Every expressive smile that Elizabeth sent his way throughout dinner dazzled Darcy. He could scarcely swallow down the knowledge that she had accepted him at last. The from this moment, she would be his to love and hold for a lifetime. Darcy's gaze flew across the Longbourn table toward his beloved for the thousandth time that evening and again he was rewarded with a secretive smile and a slight fluttering of lashes.
His trance held through the ride back to Netherfield. Bingley, he knew, had been observing him closely since his and Elizabeth's late return to Longbourn, and the carriage had barely pulled away from that estate's gates when a question was ventured.
"Well Darcy," Bingley began with a slight grin, "I can plainly see that something of import has occurred. You can barely contain your thoughts this evening."
Darcy turned away from the carriage window to face his friend. He could no longer repress the smile that dimpled his cheeks and threatened to split his face, "She has accepted me, Bingley! Elizabeth Bennet will be my wife! Will you welcome me as your brother?"
Bingley laughed and slapped Darcy on the back, "Of course...as if you had any true doubts on that score. I had my suspicions in Pemberley. But Jane seemed doubtful when I asked her opinion, especially after..."
Darcy's expression fell briefly as he realized his friend's good information regarding the fiasco at Kent last April. But he would not allow himself to dwell on the past, not now that Elizabeth's acceptance had been given. He would not allow room in his heart for further recriminations. He and Elizabeth had settled the matter this afternoon. He reassured an embarrassed Bingley that as they would soon be related, there should be no secrets between them.
Darcy spent another hour that night writing a letter to Georgiana. She was sure to welcome the news, having expressly mentioned one night that if she would have been blessed with a sister, she could not have wished for better than Elizabeth. His sister was a sly one, he was discovering, only she would have not only guessed his most heartfelt wish but given him the encouragement he had desperately needed at the time.
The euphoria kept the blood pounding through him all night. Darcy paced his room, restlessly waiting for the morning and the opportunity to rush back to Elizabeth's side. After so many months of agony, hopelessness and despair, he could not bear so much separation from her. Over and over again, his mind happily replayed her soft voice as she told him of the turn of her affections. The shy downward glances and the blush that had spread over her cheeks had, after a brief moment, compelled him to touch her lips with his. With excruciating slowness, he pulled her against him and bent for the most tender of caresses. He checked his desire for her as she trembled against him, knowing that her inexperience could make her frightened of this new intimacy. For now, he would content himself with the touch of her hand on his arm, the occasional kiss and embrace as she permitted. He would not chance frightening her away from him...the very thought lacerated his heart to the core. It was in the wee hours of the morning that Darcy finally fell asleep and dreamed of the life ahead.
Bingley was determined to be instrumental to his friend the next day, suggesting another long walk, emphasizing quite firmly the benefits of such exercise, and then refusing to accompany Elizabeth and Darcy. Mrs. Bennet raised her eyebrows as she agreed that Elizabeth should show Darcy the view from the mount, if that was his wish. Jane smiled serenely at Darcy, her eyes warmly telling of her good information, and Elizabeth was caught somewhere between alarm and amusement as she watched Bingley propel them from the room.
Darcy felt the tingle shoot from his elbow to the rest of his body as Elizabeth slipped her hand through the crook of his arm. They were content to be in each other's company and Darcy talked at length of Pemberley and the places he looked forward to introducing to Elizabeth. They stopped at the top of the mount and found a shady spot to rest. Elizabeth sighed and took off her bonnet, resting her head against Darcy's shoulder as they relaxed under a tree. Darcy curled his arm around her and pulled her closer, relishing the warmth of her against him. He was irresistibly drawn to her lips again and she responded with more assurance and warmth than the day before. Darcy forced himself to retreat when he felt the moment become more passionate. Elizabeth buried her face against his neck as they held on to each other and tried to regain their composure.
"I want to ask your father's permission tonight." Darcy said at length.
"Mmmm," Elizabeth agreed, her voice muffled by his coat's lapels. "He may be very surprised by your application. I am afraid that I did not give him a good impression of my sentiments and he will not be aware of any changes they have undergone since those first months."
Darcy felt the momentary dread. There was still one last barrier to his happiness. "Would he refuse to give his consent?" Darcy was sure she heard how his heart raced painfully at the possibility for she gave him the briefest of caresses at his question.
"No, I do not believe he would," Elizabeth replied calmly. "May I tell him of your involvement with Lydia's circumstances? If he has any doubt of your good intentions, that will allay them. Indeed, he will be as grateful to you as I am."
She spoke lightly, with her customary assurance, but her words sent an icy shaft through Darcy. Gratitude...he did not want only her gratitude. He did not want her father's acceptance of the match based on their gratitude. Elizabeth was his treasure to be sure, but he wanted her love, not her hand as a prize for a job well done.
Without realizing it, he had drawn away from her and she was gazing at him with some surprise. He stared into those glittering eyes that enchanted him, wondering if they looked at him with true affection. He did not expect that she would love him with equal ferocity as he did her, but he wanted her to love him even just a little.
As they gazed at each other, Elizabeth's expression turned from surprise to hurt puzzlement as he continued to hold her away from him. Darcy continued to look on her, wondering frantically if he would be able to walk away from her if he discovered that she did not, in fact, love him at all. She suddenly reached out and touched his face with her palm, stroking away a tear that had unknowingly slipped down his cheek. He covered her hand with his and turned to kiss her palm before burying his face against her. He felt her arms go around him comfortingly, softly stroking his hair. He was ashamed to know that he was still selfish enough to hold onto her for a lifetime, regardless of her true sentiments for him. He would not...could not...lose her twice in this lifetime. It would kill him.
Mr. Bennet accepted Darcy's application with less disapprobation than was feared. Darcy was somewhat unsettled that both Elizabeth and her father preferred to reserve announcing the engagement to the rest of the family until he and Bingley had retired back to Netherfield. He was, however, relieved that he would not be there to hear Mrs. Bennet's reaction to the news.
That night saw Darcy spending much time in thought. Did Elizabeth truly love him? She had spoken of the turn of her feelings, but had never actually spoken words of love to him. At the time, he had been too full of wonder and happiness to give it more attention. He had taken her words as within the bounds of propriety. But Darcy knew the depths of honesty in Elizabeth. She would never tell an untruth knowingly. She had mentioned gratitude. She had explained the lessening of her resentment and the turn of her sentiments. She had never spoken of love.
Darcy recalled the fervent phrases he had whispered to her while in an embrace. Her inability to meet his eyes had enchanted him at the time. Now, he desperately wished he had been able to look into their depths and discover if what he craved truly lived there. And the coldness of fear that had crept in his heart deepened and rooted itself.
The next few days saw the news begin to spread over Meryton and the couple soon became the center of attention and together with Jane and Bingley, the social invitations came pouring in. Darcy withstood the glare of the spotlight with some discomfort, knowing that Elizabeth did all she could to shield him from the more tasteless of companions. He could see that it brought her little joy, and he attempted to treat all he encountered with civility and attention. Inevitably, the gossip turned envious and Darcy heard rumors that Elizabeth was marrying him simply for his wealth and not for any true affection. These words he dismissed offhand. If Elizabeth was truly the kind of woman to marry for material reasons, she would have accepted him at Rosings. No, he knew she would not debase herself that way. But was she the kind of woman to offer herself to someone to whom she felt herself and her family indebted?
There were few occasions for privacy in such events, though Elizabeth managed the sending of private glances and smiles and the discreet brushing of hands. His heart pounded painfully with every moment. She gave every indication of affection and he wanted desperately to believe in it. But he was unsure and terrified of what the truth might be.
It was a few more days before they had some time alone. They were sitting quietly in the Longbourn parlour when Elizabeth turned a dazzling smile that sent his pulse racing. She was in a playful mood and had even greeted him with a passionate kiss and embrace upon his arrival. He watched her in silence, his heart easing its preoccupation for a moment. She smilingly asked him to recount how he ever fell in love with her. His answer was more serious than he wished to sound, but she unwittingly touched a sensitive subject. Wanting to spare himself some vulnerability, he purposely made his answer rather vague. But Elizabeth was determined to tease him and rejected his answer, supplying instead a bewitching version of her own. Her vivacity drew genuine smiles from him and he relished the level of comfort this interchange brought him. He pictured them sitting in this way many Sundays at Pemberley, perhaps one day surrounded by their own children.
He was gathering his wits and courage to ask her when she fell in love with him when she suddenly switched the subject, removing his opportunity to obtain her assurances. With his questions unspoken, he listened as she requested that Lady Catherine be informed of the coming nuptials as she would inform the Gardiners. Darcy flushed when he realized how much time had passed since their engagement during which he did not inform his relations of the pending nuptials. Indeed, she must think him ashamed of the circumstance. Though nothing could be farther from the truth, his preoccupation with her emotions had unconsciously hampered his desire to tell the world how much he loved this woman.
He quickly set about writing to Lady Catherine and later Colonel Fitzwilliam.
The rumors of the nature of their engagement were beginning to wear on Darcy with every succeeding social engagement. He could barely restrain himself from squirming every time Mr. Lucas declared he was taking away Meryton's jewel. Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Phillips were somewhat pointed in asking if he had any rich relations for Kitty and Mary. And he continued to wonder about Elizabeth. Darcy was well aware that his social skills would never make him the toast of the town. But on the face of this onslaught, he could only retreat into a comfortable reserve and detachment.
He unbent during private moments with Elizabeth, but the doubt in him had deepened to disturbing levels and he knew he was more restrained than in the past. One morning, he arrived as usual and found Elizabeth alone in the garden. She smiled happily at him and ran over, lifting her face for his kiss. He hesitated for a fraction before pulling her close. She accepted his quick embrace, but he guiltily saw the hurt expression flash over her features. He was silent during their stroll and he felt her watching him warily as the silence grew more and more tense. Finally, he felt her slip her hand into his and he was led to a grove of trees that gave them privacy from prying Bennet eyes. There was a short bench under the largest of the trees and Elizabeth determinedly sat him down.
"I have noticed your distraction for many days now, William," she said softly, looking down at the hand she still held. "I cannot bear to see you saddened. What has happened? Have I done something wrong?"
Darcy swallowed painfully, knowing this was the moment he had dreaded and knowing that he would never truly rest until he knew the truth. He stood up and paced in front of her, searching for a way to ask without ruining his only hope for happiness in the world. "Elizabeth," he began, then paused, "I have struggled greatly with this question." He exhaled loudly, "We have spoken of many things these past weeks and I hope you know by now that I love you beyond life itself, but..."
Elizabeth was truly frightened now, he could see it in her expression. "But..." she prompted, her voice barely rising above a whisper.
"But I find that I cannot bear the thought of your marrying me for gratitude alone," he finally said softly. "Do you love me, Elizabeth? Even a little? God, please say you do."
He watched as large tears welled up in her eyes. He had hoped never to see that expression on her face again after Lambton, but here he was, and now he was the cause for her tears. She balled one hand and pressed it against her lips to stifle a sob.
"How long have you doubted my affections?" She asked and paled when the answer haltingly came. "So long?" was her reply.
Darcy felt wretched. He could not move as she silently made every attempt to maintain her control. Finally she spoke again.
"Do you want to be released from our engagement?"
This was the last reply he had expected and with a painful thud of his heart, Darcy plunged to his knees before her, "NO!" he cried, "NO!"
With tears streaming down her face, Elizabeth regarded her fiancee with wonder, "You would marry me, even if I did not return your affections?"
Darcy shuddered at the thought and wondered if she asked a question or given a confirmation. But she was expecting a reply and throwing his hands open in supplication he simply said, "I cannot live without you."
She smiled sadly at him. "Perhaps, I have been remiss," she ventured, looking away. "William, please believe me that I would never marry someone I did not love. And I do love you," She looked up at him directly. "I knew I loved you when you left me in Lambton and I thought I would never see you again. I loved you even knowing that there could be nothing more abhorrent than to be George Wickham's brother in law. I was, and am, prepared to love you for the rest of my life...even if you leave me at this moment."
Darcy felt the coldness that had gripped him for so long melt away at the warmth of her words. Leave her, he wondered, does she truly think me capable of walking away? The tears continued to flow down her cheeks as she waited for his verdict. Without another thought, Darcy threw his arms around his beloved and pressed her closer and harder than he ever dared to before. He kissed her soft hair, her cheeks, her closed eyes, tasted the salty tears before settling on her lips for a deeply passionate kiss. He poured all his love and longing into the embrace, wanting to heal the wound he caused with his doubts.
When they breathlessly pulled apart, Darcy whispered to Elizabeth of his love and made and remade every promise to cherish her for the rest of their lives. Elizabeth lay her head against his chest, emotionally spent and still upset over the incident. Darcy held onto her for dear life, attempting to caress away her tension and repeating pleas for her forgiveness. Finally he felt her arms wind around him and hold him tightly as the last sob shuddered out of her. It was thus that the lovers spent their day, wrapped in each other's embrace and willing away any last shred that would part them.
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