Charles awoke in the middle of the night, and didn’t go back to sleep. His eyelids refused to close; instead he devoured the sight of Jane, asleep in his arms, her long hair resting against his chest, her hands entwined with his in such harmony and familiarity that he had not dared to imagine or hope ever before.
The light of the dining room slipped through the half closed door of the bedroom. They had neglected to turn it off but it was better this way as it showed Jane to the best advantage; her slim figure seemed as if it radiated a glowing warmth. His lips reached her neck and placed a soft kiss there. She sighed and moved even closer to him. He wanted to wake her up and make love to her again; his passion and his wish to be part of her had not abated yet. Quite the contrary actually, it seemed as if it grew greater every minute, transforming into an elementary need for his survival. He was not frightened by the affect. He accepted it as inevitable; he welcomed it as a miracle.
He did not obey his inner voice, though. Instead he surrendered to the tenderness that invaded him and told him that at that moment he wanted nothing more than to admire his love in her sleep; his love that had met his passion again and again a few hours ago and who had evoked and shared such new feelings with him that he knew now he was not exactly the man he was earlier that day. He pondered on the changes with a smile on his face and relief in his heart. There was no denying it: he was happy.
The ringing of Jane’s phone made him startle. Though on such a night he was incapable of having any bad feelings or apprehensions, a phone call at such an hour sounded ominous even to his own ears. Jane clenched her fists and her face took a stubbornly angry expression but she remained fast asleep. The ringing persisted. He kissed her earlobe and whispered to her that she had to wake up. She resisted but the phone kept ringing and finally she gave in, woke up and before she could become too alarmed by the fact that someone was ringing her at the wee hours, Charles handed her the phone.
“Hello?” she asked with an unsteady voice. Then she gasped. “William? What happened? My sister… where is my sister?” Charles looked at her with increasing worry, as color left her face and tiny drops of sweat appeared on her brow. “Ok, I am listening.” He watched her trying not to panic, to retain her calmness with no great success. “You went out with her last night, William! What has Wickham to do with this? Yes? What? No, you will explain to me now!” She cried. Charles heard his friend’s voice, and recognized the tone Will used whenever he wanted to reassure the others although inwardly he was terrified. His hands moved to Jane’s back protectively. “Yes, Lizzy comes first… Yes, you’re right, not via the phone…But Lizzy, where is she? Doesn’t answer? Why didn’t you send someone to her apartment? Oh, yes, me… Of course. Yes, not five minutes walking. I’ll call you. Yes, Charles is here. Want to talk to him?” She handed him the phone.
“Charles, it’s me.” William spoke slowly and clearly. “Wickham is at it, again. He threatened Elizabeth and he has evidence against me. I have to move quickly, before noon today. But I can’t find Elizabeth and I want to know if she’s alright. Please, go with Jane, find her and do not leave her on any account. Make sure she’s ok…and that she stays ok… Can I count on you, Charles?”
Charles was not sure what this was all about, but he was convinced that he could not question his friend’s instructions. “I’ll be there for her, Will.”
“Will, take care. For your sake; for her sake.”
Charles wished he could squeeze his friend’s hand in support but he sighed and got off the bed. Jane was already dressed and ready to leave.
“I’ll come with you, Jane.”
“Then make haste!” she shouted as she was heading for the door. Then she paused, turned her head and whispered, “I am so sorry, Charles. It’s just that…”
“It’s ok.” He dismissed her apologetic look quickly. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”
Georgiana felt a light caress on her face. Unwilling to give up her sleep, full of warmth and beautiful dreams she buried her head in the pillow as her hand tightened its grip on her covers. The caress persisted, slow but unyielding and she heard someone calling her name with the utmost tenderness. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes and looked at her brother, sitting at the corner of her bed, a sad smile marking his face. He was fully clothed.
“William, what are you doing here?” she asked, the sweet numbness of sleep not evading her yet.
“My darling sister,” he whispered and she was touched by the tenderness in his voice, the protectiveness that always made her feel safe when he was near. The reassurance that he was always there for her, loving her and defending her from all the dangers, real or imaginary, as he had done since their childhood. How could I have ever forgotten that? Without particular reason, the lapse of faith in him came to her mind, her anger and disappointment subconsciously directed towards him when the two men had broken her heart. She blinked her eyes to remove the memory. All was well now; she had the best of brothers with whom she had learnt to share everything. Most importantly she had found a true, strong love. Alex was everything her heart had ever craved. All was well. Or was it not?
Completely awake, Georgiana tossed off all the covers and in an instant she was sitting next to her brother, cupping his face in her hands to make him look directly into her eyes and meet her anxious gaze.
“William, what is wrong? Tell me, please, who…?” The words were cut short in her throat.
“No, no, calm down, my dear Anna. Everyone is alright.” He took her in his arms tightly and stroked her back. After long moments of suspense he pushed her back softly so he could see her face.
“Look, Anna.” He swallowed hard. “What I have to tell you relates with our family’s past. You were right to suppose there was more to the story, while I saw it all in a black-and-white way. It’s my fault, stupidly denying it all these years… And now we have a dilemma to face.”
She stopped him. “Will, I am sleepy, and you are not making sense. I am worried now.”
He smiled faintly. “Ok, let me see how to explain…”
“I am not a baby. I won’t deny that the feeling of being protected by you is not unpleasant, but the truth won’t break me to pieces.”
William looked at his sister; he recognized the look of determination that marked her eyes and spread to all her features. It was his determination that he saw there; probably their mother’s as well. Yes, things had taken an ugly turn, it was true, but he was feeling more and more determined to face what was coming. He took a deep breath before speaking.
“Our father knew that John Wickham was a drug-dealer. He covered for him and supported him for many years.”
He paused, startled by how abruptly and clumsily he had let the truth come out. But now that he had decided to share everything with his sister, he wanted to get rid of the burden as soon as possible. He even believed that the feeling of betrayal and pain would be eliminated once he was done with his explanation to Georgiana.
Consideration for his sister prevailed however and he managed to suppress the sudden wish for his relief. William watched Georgiana intently. He recognized in her eyes the shock, the sudden wave of pain attacking her, despite her remarkable attempt to mask it. He was afraid that she would start crying. However she remained silent, breathing deeply, calming herself, warding off with a slight movement of her hand his attempt to take her into his arms, to comfort her. Her hand remained raised for a moment, and then it fell softly down. She nodded.
“I’m ok, Will. So, what happened to our mother?”
William told her the entire story, with no embellishments or attempts to sugarcoat the truth. He had no right to hide anything from his sister in the name of protecting her. It was her truth as well, her family, her fight. More than anything, he felt better this way. He was not alone; and he was stronger than ever.
As Pemberley’s CEO, Michael Fitzwilliam used to be the first to wake up and the last to go to bed in his family. Even after his retirement, he had continued his early awakening, enjoying the peace and solitude of the morning. Never had he imagined that there would be a day that his son, actor and party animal Richard would be up earlier than him; much less that he would come to wake him up too. However, on that fateful day he opened his eyes after hearing the tender urges to do so by his wife and son. He saw the false smiles on their faces, which were aimed at not worrying him no doubt, and then noticed Richard’s bodyguard in the corner of the room, her face invariably grave. He liked that girl very much; no hypocrisy, no useless disguise.
“Somebody died?” he asked, gaining a gasp from his wife and a resigned nod from his son.
Richard realized that neither concealment nor beating around the bush were options when dealing with his father.
“Dad, we’re afraid that you will have a heart attack when you hear the news.”
“Which is?” He was completely calm. At his age and with his experience he doubted that anything could surprise him.
“We learnt what really happened to Aunt Anne,” Richard offered carefully and watched his father intently.
The effect was immediate. Countless little wrinkles became visible on Michael’s face, rendering it suddenly old. His eyes, which used to resemble those of a hawk, narrowed and turned into two expressionless holes. His authoritative tone abandoned him, replaced by an amount of resignation his son had never witnessed before. His proud posture became rather defensive; he suddenly seemed like an old, tired man who wanted to be left in peace.
“It’s an old story, son. Don’t follow it. I tried to but stopped before I got too entangled. I don’t know and do not want to know what happened.” An angry growl was heard from Monika’s corner of the room and he raised his eyes to meet her disapproving gaze. “Anne is dead and we can’t do anything to bring her back.”
“Anne Darcy was killed. ” Monika said very pointedly, emphasizing the last word. Then, as Richard turned to look at her, she offered an apologetic gesture and added in a low voice. “So sorry. I didn’t mean to interfere, but…” She left her sentence unfinished.
“No, it’s ok.” Richard answered in a loud, clear voice. “It’s your sister we are talking about, father. Doesn’t she deserve this?”
“Deserve what?’ Michael met his wife’s fearful eyes and then his attention returned to his son.
“Justice,” Richard stated simply.
“Rick, you are too young to…” he started in his authoritative tone.
“No,” his son interrupted him. “You cannot lecture me on this, father. I have no delusions about angels ruling this world; I do not believe that good wins and evil is punished. But how can you be so insensitive to something that concerns your family? Something so appalling that happened to your sister? Your own sister!” Richard cried.
“How dare you speak to me in this way?” Michael felt a mixture of rage and fear that was clouding all his senses, his better judgment, every corner of his mind, spreading through his veins, in his blood, his body, poisoning him, suffocating him. He heard his wife’s silent sobs but they could do nothing to reassure them. Richard continued in the same, ruthless voice; determined. He would not relent now.
“You are going to tell the truth!”
“I have never lied!” Michael shouted in indignation, with all the strength he possessed.
“You have intentionally avoided facing the truth!” Richard accused him. “You are no better than a liar!”
“Richard, please, stop this, now!” His mother suddenly ordered, exceedingly worried by the red color of her husband’s face.
“You have to make up for what you did, Dad! You are going to help William reveal everything. Today. At noon. At the press conference.”
“What? Which press conference? What is he revealing?” Daggers were poking against his chest, a pain he had not felt before.
“Enough!” His wife cried suddenly. The tiny woman transformed into a tiger protecting what was important to her.
“Did you know, Dad?”
“I said that was enough!”
Michael felt suffocated; he could not breathe, he could not talk and he thought he was drifting in a state of semi-consciousness from which he could not come back. I am dying, he thought and the panic nearly stopped his heart. He made a strangled sound in a vain attempt to allow the breezy air back into his lungs. He began thinking of all the things that he wanted to do and had not have found time to; things that he had postponed for later; always thinking that there would be enough time. First a million of trifling things paraded in his mind and then came the facts that had changed his life, leaving their marks. The mystery that unveiled his sister’s disappearance and death had a prominent position between them. A desperate wish to find out invaded, even if it was the last thing he could do. But he felt so weak…
Minutes passed, as he was diving in the darkness. But he resisted, finding the strength to grasp somewhere, to hold on and re-emerge, slowly but surely. A cool hand on his forehead was the first thing he felt. He opened his eyes to meet his wife looking at him, drowned in tears. His gaze searched for his son but Richard and his companion had clearly left the room. He smiled faintly and tried to speak, but his wife silenced him, placing her palm on his mouth.
“Hush, Michael. It’s over.”
“You were,” she bit her lip, “a little irritated, and it seems you fainted. It’s nothing, really.” His wife was a loving woman with the tenderest heart, but she was terrible at comforting. He could tell that she was terrified. He relished her affection but he knew he could never gain strength from her. However, the weakness that had previously paralyzed his limbs was now evaporating. He felt his body was at his command and his heart was unlikely to betray him.
Michael Fitzwilliam was nothing if not a practical man. Supernatural quests and beliefs had never been his style and he always mocked people who claimed to have returned from death or have a sixth sense or narrating any of these ‘fairy-tales-for-the–two-year-old’ as he called them dismissingly. However, that morning he felt as if he was given a second chance. A chance he could not ignore.
“Please, tell Richard to come in again.”
“No,” she stated as firmly as she could, fire in her eyes. Then resuming her tender look and handing him some pills, she whispered. “The doctor said to take these. He’s on his way here now.”
Michael accepted the pills, but he was not willing to forget his request. “I want to talk to him.”
“Michael, no.” She seemed determined, but he had made his decision and he knew that his will was stronger than hers.
“Don’t be stubborn. You almost died five minutes ago.” As he seemed stronger by each passing moment, she let herself show how afraid she had been.
He stood up and took her hands into his. “But now I am here, and I am not going anywhere. I promise I am not leaving you.”
“You…” she mumbled meekly.
“I am an old dog with a young heart. Call Richard.”
Richard stepped in a moment later. Michael noticed that Monika did not accompany him this time. His son had cast his eyes down, as mixed feelings tortured his heart. Richard could still not overcome the shock of watching his father fainting on his behalf; the fear was still making him tremble; his pulse had not yet returned to normal. Yet, he could not help being furious with his father, his stubbornness, his blindness that risked denying William an indispensable support. He could not bring himself to look at his father; and his mouth refused to speak.
“I am sorry.”
Richard almost jumped in surprise. His father never apologized to anyone, much less to him. It was the only reaction he did not expect to receive. He hardly knew how to feel. He stared at his father in surprise, words still refusing to come out of his lips.
“You were right. I believe I was so negative, because I knew that I was so wrong. My sister was always a little ‘wild,’ but I loved her and she deserved better than what she got. I am glad that you insisted, Rick. You reminded me what I ought to have done years ago.” He smiled nervously. “I guess it’s never too late?” Richard was speechless. “Well, it is late for Annie,” Richard witnessed a rare moment of pure sadness casting its shadows on Michael’s face, leaving it almost immediately, as his father continued, determined: “But if I can help to suck the life out of the bastards that killed her, I am in for it. It’s the least I can do.”
Richard shared his father’s practical beliefs. But on that particular morning, in his mind, nothing less than a miracle could account for his father’s complete metamorphosis.
“I can’t believe you didn’t wait for the doctor!” Michael gazed, almost amused, at his wife’s exasperated face.
“It is more than enough that he will come to Pemberley to examine me. I feel as good as new.” He answered smugly and then turned to Richard, saying, “Can you tell the chauffer to drive faster?”
“Don’t worry, Dad. I called Will; they won’t start before you arrive. Besides, for the moment, Monika is our best source of information.” Richard pointed at his bodyguard with genuine pride on his face.
“Do you have the tape with you?” Michael asked.
“No, I gave it to Darcy. Wickham admitted the truth, but gave no real evidence. Just indications of where to start searching,” Monika answered dryly.
“But how did this woman…”
“Elizabeth Bennet, Dad.”
“Yes, how did this Elizabeth make him say everything?”
“Well,” Monika said, “it was a strange conversation, like a battle to hurt each other as much as possible. Dunno how to explain it… As if he intended to make her suffer by telling her how he punished Anne Darcy.” Monika shrugged her shoulders.
“William listened to the tape.” Richard said. “Elizabeth must have suffered a lot, for I heard him saying he wanted to strangle Wickham with his bare hands.”
“Suffering by a conversation? A bit oversensitive, this Elizabeth, isn’t she?”
Richard mouthed, “He doesn’t understand” to Monika, but she answered promptly.
“No, no, she was very brave last night. Very courageous.”
“But you,” Michael said. “How did you think of recording their conversation? Who told you to?”
Richard cast another admiring look at her, as she answered:
“I found myself in that pub by pure luck.” She looked at Richard for a brief moment; then redirected her attention to Michael. “I recognized Elizabeth from a photo I had seen in Darcy’s house, and from descriptions. Anyone could see that she was terrified. I was amused in the beginning, but then I noticed her looking at me with such hostility that troubled me. Then Wickham entered…It was as if she had seen a ghost. I’ve done the job I do for many years; I’ve never seen anyone so despaired before. I knew that she was dating Darcy… And some suspicions have existed regarding this Wickham guy for years… Well, there were various rumors… Anyway, I heard him urging her to go to a secluded corner, threatening her in some way. I feigned going to the lady’s room. It took me only a moment to leave the microphone under the table Wickham was suggesting. I was lucky that Elizabeth detained him for some minutes. They left, one after the other hastily. No one suspected that everything was recorded.”
Michael and his wife listened to her without interruption.
“Isn’t she amazing?” Richard said as soon as she had finished, gaining a reproachful look from Monika. “
Yes,” Michael answered softly, almost non-audibly. “Yes, she is.”
Jane and Charles found Elizabeth lying on the floor, stains of tears mixed with blood on her cheeks. Her body seemed relaxed after a fight and for one horrible moment Jane believed that something final had happened. She ran to her and frantically tried to revive her, crying her name, grabbing her shoulders, lightly smacking her cheek until Elizabeth’s confused look met a very relieved one of her own. Jane watched her sister looking at the surroundings and then at her, not remembering what had transpired the night before. Her breath smelled of alcohol. Elizabeth was very drunk.
“Lizzy? Lizzy, can you hear me?” Jane said in a calmer tone.
Elizabeth only nodded.
“Lizzy, tell me. Did anyone hurt you?”
Elizabeth closed her eyes. Her head seemed ready to burst and she felt as if someone was poking screws into her skull. The tiniest effort to concentrate simply ached too much.
“Lizzy, did you do this to yourself?” Jane caressed the wound on her cheek. Elizabeth had dozed off again.
Charles moved closer. “Perhaps you shouldn’t ask for answers now. She’s had a bad night, obviously. We should let her rest.”
“We’re here now. Nothing is going to happen to her. Darcy will tell us what caused this, no doubt.”
“Maybe she needs a doctor,” Jane protested.
“I doubt it. No harm is done.” His fingers ran over the wounds on Elizabeth’s cheek. “It is only on the surface, it doesn’t go deeply.”
“Maybe she’s had alcohol poisoning…”
“Jane, believe me, alcohol poisoning has far worse effects on someone.” There was no doubt that Charles Bingley had experienced each and every one of them. “Trust me. She only needs some rest. She must have been through a lot. Perhaps it will be better for her to wake up and learn that Will has taken care of everything.”
“Will caused this!” Jane cried emphatically.
“Don’t be unfair, Jane. Will loves her and he would never hurt her intentionally. Your sister trusts him. Trust him; and trust me too.”
Jane didn’t seem completely persuaded, but she drew back and let Charles carry Elizabeth into her room. She stayed there, gazing at her sister worryingly, as Charles withdrew to the adjoining room. Some time passed; she couldn’t tell how much. Then he appeared, holding his cell phone and whispering:
“Will wishes to speak to you.”
She grabbed the phone and went to the other room without even looking at Charles.
“Yes?” She used her most abrupt tone.
“How is Elizabeth?” William answered worried, but without betraying any guilt, much to Jane’s irritation.
“Alive, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Jane!” He seemed shocked.
He tried to calm himself. “Why are you mad at me?”
“You were with her last night. You tell me.”
“I am not responsible for this, Jane. At least not in the way you mean it.” He sighed.
“Who is it then?” she cried. “I am sick of your secretiveness!”
“Ok, I will tell you exactly what happened. But don’t interrupt me, because we haven’t got much time.”
Some minutes later Jane returned to Elizabeth’s room, where Charles had stayed during her absence. Wordlessly, she hugged him tightly, burying her face in his chest.
“Will you forgive me for being such a bitch before?”
“It was not that very bad.” He whispered reassuringly.
“Now you’ve seen the worst in me.” She lifted her face. “Do you still love me?”
“More than ever,” he stated simply, as she held him even tighter. “Besides, now we’re equal. You have seen the worst in me, and I have seen the worst in you. No more unpleasant surprises in our relationship.” He chuckled.
“I love you, Charles.”
“Good to know. Because I love you too. Very, very much.”
Jane looked at her sister, asking Charles a silent question.
“She will be fine.” He said “Will is going to make everything right, before she even wakes up.”
The ring of the doorbell made them start; and then alerted them to danger. They moved towards the hall, stopping a few steps before the door. Charles took her hand into his.
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I am not.”
“Have you any idea who it might be?” He took in a deep breath.
“I called dad to explain; and he said he would come, although I asked him not to. He accepted a compromise and agreed not to come before ten.” They looked at their watches simultaneously. Six thirty. “Why did he? Or perhaps it is not him?” Jane was not good at masking her panic.
“We’ll see, darling. Don’t worry, I am here.” Charles moved towards the door and spied the person who stood outside through the peephole.
“It’s a woman. Alone,” he whispered softly, trying not to alarm Jane. She opened her mouth to reply when a voice that betrayed genuine anguish was heard from outside.
“Jane, open the door! What has happened in there? Jane, open now!” The woman started banging on the door.
Jane was not sure if she should feel relived or horrified. She stood for a moment, fixed, but then perceived that Charles was still waiting for an explanation, she turned to him.
Charles exhaled heavily. “But, how?”
Jane shook her head, resigned. “She called me at 5am asking me to bring Charlotte’s favorite cake to Hertfordshire.”
“Ah, the lunch,” Charles nodded knowingly. “But, 5 am?”
Jane smiled nervously and said, “My mother is the ‘when I remember it, I’ve got to say it’ type.” She opened the door and Fanny Lucas stormed in, like a hurricane.
“Lizzy,” she said breathlessly, not taking note of the fact that a strange and handsome man was standing next to her eldest daughter. “Where is Lizzy?”
“Mom, what are you doing here?”
“You thought you could trick me, Jane? I gave birth to you!” she cried. Jane shrugged. Her mother had always been melodramatic; unfortunately now there was good reason for her to be. Fanny walked past Jane and Charles, not even greeting him, heading for Elizabeth’s bedroom. “You think that I wouldn’t be alarmed when you told me that you had to be at Lizzy’s at 5 am? I am your mother, for God’s sake! Your damn mother!”
Charles was more than surprised. From Jane’s descriptions, he had pictured Fanny Lucas as a very different person than what she now appeared to be. But the truth was that Jane had never seen her mother in such a state either. She seemed like a wild animal; smelling the danger. She watched Fanny as she found the broken glass and the bloodstain on the carpet, waiting for the inevitable outburst. “Lizzy!” Fanny screamed before Jane could do anything to stop her.
“Hush, mother, she is fine. Just asleep.” Jane embraced her. “We’ll go to her room, but you won’t shout, ok? We must not wake her up.”
“But the blood?” Fanny protested.
“She scratched her cheek,” Charles said hastily. “We’ll explain everything later. For the moment, please don’t make noise.” Jane cast him a reproachful look but he shrugged his shoulders, mouthing a silent “What? Weren’t we supposed to tell her?” looking very innocently.
Fanny tiptoed into Elizabeth’s room, followed by Jane at arm’s length. She sat quietly at one side of the bed and watched carefully her daughter’s sleeping yet agitated and tortured face. Her palm touched her cheek, still stained from blood. “My Lizzy,” she sighed, “my baby, who hurt you like that?”
“Mum, no one attacked her. She did this to herself. She was…was…” Jane stammered.
“Despaired,” Charles offered softly.
“But, why would she…?” Fanny left her question unfinished, looking suddenly completely resigned. “Lizzy, Lizzy, I could never understand you. You never let me understand you.” She heaved a sigh, before speaking to Jane. “Please, bring something to clean her face. I cannot see her like this.”
“But, mum, it’s better to let her rest…” Jane said.
“I am your mother. I know what is best for both of you. I’ve nursed you two since you were babies!” Fanny said decidedly.
J ane went to the kitchen to bring what she was asked, wondering what her sister would make of this if she were awake.
“This is a disaster. A disaster!”
Darcy didn’t pay any attention to the repeated exclamations of the group of lawyers and members of the board. They had not stopped declaring how horrible the situation was since he had announced what had happened. The sleepy and annoyed faces had turned into appalled and positively terrified ones in less than a minute. They were very quick at realizing what was at stake.
“Darcy, surely you can stop this woman who knows everything from revealing the truth. Wickham will do nothing unless she does.” One of his father’s closest colleagues said firmly.
“Stop her how? The same way Wickham stopped my mother?” Darcy said coolly. “No, Mr. Rogers, it seems that a lot of people in Pemberley can live without a clear conscience, but I am not one of them.”
“Darcy, we can’t afford to pay for your conscience. It’s too personal to concern us.”
“I am the CEO here. I own the largest part of Pemberley. My conscience is your conscience,” he replied firmly.
“This is absurd!”
“No, this is the way things are,” Darcy hissed.
“I am not obliged to follow you in your madness.”
“Don’t you dare insult my nephew like this ever again.” Michael Fitzwilliam spoke for the first tine that morning. He had not supported either side until that point and it was thought that Darcy would not have the blessing of his uncle and former CEO. Apparently everyone was mistaken. “He is doing what is right and you have no right to question his choice. We are not consulting you, gentlemen. We are informing you.” Under his reproachful glare, even the older members looked like schoolboys.
“Don’t you understand, Michael? This is the end of Pemberley!” One of them found the courage to protest. “And you ask us to prepare for this in…” he looked at his watch, “…less than five hours. We cannot possibly…”
“We’ve lost too much time,” Darcy said with such an ominous voice that even his uncle gazed at him in apprehension and surprise. “Everyone who doesn’t want to go through this is free to quit. NOW. Now, gentlemen! Do you hear me?” he shouted and the veins of his throat seemed ready to explode. “I am giving this damn press conference at noon and nothing will stop me. I don’t care if I will be left with only one colleague then, but the ones who will continue here will have to support my choice.” He paused and looked at every pair of eyes in the room separately, with a merciless, stealthy stare that left everyone feeling naked. It was clear to them whom the boss was and whom they all had to follow. “Your last chance, gentlemen.” He said in a low voice that made some of them shiver. “Who leaves and who stays?”
No one spoke; no one moved.
“I won’t repeat the question,” Darcy said as a tiny smile curved his lips. Silence persisted for a whole minute while almost everyone in the room had begun to pray that the meeting would finish soon.
“Fine.” Darcy said slowly after the minute was over. “I take it then that you will all sit next to me in five hours.”
At that moment a second group of lawyers entered, followed by three experts in computers, three people who worked in the archives, the director of human resources and Georgiana who had gone with them. They carried many thick folders that they left on the big oval table. Georgiana handed William five CD-ROMs.
“We won’t go to jail after all, brother.” She smiled at him weakly. “But you can start suing some of your faithful employees now.”
“My faithful employees?”
“Yes, the ones who kept double books, and false accounts of your dealings with George Wickham’s enterprises.” Georgiana appeared calm, but her brother could see the tiny hints of rage on her face that the others did not notice. “According to some of these reports, you supported financially most projects of Wickham’s, including the infamous one.” She pointed at the CD-ROMs. “I don’t want to think what would have happened if those bastards had given these to the police before we found them.”
There was stunned silence in the room. William broke it first. “But we have excellent security systems. People who check for such things.”
“It’s those who were responsible for these things that were deeply involved, dear brother. I am afraid that some of the board members in here misplaced their trust, and they have no right to complain now,” she said, looking pointedly at those who were the first to oppose her brother.
Elizabeth heard a voice calling her name from afar. She wanted it to stop, to leave her alone, but she could not find the energy to tell the voice to cease. She felt she was in a dark, quiet room; or rather at the ocean side; someone was dragging her outwards, but she didn’t want to submerge. The battle continued for some time; she couldn’t tell for how long until she finally gave in and opened her eyes. One of her mother’s rare, genuine smiles greeted her and behind her stood Jane and Charles. She blinked once or twice before she could force her mind to start working.
A little pang of fear hit her, for which she could not account. Then as realization slowly came to her, invaded her; shadows and successive waves of apprehension started their ruthless attack until she was left drained and panicked. The previous night, she drank and drank, wishing that she would die; that she would never have to wake up again to face reality. She didn’t want to live in the world as it had now become. But retreat was never her way. Deep inside her, even in the darkest minute of the night, she knew she would find the courage to wake up; the strength to go and tell the police everything; the strength to betray William and disappear from his life forever; resigned from any prospect of happiness, or at least peace, forever. She looked at the smiling faces with hostility; they could convey no feeling to her. They were strangers to her. She sat up on her bed. She wanted to be left alone, to be away from them as soon as possible.
Before she could make any other movement however, her mother’s hands were firm upon her shoulders, keeping her on the bed and Jane handed her a letter.
“Lizzy, all will be fine. This is from William.”
Elizabeth grabbed the paper with the intention of tearing it, but her mother stopped her again.
“Lots of things have happened while you were sleeping, my dear. Things are turning for the better, trust us.”
“No, no you don’t understand! I have to…” Elizabeth said in an anxious voice. “You don’t understand; there are things I know… and that… Please, leave me alone!” She shouted.
At this moment Paul Bennet and Teresa chose to walk in.
“Hey sleepy head, woke up finally?” her father said with the utmost tenderness, gaining only an angry look from his beloved daughter.
“We have confused our girl, suffocating her like this and offering no explanation,” Teresa said, smiling encouragingly. “Elise, we are here because we know what happened last night. But you don’t have to do anything anymore. William decided to reveal everything himself.”
At this, Elizabeth stilled. She didn’t know what to make of it. Even though she had wished for a miracle, she had no expectation of salvation. How William had learnt the truth; how he had made such a decision was beyond her. Her slight hope soon turned into a certainty that her relatives were talking about something different than what was presently torturing her.
“You’ll know everything soon.” Teresa continued. “Read the letter and then come to the sitting room. There is something you must see. Now, shouldn’t we give our girl some space?”
Jane dreaded her mother’s reaction but instead she heard her saying, “You’re right Teresa. We must have made her feel dizzy. Janie, will you stay with her? We’ll be waiting for you in the sitting room.”
Jane nodded as Elizabeth watched silently. She believed that she was still sleeping, and going through one of those nightmares where everyone appears and talks to her but she cannot utter any answer.
“You feel ok?” Jane asked her as soon as they were alone.
“Yes, I do.” Elizabeth looked at her hands which were still holding the note tightly and she began to read it.
My dearest Elizabeth,
I know what happened yesterday. I know the whole truth. Richard’s bodyguard happened to be at the pub and managed to record the whole conversation. My love, I can feel your pain now. Let me share it. It is mine too. Do not despair, do not mourn. We are together in this. I am not leaving you ever again.
My darling, you know that there is no need for a decision. There is only one way to deal with what we have learned and we both know which this is. You have not failed me; you could never betray me. I could never admire you more, respect you more or love you more than the moment I heard your talk with the monster.
As you are reading this, I am giving a press conference, telling all the truth. Don’t worry, my love, the traitors have been found and they cannot harm us anymore. As for Pemberley, my family and my father, I want justice, nothing more. It is time for this circle to close. This cannot give us any pain; it can only be an incentive for us to start something new; together.
I am not afraid of the “sharks ready to eat me” as you call some of your less favorite colleagues. I am doing the right thing and I know you are with me in this. I am not alone; nothing burdens my heart.
Nothing shadows my day. Because I know that this will soon be over and then our demons will stop hunting us forever. And I will finally be able to love you without any reserve, any impediment, giving every bit of my body and soul to you to take care of.
You have saved me, Elizabeth. Never doubt it. Never forget it.
I love you.
Elizabeth had not realized that she was crying until she felt Jane’s hand drying her tears.
“Oh Jane,” she said, not trying to stop the flood cascading down her cheeks, “never had I imagined that so much love could bring so much pain.”
“Read more carefully, sweetie,” was Jane’s simple reply.
“Have you read it as well?”
“No, but I have talked to William.”
“How is he?” Elizabeth asked quickly. Suddenly she felt an elementary need to see him, to talk to him, to read his heart in his eyes. To know if he suffered, if he was angry, if he had faced the news with surprise or hatred; and most of all, whether he still loved her. The letter’s reassurances seemed trifling; she lacked patience to read carefully. She didn’t need a piece of paper; she needed his eyes; she needed him!
“Determined. Calm. Not suffering anymore. I have seen him suffering, Lizzy. On Christmas day, when you disappeared and he thought that he had lost you. I can tell the difference. He is peaceful now. So, take a better look and find what he feels and what the letter makes you feel.” Jane winked.
While reading the letter for the second time, a smile accompanied and brightened Elizabeth’s tearful eyes; she could hear his voice whispering to her, she could feel his heart beating in sweet tandem with hers – she could feel his love. She trusted him; she trusted herself. The bond with him, so deep and strong made the deeper chords of her soul vibrate, flowing like medicine over the scars Wickham’s cruelty had left last night; healing.
“I am a very lucky woman,” she told her sister.
“You are both lucky to have found each other,” Jane answered, lightly pushing back a lock of hair that fell on her sister’s brow. “Now, come admire your handsome man on TV.”
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