Content Harry Potter Jane Austen by Pamela St Vines
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From Chapter One:

"I do love you, Elizabeth," he whispered. "And I promise you that I will do anything in my power to make it possible for you to love me, too."

"Anything, Mr. Darcy?" she asked breathlessly.

"Anything," he whispered with a fierce intensity.

"Then I think, perhaps, you should kiss me again."

Chapter Two

All other considerations fled as Darcy pursued the only possible course of action for a man so much in love--he kissed her, but this time there was no hesitancy. Darcy loved Elizabeth in a way he had not imagined possible--dreams of Elizabeth had taunted him from the earliest days of their acquaintance--and now she was asking for his kiss. His carefully cultivated restraint was temporarily abandoned, swept aside by his love for Elizabeth, his need for her. Darcy kissed her lips again and again, he trailed kisses down the side of her neck and then returned to her mouth--all the while murmuring words of love.

Elizabeth was astonished by this demonstration of his passion. Darcy's first kiss had stirred her, but this --it was overwhelming. Her heart was pounding, her breath uneven, and Elizabeth felt that she would not survive if he stopped. Forgetting all else, she returned his kisses with rapidly increasing ardor, causing Darcy to rejoice in her responsiveness. His elation, however, was ephemeral. Suddenly cognizant that he had brought them to the cusp of disaster, Darcy knew that it was also his duty to draw them back before it was too late. He abruptly ceased to kiss Elizabeth, but pulled her even closer, cradling her head against his chest. Leaning back against the tree, Darcy took deep breaths as he sought to regain his composure.

He had known they were alone--that it was a compromising situation--but Darcy had not felt how truly alone they were until that moment. This was no drawing room or garden path where they would undoubtedly be interrupted at any moment. His arms tightened around Elizabeth, as Darcy silently swore to protect her, even from himself.

When it was possible to speak calmly Darcy quietly said, "I am eager to make you my own, Elizabeth, but not here, not like this-- We must be man and wife first. I only ask that you do not make me wait too long, dearest."

Darcy's voice was barely audible when he added, "I do not know how I could bear it."

Elizabeth ran her fingers lightly across his chest and Darcy instinctively tightened his arms around her. She sighed her contentment before speaking, "I must confess this has all taken me by surprise, but you are surely right. We must marry soon."

"Yes soon, Elizabeth," Darcy whispered as he nuzzled her hair.

Eager to lessen the tension between them and to distract herself from thoughts of Darcy's kisses, Elizabeth cast about for a suitable diversion. "Perhaps we should have a bit of conversation now, dear sir. There is so much we do not know of each other. For instance, how shall I address you in private? It seems ridiculous to call you Mr. Darcy after what we have just shared."

Elizabeth shifted away so that she was leaning back against the tree once more, but allowed her head to rest on his shoulder.

"Fitzwilliam--my mother's family name is my given name, Elizabeth," said Darcy as he reached for her hand.

"Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth whispered just to try it out.

Darcy growled with pleasure. "I like the way you say that, Elizabeth, but I warn you that I am already thinking of kissing you again."

She laughed appreciatively. "Although that is a delightful thought, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth said, whispering his name breathily to taunt him, "I suppose it is hardly sensible as we have the whole night before us."

Darcy could well imagine Elizabeth to be wearing her sauciest smile as she continued, "The degree of your admiration would indicate that you have comprehended my character perfectly, sir. It is therefore only fair that you tell me more of yourself in order to further my understanding of you, Fitzwilliam."

There it was again, the way she all but breathed his name. Darcy found himself happily anticipating a lifetime of being teased and tortured by his wife. Eager to return the favor he kissed her hand as he murmured, "At this moment I could deny you nothing, dearest--" Darcy paused to kiss her fingertips one by one, "loveliest--" His lips now played upon the inside of her wrist, "most beautiful--" Leaning so close that she felt his lips upon her ear, he finally whispered, "Elizabeth."

Elizabeth's shiver persuaded Darcy that he had, indeed, hit upon an effective means of exacting his revenge for her playfulness. However, realizing that this variety of retribution might quickly lead them back into danger within their present circumstance, Darcy forced himself to resume his normal manner of speaking.

"I am sorry, my love, but when you tease me-- Well, I find it quite irresistible. I am eager to tell you whatever you would wish to know, Elizabeth, but I must confess I know not where to begin. I am unaccustomed to speaking of myself."

Elizabeth nestled happily back into his shoulder and considered what she would most like to learn of the man beside her. For a man who generally despised talking about himself, Darcy found it surprisingly easy to satisfy Elizabeth's curiosity once he had begun. Perhaps it was her sincere desire to understand him that conquered Darcy's reticence or perhaps, his own determination to secure her affections. Nonetheless, Darcy found himself anxious to answer any and all questions she might have. At Elizabeth's prompting he reminisced about his family, his boyhood and even his years at Cambridge. Darcy was astonished at his own loquaciousness, but pleased by Elizabeth's eager questions. It felt as if each memory were drawing her closer. When the conversation eventually lapsed into a companionable silence, it seemed that the last vestiges of awkwardness between them were vanquished.

Darcy's rambling narrative had indeed spanned the gap between them, for Elizabeth began to feel that she knew him--that she understood him. Whereas Darcy was universally considered to be an extremely fortunate man, the wealth and early independence envied by so many had come at a terrible price of responsibility and loss. Elizabeth now perceived that Darcy would happily forfeit it all to have his parents again, and this comprehension stirred a fierce longing in her to protect him from further harm--to help him find joy in equal measure to his sadness.

To Darcy's astonishment Elizabeth reached up and drew his head down toward hers. She kissed him gently, and Darcy almost held his breath. To have Elizabeth return his kisses was a joy, but to have her initiate the exchange was a gift beyond his expectations. Not wishing to frighten Elizabeth or make her self-conscious, Darcy carefully tempered his response to match the gentleness of her overtures.

Growing bolder, Elizabeth began to cover his face with soft kisses, interspersed with whispered terms of endearment and assurances that she would not leave him. She kissed Darcy's brow, his eyes, his cheeks, and then her mouth found his again in the darkness. With no forethought or design, Elizabeth lay back on the mossy ground pulling him down with her.

Darcy delighted in the feeling of Elizabeth's softness beneath him as he kissed her tenderly. He could no more refuse to return her kiss, than he could fly. However, being mindful of their previous narrow escape, Darcy endeavored to keep his desires under regulation this time. When his self-control seemed near its end, Darcy forced himself to lie back beside her. He took Elizabeth's hand and kissed it several times before clasping it to his chest.

"Oh, Elizabeth, what you do to me-- You must allow me to collect myself."

They lay there side by side gazing up at the stars in silence for some minutes before Elizabeth whispered uncertainly, "I am sorry if I have been unladylike, Fitzwilliam."

Darcy rolled up on his elbow and replied passionately, "Never apologize for kissing me, my love." He softly brushed her lips with his thumb as he continued gently, "I am so very happy, Elizabeth, but I am all too human, dearest--and I have loved you for a long time."

Darcy kissed her lightly and then lay back beside her with a sigh. Sensing there was more he wished to say Elizabeth waited silently, hopefully. To further reassure her, Darcy took Elizabeth's hand and gently stroked it as he sought the right words to alleviate her anxiety without offending her sensibilities.

Finally he continued his explanation, "While this is all new to you, dearest, you must understand that I have been in love with you and desirous of--making you my own for some months. Having dreamed of this for so long, it is easy for me to forget that we are not already married when you are in my arms--"

Darcy lightly kissed her hand before plunging on without dissembling, "Honor demands restraint, Elizabeth, but my passion for you would urge me to seduce you here and now. That must not happen, dearest. To dishonor you in a moment of weakness would be abhorrent, for you are what I love best in all the world. I must confess that if I loved you any less--I might be willing to forsake all my principles at the moment--"

Elizabeth understood him and was content once more. Her only concern now was for Darcy's obvious uneasiness, and she hastened to reassure him in kind.

"Thank you for--explaining it so well, Fitzwilliam, and for loving me so well. I was afraid I had erred egregiously, but I comprehend your meaning." Squeezing his hand, she continued, "Truly, I am vastly content to know that my life and my honor are in your safekeeping."

Elizabeth giggled with delight when she suddenly hit upon the perfect tactic to lighten his mood. In a clearly playful tone, she said, "So as to not be too great a trial to you, Mr. Darcy, I shall endeavor to be less tempting--at least until we are married. Although I do recall your saying I was not handsome enough to tempt you--"

Darcy groaned aloud although he could not help an appreciative chuckle at her cleverness, "So you did hear me. I wonder that you could be so civil after our acquaintance began in such a way. I did not mean it, my love. I am so--"

Elizabeth interrupted him with a soft kiss. "It is just a jest, my love. Your subsequent admiration has more than made up for your early resistance to my considerable charms. I do have one request of you, Fitzwilliam."

She could hear the smile in his voice when Darcy answered, "I am hardly in a position to deny you anything just now, Elizabeth. How may I atone for that appalling lapse of judgment and civility?"

"Please tell me about Pemberley, if you will. I want to see it first through your eyes."

Darcy was only too happy to oblige her and his penance was a pleasure to both. They finally drifted off to sleep side by side under his coat. When Darcy awoke he first thought the night had been just another dream, but Elizabeth's arm draped across his chest assured him it had really happened. He paused to admire her loveliness and whisper a prayer of gratitude before slipping from her side. By the time Elizabeth awoke Darcy had washed up as best he could in the stream and was straightening his clothing.

"Good morning, dearest," he greeted her happily.

"Good morning, M--Fitzwilliam," she murmured hesitantly, "I must confess I am a little groggy this morning."

"That is no doubt the result of your bump on the head and too little sleep."

Elizabeth nodded, "Surely you are right, but the rest--it is--not a delusion?"

Darcy briefly considered teasing her, but then he realized Elizabeth might be feeling vulnerable and exposed this morning. "If you are referring to our engagement and the fact that I am now the happiest man alive, that is decidedly true."

Elizabeth's smile was radiant until she attempted to rise.

"Wait, my love," Darcy cried rushing to her side. "Your poor injured ankle. I was too concerned over the bump on your head to pay it any mind last night. May I examine it now?"

Elizabeth nodded and Darcy leaned over to appraise the extent of her injury. "I am glad you had the presence of mind to remove your boot yesterday. I do not think it is broken, but it is very swollen. You must let me help you."

Darcy lifted Elizabeth in his arms and carried her down to a sheltered spot by the stream so that she might perform her morning ablutions as best she could.

"I will take a stroll to give you some privacy, but I will not go far." With that he kissed the top of Elizabeth's head and left her.

Elizabeth was touched by his consideration. That she had gone from abject misery yesterday to being happily engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy was astounding. If she had read it in a book, Elizabeth would have thought it too fanciful, but it was true. She quickly attended the necessities and called for Darcy to join her. Elizabeth was sitting there enjoying the morning sun on her face and attempting to tidy her hair when Darcy returned. As most of her hairpins had fallen out in the night, Elizabeth was in the midst of removing the rest so that she might make herself presentable again.

With a murmured, "May I?" Darcy sat behind her and began removing hairpins. Once her hair was loose, Darcy combed through it with his fingers, gently easing the tangles. When he had restored relative order to her unruly curls, Darcy lifted a lock to his lips and kissed it.

"There," he said with unmistakable satisfaction, "while I have never aspired to be a lady's maid, my love, I must confess that this is very pleasant duty, indeed."

Elizabeth blushed with pleasure, "You have acquitted yourself very well, sir, considering that we have neither comb nor brush. Perhaps I should finish it myself."

Darcy smiled and sat back contentedly to watch as Elizabeth pinned her hair up into a simple knot at the nape of her neck and donned her bonnet.

"There, do I look respectable, sir?"

"How could an angel be anything less?" Darcy replied. "I realize it is time I saw you back to the parsonage, my love, but--may I kiss you once more before we go?"

Elizabeth smiled and lifted her face to him in response. Darcy's kiss was gentle, almost reverent and then he gathered Elizabeth up in his arms to begin the walk back.

Charlotte was eagerly watching out the front window of the parsonage hoping that dawn would bring news of her friend. Her relief was beyond words when she spied Darcy calmly walking down the lane, carrying Elizabeth as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Although Charlotte could not see Elizabeth's face for her bonnet, the movements of said bonnet indicated that Elizabeth was chatting with great animation.

Charlotte was quite overcome with joy at her friend's safe return, so much so that she hardly knew what to do first. It is, therefore, quite understandable that she initially mistook the source of their happiness.

"I am so grateful to you, Mr. Darcy," Charlotte began. She then proceeded to flutter and fuss in a way that was most unlike her. "We should put Elizabeth on the sofa in my sitting room. Yes, I think that is best, sir-- I am so relieved to see you, dear Lizzy. Please take her on back, Mr. Darcy. I must send word to the colonel so that they will not resume the search this morning and then I will join you."

"Mrs. Collins," Darcy asked before she could hurry away, "would you also summon the doctor to examine Miss Bennet? I do not think she is seriously wounded, but she took quite a bump on the head yesterday in addition to injuring her ankle."

"Certainly, Mr. Darcy. I will tell Matthew to go straight for the doctor after he has delivered the message to the colonel. Please excuse me while I see to it."

Darcy was grateful for another moment alone with his beloved. "I am sorry you were injured, dearest, but I am most grateful for the outcome. If it is still agreeable with you, I will write to your father now before I return to Rosings."

Elizabeth smiled at him warmly, "Of course, but I trust you, Fitzwilliam. You may take the time to eat and change before writing my father, if you wish."

"I thought you knew what a selfish being I am, Elizabeth. I am anxious to secure you as soon as possible."

She laughed. "Very well then, Fitzwilliam, write my father as soon as you may. However, I should inform you that I do not consider your desire to be selfish, as it will secure my own happiness as well."

Realizing Charlotte could rejoin them at any moment, Darcy settled for kissing her hand, but Elizabeth knew he was thinking of other kisses and she blushed.

Once the servant was on his way, Charlotte made a pot of tea before rejoining her guests. No one else had risen yet and Charlotte used the time to reflect on how to best protect Elizabeth's reputation. Her note to the colonel had been deliberately vague simply stating that Elizabeth and Darcy were both safely at the parsonage. Charlotte trusted the colonel to be discrete. He would be as concerned for his cousin's honor as she was for Elizabeth's. Of course if they married, all would be well, but Elizabeth was stubbornly determined to marry for affection. She was also most decided in her dislike of Mr. Darcy. It seemed hopeless to Charlotte unless-- Surely Mr. Darcy had already given this matter considerable thought. Perhaps, he had arrived at a solution.

Charlotte soon discovered her worries were needless. Darcy and Elizabeth gratefully accepted her offering of tea and toast. Then before Charlotte could decide how to broach such a delicate subject, Darcy eliminated the need.

"Mrs. Collins, I am eager to write for Mr. Bennet's consent right away. Could I trouble you for paper and pen?"

Charlotte beamed her approval. "Certainly, Mr. Darcy, you will find both in the secretary there. Please use whatever you need."

Darcy continued speaking as he carried his tea to the desk. "Ordinarily I would not presume to announce our engagement without Mr. Bennet's express consent, but under the circumstances Miss Bennet and I feel that it is best we make it public as soon as possible. As you have known the Bennets a long time, I am interested in your opinion, Mrs. Collins. Do you agree that Mr. Bennet will understand and approve?"

"As Mr. Bennet is particularly protective of Lizzy, I believe he will understand your publicizing the engagement immediately. I would have to agree that it is the best course of action in light of the unusual events. May I wish you both very happy?"

Charlotte's relief was considerable, as she had despaired of Elizabeth's ever accepting him. Even more encouraging was the fact that Darcy and Elizabeth both seemed to accept her congratulations with genuine delight. Seeing the way Elizabeth smiled at him, Charlotte decided that her friend must have been hiding her true feelings for Mr. Darcy all along or she had undergone a very rapid change of heart. Either way Charlotte was pleased for both of them.

Darcy's letter was ready to go to the express office when Matthew returned with the doctor. Although Elizabeth seemed well, Darcy was relieved that Dr. Johnson expressed no serious concern over her head injury. In the doctor's opinion the twisted ankle would prove to be much more of a nuisance as it would take some weeks to heal. The doctor advised Elizabeth to stay off it as much as possible for several days and then to gradually increase her activity, as she was able. When the doctor had departed, Darcy insisted upon conveying Elizabeth to her room where Charlotte could help her get comfortably settled in her bed.

"I shall return this afternoon, my love. Until then I want you to rest--please," Darcy admonished as he carried her up the stairs.

Seeing the glow of his affection in Darcy's eyes and being very tired herself, Elizabeth did not protest. She simply murmured her thanks as she hid her face in Darcy's shoulder. Charlotte was impressed. When had Eliza Bennet ever been so docile? Yes, she thought smugly, Mr. Darcy might very well be the perfect man for her friend.

Fortunately most of the house was still abed when Darcy returned to Rosings, enabling him to reach his room without detection. Darcy was glad to defer his unavoidable encounter with Lady Catherine, knowing that he would be better equipped to deal with her ill humor after several hours rest. When he was safely sequestered, Darcy penned a note to his aunt, advising her that his fiancee was safely returned to the parsonage and that he would be available to speak with Lady Catherine after he had slept.

The uproar over Elizabeth's disappearance was nothing compared to the uproar over their engagement. Her disappearance had only necessitated Colonel Fitzwilliam rallying every man on the estate to search for her. The engagement, on the other hand, roused the ire of Lady Catherine. She was most put out and vented her spleen to Mr. Collins who called while Darcy was still sleeping. Mr. Collins could, of course, hold no opinion that disagreed with her ladyship's. With no dissenting viewpoint to forestall her outrage, Lady Catherine had worked herself up to quite a state by the time Darcy emerged from his room. Even the dimwitted Mr. Collins quickly apprehended that Darcy was not to be dissuaded. He murmured his excuses and fled back to the parsonage, eager to avoid the unpleasant scene that was sure to arise.

Lady Catherine, unfortunately, was too engrossed in her own agitation to notice the steely resolve in her nephew's face. As soon as they were alone she began to berate Darcy for his stupidity in falling for the wiles of one such as Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy would have willingly allowed her the relief of insulting his intelligence, but he would not tolerate her abuse of Elizabeth.

"That is enough, Aunt. Miss Bennet will soon be my wife and as such you will treat her with courtesy and respect."

"But, Darcy, she is nobody and I am certain that she engineered the whole incident--"

"I said enough, Aunt," Darcy interrupted her, "and I meant it. While the circumstances of Miss Bennet's injury may alter the timing of events somewhat, it has long been my intention to make her my bride. I will brook no slander of her--even from you. Is that clear? If you cannot control your tongue, I will remove myself from Rosings immediately, but be advised that if we part on such terms, I shall not return until such time as you are prepared to treat Miss Bennet with the respect she is due."

Lady Catherine was driven into apoplexy. Darcy married to someone other than Anne--particularly this country miss--it was not to be borne, but he had the whip hand here. While Darcy could happily live out his life without setting foot on her property again, Lady Catherine had need of him. She might be mistress of Rosings, but without Darcy's assistance, Lady Catherine would have been forced to lease the estate to retain ownership of it. Lady Catherine's debts had been extreme when Darcy stepped in and assumed oversight of her financial affairs. Material considerations demanded that Lady Catherine cease voicing her opinion on the marriage--at least in Darcy's hearing. The considerable effort it took to restrain herself from further attacks on Elizabeth literally made Lady Catherine ill.

Only after she had quitted the parlor in silent fury, did her daughter Anne and Colonel Fitzwilliam dare to enter the room.

"Well, Cousin," began the colonel, "I am happy to see your head still atop your neck. I had feared our aunt might rip it off."

Darcy gave him a half smile, "No, I am still intact, as you see. I was just about to ring for tea as I missed breakfast and slept through lunch. Will you join me?"

"No, Darcy, I dare not stay as Mother's spies are everywhere," said his cousin Anne, "but allow me to have the kitchen prepare something more substantial for you. I seem to recall that you missed last night's dinner as well."

Darcy thanked her. It was unusual for Anne to exert herself in any way. Perhaps her solicitude had something to do with his engagement. Lady Catherine had long insisted that Darcy and Anne were to be married--something neither of them desired. Her ranting had irritated Darcy to no end over the years. How much worse it must have been for Anne who had to live with her every day.

She smiled as if knowing his thoughts and ventured to offer her congratulations, "I must say that I am very pleased for you, Darcy. I admire Miss Bennet and I hope you will be very happy together."

"Thank you, Anne. I appreciate your support."

"You most definitely have it," she replied. "I will order your lunch and then see to Mama. Please give my best to Miss Bennet, Darcy."

Colonel Fitzwilliam managed to hold his tongue until they were alone. Then he could restrain himself no longer.

"Good Lord, Darcy, why did you have to rush in and announce your engagement. Surely the whole matter could have been hushed up."

Darcy gave his cousin a piercing look and Fitzwilliam grew very uncomfortable.

"I am sorry, Darcy, but it just seems so unfair. You do something noble in rescuing the lady and then propriety punishes you by demanding that you marry her on top of everything else."

"It is not unfair, Fitzwilliam, and it is no punishment I assure you. It is what I want."

Fitzwilliam started to protest that Darcy need not pretend with him, but was stopped by the unfamiliar look in his cousin's eyes--was that elation? The colonel suddenly remembered how very adept Darcy had proven himself to be at avoiding unwanted entanglements. "I do believe you actually mean it, Darcy."

"Absolutely. The fact is that I proposed to Miss Bennet the night before she went missing and she--well, she refused me."

"The lady refused you?" Fitzwilliam was flummoxed. He could not name another woman of his acquaintance who would have rejected an offer from Darcy.

"Yes, she did--in no uncertain terms, Fitzwilliam. Wickham has been in Hertfordshire for some months and he had deceived her regarding my character. Miss Bennet was also very angry with me for separating Bingley from her sister."

Fitzwilliam recognized his own handiwork there. "Oh, Darcy, I must apologize. I told her about Bingley, never dreaming the lady was her sister. I simply thought to amuse Miss Bennet with a little gossip."

Darcy would have been incensed had he learned of his cousin's blunder a day earlier; however, now that his happiness was assured, Darcy merely shrugged it off. "It is really no matter how she found out, Fitzwilliam. Suffice it to say, Miss Bennet was terribly upset with me. Between that and Wickham's lies I had no chance with her. I was devastated when she refused. Therefore, I trust you will understand why I rejoice in Miss Bennet's mishap. That time alone with her gave me the opportunity to correct the misunderstandings between us and to apologize for past injuries."

"Do you mean to say that the lady has happily accepted you? This is not just about salvaging her reputation?"

Darcy's face lit up in a way his cousin had never seen before. "Yes, Fitzwilliam, that is exactly what I mean."

The colonel's relief was evident. "Well, this is excellent news then. I have always liked Miss Bennet. In fact, I suspected you to have some partiality towards her, but I never dreamed you had serious intentions. Congratulations, Cousin. When is the wedding to be?"

"The exact date remains to be decided, but soon. I have written to Mr. Bennet. Since the question of his consent was eradicated by the unusual circumstances, I left it for him to decide if his daughter should be married from home or if he would prefer that we marry in London. It was already planned for Miss Bennet to visit her relations there before returning to Hertfordshire. In fact, we will be escorting Miss Bennet and Miss Lucas to town when we leave tomorrow."

Fitzwilliam chuckled appreciatively. "Well, that will certainly make for a livelier trip. As I recall you were very glum on the drive to Rosings this year. Were you perhaps pining for Miss Bennet?"

Darcy smiled ruefully. "Let us just say that since I met Miss Bennet, she has never been far from my thoughts. Now, I do wish to ask your opinion on one point, Fitzwilliam. I would definitely prefer the whole world not know that Miss Bennet refused my first offer of marriage. However, it might be wise to let it be understood that I actually proposed before her accident."

Fitzwilliam agreed without hesitation. "I would agree, Cousin. Ideally, the episode will not be published abroad, but we both know how unlikely that is. It is too sensational a story for someone not to bandy it about. If it is believed that you were engaged to Miss Bennet before her disappearance, then it will be assumed that the incident merely hastened your wedding. That would make the whole story far less exciting and probably cause less gossip. Perhaps I might be of assistance, Cousin. Since I am known for my "lapses of discretion," it would not be out of character for me to let certain details slip. I would be most happy to aid your cause by shading the truth a bit."

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam, but I must discuss it with Miss Bennet first. I think she will see the wisdom of it, but I will not risk another misunderstanding between us."

Colonel Fitzwilliam was thunderstruck. Darcy rarely consulted anyone before making any kind of decision, and yet he would capitulate to Miss Bennet's judgment on something of this import. Such deference proved the depth of Darcy's attachment for the lady. This was not just some degree of admiration--Darcy was truly in love. Being of a sanguine disposition, the colonel immediately forgot that he had ever considered his cousin's engagement to be motivated by anything other than a strong mutual affection.

Feeling that discretion was definitely the better part of valor, Colonel Fitzwilliam accompanied Darcy to the parsonage that afternoon. He was eager to not only offer his congratulations to Miss Bennet, but to also evade being cornered by Lady Catherine. Darcy might have forced their aunt to bow to his decision, but she was not afraid of the colonel. Therefore, Fitzwilliam wisely planned to avoid his aunt for the rest of the visit unless Darcy was also present.

Charlotte welcomed the gentlemen pleasantly and offered her husband's apologies explaining that Mr. Collins was engaged in some personal business and would not be able to join them. Neither man was upset at this prospect, but they murmured polite regrets out of a desire to not offend their hostess. In reality, Mr. Collins was hiding. He dare not displease Lady Catherine by sanctioning the match, and yet he had not the courage to oppose both Mr. Darcy and his wife. Therefore, Mr. Collins had decided it was wisest if he remain in seclusion until the crisis had passed. Charlotte did not protest her husband's solution, as she understood his limitations all too well. She actually thought it one of the more sensible things Mr. Collins had done during their marriage.

Darcy was pleased to learn that Elizabeth was still above stairs, obediently awaiting his return. He was also somewhat surprised, knowing that his intended was strong willed and stubborn. Darcy chuckled to himself. Elizabeth was either up to something or she had decided it would be too much effort to venture downstairs on her own.

"Excuse me, Fitzwilliam, while I retrieve my injured bride."

Charlotte followed Darcy up the stairs. When they reached the landing Darcy turned to her and asked, "Might I have a moment alone with Miss Bennet? I will leave the door open, of course, but there is a private matter that I need to discuss with her, Mrs. Collins."

Trusting his intentions, Charlotte nodded and said, "Yes, Mr. Darcy, I think that is permissible under the circumstances, but only a few minutes, sir. I will wait here for you."

Darcy thanked her and continued down the hall to knock on Elizabeth's door. Hearing her soft, "Enter," Darcy gingerly opened the door. He was suddenly afraid to face her-- fearful that he had somehow misunderstood Elizabeth and that she still despised him.

Seeing his own anxiety mirrored in her face, Darcy immediately rushed to Elizabeth's side and took her by the hand.

"What is it, dearest? Are you feeling worse? Shall I send for the doctor?"

Elizabeth's face lit up with a relieved smile. "No, all is well. I must confess that after you left this morning I became quite apprehensive."

"Do you now have hesitations, Elizabeth? Do you regret our engagement?"

"No, Fitzwilliam," she whispered. The intimacy of hearing her address him so, reassured Darcy even as Elizabeth went on to confess her anxieties.

"I was worried that I might have misunderstood you. I thought that perhaps the blow to my head had confused me somehow. You really do have cause to despise me after I behaved so dreadfully."

"Hush, dearest," Darcy whispered as he took her hands and kissed them. "Never doubt that I love you, Elizabeth. While I am very sorry for your injuries, I am delighted at the prospect of our being married very soon."

Elizabeth smiled as she took Darcy's face in her hands and kissed him. Darcy savored the moment. Then remembering their time was limited, he took her in his arms and said, "I could kiss you all day, my love, but there is a matter we must discuss and I do not want to upset Mrs. Collins by lingering too long. I need to ask your opinion on a thought I had. If we were to publish the timing of my first proposal with no further details, it might help to prevent unfortunate gossip about our marriage."

"Are you suggesting we allow people to assume that we were already engaged before you rescued me, Fitzwilliam?"

"Yes, dearest. I generally abhor any kind of deceit but I think this is worth our consideration. An affianced couple hastening their wedding due to unforeseen circumstances is far less sensational than a couple forced to wed because of the same circumstances. What is your view, Elizabeth?"

"You are asking me?"

"Of course, dearest. I would not presume to make such a decision on my own. We will soon be wed, and you are a woman of decided opinions, Elizabeth. In fact, I think that is one of the first things I admired about you."

"Thank you, Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth said as she gently stroked his cheek. "I do understand your concerns, and it is not just my reputation at stake. We have your sister's future to consider as well. She will be coming out soon and I would not have such a shadow follow her. I think it is an excellent plan. We will mention your first proposal without any additional history and allow people to draw the wrong conclusion, but do you think that will suffice?"

Darcy grinned at her. "I think that is all that will be required of us. Fitzwilliam has already volunteered to take a more active role in spreading the story. He has no qualms about misleading the public on our behalf. After all, feeding false information to the enemy is considered acceptable military strategy."

Elizabeth laughed and Darcy was relieved that they had managed this discussion without a misunderstanding. He gathered her up into his arms and carried her out to where Charlotte awaited them. Seeing the two of them together, Charlotte relaxed. Yes, she thought, it will all turn out well.

Colonel Fitzwilliam pretended to be engrossed in viewing Mrs. Collins' garden through the window until Darcy and Charlotte had Elizabeth settled on the sofa with an afghan draped modestly across her legs.

"Please join us Fitzwilliam," Darcy urged as he pulled a chair up beside Elizabeth and took her hand. "Mrs. Collins, you mentioned that your husband is occupied this afternoon. May I inquire as to your sister? I trust Miss Lucas is well."

"Yes, Maria is very well, Mr. Darcy. I sent her into the village this afternoon. She should be back in time for tea."

Darcy nodded, satisfied that they would not be interrupted. "It is fortunate that we have you all to ourselves, Mrs. Collins, as we would like to consult you on a private matter. You are no doubt unaware that I actually proposed to Miss Bennet two evenings ago. Normally, I would consider such private details to be no one's business but our own. However, these are unusual circumstances. We have decided to make that fact common knowledge in hopes that it may lessen the gossip about Miss Bennet's unfortunate accident and my assistance to her."

Charlotte was shrewd and immediately grasped the nuances of the situation. She noticed Darcy said he had proposed, but nothing was said of when Elizabeth accepted him. However, being a very practical woman, Charlotte immediately saw the wisdom of this course of action and endorsed it whole-heartedly. "I do understand you, Mr. Darcy. It was entirely correct and proper that I not be informed of your engagement before Mr. Bennet had given his consent. Were it not for Elizabeth's accident, I would still be ignorant of my dearest friend's happiness. It certainly makes your anxiety to find Elizabeth even more understandable. What man would not rush off to find his missing fiancee?"

The colonel gazed at Charlotte with frank admiration. She was a worthy conspirator-- clever and devious. Colonel Fitzwilliam liked that in a woman. What a shame she was married to such a man.

Charlotte smiled as she smoothly continued, "As I told you this morning, Mr. Darcy, I think Mr. Bennet's concern will be what is best for Elizabeth. He will certainly understand your making your engagement public under the unusual circumstances. Now as to the specifics we have discussed-- would you like me to actively circulate this information or would you prefer I refrain from discussing the matter at all?"

Darcy was pleased to see that Mrs. Collins understood him perfectly. "It would seem out of character if I were suddenly too forthcoming about my private affairs. My cousin here has offered his services among our circles in London. Would you be comfortable sharing whatever information you think appropriate, both here and in your correspondence?"

"Certainly, I will not only be comfortable doing so, but I will also be happy to. I realize such attention is not what you would normally wish for, Mr. Darcy. However, I am confident the romantic tale of Lizzy's fiance racing off to rescue her will win you many friends in Hertfordshire."

Elizabeth smiled at her friend. "Thank you, Charlotte, and I thank you, too, Colonel. I am embarrassed that my silly misadventure might reflect poorly on your family."

The colonel gave her a warm smile. "Think nothing of it Miss Bennet. Any temporary inconvenience for the family is nothing compared to how happy you have made Darcy here. We are in your debt."

Since Lady Catherine was still quite put out, dinner at Rosings was a relatively silent affair that evening. Neither of her nephews minded. In fact, Darcy found himself wishing he had managed to silence her years ago.

Copyright 2007 Pamela St Vines
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