Life is Better With Animals

Chapter Twenty-three

Days turned into weeks as Elizabeth tried to go on with her life without
William. It was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because she had known
him for such a short time that he hadn't managed to disrupt her routine, change
her habits or affect her plans and goals much. She still went to work, visited
the farms, took care of her pets, met with her friends and family. The
unexpected, but very welcome grant from the De Bourgh's consumed much of her
free time and left her with little leisure to dwell on her disappointment. There
were administrative issues to handle; with the bank, the foundation itself, with
lawyers and accountants. When that was taken care of, there came the time to
start implementing her business plan.

Elizabeth threw herself into adapting the clinic for a hospital, buying
equipment and hiring new staff. One hectic week followed another, and before
Elizabeth knew it, it was already December. The legal matters had been resolved,
the clinic was ready, the equipment bought and waiting to be used. Her new
employees; two nurses and a surgeon would be starting work after New Year's. It
was by no means the end of work though; Elizabeth was sure the first weeks would
be difficult for everyone, before they developed the right work routine, learnt
to work together and got used to their new tasks and duties.

By all appearances, Elizabeth didn't think about William at all. She seemed the
same lively, cheerful woman everyone in the town knew. However, this was just a
pretence. Yes, she had little time to think about him, but no matter how hard
she tried, she couldn't forget about him. Wherever she was, whatever she was
doing, he was always at the back of her mind. He was like an aching tooth she
couldn't stop touching with her tongue again and again, even though she knew
very well it would hurt.

While she couldn't stop thinking about him, at least she didn't talk about him.
At first Jane had tried to coax her into confidence, but Elizabeth was
determined. She didn't want to talk about William, she didn't even want to hear
about him. Thinking was hard enough, she was sure that were she to actually
discuss him with anyone, she'd just fall apart again. It was one thing to cry
into your pillow when no one was looking, but quite another to make a spectacle
of yourself in front of everyone. Ashamed of having trusted William and allowing
him to take advantage of her, she needed to keep at least some of her dignity,
therefore she strove to conceal her pain.

In addition, she had others to consider who could suffer in this case, not just
herself. Charles couldn't have known anything about William's engagement to
Anne, otherwise he wouldn't have been encouraging their relationship.  As
protective as her future brother was, he'd be furious at his friend if he found
out the truth. Much as she was angry and hurt by William, she had no wish to be
the means of destroying the men's friendship.

So, all her friends knew was that she and William had quarreled and decided to
break up. If William wished to reveal what really had happened, she could not
stop him, but her own lips were sealed.

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As usual during the last six weeks, Elizabeth left the clinic very late. She
locked the door and, bundling up in her warm coat against the chilly December
air, she walked to her car. She was exhausted, but satisfied with the progress
of the work. It seemed that everything was set for the grand opening of the
hospital. There wasn't much left to do now except for some minor things. Excuses
to stay at work late were running short, and more and more often Elizabeth found
herself with way too much free time on her hands. When she was busy, she was
able to keep thoughts of William at bay, but leisure time was her enemy. Yet, it
appeared that she'd not have much to do until New Year.

Getting into the car and starting the engine, she thought of her options. She
could stay in Meryton and run the risk of losing her hard-won peace by
subjecting herself to brooding over what had been and what could never be, or
she could do everything in her power to forget William once and for all. A
change of scene and society could do wonders to one's broken heart. Elizabeth
decided she deserved a holiday before taking on the new challenges. She had
promised Charlotte to visit her in her new flat in London, but so far she had
had no time to get away from Meryton and the mountain of work that needed to be
done. Now, with the relative calm before another storm, was the perfect time for
the visit. Especially because De Bourgh's was giving a Christmas Charity Ball
and Elizabeth, as the recipient of the foundation's grant, was invited to
attend. Yes, she would call Charlotte tonight and ask her whether she could come
on Friday and stay for the weekend.

This decision brought a new sense of relief and peace to Elizabeth. Pulling up
her driveway and getting out of the car, she started walking slowly to the door.
She inhaled the fresh air deeply and closed her eyes, savouring the quiet and
stillness of the winter evening. Feeling something cold touch her face, she
opened her eyes. It was snowing. The first snow always held something magical to
Elizabeth. It brought memories of waking up in the morning to a world
transformed into a fairytale land, of carefree fun in the snow and of evenings
spent in front of a roaring fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate and a good
book. Good, happy times.

And suddenly, the strangest thing happened. Looking around herself, she gazed
with wonder at the white flurry swiftly covering the bleak, barren land with a
carpet of fresh, pristine snow, Elizabeth felt hope rising in her heart again.
Reeling with the unexpected sensation, she laughed the first genuine, unreserved
laughter since William's departure. Unaccountably, she felt as if a great weight
had been taken off her shoulders. All would be well yet.

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"Liz!" Elizabeth heard the exclamation and felt herself being pulled inside the
flat and hugged enthusiastically.

"Good to see you, Char."

She moved away and eyed Charlotte curiously. "Let me look at you. You look
great! The London air must have improved from what I heard last."

Charlotte laughed. "And you haven't changed a bit. Still as sprightly as
always."

Grabbing Elizabeth's hand, Charlotte pulled her into the living room. Looking
around, Elizabeth took in the interior. It was a small and modestly furnished
flat, but it was evident that even during the short couple of weeks of her
residence Charlotte had managed to make it a home.

"It's very nice."

Charlotte shrugged. "It's not big, but at least it's my own; I don't have to
share it with anyone."

"Except for me," Elizabeth remarked slyly.

Charlotte smiled graciously. "Well, I guess I can handle you for a few days."

"You are too kind." The friends looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Charlotte was the first to control her amusement. "Enough of that. You have to
tell me everything I've missed back at Meryton."

Settling down with cups of tea on the living room couch, Elizabeth and Charlotte
busied themselves with catching up on all of the news. Elizabeth told her friend
everything about the grant and the preparations for the opening of the hospital,
Charlotte in turn described her new life and work. Though they had been talking
on the phone regularly, there were just some things they couldn't say over the
phone.

"I'm really happy, Liz. I have a job I like, a job that is interesting and
challenging, I meet new people; for the first time in years I feel truly
satisfied."

Elizabeth smiled warmly. "I'm very happy for you, Char. I'm glad they're
treating you well in De Bourgh's. I've heard the big boss is a real gorgon."

"She is very severe and demanding, she holds the whole company with an iron
hand. But she's not unfair."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "An iron lady, then. You've made me really
curious. I'm  looking forward to seeing her tomorrow."

"Speaking of which, what are you going to wear? I hope you do have something
proper to put on, there's no Jane to come to your rescue with a suitcase full of
evening wear like the last time."

Though it was said lightly, Elizabeth felt a stab of pain at the reminder of the
evening of her first date with William. She grew quiet and stared at her coffee
cup.

Taking in her friend's forlorn expression, Charlotte paled slightly. "Oh God,
Liz, I'm so sorry. I completely forgot; I have such a big mouth sometimes."

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, it's ok. I admit that talking about William is
still painful for me, but I can't avoid the topic forever."

Charlotte's sympathetic expression threatened to rob her of the last shreds of
dignity. In order to avoid disgracing herself even more, she turned her head
away.

"Oh hon, I'm so sorry. If there is something I could do, don't hesitate to let
me know."

Elizabeth looked sharply at Charlotte, surprised that was all her friend had
said. For the big-mouthed Charlotte to keep her opinion to herself was quite
startling. <I>I must seem worse than I thought</I> Elizabeth sighed inwardly.

"But no more bleak thoughts for tonight. You really have to show me what you're
going to wear. I don't want my friend disgraced in from of all the VIPs."
Charlotte jumped from the couch and extended her hand to Elizabeth.

A slow smile grew on Elizabeth's face, as she got up from the couch and followed
Charlotte to the bedroom for an impromptu fashion show.

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The great hall was filled with people. Elizabeth smiled at Charlotte excitedly,
and stepped nearer the throng, looking around in wonder. From marble floors,
walls adorned with exquisite works of art and beautifully rimmed mirrors, to
crystal chandeliers above their heads - everything seemed to be sparkling,
glittering like diamonds and gold. The light reflected from crystal glasses,
silver platters and the luxurious jewellery worn by the ladies and even a few of
the gentlemen, added a touch of unreality to the whole scene. For several
seconds Elizabeth felt as if by some mistake she had stepped into a fairy realm.
She half expected that if she looked closely enough, she'd glimpse a pair of
delicate wings on the back of one of the beautiful women in the room.

Instead of be-winged beauties, however, she spotted a short, bald man. Next to
him stood an elegantly dressed old lady, with grey hair and a very wrinkled
face. To her right she glimpsed a very overweight man, standing with a plate and
stuffing his face with caviar. She laughed quietly to herself. No, the people
around her were no fairies; they were ordinary humans, albeit very rich and
important, by the look of it.

The hum of polite conversation was drowned in the soft notes of classical jazz
streaming from an adjourning room. The great doors to the other room were open, 
and Elizabeth could glimpse several dancing couples and the band. 

Charlotte finished her perusal of the room and turned to Elizabeth. "Let's go
and get something to drink before we start to mingle. There are a couple of
people I'd like to introduce to you."

A couple of minutes later, each with a glass of wine in their hands, Elizabeth
and Charlotte were taking a turn about the room. Occasionally, they stopped to
exchange a few words with someone before they continued on their way. Elizabeth
was introduced to several of Charlotte's new colleagues were all very nice, if a
touch boring. After some time she was tired of the polite, inane conversation
and dull people. Yawning, she wished she was back in Meryton in her favourite
pub with a drink and in the company of her friends.

Just as she was going to say so much to Charlotte, she heard her name being
called.

"Elizabeth?"

She spun around and saw a man approaching her. "Henry Tilney! What are you doing
here?"

"My clinic received a grant from De Bourgh's. I was invited to come and show my
gratitude. And what about you?"

"Same as you."

Henry laughed at the coincidence. "And who is your friend?"

Elizabeth put her hands to her face in mock horror. "Where are my manners!
Charlotte Lucas, Henry Tilney. Charlotte works for De Bourgh's and is my best
friend. Henry went to college with me."

"Thank God I met you, ladies. I was dying of boredom, you've got to save me."

Elizabeth laughed merrily. "What can we do?"

Henry glanced at the dance floor. "You can dance with me for a start."

Dancing with such a good partner as Henry was no burden to Elizabeth, so she
agreed readily. The next hour the threesome spent on the dance floor, where
Charlotte met several of her acquaintances who were also eager to have some
diversion.

Finally, tired, but in great spirits, Elizabeth left the dance floor and headed
for the ladies' room. Still grinning from her last dance, she stepped to the
main room and promptly collided with someone walking in opposite direction.  Her
smile froze on her face, as she was struck with a potent feeling of d??vu.
Before she even raised her head she knew who he was, and if she didn't, the deep
voice speaking her name would give him away.

"Elizabeth..." His voice was soft with surprise.

Slowly, she raised her head and looked into his face. Her breathing hitched and
her heart drummed wildly under his intense gaze. He didn't look well. Could
their break-up have affected him so? No, that was impossible, if he cared about
her, he would have tried contacting her again wouldn't he?

"Hello, William," she answered softly, happy to notice her voice trembled only
slightly.

"It's nice to see you again." His dark eyes bore into hers ...searching ...
questioning. But what?

"It's nice to see you, too."

They stood motionless for several seconds, neither knowing what to say. The
spell was broken by a woman calling William's name.

"Excuse me," he said and walked off. Elizabeth saw him join a woman dressed in a
simple, but elegant black dress. She couldn't take her eyes away from the pair,
once again gripped by jealousy and sorrow. Feeling a hand on her arm, she forced
herself to look away. Charlotte was standing next to her, her eyes
compassionate.

"Who is she?"

"That's Anne De Bourgh."

Shocked, Elizabeth turned around and faced Charlotte. "Anne De Bourgh?"

"Yes. She's Catherine De Bourgh's daughter and William's cousin."

Dazed, Elizabeth moved her eyes from Charlotte to William and back. "Wait a
second. William is related to Catherine De Bourgh?"

"Yes, he's her nephew. Didn't you know that?"

Elizabeth just shook her head, confused beyond words. Her mind worked
frantically to make some sense out of all the revelations. William related to
Catherine De Bourgh?  Oh God, what if...

Feeling hot and cold at the same time, Elizabeth came to the only logical
conclusion. She put her hand on her throat, feeling the frantic beating of the
pulse there.

"Oh God, Char... It all makes sense now!"

A sound of applause interrupted their conversation, and they turned in the
direction where everybody was looking. A tall, elderly woman ascended the steps
to a small rostrum, nodding her head and smiling condescendingly at the crowd. A
young girl and a handsome blond man stood to her left, and William and Anne to
her right.  Elizabeth noticed William take Anne's hand in his as the people's
attention included them. At length, the ovation quieted and the woman spoke.

"My dear friends, welcome to the annual De Bourgh Christmas Ball."

Elizabeth turned away from the rostrum and whispered urgently, "I can't stay
here any longer. I've got to get out."

Charlotte nodded. "Of course, if you wish. Let me say goodbye to a few people
first."

Elizabeth rubbed her forehead distractedly. "No, no, you stay. I don't want to
ruin your evening. I'll take a taxi, just give me the keys to your flat and I'll
be fine."

Charlotte glanced at her with concern. "You're sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

After a quick goodbye, Elizabeth walked hastily to the entrance, unaware her
retreat was followed by the searching gaze of a pair of dark eyes.

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Elizabeth sat curled in an armchair, her chin on her knees, staring unseeingly
at the wall opposite her. Events of the evening replayed in her head again and
again. It was completely shocking, yet so logical at the same time. She had seen
William again, together with his fianc⁠too. Seeing his tenderness and caring
bestowed on another woman was unspeakably painful. She couldn't erase the memory
of them together from her mind's eye; she couldn't remove the picture of William
lovingly taking Anne's hand in his. Tears stung her eyes as she understood that
she had been fooling herself, believing she would forget about him so easily. He
still held as much power over her as he ever had, his betrayal hurt her as much
today as on that awful day when she had called him only to find Anne at his
flat.

Angrily brushing away the tears that had slipped from her eyes, she contemplated
the greatest revelation of the evening. William was Catherine De Bourgh's
nephew.  And, Elizabeth was almost sure of it, William had been standing behind
her grant.

It was quite obvious in view of her present knowledge. William had been there
when the whole Collins incident happened. She had told him everything about the
grant and her certainty of them having lost it because she hadn't given in to
Collins' blackmail. He had comforted and reassured her that everything would be
all right. At the time she hadn't believed him, but now she saw there had been
nothing easier for him than to make it all right; all he had had to do was make
one phone call.

Perplexed, Elizabeth wasn't sure whether to be grateful or furious with him. She
was very disappointed she hadn't gotten the grant thanks to her own merits and
when she thought about it, her ire at William grew. How arrogant and
presumptuous of him! Before she was too consumed by her fury, she remembered how
much she had wanted this grant, how all of her plans and dreams had depended on
whether she got it or not. Having enjoyed the very great pleasure of seeing her
dreams come true in the last months, she had to admit, however grudgingly, that
she did owe William a debt of gratitude as well. Which again increased her
anger, as she hated being indebted to anyone, and for William to be that person
was quite insupportable.    

However, one thing remained unexplained. Why had he done this? What could he
have gained from helping her? If he had wanted to gain her gratitude, he
wouldn't have kept quiet about it. She knew he hadn't been interested in her
besides as a temporary diversion, so he had had no reason to help her. Yet, it
was he who had done it, she was certain. But why? Racking her head for a few
minutes proved useless - she couldn't think of any plausible answer to her
questions.  Ah well, it didn't matter.

As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she knew it was a lie. It bloody well
mattered. Could it be possible he had done it because he had genuinely cared for
her? Suddenly this question burned her mind, she couldn't stop thinking about
it, she <I>had to</I> find out the answer. Forget Anne, Wickham's accusations
and her own wounded feelings. She needed to know the truth and she <I>would</I>
know it!

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The ball couldn't have finished too quickly for William. He had never been fond
of these events and had been rather impatient for the evening to end all along,
but seeing her depart in such haste had been too much for him to bear. So it was
with the greatest relief that he finally got into his car and drove home.

Meeting her again so unexpectedly had wreaked havoc on his already feral
emotions. To see her again, so beautiful and radiant, dressed in a deep purple
cheongsam, her hair up in a stylish twist with several charmingly unruly curls
escaping the confinement of her hairstyle, and to know she wanted nothing to do
with him, was too much.

He had spent the past two months in frustrating, but completely fruitless,
attempts to forget her. Following the shock of her breaking up with him, he had
tried to find the reason for her sudden withdrawal. Had he done something to
offend her? Had she been bored with him? Or maybe she had never cared about him,
had given in to him only because she had felt pity for him, and then she had
taken the first opportunity to get rid of him? Try as he might, he couldn't
recollect anything that could have offended her. So the only remaining options
were that she had broken up with him because for some reason she hadn't wanted
him anymore.

It had been a painful realisation, but together with hurt had come anger. How
dare she! He had given her his undivided attention while he had been in Meryton.
He had fallen in love with her so hard he could barely keep his mind off of her;
he had been so besotted he had started thinking of their living together after
barely a week of a relationship! He had gone completely crazy over her, but she
had disregarded it callously, giving him the cold shoulder almost the moment he
had left town. She hadn't even felt any need to spare his feelings - breaking up
with him over the phone. There had been no sorries, no explanations, just a
cold, cruel "I don't want anything to do with you anymore."

William forced himself to concentrate on driving as the pain of her rejection
hit him again, like an almost physical blow. The first day had been spent
indoors, trying to drown his anger and despair in scotch. It had been Hurst that
had kept him sane. He had known he couldn't just drink himself into a stupor as
he had wished, as there had been someone he had needed to look after. In his
darkest moments the dog would come to him and lay his head comfortingly against
his leg, as if he had understood what his master had been going through.

He had allowed himself only one day of weakness, locking out his hurt and
burying himself in work later on. He had thought he had succeeded in purging her
from his memory...until today.

Angered by the realisation that he still loved her as much as ever, he parked
his car in the car park under his building and made his way up the stairs to the
lobby.

"Good evening, Mr. Darcy," a porter greeted him. "There is a young lady waiting
for you. She had asked to let her wait for you and I agreed. I hope you don't
mind."

William frowned in confusion, but quickly summoned a reassuring smile. "That's
all right, I'll see what it is about. Good night."

<I>Who could it be?</I> thought William as he rode the lift to his floor. If it
were Georgie or Anne, the porter would have recognised them. The lift stopped
and he exited it, starting to walk down the corridor to his flat. No, it must
have been someone the porter had never seen before, someone who had never been
here. Could it... Rounding a corner he stopped in his tracks and stared in
disbelief at the figure sitting on the floor next to the door to his flat.

"Elizabeth! What are you doing here?"

Chapter 24

Scrambling up from the floor, she smiled nervously as she tried to brush her jeans as unobtrusively as possible. She looked at his face, but what she saw there wasn't encouraging. He didn't seem pleased to see her at all.

 

"Forgive me for intruding, but I needed to talk to you." He seemed to hesitate for a moment, before he answered, his face unreadable, "All right, let's go inside."

 

He opened the door, letting her in before he followed her. He turned on the light and the first thing she saw was Hurst. The dog ran up to her wagging his tail and completely ignoring his owner. It surely is poetic justice,

Elizabeth thought with amusement, remembering Jack's behaviour whenever William was around. She chanced a glance at William, but couldn't gauge his feelings.

 

She knelt down, patting Hurst gently in greeting. "Hello, boy. How lovely to see you! You didn't forget me!"

 

"Can we proceed?" William asked, she thought she could hear a note of irritation in his voice.

 

Standing up, she followed William to the living room, gazing curiously around. It was the first time she had been in his home, and she liked what she saw. The place was modern, with a lot of space, but the comfortable-looking couches, a soft carpet on the polished wooden floor, warm earth colours and soft light made it seem quite cosy and inviting. It was masculine, but not cold or austere. Just like the William she used to know.

 

He was looking at her expectantly, probably wanting her out of his sight as soon as possible. That thought hurt, but she struggled to hide her feelings. And, after all, it wasn't as if she didn't want to be away from his company as well. She straightened her back and, taking a deep breath, prepared to say her piece.

 

"I apologise again for intruding upon your privacy in such a way, but what I want to talk about won't take long."

 

He didn't respond to that, instead he just pointed her in the direction of the two couches, which stood together creating a right angle. They sat down, each on a separate couch, but facing each other.

 

"There's not an easy way to say this, so I'll be straightforward. Have you had a hand in my receiving a grant from the De Bourgh's?"

 

The blank look left his face, replaced by an expression of surprise. "How did you know?" "So you did have a hand in this! I can't believe it!" Her composure failing her, she jumped to her feet.

 

Understanding lit his features, and he stood up as well and faced her. "I admit that I interfered in the process of granting you the money. But it's not like you think."

 

"No? Enlighten me, please, what do I think and in what way were your actions different from my thoughts?" Angered, she started pacing about the room.

 

"I didn't influence my aunt in the matter of your grant. All I did was report what I knew of Collins' blackmail and ask the board for an unbiased consideration of your application. Collins was fired by the decision of my aunt and your application was accepted by the board," he explained calmly.

 

Astonished, Elizabeth stopped her pacing and looked at him questioningly. "So you didn't..." "No, I didn't tell them to give you the grant. You earned it yourself."

 

Surprise, relief and happiness flooded her at the thought that she deserved the grant, that William hadn't been pulling strings in this matter. She covered her face with her hands, overcome by her feelings. Finally, she managed to calm down and smiled at him brightly.

 

 "Thank you. I don't know what to...thank you."

 

 He didn't return her smile, giving her a serious look instead. "You're welcome."

 

She hesitated for a moment. She should leave, but there was another matter which needed to be resolved. "I don't understand one thing, though. Why did you do it? Why did you help me?"

 

His handsome features changed their expression from serious to surprised. "Don't you know?" "Would I ask if I knew?"

 

His dark eyes seemed to burn through her, as he answered her in a quiet, but intense voice. "I'd think that was obvious, but if you want me to say it out loud, so be it. I did it because I love you."

 

Shocked, she took one step back and stared at him in disbelief. "What?"

 

"You heard me. I loved you then and I couldn't bear to see you unhappy. I still love you, but don't worry, I know you want nothing to do with me. Be assured I won't bother you with declarations of my feelings anymore."

 

She couldn't miss the tone of deep bitterness in his voice. It wasn't a game he was playing, he sounded quite sincere. But how could this be true?

 

"How can you say such things? How can you tell me that you love me as if nothing happened? What about your fianc??My fianc??e choked out. She raised her chin defiantly. "Yes, Anne De Bourgh, your fiancһ I know you and her are engaged."

 

His eyes boring through hers, he made one step in her direction. "Who told you about that?" She took a step back from him. "It doesn't matter."

 

He continued walking in her direction and she continued her retreat, until she could feel a wall behind her back. Elizabeth, it's very important. Who told you Anne and I were engaged?"

 

Maybe it was the feeling of being cornered by him with no place to escape, or maybe his intense eyes and pleading voice, whatever the reason, she felt her resolve slipping.

 

"George Wickham."

 

His face, just inches away from her, paled suddenly and she saw him clench his teeth. With a feral growl, he turned away from her.

 

"That bastard!"

 

Stock still, Elizabeth watched as he struggled to control his fury. With clenched fists, he paced about the room, snarling in anger. Talking to him right now seemed unwise, so she waited.

 

At length, he seemed to calm down a bit and turned to her again, addressing her in a deceptively calm voice, "What else did he tell you?"

 

When she seemed reluctant to answer, he approached her, taking her hand in his with an earnest expression on his face. "Elizabeth, this is very important. You have to tell me. Don't I have a right to know what sort of tales he's been telling about me?"

 

Yes, he did have the right and Elizabeth granted it to him. Sitting down again, with William taking a place next to her, she told him the story she had heard from Wickham; of how he had accused William of being a dissolute womaniser, who seduced women despite the fact that he was engaged. She had also repeated George's story of how William had had him fired and ruined his career when George had wanted to reveal the truth about him.

 

When she finished, William was quiet for a few moments. She could see anger in his face, but whether he was angry at her or at Wickham, she wasn't sure.

 

"That bastard! I should have known he'd try his tricks with you! It's so like him!"

 

"What do you mean?"

 

He turned to her, taking her hands in his and gazing at her earnestly. "None of this is true, Elizabeth. I'm not a womaniser, I didn't ruin Wickham's career, and I'm most certainly not engaged to Anne."

 

Relief flooded her at his assurances, but it didn't manage to dispel all of her doubts. She wanted so badly to believe him, but there were so many things she didn't understand.

 

"But why would he invent all these lies about you?"

 

"Why are you inclined to believe him and not me?" he answered her with a question and she thought she heard hurt in his voice.

 

She sighed and looked away. "I simply don't know what to believe anymore. So far it's only been your word against his. I need more evidence."

 

"All right then. If you need evidence, I'll give it to you."

 

He grew thoughtful for a moment, then continued, "You probably know that I've known Wickham all my life. Our fathers were good friends and we played together when we were children. My father liked George very much, he even paid for his college, did you know that?"

 

Elizabeth nodded. So far both men's stories were consistent.

 

"However, as we grew up, I started noticing that his attitude towards women wasn't one I could approve of. He's a good-looking and charming man, and many girls were interested in going out with him. And he was equally eager to go out with them, all of them. He changed girlfriends like other people change underwear, usually being involved with more than one at a time. And when he got bored with them, he dumped them without ceremony. He had no decency, no remorse for the girls he had hurt."

 

"So..." Elizabeth ventured. "What he told me about you, was in fact a description of his own behaviour?"

 

"Oh yes, but that's not all. Do you know why he lost the job at the hospital and his medical license? I didn't have a hand in this matter, he brought it upon himself."

 

"How?" "By sexually harassing his patients."

 

Elizabeth gasped. "Oh my God!"

 

"Yes, exactly. I was hoping never to hear of him once he was fired, but unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be."

 

He bowed his head and she could see pain in his face. Driven by her instinct, she reached out and stroked his hair comfortingly. He raised his head and the expression she saw in his eyes stole her breath away.

 

"You remember my mentioning my sister, Georgiana? She's much younger than me and I confess, I've always tried my hardest to protect and shelter her. Probably too much. She was always shy and very innocent, even naﶥ, and my coddling didn't help her become a confident, mature young woman. She is different now, but she had to pay a high price for that transformation."

 

Elizabeth could see he was about to divulge something very painful to her. Softly, she encouraged him, "What happened?"

 

William took a deep breath. "Last year she went to college and moved out to her own flat. She was very happy and excited, she made new friends and found a boyfriend. She didn't introduce him to me, she just said he was a fellow student. I tried not to interfere; she was so happy and I was pleased to see her gaining confidence. How wrong I was!"

 

Elizabeth was silent, but she took his hand in hers wanting to reassure and comfort her. He squeezed it gratefully and continued, "Then last April a disaster struck. Georgiana came to me in a dreadful state. She was crying and terrified. She was pregnant, her boyfriend, the father of the child had left, denying the child was his."

 

Shocked, Elizabeth was only able to stammer out, "Was...was the father..."

 

"Yes, it was Wickham. It turned out he had been the mysterious boyfriend of Georgiana's. Well, to cut the long story short, it was a very difficult spring. I had to help Georgiana recover from the shock and help her prepare for the great change in her life. She was barely nineteen then and quite innocent, the pregnancy frightened her. Abortion was considered for a short time, but in the end Georgiana rejected that idea. She decided she'd have the baby. However, there was never a question of Wickham having any role in Georgiana or the child's life. All I wanted was for him to stay away from my sister.

 

Well, as time passed, Georgiana grew more and more happy about the baby. She began to consider it as a blessing in disguise and started looking forward to being a mother. But sadly, it wasn't meant to be. She lost the baby and suffered another break-down after the miscarriage."

 

Elizabeth brushed the tears that had slipped from her eyes during William's sad tale. "Oh, how terrible! Poor girl! What she must have gone through! And you, too."

 

He clenched his jaw and looked away. "Don't say anything about it. I deserved it all, after all, it was my own fault. It was I who sheltered Georgiana so much that she didn't know how to protect herself from worthless men like Wickham.

And, on top of that, I didn't look after her properly. I knew she was seeing someone, but I was too busy, too blind to notice that something bad was happening."

 

Hearing the self-recrimination and anger in his voice, she took his face in her hands and made him look at her. "You shouldn't blame yourself so much. You did what you thought was best. You trusted your sister and believed she knew what she was doing. She lied to you about Wickham. What could you have done?"

 

He shook his head, unconvinced.

 

"You are a wonderful brother. You helped Georgiana through very difficult times, you did your best to help and protect her. No one could have done more."

 

"All I know is that my little sister went through hell because I had been too blind to see what was happening to her. I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for that," he confessed softly.

 

"Oh, Will." Her heart ached for his sorrow. Instinctively, she moved to put her hands around his neck and pull him close to her. He clung to her gratefully, letting her soothe him.

 

"Don't go," he entreated.

 

"Are you sure you want me to stay? After all I've done, after all the pain I've caused you, you still want me around?"

 

He moved away, so that he could gaze at her face, his eyes earnest. "I'll be damned if I let Wickham come between us. I love you and I'm not letting you go again."

 

With these words, his lips covered hers in a kiss full of desire and longing. She responded instinctively, by returning and deepening the kiss and winding her hands in his hair, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And it was.

 

His lips left hers, moving across her cheek to her ear. His warm breath burnt her skin, as he whispered, "I mean it, Elizabeth. I won't let you leave me again. Come with me to bed."

 

Sensing his need for comfort and reassurance, which wasn't much different from the longing filling her heart, she could think of nothing else she could want. Filled with need for him, magnified by their long separation and misunderstandings, she could only nod. "Yes."

 

She heard his sudden intake of breath, as he jumped to his feet and scooped her up in his arms. Giddy from his nearness and her unexpected happiness, she giggled, "Doesn't it remind you of something?"

 

A slow grin alighted on his face. "Good old times"

 

He carried her to his bedroom and deposited her on a large, soft bed. He didn't join her immediately, he just sat on the edge of the bed, gazing at her curiously.

 

She raised her eyebrows with interest. "What?"

 

He shook his head, as if in wonder. "I can't believe you're really here."

 

Reaching out, she embraced his neck and drew him to her. His body covered hers, as they once again locked in a passionate embrace. Lips wandering, hands searching, sliding under clothes, impatient, eager to feel the warmth and softness of the skin and the hardness of muscles, to reacquaint themselves with all the delights so greatly missed during the past months.

 

They undressed each other none too smoothly, the process frequently interrupted by kisses and caresses, but also fits of giggles, which neither could contain, which seemed to be bubbling up from their very cores, overflowing with joy and relief, but also awkwardness of long-separated lovers.

 

At long last the disrobing was complete. Trembling with need, Elizabeth revelled in the feel of his naked skin next to hers. She had missed him so much that she couldn't get enough of the feel, the smell, the taste, everything that was him. Her anticipation and impatience was growing by the minute, when suddenly he stilled and cursed loudly.

 

Surprised at such an outburst, she looked at him questioningly.

 

"I don't have any protection. I haven't needed any after you...after we..."

 

He looked so miserable that she could not help but smile with sympathy, her heart soaring at the realisation that he hadn't been with anyone else when they had been apart. Stroking the side of his face comfortingly, she reassured him,

"That's all right, I'm on the pill."

 

He raised his head and eyed her enquiringly, as if wishing to check whether she really meant what he thought she meant. "Are you sure?"

 

She nodded. "For my part, yes. You've showed me today that I can trust you. I've experienced what it's like to be without you and I don't want to go through it again. I want this to last, really last this time. I've never been with anyone without a condom, but I'm ready to make this step now, with you. But if you'd rather ..."

 

"No, no! If you want it, then there's nothing I desire more. Thank you for trusting me. I promise you'll never have a cause to regret it."

 

He kissed her deeply, all thoughts and conversations soon forgotten. They came together with exquisite slowness, savouring the feelings, which were familiar, but new at the same time, their extraordinarily intensified awareness of each other, and their newfound intimacy. Together they travelled through the lands of pain and pleasure, both physical and emotional, revisiting old places and finding new areas of delight. Breaths panting, chests heaving, they increased their speed, until they were running, spinning, dancing till they could take no more and they collapsed as one; a tangle of arms and legs, amidst blissful cries and almost pained groans. 

 

Wordlessly, he gathered her to himself, cradling her close, stroking her damp hair. "God, how I've missed you," he said, as his arms tightened around her.

 

Raising herself slightly, she gazed at him tenderly. "I love you."

 

A sudden grin split his face at her unexpected admission. Reaching out for her, he brought her head down to his for a fervent kiss. Finally, out of breath, he held her close again, her head resting on his chest, where she could hear the soothing sound of his heartbeat. As she was drifting off to sleep, Elizabeth could feel a sensation of deep contentment settling in her heart. All was well again.

 

Chapter twenty five

 

 

Elizabeth awoke to the feeling of a warm breath tickling her ear. William, she thought dreamily, snuggling closer into the warmth of the strong arms encircling her from behind and sighing contentedly. What a lovely way to wake up. 

 

But William, it seemed, wasn't idle for long. Soon the warm breath was joined by the sensation of a warm tongue licking a path up the side of her face. 

 

"Hmmm? William?"

 

"Yes, Lizzy?" she heard a soft whisper near her ear. Wait a minute?a whisper? How could he whisper and lick her face at the same time? Confused and a little startled, she opened her eyes to stare into a pair of brown eyes surrounded by a mane of unruly hair, and a very toothy grin with a pink tongue hanging from the side of a hairy jaw. 

 

"Hurst!"

 

"What?" William sat up straight at her yell, while Elizabeth pulled the covers up to her chin. The perpetrator was staring at them with an unrepentant look on his face. 

 

"Hurst! Get out of the bed! Shoo!" 

 

Reluctantly, the dog turned around and jumped off the bed, but not before he made sure the humans knew just how miserable and ill-used he was. 

 

Elizabeth fell back on the bed, her hand on her forehead. "God, he scared the heck out of me."

 

"Sorry," William muttered, lying down next to her.

 

Elizabeth chuckled softly. "It's ok. I'm not angry, though I confess I didn't expect such a tender greeting. Do you always let him sleep with you in the bed?"

 

William had the grace to look sheepish. "Yes."

 

Elizabeth laughed softly, as she leaned over William and kissed him. "You're so sweet."

 

He frowned. "Sweet? I'll show you I'm anything but sweet!" In one, swift movement he rolled them over and kissed her thoroughly. The normally steady bed started spinning and Elizabeth was left with no choice but to wrap her arms around William's neck and hold on for dear life. Breathing hard, he finally pulled away and his passion-filled eyes looked searchingly into hers. 

 

"So? Do you still think I'm sweet?"

 

She laughed shakily. "Hardly." Raising her hand to his face, she rubbed his cheek. "With that stubble you look more like a wild animal. It's no wonder I took Hurst for you."

 

He gave her a mock scowl, before smiling deviously and lowering his head to very deliberately nuzzle the crook of her neck. 

 

"Ouch, you're scratchy!"

 

"Does it bother you?" he murmured against her skin, teasing her with kisses, while his hand moved lower to caress her breasts.

 

"Oh," she sighed with pleasure. "Not at all."

 

They showered together, washing each other diligently, so diligently that their exit from the shower was significantly delayed. Elizabeth had to borrow William's spare toothbrush, realising with no small wonder the enormous change she had undergone since the previous evening. Driving to William's flat, determined to confront him about the grant, she would never have thought she'd

stay the night. And what a night it had been!

 

As William was shaving, Elizabeth set out to explore the rest of the flat. The only things she had seen the night before was the living and dining area. And the bedroom, she remembered, smiling ruefully. However, she had to admit that although she had spent many long hours in William's bedroom, she didn't remember much of the d?ˮ Curious, she peeked inside and surveyed the room. It had the same colouring as the rest of the flat; beige walls and carpet, dark wooden furniture, a massive wooden bed with brown and beige bedspread and pillows, which currently lay scattered on the floor. She made the bed, unable to leave the room in such a messy state, and proceeded on her tour.

 

The two guest bedrooms had much lighter and more pastel colours, they were decidedly more feminine. Elizabeth wondered who lived there. Probably his sister. And his cousin, she thought grimly. Stop it! You're being ridiculous!

 

She went to the kitchen; a very modern affair, with lots of dark wood and steel, masculine, but not very homey. This kitchen looked?immaculate. Like a picture in a furniture catalogue. It wasn't a place where you could sit half the night over a cup of tea or where a family gathered to prepare meals together. In fact, she doubted he used it much at all. She recalled him telling her once that he hardly ever ate at home. Well, that would have to change, at least while she was there.

 

Not wanting to seem to be throwing her weight around in his home, she restricted herself to putting the coffee maker on. When the coffee was brewing, she stepped out to the balcony, the last place to explore in the flat, and was promptly made breathless by the beautiful sight greeting her. 

 

The sun was already quite high in the sky, and it sparkled in the greyish-blue waters of the Thames. Elizabeth had been by the rivers plenty of times, but never had she lived so near one. Looking at it sparkling in the morning sun, inhaling the sweet scent of the water, feeling the freshness of the breeze on her face and hearing the cries of gulls circling high and low over the water's surface, she was enchanted. Below her, the city was slowly awakening to a lazy Sunday; joggers taking their morning exercise, people walking their dogs or simply enjoying the nice weather. Used to the quiet of her house in the country, Elizabeth was strangely excited and energised by the view and the sounds of the city. It was beautiful. Of course, it was a different kind of beauty than her beloved forests and meadows, but it was beauty nonetheless. 

 

A pair of warm, strong arms sneaked around her, pulling her close. Sighing, she leaned back against his chest in great contentment. 

 

"It's so beautiful."

 

William dropped a soft kiss against her neck. "Yes. I've wanted to share this with you for a very long time."

 

She turned around in his arms and faced him. "You did?"

 

He nodded. "Oh yes. I've fantasized about having you here, showing to you all of the places close to me and seeing your reaction to them. But after we?after what happened I lost all hope of ever having you here."

 

His tone was gentle, but the sadness in his eyes tugged at her heart and her conscience. How awfully I've misjudged him! Unable to face him any longer, she looked away, biting her lip.

 

"Elizabeth? I know we talked about it yesterday, but there are still a lot of things I don't understand. What made you believe Wickham's story and break up with me?" 

 

She heaved a sigh, still staring stubbornly on the tiled floor of the balcony. She knew exactly what caused her distrust in William. But would she have the guts to tell that story?

 

"Lizzy?" he prompted her tenderly. 

 

It wouldn't do. She had caused him so much pain by her distrust and stubbornness. She owed him an explanation. Summoning her courage, she raised her eyes to him. "I will tell you, but it's a long story."

 

He smiled. "I'm not going anywhere. And neither are you, I hope"

 

She smiled back. "No, I'll just have to call Charlotte and tell her I'm staying here. And if I am to spend the next couple of hours divulging a rather unpleasant story, I'll need some sustenance."

 

He chuckled softly, and then let her go, taking her hand instead. "Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes, my lady."

 

As William was making breakfast, Elizabeth called Charlotte. She prepared herself for a severe scolding for not returning for the night. Her friend, however, wasn't angry at all. Nor in the least surprised.

 

"I found the note you left. Went to William's, need to talk to him and explain some things. When you didn't return, I figured you explained everything to each other and you stayed for the night."

 

"Thanks for your understanding, Char."

 

"You're welcome. So, I gather you've made up. Are you back together?"

 

Elizabeth raised her head and caught William's eyes over the breakfast table. The warmth in his gaze sent her heart racing. Unable to stop a grin from splitting her face, she answered, "Yes."

 

"I'm very happy for you. So, I take it you're staying there?"

 

"If you don't mind. I know we planned to spend the weekend together, but?"

 

"But you want to spend some time with your newly regained love. It's all right, I understand. We had Friday and Saturday to ourselves, I'm not so selfish as to want to keep you all to myself. Though I'm sure William isn't as generous," she quipped.

 

Elizabeth chuckled. "Thanks, Char. You're the best."

 

"Yeah, yeah."

 

"I'll drop by on my way back home to get my stuff."

 

"OK, have fun!"

 

"Thanks, Char. Bye."

 

She hung up and met William's inquisitive gaze. "So?"

 

She smiled, finding his hand and twining her fingers with his. Since their reunion she couldn't seem to be able to keep herself from looking for excuses to touch him. "I have her leave to stay here."

 

"Good. Now eat, before all of this grows cold." He picked up a piece of toast with jam and fed her with it, his fingers lingering on her lips long after she swallowed the offering. He also seemed unable to keep himself from touching her. What a lucky coincidence, she thought as his lips found hers for yet another kiss.

 

After breakfast they took Hurst for a walk by the river. Hand in hand they strolled in the cold, wintry morning, enjoying the views, the sunny weather and each other's company. The simple act of walking together had a calming effect on Elizabeth. She couldn't remember the last time she felt so happy and peaceful. So when William reminded her of the explanation she had promised him, she thought it was as good time as any to tell her story. 

 

Taking a deep breath, she started, "Wickham came to Meryton on the first Friday after you left. Without my knowledge Lydia invited him to Charlotte's party and when he came and saw you weren't there, he started chatting me up."

 

An ugly scowl appeared on William's face and Elizabeth hastened with a clarification, "I tried to get rid of him and then he started warning me against you. I didn't believe him, so he produced all kinds of stories which were supposed to prove your guilt. The last straw was his announcing that you were engaged to Anne."

 

"That bastard! He knew very well I'm not engaged to her."

 

Elizabeth glanced at him. "But where did he get such a crazy idea from? To say you're engaged to your own cousin! Most people wouldn't believe it. I didn't believe it at first either."

 

William laughed bitterly. "Oh, he's more intelligent than you think. Though the story isn't true, he didn't invent it."

 

Surprised, Elizabeth stopped walking and turned to William. "I don't understand. He didn't invent it?"

 

He rolled his eyes, frustration clearly written on his face. "My aunt Catherine, Anne's mother, wants me to marry Anne and she's not a woman who can easily take 'no' for an answer. So, Anne and I have decided to ignore her none too subtle allusions, but don't contradict her."

 

"So," Elizabeth began slowly. "You allow her to believe that one day you and Anne will marry?"

 

"Well?yes, I guess you could say that."

 

"But why don't you just tell her it's not going to happen?"

 

William thought for a moment before responding. "Honestly? If it were just about me, I'd have willingly braved her wrath. But it's also about Anne. She asked me not to start a war with my aunt now and I don't want to subject her to her mother's rage."

 

Elizabeth gave him a sidelong glance and started walking again. "You're very protective of her. Lucky girl."

 

"Yes, I care about her very much. She's like a sister to me." 

"And you? Do you know what you are to her?"

"She feels the same about me."

 

She threw a doubtful glance at him. "Are you sure about that?"

"Yes, of course I'm sure. Elizabeth, what is all this questioning about?"

 

She shrugged, but didn't meet his eyes. "I just have doubts about her treating you only as a brother, that's all."

 

"You mean you think Anne's in love with me?"

"Well, yes. I think it's possible."

 

William burst out laughing, making her stop and look at him sharply and with some vexation. He was a man who disapproved of public displays of emotion, and here he was standing in the middle of the street laughing uncontrollably. What was wrong with him?

 

She levelled an indignant glare at him. "What's so funny?"

 

He stopped laughing, but was still grinning very foolishly. "You are."

 

"Me?"

 

"Yes, you," he repeated making a step in her direction and putting his hands on her waist. "You're jealous of Anne."

 

"Jealous, me? William Darcy, your ego must be the size of a small country."

 

"Yes, you are. Don't try to deny it, because it won't work. You're quite transparent, sweetheart."

 

She snorted, crossing her arms on her chest. "Even if I were jealous, which I'm not, I'd have a very good reason to be."

 

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

 

"Oh yes! Have you already forgotten your sneaking around, calling Anne when you were at my place? You called her pet names, you used endearments, I heard it all. Now you're telling me you aren't going to tell her mother you won't marry her, because Anne doesn't want you to. Isn't it clear enough she wants to marry you?"

 

With an amused look on his face, William took her face in his hands. "Lizzy, I know for a fact that the last thing Anne wants is to marry me. I can't tell you why, because I promised her secrecy, but believe me, she's never even thought of me in that way and I certainly haven't thought of her. She's just my cousin, nothing more. You are the one I love and want to be with. She's no threat to you."

 

She looked at him and saw sincerity in his expression. He was telling the truth, she could see it plainly. Or at least what he believed to be true. Reluctantly, she could feel herself soften. 

 

"Why do you have to be so damn intuitive?" She pouted. 

 

He chuckled softly. "I'm not intuitive at all. It's you. You're like an open book sometimes."

 

She groaned and rested her forehead against his chest. "You must think I'm crazy."

 

His arms pulled her closer into his embrace, as he whispered in her ear, "Darling, if we weren't in a public place, I'd show you exactly what I think about you."

 

"Then we'd better walk back." She smirked, taking his hand and pulling him with her back in the direction of his building. The eager expression on his face made her giggle.

 

They walked in silence for a few moments, before William spoke, "So, are we done on the subject of Anne?"

 

"I'm afraid not yet," she said apologetically. "You see, Anne was the reason I broke up with you. Not just because of what Wickham said. I admit that his story made me uneasy and a little suspicious, but I was determined not to believe him until I had talked to you about it."

 

"A very wise plan. Why didn't you call me then?"

 

"I did, but you weren't at home. However, Anne was. It was eleven o'clock in the evening and she was there. She picked up the phone and introduced herself as if she was in her own home. She said you were 'unavailable'. I assumed she was staying at your flat, with you. What else was I supposed to think?"

 

For a while, William didn't respond, he just walked on, thoughtful. Finally, he shook his head in disbelief. "My God, what a mess! I can see how you could have thought this to be damning evidence. Especially that Anne really was staying at my flat that night. I asked her to look after Hurst when I was at the hospital."

 

"So that's all that happened? She doesn't stay with you regularly?"

 

He threw her an exasperated glance. "I thought we've already discussed it."

 

Embarrassed, she lowered her head. "You're right, I'm sorry."

 

They returned to William's building and he opened the door for Elizabeth and followed her in, without saying anything. He was quiet until they finally made it to his flat.

 

"I don't understand, Elizabeth," he said as he helped her out of her coat. "We spend an amazing couple of weeks together. We understand each other, we can talk for hours, we can laugh together and we have fantastic sex together. However, it seems none of this matters, because you don't trust me. As soon as I'm out of town, you start thinking I'm cheating on you and then you break up with me without even asking for my version of events."

 

She could hear hurt in his voice and her heart sunk. He'll never forgive me. I've ruined everything.

 

"I'm sorry. I was wrong about you. I can see that now, but I realise it's probably too late. I will leave you now.

 

She turned to reach for her coat, but was stopped by hand gripping her arm. "Don't even think I'll let you leave now. I told you yesterday I'm not going to let you go again and I still mean it. But I'll be damned if I allow us to continue like this, without explaining everything to each other." 

 

She turned away from him, torn between relief that he wasn't going to throw her out and apprehension at the ultimatum he gave her, and weighed his words for a moment.

 

"It's not your fault. I want to trust you. I thought I did, but at the first signs that you could have been keeping something from me, I freaked out," she confessed. "Not because you did something wrong, but because it reminded me too much of something that happened to me a few years ago."

 

Suddenly flooded by bad memories, she hardly noticed William gently putting a hand on her back and guiding her to the sofa. She slumped down and a second later she was being gathered into his arms. She held to him gratefully, putting her head on his shoulder.

 

"In my first year of university I moved to London. I lived in a dorm and relished my freedom and independence. I had fun, went to parties, met new people and made new friends. It was then that I met Sean. He was a senior, a business major and a very handsome and charming man. I had had boyfriends in high school, but I had never met anyone like Sean before. All of my former love interests simply paled in comparison. He was intelligent, charismatic, full of life, always the life and soul of the party, open and had a sharp sense of humour. Not to mention handsome like a young god. We met through a mutual friend and I fell in love. Just like that, at first sight. I simply couldn't resist him."

 

William cleared his throat and she glanced up to see him frown in displeasure. She smiled ruefully, thinking she wasn't the only one who was being jealous here.

 

"To my surprise and great happiness," she continued, "he also showed interest in me. We talked and discovered similar interests. We both loved books and we could spend hours discussing something we read. At first I think he only treated me as a friend, I'm sure my adoration must have been a great boost to his ego. We were spending a lot of time together; we went to parties, went walking, watched films or just talked. And, little by little, he started falling for me, too, until one day when we were laughing together at something, he kissed me. It came as a surprise to both of us, I think. He was a little embarrassed about losing his head in such a way, but soon got over it. He told me he had fallen in love with me and, knowing I was crazy about him but being polite enough to pretend ignorance of the state of my feelings for him, he asked if there was any chance I could consider him as something more than just a friend."

 

Elizabeth grew thoughtful for a moment, engrossed in memories. "I had never been happier than that moment, when he told me he loved me. I had loved him for many months and believed he would never be more than a friend to me. As you can imagine, I was over the moon because of his declaration and told him so. We sealed our new relationship with a kiss and then some more. We had spent a lot of time together before, but from that moment we were almost inseparable. 

 

We were very happy for a couple of months. Sean graduated in June and I was so proud of him. As soon as he was out of university, he started a company with a friend of his. In the beginning the company was doing very well, Sean was thriving on his success and we started to plan a future together. I still had two years of university ahead of me, but we decided to marry anyway. As for

myself, I'd gladly have given up university for him. I was in love and all I wanted was to be with Sean. I thought he was all I needed to be happy. I was very naﶥ. Fortunately, my parents managed to convince me to stay in university. I agreed reluctantly, because lately I had the feeling that Sean was distancing himself, that he was keeping something from me. He was very busy with

his company and I was busy with my studies and, after a while I realised we didn't see each other even half as often as in the beginning. I was worried by this and I said so to him, but he put it all down to us being busy and assured me it would change when the position of his company would be more stable in the market. 

 

I believed him, though my doubts didn't leave me completely. Summer came and I went on a training session to Kent, while Sean stayed in London. I missed him terribly, so during the first free weekend I hopped on a train and rushed to London to see him."

 

Unbidden, Elizabeth felt herself tremble, as the memory of the events from four years before returned to her with full force of the emotions she had felt then. William gathered her even closer, stroking her hair in a reassuring gesture. 

 

"I didn't call him, I wanted to surprise him, so I went straight to his flat. I opened the door and went inside. He wasn't in the living room or kitchen. I found him in his bedroom?in bed with another woman."

 

William cursed ugly. "Bastard! You leave for a couple of weeks and he jumps into bed with another woman at the first opportunity!"

 

Elizabeth brushed tears from her face and shook her head sadly. "That's not all. If it were just about sex, it wouldn't be anywhere near as painful. If he'd showed remorse, if he'd promised never to do it again, I might have even forgiven him. I loved him very much and I couldn't imagine my life without him. But it wasn't just about sex. Far from it."

 

She clung to him, seeking comfort, seeking strength to finish her tale. "I'll never forget the shocked expression on his face when he saw me. I turned around and ran out of the flat. He ran after me, he wanted to explain, but I wouldn't hear any of it. I ran to a nearby pub and called Jane. I wasn't able to do anything else. I cried and cried and cried. I couldn't believe he had done this to me. I loved him so much and he said he loved me too. We were supposed to get married, for heaven's sake!

 

"I didn't return to that farm where the training took place that summer. Jane took me home, where I spent three days crying my eyes out. Then, on the fourth day, I got an email from Sean. He said he was sorry, but he couldn't see me anymore. He'd met someone else and wanted to be with her. He gave no more explanations, nothing that could make me understand why he was doing it. I was

angry, confused and devastated. I kept hoping it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, that he'd come to his senses and return to me." She laughed bitterly. "How naﶥ I was!" 

 

"I wasn't kept in the dark for long. Soon I found out from a mutual friend that Sean was getting married. It turned out his company was bankrupt and he himself in huge debt. His fianc��s older than him and rich. Marriage to her would save him from creditors and his company from ruin. 

 

That was the end of all illusions for me. From that point, I decided to forget about him. I knew he loved me, but not enough. Not as much as he loved money, as he loved himself. He sold himself, he betrayed me, betrayed our love for money and position. That I could never have forgiven him.

 

"I never saw him again. I heard about him sometimes. I know that he divorced some time ago, but he never tried contacting me again. As for myself, for a long while I was very hurt, but after some time I slowly returned to my old self, only less naﶥ and trusting. I finished university, settled in Meryton, started working at the clinic and I was quite content with my life. But since Sean, I didn't have any more relationships. I simply couldn't trust the men I met, I was too afraid I'd be hurt again. So I stayed away from love affairs?until you marched into my life and turned it upside down, making me fall in love with you, despite all my efforts not to."

 

She grew silent, relieved to have finally told him her story. He held her close, stroking her back and kissing her hair and she clung to him, grateful for the comfort and safety of being in his arms.

 

"I'm so sorry, Lizzy, that you had to go through this. That man was crazy to reject your love for the sake of money. He didn't deserve you and you are better off without him, though I'd gladly wring his neck for all the pain he caused you."

 

She sighed, kissing his cheek. "Do you understand now why I couldn't help but suspect the worst when I found Anne at your place?"

 

He nodded slowly.

 

"It was as if someone turned back the time and I was again twenty-two, desperate because the man I loved betrayed me, chose a rich, distinguished woman over me. You have no idea how much it hurts, to know that you couldn't find happiness, because you weren't rich enough. How humiliating and degrading it feels. I wanted to trust you, but I've been programmed not to trust for so long that it's difficult for me to change."

 

He kissed her brow. "It's all right, sweetheart. I understand now. I wish I had known it all along, we would have saved ourselves a lot of hurt. But I realise I wasn't completely open and forthcoming with you and it probably didn't help the situation. I'm sorry."

 

She sighed again. "What are we going to do?"

 

"Well, you are going to lie down and rest a bit. You need it after this conversation. I, on the other hand, am going to go to the kitchen and fix us some lunch. After that we'll do whatever we want."

 

She moved away slightly in order to look at him. "You know what I mean."

 

He smiled gently, brushing her hair away from her face. "Yes, I do, and I think this is exactly what we should do. We'll take it one step at a time, no pressure, no rush. But I hope you realize I'm not like Sean and I'd never do something like that to you. I also hope you'll come to me and share any doubts you might have with me. And remember what I said: I'm not going to let you go again."

 

A brilliant smile lit her face, as she threw her arms around his neck and hug him impulsively. "I love you."

 

"I love you too." He held her close for a while, before disentangling himself from her and commanding her to lay down and get some rest. She did as he ordered, curling under a blanket he covered her with. She closed her eyes and yawned, feeling very sleepy. Her last thought before falling asleep was, What an exhausting business these heartfelt confessions are!

 

Chapter twenty six

 

It was already past nine when Elizabeth arrived home. William had been reluctant to let her go, but finally relented, overcome by his anxiety for her having to drive back to Meryton late in the evening. It had been after seemingly endless kisses and embraces and countless promises and assurances that they had indeed parted, each a little miserable, but hopeful.

 

"Hello!" she called out walking down the hall to the living room. Soon enough, Jack ran to her offering an enthusiastic greeting. "Oh good, you're back," said Mary from her place on the couch in front of the TV. 

 

Elizabeth sat on the armrest next to her sister. "Yeah. How's everything?" "Fine. The horse is fed and watered, the dog is walked for the night and the cat's sandbox is clean." "Great. Thanks for your help, sis."

Mary grinned. "Don't mention it. A weekend away from Fanny and the fiends is always a treat. Remember me whenever you need someone to housesit again." "How about next weekend?" Mary shot her a surprised look. "You're kidding! Hell, yeah!" Elizabeth had to laugh at Mary's eager expression. "It looks like I'll need your services quite often from now on." "Oh, sure, I understand. You'll be very busy in the clinic."

 

Elizabeth smiled a little at her sister's error, but decided not to disabuse her of the idea. Besides, it was the truth; she would be very busy in the clinic. She'd also be busy with William, but that revelation could wait. It was barely twenty-four hours since they had gotten back together, she wanted to keep the news to herself for a while to savour her newly regained happiness without having to answer a barrage of questions.

 

"Well, I'll be on my way, then," said Mary rising from the couch. "I'll see you home on Thursday, right?" Elizabeth grinned. "Would I miss Christmas at our house?" "Not if you want to survive our mother's wrath."

 

They laughed good-naturedly at the shared joke. Fanny Bennet's insistence that all of her children be home for Christmas was proverbial in the Bennet family. 

 

With Mary gone, Elizabeth was left alone in the house. She took a shower and made herself comfortable on the bed. Eleven o'clock. High time for William to call. Five hours seemed like a very long time to go without hearing his voice. Impatient, she picked up the phone and dialed his number. Almost instantly she heard the engaged signal. Who is he talking to at this hour? Pouting with disappointment, she hung up, only to be immediately startled by a loud bout of ringing. In a flash the receiver was back to her ear.

 

"Hello?" she said somewhat breathlessly. "Finally!" William's voice sounded mildly irritated. "I've been trying to get through for the past few minutes. Who were you talking to just now?"

 

Realising he called her just as she was trying to reach him, she couldn't help but laugh. "Well, I wanted to talk to you, but your line was engaged." "You mean we called each other at the same time?" Now he sounded amused. Elizabeth smiled, leaning against the pillows comfortably. "Uh-huh.  Aren't we hopeless?" "Or psychic." She could almost hear the grin in his voice. "Come now, Dr. Darcy. You don't want to tell me an accomplished scientist such as yourself believes in magic!" she teased. "Oh, you're one to talk, Dr. Bennet. You're the one who has bewitched me so thoroughly I no longer know what's real and what's not," he accused playfully. "I did nothing of the sort! I never intended to bewitch you. If you hadn't been so stubborn and had left me alone, you would have ended up no worse for wear."

 

He snorted. "I hardly stood a chance, what with you being so beautiful and infuriating.  I couldn't help but fall in love with you."

 

Elizabeth didn't respond but for the sound of her breath hitching; hearing him profess his love for her was still too new. It affected her deeply.

 

"I miss you," she confessed in a small voice, curling up on her side and wishing he was there to hold her.  "I miss you, too. Come to London tomorrow?" "Will, you know I can't. I've got work tomorrow and so do you." She could hear him sigh. "I know. Next weekend, then?" "What do you have in mind?" she asked, her heart beating faster at the thought of seeing him again. "I'd like you to meet my sister." "Oh," was all she could say, happy and nervous at the same time. His sister was his closest family. Meeting her would be like meeting his parents. "This is rather serious." "It is. I'm dead serious about it. About us."

 

God, it was so good to hear him say this! She couldn't stop herself from grinning like a fool at his words.

 

"I'd like to meet your sister very much, William." "Good. How about Saturday evening, then? I'll make dinner." She smiled lazily. "Perfect!" "Five more days, Elizabeth." His voice grew husky, sending a shiver down her spine. "Five more days," she repeated. Who knew five days could be so long? "It's getting late. We should say goodnight." "No, not yet," she protested, but couldn't stop a yawn.  "I don't want to hang up yet either, but you're tired. I'll talk to you tomorrow." She sighed forlornly. "Oh, all right." "Good night, Lizzy. Dream of me."

 

She smiled ruefully as she hung up. There was a slim chance she'd be able to dream about anything or anyone else.

 

~ * ~

 

Christmas Day came and Elizabeth found herself on her way to Longbourn. She and William had decided to spend the holidays with their families and, though she missed his presence, she realized their relationship was still too fresh and new to make them neglect their relatives in favour of spending Christmas together. They would meet on Saturday and spend the weekend together, that should be enough.

 

The family dinner was a pleasant affair, or as pleasant as it could be in the Bennet household. Lydia and Kitty kept their mouths shut, too busy eating to talk much, and her mother, pleased as punch to have her future son-in-law, Charles Bingley, at the dinner table, was in a splendid mood, forgetting to bring up her poor nerves even once.

 

After dinner, Elizabeth and Jane offered to clean up, while the rest of the family relaxed in the living room. Elizabeth was glad to have the opportunity to acquaint her sister with what had happened between William and her, for which she hadn't had the chance during the past few days. Taking a dish towel in her hand she thought of how to phrase her news, but before she managed to start, Jane addressed her.

 

"Lizzy, I'd like you to do something for me." She didn't expect such a request, but Elizabeth was always willing to help her sister. "Yes, of course. What is it?" "I want you to come to our New Year's Eve party." Jane raised a wet hand to stop Elizabeth from responding. "No, don't say anything yet, let me finish."

 

Elizabeth had no intention of interrupting, curious about where her sister was heading with this conversation.

 

"You've been miserable for the past few weeks, I hate seeing you thus. You don't want to tell me what exactly happened between you and William and I respect your decision. I'm not going to press you for answers anymore, but you must promise me you'll at least stop tormenting yourself. Don't be such a recluse, go out and meet people," Jane pleaded.

 

Alarmed and slightly shocked, Elizabeth sought to ease her sister's worries, "Jane..."

"No, Lizzy, I know you don't want to listen to it, but, please, hear me out. I don't want to see you so unhappy. Come to the party, I promise you'll have a good time." ?Jane..."

 

"You don't have to worry about meeting William, he's not going to be there. He's going to Pemberley to spend the holiday with his sister. I wouldn't subject you to meeting him after what's happened."

 

This made Elizabeth pause. She and William hadn't discussed their plans for New Year's Eve yet, but she knew very well his sister lived in London, so he couldn't be going to Pemberley to meet her. What was Jane up to? Inordinately curious, she decided there was no way she was going to come clean with Jane and miss the fun of spoiling whatever nefarious plan she was plotting. Putting a morose mask on her face, she sighed heavily.

 

"All right, Jane. I'll do it for you. I'll come to the party, but don't expect me to have fun." Jane's smile was full of genuine relief and Elizabeth was almost sorry for teasing her. Almost. "I'm so glad, Lizzy. You're not going to regret it, I promise!"

 

Turning away from her sister to hide a smirk, Elizabeth chuckled inwardly. This was going to be interesting!

 

~ * ~

 

That evening she told the whole story to William. When she finished, he was silent for a while, before responding, "I'm going to kill them." "Who?" "Your sister and my friend.  Some friend he is, too." "What do you mean?" "He didn't invite me to the party. All these years I've known him, he's tried to drag me to every single one there was, but when there's a party I really want to go to, I'm not invited!"

Elizabeth laughed quietly. "Charles can be a bit slow on the uptake, but even he can take a hint ... or fifteen years worth of hints in this case." "Well, it's bloody inconvenient," William grumbled. "I wanted to be there with you." "I guess they thought they'd save us the embarrassment and further hurt of seeing each other. They don't know we've reconciled."  "Elizabeth, I'm not sure I like the thought of you going to that party alone. I have a feeling they'll try to set you up with someone." "Will, honey, relax.  So what if they're trying to set me up, it won't work anyway, because I'm very much taken. I promised Jane I'd come." "I still don't like it." "You know, we could just tell them we're back together and then you'd get an invitation as well." "No, if they've contrived to keep us apart on New Year's Eve, they don't deserve to be told. Not just yet, at least." "Okay, whatever you want." "You don't mind not telling Jane?"

 

Elizabeth smiled, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. "No, I don't. I should probably feel guilty, but I'm enjoying this entire clandestine romance thing too much." "It's good to be together without Charles and Jane breathing down our backs, you mean. But I'd enjoy it much more if you were here with me now."

"I know," she sighed.  "But if you just close your eyes, you can imagine I'm there." "Mmm... it's nice. Not as nice as the real thing, but I suppose it must do for now. At least until tomorrow." "Yes, tomorrow." She smiled dreamily at the thought. "Good night, William. Dream of me."

 ?As always," she heard him whisper, before he said goodnight and hung up.

 

Yeah, as always, she thought to herself. That's one more thing we have in common, Mr. Darcy.

 

~ * ~

 

Elizabeth had to admit she was very nervous as she stood in front of William's door on Friday evening, waiting for someone to open the door. She was about to meet his sister and she knew Georgiana and William were very close. Would she approve of her? Would she like her? Elizabeth recalled the story William had told her about his sister's sad experience. Would she know how to behave around her, would she remember not to say anything that might bring back painful memories? Would she...

 

Her anxious train of thought was interrupted by the door opening and William standing before her. His face lit up with a beaming smile. Without a word he took her into his arms and held her close.

 

"You've made it," he whispered near her ear.

 

Squashed tightly against his chest, she could only manage a breathless, "Yes," before he moved his lips to cover hers hungrily. She reciprocated eagerly, before he pulled away, murmuring, "Later." Taking her hand, he led her to the living room.

 

A young woman was sitting on the sofa, stroking Hurst's head absentmindedly, as he basked in her attention. On seeing them enter, she rose quickly and looked at the pair expectantly.

 

William smiled in encouragement. "Georgie, I'd like you to meet Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth, this is my sister Georgiana." "I'm very pleased to meet you, Georgiana. William has told me so much about you."

 

Georgiana took Elizabeth's offered hand and shook it. The girl's hand was warm and her grip, though delicate was by no means weak or limp. Elizabeth caught Georgiana's gaze and suddenly remembered William calling his sister shy. Elizabeth now saw the truth of his words. The girl in front of her was as nervous as she had been all the time. Touched, she smiled at her warmly.

 

Georgiana returned her smile with a shy one of her own. "He has told me a lot about you, too. You really have made an impression on him." Elizabeth laughed at the sudden colour in William's cheeks. "I'm sure he exaggerated my good qualities so that it'll be impossible for me to live up to the perfect picture he's painted." "Oh no! Will always says exactly what he means, he's not a flatterer. Well, he does say too many kind things to me sometimes, I don't always deserve such praise." Elizabeth looked at William, smiling at him with teasing affection. "Ah, an ideal elder brother." "There is no one better."

 

"I think I'll to go to the kitchen to check the chicken. I'll leave you ladies alone." William made a speedy retreat from the room, his cheeks flaring crimson. The man obviously wasn't used to hearing compliments. Amused, Elizabeth wondered how many more shades of red she would see on his face that evening.

 

The two women looked fondly after his retreating figure and then sat down, each smiling a little nervously. The situation suddenly seemed more awkward without William in the room.

 

"So, I've heard you're studying at the Royal," Elizabeth started the conversation. "Yes. I study in the piano class. William's told me you are musical as well." Elizabeth laughed. "I sing, but it's hardly anything serious, just a hobby." "I'd love to hear you sing one day." "I will sing if you accompany me." "Deal," said Georgiana smilingly. "Will doesn't have a piano, so you'll have to come over to my place one day so we can practice some songs." "I'd love to." "Wonderful!" Georgiana clapped her hands in delight. "How about tomorrow?"

 

"Elizabeth and I have plans," announced William, materializing at their side suddenly.  Elizabeth looked up at him. "We do?" Standing next to her, William put a possessive hand on her shoulder. "Oh yes, we do. So don't you dare try to snatch my girlfriend away from me." He glared at his sister, who flashed him a grin, completely unperturbed by her brother's threatening stare. "I thought you'd be happy to hear your girlfriend sing at last." "All in good time. Besides, I prefer private concerts." Georgiana threw her hands up in mock despair. "What have I done to deserve such a selfish brother?"

 

Elizabeth laughed at the exchange between the siblings. It was quite unusual to see William so relaxed and easy. She couldn't remember a time when he allowed anyone to tease him so ... anyone except for her, she though wryly. It made perfect sense, however, that here, on his own turf and in the presence of his beloved younger sister, he would be his true self. Unaccountably, seeing him so made her happy, and she favoured him with a cheerful, loving smile, which seemed to surprise him a little, but which he almost instantly returned, taking her hand in his and squeezing it for good measure.

 

Georgiana cleared her throat, interrupting the interlude and reminding William and Elizabeth that they weren't alone. "Will, you said something about dinner. I'm sure that the two of you can live on love alone, but I'm getting really hungry."

 

The knowing smirk and a wicked quirk of an eyebrow told Elizabeth that Georgiana wouldn't let them forget about that lapse anytime soon. Any embarrassment she might have felt was outweighed by relief and satisfaction that she had been accepted by the person who was close and important for William.  

 

The dinner was a pleasant affair, filled with comfortable conversation and laughter. William and Georgiana took turns telling funny childhood anecdotes, each trying to come up with the most embarrassing story about the other, which made it an amusing and enlightening evening for Elizabeth. She laughed as she listened to the story of a three-year old William mortifying his parents beyond belief when he had decided to recite the volley of curses he had learnt from eavesdropping on the farmhands' conversation, during the vicar's visit. She sat in horrified silence when she heard how he had been kicked by a horse when he had been six and almost died. She shed a few tears as Georgiana reminisced about the time soon after their parents' death, the shock and despair both had felt, and how William had again and again overcome his pain because he had to be strong for his little sister.

 

By the end of the evening, Elizabeth felt her knowledge and understanding of William had increased significantly.  She had always felt she knew him little, too little; therefore, she was grateful for the glimpse into the past of the man she loved.

 

As for Georgiana, Elizabeth found herself liking the girl a lot. She remembered William's sister had to go through what no teenage girl ever should, yet she didn't seem bitter in the least.  And yet, she was different from a typical nineteen year old. She talked and laughed like Lydia or Kitty would, but one could see there was no carefree frivolity in her. This young woman was made to grow up sooner than her peers, you could see it in her eyes. When other girls her age still enjoyed the blessings of ignorance and naﶥt?orgiana radiated experience. The tragedies that had touched her had made her stronger, filling her with inner wisdom, uncommon in such a young age. Elizabeth thought about her own sisters and how much they could learn from Georgiana. There was a thing or two she herself could learn from the girl. 

 

The time flew by quickly in such pleasant company and before they knew it, Georgiana was rising from the table, announcing it was time for her to go home.

 

"I had a lovely evening. It was really great to finally meet you, Elizabeth," Georgiana said when Elizabeth and William walked her to the door. Elizabeth smiled at the girl warmly. "I assure you the sentiment is mutual. We really should meet sometime without your brother, just the two of us. You could come and visit me at my place." Georgiana grinned. "I'd love to. But knowing Will, he won't let you out of his sight anytime soon." "You're quite right." William put a possessive arm around Elizabeth's shoulders.

"I'll leave you two alone, then. Bye, Elizabeth. See you later, Will." She stood on tiptoe to kiss William on the cheek and then was gone, leaving the couple standing in the hall and looking after her.

 

"Well?" William broke the silence. Elizabeth turned around in his arms and faced him. "I like her." William grinned down at her, very much pleased. "I knew you would." "She seemed shy and nervous in the beginning, but after she relaxed a little, I could see that she's smart and funny. I think we can be good friends given time." Sighing deeply, William gathered her close to him, resting his chin on top of her head. "I'm so glad. I've been trying very hard to be both a brother and a father to her, but it's not enough. She needs an older and more experienced woman to confide in." Elizabeth raised her head and looked at him with a quirked brow. "Are you calling me an old woman?" William chuckled and played along. "Well, you are twenty-six. If we lived in eighteen-hundreds you'd be considered a spinster." "You!" she hissed in mock indignation, swatting his chest and stepping away from him. "You are eight years older than me!" "Old enough to know what I'm doing." He grinned cheekily, stepping close to her and catching her in his arms again. "You know you wouldn't want it any other way." Her head tipped back as William's lips ravaged her neck. "You're damn right, I wouldn't." "Language, Elizabeth!" he scolded her, giving her neck a playful bite.

 

Elizabeth's knees suddenly went watery, but before she had the chance to slip to the floor, William caught her in his arms and carried her to his bedroom, where he proceeded to prove to her again and again he indeed knew very well what he was doing.

 

~ * ~

 

The next day Elizabeth decided to wrangle William's secret evening plans out of him. She tried everything; requests, threats and promises, but William wouldn't budge.

 

"It's a surprise. You'll find out when the time comes."

 

No amount of pouting helped, William was unmoved.  It was nearing 6 o'clock when he finally relented.

 

"I have tickets to the opera for tonight."

 

Elizabeth gasped and fought the urge to squeal in delight. The opera! It was such a long time since she'd been to one. As soon as the thought crossed her mind, however, a reality check set in. Oh damn! The opera!

 

Bemused, William observed the play of emotions on her face - from joy to dejection in a matter of seconds.

 

"What's wrong? I thought you liked opera?" "'Like' isn't a strong enough word. I love opera, but I wish you had told me you were planning to take me to one. I don't have anything suitable to wear!" So that's what it was about. Relieved, he smiled indulgently at her. "Oh, don't worry, it's not a problem at all." "What do you mean, 'no problem at all'? Since when are jeans suitable attire for the opera?" She shot him an annoyed glance.

 

William laughed, covering her hand with his own to settle her down. "You know I like you in anything, but no, I don't expect you to wear jeans to the opera. That's why I made sure you won't have to." She eyed him suspiciously. "You didn't, did you?" "I'm afraid I did," he replied, raising both hands in silent apology. But it was clear he was anything but repentant. She sighed, exasperated. "What am I to do with you?"

He grinned wickedly at her. "I have a few ideas, but for now you may want to have a look at what I think might constitute suitable attire."

 

William walked to the closet and took out a large box. Taking it from his hands, Elizabeth couldn't help but be excited. When she finally opened the box, its contents rendered her momentarily speechless.

 

"It's beautiful."

 

"Why don't you put it on?" William suggested and she nodded. She changed in the bathroom and appraised herself in the mirror. It was a little black dress, the hem ended a few centimeters above her knees, the skirt narrow without being too tight, the sleeveless top uncovered her shoulders, but the matching shawl not only protected her from the cold, its deep burgundy colour also enlivened the ensemble. The dress was simple, yet elegant; sexy without being tawdry. Whatever she thought of the idea of William buying her such gifts, she couldn't fault his taste.

 

After a while, she left the bathroom and returned to the living room. She hoped to make an entrance, but annoyingly, William was talking on the phone and only offered her a distracted smile when she walked into the room. She sat on the sofa, careful not to crease her dress and picked up a magazine to amuse herself until William ended his conversation, but hearing a familiar name, she forgot all about the magazine, all her attention arrested on the conversation.

 

"Don't you think it's rather late to call me now, Charles? I could have made other plans, you know." He rolled his eyes. "I do so go out! It's not like you're the only friend I have...all right, all right, stop it. I'll come."  William glanced at Elizabeth and it seemed he was hit with a sudden idea. He winked at her, an evil grin on his face, as he spoke again, "One more question, Charles. Okay if I bring a date?"

 

Understanding what he was plotting, Elizabeth had to clamp her hand on her mouth to stop herself from laughing. Oh, that would be perfect!

 

"What? Last time I checked it was customary to bring a date to a party... Well, you were wrong...She's a very special lady, so just save it, okay? Good...See you at the party, then. ..Bye."

 

He hung up, finally concentrating all his attention on Elizabeth.

 

"Wow," he said finally, after a moment of silence. "You look beautiful." She had to smile at the endearingly awestruck expression on his face. "Thanks." His continued intense stare embarrassed her slightly and she quickly changed the subject. "What was that all about?" She gestured towards the phone.

 

"It seems Charles and Jane are more clever than we gave them credit for. They wanted to set us up at the New Year's Eve party. Charles even went so far as to wait till practically the last moment to ask me, so we wouldn't suspect anything." "And now it all comes out," she laughed. "Who would have thought? Charles and Jane, the two innocents, not so innocent after all." William sat down next to her and pulled her into his arms. "They've got nothing on us. We're going to outsmart them. I can't wait to see their faces when they realize you are my date." Elizabeth nuzzled his neck. "You do realize Jane is going to kill Charles for letting you bring a date when she thinks I'll be alone and miserable?" ?Well, serves him right. He had it coming, believe me." He inched his head lower and caught her lips with his for a slow kiss.

 

When they broke for air, Elizabeth said, "I haven't thanked you for the dress yet." "That's right, you haven't." "Thank you," she whispered, taking his face in her hands and guiding it down for another kiss. "It's really beautiful, but I'm afraid I'm still lacking something essential." "What?" he murmured distractedly, his lips pleasantly occupied with kissing her neck.

 

"Shoes." "Shoes, mmm ... oh, shoes!" He let her go, hastened to the closet and rummaged through it again. "I knew I forgot something."

 

Amused, she watched as he reemerged from the closet holding another box in his hands. He handed her the prize triumphantly, and she opened it, revealing a lovely pair of black heels and a matching purse. He'd really thought about everything...or had he?

 

"William Darcy." She eyed him suspiciously. "You haven't picked all this yourself." "What makes you say that?" "A dress, sure, shoes, maybe, but no man would have remembered to buy a matching purse." She waved the incriminating item in the air. "Well, let's just say I'm exceptional." He smiled smugly. "Yes, you are, but not that exceptional. Who helped you?" "All right, Georgiana helped me."

 

She gasped in mock indignation and waggled her finger at him. "Shame on you, William! Taking credit for your sister's hard work! I should punish you for that." "Punish me! You haven't even thanked me for the shoes and the purse!" He pouted. "Well, isn't it the same thing?" she grinned wickedly, putting her hands around his neck and kissing him soundly.

 

~ * ~

 

The moon was high in the clear winter sky when Elizabeth and William strolled slowly through the chilly London night. The streets were empty; there was hardly any traffic, and only occasionally a frozen pedestrian passed them. The silence of the city, all the more soothing after a noisy and hectic day, was broken only occasionally by the sounds of the cars passing far and near, footsteps approaching and then fading as a passer-by walked away, laughter and music coming from a pub down the street, and a dog barking somewhere nearby.

 

Neither Elizabeth nor William observed any of this however, so engrossed were they in each other's company, their heads still full of the performance. Elizabeth didn't notice the cold; her arm threaded through William's, she clung to him closer, and he squeezed her arm tightly in response.

 

"It was an excellent performance. I simply love La Boheme. No matter how many times I watch it, it always moves me," confessed Elizabeth. "I'm glad you enjoyed it," Darcy smiled at her, very pleased the evening had been such a success. "I'm also quite fond of it, though I'll admit to a rather unpopular opinion." She looked at him questioningly, and he grinned sheepishly, answering, "I don't particularly care for the hero and heroine. They're too mushy for my taste. I've always preferred the secondary couple."

 

"Marcello and Musetta?"

 

"Yes. They have a sparkle and life, they're much more interesting. Besides," he said, stopping and turning to her. "I've realised lately, to my fascination, that their relationship is very similar to ours."

 

"Samo se karame, samo se tepame,"* murmured Elizabeth, looking up at him with a beguiling smile on her lips.

 

A look of confusion overspread his features. "Pardon?" "We always love, we always quarrel," she translated, putting her arms around his neck.  "Where did you pick that up?" he asked with curiosity.

Smiling seductively, she put her finger to his lips and shook her head. "Se nel bicchiere sta il piacer, in giovin bocca sta l'amor,"** she purred.

 

Smiling in understanding, he bent his head to hers and obliged her demand.

 


* "We always love, we always quarrel" Makedonska Humoreska, Todor Skalovski

** "If pleasure is to found in a glass,

then sweet love is found on youthful lips" G. Puccini, "La Boheme" Act III

 

 

Chapter twenty-seven

The driveway to Netherfield House was flanked by two rows of multicoloured lanterns, leading to the home itself, decorated with thousands of colourful, sparkling lights, illuminating the entire place, and reflecting and glittering in the snow-covered ground. Enough snow had fallen the day prior to conceal the sad bareness of the wintry landscape, and, miraculously, the snow had held until today.

Elizabeth stepped out of the car and looked at the house appraisingly. "It actually looks quite pretty. I'm glad Charles hasn't let Mum talk him into allowing her to decorate it. Her Christmas designs could put the Griswolds to shame."

William chuckled. "That bad?"

"You'll see for yourself when you come to Longbourn for dinner."

"Will I be coming there for dinner?"

Elizabeth gazed at him, arching an elegant eyebrow. "Once we walk through that door together, no one's going to have any doubt about us. We're officially outing ourselves."

William touched her arm, his face serious. "Are you sure you want to do it, then? Because if you don't want to, we can..."

"Of course I want to, silly," she interrupted, smiling at him indulgently. "I've known these people for twenty-six years; I'm used to the somewhat strange ways of my family and friends. You though..." she raised her gloveless hand and touched his lips lightly, "you come into this quite unprepared. Are you sure you want to get into it?" she asked a little apprehensively.

He smiled down at her. "Do you really have to ask?" Then, without a warning he caught her fingers with his teeth. Elizabeth giggled, trying to pull away, but before she managed, he caught her hand in his. Staring intently into her eyes, he kissed her palm, then tugged at her hand, pulling her in the direction of the house.

"Come on, let's go. It's time for our grand entrance."

~ * ~

Jane looked at the clock on the wall nervously. Half past eight. The guests were due to arrive half an hour ago. Most of them had been prompt, save for two, or rather three stray individuals. She looked around the room and caught the eye of Charles, who was talking to a couple of their friends by the refreshments table. He smiled at her, before excusing himself and crossing the room to join her.

"They're late. Both of them." Jane stated the obvious, biting her knuckle anxiously.

"What do you think is taking them so long?"

Jane shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, but I'm really starting to worry. This is going to be a disaster. I still can't believe you let William bring some ... some tart when you knew Elizabeth was going to be here, alone and heartbroken!"

Charles took a deep breath before responding. It was obvious he'd had this conversation countless times during the past few days. "What else was I supposed to do? I couldn't forbid him to bring a date, could I?"

"No, I suppose not," Jane admitted grudgingly. "I just don't want my baby sister to be hurt again. And imagine her embarrassment at seeing William with another woman, which all of these people will witness."

Charles smiled sympathetically, rubbing Jane's arm comfortingly. "I know, honey."

A commotion by the entrance to the room turned their attention in that direction. They saw William come into the room and greet a few people. He was alone, to the relief of both. Maybe the situation wasn't as hopeless as they had thought!

William spotted the hosts and greeted them, shaking Charles's hand and kissing Jane's cheek. "Hello Charles. Jane, you're looking lovely tonight."

"Thank you." Jane hesitated, feeling her hopes raise when she saw William was alone. "Is something wrong? Where is your friend?"

"She just popped into the bathroom to check her make-up. She'll be with us shortly."

Jane's shoulders sagged. It was hopeless after all. "Great," she replied, but it sounded unconvincing to her own ears.

It was by all means a horrible situation. All they needed now was for Elizabeth to show up and see Darcy with his new "friend". She began to pray her sister had changed her mind and decided not to come after all, but soon had to abandon this hope, seeing her younger sibling walk into the room.

God help us , she thought gloomily, as she called out in what she hoped was a cheerful voice. "Lizzy!"

"Ah, here she is now!" William said, as he turned around in the direction of the entrance. Perplexed, Jane followed his gaze, but there was no one standing there, except for Elizabeth.

She saw her sister smile and wave at them, before she crossed the room and neared the place where Jane, Charles and William were standing. Jane observed Elizabeth closely during the five seconds of her approach, growing more confused with every step her sister took. Elizabeth scanned the crowd and smiled at her friends, until finally her eyes rested on their group and alighted on William, her smile not disappearing, but growing exponentially when he turned his head to look at her. What in the world was going on here?

William's deep voice pulled her out of her daze. "Jane, Charles, I believe you already know Elizabeth, so introductions won't be necessary."

Completely gobsmacked, Jane moved her gaze from William to Elizabeth and back again. "You .... her ... you and her..."

"Yes, me and her, or rather, we are together tonight. And not only tonight," William responded to Jane's convoluted turn of phrase with a twinkle in his eye and a private smile just for Elizabeth.

Jane stared at them uncomprehendingly, watching their entwined fingers as if they were a sight she'd never seen before in her life. "But ... but..."

Taking pity on her elder sister, Elizabeth explained, "We figured out you wanted to set us up tonight and bring us back together. However, believe it or not, we've managed to find each other and solve our problems by ourselves. I'm sorry we had to thwart your plans."

"But why didn't you tell us before? What's all this story with William's date been about?"

"You didn't honestly think we'd let you get away with your underhanded plan, now did you?."

The impudent grin was back on Elizabeth's face and Jane couldn't help but be deeply relieved to have the sister she knew and loved back. "Elizabeth Frances Bennet! You deserve a spanking for making me worry like that! But right now I'm too happy to be mad at you. Come here!"

A round of hugs and congratulations followed, as everyone was made privy to the happy news. Jane was almost high on the relief she felt and soon she left them alone, eagerly returning to her -- somewhat neglected so far -- duties as the hostess. Charles shook William's hand and thanked him for saving him from Jane's wrath, and then left as well. Elizabeth and William remained alone, or as alone as two could be in a room full of people. They helped themselves to drinks and managed to take a few sips before they were approached by Mary.

"So this is the secret business of yours in London. I should have known! No one in their right mind would have been this happy because of business trips."

Elizabeth smiled sheepishly, feeling Darcy's arm encircle her waist. "Guilty as charged. You've been a wonderful house-sitter, Mary; always reliable, never asking any questions."

"Don't mention it. As I've said many times before, it's a real pleasure to get away from Kitty and Lydia. Whenever you need me to watch the house, I'm always up for the job."

Elizabeth smiled, a sudden thought occurring to her. Should she or shouldn't she? Oh well, it was definitely not the right time to take up this subject, she'd think it through later on.

"Speaking of Kitty and Lydia, where are they tonight?"

"Kitty's at the pub with some friends of hers. Don't know about Lydia."

"But she told Mum and Dad where she was going, right?" Elizabeth asked, concern for her youngest sister filling her.

"She told them she was going to be with Kitty."

Elizabeth frowned. "She lied to them?"

"Like it was the first time," Mary snorted. "Don't worry about her. You know she always gets out of scrapes without a scratch. Oh, I can see Maria waving at me, I've gotta go."

Elizabeth stood still, looking after her, a deep frown on her face. "Lizzy?" William touched her arm, bringing her out of her thoughts.

Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. "I can't believe Lydia, going off God-knows-where, and lying about it. What is she trying to prove?"

"If you're worried, why don't you call her? She has a mobile, right?"

Elizabeth nodded, fished her own phone from her purse and dialled Lydia's number. Soon enough, Lydia picked up, annoyed Elizabeth was checking up on her as if she were a child. Typical Lydia behaviour. She said she and some friends had gone to London. They were going to be clubbing all night, so she couldn't give her any address or telephone number, but she'd keep her mobile on. No, the driver wasn't drinking. Yes, she'd be careful. She was a big girl, after all, wasn't she? Elizabeth had to roll her eyes at the last statement, but she didn't object. When she finally clicked off, she felt very relieved.

She slipped her mobile back into her purse and raised her head to encounter William's smug face. "See? Wasn't so hard, was it? And now, Dr. Bennet, for the rest of the evening, you're mine." He took the drink out of her hand and put it on the table, then took her hand in his and led her to the dance floor set up in the adjoining room. "No more worries, you're going to dance and have fun all night. That's the doctor's order."

Elizabeth smiled up at him teasingly. "And what if I don't heed your orders, Dr. Darcy?"

He looked at her with mock sternness. "Then I'm afraid I'll have to administer the punishment recommended by your sister."

She raised her eyebrow, her eyes glinting mischievously. "And what would that be, Doctor?"

Darcy lowered his head, his mouth almost touching her ear, as he whispered, "A spanking."

Elizabeth shivered, both at the feeling of his hot breath on her ear and his not-so-subtle insinuation. "Mmm, kinky. Is that a threat or a promise?"

"You know it's always a promise with me."

"And will we play doctor as well?" Elizabeth could hardly keep from laughing at the inane expression. She didn't think she had used it since her teenage years. Still, truth be told, amusement was not the only sensation she felt.

"Only if you let me measure your temperature," William replied, grinning wickedly.

Elizabeth gasped and giggled, feeling her cheeks burn. "Cheeky!"

"Oh, yesss!" William suddenly bent her backwards, at once a comical and dramatic tango figure. She shrieked in surprise and started to giggle uncontrollably, until he pulled her back up, flush against his chest.

"You're crazy, you know that?" she accused him happily, her arms around his neck and her forehead touching his.

"That's why you love me."

She smiled at him, an affectionate, indulgent smile and murmured, "You got that right," and then tilted her head up and captured his mouth in a deep kiss. Before things proceeded too far, though, they were interrupted by a rather amused Charlotte, who danced up to them with Charles.

"You guys, save it for a bedroom," she chided them playfully, and Charles chuckled.

"Ha ha. Don't think you're funny... 'cause you're not."

"Lizzy, you're breaking my heart. Take away my cutting wit and what will be left?"

"A nosy, old spinster."

"Now, now, girls, stop that." Charles cut in. "There will be no catfights at my party."

"Oh, Charles, you know we only bicker because we love each other. That's what friends do."

"If that's your idea of friendship, what do you do with your lover?"

Elizabeth laughed, a wicked glint in her eyes. "You'll have to ask William about that."

Charlotte grinned slyly, eyeing the pair curiously. "Do tell, William."

William did his best to look imperious, putting his arms protectively around Elizabeth's shoulders. "No bloody way. I'm not the kiss-and-tell type."

"You're no fun, Will!" Charles called out, but his words were lost, as William steered Elizabeth away from the throng of dancers and into the relatively quiet corner near the refreshments table.

"Finally some peace and quiet. Remind me again why we decided to come here instead of spending New Year's in bed?"

Elizabeth took a plate in her hand and scanned the table for something to eat. "Because we were invited. Because we wanted to get back at Charles and Jane for their meddling and share our good news with our friends. Mmm...shrimp salad!"

She put a generous helping on the plate and put it in his hands. "Here, eat this. You need to keep your strength."

He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Why?"

"Because I have plans for you, Dr. Darcy." She batted her eyelashes seductively and nibbled on a piece of orange she held in her hand, grinning.

William groaned silently. "Teasing woman!"

~ * ~

The evening was a great success. The music was good, the food and drinks were excellent and the company was splendid. Elizabeth couldn't remember the last time she had had so much fun. She was happy to be with her friends again, but if she were to be honest with herself, the real cause for her fantastic mood was the man beside her. William hardly left her side the entire night: dancing with her, talking and teasing her, feeding her various tasty savouries and stealing kisses when no one was looking. By all accounts, they were behaving like a couple sickeningly in love and they earned a few raised eyebrows and sneers, which they promptly ignored. They were in love and they were happy, so hang what everyone else was thinking.

Elizabeth was so caught up in her joy, she was oblivious to time. Someone turned off the music and everybody's attention focused on the great clock on the wall. Thirty seconds till midnight. Excitement grew as everyone counted down the last seconds of the old year. Elizabeth stepped close to Darcy, hugging his waist as she whispered, "An old superstition says the person with whom you welcome the New Year will be with you all year through."

He smiled at her warmly, intense emotion in his eyes. "Well, then I'm very happy to be here with you."

"...four, three, two, one! Happy New Year!" Netherfield erupted with shouts, laughter and applause, as people hugged and kissed each other, wishing their friends a happy new year. Caught up in their own world, Elizabeth and William kissed, paying no attention to the cacophony surrounding them. William finally broke away, leaning his brow against Elizabeth's. "Happy New Year, Lizzy."

"Happy New Year, Will."

Before they knew it, they were snatched by their friends into warm embraces, showered with kisses and good wishes. Champagne flowed and the notes of Auld Lang Syne filled the room. Soon Charles urged everyone to get their coats and go outside, where a surprise awaited them. Curious, the crowd of guests did as he bid them and filed out of Netherfield to gather in front of the house, where they had a view of snow-covered fields. Suddenly, there was a loud bang and immediately the sky exploded with amazing colours. A collective 'oooh' escaped the party, awed by the magnificent fireworks Charles had arranged. Giddy from the excitement of the night, the champagne and the beautiful spectacle before them, the guests laughed and clapped their hands like delighted children.

Elizabeth could feel a pair of warm hands embracing her from behind. With a contented sigh, she leaned against William's broad chest and watched the colourful show. Life couldn't possibly get any better than this.

~ * ~

"It's strange being here again," William said, putting his arms around Elizabeth as they both stood looking at her house thoughtfully.

"How so?"

William rested his chin on her shoulder. "So many things have happened since I was here last."

"Do you remember coming here for the first time? We were going to go biking."

"Oh, God." William groaned at the memory. "How could I ever forget? You almost killed me that day."

"I don't recall hearing any complaints from you at the time!"

"I was trying to woo you. I wouldn't have made much of an impression if I acted like a wimp, now would I?"

Elizabeth smiled, even as she rolled her eyes. "Silly. I wouldn't have thought any less of you. I was already halfway to being completely head over heels in love with you."

He visibly perked up at her words. "Really?"

"Yes, really. Come on, let's go inside."

It was indeed strange being there together again, after all this time. Every room, every object brought back memories of the short days they had spent together in the house. Many times they stopped in their tracks and laughed or smiled softly at a memory. They felt like an elderly couple returning to this place after years away.

Hand in hand, they made their way upstairs. No words were necessary; both knew they were heading for Elizabeth's bedroom. The guest room wasn't set up this time; Elizabeth hadn't expected any guest who would need it. Besides, as William pointed out the moment they arrived in the room, they'd never made love in her bed before.

"A gross oversight I intend to fix tonight," he murmured as he bent his head to her neck.

With some difficulty, Elizabeth managed to catch his head in her hands and pull it away. "Oh no, you don't."

Confusion flooded his features. "What?"

His head still between her hands, she stroked her thumbs across his cheeks, calming him down. "Do you remember at the party, when I said I had plans for you?" she asked, running her thumb across his lips..

His face lit with comprehension at her words and he grinned at her. "How could I forget?"

She bid him to wait while she disappeared in the bathroom for a few minutes. He sat on the bed and waited, listening to her arrange something and the sound of running water. Soon she re-emerged from the bathroom and, smiling mysteriously, she took his hand and led him in. William gasped at the sight inside the door. Pleased with his obvious surprised and approval, she stood, proud of her handiwork, as he admired the candle-lit bathroom, the flowers and the champagne waiting in an ice bucket.

"You really did plan it all, didn't you?"

"Of course I did. Make yourself useful and open the champagne."

He did as she requested and then watched as she added bath salts to the steaming water in the tub.

"Bubbles?" He questioned, amused with her girlish need.

"Of course. It wouldn't be a proper bath without bubbles."

"Of course," he said smilingly.

Her face lit with an intent expression as she neared him. She reached to his neck to undo his tie.

"Do you remember when you stayed here and took care of me when I twisted my ankle?"

"Vividly."

The tie undone, she started unbuttoning his jacket. "You took such care of me. Never let me do anything, you waited on me all the time."

The jacket joined the tie on the floor and Elizabeth started undoing the buttons of William's shirt. "You not only helped around the house, you did all the stable work by yourself. You worked so hard..."

"Don't remind me," William groaned.

"You have no idea what it meant to have someone do all these things for me." She stopped undressing him and looked up into his face.

"I was glad to help." He shrugged modestly.

"I know. You are one of the most generous, selfless people I've ever known. But I don't like being indebted to anyone; and besides, such amazing sacrifice deserves a reward."

She raised her hands to his face, stroking it lightly. "Tonight I'm going to pamper you. I'm not going to do it everyday, I wouldn't want to spoil you. So don't get used to it. But just for tonight, I'm going to do everything for you."

He didn't answer her with words, instead he bent his head and kissed her passionately. It wasn't long before she pushed him away and returned to the task of undressing him. He wasn't going to argue with that course of action, enjoying the feel of her hands on him, as she sat him down and removed his shoes and socks, and then urged him to stand up again, taking off his trousers and boxer briefs. In a matter of minutes he was standing before her completely naked, while she was still fully clothed. He felt vulnerable and exposed. He would have hated it with anyone else, but her appreciative eyes travelling along his body only made him feel hot, and he longed to have her hands touch him instead of her eyes.

"Very nice," Elizabeth drawled with a wicked gleam in her eyes.

He grinned. "Why, thank you. I aim to please."

"That you do. But don't just stand there, get into the tub before the water gets cold."

"Aren't you going to join me?" he asked, unable to keep a tone of whinge from his voice.

"Maybe in a while."

He put on his best kicked puppy expression, but soon realising Elizabeth was quite determined to have her way, he obeyed. The water was blissfully warm and the bath would have been perfect were it not for the bubbles. He sneezed as some of the froth got into his nose.

"Such a baby," said Elizabeth, amusement obvious in her voice.

This was a real blow to William's dignity. In his most haughty voice, he retorted, "I'm not a baby, I'm a man. Men don't take bubble baths."

"God, you're so narrow-minded sometimes. If you would just give it a chance, you might actually enjoy it."

"I would enjoy it much more if you were in the tub with me." He couldn't resist another attempt.

"Nice try, but it won't work. Now, lie back and relax."

Feeling very much put upon, he nevertheless did as she bid him. Closing his eyes, he let his head rest against the back of the tub. The liquid heat surrounding his body did feel wonderful and the bubbles, much as he hated to admit it, smelled really nice. All of these pleasant feelings were nothing though, in comparison to the feel of her warm hands on his chest. He was glad to see she eschewed a sponge or washcloth in favour of her own lathered hands. He sighed in contentment; it did feel awfully nice.

"Do you remember the first day you worked in the shed for me?" Elizabeth's voice reached him through his haze of relaxation. Too relaxed to answer, he only offered a distracted, "Hmm..."

Elizabeth's hands travelled across his chest lazily, stirring desire in him, but he ignored these feelings. If she was so determined to tease him, then fine. Two could play this game.

"You came from the shed so tired and sore. I felt sorry for you and guilty you had to work so hard because of me. But you know what I wanted to do?"

His breath caught as he felt her hand travelling down his stomach, slowly, very slowly, but with unmistakable intent.

"No," he said, happy his voice didn't crack.

"I wanted to join you in the shower, wash your body from head to toe and help your sore muscles relax."

Her hand was perilously close to the place where he needed her touch the most, but to his great disappointment, just as he thought she was going to reach the desired location, her hand changed its track and moved to stroke down his hip to his thigh.

"Did you, now?" He gazed at her from underneath lowered lashes, noting with no small amount of satisfaction her heated colour, visible even in the muted candlelight. "Why didn't you?"

"Well, barring the small problem of my twisted ankle and the fact we weren't together then, no good reason at all," she replied archly, while her hands remained occupied with lovingly lathering his feet.

"Excuses, excuses. What's stopping you now?"

She looked up and met his eyes, reading the unmistakable challenge in them. "All right."

Standing up, Elizabeth slowly started to take off her clothes. William couldn't take his eyes off her; he didn't think he'd ever seen anything as beautiful and sexy. She didn't rush, she took her time to tease him, and by the time she finally stripped off all of her clothes, he was almost ready explode. Smiling seductively, she climbed into the tub, sliding right into his lap.

"How's that?"

"Very satisfactory," he purred, taking her lips in an impassioned kiss. She was the one who broke away first, putting her fingers to his lips.

"Let's have a drink."

A few minutes later, each with a glass of champagne in their hands, they settled in the warm bath. William lay intimately between Elizabeth's legs, his head resting on her shoulder, as he revelled in the feel of her lips nibbling his neck and her hands stroking his chest and teasing his nipples.

"Like that?" she whispered in his ear, sending a shiver down his spine.

"God, yes," he moaned in reply. "But could you do it a little lower?"

"Like this, you mean?" Her hand trailed down his abdomen, stopping millimetres before the goal, but it was enough to send a wave of heat to William's groin, in anticipation of pleasure. He groaned and was rewarded with her hand dipping lower and taking hold of him. His breath ragged, he let himself drown in delight, as her slender hand stroked him tenderly.

It wasn't long before he could feel his control slipping and stilled her hand. "Lizzy, you've got to stop, else it will be over before it's begun."

"Let's move to the bedroom then, shall we?"

She couldn't have said anything that would make William happier. He wasted no time. They dried each other off carefully, paying attention to every nook and cranny of their bodies, and having blown out all the candles, left the bathroom behind.

The bedroom was bathed in soft light. Elizabeth seemed to have arranged every detail. The bed sheets were cool against his back as he lay down on the bed, while Elizabeth straddled his hips and leaned over him, lavishing kisses all over his neck and chest. His entire body reacted strongly to her attentions, the feel of her soft body and her clean, intoxicating scent. He groaned and brought his hands to touch her breasts, but to his surprise, she grasped his wrists and held them against the mattress.

"Now, now, Mr Darcy, stop those familiarities. I'm not that kind of woman." Her teasing was accompanied by her teeth playfully nibbling on his nipple. He arched his upper body into her caress, but she already moved away, trailing kisses across his stomach. His muscles tensed at her tender onslaught, as the feel of her hair brushing his erection and the tops of his thighs sent him into distraction.

"Lizzy..." he moaned her name pleadingly.

"Yes, Will? Did you want something?"

He tried to free himself, but her grip was surprisingly strong for such delicate hands. "I ..."

She rested her chin on his hip and looked at him with the devil in her eyes. "Did you need something?"

"Yes," he gasped out.

"What do you need, Will?"

He couldn't believe she could tease him so. "You..."

"That's 'who', not 'what'." She corrected him with a cheeky smile. She was enjoying it too much for his liking.

"Damn it, woman! You know full well what I need!"

"Do I? Tell me, Will, is this what you need?" she asked and then ran her tongue along his erection. He groaned at the pleasure, his hips bucking, his body silently begging for more. "Or maybe this?" she lowered her head and sucked him into her mouth. Teased beyond his limits, William let out a sob at the delightful torture of her hot, perfect mouth. It was almost too good, yet at the same time, it was far from enough.

"More," he groaned. "I need more. Give me more."

"So greedy!" She shook her head in mock disapproval. "What else do you want?"

"I want to be inside you...I need..."

Finally taking some pity on him, she let go of his wrists and he wasted no time reacquainting himself with the curves of body, loving the feel of her in his hands. When he tried to roll them over, though, she stopped him again.

"No."

"What?" He stared at her, perplexed. Surely she wasn't going to refuse him now?

"As I said earlier, this night is for you. You lie back and I'll do all the hard work." She winked at him and he could have cried in relief at her words. Slithering up his body, Elizabeth straddled his hips and slowly lowered herself on his aching length. He closed his eyes at the exquisite sensation.

"No, look at me." He heard Elizabeth's voice and opened his eyes to gaze at her breathtaking form. Flushed from exertion, her full lips parted slightly, her eyes sparkling and her body glistening in the pale light, she looked like a goddess. And at that moment he was struck with the amazing realisation of how very lucky he was to have her love him. He tangled his hands in her hair, bringing her close to him for a heated kiss, as they continued to rock together, tumbling toward ecstasy.

But even now she didn't stop her teasing. She varied her pace; slowing down whenever he neared the edge of climax or completely stopping, drawing frustrated groans from him, then taking pity on them both and moving again. He felt completely and utterly dominated, totally in her power, enthralled by everything she was doing. He wouldn't have tolerated it with anyone else, but he enjoyed this temporary surrender to her. She was in charge here, he was just along for the ride. And what a ride it was!

It could have been hours or even days, he seemed to lose all track of time; he was nothing more than a bundle of raw sensations: the sight of her, the smell of her, the taste of her, the sounds she was making and the feelings she inspired in his body. He could feel her tightening around him, and his breath was taken away at the sight of her coming. The sound of her gasping his name was enough to push him over the edge. He drew her to him, kissing her wildly, as pleasure ebbed in both their bodies and they finally collapsed against each other, completely exhausted.

For a moment nothing could be heard except for their panting breaths. Slowly, she moved away from him and curled up at his side, as his arms encircled her form, as if of their own volition.

"That was..." he started, but found no words to describe what they had just experienced.

"Yeah," she seconded not very eloquently.

But words weren't needed. William reached out to put the covers around them and turn off the lamp, sinking the room in darkness. He gathered Elizabeth closer, her head tucked beneath his chin, her arms around his chest. They were quiet for some time and just as William thought she had fallen asleep, he could hear her sleepy voice, muffled by his chest.

"I was wrong..."

He tightened his arms around her and kissed the top of her head.

"'Bout what?"

"Life does get better..."

To be continued...

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