NMT Chapters 6-7

Chapter Six

The following Monday found Darcy once again on the road to Hertfordshire, this time sharing his coach and the journey with Bingley, both travelling with the Bennet coach back to Netherfield and Longbourn. The friends had lapsed into a comfortable silence not long after leaving the outskirts of the great city. Of Bingley’s thoughts he knew not; for his own part, Darcy was quietly reviewing the experiences of the previous week.

He had dined three times with Elizabeth’s family at Gracechurch Street and had to admit that the Gardiners were very respectable people. Still, he found it difficult to reconcile how a man of such good manners, taste, and sensibility as Mr Gardiner could have as a sister a woman of so little sense or decorum as Mrs Bennet. Then again, the same could be said for Elizabeth and Jane Bennet in comparison to their younger sisters. Time spent with certain members of his prospective family only confirmed both his belief that Elizabeth had the grace and poise to adapt to her new position, and his relief that Hertfordshire was a long two-day’s journey from Derbyshire.

However, he and Elizabeth would be in Town, only half a day’s journey from Longbourn, for the many months of the Season. Mrs Bennet would most certainly expect an invitation to visit them in London, and he was equally certain that she would insist on bringing her younger daughters. If no invitation were forthcoming, curiosity — or worse, matchmaking madness — might even lead to her to arrive unannounced. She had dropped too many less-than-subtle hints that she expected her daughter’s marriage to put Elizabeth’s sisters in the path of rich men, in effect making Darcy responsible for finding them wealthy husbands. The very thought of introducing Society to the silly Kitty and Lydia, neither of whom had the faintest sense of propriety, was too awful to consider.

Thus, temporarily pre-empting his future mother-in-law became very appealing. Darcy reasoned that if he hosted a dinner at his townhouse for the three Bennet ladies now in London along with their Gardiner relations, he could more easily justify a lack of an invitation for his new relations soon after the wedding. As for the issue of the younger Bennet girls, he would make known to Mrs Bennet that this first Season was for Mrs Darcy, and Mrs Darcy alone. Pleased with his scheme, he asked Lady Victoria to act as his hostess for the dinner; she was happy to offer her assistance and take advantage of another opportunity to observe Elizabeth.

The Gracechurch Street party arrived for the dinner just slightly more than fashionably late. Darcy quickly saw that Elizabeth was annoyed and tentatively concluded that Mrs Bennet had orchestrated the delay. Elizabeth’s apologies for their tardiness seemed to confirm his suspicions.

“Do not concern yourself,” Darcy said to Elizabeth with a wave of his hand. “You are here now, and we still have nearly half an hour before dinner is served.”

“Thank you for your understanding. Please extend my apologies to Lady Victoria. Mama was… inconveniently delayed.”

Elizabeth tried very hard to not roll her eyes, but was not entirely successful, despite her evident concern that they had offended Darcy’s aunt. Darcy quietly reassured her, then deftly changed the subject.

“Has your time in Town been sufficient for your needs?”

“For now, yes.”

“We will return here for a short time after the wedding and then again before the Season. We can address your remaining requirements at that time.”

“You are quite the fashion authority, Mr Darcy. First the décor of my chambers, and now the adornment of my person. Is there anything else you wish to redecorate?”

Darcy’s eyes sparked in amusement. He admired Elizabeth’s ability to throw off her earlier agitation and not allow it to interfere with her present mood.

“Not at this time. However, when we are married, I retain the right to make further suggestions. You must allow that I need time to discover your secrets.”

“You believe me a mystery?”

“All women are mysteries. Any prudent man will admit that.”

“I believe I should add sensible to the list of your qualities.”

They returned their attention to the others, and the rest of the evening was, on the whole, pleasant for all.

Lady Victoria stayed on after the other guests had departed, knowing that her nephew would wish to hear her appraisal. They sat beside the fire in the Library, conversing and sipping their tea. Not wanting to over-tire his older relative by detaining her much longer, Darcy quickly moved the conversation to the events of the night.

“Tell me your opinion of the evening.”

“Your Elizabeth grows in my estimation. She handled herself well tonight, considering the situation.” Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Come now, you know to what I am referring. I still cannot contend with the fact that you picked Miss Bennet knowing that you would be gaining such a mother-in-law. She is just like my brother’s wife!”

“I will not tell the Earl you said that.”

“I have told him much the same to his face. Harriet Bennet and Alice Fitzwilliam could be sisters as far as temperament.”

“I had noticed. It was another reason I could not summarily dismiss Elizabeth as a potential bride. She is adept at dealing with her mother. I reasoned that this experience would serve her well when in company with certain of my family and with the ton. Having a foolish wife has not harmed my uncle’s standing in society.”

“Perhaps not, but a title excuses more grievous faults than having a silly wife.”

“True, but the Darcy name and what it represents has some caché. I have every confidence that my future wife will be a success, despite her relations. It is unlikely that society will be greatly exposed to Mrs Bennet and I will see — with your help — that Elizabeth has first established herself as Mrs Darcy before her mother and any of our society are introduced to each other.”

“I begin to suspect that your deliberations in considering whether to offer marriage were much more thorough than anyone knows.” Again Darcy raised his eyebrow. “You have made your point,” the lady conceded. “I am not implying that I have fallen under some spell cast by Miss Bennet. However, all I have learned of her so far is in her favour.”

“That is all I ever asked.”

<<<>>>

A heavy sigh from across the carriage brought Darcy back to the present.

“What can elicit such from you, Bingley?”

“What?”

“All the lovesick noises you are making lead me to believe that you would prefer a different companion in this coach.”

“Darcy, sometimes you are insufferable. Please tell me you would not prefer that Miss Elizabeth were here in my place.”

“Certainly, but then she would be Mrs Darcy, and we would be heading away from Longbourn.”

“In two more weeks you shall. I envy you.”

“What of your Miss Bennet? Just what are your intentions towards her? As if I need to ask.”

“Ha! I see that you will enjoy being the elder brother. And no, you should not need to ask. I will plead my suit very soon.”

“You have no doubt of its successful outcome?”

Bingley looked startled, then uneasy. “Has Miss Elizabeth confided … do you have reason to think …”

“Calm yourself, Bingley, I am toying with you. Despite the serenity of her countenance, no one who knows her could doubt that Miss Bennet is devoted to you. And as I have told you many times, she is a lovely woman. I am pleased to call her sister … and will be honoured to call you brother.”

Bingley’s relief was palpable. “Thank you for that, Darcy. I also am honoured at the prospect of becoming your brother, despite your ill-conceived sense of humour, and Miss Elizabeth will be a welcome addition and delightful contrast to my current coterie of sisters. I assure you that I will speak to Miss Bennet soon. In the meantime, enjoy all the attention, old man.”

“I gladly bequeath to you all the joy of Mrs Bennet’s attentions and ministrations. Your time will come, after your betrothal.” Bingley laughed. “At least in returning to Netherfield I have a better chance of seeing you before my own wedding.”

“I had things to do whilst in London.”

“Such as calling on Miss Bennet?”

“Amongst others, yes.”

“I think you spent more time at the Gardiners’ than anywhere else.”

“Do not take offence, but the company there was much easier on the eyes.”

The friends laughed in easy understanding, and the rest of the journey was spent in pleasant and companionable conversation.

<<<>>>

As Christmas drew near, the Hertfordshire weather turned very cold. The ground was white with frost, the vegetation brown and dormant, the skies gray and often threatening snow. Such conditions encouraged all but the hardiest of outdoor enthusiasts to remain comfortably warm indoors. Elizabeth was one of the few who nevertheless ventured forth, but whether she did so because of her love of walking or from a desire to seek sanctuary from the endless preparations for her wedding was debateable. Whatever their motivation, Elizabeth’s rambles offered Darcy a rare opportunity to spend time with her alone.

“Elizabeth!” Darcy called in greeting as he came towards her on his horse.

“Fitzwilliam! I see you have found me yet again.”

“You did conveniently mention that this is your favourite route in such weather.”

“I am delighted to discover that you are a man who can take a hint. Another addition to the ever-growing list of qualities that I find admirable in you.”

“Someday you must share your list with me.”

Darcy dismounted from his horse and offered his arm to Elizabeth. She gladly accepted, and the two continued on together.

“Are the arrangements I proposed for our time after the wedding agreeable to you?” Darcy asked.

“Yes, indeed they are. Spending a few days in Town then time alone in Brighton is an excellent idea. And I must admit I am eager to see Pemberley. I have heard so much about it, and I am looking forward to becoming settled in my new home.”

“Lady Victoria has agreed to visit us at Pemberley. I hope you are not now displeased with the idea.”

“No, not at all.”

“Elizabeth, I would not have asked her to come unless I believed it important. You will need her advice as you prepare for the season.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth sighed, “I know.”

“This troubles you?”

Elizabeth walked several more paces before answering. “Sometimes I wonder why you chose me. You should be marrying a woman who was brought up to fill such a position.”

Darcy stopped and turned to face Elizabeth. After glancing around to confirm their privacy, he touched his lips to hers. What began as a soft, reassuring kiss unexpectedly deepened as Elizabeth responded to him. Without thought they moved into an embrace, each one’s hands, at the same time both cautious and bold, exploring the unknown territory of a caress.

The sound of a dog barking somewhere in the distance snapped Darcy from his stupor, and he slowly and ever so gently ended the passionate interlude. Neither wanted the sensations of the moment to end; Elizabeth allowed him to pull her into an embrace, laying her head against his chest while her breathing calmed. She was amazed at how much she needed the reassurance of his touch.

The first time he kissed her, on the morning he proposed, had opened a door to feelings Elizabeth had never experienced; the initial awakenings of desire were born that day. Her body was that of a woman, but until that moment, she had not known what it meant to feel like a woman. Until that moment, so many things that had been puzzling or mysterious could finally be understood.

To be attracted to a man was one thing; to feel a man’s body under one’s fingertips was another thing entirely.

“Elizabeth, each day I grow more and more convinced that you are the best woman for me, and I look forward to taking you as my wife. I know that you will always make me proud.”

“I hope I will, Fitzwilliam.”

“Where is the confident Miss Elizabeth Bennet?”

“She is getting married, sir. In less than a fortnight. And if she tells you she is not apprehensive, she is lying.”

“All brides are apprehensive, or so I have been told.”

“And bridegrooms? Are they apprehensive, too?”

“Yes, if they are honest with themselves. Marriage is never to be entered into lightly. Men wonder what the future holds as much as their brides do.”

Elizabeth looked up at Darcy.

“Thank you, Fitzwilliam,” she said quietly. They shared one final, brief kiss before Elizabeth, smiling and strangely content, stepped out of his embrace, took his hand, and turned to walk down the path back to Longbourn.

<<<>>>

The remaining days before Christmas were filled with activity. There were the usual round of holiday visits, dinners, and parties to attend, supplemented this year by festivities marking the forthcoming marriage. Darcy’s presence as the grand prize was essential, and he bore it with admirable calmness. He called at Longbourn every day, usually accompanied by Bingley, who was happy to leave his sullen sister at Netherfield. Caroline had little inclination to visit the home of her victorious rival; she often cited the cold as a reason to remain behind with her sister, when she bothered to make any excuse at all.

Darcy was surprised to discover that he was looking forward to the Christmas celebrations. It had been a very long time since Pemberley was as merry as Longbourn. Last year, the first without Georgiana, had been too full of sorrow and regret and the years after his mother’s and then father’s deaths were far from memorable. He began to envision future holidays surrounded by a large family of his own; he hoped Elizabeth would consent to more children than the requisite “heir and a spare.”

He recalled her surprise at the delight he took in the Gardiners’ offspring. He had always been fond of children and could not understand why people always seemed so astonished by his evident enjoyment of them. Was not everyone a child before they grew to adulthood? Had they forgotten the wonder of discovery and the refreshing honesty found in the very young? Even Wickham had been a carefree boy at one time. His vicious tendencies displayed only as he grew older.

Darcy saw the pleasure Elizabeth took in the company of her family. Yes, he noticed when she was annoyed – and when she was embarrassed – but she did not allow such things to interfere with her enjoyment of her final Christmas with her sisters and parents. Indeed, he had discerned a few wistful looks on her face. She would miss Longbourn, of that he had no doubt. Perhaps, one day, they would return to Hertfordshire for the holiday. He could not imagine inviting the Bennets to Pemberley for Christmas; the chance of being indefinitely snowed in with them was more than he could contemplate. Summer was a much better option; estate business would provide an excuse whenever he needed a respite from his in-laws.

The Gardiners had delayed their arrival until the day before Christmas, but their stay in Hertfordshire would extend until after the wedding. Mr Bennet seemed relieved to have another male residing in the house and almost as soon as was polite, whisked Mr Gardiner away to his library, asking Darcy to join them. Once safely ensconced, Mr Bennet poured each a glass of port.

“You wasted little time,” Mr Gardiner teased his brother.

“Before you ask, Brother, the wedding preparations are progressing nicely. In one week’s time, this man,” Mr Bennet raised his glass to Darcy, “will marry my very deserving second daughter, robbing me forever of the most sensible companion in this house.”

“You have covered a variety of subjects in one very short speech,” quipped Mr Gardiner as he quaffed his port.

“You have not been subjected to my wife lately.”

“On the contrary, sir, you recently allowed me the pleasure of hosting my sister for more than a week.”

“Touché!” Mr Bennet conceded with a smile. “I trust your journey was uneventful?”

“Of course. We made excellent time, no matter what my sister may believe. The children have been looking forward to the visit and the wedding.”

“Back to the wedding so quickly! If you must remind me of my coming doom perhaps you have some advice for this young man.”

Mr Gardiner made a great show of considering his words. He had enjoyed getting to know the gentleman from Derbyshire. Darcy was always civil and seemed to be taking pains to get acquainted with the family, if only for Elizabeth’s sake. He had not detected love on either Darcy’s or Elizabeth’s part, but he did see fondness and respect between them. Perhaps this was the right time for a particular piece of advice.

“Mr Darcy, the best advice I received before I married came from my late father-in-law. He told me to heed the words from scripture, ‘Do not let the sun go down on your anger.’ He said that was especially true in marriage. It is inevitable that you will have disagreements, especially with such a strong-willed individual as Elizabeth. If you allow yourself to harbour anger, it will fester over time and turn to resentment. It is better to separate, contemplate the situation, then attempt to resolve your differences with all due haste. The longer an issue remains unresolved, the more it is able to hurt both of you deeply, and the longer it will take to overcome.”

Darcy instantly saw the wisdom in Mr Gardiner’s words. “Thank you, sir. I shall remember your words and your kindness in sharing them.”

<<<>>>

Darcy awoke very early on Christmas morning. It was only six o’clock and the sun would not rise for more than two hours. He tried to go back to sleep, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, he got out of bed and pulled on his heavy robe, then stoked the fire to warm the room. That task accomplished, he lit a candle and sat at his writing desk. In the years since becoming Master of Pemberley, he had developed the habit of writing letters to his departed father. Putting his thoughts onto paper thusly always seemed to help him through the loneliness.

Christmas Morning, 1811

Dear Father,

Another Christmas has come, the fifth without you, and once again I find myself awake too early and with pen in hand.

This will be my second Christmas alone, but in reality our family began to leave me when Mother passed on. You, Georgiana, and I always tried to celebrate the day together and with some success, although we both know that Christmas was never the same without Mother. Then five years ago, you left Georgiana and me to face the world alone. It was so very difficult. How could I ever hope to replace you? Andrew and I tried to be the best guardians for Georgiana, and I fancy that we were tolerable. She certainly lacked for nothing – with the exception of the love of a parent. Only you and Mother could ever truly give her that.

In my previous letters, I have told you how difficult the next four Christmases were for us. I think that on this day we always felt the loss of you most keenly. Then the accident last autumn robbed me of the last of our family. I have told you of my tears, my melancholy, and my emptiness. In all my life I never felt so insignificant as I did one year ago today. Who was this Fitzwilliam Darcy? Would he, could he, ever find meaning and contentment again? No one I held dear remained. Only my tenants were left for me to look after. Much is still the same today; I have no one to care for. But that will change in five days.

Father, I am to be married. I marry a woman of little fortune, fewer connections, but great character. The Earl and his wife are displeased. Lady Catherine is furious. Only Lady Victoria has given my future wife any notice. You should know your sister-in-law well enough to appreciate that she would be the only one to afford my Elizabeth the honest opportunity to win her approval. My bride-to-be is Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn, Hertfordshire. Her father is a gentleman of an insignificant estate. He sends his daughters to seek husbands armed only with their charms and minuscule dowries, and yet his Elizabeth has managed to secure me. How could I choose such a woman, you may ask? An excellent question.

Father, if you had met Elizabeth and knew nothing of her background, if she had an earl for a grandfather and twenty thousand pounds to her name, you would have no hesitation in approving of her as my wife. Indeed, she would have been a prize had she been launched in society with a season in Town. She is intelligent, witty, handsome, full of life and good health. She is exactly the kind of woman I have always thought would suit me. Because the money designated for Georgiana will remain with the estate, I did not feel the need to replace it with a well-dowered bride. I am willing to overlook Elizabeth’s lack of connections when I consider how little I care to be in society. And whilst Elizabeth has not grown up in the best of environments to prepare her to be the next mistress of Pemberley, the simple fact that she has overcome these obstacles to become a dignified young lady speaks most eloquently of the quality of her character, her sense of decorum, and her abilities.

You might ask if I love her. I will answer that I do not. I esteem and respect her. I am fond of her. I desire her. But my heart has not, and will not, be touched. On this I am firmly resolved. Romantic love is one thing; the reality of living is another.

In Elizabeth I have found a companion with whom I can share my life. Next Christmas, I will not be alone. Elizabeth, my wife, will be with me. Perhaps I will be content enough not to feel compelled to write to you again. Perhaps I will have news of an expected heir to Pemberley, if God is generous. Perhaps is a word of many possibilities.

Father, at long last I understand how life must have been for you after Mother died. How did you go on for so long without a confidant? I can do so no longer. I can no longer be alone. I hope you will be happy for me, Father, and I pray that I have not disappointed you with my choice. I wish you were still here so that I could gain you blessing. Most of all, I want to find peace and rest on this the day of the Saviour’s birth.

Until next time, whenever that may be, I remain your loving son,
Fitzwilliam

Darcy reread the letter, sealed and addressed it, then laid it on the desk. A few minutes later, he picked it up again and stood in front of the fireplace in deep contemplation. He ran his fingers over the dried ink that spelled out his father’s name. Then he did what he had done with all the letters he had written to his deceased father. He tossed it into the flames … and walked away.

<<<>>>

Darcy was the first down for breakfast. He had nearly finished when Bingley bounded into the room.

“Happy Christmas, Darcy!”

“Happy Christmas, my friend. You appear to be in decidedly good humour this morning.”

“It is a beautiful day, and I look forward to attending church.”

“I have no doubt why,” Darcy teased. “I hope the others appear soon. You may be late, but I shall not be.”

“You will go with the Bennets back to Longbourn?”

“Yes, and spend the afternoon there”

“I hope you have a pleasant time.”

“You wish you were gong in my place, admit it man!”

“And miss spending the day with my family? No, well, yes, I am a bit envious.”

“If you ceased dallying around …”

“Darcy, all in good time. You just concentrate on getting yourself to the altar, and I will do the same for myself.”

“I still do not understand why you are waiting.” Bingley refused to take the hint. “You are not going to tell me, are you?”

Bingley laughed. “Fine! I am waiting until after your marriage. I have rather enjoyed being able to court Miss Bennet with some degree of privacy. The wedding preparations have served as a distraction for… certain members of the Bennet household.”

Darcy looked at his friend with a new measure of respect; Bingley was more astute than he realised.

<<<>>>

Darcy decided to ride to the church for Christmas services and left behind an agitated Bingley. Trust Caroline to be late to church. He met the Bennets and Gardiners at the church door and offered his arm to escort Elizabeth inside.

“The next time we meet in this building will be for our wedding,” Darcy whispered as they walked to their pew.

“And when I head again in this direction, I shall be on the arm of my father,” Elizabeth whispered back.

“Ah yes, but I will have the pleasure of escorting you in the other.”

“Whether it will be a pleasure or a punishment is yet to be determined.”

“If marriage to a woman such as you is a punishment, then I am a very lucky man.”

“You have yet to see me at my worst. I am a fright when I first wake.”

“I most definitely look forward to testing that assertion.”

Elizabeth blushed and decided in the name of all things holy to desist with the present course of their conversation. When they were safely seated, she pulled out her prayer book.

“Did you bring yours?”

Darcy opened his coat and took out his well-worn copy.

“It is good to see you so well prepared.”

“I try.”

“Shhhh, it is time be quiet.”

<<<>>>

After exchanging best wishes of the day, the Netherfield party returned home and Darcy accompanied the Bennets back to Longbourn. The Gardiner children were eager to open their presents, and after some good-humoured stalling by the adults, the young ones were at last given their gifts.

Darcy also had brought gifts for his new family: a brooch for each of Elizabeth’s sisters, a necklace for Mrs Bennet that sent her into raptures, books for Mr Bennet. To Mr Gardiner he gave some fishing gear, and to Mrs Gardiner an exquisite shawl. He had even remembered to bring toys for the Gardiner children.

The last gift he presented was Elizabeth’s and he watched as she opened a worn and faded box to reveal a pearl necklace that had belonged to his mother. Her eyes shone with gratitude and unshed tears; she knew he had given her something very special to him.

“Oh, Fitzwilliam! Thank you,” she said softly.

He smiled at her earnest delight. He had many memories of his mother wearing the necklace, and he always knew that someday the pearls would grace the neck of his wife. He had intended them as a wedding gift, but something had compelled him to give them to her today.

“When we are alone, you must tell me about these. I am certain there is a story,” Elizabeth whispered.

“How did you know?”

“The box is not new and shows the sign of frequent handling.”

“You are correct; they were my mother’s and my grandmother’s before her. I will tell you more. Later.”

“Lizzy, show us what you have!” demanded Mrs Bennet.

“Allow me,” Darcy said as he put the pearls around Elizabeth’s neck.

“You see, Mr Bennet! It is just as I said. What fine jewels Lizzy will have.”

Darcy chose to ignore Mrs Bennet’s indiscreet remark, dwelling instead on the joy he felt from giving each of his gifts, and in particular his bride’s heartfelt appreciation of his mother’s heirloom. Elizabeth chose that moment to give her gift to him.

“I am almost afraid to give you this, after yours to me.”

“Nonsense. May I open it now?”

“Please do, before my courage falters.”

Darcy unwrapped the parcel to find several men’s handkerchiefs that Elizabeth had monogrammed, each one with a different design. The first had a simple D, the second an F and the third an interlocking F and E.

“I took the liberty of embroidering one with our initials. I hope it was not too presumptuous.”

“In five day we will be man and wife; of course, I do not mind. Thank you, these are lovely.”

“I picked out a more masculine motif for you. I thought it suited you.”

“That was very thoughtful – an admirable quality in a woman.” His smile vanquished any doubts of the suitability of her gift.

Darcy did not stay very late at Longbourn. He intended to ride his horse back to Netherfield and wanted to leave before he lost the light. Elizabeth walked him out.

“I had a pleasant time. Please thank your father again for inviting me.”

“I doubt you ever experienced anything quite like Christmas at Longbourn.”

“No, Pemberley has always been rather subdued. I think the lack of a large family party might best account for it. In a few years, God willing, we will have children of our own to spoil.”

“And to add noise. Thank you again for the pearls. They are exquisite.”

“Wear them for our wedding.”

“I can think of nothing more appropriate. Now, please be careful on your ride to Netherfield. It would not do for the bridegroom to get lost so soon before his wedding.”

Seeing that they were truly alone, Darcy kissed Elizabeth.

“Goodnight, Elizabeth. I will call again tomorrow, and hopefully Bingley will join me.”

“Jane will like that. Goodnight, Fitzwilliam.”

<<<>>>

Two days before the wedding, Elizabeth swept into her father’s book room and leaned against the door she closed behind her. Mr Bennet was entertained by the flustered look on her face.

“Wedding plans too much for you today? Has your mother come up with yet another ancillary detail in need of immediate attention lest the ceremony be cancelled?”

Elizabeth answered him with a wry smile. “Indeed sir, I have just discovered that there is an acute shortage of blue ribbon to complete the already overly elaborate decorations in the church. Mama is convinced Mr Darcy will be most displeased if she does not procure the desired final adornment.”

“I doubt your Mr Darcy will care one jot about the decorations, if he notices them at all.”

“True enough.” Elizabeth sat down on the sofa opposite her father. “As much as I look forward to the end of the hectic schedule my mother has set up to the very day of my wedding, I believe I shall come to miss the… activity of my sisters and mother once I am settled into my new residence.”

“And I shall miss your good sense. You are leaving me with your younger sisters, three of the silliest girls in the country, and only Jane to apply to for intelligent conversation – and I fear that she will not be with me much longer, either.”

Elizabeth reached for her father’s hand. “Poor Papa, how you shall suffer!”

“It is my own doing,” he sighed. “Perhaps I should make more of an effort with Mary. Of my three youngest offspring, she seems to possess the most redeeming qualities.”

“I shall miss you, Papa,” Elizabeth said softly, and kissed her father’s cheek.

For a moment, tears welled up in the eyes of both. She had always enjoyed a special relationship with her father, and had spent many hours with him and his beloved books – reading, talking, listening, learning. To him she owed the quality of her education and the sharpening of her intellect. They had debated the merits of authors and laughed at the follies of their neighbours. But now that time was at an end.

Mr Bennet composed himself with a sigh, released his favourite’s hand, and turned back to his book. For several minutes, Elizabeth watched him in silence, lost in thought.

“Does something trouble you, my dear?”

Startled, Elizabeth blushed and lowered her eyes. “Not exactly troubles me, Papa.”

“Something has captured your attention. Are you regretting your choice of life partner? One word from you and I shall not hesitate to speak to Mr Darcy.”

“No, I have no regrets, but much to think upon. Some questions about marriage weigh heavily.”

Mr Bennet squirmed in his seat.

“Has something your mother said frightened you?”

Elizabeth was momentarily confused. Once she realized what he was implying, she began to laugh.

“Oh, Father, you mistake my meaning. Mama has taken time to inform me of some of my more intimate duties, that is not what troubles me.”

“I am afraid I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Elizabeth paused, then continued, “Papa, you know that my marriage is not a love match. I respect and admire Mr Darcy, but I do not love him. I have developed deep affection for him since our engagement, but that is all. I believe he feels the same. I know that matches such as ours are common in his social sphere, but I wish to find fulfilment in my marriage, beyond even mother to his children. What must I do to maintain my husband’s regard and be a true partner to him in our life together?”

Mr Bennet steepled his fingers and contemplated his daughter’s words. “My dear child, a love match is no guarantee of success in matrimony, and I daresay even some who marry entirely for the purpose of uniting great estates surprise themselves with their felicity. It is not the presence or absence of love that defines them; it is how well each can revere and appreciate the other over a lifetime.” A look of something very much like regret flitted over his face.

“You told me before I consented to your betrothal that Mr Darcy had never been anything but respectful toward you and that you got along well together. Can I assume this still holds true? Have you learned anything about his character to cause you uneasiness?

“Not at all,” Elizabeth replied, “quite the opposite. Each encounter seems to endorse that we are well matched in outlook and temperament. I am unhappy that most of his family is opposed to the match, but Mr Darcy has assured me that is of little concern to him.”

“Yes, I agree, it seems to be the case. It also tells me that creating his own family is important to him and something that he will not jeopardize lightly. He has no immediate family, am I correct?”

“None closer than his aunts, uncle, and cousins, since the death of his parents and sister. His current heir is the grandson of his great-uncle.”

“Ah, I begin to understand his desire to marry quickly.”

“He has admitted as much. And I will admit to you, Papa, that I am uneasy about my ability to assume the role of mistress of Pemberley. It is a very great estate.”

“Nonsense, child. I daresay Mr Darcy is a better judge of your suitability. He would not have offered for you had he significant reservations on that point.” Mr Bennet looked closely at his daughter and saw that she was not yet convinced. “Elizabeth, you are an intelligent woman and I believe absolutely that you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to. Mr Darcy most certainly wishes for you to succeed, and will undoubtedly provide you with any instruction and guidance that you might require. You must not lose faith in your courage or your confidence. They are two of your finest qualities.”

“Thank you, Papa.” Elizabeth smiled ruefully. “I must say that I am mortified to realize that I am having a fit of nerves that even Mama would envy.”

Mr Bennet laughed. “Lizzy, the longer I am acquainted with Mr Darcy, the more I believe that in essentials, you and he are indeed well-matched. That is a good and enviable foundation on which to build a life together.

“Make no mistake, momentous change is ahead. A new life it most certainly will be. You are too intelligent to imagine that your marriage will be always without conflict, without those small and large bumps in the road that make life both unpredictable and exhilarating. But if you and your husband are to be true companions in life, you must dedicate yourselves to the marriage; you must choose to walk together in honour and mutual regard, providing support and comfort in difficult times. The only alternative is to walk apart, living common but separate lives. I know you will make the right choice.”

“I shall try, Papa, if for no other reason than to justify your faith in me.”

“I should be happier if you justified your faith in yourself. But have pity on your poor father and do not forget me.”

“I could never forget my family.”

“Your family will be your husband, Elizabeth. Your loyalty must belong to him, first and foremost. Do not deceive yourself; you will leave your life in Hertfordshire far behind and become mistress of Pemberley and a great lady of society … and I am prodigiously proud of you.”

<<<>>>

The night before her wedding, Elizabeth lay awake, staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. It was very late, and the rest of the house was asleep. She had spoken once more with her mother and her aunt, received their sometimes-conflicting last advice, and then retired to her chambers. She and Jane then spent a long time talking, knowing that this was their final night together…

“Are you happy, Lizzy?”

“Yes, Jane, I believe I am.”

“I will miss you. I cannot believe the time has come for one of us to leave.”

“Dear Jane, I doubt very much that you will be at Longbourn this time next year. Mr Bingley is quite evidently devoted to you.” Jane blushed. “Tell me honestly, Jane, do you love him?”

“With all my heart.”

“Then all will be well. I am content to know that you, the most beautiful of form and face, will marry the man of her dreams.”

“Lizzy, he still must ask.”

“He will. And soon.”

“And you? Is Mr Darcy the man of your dreams?”

Elizabeth looked down in her lap and was silent for several moments. “I could not have dreamed of a better match,” she finally said without lifting her head.

“You are evading the question. Is he the man you dreamt of marrying?”

“I think he is, Jane. I certainly hope so since I am marrying him in the morning.”

“Do be serious. I have never before questioned your judgment, Lizzy.” Jane raised her hand to forestall a protest from her sister. “We are not so poor, you know, or with so few prospects, that you must sacrifice every better feeling to worldly advantage.”

“Jane, I …” Once again Jane stopped her.

“I know what it is to love,” here Jane blushed, but bravely continued, “and because of that love, I want to spend my life as Mr Bingley’s wife. But you have told me that your marriage will be more of the intellect than the heart. I must know, Lizzy, you must assure me, that you truly believe you will find happiness with Mr Darcy.”

Elizabeth might have laughed to see her sister far more nervous on the eve of a wedding than the bride, had she not perceived the real concern beneath Jane’s agitation. She hastened to give Jane the assurances her sister sought, reiterating all the reasons she believed it was a good and proper match, and — when Jane still seemed unsatisfied — admitting that her affection for Mr Darcy had grown during the weeks of their engagement. What she could not admit, even to Jane, were the sensations she felt when Darcy kissed her; the mere thought caused her to become fascinated by an errant thread in her bedclothes, thankful that the dim candlelight masked the colour rising to her cheeks.

Jane gently lifted Elizabeth’s chin and looked into her sister’s eyes; she saw what Elizabeth could not yet see.

“Answer me honestly, Lizzy. Do you love him?”

“I … I do not know.”

Still holding her younger sister’s gaze, Jane spoke with unusual deliberation. “Elizabeth, when you know, tell him.”

They settled under the covers and Jane quickly fell asleep. Elizabeth was less fortunate, her mind unsettled. Her sister rarely insisted that she do anything; the strength and emotion behind Jane’s request affected her greatly. Was she falling in love with Fitzwilliam? If she were, could she then be happy in marriage to a man who might never love her? Would Fitzwilliam welcome her love? And if he did not …?

Her mind would not allow her slumber, but she knew she needed rest. She had felt ill that evening, the thought of leaving all she knew very nearly overwhelming. She slipped out of bed, wrapped her robe around herself for warmth, and sat by the window. Frost had covered the edges of the panes, but she was able to see well enough though the central portions. She would miss the old estate, but she also admitted that she was excited. What an adventure was before her! There was a whole world beyond Hertfordshire and the little portion of Town she had seen, and tomorrow the door to that world, and a whole new life, would be opened for her. Her guide would be her friend — her husband — and there was no one she would rather have lead her than Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Chapter Seven

Not ten weeks ago, Miss Elizabeth Bennet of Longbourn and Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley were entirely ignorant of the existence of the other. Now, three days before the start of a new year, a bride walked down the aisle of her parish church to stand with her groom.

Bingley and Jane were in their places as bridesmaid and groomsman. The eyes of the congregation, fixed upon the bridal pair, betrayed more, perhaps, than their owners intended — triumph, love, envy, approval, regret, hope.

… “I, Elizabeth, take thee, Fitzwilliam, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to … to love,” Elizabeth nearly faltered as an odd feeling overcame her. She had no time to consider it, so continued, “cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my troth.”

When Darcy slipped the wedding ring on her finger, Elizabeth was amazed at the finality of it. Her fate was sealed; she felt bonded to Darcy in a strange, new, everlasting way. She looked from their joined hands to his face. She saw him blink in surprise, and wondered what it was he saw on her features that unsettled him. The service continued, and their attention was drawn back to the words of the minister. The blessing was announced. It was done. Mr and Mrs Darcy found themselves accepting congratulations from family and friends.

Darcy had little family present: only Lady Victoria, her eldest son Michael Arnold, his wife Helen, and her youngest son, Joseph. None of the other family had condescended to attend. Darcy was disappointed but not surprised that his cousin, Colonel Andrew Fitzwilliam, was absent. Since the death of Georgiana, they had not seen each other much. The Colonel had his duties, and the one person who had kept them close was now gone. Darcy was sure the Earl had made it abundantly clear that he would not approve of his second born’s attendance at an event of which he so vehemently disapproved. If Andrew did not defy his father’s wishes, neither would his siblings. Darcy had not bothered to extend invitations to his more distant relations, none of whom he had seen since his father’s death five years prior.

Elizabeth’s family contingent was considerably larger: her parents and sisters, the Gardiners and their children, the Philipses, plus a few close friends from the neighbourhood, but only a very few.

“Mrs Darcy, we should remove to Longbourn,” her husband said.

“It will be some time before I become accustomed to hearing myself called that. If I do not immediately respond, please do not automatically assume that I am ignoring you.”

Darcy laughed. “Come, wife, our wedding breakfast awaits. You know we cannot remain long if we are to make London tonight, and I for one am famished.”

Mrs Bennet always kept an excellent table, and the breakfast was, by everyone’s account, superb. Darcy was indeed intent on leaving early and had so informed Mr Bennet. As loath as he was to have his Lizzy leave, Mr Bennet recognized good sense when he saw it – and that Elizabeth was no longer his.

Thus, all too soon for everyone except the bridegroom, the couple made their goodbyes. Darcy led his wife towards his aunt and cousins.

“Thank you so much for coming.”

“Of course, Darcy. It was a lovely wedding and breakfast. Mrs Darcy, I will be certain to give my compliments to your mother.”

“We will call on you before we travel to Derbyshire,” Darcy told them. He spoke with his cousins while Elizabeth had a brief word with her new aunt.

“When should we expect you at Pemberley, your ladyship?”

“I shall give you a few weeks to acquaint yourself with the house. Perhaps some time in February? We can arrange a date before you travel to Derbyshire.”

“I confess I am eager for your advice on the season.”

“And your presentation at court. Fear not, we will have sufficient time to prepare you for that.”

Darcy returned his attention to Elizabeth. “It is time to take leave of your family.”

Elizabeth’s farewells to Jane and her father were the most difficult. It was unimaginable that she would not be seeing them every day.

“Oh Father, do not be sad.” The master of Longbourn’s eyes had grown misty as he embraced his second-born.

“You must allow an old man to be sentimental on the day of his daughter’s wedding.”

“Promise you will answer my letters?”

“I can safely say that I might.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I suppose I must be content with that.” Leaning close so that no one else could hear, she said, “When I am settled, I shall invite you to come to us. It may not be until after the season, but I do hope to see you at Pemberley before the summer is complete.”

“I understand, my child,” he smiled, glancing quickly at his wife. “All in good time.”

With one last, quick hug, Elizabeth released her father and went to Jane. Enfolded in each other’s arms, neither wanted to be the one to let loose. Finally, Elizabeth realized they could not maintain their positions any longer and moved slightly away, but only enough to look at Jane’s face.

“I will see you again soon.”

“I know, Lizzy. But I feel so…”

“Yes, I understand. I will miss you, too.”

“You will write?”

“On that you may depend! I shall rely on you to keep me abreast of all the news. Of a certain anticipated event, I demand an express at the earliest possible moment,” Elizabeth said with a smug look on her face, after a glimpse at Mr Bingley.

“If.”

“When, Jane, when.”

“Mr Darcy has no idea what an incorrigible woman he has married.”

“Do not be so quick to assume, Miss Bennet,” came the reply in a decidedly masculine voice.

“Take good care of my sister, sir.”

Darcy bowed to Jane, “You have my word.” He turned to Elizabeth, “Are you ready?”

She nodded, afraid to speak lest the tears that threatened return.

Both were soon settled in the carriage. Elizabeth looked back, waving to her family and friends, as the horses slowly drew her away from her old life and into her new.

<<<>>>

As soon as Longbourn was out of sight, Darcy moved to sit next to Elizabeth. He noticed that she was chilled, carefully covered them both with a rug, then pulled her close. “Are you warmer now?”

“Much, thank you.” She snuggled against his shoulder.

Darcy kissed Elizabeth’s hair. She was content to sit as she was, and Darcy seemed so inclined as well. After they had travelled a mile or two, she felt a little conversation would keep her from failing asleep. She asked him about the service.

“It was a little different from any other wedding I have attended.”

“Yes, since this time, you were the one being married.”

Elizabeth felt him smile. “That did make it a novel experience. Truthfully, I do not remember much of what was said.”

“I certainly hope you remember your vows!”

“Of course, how could I forget? I doubt you will allow my memory to be faulty in that regard.”

“You may count on that, Fitzwilliam.”

“And you, Mrs Darcy, what do you recall?”

“As little as you, I confess.”

But that was not entirely true. She did recall one thing with absolute clarity: her reaction to her vows. She had not yet had time to contemplate its meaning. Soon though, she would need to understand what had happened. For now, she needed to talk to her husband about the forthcoming evening. It would not be a comfortable conversation, but not as painful as she felt. Elizabeth had awakened that morning to proof that even the best plans go awry.

Darcy continued, “Then I shall be allowed to claim ignorance, and you will not be able to refute it.” Elizabeth forced a laugh. “Elizabeth, have I said something to offend you?”

“Not at all. My mind was wandering.”

“I see.” Darcy paused. “Will you tell me?”

Elizabeth sighed. It had to be done. But she couldn’t look him in the face.

“Fitzwilliam, I … I don’t know how to tell you.” She began to fidget. “I am concerned that you will be disappointed…”

Darcy stiffened and sat upright, forcing Elizabeth to do the same.

“What is it?”

“When I awoke this morning… Fitzwilliam, how knowledgeable are you in the ways of a woman?”

“I know that a woman…” Comprehension dawned. “Are you trying to tell me that your courses have begun?”

Elizabeth was relieved that he had so easily understood her meaning.

“This morning. It was not expected. It came very early for me. I assume the stress of the wedding … If you still wish…”

“I thought women usually planned their wedding dates so that this would not occur. I am only surprised, that is all.”

He was being gallant, but she could see that he was disappointed. Truth be told, so was she. “No more surprised than I. A rather inauspicious start to our married life. Fitzwilliam, I …”

He gently placed a finger to her lips. “Elizabeth, hush. It was my desire that we marry so quickly. We did not expect that it would begin this way, but nature evidently had other ideas. We have a lifetime ahead of us. If this is the worst we ever face, we would count ourselves lucky. Come, wife, let us be philosophical and consider the bright side.”

“There is a bright side?”

“We did marry very soon after we met. We both know that nothing improper occurred between us, but I suspect there will be speculation that we were forced into this marriage. A lack of an heir in less than nine months will stifle such gossip.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I suppose that is something, although it is the only good I can see. I have been anticipating our wedding night since you proposed. And kissed me.”

Darcy’s expression became more serious. He tucked a stray curl behind Elizabeth’s ear, then leaned in and kissed her.

“I cannot promise that an heir will not appear in nine months,” he said softly, “however, I intend to make every effort to see that it comes about, and I certainly have no plans of spending my wedding night in my own bed. May I come to you tonight?”

Elizabeth was relieved he was so understanding. “I have no wish to be alone tonight, either. You may come to me, my husband.”

She gave him a shy smile and tucked her head under his chin. Darcy sighed and pulled his wife more firmly to his chest. Safe within his embrace, she closed her eyes and thought of the pleasure his touch brought. With that delicious sensation in mind, Elizabeth Darcy fell asleep.

<<<>>>

The light was almost gone when the carriage arrived at the Darcy townhouse. The servants had turned out in their finest to welcome their new mistress. After a few words of thanks, Darcy took Elizabeth to her chambers to refresh and change for dinner.

Elizabeth’s new maid was waiting for her. The choice of an appropriate attendant had caused a small disagreement between Elizabeth and Darcy. She wanted one of the young servants from Longbourn as her lady’s maid, more as a comfortable reminder of her old life than anything else, but Darcy was adamant that his wife have a French maid, as was fashionable. Each understood the other’s reasoning, but eventually Elizabeth came to appreciate that a country servant inexperienced in the ways of society would find it difficult to fulfil the demands of the position; she conceded. Mrs Thomas selected a suitable young woman, who understood that the post was provisional, pending Mrs Darcy’s approval.

Young Marie was nervous, Elizabeth could tell. No more nervous than I, she thought. Elizabeth spoke French well enough, but she decided to test the woman’s English.

“Marie, have you held this type of position before?”

“Oui, Madame. I was the maid for Miss Henrietta Wyatt, daughter of Sir James Wyatt,” she replied, with a decided accent.

“Mrs Thomas told me that you are quite an expert seamstress.”

“Oui, Madame. Miss Wyatt regularly wished me to alter her gowns.”

Elizabeth studied the choice of gowns Marie had laid out for her. They were all appropriate for evening, which pleased Elizabeth. At least Marie knew that part of her duties.

“I also understand that you have no family in England.”

“Non, Madame. I came to this country three years ago after my father died.”

“Did you know much English before you came here?”

“Non, Madame. I have learned it since I arrived.”

“Marie, you speak exclusively in English, yet you use the French forms of yes and no?”

“Habit, Madame. My former mistress liked me to say ‘oui’ and ‘non.’ If you prefer, I will try to remember not to do that.”

“Marie, will you please say something to me in French.”

“Votre voyage à Londres a-t-il été agréable?” (Was your journey to Town pleasant?)

Elizabeth did not initially respond, but creased her brow in concentration. “Please say something else.”

“Je vous propose la robe bleue. La couleur vous va très bien.” (I suggest the blue gown. The colour is well suited to you.)

“Thank you, please resume in English.”

“Perhaps the green gown, Madame?”

“Le voyage en voiture s’est achevé sans incidents.” (The ride in the carriage was unremarkable.)

Marie was surprised at her response.

“I did not realize that you understood me before, Madame. I thought you might just want to hear me say something in French.”

“Yes, but only to determine if I could understand you. I have had few opportunities to use my French in conversation and was unsure of myself. Now that I know I can understand you, I ask that you please speak to me in English. However, if I address you in French, you are to answer me thus. There are times when I may wish to say something in front of another servant that I do not wish them to understand.”

“Oui… Yes, Madame. I will remember.”

“Good, then I will wear the blue gown, as you suggested. Oh, Marie, I am in need of certain … other items. They were sent ahead in my trunks which you have already unpacked.”

The maid raised an eyebrow, but said nothing and retrieved the desired things. Marie helped her undress, bathe, and don her garments. Next the maid was asked to do her hair. Elizabeth was curious what she would do.

“Do you wish me to style your hair the way it was, or do you wish something else?”

“For tonight, the same.”

Elizabeth was satisfied with the quick work the maid made of her hair. When she was ready, she sent Marie to inform her husband’s man that the mistress was ready to go downstairs. Darcy came at once to escort her to dinner.

The cook had gone to special lengths for the meal. Elizabeth was very appreciative of the efforts and asked that her thanks be extended to the cook and all who had prepared the meal. She noticed that Darcy appeared to approve of her decision to praise the servants.

“You have a very efficient staff, Fitzwilliam. They should be commended.”

“The fact that you chose to recognize their efforts does please me, and it will please them, as well. If you persist in this course, you will have a very loyal staff at your disposal.”

“It is obvious that they are loyal to you. I, on the other hand, have yet to earn their respect. I believe kindness and civility can go a long way towards that goal.”

“Hence, I am pleased. Now that the meal is over, shall we retire to the drawing room? Or would you prefer the music room, or perhaps the library?”

“The library, if you please. However, if you wish for me to play for you, I will oblige.”

Darcy stood and offered his hand to assist Elizabeth.

“Not tonight.” He pulled her up and tucked her arm into his. “Come, then.”

The couple spent a companionable hour in the library. Darcy showed Elizabeth how the volumes were organized and pointed out some of his favourites. They discussed a few of the books they had both read and Elizabeth chose a few to take to her rooms.

It was still fairly early when Darcy suggested they retire for the evening.

“I admit that I am tired. It has been a long day, and we did spend several hours in the carriage. You dozed, but I did not,” he confessed.

They walked up the stairs and stopped at Elizabeth’s door.

“Come to me in one half-hour,” she said, and stepped over the threshold. Darcy watched her look out at him as she closed the door. He stood for a moment, shook his head, then walked to his own room.

Marie was waiting and had laid out a choice of nightgowns: Elizabeth’s most luxurious silk one and a more serviceable, warmer, cotton one. As much as she longed to don the silk garment, Elizabeth thought it would be unfair to torment her very understanding husband. She would save that surprise for several nights later.

“This one tonight, Marie. I will wear the other later in the week.”

“As you wish, Madame. May I assist you?”

The servant did her job efficiently and then took down Elizabeth’s hair to brush it out.

“Shall I leave it loose or plait it?”

“Loose, please. Thank you, Marie. You may go now. I will ring when I am ready for you in the morning.”

The maid curtsied, said “Goodnight, Mrs Darcy,” and left the room.

Elizabeth was alone at last, but not for long. A few minutes later, she heard a knock on the door that connected her chambers with her husband’s.

“Come in, Fitzwilliam.”

Darcy was dressed in what Elizabeth assumed was a nightshirt under his robe. He carried a bottle of champagne and two glasses.

“I thought we might make a small toast to the day of our marriage before going to sleep.”

“Thank you, Fitzwilliam. That is a delightful idea.”

He sat near her and poured each a glass.

“To the marriage of true minds. To you, Elizabeth, and to this day. Thank you for becoming my wife.”

Elizabeth was profoundly moved. She looked at him, knowing not what to say, as an unexpected feeling of happiness and contentment bubbled up within her. “Thank you, Fitzwilliam.”

They sat in companionable silence, staring into the flames, until at last Darcy spoke.

“Elizabeth, if you prefer that I return to my room, just ask and I will go.”

“No, Fitzwilliam, I would like you to be with me. That is, if you still wish it.”

Darcy gently took Elizabeth’s hand and looked into her eyes. “Yes, I do.”

They sat quietly holding hands for some time. Elizabeth felt herself becoming drowsy under the hypnotic spell of the dancing light of the fire and the effects of the drink. She shook her head and looked at her husband; his grip had relaxed and his chin had dropped along with his eyelids. She squeezed his hand and softly said his name.

“Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam. Should we not go to bed now?”

His eyes fluttered open, and he stretched his arms above his head.

“Forgive me for falling asleep, Elizabeth. It would be wise to sleep in the bed rather than these chairs. Not to mention much warmer in another few hours.”

They walked to the bed. Darcy took off his robe. Elizabeth saw that he did, in fact, have on a nightshirt. And only a nightshirt. She looked at his bare legs and swallowed.

“Am I frightening you, my dear?”

“What?”

“Elizabeth, you are staring.”

“Oh, I, uhm…” She hurriedly removed her robe and nearly dove under the covers.

“You are afraid of me.” Elizabeth heard the amusement in his voice. He lay on the bed and pulled the covers over himself. They were together in the bed, but their bodies were not touching.

Elizabeth knew that this was decidedly not how her wedding night should have progressed. What would her mother think of her now? Her appreciation of the absurd exerted itself, and she had to stop herself from laughing out loud. She might have controlled herself had she not felt her husband start to shake. He was also trying not to laugh. Finally, neither could hold in their mirth, and they burst out laughing together.

“At least I know you find this as humorous as I do.”

“Pathetic might be a more appropriate term,” Elizabeth quipped

Darcy rolled onto his side facing his bride. “Turn on your side facing away from me, and scoot back towards me. I would like to fall asleep holding you.” Elizabeth obeyed, and he put his arm over her waist. “This is much better.” Darcy kissed her hair. “Goodnight, Elizabeth.”

“Goodnight, Fitzwilliam.”

<<<>>>

Elizabeth awoke a few hours later. It was the unfamiliar sensation of an arm around her that had roused her – well that, plus the soft snoring of her husband. She felt a great need to look at the man sharing her bed. Not wishing to lose the exquisite feel of his touch, she carefully turned towards him until she was lying on her side, looking him fully in the face.

By the dim light of the dying fire, she could just make out his features. He looked so different asleep, so much younger, so much more relaxed. She had not fully comprehended how very young Darcy had been when he inherited a vast estate to rule and a young sister to rear until he told her that he was but two-and-twenty at the time his father died, not much older than she was now. His demeanour often showed the weight of that burden. Of all the people he could have chosen, it was she to whom he would reveal himself. She alone would see all sides of the man: the dutiful master of Pemberley, the loyal friend, the gentleman, the lonely man, the husband, and — eventually— the father. How had she not seen this so clearly before? As his wife, it was now her duty to see that his loneliness was a thing of the past. Had she not vowed that very thing to him before God and their families just that morning?


“I, Elizabeth, take thee, Fitzwilliam, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my troth.”

After she had accepted Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth had spent many hours contemplating the vows she would make to him. For her, they were a sacred covenant between her and her mate. She had analysed the familiar phrases word by word, to determine if, in good conscience, she could give each promise to him. There was only one word that gave her pause, one word she wondered if she could repeat with sincerity: love. Both Jane and her father, in his own way, had asked if she loved Darcy. She had answered both of them in the negative. She did not love him as she understood the romantic meaning of the word.

But during her contemplations, Elizabeth considered that there were many forms of love. She loved her parents and sisters. She loved her uncles and aunts. She loved her cousins. She loved her — now former — home, Longbourn. She loved to laugh.

Darcy had become, she realized, a friend whom she loved as surely as she loved her other close friends.

And so she had been at peace; she could recite her vows with honour and integrity. That was why she had been so surprised to stumble over that very word “love” when the time came to vow it. She had convinced herself that it meant one thing; as she lay in bed facing her husband, she was astonished to find that she meant something else. The love she actually vowed to give was not what she had expected to give.

What love did she mean? She gasped in surprise. When had it happened? Had standing at the altar before God and witnesses unleashed what was already there?

“I love you, Fitzwilliam,” she whispered almost without sound, almost as a test; and with perfect clarity, she understood that she meant it. Not as an altruistic proclamation of love for her fellow man; she loved him in the way a woman should love only her husband.

Elizabeth smiled. Affection, indeed! She wanted to stroke her husband’s face with her hand, capture his lips with her own, tell him of her devotion and love.

Before she acted upon the impulse, she stopped. It was too soon – for her and for him. She needed to meditate on this change in her feeling before she was ready to tell Fitzwilliam. And would he welcome this from her? He had never once intimated that he loved her. Thus, despite Jane’s plea to tell him, Elizabeth let him sleep. This was not the time for romantic declarations. He had not asked for her love; for now, that must be her guide.

Before she could continue her thoughts, Darcy stirred and tried to pull her closer to him. He must have sensed that they did not fit together as before, and his eyes flickered open.

“You are awake,” he murmured, “roll over.” Elizabeth did as she was bid. “Hmm, better. Go back … to … sleep …”

A few moments later she heard him start to lightly snore again. Suppressing the urge to giggle, Elizabeth covered his hand with hers. It felt right that way. She relished his touch and considered how good it was that she was now his. With that, she fell asleep.

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