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A Naughty Star

Chapter 20

I shall be brief in descanting upon this part of the story since no one can be interested in reading the misadventures of Mr Bingley without now and then feeling like shooting the idiotic fool to death or, in a tenderer tone, somehow shaking him awake to real life. Besides, I cannot positively describe Mr Bingley's suffering upon the turn of affairs without scaring the overly sensitive reader away, although by coming into the intelligence that Miss Caroline was left in charge of her delusional brother, one can have a shrewd idea that it was quite overpowering.

To begin with, let me tell you than Mr Bingley did indeed return to his own body at the very same time that Elizabeth returned to hers. He did not question either the means or the authority which put things straight again, but he accepted his fate directly. Yes, without knowing how, Charles Bingley found himself back in his body and his environment, and he could not be happier.

Granted, Bingley had every reason to be wishing to be back to his normal self. He had long ago understood that a gentleman's life was a thousand times preferable to a lady's, platonic relationship with Miss Bennet notwithstanding.

At first there was nothing more pleasant than dwelling in this innocent fashion with Miss Bennet. Shortly after Mr Darcy's brief visit and withdrawal, however, Mr Bingley was confronted with the cruel reality that he was quite alone with his predicament. To crown it all, he saw that Jane was suffering his loss acutely. Hence, while Darcy and the real Miss Elizabeth holidayed merrily together in London, Mr Bingley was assaulted by a deep melancholy which only increased when he saw his beloved willingly sacrificing herself at Mr Collins's altar of love.

"Elizabeth," cried Mrs Bennet knocking at her daughter's door where Bingley had locked himself up after Mr Collins and Jane had parted for their little outing. "Elizabeth! Come here this instant!"

"Let her be, mama," admonished Mary.

"What is wrong with her anyway?" asked Kitty.

"She is depressed because Jane has robbed her of her beau!" laughed Lydia.

"Rather, the sight of Mr Collins walking with Jane caused her this shock," Mr Bennet mused.

"Oh, why should she mind that at all? She rejected the man, did she not?" asked Mrs Bennet, exasperated.

Mr Bennet looked at his wife with puzzlement and shook his head. "Let me talk to her," said he, and to his daughter behind the door he called out, "Child, let me see you, my love. Come outside, and let your father see your face."

But Elizabeth did not come out, or eat or drink for the rest of the day. What was more, she did not try Lady Lucas's famous concoction either, which the meddlesome neighbour solicitously offered in person that evening after she heard of poor Lizzie's dejection through Charlotte. It was not until Mrs Bennet, wrapped up in a bed gown early next morning, and looking very much like *Lady Macbeth, came in silence into her eldest daughters' bedchamber and poisoned poor Bingley with the wretched medicine of Lady Lucas's composition in his sleep. He almost choked with the beverage, yet the shrewd mother succeeded in raising him and put him out of the bedchamber that day.

Granted, Miss Elizabeth's countenance did look pinker after she had swallowed the drug, but she also acquired a queer look upon her face. Whatever the case, Bingley was no longer one ounce depressed in front of the Bennets lest he would have to undergo Lady Macbeth's treatment again.

"Dearest, you must not concern yourself on my behalf," Jane told her dear sister that night.

"But Jane dear," Bingley stammered. "I cannot bear it. When I saw you going away with that...with...Mr Collins...he will surely offer for you, in the same way he offered for ... me."

"I know."

"You will not accept him, will you?"

"I shall do what constitutes my family's safety and happiness, Lizzie. Surely you can understand that."

"Jane. You cannot be serious."

"Beggars cannot be chusers. You said so yourself. You know perfectly well that Longbourn is entailed away in favour of Mr Collins. Had Mr Bingley...had he offered for me this would not be necessary. But as it is, he has not."

"But he will come back. I am certain he will."

"If he does, it will not be on my behalf. He left without much of a word."

"Oh, no, Jane. Your Charles has never left you."

"He is not my Charles, Lizzie," Jane said with infinite sadness. "It has been long since I have become quite convinced that Mr Bingley no longer cares for me. You must not worry, dearest. I shall be content with my fate as long as you are happy for us both."

"How can I ever be happy if you are not!"

"I dare say you will, my dear. I am certain you will marry for love. Besides, Your beau loves you," Bingley beheld Jane with intrigue, unsure of the identity of such an admirer. "Very soon you shall be happily settled, I am sure."

"Oh, Jane. Say no more, please. You do not know what you are saying."

"I have few possessions to dispose of, my love, and I shall dispose of myself in a manner which will be most beneficial for my family, and that is what really matters."

"Jane, Jane! You cannot give up on me...on Mr Bingley."

"Oh Lizzie. You are so romantic! And so was I...once... But, you are wrong when you suppose that Mr Bingley loves me. He does not. Mr Collins' offer may not be the best, but ..."

"I know exactly how it looks, but believe me. Mr Bingley does love you, with all his heart and he will return!"

"No, dearest," Jane took a deep breath. "He will be *forgot and I shall be content with my fate. But, I may remember him as...the most amiable man of my acquaintance. That is all. I have nothing either to hope or fear...and nothing to reproach him with. At least I have not had that pain."

That night Bingley could hardly sleep, chastised as he was after Jane's sermon on family duty. He spent all the night pondering what he could do to rescue sweet Jane from the claws of the parson. After much deliberation he finally came to the conclusion that if Miss Jane was ready to sacrifice herself, so must he, for her sake.

What if Miss Elizabeth, instead of Jane, got engaged to a good suitor? What if she became the saviour of the Bennet family? He thought of this admirer whom Jane had mentioned. Was it possible that she was talking of Mr Darcy? Would his good friend, the august Mr Darcy, be willing to partake of a comedy of this nature to ensure his happiness? Bingley knew perfectly well of Darcy's partiality for the lady he was impersonating. Should he agree to the charade, Bingley was certain Darcy would be pleased to be married to the real Elizabeth. But then he discarded the notion immediately. Surely, he could not involve his best friend in a scandal of this nature. There was the possibility that he might never return to his own body, and what would he do married to Darcy? And if he did return to his own body...what would Miss Elizabeth say? Would she be happy to find herself married to Mr Darcy? He tossed and turned in bed that night, unable to find peace.

It was Thursday when Bingley had this conversation with Miss Bennet. Friday brought fresher absurdities. After Mr Collins formally asked permission of the head of the family to court the eldest Miss Bennet, permission which was reluctantly granted, yet granted nontheless, he was called from his hymeneal projects by the arrival of Saturday morning. The pain of separation, however, might be alleviated on his side, by preparations for the reception of a bride, as he had reason to hope that shortly after his next return into Hertfordshire, the day would be fixed that was to make him the happiest of men. He took leave of his relations at Longbourn with as much solemnity as before; wished them all health and happiness again, and promised to return for Christmas.

The days passed quickly while the parson was away in Kent. Unfortunately, Christmas Eve brought Mr Collins back and with him, Bingley's fears became a horrible truth. His Jane was going to get engaged to be married to her cousin in front of his very eyes during the Christmas celebrations, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

Thus, when he discovered that he was no longer at Mrs Phillips's Christmas assembly, and that he had landed quite unexpectedly in the middle of a beautiful ball at Darcy house, away from the inconsistencies of Mrs Bennet and the sight of the parson both of whom had been replaced by a handful of beautifully adorned ladies, he almost cried in pleasure. "My God, my God!" he said, overexcited to have at last broken out of his maidenly prison. "I am Bingley again! I am Bingley again!" and in this wild state he ran to the ball floor to shake his good friend Darcy's hand whom he spied dancing with a blonde.

"What the devil do you think you are doing, Bingley?" asked Mr Darcy, quite put out to have been interrupted in the middle of a minuet. The reader must recollect that Mr Darcy was somewhat out of sorts with Bingley, having had a little argument with Elizabeth while she was in his friend's flesh, and was still confused as to why he felt so bad over a stupid misunderstanding with him when he could be enjoying his beautiful partner's smiles.

"I am back!" Bingley said as he shook hands with him. "I am back!"

Darcy's eyes opened up like coffee saucers. "Back from where?"

"I am myself again! I am no longer Miss Elizabeth!" and as Bingley said this he gave a little leap of joy.

"Miss Elizabeth?" Darcy asked astounded.

"Yes! At long last I am no longer a woman!"

On hearing so preposterous a discourse, Mr Darcy all but covered Bingley's mouth with his hand, "Good God," said he, fiercely taking his friend's elbow and guiding him away from the centre of the stares. "What the deuce do you mean, Bingley?"

"I am no longer a woman," Bingley explained again with tears in his eyes. "I can marry Jane now!" These five words of course brought to his mind the fact that Miss Bennet was very much in danger of becoming engaged to the parson back in Hertfordshire. "Oh! Jane! I must go to Hertfordshire immediately, lest Miss Bennet be doomed to marry the parson!"

"The parson?" By now Mr Darcy had contrived to abscond with Bingley into a quieter room, away from prying eyes.

"Yes. Mr Collins. He is planning to marry Miss Bennet!"

"Miss Bennet?"

Bingley beheld Darcy with a puzzled look unsure why Darcy was repeating everything he said after him. "Look, Darcy. I have not a second to waste. I must leave directly," he said brushing off Darcy's astonishment.

"In the middle of the night?"

Bingley hit his brow with his fist in a gesture of sudden realization that he was, indeed, in the middle of a ball in London. "No. Of course not. But I shall journey early in the morrow."

"To Hertfordshire?"

"Yes."

"To marry Miss Bennet?"

"Yes!"

"Pray, which Miss Bennet are we talking about?"

"Jane Bennet, of course. Who else?"

"Let me see if I understand you well. You wish to return to Hertfordshire, whence you have just come, to marry Miss Jane Bennet ... tomorrow."

"Yes, yes."

"But you are not even engaged to Miss Bennet?"

"No."

Darcy made a gesture with his hand as if he were pondering Bingley's plans. "But you presume she will be soon to... "

"Mr Collins."

"Mr Collins...the parson."

"Yes."

"Was he not Miss Elizabeth's beau?"

"Well, yes...and no. He was my beau (stupid giggle, probable a side effect of his time spent with Kitty). He proposed to me, not to Miss Elizabeth."

"Mr Collins...proposed to you."

"Yes, but, of course, he thought I was Lizzie."

"Lizzie...You mean Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"

"Yes, yes!"

"How could he have confused you with Miss Elizabeth, pray?"

"Because I was in her body!" he cried, "You still do not understand, do you? The parson would have married me if I had not punched him in the nose! Now he wishes to marry Jane. (He rolled his eyes.) Well, he would have married her already but for his clerical duties for Christmas."

This sort of language came repeatedly from Bingley's mouth as he explained his misfortunes to his absolutely astonished friend, who, with every minute, grew more and more convinced that Bingley's delusions had returned. Yet, as it was, he bore the whole story of the spell with amazing calmness. Granted, he cringed when Bingley told him that Mr Collin had bestowed him a kiss on the lips. It was only when Bingley insisted that marrying him would have been a fine solution to his predicament, that Mr Darcy thought he had heard enough.

"Faith, Darcy, I did not know what to do. I was ready to marry you if that would have stopped the parson's claim of Longbourn. (Here, Darcy's face defied every bewildered expression ever conceived.) I know, I know. It sounds crazy."

"Crazy? Why? That a gentleman should be kissing a parson and planning, nay plotting, to marry another gentleman is perfectly normal, is it not? Why should I consider crazy what is perfectly normal?" he said in a perfectly sarcastic tone.

"But think of it! What else could I do? I could not marry any other. It would have been for real! But not with you. I confess I also thought of persuading Miss Jane to marry Miss Elizabeth, as she was in my flesh, but then again I could not ask Miss Elizabeth to go to such an extent for my sake."

"Indeed."

"Why! It was preposterous! A marriage of sisters!"

"Forgive me. I must go back on my words. You are in the right. Crazy would be an understatement. It is preposterous, nay, disgusting. Therefore I shall conclude that you are finally completely out of your wits." Darcy gave Bingley his back, very much offended and at loss for what to do after Bingley's delusional confession of his dealings with men and women.

"Our marriage would have been just the thing. You knew the state of affairs perfectly well. It would have been a false marriage, of course, until the spell was broken. I know you would not have objected to marrying Lizzie. After all you have always been her pet, have you not? (Here he snorted like Lydia) But then I thought Lizzie would not have approved. She does not like you very much, you know. She believes you hate her."

The mentioning of his feelings for the alluring Miss Elizabeth was something Darcy could not stand. "Will you stop talking nonsense?" he spat, his eyes red like burning charcoal.

"I was quite helpless, you know, when you left...But it is all over now. I am back in my body! I am so relieved!"

Darcy, for want of sufficient reason to kill his friend on the spot, chose to remain silent for a while, trying to assimilate all that Bingley had said. Then he checked Bingley's breath to see if he had drunk more alcohol than his system could have taken, then checked one more time that Bingley's glass had not been poisoned, and after seeing that the wretched chap was merely hallucinating, he strongly advised him to retire for the night.

To Darcy's surprise, Bingley readily did as he bid him, which was in fact completely unexpected (Elizabeth would have not submitted to Darcy's words so quickly and, truth be told, Darcy had got used to that rebellious behaviour). As a matter of fact, Bingley was quite exhausted, and there was nothing better for his weariness than the comfort of a rich man's accommodations. It was prodigiously good that he was so tired and did not protest, otherwise, Darcy would have been bound to kick Bingley in his rear to death.

Predictably, the first thing Bingley did in the morning was feel his loins to see if everything was in order. Then he felt his chest and found Miss Bennet's breasts finally gone, to his great relief. It seemed he had everything manly in the right place and everything womanly missing. Unfortunately, Bingley's naiveté did not contribute to his peace of mind.

Wild with elation, he jumped out of bed, rang for his manservant, and ordered him to shave the protruding beard Elizabeth had grown on his face. Then he ordered to pack his things and ready a carriage to travel to Hertfordshire.

As the rest of the day unfolded, Bingley insisted on repeating the same tale of the body swap, congratulating himself in having contrived to be back in his own flesh and making preparations for his immediate withdrawal to Longbourn to marry Miss Bennet.

While under the overpowering impression that Bingley's mind had reached the point of no return, Mr Darcy made up his mind to call for Mr Bingley's nearest family. What else could he do? It was not his province to undertake such a mission as to find a cure for his friend. Thus, Bingley's trip was put off indefinitely, his sisters were duly sent for and they, in turn, called for an apothecary, a genteel sort of man of science who once again poisoned Bingley with an abundant dose of Laudanum that rendered Lady Lucas's concoction a baby's drops and which kept the gentleman in bed for a whole week.

Unfortunately, the minute Bingley woke up from the trance in which the opium beverage left him, he insisted on his account of body swap with Miss Elizabeth, which inevitably brought back a renewal of the doses of laudanum. As a result, Bingley was permanently either drugged or deluded, which did not contribute to his reunion with his beloved Miss Bennet.

By the time Bingley had enough presence of mind to realise that his story was not going to be accepted as the truth, more than a month had passed and his chances of finding Miss Bennet still single had been sadly reduced to none, as Miss Darcy confirmed one day when she shared the news which her aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, had imparted her in a letter. It stated that her parson had indeed finally married a lady from Hertfordshire.

"Oh! Wonderful news!" Miss Bingley chirped. "It seems that petty parson has finally married one of his cousins."

"Indeed? Which of them?" asked Mrs Hurst, highly diverted.

"Yes, Miss Darcy. Pray tell us which of them. His favourite had always been Miss Elizabeth."

"I've no idea. My aunt simply says that her parson has recently married a lady from Hertfordshire. A very sweet, genteel sort of young lady."

"This does not sound like Miss Eliza, does it? It must be Miss Jane," said Mrs Hurst.

"Well. In that case you must be relieved, Mr Darcy. You can continue with your admiration of her fine eyes." Darcy, who was sitting near the fire with his eyes blankly fixed on the air, turned his head towards Caroline, but he did not say a word. "At least Charles is safe now," Caroline finished bitterly.

Safe indeed.

Chapter 21

With mixed feelings of relief and astonishment, and only when she recognised herself in the mirror at her Aunt Philips's house did Elizabeth own what otherwise would have seemed impossible. She was back in her body and at home in Meryton. It was done without her interfering. Done without her even wishing it, which was quite unsettling. The last thing she remembered was Darcy's back as he led the beautiful blond for the second time to the dance floor and then she was violently swashed back to her own self. Devil take it! She was Elizabeth Bennet again! Understandingly, the sudden and unexpected return to her own body left her a little breathless and out of sorts and it took her some time to recover.

In looking around it was plain that just as she had been partaking of a Christmas table in London, so she was now, comfortably seated in front of a Christmas turkey handsomely stuffed amidst an abundance of other delightful meals, surrounded by familiar faces. That no one had realised of anything amiss was palpable in that everyone seemed quite entertained with their plates or otherwise absorbed in deep conversation. That she had, or better Bingley had been listening to something her aunt was saying became apparent when Mrs Gardiner remained silent looking at her countenance with puzzled expectation, as if it were Elizabeth's turn to say something.

"I am sorry, Aunt. I was distracted. What were you saying?"

"I was remarking on your sister's out-of -sorts look. I wonder if something can be done."

Elizabeth's eyes darted towards her sister Jane's chair. She was seated beside her mother and opposite Mr Collins. It was not long before Lizzie realised what her aunt's meaning was. It was written all over Mrs Bennet's satisfied face. Besides, her mother did not seem to be able to talk about anything else. Evidently Jane had been induced, for that was the only way she could have agreed to a scheme such as this, to accept Mr Collins's hand in marriage. This intelligence gave Elizabeth great pain, but her spirits returned as she considered her aunt's words. As long as her father had not acknowledged the match yet, Elizabeth imagined she could still do something to prevent her sister's union with the sycophantic parson. Clearly, in agreeing to unite herself to the disagreeable cousin, Jane's expectations from Mr Bingley must be completely over. How could they not be? After all, in what Jane was concerned, Mr Bingley had left without a single word. These considerations led her to own her share of guilt in her sister's ill choice of husband. True, it had been Mr Bingley's idea to quit Netherfield Park from the very beginning, and he would have had left for London straight away after the Netherfield Ball had it not been for the wilful interference of fate which involved the switching of their bodies.

Although Elizabeth was not resolved to confess her latest adventures in a gentleman's flesh, absence had increased her desire of intimate talking with her beloved sister, and in view of Jane's imminent engagement to Mr Collin more so. Thus, as soon as she had recovered her wit, Elizabeth rose from the table and with a confident look directed to her aunt she begged her sister to follow her to an adjoining room.

"Jane, Jane," she said as she beckoned her to take a seat beside her. "You must put a stop to this silly opera, my love. Everyone that looks at you can see how sad you are. It will not do. You deserve to be happy."

Jane could have made a gesture of fastidiousness, but she was the sweetest, most genteel creature in all England and she dared not answer to her beloved sister unkindly. "Dearest Elizabeth," she said trying to sound calm. "I think we have been through all this before."

"I know we must. But the more I think of it, the more am I convinced that you are making the worst mistake."

"Lizzie, it is done already. Let us not talk about this any more."

"No, hear me one more time. You must hear me. I have one more reason why you cannot unite yourself to our cousin. And this reason is the heaviest of them all, you will see."

Jane inspected her sister with curiosity. "Very well. I hear you."

Elizabeth let out a heavy sigh. She was not sure what she could say to talk her sister out of her decision to marry Collins. She was on the verge of panic when a most preposterous idea occurred to her. So unseemly it was that for a moment Elizabeth tried to reject the occurrence and think of something else. To that effect she resorted to babbling a little, to gain time.

"I am sure you are aware of the absolute lack of comeliness of the groom," she joked which extracted a smile from Jane. That was a good sign. "Lizzie..."

"Yet that was not my point... Your union to Mr Collins must be called off because ... it might ruin my own chances to ever be happy."

"How so?" asked Jane quite surprised, yet that was only the beginning of her surprise.

"I am planning to be soon related to Mr Collins's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in a manner that cannot accept your alliance with her parson. The connection would be...beneath her ladyship and she might oppose the match."

"Match? Lizzie. Of what are you talking?"

"Oh it will astonish you, I am sure. Can you not tell?"

Jane was astonished, truly and quite fully, yet she was absolutely at loss for her sister's meaning.

"Yes, Jane," said Elizabeth standing and drawing Jane's arm within hers, they walked about the room. "You must be aware that I am determined to marry Mr Darcy."

The surprise was now complete, because in spite of Elizabeth's words, a suspicion of her having any such views had never entered her sister's imagination, though she had always known of the gentleman's partiality for Elizabeth, and she looked so truly the astonishment she felt, that Elizabeth was obliged to repeat what she had said, and more fully and more solemnly. The conviction of her determination once admitted, it was not unwelcome. There was even pleasure with the surprise.

"My dearest Lizzie. I see what you are talking of. Of course you are in the right. I cannot marry Mr Collins when I shall be Mr Darcy's sister!"

"Oh Jane! Thank you. I am so relieved! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!"

"There is nothing to thank. I approve your choice from my soul, and foresee your happiness as heartily as I wish and desire it. What an amazing surprise. It is a most amazing match."

"Has papa made any announcement of your engagement yet?"

Jane shook her head. "But even if he had, I would gladly suffer the pain for your sake, Lizzie. I care neither what people say, nor what they feel when it comes to your happiness."

"Mama will be very upset," Elizabeth added after a moment's silence.

"It will be a bitter pill to her, I know, but soon to be swallowed and forgotten as soon as your news becomes known," Jane said confidently. Elizabeth lowered her head. "Mr Darcy loves you! You must remember I warned you! He has loved you from the very beginning, I know well. You will have a most devoted husband, exactly what you deserve. How will we all rejoice! But tell me about it. Talk to me. When did he propose?"

Nothing could be more difficult than to answer such a question. How Darcy had declared the pleasing plague had stolen on him for her sake she could not say, for he had confessed his feelings while Elizabeth was in Bingley's flesh, and before she had started to express the situation three times over, Jane interrupted her with, "You mean to say that Mr Darcy does not exactly know his own happiness yet?"

"No," Elizabeth sighed.

"Well, well. And yet you sound quite confident! I cannot deny I have noticed ---and told you several times ---that Mr Darcy was in love with you. His affections were quite evident, I have always told you. But you were never encouraging ... Judging by your manners towards him I should have never thought you were inclined to take him seriously. You, my dear, with such regular conduct against him and your steady abhorrence, are the last girl in the world likely to attach him."

"It was bad, very bad of me to be against him. But I did not know him then."

"And you do now?"

Elizabeth paused, half smiled and blushed a little before she replied, "In a manner I cannot tell you, Jane."

Jane raised one brow inquiringly but asked no questions. Instead she remarked, "I will not ask you then. Yet I am persuaded he is the very one to make you happy. What are you planning to do?"

"To begin with I plan to put off your wedding...permanently."

Jane was silent and remained pensive for a little while. Then her face lit up. Her sister's plans rejoiced her.

"I will not take Mr Collins if that will interfere in your plans to reach perfect happiness, Lizzie. I only wished you have spoken before. It would have saved me many a tedious walk to Meryton."

"I am so sorry Jane. I admit my fault there. I was very selfish. I should have come to you before."

"Come to me? You have never left me, my dear. It was only your heart which you kept from me."

Elizabeth felt monstrously guilty. It was bad enough that she was concealing so much from her sister. But still she was not determined to confess what in truth had happened. It would make her sound like a crazy woman.

"Still, I should have been more attentive to you," Elizabeth said sweetly. "Can you forgive me, Jane?"

"Forgive you? My dearest Lizzie," cried Jane stopping short and smiling in her face. "I will say this once more. There is nothing to forgive or thank for. I am so glad to see you in love with a man that returns your feelings. It quite delights me."

~ * ~

The week which passed after the private announcement of the break up engagement between Jane and Mr Collins became a veritable inferno for the members of the family at Longbourn. Mrs Bennet was enraged as she had never been before and she made a point to let everyone in the house know of the state of her nerves. To make matters worse, Mr Collins's surprising course of action after his frustrated second attempt to marry one of his cousins only added to Mrs Bennet's vexation, for no sooner had the parson been informed by a relieved Mr Bennet that Jane refused to marry him than he crossed the road in the direction of Lucas Lodge to offer for the eldest Miss Lucas. The occurrence, though affecting Mrs Bennet's nerves miserably, brought very different feelings for her eldest daughter. It appeased Jane's soul and conscience for having broken up her word of marrying him. Yet what was tranquillity and comfort for Jane, was vexation and humiliation for the mother. The absolute want of propriety in Mrs Bennet persuaded Mr and Mrs Gardiner of the necessity to take Jane to spend some time in London with them until the storm had calmed down and at the same time prevent Jane from being the target of unkind comments in the neighbourhood. Jane parted, promising Elizabeth to call on Mr Bingley's party in London to ask after Miss Bingley's health and whereabouts which was excuse enough to learn a little about the gentlemen of the house.

To Elizabeth's mind, Jane's unexpected withdrawal was not as much a source of vexation as the want of Mr Darcy's society. She felt his absence very painfully and thought of him every day, even every hour, and was too much in want of his company to derive anything but irritation from considering which were his pursuits and considerations before she was swept away from his side. Mr Darcy could not have devised anything more likely to raise his consequence in Elizabeth's heart than this forced separation, which combined with his sudden interest in the other sex completed Elizabeth's misery. She could not be more miserable, confined within doors by a series of rain and snow, with nothing to do but listen to her mother's exasperating complains and no variety to hope for until Jane returned from her trip to London.

Her vexation did not end with the week. All this was bad, but she had still more to feel when Friday came round and brought no news of Mr Darcy, when another Friday came and still nothing and when finally a letter from Jane arrived, Elizabeth learnt that the party of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley was no longer in London, so had Jane been informed by one of Mr Bingley's servant.

If Elizabeth had felt impatient and regret before, if she had ever felt sorry for what she had said to Mr Darcy or feared she had not done the right thing in concealing her identity while in Mr Bingley's body, now she felt it tenfold more. She had, moreover, to contend with one emotion entirely new to her: jealousy. It was evident that Mr Darcy had found the blond attractive at the ball on Christmas. What if he found her something more? At any rate his removal from London might mean his removal from the blond lady's company as well. Unless, of course, this lady was somehow connected to Mr Darcy in a more intimate way than Elizabeth had learnt. Perhaps they quit London together. Oh wretched, wretched heart! Her mind had no peace. Her heart would not let the subject of Mr Darcy drop. It became absolute necessary for her to get to Mr Darcy and learn once and for all if he still cared for her. She could not live any longer in such wretchedness, and she made up her mind to learn something from him, to device a manner of hearing a little of him or at least hear his name. *

* Inspired in Mary Crawford's painful time after Edmund's withdrawal

Chapter 22

If the presence of one's lover can ignite love, his absence can but fuel it. Of this Miss Elizabeth Bennet became thoroughly persuaded for the feeling of impatience and jealousy which had gripped her since she had been self abducted back to her body could have no other explanation.

That she was irremediably in love with Mr Darcy she had no doubt now. She dreamt of Darcy every night, and when she was not sleeping, she thought of him, yearned for him, saw him round every corner and was miserable most of the time. Her misery was understandable. She had had a taste of what she could have had and had probably lost. She could not imagine how to contrive to reach Darcy or where to find him. Chances were that he had already started to court another.

"For shame, Elizabeth!" she said to herself. "You must conquer this!"

Oh miserable heart! Will it give her no rest? Her jealousy was giving her such sickness at heart as made her hardly capable of keeping her countenance in front of her family. To make matters worse, with Jane away in London, Elizabeth was quite alone to put up with her mother's nerves. After Mr Collins's affections had been unexpectedly (and quite satisfactorily) transferred to the calculating Miss Lucas, Mrs Bennet's rage reached unprecedented proportions. So Miss Elizabeth finally made up her mind to escape her mama's wrath and abscond herself to her uncle Gardiner's place to avoid confrontations.

"I am so glad you have come!" said Mrs Gardiner squeezing her favourite niece's hand. She was persuaded that this excursion would be productive of plenty amusement to both her nieces now, since she had not been able to raise Jane's spirits. Of course, Mrs Gardiner had no idea of Elizabeth's expectations since the aunt was absolutely foreign to the niece's unrequited attachment to the master of Pemberley.

"And I am glad you have asked me," said Elizabeth, "for if you should not have, it would have been quite dreadful to stay at home."

"It would have been shocking," Mr Gardiner interposed. "Fancy defying your mother twice. I would have readily expected it from you, my love," he said looking at Elizabeth, "but Jane...that was really something."

"Will you not miss your walks in the grove?" asked her cousin Margaret.

" Aye. The scenery is certainly different here. No more twisted paths in the wilderness or blasted trees."

"It is true," said Mrs Gardiner. "But we have beautiful squares in London. And there is Vaux Hall to visit."

"I detest the city scenery," said Mr Gardiner. "I admire trees when they grow in the wild, and are crooked and bent by the forces of nature."

"Do you?" said Elizabeth. "I confess I have come to like a fine prospect in the city as much as I like the wilderness in the grove. I particularly admire the trees in Russell Square; so tall and straight and proud. They mirror the aristocracy of the mansions that they surround to perfection."

"I thought you preferred a snug farmhouse to a fine house in town," said her uncle with surprise. "I have often heard you vouch as much."

"Farm houses please me better than anything. But the luxuries of a fine house in Russell Square are beyond comparison."

Mr Gardiner looked in amazement at his niece. "And you must have seen a plenty of those I gathered?"

Elizabeth coloured and remained thoughtfully silent for a while.

"I agree with you," Miss Bennet interposed. "I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. There is nothing like a fine house in the best part of London."

"Speaking of which," said Mrs Gardiner. "We have gayness galore in town, my dears, and some is to be taken in such houses. Your uncle receives invitations to all sorts of assemblies which he usually turns down just as soon as he reads them. His excuse is always the same... 'Had the girls been in town I should be glad to take them,' he says. Well now you are in town. We shall attend all of them."

"And who knows...perhaps you could attend a ball," said young Margaret with delight. She admired her cousins very much.

"A ball!" laughed Jane. "Who is to dance?"

"Who! Why, yourself, of course!" cried Mrs Gardiner.

Turning to look at grey streets out of the window she said in a low voice. "To be sure, I do not feel like dancing, dear aunt."

Her aunt beheld her with compassion. "Dear Jane. Can you not at least try? What is wrong with a little merriment? No one has died, isn't that so? Only because a certain person that shall be nameless is gone you must not be mourning."

"Lizzie will be merry for us both, I am sure."

"What do you mean?" asked Elizabeth. And she instantly comprehended that Mr Darcy was back in town.

Raising her eyes to her sister, Jane asked, "Shall I tell them?"

"Oh no, dear Jane!" Elizabeth protested. She had, in truth, wished for an opportunity to weaken her sister's dependence on the attachment between herself and Darcy at least a little, but in having found none she was forced to endure her aunt's teasing.

"Shall you tell me what? For Heavens sake do not leave me in suspense. What have you to say?"

Lizzie was blushing uncontrollably and though she doubted a little Darcy's constancy, she was still sanguine. True, the only testimony of Darcy's regard had been reached while she was in Bingley's flesh, but Darcy was a serious man, not prone to inconsistencies such as these.

Still, the challenge was hers. How would she contrive to let him know of her own feelings? She longed to tell him that she loved him just as much as he loved her. But how to accomplish that? She could not simply walk to his house, could she?

Mrs Gardiner could hardly contain her curiosity. "Will you not tell us?"

Elizabeth lowered her head and said nothing.

"Well then," Mr Gardiner said, "in that case I shall guess that Mr Right has a house in Russell Square."

Elizabeth was surprised at her uncle's quick assessment but she could not help smiling at his quiet archness. She whispered into Jane's ear, "What do you know?"

"I saw him."

Her heart skipped a beat. "Did he see you?"

"No. He was with an exceedingly elegant girl at a pastrycook's shop in Charing Cross when my uncle's carriage was passing by."

"Oh," Elizabeth's brows rose. "Was she a blond girl?"

"Yes. Of about sixteen."

Elizabeth sighed in relief. That must be Miss Darcy.

"Oh, pray! What are you whispering? Let us know all about it. What is the gentleman's name?" asked Mrs Gardiner.

After a moment's silence in which Elizabeth seemed to have been pondering whether to disclose her secret or not she said, "The time will come, I hope, in which I can speak frankly and freely."

"Is he handsome, Jane?" Mrs Gardiner asked with a mark expression which showed that she regarded handsomeness to be uppermost in a gentleman rather than his position or wealth.

Jane nodded emphatically. Her sister's love affairs made her forget her own melancholy. "I am sure you will like him," she said with a grin.

"I do not doubt it!" replied Mr Gardiner with a smile.

Spurred by Jane's confidence and Mrs Gardiner's exhilarated manner Elizabeth was restored to all her usual animation, and elevated to more than her usual gaiety with the prospect of a casual encounter with Mr Darcy, she went to Charing Cross almost every day and had a plentiful of pastries as made her gain almost a pound. She also went to every soiree in town that her aunt contrived for them to attend. She could scarcely breathe with anticipation to see her favourite gentleman again.

Unfortunately, much to Elizabeth's disappointment, a week passed and she saw nothing of Mr Bingley or Mr Darcy. They were in no soiree they attended, not even when her party was asked to Mr Darcy's neighbour's place, a Lady Staunton, whom she had seen at Darcy's table for Christmas.

"'Tis this open weather," exclaimed Mr Gardiner understanding his niece's agitation. "'Tis impossible for sportsmen to lose a day of pleasure. I have always noticed that no gentleman remains in town with beautiful weather such as this."

"'Tis true!" cried Elizabeth cheerfully. She then walked to the window to examine the day she had just been enjoying not a minute before. "I had not thought of that."

"This weather will keep many sports men out of town," Mrs Gardiner said looking at Miss Bennet with knowing eyes. She had never seen Elizabeth so taken with a gentleman.

It was a lucky recollection, but one that could not so easily persuade Jane. "'Tis is excellent weather but I hope it does not last long," she said with a sigh.

All her good spirit was restored to Elizabeth by the happy assumption. "It cannot and will not last," she said with the conviction of the connoisseur. "At this time of year and after such a series of rain as there usually are..."

"At any rate, we shall have all young gentlemen back by the end of the week," said Mr Gardiner with hope.

"Aye, my dear. I wager we will," answered Mrs Gardiner. "Meantime, let us enjoy the good weather. I shall call the carriage and we shall go for a ride to the park."

Unfortunately, after a second se'nnight with no clouds and various rides in the park, no gentlemen callers were in sight. Elizabeth became persuaded that her inability to see her beloved stemmed in the fact that Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy certainly did not belong to the same spheres. While her uncle attended a second rate play at the theatre, Mr Darcy would probably attend a concert. He was more likely to be found riding his horse early in the morning at Russell Square than shopping at Pall Mall. If her family kept dragging her to the incorrect places she would probably never see him in town. A change of strategy was necessary. Thus, before her aunt would suggest a ride round the park in Cheapside again, she took to abscond herself to Russell Square with great assiduity to admire the tall proud trees there, and frequented those places where she knew very well that Darcy might be spotted, but all she accomplished was a pair of wary feet and a sickening sense of disappointment.

One day, her aunt, who was beginning to feel all the force of Elizabeth's dejection, said in her usual sedateness, "I imagine your beau must have no clue of your whereabouts, Lizzie. Why do you not write him a note?"

It was quite simple, was it not? Betrothals could write a note to each other without fearing of acting too forwardly. Yet she was not betrothed to Darcy, though she was certain she would soon be. But the idea was not altogether disgusting. She could always write to his friend. Mr Bingley would certainly see nothing untoward in her sending him a note.

The note was sent, with all discretion possible. Elizabeth asked the servant a hundred thousand times if it had been left at the appointed address.

"Yes, ma'am. 25 ***St in Russell Square."

"And the footman..."

"Mr Watson made reception of your note."

"Aye, Mr Watson. Thank you."

Other three weeks passed, and still nothing. Elizabeth seemed constantly on the watch for a note or a carriage. Ever since she sent her note she insisted in staying at home as much as possible. One morning, Mrs Gardiner, weary of remaining indoors, proposed that they all should accompany her to the shops where she had some business that morning. It was a scheme to which Jane readily agreed, and Elizabeth, after she had opposed the idea, was finally induced to go along with them.

It was late in the morning when they arrived back from their outing. No sooner had they entered the house than Elizabeth flew eagerly to the servants' door and asked if a letter or a note had arrived.

The servant replied that none had.

"Are you absolute certain?"

"I am," replied he. "But a gentleman came."

Elizabeth's pang was out of this world. "A gentleman? Good God! He's been here while we were out! I told you I should not have gone! What a waste of time!"

Jane asked the servant if the gentleman left a card.

"He left no card."

"Left no card?" cried Elizabeth.

"No ma'am."

"This is too much!" she said terribly agitated. "Why did he not leave his card? Did he say when he is coming back?"

"No ma'am. He asked about you and when I told him you were just gone to the park, he simply left."

Elizabeth asked no more, but the severest grief plagued her and she instantly ran outside to see if she could see him.

"Upon my word! I have never seen Elizabeth so desperately in love!" said Mrs Gardiner full of wonder at Elizabeth's unseemly behaviour.

"I am sure I have never seen anyone so foolishly in love in my life!" cried Mr Gardiner. "I hope my girls will not raise such a fuss over their beaus!"

A few days more passed with nothing of importance happening in our heroines' lives, when one morning, after their arrival from church, the servant was expecting Miss Elizabeth with a satisfied smile on his face.

Her eyes immediately wandered to the table. There was a card on a tray, primly accommodated beside a vase with a beautiful bouquet.

"Good God! At long last!" cried Mrs Gardiner. "I was beginning to fear that her beau was a work of her imagination."

Elizabeth, disregarding the bouquet, took the card and read it with hungry eyes. These soon reflected her feelings and it was not pleasure but astonishment what Jane read in them.

"What? What's happened?" asked Jane. But Elizabeth did not answer. She seemed scarcely to hear her and on her sister's approaching to read the card, she escaped with it to her room.

Chapter 23

Elizabeth did not rally from the stupor and confusion in which the note she had found in the bouquet had plunged her spirit until the morning sun announced a new day and, rising from her bed, she began to busy herself with her toilette. Grimly, she sat on the windowsill, her nose against the windowpane, watching the fading patterns her breath drew on the cold glass. In her hands, the little note, read and reread over and over until she had learnt every word by heart. She knew the sender would visit soon and so could hardly contain her anticipation. She had been discovered. Soon she would be thrown into the lion's den.

Before her eyes could see it, her ears heard the bustle of the horses of an approaching carriage and her heart gave a major leap. High up at the driver's seat she distinguished the tall figure of the man she dreaded to see.

What to tell him? She hardly knew. What to say to a man who believes one to be some sort of witch? Good Lord! How to explain the inexplicable? Would he believe her, anyway? She loitered in her room undecided as to how to face her visitor. At last, a maid knocked at her door and advised her that she was wanted in the parlour. With her heart full of dread and her mind full of unfathomable answers she finally descended the stairs. The faint sound of voices rose and dropped at intervals, guiding her to the parlour. She opened the door and found her family sitting around Colonel Fitzwilliam.

"Oh , there you are, dear Elizabeth," her aunt called her. "Come, come. Here is a young man who claims an acquaintance with you."

The look of confusion was evident in Elizabeth's eyes. Colonel Fitzwilliam bowed in front of her, a twitch of a smile drawn on his face.

"Miss Bennet." Elizabeth curtseyed and said nothing. Yet by the bewildered look upon her face it was evident that Elizabeth was not elated to see the colonel. The others around them looked at each other in surprise at her bemused expression. However, her sister took immediate heed that something was not completely straight between Elizabeth and the dazzling colonel.

But the colonel's dashing manners prevailed. Before Elizabeth could recover from the shock of seeing this old friend, he stepped up and had hold of both Elizabeth's hands. He then proceeded to kiss her on a blushing cheek leaving all her relations no doubt that he must be her ardent admirer and surmising her hesitation was mere embarrassment.

"I hope you are not angry with me," he said. "It is above a week since I have learnt of your presence in town. I should have come before."

"I..."

"It is a beautiful day," said he. "Have you noticed how uncharacteristically warm it is?"

"Yes. Quite warm for the season," agreed Mr Gardiner. A short attention was given to the favourable climate and then the conversation drifted to the different things one could do during such pleasant weather, like tasting the delicacies served at the various tea shops in Charing Cross. "Oh, you must go and try the delicious cakes there," the colonel said.

"Lizzie has not been inclined to go out," Margaret pointed out. She was instantly enamoured of the fine colonel.

"Now that you mention it, Miss Margaret, I have noticed that she is uncommonly dull," Fitzwilliam said and leaning forward he added inquiringly, "Miss Elizabeth. Are you unwell?" Elizabeth gave a quick negative. "Then why have you been so out of spirit, madam?"

"Oh, yes," answered her young cousin. "I should say she has been in very low spirit, indeed."

Turning to her relations the colonel asked, "What could have been the occasion, I wonder?"

Elizabeth, in dismay at such an unprecedented question did not know which way to look, or how to answer. What did he propose with the charade? Did he mean to uncover her secret? How much did he know, anyway? What was the purpose of his visit?

Instinctively, Jane stepped up in her sister's defence. "Undoubtedly you must know my sister well to understand the state of her spirit. Pray, how long have you known each other?"

"Not too long, I daresay. Yet I have had the pleasure of seeing your sister dance, Miss Bennet, and enjoying herself very much. I cannot easily conceive her in low spirits any more than I can conceive myself to be so."

"And when was that, Colonel?" Miss Bennet asked intrigued.

"I will answer to every enquiry which you can make on the subject and to your entire satisfaction but on another time," he said playfully. "Presently I can only think of restoring Miss Elizabeth to her usual gaiety. Will you not help me?"

Although not completely charmed by the gentleman's harangue, Miss Bennet still bowed her acquiescence. "With pleasure."

"Well then, Miss Elizabeth. I take it that you have not been out much?"

Elizabeth shook her head.

"Let us remedy that, shall we? Why do I not take you for a ride?"

"Can we all go?" asked Margaret.

"Oh yes, very gladly. If your mama sees no objection."

Elizabeth shook her head and tried to hide her interest in the subject by an eager attention to her needlework.

The colonel persevered. "I think my cousins Darcy are out themselves at this very moment. If you make haste perhaps we can join them." The colonel knew instantly that he had struck a note. Elizabeth's countenance lit up as soon as she heard the name Darcy.

"Now?" she asked in a tone pondering the invitation.

"As soon as you and your friends can grab your bonnets."

Elizabeth took a cursory look at her sister and cousins and found eager faces. Mr Gardiner nodded, and it was decided. They would all go with the colonel. Chewing her lower lip, and barely containing herself from demonstrating her joy, she sprang to her feet and rushed to her bedroom with her sister and cousins in tow. Mrs Gardiner seemed certain that the colonel could be trusted, though she had the hunch that behind that mask of ready complaisance he was up to something. But she made up her mind to run the risk, for there was nothing she wished more than to see Lizzie in high spirits again.

"I am afraid I cannot accommodate all the ladies," the colonel interposed with a tone of insincere regret when they all gathered around him. "You see, it sits only four. So, one of you will have to take the seat beside me in the box."

"Then I should think Lizzie should take it," suggested Mr Gardiner, "for she is the one in need of fresh air. And I think there is no better opportunity than this."

In indescribable gloom and mortification Elizabeth took her seat and the carriage drove off amid the good wishes of the remaining Gardiners and the merriment of the young ladies in the barouge.

"Well, Miss Bennet. I am all ears," said the colonel as soon as they had set off. "Will you please explain to me how it is possible that you can mutate into a gentleman overnight? I am monstrously intrigued."

Elizabeth, at once agitated and dejected did not know how to reply. Her feelings were all in revolt. She feared she had been doing wrong, keeping the whole situation to herself, overacting from the caution which she had fancied necessary, in guarding against one evil, laying herself open to another ten-fold as dangerous.

"I hardly know where to begin, Sir," she finally exerted herself to say.

"The beginning is always a good place," he answered.

"Very true," she sighed. She was silent for a minute, feeling dreadful, knowing that every attempt for an explanation could only be unfathomably stupid. At last the colonel said. "There can not be any logical explanation, I know. Fear not, Miss Elizabeth. I am not my cousin Darcy and I am ready to hear the stupidest tale and believe it."

On hearing this Elizabeth took courage and spoke with tolerable confidence. "In that case I must warn you that it may safely be considered the most extraordinary tale ever told. It took me wholly in surprise and I knew not what to say or do to revert it."

"Like an enchantment?"

"Yes. Like an enchantment, though I have never visited a gypsy or a seen a fairy. Colonel, I have never believed that something like this could ever happen until it did. It was really like being at a play. One day I was a maiden, the next a gentleman, until I found myself back in Hertfordshire, restored to my first form for good."

"That play must be a favourite with me, madam. You can play it as many times as you choose."

"It was not my choosing," she cried sorrowfully correcting him.

"Why did you not ask for help?"

"And risk for my sanity to be doubted? Sir, it was all very confusing. It took me quite a while to discern fantasy from reality. When Mr Bingley and I finally deciphered what was going on, we were too deep into it to escape unscathed. I am aware that some of our actions deserve the severest reproof."

"Oh, no. Never reproof. Yet next time you must warn me when you intend to sleep in my bed. I shall try not to share you with my cousin."

Such a comment would have shocked any lady, but not Elizabeth. She knew that she deserved the rebuke. She looked away blushing deeply and looking at the passing view she answered, "It was not in my power to stay in the form of a man." The colonel beheld her with a frown upon his visage and listened attentively. "I was at the mercy of a naughty star who changed my form at her whim. Had I imagined I would revert into a maiden in the middle of the night I would have found an excuse to sleep somewhere else. But as it was, I was very intimidated by the easy camaraderie between you two and...Mr Bingley, and I... at the moment I thought it best to keep appearances. I was mistaken. It was an outrageous thing to do...Nothing could have been more improper."

"My dear lady," replied he, "Let me assure you that I am not here to judge you."

Elizabeth nodded thankfully. "Dear Fitzwilliam. Your words make me comfortable again."

Very sincerely did the colonel wish to do so. He felt an interesting mixture of affection and genuine awe for Elizabeth. Her conduct was not altogether irreprehensible, and that was precisely what the reckless colonel admired most of her. So he exerted himself and did try to make her feel comfortable by considering all that had passed a mere trifle, and quite unworthy to be explained logically.

"I must own that you are a fine wrestler," he said with a smirk. "Have you thought of joining a gentleman's club?"

"Sir, you do me honour," she answered with mock sincerity.

"Very well. So your conduct is faultless according to this explanation. Your tale matches what Bingley has been trying to explain with no success. You are no witch, merely the victim of a charmer. Well I am relieved, madam. For I am quite taken with you, and it would not do to fall for an enchantress."

"Pray, do not speak nonsense, Colonel. Be serious for once."

"Oh but I am perfectly serious. I think we could get on very well together, you and I, naughty star or not."

"Sir, you will persuade me that you are incapable of thinking on serious matters."

He laughed. "Very well. But you will allow me the honour of getting to know you better...while you are still in your ladylike form."

"I think, Sir, you already know a good measure of me. That will have to suffice. But you have mentioned Mr Bingley. What has become of him?"

"His sisters took him to the north under severe medication. The poor fellow kept swearing that he was a woman. I have never known anyone stupider than this fool. That is why I suspected you. Bingley had never acted so soberly well in his life, had never been able to sustain the smallest intelligent conversation. You, madam, deserve a seat in Parliament."

"I thank you, but no. I have had enough of manly pursuits. I see now that there is nothing like the insipid life of a lady."

Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed his accustomed roar.

"What are you going to do now?" she asked with some trepidation. The colonel looked at her inquiringly. "I mean with this intelligence," she added.

"Oh, I would not dare do anything at all. I am satisfied knowing that I was not mistaken. Your secret is safe with me. From now on, I am your most indefatigable, true friend."

"Thank you," she sighed relieved.

"Besides, I fear if I tell anyone, we shall both end up like Bingley under a ton of laudanum."

"Poor Mr Bingley!"

"He deserves every bit of it, if you ask me."

"Deserve it? He is blameless. What could he have done? No one has believed him so far."

"Perhaps. I still think that he should have acted differently. But then again, it is Bingley we are talking about. The man is an inveterate ass."

"You are too severe upon him. He is a fine gentleman."

"No doubt. But there is a littleness about him which cannot be mistaken with gentlemanly behaviour."

"Littleness? I cannot believe Mr Darcy to have someone like that for a friend."

"Darcy has taken him under his wing to help him overcome his faults, for he found Bingley to be a good natured fellow."

"You do not find him so?"

"Oh, I like Bingley. He is fun to be with. Darcy and he complement each other very well, I daresay. One is serious and the other is lively. Darcy's manners are often softened by Bingley's pleasantness and gaiety."

At this moment Mr Darcy appeared in sight, strolling distractedly at a little distance with two ladies perched one on each arm. Elizabeth instantly recognised Miss Darcy on one and the blond girl at the Christmas ball on the other. Colonel Fitzwilliam gave a short whistle to attract his cousin's attention which instantly turned his head in their direction. He must have been thoroughly surprised to see Miss Elizabeth climbed on the box beside Fitzwilliam, but he quickly recovered and turning to his companions they all ambled towards them.

"Who is the young lady with Darcy?" Elizabeth inquired of the colonel before they were too close to hear her.

"That, madam, is my cousin's attempt to forget a pair of fine eyes that have bewitched him in Hertfordshire."

Chapter 24

Colonel Fitzwilliam observed how Elizabeth trembled when she saw Darcy in the company of a lady, and he immediately surmised that her heart was irrevocably engaged by his cousin.

"Who is that girl with Darcy?" she had asked with a voice so full of misery it could only be born of a jealous heart. He marvelled at how easily she altered from the highest of spirits to the lowest and chuckled to himself in observing her perturbation as the blow was given, so he quickly added in a teasing tone, "Fear not Miss Elizabeth, she is no threat to your charms. However emasculating it may sound, my cousin fell for you even when you were in a gentleman's flesh. There is no telling what he will feel or do now that you have been restored to a lady's."

The colonel was not mistaken. Darcy was suffering a repetition of those confusing feelings he had taken so much pain to bury when he fled Longbourn escaping from Bingley's charms. But in vain did he struggle. The mistress of his heart in the flesh... she was there, real, alive, and as tangible as his own palpitations.

How is his mortification to be described? To be sure there was a moment of the most sinking horror. To be discovered with another woman by Miss Elizabeth. They had last parted in a befuddlement of emotions, she begging constancy of him; he determined to forget all about her, having witnessed how her character had altered within the measure of a day.

There was no occasion, there was no time for him to put his feelings under proper regulation; and with indescribable trepidation, he performed the ceremony of helping Elizabeth alight. His heart had no mercy for him as it lurched and tossed within his chest when he stepped up, and with half the conviction that it was a dream, he grabbed Elizabeth's little waist and set her safely on the ground before the attentive eyes of his family and friends.

The whole manoeuvre must have been a mere moment. It could have not taken more than three seconds. But it was enough for the well-known lavender scent to envelope him, alerting his every fibre of the nearness of that for which he yearned with all his heart. He felt a familiar oppression in his chess, an urgent call of his natural instincts that stirred his blood, and all that she had done was glance down at him expectantly. To think that he had thought her buried in the past! She had taken hold of him by placing her satin hands on his shoulders, barely touching him, and yet the gratification of having her do so, of feeling such a connection with her, had made him a little forgetful of time and place. Good God, what charm is this?he thought. What shall I do? How to escape now?

"So, you are come to London," he managed to say, colouring furiously.

"Well, yes I...I am. I hope you like it."

"London?"

"My being in London."

"Yes," he said hardly knowing what he was saying. "I like it very well."

"Your sister?" she asked knowing too well that the shy girl that remained in the background was Miss Darcy.

Darcy, still overpowered by the unexpected encounter did not catch her meaning immediately, "Yes?"

"Is that your sister?"

"Yes." He knew not what else to say. His sister, because she was so shy, had stopped her advancement and was presently too far away for him to offer an introduction. Coming round to his senses Darcy asked, "Your family...are they in health?"

"They are. They are, thank you."

"And you? Are you i-in health?"

"As you see," she said smiling. "Thank you, Sir."

Yes. She was undoubtedly in health, judging by the rose cheeks and lips, but it was the brilliancy of her countenance that Darcy found so attractive, and the wonderful play of her features. She looked extremely pretty in her blue pelisse.

"Indeed," he murmured, his voice quivering a little; relishing, despite himself, the brief intimacy of the moment. Elizabeth coloured and said nothing. She was quite overwhelmed, too.

Hardly had Darcy time to recover from his first surprise when another ensued. Letting down the side glass of the barouche, Miss Bennet, surrounded by her cousins' curious faces, greeted Darcy with a sweet smile.

"Well, this is quite a surprise. Why, Miss Bennet," cried he, immediately stretching to open the door of the carriage, "this is indeed an unexpected pleasure."

A very cordial meeting ensued, particularly between Elizabeth and Miss Darcy, who overcoming her shyness, stepped up for an introduction; and with the exception of the blond woman, whose name was Miss Richmond, the pleasure was general.

Elizabeth noticed Mr Darcy's agitation and did not wonder as to its provenance. It was that woman's presence, no doubt. Many uncomfortable, anxious, apprehensive feelings did she inspire, but Elizabeth would not let them prevail upon her heart. That Darcy had loved her once she had no doubt. She had heard him say the three words herself. Could his constancy be so evanescent? Elizabeth knew it could not. She had never been more sanguine about anything else in her life, and she was determined to make him love her again. She trembled and blushed at her own daring, persuading herself that she still had him under her power.

The young Gardiners all dispersed about in the park in happy independence; and Miss Bennet and Miss Darcy, in being both of the same soft hearted inclination, quite naturally followed them. Miss Elizabeth and Miss Richmond followed a little behind in silence while Darcy and Fitzwilliam stood commanding the view of them all. It was a good spot for Darcy to cool his mind, and after some thinking and pondering he said to his cousin,

"So! You were acquainted with Miss Bennet, and you never breathed a word to me."

Fitzwilliam smiled but said nothing in response.

"How long have you known her?" Darcy insisted.

"Not too long."

"When did you meet her? You have been with me all this time. I cannot account when or where you...."

"You would not believe me if I told you," he replied curtly "So let us drop the subject, shall we? I know her, she knows me, and we are very good friends."

Miss Margaret, bending over a bed of red roses, called out to Elizabeth and asked, "Are not these the very flowers Colonel Fitzwilliam sent you, Cousin Elizabeth?" Darcy's expression when he heard her was worthy of anthology. The colonel grinned, amused by both the girl's candid observation and his obtuse cousin's reaction.

"Friends, huh?"

"It was but a bouquet. A mere trifle."

"Of course." He began to play with his signet ring, a furrowed brow over his eyes while following the ladies' interaction with distracted attention. He saw his sister and Miss Elizabeth engaged in conversation and wondered what their topic could be. Music, perhaps, he thought, or (dare he hope?) me.

Oh Miss Elizabeth was a charming little minx. Did she really find him handsome, he wondered? He believed he was reckoned a very fine specimen by ladies in general. But Miss Elizabeth was not an ordinary lady. How was he to know the difference between a real attachment and an affectation of partiality?

Since manners were all that he could safely judge, he endeavoured to review every instance of their reunion and the recollection brought back her reddening cheeks when he grabbed her waist to help her alight. How to describe her looks and emotion? It was agitation, and pleasure, even delight though there was something between pain and misery too, probably stemming from the sight of Miss Richmond's hand on his arm.

This last thought gave him great pleasure. She was jealous! How charming, particularly when he was far from being gratified in being the object of Miss Richmond's attentions, beauty notwithstanding.

Of course, he had his own standards for a wife that required of the designated lady something more than human perfection of body, and of that Miss Elizabeth was the happy possessor too. And more: a brilliant mind and a challenging wit. In truth, she was superior both in beauty and mind to all others. Yes, Miss Elizabeth embodied all that he would expect from the mistress of his house.

"I suppose I am on my way to be quite attached to her," he thought. And yes, judging from the manner in which his heart jumped to his throat every time Miss Elizabeth cast an innocent glance at him, he was quite on his way to be very much in love.

These were charming feelings, no doubt. However...could they be lasting in the face of such poor connections and unsuitable relations as she had? After such behaviour he had witnessed during the last month, though she now retained the appearance of a sensible young woman, a woman of information and taste, like he had found her on first acquaintance, still he was not certain whether Miss Elizabeth's regard for him stemmed from a true attachment or had been forced upon her by her scheming mother.

"I would like to know what are your designs for her," said the colonel with a serious tone interrupting his musings.

"Designs for her?"

"For Miss Elizabeth. Have you any?"

Here he paused. Darcy was not used to opening his heart. After a little while, however, he cleared his throat and said, "Well, if you remember, I think I mentioned before that... I am quite fond of Miss Elizabeth."

"Fond?"

"Yes, quite," he said colouring a great deal.

"As a matter of fact, I do remember. But since I have noticed the amount of time you have lately dedicated to Miss Richmond, I thought that your affections had been engaged otherwise," Fitzwilliam reasoned.

"Miss Richmond is a beautiful woman, I admit as much, but not..."

"...handsome enough to tempt you?"

"I was going to say, not in the manner as to exact an offer from me. Besides, there is no real beauty where there is no keenness of mind. Its lack turns the most beautiful into the most insipid person."

"Do you pronounce Miss Richmond to be thoughtless? That is precisely my type of lady!"

"I doubt you could be her type, though."

"Mercenary, is she?" Darcy shrugged. "Indeed, who else other than a mercenary lady would pursue you?"

"That was rather a surprise to me," he said sounding hurt.

"Why should it surprise you? You have accepted Miss Richmond's attentions on similar grounds. Had she not been beautiful and the daughter of an Earl, you would have fled from her just as you fled from Miss Elizabeth, attachment notwithstanding."

Darcy fell into mournful silence after these words. "I am afraid you are sadly in the right. I did flee Hertfordshire. I have no wish to deny it. I felt in real danger. Miss Elizabeth's mother is the most decidedly mercenary woman. The last time I paid a call on them at their home she could not decide which daughter to throw onto me. It was all very wrong, very indecorous."

"Indecorous is a strong word."

"I was quite struck ...even by Miss Elizabeth's manners on that occasion. I do not know the extent of her mother's influence on her, but Mrs. Bennet certainly acted quite indecorously... I know the Bennets to be awkwardly circumstanced, but still...I really do not know what to think," he sighed.

"Sometimes, Darcy, I do find you quite the hypocrite."

"I do not believe I have done anything to deserve such censure," he replied sullenly.

"Look at you. You are no different."

"I beg to differ. I am an honourable man. I would never throw my sister into the arms of a stranger, regardless of his situation. By Jove! I cannot conceive a lady to be such if she gives her hand without her heart. It is repugnant."

"But you can still court a penniless lady as long as she has the appropriate connections and bares a pedigree although you find her...irremediably insipid and thoughtless; a lady you do not even plan to marry?" he nodded towards Miss Richmond.

"Who says I am courting Miss Richmond?"

"It is universally acknowledged."

"Universally acknowledged? Pray, in which universe?"

"Why in this one and in London in plain day light. You have been courting her almost on a daily basis, Sir."

"Good Heaven! What can be the meaning of this? I have never thought of Miss Richmond more than I think of my boots."

"Well, Lord Richmond will not like that."

"I protest before God against having paid such attentions which might have been so thoroughly misunderstood." Darcy turned livid. "You must be mistaken. I have never declared the smallest word tending to suspect anything...I have not... She cannot expect an offer from me." Here he paused as if recollecting something. "She does, does she not?"

"Ha!"

Darcy remained quiet for some time, in silent contemplation processing the intelligence. At last he said with some alarm. "Good Lord! Have I been so unguarded? What shall I do now?"

"Oh, this is rich! The banns are already written, the wedding breakfast is ready, but the groom has not yet proposed."

"I am serious, Fitzwilliam. I would be loath to compromise a genteel woman."

"Poh! I wager Miss Richmond has been compromised more often than she would like to own. Is this not her sixth season?"

Not listening to what Fitzwilliam said, Darcy continued venting out his fears. "This is indeed distressing. I assure you, Fitzwilliam, if Miss Richmond is indeed expecting...if she has fancied anything, her own wishes have misled her."

"Well, you must know Miss Elizabeth has been suffering a good deal for your sake, too, and if I am not mistaken that makes two ladies in distress because of your thoughtlessness."

"Miss Elizabeth suffering for me?"

"She has refused to go out, preferring to stay indoors fretting about your absence rather than enjoying her friends' company. When I called on her this morning, she had not even come downstairs to eat her breakfast. And you, Don Juan, meantime, were strolling in the park with Miss Richmond."

"I had no idea..."

"Darcy, you are a fool. I sincerely do not understand why it is taking you so long to see what is so plainly written to me. Were I in your position I would not think on it twice."

"You would not, would you?"

"No, sir. Yet I am not used to pursuing ladies whose affections are already secured by a friend of mine," Fitzwilliam said sounding rather offended. "But I warn you, cousin. She is the finest woman I have ever met, and she is very much in love with you. Her value is tenfold ten Misses Richmond; and if you are so obtuse as not to see that, you leave me no choice but to secure her for myself. I may not be a rich country squire, but I have my charms."

Darcy beheld him with glee, "If I did not know you, Fitzwilliam, I would swear you are playing at matchmaking."

"Then you quite mistake my meaning, cousin. I am just cautioning you."

They were interrupted by the ladies' approach. "I believe we must be running away, Darcy," Miss Richmond said. "The weather does not look well. I think it is going to rain."

"So it is," observed Darcy.

"No doubt this warmth was quite uncommon. It could not last," said Miss Richmond.

"Why do I not treat you all to tea?" Fitzwilliam exclaimed. "We shall all go to Twining down Strand Street. There is no better place in London."

"We had better go home directly, Colonel," said Miss Bennet. "My aunt will be uneasy in case of rain. And I am sure the little ones are already tired."

They all agreed to go and would have, had it not been for an unexpected happenstance.

"Where is Elizabeth?" Miss Bennet asked looking around. She had been so busy looking after the children that she had lost track of her sister.

"She and Miss Darcy walked away down that path about half an hour before," Margaret replied pointing out at a winding path that led into a wilderness.

"Oh, my! I hope they can see the clouds," exclaimed Miss Bennet a little alarmed.

"I am certain Miss Elizabeth will see the danger of rain and will turn back. They will return here in no time," said Colonel Fitzwilliam in his usual sanguine state of mind. "We shall keep on the watch from the window. Come now, let us go there and wait."

Miss Richmond curled her hand in the crook of Darcy's arm. "Darcy, dear, will you be so kind and give me your arm? I am exceedingly tired."

Darcy was too worried to repulse Miss Richmond, yet he was now certain of her meaning when she patted his arm. They all ambled to the tea shop, the ladies scanning the skies for signs of rain, the gentleman the surroundings for signs of the two missing ladies. Scarcely had they reached the shop when the first drops began to fall on the gentlemen's top hats. They hurried inside and upon its beginning to drizzle, they were obliged to expect that the two girls had found shelter somewhere in the park. At last, the rain turned into a heavy shower. It had not been many minutes when Darcy exclaimed,

"Good Lord. I cannot have them out in such a shower. You stay with the ladies, Fitzwilliam. I shall go and fetch them."

In vain did Miss Richmond protest and entreat him to stay. He would not be prevailed upon. The last they saw of him was his retreating back being enveloped by the heavy rain.

Chapter 25

We last left our hero as he went back to the park to rescue his sister and friend from the unpredictability of London's weather. Unfortunately, as he skipped puddles of muddy water in the bucketing rain he found it very difficult to distinguish the faces of the people who passed rushing by to escape the deluge.

What with the shocking intelligence that Fitzwilliam had passed him, and the unexpected arrival of Miss Elizabeth, Darcy found himself completely overpowered. Add to that the gloomy feeling that pervades a man when he is wet to his bones, and you will have a fair picture of Darcy's frame of mind while he searched the park for signs of the two ladies in distress.

He wandered about in the rain for what seemed an eternity with no success. Neither Georgiana nor Miss Elizabeth was in sight. Because the rain did not abate, he finally returned to Strand Street to recruit the assistance of Fitzwilliam. But alas, he found him gone, the ladies and children having tea and cakes with a gentleman who Darcy discovered belatedly to be Lord Richmond.

"Dear me, Mr Darcy! You will catch your death," cried Miss Bennet, perhaps the only one in expectancy of his return with news of the ladies. Mr Darcy acknowledged Lord Richmond's presence with a curt bow and rather a bewildered look upon his face and then, forgetting all degrees of politeness, asked directly in spite of the formidable parent in the background,

"Where is Fitzwilliam?"

"He scrambled away after Miss Elizabeth, taking the carriage," said Miss Richmond with a knowing gesture. Such a comment earned her a murderous look from the ever sweet Miss Bennet, but Miss Richmond cared very little for the opinions of others. This was indeed her sixth season, the fifth that she had been pursuing the eligible Mr Darcy, and now that she almost had him eating from her hand she would not let him go so easily.

"My dear Sir, you are indeed risking your health. I am sure your sister and her friend are well sheltered somewhere in the park waiting for the rain to abate. There is no need for you to run wild about in it," cautioned Miss Richmond.

"Forgive me, but it is not possible..."

"The good colonel has already gone after them, and he has the carriage," she pointed out. "He certainly is very capable of finding them."

"Certainly. But still..."

"I am very sorry to hear that your young sister has ventured in the park in the rain. I hope she carried an umbrella. I always carry one myself," Lord Richmond said brandishing his huge umbrella.

Darcy began to understand that he had fallen into a treacherous trap. All he wished for was to find Elizabeth and his sister, and make sure they were well. Yet he realised how far he was from disengaging himself from the lady's claws only when Lord Richmond added with a cough,

"However...There is a certain delicate subject I particularly wish to discuss with you, young man, that can be postponed no longer."

There was no need for Lord Richmond to elaborate on the nature of the subject he wished to discuss with him. Darcy had perceived it, quite clearly, in the slight emphasis the concerned father had given to the word delicate. Granted, Darcy had no inclination to stay there with the Richmonds, but to leave them unattended might be considered a gross slight, particularly since Fitzwilliam was already out there looking for the girls. Oh, this blasted propriety! Never had his handsome face expressed more uncertainty, never had he been more undecided. In truth he did not know very well what to say or how to avoid Lord Richmond's little talk.

While all this ensued and Darcy fought bravely for his bachelorhood in the lion's den, the colonel was still searching the park for signs of Georgiana and Elizabeth. He was beginning to despair when he finally caught sight of his young cousin, sitting on a bench with three ladies, all stranded under a gazebo because of the unexpected torrential rain.

"Where is Miss Elizabeth?" Miss Darcy returned a blank look which spoke of complete ignorance of Miss Elizabeth's whereabouts. "Was she not with you?"

The girl shook her head. "She went in search of you."

"Good God. Where can she be?" After a moment's hesitation he said. "Pray, do stay here while I search the park again."

Miss Darcy assented. Fitzwilliam presently resumed his search, when he soon descried Miss Elizabeth walking with difficulty towards him. He broke into a sprint to go to her aid.

"There you are. We have been looking up and down this park for you. Are you well?"

"I am," she said in between gasps. She felt miserable. It was all very awful, to have risked Miss Darcy's health in this manner. Killing the sister would not help to ingratiate herself with the brother.

"My, my," said Fitzwilliam amusedly looking down at the sad state of Elizabeth's clothes. Albeit Fitzwilliam had been out in the heavy rain as well, his great coat was designed for withstanding the worst. Contrastingly, Elizabeth's pelisse was made of a light wool material and was designed to expose her assets rather than protect them from the severe weather. "You look as if you have gone down into the depths of the ocean to rescue Viola."

The expression brought back Georgiana's welfare to Elizabeth's mind. "Miss Darcy is..."

"Oh, I have found her already. She is very well and dry and much obliged to you."

"Oh, thank God for that," she sighed in relief.

"You look positively wet through," he said with a chuckle.

"Yes! I was desperately looking for you, but the rain did not let me see where I was going. I must have taken the wrong turn somewhere...I got lost."

Fitzwilliam smiled warmly. "I am very glad you are well. And relieved. However, I must scold you, madam. You should have not risked your health looking for a man's aid. That is not like you at all. I am certain your mama would not approve of such an escapade. You should have remained with Georgiana and the other young ladies."

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "I would not be so sure, Sir. My mama would be very proud of me," she said ever teasing as she engaged her arm in the crook of his.

"Would she?" answered he with raised brows already expecting a tease.

"Oh yes, as long as it is for the sake of a man, she is ready to send any of her daughters in a downpour to the end of the world."

Colonel Fitzwilliam laughed out loud. "Oh, I know you are not being serious now, madam."

"That is because you do not know my mother. She sent Jane on horseback knowing it would rain so that she would have to stay the night at Netherfield thus ensuring that Mr Bingley would fall in love with her."

Fitzwilliam's eyes travelled Elizabeth's pelisse, soaked to the point of revealing what it usually, albeit imperfectly, concealed. "Your mama need not take the trouble in my case. I can very well fall in love with you, rain or no rain."

Such were his words, and she was about to answer him with another saucy comment of her own when their attention was caught by the sound of Miss Bennet's voice, calling out to them.

They turned round. Miss Bennet and the children attended by Lord Richmond were walking towards them with a huge umbrella that covered them all, though the rain was already a mere trifle. Their advancement was thus slow and they presented a comical picture. Elizabeth had to fight her glee.

"Ah!" said Lord Richmond shaking his head disapprovingly. "You must be Miss Elizabeth." Elizabeth curtseyed and said nothing feeling quite embarrassed in the presence of so stern a stranger.

"Lizzie, dear. You look wretchedly wet through," said Miss Bennet. She then looked at Fitzwilliam, and knowing he was in possession of their previous means of transport, entreated him to take them home immediately.

Lord Richmond meanwhile, catching Elizabeth's eye, proceeded on the subject of her little misadventure in the rain. "So you have been caught in the downpour, have you? I am very sorry. You should have not ventured in such weather, you know. But look at you. You must be very cold. Let me give you my coat. I am Lord Richmond, by the way." He took off his great coat and covered Miss Elizabeth's shoulders with it which was more than anyone else had done for her. Casting a look of rebuke at Fitzwilliam he said, "I am sorry to see that young ladies must take care of themselves. It was not like this in the old days. Delicate flowers, that is what young ladies are, young man." Fitzwilliam protested that his great coat was just as wet but the old man cut him short adding, "They should not risk their health and complexion in this absurd manner."

While Lord Richmond was giving his speech, the scene enlarged. Darcy and Miss Richmond had found Miss Darcy and the three of them joined the little group assembled in the park. The old man was still engaged in reprimanding Miss Elizabeth when they reached them. "You must change your stockings at once," he was saying. However, as he scanned Miss Elizabeth's gown which dripped onto the ground in an astonishing manner he added, "Or rather you had better changed all your clothes."

"Papa, the carriage is waiting," said his daughter a little embarrassed.

Darcy then stepped to Lord Richmond and requested his assistance to convey the Bennet ladies back home. He was of course, successful.

"By all means. But let Miss Darcy and yourself come with us, Son. We could have our little talk directly on our way."

"No!" said Miss Darcy with unprecedented determination.

"No?" Miss Richmond was properly startled.

Miss Darcy felt her heart rate rise as she struggled to consolidate a plausible scheme to avoid the Richmonds. "I...I ...could not possibly part with Miss Elizabeth.... She is ...unwell...I think she has sneezed twice already...."

Sneeze indeed! Could she not have come up with anything else? Elizabeth thought. She certainly had not sneezed and could not feign such a thing. Unable to push her tongue to say anything, she sank her head downwards and wondered if everyone was thinking her irremediably silly. Luckily, her new friend, Fitzwilliam, saw through her wretchedness and bending over her, he whispered into her ear. "Come on. Give us a sneeze." To which she smiled weakly.

Miss Richmond, on her part, was undecided whether to push on the subject or give it up completely to avoid confrontations with Darcy's little sister. But her bloodhound instincts prevailed. She had smelled blood, she would not give up her quest. "Nonsense, Miss Elizabeth is perfectly well, are you not Miss Elizabeth?"

"I am a little cold," she admitted, when the truth was that she was freezing. Miss Bennet poked her lightly with her elbow at which sign Elizabeth owned a headache and a sore throat.

"Good Lord!" cried Miss Bennet in feigned alarm.

"Do come with me, dear girl," said Fitzwilliam offering his arm to her. "While they discuss who travels with whom, I shall take you home."

"I hope you do not fall ill like I did last year," Miss Bennet said looking pointedly at Mr Darcy, but he was too confused to immediately catch her meaning.

Colonel Fitzwilliam could not help digging into the subject. As he invited Miss Bennet to take his other arm he asked as innocently as humanly possible. "You fell ill? I am sorry to hear it. Was it too bad?"

"A throat very much inflamed, and a great deal of heat with a quick low pulse."

"Occasioned by exposure to mere rain?

"Aye!" responded Miss Bennet. "I am afraid that all my father's daughters are liable to very bad sore throats and often alarm my poor mama very much."

Sending a cursory look in Elizabeth's direction he half laughed, "Indeed!" Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

Bent on this cordial conversation they returned to the carriage with the three young Gardiners tagging along. Still Darcy observed the scene with contemplative eyes.

"Come Darcy, or I shall sneeze in this cold, and you would not want me with a red nose," said Miss Richmond tagging Darcy's sleeve.

But Darcy did not move, nor did he care for Miss Richmond's nose. What was more, he was not inclined to escort her. Turning to take his sister's hand, he allowed Lord Richmond perform his duty as her father. Having overheard Fitzwilliam's conversation with Miss Bennet about her malady, he had quite naturally been assaulted by memories of Miss Bennet's stay at Netherfield the year before and could think of little else.

Suddenly, Miss Bennet's words began to take meaning in his mind. What if what Miss Bennet said was true and Miss Elizabeth was indeed prone to sore throats? It would be much better to take her to Darcy house which was closer than Gracechurch Street and see her into dry clothes directly to prevent an infection. Of course, that was the most sensible thing to do. Miss Bennet had no motives other than those tending to see for Miss Elizabeth's safety. Why should he suspect her of anything else? Why was it then that he felt he was the greatest simpleton ever to walk the earth? His situation must be the most unaccountable and absurd ever. However, he could not resist the inclination to protect Miss Elizabeth and before he could scold himself back into logical, serious thoughts, he was already toying with the idea of offering his hospitality and thus proceeded to outline a plot, even when its obvious stupidity began to overwhelm him.

Now, anxious about Miss Elizabeth's well being and at the same time a little excited about her potential stay at his home in view of her malady, yet apprehensive for the Richmonds' obvious expectations and at odds on how to proceed, Darcy arrived at the spot where the two carriages awaited orders. He then stared at Elizabeth, who could not contrive to hide her chattering teeth, then at his sister, and finally at Miss Richmond, more and more uneasy by the second.

"Lord Richmond," he ultimately said, "Will you be so kind as to take Miss Bennet and her cousins to Gracechurch Street? The barouche does not sit more than four with any comfort and I will not have Miss Elizabeth in the box in her present state."

"Oh it is not worth while, brother, to give Lord Richmond so much trouble," argued Miss Darcy eager to take Miss Elizabeth at home with them.

"No trouble in the world," said Miss Richmond obligingly, happy to be taking the meddlesome Bennet girl away from her admirers. "'Tis no trouble, is it, Papa?"

Of course Lord Richmond agreed that it was no trouble and that it was the best thing to do. Elizabeth was about to climb the carriage when Darcy stopped her and said,

"Then if you please, you shall take Miss Jane Bennet and the three girls to Gracechurch Street while I take my sister and Miss Elizabeth to my house to be attended directly."

"But her clothes..." Margaret began to object, but Miss Bennet hushed her before she could ruin their secret plot.

"Allow me, Miss Bennet," Darcy said with a serious look. "I cannot possibly send your sister to your relations in this condition. I assure you her clothes will be seen to while she can comfortably rest in a guest room. I shall take her to your uncle's home later in the evening myself. Let me see her into dry clothes first."

Fitzwilliam raised his brows in approval. He felt very much inclined to assist Miss Elizabeth out of those wet clothes himself.

"My dear Darcy, you need not bother," insisted Miss Richmond unable to hide a touch of irritation from her voice. "I can very well lend Miss Elizabeth a gown and a shawl if she is to come with us. We can stop at home for a while and see to her welfare. It need not detain us long. We will follow to Gracechurch Street after she has been seen into dry clothes."

"Oh, do come with us, Miss Elizabeth," whined Miss Darcy. "And if it be not very disagreeable to your sister you could stay till tomorrow!"

"Aye, that will be much the best," added Fitzwilliam already savouring the presence of Elizabeth. "I should not like it at all to see you gone until I have seen you are in perfect health." Here he winked at her.

Miss Richmond felt in clear disadvantage. She evidently had Darcy's relatives against her, therefore no one to befriend her or to back her shows of insincere civility.

"What say you, Miss Bennet? What do you advise?" asked Fitzwilliam.

"That we do not give a second thought on the subject. Whatever Mr Darcy thinks wise shall be done."

"Then it is to Grosvenor Square," said Darcy. With that, he took Mr Richmond's great coat from Elizabeth's shoulders, and after he returned it to its rightful owner, grabbed Elizabeth's hand and guided her to the barouche.

Miss Richmond's face fell, for she half expected her voice to be heard by Darcy. But what vexed one lady rejoiced three others. While her smile froze, Georgiana's blossomed in triumph and Miss Bennet's and Miss Elizabeth's too. Fitzwilliam, with a similar conspiratorial grin, but for completely different reasons, and a ready lightness of foot, stepped down the box and very gallantly switched his cargo into Lord Richmond's larger carriage. Only young Margaret was unsure of the plausibility of such plans.

To her delight, Elizabeth, who, due to the fact that she had almost drowned Miss Darcy in the wretched unpredictable London weather had thought herself lost in Mr Darcy's estimation, finally found herself conveyed to Darcy's house instead of her uncle's, and she was not inclined to protest in the least.

What a triumph! She was now in the barouche with Miss and Mr Darcy. He had handed both of them into the carriage himself and had taken a seat between them. He then took two large blankets from under the opposite seat and with what Elizabeth saw as brotherly affection, spread one on their laps and the other over Elizabeth's and his own shoulders.

Elizabeth kept repeating to her bumping heart that it was a point of civility on his part, nothing more; and reproached her voice for not coming in her aid when she responded in a bare whisper that she was quite comfortable as Darcy wrapped their shoulders in the same blanket; and scolded her hands for trembling so when Darcy took them and placed them between his own to be warmed, all this under the attentive eyes of Miss Darcy.

She endeavoured to be composed all the way, but it was impossible not to feel, not to hope, not to sigh in contentment under these circumstances so full of emotion for Elizabeth. She wondered what it would be like to be under the same roof again, or what sort of intercourse there would be between them. In general, his voice was loving and tender. Was it possible that he was devoted to her instead of Miss Richmond? She closed her eyes and wished with all her heart that it might be so.

When they arrived, Darcy helped her alight second after his sister. The girls were immediately attended by a myriad of servants and Elizabeth saw no more of him. A maid brought her a tray with food to her room later on. She then inquired if Miss Darcy was well and was told that the girl had withdrawn to her bedchamber and would be joining them in the evening. She would have wished to have the courage to inquire after the brother as well but she had no heart and had to suffer his absence in ignorance of his whereabouts. She considered that perhaps he was tired after having gone in her search and had probably decided to lunch in his apartments.

That she had no dry clothes to change into was a considerable disadvantage. It deprived her from the ability to wander about the house she knew so well at will. Of course she would have not dreamed to impose herself on Mr Darcy while he was resting. She was not Mr Bingley now.

She lay face down on the bed and felt as she did so a sulky thrill spreading across her heart, darkening her thoughts. She wanted to leave the room, explore the house and quite casually find Mr Darcy in his private study, wearing his satin yellow robe, sitting in his great armchair in front of a blazing fire, reading his favourite book with a glass of brandy on the small table next to him, just as she had spied him countless times while she was impersonating Mr Bingley. He was probably just bathed, his hair must be a little wet. She could employ a towel and dry it as she caressed his neck and talked sweetly into his ear. Such thoughts were annihilatingly delicious but utterly unfathomable. It was like diving naked into warm water, something she had never done, yet it must be so, since her thoughts evoked her of warmth and wetness and what was prohibited.

It was a veritable curse that someone chose to knock at her door just then.

Chapter 26

The minute Darcy delivered the shivering Miss Elizabeth into the good hands of his housekeeper, he felt a pleasant sinking sensation in his stomach as he contemplated how deliciously erotic it was to have her in his house, and half naked for a good part of her stay to boot. It was impossible to relax or to think straight with such prospects. The more he thought of it, the more he became aroused. His excitement was such that it was close to pain. But of course, he could not have her. Not that day. He would have to go through all the prescribed societal procedures. A love declaration, a proposal, a short courtship and then she would be his for the taking. Yet, meantime he could toy with that future.

It occurred to him that such painful craving as was building within himself for the mere trifle of Elizabeth's being under the same roof would become frighteningly intolerable on their wedding night. His impatience to lie with her might work against him at the crucial moment.

With my body I thee worship.... A fine declaration. If only he could skip all the stupid obstacles in their way, their Englishness and class, the ridiculous prohibitions, and merely do that.... But he could not. There was Georgiana, to whom he must offer the best of examples, and of course, his own position as master of the grand estate of Pemberley. Many people looked up to him.... He simply could not disappoint them.

He eased himself back on his armchair and sipped from his brandy. Images of bare limbs and mindless breathlessness enveloped him. Oh that he could just climb those steps and....

"It is raining again," Fitzwilliam remarked with a sigh thus bringing Darcy back from the cloud where he had been perilously drifting in ecstasy. He smoothed his trousers in case his excitement was visible but said nothing in response. Fitzwilliam had not finished his words when a thunder clap shook the window panes. Looking out through the window the colonel pursed his lips in a long whistle, "My, my. What a fine weather to sacrifice to Venus, eh Darcy?" Darcy beheld him full of astonishment. Was he reading his mind? But Fitzwilliam mistook Darcy's bafflement for censure, to which he was more often exposed, and so he exclaimed, "What? It is quite cosy to be under the sheets with a lass, you cannot deny it!"

"I suppose," was all he said, to which Fitzwilliam smiled in triumph, marvelling that his cousin would have concurred with him in a subject normally of his complete abhorrence.

Just then the servant chose to descend with Miss Elizabeth's wet clothes. Both gentlemen followed her withdrawal with lecherous longing in their eyes.

"I wonder what she might be wearing now," Fitzwilliam said with a raise of his brows and a twinkle in his mischievous eyes.

"Damn it, Richard. Damn your frivolity."

"What? I am just worried for her."

Mrs Watson, the housekeeper, then appeared and, after begging their pardon, she asked if the lady's dry clothes had been sent for.

"No. I was hoping that her clothes would be ready before long," Darcy answered.

The servant wagged her head. "They would be if they had been exposed to a mere shower. But the lady's gown and pelisse reached me dripping rain. It will take some time to wash and dry them. I would suggest that a dry gown is sent for."

"Can you not find a gown for her in the house?" asked Darcy quite innocently.

"Not one that will fit the lady, Sir."

A short silence ensued, both gentlemen being a little puzzled at Mrs Watson's remark. "Indeed! She is a little big in the Bristol area. Why don't you give her a robe? I for one should like to see her wearing one." This occurred to the scheming colonel and it seemed to him a right and desirable measure. The idea was not so well received by Mrs Watson who pursed her lips in disagreement but refrained from speaking her mind. Darcy too doubted its being agreeable to Miss Elizabeth, though he must agree with Fitzwilliam that Miss Elizabeth in a robe would be a fetching sight to see.

"Would you like me to consult with the lady?" offered Mrs Watson.

"Yes...." yet Fitzwilliam winked at him and signalled Darcy to go himself. "No...I shall go myself. And spare me that look, Watson, I shall talk to her from behind the closed door."

Fitzwilliam chuckled, and then said in a low voice, "I wouldn't trust him, Wat. He is a lady killer."

Mrs Watson squinted ruefully at both gentlemen quite displeased and turned round not before she cautioned her master against venturing into the lady's room while she was short of clothes, "Wherein you will rue it, Master, mark my words," and instantly repaired to the kitchen mumbling to herself that things were done differently in Lady Anne's days.

"Go, Tiger." Fitzwilliam slapped his back as Darcy sprang to his feet to rush towards Elizabeth's room skipping up the stairs three at a time.

~ * ~

We shall now devote some time to catch a short glimpse at how Charles Bingley was faring... but do not be alarmed, we shall return to Darcy and Elizabeth momentarily. The faithful reader will recollect that our friend Bingley was suffering quite miserably the last time we visited him. Now that our tale is unfolding towards its natural end, it is only fair that we offer him some relief from his many pains.

Up in the north, Charles had gradually turned just as solitary, serious and unsociable as his friend from Derbyshire ever was. His family knew not what to make of him. Though he had been pronounced safe from the terrors of mental insanity, as to make his sisters already perfectly easy, he was altogether an altered creature, quieted, stupefied, indifferent to everything that passed even when he was no longer under the effect of opium.

It made sense now when he came to think of it that all had been a trick of his imagination, a fantastic fantasy, a frenetic vision, an enveloping obsession, one he must fight if he wished to be fully recovered.

Still, it had been so real... the deep curve of his own waist to his touch, his thin mouth turned into a rosebud, his white breasts wide apart reflected in the mirror, his dark pubic hair devoid of all manliness....

Other recollections were just as unsettling. Jane and himself sharing a bed. Her narrow face and glistering lips in the dim reflection of the moon light, the wild flare of her nostrils as he caressed her cold skin... no wonder he had almost lost his sanity.

But no... it could not be. Surely he must have turned momentarily mad. And madness worthy of Bedlam.

However, even when he was already out of the sick chamber, none of those details had been forgotten. But he had been fully persuaded of its being a mere delusion. He had never been turned into a maiden, never been switched into Miss Elizabeth's body; he had not been at Longbourn as a member of the Bennet family. It had been an illusion though he was still uncertain which parts of the last months had happened and which had not. It was all too confusing.

Still, now that everything seemed in a regular train, family, friends, doctors all agree that he had better start with his life again. But if he would start, he would do it on his own. He was very much ashamed of what people might think of him, imagined that those with knowledge of his previous malady were unconsciously watching him for signs of a repetition of the symptoms. It was not in his power to talk them into forgetfulness of what had passed.

Thus he made up his mind to go to London on his own. It took him some time to persuade his sisters to stay in the north and not to follow him, but in the end, he succeeded. He arrived in London in the middle of a deluge. It had been a bright sunny morning when he had left the north, but now he could hardly see through the heavy rain and was obliged to stop just outside the outskirts until the rain relented.

He soon realised he was not far from Gracechurch Street, and his thoughts became instantly engrossed by memories for which he could not account. He was overpowered by a great inclination to search the address he had so many times heard Jane mention. He was already wet through and had nothing to lose. Leaving his horse behind, he walked along the gravelled street till he found the address. It was then that he caught sight of the carriage belonging to the Richmonds, and wherein he heard the Gardiner girls' squabble over who would be the first to rush into the house. A second later he observed the serviceable servant as he stretched out to help Miss Bennet alight under a huge umbrella.

Exceedingly startled, Charles looked at her from under his dripping hat. Jane started in her turn, blushed up and, of course, began to cry. Not understanding the source of her tears, the girls all looked at each other until they too saw the gentleman, forlorn and soaked in rainwater, staring back at their cousin as if in trance.

When Charles saw her flushed face, and her tears of joy, he instantly understood Jane was not Mrs Collins and he thanked Heaven above for that. His Jane had been waiting for him all through his infirmity and must have been suffering for his sake too, just as much he had been suffering in the north. No words needed be said. He opened his arms and beckoned her to come to him.

But Jane's knees trembled so much that she could scarcely move. She whispered his name to herself, as if in recognition but still did not move. When she finally regained command of her limbs she went running towards Charles, her arms before her, ready to fling herself into his. In the next minute she had altogether disappeared under his great coat.

"You are here, you are here," she said softly in between sobs as if convincing herself it was not a dream. He held her to his heart, murmuring something like forgive me, dear, dear Jane, as he reached within the folds of his great coat where she hid. He lifted her face, kissed her sweet lips, and swore time and time again never to leave her. She yielded to him, as it was her nature to obey, and kissed him back, her body hanging in an absurd manner from his neck.

~ * ~

Darcy reached the room where his beloved rested sooner than it was natural even for a man of his physique, and knocked at the door with a weak fist, as if in trepidation of being answered. He then leaned towards the massive door, his ear almost pressed to it, waiting for her to respond to his call. He could hear not a sound. Or perhaps the thuds of his own galloping heart were muffling the sound of her voice, and he only heard her when she opened the door.

Alas! That was not in his plans. She should have not opened the damn door, merely answered from behind. Now she was there, standing in front of him wrapped up in her quilt, looking so damnably fetching that Darcy felt his heart lurching inside him.

"Horrid!" cried Elizabeth, enjoying his perplexity.

He quickly stood up from the door, rising to his full height, feeling like the biggest simpleton, quite alarmed, and instantly averted his eyes, flushing up quite red, though he could only spy her white shoulders.

"Your clothes are not ready?" he heard himself say and immediately regretted it. He could not believe that he had asked that. He abhorred disguises of all sorts and here he was pretending he did not know she was naked.

She shook her head in negativity, wagging the loose hair that was still a little wet.

Oh God, she is so lovely. Go away now Darcy, go.

But instead of going away he lingered on and clearing his throat he declared, "I am come to inquire whether you would like your clothes to be sent for...." Here he stopped. He had just implied he did know she was still unclothed. He could feel the thud of his heart in his throat, and expecting her to shrink immediately from him, given his stupid confession, he stepped back.

But she did not shrink. On the contrary, she smiled beseechingly, and he thought she looked decidedly alluring in that quilt.

"Oh, there is no occasion for that, I assure you. I am quite comfortable. I can wait for my clothes to dry."

Why am I not leaving? Darcy thought. For God's sake, leave this instant. She is not dressed. He thought he heard a soft moan coming from her and his resolution to quit waned instantly. Was she going to say something?

She was. Soon he heard her say, "I am afraid that for the moment I cannot follow you downstairs, Sir."

"In that case I shall leave you alone," he said politely yet sincerely doubting his ability to order his feet to drag him out of her sight. However, to prove the honesty of his intentions, he indicated the stairs and began to back away.

"Oh, there is no need for you to go. I am not completely indecent," she said as she smoothed the quilt around her in a queenly fashion. Good God. She is drawing me in, he thought and felt instantly in real danger.

He paused undecided whether to obey his heart or his mind. She was not making it easier for him. No, she was not completely indecent, but she looked so alluring in her home made cocoon and ...was she flirting with him? Law, she was, and quite shamelessly, but he liked it very well.

He shook his head indicating that albeit her invitation was quite tempting, he was in full control of himself and had no intention to move from the safety of the doorway.

"How is your..." he said as he touched his own throat.

"Oh, Mrs Watson has already given me some medicine of her own composition and I am feeling very well, thank you."

That would explain the carefree attitude, Darcy thought. Mrs Watson's "medicine" always contains high amounts of brandy.

"Are you hungry?" he said after he coughed.

"A little," she said from behind her thick lashes. "But I am afraid I can not go to your dining room wearing your quilt."

"No, of course not." He checked a smile which nonetheless blossomed on his lips. Because he knew not what to say that could explain his reticence to quit her company, he brought about the topic raised by Fitzwilliam, thinking that, of course, Miss Elizabeth would reject it. "Maybe you can wear my... (cough)...my robe. I mean...if you keep that quilt on your shoulders with my robe on, you will look quite safe...err... decent."

"Your yellow robe?" she asked with half a disarming pout.

He nodded. "And I could ring for a tray."

"And eat alone? I would be utterly bored."

"Well, I could ...err ... I could ..." Good God. His pants were beginning to feel oppressive in his groin. "I could ask Georgiana to come and eat with you."

Hardly had he said that when he was certain that that was not what Miss Bennet wished to hear. She had disappointment written all over her face. For want of Fitzwilliam, his own voice in his ear kept cursing over his stupid hesitation. Damn it, Darcy. Damn your propriety. Why did you not offer to come and eat with her?

"There is no occasion to bother Miss Darcy," she said sweetly. "I understand she has been sent a tray to her bedchamber already. But I think I will accept the offer of your robe. Otherwise, I will have to eat in bed."

Darcy blinked twice before he could utter another word. Her last utterance lingered in his ears. "Of course," he managed.

With what little did Miss Elizabeth succeed to disarm him! One single word, three mere letters and he lost all composure. In his confusion, and for a brief moment, he had thought she would ask him to stay and eat with her. Now he sighed in relief. Bless her sweet, innocent soul. God in His wisdom knew his command over his natural instincts would fail him the instant he saw her clad in his yellow robe.

"Very well," he said stumbling over his words. "...I shall see you in a few minutes. I shall ring for the tray and leave some instructions," he finished softly.

Elizabeth watched him go and smiled to herself. She would have been particularly obliged to Mr Darcy had he jumped upon her instead of offering all his civilities. God, she had never found it so difficult to restrain herself! But though nothing could exceed Mr Darcy's solicitude and honest care, she was certain that his offer entailed more than civility, the implications of the robe coming quite forcibly into her mind. There was no telling what would have ensued had he offered to eat lunch with her.

Darcy went downstairs looking quite flushed and out of breath, not knowing what to do with the state of his loins. His excitement was such he could hardly conceal it. The good natured colonel laughed when he saw the wild look of his face. "What is it, Dar, me boy? You look as though you have climbed a mountain," he teased mercilessly.

Darcy said nothing but his embarrassment spoke for him. He then rang for a servant who came instantly, and Darcy directed that a tray of food and his robe be taken to Elizabeth's bedroom.

"Is she not coming downstairs for lunch?"

Darcy shook his head in negativity.

"Is she well?"

"Yes, she looked quite well."

"Ha, so you saw her! So much for the closed door! You Don Juan! How I envy you! But tell me. How did she look?"

"Fitzwilliam, I warn you...."

"What?"

"Will you not stop the licentious remarks? I may marry her one day."

"Isn't that a cruel custom? You could be enjoying your lady's affection even now, had it not been for this silly religious ceremony."

"Really, Fitzwilliam. Will you not shut up? 'Tis emasculating enough without your constant teasing. I am trying to refrain here!"

"I am sorry," the colonel raised a hand in signal of sincere atonement. Not a minute later he attacked him again. "I suppose you are taking your lunch with her?"

"No, of course not!"

"Would you mind if I do?" This time Darcy sent him a murderous look which spoke for him. "Very well...." Fitzwilliam raised his hand again in surrender. A few seconds later the colonel rose and walked to the window. A servant carrying a tray to Miss Bennet began to climb the stairs. Again both cousins followed her ascent towards the Venus's room with great yearning.

Fitzwilliam shook his head. "Really, cousin. I think you underestimate the lady. I am quite certain she will be happy to... lunch with you... at the very least! Did she not suggest that she might feel... lonely upstairs with a tray?"

Darcy contemplated the question before he answered. He remembered Miss Elizabeth had said something of being bored alone in her bedchamber. Was it possible that Fitzwilliam's inanities could be not so empty of meaning in the end? "Actually, she did," Darcy admitted.

"Ha!"

"What would you have me do?"

"Should I tell you?"

"For God's sake, Fitzwilliam!"

As they were speaking, a footman showed up, bearing a card on a tray. "Mr Bingley, Sir," he announced.

"Bingley?" Darcy was indubitably shocked, not by the prospect of Bingley's visit, but by its unexpected nature.

Indeed, it was Bingley, but he was not alone. Jane was with him, sporting a delightful smile on her face and carrying two of Elizabeth's best gowns wrapped and folded on her arm. Bingley stepped up, arms outstretched. He too was grinning. "Darcy, my friend! Wonderful news!"

Darcy shook Bingley's hand with deep suspicions as to the source of his happiness. It could only be input to an attached heart. But could it be so? They had scarcely parted with Miss Bennet.

His suspicions were promptly confirmed. "You are looking at an engaged man," he said, his grin plastered on his face.

Darcy could not shake his bewilderment in time. "Engaged?" he queried.

"Yes. And to this magnificent woman." Jane blushed deeply at this.

The colonel, seeing that Darcy did not react, came to his rescue saying, "Miss Bennet, Charles, I wish you both joy."

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam. Glad to see you, my friend."

Miss Darcy, who had become quite restless in her bedchamber and had quit her solitary room, was presently on the stairs, her heart aflutter from Bingley's news. There could be no better news than that which pertained to an oncoming wedding. She came closer, and seeing that her brother was distracted, made up her mind to join them. She had her ridiculous dog with her. The wretched pet soon betrayed her presence when it barked wildly at the newcomers.

This was enough to grant Darcy some time to gather his wits and give a proper greeting to his friend. Miss Bennet deserved to be happy, that was certain, and she seemed to be quite happy presently. Bingley had always loved her. On his side, the inclination was stronger. On hers, less equivocal, but Darcy no longer held scruples there.

"I have brought some gowns for my sister. May I see her?" asked Miss Bennet with her usual sedateness.

"Of course. Come this way."

"I will show you," said Miss Darcy with alacrity. She was dying to see Elizabeth. The two ladies disappeared up the staircase and Charles, feeling more at ease, opened his heart to Darcy.

"May I have a word with you?" Darcy beheld him with one of his looks that said: what is impeding your speaking? Charles elaborated, "Privately."

The colonel instantly saw he was not wanted. "I think I shall have my lunch now, or should I call it tea? Anyway, I hate to soup in company." And with that argument he slipped to the dining room. "Be ready to hear some shocking news," he warned Darcy before he left, leaving Darcy to wonder what could shock him even more.

Chapter 27

Despite Fitzwilliam's fateful premonitions, far from shocking Darcy, Bingley's conversation pleased him to an excess. Charles merely wished to consult him regarding his future and to offer him the honour of standing up with him at church in due time. Darcy, of course, consented to both despite the fact that he was equally foreign to the subjects of wedding ceremonies and marriage.

Because the conversation that ensued mainly revolved around business matters, land tenure, the prospective purchase of a house and the like, it served the double purpose of his offering counsel and the cooling of his breeches. Thanks to Bingley's chit-chat, Darcy momentarily forgot the episode entailing a quilt-cocooned nymph through which he had just gone while upstairs in the corridor of his mansion.

However, his comfort was not to endure the rest of the evening. The moment Miss Elizabeth and her retinue of ladies joined them in the drawing room, Darcy's discomfiture returned in all its force. When he saw her looking so damnably pretty in his favourite gown, her hair deliciously loose to one side cascading like a velvet waterfall over her breasts, he decided she was purposely endeavouring to show him just how beautiful she was. And she had achieved her purpose, no doubt. It did not matter that her clothes concealed her nude form now. Etched in his mind was the body he had seen, the milky skin, the mole in her cleavage, the chiselled collar bone. He instantly crossed his legs, groaning to himself, and clasped his hands over a bending knee. In this position it would be easier, though not necessarily more comfortable, to watch Elizabeth's princess-like parade and weather the disabling sensuality that sat in front of him. However, the question still remained: how on earth was he to withstand a whole season of courtship?

Elizabeth's heart was swelling with emotion from the news of her sister which was celebrated with alacrity, and it showed in her countenance that glowed with every word, every comment on the subject. Darcy endured the agony of the alluring vision with eyes fixed on her and yet unseeing, silently worshiping the soft traces of her profile, the crystal peal of her laughter, noticing only belatedly how lightheaded he turned in her presence when he found he could not follow the thread of the conversation flowing between his guests.

He was brought back from his daydreaming when Georgiana's dog growled menacingly at Bingley. His friend winced in discomfort.

"What is wrong with the dog?" asked Bingley, feeling a little intimidated.

"I do not know!" cried Georgiana in distress.

Darcy chuckled. "I was of the idea that he loved you."

"Whence did you get that idea?" said an astonished Bingley only for Darcy to hear. "I have never liked lapdogs."

Elizabeth smiled. "Hush, Faucet," she said to the impertinent dog. "Come, come to me."

The dog pricked up his ears and readily jumped from his mistress's lap to Elizabeth's, who picked him up and held him in her arms to soothe him; yet he still growled at Bingley whenever this latter shifted his body on his seat.

Bingley shrugged, "I dare say it is a mutual dislike," said he to the disagreeable dog.

Darcy frowned at this remark. He remembered perfectly well how Bingley used to hold Georgiana's dog as if the wretched beast were his own beloved pet only last month. Now they seemed to dislike each other excessively, and the dog's affection transferred to Elizabeth. "Upon my word," exclaimed Darcy. "This truly astonishes me, Bingley. Only last month you doted on each other."

"I had better take this little fellow away," Georgiana said as she rose to carry her pet to the dog's quarters, lest her brother tell her off. She returned momentarily to hear the new turn that the conversation had taken in the drawing room.

"So when are you planning to face Papa, Charles?" Elizabeth asked, diverted, her sister's fiancée. It was Jane who answered the question, however.

"I have already sent him a short letter. He will let us know shortly, I daresay."

"So you are not going? Coward!" Lizzie hissed. Miss Darcy listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive, manner of talking to gentlemen and observed that her ways were no different when she addressed Darcy. He, who had always inspired in Georgiana a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry.

"Charles, you must learn the proper manner to court a lady worthy of your attention from your good friend. Do tell us, Mr Darcy. Was it the marriage settlement that Lord Richmond wanted to discuss?"

Although Elizabeth laughed at her own innocently cruel joke, in truth she was hoping for a firm denial of what she had so lightly stated. Darcy only smiled, his expression of tranquil incomprehension, but to her chagrin he did not deny or confirm her words. This only added to Miss Darcy's confusion. It seemed her brother enjoyed being teased by Miss Elizabeth even when she was meddling with his intimate affairs, rather than feeling offended. What game was that? Had she been the one to allude to an unconfirmed engagement between her brother and Miss Richmond, Darcy would have been quite displeased. Yet there he was, grinning like a proper fool, wildly relishing being the object of Miss Elizabeth's insolent banter.

After the topic of Mr Darcy's impending wedding to Miss Richmond was exhausted, they returned to that of Mr Bingley's.

"Who will be your bridesmaid, Miss Bennet? Have you already decided?" asked Darcy, hoping she would grant him a secret wish.

"Why, Lizzie, of course."

Watching him during this delivery, one could have guessed how much the prospect pleasured him. He licked his lips as in preparation for tasting a delightful dessert and then, catching Elizabeth's eye, said in a merry tone, "Then I shall see you at the altar, Miss Elizabeth."

"What? Is this a marriage proposal, Mr Darcy? Should you not be on your knees?" Elizabeth teased, arching an impertinent brow. "What will Dear Miss Richmond say?"

"Oh, Lizzie. Leave the poor man in peace. You are misconstruing every word he says," laughed Jane.

"Never mind, Miss Bennet. It's been some time since I have discovered your sister's willful propensity to misunderstand everybody. Yet she and I understand each other quite well, despite our differences, do we not, Miss Elizabeth?"

"True," she said with a playful nod.

Jane smiled knowingly, wondering why Mr Darcy and Elizabeth had not reached an understanding yet.

"The wedding will be held in three weeks, Darcy. So you had better visit your tailor," said Bingley.

"Groomsman again, Cousin?" asked Fitzwilliam with glee as he joined the party. Looking at Elizabeth he added, "Never groom?"

"How dare you say anything on the subject!" laughed Darcy. "You are still a bachelor and I see no attachment whatsoever anywhere near you."

"Miss Elizabeth does not want me," he whined. "I am broken hearted. I shall never marry now, I am determined." Elizabeth gave a tense little laugh. "Do not laugh! I am serious. You see what she is doing, Cousin? I declare my love and she laughs!"

"A cruel lady," Darcy agreed nodding. "Perhaps she loves another?" he offered.

Instantly, all eyes were on her. If Colonel Fitzwilliam's banter was relentless, Darcy's was daringly dangerous.

"Good Heavens! She is blushing! The answer must be yes!" exclaimed Fitzwilliam.

"She is awfully hot, that is all," Bingley came protectively to her rescue like a grown-up brother. "The result of being too close to the fire."

Elizabeth momentarily forgot the befuddlement of emotions in which her own heart was presently immersed and directed her attention to her good friend. She had grown to know Bingley to a degree that was superior even to his mentor, so it was not unnatural for her to be the only one to perceive the unfathomable sudden gloom in Bingley's countenance. She, of course, wondered as to its provenance.

But she had no occasion to quiz him. Colonel Fitzwilliam had approached her and while the rest of the party conversed animatedly, he stood a little apart next to her and, after paying some silly compliments, he teased her, saying, "I am almost afraid to ask you, Miss Elizabeth, but are you not planning to turn into any of the present gentlemen gathered here in the near future?"

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Good Heaven, Fitzwilliam. I hope not."

"Good. You really look quite fetching in an evening gown. But of course, you already know that. Are you sure you intend to remain in your present female self?"

"Why, Colonel? Where does your question tend?"

"Merely to make sure that you are going to stay in this beautiful form. I want to be prepared, lest you appear in my bed tonight and I ruin my chances again. It would be intolerable."

Elizabeth beheld him with laughing eyes. The gentleman's impertinency had no end. "Fear not, Fitzwilliam. I am not planning to turn into a gentleman or appear in your bed."

"Right. I suspected so. My loss again and Darcy's gain, I presume."

Elizabeth afforded him a melancholy smile. "That will depend entirely on your friend, Sir." As she said this, her eyes descended on their mutual acquaintance, just as his did likewise on hers. Darcy smiled self-consciously and she smiled back, blushingly.

In noticing the exchange of longing gazes, Colonel Fitzwilliam sighed. "Shall you like to have such a husband? Do not let him mislead you with those dimples. He can be damnably solemn at times."

Elizabeth grinned. "There can be no doubt that I shall be incommensurably happy regardless, Colonel, if he ever offers for me."

"In that case, I daresay, you will be made quite happy before long." She raised an inquiring brow. "Oh, yes. That is settled already, I assure you. Look at him. He can hardly contain himself, the fool. He is only gathering courage. If I know him well, he will seek you out once we have all retired. So if I were you, I should stay in the library after dinner, admiring his rare books or some other of the abominable objects he collects in there, unless you want him in your bedchamber directly."

"The library, you say?"

"It is his favourite haunt."

"How can you be so certain? Does he follow a pattern of conduct I am not aware of? Has he ever proposed to anyone else in this manner?"

"Heavens no! But I know he is a lurking boring creature and has an inexplicable obsession with his library." Elizabeth could not restrain a peal of laughter and Darcy's eyes flickered and rested on them with curiosity. He had the strange feeling he was being discussed.

Predictably, music followed. Elizabeth played and sang a little, the others admired and applauded. Darcy alternatively longed and stared, his head full of the intoxicating vision Elizabeth had offered upstairs in her bedchamber. Printed in his mind, she stood still wrapped in her quilt, inviting, alluring. To have presented herself in front of him like that...yes, it was an endearing attempt to attract him, no doubt, to tempt him...or was it mere innocence, an acute ignorance of her power over him? Darcy could not decide. If it was the first, now she surely was in agonies of regret since he had been so dumb as not to have acted upon her seduction...If it was the second, then she did not know what she had done to him.

Elizabeth stared back at Darcy with less forwardness but inwardly yearned with equal intensity to be left alone with him at least for a while. To be able to be close to him in an intimate manner, to feel the soft linen of his shirt under her fingers, to be touched and caressed, and addressed with impertinent endearments was all she longed for. Why, oh why had she not tugged at his sleeve and forced him into her bedchamber when she had the opportunity only moments before? Such an assault was not the most desirable technique to attract a husband, but at least she would be an engaged woman by now.

Chapter 28

Much as Elizabeth enjoyed her present interaction with Mr Darcy, she was very anxious to know what he really felt for her. She wanted more clearly to understand the meaning of his looks, whether there was any sincerity in his wordless declaration of tender regard for her, and she particularly wanted to convince Darcy that she was no otherwise interested in him than as a lover and prospective husband. A mutual silence took place for some time. Elizabeth first put an end to it by saying in a lower tone as Miss Darcy was then giving them the powerful protection of her music, "You look bored, Sir."

Darcy lifted up his eyes, a little shocked by her words but instantly conjecturing that her attack was a mere intent to tease him, he smiled and said, "I was ... momentarily away in my thoughts."

"And may I be privy to where your thoughts wandered?" she sat by his side as she spoke, and he watched her vacate her seat and occupy the little corner beside him with wondering eyes. She smoothed her skirt around her in a delicate manner and waited for him to answer her challenge.

Ere long he said, "I was meditating on the pleasure the presence of a lively person can bestow." He looked at her with amusement, as if expecting an impertinent remark any moment.

"And looking bored to an excess in the meantime," she pointed out. "Why! Your cousin has been conversing with your guests very animatedly while you sit here brooding in solitude."

"I suppose I am graver than some people," said Darcy, savouring every attention Elizabeth bestowed upon him, even when her words were far from complimentary of his character. "I prefer to hear others' conversations. It entertains me more."

"Keen on eavesdropping, Sir? How shocking! I hardly know you!"

He could not help smiling again at this display of playful contemptuousness. "Once again you are misconstruing my meaning. I simply think it wiser to hold my tongue when I have no say in the topic that is being discussed."

"Do you want to be told that you are more wise and discreet than the rest of us?"

He shook his head, "I like to hear conversations between lively people rather than bore my guests with mine, particularly when such joyous news as your sister's impending wedding is the favourite subject."

"Your cousin Fitzwilliam seems to be of a very different mind."

"Oh, Fitzwilliam is perfectly capable of holding a conversation with a log."

"Aye! I enjoy Colonel Fitzwilliam's company very much," she said, nonchalant.

"So I have noticed," he said.

"Jealous, are we, Sir?"

"Was that your intent when you gave him your undivided attention?"

"Not at all. But now that the topic has been raised, I am curious to know what my success would have been. Are you jealous?"

Darcy bit his lower lip, his spirit beginning to feel entangled in her flirtatious demeanour. "I suppose I am a little ...intrigued," he owned after a short pause. "Your intimacy with Fitzwilliam has caught me...unguarded if you like. I did not know you were such good friends."

"I was not aware that my acquaintances could be the object of your meditations, Sir. Are you so fond of me?"

Darcy, evidently relishing her delightful attack, and heart swelling with the violence of his emotions, answered with the broadest of smiles, "I am, yes, quite."

"Am I not too boisterous for someone who enjoys quietness so much?"

"I value the quietness you speak of, though I confess that I am sometimes in want of animation."

"Oh, I do not doubt it," she said. "Though with your usual propensity to estrange yourself from lively company you have been obviating every effort tending to entertain."

"That is very true," replied he, "But when my own fastidiousness inevitably exposes me to boredom, I am equally inevitably rescued by someone of a lively disposition."

"Such as Charles and Fitzwilliam?"

His eyes fixed on hers for a brief moment. At length he said, "I was thinking of a special someone. Someone who is equally acquainted with happy manners and the amusements of a ballroom as well as the delights of the tranquil entertainment derived from a good book; someone with whom I can be happily entertained both in quietness and in gaiety."

Elizabeth smirked. That Darcy still admired her she had no doubt now. She saw it in his eyes, in his evident pleasure when she teased him, a sure sign of love. But ardent admiration did not necessary translate into a proposal of marriage, and desperate times called for desperate measures.

Casting a quick glance at the rest of the party, she made sure they were all sufficiently entertained. Fortunately, Fitzwilliam was turning pages for Georgiana, and Bingley and Jane were conferring between themselves. It was now or never.

"Mr Darcy, you are too generous to trifle with me," she said leaning over him. "You must know I came back to London only for your sake." Here she paused; terrified that she had read too much, that he should shrink from her in astonishment and shock. Her eyes sought his. He said nothing, but regarded her with an inquiring look, as if expecting her to proceed. She obliged, getting a little closer. "If your feelings for me are what I think they are, let me know at once. I know a word in the negative from you will mortify me, but I would rather have that than be in suspense for ever." She paused again and gazed at him to measure how he bore her speech. He sustained her gaze but still said nothing at all. Elizabeth held her breath and thought she noticed Darcy move closer. She gathered courage and elaborated on her previous declaration, saying, "If, however, your feelings match my own, you must know that I ...I love you, and I do not wish to part with you from this day on."

Miss Darcy, quite unluckily, chose to end her little concerto as Elizabeth breathed the last words, and the confidential discourse of the two came therefore to a sudden and quite undesirable end, to which both of them submitted with great reluctance and understandable agitation. From this time the subject was not immediately revived since they were no longer secluded by music, and the company became very much animated in conversation. After a while, however, and without previous notice, Mr Darcy rose to his feet and after mumbling an incomprehensible excuse, quit the drawing room.

From averted anxious eyes, Elizabeth followed Darcy's withdrawal, extremely agitated. In her own estimation, there was no good reason why he should leave, except to escape from her. She saw clearly what had happened: he was disgusted by her liberal declaration of love, and propelled by a silly notion of rectitude he chose to leave the room to spare her the mortification of his blunt rejection. She was beyond redemption now.

An hour passed. Colonel Fitzwilliam suggested cards and cucumber sandwiches with warm tea. Elizabeth sat down at the card table with the melancholy persuasion that she was not only without the affection of Darcy, but without his good opinion as well. Now, she would never have not even the smallest chance to be tolerably happy. When the first rubber concluded, Bingley rose from his seat and, much in Darcy's taciturn manner, walked to a solitary corner near a window. Elizabeth's eyes fixed on him with an impatient wonder. Feeling oppressed to an intolerable degree she made up her mind to join him and make sure nothing untoward was going on.

"I hope you are feeling yourself now," she said with a weary smile.

In a hurried manner, he replied in the affirmative. A pause ensued. Neither said anything. Elizabeth, suspecting Bingley was not being himself, resolved to exert herself and asked,

"What is the matter, Charles?" Her use of his name for a second time, devoid of title, shocked him a little. However, he said nothing about it and assured her with a very formal voice, "Nothing at all, Miss Elizabeth."

She shook her head. Elizabeth felt they were very well acquainted with each other, bound, perhaps, for ever, in a very special fraternity. "Charles. You can call me Lizzie now, do you not think? Now, you tell me, you goose. You and I are one, more so now that we are to be brother and sister."

Charles beheld her with astonishment, however, a felt a gleam of a mutual comprehension, though he could not completely account for Elizabeth's cheeky forwardness. She spoke as though she were a long-time friend who deserved to be spoken to in all honesty.

"Very well...I shall tell you, Miss Lizzie."

In Lizzie's eyes, it seemed Bingley was about to confess a terrible crime. She was beginning to fear that something horrible was about to happen to both of them. Full of apprehension, she asked, "You do not expect a repetition of what befell upon us?"

"A repetition?" he replied with an air of surprise. Truly, he had an idea of what she was talking about, yet he chose to answer with caution. "I hope not," he said.

Elizabeth sighed in relief. "Then what is it? What could be gripping your soul in this manner after the announcement of such happy news?"

Bingley seemed at loss for words. How did she know he was grieving? Exceedingly intrigued, he thought best to conceal his troubles from her, but she insisted in such earnestness that he finally gave in and cleansed his soul, though with great difficulty. "I may have ... compromised your sister, it seems," he said penitently.

"Oh," Elizabeth's eyes rounded at the formidable admission. Bingley blushed deeply. He needed not elaborate. Elizabeth's imagination was full of what could have ensued while Bingley had been momentarily restored to his manly body. Who knew how many times the occurrence had taken place? However fleeting, it was enough to have yielded undesirable consequences.

"It must have been a momentary weakness, I assure you," he blurted out in self defence. "I love your sister, dearly. I would have never done anything like that...I cannot account what possessed me to have acted so dishonourably...I ..."

"Charles, Charles...I understand...It was not your fault."

Charles, who was expecting Miss Elizabeth's full reprobation, could hardly believe his ears. "It was not?"

"No," she said soothingly. "It was the circumstances. I too acted in a most astonishing manner."

"You...too?"

She nodded, becoming quite red in the face. Charles was completely flummoxed. Who could Miss Elizabeth have compromised, he wondered.

"You and..."

"Darcy," she said frankly. "Though, nothing completely untoward happened. But I witnessed many an intimate moment in which he was...well...quite short of clothes."

"Oh," Bingley's eyes opened like coffee saucers.

"I love him, Charles," she confessed as if her affection would render her plight less reprehensible. "Perhaps I love him more than I have ever loved any other. I wish he could..."

"...love you in return? He has always admired you."

"Admiration does not necessarily entail true love."

"I am certain he shall answer your innermost wish..."

Elizabeth was tempted to laugh at his observation; instead she afforded him a conspiratorial smile. "Oh no, Charles. After our own experience with wishes, I am determined not to make a single one in my life. What is more ... I shall never look up at the sky in the night for as long as I live."

"At the sky?"

"Not in the night, at least. Ours was a very naughty star, you know."

"A naughty star?" This was asked in an accent of the utmost amazement.

"What? You do not recollect?"

Did he recollect? Of course he did. Yet what he doubted was his sanity not his memory, for he had worked very hard to dismiss the recollection as absolutely preposterous. He looked out through the window to the starry night. A star shone in the velvety veil of the night and winked at him.

Utterly perplexed by the intelligence Elizabeth was passing on to him, Charles blinked twice. So it was true in the end. He and Miss Elizabeth had switched bodies. He had not been suffering hallucinations after all. Growing vastly confused and, from not knowing what to do or what to say, he turned around and quit the room in haste. Elizabeth cast a glance at the little group gathered around the table and albeit was confronted with Jane's inquiring eyes, she hurried after Bingley. She found him standing, facing the hearth, a spike in hand and poking the fire with great force.

"I suppose I was not mad after all," he mumbled almost to himself.

Elizabeth's brow furrowed. "Mad? No, you were not. But how can you not recollect...it was you who explained it all to me when I was certain I had gone mad. Now you seemed to be persuaded that it never happened?"

"What exactly happened?"

"You and I switched bodies against our will, forced by the works of a naughty star to which we both made a wish. Whatever happened that could have made you forget?"

Her words echoed into his ears, rendering him in a state of such agitation as made him hardly know where he was. "I have been persuaded that all that ensued at Longbourn had never happened." Here he paused, gasping for discernment. "It comes like a dream to me now; a blurred memory.

"Still, I confess some memories had been indelibly carved in my mind ... and I cannot part with them no matter what I do..." sweeping her body with his eyes he remarked, "Quite shocking memories..." Elizabeth lowered her eyes. She too had the embarrassing recollections of Bingley's anatomy deeply rooted in her mind.

"Yes. I know the feeling."

"You too?"

"I was you, you goose. How can I not be embarrassed?"

"Good God...then it was really you ...I... and you saw me...my...me?"

Elizabeth nodded, not without a certain degree of quandary in discussing such a delicate topic. Not only had she seen but also touched and sometimes even beheld the fascinating appendage in awe. Sometimes she would have sworn it had a life on its own.

Bingley was baffled. What to do now? How to proceed? "This is very confusing. I had thought I had compromised your sister...but now..."

"Once I think of it, I own that it is quite awkward a situation. But we shall learn to live with it, do you not agree?"

"But I have been privy to your...well... I have seen your...you..."

Elizabeth was momentarily flabbergasted, picturing all the intimate parts of her body Mr Bingley must have inspected at leisure while he was her. "Spare me the details, please."

"This is wretched! Wretched indeed!" he exclaimed. "All considered, I should not marry Jane after all. I should be marrying you instead."

"Not me, Sir. That is for certain!" Elizabeth exclaimed. What was he thinking? Was he an idiot? Because he was certainly thinking like one. "Much as I got used to being with you, I know I could never love you. Beside you love my sister, Jane. And she loves you in return. You are already engaged."

"Oh dear...you must hate me," said Charles, feeling awfully contrite.

"Hate you? Charles! Can you not see? I have also been compromised by Darcy, and by Colonel Fitzwilliam too. I cannot marry all three, can I ?"

"Darcy and Fitzwilliam?"

She nodded. "I was living with them under the same roof and sometimes even under the same...covers. Believe me, I have been privy to more gentlemen's flesh than any common soldier in a barrack. These two have a shocking propensity to strip off at the most unexpected moments."

Bingley looked all amazement. "Upon my honour, Lizzie. Will you ever recover from such shock?"

Will she indeed...

"That is all to be forgot," she said, quite flushed. "In such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself. I am determined to think only of the past as its remembrance gives me pleasure and not to dwell on what can injure my feelings. You must learn some of my philosophy."

"What if someone else knows of it?"

"No one knows...well...except perhaps for Fitzwilliam."

"Fitzwilliam? Surely, you mean Colonel Fitzwilliam?" Bingley knew that if Darcy ever learnt that he had been exposed to so much of Lizzie, he was a dead man.

Elizabeth assented and Bingley relaxed. "He somehow found me out and now is attacking me with impertinent remarks. But he does not mean any harm."

Bingley's speech faulted now, and his features went rigid as he took it all. Eyes disconcerted, he became noticeably disturbed, as if suddenly recollecting something awful. "This is too eerie. I wonder if you and I are talking about this in earnest."

Elizabeth placed a hand on his. "Yes, Charles. You and I are talking in earnest. You are not ill, this is no dream, the body switch did happen. Do you need a pinch to be persuaded of it?"

"No," he smiled. "No, there is no occasion for that." His heart was now opened to Elizabeth, all its weakness, all its errors perfectly erased. "What about Darcy? Has he never suspected anything? I hope not, because I know he would not tolerate any of it. He is too proud to withstand this ridiculous situation."

She shook her head. "Never. I suppose his frame of mind does not allow him to even toy with the idea."

"Good God, I cannot blame him. Even now I find it very hard to believe it myself. I was afraid that in marrying your sister I was tying her to a lunatic." He snorted here, and then he proceeded, "I hope my friend Darcy makes you incandescently happy, Miss Elizabeth."

"Thank you, Charles."

The visit of the Misses Bennets at Darcy House could not be lengthened beyond tea time and the party began to break up. Yet Miss Darcy insisted that Miss Elizabeth stay the night as had been first implied, Colonel Fitzwilliam would not hear of her going, and Miss Bennet owned that their aunt and uncle had given their consent. Thus prevailed to linger, Elizabeth said her goodbyes to her sister and readied herself full of grief to spend a miserable night at the Darcy mansion with the certainty that she would only see its master to wish him good bye the following day.

~ * ~

Though Mr Bingley was not without a settled habitation of his own, he was in the habit of spending large portions of his stay in London at Darcy House. After dining with his lovely fiancée at the Gardiners, he returned to Darcy House to take his usual room there.

It was quite late when he arrived, and he did not anticipate finding the ladies still up. He walked the short path towards the drawing room, but in seeing no one, turned back to inquire after the whereabouts of the master of the house. A sleepy footman alerted him that Mr Darcy was playing billiards at the room separated for that purpose and thither Bingley went, desirous to further his confidentiality with his good friend. In his defence it can be said that he was distracted by personal meditations that pervaded his mind ever since he had become an engaged man and as such could not notice that the door to the billiard room was unusually closed.

Neither did he hear the scraping noise followed by a thump or the murmur of a man's voice and the response of a woman's coming in gasps of pleasure. So when Bingley placed his hand on the brass handle and turned it, his only expectation was to see Darcy and perhaps Fitzwilliam engaged in a game of ivory balls and tapering cues. Yet the stick and balls with which the present dwellers of the billiard room were playing were of an entirely different nature. Though they were almost immobile and quite unaware of his intrusion, Bingley's immediate understanding was that he had interrupted Darcy's amorous congress, with whom he dared not inquired. Mercifully, the lovers were barely illuminated by the glossy light coming from an extinguishing fire and Darcy's huge frame concealed what the light would have revealed.

Without alerting his friend of his presence, he backed away as discreetly as humanly possible and closed the door behind him. As he passed by the incompetent footman, however, he advised him not to allow anyone into the billiard room until ordered otherwise.

Chapter 29

The afternoon had been stormy and as the evening began to unfold a violent wind arose. By the time the party at Darcy House broke up, it blew and rained violently. Such was the weather when Jane and Bingley left and still the same when Miss Darcy retired about an hour later to rest before dinner. However, Elizabeth's experience in a man's body had left her, as a legacy, an odd internal clock. She had no sense of lady-like fatigue and no capability to rest at the usual time for a good girl, so she ventured out of her room inpatient to find out what could have come of Mr Darcy.

It was the time of the day when the servants were busy attending the fires and the candlelight. As she crossed the hall, the distinct sound of ivory against ivory told her that there was someone in the billiard room. Instantly she was reminded of the occasion in which she had happened on Darcy playing a solitary game at the same room at Netherfield Park and her heart gave a happy leap. Could he be there? With a cheek flushed by hope, her fingers grasped the handle of the door and turned it open.

But she was in for disappointment for, alas! It was Colonel Fitzwilliam and not Darcy whom she found looking back at her with a welcoming smile. He was sipping his third brandy when she found him though she could not know of it.

"Ah, Miss Elizabeth. You could not have arrived at a more timely moment. I am short of a playing partner. Would you care to play?" he asked with a challenging smirk.

Hiding her bitter disappointment as best as she could, she said, "Are you proposing to play a man's game with a woman?"

"Not any woman," Fitzwilliam said drowsily. "Come, come Miss Bennet. Oblige me. Darcy is nowhere to be seen, anyway. You are safe with me, I promise."

Taking the cue from his hand Elizabeth said with a feigned air of uninterest, "Is he coming back soon?"

"I hardly know. He is not very communicative, you know...Ladies first," he said, allowing her the break shot of the game.

Elizabeth chalked the tip of her cue thoughtfully, carefully surveying her shot. Then she bent over the billiard table and aimed through the cue ball while Fitzwilliam cheekily admired her round bottom from behind. "What business could have him away on such an evening, I wonder?" she said as she struck the white ball with an accurate movement that sent all the balls rolling out and three plain balls into three different pockets.

Colonel Fitzwilliam raised his eyebrows and gave a long whistle. "I have never observed him going away on business in the middle of a storm before, I grant you."

"Is there any other favourite haunt of his other than his private library that I am not aware of?" she asked, much in Lady Catherine's tone.

"You mean a harlot's place? No. Not Darcy."

"Good gracious, that was not my meaning at all!"

"Then what was your meaning?" One look told him what her meaning had been. "Oh, no, not at all. Not Miss Richmond's place, I assure you." Now he positioned himself opposite her with his greedy eyes on her cleavage as she aimed with her cue. Elizabeth pocketed another ball. That left her only four balls including the black one.

With her curiosity justly awakened she persevered in her quiz. "If he is not at Miss Richmond...whereabouts can he be?"

"Must we speak about Darcy all the game through? Can we not find another topic?"

"Fitzwilliam, do you think he is running away from me?" She was now in every way agitated, unable to account for Darcy's meaning to disappear just when they were supposed to be together.

"How could anyone run away from you, dear Elizabeth?" Fitzwilliam said with a velvety tone full of his own yearning.

"He can, and did. I declared my love to him and he ran away as if I had told him that death awaited him. Tell me Fitzwilliam, where I have failed? Why should a love declaration be a man's province only?"

"I dunno," he said as he leant over Elizabeth's cue to measure her next shot. "I suppose men like to hunt and not be hunted."

"Why! Can a man not accept a woman's love only because she declares it first?"

"Well, I can. But alas, you do not love me!"

"Alas, indeed, I do not. Only him."

Fitzwilliam went to a little table where there was a decanter. He poured a finger of brandy for him and another for Elizabeth.

"Here. Drown your sorrow."

She beheld him for a moment, then accepted the offered glass and gulped the brandy in a manly manner in imitation of Fitzwilliam, who had downed his goblet with a quick jerk of his head. She shuddered, returned her goblet to Fitzwilliam, took the cue again and one by one placed the balls into the pockets. Fitzwilliam smiled. What a woman, he thought privately.

"I say, it is a good thing we did not place a bet on this game. Are you always this good or is it your foul mood which sharpens your aiming abilities?" Elizabeth shrugged. "Well, at least I shall not be bored next summer with you in Derbyshire."

"How can you be so sure I shall be there?"

"Oh, if he does not marry you, I will," the tipsy colonel stated merrily. "I have made up my mind. I am just biding my time." Elizabeth smiled wearily. "I mean it. I am quite taken with you."

"You would regret it. A marriage where only one part loves cannot be agreeable."

"Ah, but I could teach you to love me," he said with a stupid grin. "I am certain you would be a delightful disciple." Elizabeth beheld him with a quizzical look which instantly chastised him. "But I shall speak no more."

"Darcy has not claimed me as such yet," she said bitterly and having finished the game without allowing the colonel one single shot, flopped herself onto a pillowed seat. Fitzwilliam watched her, entranced. Fighting a strong inclination to join her on the couch and while away the time kissing her, he now went back to the decanter and poured them another drink. I am not to covet my neighbour's woman, he said to himself over and over again.

As he handed her the second brandy, Fitzwilliam noticed Elizabeth was softly crying.

"Oh no. Pray do not do that."

"I am sorry. I do not know what came over me," she said trying to stop her tears from falling but in vain.

Moved by her distress, the colonel sat beside her. Dabbing delicately at her tears with a scented bandana he soothed her by saying, "Darcy will come round, you will see. Is there a man in this world who could be insensible to such a declaration as you have been so bold to make? I think not. Why would he be so ready to take offence when you were only pouring the content of your heart? He is a fool if he has, unworthy of your affection."

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam," she said deeply touched and quite unaware of the danger that lurked in the colonel's heart, she rewarded him with a kiss on his cheek. Human nature could support no more, and the colonel quickly seized her and planted an unchaste kiss on her lips. "Damn Darcy and his luck," he said before he kissed her a second time. His attack was so sudden that it gave Elizabeth no occasion to prevent it. However, she was a practiced wrestler and very easily got away from the colonel's arms,

"Fitzwilliam! I advise you at present to let me be."

The colonel raised his arms and lowered his head apologetically. "I am sorry. I did not mean to offend you."

His mouth left a strong taste of brandy in hers and she easily conjectured that the goblet they had shared had not been his first. "What possessed you, Fitzwilliam? Have you abused brandy?" she asked, rising from her seat.

Fitzwilliam smiled expressively and with a voice perfectly calm he answered from the sofa. "Yes, I am very drunk, I admit it."

"I am not at leisure to remain with you in your present state," she said quite out of breath.

He agreed. "Go now, before I do something stupider still."

Elizabeth, conscious now that his jokes and pleasantries hid a strong partiality for her, thought it best to obey. She found her way out of the billiard room as fast as she could. With a quick step she directed herself to her own. As she walked past Darcy's room, she saw a housemaid tending to his bed, a sure sign that the master had not returned yet. Her curiosity was stronger than her sense of honour and so she looked around the room she had seen many a time while in Bingley's persona and stepped boldly forward, momentarily forgetting of the unsuitability of her presence there.

"May I be of service, madam?" the maid asked her.

"No," she shook her head.

The maid returned to her task with a knowing smile, easily guessing the idle fancy that had propelled the young miss to venture into the master's room. A glance at the bed, another at the dressing room, and a quick peek at the door adjoining the mistress's was evidence enough of the lady's muse. And who could blame her? The master was devilishly handsome. Whenever she was in charge of the bed she was in no hurry. She always took her time, and spent some of it sighing a little over the enticing masculine scent that lingered on his pillow.

That lass was no different, the housemaid thought, though if the gossip that was currently going round down the stairs was true, she wagered the miss would soon be acquainted with more than the master's scent.

"Is your master always away at this time of the day?" Elizabeth asked with a quick-beating heart and a flushed cheek.

The maid shook her head. "No, madam, only when he has business to attend to."

Elizabeth's mind was greatly eased by this information. So he had had business to attend to, and was not hiding from her in his bedchamber as she had feared. Yet something of agitation still remained coiled in her chest due to the haste of his withdrawal, from which sprang all her distress, and her conjecture that he might be a little angry with her.

She lingered in Darcy's room for a while after the maid quit it, her eye straining with curiosity over the title of the books that rested on a shelf over his desk, her fingers wandering at leisure over the soft linen of his bed. A wild fancy to try the mattress where Darcy lay every night immediately rushed across her. She looked around the room and with the strong conviction that she was unlikely to be interrupted she yielded to her fantasy and stepped onto the bed.

Oh, she was perfectly happy there.

Outside the wind roared and the rain beat in torrents. With her mind full of wondrous fantasies, she pictured a drenched Mr Darcy coming into the room to find her in his bed, and she shivered at the delightful thought. She could even see him, peeling off his clothes one by one and discarding them on the floor. She had many times been privy to the manly beauty of his body, the heady smell of his skin, and yet there was so much that remained unexplored, for it took a woman to unlock the hidden treasure concealed in his arms and she had been in a man's form then.

Suddenly, the door opened and Elizabeth was brought back from her reverie in what took an instant. She sat up in bed. quite alarmed. It was Mr Darcy's manservant who had entered the room, and caught her trying the master's bed.

"You are wanted downstairs, madam," he said with a perfunctory voice, as if her presence in the master's bedroom and current emplacement on his bed were the most natural thing in the world.

A moment later she was rushing downstairs, her mind in confusing unpleasant reflections of her own misconduct. A footman advised her to go into the breakfast parlour. Mr Darcy was alone in it, looking quite flushed in the face. In seeing her he advanced hastily and said in a voice rather of command than supplication,

"Come, please."

She acquiesced without hesitation but he did not immediately disclose his mind.

At length he said in a dejected voice. "When you appeared in front of me in that quilt this morning, I knew that you have thrown down what little resistance I withstood. Do you suppose I am made of rock? Behold, madam. I am a man."

"Mr Darcy, I ..."

"And then you confessed you love me!"

For shame, for shame! He was disgusted with her. Elizabeth knew not where to hide from embarrassment. She looked down. "I know. I have acted in a most astonishing manner. About this morning ... I have never...I have never acted in a stupider way. I told myself I have given you a weapon to be used against me," she started, seized by the unpleasant idea that he had called her to show her the extent of her own folly.

He moved nearer. "Fear not. I am utterly unarmed, Miss Elizabeth. You have stripped me off my every defence."

She looked at him quite flummoxed, engulfed by her stupid fears of rejection and a nascent suspicion too good to be true.

"Are you still of the same mind? For I know only of one way in which your wish can be granted and I am willing to proceed if you are."

"I do not understand..."

With a warmth that brought all the former Mr Darcy to her mind, he said, "I have never acted in this manner either, Miss Elizabeth, I assure you. But I have contended with my own inclination to succumb to your charms and refused to capitulate under your female attraction... with considerable struggle, I grant you, and for a while I found myself victorious. But today, madam, you have tried me beyond my limits. To have resisted such attraction as it was offered to me this morning! To have withstood such a tender declaration and yet not react! Is there any other man on earth who had done it?"

Elizabeth's heart began to beat very fast.

"I have decided that it must come to an end." Smiling, he added. "That is why I instantly rushed into the rain in my endeavour to please you. I too do not wish to part with you any more. My business outdoors has been to procure the services of a vicar."

A vicar! Elizabeth's surprise was great indeed.

"It is quarter past seven now," he said showing his watch. "We shall be married by eight. It will only take a nod of your head. Now tell me once and for all, will you marry me?"

Marry him! He was not asking for a courtship. He wanted to marry her there and then! Such an application was impossible to resist! She was wrapped by such unutterable happiness that she could scarcely think least of all open her lips. Ere long, however, Elizabeth recollected herself, blushed deeply and feeling her tongue absolutely tied nodded several times. If words failed her, her courage would not.

"Here," he said covering her with a heavy cloak. "It is raining very hard."

He sat her in his carriage and sat facing her. Her face was quite pale and agitated. He asked her if she was sure to proceed.

"I am," she answered, trembling at every syllable she uttered. Only then did Darcy prod the roof of the carriage with his cane, and they set out for the church.

How they were married is not of the slightest consequence to the present account, for what is to hinder a man of Mr Darcy's consequence from the purchase of anything, more so a marriage license from a vicar who owes him more than one favour, and unite himself to a young lady of age? Who needs to be reminded that if any common man has a will, a rich man has a way?

They returned as predicted at quarter past eight, already united in holy matrimony, both dizzy from stepping into this foreign terrain that was marriage as though they were emerging from a dream. It had been a quiet bridal ceremony, quite fit for Mr Darcy's temper, I grant you, and yet, he had never seen such madness in him, such reckless unpredictability. That he was capable of behaving spontaneously or savagely he knew not till that day. This new-found side of him was exhilarating, thrilling, irresistible. Above all he felt incandescently happy.

Albeit Elizabeth had been deprived of her family's good wishes, she was immensely happy. Her husband was equally happy if she should judge by the smile plastered on his face which doubled her felicity. Upon arriving at their home they found Fitzwilliam and Georgiana waiting for them in the small sitting-room adjoining the dining room with a puzzled look on their faces.

"Upon my word! Where have you been in this weather? Can you not be dry for a while?" said Fitzwilliam.

With no hesitation an impatient Darcy gave a full account of their business outside. At the end of his speech his hearers had been rendered quite speechless. They were far from being irritated or resentful and equally far from quick to catch what was being unfolded. A few minutes could not be enough to collect all the particulars of such an extraordinary and sudden event. Miss Darcy was beyond words.

"Married?" Fitzwilliam said at last. "Not courting, not engaged, just plain married?"

"I am, by Jove," answered Darcy looking warmly at his bride with adoration. Elizabeth coloured as her husband asked. "Will you not wish us joy?"

"I do," Miss Darcy said with affectionate eagerness and she rushed to her brother's arms and gave him a warm hug.

Fitzwilliam too came to his senses and reached out for Elizabeth's hand to shake it. Then he hugged his cousin and patted him on his back. "Good God, Darcy! 'Tis the first spontaneous thing I know you have done! Could you not have chosen something less dramatic, like jumping short of clothes into Pemberley Lake on a summer afternoon?"

They all laughed at the occurrence. "Do not pay attention to Fitzwilliam, Miss...Oh, I mean Mrs Darcy," said Miss Darcy.

"Please, you must call me Elizabeth, now," Elizabeth admonished her new sister-in-law with a warm smile.

Miss Darcy nodded with delight. "And you must call me Georgiana, as my brother does."

"Well, I suppose I will live to see stranger things in my life," mused Fitzwilliam reflectively. He could understand Darcy's readiness to tie himself to the little Elizabeth. He had never seen her equal. He would have not hesitated either, had he been in his place, such was his own captivation for who now was his cousin. "Well done, Miss Elizabeth, or should I say Mrs Darcy? You have caught a slippery fish," the colonel said merrily and winked at her.

Darcy then summoned the servants to pass them the intelligence of his marriage. They bowed with deference though puzzled looks passed among their faces and more than one suppressed a knowing smile. The housemaid was particularly touched and she sighed delighted by the romantic nature of such an attachment. For a love match it was, no doubt. The mistress: an anxious, agitated, happy, feverish Elizabeth, said not a word but her glowing cheek and brightened eye spoke for her.

Once the first shock was over, Fitzwilliam and Miss Darcy expressed themselves with sincere professions of happiness and well wishes. Elizabeth was received by her new sister with all the kindness which her situation would naturally call for. Though great was the girl's surprise, her pleasure was tenfold greater.

The small party dined in unaccountable merriment, the couple being the target of Fitzwilliam's jokes (he was still a little tipsy). Darcy bore it all with a dignified air, at times even laughing out loud at his circumstance. He could not be more surprised at his own suddenness and determination, but he was persuaded of the felicity that awaited him beside Elizabeth.

"I suppose you will not play billiards again with me tonight," said Fitzwilliam over a cup of coffee.

"No, not tonight," answered Darcy, replacing his cup on the table.

"I was not talking to you," Fitzwilliam said boastfully. "Your wife happens to be very well acquainted with a cue, are you not, Mrs Darcy?"

"You play billiards?" Darcy asked with an astonished tone.

"Your cousin was teaching me the elementary movements," she said, biting her lower lip.

Fitzwilliam chuckled. "Well, I guess we had better leave the doves on their own. Come, little one," he said to Georgiana. "Let us retire for today. It has been quite a day and I need to rest."

When his relatives had retired, Darcy turned to his bride and asked with glee, "So, billiards, huh?"

Elizabeth blushed. "I accidentally found Fitzwilliam in the billiard room and he offered to teach me."

"I see," he said with a twinkle in the eye, "Will you not show me your progress?"

Elizabeth smiled suggestively. "With pleasure."

Chapter 30

There was something about the billiard room, in its intrinsic dimness, its manly appearance, that Elizabeth found fascinating. Sitting at the edge of the billiard table, with her newly-acquired husband slow-dancing between her legs, she decided that from this day on that room would be her favourite haunt in the mansion. How a room designed for the sober entertaining of refined, well-bred gentlemen became a wedding-night bedchamber may not be difficult to imagine if one takes into account the volatile nature of both bride and groom.

From the start, it had been a veritable struggle for Darcy, once left alone with Elizabeth, to restrain himself from carrying her upstairs to the master's bedroom and plunging into her without further ceremony. The fact that he had never caressed or kissed his bride before rendered the whole bedding business gross and impolite like passing directly to the desserts without touching the appetiser and first and second courses. So the idea to spend an...agreeable moment with her secluded in a dim room was quite enticing. And what was there to stop him?

The bride was none the wiser of the groom's musing, however. Elizabeth quite naively thought on being escorted and followed into the billiard room by her husband that they were to have a true billiard game in it and so she determined herself to play the game in as ladylike a manner as her own nature allowed it. To restrain him from doubts and suspicions of her previous game as much as might be she would speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night, and most importantly would avoid showing him her real ability with cue and ivory balls.

However, as he guided her to the billiard room, scarcely suppressing a naughty smile on his handsome face, Elizabeth suspected that her husband was up to something. That he was in high spirits she also knew. She had never known him smile so much. Perhaps he did not have a billiard game in mind after all. Oh well...Whatever should ensue, Elizabeth thought she would not regret one minute of any of it. Her husband was simple irresistible.

Soon, her speculations proved right. Scarcely did the door swash shut when she felt Darcy's strong hands encircling her waist. Her body thus seized, her attention properly captured, her husband actually making violently love to her from behind her back, whispering endearments into her ear, declaring himself in severe torture which her mere presence seemed to inflict, she found all her previous resolution vanished. A sigh escaped her lips...a deep, sinking sigh that penetrated his ears, piercing his soul, making the thin hair of his skin bristle up as in cold.

Without scruples, without diffidence, without preambles, he whirled her around and bent to kiss her. Yet he stopped at midway as if an invisible barrier impeded him to proceed.

Elizabeth frowned. What was wrong with him? This reaction was illogical. A kiss should have followed, not this incomprehensible hesitation. For God's sake, they were married, though still strangers, and they were alone in a room of the house, his house. Even more, a thick wooden door held them back from the rest of the world, from unwanted interruptions. "Darcy?" she asked eyes scanning what the dim light of the room allowed of his face. He was staring at her quite intently. Darcy shook his head. There was something ludicrous about thinking of Bingley at such a moment, yet Bingley's face came rushing through his mind like a cruel ghost, looming threateningly over his happily ever after.

"For a moment I ...I thought you..." he began to say.

"What?"

"Forgive me... it is nothing."

The situation brought up a preposterous fear, absolutely unfathomable in nature; one that had been left behind almost a month ago. Yet as they were negotiating the small space between their faces, this thought overpowered Darcy's mind. While he and Bingley lived under the same roof in Netherfield Park, Darcy had felt shamelessly attracted to his friend, a feeling he had never completely understood or owned, and that had prompted, urged him to seek the first comely lady that had crossed his path for the sake of restoring his sanity.

"I will kiss you now," he announced with determination.

"Very well," she agreed and stood on tiptoes the better to reach him. Her lips, soft and welcoming in a delicate pout received his in a cautious kiss. However, he instantly pulled away, then moved back and beheld his bride for a second, gripped by the unreasonable fear that he was kissing his best friend. Yes, it was Elizabeth. What was he thinking?

"Darcy?"

"Yes..."

"Are you well?"

Her concern was enough to restore his wits, but not enough to restore his passion. There was something about her that reminded him strongly of Bingley. Not her lips, of course, he had never tried Bingley's, but her touch, her gaze. Good Lord...what was wrong with him? Had he gone irremediably mad?

Elizabeth was effectively worried. The look that Darcy bore on his face did not speak of seduction, but of absolute abhorrence. Was it possible that she could have been transported back into Bingley's resemblance the minute he kissed her, like a reversed charm of the prince frog?

In order to ease her mind, she let go Darcy's neck and, for want of a mirror, inspected her own body with her hands, which travelled her own chest down to her stomach until they were confronted with Darcy's hands on her waist. When she noticed that Darcy was following the motion with his gaze, she took his hands in hers and invited them to travel northwards to the valley of her breasts. Her inspiration proved a blessing. The trip, short yet quite pleasant for both, was all her husband needed to charm away his scruples.

She smiled triumphantly at him and stretched herself expecting encore. He obliged, this time more confident, already reassured that she was not going to turn into some sort of spectre of Bingley as it had happened once upon a horrible nightmare long before. Yet, unsettling as it was, would it not be for the contact of their tongues, making love to Elizabeth still reminded him of his wrestling lessons with his best friend.

Not for one minute did Darcy suspect his hesitation to stem from sexual ambivalence. There was no pondering such a happenstance. It was simply impossible. He was fundamentally a man, a man in all its sense. His friendship with Bingley had never fostered such repugnant feelings. Neither he nor Bingley was effeminate. He abhorred even the suggestion of unmanliness in a gentleman.

The wise reader must have already seen that unbeknown to Darcy, those days which he had shared with Elizabeth in Bingley's flesh, he had seen Elizabeth's essence even through the formidable disguise of her manly body, hence his unseemly attraction. Now as he embraced her in her womanly self, it was only natural that he would be reminded of their previous exertions together. "I feel as though we have done this before..." he said dreamily.

She said nothing, could say nothing, only sustain his gaze as firmly as she could.

"Like in a dream, or a spell," he said caressing her hair.

She smiled reassuringly. "It is because you are under my powerful spell, my dear."

"Am I?"

"Aye."

"Indeed. You have bewitched me body and soul, no doubt. Here I am, behaving like the greenest boy absconded in my billiard room with my own wife. And have I not just bribed a clergy man to be married to you speedily? What have you given me, enchantress?"

"Why, the purest of loves. Have I not told you before?"

"Yes, I think you did. But I do not mind having you repeating yourself. I am a very vain person."

"Well then, I love you..." she kissed the tip of his nose, returning his loving gaze.

Instantly forgetting the previous scruples, he bent over and kissed the right corner of her mouth, his moist lips effectively touching hers a little. She whispered his name, repeating the words I love you over and over again. When he next bent over her it was to kiss her squarely on the lips.

They were kissing now, arms clasped, limbs sliding across each other in a sensuous wrestling that did not remind him of Bingley in the least. She was licking his ear, biting his jaw, all of which cumulatively aroused him to an extreme. He felt her buttocks under her dress and pressed her firmly against his bulge.

The revolution which this made in Elizabeth was almost beyond expression. With all the restraints her body had suffered in those days when merely kissing him would have been simply unnatural, the moment Darcy's hands, now her husband's, touched her so intimately, she was seized by a wild agitation, a despairing desire to be engulfed in a fierce embrace and lost herself in his powerful arms.

Till then, Darcy was truly savouring every minute of their little game of seduction. He wanted to linger in this fully clothed condition for a while, lost in the loving brown-eyed gaze of his wife. It was so very erotic, a spreading thrill, a promise of consuming passion. His predator instinct was such that when he first touched the bare skin of her breasts with his lips he half wished her to shy away, to give him the chance to woo her, to softly introduce her into the pleasures of the marriage bed.

To a passionate and volatile character like Elizabeth's such forwardness coming from her handsome husband was sure to open wild sensations ere unknown to her. In seconds she was wrapped around him as if her life depended on it, and what should have merely been a prelude of what would ensue in the bedchamber upstairs, became a veritable tangle of limbs between passionate lovers.

Only a few words did they say, the obliging I-love-yous. But what they did not say they showed in their embrace. Darcy was a little surprise at what he had unleashed; feelings, promises, and silly endearments would be left for a later hour ---she demanded actions better than words. That much was made quite evident since Elizabeth's body was firmly pressed against his, her mouth daringly attacking his, thus hindering any possible expressions of affection from his part. God only knows how she had longed to be thus hold!

So many fantasies she had nestled, visions of skin on skin, of wetness and swelling, her recently acquired experience in a man's flesh mingling with maidenly romanticism. Even during their lengthy separation, a presentiment of what would be followed her sustaining her sanguine until this day in which she finally saw all her illusions ---her dream--- come true: she had become his wife, he had claimed her as his and she could not wait to surrender to him.

Answering her wordless demands, Darcy pushed her against the billiard table, cornering her against its hard edge. Their heads tossed and turned against each other, mouths kissed and bit and sucked with what could only be called greediness. However, precisely because her voraciousness matched his own, Darcy could not help wondering at it... She attacked him relentlessly, pulling at his clothes, ravenously, greedily. It was when she reached the tender flesh beneath his shirt that the first zephyr of doubt crossed Darcy's mind. Were not brides usually a little apprehensive of their husbands' bodies? Whence did all her boldness come?

But he could not stop to wonder long. Elizabeth was desperately tugging at his waistband so he shut away his queries and pushed her hard against the table. There was some inept fluffing with buttons and lace at first but once their wrestling lesson was finally casted aside they found themselves moving atone, effectively pulling at each other's clothes until both were relatively free from the interfering garments. When she felt his hardness against her tights, Elizabeth pressed herself against it, and biting him hard in the earlobe, beckoned him to proceed.

Feeling that he was losing a race, Darcy pushed his head down to her chest and kissed her there gently first, then sucking hard at the nipples that swelled at every touch of his mouth. Something happened to her then. She went rigid as if she had been struck by a sudden jolt and did not seem to be breathing at all. For a moment Darcy feared she had passed out. Then, juddering violently, she let out an irreverent noise, guttural, primeval, like something deep within her had broken after which she released a sinking sigh that pumped so much blood southwards that Darcy thought he would die if he did not have her just then.

It took her some time to recover. Darcy felt her body slowly relax against his. When she was completely back to her senses, however, it did not surprise him to see that she clearly knew what he needed. She licked his ear, nibbled the tender flesh of the lobe, then paid attention to his neck, rousing, gauging, maddening him till he almost reached the point of no return.

Good God. If they reached such level of pleasure so easily, he could not begin to imagine what it would be like when he had done his ...part. What to do now? He was almost sick with desire and indecision. Yet to deflower his wife in a billiard room seemed quite improper. But then she was begging for it. And so was he.

With a desperate movement he lifted her on the billiard table and clasping her with both hands he performed the duty of the husband. As he was preparing himself to dive from the high cliff of his pleasure, he heard the door of the room clicked open and the faint sound of footsteps. Someone had come in. The soft intake of air from his bride as the barrier of her maidenhood gave way to his piercing invasion temporarily distracted him and he heard no more whether the intruder stayed or left. He could not care less. There was absolutely no blood left in his brain that could have spurred a more delicate thought. He was already enveloped in the wings of his own pleasure, falling headlong into the depths of his wife's magnificent body and there was no trying to hold back. After all, this was his room, his house, his wife. The intruder would have to leave or be damned.

Epilogue

Darcy and Elizabeth had been happily married for an entire year but Fitzwilliam's feelings for his new cousin had by no means decreased. Quite the contrary, he felt so much in lust with her as the first day he had seen her abandoning his bed on a trip to London. His ardour knew no boundaries, so before he committed the worst mistake he could ever make, he made up his mind to pack his things and visit his relatives in Kent, counting on the ability of those dull faces to charm away passionate emotions of any kind.

One night, after emptying his aunt's decanter as it was his custom, he found himself in dire need for fresh air. Accordingly, he staggered his way outside and after casting out his undigested dinner over the banister, he began to feel a little better. To his horror, he soon discovered he was not alone in the balcony.

"Ah, Anne...what the deuce are you doing here? You will catch a cold," he slurred and chuckled at his own joke.

For the first time in a se'nnight, Fitzwilliam heard Anne's voice. She asked meekly, "Are you well?"

He straightened up his back as best as possible and said in an unconvincing manner, "Quite."

Anne dare not contradict him, though she inwardly thought he looked quite undone. Lowering her eyes, she silently bid him goodnight and began to walk away from him but not in the direction of the house.

"Where are you going?"

Anne was not used to answering straightforward questions. That task was usually performed by her mother. So now that she found herself in need to give a direct response, it took her a little while to utter the syllables to form the words.

"T-t-to the garden."

"Is it not too dark out there?"

"It's a st-starry night."

"Are not afraid?"

"Of the night?"

"Of some lurking creature that might assault you in the..." he then beheld Anne's face and soon saw the improbability of such occurrence. Any lurking creature would probably be mighty startled by Anne's look and most certainly would scamper away from her before attempting an attack.

"Would you like some company?" he offered as gallantly as his inebriated state afforded him. Anne would like the company thank-you-very-much. As a matter of fact she was vastly in love with her lively cousin Fitzwilliam, smeared neck-cloth notwithstanding. Thus, she assented with a curt nod of her little head, devoid of any smile or evident enthusiasm.

They wandered about the wilderness at a low pace. Fitzwilliam, by inhaling the fresh nightly air, which forwarded his prompt recovery, soon began to gain cheerfulness. As he did so he spied his cousin's head turned upwards to the starry night.

"What are you looking at?" he asked.

Anne sighed before she answered. "The stars," she finally said with a weak voice.

"Oh, beware of those. I have a friend of mine who...actually it is a cousin of mine...of ours...who got her...errr...him...herself in quite a maze after wishing on a star."

"Oh, dear!" she exclaimed.

"She tossed from one form to another and became quite alluring if you ask me..."

"Alluring?"

"Changed form...like in a fairy tale? You know the one with the frog and stuff? Now she has the most perfect pairs of...well...she is quite...err..."

"You mean houri?" said Anne with increasing interest.

"Yes! You know her?" Anne shook her head.

Fitzwilliam sighed, shoulders slouched in agonic sorrow. "I have not seen her equal...Such bewitching ways she has..."

"So... you like Mrs Darcy, huh?"

"Oh yes...I mean...I ... what d'you know?"

"It is not the first time you have abused your liquor, Richard."

"Ah, of course. Well...she is my cousin's best friend...err wife...you know I..."

"Fear not. Your secret is safe with me."

There was a pause. Both looked up at the sky.

"You know? I have seen countless of fallings star in my life. Hundreds! And never once wished a single wish upon any of those," he said reflectively.

"You regret it?" she asked.

"Oh, no," he shook his head emphatically. "I would not dare ask a thing, no sir. Quite distrustful those naughty stars are, mark my words. Veeery naughty beings. Dunno know what troubles one might fall into when one meddles with them."

"Did it not work for Mrs Darcy?"

Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded unsteadily. "I daresay it did. She is as happy as happy can be. And so is Bingley for that matter." Here another pause ensued. Fitzwilliam seemed to be reflecting. "You know...if I were to wish for anything - and I do not mean a wish upon a star - should wish to be rich, immensely rich, unhealthily rich..."

"I think I catch your meaning."

Again silence. After a while she broke it abruptly, which woke Fitzwilliam from his little doze in which he had fallen during her silence. "Money will not make you happy, Richard. Look at me. I've all the money I could wish for and still I cannot be more unhappy," she stated.

Fitzwilliam nodded in acquiescence. "Yes, your situation is quite exemplifier of your words."

"I know," Anne sighed.

"So it seems I shall never be happy...even if I married you for your money."

"No, you would not," she returned with regret.

"Fair enough. I shall remain a bachelor and poor as a church mouse."

"What sort of woman would you like to marry?" she asked never bolder.

"Apart from the very rich?"

She nodded. "And Mrs Darcy."

"Well let me see..." he said as he rubbed his hands, "I should wish for ..." he tossed his hands searching for words "...comeliness." He eyed her. "And a good pair of...er...you know..." he pointed at her flat chest. "Flesh in general, the likes one finds at a bazaar in Istanbul. Perhaps some spark, too. I hate dullness in a woman. And brilliant, sparkling dark eyes, gazelle-like eyes, and a pert bottom...ah ...and a sense of humour."

"And a healthy constitution."

"Yes, that too."

"Will you marry then, despite the lack of money?"

"Most definitely," he returned with a sweet smile never imagining what he was getting into.

"Look! A wishing star!" Anne pointed excitedly at the sky, and she instantly closed her eyes very tightly before Fitzwilliam could prevent it. As she mumbled her wish upon the falling star, the naughty fairy gave a playful turn in the sky and then disappeared into the jet night. When Anne opened her eyes again, however, she was still the same thin creature devoid of both beauty and breasts.

Fitzwilliam was, nonetheless, quite alarmed. He knew nothing good could come from this.

"Anne! What have you done?" he asked in despair.

Anne shrugged her shoulders. "I suppose it did not work with me," she said in dismay.

"Good Lord. What did you wish for?"

"Oh, you know perfectly well what I wished for."

Fitzwilliam blinked. "Do I?"

"Indeed."

"Anne, for the love of the Lord! Tell me that you wished for comeliness, nothing more."

"In a way I did. Though, I see now that I shall never have enough flesh to suit your taste."

"What?"

"Was that not your heart's desire? To have a seraglio's inmate for a wife?"

"For God's sake, Anne. What was exactly that you wished for?"

"What matters anyway? It will not be!"

"You must tell me at once, woman. What was that you wished for?"

"I wished to be your heart's desire."

Oh dear. He had in a trice found himself fettered by the works of a naughty star. Now Anne would be switched for Elizabeth and Darcy would simply ...well he would chase him for the rest of his life.

"We must run away. Post haste," he urged her.

"You mean we shall elope?" Anne's eyes opened up wide.

"Yes. This minute. Before dawn catches us."

Anne jumped with happy excitement and threw her skinny arms round Fitzwilliam's neck. As he rushed across Rosings Park with Anne on tow, he desperately searched the sky for another wishing star. Would to God that he found one and could reverse the charm before it was too late! Yet not one of those elusive fairies deemed to show their sly faces.

Ah well. This is just my luck. Perhaps Anne is switched for a voluptuous odalisque instead, he thought to himself.

~ * ~

The next morning, at Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy stretched a wary arm to fondle his sleeping wife's rear as it was his custom. As to what he found when he did so, dear reader, well...that is subject for another tale.

Finis


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