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The Lost Year

Chapter 15 - Part 1

Elizabeth woke up gradually, her mind slowly drifting back and forth between consciousness and subconsciousness. Due to her bad dreams she was used to jerking awake more often than not, and she hated it with all her heart. So everytime the opportunity arose, she savoured those precious moments of being comfortably suspended between sleep and waking.

This morning, however, the comfort didn't last for long as the events of the past 24 hours came back to her in a blinding rush- William's letter, his departure, her dream. Her dream- the sudden recollection hit her hard, causing all those dark emotions to resurface with renewed potency. Too strong to be held at bay, they washed over her until she felt like drowning, involuntarily gasping for breath. If this was a hint at the misery she'd have to bear everytime part of her memory returned, she'd gladly put up with missing that damned year forever!

But then- this was just a small part of the puzzle and when put together, the whole picture might not be quite so awful after all. The thought had hardly formed when she already knew that she was trying to fool herself in a weak attempt to make recalling her past less painful, to forestall further anguish.

Shaking her head, she silently called herself to order- denial would not do. Everything indicated that it had been as bad as this new fragment of remembrance suggested. She'd have to accept the facts as they were revealed successively and deal with them for good. For as much as she loved William, the fear that the past would always stand between them if not dealt with properly, was too great to be ignored. Indeed, it carried the potential to seriously endanger their future together and thus make them both unhappy for the rest of their life.

At that thought, her emotions once again erupted into hot tears that seeped from the corners of her eyes and slid down into her hair. It felt so unpleasant that she wanted to move her head but couldn't find the strength to do so.

Of its own accord, though, her hand did move, reaching under her pillow, feeling around for the sheets of paper she'd stowed there the evening before. When her fingers finally came in touch with William's letter, she carefully pulled it out of its hiding place and pressed it to her heart- like she'd done many times before. Immediately solace spred through her body and soul, making her sigh with relief and bringing a gentle smile to her lips.

Turning to her side, the letter still clasped tightly to her chest, she marvelled at the comfort she drew from his words ever since she'd decided to believe in them. She felt safe and secure in the knowledge of how much he loved her- and how much she loved him in return. Indeed, her love had even grown all the more, when she'd finally figured out why he'd left. Initally she'd been shocked to the core by his unexpected departure, but after spending the better part of yesterday thinking through everything, his true reason had been all too clear- he'd done it to grant her time. Though- wanting nothing more than to tell him personlly about her decision- she seriously doubted the necessity of such a drastic measure. With a deep sigh, she told herself that there was no use fretting about his absence; if he missed her only half as much as she missed him, he wouldn't be able to stay away for long...

Meanwhile his letter was all she had, and she finally opened her eyes to read it once again. But when her gaze incidentally grazed the alarm clock on her bedside table she sat up with a gasp, William's letter momentarily forgotten. It was already 10 a.m.! -She'd overslept for three hours. Where was her father? Why hadn't he woken her up?

Quickly scrambling out of bed, she left her room and hurried down the stairs to the kitchen. As she pushed open the door, she called for Bob, but stopped dead in her tracks when instead of him she found Jane sitting at the table, reading a newspaper and nipping at a cup of coffee. At Elizabeth's sudden appearance, she looked up and smiled warmly. "Good morning, sleepy head." Her brow furrowed in concern when she noticed her sister's pale complexion. "You had a rough night again, hadn't you?"

Elizabeth just nodded and walked over to the counter to help herself to a cup of coffee too, while Jane continued: "Papa expected as much after...what has happened yesterday. He told me to let you sleep in before he went to work."

Leaning against the cupboards with her back turned to Jane, Elizabeth suddenly realised that she'd taken William's letter with her. Not wanting her sister to know about it yet, let alone let her have a glimpse of it, she quickly pondered were to hide it. Since she hadn't put on her dressing gown the options were rather limited. Unable to come up with anything else, she finally lifted her top and tucked the letter under the elastic waisteband of her pyjama pants. Relieved she then went about filling her mug.

"It wouldn't have been necessary, really, but I apprciate it anyway," she said between sips as she joined her sister at the table. "But what are you doing here, Janie? Don't you have to go to work, too?"

Jane smiled slyly and wriggled her eyebrows. "Well, that's the great advantage of working for Charles' company- schedule control is pretty much in my hands. -With everything that is going on at the moment, I really feel I should be here for you. And Charles feels the same."

Elizabeth patted her sister's hand that lay on the table between them. "Thank you, Janie, thank you both, but I'm afraid there's not much you can do."

"Well, at least I can listen," Jane shrugged. "That is- if you want to talk. And- to be honest- I have to tell you something too."

"Then you go first."

"Alright...I thought about Patricia yesterday."

Elizabeth's brows shot up in surprise and her mouth opened, but Jane forestalled an interruption by shaking her head. "No Lizzy, please listen. It's no secret that I never liked her- I told you more than once that I don't trust her, that she makes me feel uneasy. And now she has confirmed my less than flattering opinion of her by what she's done to you and William. And I talked to Charles about it too, and of course he wanted to dissuade me from doing anything- but I think it just fair-" Jane had talked herself into a breathless tirade, that was finally cut short by Elizabeth.

"Janie hey! Stop it, stop it- calm down! What are you talking about?"

Momentarily taken aback, Jane asked: "Didn't I mention it?" To which Elizabeth just shook her head.

"Oh! -Well, I was talking about getting back at Patricia, punishing her- of course."

Elizabeth almost choked on her coffee at Jane's matter-of-fact declaration. She sputtered and coughed, laughing and trying to catch her breath all at the same time. Jane patted and stroked her back, muttering in a mixture of concern and indignation: "So you think that's funny? -That's nothing to laugh about, really. -I'm being serious here..."

Having recovered reasonably, Elizabeth stared at her sister in disbelief. "No Janie- you just can't be serious!"

"Whyever not? -She mustn't get away with what she's done! She hurt you- and William- badly!" At length realising that Jane was meaning business, Elizabeth reined in her exhilaration and strove for graveness. "Janie, forgive me for being blunt here- but that's...crap."

Jane gasped for breath, but this time Elizabeth stopped her before she could utter a word. "No, you listen now- don't you see how absurd this is? What do you think, I should do? Reproach her, threaten her- and then what? Nothing! Nothing I could say or do would change the situation; the harm has been done. All we can do now is cut our losses. -Besides, this is none of your business- it's not even mine."

There was a short pause while Jane mulled over her sister's words. As much as she disliked it, she had to admit that Elizabeth was right- she hadn't really thought beyond the notion of taking revenge. And while it was true that it was none of her business...

"Why do you feel it's none of your business either, Lizzy? After all, you are affected."

"I am, Janie, but merely by chance...William was her ultimate goal- he was the one she was after, not me. I was the exchangeable part in this scheme; any woman by his side would have been equally affected. That it was me, of all people, was fortunate for her since it wasn't really hard to...knock me off balance. And she used me perfectly to her advantage, but I was just the means- William was the target."

Her brows drawn together in consideration, Jane shook her head slowly. "I wonder what she was thinking, I just can't comprehend...I mean, what sort of...human being would do such a thing- would deliberately destroy someone's happiness."

Elizabeth heaved a sigh and, with a knowing smile, put a hand on her sister's arm. "This, Janie, is something you will never be able to understand."

"But you do?" Jane shot back and nudged her playfully.

"Alright- no...not really, not all of it, but partly, yes...because I'm now pretty sure- no, definitely sure, beyond a doubt- that Patricia and Tom had an affair-" Jane gasped even louder than before, her eyes round as saucers. "Do you remember anything, Lizzy?" she asked in a breathless whisper.

"No, I don't- not this part, at least- provided that I ever knew, of course. I...that is...I had a dream last night, and I know that it was another...fragement of memory, but not enough yet to draw any conclusions."

"Then how do you know? From what you've told me about your fight, I understood that William merely hinted at it."

Elizabeth briefly thought about still keeping the letter a secret, but suddenly there seemed to be no sound reason to do so. She sighed deeply and explained. Hanging on her sister's lips, Jane listened with rapt attention. When Elizabeth was finished, a quiet 'wow' was all she could muster as a first answer, but her hand curled tightly around her sister's in an attempt to give comfort as much as gain it. Her voice was full of compassion when she finally spoke. "Oh Lizzy, you really must've been shocked."

"Strangely enough, not as much as you would think," Elizabeth replied with a slight shake of her head. "I mean, I've had enough hints already to realise that something has been terribly wrong with my marriage, haven't I? Of course it was not easy to see it in cold print, but after giving it some thought, I couldn't but believe William's every word. And that was when I became really distressed- for mistrusting him again."

"It wasn't your fault, Lizzy, neither then nor now," Jane hurried to reassure her.

"I know that, Janie, but still- isn't it quite...astounding that he should care about me- even love me- any longer? Every other man would have walked out on me by now, I'm sure."

Instead of replying, Jane dropped her gaze and stared into her coffee cup. Brows furrowed in confusion, Elizabeth glanced at her sister's bowed head. "What is it, Janie?"

Ever so slowly Jane looked up again with sorrow-filled eyes. "Didn't William do just that, Lizzy? Walk out on you, I mean?" she asked gently.

For a few seconds, Elizabeth stared at her sister in dumbfounded silence. Then she started to laugh. "No Janie! No, he definitely did not!"

Ignoring her sister's mirth, Jane remaind serious with a small hint of annoyance edging her tone. "But what then? He's gone, isn't he?" Her voice dropped deep, as she repeated William's words. "'I need distance- physically and mentally- to come to terms with everything', that's what he said. Now, what does this sound like?"

"Like an excuse, a good one at that," Elizabeth retorted unperturbed.

"What?!"

"Oh Janie, as if you didn't know him! William's a very private person. Did it never occur to you that he didn't want to discuss his real reasons with Charles and you? He likes to keep things strictly between those involved- and he hates to talk about his feelings. -He's quite bad at it too, believe me," she added while rolling her eyes heavenward.

All the while Jane watched Elizabeth closely, concentrated on her every expression, taking in her every word. Finally she sat back in her chair and inhaled deeply. "I'm surprised to see how confident you are about a happy outcome to this whole mess. When I called yesterday, you seemed to be so desperate, and now...I mean, it's great to see you so optimistic again, but are you really that sure?"

Elizabeth stood and walked over to the window to stare outside, mimicking William's favourite habit. Jane couldn't help but smile slightly at her sister's unintentional action- obviously the two lovers had already influenced each other more than could be expected after so short an affair.

"Actually Janie, I was shaken, deeply disturbed- if you will. William's unexpected appearance, the contents of his letter- and then you, telling me that he was leaving. I was quite desperate, yes- and at first I thought he was walking out on me. And," she took a shaky breath, "I cried my eyes out."

Jane left her chair and joined Elizabeth at the window, wordlessly embracing her from behind. "What changed your mind then?" she asked softly.

"When I was through with crying, I reread the letter several times, remembered what he'd said after our fight, and finally it all became clear to me- I love him, I believe him and I trust in his love for me." She turned to face her sister. "And then I understood that he has left to grant me time, Janie. I have more or less asked for it, so I can't really blame him. I told him that I needed my past back before I could move on with my future, and he did nothing but respect it."

"That sounds very much like William," Jane smiled warmly. "And since you are so sure about his motives, who am I to doubt them? I can see that you've come to know him very well- obviously even better than Charles and I do."

"Yes," Elizabeth nodded. "It's amazing, isn't it? I feel as if I'd known him all my life. And just a few weeks ago, I didn't like him at all, but now, just the thought of never being with him again..." her voice caught and her eyes grew moist.

"Hey," Jane squeezed her upper arms and looked at her insistently. "Don't even think about it. Where's your optimism? Not two minutes ago you were so sure that everything will be alright." Elizabeth wiped her eyes and managed a wobbly smile. "I know- it seems I'm a little confused these days."

Jane smiled gently and took her in her arms again. "My poor Lizzy...but that's no wonder. -Just don't forget to be positive!"

The sisters stood in silence until Jane inhaled deepy and dropped the matter without further ado. "Now, enough of that depressive stuff. I think you're in dire need for some cheering up. Let's talk about tomorrow- I gather you don't have any plans yet?" Unsure about what her sister was referring to, Elizabeth looked at her blank-faced. "Exactely what I thought," Jane went on with a twinkle in her eyes. "Tomorrow's New Year's eve, Lizzy."

At first Elizabeth laughed, "Oh yes, of course, I've completely forgotten!" Then her brows pulled into a deep frown. "And don't you call my thoughts and feelings depressive stuff, or I will never bare my soul to you again," she growled while trying to hide a smile.

Jane gave a dismissive shrug. "Well, what can I say- they are depressive- and I don't believe in your idle threats."

Elizabeth sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes. "Alright, you win, I lose. I admit that I couldn't do without you." Ignoring Jane's smug expression, she took her hand and dragged her to the door. "Come upstairs with me and tell me about your plans while I get dressed. It's almost noon, but I figure I should show up at work before they forget what I look like."

Chapter 15 - Part 2

It was late in the afternoon when Patricia was getting ready to go out. Dressed in a sheer silk robe, and on her way to the bedroom to dress, she was stopped by a knock on the door to her suite. Assuming it was room service with the drink she'd ordered a few minutes ago, she quickly crossed the living room to answer.

As she pulled the door open, she gasped and felt all color drain from her face. In a flash she thought about slamming it shut again immediately, but to her dismay she found herself rendered immobile.

Ankles crossed, hands buried in his pockets, Richard leaned leisurely against the door frame and smiled down at her, or rather bared his teeth at her because the glint in his eyes was cold as ice. "Well, well, well, Patricia," he drawled, his gaze moving slowly over her, from head to toe and back again. "So...how have you been?"

Already unnerved by his close scrutiny, she started at his unexpected question. The instant she'd seen him, she'd known that something had gone terribly wrong with her brilliant plan and she braced herself for a blunt accusation, a head-on attack; but she'd not counted on an attempt at polite conversation. At a complete loss for words, she could only watch as he pushed away from the door frame and stepped around her to saunter into her living room. He looked around, then gave a low whistle. "Hey, that's splendid- I never knew my aunt had such good taste."

The second his casual remark registered, Patricia realised what a huge mistake she'd made. Everything inside her went still with shock- for a moment she thought that even her heart had stopped beating. Yet, instead of dropping dead on the spot, she had to face the failure of her plans through her own foolishness. For many months now she'd been devising and discarding schemes and strategies to get back at William, had made her longing for revenge the center of her life, just to see it all collapse in a split second. And the worst of it was that Richard stood there and watched while she threatened to crumble under the onslaught of utter frustration and deep embarrassment.

"Stupid mistake, Patricia," he noted softly. "Stupid...You should have stayed away."

On first impulse she wanted to rush into defending herself, find excuses for her actions. But as she took in his self-satisfied grin, blind rage leapt to life inside her and made her press her lips together tightly- no way was she going to admit anything.

Quickly gathering her wits, she mentally checked the present situation and to her relief found that not everything was lost yet- after all, William was gone. She'd cut him to the quick, just as she'd intended to. And up to this point her behaviour had not given away what she'd been up to and Collins had been exceedingly discreet in his tasks. Richard simply couldn't know what she'd done and she would by no means reveal the truth.

After carefully clearing her throat, she addressed him for the first time since he'd invaded her private sphere. "I've no idea what you are referring to, Rick, other than maybe my unfortunate choice of hotel. I'm in London to visit some old friends of mine, is all." Richard's loud laugh made her wince despite herself. "Friends of yours, Patricia?" he asked with barely concealed sarcasm in his voice. "I never knew you were actually able to make friends."

"There's a lot you don't know about me, Rick," Patricia huffed and squared her shoulders.

"Well...that remains to be seen..." he retorted quietly, his irritating smile never faltering, his cold eyes skimming up and down her body once again.

Summoning up all her willpower Patricia suppressed the urge to cross her arms over her chest to protect herself from his piercing gaze. She was determined not to show her discomfort, but no way would she stand there any longer and allow him to intimidate her. Purposely ignoring his disconcerting remark, she even managed a small smile. "You'll have to excuse me, Rick. I've got to put on something more...appropriate. I'll be back in just a minute." With that she turned on her heels and strolled to the door of the adjoining room.

Richard watched her retreat, not for a second fooled by her seemingly casual attitude- he could feel caution and insecurity radiate from her body. Unable to restrain himself, he gave her something more to get flustered. "No need to hurry, Patricia- take your time. I'll wait- no matter how long it takes."

Her confident stride faltered briefly, but she didn't stop. If anything, her spine stiffened even more as she quickly passed the threshold and pulled the door closed behind her.

Richard grinned broadly, immensely enjoying the obvious cat-and-mouse game that was afoot; and Patricia seemed to be a deserving adversary. Rubbing his hands in anticipation, he strode to the couch and dropped into the soft cushions, waiting for the game to proceed.

On the other side of the door, Patricia slumped against the cool wood with her eyes tightly shut, while she took a few deep breaths to get a grip on her rattled nerves. All the time she silently scolded herself for the stupid mistake she'd made. To check into one of Lady Cat's hotels really was the silliest thing to do! But she'd been so absorbed in her plans that she'd been foolishly careless about her choice of accommodation- in fact, she hadn't even given it a single thought. Dumb- but it couldn't be helped. She'd have to deal with the consequences somehow and be done with it.

Feeling considerably more at ease, she inhaled deeply once more and straightened away from the door. On her way to the closet to retrieve her clothes, she wondered briefly how Richard fit into the picture. Very quickly she discerned that there was only one reasonable explanation.

Somebody had obviously recognised her and gone straight to Lady Cat to report the news; and the old frump had sent her nephew to get rid of her.

While she put on pants and a sweater, she weighed her options how to react to what was surely to come. With a smile she realised that there were many to consider: compliance, resistance, aggression, understanding, or she could act indifferent, pathetic, cordial...a hard choice. She bit her lower lip, trying to make a decision- and in the end settled for nonchalance. Because in truth it really didn't matter...

Filled with renewed confidence, she walked back to the door to rejoin Richard. Since she had everything under control again, she thought she might even enjoy a battle royal with him as an opponent. Pushing open the door, she stepped into the living room and spotted him sitting on the couch. "So I gather you're playing errand-boy for the old bat?" she addressed him with a smirk.

Richard didn't answer, instead his mouth compressed into a thin line that clearly served to hide a sly smile while he briefly glanced to the left and then back at her.

Patricia's head whipped around in alarm at the same time as Lady Catherine's prim voice filled the room. "Miss McKinley, you're adding verbal slander to your list of transgressions. Let me tell you once and for all that I won't tolerate either. And to answer your rude question- no, I did not send Richard on my behalf. He volunteered- quite eagerly I might add- for throwing you out himself."

Patricia listened in growing horror, her mind reeling as all the possible meanings behind Lady Catherine's punctuated words tumbled through her befuddled brain. Utterly shaken by her inner turmoil, she couldn't prevent a telling gasp from slipping past the lump in her throat. Once again deeply mortified, she let her appalled gaze dart back and forth between aunt and nephew to gauge their reaction.

But all she saw was Richard snuggling deeper into the cushions of the couch, perfectly relaxed, and obviously having the time of his life, and Lady Catherine stepping out of the shadows that had so effectively hidden her from sight and slowly approaching her.

Unable to stop herself, Patricia took a step backward in startled retreat as the petite, old woman drew to a halt in front of her, scowling up at her in open hostility. Her instincts told her to duck, but she fought them with all her might in an effort to retain at least a small amount of dignity. It was then that the ridiculousness of the circumstances occurred to her; she was being intimidated by a notorious scoundrel and his dwarfish- albeit potent- aunt, who could hold nothing against her but her being in the wrong place. Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside her as her head felt very light all of a sudden.

It must have shown on her face, because Lady Catherine's eyes narrowed in anger. "It seems you're totally unaware of the seriousness of this matter, Miss McKinley, or else you wouldn't find this amusing in the least," she hissed aggressively. Rendered speechless by this seething statement, Patricia cast an unsettled glance over the smaller woman's head, just to see Richard furrow his brow and shake his head at her in quiet, mock disapproval.

His derision was enough to send her temper over the edge; she went from perplexity to outrage in mere seconds. She would not put up with this any longer- Lady Catherine treating her as if she were the lowest of criminals and Richard making fun of her. No matter what she'd done, and what they might know about it, she didn't deserve to be dealt with so disdainfully. Rising to her full height, she drew her gaze back to Lady Catherine, staring down at the smaller woman in open rage.

"I've had enough of your insinuations! I will not accept your rude manner any longer," she huffed. "You've no right whatsoever to disturb my privacy and-"

"I beg to differ, Miss McKinley," Lady Catherine cut in sharply. "This is my hotel, which gives me every right to do as I please."

Lifting her chin another inch, Patricia retorted haughtily: "Then do as you please- I'm not afraid of you!"

"Wrong attitude, Miss McKinley," Lady Catherine said, her soft voice a stark contrast to the angry sparkle in her eyes. "You might want to reconsider, once we're finished. -Now, I want you to pack your bags and leave- without delay."

"Very well," Patricia nodded, utterly unperturbed, because this was exactly what she'd expected to happen. "As soon as I've found another hotel, I'll be out of here." And then, unable to resist, she added: "I didn't like it anyway."

About to turn around, so they wouldn't see the victorious grin on her face, she was stopped cold by Lady Catherine. "There seems to be a misunderstanding, I'm afraid..."

Patricia froze, her grin slipping away into a frown of tense anticipation. Not quite sure of what was to come, she slowly brought her gaze back to Lady Catherine's. "A misunderstanding?"

"Yes, Miss McKinley. It was my fault though- I didn't express myself correctly. I want you to leave London- and stay away for good."

Feeling as if she'd been hit square in the chest, Patricia gasped for breath. "What..." she began, then swallowed hard, struggling to keep her croaking voice in check. "You can't do that," she finally managed. "I'm free to go and stay wherever I want- you can't limit my personal liberty."

"In this case, Miss McKinley, I can," Lady Catherine replied, unmoved, "and I will. You threw down the gauntlet and I accepted it- but let me warn you that you've picked the wrong enemy. For I'm not to be trifled with, and there's hardly anything I wouldn't do to win."

As dread settled in the pit of her stomach, Patricia desperately fought to hold on to her common sense. Another insinuation- yet again, no open accusation. They seemed to have some strong suspicions but no proof at all. Were they maybe trying to lure her into a confession? She almost snorted aloud- no way would she do them the favour to own up to anything! They couldn't really think her that stupid, could they? At that notion, her uneasiness was instantly replaced by fury. A challenge was obviously under way, and she wasn't one to simply back down. If they really knew what she'd done, she wanted them to admit it openly- no more playing hide and seek. "As I already told Richard," she said, resting her hands on her hips in a gesture of unrestrained anger, "I fail to see the reason for your...visit. Would you care to enlighten me?"

Lady Catherine's eyes widened momentarily at Patricia's unexpected audacity, but she quickly contained her amazement. Accepting that the time for frankness had come, she slightly inclined her head in agreement. "Very well then, Miss McKinley. Apart from the bold arrogance to make yourself comfortable in one of my hotels, you hired one of my employees to gather information about my nephew- and then used it against him in the cruelest of ways!"

Patricia was torn between anger and relief as she took in Lady Catherine's words. Anger about Collins who was obviously the one who'd betrayed her. But on the other hand, she was relieved to have it all in the open at last- all those inexplicit hints had been driving her crazy. Now that she knew what the old witch had evidently known all along, she was convinced that there was not much to come yet that she couldn't handle. Self-confidence kicked in strongly, making her brazen and ready to meet her enemies head-on. "So?" she replied proudly. "The deed is done. There's no way for you to change what I've done."

"True," Lady Catherine conceded, "but I can make sure that you'll never get another chance to do anything like it again."

"How so?" Patricia asked with mild curiosity, raising her hand to casually study her fingernails. A perfect gesture to show how little she cared about the answer.

Silence ensued, growing more and more uncomfortable the longer it lasted. Patricia knew that Lady Catherine was waiting for her to look up again, but she fiercely fought the urge to do so, determined not to give in. In the end, however, Richard duped her. He chuckled audibly, taking her by surprise, and her head came up before she could hold back the movement. She glared at him angrily then focused her gaze on Lady Catherine, careful to keep her expression indifferent.

"Interested after all, Miss McKinley?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued: "If you refuse to do as I ask, I will not hesitate to inform your family about the double life you've lived the past few years."

"My family will not believe you!" Patricia blurted out, hectic colour rising in her cheeks. "You have no proof for your ridiculous accusations!"

"Rest assured, Miss McKinley, that I've sufficient proof to convince your family. And since they know about your past... dealings with your cousin-"

"You can't do that!" Patricia shouted furiously, taking a threatening step towards the smaller woman.

Out of the corner of her eyes Lady Catherine saw Richard rise from the couch. With a quick shake of her wrist, she told him to stay where he was while she coolly faced Patricia's fury.

"Once again- I can and I will, if necessary."

Patricia kept on staring down at Lady Catherine, her expression slowly changing from anger to startled realisation- she was trapped. Her family had long since lost any trust they'd had in her; their relationship was strained, to say the least. One more lapse- and this was a considered a major lapse, if there ever had been one- and she could kiss her monthly allowance goodbye for good, and her inheritance, for that matter. Moreover- they would ban her from all the family properties, and in the end she literally would have nowhere to go. Unbeknownst to her, a deep sigh escaped her. Oh well, she'd have to back down and concede defeat...yet, seen on the whole, her plan had been a success, hadn't it?

But while she was still cheering about her victory, it occurred to her that in truth it had been of little help for her bruised feelings. It had done nothing to lessen her love for Tom, or the longing she felt everytime she thought about him...Her brows furrowed as doubt began to gnaw on her conviction; had her scheme been of any use at all...Of course it had- just to know that William suffered almost as much as she did, relieved her a little. Didn't it show clearly that she'd done right after all? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth- there was nothing wrong with that, was there?

"I don't think that there's anything else to be said, Miss McKinley. If you get ready to leave now, I guarantuee that I will do everything in my power to conceal your misdeeds," Lady Catherine's prim voice interrupted her thoughts.

Patricia was jerked back to the present instantly, but too late to hear the entire statement. All her preoccupied mind registered were those last words: '...your misdeeds'. She immediately started up on them, the emotional rollercoaster she'd been riding since Richard's appearance taking her to yet another height.

"My misdeeds?" she repeated in genuine indignation and- her tone becoming slightly hysterical- once again. "My misdeeds! -What a joke!" Unable to contain her surging feelings, she wrapped her arms around herself and began to pace the room, heedless of any obstacles in her way.

"Don't you understand that I haven't done anything wrong- he got what he deserved! I exerted revenge, that's what I did! There's nothing wrong in that!"

Lady Catherine stepped aside swiftly to avoid a collision, regarding her with narrowed eyes, silently asking herself whether she was audience to a masterful performance, or to an authentic mental breakdown.

Richard for his part sat immobile, watching her antics with cocked eyebrows, at first somewhat taken aback by her vehement reaction but all too soon fully convinced that she'd obviously gone stark raving mad.

Patricia walked back and forth, rattling on about what injustice had been done to her. That the only man she'd ever loved had been killed and that her whole misery was entirely William's fault. Both aunt and nephew started at that declaration, their gazes connecting across the room, wordlessly conveying their mutual assessment of the situation- and not in the least surprised that they found nothing but accordance; though perhaps they would have used very different phrases to express their opinions of Patricia's state of mind.

Straightening her spine in determination, Lady Catherine moved to stop the raging woman, but Richard held her back with a decided shake of his head. When she hesitated to compy with his instruction, a silent battle of wills ensued that saw him as the winner as he finally managed to keep her in place with a permeating glare.

Task accomplished to his satisfaction, Richard slowly rose to his feet, feeling a tad disappointed that the hassle with Patricia he'd been so looking forward to had obviously come to an abrupt end. By no means was she the equal opponent- neither for him, nor for his aunt- he'd expected her to be, not by a long shot.

Rounding the small coffee table in front of him, he took a step forward, thus effectively blocking Patricia's path. Oblivious to what was going on around her, she bumped into him and drew back immediately with an exasperated expletive. Before she could get away, he clasped her upper arms, careful to keep his grip light, and spoke her name quietly, trying to calm her down. But his effort had quite the opposite effect; hot colour tainted Patricia's cheekbones and her face contorted with rage. Breaking away from his hold, she rounded upon him: "Don't touch me, you jerk! I hate you! You and your damned stuck-up family!"

"Miss McKinley!" Lady Catherine stepped in, her voice razorsharp. "Watch your mouth!"

"Shut up, old frump! I won't be order about by you!" Patricia retorted furiously, moving as if to take a step closer.

Richard moved forward, effectively putting himself between the two women, his back turned to Lady Catherine. "That's quite enough, Patricia," he growled, jamming his hands into his pockets lest he strangle her then and there. "You'd better grab your things and get lost before I forget my good manners and throw you out."

Stubbornly Patricia crossed her arms over her chest, widened her stance as if to prepare herself for an attack and glared at him. "Try," she prompted him.

Before he react in any way, he heard Lady Catherine grumble behind him: "I've had it." With that she turned to the telephone and called security.

Half an hour later they were back in Lady Catherine's office. While she sat down behind her desk, Richard slumped into the chair across from her and stretched out his long legs. "Well, that wasn't really as funny as I'd expected," he muttered sulkily.

Lady Catherine cast him an amused glance and shrugged. "Could be you expected too much- I, for one, had quite a good time."

Richard shook his head, still trying to digest the past events. "You know that I've always disliked her, we all did- but today her behaviour exceeded my boldest expectations...man, some of her curses actually made me blush."

His aunt chuckled, thinking that the two security guards who'd arrived at the suite immediately after her call hadn't fared much better than her poor nephew. Though their stony expressions hadn't given away a thing, she'd seen their ears redden traitorously. Even with them around, Patricia had tried to offer resistance. Lady Catherine seriously wondered if she hadn't in truth enjoyed the show- being the center of everyone's attention did that to some people.

But in the end, with the two guards towering above her, watching her every step as she collected her belongings and a threat to call the police if she didn't cooperate properly, she'd finally given in. Her swearing hadn't stopped though; she'd continued prattling away, only in a lower voice.

Finally, when she'd been ready to go, they'd all escorted her down the backstairs and out of the hotel. With another hefty oath she'd climbed into a waiting cab and was gone- much to everyone's relief.

Richard inhaled deeply and rose from his chair. "Anyway, I'm glad we got rid of her- and I really hope not to see her ever again."

"I'm with you, Rick, with all my heart," Lady Catherine agreed. "Where are you going?"

He walked around the desk to her side. "I'm going to take you to a well-deserved supper, Lady Cat." He bowed gracefully and extended his arm to her. "Will you do me the honour?"

Standing up, she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and playfully winked at him. "The honour is mine, Sir Rick. Be my guest."

While the left for her privat dining room, Lady Catherine's thoughts were still occupied with the events of the day. She really hoped that this was the last time she'd had to deal with Patricia, but somehow she had her doubts. A feeling of uneasiness had settled in the pit of her stomach and was not to be quenched. However, Patricia was gone- so she'd achieved her aim for now, and that was all that counted in her book.

Chapter 15 - Part 3

They were dancing, slowly swaying to the gentle rhythm of some far-away tune. With his nose buried in her hair and his arms looped around her soft body, he revelled in the scent of her and the feel of her. As she snuggled closer with a small content sigh, he tightened his embrace, pulling her more firmly against him. His heartbeat accelerated when he felt her puckered nipples poke into his chest and her thigh brush his stiffening penis.

She lifted her head and looked up at him, her beautiful eyes full of love and desire. Their gazes locked briefly before his dropped to her rosy lips. They were moist and slightly parted, her breath rushing through in soft choppy pants. Unable to resist temptation, he bent his head and kissed her tenderly.

Her hands left his waist and slid upward along his spine in a sensuous caress until they reached his neck. There her slender fingers curled around his bare skin while she went on tiptoe to deepen their kiss. He groaned and slanted his head to thrust his tongue into the hot depth of her mouth. When she moaned in longing, he cupped her buttocks and brought them groin to groin. In answer, she opened her legs and hooked them around his waist, straining against the ridge of his erection.

Never breaking their kiss, he took a few staggering steps until his shin bumped into the side of his bed. Slowly he lowered her to the soft mattress, coming down with her to kneel between her wide spread thighs. Fascinated by the sight of her aroused naked body, he wondered fleetingly where their clothes had gone- or had they ever worn any?

She reached out for him, whispering his name on an erratic sigh, expelling all thoughts from his mind but that of their imminent reunion. Yet, despite her urgency, he took his time caressing her, from the sensitive skin just above her neatly curled pubic hair, up her soft belly to her puckered nipples. He licked and suckled her, filling his senses with her incredibly sweet taste, making her writhe beneath him in mindless arousal, until they both couldn't stand it any longer. He then covered her quivering body with his and buried himself in her to the hilt with one hard stroke.

Crying out in heady pleasure, already on the verge of fulfillment, they stilled, not wanting it to end so quickly. But once again she looped her legs around his waist, drawing him even deeper into her tight, moist heat.

Her action destroyed the precarious hold he'd had on his self-control and with a harsh groan he began to thrust powerfully. Her hips undulating, she joined his rhythm, never missing a beat, her ardour and fervency matching his.

Accompanied by throaty sobs and moans and the sound of naked flesh coming together and parting again, they swiftly climbed the peak. She reached it first and went over the edge, calling out his name repeatedly, beckoning him to follow her into oblivion.

With one last deft stroke, he did, holding himself deeply inside her, his hot seed spurting into her in a mind-numbing release that made him cry out in ecstasy.

The violence of his climax woke him up, his body straining and shuddering as he spilled himself into the bedclothes. Sweating and panting, haze and confusion shrouding his brain, he extended an arm to reach for the warm body he thought he'd only just left. When he encountered nothing but emptiness, he slowly began to realise what had just happened- he'd been dreaming; a dream so intense that he'd really believed to be with her.

A torrent of emotions came crushing down on him, the foremost being sadness and loneliness; but they were followed quickly by deep mortification and disgust with himself as he became aware of the sticky wetness that stained his blanket. With a jerky movement he threw it back and rolled over to sit on the side of his bed, still getting caught occasionally by involuntary tremors as his nerve endings slowly calmed in the aftermath of his orgasm.

Dear God, where was his self-control? He wondered as he sat there, with his elbows resting on his thighs and his head hanging in desperation. He hadn't had a wet dream since...he couldn't even remember- in any case, it hadn't occurred since he'd been old enough to learn to restrain himself. To a man who was used to exerting control over his actions and emotions, not matter the situation he found himself in, this was the worst experience imaginable. Passing a hand through his hair, he smiled wryly. Shouldn't he know by now that he had no control over himself whatsoever where Elizabeth was concerned?

Details of his dream suddenly came back to him in vivid sight and sound: her flushed body writhing beneath him in fervid arousal, her voice calling out his name as she reached her peak, the feeling of her body tightening around his shaft.

His loins clenched in a new surge of passion so strong, it was well beyond him- again- to hold it in check. He felt a deep blush of humiliation crawl into his face and shook his head vigorously to get rid of those disconcerting images.

With a disgruntled snort, he stood up and walked away from the bed in an effort to put distance between himself and the site of his unsettling experience. From the opposite corner of the room he eyed it with a frown, wondering how he would ever be able to find another minute's rest in it. Presently he couldn't even image getting near to it again. But he'd have to sooner or later, to change the dirty bedclothes. Not yet, though- first of all he'd take a long, cold shower.

He huffed angrily as he went into the bathroom. After switching on the light, he stood above the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The man who stared back at him looked satisfied- physically satisfied. Eyes glazed and heavy-lidded, cheeks still flushed, topped with dishevelled curls. "Damn," he muttered in frustration, scowling at the raspy tone of his voice- he even sounded satisfied! The contrast between his looks and the way he felt couldn't be stronger.

Heaving a discontented sigh, he turned away from his mirror image and stepped into the shower stall. He reached for the tab with the shiny blue mark, when his hand stopped in indecision- it was one thing to think about the proverbial 'cold shower', but to actually take it was something completely different. A shiver ran through him, sending goose bumps up and down his body as he imagined the icy water pouring down on him. He shook his head in refusal, just to hear his cousin's voice ringing in his ears: 'Being gutless again, dear cousin?'

"Yep- so what? Stop me if you can," he growled defiantly and turned on the tab with the bright red mark as far as it would go.

While he savoured the comfortably warm jet of water flowing down his body, he once again wondered what to do next. Yesterday evening he'd seriously considered going back home. But how could he now? This profound lack of self-control went far beyond his own expectations. There was no predicting his reaction to her, should he meet her face to face.

Not that he'd planned on meeting her- he'd pondered returning to England but avoiding London and its vicinity and going to Pemberley instead. In light of his dream, however, even Pemberley seemed too near to the temptation that was Elizabeth. He wouldn't be able to trust himself when she was that close to him. In a moment of weakness he might give in to his desires and rush to her without second thought- and then what?

'And then nothing,' he admonished himself silently. Because he wouldn't do it- couldn't go back home just yet. She had asked him for time and he'd granted it- if not verbally, in his mind he had anyway. The next step was hers to take; all he could do was wait for her decision. As much as he hated being inactive, in this case he had no other choice- if he wanted another chance with her, he had to be patient...

Casting a wary glance downward to see his rampant manhood sticking out in a semi-erect state, he couldn't help but think that his patience would be put to a hard test. Even though it was only two days since he'd last seen Elizabeth, his raging hormones and reeling mind made him feel as if they'd been already separated for weeks. He wondered fleetingly if he would ever be able to find any peace again without her by his side.

Maybe he should set aside all his qualms and return home nonetheless? What was the worst thing he would have to expect? Her anger, her contempt, her rejection...Just the very idea hurt so much that he let out an agonised groan.

He dipped his head back and let the water pound down on his face, hoping that it would help to chase away the hurtful thoughts. Wasn't it as likely that she'd welcome him with open arms? His letter may have somehow convinced her of his honesty, made her understand how he'd felt and told her how much he loved her.

No, surely she'd never doubted his love for her, he thought as he shook his head and sent drops of water flying. Recalling their argument, he couldn't remember anything she'd said that called his feelings into question. And he just knew that she loved him back...for if she didn't, she could never have given herself to him so freely, could she?

With a heavy sigh of utter confusion he turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. He grabbed a towel and slowly began to dry himself while walking back into the bedroom. What he really needed most of all was certainty, one way or the other. Yet, he was too afraid to go ahead and demand a decision from her. She might very well reject him despite the love she felt just because she thought she couldn't trust him anymore; and furthermore, he wasn't in the position to demand anything from her.

Well aware of her gracious heart though, he hoped that she would forgive him...eventually- but not after only 48 hours. This was too important a decision for both of them to be made in haste. She would have to be absolutely sure- beyond a doubt- that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. And to have a future together, he needed her to trust him as much as he needed her to love him.

As he slipped into a pair of boxers and an old tee-shirt, he promised himself once again not to rush her. It wouldn't do to go back home right now- he'd stay at least a week, or maybe two and then reconsider the possibility of returning.

But until then he needed something to do, something to distract him effectively, so he wouldn't go crazy thinking about her. Work- why shouldn't he be able to work for his company from here? He had a telephone, if not his mobile, and he could get a laptop- he'd had the house reequipped a few years ago with all the necessary lines- and that was pretty much all he needed. Glad to have finally found something reasonable to do, he rubbed his hands in anticipation and swiftly turned around to head for his study.

When his gaze fell on the bed with its crumpled sheets, however, he stopped in his tracks and frowned in annoyance. First things first- he'd quickly change the stained bedclothes and throw them into the washing machine, and then call his secretary.

Twenty minutes later he was in his study, talking to Emily on the phone. "I just don't want anyone to know where I am- not even Georgiana. You're the only one who can reach me and I intend to keep it this way."

He listened for a while, then rolled his eyes heavenward and interrupted her rant: "What's the problem? If an emergency should arise, I'll be home in no time. Other than that, all I want to talk about is business- no private stuff. I don't want to hear from Rick or Charles or Aunt Cat-"

Emily obviously disagreed, but this time he nodded: "Alright, except for Georgie- but don't tell her where I am. I'm going to call her later and explain everything. But now I'm going to buy a laptop and get online as fast as possible. I'll send you an email when I'm ready. Tomorrow-"

He was stopped as Emily cut him off. His face went blank at her words.

"What are you talking about- not tomorrow?" he finally asked.

"Oh, of course, I see- today's New Year's Eve..."

"No, no, it's alright...on the second then...yes, thank you- the same for you...good-bye, Emily."

Slowly he put down the receiver and sat there pensively. He hadn't been aware that it was the 31st of December- he definitely didn't want to be alone on the forthcoming evening. He would in all likelihood spend it being sorry for himself and getting drunk slowly but surely over his misery to be separated from his love.

Immediately Elizabeth appeared before his mind's eye, the thought of her squeezing his heart. He wanted so much to be with her that her absence hurt almost physically. For a few moments he closed his eyes and breathed deeply to get his emotions back under control. He just couldn't let himself go like this- he had to get into motion and carry out his plan of rearranging his study to have an efficient working place.

Filled with new determination, he stood up and left for his bedroom to get dressed. On the way he began to mentally skim the list of friends he could call and spend the upcoming evening with.

Chapter 16 - Part 1

During the nights- and days- following New Year's Eve, Elizabeth's memory continued to return bit by bit. When she slept, she dreamt about Tom and their life together; when she was awake she experienced short flashbacks that abruptly emerged out of nowhere. She mainly recalled small incidents, impressions and emotions; and thus, with agonising slowness, a painful picture formed of the last months of her marriage. Soon it became clear that she'd been indeed very unhappy, just as her father- and maybe Jane too, though she'd never really said as much- had suspected. But the events that she most of all craved to remember- those William had told her about in his letter- still remained in the black void the accident had caused in her mind.

Every night when she went to bed, she both feared and anticipated falling asleep and plunging again into the seemingly endless depth of her memory. Fear because of the bitter feelings that inevitably came along with each small remembrance; anticipation because she could hardly wait to relive her former interactions with William.

Not that she mistrusted him any longer; in fact, by now she believed his every word and found great solace and security in the knowledge of his love. It helped her to overcome the sadness that encompassed her every time she woke from another dream about her failed marriage like nothing else could. Yet, the promise of a future with the man she loved with all her heart, couldn't appease her desire to remember the past events herself.

All the different hints and accounts she got from other people were tainted with their personal thoughts and feelings and could not at all be considered unbiased. Being the only one who'd actually lived through all of it, she was more than ever unwilling to put up with anything less than her own recollection; because the urge to know went far beyond mere curiosity. It was borne out of a deep-rooted fear that a past she couldn't leave behind her for good, might one day return to haunt her future.

But when time passed and her mind refused to comply with her wishes, she grew impatient and annoyed. Again and again she thought about the dream she'd had at Netherfield- and the subsequent flashback. Since she knew by now that they'd both been fragments of her memory, she wondered what might have caused them.

In the end she could draw only one logical conclusion: it must have been William's presence, and all the feelings their repeated lovemaking and heated argument called forth. If her assumption was correct- and somehow she didn't doubt that it was- she'd definitely made the wrong decision. Instead of needing time without him, she obviously needed more time with him- she needed him by her side. But he'd gone away, and for all she knew he could be pretty much anywhere. So how was she supposed to get in touch with him?

The longer she thought, the more her annoyance grew. From simmering well beneath the surface, it turned to a full conflagration of pure anger- against him. If he couldn't stand being near her, why on earth hadn't he gone to Pemberley? Surely that would have been far enough! Oh, but no, he had to do the melodramatic thing and climb into some damn airplane to go to only god knew where! What an utterly selfish thing to do! Hadn't it occurred to him that he'd make it impossible for her to reach him?

Though she knew she was being highly irrational, she just couldn't help herself- she needed an outlet for her frustration with the whole situation. At last she thought it best to sleep on it, and sure enough, the next day her anger had vanished into thin air; she was even capable of laughing at the irony of it all.

A week after William's unexpected departure, she finally decided to take action. Someone had to know where he was! Not Jane and Charles, though; her sister called at least once a day to ask if she'd had word from him, making it obvious that her initial fret about what she still regarded as inconsiderate had long since changed into genuine worry. During one of those daily calls, Jane had also informed her that William's whereabouts were also unknown to his relatives. So who did that leave? Evidently he didn't want to maintain any private contacts, but what about his business? What if an emergency arose there? Surely his employees would know how to get in touch with him.

Her heart skipped a beat at the thought that, most likely, she'd be talking to William within the next half hour. With slightly trembling fingers, she punched in the number she already knew by heart. It rang a few times, then a warm and friendly female voice answered: "William Darcy's office- Emily Tyson speaking."

Elizabeth opened her mouth to reply, but not a sound emerged from her tight throat. While she fought for her equilibrium, the voice rang in her ear again: "Hello? Who's there? I can't hear you."

"I- " Elizabeth rasped almost inaudibly. She stopped and swollowed hard, fiercly suppressing her nervousness. "Hi, I'm Elizabeth Baxter-Harding. I need to talk to Mr Darcy."

There was a moment's pause before Emily asked carefully: "On business or private?"

"Uh...private- definitely...private. If you could just tell him-"

"I'm sorry, Mrs Harding, but Mr Darcy is on a business trip for an indefinite time." Though Emily was still friendly, the warmth in her voice had clearly dropped a few degrees.

Elizabeth frowned impatiently. "I know he's gone, but I have to get in touch with him anyway."

"Well, Mrs Harding," came the frosty reply, "then you should also be aware of the fact that he's not available- for anyone."

Silently counting to ten, Elizabeth took a deep breath and attempted to keep her voice calm. "Mrs Tyson, your efforts to protect your boss are really admirable. But it truly is of the utmost importance that I reach him. So if you just tell him-"

"Mrs Harding, you don't seem to understand," Emily cut in again, letting go of friendliness as well. "I have very strict orders, and they do not allow for any exceptions. He's not available- period."

"Except for you, of course," Elizabeth grated through clenched teeth, her anger finally getting the better of her.

"Of course," Emily retorted primly, "but- after all- I'm his personal assistant."

Unable to hold back a second longer, Elizabeth exploded: "And I'm his lover!" she shouted and slammed down the receiver energetically, lest she adorn that personal assistant with a rather explicit personal abuse.

Emily jerked her head back at the loud crack that echoed through the telephone. She stared at it in utter astonishment for a few seconds before putting it down slowly. Elizabeth Baxter-Harding, silently she mulled over the name, recalling the woman's late husband Thomas, and William's extreme dislike of him.

Though not acquainted with any details, she knew for a fact that there'd been some very serious differences of opinion between the two men that had somehow led to the breakup of William's engagement to Patricia- not that Emily could care less. She'd never really liked Miss McKinley, and to her knowledge she was by no means alone in that.

However, she couldn't imagine that her boss would ever want to hear the name Baxter-Harding again, let alone to get too close to a member of that family. And now that man's widow actually claimed to be involved with William Darcy! Not believing her for a second, Emily shook her head at her audacity. Whatever she hoped to achieve with such an outrageous lie- not that Emily could think of anything reasonable right away- she was determined to nip Mrs Baxter-Harding's expectations in the bud. No way would she get anywhere near William Darcy!

As it was, William had obviously slithered into yet another personal crisis, or else he wouldn't have deserted- again- his family and friends, and- this time even- his company. By no means was Emily going to contribute to his apparent distress and push him ever deeper into misery. Therefore she decided not to tell him about that strange call. For the time being she'd keep it to herself and inform him later on, when he was back home and in better condition.

Content with her conclusion, she took a deep breath and resumed her work, and sure enough Elizabeth's call was forgotten not long after.

As soon as his study was adequately equipped, William plunged into work head-on, thankful for the distraction he hoped it would provide. But no matter how deeply he immersed himself in reports and statistics to occupy his errant thoughts, Elizabeth was never far from his mind. And whenever his concentration died down, she would come to the fore and fill his head with images of her face, her body and sometimes also the sound of her voice.

After two days of trying in vain to hold those images at bay, he was mentally spent. Since he'd no strength left to put up any more resistance, accepting his fate was his only option. He would have even done so gladly, if thinking about Elizabeth hadn't hurt so much. But the uncertainty of the situation, his own insecurity and painful longing joined together to form a tight knot of dread that settled in the pit of his stomach.

Never in his whole life had he needed anyone so much, his body and soul crying out for her whenever she wasn't near. Sometimes the intensity of his feelings left him breathless with fear, as did the speed with which everything had happened, though up to now he'd refused to admit it. But he had been- and still was, for that matter- helpless to do anything about it. He'd been pulled into a whirlpool of emotions so swiftly that he'd been right in the middle of it before he'd had time to react properly. Yet, thinking back to their encounter at his father's gravesite, recalling the feelings that had coursed through him at her touch, her tender kiss, he wondered what he could have done- and drew a blank.

Musing some more about it, he realised for the first time that behind his fragile defences he'd been a man starving for warmth and affection, a woman's warmth and affection. And once he'd felt it, he couldn't have drawn back again, not for the life of him; he'd been lost to her, his weak resistance broken in the space of time it took his heart to skip a beat. It had been an elating experience, the pleasure of it wonderfully exhilarating. He'd have shouted out his joy for all the world to hear- if not for the delicate circumstances that could still destroy what little hope he had left. Filled with a strange sense of foreboding, he asked himself if he would be held responsible for his misdeed, for the concealment that had set everything into motion. And if so, what would his punishment be? Having to forego a life with the woman he loved, for sure. Falling back into misery with a heart smashed to pieces, suffering for the rest of his years...

Why couldn't, just for once, something beautiful happen to him without any repercussions? How could his professional life be such a success while his private life lay in tatters? Why couldn't it be the other way round? And thus he began to quarrel with fate. His waking hours were spent brooding until his thoughts spun around in circles in his mind with no beginning and no end. His nights were just as uneasy, filled with dreams about Elizabeth, what had been and what could be. They left him unrested, jittery and- more than once- painfully aroused.

The day that concluded his first week of hiding found William standing in his study, staring at the wall behind his desk, seriously pondering to slam his head against it, just to get rid of the images and thoughts that plagued him constantly. When a distinctive knock sounded through the house, he blinked in confusion, briefly wondering if he'd actually done the deed without even realising it. The knock sounded again, tearing a harsh laugh from his dry throat- obviously he was well on his way to going absolutely mad. With this disconcerting notion, he turned around and slowly went to answer the door.

Chapter 16 - Part 2

William's astonishment couldn't have been more profound if a band of angels had been standing at his doorstep. As it was, his cousin Anne stood before him, smiling up at him, her startingly blue eyes sparkling happily. "Well, hello there, Billy Boy."

When he didn't answer, but kept staring, she leaned forward and reached up to push his jaw shut with a gentle nudge of her index finger: "Better close your mouth, dear- it's friggin cold outside. We wouldn't want you to get a sore throat now, would we?" With that she swept past him, the cold air following in her wake finally bringing him back to his senses.

He closed the door with a thud and turned around, ready to demand an explanation for her intrusion. As he took in her stance, however, he bit back his question and watched her warily. She'd already disposed of her coat and half sat, half leaned on the small table that carried his car key, wallet and several letters he hadn't yet bothered to open. Spine very straight, hands jammed to her slender waist, she looked him over from head to toe and back up again, squarely meeting his dark gaze. "You look like shit, Billy Boy."

Taking her remark for the admonition it clearly was, he immediately became defensive. "None of your business," he growled, crossing his arms over his chest, readying himself for another one the discussions he'd come to hate of late. When seconds passed by in tense silence, he finally spoke up. "What are you doing here, anyway? How did you find me?"

Anne couldn't suppress a sly smile at his harsh question, as she rose and went into the living room, leaving him to follow her, should he require an answer. She was about to sit down and make herself comfortable when he appeared in the doorway. "Well?" he prompted.

"Don't you remember when we used to play hide and seek as children? I always found you, no matter how well you thought you were hidden. I seem to have some kind of tracking radar when it comes to you."

He snorted in response, strolling past the couch and over to the French window, facing away from her. "Very well, but this doesn't answer my first question. I'll have you know that I wish to be left alone."

"Bullshit!" Anne exclaimed fervidly, jumping up and joining him at his favourite place. "I'll have you know that you're in terrible need of company," she stated with determination, her narrowed eyes daring him to disagree. "Why, look at yourself! You look like a...a...goddam zombie- again! You can't seriously expect me to step back and watch you ruin yourself! Not this time- I won't!"

A corner of William's mouth lifted in a wry smile. "I appreciate your concern, Annie, really I do."

Raking a hand through his hair, he sighed deeply and returned his gaze to the window. "But I'm afraid there's nothing you can do to help me."

"Oh, but there is," Anne answered back, quickly bobbing her head to emphasise her statement, while she tugged at the front of his sweater to get his attention back. "Actually, we can help each other- that's why I'm here."

Though his brows arched sceptically, he couldn't suppress a shimmer of hope rising inside him as he looked down into her eager face. Then it occurred to him that her suggestion implied she knew why he'd gone into hiding. "Who told you?"

Anne didn't pretend not to understand him. "Let's sit down first. It may take me quite a while to explain. -And a drink would be good, too."

When they were seated comfortably side by side, each one with a glass in hand, Anne took a sip and cleared her throat. "Rick told me what happened- but not just to gossip, Billy," she added, quick to reassure when she saw him scowl, "please believe me, he really was worried about you. He almost begged me to help find you."

"Aw, come on Annie, no need to exaggerate," he chided gently. "I believe you anyway...and that was it? That made you fly all the way from London?"

"Well...no," she admitted. Her gaze fell away from his as she bowed her head and bit her lower lip. Finally she took a deep breath and looked up again. "Rather...Mum tipped the scales."

William's eyes widened in surprise. "Aunt Catherine? What's she got to do with it? She doesn't even know-" he stopped, frowned and went on, "unless, of course, Rick told her too...Dammit!"

He suddenly exploded and started to rise from his place. "Is there anyone he has not told yet?"

Anne, however, was quick to react and caught his arm, pulling him back down insistently. "Shh," she soothed him, "calm down, Billy. Let me explain."

He dropped back onto his seat heavily, his frown deepening as he glared at his cousin. "Could you do me a favour, Annie? Stop calling me Billy- I'm not ten anymore."

For just a second her face went blank, then a traitorous sparkle lit her eyes, as she managed to suppress her smile. "Oh...alright...William."

Normally he would have laughed about her anxious attempt at seriousness. However, with his nerves on edge, and in no mood for joking, he just grumbled: "Thank you," and once again crossed his arms over his chest. "Now tell me what the hell's been going on."

Anne nodded in agreement, took another sip from her glass and began her explanation. William listened in silence, staring into his lap the whole time. Except for an occasional clenching of his jaw or the tightening of the grip on his upper arms, he didn't move.

When Anne came to the end of her story, he was tense as a drawn bow. He stood up stiffly and walked back to the French doors to stare outside. His voice was low and strained when he finally asked: "She knew I was being watched?"

"Yes."

"And she did nothing about it?"

"No."

"She knew what Patricia was up to and again she did nothing? She could have prevented my worst nightmare from happening, yet..."

Sensing that he was about to explode any second, Anne kept her tone deliberately gentle. "But Mum did not know what Elizabeth means to you...she does now. She-"

William whirled around, eyes ablaze with fury, hectic colour staining his cheekbones. His right forefinger pointed at her accusingly. "It doesn't matter anymore! Don't you see that she might have ruined everything!" he shouted hoarsely while his throat tightened with rising tears.

Anne understood his ire all too well, her mother had made it an art form to enrage other people. She wanted to go to him and comfort him, but he stopped her with his raised hand, turning his palm toward her while the other wiped angrily over his wet cheek. "No!" he choked out and turned to the French window again. Holding on to the doorframe for support, he took a few steadying breaths.

When Anne thought he was back in control again, she broke the silence, trying to make amends. "Mum did wrong- and she knows. She's terribly sorry. I swear, I've never seen her more contrite. She regrets what she's done and she wants to make up for it- no matter how."

"Bit late, don't you think?" William replied with a snort, facing his cousin again. "Every other member of the family would have warned me, you know. But not your mother- oh no." His voice rose again, his temper impossible to contain. "How dare she presume to know what is best for me? I've never ever met anyone that self-righteous. Self-doubt surely isn't part of her vocabulary!"

"I know exactly how you feel, Will, believe me," Anne confessed sadly, her eyes full of sympathy. She reached out for him, silently inviting him to return to her side. After hesitating briefly, he sat down with a deep-drawn sigh. "That's just how she is, Will. But she means well. You know she's not malicious-" she paused for a second, "well, at least not deliberately...or so I think."

William's failure to react to her dashed any hope of lightening up his mood. She even thought he might not have heard her. His quiet answer proved her wrong. "Chances are she's ruined my life with that damned attitude..."

Impulsively Anne put her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "No, William, you mustn't let yourself think so. I admit that she has made it more difficult, but not everything's lost yet."

"I wish I could be more optimistic, but as it is..." he shrugged while his voice trailed off.

"Hey Billy Boy, if your Elizabeth loves you only half as much as you love her, everything will turn out just fine."

William exhaled on a shuddering breath. "I hope she does- I really hope she does." He cast her a sideways glance. "You called me Billy Boy again."

Anne pressed her lips together, struggling to look sheepish rather than good-humoured. "I'm sorry, William- I'll try not to do it again, I promise."

Her meek attempt to apologise finally elicited a small smile from William. "You Annie dear, are incorrigible."

She leaned forward and pressed a smacking kiss to his cheek. "Thank you, what a nice thing to say."

His smile turned into a grin. "You're welcome- now tell me why you really came here. Surely not just to cheer me up."

"Now there's a good reason," Anne retorted, lightly touching his cheek. "You should smile more often, you know. Makes you all the more...delectable."

William chuckled and removed her hand from his face to hold it between his. "Stop it, Annie. I'm trying to be serious here."

"Alright, alright," she muttered. "But please hear me out before you explode again." She took a deep breath and drew her hand from his grasp. Her eyes narrowed in anticipation of his fierce reaction as she brought forward her request. "I want you to come back home with me."

He, however, remained perfectly calm. All he did was shake his head, looking at her with the unhappiest she'd ever seen. "Oh Annie, I wish I could...I'd really like to, believe me, but I just can't...not yet."

Anne's heart went out to him when she realised how profoundly miserable he was. That very moment she decided that she would take him back home with her; and if it meant knocking him out and dragging him all the way, so be it. She wouldn't allow him to stay by himself- not even for another minute.

"You've been away for a week now, haven't you?" she asked quietly, waiting for his confirming nod. "Don't you think that's long enough for a girl to make up her mind?"

William shrugged and rubbed his face with both hands. "I wish I knew..." he sighed. "But I don't want to rush her, and I would if I got anywhere near her. So you see, I just can't go back yet..."

"Bullshit!" came Anne's swift reply, causing his eyes to widen in surprise. "I'll bet my sassy arse- which I'm actually very fond of- that the girl's already desperately waiting for you to show up." He opened his mouth to cut in, but she stopped him with a decisive shake of her wrist. "And if that's not enough to tempt you, here's another good reason: I need you to accompany me to a fund-raiser- tonight, with Mum," she finished briskly.

William sat in stunned silence, still staring, struggling to process this new piece of information. What he finally came up with was not exactly what he'd intended to say. "You know, that filthy mouth of yours is eventually going to get you deep into trouble."

Anne smiled, but otherwise ignored his remark. "So what d'you think, William?" At that she gave him a very smug look. "Care to join us?"

He paid her back by eluding her questions and posed his own. "This is why you really came? To invite me to a fund-raiser?" he asked incredulously.

She rolled her eyes heavenward as if praying for patience. "That- and the fact that you obviously need me to clear out your befuddled brain. You've been alone here far too long, and being alone never did you any good."

"Point taken," he conceded grudgingly. "Though right now I'm not really fond of seeing your dear mother."

Anne tried hard not to show too much excitement. "Does this mean you're coming?"

Instead of answering immediately, William braced his elbows on his thighs and stared down on the floor in contemplation. He'd planned on staying a few days longer- another week maybe... but now the thought of being alone again filled him with dread. He didn't think he could stand it without going crazy. Truth be told, he knew very well that he'd reached the limit of endurance. -And maybe Anne was right, Elizabeth could have decided already...and even if not, he might as well wait at home. If he only tried hard enough, he'd surely manage to stay away from her...

Watching him closely, Anne took in the various emotions that skimmed across his face in close succession. After endless moments, his expression finally brightened as if a dark veil had been lifted from his features. She knew then that she'd achieved her aim and it took all her willpower not to break out in cheers and jump with joy, but to wait for him to announce his decision. Yet, she couldn't contain a content smile- this had been much easier than she'd expected.

William lifted his head, feeling more at ease than he had in a long time. When he saw Anne's obvious self-satisfaction, however, he felt the sudden urge to tease her for her smugness.

Keeping his face very straight, turning his expression as sheepish as possible, he asked: "But are you sure you want me to come? Why not take your girl-friend to the fund-raiser, as your date?"

Anne's jaw dropped in surprise while her eyes went wide. She stared at him as if she thought he'd lost his marbles. "Are you crazy?" she finally choked out. Seemingly hurt, William looked back to the floor. "Take Cecily with me when Mum's also in attendance? I might as well wave a red flag before a bull's eyes. You know exactly that she's gone into complete denial when it comes to my sexual inclination. She'd have a major fit of-"

She stopped abruptly, her surprise ending in smoke as her narrowing gaze rested on William's shaking shoulders. He was laughing! With a snort she punched her fist into his biceps, toppling him over to his side. "You...you bloody bastard," she scoffed.

William was lying halfway across the couch, holding his stomach, his deep laughter resounding throughout the room. "I'm...I'm sorry," he wheezed. "Just...just couldn't resist." He sat up slowly, gulping in air, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. "You should've seen your face..." he pointed a finger at her and began laughing again.

Anne crossed her arms over her chest. "You took me by surprise, is all," she stated, her voice not as firm as she'd intended it to be. But then, she'd never been able to be really angry with him; and his merriment was quite infectious too. It took her only a few seconds to let go of her grudge and watch him in genuine amusement as he fought to compose himself.

When he'd calmed down, he looked back at her. "You knew I wouldn't say no, didn't you?"

"I didn't know, but I hoped," she replied and scooted closer to embrace him once again. "And now I'm happy it all worked out and paid off- every single woman at that fund-raiser will be green with envy of my gorgeous date. I'm going to show you off, you know."

He chuckled and hugged her back. "I'm looking forward to it. -Thanks for coming anyway- and for saving me." He kissed her forehead in gratitude and released her, getting to his feet with unusual verve. "Guess I'd better hurry up now, or we won't make it back to London in time." He waved and winked and all but raced from the room to collect his belongings.

Anne leaned back with a sigh and closed her eyes to better savour the rare feeling of pure contentment with herself and the world in general. She remained like that for a few seconds, then she sighed again and took her mobile out of her pocket to call the pilot awaiting them at the airport.

Chapter 16 - Part 3

Elizabeth looked around the huge, elegant room that was crowded with people and buzzing with music, voices and laughter. She'd never before felt uneasy amongst others and wondered why she did now. It was inexplicable, as was the strange sense of trepidation that rolled through her stomach in small waves. Yet, out of nowhere it had attacked her immediately upon entering the hotel.

Considering the bad temper she'd been in all afternoon, she hadn't been overly happy about the prospect of coming here tonight. She was still angry about William's secretary- irrationally so, since the woman had only done her job- and she was highly frustrated about the impossibility to get in touch with him; moreover, her recalcitrant memory annoyed her to no end. But weeks ago she'd promised her old friend Francis Lucas to accompany him to this fund-raiser and, despite her low spirits, hadn't had the heart to disappoint him. In the end, she'd told herself that she might as well use the evening as a distraction from her worries and enjoy it as best she could.

It had almost worked. The ride to London in Francis' limousine had done a lot to help her relax. As if he'd known what she needed, he'd kept the conversation light, choosing topics not more demanding than the antics of the numerous dogs and horses he owned. She'd had a very good time, her mood improving considerably, until she'd actually been looking forward to the pending event.

Yet now, only minutes after their arrival, she felt even worse than she had before leaving home. Francis must have sensed it too, because he'd immediately offered to fetch her a glass of wine, presumably hoping it would help loosen her up again. While she was waiting for his return, she fervently wished she'd declined his invitation after all. She was jumpy and nervous, as taut as a drawstring, and irked that she couldn't think of a good reason why she should feel so. Minutes passed by until she finally saw him approaching her, carefully balancing two cut glasses filled with red wine. The crowd moved and parted to make room for him, providing her with new vistas. As a gape opened to her right side, she caught a glimpse of a pair of broad shoulders in a navy blue suit, and above it a head full of dark brown, curly hair. 'William', his name whispered through her whole body, making her insides lurch and her vision blur. She blinked, refocused- and he was gone, replaced by a man with grey hair in a black suit.

"Oh, god- I'm losing my mind..." Elizabeth groaned quietly and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to conceive what had just happened.

"Are you alright, Liz?" She almost jumped out of her skin with shock when Francis addressed her quietly. Her eyes flew open again to find him watching her closely.

"Seems you're in terrible need of a drink," he stated as he handed her a glass. "Sorry it took me so long- lots of thirsty people around."

Elizabeth grabbed her drink and almost finished it off with two long draughts.

"Whoa, careful girl," Francis admonished gently, pushing her hand down to keep her from draining the glass completely. "Slow down, you know you tend to behave indecently when you're drunk. You'd embarrass yourself."

She acknowledged his argument with a negligent shrug. "Who cares? I'm about to go crazy anyway."

Francis eyed her curiously, but didn't press the point. "Alright then, let's go and get something to eat...Causing a scene will cost a lot of strength."

Elizabeth was still too rattled to manage more than a wry smile. Without resistance, she let him take her elbow and lead her to the opulent buffet.

~ * ~

During the flight home William was bothered by second thoughts. Though it felt wonderful to go back, he wondered if it really was the right thing to do.

He knew beyond a doubt that he'd deceived himself by thinking he would be able to stay away from Elizabeth once he was so near to her again. But had he given her enough time? Did one week suffice to come to a decision about one's future- their future, for that matter?

On the other hand, if Anne was right, if Elizabeth loved him only half as much as he loved her, she would already have made up her mind...to give him another chance. After all, it was either yes or no- nothing in-between. And yet, what a difference it would make; brightness or gloom, warmth or deadness, happiness or grief.

As much as he dreaded her answer, he knew he needed it. He'd realised before that he couldn't go on like this; the uncertainty was killing him. No matter where he was or what he did, nothing but certainty could make him feel better- or worse. Either way, he couldn't wait any longer... Drawing a deep sigh, he resolved to approach her as soon as possible- preferably right after his arrival. A look at his wristwatch, however, told him that they were already running out of time. He pondered calling her, but quickly discarded the idea. This was just too important to be discussed over the phone. And once he heard her voice again, nothing would keep him away from her. As he realised that he'd have to wait yet another day, he cursed viciously under his breath.

Across from him, Anne stirred at the sound of his voice. She'd gone to sleep almost immediately after take-off, leaving him alone with his thoughts. He hadn't meant to disturb her, yet he felt strangely relieved when she stretched and yawned and finally gave him a drowsy smile. "I'm sorry I fell asleep, William. I don't know what's come over me..."

He smiled back at her, glad for the distraction she provided. "You always doze off on the plane." "True," she admitted while she sat up straight and ran her hands over her clothes in an effort to smooth them. Furrowing her brow in annoyance, she looked down at herself. "That's why I always look an awful mess after a flight. I haven't yet managed to find something really comfortable to wear that does not wrinkle."

They chatted and joked for the rest of the journey and with Annie's help, William began to relax until he actually looked forward to the forthcoming evening.

A few hours later, as he stood amidst the other guests in the hotel's huge ballroom, a glass of wine in hand and Anne by his side, he found that he was really enjoying himself. To his own surprise, not even the surrounding crowd of people bothered him. Shrugging mentally, he put it down to the fact that he'd been all alone for a whole week and turned his attention back to Anne. Conversing politely with two elderly couples, the Ellises and the Harrisons, whom they'd both known since childhood, she appeared to be on her best behaviour. Actually she was on her best behaviour, except that she clung tightly to his arm, practically snuggled up against his side, casting him an occasional sideways glance adorned with a tiny secretive smile. Her unrestrained show of affection bordered on immodesty, but William knew better than to take her seriously. It was meant to provoke her mother who stood to her other side, and considering Lady Catherine's strained expression, it worked.

Those who were acquainted with his aunt knew about her hopes for her daughter and nephew. And although it was common knowledge that Anne de Bourgh shared her house with another female, only closest friends and family were aware of how far that sharing actually went. Lady Catherine, however, was the only one who refused to accept that her hopes were for naught. Since she was deaf to sensible arguments, Anne used every opportunity to pay back none to sublty for her mother's stubborn ignorance.

Normally William resented being part of Anne's ploys but in his current mood he thought his aunt deserved to be tortured and he loved to join in. It hadn't been easy to face her after he'd learned what she'd done. On first impulse, he'd wanted to confront her. Only with regard to the upcoming evening had he refrained from starting a quarrel- but postponed was not abandoned. He had no intention of letting her get away so easily, and judging from the way Lady Catherine treated him, she also knew that the truce was strictly limited.

His thoughts occupied with what he was going to say to his aunt in a confrontation that would surely come, he felt a strange sensation running up his spine. It tingled and prickled its way up to settle in his neck and make the fine hairs there stand on end. Automatically his hand went to his nape to curb the tingling while his brows furrowed in irritation. Not a split second later he was flooded with memories of his father's funeral as he realised that he knew this feeling- Elizabeth! Without second thought, he turned around eagerly to skim the crowd with narrowed eyes, oblivious to the fact that he'd dragged Anne with him.

Struggling not to trip over her own feet, she looked up at him in surprise. His features were set in concentration while his gaze darted back and forth across the room, as if he were searching for someone. "William," she whispered, unlike him, conscious of the curious stares that rested upon them. When he didn't react, she repeated his name insistently and tugged at his arm.

Abruptly he lowered his head, his eyes piercing hers, his brows lowered in irritation about being disturbed. "What?" he snapped.

She didn't flinch from his anger but met his heated gaze evenly and pointed out in a quiet voice: "We're attracting undue attention, William."

Slowly the frown lifted from his face as her remark sank in. A fine blush crept into his cheeks and he shook his head in utter astonishment about himself. "I'm sorry," he murmured helplessly. "I thought..." he faltered, his gaze falling away from Anne's. Not willing to explain his strange behaviour, he just gave a small shrug.

"Never mind," Anne stated, patting his arm reassuringly. She leaned closer to him and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "But I've a feeling they," she slightly inclined her head in the direction of her mother and the two couples still standing close behind them, "are waiting for us to turn around again...if we do it really slow, do you think you can come up with a believeable excuse?"

William looked back at her, saw the sparkle of mischief in her eyes and couldn't help but smile despite his uneasiness. She grinned and mouthed: "Ready?"

He squared his shoulders, put on his haughtiest face and nodded in determination. She nodded back and they began to swivel around gracefully. As soon as they were facing the others again, William met their curiousity head-on, looking down his nose at them. "I thought I heard someone call my name," he declared coolly. And then, seemingly as an afterthought, he added. "I'm sorry about the interruption."

They all rushed into accepting his halfhearted apology, assuring him that they quite understood and didn't mind in the least. After an awkward little pause, Anne addressed Mrs. Ellis, asking about her grandchildren and soon the conversation was back on track again as if nothing had ever happened.

William, however, couldn't forget the incident as easily as that. Outwardly he appeared to follow the polite small talk, when in truth his rioting thoughts rendered him incapable of concentrating on what was said. He could have sworn that he'd felt Elizabeth's gaze upon him. Yet, he hadn't been able to locate her. Could it be that his imagination had played a dirty trick on him? -But it had seemed far too real to be an illusion. On the other hand, all things considered, it was not at all impossible that he imagined things. For weeks now she'd ruled his thoughts, no matter where he was or what he did- why should it be any different tonight?

With a deep sigh, he called on his common sense and hoped it would help him to stay sane until the next day when he planned to see Elizabeth again. 'Less than 24 hours,' he reminded himself silently and everything would be better because, one way or the other, his situation couldn't get much worse than it already was.

To Elizabeth's great relief, the evening progressed without further incident. She was still not sure what had happened, though. Every now and then her eyes surveyed the crowd, but there was of course no sign of William. Evidently his sudden appearance had been nothing but a figment of her imagination, which in truth was not really remarkable since she'd spent the better part of the past few days thinking about him. Still somewhat unsettled though, she was glad that Francis had chosen a table a bit to the side rather then in the middle of the room, and thus had once again shown his distinctive intuition- one of the things she really liked about him. Moreover, he'd kept her from getting drunk, too. Gently, yet determinedly, he'd taken the glass of wine away from her and exchanged it for a glass of orange juice which she now sipped slowly.

The object of her musings interrupted her thoughts by leaning forward and putting a hand on her arm. "And here comes the evening's partoness, our grand hostess Lady Catherine de Bourgh," he murmured and drew Elizabeth's attention to the impressive stage that took up the front side of the room.

The major part of its expanse was prepared for a band with drums already set up, chairs and music-stands laden with sheets of music, while in the foreground they'd set up a small lectern with a microphone. Behind it stood Lady de Bourgh, spine very straight, hands clasped loosely at her waist, cutting an imposing figure despite her smallness. When people became aware of her, they hurried to take their places, creating a great commotion with shifting chairs, rustling clothes and murmuring voices.

Elizabeth watched the whole scene in slight bemusement. It was quite interesting to see people literally jump at the silent orders of so short a person. To own the truth, though, what Lady de Bourgh lacked in height, she made up for with poise and charisma; she seemed to breathe power- and in all likelihood, she did too. While Elizabeth studied her closely, she came to the conclusion that there was much of Lady de Bourgh to be found in William, especially at those times when he wore his social mask.

Although she'd seen Lady Catherine at Andrew Darcy's funeral- and at a few other occasions in the past too- the striking resemblance between aunt and nephew had never occurred to her before. Yet, it was all there, from the rigidly set shoulders to the posture of the head and the reserved attitude with the faintest hint at condescension. It made her wonder if, in fact, they were anything alike in character too.

Elizabeth was so engrossed in her observations, she hardly realise that the crowd had gone quiet to listen to Lady de Bourgh's speech. All she perceived was the singsong of a voice ringing throughout the room, but her preoccupied mind didn't catch the meaning of what was actually said- until one particular word penetrated her thoughts and immediately attracted her attention. Lady de Bourgh was obviously talking about her nephews. "...which unfortunately prevented him from coming. My youngest nephew, however, second chairman of our foundation, is here with us tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Darcy."

Elizabeth's heart seemed to drop to her stomach while her head jerked into the direction Lady de Bourgh's hand indicated. So she hadn't imagined things after all, he was really here! But where? She craned her neck to get a glimpse of him, ready to jump up from her seat for a better view when William rose from his chair. Her breath caught at the sight of him, towering above the crowd, a hand raised in greeting, accepting the generous applause.

The uneasiness faded as relief washed through her and brought a smile to her face. Very soon now everything would be alright. She didn't even care where he'd been or what had made him come back, she just wanted to rush to him and lose herself in his embrace. And if not for all the potential gapers surrounding them, she would have done so immediately. But since she didn't want any spectators for their reunion- and neither would William- she began to think of a way to catch him alone.

Brows furrowed in contemplation, she kept her gaze on him, watching his every move. When he lifted his fingers to his cheek to rub the spot her eyes had rested on not a second ago, she had to smile anew- he still felt it. Seeing him turn his head into her direction, she leaned back in her chair to hide in the shadows as best she could, not wanting to betray her presence and ruin the surprise she was about to give him.

Fortunately, though, he was distracted by someone tugging on his sleeve, and he turned away again, finally sitting back down. Elizabeth leaned forward, peeking around people, so as not to lose sight of him, when she saw who he'd reacted to so quickly. A beautiful red-haired woman sat close by his side, his hand enveloping hers, which he now lifted to brush his lips over her knuckles. The smile still lingering on Elizabeth's face froze in place- he was with someone else! What happened next made her smile fade for good while the colour drained from her face. The strange woman leaned closer to William and placed a lingering kiss on his cheek, then she drew back and gave him a die-away look. Elizabeth felt like choking, until she realised that she'd been holding her breath. Gasping she fought to get air into her constricted lungs.

Francis must have heard her, because he turned toward her and reached for her hand. "Lizzy, good heavens! What's the matter with you? You look like you've seen a ghost!"

She could only shake her head, too preoccupied to form a coherent answer. Questions, fears and speculations rushed through her mind in close succession, one leading to another, growing in persistence as they went until she felt the urge to scream. Closing her eyes to the disturbing sight of William and his female escort, she desperately searched for something to concentrate on instead. When she became aware of Francis stroking her hand, she focused her attention on his consistent caress- back and forth, back and forth...

Elizabeth adjusted her breathing to the steady rhythm, thus regaining control bit by bit and finally finding the strength to push her thoughts to the edge of her consciousness to deal with them later, when she was back at Longbourn, alone in her room- which made getting there her prime object.

About to ask Francis to take her home, she turned to him and opened her eyes. And found him looking back at her with furrowed brows.

"You really look awful, Lizzy," he stated bluntly before she had a chance to say anything.

Despite herself she had to smile. "Well, thank you for the compliment, you really know how to charm a girl."

"I'm sorry for being so forthright," gazing at her sheepishly, he squeezed her hand. "I'm just worried about you."

"I know, Francis- it's alright. And I do feel awful."

"Do you want to go home?"

She nodded. "Would you mind terribly? I don't want to ruin your evening-"

Francis interrupted her with a wave of his hand. "Stop right there! Nothing to regret; we ate, we drank," he stood up and pulled her from her seat in the same motion, "we didn't dance, though- now that's something to regret- and I did what I was invited for, I donated." Smiling down at her, he took her hand more firmly into his. "Actually, I was starting to get bored."

Elizabeth smiled back at him, once again thankful for his loyal friendship. When he started into the direction of the main entrance, however, she immediately offered resistance. On their way they would have to pass by William's table, and she was afraid that he might see her, or that she might cast another glance at him- both possibilities threatening to destroy her fragile control.

Francis stopped and turned to look at her enquiringly. "What is it? You don't want to leave?" "I do, very much. But please, could we use the side entrance? I don't want to..." she trailed off, unwilling- and unable- to explain her peculiar request.

To her relief, Francis just shrugged and pulled out his mobile. "Alright, let's go then. I'll call Henry and tell him to meet us there."

Assuaged, Elizabeth led the way and he followed while dialling the number of the car phone.

Chapter 17 - Part 1

Well past midnight, Lady Catherine sat in front of her toilet-table in her elegant bedroom and brushed out her hair. She'd left the fund-raiser about an hour ago under the pretext of tiredness- a rather lame excuse considering that she was famous for her stamina; known to be the first to come and the last to go whenever she hosted a social function.

Nevertheless no one had questioned her unusual conduct, which she ascribed to the fact that people simply weren't used to challenging Lady Catherine de Bourgh's decisions. She'd been slightly surprised, though, that Anne and William had not protested either. To own the truth, however, in this case their indifference suited her just fine. Even if they would have asked for an explanation, she couldn't have told them the truth anyway- at least not yet.

First she'd have to decide whether or not to do something about what she'd observed earlier that evening. The brush stopped in midair before slowly sinking onto the table as she closed her eyes and recalled the events that kept her mind busy for hours now.

Due to her heightened position on the stage she'd had an excellent view over the entire room. By pure chance, she'd spotted Elizabeth Baxter-Harding the moment William had risen from his chair. The young woman's expression had been one of utter surprise as she twisted around in her seat, almost jumping up in the process, to get a better view.

From that point on, looking back and forth between the two of them, Lady Catherine had watched the whole drama unfold. While William had been blissfully oblivious to what was going on, Elizabeth had been put through a series of emotions showing clearly on her face.

Upon observing the intimate tête-à-tête between Anne and William, she'd turned pale and had finally closed her eyes. Lady Catherine had been tempted almost beyond endurance to shout at her daughter to stop the idiocy and let go of William. Only her strong belief in proper behaviour had kept her from giving in to her urge- this was a private affair, after all, and she meant to keep it as such.

Opening her eyes again, Lady Catherine stared at her own reflection while her heart twisted painfully in sympathy with the hurt Elizabeth must have felt. She was a little surprised about herself, since- in all honesty- she couldn't remember when she'd last cared so much for anyone else's feelings.

But then, no one had ever dared to be so blunt in his opinion as Richard had just a few days ago. He made her see the errors of her ways, her overbearing demeanour where other people were concerned. Obviously his words had taken root inside her, softening her to a degree she hadn't thought possible anymore. She smiled at herself as she shook her head in slight disbelief. Actually, she'd even experienced an unmistakeable twinge of conscience for not telling William about his beloved's presence, neither before nor after she'd left the scene quite hastily with her companion in tow.

"Not that it really matters," Lady Catherine muttered and rose from her chair. She'd come to realise that she was as much a slave to her habits as the next best person, seeing that she'd once again taken heed of ulterior motives rather than of her newly found sensitivity. With a sigh she walked over to her bed and sat down on the edge, hands folded in her lap.

Deep down inside she knew that informing William would have been the honest thing to do, but for her own reasons she'd thought it unwise to do so. Firstly she couldn't but think that Elizabeth hadn't been of a mind to listen to William's explanations, given her intense reaction to what she'd been forced to witness; secondly, she'd immediately seen a chance- not a good one, mind you, but a chance nonetheless- to redeem herself and make up for her former interference which had been imperative in separating her nephew from the woman he loved. The only way, however, to put her idea into action, she'd discovered with dismay, was to interfere once again. At the irony of the situation a sound escaped her that was half snort, half sigh. William hadn't been all too happy about her meddling- if she put it mildly. Actually, when they met at the fund-raiser his behaviour toward her had been barely civil, showing her in round terms that she was in for a fierce scolding at the first appropriate opportunity. But with any luck, she would be able to forestall him and quench his anger before he could pour it out over her head- though he would be in the right of it.

Blinded by Elizabeth Baxter-Harding's past behaviour towards her nephew, she'd been totally wrong in her assessment of the young woman's character, and as a logical consequence, she hadn't bothered to look closer into their relationship. Although she'd known about their mutual attraction since the day of Andrew's funeral, she'd dismissed it carelessly as nothing but an insignificant fling which she'd meant to scotch anyway, before it could develop into something serious. Not once had it occurred to her that they could really be in love...

'Stupid mistake,' Lady Catherine admonished herself silently. Too restless to remain seated, she stood up again and began to pace up and down. Normally it wasn't like her to overlook details of such prime importance, and it annoyed her to no end that it had happened for the first time in this rather delicate case where members of her family were concerned. Squaring her shoulders, she took a calming breath and ruthlessly suppressed her anger, aware that she needed a clear head to carefully plan her next steps.

If she wanted to make efficient use of the situation, she'd have to move quickly- the sooner she managed to bring them back together, the better for everyone involved; Elizabeth would be freed of her uncertainty before it could lead to the wrong conclusions, while William wouldn't be given enough time to stoke his anger into a full conflagration. Once reunited with his beloved, he would be too preoccupied to care much about his aunt's doings- although she knew exactly that William could be quite resentful at times. Anyhow, she also knew that she deserved at least a mild reproof for the way she'd acted, or rather- for the way she'd not acted. Therefore, all things considered, approaching William was out of the question. She'd have to talk to Elizabeth, explain the situation, and own up to her share in creating the current mess. At the thought of having to face her failure head-on, Lady Catherine stopped midstride and bit down hard on her lower lip. It was indeed a disconcerting notion, even more so since she'd have to confess to a virtual stranger- with no possibility at all to predict her opponent's reaction.

With impatient fingers she undid the belt of her dressing gown, slipped out of the garment and threw it negligently onto the chair she'd been sitting on before. There really wasn't anything she knew about Elizabeth, other than that she was obviously very much in love with William, which she'd witnessed firsthand. As to the woman's character, however, she was literally without a clue.

God, she hated having to put herself at someone else's mercy- and being quite helpless to do anything about it. To her utter amazement, Lady Catherine felt her lips curl into a pout while suddenly the urge to stomp her foot became almost overwhelming, making her feel much like a petulant child. In order to keep herself from carrying out the disgraceful exercise- even though she was all alone such behaviour simply wouldn't do- she quickly clambered onto her bed with an agility that completely belied her age. As she sat in the middle of the wide mattress, the ridiculousness of her conduct finally caught up with her and she broke out in heartfelt laughter. It took her a while to recover enough so she could return to the very important task at hand. No matter what it would cost her, she'd have to face Elizabeth- but not before making sure that her nephew would be nowhere around when she did so. Now that he was back, she suspected that he would rush to his beloved's side first thing in the morning. Of course she'd have to await the outcome of this conversation before she could make her first move. And that, in fact, was the hole in her plan, because it was still possible that the two of them could work everthing out on their own.

She moved around on the bed until she was propped against the headboard with a pillow stuffed behind her back and a blanket draped across her legs. Her brows were drawn together in deep contemplation, until she finally shook her head. No, she told herself firmly- if she would really believe that they didn't need her help, she could give up her plan on the spot and instead start to think up a very good explanation for the inevitable confrontation with her furious nephew. But she was not yet ready to do that. For now it would be better to act on a worst case assumption- at least the worst case for Elizabeth and William- and deal with any kind of different scenarios if they should indeed come to pass; flexibility would be called for.

Lady Catherine sighed in contentment and allowed herself a slight smile as she relaxed against the pillow. Now that the path ahead was more or less clear, she could really start to plan each careful step...

Elizabeth was totally confused- nothing made sense anymore. She sat on her bed, knees drawn up to her body, arms locked around them and stared into the darkness of her room as she tried to come to terms with the events of the past evening.

William was back in England. When had he returned? And why hadn't he come to see her? Had somehow notified her that he was back? But then, what if...he'd never been gone? At that notion, she shook her head vigorously- she wouldn't let herself dwell on such a thought- surely he had been out of the country. Then again, if he loved her as much as he'd claimed- both verbally and in writing- he did, his first way after coming back should have brought him to her, shouldn't it. Yet, she'd had to find out by mere chance that he'd actually returned. She seriously wondered how long it would have taken him to approach her...or would he ever have? He'd been with another woman- a beautiful woman, whose company he'd openly enjoyed. From the looks of it, they were very familiar with each other, relaxed and comfortable in each other's company. So who was this stranger? A friend- or even more than that? Her successor maybe? As much as the idea hurt- and it did, heartwrenchingly so- Elizabeth couldn't rule it out entirely, for she'd indeed given William a hard time in dealing with her. Caught up in the roller coaster of her emotions, she'd sent him on a ride of his own, either dragging him up or pulling him down with her. Would it really be that surprising if he'd finally decided to back out?

She heaved a trembling sigh and squeezed her eyes shut. No, indeed, it wouldn't be. In fact, she could even relate to such a reaction. There were easier ways to form a relationship, without a laden past lurking in the darkness, waiting to attack at the most unsuitable moment like some erratic jack-in-the-box. The image should have been funny, but actually it was annoying- and painful.

Despite the hurt, however, she realised that she understood why he would have found himself someone else- simply because he needed someone to cheer him up instead of making him feel miserable. And he deserved to be happy more than anyone else she knew. 'Except for yourself,' a quiet voice from somewhere deep inside her soul interjected. Though part of her knew it to be true, the major part considered such a thought to be purely selfish, so she pushed it aside determinedly. She'd had her share of happiness so far, actually throughout her whole childhood and youth, and even in her marriage- before it had gone totally awry. Whereas William...she doubted that he'd ever been happy more than just a few hours at a time.

She was well aware now that not even at Netherfield had he been totally carefree, given that he'd known of their strained past while she'd been still blissfully oblivious. Yet, there had been moments...A flood of heat suffused her body and sent a distinctive blush to her face as she remembered some of these moments. Pressing her hands to her burning cheeks, she let the images wash over her with all the force they held. William's face above hers, as if suspended in the darkness of their room; then beneath hers, his dark hair in stark contrast to the white pillow-case, their bodies joined most intimately in either position, rocking, straining to completion, and all the while his eyes holding hers, shiny with desire, joy and tenderness. Yes, they'd both been happy then, and she missed that so much- missed him so much- it hurt physically.

With a groan, she streched out her legs and tightly hugged her middle, bending forward as her stomach clenched in pain. It had been so much more than just sex- they'd made love. Or at least she had. As for him...but surely she couldn't have imagined that he'd felt the same- he'd even said it. In fact, he'd said it first and she'd merely answered in kind. But then again- stranger things have been said in the throes of passion.

Hurt and desperation suddenly turned to cold fury at the thought of his fickleness and before she could hold back, she heard herself utter a vicious curse. It echoed in the silence, boucing off the walls and jumping back into her face, its ferocity stunning her into absolute stillness. Endless seconds ticked by before her body and mind managed to shake off the paralysis until she was finally able to clamp a hand across her mouth while her thoughts ran rampant, letting loose with a string of harsh admonitions: 'A bit too late, don't you think? What a nasty thing to say! Where's your composure gone, Miss Prudence? And since when do you expect the worst from anyone? What has become of : 'I love him, I believe him- and I trust in his love for me.'? Where's that trust of yours now?'

Elizabeth lowered herself to her back, slowly rolled to her side and curled up into a ball. Indeed, where was her trust in the man she loved with all her heart? Vanished into thin air because of- what? Unfair presumptions? Wrongful suspicions? But it had been there for all the world to see, hadn't it? So what was she to think? With their relationship being as it was- fragile at best- how could she not doubt his sincerity? She guessed that she'd given up on starry-eyed naivete the day she'd found out about Tom's cheating- something she didn't yet remember. But it sure made sense.

She sighed deeply, shifting her body until she could crawl under her blanket and draw it up to her ears. How was she to come up with a logical explanation when for every argument there was a counter-argument? And for all her questions nothing but confusing answers. How could she know which was the right one? Finally she admitted that she wouldn't find out on her own, that she'd have to ask William. He was the only one who had the correct answers. If she wanted certainty-either way- he was the only one who could give it.

As she considered how- and when- to approach him, dread filled her at the thought of another dispute. God, she hated to argue with him when all she really wanted was to love him and be loved in return. Suddenly a wave of fatigue swept through her, making her limbs go heavy and her brain fuzzy. 'Tomorrow', she told herself silently, 'I'll think about it tomorrow...' And then sleep overpowered her.

Chapter 17 - Part 2

Only a few hours later, Elizabeth was awake again. Clad in her dressing-gown, she sat on the window sill in her room and stared outside- like she'd done so often during the past few weeks. After parting with William at Netherfield, she'd discovered on more than one occasion that this was a perfect place to gather her thoughts and come to terms with her emotions. And yet again she was in desperate need of the calm and security it provided.

She'd had another dream, and like the ones before, it had brought back another part of her memory. This part she'd considered to be so vital that she'd really longed to remember- but now she wished she didn't. Word for word the vigorous fight she'd had with William about Tom's then asserted infidelity replayed in her mind, leaving her feeling more stupid and mortified with every repetition. On a deep sigh she closed her eyes and let the memory wash over her.

William Darcy was indeed the very last person she would have expected to show up on her doorstep. Yet, there he was, looking down at her, his expression as hooded as usual, without the slightest sign of distress or remorse.

On first impulse, she wanted to throw the door closed again, right into his carefully blank face. After a brief struggle, though, curiosity got the better of her. What did he want? All she could think of was...

"Patricia is not here right now. If you want to-"

He cut in on her words rather rudely. "Actually, I've come to talk to you..."

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "About?"

"About what happened yesterday. I believe that you've been deliberately misinformed."

She crossed her arms in defiance. "How so?"

"I don't think we should discuss this here," he gestured towards the staircase. "May I come in?"

Elizabeth hesitated briefly, but finally she gave a curt nod. "Alright." She turned abruptly and left it to him to close the door and follow her into the living room.

When he stepped in, she stood facing him, all but tapping a foot in impatience. "So?"

"Would you please tell me what you know so far?" he asked.

Of all the things she'd imagined him to come up with, this was the most unexpected. She did a bad job of hiding her surprise. "You really want me to repeat what I've been told?"

"Yes- I know it must be quite...unpleasant for you, but..."

"Not at all, not for me. I can't imagine, though, why you would want to hear it. I mean, you've been there..."

But he just looked at her, giving her a faint shrug. She mimicked his gesture, more pronounced though, and with an impatient sigh did as he bade. "They caught you...in bed- with another woman, in the middle of the day in your apartment."

With a huff, he went past her to stand in front of the window and stare outside. She couldn't quite gauge the sound he'd made. What did it stem from? Anger or distress? Not that it really mattered. "You wanted me to tell you..."

Without turning around, he said something. At first she thought she'd misheard, but then his meaning slowly dawned. Hot anger flared inside her at his audacity. "What?" she demanded, just to make sure, and then she couldn't stop herself from adding: "Would you kindly look at me when you're talking to me!"

At her admonition he slowly turned and looked her straight in the eye, and she realised that he was struggling to control his anger. "It's a lie," he finally stated.

Elizabeth snorted in disbelief. "Oh really, and would you care telling me the truth?"

"Actually, it was the other way round. I caught them."

"Ah yes! Your fiancée and her cousin, in bed together- how sick is that?" She didn't even try to hide the irony in her voice.

"Sick or not- it's the truth," he gritted through clenched teeth.

"Patricia assumed that you would attempt to turn the facts- and obviously she was right!"

Finally his anger flared, and his voice rose a notch. "She turned the facts! They did! I am not a liar!"

"That's not what I've heard! It seems that you're quite the proficient liar! Only this time you were caught- and not only by Patricia. So there's really no use in keeping up the pretence-"

"This time?" he asked incredulously, taking a threatening step toward her. "Are you by any chance suggesting...?"

She didn't back down. "Indeed, I am! I've been told that you're a notorious cheater, and I have no reason whatsoever not to believe in my family's words!"

He retreated and shook his head in disgust. "How can you be so blind?" His brows furrowed in suspicion. "Or do you just pretend not to see it?"

For the life of her, Elizabeth didn't know what he was talking about. "See what?"

"What they really are! Who they really are!"

"They are my husband and his cousin, they are decent, honest people. And my husband even more so than anyone else I know!"

Again he moved toward her, his tone harsh as he asked: "Then why is it that nobody likes him? Why is it that your father warned you against marrying him?"

Her eyes widened and her voice came out as almost a whisper. "How do you know?"

"I'm your brother-in-law's best friend- we talk."

Once she'd recovered from his matter-of-fact remark, her gaze narrowed dangerously and she took a step toward him. "This is none of your business." Unable to help herself, she raised her hand and poked her forefinger into his chest. "Don't you dare tarnish my husband's reputation! You don't know him at all- no one does!"

"And you least of all!" He caught her fingers in his to prevent her from doing real harm even as his eyes bore into hers. "He's been manipulating you from the day you've met him!" His voice grew quietly intent, beseeching her to believe him. "Elizabeth, don't you see it? He's a fraud, a dazzler. Cheating and lying is second nature to him..."

She stared up at him, captured by his burning gaze, her lips moving in a futile effort to form words her brain refused to provide her with.

William tightened his hold on her hand, drawing her closer until their bodies almost touched as he continued his mesmerising monologue: "He's deceiving you, Elizabeth. He has an affair with his own cousin! Don't let him do this to you! Open your eyes and see him for what he really is! Wake up, Elizabeth, wake up!"

And suddenly she did. She blinked once, twice and her eyes widened. With a gasp she jerked free of his hold and took a few steps back. Hot colour rose into her cheeks. "You..." she fought her discomposure to find the right words, "...you...impostor! You are even worse than I thought! But you will not convince me, no matter what you say! I know my husband, and I love him, and I believe in him! You are naught but a stranger to me!"

Hands clasped behind his back, his gaze never leaving her face, William listened to her tirade in absolute immobility. When she was finished, they stared at each other silently, her eyes blazing with outrage while his didn't give away the slightest hint at his feelings. It nettled her to no end that he'd managed to slip back behind his façade without visible effort whereas she could do nothing to hide her emotional upheaval. How did he do it? How could he be so untouched by what had happened to him- culprit or not?

Again her curiosity peaked and for the first time since his unexpected arrival she scrutinised him carefully. Wasn't there a noticeable pallor beneath his slightly tanned complexion? And there were dark shadows under his eyes and fine lines of strain running from his nose to the corners of his mouth. As she watched, a muscle jumped in his jaw and she suddelnly realised that he was as tense as a drawn bow. Indeed, he was far from being unaffected, though he made a good job of concealing it. Her detection filled her with overwhelming gratification- since there was no other way for him to be punished, at least he should suffer...

Unable to repress a satisfied smirk, she sought his gaze just in time to see his eyes flicker with- unease? She blinked in puzzlement, and when she looked again his expression was as blank as she'd ever seen it, leaving her to wonder if her imagination had played a trick on her. Deeply engrossed in her thoughts, she almost jumped when William cleared his throat.

"We may be little more but strangers, Elizabeth, but right now I'm here as a friend." When she was about to interrupt, he stopped her by raising a hand. "No- please hear me out. We're in this together, just you and me. We've both been lied to and cheated on by those we trusted most, and since I was the one to find out, I considered it only... fair that you be informed about it. It's entirely up to you to decide what to do now. -Though I'd suggest you clear matters immediately, before they can hurt you even more."

While she listened, Elizabeth's anger rose until she feared she might choke on it. Hadn't he heard what she'd said? Had he ignored her every word? His persistence was indeed amazing. In an attempt to calm down, she swallowed and clenched her fists, lest she shout right into his arrogant face.

"Once and for all, William my friend, no matter what you tell me- I will not believe you! I've no reason whatsoever to mistrust my husband- and this nasty story is just too absurd to be given any credit-"

"But it is not as long as I'm the culprit," he interrupted loudly, no longer caring to hide his fury.

"Exactly!" Elizabeth's voice also rose in volume. "Because contrary to your claim, you're not my friend! You're nothing to me! I don't even know you- so whyever should I listen to you? If I'm told that you're a liar, why not believe it?"

He'd begun to pace the room, raking his fingers through his hair, shaking his head in frustration. "This can't be happening!"

Elizabeth's eyes followed him. "It does- and it's your own fault! What did you expect me to do? I can't even begin to understand what brought you here! You cheated on your fiancée, you were caught, she broke up with you- end of story! Why not give it a rest?"

William stopped right in front of her, glaring down at her, his eyes ablaze with anger. "Because it is not true!"

Her annoyance finally irrepressible, she met his glare head-on. "That's enough- get out of here!"

But he stood his ground and took a deep breath, whether to get back in control or to let loose with another of his tedious rants, she didn't care to ever find out. Giving him no chance to show her, she thrust out her arm, indicating the door. "Out!"

Still he didn't budge, but watched her closely with disturbing intensity. And before she could stop him again, he spoke up. "You know, Jane is really proud of your rationality, your common-sense for one so young. She will be very disappointed if she ever hears about this..."

Elizabeth felt ready to explode. "How dare you," she ground out. And then she did, shouting at what felt like the top of her lungs straight into his face. "Get out of here! At once!"

He nodded curtly, turned on his heels and quickly left the room. Only when she heard the front door being closed with a thud, did she realise that she'd been holding her breath...

With a hand pressed to her chest to calm her thundering heart, Elizabeth did exactly what she'd done then- she greedily gulped air into her straining lungs. Though this time the breathlessness was caused by profound agitation instead of burning anger. How could she ever have thought that remembering would make anything easier? In truth it was quite the opposite- the more she came to know, the harder it got. Many of the things she'd said and done while married to Tom were totally unlike her- so much so that she couldn't help but feel completely detached from the woman that had been Elizabeth Baxter-Harding. Indeed, it was as if she'd died together with her husband in this car accident 18 months ago.

William had been right- his every word nothing but the absolute truth, about Tom and Patricia and about her too. Hot tears sprang to her eyes and with a groan of anguish she leaned her head back against the window frame. Feeling definitely rather cursed than blessed with her restored knowledge, she wondered how she was ever going to face him again without dying of shame...

Chapter 17 - Part 3

Though it was still very early, William was already on the road to Longbourn. Once he'd made up his mind- with a little help from Anne- to return home, his impatience to see Elizabeth had grown almost beyond bearing. If he'd had his way he would have gone to her straight from the airport, but with his cousin in tow and the fund-raiser to attend, it had been impossible to accomplish.

At first he'd been thoroughly annoyed, wishing everyone away, longing for the freedom to go where he most wanted to be. In the end, though, the evening had been quite entertaining, with Anne in full cry as she teased her mother mercilessly, and his aunt tiptoeing around him as though she expected him to explode any second; seeing her contrition could have been truly funny, if not for the grave impact of her doings. Actually, he considered it a major advantage that she'd left the fund-raiser at rather an early hour. With the way he felt about her at present, he didn't really trust himself to remain calm and rational around her for any length of time.

Feeling his anger rise anew, William quickly pushed aside all thoughts of his aunt to deal with them- and her- later. It would not do to arrive at Longbourn in a bad mood and ruin the reunion with his beloved. He knew very well that he was neglecting his promise to give her time, but he sincerely hoped for her understanding. Please, please let her understand, let her feel the way I do, he prayed silently to any god inclined to listen. Yet, the nagging doubts lingered, no matter what he told himself- or asked of the heavenly powers.

The ringing of his mobile, connected to a hands-free system interrupted his musings. After a quick glance at the display, he pushed a button and Emily's voice immediately filled the interior of his car: "Good morning, William- seems like you finally made it back home!"

Though she sounded quite pleased, he couldn't miss the reprimanding tone underlying her words. A slight smile curved his lips as he answered: "Yes, I'm back. In fact, I returned late yesterday afternoon, but I had a busy evening, so- I'm sorry I didn't call you. How do you know, anyway?"

Emily made a noise that closely resembled a snort. It was so unlike her that his smile broadened and threatened to turn into laughter. He bit down on his lips hard, knowing better than to let her hear it.

"Well, what do you think?" she continued, unabashed. "You attended a public event- not a very smart decision if you wanted your whereabouts to be kept secret. -Sir John called me about 5 minutes ago to ask for an appointment today. So what was I to tell him? I don't know if you plan to stay and come back to work, or leave again! I didn't even know you'd returned!"

He sobered instantly at the mention of Sir John Asherton who was the central figure in a huge deal William and his associates had been working on for the past 3 months. If they managed to conclude it, it would gain them all another small fortune. Mentally assessing the situation, he murmered. "So he's finally getting impatient."

"Positively," Emily agreed with audible satisfaction, and before William could ask, she continued: "I promised to call him back as soon as I talked to you."

"Good- you do that and tell him that I'll meet him for lunch on Monday."

There was a tiny pause before Emily asked: "You think it wise to wait until Monday?" William chuckled. "The old hoodlum has us on tenterhooks for weeks now! I'm all for a little pay back here." And to reassure her, he went on: "Believe me, Emily, we have him netted- all I have to do is haul him aboard. 3 more days will make no difference."

"Oh well, you're the boss," she admitted with a sigh that rustled through the speakers. Then she abruptly changed the topic. "Where are you, anyway?"

"I'm on my way to Longbourn."

"Longbourn? Where's that?" Emily asked clearly bemazed.

"It's just outside of Meryton and it's the home of Elizabeth Baxter-Harding."

A short "oh" echoed inside the car, followed by silence. It went on for so long that William finally thought they'd been disconnected. "Emily, are you still there?"

"Yes," she replied promptly. "I was just thinking."

"About?"

Emily drew a deep breath before asking bluntly: "Is she really your lover?"

Caught completely off guard by her question, William's mind went momentarily blank and he gaped in surprise. Of its own volition his gaze flew to the display of his mobile where it was attached to the dashboard. Just a scant second later some deeply ingrained instict told him that something was terribly wrong with the direction his car was taking- and from then on everything seemed to happen at the same time.

He pulled up his head to see one of the trees on the roadside nearing rapidly even as a wave of adrenaline surged through his body and his thinking process kicked back in. Quietly cursing his idiotic reaction to a rather harmless question, he tightened his hands on the steering wheel and he gave it a jerk to get away from the massive obstacle while he jumped on the brakes. After what seemed like an eternity of hard work, the car finally came to a skidding halt in the middle of the road.

Drenched in sweat, his heart pounding in his ears like an erratic drumbeat, William closed his eyes and silently thanked the powers above for the lack of early morning traffic. Only then did he become aware of Emily's worried voice coming over the speakers.

"William? What's going on? Are you alright? -Talk to me!"

He inhaled deeply before answering, unsure of how his own voice would sound, reluctant to give her cause for alarm. "Everything's fine, Emily," he assured her. "I was just...surprised, is all. How do you know, anyway? Somehow I can't imagine Aunt Catherine spreading the happy news."

"Come again?" Emily asked, her perplexity obvious.

"Never mind...Who told you?" While he listened to her explanation, he loosened the tight grip he still had on the steering wheel and rolled his shoulders for relaxation. Then he slowly brought his car back on course.

By the time Emily was finished, a happy smile had spread across William's face. Elizabeth had tried to get in touch with him! Though he knew exactly that it could be either a good or a bad sign, he preferred to opt for the good one.

"That's wonderful news, Emily. -And before you ask again, yes- we are having an affair and I plan to make much more of it. I promise to explain how everything has come to pass when I'm back in the office. It would take too long now, since I'm almost there; so I'm pretty much running out of time. Just be so kind to call Sir John, and you will hear from me later today. Alright?"

"Alright, boss!" Emily replied instantly with a smile in her voice. "Oh- and William, have a nice time...Bye!"

Before he could answer, she hung up and left him to concentrate on his thoughts and the road ahead of him.

Robert Bennet had just recently wakened, when the doorbell rang. Brows furrowed in wonderment about the early morning disturbance, he put on his robe and went downstairs. A flash of pleasant surprise crossed his face when he opened the door and saw William Darcy standing there.

"Well, well, good morning, young man. It's good to see you again- finally," smiling cordially, he extended a hand in greeting.

His smile broadened when William eyed him warily- much as if he expected an unholy row to come down upon his head at any second. But while Robert watched, he seemed to gather his courage and finally took the offered hand to shake it carefully.

"Good morning, Robert. I didn't wake you up, I hope?"

"No, no, not at all- but please come on in before I freeze on the spot."

"Oh, I'm sorry, of course," William replied hastily. He hurried inside and quickly closed the door behind him, his movements of a clumsiness that clearly betrayed his unease. Unable to hide his amusement, Robert chuckled and put a reassuring hand on his visitor's shoulder.

"No need to be nervous, son, I'm quite harmless."

William's head whipped around, cheeks red with embarrassment about having been caught and a sharp tit-for-tat response on his lips. It died down quickly when he looked into Robert's smiling face, and instead he even managed to muster a small smile in return.

"There, that's much better. -So, I assume you are here to see Elizabeth?" He waited for William to nod before he continued, "yes, I thought so- though you realise that it's quite early...?"

"I know...and I apologise...but I wanted to make sure that she was at home," William explained, his nervousness back in full force.

"Oh, she's here alright. But chances are, she's still sound asleep- and I'm afraid she will not be thrilled about being disturbed at such an ungodly hour," Robert said in mock gravity, as he shook his head slightly, taking silent delight in torturing the younger man.

In truth, Elizabeth was an early riser- something William obviously didn't know, judging by the helpless expression that had settled on his face. With a sigh of regret, Robert decided to take pity on the man, before his confidence crumbled completely.

"Listen, William, I will go and check on her. See if she's up already. In the meantime- why don't you take off your coat, and make yourself comfortable," he told William while he strode to the stairs. "Living room's over there," he indicated a closed door to the right before disappearing around the corner.

William hardly had had time to sit down and gather his wits before the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs caused him to stand up again. Elizabeth, his heart and soul whispered in unison, as he stared at the open door in rapt anticipation, his breath suddenly too short, his cold hands clammy with sweat.

Endless seconds ticked by, and then...Mr. Bennet's angular shape filled the door frame. His lips were compressed into a thin line, his eyes filled with regret and sympathy. He caught William's expectant gaze and shook his head slightly.

"I'm...terribly sorry, son. She...doesn't want to see you."

William felt as if he'd just received a punch straight to the stomach. The urge to bend forward at the waist and hug his aching middle was so strong that it was all he could do to remain upright. The familiar pain from suppressed grief and sorrow came back tenfold, making his knees buckle until he finally lost the fight and sank back into his chair, burrying his face in his hands.

Mr. Bennet was by his side instantly, sitting down across from him and- after a brief hesitation- tapping his arm in compassion. His voice was quiet but insistant when he spoke.

"Nothing's lost yet, William...She loves you- I know she does."

William took a steadying breath before he lifted his head to look at Robert in desperate inquiry. "Then why won't she talk to me? Yesterday she called my office and asked for me. What has changed? Why has she changed her mind overnight?"

Shrugging slightly, Robert heaved a sigh. "I wish I had an answer...but all I know is that she had another dream. And whenever that happens, she's weary and tired to the bone in the morning. Maybe she just doesn't want you to see her like this..."

With a snort, William stood up again and began to pace the room. "Or maybe she doesn't want to see me ever again! Maybe for her, I'm nothing more than a fling and-"

"No!" Robert intercepted decidedly, getting up as well to stand in front of William. "I know my daughter, and I know she loves you. Whatever her reasons for not wanting to see you, I'm sure she will explain them in due time. She's downright honest, William- and she would never play with anyone's feelings."

"I know all that, Robert," William conceded, passing a hand through his hair. "But I was so...so impatient to see her again- so full of hope..."

Robert squeezed the younger man's shoulder affectionately. "Don't lose that hope, William, hold on to it...I'm positive everything will turn out just...fine."

"You think?" William asked, his voice indeed hopeful, his gaze beseeching.

The older man chuckled, his face once again lit by a good natured smile. "I do, son, definitely. -By the way," he cocked his head in question, "you don't mind that I call you son?"

Despite himself, William had to smile back- again, and while he looked at Robert it occurred to him for the first time that there was an astounding likeness between this man and his younger daughter- if not in looks, but certainly in temper. His heart felt somewhat lighter and the words came easy as he answered. "No, I don't, Sir. In fact, it is an honour."

"Good, good," Robert nodded. "I figure, we should both get used to it- don't you think?" He winked at William and with a gentle hand on his back guided him out of the room. "You better be on your way now, son, and I'm going upstairs to have a talk with my recalcitrant daughter. She will call you today- I promise."

"Thank you, Robert. I appreciate your help- very much," William said while he shrugged into his coat.

"You're welcome, son. Good-bye for now."

They shook hands and William left, reassured and confident once more while Robert climbed the stairs to his daughter's bedroom.

Elizabeth was still sitting on her bed when Robert came back into her room.

"Is he gone?" she asked as soon as he closed the door behind him.

"Yes," Robert answered shortly. He walked over to her and sat down. "Why ever did you refuse to see him? I thought you could hardly wait for his return."

"I- " she hesitated, rubbing her hand across her forehead. "I- have to come to terms with what has happened first."

Robert turned to her and took her hand in his. "Then what has happened? Tell me."

Scooting closer to him, Elizabeth nodded and began her story, sometimes stumbling over her own words, sometimes shedding a stray tear.

When she was finished, they sat in silence. While her stillness resulted entirely from exhaustion, Robert's originated from thoughtfulness as he pondered over what he'd just learned.

Finally he inhaled deeply and let his breath escape on a slow sigh. "It doesn't make any sense, Lizzy...When he has indeed found someone else, why would he have come here today?"

"To tell me it's over?" she suggested in a near whisper.

But Robert just shook his head in denial. "No way, believe me! Whoever this woman is- a close friend, or maybe a relative- there's definitly nothing more than friendship to it. He's in love with you- it couldn't be more obvious if he had it tatooed to his forehead."

Elizabeth bit her lower lip, hoping against hope that her father was right. Yet, she couldn't completely quench the lingering doubts. "But you should have seen them together, Papa. He couldn't keep his hands off of her and she was constantly snuggling up to his side..."

"Even so," Robert insisted, "you don't know the story behind it- and I'm sure there is more to it than the obvious." He squeezed her hand tightly. "Trust me in this, Lizzy. I recognise a love-sick man when I see one...You have to talk to him- as soon as possible. Ask him and I'm sure he can explain everything and resolve all your doubts."

Lizzy hung her head, drawing small circles on the bedcloth with her free hand. "I know I have to talk to him- eventually. I'm just so...tired and confused. Last night, before going to sleep, I made up my mind o talk to him because he's the only one who can set things straight..."

Robert nodded in agreement. "The only sound decision, Lizzy."

"I know- but then I dreamed...and now I'm so ashamed of myself..." her voice trailed off and she ducked her head even deeper.

Very gently Robert hooked his fingers under her chin and raised her face to his. "Lizzy, you have to realise that this is in the past...William knows all about it; he was there, after all. You've been through this together- and he understands...How else could he have fallen in love with you despite the past?"

Her eyes were brimming with tears when she tried to interject. "But-"

"There is no 'but', Lizzy. I'm well aware that you didn't remember up until now. William did, and to him it's just a memory- nothing more. And that's indeed all it is. Whatever you did that needed his forgiveness, he has granted it long since. All you have to do is follow his example and forgive yourself. Keep in mind that your circumstances were different, that you were different, and what happened then has nothing to do with the present- or the future..."

With a sob, Elizabeth threw herself into her father's arms and buried her face in his shoulder. He held on to her and stroked her back tenderly. "Now, now- it's alright...Calm down, Sweetie. It will turn out just fine, you'll see."

"Thank you, Papa," she murmured into the folds of his robe. After sniffing a few times, she finally leaned away from him to look into his eyes. "What would I do without you?"

He smiled and brushed her hair away from her damp face. "I think we should save this question for another time- what do you say?"

Elizabeth nodded, managing to give him a wobbly smile in return.

"Good," he nudged her shoulder gently, making her lie down on the bed. "I suggest that you take a nap now, and when you wake up again, I want you to call William and have a talk with him. Promise?"

Elizabeth nooded tiredly while he stood up and tucked her in, securing the blanket around her. When he turned to leave the room, she was already sound asleep.

In her penthouse office at the Rosings, Lady Catherine de Bourgh put down the receiver of her private telephone line with a relieved smile on her face. After calling for her driver, she stood up slowly and gathered her personal belongings to put them into her purse. So far, everything went according to plan- and she hoped dearly that her good luck would last for a few hours more. If so, her self-imposed mission would come to a satisfying end for everyone involved...

To be continued


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