Elizabeth Bennet had been decidedly out of sorts ever since her return from Kent. None of the inhabitants of Longbourn had the perception to notice - with the possible exception of Mr Bennet who, happily ensconced in his library, was unaware that his favourite daughter was feeling and behaving less than her usual spirited self. Preferring to keep her own counsel, Lizzy felt relieved at not having to provide her family with an explanation for her moodiness.

At this point though, she had little tolerance-for her mothers 'nerves', Mary's sermonizing, and Kitty and Lydia's silliness. If only Jane were here to talk to, she thought. She wandered towards the garden, lost in contemplation. She was still acutely upset and confused over Mr Darcy and the events that had transpired in Kent prior to his removal to London and her return home.

The encounter in the Park at Rosings had an unreal quality to it now that she was home, and she was inclined to believe it so … indeed she wished it so, with the exception of the indisputable proof of the letter. Lizzy was not one given to romantic contemplation, but at rare moments in the solitude of her own company, she subconsciously surrendered to the countless memories of that day and found herself back in the warmth of his embrace. She remembered his touch, his lips as they grazed over her face and lips, her body molding into his … and then the familiar flutter in her stomach as she remembered his hand moving up to cup and fondle her breasts … What was she doing! She reefed her thoughts back into the present.Why does every thought of Mr Darcy always return to that moment? She frowned in frustration.

Lizzy's distress over that particular moment was great. Her mortification stemmed from the fact that she blamed herself for what had transpired. She knew very well the ardency of Mr Darcy's feelings - much better it would appear than she knew her own. That she had encouraged him she did not doubt - having allowed him to continue was sufficient demonstration of that. But, she realized, she had been quite powerless to stop him, and was at a loss to understand why. Oh, what must he think of her? She was not Lydia, a silly girl with more charms than brains. And Mr Darcy! She had always supposed him to be aloof and undemonstrative … why, even his proposal at Hunsford, though ardent, had been presented more in the form of a business proposition. Instead she had found him to be shy, gentle and most surprisingly, extremely passionate.

Alone with her troubled thoughts, she ambled through the garden, picking the odd bloom here and there until it was almost time for tea. She made her way back to the house, ostensibly seeking relief from her thoughts - at this point, even the conversation of her mother and younger sisters would surely provide some distraction.

"The post has come, Miss," said Hill, handing Lizzy a missive as she entered the house.

She thanked Hill, and expecting it to be a letter from Jane notifying of her departure date from London, excitedly snapped the seal on the letter as she made her way to the parlor. The missive was not from Jane however, and she emitted a short gasp as she recognized the handwriting of the sender. She possessed another letter written by the same author secreted away upstairs in her room.

"What on earth is the matter, Lizzy?" enquired Mr Bennet, coming upon her on his way through from the library to tea. "You appear quite distracted."

"Oh, it is nothing Father," she said, quickly hiding the letter in the pocket of her dress. "I am just a little out of sorts … probably the weather," Lizzy dissembled, realising the impropriety of receiving a letter from this gentleman.

She quietly sat down. She attempted to eat, but discovered, not surprisingly, that her appetite had quite disappeared, and she was having trouble applying herself to the conversation at table.

"… yes, but I need more bonnets, Papa," pleaded Lydia.

"I fail to see why, my child. You only have one head to wear them on. Surely one bonnet is enough?" asked Mr Bennet.

"But she takes all of mine, Papa, and she won't give them back!" whined Kitty.

"Yes, but they look better on me than you," snapped Lydia.

"Girls, girls," sighed Mrs Bennet. "Have some consideration for my nerves. All of this fighting is doing nothing for my digestion."

With the letter burning a hole in her pocket, Elizabeth excused herself and escaped to her room as soon as she was able pleading a headache. It was the only excuse she could think of that would allow her to remain undisturbed.

Closing the door and dropping onto the bed, she paused for a moment before she unfolded the letter and with trembling hands began to read:

Dear Miss Bennet,

I write without any intention of paining you, or humbling myself, by dwelling on wishes, which for the happiness of us both, cannot be too soon forgotten. My reasons for writing to you however, are twofold.

Firstly, please accept my deepest apologies for what occurred in the Park at Rosings. I am most seriously aggrieved by my ungentlemanly behaviour. I have no reasonable excuse to offer you for my conduct; indeed none would be satisfactory.

Secondly, I have heard from Bingley that he will be returning to the estate at Netherfield. We shall both be quitting London for Hertfordshire soon and as there will no doubt be occasions in the future where we will be forced into the same company, I write to assure you that I will not be renewing those offers made at Hunsford which were so disgusting to you.

Please accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.

Your humble servant

Fitzwilliam Darcy.

In astonishment, Lizzy let the letter drop to the floor. She sat looking dazedly out the window, trying to make sense of what she had just read. Comprehension dawned on her and tears, unbidden and unnoticed, began to run down her cheeks. Now she understood. Mr Darcy was informing her, in no uncertain terms, that he regretted declaring himself. Her behavior, so unladylike and unbecoming, was no better than that of her relatives whom he had so derided in his proposal. How relieved he must be at his escape!

Outside night fell, but she remained oblivious. Numb, tired and sad, she sat in her darkened room feeling completely drained, with neither the energy nor the inclination to light the candles.

Finally falling asleep late into the night, Lizzy woke the next day with a new resolve. She had bemoaned, mooned, reflected and worried as much as she was going to over Mr Darcy. She would not sit here for one more day like some lovesick sap! Mr Darcy was getting on with his life, and so, she had decided, would she.

Some three weeks later the sound of horses and carriage crunching on the driveway at Longbourn heralded the arrival of Jane and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner from London. Lizzy, overjoyed with the return of her sister, rushed out to the carriage before it had even stopped. She embraced her Aunt and Uncle affectionately, but Jane had barely time to alight before being enveloped most warmly.

Surprised by the fervency of the reception from her, Jane asked, "Is aught the matter, Lizzy? I have only been in London these past two months. Even from you, that is the warmest welcome I have ever received."

Lizzy just grasped Jane's arm, and laughing for the first time in weeks said, "Nothing is the matter, dear Jane. I am just so thrilled to have you back. It has been a very long two months, for me at least!"

Later they wandered out to the garden to pick some lavender for drying. As they chattered and laughed over the flowerbed, Lizzy couldn't help but notice the glow in Jane's cheeks and the marked improvement of her disposition since her departure from Longbourn two months previously. It struck Lizzy that something had certainly transpired in London, as Jane, whose expression was normally very even, could not help breaking out into the most beautiful smiles.

Lizzy teased lightly, "I realize you are happy to see me, Jane, but there must be more reason than that for the way you keep beaming at nothing and no one in particular."

Jane laughed easily, "If you promise not to tell, Lizzy, I will let you in on a secret."

"Yes?" said Lizzy expectantly.

"Mr Bingley and I renewed our acquaintance whilst I was in London; how he found out I was there I do not know, but he has asked me to be his wife, and Lizzy, I have accepted! Can you understand now why I am so happy? Oh! Why is not everybody as happy?"

"But what of Father, Jane? Does he know yet?"

"No Lizzy. I promised Mr Bingley I would say nothing to anyone but you until he arrives in two days, and then he shall ask Father for my hand."

"I am so very, very happy for you" beamed Lizzy, squeezing her sister in an affectionate hug.

"But what of you, Lizzy? Did you enjoy Kent?"

"Yes, Kent is lovely, and … and Charlotte looks quite content in her marriage.

"And our cousin, Mr Collins? He is well?"

"Mr Collins will always be well, Jane, as long as he is so closely situated with Lady Catherine de Bourgh." Lizzy rolled her eyes at her last comment.

"And Lady Catherine - what is she like, Lizzy?"

"Much like her home: pompous, overbearing and inclined to be intimidating."

"Oh Lizzy, you are too cruel," Jane laughed. "So Rosings is as our dear cousin described?"

"Rosings is very impressive, and the Park within that estate is …it is … it has very interesting walks through it."

"Come Lizzy, I know there is more. What are you not telling me?"

Unable to keep it to herself any longer, Lizzy decided to tell Jane what had happened - the proposal, the letter, the walk in the Park with Mr Darcy…

"But Lizzy, I thought you didn't like Mr Darcy? Indeed you have been quite abrupt with him. What happened to change your opinion of him?"

"I really am not sure, Jane. I suspect I have been shown a side to Mr Darcy that few people have been privy to."

"And has he proposed again to you, Lizzy? Surely after what transpired in the Park, he must have declared his intentions?"

"His intentions? Unfortunately yes, Jane. I received a letter from him a few weeks ago informing me that he would be returning to Netherfield with Mr Bingley."

"He sent you a letter? That is highly improper Lizzy. But why 'unfortunately'?" She paused a moment before continuing - a thought creeping into her mind. "Do you love him, Lizzy?"

Choosing to ignore Jane's question, she reached into her pocket and pulled out Mr Darcy's letter. "Let me show you." And she handed Jane Mr Darcy's letter to read.

"But I don't understand? What does he mean by 'I write to assure you that I will not be renewing those offers made at Hunsford which were so disgusting to you…'? You must have been terribly harsh with him. Is it possible he simply fears rejection again, Lizzy?"

"No Jane. I am afraid that now that he has come to know me more 'intimately', he has realised that I would not be a suitable wife. I have behaved most wantonly - not at all appropriate for the Mistress of Pemberley."

"You cannot be sure of this, Lizzy. Please promise me you will give him a chance … please? His feelings may yet be as keen as they were previously."

"Do not worry Jane, I shall not be rude. But there is no hope for Mr Darcy and me. You shall see. It is over before it has really begun," she said morosely. Feeling herself slipping into her previous despondency, Lizzy shook herself. "But it will all be for the best, you shall see. At least this will give Miss Bingley free rein to work her feminine wiles on Mr Darcy, although I suspect he will not be quite so pleased," she chuckled.

"Lizzy, you did not answer my question. Do you love Mr Darcy?"

Lizzy turned serious and biting her lip, struggled to find an answer. "I do not know, Jane. There was neither enough time nor opportunity to find out."

The next few days passed in a blur of activity. Mr Bingley arrived back at Netherfield and immediately visited Longbourn to obtain the consent of Mr Bennet for his marriage to Jane. Mrs Bennet's indiscreet raptures at the thought of £5,000 per year were in extremely poor taste, although not totally unexpected, and Lizzy blushed on remembrance of Mr Darcy's comments regarding the wont of propriety of certain of her relatives, and understood his remarks most keenly.

What was unanticipated however, was the addition of that particular gentleman on Mr Bingley's next visit.

They arrived on horseback early the next day. Following their announcement by Hill, Mrs Bennet, whilst reserving an embarrassingly effusive greeting for Mr Bingley, was still convinced as to his friend's disagreeableness and acted in a less than courteous manner, much to the embarrassment of all except the lady herself. Thus, Mr Bingley, in an effort to escape the overly enthusiastic ministrations of Mrs Bennet, suggested a walk. Eager to provide Jane and Bingley with the opportunity to spend time together without having to entertain the disagreeable Mr Darcy, Mrs Bennet suggested that Lizzy accompany them and walk out with Mr Darcy. Lizzy, for Jane's sake, swallowed her misgivings and with head down, quietly consented. Darcy, looking out the window as was his wont, swung around to face her as he heard her soft consent, and gazed at her in guarded surprise. The two couples set out for Oakham Mount. Jane and Bingley, in their own private world and with eyes only for each other, wandered ahead leaving Lizzy and Darcy to make awkward conversation with one another.

"You have been well, Miss Bennet?" enquired Darcy, glancing quickly at Elizabeth.

"Why yes, I thank you," replied Lizzy quietly.

She doesn't look well, thought Darcy. In fact, she looks decidedly unwell. He wondered what could be ailing her as he struggled to think of what to say next …

"It is lovely weather we are having, is it not?"

"Yes, summer is tending to linger this year."

"It has been pleasant in Hertfordshire, I presume…"

"Yes sir, most pleasing," said Lizzy. It would appear Mr Darcy is as uncomfortable about this situation as I am, she thought.

"In as much as I do not wish to refer to our previous meeting Miss Bennet, I hope you will forgive my coming to Longbourn with Bingley. He knows nothing of what transpired between us, and rather insisted that I accompany him."

"I understand completely, Mr Darcy. We must keep up appearances, must we not?"

Darcy looked curiously at Lizzy before he offered, "It would appear that Bingley and your sister are very well suited. You must be very happy for your sister regarding her engagement. He, certainly, is a very lucky man in his choice of wife."

Lizzy looked surprised. "Indeed, sir. I believe they are extremely well matched, not only in affection but also temperament. You …" Elizabeth started to say more but stopped herself, looking away quickly. "I must thank you for the letter you sent to Mr Bingley. Without the information you provided regarding Jane's presence in London, I doubt they would have reached this happy conclusion."

"I believe I was thinking only of you, Miss Bennet. I could see the wisdom of your reproof, and whilst I wished to give my friend every chance at happiness, I was selfish enough to hope that it might improve my standing in your eyes."

Elizabeth was very quiet at this, and Darcy glanced at her trying to gauge what she was thinking. She appeared deep in contemplation, but slowly lifted her gaze until she was looking directly back at him. Lizzy's eyes, at once bright and expressive, held Darcy's intently. Their gazes locked, searching …

Darcy, unsure how to respond, was saved the trouble by Lizzy, who, tired of the verbal sidestepping and suddenly emboldened, decided to take the bull by the horns and discuss what was foremost in her mind.

"I must thank you for your letter, sir. It certainly allayed any concerns I may have had regarding the renewing of our acquaintance. Your message was quite clear. However, you must allow me to apologise for my behaviour in the Park at Rosings. I realize that your opinion of me must be much changed, but I find I cannot bear to have you think ill of me."

Darcy paused briefly, and, taking one of Lizzy's hands in his, kissed it ever so gently. Softly, earnestly he said, "I could never think ill of you, Miss Bennet. I am afraid it is no longer in my power to do so."

"But your letter? You said…"

"I know what I said, Miss Bennet. But I was trying to reassure you, to make you feel more at ease about us meeting again. I did not want you to think that I would be importuning you once more, as it was so distasteful to you last time."

"Oh …"

"My feelings are unchanged, Miss Bennet - they are now as they ever were."

Their eyes met and held. They stood this way for many minutes, each quietly drinking in the sight of the other - until at last Darcy placed her still captive hand on his arm, and they continued their walk.

Distressed over the outcome of events that had occurred in the Park at Rosings and the manner of their parting, Darcy had thought he had lost Elizabeth forever, and the pain of his despair had been devastating. Now, after the look he had seen in Elizabeth's eyes, he felt the first glimmerings of hope.

With Jane and Bingley nowhere in sight, Lizzy finally realised just how far they had lagged behind them, and suggested a shorter route through two fields that would allow them to catch up more quickly. However, they came to a small stile buttressed by high hedges between the fields that created a dilemma. Normally Lizzy would have hitched up her skirts as she was wont to do and clambered over, but for the sake of respectability in this instance, thought it best not to. As she looked around for a more ladylike path around the obstacle, Mr Darcy offered a more immediate solution.

"I take it the point of this particular 'shortcut' is to catch up to your sister and Mr Bingley?" he smiled tentatively down at her, waiting for her nod. "Very well, I realize this is highly irregular, but if you will allow me Miss Bennet, I will lift you over and we can utilise this 'shortcut' for it's intended purpose."

"Irregularity seems to be a recurring theme in our relationship, Mr Darcy - but yes, I agree. We are losing valuable time."

So, with as much decorum as possible whilst bracing herself on Mr Darcy's shoulders, she climbed to the second top rung of the stile. As he grasped her firmly around the waist, Lizzy flushed at the familiar, warm feeling of his hands on her. Though he easily lifted her clear of the stile, her descent was much slower as he lowered her in his arms until her face was level with his, their eyes never leaving each other. Slowly, and with great deliberation, he brought Lizzy closer until their breath mingled and their lips touched. Softly at first, they shyly explored each other's lips. Lizzy's arms moved from his shoulders to wrap around his neck. Pulling her closer to him, he all but expelled the air from her lungs with the firmness of his hold. Lizzy moaned as he devoured her mouth.

Eventually, it was the need for oxygen that drove them apart, chests heaving and gasping for breath. They looked at each other in surprise, each shaken by the suddenness of their emotions. Realising the compromising nature of their situation, Lizzy felt her embarrassment growing.

"Mr Darcy, you have good reason to disbelieve me, but I would not have you think I make a habit of this type of behaviour."

Reluctantly, he lowered her to the ground and cradled her face tenderly in his hands. "Please, my dearest Elizabeth, do not make yourself uneasy. The fault is all mine, but I find that when I am near you I am unable to control myself. I would wish for nothing more than to remain this way for the rest of our lives."

She blushed at the intimacy if his address; his words echoing in her mind "… to remain this way for the rest of our lives." Would that it were possible… she thought.

After the rashness of their embrace, Lizzy's bonnet was askew, curls tumbling about her face. Mr Darcy's attempts to adjust her bonnet ultimately caused more destruction until Lizzy took control.

"I fear, Mr Darcy, that your talents lie in areas other than fixing young ladies appearance," she said cheekily. "Perhaps I should reserve your assistance for when I need something to be carried or lifted?"

Darcy, realizing he was being teased, smiled as he watched Lizzy making the necessary adjustments.

"I am at your service, madam," he grinned. "Perhaps I may offer to carry you the rest of the way? I have discovered it to be a particularly exhilarating pastime of late," he teased in return.

"I think not, Mr Darcy," she responded. "In as much as it is a most … enjoyable means of transportation, recent experience has proven the progress to be a little slow."

He laughed at this, pleased that her impertinent wit that had so captivated him had returned. Both presentable once more, they carried on - her hand on his arm. With more than one 'obstacle' out of the way, they hastened to catch up to Jane and Bingley in companionable silence - words no longer necessary for the growing understanding between them.

Two days later, the residents of Longbourn were surprised by the mid-morning arrival of a rather illustrious personage in the form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mrs Bennet, to her credit, coped with the unexpected arrival of Lady Catherine at Longbourn reasonably well. If she had been thinking that Lady Catherine had called upon the family at Longbourn as a mark of respect due to their familial association with her clergyman Mr Collins, she was disabused of this notion almost instantly. With very little civility as was her manner; her ladyship requested the presence of Miss Elizabeth Bennet only in the small garden off to the side of the drive.

They had barely arrived when Lady Catherine, all fury and condemnation, began haranguing Elizabeth in a most undignified fashion.

"What is the meaning of this Miss Bennet? I have received reports of an extremely alarming nature, and I will tell you now, I will not have it! Do not think you can work your wiles and artifice on my nephew for the sake of procuring a proposal. You are the most reckless creature it has been my misfortune to meet, and I will not be gainsaid. You will not marry my nephew."

Lizzy, shocked at the vehemence of Lady Catherine's display, and unsure as to what she was referring said as much. "I beg your pardon, Lady Catherine, but I have no idea what you are talking about."

"Do not play your games with me, young lady! I know all about what happened between you and my nephew at Rosings - did you think you were unobserved? Now, what have you to say for yourself?"

Bristling with indignation at being so verbally abused, Lizzy answered sharply "Whatever happened between your nephew and myself is our business, Lady Catherine, and belongs to no one else."

"Let me be rightly understood, Miss Bennet. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. Never. You will promise me never to enter into an engagement with my nephew."

"You presume too much, Lady Catherine. I am only resolved to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me. And I am determined to marry for love - whether he be a pauper or the richest man in England - it matters little to me."

"Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! To think that my nephew could be taken in by one such as yourself! Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?"

"Lady Catherine!" roared a strong, male voice. "You will desist this minute from abusing Miss Bennet in this fashion!"

Darcy, with a darkly glowering visage, had opportunely arrived at Longbourn and was bearing down on them at great speed. He pulled up quickly in front of her ladyship, and endeavouring to pull himself under control, spoke softly, but very clearly. "If you must know, Lady Catherine, no engagement has been made or set between myself and Miss Bennet."

Lady Catherine sighed with relief. "Oh! Thank heavens. I …"

"I have not yet finished, Aunt," said Darcy, simmering dangerously close to a full boil.

"However, if I should propose to Miss Bennet, it would be of absolutely no concern to you, nor does it require any approval on your part. I am determined only to marry a woman I can be totally devoted to, and who, in my mind, will participate in the marriage equally, in terms of affection, spirit and intelligence. Miss Bennet, quite apart from being the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance, is the only woman I can ever envisage myself loving and marrying, and I am quite prepared to resign myself to a long bachelorhood if she sees fit to refuse me once again."

"Again?" spat Lady Catherine.

"Yes, again Madam. Although it is no business of yours, she has refused me once already. She prefers, as she has told you, to marry only for love, and I intend to work to ensure that the lucky recipient of that love is me. Now if you would be so kind as to leave, Aunt, I believe I have a question to ask Miss Bennet …"

Spluttering in indignation, she snapped, "You shall have cause to rue this course of action, Darcy. I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. You deserve no such compliment."

Lady Catherine stormed off, most seriously displeased.

Darcy turned to Elizabeth, who was looking at him warmly.

"Whilst I am quite capable of taking care of myself, Mr Darcy, I must admit I am becoming quite accustomed to you coming to my rescue."

"Miss Bennet, Elizabeth, please … I …" Darcy stammered and stopped completely. Bewitched by the loving look in Lizzy's eyes, but completely unsure what to say next, he just stared at her, lost in her eyes.

"I do believe there was something you were going to ask, Mr Darcy?" prodded Lizzy with a twinkle in her eye.

Swallowing deeply, Darcy took her hands in his and said "I love you, my dearest Elizabeth - you must know by now that this will never change. I would ask you once again to do me the greatest honour, and consent to be my wife?"

As a single, happy tear rolled down her cheek, Lizzy reached up to tenderly caress Darcy's face and whispered, "Yes."

Chapter Three