Darcy spurred his steed onward as he approached Pemberley. He was so preoccupied with thoughts of his homecoming, and all the sweet pleasures it would entail, that it was almost too late before he noticed the low branch of the great oak tree. He ducked abruptly and was barely spared. The near accident sobered him, and he began to slow the pace of his horse. He would not be of much use to his wife, he supposed, if he were to arrive sans essential body parts, and Elizabeth did rather like his face.
He later dismounted in the courtyard, and as his groomsmen led his horse away, Darcy gazed up at the great estate. For the first time since the death of his mother, Pemberley once again felt like a real home. He straightened his coattails and brushed off the dust of the road before mounting those enormous steps to the front door. He hoped he would find his wife alone. He had ridden through much of the night so that he might arrive several hours earlier than expected. He wanted to surprise her.
He was disappointed, therefore, when the first people to greet him were Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam. Not that he did not care for his relatives; he dearly enjoyed their company at other times, but they were something of an impediment to him now.
He had hardly returned their greetings before asking, "Where is Elizabeth?"
"She is upstairs, with her chambermaid, getting ready for your arrival, which we did not expect to be until late this afternoon."
He cast a yearning glance up the stairwell, but resigned himself to wait. He would have to sit with his sister and cousin, he supposed, and discuss a score of subjects which, on any other occasion, might have seemed interesting. He was about to speak when Georgiana interrupted him.
"I have asked my cousin to take me to Lambton this morning. I need to purchase some material for my gown for the ball."
"You are going then?" her brother asked, knowing that she was shy about such entertainments, despite all the time she had recently spent fielding suitors.
"Yes. Would you mind if we leave now? I don't mean to be rude, I know you have only just arrived--"
"By all means, go!" Had that sounded too hasty? From Colonel Fitzwilliam's amused expression, Mr. Darcy could only assume that it had.
"Fear not, Darcy," said the Colonel. "We'll be out of your way in a matter of seconds."
When the two had departed, Darcy hurried up the stairs in a most ungentleman-like manner, but fortunately there was no one about to witness his ascent.
When he found her, she was bathing. He had eased unobtrusively into the room just as Henrietta, the chambermaid, was preparing to douse Elizabeth's hair with a pitcher of water. Henrietta saw him and nearly let out a yelp, but he raised a finger to his lips to silence her. The chambermaid blushed as he crept over and took the pitcher from her hands, motioning for her to leave. Henrietta managed to sneak quietly out of the room and make it a short way down the hall-just outside of hearing range-before bursting into laughter. It was then imperative that she find someone with which to gossip. The footman appeared most handy.
Meanwhile, back at the tub, Elizabeth was growing impatient. "I'm ready, Henrietta," she told her nonexistent chambermaid. Darcy poured the warm water over his wife's head and stood mesmerized as the drops seeped into her dark curls. When she leaned forward to let the excess water drip away, he kneeled down and reverently kissed her shoulder.
In an instant she swung around and slapped him hard across the face. He was still massaging the reddened skin when she realized who he was. "I'm so sorry, Fitzwilliam...I was confused...I had no idea who was there--"
"Of course not," he said, opening and closing his jaw to make sure it was still fully functional. "You hit harder than I would have expected. But I might have guessed you were capable."
Elizabeth began to reach out to caress his injured cheek when she suddenly remembered to be affronted. "How dare you sneak up on me in this manner! What must my chambermaid think?'
"I imagine," replied Mr. Darcy, "that she thinks I am your husband and may do as I please."
Elizabeth now modestly drew up her legs against her body. "Well, she may think so, but I am of a quite different opinion. Now, if you would be so kind, please leave me to finish my bath, and after I am dressed I will meet you in" -- she tried to think of a neutral place -- "the library."
"Very well," he consented, rising from his position and heading for the door. Before he could grip the doorknob, however, she exclaimed, "But if you leave almost immediately, what will Henrietta think?"
He laughed. That was his Elizabeth, still unaccustomed to her newfound wealth and her position as mistress of Pemberley, still concerned with appearances, even before the servants. "I imagine," he said, "that she will think you are my wife and may do as you please." He shot her one last burning look before closing the door behind him.
Fitzwilliam Darcy had lost all ability to calculate time. He could not have left his wife more than eleven minutes ago, but he was certain it had been well-nigh an hour. He slammed shut the book he had not been reading and walked rapidly to his lady's chamber. He placed an ear against the door and hearing nothing he determined to knock, well aware that she would reprimand him for his impatience. There was no answer. "Elizabeth?" Still nothing. Where could she possibly be?
Darcy instantly began a furious search of the house, walking up and down the halls, opening and closing doors, even looking into closets, when at long last he found her, half an hour later, in, of all places....the library. And she looked rather peeved.
He smiled tentatively. "How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Thirty minutes," she returned, crossing her arms defiantly across her chest and tapping her foot against the floor.
He said, "You must have come round the other way just as I was leaving--"
"Leaving? You mean I am not worth waiting ten minutes for?"
Uh oh. How to handle this delicately? "Elizabeth, love, dearest--" Merciful God, no, not the eyebrow! Alas, too late, she had raised it.
Darcy threw himself into his favorite armchair and sighed. He was weary of the battle. These exchanges were all well and good on paper and across the dinner table, but he had other interests now. "I was only looking for you. I didn't know where you had gone. I only wanted..." He trailed off.
He looked very tired. Elizabeth's resistance began to soften. And when she considered that he must have ridden through the night to be here at such an early hour, it melted altogether. "You poor thing," she said, as she came and sat in his lap, laying her head against his shoulder and curling close. "How much did you sleep last night?"
"Oh, at least two hours."
She smiled and kissed his neck.
It wasn't fair. She new that drove him wild. "If you're serious," he said, though he was barely breathing, "do that again. And if you're not, kindly refrain from torturing me."
She was serious.
When she desisted from her delightful assault on his neck, he struggled to catch his breath, and his eyes locked fast with her own. "So," he asked, "Am I now to enjoy my reward?" Before she could answer, his lips had covered hers.
When he finally allowed her to speak, she said, "I assume you mean your gift."
He kissed her again. "My reward."
She returned the kiss. "Your gift."
And so it went, the pair exchanging both kisses and assertions, until a particularly awkward (though perhaps not entirely unplanned) moment somehow resulted in both tumbling from the chair onto the library floor. The contest was, through mutual consent, entirely abandoned, as husband and wife resolved to allocate their energies to a far more entertaining diversion.
After a considerable amount of time had passed--I will not venture to say how long--the library door slowly opened and a pair of fine eyes peered out around the door frame. These eyes belonged to a face that also sported a pair of lips, which began to move as the speaker dramatically declared, "The coast is clear."
Upon that pronouncement, a second figure peered around the first, and satisfied with the speaker's assessment, he emerged from the library and began to run, clothes in hand, toward the stairwell. The woman with the fine eyes followed him, reclaiming a shirt he had dropped along the way.
At the sound of foreign footsteps, the pair threw themselves against a wall beneath the stairwell, dissolving into the shadows of Pemberley. Once Henrietta and the footman had walked on by, engrossed in their own conversation, the hidden couple emerged and began to ascend the staircase.
"You know," said Elizabeth, "it would have been much easier had we dressed before leaving the library."
"No, indeed," replied her companion. "It would have doubled our labors, for once we reached your bedchamber, we would simply have to undress again."
"You think so, do you?" she asked. "I thought we were going to discuss estate affairs."
"Shhh!" he replied, "No time." As the sound of voices rose from below, the couple bounded the rest of the way up the stairs and ducked into the first available doorway.
"Will you settle for my room?" Darcy asked.
"Well, since we are already here--"
The door slammed shut. Henrietta heard its echo from a story below. "There they go again," she said to the footman, and he thought she sounded jealous.
"Don't worry, Henri," he said, "that's how it will be when you and I are married."
"James, whatever are you talking about? You and I married?"
"Sure, if you will have me."
"Well, I never thought about you a day in my life!" When she saw the footman frown she said, "But that's just a statement of fact. Don't take it as a no."
"James," said the housekeeper, entering the room and interrupting their conversation. Mrs. Reynolds shook her head. Those two servants were always engaged in hushed conversations. She could not imagine how they ever accomplished any work at all. "I have an assignment for you."
The footman departed his lovely Henrietta's company with a knowing look. "Be thinking," he said, before vanishing down the hall.
Some time later--again, I will not venture to say how long--Elizabeth lay contentedly in her husband's arms.
"What's it called again?" Darcy asked.
"The Kama Sutra."
"And the Collins's picked this up on their missionary journey in India?"
"Yes. Mr. Collins has been very much regretting the absence of Rosings, and the natives thought the gift might cheer him up. When he saw what the book contained, he reacted as if it were live ammunition and immediately tossed it into the air. His wife caught it, and she, in turn, sent it on to me."
"She probably thought you'd have more use for it."
Elizabeth propped herself up on one elbow to look down at her husband. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, but he was clearly fighting the temptation to surrender himself to sleep.
"You are my only use for it," she replied, and kissed each of his tired eyelids.
"May I see this book?" he asked.
"No, you may not."
"And why, pray tell?"
"Because I prefer to keep you guessing."
"Darcy?" Silence. "Fitzwilliam?" Silence.
Elizabeth sighed and curled up beside her husband as he slept. She had many yet unfulfilled plans for him, but they would have to wait...
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