the tumble of her hair, and her sleepy morning scent, redolent of milk and honey. She craved to savor the moment, to draw it out, but the sound of distant voices intruded into her blissful state.

Opening her eyes, she tilted her head, bestowing upon him a radiant smile.

His hand entwined in hers, he led her to a gilded cheval mirror gracing a corner of the chamber. Standing behind her, he clasped his arms about her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder.

"Look," he said, "how beautiful you are."

Tendrils of hair had escaped from her braid and were framing her face in a soft halo. About her neck lay a delicate necklace of amethysts and diamonds, an intricate filigree of intertwined flowers and vines, giving the impression of lightness, as if floating against the alabaster of her skin. Nuzzling her neck, he whispered, "You have Boticelli eyes on awakening, beloved. See how the jewels bring out the violet of your irises... a most tempting inducement to lie down in sweet pastures..."

"Thank you, it's lovely...I...I'm at a loss for words."

She shut her eyes against the exquisite sensation of his warm breath on her neck. He tightened his hold about her waist, and her arm reached back, cradling his neck into hers.

"I've missed you so, William. These weeks have been a blur, an incessant clamor, drawing me away from you at every turn,"

"I know," he murmured into her hair.

"But will be different," she said quietly.

He splayed his fingers over her belly, a softly possessive gesture. "Oh, yes."

She could sense the insistent pounding of his heart, and felt her own cheeks flush, as a flutter splashed down to her very core and settled there, like the wings of a butterfly.

Reflected in the mirror, he fastened his eyes on hers, on the large pools of white, and their center glints of walnut and amethyst.

"Tonight, precious beloved, we'll create a babe together."

As the meaning of his words registered in her mind, she felt as if they were pulled along a strong current, carried over the edge of a waterfall, and hurtled into an entirely new dimension.

"Yes, tonight," she whispered back with a slight tremble to her voice.

And from his gaze, she received a tenderness, a masculine calm, which spoke of true strength and nobility. The sensation was deeply centering. She suddenly felt safe in the harbor of his arms, completely anchored, as if on solid ground, as if after the waterfall she had finally landed on the ocean floor. They lingered in silence, in each other's arms, as the house slowly woke around them. At long last, he deposited a velvety kiss on her cheek, reluctantly releasing his hold, and strode out of the room, disappearing into the connecting passageway and the master chambers beyond.

She stood by her mirror, caught in its reflection. She understood that perfection did not begin and end with their love, but at moments like these... she stopped, every so often, still and silent, to consider it so.

Pemberley's kitchens, an hour later.

The kitchens hummed with organized efficiency and a barely suppressed air of giddy anticipation.

"Three gallons of pickled oysters, twenty four jellied chickens, six lobster salads, ten cold tongues, four whole cold smoked salmons..." Mrs. Fenton's voice droned on, as she marched by the piles of elaborate dishes and platters arranged on various counters.

"Mrs. Fenton, we are short two celery bouquets for the appetizer tables," a maid rushed in, her cap and apron askew.

"Lordy girl, use your brain, we have extras in the cold room. Now where was I? Six honey baked hams..."

Pomeroy sat at a long table, listening attentively to Mrs. Reynolds reading off her board. "Floral arrangements are in place, the champagne is chilling...Now, I hear the musicians are enquiring as to the number of waltzes. I am sure the master specified six in total, in addition to the quadrilles, and the country dances requested by Mrs. Bennet."

A chamber-maid rushed in, bearing a laden breakfast tray. Mrs. Reynolds glanced at it and frowned, "Poor thing, she hasn't eaten a crumb all morning. I hope she has enough strength to survive the day."

"And the wedding night," Charlie Wilkes grumbled under his breath, unhappily polishing the last of the silver. Everyone was expected to do double duty during the celebrations, and it was his misfortune to end up with the silverware, a task he detested.

Pomeroy raised a disapproving eyebrow at his words. Charlie continued unperturbed by the butler's countenance. "She'll need it too. What with the master riding like the devil incarnate every morning, chopping down half the wood with Ben, and swimming in that frigid pond. I reckon it'll be three days before he releases her from the bedchamber!"

Mrs. Reynolds threw Pomeroy a questioning glance. He nodded his head at Charlie's words.

"Sarah," her voice echoed in the kitchen, "make up a new tray for the lady Elizabeth. Chocolate laced with brandy, strawberry tarts, and cheesecake. Perhaps if we appeal to her sweet tooth, she'll take some sustenance. We certainly don't wish her to faint at the altar. It simply won't do."

Charlie Wilkes guffawed at her words and returned to polishing the silver presentation tray for the wedding cake.

She wasn't nervous...she repeated to herself over and over, as Marie fastened the shimmering glass buttons on her dress. Not at all...she reassured herself, anxiously twisting the filigreed necklace at her throat.

"Oh, Mademoiselle!" the maid sniffled, drying her tears with the back of her hand, "vous Ítes belle comme une princesse!"

Elizabeth peered at her reflection, and for a startled moment, failed to recognize the woman gazing back at her with solemn eyes. She had the distinct and unsettling feeling of floating outside her own body, as if watching herself going through the motions of her wedding morning toilette. The strident notes of her mother's voice drifted toward her, thankfully muffled and distant. Fanny had come and gone, leaving her with a cryptic and convoluted message concerning conjugal relations, and a silver sixpence lodged firmly in her wedding slipper. For good luck, she had said...Elizabeth had been expecting more; a few words of wisdom, words of caring, however, as usual, her mother had sailed away without meeting those very expectations. Strangely, it no longer seemed to matter.

Madeline Gardiner's perfume wafted into the room. She took one look at the young bride and her eyes misted.

"Elizabeth..." she said, and didn't have to say more.

It was all there, in the soft glint of her eyes, in her gentle and loving smile, in the way she embraced her niece, careful not to crush her finery.

For a while, they did not speak, though each smiled. Finally, the older woman breached their mutual silence, "Ready?"

"I think so..." Elizabeth answered.

"He's a good man, ma petite, possessed of a generous nature," her eyes settled on Elizabeth's diamond and amethyst necklace, "and if I'm not mistaken, kind and noble beneath it all. Oh I go again with the tears. Be happy..." With a swish of blue peau de soie, Madeline disappeared from the room.

Marie's fingers fussed with the flowered wreath in her hair, securing it with a few last pearl-tipped pins. She had eschewed the traditional bonnet for a simple coronet of violets, ivory roses and greens from which flowed a finger tip veil. The blooms had been freshly picked from Pemberley's greenhouse that very morn, and surrounded her with a soothing fragrance.

"Oh!" Charlotte's voice piped in, as she swept into the room, "Mon Dieu! What a stunning gown, Lizzie!"

Charles and Richard peered in through the doorway, their eyes widening in masculine appreciation.

"You are a vision..." Charles began.

"I second that. Panther will need another dip in the pond..." Richard added, striding in, and lacing his arm around Charlotte's waist.

"Or he'll chop down the remainder of the forest! Haven't seen this much spare wood at Pemberley since..." Charles offered with a big grin.

As the meaning of their words registered, Elizabeth blushed, and rather than responding with a quick witticism, found herself uncharacteristically tongue-tied.

"Boys, behave now," Charlotte admonished, coming to her rescue. Disentangling herself from Richard's grasp she deposited a warm kiss on her cousin's cheek.

Richard raised his eyebrows in mock indignation, "But sweetheart, just the other day, you informed me that I was exceptionally well behaved..."

Charlotte interjected before he could finish, and quickly shooed both men out of the bedchamber, blowing the bride a kiss over her shoulder, "We'll see you at the chapel, good luck Lizzie!"

Elizabeth shook her head at the exiting trio, finally regaining her voice, "And here I thought marriage would be their last chance to grow up!"

Marie muttered through a mouth full of pins, arranging Elizabeth's short satin train, "They never truly grow up, Mademoiselle, it's one of those secrets married women keep to themselves." She handed Elizabeth a pair of opera length kidskin gloves.

"Lizzie, may father and I drop in for a moment?" Jane enquired, slipping quietly past the partially opened doorway.

Elizabeth smiled at her query; where everyone else had waltzed in unannounced, how like Jane to get permission first.

"Of course, do come in Jane. You just missed your husband. I believe he is being admonished by Charlotte as we speak."

Jane rolled her eyes in response, "I don't know what's gotten into those men. Since last night, they have been behaving rather strangely. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the last bachelor of their illustrious triumvirate will finally join their ranks. I shall never truly understand. Now, let me have a good look at you...Oh, you are absolutely magnificent! The lavender touches at the hem and neckline are stunning. William was right, you do have violet in your eyes - funny, I'd never noticed earlier."

Elizabeth stopped pulling on her glove and turned toward her sister, "William spoke to you of my eyes?"

Jane shook her head, "No, I actually overheard him telling Charles one evening. Fascinating what men discuss sometimes. Come to think of it, they were rather foxed on that particular night. He is absolutely besotted by you."

Elizabeth cast her eyes down, not accustomed to the intense focus of attention she had become all morning long. "I know."

"Are you...besotted... as well?" Jane asked, reaching out and tenderly touching her sister's cheek. They'd had few opportunities to speak freely amidst the frenzy and mayhem of the wedding preparations.

Elizabeth gazed at her with grave radiance, "Yes," she replied. More than I could ever express in simple words... she thought to herself.

"Just as I had imagined...Oh, Lizzie! I wish you both a lifetime of happiness. Ah, here's father!" She leaned toward her younger sister and enfolded her in warm hug, "I love you," she whispered quietly.

"Well, well, what a touching display of sibling affection," Thomas Bennet smiled benevolently at his daughters.

He was smartly turned out in a midnight blue formal coat. Elizabeth gazed at him fondly, noticing a few new strands of gray in his hair, deeper lines and furrows in his forehead. He was edging past the middle years, into old age, and the thought gave her a twinge of sadness.

She was comforted by his earlier reconciliation with William. Much of it had been conducted through correspondence; unlike his daughter, Thomas Bennet had chosen to open each missive from the Earl. A regular correspondence was set up between Pemberley and Longbourn. Over ensuing months, both men had tentatively reached a truce of sorts, a deeper respect and mutual understanding, and coincidentally discovered a shared passion for cartography. On his return to England, William had even gifted Mr. Bennet with several ancient maps of Persia and India. Once, Elizabeth had referred to the precious maps as her bride price; to her surprise, neither man had been amused by the allusion.

"Stunning necklace...a wedding gift from the groom?" he enquired, lifting his quizzing glass, the one worn only for special occasions.

"Yes, a most generous gift, father. I feel a little awkward, as I have nothing of value to give..."

"Hush child, the gift of you is priceless. Let us hope my assessment of his worthiness is correct."

"Do you harbor any doubts, father?"

He gave her a long look. "It's no secret that at one time, I did. But he has proven himself to be a fine and courageous man. And I am not referring to his exploits in India, child. Most importantly, I firmly believe that he will give you the life you deserve. In no other case, would I have consented to this union."

Leaning toward his daughter, he grasped her gloved hand and kissed it respectfully, "And now, my dear, I believe it is time to take our leave, we shall meet in an hour at the carriage. Come along Jane, your mother's nerves could benefit from a dose of your precious calm."

After the exit of her sister and father, the room became eerily silent. Marie retired to change into her finest dress, leaving Elizabeth alone with her thoughts. Surrounded by the fragrant elegance of the chamber, its rich draperies and furnishings, she began feeling very diminutive among its opulence. It's all superficial wrapping...she reassured herself...what matters is much greater than the sum of all these parts. Yet, the reality of her assent in society, the weight of her new responsibilities, strummed insistently within her. Freedom came at a price... it dawned on her suddenly that everything, which was precious in life, arrived with conditions, and expectations. Even love? She wasn't sure of the answer, not yet.

She stood, her palm resting on the cool glass of the window pane, gazing out onto the spectacle outside. She watched as gleaming carriages emblazoned with the green and gold Pemberton crest were being led toward the front drive. Servants darted about, putting last touches of flowers and streamers on each conveyance. Liveried grooms were leading out pairs of horses, while a group of gardeners fussed about the manicured greens. She was to be mistress of all this...A voice intruded into her thoughts.

"Memsahib, you rang," Ranjit bowed in a deep salaam.

"Yes, thank you Ranjit. I...I have a favor to ask of you. Would it be possible to..."

The older man's face remained impassive at her request, yet his eyes smiled with delight as he diligently set about fulfilling his future mistress' wishes.

~ * ~

Lambton's village green was dotted with colorful throngs of villagers and visitors, the crowds growing denser at the churchyard gates. People had ridden far and wide to witness the marriage of the famed Earl to the intriguing Miss Bennet. A veritable mélange of the ton, politicians, soldiers, family and friends crowded into the ancient church. Pemberley's small chapel had been considered for the event, but soon vetoed in favor of the larger All Souls Church in the center of town. Empty carriages of all shapes and sizes clustered the roadway surrounding the green, while coachmen stood idly about gawking at all the excitement. The morning was crisp and sunny, a lovely autumn day, with no signs of clouds building on the horizon.

Standing inside the church porch, while Jane adjusted her train and veil, Elizabeth could sense the crowds of guests filling the pews, their hushed voices whispering in a persistent hum of anticipation. She felt a small tremor ripple through her and settle deep within, a last nervous flutter, as if she was about to take flight into the air. For a crazed moment, she wondered if birds ever experienced the same sensation before soaring into the sky. Her father, standing by patiently, smiled at her with a mixture of pride and great affection. As the pipe organ began playing the first chords of Pachabel's Canon, he offered his arm and they stepped inside the long nave of the church.

The calming melody filled the centuries old chapel, and she could feel its soothing effect settle upon her. Whereas moments before her senses were fractionated like tiny pieces of crystal, scattered rainbows, upon stepping into the nave, she felt them coalesce. Now that the moment had arrived, the moment of coming together, paradoxically it had also become the act of letting go.

Her slippered feet trod on strewn flower petals as smiling faces floated before her, some were familiar, others merely curious, and many smiled in her direction. Though at first she could not discern him, his presence was achingly palpable at the altar rail. As she traversed the long nave, his image crystallized; an impeccable, formally attired man. He was dark, imposing and smiling a dazzlingly private smile, meant just for her. His eyes devoured her from head to toe, leaving her feeling beautiful, desired and adored.

He had seen her radiant in the past, but today, a shining light, a trick of autumn sun, seemed to hover around the edges of her gown, creating an aura around her flower-bedecked figure. The effect was ethereal, almost surreal. Her dress was of palest lavender satin, with a cream tulle overskirt; simple, elegant and unadorned except at its hem and scooped neckline, where hundreds of seed pearls and lilac glass beads seemed to shimmer. She carried a small posy of violets and cream roses, mirroring the flowers in her hair.

Right there and then, driven by a visceral impulse, he chose to defy tradition; as she neared the altar rail, he reached out his hand and like the branches of a rich and fertile vine, intertwined his fingers through hers. Several gasps rippled through the congregation, in response to the flaunting display of intimacy, while those who were well acquainted with the couple, instantly understood the meaning behind the gesture.

The vicar's solemn voice reverberated throughout the church, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..."

~ * ~
The church bells pealed joyfully and jubilant strains of rousing music emanated from the organ, as the married couple wended their way through throngs of well wishers lining the long nave. Elizabeth and William, faces filled with radiant sunshine, crossed onto the churchyard path. A loud cheer went up and handfuls of autumn leaves were showered upon them. Holding hands, they ran through the raining cascade of reds, ochres and greens, toward a waiting barouche, festooned with flowers, ribbons and bells.

Both waved to the crowds as William handed her into the conveyance and vaulted gracefully beside her. Guests began spilling out of the church in a colorful and sumptuous spectacle, mingling with the multitude of villagers. Finally, the carriage lurched forward and William clasped her hand as they circled the green, slowly making their way onto the wooded road leading back to Pemberley.

"You are the heart within my heart, beloved, always and forever," he murmured into her ear.

She tilted her head toward him, and he bent down and kissed her; a chaste but most thorough kiss. Behind them, the crowd roared and a single whistle pierced through the air, while the church bells continued to resonate merrily. It would be said, much later, that their joyous sound could be heard for miles and miles across the countryside.

~ * ~

Her jaw felt tight from smiling, her head was spinning and pounding from too much champagne and too little sustenance, but she was happy, deliriously flushed with joy. The wedding banquet was winding down to its final hour. By all accounts, it had been a resounding success, filled with noisy gaiety and revelry.

She was waltzing with her husband, having danced through numerous sets with more men than she could remember. Gliding across the ballroom floor in William's arms, she felt as if she were floating in a light filled aerie. The lavish floral displays of roses and orchids, merged with colorful gowns and chandeliers, into a glorious kaleidoscope. He was a wonderful dance partner: agile, accomplished and possessed of an innate sense of rhythm. They seemed to flow together in silken harmony. As he whirled her past the musician's dais, a tendril of her hair fell loose from its coiffure and rested on her cheek. William leaned over, and lightly blew it aside, the intimate gesture eliciting numerous indrawn breaths from nearby guests.

"It's almost over sweet," he murmured into her ear after a prolonged silence, oblivious to the effect he and his bride were having on those assembled.

"You are very quiet, dear husband," she teased lightly.

"A man does not need to speak when dancing with a beautiful woman. I am content with feeling, in indulging all my senses. Conversation is a mere distraction when waltzing, my love," he responded with mock arrogance.

As if to prove his point, he tightened his hold on her waist, his thighs brushing dangerously close to hers, her bosom pressed against his chest. They were dancing in close proximity to the French windows of the ballroom, flung open for the occasion. Suddenly, Elizabeth felt herself propelled toward the terrace beyond, where, without missing a step, he stole a kiss in the dim light. His eyes were laughing, as a moment later, he twirled them back into the ballroom, through another set of French windows.

She smiled delightedly, caught up in the magic of the moment, "That, dearest sir, was a husband's kiss, while I was expecting a lover's kiss," she said, her voice velvety low, as the last strains of the waltz came to an end.

"Ah, she has thrown down the gauntlet..." he replied in kind, and in full view of the entire ballroom, William dipped his bride backwards and kissed her deeply and passionately.

Shocked gasps emanated here and there. Lady de Bourgh called for her heartshorn, while Caroline Bingley's fan snapped in two.

Fortuitously, at that very moment, the wedding cake was ceremoniously rolled into the ballroom. Perched on an elaborate trolley, it stood three feet high; a sumptuous confection covered in marzipan, its top tier graced by a replica of the Pemberton crest. Having regained a measure of decorum, the bride and groom gathered around it.

William peered curiously at the cake, "Good Lord, is that a panther on the family crest!"

Elizabeth, still blushing from their public embrace, whispered quietly, "Artistic license, do keep smiling, my love. By the way, I'll have you know that we shall never live down that kiss."

William's response was halted mid sentence as Richard's voice boomed across the ballroom, "Make way! Make way!"

He was carrying a long velvet lined box toward the bridal couple - William's ceremonial cavalry sword gleaming within it. Pointed and ribald comments flew about the room as the assembled army men kept up with tradition, to the consternation of the ladies present, and secret amusement of the gentlemen.

Richard lifted the sword out of its box and presented it with a flourish to Elizabeth. The entire room burst into laughter and applause. Her cheeks flushed crimson; she turned to William and hand over hand the couple sliced through the elaborate confection, as cheers rose through the crowd.

~ * ~

The sun had begun dimming across the horizon, and a coolness permeated the autumn evening as the last carriages disappeared beyond a line of poplars in the distance. A few houseguests remained, mostly family and close friends, and these had retired to rest and ready themselves for the evening meal.

Pomeroy closed the carved double doors flanking the grand entrance and turned expectantly to his master and new mistress.

"That will be all, Pomeroy. Thank you," William stated with finality, clasping his arm about Elizabeth's waist, and ushering her up the stairwell. Elizabeth gently placed a restraining hand on his, effectively halting their progress. Turning toward the butler, she spoke,

"Pomeroy, if you would be so kind as to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Fenton, as well as the entire staff. All your hard work and dedication resulted in a beautiful celebration, one whose memory we shall cherish for years to come."

The elderly butler cleared his throat, overcome by emotion at her kind words, "It was both an honor and a pleasure, my lady."

Elizabeth smiled warmly, and gathering her skirts, made her way up stairs, William at her side. Partway up the grand staircase, she swayed lightly, as if finally overwhelmed by the events of the day. Sensing her unsteadiness, in a swift movement, William swept her up into his arms, and rapidly ascended the stairs. Burrowing her face into the crook of his neck, she murmured, "What of dinner and the remaining guests?"

"They are not expecting us to show," he reassured her gently, "we've done our duty, the rest of the evening belongs to us, my love. And if I have my way, the rest of the week as well," he added, his voice low and deep.

He carried her down the long portrait gallery, past a dozen imposing Darcy ancestors, to the southwest wing of the house, into her private chamber. Marie was waiting with a fragrantly steaming bath.

"Are you a mind reader, William?" she enquired lightly after he had deposited her in the middle of the room.

"Perhaps..." he smiled, caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers, "I shall await you in the master chamber, whenever you are ready. There is no reason for haste, Elizabeth."

"Oh...such a gentleman!" Marie exclaimed upon his exit, her hands clasped to her chest, "Now, my lady, your bath awaits."

~ * ~

Pemberley's master chamber was massive. High ceilinged, resplendent with ornate moldings, and carpeted with a gigantic Persian rug, it breathed of subdued wealth and power. Tones of gold, indigo and deep carmine were repeated over and over in the carpet's intricate patterns, and reflected back in silk pillows scattered over the bed. A large Bengali tiger skin lay sprawled before the fireplace. The chamber was at the end of the wing, overlooking the park and pond, with sets of windows on three walls. Waning rays of autumn light streaked into the room. The entire effect was softened by a pair of lit candelabra, illuminating each corner of the cavernous room and flickering a soft twilight glow onto diaphanous cream curtains ringing the canopied bed. East seemed to meet West in a delicate balance of elements representing the colors and textures of both cultures.

So this was his haven...she thought, standing soundlessly at its doorway. Perhaps it will become ours as well...Though she found her rooms pleasing, she nurtured a secret hope that they would share a bedchamber. The thought of sleeping on her own at Pemberley saddened her terribly. His back was turned to her; he was gazing out a window, seemingly lost in private thoughts. He wore a black silk robe, his powerful masculinity striking against the delicate fabric. A frisson of longing rippled on the surface of her skin.

"William..." she said quietly, after some time had elapsed.

He swung around suddenly, moving toward her like a great dark panther, and immediately stopped in his tracks.

She stood illuminated by the soft glow of candlelight, wrapped in a lilac Kashmiri shawl, and nothing else. Her hair fell about her shoulders in soft waves, tendrils resting on bare shoulders, on the high swell of her breasts; the overall effect was devastatingly erotic.

"Are you the woman I married, or an exotic fertility goddess?" he asked, his voice throaty and low.

"Both," she answered, gliding toward him. As she walked, the soft material tantalizingly outlined the curve of her hips, the lines of her legs.

"That shawl..." he began, attempting to focus on something, anything, while his body responded to her nearness.

"The very same..." she answered, extending her arms toward him, "I'm happy you remembered,"

"How could one forget?" As she neared he noticed an intricate lace-like pattern of henna curling around her wrists and fingers in a design of wavy flowers and vines.

"How did you manage to do this?" he enquired, lifting each hand, turning it over and admiring the delicate handiwork.

"Ranjit," she answered simply.

"Ah...this explains why the kidskin gloves never came off today..." he stated matter of factly, kissing each palm in turn.

Holding both her hands in his, he turned her around, absorbing every detail of her person, committing every angle to memory, and then, on a whim, he gently plucked the edge of her shawl.

She raised her arms above her head and slowly, very slowly, spun around in a primitive dance infused with meaning. Memories of a previous dance, in a garden, flooded back and made his heart lurch. She was no longer the innocent maiden, rather, a blossoming woman, ripe and delicious, on her wedding night. With each revolution, a layer of the wispy cashmere fell away, until all barriers were shed, and she glowed, all golden sheen and patina, awaiting his touch.

~ * ~

In the gardens below, twilight had descended. All was silent and still, save for the harsh simultaneous intake of breath emanating from Charles and Richard. Both men had sought the outdoors for an impromptu stroll before dinner, and by a twist of fate, wended their way to the woods facing William's chamber.

They watched with baited breath as shadows moved behind the softly backlit and gauzy curtains. Both men shifted uncomfortably as Elizabeth's form began turning round and round, arms raised, her hair a wispy aureole about her, and froze in stillness as the outline of her womanly figure rose before their eyes. Her arms wound about William's neck, while his head bent toward her in a languorous kiss, their shadows blending seamlessly together.

Their imaginations afire, neither man was in doubt of the happenings in the Earl's chamber. After a drawn out moment, the shadow, still as one, moved away from the window and disappeared from view.

"Right," Charles offered sheepishly, "by the looks of it, we shan't see the newlyweds for breakfast tomorrow."

"And the Darcy succession seems to be in no danger, I might add," Richard replied dryly.

"Doubtless, any intervention on our part to reunite the lovers would have been unnecessary, after this display."

Richard's tone became pensive, "You know, Bear, when two people walk far enough into the distance, they merge."

Charles chuckled deeply, "You're beginning to sound like Ranjit, Wolf. Marriage has softened you, my man."

"Indeed it has, indeed it has... but only in the best of ways, or so I'm told," Richard replied, falling into step beside his old friend, as both men made their way back to the house.

~ * ~

He lay back on the silk covered bed, one arm flung carelessly above his head, his robe gaping open, and his eyes devouring her. She raised the length of cashmere in the air and let it float down across his lounging form, covering him in a lavender cloud. Like a prowling cat, she climbed onto the soft mattress, by his feet, and after touching the hem of the silken cloth to her lips, leisurely pulled it away. He drew in his breath, and grasped her wrist.

"Where did you learn to do this?" he demanded quietly, propping himself up on his elbows, "let me guess..."

"'s a secret."

He took in her air of command, and decided to let her have her way, for the moment. She began by kissing him lightly, softly, on the mouth, on his half closed eyelids, and the hard line of his jaw. Little by little, she trailed a path downwards, toward his chest. Her movements were chaste and slow at first, tracing his curves and hollows, as if polishing marble.

"You don't have to," he said quietly.

Her eyes came up to meet his, aglow with passion, and as her tongue mapped the taut outlines of his abdomen, she murmured, "But I want to."

Her head moved down, and for an excruciating moment, he lifted his hand to stop her. Then a realization dawned on him...this was her gift... and as the delicate touch of her tongue flicked over him, his hand dropped away.

"William, does this please you?" she whispered, her mouth glistening in the shadows.

His eyes opened at the sound of her voice, and he forced himself away from the ragged edges of his passion, "Ummmm..." he exhaled, unable to utter any coherent words.

"Is that..." she whispered, "a yes?"

Drawing in a deep breath, he nodded. Barely. She smiled at him, and slowly brought herself back to focusing on the object of her desire. Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted and deposited onto her back.

"Enough!" he growled, and proceeded to kiss a path into the valley between her breasts, gazing adoringly at their plump beauty, at their jewel like crests.

"I want you... now," she murmured, hot, breathless.

"Are you certain?" he asked, raising his tousled head, and grinning rakishly.



"Because I am vastly smitten by you, my love... and I need you so...and because it has been a very long..."

"Six weeks," he completed her sentence, gratified, and moved between her thighs. A sharp edge caught his knee and burrowing his hand under the silken coverlet he retrieved a leather bound book.

Raising herself on her elbows, her hair spilling about her, she asked, "What is it, darling?"

William exhaled deeply, and with a swift motion threw the book across the room, "The Kama Sutra an ancient Indian script, compliments of Viscount Matlock. I'll wring his neck...later."

By chance, the leather bound volume hit a painting hanging across the room. The frame swayed precariously under the sudden force of the blow and crashed onto the floor. Elizabeth burst into a fit of giggles, as William dashed across the chamber, and repositioned it on the wall.

"What the deuce..." he muttered under his breath, and reached for a large envelope lying on the rug. Furious at the inopportune interruption, he ripped it open, and silently rifled through the sheaves of papers. His hands soon stilled. With excessive care, he bundled each sheaf of parchment into the envelope and strode across the room. Opening the fire grate, he threw the envelope onto the flickering logs, and without looking back returned to the bed. He stood, entirely nude, hovering above her, irresistibly male, his erection rampant.

Elizabeth, flushed with passion, reached her arms out toward him, "Don't leave again, please."

"I have no such further intentions, beloved," he answered, settling himself once again between her thighs, and delicately cupping her pelvic bone in the curve of his thumbs. He guided himself leisurely, with a soft-handed artfulness.

"What was in the envelope?" she asked, not truly caring, but attempting rhetorical politeness.

"Nothing of importance," he answered, gliding further into her molten core.

"You're indulging me, darling," she sighed in feminine satisfaction, as her damp curls collided with his.

"And you've waited ever so patiently..." he replied, gliding deeper, his hands holding her hips firmly beneath him.

"What is the name of the painting? It reminds me of you," she asked, her thoughts rambling in a haze of early bliss.

"The Eternal Wanderer*, my hush your enquiring mind..." he replied, arching his back and lifting her hips. She did not hear his answer. Instead, she became immersed in the delicate swish of skin on skin, a whisper between them, like a welcoming sigh.

Deluged by unfathomable feelings of possession, and overcome by opulent sensation, William flexed his thighs and drove in deeper, until they were joined completely. Every nerve and impulse was quivering, susceptible to his extreme immersion; she, thoroughly engorged, and he, engulfed from beginning to end.

"I love being filled by you..." she moaned, undulating her hips.

"And I simply adore you."

Wanting to savor and draw out the moment, he moved ever so slowly. But the lady was insistent, impatient, driven by her own agenda; her desire strumming and rapacious. He smiled inwardly, and proceeded to calm her with kisses, caresses, settling her into stillness.

"Elizabeth, beloved, wait..." he whispered.

"No, no, no...I can't," she rebelled at his delay, wanting it all.

But William's skill and experience held her suspended in a sublime dimension, until both became whipped into a fevered pitch and the air about them sweltered in torrid heat. The rhythm of their breathing changed, intensified.

"Hold on," he gasped, grinding her down, all muscles flexing in a feverish lunge, as though they were about to fall off a mountain edge.

"I'm never letting you go."

She twined her arms more tightly about his neck, and he plunged deeper, taking her to a place where stars danced and burned in iridescent purple fire.

The powerful flux and flow of his body drove her up and up against the silk sheets, against the jeweled pillows until there was nowhere further to go. And then, he moved a refined distance more. Eyes shut, her pale throat arched in the candlelight, she screamed. Lost in an endless spurt of rapture, she could feel it shoot and coil through her entire core.

As the echoes of her release ebbed away, William stilled, and cradling her face between his hands, kissed her mouth - long, hard and deep. He murmured love words into her open lips, until she could no longer breathe, and then, only then, did he let go.

She drank in each fierce release of liquid wave filling her body, greedy, thirsty, reaching for more, her nails leaving half-moons on his arms. With every hot surge, each throbbing pulse, William experienced a reaffirmation of his life, a reincarnation of his deep love for the woman entwined in his arms.

They didn't speak beyond their whispered love words. Nor later when they made love again; when he ran his hands over the velvet of her skin, when his mouth became a cloud of dreams, or when he delivered a bouquet of peaks and releases to his beloved. Nor when he poured into her once again, his labored breathing a counterpoint to her soft exhalations. They didn't speak...because there was nothing left to say.

*Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog: painted by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), renamed for purposes of this story.


October 1833, one year later

Pomeroy opened the heavily carved doors, letting in a gust of chilly wind and with it, the tall and gaunt figure of Viscount Melbourne. Depositing his cape and cane into the butler's outstretched hands, Melbourne was led through the marbled grand hallway, past several doors and ushered into the main library.

William's polished Hessians could be seen behind a tall and commodious chair facing the fireplace, where a cheery fire flickered.

"Viscount Melbourne has arrived, my lord," Pomeroy announced solemnly and retreated, softly closing the double doors behind him.

William rose and faced the older man, "Melbourne, delighted to have you at Pemberley, please have a seat."

Throughout his long and illustrious career, Viscount Melbourne, had rarely been rendered speechless, but this morning proved to be such an occasion. William Darcy, impeccably attired in hunter green, was standing before him holding a gurgling infant nestled against his shoulder, rubbing the babe's back with the practiced skill of a country nursemaid. His countenance had lost none of its previous exotic darkness but the harsh lines about his mouth had softened, and his eyes seemed to smile.

After a prolonged pause, Melbourne cleared his throat, "Your heir I presume? My congratulations are in order."

"Yes, thank you. He's exactly two month's old today, and a little susceptible to colic. In truth, I find that in my presence, he's quite the angel," William answered as if it were the most natural exchange in the world. To counterpoint his words, the plump and sturdy infant burped, and smiled happily. Without missing a beat, William removed a silk handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his jacket and continued.

"How may I be of service?"

Melbourne cleared his throat yet again, and began fiddling with his pocket watch. "This is rather irregular, I...I actually came to pay a visit to your wife."

"My wife?" William's eyebrows rose in curiosity.

"Yes, the Home Office, well...we would like to enlist your wife's help in finding those lost plans."

William suppressed a chuckle and replied solemnly, "I see. Well, as you know Lady Elizabeth is very much her own woman. I'll have to enquire if she is interested in your...undertaking. Unfortunately, she is not here at present, she happens to be in Lambton, overseeing the construction of the new schoolhouse. As for later today, we both have a pressing engagement. Perhaps, you could return on the morrow? You're staying at the Inn, right?"

"Yes, thank you for your time Darcy," Melbourne rose with a sigh, "I'll be sure to pay my respects tomorrow then. Good day." With a click of his heels, he turned and exited the room.

As soon as the door had shut, William let out a deep and throaty chuckle. "Well, well, laddie, wait till your mama hears of this..."

~ * ~

The couple rode bare back on the black stallion, both draped in the folds of William's midnight cape, a necessity against the chilly autumn wind. They cantered across fields readied for the winter, and entered into the forest. The path seemed vaguely familiar to Elizabeth, but though she tried, she could not attach a specific memory to it.

"Where are you taking us?" she asked, turning her head toward him.

"How quickly they forget..." he murmured into her hair.

As they neared an opening in the forested wood, the sound of young grouse reached her ears, and she flushed in recognition.

"I am married to a hopeless romantic!"

He laughed at her response, and sliding off Aviral, bowed elegantly before her, "If by that you mean to imply that I am hopelessly and madly in love with my wife, then call me what you will."

His voice softened as he gathered her in his arms and settled her on the ground, "Happy Anniversary, beloved."

The cottage was largely unchanged save for a luxurious mound of silken pillows and blankets on the floor, scattered bouquets of flowers and a tray filled with delicacies and champagne.

"Oh, William, this is simply wonderful. You thought of everything!" she exclaimed, sinking down on the pile of pillows, and extending her arms to him.

~ * ~

Ensconced in the cottage, deep in the woods, the young couple spent a languid afternoon exploring blissful pursuits. William reverted to his deeply natural self - a highly libidinous male with a gifted imagination, enduring stamina and a selfless heart - a master of the game - a game, which had been replaced by a deep and abiding love.

As they lay in a glistening tangle of limbs and discarded clothing, bathed by the musk of their loving, he traced a finger along her temple, "When I first met you, you were like red wine and honey, and the taste of you burnt my mouth with sweetness,"

"And now?" she breathed huskily, lacing her fingers through his.

"Now, you are like a warm, golden ale..."

Elizabeth frowned and her cheeks flooded with color, "William Darcy, is this indeed the very best prose you can fathom?"

He laughed out loud, kissing her angry words away, a skill he had mastered in the past year. "Hush...let me finish... You are smooth and pleasant. I hardly taste you at all, for I know you so well, but I am completely satiated."

"Hmmm..." she muttered under her breath, not entirely soothed by his message.

"I shall have to demonstrate my meaning, then."

He rolled onto her, lightly bracing himself on his elbows, "Tell me if there is anything you particularly wish for," he whispered, undulating his hips onto hers.

"Insolent man," she breathed.

"But very competent," he answered, as they began moving together in silken wetness.

"And arrogant, to boot," she shot back, with a low groan of pleasure.

"Your servant, my lady..." bending his head, he licked a path that elicited an immediate response.

Their mating was indulgent, rapacious and gratifying. William held her suspended between two worlds, until they became first lovers again. Hours later, they awoke entwined in each other's arms, fragrant, buoyant and basking in afterglow.

They gazed at one another, as if they were eternal, in that poetic way captured by erudite lovers through the millennia, in lyric, cadence and melody. Intemperate and magical. At long last, William broke their heady trance and pulled a tendril of her hair from his mouth. To his surprise, he tasted an unmistakable fragrance - that of orange blossoms.

And if anyone had asked him, at that very moment, how priceless love, tender spirit, and deeply satisfied passion would appear...he would have replied...Like this. Like this.

The End

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