Life is Better With Animals

Chapter One

Elizabeth sat behind the wheel of her truck and turned on the ignition.
When the engine started, she drove her car to the Lucas Farm. She was in a
hurry. Mr. Lucas had called her five minutes ago with an emergency. One of
his cows had gone into labour and Elizabeth's help was required as soon as
possible.

Elizabeth, or Lizzy, as she was called by her friends, was a local vet, and
such emergencies were nothing new to her. Today was no different. It was
7:30 p.m., but during her two years of practice she had found out that
animals rarely took ill during office hours, so she got used to odd working
hours. She didn't mind it at all, she loved animals and loved her job, and
she was happy to help her patients whenever they needed her.

This time, though, she was a little anxious. Tonight's patient was a young
cow giving birth to her first calf, and her labour could be more difficult
due to the youth and inexperience of the mother. Elizabeth hit the gas pedal
and sped up.

The weather was typical for late September. It was 5 degrees Celsius[i] and
a slight chilly rain was falling, obscuring the vision through the
windscreen. It was getting dark quickly, but Elizabeth drove fast. She knew
the roads very well, she could drive with her eyes closed and it was not
likely that many cars would be on the country roads at this time and with
this weather.

She passed Meryton, and turning into a narrow road outside the town, she
almost collided with a black BMW. She hit the breaks, unfastened her
seatbelt and jumped out of the truck, mortified, ready to apologise for her
carelessness. The driver of the BMW also got out and was walking her way.

"I'm so sorry! Are you all right?" Elizabeth asked with concern.

She looked at the man and stifled a gasp.  The man standing in front of her
was the embodiment of "tall, dark and handsome." He wore an elegant, long,
black coat and obviously very expensive shoes, which were currently getting
covered with dirt on the muddy road.  She couldn't see much in the fading
September light, but she noticed that his hair was black and curly and his
expression, though very handsome, undeniably brooding.  What she observed,
however, was enough for her to realize the contrast between his impeccable
appearance and her less than perfect attire. She wore a pair of faded jeans,
an old jacket and wellingtons[ii], her long, dark hair in a dishevelled
ponytail on top of her head. She felt a little self - conscious, but all her
insecurities disappeared, when the man spoke, "Are you out of your mind
driving at this speed in such weather!? Were you trying to kill yourself? If
you want to die, why don't you just shoot yourself and not involve other
people in your scheme!"

Elizabeth's jaw fell at this speech. Never had she been spoken to in such a
manner. The man spoke with an angry contempt, looking at her coldly. He was,
by all accounts, the most arrogant, the rudest person she knew. But she wasn
't one to be easily intimidated by such behaviour. She pursed her lips,
raised her head, stared defiantly into the stranger's face and said with all
the coldness she could muster:

"If I was planning a killing, right now it would be you, rather than me.
But you're lucky, because killing is not on my agenda for tonight. Excuse
me, I need to go birth a cow."

With that she turned on her heel, returned to her truck and drove past the
BMW and the stunned man.

***

When four hours later Elizabeth parked her truck outside her house, three
miles from Meryton, she was still fuming. While she was taking care of the
cow, she was able to forget about the rude stranger. However, when her
patient delivered a healthy calf, Elizabeth was again free to mull over
their short conversation in indignation. How dare the man speak to her like
that?

She went into the house, where she was instantly greeted by Cassandra, her
cat, and Jack, her white labrador. She patted and cuddled the animals and
then headed for the bathroom. After the shower she dressed in a warm robe
and went to the kitchen to make herself some tea.

A couple of minutes later, Elizabeth sat on the couch in the sitting room,
sipping her tea and listening to her messages. The first one was from her
sister:

"Hi, Lizzy, it's Jane. I'm calling to remind you about tomorrow's dinner
at Netherfield. William has come today and we would like him to have a good
time during his stay here. Remember what we talked about? I'm counting on
you, Liz. Bye."

Elizabeth sighed. She'd completely forgotten about that dinner. She didn't
feel like going at all. She loved Jane and Charles, but right now she didn't
feel any inclination to entertain Charles' friend.

Charles Bingley was a doctor in Meryton. He'd lived and worked in this town
for a year. Jane was a kindergarten teacher and she met Charles when one of
her pupils sprained his ankle one day. Elizabeth didn't believe in love at
first sight, but what connected her sister and the handsome doctor was as
close as it gets. The day after they met, they went on a date, and six
months later, Jane moved in with Charles. Elizabeth was happy for her
sister, but now that she lived alone in the house she used to share with
Jane, she felt a little lonely at times. Jane, two years older than her, had
always been her favourite sister and best friend. Elizabeth would do
anything for her sister, so when Jane asked her to help entertain Charles'
friend when he came for a visit, she agreed to it. She was, however,
slightly apprehensive. She knew very well that, for some reason, Charles and
Jane thought that Elizabeth and William were perfect for each other and
hoped to get them together during William's visit. Elizabeth insisted that
she wouldn't have any of their matchmaking and they promised to attempt
none. In return, though, they exacted a promise from Elizabeth that she
would try to get to know William. She agreed to that, thinking that nothing
would come of it anyway. After all, William Darcy was a famous neurosurgeon,
with a doctorate from Cambridge University, who worked in St. Bart's
hospital, the best in London. And who was she? A mere country vet. Make no
mistake about it, Elizabeth was proud of her accomplishments, she loved her
life and knew her worth. But she also knew that she wasn't one who would
usually catch the fancy of the likes of William Darcy.

***

As Elizabeth was preparing for the evening the following day, she couldn't
help but feel a little nervous. Rationality aside, she was really curious
about this William Darcy. Charles has spoken very highly about him and the
knowledge that her sister's boyfriend thought her and his friend perfect for
each other, as well as William's fame as one of the best neurosurgeons in
the whole country, all of this raised her expectation about the evening and
the man himself.

Charles talked to her about William, and Elizabeth knew that they met at
Cambridge. Both of them studied medicine, but Charles, with his friendly and
open manners and love of people, became a general practitioner, while Darcy
made a career as a neurosurgeon. However, the difference in their
dispositions and characters, or the careers they'd chosen, didn't preclude
them from becoming close friends. Even several years after graduation, they
still maintained their friendship. Now William had come to visit Charles on
an extended holiday. Charles said he was going to stay at least for a month.
Elizabeth was surprised at the length of his time off - she'd always thought
that doctors were extremely busy and from Charles' description, William
seemed like a true workaholic. Well, maybe she was going to solve this
mystery tonight.

With a last look into the mirror, she decided her appearance was
satisfactory and made for the door.

***

"Lizzy, how good to see you again!" said Charles Bingley as he opened the
door and let Elizabeth in.

"Hi, Charles, how are you doing?" Elizabeth asked, kissing Charles on the
cheek. He took her coat and led her through the hall into the sitting room.

"I'm great, thanks," he said, smiling. Then, looking at Elizabeth, he added
appreciatively, "You look amazing."

"Thanks," Elizabeth smiled. Charles was one of the nicest people she knew
and, being the gentleman that he was, he never failed to compliment her. He
and Jane were very alike in that respect. They both loved people and thought
only good of them. They were all that was friendly and amiable. Charles was
quite tall, slender, with curly reddish hair and merry, blue eyes. No wonder
all of his female patients, from the age of three to eighty three were head
over heels for him. He was, however, a lost cause, for he had eyes only for
Jane.

Charles led her into the sitting room and excused himself saying he needed
to help Jane in the kitchen. It was still early and there were not many
guests yet. She noticed her friend, Charlotte Lucas standing by the wall.
She smiled and crossed the room to say hello.

"Well, Liz, when you take off your overalls and wellies you actually look
like a woman," said Charlotte teasingly.

"Good to see you, too, Char," Elizabeth responded dryly and hugged her
friend.

"I haven't seen you in ages! I was beginning to suspect you preferred the
company of cows to that of your friends," Charlotte exclaimed.

Elizabeth felt a pang of guilt. "Sorry, Charlotte, I've been busy lately,
working both at the clinic and the farms. But now that Maria has joined me,
it'll all be easier. Plus, the winter's coming and there will be much less
work then."

"I know, Liz, don't worry, I don't blame you. I'll tell you what, why don't
we meet for lunch on Monday and catch up?"

"Sounds great. So tell me, what's new?" Elizabeth asked.

Charlotte shrugged. "Nothing much. You know my work isn't as exciting as
yours," she replied.

Elizabeth laughed and observed dryly, "Oh, yeah, you don't have any idea
how exciting my work is. Why, just yesterday evening I met a mysterious
stranger on an empty road to Meryton," she said in a dramatic whisper, as if
sharing a secret.

Charlotte looked at her curiously. "Really? What was he like? Was he
devastatingly handsome and incredibly hot?" she asked with a leer, wiggling
her eyebrows.

Elizabeth sighed theatrically. "Oh, yes, he was. He was tall, dark and
handsome. But here end the advantages. He was also rude, arrogant and
haughty. Can you imagine he told me that I should shoot myself?" Elizabeth
was getting furious again as she recalled the man's behaviour.

"No! Did he really? Why would he say that?" Charlotte inquired with
disbelief.

Elizabeth looked a bit sheepish. "Well...um...he didn't say exactly that I
should shoot myself. I was driving a little too fast, because I was in a
hurry to Lucas Farm and I almost collided with his BMW. It was after that
that he told me that if I wanted to get killed I should shoot myself rather
than involve other people in my plan."

"Lizzy, I'm sure he was just upset and nervous. After all, he almost had a
car crash, so it was natural to take his anger out on you."

Elizabeth scowled. "He didn't have to be so boorish. I tried to apologise,
but he behaved like a total prick and don't try to justify him! After all,
you're my friend, you should be on my side!"

"Well, it's not like it matters. You won't probably ever see him again,
anyway."

"I sure hope not!" said Elizabeth with disgust. Then, struggling to stop
thinking about this man and his rude behaviour, she added,  "I'm thirsty,
let's get something to drink."

"You go ahead, Lizzy, I have to go and talk to Maria, I've just seen her
come in."

"Ok," Lizzy shrugged and walked in the direction of the dining room.

***

William Darcy stood in the far corner of the dining room and sighed
resignedly. It was going to be a long and tiresome evening. He knew Charles
meant well, but William couldn't find it in his heart to be grateful. Not
with Caroline fawning over him in the most annoying manner and a house full
of people he didn't know. He came to the country in order to find peace and
solitude, but it seemed that instead he was thrown into a whirl of social
engagements.

He should have known this whole trip was a bad idea, but he really needed
some time off and Charles had been nagging him to visit for months, so
William finally gave in.

It started very badly when he almost crashed with some crazy woman speeding
in a truck on the country road. He got justifiably furious and told her what
he thought about such behaviour. Maybe he overreacted a bit and he regretted
being rude to her, but she deserved it. William had seen too many victims of
such recklessness to be cool about it.

But then it got even worse. When he reached Netherfield House, he found
out, to his utter horror, that Caroline was there as well. Caroline Bingley
was Charles' younger sister, and she had been chasing him constantly for
years now. He never wanted anything to do with her, but she just couldn't
take no for an answer. He didn't want to be offensive in his refusal, after
all she was his best friend's sister, but he was beginning to loose his
patience.

Add to this that Charles seemed determined to set him up with Jane's
sister, who, supposedly, was perfect for him. For one thing, William
despised being set up in general, but he felt strangely suspicious about
this whole Elizabeth thing. Jane and Charles had both had very quizzical
expressions on their faces when they talked about her. Something akin to
amusement and mischief. He suspected Elizabeth was some kind of a wild
country girl, dressed in wellingtons, with unkempt hair, spending all her
days in cowsheds and barns. William shuddered at the thought of being with
such a woman.

And now this. It seemed that Charles and Jane invited all their friends to
a dinner party to celebrate his visit. It was very kind of them and William
couldn't even feel angry. Charles had always dragged him to all kinds of
social functions. He was a very sociable person, while William was reserved
and a little shy. He didn't feel comfortable in a crowd of unknown people.
This was part of the reason for becoming a surgeon. He felt more at ease
with people who lay unconscious on the table, than interacting with awake
patients.

At the moment he enjoyed a rare minute of peace. Caroline was still
upstairs dolling herself up. If he was lucky, he could escape the harpy for
some time, at least until dinner. William anticipated his stay at Charles'
to be horrible. Charles was genuinely embarrassed by his sister's behaviour
and tried to keep Caroline out of William's way, however, it had all proved
useless. Somehow she managed to find out that he was going to be at
Netherfield and, naturally, she felt an overwhelming desire to see her
brother and his girlfriend. It didn't matter that on many occasions she had
professed her contempt for Meryton and countryside in general. It was
completely irrelevant that she couldn't understand what had possessed
Charles to settle in such a place. All of these considerations were
forgotten as soon as she found out William was going to be there.

Suddenly he heard footsteps. In a complete panic he jumped and quickly hid
behind a rubber plant, fortunately big enough to conceal even someone as
tall as him. Cautiously he peered at the room. Looking around he didn't
notice anyone except for a few people who had been there all the time.
Puzzled, he scanned the crowd again, berating himself for his stupidity and
cowardice when his eyes fell on the door and he forgot to breathe at the
vision he saw there.

Clad in a knee-length, clingy skirt and a well-fitted, sleeveless, cowl
neck top with glitter print, she was simply stunning. William started
breathing again and his heart rate increased as he studied her form - from
incredible legs, gentle curve of her hips, slender waist, supple chest,
graceful neck, rich, long, brown, curly hair, to the lovely face in which
was set a pair of the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. They were dark,
deep, sparkling with vivacity and mischievousness. William felt he could
easily drown in them.

He stared at her, unable to turn away. He became aware that he wanted to
get to know her. He wished to find out if she would be as delightful as she
looked. He needed to talk to her, to hear her voice, to see her glorious
eyes turned to him. But above all he desired to touch her creamy skin. He
yearned to run his fingers through the thick mass of her hair. He looked at
her soft, red lips and wondered what they would taste like. He craved to
experience her with all his senses.

But something started bothering him. She seemed strangely familiar. He was
sure he had already seen her somewhere. Those eyes, the halo of dark curls,
those, oh, so perfect breasts. But where?

William turned cold as a sudden realisation hit him. Of course, how could
he have forgotten?  Obviously, yesterday she looked different. Her hair had
been in a rather untidy ponytail, she had been dressed in working clothes
and she hadn't worn any make up, but it was her. William moaned softly. It
was just his luck! He finally met a woman whom he felt attracted to and he
insulted her before he even knew her name! What was he to do now? Should he
apologise to her? Or maybe behave as if nothing happened? Maybe she wouldn't
recognize him. After all, it was dark yesterday. He almost didn't recognize
her himself. After a moment of deliberation he decided to walk closer to her
and examine her reaction to him. Surely, he would determine then if she knew
him or not and whether she was mad at him.

He slowly stepped away from his hiding place and moved in her direction.
She smiled at several people in the room, said hello to a couple of
acquaintances, and walked to the bar, which stood by the opposite wall.
William was close behind her.

Elizabeth poured herself a glass of wine and turned to walk away when
suddenly she crashed into something warm and hard.

"I'm sorry..," Elizabeth mumbled, as a pair of strong hands held her by the
arms, restoring her balance.

"It's all right," answered a deep voice, which seemed oddly familiar to
her. Slowly, she raised her head and took in the man before her.

A nice, dark suit and an expensive tie. A broad chest, which, as she
recalled, was extremely well-muscled and delightfully warm. Broad shoulders
and a nice neck, which begged to be released from the restriction of his
tie. A strong jaw, full lips, straight nose and a pair of dark, smouldering,
intense eyes. And this absolutely gorgeous face was surrounded by a cloud of
black curls, which, despite obvious attempts of their owner, could not be
made to behave and a lock of hair falling down his forehead made him look
like a little boy.  A very naughty little boy. God, he smelled good, too.
Elizabeth dropped all thoughts of children and fought the urge to fan
herself. Was it getting hot in here?

William, for his part, was faring no better than her. The collision with
his vision woman and the feel of her soft curves moulding into his body
nearly made him lose all control. She was even more beautiful close - up.
Her voice, although muffled by his chest and her embarrassment, was rich and
smoky. He noted with an inward groan, that her skin was warm and silky and
her scent was intoxicating. He felt the urge to grab her by the waist and
pull her to him again, to feel her body against his, his lips crushing hers.
'Oh, God! What's wrong with me? I don't even know her name and all I can
think of is taking her here and now...'

It was Elizabeth's voice that pulled him out of his daze. "You!" she
hissed, her beautiful eyes flashing. William winced. Damn, she recognised
him. It was obvious that she was mad at him. If looks could kill, William
would have been lying dead on the floor, slain by the daggers in Elizabeth's
eyes. Could this get any worse? Apparently, it could.

"I see you two found each other!" Charles exclaimed gleefully, as he
appeared by their side, as if out of nowhere. They looked at him in
confusion, proving to him that they in fact hadn't introduced themselves
yet. He was happy to oblige.

"Lizzy, this is William Darcy, my good friend. Will, this is Elizabeth
Bennet, Jane's sister."

William, dumbfounded, stared from Elizabeth to Charles in utter
embarrassment. He dearly wished the earth would open and swallow him. He had
to fight a childish impulse to hide under the table. Astonishment swiftly
made its way to his brain.  This was Elizabeth Bennet? This gorgeous,
stunning, breathtaking, sexy woman was Elizabeth Bennet? Oh, God. Not only
did he underestimate and judge her without even setting his eyes on her. He
insulted her in the rudest possible way. He told her to shoot herself! 'Way
to go, moron! You've just ruined your chances for something with her.'  This
was going to be the most awkward holiday in his life!

"Hello, William," Elizabeth said coolly. She was quite surprised herself at
the discovery that the boorish stranger from the night before turned out to
be the great William Darcy. She was even more amazed that Jane and Charles
considered him a good match for her. Oh, he was handsome, beautiful if she
was to be honest with herself, however his personality left a lot to be
desired. He stood there, staring at her, no doubt in contempt and
disapproval, not answering her greeting. Elizabeth felt really incensed. The
nerve of this man!

William struggled to pull himself together. He moved his mouth, but found
that he could utter no sound. He cleared his throat and looked over her
head, her dazzling eyes distracting him too much.

"It's nice to meet you, Elizabeth," he replied softly, savouring the feel
of her name on his lips.

"It's nice to meet you, too, William," Elizabeth answered in a cold tone.
She was tempted to retort flippantly, but she remembered Jane's request.
'Give him a chance, Lizzy.' She would be polite for Jane and Charles's sake,
but it was so difficult. The man was so arrogant, he didn't even look at her
face when he spoke to her. He clearly didn't want anything to do with her.
'Well, it's all the better,' thought Elizabeth.

"Williaaaam!" a piercing female voice sounded in the room. Elizabeth
glanced at William and noted with a good deal of surprise and some
amusement, too, that the man was clearly in a panic. He looked around as if
searching for a way to escape, but to no avail.

"There you are, William, I've been looking for you. Where have you been
hiding?" said the woman as she approached them with a pout. She kissed
William's cheek and took his arm. William looked very uncomfortable.

"Lizzy, this is my sister, Caroline. Caroline, this is Elizabeth Bennet,
Jane's sister," Charles introduced them. Caroline nodded slightly, her whole
attention concentrated on William, who looked as if he wanted to disappear.

Caroline Bingley was an attractive woman of about thirty years old. She
wore an orange, ankle - length dress, which was more appropriate for a New
Years Eve celebration at Buckingham Palace than a simple dinner party at her
brother's house. The dress was hugging her rather skinny figure in quite an
unflattering way, her black hair was in a stylish french twist, which
accentuated the very sharp contours of her face, a long nose, thin lips and
small, shrewd eyes. She also obviously overdid her make-up. Although
Caroline was not an ugly woman, she could be even considered pretty, it
seemed that unknowingly, she was doing her best to look as bad as she could
possibly manage.  Choosing the most expensive and fashionable clothes,
cosmetics and hair styles, with no regard to what looked well on her, she
emphasized her flaws, rather than accentuated her advantages.

Her ensemble was embellished by a very fashionable accessory - a chihuahua.
Elizabeth instantly felt sorry for the poor animal.

"Excuse me, I'll go and see if Jane needs my help," said Elizabeth and she
retreated from the awkward situation, followed by William's wistful gaze. He
couldn't tear his eyes from her, looking longingly at her shapely derriere,
as she walked out of the room, her hips swaying gently, but in a most
tempting manner. 'Oh, God,' William thought, 'How am I going to survive
this?'

***

"Lizzy, what are you doing here? I thought you were in the dining room
talking to William," said Jane as she spotted Elizabeth standing in the
doorway of the kitchen. Elizabeth winced involuntarily.

"Why would you think that?" she asked with distaste. On seeing Jane's
disapproving face, however, she sighed and answered, "I was, but that
Caroline woman showed up and things got a bit awkward. I escaped and came
here to talk to you. You look fabulous, by the way."

Although such praise was completely redundant, as Jane, with her classic
beauty heard it quite often, still Elizabeth couldn't help it. It never
ceased to amaze her how her sister managed to look so good all the time. She
was tall and slender, with arm-length blond hair and beautiful blue eyes.
The dress she was wearing was very nice and very sexy, too. It was made of
red lace with a V - neckline, the hem started just above Jane's knees.
Elizabeth thought wistfully that she would never be as gorgeous as her
sister. Oh, she knew she was attractive, especially when she dressed up,
made up and managed to make her hair behave. But Jane was a goddess. Not
only beautiful, but also smart, kind, self-confident and generous.

Jane smiled. "Thanks, Lizzy. Come, let's go. I've finished here. Help me
with those platters."

"But I was hoping we could talk for a moment," replied Elizabeth, not at
all willing to go back to the dining room, Prince Charming and the Ugly
Duckling... err... Duck.

Jane was unmoved by her pout. "Sorry, sis, there's no time for that now.
You're coming to Longbourn for dinner tomorrow? We'll talk there, OK?"

Elizabeth sighed and agreed reluctantly. "All right," she said resignedly
picking up two platters to take to the dining room.

"You look gorgeous, Liz. I'm sure you've made quite an impression on
William," said Jane slyly.

Elizabeth laughed. "Oh, I'm sure I have."

Jane raised an eyebrow at her questioningly.

"I'll tell you tomorrow. Come on, let's go before your guests starve to
death." Before Jane could ask another question, Elizabeth was out of the
kitchen.

***

"My dear Jane, everything looks delicious! Doesn't it, William?" Caroline
cooed in a voice honeyed enough to give one a toothache.

William fought the urge to roll his eyes.  "Yes, it does."  Caroline
simpered, delighted to have William agree with her.

"Thank you." Jane smiled sincerely.

The whole party was sitting in Netherfield's dining room, by a big, oval
table. Charles sat at the head of the table, Jane opposite to him. On
Charles's left sat Caroline, with William across from her. It was bad enough
for Caroline that she couldn't be near William, but her distaste was
increased by the presence of Elizabeth, who was placed on William's right.
Caroline was desperate, but she was by no means blind and she had noticed
from the very beginning the looks that William was casting in Elizabeth's
direction. She was determined to prevent that nobody from ensnaring her man.
Ignoring Elizabeth, she turned to her sister.

"Oh, Jane, I admire you so. To think you cooked all this alone, without a
professional chef. How refreshing! I do so love home-made food! Don't you
agree, William?"

"Indeed, Jane is a wonderful cook and hostess," William smiled genuinely at
Jane.

Charles joined in the praise of his girlfriend, "Jane is exceptional in
everything she does! You should see how great she is with her pupils. They
just love her!"

"Why Jane, are you a teacher? That is so sweet! I could never work with
kids."

"Why not, Caroline?" asked Jane.

Charles laughed. "Because they would ruin her hair and damage her
manicure!"

Caroline looked at her brother icily. "I have no patience for children."
She cut short. "And what do you do, Eliza?" She turned to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth looked Caroline in the eye and answered easily, "I'm a
veterinarian."

Caroline was not very much surprised. She suspected this Eliza didn't have
a respectable profession. And now William would see it, too.

"An animal doctor? Well, then you and William have something in common.
William is also a doctor. Did you know that? He's a brain surgeon," Caroline
said smugly.

"I know that, Caroline. His fame has even reached this far end of the
world." William looked at his plate, very uncomfortable with the turn of the
conversation. Elizabeth saw that and couldn't resist torturing him a little
more. "Who am I to be compared to such a specialist?"

Caroline didn't like the gleam in Elizabeth's eye as she spoke the words.
She didn't seem as humble as she sounded. "My dear Eliza, you underestimate
yourself. I am sure you do much good here. The cows and pigs must love you."

Charles suddenly started coughing very violently. Jane looked at Elizabeth
with concern, William with embarrassment, the rest of the party with
curiosity.

Elizabeth grinned at Caroline. "You have no idea. Animals are so genuine
and natural, there is nothing artificial or false in them, like there is in
so many people."

Charles snorted, extremely amused by the way Elizabeth was thwarting
Caroline's attempts to intimidate her. William gazed at Elizabeth, intrigued
and full of admiration for the ease with which she dealt with Caroline.

Caroline didn't know how to answer this, so she responded stiffly,  "Yes,"
and turned her attention away from Elizabeth.

It was Charlotte, who spoke next. "Caroline, I saw that you brought your
dog here with you."

"Yes, I did. Louisa is a champion and I take her everywhere with me. She
needs very attentive care," she said proudly.

Seeing an opportunity to enter Elizabeth's good books, William observed,
"Then you are lucky that Elizabeth is a vet. She may help you with your
dog."

"Oh, William, how thoughtful of you! I am sure that Eliza is an excellent
vet, but Louisa has a private veterinarian, Dr. Christopher Brandon. Do you
know him, Eliza?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, he was my professor in college."

Caroline was all astonishment. "Really? Which college?" she asked
suspiciously.

"The Royal Veterinary College, at the University of London," answered
Elizabeth casually.

William was impressed. "That is a very good school," he said softly.

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow, not quite taking his meaning. "Yes, it is,"
she said defensively.

"Elizabeth was an honorary student," announced Jane proudly.

"And she works very hard," added Charles.

"I can attest to that,"  agreed Charlotte. "I was just saying to her today
that I haven't seen her for ages. Soon we would forget how she looks."

Elizabeth looked at Charlotte, laughing. "Stop it Char, I feel bad enough,
you don't have to make me even guiltier. Besides, I wasn't neglecting you
that much. Maria has been seeing me quite a lot." She winked at her.

Maria rolled her eyes and laughed. "Oh yes, too much for my comfort."

Elizabeth feigned hurt. "Whatever do you mean? Have I been that horrible?"

Maria grinned sheepishly. Charlotte said, "Lizzy, you know we all love you,
but you will agree that sometimes you are a little..." She paused in search
of a word.

"Bossy?" prompted Charles helpfully.

"Perfectionist," added Maria.

"Stubborn," piped in Jane.

"More like obsessive," grinned Charlotte.

Elizabeth covered her face with her hands in mock despair. "And here I
thought you were my friends. How wrong was I?"

"Come on, Liz. All we tell you is the truth, after all that's what friends
are for," Charlotte said.

"Well, I would hate to think that they are for support," she retorted
dryly.

"Oh, stop teasing Lizzy," Maria defended her friend and colleague. Turning
to William, she asked, "William, how long are you planning to stay here?"

William felt slightly uncomfortable with this sudden attention focused on
his person, but he managed a smile and a polite answer. "I don't know for
certain yet, but I believe I'll stay for a couple of weeks."

Elizabeth fixed her eyes on him with a controlled curiosity. "However did
you manage to convince your boss to give you such a long leave?"

Although still uncomfortable, William couldn't help but feel delighted at
being able to talk to her directly. "I haven't had a holiday in several
years, so it's accumulated," he answered.

"Oh, I see," replied Elizabeth, not quite satisfied with his answer. After
all, he was a brilliant surgeon, she was sure he was pretty indispensable in
the hospital.

"William is a true workaholic," interjected Caroline, very much put out
with the conversation in which she couldn't participate, and even more
incensed at seeing Elizabeth talking to William. She was determined to
thwart every attempt this little upstart made on her William. "But now that
he is here we will make sure he has his rest. I will see to it personally."
Caroline looked at William with a flirtatious expression, which told him
that it wasn't rest that she had on her mind. Again he felt like running
away screaming, but Elizabeth's presence next to him prevented that.
Caroline or not, he didn't want to quit Elizabeth Bennet's company.

Elizabeth observed this whole exchange in silent amusement. It was clear as
crystal that Caroline Bingley was hot for William Darcy, but it was even
more apparent that he wanted nothing to do with her. She wondered how it was
possible that the fact was obvious to everyone in the room save the lady
herself. Caroline batted her eyelashes and smiled sweetly at William,
fighting for his attention like a randy fifteen-year-old. Even her sister
Lydia could learn from her. Elizabeth felt somewhat sorry for both William
and Caroline. But they surely deserved each other.

***

The rest of the dinner passed in a similar manner. Caroline was throwing
herself at William, simultaneously trying to discredit Elizabeth in his
eyes. Elizabeth was alternating between feeling angry at Caroline and
bemused at her desperate attempts to put her down. William was exceedingly
frustrated at having to tolerate Caroline's attentions and not having
Elizabeth to himself. The rest of the party observed and enjoyed the show,
extremely intrigued. It was visible that there was something between William
and Elizabeth, much as they tried to deny or disguise it.

At half past ten, the guests started to leave. Elizabeth stayed to help
Jane with the dishes, while Caroline hovered around them, causing more
trouble than benefit. At eleven Elizabeth finally said good night to
Caroline, Charles and William and left. Jane walked her to her car.

"Did you have a good time, Lizzy?"

"Surprisingly enough, I did," answered Elizabeth. "Although not everybody
felt the same way, I think."

"You mean William, I assume. I noticed you weren't particularly nice to
him, Lizzy. What has he done to offend you?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "It wasn't exactly something he has done, it was more
about what he's said. I'll tell you the whole story tomorrow. The only thing
I am sure now is that you and Charles were utterly wrong in presuming we
would fit together. I'm asking you not to try playing a matchmaker, all
right? We are both adults and can take care of our social lives."

Jane looked at her doubtfully. "Uh huh, I've seen how you are taking care
of yours, Lizzy, and, if what Charles has told me is true, William is also
not very adept at taking care of his." Seeing Elizabeth's expression, she
quickly added, "All right, all right. I promise I won't try any matchmaking.
But..." she raised her hand, silencing Elizabeth. "You promise me to give
William a chance."

Elizabeth sighed and laughed resignedly. "Jane, you never give up, do you?
OK, I promise to give him a chance. Satisfied?"

Jane grinned happily. "You won't regret it." Elizabeth could only roll her
eyes at this statement.

***

William stood by the window in his bedroom gazing at the women talking by
the car. His eyes never left Elizabeth. He saw her smile at her sister and,
a moment later, scowl in distaste at something Jane said. They talked for a
while with serious expressions, but it was not long before he saw Elizabeth
laugh and the faint sound of her laughter reached his ears. It was rich and
resonant, like ringing of the wind chimes.

He couldn't tear his eyes away from her. She was beautiful, vibrant,
sparkling and so alive. Her intelligence and wit were enchanting. He smiled
in remembrance of the way she put down Caroline throughout the dinner. She
was certainly not easily intimidated by the likes of her... or him for that
matter, he thought gloomily.  She clearly detested him and he knew why. If
only he had kept his big mouth shut!

Yes, she hated him, there was no doubt about that. But, hatred or not, he
wanted her. She had managed to enthral him so completely within the short
few hours he spent in her company, without even trying to. He knew that she
was someone special and he longed to really know her, to be with her. He
didn't dare go any further, but one thing was clear: he would not rest until
he gained her good opinion. And maybe with time, he could attempt at
something more....

William Darcy went to bed with a firm resolution. 'No matter how long it
takes I will have her or my name is not William Darcy!'

[i] About 40 degrees Fahrenheit
[ii] A boot having a loose top with the front usually coming to or above the knee

Chapter two

All her life, Elizabeth had loved Sunday mornings. This sentiment had
increased even more since she moved out on her own and didn't have to be
subjected to her mother's whining or her sisters' quarrelling.  She would
sleep in until the outrageous hour of 8 a.m., take a nice, long, warm bath
and enjoy the feeling of not having to hurry. Then she would make herself
breakfast, a real breakfast, not what she usually had during the week -
cornflakes with milk, washed down with a coffee hot enough to ensure gastric
ulcers. On a Sunday she would treat herself to an omelette, french toast
with home-made marmalade and coffee she actually tasted. After breakfast,
she would dress in casual clothes and spend some time with her animals.
Sunday morning was a time when she could devote her whole attention to them.
She would bathe and brush them, go for walks with her dog, or for a ride on
her horse.

Elizabeth really loved Sunday mornings and always looked forward to them.
Usually, they allowed her to rest mentally and prepare herself for the
upcoming week. Usually. But not today.

She had gone to bed in a state of confusion and emotional exhaustion. Her
head had been full of William Darcy and the previous evening. Her thoughts
alternated between admiration for his gorgeous looks and outrage at his rude
behaviour. She couldn't sleep for a long time, mulling over their whole
acquaintance and considering its probable development. She had promised Jane
to give William a chance. That meant they would be meeting again. Elizabeth
wasn't sure she wanted to.

When she had managed to fall asleep, she slept poorly. She dreamt about him
all night. About his smouldering eyes, his disturbing closeness, his
infuriating manners. He was unsettling her altogether too much for her
liking. And now her own brain plotted against her, making her suffer his
presence even in her sleep.

It was no wonder, then, that on this particular Sunday morning Elizabeth
woke up tired and in an awful mood. Neither the bath, nor breakfast managed
to pull her out of her sulk. Her last hope was her animals and they didn't
fail her.

She took a brush and started brushing Cassandra's coat. The grooming soothed
both her and the cat. She felt better almost instantly. Taking care of
animals had always calmed her and soothed her nerves. What she had said the
previous evening to Caroline Bingley, however intended as a gibe, was true.
The sincere and unconditional love of her four-legged friends comforted her
and warmed her heart.

After diligently brushing Cass' and Jack's coats, she put on her old, wool
jacket and boots, and went outside. She headed for the shed that stood in
the yard. It was not very big - enough to hold one horse and a few animals
that took shelter with her for the duration of their treatment or until they
found someone willing to take them in. At the moment, there weren't many
residents in the shed - a deer that was brought to Elizabeth a week before,
found on the verge (1)  with a broken leg; a hedgehog bitten by a dog; and a
crow with a broken wing.

As she entered the shed she was welcomed by a whinny from Triss, her
chestnut mare. She greeted the horse warmly and then proceeded to check her
patients' state. She changed bandages, fed the animals and then left them
alone, perfectly aware of the fact that wild animals should have as little
contact with people as possible.

She took a brush and approached Triss. "Hello, little one. How are you this
morning?" she talked to the mare as she brushed her. Elizabeth loved all her
animals, but this horse was particularly dear to her. Triss used to be a
racing horse. She had been quite successful until an unfortunate race in
which she fell down and broke her leg. The fracture was serious enough to
prevent the mare from a complete recovery. She could never race again and
her rehabilitation was to be very expensive. Her owner decided not to invest
more money in a horse that would only be a sponger and sold her to a
slaughterhouse. When Elizabeth heard the mare's story from her friend,
Eleanor Dashwood, who treated Triss after her accident, she felt very sorry
for the poor animal. It took her no more than an hour to decide that she was
going to buy the mare from the slaughterhouse and rehabilitate her. The next
day, Triss was already a resident of the shed in Elizabeth's yard. Through
the year she had spent there, she had repaid tenfold for her new owner's
care. She was the gentlest, the sweetest-tempered horse Elizabeth ever had
the pleasure of working with.

Elizabeth's reverie was interrupted by Triss gently nudging her. Elizabeth
laughed. "You want carrots? How do you know they're in my pocket? There,
here you go," she gave the mare a carrot.

Elizabeth put some oats and poured fresh water into the mangers. Then she
went to a corner of the shed and brought out a saddle and a bridle. It was
time for Triss to stretch her legs.

***

When Elizabeth walked her mare outside, she noticed a small, grey bundle
darting across the yard and running in the direction of the fields on the
right of the house. It stopped about 15 yards further and stood, looking at
Elizabeth. It was a dog, no bigger than 10 inches. He looked very dirty,
very hungry and very scared.

"What are you doing here, buddy?" she addressed the dog, "Are you all alone?
Where's your owner?" The dog obviously made no reply, but kept looking at
her, listening attentively. "Are you hungry? Come here."

She tied Triss' reins to a nearby tree and went a little further. The dog
was probably afraid of the horse. She crouched and proceeded to call out to
the animal, but in vain. He stood motionless, too terrified to come closer,
but desperate enough not to run away. Instinctively, he knew that this human
could help him.

Elizabeth gave up on convincing the dog to come closer. Instead she returned
to the house and brought some food, which she placed in some distance
from the house. She left it there, returned to Triss, untied the reins,
mounted the mare and rode away. When she was quite far away, she looked
around and saw the grey dog warily approaching the food she'd left for him.

***

Elizabeth was galloping through the fields. She never felt as free as when
she sat on the back of a horse and raced, feeling the wind in her hair and
speed of the run. She savoured these feelings, before she had to slow down,
slightly breathless. She looked around and took in her surroundings.

It was a lovely autumn day. The sun was shining brightly, warming up the
crisp air and cheering up the world. The tall grass on the meadow flowed
gently with the breeze, which smelled of pine, moist soil and autumn. The
distant line of the forest beckoned to her, inviting with an array of
colours, shapes and textures. Slowly she moved towards it, enjoying the
warmth of the sun on her face and the soft gust of wind playing in her hair.

After riding for some minutes in a relaxed and lazy manner, admiring the
beauty of this place, her eyes skimmed over the line of the wood and she
noticed a figure of another rider emerging from the forest. Surprised, she
looked closer, unaccustomed to such meetings. Not many people rode for
pleasure anymore around Meryton.

As he neared her, she made a startling discovery, that she knew him.

"William," she said as he approached her. He stood still, looking very
surprised himself.

"Elizabeth," he answered, quite unable to say more, due to the shock and
delight he experienced at seeing her so unexpectedly. Gone was his
determination to make a good impression. All he could do was stand there and
stare in awe.

She was breathtakingly beautiful, even more than the day before. At
Netherfield she was an elegant, refined and sophisticated lady. Today she
was Epona(2)  - powerful, strong and confident, as striking as the goddess
herself. Her hair was a mass of curls, her cheeks were rosy and her eyes
sparkled. When he saw her galloping through the fields, she seemed one with
her horse. Once again, William found himself in a position of being
completely mute in her company. Mute and not a little aroused.

Elizabeth could not help but admire the dashing figure he cut on his black
stallion, she was, however, getting increasingly annoyed at his ignoring
her. Well, he was not exactly ignoring her. He was staring at her very
intently. [i]I must look like hell,[/i] she thought self-consciously, [i]I'm
sure he'slooking at me like that because he's never seen anything so awful
before. Insolent man! I'm not some damn monkey in a ZOO![/i]

"It was nice talking to you, William," she said archly, before turning Triss
and riding back to the house.

***

Longbourn, the house of the Bennet family, stood three miles from Meryton.
It was a typical middle-class, English countryside house, built of red brick
and with a small garden overflowing with pretentious, imported flowers,
among which perched several bearded, plaster gnomes.

Elizabeth remembered that growing up in Longbourn was a warm, happy and
interesting, if sometimes a little frantic, experience. Her parents,
although certainly not perfect, were loving and supportive. Having four
sisters made her childhood all the more amusing. She had always had someone
to play with, to borrow toys, later clothes, and to argue with.

Thomas and Fanny Bennet were both in their late fifties. Their marriage was
tolerably happy. As different as their tastes and pursuits were, they had
one thing that connected them - their daughters, whom they both loved above
anything.

Apart from that, they were as different as night and day. Thomas was a
serious, slightly cynical man, whose main pleasure in life was books. He was
the headmaster of Meryton High School, with a degree in English. Fanny
never worked, she had devoted herself to running the house and raising her
children, which was no simple task with five very spirited girls. Her life
passions were parties, guests and her daughters, whom she indulged too much
for their own good, especially the two youngest - Kitty and Lydia. She was
extremely proud of all her children, if not slightly disappointed that
Elizabeth had chosen so unrefined a profession.

Elizabeth drove to her parents' house with mixed feelings. She was glad she
would be able to talk to Jane and see her family, but in her present mood,
she feared they would only manage to irritate her more. She loved them all
dearly, but sometimes they were just too much. She was therefore grateful
for her independence. One afternoon a week in their company was bearable,
without Elizabeth having to get angry and fall out with her mother or one of
her sisters.

The problem was, that today she already felt more than a little irked, her
perfect frame of mind ruined by her encounter with William. It was a true
blessing Jane was going to be there to temper her reactions.

She knocked at Longbourn's door. A moment later, Thomas Bennet arrived to
open the door and he hugged Elizabeth tightly.

"Hello, sweetheart."

"Hi, daddy," Elizabeth answered, kissing his cheek affectionately. "How are
you?"

He chuckled, "Well enough. My back aches a little, but you know what they
say about old people like me. If you get up in the morning and feel pain,
it's a good sign. It means you're still alive."

Elizabeth shook her head in amusement. "Oh, dad, you're 58, that's hardly
old. Have you talked to Charles about your back aches?"

"There's no need for that, Lizzy. I'm sure Charles has a lot of work with
people who are really sick, he doesn't need my pestering him. I'll be just
fine," he patted her hand reassuringly.

Elizabeth looked at him, suddenly serious. "Dad, please don't disregard it.
I really think you should make the tests. I'll talk to Jane about it."

"Talk to me about what?" asked Jane, as she appeared in the doorway to the
sitting room, where Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet sat.

"Nothing," said Mr. Bennet quickly.

"Dad's backache," Elizabeth spoke simultaneously with her father. "Dad's
been having problems with his back and he doesn't want to talk to Charles
about it. I thought you should talk to your boyfriend and maybe he'll
convince him to make the tests," she said, ignoring Mr. Bennet's scowling
expression.

"Dad, how could you not have said anything? Charles would have helped you. I'll
make an appointment for you and you will come to it! If not, I'll tell
mum that you are sick and refuse to be examined," Jane threatened.

"Oh, all right," Mr. Bennet agreed, sensing that all his resistance was in
vain here. "I can't fight the three of you! Children! Why do we need them
anyway? They are nothing but trouble!" he grumbled, but it was obvious he
wasn't really angry.

After a few more minutes of conversation, Fanny Bennet walked into the room.

"Oh Lizzy, you're here. How are you, dear?"

Elizabeth embraced her mother. "I'm fine, mum. Where are the girls?"

"Kitty and Lydia are changing and Mary is in her room, working on some
project."

"What kind of project?" Elizabeth asked curiously.

"Oh I don't know, something about Pluto?" Fanny replied uncertainly.

"Plato, Fanny, Plato," corrected her husband repressing a smirk.

Mrs. Bennet brightened. "Oh yes, that's right. You know I can never figure
out this whole philosophical stuff Mary is talking of."

"We know that very well. Thinking has never been your strong point."

"Oh Tom, will you stop teasing me? Come, I need your help in the kitchen. I
can't open this jar on my own."

When their parents left, Elizabeth turned to Jane with some relief. She had
always felt uneasy about the way her father made sport of his wife.

"I thought Charles was going to come with you?"

"No, he stayed with William, they have a lot to catch up on."

Elizabeth raised her brow in surprise. "What about Caroline? Won't she getin
their way?"

"No, Caroline went to a dog show with Louisa."

"She left so soon? I thought she wouldn't want to leave William alone."

Jane giggled. "She's coming back tomorrow. There's no way for William to
escape her claws. Poor man!"

Elizabeth chuckled. "Well, at least he managed to escape her this morning."

Jane looked at her curiously. "How do you know?"

"I saw him on my morning ride."

Jane suddenly became very interested. "Did you talk to him?"

"Well, you could call it talking, I guess," stated Elizabeth mysteriously.

"What do you mean?"

"Lizzy, Jane! Dinner's ready!" their mother's shrill voice was heard from
the hall.

"Coming, mum!" Elizabeth shouted back. "We'll talk later," she said to Jane
and her sister nodded.

***

"Jane, why haven't you brought dear Charles with you?" asked Mrs. Bennet
with reproach as the whole family sat at the table.

"Because William's at Netherfield," answered Jane.

"You could have brought William along. I would love to meet him," gushed
Mrs. Bennet. There was nothing she loved better than mingling with 'the
upper class' and William Darcy, with his fame and family fortune was
certainly someone she'd die to meet and later tell all her friends about it.

"William and Charles haven't seen each other for a long time, mum. They
wanted to stay and talk," she explained patiently. "I'm sure there'll be
another opportunity for you to meet him."

Kitty looked from her mother to Jane in confusion. "Who's this William you'
re talking about?"

This question was answered by Lydia. "Oh Kitty, don't you remember? He's
this hunk we saw in Charles' graduation pictures."

"The cute blond one?" asked Kitty, still not getting it.

Lydia rolled her eyes. "No! The tall dark one," she exclaimed exasperated,
"The one who's entire appearance seemed to shout: 'I'm a wild beast!'"

Elizabeth could not repress a giggle at such a characterisation of the
unapproachable William Darcy. Lydia looked at her reproachfully.

"Why are you laughing, Lizzy? He is hot, you have to admit it. You saw him
in person, what is he like?"

"Why don't you ask Jane? She's seen more of him than I have," replied
Elizabeth with amusement.

Lydia snorted. "Jane? What's the point? She thinks Charles is the only cute
guy in the world."

"Hey, that's not true! I never said he's the only cute guy in the world. I
only said he was the cutest," replied Jane, grinning.

"See, I told you," said Lydia pointedly, "It's no use asking her."

Mr. Bennet shook his head. "Girls, don't you have other topics save William
Darcy?"

"No," Lydia cut short. "Now, Lizzy, you were telling us about William."

"Was I?"

"Come on, Liz, stop taunting us!"

Mary joined in, irritated. "For heaven's sake, the man is a brilliant
surgeon and you're talking about him like he was a piece of meat!"

Lydia leered. "He's a very yummy piece of meat," she said suggestively,
waggling her eyebrows. "I wouldn't mind devouring him, at all." As if to
prove her point, she attacked the roast beef on her plate with doubled
ferocity.

"Lydia, you are going a bit too far!" snapped Mr. Bennet.

"Your father is right, Lyddy. There's no need to be vulgar," admonished Mrs.
Bennet. "William Darcy comes from an old and very rich family and we won't
gain his favour by such behaviour."

Feeling tired of the subject of William Darcy, Mr. Bennet asked Elizabeth,
"Lizzy, how's work?"

This was a sign for Lydia that the subject was over. She rolled her eyes,
but kept quiet.

"Good," replied Elizabeth, "We've applied for a grant in the DeBourgh
Foundation and a couple of days ago we got a message that they'll send
someone to assess our situation. If we are lucky, we may be able to get the
money we need to fit the operating room in the clinic."

"That's wonderful, Lizzy! I know you'll get the money. And you won't have to
send the animals to London for the operations anymore," said Mr. Benent.

Elizabeth smiled. "I hope so. Until we know for sure, keep your fingers
crossed."

"We will," assured Jane. "Mary, mum said you were doing some project?"

Mary nodded. "Yes, it's for my thesis."

"How is it coming along?"

"Ugh, don't even ask! I'm going to go crazy before I finish it." Mary was a
very hardworking student, but enough was enough, even for her.

"You're going to do great, I know that," reassured her Elizabeth.

"I really don't understand you, Mary. I would hate to be forced to slave
away at the computer and in the library, like you do," said Lydia with
disgust.

"And I'm sure you don't, Lyd. Your results speak for themselves," retorted
Mary.

"After all, everything you and Kitty do in college is party. It's a pity,
though, that your partying costs me so much in tuition," added Mr. Bennet
sarcastically.

"Oh Tom, they're young, when are they to have fun if not when they're in
college?" Mrs. Bennet defended her daughters.

"I don't begrudge them their fun. I just wish having fun was not all they
did. They might do some learning by chance."

"We let Mary do all the learning for us and we have fun for her," said
Lydia, grinning smugly.

"Lydia, you are such a shallow, self-centred brat," Mary had had enough of
her sister's gibes.

"Shut up!" cried Lydia. For a moment, Elizabeth feared that the contents of
Lydia's plate would end up on Mary's face. Fortunately, Mr. Bennet
intervened in time.

"Lydia, you will behave yourself or you can forget about your trip to
Brighton."

For a second, Lydia looked scared, but she quickly got over it and replied
her father rebelliously, "You can't forbid me to go. I'm an adult."

"No, but I won't give you the money and you don't have your own, because you
're too indolent to work!"

"That's not fair!" Lydia whined.

Elizabeth joined in the conversation, annoyed at her sister's behaviour,
"Lydia, if you want to be treated as an adult, behave like one. You can
start with finding yourself a job. Of course, that also goes for Kitty."

Kitty's eyes widened. "Work? Where would I find work?"

"At the employment agency?" suggested Elizabeth, exasperated with Kitty's
foolishness.

Lydia, however, didn't intend to even consider this whole ridiculous work
idea. "Forget it! I won't let myself get tied up at some miserable
workplace, instead of having fun and enjoying life!"

Mr. Bennet sighed, resigned. "All the colleges in the world won't change the
fact that we have the pleasure of having two silliest daughters in the
neighbourhood."

And the family dinner at Longbourn continued in this typical manner.

***

At eight o'clock, Jane and Elizabeth were sitting in Elizabeth's kitchen,
sipping tea. The place was warm and cosy, with a large window overlooking
the garden. The light wooden furniture, colourful curtains and many
flowerpots created a cheerful and friendly atmosphere.

Jane put her teacup down on the table and looked at Elizabeth with barely
concealed curiosity. "Lizzy, tell me everything. What's going on? William's
behaving very strangely since yesterday."

Elizabeth sighed. "Jane, nothing's going on. But I'm afraid you and Charles
will have to give up this notion of setting us up. This has never had any
chance to work out."

Jane frowned. "Lizzy, you don't even know him."

Elizabeth shook her head. "Jane, it's not about me. I don't think he's
interested in me at all."

"What makes you say that?"

"Let's just say that from the very beginning of our acquaintance his manners
towards me have been nothing less than rude," Elizabeth pointed out.

Jane was astonished. "What are you talking about? He was perfectly polite
yesterday."

Elizabeth rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Jane, you don't know half of it."

"Enlighten me, then."

Elizabeth proceeded to relate the events of Friday evening. When she
finished, Jane's face expressed shock and disbelief.

"Lizzy, this is unbelievable." Seeing Elizabeth's face, she added quickly,
"Of course, I believe you. But I'm sure there must be some logical
explanation for his behaviour. He must have been very shaken with the whole
accident and didn't mean what he was saying."

"You may think that, Jane, if it comforts you. Maybe he was upset, but that
doesn't explain the way he treated me yesterday. Yes, he was civil, but
seemed so cold and scornful. He hardly said ten words together, but that
didn't stop him from staring at me."

Jane's face lit up. "It means he liked you."

Elizabeth was doubtful. "If he did, he sure had a strange way of showing it.
And then he had the nerve to appear in my dream!"

Jane burst out laughing. "Lizzy, don't you think you're overreacting? You
can't blame the man for what happens in your dreams!"

"Why not?" Elizabeth pouted, "Oh, you're right, I admit," she stopped for a
while, then continued thoughtfully, "The thing is, I was willing to put his
behaviour down to embarrassment and shock at seeing me. I was quite taken
aback myself when I recognized him. But I met him again today and the story
was repeated. He kept staring at me without a word. What am I to think of
that?"

Jane shrugged. "I don't know, Lizzy. It's hard for me to figure William out.
He's so reserved and reticent. Yet, he's been acting strangely since
yesterday evening. He has been kind of distracted... and today, when he
returned from his ride he seemed quite agitated."

"I'm sure he's not used to seeing such revolting sights and such wild
behaviour," she stated with distaste.

"I think you read too much into his actions. It's not like you at all. The
Lizzy I know would not get incensed over such a trifle. She would laugh it
away in an instant."

"I don't consider it a trifle at all," replied Elizabeth defensively.

"See, that's just it. You become all livid and refuse to see any sense. I
think you are not as indifferent to William as you would like me to
believe," Jane pointed out and then quickly said good night and left
Elizabeth to ponder on what her sister had said.

***

William Darcy was lying on his bed, cursing himself. More than twelve hours
had passed since his last encounter with Elizabeth, but he still had a lot
to say to himself.

[i]You fool. You hopeless, sad, miserable fool![/i]

He had wasted a golden opportunity to get closer to Elizabeth today. They
had both met, riding. A perfect setting to begin a polite and friendly
conversation, 'Hello, Elizabeth, what a fine horse. Do you ride often?',
'Good morning, Elizabeth, what a beautiful day for a ride. May I join you?',
'Hi, Elizabeth, I see that you enjoy riding as much as I do. Maybe there are
more things we have in common?'

Damn it! To think that now he could come up with several good openings for a
conversation and when he really needed them, his brain had been empty.
Idiot!

But she had looked so alluring. It was all he could do prevent himself from
throwing himself at her. Thank God he sat on a horse! Come to think, maybe
it was better he had kept his mouth shut. He was afraid that had he spoken,
he might have said way too much.

But he would be damned if he let himself meet her again unprepared. [i]Plan,
Darce, a plan is what you need.[/i] As his father had always said, 'Planning
is the key to success.'

So he became a stammering, drooling oaf in her presence. But, on the other
hand, he had always met her unexpectedly. His reaction to her stemmed as
much from his mindless lust as from the shock at seeing her. Maybe, if he
knew he was going to meet her, he would be more ready for the experience and
would be able to control himself better.

He sighed deeply. There was a slim chance of that. He had it bad and he knew
it. He blushed in remembrance of the very pleasant and stimulating dreams
that had haunted him throughout the night. He had woken up in a haze of
arousal and desire, extremely tormented. He had risen quickly and left the
house before he got caught by Caroline. Borrowing a horse from Mr. Lucas -
Charlotte had told him the previous evening that her father lent his
horses - he had gone for a long ride in an attempt to clear his head of the
thoughts of Elizabeth Bennet.

And whom had he met on this ride? Elizabeth Bennet herself, looking all rosy
and dishevelled, just like she had in his dreams. The unexpected meeting
with the object of his desire had turned out to be his undoing. Instead of
charming her he had again managed to make a perfect ass of himself.

He had returned to Netherfield, hoping to find peace there. No such luck!
Charles had become extremely talkative and while he had never said anything
directly, he had hinted on it repeatedly. Every time he had mentioned
Elizabeth's name - which was often - he had a smug, sly smile on his face.
Every time William heard Elizabeth's name mentioned, his stomach lurched,
his pulse quickened and his desire to strangle Charles grew.

[i]I'm going to go insane. I have to do something or the next couple of
weeks are bound to be torture.[/i]

Yes, a plan was a good thing. He would create a plan and try following it.
This had always been his way for dealing with challenges. And Elizabeth
Bennet was a superb challenge.

(1) US - shoulder
(2) Celtic horse goddess

Chapter Three

When next morning Elizabeth was returning to the house from her everyday
duty of grooming and feeding Triss and examining the other inhabitants of
the shed, she saw the small grey dog again. He hovered around the house, not
wanting to come closer and desperate enough to stay in his place. Once again
Elizabeth tried to induce him to come closer, but to no avail. Giving up,
she decided to leave the dog alone. However, she brought out some food,
which he eagerly snatched away as soon as she left.

***

It was 8.30 when Elizabeth entered the vet clinic on High Street in Meryton.
Her grandfather had established it in 1961 and had worked there for forty
years. When she was a little girl, she would often accompany him when he was
working, observing with awe and admiration how well he had dealt with
animals. Arthur Gardiner had always been her hero. She had decided to become
a vet when she was three years old and her grandfather had always supported
her decision. She had hoped to finish college and work for a couple of years
under his guidance. Unfortunately, her hopes had been destroyed by Dr.
Gardiner's untimely death, two years ago. Elizabeth had been very grieved
but soon realised she had to put it behind her. She had work to do. She
couldn't let her grandfather's life's work go to waste. She took over
running the clinic, as well as Dr. Gardiner's other clients - the farmers.
It took some time before they had accepted her and believed her abilities,
but she gradually won their respect and trust. Now, after two years, she had
managed to earn a reputation as a reliable, competent professional. She
still missed her grandfather greatly, but her work and the knowledge that he
would be proud of her, was of great comfort to her.

She had not changed much in the clinic since Dr. Gardiner's death. She had
the walls painted white and she bought some new equipment, but the place
remained the same - bright, clean and orderly, with colourful pictures of
all kinds of animals.

In the waiting-room, Elizabeth was greeted by the receptionist.

"Hello, Lizzy."

"Hi, Pete. What do we have for today?"

The young man perused his notes. "Not much for now. Here are the cards of
all the patients for today."

Elizabeth smiled and took the cards. "Thanks, Pete. Is Maria here already?"

Pete nodded. "Yes, she came a couple of minutes ago. I think she's in the
office."

"I'd better join her. If there are any problems..."

"I know where to find you," answered the young man with a smile. He had been
working with Lizzy Bennet for more than a year, but her over-protectiveness
still amused him.

"All right... if you need me, I'll be at the office," said Elizabeth and
left the man shaking his head in bemused wonder.

She found Maria Lucas making coffee.

"Make that two, Maria," she said, grinning. As was her expectation, Maria
jumped, startled by her sudden appearance and spilled the coffee all over
the table. She spun around and pointed an accusing finger at her friend.

"Dr. Bennet, I will thank you not to scare me like that again! I almost had
a heart attack and look at this mess! I expect you to clean it right away."

Elizabeth could not help a giggle. "Yes, ma'am." She took a cloth from the
cupboard drawer and wiped the table clean. "I'm sorry, Maria, but I couldn't
help myself. I promise I won't do it again."

Maria snorted. "How come I don't believe you? I know, because you've
promised not to taunt me a gazillion times and you haven't kept that
promise!"

Elizabeth grinned sheepishly. "This was the last time, I swear."

"Yeah, whatever." Maria shrugged, not at all convinced. "You want that
coffee or not?"

"Yes, please," answered Elizabeth. She sat down and looked at her friend,
who busied herself with making coffee, showing no signs of irritation
anymore. She was never angry for a long time and this made her a perfect
target for Elizabeth teasing. She knew that Maria would forgive her
anything. This sometimes made her ashamed of herself, but the temptation was
too great to pass.

The both of them enjoyed their coffee and talked about their weekends.
Before long, they heard the bell signalling that someone opened the door and
their first client entered the office. A second later, Pete stuck his head
into the crack of the door and announced, "Mrs. Dashwood and Maggie are
here."

Elizabeth and Maria rose. "Let them in."

They greeted a middle-aged woman, an adolescent girl and a very exuberant
golden retriever.

"Hello Mrs. Dashwood, Maggie," Elizabeth smiled at them. "And how's Angus
today?" she asked, stroking the dog's head. The animal wagged its tail
vigorously and smiled a big doggy smile at her.

"He's fine, but we brought him for a check up and vaccination."

Elizabeth nodded. "Sure. Now let's get the big guy on the table." With
Pete's help, Angus was soon standing on the big table in the middle of the
room, looking quite confused. Then Elizabeth proceeded to measuring the
dog's temperature, ausculateding his lungs and heart, and checking the state
of his teeth, ears and paws. When she was sure the animal was healthy, she
vaccinated him against rabies and other diseases. While she was busy
examining Angus, Maria was filling out the dog's health card and a
vaccination certificate. A few minutes later, Angus got restless and jumped
from the table. He was still a puppy, despite being over one year old. His
youth, combined with a friendly and lively temperament typical of the breed,
made him quite a handful.

"He seems to be in great health, though you should make sure to limit his
contact with other dogs for a couple of days."

The dog wagged his tail as Elizabeth bent to pat him. His two mistresses
smiled in thanks. "Thank you, Lizzy, Maria. Give my regards to your
parents," said Mrs. Dashwood.

"Thank you, I will. Good bye." Elizabeth walked the ladies to the door and
waved good-bye, as the two of them walked down the street.

The next several hours weren't very busy. Elizabeth dealt with a cat wounded
in a battle for territory with another feline, a pregnant bitch, a bunny
with an ear infection, and even a chameleon with a skin disease.

She still had half an hour until lunch, but there were no more appointments
scheduled before that, so she asked Maria if she could stay alone for the
time remaining until the break. Her friend agreed instantly and Elizabeth
soon found herself walking the streets of Meryton.

Meryton was an old market town situated on the Lea River. It was lovely and
quite serene in comparison with the bustle of London. The High Street was
fairly busy, but if you turned into one of the streets crossing it, you
found yourself transported several centuries back, with the quiet atmosphere
and a beautiful Georgian architecture. Every few yards this impression was
broken by a car driving by or standing parked on the curb, a shop selling
electronics, or a passer by in modern clothes. To Elizabeth, this town was a
perfect mixture of history and modernity.

The town had no more than 10 thousand residents and, although it was
impossible to know everybody, she was in fact acquainted with a lot of
people. As the town was not big, its inhabitants were bound to meet each
other in one of the few shops, pubs and restaurants. Her job also helped her
in meeting her neighbours, everybody in Meryton knew Dr. Bennet. This was
another aspect of her work that she loved.

With the extra time for the lunch break, Elizabeth decided to take a stroll
by the river. She left her car in front of the clinic. Meryton was small
enough to walk from one side to the other in an hour. The river was not far
away, so Elizabeth set off at a leisurely pace, enjoying the crisp air and
the warm rays of autumn sun. After five minutes of walking, she found
herself on the bank of the Lea. This part of the river crossed Meryton Park
and it was left in its natural state. Elizabeth sat on a bench facing the
water and took in the beauty of her surroundings, feeling the calmness
envelop her. How she loved this place! In the summer the park and the river
bustled with activity. It was a favourite picnic area of the people of
Meryton. On the weekends the place swarmed with families and tourists from
London or sometimes farther parts of the country. Children and teenagers
played football on the pitch at the other side of the park or volleyball,
badminton and other sports on the large, grass-covered area. The river was a
very popular sailing route, and during the summers, people literally lived
on the barges that cruised the Lea.

Now, in late September, one could hardly believe that this quiet and
peaceful park could be so busy in other parts of the year. As she gazed
around, she noticed that the place was empty, save for herself and a few
ducks swimming in the river. Or so she thought.

"It's very beautiful, isn't it?" she heard a voice next to her. She turned
her head and saw William standing near her bench. She was instantly
irritated by having her solitude interrupted and by this man at that. Her
curiosity, however, prevailed and she looked at him, wondering what this
conversation would lead to this time.

"Yes, I've always thought so," she answered. Hesitating a moment, he sat
down next to her. She noticed that he looked very handsome in a pair of
jeans, a brown turtleneck and a leather jacket. If only he weren't such a
prick, she mused thoughtfully.

William's heart had been beating madly against his chest when he had spotted
her sitting on the bench facing the river, her face turned to the sun, her
eyes closed. Again he was in danger of making a fool of himself, but he
managed to get a grip. He stood unobserved for some time, trying to calm
down and think of something to tell her. Remembering his plan, he thought it
was a good idea to start putting it into effect. Step one: get to know as
much as possible about Elizabeth Bennet. This part was a tricky one, he
couldn't be too inquisitive or someone would suspect something. He had to
tread lightly. A question here, an enquiry there, combined with careful
observation of her in her natural environment. William knew that spying on
her was not a very honest and gentlemanlike approach, but his goal was more
important than the means.

"Do you come here often?" he asked in a polite, friendly tone... at least he
hoped his tone was polite and friendly, because his feelings at the moment
were far from amicable and certainly not from well-bred.

"Yes, quite often, it's my favourite place in the whole town." As soon as
she said these words she wondered what made her say that. After all, here
was the man with whom she never had a civil conversation and suddenly she
was revealing her private thoughts to him. Her anger at herself was soon
replaced with shock and wonder when he smiled genuinely at her reply. She
had never seen him smile before and the slight, gentle smile he gave her
made her insides lurch. His eyes were warm and a pair of the most adorable
dimples adorned his face. Good God, but he was handsome! Elizabeth found
herself in the unusual predicament of being speechless for several seconds.

"It must be quite stunning in the summer," he remarked.

Elizabeth pulled herself together and answered him, "Yes, it is. Very
beautiful, but also pretty noisy and crowded. I usually prefer to escape to
the woods around the town." Again she would have regretted her openness, but
was once more awarded by his smile. I would say anything to make him keep
smiling at me like that!

"I understand that very well. I also don't like the crowds. There is nothing
I like better than the quiet solitude of nature."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Wow, you must suffer a lot then,
living in London."

He smiled and shook his head. "I got used to it. Though I need an escape
from the city from time to time. Everyone needs to rest and recharge the
battery sometimes. I hope to be able to do it here," William explained
easily, while inwardly reeling. Everything was going so well! He had managed
to involve her in a conversation and they hadn't argued for more than two
minutes!

"You're in the right place, then. But I'm afraid you won't be able to enjoy
much peace and quiet at Netherfield," she said teasingly.

William rolled his eyes. "Don't even remind me. That's another reason to
spend my days in the wild. If the situation gets desperate, I intend to
borrow Charles' tent and move permanently into the forest."

Elizabeth laughed. "Wouldn't she follow you?" My, my, it appears that Mr.
Darcy does have a sense of humour after all!

"Oh no, she's too accustomed to luxury to do that. Sleeping on the ground,
with no bathroom, cooking for herself? Caroline? Never!" he said, disdain
audible in his voice.

"I think she might sacrifice herself for your sake," countered Elizabeth,
mirth dancing in her eyes on seeing William wince in annoyance at someone
else than her.

"Can we please stop talking about her?" he pleaded.

"All right, as you wish." She was silent for several moments.

William was screwing up his courage. Until this point their conversation had
progressed quite satisfactorily. They talked, they joked like a pair of
friends. He could try and ask her to lunch. Not a date, he thought
regretfully, just a meal between two friends. Yes, that was it.

He started tentatively, "Elizabeth?"

She raised her head and looked at him. "Yes?"

"I was wondering if I could ask you to eat lunch with me. It's almost one
now and I..." but Elizabeth interrupted him, her eyes wide with surprise.
"I'm sorry, but I promised Charlotte to eat lunch with her today. I hadn't
realised it was so late. I have to go."

With this she stood and started running. William leapt after her, shouting,
"Elizabeth, wait!" But she only waved to him and shouted, "Bye!"

"Fuck!" he swore emphatically, sinking back on the bench and ruffling his
hair in frustration.

***

Elizabeth was hurrying through the streets of Meryton, laughing to herself.
The expression on William's face as she ran from him was priceless. His
features registered a dismayed frustration and just as she was passing the
park gate, she heard him utter a very inelegant word. Elizabeth was sure it
wasn't often that William Darcy had a woman run away from him. From what
she'd observed so far in his interactions with Caroline, it seemed that it
was the other way round - it was he that had to salvage himself from them.

Her feelings of amusement were mixed with a sense of puzzlement. He was so
different today she'd barely recognized him. Not only wasn't he rude or
contemptuous, but his behaviour was in fact quite charming - he talked with
her politely, he smiled, heck, he even invited her to lunch! What a
surprising change! She couldn't help but wonder what had brought on such a
dramatic transformation in the man. Surely it couldn't be her? She pushed
away that thought and laughed at her own silliness.

She was a bit late when she entered the Swan Inn where she was to meet
Charlotte for lunch. It was a cosy, rustic place that served fantastic food.
Elizabeth spotted her friend sitting at a table by the window, looking
slightly annoyed.

"I'm sorry, Char, I got delayed," said Elizabeth apologetically.

Charlotte waved her hand dismissively. "Yeah, I know. What was it this time?
A rabid dog? A cat with haemorrhoids?"

Elizabeth grinned wickedly. "William Darcy."

Charlotte gaped at her. "No way! But then again, he does have something
animal in himself," she said with a leer.

Elizabeth burst out laughing, but quickly covered her mouth on seeing a few
faces turned her way in disapproval. She lowered her voice and accused
Charlotte playfully, "Char, you're awful! Do you want to make a scandal? I
have a reputation, you know."

Charlotte snorted. "Oh, don't give me that. Better tell me what's the story
with you and the great William Darcy."

Elizabeth grew serious at her friend's words. She shrugged and answered
uncertainly, "I wish I knew, Char. The guy confuses me to no end." She
knitted her brows and became pensive.

Charlotte looked at her intently, her humour faded at the sight of her
friend's anxiety. "Start from the beginning and we'll try to figure it out.
Just like we've always had," she said comfortingly.

Elizabeth sighed. "You already know part of the story. Remember when I told
you of the guy whom I met on Friday? The one advising me to shoot myself?"
Charlotte nodded. "Well, it was William."

"What?!" Charlotte exclaimed and again several heads turned their way.

"For Christ's sake, Char, keep your voice down," admonished her Elizabeth.

Charlotte managed to cool down a bit. "What did you say?"

Elizabeth was beginning to get angry. "What did you hear I said? You know,
Char, sometimes you really are slow."

Charlotte opened her mouth to retort, but was prevented by the appearance of
a waiter. The women ordered and resumed their conversation.

"Thank you very much for your nice words and I'm sorry if I'm not as
brilliant as you, Miss. Einstein," said Charlotte sarcastically.

Elizabeth regretted her hasty words. "Look, Charlotte, I'm sorry. I got
carried away."

Charlotte rolled her eyes, but nodded in acceptance of the apology. She knew
that with Elizabeth's quick temper, she often said things she didn't really
mean. "Continue," she said.

"You remember my reaction to the guy. I got angry and then at Charles' he
seemed so cold and, I don't know, disdainful. So I got even more angry."

Charlotte shook her head and fought hard to repress laughter. It was so like
Lizzy!

"Then I saw him on Sunday and he barely said two words to me, but kept
staring like I was a lizard in a terrarium. You know, it's ugly and
repulsive, but you just can't turn your eyes away."

At this point, their food arrived and both of them stared at it for some
time, having lost their appetite thanks to Elizabeth's vivid comparison.

"And then," Elizabeth resumed her story, "I met him today and he's been all
nice and friendly. He even wanted to take me to lunch!"

"Why didn't you go?" asked Charlotte.

"I had a date for lunch - you," reminded Elizabeth.

"You declined a date with William Darcy because you were to eat lunch with
me?" inquired Charlotte disbelievingly. "I wouldn't hold it against you if
you'd gone. After all, it's the William Darcy!"

Elizabeth stared at her friend in disbelief. "Char, have you heard a word of
what I've just said? On Friday the man was an arrogant bastard, yesterday a
disdainful snob who's too much above his company to talk to them, today a
funny and friendly guy. For all I know, tomorrow he may turn out to be an
axe murderer."

At Elizabeth's speech, Charlotte couldn't contain her laughter anymore and
burst out into a fit of giggles. Her friend glared at her in indignation,
while Charlotte tried to calm herself several times, but every time she
looked at Elizabeth's scowling face, she began to laugh again. Finally, she
somehow managed to settle down and reply, more or less calmly, "I'm sorry,
Liz, but I just couldn't help myself at the mental image of William Darcy
chasing you with an axe." Once again, Charlotte had to stifle a chuckle.
"You do have a vivid imagination."

Elizabeth frowned at her friend. "You know I didn't really mean it. It was
just a metaphor. I know virtually nothing of this guy and his every action
puzzles me. I can't figure him out. Which is the real William Darcy? The
rude, the silent, or the friendly?"

Charlotte looked at her earnestly. "I don't know. But the question is: do
you want to find out?"

Elizabeth thought for a moment. "It seems that the man has more layers than
an onion. I hope I won't cry when he's peeled to his core."

"Oh, I very much doubt that. From what I've seen his 'core' is not something
to cry about. I'm sure the woman who peels him will have no cause to
repine," said Charlotte, grinning wickedly.

Elizabeth shook her head and admonished her playfully, "Char, do you ever
think of anything except sex?"

"Hey, I'm a single thirty-year-old woman. What else can I think about?"

Seizing an opportunity to steer the conversation away from the topic of her
and William, Elizabeth started inquiring her friend about how she was doing.
Her motives weren't entirely selfish, however. Charlotte was her great
friend and being four years older, she'd been a great support to Elizabeth
in difficult moments. She and Jane had always been her closest friends, but
Charlotte was one of the invaluable people who always told you the truth if
they thought you'd benefit from hearing it. Beating around the bush was just
not her style.

"How are you doing, Char? All we've talked about today was me and William.
So now tell me how are the things with you?"

Charlotte shrugged. "I'm OK. There's nothing really to talk about. Same
boring job, same annoying family, no relationship."

Elizabeth felt concern for her friend. Charlotte was an accountant in a bank
in Meryton and still lived with her parents. She considered her life in this
little town as boring and confined. Although Elizabeth didn't share her
sentiment, she could understand Charlotte's need for something more in her
life. Dissatisfaction with her existence caused her to grow somewhat bitter
and cynical.

Elizabeth squeezed Charlotte's hand comfortingly. "Char, I wish there was
something I could do." Charlotte just shook her head sadly. Knowing her
friend, Elizabeth knew that she wouldn't tolerate pity. So she forced a
smile on her face and said teasingly, "Fortunately, the circus just came to
Meryton and I expect outstanding entertainment."

"What are you talking about?" asked Charlotte intrigued.

Elizabeth giggled and motioned to the window. "Look!"

There on the street stood Caroline Bingley, dressed in a mink coat, a black,
wide-brimmed velvet hat and precariously high heels. She sauntered the
street regally, with one hand holding Louisa on the leash and the other
exacting a possessive hold on William's arm. The picture they presented was
so comical that Elizabeth and Charlotte looked at each other and burst into
a fit of giggles. Finally, after a few moments, Charlotte wiped her eyes and
quipped, "Circus indeed!"

***

William thought he was going to die of embarrassment. First Elizabeth had
run away from him and left him standing like a fool in the empty park. He
still couldn't quite recover from their meeting, subsequent conversation and
eventual parting. This was the longest and most polite exchange they had
ever had. William couldn't believe that he'd survived it, without again
putting his foot in his mouth. He could also pride himself on his
self-restraint. She had looked truly tempting when he encountered her,
sitting on the bench, the sun caressing her face. So lovely and tranquil he
almost forgot his resolution and stood, staring in silent admiration.
Fortunately, he remembered that this was not the way to gain Elizabeth's
favour. She was clearly a verbal person and, while often just looking at her
provided him great pleasure, talking to her was a delight. She was
intelligent, funny and possessed a razor-sharp wit, which was most
enchanting, even when directed at him.

Caroline pulled him out of his reverie, remarking, "I know what you're
thinking." Her tone was blatantly flirting and William felt distaste at the
implied intimacy. I doubt that very much! he thought. He didn't condescend
to answer her. Caroline, however, continued, not in the least discouraged by
his silence.

"You're thinking about what a hole this place is and how unbearable it would
be to spend your entire life here and with such people," she said, curling
her lips disdainfully.

"You're wrong. It seems you don't know me as well as you thought," replied
William, reaching the limits of his patience.

Caroline pouted. "Really, William, can't you be nice? Why, you've been
sulking all morning."

"I wasn't sulking. I was merely admiring the view." At seeing Caroline's
pleased face, he became terrified, that he had unintentionally encouraged
her attentions, and added as a means of explanation, "This is a beautiful
old town with the most interesting architecture."

Caroline's eyes narrowed in annoyance and she huffed, "Really, William, you
astonish me sometimes."

Now it was Caroline's turn to sulk. William hoped she would be offended and
walk away, but he didn't have such luck. She just raised her head as high as
she could and proceeded to parade him through the streets, followed by
amused glances and repressed chuckles from the passers-by. William thought
he was going to burn with shame.

***

Elizabeth finished her lunch with Charlotte and returned to the clinic. As
she walked in, she was stopped by Pete, who handed her a telephone number
and said, "There was a call for you. Some guy from Medex."

Elizabeth looked at the unfamiliar name and phone number. "Did he say what
he wanted?"

Pete nodded. "He said he's the new sales representative for our area. He
asked if we needed anything, but I told him he should speak to you about
it."

"Actually, it's a good thing he called. We do need a few things. I'll ask
Maria to make a list and then call him back tomorrow."

Elizabeth went into her office and put the card into her notebook. After a
few seconds, however, she realized that this way it would probably get lost
soon. Taking her pen, she opened the notebook instead, and wrote down:
George Wickham, Medex, tel. --------------.

Chapter Four

For the next few days the situation repeated. Everyday before Elizabeth went
to work the dog was there outside her house, hovering, waiting. He seemed to
have chosen her in a way, for he remained in the environs of her house. She
fed him everyday and, little by little, he seemed less petrified of her, but
still didn't trust her enough to allow her to touch him, or even get close.
Elizabeth was becoming increasingly worried. Although it wasn't October yet,
the nights were already quite cold, with occasional frost. She wondered
where he slept. It was unlikely that he would survive the winter. Something
needed to be done.

Elizabeth wasn't a person to get overly emotional over a homeless puppy. Her
heart certainly was in the right place, but her job required a certain
detachment, else she would go crazy with grief over the lot of animals in
this world. When she first started working as a vet, she couldn't pass an
animal in need. She wanted to take in every cat or dog from the streets.
Soon, however, she realised that this way she would quickly change her house
into a ZOO and the problem would still remain unsolved, for she couldn't
possibly take in every animal in England. Since that time she had been
trying to help them however she could. She treated homeless animals, fed
them and tried to find them homes. And this was what she needed to do now.

She decided that the dog must have gotten lost somehow. Maybe somewhere
there were people who were missing him and looking for him. She rather
doubted it, because lately there weren't any notices of a lost dog. In
addition, the animal wouldn't be so afraid of people if he were merely lost.
It looked like he had had some really bad experiences with humans to date.
Yet, you never know until you try, so Elizabeth decided to put up
announcements about the found dog. She could also try calling the RSPCA (1)
and ask if anyone had been looking for a lost dog lately and put a notice on
their website. If all this failed, the shelter was her only hope. There, he
could spend the winter and get rehabilitated. He could even find a new home
where he would be loved and well taken care of.

***

These musings had an additional benefit of steering her mind away from the
thoughts of William Darcy. She couldn't figure him out and that irked her.
Elizabeth was a studier of people and, while the most intricate characters
are also the most amusing ones, William's seemed like a real challenge. She
didn't know if she was up for it.

Having a highly analytical mind, Elizabeth was used to scrutinizing the
people she met and then putting them into very convenient pigeon holes. When
a person got their label and a place in Elizabeth's file, they rarely were
allowed to leave it. This approach had proved very handy until she met
William Darcy. The man was a mystery to her. Her every encounter with him
had surprised and puzzled her. He had continually escaped her every effort
of classifying, which piqued her curiosity as well as anger.

She thought about her conversation with Charlotte. Her friend had made some
good points. Did she want to find out who the true William Darcy was? She
didn't know. Yes, he was handsome and his mystery intrigued her. But she
could also live if she were never to see him again.

The question that really bothered her was not what she wanted from him, but
what he wanted from her. What would William Golden Hands of British Surgery
Darcy want from Elizabeth So Beneath Me Bennet? Elizabeth knew what it was
and she didn't like it in the least. She didn't care how hot he was, she was
not going to be his, or any other man's, plaything. She refused to be just a
great fuck. She was determined to never let anyone take advantage of her.
Never again.

***

Tuesday, Elizabeth left Maria alone in the clinic. She usually spent
Tuesdays on the various farms in the neighbourhood. Elizabeth was available
24/7, but the work never seemed to end. She spent the entire day examining
the animals, treating illnesses, dressing the injuries and removing
parasites. She ate lunch at one of the farms and proceeded on to the rest of
her tour. At every house she asked if someone had lost a dog, but,
unfortunately, the owner of the animal was not to be found.

Finally, around 3 p.m. she was done with her work. She meditated on going
back to the clinic, but abandoned the idea, realizing that after hours spent
in cowsheds she probably wasn't the cleanest and most appealing company.
Instead of Meryton, she went back to her house. As she was driving, she
remembered that she had forgotten to call this guy from Medex. What was his
name anyway? Winston? Walton? Wickham! Yes, George Wickham. She had to call
him and soon. They were running out of vaccines, bandages and a few other
things. She resolved to call him as soon as she came to work the next day.

***

"Yes...sure...what time?... OK, I'll be there... bye." Jane hung up and
turned to the rest of the Netherfield party.

"That was Lizzy. She asked me to help her put out the announcements about a
lost dog tomorrow after work."

Charles instantly offered, "I'll help you, too. The more people the faster
it will go."

"Really, Charles. Is it really necessary that you run around the town for
some dirty dog? Let Eliza handle it, it's her job, after all," drawled
Caroline with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

"It's no problem at all. Lizzy's my friend and I'll gladly help her. You don
't have to help if you don't want to," replied Charles.

Caroline shrugged indifferently, "As you wish. Just be sure not to bring
fleas home," she said, holding Louisa, as if to protect her from invisible
insects.

Jane corrected her gently, "We're not going to look for the dog, Lizzy only
wants us to put out notices in Meryton that may help find its owner."

"What time are we needed on our posts?" asked Charles.

"At four at the clinic. There we'll get further instructions," replied Jane
with a smile.

"Are we the only victims of your sister's plan?" inquired Charles jokingly.

Jane chuckled. "Nope, she's got a full army at her disposal. Apart from us
there's Charlotte, Maria, Pete and whomever else she manages to recruit."

"I'll come, too." All heads turned in the direction of the voice that had
spoken these words. All three faces expressed surprise, although Jane's also
showed gratitude, Charles' amusement and Caroline's horror.

"William, you cannot be serious!" she exclaimed with shock.

William's expression was unreadable as he spoke, "Why not? I want to help,
too."

"William, you don't have to do it," said Jane tentatively.

"But I want to," he stated firmly.

Charles grinned and slapped William's shoulder. "Great, you'll be of some
use at least."

Caroline looked at her brother reproachfully. "Charles, what are you talking
about? William is of extreme value to us, he doesn't have to be 'of use'.
His mere presence is enough." She gave him an adoring look. William
shuddered inwardly. Caroline continued, "Yet, William, do be serious. Is it
not enough that Charles is going to waste time in this useless way, running
around the town, putting out notices? You will be exposed to public
ridicule!"

William stood up with the aim to walk away, unable to stand any more of
Caroline's rubbish. "Nevertheless, I'm going."

Caroline pursed her lips. "All right, I'll also come then."

The remaining people looked at one another, Charles shaking his head in
amused disbelief. William just stalked out of the room, resigned. After a
moment of hesitation, Caroline left as well. A room without William in it
had little appeal to her. Jane and Charles were left alone, looking after
the retreating two.

"What was that all about?" asked Jane furrowing her brows in confusion.

Charles grinned. "That, my dearest, was my sister's jealousy of your
sister."

Jane looked at him sceptically. "Why would she be jealous of Lizzy?"

Charles walked to Jane and took her in his arms. "Because Will's attracted
to Liz and Caroline sees it." He started to nuzzle her neck.

"Mmmm... but how do you know that? I haven't seen any signs of his interest
in Lizzy."

"Love, I've known Will for years. I've observed him in different situations
and I know his reactions. Believe me, he's got it bad for her," he stated
and then proceeded to kiss her neck.

"Lizzy thinks he doesn't like her...maybe we should do something to make her
realize..."

"Sweetheart, we promised them not to interfere."

"I know, but we could just arrange for them to meet..."

"I believe they are meeting quite often."

"Yes, but I was thinking of something else. Something a little bit more
romantic. Like going dancing."

"Janey, you can do whatever you want. Frankly, right now I don't give a damn
about my friend or your sister. I have a much more important business to
discuss with you."

Jane giggled. "What do you have in mind?"

Charles growled, "I'll show you."


***

The next morning just as she arrived at the clinic, Elizabeth found herself
doing the forgotten phone call. She picked up the receiver and dialled the
number. After a few seconds a voice answered, "George Wickham."

"Hello, this is Elizabeth Bennet, I'm calling from Meryton."

"Ah, yes, Dr. Bennet! I've been trying to reach you." The man's voice
sounded nice and polite.

"Yes, I know. I understand that you're the new Sales Representative of Medex
for this area?"

"That's true. Mr. Forster has just retired and I was given his position. I
understand that you've been his client for many years."

"Yes, from the beginning of my work here. Before me my grandfather was his
client."

"Oh, I see, so it's a family business. I assure you that you can trust me as
you trusted Mr. Forster."

"Thank you."

"All right. When can I come to Meryton, then?"

"I thought you'd just fax the price list and we could fax our order later."
Elizabeth felt a little confused by the man's unusual idea.

"Dr. Bennet, I make it a point to introduce myself personally to all my new
clients. I find that personal interaction is very helpful in any business
relationship."

Elizabeth could not fault this logic. "All right then, can you come sometime
next week?"

"Of course. Will Monday about 11 a.m. be convenient?"

"Yes."

:"Wonderful. See you then.'

"Goodbye."

Elizabeth hung up and stared into space pensively for some time. This George
Wickham sounded nice enough, but something in his manner unnerved her. She
couldn't quite put a finger to it, but he seemed too smooth. Under the
circumstances she was actually glad he'd come to Meryton, as her curiosity
was piqued. Another specimen to examine.

***

At 4 p.m. sharp Elizabeth's little helpers gathered in the waiting room of
the clinic. Caroline was barely able to conceal her discontentment at being
there and being forced into performing such an embarrassing task as putting
out announcements about some dirty dog for the hated Eliza. She looked
around, pressing Louisa to her bosom, as if sheltering the animal from this
abhorrent place and people.

William looked around the place curiously. He was extremely grateful for
this opportunity to see Elizabeth's workplace and spend some time in her
company. The possibility that by helping her he could not only gain her
approval, but also aid some poor animal was his additional, though minor,
incentive. William Darcy might have seemed completely selfish, but the truth
was he possessed a compassionate heart. After all, he was a doctor and his
choice of career wasn't dictated only by the material or prestigious
considerations. Now as he took in the place where Elizabeth Bennet spent so
much of her time, he liked what he saw. They were waiting for her, while she
was dealing with her last patient. William noticed Caroline holding her dog
in a protective embrace. Does she really have to drag this animal
everywhere with her? Or better yet, does she always have to tag along with
me? One of these days I won't bear it and tell her something....

His musings were interrupted by the entrance of Elizabeth. And what an
entrance it was! She was dressed in brown trousers and a caramel turtleneck,
over which she wore a crisp white doctor's gown that reached the middle of
her thigh. William felt himself flush as a vision of her wearing nothing
except for the gown appeared in his mind's eye. Control yourself or you'
ll again manage to impress her with your command of English! he
admonished himself.

Elizabeth opened the door of the office and they saw a man holding a fierce
looking Rottweiler on a leash. At this sight Caroline gasped and held Louisa
closer. Seeing this, Elizabeth reassured them all, "Don't be afraid. Bandit
may look like a killer, but he's as gentle as a lamb. Aren't you, old boy?"
she crouched next to the dog and proceeded to scratch him behind the ears.
The animal received her caresses with visible delight. William found himself
quite jealous of the attention Elizabeth bestowed on the dog and once again
scolded himself for his idiocy.

After a while, Bandit's owner spoke, "We have to go, Lizzy. Good luck in
your search."

Elizabeth stood up and shook the man's hand, smiling, "Thanks, Jay. I'll see
you around."

Jay and Bandit left and Elizabeth proceeded to order her minions.

"All right. There are eight of us. I think it's best if we split into pairs
and each pair will take a different part of the town."

Caroline beamed at this sudden opportunity for some time alone with William.
"Marvellous idea! I'll go with William," she announced, standing next to
him.

But William was not going to let Caroline have her way this time. He had an
excellent excuse at hand. "I don't think it's practical, Caroline. Neither
of us knows the town and we would probably succeed only in getting lost."

Charles rejoined quickly, "Will's absolutely right, Caro. You have to go
with someone who knows the town. Let Will go with Lizzy and I'll go with
you."

Jane's eyes lit at this suggestion. "That's a wonderful idea! You will have
some time for a brother and sister conversation," she said, grinning slyly.

Caroline lost the battle and she knew that it would be useless to insist.
She would have to deal with Eliza being alone with William... for now.

William could not be happier at this turn of events. He managed to escape
Caroline and he would be able to spend time with Elizabeth alone. He
could hardly believe his good luck.

Elizabeth, for her part, was feeling very suspicious. She didn't like the
smug looks on both Charles' and Jane's faces, nor the amused smirk on
Charlotte's countenance. But the displeased expression on Caroline's visage
was enough to convince her to go along with the idea. Let her mope and
rage a little. I'll sure enjoy tormenting her! she thought meanly. She
looked at William to see his reaction to the plan, but couldn't discern
anything from his impassive face.

"Great, let's go then," she said briskly.

***

The team divided into four pairs - Elizabeth and William, Charles with
Caroline, Jane and Charlotte, and Maria with Pete. Each couple set off in a
different direction, armed with a handful of notices, a pair of scissors, a
stapler and a tape. And although their tasks were identical, the mood and
conversation of each were extremely diverse.

Caroline walked beside her brother with a morose expression. She couldn't
believe she was actually dragging herself through the streets of some hole
on the end of the world. And what for? To put on announcements about a lost
dog! What was worse, William was at that very moment in the company of that
Eliza Bennet. Caroline gritted her teeth and kept pace with Charles, almost
breaking a leg in high-heeled boots in the process.

"Charles! Could you slow down a bit?" Caroline exclaimed.

He stopped and stood waiting for her to catch up. "Sorry, Caro. But we have
to hurry, we have to do as much as we can before it gets dark."

"I don't understand why we have to do it anyway!" she retorted angrily.

"Because Lizzy asked us to help her. And friends help each other," he said
as if he were speaking to a child, while attaching a note to a lamp post.

"She's not  my friend!" Caroline spat. Why was it that everybody
loved Eliza and happily did whatever she told them to do?

Charles' eyes narrowed as he stared at his sister. "No one asked you to
help. You volunteered yourself. Now, kindly stop whining and hurry up or you
can walk back to Netherfield alone!"

With this he turned around and started walking down the street in a quick
pace. Caroline stood for a while, speechless with shock. Her brother had
never spoken to her like that! It was all Eliza's doing! Resolving to think
of a way to put that chit in her place, she ran after the hastily walking
away figure of her brother.

***

"Do you think it was a good idea?" asked Charlotte as soon as she and Jane
were out of the hearing distance from the rest.

"What was a good idea?" enquired Jane in some confusion.

"Leaving Lizzy alone with William. It seems she's bent on disliking him and
her every meeting with him provides her with more reasons for it."

Jane giggled. "You're right. But they  are perfect for each other. I
hope that she will understand it when they spend more time together."

"I tried to talk some sense into her the other Monday, but she just wouldn't
listen."

"You know her, she's the most stubborn person I know. The more we push her,
the more resistance she'll put up. I think it would be best not to tell her
anything about William anymore...but orchestrate as many meetings for them
as possible."

Charlotte grinned and observed dryly, "You know, they are adults and here we
're talking about them like a pair of kids unable to take care of their own
lives."

"They may be adults, but they're behaving like children. Char, they need our
help," said Jane seriously.

"You probably know best, Jane. After all, you're the teacher here, you have
the biggest experience with petulant children." They both laughed and went
on with their task.

***

"So...um... Maria...I wanted to ask you something," said Pete as he and
Maria walked in the direction of the train station in Meryton.

"Yes? What did you want to ask me?"

"Would you...can I... do you... want to put this notice on this tree?" he
finished ungracefully.

Maria looked up at him in confusion. "Sure."

"Oh great," he said and kept standing there, looking at her.

"Pete."

"Yes?" he asked eagerly.

"You didn't give me the note," she motioned to the piece of paper he held in
his hand.

"Oh, sorry..." he mumbled, giving it to her. Maria put up the notice and the
couple resumed walking. After a few minutes of silence, Pete spoke again,
"Actually, I wanted to ask you something else."

"You did?"

"Yes, I did... I... well...." He closed his eyes as if to gather his
courage. "Would you like to go out with me sometime?" he blurted out.

Maria blushed and looked at the ground. "Yes," she replied softly.

Pete heaved a big sigh of relief. "Thank you! I'm sorry, but I'm really
terrible at asking girls out and stuff like that..."

Maria smiled. "You weren't that bad. In fact, I think there are even some
men who might learn something from you." She giggled at the recollection of
William Darcy staring at her boss every time he saw her.

***

For a couple of minutes Elizabeth and William walked in silence. She was
beginning to wonder if he was back to his old self and she wanted to test
her theory.

"You know, William, I was a bit surprised when I saw you today at the
clinic. I wouldn't think you were the boy scout type."

She thought he would get angry at her words, but he only smiled and replied
cryptically, "Six years."

She looked at him raising her eyebrows in confusion. "Care to elaborate?"

He shot her a devastating smile. "I was a boy scout for six years.
Scoutmaster Darcy at your service, ma'am!"

Elizabeth couldn't help but laugh at this. He was really disarming. Still,
she didn't intend to give up on teasing him. "So you are a boy scout at
heart. Tell me, do you do this often? Sneak out and stalk through the
streets of London in a quest for a chance to do a good deed?"

He smiled and shook his head. "No, now I just go to work and the opportunity
finds me there."

"Oh, that's right. That's a lot more convenient. And cleaner," she added,
looking in disgust at her hands that got dirty from touching dusty poles,
lamp posts, trees, notice boards and  God knows what else.

"Not cleaner, I assure you. It's a bloody work," said William jokingly. He
was surprised at the unusual ease with which they conversed. No doubt the
distraction of their task helped him to overcome his customary awkwardness
in her presence.

"But you like it all the same," she stated what was obvious to her when she
looked at him.

"Well, I confess I don't mind getting dirty from time to time," he admitted,
glancing at his own hands. They were as soiled as Elizabeth's.

Elizabeth noticed it and smiled. "I'm glad you 'got dirty' to help me. I
really appreciate that."

"Don't mention it. Tell me more about this dog whose owner you're looking
for."

Elizabeth shrugged. "There's really not much to tell. He's a homeless dog
that's been hovering around my house lately."

"And you decided to find a home for him?" he asked.

"Yes. You may think I'm crazy, but when I see a creature in need, I just can
't pass it by indifferently." She stopped to put up one last notice, then
turned to William and saw him looking at her earnestly.

"I don't think you're crazy," he said softly. "I think you're a generous,
kind-hearted woman. I really admire you."

Elizabeth was taken aback by this sudden praise and couldn't stop a wry
comment, "So you don't think I should shoot myself anymore?"

William flinched, feeling as if someone poured a bucket of cold water on his
head. It was clear that she still hadn't forgiven him for his rude comment
on that fateful evening. He was slightly discouraged, but not dejected.
Hopeful, he attempted an apology, "Elizabeth, I'm sorry for this stupid
remark. I was angry and upset and took my irritation out on you. I shouldn't
have said that.  I haven't told it to many people, but I want you to know.
My parents died in a car crash when I was twenty. Since that time, I've been
very sensitive where car accidents and reckless driving is concerned."

Elizabeth's hand flew to her mouth in shock and mortification. "Oh God,
William, I'm so sorry! It's I who should be apologising, not you. I can
understand your reaction now."

He looked so sad. She wanted to embrace and comfort him, but she didn't
dare. Instead she just took his hand and squeezed it consolingly. "Thank you
for telling me this," she said softly.

He shook his head. "There's no need thanking me. I wanted you to know."

"But why?" she looked at him, her eyes serious, searching.

"Because I care about your opinion. I would like us to be friends." He
wished dearly he could say more or better yet, take her in his arms and
speak to her without words. But he sensed it was too soon for that.

Elizabeth felt a pang of disappointment at his mentioning he wanted her
friendship. Well, what did I expect? And it's not like I want anything
more...do I? She smiled at him, "I'd like that also, William."

To this he grinned, showing off his perfect teeth and those, oh, so
adorable, dimples. One more smile like that and I'm ready to swoon. Thank
God he doesn't know what he does to me!

William looked at the notice board where Elizabeth had attached the notice.
"It's the last one. What do we do now?" he asked.

"Walk back to the clinic. I left my car there."

After walking a few minutes in companionable silence, William spoke,
"Elizabeth, I'd like to ask you a favour."

"Yes," she said, intrigued about what he might ask about.

"I would like to explore the countryside a bit while I'm here. I know that
you enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Could you show me some good hiking
or riding trails? I'm aware of the fact that you work and probably don't
have much free time, but I'd be grateful if you could spare an hour or two
for me."

Elizabeth smiled at his earnest face as he pleaded for some of her precious
time. "I'd be happy to show you some of the countryside. I usually don't
work on the weekends, so I can spare more than an hour or two."

He grinned again. "Thank you. I appreciate it."

They continued to walk, chatting amiably about where they'd go on their
first expedition, until they reached the clinic. There they parted, each
heading for their own car and driving home, heads filled with thoughts of
the other.


(1) RSPCA - Royal Society for Preventing Cruelty to Animals

Chapter five

He was sitting on a bench by the riverside. It was a perfect morning, jus
t like the one where he had met with Elizabeth here before. The sun was shin
ing, the birds were singing and the air was filled with the sweet scent of f
lowers. Wait a minute...flowers in October? Oh well, it was very warm, maybe
even 25 degrees Celsius (1). It must be one of those weather anomalies. Yes,
that would explain flowers in October. Elizabeth was right, it really is
beautiful here in the summer. He inhaled deeply and gazed around the par
k in a relaxed manner, admiring the beautiful scenery. The place was empty,
save for himself. Now all I need is Elizabeth to complete the picture.

But it seemed he was lucky today, because just as he thought this, he saw th
e object of his thoughts galloping towards him on the same chestnut mare he
had seen her riding before. She looked beautiful, just like she had the last
time he had seen her like that. Her hair was down on her shoulders and back
in a mass of unruly curls and she wore a white outfit, thanks to which she w
as visible from a long distance.

As she neared him, he noticed her legs were bare and her outfit turned out t
o be her doctor's gown, nothing else. He felt a surge of heat course through
him at the sight and the realization that she seemed to be wearing nothing a
t all beneath it.

She came to a halt next to him and he rose to greet her. Elizabeth smiled sw
eetly at him and spoke, "Hello, William. I was hoping to find you here." She
kept smiling at him as her gaze left his face and travelled down his body in
an unhurried perusal.  At her scrutiny he made the mortifying discovery that
he was completely naked. Furthermore, he found, to his utter horror, that th
e combination of her appearance, his current state and all his past dreams a
nd fantasies about her resulted in a violent and uncontrollable reaction of
his body, which was now for everyone to see thanks to his state of undress.

Elizabeth smirked at him. "Well, well, you are one fine stallion, William Da
rcy."

She swung one bare leg over the back of the horse and jumped to the ground.
William noted with some regret that her gown was buttoned decently, but than
kfully, it was shorter than he remembered, he could see all of her magnifice
nt, long legs.
She approached him, her eyes still fixed on the one part of his body which r
eacted so powerfully to her presence. He saw her reach into the pocket of he
r gown and produce a piece of paper and a tape.

"I need to put on this notice," she explained, answering his questioning rai
se of eyebrows. William looked at the note. It said, "Found, a man, 6'3'', b
lack hair, dark eyes, answers to the name of William Darcy. The owner of the
lost man is asked to call the number ------------."

"Now, where would be the best place to put it?" she wondered as she perused
his body thoughtfully. She looked at his erection for a while, but then shoo
k her head. "No, this won't do. I wouldn't want other people ogle you. Ah, h
ere would be the best choice." She took the tape and tried to attach the pos
ter to his chest. Unfortunately, his chest hair made it very difficult, the
note kept ungluing and falling down. Exasperated, Elizabeth gave up.

"I can't do this. This way we'll never find your owner. I'll have to keep yo
u."

William felt enormous joy at her words. He was going to be hers from now on!
He wouldn't be homeless and lonely anymore! Filled with rapture he gathered
her into his arms and swung her around. Elizabeth giggled and held him tight
er. When he put her down, they were both breathless. Gazing into his eyes, E
lizabeth touched his cheek and smoothed his hair away from his face.

"I'm glad you're going to be mine," she said, looking at him with tenderness
in her eyes. William bent down to kiss her softly. Her lips felt luscious -
hot, sweet and yielding. He kissed her harder and felt her return the kiss w
ith great eagerness. She tightened her arms around his neck and pressed hers
elf to him, to which he reacted with a shiver. Groaning, he pulled his mouth
away from her lips and buried his face in her neck, letting her enticing fra
grance - the scent of her hair, her perfume and her skin wash over him. Pres
sing hot wet kisses along her face and the line of her neck he heard her moa
n and felt her tip her head back in delight. Her hands stroked his back as h
e slowly sunk to his knees before her and started unbuttoning her gown, with
each button admiring her beauty more and more. When the gown finally fell to
the ground he wasted no time before his mouth took possession of her breast.
He felt a shudder go through her body as he suckled her and her soft whimper
s of pleasure inflamed him even further. She sunk her fingers in his hair an
d held his head to her, as if begging for him not to stop.   William's mouth
left her nipple and travelled south over her abdomen. She was trembling, so
much that when his hand rose to cup her sex her legs gave in and she slowly
sunk down beside him. With her face on the same level with his, he took adva
ntage of it by returning to plunder her mouth, his hands exploring her whole
body, stroking her back, massaging her breasts and cupping her buttocks, eli
citing moans from her. She clung to him, cradled his head in her hands and p
ressed her hips to his in a manner that drove him wild. He felt his arousal
growing and knew he could wait no longer. Looking deep into her eyes he sile
ntly asked   permission. She only kissed him and pressed herself harder agai
nst him. This was all the consent he needed. With great impatience he lowere
d her to the ground and poised himself above her, ready to enter the gates o
f Heaven. Then, suddenly, he heard a screech, "Wait a minute! What are you d
oing with my William? William, I was looking all over for you."



Caroline approached them, waving a piece of paper in her hand. They rose to
their feet.

"This is my man. He got lost a few days ago, but it is always so with him. C
ome, William," said Caroline as she  put a collar and a leash on him.

"Elizabeth!" he cried, reaching out to her.

Elizabeth smiled regretfully. "I'm sorry, William, but you belong to your ri
ghtful owner," she replied, waving to him as Caroline dragged him away, the
collar nearly choking him.

"Nooooooo!!!!!"

William woke up with a start. His whole body was covered with cold sweat. He
sat at the edge of the bed and ran his hands down his face.  Good God, wh
at a dream!  He was just about to make love to Elizabeth when Caroline i
nterrupted them, claiming he was hers. William shuddered at the sheer though
t.

William wasn't superstitious and he didn't believe in dreams. Usually he did
n't dream at all or didn't remember his dreams. But this one had been except
ionally vivid and just as crazy. He attributed it to the recent events and h
is obsession with a certain sexy vet. Is this how going mad feels? he
wondered bleakly.

He got out of the bed and dragged himself into the shower. He stepped into t
he cabin and let the hot water wash down his body, feeling the tension gradu
ally slip away from him. I wish Elizabeth were  here with me, he thou
ght wistfully. He had only known her for a week and yet, during this short t
ime, she had managed to take over his every waking thought and invade his dr
eams. Although until now he didn't have a reason to complain, he now began t
o understand that it was becoming quite unhealthy. He didn't even know the w
oman, for God's sake! It was not at all like him to fall so hard for a compl
ete stranger. Not for the first time since he'd met her, William asked himse
lf what was wrong with him. He felt completely bewitched, spellbound.

No, he didn't know her, but he dearly wanted to get to know her. Why? He did
n't know. Yes, she was beautiful. But that wasn't even the most important th
ing. William had known hundreds of beautiful women; none of them, however, h
ad managed to capture his attention like Elizabeth had. They were all gorgeo
us, but shallow and boring. Elizabeth was nothing like them; she had wit, sh
e had intelligence and she had a heart. Still, what was it in this woman tha
t rendered him so enthralled? When he was with her, he felt better than he h
ad in a long time. Maybe it was magic. Goodness, what nonsense! Willi
am laughed at his own idiocy.

The devil with sense! He wanted her and for the first time in his life he de
cided to act on his instinct. It told him: get to it!

But how does one get to it? In his entire life, William didn't have problems
with asking women out. He was not the most graceful or gallant suitor that e
xisted, but no matter how awkward, his proposition had always been received
with open arms. Yet it didn't seem that it would be so simple in Elizabeth's
case. Even though she didn't appear to dislike him as much as she had before
, he still couldn't be sure of her reception of his offer of a date. She wou
ld probably laugh to his face and he didn't want to risk even greater vulner
ability to her.

His thoughts returned to his plan of action. It wasn't much, but he felt rea
ssured that he had something to stick to. The plan was very simple: first ge
t to know more about her through different means. William had been gathering
data the whole past week and he had learnt a few useful facts he might be ab
le to use in his  further pursuit of her. Then he planned to arrange as many
meetings with her as possible, preferably in bigger company, where at least
in some small part he could be the master of himself. However, when he had l
earnt about her love of nature, he couldn't resist himself. He craved to spe
nd time with her on his own, without other people hovering about. The fact t
hat she had agreed to be his tour guide during his stay at Netherfield pleas
ed him immensely. He took it as a sign that she liked him enough to be willi
ng to spend some time alone with him.

After he succeeded in gaining her friendship, he would attempt something mor
e. And then...he would see what then.

Reassuring himself in his resolution, he turned off the water and stepped ou
t from the shower, feeling refreshed and invigorated. A rather unusual state
for William Darcy of late.

***

When Elizabeth arrived at the clinic on Thursday morning, an important messa
ge was waiting for her. A letter from the DeBourgh Foundation had been deliv
ered just before she came to work.

She didn't even bother to take off her jacket and snatched the missive from
Pete's hands. She opened the envelope, feeling nervous about what it might c
ontain. Maria and Pete stood by her with excitement on their faces. Elizabet
h took out the folded sheet of paper and read it.

"Well, what does it say?" asked Maria after half a minute.

"It seems that we may expect a visit from a guy from the DeBourgh's. He's co
ming to Meryton next Tuesday at 10 a.m.," said Elizabeth with her eyes on th
e letter.

"So soon?" asked Maria apprehensively.

Elizabeth shrugged. "It appears so." After reading for another moment she ad
ded, "We will need the statistics for all the surgical cases and our books f
rom the last year. Can you take care of it, Pete?" The young man nodded. "I
will have to do the calculation of all our needs, the equipment, adapting th
e room, drugs and so on."

"I'll help you," offered Maria.

"Thanks," said Elizabeth gratefully. "We should prepare ourselves for a coup
le of hectic days."

"But if everything goes well we'll have the operating room before the end of
the year," said Maria excitedly.

Pete rejoined with a grin and a wink, "And maybe we'll even get a raise!" Ma
ria chuckled.

"Don't hold your breath!" exclaimed Elizabeth with a smirk.

***

After breakfast William sought to escape from Netherfield in general and Car
oline in particular. He got into his car and drove to Meryton. His plan was
to visit Elizabeth in the clinic and, if she agreed, take her to lunch. For
a moment he worried that she'd think he was stalking her, but fortunately, J
ane provided him with a perfect excuse.

As William went down to the kitchen this morning, he saw Jane standing by th
e counter, making coffee.

"Good morning, William," she said pleasantly. "Did you sleep well?"

William blushed in remembrance of his dream and muttered something incompreh
ensible in response. Luckily, Jane wasn't of a mind to dwell on the subject.

"Would you like some coffee?"  William nodded and accepted a cup of hot, aro
matic drink.

"Charles had to go out early today. Some emergency, apparently," explained J
ane.

"Of course, I understand," replied William. This was the fate of a doctor -
having to be available at any time of day and night. Even living in such a s
mall town as Meryton didn't exempt one from this duty.

Since Caroline wasn't an early riser, William found himself eating breakfast
with Jane. He enjoyed their conversation. Jane was friendly and intelligent
and, even though she wasn't as witty and smart as Elizabeth, indeed no one w
as according to him, William liked her very much. She and Charles seemed ver
y happy together and William was pleased for his friend, but also a little e
nvious of his happiness. If only he could find a woman who'd make him so con
tent! Jane's presence naturally led his thoughts to her sister and for a mom
ent William wondered if Elizabeth could be the one for him. But no matter ho
w pleasant such a thought was, it was way too soon to start contemplating th
eir future together.

"What are your plans for today, William?" inquired Jane.

To see Elizabeth, William thought, but aloud he said, "I...um... noth
ing special. I'd like to go to Meryton to... to look around." If Jane notice
d his evasive and awkward response, she didn't let it show.

"Can I ask you a favour? When you're in Meryton could you stop by the clinic
and give a message to Lizzy from me?"

William struggled to suppress the pleased grin that threatened to appear on
his face on hearing such a convenient request. Trying to sound casual, he re
plied, "All right. What is the message?"

"Charles and I are planning to go dancing on Friday night and we'd like Lizz
y to come along. Of course," she added with an agreeable smile, "You and Car
oline are invited as well."

"Thank you," answered William, not quite sure what to think about this plan.
He rarely danced, but the possibility of dancing with Elizabeth was very exc
iting indeed. But then again Caroline.... "I'll think about it."

And so at ten a.m. William was on his way to Meryton. He figured it would be
too early to visit Elizabeth, she probably had work to do and he resolved to
look around while he waited.

Meryton was a small town for someone accustomed to living in London. Indeed,
it could be considered a hole, as Caroline so aptly put it and delighted in
repeating. It had one primary and one secondary school, one community healt
h-centre, one retail market, one supermarket, one Anglican church and one Ca
tholic church, a few different kinds of shops, a public library, two banks a
nd a handful of pubs. In short, almost everything one needed. What it lacked
were mostly places of entertainment and culture, but since Meryton lay only
twenty miles from London, the deprivation wasn't so great.

William didn't share Caroline's contempt. He liked this town and the area su
rrounding it. The relative silence and tranquillity soothed him, while the u
nhurried life in the countryside relaxed and the friendliness warmed him. Th
e place reminded him of Pemberley, his childhood and youth, and the time bef
ore his parents' death.

William glanced at his watch. It was already past noon. With surprise he rea
lised that he had been rambling about the town for more than an hour. So los
t was he in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the passage of time. About f
acing, he walked back to High Street and to Elizabeth.

***

Elizabeth had just said goodbye to her last client when she heard the doorbe
ll again. She looked at Maria in confusion. There weren't any other patients
registered before lunch break.

"I hope it's not some emergency, I really don't have time now." Curious, she
went out into the waiting room and stood stunned at seeing William talking t
o Pete.

"William, what are you doing here?" she asked.

"Hello Elizabeth. I was in the neighbourhood and thought I'd stop by..."
Oh, great, could I possibly say anything more lame?  It seemed that no m
atter how many times he'd encountered her he was never quite prepared for th
e meeting.

Amused, Elizabeth noted how charming he looked when he was flustered. Wai
t a minute! Since when do I think of him in the category of 'charming'? The
fact that he apologised and explained his behaviour doesn't entail me to fal
l for him. We agreed to be friends and friends aren't 'charming'!

"You did? Well, you're lucky you caught me, I was just going to leave for lu
nch."

William's heart sunk. "Oh," he said. "I hope I'm not interrupting your plans
..."

"I actually haven't planned anything. I think I'll just get a sandwich or so
mething."

"Would you mind if I came with you?" he asked hopefully.

Elizabeth looked at him in surprise. She was tempted to say no, but recollec
ting their profession of friendship from the day before, she answered, "Sure
, if you want to."

"Great! Shall we then?" he said and smiled, relieved she hadn't refused him.
Elizabeth's pulse quickened slightly when she beheld his rare grin. Or not t
hat rare at all, since for the past few days he'd been flashing his perfect
white teeth at her on many occasions. Actually, she should have already gott
en used to it.

When they walked into the street, William looked at her questioningly, expec
ting her to lead the way.

"I know where we should go. I've had a craving for something very tasty yet
very unhealthy lately."

She led him on and after about two minutes of walking they stopped next to a
building whose sign announced that the establishment was "Bob's Fish and Chi
ps."

"Fish and chips?" asked William disbelievingly.

She looked at him archly, "Why, has living under the same roof with Lady Car
oline affected you so much that any restaurant below five stars is unworthy
of your notice?"

"Not at all... but you can hardly call this a restaurant. There are no table
s. Where will we sit?"

"Can you see the park opposite us? There are benches where we can sit down.
I promise you you'll love it. Bob makes the best fish and chips in the whole
world. All right?"

"Fine," replied William, not wanting to sound snobbish and fastidious.

They got their fish and chips (salt, no vinegar) and walked on after Elizabe
th's short chat with Bob, apparently a friend of hers. During his short stro
ll with Elizabeth it became clear to him that it looked like she knew everyb
ody in the town and everybody knew her. People waved at them, smiled, said
"hi" and she just smiled back and answered their greetings. William felt adm
iration for her evident ease with people. As for him, he felt embarrassed by
the attention he was getting, as the passers-by were extremely curious who w
as this handsome man walking beside Dr. Bennet.

On entering the park, which had played a significant role in his latest drea
m, William felt highly disconcerted. The dream was still with him, he rememb
ered all the details with sharp clarity. Her gorgeous hair flowing in the br
eeze, her luscious body, their kiss... And to think he was here again and wi
th her. She looked every bit as lovely as in his dream; fresh, youthful and
unbelievably enticing.

The sat down on a bench facing the river. Oh God, this is the same bench!
William thought, feeling the sensations of his dream hitting him with de
adly force. Just like during his last night's slumber, he felt his body reac
t to her closeness, which heightened his embarrassment and confusion even mo
re.

Elizabeth looked at William and saw him stare at her in the fashion he used
to employ on the beginning of their acquaintance. What's wrong with this
guy now? Are fish and chips too much for his delicate sensibilities?

"Aren't you going to eat this?" she asked, motioning to the meal wrapped in
paper that still lay unopened on his lap.

"What? Oh, yes, yes, of course," he mumbled and proceeded to consume his lun
ch. Much to his surprise it turned out to be really delicious. William could
n't remember the last time he ate something so simple, yet tasty at the same
time. Probably not in all his adult life.

Elizabeth observed William and saw the uncertainty on his face change into s
urprise and finally to an amused little smile. She sighed silently, thinking
about how dishy he looked in his casual clothes, eating with his fingers on
her favourite bench in her favourite spot in the park. And his smile, as she
had the opportunity to discover in the last few days, was deadly to her comp
osure.

"What has made you smile so?" she inquired.

"Just a thought. I believe I haven't eaten fish and chips since I was fiftee
n."

"Really? You poor thing, don't tell me you lived on caviar since then?"

"Hardly that, though I admit most of the time what I eat involves using cutl
ery."

Elizabeth laughed. "Oh so you don't like eating with your hands? I detect so
me discrepancy here. Didn't you tell me just yesterday that you didn't mind
getting your hands dirty?"

"I don't mind if it's a worthy cause."

"I don't know many things more worthy than Bob's fish and chips," she retort
ed playfully.

"I have to agree with you there. That's the best fish and chips I've had in
my entire life."

She smiled at him indulgently and raised two eyebrows as if to say: "I told
you so!"

After a few moments of silence, William begun, "Actually I came here today b
ecause Jane asked me to give you a message."

"What kind of message?"

"She and Charles are going dancing tomorrow night and she wants to know if y
ou'd like to come too."

Elizabeth felt her curiosity and suspicion rising. Why would Jane choose Wil
liam as the messenger, especially bearing such news?

"Why didn't she call and ask me herself?" she asked.

William shrugged. "I don't know, you'd have to ask her that."

"Hmmmm, that's very strange..." she said.

"They invited me and Caroline to go as well," replied William, as if trying
to explain Jane's motives.

"Oh they did? Well it all makes sense now. Sneaky, sneaky Jane," she muttere
d under her breath.

"Will you come?" asked William, mystified by her mumblings, but knowing bett
er than to ask what she meant.

Would you like me to come? She thought, but aloud said, "I don't know
, William. I'm going to be very busy for the next few days and I think I sho
uld work on Friday."

"Surely you don't have to work on Friday evening?" he asked, while thinking
to himself, If she doesn't go, I'm not going either.

"I'm afraid I do. I have a lot of paperwork that needs to be done before Tue
sday," she explained.

"So you're abandoning me with Caroline?" he asked with feigned hurt and not
so pretended apprehension.

She laughed again and answered, "I hate to have to do it, but I fear that it
's necessary."

"Please?" William said pleadingly, "I know nobody who can handle her as well
as you do."

Elizabeth was finding it difficult to refuse him when he looked at her with
those puppy eyes. "You should learn to handle her yourself. I won't be able
to be by your side for the rest of your life."

How I wish you were...Whoa, where did that come from?

"For the sake of our new-found friendship, please?" he tried one last time.

"Oh all right, I give up! You are far too persuasive," she accused him playf
ully.

William grinned, "I'm glad I was able to persuade you. I knew it wouldn't be
simple."

"How come?" she asked.

"I've been led to believe that you're not the kind of person to yield easily
to any kind of persuasion."

"Ha! That's a nice euphemism! They told you I was stubborn as a mule." Looki
ng at William's embarrassed countenance, she laughed. "There's no need to ge
t uneasy, I know perfectly well how I'm seen by my so called 'friends.' I th
ink you got an inkling of that during the dinner at Charles'. That's the way
they treat me, but worst of all they insist that they do it out of love. I'l
l never understand that!"

William smiled and, looking intently into her eyes, said warmly and earnestl
y, "Whatever their reason I'm sure they love you. It seems everybody in the
whole town does."

Elizabeth was quite speechless for the second time during one day and that's
some achievement. She wandered what he meant by his remark. Was it just the
surface meaning or was there some underlying significance in his comment? Lo
oking into his warm and tender eyes she could not help but think it was the
latter. You silly girl, he didn't mean anything special by what he said a
nd you jump to conclusions like a lovesick teenager! He asked you to be his
friend so don't you raise your hopes! Remember: friendship good, sex bad, lo
ve...love is out of the question here!

Schooling herself she replied in her usual teasing manner, "I'm not so sure
about that. I know at least one person currently residing in Meryton who doe
sn't like me at all."

"Do all our conversations have to be about her?" asked William exasperated.
Just when the mood was getting cosy she had to bring up this Bingley woman a
gain!

Elizabeth had the grace to look somewhat guilty, "No of course not." After a
pause she added, "What do you want to talk about?"

"How about we talk about your yesterday's mission. Any success yet?"

She shook her head, "No, but the posters have only been up for eighteen hour
s, we'll have to wait several days to have any certainty."

"What will you do if the owner doesn't show up?" asked William.

"I'll have to give the poor dog to the shelter. He can't survive the winter
living outside."

"That's unlikely. But do you see him often? Do you know where he is?"

"Every morning he comes to my house and I give him food. Other than that he'
s been very shy and stays away from people."

William thought for a moment. "If he's so afraid of people why does he come
to you?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "Maybe he feels I can help him. Animals have a
lways been drawn to me and I should be used to seeing hungry and homeless ca
ts and dogs. But somehow I can't get used to it."

"No one with a speck of compassion could," replied William seriously.

Elizabeth looked at him in wonderment. But was there really any reason to be
surprised by his statement? "You have seen your share of misery and pain too
, haven't you?"

He smiled at her sadly. "Yes, I have. But I chose this job with eyes wide op
en."

"It seems we do have something in common, after all," she said thoughtfully.

"I never doubted it," he said, his eyes serious.

They finished their lunch and Elizabeth looked at her watch. "O man, look at
the time! I had no idea it was so late. Maria's going to kill me!"

She started to get up, but William caught her wrist and prevented her from w
alking away.

"Oh no! You're not going to run away from me again!" he said with mock threa
t.

Elizabeth giggled. "No? Are you going to keep me on this bench whole day?"

"I don't see why not. It's so beautiful and peaceful here."

"I'm afraid I can't stay here. Unlike you, I have to return to work now."

"Well, if you insist...but I'm walking you back to the clinic."

Seeing that all resistance was in vain here, she acceded, "All right, but I
suggest you hurry up, it's very late."

He beamed at her and rose suddenly pulling her after him. Laughing, she had
to urge him to slow down and the rest of the short distance was covered in a
normal pace.

(1) 77 degrees Fahrenheit

Chapter six

William returned from his lunch with Elizabeth with a full stomach and a
light heart. He strode purposefully into Netherfield, feeling he could brave
anything at the moment; even Charles' "subtle" questioning and Caroline's
fawning. He was even prepared to tell her to go to hell as soon as he saw
her, but was prevented from it by the most trivial fact - when he entered
the house, he found he was alone in it. Surprised, he walked through the
rooms, but she was nowhere to be found. He didn't know if he should be happy
about her absence or disappointed he couldn't tell her off. Finally, he
decided he was pleased with the situation after all.

With a feeling of deep contentment, he made himself comfortable on the couch
in the living room with a steaming cup of tea and a book. The house was so
peaceful, so quiet. It was what he had craved for months. Finally he didn't
have to worry about obligations, demands or duties. He looked at the phone
and sighed with relief at the knowledge that it wouldn't ring to announce
that his aunt required his presence at a charity dinner, that a university
asked him to give a lecture or that he was needed at the hospital. He was a
very diligent worker, a dutiful nephew, a loyal cousin and a devoted
brother. In addition, as much as he disliked all the social engagements,
charity luncheons, balls and soirees, he felt obligated to attend them and
rarely missed such occasions. All these matters resulted in his feeling
burdened by the load of responsibilities lately. If you add to this his
increasingly deteriorating mood, the bleak thoughts that haunted him more
often with each passing day, you get the picture of William Darcy's frame of
mind.

Two weeks ago something occurred which had made him realize what was
happening to him. William reclined his head on the backrest and gave in to
the memory. . .

On a rainy night William was on call at the hospital. He was tired and
anxious. During a family dinner that day he had noticed Georgie was
strangely silent and serious. This made him troubled. Her mood had appeared
to be improving and he was worried by her sudden withdrawal. What was worse,
he couldn't even talk to her and ask her what was wrong, because others
might suspect something. So he went to work fretting over his sister and
berating himself again for having allowed this awful thing happen to her.

He hoped to be able to sleep a little that night, but it was not to be so.
It was barely past midnight when was called to the Emergency Room. What he
found there shook him to the core and he had seen his share of horrors
during the years of his practice.

A young woman lay on the stretcher, her blond hair almost completely red,
her face white, her lips an ugly sinus colour. She was unconscious with
extensive head injuries and the whole right side of her face was a red pulp.
The policeman, who appeared within minutes, reported to them that the woman
had been in a car accident, she had collided with a truck. The other driver
had received only minor injuries.

Without further ado the girl was taken to the operating room. William
hurried to change and wash and soon entered the room, ready to operate. He
looked at the woman on the table. She was so pale she could have as well
been dead. But she was alive, for the time being at least. She was loosing a
lot of blood and her chances of surviving were decreasing with each passing
minute.

William took the scalpel in his hand and put it against the girl's head.
However, before he managed to cut, he felt a fit of dizziness overcome him.
The room began to spin, the smell of blood assaulted his senses, the body on
the table seemed to pull him. The last thing his mind registered was a
metallic sound when the scalpel hit the floor and then blackness surrounded
him.

The next thing he remembered was waking up in a hospital bed, connected to
the monitors, with Georgie's concerned face over him. After his inquiry as
to what the hell was going on, she explained everything to him. He had
fainted in the operating room. It appeared to have been nothing very
serious - just fatigue and stress. William, however, was mortified. Never
before had something like that happened to him. Fortunately, another
neurosurgeon had been called and the girl survived the operation. But
William sunk in guilt and shame. Georgiana comforted him, his colleagues
came and assured him everything was all right, but he couldn't be reconciled
so easily. He had failed as a doctor and it was only blind luck that the
patient hadn't died.

One thing had been clear, however. He needed a break. He had found himself
on the brink of an illness and he could no longer endanger his patients'
lives.  So when Charles had repeated his invitation when he had called,
William had accepted.

At first it seemed that his coming here wasn't a good idea. For the first
two days he had felt depressed and tired. To make things worse, Caroline had
shown up and persisted in being as giant a nuisance as she possibly could
manage. And then, all of a sudden everything had changed. Elizabeth had
appeared and he hadn't been able to think much about anything but her. His
dark musings had mostly left him, when he was with her he felt younger, more
free and relaxed. She had been proving to be a wonderful remedy to his
troubled mind.

A sound of slamming doors pulled him out of his meditations. In another
moment he heard Charles' voice,

"Honey, I'm home!"

William chuckled in amusement. "Welcome, darling!" he shouted back. In an
instant he saw Charles' perplexed face in the doorway.

"Will! Where's Jane?"

"You're asking me? Don't you know where your girlfriend is? Letting her out
of your sight so soon?" he teased.

"William! That's not funny. Tell me where she is."

"Take it easy, my friend. She has a staff meeting or something like that
today."

Charles fell on the couch beside William. "That's right, I forgot. And how
come you know that?" He eyed William suspiciously.

"Jane told me this morning. We had breakfast and a nice chat this morning."

"You did? What about?"

"Oh, this and that. I took the opportunity to tell her the whole truth about
your nasty character," said William with a smirk.

Charles laughed heartily. "I see you talked to Elizabeth."

William started at this statement and stared at his friend in surprise.
"What makes you think that?"

"You're obviously in a great mood, you tease me like you used to when we
were in college. I think it's Liz's influence. She's so cheerful and funny
that she has that effect on people. She could turn the biggest grouch in the
country into the life and soul of the party."

William smiled to himself. Charles hit the nail on the head with his
description of her. He didn't particularly like being called a grouch, but
he couldn't argue with the truth of the observation.

Seeing that William didn't intend to reply, but lowered his face to hide his
smile, Charles decided to push him a bit further. "What do you think of
her?"

William concluded he didn't like the direction of this conversation at all
and tried to brush his friend's excessive curiosity off. "I think she's
nice. We are friends."

Charles smiled sceptically. Friends, huh? If you looked at me like you
look at your friend Elizabeth I'd have to punch you! Luckily for William
he had promised Jane not to talk about Elizabeth too much to him. Not
wanting to risk his beloved's wrath, he changed the subject.

"It seems it's only us guys tonight. We should take advantage of this rare
situation."

"Caroline's not going to join us?" asked William hopefully.

"No, she's taken Louisa to the hairdresser."

William wasn't sure he heard correctly. "To the hairdresser?" he asked in
disbelief.

Charles shrugged. "Yeah, a dog hairdresser, I guess. I don't even pretend to
understand what she's about with that dog."

"Poor bitch!" said William sympathetically.

"William! I know she's not the nicest person in the world, but she is my
sister, you know!"

"What? Oh no, I was talking about the dog!" clarified William hastily,
completely embarrassed. On seeing Charles' amused face, his eyes narrowed
dangerously.

"Chuck, I'm going to kill you! Oh very funny! Laugh all you want to!"

Charles contained himself and answered, "Easy, Will. Geez, you really need
to learn to be laughed at."

"And I suppose you would be the one to teach me?" he inquired ironically.

"Oh no, that's somebody else's job," said Charles cryptically.

William looked at his friend askance, but Charles only shrugged. "Come on,
let's go and see if we can fix some dinner, I'm starving."

***

By Friday afternoon, Elizabeth felt that maybe going out in the evening wasn
't such a bad idea. She'd spent the last two days going over the paperwork
that needed to be done before the appraiser from the De Bourgh's came on
Tuesday. When she left the clinic she was completely mentally exhausted, and
while it was tempting to just go home and fall asleep in front of the TV,
Elizabeth knew that she needed a distraction from her troubles. And what
diversion was better than an evening out in the company of her friends?

She made sure to inform Charlotte, Pete and Maria about the evening plans
and obtain their promise to be there also. If Jane had planned a romantic
double date with Caroline as the chaperone, she would have to be
disappointed. Elizabeth had nothing against William Darcy now that they were
friends, but she was still opposed to the notion of any kind of non-platonic
relationship between them.

Right after work she drove home, where she walked Jack, checked on Triss and
the other animals in the shed and fed everybody before she could see to her
own dinner. When she had eaten a bit, she went upstairs to take a shower and
spent an unusually long time in the bathroom washing, rubbing a balm into
her whole body, applying a facial, styling her hair, depilating her
eyebrows, doing a manicure and finally putting on make up.

When the easy part was taken care of, the problem arose as it usually does
during such occasions.  What should I wear? Elizabeth wondered
standing in front of her closet in her robe with a look of thoughtful
concentration on her face. Pulling out one item of clothing after another,
she appraised them and after a short reflection threw them carelessly on the
floor behind her. All the while she was thinking hard and voicing her
thoughts aloud to the faithful audience in the room - Jack and Cassandra.
The animals sat on the floor and watched her curiously.

"What do you think about this one?" she looked at the little black dress she
held in her hand. The dress was quite lovely, but the word "little" was
crucial in the description. It was very short with an impressively low-cut
neckline. "You're right, it's more appropriate for a hot date, dinner with
breakfast, no less. We don't want to give him the wrong impression. Hmmm,
how about this one?" she showed the animals a grey, knitwear, ankle-length
dress. "Too boring? I'd look like an old spinster aunt, I know. Maybe this
one?" she held a short dress in the seventies' style with a colourful flower
print. "Childish? Why do you look at me like that? You know that the hippie
fashion is returning," she sighed and sat on the bed resting her elbows on
her knees and head in her hands. "Oh God, it's hopeless! I just want to find
something suitable to wear! Is that too much to ask?"

She glanced at the animals and saw Jack yawn and Cass audaciously raise her
hind leg and attend to her toilette. A look of total boredom was gracing
their muzzles.

"Oh, thanks a lot for support! I will remind you of this evening next time
you come to me begging for a treat!"

Why am I so anxious about it? It's just an evening out with a couple of
friends, not a big deal. Surely, it doesn't matter what I wear? Groaning
in frustration, she scrambled to her feet and returned to searching her
closet for the right outfit.

***

William stepped out of the car and regarded the signboard above the entrance
to the place they were to meet Elizabeth. It read: "The Old Oak" and had a
tree painted next to the inscription that even resembled its namesake.

"Have you brought your rifle, Charles? Are you sure none of the locals will
attack us?" Caroline said mockingly.

Charles rolled his eyes in frustrated amusement. "Caroline, it's not the
Wild West. I assure you, you'll be quite safe here. Anyway, if something
were to happen you will have two doctors to give you first aid," he finished
with a snigger.

"There's no need to patronize me, Charles!" Caroline glared at her brother.
Then taking William's arm, she added, "Come on, let's go in if we must."

William boiled with anger at Caroline's familiarity, but bore it with
coolness. They entered the pub and he scanned the crowd for any signs of
Elizabeth.

First he noticed that the place was rather crowded and immediately felt
uncomfortable. Everybody seemed to be staring at him, laughing and talking
about him behind his back, judging and assessing him. Feeling everybody's
eyes on him, bodies jostling, hearing the hum of voices, he felt trapped,
suppressed and haunted. Caroline squeezed his arm possessively and he felt a
sudden and nearly uncontrollable urge to break free, to escape this sea of
hostile eyes, hands and voices.

He wrenched his hand from Caroline's grasp and was about to turn away and
leave the place when he was stopped short by the sight of what he would call
an angel, if the creature wasn't dark-haired. However, despite the
superficial darkness, she radiated light. An ethereal glow illuminated her
face and as she smiled her eyes beamed with brightness that seemed to light
up the whole room. To him, she was the lighthouse that stood solid and
secure on the distant shore. And he, like the lost sailor on the stormy sea,
followed the light to the safe harbour that was her.

"Hello, Elizabeth," he said quietly as he stood next to her.

She raised her head and smiled at him. William felt calm envelop him. His
confidence was returning and the panic attack abating.

"Hi, William. I'm glad you could make it. Come, I've kept a seat for you."

He nodded and followed her, still reeling from the bizarre episode from a
minute ago. They walked through the crowd, that didn't feel so threatening
anymore, to the table where Charlotte, Maria and Pete were already sitting,
the rest joined them. He said 'hi' and sat down, Elizabeth next to him.

"Is it always so loud in here?" he asked as he sat.

"No, usually it's just a few people. You know, farmers boozing their pints,"
said Elizabeth with a wicked gleam in her eye, glancing at Caroline. "But
Fridays is the dancing night, people from the whole town come here to jump
to the music."

"What kind of music?" inquired William.

Just as Elizabeth was about to reply they heard applause.

"You'll see," answered Elizabeth enigmatically. They heard someone tuning
the sound equipment and everybody turned in the direction from which the
noise came. A small distance from their table stood a small wooden platform,
where three men and a young woman were just taking their places with their
instruments. The woman stepped to the microphone and greeted the audience
warmly, earning more applause, and a moment later the group started to play
a lively folk tune.

It was a cheerful song and for a while the listeners sat or stood listening,
but soon people moved in the direction of the platform and started dancing.

"Well, isn't it charming? A country dance! How pastoral!" intoned Caroline,
her voice dripping with poorly disguised scorn.

The whole party looked at her with strange expressions on their faces,
ranging from disbelief, through embarrassment and exasperation to derision.

"The band is a very good one," said Jane looking at William and ignoring
Caroline. "They've just signed a contract for their first album."

"Have they? I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of their performance,
then," he answered and realised he really meant it. He was beginning to feel
more at ease and would even say he was having a good time if it wasn't for
Caroline's presence.

"I thought you would, but as for myself I'm not going to spend the evening
watching them. I came here to dance and there's no better place nor lovelier
partners in the whole of England," declared Charles gallantly, then taking
Jane's hand, "Janey, can I ask you?" Before she could answer, he dragged her
to the dance floor to the accompaniment of her giggles.

Pete took one look at Maria and then led her away as well. William,
Elizabeth, Charlotte and Caroline were left sitting in a slightly
uncomfortable silence.

"So, William." Charlotte turned to him. "Do you enjoy folk music?"

"I wouldn't say that this is my favourite type of music, but I do like
listening to good folk when I get the chance."

Caroline was all astonishment. "Really? I never suspected you of such
tastes. Surely, you must agree with me that this is an entertainment for
common people. Those of the higher status listen to classical music."

"I never expected you to be aware of my tastes, musical or any other,"
replied William sourly.

Elizabeth watched this exchange with silent amusement. Caroline obviously
didn't know what she was about spreading her venom in the company of
Elizabeth and Charlotte, who were renowned for their intelligence and
sarcastic wit. And William was also getting better at irony lately.

"And which of the classical composers do you prefer, Caroline?" asked
Elizabeth with an innocent expression on her face.

Caroline looked at her smugly. "I excessively admire Bach. I think his "Fur
Elise" is one of the best pieces of the Renaissance music."

Three faces stared at her with queer expressions of disbelief and suppressed
laughter. Finally, Charlotte said, "I don't claim to be an expert on
classical music, but wasn't "Fur Elise" composed by someone else?"

"In fact it was composed by Beethoven," said William.

"An excellent composer," added Elizabeth.

Caroline's face turned red and embarrassed. "Oh...yes...yes, of course it
was Beethoven. Slip of the tongue," she finished ungracefully, while
inwardly seething. How dare this upstart presume she can correct her?

"Excuse me, I have to go to the ladies' room," she said and walked away
hastily, unable to stand the amused smirks on her companions' countenances.

When she left, the whole party burst out laughing. Elizabeth and Charlotte
giggled so much they almost fell from their chairs and even William allowed
himself a small chuckle.

"Well, that was precious," said Charlotte when she regained her breath.

"That should shut her up for some time. I don't think I could handle her
condescending remarks anymore," stated Elizabeth.

William smiled. He was having a great time; the music was very good, the
company nice and entertaining and Caroline was nowhere near for the time
being. Wanting to show his satisfaction with the evening and the society, he
offered the girls to get them drinks, to which they eagerly agreed.

When William left, Charlotte turned to Elizabeth with an inquiring look on
her face. "So, what's the story with you and Dr. Darcy?"

"What do you mean?" asked Elizabeth innocently.

Charlotte rolled her eyes. "What I mean is that you don't hiss at him like
an angry she-cat and he smiles and actually talks instead of staring dumbly
and drooling on his shirt. So, I'll repeat: what's the story?"

"We are friends," answered Elizabeth a bit defensively.

"Friends? Since when?" asked Charlotte sceptically. It wasn't friendship she
saw in William's eyes when he looked at her friend and frankly, Elizabeth's
glances at his posterior when he had been going for the drinks weren't so
chaste either.

Slightly confounded, Elizabeth replied, "Well, if you have to know, since
Wednesday. Oh, laugh if you want to, Char! I know what you're thinking and I
'm not even going to comment it."

"Really? And what am I thinking?"

"I know what all of you are thinking! Don't you think I realise that you,
Jane and Charles are determined to set me up with William? But you'll have
to accept your disappointment. William and I are friends and nothing more."

"Liz, you are the strangest creature I know! Three days ago you were
convinced you didn't like him and never would. Today you are friends. In
another week he's going to be the love of your life," Charlotte pointed out
in a somewhat scoffing way.

Elizabeth inhaled deeply in true indignation. "Do you suggest I'm not
allowed to make a bad judgement and later change my opinion? Would you have
me insist on my dislike of him despite the evidence that I had been wrong?"

Charlotte leaned back in her chair and raised both her hands in a gesture of
capitulation. "I'm not suggesting anything, you did. Let's not argue about
this anymore," she offered in conciliation.

"I didn't start this," huffed Elizabeth, but agreed not to talk about the
business any longer. They sat for a while, chatting about different things,
when suddenly their eyes were drawn to the dance floor where they beheld a
surprising sight - Maria and Pete in an amorous embrace, kissing
passionately.

In perfect amazement, Elizabeth and Charlotte stared at the pair.

"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Elizabeth with astonishment.

"I'd be damned if I had any idea. But I'm glad someone is getting some
action," answered Charlotte dryly.

Elizabeth chuckled, but soon became serious as Caroline chose this moment to
return to the table.

"Where's William?" she asked with a hint of suspicion in her voice.

"Don't worry, he just went to buy drinks. I'm sure he won't get lost," said
Elizabeth, earning an angry look from Caroline, but before she could
respond, the man himself showed up.

"Sorry it took so much time, the line was pretty long," he explained as he
put the beverages on the table.

"That's OK, it's always like this on a Friday evening," answered Elizabeth
with a generous smile, which made William's heart pound hard in his chest.
Now, he thought, you have a great opportunity to ask her to dance.

But it was not to be. Caroline, seeing the looks he and Elizabeth were
exchanging, decided to intervene.

"William, darling, you promised to dance with me."

With an apologetic glance towards Elizabeth he let himself be pulled to the
dance floor. Soon, Elizabeth was carried away by a friend and when William
freed himself from Caroline's clutches, he found Charlotte alone at the
table and felt obliged to ask her to dance. And so the evening continued.
Elizabeth danced nearly every dance and had a wonderful time. William danced
only with Caroline, Charlotte, Jane and Maria and spent most of the evening
sitting at the table and watching wistfully as Elizabeth danced the night
away in the arms of other men.

It was nearing eleven when Elizabeth left the dance floor completely
exhausted. The pub was hot and stuffy; despite the relatively late hour,
many people were still dancing or sitting at the tables and the bar. The din
and commotion rendered her slightly dizzy and, deciding that what she needed
was some fresh air, she made her way outside the building.

She stepped into the quiet moonlit night. It was chilly, she could see the
white puffs of her breath as she inhaled and exhaled deeply, feeling the
crisp air refresh her muddled senses. She hugged herself, rubbing her arms
and looking at the sky. It was a clear night, the stars shone brightly in
the obsidian sky and the crescent moon hung high over the trees by the river
not far away.

Feeling cold, but unwilling to return inside yet, she decided to walk a bit
in order to think and warm herself up with the exercise. The night was
indeed perfect for such activities - both walking and thinking. She strolled
slowly, enjoying the evening. The air smelled of night, trees, river and
autumn. How beautiful it would be to share this night with someone....
Involuntarily, her thoughts drifted to William. The recollection of the way
he looked at her when he first saw her sent shivers down her spine. She
thought she saw joy and relief and desire in his gaze. He was positively
beaming with happiness at beholding her. Even after a few hours, her heart
skipped a beat remembering that scene. What had happened? Several days ago
she didn't even like him. And now she felt she liked him more each day. He
was proving to be intelligent, funny and charming. She was pretty sure they
could become good friends. That's what both of them wanted and it didn't
matter what Charlotte, Jane or anybody else thought.


Thus reassured, she felt calmer. But the feeling of contentment didn't last
long, because she realised she was getting very cold. Cursing her
thoughtlessness at forgetting to take her jacket on this stroll, she turned
back and headed to the pub. Still immersed in her thoughts she didn't notice
the tall figure standing outside the entrance, before he called out to her,
"Elizabeth!"

Startled, she turned her head and looked at him. "William? What are you
doing here?"

"I saw that you disappeared and I was worried," he admitted reluctantly.

She smiled. He was worried about her! How sweet of him! "William, this is
Meryton, people don't get mugged on the streets here on a regular basis."

He looked sheepish. "I'm sorry, I just...living in London...I thought..."

"William, there's nothing to apologise for, I'm not angry," she interrupted
him before he faltered even more. He smiled in relief and moved closer to
her.

"Well, since we are both here and you're not angry, there is something I've
wanted to ask you the whole evening," he said, looking intently into her
eyes.

Elizabeth's mind reeled with a myriad of possible requests he could make.
"Yes?" she asked a little hesitantly.

"Will you dance with me?" he enquired.

It was her turn to smile in relief. "Yes, thank you."

He beamed and opened the door for her, then led her to the dance floor, his
hand resting lightly on the small of her back; his touch was slight, but
disconcerting all the same.

As they stood on the dance floor, the band finished a lively song. The young
vocalist then addressed the audience, thanked them and announced the last
song of the evening. A moment later, the notes of a slow love song
reverberated in the pub. William put his arms around Elizabeth and slowly
they began to dance.

It was almost magical. The feeling of holding her in his arms for the first
time was incredible. She felt warm and soft, her hands rested on his
shoulders, her body was so close he could feel her warmth and smell her
sweet scent. This is perfect, he thought dreamily. He relished these
sensations, while fighting himself in order not to press her tightly to him.
As she raised her head and looked at him with a small smile on her face, all
he wanted was to kiss her in such a way that would leave them both
breathless.

Elizabeth studied William's face. He looked positively blissful, though his
eyes were faintly distant. She sighed. It felt wonderful to be in his arms.
She felt his hard muscles under her hands, the heat of his body as they
moved together to the music. It was all so perfect. Too perfect. Feeling
suddenly light-headed, she stumbled a little, but William's strong hands
held her waist tightly and he pulled her to him, embracing her. She felt
powerless to protest and instead rested her head on his shoulder, her face
turned towards his neck. His warm embrace felt so comforting, the cradle of
his arms so safe. His gorgeous neck radiated a warm, masculine scent and, on
an impulse, she brushed it lightly with her lips. He tasted delightful.

William's breath caught at the touch of her warm lips on his neck. He closed
his eyes and held her tighter, letting out a soft moan. This was the most
exquisite torture. He wondered if she knew what she did to him. He even wasn
't sure she knew what she had just done. As much as it was tempting to kiss
her and check for himself, deep down he knew that he shouldn't. Ruining
everything with hasty demands was not an option.

Instead, he just stroked her hair and kissed the crown of her head tenderly,
like a brother would. She raised her head from his shoulder and looked into
his face questioningly. He caressed her cheek gently, looking intently into
her sparkling, wide open, inquiring eyes. She shivered under the scrutiny of
his dark, fathomless gaze.

"You are so beautiful," he whispered in a low voice, his expression tender.
He held her eyes with his own and they continued this way, enthralled, until
the sound of loud applause pulled them out of their trance. The song had
ended, the evening was coming to a close, and the spell was broken.

Awkwardly, they stepped away from each other and headed back to the table. A
few minutes later, the whole party left the pub and went to their cars.
Elizabeth opened the door to her truck, still in a daze, when she felt
someone touch her arm lightly and speak her name. She turned around to see
William standing before her.

"Are we still meeting tomorrow?" he asked, not sure how things were between
them now.

Elizabeth lowered her eyes, unable to meet his earnest gaze. "Yes, if you
like. Be at my house at 7:30."

He smiled, relieved not to be refused. "Thanks. Until tomorrow then." Unable
to resist himself, he bent down and kissed her cheek gently.

She watched him get into his car and drive away, her hand touching the spot
on her cheek where his lips had rested just moments ago. What has just
happened?

Chapter seven

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning William Darcy drove to Elizabeth
Bennet's house. It was very early, but he was well-rested, rejuvenated and
jubilant. He had slept remarkably well last night, dreaming of Elizabeth,
but this time his dreams were sweet and subtle, unlike the tantalizing
tortures from the previous nights. They also ended quite pleasantly, without
any rude interruptions.

Last evening had given him hope that he was on the right track to win her.
Whistling the melody to which they had danced the previous night, William
pulled into the driveway to Elizabeth's house and strode briskly to the
front door.   He rang the doorbell and a moment later the door opened and he
was greeted by the sight of Elizabeth dressed much as she had been clad the
first time he saw her. She was wearing a faded pair of blue jeans that clung
to her hips and showed off her amazing legs and a warm cardigan in the shade
of burgundy. Her hair was in a bun, but a few unruly tendrils escaped the
confinement of the coiffure and surrounded her face in the most becoming
way. Her brilliant eyes shone on him as she smiled tentatively in greeting.
How could I have missed it that night how beautiful she is? He
thought in puzzlement.

"William, come in," said Elizabeth and opened the door wider to let him in.
"I'm almost ready."

With some nervousness he stepped inside. He was finally in her home, her
private space. He looked around, taking in the warm, cosy interior, but
before he could observe his surroundings closely, he was accosted by a very
excited dog. The animal trotted animatedly around him, wagging his tail
furiously and sniffing his legs. After a moment he ceased his snuffling and
proceeded to push his nose into his hand and lick his palm. The situation
was clear - William was officially accepted and admitted to the pack.

Embarrassed, Elizabeth pushed Jack away from William, but the dog needed
some persuasion to abandon the company of his new favourite.

"I'm sorry," she said to William apologetically, "he doesn't normally behave
this way."

"No, it's all right," William assured her, kneeling down and scratching Jack
behind the ears. "I'm actually flattered," he added smilingly. He continued
his attentions to Jack, when Cass, roused from her slumber by the noise in
the hall, rose from her armchair and went to see what it was all about. On
seeing the stranger giving such special treatment to Jack, she approached
him and started brushing over his leg, demanding interest.  William directed
his attention to the cat, to which she reacted with a contented purring.

Elizabeth stared in disbelief as her pets seemed to forget her existence and
focus their attention on William instead. With even greater bewilderment she
noticed that he appeared not to mind it at all, in fact he looked as if he
enjoyed it! She shook her head in bemusement at the sight she had never
expected to see - Dr. William Darcy dressed in casual clothes, sitting on
the floor in her hall, playing with her animals, a grin of true pleasure on
his handsome face.   The prospect was so comical she couldn't help laughing,
causing William to look up at her from the floor questioningly.

"It seems that you managed to win those monsters in a matter of minutes.
That's quite extraordinary. Jack is usually friendly, but Cass is more wary
of strangers. I've never seen them this taken with someone they see for the
first time."

William stood up and brushed his clothes from cat and dog hair. "If they
deem me worthy of their favour I should only feel honoured and wonder what I
have done to deserve such grace," he said wryly.

Elizabeth shrugged. "I have no idea." Then, seeing William's clothes still
covered with hair and his hands moist from Jack's show of affection, she
added, "You'd better go and clean up a bit. The bathroom's at the end of the
hall."

Nodding his thanks he went in the said direction, while Elizabeth returned
to the kitchen to finish packing the sandwiches she wanted to take for the
trip. While her hands were engaged in her task, her mind worked even harder,
processing what had just happened and what it meant in relation to all that
had previously transpired between her and William.  When he appeared on her
doorstep this morning, she had been anything but composed. She had spent
half the night reviewing the events of the last evening, replaying the
scenes again and again in her mind, trying to make sense of them.
Eventually, she concluded that William actually was serious when he had
asked her to be his friend. Remembering all their encounters she couldn't
actually recall any instances of his interest in her other than of the
platonic nature. The previous evening had given him more than one
opportunity for him to show her attention (i.e. kiss her), yet he didn't do
it. Instead, he behaved with complete politeness and his actions towards her
were perfectly chaste, as were his feelings about her. Elizabeth was telling
herself it was for the best, but could not quite contain a few stings of
disappointment in her treacherous heart.

"I'm ready to go." His deep voice startled her and she spun around to see
him standing in the kitchen door. He seemed quite relaxed and looked around
curiously. She smiled nervously and, grabbing her backpack and jacket, lead
William to the door.

Once outside, he addressed her, "You never actually said where we are going
today."

She smiled mysteriously. "It's a secret, but I think you'll like it.  We
have to go to the garage first."

They entered the garage, which was moderately cluttered with hoes, rakes and
other garden tools, cardboard boxes, spare truck parts and wicker garden
furniture. In the middle of all this stood Elizabeth's car. William looked
at the place in confusion, unsure of what it was they could need from there.
Turning to Elizabeth, he asked her about this, to which she replied, "Bikes,
obviously. You didn't want to walk all the way. It's almost twenty miles!"

He didn't answer this, but shot her a dubious glance.

She sighed in exasperated amusement. "Are you going to tell me now that you
haven't ridden a bicycle since you were fifteen?"

His face took on a little awkward expression. "No," he answered defensively,
"But it has been some years since I had the opportunity to indulge in this
sport."

She laughed at his grumpy face. "William, you need to loosen up, I was just
teasing you. Come on, grab the blue one and let's get going."

Reluctantly, he heeded her order and then followed her out of the garage.
They arranged their backpacks on the carriers and led the bikes through the
long, winding road that was surrounded by tall poplars on both sides. The
trees were magnificent in autumn, boasting with the palette of warm colours
crowning their tops.

They walked for a few moments before William noticed a movement to his left
in a corner of his eye. He turned his head and focused his view on the
object which, upon closer inspection appeared to be a dog. He stopped short
in his track and called to Elizabeth. She halted also and looked at him
questioningly.

"Look," he said, motioning to the animal, which stood a few yards away from
them and observed the people warily. "Is this the poor fellow you told me
about?"

She nodded. "The very one  He must have come for his daily share. I left him
some food near the house." She turned to walk on, but was prevented by the
sight of William slowly getting down to a crouching position and reaching to
his backpack to retrieve a sandwich. Unwinding it from the paper, he reached
out, holding it in his hand and softly calling out to the dog.

"Come here, little one. I've got a delicious treat for you. Come on, don't
be scared. That's it, come closer. I won't hurt you."

In utter amazement Elizabeth watched William coax the animal closer to him.
Slowly, hesitantly, the dog approached the crouching man, eying him
apprehensively, but the sandwich in his hand too tempting to pass up.
Cajoled by William's gentle tone, he advanced even closer and finally
snatched the food from his grasp. Once the sandwich was safe between his
teeth, the dog turned around and ran from them to eat his loot.

William looked after the dog, feeling extremely sorry for the animal. If he
could but help him. But it was as Elizabeth had said; there wasn't much to
be done. And, after all, the owner may be found still.

Elizabeth was speechless, her mouth opened in a very unladylike fashion, her
eyes huge with astonishment. She blinked several times and tried to collect
herself, facing William who rose and stood next to her, his eyes still on
the dog and his face an unreadable mask.

"How did you do that? I haven't managed to convince him to come close to me
for a week and then you show up and he approaches you at once, heck, he even
takes the food from your hand!" Her face expressed incredulity and not a
little admiration.

He grinned shyly. "I forgot to tell you that animals have always been drawn
to me as well."

Elizabeth, unable to find words, only smiled at him and they resumed their
walk. In a moment they stood in front of an iron gate in the fence that
marked  the boundary of Elizabeth's property. Outside, they jumped on their
bikes rode away.

Elizabeth led the way and, after a few minutes of riding along the road,
occasionally passed by cars, they turned into an empty way.  Another few
minutes, and they turned into a narrow path that led straight into the
forest.

The day was glorious indeed, perhaps one of the few fine days left before
the bad autumn weather would start. The sky was clear, with only a few white
clouds sailing over its azure expanse.  The gentle wind whistled in the
crowns of the trees, causing the golden, yellow, russet and scarlet leaves
to fall from the branches and, swirling several times, tumble to the ground,
creating a thick, dry carpet on the soil, which rustled under the bicycle
wheels. The sun shone through the tree branches, producing a lovely play of
light and shadow by casting pale patches of light on the sheltered land. The
air smelled of wind, moss, soil and trees. It was perfectly quiet, save for
the occasional call of crow, sparrow or other bird that wintered in the
English woods.

They rode in silence most of the way, only occasionally interrupting the
quiet. William relished this experience, the feel of wind in his hair and on
his face, the smells, the sounds, the views that surrounded him and filled
his senses.  He felt carefree and at ease. Admittedly, Elizabeth had a
wonderful idea to make this a bike trip.

After about two hours of riding, Elizabeth informed him that they were near
their destination.  They got off their bikes and made the rest of the route
on foot, leading their vehicles through a narrow path between thick bushes
that led winding down a gentle slope. A vague sound could be heard from
their left, something between lapping and rustling, gaining in loudness and
clarity as they walked.

William disentangled himself from branches obstructing the way, tumbled to a
small clearing and looked around. The glade turned out to be a small, wild
beach and the indistinct sound he had heard before was the hum of the river,
which flowed slowly in its wide bend, untamed and unhindered by people's
interference. Both banks were grown with trees of different kinds and
colours, the fallen leaves floated on the dark water surface. The sun shone
brilliantly, creating reflections of light on the ever-moving water. A
lonely duck drifted leisurely in the direction of the beach.

"It's so beautiful," he whispered in awe, afraid to disturb the stillness of
this lovely haven.

They retrieved a blanket from the carrier and spread it on the sunlit
ground. Both of them got very hungry during the ride; exercise and much
fresh air having whetted their appetites.  Elizabeth unpacked the food and a
thermos with hot tea, then handed a sandwich to William, saying with a
mischievous gleam in her eye, "Here, eat this, since you fed your sandwich
to the dog."

"Thank you," he said, smiling, "But I have more left. Jane wouldn't even
hear of letting me go without a suitable amount of provisions."

Elizabeth laughed. "Yep, that's Jane, always a mother to everyone. We can
swap if you want to, like in the old, school days. What are yours with?" she
finished playfully.

William played along, "Cheese and tomatoes. Yours?"

"Turkey and mustard," she replied. "Wanna swap?"

"Sure."

They ate and drank in silence for a few minutes until the biggest hunger was
satiated. When he finished consuming his sandwich, William stretched and lay
on the blanket, hands under his head, legs stretched out on the ground, eyes
closed in blissful relaxation. He presented the picture of complete
contentment. Elizabeth smiled gazing down at him. He looked boyishly
endearing and she had to fight the urge to smooth his hair away from his
handsome face.

"Mmmmm, this is heaven," he muttered, turning his face to the warm sunrays.

She chuckled poking a finger in his chest. "Well, you see, sir. You were so
reluctant to come here and yet you like it."

He opened his eyes and caught her finger. "I wasn't reluctant to come here.
I was just hesitant to come by bike. I haven't ridden in many years and was
afraid I wasn't fit enough. I didn't want you to make fun of the old fat
me."

She made an innocent face. "Me? Laugh at you? Don't worry, you're safe from
me. I'm not so insensitive as to hurt the feelings of poor elderly fatties."

He furrowed his brows in displeasure and held her hand more tightly.
Laughing, she tried to pull the appendage from his grasp, only causing him
to jerk it so that she was pulled to the blanket next to him.

"That wasn't a very nice thing to say, young lady. Now, take that back," he
said threateningly.

She laughed even harder, but feeling his grasp on her hand tighten again,
she hurried with a reply, "All right, all right! I take it back! Your
anything but old and fat." He smiled smugly and loosened his hold on her
hand, but didn't let it go completely. She lay on her side, supporting
herself on her right elbow, her left hand still in his grasp. She felt,
however, that she didn't mind his holding her hand much. In fact, she didn't
mind it at all.

She looked at his beautiful face and took in every detail. His skin was
smooth, but a few faint lines already graced his wide forehead. His dark
eyes were as deep as ever, but she could see slightly dark rings round them.
His usual paleness was now replaced with a healthy rosy colour that adorned
his cheeks. As she gazed at him, lying so peacefully in this quiet place,
she looked at him as if she saw him for the first time. He looked tired,
troubled and not healthy. Her own face creased with worry. She didn't like
seeing him this way. She wanted him healthy and happy. From where has
this sudden concern come? She wondered in bewilderment. When have I
come to care so much for this man?

"No, you're not old and fat," she repeated, but this time in a serious tone.
"But you're not exactly the picture of health, either. Why is it that a good
doctor like you has neglected his own health so much?"

He looked at her in confusion. "What makes you say that?"

She shrugged. "I can see it. You don't eat properly, you don't take
exercise, you work too hard. You look unwell. Yesterday you told me you
worried about me. Well, it so happens, I worry about you too."

On hearing her words, he couldn't contain a wide grin of happiness. "I
appreciate it, Elizabeth, I really do. But there's no need for concern. I
feel fine. In fact, I haven't felt this good in a long time." She looked at
him in askance and he added quickly, "I guess I really needed a holiday and
I've spent my time off quite actively so far. Horse riding, walking by the
river, running around the town putting out posters," he paused to grin at
her and she answered with a smirk, "dancing, riding a bicycle.... You see,
I've had plenty of exercise and all of it thanks to you." How I wish for
another type of exercise you could provide me with, he thought
lustfully, but contained his licentious impulses. Patience, he
schooled himself, squeezing her hand gently.

Elizabeth smirked at him. "I'm glad to have been of use. I have to warn you,
though, that I fully intend to sacrifice myself for the sake of your health
for the rest of the duration of your stay."

"I'm counting on it," he drawled looking at her provocatively.

She blushed and looked away. Her eyes fell on the river and they both
contemplated the splendid view before them.

"When did you find this place?" he inquired quietly a moment later.

"A few years ago. I went canoeing on the river and found this wild beach. I'
ve been coming here to swim in the summer ever since."

"I'm sure you and your friends must have had great time here," he observed.

She smiled a little shyly, "Actually, no one else knows about this place. I'
ve been keeping it a secret, I don't even know why. I guess it felt good to
have this place only to myself."

William was looking at her intently. She had decided to share with him her
secret place, her private spot in the world she had kept to herself. What
was he to think of it? Unbidden, hope   rushed through him, almost causing
him to laugh out loud with joy. His imagination was struck by the image of
this place in the heat of the summer and her swimming in these waters,
sunbathing on this grass, wearing a sexy bikini...or better yet, nothing at
all.

He tugged at her hand gently and pulled her closer to him. She sighed and
lied down next to him, resting her head on his chest.

"I hope you don't mind," she said. "You're a very comfortable pillow."

He laughed, a deep rumble that emanated from his chest. "At your service, ma
'am."

"And what about you?" she asked, after she nestled comfortably beside him.
"What's your special place?"

He thought for a moment. "Pemberley," he said with a wistful note in his
voice.

"What's Pemberley," she inquired.

His free hand wrapped around her shoulders and stroked her back lightly.
"Pemberley is my family home in Derbyshire."

Surprised, she raised her head and looked at him. "Derbyshire? I thought you
were from London."

Gently, but decidedly, he pressed her head back to its place in the crook of
his arm. "I was born in Derbyshire, in Matlock to be precise. My father was
a doctor in Lambton, a small village near Pemberley, and that's where I
spent my childhood, up until the time I went to school."

"How old were you then?"

"I was twelve when I went to Eton. After graduation I went directly to
Cambridge. Then I got the job in London and moved out for good."

"Did you like school?" Elizabeth asked.

"At first I hated it," he admitted. "I missed home terribly and couldn't fit
in with the rest of the students. I was reserved and shy...in a way I still
am."

Elizabeth struggled to digest this information. Until now she had never
thought of him as shy. Remembering some of their previous meetings, however,
she surmised that he may well be telling the truth.  What if his actions,
which she took for arrogance, stemmed in fact from his shyness? It put all
of their acquaintance in a completely different light.

"Do you often visit Pemberley now?" asked Elizabeth, relishing the feel of
his hand on her back and his warm chest under her cheek. He smelled as
wonderful as she remembered.

"Not as often as I'd like to. I usually spend there a week in the summer
with my sister Georgiana."

"I didn't know you had a sister." How little I really know about him.
She shifted her position so that she could lay her chin on his chest and
gaze into his face. "Do you have any more siblings?"

He shook his head. "No, it's just Georgie and me. She's the only immediate
family I've got left and we've always been close. She's much younger than me
and I've always taken care of her...I'm very protective of her."

The warm tone of his voice when he spoke about his sister didn't escape her
notice. "Has she been a difficult charge?" asked Elizabeth lightly.

A sudden shadow clouded his features and he answered gravely, "She's a very
good girl and has never done anything that would make me anything but proud
of her. Unfortunately, she's extremely shy and a little too trusting...."

She could see that this topic was troubling him and making him uneasy.
Tentatively, she inquired, "How old was she when your parents died?"

"She was five," he replied.

Elizabeth felt a wave of sympathy for this little girl who lost her parents
so early. Her admiration for William increased even more when it became
clear that he must have raised his sister by himself.

"God," she whispered. "How terrible. And you, you were only twenty? Left
with such a responsibility at such a young age. It must have been so
difficult for you." She gazed at him with compassion.

He shrugged. "I never complained about it, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Giving Georgie to some relation was unthinkable."

He looked very sad and suddenly he seemed to her this young man - orphaned
and lonely. And yet, he had been able to get the better of his pain and
devote himself to the care of his sister. She felt tears coming to her eyes
at the thought of what it must have been for him and, impulsively, she
leaned over and kissed his cheek softly, caressing his other cheek with her
hand. He looked at her surprised. She smiled guiltily at him.

"You know how to soften a woman's heart with stories of sad childhood," she
said teasingly, trying to dispel the serious mood.

He grinned. "Yes, I spend many hours trying to come up with the most
depressing tales to play on women's feelings. The one about a lonely man
with a child is the most catching," he declared dryly.

She laughed resonantly to this.

***

They spent a lovely couple of hours on the wild beach, laughing and talking
about their families, their childhoods, their friends, their jobs, their
interests and passions. They got to know one another better and both of them
strengthened their previous resolutions. William was convinced more than
ever that he wanted to be with her. Elizabeth, on her part, was reassured
that he wanted them to be friends and persuaded herself she was happy about
this.

About 2pm they decided it was time to get back. They mounted their bikes and
resumed the twenty-mile way back. In two hours time they arrived at
Elizabeth's house. William was reluctant to say goodbye and she was not so
wholly willing to let him go, so she invited him in for coffee.

After Elizabeth checked on her animals and took a short walk with Jack, she
went into the kitchen to make coffee. William was left in the sitting room
looking around curiously.

The whole room was cosy and elegant. It was large and bright, with a big
window and French doors leading to the back garden. The lightness of the
room was emphasized by the white walls, which were adorned with several
pictures representing mainly animals; most of them dogs and horses and
hunting scenes. One side of the room was occupied by a large auburn coloured
couch, two armchairs on each side of it and a small coffee table in front of
it. On the other side of the room was a brick fireplace. Its mantelpiece was
covered with numerous photos in lovely frames. William stood before them and
looked at each one curiously. One of them was a picture of a little girl
with dark curls and a laughing face. She was sitting in the garden holding a
big German shepherd by the neck, snuggling to the beast with all the trust
and affection of a child. She looked like the Little Red Riding Hood with
the wolf. William knew who this little girl must be and he smiled to
himself. She hadn't changed much.

On the next photo he could recognise Elizabeth and Jane, both of them
younger, probably in their teens. They were embracing and smiling widely.

The third picture presented a family, Elizabeth's family. It must have been
taken quite recently, he observed. He could see the Elizabeth he knew now -
grown up, beautiful and joyful. He recognised Jane, but he didn't know other
people from the photograph. Three young women,  no more than girls, each
different in appearance, yet there was an undeniable family resemblance
between all five sisters. William noted that all of them were pretty, though
the girl wearing glasses and bearing a serious expression on her face, could
profit from  paying more attention to her appearance. The elder couple,
their parents, he supposed, were handsome as well, especially the mother was
very good-looking. They all looked quite happy and harmonious.

The last picture on the mantle was that of an elderly couple. The photo was
taken in front of this very house. The pair sat on the bench standing on the
front porch. They looked very happy and content. The picture radiated
calmness, love and warmth.

"They're my grandparents."

William almost jumped out of his skin on the sudden sound of her voice. He
turned around to see her standing in the doorway and carrying a tray. He put
the picture back to the mantle.

"They seem to be wonderful people," he offered awkwardly.

Her features reflected sadness and she answered quietly, "They were
wonderful people. They're gone now. I inherited this house from them." She
moved to the table and put the tray down, then she sat on the couch and
looked at him, sorrow still in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "This is a beautiful house, though." He moved to sit
next to her and watched her pour the coffee into the cups.

"Thank you," she answered concentrating all her attention on pouring out
coffee. "I haven't changed much in it when I moved. I like it the way it was
when my grandparents were still alive." She handed him a cup.

"Were you very close?" he asked, a little hesitant to ask her questions that
could bring her pain, but he wanted to know her better. And he did tell her
a great deal about himself today. Surely, he could expect some confessions
in return?

She didn't seem to mind his prying, though. "Yes, we were very close. In a
way I was closer to them than my own parents. I spent much of my time in
this house, helping my grandma bake cookies or work in the garden and taking
care of animals with my grandpa. He was a vet, you know. It was he that
inspired me to become one as well."

She smiled with a distant look in her eyes. "This house had been my respite
from the hubbub  of my own home. Every time I couldn't stand my mother's
demands anymore, or my younger sisters were getting on my nerves with their
constant whining and quarrelling, I would run away and come here. It was
always so peaceful and quiet and my grandparents were always happy to see
me...."

She trailed off and looked away. "My grandmother died five years ago. We
were all in shock, but my grandfather suffered the most. He could never come
to terms with her death. He followed her three years later. Almost two years
ago. I moved in here, but it's not the same when they're not around. It's so
empty and lonely....I miss them...." she finished vulnerably and the long
suppressed desolation washed away the dam of months of restraint and she
broke into bitter tears. She cried like a child would; helplessly, miserably
and softly, her face in her hands.

William felt crestfallen and powerless to help her. Seeing her in so much
pain, she - always so happy and strong, was breaking his heart. Awkwardly,
he reached out and gathered her into his embrace. She clung to him weakly,
sobbing into his shirt, drenching it with her tears, but he didn't even
notice it. All he could feel was her in his arms, her pain, her need, and he
stroked her hair and back gently, kissed her brow and whispered soothing
words until her crying abated somewhat.  There was nothing urgent in their
embrace, they were two friends - one seeking and one giving comfort. During
these few short minutes William's feelings for her deepened and grew more
complicated. It wasn't just about sex anymore, it was about friendship and
affection and warmth and all the feelings that signified a meaningful
relationship. He felt an overwhelming need to protect her, to hold her in
his arms forever and never let anything bad happen to her.

Finally, she regained her composure and moved away from him, an apology
forming on her lips, which he prevented before she could utter the words.
They smiled at each other, both feeling they had reached an understanding.

Later, she walked him to his car.

"I've really enjoyed myself today. I hope we can do it again sometime," said
William.

Elizabeth smiled warmly at him, "I'd like that, too."

"Can I see you tomorrow?" he asked hopefully.

She looked at him, sorry to have to disappoint him. "I'm sorry, but I always
spend Sundays with my family."

To her surprise, he didn't look upset at all. "Don't you know? Your mother
has invited Charles, me and Caroline to dinner tomorrow. I guess you'll be
seeing me after all." He smiled.

Elizabeth forced a smile at her face, while inwardly trembling at the
thought of William meeting her family. Yet, there was nothing to do about it
now. He obviously didn't have any idea what he was getting into.

"That's going to be nice," she replied unconvincingly.

"See you tomorrow then," he said and embraced her shyly. She returned the
embrace and they held each other for a moment, before William kissed her
cheek, got into the car and drove away, leaving Elizabeth already missing
him.

Chapter eight

William awoke the next morning feeling as if someone had just pulled him out
of a dog's throat (1). His muscles were sore and his whole body throbbed
with ache - not a surprising phenomenon after the activities of the previous
day. However, William didn't regret a moment of it and would gladly suffer
it all again for the sake of making a good impression on Elizabeth. He
smiled to himself when it became clear that she had been right again - he
needed to get more exercise.

William pulled himself from bed and dragged his poor hurting bum to the
bathroom and under into? the shower. Hours of sitting on an uncomfortable
bike seat proved disastrous. Groaning, he massaged his bruised behind,
thinking he would never be able to sit again. He let the hot water massage
his aching limbs, yet it didn't alleviate his discomfort much. Finally,
deciding that the best cure for pulled muscles was more exercise, he got
dressed and went jogging.

William slipped out of the house and ran in the direction of Meryton. The
weather was somewhat worse than yesterday; it was foggy and slightly colder,
but fortunately, it didn't rain. The mile and a half run to town took him
about fifteen minutes and, once in Meryton, he made his way to the
riverside, which held so many pleasant memories for him.

He ran at a steady pace, not too fast, but striving to keep an even speed
and breath. This way, he prevented his body from over-exhaustion and
breathlessness. The additional advantage of such conduct was the ability to
enjoy the morning and the splendid view. The fog had descended low over the
water's surface and created a fairy tale sight, whose unreality was
reinforced by the muffled sunrays trying to penetrate the thick milky veil.
William admired the beauty of his surroundings, all the while wondering at
the abundance of lovely views in this part of the country. During the many
long years he had spent in one of the largest and busiest cities on the
planet, he had almost forgotten what nature looked like. Oh, there was any
number of charming parks in London, but nothing that even remotely resembled
the natural, wild, almost ancient places he had found here.

After having run for a while by the river, he jogged in the direction of the
town, intending to go back to Netherfield. Meryton was awaking, more and
more people were filling the streets, making their way to the church or just
taking a Sunday walk. William had grown used to causing the curiosity of the
residents, any stranger in their little town would excite much interest and,
as much as he disliked it, he tried to bear the situation with grace. This
morning, however, their attention seemed different than usual. More than one
passerby looked at him with a smirk and a curious raise of eyebrows. There
were occasional stifled laughs and children pointing at his direction.

William frowned. What could be the meaning of this? He looked at his clothes
to ascertain they were in order and, indeed, there was nothing at all amiss
in his dark blue tracksuit, as far as he could see. Stopping outside a shop
he surveyed his appearance in the shop window, but could see nothing that
would stimulate such a reaction. Shrugging, he resumed his run, but the
amused looks and giggles didn't stop. Embarrassed, he looked around and then
he saw. A few yards behind him trotted the small gray dog, looking as dirty
and shabby as the day before. William stopped and the dog stopped also,
looking at him questioningly (at least William thought it was questioningly,
because the dog's eyes were almost invisible from under his dirty mane).

What do you want now? thought William. He didn't have anything to
give to the dog to eat, besides he was sure he had already eaten at
Elizabeth's. Maybe he'll leave me alone if I start running again.
Nothing so easy, though. The dog picked up his pace and followed William
effortlessly, still a few yards behind him. Trying to get rid of the
embarrassing baggage, William stopped a few more times, turned into back
streets, weaved his way along the old streets of Meryton. Every time he
thought he had lost his tail, the dog would reappear. Desperate, William
gave up and run out of the town towards Netherfield. When he reached the
house, he stopped before he got in. Kneeling down, he talked to the dog,
"You've run all this way with me. What shall I do with you? Do you want to
come with me into the house?"

The dog looked at him uncomprehendingly. He stood immobile, staring at
William.

"William!" he heard a shrill voice behind him. The dog immediately turned
around and in a mad dash ran as fast and as far as he could from the house
and the terrifying woman.

William turned to face Caroline who stood on the porch sporting an angry
pout.

"Could you be more delicate, Caroline? You've scared him to death!"

Caroline shrugged. "So what if I did? Since when do you care about dirty and
ugly mongrels?"

He clenched his teeth. "I've always cared about animals and people in need,
unlike you who think only of yourself."

With that he passed the stunned Caroline and went into the house.

***

Elizabeth had to admit she dreaded the dinner at Longbourn. The thought of
William meeting her family made her sick in the pit of her stomach. She
liked him very much and cared about his good opinion. Unfortunately, knowing
her relations as she did, she was fairly sure the evening would turn out to
be a total disaster.

She came to Longbourn early, with the intention of helping her mother with
the preparations. Fanny Bennet was quite aflutter with anticipation of such
important guests, but managed to get a grip and organize everything very
well. She had many faults, but her housekeeping skills were indisputable.

Elizabeth was just about to start believing all would be well, when she
heard a loud roar upstairs.

"Lydia, this is my dress, I was going to wear it tonight!"

"What? With such a butt? Don't make me laugh!"

"Oh yeah? Look who's talking, your boobs are going to burst the bodice!"

"So? At least I have breasts, unlike you, you ironing board!"

"Lydia, I hate you! Mum!!!!!"

In a matter of seconds Kitty was running down the stairs in her robe,
wailing. "Mum, Lizzy, Lydia has taken my dress! Tell her to give it back to
me!"

Mrs. Bennet raised her hands heavenwards. "Girls, can't you behave for once?
You know how important this evening is! Do have a little compassion for my
nerves!"

"But why should Lydia always take my stuff? Why does she always have to have
her way?" cried Kitty.

Seeing the situation required fast action, Elizabeth took Kitty by the arm
and said, "Let her have the dress this time and come with me to your room.
We'll look for something for you to wear. I'll even do your hair and make
up."

Kitty's face immediately cheered up. "Oh Lizzy, would you?"

Elizabeth smiled. "Of course, now come on, or you'll receive the guests in
your robe."

Half an hour later, a happy Kitty emerged from her bedroom followed by a
satisfied Elizabeth. She had managed to persuade her sister to wear a lovely
and modest dress and made her a light make up that was flattering to her
face. Her contentment was short-lived, however, as soon she noticed Lydia
walking out of her own bedroom. Kitty's dress was extremely tight on her
chest and butt and her face was painted hideously. She looked like a perfect
slut- all she needed was a lamp post to complete the picture.

"For Christ's sake, Lyd, you're not going to be dressed like that?"
Elizabeth asked incredulously.

"Why not? Don't I look hot in this? I bet Mr. Darcy is going to get hot for
me."

"Lydia!" Elizabeth snapped at her sister, appalled. "Could you be more
crude?"

Lydia shrugged indifferently and rolled her eyes. "Lord, you're such a
prude, no wonder you haven't had a boyfriend in years."

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes threateningly and hissed, "You are going too
far! Now you will march upstairs, change into something decent and wash this
stuff off your face!"

Lydia backed away and raised her head defiantly. "No way! I know what men
like. There's no chance in hell I'm changing."

"We'll see." Elizabeth took Lydia by her elbow and turned to guide her
upstairs, when she was stopped in her track by the sound of the doorbell.

"Oh God, no," she moaned, knowing perfectly well who the guests were. Lydia
used the commotion created by the arrival of the visitors to pull away from
Elizabeth.

Swallowing hard and straightening her hair she went to answer the door. She
opened it and faced the Netherfield party. Forcing a smile on her face, she
greeted them, "Hey everyone, come in."

She took their coats all the while keeping an eye on the doorway to the
kitchen. Instantly Mrs. Bennet appeared in it, as if summoned by Elizabeth's
thoughts.

"Jane, Charles, how good of you to come!" she cried while hugging her
daughter and kissing Charles on the cheek.

"Hi mum," said Jane.

"Fanny, it's wonderful to see you again. You look well," Charles said,
smiling genuinely. He handed Mrs. Bennet a bottle of wine. "I took the
liberty of bringing wine. I hope it's fine, I didn't know what you were
planning to serve today."

"Oh yes, I'm sure it will be wonderful. Thank you very much, you are so
thoughtful!" She quieted and looked to William and Caroline with an
expectant look. Charles caught her expression and hastened with an
introduction.

"I'm sorry. Fanny, this is my sister Caroline and my best friend William
Darcy. Caro, Will, this is Jane and Lizzy's mother, Mrs. Bennet."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bennet," said William politely and shook her
hand. Caroline nodded coolly.

"You can call me Fanny, we're not concerned with conventions and formality
around here," said Fanny eying her illustrious guests with delight.

I can see that, thought Caroline with contempt. This mother totally
lacked fashion.

"Let us go to the living room first. You will meet the rest of the family.
Dinner will be ready in a few minutes."

They went to the living room where the rest of the Bennets waited for the
guests. William was extremely curious about this house, Elizabeth's family
home, but he was even more interested in meeting her relations.

He recognized them from the picture he saw the day before in Elizabeth's
house and was very curious to put personalities to the faces he already new.

Her mother appeared to be in her early fifties, but was still quite
attractive. Looking at her daughters, William suspected she must have been a
beauty when she was younger. She was only slightly plump, she had a blond
perm (probably dyed as well) and small, blue shrewd eyes, which darted in
his direction greedily more often than he liked. She also seemed a little
bit too familiar and loud, but he had only met her a few minutes ago it was
too soon to create a definite opinion about her.

The first person he was introduced to was Elizabeth's father, Thomas Bennet.
He looked a few years older than his wife; his hair was graying and he wore
glasses. He looked at William attentively and seemingly indifferently, but
his brown eyes, so much like Elizabeth's, showed that his mind was sharp and
critical.

Another person he shook hands with was Mary. Her hair was dark and straight,
braided modestly at the back of her head. Her clothes were a pair of jeans
and a baggy sweater. Her geeky appearance was completed by big black-rimmed
glasses. She seemed smart, if somewhat nerdy.

The next sister he was to be introduced to stepped closer, but before he
managed to shake her hand, the third girl cut in the line, producing frowns
from the people around her and a slight blush on Elizabeth's cheeks.
However, no one said anything.

Lydia, as William found out was the rowdy girl's name, was pretty enough.
But this was the end to her virtues. She looked like a streetwalker in her
tight and too revealing dress, provocative make-up and red dyed hair. In
addition, if he read her correctly, she was sending positively seductive
glances and smiles his way. William shuddered and quickly turned to the last
of Elizabeth's sisters, Kitty.

Kitty Bennet seemed like a normal young woman out of the three. She was
pretty, dressed unpretentiously and appeared a little intimidated. Glances
she often cast at Lydia made William suspect that she was much under her
younger sister's influence. Though she did seem to look at Elizabeth much as
well, with a gaze full of admiration. She was clearly torn between her two
sisters, who represented completely different sets of values and life
styles. Nevertheless, William thought he could like her; she was the most
likeable from the three.

With all the introductions made, the whole party moved to the dining room;
which spacious, clean and bright, was all that could be said about it. Once
all of them were seated at the table, the conversation resumed and William
wanted to carry on his observations; however, it appeared that in the
meantime, the attention of the party shifted to himself and he was subjected
to a thorough interrogation.

"I understand that you're a doctor, William?" asked Mrs. Bennet and William
searched his memory for recollection of the time when he had allowed her to
call him by his name, but he didn't find it. She simply presumed he would
welcome such familiarity. He forced a polite reply, "Yes, I am."

"Our Lizzy is a doctor as well," stated Fanny proudly. It didn't' matter
that on other occasions she had complained about her daughter's choice of
profession, in the presence of such illustrious guests, however, she needed
to make the best of it.

Elizabeth cringed hearing her mother's words. She was aware how ridiculous
it was comparing her job with William's. She now felt the difference between
them, even though a week ago she had been taunting him about his "fame."

"Yes, we are aware of the fact," said Caroline with a condescending smile.

"We are very proud of all our girls," continued Mrs. Bennet. "Jane has a
very good job and found herself such a fine man."

Charles blushed slightly, but it was clear he heard similar praise often.
No doubt the mother is happy her daughter has caught herself a rich man,
thought William. Not that he thought Jane was mercenary, during the week he
had spent at Netherfield he managed to observe the love and affection
between Charles and his girlfriend. But Mrs. Bennet surely didn't mean
goodness of character by describing Charles as "fine."

"Mary is writing her master thesis," Fanny went on with her monologue. "And
Lydia and Kitty are so popular in college, all the young men love them!"

I'm sure they do, thought William disgustedly. Lydia and Kitty seemed
the type of shallow girls, who cared only about parties, guys and clothes.
How could Elizabeth be related to them, especially Lydia?

"And of course, Lizzy. She's so successful in her job and when she gets the
grant she would be able to develop her clinic."

"Mum, please, it's nothing certain yet," Elizabeth protested weakly.

Fanny waved away her objections. "You are too modest, girl. You are a
wonderful vet and you run the clinic very well. De Bourgh won't find anyone
more worthy of the grant."

William's head immediately snapped up at the sound of the familiar name. He
turned to Elizabeth with a question, "What about the grant?"

"We've applied for the grant at the De Bourgh Foundation. Maria and I'd like
the clinic to develop and we want to have a surgery, but you know how much
it costs." She shrugged. "The appraiser is going to come to Meryton on
Tuesday and then report his opinion to the board. Then we'll have no choice
but to wait for their decision."

"Do you think you have a chance?" Charles asked her.

"I have no idea, but I have a feeling it's not going to be easy."

William grew thoughtful. He could make it very easy for her, all he needed
to do was make one phone call. But the situation was very tricky. He wasn't
sure she would appreciate it. Instead of being grateful, she might resent
his interference and not want to see him again. He decided to wait and see
how things went next Tuesday.

Totally bored with the conversation, Lydia yawned and turned to William.

"So, William where exactly do you live in London?"

"I have a house in Chelsea," he answered curtly.

"It must be so cool living there," Lydia said dreamily. "Think of all the
posh parties we'd go to and rich people we'd meet!"

"You mean guys, Lydia," snorted Mary.

"Yeah, I bet they're so much more interesting than guys at uni," she
pronounced, looking at William from the corner of her eye. The object of her
scrutiny blushed at her implication.

Charles laughed. "I assure you, Lydia, you'd probably find them extremely
boring. Take Darcy here, all he thinks about is his work."

"Lord, how dull!" exclaimed Lydia. "They all need to loosen up. Me, Kitty
and some friends of ours could do them a favour and teach them how to have
fun."

Caroline coughed to hide her snicker. She was torn between outrage, contempt
and delight. That was exactly what William needed, in her opinion, to snap
out of this silly infatuation.

After Lydia's performance, Elizabeth wished that the earth would open and
swallow her. Her whole family seemed to see nothing strange in her youngest
sister's behaviour and what's worse, she saw her mother open her mouth ready
with more words of wisdom.

"I hope you don't blame our dear Lydia for speaking so frankly. She is still
young, and you know, the young have to sow their oats." She smiled
indulgently at her favourite daughter. "It is a beautiful dress you're
wearing, Caroline. Is it a designer thing?"

"Yes, Versace," answered Caroline smugly. Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Kitty
sighed with envy.

"Was it very expensive?" asked Kitty reverently.

"Oh, not very much, two thousand pounds or so. A bargain, really."

The Bennet women gasped in awe. Mr. Bennet only raised an eyebrow and
enquired, "And what do you do, Ms Bingley?"

"I'm in the fashion industry," she answered enigmatically.

"That sounds so interesting," mused Kitty.

"Do you get to meet a lot of rich and important people?" Lydia as usual,
didn't bother beating around the bush.

"Oh, yes, everyday. I work with them," Caroline said casually.

"Wow. Maybe you could introduce us to some of them," said Lydia with a flash
in her eyes.

Over my dead body, though Caroline, but aloud she replied, "Maybe
someday."

"Oh, that would be a marvelous chance for the girls to meet the finest men!
I'm sure that'll be lovely! And after all, we're family and what is family
for if not for helping each other?" asked Mrs. Bennet grinning in
satisfaction.

William observed the whole exchange with growing trepidation. He couldn't
believe these were Elizabeth's relatives. She seemed so different from them
it was impossible for him to comprehend they were her family. Until then he
had entertained hopes and fantasies about his life with Elizabeth and now he
saw that they needed a serious revision. The image of Mrs. Bennet and the
younger Bennet girls at a charity luncheon given by his aunt was terrifying.
He couldn't possibly become related to such people.

A moment later, however, he checked himself. What was he thinking? He cared
about Elizabeth and was he supposed to give her up now because of her
family? It was ridiculous. After all, he wasn't marrying her, he hardly knew
her. Her family didn't matter at this point. William decided not to let
himself be bothered by them.

Also, if he were to be honest, they weren't all that bad. Well, maybe Lydia
and Mrs. Bennet, but the rest of them were passable. Of course, they were
not worldly and lacked style, would never fit in his world, but did they
really have to? They lived in Meryton, he lived in London and Elizabeth, if
they ever got together, would also live in London.

Thus reassured, he could attend to the conversation and bear the company
with grace, only occasionally cringing at Mrs. Bennet's loud shrieks, Mary's
boring pronouncements and Lydia and Kitty's chatter.

Elizabeth, for her part, had never experienced such a mortifying evening in
her life. She was well aware of the contempt and disgust on Caroline's face
and her condescending answers to inquiries made by her mother. William she
couldn't read well; his face was indecipherable. But she was sure he
probably shared Caroline's disdain and she couldn't blame him. At least he
didn't' show his scorn openly. And does it really matter what he thinks?
In two weeks time he's going to leave and I'll never see him again. This
thought was excessively depressing.

The dinner was finally over. The group moved to the living room where they
were served coffee. Elizabeth took advantage of the commotion created by her
mother over the coffee pot and slipped out of the house. She needed a few
minutes alone.

Once outside, she sat on the porch swing and inhaled deeply to calm her
tangled thoughts. It wasn't long, however, before she heard the door open
and footsteps nearing the place she where was sitting. She looked up to find
William sitting himself next to her. Did he also leave in order to escape
the madness inside the house?

For a few moments he didn't speak nor look at her, he just sat motionless,
staring at the moonlit garden seemingly immersed in his thoughts. Elizabeth
was beginning to get uncomfortable not knowing what he was thinking about
but also because of his nearness. Despite the chill of the evening, the heat
radiating from his body made her feel quite warm. His delectable scent
tickled her nose and muddled her senses. Finally, he said in a low voice
and with some wonder, "It's so quiet and peaceful."

Unlike inside, she thought, but aloud replied only, "Yes."

He turned and finally looked at her. "I hadn't thanked you for yesterday
yet. I had a wonderful time."

She smiled and answered, "You're welcome. I confess I also enjoyed myself. I
hope it wasn't too much for you?"

He chuckled and said ruefully, "Oh no, it only took me an hour to drag
myself out of bed today and another one to stop limping with every step. But
I'm sure next time I'll do much better."

Elizabeth couldn't contain a giggle at his pitiful description. "You poor
thing! Are you quite sure you're up for a repetition of this ordeal?" she
asked mischievously.

He returned her smile and uttered in a low voice, "I think I'll take my
chances."

His deep voice, his dazzling smile and his disconcerting closeness produced
a startling reaction in her and she shivered slightly. Immediately, his brow
creased with concern.

"You're cold. We should go inside," he said, though with a hint of regret in
his tone. It felt wonderful to sit with her like that and he didn't wish to
end it at all.

"No, I'm all right, I don't want to go back yet," she assured hastily, not
very much inclined to interrupt their interlude either.

"Are you sure? Then take my jacket at least." At her protests, he insisted
and finally she was persuaded to accept the covering from him.

"Thank you," she said softly, relishing the scent that emanated from the
garment. As she put it on her shoulders she could still feel his warmth
radiating from the material.

"You're welcome," he said as he adjusted the jacket on her shoulders
bringing the lapels together to cover her better. She was touched by his
thoughtfulness, all the time being less and less aware of anything else
besides him - his strong hands on her shoulders, his dark eyes holding hers
captive, his warmth and scent enveloping her. She was falling under his
spell again, but didn't care at this point, all rationality having left her.

William felt dizzy. Despite his resolutions to proceed slowly, he couldn't
oppose the temptation she presented; sitting so close to him, he could feel
her and smell her fragrance, her lovely dark curls moving slightly in the
gentle breeze, her beautiful eyes locked with his in a passionate embrace,
her luscious lips parted a little. How could he resist her? How could he not
kiss her?

As if drawn to her by some magical power, he leaned slowly and brought his
face closer to hers. Elizabeth forgot to breathe at the sensation of his
closeness. His gaze locked on her lips and he shivered when he felt her
scent and a wisp of her hair tickling his face.

"Elizabeth," he whispered and, cupping her cheek with his warm hand, he bent
to capture her lips with his. She felt his breath on her cheek and closed
her eyes in bliss.

"Lizzy! Are you there?" her mother's voice broke the spell and they moved
away from each other awkwardly. William sighed with frustration. Right now
he felt he could kill Mrs. Bennet!

Elizabeth cleared her throat and looked at William uncertainly. "We should
get back, they're looking for us."

"Yes, you're probably right," he answered with resignation. Elizabeth gave
him back his jacket, stood up and went to the door. He got off the swing and
followed her. But before she opened the door, he called out, "Elizabeth..."

She instantly turned around and looked at him expectantly. He stood for a
moment, unsure of what he wanted to say or do. "Nothing...it's nothing.
Let's get inside."

Elizabeth was disappointed by his withdrawal, but put on a brave face and
entered the house.

"Oh, there you are, Lizzy, where have you been?" Mrs. Bennet asked her when
she came into the living room. The whole party was assembled there with
drinks in their hands, occupied with conversation.

"I was outside, I needed some fresh air," she explained to everybody. She
accepted a glass of wine from her father and sat on the sofa, next to Mary.
William sat in an armchair which stood a bit further from the rest of the
people in the room.

"Since everyone is here, Jane and I would like to announce something," said
Charles, standing up and reaching his hand to Jane, who took it and stood
next to him. The whole company looked at them curiously.

"Shall I tell them, darling?" asked Charles, looking at Jane. She nodded and
smiled.

"I'd like to announce that Jane has agreed to become my wife. We are
engaged," he declared with a broad grin.

This proclamation produced exclamations of surprise, joy and
congratulations. The happy couple was embraced, kissed, the hands were
shaken and affectionate pats on the shoulder exchanged.

"My darling Jane!" exclaimed Mrs. Bennet hugging her daughter tightly. "Oh,
I'm so happy, so proud! But we have so much to think about and to plan!"

"Have you set the date?" asked Mr. Bennet.

"No, not yet," answered Jane, "but we're not in a hurry."

"We'd like to wait till the spring or summer, though, for the warmer weather
to return. It wouldn't do for Jane to catch a death of cold on her wedding
day," chuckled Charles.

"No indeed," replied Elizabeth laughing, then hugged her sister. "I wish you
all the best Janie. I'm so happy for you!"

Jane blushed prettily and smiled as she answered, "Thank you, Lizzy. I'd
like you to be my maid of honour, I can't imagine getting married without
you at my side."

"Of course, I'll be happy to be your maid of honour," said Elizabeth
affectionately.

"And Will's going to be the best man," added Charles. "You won't refuse,
will you, old man?"

William and Elizabeth looked at each other. They both still felt the
aftermath of their interlude on the porch and now both of them were asked to
perform these roles at the wedding of their dear ones. This thought was
pleasant, but only added to their shyness at this moment.

"How could I?" answered William. "It will be an honour for me to be your
best man, Charles."

The rest of the evening was spent in making plans and talking about Charles
and Jane's upcoming nuptials. The excitement of the party was almost
uniform, save for Caroline, who limited herself to uttering her
congratulations, as false as they were effusive. Then she sat in comparative
silence, quite put out. It was bad enough Charles lived with a woman who had
such an embarrassing family. But to marry her? This was quite too much! The
final indignity was that William didn't take his eyes off Elizabeth the
whole evening. She felt sick and annoyed.

Elizabeth, though genuinely happy for her sister, was very distracted that
evening. She looked at William, who sat with a serious expression on his
face, not speaking much and seemingly engrossed in his thoughts. He didn't
look at her, or so she thought, because what she wasn't aware of was the
fact that whenever she turned her eyes away, William's gaze rested on her,
caressing her features and devouring her form.

Elizabeth knew it was high time she stopped deluding herself into believing
she wanted only friendship from him. Indeed, she had to admit now that ever
since he had begun showing his amiable self, she had been unable to get him
out of her thoughts. Who am I kidding, it happened the very moment I
first laid my eyes on him. In the beginning, she had thought of him with
anger, but that emotion very quickly turned into something quite the
opposite. How was it possible that it took little more than a week for her
to go from hating him to the point where she craved his kiss?

They had been so close to kissing today. If it weren't for her mother!
Elizabeth sighed with frustrated longing. In a moment however, she
recollected herself. Maybe it was for the best. What did she really know
about him? It wasn't at all like her to fall so quickly for a virtual
stranger. Her inner alarm bells started ringing. No good at all to fall in
love and get hurt again. After her last painful experience she had promised
herself not to let a man into her heart too easily. She would be polite and
friendly, but she must keep her distance.

She was reassured in her resolution after William's reserved parting. He
just shook her hand and left without as much as a backward glance. Elizabeth
knew it was for the best, but repeating this sentence in her mind over and
over again like a mantra didn't prevent her from spending the night tossing
and turning in her bed, alternately sighing inconsolably and cursing with
frustration.

(1) this is a Polish saying and it means very tired and scruffy.

Chapter nine


Caroline put on her coat and a leash on Louisa's neck. The morning was cold
and cloudy, but the dog needed to go out. This was one of the duties of a
dog owner she didn't enjoy, but she wouldn't entrust Louisa to a strange
person, so she had no other option but to perform the task herself, much as
she disliked it.

She stepped out into the cold morning and started walking along the path
leading to the gate. But before she managed to reach it, her way was
crossed by... Caroline ground her teeth ... the dirty mongrel. She had never
liked the dog, since it was for him that she had been put through the
embarrassing experience of putting out posters all over the town. Her
dislike had grown into hatred, however, when William had lashed out on her
in defence of the dog the day before. What was that stinker doing here
again? To her utter horror, the dog reluctantly approached her, looking
curiously at Louisa. The bitch whined and started wagging her tail. It was
not to be borne!

"Get away from here! Shooo!" she shouted, stamping her foot. The dog jumped
away and ran. Caroline took Louisa up and cautiously proceeded on the walk,
keeping an eye on the direction in which the dog had fled, for fear of his
returning to bother her baby.

***

The evil sound of the alarm clock went off and Elizabeth slammed the vile
object to cut off the noise. Groaning, she buried her head in her pillow,
her brain repeating one word: sleep! She had managed to fall asleep only
three hours earlier and opening her eyes, much less getting out of bed
seemed an impossibility right then.

All night she had spent thinking about William and his sudden withdrawal and
reserve after their almost kiss. After spending hours of pondering this
mystery, it became clear to her that he must have been regretting what had
happened between them. She knew it would be like this, it was bound to be
this way and she berated herself once more for having let down her defences
so easily. She was grateful, however, that the situation occurred before
their relationship progressed further. How painful and embarrassing it would
be if it happened after they slept together?

Shaking off her grim thoughts she rose from her bed and attempted to face
the upcoming day. She had a meeting with George Wickham at 11 am, but she
didn't look forward to it. With the man from DeBourgh coming on Tuesday, she
would prefer to spend Monday in peace, preparing mentally for the important
day, but she could hardly call off the meeting now. She decided to get it
over with as quickly as possible and concentrate on tomorrow.

The worst thing was that the uncertain situation with William only added to
her stress. Resolving to think no more about it, she focused on the hard day
before her.

***

Elizabeth was having a short break between patients when she heard the bell
signalling that somebody opened the door. She looked at her watch and it
told her it was 10.58. Oh shit! she thought, It's him already.
She schooled her features into a pleasant smile and waited for Pete to bring
the man in. Ten seconds later the door opened and a tall man walked in. He
smiled widely and reached his hand to her.

"Dr. Bennet, I'm so happy to meet you. George Wickham," he introduced
himself, shaking her hand. Elizabeth noticed his hand was warm and his grip
strong.

"Please, call me Elizabeth," she said, returning the shake.

"And you must call me George," he replied with a charming smile.

Elizabeth's curiosity got the better of her and she couldn't help observing
him a bit. He was a handsome man, tall and well-built, his hair was dark and
his eyes blue. The features of his face were regular and masculine, his
smile was pleasant and voice and address agreeable. He was, she concluded, a
born salesman, with his looks and manners his powers of persuasion must be
excellent. She had enough experience, however, to be able to resist the
tricks people of his profession usually employed in order to sell their
product.

"This is a very nice clinic. So neat and bright. And well-equipped too, I
see," George said looked around curiously.

"Thank you. My partner and I take care that our workplace is pleasant."

"Oh, I see," he replied. "Would I be able to meet him?"

"Her," Elizabeth corrected. "My partner, Maria Lucas, was called on an
emergency. Usually I take care of those, but today you were supposed to
come, so she went instead of me."

His face took on a concerned expression. "I hope that my presence is not of
much inconvenience to you."

"Oh no, don't worry about it. Maria needs more training and such a situation
is a good opportunity for her."

George smiled at her with relief. "I'm glad. I was wondering if we could get
some coffee somewhere and talk a bit."

Elizabeth was glad that she had a genuine excuse to give him. "I'm afraid I
can't. I have only fifteen minutes of break-"

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. A moment later Pete entered the
room.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Lizzy, but Mrs. Long has just called to call off
the appointment. Her niece is sick and she has to take care of her
grand-nephew."

"Thank you, Pete," said Elizabeth, not too pleased with this development.
After they were alone again, she turned to George. "It seems I have a free
hour, after all. There is a caf??t far from here. We could go there if you
like."

He grinned. "I'd love to."

***

William was definitely feeling on edge. All morning long he had to put up
with Caroline's grumbling and complaining. She was irritating enough when in
a good mood, but when angry, she was absolutely intolerable. The reason for
her ire was, it turned out, a dog she had met on her walk. William shook his
head in disbelief at the ridiculousness of the excuse. He wondered, though,
what the dog was doing in the Netherfield garden again.

William himself was not in the most cheerful of moods. He had slept poorly
that night, thinking about Elizabeth, her family, their rendezvous and its
sudden interruption. Even after a whole night, his frustration with Mrs.
Bennet's disruption of their kiss was great. He hoped for a chance to talk
to Elizabeth before the end of the evening, but it hadn't been so. To his
dissatisfaction, he couldn't even say goodbye to her properly. He wanted to
take her into his arms and kiss her, to explain to her how he felt about
her, but he could hardly do this in front of all of her family. As a result,
he limited himself to shaking her hand and hoping she'd understand his
distance.

Today, however, he was determined to see her and find out what she was
thinking about the last evening. So, as soon as he got the chance, he left
Netherfield and drove the short distance to Meryton.

***

Elizabeth walked into the street, followed by George, who gallantly held the
door for her. She turned to walk down the street, but stopped at the sight
of William getting out of his car. What happened then, rendered her
completely and utterly baffled.

It was a flash, no more than five seconds. William looked at her and smiled,
but a second later his gaze glided over her face to Wickham, and his
countenance momentarily turned from amiable to stony. She stole a quick
glance at George and saw him pale slightly, his expression registered shock
and . apprehension? Completely puzzled, she turned her eyes to William
again, only to see him set his jaw and then turn on his heel and walk back
to his car.

What the hell was all that about? she wondered in total befuddlement.
She looked at George again, he was still somewhat pallid, but his features
relaxed a bit. With an apologetic smile, he said to her, "I'm sorry you had
to witness that."

"No, it's all right," she protested, not daring to question him, but
inwardly boiling with curiosity.

"I suppose you know Darcy?" he asked tentatively. They started walking again
and now were nearing the caf?>
"Yes," she answered. "He's the best friend of my sister's fianc?R>
"Oh, I see," he said as he held the door to the caf?Ir her. "Have you
known him for a long time?"

"A little over a week. He's come to visit Charles for a few weeks."

"Charles Bingley?" At Elizabeth confirming nod, he continued, "I used to
know Charles, he's a really nice guy. I've always wondered at him being
friends with Darcy."

Elizabeth's brows shoot up at this unexpected statement, but the appearance
of the waitress prevented her from asking anything. They ordered their
coffee and when the girl left, they went back to the conversation.

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth asked curiously.

George shrugged. "Only that they're very different. Charles is very friendly
and agreeable. Darcy is more standoffish, stiff and proud."

This description of William made her uncomfortable, since only a few days
ago she would agree wholeheartedly with this opinion. Now, however,
something inside of her rebelled against it.

"I take it, you know him well?" she asked guardedly.

"Oh yes, we grew up together."

"Really?" Her curiosity was now great.

"Yes. My father and his father were good friends and colleagues. The old Mr.
Darcy was a wonderful, generous man. He was my godfather and, I think, loved
me as if I was his own son. He even paid for my college."

"Amazing," she said, her curiosity growing by the minute. Fortunately,
George was very eager to tell her everything and soon, all of her scruples
disappeared. The opportunity to learn more about William was too tempting.

"What was William like as a child?" she asked.

"Much as he is today, I'm afraid. We played together as kids, but he never
failed to make me aware of the fact that he was superior to me. His family
had wealth and power, mine was poor and unexceptional. Besides, he was a
very spoilt child, his parents doted on him, there was nothing they wouldn't
give him if he only asked."

Elizabeth's mind reeled with confusion at this conflicting report on
William's character. Surely George, knowing William as he must have,
couldn't be wrong, could he? But the past few days of her acquaintance with
the man had given her enough evidence to create a completely contradictory
image of him. Willing to get more information in order to assess their
credibility, she asked another question, "And his sister, Georgiana? What's
she like?"

George's face took on a sad expression. "As a child she was a lovely girl,
very sweet and quite fond of me. Unfortunately, lately she's become too much
like Darcy. Just as proud and superior."

Another inconsistency, thought Elizabeth in bemusement. "From what I
observed today, you're not on best of terms right now," she assumed.

He shook his head, regretfully. "You're right, I'm afraid. I don't have any
reason to be friendly with him. He's played a very dirty trick on me in the
past. I don't want to reveal all the gruesome details for the sake of his
father's memory, but I need to say this to you: be careful around him. He's
not a man to be trusted."

George's eyes looked with genuine concern into hers. Elizabeth shivered.
Could her first assessment of William have been correct? Had his behaviour
from the past couple of days been only an act on his part? Somehow it was
hard to believe. She didn't know what to think anymore, she needed some time
alone to deal with this.

Looking at her watch, she discovered she was already late. The next
appointed visit was in five minutes. Hurriedly, she excused herself, saying
she needed to go. George proposed he would walk her back to the clinic,
where she would give him the list of the items she wanted to order. She
agreed to this plan, wanting to be rid of his company as soon as possible.

When they entered the clinic, it turned out that the next patient was
already waiting with its owner. Rusty, a beautiful Irish Setter, leaped up
and started wagging his tail in welcome of Elizabeth. Yet, when George
neared him, he started to bark and bare his teeth menacingly. The owner
pulled the dog into the office, but Rusty didn't stop his threatening
barking until the door closed in front of him. Elizabeth said goodbye to
George and asked Pete to handle the rest of the business. Relieved, she
entered her office, where Rusty was already waiting, gentle as a lamb once
again.

***

William pulled over just as he passed Meryton. He was in no state to drive
at all and he needed to think and to cool his emotions. The scene he had
just witnessed kept replaying in front of his eyes. He rubbed them, as if to
get rid of the tormenting image.

What is he doing here? he thought angrily. What malicious fate
keeps crossing his path with mine? He hadn't seen Wickham for almost a
year and had hoped never to have to see him again. And now the bastard had
found him again, showing up in Meryton, of all places. The town that was
supposed to be the perfect holiday spot. He laughed bitterly at the irony.
Not only did the scoundrel disrupt his peace, but he also messed with his
Elizabeth. Cold fury gripped his throat at the thought of Wickham in
close proximity to her. Rage and fear set his heart racing, a fierce need to
protect her almost making him turn the car back to Meryton and running to
the clinic to see if she was all right.

His thoughts drifted to Georgiana and the anguish the bastard had caused
her. The thought that he could in some way harm Elizabeth was unbearable. He
couldn't go back to Meryton now, she was working and Wickham wasn't likely
to try anything. He was a skilled player, who'd never spoil his game by
making a false start. But then again, how was he to know for how long
Elizabeth had known Wickham? If only he knew what their relationship was!
Were they sleeping together? This thought caused an icy grip settle on his
heart. But no, he shook his head. It wasn't probable that they knew each
other for a long time, Charles would have said something to him if he had
any idea Wickham was around.

The image of Elizabeth and Wickham close together in the Meryton street
assaulted his mind again and his rage rose in his breast. He was furious,
not only at him, but at her as well. How could she even speak to this
scoundrel? After the beautiful days they'd shared together, how could she do
this to him? William was not being rational, but jealousy has little to do
with logic. He decided to go to her tonight and talk to her about Wickham,
letting her know exactly how he felt about her dealings with the man.

***

Elizabeth was exhausted when she finally left the clinic, having stayed
overtime in order to make sure everything was ready for the next day. Her
fatigue was increased by the distraction over the Darcy/Wickham affair.
Eight hours after her talk with George she wasn't any closer to finding the
solution to this riddle. Her instinct told her not to believe him, but she
honestly couldn't think of a reason why he would lie to her. Perhaps there
had been some misunderstanding?

The truth was, she wanted to trust William, but was it reasonable? She
barely knew him and during their short acquaintance he had managed to baffle
her more than do anything else. He was intelligent, friendly when he wanted
to be and had a sense of humour when he cared to show it. But he was also
arrogant, cold and stuck-up. Or was it just shyness? He almost kissed her
and then virtually ignored her the whole evening! George was courteous and
amiable, he seemed genuine in his concern for her. But if she didn't know
William for long, she knew George for even shorter. And, last, but not least
for her, animals liked William. George, if Rusty's behaviour could be any
indication, they weren't fond of.

The vital question with William was what he wanted from her. Did he want
them to be friends? Lovers? Something more?

Pulling over to her driveway and getting out of the car, she thought,
Well, I have the perfect chance to find out.

There, on the porch steps sat William, hands in the pockets of his jacket,
his face grim.

***

"William, what are you doing here?" she asked warily, walking up to him
slowly. He rose as she neared him, facing her.

"I wanted to talk to you," he replied.

Yes, let's handle this and get it over with, she thought.

"All right. Come inside, this is not an appropriate place for this
conversation." She opened the door and entered the dark house, William only
a few steps behind her.

Making enough noise for a regiment of soldiers, Jack ran down the stairs and
pounced on William, completely ignoring his mistress. Elizabeth rolled her
eyes. Of course, what did I expect?

Tiredly, she went into the living room and sat on the couch. William stood
before her, but soon decided he was too restless to stay still, so he began
to pace the length of the room. Elizabeth looked at him curiously, wondering
if he was going to speak at all. She was too tired to play games with him,
if he wanted to talk, she was ready to listen; if not, he had better go away
and leave her alone so that she may think in peace.

Suddenly, William turned to her and spoke in an urgent tone, "George
Wickham.what is he to you?"

Elizabeth was taken aback by the question and his tone. What right did he
have to ask her such a thing? Coldly, she replied, "I don't see what
business it is of yours."

This was a reply William didn't expect. For a moment he didn't know what to
say, finally, he said, "I'm . . . I'm sorry if I sound arrogant, but I need
to know. What is he to you?"

"Why do you need to know this?" she asked, looking at him intently with
forced calmness.

"I can't tell you. . .," he said softly.

Elizabeth replied in a low voice, her appearance of composure completely
deceitful, "You expect me to satisfy your curiosity when you refuse to
answer my question?"

"Yes. I know how it may seem to you, but trust me, it's for your own good."

"Trust you?! How can I do that when you haven't given me any reason to think
I can believe you?"

His voice was insistent and eyes pleading, as he urged her, "You must
believe me. He is not to be trusted."

Elizabeth laughed at his words, causing him to look at her in surprise.

"Funny, because that's exactly what he told me today, only it was about
you."

William's eyes flashed in anger, but this emotion soon transformed into cold
fear. "Did you believe him?"

"Shouldn't I?" she asked angrily.

"No! He's nothing but a lying bastard!" he spat.

"Why should I believe you? I have only his word against yours!" she
retorted.

"Elizabeth, I mean it. You mustn't see him anymore."

Her anger flared even higher at his arrogant words. "Who are you to tell me
what I can or can't do? We've known each other for a week and haven't even
kissed and you already are behaving like a jealous husband!"

"I'm not jealous," he answered indignantly.

"Oh no? So what has made you behave in this boorish manner?"

He felt like grabbing her by her shoulders and shaking her. "I'm worried
about you! You don't know what he's capable of!"

"Oh, you're worried about me? That's nice, but I don't need your concern nor
your protection from George."

His fury and desperation clouded his mind and, without thinking, he blurted
out scornfully, "George, eh? I can see you two are very close!"

She recoiled, as if he had struck her. "How dare you?" she breathed.
Resentfully, she continued, "If you must know, he's nothing to me. I've only
met him today, he works for the pharmaceutical company from which I've been
ordering equipment and supplies." He seemed relieved at her words. Yet, she
went on, "The fact of the matter is that I was reluctant to believe him, but
after your show of good manners today, I'm not sure if he wasn't telling the
truth. After all, if you could come here and order me about means you don't
respect me at all! You're just the conceited, self-important bastard I've
always suspected you were and I was stupid to fall for a few nice words, no
doubt calculated for your own purposes. I." The rest of her sentence was cut
off with William's lips angrily capturing hers. Taken aback, at first she
stiffened in his arms, but soon found herself unable to resist the heat of
his kiss. She returned it with a passion matching his own, wrapping her arms
around his neck. His mouth felt glorious and she wanted the kiss to last
forever. Time passed as they continued their lip lock, his hands roaming
over her back, pressing her even more tightly to himself, her hands sunk in
his hair, holding his head down as if to prevent him from breaking the kiss.
His scent suffused her senses and she surrendered fully to his warm embrace
and hot lips.

Soon, they had to pause for breath, he moved away a few inches and looked
down at her face, his eyes dark with passion and anger.

"I'm not conceited, you smart ass," he growled.

"Like hell you aren't," she murmured and, grabbing two fistfuls of his hair,
pulled his lips to hers once again. William was left with no choice but to
comply with her demand. And comply he did. Most willingly. She tasted like
the sweetest nectar and her soft warm curves pressing against his body made
him almost lose his mind. Kissing her at last was the culmination of many of
his fantasies and the sheer exhilaration of their embrace, so often and so
vividly imagined, sent his desire spiralling out of control. His anger
evaporated, replaced by a burgeoning lust.

It was Elizabeth that broke the kiss this time. She pulled away from him a
little, but stayed within the enclosure of his arms. Her chest was heaving
and eyes shone from the feelings their embrace evoked, but she looked at him
sternly.

"I hope that means an apology, William," she said. "I don't like the idea of
you bossing me around and implying that I'm sleeping around with men I
barely know."

Contrite, William bowed his head. "I'm sorry. You were right, I was
jealous and allowed myself to be blinded by suspicion."

She smiled graciously. "You are forgiven.if you forgive me as well. I was
also out of line," she admitted.

He grinned, greatly relieved by her statement. "Of course I forgive you."
Suddenly, though he sobered. "Elizabeth.I really meant what I said earlier.
You should be careful around Wickham. I can't tell you why, give you any
proof, because it's doesn't only concern me. Please, believe me when I tell
you he's not to be trusted," he pleaded beseechingly.

Elizabeth felt powerless to argue with him. She wanted to believe him and,
in a sudden surge of determination, decided to trust him. Yet, it was
impossible for her to comply with his request, nor was it rational, in her
opinion.

"William," she started in an explanatory tone, "My only connection with him
is through my work. I'm not going to have any personal dealings with him,
but we will have occasional encounters."

"But." he protested, but she put her finger to his lips, silencing him.

"Let's not start the argument all over again. You said what you had to say,
I listened and will act appropriately. All right?"

Resigned, he sighed, but nodded his head in acceptance. She smiled at his
miserable expression and kissed him lightly. He immediately brightened up.

"Now, as much as I'd love for you to stay, I'm afraid you have to go. I have
a very difficult day ahead and I don't want any distractions."

His face took on an expression of a puppy thrown out into the cold night.
She laughed at his dissatisfied pout, but pushed him lightly in the
direction of the door.

"Don't you try playing on my pity, mister, don't forget I have much
experience with sneaky beggars like you!" she accused him playfully.

"Playing on your pity? Moi?" he asked in feigned surprise.

"Yes, you. You must have learnt it from Jack, he's a master in this art,"
she retorted, opening the door and pushing him out. He looked so dejected
that she had to kiss him again. His arms locked around her waist and he held
her to him tightly almost raising her from the ground. After a few minutes
of this delightful interlude, reluctantly, she pulled away, panting. He
fared no better, feeling suddenly cold and bereft without her in his arms.
He closed his eyes for a moment and sought to calm his breathing and wild
beating of his heart. When he opened them again, he saw she was staring at
him intently.

"I should go," he said quietly. She nodded. "Can I see you tomorrow?" he
asked.

Elizabeth, who was suffering from an unexpected case of shyness, lightened
up at his words.

"I'm not sure I'll be fit for company tomorrow," she answered with a small
smile. "I'll probably be very boring and stressed out."

"That's more the reason for me to see you," he replied earnestly. "I'd like
to take you out for a dinner. Nothing very formal," he added hastily, seeing
her doubtful expression, "I know you're probably going to be tired, but
couldn't we eat something in some cosy, casual place?"

She smiled at his pleading countenance. "Well, if you insist.. Meet me at
the clinic at six. I should be done by then."

He grinned happily and bent down to kiss her. All too soon, she moved away
from him. "Now will you please go and allow me a few hours of sleep?" she
asked teasingly.

He sighed. "All right, I'll go. But first I have to kiss you goodbye," he
said grinning wickedly.

Ten minutes later, Elizabeth, having finally succeeded in making William
leave, entered the house and shut the door behind her. Sighing deeply, she
beamed, as she leaned against the door and closed her eyes blissfully, the
feeling of William's kisses still alive in her.

"However am I going to sleep tonight?" she wondered out loud. Damn you,
William, she thought, though the smile on her face contrasted sharply
with her unkind reflections.


Chapter ten


Arriving at the clinic at 7.30 am the next day, Elizabeth found she was the
first to come to work that morning. It wasn't long, however, before a
pale-looking Maria entered through the door.

"Oh God, Lizzy, I didn't sleep at all last night, I was so nervous! Did
you?" she asked.

Elizabeth blushed slightly. "Err. yes, I managed to get a few hours of
sleep," she stammered out, remembering her dreams from last night. They had
had nothing to do with their current concern.

"Lucky you," said Maria with a hint of envy. "I need coffee now or I'm going
to fall asleep standing. Do you want some?"

Elizabeth shuddered with revulsion. "Ugh, I couldn't possibly swallow
anything right now. I can never eat when I'm nervous. I guess I'll have to
prepare myself for a long day of fasting."

Soon after, Pete arrived looking quite anxious himself. The three of them
went through all the preparations once again, making sure everything was
ready when the man from De Bourgh's came. They purposefully didn't make any
appointments for that day in order to be able to devote all their attention
to the task that lay before them.

Finally, at the appointed time they heard the bell. Elizabeth and Maria, who
were sitting in the office biting their nails, went out to the waiting room.
Elizabeth glanced at the man talking with Pete and, if it weren't for her
anxiety, she would have burst out laughing.

The man was short and plump, with a shining face and unhealthy-looking
complexion. His black hair was balding at the top of his head and he combed
it to one side to cover the baldness. He wore a black coat over a black
suit, white shirt and a black tie. Elizabeth thought he looked more like an
undertaker than a rep from an illustrious foundation. In spite of her
nervousness, she had to fight hard to maintain her composure when the man
turned to her with a condescending smile.

"I presume I have the pleasure with Dr. Bennet. I'm delighted to meet you.
My name is William Collins. I was sent by my esteemed employer, Lady
Catherine De Bourgh, to examine the claims of your application for the grant
in the De Bourgh Foundation."

William Collins' tirade caused disbelief and amusement in Elizabeth. The man
sounded every bit as ridiculous as he looked. She couldn't help but wonder
how on earth he had gotten his position in the foundation. He seemed
everything but intelligent and sensible. Forcing a polite smile on her face,
she shook his outstretched hand, which was cold and clammy. Elizabeth had to
fight hard not to flinch and pull her hand away from his.

"Pleased to meet you Mr. Collins. This is my partner, Maria Lucas," she
introduced her friend.

"Ms. Lucas, it is indeed a great pleasure." Collins shook hands with Maria,
who looked quite shocked. Elizabeth was sure she didn't expect a person
holding such an important position would be quite so ludicrous.

Mr. Collins looked around with a solemn expression, appraising the place.
Finally, he spoke with gracious condescension, "This is a neat little
clinic. I am exceedingly interested in learning more about it and your work
here."

"Thank you," replied Elizabeth with equal politeness. "Would you like to
take a tour of the clinic right now?'

Collins beamed at her as if she were the Queen herself proposing to him a
tour of Buckingham Palace with her as his personal guide.

"I would be delighted," gushed Collins.

"Well," Elizabeth started, "Let us begin then. This is the waiting room, as
you see. And you've already met Pete Mathews, our receptionist. Pete is the
one who makes appointments for our patients and makes sure all the
documentation is in order."

Mr. Collins nodded with understanding. Elizabeth and Maria led on. They
entered a small room filled with a row of drawers.

"This is where we keep all the patients' files," Elizabeth explained. She
opened one of the drawers and took out a file.

"The files contain all the information about an animal. You can have a look
at it." She handed him the document. "There is the animal's name, kind, sex,
breed and age. We have the information about the owners and their address.
The record of past illnesses and injuries, as well as the vaccination
certificates."

"Wonderful, wonderful," commended Collins, leafing through the file.
"Everything seems to be in perfect order so far."

"Thank you," said Elizabeth. "Shall we proceed?"

The next place to visit was their office. It was a large, white painted
room, with a big table in the middle and a cupboard covering one wall. On
the wall on the left there was a door, next to which stood a sterilization
machine. By the third wall stood a desk, its narrow side touched the wall
and two chairs stood on each of the wider sides of it. Next to the door
there was a washbasin and a bin under it. The room was decorated with vivid
pictures and posters of all kinds of animals, as well as several plants in
colourful pots, that created a cheerful atmosphere in the room.

"This is our office, our main workplace. Here we see our patients," said
Elizabeth and went on to point out the specific parts of the room. "As you
see it's rather well equipped and spacious. Not enough for a surgery,
though."

Collins nodded thoughtfully. "Indeed, you will need more space to spread
your wings. But this is a charming room, nevertheless. Can you tell me
what's in these cupboards?"

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at the man's calling an office "charming."
Well, he certainly seemed to have mastered the art of flattery to
perfection.

"Certainly." She proceeded to open one cupboard door after another and
explain the nature of its contents to an extremely fascinated man.

"Here we keep the things that are most needed usually. Clean uniforms,
masks, rubber gloves and towels. Then we have syringes, needles, spatulas an
d so on. Here are the bandages, gauze, spirit, hydrogen peroxide - all that
is required for dressing the injuries. And here we have a few books that may
be handy while dealing with an unusual case. Of course, these are not our
only supplies. We have a storage room right over there." She motioned to the
door on the left.

"I'd love to have a look at it," uttered Collins earnestly. Elizabeth was at
a loss as to why the man took such interest in seeing a storage room, but
who was she to deny him his pleasure?

"Of course; it's this way." She opened the door and the three of them
stepped inside. The room was filled with boxes of sterile bandages,
dressings, syringes and other supplies. Vaccines and other medicines were
kept in a large refrigerator with a transparent glass door. Collins looked
around curiously and even peered into the fridge, although, Elizabeth was
sure of it, he had no idea what he was looking at.

"Excellent!" he exclaimed admiringly.

"Thank you," replied Elizabeth. "Would you care to see the rooms we intend
to adapt as the surgery?"

"That would be wonderful!" he beamed at her.

Elizabeth smiled, amused at the man's obsequiousness. "Come this way, then."
They led him out of the office to the waiting room, where a door led to as
yet unused rooms. There were two large ones, both quite empty and requiring
substantial redecoration.

"We'd like to use one of the rooms as a surgery and the other as a hospital
for the animals before and after the surgery," explained Elizabeth. "We will
need to redecorate both of them, as you see, and buy all the equipment as
well as the cages for the hospital."

Collins nodded profusely. "Of course, of course, I understand. So far your
application has a good chance of being justified. But I'll need to look at
the documents and calculations before deciding on anything."

"Certainly," answered Elizabeth, excited at the man's words. "Would you like
to look at them now?"

"Excellent idea," he conceded.

Elizabeth led him back to her office, where Pete already had laid all the
required documents on the desk. Maria excused herself, saying she needed to
check on a ewe she had examined the day before. Collins bid her profuse
goodbyes, saying how he was delighted to have had the pleasure of her
acquaintance and how he regretted to lose her company. Then, when she left,
he turned to Elizabeth with a broad grin. They sat down at the desk and
proceeded to look through the papers, Collins asking questions and Elizabeth
answering them

"What are your yearly costs?" Elizabeth showed him the accounting books. He
nodded, muttered to himself and made some notes.

"What costs do you expect this new investment would require?"

"Well, as I already have said, there is redecoration and the new equipment.
But we'll also need anesthetics and postoperative drugs. In addition, Maria
and I won't be able to handle everything by ourselves. We'll need to hire a
surgeon and a nurse. And since the investment will be so great, I expect the
profit to increase as well. I'd like to hire an accountant to handle our
finances. Until now a friend of mine have been taking care of that, but I
imagine this is going to be too much for her alone. The cost estimate of the
whole enterprise is going to be around this." She handed him a sheet of
paper with the cost calculations.

"I see," said Collins thoughtfully, gazing at the document. "This is a
considerable sum. Are you sure that will pay off? Is there such a need for
surgical vet services around here?" he asked a little doubtingly.

"I'm certain of it," she replied with confidence. "The closest vet surgery
is in London, that's at least an hour drive. There are countless villages
and towns around Meryton and thousands of animals. Over the past two years
we've had 128 surgical cases, all of which we had to send to London. Many of
the animals didn't survive. In most surgical cases time is extremely
important. Imagine a person from a car crash or with a heart attack having
to be driven an hour distance to London. The odds are good that they
wouldn't live long enough to have the surgery."

At her speech Collins looked almost pained by the tragic nature of
Elizabeth's hypothetical example.

"This sounds horrible indeed!" he exclaimed, shaking his head. He sat for a
while, looking through the papers and his notes. Then he raised his head and
regarded Elizabeth.

"Yes, I believe you have a good chance of getting the grant," he stated,
still looking at her strangely. Elizabeth hid her elation at his words,
smiling only to show her happiness. "I shall personally apprise Lady
Catherine of the admirable work you do here and assure her you deserve the
money completely."

To Elizabeth's total amazement, he outstretched his arm and put his hand on
hers. She shuddered slightly in fear, repulsion and anger. "You must know
that Lady Catherine values my opinion exceedingly." He held her hand tighter
and leaned in her direction over the narrow desk. She froze in surprise, not
sure what to do. His bad breath touched her face and she made to move away
from him, but he held her hand in a firm grasp. "All you need is one word
from me and the money is yours."

She pulled away in indignation and stood up.

"What do you mean?" she asked, even though she knew the answer perfectly
well. He stood up as well and approached her.

"I think you know. We could reach a very profitable understanding. You are a
very beautiful woman, Dr. Bennet." To her utter horror and fury she felt a
hand on her bottom. She recoiled and moved away from him.

"Take your hands off of me, you pig!" she hissed.

He leered at her. "Oh, you are a feisty one. It would be so much fun taming
you."

She gasped at his brazenness.

"How dare you? Get out of here this instant!" she exclaimed, pointing her
finger at the door. Yet, he seemed not at all concerned by her anger.

"Now, now, darling, there's no use to get so upset. This is a fair exchange.
I have something you want, you have something I want. Let's resolve this
matter to our mutual satisfaction." He moved to her again, but she was
quicker. She opened the door and called out, "Pete, Mr. Collins is leaving!
Won't you show him to the door, please?"

Pete seemed somewhat surprised, but obeyed his employer and moved in the
direction of the office. "You're going to regret this!" spat Collins with a
scowl, then turned on his heel and marched out of the clinic.

Elizabeth stood still, frozen, unable to believe what had just happened.

"Lizzy? Are you all right?" asked Pete with concern.

Slowly, she shook out of her daze and looked at Pete as if she saw him for
the first time, still too shocked for words. She nodded and, reluctantly,
Pete left her, closing the office door behind him.

Elizabeth fell heavily on the chair, reeling from the shock. What had just
happened? Had this disgusting, toady man just made the most insulting
advances on her? Groaning, she leaned her head on her hands. She could deal
with unwanted male attentions, it wasn't such a rare thing that she had to
reject a man who was making a pass on her. But that this.this. that he
presumed he could buy her was more than she could accept. No woman with a
bit of self-respect could tolerate being treated like a whore.

One thing was clear. All chances of getting the grant were completely and
irrevocably destroyed. Collins will see to it that she got nothing, of this
she was sure, he even implied as much. But what could she have done in this
situation? She couldn't have possibly agreed to his revolting proposition.
No, she knew she had done the right thing, but anger and hopelessness at the
dashing of all her hopes were building inside of her. The thought that one
man could destroy two years of dreaming and planning was well nigh
unbearable. But what was she to do now? And what was she going to tell Maria
and Pete? They both put so much work into this plan! It had been their
common dream for so long!

She heard a knock on the door. Wondering why in the world Pete didn't just
come in, she called out, "Yes?"

"Hi Elizabeth," she heard a voice that certainly didn't belong to Pete.

"William!" she raised her head and looked at him in surprise. "What are you
doing here?"

He looked at her in confusion. "I was supposed to pick you up at six. I'm
taking you out to dinner, remember?"

The dinner! She'd completely forgotten about it! She felt tired, sick and
sullied and William's coming here, looking so handsome and standing in such
a contrast to the man who had just left the clinic, was the last straw for
her. Depression overwhelmed her and she started to cry, from anger as much
as from disillusionment.

William's shock at finding her in such a state was enormous, but soon his
protective instincts took over and he neared her, crouching beside her and
looking at her with concern.

"Elizabeth, what happened? Tell me, please. Let me help you," he pleaded,
taking her hand.

Hopelessly, she shook her head. "You can't help me."

"But what's wrong?" he insisted. She just shook her head, unable to utter
the distasteful truth, and sobbed helplessly.

Seeing he'd get nothing out of her then, he decided to act. "Come," he said
raising and outstretching his hand in her direction. She looked at him
uncomprehendingly, but stopped crying.

"Come," he repeated. "I'm taking you away from here."

"But William-" she protested weakly, feeling less than up to going out
anywhere now.

"Shhh," he quieted her, guessing what it was that was bothering her. "I'm
taking you home. You're obviously not in any state to drive right now and a
dinner out is definitely out of the question."

She nodded mutely and stood up to put her coat on. They left the clinic,
leaving Pete to close up, and went to the parking lot.

"Give me your keys," William said.

"What?" she asked, her faculties not quite recovered yet.

"Give me your keys," he repeated patiently. "I'll drive you."

"But what about your car? How will you get to Netherfield?" she asked
feebly.

He smiled at her and caressed her cheek. "Don't worry, I'll phone Charles
and ask him to pick me up. Now give me the keys."

She handed them to him and they got into the car. They buckled their
seatbelts and Elizabeth smiled weakly, touched, when William checked whether
her belt was fastened properly. The drive to her house was spent in silence,
Elizabeth was still engrossed in her thoughts of anger and regret, and
William was too baffled by her behaviour to speak, casting only worried
glances at her.

Soon, they arrived at their destination. Elizabeth opened the door and they
went inside. William stood undecidedly in the hall, wondering if she wanted
him to leave. Finally, tired with this strange situation, he broke the
silence, "Elizabeth, I can see something's not right. Will you not tell me
what it is?"

She cringed at hearing his words. She didn't feel like talking at all. But
she owed him some explanation, after ruining their plans for the evening.
And, it occurred to her, if she didn't tell him, he'd probably go back to
Netherfield and blab everything to Jane, and then she wouldn't have a moment
of peace. No, she'd rather suffer the unpleasant task of reporting the story
than risk having her overprotective big sister on her hands.

She sighed. "All right, I'll tell you. But first I'd like to take a shower.
Would you be a dear and walk Jack for me?"

Relieved at her acquiescence, he assured her, "Of course, I'd love to." He
turned to the dog who had just appeared next to them and proceeded with his
greeting. "C'mon, big guy. Let's go."




A quarter of an hour later, William returned from the walk panting and
completely out of breath. Jack had thoroughly enjoyed himself, but why he
deemed it necessary to pull him through every hedge and bush, William had no
idea.

He took off his coat and went in search of Elizabeth. She wasn't in the
kitchen, nor the living room. That left only.. He heard the sound of the
shower above. She was still in it apparently. Her beautiful hair damp, her
gorgeous naked body.. No, don't go there! How he wished to go up to the
bathroom and join her. Finally be able to see what he had imagined since the
moment he met her. To touch her all over..No, no, no, no! He shook his head,
trying to clear it of his lustful thoughts. He must reign in his desire,
right now she needed someone to talk to, not a rutting maniac.

He was just about to turn around and walk away, when he heard the shower
stopping. He froze in expectation and soon the vision that appeared on the
top of the stairs completely undid him.

She was wearing a white soft robe, a little too big for her perhaps, because
a great deal of the skin of her cleavage and shoulders was uncovered. Her
dark, curly hair was damp, as he had imagined, pulled into a charmingly
messy bun on top of her head. Her cheeks and the exposed skin were flushed
from the heat of the shower. She looked fresh, youthful, lovely and innocent
in a way. Maybe it was the white robe or the vulnerable expression of her
beguiling eyes, or both, but she seemed almost a woman-child. One he craved
to sweep of her feet and carry to bed, but equally wanted to embrace and
protect from the entire world.

Elizabeth was slightly disconcerted at William's behaviour. Are we back
to staring now? She thought with some unease. "How was the walk,
William?"

"What?" His brain registered the question and he replied hastily, "It was
good, though more of a run than a walk," he admitted sheepishly.

"Oh no, I hope he didn't tire you out too much. He can be really stubborn
when he puts his mind to it."

"No, it's fine, he was just a little excited." He waved his hand
dismissively.

Elizabeth excused herself for a moment and, three minutes later, returned
dressed in blue and red checked flannel pajamas. They went into the kitchen,
where Elizabeth started looking through the cupboards and the refrigerator.
"I'm going to make us something to eat," she announced. At his protests, she
insisted, "No, it's my fault we didn't eat out tonight, I ought to
compensate it to you somehow. Besides, I'm starving and you must be hungry
too." William thought that at this moment all he had an appetite for was
her, but he couldn't tell her that, now could he?

"Can I help you?" he asked her instead.

"I'm just going to make an omelet and a salad. You can cut the vegetables."
She showed him where to find everything he needed and they started their
work. Seemingly immersed in his task, he observed her discreetly. She
appeared calm now, busying herself around the kitchen, but he could sense
that there was something bothering her. She wasn't her usual cheerful self,
instead she seemed rather withdrawn and downcast. Apparently, the thing that
had gotten her crying in the clinic still troubled her.

William was worried and anxious for her, yet the harmony he found in their
working together, preparing the meal was undeniable. It was such a picture
of domesticity that he could almost imagine their living here together,
married.. Married? Where did that come from?




"Are you feeling better now?" William asked as they sat together at the
table in the kitchen. The smell of the food, albeit simple, was divine to
his empty stomach.

She took a bit of her omelet and shrugged. "I guess. Better. Not well, but
better. Funny that "better" should be worse than "well."

Confused by her enigmatic speech, he said, "Can you tell me now what really
happened?"

"Oh, not when we're eating!" she exclaimed with disgust.

"Elizabeth.!" he admonished her softly. "Please." She couldn't resist the
earnest expression of his eyes. Defeated, she sighed and relented.

"All right, but it's not going to be pretty."

He smiled lightly at her. "I figured as much. Now spill."

She related the whole story of the dreadful day from the beginning till the
end. At first, William was surprised and didn't understand what she was
about. When she came to describing Collins' advances, however, a hot rage
gripped him and continued to grow with her every word. The thought of any
man touching her was unbearable to him, but the idea of someone forcing
himself on her awakened murderous instincts in him.

"This is unbelievable!" he exclaimed as she finished her tale. "What are you
going to do about it?"

She shrugged. "Nothing. What can I do?"

"What do you mean, what can you do? You should report this to the police!
This was sexual assault!" he cried, his indignation rising.

She smiled weakly. "William, there's no way I can prove anything. There were
no witnesses, he didn't hurt me or leave any evidence of his actions. In the
optimistic scenario the police will drop the charge due to lack of evidence.
In the worst case scenario, I could be accused of slander."

Too restless to sit still, he sprang to his feet and began to pace.

"Then you should notify his employer about it! Let her know what kind of a
man she hires!" In his anger, it didn't even cross his mind that he wasn't
supposed to know the sex of Collins' employer. Fortunately, Elizabeth's
thoughts were too preoccupied to notice his slip.

"Why should she believe me? She'll have only his word against mine. Whom
would she be more likely to believe?" she asked him.

He had to agree with her, though unwillingly. "But you can't just leave it
like that!"

She snorted with some irritation. "This is not my greatest concern at the
moment."

He turned to regard her. "No? What is, then?"

She shook her head at his obtuseness. "Can't you guess? Collins offered to
support my application to Lady Catherine De Bourgh if I agreed to his
bargain. My rejection of him means that I lost the grant. He'll never let
the board give it to me."

At her words William stopped pacing and sank into the chair again. This was
too much for him to take. Not only had the bastard made a pass on her, he
had also ruined her chances of getting the grant and fulfilling her plans
and visions. He seethed, dreaming of getting his hands on this man. He is
going to pay for doing this to her, he thought hatefully.

His anger evaporated, replaced by concern as soon as he looked at her. She
encircled her knees with her arms and rested her head on them. Her bare feet
peeked from under the trouser legs of her pajamas and her hair tumbled down
her back. Her disheveled appearance, together with the crestfallen
expression on her face, made her look very vulnerable and very endearing.

He rose from his chair and approached her, crouching next to her. He touched
her arm lightly, making her look at him. The eyes she turned on him were
shining with unshed tears.

"Elizabeth." he started tentatively, "Everything's going to be all right."

"How do you know?" she asked skeptically.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I just know. Trust me."

She sighed tremulously. "Can we please stop talking about this? I want to
forget this whole pathetic affair."

"Of course, as you wish," he replied. He felt uncomfortable, kneeling on the
floor like that. Awkwardly, he stood up, looking at his watch. "It's getting
late. I should be going." Ask me to stay.

She stood up as well. "Yes. Thank you.for everything." She looked him
straight in the face, willing him to understand her gratefulness.

"Don't mention it. Can I use the phone? I need to call Charles and ask him
to pick me up."

"Of course, you can use the one in the hall. I'm sorry I caused you such
inconvenience," she said apologetically.

He shook his head. "There's no inconvenience. Please, don't think about it."

She smiled lightly and nodded. "I have only one more thing I'd like to ask
you. Please, don't tell Jane what happened today. I want to tell her
myself."

William swore solemnly he would be silent as the grave, after which he left
to make his phone call. When he returned to the kitchen a few minutes later,
he didn't find her there. He went in search of her and, finally, found her
in the living room, asleep on the sofa, curled into a ball, her hand under
her cheek. He smiled tenderly at the charming picture she presented. Days of
living under pressure and anticipation, and then the destruction of all her
hopes, must have completely exhausted her. Not to mention being assaulted by
a slimy, rotten jerk.

Quietly, he approached her and, reaching for the warm blanket lying on the
backrest, he covered her, tucking her in gently. Unable to resist himself,
he leaned down and kissed her lips tenderly. Then, sighing deeply, he left
the house, to wait for Charles outside.




It took a Herculean effort to stop Charles from plaguing him with questions.
But William was as stubborn as his friend and persistently refused to say
anything. Finally, Charles got tired and gave up, figuring that if William
was determined to keep silent, there was no way to get anything out of him.
He decided to appeal to Elizabeth for information as soon as he saw her.

William entered his bedroom and, hesitatingly, moved toward the telephone
that lay on the bedside table. He sat at the bed for a moment, pondering on
what he should do. Then, resolutely, he picked up the receiver and dialed a
number. A few seconds later he heard a brisk, "Hello" on the other side of
the line.

"This is William Darcy. I need to speak to Lady Catherine. It's urgent."


Chapter eleven



Elizabeth awoke slowly. She looked around disoriented, frowning in
confusion. What am I doing in the living room? Gradually, bits and
pieces of the previous evening began to return to her. She had been so
exhausted.she had sat on the couch for just a few minutes and before she had
known, she must have fallen asleep. But who put the blanket over her?
William! Her heart skipped a beat at the thought of him. He had been here
last night. They had eaten dinner together and then.then he had gone to make
a phone call and she had come here and nodded off. It must have been him who
had covered her. She smiled and sighed happily at the thought of his tender
gesture. How sweet of him! But.what had he been doing here in the first
place?

Suddenly, the whole memory of the last evening hit her and instantly turned
her warm, cheerful feelings into cold and clammy revulsion. She shuddered,
fury and indignation welling up inside her once again, as she thought of the
disgusting man and the revolting, audacious offer he had made her. Offer!
She snorted resentfully. It was sheer blackmail! But the worst of all was
the fact that there was nothing she could do to remedy the situation and
make Collins get what he so richly deserved.

She sat up, massaging her aching temples. This wasn't the end of
unpleasantness for her, she still had the disagreeable task of explaining to
Maria and Pete why it was that they had lost the grant. She also needed to
tell the story to Jane; she was sure her sister wouldn't rest until she
found out the truth. It wouldn't be surprising if she received a visit from
Jane today.

Glancing at the antique clock on the wall, she gasped. 8.45! She had
overslept! Pushing all thoughts of Collins away, she bolted from the couch
and, at a racing speed, got ready for work.




Elizabeth's being late for work caused some concern and confusion among her
two workmates. Their friend was usually extremely dutiful and Maria couldn't
remember the last time Elizabeth was late. She concluded that something must
have happened. Pete related to her the strange manner in which Mr. Collins
had left the clinic, which caused even greater worry in Maria. It was with
immense expectation and disquiet that she saw her boss arrive at work.

Elizabeth's grave demeanor immediately told Maria and Pete that something
was indeed wrong. They hesitated to ask questions, but it turned out that
there wasn't any need for their interrogation. Almost the moment she walked
through the door, she asked them to go into the office with her.
Tentatively, and with no small apprehension, she told them the whole story.
The looks on her friends' faces shifted as the story progressed. They
changed from curiosity, through shock and indignation, disappointment, to
concern and compassion.

"Oh, Lizzy, I'm so sorry you had to go through this!" Maria exclaimed as she
held her friend. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have left you alone with
that.that swine!"

Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest, but Pete interjected first, "No, it's
my fault. I was in the next room all the time. I should have checked on
you," he said, self-reproach evident in his face and voice.

Elizabeth, however, would have none of their blaming themselves. "Stop it!
It's not your fault! The only person who's to blame here is Collins. You
couldn't have known he was such a bastard. Besides, nothing very dreadful
happened, except that we lost the grant."

"It's not your fault, Lizzy. I hope you don't blame yourself, because we
certainly don't blame you. Don't think about it anymore. We'll apply to a
different foundation. Surely, you're not going to give up so easily?" said
Maria, smiling encouragingly.

Elizabeth allowed herself the first tentative smile. "Hell no! I'm not going
to give the asshole the satisfaction!"

Maria and Pete were relieved to see the Elizabeth they knew back. Elizabeth,
for her part, was grateful for their forbearance and understanding. She was
really lucky to have such caring, supportive friends. They made her feel a
little better and, by the end of the day, she started to believe that
everything was going to be fine.

She still had the job of informing Jane before her, though. She was quite
sure that sometime during the day her sister would call or visit her, unable
to contain her worry and curiosity. Her predictions were confirmed when the
eldest Bennet sister appeared at the clinic, just as Elizabeth was going to
leave. She was not alone, though, Charlotte Lucas flanked her, looking quite
inquisitive herself. Elizabeth sighed and surrendered to fate. It was even
better, she thought, that they came together, she wouldn't have to repeat
the dreary story twice.




The girls managed to persuade Elizabeth to join them for dinner at the Swan
Inn, which had become their favourite place. They ordered their dinner, but
food was promptly forgotten as soon as Elizabeth started relating the story.

Jane and Charlotte sat in open-mouthed shock that mirrored the expressions
of Maria, Pete and William when they had first learned the distasteful
truth. It took some time for Charlotte to gather her bearings and speak. "My
God, Liz, this is so awful! What a fucking asshole this Collins character
is!" she stated with noticeable disgust.

Jane wasn't usually one to hastily judge people (indeed, this quality
belonged wholly to her younger sister), but found that in this case she
couldn't be tolerant and think of excuses for the man's behaviour. Her
sister had been harassed and threatened and that was more than enough to
change the normally placid Jane into the goddess of revenge.

"What an incredible jerk! He should pay for treating you in such a way! You
must inform the authorities! You mustn't allow him to get away with it!"

Elizabeth sighed tiredly. She had known Jane would be difficult in this

"Janey, I appreciate your concern, but it's not so easy. I had already
explained it to William that I have no evidence whatsoever of what he'd
done. No one would believe my accusations."

At this, Charlotte's ears pricked curiously.

"William? How come you had told him before you told us?" she asked.

Elizabeth slapped her head mentally, discovering she'd just betrayed
herself. Now her dear friends wouldn't rest until they got the whole story
out of her. But, on second thought, maybe it was a good thing. Maybe talking
about her feelings about William would help her sort them out? Figuring it
wouldn't hurt to try, she decided to come clean to Jane and Charlotte. They
were the two people she trusted implicitly and she knew she could count on
their sensible advice and, what was by no means of small importance in such
a small town as Meryton, their discretion.

"We were supposed to go out to dinner together yesterday. He came to pick me
up and witnessed the state I was in after Collins left. I had to tell him
what happened," she explained, anticipating a storm of questions evoked by
her admission.

"You went on a date?" came the first, decidedly hopeful, question from Jane.
The expression on her face was one of a child who was promised a trip to the
Disneyland.

"No," answered Elizabeth curtly and giggled in spite of herself at beholding
the fall of Jane's countenance. "I was so distraught that he offered to take
me home. We ate something there, but I wouldn't call it a date."

"Ah, so no date, just straight to a cosy dinner at home! Go Liz! Why waste
your time on such formalities as dating when you can get directly to
business?" Charlotte leered, an impish gleam in her eyes. Jane giggled, all
too delighted for Elizabeth's liking. She glared at her sister and friend.

"There was no 'business'! I was too depressed to let any remotely romantic
thoughts to my head. William just listened to me and comforted me, that's
all," she said firmly.

"Comforted, eh? How sweet of him!" Charlotte evidently wasn't convinced.

Elizabeth fumed. She hated when Charlotte did that!

"Yes, as a matter of fact, he was very kind and behaved like a true
gentleman!" she defended William.

"As a friend would?" inquired Jane, a little bit too sceptically.

"Yes!" she answered defensively.

"Deny, deny, deny!" exclaimed Charlotte exasperated with her friend. "Lizzy,
it is obvious for anybody with eyes that there is something more between you
two. He can't stay away from you, keeps looking for excuses to see you and
then, when you are together, he practically devours you with his eyes. It's
so apparent that I wonder why he hasn't screwed up his courage and grabbed
and kissed you!"

Elizabeth had the grace to blush slightly, lowering her eyes, a little smirk
playing upon her lips. Jane and Charlotte looked at her sharply.

"He has!" cried Charlotte. "Elizabeth Bennet! You sly thing! And not to tell
us a word! What kind of a friend are you?"

"Lizzy, is this true?" Jane asked with some concern. Admittedly, she wanted
Elizabeth to get to know William and she had entertained a thought of
getting them together. But this was a little unexpected, considering that
only a week ago her sister was determined she didn't like the guy.

"Yes, it is. Don't look at me like that! It's not like we're getting
married, we just kissed."

Perceiving Elizabeth's uncertainty, Jane prodded carefully, "You kissed and
then what?"

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. "He asked me to dinner and I agreed, but,
as you know we never made it. Truthfully, I don't know where we are standing
now, whether he wants us to be friends or something more."

"Why do you think he would kiss you if he wanted only friendship?" asked
Charlotte in some confusion.

"I don't know.I know him so little! For all I know he may just be
considering our." she hesitated, the word "relationship" unable to pass
through her throat, "Acquaintance as a holiday entertainment. What if he
only plays with my feelings?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly paling, her lips
quivering slightly at a memory from the past suddenly returned to her,
gripping her heart with icy fingers.

Jane shook her head decidedly, catching her hand and holding it tightly.
"No, Lizzy, William's not like that. He'd never do such a thing."

"How do you know? This wouldn't be the first time." Elizabeth whispered
helplessly.

Charlotte knew she needed to step in. "Listen to me Liz," she commanded.
Elizabeth looked her in the face and encountered her set features. "I know
you've been hurt. The man was a first-class ass, I grant you that. I know
he's used you and wounded you deeply. But you've got to believe that not all
men are like that."

Elizabeth closed her eyes and attempted to control her feelings. She knew
Charlotte was right, but her heart wasn't so easily persuaded.

"I know that. But it's difficult to trust anybody again, after Sean." she
broke off, uttering the name that hadn't passed through her lips for three
years.

"William Darcy is not Sean Wilcox," Charlotte stated firmly. "You have to
give him a chance, Liz. Let the guy explain himself. And I think you should
talk to each other about your feelings. Most of troubles in this world
result from lack of communication."

Jane nodded. "Char's right. Do you think Charles and I would try to set you
up with William if I wasn't sure he was good for you? And we had been right,
hadn't we?" Jane teased, smiling smugly.

Elizabeth laughed. "Well then, I see I have no choice but believe you." She
grew serious, adding, "Thank you for your reassurance and understanding."

"Anytime, hon," said Charlotte, patting Elizabeth's hand. "Just promise that
you and Dr. Darcy will name your firstborn after me," she rejoined, ducking
her head and giggling, as Elizabeth reached out her hand in mock anger, as
if intending to hit her. Jane interjected, trying to divide them, while all
the time chuckling uncontrollably. Their silly display began to draw
attention of several of the Inn's patrons, but, luckily a ringing sound
interrupted them and brought them back to some semblance of maturity.

Elizabeth retrieved her ringing mobile from her bag. "Yes?"

"Lizzy, it's Charles."

"Hi Charles!" she greeted her future brother, while sticking out a tongue at
Jane's questioning face. Charlotte just rolled her eyes.

"Listen, we need your help. Can you come to Netherfield as soon as
possible?"

Elizabeth sat up straight, anxiety rising inside of her. "What happened?"
Perceiving the seriousness of her tone, Jane and Charlotte sobered as well
and looked at her in anticipation.

"It's too long to tell on the telephone. I'll tell you when you get to
Netherfield. Will you come?" Charles repeated. She tried to discern any
emotion in his voice, but he sounded strange. Not particularly nervous, but
she fancied she could hear a strangled sound in his voice from time to time.

"Yes, of course, I'll be right there, bye." She disconnected and looked at
her dinner companions.

"I have to go," she said, rising from the chair.

"Wait! I'll go with you," declared Jane, unease visible in her features.
They both looked at Charlotte. She waved them off, impatiently. "Go, I'll
pay the check, we'll settle it later. Call me when you know something,
okay?"

Elizabeth nodded, slipping her coat on. "Okay. Thanks, Char."

Quickly, they run out of the restaurant and into their respective cars.




Elizabeth and Jane approached Netherfield with trepidation. What could
possibly have happened? When they entered the house the answer was clear to
them. There was no barking with which Louisa usually greeted visitors.
Something must have happened to the dog.

They looked at each other, surprised by the total silence in the house.

"Charles?" Jane called out and immediately her fianc?d, looking
quite relieved to see them, but, if Elizabeth hadn't known better, she'd
swear that there was laughter in his eyes.

"Charles, what happened?" Elizabeth pressed him, before he spoke.

"I'm glad you could make it, Lizzy. We could really use your help. And
yours, as well, darling," he added, observing Jane's scowl.

"Who's we? Where's Caroline and Louisa? And William? What the hell
happened?" cried Elizabeth in irritation, wanting badly to take Charles by
the shoulders and shake him forcefully.

"I'm here." William emerged from the hall and entered the living room where
all of them were gathered. She couldn't help but notice how gorgeous he
looked in a pair of faded jeans and a button-up shirt.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on here?" Elizabeth repeated. "You
had us worried sick with your mysterious telephone," she accused Charles.

"I'm sorry, but I really couldn't tell you this on the phone." To Elizabeth
and Jane's total dismay, he threw back his head and laughed. William pressed
his lips together, but couldn't stop a small chuckle escape him.

Elizabeth was a little relieved. Surely, if they laughed it couldn't be
anything awful. Still, she was irritated with their behaviour and glared at
the two men.

"I'm sorry," said Charles at last, wiping away his tears. "It's just so
funny. I was sitting here this afternoon, talking to Will. Caroline was out
somewhere, walking with Louisa. Suddenly, we heard a loud shriek and we run
out to see what was wrong." Here Charles had to pause, another attack of
laughter overtaking him. Realizing that demanding him to finish the story
now was pointless, the girls sat still, waiting patiently for him to calm
down.

"Sorry. Where was I? Ah, right, we run to see what all the noise was about
and we saw." a chuckle, "we saw Caroline standing in the garden, screaming
at the top of her lungs and looking in horror at something on the ground."
Charles broke off again, pressing a hand to his eyes, shaking with effort to
control his chortles. Elizabeth glanced at William and saw he was doing a
prodigious job of containing his mirth. His lips were pressed tightly, but
his eyes danced with amusement. As Charles's story progressed, he covered
his mouth with his hand to suppress his laughter.

"There was Louisa and that stray of yours on top of her. They were doing the
dirty deed, if you know what I mean and seemed to enjoy it very much. But
Caroline was horrified."

Loud laughter escaped William, as the hilarious picture Charles's story
conjured up in his mind. Elizabeth looked at him with wonder at hearing the
rich, resonant sound. His laugh was beautiful and her breath hitched at how
handsome he looked in such a carefree state: his eyes sparkling, his dimples
in full evidence, his teeth white and even.

"So what happened next?" asked Jane curiously.

Charles snorted. "Well, when we finally managed to separate the lovers,
Caroline tried to catch the stray, but he managed to run away. So she took
Louisa to London to her private vet, to make sure there are no consequences
from the misalliance. But before she did that she had called the police and
reported a rabid dog. That's why we called you, Lizzy. They're going to look
for him and when they find him they may want to put him down."

Elizabeth nodded. "You did the right thing. We need to find him first,
though it won't be easy," she said thoughtfully.

"We'll start looking around Netherfield. He couldn't have gone far," offered
William.

They agreed to divide into teams again and, sure enough, Charles and Jane
insisted on William going with Elizabeth. The search party left soon after,
heading in two opposite directions.




"Where do you think he could have gone?" asked William as he and Elizabeth
stood undecided just outside the fence around Netherfield.

"Probably in the direction of the forest, where he could hide," she
answered, pointing to an expanse of trees growing about 70 meters away.

As they began walking, William looked at her closely, trying to determine
her state. Was she still depressed and angry after the previous day? It was
impossible to tell, she seemed completely concentrated on her current task.
He didn't dare ask and risk acerbating any distress she might be feeling. It
would soon be over and dealt with anyway.

He smiled to himself as a sudden thought occurred to him. "You know, it's
rather funny. This is the second time we walk together for the sake of this
dog."

She smiled up at him. "You're right. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect
Jane and Charles had their hands in this."

"What do you mean?" he asked in some confusion.

"Oh, nothing," Elizabeth waved his question off. "Well, here we are. I don't
think we'll be able to notice him in all these bushes," she said, looking
around.

"Wait," he said to her. She stood still, wondering at what he was about. As
she watched, he slowly started walking through the bushes, pushing bare
branches aside. All the while he was calling out softly to the dog, making
cooing sounds and promising him all sorts of treats if he only made himself
known. Elizabeth was quite fascinated and awfully curious about the outcome
of his effort. She walked a few yards behind him, keeping her eyes on the
undergrowth. They walked in that manner for about half an hour, when
something arrested her notice. She looked closer and perceived a small, grey
bundle under a bush to their right.

"William," she whispered to him, not wanting to scare their target. "I think
we've found what we've been looking for." She motioned the direction with
her head. He nodded and went down to a crouching position. Just like the day
they had gone riding, she saw him extend his hand to the animal and entice
him to come out of his hiding. His voice was very soft, almost pleading. The
dog raised his head and looked at them, Elizabeth could see hesitation and
dilemma in his eyes. He didn't move, not even when William, trying another
tactic, started crawling in his direction. In a painfully slow manner the
man neared the animal, all the time maintaining eye contact. Finally, the
dog was within William's reach. Elizabeth held her breath in anticipation as
she observed William slowly extend his right hand and touch the dog. To her
surprise, the animal didn't bite him, nor run away. He recoiled slightly,
but when William reached out his other hand and took him up, he didn't stir,
allowing the man to cradle him to his chest.

Elizabeth couldn't believe what she'd just witnessed. She'd never seen
anything like that! William's ability to tame this half-wild animal inspired
admiration mixed with a fair amount of awe in her.

"It's all right now, you're safe with us," William spoke soothingly to the
still trembling dog, all the while stroking his fur lightly. He glanced at
Elizabeth and smiled noticing her shocked expression.

"What shall we do with this little guy?" he asked her.

Elizabeth fought hard to regain her senses. His question helped her to focus
on what needed to be done. Instantly, her professional habit took over.

"We will take him to my place. He needs to be examined and." she came closer
and hesitantly touched the dog. He seemed quite calm now and didn't flinch
at her touch. ".and bathed," she added looking at the animal's dirty coat.

"So do I," replied William wryly, his whole hands and jacket were quite
soiled. "Let's go then."




Once they reached Elizabeth's house, they took the dog to the laundry room,
where all of Elizabeth's animals had always been bathed. The room was rather
spacious and besides the regular household appliances usually found in such
a place, there was also a small tub, which wore sure signs of being in
frequent use.

It wasn't easy to settle the dog in the tub. Until that point he had been
quite compliant, sitting calmly in William's lap during the drive, but when
it came to putting him down into a wet bathtub, he started showing a bit of
a temper. He writhed and squirmed, trying to wrench away from their grasp.
Finally, William had to hold him firmly, while Elizabeth turned on the
shower and waited for the water to warm up. When she gently directed the
stream on the dog, he started wriggling so much he almost succeeded in
breaking free. Soon, however, the warm water combined with Elizabeth
messaging his skin as she washed him, settled down the animal's anxiety.
From then on he stood obediently in the tub, allowing the woman to bathe him
with a special anti-flea shampoo. As it turned out, the shampoo proved
priceless, as the poor dog had suffered from the presence of the nasty
parasites. The whole process inspired lots of laughter and a few curses, as
time and again the dog decided to jerk slightly, sending sprays of water on
the people, making them thoroughly drenched after a few minutes.

After the bath, Elizabeth carefully towelled the dog, but he must have
thought this insufficient, for as soon as he was out of the tub he shook
himself off so vigorously that both people got even more wet.

"Is this how you show your gratitude to your saviours?" Elizabeth addressed
the dog in exasperated amusement.

"I guess we should be thankful he's not a Great Dane," William replied with
a slight smile. Elizabeth chuckled and nodded her complete agreement. She
felt wonderful ease and contentment. Working together with William on a
common task created a deep sense of companionship within her. All
awkwardness she might have felt disappeared. Instead, there was closeness
and camaraderie, increasing more and more with each hour they spent
together. This realization brought a feeling of apprehension over her
vulnerability to him, but she quenched it immediately.

Succeeding in getting the dog clean and presentable, Elizabeth proceeded to
examine him. A few minutes later she announced the result to William, "He's
in a pretty good condition, besides fleas and malnutrition there is nothing
wrong with him. In a few weeks he's going to be as good as new."

"How old do you think he is?" asked William.

"Quite young, I'd say. No more than two, three years."

After their work was done, William and Elizabeth sat on the couch in the
living room, having previously locked Jack upstairs to prevent him from
scaring the small dog. Now they could hear his dissatisfied howling
throughout the whole house.

"Would he hurt him if they met?" asked William.

"Jack? Oh no. But he'd want to play and he could scare the life out of the
little one. Cass, on the other hand wouldn't accept a stranger on her
territory so easily."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, each immersed in their own thoughts.

"What shall we do with him?" Elizabeth finally asked the question that lay
heavily on her mind since the moment they had found the dog that day. The
object of their conversation lay on the floor near William's feet and looked
from one to the other, as if attending to the discussion that was to decide
his fate.

"I don't want to give him to the RSPCA now that he seems to have trusted us.
It would be like a betrayal," she continued.

"I don't think we should give him away, either," William replied.

"It could be difficult to find him a home," she mused thoughtfully.

"Yes. But you don't have to worry about it."

"What do you mean?" she asked, puzzled.

William sighed and looked at the dog, then raised his eyes to Elizabeth's.
"I'm going to take him."

Elizabeth could only stare at him and stammer out, "You.you are?"

He smiled. "Yes. I owe him as much. After all, he saved me from Caroline.
And I'm sure that when she finds out that I've taken him in, she won't
desire to have anything to do with me," he grinned devilishly.

Elizabeth laughed, relief quite overtaking her. After a moment, though, she
grew serious and looked at him intently, with a little smile playing about
her lips. He looked at her quizzically.

"What?" he asked, somewhat embarrassed by her scrutiny.

"You're a good man, William Darcy," she said softly. Then she moved over to
him, touched one side of his face and kissed his lips lightly. She withdrew
after a moment and for some time they just looked each other in the eye,
before William bent down and kissed her again, more lingeringly this time.
The contentment she had felt changed into giddiness at his closeness and
intoxicating kisses. His arms encircled her waist and he pulled her into his
embrace. At length, they parted, but she didn't leave his arms, instead, she
rested her head on his shoulder and looked down at the dog once again.

"What are you going to name him?" she asked, somehow preferring this neutral
topic than any more intimate ones.

He thought for a moment before replying, "Hurst."

She frowned in bewilderment. "Why?"

He chuckled. "I don't know - the name just occurred to me. A sudden
revelation, if you will. But it suits him, don't you think?"

Elizabeth observed the animal for a while. "Yes, I must admit, it quite fits
him. Hello, Hurst," she addressed the dog, who raised his head and looked at
her.

"See, he reacted. He approves of the name. Hurst it's going to be," William
stated firmly and then turned to Elizabeth and continued his onslaught on
her lips, to the accompaniment of her delighted laughter.


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