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The Lost Year

Chapter 18 - Part 1

After making sure he had no deadlines to meet or appointments to keep, Robert decided to spend the day at home. It was Friday and with many people still on holiday, business was slow anyway, and others already gone for the weekend. Moreover, he figured that he would be needed more where he was right now- because when Lizzy woke up again, she might want to continue their conversation, or just have him there so as not to be alone.

He called Jane to give her a brief report on the events and then settled himself in the library with a book and a steaming cup of tea. It was almost noon before he heard Elizabeth rummaging in her room above. When the shower was turned on, he put down his book and went to the kitchen to prepare fresh coffee and some snacks.

A few minutes later they sat in companionable silence, enjoying their light meal, each lost in their own thoughts when the sound of the doorbell harshly interrupted the peaceful scene. They both looked up in puzzlement, staring in the direction of the front door, then back at each other.

"Pretty busy day today," Robert muttered under his breath.

Elizabeth swallowed the bite she'd been chewing on with an audible gulp before asking in a very low voice: "Do you think William has come back?"

Robert winked at her, answering in the same near-whisper: "Are you afraid he might hear you if you speak any louder?"

She averted her eyes and blushed deeply, but before she could open her mouth to utter a reply, the doorbell rang a second time. Again she stared in the direction of the disturbing sound and then back at her father. With his arms crossed over his chest, he gave her a smug smile and slowly raised an eyebrow in provocation. Not one to back down when challenged by her father, Elizabeth stood up and straightened her shoulders.

"I'll answer it," she declared firmly, and with her chin held high, left the room at a brisk pace. Robert's quiet laughter followed her out into the hall, urging her on when she would have balked. Still, the closer she came to the front door, the heavier her legs grew, forcing her to slow down until she all but crawled. "Oh, come on, don't be such a wimp, Lizzy," she chided herself quietly when she finally reached the closed door.

Although that was easier said than done. Rationally she knew that her father was right about her memories- they were old news; but emotionally she found it hard to accept since they didn't feel like old news at all. As awkward as it was, though, she was sure that given time she would learn to deal with it just fine.

What bothered her much more was what she'd seen at the fund-raiser. This she couldn't dismiss so easily because friends just didn't behave that way- and the thought that the unknown woman might be William's relative left her sick to the stomach. Decidedly she pushed away the horrid notion, refusing to believe that it could happen all over again.

Again the bell sounded, insistently this time, as if the visitor were leaning against it. Jerking out of her thoughts, Elizabeth winced as the volume of the chime made her ears ring. Without giving her actions second thought, she quickly reached out and drew the door open, her only intention to stop the hellish noise.

To her utter surprise she found herself almost nose to nose with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who was indeed leaning against the bell button; with the upper part of her body bent slightly forward, she'd put all her weight into the push to make her presence known- and had succeeded just fine.

For a few breathless seconds, the women stared at each other, transfixed and unblinking until their gaze broke away and they began to move simultaneously; Elizabeth took a hasty step backwards while Lady de Bourgh finally let go of the bell button and straightened. She cleared her throat and gave a curt nod.

"Good day, Mrs. Harding, I-"

"Bennet- Miss Bennet!" Elizabeth cut in, amazing them both with her rude behaviour as well as with her words. She hadn't been aware that she wanted to dispose of Tom's name until she heard herself say so. But in the wake of her unexpected outburst, a heavy load was taken off her mind, and she suddenly realised that it had been her wish for quite a while now. Relief prompted her to say aloud: "I don't want to bear my late husband's name any longer. I'll have it changed back into Bennet as soon as possible."

Lady Catherine nodded her approval. "A very good idea, Miss Bennet," smiling briefly, she put special emphasis on the name, "-and quite understandable given his despicable treatment of you."

Elizabeth's eyes widened in astonishment. "You know?" she asked incredulously.

"I do indeed, actually it's more or less the reason that brought me here today. And then there is this other matter, too, that I wanted to discuss with you...Or rather-" she took a deep breath and her eyes dropped to the ground, "or rather- explain to you. If you will grant me a bit of your time, that is."

This cryptic declaration in combination with what could only be considered unusual behaviour for someone like Lady Catherine roused Elizabeth's curiosity and she wasted no time. "Yes, yes of course. Please do come in." Stepping aside, she made room for her visitor to enter the house.

Only then did it occur to her that she'd failed to offer a proper greeting. Quickly closing the door, she turned around and held out her hand. "Welcome to Longbourn, Lady Catherine."

Lady Catherine took the offered hand and shook it. "Thank you, Miss Bennet. -I do hope that I am still welcome after we've had our little...chat."

Before Elizabeth had a chance to even think of an appropriate answer to yet another strange remark, her father entered the hall to offer his own cheerful greeting. She moved out of the way as he helped Lady Catherine take off her coat. He put it on a hanger and placed it in the wardrobe, all the time engaging in civilised small talk.

And while Mr. Bennet fulfilled his duties as a host, Elizabeth watched and listened with growing impatience. Lady Catherine's visit mystified her, raising questions that urgently demanded to be answered. How did she know about Tom's betrayal? How could this be the reason for her visit? And why did she seem to be so...nervous?

Unwilling to wait a minute longer, Elizabeth cleared her throat loudly to interrupt the conversation that had in the meantime shifted to business matters. Her action brought her immediate attention just as she hoped. And very shortly afterwards- her father having retreated to the library- she sat on the sofa in the living room across from her guest, who was seated in an armchair.

Lady Catherine's gaze was fixed to her lap as she fumbled with the straps of her handbag, thus putting Elizabeth's patience to yet another test. But finally she took a deep breath and lifted her head.

"I must apologise for my reluctance, Miss Bennet, but I find myself in an extremely uncomfortable position. And even though I know that this has to be done, I can't bring myself to like it. -No, please let me continue. If you don't mind, I'd prefer to recount the events in my own words rather than respond to your questions. Believe me, you will get your answers anyway."

After Elizabeth had nodded her consent, Lady Catherine took another deep breath and started her report. When she was finished, heavy silence filled the room. Both women were staring at the ground in front of them, both struggling with a myriad of emotions. At last, Elizabeth left her seat and went over to the window. With her arms crossed in front of her and her back turned to her guest, she leaned against the window frame and heaved a faint sigh.

"Wow, what a story..." She shook her head slightly as if to clear it before turning around again to face Lady Catherine. "Yet, I don't see the point in your coming here..."

Lady Catherine looked slightly startled about Elizabeth's reasoning. "Well...after all, you were affected by what I did, and I thought you might be angry- and I hoped for your forgiveness."

Elizabeth's eyebrows formed a deep V of confusion as she moved back to her seat. "I'm sorry, but I just don't get it..." She sat down again and looked straight into Lady de Bourgh's eyes. "Yes, I was- I am- affected by your interference, but until now I didn't have the faintest idea of what you've done...Why change that?...To provoke my anger so you'd be able to ask my forgiveness? Why would you do that? I am nothing to you, so why bother? It just doesn't make sense..."

Squirming in her seat, Lady Catherine once again dropped her gaze to her lap. She felt trapped, and she hated it. This wasn't going at all as smoothly as she'd counted on. But then, she should have known that William wouldn't fall for some stupid damsel. No, far from it! Miss Bennet was a clever girl and she'd hit the nail straight on the head. The time for subterfuge was over, instead pure honesty was called for. She looked up again and straightened her shoulders.

"You may be nothing to me, Miss Bennet, but you are everything to my nephew- or so I've been told. Therefore...I was hoping that- with your help- he would be less harsh on me..."

"Ah," was all Elizabeth said while she nodded in understanding. Again she left her seat to pace the room. After a few moments she turned back to her visitor. "So he knows?"

Lady Catherine gave her silent affirmation by slightly inclining her head.

"But he learned about it through someone else?"

"Yes, my daughter told him- with my consent. They are...very close."

Elizabeth's short burst of laughter sounded more like a huff, yet a small smile played upon her lips. "I really don't mean any offence, Lady Catherine, but you are truly in possession of a very...artful mind."

Lady Catherine couldn't help but smile back. She was mildly surprised to find herself liking her nephew's beloved very much indeed. "No offence taken, Miss Bennet, I can assure you. It's a gift I'm very proud of- and very thankful for."

For her part, Elizabeth couldn't deny a certain sympathy for William's aunt either. She was self-confident, she was tough and she surely was proactive; altogether very admirable attributes that added up to a great character. Indeed she would have been almost perfect- if not for the rather disturbing autocracy with which she handled matters, where nothing was too impure to be used as a means to an end. But maybe that was what made her likeable after all- imperfection. Regret and gratification fought for the upper hand as Elizabeth set out to show Lady Catherine the hole in her plan- or so she thought.

Rubbing her arms against a sudden chill, she swallowed hard to keep her voice steady before breaking the unpleasant news. "I'm afraid I will be of little to no help for you. As it is, William and I-"

She stopped mid-sentence when she caught the glimpse of a knowing smile on her guest's face. But it was gone as fast as it had appeared- or had it ever been there? While she still stared, Lady Catherine leaned back in her chair and silently gestured for her to continue.

"I- it seems-" Elizabeth took a deep breath and started again while trying to hold at bay all the painful emotions her confession called forth. "What I have to say in this matter is totally irrelevant because...it's over. William has found someone else."

In an effort to get it over with as fast as possible, she'd rushed the words out and was left feeling light-headed and trembling. With a sense of unreality, she watched as Lady Catherine stood and came towards her. She put an arm around Elizabeth's waist and led her back to the sofa, urging her gently but firmly to sit down with her.

"No, my dear, he has not- it's still you. And that's the other reason why I came here- to clear up this misunderstanding."

Elizabeth slowly rubbed her forehead as she struggled to digest Lady Catherine's statement as well as her unexpected show of affection. "A misunderstanding?" she finally asked in a whisper, still hardly daring to hope.

Lady Catherine nooded her affirmation. "What you witnessed yesterday was just an act, a farce. The woman by William's side was my daughter Anne, and the way she behaved...was for no one but me- to provoke me, to raise my anger."

"But I don't understand...Why would she do that?" Elizabeth asked, her confusion evident.

Lady Catherine sighed and smoothed her hands across her lap. "Ah well, there was a time- and it ended just a few days ago- when I hoped that Anne and William would...get together-"

"What? William and your daughter? His cousin?"

"Oh no, no, dear, don't jump to the wrong conclusions," Lady Catherine hurried to interject. "It's not what you think, nothing like Miss McKinley and- well, you know who. Anne and William are not related by blood. She's not my biological child, but my late husband's daughter.

"At any rate," she continued, patting Elizabeth's arm reassuringly. "I had high hopes for her, though I knew about her...disposition. But I chose to ignore it- not my wisest decision, I have to admit."

Though somewhat relieved, Elizabeth was still very confused. "But, Lady de Bourgh-"

"Catherine."

"Very well, Catherine- thank you- I-"

Again she was interrupted. "Better make that Aunt Catherine- you should get used to it anyway." Lady Catherine quipped with a sly smile and a wink.

Elizabeth could only gasp in surprise at that bold assumption. When she saw Lady Catherine's expression, however, she broke out into a heartfelt smile. "You are trying to get on my good side here, aren't you- Aunt Catherine?"

Lady Catherine smiled too and shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe, who knows..."

Serious again, Elizabeth resumed their conversation. "So tell me- what about Anne's disposition? What's wrong with her?"

And with a deep sigh Lady Catherine finally told her everything, from her daughter's unusual life style, to the fact that Richard had opened her eyes, and in the end she even admitted to the real reason why she hadn't detained Patricia from going through with her plan.

When she was finished this time, both women were relieved to no end. But while Lady Catherine acknowledged the feeling with silent astonishment, Elizabeth couldn't hold back from expressing it rather explicitly. Without thinking twice, she embraced her visitor and pecked her cheek.

"Thank you! I will be forever grateful that you told me everything. You've really made up for your mistakes."

Not even Lady Catherine could withstand such an honest display of emotions. With untypical enthusiasm she hugged her niece-to-be back, thinking once again that she obviously had gotten mellow at her ripe old age- but liking it all the same.

She leaned away from Elizabeth to look into her eyes. "What are you going to do now?"

"I guess I'm going to call William immediately," she bit her lower lip and sat back with a sigh. "I can only hope that he will forgive me after what I did this morning..."

"Oh, I'm sure he will, dear," Lady Catherine assured her. "He loves you very much." Again she began to fumble with her handbag to avoid meeting Elizabeth's eyes. "But why call? Wouldn't it be much better to see him in person?"

"You mean I should go to London?"

"Pemberley," Lady Catherine corrected, still looking down.

Elizabeth's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "How do you know he is...?" but she let her voice trail off when the answer dawned on her.

When Lady Catherine finally lifted her gaze, she had the decency to appear contrite. "I really had no other choice, don't you see? How should I've known for sure what he was going to do without having him watched? But I promise that it will never ever happen again."

"You better make that promise to William- he's the one concerned," Elizabeth scolded quietly.

Lady Catherine nodded forlornly. "I am well aware of that, and I will surely do it. I just hope, though, that my effort to make up for what I've done will reconcile him a little bit. Because that was the actual idea behind my coming here..."

Elizabeth nodded and stood up. "I know, and I will put in a good word for you, too- so chances are not too bad that he will forgive you eventually. Now, if you don't mind, I have to get ready to leave."

Half an hour later, Lady Catherine was on her way back to London while Elizabeth was en route to Pemberley, leaving behind her a rather confused Mr. Bennet who hadn't been able to make much of her hasty explanations. He was quite content, though, to know at least where she was headed.

Chapter 18 - Part 2

The ride to Pemberley seemed to last forever, with miles and miles of endless road stretching out before her. Luckily there was not much traffic along the way, or else she might have long since landed in the ditch for all the attention paid to her driving.

Her mind was reeling with thoughts that went to and fro as she tried to consider all the possible outcomes of her imminent reunion with William. Would he be happy to see her? How should she behave? What was she to say? Maybe she should have called first, after all...

Despite her father and Aunt Catherine's- the informal address still made her smile- reassurances that William loved her, she felt very unsure. Not that she doubted his feelings, though, she never really had. But hadn't she done her utmost to drive him away? Would he still be willing to be with her after what she'd put him through? Was his love that strong? Deep down inside she knew it to be, yet on the surface the misgivings lingered...

She caught herself just in time before pounding her head against the steering wheel. Shocked by her reckless behaviour, she tightened her grip on the cool leather and forced her attention back to the road before her. It wasn't easy, however, with her heart beating fiercely and her stomach in knots.

After what felt like countless hours, she finally caught the first glimpse of Pemberley's wrought iron gates. With reduced speed she took the downward slope leading through them and slowly made her way along the driveway to the front of the house. She turned off the ignition and sat there in silent contemplation, staring at the impressive fašade of William's home.

Elizabeth knew she was playing for time- though to no avail at all. It had to be done and she would have to accept the outcome, one way or another. Taking a deep steadying breath, she made one last effort to gather her scattered wits. When confusion and insecurity persisted, however, and serenity would not set in, she gave up with a defeated shrug- this was obviously as good as it would get.

Reaching for the remnants of her elusive self-confidence, she squared her shoulders, left her car and marched up to the house, her stride showing more confidence than she actually felt. Mindful to use the momentum she'd built up on the way, she immediately punched the bell button before she could falter once again.

Long seconds ticked by, adding up to almost a minute, until Elizabeth was on the verge of giving up. About to turn away to find another entry to the house she stopped abruptly when the door finally opened. Mrs. Brooks, the housekeeper, whom she remembered from Mr. Darcy's funeral and the reception afterwards, greeted her with barely concealed curiosity. Elizabeth introduced herself quickly and asked for William.

Upon hearing her name, Mrs. Brooks' expression brightened considerably and she opened the door wide to invite her guest in. "Please, come in, come in. William is in his study, and I'm sure he will be very happy to see you." While she took Elizabeth's coat to store it in the wardrobe, she rattled on good-naturedly, without stopping once to take a breath. "He told me to expect your call and to put you through to him immediately. And it seemed to be very urgent, too. I'm sure he will be overjoyed to see you in person. Will you follow me, please?"

Elizabeth did as she was asked, slightly dazed by Mrs. Brooks' overwhelming stream of words.

"He's in there," the housekeeper pointed out as they stopped in front of a door which Elizabeth knew lead into William's study. "Let me knock for you," Mrs. Brooks offered and did so without hesitation, "there!" She lowered her voice to a near-whisper while they waited for William to bade them come in. "He came home in a very bad mood today, you know, very depressed and all..." she heaved a deep-drawn sigh that made her ample bosom bounce up and down. "Ah poor man, he's been already through a lot in his young life... What now?" she suddenly exclaimed impatiently, startling Elizabeth out of her stupefaction. Shaking her head in exasperation, she knocked again with more vehemence. "I know him to be in there- he can so stubborn at times-"

Finally her tirade was interrupted when William's angry voice rang through the door. "Come in! And it better be really important!"

Before she could so much as draw a breath, Elizabeth found herself inside the study, nudged forward with a gentle push by Mrs. Brooks who had already closed the door behind her. William stood in front of the window with his back to her, shoulders hunched, hands buried in his trouser pockets, and his forehead pressed against the pane.

As she took in his posture of utter despair, all rational thoughts fled from her mind. She could feel his emotions as if they were her own, sadness and loneliness that went so deep they permeated his very core. On first impulse she wanted to rush to him and put her arms around him to give him warmth and comfort, yet she stood rooted to the spot by the knowledge that she was the one who had inflicted all that pain upon him. Tears began to prickle behind her eyes as she struggled to suppress an agonised groan.

Just a moment later, William heaved an audible sigh. Elizabeth stiffened and watched him with bated breath. As his rich voice- now sounding more weary than angry- filled the room, a shiver ran down her spine.

"Mrs. Brooks, I told you that I didn't want to be-" he suddenly stopped, straightened and very slowly pulled a hand out of his pocket to rub his neck. When he was done, he stood immobile again, though Elizabeth thought she heard him murmur her name.

Another small eternity passed by before he began to turn around, moving cautiously, as if he dreaded what he would come to see; but finally, finally, they stood facing each other.

"Elizabeth...?" the sound of her name, low and hoarse, carried surprise, disbelief and- hope, while the same emotions passed across his face in close succession.

With the ability to speak beyond her, she just nodded while the tears that had threatened now formed in her eyes.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, still too surprised to do anything more.

She swallowed frantically, once again trying to use her voice, yet without a clue what to say. The tears finally spilled over her lower lashes and trickled down her face. In the end all she could come up with was the obvious. "Crying..." she choked out.

He watched her in silence for a few moments then took a deep breath. "You know, if you do that, I will have to take you into my arms..."

She nodded again, her voice still barely audible as she reached out for him. "Yes please."

With three long strides he closed the distance between them and crushed her to him in a tight embrace. Whispering her name over and over again, he buried his face in her hair, inhaling her unique scent, revelling in the feel of her body so close to his. She had come to him, his love had come to him! Relief flooded him like a tidal wave- only to be followed closely by doubt. Was she here to stay? Suddenly his need for reassurance grew so strong, it obliterated everything else he felt. All he could think of, all that counted, was to claim her as his again, and he began to mindlessly kiss every part of her he could reach.

Light-headed with joy Elizabeth held on fast to him for fear she might collapse. They all had been right- he still loved her! Heaving a watery sigh she stuck her nose into the folds of his shirt, absorbing the musky fragrance that was his alone. With the planes and angles of his lean body pressed against hers from chest to knee, nothing else mattered anymore but his nearness. When she felt him rain kisses atop her head, she burrowed closer still, returning his caresses by pressing her lips to his chest.

William reacted promptly. He groaned deep in his throat even as his heartbeat picked up pace and the muscles in his back flexed beneath her hands. While his hips canted forward to push his growing erection against her belly, his fingers tangled in her hair to pull her head away from him and give himself better access to her neck.

A breathless moan escaped her when she felt his open mouth slide down her cheek to settle on the sensitive skin just below her ear and suck strongly. Triggered by his passionate fondling, her desire rose swiftly, turning her insides to liquid as it coursed through her shivering body to pool heavily between her thighs.

His hot face still pressed against the junction of her neck and shoulder, William demanded in a low, hoarse voice: "Say you'll stay!"

Too dazed to grasp his meaning, Elizabeth tried to turn her head to reach his face and kiss him back while she went on tiptoe and opened her legs to cradle his erection where she wanted it most. But he wouldn't have it; tugging at her curls insistently he forced her head backward and moved away from her. "Say it," he demanded again.

Elizabeth's eyes fluttered open in surprise at the sudden loss of contact. He was looming above her, his face so close their noses almost touched. His gaze was narrowed, glittering fiercly as he stared at her, waiting...

Waiting for what? She returned his stare, slightly befuddled, while she slowly worked through the thick haze that shrouded her brain. Though she'd heard them, had taken in his words, it took her a few seconds to recall them. When she finally did, her heart expanded in her chest, threatening to burst with the love she felt for this strong man who was so desperate for her reassurance. A smile of pure tenderness formed on her lips as she hurried to say what she knew he needed to hear: "Yes, William- yes, I'll stay."

His deep-drawn sigh seemed to arise from the bottom of his soul. He muttered "Thank heavens" while he pulled her close again and dipped his head to cover her lips with his. Elizabeth opened up to him immediately, welcoming his stroking tongue with caresses of her own. And while their mouths fused in a wild, hot kiss, their bodies strained to get closer still, until William lifted her up to him.

At once her legs went around his waist to rub her mound against the ridge of his erection. Not even the layers of their clothing could conceal the searing heat of their flesh where they touched and they both groaned at the feel of it- yet it was not enough.

William broke their kiss and nibbled a path along the delicate line of her jaw until he reached her neck. "I want to be inside you- now," he whispered roughly against her skin while his hot breath fanned her ear and made her squirm in his embrace.

His words in combination with the intimate contact of their bodies almost sent her over the edge. "Yes," she moaned, panting, striving to hold back. "Yes, please- now."

In answer he captured her mouth again for another deep kiss and with one arm supporting her bottom and the other clamped around her back, he carried her behind his desk and sat down in his huge leather chair with her on his lap.

With their mouths still locked, they began to tug at each other's clothes impatiently. Buttons were popped open with more haste than finesse while they kissed and moaned and grinded their loins together in mindless need. When Elizabeth finally succeeded in opening his shirt, she brushed it aside and leaned back to stare at his marvellous chest. Enraptured by the view, she let William peel off her blazer and blouse before putting her hands on his shoulders and letting them slowly slide down along his sleek skin. He felt so hot and firm, so good, she had to let her lips follow the same path and plant open-mouthed kisses along her way.

William groaned and arched his back when her lips found his left nipple and teased it with slow strokes of her tongue. Her hands wandered lower still and came to rest at the waistband of his trousers where they dipped slightly inside. It was almost more than he could bear. Afraid he might come with just the lightest brush of her fingers, he sucked in a deep breath as he fought to maintain his fragile control. Taking hold of her hands, he drew them behind her back thus forcing her to sit up straight. Her breasts thrust forward, protected from his view and touch only by a thin layer of sheer, black lace.

Panting hard, Elizabeth watched him through heavy-lidded eyes as he stared at her, feeling the same anticipation she could sense in his tense body. When he didn't move, she pleaded on a broken sigh: "William...please," and squirmed to get free of his hold.

"Yes, love, yes..." he replied huskily and let go off her instantly. His hands came around to open the front clasp of her bra and brush the cups aside. She laced her fingers through his hair to hold him in place as he nuzzled and laved her soft flesh. When his hot mouth clamped down on her nipple, she cried out and let her head fell back in pure abandon.

William felt ready to explode when her hips rolled against his, stroking the length of his painfully erect penis. He couldn't get enough of her, never, he had to have her, all of her- now...

With his arms around her, he swiftly stood and let her slide down his body until her feet reached the ground. Before she knew what was going on, he had her jeans and panties off of her and she found herself sitting on the edge of his desk without a thread left on her body. William stood in front of her, his gaze never leaving hers, his soulful eyes as intense as she had ever seen them while he worked to unfasten his trousers with trembling fingers.

Ridden by desire and impatience, unable to keep away from him, Elizabeth leaned forward to skim her lips across his chest again. He took a shuddering breath at the contact and began to jerk at his zipper with greater urgency until he managed to pull it down. The rest of his clothes were quickly taken care of and in the end he was totally, gloriously naked.

Finally William allowed his gaze to slide down her body and drink in the sight of her. Her creamy shoulders, her full, round breasts peaked by rosy nipples, the slight tip of her waist and her soft hips. When his eyes came to rest at the nest of dark curls between her thighs, he groaned as he felt his penis twitch and his testicles draw tight.

Elizabeth's eyes roamed his body, from his broad shoulders, over his chest and coppery nipples to his flat abdomen and lean hips until they fastened on his straining erection. While she looked, it jerked visibly even as William let out a low groan. Her gaze flew to his face to see him stare straight to the junction of her legs. She thought she would melt on the spot and spoke his name laden with tenderness. When he lifted his eyes, filled with all the love and longing she had ever dreamt of, she couldn't hold back any longer what she had meant to tell him for so long now: "I love you."

At her quiet admission, he made a sound in his throat that could have been a groan or a sob, she didn't know which, and stepped between her legs, hugging her closely, bringing his mouth to her ear. "I love you, too, my own Lizzy, so very much..."

She tugged his head back, seeking his lips with hers and murmured against them: "Show me," and then she kissed him deeply. He remembered those words, she had used them at Netherfield, before they made love for the first time. They had the same effect on him as they had then, amplifying his desire to unbearable heights so swiftly, it made him dizzy and left him breathless. Only one thought remained: to make her his, to stake his claim...

His hand meandered across her belly, briefly dipping into her navel, before going lower to cup her mound. She broke away from their kiss to release a ragged breath as she arched against him; and then he felt her fingers close around his erection. He growled quietly at the sensation, his hand delving deeper to find her hot and wet and ready to take him. Gently he slid one finger inside while he bent to take a puckered nipple into his mouth. She gasped and grabbed his wrist to push him away. "No, I want you- now," she choked out and guided his penis to her opening.

When the tip of his shaft nudged her tender folds, William straightened immediately. He captured her gaze and locked it with his as he held her in place with a hand against the small of her back and began to push into her steadily.

Elizabeth held her breath, caught in his soulful eyes, overwhelmed by the feeling of his hard, male flesh stretching her with gentle force. But she wanted- needed- more, the craving to have him fully inside her too fierce to be ignored. To urge him on, she opened her legs wider and tilted her pelvis. William followed her lead without hesitation, groaning, burying himself deeply with one swift thrust.

When they were finally joined, Elizabeth's eyes closed and her breath poured out on a low moan while William threw back his head and ground out through clenched teeth: "Oh God, please... please don't move..." With her soft sheath quivering, rippling around him to adjust to his length, he felt so close to coming, he almost lost the fight for the dispersed residues of his control. From the effort, sweat broke out all over his body, sticking their skin together where they touched. He didn't want to move- not yet, didn't want it to end, but when he looked back at Elizabeth he knew that waiting any longer was way beyond him.

She returned his look, her eyes glazed, hot colour staining her cheekbones. Her full lips were slightly parted, wet and swollen from his kisses, and they formed a word: "Please..."

He exploded into motion. Urging her to lie down, he quickly swept everything from his desk with one hand while he supported her back with the other. When she was spread before him, he hooked his arms under her knees, forcing her legs high and wide. He withdrew and drove hard into her again.

Elizabeth was teetering on the edge, ready to fall over. The intensity was searing, the feelings almost too strong to bear. Pleasure rushed through her only he could call forth. In an attempt to draw it out, she grasped his upper arms, hoping he would anchor her to the real world. But his powerful thusts tipped her further and further, jeopardising her precarious equilibrium. She gave up fighting, felt her body gather, and her inner muscles clamp down on him.

William felt the outset of her release as she dug her nails into his biceps and grabbed him with her hot sheath. With a liberating groan, he gave up on holding back and increased his pace, pounding into her with all the force of his love and desire. When her back arched off the desk, and he heard her call out his name, he swelled and hardened and on a low moan found his own mind-numbing release.

Pulling his arms from under her knees, he dropped down on her and buried his face against the side of her neck. "Please, don't ever leave me again, Lizzy...it would kill me," he murmured and took a shuddering breath.

Elizabeth's throat constriced at his entreaty and her eyes filled with tears. God, what had she done to this man she loved so dearly? She swallowed hard and embraced him tightly, lifting her legs to hook them loosely around his waist and keep him inside her. Turning her head to kiss his unruly curls, she told him what they both needed to hear. "Never William, I will never leave you... I love you."

Coming up on his elbows, he gazed at her with narrowed eyes, measuring her, as if he sought for the truth. "Swear it," he demanded imperiously, as haughty as she had ever seen him. She knew he was serious, yet she had to bite her lips to suppress a smile. Trying to imitate his expression, she lowered her brows and answered smartly. "I swear...mylord- Sir."

But he was not done by far. "Will you live with me?"

Elizabeth felt herself soften under his piercing gaze and her smile broke out fully, born of pure joy and happiness. "Yes."

"Will you marry me?"

Her face fell, her eyes widened and she gasped. "I- I," she sputtered, and finally gave up, far too surprised to form a coherent thought.

Taking her face between his hands, William brought his mouth to hers and gently nibbled at her lower lip. "Marry me, please..." he whispered and kissed her slowly, deeply, robbing her breath.

When he drew back, he smiled tenderly, smoothing her hair from her forehead, caressing her cheek with his knuckles. Looking back at him, she suddenly saw her future in his eyes, saw the happiness they would share, and above all his undying love for her. And that was all she had to know...

"Yes," she answered firmly, "yes," and embraced him fiercly.

"Thank heavens," he blurted out on a relieved sigh, feeling as if she had taken the weight of the world off his shoulders, and pulled her up and into his arms.

"I love you," she said, her voice muffled against his neck.

"I love you, too," he answered and kissed her temple. Then he levered her up higher in his arms, carefully separating their bodies and started walking.

Elizabeth lifted her head and looked around in confusion. "Where are we going?"

"Upstairs."

"Upstairs?"

He smiled smugly and wriggled his eyebrows. "We're not done yet- I have to make up for all the days and nights without you."

She burst out laughing, loving him even more in this playful mood. When they reached the door, however, she sobered quickly. "But we're stark naked!"

"So?" he replied and started to pull at the handle. She twisted around quickly and slapped her palm against the cool wood, pushing to close it again.

"What about Mrs. Brooks?" she asked in a hushed voice, scandalised.

William laughed out loud and righted her to get a better grip on her squirming body. "Will you hold still? -She's long gone...You really think I would risk the old girl's sanity by showing off the merits of my anatomy?"

Elizabeth giggled and finally gave in, letting him carry her to his bedroom where a huge, cozy bed awaited them.

To be continued


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