You Won’t Admit You Love Me

Chapter 17

 

Monika woke up feeling a chill, only to find that she had tossed away all her covers. A quick look out the window prepared her for another grey London day. Grey was her color, it seemed, and she always preferred storms to sunshine; however, on this day she felt so fed up, so tired with everything that she got up cursing London and its unvarying weather.

It was eleven o’clock. She had overslept! She couldn’t remember this ever happening to her before in her life, and she cursed her body and mind for letting her down on this particular day. Richard would get the impression that she was avoiding him; that she didn’t care to honor her promise to him that they would talk. In a corner of her mind she wondered if this was exactly what she was doing, but she didn’t try to elaborate on it further.

Talking… It was her duty, she thought. It should be done and would be done. After making that deplorable mistake on that horrid night, she knew there was only one way of putting an end to all the embarrassment and awkwardness. The solution was simple and the sooner she listened to reason, the sooner the torment would stop. It was as simple as that.

Simple? She chuckled. Nothing, nothing had ever been simple in her life. Richard had told her once, “You have the talent of finding the shadows in a room full of light.” Even now, she was amazed with his insight. But why, since he accepted her, could he not see that the idea of their ever being a couple was nothing more than a hallucination?

It would be a disaster, she could see that. Richard was the smiling guy, the man who always made light of the situation. She knew him well enough to understand that there was something under the surface. Sometimes, his ability to explore new roles, to understand so many agonies and to identify with the most lonely and lost characters stunned her; then they seemed almost alike, questioning the limits of the human soul and mind. But then, there he was, dancing and drinking at parties until morning, running after every beautiful woman he would meet, and then running away from them.

Couldn’t he understand that she didn’t want this euphoria, this continuous quest of pleasure? She didn’t want salvation from her shades; she didn’t wish to be content. She had deep feeling and amazing understanding. However, the cost was melancholy and loneliness, her constant companions all these years. If asked, she wouldn’t change the way she chose to see the world in order to experience gaiety. And what about love? The tiny voice whispered again but it was too weak for her to pay attention to it.

With these thoughts accompanying her, her morning routine took her much more time than ever before, and it was only a few minutes before noon when she appeared downstairs. Anna and Alex were nowhere to be seen, she was pleased to find. Richard sat on the couch with a newspaper on his lap, but he didn’t seem to be reading. He presented a lovely picture; next to the fire, with that look on his face, something between thoughtful and absent-minded. He didn’t notice her before she had reached the bottom of the staircase. Then, with a start, he got up, dropping the newspaper. She wanted to say something, but a good morning seemed too unfit for them. Luckily, he spoke first.

“Emmm…Would you like some coffee? Anna has made some.” Then, clenching his fists, he added. “Of course not. You don’t drink coffee. Tea? There is herbal tea as well.”

She desperately needed a cup of tea.

“No, thank you, I am alright. Is Anna around?” “No. Yes. I mean, she and Alex are in the library.” His mouth remained half open, as if he wanted to say something more, but nothing came from his lips.

“I see. Richard, about this talk…”

“Yes?”

“I think that now is a good time.” He nodded, and she added quickly. “But not here.” She could not do it there. That house was full of him, of them, of that night. It was his territory. It was too difficult to do it there.

“Where then?” He seemed almost unsurprised by her request.

“Outside perhaps? The garden… the park around?”

Monika felt the absurdity of her request. It was freezing cold and no rational human would venture outside if there was not an important reason. To propose they talk outside instead of staying indoors, which was warm and cozy and pleasant seemed, however vital to her, completely illogical.

But Richard had already put on his jacket and headed towards the door.

******

Elizabeth passed the “Spanish Inquisition” with great success, leaving everyone impressed and more than satisfied with the new editor of “Meryton.” William’s heart swelled with pride for her. Apart from being a wonderful partner, she was also very talented, really good at her job. A bright career was opening before her and she deserved the future that awaited. The meeting ended soon afterwards, but his uncle wanted to talk privately. So, he left Elizabeth talking with some members of the board who wanted to know more of her and led his uncle to his office.

“Rosings continues the crusade against us,” Michael Fitzwilliam said as soon as they were alone.

“I know.”

“It’s pretty bad. Much damage can be done.”

“It will stop very soon.” William seemed certain but Michael still harbored many doubts.

“You don’t know—you can’t trust your instinct.”

William smiled. “Uncle, I would never leave anything so important to instinct. I have talked to them. Warned them about how this attack can backfire on them. Trust me, if they go on like this, I will make them look like mumbling babies with no credit whatsoever.”

“So you think they will stop?”

“I know they will be obliged to print entire pages of apologies – and no pressure from our lawyers will be necessary.”

“Good. Very good, son. This is a dirty game, and I am glad that Miss Bennet has not completely distracted you.” Michael said in a casual tone, but William’s expression changed immediately.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, come on, Will. People are whispering. You openly praised her yesterday…”

“She deserved it!”

“…you came to the meeting today together and you haven’t left her side for a moment…”

“She’s been through a lot!”

“…and right now, you are defending her in an admirable, gallant way. I’ve been in love too, you know.” He winked at him. William wore his best stubborn look to protest, but after a moment’s reflection he smiled slightly and said in a completely calm tone.

“I am not repeating the same mistakes. I won’t deny that I love Elizabeth Bennet. ”

His uncle smiled as well. “That’s not bad, as long as Pemberley is your first priority and…”

William interrupted him. “It isn’t, Uncle. I care for Pemberley, and I will fight as hard as it takes to restore its creditability. It is one of the most important things in my life, and one of my top priorities. I will spend much time and much energy on this, but it can’t come first in my life anymore. You said you have been in love. Then you must know as well.”

Michael moved to the window and stood in quiet reflection for a while. When he spoke, he didn’t turn to look at William.

“Son and nephew are determined to give me a good lesson this weekend.”

William felt too awkward. Although they had worked for years together, they had never been really close, and in one other’s confidence. He realized he knew practically nothing about his uncle, his life, his feelings, his habits. At that moment, he couldn’t tell if he was speaking sincerely or being ironic. He certainly never expected to give him a lesson about anything, much less about feelings. But then, Michael turned to him with a conspiratory look.

“She’s a good woman. Don’t let her slip from your hands.”

They stood for a while looking at each other; William still in disbelief that his uncle had suddenly become a humble man, accepting critique, and even advising him about not losing a woman. William had always thought that his uncle was a man of deep thinking and shallow feeling. But after all, his uncle was his mother’s brother. They had to have some things in common. He looked at him better and noticed his eyes; green and open. Another person whom I have misjudged or another one who has changed? William wondered, although he knew that the answer was somewhere in the middle. He smiled at his uncle, thinking that it was never too late to get to know someone – and perhaps through his uncle, his mother.

“I am not letting Elizabeth go anywhere.”

A smile played at the corner of Michael’s lips, as understanding came to each man’s face.

“Now, if you will excuse me, I have a lovely wife to return to.”

******

Monika thought that Darcy’s garden would remain in her memory as one of the most hated places she had ever been at. This walk with Richard was so tormenting, the silence so unbearable, each moment that passed such a burden on her shoulders that she wanted to scream, to act, to do something and escape from this nightmare where nothing happened. Only gazes and silence.

“We must talk,” she said at last.

“I am listening. To you,” Richard answered quietly.

“I am sorry? You are listening to me?” She hadn’t meant to lose her temper, she really hadn’t; but here she was, shouting at him again. This was leading nowhere. She regretted her outburst. Strong reactions indicated feelings and passion and this was the last thing she wanted to think about at the moment. They had to make decisions, and respect each other’s wishes as civilized, indifferent people.

“Yes, Monika. I am listening to you!” he answered, a little less composed than before. “Because, whenever I speak or do something, I seem to only provoke your wrath.”

“Oh, so this is all my fault, eh?” She said bitterly, but then removed every trace of feeling in her voice, as she continued. “Very well, Richard. In that case, I must inform you that I quit. I will not be returning with you to the US tomorrow. It has been a pleasure to work you.” She turned to leave.

‘So that was the bomb exploding. Number of victims, only one. A bloody fool’, he managed to think, half numb. Struggling to regain control over his actions, he experienced a moment when he envisioned his fate marked by her decision. A single, terrible moment, thinking of a life destroyed by his inability on one single occasion to act, to talk, to make her understand. A life he would spend regretting a moment of indecision. Regretting her. He could foresee minutes, hours, days, shadowed by the torment, the question; What if I had dared? How would my life have been? What would she have said? What would she have done? A life of what ifs, a life thinking more of the past than of the present. He saw the prospect of a wasted life, and the fear that crept, slowly and sneakily into his heart, paralyzing his whole body.

A thin line between reality and dream, an even thinner line between dream and nightmare, heaven and hell. Richard Fitzwilliam crossed all the lines at that single moment. A drowning man, a man screaming for rescue. No one could help him, no one but his own self. His life was slipping out of his hands, out of his control and it was leading only to sadness and loneliness. He had to grasp it back. Now.

She had already made several steps towards the house. “Stop it!” he cried at the top of his voice, surprising even himself. She froze. With a few paces, he reached her.

“Stop it,” he repeated, lower this time, but with no less anguish in his voice. “Can you look at us? Can you listen to what you’re saying? ‘A pleasure working with me?’ This is not you, Monika! Monika would say ‘Fuck off Richard,’ she wouldn’t run away. Why are you doing this to us? Why are you doing this to you?”

“Richard, I am tired of playing hide and seek with you.”

“Strange you should feel like that, I got the impression you rather enjoy it.”

“Well, what can I say, first impressions can be misleading,” she trickled out her retort through greeted teeth.

“You hide and I seek, Monika. I cannot go on like this. I am tired, too.”

“Finally. Perfect. We both are tired. Absolutely great!”

“Alright, mock me. Laugh at us. What more do I have to endure to satisfy your requirements?”

“Just one more. The last one. Don’t you see, Richard? I am releasing you! I am leaving. Putting an end to it. Full stop.”

He inhaled deeply. ‘It’s now or never. Tell her’

“Even if you leave, Monika, that won't make me love you less.”

“Excuse me? You what? You love me?” she heard herself ask almost in a foreign language.

“Yes, I love you. Why is that such a surprise? Oh, you think I'm too shallow for love, right? After all, my face is on every magazine, on every screen. I sell desire and ‘love’ every day, I sell myself to every woman, true?”

“I didn’t…”

“I could not possibly feel love, right? It's just a job for me, a job that pays the big bucks, but only a role, not a real feeling. Isn't that what you think?” Excited, he forged on, not leaving her option to address any appeal. “Well, guess what, the sugar-boy here can act and knows the distinction between a play and real life. Maybe the shallow one is you, for the cowards' way was definitely your choice, not mine.” Raising his voice, he slowly closed in the space that separated them. “You left me, not the other way around, remember? Of course you do, it’s your bloody job to remember. Every little detail. That frightening was it? Making love,” he shouted in her face. “Oh, and don’t tell me it was an accident or an act. We, you and I, made love. Consented L.O.V.E,” he finished with rage.

He was right. For once she was afraid. Of words. Of his feelings, of what she felt or what she could afford to feel. He was forcing her to stop running and do something she had eluded for an inexcusably long time: confront old demons and make a decision.

Oh but it would be so easy to escape, fate tempted her once more. Open the door, step outside, then close it behind you. It would all vanish with a click, her sixth sense told her. So simple… and then the pain would go, be dulled, forgotten; no, not forgotten, but well hidden in a secret corner of her heart. Yes, she could live with that pain, she knew how to live with pain – in time. She needed time.

“Don’t,” she heard him saying.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t even think about it,” he said, leaning dangerously closely to her. His voice was authoritative, as if he knew exactly what was going on in her mind; as if he had suddenly acquired a glimpse into her heart and he had become the judge of right or wrong. As if he knew what was best for her, seeing into the future, being wise... ‘I don’t need a bloody parent,’ she thought and felt her anger rising again, but this time she could not mistake her inner voice that was screaming at her. ‘It’s easier to be angry than scared.’

Then she felt the weight of his palms on her arms. “Don’t leave me,” he whispered. “Don’t leave us. It’s dark and lonely out there. A whole life without you; there is ugliness and death out there.”

No, this could not be Richard. Richard did not speak like that… Richard didn’t know anything about ugliness, loneliness and death. Richard was a sweet smile that would continue to exist even if his heart received a rejection or two. Richard could never let anything affect him so. This was not the man she knew…

“You don’t understand what you’re saying,” she said and tried desperately not to sound defensive; it would not do. But she had lost every command of her tone and reactions some time ago, even though she would not acknowledge it.

“No, it’s you. You feign that you don’t understand who I am and what I feel. But you do, Monika. You know very well. That’s why you’re leaving.”

She wanted to shout, to protest, to tell him that he was hurting her, tormenting her. She wanted to beg him to stop and to let her go. But she only said, “You’re too selfish to think that my life won’t be worth living without you.”

He smiled, half-heartedly, bitterly. “I know it. Because this is what will happen to me if you go.”

Her lips quivered. She tried to retain her strength, to not ask the question that had presented itself, demanding, in her mind, burning it.

“And what if… what if I stay? You think it will be better? You think that it won’t be a hell for us after a while? You think that here will be better than out there?”

“Here, there is love, Monika. It is frightening and it brings loads of pain and sadness, doubts and insecurities. But it is life, Monika. And hope, and warmth. I want to experience these with you. Stay, Monika. I beg you. Stay.”

He held his breath, looking deeply into her eyes. A ‘no’ – he couldn’t take a ‘no.’ He had exposed his soul, his heart. Did he seem controlled to her? How could that be, when all his fears were exposed, right there, before her. Did she think it was easy for him? But hell, she deserved it. She deserved anything he could do and anything he could give. Just as long as she wouldn’t refuse him forever. Just as long as she didn’t turn her back to him. Not a ‘no.’ He didn’t have the strength to meet with a ‘no.’

Her mind was swirling. Had he asked something of her? He was looking so intensely at her and she was so confused… What did he want? But, most importantly, what did she want?

Yielding and resisting. The new against the old, the unknown against the habit. She had never been afraid of challenges, but why was she terrified now? Fear meant cowardice and she was not a coward. Never had been. At least not when physical challenges appeared.

“We will regret this. You will regret this. I am not what you think…”

He had averted his eyes as she began speaking; they returned on her, piercing, demanding. That was not a ‘no,’ was it? She had not left yet. There was hope. Had she been indifferent, she would have gone. Had her heart been untouched, she would have had absolutely no difficulty in laughing at his ridiculous romantic fantasies. Yes, she would have used a term like that. But she hadn’t. She was there, still fighting, still resisting, still doubting, but there. He had no intention of letting her go anywhere now.

“You are the bravest woman I know, Monika.”

She laughed bitterly. “You don’t know me, Richard. You just have this idealized picture of me and you stick to it. You have no idea how many times I am afraid, how many…”

He interrupted her. “How many nights you stay awake? How many times you are in deep meditation every day? How you escape the world and try to find security in your room? How many times you disappear and don’t want to be found? You think that I don’t know about this, Monika?”

She was not sure what he was saying. She could not tell if his voice was coming from his mouth or was a mere whisper of her imagination. He could not have known. No one had ever known such details about her. Someone would have to watch, night and day, to learn all these habits of her life. Someone would have to care to understand them.

“But I do know,” he said, and his voice had a distant echo of pleading… Begging her to comprehend his meaning. “And I love you the more for it. This is you – and I love what you are. I can’t pretend that I know your deepest secrets and agonies, I can’t tell you that I always understand you – there are times when you exasperate me, and times when you irritate me, and times when you frighten me. But I love you. Always.”

She stepped back. “I have to digest this. It comes so suddenly. I don’t know what to think… what to believe… We are both hurt and angry…”

He moved closer and drew her to him. “I am not angry,” he whispered. “I am not hurt. Please, Monika, believe in me… Believe in us. We can make it.” Pulling his head back a little, and looking into her eyes, he added, “We love each other way too much to pretend to ignore it.”

Their faces were so close; his eyes were so warm, so intense, so... no, she couldn’t tell that. All her beliefs, all her life experience revolted against the admission. A charming prince – she had never dreamt of one, she had never wanted one. There were no bloody princes, she was well aware of that. Just princes that turned to frogs, and not the opposite. No stupid romances for her, no rescues from the monsters of the world, no delusions about a safe embrace. But his eyes were… ‘No, they are not, Monika! Calm down, exhale, do not let him do this to you! He is an actor… he is performing.’

Damn, he was right! She was scared, she was avoiding, she was a coward, she was refusing to see the truth for what it was. She believed him! His eyes were loving. A simple word, a simple description, but not a simple feeling.

“How can I trust you?” Her voice was low.

“Because I trust you, too. You think that I have power to hurt you, Monika? To break your heart to pieces?”

Her head moved, ever so slightly down and then up, but it was a nod, no mistaking that.

“You have exactly the same power over me, Monika. You can break my heart to pieces. But it’s worth it.”

He was done, there was nothing more he could say. It was difficult for him, too. His breathing was heavy, his heart was pumping; and he was aware of every beat that became almost painful. He remained silent, looking at her, wondering, hoping. She saw him standing, exhausted, anxious and pleading. And she understood. This was not a fairy tale, and he was not a magic hero that would answer all her needs or solve all her problems. He was not promising her a blissful eternity… But hell, she was not a fragile little girl to ask for an earthly paradise.

This dream, this fairy tale, this chimerical promise of a *happy ending* had become her demon. Knowing only too well the impossibility of that, she had excluded all forms of happiness in her life. She had been unjust to herself, and unfair to both herself and to others… and most of all, to Richard. It was a journey he was promising. With happy moments, and lots of arguments, lots of bumping doors on each other’s faces, lots of jokes, lots of laughter and yes, many moments of quiet reflection and bliss. She had been locked into a jail cell and Richard was giving her freedom, not the other way around. And where would this journey end? How would it find them? Old memories flashed in her mind, old verses came before her.

 

When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,

wish always that your course be long,

full of adventure, full of lore.

Of the Laestrygones and of the Cyclopes,

of an irate Poseidon never be afraid;

such things along your way you will not find,

if lofty is your thinking, if fine sentiment

in spirit and in body touches you.

Neither Laestrygones nor Cyclopes,

nor wild Poseidon will you ever meet,

unless you bear them in your soul,

unless your soul has raised them up in front of you.

 

And the answer to her searing questions?

 

If Ithaca seems then too lean, you have not been deceived.

As wise as you are now become, of such experience,

you will have understood what Ithaca stands for.*

 

It was time for her to start her journey to her own Ithaca.

But not alone. With Richard.

He read her answer in the glint of her eyes. They had gone a long way that morning, past misunderstanding and reading wrong signs. Beyond any doubt, he knew her answer. He had waited far too long, to touch her, to feel her, to show her what she meant to him. Too much lost time; he would wait no more. He pressed his body against hers. Tightly, with all his power – as if he still feared she would flee. They remained for long moments like this, giving and taking reassurance, holding and comforting. It was many minutes later that his lips could not go on without kissing hers, there, in the middle of a garden, on a frozen, stormy January day. Monika was so lost in his kiss, in re-living what she thought she had lost forever, on living instead of hiding in fear that she didn’t feel anything else but him enveloping her in love.

Gently, she drew back. She wanted to look at him. Richard’s eyes were still closed, his lips still relishing the memory of hers. Suddenly, a snowflake fell on his brow. His eyes shot open, surprised, to meet her smiling ones.

It was snowing. The sky was not grey anymore; cotton white clouds covered it everywhere, as the snowflakes became thicker and thicker, falling on their hair, and their clothes, melting into their hearts. Their souls were dancing, their faces could not help grinning. They were happy.

“Do you believe in fairytales?” he asked.

She quirked an eyebrow. “Oh, no, no. Reality is so much better.” A passionate kiss, that left her mouth begging for more rewarded her answer. “Besides,” she added half-seriously, “happy endings are just endings. I infinitely prefer beginnings.”

She gasped as she felt Richard’s arms lifting her and carrying her to the house. As she cast a final look at the garden, she thought that it was a happy place indeed.

******

Elizabeth was very nervous as she entered William’s house again. It was his place and she knew that should be reason enough for her to love it; however, at present it could only evoke painful memories. She used to think that she had control over her mind. She flattered herself that she could choose her memories, that she could think of the past only when it gave her pleasure. But at that moment, the images that filled her mind threatened to bring her tears. She looked at the door that she had closed behind her on the night she had left him forever, in utter despair. She would find herself in the room where he had broken her heart; where she had broken his heart. It was necessary to go through this, but she couldn’t help thinking that she had better put it off for another day.

William, looking worryingly at her face as it grew more and more thoughtful, stopped before pushing the door open and drew her to him. Cupping her face with his hands, and caressing her cheeks tenderly, he said,

“Remember what you said this morning, my love. We were blind fools. We needed to go through this, to understand how strong and true what we felt was.”

She nodded, smiling faintly and he continued softly. “You know that there is nothing I regret more than hurting you. I hate to think that I made you be afraid of this house, of my house. Because this is the place where I dreamed of you, where I thought of you, where I first realized that I loved you, where I spent endless hours looking at our photograph from Scotland. You have been in this house, with me, for a long time, Elizabeth. And for the most part, not in sadness. Let’s go in and create more memories—only happy ones.”

Before going in, however, she had to cling to him, she had to feel his lips on hers, his hands on her back; she had to taste his mouth, to caress the nape of his neck, to close her eyes and travel to the sky with him, if only for a few seconds. He understood her need, her agony, and the small doubts still torturing her heart and gave himself to her. He kissed her without caring for air, forgetting time and space, thinking only of her, taking care only for her. He was all hers, for as long as she wanted. They went on and on, easing her doubts, erasing fears and old nightmares until she was ready. Breaking the kiss, she opened her eyes and smiled at him. His mouth trailed a path upwards, teasing her nose and her brow before he inhaled the beautiful aroma of her hair.

“Ready now?”

“Not just ready. Excited and honoured to be in your home again, Mr. Darcy.”

When they reached the hall, voices and laughter were heard from inside. That cold, impersonal aura, that tormenting void that had almost intimidated Elizabeth on her previous visit, simply did not exist anymore. Suddenly, she felt that it was impossible that anything bad could occur there. Warmth, cosiness, light, life; this is what William’s house represented now. It now seemed a place only for happy beginnings.

Georgiana and Alex appeared. The couple had been talking about them all morning long. Alex had challenged Georgiana, expressing his certainty that the fierce loyalty and love for her brother would prevail, rendering her reserved and cool to Elizabeth. She had answered that she had a remarkable ability to judge people and that she would be fair enough to the woman who had stolen her brother’s heart. But when Alex asked her if she had completely forgotten her brother’s condition on Christmas Day and if she held Elizabeth responsible for it, she only shrugged her shoulders.

However, when William entered, hand in hand with Elizabeth, his face brighter than she remembered ever witnessing, Georgiana’s remarkable ability to judge people and feelings told her that her brother was happy, and that the only reason for it was Elizabeth Bennet. Then, even the tiny jealousy coming from the realization that she no longer was the most important person in her brother’s life anymore was subdued.

Introductions were made and they all went to the sitting room where coffee and goodies were waiting for them, as well as a wonderful view of the snow by the window next to the fire. Elizabeth feared they would have nothing to talk about, although she never had trouble chatting with people she had just met. However, she suspected that the Darcys had quite an effect on her.

“Elizabeth, I have heard so many things about you; I feel as if I have known you for a long time.” Georgiana suddenly said gravely and Alex swallowed hard.

“Known me, yes,” Elizabeth answered softly. “But as for liking me, I am almost afraid to ask.” ‘Who said that men are more forward than women?’ William wondered, but his instinct told him not to interrupt the exchange between the two women. The face of neither betrayed hostility or maliciousness. He knew that both appreciated sincerity.

Georgiana was surprised by Elizabeth’s reply, but very pleasantly so. Polite conversation was good, but with people so important to her family, she preferred honesty. After a pause, too long for either man’s liking, she smiled and said:

“Don’t worry, Elizabeth, reports were all in your favour.” Alex exhaled and she continued, “But I can also see facts, Elizabeth. I could never possibly dislike someone who has made my brother happy – and reconciled with everything.”

“Hey, I am here, in case you forgot.” William said, trying to lighten the mood, but not helping with the unmistakable coarseness in his voice.

“We know that, Will, but give us a moment please…Your sister and I have just discovered the first thing we have in common.” Elizabeth winked at Georgiana who understood her meaning and said, “We both love you, even though we have given you a hard time or two.”

“More than two.” Elizabeth sighed guiltily.

Before William could speak, Georgiana chimed in. “I have no right to express an opinion, but this comes from my heart, so let me say it, please. You have given so much to William, to this house, to my family, to us all, Elizabeth, without even knowing us. It is only fair that you tormented William a little. So, thank you. For everything.”

William saw the tears in Elizabeth’s eyes, as she mouthed a silent “Thank you,” and felt it absolutely necessary to change the subject.

“Where are Richard and Monika?”

“Oh, them,” Georgiana said slyly. “They have been behaving a bit strangely since this morning. First, Richard woke up at six and Monika at noon.”

“You mean the other way around,” William tried to correct her.

“I meant exactly what I said. Richard was a buddle of nerves until Monika appeared and then they went for a stroll in the garden and they didn’t come back for about an hour.”

“In this weather?” Elizabeth wondered aloud. The snow was pleasing to watch, for sure, but it was really cold outside. Her fingers had nearly frozen while she made the short distance from the car to the door.

“Yes, yes. And okay, Monika is trained, but this coming from our cousin is surprising. Anyway, they went out with sulky faces and no words and when they returned, Richard was carrying Monika.”

“Did they have an accident? Was she hurt?” William asked. He couldn’t imagine any other reason why Monika would allow anyone to lift her.

“Brother, this is exactly what I thought and I went to offer some help…”

“…despite all my attempts to dissuade her…” Alex added.

“All your wise attempts, I might add. I wish I had listened to you. Then I wouldn’t have interrupted a very passionate kiss.”

William and Elizabeth chuckled at her look of mock contrition.

“Don’t worry, darling,” Alex said, embracing her. “They hardly seemed to notice you.”

“Yes, but I have learnt my lesson about couples and their privacy… Which reminds me… Alex, let’s go and allow William to show the house to Elizabeth. Now.”

******

Monika rested her head on Richard’s chest, listening to the rhythmic beating of his heart, as his fingers formed lazy circles on her back. Her gaze travelled to the window, and she watched the heavy snow that continued to fall. She considered how cold it should have been outside, but in that room, in Richard’s arms, she couldn’t even recall how it felt to be cold. The warmth was coming from inside her this time, lighting her face, spreading across her body, reaching every distant cell, awakening it from its lethargy. She had decided that she could very well live without happiness for the rest of her life—only a couple of hours ago. And now she suspected that the necessity to feel him, touch him, talk to him or simply look at him had become rather vital to her. She could see it now, she would not hide from it any longer. Despite her behaviour of the last weeks, which had been completely out of character, she would not run away from him.

Slowly, she began to understand him. It was difficult to fall in love with a woman like her, but he had. He loved her, and it hurt him to see her in turmoil as much as it pained her to witness his sad face. She comprehended that now. She used to think that love was selfless, that one-sided sacrifice could benefit them both, but she could acknowledge her error at last. Love was a deeply selfish act as well. She had to take good care of him, but also of herself, because her wellbeing mattered to him. It was important for his happiness.

His soft voice brought her out of her reverie. “Making complex thoughts, again?”

She looked at him surprised, and his hand caressed her frowned brow to indicate how he had read her mind. She smiled.

“Yes, very complex. I love you.”

Even though every little corner of Richard’s heart yearned to hear the magic words, he was shocked when she finally mouthed them. He had not seen that coming and was totally unprepared for it.

“Can you repeat it, please?”

She sighed, feigning exasperation. “One moment a genius and the other moment daft. What am I going to do with you?”

“Tell me.”

“I just said it.”

“I want to hear it again.” His hand travelled down her spine.

“Richard…”

His mouth grazed her earlobe in the most persuasive way.

“Richard…”

His leg reached for hers.

“Richard…”

He stopped his caresses and moved back to look at her. Their eyes locked, smiling, teasing gazes. They were at ease with each other, content, not afraid of the wonderful intimacy they shared. Their eyes communicated everything that needed to be said. No other reassurances, no words were necessary to prove that they were making similar discoveries and experiencing the same exhilaration. Yet her mouth spoke after all, as if on its own.

“I love you.”

“It didn’t hurt, did it?”

“Stop that, insufferable man!”

“Stop what?” He asked innocently as his lips moved to taste the base of her neck. “You want me to stop?” He continued, as he spread kisses all over her body.

She could take it no longer. Her mouth claimed his with urgent hunger, explaining to him exactly what she needed him to do. He felt his heart bursting, his rational thoughts vanishing, his mind near explosion at the awareness of her touch, her kiss, her flavor. There was only one raw need, one primitive instinct to be joined, to travel together, to reach that destination together. His hands, happy voyagers that had found their paradise on her skin, her hair, her neck, her entire body. After the ordeals, the apprehensions, the misgivings, the fear, they had found where they belonged. Fearlessly, they moved together as the friction of their union overwhelmed them. They did not question the novelty of feelings, the intensity of their contact, the light that blinded and guided them, as they cried each other’s name… Because they knew that everything would be different from then on.

******

“And this is my room,” William said softly as he showed Elizabeth in, standing closely behind her. She took two steps in and looked around, smiling. A big window on the wall offered a good view of the garden, allowing the light to come in, even on a snowy day. A single painting, of a stormy, dark blue sea hung opposite the window. The room was spacious, with white walls and there was little furniture apart from the large bed. She looked at the bedside, at the pile of newspapers, reports and magazines that lay there, next to the elegant lamp. That room was full of him. His likes and dislikes, his habits, his feelings. Elizabeth felt as if she had been there before.

His arms found their way around her and she rested her head against his neck, sighing contently.

“I should have brought you here from the first night – from the first moment. I knew that you belonged here, Elizabeth. I just knew it.”

“I am glad that I am here, Will.”

Kissing her there, in his room, in the place where he had always been alone with his demons, brought him such an elation he had never hoped for. Her lips were even softer than he remembered to his touch. Her mouth welcomed his desperate invasion with complete unrestraint, bending. Her whole body radiated warmth and enveloped him in a mist of desire. Her hands made him groan with a simple caress, and his body begged for more.

“Stay here tonight, Elizabeth.”

It was difficult for Elizabeth to think clearly when all her senses were at his mercy, and the need for him was the only feeling she was aware of. She recalled, distantly, that they had to stop, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember why. When she felt his hand slipping under her blouse, making her shiver, her brain started working again.

“Will… Your sister… They are waiting for us… Lunch… We must go down…” she mumbled.

His lips slowly moved away from hers, but his hand continued its tormenting movement on her back, her belly, her breasts, as his brow leaned in and touched hers.

“Stay here tonight,” he repeated, his voice now hoarse.

She knew she had to oppose that plan, but once more, she found it extremely difficult to remember the reasons why she should. “Your sister is leaving,” she said with some effort. “You need to talk before she goes. You need to spend some time alone, the two of you.”

“What I need is you, here. Don’t go.”

He intensified his attempts to persuade her, by assaulting her neck with his lips, delighting in her whimpers and moans.

“Stay,” he pleaded.

“Yes.”

His hands stilled and he pulled his head back so that he could look at her. Her face was grave, her eyes locked in his. He had the feeling she had committed herself to him for far more than one night, that something important had just transpired between them, but he didn’t want to rush her. He moved even further away, not touching her anymore, so that he could be certain that it was not only her desire that was talking.

“I want to stay, Will. I will leave after lunch, to meet with my family and allow you some time with your sister and afterwards, in the evening…”

“You will return to me.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “Yes, I will return to you.”

‘And I will do anything it takes to make you stay with me forever.’ His face, his chin was marked with decision. Elizabeth saw it and it took her less than a second to guess the reason. His determination made her happy.

******

Despite Georgiana’s protests that he had a job waiting for him, William insisted on accompanying his relatives to the airport the next morning. He knew that their departure would secure him more privacy with Elizabeth, yet he was well aware that he would miss them acutely. During their stay, so many life-changing events had taken place that concerned them all, he felt that the bonds that united them were deeper than ever before. His sister had become his friend, his confidante; his cousin became a man that could be counted on for support. He trusted Alex with Georgiana’s happiness; he trusted that Monika would be the ideal partner for Richard. They had all argued, and doubted one another. But they had been allies and could be united to face those who intended to harm them, whenever such a need would appear.

He had dropped Elizabeth off at her office on their way to the airport. As his hand covered hers before she exited the car, his mind filled with images of the previous night. Her image was before him again, naked and blissful, moaning, whimpering, screaming his name. He could almost see her hands grasping the sheets, her back arching against the pillows, her eyes locked with his as they became one in his bed. As Elizabeth walked towards the Meryton buildings, he recalled her breathtaking sight as she enchained him, drawing them into another game of love. She seduced him again and again, bringing so much pleasure to both that it was almost painful. As he started the engine of the car again, he recalled how he had fallen asleep, holding her tightly, a single tear dampening his cheek.

His sister, who witnessed the changes in his countenance, smiled sympathetically, as she snuggled more comfortably against Alex. Georgiana finally felt that she could understand, she could read, even partly, her brother. They had spent an afternoon together that brought them even closer, talking about anything and nothing. Important facts that had changed their lives and trifling things that they had not deemed important to share before. She told him of her fears about the past and dreams for the future. She had heard his reassurances, she had let him soothe her anxieties and she had soothed his. They talked about their childhood and their parents, gathering memories, putting them together, trying to reconstruct the puzzle that made up their past, their existence. He told her whatever he could remember; she told him what she had felt. William told her of his plans for Pemberley, about his determination to make their mother’s vision come true. They had even talked about Wickham and Younge. They were not taboos anymore. Above everything, they had talked of Elizabeth and Alex, the people they both knew would be their companions for the rest of their lives. And in the end, they promised each other to be happy.

When William gave his sister the goodbye kiss, he tried to convey all the affection and gratitude that welled up in his heart. She understood him, and stayed in his tight embrace for long minutes. When the time to leave came, she tenderly kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear, “It is time to return to mom’s home, Will. With her. Take Elizabeth to Derbyshire.”

He nodded, her meaning slowly registering to him as he patted Richard on the back, shook hands with Alex and embraced Monika, much to her dismay, thanking her once more. He watched everyone go, still accompanied by the echo of his sister’s words. When everyone disappeared from his sight, he turned to leave.

All the way back to his office, Georgiana’s words played again and again in his mind.

“It is time to return… to Derbyshire.”

******

Elizabeth sighed heavily. The cover page did not work. They had tried it again and again and still it did not look good. She stood up and paced up and down her office. She was exhausted. The last two weeks after the press conference had brought such an amount of work that she would have collapsed under the many responsibilities if it had not been for Will. Although he had even more pressing duties than she did, he always tried to spend as much time with her as possible, making her feel relaxed and refreshed. Even when he was not able to be near her, he would call or send a message in one way or another. She was always aware of his warm presence, protecting her but also giving her freedom. Suddenly, the need to hear his voice became too urgent and she reached for the phone without further thought. Before dialing his number however, there was a knock at the door and Charles appeared.

He seemed in a good mood, and Elizabeth did her best to hide her astonishment at his visit. As her momentary confusion deprived her of any ability to greet and talk to him, Charles spoke first, stating the obvious.

“I bet you’re surprised to see me here.”

“Yes, but pleasantly surprised. I hope no problems have arisen in the office… or elsewhere.” It was evident whom she was thinking of.

“No, no. Everything is fine at work…and with Jane. I took your threat that you would kill me if I make her unhappy quite seriously,” he said slyly. Elizabeth chuckled, satisfied with their understanding.

“It was the least I could do for her. She’s given Will a similar warning, as you know.”

“Yes, he’s told me. And he looked quite affected by it. But I don’t blame him after what happened last Christmas.” They both laughed. Charles continued, “I was passing by, returning from hospital, and thought I’d come and talk to you about something.”

“Oh, that,” Elizabeth said weakly and fixed her eyes on the floor. “Is Caroline any better?”

“Well, improved, yes, but her skin is… I had no idea urticaria is such a nasty thing.”

She nodded her head pensively. After a short pause, and still not lifting her eyes to meet his, she asked, “Didn’t she know that she was allergic to strawberries?”

“She never had any. Hated them. But she bought them for Will – to… to reconcile with him, since she was harsh on him after the press conference. And when she saw the two of you together…”

“Yeah, I opened the door, I remember.” Elizabeth sighed at the recollection of that night. She was staying over at William’s house. They were sitting by the fireplace… Alright, not exactly. They had been making love by the fireplace when the doorbell rang. William suggested – or rather groaned that they should not open it, but the ringing persisted, and it was quite late in the night. Elizabeth feared that something bad had occurred, so, much to their chagrin, they were forced to abandon their occupation and see who their visitor was. They tried to look as dignified as possible, but it was completely impossible to recover all their clothing in such a short time. William’s shirt especially was nowhere to be found, so, Elizabeth, wearing her T-shirt and jeans, flushed and with tangled hair went to open the door. She was very surprised to see Caroline greeting her, wearing a super-mini dress with a very low neckline. After the shrew’s declarations that she would give up on Will, as she considered him a ruined man, Elizabeth had hoped they had gotten rid of her. Obviously, Charles’ sister had decided that since the press had not only forgiven the Darcys but also fallen in love with William, she could very well resume her plans for him.

The moment the two women looked at each other, their smiles faded and they both grew pale. Caroline noticed Elizabeth’s state at the same time that Elizabeth realized that the basket Caroline held contained strawberries and a bottle of champagne. They stood mute, staring at each other. William, still without shirt and worried about the weird silence, decided to go and see for himself what was the matter.

Seeing William semi-dressed, for the first and last time in her life, was quite a shock for Caroline Bingley. Not because of his gorgeous body, however, but from the conviction that he was lost to her forever. The William Darcy that she knew and had schemed so much about, would never, never let a random girlfriend open the door of his house – and he would never join her without even trying to hide their… activities. Caroline Bingley had been blind, but even her blindness had limits. Devastated that her well-laid plans had gone to pieces, she ran away before her hatred would lead her to attack Elizabeth.

Upon returning home, in an inexplicable mania to hurt herself, she ate all the hated strawberries and drank half the bottle of champagne. As a result, Charles received a call at 4 a.m. from his sister, who, amidst her curses against the Bennet bitch, asked him to come and take her to the hospital immediately.

Charles and Elizabeth didn’t speak for a while, as images of that night flashed in their minds. In the end, she took a deep breath.

“Look, Charles, I am sorry for everything, but…”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Elizabeth. I am sorrier than you know—my sister has embarrassed me more than I can tell you. I am only happy that you are still speaking to me after all this mess.”

“You had nothing to do with all this. She is your sister – and we’ll find a way to bear each other’s presence, I promise. And I am really, really sorry for what happened to her. I hated to be the cause of such self-destructive behavior.”

“Let’s say no more about this, shall we?” Charles offered graciously. “It’s a painful subject, but it doesn’t affect our relationship, does it?”

She smiled her approval of his words and he continued, more hesitantly this time. “Besides, there is something I wanted to talk to you about.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Other than Caroline?”

“Yeah, it’s about Jane.” She thought he sounded guilty.

“But you said that everything is alright.”

“It is. More than alright. It’s perfect.”

“I don’t understand then.” Actually, she started having her suspicions, but it was much more interesting extricating a confession from him.

“Look, Elizabeth.” He paused. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Of course.”

“You and Will seem really happy, and in love. This is why I expect you to understand me. Don’t you feel that he is the ‘one,’ the person that is made for you, that you will love forever no matter what, that you want to be with all the time and whose smile makes you want to smile too?” He asked dreamily.

“Yes, actually that description is very close to my feelings.”

“Good. And don’t you feel certain about you? Don’t you simply know that it is not passing but it will last – because it is wholly different and stronger than you’ve ever felt before?”

“Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.” Elizabeth tried her best not to grin too openly.

“Good. Then you understand me. This is how I feel about Jane.”

“I am happy for you, Charles.” Her quiet reassurance conveyed much emotion that was struggling not to become too evident.

“Thank you,” he answered warmly. They remained silent for a while and then he continued.

“This weekend, we’ll go to Scotland.” His look changed to one of determination.

“Jane told me. We’re leaving for the weekend as well. We’re going to Derbyshire… to Pemberley.”

“Yes, I know,” Charles said quickly, initially wishing to move to the purpose of his visit as soon as possible. But then, changing his mind, as his affection for William prevailed, he felt the urge to tell Elizabeth more about Pemberley. To prepare her… to be certain that she was ready for this. That both she and William could make another step forward. He loved them both too dearly to risk seeing anyone hurt. “It was Anne Darcy’s paradise. Will has never been there since she left them. Nor his father, even though the house belonged to his family for generations – the whole corporation is named after it. Only Georgiana visits occasionally. It’s a big step for him, Elizabeth. All kidding aside, you take good care of my friend, ok?”

She nodded, unable to say anything. She could not explain to Charles how important she considered her upcoming visit to Pemberley – nor could she express her gratitude to him for his loyalty and friendship to Will. Even if she had not come to like him as much as she now did, she would have always held affection for him, just because he cared so much for William. Charles smiled and added, “I will propose to Jane this weekend.”

Elizabeth was not sure if she should show surprise or say that she expected something of the kind, so she decided to remain silent. There was no danger of misunderstanding; Charles could read how pleased she was in the glowing smile of her eyes. “I know we haven’t known each other for long,” he continued, “and we have been happy together for even less time, but it feels right. I feel ready – and I think she is ready as well, to create a family together. To be joined, forever. I will take her to my secret refuge, to the place where I first told her how I felt about her, kneel and beg her to become my wife.”

Elizabeth resorted to teasing, trying to shake off the gravity of the discussion. “I don’t suppose you came here to ask for my blessing.”

“Well, since your father returned to Milos…”

She looked at him incredulously and he burst out laughing. “No, I want to go ring shopping with you.”

She grinned. “We must ask the big boss.”

“The big boss had better consent, because if I turn Jane against him, nothing will save him.”

“You and Will have many things in common,” Elizabeth said. “This wicked sense of humor for example, that you both hide so well… Poor Jane…” she said dramatically, but she could hardly keep her countenance when she added, “Poor me…” And she dialed Will’s number, happy that she would hear his voice at last.

******

The big boss did consent, so, Charles and Elizabeth went shopping. But their tastes seemed to be disturbingly different. Charles wanted a ring for a queen and Elizabeth dreamed of a ring for a fairy. But even though they obviously had not the same thing in mind, they could agree on turning down various pieces as they simply were not good enough for their darling Jane.

Elizabeth could not help traveling back to the day William had proposed. The whole night just seemed…wrong, but one object was perfect: the engagement ring. She could recall every detail, platinum and stone binding to perfection, strength and tenderness, devotion and promise for the future. Will had chosen it for her. Will knew her. Even now, when they had walked together past every misunderstanding, that particular night could still stir a strange sort of pain and a confusing sense of regret. She tried to dismiss the question that was invading, taking possession of her whole mind, whether she should have accepted his proposal back then or not – whether she had truly lost something back then. She wasn’t afraid of losing him – and she had no fears regarding their future together. However, she was terrified of having killed even the tiniest part of him – the part that had chosen that ring. Because that part was beautiful. A sigh escaped her and she feared that she would cry. She tried to command herself – to move away from her selfish thoughts and focus on Jane. She was there for Jane. Jane’s ring. And it had to be perfect, just like the one that had nearly become hers.

After three hours of close examination, debates on the symbolism of an engagement ring and hidden sighs of the ladies that helped them, Elizabeth and Charles began talking of continuing their quest on another day. As exhausting as such a prospect sounded, they agreed they hadn’t enough strength to go on. However, at that crucial moment, as their gazes wandered for one last search, two simultaneous cries were heard. “This is it!” And it was true; they had found the ring for the queen of fairies. Elizabeth smiled at how a piece of jewelry was designed as if it had always belonged to Jane. Then she laughed at herself, trying not to dive into that sea of emotion and doubt again… It was hard, but the image of Charles, in blissful excitement and happiness was of great help.

He treated her to coffee and a long talk. Elizabeth could not be more certain that Charles could not even compare to Jason, and she felt ashamed of ever having considered them both just as bad. She knew that her sister would be taken care of and be happy, with a man that she had come to love deeply despite misgivings, doubts and resolutions to forget him. Charles Bingley was indeed Jane’s match, no matter how many factors had intervened to prevent everyone from realizing it.

Later that night, she was talking to William about her day… But she was nervous, as she could not open herself completely, she could not talk of what had really troubled her; she could not ask him for reassurance this time. Lost in thought, she made many pauses while she talked, and sometimes she hardly made any sense at all, as she began a phrase and stopped in the middle of it. Especially when it came to describing Jane’s ring, she lost the ability to speak, and instantly changed the subject, expressing her delight in Charles’ plans and her confidence in his success. William would have normally considered all of this very strange and he would have probably been worried. But the truth was that he was not himself either and he could not read her as well as he usually did. Words were strained and awkward for both on that night, so they let their bodies offer each other the reassurance they both desperately needed. If his loving was more urgent, betraying more desperate desire, she didn’t wonder why—she just clung to him, showing him what he was to her. She fell asleep in his arms, against the beating of his heart but she didn’t realize that sleep evaded him. And she didn’t hear him leaving the bed, going to his desk, unlocking a drawer and taking a velvet box out of it. “Pemberley,” he whispered as he gazed at the contents of the box. “At Pemberley.”

******

Elizabeth first saw Pemberley under the light of the moon. It seemed as if William had delayed their departure from London on purpose, so that she could experience an almost mystifying first of view of it; like the one it had created in the heart of a twelve-year-old boy who had never returned to his mother’s home so as to never be reminded how happy and loved he felt there.

She got out of the car and remained still, fixed. Her right hand rose and she caressed the air, as if she was touching a glass surface that was separating her from it. William gave her time and space to take in the sight. Lights and shades were playing mystifying games before them and his gaze was lost in the paths that began from the spot they were standing and disappeared behind the trees, in the dark. Elizabeth’s eyes could not move from the lake; a dark seductress with silver traces. It seemed as if it breathed, slowly, inaudibly, in an ancient, imposing dignity, as if it covered the secrets of centuries in its silence. Elizabeth felt as if she was bound by a spell there. Trying to find a shelter in some sort of rational thought, she meditated on the size and proportions of her surroundings. But that only increased the beating of her heart. Everything seemed vast there, beyond human measure and understanding.

To call this place home was not easy. It was as difficult as accepting the dark shadows of one’s soul. A wave of tenderness for William invaded her and she stepped, unsteadily at first, towards him. Her fingers lightly caressed his hair – a sign that she was there for him—that she would be with him for all their journeys of the future. Like this long and painful road home. The road towards understanding what Pemberley meant to all the people that had lived and breathed there, to his mother, and what it now meant to him. Unhurriedly, he reached for her hand and brought it to his lips for a feather kiss, his eyes not leaving hers. Their gaze was firm, fixed, and intense, asking for an answer. He had to understand what Pemberley meant to her.

She stood solemn, her eyes locked with his for long moments. She saw what his silent question was, but she could not speak. Not just yet.

Her eyes finally wandered to the house again and she softly pulled her hand away from his. Alone, she walked a few steps, while he watched her from behind. She took a deep breath of the cold air – it seemed to be giving her life, filling her lungs, sending the blood pumping all over her body. The song of a single bird reached her. It had a hint of sadness and hope at the same time. Elizabeth waited until the song became fainter and fainter until it stopped. Then she turned to look at William again. She was smiling.

“I love it,” she said simply, “because it is you.

He opened his arms to her, so that her body would press against his heart, feeling its every beating. His hand did not leave the small of her back when they entered the house, nor when he introduced her to the housekeeper. They were forced to part only momentarily, when a teary Mrs. Reynolds grabbed her darling little boy and held him in a close embrace.

Tears, smiles and mixed words, cut phrases, little sobs and sighs, but most of all, radiant smiles made a series of small tokens of happiness. It was a homecoming, the sense of a duty fulfilled, of a circle finally being closed, longing and contentment. Mrs. Reynolds’ effusions warmed the place and their hearts. William’s eyes were more eloquent than his mouth, and Elizabeth was trying to allow him some time alone with the housekeeper, but failed miserably in her attempt to stand back a little. She needed his touch as much as he needed hers. He wouldn’t let her stir from his side and she was grateful for that.

They ate little and spoke even less. There were so many stories lingering in every room of the huge house. Real stories that had taken place within its walls or fictional, exaggerated or never fully explained ones. There were recountings of great loves and great disappointments; narrations about the naughtiness of children and the adventurous nature of adults… The house seemed to be full in its silence; full of life and myths. Myths that wanted to be woven again in the memories and the fancy of the present master; tales that waited to be retold to the woman who had captured his heart so completely. But that all had to wait for the morning.

About midnight, William led her to the master’s suite. With their hands entwined and their eyes locked, they passed the threshold. No one had been there for years, and the silence was almost unbearable. They didn’t turn on the lights; the embers of the fireplace, a series of candles and the moon washed them in their warmth instead. Elizabeth, pulling her hand away softly, and dismissing the mad sense of loss that threatened to overwhelm her, moved to the window and stared at the blackness of the night. Blackness, contrasted with the warmth their tarnished reflections on the glass radiated. She saw William coming behind her and drawing her closer to him, as he leaned to place a soft kiss on her neck. She closed her eyes, leaning her head slightly against him. Her body remained almost still, as burning fingers started undressing her.

Her whole existence concentrated on feeling him. Seeing, hearing, nothing mattered so long as she could feel him. His touch made her look further than her eyes did. Minutes went on, as they were both lost in their journey towards the place their thoughts and dreams had built together; until the shock of naked skin pressed against naked skin, flesh against flesh, brought them back to reality. Elizabeth opened her eyes and watched her hands as if they were not her own. Then she turned to face him as her fingers possessively pulled the nape of his neck closer to her. Her lips, her tongue, her limbs, everything in her, craved his kiss. A kiss that started slow and tender, comforting like the embers that burnt a little further, but then asked for more. It demanded the entity of her. And Elizabeth gave it.

His hands slipped down her back, waist and legs. He carried her to the bed, his lips always united with hers. They didn’t speak a word. When his mouth left hers for a brief time, she opened her eyes to find his gaze, intense, almost fierce upon her, but she could meet it. She could understand the demand and the pleading in his eyes. She could give and take from it. Realization came then, beyond any doubt, that this was her home, her room, as well as it was his. She was the mistress of this place as he was the master. For long they had denied it; Pemberley, the past, the history of his family, their own love. But now it was before them – everything was before them, demanding its eminent role in the life they would begin together, reconciled with the past, and sincere with their hearts.

A primitive need, an instinct to make love, at that moment, on that bed, to affirm their fate took possession of her mind, driving her beyond the limits, overcoming every other thought or consideration. He must have felt the same, for he obeyed her wishes before she could voice them. A game of lights and shadows, of whispers and breaths, as he moved deeper, taking her body and her soul higher, to meet his. Little drops of perspiration, fingertips all over their bodies – the fine marks on the map of their love, their lovemaking, as it became more exigent, more urgent. Cries, pleadings to never leave her, to never leave him mixed with their groans and sighs. Tears mingled with sweat as they held each other desperately, as tightly as their shaking bodies would allow.

******

William woke up to find his arms empty. With the fire still burning, he could see that Elizabeth was nowhere in the room. Moonlight was shining as he got up and put on his clothes to go to her. His movements were unhurried, but certain, as if an inner voice guided him unmistakably. It felt strange, weird, but he knew where she was, beyond any doubt. He went down the stairs quietly and exited the house. His eyes were focused on the lake and the silver reflection of the moon, as he walked his way there. He didn’t try to spot her in the darkness, but his whole mind was full of her. His fingers played with the object he had in his pocket, caressing it softly, feeling the bond between metal and stone, envisioning it once again adorning her hands. After so long a time, it was not a cause for distress anymore. It was a source of hope.

He had been playing the scene that was about to come a million times in his mind, thinking and agonizing about the words he was about to use, fearing that he would do something wrong again, or that he would simply be proven incapable of expressing what was really in his heart. He had spent so much time wondering how he would distinguish the right moment, and imagining everything that could go wrong. He had lived in doubt, but now he was amazed as he experienced an astonishing amount of clarity of spirit and certainty about his actions. He was going to open his soul, exactly as it was, to Elizabeth—and she was going to decide their fate.

A series of trees was all that was separating them now; ‘the final obstacle for them,’ he thought. He stood still, spying for a few moments her half-hidden figure, as she paced slowly along the bank. Then, his need to be near her became so overwhelming that he couldn’t wait any longer. He called her name before he started walking again, lest he would frighten her.

Elizabeth stopped pacing at once, and turned to look for the source of the voice. Their eyes met, and no more words were said, as he closed the distance between them, and stood just before her.

“I woke up and you were not there.”

“I’m sorry, Will. I just needed…”

“I know, Liz,” he said softly. “I was not worried.” He saw that she was about to make some sort of apology, so he spoke before she had the opportunity. “Nor was I sad, because I knew you were not far away. And that you needed to be here, alone.” He smiled. “I’m just beginning to understand you, Elizabeth, and the more I learn about you, the more precious you become to me. Are you ready to listen to me, my love?” His index finger caressed her face.

“I am,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.

“I love you. With everything that exists within me. I never feel lonely because you are always in my thoughts, always in my heart, always in my soul. We are beyond words or logic, Elizabeth. You are a gift that I have no idea what I did to deserve, but that I can never be grateful enough for. Even if I spend the rest of my life telling you what you mean to me, I won’t express even the tiniest portion of it.” He stopped and leaned over her to speak softly in her ear. “You are everything to me.”

Her heart raced, and she wished he would never stop talking. His voice caressed her whole existence, warmed her to her very core; his words were making love to her body and her soul. She felt completely exposed and completely safe. As she lifted her hands and encircled his back, pulling him closer, she whispered to him.

“I love you, Will. You are my life. My whole life.”

He broke the embrace and took both her hands in his. He smiled faintly, but his face retained a serious look. His dark eyes held hers, allowing her to witness the myriad shades of feelings in them as he said: “Marry me, Elizabeth.”

His heart was beating so fast that he feared he could not bear it. A single tear appeared on her face, as their eyes were still locked. With his thumb, he swept the dampened cheek. They could both sense each other’s blood throbbing where they touched. Elizabeth’s lips formed a little smile that spread, slowly, in her eyes, her cheeks, her whole face, her whole body. A smile that spread to his own face too, as he heard her answer.

“Yes. Yes, I will marry you, William. With you—forever.”

“Forever,” he repeated as he tasted her lips, the mouth that had made him so happy many times and had now given him a new life. A life with her, forever. His touch was gentle and his kiss tender, as if he was afraid she was a precious vision that would vanish. But her touch was solid and her hands grazing his neck persuaded him that she was real; real and his. Breaking their kiss, he reached into his pocket and pulled the velvet box out of it.

“Elizabeth, I…” he stopped, afraid to add even the tiniest shade at that moment of perfect happiness. She waited for him to continue and the look in her eyes told him there were no shades capable of affecting them. With a steady, yet tender voice, he continued. “I know this ring is associated with painful moments, and our beginning should be marked with something new. But, back then, when I bought this, I knew it belonged to you. I have hurt you, and insulted you, but I loved you, Liz. So much that I became afraid and blinded. This ring is you. Do not accept it as an engagement ring if it saddens you, but I wanted you to have it.”

Elizabeth almost forgot to breathe for a moment, as she recalled her previous thoughts. For a moment, she considered it impossible to have her every wish come true. She wanted to cry with joy that she was so generously given a second chance; that despite making so many mistakes, she had not lost even a bit of this love that was so precious. That William loved her in all the ways he used to – and in new ways they invented every day together. She wanted to remind him that she had made mistakes, awful mistakes as well – that she had hurt him and insulted him too and that this ring was not only a token of love, but a token of forgiveness. A compass that kept on telling them that they belonged to each other, when they had lost their way. But she only said,

“No, Will, this is you and me. This is us.” Her fingers grazed it. “This is our engagement ring.”

A look of realization spread over his face, as he understood everything that was left unsaid. He passed the ring onto her finger and then kissed her hand tenderly, but with a flavor of passion. Every moment that passed was intensifying his conviction that this was real, not a mere dream, and happiness spread over him from the realization. Fingers still entwined, she leaned in to kiss him again. The burning mark on his lips slowly built a smoldering desire in his heart. She mouthed a silent “I love you” and all rational thoughts abandoned them both.

******

Elizabeth opened her eyes to see a group of birds passing over the lake, quickly flying over the horizon. Her eyes traveled along the sky, awash in the colors of the early dawn. She relished the tranquility, the peace of the moment and the beauty of her surroundings. The lake seemed different now; not losing its charming aura, and still inspiring awe by its vastness, but also becoming more transparent, more welcoming. Ready to make the most of the sunshine of the day and of their hearts. Her eyes moved to the man who was holding her tightly in his embrace. She was not surprised to find him awake and looking at her. Her lips brushed against his, just as he was uttering a soft “good morning.”

“It only becomes more and more beautiful, Will.” Elizabeth was not referring only to the landscape.

His only response was a series of kisses that covered her face and hair. They lay there, embraced, whispering to each other, re-living the bliss of the previous night, admiring the ring that had found its destination and was now uniting them for eternity. Many minutes later, he pulled his head slightly back, so he could look at her.

“How was your first night as an engaged woman?”

“As wonderful as my fiancÚ is.” She answered, leaning in to taste him one more time. “So, how are you, my very own fiancÚ?”

“It’s a relief to see that you finally became possessive, Liz.” They both chuckled.

“Oh, I have always been. I was just trying to hide it until you had committed yourself.”

“A very good plan,” he murmured as his lips assaulted her irresistible neck. “You had great success. You have me completely spellbound, and unable to think of you as less than perfection itself.”

“Mmmmmmm… What I would define as perfection, Will, is what your mouth is doing to me right now…”

He drew slightly back and feigned a look of disappointment. “What about what my whole body did to yours last night?”

Elizabeth laughed softly, as she answered, “Yes, it seems perfection has many forms.”

“Exactly my point,” he said as his lips captured hers again.

Some time later, as she nestled her head on his shoulder, she heard him let out a chuckle. She looked at him with inquisitive eyes.

“It’s funny…” he said. “This piece of music just pops into my mind… I have been thinking of it all night.”

He had picked up her curiosity. “What piece?”

His mellow voice, wonderful even at such an early hour, sang in a low tone into her ear,

 

“Moonlight, turn your face to the moonlight

Let the memory lead you, open up, enter in

If you find there the meaning of what happiness is

Then a new life will begin”**

 

Elizabeth wrapped her arms around him, feeling certain that the memory of the previous night was one of the treasures she would keep and value most for the rest of her life. Moving her hand so she could caress his cheeks and looking deeply into his eyes, she asked softly, “Have you found the meaning of what happiness is?”

His hands moved to graze her cheeks, and he pressed his whole body against hers, simply to relish her touch.

“I am just beginning to, Elizabeth.”

******

 

*ITHACA, by Konstantinos Kavafis. Ithaca was Odyssey’s homeland, where he managed to return after ten years of adventures in the seas after the campaign in Troy. Kavafis (1863-1933) frequently used ancient themes as symbols in his poems. You can find the whole poem (translated) here: http://cavafis.compupress.gr/kave_17.htm

**From the musical “The Cats”

Note: If you want to understand exactly how Caroline was punished, you can have a look here: http://www.siamhealth.net/Health/picture/Urticaria.jpg … But I must warn you – urticaria is not nice!

 

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