“Yes, my love. I wish I did not have to part with you so soon after our engagement, but my presence there is necessary for business. I…” He paused, troubled by Elizabeth’s evident displeasure at the news. Her eyes were wide open and looking at him with an incredulous expression. Before he began talking, he had assumed that Elizabeth would understand and trust his priorities unquestionably, but there she was, not saying anything but looking at him in a way that was making him feel disturbingly guilty about the whole thing.
“Besides, by being in London, I will have the chance to talk to Mrs. Lawrence, to make sure that our house in London will be ready for you and will meet with your approval.”
Elizabeth blushed a little at the use of the word our, but Mr. Darcy continued feeling guilty. This would not do. They had finally managed to escape Longbourn, reaching Oakham Mount long before Bingley and Jane and instead of enjoying their moments of privacy, he could barely look at his fiancée’s beautiful face because she made him feel guilty. No, it would not do at all.
“Elizabeth,” he resumed, “you do understand the need for this journey, do you not? Sometimes, my love, we will have to be separated, however much I loathe to be parted from you.”
She nodded, somewhat reluctantly for his liking.
“Will you not say something, Elizabeth?”
“When will you be back?” she asked promptly.
Somehow, this was not what he had wished to hear.
“In about,” he cleared his throat, “about fifteen days. At most. I must repeat, Elizabeth, that if I could, I would…”
“Mr. Darcy,” she interrupted him, and he did not like the use of his surname, “I am a logical creature, and I fully understand the necessity of your departure. Do not assume that I have forgotten the honor you have bestowed on me by choosing me to become the future Mrs. Darcy. Rest assured that I am fully aware of the duties, responsibilities and expectations you have of me.”
That was a fine speech, exactly what Mr. Darcy had wished to hear, exactly the words he would expect from his future wife and Mistress of Pemberley. Nevertheless, Mr. Darcy hated hearing it.
“I know we have duties and responsibilities. I know that I cannot postpone my journey, but I also know that it is a most unnerving thing to do, leaving you after only six days of shared happiness. Even though I thought I wanted an understanding and mature reaction from you about my absence, I realize that I desperately need you to complain about this decision of mine.”
She laughed—that genuine, heartfelt laugh of hers that always succeeded in leaving him disarmed, and she was instantly in his arms, kissing him. He was so surprised that he almost did not respond. Though she had always been a very willing participant in their amorous activities, she had never before taken such an initiative. But soon, the wonderful feeling of her lips upon his and her hands tightly closed around his waist pushed all other thoughts away. It was as if his impending departure made propriety somewhat less demanding. He found himself pressing her against his body so that he could feel every inch of her, so that her figure melted into one with his, and still he could not have enough of her. His hands cradled her head until some pins fell down and a few rich curls were released. She let out a small gasp that he barely noticed as he continued kissing her—breaths mingled, mouths united, tongues caressing, eyes closed, minds traveling at a furious pace towards a land of colors, warmth, intoxicating scents and sweet melodies.
“Fitzwilliam,” she whispered against his mouth, only to increase his passion, to bring his palms to her cheeks and set his fingers on a mad dance, trying to not neglect the tiniest part of her skin.
His lips slowly traveled to her cheeks, her brow and her hair, as her head came to rest against his shoulder, their bodies still pressed against each other. He exhaled a deep breath of contentment into her curls.
“I love you, Elizabeth.”
She pulled back a little to meet his smiling eyes with sparkling ones. “So, Mr. Darcy, is this my punishment for being childishly stubborn and disapproving of your decisions?”
“I do not remember any disapproval, my dear. If I recall correctly, you only said that you understand your duties.”
“Was I so convincing?”
“Almost, my love, almost,” he said, chuckling. “For one terrible moment, I thought you had transformed into one of the formidable, proper ladies of the Ton.”
Elizabeth’s hands moved to the locks of hair that were falling freely on her shoulders and back. “I would hardly call this proper, sir.”
“Thankfully, neither would I.”
“Truly, I understand why you have to go to London. Even though I will miss you, I am eager to see you go.”
“Why, yes, sir. In fact, I thought I would ask you to procure something for me when you are in Town.”
He smiled at her teasing tone. “And what would that be? I hope you will not have me purchasing gloves or other trimmings ladies so appreciate. I am afraid I do not possess taste in the matter. As for jewels, Sir William tells me that I have excellent judgment, since I am going to wed the brightest one in Hertfordshire.”
Elizabeth burst out in laughter. “Very amusing, sir, but I am astonished at your lack of insight into my wishes. I simply want you to bring a special license from Town.”
Darcy’s smiling face instantly turned grave, and his eyes acquired an intensity that made Elizabeth’s face, already blushed from her bold suggestion, practically burn. The back of his hand moved to her cheeks and then her chin in a feather-like caress, discrete and yet with such tenderness, that the gesture almost brought tears to her eyes.
“You are most precious to me. Bright, kind, generous, full of surprises and oh so beautiful. I cannot wait to start my life with you, my beloved.”
“Does this mean that you will bring the license?” she asked, deeply moved and trying not to show it.
“It does,” he answered hoarsely, as he leaned in for another kiss. Elizabeth’s sparkling eyes had lit the fire of passion in him again, and his hands started to move down her body almost of their own volition. After bestowing light caresses on her neck, his touch was more fervent as he reached her back, and then he surrendered to the madness of the moment as they moved lower and lower. He became aware of their knees and then their thighs pressed together, and his need only became stronger in its fight against reason. Elizabeth gasped, but she remained close to him, and after a moment of surprised passiveness, she continued kissing him with equal fervor. His hands moved lower to grasp her bottom, and he lifted her a little, until her feet did not touch the ground anymore.
It was an unparalleled sensation, to have Elizabeth holding so tightly to him, the whole weight of her body against him, and her beautiful face, now at a higher level than his, bending over to kiss him. He felt her breasts pressing hard against his torso, and he thought he never was so close to losing his sanity. When she pulled back to breathe, he put her down as tenderly as his desire allowed him, and he ran his hand down her neck until he reached the limits of her décolletage. He heard her gasp, and he felt the frantic little movements of her own hands through his hair, that grew in passion as his own caresses continued. Many minutes later he heard her voice, as if in a dream, coming from a distance.
It was so soft and tender, but husky enough to acknowledge that the wonderful intimacies they had been sharing were not a dream. It seemed like a plea, and it touched the very essence of him, the deepest chord of his soul, and instantly his maddening desire transformed into a wish to protect her from every harm and menace, himself included.
“My most beloved Elizabeth… forgive me. I should not have imposed on you so. I hope I have not shocked you. Please…”
“I…” she stammered, but continued with confidence, “I trust you, Mr. Darcy. I am only confused, but only because of my own feelings.”
“Pray tell me, Elizabeth, what are your feelings?” he asked, his breath uneven.
“Sir, I could not possibly…” she blushed.
His smile was almost unperceivable as he softly, reassuringly began caressing her shoulders. “I am Fitzwilliam to you, not sir—your fiancé, your lover, and I dearly hope that I am your friend, as well. I do not want secrets or embarrassment to shadow our felicity. Talk to me about your feelings, my love.”
Elizabeth cast her eyes down at first, but then realized she needed to see the warmth of his expression to speak. “I was delighted to receive and to respond your attentions, Fitzwilliam. I have never felt anything similar to what I am now experiencing, nor have I heard anyone talking about it. I… It is overwhelming, and I was totally unprepared for it. When you talked about ways to love, is that what you meant?”
She regarded him eagerly, waiting for his reply, and she was more than astonished to see that his eyes were moist. He did not answer immediately. Instead, he came closer and brushed his lips against hers, ever so lightly. Then he stepped back again. “Indeed it was,” he whispered.
“In that case, you should know, Fitzwilliam, that I love you, too. In every way possible.”
Mrs. Bennet had watched the couples go with a contented sigh and then she sat down with the intention of doing absolutely nothing. She deserved a moment of respite after managing to find such excellent men for three of her daughters. No, two, she reminded herself; Mr. Bennet had hinted that Mr. Darcy held Mr. Wickham in contempt. Since ten thousand pounds a year were far better than a commission somewhere in Newcastle, she concluded that Mr. Darcy was right, and she had to dismiss any regard she felt towards her first son-in-law. Now that she thought of it, she had never particularly liked him. She had endured his tiring attentions during his last stay at Longbourn only for dearest Lydia’s sake. The fact remained that two of her daughters were to marry fine and rich gentlemen, and one had married an abominable man, but had married, nonetheless. Life had been good, had it not?
Unfortunately, the sounds of an approaching carriage brought her out of her most pleasant reverie. Mrs. Bennet thought she was not obliged to have a look at the carriage, since three of her daughters were secured, but then she reminded herself that she had two more that needed good husbands so that her triumph against Lady Lucas would be complete. With such an inducement, she moved to the window to see a carriage of grandeur coming towards her home. Mrs. Bennet was not used to such sights every day, but her quick mind easily assumed that it was one of Mr. Darcy’s friends visiting him, and upon not finding him at Netherfield, he had come to her humble abode. Overexcited at the prospect, she hurried to find Mary and Kitty and instructed them to go upstairs and change into the dresses that flattered them the most. Hardly had she returned to the drawing room, when Hill entered, almost running and flushed with a large woman on her heels.
“Lady Catherine de Bourgh, ma’am,” Hill said hastily before the other woman walked in and the loyal servant was obliged to step aside.
Mrs. Bennet was a little disappointed that her hopes for a rich, eligible friend of Mr. Darcy’s were for naught, but she was also exceedingly honored that her future son-in-law’s esteemed aunt had come to visit them. She wore her best smile, the one she used for Mr. Darcy, and she was most effusive in her welcome. Lady Catherine spoke very coolly, but Mrs. Bennet knew better than to take offense at such a behavior. After all, had not Mr. Darcy seemed to be slighting Lizzy in the beginning? And now they were engaged to be married. Mrs. Bennet’s smile broadened at the thought, and she kept conversing with delight.
“Your nephew was here not long ago. Mr. Darcy has gone on a walk with Mr. Bingley and my two eldest daughters, but I trust they will be back soon. I am sure he will be very pleased to see you, your Ladyship.”
“Oh, he was here, was he not?” Lady Catherine suddenly began to lose her appearance of serenity and indifference, and her tone betrayed a hint of hostility, of which Mrs. Bennet remained blissfully unaware. “I am certain that you and your daughter did everything in your power to keep him here. I am sure that you offer him whatever it takes to please him.”
“Indeed, your Ladyship, we do our best to keep Mr. Darcy happy.”
“Keep my nephew happy! The presumption of…” she cried, but immediately checked herself to ask in a lower tone again, “Am I to understand that your daughter, Elizabeth, is not in the house?”
“No, but she will…”
“I want to speak to your husband, then. Immediately.” The authoritative tone alarmed Mrs. Bennet a little, but she reminded herself that all those rich and important people had to use it so they could inspire awe.
“I am afraid he is not at home at the moment. He went shooting, your Ladyship, but if it pleases you, I can send a servant to fetch him, and I am sure he…”
“Is there no one else in the house?” Lady Catherine demanded impatiently.
“There are my daughters, Mary and Catherine. Very sweet girls.”
“No, no, they would never do.”
“We have servants, too, your Ladyship,” Mrs. Bennet was striving very hard to understand what Lady Catherine wished and to grant it.
“It seems as though I will have to talk to you, then.” Lady Catherine seemed most unhappy at the prospect.
“I would be exceedingly happy to oblige you.”
“Mrs. Bennet, I came here because a report of the most alarming nature reached me two days ago.”
“Indeed? I am very sorry to hear it.”
“Not nearly as much as was I, Mrs. Bennet. And dearest Anne, too. She was so shocked that she collapsed in the parlor, and Mrs. Jeckinson had to…That is no concern of yours, but we were all terribly upset.”
“I am grieved that you and your family have suffered, Lady Catherine.”
“Yes, yes. My nephew sent us a letter, no doubt in an inebriated state. He never drinks, madam, nor is he disposed to all those undignified habits in which young men nowadays indulge. But I suppose it was a moment of weakness and of course, of great temptation. In that letter, Mrs. Bennet, he announced his engagement to your daughter.”
“My lady, I am certain Mr. Darcy would not drink before addressing his dignified aunt.”
“Ah, so you knew he would write to me. Perhaps you were the one who made him drink, as well.”
“I assure you not, your Ladyship. There is always wine at dinner, but Mr. Darcy never drank more than two glasses.”
“Mr. Darcy was invited to dine here?”
“Yes, ma’am. Several times.”
“Did he write that letter while he was here?”
“I am afraid I do not know, Lady Catherine. But if I may be so bold as to ask, what has his letter to do with your family’s distress?” Mrs. Bennet was certain that such a fine gentleman as Mr. Darcy could never write anything offensive in his missives, especially those directed to his aunt.
“It has everything to do with my family’s shock, Mrs. Bennet! That is why I came here. To have this piece of news universally contradicted.”
Mrs. Bennet felt the first tinge of alarm. “Why should we contradict it, your Ladyship? It is very true; your nephew proposed to my second eldest daughter four days ago,” Mrs. Bennet stated a bit more firmly, as her apprehensions regarding Lady Catherine’s intentions grew.
“This is not to be borne! I have come here to put an end to this…this…parody of engagement!”
Lady Catherine’s voice was now quite loud, and Mrs. Bennet feared the servants could hear her. At other times, she would not mind, but this was a sensitive subject. “I beg your pardon, your Ladyship, but it is a very fine, proper engagement. We do not approve of parodies at Longbourn.”
“My nephew cannot have proposed to a simple country girl!”
“He very well can! He proposed to my daughter, Elizabeth, four days ago,” Mrs. Bennet repeated, unintentionally raising her voice to match Lady Catherine’s.
“He was not in his right mind then!”
“He was in a perfectly rational, your Ladyship! He admires my daughter exceedingly, he told me so himself. I assure you that he was most earnest in his request of her hand.”
“Oh, I was certain that you would support this hideous union! I am sure that you taught your daughter all the arts she needed so that my poor nephew fell into the trap!”
“To what trap are you referring?”
“I am referring to the marriage proposal that you claim Mr. Darcy has made to Miss Elizabeth. I am certain you have been aspiring to such a union since my nephew was first introduced to you.”
“Not quite,” Mrs. Bennet admitted, a little ashamed of her lack of insight back then.
“And I am certain you advised her to use all her allurements to her best advantage so that she could snare an honorable man.”
“Of course, I did!”
“Are you not mortified to confess it?”
“Why should I be mortified? Every mother wants what is best for her children. Do you not agree that Mr. Darcy is the best man that Lizzy could attract? I am exceedingly proud of her, your Ladyship!”
“Mrs. Bennet,” Lady Catherine tried to speak in a calmer voice, though she was evidently angry, “let us be rational, shall we? Your daughter can not marry Mr. Darcy. His family will shut him out. The world will shut him out. No one will associate them, no one will even speak his name. They will lead a disgraced life. Do you want your daughter to be miserable?”
“My daughter miserable? Mr. Darcy owns an estate in Derbyshire, a house in London and he earns ten thousand pounds a year! She will have all the jewels and carriages and pin money she could wish for! How can she fail to be happy with such blessings around her?”
“You do not understand! They will be obliged to lead an unhappy life, away from the approval of the Ton and good society. Their life will be unvaried, their past forever haunted by this disgrace. No one will go to their gatherings and balls!”
“Mr. Darcy is not fond of dancing, as it happens. As for Lizzy, I am sure she has danced enough for the rest of her life, and she will not miss the activity. As for their social life, I am certain Mr. Darcy has many friends in Town. He had told us himself that society is very varied there.”
“That is the point, Mrs. Bennet! His friends will cease to be his friends once his marriage to your daughter is announced.”
“Mr. Bingley approves of the match, and he is Mr. Darcy’s closest friend. I daresay they are all like Mr. Bingley and will follow his excellent example.”
“Mr. Bingley is under the spell of your other daughter! Otherwise he would have done everything in his power to dissuade my nephew! Every other acquaintance will renounce him, I am certain of it.”
“But your Ladyship, everyone tries to please rich men and hardly anyone pays attention to their wives. As long as Mr. Darcy has such a good fortune, he and my daughter will never be in need of company.”
“You do not understand the rules of the circles he moves in. Your family and my nephew’s status in society are totally dissimilar. This is unheard of!”
“But is it not true that men and women should not be equal in marriage? Men should be superior in everything, and women should respect and obey them.”
“My family was titled, and my husband’s was not. The same was true of Lady Anne, Mr. Darcy’s mother,” Lady Catherine cried indignantly.
“And you expect my daughter to break her engagement with a man of such importance and good connections? My Lizzy is clever, and that would be madness!”
“I am not done yet. This marriage you have evidently conspired to bring about will never take place. Do you hear me? Never! Prepare yourself for a very unpleasant piece of news, madam,” Lady Catherine said spitefully with a glint in her eyes. “Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter!”
For the first time in her life, Frances Bennet was in real need of her smelling salts, and yet, she did not ask for them. Instead, she turned pale as a ghost and whispered, “Engaged to your daughter? Engaged to two women simultaneously? My Lizzy… Mr. Darcy… Compromise…” She took a deep breath to recover and then she cried, with much more asserting voice, “No, that would be entirely dishonorable on his part!”
“It is not. He is engaged to my dearest Anne.”
“When did this happen?” Mrs. Bennet thought that engagements were not so important after all, especially old and almost forgotten ones. What mattered was which of the two fiancées would get Mr. Darcy in the church. She wondered how she could send Elizabeth a note without Lady Catherine noticing it.
“Since his birth! My sister and I planned this union while in their cradles. And now, when the fondest wish of his entire family is finally going to take place, who is going to prevent it? A young woman without name, connections or money and with such an outspoken mother? It is not to be borne!”
“So, he has not proposed to your daughter!” Fanny exclaimed, feeling more relieved than ever. There was no need to dispatch a note.
“No, but in principle …”
“He is honor-bound to my daughter, Lady Catherine. He chose her, he proposed to her. He had twenty-eight years to propose your daughter, and if he wished to marry her, he would have done it by now. There is nothing you can do. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy will get married. As soon as possible!”
“Not so hasty, if you please, madam. Do you think I am not aware of your youngest daughter’s infamous elopement? Do you think Mr. Collins did not tell me the details? I know it all. I know that the marriage was a patched-up business at the expense of your husband and your brother. Do you think I will allow such a girl to be my nephew’s sister? Her husband is the son of late Mr. Darcy’s steward! Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?”
“Oh, do not worry on that account, Lady Catherine. I am fully aware that Mr. Wickham is a horrible man, and you can be assured that I dislike him very much, as Mr. Darcy wants us to. I am sure he will never be admitted to Pemberley. I had no wish to invite him at Longbourn after the marriage, but I had to, for dearest Lydia’s sake.”
“This is not to be…” Lady Catherine started shouting, but stopped immediately as she noticed the couple that stood by the door. Lady Catherine was content to see that the young girl seemed appalled, evidently by her mother’s behavior. Her Ladyship was so absorbed in looking at the girl’s colorless face that she did not notice that her nephew’s arm supported Elizabeth while his other hand caressed her clenched fists.
“Darcy! You are here, thank God. I trust you have heard a part of our argument with Mrs. Bennet.”
Mrs. Bennet wore such a terrified expression at that moment that Mr. Darcy felt genuine pity for her.
“I have heard quite enough, madam,” he replied gravely, his gaze inscrutable. Turning to Elizabeth, he whispered something in her ear, but she replied aloud, even though her voice was trembling.
“No, Mr. Darcy, I would rather stay.” The color began to return to her face, her form became more rigid and she removed her fists from her fiancé’s touch, though she still remained in his embrace.
“Do you not see, Darcy? That impertinent, disobliging…” Lady Catherine shouted triumphantly.
“No, Aunt,” Darcy said with a voice that was cold, loud and firm and that did not allow interruption, “you are not going to insult my fiancée anymore. You spoke ill of her family, and you insulted her mother. You have insulted my choice and, therefore, me. You are not going to offend us anymore. The people you spoke so ill of will be my family soon.”
“Nonsense, Darcy. We are your family and…”
“You are my family, and I am not sure if Miss Bennet will still want me after realizing how cruel and uncivil you can be. Other than that, you cannot influence my decision to marry where I love.”
Mrs. Bennet looked as if she was about to faint after this speech. Unwilling to draw attention, she moved as quietly as she could to a chair near a vase, and tried to inhale the flowers’ scent. Lady Catherine continued talking; she was very far from giving up.
“How dare you speak to me this way, Darcy? The family will reject you. You will be a stranger to us if you marry her. The world will despise you. You will be estranged from anyone you esteem. Are you willing to sacrifice your happiness for a whim? Do you wish to sadden your entire family and your friends for an infatuation that you will come to repent in a few months’ time? My dear nephew, I understand you. I know that you think that you like this girl, but listen to the words of an older, wiser woman. Forget this. Marrying her will only lead to your destruction. Come away with me. Marry Anne. Respect your father’s name. Respect your mother’s wishes—her dying words, Darcy. Remember your dearest sister, Georgiana, who needs a proper model and companion, and do not make this mistake. For the sake of everything, come home with me.”
Tears appeared on Elizabeth’s cheek. Darcy saw them, and he was enraged. Had he not vowed to protect her from harm not an hour ago? And now, his own aunt was hurting her with abominably cruel words.
“Lady Catherine, your efforts to rule my feelings using my dear parents’ memory are disgusting, to say the least. My parents taught me to be an independent man and to judge for myself where my duty lies. I have learned to act on my own will, however much I respect my family’s advice, when it is well meant.”
“I am not advising you, Darcy! I am telling you that you are supposed to marry Anne!” Lady Catherine had lost every appearance of composure.
“Let me clarify this once and forever. I will not marry your daughter. I never made any promises. In fact, I did everything within my power to discourage such a notion.”
“You have always been most attentive to Anne!”
“I have been civil, as a cousin ought. I have tried for years to suggest that a union between us will never occur. Perhaps it is my fault that I chose to do it subtly! It seems you wished a blatant statement from me, but my dear parents taught me to deal with my problems with discretion. In your case, however, they have been wrong! As for your predictions regarding the misfortunes that my marriage will bring, rest assured that the world will have much more sense than to censure me. I am not afraid of those who will shut me out of their circle because of my union with Elizabeth. My true friends know who I am. My choices define who I am, and I choose Elizabeth. I choose Elizabeth because I love her, because she makes me a better man, because I feel happy when I am close to her, because I simply cannot live without her by my side. Now, if you are not willing to give us our blessing, I am sure Hill will gladly escort you to your carriage.”
Mrs. Bennet’s mouth was agape. She had never imagined that a man could speak in such a manner. She had never heard words describing such ardent love, and now, of all people, the proud, silent Mr. Darcy was making such a formidable declaration. Elizabeth was looking at him steadily, gravely. No smile grazed her lips or eyes, yet she had the aura of serenity and deep satisfaction. Her cheeks were now rosy, and a few locks of her hair had fallen on her face. She had not managed to find all the pins she had lost while she was enjoying Mr. Darcy’s caresses during their walk. She stood upright, her right fist still tightly clenched, while her left hand was now safely held by her fiancé.
Darcy felt Elizabeth’s hand relax into his, and he barely hid his sigh of relief. He instantly knew his intended, though shocked and upset, would not let this overwhelm her or come between them. Then he heard her voice, barely above a whisper, meant only for him, “I could not love you more or be prouder of you than I am now.” He smiled, ignoring Lady Catherine’s outraged face. He could not ignore her yelling for long, unfortunately.
“I am not giving up! Have you thought of your sister? Her reputation… This union will never take place! Never!”
“Do not dare to bring Georgiana into this!” Darcy shouted. “Do not make me lose my patience, Lady Catherine, because you know only too well who will be damaged if I lose it. If you are not willing to give us your blessing, you are not welcome here!”
“Give you my blessing? You are not serious! I never will. I will go and tell everyone that you have lost your senses. Not welcome here? In this…cottage? That is a good joke, Darcy. And I do not need anyone to escort me!” she said as she pushed Hill and disappeared.
As soon as his aunt was out of sight, Darcy led Elizabeth to sit next to her mother, whispering comforting words of her love in her ear. Upon noticing his future mother’s-in-law pale face, he asked very politely, almost tenderly, “Mrs. Bennet, are you ill? Is there anything I can bring you? Your smelling salts, perhaps?”
“No, no, Mr. Darcy. I am quite well. Thank you.” She still regarded him with awe.
“Mrs. Bennet, you were very strong today. You defended your family and me quite admirably. Standing up to my aunt is not an easy task, I assure you, but you handed it very well. Thank you.”
Frances Bennet was certain that she would remember that moment as one of the most rewarding ones of her life. She told herself that it was worth suffering from nerves for twenty years if she were destined to listen to such a speech at the end of them. Her future son-in-law’s kind, generous words echoed in her ears, as she very carefully stood up, cast a last look at the couple and walked carefully out of the room. Then, and only then, did she faint.
… As soon as Lady Catherine was gone and my mother disappeared into another room, I realized that Fitzwilliam and I had to talk very seriously, and the idea did not please me in the least. He was very attentive, tender and kind, a true knight, but I did not wish to be the fair but invariably naïve princess of fairy tales. Had I proposed a walk and talked of nothing else but my wedding gown, I am sure he would have happily obliged me. But I knew he would leave for London, and I felt that I could not see him go without telling him what was truly in my heart.
Thus, I gathered my courage, and I mentioned his first proposal. As soon as the words “last Easter” escaped my lips, his smile disappeared, and he resumed an expression that reminded me very much of the Mr. Darcy I met one year ago—the tall, austere and difficult to please man that could make no friends. But this time I knew that was only a façade. I was saddened that he still used that with me, but I went on talking of his first proposal, where he had most eloquently dwelled on the family obstacles which his judgment had always opposed to his wish to unite his life with mine.
“For heaven’s sake, Elizabeth!” he interrupted me with a voice that was far from calm, “if you have changed your mind about our engagement, say it so directly. Do not torment me by using my own words against me.”
I motioned him to sit next to me, and I let my palm touch his cheek. It was then that I noticed that he had pressed his lips so hard that they had lost their color. I told him that I was disappointed that he believed me so fickle as to change so easily my opinion regarding the most important decision of my life.
He relaxed only slightly, and I felt sorry for the pain I was causing him. I boldly sat closer to him, embraced him tightly and let my head rest on his shoulder. As I heard him heave a sigh, I whispered, “I love you, Fitzwilliam, and my love grows deeper and stronger. That will never change, even if the entire world came here to offend me. As long as you want me, I am yours.” He murmured my name, and I felt his head lean on top of mine, as his hand lightly stroked my back. “All I wanted to tell you,” I continued, “is that I now understand your meaning when you first proposed. You were right to worry about your family’s reactions. I fear how your other relations will react to the news, and I am concerned about you. I can bear their accusations and listen to their reasoning with perfect indifference, but it is not the same for you. They are your family, they are dear to you. I do not wish… I wish that our marriage would not have such unpleasant consequences,” I concluded, pulling back so I could look into his eyes.
Fitzwilliam smiled, and the wrinkles of worry that I had caused were dulled. “I wish I could promise that no unpleasant situations will arise in the future. However, my love, as we know only too well, the road too happiness is everything but easy.” I cast my eyes down, but he lifted my chin gently until I was looking at him again. “There is malice in the world, Elizabeth. There are too many people that are not as happy as we are. There are many ladies in the Ton who suffer in miserable marriages and have been hoping that I would follow their example and pursue an advantageous and equally miserable match. They cannot understand love and happiness, therefore, they cannot understand my choice. I do not care for disapproval based on personal bitterness, but I will demand that every civility is paid towards my future wife.”
I wanted to tell him that I felt certain he would protect me, and I was only concerned about his reaction to his family’s scorn, but he went on. “My relations…They are not going to insult you. They are not like Lady Catherine, and they care too much for appearances to insult you. But I want you to understand, Elizabeth, that my family now is you and Georgiana. You are closer to me, above everyone else.”
I had tears in my eyes. In fact, I was silently weeping. I felt as if he was unvaryingly wonderful, and I was only creating problems, until he kissed me on the cheek. It was a chaste caress, and it proved to be exactly what I needed.
“It does not follow that we will lead the isolated life that Lady Catherine expects us to, however much I would like to seclude you at Pemberley forever,” he said, and I chuckled between my tears.
“How can you always say the right thing?” I asked, as I embraced him tightly.
“I wonder myself where my talent in communication stems from. I made you understand exactly how I felt since the moment we met, and my first proposal was exceedingly well articulated, and at the Inn of Lambton…”
I burst out laughing and implored him to stop, but I was happy that he could speak of the past in such a light tone. It seemed that on the day when hardships overwhelmed me, Fitzwilliam learned to laugh at past mistakes. I could not indulge in such ponderings for long, however, because I felt his lips upon mine for a kiss that started gently but grew more and more passionate. I am not certain if it was his need or mine that almost led us to an unforgivably inappropriate situation. Our hands, as if of their own will, began to move along our bodies, and I did not stop when I heard him whispering my name, pleadingly. I felt his fingers traveling down my neck. It seemed as if their journey lasted forever, and I wished for more, even though I hardly knew what it was that I wanted. Then, they were there, at my décolletage, pushing the fabric lower and lower, and his other hand was on the fabric, touching my breast, and it felt…Oh, I can hardly describe it! It was as if I broke into thousands of pieces and all of them were in his hands. I felt vulnerable and beautiful and… and his. Completely, irrevocably tied with him, forever.
His caresses persisted and so did mine. Our bodies pressed against each other, demanding something more, something that I knew we could not give them. And yet, I thought I could not live if our contact broke, if I pulled back even an inch. Minutes passed by in passion and agony, in the utmost love and the sweetest torture, until our kiss broke. We breathed rapidly and deeply, and he muttered, “Oh God, I almost…” but I touched his hand and said, “not you almost, we almost…”
He did not return my smile, he only replied, “Do not make me suffer, Elizabeth. Have you any idea how breathtakingly beautiful, how alluring, how tempting you are at this very moment? Have mercy on me, and let us go and find your family.”
I nodded, suppressing my need to tell him that I loved him, because I knew only too well where this would lead. After a few minutes, we joined my mother, and I heard my fiancé saying, “Mrs. Bennet, I believe that Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth would be greatly benefited by the London air. They should purchase their wedding clothes as soon as possible. Do you think Mrs. Gardiner could be induced to invite your eldest daughters?”
Mama would not hear of the cost or of the extravagance of the action. She did not listen to my pleas when I begged her not to alarm my aunt in vain. She sent an express to her brother this very afternoon. I think I will start packing very soon.
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