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The Lost Year

Prologue

Gradually she regained consciousness.

The first thing she became aware of was a splitting headache like she'd never felt before. She wanted to lift a hand to her head, but just the attempt caused such overall pain that she caught her breath on a strangled cry, which even to her sounded more like a gentle puff. She knew for sure that something was wrong with her, though she had no idea what it was; she couldn't move and obviously couldn't talk, but why?- Panic set in.

Distant sounds reached her ears- sirens, screeching brakes, banging car doors, shouting voices. The panic increased- she didn't know what had happened or where she was. Apparently unable to make her presence known to anybody, she felt utterly alone. Tom! Tom would help her; but where was he? She had to take a look.

When she tried to open her eyes, a stabbing pain shot through her head that made her dizzy. Ignoring it, she put all her willpower into the effort of lifting her lids and succeeded, if only marginally. The brightness, though misty, stung her eyes and tears welled up instantly, blurring her vision even more. With the intrusion of light, the noises surrounding her grew louder, as if opening her eyes had sharpened her hearing. Impulsively she wanted to go back to darkness and silence and felt her lids begin to droop. Only by telling herself that she had to find Tom could she force them to stay open. There were lights in different colors and shadows rushing back and forth seemingly busy, but she couldn't make out any details; couldn't see Tom.

Still at a loss as to what the commotion around her was all about, she felt totally alone and abandoned without him. Then a thought crossed her mind: people!- These shadows had to be other people and Tom would be with them. Relief washed through her. But did they know she was there? Did Tom know? Had he been with her? Again fear gripped her and her heartbeat accelerated. She had to attract their attention, but didn't know how. By now her whole body was wrapped up in racking pains, rendering her incapable of thinking logically.

Slowly her eyelids closed and she was on the verge of giving herself up to the alluring darkness when she was pulled back by someone talking right into her left ear: "Hello Lovely? Can you hear me? Can you open your eyes again? Don't be afraid- we will help you- you'll be alright!"

The darkness retreated immediately, her fear dissolved and relief returned; they'd found her. Surely Tom had told them where to find her; she was safe. She wanted to respond to the soothing voice, wanted to laugh, wanted to cry, wanted to see Tom- all at once, but her strength was completely spent.

Then she heard another voice: "Hello Love, can you hear me? I have to check up on you, but I'll try to be gentle."

Check-up? She could feel hands touching her all over. A doctor? They squeezed and pinched. Lights? Sirens? Before she could come to a coherent conclusion, her tangled thoughts were interrupted violently by a wrenching pain in her left side. She wanted to cry out- to back off, but knew at the same time that she couldn't do anything to fend off the hands that caused such agony. Darkness clouded her senses once again when the exploration of her body suddenly stopped and the voice came back to her: "Shhh, it's alright, I know it hurts. I'll give you something to ease the pain before we move you."

She felt a slight twitch in her right arm and one last lucid thought formed in her head: Thank you, Tom. And she felt herself floating into blissful oblivion.

Chapter 1

"Tom!"

Elizabeth sat up in bed bolt upright, desperately gasping for breath, fighting the constriction in her lungs. Disorientated, she tried to permeate the darkness around her with eyes wide open. Where was she? Why wasn't Tom there?

She shook her head to clear her senses from the drowsiness of sleep and thus layer by layer reality returned. Slowly she became aware of her surroundings. This wasn't her apartment in London- she was at Longbourn, her father's home, the place where she'd grown up. And Tom was gone, he would never come back. There had been an accident and he'd been killed; not that she remembered any of it. All she could remember was pain, agonising pain and needing Tom to relieve it. She had dreamed about it again, and as always had been awakened by her own voice crying out for him.

She didn't have to look at the alarm clock to know what time it was- 3:05 in the morning- meaning she'd slept for only three hours. Exhausted she wanted to lie down again, but came back up immediately when she felt the cool dampness of the sheets beneath her. She started shivering, only now to notice how uncomfortable she was with her pyjamas clinging tightly to her sweat covered body. She'd need a hot shower and a change of clothes. Heaving a sigh, she switched on the light on her bedside table and freed herself from the twisted sheets to climb out of bed. She knew anyway that she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep on a night like this, but it would have been nice just to cuddle up in the warmth and relax, as she occasionally did- maybe even doze a little. Considering the messy state of her bed, she'd have to change the sheets first- something she didn't feel up to doing right now.

She shrugged, crossed her room to the chest of drawers on the opposite wall and took out clean pyjamas. Clamping them under her left arm, she made her way to the bathroom.

Of course he understood that she wanted to live her own life, but till this day he'd refused to acknowledge it. And although he was truly happy for her, he couldn't help but feel like he was losing her, too. One by one the people he loved had left him, making him feel like the loneliest creature in the world.

As always Robert's first impulse was to jump out of bed and rush to her side to hold and comfort her. He'd done that when he had witnessed her nightmares for the first time, shortly after she'd returned home from hospital. Elizabeth's reaction couldn't have surprised him more- she'd fought his embrace, had even yelled at him to leave her alone. Though she hadn't offered a satisfying explanation for her behaviour, he knew now that after waking up from a bad dream, she needed to get back her bearings and regain her senses- tasks she could only accomplish on her own. His mind understood her arguments, but his heart still hurt from the certainty that he couldn't do more to help her. Resolutely he suppressed these feelings, knowing full well that it wouldn't do any good to dwell upon them.

Instead he relaxed into his cushion and pondered his options. He was fully awake by now, so sleep was out of the question. Should he stay in bed and read, or should he get up- to do what? He smiled to himself- as if the decision was his to make! Of course it depended solely on Elizabeth. When he heard the shower being turned on in her bathroom, he closed his eyes and waited.

Not very much later he was roused from a slight doze by the sound of Elizabeth's footsteps leading down the stairs to the first floor. The decision had been made- breakfast it was. He sat up and rubbed his face with his hands, then passed them through his hair- or what was left of it. Smirking at his self-mockery, he climbed out of bed, slid into his slippers and grabbed for his robe.

Upon entering the kitchen, Robert was met by the smell of fresh coffee emanating from the hissing machine on the counter. Elizabeth was leaning against the cupboards with her head bent, apparently concentrating on preparing toast, bacon and eggs. Without turning around, she greeted him: "Good morning, Papa. Take a seat, breakfast will be ready in just a few minutes."

She winced at the false cheerfulness in her voice, and being certain that her father had heard it, too, ducked her head even more. He came up beside her and hooked his forefinger under her chin to lift her face up to him. At the sight of her paper-white complexion and the dark circles under her slightly bloodshot eyes his brow furrowed in concern. Elizabeth managed a crooked halfsmile, brushed his hand aside and hugged him tightly. Hugging her back, Robert kissed the top of her head tenderly.

"Oh, Lizzy darling, I wish I could do something to help you. I feel so useless."

She tilted her head and rested her chin on his chest to look up at him.

"Don't, Papa, please. You do so much for me. You let me live here, you gave me a job and you are always there for me, despite my sometimes insufferable moods. There's nothing else to do." She leaned back a few inches to gaze at him intently. Placing a hand on his cheek, she said softly: "You can't help me remember."

His sadness was evident when he hung his head and hoarsely replied: "I know that, but still..." his voice faded away. A few seconds ticked by in silence. Then he cleared his throat and took a deep breath. Straightening, he deliberately pushed away the unwelcome sentiment that had threatened to overcome him. He looked back at his daughter, and with a twinkle in his eyes and a mischievous grin he said: "Speaking of moods..."

Elizabeth chuckled, thankful that the uncomfortable moment was gone. Robert's heart swelled with joy when he saw her smiling- it did not happen often these days. Taking her by the shoulders, he turned her to the dining alcove and gave her a slight push.

"Now- you go sit down and I'll get breakfast ready."

While he busied himself with pans and plates and coffee cups, he heard her groaning with relief as she sat down. His concern returned- in fact, it never really disappeared, just lurked beneath the surface- but he tried hard not to show it too often because he knew it made her uneasy. With that in mind, he usually suppressed his urge to ask about her well-being. Today would be one of the rare exceptions, though. Today it would be impossible for him to keep his mouth shut. When breakfast was ready, he put everything on a tray and brought it to the table.

Elizabeth sat there, legs tucked up, head resting on her knees and watched him. She knew beyond a doubt that there was more to come, they were not done for today. She waited for Robert to sit down across from her before she looked him directly in the eye and lifted her brows in question.

He sighed. "Can you read my thoughts?"

Unfolding her legs, she sat up straight and smiled faintly. "I don't have to. Go ahead- ask." Robert took a sip of coffee and then curled his fingers around his mug. "You look extremely tired today."

"That's not a question."

Annoyance rose up inside him and he had a hard time not to show it. He decided to ignore her reply and trying to keep his voice even, he asked: "Are you in pain, Lizzy?"

She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him squarely. "Why do you think so?"

"Damn, Elizabeth," he exploded, jumped up from his chair and started to pace the room, "Is it really so difficult for you to give me a straight answer? You don't need to get defensive with me- I won't do you any harm! Why can't you be honest with me just for once! A simple question requires a simple answer, nothing more, nothing less." His anger was spent as quickly as it had built and he turned to the cupboards to rest his forehead against the cool surface.

Elizabeth was completely taken aback by her father's sudden outburst. Rarely had she seen him that angry. But he was right, wasn't he? Hadn't she constantly avoided his questions? During recovery and therapy she'd had to explain her thoughts and feelings to so many people over and over again, that one day she'd simply had enough- it hadn't helped improve her condition, anyway. Even as she thought about it, she realised that she'd never explained any of this to her father- she'd just told him to leave her be and he'd stuck to her demand without question. No wonder he had finally lost his patience with her.

Slowly she got up from her chair and went over to him. She embraced him from behind, closing her eyes and resting her cheek on his back.

"I'm so sorry, Papa. It's all my fault."

Robert turned around in her arms and put his hands on her shoulders. When she looked up at him, she was dismayed to see how evidently his age of almost 60 was written on his face and her guilty conscience hit her full force. He started to say something, but she interrupted him before he could utter a word.

"No, Papa. It is my fault. Come on, let's sit down again, and I promise to answer all your questions as best I can." With that she led him back to the dining alcove, where they sat down side by side, holding hands and talking.

Chapter 2

While Elizabeth and Robert spent the rest of the sleepness night in agreeable togetherness, the same thing could not be said about William Darcy.

He'd been staring out of the bedroom window in his London penthouse for hours, hardly being aware of the sky above and the city beneath him. Usually he woud represent the perfect picture of composure and sedateness, but not tonight. Another ton had been added to the load already resting upon his shoulders, and now it pressed down on him so hard that he was afraid he would stumble and fall. His face was pale with exhaustion, his eyes burned, his head hurt; actually he hurt all over- from desperation and loneliness.

Relief flooded through him when he heard someone enter the apartment. Quickly he crossed the room and rushed into the hall.

"Georgiana!"

His sister flew into his open arms, nearly knocking him over.

"Oh, Will, Will, I came as fast as I could," she exclaimed and buried her tear-stained face in his chest. "What are we going to do without Dadd?"

He patted her head and finally started crying, unable to hold back any longer. "I don't know, Georgie, I don't know."

For a while they just stood there, clinging tightly to each other, mourning their father's death.

When the initial onslaught of grief had finally subsided, William hooked an arm around his sister's waist, and with a soft "come on" led her to the living room. After settling her down on the sofa, he went to take a blanket from a nearby armchair and sitting down next to her, draped it over both of them. As he closed his eyes, he gently drew her head to his shoulder and put his arms around her, thus trying to give, as well as seek, some comfort.

Georgiana gladly relaxed into William's embrace. After his call her in the evening, she had almost immediately jumped into her car and driven all the way from Glasgow, hardly ever stopping on the way. Shock, grief and lack of sleep had left her so tired, she couldn't have moved of her own volition- if not for her brother's initiative, they would still be standing in the hall. Despite her fatigue, her reeling mind wouldn't allow her to find any rest. Although she knew her father was gone, part of her refused to believe it, refused to believe she would never see him again, never hear his voice again. It had happened so unexpectedly- only two days ago she'd talked to him on the phone about their plans for Christmas. He had been so looking forward to spending the holidays with his children at Pemberley. But now it was never to be. True, he'd had a weak heart for years having once had myocarditis, but after his first heart attack two years ago he had completely retired from the company, had ever since lived a quiet, secluded life. Nevertheless, his heart had given out- and she had not been with him. Not trusting her voice, she carefully cleared her throat before asking quietly: "Do you think he suffered a lot?"

William's eyes snapped open in surprise. "I thought you were sleeping."

She sniffed and rubbed her forehead. "I can't- not yet."

William took a long, shuddering breath. "I don't know how much he suffered, or if he suffered at all. Brooks told me that it all happened very fast, so I think...I hope, he didn't have to endure too much pain."

"Mr Brooks was with him?"

"Yes, and Mrs. Brooks, too. They were sitting in the study over some estate business, and Mrs Brooks had just brought them tea. She was on her way out, when Dad suddenly clutched his chest and fell to the floor, already unconscious."

"Oh my God," Georgiana whispered, her voice thick with tears.

William tightened his embrace on her, fighting hard against the knot in his throat. "They called an ambulance, and he was rushed to St. Mary's. Brooks went with him. By the time they arrived, Dad had gone into cardiac arrest. The doctors did their best- to no avail. He was declared dead an hour later."

Huge tears trickled down Georgiana's face while she listened to her brother's quiet narration. "At least he wasn't all alone when it happened, but I so wish I could have been with him."

"Me too, Georgie."

Too weary for further conversation, they lapsed into silence again. The over-exertion of both, body and mind finally took its toll, and they drifted into dreamless sleep.

William jerked awake and blinked several times to orientate himself. It took his sleep-dazed brain a few moments to register the surroundings...the living room. He was sprawled awkwardly on the sofa with Georgiana's head resting in his lap. Georgiana? The second he saw his sleeping sister, reality returned full force- their father was dead!

William closed his eyes against the renewed surge of grief. Taking a deep breath he violently suppressed the scream he felt rising in his chest. He struggled desperately to build up his usual self-control which had been dangerously reduced by the overwhelming feelings of loss and pain. By telling himself that he was the one in charge, that he had to turn his thoughts to more pratical matters now, he managed to calm down and felt resolution spread through him.

Gently he moved Georgiana to the side and put a pillow under her head before standing up to stretch his numb legs and rotate his shoulders to work out the kinks. He cast a glance at his watch, assessing he'd slept for only two hours. No wonder he was still tired to the bone and felt slightly dizzy- the pounding in his head adding up to the general feeling of sickness. But it could not be helped- he had to set himself into motion. When he'd assured himself that his sister was tucked in comfortably, he went to his bedroom.

Half an hour later William sat in his study and massaged his throbbing temples. Despite a long shower and two aspirins his headache hadn't lessened.

He had tried to call his secretary Emily and his friend Charles to convey the sad news, but had only reached their answering machines. In both cases he'd left a message asking to be called back as soon as possible, and now he could only wait.

Heaving a sigh of frustration, he leaned back in his leather chair and closed his eyes. Patience had never been one of his greater virtues, but by now it seemed as if he had none at all. He wanted- needed- someone to talk to apart from his sister. They both suffered enormously from the loss of their father, but Georgiana even more so, William thought.

They had lost their mother to cancer almost 20 years ago, though in truth had lost her one year prior to her death when the cancer had been first diagnosed. From then on it had been a constant struggle between life and death for Anne Darcy, leaving her hardly any time for her two-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son. Naturally the children had turned to their father, especially little Georgiana. She had greatly enjoyed the attention her father was paying her and soon they'd been inseparable, the little girl following him wherever she could.

It hadn't been that easy for William, though. Being a shy and thoughtful child, he was very much like his mother, who was the only one he trusted with his dreams and feelings. They'd formed a very close relationship during the years his father had spent working for hours and hours in his London office to establish his company, returning to Pemberley only for the weekend. Thus Mr Darcy hadn't had the chance to come to know his son well and vice versa, although in a way he'd always loved the boy- and was loved in return.

Though the approach between father and son had been cautious at first, they'd grown closer quite fast out of pure necessity. Full of fear that he might lose his beloved mother, William needed someone to turn to for comfort and reassurance, while his father needed distraction from the fact that the most important person in his life- apart from his children- was fighting an almost hopeless battle, which she was likely to lose.

After pondering his options, Mr Darcy decided to convert his old-fashioned study at Pemberley into a modern office and conduct his business from there, to enable him to better take care of his son and daughter. From then on he'd spent the major part of his time with his children and had gone to London once a week at the most, giving all three of them the opportunity to get used to their new way of life.

Shortly afterward, on a beautiful day in April, Anne Darcy had finally given up to fight for her life and died a peaceful and quiet death in the arms of her beloved husband.

Due to her young age and the fact that she'd gotten used to her mother's absence, Georgiana remained blissfully oblivious to the dreadful event, that left her father and brother desperate and inconsolable. Fortunately the bond between Mr Darcy and his son had already been strong enough to enable them to find comfort in each other and the support they both needed to cope with the painful situation.

Throughout the following years love and understanding between William and his father had grown steadily, but their relationship was never as special to William as the one he had had with his mother. He highly cherished her memory, always holding her in a special place in his heart. Georgiana, on the other hand hardly remembered her mother; her father had always been the only parent she knew and she had been strongly attached to him, loving him unconditionally. And now she had lost him.

William knew that he would have to be strong for his sister, would have to be in control, would have to comfort her, but he was tired- tired of being strong, of being in control. He needed somebody to lean on, somebody to look after him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Before it could ring a second time, he'd eagerly picked up the receiver.

Heaving a sigh Charles put down the receiver and ran his hands through his hair. He pushed away from his desk and went to the kitchen in search of Jane. He found her sitting at the table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. She looked up smiling, but her face turned into a frown when she saw his worried expression.

"Did you talk to William?"

Charles nodded, pulled out a chair from under the table and turned it around to straddle it, crossing his forearms over the backrest.

"Mr Darcy died yesterday evening."

Jane's eyes widened in shock. "Mr Darcy?...But...what happened?"

"A fatal heart attack. The doctors couldn't help."

Jane swallowed hard against the knot in her throat. Trying to steady her voice she took a deep breath. "What about William and Georgie? How are they?"

Tears were brimming in Charles' eyes. "Georgie's devastated, of course. But William..." His voice trailed off as he shrugged his shoulders.

Jane put a hand on Charles' arm, looking at him inquiringly to encourage him to go on. He covered her hand with his and shook his head. "I don't know...We've been friends for so many years now, but I've never heard him sound so tired, so...desperate. As if all of his strength was gone...He talked and talked...so unlike him- but knowing him as I do I can't begin to imagine what he did not say..."

They were both crying openly now. Charles tugged Jane out of her chair and turning on his seat, pulled her into his lap. With eyes closed they embraced each other tightly, remaining silent for a few minutes, both taking time to arrange their thoughts. Jane spoke up first.

"Did he say if he needed anything?"

Again Charles shook his head. "No, nothing. I thought it a good idea to invite them to Netherfield for the weekend, but Will declined. I couldn't persuade him to come."

"Then they're not ready for company, yet. They need some time alone." Extricating herself from Charles' embrace, Jane got up and walked over to the coffeemaker, poured a cup and set it on the table in front of him. "It was much the same with Lizzy, remember? When she learned about Tom's death, she didn't want to see anybody."

"True...Well, at least Will knows that I'm there for him- anytime." He took a sip from his coffee. "I just wish I could do more...It's so frustrating!"

Jane bent down and kissed him gently on the cheek. "I know, dear! But the certainty that you're there for him is all the help he needs right now. -By the way, you did help already."

Charles shot her a doubtful look. She straightened, spreading her arms to emphazise her point.

"You listened!"

He waved his hand as if to brush away her statement. "Oh, that! That's nothing remarkable!"

"It is!" She bristled with indignation. "For the person who needs to talk- and obviously William did. So don't you dismiss it so easily!"

Despite the worries about his friend, Charles couldn't supress a grin as he looked up at Jane. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes glistened- gentle Jane in a huff. If he was at times reluctant to acknowledge his own actions, she surely wasn't. He liked that thought very much, indeed. Jane saw the warm expression in his eyes and her frown immediately turned into a loving smile.

Rising from his chair, Charles took her in his arms and kissed her tenderly. However, what was intended to be a light kiss soon turned into something wild and uncontrollable with clashing tongues, stroking hands and moans and groans. When Charles released her mouth to drag hot, wet kisses down her neck, Jane somehow found the strength to push him away a little. Since he was too much engrossed in the pleasurable task at hand, he didn't react immediately. Eventually he sensed her reluctance and drew back to look at her slightly puzzled. "What?" he croaked.

She cleared her throat to steady her voice, knowing exactly that any discernible huskiness would be enough encouragement for him not to let go of her. "We don't have time, dear. We have to be at Longbourn for lunch." The sparkle in his eyes told her that she hadn't made a very good job of concealing her arousal, so she just sighed and gave in when he scooped her up in his arms and muttered: "Forget lunch." With that he resumed kissing her, angling his head so that he could still find his way to the bedroom.

Chapter 3

When Jane and Charles arrived at Longbourn in time for lunch- despite their 'morning interlude'-the backdoor had already been opened for them and they hurried inside to escape the stinging December wind. As soon as they passed the threshold, Mr Bennet came out of the kitchen to greet them affectionately. He helped them take off their coats, then asked them to follow him back to the kitchen, where he busied himself at the cooker.

"Lunch will be ready in about 20 minutes. Charles, beer's in the fridge."

"Thank you, Bob." Charles rubbed his hands in anticipation and went to help himself to a bottle of his favourite beverage, while Jane peered over her father's shoulder into the pot to see what was on the menu. "Mmm, BB's Boeuf! I haven't had that for almost a year!"

"Just shows that you should visit us more often." Mr Bennet pointed out, shooting her a sideways glance. Jane answered with a bashful smile. "I know, Papa, but the job, my friends...well..."

"What is BB's Boeuf?" Charles had come up to stand on Mr Bennet's other side.

"Bob Bennet's Boeuf Stroganoff," Jane explained. "Basically it's beef, onion and mushrooms, but Papa's the only one who knows the other ingredients. It's his secret recipe."

Her father chuckled. "I promise it will be part of you and your sister's inheritance."

"By the way, Papa, where's Lizzy?"

Mr Bennet's face took on a serious expression. "In her room, taking a nap."

"Another bad dream?" Charles asked from his place at the table where he'd made himself at home. "I thought they were gone."

Mr Bennet turned halfway around to be able to continue cooking as well as to look at Charles. "We'd hoped so for a while, but since it was the third one this week..."

"The third!" Jane gasped. "Oh my god, she must be totally worn out!"

Her father nodded. "She is, though by now she will be more hungry than tired considering that we had breakfast at about 3:30 in the morning. Will you go get her, Jane?"

Jane was already on her way out of the kitchen, when she halted abruptly and turned back to Charles. "Oh dear, we almost forgot! Will you tell Papa about Mr Darcy?"

After he nodded his agreement she continued her errand. Running up the staircase, she took two steps at a time, turned left and stopped in front of Lizzy's room.

She opened the door without a sound and stepped in gingerly just to see her sister sitting up in bed stretching and yawning.

"I thought you'd still be asleep." Jane closed the door with a thud, walked over to Lizzy and flopped down beside her. "Hi, little sister."

Lizzy hugged her fiercely. "Hi, Janie! It's good to see you. -My growling stomach woke me up."

Jane giggled. "Then Papa was right. He said as much." Her laughter subsided as she examined her sister's face carefully, noting the paleness and the dark circles under her eyes. "You look very tired."

"Seems I can't get enough sleep these days." She shrugged her shoulders, opting for a casual tone of voice. "It's been a rough week, but nothing unusual. Really."

"Nothing unusual," Jane huffed. "The dreams were gone- for how long? More than a month?"

"Six weeks and five days," Lizzy blurted out, color rising in her cheeks.

Jane covered her sister's hand with her own, her voice full of compassion as she asked: "You hoped they were finally gone?"

Lizzy nodded. "I did- but I should have known better, though I'm not sure what causes them. The last time they occurred that often was in September, around the anniversary of our engagement. That would be understandable. But now...I think maybe it's because of Christmas." She sighed. "I can't get rid of them, so I have to live with them as best I can."

"Have they changed in any way?" her sister asked.

This time Lizzy shook her head. "Not at all- they're always the same." She closed her eyes as she plunged into the world of her nightmares. "I don't know where I am. I can't move, can't talk and I'm in pain; I'm frightened and confused and all alone. Then I hear distant noises, but they make no sense. I want to look for Tom- I need him to help me. I open my eyes. Everything's blurry- I see coloured lights and shadows, but no details. I can't see Tom. But then somebody's by my side, talks to me and touches me. The pain gets even worse and somehow I find the strength to cry out for him." She opened her eyes again, blinking several times to get them back into focus. "That's when I wake up."

Though Jane had heard Lizzy's horrible narrative more than once, it still affected her as it had the first time. To see her sister's distressed expression and hear her strained voice was almost more than she could bear. And she never knew what to say, feeling sure that every word she could find for consolation would sound false and hollow.

As always, Lizzy came to her rescue, patting her shoulder reassuringly. "It's alright, Janie, don't worry. I can manage. -Now, I'd better get ready for lunch." With that, she jumped out of bed and disappeared into her bathroom, leaving Jane alone on the bed.

After a minute she heard Lizzy's voice over the sound of running water. "No news from London?"

Jane stood up and walked over to the bathroom where she leaned against the doorframe. "Well, not from London, actually. But rather sad news from William."

"William?" Lizzy asked around the toothbrush in her mouth.

"William Darcy, Charles' best friend. Do you remember him?"

Lizzy's dripping face came up from the wash-basin and she shot her sister a disbelieving look.

"Do you think I would ever forget such a conceited, proud man?" She asked through the towel she used to dry her face.

"William is not at all conceited and proud!" Jane pushed herself away from the doorframe to stand up straight. "What makes you think so?"

"Oh please, Jane!" Lizzy brushed past her sister to her wardrobe. "I've seen more than once how he behaves- all condescension and haughtiness, too superior to mingle with common people. I never understood how Patricia could fall for him. Neither did Tom, for that matter. William may be Charles' friend, but nevertheless he's a jerk."

Jane couldn't suppress a giggle about her sister's deadpan comment, but she sobered quickly.

"You have a totally false impression of him, Lizzy. Have you ever bothered to look behind his fašade? -I don't think so. I'm sure Patricia realised that there's more to him than meets the eye."

"And maybe that's why she left him," Elizabeth prompted, but then she looked back at Jane, a little unsure of herself, "She did leave him, didn't she?"

Jane shrugged impatiently, "I don't know- in fact, nobody knows. But that's not the point, Lizzy. I admit that William seems to be arrogant at times, but in truth he's rather shy, helpful, intelligent and..."

"...and nice to look at, too- I noticed that." She wiggled her eyebrows. "But that doesn't make up for his rudeness!" Dressed in jeans and a warm sweater, she walked over to stand in front of her sister. "So, what's the sad news?"

Jane hung her head, her voice very quiet. "Mr Darcy died yesterday evening of a heart-attack."

"Oh," Lizzy murmered, stuffing her hands into her pockets and looking down at her toes. "He was a very nice man. I'm sorry for his family."

"Yes...Charles spoke with William this morning, and now he's really worried about him."

Mr Bennet's voice was heard from downstairs, interrupting the sisters' conversation. "Jane, Lizzy! Lunch is ready! We're waiting!"

Lizzy took Jane's arm and led her to the door. "Charles shouldn't worry too much. It's always a shock to lose someone you love. I'm sure William will recover in good time."

Late that afternoon Georgiana found her brother in his study. He was leaning against the window frame, his back turned to her, staring out into the darkness as was his habit when he was deep in thought. Georgiana walked over to him and gently put a hand on his arm, careful not to startle him. "William?"

Slowly he turned his head towards her, making her wince as she beheld the state he was in. His ashen face was haggard, his bloodshot eyes unfocused. Anxiety rose inside her and she squeezed his arm to get his attention. "William?"

He looked down at her hand and then back up again, as if he'd just realised she was there, and maybe he had. "Georgie..." His voice was raspy. "Did you sleep well?"

"I did- but what about you? Did you sleep at all?"

William shook his head, the motion making him so dizzy that he swayed slightly. Instinctively Georgiana reached out to steady him with her arms around his waist. "You have to lie down immediately, Will. You're totally exhausted. -Just what did you do all this time?"

Loath to show any weakness, he squared his shoulders and tried to pull away from her, only to realise that his knees were indeed too wobbly to support him. "I was on the phone most of the time. I talked to Charles and Emily and I notified the family about Dad. Now I'm waiting for Richard to call back and give me the name and number of a funeral director he knows."

"I'll take that call. You go to bed now." Georgiana stated decidedly, draping his arm around her shoulders as she began to lead him out of the room.

"And I promised Brooks to come to Pemberley tomorrow to go through Dad's papers," William murmured, already half asleep.

"You will go nowhere without a good night's rest, that's what I promise."

Slowly they made their way to William's bedroom. His weight on her grew heavier with every step they took until she literally had to drag him to his bed. When she finally released him, he toppled over like a felled tree, fast asleep even before his head touched the pillow. Panting she bent over and braced her hands above her knees to control her shaky legs. After taking a few deep breaths she came up again and moved to take off her brother's slippers and tuck him in.

Gingerly she sat down on the bed and contemplated his sleeping form. With her father gone, he was all she had left of her immediate family. The thought of her father brought on a new surge of tears, but she fought them resolutely, refusing to cry anew. She had to think about other things now- her plans, her life, William.

They hadn't parted on good terms when she had gone to Glasgow almost two years ago, since he hadn't agreed with her decision to move in with Chris. He'd argued that she was too young, that she hadn't given the matter enough thought. She'd told him that love was reason enough for her; and so one thing had led to another and soon they had been caught up in a vigorous fight, which she ended by storming out of the door. After that she hadn't seen him for half a year, but in time they managed to establish a fragile truce over the phone by carefully tiptoeing around personal questions in order to maintain peace.

When they met again on his birthday she had been alarmed by the changes he had undergone both in appearance and conduct in so short a time. Loss of weight had made him lean, his face had been haggard with lines of strain edged into it, and she'd glimpsed the first silvery streaks in his dark brown hair. Having never been a very talkative person he seemed to have withdrawn even more. Throughout the entire evening he'd hardly spoken to anyone, giving only short answers when asked for his opinion, but never starting a conversation himself. Not even their persistent cousin Richard had succeeded in coaxing him out of his shell.

Of course her brother had been through a lot recently- he'd completely taken over the company after their father's first heart-attack; he'd had to cope with the fact that she had chosen to live with Chris in spite of his objections and finally, he'd broken up his engagement to Patricia without giving any reasons to his relatives. Altogether good causes to become closemouthed and distrustful, but surely not good enough to lose faith in the family. But this obviously was the case, since her father as well as Richard had told her that William had stopped sharing his thoughts and feelings with either of them. She wondered if he confided in anyone at all.

As she sat there taking in his utterly relaxed face that made him look so young and carefree, all of a sudden realisation dawned and she could have kicked herself for having been so blind- it was so evident! Given his disposition to feel responsible and fiercely protective of those he loved and his determination to do everything for them in whatever way he saw fit, he blamed himself for all the disastrous events of the past. He thought he'd disappointed his family and for that he couldn't forgive himself.

Tears welled up in Georgiana's eyes when at long last the puzzle her brother had been to her formed into a complete picture. Her heart went out to him; she wanted to embrace and cuddle him- tell him that she understood now, that she cared for him as he cared for her. This would have to wait, though, since it was out of the question to wake him. So she contented herself with smoothing away an errant curl from his forehead.

Another unpleasant thought occurred to her: what if William asked her to give up her new life and come back to London? In view of the new insights she had gained, part of her would want to be with him, but the larger part wanted- needed to be with Chris, the man she loved with all her being. Since it was impossible for him to move within the next two years due to his job, it was impossible for her too. Her brother didn't even know yet that Chris had asked her to marry him and that she had said yes- in fact she had shouted yes- several times. Smiling tenderly she remembered the expression of happiness and infinite love on her beloved's face when she gave her consent.

William stirred slightly while he murmered something incoherent thus startling her out of her pleasant reverie. With one last look at him, she stood up and quickly left the room following her urge to call Chris just to hear his soothing voice.

Not until noon the next day did Georgiana and William meet again. She had waited endlessly, her impatience growing by the minute to tell her brother about her engagement and her decision to stay in Glasgow with her future husband.

Finally, after having slept for hours and hours, William entered the kitchen. He greeted her with a kiss on the forehead, and then went over to the counter to pour himself a cup of coffee.

"How are you today? " he asked with evident concern, as he sat down across from her.

Georgiana shrugged her shoulders. "I slept quite well, but I'm still shocked and sad. It's so hard to accept that Daddy's gone."

William nodded affirmatively. "Yes, it is- like a bad dream." He reached out and stroked her arm, "It's just you and me now, Georgie."

"That's what I thought, too, but..."

"I know," he interrupted, "there are our aunts and uncles and our cousins, but that's not the same. You are my closest relative now, and I'm yours."

Uneasiness settled in Georgiana's stomach. She quickly contemplated the best way to tell him everything and decided for clear and brief. "You're right of course, but there's something you have to know. It's about- "

Again William interrupted her while he rose from his chair, "Why don't you tell me on our way to Pemberley?" He sensed that something unpleasant was in the air, but since he was in no mood to hear more bad news, he tried to distract her from her intention as long as possible. "That will give us enough time to talk," he went on, already leaving for his room.

Georgiana sat there, completely taken aback, feeling her anger rise inexorably. She had hoped for a calm, private conversation with her brother, but obviously this was not going as she had planned. Somehow he suspected that he wouldn't fancy what she had to say. He was like a satellite dish, receptible for bad vibrations. Damn him! Sighing deeply, she accepted grudgingly that another fight was imminent.

Georgiana stood up and followed her brother to his study. She burst into the room and started to talk without bothering about any preamble. "I'm not going to Pemberley with you. Chris will be here soon and we'll go back to Glasgow together."

William watched her from behind his desk, his face blank, except for a slightly risen eyebrow. When she was finished, he leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. His voice was very calm, as he asked: "Am I to understand, that you'd rather go to Glasgow with your boyfriend than stay at Pemberley with your brother?"

Recognising at once his unmistakably dangerous tone, Georgiana anticipated all hell to break loose at her answer and lifted her chin defiantly. "That's right! And he's not my boyfriend, he's my fiance- we are engaged."

Taking a step forward, she pushed her left hand under her brother's nose and proudly showed off her beautiful engagement ring.

This was too much- even for William. Clearly bewildered, he stared at her hand, then at her face and erupted: "What?!"

His sister returned his stare, determined not to let him intimidate her. Seeing in her expression her refusal to back down, he jumped up from his chair and rushed over to the window, turning his back to her. Anger, disappointment and hurt tangled into a tight knot in his chest, almost choking him. With a few deep breaths, he tried to contain them, appealing to his voice of reason to overtake.

As Georgiana watched his struggle for control, her anger dissolved. Instead she felt guilty for having inflicted even more sorrow upon him. Tired of fighting with him, she searched for something conciliatory to say. Slowly crossing the room, she came to stand next to him. Her hand curled around his upper arm, coercing him to turn and face her. When their eyes met, she said: "I don't want to argue with you, Will. Please accept that I have my own life. I just can't give it up."

William nodded reluctantly, "I know that, but we're the only ones left now, Georgie. We have to stick together. How am I to take care of you when you're so far away?"

Georgiana embraced him impulsively, "Oh, Will, Glasgow is not that far away! No matter where we are, we will always stick together- we will always be family."

Clasping her shoulders, he pushed her slightly away from him to look into her face. "I'm the one in charge now, Georgie. How can I do a proper job when you're not here with me?"

She shook her head in exasperation. "William, don't you get it? You're in charge of the business and you're in charge of yourself, but you are not responsible for me. I'm not a child anymore, I'm a grown-up. We are equals." She smiled at him affectionately, "And I really take care for you, but not of you."

William returned her smile and pulled her back into his arms, resting his cheek on the top of her head. "I never realised how wise you are- I'm very proud of you."

"Thank you."

They stood there in silence, enjoying their newly-found familiarity, until William asked quietly: "Do you love him?"

Georgiana nodded into his chest, "Very much. He's my other half."

"Then I'm happy for you- congratulations."

She kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you for understanding, Will."

The intercom rang, announcing Chris' arrival, and William watched his sister all but race out of the room to answer the call.

Of course he understood that she wanted to live her own life, but till this day he'd refused to acknowledge it. And although he was truly happy for her, he couldn't help but feel like he was losing her, too. One by one the people he loved had left him, making him feel like the loneliest creature in the world.

Chapter 4

Andrew Darcy's funeral took place one week later on a bright but chilly Saturday morning at 10:30. Due to the early hour, many people had already arrived in Derbyshire the day before. Family and close friends were staying at Pemberley while the majority of guests had taken lodgings in hotels and boarding houses in and around Lambton, among them Robert Bennet and his daughter Elizabeth.

Having known Mr Darcy for almost 20 years as an honest, reliable businessman, Mr Bennet had considered it a matter of course to attend the funeral, expecting his daughter to accompany him. She, however, hadn't liked the idea of accepting the invitation at all. Her first impulse had been to refuse outright, but she refrained from voicing her reluctance knowing that it would lead to another round of questions and answers with her father. Though she had begun to open up to him after his fit of anger- more out of a sense of obligation than for any other reason- she was still not ready to share with him her innermost fears and anxieties. In fact, she was not ready to share them with anyone- except maybe for Jane, who had always been her closest confidant. Yet, this time she hadn't talked to her either. They'd been on the phone several times this past week and everytime her sister had prattled away on William Darcy's pitiable condition, his looks and his state of mind, revealing how very worried she was about him. Not wanting to burden Jane even more, Elizabeth had kept her problems to herself, which fortunately had turned out to be the right decision, since she'd had to realise that until then she had deliberately avoided dealing with the less apparent effects the accident had on her mind.

Once again she thought back to those endless months of therapy when so many people had poked into her brain trying to extract the reasons for her condition that in the end it had felt like mush. Her psychiatrist and his numerous colleagues from near and far, had literally drooled over her 'genuine' amnesia- without providing any help. Neither had they been able to restore her lost memory, nor to support her in coping with her husband's death. So after weeks and weeks of feeling like a freak, and having made no progress at all, she'd finally had enough.

She couldn't help but smile slightly as she remembered Dr Bergman's disappointment when she had flatly refused to go on seeing him. He reminded her of a dog whose favourite toy had just been snatched away from him. Of course he had tried to convince her to stay, but she'd stuck by her decision.

After 5 months she'd left the sanatorium, moved into Longbourn, asked her father for a job and from then on had lived her life on a day-to-day basis, never looking back nor forward. In the peace and solitude of her childhood home she finally managed to overcome Tom's death and to live with her nightmares, and the fact that she was missing a year of her past.

For the last few days she had thought a lot about her present situation, and she found out that she wasn't nearly as content as she had believed herself to be. She wanted to move on with her life, wanted to make plans, wanted to have a future. But to accomplish that, it was not enough to simply accept what had happened to her, she would have to face up to the facts and deal with them- on her own. And she would start today...

Elizabeth looked up to catch her father watching her intently across the breakfast table.

"Are you alright, Lizzy?" he asked quietly, brows knitted in concern. "If this is too much for you, you can stay here and I'll attend the funeral without you."

She reached out to cover his hand with her own. "No, Papa, I'm fine- really. I was just thinking."

"Good thoughts?"

"I guess so. -I've finally decided to conclude my old life and I'm about to take the first step."

"The crowd..." Bob murmured.

Elizabeth's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "How do you know?"

His face contorted into a mask of mock dismay as he put a hand to his heart, "But Lizzy, I'm your father..."

She lifted an eyebrow, looking at him skeptically. "Try again," she challenged.

"Well, " he paused, "I watch and I listen..." standing up he rounded the table to her side and bowed to whisper in her ear, "and occasionally- I talk to Jane."

Before Elizabeth could even take a breath, he was on his way out of the breakfast room, stating over his shoulder in a voice tingled with amusement, "Come now, Lizzy, no time to laze around! We don't want to be late, do we?"

Struggling to control both amazement and consternation, it took her a few seconds before she could jump up and follow him.

Despite the large number of mourners the funeral service was a very quiet and personal affair. The small church on the outskirts of Lambton was cramped with people, who had come to say their last good-byes to the man who had been taken from among them so unexpectedly.

Elizabeth scanned the crowd as best she could given that she was sitting in one of the last pews on the right side. Whenever she encountered a familiar face, her gaze lingered while she tried to connect the features with an event stored up in her memory. Occasionally her scrutiny was noticed and either dismissed or rewarded with a nod or a slight smile, thus giving her a hint on whether she remembered correctly or failed. With satisfation she noted that so far she had been right with her guesses and allowed herself to relax a little- it was not as unpleasant as she had expected. Her gaze moved on, roaming across the rows in front of her until it came to rest on a head full of dark, curly hair and a pair of broad shoulders in the first pew to her left. She knew right away who she was looking at and waited for the uneasiness to set in, that in her mind went implicitly hand in hand with the mention of his name. Oddly enough, it didn't come. What she felt instead was...her brows furrowed in confusion...tenderness? Completely at a loss as to where this unwelcome sentiment stemmed from, she stared fixedly at the back of his head as if it could provide her with an answer.

William chose this moment to pass a hand through his hair and let it rest at the back of his neck, where a prickly sensation had settled in, sending shivers up and down his spine. He'd felt it for quite a while now, assigning it at first to a tension in his neck- but then he had never heard of tension producing goose bumps. Before he could think of any other explanation, it was gone. Mentally shrugging his shoulders he put his hand back in his lap, turning his focus back to his uncle's eulogy, silently admonishing himself for his inattention.

Elizabeth watched his movement wide-eyed, suddenly becoming aware of her stare and quickly averted her eyes, while her heart skipped a beat. Feeling like a child caught with its fingers in a box of chocolates, she looked down at her tightly clasped hands in embarrassment. It couldn't be that he'd felt it, could it? -No, of course not!...Yet, what if...? With her head bowed she glanced at him sideways, letting her eyes linger, waiting for him to react.

William felt that prickly sensation again, this time on his right cheek, very near to his ear. It was as if somebody touched him with gentle fingers, causing the fine hairs on his right arm to stand up from wrist to shoulder. He tried to ignore it, but after a few seconds could no longer resist the urge to rub his face at that bothering spot. A thought popped into his mind, making him stop his movement abruptly- he was being watched! Slowly he turned his head and looked around, only to find that nobody was paying him any attention. He wanted to dismiss the feeling as a product of his imagination, when he spotted Elizabeth Bennet- Elizabeth Baxter-Harding,[/ he corrected himself instantly- in one of the last pews to his right. His eyes narrowed, as he watched her closely. Though she had bowed her head like many of the others in attendance, there was neither calmness nor solemnity to her bearing; with her cheeks flushed and a frown on her face, she radiated agitation and alertness. Could it be that she...? -No, of course not!...Yet, what if...? William's head flew around when someone tipped him on the shoulder. Ready to snap at the intruder, he shut his mouth immediately when he found himself face to face with the funeral director.

Again Elizabeth averted her eyes quickly, ducking her head even deeper when she noticed his movement. Her heartbeat accelerated- he had found out! The color in her cheeks intensified and a frown formed on her face. Oh God, he must have felt it! How could that be? Did he know it was her? She wanted to run and hide to get away from his piercing glance. But while her whole body tensed as if preparing for escape, her common sense told her that this was of course not an option. Still at a loss as to what she could do, the tension suddenly ebbed away and she knew instinctively that he didn't watch her any longer. Relieved she released her breath on a long sigh, her body going limp.

She heard her father whisper into her ear. "Lizzy, are you alright?"

Confused she looked at him, her dazed brain unable to make sense of his question.

"Are you alright?" he repeated quietly, putting a hand on her arm.

His touch brought her back to reality. "Yes, Papa, of course. I'm fine," she finally whispered and once again stared down at her hands.

Bob knew that something was wrong with his daughter, since her mood had shifted completely within the past half hour. When they arrived she had been confident and determined, whereas now she was obviously confused, seemed agitated and lost in thought. He tried to think of a reason for her change; maybe the atmosphere of the funeral was getting to her- or the touching words of Anthony Fitzwilliam's eulogy, though he could have sworn that she had been totally oblivious to her surroundings, that she hadn't heard a word of what had been said. Unable to find an explanation, he finally decided that something must have occurred that had escaped his notice; he would have to ask her.

Meanwhile Elizabeth's brain worked at full speed. Recalling all her previous encounters with William Darcy, she could safely say that nothing extraordinary had ever happened between them- absolutely nothing to justify such a drastic change of attitude towards him. They'd been no more than casual acquaintances, moving in the same circle, thus meeting occasionally. She disliked him from the moment they'd met, his air of superiority, his piercing, measuring glances, his obvious pride. And from what she had seen so far- he was his old taciturn self. So how could it be that all of a sudden she just knew there was more to him, that he was hiding deep feelings underneath his motionless mask- feelings she never would have thought him capable of. The only conclusion she could draw drained the color from her face and made her head swim- she didn't remember! Whatever it was, it must have happened in that damned lost year- a year completely wiped out of her memory, buried deep down in her subconscious mind, way out of her reach. Fear gripped her; how should she behave without knowing on what terms they were? -They couldn't be friends, could they? -Or even more than friends? -No, she never would have cheated on Tom- never! But something incisive must have happened, or else her mind wouldn't have chosen that particular period of time to deny her access to. And it seemed that somehow William Darcy was a vital part of said period. Earlier that day she had decided to conclude her old life, which also meant digging up her past- now it was even more essential that she do it. Until she knew more, her only choice was to avoid William Darcy lest she make a fool of herself.

Bob nudged her slightly making her look up, but her view was blocked since everybody was on their feet, heads turned to the left. When she stood up, she saw that the funeral cortege was being formed with the priest leading it up the aisle, followed by four men who carried the coffin on their shoulders. Directly behind them walked Georgiana, a handsome, young man by her side supporting her with an arm around her waist. Elizabeth surveyed the faces of the mourners who followed them slowly, only to realise that she was searching for William. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop herself, silently repeating the decision she'd just come to- avoid him! Yet, when she opened her eyes again, they were immediately drawn to the men carrying the coffin. And sure enough there he was, by now at eye-level with her. His nearness made her palms tingle with the need to reach out and touch him, but before she could give way to this sudden desire the procession had moved on. When she became aware of what she'd almost done, her legs turned to jelly threatening to crumple under her weight. Desperately she grabbed for the backrest of the pew in front of her to steady herself. This was unbearable! So far she'd been fortunate enough not to disgrace herself- but it was not over yet!

Her thoughts were interrupted when Bob took her elbow to push her slowly into the aisle- it was their turn to join the funeral cortege. They were gathered at the graveside in no time, where a short but very touching service was held. Elizabeth receded into the background attempting to stick to her decision to avoid William Darcy as best she could. However, her plan was defeated when she felt him look at her for a few seconds. It was then that the urge to steal a glance at him grew too strong to withstand and she gave in to it. Until then she had only seen parts of his face from afar, but now she was provided a closer look. She was shocked by what she saw- this was not the man she remembered. Instead of being slim he was emaciated, with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, making him appear much older than his 31 years. Though, as usual he didn't show his feelings, for her they were clearly written on his face; sadness, desperation and loneliness so deep that her heart ached for him and the desire to touch him returned. The thought of actually making physical contact with him still frightened her, but she had to admit that a strange sense of pleasant anticipation was mingled with that fear. As for her reaction to his touch, she would soon find out, since the time to condole with the family drew nearer.

William stood at his father's grave, fiercely struggling to maintain his self-control. His whole body ached from holding back the screams and tears that threatened to burst forth with every breath he took. How he still managed to hold it in was beyond him. This past week he had been too busy to dwell on his feelings for any length of time; arranging his father's affairs, organising the funeral and tending to various business matters had provided ample distraction. And those few moments when his emotions had almost got the better of him, he held them at bay by telling himself that giving in to them would only leave him weak and useless. Consequently he hadn't shed a single tear since that first evening when he heard about his father's death. But in his present state of mind he questioned this decision. Would it really have been that wrong to cry- at least after all the work was done? Surely it would have lessened the strength of his pent-up emotions, making it easier for him to cope with today's events. However, right now he was too preoccupied with the present to deal with the past. Feeling his control slip from his grasp with every minute, he fervently wished for yet another distraction from his inner turmoil.

His wish was granted when his eyes fell on Elizabeth Baxter-Harding. Though she was partially hidden behind her father, he saw enough of her to confirm what he'd only assumed earlier- she'd grown more mature in those almost 18 months since they'd last met. To him she'd still been a girl then, but now she was a woman- a pretty woman. Suddenly it annoyed him that he couldn't see all of her. He wanted her to come forward...to touch him...to hold him...to feel him.

Disgusted about the direction his thoughts were taking, he quickly dropped his eyes back to the ground- this was neither the time nor the place for such musings. Besides, why should he be attracted to her of all people, given that their relationship could be called strained at best? Surley his imagination had played a dirty trick on him and he had fallen for it. But he would soon be able to verify that, for she had to come forward and touch him- to condole with him.

Chapter 5

Shortly after midday, family, friends and closer acquaintances were gathered at Pemberley for the funeral repast. The low spirits of the mourners were soon lifted considerably as they did ample justice to the various snacks deliciously arranged on a sideboard and the excellent wine. Two of them, however, were too deeply lost in thought to eat or drink, let alone participate in the ongoing conversations.

William was first to give in to his growing urge for privacy. Unperceived by the majority of guests, he murmured an excuse to Georgiana and was headed for the study before she even had a chance to open her mouth.

Elizabeth- one of those oblivious to his retreat- followed his example just a few mintues later. She pleaded a headache and- since she refused to occupy one of the family's rooms- was immediately escorted to the library to take a rest.

William was still unable to cry. Even though he was alone now, his loneliness was only physical- Elizabeth was on his mind. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get her out of his head. He was highly irritated that with just one touch- a simple handshake- just imagine!- she had set off an avalanche of emotions that threatened to overrun him. While he was ready to admit that he was attracted to her, he never would have expected his reaction to her to be so strong. Closing his eyes, he turned back time and let the scene unfold in his mind once more.

He saw her waiting in queue with the other visitors, moving forward slowly, all the time keeping her eyes to the ground. While he shook hands and had his shoulders patted several times, he urged her on silently to increase her pace, his impatience growing with every small step she took. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she was standing before him. The first thing that struck him was her height- she was smaller than he remembered, the second was that she still didn't look at him. Even now she lifted her head just a scant of an inch to stare at his chest, as she extended her hand and murmured something he didn't understand. While he looked down at the top of her head, he felt the urge to hook a finger under her chin and turn her face up to him. He would have acted on his impulse if they were alone, but in front of all these people he restrained himself and settled for taking the hand she offered. The moment they touched, a surge of emotions swept through him, hot and heady- the impact leaving him almost breathless. Staring down at their clasped hands, he felt her wince and automatically tightened his grip, afraid that she might break the contact. Her head came up and at long last their gazes met, and locked. Her eyes were the most beautiful he had ever seen, bright, deep, dark blue- and huge with wonder. But then ever so slowly their expression changed to one of warmth and tenderness, mirroring what she saw in his own eyes, he assumed- they both felt it. Nevertheless, what she did next took him completely by surprise. Her left hand came up to curl around the back of his neck and draw him down to her. Quickly she brushed his lips with a soft kiss, carefully pulled her hand from his grip and was gone, leaving him in a daze...

Slowly William opened his eyes, once again awash with feelings he hadn't believed in anymore- hope, trust, tenderness and desire so overwhelming, it almost hurt. They'd been squeezed out of him so thoroughly by loss and betrayal that he had thought them lost to him forever. To have them back made him feel alive again; his battered soul absorbed them greedily, filling the black holes that had been torn into it and banishing the darkness to the very edge of his conscious. Yet, at the same time he was scared to death; accepting them would also make him vulerable and defenceless, utterly open to disappointment and hurt.

Taking a deep breath, he got up, shrugged out of his jacket and began to pace up and down. He couldn't allow it; he couldn't afford to be exposed to her. Though still at a loss as to how or why it had happened that she had obviously brought him back to life, he knew in his heart that she could destroy him just as easily. But it was too late to protect himself against her, anyway. Her fine eyes had caught him when he hadn't even thought of pulling up his defences; and if he had thought of it, would he have wanted to? He doubted it. However, considering his reward, he had no cause for regrets. God, her brief caress had been pure bliss! His lips still tingled from that soft touch. Fortunately she'd been gone too fast for him to react, or else he would have embarrassed both of them by kissing her back. Burning desire rushed through him at the thought of taking her into his arms, embracing her tightly, feeling her pressed against him...

Groaning aloud, he clenched his hands into fists while his whole body shook with the effort to control his aching loins. It took him a long time to calm down passably and regain a fragile equilibrium. Heaving a deep-drawn sigh, he leaned his forehead against the windowpane and rolled it back and forth on the cool surface. Never in his life had he wanted a woman as much as he wanted her. And he knew that he could trust her; more than anything else, her kiss had been a promise, a promise that she wouldn't take advantage of his feelings. But he knew just as well that he couldn't take the risk, because his soul wouldn't survive the blow that was sure to come, regarding their previous history. So far she didn't remember, maybe wouldn't in a long time, but eventually her memory would be restored, and she would go back to hating him...

Suddenly he lifted his head and swung around, anger simmering through him- to hell with the consequences! He wanted her and he would have her! He would never let her hate him again! He would seduce her, conquer her, take advantage of her present ignorance- this last thought brought his wrathful litany to an abrupt halt. His anger dissolved just as fast as it had built, leaving him ashamed of himself. How could such an idea even enter his mind? He never lied, he never cheated, in fact he was well known for his honesty- and he was proud of it. This pride would never allow him to enter a relationship with Elizabeth under wrong assumptions; it would force him to be honest- which was impossible. He would have to tell her what had happened between them all those months ago, but he knew he'd never find the courage to do it. Thus, the only alternative was to accept that he couldn't have her...

It hit him hard when at last he had to acknowledge the hopelessness of his situation. Loneliness and desperation returned full force, draining him of what little strength he had left. He felt as if he would collapse any second, so he opted for a soft landing and slowly sank to the floor right where he was. Sagging back against the wall, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to hold back the tears that welled up behind them, all the time taking deep breaths to fight the lump in his throat. But it was all for naught. Helplessly he realised that his painful breaths had turned to dry sobs and tears were seeping from beneath his lashes. Finally letting go of any restraint, he pulled up his legs, folded his arms atop his knees and buried his face in the crook of his elbow to cry like he hadn't in a very long time.

Elizabeth sighed contently and snuggled into the comfortable armchair that almost swallowed her. Closing her eyes, she savoured the silence of the empty room. With all the questions and speculations swirling through her head, she couldn't have endured the small talk and laughter of the other guests one minute longer. Having successfully escaped the noisy company, she was finally able to concentrate her thoughts on what was bothering her most: -her strong reaction to William Darcy.

Even though she hardly knew him, she had been totally attuned to him; sensing his every gaze upon her, and feeling the depth of his emotions had been extremely disturbing. Never in her life had she felt so close to anyone who hadn't been either part of her family, or a very good friend- not even with her husband had she ever experienced such mental nearness. Though she had loved Tom deeply, there had always been a certain distance between them, maybe due to their difference in age- he had been almost 12 years older than she...

When she felt sadness overcome her, she resolutely pushed it away and turned her thoughts back to William. Standing by his father's graveside, a few steps away from everyone else, he'd radiated loneliness and desperation. Feelings that surely came natural on such an occasion, but she knew for certain that they hadn't been caused solely by his father's death- they had already been there before.

Elizabeth felt a blush creep into her face and inhaled deeply to steady her increased heartbeat while she slowly rubbed her palms against her upper arms to stop them from tingling. To conjure up his picture in her mind had almost the same effect on her, as if he were right there in person. But now that she knew how it felt to touch him, the sensations coursing through her body were of an entirely different kind than those she had to struggle with earlier that day. For a few seconds she let go of any coherent thought and just revelled in the warmth, tenderness, and desire his touch had produced. She wondered briefly what it would be like to be in his arms, to embrace him tightly, to feel all of him...When she felt heat pooling in her loins, she jumped up from her seat, silently cursing her vivid imagination. She went over to the window to stare out at the snow covered landscape and deliberately recalled her mixed up emotions as she had awaited the dreaded moment when she would have to face William Darcy...

While moving forward slowly to where the family had been waiting to receive the condolences, she'd been full of fear, anticipation and curiosity. The sudden tension in her body had told her that William's piercing gaze was upon her again. It was as if he had invaded her mind, urging her on and pulling her closer and closer to him, while clearly conveying impatience. Anticipation and curiosity had by then been completely swamped out by immeasurably augmented fear. Once again her impulse had been to run and hide, but once again she had been trapped with no way out. Attacked by a fit of dizziness, she'd had to struggle hard not to faint. Staring to the ground in front of her, she had forced her trembling legs to carry her along by fiercly concentrating on every step she took.

Somehow she had finally made it to the Darcys, and after hugging and kissing Georgiana, she'd been standing before him. For a split second his sudden proximity had left her frozen to the spot, unable to move or talk. Then her brain had switched to autopilot, making her lift her head- a little, extend her hand and murmur: "I'm sorry..."

Her gaze fixed to a button of his coat, she had waited for his response. It didn't come immediately, though, making her feel slightly dopey for standing there with her hand outstretched. But at last he had come into motion, enveloping her hand with his...

A strange noise, apparently coming out of nowhere, interrupted Elizabeth's thoughts. Slightly irritated, she turned around to confront the putative intruder- to her puzzlement the room was empty. Certain that she hadn't just imagined that...growl, she listened intently, but her ears met only silence. She shrugged and decided to resume her place in that inviting armchair. Leaning back comfortably, she closed her eyes and returned to her reverie.

The moment they touched she'd felt like being connected to a live wire, energising every nerve cell in her body. When she'd winced involuntarily, she had felt him tighten his grip on her as if he were afraid of losing contact. Totally taken aback she'd looked up and found him staring at their clasped hands with his brows pulled low. Still frowning he had lifted his head and their gazes met and locked. His eyes were the most spellbinding she had ever seen, deep, soulful, dark brown- she'd felt like drowning. And then, ever so slowly, the frown had disappeared from his face to be replaced by an expression of warmth and tenderness- making her assume it matched her own expression. Understanding at once what it meant for him to show her his feelings, she had known she needed to reassure him that he could trust her. Without thinking any further she had drawn his head down and kissed him tenderly. But suddenly her common sense had reminded her of the impropriety of her behaviour. Feeling totally embarrassed, she'd released him, pulled back her hand and all but ran away from the graveyard...

Elizabeth smiled dreamily as she recalled that special moment. His lips had been warm and firm, yet tender- a thrilling experience. Unfortunately he had been too surprised to react, but if he had...she knew it would have been wonderful. But how could she know? Only if they'd been more familiar with one another in the past than she remembered- like lovers...Pondering that thought, she found out that what she had considered simply impossible just a few hours ago, didn't seem so absurd by now. After all, he was a very handsome man, attractive, mysterious, challenging...Yet again- she couldn't imagine that she would ever have cheated on Tom. And what if she had? But that would also mean that William had cheated on Patricia. Or had they already been separated? And if so why then hadn't William come to visit her after the accident? Sighing in frustration, she realised that she couldn't come up with any satisfying answer. She would have to wait till she found out what had happened in those months previous to Tom's death. Until then, she would stick to her decision to avoid William Darcy.

Elizabeth sat up straight in her chair, listening carefully- another strange noise. It sounded different from the first, but she couldn't identify it, either. When she heard it a second time, she stood up and followed slowly to where the noises obviously led- the door to an adjoining room. When she neared it, she saw that it was slightly ajar...and the room behind it was in fact the source of those...sobs? They came regularly by now- heart wrenching, hoarse sobs. Definitely worried, she hesitated only a second before opening the door completely and crossing the threshold...

She stepped further into the room, suddenly fraught with a vague suspicion. Peering around the edge of a huge desk, she stopped short in her tracks. Her breath caught in her chest at the sight she beheld; at the far end of the room, near the window, William sat on the floor, weeping bitterly. Once again she hesitated, not sure whether it was wise to invade his privacy, or to just leave without making her presence known. In the end her desire to comfort him prevailed over her sense of decency and she walked over to him. Kneeling down in front of him, she put a hand on his arm and called his name in a hushed voice. At first he didn't react, then his head came up slowly and he looked at her with teary eyes. Suddenly he moved as quickly as a flash, unfolding his limbs, pulling her astride his thighs and embracing her in a vise like grip. Elizabeth was too stunned to do anything but gasp for breath and stare down at the man who had buried his face in the curve of her neck, wetting her with his tears. It was the pain he inflicted upon her ribcage with his tight hug, that helped her to get over the initial shock.

Breathlessly she whispered: "You're crushing me."

Instantly he slackened his grip, allowing her to inhale deeply. Bad idea, she realised at once. The intake of breath pushed up her breasts, molding them very firmly to William's chest. To her mortification she noticed that her nipples puckered immediately. In an attempt to conceal her predicament, she put her hands on his shoulders and tried to draw back a little, hoping fervently he hadn't noticed.

Initially acting more upon his desperate need for physical contact and consolation than anything else, William had relished in their closeness, eagerly absorbing her warmth and tenderness to soothe his wounded heart. As his profound grief gradually abated, he became more and more aware of the soft curves of the body pressed so tightly to his. Thus he was reluctant to loosen his embrace, but as he complied to her entreaty, he couldn't help but notice the advantage of his action. The feel of her hardened nipples against his chest caused a surge of heady sensations that rushed through his body and went strait to his loins. Unable to resist temptation, he deeply inhaled her sweet scent and pressed a gentle kiss to her throat, completely ignoring her attempt to pull back from him.

Elizabeth was lost when she felt his lips on her skin. With a soft sigh, she inclined her head to give him better access, abandoning any thoughts of mortification or resistance. Her hands started a journey up and down his back, stroking tenderly, stopping ocassionally to savour the firm flesh underneath his shirt- but it wasn't enough. Frantic with need, she tugged the bothering garment out of the waistband of his trousers. When her fingers finally touched bare skin, they both moaned with relief.

William used his tongue to trace a wet path up her throat to her delicate jawline. Fiercely aroused by her bold caresses, he quickly made his way to her mouth and nibbled at her lower lip. When he pressed a hand to the small of her back to bring her closer to his straining erection, she cried out mindlessly. Immediately he thrust his tongue into her open mouth...

"William!" Georgiana's voice accompanied by a loud knock on the main door, jerked them back into reality. Frozen to the spot, they stared at each other, eyes wide with astonishment. Only when Georgiana called his name a second time, did they both move. Elizabeth jumped up, cheeks crimson with embarrassement at the situation they'd almost been caught in, and turned to leave the room as fast as she could. However, she was not fast enough for William. He had been up on his feet in no time, and realising that she wanted to run away from him, had grabbed for her hand, thus impeding her escape.

"I'll be out in a minute, Georgie," he answered his sister in a voice still rough with arousal, all the while holding on to Elizabeth's hand. Still facing away from him, she heard him clear his throat, before he said quietly: "Elizabeth, please, don't be ashamed. We..."

She almost gave in, when she heard his soothing tone, but her embarrassement was too strong to be dismissed so easily. All the prejudices she had always held against him came back to her in a rush, burning desire and tenderness into anger that compelled her to swing around with blazing eyes: "How can I not be ashamed? I hardly know you! And...and I don't even like you!"

Stunned silence followed her confession. As soon as she realised what she had just said, she dropped her gaze and bit down hard on her lower lip, inwardly cursing her quick tongue.

William felt as if he'd been hit square in the chest. Utterly devoid of his defences, he was unable to stop the pain from going straight to his core. Numbly he registered that it hurt even more than he would have expected. Eventually, albeit too late, his instincts to protect himself came to life, making him snatch his hand away from hers.

Elizabeth had been waiting for his reaction, but by no means had she been prepared for the violence with which it finally came. Her head snapped up in surprise and she looked at him. She saw him square his shoulders and rise to his full height while the light in his eyes expired as if a candle had been blown out, and his face turned into a blank mask. Mesmerised she watched his transformation into the man she had always believed him to be, proud, unfeeling, conceited William Darcy. To her astonishment she felt a strange sense of loss settle in her heart.

William stared back at her with cold eyes, seemingly perfectly in control now. He tucked his shirt back into his trousers, as he addressed her in an even, almost bored tone: "You should really refrain from showing your dislike in such a manner, Mrs Harding- it is highly likely to be misunderstood. -Excuse me, please, my sister needs me."

Without waiting for an answer, he inclined his head slightly and walked past her. On his way to the door, he picked up his jacket and shrugged into it.

Elizabeth closed her eyes, desperately suppressing her tears. Though his words hurt her deeply, she knew that she deserved them- she had struck out at him first and he'd only answered back. As she watched his retreat, she found out that it was beyond her to let him walk away like this. She wanted to say something to stop him, but since the proper words eluded her, she decided to play for time and called out for him quietly.

William froze with his hand already on the door handle. Not having counted on her to respond at all, he was totally unprepared for the mixture of emotions that swept through him when he heard her speak his name; surprise, relief, joy and desire mingled in his chest and almost pressed the air out of his lungs, before he could hold them at bay. Taking a deep breath, he fended them off vigorously while he mustered what little strength he had left to enforce his weakened defences. When he considered himself ready to face her again, he turned around slowly.

Elizabeth observed him in close anticipation, silently pleading with him not to leave her just yet. Sensing his inner struggle, she fervently hoped that he would decide in her favour. Time seemed to stretch unbearably while she waited. She was on the verge of giving up, when he eventually moved.

When their gazes met, disappointment washed over her, because the man who looked back at her was not the one she'd expected. Unable to stand his cold stare, she dropped her eyes and- for the second time that day- murmured in a small voice: "I'm sorry..."

"It's alright," he answered, sounding very distant and business-like, "I have to apologise, too- for everything. We'd better forget about today and keep things the way they are."

Elizabeth flinched at his words. As she stood there, her head still bowed, she could feel his gaze upon her and knew that he was waiting for her reply. But she didn't dare use her voice since the lump in her throat had grown by the second. One word would suffice to make her burst into tears. So she simply nodded.

He seemed to hesitate briefly, but a few moments later she heard the door close behind him, and started crying wholeheartedly.

Continue reading The Lost Year here

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