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The Lost Year

Chapter 11 - Part 1

Although it wasn't even dawn yet, William already sat behind his desk in his office, head leaned against the back of his huge leather chair, weary eyes closed.

It was two nights and one day since he'd last seen Elizabeth and the time without her had turned out even worse than he'd anticipated. With her reassuring presence gone- talking to her on the phone hadn't really helped matters- he'd been unable to rein in his fear and insecurity. Mingled with the oppressing sense of guilt for having deceived her, they'd augmented to almost unbearable heights, reaching their absolute peak the previous night.

After hours of tossing and turning restlessly in his too large and empty bed, his mind in an awful mess, he'd finally given up on sleep. Retreating to his habit of staring out the window, he'd tried to calm down and contemplate his situation, but soon found out that the intimate surroundings were too much of a destraction. In the end he'd fled from his apartment to take refuge in his office, hoping that the less personal atmosphere would help him rearrange his tangled thoughts. Fortunately it worked, and shortly after arriving there, he'd regained enough of his equilibrium to ponder his options more rationally.

Through his own fault, he found himself in a very precarious position- actually, he was exactly where he'd never wanted to be. But the deed was done, and there was no way to go back and change it. All he could do now was to find a remedy and right the wrong he'd done.

He thought back to how his resolution not to take advantage of Elizabeth had been smashed to pieces the moment he'd had her in his arms. Their first time together had been like a dream come true and he'd forgotten everything but the incredible bliss they'd shared. And after the second time, when he'd discovered that he loved her, this newly found feeling had brought on fear, too- fear of losing her, if she should ever learn the truth.

But despite his misgivings, he should have told about her the past right then. Instead he'd acted completely out of character, had betrayed his own principles of veracity and honesty, and taken the coward's way out by deliberately concealing the truth. He despised falsehood and deception with all his heart- yet, he'd fallen back on them. And no matter how often he told himself that he hadn't had another choice, his self-respect had suffered considerably from his abominable behaviour. Sooner or later his guilty conscience would force him to be honest with her.

Given the events that had followed his discovery, he knew that in all likelihood, it would be rather sooner than later. Heaving a deep-drawn sigh, he thought back to those events that still worried him most- her nightmare and her fit of dizziness. They were the very source of his deepest fear, namely that when she'd remember, he wouldn't be there to explain everything, before she could draw the wrong conclusions.

Unlike her, he'd at once recognised these incidents for what they were- snippets of her lost year. But then, he had the knowledge that she lacked. He had been furious, he had shouted at her- and that was what her nightmare had been about, that much she'd admitted.

She'd lied to him about the reason for her fit of dizziness, though, of that he was sure. But he knew all the same what had triggered it off. An icy chill ran down his spine- just as it had at Netherfield- as he thought of her words: 'Will you kindly look at me when you're talking to me.' He'd been stunned to hear them again; she'd used exactly the same formulation during their argument 18 months ago, when he'd told her about her husband's infidelity. And just a split second after she'd uttered them- again- there'd been a look of sheer terror in her eyes and then she'd collapsed.

It still puzzled him somehow that she'd offered such a shallow explanation afterwards, seemingly logical, granted, but shallow nonetheless. Moreover, her gaze had broken away from his, telling him beyond words she wasn't being honest. Could it be that she suspected something she didn't want to share with him? No. He abandonded this theory immediately. If she had the least inkling that her memories had begun to resurface, she would have reacted completely different. It was more probable that she'd done it so as not to worry him. A slow smile lit up his expression at the idea of Elizabeth attempting to spare his feelings- this was so much like her.

The sudden awareness of how intimately he'd come to know her in the course of just three days and two nights, touched him to his very core. During the day he'd learned about her heart and mind, while at night he'd learned about her body and soul, and he'd eagerly absorbed her every word and gesture to commit it to memory. She was indeed his other half.

Just the thought of living without her, made his fear return with invigorated strength. He couldn't- didn't want to- imagine being thrown back into the darkness she'd saved him from, because he knew for sure that his innermost self wouldn't survive such a blow.

For a few moments his breath caught in his lungs, as he all at once saw clearly the magnitude of his dependency on Elizabeth. He realised that his self-reliance was gone- for good, and his fear turned to anguish; he was completely at her mercy. Of course he'd counted on that, but never to such a degree. With just a few words, she could either make him the happiest of men- or the most desperate...

Uneasiness gripped him, forcing him to leave his chair and pace the room, nervously twisting the signet ring on his left little finger. If only he could be sure that she'd believe him, that her feelings for him were strong enough to trust in him. While he didn't doubt at all that she loved him- she'd shown it and she'd said it- he could just guess the strength of her attachment to him.

Suddenly he stopped short as if he'd hit an invisible wall. What if she'd just felt forced to answer in kind to his own confession? What if it had just been sex for her instead of making love? Not a second later, though, he snorted angrily and shook his head, mentally kicking himself for allowing such thoughts to even enter his mind. He definitely refused to believe that she was capable of deceiving him in such a manner- not his Elizabeth.

But was she really his? He almost choked on his insecurity. An emotion still so unfamiliar for him that he hardly knew how to handle it without her constant reassurance. He'd never been hesitant or undecided, he'd always known what he wanted and had pursued it with grim determination; and now, for the very first time in his adult life, he was faltering, afraid and unsure of himself. Suddenly feeling worn out and tired again, he slowly walked back to his chair, and slumped into it heavily.

He'd never felt like this before, and he didn't like it at all. But he had to blame solely himself and he knew that there was only one remedy to relieve this agonising uneasiness: he had to tell her- as soon as possible. He could see no use in putting off the inevitable, anyway, for the longer he waited, the harder it would get. If he had to rely on Elizabeth's judgement, her knowledge of human nature, then so be it. Having finally reached a decision, he immediately felt part of his usual determination return. The sword of Damocles was still dangling periliously low above his head, but he chose to ignore it as best he could and go about making plans how to put his resolve into action.

But first of all, he was in desperate need to hear her lovely voice. A glance at his wristwatch told him that she would be up already and he immediately grabbed for the phone to dial her number. To his utter disappointment, the line was busy. His lips formed a pout as he put the receiver back down. He'd have to try later.

Dripping wet, Elizabeth dashed from the bathroom to reach the ringing phone in time. Her heart thudded at the thought that it might be William, as she grabbed for the receiver and almost cast it to the floor in her eagerness. But finally she managed to press it to her ear.

"Hello?" she asked breathlessly.

"Lizzy?" came Jane's cheerful voice through the phone. "What are you doing? You sound as if you'd been running."

"Hi, Janie. I actually was- you caught me in the shower," she answered, struggling not to sound too let down.

"Sorry, dear, but I got your message. We were out yesterday, and came back rather late. I didn't want to disturb you then...So, what's news?"

Completely forgetting her disappointment, Elizabeth told her sister everything that had occurred the previous evening. When she was finished, there was a considerable pause at the other end of the line.

"Janie? -Are you still there?"

"What? Yes...yes, of course...I was just wondering about Patricia...What could she want from you?"

For a few seconds Elizabeth was at a loss how to answer to Jane's obvious wariness. She knew the two women had never gotten along with each other very well, despite the Bingleys' close friendship with William. Yet, up to now she'd never recognised the depth of her sister's aversion. She felt compelled to defend her friend.

"What do you mean, Janie? What could she want other than just see me again and have a nice time? And maybe exchange pleasant memories. We used to be rather close. I know you never liked her, but she's my late husband's cousin, after all."

Elizabeth's voice had increased in volume during her speech and when she stopped, slightly out of breath again, she waited for Jane's contradictions. But her sister was in no mind to rise to the challenge. Instead she softly placed a rather unexpected question: "Did you talk to William about it?"

As was Jane's knack, she'd hit the sore spot unerringly and again silenced Elizabeth. Of course she'd thought about it- in a fact, she'd thought about it all the time since she'd spoken to Patricia, but she hadn't come to a decision, yet. Ignorant of the details of their breakup she didn't have the slightest idea how William would react to her news. As she quickly reconsidered the matter, she suddenly knew her answer. "No, Janie, I didn't- and I don't plan to, either."

There was determination in her sister's voice, but her reply had been too long in coming for Jane to give in so easily. "Don't you think he has a right to know, Lizzy?" she asked carefully.

"No, frankly, I don't think so," Elizabeth snapped, exasperated. She closed her eyes for a second and inhaled deeply to compose herself, then strove for an explanation in a much calmer tone.

"We both have a past, Janie, but it's over, done with. So whatever happened between them has nothing to do with the present- with us. And regardless of their past, Patricia's my friend."

This time it was Jane's turn to keep silent, but Elizabeth heard her heave a sigh and immediately knew that there was more to come. "What?" she asked, braced for the worst.

"Well...given her behaviour after the accident, I never would have considered her your friend. If I remember rightly, she couldn't get away from you fast enough. That's hardly the behaviour of a friend."

"But she had to go to her family- they needed her! They're very close."

"Are they now?" the irony in Jane's voice was not to be overheard. "So when had she last gone to see them? I mean, before her rather hasty departure from London- not a minute after you'd opened your eyes for the first time after the accident. Not once- and please correct me if I'm wrong- during her whole relationship with William had she visited her family. Is that what you'd call being close?"

Slightly desperate by now, Elizabeth enquired: "I don't understand, Jane! What do you want to tell me? Just say it directly!"

"I wish I could, Lizzy," came Jane's irritated answer. She made a noise that was neither a sigh, nor a groan, but something in-between, and then launched forward: "There's something about her that troubles me...I wish I could put my finger on it, but I can't! -She's like a puzzle with too many pieces that won't fit. For whatever reason- I don't trust her, I never have, for that matter. And you shouldn't, either. I know I can't keep you from meeting her, but promise me you'll be cautious around her, please, Lizzy. -She just makes me so uneasy!"

Despite her sister's genuine worries, Elizabeth couldn't hold back her laughter. "Oh, come on, Janie, don't you think you're exaggerating just a tad? I know she's not to everybody's liking, but she's not that bad, really. And she's never given me cause to distrust her."

"Well, alright, but nevertheless-"

"I'll be on my guard, Janie, I promise...And tomorrow I'll tell you everything about it." While talking, Elizabeth looked at her wrist, just to realise that she'd left her watch in the bathroom.

"What time is it, Jane?"

"7:30."

"Damn- already! I've got a meeting in an hour, and there're some papers I've to prepare. -Bye, Janie. I'll call you!"

"Bye, Liz! Take care!"

Several times throughout the day, whenever his busy schedule would allow it, William tried to call Elizabeth. Her mobile was turned off, however, and he only reached her voice mail. Though he always left a message, she never called back. Slightly irritated, he finally dialled the number of her office and was not a little astouned, when a young woman answered, introducing herself as 'Miss Bennet's sectretary'. For a few moments he was at a loss for an approriate reply and it suddenly occurred to him that he'd never asked Elizabeth for details about her job in her father's company. After recovering from his initial surprise, he left the request to be called back as soon as possible.

By the time she finally returned his call- it was already far into the afternoon- William was seething. But the second he heard her voice, he forgot his pent-up annoyance and instantly felt relieved and at peace. His happiness was of short duration, however, when he learned that she was on her way to yet another appointment, 'with an old friend'. As she was evidently in a hurry, he assured her that he didn't want to hold her up, and after confirming their lunch-date for the next day, they ended the call.

After hanging up, William sat back in his chair, furiously slamming his fist into the soft leather of the armrest. Hell, he'd wanted to hold her up- he'd wanted to ask her about her old friend, and he already regretted that he hadn't.

Just as he was on the verge of fully immersing himself into his jealousy, Richard stormed into his office, followed by a visibly annoyed Emily. Even as she drew breath to reprimand the intrusive visitor, she caught William's eye- he gave her the look. At that she clamped her mouth shut and- without a word- turned on her heels and left the room, carefully closing the door behind her. Richard slumped into the chair opposite to his cousin and glared at him.

"You didn't tell her yet, did you?" he asked in a low voice.

Loath to vindicate himself, William briefly pondered to feign ignorance, but eventually decided against it. However, he was not in the mood to listen to Richard's rebukes, so he opted for a gentle, yet unmistakeable warning, his tone matching his cousin's. "Leave it be, Rick. It's none of your business."

"I beg to differ," Richard replied, completely unperturbed by William's threat. "As I see it, you made it my business, when you confided in me at Pemberley- you remember our little chat, don't you?" he asked, while a sly smile curved the corners of this mouth.

"Well, part of it, anyway," William admitted quietly and blushed as he recalled his embarrassing behaviour. "I told you what happened between Elizabeth and me- right?"

"Right," Richard nodded. "But that's not all. You've told me much more- if not explicitly." When he saw distress settling on his cousin's face, he raised his hand in a comforting gesture. "Don't worry, Will, you neither said, nor did anything offensive. Let's just say, you...insinuated that you were head over heels in love with her."

"I still am, more than ever, in fact..." William confessed.

Richard sat up straight, pointing a finger at his cousin. "See, that's exactly what I thought, while I watched your act at Netherfield- I knew all along it was for real, at least on your part. I couldn't tell for sure about Elizabeth's feelings, though. Not until I found you in her bed, that is. And that was when I finally hit on it."

William raised his eyebrows in question, eliciting a snort from Richard.

"Now come on, Will, we both know that you wouldn't have been there if you'd told her!"

Unable to sit still any longer, William rose from his chair and walked over to the window, turning his back to his cousin. He didn't need a reminder of what he'd done; he'd accepted his failure and was determined to make amends. Yet, somehow he knew that there was no way to escape this unpleasant discussion.

As he watched him walk away from the desk and strike his typical pose of defence, Richard found his assumption confirmed- William was indeed in serious trouble, and unwilling to talk about it. And even though he was convinced that his cousin had already reproached himself more than enough, he was not ready to relent. It was time to coax him out of his shell- he needed to trust in his family and friends again.

"Why did you conceal it from her, Will?" he asked as carefully as he could.

At first, William just took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, making no reply. But after a few seconds had elapsed in silence, he exhaled and his body relaxed visibly. He turned around slowly to face Richard, but didn't meet his eye. "I just...couldn't. She wouldn't have given us the slightest chance...and I couldn't take the risk...I acted like a coward..." his voice trailed off.

"Look, Will, I'm not here to berate you. Knowing you as I do, I have no doubt that you will correct your mistake as soon as possible. You got yourself into this, you'll get yourself out...I'm here because I'm worried about you, but your relationship with Elizabeth was just the trigger, not the cause."

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, William leaned back against the window frame and crossed his legs leisurely, feeling relieved that the most sensitive issue was obviously abandoned. But he had no idea where his cousin was going now. "What are you talking about?"

Richard sensed that William had let down his guard, totally unsuspecting what he was aiming at. "I know that you're a very private person, Will- always were, but you never were quite as reticent as you are ever since your breakup with Patricia."

His cousin went rigid, straightened and blinked several times, leaving Richard with no doubt that he'd hit the mark. "So?" William asked, suddenly on the alert.

"I want to know what happened..."

Pullings his hands out of his pockets, William started to fumble with his signet ring, giving away his agitation. He cleared his throat. "That's in the past, Rick. No use to rehash it."

Richard shook his head. "I've to disagree with you again, Will, because it's still afflicting you." As he'd done before, he pointed his finger at his cousin. "And don't even try to deny it."

When he took in Richard's resolute expression, William understood that any attempt to evade the impending conversation, would be futile. Deciding that he might as well meet his fate head-on, he walked back to his chair and sat down again to face his cousin openly. To his surprise, he felt a sense of relief settle upon him, even before he started to speak. "Patricia had an affair."

Except for a slight narrowing of his eyes, Richard showed no reaction. William continued: "I caught them," looking pointedly back at his cousin.

This time Richard's eyes widened and he gave a low whistle, as he mentally pulled together what he'd learned so far. "Am I right in my assumption that her lover was Elizabeth's husband?" William just nodded.

Chapter 11 - Part 2

Elizabeth and Patricia, both on time for their appointment, met in front of the coffee bar. For a moment, they stood there staring at each other in embarrassed silence. Then Elizabeth broke out in a grin, extending her hands to her friend, and the awkwardness faded away.

Patricia pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheeks. "It's so good to see you, Lizzy," she piped, slightly surprised that she really meant what she said.

Elizabeth drew back, looking at her with shiny eyes. "It's good to see you, too. I've missed you." Trying to overcome the sentimental mood, lest it might undermine her resolution, Patricia patted her shoulder and urged her on to the entrance. "Come on, let's get inside and sit down- I'm tired and thirsty."

When they were settled comfortably at a nice table near the window, drinks and snacks ordered, Patricia finally started to carry out her plan. With carefully placed questions, she skilfully led the conversation from the accident and its possible reasons, to the injuries Elizabeth had received and her feelings about Tom's death. In the end, she knew for sure that her friend suffered from amnesia.

First goal accomplished, she went on inquiring about Elizabeth's present circumstances. At that point, their conversation was interrupted by the waiter who brought their orders. When he'd left again, Patricia paved the way for her second goal by asking casually: "And how did you spend your first Christmas without Tom?"

She watched intently, as Elizabeth dropped her gaze and blushed profusely. Patricia had a hard time suppressing a smug grin when she saw Collins' information confirmed so explicitly. Only by fiercly pulling herself together, did she manage to keep a straight face, and wait patiently for Elizabeth's hesitant answer.

"We...we celebrated at Netherfield, with family and...friends. And I- I missed Tom- of course." A blatant lie- and they both knew it. Yet, Patricia didn't respond to it, but changed her angle of attack.

"Say, you haven't, by any chance, met any interesting men lately?"

Elizabeth's head snapped up, surprised about that unexpected question. "No, not at all!" But she recovered quickly, telling herself that there was no way anyone could know about her affair with William, and asked back: "Have you?"

Good girl, Patricia thought, launching her rehearsed answer: "I've met a very interesting man- good-looking, intelligent, rich- but I'm afraid, I'm not yet ready for a new relationship. -Well, no wonder, considering my last experience, don't you think?" While smiling sadly at her friend, she cheered inwardly.

Her brows knitted in confusion, Elizabeth looked back at her. "Your last experience?" she asked warily, suddenly sensing impending disaster.

Patricia's blue eyes widened innocently. "With William..." she offered quietly, her heart pounding like mad.

Elizabeth cleared her throat and swallowed hard, her hands fumbling nervously with the napkin in her lap. It occurred to her that she'd never asked anyone about the details of their breakup, not even William himself. Based on her wrong assessment of his character, she'd always seen it as a given that Patricia had left him. But what if he'd left her? And if so- why?

"You don't remember what happened, do you?" Patricia asked softly, interrupting her thoughts. Elizabeth shook her head, curious to hear more, yet at the same time unaccountably afraid of what was to come. "Tell me, please," she demanded with more self-confidence than she actually felt.

Patricia had a hard time containing her excitement. And once again something like compassion for her friend threatened to rear its head, but she repressed it vigorously and struck out for her final blow. Taking a deep breath, as if to brace herself, she said in a deliberately small voice. "He threw me out."

Her avowal had the intended effect. Elizabeth's expression changed from cautious anticipation to stunned disbelief within seconds. "But...but why would he...do that?" she stuttered.

Shrugging helplessly, Patricia went on. "He'd found someone else...someone more entertaining, I guess- so he dumped me."

Feeling slightly dizzy, her palms damp, Elizabeth could hardly bring herself to ask the next question: "He cheated on you?" She choked it out, silently praying for a negative answer.

"Oh yes, he did, more than once," Patricia stated, gathering momentum with every syllable she uttered, and finally setting aside any precaution, she plunged forward. "But of course he turned it all around, so in the end I was the one to blame."

Elizabeth's face was pale, her voice a strained whisper. "How did he do it?"

Patricia gazed at her in mock concern. "Are you sure you want to hear it?" She reached across the table to stroke her friend's upper arm. "Maybe it will be too much for you..."

But Elizabeth lifted her chin and squared her shoulders, determined not to show how deeply she was really affected. "Why should it be too much for me? After all, it's none of my business, is it? I hardly know William," she said with as much conviction as she could muster, but inwardly she winced at her second blatant lie in less than twenty minutes.

Patricia nodded slightly and licked her lips, preparing to tell her tale- again.

Elizabeth drove home in a daze. Fortunately she knew her way by heart, or else she would have landed in the ditch more than once.

After listening to Patricia's story, she'd excused herself rather hastily, pleading a headache and laying the blame on her work-overload. Not bothering whether her friend believed her or not, she took her leave and fled from the coffee bar, in dire need of solitude.

Finally she drove up in front of Longbourn House and turned off the ignition. Closing her eyes, she bent forward and pressed her forehead against the cool steering wheel. Slowly the shock wore off, taking with it the blessed numbness and leaving her exposed to raw emotions. They formed a knot in the pit of her stomach, their intensity tearing a sob from her throat, a torrent of tears following in its wake.

Only when she began to shiver from the chill that had found its way into her car, did she raise her head again, oblivious to the time that had passed. Her tears had long since abated and left her weak and tired. With stinging eyes she stared out of the windscreen at the dark house in front of her, which all of a sudden seemed to be so far away. She seriously considered staying where she was and just go to sleep, regardless of the cold. However, the stupidity of that thought brought her back to her senses rather quickly, anger about herself filling her with new energy. Cursing silently, she jumped out of her car and made her way to the house, glad that her father wasn't at home that evening. She didn't feel up to talking to anyone right now.

A little while later, clad in her pyjamas and a warm robe, she was sitting on the sofa in the living room with her legs tucked underneath her, a soft blanket spread across her lap. Her fingers were curled around a steaming mug of tea, but she didn't notice the heat that almost burned her skin, since she was too busy pacifying her rampant thoughts. They were swirling around in her head in hopeless disarray, yet the most painful stood out against the others: The man she'd fallen for was a notorious cheater, and a liar- a sham package.

But could it really be true? It seemed almost impossible that the man her friend had described, and the man she'd come to love were one and the same. Yet, other than her feelings, she had no reason not to believe it. Why should Patricia make up such a horrible slander- why should she lie? Her distress had been palpable when she'd gone through the whole story again, she'd even shed a few tears. Moreover, they were friends, they'd been family once, whereas William had been a stranger to her- until Netherfield.

Unbidden, Jane's warnings of Patricia echoed through her head, and made her hesitate in her musings. She tried to compare the image her sister had drawn with the woman she knew- she found no analogy. Furrowing her brow in discontent, she pushed aside her doubts, feeling more helpless than ever- nothing made sense anymore. When she raised her hand to rub it across her aching forhead, she realised that she was still holding on to her already cold mug. With a disgusted expression she put it down on the table and drew the blanket up to her chin, leaning back against the sofa.

Sick of all the different accounts and impressions she constantly received, she'd never wished so fervently to be able to remember. And for the first time ever, she suddenly felt as if getting back her memory would be of prime importance. Following an inexplicable urge, she shut her eyes tightly, willed her breath to slow down and concentrated deeply on her own heartbeat. Time seemed to stand still as she sat there, surrounded by pitch black darkness, totally withdrawn into herself.

Without warning and literally out of nowhere a succession of pin sharp pictures flashed through her mind at a breathtaking speed. Shocked to the core, her eyes wide as saucers, she gasped and flung herself from the sofa. Staring back at it in horror, she slowly rubbed her temples in an effort to clear her senses. When she'd regained a reasonable amount of control, she took some deep breath to steady her hammering heart. Memories- these must have been memories! She'd somehow managed to lure them out of the black whole they'd been lost in- she'd done it!

With a hand pressed to her chest, she paced up and down slowly and tried to recall one picture after the other. It was easier than she'd assumed, since they seemed to be burnt into her brain. She'd seen Tom, and he'd been clearly agitated- a rare occasion; she'd seen Patricia, crying desperately; then she'd seen her in Tom's arms, held closely to him- an image that disturbed beyond reason; and she'd seen William, angry and shouting- looking exactly like-

The sound of a car driving up in front of the house interrupted her thoughts. Her father was not supposed to come home tonight- he never did when he went out with Leah. Slightly irritated, she walked over to the window to peer through the curtains. Immediately recognising the car that stood now right beside hers, she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly- William.

What now? she asked herself. Was she ready to talk to him? Could she handle it, and stay calm? It didn't seem to be the best of times, given that this frightening image of him was so vivid in her mind. On the other hand, she knew that he had a right to defend himself, that she had to hear him out. While she was still debating with herself, the sound of the door bell floated through the house. She hesitated for a moment, than made her way to the hall, reminding herself to keep her temper in check.

~ * ~

It seemed like an eternity before she finally opened the door. William was so happy to see her that he took her in his arms right there on the threshold, oblivious to her dishevelled appearance. "I'm so glad I found you," he murmured into her hair. "I've missed you so much."

Only when she remained silent, did he realise that she didn't return his embrace. Her body was rigid, with her arms hanging by her sides. Slightly baffled he pulled back to look into her face- it was pale, and as blank as a doll's. All his misgivings rushed to the surface, drawing him into a relentless grip. With a tight knot in his stomach, he stepped back, his hands curled around her upper arms.

"What's the matter, love?" he asked, struggling hard to keep his voice from quivering.

With her gaze fixed to his chest, she stepped back as well; whether to shake off his hands, or merely to make room for him to enter, he couldn't decipher.

"You'd better come in," she said, her tone flat.

Full of trepidation he followed her to the living room, where she sat down on the sofa and asked him to do the same, but instead of offering the place beside her, she pointed to a chair across from her. He chose to ignore her snubbing, and sitting down by her side, took her hand into his. It felt cold and liveless.

"What's going on, Elizabeth? Why don't you look at me?"

She withdrew from his grip and stood up to face him for the first time this evening. This was so much harder than she'd thought. William almost recoiled from the hurt he found in her eyes. "You lied to me," she remarked, her voice shaky, yet determined.

Drawing a deep breath to steady himself, William dropped his head, then raised it again to return her gaze. "I did- though it was more of a concealment than a lie."

"That's hairsplitting- you didn't tell me the truth, no matter what you call it," she retorted sharply, clearly showing the anger that had built inside her with every word he'd said.

Unable to keep calm a second longer, he jumped up and took a step towards her. "Elizabeth, please, don't you see that I didn't have another choice? I would have lost you before-"

"So now you've lost me afterwards," she blurted out, completely ignoring her former resolution to hear him out. "Does this really make a difference?" she asked quietly.

But there was no answer. William had been stunned into silence by her words, struggling hard to absorb their meaning. As it slowly dawned on him, a lump formed in his throat and kept him from uttering a single word.

Misconstruing his taciturnity, Elizabeth began to pace the room, continuing her train of thoughts. "Of course it makes a difference to you- you wouldn't miss the opportunity to add another notch to your bedpost, would you? I wonder how many there are already!"

Her snappish remark jerked him out of his numbness, rapidly replacing pain with anger. With narrowed eyes, he asked in a dangerously low voice: "What are you talking about?"

She stopped in her tracks to face him again, her sparkling eyes shooting daggers at him. "You're a womaniser, William- a liar and a cheater. -You abused me."

Anger turned to raging fury upon hearing her accusation, and he moved closer to her. "How dare you...?" The retort got stuck in his throat, because as he loomed above her, her alluring scent suddenly filled his nostrils and sent an unexpected surge of desire coursing through his body. He stared at her in bewilderment, only to find the same longing mirrored in her eyes. She blushed deeply and averted her gaze, while he curled his hands into fists to prevent them from clutching her to him. Inhaling deeply to contain his untimely arousal, he asked in a throaty voice: "Tell me, Lizzy, did you feel abused?"

She squirmed uncomfortably at his gentle address, and her anger dissolved to leave her limp and exhausted. The sudden realisation that she felt as if they'd just made love, rendered her speechless.

William brought her back to reality, as he repeated his question insistently: "Did you, Lizzy?" "No," she whispered, compelled by her sense of honesty.

Tentatively he reached out and hooked a finger under her chin to lift her face up. At first she resisted, but then gave in to the soft pressure he exerted. Their gazes met and locked, while his thumb lightly caressed her soft skin. She'd craved his touch, and almost took the bait, leaning into his hand slightly. Yet, she knew that now was not the time to give into her desire and drew back from him, albeit reluctantly. Bereft of the contact, his hand hung in midair for a moment, before he curled it into a fist and lowered it slowly.

Taking another step back to escape his disturbing proximity, she folded her arms across her chest in a definite gesture of defence. She lifted her chin and looked at him intently. "I admit that I didn't feel abused," she pointed out, her voice thick with emotions. "I felt...loved and cherished- and that makes it even worse. You took advantage of me- not physically, but mentally- because you knew exactly that I couldn't remember what you'd done."

"Do you...remember now?" he asked, not less affected than she.

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, but I've been enlightened on who you really are- and what you did."

Without having to think twice, William immediately knew what was to come. There was only one person who could have informed her, a person he'd fervently hoped he never would have to deal with again.

Several different emotions crossed his face, while Elizabeth watched him closely, waiting for him to reply. But when he remained silent, she went on, determination edged into her features. "You interfered with my life and tainted my marriage. You accused my husband and his cousin- of all people- of cheating on me, while in truth, you cheated on her- repeatedly! And you turned it all around to preserve your reputation, just in case word about the reason for your breakup should spread- despite your best efforts to conceal it!"

"Patricia," William hissed through clenched teeth, unable to hold back anymore, lest he burst with the fury that had built inside of him once again. "Patricia told you!"

"That's irrelevant!" Elizabeth shot back sharply. "Suffice it to say that I'm no longer ingnorant to your machinations!"

"My machinations?" he repeated incredulously. "She's the one who deceived you- she's the liar!"

She cocked an eyebrow, her voice dripping with sarcasm, as she asked calmly: "Is she now? And you are the role model of honesty and frankness, right?" She snorted derisively. "Somehow I find that hard to believe!"

William looked back at her, took in her posture, the coldness in her eyes and knew all at once that he was fighting a losing battle. Desperation spread through him, pushing him not to give up yet- too much was at stake. Mechanically his fingers found his signet ring and started to twist it.

"There's no denying that I lied, that I concealed the truth from you- and words can't express how much I've come to regret it...but I felt that I didn't have another choice lest you turn away from me at once and...I just couldn't let that happen. I was aware that I might ruin everything with my dishonesty, but I was hoping that you knew me...loved me...well enough to believe me- and forgive me..." his voice had faded into a whisper and finally trailed off completely. There was no way he could go on without starting to cry.

Also on the verge of tears, Elizabeth felt for him and with him, as she watched him crumble right before her eyes. The sudden urge to take him into her arms was almost too strong to withstand. Only by pressing her fingernails into her tingling palms until it hurt, did she manage to hold back. If nothing else, at least he deserved an answer- even if it wouldn't provide him with the comfort he obviously needed. "How can I know you after so short a time? We were virtually strangers before...Netherfield," suddenly her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Or so you've told me..." "And it's true," William hurried to reassure her, his arms coming up as if to embrace her. "Please, Lizzy, you must believe me!" She gave no answer, but her horrified glance at his raised hands stopped him more effectively than anything she could have said. Retreating carefully, he swallowed hard and drew a shuddering breath. "I swear by God that I lied only once...everything else I've ever told you is nothing but the truth."

"Once is enough, William," she stated in a small, quiet voice. "I've learnt so much today...and now I'm totally confused- I really don't know what to think, or who do believe. I...you...mean a lot to me." Hope flickered in his eyes, and although she was loath to destroy it, she knew she would have to. "But can I trust you? Again- I don't know. I need time, William, time to...think, to sort out my thoughts and feelings."

As if in slow motion he reached for her hand, relaxing a little bit when she didn't snatch it away. Slowly he caressed her palm, then leaned forward and kissed it firmly; they both shivered, as sexual tension sprang to life immediately. For a few precious seconds reality was abolished and they were focused on nothing but each other, wordlessly exchanging memories of what they'd shared during those blissful days at Netherfield.

Finally William broke the spell. "Will it ever happen again?" he asked in a hoarse voice, not even bothering to specify his question.

Ever so slowly, Elizabeth slipped her hand out of his and shrugged helplessly. "Don't ask me... not now..."

"Just tell me, you'll forgive me- eventually...please?" he pleaded quietly.

Yielding to despair, she hung her head. "I can't promise anything...don't you understand?"

Silence ensued until she realised that he waited for her to look up again. When she did, their eyes met, shining with unshed tears, for one last intensive gaze, to take in features that would be committed to memory forever.

"Don't you ever forget how much I love you..." he whispered before he turned on his heels and all but fled from the house.

Chapter 12 - Part 1

As the door closed behind William with a loud thud, Elizabeth winced at the finality of the sound. Her heart and soul cried out his name, but it was no more than a whisper that passed through her lips: "William..."

If she'd followed her basic instincts, she would have run after him and thrown herself into his arms- yet, she stood rooted to the spot, held firmly in place by a scrap of sanity that insistently rang alarm bells in the back of her head.

Torn between emotions and reason, she let out a wail of anguish and fell to her knees, tightly hugging herself against the hollow feeling of loss, while tears of confusion streamed down her face.

Just a few minutes later Jane entered the hall of Longbourn House, carefully balancing a pile of books in one hand, and holding it in place with her chin pressed down on the one on top. After tucking her keys into the pocket of her trousers, she slowly deposited her load on the sideboard and shrugged out of her coat.

"Papa!" she called on her way to the living room. "It's Janie! You forgot to turn off the answering machine, so I- "

The words stuck in her throat at the sight she beheld. Curled up into a ball, Elizabeth was lying on the floor, shaking violently with desperate sobs. Driven by fear, Jane was on her knees by her sister's side in only seconds. Calling out her name, she touched her with gentle hands, stroking back the hair from her tear stained face; her eyes quickly scanned Elizabeth's body, trying to find the source for her obvious pain, while she continued speaking to her urgently. "Lizzy, what's the matter? -Are you hurt? -Talk to me, Lizzy- please."

But there was neither an answer to her questions, nor could she detect any outward indication of injury. Uncertainty about her sister's condition raised Jane's fear even more, forcing her to speak up and nudge her shoulder insistantly. "Lizzy, come on now! You're frightening me! Please, tell me what's wrong!"

Finally Elizabeth emerged from her stupor and turned her head to the intruding voice. Apparently disoriented, she blinked several times, then whispered "Jane", and without any warning, pushed herself up, threw her arms around her sister's neck and started crying anew.

Somewhat relieved to find her obviously unharmed, yet still worried, Jane rocked her gently and patted her back, murmuring comforting words of reassurance. That way they sat for a while until Elizabeth's sobs abated to soft sighs and occasional hiccups, and Jane's curiosity was built up almost unbearably.

Unable to wait a minute longer, Jane pulled back and again stroked back her sister's now damp hair from her face, while she looked enquiringly into her sad, puffy eyes. "Tell me what's going on here, Lizzy. -Where's Papa? -Are you in pain?"

Shaking her head, Elizabeth wiped her wet cheeks and took a deep breath. "P- Papa's out with Leah. W- William was here. W- We had a fight," she managed to answer in an unsteady voice. Jane's eyes widened in surprise. "A fight with William?" she asked incredulously.

Elizabeth just nodded slowly, feeling a new onslaught of tears. Jane sensed it, too and resolutely got to her feet, pulling her sister up with her and leading her to the sofa. "Sit down, Lizzy."

Too tired to resist, Elizabeth did as she was told and immediately slumped against the backrest. Jane took a seat by her side and clasped her sister's cold hand tightly. "Now- tell me what has happened."

Driving back to London through the darkness, as fast as his tear-blurred vision allowed, William was caught up in a mixture of desperation and fury so intense that he could hardly breathe. His heart ached with every single beat at the thought of his beloved Elizabeth, while in his head he imagined all the cruel ways to take revenge on Patricia, should he ever get hold of her.

It was quite obvious that she'd somehow managed to sneak her way back into his life and make his worst nightmare come true- but he was at a complete loss as to how she'd done it. How had she learnt about his relationship with Elizabeth? Up to now nobody knew, except for those they'd spent Christmas together with. Though the notion that one of them had been in contact with his ex-fiancée all the time seemed highly improbable, he had to subject one after the other to a brief contemplation- and finally ended up with no answer.

Discontented with the outcome of his ventilations, he started all over again, when realisation hit him- Caroline! He'd immediately banned her from his thoughts, once she'd been out of sight, so he'd almost forgotten about her flying visit to Netherfield. She had to be the one who'd informed Patricia! He remembered clearly how she'd always kissed up to his fiancée- undoubtedly to be closer to him- and how Patricia had teased him about Caroline's officiousness and how she'd laughed about her. Nevertheless they'd had lunch and tea together, and occasionally had even gone shopping- it had always been a capital joke for Patricia.

Yes, if anyone was likely to entertain a friendship with her it would haveto be Caroline; he was convinced to be correct, yet he wanted confirmation. He fumbled out his mobile and punched in Charles' number. His friend answered immediately. "Will- hi! How-"

"Charles, I need you to do me a favour," William interrupted him rather rudely. "Can you find out for me if Caroline is in contact with Patricia?"

There was stunned silence on the other end of the line.

"Charles? Can you hear me? Are you there?"

"Yes, yes, I am here- I was just wondering...I can't imagine- well...truth be told, I can, but-"

Unbeknown to his friend, this wasn't a good time to tax William's patience. "Charles, for heaven's sake- stop babbling! Could you just ask her?"

"What's the matter with you, Will? What's wrong?" Charles asked, all of a sudden very worried. William sighed deeply. "Everything's wrong, everything..." his voice sounded sad and tired. "I'll explain, I promise- just not now. Please, call Caroline- will you?"

"Hmm, it may not be the best of times for me to talk to her- after I threw her out of Netherfield... But I'll try to catch Lousia, maybe she knows..."

"Thanks, Charles. I'll wait for you to call me back."

"Alright- and William, don't forget your promise."

"I won't. Thanks."

They both rang off.

Having done all he could at the moment to get the confirmation he needed, William felt his anger slowly abate. Fiercely he tried to hold on to it, because he knew full well what would follow in its wake. His mental strength, however, was already worn down, leaving him unable to fend off the grief and desperation that assailed him. They swept over him like a tidal wave, tore at his heart and soul and brought fresh tears to his eyes.

Despite the flicker of hope that had marked the end of his fight with Elizabeth, he couldn't allow himself to believe in her forgiveness, not in the near future anyway- she'd said so herself. But how was he supposed to be without her after he'd learnt how it felt to be with her? He'd dreamt about having her by his side constantly, about spending the rest of his life with her. Now all his hopes had been destroyed by an act of wilful deception. Patricia had sought revenge, and she'd found it; she couldn't have thought of a better way to retaliate. The sound of his ringing mobile interrupted his reverie, jerking his back from the dark edge of desperation. He grabbed for it eagerly.

"Charles?"

"Hi, Will, I-"

"What did you find out?" Too excited to drive on, William pulled his car to the side of the road and turned off the ingnition.

"Well...you guessed right. Patricia did call Caroline, and Caroline was totally beside herself with joy to hear again from her dear friend after such a long time."

William quickly expelled the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "After such a long time?" he repeated in confusion.

"Yes, according to Louisa there hasn't been any contact between them for months. Otherwise Caroline would have told her- you know how she always-"

"Sucked up to Patricia," William impatiently concluded his friend's statement. "Yes, I know. -And Louisa's sure, isn't she?"

"Fairly. -What's this all about, Will?" Charles' voice sounded rather irritated. "Why does it matter to you if there's any connection between the two of them?"

His eyes closed, William rubbed his forehead with his free hand. "I...I can't explain right now, not yet anyway. I have to...think about it first. Tomorrow, Charles...alright? I'll tell you tomorrow."

He knew he was putting his friend's endurance to the test, but nevertheless hoped fervently that Charles would relent. "I won't renege. I'll keep my promise."

Finally William heard his friend take a deep breath and exhale slowly. "Alright..."

"Thank you, Charles...There's one more thing, though..."

"What else?"

"Could you, please, ask Jane to call Elizabeth? She's at home- alone."

William's plea was met by a long silence. Eventually Charles spoke up. "I don't have the slightest idea what this is all about. Seems you'll have an awful lot of explaining to do, you know that?"

"Of course I know...but Charles, please..."

"Well, as a matter of fact, Jane is at Longbourn right now."

A sigh of relief escaped William. "Good, that's good," he murmured, "she shouldn't be alone right now."

"Listen Will, it's better we cut this short. One more of those cryptical comments of yours, and I'm really going to lose my patience. -I'll hear from you tomorrow then?"

"You will, Charles. -And thanks again. Good night."

"Good night, Will."

Though the line went dead, William still held his mobile in place. It took him a few moments to realise that his friend had hung up, and he did the same. Lost in thought, he restarted his car and manoeuvred it back onto the road to continue his way to London.

After Elizabeth had recounted accurately everything that had occurred that day, the sisters sat in silence for a few minutes, both of them absorbed in thought.

In the end, Jane inhaled audibly and breathed out on a long sigh, unerringly getting to the crux of the whole affair with one pointed remark. "So you chose to believe in Patricia rather than in William."

Groaning in frustration, Elizabeth buried her face in her hands. "No, not really...oh, I don't know," she stated, her voice muffled by her palms. "I don't know what to think anymore..."

She massaged her temples with her fingertips while Jane squeezed her shoulder and waited in patient silence for her to go on. At long last, striving for composure, Elizabeth took a deep breath and sat up straight, placing her hands in her lap. "Patricia's a friend- she's even been family once and William's the man I love- with all my heart. And I trust- trusted- them both. But now there are two different versions of the same event- an event I don't remember. She accuses him and he accuses her- but who am I to believe? In all the time I knew Paticia, I never had reason to mistrust her. And I can't imagine why she would tell me a lie about a man she doesn't even know I'm involved with. She has no idea whatsoever that we're an item...On the other hand, it's a fact, that William lied to me- he concealed the past from me, he admitted as much. Why would he do that if not to protect himself? And why should he need to protect himself if he hasn't done anything wrong...?"

She watched Jane anxiously, whose brow was furrowed in deep contemplation. "Do I make any sense, Janie?"

Jane nodded slowly. "Of course you do, Lizzy. But are you really- beyond any doubt- sure that you can trust Patricia?"

"I know you dislike her, but- "

Waving her hands impatiently, Jane interrupted her sister. "It's not that alone..." She stood up, too agitated to remain still. "Don't you think it's rather strange that she reappears out of nowhere just when you and William are getting closer? Isn't that almost too much of a coincidence?" "But how can she possibly know about us? Nobody outside of our families does!"

Jane frowned in discontent. "That's true...yet..." she hesitated, not ready to admit that her sister could be right. Chewing her lower lip, she searched for a plausible explanation while Elizabeth watched her with raised eyebrows. All of a sudden Jane's face brightened and her hand shot out to point her index finger at her sister. "Caroline!" Slightly taken aback, Elizabeth leaned back to escape Jane's stabbing finger. "You're clutching at straws, Janie," she admonished quietly with a small shake of her head.

Shrugging her shoulders in defeat, Jane slumped back onto the sofa. "True...because I refuse to believe that William is capable of such dishonourable behaviour. He's too honest-"

"He lied to me," Elizabeth interjected calmly.

"I know he did- but for a very good reason, don't you think?" Jane shot back.

"He didn't want to lose me," her voice began to quiver. "I understand that, but now I feel..." Fresh tears sprang to her eyes. "I feel so stupid...angry...disappointed." They started to flow freely down her cheeks. "I've come to love him so much, but how am I ever to trust him again? How am I ever to know what is true and what isn't?"

Jane turned to her and took her into her arms again, tenderly stroking her hair. "Oh, Lizzy, don't. It's obvious that William loves you too, and I'm sure he's as desperate as you are for having lied to you. You need some time to think, is all. Everything will be alright, you'll see."

Elizabeth pressed her damp face into Jane's sweater. "Oh Janie, that's all I wish for! But I'm so afraid...What if it turns out to be an illusion- like my life with Tom?"

When the meaning of her words struck them, they both froze and held their breath. Seconds ticked by in absolute torpor until the silence was broken by a whisper.

"Jane?"

"Uhu?"

"What did I just say?"

"You said..." she gulped audibly. "You said, your life with Tom was an illusion..."

Slowly Elizabeth lifted her head and pressed one hand over her mouth. Eyes wide in shocked surprise, she stared at Jane whose expression matched hers.

"Lizzy...where did that come from?"

Elizabeth shook her head and lifted her shoulders for a helpless little shrug, indicating that she didn't have the faintest idea.

"Do you remember anything?" Jane asked breathlessly, grabbing at her sister's free hand.

Again Elizabeth shook her head and by then, trusting her mind and voice enough to answer the question coherently, took her hand down. "No...no, not really. I only managed to conjure up a few pictures, just before William arrived."

Jane's tension was almost palpable. "What kind of pictures?"

"Tom...Patricia...William...in various moods and situations."

"Oh, Lizzy, that can only mean that your memory's coming back. And once you remember, you'll know what really happened- and everything will be alright."

Elizabeth nodded, smiling slightly for the first time that evening, carried along by her sister's infectious optimism. "I hope so, Janie, with all my heart."

"Will you tell me what you saw?"

With some of the stress gone, the sisters relaxed on the sofa, and talked well past midnight.

After Jane had gone home to Netherfield, Elizabeth went to bed and immediately fell into an exhausted, undisturbed sleep blissfully oblivious to the fact that it was to be her last peaceful night in a long time to come.

Chapter 12 - Part 2

William pulled his car to a sudden stop and stared out through the windscreen at the dark street. To his surprise he found himself right in front of his cousin's house. He had no idea how this had come to pass since he'd planned on driving home directly. Obviously he'd been too engrossed in thought to pay attention to his way. Shaking his head in frustration, he wanted to turn back when he remembered how good it had felt to talk to someone about Elizabeth- to talk to Richard about her. His subconscious mind must have led him to where he could find at least some relief. After a last moment's consideration, he decided to confide in his cousin once again; while it may not ease the pain he felt, it may help to cope with the anger that had been building inside of him to a dangerous degree during the past hour.

Richard opened the door even before William had lifted his hand to ring the bell. "Why do I have the feeling that something is terribly wrong?" he asked without preamble as he stepped aside to admit his visitor. William walked inside and went straight to the living room, relying upon Richard to follow him, which he did.

For a few minutes not a word was spoken, until they sat facing each other, both with a glass of brandy in hand, and having taken a sip in unison.

"What's going on?" Richard finally asked, watching his cousin closely.

William inhaled deeply to calm himself, yet his voice was harsh with emotions. "Elizabeth knows everything- Patricia told her."

Richard's eyes widened in surprise. "Patricia...?"

With a nod and another heavy sigh, William began to recount the events of the evening, closing with what Charles had told him not half an hour ago.

Staring into his glass, Richard took in every word his cousin said, until in the end he looked up with his brows drawn into a deep V. "Excellent timing, don't you think?"

"Eerie applies to it much better," William remarked bitterly before taking another sip of his drink. "There's no way she could have known about Elizabeth and me, yet she called Caroline just at the right time- I'd call that eerie."

Richard snorted. "Now, come on, Will- where's your common sense? Somebody must have told her. There's a lot of attributes you may ascribe to Patricia- and none too flattering, mind you- but psychic surely isn't among them! No- there's a whistle-blower hidden somewhere in the bushes, I'm sure."

"Don't you think I figured that out myself? -I'm not totally out of my right mind!" William retorted sharply and- too agitated to remain seated- got up from his chair, and began to pace the room with long, even strides. "She must have known about us before calling Caroline! But there just isn't anyone likely to have told her. Think of those we were together with and tell me who it was!" he challenged, stopping in front of his cousin and staring down at him.

Despite the obvious threat in William's stance, Richard didn't even flinch, but looked back at him steadily. He knew his cousin's aggression wasn't directed against him, yet he decided to tread lightly now, assuming that William might not like the idea he was going to give voice to. "What about Elizabeth herself? Ever thought about that?"

Instead of blowing up, William thrust out a sound between sigh and laughter and turned on his heels. He retreated to his chair and slumped back down. "Actually I did. -But I abandoned the idea rather quickly. I can't imagine Elizabeth telling Patricia that she's shagging her ex-fiancé. I mean- who would be so screwy, after all?"

Richard could just nod, inwardly struggling to contain his surprise at William's use of language- slang normally wasn't part of his vocabulary. He took it as a sign that his cousin was involved much deeper than he would have presumed.

"This is real love, isn't it?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"It doesn't get more real, I suppose," came the equally quiet response.

"So what are you going to do about it?"

William shrugged helplessly. "What can I do? I messed it up, Rick- badly. You were right in the first place- I should have told her right away. Now...after having been with her..." his suddenly moist eyes dropped to the carpet as he took a deep breath to steady his voice. "I can't stand the thought never to be with her again," he finished quickly before the lump that formed in this throat could rob him of speech.

Looking at the picture of misery his cousin presented- bowed head, hunched shoulders, a lonely tear that dropped down on his tightly clasped hands- Richard felt his heart go out to him. Deeply ashamed of himself, he had to admit that he hadn't taken William seriously enough, he'd gravely underestimated the depth of his feelings for Elizabeth. To his surprise the protective instinct for his younger cousin that had been such an essential part of his childhood and youth, suddenly roared to life again. There was only so much a man could bear and William certainly had had his share of grief and sorrow in the course of the past months- doubtlessly enough to last him a lifetime. Richard leaned forward and carefully placed his hand on William's arm, making him glance up at him. Deliberately ignoring his cousin's pitiable state, he attempted to look and sound as cheerful as he could. "Tell you what, Will- we'll call it a day for now. Stay the night and then we're going to deal with the real serious stuff tomorrow, when we're both well rested and at our best. What d'you say?"

William hesitated, obviously pondering his options. Richard's suggestion was very tempting and the thought of an empty apartment not too appealing. In the end he gave a slight nod and even managed a wry smile.

"There, that's my boy!" Richard exclaimed and patted his shoulder. Then he stood up, stretched and yawned openly. "You know I'm quite tired myself."

"I got your hint, Rick," William remarked dryly as he rose from his chair and walked to the door. Without turning around, he stopped on the threshold. "Thanks, Rick," he said quietly and went out of the room.

Even though he knew that William wouldn't hear him, Richard replied. "Anytime, Will- anytime."

~ * ~

When Richard woke up the next morning, William was gone. He'd left a note saying that he was on his way to Netherfield to discuss important business with Jane and Charles and closed with a promise to call later in the day. Knowing that an argument with William was fruitless when he'd made up his mind, Richard just shrugged, tore the note to tiny pieces and threw them into the wastebasket. He'd have to wait.

Instead of going directly to Netherfield, William stopped at Longbourn. Momentarily unsure how to proceed, he remained seated in his car, his look going back and forth between the house and the letter that lay on the passenger seat. Unable to put his reeling mind at rest, he'd spent the better part of last night writing down the truth about his dealings with Patricia and Tom, and his thoughts and feelings for Elizabeth to read- and hopefully to understand.

While he still considered whether to just drop the letter into her mailbox or to hand it over to her personally, the front door opened and Elizabeth stepped outside. When she lifted her gaze and saw William's car, she hesitated just a second then wirled around to go back inside. Before she could disappear again, however, William left his seat and called out her name, the sound of his voice rooting her to the spot. She could hear him coming up the gravel walk and stop just a few inches behind her.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said softly. Briefly she closed her eyes as her heart skipped a beat and her stomach lurched. Vigorously fighting her physical reaction to his presence, she turned around slowly and gazed at him with as much poise as she could muster. When he looked back at her, she realised at once that he was equally stricken, his struggle for control clearly matching her own.

"Good morning, William," she acknowledged, her voice brittle.

"I..." he started and dropped his eyes. "Please," he began again, looking back up, "will you read this letter?" At that, he thrust out his hand and all but pushed a thick envelope under her nose. Too surprised to think of anything else to do, she took it and gazed at it in wonder. Before she could gather her wits to come up with an appropriate comment, she heard him mumble "Thank you" and when she lifted her eyes, saw him retreat quickly, climb into his car and drive away. Dumbfounded she stood there for a few moments, staring after him, weighing the letter in her hand. Finally she shook her head slightly to regain her senses and stepped back into the house, ripping the letter open as she went.

After informing her secretary that she would be in the office later than planned, she settled down in the living room and began to read:

Dearest Elizabeth,

while I'm well aware that right now you wouldn't wish to have anything to do with me, I still hope that you will read this letter.

Let me make it clear, though, that I don't mean to impose myself upon you. I will respect the decision you made tonight, but I feel that too many things were left unsaid. It was my fault, I know, because instead of staying calm and rational, I let my feelings get the better of me- I lost control. I will try to make up for that now.

There is no use denying that I lied to you- I concealed the truth from you. For this, I have no excuse other than my own cowardice. When we met at my father's funeral, I fell for you- utterly and completely. I still don't understand how it happened, or why; but then, there are things that fly in the face of logic- for want of a better explanation, people tend to call that destiny. Not that I ever believed in it, but I'm beginning to reconsider my attitude...

That dreadful day, when my father was laid to his rest, I was on the verge of shattering. Things had been going on for months to pull the last of my strength out of me, abrading my self-control until it was practically non-existant. My professional life was the only thing that kept me going while everything in my private life seemed to turn to crap the second I touched it. All in all, I was so lonely and desperate like I'd never been before. You realised that at once, didn't you? -I know you did, because I could feel you reading me like an open book. And when I finally touched you, emotions came rushing back to me that I had long thought lost to me forever- hope and trust, and even desire. I'm not proud to admit it, rather very ashamed in fact, but right there- at my father's gravesite- I wanted you, badly.

Later on, during the funeral repast, when I managed to escape into my study and you happened upon me, I'd just decided that it would be for the best if I stayed away from you. Added to the strain I'd been under that day, I couldn't keep from crying any longer. Having you near me then was more than I could bear- all I knew was that I needed you in my arms; please believe me, that I didn't do it on purpose- I acted purely on instinct. But I'm glad I did it, because it felt like heaven- you felt like heaven, and your instantaneous response to me made it all the sweeter. I still wonder how far we would have gone if Georgie hadn't interrupted us...

The rather unpleasant scene that followed my sister's untimely- or timely?- appearance is by no means something I would wish to dwell upon, but it is necessary nonetheless so you can better relate to my reaction. I felt that I'd opened myself up to you like I'd never done to anyone else, which left me vulnerable and totally defenseless. When you lashed out at me- understandably so, by the way- I was struck to the core. I'm still at a loss where I found the strength to restore my self-control in the face of your rejection, but somehow I succeeded- and struck back. Then when you stood before me with your head bowed, on the verge of tears, I was so torn between holding on to my pride and throwing myself at your feet that I had to flee from your presence. Upon leaving my study I must have looked like a madman, judging from the glance Georgie cast at me when I met her outside. She refrained from commenting on my countenance, however, which was a good thing, since I might have wacked out on the spot.

How I made it through the rest of that day is still beyond my grasp; in any case, I was an easy prey for Jane to literally trap me into coming to Netherfield for Christmas- I wasn't left with the slightest chance to decline her invitation. That time before the holidays- when I knew I was going to see you again- was a constant struggle for me. Emotions against reason, on a daily basis. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't find a way for me to be with you without telling you the truth- at that point I never even considered concealing it from you. So I decided to opt for your friendship. By then I took pride in my seemingly reasonable decision, I really thought I could live with that just fine. Little did I know that I was already way beyond reason where you were concerned.

Although I'd made up my mind to be at my very best, I dreaded our reunion at Netherfield. I was unsure how you would react to seeing me again. Imagine my relief when I realised that you had obviously also come to terms with our last encounter. Not having expected it at all, I was deeply moved by your apology (though I still think it was absolutely not necessary since you have done nothing wrong, I'm the one to blame for what has happened at Pemberley- entirely). However, from the moment we seemed to have cleared the air between us, being with you gave me great comfort. I was happy and totally at ease, and still convinced about my absurd friendship-theory- until Caroline showed up.

In retrospect this might be the only unselfish thing she's ever done in her whole meaningless life, albeit unintenionally. God, I relished your reaction to her arrival; I basked in your sudden regard for me, soaked up the attention you paid me like a parched man having finally found water. But even then I didn't realise what was really happening to me; it just didn't occur to me that all those feelings you caused in me- hope, happiness, peace, desire- should be seen as a whole, as love itself.

That fateful evening, in front of your room, I had no intention to kiss you- it just happened. Put it down to my lack of control when it comes to you, but you were so beautiful, so sweet, so very desirable that I was unable to resist temptation a moment longer. I swear I hadn't planned to go any further, though, I honestly meant to leave it at one kiss and then bid you farewell. If it hadn't been for Caroline's anewed interference, I would never have entered your room. When we were inside, I still tried to fight my longing for you, knowing that I had to tell you the truth about what I'd done in the past. But your ardent response to me, your overwhelming passion, once again were more than I could stand- my brain simply shut down, reducing me to nothing more than a bundle of physical needs and urges.

What happened then was way beyond my wildest dreams. Never in my life have I felt so wholly connected to another person- in body and soul. I experienced emotions that were totally new to me- belonging, rightness, completeness; they made me finally discover that I was in love with you, so violently it took my breath away. And suddenly I realised that I didn't want to be without you ever again, I wanted you with me forever.

Only then did I perceive the trouble I'd gotten myself into. I'd really thought I would be able to tell you the truth after we'd made love- at least I had had any intention to do so. But how could I do that now? I was so afraid of losing you that I abandoned all my principles- I lied, I was dishonest. Though I knew that I would have to tell you eventually, I wanted to put it off as long as possible. I hoped, prayed for time- time for you to get to know me better, to learn to love and trust me, so our bond would be strong enough to survive the blow.

After leaving Netherfield, however, I began to reconsider my decision. Your nightmare and your fit of dizziness (I just know there was more to it than you admitted- and I hope you'll tell me one day) had scared the hell out of me. I knew beyond a doubt that what you'd seen in your dream had been a scrap of your memory and I feared it would return before you trusted me enough to believe my side of the story, since I have no idea whether you were aware of your husband's infidelity before the accident, or still as unsuspecting as you were when I first told you about it.

Anyway, I'm not used to lying, I hardly do. I was taught to be honest and truthful by both my parents and I always hold on to it, because normally telling anything else but the truth makes me feel uncomfortable. So in the end, driven by self-contempt and disgust for having lied to you, I made up my mind to take the risk and tell you everything. I'd planned to do it on our date. But Patricia beat me to it- deceiving you once again. I was so angry when I realised what she'd done- I would have strangled her right away, had I gotten hold of her.

Elizabeth please, I beg you, you must not believe a word she says! She's the liar, the cheater, always has been- along with your late husband. In spite of the pain I'm inflicting upon you with this information, I swear to god that it's true. Eighteen months ago, I caught them, in the middle of the day, in my own bedroom, just as they... well, I firmly refuse to immerse myself in detailed descriptions- suffice it to say that the situation spoke for itself. I don't know for how long I just stood there watching them, numb with shock, rendered immobile and speechless. While I ever so slowly emerged from my stupor, they became aware of my presence.

At which point your husband chose to take his leave rather hastily- I suppose he didn't trust my self-control enough to face up to me. He needn't have worried, though, for my focus was on my unfaithful fiancée rather than on him. To my amazement, she didn't show the slightest sign of remorse about what she'd done, behaving as if everything was perfectly in order, except that she chose not to talk to me for any length of time, but rather ignore me completely. As I watched her getting out of bed, putting on a dressing gown and lighting a cigarette, all in perfect silence, I was encompassed by a weird sense of irreality. In that very moment, I realised that I was more like a spectator and much less like a participant to the whole scene. This keen insight made it possible for me to dissociate myself entirey from what had just occurred, hence enabling me to gauge my emotions thoroughly; I found out that the sharp pain I'd felt at seeing them didn't stem from a broken heart but from hurt pride. A strangely fascinating discovery that told me a lot about my relationship with Patricia, my feelings for her.

However, while I was still mulling over the consequences of my new awareness, she brought me back to reality by wrathfully rounding upon me. Momentarily I was totally taken aback, not in the least prepared for her attack, but I recovered quickly and all too soon a grim fight ensued. Again, I ask for your understanding for not going in too deep in what was said in the course of that very fierce argument; thinking back to it makes me feel sick. Let me just say that she was much more furious than she was entitle to be, given the situation. In her opinion, I was the one to blame for her cheating. She claimed that I'd never paid attention to her the way she'd deserved it, that I'd neglected her most of the time, and that- in the main- I was all but an amiable man, too uptight, too closemouthed, not easy enough, and what not. Even though I shouldn't have cared anymore at that point, her disdainful evaluation of my character hurt a lot, just as had been her intention, I presume. My well-trained self-control, however, enabled me not to let it show.

To cut this long story short, I asked her to move out of my apartment as fast as possible, told her that our engagement was over and the wedding would be cancelled immediately. When I turned on my heels to leave she was boiling with fury. She'd really expected that I'd let her stay, that we would go on with our life as if nothing at all had happened. From her viewpoint- whether genuine or not- it had been my fault that she'd ended up having an affair, so the responsibility was mine as well. Absurd!

After informing my secretary that I wouldn't come back to the office, I went straight to Pemberley. There I spent the rest of the day and most of the following night to ponder my options and sort out my thoughts and feelings. In the end I reached the conclusion to conceal the reason for our breakup- it was an entirely private matter, after all. Just the thought of all the malicious gossip that was sure to befall my family, should the truth become generally known, sickened me- there would be enough to rant about as it was. So I decided to remain silent, even though deep inside I wished for nothing more than to expose Patricia and Tom to the public storm of outrage they both deserved.

To my mind there was only one other person who was entitled to be informed about this galling affair- Tom's wife, you. It didn't even occur to me that you might not believe me when I arrived at your apartment the next day. Of course I was prepared to deal with doubts and skepticism, but I hoped you would have at least an inkling of your husband's infidelity. Alas, no such luck there! Thinking back to our fight still gives me the creeps; rest assured that Patricia's fury has been as nothing compared to yours. You met me head-on, never wavering, never backing down, flinging right into my face the twisted story Patrica and Tom had instilled in you.

You accused me of having betrayed my fiancée, hinted none too subtle that I'd done it more than once; you called into question my honesty and veracity, didn't bother at all to hide your contempt about my alleged duplicity. I was outraged, but no matter what I said to try to convince you, you held on to your opinion, you even laughed about my side of the story.

Let me be frank- I admired your loyalty, but at the same time I was greatly annoyed about your stupidity. Having never had any sympathy for your husband, I couldn't understand how anyone could overlook his false affability, his evident sleekness- to me the man was slippery as an eel. In any case, we fought a fierce battle, heated and stubborn, both unrelenting, until I was finally at a complete loss for words, unable to think of anything more to say to convince you of the truth. You had no such difficulty, however, and before I could recover sufficiently, you'd called me a cheater and a liar, and demanded that I leave your apartment immediately. Within seconds I found myself back on the street, bewildered, confused and furious.

After this day I spent very little time in London, avoiding public appearances and social functions as best I could. Therefore I don't know how matters proceeded between Patricia, Tom and you. I'm only aware of the fact that she stayed at your home for quite a while before moving to her own apartment, and- to my surprise- it seemed that your marriage hadn't suffered any obvious damage. Though I tried to bann the thought from my mind as best I could, it still bothered me that you could be deceived so easily without noticing in the least.

When we met at Jane and Charles' wedding, however, I observed an alarming change in your demeanour. You were tense and nervous- so very unlike you, that I just couldn't refrain from addressing you again. Not having expected your patience to be so razor thin, I was quite taken aback by your aggressive rebuke. 'I don't want to hear another word, William,' you said, your eyes full of contempt. 'You made me suspicious without a cause- you tainted my marriage. If I should have any trouble with my husband, it would be your fault alone. So once and for all, stay out of my life!'

Just as I wanted to reply to your outburst, we were interrupted by Tom who pretended to have been in search of you. I was ready to ignore him, but before I could say a word, you forestalled me. Loud enough for him to hear, you said: 'You're a despicable man, William, I don't want to see you ever again.' Then you let him drag you away, which he did while he gave me a smug grin that escaped you completely. That was the last I saw of you until my father's funeral. And so I'm back where I originally started; a good point maybe, to end this letter. Let me say just one more thing, though: every word I've written is the absolute truth. Unfortunately, I can't produce any witnesses to support my story; I can only appeal to your comprehension of my character, and to what my friends and family may have told you about me- I'm well known for my honesty. The only one time I did lie backfired big time, as we both know; I will regret it for the rest of my life.

Other than that I can only say: I love you, Elizabeth, with all my heart and soul, and always will. You are my other half.

Forever yours, William

Elizabeth stared at the letter in her lap, her overburdened mind jumping back and forth between the only coherent notions she could come up with: What have I done? and Can it be true? It took her a long time to recover from the emotional onslaught William's narration had produced. Then, ever so slowly her common sense returned, enabling her to break through the vicious circle of her thoughts. The magnitude of her decision, not to believe him, became clearer by the minute, and with that realisation, tears rose in her eyes, blurring his clear, strong handwriting. God, she needed her memory back!

The insistant ringing of the telephone jerked her back to reality. Quickly she dried her eyes with the back of her hand and glanced at the clock. Almost noon! She'd been sitting there for hours, reading and staring into space. With stiff movements, she stood and walked over to pick up the receiver.

Chapter 13 - Part 1

"Lizzy! Thank heavens!" Jane's slightly hysterical voice shrilled through the phone. "Are you alright?"

Elizabeth's brow furrowed at her sister's agitation. "Of course I'm alright. Why would you think that I'm not?"

"Because," Jane huffed. "I've been trying for hours to catch you. Your mobile's turned off, you were not in your office and this is the third time I'm calling at Longbourn. Didn't you hear the ringing?"

"Obviously not," Elizabeth stated distractedly, while her thoughts were inexorably drawn back to the letter she still held in her hand.

Jane snorted impatiently at her sister's inattention. "Lizzy, would you please listen! This is important!"

But a quiet "Uhu..." was all she got for an answer.

When Jane spoke again, she deliberately accentuated every word. "This is about William."

"William?" Elizabeth's head snapped up, and involuntarily she pressed the phone closer to her ear. "What about him?"

"So you're going to listen now?" Jane asked slightly ironical.

"Yes, of course- of course I'm listening...Do tell, please."

"Well, he came to Netherfield this morning to tell us what has happened...between the two of you. Of course Charles and I already knew, and he seemed glad about it- I guess, because it spared him the ordeal of going through the whole story again. However, he also came to...to take his leave..."

There was a slight pause, as Jane's words slowly registered. Then Elizabeth swallowed hard before she asked in a trembling voice. "Take his leave? What are you talking about, Janie?"

"He's leaving the country...I'm so sorry, Lizzy." Jane's voice was full of compassion. "We tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn't listen- he was adamant about his decision. He said that he needed distance, physically and mentally, to come to terms with... everything..."

While listening to her sister, Elizabeth felt her whole body go cold. It hurt so much that she had to fight to hold back a cry of pain. She closed her eyes tightly, fiercely struggling to maintain her self-control. Yet, she couldn't prevent tears from slowly seeping from beneath her lashes. On a subconscious level she noticed that they felt strangely hot on her cool skin.

When she realised that Jane was still talking, she forced herself to pay attention. "...didn't want to tell us where he would be going to. He just said, he'd get in touch with us in due time...And in the end he asked me to convey his sincerest apologies to you, since he wouldn't be able to keep your appointment for lunch..."

Elizabeth's eyes popped open in shock. With everything that had been going on these past two days, she'd completely forgotten about her date with William. She shook her head in despair- obviously it didn't matter anymore, did it? He'd left, anyway...

"Oh Lizzy, I wish I could do something- anything to help...He can be so stubborn! I mean, I know he's hurt, but so are you, and running away isn't a solution, after all! He-"

"Janie," Elizabeth interrupted hoarsely, and carefully cleared her throat before going on. "Leave it be. I...understand his decision- and to own the truth, just now, I feel like running away, too..."

Silence ensued as Jane digested her sister's declaration. Finally she asked cautiously: "Is there something I don't know yet, Lizzy?"

Suddenly it all became too much. Although Elizabeth knew that her sister only meant well, she couldn't bear to answer yet another question. In the long run there would be no escaping Jane, but for now, she just wanted to be left alone with her thoughts and feelings. "Yes, Janie," she said, keeping her voice as steady as possible, "there is. I just don't feel up to telling you right now. I...I need to think it over first. Give me some time, alright? -Then I'll tell you."

After hesitating briefly, Jane adhered to her sister's plea. "Well...alright...Are you sure, though?"

"I am- absolutely."

"Fine...should I call again?"

"No! No...I'll call you back. -Bye, Janie."

"Bye, Lizzy."

The instant the receiver hit the cradle, Elizabeth gave in to her desperation and started weeping inconsolably. Afraid that her knees might give way beneath her any second, she stumbled back to the sofa with unseeing eyes and slumped down heavily. Clutching William's letter to her chest, she dipped to her side and buried her face in the soft fabric of a sofa cushion.

William shifted uncomfortably, trying to relax into his seat. He hated flying, avoided it whenever he could. His lips twitched into a humourless smile- that thought from a man who sits in his own private jet, he thought. His tax consultants had strongly advised him to purchase the plane as a means for additional depreciation. He'd declined at first, but the family- fascinated with the idea of permanently having a plane at their disposal- had finally talked him into buying it. Since then they'd all made good use of it, except for him.

But today he was thankful for the acquisition. No scheduled flight could have brought him out of the country fast enough. On his way to the airport, he'd called Richard to tell him what he was about to do. Seemingly not surprised in the least by his decision, his cousin had listened in intent silence- and in the end had spoken the words that still echoed in William's mind. "Being gutless again, dear cousin? You going to make cowardice an artform, or what?"

William had fiercly suppressed a tart reply, knowing full well that his cousin wouldn't understand anyway. Being enamoured, having a fling, maybe even falling in love occasionally, were things Richard could surely relate to. But how was he to explain what he really wanted to a man who considered dating the same woman more than twice a long-term relationship?

He wanted to be with Elizabeth more than he'd ever wanted anything else in his entire life. But it was not only about wanting, it was about needing- a basic need, to be precise. Without her, he would never be happy again, he would return to being a hollow shell, bereft of emotions. He desperately needed what only she could give- peace of mind, contentment, belonging, security- love.

And herein lay the crux of the matter. From the bottom of his heart he knew that should he be near her anywhere, he wouldn't be able to hold back for long. Sooner or later he would give in to his need and knock on her door, hell- he'd knock down her door if necessary. But of course this wouldn't do! As he'd written in his letter, he would respect her decision, and this he could only accomplish from a distance.

The letter...last night, at Richard's house, he hadn't been able to sleep. He'd tried- hard- but all the things he should have told Elizabeth during their fight- where he hadn't been in the slightest coherent enough to do so- had been floating around in his head, not allowing him to come to rest. When he'd finally sat down to write, he hadn't had the intention to give the letter to her, he'd just wanted to get everything off his chest.

Sometime in the course of pouring out his heart, however, he'd decided to give it to her anyway; even though he knew that he was going strictly against her request not to be told anything she didn't remember herself. But in this case being considerate of her wishes was well beyond him. For how else was she to learn the truth? His truth- as opposed to Patricia's...And maybe he had been selfish, and even a little pathetic, but how could he have put up with his ex-fiancée's lies and remain silent?

Suddenly fatigue and weariness seized his whole body and he leaned back his head and closed his eyes. Almost immediately his beloved's face appeared before him. God, it had been so hard to leave her behind! When he'd seen her this morning, he'd had to hold back fiercly not to clutch her to him, kiss and hug her, never let her go again...So after handing her the letter, he'd literally run away from her before tempation could get the better of him. He wondered, though, how she felt about him now- after reading the letter. Did she believe him? Did she trust in his honesty- his love? Or did she still doubt him? The questions tumbled through his head, gradually dimming, until they faded away and he dozed off.

~ * ~

With burning eyes and a throbbing head, Elizabeth sat up again after what seemed to have been an eternity. She had no more tears to cry, felt exhausted and utterly parched- she needed water, badly. Licking her dry lips, she stood and slowly stretched her stiff limbs- and became aware that she was still holding on tightly to William's letter.

With a muted exclamation of despair she noticed that she'd crumpled the paper with her firm grip. Horrified she dropped to her knees to flatten it against the plain surface of the coffee table. When she managed to straighten out the worst crinkles, she sighed in relief and neatly folded the precious sheets. They were her only connection to William, and she meant to cherish them like a treasure.

Getting back to her feet, she tucked them away securely in the pocket of her skirt and went to the bathroom. After washing her face and quickly downing two glasses of water- and taking a third one with her- she went upstairs to her room and locked the door.

Comfortably propped up against her pillows, she took William's letter out again and started to reread it faithfully. She had to admit that it all made perfect sense; what he wrote about her, the words he quoted, sounded so much like her. Could there be the slightest doubt left that he was telling the truth? No, her heart and soul shouted in unison.

She tilted her head sideways, conceding that on an emotional level she was more than ready to believe William's story. Emotions were fickle things, though; they tended to change direction, or vanish into thin air, and turn up again when at least expected. Rationality was in order here- she had to find rational reasons to trust in him.

She took a shuddering breath when she suddenly realised what was at stake for her- her past as well as her future. Should she decide in William's favour, it meant to accept that her former life with Tom, her marriage, had been nothing but an illusion. An unbearable notion; yet, she had said so herself, hadn't she? And all those other things that had floated up in her head, seemingly coming from nowhere, only supported William's story. Anyway, the most pressing question was: could she live with the knowledge of having been deceived so cleverly, overcome it in time and have a happy life with the man she loved?

On the other hand, believing in Patricia's version of the truth meant that there would be no future with William...Just the thought of living without him made her heart ache and her whole body go cold again. No way, everything inside her screamed- and this time she listened.

Hang Patricia! Hang rationality! And hang her memory! So he'd lied- woohoo, big deal! People all over the world lied every day without a good reason! And he'd had a very good reason- the best of all, in her opinion! She should see it as evidence of his love, as a proof of her power over him- and she would!

Silently vowing never to mistrust him again, she scrambled off the bed and eagerly reached for her door to run down and call him immediately. She stopped mid-stride, when it occurred to her that William was gone- he'd left the country. Turning around slowly, she went back to the bed and sat down on the edge.

He'd said to Jane and Charles that he needed distance to come to terms with everything. What could that mean? Did it mean that he was going away to forget her? Had she discouraged him so utterly with her rejection that he didn't see any chance for a future with her? But it hadn't been a final rejection, had it? And what he'd written in his letter disagreed with this possibility, too. There had to be another reason, she just couldn't think of. -Maybe he wanted to give her time to make up her mind- to come to a decision. If so, how long did he think it would take her? When would he be back?

She sighed deeply and picked up his letter to place a kiss where he'd signed it. "Please, don't make it too long..." she whispered and pressed the sheets to her heart.

~ * ~

Richard was worried- a fact that highly irritated him. Given his carefree- at times even flippant- nature, he hated problems of any kind and avoided them like the plague. Yet, he was a good listener, if anyone chose to confide in him, and he would even give the occasional advice- and then forget about it. In no way was he inclined to make someone else's problem his own, or so he'd thought.

Much to his own surprise, he seemed to have undergone a significant change of attitude while silently watching his cousin's life go from pretty good to bad and then to worse. For the longest time he'd refrained from interfering, mostly because of his habit to save himself any trouble, but also due to his conviction that William wouldn't have welcomed any intrusion into his life. On the day of his uncle's funeral, however, he couldn't help noticing his cousin's sudden interest in Elizabeth Baxter-Harding, and curiosity had gotten the better of him- which had led to the really strange, but nonetheless rather enlightening, conversation they'd had at Pemberley. Despite the gravity of the situation, remembering William's befuddlement still made him chuckle.

He sobered quickly, though, as his thoughts ran ahead. Granted, he hadn't taken his cousin's infatuation with Elizabeth too seriously in the beginning, but since she'd obviously returned his feelings, Richard's hopes had risen that she might be the one to help the poor man out of his misery. Until it had dawned on him that William must have concealed the events of the past from her. He'd then feared that there were problems to come, but by no means had he expected them to take on such dimensions.

As much as it was William's fault that things had gotten so out of hand, the bigger part of the blame was to be laid on Patricia. Without her interference there would have been a better chance- if not the best- for William to rectify the situation. Just thinking about the influence Patricia still had on his cousin's life annoyed Richard beyond reason. Picturing her sitting somewhere and rubbing her hands in satisfaction about what she'd accomplished, was almost more than he could bear. The mental image of his hands, however, tightly curled around her throat, filled him with a strange sense of relief.

Shaking his head to clear his senses, he brought his thoughts back on track. William's reaction to the whole mess had been an explicit sign of how deeply he was affected- deeper than ever before, Richard assumed. It was very unlike his cousin not to fight injustice, or try to right a wrong that had been done, even more so if he was the one concerned. But for now it couldn't be helped- instead of confronting Patricia, William had obviously chosen a very different course of action and then gone through with it.

But something had to be done, and since there was no one else left, Richard felt that he was the one to undertake the task of calling Patricia to account for her actions. It just wouldn't do to let her get away unharmed after she'd wreaked such havoc. To confront her, though, he needed proof of her interference otherwise she would deny everything- that he knew beyond a doubt. And the only one who could evidence her actions was that mysterious whistle-blower. Finding him- or her, for that matter- was nearly impossible, since it could be just about anyone.

Well, maybe not just about anyone; it had to be someone Patricia trusted implicitly, either because it was a close friend, or because she'd paid enough to ensure loyalty. Regardless of which, it had to be someone who could follow a person around without being noticed- not an easy task without experience in this area. That again indicated quite clearly that she'd hired a professional detective. And moreover, he couldn't remember ever having heard about a friend of Patricia's...

Realising that, in all likelihood, he would need help to identify the culprit, Richard sighed and strolled over to the bar to help himself to a generous amount of brandy. He dropped into a chair nearby and took a sip. Momentarily closing his eyes, he allowed himself to focus on the fine flavour of the heady beverage as he swallowed slowly- and almost chocked when a sudden idea hit his mind.

Half coughing, half laughing he shook his head, amazed that he hadn't thought of her earlier. The feisty, old frump- all meant in good fun- would be the best ally he could wish for!

Chapter 13 - Part 2

Clad in nothing but pyjama pants Charles was laying on the bed, ankles crossed, hands entwined behind his head, watching his wife as she paced their bedroom.

"This is insufferable," she stated angrily. "How could he do that?"

Knowing that she didn't really expect him to answer, Charles remained silent.

"Running away doesn't solve his problem! -It's...it's an immature reaction! And then he doesn't even bother to tell anyone where he's going to!"

"Now Janie, sweetheart, calm down," Charles tried to soothe her, while he got to his knees and reached for her hand. "You know Will as well as I do. He doesn't do anything inconsiderately. I'm sure he has very good reasons for his decision."

Jane let him pull her to the bed and sat down facing him. "But Charles, he wrote her a letter and without waiting for an answer, left her. What is she to think of him?"

"Did she complain about his behaviour?" he asked carefully, still holding on to his wife's hand.

"No, she didn't," Jane had to admit. "I...I actually had the feeling that she even understood him. Yet, she seemed to be very depressed- not that she owned up to it, though, but I know her well enough to sense it."

"There, you see? She didn't complain. Doesn't that suggest that she knows his reasons? Agrees with them?" Gently he took Jane into his arms and kissed her forehead. "And that she's sad... well, wouldn't you be if I left you?" He asked, looking down at her with a tender smile.

Jane smiled back and burrowed her nose into his naked chest. "Don't you dare..." she mumbled.

Squeezing her tightly in response, Charles went on. "I know you're worried about Lizzy, and you want to help- as much as I want to. But, honestly, I don't think that there's anything we can do right now, except maybe being there when they need us. Everything else is up to them."

He paused a moment before resuming his speech with furrowed brows. "On the other hand..."

Jane looked up at him expectantly. "Do you think it would help if we had Caroline beheaded?"

After a second of baffled silence, she broke out in laughter, and Charles joined her. "And while we're at it, why not have Patricia join her fate?" Jane chimed in.

Slowly Charles' laughter faded and his bright expression turned to one of thoughtfulness. Feeling his change of mood, Jane pushed away from him to look into his face. "What is it?" she asked.

He dropped his gaze before answering with a question of his own. "I wonder if...Caroline knew what she was doing..."

"No!" Jane replied impulsively, cupping her husband's cheek with her hand, forcing him to look at her again. "No, not in this case." She shook her head for emphasis, while trying to find the right words to reassure him. "You see, normally I wouldn't put anything like that past her. But where William is concerned...I don't think, she would ever hurt him on purpose."

"And Lizzy?"

"Well, that is something else entirely," Jane said with a dry laugh. "Yet- this whole mess is all Patricia's doing. She just used Caroline."

Finally convinced, Charles took a deep breath and nodded. "I guess, you're right." He pulled her back to his chest and kissed the top of her head. "I'd be lost without you, darling," he whispered into her hair, breathing deeply as his desire for her stirred.

Jane nestled closer and pressed a kiss to his warm skin, but Charles sensed her distraction. He closed his eyes and kept quiet, giving her time to sort out her thoughts. After a while she took a deep breath and finally spoke her mind. "We should do something about Patricia."

Charles was so preoccupied with the sensations his wife's nearness created that it took him a few seconds to grasp her meaning. All longing suddenly forgotten, his eyes popped open in surprise. "What are you talking about?" he asked warily, hoping against hope that he'd misunderstood her.

Easing away from him, Jane sat up straight and lunged into speech. "We have to find a way to get back at her. She deserves to be punished for what she's done!"

"But Jane, that's none of our business! That's William's problem," Charles tried to persuade her while an uneasy feeling settled in the pit of his stomach.

Jane, however, was not to be distracted; quite the contrary, the more she thought about it, the more she warmed up to the idea. "Well, obviously we can't count on William here, can we? And she hurt my sister, too- badly. So I consider it my business as well. Now," her eyes shining, she fidgeted with excitement, "how can we get a hold of her? Any ideas?"

Despite his dismay, Charles had to smile at her enthusiasm. "Come here, sweetheart," he murmured and pulled her to him, her closeness once again igniting his desire. This time his strategy worked; with a content sigh Jane looped her arms around him and put her head on his shoulder. Charles' voice was a low rumble. "Forget Patricia. I want you- now."

Lowering his head, he found Jane's lips for a deep, hot kiss. And within moments Patricia was indeed completely forgotten.

When Robert Bennet returned home that evening, he found his daughter already sound asleep. After what Jane had told him earlier, he'd been very worried about Elizabeth- once again. In an irrational fit of pique, he'd quarreled with fate, asking himself- not for the first time- why she had to endure all these blows; why he couldn't change places with her to take the hurt in her stead; why he couldn't protect her better, as he felt was his duty; why she couldn't find the happiness she so deserved...

Seeing her sleeping peacefully, however, somehow alleviated his pent-up anguish, and filled his heart with warmth and tenderness. Unable to resist, he gently rearranged the blanket around her to tuck her in more safely, like he hadn't done in so many years now. He hoped fervently she would have a good night's rest- without any bad dreams.

When he leaned close to place a kiss on her temple, he caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a piece of paper peeking out from underneath her pillow. With a knowing smile, he straightened again. If this was what he supposed it to be- then maybe there was a chance that everything would be well in the end. With one last look at his beloved daughter, he tiptoed out of the room and quietly closed the door.

A couple of hours later, Elizabeth stirred uneasily. Her eyes moved behind tightly closed lids, her heart rate increased and her breathing grew irregular; clear signs that her subconscious mind was starting to work.

There's a party going on. Looking around she realises that it's her father's birthday. There are Leah and Papa, Jane and Charles, her aunt and uncle from Manchester with their children, and many friends who've also come to celebrate with him. And over at a corner she sees Tom; he's standing very close to Patricia- almost as if he...

Uneasiness grips her as she watches them, and William Darcy's deep resolute voice echoes in her mind: 'I'm not the cheater here- he is! They both are!' She knows it's a lie, it has to be a lie! Yet, he'd spoken with so much conviction- and there hadn't been any inconsistencies in his story, no obvious nervousness on his part as he'd told his story; whereas Patricia...

She shakes her head in exasperation, trying to get rid of his words as well as her unpleasant feelings. For heaven's sake, they are cousins! She snorts derisively- just the thought of being intimate with one of her cousins makes her shudder.

"Damn you, William Darcy," she mutters under her breath, while turning around on her heels, resolved to think of his ridiculous accusations no more. When she looks up, however, she meets her father's watchful gaze, and for a split second her face falls in dismay. Admonishing herself, however, she musters all her dignity, and suppresses the sudden urge to run to him, let him cuddle her to him and comfort her. She forces up a reassuring- at least she hopes it is- smile while she tells herself: 'You're a grown, married woman, you can handle this, you have to handle this- Papa can't make it good, not this time.'

Papa returns a crooked smile that doesn't reach his eyes, showing clearly that he doesn't fall for her pretence. Out of pure stubbornness, the corners of her mouth remain curled upward, as she lifts her chin and turns back to her husband and his cousin to walk over to them with determined strides.

They are so lost in their private conversation that she has to clear her throat a few times- getting louder with each attempt- before they notice her presence. Two pairs of eyes stare at her in mild irritation, making her feel like a child who had intruded upon an adults' discussion. And Tom's chiding tone of voice as he addresses her, only boosts the annoyance she already tries to cope with.

"What is it, Liz? -Can't you see you're disturbing us?"

Only her aversion to have a domestic quarrel in front of other people helps her keep her temper in check. With a sweet smile, she gently puts a hand on her husband's arm- even though at the moment she feels more like smacking him- and keeps her voice low as she answers: "I'd like to talk to you for a minute," and with a telltale look at Patricia, "alone."

Heaving a sigh, he complies and slightly bows into his cousin's direction. "Please excuse me, Patricia. I'll be back shortly."

For a second there she thinks, she has seen him roll his eyes while glancing at Patricia. But the impression has been so fleeting that she is not really sure, and anyway, Tom is already hauling her out of the room with a firm grip on her upper arm.

When they reach the hall, he swings her around so that she faces him. His eyebrows are drawn into a deep V, his expression one of anger, gone is his usual composure. And in a split second there her own anger dissolves, is replaced by uncertainty, as she suddenly realises how much he has changed within the last half year. It has happened gradually- ever since the day William broke his engagement to Patricia.

But could there really be a connection? Just the thought of it makes her insides lurch and her stomach turn upside down; she feels sick all of a sudden. What if William is right, after all? For the first time she allows herself to seriously contemplate this possibility. Has she been duped all along? Has she been blind to what has been going on around her?

She stares at Tom, observing absent-mindedly that his lips are moving; he is talking to her, but she can't hear him, doesn't want to hear him. Events from the past few months come back to her, appearing in a completely different light as they rush through her mind. Unwilling to remain in his presence just a moment longer, she turns away from him and heads for the stairs to go up to her former room.

But he follows her, grabs for her arm again to hold her back, and being so much stronger, he of course succeeds. She has no choice but to stay, to open her mind to his words.

"Just what is the matter with you, Liz? You are behaving like a petulant child!"

Anger streams back into her, rises until she sees red and whirls around to him. "Don't you dare accuse me of strange behaviour! If not for all these people watching, you would be all over your cousin, wouldn't you!"

He staggers backwards as if slapped right in the face, his features contorting into an expression of hurt and astonishment; his voice has dropped to a strained whisper. "Liz, for heaven's sake... what are you talking about?"

She panics momentarily, a wave of insecurity washing over her. 'What if I'm wrong?' she asks herself, 'what if it isn't true?' Her mouth opens, but no words come across her lips. What is she to say, anyway?

Tom seems to have recovered from his shock. His face is blank, his eyes are distant, making a chill run down her spine. And without second thought, she reaches out for him in an attempt to close the gap that has suddenly appeared between them. But he takes a step away from her to evade her touch, further rejecting her with just one syllable, "No", spoken in his lowest tone of voice.

With that he takes another step away, then turns his back to her and slowly walks down the hall. She's unable to move, as she stares after him helplessly. Desperation begins to rise inside her, forcing her eyes closed to contain the tears that threaten to spill over. 'What have I done?' is all she can think. 'Good heavens, what have I done?'

A shuddering breath escapes her, and with her next thought- 'Go after him!'- she comes into motion. Inhaling deeply to pacify her hammering heart, she follows him quickly, calling out for him in a quivering voice, not bothering in the least that the whole household can hear her: "Tom! Tom, wait for me! Please, Tom!"

Elizabeth's eyes popped open as she jerked awake. The desperate tone of her own voice still rang in her ears. Sitting up slowly, she shook her head to get rid of thoughts and feelings that were so unfamiliar to her, but then- they were not...

A tangle of emotions coursed through her as realisation dawned- memories, once again she'd come up with real memories, not mere figments of her imagination; she'd really been through this. Resolutely she pushed aside hurt, anger and whatever else she was feeling at the moment to deal with later. For now she wanted a clear mind to be able to dig deeper into what had for so long been a dark, bottomless whole.

Locking her arms tightly around her up drawn knees, she stared into the darkness, concentrating hard on that particular event. Did she remember where Tom had gone? And whether or not she'd found him? And what they'd been talking about?

Yes, yes, yes- she did! As if it had been there all the time...She clearly recalled her desperation about what she'd done, her fear of losing him, when she'd found him in his father's library. He'd been so cool, evasive, not willing to meet her eyes. She'd started to cry, had stumbled into an incoherent explanation that even to her own ears had sounded childish and ridiculous. In the end she'd begged his forgiveness, and he had graciously granted it.

In light of the information she'd acquired from William's letter, however, the entire scene brought a deep blush of utter mortification to her face. Since she'd decided once and for all to believe in the man she loved, she now asked herself if Tom had silently relished humiliating her, had inwardly laughed about her; or had he just been bored, or maybe even disgusted?

At the thought of such falsehood, a cold shiver ran through her body that took away the heat of shame and left her freezing all over. Had she really been married to such a...monster? Without recognising him for what he really was? Blissfully oblivious to his activities, blinded by love and admiration? Had it been like this from the beginning? According to what she'd been told, she'd been quite happy at first, content with her life. But when had it started to go awry? What had been the trigger- apart from William?

She attempted to go further into the past, but nothing came up. Evidently this single event was all she could remember so far, no matter how hard she tried. And surely it was for the best, she finally admitted, as she felt the exertion of the whole experience kicking in full force. With a sigh that stemmed from the bottom of her soul, she fell back onto the bed and closed her weary eyes. Not a moment later, all the repressed emotions surged to the surface like a tidal wave to tug at her heartstrings and constrict her throat.

In desperate need for comfort, she rolled to her side and grabbed for a pillow to press it to her chest, pretending it was William's body cuddled up close to hers. Only then did she give way to her tears that finally lulled her back into sleep.

~ * ~

William took a deep breath to fill his lungs with the cool morning air, hoping to ease the fatigue and drowsiness that seemed to have settled in his very core.

If the last 24 hours could be considered a foretaste of what he'd have to endure while being separated from Elizabeth, he seriously doubted the wisdom of his decision, and not for the first time, mind you!

In his head the same questions repeated themselves over and over again: Had his departure been too hasty? - Should he have waited for Elizabeth's reaction to his letter? - Should he have given them another chance to talk? In answer his heart screamed yes, yes, yes. But then common sense chimed in immediately: And what if your letter hasn't been enough to convince her? - What if she still doesn't believe you? - What if she would have rejected you for good?

He felt like he was caught in a roundabout, missing the right turnoff time and again. Though in this case he didn't even know the right turnoff. Regarded rationally, taking flight from temptation had been the most reasonable thing to do- despite Richard's ill-founded statement to the contrary- yet, emotionally he ached with longing for the woman he loved. So where was he to go from here? What was he to do next?

However, it didn't really matter where he would go to, or what he planned to do, because in truth he was completely at Elizabeth's mercy; his fate- their fate- was in her hands and wherever she would choose to lead, he would follow. There wasn't really much more he could do but wait, and try to stay sane.

Passing a hand through his sleep-tousled hair, he took another deep breath, finally realising that he was not only tired still, but by now cold as well. As if to confirm his observation, a shiver ran through his body, causing him to quickly retreat back into the living room and close the door to the balcony behind him.

For a few minutes he stood rooted to the spot, considering how to spend the day that lay ahead . Yesterday, after arriving at his hideout, he'd thrown himself into all kinds of strenuous activities in an attempt to keep his rioting thoughts at bay. Granted, it hadn't helped as much as he'd hoped it would, but it was still better than sitting around doing nothing at all. Having made up his mind, he swiftly walked to his bedroom to change into shorts and shirt. And if he doubled his efforts, maybe then the exhaustion would be enough to allow him a whole night of sleep.

Chapter 14

Arms spread wide, Richard went into Lady deBourgh's office, a huge grin on his face. "Cat, hey! How's my favourite aunt in the world?" By then he'd walked around her desk and leaned down to kiss her wrinkled cheek.

She cast a wary glance at him, yet she tilted her head to give him better access. "I'm your only aunt in the world, scoundrel! -And I'm fine, thank you."

"Great, that's good to hear," he cheered, stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets and casually leaned against the edge of her desk. "So- any news?"

Cocking an eyebrow, Lady deBourgh pushed back her chair to observe her smirking nephew carefully. Neither spoke a word, until she stated outright: "Stop beating around the bush, Rick. You never come here without good reason."

Richard's smile faded, the tone of his voice matching hers as he replied: "Very well then, tell me what you know about Patricia McKinley."

If he'd hoped to shock his aunt, Richard was badly disappointed. Instead of showing any signs of alarm, Lady Catherine chuckled quietly. "I was actually wondering, who would be the first to ask. I've to confess, though, that I'd put my money on William...but he took himself out of the game, as it seems."

"You already know he's gone?" Richard asked, unable to hide his surprise.

Lady Catherine reached out and patted her nephew's cheek, her voice as gentle as if she were talking to a slow-witted child. "Oh my dear, you assume I can provide information about a virtual stranger, and at the same time you think I don't know what the members of my own family are up to?"

Richard rolled his eyes and grinned. "Sorry- seems I always underestimate you, Cat."

"Oh no, that's not it," she stated matter-of-factly, then went on while poking his chest with an arthritic forefinger, "You're a man, Ricky."

At his puzzled look, she heaved an impatient sigh. "Men tend to be illogical," she pointed out as if it were as plain as day. "Just like your dear uncle Hugh- may he rest in peace. Such a good soul he was, very proficient too, but highly illogical..." Suddenly she turned away from him and cleared her throat. Discretly wiping her moist eyes, she straightened her back and faced him again. "Well, no sense dwelling on the past- back to business. -Why do you need information about Miss McKinley?"

Mouth agape Richard had watched his aunt's swift changes of mood in fascination and didn't immediately realise that she posed a question- until she softly called his name. Blinking rapidly a few times, he clamped his jaws shut and focused on her face. "What?"

"Miss McKinley- why are you interested in her?"

"Ah yes," he straightened and strolled to the front of the desk to drop into the comfortable chair across from Lady Catherine. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, still surprised about his own decision. "Well, I feel that something has to be done. As you pointed out, Will's gone- so the responsibility is mine now. I'm not willing to let her get away with what she's done."

A pair of carefully plucked eyebrows shot up in utter amazement, as Lady Catherine gazed at her nephew. When Richard noticed her mien, he shrugged and forstalled a possible comment with a slight wave of his hand. "I know, I know- how very unlike me...but I can't help it- it makes me crazy to see Will suffer because of her- once again."

Too agitated to remain seated any longer, he jumped up and paced his aunt's office. Lady Catherine watched him in silence before she asked quietly: "You think he suffered because of her?"

Richard stopped and turned to her, brows furrowed in question. "He told me as much...He found them together- in his bedroom, Patricia and Thomas Baxter-Harding."

"And he told you that this was what hurt him- made him suffer?"

He thought for a moment, trying to recall William's exact words- he drew a blank. "Well," he finally admitted, "actually...no..."

A knowing smile bloomed on Lady Catherine's withered lips, making her look very much like an impish goblin. "Hurt pride, Rick, that's what it was...Mr Baxter-Harding was older than he, had less money and his looks- though not unpleasant on the whole- a far cry from Will's decidedly handsome features. So how could she prefer such a man to him?- That's what bothered him, as much as it would have bothered any man. I don't believe for a second that it was jealousy, that his feelings were hurt- other than from being deceived, of course."

Richard had returned to his chair, attentively listening to his aunt's speech. Now he sat perched on the edge of the seat, eager to ask the question that burned on the tip of his tongue. "What then? If he dismissed Patricia- and his hurt pride- so easily, what else made him suffer- who made him suffer?"

Lady Catherine's dark irises suddenly shimmered like black marbles- hard and cold. "Many different things," she stated evenly, and started to itemise, "Andrew's heartattack, Georgie's-"

"I know that!" Richard interrupted harshly. "But what was the last straw?" he insisted, his green eyes narrowing in suspicion.

The old lady lifted her chin defiantly, refusing to give the answer she knew he wouldn't like. But Richard was not to be deterred. He had more questions, though they sounded more like the facts he presumed them to be. "You knew about Lizzy and Will's love affair from the beginning." Her gaze didn't waver, but she kept quiet.

"You knew what Patricia was up to from the day she returned."

She pressed her lips together more tightly.

"Yet you did nothing to stop her."

Richard leaned closer to her, feeling her warm breath on his face as she looked up at him.

"Who made him suffer, Cat? Tell me!"

"Elizabeth Baxter-Harding!" she finally spat out, not flinching from the rage she found in his eyes, but meeting it with her own.

A thudding sound echoed loudly through the suddenly silent office as he slammed his palms flat on the desk and snarled: "Bullshit!"

Through the red mist of his anger, he noticed with grim satisfaction that the impact of his hands stirred up not only the papers and writing utensils on the table-top, but his seemingly impassive aunt, too; she gave herself away with a perceptible wince. Wanting to use this unexpected sign of weakness for his advantage, he confronted her further: "Why did you do it? To pay her back?"

Lady Catherine, however, swift as she was known to be, had already regained her equilibrium, and faced her nephew squarely. "She doesn't deserve him," was her firm response.

Richard jerked upright, passing his hands through his hair to keep them occupied, lest he attack her physically to wipe the prim conviction off of her face. Struggling for control, he turned around and walked the length of the office to the large windows on the far wall.

Long seconds ticked by while he stared outside, until he took a deep breath. "You have no idea, Cat- no idea whatsoever..." he stated quietly and faced her again to watch her in contemplation for a few moments. "No," he finally said, folding his arms across his chest, "I take that back- you are well aware that you are wrong, aren't you?"

Lady Catherine shifted uncomfortably, but still refused to give in. "She didn't believe him," she insisted stubbornly. "He's well-known for his honesty, yet she didn't believe him."

"She was Tom's wife, and Will was little more than a stranger to her," Richard retorted, and- well aware that he was going to fight dirty- went on relentlessly. "What if someone you hardly knew would have come to your house to tell you that uncle Hugh was cheating on you-"

Eyes widening in surprise, Lady Catherine sat up straight. "That's ridiculous! And in no way comparable-"

Her nephew's smug smile made her avert her eyes and bite back the rest of her comment. "Isn't it?" he asked softly. A sense of pity rushed through him, as he looked at his aunt's bowed head. Slowly walking back to the chair he'd sat on earlier, he gentled his voice even more. "You're not the only one who knows what's going on in this family, Cat." Instead of sitting down, however he remained standing, leaning against the tall backrest. "But I surely don't want to stir up the past, I just want you to show a little understanding..."

Lady Catherine looked up again, her expression an odd mixture of haughtiness, vulnerability and gratitude. "I had to protect him, Rick- she simply isn't good enough for him," she tried to reason with him.

Despite the anger that still simmered just beneath the surface, Richard couldn't suppress a smile about his aunt's obstinacy. "Oh Cat, you're such a tough, old bird."

"Thank you, I'll take that as a compliment," Lady Catherine smiled back at him and lowered her head in a graceful bow.

Finally Richard sat down again, his face serious. "Now, all jokes aside, Cat- I'm fed up with all that scheming and lying. Let's set the record straight, once and for all."

Though obviously reluctant to own up to it, Lady Catherine knew when she was defeated. With another slight bow she allowed her nephew's claim.

"I guess we can safely say that in the past neither Patricia nor Elizabeth really hurt him..."

Richard paused shortly to give his aunt a chance to show her agreement. Satisfied to see her nod, he went on: "And we both know the events that led to his...crises- you already mentioned two of them. None of these events, however, is directly connected with either of the two ladies."

"Correct," Lady Catherine rasped and lapsed back into silence.

Nodding contently, Richard crossed his legs and relaxed into his chair. "Now Cat, if you don't mind, I would like to ask you a few questions- and I count on your honesty."

The old lady's eyes shot daggers at her nephew, but once again he wouldn't relent. "Ask away," she finally conceded.

"Thank you- I assume you knew that Patricia was cheating on Will. Why didn't you warn him?"

"I didn't think it was necessary," she grated through clenched teeth.

His aunt's surliness elicited another laugh from Richard. "Oh come on, Cat. There's no escaping this conversation. Why don't you relax and enjoy it?"

"I hate to be forced, Rick- you know that."

"I do- I'm sorry, but it can't be helped. I need your assistance and I'd do pretty much everything to get it."

Lady Catherine smiled despite herself and shook her head. "You have indeed an unusual way to recruit allies," she stated dryly. Finally leaning back in her chair, she put her hands on the armsrests and gave him an encouraging nod. "Alright, go ahead. I'll try my best to be more cooperative."

But when Richard opened his mouth to ask the next question, she stopped him abruptly. "No, I guess I'd better tell you everything I know, and when I'm finished it's your turn." She took a deep breath and started her narrative: "Right from the beginning I didn't trust Miss McKinley, though I couldn't say why. Anyway, I made enquiries about her, had one of my employees dig into her past and follow her. And he made some interesting discoveries- rather unpleasant- yet very interesting. It appeared that everytime Miss McKinley and Mr Baxter-Harding met, they ended up having an affair-"

"Notorious cheaters, eh?"

Lady Catherine shook her head. "No, not really. To my knowledge Baxter-Harding never had any affairs, but with her; the same was true for her, no one else but him- except for her official boy-friends of course."

Curling downward the corners of his mouth, Richard made a sound of disgust. "You mean to say that William and Elizabeth were not the first ones they betrayed?"

"Exactly- their story went a long way back. It had all started when Miss McKinley was about 16, and Baxter-Harding about 22 years old. Taking into consideration that she was 25 when she met William-"

"Almost 10 years?" Richard exclaimed in disbelief. When his aunt nodded, he went on: "What about their family- families? She was so young- and they were cousins! Didn't their parents do anything about it?"

"Oh they did, for sure- but to no avail. When they found out what was going on, she was sent to a boarding school to Switzerland, and he was removed to the States to further his studies. But she ran away, sought him out- and they managed to stay together for a few weeks. In the end, however, she was found and brought back. What followed, I can only presume; I suppose they were both threatened with disinheritance or something along that line because they behaved themselves for quite a while."

"What is 'quite a while'?"

"Until she'd finished school. Two or three years later they both returned to England. She started University, worked part-time, had a boy-friend; and he began a job in his father's company, had a nice girl-friend- but it was all-"

"Bogus!"

Lady Catherine bent forward in her chair, staring at her nephew in annoyance. "Stop putting words into my mouth, Rick! I don't need a prompter!"

For a moment Richard had the dignity to look contrite and muttered. "I'm sorry..." Contrition, however, never had had much of a chance with him. The next second he was on his feet, his hands curled into fists, and leapt into an agitated harangue. "It's just that I'm...disgusted- and disappointed," once again leaning across the table, he gazed at his aunt accusingly. "You knew all along what was going on; yet you didn't do anything to prevent it! Why didn't you tell William?"

"Do you honestly think he would have believed me?" Lady Catherine asked softly, trying to steal her nephew's thunder. But this time Richard didn't back down. "Yes, I do!" he snapped angrily, bringing his face even closer to hers. "Because I'm sure you can prove your knowledge, can't you?"

"Of course I can," she stated proudly, lifting her chin so their noses almost touched. "I would never claim this to be the truth without being able to give sufficient proof."

Richard straightened his back and stuffed his hands into his pockets. The sudden smile that brightened his face belied the anger he still tried to get a grip on. "You know exactly that Will would have believed you- but you had your own motives not to tell him, hadn't you?"

"I don't have the slightest idea what you are talking about!" she thrust out defensively.

"Really? I sincerely doubt that, Cat." In his mind, Richard imagined drawing the bow, and let go of the arrow. "It's about Annie, right?"

And it hit the mark- making Lady Catherine flinch and drop her eyes to her lap. Richard slowly shook his head, overcome by a mixture of renewed anger, wondrousness and even a hint of amusement about his aunt's stubbornness. Finally he sighed deeply. "Oh Cat- when will you give up at last? There's no sense in trying to change Annie. Don't you realise that you risked William's happiness for nothing..."

"My daughter is not nothing!" Lady Catherine huffed in a raised voice.

Silently praying for patience, Richard rolled his eyes heavenward. "You know what I mean! She's not interested in men- never will be, she's a les-"

"Don't you dare use that word in my presence!" she shouted, and used the armrests of her chair to push herself up swiftly. "I will not accept this- ever." She held herself very straight, spine rigid, shoulders drawn back, but her eyes were moist again and her lips quivered. Richard couldn't help himself at the sight of her as she tried to be tough, yet couldn't hide her distress. Quickly he rounded the desk and without a word put his arms around her. At first she fought his tenderness, stiffening even more, but finally she melted against his chest and, with a small hickup, buried her nose in the folds of his shirt. Taking a steadying breath, she grated: "I'll be after you for the rest of my life if you tell anyone about this!"

Richard laughed out loud and hugged her tightly. "Your secret is safe with me, Cat! I won't give away that our Iron Lady is a wimp at heart!"

Her head snapped up, dangerously narrowed eyes in conflict with a barely concealed smile that played on her lips. "You watch your mouth, young man!"

With a smirk, Richard squared his shoulder and klicked his heels. "Yes Ma'am!"

"Now," energetically she pushed away from him and took his arm to pull him over to a luxurious lounge in the upper right corner of her office. With a sigh she sat down and indicated for him to take a seat next to her. After he'd done so, she dropped her gaze to her entwinded hands and cleared her throat. "I know that I'm a little tetchy where Anne is concerned, but I just can't help it. I had such high hopes for her. I always imagined her being happily married, having children... preferably with William. They would make a great match."

"I don't think so, Cat," Richard interjected quietly.

"Well, why ever not? They are not related by blood, she was Hugh's daughter, not mine! Apart from her..." she struggled briefly to find the right word, "...disposition, what other reason could there be for them not to be together?"

"Love, Cat- true, deep, passionate love. Not to say that William doesn't love her, he does- like I do. But it's brotherly love, love among cousins- related by blood or not."

Lady Catherine heaved a deep sigh. "So you really think it's time to give up on the idea?"

"I do, Cat- leave her be, leave them be. Accept her the way she is. I know you love her as if she were your own child- but you need to show it. Being les..." he cut himself off, casting a wary glance at her, then continued bravely, "...lesbian isn't a blemish. She's a witty, warmhearted woman- no matter her sexual inclination."

The old lady nodded thoughtfully. "I guess you are right, Rick. I will try to better myself...but what about William- and Mrs Baxter-Harding? What is to be done?"

"We'll deal with that later. Tell me now how on earth you managed to gather all that information. I mean, it's no secret that you're always well-informed about family matters- and those who are brave enough to venture anywhere near us; after all, that's why I came here today. But you even seem to know what is going on behind closed doors! How do you do that?"

For a moment she looked at him as if he were dimwitted. "Bill Collins- of course!"

"The toad? You mean to tell me that he obtained all the information?"

"He did."

"How does he do that?"

"I don't have the slightest idea," Lady Catherine shrugged. "But he has that incredible talent to sneak up to people and entice them into talking. He's one of the most ridiculous persons I've ever met- but in his case that seems to be more advantageous than not."

"So you assigned him to Patricia when she got engaged to William?"

"Yes- and he did a great job. He came up with information I would never have dreamed of ever getting my hands on." To Richard's surprise, she suddenly started to giggle. "I always picture him as an overweight, sweating fly on the wall, struggling to stay in place while straining to hear every word that is spoken."

Richard couldn't help but join her mirth with a low chuckle. She winked and elbowed him rather vehemently. "Know what I mean?"

"I do, I do!" He smiled at her and casually moved a few inches away to protect his ribs from her pointed anconal. Into her fading laughter, he asked: "So why didn't you tell William what you'd found out?"

Abruptly she was serious again. "As I said before, I didn't think it was necessary. I supposed that sooner or later the whole affair would leak out- and it did. And he could see for himself what kind of woman she really was."

Richard came up with the most apparent question. "But what would you've done if they'd managed to keep it a secret- what if it hadn't leaked out in time? Would you have let her marry William?"

"Never!" the old lady sputtered, sitting up straight. "I would have done everything in my power to impede that marriage! To have my nephew's life ruined- to see her as mistress of Pemberley..." Though he knew her agitation to be genuine, Richard had a hard time suppressing a smile. He scooted closer again and touched her arm with a becalming hand. "Alright, Cat, it's alright. Will's out of danger now- and so is Pemberley."

"I know- but just the thought of it..." shivering with indignation, she left the sentence unfinished. They sat in silence for a few moments, both pondering what could have happened- both glad that in the end it had not happened.

Somehow Lady Catherine's last remark sounded like the punch line of their conversation, but Richard wasn't done yet. She seemed to feel it too, because she looked at him expectantly even before he started to speak again. Encouraged by the question in her eyes, he finally remarked with a thoughtful frown. "You did nothing at all to spare him- that was pretty hard..."

Lady Catherine gave a dismissive shrug. "So what? Life is hard- it's a bold venture that's rarely easy; and really, Rick, what could I've done to spare him?"

"Well...I don't know..." he replied helplessly.

"See- in the end, telling him what I knew would have had the same effect as had his finding them out. To be honest, I tend to think it was even better the way it happened, because it left no room for doubt at all; which he may have had with only my revelations."

Shaking his head slowly, Richard heaved a sigh. "You're right, Cat...I can see that now," he reached over to pad the back of her hand lightly, "and I'm sorry for being so cross with you earlier. But I-"

"It's alright, Rick," she interrupted and turned her hand around to give his fingers an affectionate squeeze. "No need to apologise. I understand your anger; it was justified because..." unused to warrant her actions, she faltered just a little before rushing forward hastily, "-I was wrong. That's what I see now. I never should have interfered. And...I'm sorry, too."

Even though her head was bowed, he could see a slight blush tinging her cheeks. An up to now unknown fondness for his aunt suddenly made his heart swell, while at the same time a sense of regret rose inside him. It came with the realisation that he'd never once tried to look behind her facade. All those years he'd taken her for what she obviously was- what she probably wanted to be taken for- the Iron Lady, strong, capable, reliable and down-to-earth. Yet, there seemed to be so much more to her- endearing personal qualities she'd managed to hide behind a rough shell; somewhat puzzled, he wondered why...

Lady Catherine finally looked up to find her nephew staring at her pensively. Misinterpreting his reflectiveness, she tightened her hold on his hand and asked quietly: "Do you really think Will's happiness is ruined...forever?"

Quickly shaking off his thoughts, Richard hurried to reassure her. "No Cat, I don't think so- well, at least I hope they will make it..." he furrowed his brow, thoughtful again. "I've rarely seen two people so smitten with each other-"

"Oh please, Rick," she cut him off uneasily, "no need to rub it in- I feel bad enough already."

He laughed and put an arm around her shoulders to draw her closer to him. "I'm afraid there's nothing I can do to spare you, auntie," he stated smugly, which earned him a withering glance from her dark eyes and a muttered: "Insolent rascal."

Richard snickered quietly, but choose not to respond to her remark. Instead, he turned back to the reason for his visit. "I have more questions, Cat. -Are you ready to answer?"

Acknowledging the end of their good natured banter, she moved away from him an arm's length and nodded in agreement.

"How did you in fact know Patricia had returned?"

"Stupidity on her part- good luck on mine," she replied with a lopsided shrug. Raising an eyebrow in wonder, Richard wordlessly inviting her to go on.

"She actually checked in at the Rosings- of all the hotels in London! So I presume she's just too stupid to make that easy connection to the family. Then, luckily, Collins spotted her and came running to me- all hysterical and sweaty," she chuckled at the memory. But when she met her nephew's serious gaze, she repressed her mirth and went on: "I was very curious what she was up to and again instructed him to follow her. He did a great job- managed to gain her confidence, and soon she hired him to follow William- imagine my surprise!"

"He was after William?" Richard asked incredulously. "For how long?"

Lady Catherine hesitated distinctly, clearly ill at ease.

"Cat?" he prompted her quietly.

Her reluctance was palpable as she grated through clenched teeth: "A few weeks..."

"What?!" Richard exclaimed in utter disbelief, automatically reaching for his aunt's wrist. "You allowed Collins to violate Will's privacy for weeks?"

She shook her arm, trying to get away from his ungentle grip, her voice petulant. "It was not in my power-"

Richard leaned toward her until their noses almost touched. "Crap!" Then he suddenly released her and stood up, passing a hand through his hair in exasperation. "Of course it was in your power! -You could have stopped her right away!"

"But I had to know-" she began angrily, only to be interrupted before she could draw another breath.

"And once you knew, you still didn't stop her! You should hope and pray that William will never find out about it!"

Lady Catherine's haughtiness instantly vanished. Conceding defeat, she bowed her head and hunched her shoulders. "I would highly appreciate it if...this could be...kept private," she asked him in an unsteady voice. Heaving a deep-drawn sigh, Richard knelt in front of his aunt to look into her moist eyes. "I can't make any such promise, Cat. Once William returns, he might want to find out for himself what has happened. You realise that you'll have to tell him then, don't you?"

She nodded in acceptance, holding on to Richard's gaze. "Do you think he'll understand that I meant only well?"

"Eventually he will- provided that Elizabeth and he will get together again. Otherwise..." he gave a helpless shrug and stood up to reclaim his place by her side.

"Otherwise," she picked up his unfinished sentence, "...he will never forgive me." Again silence ensued, until Lady Catherine sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I've been blinded by my anger about...Elizabeth; uncalled-for as it might have been. I'd really thought she'd hurt him...When I watched them at Andrew's funeral, I was totally taken aback."

"What happened at the funeral?" Richard asked, obviously at a complete loss.

She turned to him, eyes wide with astonishment. "You mean, you didn't see it? -Their reactions to each other, the tangible attraction between them..."

Richard just shook his head, still not quite sure what his aunt was talking about.

"Well, never mind," she finally dismissed him with a flick of her wrist. "I noticed immediately what was going on, and I didn't understand it. -Until it occurred to me that she suffered from amnesia; she couldn't remember the past events-"

"And when it was finally clear what Patricia was up to, you didn't stop her," Richard broke in on her monologue. "Her plan to separate them just came in handy for you...the easiest way to get rid of Elizabeth without much ado. But you couldn't have foreseen William's reaction..."

"Indeed, I couldn't," Lady Catherine agreed in a brittle voice and rose from the lounge. Turning away from her nephew, she went back to her desk, "because I was not aware of the strength of his feelings for...Elizabeth- the seriousness of the whole...affair." Still facing away from Richard, she swallowed hard and took a shaky breath. "I should never have interfered..."

After watching her silent struggle for a few seconds, he finally decided that she'd gained enough self-knowledge for one day, and also rose from his place to walk over to her. Gently he put his hands onto her narrow shoulders and turned her around. Her ragged expression and the tears that glistened in her eyes tore at his heart. "Oh Cat, you didn't really interfere- you just gave free rein to the...more or less- natural course of events-"

"Stop trying to comfort me, Rick," she admonished briskly, the usual resoluteness partly back. "I don't deserve it!"

"But not everything's lost yet. I'm sure Elizabeth and William will eventually make it- they are too much in love not to make it."

Lady Catherine looked up at him, searching his gaze for the conviction his voice conveyed- and she actually found it. Instantly her whole posture changed from dismay to determination. "Alright," she stated, deftly shaking off Richard's hands and walking around her desk to sit in her huge chair. He watched her with a slight smile, sending a quiet prayer heavenward that the Iron Lady was obviously back.

"Rick," she addressed him impatiently and motioned for him to take a seat. "Sit down. We have to make plans about Miss McKinley- now!"

"Yes, Ma'am," he teased and complied with her demand, already looking forward to her ideas of exerting revenge.

continue reading The Lost Year here


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