Continuing Tales

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 4 of 21

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Inevitable Change

Further down the hall, the atmosphere in the drawing room compared to the dining room was far different. There was a tension betwixt the group of ladies that was undeniable. Mrs. Hurst suffered considerably from her condition, and so she was in a most changeable mood. Her sister Caroline had grown so restless with boredom, it was likely a path would be worn in the carpet from her promenading back and forth. Neither women had much to do with the Bennet sisters or their Cheapside aunt – there was little point in forming relations with them, as their status was so miserably low. And that Jane Bennet – that she obviously still held a place in her heart for their brother Charles – it was disgusting that she would pursue him further given her present circumstances. Georgiana, their young hostess, was, in Caroline's eyes, rudely being monopolized by that bold Eliza Bennet – what did that Eliza think, attempting a duet with the much-accomplished Georgiana Darcy? It sickened Caroline thinking of how disdainful it would be to listen to that country trollop warble along with Miss Darcy's etudes. Caroline had determined to wait and find the perfect opportunity to clip that Eliza Bennet's wings once and for all, and expose her for what she truly was – a lowly clerk in a hat shop, with a wonton sister and scavenging family. Thus it was, the fashionable Miss Caroline Bingley and her very pregnant sister Mrs. Hurst did little other than pace and pout, waiting for the men's return to the party.

The Colonel and Mr. Bingley entered the room first, with Mr. Hurst not far behind, staggering a bit. Mr. Bingley found a comfortable chair near Miss Jane Bennet, who was sitting demurely with her eyes cast down upon her folded hands. Elizabeth could not help but smile at the attention Mr. Bingley was paying upon her sister. Mr. Darcy entered shortly thereafter, shoulder to shoulder with the jovial Mr. Gardiner. Upon seeing the smile of pleasure upon Miss Elizabeth's face, Darcy's breath caught in his throat. His eyes followed her gaze to the place upon which sat Bingley and Miss Jane Bennet, and he understood at once the joy Elizabeth felt. His friend had been joined again with his true love, thought Darcy, and it is good. If only…his eyes lowered, and he reassembled his features upon fully entering the parlor.

Georgiana rose from the pianoforte and embraced her brother. Elizabeth saw Miss Darcy whisper an appeal in his ear, and with a shake of his head, he denied her request. But Miss Georgiana would not be dissuaded, and again made a request of her brother. "Come, Mr. Darcy," purred Caroline Bingley. "What is it your little sister asks of you, and how could you deny the sweet angel anything on Christmas eve?"

"Miss Bingley, my sister has requested that I perform with her some Christmas carols," murmured Darcy, with some embarrassment. "…specifically, she wishes that I sing a song that our dear mama would sing to us when we were children."

"Do sing it for us, cousin," urged Robert. "It is so rare to see you perform, or put on airs of any sort."

"Ha!" said Bingley. "Darcy is all airs, and manners. We would hardly be able to distinguish between the show and the true Darcy!"

"On the contrary, Bingley – I am not one to act or play a part," declared Darcy, but he tempered his words with the confession, "I am uncomfortable performing in front of others."

"Ah, but brother, aren't you always instructing me that practicing such performances will increase my proficiency?" Elizabeth had to grin and gaze down at this question – she herself had told Darcy that to gain comfort around strangers, he had to force himself to converse with them. "Come, brother, please sing it for us. I shall play for you!" appealed his little sister.

"Alright, this once, but only this song. I have not sung it in so very long." Elizabeth had moved toward a settee facing the pianoforte, and Georgiana quickly settled at the instrument. Darcy moved toward his sister, looking over her shoulder at the sheets of music she spread upon the instrument. After a short introduction, he began singing, in a clear baritone voice "Il est né, le Divin Enfant." He chanced a momentary look toward Miss Elizabeth, and his voice quavered momentarily. He overcame his discomfort quickly and by the third stanza, his cousin and sister joined him enthusiastically. His guests applauded the performance, and Darcy had to look down shyly as he felt himself color.

Elizabeth also had to avert her eyes at the end of the song. So shocking was it to see Mr. Darcy stand before a group and sing a child's Christmas carol – she had to school her features to prevent from giggling a little at the sight of him. But as he continued to sing, in his rich baritone voice, she noted how he would turn to his sister at the pianoforte, and his face was so filled with adoration and devotion. How lucky was Georgiana to have such a brother! How full of love and dedication!

This was not the arrogant, vain Darcy of the Netherfield Ball, or the stilted, churlish Darcy of Rosings. His subsequent proposal of marriage to her, his admission that he felt her family was inferior and her sister disingenuous regarding her affection for Bingley had sickened her. But then her summer visit to Pemberley and their accidental meeting – here was a Darcy she never imagined she'd see. He was a cordial, caring host during that brief moment. She was baffled by his transfiguration. This was the Darcy who played host now, but now she had the luxury of observing this good, kind Darcy over several days. And it did indeed seem that this was the real Darcy after all. If only she'd known him then as she knew him now…if only…she pressed her hands lightly to her cheeks to keep her color from rising.

It was her turn to sing the duet with her sister Jane, accompanied by Georgiana. It was a song about maidens gathering kindling to build a fire in their hearths at home, and how they find true love along the path to the forest. The sisters' voices dipped and glided through the harmonies, and Georgiana's playing was light and crisp, just like the fallen snow. At the tune's completion, the room let out a collective sigh, and then everyone clapped appreciatively, although Miss Bingley was compelled to take a moment to cough lightly into her gloved hand.

Next, the Colonel sat beside Georgiana, and the two played a silly air that Robert had known as a child, and had taught Georgiana when she was just beginning to play. The Colonel improvised some of the lyrics, adding to the nonsense song as the pace went faster and faster until the pair collapsed into a laughing heap at the keys.

Brandies and punch were served about the room, and the revelers toasted to the season, and to one another. Jane and Mr. Bingley were seated quite close together, while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner playfully embraced under a discreet bough of mistletoe hung at the entranceway of the room. The colonel was teasing and joking with Georgiana, telling stories about when she was a baby, just to see her blush. From across the room, Darcy sought out Miss Elizabeth's face, and was entranced to see her fine eyes gazing at him for a moment. The instance was not lost on Miss Bingley.

Neither Mrs. Hurst nor Miss Bingley could be persuaded to display their talents, as Mrs. Hurst was too fatigued, and Miss Bingley too distracted by the evident interest Mr. Darcy was paying Miss Elizabeth. At last, she could not resist the temptation to expose Elizabeth, once and for all. She turned to Georgiana and smiled, "Dearest Georgiana, what a talent you have for the pianoforte. And I hear from your brother you are accomplished in so many arenas, aren't you? I even hear you are an excellent rider!"

Georgiana, weary of the older woman's attentions, nodded and quietly spoke, "Yes, I am almost as comfortable upon a saddle as I am at the instrument here. I do love to ride and jump, both."

"Jump? A young lady such as you? How brave of you – no wonder your brother went shopping in London for a fine pair of riding gloves…" She gave a sly glance to Elizabeth, in an attempt to estimate the young woman's discomfort. "Oh – perhaps it was meant to be a secret gift – a Christmas gift? Mr. Darcy, I beg your pardon," and she cast her eyes down, flapping her fan coyly. "Miss Elizabeth, have you ever had a fine pair of gloves made for you? I think there are some fine shops you're your aunt and uncle's home – on Gracechurch Street, isn't it? Perhaps in the time you spent in town these past months?"

Elizabeth knew precisely the game Miss Bingley was playing, and she was unable to respond, for lack of composure. Had Mr. Darcy divulged her occupation to Caroline Bingley? Why else would Miss Bingley direct such a query to Elizabeth? Did the two of them trade stories about the ill fortunes of her family? The thought that Caroline Bingley had some knowledge of her employment at the milliner's shop filled her suddenly with the now all-too-familiar shame, arising from the low station to which she and sister had arrived.

Elizabeth had no pride regarding her employment in the milliner's shop; she had chosen the work for she had simply wished to help provide for her aunt and uncle's household. However, she had but desired to set aside the reality of her situation for a little while longer, and enjoy the remainder of her stay at Pemberley. She replied in an uncharacteristically dull manner, "No, I have not had the pleasure of patronizing the shops in London."

Mr. Darcy was not unaware of her discomfiture; Darcy was alert at the mention of the riding gloves, those same gloves Miss Bingley had instructed him to purchase for Georgiana. In a flash of insight, it occurred to him that Caroline had sent him on the errand to the shop near Cheapside not for Georgiana's sake, but for the sole purpose to discover Miss Elizabeth. He had long ago realized Miss Bingley had designs upon him, and she had come to conclude Miss Elizabeth was something of a rival for his affections. Miss Bingley's aim must have been to shame Miss Elizabeth in his eyes. He shook his head slightly at the irony – Miss Elizabeth had been all he had ever wanted in a mate – and she had refused him. Miss Bingley would never understand the depth of Miss Elizabeth's true character, nor would she appreciate the righteous anger Miss Elizabeth had expressed upon receiving his proposal. Miss Bingley would never refuse his hand, but he was certain he would never offer it now.

Miss Bingley gave Elizabeth a wide eyed look of surprise. "Really, in all these months? You must be keeping yourself quite busy these days….Why, I do believe there is a fine glove shop not too very far from Cheapside. Perhaps you've seen it in your travels around your aunt and uncle's home? McWilliams, isn't it?"

There was a stark quiet that set upon the party. Mr. Gardiner cast a concerned look at his wife, as if to express again to her his regret that they had allowed Elizabeth to seek employment anywhere. Mrs. Hurst detected her sister's tone of voice to be something of a predatory nature, and thus her spirits were much revived, in spite of her delicate condition; she leaned forward expectantly. Even Charles had to tear his gaze away from Jane's, distracted by his sister's sudden preoccupation with retail shops in Cheapside. Jane bit her lip, deeply feeling Elizabeth's distress. Col. Fitzwilliam raised his eyebrow at Darcy.

Darcy interrupted. "Miss Bingley, you have indeed revealed my secret."

Caroline turned triumphantly to Mr. Darcy. "Really, Mr. Darcy? Have you been shopping for gloves in London? Have you been to McWilliams?"

"I have," Darcy declared quietly. "As you recall, you highly recommended the establishment to me."

"True, Mr. Darcy, I do recall that I did." Caroline Bingley threw a piercing glance at Elizabeth, who had sat mortified, with her eyes trained on her folded hands in her lap. So, Caroline Bingley had seen her working in the shop. She had told Mr. Darcy to visit the shop to purchase gloves for his sister – Elizabeth had guessed it was all to further spoil Mr. Darcy's opinion of her. How much more spoiled could she be in his eyes?

Darcy plunged forward. "I had an occasion to visit the store. I was fortunate to have found the proprietress there, and she aided me in selecting a pair of riding gloves for Georgiana." Wishing to end the conversation, Darcy went on, "So, my dear Georgiana, now you know your Christmas surprise…"

"I'm so very pleased that the establishment met with your approval, Mr. Darcy," cooed Caroline, throwing another knowing look to Elizabeth. "I do believe that the mark of a good shop is the quality of its inventory – and the shop help, of course. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Darcy?" Caroline held back a smirk.

Charles then interrupted. "Caroline, since when have you become so interested in the shops off of Cheapside – er, Gracechurch Street? I've never seen you venture past St. James' Square for your purchases!"

"It's quite all right Charles. I'm sure that there is a reason why your sister is so intrigued with the operations of a glove shop in Cheapside. To answer your question, Miss Bingley, yes, the quality of the products at the milliners' was quite acceptable, but it was also the help of Mrs. McWilliams' shop assistant that enabled the purchase of the items. The shop assistant was…a most fine young woman. She was - exquisite." He turned deliberately to Caroline, and addressed her directly. "Your assistance in helping me find a suitable gift for my sister was indeed the greatest kindness you could have ever bestowed upon me. Without your impeccable taste and assurance that you seek out only the best for my sister Georgiana has brought great esteem for you in my heart. I shall forever remember you for it, for I am richer for the experience." With a flourish, he brushed his lips against Miss Bingley's hand; then he bowed to her and placed himself upon the seat next to Elizabeth's, and brazenly stared back at Caroline. Caroline Bingley blushed, then blanched; she was certain then that her entire plan had failed, and she distinctly felt, incredulously, that Mr. Darcy was indeed still enamored with that chit.

The whole room was still quite silent in the exchange, and most everyone was baffled by Darcy's exuberant declaration of gratitude to Miss Bingley. How a recommendation to a shop in Cheapside was such a profound kindness was beyond Mr. and Mrs. Hurst's understanding, to be sure. Georgiana simply thought Darcy was acting the gentleman, as usual. Col. Fitzwilliam puzzled at his cousin's statement – richer for the experience? How so?

The Bennets and the Gardiners wondered at his meaning, each lost in their own thoughts. Elizabeth, who had been holding her breath during the exchange, felt a wave of gratitude wash over her. Mr. Darcy had concluded the game Miss Bingley had begun. Elizabeth still felt the sting of knowing her position in society had been so greatly reduced, but Mr. Darcy would not allow any discussion of it, at least while she was at Pemberley.


The festivities continued into the late evening, with Georgiana playing prettily some more carols, and Caroline Bingley morosely sipping at the spiked punch. Elizabeth spied at Mr. Darcy's face through her lashes, attempting to judge his mood after the exchange with Miss Bingley. She felt rather than saw his warm gaze upon her, and her heartbeat inexplicably quickened. She licked her lips and spoke quietly to him. "I thank you, Mr. Darcy, for…disguising my employment to the present company."

"It is nothing. Miss Bingley wishes to lay claim to me, but I think she senses that I have other….allegiances. Miss Elizabeth, would you step away from the party for a moment? There is a matter I wish to discuss with you." She allowed him to lead her to the foyer just aside from the parlor. "I wish to discuss the matter of your employment: I have taken the liberty of speaking to your Uncle, and he has agreed. I would very much wish to hire you as a companion to Georgiana."

Elizabeth's head jerked slightly toward the gentleman. "A paid companion to your sister? I would stay on here, at Pemberley?"

"And travel to London, and assist Georgiana in her preparations for her debut." He turned to face Elizabeth completely. "Georgie needs the influence of a young woman – someone willing to be a guide for her in social settings. Miss Elizabeth, I can think of no one more suitable –"

"I have not the experience, Mr. Darcy – I have not made an entrance to society, certainly not in London society…"

"No, but nevertheless, you have wit and you converse so well – you would be a comfort for Georgie as she practices in these coming months. Colonel Fitzwilliam's mother, Lady Matlock, will present her to the court – she simply requires preparation. Miss Elizabeth, please – she is nearly ten and seven, she needs to step out of her shell, once and for all. This matter with …with Mr. G. W.– " here his head bent a little toward hers – "this incident was devastating for her. She has come so far in recovering, but she still lacks confidence. I beg you, please, Miss Elizabeth, do not say no!"

She found herself slightly nettled at the proposal – how like Mr. Darcy to take matters into his own hands. He asked her uncle's permission before he approached her with his proposal – it was rather irksome to her that these two men seemed to have forged an alliance based on their agreement as to how she should be conducting herself. But then, Elizabeth's mind turned to her conversation with Jane the night before. Darcy had attempted to find her wanton sister and Wickham – he apparently had searched for weeks before giving up – and although the hunt was unsuccessful, his attempt was so honorable. She was also certain that Mr. Darcy had experienced a change of heart regarding Mr. Bingley's affection for her sister; indeed, she was convinced that he had orchestrated parts of the holiday so that the couple could spend more time together, rather than apart. The kindnesses he had paid her family outweighed her irritation at him for approaching her uncle behind her back. She looked through the doorway at Georgiana, and thought that it would be a pleasure to act as a companion to such a refined young lady – and to stay at Pemberley! True, she would be removed from her family yet again – but she would also be staying in London on occasion, so she would be able to visit then.

So it was decided – she murmured her agreement. Elizabeth Bennet would no longer be employed as shopkeep assistant, but would act as Georgiana Darcy's companion, at the start of the New Year. "As you have taken this matter into your own hands," she said with an arched brow, "I will allow my Uncle to work out the details with you, sir. I thank you."

She turned to go back into the room, but he'd laid his hand upon her arm to stop her passing the arched entranceway. He momentarily gazed into her eyes with a slight smile on his lips. "Miss Bennet, the pleasure is mine."

Across the room, Georgiana stopped playing abruptly and sat gazing at the two of them, who had unbeknownst to them, were paused under the ball of mistletoe strung over the doorway. Giggling, she drew attention to the couple: "Brother, are you going to kiss Miss Bennet?"

Darcy's head shot up and glared at his sister, who shared the piano bench with his cousin Robert. He saw the flicker of disapproval in the colonel's eyes, and he withdrew his hand from Elizabeth's arm as if it were on fire. "Certainly not, Georgiana! What an impertinent comment to make." Darcy stepped apart from Elizabeth, and continued his protests, sputtering, "Why it's absurd! I have no intention of kissing Miss Bennet – whatever could you be thinking?"

"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said softly. "I believe Georgiana has observed that we are standing under the mistletoe- that is all. I do not think she in all honesty believes you desire to kiss me." She lowered her head, face flushed, biting her lip a little to keep from giggling herself at his defensive outburst.

Caroline Bingley, now quite in her cups rose with some difficulty and stated, "Mistletoe and holly berries are quite pagan in their nature, would you not agree, Mr. Darcy? Such a savage tradition – stealing kisses like country bumpkins, like in say, Hefershire. Er, Hertfordshire, I mean."

Mrs. Hurst tittered behind her fan at her sister's implication, but Charles was mortified by Caroline's blatant slander of the Bennets' home county. "Caroline, I must ask that you desist at once in speaking in such an imprudent manner. You are casting dispersions upon folk and customs that you do not know, and – " he dropped his voice to a hiss here, "Miss Darcy chose the décor, may I remind you. It is not your place to make such ingracious comments!"

Caroline was appalled at being publicly upbraided by her brother. "Well….well." She sputtered, drew herself up with a breath, bid her adieus and stalked up to her room.


Col. Fitzwilliam attended church services only under the insistence of his parents or Aunt Catherine; he was too restless a spirit to sit and listen to sermons and prayers for hours. His worship was out in the fields, upon the back of his horse, in the crisp Derbyshire winter. Miss Bingley, having imbibed a little too liberally in the punch the evening before, pled illness to the group through the housemaid, and spent the rest of the morning in her darkened guest room, covers pulled up to chin, snoring lightly.

Thus, a slightly diminished party gathered at the foyer to ride to church that morning. The Christmas buffet that followed the services were light in comparison to last night's offerings, but were just as extravagant. Most of the servants had returned to their family homes to celebrate the holiday, so there were but few staff members in the house to prepare food and serve the Darcy party. The lack of servants did not hinder the gaiety of the party; indeed, it inspired an air of informality in the group, as they sensed themselves to be under less scrutiny, and as they had to rely on each other for assistance in small tasks such as cloaking up for the outdoors.

An ice-skating outing was arranged for the afternoon. Darcy, Bingley, and Col. Fitzwilliam accompanied the Bennett sisters and Georgiana to the lake. Darcy could imagine that Bingley was interested in capturing some private moments with Miss Jane Bennett while on the ice, so he purposefully maneuvered his sister, Miss Elizabeth and the colonel in the opposite direction. The quartet skated across the pond and attempted a few mild tricks. Georgiana broke away from the others to do a graceful spin, but when she attempted an arabesque, Darcy reminded her to behave modestly, and in a more seemly manner. Elizabeth stopped herself from tittering at this – many a winter was spent at Longbourn, with all of her sisters skating and performing spins and jumps, and even racing one another. Growing up a Darcy girl seems to have meant something different.

Darcy was ever aware of Miss Elizabeth's presence, and despite his resolve to commandeer his affections for her, he could not help being a little jealous of the way in which his cousin sported about the girl. Having pledged that Elizabeth Bennet was no longer of interest to him, he could not very well desert his sister in order to escort Elizabeth about the pond. That delight fell to Col. Fitzwilliam, and it seemed to Darcy he was only too happy to attend to Miss Bennett. Darcy squinted at the pair, and could see that Fitzwilliam's hand was in a somewhat too familiar embrace about Miss Elizabeth's waist; from his vantage, it appeared the colonel's fingertips were brushing up against Miss Elizabeth's side. Darcy wondered what Fitzwilliam was up to – the second son of an earl had no business wooing a poor country girl, with no prospects. He would have to discuss the matter with him at the nearest occasion.

The girls then sat to rest for a while on the edge of the lake, and watched Darcy and his cousin circle and race the perimeter of the ice over and over again. Darcy was a bundle of energy, and speeding around the ice helped him to unwind after the days of feasting and visiting and inactivity. Georgiana and Elizabeth were lost in their own thoughts, watching him crouched low to pick up speed, while the colonel chose to curve into lazy figure eights.

Georgiana had been informed by her brother earlier in the morning that Miss Elizabeth would be employed as her companion, which pleased her to no end. "We shall be like sisters, Miss Elizabeth!" declared Georgiana.

"Then you must address me as a sister – please call me Elizabeth."

"Very well, as long as you shall call me Georgiana…we shall have so much fun getting ready for the Season – I shall not even have enough time to be nervous!" Georgiana felt Elizabeth was one of the most cordial women in her acquaintance.

In the meanwhile, Elizabeth observed Bingley and Jane at the furthest corner of the lake slowly proceeding on the ice, arm in arm. She sighed to think of her sister's contentment, then wondered how it would all work out.

It was evident to Darcy as well that Charles and Jane had become closer than ever. Jane had taken to lifting her eyes up to Bingley's face, and stare at him blissfully. Charles' feeling of contentment would be punctuated every so often by a chortle, delivered after every even fairly amusing comment uttered by any one of the party goers. Darcy witnessed his friend's glee, and quietly thanked the Lord above for providing him with the opportunity to mend the break between the two. That, plus knowing he had established a secure post at Pemberley for Miss Elizabeth – he judged it had been a very merry Christmas indeed.

The skating party returned to the house and separated to prepare for a light supper. Darcy was the first downstairs, entering the drawing room to find Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and Caroline already settled there.

"Mr. Darcy – we are altogether again, just our little party!" purred Caroline. "When was it we have had a moment alone this holiday? These Gardiners – these Bennets – they do so monopolize good conversation, would you not agree?"

Mr. Darcy said nothing but helped himself to tea. Caroline continued, "I find it appalling that Miss Jane Bennet is still so very attached to my brother, Charles. Whatever are we to do about it, Mr. Darcy? And her sister – Miss Elizabeth – she has sunk so low indeed – why, you were in that clothier shop, were you not? You saw her there, didn't you? Her fine eyes shan't sparkle long given her circumstance, you must agree."

"Met who where, Caro?" drawled a very pregnant Louisa Hurst from a settee on the other side of the room.

"Why, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, sister – she was at a shop in Cheapside, she was wor…"

"Miss Caroline, I would ask you to take care. It is indecorous to discuss other people's misfortunes in a drawing room, I believe you would agree." The glare Darcy threw at her caused her to blanch. "As regards Charles and Miss Jane Bennet, I believe that I was mistaken. I believe the girl has a strong abiding affection for him, and if he would have her, would make a fine wife. I intend to tell him so at the earliest convenience."

Caroline's eyes widened. Mrs. Hurst spoke up, "But Mr. Darcy – she has nothing – no name, no…means!"

"Charles will provide for her – her name is of no consequence to him."

But it is to me, thought Caroline. For if Charles would marry beneath him, then her chances for landing a rich, powerful husband would decrease substantially. "Mr. Darcy, to be joined with such a girl, such a family – it would unsuitable for Charles! Her sister is a harlot! She is living as the poor relation of her aunt and uncle in Cheapside! Now if Charles were to wed a young lady like Miss Georgiana –"

"He does not love Georgiana. I would not permit her to marry him unless he did. I have told him as much. He loves Jane Bennet, and I was an arrogant fool to stand in the way of their union. I plan to do everything in my power to see that they shall progress their relations. I owe it to Bingley – he's a good man, he deserves happiness. And I ask you to once again refrain from discussing unseemly matters in my parlor."

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Darcy," Caroline acquiesced, quietly ruminating Darcy's sudden determination to match Charles with Jane. As Christmas day turned to Christmas night, Caroline Bingley was still no closer in achieving her goal – to be a member of the landed gentry – but the fire in her eyes had not yet burned out. The new year was coming fast, and changes would come as well. Change was inevitable, after all.


The weather switched early morning on Boxing Day at Pemberley; fierce sleet fell from the skies, and colored the landscape gray that was white with snow previously. As was the tradition from those many years ago when their parents were still living, Mr. Darcy and Miss Darcy had excused themselves after breakfast to personally attend to their tenants who'd risked the inclement weather to receive their traditional gift from the landlord. The farmers and their wives, faces red from scrubbing, clothes soggy from the foul weather, met with the Darcys in the front parlor, basking in the warmth of the roaring hearth before them.

Lizzy, Jane, Mr. Bingley, and Aunt and Uncle Gardiner had settled into the drawing room off the main hall. Mr. Bingley continued his attentions upon Miss Jane Bennet; he had placed himself on the settee beside her, and spoke softly with her as she worked on some needlepoint. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were similarly engaged in quiet activity – reading and writing correspondence. Mr. and Mrs. Hurst had removed themselves from the party once a message from Caroline Bingley came down from the guest rooms above. She begged off company to nurse another headache. Lizzy would not speculate further on the cause for such a grievance; she only smiled at thinking how much Caroline Bingley's constitution might be like her own mother's, and how interesting that the two women might have something in common after all. Of course, it did not escape her that Miss Bingley's absence might've been initiated by knowing Mr. Darcy would be otherwise engaged. This made Lizzy smile, too, pondering the reslience of that woman's determination.

After a spell, Lizzy grew restless in the parlour, and consequently felt a need to stretch her legs. Aunt Gardiner was employed with a letter to her girls, and Jane was very much occupied with her discourse with Mr. Bingley. Lizzy quietly wandered out of room into the main foyer of the house. The weather prohibiting her customary outdoor ramble, she strolled aimlessly through the marbled hall, and found a side corridor off the grand staircase. Examining the rather closed in hallway, she noted that the furthest doorway in the hall must lead to the servants' quarters, and to the kitchens, but close by her was what appeared to be a small library, smaller than the main library of the house, yet still larger than her family's collection at Longbourn. She was drawn to the room, which was dark, with many volumes, and a large partner desk placed in front of a bay window seat. Lizzy was captured by the view from the window. Here, the land bent and fell in graceful mounds before her, down, down, down, with equal measures of sky up, up, up. She tranquilly approached the cushion, gracefully sat down and tucked her feet underneath her, like a cat.

Lost in thought, she did not hear his boots clacking down the hall, so Mr. Darcy was in the room before she was aware of his presence. He saw her curled upon the seat, pondering the rain and wind, and he could not breathe for a moment. He then realized that he must acknowledge his presence to her, so he cleared his throat softly. "Miss Bennet. Do forgive me, I do not mean to disturb your solitude."

Lizzy rose up from the window seat and sank into her curtsey. "Mr. Darcy, I thank you, but I am merely enjoying the prospect."

"Yes, the weather is wicked today. It changes the aspect of the grounds…but it does hold its own sort of beauty, I believe." It was his first meeting with her at Pemberley without the presence of servants or guests. There was a silence, and both of them looked down uncomfortably.

She broke the silence with a query, "You have attended to the needy of the estate this morning?" He confirmed he had, and she continued, "I would expect nothing less from the man reputed to be the best landlord, as well as the best brother that ever was." She arched her brow and her lips pressed into a smile.

"Georgiana has embellished her view of me overmuch, I fear." He turned his face away in humility. "I strive to do right by the legacy of this house, this family. It is my duty."

"Yes, I believe we have covered this topic of conversation before." She regretted the words almost immediately. She had said it, but not out of cruelty. His duty and pride in his connections and family ties had been a source of her prior refusal of him. She accused him of being overly proud, to the point of utterly destroying those of a lesser standing – meaning George Wickham. In truth, she wished to return back to that fateful day when she had refused his hand with such rancor. She wished to ask for forgiveness for her rash prejudice in believing George Wickham's accusations against him; she could not have been more mistaken in the matter.

Darcy took her statement in quite the opposite manner; he winced at the reminder of her refusal to him. That she would not entertain his suit, ever if her were the last man in the world, due to his ungentlemanly behavior. The manner in which he had grudgingly offered to wed her, in spite of her family connections or lack thereof - he had behaved abominably in the name of his family legacy – and thus brought the destruction of any chance of happiness for himself. It was a bitter fate facing him, but he had born up to meet it all the same. "Forgive me for intruding on your privacy, Miss Elizabeth."

She interrupted him mid-bow, wanting to waylay his departure. Her opinion of him in the days they'd spent in Pemberley had changed; it was her natural curiosity that inspired her seeking to study him further. It was this distinction that drove her to ask, "Mr. Darcy, what room is this? I have seen your study, and the library, so it cannot act in those functions."

Thrown by her spontaneous question, he answered, "Actually, it is my private study, or rather what my father used for his study. I come in here to read for pleasure, sometimes, or to sit at the window – it is an excellent sight from this area of the house."

"Indeed. I was reflecting upon how much this study reminded me of my father – my father's study." She turned away, and attempted to distract herself by looking out of the window once again.

Darcy regretted her grief. "Miss Elizabeth, I have not yet had the proper occasion to express my condolences to you in regards to the loss of your father. Please do accept my sympathies." He observed her descendent posture, head bowed. Oh God, he thought, I've made her cry. He could not bear seeing her in pain again. But he also was pulled toward further inquiry. He would know more, despite himself. "I believe you and he were very close, were you not?"

"Yes, I suppose we were," she murmured, her back still turned to him. "I enjoyed his companionship immensely."

"And your mother?"

Turning to him, she smiled wanly. "She is my mother, but we are apart for now." Pausing, she caught her breath lightly. "She blames me for losing Longbourn to Mr. Collins. If I had married him, - he had made me an offer. I could not in good conscience vow myself to him, and so when my father - the estate was entailed to Mr. Collins, you see." The words were leaving her lips so quickly and impulsively; she could not fathom her ease in telling him these intimate details of her family's woes, and yet the story tumbled out. "And so, we were turned out..." Seeing her eyes fill with tears, Darcy frowned empathetically. Feeling she had overly confided in him, Elizabeth stammered, "I am sorry to trouble you, Mr. Darcy, I shall leave you to your privacy."

"No, no, Miss Elizabeth. I - " Now it was his turn to pause and gather his thoughts. "I wish for you to...nothing would please me more if you would seek me out as - Miss Elizabeth, allow me to shoulder some of your burden. I know it is too much to bear." He stepped toward her and handed over his handkerchief. She accepted this kindness from him, with her head bowed. He contemplated what she had told him, as she wiped away her tears. "Miss Elizabeth, how can I comfort you? Would you wish a glass of brandy, perhaps, or may I summon your sister?"

Sensing his discomposure over her distress, she attempted to lighten his spirits. "There is no need to worry yourself, Mr. Darcy. These feelings come and go; I shall find myself quite back to normal soon enough." She gazed at him, grateful for his concern, and smiled softly. "I thank you for your sympathy." His look was so tender and kind. She hesitated, then dared to go forward in her conversation. "Miss Darcy has intimated to me how difficult it was for you when your father passed."

"It was...difficult. There was much between us that was...not finished. He had prepared me to run the estate and his business quite well, as he knew I would step into that role. But sometimes..." Darcy ran his hand through his hair. "I sometimes feel that I missed his lessons in becoming a reputable man."

"Mr. Darcy, if you are referring to...please do not pay heed to what I said to you so many months ago," Elizabeth breathed, a blush coming to her cheeks.

"No, Miss Elizabeth, your words to me that day - they were most instructive. Truly." He gazed into her eyes deeply, trying to relay his thoughts to her. "In these many months, I have contemplated what you said to me -"

"Oh, Mr. Darcy, would that I had been struck with some throat ailment that I could not speak those words to you!" She laughed lightly, and turned her face away, in some shame. "I would not have you repeat them to me, now that I know -"

"But Miss Elizabeth, you were correct in instructing me that day. I behaved in a most ungentlemanly like manner." Elizabeth mouthed a small "Oh!" recalling the harsh words that had fallen from her mouth that day. "I spoke to you in a most abhorrent fashion. I sat in judgment of you and your family that day - and I've had the opportunity to judge my own connections ever since then."

Elizabeth turned to him with a blush. "I acted imprudently, sir. I did not realize...when I consider that I held Mr. Wickham in any esteem above you! It is here at Pemberley that I see clearly…you…your true nature. You are so changed here. Not at all like at Hertfordshire or at Rosings."

"Pemberley is my home, Miss Elizabeth. I am enamored of routine and order, and at Pemberley, everything is as I request it… We both have acted impulsively in our judgments regarding each other," he stated. He was suddenly overcome by the intimacy of their conversation. All of the remorse for his past behavior, the closeness he felt with her now in her grief, the beauty he beheld as he gazed at her shining eyes and dark hair – all of it conspired to undo him at last.

In the lull of the conversation, he reached for a common ground. "Miss Bennet, I believe you enjoy reading, do you not? Have you ever read any of this poet?" He handed her a slim volume that lay on the desk. "The author is Percy Bysshe Shelley. "His work has been praised in London society…" he stopped himself, checking the arrogance in his voice. He continued, "…well, it is rather good."

Elizabeth flipped open the slim book, finding a marked page, and read silently,

"…Nothing in the world is single;

All things by a law divine

In one another's being mingle;-

Why not I with thine?

See the mountains kiss high heaven,

And the waves clasp one another;

No sister flower would be forgiven,

If it disdain'd its brother;

And the sunlight clasps the earth,

And the moonbeams kiss the sea;-

What are all these kissings worth,

If thou kiss not me?"

Her eyes dropped in contemplation of the poem's meaning. Mr. Darcy was close to her, gazing at her with his too familiar intensity. She felt his presence, smelled the aroma of bay leaf upon him. He'd drawn close enough so that she could hear his breath. He'd shown her a love poem, of all things. Elizabeth arched a brow in an attempt to lighten the air, "Mr. Darcy, you are perhaps too confident in my abilities to grasp this author's meaning. My preference lies in novels, truly." She glanced briefly at him, with an assuredness she did not feel in his closeness to her.

"Miss Bennet," he moved a step toward her, as she backed into the bookshelves behind her. I must not I must not, he told himself, but he was overcome by her beauty. Reciting from memory, he spoke, "'…the sunlight clasps the earth, …the moonbeams kiss the sea; - What are all these kissings worth,…?' Miss Elizabeth…my feelings…what I revealed to you so many months ago at Hunsford….have not changed." Unable to resist, he stepped closer still, now taking in her scent of lavender and lemon balm. He hesitated, but felt compelled to forge ahead. "You once made a statement regarding the usefulness of poetry to drive love away."

Elizabeth smiled that he would remember her comment from so many months ago. "I recall you believed poetry to be the food of love."

"So I did, and still do. I hunger for…" He threw caution to the wind. "I should very much like to kiss you at this moment, Miss Bennet. May I please?" Elizabeth started and looked at him questioningly. His gaze was burning into her, and she then realized her head, without her conscious intention, had tilted toward his in assent of his request.

His face lowered towards hers, and his lips gently touched hers for a moment; the sensations inspired by their lips' touch abounded, however. She felt a tingling in her body, but she could not securely identify its source. Darcy similarly experienced a quickening in his vitals all too familiar when his thoughts turned toward Elizabeth. He had the pleasure of imagining this kiss before, many times before, and not just this kiss but more still. Elizabeth, in contrast, had not hardly ever imagined a kiss between him and she; or perhaps, she had contemplated it but not nearly so much as he, and not hardly at all since he left her at the inn in Lambton. The sensation, therefore, was entirely new and surprising on every level, which might be why, when he drew away from her, and he breathed, "Once more, please?" she could only produce an affirmative hum from her throat, too mesmerized by the turmoil she felt within.

Her lips were instantly covered by Mr. Darcy's firm, pressing mouth. Darcy, ever aware of the impropriety of their present conduct, yet unable to cease his expedition into the intimate knowledge of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, resisted the urge to crush Elizabeth to him in a stranglehold, hesitating to take full possession of her sweet mouth. Instead, his hands briefly flustered to land upon either side of her, on the bookshelves she leaned against, and then as his ardor pressed further, his hands found a place at her shoulders, carefully not touching the areas above her cap sleeves, where her exposed flesh lie. This kiss was longer, more insistent.

When they parted, it was Elizabeth who suggested, "One more?" and this time, Darcy greedily obliged with greater persistence. This time, he cupped her face in his hands, turned his lips to hers, and tentatively explored her soft mouth with the introduction of the tip of his tongue. Elizabeth had instinctively placed her hands upon Mr. Darcy's arms, sensing the strength of the muscle beneath his jacket. She, too, was placing more heart into this embrace. Mirroring her partner's expressions, her small tongue experimentally flicked over Darcy's lips, and he could not help but pull her closer, by the small of her back, into a full embrace. She would have him, she would invite him, she would allow him, this, this, and this moment and another if he asked, he was certain. She would say yes now certainly to all.

But what was he to do? Seduce her in his private study? Other men in his position would do it, why couldn't he? He could take her as his mistress, even as she would play the part of Georgiana's companion – what a perfect deception to shelter their passion for one another from society. Instinctually, he kissed her again, deeply – and still more kisses followed.

Yes, he pictured it all - now he would bend over and sweep her up into his arms and carry her to the settee – she would be feather-light. There, he would run his hands over her lovely body, and proceed to disrobe her – first her tiny slippers on her feet, then the stockings – he would brush only the tips of his fingers against the soft skin of her calves. Then, he would lure her into allowing him to unbutton one then another of buttons of her grey day dress- she would allow him, he knew, she loved him, he was certain. He would stroke the silky flesh of her breasts, and when she was further at a point of surrender, he would release those plush mounds from their constraints and minister kiss upon kiss upon each coral nipple.

Now, with her begging for more, he would slide his warm hand up her skirts and further prepare her for the coming glory, gently, gently priming her virginal opening with the softest stroke upon stroke. Yes, and he would slip into her warmth, her snugness, moist from his attentions – like a hand in a glove, he thought - here on his study settee and they would both know release and revel in each other's passions. And they would find further secret delight in each other, as she posed as Georgina's companion – she would be his lover. It would be enough for now. And in good time, when it was time, a time later when all of the business surrounding Lydia faded away, then he would take her as his wife, and they would be together- as soon as it was time.

He was certain it was through some otherworldly intercession that he became conscious his arousal might be sensed through his tight breeches and her fine skirting – and that is what caused him to cease the kiss abruptly. He closed his eyes in mortification, reflecting upon the liberties he had taken with her both real and imagined, silently cursing his weakness. He was flushed with shame when he considered just how far his lust for her had taken him, and how easily he would have abused her innocence. He was perhaps no better than Wickham in some regards, and it sickened him. He croaked, "I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet," and he abruptly bowed to her and left the room.

Elizabeth, simultaneously flushed with a desire she could not begin to describe, and devastated by her own brazen behavior, was left alone again. The pellets of ice falling from the sky and the gusts of wind groaned and rattled the window panes, but nothing reverberated in her senses as clearly as the feel of his hand upon her waist, the guttural sound he made at feeling her return his kiss, the sight of his eyes piercing through all that she had known as good and proper behavior, the throb of her pulse between her legs. They had broached a level of intimacy she had never known, and subsequently, did not know what to do with it. What he must think of me, she thought, panicked.

Darcy raced down the side hall through the servants' passage to the kitchens. Without acknowledging the workers he met in his flight, he burst through the back door to the lawn beyond toward the lake. The heavy rain fell hard upon him, soaking through his jacket and breeches instantly. After several dozen yards, he stopped in his tracks, panting with the effort to rein his feelings. What had he done? How would he ever face being near her again, after such an intimacy? Would she ever allow him to hold her again like that? He threw back his head and let the rain run over him, arms akimbo, washing away his frustration.

Elizabeth had collapsed in the bay seat in the window, gulping back tears of regret. Why had she allowed him? Why did she ask for his attentions? What had come over her? The door to the study was slightly ajar, and she could make out the voices of the few servants staffing the house, saying things like, "Mr. Darcy is unattended!" and "Mr. Darcy is in need of a coat and hat." Elizabeth's attention was drawn toward the scene unfolding in the teeming rain outside the house. From her vantage point, she could see Darcy in his reckless flight through the storm. She pressed her hands against the pane, wishing she could draw him back to her and – what? Comfort him, hold him? Which Darcy was this? Elizabeth was mesmerized by this man in what she could only name as passion, for she herself had tasted it in his lips, no, had felt it truly in her own heart. She could not break away - she had to watch to see what would happen next.

Quick steps went one way and then the other up and down the hall. Within minutes, Darcy's valet had appeared on the hillside, also getting a soaking in the pouring rain, attempting to cover his master with a long overcoat. Darcy waved the servant away impatiently, not once, but twice, and then brusquely turned back toward the house. Again, there was more ruckus in the hall, as Darcy returned back through the servants' passage up toward his room. Elizabeth overheard his voice, saying "pack…London…I go to town in the morning."

So, he would leave her again. And what did she expect, truly? He was right in protecting the propriety of his family home. So many people depended upon him. It was right that he would remove himself to town, far from her and what he must view as her lascivious ways. But why bother? Surely he would dismiss her as paid companion to his sister. She would leave Pemberley, once and for all, and never see him again. She was no better than Lydia, after all.


Darcy bolted past the small study, up the servants' passage stairs, to his rooms. Once there, he tore away at his soaking clothes. He moved so quickly, it was a moment before his valet would meet him in the room to attend him. Darcy cursed silently to himself. She was so intoxicating – her presence in this house filled the air like a perfumed miasma. What was he thinking, inviting her to stay? Employing her as a companion to Georgiana? Making passionate advances toward her with a house full of guests? She inspired such reckless behavior in him!

"Allow me to assist, sir." His man Thompson attempted to aid Darcy in unbuttoning his shirt, but Darcy would have none of it.

"No – Thompson – just leave me to do it!" he snapped. It was the uncharacteristic display of feeling that gave the servant pause. He watched as Darcy fought with the buttons, and the cravat, and then his master finally sank down to sit upon the bed, swaying slightly.

"Mr. Darcy – are you well?" Darcy placed his head in his hands, and he felt a chill race through him.

"I am well enough – but I shall rest a moment," yanking off his boots, Mr. Darcy climbed under the counterpane, still dressed in his rain dampened clothing, and shut his eyes. Thompson had never witnessed illness in his master, but he was certain this behavior did not bode well. He left the room with a bow, paused at the door, and then hurried to fetch Mrs. Reynolds. Much to his misfortune, he was intercepted by Miss Caroline, who scolded the valet roundly for nearly knocking her down.

Miss Bingley had emerged from a two-day pout in her guest room with an attitude similar to the fabled Irish banshee. "Why are you in such haste that you would rush about the hallways in such a manner? I do not think Mr. Darcy would approve of such behavior in his servants."

I do not think Mr. Darcy would approve of such behavior in his guests, thought Thompson. He'd been valet to Darcy for his years at Cambridge and subsequently returned to service him at Pemberley. With a slight bow, he stated, "I beg pardon, miss, but Mr. Darcy is in need of Mrs. Reynolds. Mr. Darcy is unwell, Madam. I go to Mrs. Reynolds for medicine."

"Mr. Darcy, ill?" Caroline's heartbeat quickened. There was a slight shift in the manner in which she bore herself, like gears clicking into place. "I shall attend to him at once – he must not be left alone, man, not for a moment." Thompson, torn between immediately seeking help for his master, and protecting Mr. Darcy's privacy, was frozen in place in the hall. He gaped at the lady's swift trot up the hall to the master's chambers, and chose to quickly fetch Mrs. Reynolds for assistance – and Col. Fitzwilliam for security.

Pausing briefly before turning the knob, Caroline patted her skirts down and adjusted the feather in her hair. "Mr. Darcy," she cooed as she entered the room. "Mr. Darcy, are you ill?"

Darcy was indeed feverish and had attempted to further disengage himself from his wet clothing, unsuccessfully. Caroline approached the bed, and peered at his flushed face. She found him half covered by his bed linens, his shirt opened to the waist with one tail out, revealing a broad chest, his torso tapering to the waistline of his breeches. Miss Caroline Bingley, being of a certain age, was not one to modestly shy away from the form of the male unclothed. She had, after all, traveled in Europe and visited numerous art galleries, and viewed countless statues of naked men; male anatomy was not unknown to her. Seeing Mr. Darcy in such a state, however, was a different matter. Her curiosity got the better of her and she hastened to his bedside, with the intention of rearranging his linen shirt just so, so as to get a better sense of the gentleman's attractions.

With a hand hovering delicately at the bulge of cloth about his nether area, she startled when she heard him mutter, "Elizabeth…what you have done to me…what I would do if…Elizabeth," and he snatched at Caroline's hand and drew it to his heart. "Elizabeth, I love you so…" Caroline's breath hissed through her clenched teeth. He was dreaming feverishly of that chit – declaring his love, even! Impossible! The idea of Darcy entrapped by that inferior girl, that yokel – it sickened her. "Let me kiss you again, I beg of you…" he muttered.

Kiss? Again?...thought Caroline, her eyes narrowing into slits. And then she heard footsteps in the hall, and the sound of the housekeeper's voice speaking with Thompson and Col. Fitzwilliam. Briefly, she recalled the one conversation she and Darcy had about matrimony: "Marriage is, in the end, a meeting of the minds, more than anything, don't you think?" he'd queried. She had long since understood that his attraction to her was limited, if it existed at all. And here he was before her, saying words of love and requesting embraces – did it really matter who he was referring to? They, she and Darcy, they had always had similar views when it came to certain people. They were of one mind, so why not? And before she could contemplate that audacious mendacity would be beneath her, she knew her chance had come at last.

Mrs. Reynolds and the colonel walked into Mr. Darcy's bedroom to find Caroline Bingley in an indelicate situation with Mr. Darcy. Upon hearing their gasps of surprise, Miss Bingley leapt from the bed, and proceeded to declare how it was that she came to be there. "The valet said Mr. Darcy was ill, and I took it upon myself to look upon him as help was secured and – Mr. Darcy declared that – he had affection for me; he asked that I kiss him. He was in such a state, I dared not refuse." Looking from the pale face of Mrs. Reynolds and the frowning Col. Fitzwilliam, Caroline bent her head and whispered, "I only wished to soothe him in his illness," she breathlessly declared, eyes cast downward. "He said he loved me, and I was overcome with my feelings for him."

Another maid had arrived bearing a bowl of hot water and herbs, just in time to hear Caroline sputter on about how Darcy loved her. Perfect, thought Caroline. The sooner the word spread around the staff, the sooner Darcy would learn of his newly found affection for her. With the servants alerted, it would only be a matter of time before the story would spread throughout Derbyshire County – Mr. Darcy was seen in his bedroom kissing a lady of some repute. He declared his love for her. She would no doubt be the mistress of Pemberley before lambing in the spring. And so the story spread, through the servants and the masters alike. Lucky, lucky Caroline.

In the days that followed, Elizabeth would never learn that Darcy had called out her name while his fever raged – and he called for her again and again still in the week that he had taken ill. Miss Bingley's constant bedside presence insured that no one would hear Darcy call any name but her own. Caroline was allowed the privilege of attending to the ailing Mr. Darcy, with Georgiana's reluctant blessing. "It seems that my brother had affection for Miss Bingley after all," she glumly stated to Elizabeth. Elizabeth would not contradict young Georgiana. She held in her memory the kiss that she and Darcy had shared – the many kisses – and was so conflicted by the feelings those moments stirred within her – what could she say? She had not even discussed the embraces with her own sister.

Caroline ceased her vigil long enough to corner her brother Charles in his dressing room as he sipped his morning cup. "Charles, it has come to my attention that you have renewed your connections with Miss Jane Bennet."

"Very astute, Caroline," murmured Charles as he spread marmalade on a slice of toast. He'd grown distant with both his sisters since he'd discovered their attempts to keep him away from Jane while she'd visited London last year. This Christmas visit to Pemberley was just what he needed to gain the girl's good graces back, and he had determined not to allow Caroline or Louisa to interfere again.

"Charles, I know that you are attached to this sweet girl, but you surely must understand that your connection with her would be an utter disgrace to our family. The Bingley name would be attached to a farmer's daughter, Charles, and one with a sister of ill-repute. It will do my prospects such harm if you continue to engage Miss Jane's attentions!"

"Sister, we have had this discussion before." Charles was well aware of Jane's recently lowered status. Now that she was no longer at Longbourn, her situation was socially blighted. Furthermore, she had no fortune or land – she had nothing of worth to share with him. "I am well aware of Miss Jane's position. I am also aware of your concerns."

"What if I told you that you could insure none of that mattered anymore? That Miss Jane's social status was of little import?"

"How could that be?" asked Charles, now fully engaged the conversation.

"I need to marry Mr. Darcy. That is all."

"Mr. Darcy – Mr. Darcy bears you no affection, sister."

"Perhaps, Charles, but he did declare himself to me, and he did kiss me while in his bedroom. He could be made to make a public declaration."

Charles snorted. "You wish for me to force Darcy into marrying you? I can't force Darcy to do anything, Caroline. A kiss stolen while he was ill is not grounds to force him into marriage."

"You must make him see that your marriage to Jane will not happen unless he proposes marriage to me. His union me will add substance to Miss Jane Bennet's reputation. Marrying me will save her." Darcy's firm resolve to see Charles and Jane Bennet together had been a source of great inspiration for Caroline. Caroline had seen the benefit of compromise in the situation – yes, Charles would marry into the abhorrent Bennet family, but she in exchange would be wife to Darcy!

Charles pondered this for a few moments. He could see the logic – if Darcy married Caroline, the Bingleys would receive the esteem of the Darcy family name. Being sister-in law to Fitzwilliam Darcy would raise Jane's social status greatly. Yes, Caroline had been exposed, at least to an extent, at least enough that tongues were wagging, so why would he not press Darcy to step up to his responsibility? Charles declared, "I will go to Col. Fitzwilliam with the matter. Caroline, you are my dear clever little sister, and I do wish you well always."

As he slowly revived, seven days later, Darcy was informed that he and Miss Bingley had been found in a compromising position while he was ill. Col. Fitzwilliam had broken the news, and Darcy looked at his cousin in a confused manner. He had no recollection of any such encounter with Miss Bingley. The kiss he shared with Miss Elizabeth Bennet in the private study was a different story, but one he was not willing to share.

"Here now, Darcy – an attraction must be there, for Miss Bingley says you kissed her, and you told her of your affections. A woman of Miss Bingley's status would not fabricate such a story."

"I would never tell Caroline Bingley that I loved her, Fitzwilliam," Darcy stated through gritted teeth. "I have no intention of making an offer to her – she is a…a… a shrew!"

"And yet, she has been compromised – found in your bedroom, in an embrace with you, while you were…"

"Incapacitated? Unconscious? Incapable of rational thought? How would you choose to describe my behavior while laying abed, ill?"

"Darcy, it is no matter!" interrupted the Colonel. "Mr. Bingley, as Miss Bingley's guardian, insists that you make an honest woman of her, and so, by God, you will."

"Does Mr. Bingley insist, or rather Miss Bingley? Has she spread these lies about the entire household? Will there be a duel between me and Charles?" He snorted his disgust. "That would be a spectacle not to be missed!" With a wince, he asked, "What of the Bennet girls? Has she divulged this matter to them?"

Ever suspicious of his cousin's interest in the Bennets, particularly Elizabeth Bennet, the colonel answered, "No, the Bennets and the Gardiners are unaware of the situation, at least from my understanding. The lady did not wish to have her name besmirched by rumor and speculation, so she has informed only her brother and sister."

Darcy huffed again. "Speculation. I would speculate that there was some elaborate maneuvering on Miss Bingley's part to be found in my bedroom whilst I was unawares!"

Elizabeth Bennet thought the same thing, as she heard the story from Jane. Of course Caroline had kept the tale quiet, but for Charles and Louisa. And of course, Charles would reveal all to his true love, Jane. "Love her! He has insulted her at every turn during this visit – I'd think he's sooner love a dead cat!"

"But Lizzy – he kissed her!" Jane stated with emphasis as she was brushing out Elizabeth's hair one night. "They were found in his bedroom, and she was beside him and he was holding her hand and kissing her." Jane began braiding Elizabeth's dark locks.

"Her kissing him is not the same as him kissing her," stated Elizabeth. "He was feverish – he was too weak to even sit up, much less court Caroline Bingley. Besides…" her voice trailed off, and she stopped herself from revealing anything more with her sister. If Jane or anyone would find out what took place in the private study of Pemberley, a resounding scandal would originate. As it was, although he had not terminated Elizabeth as Georgiana's companion, Mr. Darcy no longer addressed her except through the staff. She believed this was for the best; for the thought of being in his presence caused her heart to race, and she felt her pulse quicken and breath become uneven. It was not Caroline Bingley whom he kissed – it was she. But she would not risk another family scandal to prove a point, not with so much at stake; for Jane and Charles had grown very close indeed, and in her heart, Elizabeth believed he would look beyond Jane's circumstances and propose to her very soon. Perhaps the couple would be engaged even now, if it were not for the distraction of this incident between Darcy and Caroline Bingley.

"Darcy, old man, this is a sticky situation," started Bingley, blushing from the delicacy of the matter that he was to present to his friend. "My sister states that you – that she was – damn it, man, you know what has been said."

"With all due respect, Charles, none of it is true."

"Yes, I know, I mean – I don't believe you were aware of your actions, Darcy, but the fact of the matter is several individuals witnessed the two of you in a – situation, and it must be addressed. You must declare your intention to Caroline."

"I cannot, Charles, and do not ask it of me again," stated Darcy flatly.

Charles hesitated, not wanting to push his friend further. But what was at stake was too important to him. "Caroline states – she says that if you and she become engaged then I could freely marry Miss Jane Bennet. As it is now, her family connections and her means are insubstantial. Her present social position would be greatly improved if you married Caroline…Darcy, I come to you to ask you to resolve this situation for not only Caroline, but for me and Miss Jane Bennet as well."

"If Caroline becomes a Darcy, then Miss Jane rises in status," Darcy stated flatly.

"Because I would be a brother to you – and Jane would be your sister…in-law."

Darcy closed his eyes and recollected the pleasure he saw in Elizabeth's face as she observed Charles and Jane together at last. He imagined Charles and Jane walking down the aisle of a country church arm-in-arm. His engagement to Caroline Bingley would secure their present and future happiness; it would absolve him of the lies he told to his friend to prevent his discovering Jane's presence in the city. Jane would be married to her dear Mr. Bingley, and itt would delight Miss Elizabeth to no end. He could give this to his friend, this happiness, and he would secure Miss Jane's happiness and Elizabeth's happiness as well.

It was with somber resolution he was reluctantly affianced to Miss Bingley. Charles, with a lighter heart, pledged his troth to Jane within the same week. Talk of holding a double wedding within the properly measured time was immediately rejected by Mr. Darcy. He had sudden travel plans for a spell before the spring; when he returned, it was decided that he and Miss Caroline would set a wedding date. Darcy thought that perhaps with time he would be more willing to concede to the arrangement.

As for Elizabeth, Darcy recognized the situation was more than intractable. He resolved to avoid her at all costs. After their indiscretion in the study and before his illness, he had originally intended to flee for London. By separating himself from Elizabeth, he would perhaps be able to regain some control over his life. For being near her would surely inspire in him those renegade urges he sought so desperately to vanquish. For the time being, she would remain at Pemberley as his sister's companion, yes. Avoidance of both she and Caroline would be the order of the day; he would fold into himself for a spell, and bask in solitude until he found the clarity he so desired. He departed Pemberley early on New Year's Day, before the grey of dawn had lifted.

Elizabeth remained with Georgiana, and her heart was filled with the memory of Darcy's lips upon hers. She would never forget. Even if he and Caroline Bingley would wed, she would still have that memory; that would never be taken from her. How she would live with it, she could not imagine yet.

Inevitable Change

A Pride & Prejudice Story
by acuppajava

Part 4 of 21

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