Life is Better With Animals
Chapter twelve

The next morning, Elizabeth had an unexpected patient. She and Maria were
just completing the paperwork that had piled up during the last few days,
when William entered the room with Hurst on a leash. Elizabeth smiled
broadly at the cute picture the couple presented: one tall, dark and
handsome, the other small, grey and not the most beautiful representative of
his kind. The external contrast between them couldn't be greater, yet it was
clear they belonged to one another.

"William!" she greeted him with a smile. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"He needs to be vaccinated and I wanted the best vet I know to do it,"
William replied with a smile.

Elizabeth laughed at his flattery. "Well, that's some opinion I have to live
up to. I'll try to do my best."

Maria noticed Hurst and exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, is it him? He's so cute!"

Elizabeth laughed and William grinned. "You should have seen him yesterday
before we managed to get him cleaned up - all dirt and fleas. But today he
looks very well." The dog looked at her and wagged his tail in recognition.
He was still a little nervous and wary of strangers, but nothing like the
terrified creature they had found under that bush the day before.

"OK, let's get to work. William, can you put him on the table?"

Without effort, William picked the animal up and put him on the table.
Hurst, suddenly disoriented, gave a wriggle trying to break free, but
William held him tight and soon calmed him down.

Elizabeth took the syringe Maria had prepared and turned to her patient. "It
may hurt him a little. You should hold him tight," she told William. He
nodded and she grasped the skin on the dog's neck and gave him the
injection. As she suspected he would, Hurst struggled at the feeling of the
shot, but William held him in place until Elizabeth finished.

"There, all done," she said. "He's going to be fine. I'd advise you to have
him neutered, though. I can do it if you want to."

William looked at her in confusion. "Neutered?"

"Yes, you know, spayed. Sterilized," she clarified.

"You mean.castrate him?" asked William in a choked voice.

Elizabeth glanced at Maria knowingly and both women stifled a giggle. He
looked positively horrified. She tried to assume her most professional voice
and expression, as she replied,
"Yes, you can call it that as well. It is really a safe procedure and very
useful. It minimizes roaming and aggressive behaviour. Not to mention, it
will prevent him from getting into the sort of trouble he had with Louisa,"
Elizabeth tried to joke, but it was lost on William.

"Is it necessary? He's not aggressive and I'm going to make sure he stays
away from other dogs."

"No, it's not necessary, but it'll make looking after him a lot easier,"
said Elizabeth, though she already knew it was pointless trying to convince
William. He was still a little green on the face and hadn't snapped out of
the shock yet.

"Then I don't want him to be.well, you know," he said, unable to speak the
horrific words.

"Of course, as you wish." Elizabeth had had this conversation with owners
too many times to be surprised by his reaction, so she just shrugged and
turned to Hurst instead.

"It's all over now," she said and stroked the dog's head. "You've been very
good. You deserve a reward." She opened a drawer, took out a packet of dog
biscuits and gave one to Hurst.

At that moment Pete opened the door. "Sorry to interrupt, but Ms. Bates has
just called. Her cat has caught a bird again and she would very much like
Maria to have a look at it."

Maria sighed heavily. "Not again! I thought Fluffy was too old for that
already," she grumbled, though in her heart she liked the old cat and his
mistress, who rarely left her house because of her age. She was, however,
very fond of Maria and, as Ms. Bates had no family, the young woman visited
her often and kept her company.

"My dear, you are indispensable, and you'd better get used to it," Elizabeth
replied with a teasing smile and Maria rolled her eyes. There was nothing
for it, she had to go.

When she left, William turned to Elizabeth with a satisfied smile on his
face. He wished for nothing more than a few moments alone with her and now,
thanks to some old woman and her cat, he had his wish. Although he didn't
know them, he felt at that moment that he loved both of them.

He looked at Hurst, who happily consumed another biscuit Elizabeth offered
him. "Am I not going to get a reward?" he asked with a playful pout.

Elizabeth laughed at his banter. "And why should you deserve one? It wasn't
you that got the shot!"

"Aha, but I was subjected to an appalling conversation, as you no doubt
remember. Not to mention I had to watch my dog getting an injection. And I
hate needles!" he said with a mock shudder.

"Don't all men?" she asked with an arch of her brow. "But you're right,
you've been very good, you didn't faint or even get sick. You deserve a
reward as well."

"Good." He grinned smugly.

"So," she turned around and picked something up, "Have a biscuit." She
offered it to him with a bright smile. He smiled back at her, taking hold of
her hand in which she clutched the treat.

"Thank you, but it's not exactly what I had in mind," he said huskily,
leaning down and claiming her lips. The biscuit fell out of Elizabeth's hand
as William's warm mouth explored hers, his hands burying in her hair. The
kiss was slow, hot and electrifying. She put her hands on his chest and
savoured the feel of his hard muscles beneath her fingers. His touch, taste
and scent were making all rational thoughts flee her brain. It was only when
Hurst whined at being left ignored on the table that she remembered she was
at work. Reluctantly, she broke the kiss and pulled away a little, yet her
hands didn't leave his chest. He grasped her hands and squeezed them,
looking at her with dark, fervent eyes.

William was startled by the strength of his feelings. His desire for her was
unlike anything he'd experienced. From the moment he had seen her today when
he walked through the door, he had wanted to kiss her, and it was only
Maria's presence that had stopped him. When she had left, however, he had
been powerless to resist the temptation any longer. She was the most
luscious thing he had ever tasted.

"That's more like it," he murmured, grinning rakishly. Then, realizing that
she probably had work and patients waiting for her, he unwillingly let her
go.

"Thank you," he said, as he took Hurst down. "How much do I owe you?"

"Nothing, it's on the house," she replied.

He looked at her sincerely. "I'm serious. You did your job and I have to pay
for the service."

She set her jaw and answered defiantly, "William, don't be silly. You are my
friend and have already taken Hurst in. You've done more than enough."

He still didn't give up. "Elizabeth, I can't let you do this."

His stubbornness was irritating her. Why couldn't he just accept a gift?
"You have no choice. I won't take money from you and if you say one more
word about it I will take offense."

He sighed, but relented. "All right, as you wish. But you will let me take
you out to dinner instead. I was immensely disappointed we couldn't make it
the other evening," he said in a light tone, knowing that he was probably
bringing up unpleasant recollections in her.

Elizabeth pushed aside the memory of that dreadful evening, concentrating
instead on the present and the man before her. "I would be happy to have
dinner with you, William," she replied, smiling sweetly at him.

He answered her in kind. "Great!" he exclaimed excitedly. Elizabeth was
making him feel like a pimpled teenager who won a date with the most
beautiful girl in school. He kissed her again, but soon enough she had to
pull away from his embrace.

"I'll walk you to your car," she said and he nodded.

His car was parked on the street outside the clinic. William opened the door
and put Hurst on the back seat. Then he turned to Elizabeth. "I'll call you
tonight."

"All right," she answered him. Throwing a glance at the street and noticing
it was quite empty at the moment, William leaned down and kissed her one
last time. She reciprocated, sliding her hands up around his neck and
holding him tight, while his arms encircled her waist. They kissed for a
while, neither willing to let the other go. Finally, reluctantly, William
released her, got into his car and drove away, leaving her standing in the
street in a blissful haze.




Caroline Bingley was driving through Meryton determinedly. During her stay
here she had come to loath this place, and now, after the abomination of the
day before, she was resolute to leave it and never come back. If Charles
wanted to see her, he would have to visit her in London, because there was
no way she would set her foot here again. It was even probable that very
soon he'd get bored with this place and that chit he called his fianc𔡮d
return to London for good.

She only had to pack her things and convince William to come back as well.
She was quite sure he was as sick of this place and these people as she was
and wouldn't need much persuading. After all, there was nothing that was
keeping him in Meryton.

Her complacence was shaken at the sight she saw while driving through High
Street. To her utter shock and horror, on the street by his car she saw
William . . . kissing Eliza Bennet! No, that couldn't be! She slowed down in
order to look more closely. Yes, it was him with that hussy! They were so
involved with each other that they didn't even notice her! What was the
meaning of this? Indignant, she sped up to get away from the disgusting
view. William will have lots of explaining to do when he gets to
Netherfield!

William reached Netherfield in a state of blissful exultation. During the
last few days things between him and Elizabeth had been progressing
wonderfully. Their relationship, though still very new and fragile, was
promising. He was hopeful, but every now and then a thought of London
flashed in his mind, leaving him restless and uneasy. Yet, he pushed all the
thoughts of his leaving aside, trying not to think beyond the next couple of
days. He would deal with their separation when the time came.

When he parked his BMW, he saw something that suddenly turned his cheerful
mood into irritation. A silver Porsche Boxter stood in the driveway in front
of the house. Caroline. He knew that the confrontation was now inevitable.
The thought didn't give him any pleasure, but he realized that this was
necessary. In fact, he had been putting this off for entirely too long.

He strode purposefully into the house, leaving Hurst in the living room,
unwilling to expose him to Caroline's wrath. He could hear noises coming
from the back of the house and figured it must be her, but what she was
doing that was making so much clamour, he could not fathom. He stood in
front of her bedroom door for a while, hesitating whether he should go in.
Luckily, he was spared making the decision, when the door suddenly swung
open.

"You're here at last," Caroline stated the obvious fact. He could see she
was angry, but managed to contain it.

"Caroline. What are you doing?" he asked, surprised by her behaviour.

"I should think that was obvious. I'm packing. I'm not staying another day
in this place and if you knew what's good for you, you'd leave too," she
snapped, then turned on her heel and went back inside her room. Reluctantly,
William followed her.

The room was in a state of complete mess. The closet was wide open and
everywhere on the bed, on the bedside table, on the vanity and all the
chairs lay scattered different pieces of clothing, shoes and accessories.
Did she take all of her wardrobe on this holiday? thought William,
amazed and disgusted at the lengths to which some women were willing to go
in order to impress men and put their rivals to shame.

Let's get this over with. William took a deep breath and started,
"I'm sorry you don't like it here, Caroline, but I do and I'm staying."

She spun around and eyed him spitefully. "It's her, isn't it? She's
brainwashed you so completely that you no longer know what you are doing."

William's suspicions rose instantly, but he decided to bluff. "What are you
talking about?"

Her eyes narrowed and she hissed, "Do you think I'm a fool? I saw you
kissing her today!"

There was no way he could get out from admitting the truth now and he knew
Caroline would hit the roof, but he needed to put down all her hopes. Hell,
he should have done this years ago!

He replied coolly, "I don't see what business it is of yours."

She gasped in indignation and retorted, "I've sacrificed years of my life
for you! I could have married many rich and distinguished men, but I've been
waiting for you to come round and realize we were fated for each other!"

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Caroline, I've never promised anything to
you. You've never been anything else than my best friend's sister to me.
I've tried to make you understand it subtly, because I've never wanted to
hurt you."

She didn't give up. "So you are saying now, but none of your girlfriends had
you for long, while I'm still here."

"They didn't seem to bother you then, so what's made you so mad now?" he
asked distrustfully.

She looked at him with a disdainful expression on her face. "They were at
least women of some fashion and consequence. Now, though, you're meddling
with a common tart!"

William's anger flared at her words. "That's enough! I've tolerated your
interfering in my affairs for far too long, but I will not have you
offending Elizabeth!"

"Oh, I see she has you wrapped around her finger! She's not good enough for
you, you'll see it soon. She's just using you!"

"Where did you get that idea from?" he asked incredulously.

"Have you met her family? Her mother and younger sisters? They are all
ignorant, shameless gold diggers!"

"What does it have to do with Elizabeth?" He was losing his patience.

"You are so naive," she hissed, "Haven't you ever heard the saying 'Like
mother, like daughter'?"

"What are you implying?" he asked with deadly calmness.

"She, her mother, her younger sisters, even Jane, they are all greedy,
unscrupulous women. She's just after your money and position."

Disgusted beyond belief, William drawled, "Since you are so fond of the old
sayings, let me tell you that your maligning Elizabeth's name is nothing but
an example of the pot calling the kettle black."

Speechless with shock, she stared at him in disbelief. Astonished by the
fact that he actually got her silent, he continued, emboldened, "I'm not as
naive as you think, and I realize perfectly that you're only interested in
my money," he said coldly. "I have tolerated your behaviour for Charles'
sake, but I have no intention of letting you meddle in my private affairs
anymore."

Caroline opened her mouth to protest, but at that moment Hurst, who was
quite bored all by himself in the living room, decided to make an
appearance.

"What is that monster doing here?" she cried in anger and revulsion. Anger
at William and revulsion at Hurst, as if he were a rat rather than a dog.

Calmly, William bent down and picked Hurst up. "This monster is
staying here with me. I've decided to take him in. Do you have a problem
with that?"

It was a severe blow for Caroline. William had substituted her for some wild
country hussy, spoke to her in an infamous manner and said he wasn't, and
never had been, interested in her. He accused her of being mercenary, and
she had to admit it was the truth and that made her even more angry, because
nothing hurts so much as the truth. The last straw for her was his mocking
her by taking in that mongrel that had assaulted her baby. She wouldn't stay
here a moment longer than it was necessary.

As he was turning to leave the room, she couldn't resist the last, scathing
remark, "You are a fool! You and Charles, both of you are fools to be so
taken in with these Bennet bitches!"

William didn't deign to reply to her; instead, he turned to the door with
the intention of leaving the room, where he was startled seeing Charles
standing in the doorway, his face red with fury. Caroline noticed her
brother and paled at the thought of what he might have heard.

Charles looked coldly at his sister and stated in a voice full of
barely-contained anger, "You will pack and leave Netherfield right away. You
are no longer welcome here."

With this, he turned away and left, William followed him, leaving Caroline
standing in her room in stunned shock.

William took Hurst to his bedroom and went in search of Charles. He needed
to find his friend and see if he was all right. It wasn't every day that a
man throws his sister out of his house and William suspected that somebody
as amiable as Charles would take it really hard. He decided to start looking
from the study and was rewarded when he entered the room and found his
friend sitting in an armchair with a glass of scotch in his hand, glaring
angrily into space.

"I'm sorry," William said, not quite knowing what else he could say in such
a situation.

"How could she have said such a thing about Jane?" Charles demanded, turning
to face him.

William took a seat opposite his friend and replied after thinking for a
moment, "I'm afraid it's my fault."

"Why should you be guilty of my sister abusing my fianc??e asked
incredulously.

"I had provoked her to say it. I hadn't meant to do it, but we had
quarrelled and she had started insulting Jane and Elizabeth."

"What does Lizzy have to do with it?"

William didn't really feel like revealing the true extent of his
relationship with Elizabeth to Charles, but he owed his friend an
explanation.

"She's got everything to do with it," he admitted reluctantly. "Caroline saw
Elizabeth and me kissing and she just flew off the handle."

Charles was tired and still in shock, which was probably the only reason
why, instead of raining William with questions, he just said calmly, "Yes,
that would explain why she was so pissed off. But why were you kissing Lizzy
anyway? I didn't know you were dating."

William shifted in his chair uncomfortably and, not meeting Charles's eye,
answered, "Well, we aren't dating in the strict sense of the word, but we've
been in each other's company a lot."

"Yes, you have," he mused thoughtfully. "I might have known there was
something between you two."

He sat for a moment in silence, thinking. Then he turned to William again.
"What are your intentions towards Lizzy?"

"What?" William blurted out, completely taken aback. Which century was
Charles from?

"You heard me. I've encouraged you to get to know her and I'm happy you seem
to hit it off. Nevertheless, let me give you a piece of advice."

William listened in suspense, though he could imagine what Charles would
say. "Lizzy doesn't have a brother, but if you ever hurt her, I will assume
this role and beat you to a pulp."

It was enough, William was offended. "Is this what you think of me? Who do
you think I am, man?"

Charles raised both his hands in surrender. "Don't take it so personally.
I'd issue the same warning to any man in your place. I love Lizzy like my
own sister." His face grew sombre again at the mention of the word "sister".

"Have you had to warn off many men?" William asked sourly, feeling a sudden
stab of jealousy at the thought of Elizabeth with other men.

"Oh no, not at all." William breathed a sigh of relief.

"In fact," Charles continued. "Lizzy hasn't been seeing anyone in a very
long time. Jane was concerned about her and as I know you've been alone as
well, we thought you could do well together."

"I figured as much. But if you wanted to get us together, why did you
threaten to beat me just a few minutes ago?" William demanded, still quite
irked at his friend.

Charles smiled embarrassedly. "Just doing my brotherly duty. I'm sorry,
Will. Don't be angry with me. Instead, tell me about you and Lizzy."

William shrugged. "There's not much to tell. I like her very much and enjoy
her company greatly. I.I care about her and I'd never hurt her."

"You'd better not! Otherwise Jane would get really angry and I'd be forced
to beat you," he said with a smile and William knew he was joking. Or was
he?

Charles considered his duty fulfilled. His thoughts flew again to Caroline
and her awful accusations of Jane and Elizabeth. William saw that his friend
was feeling down again and he tried to console him.

"Why can't she be happy for me, like a normal sister?" Charles asked
rhetorically. William didn't have an answer to that.

"You are very lucky, Will. You have a wonderful sister who's never given
you a moment of distress."

William winced involuntarily at Charles' mentioning Georgiana. If only his
friend knew!

"How is Georgiana, by the way?"

"She's well," William replied cautiously.

"Is she enjoying the Royal?" asked Charles.

"Yes, she is. At first she had some trouble fitting in, but now she seems to
be adjusting," said William, feeling not a little pride at the thought of
his little sister studying in the illustrious Royal Academy of Music in
London.

"Wonderful!" exclaimed Charles. "She's always been an excellent pianist. You
must be so proud of her."

"Yes, I am," William admitted softly. He was indeed very proud of his
sister. She was a very diligent student, but besides studying hard, she
spent many hours every day practising. Although it was her first year at
college, she had already received much praise from her professors. William
suspected that aside from his sister's natural assiduousness, part of the
reason for her working so hard was the desire to forget about her recent
past.

"So, you and Lizzy," Charles said unexpectedly, turning a mischievous gaze
at William. He rarely had the opportunity to tease his friend about
something and now he had the perfect excuse.

William sighed in resignation, knowing he'd have no peace from now on. "Save
yourself your jokes, ok? Better put your mind to some use and help me
organize the most romantic date for Elizabeth."

Charles grinned and said, "William, my friend, I thought you'd never ask!"

With the greatest contentment Elizabeth settled herself on the couch,
dressed in her pyjamas and warm woollen socks her grandmother had knitted
for her many years ago, but which were still her favourites. She had had a
delicious dinner of tuna casserole, a nice, hot bubble bath, and a dessert
of her mother's cheesecake. Right now, sitting on the couch with a glass of
wine in her hand, a lovely fire blazing in the fireplace and Norah Jones
playing softly, she felt extremely complacent. What more could she ask of
life in that particular moment?

Some good company,  she thought wistfully, as the image of William
Darcy's deep brown eyes and handsome face appeared before her eyes. Soon,
the visual stimulus was joined by sensory and aromatic ones. She remembered
how it had felt to be in his arms and kissing him, and his masculine scent
filling her lungs and tickling her nostrils.

She had to admit that she liked him very much indeed. He was intelligent,
had a dry sense of humour that appealed to her very much, could be charming
when he tried and had a compassionate heart. And the way he kissed.Elizabeth
sighed at the memory. The way he kissed made her long to experience what
other talents he possessed.

The sound of a telephone ringing broke her reverie. She picked up the
receiver, which stood on a small table next to the couch.

"Hello," she said.

"Hi Elizabeth, it's William," she heard a familiar voice on the other side
of the line.

Elizabeth grew warm at the sound of his deep, rich voice. It was a little
strange talking to him now when she had just been fantasizing about him, but
quite arousing as well.

"Hi William, how are you?" she asked.

"I'm fine," he replied. "I'm calling to invite you out to dinner. You
promised me today you'd go out with me, remember?"

She smiled, hearing the eagerness and uncertainty in his voice. "Yes, I
remember."

"You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

"Do you think I'm so fickle?" she asked reproachfully.

"No, of course not," he amended hastily. "I just can't believe that you
agreed in the first place, I'm so lucky," he added playfully.

Elizabeth laughed. "Good recovery."

"So how about tomorrow evening? Is six p.m. all right?" he asked, coming to
the point.

"Yes, it's fine," she agreed, already feeling a pleasurable anticipation.

"Great! I'll pick you up at six, then."

"Where are you taking me?" she asked excitedly.

"Well, there aren't many options in Meryton, are there?" he asked ruefully.

Elizabeth giggled. "No, I'm afraid there aren't. But we do have a few good
restaurants here."

"Yes, you do."

"You're not going to tell me, are you?" she enquired.

"No," he replied. He sounded very smug.

"Well then, how am I supposed to know what to wear?" she asked with a
playful pout.

"I'm sure I'd like you in anything," said William huskily, the impersonal
quality of telephone conversation making him say things he wouldn't usually
dare say.

To her irritation, Elizabeth felt a blush. She was hardly an innocent girl
to get discomfited by such, let's face it, blatant flirting.

"I'm sure you would, but what about the rest of the people who'll see me?
Can you at least give me a hint?"

He pretended to think for a while and then replied, "Wear something nice;
elegant, but simple. Oh, and I'd advise something warm. Is this enough for
you?"

Elizabeth sighed in mock resignation. "If it's all the hint I'm going to get
then I suppose it must suffice."

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow then. Good night, Elizabeth," he said in a low,
intimate voice, as if he were whispering in her ear.

"Good night, William," she replied softly.

Chapter thirteen

Once again Elizabeth found herself dressing up for William, only this time
she had enough sense to admit it. She was quite mystified by his advice on
what she should wear. Something elegant, but simple. Oh, and warm too. Where
was he taking her that she needed clothes that combined all the features
mentioned? He wasn't planning a barbecue, was he?

No matter, she would find out about it soon enough. The real question was,
where to find the suitable attire? The search in her wardrobe proved
fruitless, she could find nothing that fit his description. All her clothes
were either elegant or warm. She was near regretting she had agreed to this
date on such short notice, but couldn't really make herself be sorry because
of it. The dress crisis notwithstanding, she was still going on a date with
a gorgeous, sexy hunk of a man.

After an hour of the hunt and realizing she had a good chance of running
late, she decided to turn to her last resort - calling Jane. Her sister, the
epitome of sense and elegance that she was, was sure to help her in her
present predicament. If she knew Jane, her sister would be delighted with
the task. There was a substantial possibility that she would have to put up
with "I told you so" looks and words, but she was prepared to deal with them
gracefully. She was lucky Charlotte wouldn't be here, she'd never hear the
end of it!

As Elizabeth had suspected, Jane was thrilled with her request and, not half
an hour after their phone conversation, she appeared on the doorstep, armed
with a suitcase. Elizabeth, still in her robe, opened the door.

"Are you moving in?" she asked, puzzled at the sight of her sister's
baggage.

"Of course not, silly! I brought some dresses for you to look through," Jane
replied, as she moved past Elizabeth and entered the house. Elizabeth closed
the door and followed her sister to the bedroom.

Jane put the suitcase on the bed and proceeded to opening it. Elizabeth was
surprised to see not only clothes, but also shoes.

"You forgot about jewelry," she accused her playfully.

"Oh no, I didn't," replied Jane and, as if on cue, they heard a voice from
the hall.

"Did someone call fashion emergency?" Charlotte strode into the room
confidently, carrying a small vanity case.

"Hi Char," Jane called to her over her shoulder, busy laying out different
items of clothing on Elizabeth's bed. Elizabeth decided not to get
astonished any more this evening.

"Char, I'm so happy the locked door wasn't any problem to you," Elizabeth
said sarcastically.

"Remember I've been coming here since I was four, I know that the spare key
is under the stone by the spruce next to the porch," replied Charlotte,
putting the case on the vanity and settling herself in the chair in front of
it.

"So good of you to have used it and not bothered us with ringing the bell,"
Elizabeth teased her friend, feeling an awful urge to laugh at the way Jane
and Charlotte took over the preparations.

"Not at all," Charlotte answered indulgently. "But now we should get to
work. We have about an hour to prepare Lizzy for the date of her life with
the most gorgeous doctor in the whole of Great Britain."

Jane shot her a black look, and she Charlotte laughed and corrected herself,
"One of the two most handsome doctors in Britain then, at least."




Exactly fifty four minutes later Elizabeth turned around and asked, "Well?
How do I look?"

Jane and Charlotte both looked at her with visible admiration and not a
little pride.

"Gorgeous, just gorgeous!" gushed Jane.

"Not bad at all," stated Charlotte. "I'm sure William's going to have to
pick up his jaw from the floor when he sees you."

"Char!" Elizabeth scolded her half-heartedly, but could not help turning
again to the large mirror that stood in the corner of the room, in which she
could see herself from head to toe. She had to admit the result was
satisfactory. In fact, she believed she had never looked so well in her
life. She wore a black velour asymmetric skirt, which was of ankle-length on
the right side and ended in the middle of the calf on the left side. It was
half-plain, half-plaited, the plait starting just over the knees. The top
was a black, front-buttoned lace blouse with wide cuffs. The clothes seemed
custom made for her, they clung in just the places they should, emphasizing
the curves of her hips, the slimness of her waist and the swell of her
breasts. She left the top three buttons opened to reveal a bit of her creamy
neck. After a few minutes of debating they decided to limit the jewelry she
would wear to a pair of ruby drop earrings. Her dark curly hair fell down
her back gracefully, tamed by Jane's patient styling and she had to admit
the Charlotte did an excellent job with her make-up.

"Is it really me?" she wondered a bit disbelievingly.

"Come on Liz, this is no time to be coy. You know you're beautiful, though
you sometimes try your best to hide it," Charlotte chided her.

"Sweetie, you look beautiful. You're going to have a great evening and are
going to swipe William off his feet," added Jane.

Elizabeth smiled widely and hugged her sister and friend. "Thanks guys! I
don't know what I'd do without you."

This affectionate scene was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell, which
was followed, as usually, by Jack's barking.

"It's him. I'd better go open the door," said Elizabeth, moving to the door,
but she was stopped short by a hand seizing her arm.

"You stay where you are," Jane pronounced authoritatively. "You will appear
to the greatest advantage from a distance, walking down the stairs. I will
answer the door."

In a flash, she was gone. A few moments later they heard Jane calling,
"Lizzy! William's here!"

Elizabeth snorted at her sister's scheming and proceeded out of the room,
feeling a knot of anticipation tightening in her stomach. When she reached
the top of the stairs, she saw William in a black coat - the same he was
wearing on the first day she saw him, she remembered dimly. How much had
changed since then! He looked so handsome standing there, holding a bouquet
of red roses and looking up at her with his eyes wide with, she hoped,
admiration.

To William she never looked lovelier. He had seen her dressed up on Charles'
party and the night of the dance, but this was the first time she dressed
for him. His eyes devoured her hungrily, drinking in the sight of her
alluring body in this conservative, but very enticing outfit. He licked his
lips at the sight of her shapely ankles and calves and her graceful creamy
neck, her tempting curves hugged beguilingly by the black skirt and blouse.
Her clothes hid more than they revealed, yet in some strange way he found
that more arousing than any revealing dress she could wear. His imagination
worked full blast as his eyes glided over her form. He could picture what
was under these clothes with delicious and painful detail. He now understood
the allure of a few small glimpses of skin and how they could drive men
crazy not eighty years ago.

Elizabeth approached him with a smile on her beguiling lips. Magically, Jane
had managed to disappear, but neither of them noticed her walking away, so
involved were they in each other.

"Good evening, Elizabeth. You look beautiful," William said softly.

She blushed at his compliment and smiled even more widely. "Thank you."

"Um.these are for you," he said awkwardly, handing her the flowers. "I know
they're clich?R>She stopped him, putting a hand on his arm. "They're beautiful," she said
sincerely. She took them from him and bowed her head to smell them.

"Thank you," she answered, looking him in the eye. He could resist no longer
and bent to kiss her. The kiss was brief, both of them bearing in mind the
company in the house, but it was no less delightful for its shortness.
Elizabeth broke away and said, "I'll have them put in water. Jane! You can
come out of hiding now."

Jane reappeared by them, smiling sheepishly. She took the flowers from her
sister, while William held the coat for Elizabeth to wear. Charlotte came
down the stairs as well and together with Jane watched the couple preparing
to leave.

"Thanks again for your help. Don't wait for me, though," Elizabeth said
teasingly. William opened the door for her and they both stepped out of the
house.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Charlotte called after them. Elizabeth
turned around and stuck her tongue at her, before she got into the car.
William laughed at this exchange as he sat behind the wheel and drove away.

Charlotte and Jane stood in the doorway, looking after the car. Finally,
Jane turned to Charlotte with a twinkle in her eyes. "You owe me ten quid!"

Charlotte snorted. "I swear, this sister of yours is going to be my ruin. I
didn't think she'd give in so quickly! And to think I actually helped you in
this!"

"You should know better than to bet one sister about another sister." She
held up her hand, palm up. "Now, my ten pounds, please."




They drove in silence for some time. Finally, unable to stand the suspense
anymore, Elizabeth asked, "Are you going to tell me now where we're going?"

He smiled mysteriously, not taking his eyes from the road. "No. You have to
be patient for a few more minutes."

"Can you at least tell me if I'm dressed properly?" she asked, somewhat
exasperated.

"You're dressed perfectly. Couldn't you tell from my reaction?"

"Men aren't always trustworthy on the fashion issue," she replied
sardonically.

"Don't worry, you won't have anybody to impress. Except for me, that is," he
added, smiling with satisfaction.

She looked at him closely. "Now you've really made me curious."

"Just a few more minutes and you'll know it all."

Deciding that she could manage a few more minutes of waiting, she turned to
the window to see the direction in which they were going. She couldn't make
out much from the darkness surrounding them for a while, soon, however, they
drove into Meryton. She watched the way they were going, wondering at his
destination. He drove past a few pubs and restaurants and, surprising her
greatly, turned into a parking lot near the river.

He stopped the car and left it, then walked around and opened the door for
her.

"What are we doing here? Are we going to have a picnic?" she asked in
astonishment.

"You'll see. But first you have to close your eyes." She looked at him
blankly. "Close your eyes," he repeated patiently and she obeyed.

William took her hand and led her on. She couldn't see a thing, but from the
faint sound of the water humming, she surmised they walked in the direction
of the river. This temporary loss of sight sharpened the rest of her senses
and she savoured the night enveloping them. The cool breeze on her face and
in her hair, the sweet smell of the river and the night, the sound of the
water and the wind playing in the bare branches of the trees on the
riverside entered her consciousness and created an unreal, almost magical
atmosphere around them.

At length they stopped and William told her she could look. She opened her
eyes and gasped in surprise. There, on the river, adorned with colourful
lights and lanterns, rolled a small barge. She looked at William with
disbelief and he only smiled in response, before he took hold of her hand
again and led her on board.

They stepped on the deck and William opened the door leading inside the
barge. The entered it and again Elizabeth gasped in astonishment. The room
was small, but very cosy. Dark-wood walls and floor, pretty red curtains on
the small windows and a luxurious rug in the middle the floor. There were
two small pictures on the walls. In the middle of it stood a table covered
with white linen and set with elegant tableware and a vase with lavender
roses. Two chairs stood on the opposite sides of the table and next to it
stood a small trolley set with a number of dishes covered with lids that
prevented them from cooling down. The cabin was lit by a few candles, stuck
in several candlesticks on the table and the walls.

"William!" she exclaimed. "Did you do all this?"

He smiled with satisfaction. "Well, I admit Charles helped me with the
arrangements, but it was my idea. Do you like it?" he asked somewhat shyly.

She turned to him, her eyes shining with affection and gratitude. "I love
it! No one has ever done anything like that for me before."

"They were all fools, then," he replied and bent to kiss her. When the kiss
ended, he led her to the table and pulled the chair for her.

"My, my, you are the perfect gentleman," she observed teasingly. "Are you
going to serve me now?"

"Oh yes. I hope you're hungry."

William sat opposite her and reached for the bottle of white wine that stood
on the table. He opened it and poured the wine to their glasses.

"To an uninterrupted evening," he toasted playfully, raising his glass. She
laughed and they drank.

With anticipation, Elizabeth saw William raise the lid of the first plate
and reveal beautifully served stuffed mushrooms.

"Here, try these. They are mushrooms stuffed with mixed crabs, shrimps and
cheese."

She took a bite and, indeed, they were delicious. A very fine start of a
tasty meal. She loved both mushrooms and seafood and was inordinately
curious about the next courses.

But, as it turned out, he wasn't going to just consume the food, he intended
to converse as well.

"I wasn't really sure whether you liked seafood, but Jane assured me that
you do," he started the conversation.

"I love seafood. Did you tell Jane about your plans for this evening?" she
asked.

"Yes, I told her and Charles," he admitted.

"I'm going to kill her. To know of such a thing and never to tell me!" she
exclaimed in mock disapproval.

"Don't be too hard on her. I asked them to keep this a secret. I wanted to
surprise you."

She smiled. "Well, you certainly managed to do it. But don't worry, I'm
going to forgive her this time."

"That's good," he answered. "Oh, I almost forgot!" She looked at him
questioningly. He got up and went to a small cabinet, which, after William
opened it, revealed a stereo. He hit the play button and returned to his
seat. The first notes of soft, sensual music filled the cabin. Elizabeth
recognized it instantly.

"Norah Jones? How did you know?" she looked at his face and noted an
embarrassed grin. "Not Jane again!" she put her head in her hands in mock
despair. "She's the most meddling, overbearing and overprotective sister in
the whole world! What else did she tell you?"

"She seems to be very proud of you and loves you very much. She's talked
about you quite a lot."

"And you listened?" she accused him good-naturedly.

"It was very interesting, how could I not listen? Besides, I've longed to
learn more about you ever since I met you," he admitted.

"And what did you learn?" She rested her chin on her hand and looked at him
inquiringly.

William turned from her gaze and proceeded to pour the soup into their
plates. His actions momentarily distracted Elizabeth and for some time she
gave in to savouring the delicious spicy fish soup. His strategy failed to
divert her attention for a long time, though.

"Well?" she insisted.

"Well," he repeated, leaning back in his chair and thinking for a while. "I
learnt that you love roses for one." She smiled and reached her hand to
gently touch the lavender petals of the lovely roses in the vase. "You like
seafood, but you adore sweet things even more and have a particular weakness
for chocolate. You enjoy listening to music and you can sing beautifully,
though not many people are fortunate enough to have had the privilege of
hearing you. You hate getting up early, but don't like sleeping in till
noon. Your first pet was a hamster called Dexter and you decided to become a
vet when you were three."

She raised her brows. "Impressive! But I'm at a disadvantage here. You know
all the intimate details of my life, whereas I know so little about you."

"Anything you want to know, just ask," he told her, looking into her eyes.

"All right. There's something I've been wondering since the dinner at
Netherfield. Why did you take such a long holiday, and how did you manage to
persuade your boss to let you off for so many weeks?" she looked at him with
daring in her eyes.

He was taken aback by her question. Could he tell her the truth and not make
a fool of himself at the same time?

"It was suggested to me after I fainted in the operating room," he finally
confessed, deciding to be truthful. He was almost sure she wouldn't make fun
of him.

"Oh my God, what happened?" Elizabeth exclaimed, terrified. She didn't
expect such an answer to her teasing question. She reached over and grabbed
his hand.

"It was nothing serious, just fatigue and stress," he assured her. "I'm much
better now."

"I knew you were not fine. You didn't look well when you first came here,"
she said, looking sincerely concerned. She stroked his cheek tenderly. "I
shouldn't have taken you out on that ride last Saturday. Why didn't you say
anything earlier?"

William covered her hand with his and kissed her palm. "I'm fine now. All I
needed was some rest and I've had plenty of it here. The healthy exercise is
recommended in such cases as mine. Trust me, I'm a doctor," he added
smiling.

She let the matter drop for some time and turned her attention to the new
dish that appeared before her. The fried trout and creamy mashed potatoes
literally melted in her mouth. She didn't know how he'd managed it, but each
dish turned out even tastier than the last one.

"A propos healthy exercise." he started, taking a sip of his wine. "I was
wondering if we could go somewhere tomorrow. It's Saturday and I enjoyed our
last outing very much. It doesn't have to be anything as demanding as a 20
mile bike ride. What do you say?"

"If you're sure it's safe for you, we could go horse-riding tomorrow. I've
already seen you on horseback and I know you ride very well. How about it?"

He smiled widely. "Sounds wonderful! I'll borrow a horse from Mr. Lucas and
come by your house."

They continued to talk about anything and everything, enjoying each other's
company. Both had never felt so well and so at ease before. William felt
that he could tell her anything and she would understand. He had known
almost from the moment he saw her that he wanted her. Now she seemed the
only woman for him. He had never been so bewitched by a woman before. He
looked at her, sitting opposite him, bathed in candle light, shadows moving
across her face, eyes shining, her chocolate curls glowing from the light of
the flames. She looked almost like an unearthly creature, a fairy who
condescended to live among humans. He longed to see the elf turn into a
flesh and blood woman in his arms, her warm, luscious body writhing under
him in ecstasy.

"Everything was so delicious," Elizabeth interrupted his thoughts by
speaking up. "I don't know how you did this. You chose all my favourite
dishes," she said with some wonder.

He smiled lightly. "As I said, I've had help. Besides, it's not wise to
praise the day before the sunrise. Wait for the dessert with your final
assessment."

"I'm not sure I can manage to eat more," she responded, leaning back and
putting her hands on her belly.

"I think you'll think differently when you see what's for dessert," he said.

"You're very sure of yourself! All right then, relieve my curiosity. What is
it?"

He put a bowl before her and raised the lid triumphantly.

"Chocolate mousse! This is most unfair! You know I can't resist that!" she
accused him with a pout.

"Why should you?" He took a spoonful of his helping and offered it to her.
"Come on, try it. It's delectable," he tempted and she succumbed.

"Mmmmm, yummy," she murmured, closing her eyes in bliss. When she opened
them, she had mischievous sparkles in her eyes. "Your turn now," she said
and fed him from her spoon. They continued to feed each other in the same
manner for some time. William couldn't get enough of the sight of her lips
when they enclosed on his spoon and the soft pink tongue that darted now and
then to lick the remains of chocolate from her lips. All the time, she was
sighing and moaning her appreciation for the dessert. The erotic picture she
presented and the almost orgasmic sounds she was emitting caused him to
imagine her thus in a quite different setting and without the vile clothes
that covered her from his sight. He felt a growing tightness in his trousers
and shifted uncomfortably. This idea of feeding her proved tricky after all.

Elizabeth wasn't at all aware of the lustful thoughts on William's mind, she
was too much occupied in pondering how his eyes seemed almost black in the
faint light of the candles. They were like two obsidian pools; she felt she
could drown in them so easily. She admired his long lashes - thousands of
women would envy them, they were so thick and dark. His straight, noble
nose, high cheekbones and wide forehead with black curls falling over it,
curls she longed to brush away from his handsome face. And his lips.she knew
they were soft and sensuous and she could feel her own lips tingling at the
thought of his kisses. He had a bit of chocolate on his lips and she wanted
very badly to remove it with her tongue. He was the most beautiful and sexy
man she had ever seen.

Their trance was broken by the sound of a new song starting to play.

Like a flower waiting to bloom
Like a lightbulb in a dark room
I'm just sitting here waiting for you
To come home and turn me on

"I love this song," Elizabeth sighed.

William took her hand. "Dance with me?"

She beamed at him. "Yes."

Once more they were dancing together and it was every bit as wonderful as
the last time. Elizabeth embraced his neck and his arms encircled her waist,
pulling her close to him. They swayed to the music, together with the gentle
rock of the boat. Elizabeth put her head on his chest, so lean and muscular,
so warm and comfortable. She inhaled his stirring scent and closed her eyes
in bliss. She could feel William's hands slide up and down her back slowly,
his mouth on her hair.

William felt a burning sensation in all places where their bodies touched.
Her soft breasts pressed gently against his chest were making him crazy. Her
rich, luxurious curls tickled his neck and face and her sweet fragrance
intoxicated his senses. His hands rested on her lower back, but itched to
touch her more intimately. Unable to resist the temptation, he let them
slide lower and caress her backside. Even through layers of clothing, its
supple curves felt heavenly and he softly and pressed her closer to him.

Elizabeth could feel his hands on her rear and trembled at his rousing
touch. As he pressed her more tightly to him, she could feel the
unmistakable evidence of his passion and the feel of it filled her with a
deep, flaming need. She raised her head from his chest and, placing her
hands on his face, kissed him hungrily. Although startled, he wasted no time
in returning the kiss and for the next couple of minutes they were involved
in a heated exchange, tongues clashing and duelling, mouths touching and
caressing, hands stroking, wandering and exploring. Elizabeth slid her
fingers through his silky curls, enjoying the way they felt under her hands.
He, in turn, wove his fingers in her tresses, losing himself in the touch,
taste and scent of her.

They finally broke for air and she rested her head on his shoulder, both
were panting.

"Mmmmm, you taste of chocolate," he murmured against her hair. She giggled,
giddy from his closeness.

"So do you."

"And you smell wonderful, too," he inhaled her fragrance, filling his lungs
with her scent.

She leaned away from him a bit and slid her hands under his suit jacket. She
caressed his chest temptingly, until he groaned. He leaned down and
whispered in her ear, "If you don't want to be ravished here and now, I
advise you to stop this teasing."

She blushed at his playful caution and stopped her caresses. Instead, she
kissed him again. A few minutes later, he broke off and said, unsteadily, "I
think we should go now. I'll drive you home."

She nodded and followed him out of the barge. She shivered in the cold night
air, feeling strangely bereft without his arms around her. They drove back
to her house in silence, holding hands in a quiet understanding.




William stopped the car before the driveway to her house and turned to her,
his face hidden by the darkness. They looked at each other in silence of a
long moment, before he bent down and claimed her lips. At first, the kiss
was gentle and tender, but it soon grew in intensity that spoke of passion
and a deep need. She returned the kiss eagerly, winding her hands in his
hair and nibbling at his lower lip. He leaned forward, his body hovering
over hers, his hands all over her back, then travelling to the front,
searching, sliding into the folds of her coat, one of them on her backside,
the other descending to caress her thighs, then going down, down to her calf
where it took hold of the hem of her skirt and proceeded to lifting it.

William was surged in a haze of desire, the feeling of her leg in a silk
stocking burning his palm, he caressed her as his mouth left her lips to
trail kisses along the line of her jaw and the graceful curve of her neck.
She arched her neck to allow him better access, his passionate kisses and
caresses igniting a fire within her. Her hands slid inside his coat and she
once again explored his chest, marvelling at the hard muscles she felt under
her fingers, to his back and broad shoulders, eliciting a deep moan from
him, which excited her own ardour even more.

Feeling as if she were floating on a cloud, she was lost in the sensations
he was creating in her, barely aware of where she was anymore, fervently
receiving and reciprocating his advances. His hands continued their search,
moving up to take hold of her breast. When he captured it with his hand, her
senses began to return to her. Thoughts started penetrating her dazed mind,
unwelcome and not a little disturbing.

Elizabeth dimly started to reflect on the evening and its meaning. She had
had a wonderful time, had revelled in his company, enjoyed their
conversation, and the memory of their dance still made her heart pound. His
kisses and caresses were exhilarating and she had to admit she wanted him,
but what now? Was she ready to take the next step? Did he even want to take
the next step? Oh, she knew he had wanted her as well, his remark about
ravishing her and his visible excitement spoke for themselves. But was there
anything beyond them? How much of his attraction to her was based on
affection and how much on lust? No, she couldn't do it, she couldn't commit
herself to a man she wasn't sure of, she thought regretfully.

"William." she said. He was kissing the skin of hr cleavage now, having
unbuttoned a few more buttons. He seemed not to hear her, because he didn't
react in any way, nor did he stop his caresses. "William, wait," she
repeated more clearly, pulling herself away from him a little. He stopped
his attentions, raised his head and looked at her. He tried to read her
face, but the only thing he could make out in the darkness were her eyes,
which were now shining with a kind of strange light.

Breathing heavily, he straightened his back and leaned on his own seat.
Elizabeth longed to know what he was thinking, was he angry with her? The
silence was unbearable, she had to break it. "I'm sorry." she mumbled not
very coherently. "I like you William, I really do." she stopped.

"But?" he prompted, looking at her intently.

"It's just too soon.I mean, today was technically our first date! I'm just
not ready yet," she explained softly, with her eyes on her hands that
fidgeted nervously in her lap.

William breathed a silent sigh of relief. For a moment he had feared she'd
say she had boyfriend or that she only wanted them to be friends, or
something else that would prevent him from furthering and deepening their
relationship. He was disappointed with her withdrawal, but heartened all the
same that she had, implicitly, implied that they were headed to further
intimacy.

Elizabeth waited for his response in some agitation. He'd have every right
to call her a tease after she'd responded to his advances and then pushed
him away. When his answer came, though, it filled her with the deepest
relief.

"It's all right.I understand," he said slowly. "But I think you'd better go
now. There's only so much a man can take," he added ruefully. She nodded in
understanding. William bent down and kissed her forehead, allowing himself
the last draught of the scent of her skin and hair, before he let her go.
"I'll see you tomorrow."

She opened the door and was just about to step out when a thought entered
her head. She turned to him and said seductively, but with impish gleams in
her eyes, "Good night William. I hope you'll sleep well."

"Teasing woman! Get out of my car before I get you!" he shouted in mock
anger. She laughed and nimbly got away from his reach. She ran to the house
followed by his gaze. What a woman! To arouse him so unbelievably,
disappoint him painfully and then tease him so that he couldn't really be
angry at her! He shook his head in bemusement. I can wait, Lizzy. Her
nickname came naturally to his thoughts. But please, God, not too
long!

*"Turn Me On", J.D. Loudermilk, performed by Norah Jones, 2002 Capitol
Records, Inc.

Chapter fourteen

The next morning turned out to be not what William had hoped for. Dark and
heavy clouds were covering the sky and, from the speed at which they
traveled, it could be assumed that the wind was fairly strong. William
checked this assumption during his morning walk with Hurst and it proved
quite true. The morning was cold, but the strong wind made it seem freezing.

William cursed the uncooperative weather. He had hoped for a lovely ride
with Elizabeth and it could be difficult in these conditions. At least it
didn't rain, he comforted himself with this thought. Elizabeth hadn't
called to cancel their outing, so she probably didn't think the weather
would disturb their plans.

After breakfast, he drove to Lucas Farm, where he borrowed a horse and left
his car. Then he rode on to Elizabeth's house, observing the sky with
growing apprehension. It didn't rain yet, but it looked like it could start
anytime. He got to his destination a few minutes later heartened, because
it was still dry. He jumped down, tied the reins to a tree and went in the
direction of the main door, but was stopped by Jack, who ran to him and
pounced at him, delighted. William greeted the dog warmly.

"Hello big guy, where's your mistress?" he asked, scratching the Labrador
vigorously behind the ears. He looked around and saw Elizabeth going out of
the shed, leading Triss by the reins. She smiled and waved to him and he
waved back. She was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans that showed off her
perfect legs and lovely derriere, a warm-looking, woolen brown jacket and a
pair of boots. Her hair was in a bun again and he couldn't help but admire
the way her face looked in this hairstyle, with the small tendrils
surrounding it and her features not obscured from his view. Even though she
looked completely opposite to her yesterday's appearance, to William she
was incredibly sexy, and his feelings on beholding her were as powerful as
if she were dressed in the sexiest and most transparent negligee.

He got to his feet and walked to her, sweeping her in his arms and greeting
her with a passionate kiss. After some time, when they broke for air,
Elizabeth said impishly, "Morning, William. Sleep well?"

"What do you think?" he snorted. "Well enough, thank you. Though not as
well as I could have. Thoughts and dreams were keeping me awake. I expect
some kind of recompense from you today."

She laughed. "I will happily ensure that you have no problems falling
asleep tonight. Not after our ride."

William's brows shot up, and he leaned down to nibble at her earlobe.
"Mmmm, I can hardly wait."

"I meant horseback ride, as well you know," she scolded him, even as
she shivered at his touch.

"Of course you did, my dear. Let us get to it, then," he said and,
abruptly, released her, turning around and walking back to his horse.
Elizabeth stood startled, looking after him in surprise. So this is your
revenge, William Darcy,  she thought with some amusement. The feeling
of Triss' muzzle poking her gently on her back shook her out of her
reverie. She took Jack by his collar and led him to the house, where she
locked him up, despite his protest. She then mounted the horse and let her
trot through the gate, with William behind them, trying to catch up.

Elizabeth made no effort to escape him, so William leveled with her
quickly. He looked at her with slight disapproval and she had to laugh
again at his discontented face.

"If you want to ride with me, you should try keeping up with my
pace," she said teasingly.

"You think I'm incapable of keeping up with you?" he asked in mock offense.

"I never said that! I just think that you may be out of practice, that's
all," she answered with an impudent smile.

William opened his mouth to protest, but his words were swallowed by the
gust of wind that hit them at that moment. The weather wasn't getting any
better, if anything, it was getting worse.

"Me, out of practice? Wherever did you get this idea?" he inquired.

"Well, you're the big city boy, aren't you?" she asked, rather rhetorically.

"So?"

She rolled her eyes. "So? I should think that was obvious. City boys would
rather rely on the horsepower of their cars than the backs of these noble
animals," said Elizabeth as she leaned down and patted Triss' side. "I
wouldn't be surprised if they couldn't tell the horse's head from the
tail," she added with a laugh.

"Well, maybe that's the case with most of them," William admitted grudgingly.

"But not you?" she voiced his unspoken thought, looking at him intently.
They were riding side by side now, the howling of the wind making the
conversation impossible if they were separated by a greater distance.

"Look at me. Do I look like this was the first time I sat on a horse?" She
ogled him and had to admit to herself that no, he didn't - far from it. "I
admit I've neglected sport in the last couple of months, but, come on, this
is like sex - once you learn it, you never forget how to do it."

Elizabeth laughed out loud, grabbing the lapels of her jacket and bringing
them together as an unexpectedly strong gust hit them.

"But you know what they say, an unused organ withers," she looked at him,
smiling wickedly.

He leaned in her direction and whispered in her ear, "I can assure you
there is nothing withered in my body."

"That's what you're saying," she dismissed him with a wave.

"You don't believe me? All right, I'll prove it to you," he said firmly.

She turned in his direction with a curious look on her face. "And just how
are you going to do it?"

"I propose a race. I'll show you just how withered I am," he said
pointedly, his eyebrows raised.

This was a dare she had to take. "All right. As you wish, but don't ask me
to bandage your hurting organs when you lose."

"We'll see who'll need bandaging," he answered her, as they leveled,
preparing to start. In a moment they started, Elizabeth quickly overtaking
him. She galloped through the field and soon rode into the forest, racing
through a rather narrow path between the trees. The wind howled in her
ears, the branches moving rapidly, the tree tops bending dangerously.
Elizabeth relished the speed and the knowledge that William was far behind
her. With a feeling of triumph, she laughed and kicked Triss' sides. The
mare instantly sped up and they were galloping along the path, when
suddenly Elizabeth heard a cracking sound and seconds later, a large pine
branch fell to the ground just in front of the horse's hooves. Surprised
and startled, Triss neighed and reared, Elizabeth tried to grab her by the
mane, but her hands missed it and, before she realized what was happening,
she fell to the ground. She winced, all of the air escaping her lungs at
the painful blow, and faintly registered the sound of Triss' hooves running
away, even as she heard William's terrified yell and his own horse nearing
the place where she was lying.

"Elizabeth!" William cried, as he brought his horse to a halt, jumped down
and ran to her, falling to his knees beside her. "Elizabeth, are you ok?"
he asked with audible fear in his voice. When he had seen her falling down,
he could swear he had felt his heart stop for a moment. He touched her
tentatively, not daring to move her, in case she had some serious injury.

"I think so," she said with some difficulty.

"Where does it hurt?" he asked. She lay on her back on the ground, not
moving, her eyes closed in pain, and he was beside himself with worry and
guilt.

"Everywhere," she replied, wincing. "But my ankle most of all."

"Which ankle?" he asked, moving down her body to examine her legs.

"The left one," she told him and inhaled sharply as his hand raised the leg
of her jeans and touched her ankle lightly. He untied her boot and took it
off as gently as he could. Elizabeth remained lying down, with her eyes
firmly shut in pain, but she didn't make any sound. He took her foot in his
hand and moved it slowly a few times. She moaned quietly, but otherwise
kept her dignity.

"I don't think it's broken, but you still should get an X-ray," he
pronounced after a moment, the professional routine settling down some of
his worry.

She shook her head. "No, it's not necessary. It doesn't hurt so much
anymore," she protested, but it sounded weak even to her ears.

"Elizabeth, I'm taking you to Charles's clinic and you're getting an X-ray.
I don't want to hear any protests," he said categorically.

"Oh, all right," she conceded, then started getting up, leaning on her elbows.

"What do you think you're doing?" he asked.

"I'm getting up. You could help me," she stated.

"You're not getting up on your own," he protested.

"Yes, I am," she insisted and sat up.

"No, you're not," he cut short and, not waiting for her reply, scooped her
up in his arms.

"Hey, put me down!" she cried in indignation.

"Oh, will you shut up at last?" he yelled, completely out of patience with
her and too anxious to master his emotions. He shut her up all right, she
was stunned at his referring to her in such a disrespectful manner and
vowed never to speak to him again. He sat her in the saddle and mounted the
horse, sitting behind her.

"I advise that you hold on to me, unless you want to fall down again," he
instructed her matter-of-factly.

"Bully," she grumbled, pointedly looking ahead and not even glancing in his
direction, but embraced his waist and held on tight as he took the reins
and made the horse trot towards the Lucas Farm. After a moment, however,
she looked around and asked with fear, "William, where's Triss?"

"I saw her run away after you fell," he replied.

"William, we need to find her!" Elizabeth exclaimed, having quite forgotten
her own pain and annoyance with him.

"Elizabeth, you need to get an X-ray now. As soon as you're done with it,
I'm going to take you home and look for her," he replied patiently.

"But what if something happens to her?" Elizabeth asked in a small voice,
as tears filled her eyes.

"Nothing is going to happen to her, I promise," he reassured her. She
sighed tremulously and hugged him closer. William embraced her as tightly
as he could while holding the reins at the same time and kissed her
forehead gently. She was clearly in a shock and still scared by her fall,
hence the unusual swinging moods, from fury to despair in a matter of minutes.

William couldn't help but blame himself for all this. After all, wasn't he
the one who had proposed this stupid race? If it weren't for him she
wouldn't have fallen down. If something serious had happened to her, he'd
never have forgiven himself.

Elizabeth calmed down somewhat by the time they reached the Lucas Farm,
where William left his horse and put Elizabeth into his car. He drove to
Meryton, hoping that Charles didn't have many patients and could examine
her properly as soon as they got there. Elizabeth was silent during their
drive, looking out of the window with a dejected face. It was all his
fault! William wondered if she'd ever forgive him if something happened to
Triss.

A few minutes later they reached the clinic and William once again carried
Elizabeth inside. This time she didn't even try to protest. This apathy
worried him more than anything else. William brought her inside, shutting
the door loudly. The startled receptionist raised her head from her
paperwork and looked at them in astonishment.

"Is Dr. Bingley in his office?" William asked.

"Yes, he is," replied the receptionist. William nodded his thanks and went
straight to the office, the stunned woman not bothering to stop him. He
knocked on the door and, without waiting for a reply, entered the office.

Charles was just having a coffee break, when William barged into the room
with Elizabeth in tow. He looked up and exclaimed, "What's happened?"

"She fell off her horse," William explained, as he laid Elizabeth down on
the examination table. "I think she sprained her ankle, but she should have
an X-ray done to make sure the ankle's not broken or splintered."

Charles nodded. "Why is she so quiet?" he asked William as he started
taking off her boot.

"I think she's in shock," William replied.

Charles removed the boot from Elizabeth's foot and she hissed as much from
pain as from anger, "I'm not in shock! I just don't want to talk to you!
It's the second time today I'm tortured like this....ouch! Would you cut it
out? Bloody doctors," she muttered under her breath.

"She'll be fine," said Charles with a roll of his eyes. "Now, let's look at
the ankle."

Elizabeth snorted, but allowed Charles to examine her. He soon pronounced,
"I don't think it's broken, but we need to make an X-ray."

She exhaled in irritation. "Tell me something I haven't heard before."

"Will, the X-ray machine is in the other room. Can you carry her?" Charles
asked, ignoring Elizabeth's angry mutterings.

"Sure." William scooped her up and carried her to another room, where he
placed her on the table, under the X-ray machine. Elizabeth bore the
ministrations patiently, only now and then looking blackly at both men.

A few minutes later, she was transported back to the main office, where she
was left by herself, while William and Charles developed her X-ray. After
some time, they walked into the office.

"We were right, the ankle's not broken, only sprained," said Charles.

"I could tell you that myself," she mumbled with irritation.

"Sure you could," Charles cut short. "You'll have to wear a brace for a week."

"What? Oh, no, no way!" she protested.

"And no working for at least 7 days," he continued, ignoring her
whining.

"You can't do this to me!"

"Oh yes I can, and I will. You'll sit at home and spare this leg for a
week. No work at the clinic or the farms and only a minimum of work at
home. It's the doctor's orders," he stated firmly.

"And how am I supposed to survive this week sitting on my butt? You know
very well I live alone!" she pointed out in annoyance.

"You could move back to your parents for the time being" Charles suggested.

Elizabeth's eyes grew as wide as saucers. "You've got to be kidding me!
There's no way I'm moving back with mum, Kitty and Lydia. I'd only get
worse from it."

"I think you might have a point here," Charles agreed and then thought for
a while. "Jane and I will help you. You could ask Charlotte, your parents
and the rest of your sisters for help as well."

"Will you come and muck Triss' stall, too?" Elizabeth asked sarcastically.
"This is not just regular housework help I'm going to need. I have sick and
injured animals in the shed, I need to take care of them."

"Maria will take over your work at the clinic. Can't she help you with
other animals as well?" Elizabeth nodded grudgingly. "See, it'll all turn
out well. It's only one week."

Elizabeth huffed in irritation, but stopped fighting. She knew Charles was
right, but she hated having to depend on anybody and asking for help. She
lowered her head in resignation.

"Can I go home now?" she asked, tired of all this fuss over her.

Charles looked questioningly at William, who shook his head in the
negative. "I'd like to examine your head first. You could have hit it
received some internal injury."

"I didn't hit my head," said Elizabeth.

"Are you sure?"

"Well, I don't think so..." she said hesitantly. "At least I don't remember
doing so. I think the pain in my leg was too strong to let me notice
anything else."

"I don't think there's any serious danger then, but I'd still prefer to
make sure." Elizabeth nodded, resigned to her fate. It seemed that she was
destined to be poked, nudged and jabbed for the whole of the following week.

William felt her head carefully for any signs of bumps, shined a light in
her eyes and hit her knees and elbows with a small hammer to check her
reflexes.

"Do you feel any pain in your head?" Elizabeth shook her head. "Any nausea?
Seeing disturbances?" She answered all his questions negatively.

"Then I think nothing's wrong. You don't need to get a head scan. Unless of
course you have any disturbing symptoms."

"Thank goodness, I've had enough radiation for the day," Elizabeth grumbled.

Charles put her foot in a brace, then gave her some pills in case the ankle
hurt her. He also went to the storage room and brought a pair of crutches
for her. Elizabeth looked at them with horror, but he assured her she'd
only need them temporarily.

When all was taken care of, William drove Elizabeth back to her house.

When they reached her house, William left Elizabeth inside and went out to
look for Triss. He hoped she hadn't run far. He still felt really bad about
what had happened. His stupid ego had brought Elizabeth nothing but
trouble. A sprained ankle, not a little pain, problems with work,
inconvenience with housework and, if it weren't enough, her beloved horse
had gotten lost. Nice work, Darcy, he berated himself.

He hadn't gone far into the woods when he heard a rustle among the bushes.
He whistled and called the mare's name. Instantly, Triss appeared, chewing
on the remains of grass as if nothing had happened. William breathed with
relief, it seemed as though she was all right. He approached the horse and
took her by the reins. He preferred not to try riding her, although she
looked calm enough, he wasn't eager to find out on his own skin that it was
only an appearance. Instead, he took the reins and led her, and she
followed willingly.

Elizabeth sat on the couch with her feet propped at a stool, staring glumly
into space. The day didn't turn out the way she thought it would. She had
hoped for a nice ride and a chance to be with William and instead she ended
up with a sprained ankle and lots of practical problems on her hands.

What was she to do? Going back home, even for a short time, wasn't an
option. She relished her independence and would prefer anything to going
back to her mother's clutches. She'd have to swallow her pride and her
cherished autonomy and ask for help.

But, on the other hand, why shouldn't I? she asked herself angrily.
She had only herself to blame for her present situation. It was her own
recklessness and irresponsibility that had brought her to this place. But
why must other people suffer together with her? Elizabeth was certain her
friends and even her family wouldn't mind helping her in the least, but she
felt really bad to be forced to take advantage of their kindness. She hated
having to be a burden to anybody and it seemed that for the next week she
would be just that.

Suddenly she could hear the front door open, and seconds later William
walked into the room. She looked at him expectantly, nervous.

"I've found her," he reassured her, before she managed to ask the question.
"She's safe and sound in her stall right now."

"Thank God!" Elizabeth exclaimed, extremely relieved. "Thank you so much
for finding her," she said to William with a warm, grateful smile.

"You're welcome," he answered. "Now, what can I get you? Something to eat
or drink, a book or a magazine?"

"Nothing, thank you, I'm ok," she assured him.

"Are you sure? It's almost one and I'm hungry. I'm sure you must be, too."

"I don't want to inconvenience you even more, you've already done so much
for me today," she replied.

"Nonsense! I'll make you a sandwich and a nice cup of tea and you'll eat
it," he told her.

"Ok, but only if you'll eat as well," she agreed. He smiled and went into
the kitchen. After a few minutes he returned with a tray laden with tea and
sandwiches. He put it on the coffee table, but didn't sit next to her.
Elizabeth looked in surprise as he went to the other side of the room and
picked up a blanket lying on an armchair. Without a word, William spread
the blanket over her legs, which rested on a small stool, and then sat
beside her.

"There, are you comfortable?" She nodded. They started eating.

"It's the second day in a row that I'm serving you. Though today's meal
isn't as fine as yesterday's," he quipped.

"It's fine," she said, not looking at him. He looked at her sharply,
surprised by her strange behaviour. Such changing moods as he'd witnessed
in her today, he was sure were not easy to be found. Strangely enough,
these swinging moods only made her all the more intriguing to him. He
understood that she'd had a very hard day, hence her strange temper. Now,
though, something was clearly bothering her.

"Hey, what's wrong?" he asked softly.

She shrugged, looking at her hands. "I feel so stupid. You've been so
wonderful to me and I've behaved like a bitch...."

William leaned toward her and took her hand in his. She looked up into his
face, her eyes questioning. "That's not true. You've had a very stressful
day and I understand it."

She lowered her head again. "I'm sorry. I've been so stupid. I behaved
recklessly and now everybody has to pay for my foolishness."

She looked so dejected that William couldn't stand it. Gently, he took her
chin in his hand and made her look at him. "Elizabeth, you're too hard on
yourself. It wasn't your fault. If anybody is to blame in this situation,
it's me."

She furrowed her brows in confusion. "You?"

He let out an annoyed sigh, still angry with himself. "Yes, me. I was the
one who suggested this whole race, remember? If it wasn't for me, this
would never have happened."

"But that's ridiculous! You didn't put a gun to my head, and I'm
responsible for my own actions."

"Still, I feel guilty. I want to do something to make it up to you," he
said, taking her hand again.

"William, you've already done enough for me," she protested.

"That was no more than I should have done. I want to do more. I want to
help you during your convalescence," he uttered, looking at her earnestly,
as he stroked her hand with his.

"That's very generous of you, but you don't have to do it. I'll ask my
friends and family to help me."

"I know that, but they are busy, they have jobs, school and their own
problems. While I'm sitting idly at Netherfield. Don't you think it would
be reasonable if I was the one to help you with everything?" he tried to
convince her.

"But you're on holiday! I can't let you waste this time for me."

"I enjoy spending time with you," he said, leaning to kiss her. "And since
you can't go out anywhere right now, my only choice is to come over here."

"In that case why don't you just move in?" she suggested in jest.

For a moment he looked as if he was struck with an idea. "You know what?
That's not a bad idea." Did I just say it?

She gave a short laugh, but grew solemn on seeing his face. "You're kidding
right?"

He hesitated for a moment, as if considering her question. He said it
without thinking, but now, as he thought about it, the idea appealed to him
very much indeed. "No, I'm not. Wait, before you say anything, just listen
to me, all right?" She nodded.

"I'd like to move in for a few days, if you'll allow it. I'll be much
calmer if I'm nearby when you need me, also at night."

Elizabeth looked at him with a doubtful expression on her face. She wasn't
sure she liked this idea. "I don't know William, I'm really grateful for
your concern, but I can't ask this of you," she replied, "We hardly know
each other...."

"Don't worry, I'll sleep on the couch," he assured her.

"That's not what I'm worried about. Besides, you wouldn't have to sleep on
the couch, I have a spare bedroom. No, what I'm afraid of is how it's going
to look to other people and how I'm going to feel about it. I'd feel
uncomfortable with this situation, wouldn't you?"

"Well, I admit it's quite an unusual circumstance, but it would be just
temporary. I'd be more like a nurse to you than anything else." Unless
you want me to be otherwise, he added silently, but didn't dare to
utter the words out loud.

Elizabeth didn't respond for a while, so he tried a different approach.
"Come on, you'll do me a favour. Now when Caroline's gone I feel like an
odd-man-out at Netherfield. I'm starting to feel very uncomfortable in
Charles and Jane's love nest," William said jokingly.

Elizabeth giggled at his description of their sister and her fianc񚼂R>relationship, it was right on the mark. Suddenly, though, something else
occurred to her.

"Caroline's gone?" she asked.

"Oh yeah, she left a few days ago. I thought Jane told you."

"No, I haven't spoken to her since Wednesday. But what happened? Why did
she leave?"

William shifted uncomfortably, knowing he would have to relay the story to
her, but not at all looking forward to it. "It's a long story and you
haven't answered my question yet," he reminded her.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes, but considered the matter for some time. She
decided it wasn't so unreasonable. She really needed somebody nearby, at
least until she learnt to use these bloody crutches. And she could even
convince her mother that the only reason William lived with her was because
she needed the doctor's help. Of course, that wouldn't stop Mrs. Bennet's
hopes that he might fall in love with her, but at least it would prevent
her from informing the whole town that Elizabeth and William were getting
married.

"All right, I accept your offer. Thank you," she said finally.

"Great! You won't regret it! I'm very good with the housework and I can
cook a decent dinner, too," he gloated, very happy about her decision.

"You're a man of many talents, I can see," she responded, somewhat cheered up.

"Of course I am," he admitted not very modestly. "And let's not forget the
bonus you'll get from my being here."

"What's that?" she asked, intrigued.

"I'm a doctor. If need be, I can take care of the animals, change a
bandage, give a shot and so on," he said proudly.

"You would do that?" she asked, incredulous, but very much pleased.

"I'd do anything to help you," William assured her, brushing her hair away
from her face.

"I'd be very grateful for that. But you need to promise me something."

"Yes?" he looked at her expectantly.

"Promise me that you won't treat them carelessly, because they're animals.
You have to take as good care of them as if they were people," she said,
looking at him with serious eyes.

"I promise," he swore earnestly and Elizabeth smiled. He put his arm
around her shoulders, pulling her body to him. With a sigh, Elizabeth
leaned her head on his shoulder. He kissed her forehead gently, marveling
at their closeness.

"Now, let's see if there's some match on TV," William said, as he took the
remote and turned the TV set on. Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

"Hey, just because I let you hang around here doesn't mean you can have the
TV all to yourself. Now give me that remote," with that she quickly grabbed
the remote and changed the channel to one showing reruns of "The Eastenders."

"I'm always too busy to watch it. Now I finally have some time. Something
good came from this accident, after all."

William groaned and Elizabeth laughed, but mercifully changed the channel
and for the next couple of hours they watched Discovery Channel in perfect
harmony.

Chapter fifteen

Maybe being injured is not such a bad thing after all, thought
Elizabeth, as she nestled comfortably in William's arms. She was feeling so
snug and cosy under the warm blanket and in the strong embrace of a
handsome man, that she had no wish to be anyplace else. Her leg hurt a
little, but the pills Charles had given her served their purpose very well
and soon all the pain was gone. Elizabeth was feeling so contented that she
found herself dozing off on the couch. She couldn't remember the last time
she felt so relaxed and peaceful....

The rude sound of the doorbell roused her from her sleep. Elizabeth groaned
and covered her face with her hands. "What now?" she asked in a pitiful voice.

William looked at her sympathetically. "I'll go and see." He carefully
disentangled himself from Elizabeth, left her lying on the couch and went
to answer the door. She closed her eyes again and was just about to fall
back asleep when the voice she heard from the hall rendered her fully awake.

"Where is my little girl?! I must see her now!"

Dismayed, Elizabeth sat up on the couch. "Mum?" The instant she said it,
Mrs. Bennet walked briskly into the room, carrying four bags and almost
knocking over a vase in the process. Elizabeth's shock at seeing her mother
was great indeed, she was really not fit enough to face her right now. Plus
she had the additional mortification of having William there to witness her
absurdity.

"Oh Lizzy, my dear child, what has happened to you?" She sat on the couch
next to Elizabeth and touched her forehead. "Honey, I was so worried. How
are you feeling? Does it hurt a lot?"

Elizabeth shook her head in bewilderment. "I'm ok." Mrs. Bennet turned to
William, who stood in the doorway, not sure whether he should leave the
women alone or join them.

"William, thank you so much for helping my baby. You've saved her life!"
cried Mrs. Bennet.

William walked into the room and sat in an armchair next to the couch. On
Mrs. Bennet's addressing him, he smiled uncomfortably. "I didn't do
anything special."

Fanny shook her head emphatically. "Oh yes, yes you did! If you weren't
there, she'd still be lying in some ditch, unable to move or call for help."

"Mum," Elizabeth tried to stop Mrs. Bennet's melodramatic discourse. Her
mother turned to her.

"Lizzy, lie down and don't talk, you should be resting. She's such a
reckless and heedless creature, William. She'd always get into all kinds of
trouble when she was a child. Her father and I just didn't know what to do
with her. Jane was always such a good, calm girl, but Lizzy was a little
devil. You just never knew what kind of crazy ideas were going to pop into
her head!"

"Mum!" Elizabeth interjected, beet red with embarrassment.

"Shhh, rest, child. Where was I? Ah, yes, she had all manner of insane
ideas and I swear it, more than once I thought she was going to drive me to
an early grave! I will never forget how she fell into a heap of horse dung
when she was four years old."

William glanced at Elizabeth and noticed her face was red and apprehensive.
He smiled at her and winked, then turned all his attention to Mrs. Bennet.
Her monologue was getting really interesting and William was left with no
choice but to listen and occasionally nod his head in understanding.

"We were here, eating dinner with my parents. It was Sunday. We used to
have Sunday family dinners at this house, you know. So we were eating
dinner... no, actually we'd just finished dessert and were drinking coffee.
The children were all playing outside, the girls and their cousins, the
Phillipses. Did you know I have a sister, Amanda? She married Alan
Phillips and they have two boys. I also have a brother, Edward, but he
moved to London. But anyway, what was I saying? Yes, the children were
playing outside and we were drinking coffee, when suddenly we heard a
shriek. We ran outside and found Lizzy on the heap of horse dung behind the
stable - my father was a vet, but he also bred horses - in her lovely, new
dress. It turned out the Phillips boys had climbed the stable roof and
Lizzy followed them, only they were ten and twelve then and she was only
four! It was a miracle she didn't fall on the ground or she could have
killed herself! But it was always the way with her. Always the worst tomboy
you could imagine; climbing the trees and running around with boys. I can't
tell you how my nerves have suffered because of that girl."

"Mum!" Elizabeth was getting tired with her mother talking about her as if
she wasn't present. "Why are you here?"

"Why am I here? What kind of a question is that, child? Jane told me you
had an accident, shame on you for not informing your own mother. All the
nights I sat by your side when you were ill, not sleeping, fearing you'd
not survive until the morning." Mrs. Bennet sniffed and closed her eyes
theatrically. Elizabeth rolled her eyes at her mother's display. "But no
one can understand how great is a mother's sacrifice!"

Fanny sighed and shook her head thoughtfully. She quickly snapped out of
her pensiveness, her sharp eyes resting on Elizabeth, who was becoming more
and more nervous. "But now I've taken matters into my own hands. I'm going
to stay with you until you get better. You won't have to do a thing, just
lie down and rest and I'll do everything. Now, I've brought you some soup,
I'm going to heat some of it. Would you like some as well, William?"

Before William managed to reply, Elizabeth interjected in a highly agitated
manner, "Mum, I'm very grateful for your concern, but you don't have to
stay with me."

"Nonsense, child! I'm going to stay and take care of you, just like when
you were small. Who will take better care of you than your own mother?"
Mrs. Bennet cooed, patting bewildered Elizabeth on the cheek.

"Really, mum, this won't be necessary!" said the young woman, casting
William a desperate look that asked him silently: help me!

"And why not?" demanded Mrs. Bennet, offended that her ungrateful daughter
was rejecting her gracious offer of help.

"Because I'm going to be here," said William clearly. Both women turned
their heads to look at him, one completely stunned, the other relieved and
grateful. "I am sure that no one can take better care of Elizabeth than her
own mother, Mrs. Bennet, but you are very busy, with many responsibilities
- your other daughters, your husband, the housekeeping - I simply can't
allow you to exert yourself so much when I am perfectly able to help.
Elizabeth is a very close...err....friend of mine and I'd be happy to take care
of her. Besides, if she ever needs professional help, I'll be nearby to
assist."

For some time Fanny Bennet was quite speechless. At first she was too
surprised to say anything, her brain working hard to make sense of the fact
that William Darcy, the famous and rich neurosurgeon, wanted to act as a
nurse to her daughter. Then, gradually, an idea started forming in her
head. She looked at Elizabeth, then back to William and smiled knowingly.
"William, dear, this is very gracious of you! I really do have a lot on my
hands, being a mother and a wife is a full time job, you know. In fact, I
think I should get back home right now, there's always so much to do."

She pecked Elizabeth's cheek and rose from the couch. "Take good care of my
girl, William!"

"I will, Mrs. Bennet," William assured her.

"Fanny, please, let's not be so formal! Take care, Lizzy, I'll call you
tomorrow to see how you are. Goodbye William." And with the same flurry
with which she arrived, Hurricane Fanny left the house.

Elizabeth looked at William and heaved a huge sigh. "And you were wondering
why I didn't want to move back home?" She fell back on the couch and put
her hand to her forehead.

"She's not that bad... she's just worried about you," said William, but
somehow it didn't sound convincing even to himself. Elizabeth just looked
at him skeptically.

"I'm sorry for her babbling, when she finds a willful listener, she can go
on and on."

William smirked. "I didn't mind that in the least. Actually, I rather
enjoyed her story." He rose from his place and sat beside her. "I could
just imagine you as that mischievous little girl. You haven't changed
much..." he murmured as he leaned down to kiss her. It started as a slow
kiss, his mouth teasing her lips lazily, as her hands slid around his neck
to bring him closer to her. When his torso finally made contact with her
chest, it was as if a jolt of energy ran through both of them. Their kisses
grew wilder and hotter and their hands weren't idle at all. Elizabeth
glided her hands down William's strong back, urging him even closer,
caressing him through the material of his sweater. Soon, however, she found
it wasn't enough, so she let her hands slide under his jersey where the
feel of his warm skin ignited a fire inside of her. Feeling her delicate
hands on his bare skin, William moaned and proceeded to raise her own
sweater in a desperate attempt to touch her skin. While his hands were
occupied in this way, his mouth left hers and slid down her jaw line to the
graceful curve of her neck, leaving a trail of hot kisses in its wake.
Elizabeth gasped and arched her head to allow him better access. She felt
dizzy from the feel of his hands on her, his strong body against her and
his stirring masculine scent filling her nose. Her hands roamed over his
back, occasionally sliding under the waistline of his trousers, but the
tight jeans he was wearing didn't allow her much scope for exploration.
William's hands finally managed to make their way under her sweater, and
were now stroking her belly, while his mouth was eagerly sucking every
portion of skin of her neck they could reach, sending shiver after shiver
through Elizabeth. Impatient desire welled up in her and her hands left his
back to grip his head almost fiercely and draw his mouth to hers. She
kissed him hungrily, to which he reacted with a sudden shift of his body,
his knee parted her legs, sending one of them to the floor. Elizabeth cried
out in pain and he froze in her arms. Breathing heavily, he rose a little
and looked at her, for a moment unable to understand what had happened.
Then it hit him.

"Oh my God, I'm so sorry!" he breathed, looking with horror at her leg in a
brace, which he had so clumsily thrown to the floor. In a flash he was on
his feet, gently picking up the injured appendage and placing it carefully
on a pillow. "Does it hurt very badly?"

"No, I'm ok," Elizabeth panted, still very much awed by what had just
transpired between them and what would surely have happened had it not been
for this small accident.

"I think I'd better go and heat you some of this soup your mother brought,"
William suggested.  The atmosphere is so hot right now that I'm not sure
if it needs any more heating!  thought Elizabeth wryly, but she nodded
her assent.

When William returned with a tray laden with a bowl of chicken soup and
some bread, he said, smiling ruefully "Some nurse I turned out to be."

"I don't have any complaints," she assured him with a smile. "In comparison
with my mother, you're much preferable."

He laughed, looking at her fondly. "Thank you...I think."

Elizabeth took a spoonful of the soup and blew on it. "Aren't you going to
eat?" she asked him.

William shook his head. "No, I think I should go back to Netherfield to
take some of my stuff and...oh damn it!" he swore, at which Elizabeth looked
at him quizzically. She wasn't sure she had ever heard him curse, other
than that day on the riverside when she had run from him.

"What's wrong?" she inquired in surprise.

"I've completely forgotten about Hurst. I guess I'm just not used to being
a dog owner. What am I supposed to do with him? I don't want to dump him on
Charles and Jane."

Elizabeth brightened up. "Bring him here, it's no problem at all, one pet
more, one pet less."

He looked at her questioningly. "Are you sure? How will your pets react to
him?"

"Jack is going to be delighted to have a playmate and Cass is probably
going to ignore him, if he leaves her alone."

"Then I'll bring him back with me. You stay where you are, finish your soup
and try to get some rest. I'll be back in an hour or two." He kissed her
more chastely this time, mindful of what their last kiss had turned into,
and left the house. When he was gone, Elizabeth continued to consume her
soup, but her mind was more busily engaged.

Oh God. Well, that did change the situation a bit. How could she not have
foreseen it? Here was this gorgeous, sexy man who attracted her more than
anyone ever had and who, she had it on good authority, also found her
attractive. More than once had they started something that she had to
interrupt before it went too far. She still didn't feel entirely
comfortable with their relationship, nor did she really know what kind of a
relationship they had. And she had just agreed to his moving in with her.
Oh God.

She put the bowl away and let her head fall into her hands. She must have
been crazy not to have realized all this before. Elizabeth sighed. It's not
that she didn't want him. She did, very much, but the problem was not so
much with him, as with her. Her last relationship had ended badly, it had
been several years since that incident, but she still hadn't recovered from
the hurt completely. True, William had said he would sleep on the couch,
but that didn't mean that he wouldn't try to insinuate himself into her bed.

Forget the bed! What she feared most was that he'd insinuate himself into
her heart. While in most areas of life Elizabeth considered herself a
modern woman, in the love department she was, in her heart, as
old-fashioned as they came. She wasn't one to seek easy gratification;
casual sex was definitely not for her.

Am I not getting a little ahead of myself?  she thought. So far she
didn't have any reasons to doubt his respect. She had backed off a few
times and he had always deferred to the boundaries she had established. Was
it possible that he intended to use this week to make her change her mind
about having sex with him? It wasn't entirely improbable, but she didn't
believe he was like that. After all, he was Charles' friend and Charles and
Jane had a very high opinion on him. Besides, she flattered herself she had
also gotten to know him to some extent. Were two weeks too short a time to
really get to know a person? Most people would say so, but she had known
Sean for more than a year and look where that relationship had gotten her!
It turned out she hadn't known him at all!

Elizabeth took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing thoughts. It's
only a week, she tried to reassure herself. Then he'll be gone. At that
thought she felt as if a cold hand was gripping her guts and her eyes
stung, tears threatening to spill from them. Get a grip, you fool! It's
not like he's going to the North Pole, he'll only be an hour's drive
away! But her heart couldn't be comforted so easily. She knew that
despite her efforts, she was fighting a losing battle. She was falling for
him despite herself, and the thought of his leaving Meryton made her
exceedingly depressed.

She will have to try making it work! She decided to make the best of their
last week together and try to lay groundwork for their relationship without
losing her heart completely and irrevocably. She was honest enough, though,
to admit that she was already in the middle without even realizing she had
begun.

William took Hurst and a small bag with clothes and a few useful things and
left Netherfield. Escaped would be a better word, though. He fled Jane's
curious glances and Charles's knowing smirks. This was what he disliked
exceedingly; he was a reserved, private man and the thought that everybody
around him knew all about his most personal affairs didn't sit well with
him. Of course, being William Darcy he couldn't completely avoid falling
prey to the gossipers, but now the situation was different.

William's experience with women wasn't meager by any means, but in the last
few years it had been visibly decreasing. Ever since he had reached
puberty, William had noticed that, for some reason, girls had found him
very attractive. His classmates had stared at him, giggled and whispered
with their friends, smiling at him and calling him Willie, which he had
hated. A shy teenager he had been then, these attentions only embarrassed
him. As he had grown up, girls stopped being bothersome brats and became
fascinating and mysterious creatures. Thus started the dating period of
William's life. He had had two or three girlfriends, before he realized the
fact that was to change his entire attitude towards women and love. All of
the women he had been with were only interested in him because his name was
William Darcy, he had a big and beautiful estate, rich parents and it
didn't hurt that he was also handsome. None of them was interested in the
real William, his dreams, his goals, his pursuits. They didn't care to get
to know him, it was enough to be seen at parties with William Darcy and to
get a few lovely and expensive gifts from him.

This realization had had a great impact on William. He had been very bitter
for some time, forswearing women forever. His cousin Richard had tried to
talk some sense into him, he convinced him that such a state of affairs was
in fact very desirable, as it allowed him to have female company whenever
he wished it, without breaking any hearts. "They are using you, so you are
completely justified in using them. They'd not mind it at all, quite the
contrary!" Richard had said. But William had been too honorable and
principled to even contemplate his cousin's suggestion. Instead, he had
preferred giving up women to compromising his own values and principles.
His cousin had called him a hopeless romantic, but William hadn't cared.

Then his parents had died and he had been too crushed by grief and too busy
taking care of Georgiana, to even think about a relationship. He had
finished university, started working and had put his ideals away. He had
had a few girlfriends then, but they were few and far between. They were
mostly the women from his social circle; intelligent and educated, suitable
dates for all of the formal parties and dinners he had to attend and
accomplished lovers. He had enjoyed being with them, but none of the
relationships lasted a long time. None of them had managed to hold his
interest, to intrigue and enthrall him. Until he met Elizabeth.

William smiled when he thought of her. She was so different from all of the
women he had known! With her intelligence and sparkling wit, she had
captivated him, and he was drawn to her warmth and kindness. There was a
quicksilver quality to her, she had spirit, a spark that he longed to
capture, but above all, there was not a bit of artifice in her. She was
honest and open and he knew for certain that she was not in the least
impressed by his high and mighty public persona. He felt that she was
interested in him, not his money, name or status. William knew from
his own painful experience that such a woman was not easily found and he
was incredibly lucky to have met her. Of course, it didn't hurt that she
was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, either. William
chuckled at that thought.

He finally arrived at Elizabeth's place. He left Hurst outside, while he
went inside to get Jack for a walk. It was late in the evening and both
dogs needed to walk before the night. He was happy to observe that, after
carefully sniffing each other, the animals started wagging their tails in a
tentative, but decidedly friendly manner. He walked with them for about
half an hour and when he brought them back home, they were already the best
buddies in the world. Cass was more suspicious of the stranger, as
Elizabeth had guessed she would be, but other than hissing at Hurst
menacingly, she left him alone, deciding probably that this creature was
beneath her notice.

Then, William walked to the shed, but seeing that everything seemed to be
fine with its occupants, he didn't do anything, deciding to wait
Elizabeth's orders.

Having accomplished his self-imposed duties, William finally entered the
house, his heart skipping a beat at the thought that she was inside,
waiting for him. He went into the living room and found her sleeping on the
couch, her hair disheveled, her cheeks rosy and her lips slightly parted as
she breathed softly. She lay on her back with her injured ankle propped up
on a pillow. One of her hands was resting on the blanket that covered her,
and the other was above her head, tangled in her tresses.

William looked at Elizabeth as a strong feeling of d? vu overcame him.
This was the second time he had found her like this, sleeping on the couch,
so fresh and lovely after a particularly hard day. Last time it was
Collins, now her fall. He felt a sudden surge of tenderness, as he bent
down and scooped her in his arms with the intention of carrying her
upstairs. Elizabeth stirred a little and unconsciously cuddled to him, but
didn't wake up. William breathed deeply, her enticing scent and closeness
were making his heart beat wildly and he swallowed hard, trying to compose
himself. It wouldn't do to drop her now! He went out of the room, into the
hall and up the stairs.

He was really getting a hang on this! He had been carrying her the whole
day, but his worry about her had served to distract his mind from the
feeling of her warm and supple body in his arms, the sweet smell of her
skin and the tickling of her hair on his face. Not to mention the feel of
her arms around his neck. Now though, his thoughts more at ease over her
condition, he could appreciate all the fine aspects of her closeness and he
did, deliriously so.

Finding her bedroom, he went inside and put her on the bed. He was
reluctant to relinquish the hold of her in his arms, but he knew that if he
didn't release her now, he'd not let her go at all. It surprised him that
she didn't wake up during the whole route, but he suspected that the day
had really taken a toll on her. As he watched her lying on her bed, he
realized that he was faced with a dilemma. Should he leave her now or
rather undress her first? He looked at her body dressed in jeans and tight
sweater. She probably wouldn't be comfortable in them. Yet, he was loath to
wake her when she was sleeping so peacefully. William sighed and reached a
decision. Gingerly, he sat on the edge of the bed and reached out to take
off her sweater. He managed to roll it up a bit, but realized he'd not
proceed any further without any cooperation from her. He raised his hand to
her face and stroked her cheek.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, as she stirred. She looked at him in confusion.
"William? What's going on?"

"I'm putting you to bed. You should change into your nightclothes, you
can't sleep in jeans and a sweater."

Elizabeth sighed and nodded. Still half-asleep, she sat up and allowed
William to take off her sweater, raising her arms and feeling a static jolt
as he pulled the blazer over her head. William was fighting hard with
himself to behave like a gentleman and not to stare at her breasts, covered
only with the thin material of her bra. Instead, he picked up a t-shirt
from a chair next to the bed and handed it to her. Elizabeth accepted it
gratefully and put it on. Then William assisted her in removing her jeans,
a task that would have been impossible to perform with the brace on her
foot, had not Charles cut the jeans when he had been putting it on her
injured leg.

After that task was completed, Elizabeth fell on the bed and almost
immediately dozed off again. William arranged the covers around her and
should have left the room, but somehow he couldn't make himself do it. He
gazed on Elizabeth, thinking about the next week. He wasn't sure what to
expect from his stay here. He had told her it would be a rather platonic
relationship of the patient and the nurse, but their tryst from the
afternoon, reminded him how difficult sustaining this status was going to
be. He felt his body tingling at the mere thought of their last amorous
assignation. God, how he wanted her! It would be so easy to kiss her right
now, to caress her tempting body, until she woke up in a state that
rendered her unable to resist him. But it was unthinkable, he pushed that
thought firmly away. No matter how much he suffered from deprivation, he'd
not violate her trust. When they finally made love, it would be fueled by
desire and passion, and both of them would want it to happen. William
sighed in frustration. It would be so much easier if he only knew what she
wanted!

William looked at the sleeping woman beside him. She was everything he had
longed for his entire life. She had all the qualities that made her perfect
for him; wit, intelligence, charm, sincerity, sparkle and beauty. I
don't want to ruin this. I'm going to make the most of this week and try to
build the foundation for our future together. Reassured in his
decision, William bent down and kissed Elizabeth's sleeping lips.

William had never felt like this before. That was why he'd rather not
analyze the last words he whispered to her.

"Good night, my love," he said and left Elizabeth wondering if she dreamt
it or not.

Chapter sixteen

Elizabeth concluded that she was satisfied with her present living
arrangement very much indeed when she woke up to the smell of coffee and
eggs being fried in the kitchen downstairs. She stretched under the covers
and looked at the alarm clock. It read 9 am and she marveled at having
slept in so late. Even on the weekends she usually got up around 8, as
there was always so much to do. She wondered how William was handling
everything and felt a sudden pang of guilt for leaving so much on his hands.

She sat up, her train of thought swiftly changing direction, as William
entered the bedroom, carrying a tray with coffee, omelet and bread rolls.

"Good morning," he said, smiling at her charmingly.

"Good morning," she answered in kind, moving on the bed and making room for
him. "You have been busy!"

He put the tray carefully on the bed next to her, perched on the edge and
occupied himself with pouring coffee. "Well, I'm here to help out, am I
not? I figured if I lay in bed lazing around, you'd kick me out for being
good for nothing," he replied dryly.

"You're damn right, I would!" she said with mock sternness, taking a bite
of a roll. "They're fresh! How did you do that? The bakery's closed on
Sunday!" she exclaimed with wonder.

"I baked them," he said.

"You baked them?" Elizabeth stared at him with incredulity.

"Yes. Mrs. Reynolds taught me how to bake bread when I was a kid. It's very
easy," he said nonchalantly.

"Wow, that's a surprise! I knew you could cook something quick and easy,
but I never suspected you actually could bake bread!" She was impressed.

"Gotcha!" he exclaimed, grinning devilishly. "You're right, I can cook, but
I'm not that good. I can't believe you fell for that, though."

Elizabeth glared at him angrily and punched his arm. "Ow! What was that for?"

"For lying to me," she pouted, not looking at him.

"I was only pulling your leg a little. Where's your sense of humour, darling?"

She couldn't help but smile back at his unrepentant grin. "All right, I'll
forgive you, but only if you tell me who Mrs. Reynolds is and where in the
world you got fresh rolls from on a Sunday morning."

"Well, if you want the truth, I didn't make up so much. I put the old stale
buns into the oven for a few minutes, that's all. After such treatment
they're as good as new. Here, have some omelet," he took some of the dish
on the fork and offered it to her. She took a bite and chewed it with
deliberation, before she judged, "It's delicious! You're spoiling me!"

"I'm glad I found a way to get on your good side." He smirked.

"I don't have a bad side, as you well know," she answered, smiling sweetly
at him. "But you watch out. You keep pampering me like that and I might
want to keep you!"

"Is that a promise?" he murmured seductively into her ear. His breath
tickled her face and she giggled, even as she put her arms around his neck
and brought his mouth to her lips for a slow kiss.

The location couldn't be better thought William, as he deepened the
kiss. All thoughts of not pressuring her flew out of his head as he felt
her hands in his hair and on his neck, with tauntingly light touches that
only aroused his desire even more.

Elizabeth slowly lay down and William followed her, lying on top of her
body. He let his hands roam all over her as his mouth eagerly kissed,
sucked and nibbled every inch of her neck. But she wasn't idle either. The
feel of his hard body so close to hers thrilled her and his scent was
making her dizzy. She raised her good leg and threw it over his hip, at the
same time sliding her hands slowly down his back. She felt his erection
through the layers of clothing and couldn't stop herself from pressing her
hips against it. William groaned and moved to turn over, reversing their
positions and bringing her on top of him, this time trying to be mindful of
her leg. Instead of the soft bed, though, his back landed on something
hard, which upon contact with his body clinked loudly and startled them
both from their passion-induced trance.

"What was that?" asked Elizabeth, raising her head and looking at William
in surprise.

"I've no idea. Wait, let me see." He sat up and looked behind him. He heard
her gasp and then laugh at something she saw behind his back. Twisting his
head, he noticed the reason for her mirth - the coffee mug lay knocked over
on the bed and coffee was quickly soaking into the covers. The now cold
rolls lay scattered on the sheets (buttered side down, obviously), but the
worst part was the omelet, completely crushed, some of it into the bed and
the rest into William's shirt. His annoyed expression only prompted new
fits of laughter from Elizabeth. Her laugh was so contagious that, despite
his ruined shirt, not to mention the amorous dalliance, he joined in her
amusement and soon they were laughing so hard that tears were falling from
their eyes.

When Elizabeth finally managed to calm down, she said, "Well, if that
wasn't a sign, I don't know what is."

"And what would that sign mean?" he asked with curiosity.

"Why, that breakfast in bed is a dangerous decadence!"

After they cleaned up, Elizabeth got dressed and went down to the kitchen
to have a proper breakfast. They ate in a relaxed atmosphere, from time to
time one would remember the incident upstairs and start giggling. Then the
other would follow and so the whole breakfast was spent to the
accompaniment of chuckles.

Later that day Elizabeth told William all he needed to know about the care
of the horse and the sick and injured animals. There was feeding, watering,
mucking stalls, grooming, changing bandages, applying ointments,
administering drugs and making shots. Some of the patients were less
cooperative than others and William reemerged an absolute wreck from the
shed after more than an hour.

Elizabeth was reading on the couch in the living room when she felt a
distinct and very unpleasant smell. She raised her head and looked around,
wrinkling her nose with disgust. Soon the source of the stench entered the
room, leaning on the doorjamb and looking quite worn out. She looked at him
with sympathy.

"How do you manage to do this all by yourself each morning and go to work
afterwards?" he asked disbelievingly.

"It's a matter of practice. Is it too much for you? I can ask Pete to come
over and help you with the dirty work," she suggested.

"No, there's no need for that. I'll manage everything, I'll get used to it,
I guess," he said weakly. "I'll go and take a shower now, I must smell like
a pigsty."

Elizabeth looked after him and tried not to think about how he must look
in the shower, without the benefit of clothing, under the hot water
spray, the drops clinging to his naked, wet body....She closed her eyes and
imagined what it would be like to join him there, to be able to see his
body in all his naked male glory. She could almost see herself taking her
favourite cat-shaped sponge, applying the lavender-scented soap and
lathering him from head to toe, paying special attention to his gorgeous
hair. Then, gently, she would rinse him off, dry him carefully, and then
take him to her bedroom, where she would finally care for his poor, sore
body in her own way....

Fifteen minutes later William was back downstairs, dressed in clean jeans
and sweater, his hair still damp from his shower. He felt little better
after the shower. His muscles were sore, his back and arms especially hurt
him from mucking the stall. He groaned, massaging his shoulder with one
hand and rolling his head in a vain attempt to loosen the muscles of his neck.

He looked so pitiful that Elizabeth felt her craving from a while ago
diminished somewhat by guilt. Remembering her daydream, she had a sudden
idea. She took her leg down from the stool it had been lying on and patted
the chair. "Come here," she said.

He looked a little confused, but heeded her order. As he sat down on the
stool, he felt her hands on his shoulders. She had delicate and skillful
hands and he felt the tension ebb away from his muscles as she expertly
massaged his neck, kneaded his shoulders and rubbed his back. William
moaned with delight at her ministrations and leaned his head against her,
closing his eyes in bliss and sighing with pleasure.

Elizabeth could feel knots of tension in his muscles and worked expertly to
remove them. She had to admit that though the wish to alleviate his
discomfort had been her major motivation, desire to touch him had been
almost as an strong incentive. His broad back and wide shoulders simply
begged to be touched and the feel of his body, even through his clothes,
was heady to say the least.

As he leaned against her, his head propped against her breastbone, she
couldn't stop herself from resting her chin on the crown of his head. His
beautiful, damp hair tickled her face. She inhaled his clean, fresh scent
and felt her insides churn with want. She slid her hands around his neck
and embraced him. He sighed and she giggled when she thought she had
actually heard him purr in deep contentment.

"Hmmm...."

"What is it?" she asked in amusement.

"It feels so good...," he murmured. "If I had known you were such an
accomplished masseuse, I'd have offered you help with mucking the stall a
long time ago," he said playfully.

She chuckled softly. "I'm glad you enjoyed it, but let me tell you something...."

"Yes?" he prompted her, glancing around in her direction.

She lowered her head and spoke seductively into his ear. "You haven't seen
anything of my talent yet. What you've experienced today is just the tip of
the iceberg."

He sat up and looked at her in shocked disbelief. Then a lazy smirk
appeared on his face, as he asked, "You wouldn't have any more stalls to
muck and horses to groom, would you?"

Their life soon settled into a pattern. William got up early, walked both
dogs and did his work around the animals. Then he took a shower, after
which Elizabeth massaged him. Even though with time he found the work
easier and less demanding, he invariably came to her demanding his massage.

After the first mishap with breakfast in bed, they decided to give up the
idea and had all meals in the kitchen. Elizabeth learnt to use crutches
quite well, and William didn't have to carry her around anymore, to his
extreme dissatisfaction. She only allowed him to carry her upstairs, as she
doubted she could attempt climbing the stairs encumbered by her bad leg,
and crutches did little to help.

They prepared the meals together; Elizabeth was responsible for cutting the
produce and all the jobs that could be done while sitting down, and
William's task was standing over the boiling pots and running errands
around the kitchen to get her a knife, a carrot, a bowl or anything she
needed. They worked well together and usually had much fun during cooking.
William was indeed a decent cook and what he lacked in skill, he made up
for in creativity. Elizabeth would never forget the breakfast he served her
on his second day of his stay: omelet with marmalade. While she didn't
particularly care for such mixtures of flavours, she had to commend his
inventiveness.

In the free time they read, listened to music, played games, watched TV or
simply talked. They conversed about different things: their childhood,
their youth, the books and films they enjoyed, their political views and
their work. They talked about hundreds of topics, but there was one that
was forbidden; they didn't talk about them. They didn't discuss
their relationship, nor did they speak about what would happen to them when
William left Meryton and returned to London. They were both so content at
present, in the happy bubble they had created, that they feared breaking
the spell by bringing up potentially contentious subjects.

Elizabeth reproached herself for her immaturity, such an approach -
avoidance attitude was unlike her, but she was afraid of spoiling
everything, so every time the conversation steered towards their
relationship, she rushed to direct it to a different course.

Not that they had many opportunities to talk alone; everyday Elizabeth had
visits from her friends and family. Jane popped in on a daily basis, always
bringing some tasty delicacies for the convalescent and her "nurse".
Charles also dropped in quite often, sometimes with Jane, sometimes alone.
Both had an eager interest in Elizabeth and William's living arrangements
and how the two were getting along. Charles was very much amused at his
friend playing Florence Nightingale and couldn't stop himself from making
good-natured sport of William. He thought it was a jolly good idea though,
and was glad to see how much his friend loosened up during such a short
time. He couldn't believe how much happier, younger and healthier he
looked. Elizabeth seemed to be working wonders for William's physical and
psychological well-being. Jane, while more demure in showing her feelings
than her fianc⁠was secretly very pleased with the situation. Even though
she wasn't sure about the seriousness of her sister's relationship with the
handsome doctor, Elizabeth seemed happy. Jane only hoped it would last
after William left Meryton.

Another frequent guest at Elizabeth's house was Maria, who missed her
friend, having been accustomed to her daily presence at the clinic. She was
doing fine by herself, but still came by often to ask for advice, offer
help or just see how her boss was doing. More often than not, Pete would
tag along, professing his wish to help with the stable work, but Elizabeth
knew better than that. Pete and Maria had become quite inseparable during
the last weeks and Elizabeth suspected that he simply couldn't bear to be
parted from his love for so much as half an hour. She found it amusing, but
quite sweet as well. She wondered if she would ever be loved that much by
somebody. She hoped that she and William... but she'd rather not dwell on
that idea, lest it came to nothing.

Then there was her mother who usually came flying through with containers
of food, a handful of good tips and a portion of knowing looks and
suggestive smiles. Luckily for Elizabeth, she ran along quickly, stating
slyly that she didn't want to impose on the young people. It was obvious to
Elizabeth that her mother was already planning her and William's wedding in
her head and could only be thankful that she was tactful, or
determined enough to try to stay out of "dear William's" way.

Her father visited her twice during the week of her convalescence and kept
throwing suspicious glances William's way. Even her younger sisters came
over with the latest gossip or, in Mary's case, complaining about her
thesis, her advisors and the whole of the higher education system in
general. Kitty and Lydia also brought Elizabeth another share of
embarrassment with their overt ogling of William, their giggling and a few
provocative remarks that escaped them.

The only person who was missing was Charlotte. She called once, but sounded
strange; subdued and absent-minded. Elizabeth suspected something was
wrong, but she was at a loss as to what it could be. She hoped to be able
to shed some light on the matter when her friend came to visit her on
Thursday.

Elizabeth was sitting on her usual spot - the couch in the living room -
and Charlotte sat in an armchair next to it. William had tactfully
retreated from the house, taking the dogs for a walk and giving the two
friends a chance to talk privately.

"I'm sorry it took me so long to visit you," started Charlotte. "How are
you doing?"

"I'm fine. Sick and tired of sitting on my butt, but fine," replied Elizabeth.

"Good, good."

Elizabeth looked at her friend sharply. Clearly, there was something
bothering her.

"And how have you been?" she asked.

Charlotte's reply was very laconic, "Ok."

"So, what's new?" Elizabeth tried to prod her friend to talk.

"Nothing much." Charlotte shrugged her shoulders, but looked away.

"Char, is something wrong?" Elizabeth was beginning to feel concerned.

Charlotte looked at her with a forced grin. "No, nothing's wrong. Why would
anything be wrong?"

"I don't know. I just have a feeling that something's not right. You're not
yourself."

Charlotte laughed nervously. "You are imagining things. I assure you
everything's fine."

Elizabeth was certain her friend was keeping something from her. She wasn't
sure what she should do in this situation. She didn't want to press the
issue, it could only make Charlotte angry and would accomplish nothing.
Instead, she took her friend's hand and looked at her seriously.

"You would tell me if you had some problem, wouldn't you?"

Charlotte shifted in her chair uncomfortably and tried to meet Elizabeth's
eye. "Of course I would."

"I worry about you, Char." Elizabeth squeezed her friend's hand and could
feel Charlotte return the pressure.

"I'm thankful for your concern, but nothing's wrong, really. I need to go
now, I'll call you later." And with a quick goodbye she was out of the house.

She should have known that this idyll couldn't last very long. First her
concern for Charlotte started to make her uneasy and then something
happened that brought back some of her uncertainty about William.

She was in the living room watching news on TV, when she felt thirsty.
William wasn't anywhere around, so she grabbed her crutches and made her
way to the kitchen. She was in the hall when she heard his voice from the
porch outside. He was talking with someone on his cell phone. She didn't
mean to eavesdrop, but she couldn't help but hear him say, "It'll be all
right, Annie, I'll handle her. Bye, sweetheart."

Not wanting to be caught in the act, Elizabeth hid in the kitchen as fast
as she could. Suddenly she wasn't thirsty anymore. All her thoughts were on
William and the conversation she had just witnessed. He had clearly talked
to some woman, some Annie, someone close to him, judging by the endearments
he used. Who was she? It wasn't his sister; Elizabeth knew her name was
Georgiana. There was a chance it was some other relative or friend, but in
that case why had William hidden on the porch to make the call? And who was
this other her he had promised to handle? An awful suspicion started to
form in her head, but she pushed it away. It wasn't fair to condemn him
without even talking to him. Maybe there was rational explanation to all this.

She sat at the kitchen table for a few minutes until William came looking
for her.

"Why did you come here by yourself? If you wanted something from the
kitchen I'd have gotten it for you," he reproached her.

"You weren't anywhere around," she shrugged.

"You should have waited a few minutes. I was just making a phone call."

At least he didn't try to conceal it from her. But how could she check if
he'd be completely honest with her without appearing nosy or jealous?

"You could have called from the phone inside."

He looked at her in surprise. "How did you know I was talking outside the
house?"

"I saw you on the porch when I was going to the kitchen," she admitted.

"I preferred to use my cell phone, because I had the number coded in my
cell. And the range is better outside." He didn't know why he felt the need
to explain it all to her, he just knew he didn't want her to think he was
deceiving her.

"You don't have to justify yourself to me," she said, seeming uninterested.

"Don't you want to know who I was talking to?" he asked.

"It's not my business," she shrugged, trying to look indifferent.

"It was my cousin, Anne," he told her, despite her protests that she didn't
care.

So it wasn't a lover after all! He didn't lie to her, he was really talking
with his cousin! Elizabeth felt a blush creeping to her cheeks; a blush of
shame and embarrassment. Shame at her distrust of him and embarrassment at
her own transparency. She raised her eyes to his and smiled sheepishly. He
smiled back and kissed her. Everything was fine again, but somewhere deep
down inside her remained the tiniest seed of doubt. She tried to quench it,
though, telling herself she was being foolish and irrational.

They spent a quiet evening together on the couch. He was sitting in one end
of it and she was lying down, her head on his knees, as he read to her.
Afterwards he carried her to her bedroom, where he deposited her on the
bed, kissed her goodnight and went into his own room.

Nights were the most difficult time for William. During the days he had
work or other people to distract him from his thoughts of Elizabeth, but at
nights he allowed his imagination and desire free reign. The knowledge that
she was so close, not more than a few meters away, lying in her bed,
wearing only a T-shirt, her beautiful hair wild and splayed across the
pillow was exhilarating. All it would take were a few steps, two doors and
he'd be near her, able to see her lovely sleeping form in all her sensuous
grace. And when he would enter her bedroom, she'd be uncovered, having
thrown the duvet away, exposed to his hungry eyes and impatient hands.

He would approach the bed slowly and sit on the edge, looking down at her
luscious body. He would reach out and run his hand along her graceful,
long, racy legs, under her T-shirt, until his hands would encounter the
temptation of her perfect, full breasts. After that, he suspected he
wouldn't be able to stop himself from crawling into the bed next to her,
showering her with white-hot kisses and fevered caresses. He would touch
and kiss every inch of her velvety skin, until she woke up with a passion
equal to his. She would be an eager and ardent lover, accepting his ardour
and reciprocating it with kisses and caresses of her own.

He would remove her T-shirt and panties and feast his eyes on her beautiful
body. Then, with his hands and mouth he would adore her, kissing her warm,
satin skin, stroking her flat, smooth belly, caressing her legs, suckling
her into a wild frenzy, while her hands stroked his back and buried in his
hair.

And when she would moan his name in a plea, he would not be able to deny
them anymore. He would kiss her body, inch by inch, until he would
encounter her lips and then kissing her deeply, he would finally bury
himself in her hot, lush depths, until she would cry out in ecstasy. And he
would hold her as close as he could and ride her, feeling her arms around
his neck and her legs wrapped tightly around his hips. He would kiss her,
caress her and whisper hot words into her ear and she would answer him in
kind, she would meet him kiss for kiss, touch for touch, thrust for thrust,
until they could take no more and exploded in a blinding release.

William lay in the guest bed, gasping and shivering. His arms were empty
and his bed seemed cold. His hands, which in his imagination had been
caressing Elizabeth body, were wrapped around his still throbbing erection.
He took a tissue from a nightstand and cleaned himself. Then, with a heavy
sigh, he fell back on the pillows. Yet another day of the exquisite torture
of her closeness was at an end. He had employed the good old means of
relieving his frustrations throughout the whole week and it proved
effective, though hardly satisfying. He had managed to restrain himself and
behaved with all the respect she was due, but by God, sometimes he wished
he weren't a gentleman!
Chapter seventeen
Finally the day came when the brace from Elizabeth's foot was to be
removed. Although she had moaned and bitched about being grounded during
the whole week of her confinement, she now found that, surprisingly, she
wasn't looking forward to being free again as much as she had thought she
would.

As she was getting dressed on Saturday morning, she caught herself stopping
in mid-movement and falling into reverie. The heavy and persistent rain
that had been falling since the previous evening enhanced the atmosphere of
wistful musings.

She had been really contented the whole week. She wouldn't have thought it
possible, but living with William, his constant presence by her side made
her happy. They seemed to understand each other so well, they had such fun
together and they could talk for hours. She would have said they were good
friends, but in all honesty she needed to admit that there was much more
connecting them.

In her entire life, Elizabeth hadn't met anyone who could make her feel the
way William did. That he could make her heart beat faster just by looking
at her, that he could make her forget all the pain and discomfort by
holding her in his arms, that he could make her happy just by smiling at
her in this devastating way of his, were not the signs of friendship, but
of something far deeper.

Elizabeth sighed and dropped the hand holding a sock to the bed, staring
unseeingly into space. There was only one step that kept her from losing
her heart completely. She had avoided it for the whole week, but it was by
no means easy to resist the temptation he presented. With every kiss, her
desire for him grew and she knew she was not the only one suffering from
deprivation. She had seen the look of passion in his eyes and the awareness
that he wanted her as much as she wanted him made the situation even more
difficult.

There were times when she wished that he disregarded her doubts and made
love to her. Yet he remained the perfect gentleman, always stopping when
she asked it of him. She knew this was probably the wisest thing to do in
light of his imminent departure.

Elizabeth swallowed the lump in her throat. No matter what she felt for him
or how much she wanted him, she couldn't give in to him now. Not when they
were to part in less than thirty six hours. She needed to keep her heart
intact before she could be sure their relationship wouldn't die a natural
death when they were no longer together. She hoped it wouldn't happen, but
couldn't rule out such a possibility and therefore she thought it was
better to be cautious.

She finally managed to get dressed, just in time, for no sooner than she
put her sweater on, she heard a knock on the door.

"Come in," she said and in the next moment William entered the room.

"Good morning," he said in a low voice. "Breakfast is ready. Are you all
set to go downstairs?"

Elizabeth nodded and William approached her and scooped her up in his arms.
Elizabeth felt her heart skip a beat and simultaneously constrict painfully
at the thought that he was carrying her for the last time. She sighed
deeply and clung to him, putting her arms around his neck.

William had noticed her subdued spirits as soon as he had come into the
room. She was not herself today. Usually he was greeted, to his great
delight, with her lovely smile and lighthearted teasing. Right now though,
it looked like it was all she could do not to burst into tears. He hoped
that the reason for this was her sadness at his departure. He was loath to
leave her himself, but he fervently wished that their parting wouldn't
affect their relationship much.

He enjoyed holding her in his arms as he carried her downstairs, knowing
that it was the last time he had the pleasure of being her mode of
transportation. He would miss it very much. He would miss <I>her</I> very
much.

Breakfast was a dull and serious affair that day. Elizabeth dabbed her
bacon and eggs barely tasting anything. William looked at her with concern,
though he didn't fare much better himself. After a week of constant
talking, teasing and laughing the silence of this morning seemed veritably
ominous.

"So??um??are you looking forward to having your freedom back?" William asked
with a smile.

Elizabeth looked at him from over her plate in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I mean getting rid of the brace, going back to work, you know," he explained.

Elizabeth shrugged. "I guess so."

William was becoming more and more worried. He wasn't accustomed to seeing
her so indifferent, so apathetic.

"You will probably be glad to have me out of your house and out of your
way," he attempted to joke, but the confused and cheerless look on her face
told him it was a poor joke.

"Sorry," he muttered, fixing his eyes on his plate. He cleared his throat
and tried another approach.

"Do you mind if I stay here one more night, even though you won't need me
anymore? I don't want to impose on Charles and Jane again for just one night."

She raised her eyes and looked at him with an expression akin to anxiety.
She didn't want to lose him one moment earlier than it was necessary.

"Of course not! You are welcome to stay longer," she replied.

"Thank you," he said with a serious look in his eyes.

The meal progressed in this manner. The mood was rather strained and
conversation awkward, more a jumble of unconnected remarks and
uncharacteristic silences. Finally, to the relief of both, the time came
when Elizabeth was due on a visit to the Charles' office. William drove her
in the pouring rain, the sound of the raindrops hitting the car's roof made
conversation seem less necessary.

Charles greeted them with his usual optimism, which was in stark contrast
to the bleak mood of William and Elizabeth.

"How's the patient today? Ready to get rid of this burden and return to the
land of the living?" he said, smiling.

"Yes, I'm ready. It will be nice to have my independence back. Not to
mention that William must be eager to finally have some peace and not be
forced to take care of an invalid all the time," she replied mockingly.

William knit his brows, offended and even slightly hurt by her bitter
remark. Had he ever given her the impression that he was desirous to be rid
of her company?

"No doubt you feel the same," he retorted stiffly, earning a glare from
Elizabeth.

Charles shot a surprised glance from one to another. It seemed they were
back to the hostile relationship from the beginning of their acquaintance.
Gloomy countenances, surly silence interrupted by cutting remarks??.It was a
far cry from the happy, playful rapport he had observed with such
satisfaction between them during the last week. Had they quarreled over
something?

"All right, why don't we take a look at your leg?" said Charles with fake
cheerfulness, trying to dispel the dark mood. For the next few minutes they
were all occupied by removing the brace; Charles and Elizabeth actively and
William as a passive observer. Although he wasn't an orthopedist,  he was
still interested in the process from the medical and professional
perspective. It obviously had nothing to do with the fact that he couldn't
keep his eyes off Elizabeth and they strayed time and again from her foot
and up her long legs, rounded hips and beautiful chest.

Charles removed the brace and examined Elizabeth's ankle to make sure it
had healed properly. Seeing that there was no swelling and no pain, he was
satisfied with the result of the treatment.

"You'll live, Liz," he pronounced with a wry smile.

After the main purpose of the visit had been accomplished, Charles started
to talk about another subject.

"So Will, you haven't changed your mind about going back to London
tomorrow, have you?" he asked.

"I'm afraid staying longer is impossible," answered William. <I>No matter
how much I'd wish it,</I> he added to himself.

"Well then, you simply must allow Jane and me to give you a farewell party
tonight. Nothing big," he added quickly seeing a frown on William's face.
"Just the three of us, Jane, Charlotte, Maria and Pete."

Elizabeth thought Charles' proposal was heaven sent. She was afraid that if
she were to spend the evening alone with William, she would end up making a
total fool of herself; either by breaking down or throwing herself at him.
Either way, she couldn't trust herself in his presence any longer.

"Well, I don't know??," William started hesitantly, but was interrupted in
the middle of the sentence by Elizabeth.

"That's a great idea, Charles!" she supported her future brother eagerly.

William's heart sank at her words. He had hoped to spend their last evening
together alone with her, but it seemed that she had other ideas. She didn't
want to be alone with him at all! She wanted him out of her house and out
of her life. Very well then! Just as she wished, he was not going to beg
for her attention!

"Sounds wonderful!" he stated with pretended enthusiasm, determined not to
show her any disappointment he might feel.

Elizabeth felt herself crumble inside. Was he so eager to escape her
company? Fine! She would rather die than give him the satisfaction of
seeing how much he hurt her. Defiantly steeling her feelings, she arranged
her face into a bright smile.

Charles was very pleased with himself. It seemed that the prospect of the
party cheered both Elizabeth and William up. How lucky that this great idea
came to his mind!

"Excellent!" he exclaimed, happy to have helped two of his dear friends.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

Lunch was even gloomier than breakfast. Nothing was said except for a few
inconsequential remarks about the food, the weather and the upcoming party.

Afterwards they parted; William took the dogs for a walk and Elizabeth went
to the shed. William had been doing a great job with the animals for the
past week and she was left with nothing to do but spend some time with Triss.

"How have you been, my sweet?" she asked, as she took the brush in her hand
and began to groom the mare. "Has he been taking good care of you?"

Triss neighed, as if in confirmation.

"Of course, he has. He seems very good at this. You should have seen the
way he has been taking care of me." Elizabeth sighed and stopped her
grooming, instead she leaned against the horse's side and embraced her neck.

"We have been very lucky, haven't we? But everything good has its end. He's
leaving us tomorrow, baby. And he doesn't seem to be sorry about it at all.
He probably wants us out of his life as soon as possible. We were never
anything more than a pleasant diversion for him."

Elizabeth sniffed, swallowing the lump in her throat and feeling the flood
of tears coming. She had to get a grip of herself. Triss rested her muzzle
on her shoulder and Elizabeth stood there for a while, drawing comfort from
the animal.

"But we're not going to despair, are we? No indeed! We are strong and
independent and need no man to define our worth! We will survive this just
fine! And William Darcy may go to hell!"

<center><hr width=50%></center>

William took only half an hour to get ready to go out; during which time he
managed to take a shower, shave and get dressed in black trousers and a
black turtleneck. When he found himself with nothing else to do, he went
downstairs to the living room, where he sat on the couch, picked up a
newspaper and tried to concentrate on reading.

To his surprise, only fifteen minutes later he heard the footsteps and
raised his head to see Elizabeth come into the room. His eyes fell on her
form and suddenly all air left his lungs at her sight.

She was dressed quite casually, in a short denim skirt that reached her
mid-thigh and showed off her long, shapely legs beautifully, and a dark
red, low-cut top that did nothing to conceal her tempting curves from his
sight. Her hair fell in a cascade of dark curls down her back. She wore
very little make-up from what he could see and no jewelry at all. Yet
despite the simplicity of her dress, to him she looked lovelier than ever.
She was fresh, beautiful and vibrant. He noticed that the spark in her
eyes, which had been gone the entire day, had returned. William was
enchanted and speechless.

Elizabeth noticed his apparent admiration with great satisfaction. <I>Let
him see what he will miss!</I> she thought spitefully. One look at him
though, made her taste her own medicine. He looked devastatingly handsome
dressed all in black, his sweater accentuated his broad shoulders very
nicely indeed. She gulped, her eyes traveling down to his narrow hips and
long legs. Damn him! Why did he have to be so bloody gorgeous? And why did
he have to have such power over her? She resented this ability of his
because she knew he'd leave her in a very short time and most likely had
not planned to include her in his life.

William decided that it wouldn't do to continue staring at her like an
idiot. One more moment and he might start drooling all over himself. With
forced calmness, he asked, "Are you ready to go?"

"Yes," she answered, happy to observe that her voice didn't tremble.

"Let's go then," said William and, turning on his heel, strode to the door.

Elizabeth noticed that he made sure that no words of admiration escaped
him. Obviously, he didn't want to raise her hopes. As if she didn't already
know that he wanted nothing more to do with her!

<center><hr width=50%></center>

When they arrived at Netherfield, everybody was already there. Elizabeth
was greeted enthusiastically by her friends; everyone was happy to see her
up and about again. If anybody noticed her distraction and downcast
spirits, they didn't mention it.

William was greeted less effusively, but not less friendly. He had proved
to be a nice, down-to-earth guy, if a touch reserved, and the whole party
grew to like him, especially when he was making Elizabeth so happy.

They moved to the living room, where Charles made everybody drinks and they
sat down talking. The conversation focused mainly on William's stay in
Meryton and his approaching departure, Elizabeth's leg, her work and what
had happened at the clinic and the farms during her week off. Charles and
Jane discussed some of their wedding plans and one more time urged William
to be Charles' best man.

"Just tell me when and I'm going to be there," William assured his friend.
"I'll do my best to get away from the hospital."

William hadn't considered before how awkward it was going to be to stand
next to Elizabeth at the wedding. Knowing she probably felt nothing for
him, while he was well on his way to falling in love with her was difficult
enough right now. But how painful and uncomfortable it would be when they
would be standing in church, watching his friend and her sister vow
unending love to each other!

He glanced at her and saw from her expression that she was sharing some of
his thoughts. He noticed confusion in her eyes and this gave him a bit of
hope. It meant she wasn't entirely indifferent to him after all.

He decided to test this assumption. He needed to talk to her, but how to
accomplish it in this room full of people?

His problem was solved when Charles, in an exceptional stroke of genius,
proposed to have some dancing. Normally unwilling to perform in front of so
many people, William received this suggestion with uncharacteristic, albeit
silent pleasure. Now he could ask Elizabeth to dance and have her all to
himself for at least five minutes.

Not wanting to be too obvious, he waited a few songs before asking her.
Charles had played some fast dances and William made a point of dancing
with every woman in the room, except Elizabeth. A fast dance with her
wouldn't do at all; he wanted to be able to keep her close in his arms and
talk to her privately. Finally Charles took pity on him and played a slow
song. William's heart beat faster as he turned to look for Elizabeth and
noticed her sitting alone in a far corner of the room.

Elizabeth had escaped to order her thoughts and deal with the
disappointment of not being asked to dance by William even once. It didn't
matter that Charles had warned her not to attempt fast dances for a few
weeks and that she would have to refuse William anyway. The fact was that
he had danced with every woman in the room except for her. Could his
behaviour be any more obvious?

A familiar, deep voice startled her out of her reverie, "Elizabeth??would
you like to dance?"

She turned her head and saw William standing next to her. Her heart started
to beat loudly and she was about to say yes and forget everything in his
strong, secure embrace. But before she opened her mouth, her pride
protested against such humiliation. He had waited half an hour before
approaching her and only did so now because she was the only one he hadn't
danced with and it was polite of him to ask her now. Maybe he even felt
pity for her. Maybe he felt guilty and wanted to appease his conscience.
Whatever the case, she was not going to gratefully accept his
condescension! She was not going to let him think she cared if he danced
with her or not!

Elizabeth steeled her face and answered in a cold voice, "Thank you, but I
don't feel like dancing."

<I>You have your answer,</I> thought William. Her reply was like a bucket
of cold water poured on his head; he was completely disillusioned. She
didn't even care about him enough to sacrifice a few minutes for a dance
with him. Somewhere between last week and this day he had made a mistake
that must have destroyed any warmer regard she might have felt for him. Or
maybe she never really cared about him and treated him only as a friend.
She had never sought his attention and hadn't known how to fend him off,
being too polite to reject him in an outright manner. He remembered that
she had avoided all conversations about their relationship and never
allowed him more intimacies than a few kisses and stolen caresses, before
she pushed him away. It all made perfect sense to him now; she never
intended to give him a chance, to give <I>them</I> a chance. He felt
humiliated and ashamed. Her refusal to dance was the last straw.

Trying with all his might to appear unconcerned, he just shrugged his
shoulders and walked away, leaving Elizabeth alone to wallow in self-pity
and regret. Her refusal didn't touch him in the least. She had hoped for at
least a tiny bit of disappointment on his face, for him trying to convince
her to change her mind, but he just shrugged and walked off. This was all
the answer she needed.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

The rest of the party was a torment to Elizabeth and William. Both
pretended to laugh and have fun talking with other people, all the while
observing each other longingly from the corner of an eye.

Thankfully, it did not last long. William still needed to pack, so around
nine he walked to Elizabeth and said tentatively, "I need to go back. Would
you like me to take you, or do you want to stay longer?"

Elizabeth thought for a moment. She didn't feel up to another drive with
him and then spending a strained evening in his company. But they did come
here in one car and she didn't want to bother anyone else to drive her.
Besides, in spite of all the awkwardness, she did long to be with him, as
their time together was quickly running short.

"I'll go with you," she answered.

They said their goodbyes, William thanked everybody for their kind
hospitality during his stay, expressing particular gratitude to Charles and
Jane. He was assured in return that hosting him was entirely their pleasure
and was urged to promise them he would come for a visit again some time
soon. He promised to do his best, casting a look at Elizabeth to see how
she took his words, but her head was turned away from his view.

The rest of the party stared after them out of the window as they took off.

"I bet they can't wait to be alone," said Charlotte with a grin.

"Have you seen the way they've been stealing glances at each other
throughout the whole evening?" added Pete.

"To think that they'll have to part tomorrow! How sad! But it's also very
romantic," said Maria dreamily.

"I <I>knew</I> it was going to be like this! I knew they were perfect for
each other! What a fantastic idea it was to introduce them," spoke Charles
with great complacency.

One member of the party, though, had more insight into the situation. Jane
looked after the disappearing BMW with worry. Elizabeth might have fooled
everybody else, but she saw that something was wrong. Her sister wasn't
happy and she was afraid that William was the cause of her melancholy. She
liked him very much, but if he had hurt her baby sister, than God help him,
she would kill him with her own hands!

<center><hr width=50%></center>

The rain that had been falling the entire day turned into a downpour by the
evening. William drove with his heart in his mouth, he had hated driving in
such conditions ever since the accident that had taken his parents' lives.
It had been exactly the same weather then. He remembered that night as if
it were yesterday.

He pulled into the driveway in front of Elizabeth's house and they ran
inside to avoid getting completely drenched. The dogs greeted them inside
and demanded that they be walked right then, no matter how awful the
weather was.

"I'll walk them," Elizabeth suggested. "You had better finish packing now."

She put on a heavy raincoat and galoshes, and the leashes on Hurst and
Jack's necks and went out. Fifteen minutes later she returned, quite wet in
spite of the protection against the rain she was wearing. She dried off
both dogs before going upstairs to dry herself. She could hear William in
the other bedroom, but didn't find the courage to enter. What would she say
to him when she got in, anyway?

Instead of coming to his room, she went downstairs to the kitchen and made
some tea. William joined her a few minutes later. They both felt that the
time came for the inevitable conversation??or rather confrontation.

He came into the kitchen followed by Hurst and sat down at the table,
smiling nervously at her.

"Um??would you like some tea?" asked Elizabeth, finding it difficult to sit
composedly with him in front of her.

"Yes, please," he answered.

She poured a cup of steaming brew and handed it to him. He accepted it with
a thank you and for a moment they both sipped at their tea, neither knowing
what to say. At length, Elizabeth spoke, "William??.I haven't thanked you
yet for your help during last week. If it weren't for you, I don't know how
I'd have managed everything."

"You're welcome. I'm glad I could help. Thank you for keeping me company
during my stay. I had fun," he replied.

"You're welcome," she said quietly. So that was what it had been for him. Fun.

They fell silent for a while again. Jack entered the kitchen and came up to
Hurst, wagging his tail and trying to induce the smaller dog to play with him.

"Jack is going to miss Hurst. They've become such good friends," observed
Elizabeth, looking at the dogs' antics.

"Hurst is going to miss him as well," replied William softly.

"Maybe they could meet again sometime," Elizabeth remarked.

"Maybe, if they both want to," answered William, looking at her intently.
They both knew they weren't talking about the dogs anymore.

Elizabeth cleared her throat and forced herself to look away from the
intensity of his eyes. She sipped her tea thoughtfully for some time,
before she asked the question she dreaded to hear the answer to, "What time
are you leaving tomorrow?"

"I'm not sure. Probably after breakfast. I need to get settled down before
I return to work on Monday."

So soon! She had hoped for a few hours with him tomorrow. But what would it
accomplish anyway? It would make their parting even more painful for her.

"Well then, I guess I should go to bed. I'll see you tomorrow. Good night,"
Elizabeth said, rising from her chair and heading out of the kitchen.

"Elizabeth??.," William called out to her and she turned around, her heart
beating loudly.

"Yes?" she asked hopefully.

"I??.good night," he replied, unable to bring himself to say what he wanted
so desperately to declare.

Elizabeth hid her disappointment as well as she could, as she turned on her
heel and strode to her bedroom.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

A loud cracking sound woke Elizabeth up. She sat up in her bed, trying to
get her bearings together. The room was uncharacteristically bright, though
it was the middle of the night. She looked around in confusion, her mind
still fogged by sleep, unable to comprehend the situation. Then she heard
another deafening noise, which together with a sudden explosion of even
greater brightness, and a rhythmic sound of raindrops hitting the window
and the roof told her she woke up in the middle of a massive thunder storm.
She could hear the wind howling outside, the thunder striking again and
again, and saw the lightning flashing quite constantly, making the room
seem as light as if it was bright daylight.

She was about to lie down again and wait until the storm passed, knowing
that there was no way she could fall asleep again before it ended, when she
heard a different kind of sound coming from inside the house. She strained
her ears to catch it over the noise outside. It was soft and plaintive; a
quiet cry, which sounded very frightened and upset. She listened for a
moment longer, wondering where the sound could be coming from. She bolted
up on the bed hearing the cries growing louder and more pained. She
suddenly understood who was making all this noise. There was only one
person in the house except her.

Forgetting about all that had transpired between them on the previous day,
she got out of the bed and started to walk slowly his way. All of her own
hurts and resentments slipped her mind, as she was overpowered by an
overwhelming need to go to him and take away all that was wrong, to soothe
and comfort him.

Shutting out all thoughts and operating on pure instinct she grabbed the
doorknob purposefully and entered his room.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

William was terrified again. He was sitting in the backseat of a car his
father was driving. Next to the driver, in the passenger's seat sat his
mother. The pitch black darkness outside, combined with the pouring rain
streaming down from the sky, made driving extremely difficult.

The silence inside the car was menacing and heavy with apprehension. No
words were spoken, the only sounds that could be heard was their breathing
and the rain pounding relentlessly on the car's roof, the noise of the
engine and the windscreen wipers.

William's heart began to beat faster in his chest, as trepidation started
to fill his brain. His blood pounded in his temples, as his breathing
increased. The hammering of his heart grew stronger and louder by the
moment, shutting out all other sounds as he finally realized what was
happening. His mouth opened in a horrified silent scream and he threw
himself to the front of the car, attempting to make his father stop, but
with no success. His parents stared blindly ahead, not paying him any
attention as if he was invisible. His panic escalated as he comprehended
that he was trapped in this car with no way out and on the way to disaster.
Frantically looking around, he threw himself to the door, trying to open
it. He would fall out of the car, but it was better, anything was better
than what was going to happen if he stayed inside.

He grabbed the door handle and shook it forcefully, praying that it would
open, crying out in fright and frustration, but it would not budge.

A sudden, bright light blinded him. Squeezing his eyes tight, he let go of
the handle and put his hands to his face to protect it from this dazzling
luminosity. He heard an earsplitting screech outside and opened his eyes
again to the sight of a huge truck speeding in their direction. In a split
second all his senses registered were the light and the awful sound and the
knowledge of what would follow??.

But instead of the dread, the despair and the pain, instead of the feeling
of hard steel crushing down on him and the shattered glass falling down on
his head, he felt the warmth and softness of somebody climbing into the bed
and crawling under the covers next to him. Someone's gentle voice calmed
his fear and tender touch soothed his wildly beating heart. Someone was
placing loving kisses on his forehead and some warm, delicate hand was
stroking his cheek affectionately. With the greatest relief he reached out
and threw his arms around his saviour, holding her to him like a drowning
man grasping a lifebelt.

Elizabeth's heart had tightened in her chest at the sight of his misery. He
had seemed to be suffering so acutely, she could hear fear and pain in his
voice and read the desperation on his face and in his frantic movements
when she had entered the room. Unable to bear seeing him in such distress,
she had crawled into bed next to him, trying to calm him down with soothing
words and touches, like a child.

She kissed his tear-stained cheeks, caressed his face, cradled him in her
arms and whispered comfortingly in his ear until he calmed down
considerably, pulled her to him closely and held her with vice-like grip.

She raised her head a little and peered into his dark, anxious eyes.

"Sshhh, William??it'll be all right. I'm here," she whispered softly and,
cupping his cheek with her hand, she kissed him lightly on the lips. She
pulled away very soon, but before she managed to go too far, his hands took
hold of her face and brought her lips again to his for a fierce, urgent kiss.

"Oh God, Elizabeth," he groaned, as he deepened the kiss, sliding his
tongue into her mouth and finally exploring its lush depths. His fingers
tangled in her hair, caressing her head and her graceful neck while her
tongue made love to his; touching, probing and sucking gently. William
rolled to his back, bringing her on top of him. She pulled away and sat up,
straddling his hips and looking at him with an expression of desire on her
unsmiling face.

A thunder clap rolled outside as Elizabeth observed the man lying on the
bed. He was shirtless, wearing only cotton boxers. An intense thrill ran
through her entire body at the feeling of his erection pressing against her
bottom in the most tempting manner.

His handsome face was half-hidden from her sight by the shadow in the room,
making him look quite mysterious, thrillingly obscure; a secret, a puzzle
she longed to solve. Reaching out, she traced her hands over his face, as
if trying to put the pieces together to see the whole image of this
incredible man.

A wide smooth, forehead, straight, regal nose, full, sensuous lips and a
strong chin. But above all, his dark eyes, that seemed able to melt her
very heart with just one look. She leaned down and put her lips to his
face, kissing every inch thoroughly, as he closed his eyes and reveled in
her ministrations, stroking her back in slow, encouraging motions.

She moved her lips lower to kiss his warm neck. She felt a shiver run
through him as she sucked on the skin where she felt his pulse beating madly.

William thought he was going to burn as he felt her soft, warm lips travel
the expanse of his face and neck, leaving a trail of fire in their wake. As
her mouth caressed him, her hair tickled his chest in an innocent, but very
erotic manner. He could feel her lips slide lower and touch his chest,
kissing it hungrily, her fingers playing with his chest hair, her nose
rubbing against his torso and her tongue caressing his skin. He drew in a
sharp breath as he felt her mouth on his nipple, sucking greedily and
teasing it lightly with her teeth.

William groaned at the feeling. Unable to lie still and passive under her
ministrations, he slid his hands under the t-shirt she used as a nightdress
and stroked her smooth, bare back. His hands traveled the span of her back,
touching her rear, delighting in the feel of her round, shapely buttocks
through the thin fabric of her silk panties. From there his hands slid to
the front to finally cup her breasts.

The instant he touched her breasts she bolted up and sat straight. He
looked at her in surprise and confusion, until realization dawned on him as
he saw her grasp the edges of her t-shirt and pull it over her head in one
fluid motion, throwing it on the floor in the corner of the room and
exposing herself to his hungry eyes.

Elizabeth relished the expression on his face as he took in her form. His
face was flushed with desire and eyes burned with yearning, his very look
seemed to cast her on fire. His impatient hands reached out frantically to
once again cup her breasts. He run his hands down their sides slowly and
bent his head to kiss the warm, silken skin. He moved his lips lovingly
over her breasts and relished the soft sighs that escaped her as he
worshipped her with his hands and mouth. Finally he moved his hands lower
down her breasts, where the contrast between their softness and the
hardened nipples sent him to a frenzy of longing. He sat up and took one of
the rosy peaks into his mouth, murmuring, "Beautiful", against her skin,
suckling her with abandon, all the while his hand teased her other nipple.
She arched against him with a low moan, threading her fingers through his
thick curls.

Her moan inflamed him even more and he couldn't resist sliding one hand
down her flat belly and slipping it into her panties to touch her. At the
touch of his fingers moving slowly in her slick wetness, Elizabeth gasped
and urgently sought his mouth, kissing him deeply, feeling she couldn't get
enough of him. Her own hand slid down to touch his hardness. She stroked
him slowly through the fabric of his boxers, reducing him to a groaning and
shuddering mass of flesh.

She pushed him down to lie on the bed and left his lap to slip off her
panties. He followed her example and a moment later they were again locked
in a passionate embrace, with nothing to stand in their way, their lips
joined in the sweetest union, their hands roaming all over each other's
bodies.

He caressed her legs slowly, from knee to hip in a languid, sensual motion,
all the time kissing and nibbling at her lips, teasing the skin of her neck
with his tongue and breathing in her delicious, sweet scent. She shivered
at his touch and reciprocated his caresses, kissing his face, stroking his
back and teasing his chest, playing with his chest hair and lightly
scratching  his nipples, sending him into white-hot madness.

Elizabeth's hand traveled down and took hold of him again. He felt
wonderful to touch and she caressed him boldly until he could take it no
longer. Panting, completely out of breath, he took hold of her hand and
stopped its movement. His dark eyes bore into hers, as he whispered
hoarsely, "No more teasing."

"No? What would you propose then?" asked Elizabeth with a saucy smile.

"Let me show you," he growled in response and pushed her flat on the bed.

He moved over her with cat-like grace, like a predator on the prowl after
its prey. Elizabeth felt a quiver run through her at his sight and she
reached out to him and he fell into her awaiting arms. He was heavy and his
weigh pressed her down to the mattress, but she didn't mind it; far from
it. She loved the feel of his strong body against hers, his lips and hands
on her.

They kissed for a long moment, their desire growing by the minute.
Impatient hands and eager mouth sought out the sensitive areas of their
bodies and worked relentlessly to please each other. Yet it was not enough.
Elizabeth wanted more, she craved to feel him, all of him, not only on her,
but also inside, she longed for an even closer connection and she tried to
communicate her need to him by pressing her hips against him and kissing
him deeply.

He understood. Tearing himself away from her he gazed seriously into her
face, his look questioning.

"Lizzy, I don't think I can take it much longer. If you want me to stop,
now would be a good time to tell me that," he said hoarsely, praying
silently that she wouldn't refuse him now.

Elizabeth threaded her fingers through his hair and breathed, "No, Will, I
don't want you to stop."

To emphasize her point she wrapped her legs around his hips and sought to
bring him closer to her.

"Are you sure you really want it?" asked William huskily, tracing her
earlobe with his tongue.

"Yes! Make love to me, Will. Please," she gasped at his enticing touch.

With a feeling of elation he kissed her deeply, pressing himself to her,
teasing them both with the prospect of the pleasures to come. She moaned
his name pleadingly, the feeling of his hardness against the place where
she needed him most driving her to a mind-boggling need. He slid his
fingers into her wetness and caressed her for a while, until she couldn't
stop herself from whimpering in helpless desire, "Please, love??"

He couldn't resist such a heartfelt plea. Reaching out blindly, he took his
wallet from the bedside table and rummaged through it until he found his
prize.

Elizabeth's eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the condom in his hand.

"Did you???" she started, but couldn't finish the question. He must have
acquired the ability to read her mind this night though, because he
answered her unspoken inquiry.

"No, I didn't plan it. But a guy can hope for a miracle, can't he?" he
asked lightly, kissing the tip of her nose. She smiled at him and wound her
arms around his neck, kissing him soundly. The kiss soon threatened to rob
them of any remains of self-control, so William pulled away from her and
put the condom on. Positioning himself above her, he slowly entered her,
all the while holding her eyes with his. At the feeling of her lush depths
enveloping him, he closed his eyes in rapture. She felt incredible; hot,
wet and very tight. Through a haze of passion his brain registered surprise
at her unusual tightness, but the thought faded from his mind as soon as it
entered it.

The rain pounded on the roof in unison with their hearts as he slowly began
to move in and out of her. Elizabeth wrapped her legs about him, seeking to
draw him ever closer, wanting to be joined with him completely. They fit
perfectly, like two pieces of a puzzle, her soft curves molding into the
hard planes of his body. She felt marvelous, filled, stretched,
overwhelmed, bathed in his luscious smell. She ran his hands down his back
and cupped his buttocks firmly, drawing a low groan from his chest.

William increased his tempo, feeling blood pounding in his veins as he rode
her. He looked at her in the faint light of the room and was struck by the
ethereal beauty of this woman. Her hair lay splayed wildly on his pillow,
her shiny eyes were half-closed, her long lashes cast shadows on her
glowing cheeks. Her lips were slightly opened, red and swollen from his
kisses. She looked like an unearthly being, a goddess of love, Venus in the
throes of passion. He bent down and kissed her again, unable to keep away
from her. He stroked her thighs and suckled her breasts, relishing the
sounds she made; the gentle sighs, soft whimpers and deep moans of pleasure.

Elizabeth felt her passion building as he suckled and caressed her. It felt
so good to be with him at last and she couldn't get enough of him. His
movements became faster and she rose to meet his every thrust with equal
frenzy. She could feel it coming, building, coiling, sharp like a whip,
until it snapped and she spasmed around him with a loud cry, feeling an
ecstasy unlike anything she had ever experienced.

William felt her climax and it ignited his ardour to the extent he had not
thought possible. Mindless with desire, he thrust into her again and again.
A loud thunder tore outside as William reached his peak, gasping her name
and spilling his very soul into her.

Bathed in sweat, panting, he fell into her arms and buried his face in her
hair. He lay there unable to move for a while, savouring the feeling of her
hands stroking his back lightly and lips kissing his hair, as he returned
to earth. Finally, after a few minutes he rose from his position and kissed
her slowly and deeply. She reciprocated the sentiment, winding her hands in
his hair. He rolled them over until he lay back on the bed and she rested
half-lying on him.  He held her to him closely, while she put her head on
his chest, where the sound of his strong heartbeat soothed and comforted
her. He stroked her back slowly, kissing her head from time to time,
feeling happier than he remembered feeling in a long time.

William took her hand in his, raised it to his lips and kissed her fingers
tenderly. She sighed in contentment and snuggled up to him, while he pulled
the covers over them. She closed her eyes and drifted to sleep, feeling
secure in his warm embrace.

The storm was still rolling over them as the two lovers fell into deep,
contented sleep.

Chapter eighteen

A ray of sun broke through the blue curtains on the window and fell on
Elizabeth's face, causing her to wince slightly and wake up. She opened her eyes
slowly and looked around, blinking in confusion. <I>What am I doing in this
room?</I>

Gradually, details of her present position began to register in her mind. She
was in her house, in the spare bedroom, lying on her side in the bed. Behind her
back she felt a delightful warmth radiating from the man who lay spooning her on
the guest bed. His hands were encircling her waist and holding her tightly to
him. She could feel his breath on her shoulder and his warm flesh against her
body, his legs entwined with hers.

She smiled happily as the events of last night slowly started to come back to
her. She had gone to bed in a state of desolation, certain that William hadn't
cared about her and dreading his departure. She had woken up in the middle of
the night and in the heart of a gigantic thunder storm, she had heard his pained
cries and gone to him to offer comfort and consolation. She had ended up
spending an amazing night of love-making with this gorgeous man and falling
asleep in his arms. Waking up and seeing that he hadn't released her from his
embrace during the night, that he was still there with her and the storm had
given way to brilliant sunshine, she felt hope rising in her heart again.

Remembering the events of last night, she wondered what it must have taken to
have caused such a powerful reaction in William. Her heart constricted painfully
as she recalled the desperate state she had found him in. He had had a
nightmare, that much had been obvious, but he could have been dreaming about,
was beyond her.

For a while, Elizabeth pondered whether she should question him about his dream.
She was curious, naturally, but doubted the wisdom of interrogating him on the
subject. He would have any right to say it was none of her business and she
didn't want to risk the fragile bond they had established by prying into his
private affairs. She decided that, unless he brought the subject up himself, she
would not ask about it.

She could feel William stir and sigh silently, as he pulled her closer to him.
A moment later a kiss on the nape of her neck told her that he was awake. She
turned her head to peek at him shyly from over her shoulder. She was greeted
with a sleepy, contented smile and his trademark dimples, which never failed to
send her heart aflutter.

"Hi," he greeted her drowsily, his voice thick with sleep.
"Hi," she answered, somewhat shyly.
"So this is what you look like," he observed, coaxing her to roll to her side
and look him in the face.
"I'm sorry?" She raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"I've been wondering what you look like in the morning, right after waking up.
I've wanted to see you like this the whole week," he confessed, running a hand
down her spine.
"And do I live up to your expectations?" she asked saucily.
"You far exceed them," he murmured and, to prove his point, covered her lips
with his. The kiss was unhurried, leisurely and thorough, leaving Elizabeth
quite breathless. Slowly, he rolled to his back, pulling her with him, so that
she ended up lying on top of his body.

At length, he released her mouth and stared at her intently. Elizabeth bit her
lip, confused as to the nature of his look. Before she managed to express her
bewilderment though, he addressed her.

"So, I guess that means you don't hate me after all."

He might have intended this remark to sound playful, but Elizabeth noticed
uncertainty and apprehension on his face. This realization surprised her even
more.

"Where in the world did you get the idea that I hated you?" She leveled an
incredulous look at him.
"Well, you didn't seem too pleased to be in my company yesterday," he explained
a bit defensively.

Surprised, Elizabeth rolled herself from his chest and leaned on her elbows next
to him.

"Excuse me? You were so eager to escape my company that you agreed to go to a
party. A <I>party/I>! You hate parties!"

He rose and leaned back on his elbows, surprised by her attack.

"If my memory serves me well, you were the first to jump at the idea of the
party. I thought you didn't want to spend the evening alone with me. You were
grumpy and peevish all day. What was I supposed to think?"

She bolted up on the bed, pulling the bedcovers to cover her chest. She glared
accusingly at him.

"Grumpy? Me grumpy? You weren't all sunshine and light yourself!" she snorted.
"You didn't even bother to ask me to dance!"
"What?" he huffed in indignation, sitting up as well and running a hand through
his hair in frustration. "If I remember correctly, I did ask you to dance and
you refused!"

She pointed an accusing finger at him. "You waited the whole evening to ask me!
Do you think I would allow your condescension and accept you, just because you
are William Darcy and no woman dare refuse you?"

William closed his eyes to calm his growing irritation. <One, two, three.</I> he
counted silently, willing his temper to cool down. What a maddening woman!

"I waited for a slow dance," he spoke with forced patience, as if he were
talking to a child. "I didn't think it would be wise for you to dance a fast
dance so soon after removing the brace. Besides, I wanted to be able to keep you
close and talk to you, something that wouldn't be possible whilst jumping all
over the room."

"Oh." Elizabeth could feel her cheeks getting warm with the flush of
embarrassment. "Is that all you have to say? Oh?"
"I'm sorry. I was an idiot. I thought you were looking forward to leaving
Meryton and I couldn't take it, because I don't want this to end," she admitted,
looking down, her hands still clutching the sheet nervously to her chest.

William could feel his irritation melt instantly at her words and desolate
demeanor. He took her chin in his hands and made her look at him. She was
reluctant to meet his eye, but when she finally did, the tender look in them
awakened millions of butterflies in her stomach.

"If you had told me about your concern earlier, I'd have put your mind at ease.
I am not going to let this end. It doesn't matter if I'm in Meryton, London or
Tokyo, I am going to do everything to make this work. You can't rid yourself of
me so easily," he added with a wink, leaning down and kissing her slowly and
thoroughly.

Breathless and lightheaded from his closeness, Elizabeth pulled away from him,
confessing to him softly, "I thought you didn't want me."

Her words astonished him powerfully. He had spent the whole week yearning for
her, it was only his respect for her that had stopped him from barging into her
bedroom and taking her even on his first night at her house. Wherever had she
taken the notion that he didn't want her from? Taking her face in his hands, he
made her look at him, before his lips fell on hers and began to plunder her
mouth ruthlessly. Her head spun and she grabbed his arms and held on to him for
dear life. He tightened his arms around her and crushed her to his chest,
tearing his lips away from hers. Panting, he buried his face in her hair and
gasped, "Never again doubt how much I want you, Lizzy."

Elizabeth had no choice but to let herself be convinced by his pleasing
attentions, as to the full extent of his passion and sincerity of his
assurances.

This time there was no hurry. No frightening dreams or painful memories
disturbed the moment. William untangled Elizabeth from the sheet she had knotted
herself in and took his time in admiring her body, with his eyes, hands and
mouth.

The room was flooded with light, it reflected from Elizabeth's pale skin and
shone in her eyes as she gazed at him. He pushed her down gently to make her lie
on the bed. Last night it was she who took the initiative by coming to him and
set the tone of their lovemaking. Today he wanted to repay the favour.

With a deep sigh of contentment Elizabeth lay back on the bed and allowed
herself to drown in the sensation of his lips on her neck, kissing and nuzzling
her, while his hands stroked her sides, teasingly avoiding her breasts.

William inhaled deeply, saturating his lungs with her scent. "Mmmm..you smell
wonderful."
His deep voice in her ear sent a shiver through her body. She ran her hands up
his back until they lost themselves in the rich luxuriousness of his hair.
His tongue proceeded to trail a path of fire down her neck, past her shoulder
and on to her arm. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. He kissed
her palm, teasing it with his  tongue, all the time keeping his eyes on her
face. Her eyes were half-closed, she observed his actions with an expression of
longing on her face. Her appearance was flushed with desire and when his gaze
traveled down, the sight of her sumptuous breasts rising and falling with her
quick and shallow breathing sent a surge of lust through his body. Unable to
resist himself he left her hand and moved on to feasting on her body. Slowly and
meticulously he moved his hands and lips over her form. He did his best not to
miss a single centimeter of her silky smooth skin.  Even as his body worshipped
hers, his voice praised her.

"You taste delicious," he murmured against the skin of her belly, while his
hands stroked her thighs.

"And you feel so good," he moaned, taking her into his arms once again,
reveling in the feel of her whole body against his, her soft breasts molding
into the hard planes of his chest, her hands around his neck, her lips on his
shoulder.

"So do you," she breathed into his ear. She could feel of the prickly hair on
his chest teasing her nipples, his erection hard between her thighs, his warm
lips on her face, his weight pressing her down on the mattress. "I want you,
William.."

Hearing her soft voice filled with yearning, he knew he could deny her nothing.
Kissing her soundly, he reached out blindly and grabbed a pack of condoms from
its place on the night stand. Wordlessly, she stilled his hand with her own and
took the condom from him. Looking into his eyes, she asked his permission. He
smiled lightly and lay back on the bed, handing himself over to her. Smiling
seductively, she made a show of unwrapping the condom and then rolling it slowly
on his awaiting manhood. Having accomplished her task, she straddled his hips
and took him into herself, gasping at the searing sensation of his body sliding
deeply into her. She began a slow, undulating rhythm. William took the
opportunity this position afforded him to admire her. She was beautiful. From
the roundness of her hips, her narrow waist, round breasts with dusky nipples,
to the graceful lines of her neck, as she arched it, throwing her head back in
ecstasy, her dark curls spilling down her back and shoulders. His hands itched
to touch every part of her again. He reached out and grasped her hand, pulling
her down to him. He kissed her ravenously, until neither of them could breathe.
When they pulled away, he didn't release her, instead he strengthened his hold
on her as he spoke hoarsely in her hair, "Do you feel it, Lizzy? Do you feel how
much I want you?"

"Yes," she moaned softly and allowed his hands to rest on her hips and guide her
movements. Her hands covered his and they continued to rock together, each of
them holding the other captive in their intense gaze and the powerful feelings
coursing through their joined bodies. Their movements grew more frantic, their
breaths quickened and hearts accelerated. Feeling an astonishing surge of
sensation shooting through her body, Elizabeth threw her head back, gripped his
hands madly and cried out his name in her release, pulling him over the edge
with her. Gasping for breath, she could feel all strength leaving her and fell
down on his chest. He gathered her to himself, marveling how right it felt to
hold her in his arms like this. For a few precious moments there were no doubts,
no past hurts, no fears for the future. There was only the closeness of their
embrace, the warmth of caressing hands and the tenderness of the words that they
spoke to one another. They were words of reassurance, of wonder and affection.
They were words of love, though neither of them uttered the word itself.


Both Elizabeth and William were very reluctant to forsake the warmth of the bed
and the pleasure of the other's arms. It wasn't long though, before he glanced
at the alarm clock on the night stand and noticed the time. He sighed heavily.

"What time is it?" Elizabeth's voice came muffled from his chest to which she
pressed her face.

He kissed her hair. "It's after nine."

Elizabeth groaned softly in frustration. "I don't want to get up yet."

"Neither do I, but I have to take a shower, get dressed and get going. I have to
reach London as soon as I can," he said, stroking her hair slowly.

Elizabeth felt her chest constricting.  For a few moments she had forgotten that
he was leaving her and allowed herself to believe that it could last. <I>You
silly girl! He said he was not going to let this end. What must the guy do to
make you trust him?</I> she chastised herself. She forced herself to leave his
arms and sat on the bed.

"You go and get your shower and I'll go down to the kitchen and fix us some
breakfast," she ordered, trying to put on a brave face, even as her heart was
breaking at the thought of his departure.

"No, that's not necessary. I confess I'd appreciate some coffee, but don't
trouble yourself."

"William." Elizabeth interrupted his speech, already putting on the T shirt she
had thrown to the floor the night before. "If you think for a moment that I'm
going to let you leave without having something to eat first, you're sadly
mistaken."

With these words she leaned down and kissed him briefly on the lips, turned on
her heel and disappeared from the room.

William left the bathroom and directed his steps to the kitchen, pulled
inexorably by the heavenly smell coming from downstairs. His stomach growled and
he could not help but feel very grateful for Elizabeth's insistence on feeding
him. It seemed she knew what he needed more than he did. As soon as he saw her,
however, all thoughts of food left his head. She was wearing a plush white robe
and a pair of woolen socks. Her hair was pulled away from her face in a messy
bun. She was standing with her back to him, occupied with frying bacon. His
Elizabeth! Preparing breakfast for him, after a night they spent together. He
could feel a swell of ridiculous, masculine pride at the sight of his woman
cooking for him. He approached her and embraced her from behind, pulling her
close to his chest. Elizabeth gave a startled little gasp at his unexpected hug.
"William! You scared me."

"I'm truly sorry. Let me make it up to you," he murmured roguishly and nuzzled
her neck. Whereas he had freshly showered, she had not and he could still smell
the perfume of their recent amorous assignation on her skin. Unable to resist
himself, he lowered his lips and started planting light kisses along the curve
of her neck. She tilted her head in encouragement of his actions and sighed
deeply as his hands rose to cup her breasts. She allowed herself to enjoy the
sensations his hands and lips were creating, forgetting everything else except
for his closeness.

It was the acrid smell of burning meat that pulled her from the passion-induced
daze.

"Oh shit! The bacon!" she cried and tore herself from his embrace, quickly
turning off the stove, grabbing the frying pan and putting it into the sink,
under the cold running water. The hot pan hissed on the contact with the water
and smoke filled the kitchen.

Hands on her hips, Elizabeth slowly turned around and faced William. "See what
you've done now?"

William's face was a mask of abused innocence. "Me? What do you mean what I've
done?"

She wasn't taken in by his feigned blamelessness in the least. "You've
distracted me, that's what you've done! The whole house might have been on fire
and I wouldn't have noticed it, thanks to you!"

He grinned, unrepentant. "I can't help that I'm irresistible."

She huffed in indignation, but couldn't stop the smile that tugged at the
corners of her mouth.

"You'd better sit down before I decide that you're not worth the trouble."

He attempted to pull her into his arms again, but she batted his hands away and
threatened him with a spatula. "And no touching until I finish cooking, Dr
Darcy!"

Sighing in resignation, he heeded her orders and sat at the table, deciding to
enjoy the sight of her busying herself in the kitchen if he was forbidden to
touch her. It was by no means a shabby consolation prize. With a pot of coffee
in her hand, she approached the table and poured the hot, steaming brew into his
cup.

"Thank you." He smiled up at her. "But I hope you know you don't have to wait on
me."

"You've waited on me for the whole past week. I think it's only fair that I
return the favour."

She opened the fridge and took some eggs out. "Scrambled, as usual?"

"Yes, please," he replied and took a sip of the strong, black coffee.
Inwardly, he was marveling at how domestic this scene felt. It was almost as if
they were already married. He shook his head in wonderment. Three weeks of
acquaintance and technically less than one day of relationship and he already
had them married! Yet, as he observed her bent over the stove stirring the eggs
on the pan, he had to admit that, deep in his heart, this was what he had longed
for for years. With a brilliant smile on her face, Elizabeth served him
breakfast. "I'm afraid the bacon is burnt beyond recognition. We'll have to
satisfy ourselves with eggs."

She put bread and butter on the table, poured herself a cup of coffee and joined
him at the table, sitting opposite him. Jack and Hurst, who had been dozing of
in the corner of the kitchen, rose at the smell of breakfast and neared the
table in hope of inducing with their pathetic countenances the two humans to
share the food with them. Cass, still mortally offended at the canine advantage
in the house, didn't even deign to leave her chair in the living room.

William lifted a forkful of the scrambled eggs to his mouth. "Mmmmm.this is
fantastic!"

Elizabeth smirked in amusement at his enthusiasm. "Really, William, it's just
scrambled eggs. That's hardly something special. I'm sure you must have a
breakfast of crepes, omelets, homemade cereal and French toast everyday," she
teased him.

"Don't forget that I'm a single man. I rarely bother with cooking anything.
Most of the time I only have coffee before work."

<I>No wonder he fainted in the operating room! The poor man has no one to take
care of him!</I> thought Elizabeth, her selfish fear of his leaving replaced by
concern for his well-being. <I>Who is going to make sure he eats and sleeps
properly when he's back in London?</I>

"What about Mrs. Reynolds? I thought she was your housekeeper."

William took a bite of bread. "Yes, but she lives at Pemberley. Although I know
she'd gladly move to London to keep the house for me, I can't ask her that.
Pemberley is her home as much as it's mine or Georgie's. So she has to content
herself with spoiling us when we visit for holidays."

Elizabeth heard a wistful note in his voice when he was talking about
Pemberley. It was clear he missed his home very much.

"When do you think you'll visit Pemberley again?"

William shrugged. "I don't know. Probably not before Christmas." He grew silent
for a moment, looking thoughtfully out of the window. "It's so beautiful there.
The woods are full of berries in the summer and mushrooms in the autumn, there
are fields and meadows perfect for riding, a stream where I love fishing and a
lake, ideal for swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter."

"Sounds like a true paradise," she said softly, enthralled by this sudden
pensiveness in his manner. He was staring unseeingly, as if he could see his
home just outside the window in Elizabeth's garden.

"It is to me," he admitted, then shifted his gaze on her and regarded her
seriously. "I wish you could see it. You'd love it there."

"I'm sure I would." Why was she suddenly so discomfited by his intense gaze?
And why did his wish that she see his beloved home make her heart beat quickly?

"Elizabeth.." He leaned over the table and covered her hand with his. "Come with
me." Taken aback, she stared at him. "What?" "Come with me. I want you to come
with me to London." She tore his eyes away from his and looked away. "I.I
can't." He sighed and released her hand. "You're right. I'm sorry. Forget I
asked." She couldn't bear to see him so despondent. "But I may come for a
weekend sometime. And you can always come over too." He brightened up, reached
to the pocket of his jeans and produced a brown, calf skin wallet. He rummaged
through it for a while, took out a small card and handed it to her over the
table.

Elizabeth glanced at the card in her hand. "Here is my address and phone
numbers," William explained. "You have the home number, work number and mobile
phone. Call any of the numbers if you want to contact me, though it's most
likely you'll catch me on my mobile. Unless I'm operating, I'll answer it."
She nodded. "You already have my address and phone numbers, right?"
"Memorized." He grinned and she answered him in kind. He squeezed her hand once
again and got up. "I have to get going. Breakfast was delicious."
"I'm glad you liked it," she answered, standing up and trying to quell the pain
in her heart.

William's bags were already packed and standing in the hall. Holding hands, they
walked to the door. The dogs toddled after them. Once there, William turned to
Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, I.. I'll call you."
"I'll be waiting for your call," she said, looking up at him.

William's hands cupped her face and he leaned down to softly kiss her lips.
There was no urgency in this kiss, only gentleness and tenderness. She wound her
hands around his neck and returned his kiss, striving to claim as much of him as
possible. With a deep sigh, he relinquished her lips and gathered her to him,
burying his face in her hair, inhaling its sweet scent. She clung to him, her
face hidden in his chest. They stood like that for some time, neither of them
moving or speaking, as if trying to gather as much warmth and comfort from the
other's embrace for the coming days apart as possible.

"I'll miss you," Elizabeth confessed softly and felt his lips on her forehead.
"I'll miss you, too. Good bye, Elizabeth."
"Good bye, William." She looked away so that he wouldn't see the tears that
suddenly sprang to her eyes.

He tore himself away from her, put on his coat and grabbed his bags. Elizabeth
opened the door to him and, calling Hurst to follow him, he walked out of the
house. Elizabeth stood in the doorway observing him as he placed the bags into
the trunk of his car and put Hurst on the backseat. With a one last look at her,
he waved good-bye and he got in. She waved him back and kept standing there,
watching as he slowly drove away, until she could no longer see the car on the
country road and all she could hear was the dejected howling of Jack, separated
from his friend.
Chapter nineteen

After William left, Elizabeth lingered in the kitchen for a while, washing the
dishes and thinking. She wasn't very eager to face the day, or for that matter
the rest of her life, without him. As usual, it was her animals that pulled her
from these depressing thoughts. Jack needed to be walked, Triss fed and her
patients checked and fed as well.

As much as she was loath to wash William's scent from her body, her habits of
hygiene prevailed and Elizabeth dragged herself upstairs to take a shower. While
the hot water worked its magic, Elizabeth reflected on the last twelve hours of
her life. Everything had changed; her swollen lips, tender breasts and sore
muscles were enough proof that what had happened between her and William, had
been real.

Her thoughts drifted to the previous night and she felt her heart quicken at the
memory of the shared pleasure. It had been so long since she had last been with
a man. Her face clouded for a moment, at the unpleasant memories of betrayal and
heartbreak. Quickly though, she snapped out of her gloomy thoughts, telling
herself firmly that William was not like Sean. He had been tender yet
passionate, he clearly had wanted her desperately, yet was determined not to do
anything she hadn't wanted, ready to back off had she told him to stop. He had
been?perfect. Too perfect to be true.

For the hundredth time this morning, she asked herself what had possessed her to
sleep with  him on his last night in town. She had known very well that he would
leave in the morning and they would have to separate. If she had any common
sense and self-preservation instinct, she wouldn't have done the very thing that
had bound her to him. But she could have no more stopped herself from going to
him last night, than she could stop the storm that had been the indirect cause
of what had happened between them.

What was done, was done, it was no use dwelling on what-ifs. She needed to
accept it and move on, but move on together with William. She wasn't really keen
on long distance relationships, but if this was the only way she could continue
being with him, then she was determined to make the most of it.

Her spirits lifted somewhat, she stepped out of the shower, got dressed and went
about the business of caring for her animals.

Jane found her half an hour later in the shed, grooming Triss. For several
moments she just stood in the shed's entry, observing her little sister and
trying to divine her mood from her face and movements. Elizabeth seemed quiet
and calm. She wasn't bursting with joy, but neither did she despair. That was
all someone unfamiliar with her might see, but Jane flattered herself she knew
her sister better than anyone else. An edge of uneasiness underlay Elizabeth's
cool exterior, but what especially struck Jane, was an uncertain happiness that
shone in her eyes.

Unsure whether this discovery pleased or worried her more, Jane made her
presence known and greeted her sister.

"Hi sis."

Surprised, Elizabeth raised her head and gazed at her sister.

"Jane! What are you doing here?"

Jane put her hands on her hips and glared at her in mock anger. "Is that a way
to speak to your older sister? Where are your manners, young lady? You should be
ashamed of yourself! What are you laughing at?"

Elizabeth put away the brush as she tried to contain her amusement.

"You sounded just like Fanny. Like mother like daughter! Poor Charles!"

"Charles has nothing at all to complain about, I assure you!" said Jane smugly,
as she stroked Triss's neck.

"He might change his mind when you start mentioning your nerves in your every
other sentence."

"Why, you mean little?"

Laughingly, Elizabeth ducked from her sister's attempt to deliver her a playful
slap on the head.

"Okay, okay, I take it back, I take it back! Please, don't hurt me!"

"You'd better give me a good reason not to!"

Lowering her hands from her head, Elizabeth said only one word. "Cheesecake?"

"Isn't it a bit early for cheesecake?" asked Elizabeth as she took out the box
from the fridge.

Jane lurched forward and grabbed the box covetously. "It's never too early for
cheesecake."

She sat at the table, accepted a fork and a plate from Elizabeth and helped
herself to a large piece of cake. She dug into it voraciously, while Elizabeth
sat opposite her and observed with amusement the blissful expression on her
sister's face as she savoured the first bite of the cheesecake.

"Mmmmm? It's divine! Where did you get it?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I've no idea. William bought it on Friday."

"Bless him! I wish Charles surprised me with treats like that." Jane's speech
were a little slurred, because she had her mouth full of the cheesecake. For a
moment she munched on it in silence, while Elizabeth stood up to put the kettle
on.

At the sudden pensiveness in her sister's manner, Jane decided to take the
opportunity to learn more about what had transpired between Elizabeth and
William.

"So, William's gone?"

Elizabeth was turned away from her, pouring tea into two mugs, as she replied,
"Yes, he left this morning."

"Is everything all right between the two of you? Yesterday you didn't seem on
the best of terms."

Elizabeth put the mugs on the table and sat down again, but she seemed reluctant
to meet Jane's eyes.

"Yes, everything's fine."

"What happened yesterday?"

Elizabeth stirred her tea, looking into her mug determinedly. "A
misunderstanding. But don't worry, it's resolved now."

"Good, I was worried. You two seemed pretty miserable when you were leaving
yesterday. I'm glad you made up."

Elizabeth didn't reply to that, instead she took a sip of her tea, avoiding
Jane's eyes.

"Is there something else you're not telling me?" asked Jane suspiciously, her
gaze keen on Elizabeth's face.

"Well, actually?" started Elizabeth hesitantly, unsure of how much she should
reveal. Jane had always been her confidante; discreet, understanding and
diplomatic, always able to cheer her up and see a positive side in all seemingly
hopeless situations, that had caused many sleepless nights to Elizabeth. But, on
the other hand, she was so unsure of her feelings that she hardly knew what she
could say to Jane about them.

"What <I>really</I> happened between you and William, Lizzy?"

A slight blush was Elizabeth's only answer.

"Elizabeth Bennet! You slept with him!"

Jane's shocked exclamation cut her meditations short. She should have remembered
that keeping a secret from her big sister was impossible; she seemed to
virtually be able to read Elizabeth's mind. She knew it was hopeless to try
denying anything, she had never been a good enough liar to hide anything from
Jane.

The guilty look on Elizabeth's face was all the reply Jane needed.

"You'd better tell me everything," Jane ordered.

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "Everything?"

"Without the gory details, if you please. I want facts."

"Okay, if you really want to know?"

Without the gory details, Elizabeth related to Jane the events of the previous
week, focusing especially on Saturday, last night and morning. When she finished
her tale, Jane's face grew worried.

"Oh Lizzy, are you sure you did the right thing sleeping with him on his last
night in Meryton?"

Unable to sit still under her sister's careful scrutiny, Elizabeth stood up and
started gathering the plates and mugs from the table.

"I'm not <I>sure</I> of anything right now, Jane."

She put the dishes into the sink and then turned around and leaned against it,
crossing her arms on her chest and rubbing them, as if she was suddenly chilled.

"Last night?it felt so right, so? it seemed the only right thing to do. I'm not
going to pretend that it was a well thought out decision. Frankly speaking, I
wasn't thinking at all, I acted on pure instinct. And it felt right at the time,
to hold and comfort him, to make love with him, to <I>be</I> with him. It felt?"
Elizabeth paused, searching for a suitable word and finally finding it. 
"Predestined."

She said the last word in a soft voice, looking away from her sister, lost in
her thoughts.

"And now?" Jane gently prodded her.

"I don't know. I don't know if what we did was a sensible thing to do, I don't
know if this relationship will work, I don't know if I won't end up with my
heart broken again. But strangely, I don't regret making love with William. I
have many doubts, but I'm hopeful it will turn out well."

Jane stood up, walked to her sister and hugged her tightly. "I hope so too,
Lizzy. You know I've always thought you and William would make a perfect couple.
I'm happy for you."

Elizabeth hugged her sister back, but soon pulled away with a suspicious look.
"Wait a minute. That's it?"

"What?"

Elizabeth pretended to be amazed. "No lecture about my loose morals, no caution
to be careful, not even an 'I told you so'. All I get is 'I'm happy for you'. It
can't be so simple."

Jane laughed.  "I think you confuse me with Mary or our mother. This is me, your
sister Jane. I approve of anything that makes you happy and I trust you're adult
enough to know what you are doing."

"Then your trust in me is greater than my own," Elizabeth said ruefully.

"Seriously Lizzy, I'm very pleased. You have been alone for too long, you
deserve to be happy. And so does William."

Elizabeth felt a rush of emotion and sought to overcome it by answering
playfully. "Thanks, sis. You're all right. For a big sister, that is."

Jane rolled her eyes. "You're all right too, kid."

<I>How ironic,</I> thought William. It had been bright and sunny in
Hertfordshire, but as soon as he left Meryton, the sky grew overcast and the day
positively gloomy. Just like his mood.

Returning home to real, everyday life after an exciting holiday is a depressing
business. It is even more disheartening when one leaves one's heart behind.
William smiled ruefully at the thought. He had never experienced a holiday
romance until now. He had thought they happened to teenagers or college
students, certainly not to men over thirty. It seemed though, that you are never
too old to fall for a beautiful, smart woman while enjoying the carefree,
relaxed time away from work and everyday responsibilities. The warm summer
weather, the sun, the beach and the lovely skimpy attire women usually wore at
this charming time of year, being highly conducive to amorous impulses.

His relationship with Elizabeth was not a classic example of a summer romance,
though. Summer was replaced by autumn, the warm weather by the chilliness,
admiring the sunset on the beach by cycling for kilometres and mucking stalls,
sexy scant apparel by worn jeans, sweaters and boots. No, most people would not
consider this the perfect romantic interlude, but William wouldn't change a
thing in it. Well, maybe one or two, he chuckled silently as he remembered the
embarrassing moments when he managed to put his foot in his mouth, or the fright
of witnessing Elizabeth's fall from her horse.

No, he didn't regret that this relationship had come about the way it had. If
there was one thing he wished was that it wouldn't finish like most of the
holiday romances did. In fact, he didn't want it to finish at all. With every
kilometre he made, his heart seemed more and more heavy. He had left her an hour
ago, but he already missed her very much.

London greeted him with heavy traffic. He had grown used to it during the many
years he had lived here, but today it seemed exceptionally frustrating. All
these people rushing somewhere; Londoners hastening to their destinations and
tourists gathering on famous squares and in front of museums, churches and
monuments, cars and buses filling the streets, creating deafening noise and
clouds of fumes grated on his nerves.

It was so different from the peace, quiet, space and fresh air of Meryton,
Netherfield and Elizabeth's little house, that it seemed almost a different
universe. This city, which had been a home to him for so many years, suddenly
felt more oppressive and suffocating than he could bear.

At long last he arrived at his street and parked his car in the underground
parking lot under his building. He retrieved a confused Hurst from the backseat
and his suitcase from the trunk and proceeded in the direction of the stairs
that led to the main lobby.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy," an elderly porter greeted him.

"Good afternoon, Henry. How are you?"

"Well enough, I can't complain, sir."

Henry glanced curiously at Hurst, but didn't ask any questions.

"This is Hurst. He'll stay with me, but don't worry, he won't cause any
trouble."

"Very good, sir. If you require any assistance with the dog, Amy, my
granddaughter will
gladly help you. She loves animals."

"Thank you, Henry, I'd appreciate that." William smiled gratefully and started
walking away.

"Can I help you with your suitcase, sir?" Henry called after him.

"No, thank you, I'm fine," he politely declined the offer and walked in the
direction of the lift.

Five minutes and six floors later, William entered his apartment, put the
suitcase down and threw the keys on a small table next to the door. He took the
leash off Hurst's neck and then shrugged off and hung his coat.

"Well old man, we're home," he said to Hurst, crouching down next to the dog and
patting his head. "I hope you'll like it here. I know there's no garden to play
in or the forests and fields to walk and run, but we do have some consolations.
Come and see."

He took Hurst up and crossed the living room to the terrace behind a glassed
wall. He stepped out onto the terrace and his eyes lit at the beautiful sight of
the Thames, which stretched like a wide greyish ? blue ribbon before him. On the
other bank of the river he could see the Southern London in the fading afternoon
light and on the promenade he noticed people who decided to take advantage of
the rainless afternoon and take a stroll by the riverside. He breathed in the
scent of the river, thinking of how much he adored this place and how much
Elizabeth would love it. <I>How I wish I could share it with her,</I> he thought
wistfully.

Soon, though, he felt cold and returned inside. He put Hurst down to let him
explore his new home and flung himself on the couch, kicking off his shoes as he
pushed the button on the phone next to the couch, to listen to his messages. He
ignored the temptation to call Elizabeth for fear of appearing desperate and
concentrated instead on the voice of his aunt coming from the answering machine.

As usual, Aunt Catherine had called with questions and orders, listing the
social functions he was obliged to attend and demanding that William call her as
soon as he listened to the message. He sighed, wishing to ignore the
communication, but he knew that his holiday was over and it was time to return
to his duties.

There were some messages from his cousins, Richard and Anne, a few from his
colleagues and then two messages from his sister.

<I>I need to call her back,</I> he thought, but before he managed to pick up the
receiver, he heard the door open.

"Hello? Will? Are you home?"

"Over here, Georgie!" he called and rose from the couch to scoop his sister in
his arms.

"Oh Will, it's good to have you back! I've missed you!" cried Georgiana as she
hugged him tightly.

"I missed you too, Georgie. How are you?" He moved away to gaze into her face
seriously.

"I'm fine," she answered as she settled herself on the couch. He sat next to her
and scrutinised her closely. She looked well, shoulder-length blond hair was cut
stylishly, she was dressed casually, but tastefully in jeans and a sleeveless
lilac (though of course William wouldn't have been able to tell you this piece
of information, had his life depended on it) turtleneck over a while shirt.

"You're not just telling this to set my mind at ease, are you? What does Dr
Knightley say?"

"He says I'm fine now, nothing to worry about. I hardly ever feel any pain now
and there have been no other disturbing symptoms."

Reassured, he squeezed her hand. "That's wonderful, sweetie."

He was indeed comforted that her health seemed to be improved. Yet, there was
still this air of sadness about her that tore at his heart. He told himself that
it was perfectly natural for her to feel depressed under the circumstances, and
that time would heal her wounds, but it pained him to see her unhappy.

"Yes, but let's not talk about me. Tell me about your holiday. How's Charles? I
haven't seen him in months."

"It was very nice, I had a good time. Charles is doing great, he's very happy.
He and Jane have got engaged recently."

"That's wonderful news! Charles is such a sweetheart, I hope he will be very
happy."

"Oh he will, I have no doubt about that. Jane is a great woman, she's perfect
for him. They asked me to give their regards to you, by the way."

"Thank you. I'll call them soon to congratulate them in person."

Hurst chose this moment to return from his scouting.

"Oh my God, where did you come from?" Georgiana cried out gazing at the dog in
bewilderment.

"Georgie, meet Hurst," William introduced them with a playful smile.

Georgiana reached out her hand and stroked the dog's head tentatively. "Hello
Hurst. Where did you get him from?" She turned to William.

"It's a long story."

"I have the whole evening free," Georgiana said persuasively.

"Yes, but I'm starving. I haven't eaten anything since breakfast. Let's go to La
Delizia and I'll tell you everything."

"What about Hurst?"

William glanced at the dog, who now was dozing off on the soft rug on the floor.
"He seems comfortable. I'll prepare a place for him to sleep in the evening, but
now please, let's go. I need food now!"

Georgiana giggled at his brother's voracity, but made no protest when he pushed
her towards the door and out of the apartment.


"So you found him in the shrubs and then what?" asked Georgiana prodding William
to continue with her fork.

"Elizabeth and I took him to her house and bathed him. You should have seen it!
It was quite the spectacle. There was water everywhere and I think we ended up
wetter than him."

Georgiana laughed at the mental image her brother's story inspired in her.
William went on with his tale.

"We were wondering what to do with him. Elizabeth was reluctant to give him to
RSPCA, so I offered to take him in. I thought that I could use some company
since you insist on living on your own."

Georgiana rolled her eyes. "Get that pout of your face, it doesn't become you.
Go on with the story."

<I>I guess I need to work on a different method of manip?hmm persuasion with
her. The puppy dog eyes work wonders on Elizabeth but Georgie is completely
immune to them,</I> thought William ruefully.

"I took Hurst to Netherfield that day, Jane and Charles didn't mind my keeping
him there until my departure. On the next day I took him to Elizabeth's clinic
and she examined and vaccinated him. She also advised having him neutered, but I
didn't think it was necessary. Elizabeth thought it would make it easier for me
to handle him, but he's not troublesome at all, so I decided not to put him
through the operation."

"He's not aggressive towards other dogs then?"

"No, not at all. In fact, Elizabeth has a dog and he and Hurst became great
friends. Elizabeth said that dogs were capable of getting really attached to
other dogs, or even other animals. Though Hurst didn't get along with
Elizabeth's cat very well."

Georgiana, who by now had reached her own conclusions from her brother's tale,
smiled at him shrewdly.

"You really like her, don't you?"

William had the grace to blush slightly, though his flush was thankfully
concealed by the dim light in the restaurant. Feigning confusion, he asked,
frowning, "Whom do you mean?"

"Elizabeth, of course!"

"What makes you think that?"

"Oh, come on, Will, you won't fool me. You've managed to mention her name in
virtually every sentence you spoke during the last half hour!" 

William was tempted to brush her off, but the excited look on her face stopped
him. How long had it been since she was so animated about something? He was so
glad to see that the listless, apathetic girl she had been since last spring
seemed to disappear, and his cheerful, lively sister was back, that he just
couldn't put down her enthusiasm.

Smiling indulgently, he said, "Not that it's any business of yours, young lady,
but yes, I like Elizabeth. I like her very much."

Georgiana squealed in delight. "I knew it! Are you two dating? Tell me more
about her!"

"You already know the most important things. You know she's Jane's sister, she
lives in a house near Meryton and she's a vet."

Georgiana waved off his trite information. "Yes, yes, but what is she like? Is
she pretty? Intelligent? Would I like her?"

William sat back in his chair and summoned Elizabeth's image before his eyes. It
wasn't difficult, since she was hardly out of his thoughts the whole day.

"She's very lively and energetic. She loves the outdoors, she rides a horse,
cycles, likes swimming and canoeing. She's also well-educated and intelligent,
she's a great reader and a lover of music. I'm told she sings beautifully,
though I haven't had the chance to hear her yet. She has a great sense of humour
and is very witty. Her favourite pastime was teasing me about my alleged
snootiness and aristocratic airs." He smiled wryly and Georgiana returned his
smile, amused and impressed that someone dared to tease her brother.

William, now seemingly on the roll, continued, "But it's not only that which
makes her so wonderful. She's so artless and natural that it's really
refreshing. You can have no doubt as to what she thinks of you, because she's
very honest. But at the same time, she's sensitive and compassionate, she's not
one to intentionally hurt somebody. She's quite outspoken and opinionated, and
awfully stubborn. But these traits are quite charming in her, really. I believe
she could charm the devil himself if she set her mind to it."

"And what about her appearance? Is she pretty?"

Lost in the delightful memories of his time with Elizabeth and the haunting
images of her beauty, William practically stuttered, "P?pretty? No, I wouldn't
say that?" Gorgeous, stunning, dazzling, yes, but pretty?

"She's more than pretty, she's ?," he paused searching for the right word, but
none seemed able describe Elizabeth's beauty in all it's splendour.

Gazing at her moonstruck brother, Georgiana shook her head in amazement. "I
can't believe it! You're in love! I've never thought I'd live to see my cool and
imperturbable brother so besotted!"

William gaped at her in surprise. "What do you mean? I admit that I like
Elizabeth very much, but I never said anything about love."

Georgiana smiled at him sympathetically and took his hand. "Will, darling,
didn't you listen to yourself a moment ago? You've just described the ideal
woman; a woman without fault and even the slight imperfections she might have
seem charming to you. Only a man in love could think like that. You should face
it Will, you're smitten."

William pondered his sister's words in silence and, with a growing shock and
trepidation, he admitted that she was right. It was as if someone had opened a
window and the light falling through it showed the content of his heart more
clearly than ever. He was in love with Elizabeth! It now seemed completely
obvious and he couldn't understand how he hadn't realised it before.  He had
been crazy about her almost since the first time they met and his fascination
had grown with their every meeting. The way his thoughts never seemed to leave
her, the way he looked forward to seeing her as a child looked forward to
Christmas, the way he worried about her when she was unwell; it wasn't lust and
friendship that made him feel that way. It was love.

<I><b>Love.</b></I> He loved Elizabeth. It was a terrifying, yet at the same
time exhilarating, thought. He had never been in love before and the
vulnerability he felt giving his heart to another person was truly frightening.
She could make him sublimely happy, but she could also hurt him deeply.

Seeing his obvious distress, Georgiana squeezed his hand comfortingly. "Don't
take it so hard, Will. I know it's scary, but trust me, it's worth it."

"Even if you end up getting hurt?" he couldn't resist the urge to ask and felt
like kicking himself when he saw the sudden sadness on her face.

"Yes, even if you're hurt. Love is worth it."

William stared at his sister in awe and admiration. When did she get so wise and
mature? He knew that despite her young age, she had experienced her share of
pain and disappointment and could only be grateful that the ordeal, instead of
destroying her, had only made her stronger.

"You're an amazing woman, Georgie. I wish you could meet Elizabeth. I'm sure
you'd like her. And she'd like you too."

Georgiana smiled again. "I'd be very happy to meet her. I'm very curious about
the woman who managed to bewitch you so much. I have to ensure she realises what
a wonderful man you are. She won't find anyone better anywhere, Will," she said
affectionately.

Embarrassed, but pleased by his sister's praise, William leaned over the table
and kissed her cheek. "Thanks, Georgie."

She grinned at him. "Anytime, bro."


His newly discovered love for Elizabeth made him a little nervous to pick up the
phone and call her. He had promised to call her though, and if he was to be
honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had had to stop himself a
few times during the day from picking up the phone and dialling her number.

Finally, after a long walk with Hurst, a hot bath and a glass of brandy, he felt
calm enough. He went to his bedroom and settled himself on the bed, while
picking up the receiver and dialling Elizabeth's number. He stretched his tall
frame on the mattress as he was waiting for the call to be picked.

"Hello?" His heart skipped a beat at the sound of her voice on the other end of
the line. 

"Hi Elizabeth. It's me, William."

"William! How are you? How was the drive?"

"It was fine. I made good time and the drive was uneventful."

"I'm glad?" she replied and fell silent.

"So, how are you doing? Did you do anything interesting today?" he asked.

"I'm ok. Jane came over today, but she left before lunch and I was alone the
rest of the day."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing special. I walked Jack and played with Cass, then I read for a while
and watched a film on TV."

"A quiet day then?"

"Yes. What did you do?"

"I had dinner with my sister."

"She must be happy to have you back."

"Yes, she is. And curious about this small piece of baggage I brought home with
me."

He could almost see her smile when she replied, "How's Hurst? How does he like
his new home?"

"I think he misses the garden and the forest, but I hope he'll adjust. I fear
he'll be quite lonely here, though. I work a lot?"

"You shouldn't push yourself so hard. Remember what getting overworked led you
to last time," she reminded him.

He didn't feel like discussing his health, even with her, so he replied lightly,
"It led to my meeting you. A very satisfactory result."

She chuckled. "That was a very clever answer, but you know that's not what I
meant."

He sighed. "I know. But you must know that this is my job. That's the way it is
and I can't change that. I'll hire a dog sitter to take care of Hurst."

"But who will take care of you?"

"Sweet Elizabeth, I appreciate your concern, but I don't need anyone to take
care of me. I'm a grown man."

"I beg to differ. It has been my experience that all men are nothing but big
babies," she retorted flippantly.

He shook his head disapprovingly. "Tsk, tsk. That's a sweeping statement. I know
you don't really believe it, you're too smart to support generalisations."

"Okay, fine. Not <I>all</I> men are big babies. But they sure behave like them."

She giggled at his outraged growl, but then grew serious. "I'm sorry. But I
really worry about you. Please, indulge me and promise me you'll take care of
yourself."

William could feel his heart swell at her words and he knew that he was
constitutionally unable to refuse her anything.

"I promise."

"Thank you."

"Elizabeth?"

"Yes?"

He sighed. "I really miss you. I wish you could be here with me now."

"I miss you too, William," she confessed softly. "We should say goodnight now.
It's getting late and we both have work tomorrow."

William was unwilling to say goodnight to her yet, but he agreed with her.
"You're right. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Good night, William."

"Good night, Lizzy. " <I>I love you,</I> he added silently.

He hung up and leaned back against the pillows, sighing dejectedly. He was alone
again and he hated it. Hurst came into the room, sat next to the bed and looked
at him questioningly. William leaned down and scooped him up in his arms. He
settled the dog next to him in the bed and turned out the light. At least there
was someone he could share his loneliness with. Thoughtfully, he stroked the
dog's fur.

"It's you and me Hurst."
Chapter twenty

Elizabeth hadn't realised how much she had missed her work until she came to the
clinic on Monday and was greeted enthusiastically by her workmates. Maria and
Pete had hung a "WELCOME BACK, LIZZY!" sign over her office door and presented
her with a bunch of flowers and a cake on the occasion of her returning to work.

"I should go on leave more often," she remarked humorously to the welcome
committee.

"Don't you dare! We can't cope without you," said Maria.

"It seems to me you've been coping just fine. You could do very well without me,
Maria. You're just as good in what you do as I am, you just lack confidence."

Pete cleared his throat loudly. "Excuse me, but I object. Maria may very well be
the best vet in England, but I refuse to have my girlfriend as my boss."

Maria smiled sweetly. "I'm sorry if it bothers you, <I>Peter</I>, but it's not
my fault that your girlfriend is more intelligent than you, now is it."

Elizabeth observed the exchange in amusement, but also a bit wistfulness. The
teasing banter between her younger colleagues was old as time. It spoke of their
happiness and ease around each other. Unbidden her thoughts drifted to William
and at that moment she felt his absence very keenly. Suddenly the scene became
irritating to her.

"Cake anyone?" Elizabeth cut in, but she instantly felt angry at herself and
ashamed for feeling envious of Maria and Pete's relationship. The exchange was
forgotten in an instant though, and the three friends spent an enjoyable quarter
of an hour drinking coffee, eating the cake and chatting, before everybody
returned to their duties.



Around lunchtime .Elizabeth had a visitor. Charlotte came to the clinic to see
if her friend was free for lunch. Hoping to find out more about the reasons
behind Charlotte's strange behaviour, Elizabeth agreed readily. Besides this
inducement, she felt she had been neglecting her friend lately; when William was
in town she had hardly had time for anyone but him. She felt guilty and hoped
for a chance to make this up to Charlotte.

It seemed that something was indeed on Charlotte's mind, for no sooner had they
reached the pub where they were to eat lunch and took their places at one of the
tables, than she engaged Elizabeth's attention, saying that there was something
important she wanted to tell her.

"I've figured there was something the matter," said Elizabeth. "You don't look
like a bearer of good news. Is it something bad?"

Charlotte shook her head. "No, no, it's nothing bad. It's great news to me, but
I'm not sure how others are going to take it."

Elizabeth's curiosity increased with Charlotte's every word. "Well, don't keep
me in suspense then, tell me."

Charlotte took a deep breath. "No one knows about it, but some weeks ago I sent
a job application to a certain organisation. Two weeks ago they invited me to an
interview and I had it last Monday. Today I found out I got the job."

Surprise mixed with relief that her worries turned out to be unfounded, filled
Elizabeth. "Char, this is a great news! Congratulations!" she hugged her friend
joyously.

"Thanks," replied Charlotte demurely.

Elizabeth eyed her friend in confusion. "But you don't look like a person who
just learnt she got a job. You should be jumping for joy right now, not sitting
here so grave and serious. What's wrong, Char?"

Charlotte picked at her food absentmindedly. "I'm just worried how everyone else
is going to take the news, that's all."

"I don't understand. Why would anyone take it badly? Surely everyone who knows
you must be happy for you."

"They might not be particularly happy when they learn I move to London."

The forkful of salad in Elizabeth's hand stopped halfway to her mouth. "What?"

"The job is in London. I'm starting next month and I need to find a flat and
move my stuff there before that."

"Oh, I see," said Elizabeth numbly. The news came as a shock to her. She had
never expected that her best friend could be taken away from her. And so soon
after William had left her... had left Meryton, she corrected mentally.

"Do you understand now why I've been so nervous? I'm afraid my family won't
understand my decision. I love them dearly, but most of them have never had
particularly broad horizons. They're perfectly happy being settled here and
living their quiet and ordinary lives. They've never been able to understand
that I might want more from life than a steady job, a husband and children. You
know how my mother is, yours is very similar. She wants me to settle down with a
'nice boy' and have a bunch of kids. This is what all her life has been about
and what has made her happy. She can't understand that what was satisfying for
her, can't make me content. She'll be completely baffled by my decision to
change my career and move to the city."

Elizabeth pushed away her depressing thoughts. It would not do, she had no right
to burden Charlotte with guilt. No matter how sad and lonely she would be
without both William and her best friend, she would make the best of it and
support Charlotte in everything. Lord knew she would need it.

Slowly, she replied, "I know. They'll have problems with accepting your
decision. But they love you, I'm sure they'll be happy for you."

Charlotte sighed. "I hope so. I'm glad at least you understand me. I know that
you've never shared my restlessness and dissatisfaction with the life here. You
love living in a small town, where you know everyone and everyone knows you. You
have your own house, you do what you love, your life is here. But I'm not happy
here. I want to travel, meet new people, learn new things. I'm suffocating
here."

"Oh Char, I had no idea it was so hard for you. I'm so sorry. I've been a lousy
friend lately," said Elizabeth with remorse.

Charlotte shook her head. "No, that's not true, you've always been a wonderful
friend. It was my own fault, I was afraid to confide in you."

"But why?" asked Elizabeth, surprised and a little hurt.

"Because the company I'm going to work for is The De Bourgh's Foundation,"
explained Charlotte levelly.

There seemed to be no end to surprises that afternoon. In a daze, Elizabeth was
only able to stammer out, "De...De Bourgh's?"

"I know what it must look like to you, but I assure you, I sent the application
before this whole grant mess. If I'd known, I'd never have applied to them."

Elizabeth frowned. "Don't be silly. It's not your fault that we lost the grant.
You shouldn't let this stand in the way to your career."

"Thanks," said Charlotte with obvious relief.

For a moment they were both silent, concentrating on their food. Finally,
Elizabeth spoke. "You never told me what your new job is going to be."

Charlotte took a sip of her water. "I've applied for the job of an appraiser. It
seems they had to fire one lately and I got his job."

"Oh," replied Elizabeth trying to sound indifferent, though the number of
coincidences this afternoon seemed highly suspicious to her.

"Do you think it could have been Collins?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I doubt it. I've never reported him to the authorities and
how could the De Bourgh's management know about what he has done?"

"I don't know. Maybe he's harassed other women and they've reported him?"

"Maybe. But it doesn't matter now, does it? What matters is that you got the
job." She smiled at Charlotte. "I'm very happy for you. We need to celebrate the
occasion somehow. Maybe you and I, Jane and Maria could go out together
somewhere? We haven't had a girls night in a long time."

Charlotte smiled wryly. "We haven't because you've had much more interesting
company of late."

Elizabeth blushed slightly, but didn't say anything to deny Charlotte's words.
Her friend took this as a confirmation.

"So you and the great Dr. Darcy...." Charlotte whistled in wonder. "Who would've
thought? You've protested against having any feelings for him so hard."

"I was an idiot. A blind idiot. I should have seen from the start what a
wonderful man he is."

"Ha!" cried Charlotte triumphantly. "Didn't I foresee it? It wasn't two weeks
ago that we were sitting in this very pub and I was telling you that in a week
from then he'd be the love of your life!"

Elizabeth smiled ruefully. "Charlotte, my friend, when you get bored with
working for De Bourgh's, there is a career that would be perfect for you."

"And what is it?"

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and smirked. "The Oracle."


Elizabeth was surprised that her first week after William's departure flew so
quickly. Granted, she had much work to catch up on that had piled up during her
absence from the clinic. Maria had been doing well in the medical part of the
job, but it was Elizabeth who always handled the tedious administrative work.
She spent several days dealing with paperwork; there were bills to be paid,
invoices to look through and orders to make.

There was another matter that occupied her thoughts a lot. After the Collins
fiasco, the chances of getting the grant from the De Bourgh's were next to
nothing. However, Elizabeth hadn't given up on her plans for developing the
clinic.  Her ambition to open a small surgical ward was still strong, perhaps
more than ever before. She was determined to succeed, no matter the hurdles she
encountered on her way. She had researched other foundations, yet none of them
seemed right. They either aimed at art and culture organisations or educational
non-profit establishments. After deliberating for a couple of days and
consulting her accountant, she had decided to take a mortgage from the bank. It
was much more risky than if she got a grant, but there seemed no other way for
her to get the money she needed. And she was determined to get them.

Elizabeth pondered the similarities and differences between hers and Charlotte's
situation. They both had always had a strong drive to succeed, but while for
Charlotte success meant upward mobility; climbing higher and higher on the
career ladder, Elizabeth viewed success in a horizontal way: deepening her
knowledge and improving her skills, becoming a true expert in what she did. Most
of all though, she wanted to help people and animals and to be of use to the
local community. She didn't need to move to a big metropolis in order to achieve
this goal, she could do it in Meryton, or any other place in the world.

And just as Charlotte needed to take that big step of moving to London and
changing her job, so Elizabeth had to do everything in her power to fulfil the
dream of expanding and improving the services her clinic offered.


It didn't take long for the entire town of Meryton to learn that Charlotte Lucas
got a job in London and was moving out. The reactions to this news ranged from
surprise and envy, to a few mean remarks about failing to catch a husband in her
hometown, Charlotte moved to new and more promising pastures. This type of
parochial way of thinking irritated Elizabeth remarkably. Though she knew that
narrow-minded people could be found in any place, they were somehow  more
noticeable in small communities, where everyone knew everything about their
neighbours and keeping a secret from being exposed was like trying to hide a
sausage from a pack of hungry hounds - they'd always smell it.

Fortunately, Charlotte didn't care at all about the opinion of anyone besides
her family and closest friends, and they had all proven very supportive.
Admittedly, her parents needed some time to come to terms with the fact that
their daughter would now live so far, in their estimation, from home. They
worried about the crime rate in the big cities, about Charlotte having an
accident, or mixing with unsuitable people. In the end though, they had accepted
that she was a grown woman and was well able to look after herself in London as
well as she had in Meryton. It must be said, however, that the argument that had
finally won Mrs. Lucas over, had been Mrs. Bennet's reasoning that there was no
better place to find a good husband than a big city like London.

Thus it was settled that Charlotte would go to London at the beginning of the
next week to start settling in the flat she had found. While her friend was busy
packing and closing all her matters in Meryton, Elizabeth was busy planning a
farewell party for her. The original idea of a girls night out had evolved into
a large shindig with lots of people, music, food and drinks. Elizabeth had
booked the Old Oak for Saturday night and looked forward to an evening of fun in
the company of her friends.

She had also hoped to persuade William to come over for the weekend and attend
the party, but when she had invited him during one of their evening telephone
conversations, he hadn't exactly been enthusiastic about the idea.

"I'm not very keen on these kinds of gatherings," he said with a sigh.

Elizabeth was disappointed, but not completely discouraged. "But this is for
Charlotte. I'm sure she'd be glad if you came."

William was disheartened that she didn't say a word about her own satisfaction
at seeing him. He would have loved to see her again, but not among a crowd of
people he didn't know, in a place filled with loud music where they would have
to shout in order to communicate with each other. He should rather accept his
Aunt's decree to attend a family dinner on Saturday and come to Meryton next
weekend. Then, he hoped, Elizabeth would be free to give him all of her
attention and they'd be able to spend the two days in each other's intimate
company.

"I'm sorry, I really don't feel like it. Give my regards to Charlotte though and
wish her good luck for me."

Elizabeth sighed in resignation. "All right, as you wish. It's just that..."

"What?" he prompted her.

"I was looking forward to seeing you this weekend, that's all."

William's heart swelled with joy and relief at her words. "Me too. But it will
be better this way. You have fun with your friends and I'll visit my Aunt. We'll
see each other next weekend."

And so it was decided. Elizabeth had to admit to feeling slightly hurt that
apparently William didn't want to see her as much as she longed to see him. And
she really did miss him. On the whole, she was perfectly able to function
normally: she could eat, she didn't suffer from insomnia, she didn't spend hours
thinking and daydreaming about him - in other words she didn't suffer from any
symptoms usually ascribed to the state of being in love. However, it seemed that
his presence always lurked somewhere in the recess of her mind only to jump to
the front of her consciousness at different moments during whole week.

Now that he had so unequivocally stated he wouldn't attend Charlotte's party,
Elizabeth found herself looking forward to the gathering much less than she had
before. It was annoying the way during these three short weeks his presence had
become the prerequisite for any fun, enjoyment or entertainment for her. It was
unreasonable, she told herself, she had been capable of having good time without
him perfectly well for the past twenty six years. But, sensible or not, it was
undeniably true. 



On Friday Elizabeth was just filling out some files when she heard a knock on
the door. Thinking it must be Pete, she told him to come in barely looking up
from her paperwork. But when she did glance up the sight of the person she saw
in the doorway rendered her momentarily speechless with surprise.

"Hello Elizabeth. It's nice to see you again."

"George," she acknowledged his presence with a cautious nod. What was he doing
here?

George Wickham closed the door behind him and turned to her with a smile. "I see
you didn't expect me. I've brought your order," he explained motioning to a
large box standing on the ground next to him.

Elizabeth eyed him suspiciously. "You needn't have bothered delivering it
yourself."

"That's no problem at all, I was in the neighbourhood," he answered easily.

<I>Yeah right</I>, thought Elizabeth sceptically. She didn't believe a word he
said.

"Thank you," she said politely. "Where should I sign?"

"Here." He produced a sheet of paper and gave it to Elizabeth to sign.

"Here you go." She handed it back to him and in the same moment the door swung
open.

"Hi Lizzy, I was wondering if you could -, " Lydia stopped short in the middle
of the sentence when she noticed the handsome man in her sister's office.

"Oops, sorry, I didn't realise you had company." She smirked, looking at George
coquettishly.

Slightly irritated at Lydia's tactless behaviour, Elizabeth hastened to set the
situation straight. "Lydia, this is George Wickham from Medex. He's just
delivered our order," she said, determined to make it crystal clear to her
sister that the man was just a business associate. "This is my sister, Lydia."

George grinned, showing two rows of white teeth. "I'm very pleased to meet you,
Lydia."

Lydia straightened her back to show off her breasts to the best advantage and
batted her eyelashes. "My pleasure, George."

Observing the exchange with growing anxiety, Elizabeth decided to step in before
her sister made a complete fool of herself.

"Lydia did you want something?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. I saw an awesome dress I could wear to the party
tomorrow and was wondering if you could lend me some money to buy it. I've
already spent allowance."

Elizabeth suddenly felt tired. She'd had this conversation with her sister one
too many times. "Lydia, this is not the right time to talk about this. I'm at
work."

Lydia looked at her sister with displeasure. "Oh Lizzy, you're such a
spoilsport."

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes threateningly. "Did you want anything else?"

"Well, I..." Lydia started to reply and Elizabeth prayed that she wouldn't say
anything stupid in front of George, though she knew there was a slight chance of
her sister doing anything else. Luckily, she was saved by the bell at the front
door and a few seconds later a knock on the office door. An old lady came in
carrying a ratter in her arms.

"Good morning, Dr. Bennet, I've brought Sparky for a check up."

"I'll be going then," said George. "I won't disturb you. Good bye."

Lydia jumped in. "I'm off too. See you at the party."

Before Elizabeth had the chance to say anything, they were both gone. For some
reason, the fact that her sister had left with George Wickham seemed disturbing
to Elizabeth, but as her patient awaited her, she decided to put off thinking
about it for later.



<I>The party has been a success so far</I>, thought Elizabeth with satisfaction.
Many people came to say goodbye to Charlotte and wish her luck in her new job
and new life. There were friends, neighbours and colleagues, and Charlotte was
mingling among them, seeming very pleased.

Elizabeth sat in the corner with a drink in her hand and observed everything
with pleasure, but also a hint of wistfulness. She couldn't help but think about
the last time she had attended a dance in the Old Oak and particularly, with
<I>whom</I> she had attended it. She wondered what he was doing now. Was he
missing her like she missed him?

Unnoticed by her, a man approached her table and sat down next to her. "Hi," he
said.

Elizabeth's head snapped up in shock to look the man in the face. "George? What
are you doing here?"

He grinned. "Your sister invited me."

Elizabeth felt a sudden urge to grind her teeth. <I>Of course! Lydia! I might
have known.</I> "Did she?"

"Yes, she did. I didn't think you'd mind and I didn't have any plans, so I've
decided to come. It's a good chance for us to get to know each other better."

<I>Not on your life!</I> she thought, but aloud she just replied something
noncommittally.

They sat for some time in silence, watching the crowd of bodies on the dance
floor. "Would you like to dance?" asked George struck by a sudden inspiration.

Elizabeth feigned regret. "I'm sorry, but I sprained my ankle last week and my
doctor doesn't allow me to dance yet."

"Oh that's a pity. So let me just keep you company. I hate to see you sit here
all alone."

"As you wish," she replied, wishing him to just go away.

George looked around the pub curiously. "Isn't Darcy here?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, he returned to London on Sunday."

"Ah, I see. Maybe it's better this way," he remarked mysteriously.

"What do you mean?" asked Elizabeth feeling some curiosity tempered by distrust.

"I've warned you against him, do you remember? He shouldn't be trusted."

Elizabeth's internal alarm bells started ringing. Yet, she couldn't help herself
from challenging him, "I remember. I don't remember though why it was exactly he
shouldn't be trusted."

George looked regretful, as he shook his head sadly. "For the sake of  his
parents' memory, I was reluctant to speak badly about Darcy. But maybe it's time
I stopped protecting him."

After a dramatic pause, he continued, "I believe I've told you that Darcy and I
grew up together." Elizabeth nodded. "We were friends and companions for many
years. We spent a lot of time together and that's why I was a witness to his
behaviour for a long time."

"What kind of behaviour?" asked Elizabeth. The story was making her very uneasy.

"Darcy is very rich and handsome. Since he was a teenager he has had women
throwing themselves at him. And he has been taking advantage of this situation
as much as he could."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth could not help asking, though she knew exactly
what he meant.

"He used the women who fought for his attention. They all thought they were so
lucky to get him, but as soon as he grew bored with them, which was very
quickly, he dumped them. That's the way it was and still is."

Elizabeth grew angry listening to George's tale. She didn't believe him; the
William he described as the most appalling womaniser bore no resemblance to the
caring, considerate and generous man she knew. This was all a lie from the
beginning till end.

"He's a skilled seducer, you have to give him that. He knows exactly what to do
and say in order to get what he wants. He sounds and looks as if he meant every
word, and maybe in a way he does at the time when he speaks them, but it's
impossible to keep his attention for long."

"Maybe he just hasn't found the right woman yet," ventured Elizabeth.

"I'm afraid you're too kind to him. Darcy isn't looking for the right woman. And
that's exactly why his actions are so reprehensible. They could have been
justified at least partially if he was free. But he's not."

"He's not?" asked Elizabeth, now genuinely surprised.

"Why, he's engaged! He's been engaged for years to his cousin, Anne."

Stunned, Elizabeth was unsure whether to laugh, cry or kick George for lying.
"But how can he be engaged to his own cousin?"

"She's not his real cousin. His aunt and uncle couldn't have children and they
adopted Anne when she was still a baby. Ever since they were small children,
their parents planned they'd marry someday."

Elizabeth laughed incredulously. "They <I>planned</I> they'd marry? Come on, we
don't live in the nineteenth century!"

George smiled with superiority. "You obviously never had the opportunity to move
among the upper classes. They may be driving cars instead of carriages today,
but in their hearts they're the same as they ever were. What matters most to
them is money and prestige. William  is rich and Anne is rich. That wouldn't be
the first case of money marrying money."

Elizabeth sat quietly, her head too full to speak. George went on, "I feel sorry
for Anne, she won't have an easy life with him. I know she adores him, but I
doubt he's going to change his ways after the wedding. At least I hope he'll be
kind to her, he's always been rather fond of her as well."

Like a lightning, a memory rushed through her mind. <I>"It'll be all right,
Annie, I'll handle her. Bye, sweetheart."</I> He had said he had been talking to
his cousin then... <I>No, it doesn't have to mean anything</I>, she thought
stubbornly.

"If you're so worried about her, why don't you warn her?" inquired Elizabeth.

George shook his head. "That's impossible. Darcy has already ruined my career
when I wanted to reveal the truth about him. Who knows what he might do the next
time."

"What did he do? It seems to me you're doing fine in your career."

George smiled sadly. " I haven't always been a sales representative. Before
Darcy had me fired without reference, I used to be a doctor. I worked in St
Barts', just like him."

Elizabeth could feel her head spinning. She didn't know what to think. "Do you
mean that he had you fired because he wanted to punish you?"

"Yes, that's Darcy for you. Always doing what's best for him and destroying
other people without any qualms if it suits his purposes," he replied bitterly.

Elizabeth didn't reply, lost in her thoughts.

George put his hand on hers and said gently, "I'm sorry if what I said was
shocking to you. I really like you Elizabeth and I don't want you to get hurt by
that bastard Darcy. But please, remember that I told you everything in
confidence. I'm a coward, I know, but I've just managed to rebuild my life after
dear Darcy messed with it. I don't want to have to pick up the shreds of my
sorry existence once again."

"Of course, I won't tell anyone about what you told me," assured him Elizabeth.
If it was even true. Her mind was still rebelling against such a picture of
William.

The pensive mood was broken by Lydia, who neared the table and grabbed George's
hand. "George, don't sit all evening talking to Lizzy, you promised to dance
with me."

George laughed and let her drag him to the dance floor. Elizabeth sighed with
relief. All she wanted was to be alone with her thoughts and sort out her
feelings after George's revelations. Quickly, she slipped out of the pub. On the
street, her feet propelled her in the direction of the river, almost as if of
their own volition. The turmoil of her mind was impossible to describe. Doubts
filled her head; doubts about William and doubts about George. Was Wickham
telling the truth? Her instinct told her it was not possible; she simply
couldn't reconcile the picture of William he had painted with the man she knew.
The more she thought of it though, the more she saw inconsistencies in William's
behaviour that made George's story more probable.

George certainly must have been acquainted with William and his family very
well. He knew William had a cousin called Anne and that they were fond of each
other. The conversation she had overheard when William had been talking on the
phone to Anne, confirmed that he felt affection for his cousin. Yet, it didn't
mean they were engaged and that William was deceiving her.

William had told her that she shouldn't trust George. However, he had refused to
provide her with any reasons why she should stay away from him. Wickham, on the
other hand, had told her everything frankly. What should she believe in: the
assurances of one or facts provided by the other?

And...it did seem to her that William hadn't been entirely sincere with her when
they had been talking on the phone. He had appeared to be holding back something
from her. Not to mention he had refused to come and see her today. He'd promised
he'd come next week, but will he keep his promise?

Was it possible that Wickham was right, after all? That William had just took
advantage of her availability and used her? That he was getting bored with her
and started withdrawing from their relationship?

Her heart lurched painfully in her chest at the idea. It was insupportable even
to think about it. <I>No,>/I> she thought with determination. She was not going
to condemn William without talking to him first. He had always been everything
that is kind to her, he was a good man and a good friend. Would Charles be
friendly with the scoundrel Wickham had described? Would Jane encourage her to
give William a chance had she not been perfectly convinced he was trustworthy? 
No, she wasn't going to believe Wickham before she had solid proof that he
wasn't lying.

She wished she could talk to Jane, but she had promised George secrecy. But she
just couldn't keep it just to herself, this doubt would poison her mind and turn
her against William. She needed to hear his assurances that Wickham had been
lying. She had to hear his version of the story.

Elizabeth headed for her car and drove home. She decided to call William tonight
and tell him everything about Wickham's accusations, without giving away the
source of her information. If his character was slighted by George, he deserved
to know. Hopefully, he'd be able to explain everything and all would be as it
had been before George reappeared in Meryton. Yes, all would be well, she was
sure of that.
Chapter twenty-one

While Elizabeth welcomed going back to work with pleasure and relief, for
William the experience proved somewhat painful. The mortification of having
fainted during a surgery, an unpardonable reaction in his opinion, was very much
alive in his memory. He was convinced that he had been the talk of the entire
hospital since his infamous accident, and his pride revolted against being the
object of gossip. He wouldn't be able to endure their pitying glances,
contemptuous smirks and curious whispers behind his back.

It was a very defensive William that entered the surgical ward of St. Bart's on
Monday morning. He squared his shoulders and put a mask of cold indifference on
his face, curtly answering to greetings and avoiding eye contact with anyone. He
marched through the ward with affected confidence, but his back stiffened when
he heard a faint giggle coming from a group of nurses passing him in the lobby.
He gave them a withering look and stalked off, mortally offended at being
laughed at.

Had William known the real reason behind their merriment, he would have been
doubly embarrassed. For, despite his suspicions, they weren't ridiculing his
recent mishap, far from it.

"Have you seen how gorgeous he looks? He's such a handsome devil when he's
sulking," giggled Julie, an attractive young woman.

Patsy, a young girl who had just started working at St. Bart's and hadn't met Dr
Darcy before, looked after him with a large dose of awe and a bit of fear in her
eyes. "He seems so imposing."

"Oh, don't worry, I've worked with him for over five years. He may look at you
as if you were a black fly in his Chardonnay sometimes, but he's harmless."

"He must be very difficult to work with," observed the younger nurse doubtfully.

"He's quite demanding, that's true, but nothing to fear. He's not mean or
unreasonable in his demands. He's just a true professional and requires that the
people he works with are professional as well. Don't worry, you'll figure him
out with time, it took me a while to understand him as well"

"But no matter how you are tempted, do <I>not</I> try flirting with him. He
abhors it. Remember Isabella Thorpe?" said the third member of the group, a
dark-haired woman named Kate.

"What happened to her?" asked Patsy with eyes wide open.

"She used to work here about a year ago. Ever since she had come here, she had
an eye on him and flirted with him shamelessly, but he bore it with near angelic
patience. He was too polite to reject her outright. But one night they were on
call together and she just went over the top."

"What did she do?" urged Patsy with an altogether unhealthy dose of curiosity.

"She locked herself with him in his office and assaulted him, that's what she
did," quipped Julie. "That was too much for Darcy. He should have had the tramp
fired, but he was too kind for that. She was...redistributed as it were. As far
as I know she's now working in some tiny clinic in some god forsaken village."

"Not to mention he didn't want the affair to become public. Imagine the
scandal!"

"Oh my," was all Patsy could utter.

"So the rest of us know better than to try hitting on him now," Kate concluded
the lesson.

"But it doesn't mean we can't enjoy a sweet eye candy when we have the chance,"
grinned Julie and the three nurses turned around as one and gaped at Dr Darcy's
long legs and broad shoulders as he stood in the hall talking with Dr Sophie
Croft, the head of the surgical ward.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

William was feeling frustrated and annoyed. He would have said his first day at
work had gone well, had it not been for Dr Croft insistence that he take it easy
for the first few weeks. He had tried to persuade her that he was fine, but to
no avail.

"I just want you not to push yourself too hard, that's all."

"But there's nothing wrong with me," he had repeated with frustration.

"William, you lost consciousness! The tests didn't show anything serious, but if
you continue slaving the way you had, next time you may not be so lucky. I won't
have you risk your health or the health of your patients. This is my ward and I
set the rules here. There will be no working overtime, no complicated cases and
you must try to use that brilliant brain of yours to think critically, and I
mean not only about your patients, but about yourself as well."

"But Sophie -,"

Dr. Croft had raised her hand to stop his words.

"No buts. Now excuse me, I have more important things to do than stand around
arguing with you all day."

With that she had turned and started walking down the corridor.

"Oh, by the way..." She had stopped in her tracks suddenly, turned around and
looked at him. "It's good to have you back."

"Yeah, I'm sure it is," William had muttered under his breath, making sure
Sophie couldn't hear him though.

Feeling somewhat emasculated and chastised like a child, William had returned to
his duties. Though it wasn't as if the cases Sophie had allowed him to take
presented any challenge, he thought sourly. 

Bored out of his mind after a day of handling patients that could have easily
been treated by interns, he returned home to a cosy evening spent in the
intimate company of the TV set. Predictably, there was nothing on and he surfed
the channels for an hour in a vain attempt to find something to watch.
<I>Elizabeth would be irritated by this channel surfing</I>, he thought.

Elizabeth! She was at the bottom of everything and the real cause of his bad
mood. He missed her, pure and simple. No matter what he did to amuse himself,
nothing could distract him from thinking about her. He had hoped his work would
keep him occupied, but thanks to Sophie it was out of the question. All day long
his thoughts had drifted to her again and again. What was she doing? What was
she feeling? What was she thinking about?

With a deep sigh, he switched off the TV and stretched on the couch, his hands
under his head and, closing his eyes, he let his mind immerse in fantasies about
Elizabeth. After all, he admitted to himself, there was no way he could stay
focused on anything else at the moment.

<center><hr width=50%></center>

William spent the rest of the week reacquainting himself with the work routine
and catching up on what had happened during his absence, both at work and in his
family. He also worked on developing a new schedule. Now that he was a proud dog
owner, he could no longer work overtime (not that Sophie would allow it anyway)
or go to the pub with his colleagues after his shift. He had someone who waited
for him at home now, and he could no more subject Hurst to sitting all alone in
the flat for hours without food, water and walk, than he could have left Georgie
at day care for hours on end when she was still small.

After a few days, he had developed a very efficient routine, which had yet to
fail him. He walked Hurst before work, though often the walk was actually a run
by the river. Since his
return to London, he had been more conscious of the lifestyle he was leading. He
had promised Elizabeth he would take care of himself, and he always kept his
word. Besides, he thought ruefully, there was hardly a thing he wouldn't do if
she condescended to ask. So, in an effort to improve his shape, he took up
jogging again. Initially, he had been a little reluctant, but soon he had
remembered why he used to like the activity so much. It was the time when he
would plan his schedule, think through various problems he might have had and
lately, another opportunity to fantasise about Elizabeth. Soon he felt much
better, and he was convinced it was exercise that improved his health. And when
he had heard pleasure in Elizabeth's voice when he had told her about how he was
true to the promise to take care of himself he had given her, his satisfaction
had been complete. 

Around two o'clock, when he was at work, Amy, the porter's granddaughter came to
walk Hurst. She turned out to be a nice girl who was delighted to be able to
earn a few pounds doing something as fun as taking care of a dog. Hurst grew to
like her very much, and soon William felt no guilt at all for leaving the dog to
the care of a strange person.

After work he usually returned home to walk Hurst again. If he was busy or had
some business to take care of, he asked Amy to do it for him. Then came the
evening and the most important part of his day - a phone conversation with
Elizabeth. He looked forward to talking with her all day and couldn't contain
his anticipation whenever he thought of hearing her voice again. However, to his
disappointment, their conversations were very different from the chats they had
when he was in Meryton. They were somewhat strained and awkward, as if both
feared to say something wrong and didn't dare to say what was really important.
They chatted on a variety of everyday topics, but never anything of consequence.
They didn't discuss what had happened between them, nor did they talk about
their feelings for each other. He hoped that when they finally saw each other
again, this unease would disappear.

He really longed to see her again and could hardly wait for Friday when he would
go to Meryton. In his imagination, her greeting was fervent and passionate and
he would take her to bed without much ado, where they would spend the whole
weekend. It was with great frustration therefore, that he received her news of
the planned party. His fantasies ruined, he could only sulk about having to put
up with sharing Elizabeth for the most of the night and be subjected to the
intolerable ordeal of spending an evening in the company of strange people.
He was especially irritated, because he had refused to attend dinner at his
aunt's in order to be
with Elizabeth.

William was a supporter of "blood thicker than water" principle. He believed
that one should tolerate the faults of his relatives for the sake of familial
peace. For that reason, he had only rarely contradicted his aunt. She had her
defects, but she was after all his mother's sister and the family matriarch, and
he didn't want to antagonise her, for his as well as Georgiana's sake.

In view of years of polite deference, it was all the more shocking to Catherine
de Bourgh to hear her nephew's refusal to grace her table with his presence.

"What do you mean, you will not attend?" she had asked, more surprised than
angered.

"I cannot, I have other plans," William had explained.

"Other plans! What kind of plans can be more important than dinner with your
family? You were away for three weeks, surely you can sacrifice an evening for
your aunt and cousin?"

William had the grace to feel slightly guilty. He had neglected his family, not
giving them a second thought when Elizabeth had been around. Maybe he really
should go to this dinner. After all, Aunt Catherine had given him enough reasons
to be grateful for, especially lately, after the Collins debacle. And he did
want to see Anne. But he just couldn't give up meeting Elizabeth this weekend.

"I'm sorry. I'll see you some other time, but I really can't make it this
Friday."

All of Catherine's efforts had come to naught. She hadn't succeeded in changing
his mind nor finding out anything about his plans. William had been resolved and
his lips had been sealed.

His talk with Elizabeth, however, had achieved what Catherine had not. He had
had no qualms about choosing her company over that of his family and she had
seemed to prefer to attend a party instead of spending the evening alone with
him. In that case, he would comply with his aunt's wish and attend the dinner.
Maybe next weekend Elizabeth would be able to spare some time for him.


<center><hr width=50%></center>

The elegant Georgian house which was Lady Catherine de Bourgh's London home
stood in the exclusive rich district of Mayfair, within just a few minutes' walk
from Grosvenor Square.  It was a graceful, yet imposing, stone mansion with a
large, manicured garden in the back, adorned with fine examples of modern
sculpture. They were the works of various artists and represented a variety of
styles, the only thing they had in common was their price - absolutely
staggering for a garden decoration. The interior was just as lavish - opulent
and luxurious furnishings, rich colours and priceless works of art.

Though the house was undeniably tastefully decorated, one could not help but
feel intimidated on stepping through its threshold. It was not only having the
door answered by a servant, nor the grand marble hall and staircase that led to
an impressive drawing room, nor even the delicate and obviously costly
furniture, pieces of art and various knickknacks, abundance of which made one
feel like china bull in a china shop. No, these things were just a reflection of
the tastes and personality of their owner, and it was she who was the source of
the impression her house made. 

Catherine de Bourgh ne‘tzwilliam was the eldest of three siblings and, having
outlived both her brother and sister, she was now the matriarch of the three
families: De Bourghs, Fitzwilliams and Darcys. This elderly lady, a strong
believer in the importance of duty, social status and preservation of the family
name, ruled the family with an iron fist.

And thus the whole house was permeated by the atmosphere of grandeur, solemnity
and pride imposed by their owner, and as William made his way up its majestic
staircase led by a liveried servant, he could not help but feel slightly
unsettled, as always when visiting his aunt. Her imperious personality and
haughty demands had always tested his patience and family loyalty.

He was shown into a stately drawing room, where Lady Catherine received him with
a condescension worthy of a queen receiving her subject during a royal audience.
She all but required him to kiss her hand, which he eschewed, bending down and
kissing her wrinkled cheek instead.

"Aunt Catherine. I hope you are well."

Lady Catherine inclined her head graciously. "I am, thank you. You know I can
boast of remarkably good health. Anne, however, has not been very well lately."

William turned to his cousin with genuine concern. "Have you been ill?"

Anne De Bourgh smiled gratefully at him, as she shook her head. "It's nothing,
merely a cold."

"I'm glad." William kissed her cheek and, at his aunt's invitation, sat down on
the sofa between them.

"It is very long since you last visited us, William. Anne missed your company. I
cannot think of anything that was of so much interest to you in the country that
made you stay three whole weeks."

Hearing a note of displeasure in his aunt's voice, William winced inwardly. "I
needed some time away from the city and there was peace and quiet in
Hertfordshire, which made me reluctant to leave the place."

As always when talking to Lady Catherine, William searched for the right thing
to say. He had to be polite, but noncommittal, say enough to placate his aunt's
curiosity, but not reveal too much of his private concerns. Talking with
Catherine De Bourgh was like walking on a tightrope hung high above the ground -
you made just one false step and faced quite painful consequences.

Lady Catherine just harrumphed something in response and proceeded to acquaint
William with all that had happened during his absence.

"I have fired Collins. If he really used his position to gain personal profit,
he deserved to be dismissed without reference. However, I still do not
understand how you found out about it."

William hesitated for a moment, unsure what to say, until he decided that
nothing but the truth would satisfy his aunt.

"My friend Charles' fianc⼳ sister was one of his victims. I was staying with
Charles when Collins blackmailed her and I found out about everything from her."

Lady Catherine eyed him suspiciously. "And she asked you to take care of it?"

William looked down and played with the cufflink on the left sleeve of his
jacket. "No, in fact
she doesn't know I did anything, nor even about my connection with the
foundation."

"Is that so? She must be quite special to create such an avid interest in her
problems in you, then."

"Not at all," William lied through his teeth. "I did it for your sake and the
sake of the foundation. I couldn't allow such a man to work for you."

Smiling with satisfaction, Lady Catherine commended him, "It is very thoughtful
of you, William. Is it not, Anne?"

Before Anne had the opportunity to reply, a servant appeared announcing that
dinner was served. William offered his arm to his aunt, but she declined,
encouraging him to escort Anne instead. Once they were seated at a massive table
in the centre of a splendid dining room, he noticed that it was set only for
three people.

"I thought Georgiana and Richard were going to join us."

Lady Catherine took a white linen napkin from its place next to her table and
spread it on her knees.

"My other nephew and niece have been more diligent in visiting than you, so
tonight it is just going to be the three of us. I thought it would be a nice
cosy dinner. Do you not agree?"

Although he would have hardly applied the word "cosy" to such a formal, elegant
affair as dinner in his aunt's house, William agreed politely, even as his mind
again drifted to Elizabeth and the casual, relaxed and intimate meals they had
shared in her warm and comfortable kitchen.

"And it will allow you and Anne to spend some time together without any
distractions," continued Lady Catherine.

William risked a glance at Anne, who sat opposite him, and caught her amused
smile half-hidden behind her wine glass. He rolled his eyes in response to his
comrade in misery, but quickly fixed his stare on his soup bowl and pretended to
be eating in great concentration.

The ensuing conversation was as dull as it was civil. They discussed the De
Bourgh Foundation, William's job, the social obligations for the next several
weeks and Anne's health. William listened and replied mechanically, observing
his cousin all the time.

It was evident that Anne was not fine. She tried to have more share in the
conversation, but more often than not she fell silent and seemed to get lost in
her thoughts. She was never a particularly assertive and outgoing person, part
of the reason was her innate shyness, which was coupled with the fact that she
was adopted and didn't know her biological parents. Add to this a well-meaning,
but highly overbearing adoptive mother and you could understand the origin of
Anne's timidity and insecurity. That evening, however, she was more withdrawn
than usually and William was getting worried.

Anne was not pretty. She was thin and pale with hair of an indescribable colour.
She wasn't vain, she knew her limitations well enough. She could have the best
beauticians and hairdressers and buy the most expensive clothes, on which her
mother always insisted and she used their services and advice to her advantage.
Anne possessed what her mother did not - taste. That was why she resisted Lady
Catherine's attempts to "beautify" her and remained faithful to her own style;
elegant, but modest. She didn't have to dress in gaudy clothes, she didn't want
to stand out of the crowd. Anne lived in her mother's shadow and, as far as
public occasions were concerned, she was glad of it.

By all appearances, Anne was a dutiful daughter, always doing what her mother
required of her, not speaking or thinking much, a veritable shadow of Lady
Catherine, following her everywhere, but never having anything to say for
herself. There was one crucial thing about Anne that very few were aware of -
Anne had a secret. And she lived in perpetual fear of her mother's reaction were
this secret ever to be revealed. 

Concerned by his cousin's strange behaviour, William ventured an attempt to talk
to her in private.

"And how is your collection, Anne? Have you purchased anything interesting
lately?"

Anne's eyes lit up at the mention of her beloved collection. She was an avid
reader and a collector of rare books. "Oh yes! I've bought a copy of <I>Sense
and Sensibility</I>, the first edition!"

William raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Really? It must be a very interesting
item. I'd love to see it."

As he expected, Lady Catherine perked at the suggestion. "Anne, why don't you
show it to William? The dinner is over, we can drink coffee in the drawing room
later."

William rolled his eyes at his aunt's not too subtle scheming, but because this
time it was according to his plan, he simply helped Anne from her chair and
followed her to the library.

The library was as grand in size as the rest of the house, but it was much less
imposing, for there were not many objects there whose sole purpose was
decoration. Indeed, there was no place for such extravagance; the whole room was
filled with bookshelves, which reached from the floor to the ceiling, packed
with thousands of tomes. There was also an impressive mahogany desk with a pile
of books on it, as well as a sofa and a couple of elegant, but comfortable-
looking chairs standing next to a small table, on which another portion of books
was stacked. The warm colours and soft light made the room look cosy and
inviting, despite its proportions.

Anne crossed the room, and with an air of a true queen in her own domain,
approached the desk and took up a book that lay a little apart from the pile.

"This is it." She handed the tome to William and he took it, looking at the
leather cover with curiosity, examining the fine work.

"It's beautiful." He opened the book and leafed through it carefully.

"Isn't it? This is the first volume. The other two are on the shelf."

"That's all right, I'll see them another time." William put the book away and
turned to Anne hesitantly.

"Annie... is everything all right? You seem different."

Anne raised her head, not quite meeting his eye, though. "Of course,
everything's fine. Why wouldn't it be?"

William looked at her sharply, seeing through her with no problems. She was
lying. "You seem a bit down and distracted. There's something you're not telling
me. Is it your health? Was your mother right, are you sick?"

She put her hand on his upper arm to reassure him and shook her head. "No, no,
there's nothing wrong with my health. It's nothing, really." She trailed off and
took a deep breath. "It's mother. I know she means well and I love her dearly,
but I feel like I'm suffocating."

"Why don't you move out on your own then? You should have done this long ago."

Anne shook her head again. "I couldn't do this to her. She'd never understand
it. I'd be ungrateful to leave her after everything she's done for me."

"Annie, you're her daughter, not her servant! You have a right to have your own
life!"

Anne shrugged. It was obvious that it wasn't the first time they had this
conversation and all arguments of both had been repeated again and again,
without bringing them any closer to any resolution. 

"Is there anything else?" asked William quietly.

Anne sighed deeply. "Nothing that hasn't been done time and again. I'm to be out
in society much and prepare myself for the role of Mrs. Darcy."

William groaned, even though he couldn't contain an amused chuckle, impressed by
his aunt's persistence.

"And what do you say to her on that subject?"

"Not much, since there's not really much I can say. She'd dig deeper and demand
to know why I don't want to marry you and sooner or later, she'd find out about
everything."

"And that would be a bad thing because...?"

Anne threw her hands up in frustration. "How can you even ask? She'd never
forgive me if she knew! She'd never understand!"

"That's possible," admitted William. "But who knows, she may surprise you."

Anne turned her back to him and shook her head. "No, I know she won't. I'll be
nothing more than a disgrace and a disappointment to her."

"What then are you going to do if she keeps insisting on our marriage?"

She turned around and glanced at him. "I was hoping you'd continue pretending
you don't get her hints. After you find someone you want to marry, she'll
understand we could never work."

William inclined his head and gazed at her thoughtfully. "I can do that. You may
be assured she won't browbeat me into giving in to her demands. But what about
you, Annie? You won't have to marry me, but don't you want to find someone for
yourself?"

She scowled and turned away from him, crossing her arms on her chest. "Of course
I do! Do you think I look forward to a life all alone in this house with only
mother as my companion? Do you imagine I don't feel lonely, that my life isn't
empty? I want love and companionship just like everyone else, but I can't have
it, you know I can't without her and the entire city of London finding out! I
could never do this to her!"

He approached her and put a hand on her arm tenderly, feeling her slender frame
tremble ever so slightly. "The question is, Annie, can you do it to yourself?"

He put both hands on her arms and, gently but resolutely, turned her to face
him. She didn't meet his eye, instead she let herself be gathered into his arms.

"Annie, Annie...." He stroked her hair soothingly. "Sweetheart, I'm so sorry. I
can't imagine how hard it must be for you, but you <I>have to</I> think of your
happiness. Promise me you'll at least think about telling her the truth. No
matter how painful, truth is always better than lying and hiding. Can you
promise this to me?"

She raised her head and nodded. "Thank you, William. I don't know what I'd do
without you."

He smiled softly at her. "Anytime, kid."

William's mobile phone rang and interrupted the gloomy mood. He fished the phone
from the pocket of his jacket and, mouthing an apology, he answered it.

"Darcy. What happened? Yes...uh huh... I'll be there as soon as I can."

He disconnected and put the phone back into his pocket, meeting Anne's
questioning gaze. "They called from the hospital. There's some emergency and
they need me. I'm sorry, I have to go."

"Of course, I understand. I'll explain everything to mother."

"Thank you. But I need to ask you for a favour."

"Yes?"

"Can you go to my place and take care of my dog? It's too late to call my usual
dog-sitter and I have no idea how long the surgery will last, but probably a
couple of hours."

Anne shot him a surprised glance. "You have a dog?"

William grinned sheepishly, rubbing his forehead. "It's a long story. I promise
I'll tell you everything soon, but I don't have time right now. Can you do what
I asked you?"

She nodded. "Of course."

"Thanks. Here you have the keys. I fed him before I left, but he must be walked
before the night and make sure he has fresh water in his bowl."

"William, I've had dogs in my life, I know how to take care of them."

"I know, but just in case. If anything happens, call me."

She just shook her head and gave him an amused smile. "Thanks again, kid, I owe
you one." William bent down and kissed her cheek quickly, before he turned on
his heel and all but ran out of the room. Anne remained still, smirking to
herself. What a guy!

<center><hr width=50%></center>

Anne let herself in, took off her coat and the leash from Hurst's neck. The dog
had been a little apprehensive when he had first seen a stranger walk into the
flat, but soon the woman's gentle coaxing had calmed him down. He had let her
take him for a walk and was currently dozing off in his basket while Anne was
helping herself to a cup of tea in the kitchen.

The phone rang and Anne stood undecided for a moment, unsure if she should
answer or not. It wasn't her flat, after all. But what if it was something
important? Or maybe it was William himself, checking whether everything was all
right.

"Oh, what the heck, it's only a phone," Anne scolded herself and ran to the
living room, picking up the phone almost at the last moment.

"Anne D-," she started and instantly slapped her forehead remembering it wasn't
her phone.

There was a long silence on the other side of the line. "Hello?" Did the person
hang up or was the phone broken?

Just when she was about to put down the receiver, she heard a woman's hesitant
voice. "Hello, may I speak to William Darcy?"

"I'm sorry, William's unavailable right now. May I take a message?"

"No...no, that's all right."

Anne knit her eyebrows in confusion at the strange tone of the woman's voice.
"May I tell him who called?"

"No, that won't be necessary. I'm sorry for disturbing you. Good bye."

Before Anne managed to respond, the woman hung up. She put down the receiver,
perplexed by the strange conversation. Failing to make any sense of it, she
decided to file it away as another unexplained mystery of the universe and went
to the kitchen to get her cooling cup of tea.

Elizabeth put down the receiver with a trembling hand. She stared at the phone
as if she had never seen it before in her life. She could have been sitting like
that for a few minutes, but it could have as well been hours, she lost all track
of time. Finally, slowly, as if moving in a dream, she rose from the couch and
waddled to her bedroom. She shut the door behind her and lay on the bed, closing
her eyes. But sleep would not come that night. 
Chapter twenty-two

Elizabeth awoke feeling numb and disoriented. Her muscles ached as if she had
spent the night sleeping on the ground and her eyes stung from lack of sleep.
Her sore body aside, she could not help a small, niggling feeling in the back of
her mind, which made her very nervous. Something had happened, she couldn't
remember what, but felt it would make her miserable when she recalled it. Like a
pathologist examining a dead body for possible reasons of death, she searched
her memory for the elusive cause of her anxiety, feelings of foreboding and
trepidation tying her stomach into knots. Finally, like a knife plunging in her
side, the memory returned with painful clarity. William had lied to her. He had
used her for his own amusement, all the time being engaged to someone else;
someone who was from his social sphere, rich and glamorous no doubt. She had
allowed herself to be blinded by his attentions and was taken advantage of,
though she had promised herself she'd never let that happen again.

She flipped to her back and stared unseeingly at the ceiling. She had been a
complete idiot to refuse to see what had been so obvious. She recalled his anger
when he had discovered she had talked to George. He must have been furious at
the possibility that Wickham could tell her the truth about him and ruin his
plan. His sudden interest in her, his attentiveness, so uncharacteristic for a
virtual stranger that he was to her. His refusal to come and see her this
weekend. These were all signs that should have aroused her suspicions, but she
had been too blind to see them for what they had been. She had been naﶥ and
delusional, but she could no longer delude herself. She had wanted evidence that
Wickham had been telling the truth and she had gotten it.

William was engaged to his cousin. How else could her presence at his flat at
11:30 in the evening have been explained? The woman had said William had been
unavailable. No doubt he had been in the shower, while she had lain in his bed.
Elizabeth felt her stomach turn in anger and jealousy as tears stung her eyes.
No! She leapt out of the bed and started pacing about the room. She would not
cry! She had shed too many tears over a worthless, lying jerk; she would not do
it all over again, no matter how much she hurt.

Determinedly, she strode to the bathroom and into the shower. She stood still
for a few minutes, waiting for the hot water to do its magic and help her relax,
as it always had, but nothing could ease the tension of her body nor the tumult
of her mind. She was tired...so very tired after almost a sleepless night. Her
head ached from lack of sleep and emotional whirlwind. Anger, shame, jealousy
and regret all fought for dominance over each other, sometimes mixing into an
indistinguishable sensation, which burned hot in her stomach and constricted her
throat. At other times one gained supremacy and she would clench her fists in
hopeless rage and indulge in a fantasy of inflicting bodily harm on William for
betraying her, or scratching Anne's eyes out for stealing him away from her.
Even though when her emotions cooled down, she had enough reason to admit that
Anne had not taken anything which had been hers. At these moments anger was
replaced by deep sadness and she sought refuge in fury again, to keep herself
from crying.

"Damn you, William!" she said through clenched teeth. "Wasn't it enough that you
had a rich and sophisticated fianc⁠that you could have any woman you wanted?
Wasn't it enough that you used me only to return to your future wife when you
got bored with me? Did you have to make me fall in love with you, as well?"

Her voice broke and as sorrow filled her heart her knees buckled under her, and
she slid to the shower floor, water streaming down her face mixing with tears,
which, once started flowing, would not stop.

000

Elizabeth could feel the cleansing effect tears had had on her tangled emotions.
She left the shower after much longer time that was needed for washing, feeling
strangely refreshed, composed and determined. She would not allow this man to
interfere in her life more than he already had.

Wiping the steam from the bathroom mirror, she sighed at the sight that greeted
her. She could hardly recognize the woman in the mirror as herself. A drawn,
pale face and shadows under her eyes a telltale sign that not only her mind and
heart were affected by William's betrayal. <I>I'm going to need a lot of makeup
to cover up this pathetic face,</I> she thought gloomily. But not today. Today
she would stay at home, try sorting out her feelings and come to some sort of a
decision about the future. She'd not see anybody and stay away from mirrors.

She brushed her teeth quickly and turned to leave the bathroom, tripping over
Jack, who lay in front of the bathroom door, and barely avoiding a fall.

"Do you want me to break my head? What are you doing here anyway?"

The dog looked at her pleadingly and whined. Elizabeth stared at him wondering
what it was that he wanted, until she raised her head and her eyes rested on a
clock at the bedside table. 11:37 am.

"Oh my God, you want to go out! I'm so sorry, I'll be ready in a minute!"

The dog perked up at the familiar words and sat straight, following Elizabeth's
every movement with hopeful eyes. Elizabeth dressed in haste, guilt overcoming
any other feelings she had. She had been wallowing in self-pity, while Jack had
been waiting for his morning walk, Cass needed to be fed and Triss and the other
animals checked up on, fed and watered. She attended to her duties, grateful to
forget, at least temporarily, her disappointment. With a new sense of purpose
she lost herself in mucking Triss's stall, as if her life depended on the
cleanliness of the horse's living quarters. No matter her own heartache, there
were still creatures in this world that needed and depended on her, and she
would not let them down.

Elizabeth worked frantically the whole day, skipping from one task to another in
an attempt to keep thoughts of William at bay. By the end of the day her house
was cleaner than it ever had been, but she just felt numb. Raising herself from
her knees, on which she had been scrubbing the kitchen floor, she felt dizzy and
had to hold the edge of the table until the lightheadedness abated. This
wooziness, together with a dull thumping in her head reminded her that in her
industry not only had she completely forgotten about breakfast, but she had also
inadvertently skipped lunch and dinner.

"Idiot!" she hissed, angry at herself for her thoughtlessness. She didn't feel
hunger, much less had any appetite for anything, but she forced herself to eat
some bread and drink a cup of tea. It would not do if she made herself sick on
that man's account.

As she munched the bread, her mind drifted back to William. What was she to do
about him now? It was almost time for his usual evening call, but she didn't
think she could talk to him right now. Correction, she didn't want to talk to
him ever again. She was quite sure that if she'd stop answering his calls, he'd
get the hint and leave her alone. At least she hoped so.

The phone rang, as if magically summoned by her thoughts. Though she expected
it, it still startled her and she leaped up, her heart racing and hastened to
the living room, where she stood in front of the table with the ringing
telephone and stared at it in indecision. It could be William or it could be
somebody else. She decided to let the machine pick up and see who the caller
was.

She heard her own oddly cheerful voice asking the caller to leave a message and
then sank onto the couch as her legs grew week at the sound of the familiar deep
voice.

<I>Hi, Elizabeth, it's William. I guess you're not home...um...call me when you
get back. Bye.</I>

Elizabeth let out the breath she didn't realize she had been holding. That was
it. He sounded so cold, so formal, so unlike the William she had known. What
more proof did she need that he didn't care about her?

Even though she had promised herself she wouldn't do it, Elizabeth could not
help but cry again at the melancholic idea.

000

Elizabeth spent the whole of Sunday moping about the house. Except for walking
Jack and taking care of her duties in the shed, she hardly left the living room.
She was sitting on the couch, trying to read, but in fact most of the time she
just stared at the phone, hoping and fearing it would call at the same time. 

She had thought that after last night's call, William would wait at least until
the next evening to call her, but she had been wrong. As soon as she returned
from her morning walk with Jack, she heard the machine pick up his call, <I>Hi,
it's me again. I called you last night, but you must not have gotten my message,
so I'm calling again. Call me. Bye.</I>

There it was again. Terse and brusque, no words of affection, not even so much
as a bloody "please". Arrogant, presumptuous man! He was thinking, no doubt,
that once she had given in to him, she'd be at his beck and call. No need to woo
or charm her, she was his for the taking when his fianc𔷡sn't looking. Well,
tough luck, mister!

She turned away from the telephone, pointedly ignoring it and went to the
kitchen to make herself some breakfast. At lunchtime he called again, repeating
his request. Thinking that it looked like he wasn't going to give up so easily,
she disconnected the phone. Unfortunately, this also proved unsuccessful, as
around four o'clock her mobile phone rang, the caller ID identifying William as
the person who was trying to reach her. She had to give him points for
persistence.

Why couldn't he just get the hint? Wasn't it obvious she wanted nothing more to
do with him? Did she really have to spell it out to him? Her irate thoughts were
interrupted by another bout of ringing. Incensed, she grabbed her mobile and
barked, "Stop calling me! I don't want to talk to you!"

There was a silence at the other side of the line. Finally, she heard a soft,
stunned voice, "Lizzy?"

"Jane!" she exclaimed, surprised to hear her sister's voice when she had been
expecting it to be William.

"Lizzy, is everything all right? Why don't you want to talk to me?"

Elizabeth sighed. "I wasn't talking to you. I thought it was someone else."

"Who is this person and what have they done to inspire such a reaction in you?
Oh wait, don't tell me. William's just called us and said he couldn't get
through to you since Thursday. Is it him you don't want to talk to?"

Elizabeth gritted her teeth. <I>Way to go, William, announce this to the whole
world, why don't you. </I>

"Yes, it is William," she admitted reluctantly.

"But what happened? You seemed to be getting along so well? Have you
quarrelled?"

Elizabeth rubbed her face tiredly. "Yes, you could say that. I'm sorry, Janey, I
really don't want to talk about this. And I'd appreciate it if you kept this
information to yourself."

"Of course, as you wish. I hope you know that you can always talk to me, if you
need someone to lend an ear or just a shoulder to cry on."

"I know, thanks. Don't worry about me, I'll be fine."

"Are you sure you don't want me to come over?"

That was the last thing Elizabeth wanted. "Positive. I have to go, Jane. I'll
see you later."

They said their goodbyes, and Elizabeth was left to wonder about what to do
about William again. It seemed she did need to spell it out to him, lest he'd
alert not only Jane, but her entire family and all of her friends that she
didn't answer his calls. Taking a deep breath, she rose from her chair and went
to the living room again. She put the phone plug back into the socket and
waited. Waiting for the phone to ring had never felt like awaiting her death at
the gallows before. She was a coward. It was easy to avoid his calls and pretend
that nothing much had happened, but to confront him personally and break up with
him was something entirely different. She wasn't sure she was up to it, and yet,
she had to do it, there was no other way. 

If somebody asked her later, Elizabeth wouldn't have been able to tell how long
she was waiting. Finally, the phone rang and she picked up the receiver with a
pounding heart.

"Hello."

"Finally!" William's voice was full of relief. "I've been trying to reach you
the whole weekend!"

"William," she started and then paused for a moment. When she spoke again, her
tone was as cold as she could muster. "I want you to leave me alone. I don't
want to see or talk to you again. Stop calling me and stop bothering my family."

"Elizabeth, what are you doing?" he sounded shocked and disbelieving.

"It's over, William. I don't want anything more to do with you. Goodbye."

"Elizabeth, wait!" he shouted, but she wasn't listening anymore. Reaching out
blindly, she hung up the phone, and then curled into a fetal position on the
couch, as her whole frame racked with sobs.

000  

She stayed up late another night in a row, expecting him to call again with
demands for an explanation, with more lies and excuses or with anger and
accusations. She sat biting her nails and looking half-fearfully, half-hopefully
at the telephone, thinking of what she'd say to him when he called again. Should
she just tell him to stay away from her, would that be enough? Maybe she should
indicate she knew the truth and wouldn't be taken in again. Or maybe just give
vent to her anger and tell him exactly what she thought of him.

No opportunity for any of those courses of action arose, however. He didn't call
her anymore, and Elizabeth went to bed late convinced that he'd probably not try
contacting her anymore. This thought left her strangely miserable, and she
sighed forlornly and shed a few tears again thinking about it. She was depressed
that he didn't care about her, not enough to fight for her. But why should he?
After all, it wasn't as if she was anything more than a temporary diversion for
him, a plaything which was pleasant enough, but by no means irreplaceable.

She contemplated what he must be feeling, what emotions their breakup must have
inspired in him. She wanted to believe he felt some regret, but it was more
probable that if anything was hurt, it was his pride and vanity. He must be
angry, she couldn't imagine it happened often that a woman rejected him; no
doubt he was usually the one doing the discarding when he got bored with his
toys. She felt oddly pleased with herself for having served him some of his own
medicine. Her satisfaction wasn't long-lasting, however. It wouldn't take him
long to find someone to replace her. She was torn between pitying that woman and
feeling jealous of her.

And what about his fianc?? all appearances, he had been deceiving her as
well. For a moment Elizabeth contemplated contacting that woman and telling her
the truth about William. It would be a kind thing to do, she'd prevent Anne from
a life with a false, deceitful man. But, on the other hand, what right did she
have to interfere in her life? What if she did more harm than good? Then she
remembered she didn't even know Anne's last name, so she would have no way of
contacting her. With a deep sigh, she turned to her side and closed her eyes,
determined not to think about William or Anne anymore. She needed her sleep if
she was going to function normally the next day.

With the greatest effort, she managed to banish William from her thoughts, but
it didn't stop her subconscious from conjuring up his image the moment she
slipped into slumber.

000

By the time Maria arrived at the clinic the next day, Elizabeth was downing her
fourth cup of coffee. After the third night of sleeplessness and fitful dreams
in a row, she felt physically and emotionally spent. She found that only
consuming an ungodly amount of caffeine could stop her from falling asleep
standing.

"Lizzy, are you all right?" Maria gazed at her in concern as she took off her
coat.

Elizabeth stifled a yawn. "Yes, I'm fine."

"You look awful."

Elizabeth pulled a face. "Thank you very much, Miss Congeniality."

Maria's countenance took on a look of puzzled hurt. "I didn't mean to offend
you. What's gotten into you today?"

"I see someone's in quite the mood today. Don't worry, Maria, this might cheer
her up." Pete walked up to her and put an envelope on the desk in front of her.

Elizabeth stared at the letter blankly, then raised her head to look at Pete.
"What is it?"

The man looked heavenwards and let out a resigned sigh. "I don't know, but we
won't find out until you open it."

She took the letter in her hand and studied the directions. "It's from De
Bourgh's!" she exclaimed in surprise and wasted no time in opening the envelope.
She pulled out the letter and began to read it quickly, feeling Maria and Pete's
inquisitive eyes on her. She read it once, then twice, but still failed to make
any sense of it. Her eyes must be fooling her.

"Well, what does it say?" Maria exploded, unable to contain her curiosity
anymore.

Elizabeth handed her the letter. "See for yourself."

Maria scanned the letter rapidly, while Pete stood snooping behind her shoulder.
Finally, she let out a loud squeal, jumping and waving the letter in the air.
"Lizzy! I can't believe you're so calm about this, you should be jumping for
joy!"

"What is it?" Pete snatched the letter from Maria's hand, skimmed it quickly,
before he whooped, grabbed Maria in his arms and twirled her around.

"We've got it! It's ours! Lizzy, aren't you happy? You've dreamt about it for so
long!"

Elizabeth stared at the letter uncomprehendingly. "I'm happy...I think. I just
don't understand how it could have happened. I thought Collins ruined our
chances for the grant...."

Pete shrugged. "Apparently, there are some wise people at De Bourgh's, who've
seen through him."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I can't believe this."

Maria grabbed her hands and pulled her up from the chair. "You'd better believe
it, Lizzy. It's all said here. You got the grant and now you can make your
greatest dream come true!"

Elizabeth felt herself being pulled into a jubilant hug and could do nothing but
hug her friend back and finally let herself believe she wasn't dreaming.

"If this isn't a cause for celebration, I don't know what is!" Pete declared
slyly.

Elizabeth laughed. "I'm afraid I don't have any bottles of champagne stashed in
a cabinet here. But if you can wait a bit, I'm sure we can arrange something."

Moods significantly improved, the three friends returned to their duties. Only
Elizabeth couldn't stop herself from shaking her head at the irony of the
situation. How absurd it was that when one thing in her life fell spectacularly
into pieces, another started working out remarkably well. If only everything
else could go as fine! She sighed and returned her attention to work.

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