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The Lost Year

Chapter 6

It was 5 p.m. when at last peace and quietness reentered Pemberley. With all the guests having left by then, only six people remained.

They'd made themselves comfortable in the library; William was engaged in a game of chess with his cousin Richard, in an effort to keep his thoughts away from Elizabeth- he didn't really succeed, though- while Jane and Georgiana were having a subdued conversation with Charles and Chris.

Throughout the game, Richard noticed William's lack of concentration, but naturally ascribed it to the very demanding, stressful time his cousin was just going through. However, he had to revise his opinion when he realised that in truth William was trying to overhear what the others were talking about. And every time a certain name was mentioned, he seemed to be even more distracted than he already was.

Richard- never loath to have fun at his cousin's expense- found this apparent display of interest very amusing indeed, because normally William never gave away his feelings. Wondering briefly what might have caused him to act so way out of character, he decided to seize this rare opportunity and sound things out- and maybe tease his cousin just a little bit.

Gently knocking down his king on the chess board and thus conceding defeat he said, "Tell you what, Will, this game's boring." He stood up, rubbing his hands and continued, "Let's join the others. -I'd rather have a little chat."

He looked at William expectantly, who returned his look with evident suspicion. He knew Richard well enough to suspect that there was more to his abrupt change of mind than just a sudden desire for conversation. But since no other good reason came to his mind, he shrugged and rose from his armchair to follow Richard who was already approaching the foursome by the fireside. But almost immediately he jerked to a halt when he heard his cousin's question: "So Jane, what's this whole story about Elizabeth? I know about the accident, but how is she now? From what I saw today, she looks quite healthy. Any after-effects?"

With that he made himself comfortable on the sofa across from Jane and looked at her curiously, but not before shooting his cousin a sideways glance.

William was not a violent person by nature, but at that very moment he felt a strong urge to strangle Richard with his bare hands. That sneaky, scheming...He had found out somehow! Was it really so easy for his cousin to see through him? Or had he betrayed himself in any way?

In order to conceal his anger he walked over to one of the windows and stared outside. Wisely enough, though, he chose the one nearer to the fireside, so he could still hear Jane's answer: "Well, physically she's pretty much recovered, although her left side was injured severely- I don't know how many fractures and bruises she received. But what had the doctors really worried was her concussion. Fortunately she recovered from that, too, without any permanent damage."

Chris, a doctor himself, leaned forward, his interest peaked. "So the head injury has nothing to do with her amnesia?"

"No, she suffers from a form of amnesia that is caused by the traumatic experience she has endured," Jane explained.

"And how did they find out about it?"

With Jane's attention now drawn to Chris, Richard was able to take another look at William. Though his back was turned to them, he could tell by his cousin's erect stance and the tense set of his shoulders that he was concentrating more on what was said behind him than on the view in front of him. Convinced that it had to be something serious that had William so preoccupied, Richard decided to abandon teasing him for the time being and instead focus on finding out what was really going on.

"We found out, actually, " Charles chipped in, thus deflecting Richard's thoughts. "Shortly after she learned that Tom was dead, she said something about being a widow at 23, but she was already 24 at that time."

"At first we thought she was just confused," Jane went on. "Only when she asked us not to postpone our wedding on her account, did we know for sure that something was wrong. -Our wedding had already taken place the previous August."

Georgiana was totally shocked. "Oh my God! Poor Lizzy! How did she react, when her amnesia was finally confirmed?"

Charles shook his head in dismay, "She suffered a serious depression, crying almost all the time. But her mood improved bit by bit when in time it became clear that she'd lost only one year of her memory."

Jane put her hand into her husband's and intertwined their fingers, seeking the comfort of his touch and explained: "She remembered everything up to her second wedding anniversary, but nothing beyond. She thought the accident had happened after they'd celebrated in a restaurant- in truth they'd been on their way home from..." she hesitated, casting a glance at William's back, "...from Patricia's birthday party, shortly before their third anniversary. And that's how it is till this day, despite months of therapy."

Much to Richard's surprise, William had turned around at the mention of Patricia's name and now asked: "Didn't you tell her what has happened in the meantime?"

At this Jane and Charles shook their heads in unison, and Charles answered: "We tried, but she didn't- and still doesn't- want us to. All she wanted was to see the pictures and the video tape taken at our wedding." With his last words, his voice had become unsteady, so Jane continued for him, although her eyes were brimming with tears.

"It made her so sad that she couldn't remember it. She said, aside from having lost the memory of her last months with Tom, this was the worst."

The silence that followed was suddenly interrupted by Charles who started to laugh softly. All heads turned to him in astonishment. He waved his hand apologetically, slightly blushing.

"I'm sorry, but I just had to think of what Lizzy said when she saw a picture of William where he was actually laughing..."

"Charles," Jane hissed.

"What?" he asked innocently.

"This is entirely inappropriate," she admonished, looking at William from beneath her lashes.

"Oh Jane, come on," Richard stepped in, "remember what Reverend McNeill said at the funeral repast. That Uncle Andrew has gone into a better world, where there's no pain and no sorrow and that we should be happy for him instead of being sad?"

Jane nodded approvingly and couldn't suppress a small smile. "He actually started telling jokes to cheer us all up."

"And I really appreciated it," Georgiana admitted quietly, "I'm so tired of being sad and crying- it doesn't bring Daddy back, after all. I will always love him and will miss him for as long as I live, but I'm sure, he would want us to go on with our lifes and be happy."

"Well, Charles," William addressed his friend, "now that you have everybody's consent, I suggest you keep us no longer in suspense."

Charles looked down at his hands, obviously embarrassed, "Hmm, maybe it's not so's just that I...admire her, because she hasn't lost her sense of humour despite the circumstances."

Richard tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs-up, "Go ahead, man."

"Well, she said," Charles began, turning to William, "she wouldn't have thought you could smile, let alone laugh, because you always...keep such a stiff upper lip."

Silence ensued...and lasted, until Charles squirmed uncomfortably, feeling the need to justify himself, "I told you- "

He was interrupted, as Georgiana started to giggle and Richard burst out laughing. A relieved smile appeared on Charles' face, and finally everybody joined in the laughter- except for William. The only outward sign that Lizzy's quip had hit the mark were his reddened ears, whereas his face remained as blank as always, while he waited for the laughter to subside. His patience was put to the test, however, because- much to his chagrin- his stern expression only spurred on the general amusement. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he turned on his heels and left for his study.

The sound of the closing door immediately expelled the good mood. The smiles vanished to be replaced by worried faces.

Georgiana sighed. "I wish he wouldn't take everything so seriously, he- "

"No, Georgie, it was my fault- I shouldn't have said it," Charles cut her off decidedly.

Standing up, Richard shook his head angrily. "It's nobody's fault! We all needed some cheering up," he said and took a deep breath. "And Will definitely needs to loosen up. He just behaved like a sullen teenager. I'm tired of weighing every word I say to spare his feelings."

"But Richard," Jane interjected, "these last two years were really tough on him. I'm not surprised in the least that he couldn't laugh about Lizzy's teasing. In fact, I think that the last time he really laughed was at our wedding."

Georgiana looked up at her cousin. "Jane is right, Richard. I thought a lot about Will these past few days. And believe me, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes."

Richard smirked as he sat down again. "They wouldn't fit anyway, Georgie."

She slapped him playfully, while the others tried to cover up their laughter with coughs and harumphs.

"Richard please, do be serious," she reprimanded. "Will is totally caught up in his own world of restrained emotions and self-reproach. If he goes on like this, he will ruin himself. Something has to be done to make him open up. -Given how reserved and obstinate he is, it won't be easy, though." She looked at her friends for confirmation and earned consenting nods.

They sat there for a while pondering options and discarding them, until Chris broke the silence.

"Did you talk to him about Christmas already?" he asked Georgiana.

She shook her head. "No, not yet. I wanted to do that tomorrow."

"What are your plans?" Jane enquired.

Chris put an arm around Georgiana's waist to pull her closer, and looked at her lovingly. "Well, since Georgie doesn't feel up to celebrating here- without her father- we intend to either invite Will to Glasgow or to spend the holidays in London with him. He may choose."

Richard snorted and waved his hand dismissively. "Forget Glasgow- he'll never come. And as for London- I'm sure he'll find a way to back out of that, too."

"What about Netherfield?" Charles piped up, his face brightening notably. "If we all celebrated together at Netherfield, he couldn't decline."

"That's a brilliant idea, darling," Jane stated and kissed her husband on the cheek. Turning back to her companions she opened her arms wide as if including them all in a huge embrace.

"You'll all come to Hertfortshire for Christmas- and we're going to have a wonderful time."

"That's fine by me," Richard agreed after a moment. "I'd love to come to Netherfield. Since my parents are going to Italy to my brother's, I'd be alone anyway. -Georgie, Chris what about you?"

The young couple exchanged a look, then they both nodded and Georgie said: "Thank you, we'd love to come, too."

"Great!" Jane exclaimed and stood up. Addressing her husband, she added: "You discuss the details, dear, and I'm going to tell William. He won't be able to sneak out, believe me." With a sly smile she winked at them as she knocked on the door to the adjoining room.

Without waiting for William's permission, Jane entered the study. He had resumed his favourite place in front of the window, facing away from her. When he heard her call his name, he turned around in surprise. "Jane...?"

"Am I disturbing you?" she asked cautiously.

"No, not at all. I just didn't expect-"

"Me- I know." Anxiously searching his face, she walked over to stand before him. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine, thank you," he managed a wry smile. "Just feeling a little...stupid."

Impulsively she put her hand to his cheek. "Oh, no Will, don't," she shook her head to emphasise her statement. "There's no need to- we all understand. You've been through so much lately. -Nobody will condemn you for acting a wee bit peculiar every now and then."

What was meant to be a witty remark, caused him to drop his eyes to the ground and blush slightly, thus confirming what she had already suspected. Cupping his chin, she forced him to meet her gaze and asked in a hushed voice: "You don't like that, do you?"

Again he said nothing, but after hesitating briefly he gave his head a negative shake. His silent admission prompted Jane to hug him compassionately. "Oh, dear, dear William, will you ever be able to admit that you're only human- like we all are?" She pulled away from him to look into his eyes intently. "You ask far too much of yourself. You need to relax- take it easy for a while. Let go of all the restraints you've imposed upon yourself."

With her remarks she'd hit home far too close for his liking, so he tried to deflect her thoughts by asking lightly: "Do I guess correctly that your kind rebuke serves a certain purpose?"

Smiling at him brilliantly, Jane declared: "Yes! We've made plans for Christmas."

"And?" William asked warily, a dark premonition settling in his stomach.

Unable to contain her excitement, she let go of him and stepped back a little. "We're all going to celebrate at Netherfield! -Georgie, Chris, Richard, Charles, you and me- and, of course, Papa and Lizzy. -Oh, William, we will have such a wonderful time! What do you think?"

"Well, to be honest..." -he couldn't think at all, his brain had stopped working at the mention of her sister's name. Only one sentence flashed through his mind: Find an excuse!

But she was too fast for him. Sensing his hesitancy, she saw her chance. She grabbed his arm and tugged lightly at his sleeve. "Please, William, do come! Say yes!" she pleaded with him, giving the impression that her whole happiness depended on his consent. Before he could stop himself, he felt his head bob up and down in agreement.

"Yes!" Jane exclaimed, embracing him once again and kissing his cheek. "You will not regret it, I'm sure!" She took his hand and attempted to drag him back to the library. "Come on- we have to tell the others. They will be so glad to hear it!"

Gently but determinedly William stopped her and pulled his hand free. "Just give me one more minute, Jane. I'll join you shortly."

She eyed him suspiciously. "Promise?"

"Promise," he assured her and watched as she made her way out of the room in an elated pace.

As soon as the door had closed behind her, he heaved a deep sigh and passed a hand through his hair. Knowing exactely that she had duped him, he wasn't sure whether to be angry or amused. While he lightly scratched the back of his neck, his brow furrowed in confusion. What was so special about these Bennet women that he obviously couldn't resist their charms?

Chapter 7 - Part 1

As soon as her father pulled up in front of the hotel, Elizabeth jumped out of the car, slammed the door shut and hurried through the entrance. With a worried expression on his face, Robert watched her disappear inside.

Ever since the funeral service this morning, something had been entirely wrong with her. At first he'd assumed that she hadn't been able to handle the situation as good as she'd hoped, that she had demanded too much from herself too soon. Therefore he'd expected her to get better once the funeral was over.

But far from it! Despite taking a rest after their arrival at Pemberley, her mood had become even worse. She'd emerged from the library with puffy eyes that clearly indicated she had been crying. Wanting to give her comfort, he had been by her side immediately. But she'd sidestepped his attempt, telling him that she just wanted to go back to the hotel. At this point he had become really worried, sensing that whatever troubled her was going much deeper than he'd thought.

They'd taken their leave rather hastily, and within minutes had been in the car on their way back to Lambton. He had silently hoped she would confide in him, but she had turned her head away to stare out of the window thus showing him that this was not going to happen.

He'd heaved a sigh of frustration, not sure how to proceed- should he ask her although he knew it would make her even more defensive or should he wait until she would come to him voluntarily? But before he'd had time to come to a decision, they'd reached their destination and he could do nothing but let her go.

Robert sat there and felt another sigh rising in his chest. Irritated, he attempted to hold it back, but then let it out anyway. After all, that was all he could do right now- sigh and wait. Silently praying for patience, he climbed out of the car and followed his daughter.

~ * ~

Elizabeth took refuge in her hotel room, immediately locking the door behind her. Leaning her forehead against the cool wood, she finally gave in to a new torrent of tears that had burned behind her eyes ever since leaving Pemberley.

Her body was exhausted, her mind dazed from the emotional roller coaster she had been riding all day long. She couldn't even name all the feelings she'd been put through within so short a time; they had reached from one end of the spectrum to the other, sometimes changing within minutes, but never giving her a moment's rest.

When the tears eventually subsided, she lifted her head and turned around slowly, wiping her wet cheeks with jerky motions. In dire need of some relief for her unsteady legs, she walked over to the bed, on her way depositing the coat she'd worn, and sat down with a contented sigh. She didn't remain upright for long but gently tipped over to her right side and lifted her feet from the ground. Coiling up into a ball, she put her folded hands under her cheek.

Right now all she wanted was to sleep, but she knew she wouldn't be able to. First she'd have to sort out her tangled thoughts, try to find out what was going on. Yet, something told her that today's events went beyond her understanding- they were frightening and unexplainable.

With knitted brows she wondered if this was possibly the second time these very thoughts had afflicted her. Had she been through all this once before? She held on to the question, mulled it over, and closing her eyes, she searched her heart for any hidden emotion that might connect itself to it and searched her mind for borrowed images that might resurface.

But no memories from long ago came up- instead pictures of William from not so long ago arose in her mind's eye, eliciting an instant reaction from her body. Waves of heat swept through her, shortening her breath and flushing her cheeks, as the feeling of his strong body pressed against hers came back. Once again she was enveloped in his scent and heard his groans ring in her ears, for a split second making her believe that she was back in his arms.

Her eyes snapped open, and she inhaled deeply to recover her breath. Even in retrospect she couldn't control her physical reaction to him- and her surprise about it hadn't lessened a bit. The next thought that occurred to her made her sit up abruptly. He'd been totally taken aback, too. Suddenly too excited to keep still, she stood up and began to pace the room, trying to find evidence for her detection.

When she'd seen him before the funeral service, he had been all she had known him to be- proud, conceited, aloof, displaying his usual behaviour. In no way had he acted as if there had ever been any intimacy between them- he hadn't even talked to her.

She stopped in her tracks, tilting her head in concentration as she attempted to assess his reactions to the subsequent events. In church he'd seemed to be perplexed, at the graveside irritated and impatient. But when they'd touched, his astonishment, his confusion had been abundantly clear- impossible to overlook. And although she had seen them and felt them, until now she hadn't recognised them for what they were- a mirror image of her own emotions. It had taken them both completely unawares!

This unexpected insight took a heavy load off her mind, at the same time dispelling the rush of adrenaline that had pushed her up. As her fatigue returned, she went back to the bed and lay down, feeling greatly relieved. To know that William had been affected similarly, nurtured her hope that they didn't share any history she couldn't remember. Of course there was no guarantee that her presumption was correct, but at least it was logical enough to give her a small amount of reassurance.

Relaxing notably for the first time that day, she began to wonder about her own behaviour. She had always considered herself even-tempered and levelheaded, neither one to be up one minute and down the next, nor one to panic easily in times of trouble. And Tom, who'd been a very stable and reasonable man, had always endorsed her self-assessment by praising her mental balance for one so young. His commendation had made her proud and she attempted to live up to it, which hadn't been too difficult. In fact, life with Tom had hardly given any reason for emotional outbursts. It had been predictable and steady- comfortable, and she had liked it that way.

But since then her emotional life had undergone a significant change, because after the accident she found out that she was capable of feelings so strong, she hadn't even known existed. They'd been explainable and understandable though, and eventually she had managed to deal with them. Whereas the intense emotions William Darcy had elicited were highly irrational and unfounded, and she had no idea how to deal with them- they made her insecure and unsure of herself. Yet, she had to concede that in their entirety they were decidedly more pleasurable than anything she had ever felt before. Mainly because of the desire they'd shared- desire so strong that it had erased any coherent thought. As frightening as it had been, deep within she yearned for it. Smiling slightly about her silent concession, she closed her eyes and for the first time let herself wallow in the feeling of being in William's arms without any reservation.

~ * ~

Smiling tenderly Bob watched his sleeping daughter as he sat by her bedside. Actually, he didn't want to wake her up, but he knew he had to. It was time for dinner, and she would be hungry at midnight at the latest, if she didn't get anything to eat soon. Moreover, he had important news to tell her and, last but not least, he wanted to satisfy his curiosity about what had happened at the funeral. He'd had time to think about her strange behaviour and had come to the conclusion that it had something to do with William Darcy.

So he nudged her shoulder and gently called her name. At first she didn't react at all, then she wrinkled her nose and furrowed her brow. Bob chuckled, thinking that some things never changed- she had awoken like that ever since she was a little girl. When he nudged her for the third time he was rewarded with a huge yawn accompanied by a slow stretching. Finally she opened her eyes, blinking several times before her gaze focused on him.

"Hello, Papa."

"Good evening, Sweetie. Did you have a nice nap?"

She rubbed her eyes, then propped herself up on an elbow. "Yes, thank you. I feel much better now. -How did you get in here?"

He pointed behind his back to an open door. "Our rooms are connected."

"Oh," she stated, dismissing the subject with a shrug. "What time is it?"

"Time for dinner. Are you hungry?"

"I am. What's on the menu?"

Bob shrugged and reached for the telephone. "I don't know, but I'll find out."

Half an hour later a delicious meal was served in Elizabeth's room. When the waiter had left, and they'd started to eat, Bob finally broke the news. "Jane called while you were sleeping."

"Oh, what did she want?"

"Well, there'll be additions to our Christmas party at Netherfield."

Elizabeth stopped chewing. "Additions? But who- ?" Apprehension grabbed at her, making her stop mid-sentence.

Bob watched her carefully, as he delivered the message. "It seems that William and his family are going to join our celebration."

Though she'd somehow known what was to come, it was beyond her to conceal her reaction. Paling visibly, she dropped her gaze to her plate and tightly clenched her fork. After clearing her throat audibly, she replied with all the cheerfulness she could muster: "How nice. The more the merrier, as they say."

Bob raised his eyebrows as he stared at her bowed head. It seemed that his conjecture had been right, this was definitely about William Darcy. Feeling that he had to step gently now, he stated quietly: "You're not happy about it."

She jerked her head up to glare at him defiantly. "And if she invited all of Derbyshire, I couldn't care less!" With that she jumped up from her chair and walked over to the window. Arms folded across her chest, she stared out into the dark.

Heaving a sigh, Bob got up and crossed the room to stand behind her. Cautiously he put his hands on her rigidly set shoulders. "Lizzy, I know that something is wrong with you. Why don't you talk to me?" he asked in a hushed voice.

She didn't answer, but- much to his relief- didn't draw back either. A few seconds elapsed before she started to relax noticeably. At last she shook her head and turned around to face him.

"Papa, I can't tell you what's wrong with me, because I don't know myself," she admitted, evidently dismayed.

Slowly she walked around him and returned to the table to slump into her chair. Bob was by her side in an instant and, sitting down next to her, took her cold hand between his. "But something must have happened to unsettle you so much."

Although she looked at him, it was as if she stared right through him and he wondered if she'd actually heard him. He was on the verge of calling her name to gain her attention, when she cut him off in a quiet voice, her gaze now fixed on him. "Papa, do you think I was happy with Tom?"

Bob was totally taken aback by her question. He opened his mouth to answer, then closed it again. Uncomfortably shifting in his chair, he let go of her hand and braced his elbows on his thighs, letting his eyes drop to the ground.

"Please, Papa, be honest," Elizabeth entreated, when she saw him fighting for an answer.

He took a deep breath and sat up again, meeting her anxious gaze. "You know that I was not... delighted about your choice of husband."

Since this was clearly a statement, Elizabeth simply nodded.

"As I told you then," Bob continued, "in my opinion, he was too old for you and seemed much too serious. But you were determined to have him."

Again she nodded.

He took another deep breath. " proved me wrong. -At least up until after your second anniversary."

Elizabeth swallowed hard. "I assumed as much myself. There has to be a good reason why my memory chooses to deny me access from that specific point on." Since this was the first time she exposed herself so thoroughly, she suddenly felt the need for human contact and reached out for her father. "Tell me about it," she demanded shakily.

Bob took her hand and enfolded it between his once again, briefly reflecting on how to put his feelings into comprehensible words. "Well, during the first two years you seemed to were...carefree and content- happy." He smiled at her tenderly. "I was so glad that all my doubts seemed to be resolved." The smile disappeared. "But shortly after your anniversary you changed markedly. At first you appeared to be angry, then you became thoughtful and insecure- and sad. And, moreover, you started to be secretive about your marriage- about your life in general. So, all in all, I'd say you were unhappy."

Tears started to roll down Elizabeth's cheeks while she listened to her father. Although she knew he was talking about her, she felt no emotional connection at all to this woman. While she could of course understand this story, it wasn't as if she'd been through it personally. That was exactly why she had never asked any questions about her lost year. She wanted to remember it instead of being told about it.

Bob patted her hand and asked solicitously: "Are you alright, Lizzy?"

"No, I'm not," she replied, shaking her head. "But that doesn't matter right now, does it? It's more important now that I find out what happened, regardless of how it makes me feel." Taking a deep breath, she resumed their conversation. "So- I didn't tell you what was going on?"

"No, and you didn't tell anybody else either- as far as I know. Not even Jane."

Holding on tighter to her father's hand, she averted her eyes and placed her next question. "Do you think, I...cheated on Tom?"

Bob looked at her totally perplexed, then he burst out laughing wholeheartedly. "Oh, Lizzy, no," he choked out. "Please, don't be absurd!"

However, as it dawned on him that she was truly distressed, he immediately restrained his amusement. "I'm sorry, dear. I couldn't help it..." He inhaled deeply. "Anyway, no- I don't think so. You're neither a cheater, nor a liar- you never were. Just where did that notion come from?"

She blushed profusely and bowed her head even deeper. Her voice was almost inaudible as she confessed: "It's William..."

Try as he might, Bob couldn't suppress a grin. "I thought as much," he admitted.

Her head came up and she stared at him incredulously, as she sputtered: ""

"As I said already- I watch and I listen. And right now I'm planning on listening. So- tell me all about it."

Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly and heaved a sigh. Hoping fervently that it would be for the best, she started to talk.

Chapter 7 - Part 2

t was already past midnight when William finally gave up any attempt to sleep. His reeling mind wouldn't allow him even a minute's rest. After lying in the darkness of his room for some time, he got up and went downstairs to the library.

He poured himself a handsome amount of brandy and relaxed into one of the huge armchairs. Savouring his drink as it burned slightly on his tongue and left a warm path inside him until it reached his stomach, he leaned his head back and tried to sort out his thoughts. There were a hundred and one questions, but no answers. Fleetingly he asked himself why those answers should be so important- they wouldn't change a thing, anyway.

In truth- all emotions aside- there was only one bottom line: he'd been attracted to her, he had exposed himself, she had rejected him- end of story. Shaking his head, he laughed to himself.

"What's so funny, William dear?"

William all but jumped out of his chair at the sound of his cousin's voice. Pressing a hand to his racing heart, he took a deep breath and slumped back against the backrest. Chuckling, Richard walked over to the bar and helped himself to a straight scotch.

"Jumpy, eh?" he asked cheekily, as he returned and sat down across from his cousin.

"You almost scared me to death! I hadn't counted on anybody sneaking around the house this late at night," William retorted, visibly annoyed. "So, what are you doing here?"

Richard took a sip of his drink before he answered: "Well, as it is, I'm in a rather talkative mood of late. Thought you might want to- "

"Thank you- no. There's nothing to talk about."

"Oh, come on, man," he leaned forward and patted his cousin's knee. "Spill your guts!"

William inhaled deeply, trying to keep at bay his increasing anger with Richard's audacity. Nevertheless the danger was evident in his low voice, as he spoke through clenched teeth. "You're skating on thin ice, Rick. If you want to stay in good health, you'd better accept this advice- leave me alone."

Slightly taken aback, Richard raised his eyebrows at William's atypical behaviour. He'd never been into threatening anyone- let alone a member of the family. Taking it as a clear sign that he'd really underestimated the pressure his cousin was under, he decided at once to change tactics- this was too serious for mockery, no matter how good-natured.

"I'm sorry, Will," he said, deliberately keeping his tone quiet and gentle. "You've had to deal with a lot of trouble recently. I just wanted to say that I'm here for you- anytime."

William looked back at his cousin, his anger easing off with every word Richard said. He hung his head and stared into his glass as weariness spread through him, pushing away what little energy he'd had left. For the first time ever, he felt sorry for himself, and regretted his decision not to trust in his family and friends. -But he'd talked to Charles, hadn't he? And it had felt good. So why not take another chance? His power of endurance was receding all too quickly; he was afraid to imagine what would happen if it gave out completely. And Richard had never disappointed him, in fact, no member of his family ever had. Having made up his mind, he lifted his head again and found his cousin watching him expectantly.

"Alright..." he heaved a sigh, then added helplessly, "but I don't know where to begin."

"Let's start from today, and move backwards," Richard said, taking another sip of his drink.

"Today?" William asked blank-faced, earning a wry smile from his cousin.

"You don't think I'm blind, do you? What's going on between Elizabeth and you?"

"Elizabeth!" William huffed and rose from his chair, clearly intending to walk over to the window.

But Richard caught his forearm and pressed down on it, forcing him to sit down again. "Don't you give me that, Will! It's too late to back down- you've had your chance!"

William stared at him angrily. "She's the least of my worries, believe me!"

"Now is she?" Richard retorted, unable to suppress a smirk. "Funny, I'd say it's quite the opposite."

Leaning back in his chair, William accepted that he was trapped, but he didn't want to give in that easily. "There's nothing between us," he stated resolutely, hoping that Richard would relent and drop the subject.

However, his hope was shattered at his cousin's next remark. "But you wish there were!"

Still loath to discuss what concerned him most, William refrained from reacting.

Richard's brow furrowed in contemplation, as he tried to find the crux of the matter. "I don't see the problem...she's beautiful, she's smart, she's single- "

"Richard!" William snapped, eventually unable to restrain himself any longer. "She's a widow!"

"Her husband died- what?- eight months ago? This is the 21st century, Will. There's hardly anyone nowadays who sticks to a whole year of mourning."

"That's not the point, Rick."

"Then what is?"

Staring into his glass again, William mumbled something Richard didn't understand. So he leaned forward in his chair and looked at his cousin insistently. "Come again," he demanded.

William sighed and fortidied himself with a gulp of brandy, before repeating his answer. "She hates me."

Richard sat up straight in surprise. "Why should she do that?"

"She just does," William replied obstinately.

Heaving a sigh, Richard closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. His tone carefully controlled, he said slowly: "You know Will, I'm famous for my patience. But, I swear, you could wear down a saint. -If you don't open your mouth at once and give me more than one sentence at a time, I will not be held responsible for my actions."

Without a word William stood up and walked over to the window. Feeling that he'd finally broken his cousin's resistance, Richard didn't hold him back this time. Now he would have to wait for him to go at his own pace.

After a long silence William cleared his throat, but his voice was still croaky when he started to speak. "About 18 months ago, I told her that her husband was cheating on her. She didn't believe me- of course. She accused me of- " he squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed hard, struggling with his emotions. "Well, whatever- we had a vigorous fight." He laughed without humour. "She's one hell of a combatant, I can tell you that. However- in the end she shouted that she couldn't stand the sight of me and threw me out..."

While Richard had been listening to his cousin, he'd grown more and more agitated, till he was sitting on the edge of his chair. Breaking the ensuing silence, he asked incredulously: "You went to her house- "

"Apartment," William interrupted, turning away from the window.

Richard waved his hand impatiently. "Whatever- you went to her apartment to tell her that her husband cheated on her?"

William nodded, whereupon Richard shook his head in disbelief.

"Whatever possessed you to do that, William? -You didn't really expect her to believe you, did you?"

"Well, why ever not? I'm not a liar!" William defended himself indignantly.

"No, you aren't," Richard conceded. "I know that, as well as the rest of your family and friends. But in this case, William, that's of no importance, because no matter what- never ever tell a woman that she's been cheated on! Not even best friends are supposed to do that, unless she's already suspecting something and asks for their opinion."

"But why wouldn't she want to know?" William asked, incapable of understanding why anyone would prefer to be left in the dark.

Richard shrugged. "She just doesn't. As long as she's happy, of course. - What you don't know won't hurt you is a basic rule for many people. -But tell me what happened next."

Staring outside again, William resumed his story. "I saw her at Jane and Charles' wedding. Tom was there, too," he closed his eyes, as he struggled with the unpleasant memory. "You should have seen the smug expression on his face. He actually smirked at me. I could have-" His hand curled into a fist. Violently suppressing his fury, he forced it open again and continued in a more quiet tone. "At one point I managed to catch Elizabeth alone. I tried to talk sense into her, tried to convince her- but to no avail. She requested that I immediately desist from interfering with her life. As she saw it, my only intention was to ruin her marriage. Well, anyway- that was when I advanced to 'hateful man'."

William drained his glass in one big gulp and walked over to the bar for a refill.

Watching him with narrowed eyes, Richard vocalized the perception that shot through his head. "So that's why you acted so strangely when the wedding was mentioned. -I was wondering..."

William froze for a moment, then tossed back the refill, too, and poured himself another generous amount of brandy. Slowly he returned to the armchair, but instead of sitting down he put his forearms on the tall backrest, while he twirled the glass between his palms. He spoke with a faint slur, as he set about justifying himself. "I'm sorry- I lost control...but after the events of the afternoon..."

Richard raised his eyebrows in confusion and was about to pose a question, when William proceeded to speak. "She told me that she didn't like me...right after we-" he stopped again, biting down hard on his lower lip, blushing slightly.

"Right after you- what?" Richard asked, hardly able to conceal his curiosity. Had they gotten further along than he'd suspected?

William took his time in answering. He pondered how to best satisfy his cousin's inquisitiveness without giving away too much of the events lest he embarrass Elizabeth- and himself. His brain, however, already suffered from the effects of the strong alcohol he'd gulped down in so short a time and refused to cooperate the way it usually did. So he just stood there, looking rather stupid with his mouth hanging open, as the same words bounced off the walls of his skull over and over again: 'I want her...I kissed her...she doesn't like me...' - until he blurted them out loud.

Richard winced in his chair, a choked sound escaping him. He ducked his head and covered his eyes with his free hand. The urge to laugh out loud was so strong, that he broke out in a sweat as he struggled to suppress it. When he looked up again, William was glaring at him in offended silence.

"I'm sorry, Will, I know it's not funny," Richard managed to admit gravely. He took a deep breath to steady himself. "So she doesn't like you...but what about you? - Do you like her?"

Dumfounded William stared at his cousin. Again his jaw dropped as he once more attempted to penetrate the alcohol-induced haze his brain was wrapped up in. Alas, having already descended to a level where intelligence is overruled by emotions, no coherent thought occurred to him. All he knew was that he wanted her back in his arms- the feel of her, the taste of her, the smell of her - he wanted to bury himself deep inside of her...

Richard rolled his eyes at the sight of his cousin's obvious helplessness and finally took pity on him. Placing his glass on a small table by his side, he rose and walked over to William while he murmured: "No reply necessary..."

Gently he took the drink from his cousin's hand, setting it aside, too, and hooked an arm under his elbow. "I think you've had enough for tonight, Will. We'd better go to bed now."

Emerging from his stupor, William leaned heavily against Richard and whispered rather loudly: "I really want her, you know!"

"Do you now?" Richard asked in mock surprise, trying hard to suppress a smile, while he slowly led his cousin out of the room.

William nodded vigorously, stumbling slightly, causing Richard to tighten his hold on him. "And she wants me, too," he informed him proudly.

"Good for you," Richard replied, chuckling quietly.

As they made their way up the stairs, William suddenly started to giggle, surprising his cousin and causing them to lose balance. Thanks to his excellent reflexes, Richard managed to keep them from falling by clutching the banisters tightly. Despite himself, he had to laugh at William's antics. "What, William? What is it?"

"I'm gonna make her mine," he announced self-assured, pounding his chest with his fist.

"I thought you already did, Tarzan," Richard stated dryly, dragging his cousin further upstairs.

"Nah," William drawled, "didn' wanna scare her off...yeh know," he continued, winking comically at his cousin.

Fortunately they'd already reached the safety of the landing by the time William finished his remark, because Richard burst out laughing so hard that he would have been incapable of averting a fall. With a murmured "Let's go, braggart", he guided William to his room where he led him to the bed and let go of the grip he'd had around his waist. Bereft of proper support, William reeled slightly, then fell over onto the mattress, face first. Grunting, he rolled over to his back and with closed eyes began to sing in a low voice.

Curious about the tune his cousin was humming, Richard leaned closer. When he recognised it, he straightened up again, a delighted expression on his face. "Gotcha," he stated contently, making his way out of the room and closing the door behind him while William was still crooning Wagner's Wedding March.

Chapter 8 - Part 1

The days leading up to Christmas were busy as always, but this time even more so. There were business matters to attend to- mainly in preparation for the upcoming year-end closings; due to the spontaneously arranged celebration at Netherfield additional presents had to be purchased for everyone invited; and the house itself had to be prepared to accommodate more guests than originally planned.

William worked hard during this week, but found himself to be quite distracted more often than not. He still blushed involuntarily at the thought of his nocturnal chat with Richard- having always been a rather moderate drinker, he had never ever lost control like that before. The fact that he couldn't for the life of him remember the final part of their conversation, combined with the sly smile on his cousin's face when they had met for breakfast the next day had really made him feel ill at ease. However, despite his repeated enquiries, Richard had stuck to his initial declaration that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He'd taken his leave soon after to go to work, baffling William by humming the Wedding March as he went out of the door. Though he was somewhat vexed by Richard's behaviour, he could do nothing but accept his reticence. At least, he found solace in the knowledge that he could trust his cousin implicitly with whatever secret there was to be kept.

First and foremost in his thoughts, however, was Elizabeth. The faster Christmas approached, the harder it was for him to concentrate on anything but her. Although he still didn't know how it had all come about, he inwardly owned up to wanting her, wanting her badly- despite the way they had parted at Pemberley. Pemberley- their encounter in his study...when he closed his eyes it all came rushing back to him, how she felt in his arms, how she smelled and tasted- it still caused waves of desire to course through his body every time he thought about it.

Yet, at the same time he knew that it could never be- that he could never have her. He had set on fire the dynamite that had finally blown up her marriage, albeit unintentionally. Actually he'd only had the best of intentions- he'd wanted to warn her, and to make the truth known. But he made a big mistake by not even taking into consideration that she might be completely unaware of her husbands activities. And moreover- he'd seriously underestimated Patricia's furtiveness. She had been there before him, spreading her lies, biassing her against him, with Tom's help, of course. In the end he had been labeled a liar and a cheat, and he hadn't had any proper arguments to answer back.

Elizabeth didn't remember what had transpired between them, not yet. If she ever did, she would never let him touch her again, she probably wouldn't even want to be in the same room with him. Anyway, he didn't have the faintest idea how to use this short reprieve for his benefit. Telling her about their tainted past was not an option, since it was absolutely beyond him to put her once again through the agony she must have undergone- and furthermore it would be the deathblow for any feelings she might have developed for him. But to take advantage of those feelings and act upon his own was even less of an option, because if anything ever happened between them, he would have to tell her the truth, or he would despise himself for the rest of his life- which brought him directly back to his first so-called option. It was a vicious circle with no way out. So his resolution could only be not to enter it at all.

But the emotions she had brought back to life for him were not to be dismissed so easily. They caused him to mull over his decision time and again, making it impossible for him to accept that there shouldn't be even the slightest chance for him to win her affection. At long last, one more option crossed his mind- he could go after friendship.

This would allow him to keep her at a safe distance, and at the same time provide him with the opportunity to show her the real William Darcy. If she knew who he really was, and how he really was, she might be favourably inclined to forgive him, should the truth be finally revealed- provided she possessed the generous nature he desperately hoped for. He was not totally comfortable with this notion, though, since he knew full well that he was deliberately taking the path of least resistance. A course of action he normally considered beneath him, but under the given circumstances it couldn't be helped...

So as soon as he made up his mind, he decided to start his venture by trying to make up for his behaviour at Pemberley. Granted, they both hadn't been at their best that day, but it was still no excuse for the way he had treated her after their passionate...interlude. True, she'd hurt him- but not on purpose, if he'd interpreted her reaction correctly. Despite this realisation, he had hurt her back, purposefully- childish, ridiculous behaviour, definitely out of character for him. But that seemed to be her natural gift- eroding his self-control to a point where he didn't recognise himself anymore.

In view of this perception, he seriously doubted his capability to spend three days at Netherfield in her company without giving in to his desires...

~ * ~

Elizabeth felt better than she had in a long time. To confide in her father had helped more than she would have anticipated- she could hardly understand now why she'd been so hesitant about talking to him. From the day she was born, he had been her favourite parent. And after her mother had left the family when Elizabeth was ten years old, their relationship had become even closer. He had done a great job in raising his daughters as a single father. In spite of running his business, he had always been there for them, whether they needed a band-aid for a scraped knee, or some advice for whatever problems- imaginary or real- bothered them. But above all, he had given them values- honesty, fidelity and reliability.

In the course of their conversation she discovered once again that she trusted him implicitly. His repeated assurances that she had been faithful to her husband had finally put her at ease, at least in that respect. Yet, what he had told her about her marriage was still somewhat unsettling. She couldn't imagine at all what could have made her so very unhappy. Now that she was sure she hadn't cheated on Tom, she couldn't help but ask herself if it had been the other way round. But she dismissed this notion immediately. They'd had a wonderful life- well-regulated and quiet. Not overly passionate, but nonetheless satisfactory, or so she thought. Maybe it hadn't been enough for Tom, maybe he'd missed something. Highly unlikely, though, because he had set the tone in their life, and she had willingly followed his lead. If their way of living hadn't been to his liking, he could have changed it.

When she finally realised that all those wild guesses wouldn't provide her with an answer, she promised herself anew to find out the truth as soon as time allowed it. She didn't yet know how to manage, but there had to be a way- of that she was certain.

As far as William was concerned, she was resolved to follow her father's advice. After listening to her story with his usual sympathy, he suggested that first of all, she make up for her behaviour at Pemberley. She still blushed when she thought about her childish, immature reaction; despite her embarrassment she shouldn't have lashed out at him. It hadn't been his fault, anyway- at least, not his alone. They'd both been overwhelmed by their feelings- for reasons that still eluded her. But as her father had pointed out quite correctly, emotions could hardly be explained, they could only be dealt with.

So it was up to her how to handle her sudden attraction to William Darcy- not an easy task, in light of her antipathy towards him. Though it had abated substantially since meeting him again, it still lurked beneath the surface. But she was willing to let him change her mind, provided that he was willing to meet her halfway.

Giving in to the desire he evoked in her was out of the question- for now, but why not aspire to friendship? If they got to know each other better, then maybe one day...After all, the Bingleys held him in high esteem, and so did her father considering the way he'd talked about him. All in all William seemed to be much more agreeable than she'd thought. Well, one more day to go, and she would find out...

~ * ~

Christmas Eve dawned brightly with a clear sky and a strong winter-sun, making the freshly fallen snow glisten- a slap in the face for William's bad mood.

He had dreamt about Elizabeth- intense, erotic dreams. When he'd woken up for the third time, painfully aroused, he had been unable to fall asleep again. Cursing his subconscious mind, he had once again fought to establish his self-control. How was he to survive three days under the same roof with her, when touching her and holding her was strictly out of the question? The temptation to back down from his visit to Netherfield had been greater than ever, but his disposition wouldn't allow him to break his promise. However, he had delayed his departure from Pemberley as long as possible.

Now he was sitting in his car, staring at his best friend's house. He saw a few cars already parked along the driveway- one of which he identified as Richard's- and assumed he was the last to arrive. Another unusual occurrence in his life.

He would have remained there forever, if not for Jane who spotted him through a window and only seconds later opened the door to wave him in. Heaving a sigh, he got out of his car, and raised a hand in greeting. As he lifted his traveling bag out of the boot, Charles came running toward him, a huge grin on his face.

"Will, I'm glad you finally made it! We were starting to get worried. Another five minutes, and Lizzy and Jane would have arranged a search party! -Come on, let me help you."

With that he took the traveling bag and trudged back to the house, seemingly oblivious to his friend's astounded silence. Yet, when he realised that William wasn't following him, he turned back and shouted: "Will, get moving! You're gonna freeze your ass off!"

His rude remark earned a glare of mock disapproval from his wife and a roar of laughter from the others who awaited him at the door.

Elizabeth, however, couldn't manage more than a faint smile since her attention was focused solely on William. Watching him inhale deeply and square his shoulders, she instantly recalled the first time she'd seen him do that. His metamorphosis! - Her uneasiness surged to unknown heights, making her heart pound rapidly, while she desperately strove for calmness. Unable to take her eyes off of him, she observed with bated breath as he approached the house in a determined stride, cutting a fine figure in his tight jeans and black leather jacket.

William strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth, but he couldn't make her out among the others. With a hammering heart that shortened his breath, he felt like floating and wondered briefly how he managed to keep on walking. Somehow he did and when he reached his friends, he was greeted with lots of bear hugs and kisses. But still he couldn't see her.

Just as he was about to enquire after her, he felt a familiar prickly sensation on the back of his neck that told him she was standing behind him. While he registered dimly that the others- as if acting on orders- suddenly hurried off into different directions, he turned around slowly.

And there she was, her hand still resting against the door, making him assume that she'd been hiding behind it. Her head was bowed.

"Elizabeth," he spoke her name softly, silently praying to nameless gods that she wouldn't turn away from him.

She didn't- instead she looked up slowly and their gazes met. William's heart gave a thud, when he saw the wariness in her eyes. Suppressing the strong urge to reach out and touch her, he clasped his hands tightly behind his back and took a deep breath. He wasn't used to begging for forgiveness, but he knew it had to be.

"I have to apologise...for my Pemberley," he stammered, a faint blush tingeing his cheeks. Despite himself, he held her gaze.

The change in her expression was almost instantaneous, as a relieved smile curved her full lips. Her hand came up to his face, but stopped in midair and lightly fell on his upper arm.

"It was my fault, William," she confessed quietly. "I behaved like a child..."

He shook his head determinedly and covered her hand with his. "It shouldn't have happened in the first place...I got carried away- "

She turned her hand beneath his, sending a heat wave through his body as their palms touched. "We shouldn't fight about who's more to blame...we both were not at our best on that day."

"My thoughts exactly," he smiled warmly into her eyes. "I'm so glad we could settle that."

Shaking off the sudden tension, Elizabeth nodded in agreement and stepped away from him. "Now, why don't you take off your jacket, and join us in the kitchen? Mrs. Albright is on leave, so we have to look after ourselves."

"I'll be right there," he declared happily, as he watched her disappear down the hall.

~ * ~

The rest of the afternoon passed by in perfect harmony with lots of fun and laughter- and lots of wine and beer. When it was time for dinner they all moved to the large dining room to enjoy a light meal they had prepared for themselves.

Elizabeth felt totally at ease as she looked across the table at William. He was laughing heartily about something Richard had said, showing off a pair of very intriguing dimples. It was a startling experience for her to watch him interact with his close friends. She had never seen him so utterly relaxed, never known him to be so talkative- or downright charming. No wonder she'd misjudged him so badly- he had done a great job of hiding what seemed to be his private side.

When their gazes met, he gave her a tender smile, making her heart skip a beat. She returned his smile in kind, losing herself in his soulful eyes while her palms started to tingle. When she saw William's fingers tentatively creep across the tablecloth in her direction, she didn't have any second thoughts and lifted her hand to meet him halfway. They were both so totally lost in a world of their own that they almost jumped out of their chairs in surprise at the ringing of the telephone. Jane stood up to answer the call in the living room, unable to suppress a smirk as she looked down at her sister's bowed head and blushing cheeks.

William didn't fare any better. He felt the colour rising in his face and looked around, only to find out that he was being watched closely by five pairs of eyes.

"What?" he asked, daring anyone to make fun of him. Yet, he knew he had failed miserably when they all dissolved into laughter, and despite his embarrassement, he couldn't help but smile sheepishly.

The sound of the doorbell interrupted their merriment. They looked at each other in surprise, since no one else was expected this evening.

"Who could that be?" Charles asked, obviously puzzled.

Glad to escape, William got up and strode into the hall, calling back over his shoulder: "We will never find out if nobody answers that door, don't you think?"

The second he left the room, Jane came hurrying in through the other door, telephone still in hand. "Charles- " she began, but stopped abruptly when she noticed William's absence. Her face fell in dismay. "Oh no, too late!" she exclaimed.

"What is it, darling? Is anything wrong?" Charles hurried to her side in evident concern.

Before she could answer, the sound of a penetrating voice was heard from the hall. Those who recognised it winced visibly while Chris and Richard exchanged a confused look.

Charles rolled his eyes heavenward, as if pleading for strength. "Caroline," he sighed.

"Louisa called to warn us," Jane explained, fidgeting with the phone in her hand. "Ethan let slip that William would be here and Caroline was on her way before they could hold her back."

"Ha- let slip! My brother-in-law? Never! He did that on purpose to get rid of her!" Charles huffed.

"Well, whatever," Jane retorted impatiently. "You go and help William! You know he can't handle her!" She literally pushed her reluctant husband towards the door.

"But I don't want to go all by myself," Charles whined comically, trying to dodge Jane's shoving hands.

Raising his voice above the ensuing laughter, Bob addressed his younger daughter, a foxy smile on his face: "Why don't you join him, Lizzy? I'm sure Will would appreciate your...assistance."

Leaving her no chance to do more than stare at her father in total surprise, Charles had grabbed her hand to pull her out her chair and all but dragged her into the hall.

They stopped short at the sight they beheld. William was standing there as stiff as a poker, arms crossed over his chest, while Caroline seemed to snuggle up against him, purring something incomprehensible in a low voice.

In an attempt to refrain from laughing, Charles cleared his throat and hesitantly stepped closer. But Elizabeth outstripped him; driven by a feeling akin to jealousy, she was at William's side in no time, hooking her arm through the crook of his elbow. Entirely ignoring Caroline, who staggered back in perplexity, she gave him an impish smile.

"There you are, dear. I was starting to miss you!" That said she went on tiptoe to plant a firm kiss on his cheek. When he ascertained her intention, William smiled at her thankfully and instantly took advantage of the situation by putting his arm around her waist to draw her even closer. In response Elizabeth leaned against him before turning to the unbidden guest. "Why, hello Caroline. What a surprise! We didn't expect to see you today."

Caroline had watched the whole exchange with suspiciously narrowed eyes, her gaze darting back and forth between the two of them. Momentarily pulled out of her speculations by Elizabeth's salutation, she seemed to search her mind for an appropriate answer. Sensing that his sister was up to no good, Charles eventually stepped forward, thus blocking her view of the evidently happy couple and giving them a chance to escape- which they did.

"Nice to see you, sis," he mumbled, gracing her make-up covered cheek with a very curt peck.

But Caroline was obviously in no mood for niceness. "Charles," she hissed, impetuously grabbing his arm. "What kind of spectacle was that?"

Charles' blue eyes widened innocently. "What are you talking about?"

Plaing her hands on her hips and tapping her foot impatiently, she just stared at him.

"Oh..." Charles announced, as if surprised at her ignorance. "You mean Lizzy and Will? -I really thought you knew. It's been going on for a while now."

"Ha- that remains to be seen!" she stated scornfully and brushed past her brother to sweep into the dining room.

Chapter 8 - Part 2

Caroline's already bad mood deteriorated even more throughout the course of the evening. While everybody had fun decorating the Christmas tree, she kept a jealous watch over Elizabeth and William, eagerly trying to discern any evidence of deceit- but without avail. They were clearly smitten with each other, touching and holding hands whenever possible, apparently oblivious to their surroundings. The other members of the party didn't pay them much attention, except for occasional, good-natured banter from Richard which they didn't seem to mind at all, or an approving smile from someone who happened to pass by them. All in all- and much to Caroline's irritation- nobody showed the remotest sign of astonishment or discomfort.

William greatly enjoyed the opportunity to act on feelings that otherwise would have remained hidden deep inside. To soothe his guilty conscience, he told himself that he would never proceed any farther than this. A kiss on the cheek, a gentle touch or simply holding hands- innocent pleasures he could answer for. He had vowed not to take advantage of her, and he was resolved to be true to his word.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, had no such qualms- in fact, she had given them up during the past hours. Her greatest fear, namely to be confronted with the William Darcy of former times, had turned out to be groundless. Other than that, she saw no reason not to act on the desire she felt. She basked in William's innocent advances and returned them truly- but why not proceed any farther? Although she knew that they were supposed to be acting, her feelings were sincere and she refused to believe that his were not.

Shortly before midnight, William finally gave in to his fatigue. He bid his friends a good night, carefully avoiding coming too close to Caroline, before he leaned in to Elizabeth and planted a sound kiss on her mouth. Loud enough for everyone to hear he whispered: "I'll be waiting for you upstairs, darling. Don't make it too long." Winking at her, he tucked his hands into his trouser pockets and leisurely walked out of the room.

Elizabeth looked after him, her heart pounding wildly. Could he be serious? Enlivened by the prospects of possible pleasures to come, her vivid imagination immediately leapt into overdrive. She was so preoccupied that she almost missed Caroline's snide remark. "Well, you sure wasted no time in ensnaring William, Eliza. -You've been a widow for how long now...?"

Completely ignoring the indignant gasps and hisses of the others, Elizabeth slowly turned to Caroline, a bored expression on her face. "To answer your question, Caroline, my husband died almost 9 months ago. So- stop spitting your poison."

With that she stood up to take her leave while Caroline stared at her, mouth agape. Not giving her the slightest chance to recover, Elizabeth turned to her once again. "Oh and- a well-meant warning. Keep your hands off William." Addressing the rest of the party, she bid them good night and was gone.

Still grinning about the look on Caroline's face, she swiftly made her way up the stairs. The higher she climbed, however, the more her grin faded, and her argument with Charles' sister was soon forgotten.

She had been self-confident as long as they'd been in company, but at the thought of being all alone with him, her conviction faltered. What would she do if he was waiting for her? Could she really stick to her decision and just seize the opportunity? Opportunity for what? Casual sex? When she reached the stair head, she had convinced herself that William had been joking and was already sound asleep. Nevertheless she stopped to look discreetly up and down the hallway- it was empty.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she set off. When she heard a door being opened behind her, she quickened her pace to reach her room. Beyond a doubt she knew it was William. Much to her chagrin she realised that she was beginning to panic. Greedily she reached out for the door handle, but it was too late. Her hand stopped in midair when she heard him call her name in his soft, deep voice.

Inhaling deeply in an attempt to calm down, she turned around slowly. Her breath caught at the familiar tenderness in his expression as he strode towards her. He closed the distance between them until only a few inches remained. His scent went straight to her head, making her forget all her misgivings. "Yes?" she whispered, unable to speak any louder.

A gentle smile appeared on his face. "I wanted to thank you for saving me from Caroline...She scares the hell out of me." He blushed slightly at his admission, giving the impression of a little boy apologizing for a cheap trick.

Elizabeth's melting heart assisted efficiently in producing a smile that matched his. "You're very welcome. I'd do it again anytime. It" He nodded, but didn't reply.

Gradually their smiles vanished as the tension that had been building between them became too strong to ignore. Their eyes dropped simultaneously to each other's mouth, watching tongues dart out quickly to moisten lips that had suddenly gone dry. They looked up again and their gazes locked. Intellectual power shut down and instinct took over as they both moved.

William bent his head while Elizabeth went on tiptoe to meet him half-way. Their lips touched tentatively, parted, touched again- and lingered. William's hands closed on her waist, drawing her to him while he increased the pressure of his mouth on hers. Elizabeth followed him willingly, lifting her hands to his upper arms and at the same time slightly opening her lips to him. Probing gently, his tongue followed the bow of her upper lip to the corner of her mouth and back. She moaned quietly, touching the tip of her tongue to his- and that was all it took.

Groaning deeply, William invaded her mouth. He locked his arms around her, one hand pressing her to him, the other moving upward to cup the back of her head. Immediately she molded her body to his and slid her hands up to his neck to caress his bare skin. Then she dipped her warm fingers underneath the collar of his polo reaching down as far as she could. And all the while she returned his kiss with equal passion, her tongue meeting his in a carnal dance.

Grasping her buttocks, he bent his knees and lifted her up to press his hard shaft to the soft juncture of her legs, the desire to make her his overpowering anything else. Elizabeth broke their kiss and let her head fall to his shoulder to stifle the cry that burst forth, while she tried to rub herself against him.

"I hope I'm not interrupting something too important."

Though Elizabeth's passion-dazed brain registered the unpleasant sound of Caroline's voice, she refused to react to it. But William stiffened noticeably and slid her down to the ground. When he tried to draw back from her, however, she tightened her embrace and peered around him at Caroline who stood in the middle of the hallway with a smug expression on her face.

"You sure are, Caroline, " Elizabeth retorted, and- impishly glancing up at William- added, "but we can pick up where we left off in no time, can't we, darling?"

William smiled down at her, pleasantly surprised that she admitted her desire so openly. But did she really mean what she said? He needn't have worried, though- Elizabeth had already made up her mind. Never taking her eyes from his, she addressed Caroline once again.

"You'll have to excuse us now, Caroline. Whatever it is you wanted, it will have to wait until tomorrow. -Good night."

She took William's hand and pulled him into the solitude of her room, banging the door shut behind them. With him in tow she made her way to the bed to switch on a small light on the bedside table. "There, that's better," she stated, turning around to him.

He looked down at her, marvelling at her beauty, yet unsure how to proceed. Caroline's intrusion had brought back a scrap of his sanity, and restored his resolution not to take advantage of her. Elizabeth watched him with bated breath while he struggled for the right words to say. Silently she pleaded with him not to reject her. But her face fell, when they finally came: "Elizabeth, we shouldn't..." his voice caught at the hurt he saw in her eyes.

She swallowed hard, before asking shakily: "Don't you want me?"

It was more than he could stand. Crushing her to him almost violently, he placed random kisses all over her face, murmuring in between: "Oh, Elizabeth- Lizzy- I want you more...need you more...than my next breath."

"Show me," she whispered, while her body melted against his.

Desire swept through him like a heat wave, burning everything in its wake. Only once, he told himself, once would suffice. Afterward he would tell her everything, throw himself on her mercy. Then his control shattered and he sought her mouth for a searing kiss. When she opened up to his probing tongue, she made a purring sound in her throat which he answered with a deep groan. Again and again their tongues clashed, stroking, sucking, dancing wildly.

He savoured the softness of her body, the roundness of her curves, but it just wasn't enough- he wanted her naked. Obviously her need matched his, because while he pulled down the zipper at the back of her dress, her fingers worked frantically to get his polo out of the waistband of his trousers. She made short work of it, pushing him back to pull it off over his head and carelessly drop it to the floor. Immediately his hands returned to her dress to tug it from her shoulders and pull her arms free. It slid down her body and pooled in a heap around her feet, leaving her with nothing but her bra and panties and a pair of flesh-coloured silk stockings. He took a shuddering breath, as he took in the vision before him, worshipping her with his eyes.

But Elizabeth needed more. Slowly she leaned toward him and began to caress his naked chest with her hot tongue, making him shake violently. With unsteady fingers he reached around her and fumbled with the clasp of her bra. When he finally succeeded in opening it, she hunched her shoulders and discarded it.

At last they came together, meeting flesh to flesh, moaning with relief at the contact, mindless with desire. While her hands stroked up and down his back, he lifted her up into his arms and slowly lowered her to the bed. Lying down beside her, propped up on an elbow, he reached out to fill his palm with her soft breast. Her whole body jumped in response, arching up against him, compelling him to bend his head and close his mouth over her tight nipple.

Elizabeth thought she would die of the pleasure his touch evoked. The aching emptiness that grew between her legs and longed to be filled, forced her to turn to William and tear at the fly of his trousers. He helped her unzip it, then hooked his thumbs under the waistband of both trousers and briefs and tugged them down. His straining penis sprang free, thrusting heavenward.

Unconsciously licking her lips, Elizabeth stared at him, her anticipation rising inexorably. He turned back to her to strip off her stockings and panties impatiently and cover her mound with his hand. Instantly she opened her legs to give him better access. His fingers played with her soft folds and gently rimmed the opening to her body, one finger sinking into her a little to find her moist and ready.

As he watched her heaving breasts, the delicate flushing of her skin, and felt her hips arch upward, he knew he couldn't wait a second longer. Quickly he moved between her legs and slid up her body. Elizabeth grabbed for him eagerly to guide him to her, holding her breath when she felt the head of his shaft prodding her entrance.

Braced on his arms above her, William framed her face with his hands and gazed into her eyes as he slowly began to push into her, until he was sheathed inside her to the hilt. The feeling of her tight, wet warmth enveloping him, rippling gently to adjust to his rigid length, almost sent him over the edge. Not wanting it to end so quickly, he held himself still to gather the remnants of his control. But Elizabeth wouldn't have it. She expelled a long sigh, luxuriating in the feeling of being stretched and filled by his throbbing male flesh. Sliding her hands down his back to cup his buttocks, she tilted up her hips to take him even deeper. "Move," she breathed hoarsely and searched his mouth for a hot kiss. Her quiet demand smashed his control into smithereens and he began thrusting heavily, a low groan building in his chest and working up its way to his throat. Elizabeth met him stroke for stroke, wrapping her legs around his hips and her arms around his back, tension building slowly inside her. Breaking their kiss to gasp for breath, William pressed his burning face to her neck and pounded into her faster, unable to hold back any longer.

Matching his speed, Elizabeth's hips undulated, the tension spiraling into a tighter and tighter coil. When she felt him grow even bigger inside of her, the coil suddenly snapped. She cried out as her whole body clenched, then surged wildly. Her climax hit her, sending great waves of sensation through her. The rhythmic tightening of her inner muscles was more than he could take. Crying her name, he arched back as his seed erupted into her in a forceful orgasm that seemed to go on forever and left him feeble and limp. Desperately gulping in air, he collapsed on top of her.

Clinging to each other, they didn't move for a few minutes, until he lifted his head to look at her. When he saw that she was crying, his heart squeezed painfully at the thought that she might regret what had just happened. But when she managed a wobbly smile, he breathed a sigh of relief. Gently he dried her wet cheeks with his thumbs, kissing her softly, trying to comfort her.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked carefully. She sniffed and nodded, taking a shuddering breath. "I...It's just that...I've never felt like this before- never."

He smiled tenderly, overjoyed by her admission. "It's the same for me."

She looked at him doubtfully.

"I swear," he whispered.

"Thank you," she whispered back.

When he wanted to draw back from her, she held on to him tightly. "No, not yet."

"But I'm too heavy for you, I will crush you."

"Just a few minutes...please."

He eased a bit to the side, so she didn't have to bear his full weight and thus nestled together they fell asleep.

Chapter 9 - Part 1

It was still dark outside when Elizabeth woke up again, feeling well rested and content. Without having to think for a second she knew where she was and what had happened- she knew it in her heart.

She noticed that they'd switched positions sometime during the past hours. He was lying on his back now, his arm holding her tightly to his left side. Her hand was resting on his bare chest, their legs were wrapped together. With a soft sigh, she cuddled even closer to his warm body, savouring his nearness. It wasn't enough, though. She needed to see the man who had brought her so much pleasure.

Careful not to disturb him, she slowly lifted her head from the hollow of his shoulder and opened her eyes to take in his sleeping form. Starting at his dark brown, unruly hair, her gaze wandered over his perfectly chiselled features, down to his broad, sleek chest that gently rose and fell with the rhythm of his deep breathing. She stopped where her hand lay above his heart, delighting in the contrast of her pale skin against the slightly bronzed hue of his.

A dreamy smile graced her lips as she continued her perusal, oblivious to the fact that her hand followed the path her eyes were taking. Shortly below his navel, however, she was detained by the blanket they were covered with. At the thought of what was hidden beneath it, her heartbeat increased and a blush crept into her cheeks. Though she was somewhat surprised at her body's vehement reaction, she gave in to her desire without any consideration.

Bending down, she planted a gentle kiss on his stomach as her hand disappeared underneath the covers. Instantly the grip around her waist tightened and his abdominals quivered under her lips. She looked up into his face and found him staring back at her with an intensity that made her gasp.

Eager to see her expression, William watched her with bated breath while he waited for her touch. But when her fingers finally curled around him, the delightfulness of the feeling caused him to close his eyes and push his head back into the pillow, exhaling on a low groan. Two slow strokes of her hand brought him fully erect.

Watching his reaction to her caresses heightened Elizabeth's own arousal. She stretched herself out along his body and straddled his thigh, rubbing her wetness against it. His muscles tensed in response, and his hand moved down to cup her buttocks. The urge to take him inside of her was very strong, but first of all she wanted to give him pleasure. She lowered her mouth to his nipple and grazed it lightly with her teeth, eliciting a strangled "Oh God" from him. Smiling wickedly, she circled it with her tongue, than moved to his right side to fondle the other nipple as well, earning a similar response.

William felt as if he couldn't get enough air into his lungs, when she began to trail hot, moist kisses along his breastbone, down across his stomach and abdomen, all the time stroking his rigid shaft. All he could think of was her wetness that slid along his leg, as she moved further down. He wanted to be inside of her and feel her silky tightness clasp him. But not a second later even those primal thoughts eluded him completely at the feeling of Elizabeth's tongue licking the head of his erection, then swirling around it. When she finally took him into her mouth, his mind went blank, and he began rocking his hips in rhythm with her gentle sucking.

Elizabeth was totally engrossed in her task, taking delight in the heady taste of his arousal and his musky scent. She heard him call her name and felt his fingers delve into her hair to span her skull. But when his movements became frantic and he hardened inside her mouth, her own body's calling could no longer be ignored. Her heart pounded wildly and her breathing was ragged when she let go of him.

They looked into each others eyes, as she straddled his hips and held his shaft steady to sink down on him. Both exhaled on a long shuddering breath, pausing for a moment to savour the feeling of being joined again in that unique way.

When she started to ride him slowly, his hands closed briefly around her waist, then slid up her body to cup her breasts and rub her nipples with his thumbs. Again she made that purring sound in her throat, as they puckered immediately. The desire to feel his mouth on her sensitive skin made her lean down to him, curling her fingers around his shoulders. William lifted his head and circled the extended bud with his tongue before taking it into his mouth to suck strongly.

Elizabeth cried out and felt herself opening up to him even more. He must have felt it, too, because his hands were back at her waist, holding her above him to slam his hips upward and reach into her as deep as possible. Crying out, she shuddered violently, while her inner muscles grabbed at him. They both felt the inexorable nearing of climax and started to grind their bodies together almost brutally, going at a frantic pace.

Suddenly Elizabeth stiffened for a second, tightened around him, and felt as if she were flying apart into a million blazing pieces. With one more thrust, William arched convulsively beneath her and followed her into oblivion.

Panting and sweating and unable to move they held on to each other, waiting for their senses to return. Finally William managed to lift his arm high enough to draw the blanket over their cooling bodies. After that Herculian effort his hand dropped and came to rest on Elizabeth's back.

"Feel good?" she murmured drowsily.

"Like I died and went to heaven," he rasped.

She giggled quietly. "No, you didn't." To demonstrate her point, she lifted her buttom to press herself down on him, making him jump.

He chuckled and slapped her backside lightly. "You little witch!"

Slowly she stretched out her legs, careful to keep him inside of her and snuggled up to him with a content sigh.

The next few minutes passed in silence, until she propped herself up on her left elbow and began to draw lazy circles around his nipple. Unwilling to look at him, she watched the motion of her fingers. "William...?"

"Hmmm?" he purred with closed eyes, obviously enjoying her ministrations. When nothing more came, he turned his head to her and lazily opened his eyes. "What is it?" She stole a glance at him, then her gaze dropped again. "I was wondering..." she hesitated, took a deep breath and plunged forward. "I was wondering if this has ever happened before- I mean, before tonight."

Her eyes then fastened on him, while she anxiously awaited his answer. But he just looked at her with furrowed brows, definitely confused.

"You and me- we...It was so...wonderful...for a first," she tried to explain.

"First times should be like this."

"But they usually aren't," she insisted.

His lips curved into a smirk. "Lucky us."

She pinched his nipple slightly, making him wince. He covered her hand with his to stop her.

"Ouch! What was that for?"

"For teasing me!" Her eyes dropped to his chest. "Please William..."

When he realised she was genuinely distressed, he gently lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Elizabeth..." his expression was very serious as he took her hand to his mouth to kiss her palm ardently. "Lizzy...if this had ever happened before, do you really think I would have let you go? Don't you think I would have done everything to keep you by my side?"

The brightest smile he'd ever seen slowly grew on her beautiful face, making his heart almost burst with emotions. Rendered speechless by this sudden onslaught, he pressed her hand to his cheek, then kissed it again and reached for her to brush his lips tenderly against hers. With a soft sigh, she put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

After a while her regular breathing told him that she'd gone back to sleep. He would have joined her gladly, but his swirling thoughts wouldn't let his mind come to rest.

What was it he'd felt upon seeing her radiant face? He didn't have a name for it, since it seemed to consist of so many different sentiments. His brow furrowed in contemplation as he tried to sort them out- contentment, peace, happiness, completeness, a sense of rightness and belonging.

Could this

The one feeling he had sought after for all of his adult life- the feeling his parents had shared so openly? Georgiana's words about Chris came back to him: 'He's my other half.'

Did he feel the same way about Elizabeth? To his utter amazement he realised that he did. He let this new awareness sink in slowly to come up with the only conclusion he could draw- he had truly and honestly fallen in love with her.

The irony of his discovery didn't escape him, though. Elizabeth Baxter-Harding- of all people! If this was meant to be the punishment for his refusal to publicly expose Patricia and Tom, nothing could be more effective.

How could he ever explain to her what had happened without losing her? At the thought of being separated from her forever, a surge of possessiveness rushed through him, causing him to tighten his grip around her back. Elizabeth stirred slightly and mumbled something unintelligible, but went back into deep sleep at once.

Waiting for her to settle down again, William held himself still while he pondered his options. As long as her memory wasn't restored, there was no way he could make her believe his story. And even if she remembered one day, it all depended on how much she'd already known when the accident had occurred.

Despite his silent resolution to tell her everything, he hadn't wasted a single thought on it in the aftermath of their first time together. And now, after the second time, his determination was even weaker than before. He couldn't forsake the love he'd only just found; he didn't want to be alone again. He wanted to be with her day after day, year after year- till death do us part. Holding on to that thought, he finally drifted into a dreamless sleep.

~ * ~

Some time later the door vibrated in its hinges as someone knocked on it forcefully. Then Richard's voice boomed through the hallway. "Lizzy, Will- wake up, you sleepy heads! Father Christmas was here! Time to open the presents!"

The lovers inside of the room lay facing each other, their limbs intertwined. William was the first to react to his cousin's calling. Not bothering to open his eyes, he freed himself from Elizabeth's embrace and rolled to his back. Clasping her to his side, he cleared his throat. "Stop shouting, Rick! We're not deaf!"

There was a long silence on the other side of the door, then it opened slowly and Richard's face appeared in the gap. After staring at the couple in complete disbelief for a few seconds, his expression slowly changed into a sly smile. "I'll be damned," he muttered under his breath.

William's head jerked around, eyes wide open. "Rick! What do you think you are doing here? Get out!"

"Alright, alright, I'm gone. But make haste...with..." he gestured towards the bed, "well, with...ah, you know." Wiggling his eyebrows, he made a swift retreat.

Stifling a yawn, William dropped back onto the pillow. He turned to Elizabeth and pulled her to his chest. Huddling closer, she nuzzled his throat and inhaled his musky sent. "Good morning, Will," she murmured against his skin. With closed eyes, he revelled in the feeling of her warm breath brushing over him.

"Good morning, love," he answered dreamily.

Elizabeth went very still in his arms upon hearing how he addressed her. Love? Up to now she hadn't even thought about it- it was much too soon for such a commitment. Hoping fervently that he felt the same way about it, she dismissed her musings and decided to overlook his gaffe.

When William noticed her withdrawal, he was momentarily confused, until he realised what he'd just said. Too soon, he thought while he mouthed a silent curse at his imprudence, and tensely waited for her reaction. To his profound relief, she relaxed back into his arms and changed the subject. "Didn't Richard call for us a few minutes ago?"

"Mhm, we're expected downstairs- to open presents."

She pushed back from him to look up into his face with furrowed brows. "But how did Richard know you were here?"

"He didn't. I guess he wanted to put up a show for Caroline."

"Oh," Elizabeth uttered and paused. "...and now he knows..."

"Yes," William stated, watching her intently. "Do you mind?"

"I..." she blushed profusely and dropped her gaze. "I'm not sure. I mean- everything happened so fast. Just a week ago I didn't even like you and now..." her voice faded away, her tumultuous thoughts impeding coherent speech.

Since William didn't reply, she looked up again. His eyes were closed, but the hurt was evident on his handsome features. She felt his pain as if it were her own and in that split second realisation hit her like a bolt from the blue- she was in love with him! Just a few minutes ago, she had refused to even think about it, but now there was no way to deny it.

Although it was too soon for her to voice her feelings- they were still little more than strangers- she didn't want him to suffer; she wanted him to be happy, to smile and laugh- and show off his wonderful dimples.

In a gesture of reassurance, she put her hand to his cheek, waiting for him to open his eyes and return her look. When he did, the words began to tumble out of her without deliberation. "William, I you now, very much- really. If I didn't, we wouldn't be here know that, don't you? I want to put the past behind me and make a new start- with you. -And it's fine by me if they all know."

While he listened closely, joy bloomed inside of him and by the time she finished her speech, a bright smile lit up his face. Yet, he had to ask: "Are you sure?"

She nodded self-confidently. "I am- but...promise not to push me, alright? I want to be with you, but I need time to sort out...things. Can you accept that?"

William drew her back into his arms and kissed the top of her head. "I can accept pretty much everything as long as I know that me."

Wrapping her arms and legs around him, she giggled into his chest and pressed herself against him. He groaned aloud and tried to put some distance between them. "Lizzy, please, don't do that to me. -We have to go downstairs, they're waiting for us."

Letting go of him, she heaved a deep-drawn sigh and rolled to her back while he climbed out of bed. Unheeding of his nudity, he stretched out his limbs thoroughly, providing Elizabeth with a very enticing view of his backside that made her mouth water.

Looking at her over his shoulder with raised eyebrows, he asked mischievously: "Like what you see?"

"Very much," she admitted.

He smiled at her while he put on his trousers. "Too bad we have to go, isn't it?" When she reached out for him, he leaned down to kiss her lingeringly. But soon enough he was lying beside her- and from then on everything got slightly out of hand...

~ * ~

When they finally arrived in the dining-room more than half an hour later, they were welcomed by the others in very different ways. Richard winked at William and kissed Elizabeth's cheek tenderly; Georgiana hugged them both with a bright smile on her face; Robert kissed his daughter's forehead and patted William's shoulder and Charles grinned at them broadly. Chris confined himself to wave at them, Caroline ignored them completely and Jane was too busy for a thorough greeting.

As soon as their presence had been adequately acknowledged, she rushed the whole party to the living room where the beautiful Christmas tree was waiting for them. The next hour was spent with exchanging and opening presents, accompanied by joyful exclamations and peals of laughter. In the end they were all sitting on the floor next to the tree surrounded by their gifts and heaps of torn paper.

Except for Caroline, of course, who found it strictly beneath her to join in- what she regarded as- extremely childish behaviour. Moreover, she hadn't been expected at Netherfield, so she'd received only one present from Jane and Charles, and in her eagerness to be at William Darcy's side she hadn't even thought of bringing along anything for them, let alone for anyone else.

But even though she felt slightly out of place, she refused to give up her observation of William and his latest flame. It was completely beyond her how that insolent little upstart had managed to trap a man like him- but then she had done it once before, hadn't she?

Much like William, Thomas Baxter-Harding had been a man of gentility, well bred, intelligent and rich and she had made him fall for her in no time- much to Caroline's vexation, who'd been very interested in him herself. Then Tom had died in a tragic car accident, the strange circumstances of which still remained to be clarified, since Elizabeth had- most conveniently- lost her memory; and he'd left behind a rich young widow. Not that she hadn't been rich before her marriage, her family was rather wealthy, but who would object to having even more money- old money, mind you?

Yet, in Caroline's opinion, it didn't belie the lack of elegance or style clearly visible in that upstart, and she didn't understand at all how any man could be so obviously smitten with her. But maybe her impertinence and forwardness qualified her to be a nice pastime- at least that's all she could hope for in William's case. Otherwise she would have to think of something suitable to deflect his interest efficiently, because she was determined not to let Elizabeth Baxter-Harding snatch away another eligible bachelor.

While she'd contemplated the situation, Caroline's gaze had automatically zoomed in on William. But suddenly she had the strange feeling of being watched herself and turned her head slightly to find Elizabeth staring at her with raised eyebrows, an amused expression on her face. Not one to be intimidated easily, Caroline straightened in her chair and returned the look with all the haughtiness she could muster. Much to her irritation, however, Elizabeth's smile widened and she turned to William and kissed him on the cheek, clearly staking her claim. Caroline huffed indignantly and jumped up from her seat, fiercely struggling to suppress the urge to scratch out that upstart's eyes.

Charles, attuned to his sister's moods through years of practice, looked up in alarm to find her gazing at Elizabeth, her features contorted in rage. He stood up quickly and was by her side in mere seconds in order to prevent the outburst of fury that he knew was sure to come.

"Caroline," he addressed her warningly.

Since she showed no indication of having heard him, he called her again more sharply. This time her head snapped around and she glared at him. "I'm perfectly fine, Charles," she hissed through gritted teeth.

"I don't think so," he answered, his voice level, and took hold of her arm. When she tried to shake him off, he tightened his grip and turned to the others who were watching them with mild interest. "Please excuse us for a moment. My sister and I have to discuss an important family matter."

Jane gave him an encouraging smile to which he nodded slightly before leading a squirming Caroline out of the room.

As soon as they'd disappeared into the hall, Richard asked curiously: "What was that all about?"

"Tiff among siblings, I'd say," Jane answered lightly, attempting to play down the situation. She succeeded bravely in relieving the sudden tension, since they were all were more than willing to preserve peace and quiet rather than have their day ruined by conflict and strife.

But Elizabeth was not yet ready to drop the matter. She leaned over to her sister and whispered: "Do you think he's going to throw her out?"

A radiant smiled crept onto Jane's face and she stated merrily: "Yes!"

Chapter 9 - Part 2

Ignoring her ongoing remonstrations and scolding, Charles led Caroline into his study. He slammed the door shut behind them and flung her into a chair. When she jumped up again, he pointed a finger at her and barked: "Sit!"

Totally taken aback by her brother's fury, she slumped back into the chair. She was not ready to give up, though and wanted to state her opinion, when he snarled at her once again. "And shut up!"

Mouth agape, she stared at Charles with wide eyes, unable to comprehend what was going on. Her docile, little brother, whom she'd always dominated had suddenly turned the tables. Seeing him perched on the edge of his desk, arms crossed over his chest with a dangerous gleam in his eyes, literally scared her. Gone were his boyish charms- she was confronted with a grown man, an angry grown man.

"You are not welcome in my house anymore, Caroline," he said determinedly. Since she still stared at him, strangely fascinated by the fact that even his voice seemed to be different, it took her a few seconds to understand his meaning. When it registered, however, she immediately set about to appease him, figuring that this would be her only option. But he lifted his hand in a warning gesture, not giving her the slightest chance to utter a word.

"No- this time I'll do the talking and you listen- closely, because I'm not going to repeat it. Even though you came here without an invitation- you barged in- I was ready to put you up in this house, since you are my sister. But I will not tolerate your presumptuous, ridiculous behaviour a minute longer- it causes nothing but trouble. I told you more than once to leave William alone- he is not in the least interested in you. Unfortunately though, in this case, he's too much of a gentleman to say it straight to your face, but you can take my word for it. So here's my piece of advice for you, Caroline, leave him alone- stop throwing yourself at him, it's absolutely disgusting. And- you better leave Elizabeth alone too, unless you want to incur my best friend's wrath. -Oh, and as long as he stays here, you won't."

Charles abandoned his place at the desk and walked over to the door, passing by a completely speechless Caroline, who was obviously shocked to the core. His hand already on the handle, he turned back to her once again. "I want you to have your bags packed in half an hour sharp and be out of here. And, please feel free to use the phone and call Louisa and Ethan to announce your arrival." With that he went out of the room and closed the door very slowly, feeling greatly relieved and at peace.

Back in the living room, his old cheerful self restored, he rubbed his hands contently and informed his friends about Caroline's impending departure. "She decided to return to the Hursts since they've made plans to visit Ethan's family and she's already agreed to accompany them. -So, what's next on the plan?" He added, forestalling any discussion about his sister. The hint was gladly taken by the others and the whole commotion was soon forgotten, since Caroline didn't even bother to say her goodbyes, but preferred to take French leave.

~ * ~

The day continued at a leisurely pace, without any hurry or further trouble. There was a basic understanding among the group, allowing them to indulge in amicable chat and lighthearted banter while they went about cleaning up the living room and preparing lunch.

Elizabeth and William couldn't keep their hands off each other, touching and kissing at every opportunity- as if Caroline were still there. Again nobody seemed to care, except for Jane, who was slightly worried about her sister.

Though she'd perceived that there seemed to be a special bond between the two of them, she was at a complete loss as to what might have changed Lizzy's opinion about William so quickly. Two weeks ago she had called him 'proud and conceited' and now she appeared to be seriously involved with him. Such a profound change of mind in so short a time was totally atypical for her rather stubborn sister. True to her character Jane decided to have a private word with Lizzy as soon as possible rather than speculate about her relationship with William.

Later in the afternoon Georgiana and Chris went for a walk and the men enjoyed themselves at a game of billiards while the sisters were alone in the kitchen to finalise the opulent dinner Mrs. Albright had prepared. Jane took advantage of the situation and came to the point immediately. "Lizzy, what is going on between you and William?"

Knowing her sister as she did, Elizabeth was not at all surprised by her directness, but took her time to ponder the question. Searching in vain for the right words to explain a situation she didn't quite understand herself, she finally came up with the only answer she could think of: "I don't know."

Jane looked at her in confusion. "What do you mean, you don't know? Something must have happened- you two are pretty close."

"Well," Elizabeth had the decency to avert her eyes and blush slightly, "yes...we spent the night together."

" I'd sure call that something!" Taken aback by Lizzy's revelation, it took Jane a moment to collect her thoughts. "Is it serious?" she asked quietly.

"I think so," Elizabeth admitted shyly, still not looking up.

Jane took her sister's hand and enfolded it between her own.

"Now I'm really worried about you, Lizzy. This imprudence is so unlike you. You've always been so well-considered- and then suddenly you hurl yourself into this affair on the spur of the moment. Just a week ago you gave the impression that you didn't even like the man you're now involved with. What has changed?"

"Oh Janie," Elizabeth sighed in frustration. "Do you really think I didn't rack my brains about that whole...matter?" She freed her hand from her sister's grip and started to pace the kitchen. "But so far I wasn't able to find a plausible explanation as to what has changed. All I can say is that something happened a week ago at the funeral. I suddenly knew that I'd misjudged him badly- that he's totally different from what I thought him to be. I was so attuned to him...I felt so near to him...and then over the past week...I couldn't stop thinking about him."

Elizabeth had gone from agitation to exasperation in the course of her monologue and now that her energy was spent, slumped heavily against the cupboards behind her.

Smiling compassionately, Jane put an arm across her sister's shoulders. "It's alright, Lizzy. If you feel that way- and he feels the same- then there's no need to understand. Just enjoy and be happy- you both deserve it. I was afraid you hadn't given it enough thought, but knowing you, I really should have known better."

Elizabeth hugged her sister tightly. "Thank you, Janie. I'm so very glad to have you." She pulled back and looked at Jane with furrowed brows. "You needn't worry, though- I'm well aware that it's too soon for a serious commitment. It's true that we are very attracted to each other- and we both can't deny that there is something special between us, but so far it's nothing more than an affair, we're still very far away from a relationship. I have to get to know him better- and I have to conclude my past."

"You are determined to go back then?"

"I have to, Janie. I don't feel comfortable with that gap in my memory- it makes me uneasy. I refuse to believe that there's no way for me to find out what has happened-"

Jane drew breath to interrupt her, but Lizzy raised her hand to stop her. "No, Janie, I know your opinion, but believe me, being told is not an option. It's a sad and painful experience, because it's as if you were talking about someone else. I can follow the story and while I realise in my mind that I'm the main character, in my heart it just doesn't feel like me."

"But what will you do? How will you go about it?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't really have a plan- but I decided to start in London right after New Year's Eve. In our apartment. I've avoided it for the last eight months, for reasons I can't decipher."

"You were afraid," Jane remarked casually and turned back to her work. "And you still are."

Nodding slowly, Elizabeth joined her sister. "You're right, I am still afraid of what I'll find. But it's time to face the facts, or else I can't go on with my life."

At that point their conversation was cut off by the return of Georgiana and Chris who came back from their walk half-frozen and in dire need of a steaming cup of tea.

~ * ~

Sometime in the middle of the night William was roused by Elizabeth's desperate sobbing. He was wide awake within seconds and quickly switched on the light on the bedside table. She lay with her back turned to him, her whole body shaking with the potency of her crying fit. Frightened to the core, he leaned towards her and put a hand on her shoulder, softly calling her name.

When she didn't react, he bent down to her face and realised that she was still sleeping-obviously she was having a nightmare. Grabbing her gently, he slowly rolled her over, all the while talking to her in a soothing voice. Gradually the sobs abated and her lids started to flutter. When her gaze focused on him, her eyes widened in shock and she drew in a sharp breath.

"Lizzy," he said quietly, raising his hand to her face. But before he could touch her, she shrank back from him, fear and confusion mingling on her features.

He withdrew his hand and called her name more insistently, trepidation settling in the pit of his stomach. She blinked again, refocused and suddenly threw her arms around him to bury her face in his shoulder, murmuring something he couldn't make out. But it didn't matter anyway- as long as she didn't turn away from him, nothing else mattered. Overcome by a surge of relief, he almost crushed her to him, stroking her hair and whispering words of comfort and reassurance.

Bit by bit she relaxed until she took a deep, shuddering breath and her body finally melted into his. He slackened his hold on her and slowly smoothed a hand from her shoulder blades to her buttocks and back up, repeating the motion over and over again. Eventually she tilted back her head and looked up into his face, her brows furrowed enquiringly.

"You had a nightmare..." he stated rather than asked, though his tone of voice clearly indicated that he was waiting for an explanation.

She nodded and swallowed hard, reluctantly giving in to his silent demand: "I've had them ever since the accident..."

Tenderly he tucked an errand strand of hair behind her ear. "I'm so sorry. I wish I could help... They must be highly disturbing."

She paused noticeably before nodding again, hoping her hesitancy would cause him to drop the subject. But she had yet to learn that obstinacy was one of his more prominent traits. And sure enough the question came. "What are your dreams about?"

Realising that he wasn't ready to relent, she sighed in surrender. "They were always...about the accident- but this time..." she pressed her lips together, refusing to go on.

"Tell me, Lizzy," he insisted.

She felt tears welling up and dropped her gaze to his chest. "I dreamt about you," she confessed in a voice thick with emotions.

A wave of apprehension rushed through his body like a flash flood, turning his insides upside down. Struggling to contain it, he closed his eyes, glad she didn't look at him at that very moment, because he was sure that his expression would have given him away. He knew she waited for his next question, so he pulled himself together as best he could and asked carefully: "And what did I do- in that dream?"

She spoke so quietly that he had to strain his ears to hear her. "You were angry...very angry... you paced back and a caged tiger...and you shouted at me...and your eyes- they were flashing wit fury...I was so afraid of you..." Finally her voice broke and again she buried her face in his shoulder, crying silently.

With every word she said, his anxiety grew until it encompassed him completely. His worst fear had at last come true- she was obviously beginning to remember. But he knew in his heart that it was too soon- way too soon. The bond between them wasn't nearly strong enough to withstand such a blow. If she found out now, he would lose her- forever. He couldn't allow this to happen- he couldn't let her walk away from him. All he wished for was time, time he could use to show her who he really was, to make her trust him and love him- and then he could tell her. No doubt she wouldn't take it easily, but once she knew him better, she would see that he was neither a liar, nor a cheat- and she would understand the reasons for his secrecy.

Elizabeth cried out in pain and he realised that his arms had closed around her in a tight grip. He instantly relaxed his hold on her and kissed the top of her head repeatedly, murmuring between his caresses: "I'm sorry, love. I'm so sorry."

He hooked a finger under her chin and forced her to look up at him. "Elizabeth, you know that I would never- never do anything to hurt you, don't you?" he asked with desperate urgency.

She returned his gaze, amazed about the insecurity she saw in the depth of his dark eyes. The sudden comprehension that this strong, confident man depended on her reassurance caused joy and happiness to wash over her, making her smile through her tears. She put a hand to his cheek and kissed him softly, whispering against his lips: "I know, William- of course I know."

Unable to resist temptation, he kissed her back, slowly at first, then with increasing fervour. She clung to him, her ardour matching his, needing him as much as he needed her. When she felt him getting hard, pressing inexorably against her mound, her body responded at once, growing soft and pliant, molding itself to his from chest to knee. Groaning in approval, William rolled them over, so she was lying on her back. Immediately her legs opened to him and with a single thrust he sheathed himself in her to the hilt, his mouth swallowing the cry of pure ecstasy that escaped her.

They lay motionless, breaking their kiss to stare into each others' eyes. Finally- his gaze fixed on her- he started to rock his hips slowly. When her lids threatened to droop, his pleading voice caused her to force them up again. "No, Lizzy, look at me- please, look at me." He paused briefly before picking up the pace of his thrusts, gaining force with every impact.

Elizabeth looked back at him, held captive by the emotions that poured down on her through his spellbinding eyes. Her dazed brain realised that he'd opened up to her without restraint, offering himself to her. He was hers for the taking, providing her with the power to elevate their joining to a new level- a higher level- by accepting his offer. And without further consideration she did, overwhelmed by the confidence he placed in her. She looped herself around him, arms and legs enclosing him tightly, and tilted up her pelvis to better meet his forceful strokes.

William watched her closely, registering every emotion that passed over her face, until he finally saw what he had hoped for with all his being. As if a veil had been lifted from her beautiful eyes, they suddenly shone back at him, reflecting all the feelings he knew she had found in his. Not a second later mental awareness was followed by physical reaction, as she pulled him to her, taking him into her even deeper.

The tight knot of desperation and loneliness that had tied up his soul for so long loosened and burst in the space of a heartbeat. Heady sensations swept through him, filling every corner of his inner self, chasing away the hurt and pain from the past. He felt elated, spurred on by the love for the woman that moved with him in such perfect unison.

The sudden urge to finalise their union, to brand her definitely as his, made him pound into her faster and faster with renewed strength. They both breathed heavily with hammering hearts, skin slick with sweat, moaning at the sublime pleasure they experienced. When he felt he could hold back no longer, he called out to her in a strangled voice "Now, Lizzy, now" and immediately her soft, hot sheath clamped down on him while her whole body went rigid. His seed spurted out of him in rhythm with the milking motions of her inner muscles as they reached their peak together, convulsing and shuddering with its force. When the spasms finally subsided they lay exhausted and weak, unable to move or think.

Finally William pushed himself up on his elbows to kiss her sweaty forehead, the tip of her nose, her rosy cheeks and her moist, red lips. He drew back to gaze into her shining eyes, and whispered tenderly. "I love you, Elizabeth."

Then he buried his face in her neck, anxiously awaiting her answer. And when it came, his heart

threatened to burst with happiness. "I love you too, William- very much."

Chapter 10 - Part 1

Elizabeth woke up to tender fingers slowly caressing her breasts. Eyes still closed, her mouth curved into a dreamy smile while she bit down on her lower lip to curb the desire that instantly sprang to life.

"Good morning, my love," William's sleepy voice whispered hoarsely, before he nibbled her soft earlobe.

She trembled and purred in response to his words as well as to his actions, and wriggled her bottom against his prodding morning erection. He eased closer and slipped his hand from her breast down to the nest of tight curls at the top of her sex. His index finger slid between her delicate folds and gently massaged her clitoris. Sighing with pleasure, Elizabeth lifted her thigh over his to give him easier access to her throbbing core. But instead of accepting her invitation, he increased pace and pressure of his ministrations until she writhed uncontrolably.

"William, please...I need" she choked out desperately.

"Yes, my love, yes...turn to me...I want to see you when I'm inside of you." Looping an arm around her middle, he helped her to roll over. When they lay facing each other, he pulled her leg over his hip up to his waist, opening her for his jutting penis and slowly went into her.

Her eyes hazy with passion, she looked back at him to see an expression of pure bliss settle on his features.

"You're so perfect, my tight..." he murmured as he arched his hips inward to fill her completely.

She whimpered in delight, seeking his mouth for a long, tender kiss. William's right hand came around to close over her breast, kneading gently, circling her extended nipple with his thumb. Totally absorbed in the pleasure they gave and received, they moved without haste, leisurely rocking to completion. When she moaned and tightened rhythmically around him, he thrust once more and pressed deeply into her to find his own release.

They held on to each other while the waves of pleasure sweeping through their bodies gradually subsided to small occasional ripples that made their loines shiver involuntarily. Elizabeth let out a long shuddering sigh.

"Are you alright, love?" William asked, searching her face enquiringly.

His worries were instantly dispelled, however, when she gave him a brilliant smile that made his heart skip a beat.

"I'm perfectly alright, darling. -It just saddens me a bit that this," she leaned in to kiss him lightly on his stubbled chin, "will be over today."

"Oh no, Lizzy, this," he returned her favour by kissing her lips firmly and at the same time jerked his hips forward, making her gasp into his mouth, "will never be over."

She flatened her hands on his chest and pushed back slightly to look into his eyes. "You know what I'm talking about, William. The time we spent here...far away from everyday life. It's like... a soap bubble, prone to burst when it- "

"No, we can make it last...we can work something out..."

Even as he spoke, she began to shake her head impatiently. "We can't- I mean, we can't make it last as it is now. We could work out something, though- eventually..."

"Eventually?" he repeated incredulously. "Lizzy, don't you understand? I love you, I want you by my side- constantly."

Elizabeth felt like being split in two. On the one hand, she was very happy about his admission- every woman in her right mind would jump with joy- yet on the other hand, she felt anger rising inside about his stubbornness. Thus undetermined how to react, she thought it best to remain silent, lest she say something she would regret later on.

William watched her expectantly, waiting for her confirmation that she wanted the same. But the emotions he saw flickering across her face, filled him with dismay. And when she bit down hard on her lower lip, he knew for sure that he wouldn't get the answer he so fervently wished for. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he asked quietly: "What do you want, Lizzy?"

Elizabeth's head snapped up in surprise at his halting tone. How could it be he was so insecure about her feelings for him? She had told him and she had shown him, yet...he seemed to be in permanent need of reassurance.

"William- I love you, I really do. You know that, don't you?" She waited for his nod. "But- this is all happening way too fast. You have to give us some time to get to know each other better, don't you think?" Again she waited for his reaction; this time he dropped his gaze before shrugging reluctantly. Feeling her temper flare dangerously, she closed her eyes for a moment to contain it.

"William, please look at me." When he did, refusal clearly visible in his expression, she stated dryly: "Well, obviously you don't."

Sensing her anger brought on his and with an abrupt movement, he separated their bodies and rolled away from her to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from her. "I just don't understand you! You say you love me, and yet you don't want to be with me!"

Elizabeth sat up straight, bristling with indignation. "But that's not true! I never said, I didn't want to be with you!" Furiously scrambling off the bed, she grabbed for a blanket to wrap herself up in and walked over to his side. "Will you kindly look at me when you're talking to me!" she rounded upon him, meeting his glare with narrowed eyes.

Just as William was about to retort to her admonition, she suddenly staggered and turned as white as the blanket she was shrouded with. He jumped to his feet, reached out for her and scooped her up into his arms, all in one fast, fluid motion. Fear gripped him as he felt the clamminess of her skin where he touched her and heard her breath coming in short, laboured gasps. Vigorously repressing his ascending panic, he managed to give his voice a gentle tone.

"Elizabeth, can you hear me?"

When he felt her nod slightly against his chest, he almost groaned with relief.

"Are you alright?"

She shook her head no, whereupon his concern returned full force.

"Should I call a doctor?"

"No," she whispered barely audible, "just hold me."

"Forever- if you'll let me..." he whispered back, his stress easing off a little, and pressed a soft kiss to the crown of her hair.

Looking over his shoulder, he gingerly sat down on the bed, all the time holding her firmly to him. He leaned back against the headboard and arranged her carefully on his lap, so she could rest her head on his chest.

Encircling his waist tightly as if holding on for dear life, she inhaled deeply to compose herself, finding comfort in the steady beat of his heart underneath her ear and his stroking hands that brought warmth back to her shocked body. Thankful for his silence, she tried to appease her reeling mind to find out what had just happened.

When she had been standing in front of him, he'd all at once turned into the William Darcy she had seen in her dream, radiating fury and hatred so intense that she had felt like being burned. And her own words had echoed in her head, 'Will you kindly look at me when you're talking to me', duplicating themselves over and over again, growing louder with each repetition, until they'd turned into a cacaphony of undiscernible noises. Then picture and sound had vanished as fast as they had appeared and she'd been left shocked to the core- feeling dizzy and exhausted.

She couldn't figure out where that horrible impression of William had come from. Sure enough, he had resembled the man she had thought him to be in the past- but this reserved man would never have allowed his temper to get the better of him, would he? The only time she'd seen him like this had been in her dream. A deja vu from a dream? How weird can you get?

Heaving a sigh she turned her face into William's chest to draw his slightly musky scent deeply into her lungs. This was the man she loved- the real man. That demoniac stranger made up by her fancifulness for reasons that completely escaped her had nothing in common with him.

A certainty that soothed her immeasurably, allowing her to immerse herself in the safeness and security William's embrace provided her with. The last remnants of tension left her body and the disturbing figment faded away into nothingness.

William's hands halted their motions and settled at her waist while he planted another kiss on top of her head. He cleared his throat before asking softly: "Feel better?"

She turned her face up to him to give him a reassuring smile. "Yes, very much."

"Good," bending his head, he pulled her up higher for a firm kiss. "I thought you were going to faint right away. It scared the hell out of me. -What was wrong with you?"

His eyes were so full of concern that she immediately decided not to trouble him any further by telling him of her eerie experience. There was nothing he could do about it, anyway. Though she felt a pang of guilt at the thought of lying to him, she quickly shrugged it off by telling herself that it was just a minor deception in order to preserve his peace of mind. Yet, she couldn't face him when she answered his question. "I suppose my blood pressure has suddenly dropped- it made me feel sick and dizzy." Then as an afterthought she quickly added, "I've always had trouble with low blood pressure," glad to be able to look back at him, because this- as least- was the truth. William smoothed her dishevelled tresses away from her face, then framed it with his hands while his gaze slowly wandered over her features. "Thank God, t'was nothing worse...I don't know what I would do if anything ever happened to you..."

Deeply touched by his admission, Elizabeth leaned closer towards him to grace his lips with a lingering kiss. When they parted, she caressed his cheek with tender fingers, once again striving to reassure him. "You don't have to worry about me, William. I'm in the best of health- and I promise to take good care of myself."

Finally he smiled, drawing her even closer to him and rolling them over, so he was lying on top of her, rendering her immobile with his strong body. "Accepted! And don't you dare break it."

"I won't," she whispered breathlessly before his mouth came down on hers for a searing kiss.

~ * ~

Richard entered the dining room to find his friends- except for Elizabeth and William- enjoying their breakfast. After bidding everyone a good morning, he went over to the sideboard to help himself to a cup of coffee. Sipping the hot beverage slowly, he strode to the table and dropped into a chair next to Georgiana.

When she flashed him a bright smile, he gave her a wink and leaned closer to whisper into her ear: "Seems your dear brother is even too busy for breakfast these days."

Shaking her head in annoyance, she pushed him slightly away from her. "Oh Rick, stop it! This is too serious to make fun of. I don't know anyone who's in more need for some happiness. He so deserves it!"

"Aw, it's alright, Georgie girl- calm down. You know I meant no harm," he replied soothingly, raising his hands in defeat.

Obviously warming up to the subject, Georgiana was not to be appeased so easily. "Even so! You know how depressed he was after what he'd been put through these past years. Do you even remember when you've last seen him in such a good mood? Well, I don't! I'm just glad to see him smiling and laughing again, no matter how it came about," she stopped to inhale deeply, then added quickly, "And I'm glad he's gotten rid of Patricia," blushing slightly at her boldfaced avowal.

Richard stared at her in astonishment, muttering under his breath: "Well, I'll be damned!"

Suddenly they both became aware that the room was very quiet. Looking around, they realised that the others were watching them with barely concealed curiosity.

Under such close scrutiny, Georgiana felt impelled to defend herself and spoke up in a strained voice, her gaze fixed on the table. "I mean- I accepted her for my brother's sake- though in truth I didn't like her. I really can't explain why...I've always had the feeling that she was insincere- phoney; anyway, on the whole she made me feel uneasy. Whatever it was William saw in her, I failed to see it- for me they were a really bad match."

During his cousin's confession Richard's eyes roamed over the faces of their companions one by one, searching for a sign of disaproval; but all he found was compassion and sympathy. A short pause ensued after Georgiana had finished her speech, until Jane reached out to pat the younger woman's hand reassuringly. "You are definitely not alone with your opinion, Georgie. I'm totally with you."

"Well, who's not?" Charles interjected keenly, then continued rather pensively: "Though I still don't know how their separation came about. I can only guess that it was rather...distressing, given William's state of mind afterward."

Greatful that she wasn't standing all alone, Georgiana had by then regained her liveliness and immediately jumped at his statement. "He didn't talk to you about it?" Charles shook his head in silence. "And he didn't talk to Daddy or Rick either. -Does anybody know what has happened?" she asked and looked around only to be confronted with helpless expressions. At last her eyes came to rest on Richard. He shrugged at the question he saw in her face. "Of course I asked him- several times, in fact. But all he said was they'd found out that their different views of life wouldn't bode well for a marriage- at least not for one to last forever."

Again they lapsed into silence as they contemplated Richard's account. Finally Robert cleared his throat and spoke up. "Well, I have to say it's rather admirable for such young people to make so tough a choice. If I'd been that reasonable at their age, it would have saved me a lot of trouble..."

Jane squirmed restlessly in her chair while she listened to her father. As soon as he paused to draw a breath, she started talking. "That may well be, Papa. But isn't it rather unusual that it took them more than two years to find out that they didn't get along with each other? And then to split up only a month before the wedding. -I've always had the feeling that there was more to it than William would tell."

Robert chuckled, "Better late then never, don't you think, Janie?" He sobered as he continued: "They must have had good reasons for what they did- private reasons. I don't know William very well, but from what I've seen so far, I'd say he's a considerate man- definitely not one to make a rash decision."

A choked "Ha" came from Richard's direction, immediately drawing everyone's attention. Robert raised his eyebrows in question. "You obviously don't think so, Rick!"

Unaware that he'd spoken out loud, Richard was a bit flustered for having been caught. Yet, he didn't hesitate to make his opinion known. "No, no- you are quite right, Bob. I was just thinking about Lizzy. It seems that my cousin's rationality is in utmost danger where she is concerned."

His comment earned him smiles and nods and even a sigh from Georgiana. "Oh yes, I guess that's pretty evident. Will is totally enraptured, isn't he? I really hope it isn't just a fling."

Richard was astonished that nobody had any misgivings about the strange situation. What had started out as an act, a farce to dupe Caroline, had developed a life of it's own- with Elizabeth and William's ample support, of course. Nonetheless, he would have expected some protest, at least from Robert or Jane. But they both appeared to agree wholeheartedly with the course of events, if their happy smiles were any indication for their affections.

Once again Richard let his gaze wander from face to face until he caught the host's eye. Charles smile faded at the sight of his friend's stern expression. "Do you have any objections, Rick?"

"Oh no, by no means. I wish them all the happiness in the world, really I do. I just hope that they can overcome any obstacles that might be thrown in their path, is all. -Now," he added, standing up, "I think I'm going to take advantage of the beautiful weather and stroll around the grounds for a while. Anybody care to join me?"

Nobody volunteered, for which he was thankful; his question had been nothing but an act of pure courtesy. Actually, he wanted to be alone to contemplate his cousin's precarious situation. This discussion had confirmed his assumption that he was the only one who knew about it, anyway.

Even if he'd wanted to, there was no way he could confide in anyone without betraying William's confidence- a possibility he would never allow himself to take into consideration.

Having taken his leave appropriately, he went upstairs to his room to get ready for his excursion.

Chapter 10 - Part 2

Wrapped up in a blanket, Elizabeth sat on the window sill in her room at Longbourn and stared out into the cloudless, midnight sky with dreamy eyes. An occasional, content sigh escaped her smiling lips while she recalled those past days and nights she had spent with William.

Lying in his arms had caused an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging to settle in her heart, telling her beyond a doubt that he was the key to her happiness; he was her future, the one she wanted to share the rest of her life with. It didn't matter anymore where those feelings had come from, or what had initially induced them- they were there and she'd learned to accept them. And she was resolved to act upon them.

But before she could do so there was one thing left to be done: bringing forward the events of her lost year. She didn't expect it to be easy, but rather painful and disturbing. Nevertheless, she needed to know, needed to reveal this part of her past to feel complete again, or else she would never be able to fully restore her peace of mind. There was no guarantee at all for her success, in fact, the odds were highly against her, but at least she had to try.

She'd been very surprised about how violently William had disliked her intention. He'd insisted quite vehemently on the fact that for him her past didn't count a bit, that all he wanted was a future with her, regardless of bygone events. No doubt she understood his point of view, since- in essentials- it hardly differed from hers; and under different circumstances she would have agreed with him well and truly. Yet, given her present situation, ignoring the past was not an option.

They'd had a lengthy discussion in the course of which she'd endeavoured to explain what it meant for her to miss a part of her life and how she felt about it. Although he'd listened closely, she'd had the impression that deep within he'd refused to acknowledge her arguments. And she'd been right- because no matter what she'd said he'd stubbornly persisted in his viewpoint. He'd even tried to dissuade her from putting her plans into action with something akin to fear in his almost desperate efforts to change her mind. Smiling inwardly she'd ascribed it to his obviously pathological insecurity where her feelings for him were concerned, and once again- and surely not for the last time- she'd hurried to reassure him.

An hour later they'd finally reached a fragile truce. Not wanting to jeopardise their relationship at such an early stage, they'd both given in as much as their different opinions would allow. William had promised, albeit grudgingly, to try his best not to disapprove so strongly of her urge to know more about her lost year and maybe even support her in her foray into the past. Whereas she'd had to promise solemnly that, no matter what she might find out, she'd always stand by him, love and trust him. Though she'd found that to be a rather strange request, she'd satisfied his wish without scrutinising it.

Another problem they'd had not yet solved had been the question of time- time she thought they needed and he thought they did not. To her pleasant surprise it had been fairly easy to settle-despite his outburst of fury earlier that day. Without opposition, he'd agreed not to rush her into living with him, and she'd agreed not to take up too much time to get used to the notion. Now that she reconsidered their discussion unhurriedly, she couldn't suppress a sly smile. Truth be told, she'd gotten her way in both issues, and poor William had been the one to compromise. And she knew for sure that he was as aware of that fact as she was- alas, there'd been nothing he could have done about it.

Her smile faded, however, when she thought about the reason that forced her to play out; if not for that damn gap in her memory, she would have packed her bags with the speed of lightning and followed William to the end of the world, should he have asked her to do so. Her decision for a life with him stood firm, but she knew her planned investigations would require time.

A single tear rolled down her cheek as she remembered their parting just a few hours ago. It had been so hard to let go. They'd held on tightly to each other for what had seemed like an eternity, yet it hadn't been long enough. The second he'd released her, she'd felt utterly bereft of the warmth and nearness she'd come to cherish so much. She'd had to struggle hard not to throw her arms around him again and beg of him not to leave her alone.

The only thing that had kept her from giving in to her urge had been the thought that he wouldn't go any farther then London, a mere stone's throw away. Furthermore, they'd already exchanged phone numbers and arranged to meet for lunch on the 29th.

So she'd managed a wobbly smile and looked deeply into his eyes. Obviously he didn't fare any better because his had been strangely shiny, too. He'd stared at her intently, his gaze moving slowly over her face, as if commiting every detail to memory. She'd wanted to say something to console him- console them both- but she couldn't get a word past that huge lump in her throat. William had been the first to break the silence, his voice slightly unsteady. "Don't ever forget that I love you...with all my heart..." And with one last, tender kiss he'd been gone.

As she sat there in the darkness of her room, still wondering about how pathetic their parting had been, it occurred to her that in truth they hadn't said good-bye to each another, but to those wonderful days they'd spent together at Netherfield. It seemed that William had finally realised what she had already known for quite a while- from now on everything would be different. Heaving a deep-drawn sigh, she stood up and crossed her room to her empty bed. While she crowled under the covers, she shivered from the chilliness and wished fervently William would be there to warm her. After wriggling and rolling to and fro for quite a while, she'd at last settled in as comfortably as possible without his body to snuggle up against.

One last thought crossed her mind before she drifted off to sleep: tomorrow would be the first day of her venture into the past.

~ * ~

Patricia McKinley stood at the window of her London hotel room, mobile phone pressed to her ear, and listened closely to the voice on the other end of the line. When the caller had finished his narrative, she repeated pensively: "Netherfield...the Bingleys...and Caroline...I remember. Who else?"

Again she listened, brow furrowed in concentration.

After a while, her eyebrows went up high in surprise. "Jane Bingley's sister?...Are you sure?... No, no, of course...I know you are...I just- that's very unexpected, is all."

The caller placed a question, to which she shook her head.

"No, I'll take care of that. I know her very well. You stick to him...Good...I'll hear from you then? Alright...Bye."

She made a grimace at the phone as she pushed the disconnect button. She hated that sleezy toad Bill Collins, but- much to her amazement- he was a fantastic detective and that was all that counted for her. Knocking the phone lightly against her front teeth, she shook off thoughts about him and turned her mind to more important matters.

This latest piece of information was almost unbelievable. Could it really be true- Elizabeth and William a couple? Those two, of all people? How could this have come about? Could this be the chance she'd been waiting for all these past months?

After rubbing her suddenly sweaty palms against her skirt, she inhaled deeply to calm down her pounding heart, and squared her shoulders. First and foremost, she had to keep a level head; it would not do to let her nerves get the better of her now that her target seemed to be so near at hand.

Walking over to the lounge, she sat down on the couch to ponder the possibities this strange twist would surely offer. Not that she intended to hurt Elizabeth- the poor girl was the least guilty person in this sad affair. William was the one all her efforts were centred on, he was the one she wanted to suffer as much as she'd suffered, and still did. If not for him, this horrible car accident would never have happened.

Triggered off by his damned veraciousness, he'd set into motion a sequence of events that had eventually ended in Tom's death. She would never forget that cursed afternoon when he'd come home unexpectedly to find them in bed together. The ensuing scene had been quite unpleasant to be sure, and of course he'd broken their engagement and thrown her out. She'd borne those consequences rather easily, though, given that she'd already grown more than tired of him. The only thing that had greatly upset her was that their convenient arrangement had come to an end. Since she'd never been into working regularly- a fundraising campaign every now and then was enough of an occupation for her- it had been quite comfortable to live at William's expenses. Cut off of this resource, she'd had to find someone else to support her adequately. Tom hadn't been an option in this case, so as not to raise any suspicions in Elizabeth. For a short time, however, she'd found shelter in their apartment.

Knowing him as the epitome of morality that he was, William's next step hadn't really surprised her, if anything, it had irritated her- he'd gone to Elizabeth to inform her about her husband's infidelity. But of course Tom and she had beaten him to it and woven a very nice tale, turning everything around and making him the culprit. Hence Elizabeth hadn't believed a word of what he'd said, her dislike of him assisting greatly in the matter. Nevertheless William had somehow managed to plant the seed of doubt into her mind. It hadn't shown its presence directly though, but in time it had grown to be a serious threat for their little secret, until in the end it had been the means of their discovery.

Taking into consideration everything that had occurred, she was extremely puzzled as to how a relationship between these two could have come about. Since she'd- as a precaution- left town right after the accident, she'd only recently learned that Elizabeth had lost all memories of the year preceding Tom's death. That explained why she didn't hate William anymore, but the fact remained that even before the accident she hadn't liked him. So what had changed?

Maybe Collins had misjudged the situation. Highly unlikely, though- so far his reports had always been very accurate. Yet, he could have been mistaken for once. No, she needed another source of information- she needed to know for sure before planning any further.

She grabbed her mobile and, after meditating a few seconds, punched in a number, impatiently listening to the dial-tone. At last a relieved smile graced her lips as the receiver was picked up on the other end. "Hello Caroline, Patricia speaking..." she greeted with fake enthusiasm.

Half an hour later she had more information than she'd bargained for. Yet, enduring Caroline's rant about literally everything that had happened at Netherfield had surely paid off. While she'd still been listening- or rather pretended to- Miss Bingley's lamentations, a plan had already been forming in her head.

She knew now beyond a doubt that William was head over heels in love with Elizabeth and vice versa, and for a split second she felt sorry for her former friend. But given the current situation, it couldn't be helped- she couldn't forego such a unique opportunity. She'd make her hate him again- snatch her away from his side in no time, just to show him what it meant to lose someone he really loved. She wanted him to feel the loss of a beloved one- to suffer- to be in agony like she'd been after Tom's death.

Though she'd been informed by Collins that Elizabeth lived at Longbourn, she decided to call her London apartment, trusting her luck that she would eventually reach her there. After dialing she waited until the answering machine had taken over and left a nice little message, leaving her number and asking to be called back.

She put down the mobile and leaned back, relaxing for the first time in almost a year. Revenge was indeed sweet, she thought, smiling contently.

~ * ~

Right after work, Elizabeth drove to London. Not that she wasn't familiar with the roads, but knowing were they would lead her to, made her stomach lurch. Keeping the wheel steady was an onerous task, since her thoughts would always stray to what lay ahead of her. More than once she had to take a deep breath to contain her agitation and exhort herself to concentrate on driving.

Finally she reached her destination and found a parking place right in front of her apartment house. Staring at the building in awe, she felt her determination melt away. The thought of what she might find up there, made her shudder involuntarily.

Suddenly the urge to pull off again and drive back to Longbourn was almost too strong to resist. Her hand was already on the ignition key, when a picture of William appeared before her mind's eye. And that was all she required to set herself into motion.

She alighted quickly and ran up the path to the entrance, while rummaging in her handbag for her keys. Having found them, she pushed open the door and, ignoring the elevator, made her way to the stairs.

On the third floor, she whirled to the left and stopped in front of apartment 302. Short of breath, chest heaving, she stood rooted to the spot and gazed at the symbol of her past- a name plate printed in neat, black letters: Baxter-Harding.

Tears clouded her eyes, making her blink rapidly to keep them from falling. Her constricted throat hardly allowed her to swallow, but after a few tries she finally managed, feeling slightly better. Though her instincts told her to turn around and run, the thought of William helped her to maintain her courage.

Inhaling deeply and holding her breath she unlocked the door and stepped over the threshold. She stopped again, her eyes roaming around in anticipation, and finally exhaled on a long sigh. Nothing unsettling so far. Gently closing the entrance door behind her, she ventured further into her former home.

Half an hour later, she slumped into an armchair in the living room, relief and disappointment washing through her in equal shares. All the commotion had been for naught. Whatever she'd expected to find, it wasn't there. She'd found- nothing. Every room had been carefully cleared of all personal items- even the pictures had been taken from the walls. In its almost clinical tidiness, her once rather comfortable apartment reminded her very much of an empty hotel room, waiting for the next guests to arrive.

While her belongings had been transported to Longbourn, she had no idea where Tom's were. It occurred to her that his family must have initiated the removal of his possessions as well as the cleaning of the apartment. Though they'd both never been close to Tom's parents, she briefly considered calling them. And then what? She hadn't seen them for almost a year, and she didn't want her husband's things back, anyway. So why bother them?

Standing up, she glanced around one last time and decided never to come back again. When her gaze wandered over to the telephone, however, her brow furrowed in confusion. Slowly she stepped closer, thinking her eyes had betrayed her- but they hadn't. The small red light of the answering machine was blinking. Full of curiosity, she pushed the rewind button and hit play. To her utter surprise a familiar voice she hadn't heard in a long time filled the room- Patricia. She replayed the message and grabbed the phone to punch in the number Tom's cousin had left. Settling back down in the armchair she'd vacated, she waited for Patricia to pick up the receiver on the other end of the line.

continue reading The Lost Year here

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