Fitzwilliam Darcy paced his room at Rosings restlessly. The last couple of days had been tormenting indeed. After his disastrous proposal to Miss Bennet at the Hunsford Parsonage the day before last, he had wanted nothing more than to quit Rosings for London and put Miss Elizabeth Bennet out of his mind for good.

Damn his Aunt! He felt sure her insistence that he remain at Rosings to consult with her and Rosing's lawyers was orchestrated merely in an attempt to prolong his attendance on his cousin, Anne.

Each year when he visited his aunt the subject of his engagement to Anne would arise - again. He could not countenance Lady Catherine's assertion that his mother and she had betrothed the toddler Fitzwilliam to his cousin at the time of Anne's birth. The thought that his mother, God rest her soul, would arrange his engagement in his infancy was ludicrous. His parents had married for love, and he felt quite sure she would have intended the same for him. The love of his parents had been so profound, that after his mother's untimely passing, his father had simply pined away - utterly bereft - until he made his departure from this world.

There was no contradicting his aunt though - the woman simply would not be dissuaded. Anne was no doubt a sweet girl - although she said so little and spent so much time in her room indisposed, it was somewhat difficult to tell - but he certainly had no intention of marrying her!

No, he thought firmly, I will marry for love or I will not marry at all. He had said as much to his cousin, Richard, who chided him for holding such romantic notions. Darcy preferred to think it 'honest' rather than 'romantic'. The mode of society to marry for position and influence filled him with disgust. And the predilection of some gentlemen of his class to take mistresses was appalling.

Surely if they married the right woman in the first instance there would be no need, he thought. I would rather remain a bachelor than be confined to a loveless match, devoid of mutual respect and the most ardent affection.

At this, his thoughts wandered, once again filled with a pair of sparkling, laughing eyes in a beautiful face framed by rich chocolate curls. Elizabeth. More and more these days, he would conjure up her image in his mind. He longed to caress her face, whilst the memory of her laughter would tinkle like the sweetest music through his mind. But her laughter and beauty would lighten him no more …

He burned with humiliation on remembrance of his proposal and Elizabeth's unequivocal refusal …

"You are mistaken, Mr Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner."

He recoiled from the memory of her words, still vivid in his mind.

"You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it."

Her words had cut through him as sharply as a finely honed blade. He had never, until that moment, realized just how devastating an emotion love could be.

"… your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings for others …"

"…I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."

He paced his room like a caged animal, running his fingers through his hair in utter frustration. You, Darcy, have been a fool, he thought to himself for the umpteenth time. The woman has refused you, for heavens sake - let it go! But how, he thought, could I have been so horribly mistaken?

Certainly they had talked little, but their conversations had been lively even if somewhat awkward. Reflecting back to their exchanges when she had stayed with her sister Jane at Netherfield, he smiled briefly at the memory of her impertinent, but clever rejoinders to him in company. There was a fire and a challenge in her eyes he found stimulating as well as engaging. So different from the women he was used to associating with - Bingley's sister, Caroline, for example. Miss Bennet had a way of singling him out in her conversation that he had interpreted as some small regard for him - enough certainly to build on, he had thought. But obviously not. The strength and ardency of his feelings for her, as well as his evident arrogance and conceit had overcome his inherent caution and blinded him to the reality of her regard.

Still, it was no wonder she refused me, he thought. I managed to insult her and her relatives so completely that it is hardly surprising she felt free to censure me so strongly.

Grabbing his coat and hat, he blindly fled the house, attempting to escape memories still too raw to cope with, and nearly knocked down his Aunt in the process. Deaf to her repeated calls to him, he strode quickly towards the sanctuary the Park offered.

Following his proposal, Darcy had seen Miss Bennet only once. Waiting in the grove for her to appear the following morning he had handed her a letter that attempted to address some of the issues she had raised during their tempestuous meeting. Whilst he had carefully considered her accusations, there was one point on which he knew he could defend himself - Wickham! That man was like a constant burr in his side - he somehow managed to infect and threaten every area of his life. Damn him!

He had anticipated leaving directly for London after delivery of the letter - indeed he would have preferred it, if not for his Aunt. So, being unsure as to how the letter was received and anxious to avoid putting either of them in a situation where they would be obliged to respond, he decided to walk a different path, away from the area of the Park in which he knew Miss Bennet had indicated a preference. And she would definitely be walking - he knew enough of her habits to know that the ground being a little damp underfoot would be no impediment to her desire for the outdoors.

Lizzy had awoken that same morning with a compelling need to taste the freedom of walking in the Park. After the interminable rain of the previous day, she had endured quite enough of the company of Mr Collins; despite the fact that he was her cousin, he really was the most odious man. Regardless, she really needed space and time to clear her head - the revelations enclosed in Mr Darcy's letter had given her much to think on, and the rain had given her ample leisure to do so.

Charlotte, recognising the determined look on her friend's face as she came down the stairs, smiled to herself.

"Would you like some breakfast, Lizzy?" asked Charlotte.

"No, thank you. I think I shall go for a walk instead. I have spent too long cooped up indoors. Some fresh air will do me the world of good."

The only sounds coming from the direction of Mr Collins were indistinguishable grunts, but a quick glance at his plate confirmed why. It was as full with breakfast foods as his mouth. How he managed to regularly consume such huge amounts of food in one sitting and was still able to walk never ceased to amaze Lizzy. My single consolation, she thought dryly, is that his mouth is too full to insist I stay. Anxious to leave, she muttered her apologies to Charlotte and Mr Collins and hastened through the front door. Deciding on a different path from the familiar one she usually travelled, she set off at a brisk pace, thinking all the while.

Mr Darcy's unexpected proposal and then the contents of his letter had forced her to seriously reconsider her opinion of the man. Although still smarting over the mode of his declaration, she wondered, after reading his missive if she could have possibly misjudged him. All her previous dealings with him had only served to strengthen her initial, unfavourable opinion of him. His comments in her presence still rankled.

"Insufferable man!" she thought.

Still she did not understand the confusion of her feelings towards him. Try as she would to ignore him, she could not. It was undeniable that he caused extremes of all types in her emotions, and it was from this acknowledgement that her confusion stemmed. "Why am I so ambivalent? And why," she wondered, "can I not just forget him?"

On the matter of Mr Wickham, she acknowledged that she had been most seriously misled. Whatever ill thoughts she may have had of Mr Darcy, she believed yet that he was not the sort of man who would attempt to right himself at the cost of besmirching his sister's name unless it was the truth. And Mr Wickham's dealings with that young lady were utterly reprehensible - he was a fortune hunter of the worst kind - praying on and playing on the feelings of an innocent young woman for the purpose of separating her from her inheritance under the guise of matrimony - and particularly on one for whom he had professed a sisterly love. That Mr Darcy trusted her with this knowledge had disposed her to feel more understanding towards him. He was a proud man; she knew what the declaration must have cost him. She shivered with disgust to think that she had been flattered by Mr Wickham's addresses.

On the subject of dear Jane and Mr Bingley and his earlier efforts to separate them, she was surprised that Mr Darcy had seriously considered her objections to his interference. Due to her disclosure of Jane's affections he had also sent a missive to Mr Bingley notifying him of Jane's presence in London. The rest, as he said, was up to them.

In spite of the way their last meeting had concluded, but in light of the new information she now possessed, she would have liked to speak with him but she had learned through Charlotte that he was gone to London with Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Still, she was grateful for this private moment. Breathing deeply, she inhaled the sweet scent of the rain-freshened earth and marveled at how green and clean everything looked after yesterday's downpour. That her boots were becoming quite muddied mattered not a jot. It was a small price to pay to enjoy the freedom the Park represented.

Darcy, realizing that he had reached the boundary of the estate, decided to turn back. Head down, lost in thought, he failed to notice the similarly occupied person approaching from the opposite direction. A crunch of twigs underfoot alerted each to the presence of the other.

"Miss Bennet!"

"Mr Darcy!"

Darcy was taken aback. That the focus of his musings should appear in front of him at that precise moment seemed an improbably ironic twist of fate.

"Please excuse me, Miss Bennet. I am afraid my mind was on other things and I was unaware of your presence. I beg your pardon."

In an effort to spare them both discomfort, Darcy tilted his hat and bowed, making to leave as expeditiously as possible. As Lizzy overcame her initial surprise and remembered herself, she called out …

"Please, Mr Darcy. Stop. I wish to speak with you, if I may." She wondered briefly why he was not in London. Sensing he still wanted to make good his escape from her presence, she said the one thing she knew would halt his progress. "I read your letter, Sir, many times."

Darcy pulled up abruptly. "Please madam, you need say nothing more," he said, turning to face her. "I understand your feelings perfectly. You were quite right in your opinions of me. Indeed, I have acted in a most ungentlemanlike manner, and can hardly think on my recent performance in your company without abhorrence."

"No, Mr Darcy, you do not understand - whilst I have been most free in telling you of your faults and deficiencies, your letter has forced me to contemplate a few failings which must be laid at my own door.

"But Miss Bennet, I assure you, that was not my intention…"

"I am aware of that, sir. However it would not be very fair, would it, if you were left to think I am a creature without fault when I have listed your failings so completely. None of us is perfect. I do, however, pride myself on being a keen observer of the human condition, and it would seem I have allowed myself to be most easily misled. I have been entirely too quick to form opinions on people of my acquaintance." The meaning of her last statement hung heavily between them. "The lesson I have learned from this has been a difficult one, but also, I believe, a necessary one."

Darcy looked on thoughtfully, unsure of her direction.

"We need to talk, Mr Darcy. I can think of no better time than now."

Curious, Darcy nodded. They resumed walking, this time as companions, albeit uneasy ones. To Darcy's relief, Elizabeth took the initiative and attempted to explain the reflections his letter had induced in her.

"I will not deny that I was extremely angry with you and that my initial reaction was to disbelieve everything you had to relate. However your recounting of Mr Wickham's dealings with your family, and specifically your sister, finally made me open my eyes. I am mortified that I have been so easily deceived into forming a favourable opinion of that … man, while making little effort to fully illustrate his character. I believed his lies with regards to yourself easily enough as they fitted the disposition I had assigned to you. This vexes me greatly. I am appalled with my behaviour."

"However, I understand and respect your reasons for your not unmasking him, Mr Darcy. Indeed I am surprised that you feel confident enough of me to entrust me with such delicate information. You may be assured of my utmost discretion regarding this matter."

"Thank you, madam. Believe me, he is a dangerous fellow, but is a master at presenting a pleasing persona to those of his acquaintance. He has ease around strangers, you see, that I do not possess and he uses it very well to his advantage. I understand that all of Meryton regards him as an agreeable gentleman, when in fact he is nothing of the sort and abuses that title most ill."

The conversation lapsed momentarily, as Lizzy pondered how to ask the question most on her mind. "You mentioned that you had also written to Mr Bingley," she said. "I must wonder why, if you perceived myself and my relatives to be such an unsuitable alliance, you changed your mind and would now potentially inflict a similar fate on your friend?"

"Love knows no reason, …" he said quietly, almost to himself. But then in a clearer voice added, "You made me realise, Miss Bennet, that it was not my place to approve or disapprove of Bingley's choice. Indeed, I would not have tolerated such interference myself," said Darcy, glancing sideways and looking at her intently.

She nodded. This willingness to concede another's opinion was a new aspect to Mr Darcy she had hitherto been unaware of, and had been instrumental in her change of regard for him.

They walked for some time in this fashion, talking quietly, each attempting, finally, to understand the other. Certainly, it was the longest period they had spent in each other's company without sharp words coming between them. As they ambled along, an acute awareness of Elizabeth's nearness threatened to overwhelm Darcy. The soft scent of lavender intoxicated his senses so that thoughts of holding her in his arms were never far from his mind.

Lizzy too, was unsettled. She was acutely of Darcy's closeness - the heat from their bodies mingled as they rambled along the path. Due to the soggy condition of the lane, Darcy was obliged to take her gloved hand frequently to assist her, though he always retained her hand a little longer than was necessary or proper. As she looked up to utter her thanks, she momentarily caught an unguarded expression in his eyes - an expression of such longing as to make her pulse race.

Distracted by the look in Mr Darcy's eyes and the unfamiliar feelings she was experiencing, Lizzy failed to notice the patch of moss, made wet and slippery by yesterday's rain, lying in her path. Too late! With a terrible lurch, Lizzy slipped and twisted on the wet ground, coming down with a thump.

Mr Darcy was at her side in an instant.

"Miss Bennet! Are you hurt? Can you stand?"

Lizzy attempted to stand, but collapsed with a stifled scream.

"Please," Darcy asked quietly, "let me look at your ankle."

Lizzy blushed a deep scarlet as he lifted her foot, gently removed her boot, and with the utmost care attempted to ascertain the damage. His tender touch could not fail to notice the swelling and bruising already appearing. His suspicions were confirmed.

"I am afraid you have twisted your ankle. You cannot possibly walk on it."

"But how am I to return to Hunsford?"

"If you will allow me, Miss Bennet, I will carry you. Please be reasonable - you must know you are in no condition to walk."

"But it would not be proper, Mr Darcy, for me to arrive at The Parsonage in your arms!" She stopped abruptly, realising what she had said. "I mean, that I would … err, you would …"

"I understand what you wished to say, Miss Bennet." Darcy smiled at her faux pas. "But I cannot leave you here alone and incapacitated for the amount of time it would take me to fetch help and return." Darcy stood firm and waited.

Aware of her dilemma, but seeing no other solution for it apart from Mr Darcy's kind offer, she reluctantly consented. "As you wish, Mr Darcy. I am sorry for putting you to this inconvenience."

Inconvenience? thought Darcy. In no way would I call this an inconvenience, he smiled to himself. And he bent to easily lift Miss Bennet into his arms.

Both parties made halting attempts at conversation in an effort to avoid the nervousness that the nearness of the other was having. Darcy was having trouble concentrating on where they were going - so many nights he had lain awake wishing Elizabeth were in his arms, envisioning himself carrying her up the staircase at Pemberley to the bedroom they shared … now the scent and the feel of her so close were almost more than he could bear.

"It would appear I can add clumsiness to my other failings," she said impulsively, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Darcy actually laughed, easing the tension, and for Lizzy it was as if the sun had come out on a dark, dreary day. As she had never actually seen Mr Darcy laugh, she was surprised at the change to his normally sober visage. She realized for the first time what a devastatingly handsome man he was.

"I would not have it any other way, Miss Bennet," he grinned.

With her arms around Darcy's neck, feeling safe and secure in the firmness of his hold and with little else to distract her, Lizzy inhaled his strong male scent. With the exception of her father, she had never been this close to a man before, and wondered whether this quickening of her heartbeat and breath were normal. What was happening to her? From her vantage point in his arms, she discreetly stole a glance at his profile as he walked, looking straight ahead. A proud face, she thought, dark brown eyes with surprisingly long lashes, straight nose, a hint of dimples, full lips … full lips? And at this thought, his tongue wetted his lips as she watched and inhaled sharply.

He looked at her searchingly. "Are you comfortable, Miss Bennet? I am not holding you too firmly?"

Lizzy blushed as some decidedly unladylike thoughts rushed through her head. "I am quite comfortable, thank you sir," she replied as she returned his intent gaze.

So absorbed were they in each other, they failed to notice the rain clouds gathering until the first drops started to fall. Darcy looked at the threatening thunderheads above, and, quickly looking around for cover, noticed a huge tree a reasonably short distance away which he felt would afford them some protection from the imminent downpour. As hastily as possible considering his burden, he made his way to the relative shelter of the spreading boughs. It was for naught, as the heavens opened with a loud crash and they arrived drenched, hair dripping and clothes damp. Elizabeth's situation was the more serious as she had only dressed in a light muslin frock with a thin bolero offering minimal protection from the elements. Darcy sat under the protection afforded by the tree with Elizabeth still firmly ensconced in his lap.

"Please, Mr Darcy. You may release me until the storm has abated," said Lizzy, feeling flustered now that they were no longer moving.

"I think not, Miss Bennet - you are quite soaked through and will catch your death. My coat is large enough to cover us both, I think."

And as if to demonstrate, he shrugged off his great coat and wrapped it around them both, neatly keeping her well within the circle of his arms. Patting and tucking, he fussed to make sure they were both well covered before he risked a shy glance at Elizabeth to see if she was comfortable. He was surprised to see her looking at him very attentively. Unable to read her expression, he returned her gaze, looking for signs of …of …of what? A change of heart? A softening of her regard? That would be impossible - Elizabeth disliked him. Unless … perhaps …

Lizzy, for her part, felt like she was truly seeing Mr Darcy for the first time. No longer did he seem the proud and disagreeable man of her initial acquaintance; she had been allowed a glimpse of a gentle and extremely shy man. Where had the arrogance and haughtiness gone? While the manner of his proposal still rankled somewhat, she wondered if there was perhaps some reason behind his choice of words. He didn't need a wife, and he certainly didn't need one who was so far below him from society's perspective - so why had he approached her? Did he really feel so ardently for her? As he had said, disguise of any sort was abhorrent to him.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then his eyes - bottomless deep, dark pools, were drawing her in, allowing her a view of a beleaguered soul; but there was something else … Behind the pain and remorse she saw the stirrings of an emotion she vaguely recognised as being a reflection of her own.

She felt herself being drawn inexorably towards him. Time seemed to slow and reality fade as he gently reached up to caress a few stray, damp tendrils away from her face, the touch of his hand sending shivers of pleasure down her spine. Innocently, she stayed his hand against her cheek and without thinking, softly kissed his palm.

Elizabeth's touch surprised Darcy. Intently, he searched her eyes; prepared for fear or rejection - he found none. And finding none, he was unable to stop himself. Slowly closing the gap between them, he leaned down to savor the sweetness of her lips. Gradually, breath mingling, their lips met. Tentative at first, he was surprised to feel her shy, but encouraging response - a slight pressure returned, a hand moving up his wet shirt to softly tangle in his damp, dark curls. With great tenderness he tasted her, deepening his kisses in answer to her own. An awareness of the warmth emanating from the heat of their embrace served only to ignite his thinly veiled desire for her; and intensifying his hunger with each taste, he drank in her response, unable to pull away.

Still holding her firmly to him, he interrupted his sweet torment of her mouth to gaze at her intensely - eyes heavy-lidded with passion, looking for, but not seeing, a sign from his beloved to stop - before reclaiming her lips once again. Heady with the torrent of emotions he had unleashed, her hand instinctively snaked around his neck and pulled him closer. Incapable of coherent thought, she luxuriated in and returned his need and desire - eliciting a moan from Darcy who felt powerless to pull away from the temptation, as the Lizzy in his arms fused with the Lizzy of his dreams.

Drowning in feelings he had repressed for so many months, he trailed his hand up her curves to cup the fullness of her full breast through the thin, soaked muslin of her dress. She moved restlessly in his lap arching towards his gentle caress as a whimper escaped her lips as his touch brushed her hardened nipple. With that small sound, the floodgates of reality crashed open.

"Oh my god!" said Darcy, pulling his hand away from her breast as though burned.

"Eliz …Miss Bennet!" said Darcy as reality savagely intruded into his consciousness. "What have I done? How can you ever forgive me?"

Lizzy shook her head, bewildered. As sense and comprehension returned to her she blushed madly, shocked at suddenly being made aware of just how compromising a situation she had allowed herself to get into. Lizzy went still. What have I done? What must he think of me? Behaving so. Stupid, stupid girl! Mortified with her behavior, Lizzy attempted to regain some modicum of decorum.

"Please Mr Darcy. An apology would achieve little. I am afraid I am as much to blame as you. Perhaps we should continue on our way to The Parsonage. I do not wish to detain you from your responsibilities any longer and I know Mrs Collins will be concerned knowing I have been out in this storm which has apparently passed." Embarrassed and humiliated, Lizzy retreated behind an impassive façade of cool politeness, the warmth and passion of the previous minutes snuffed out.

As an uncomfortable silence descended between them, Darcy, with a heavy heart, lifted Elizabeth into his arms once more and began the long trek back to the Parsonage.

Chapter Two