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Tracey's "Action and Reaction" is a modern day adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Set in Ottawa, Canada, Elizabeth works for the government and Darcy is in publishing. It's not Jane Austen to the letter (as the author says herself), but it most definitely captures the spirit. Elizabeth has a temper all right, but as in the original, she's honest, has high morals and, in the end, appears to be very loving indeed.


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Action and Reaction
[WIP NC17]

Chapter IV, Part I

Lizzy was somewhat hurt and confused when she learned that Darcy had left their party without so much as a see-you-later. She was dying to know what he'd been "wondering". If it was what she thought, she certainly wasn't adverse to the idea.

Her week progressed frantically but each night she diligently checked her messages just in case he'd called. No such luck, however, and when she'd subtly asked Jane about Charles and Darcy, her sister never indicated any information about the latter.

On Thursday night, Lizzy made it home in time to share dinner with Jane and Charles. While Jane made coffee and took a call from Fanny, Lizzy had the opportunity to chat with Charles alone. He was fascinated with her stories about what she now dubbed her "Exhilarating Week of Hell".

As the conversation wore on, Charles casually mentioned, "Darcy was over this week. Poor guy, he came by on the same night Caroline decided to show up. The good news is, you're free from the charade now. Darcy let it drop that you and he were no longer dating."

What would have relieved Lizzy a week ago now made her heart sink like a lead anchor. She really had no reason to be disappointed; it wouldn't be right to carry on the act, but she had been hoping it would have eventually evolved into reality; life imitating art, so to speak. She also had hoped he would have told her personally, particularly after their last conversation. Of course, she had been extremely busy and he probably knew that. He was also a hard-working man. Don't worry, Lizzy, she thought,all is not lost. Give it time.

She quickly revived and gave Charles a synopsis of the demands her delegation was making, cracking him up with the silliness. Examples ranged from questions about the best strip bars and massage parlours in town, to orders for changes in protocol because their minister of the environment was far too important to sit that far away from the Canadian prime minister at the press conference.

"It is important to note, Charles, that this same minister was the one who'd visited a certain entertainment establishment known as Bare Fax the previous evening," Lizzy said splitting a gut over the ridiculous behaviour. She had to admit she was having a marvelous time directing the show, but was run off her feet with their desires, demands and, well, marriage proposals. It would seem Latin lovers took their diplomatic relations seriously. The evening with the happy couple was a break in her otherwise strenuous week, and as she met Charlotte at the Ch‚teau Laurier Hotel early Friday evening, after the delegation was safely in the sky heading south, she wished she'd worn her sensible shoes, instead of being clad in three-inch navy heels. Her feet were killing her.

Lizzy may have been tired of being hit on the entire week, she may have been a strong-willed independent woman, but she always enjoyed leaving her groups with a good impression. Let them know what they were missing. After all, she was their last image of Canada. If that meant showing some sexy legs to admiring men, so be it. She wasn't afraid of being attractive, particularly when they were leaving on a plane, not to be seen for another six years or so...or perhaps never again, depending on their country's political stability...or instability. That's not to say that Lizzy didn't look professional. In fact, her hair was styled in an elegant French twist and her collarless navy suit jacket, buttoned to the neck and accented with a brightly coloured scarf, was very conservative. The long jacket hung to mid-thigh and nearly covered her entire dress; only the scalloped lace navy edging was peeking out. The sexiness came into play once you looked below the edging to her seamed silk stockings. Even as she met Charlotte in the lobby she was being subtly, and not so subtly, checked out. The ladies were having their unofficial post-departure debriefing. This usually consisted of a visit to ZoŽ's Lounge, the hotel's beautiful watering hole, where multiple martinis assisted in their review of the successes and crises of the week.

As Lizzy watched her friend return room keys to the front desk, she patiently sat on a lobby sofa. She hadn't had a chance to really relax since last weekend, and she was anticipating that first cocktail. So lost was she in in her thoughts that she didn't hear Jane call out to her until she was standing directly above her.

"Lizzy, I didn't know you'd be here! What a surprise!"

"Jane! You should know I'm always here when Charlotte and I are working together. We're going to ZoŽ's," Lizzy answered, just as surprised to see her sister at the hotel. It wasn't one of her usual hangouts. She then spotted Caroline lingering behind and it made a bit more sense.

"Hello, Caroline. Nice to see you again," Lizzy said politely. She really didn't have anything against the woman, but for the fact her demeanour screamed "absolute bitch".

"Hello Elizabeth, a pleasure as always," Caroline replied giving her the once over, as if sizing up the competition. This unnerved Lizzy a bit, since this woman, who obviously still wanted Darcy, was well aware of the "break-up." Charlotte returned and cool introductions were made, but Jane seemed to be relieved with the possibility of additions to their party.

"Would you two like to join us? Caroline and I were going to get to know each other a little better. It's the first chance we've had since I've started seeing Charles." Jane smiled warmly at Lizzy and Charlotte, preferring to avoid the look on Caroline's face.

"Where is your other half?" Lizzy asked.

"Charles is helping Darcy celebrate his 31st birthday. Who knows how late they'll be?" Jane explained.

"Oh, it's Darcy's birthday? I didn't know," Lizzy replied, nearly biting her tongue after seeing Caroline's disdainful smirk.

"You didn't know? Oh, why should you really? Darcy's a very private person. He only gives details like that to his most intimate acquaintances," Caroline said smugly.

Lizzy thought this was as good an opportunity as any to broach the subject of the break-up. She really wanted to know what Darcy had said.

"I suppose you've heard about Darcy and me, then. He probably told you he dumped me," Lizzy said, trying to quash a smirk that was forcing its way onto her lips. She glanced at Charlotte, who, true to form, kept her cool, though Lizzy could detect the puzzlement in her eyes.

"Oh, he dumped you? Why would he say you left him?" Caroline queried aloud, quite disconcerted with the conflicting stories.

"Well, isn't that so like Darcy? Always trying to be gallant. I suppose you could say it was a mutual decision," Lizzy quickly recovered and changed the subject. "Shall we find a table?"

She turned to lead the way to the lounge, as she didn't want to continue that line of conversation, and was getting desperate for her first chocolate martini in weeks.

"Jane?"

The ladies all heard the questioning cry of Charles by the entrance. Lizzy didn't immediately turn, knowing perfectly well that if Bingley was in the lobby, Darcy was sure to follow. Her heart was racing, her palms were sweaty and she really needed that drink. She ventured over to the maitre d' to reserve a table for four.

Two other gentlemen followed shortly being Charles and Darcy. The four of them made a devastating quartet, each unique but decidedly good looking. A female front desk agent strained her neck from the other side of the lobby to catch a glimpse of the eye candy. Charlotte tossed her a warning look; the front desk was no place for blatant gawking.

Darcy was surprised to see Caroline and Jane lingering in the lobby of the hotel. He believed Charles wouldn't knowingly inflict Caroline upon him on his birthday. There was another woman with the ladies who looked rather familiar, but his eyes caught sight of a most attractive pair of legs walking away from the group and towards the lounge. Whoever she was, she knew how to show off her gams. The sexy heels and the seam up the length of her leg only accentuated their lovely shape. When she finally turned around, Darcy could only curse his luck.

The first time this week I notice a woman and it turns out to be her. He didn't need this torment on his birthday; but, oh, what a sweet torment it was. She was breathtakingly beautiful in her domain, looking at once professional and desirable. He'd only ever seen her in casual clothes and though he had enjoyed her relaxed style, he began to appreciate the sight of her in more formal attire.

Did Elizabeth convince Charles to meet us here? It's awfully coincidental. No, Caroline wouldn't have been included if that were the case. Darcy noticed Charles looking as confused as he was, so he assumed Charles was innocent of any scheming. "Caroline, Jane," Charles began, "What are you doing here?" Charles actually was guilty of calculating a meeting but it wasn't going as planned. He knew Lizzy was going to be at the hotel with Charlotte; he'd gathered as much in their conversation the night before. He had no clue why his sister would appear here with Jane. He hadn't mentioned anything to Jane, and though Caroline had visited him at lunch, he was positive he hadn't said anything to her. Nor had Caroline mentioned any plans to him.

"Jane and I wanted to get to know each other a little better, so we thought we'd take advantage of your absence this evening," Caroline quickly answered, trying to cover up the fact she'd only suggested the plan and location to Jane this afternoon, after she'd noticed a certain appointment marked in Charles's agenda. Upon returning to the group, Lizzy had been standing a bit behind the other ladies and observed all the surprised faces. She thought this was all highly coincidental, but had no clue how it all added up. However, she was secretly thrilled to see Darcy and thought she'd take this serendipitous opportunity to let him know, regardless of Caroline's belief in their break-up.

He's actually dressed casually and rather scrumptiously, too, Lizzy appraised. He stood in the formal lobby of the Ch‚teau Laurier, in khakis and a light blue cotton button-down over what looked to be a tight ribbed white t-shirt. Her mind wandered to the first time they'd met and the wonderful way he had smelled. She wanted that scent to surround her again; truth be told, she ached for it; so much so that should he suggest it, she was up for going somewhere else by themselves. This was not Lizzy's usual approach with a man; the words "one-night stand" were never in her personal vocabulary. However, she didn't stop to ask herself why her thought process had strayed, it was just that the idea of him was slowly but steadily worming its way into her mind. He had become a permanent fixture in her dreams and she wanted something more tangible ... and now ... there was Mr. Tangible standing before her.

Lizzy was bound and determined to find out what he had intended to ask her last weekend, and more importantly, have him ask her again. Feeling more than a little frisky, she sauntered up to him with her brightest smile. "A little birdie told me it was your birthday."

She paused, gently took his hand in both of hers, and on tiptoes, kissed his cheek, her lips brushing his skin ever so softly. She stayed on tiptoes and quietly whispered into his ear, "Happy Birthday Darcy. I hope you get whatever you wish for."

She pulled back and winked mischievously. Darcy's emotions vaulted in a million different directions. He had tried to steady himself when he realized she was going to kiss him, but it was no use. Once he smelled the sweet subtle lavender on her skin, felt her soft hands encircling his, and heard her smoky voice -- not to mention the feel of her warm breath on his ear, his physical reaction was immediate. His mind told him to ignore her; she wasn't worth it, but hot bullets of lust shot through every nerve, muscle and vein of his body. Damn, that woman knows what to do with what God gave her.

While a tumult raged inside him, Darcy's face did not betray it, but for a slight and momentary fluttering of his eyelids. Only those who knew him very well would have noticed, and his cousin Richard, standing to the side of the couple, was one of those select few.

As Darcy stared down at Lizzy's glowing face, another possibility suddenly hit him - maybe Charles hadn't told her he'd talked to Caroline about their "break- up." Darcy probably could have subtly indicated this fact, and Lizzy would have understood, but an unconscious longing overwhelmed him. He leaned down to her ear, allowing her to infiltrate his senses again. He murmured softly, "You don't need to do this. Caroline is aware we're no longer a couple."

With one last intake of breath, he pulled away, and resolved to be a stronger man.

Lizzy met his eyes with a coquettish grin and once again stood on her tiptoes, this time brushing up against his torso and leaning into his ear to say, "I know. My best wishes are all for you."

Lizzy knew perfectly well she was being shameless, but she wanted to leave him in no doubt of her attraction. She was a woman in the prime of her youth and hadn't been with a man for some time. Though this man before her had been conceited and even rude at times, she had begun to realize that in leading a life like his, his disposition was somewhat justified. She also knew he had been as blown away by the chemistry of their kiss as she had, so much so that he'd made a move on her at the concert and was quite possibly on the verge of asking her out at the barbecue. She was ready for a man to be in her life, so why shouldn't it be a luscious, virile, beautiful man like William Darcy?

When she pulled back, however, a sudden bashfulness overtook her forwardness and she lowered her gaze to the floor before allowing it to move back up, her long lashes accentuating the hesitancy in her eyes.

If she had been expecting a reciprocal reaction, she was sorely mistaken. As she looked to the face of Darcy, she was halted by the demeanour of a warrior ready for battle. Darcy did not look flattered, pleased or comfortable. He appeared almost menacing, and with a quick dismissive nod, walked away to talk to one of the other gentlemen who had joined him.

Lizzy was humiliated and confused. Tears stung at the corner of her eyes, but she took a deep breath and turned to Charles. She would never let anyone get satisfaction from repudiating her in such a way. With an overly bright smile and suspiciously shiny eyes she said, "Are you going to introduce me to your friends?"

Charles Bingley was a man with an inherent sense of tact and a great ability to make people feel comfortable. He had witnessed the entire exchange and was terribly disappointed in Darcy. Rather than ask if she was alright, he took Lizzy's lead by responding to her question.

"Of course. This is Richard Fitzwilliam, Darcy's cousin, and Henry Crawford, a friend from university, who's in town for the weekend. Gentlemen...and I use the term loosely," Charles grinned widely, "this is Lizzy Bennet, one of Ottawa's finest ladies, so I would ask you to treat her as such."

Charles fixed his eyes on Darcy after making that statement, whereupon Darcy decided to turn and admire the bust of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the former prime minister of Canada, and for whom the hotel was named.

"Oh, Charles, you do spread it on thick, don't you?" Lizzy responded with a warm, thankful smile and an endearing giggle. He had promptly helped her recover from her discomfort.

She then repeated the gentlemen's names in her head, so as to remember them, and suddenly something clicked. "Richard Fitzwilliam? From the British High Commission? The Deputy High Commissioner?"

"The one and only," Richard smiled, finally recognizing her voice. "Elizabeth Bennet? From Ms. Halliday's office? I'm delighted to finally meet you. What a coincidence!"

Charles nearly choked on his Adam's apple with that last remark. He wondered if anyone would find him out.

"You two know each other?" Charles asked and noticed Darcy's head move slightly to the side to catch the interaction.

"Well, yes. My manager is working directly with Richard's office on Queen Elizabeth's upcoming visit to Canada. We've chatted a few times. Richard, you must know Charlotte Lucas as well," Lizzy said bringing Charlotte into the conversation.

"We've never actually met face to face either, although I am meeting your staff this Monday. I'm very glad to meet you tonight, Richard," Charlotte said smoothly with an outstretched arm.

"Well, will you ladies be joining us? It's much more fun to celebrate a birthday in mixed company, isn't it Darcy, old boy!" Richard turned to look at Darcy with a cocky grin. Richard adored women and wasn't about to let the opportunity of carousing with four lovely ladies slip away. He received a non-committal "Hmm" from Darcy and turned to Lizzy again.

"Richard, Henry, please call me Lizzy. It's a pleasure to meet you both. So, since it's his birthday, are you going to get Darcy all liquored up and take scandalous photos as evidence? I think that would be a marvelous idea," she teased.

Knowing Darcy's disposition, both men were amused by the suggestion and it took only moments before they were both entirely engrossed in conversation with their new acquaintances.

Lizzy hadn't done this to try to play games with Darcy. She had been known to playfully tease, but pitting men against each other wasn't her style. She had just been swiftly wounded by the birthday boy and her tender ego was in need of attention. She was also an easy-going individual who rarely missed an opportunity to get to know new people, particularly a charming Brit like Richard Fitzwilliam.

"So, are you and Darcy first cousins?" Lizzy paused as Richard nodded yes. "Funny, you don't seem very much alike, and I'm not just talking about the accent."

Richard laughed in agreement at Lizzy's assertion. She was absolutely right, and he knew they would get along famously. As they walked into the lounge, Henry, Lizzy, Charlotte and Richard were already as thick as thieves. Darcy had not recovered so quickly from his encounter with Lizzy, and her subsequent association with Richard; nor was he lucky enough to be entertained by charming members of the opposite sex. Jane and Charles had forged ahead into the lounge to find an appropriate table, leaving him to Caroline, who immediately took the opportunity to grab Darcy's arm and copy Lizzy's earlier gesture by placing a kiss on his cheek. Darcy was seething. He had planned on a low-key early evening with a few friends. Now he had his ex-girlfriend and his pseudo ex-girlfriend sitting at his table.

He could ignore Caroline easily enough, but Lizzy was another matter. She had an understated elegance to her tonight, but for those racy stockings and heels. It was as if she'd known they were one of his turn-ons. He wondered if they were being held up by garters and briefly closed his eyes to imagine her in those stockings, garters and little else. He suspected by her earlier attitude that if he had wanted to find out, she might have allowed it tonight. Instead, his dismissal forced him to watch her from a distance as she acquired two new fans who were heartily engaged in learning more about her. He was jealous but had no one to blame but himself.

Caroline ensured that Darcy was seated away from Lizzy, but though he was two seats down, she wasn't able to prevent his direct view of the lady in question from across the table. He continued to observe her interactions with the men whom he had earlier considered friends. It irked him that he couldn't catch their eyes to try to ward them off. Though he tried to convince himself he didn't want Lizzy, no matter how sexually appealing, there was no way he was going to let anyone else have her either. The complete lack of logic and fairness in this assessment did not occur to Darcy.

Once her mood had been restored by the good cheer of Richard and Henry, Lizzy actually started to look forward to the evening and resolved she would treat Darcy better than he was treating her. She needn't be bothered by his rejection. She was the bigger person. Kill him with kindness, as the saying goes.

As the waiter approached to take orders, Lizzy immediately took the opportunity to show her benevolence, "Oliver, it's good to see you. I'm in desperate need of a chocolate martini." To everyone's surprise she added, "Darcy, what's your poison?"

He was so shocked by her address, he took a moment before asking, "Excuse me?"

"Your poison? What will you be drinking?" Lizzy responded with exasperation. First, I'm dissed by him, now he's acting like I can't speak English. "Why?" he questioned with a furrowed brow. "Gosh, you're thick sometimes. It's your birthday. You shouldn't have to pay for your own drink. I'll get your first round. My gift to you," Lizzy offered magnanimously with a flourish of her hands. Whether she was annoyed with him or not, everyone deserved to be treated on their birthday.

"That's really not nec-" Darcy began.

"Oh, forget the chivalry," Lizzy interrupted, "Oliver, put whatever he orders on my bill."

"Yes, ma'am," Oliver obliged.

"But Elizabeth, there's no need-" Darcy again tried to speak but to no avail.

"Darcy, I don't care if you can or can't afford your own drinks, or whatever other silly excuse you have. It's your birthday and I insist. In fact, I insist that everyone buy you a drink tonight. That should get you well on your way to inebriation -- which I think you need. It might make you more fun to be with."

Darcy's comrades howled with laughter. Richard was particularly amused at the chutzpah of this lady. She was a spitfire. If Darcy wasn't already hung up on her - a fact Richard had figured out from the earlier exchange in the lobby - he would have enjoyed pursuing the pretty lady. However, Richard realized that there were so few women who truly intrigued Darcy, there was no way he'd stand between the man and his goal. Besides, Darcy was doing a fine job at standing between them all on his own. What Darcy wanted, and what he admitted to wanting, were two different things.

After a moment's thought, Richard pondered that perhaps a pursuit of Lizzy, at least for the evening, may not be a bad idea. She was certainly interested in Darcy, she'd made that perfectly clear, so she shouldn't be in too much danger of falling for him if he flirted. Time to make Darcy squirm, he thought with amusement. If Darcy never made a move, Richard would certainly have the opportunity to talk with Lizzy again, and he always liked to make a good first impression.

Caroline was absolutely aghast at what she perceived as Lizzy's ill treatment of Darcy. Is this how she acted while they dated? How did she manage to hold onto him for so long?

Darcy was not amused either, for more reasons than one. He certainly was affronted by her remark, more because of the response of the others at the table than for the actual words. He was also displeased because he knew he deserved it from her. He was not playing nice, purposely. He had to keep reminding himself what he had overheard at the barbecue. Ultimately, at that moment, the only thing he really wanted to do was pull that woman away from the table and up to one of the lovely rooms above their heads to make his birthday wish come true. Why the hell does she have this effect on me, he thought, cursing his irrational behaviour. His frustrated thoughts transferred to his face in a dark scowl, satisfying Caroline and causing Charles to pipe up, "Lighten up Darcy. Lizzy's just teasing and doing a very good job of it, I might add."

"Yes, Lizzy. You seem to be able to get him all riled up. I'd like to have you in my corner," Richard said winking flirtatiously. Darcy didn't see the wink, but he heard the words and saw the smile Lizzy flashed his cousin. She lured men in so easily. I'll have to tell Richard about her motives before he gets in trouble too.

Of course, Richard Fitzwilliam wasn't likely to care. He knew how to rid himself of a woman graciously, something Darcy had never mastered. Love 'em, leave 'em and laugh with 'em the next day. He had an uncanny ability to come out of a relationship, or even a one night stand, unscathed and forgiven.

Henry Crawford was also the type to be unconcerned with a lady's motives; however, his approach was far different from Richard's. He was up for any challenge, and if that happened to be captivating a woman who was trying to do the same, he was perfectly ready for the task. Richard's and Henry's styles complimented each other, particularly in the presence of pretty, sociable ladies. Richard enjoyed being charmed by women and Henry enjoyed charming them. Lizzy had no interest in them beyond friendship, but Charlotte had no qualms about having a more intimate evening, if the right partner made a move. As much as Henry liked Lizzy's looks and attitude, Charlotte's calm demeanour intrigued him. He had set his goal for the evening and though he thought she had no clue of his intentions, she was quite ready to be seduced by a suave, affable man. The only problem was, the suave, affable man she would have preferred was the dashing Brit, who seemed utterly absorbed in her friend. She was used to that though. Lizzy was prettier, younger and livelier. A man who wanted Charlotte had to realize that smooth waters run deep. She doubted the flirtatious Mr. Crawford would appreciate all she had to offer, but he could probably provide an enjoyable interlude. She'd see how the night progressed.

As they were onto their second round of drinks, everyone at the table turned towards a boisterous greeting, "Mademoiselle Bennet! Quel plaisir de vous voir ici ce soir!"

Lizzy rose from her seat and walked towards the older man. As she reached him, she accepted kisses to both her cheeks.

"Bonsoir Monsieur Martel. C'est un plaisir d'être ici après notre semaine occupée," Lizzy replied, conversing easily with the Frenchman.*

Darcy noticed this Monsieur Martel retained the privilege of holding onto Lizzy's elbows while he continued talking. They were animated enough for all to hear, and though it wasn't a stretch for people in Ottawa to be bilingual, particularly in Elizabeth's profession, Darcy thought she had a delightful accent; no anglicisms, and certainly no local Québecois slang.

"Monsieur Martel," Lizzy said leading him close to the table, "is the general manager of this hotel. I was just telling him what a marvelous time we're all having here tonight."

"Good evening to you all. Bonjour Charlotte," Monsieur Martel nodded politely to his employee but his attention did not stray far from Lizzy. He had now transferred one hand to her back, though for the first time his other hand was free.

"I was just telling Elizabeth what a merveilleuse lady she is. She helped us so much today and all week. I am grateful she is on our side," Monsieur Martel explained in his thick, charming accent. For a man in his fifties, he was quite attractive. He obviously favoured the presence of Elizabeth Bennet and seemed to require some kind of physical contact with her if at all possible. Elizabeth kept smiling warmly at the man, but slowly edged herself away from his touch, so subtly that he and most of the others hardly noticed. She continued talking and smoothly ended their conversation by gently indicating that she was part of a private celebration with friends.

Once again, he took the opportunity to kiss her cheeks and indicated he looked forward to seeing her again soon. As Lizzy sat back down, a crimson hue invaded her face. She knew Monsieur Martel was interested in her, and she was generally able to manage his hints. Indeed, he had asked her out in roundabout ways in the past, and she had diplomatically turned him down. He was never pushy; he was always polite and she never considered it to be sexual harassment. He was a gentleman with an interest in an attractive, intelligent woman and he didn't see a problem with the age difference. Charlotte gave her a sympathetic look, knowing the history.

Lizzy was flattered by the attention, as Monsieur Martel indicated his intentions every few months, but she deflected it accordingly. However, she usually did not have an audience. She knew some people (particularly young, self-righteous men) wouldn't understand her reaction to this older man's crush. They wouldn't be able to digest she had to work with this man on a monthly basis, that she actually liked him and she needn't be rude to a persistent, but charming, suitor.

Darcy was insulted for her. Indeed, what would be a surprise to Lizzy was that he realized exactly the position she was in. He saw this man taking some liberties and noticed her slight movements to distance herself from his person. She continued to be uniformly social to him and was extremely savvy in the way she dismissed his attentions. The general manager never even knew it. Darcy also noticed her blush upon sitting down. She certainly demonstrated her diplomatic expertise admirably. This in no way changed Darcy's opinion of her as a potential threat. Elizabeth obviously had her standards. She probably wanted a younger, richer man; like himself.

Darcy saw Charlotte whisper in Lizzy's ear and Lizzy in turn lowered her eyes and nodded her head demurely. "Are you okay? He didn't ask you out again, did he?" Charlotte questioned.

"No, no, not today. I just didn't like the idea of several sets of eyes observing my every move," Lizzy whispered, rolling her eyes.

"Well, have another drink and just forget about it," Charlotte said trying to take her mind off the moment.

Richard brought her back to a light-hearted mood by requesting that she and Charlotte explain their week. Henry seconded the notion and the four were again off to the races. Lizzy told of several gentlemen who didn't seem to understand the meaning of the word "no" in any language. She had also been given several opportunities to be a kept woman if she were to follow them back to South America. She and Charlotte gave details of embarrassing propositions and immature behaviour on the part of the politicians. Richard and Henry were aghast for the ladies, but Charlotte quickly explained that these were the exception to the rule and they were both able to laugh it off.

Darcy kept abreast of the conversations; again, these revelations put a snag in his theory of Lizzy's money-grubbing ambitions. It was quite obvious successful men hit on this woman quite regularly and it would seem that she refused them just as regularly. It confounded his mind, trying to equate the woman he had gotten to know and the conversation he'd heard with her mother. He took another drink of his Glen Morangie and thought perhaps he'd apologize to Lizzy for his behaviour earlier. He'd think about it, anyway.

As the evening wore on, Richard and Henry had Lizzy and Charlotte up dancing to romantic jazz melodies. Richard couldn't understand Darcy's resistance to the lady in whom he obviously had interest, so he continued to enjoy her company. Let Darcy live vicariously.

Richard and Charles had continued and expanded upon Lizzy's earlier generosity by buying multiple rounds of drinks for all. The table of eight soon became rowdier than what was appropriate for the elegant atmosphere of ZoŽ's Lounge. Even Darcy's voice was echoing in the expansive room. Although Charles was on his way to an alcoholic stupor, he was still conscious enough to notice their volume was beginning to overpower the jazz singer who had begun her set a half- hour earlier. There was little chance, however, that the hotel would interfere with the table of illustrious rabble-rousers.

As Darcy sipped his fourth drink, he was considering throwing caution to the wind and cutting in on his cousin. Regardless of Caroline's critical commentary on the evening, he was beginning to enjoy himself. He could watch Elizabeth smile, laugh and dance all evening. She was truly a joy to behold; however, he would much prefer to be doing it up close.

As if on cue, Richard and Lizzy approached his end of the table. He thought perhaps she was going to take control of the situation by asking him to dance...a brave woman after his earlier rebuff. But it was Richard who piped up, "Why don't we take this group to a livelier spot?"

"Just what I was about to suggest," Charles agreed. "D'Arcy McGees is within walking distance. I think it's an appropriate place for this particular gentleman's birthday. Let's go there."

When the bar was in sight, they all realized the line-up was formidable, but Charles insisted the Irish pub was the only place to be on a Friday night. By this point, Lizzy was quite tipsy and the earlier ego-bruising had given way to a now inflated head; thanks to the compliments of Richard, Henry and Monsieur Martel, as well as her story-telling about the proposals she'd been granted throughout the week. Not one to be deterred by a line-up, she removed her jacket and scarf to reveal a lacy, scoop-necked dress that accentuated her hour-glass figure. She sashayed up to the bouncer and gave him a coy regard.

"Excuse me, Mr. Bouncer, sir," she said biting her lip and batting her eyelashes, "There's a group of eight here and we'd really like to get in. Is there anything you can do for me? I'd be very grateful."

Darcy watched Lizzy, and was both embarrassed for her and amused; not because she was proving herself to be a coquettish seductress, but because she was failing at it miserably. Although she had once told him she knew how to charm men, her blatant attempt was pathetic. He blamed it on the alcohol and came up behind her to save her from further mortification.

Darcy was right; the bouncer had no intention of allowing them to pass based on Lizzy's "tempting" offer. As pretty as the woman was, she was full of it. Darcy placed her jacket over her shoulders and offered his hand to the bouncer.

"Excuse the lady, she's had a couple more than usual. We'd like to go in," Darcy explained.

The bouncer checked out his hand to find two crisp $100 bills. He nodded and personally escorted the group past the other revellers.

"How could you do that?" Lizzy asked indignantly as soon as they entered the crowded bar. "I was perfectly capable of getting us in. I can't believe you bribed him!"

Darcy had humiliated her twice in one evening. She was no longer looking kindly upon the man, especially when his cousin's affability was so inviting. Oh, he's infuriating! How could I have convinced myself I liked him, she thought angrily.

"Elizabeth, what do you call what you were doing? You were getting nowhere with that bouncer and besides, I certainly don't need you getting yourself into a compromising position, say like being forced to kiss him or something," Darcy answered, amused with her anger and totally aroused by her body pressing tightly against him. Not that she chose to do this; the bar was absolutely packed. She was offended by his enjoyment of the situation and she was tired of his vacillating attitude towards her. One minute he ignored her, the next he wouldn't stop staring intently at her, and now he was smiling warmly.

"You are maddening, do you know that? Where do you get off telling me that you don't need to see me in a compromising position. You're not my keeper. In fact, you're nothing to me!" She retorted nastily. "Elizabeth, calm down," Darcy said, placing his hands on her shoulder. "There's no need to make a scene. We're in, aren't we? Although, I don't know why Charles dragged us here. I can't stand crowds." Charles had also come to this realization and moments after Darcy had spoken, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Charles indicated they were leaving.

"Darcy, you can't just leave," Lizzy said, frazzled at the thought. "You just slipped that bouncer a hundred bucks."

"Two hundred, actually. Easiest $200 he's made in awhile, I suppose," Darcy answered and shrugged his shoulders, not at all bothered by the loss of funds. Being squished against a fiery Elizabeth for five minutes was certainly worth the price of admission.

Lizzy walked out behind him, her mouth agape at the waste of money. When she turned to look at the bouncer he smiled and winked at her. He gathered the only reason he got that $200 was because the man she was with thought her pride was worth it.

They hailed a couple of cabs and Charles indicated the next hot spot where they were to converge. He insisted that this place would be quieter and something completely different. Darcy worried about this comment. Charles was smirking mischievously as he hopped into his cab.

* Translation: It's a pleasure to be here after our busy week.

Chapter IV, Part II

As they walked in the door of their new hangout, they were greeted by the sound of a woman in pain. Darcy swiftly and unhappily assessed that she was attempting to sing along to a karaoke machine. He now feared for his life. The rest of the group, save Caroline, was delighted with the place. It wasn't busy, there were plenty of tables, the drinks were cheap and the entertainment hilarious. Charles was ready to humiliate himself at the first possible opportunity but the challenge was, how many of his group would be willing to do the same?

He knew there was no way in hell Darcy would find himself onstage and if Darcy wasn't doing it, Caroline probably wouldn't...unless someone convinced her she'd put all others to shame. He had no clue about the rest, but he wanted Jane up there. She had a tendency to be a bit shy about her talents, but he knew she had a sweet voice. Besides, it was all in good fun and he knew this place had a great selection of songs.

As they sat with their drinks, those nervous about being forced up on stage voiced their objections when he asked, "So who will be part of the fearless few to venture into the spotlight?"

"No chance of seeing me up there. I have a voice like a hyena," Charlotte quipped.

"I'm up for it," Henry smiled and turned to Charlotte, "but you'll have to choose the song."

Jane and Caroline said maybe, Richard was ready to roll and Darcy just laughed and shook his head. When Charles turned to face Lizzy he was surprised by her reply.

"I've never done karaoke. I'm not about to start now."

The protests began, but to no avail. Lizzy would not go onstage. "I'm afraid I'm not experienced in the fine art of singing along to a television screen."

Charlotte and Jane looked perplexed but didn't comment, and soon Charles was up there doing a spirited rendition of Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing. He mostly sang to Jane but he soon had the crowd in stitches, including Darcy, who was relaxing after his initial hesitation at entering such a place. Henry wasn't ready to go up, as he and Charlotte couldn't decide on an acceptable song. Richard willingly went next and dared to sing I'm Too Sexy. He knew how to camp it up and the whole room cheered him on, including a table of women who began waving money at him and shouting, "Take it off!" When he sauntered over to their table, a five-dollar bill was shoved down his pants. He dashingly kissed the lady's hand to the delight of her friends, and the whole room. After he finished, he ordered a bottle of wine for the lady who'd provided the fiver.

Upon returning to his seat, Lizzy gave him a congratulatory hug. He smiled broadly but was brought back to reality by his cousin's glower. He proceeded to kiss Lizzy's cheek in a flagrant attempt to taunt Darcy. Jane and Charles looked to be in a heated conversation about her song. They were scouring the play list, with Charles egging her on.

"Jane, are you going up?" Lizzy asked excitedly. She knew Jane would think she was showing off if she went onstage, but Charles seemed to be convincing her to do it.

"Yes, I am," Jane said confidently, obviously affected by her consumption of alcohol and Charles' positive urging. Such assertive behaviour was positively brazen for Jane under regular circumstances. Lizzy was giddy with her sister's response, an indication that Jane wasn't the only one affected by the evening's beverages.

Jane had chosen a Motown tune. In fact, Charles had insisted upon it, thinking it would be a good joke for Lizzy to hear the lyrics. Although Jane stared at Charles through most of the song, for moral support as much as for the thought of singing to him, she looked right at Lizzy when she gave the advice, "If you wanna know if he loves you so, it's in his kiss."

Lizzy laughed heartily at the suggestion. How wrong she is.

Darcy, on the other hand, felt a little uncomfortable with her chuckling at that line. He desperately wanted to know what was going through her mind. He thought that maybe he'd try to talk with her again, take a chance on getting lucky. It was worth a shot. It was his birthday, after all.

Before he had an occasion to say anything, Richard was a step ahead of him. "Lizzy, my dear, why aren't you up there?" My dear? When had she become his 'dear'? Darcy thought with growing grumpiness.

"I already said why. I've never done karaoke and I don't really want to start."

Darcy saw this as an opening. "Elizabeth, don't you have a better reason than that? You have to start sometime. You seemed to like to sing at the concert, not that I could really hear you there. Now's your chance."

"I sang at the concert because I loved all the songs, not because I wanted to perform," Lizzy reasoned.

"But I know you to be a very good performer, that's half the battle isn't it?" Darcy said smiling, remembering their first encounter.

"I could say the same thing about you. You act very convincingly when you choose to," she pointed out, raising her eyebrow and returning his smile. "But I'll never get up there. I don't perform for strangers," Darcy responded.

"If I'm not mistaken, I never asked you to. You started it," Lizzy countered. She was actually enjoying the banter but would be damned if she let Darcy know.

"Come on Lizzy, you're a good sport, you should go up and sing. It's loads of fun, though not Darcy's sort of fun, I suppose," Richard added.

"You're right Richard, it's not my style," Darcy said haughtily swigging down his drink and slamming it on the table emphatically. He was feeling the effects of downing several ounces of fine spirits.

"Style. Is that what you call it, Mr. Darcy?" Lizzy drawled, resting an elbow on the table and leaning closer to the man in question.

"What do you mean?" he said, mirroring her movements and putting himself nose to nose with her.

"Just call it like it is. This is beneath you," Lizzy accused, enunciating every word.

"Is not," he responded, offended. So much so he leaned back from her, even though he had very much enjoyed their proximity.

"I just don't want to," he said with a slight pout. With the addition of liquour to his system, Darcy's reserve and pride transformed into hauteur and petulance. He was behaving like a big bad birthday boy. Lizzy nearly snorted at his demeanour but held it in. She wanted to push him a little more yet. Besides, she had a point or two she wanted to make.

"Of course it is. The only reason I'm not up there is because I've never done the whole karaoke thing, not because I think it's only something for poor working-class slobs and their blue collar sensibilities. You're too proud. You think you're above this. You're being a snob -- vain even."

"Even if you could sing, which I highly doubt, you'd never do it in a place like this. It would be insupportable. You'd have to be somewhere with a concert grand or some such nonsense." Lizzy was quite pleased with her ability to string coherent thoughts together at this point. However, if she were to be honest, she was well aware of the fact her vocabulary sometimes stretched when she was dipping into the sauce, as did her need to argue.

She had also unknowingly hit a little too close to home, and Darcy was feeling more than a tad uncomfortable with her assertions. He decided to turn the tables; put her on the defensive. He again leaned in closely, squinted his eyes suspiciously, and stated, "There's nothing wrong with having standards. Besides, you're just trying to deflect attention from yourself. Are you too good to go up there too?"

"So you admit it?" Lizzy retorted, her eyes blazing in success.

"Admit what?" asked Darcy, confused.

"You just said you were too good to go up there," Lizzy replied, arching her eyebrow.

"I admitted no such thing," he countered. "Listen, if you go up, I'll go up. Is that what you want? Is that what it would take?"

Darcy cursed under his breath. If he hadn't heard the words coming from his mouth, he wouldn't have believed it. He'd just cornered himself. She hadn't even had to work up a sweat to get him there. He swore he'd never drink again, at least not in the company of Elizabeth Bennet.

But Lizzy wasn't quite done yet. She was all riled up by his cockiness. "Oh my God, you're so full of yourself. I said I didn't want to, regardless of what you do. Do you think so much of yourself that you could possibly affect my decision about whether I go up and sing a bloody karaoke song or not? God, you're such an ass."

By this point, Lizzy had whipped Darcy into a frenzy. He was bound and determined to get that woman up onstage just to prove he could, since she obviously didn't want to. If it meant he really had to go up, so be it. He didn't believe for one second she wouldn't want him to go through the same humiliation.

"What would it take for you to go up there, Elizabeth? Just let me know and I'll do it. Anything," Darcy offered. His intense, dark eyes were transfixed upon hers. He loved the air of competition between them; in fact, it aroused him - mightily. She had an almost predatory look about her; a tigress ready to pounce, and it gave him an instinctive urge to do the same.

The whole table had been watching the scene unfold, uncertain whether to be amused by the argument or worried for the couple's safety. Lizzy's suspenseful pause only served to unnerve their audience more.

Lizzy pursed his lips and pondered her next move. She was trying to hold in her smirk and reign in her aggressiveness. She wasn't going to push him any farther. She had him pleading to her, knowing she would ask him to do things he detested - performing to strangers, possibly embarrassing himself, and doing it just because of a woman's request. His eyes showed a raw determination, a feral potency that made every pore of her skin tingle. She revelled in the moment, finally giving her answer.

"Okay Darcy. I'll go up...if you go first. I just want to make sure you don't chicken out."

"I don't chicken out of anything. Do you?" Darcy dared.

They were so close she could feel his hot breath on her face. His lips were mere inches from hers and looked so inviting, so ready to kiss. She swallowed hard to steady her breathing, and replied directly, "If I want something bad enough, Mr.Darcy, I never back down."

"It seems we have something in common, Ms. Bennet," he said cocking his head and edging even closer to her lips. Not another soul existed in their world and they simultaneously breathed in, readying themselves for their long overdue physical collision.

Caroline had other ideas. She hadn't liked the course of their conversation, their closeness and the fact that she was being ignored. Standing she practically wrenched his shoulder back to have him look at her, breaking the standoff between the two duelists.

"Well, Darcy, if you're going to do this, I might as well do it too. And I'll go first to make you feel more comfortable. Is there anything you'd like me to sing on your birthday?"

He looked up at Caroline, not at all happy to have been interrupted at such a moment. He had been so close to Elizabeth, he had smelled the chocolate on her breath. But the absurdity of her desperate action, combined with a certain lethargic complacence due to a warm whisky buzz, made him chuckle. What a desperate woman.

"No, Caroline, sing whatever you like. Go on, I'll watch from here," he said turning away from her to return his gaze to Elizabeth. He smiled and rolled his eyes, sharing his amusement with her.

Lizzy leaned into his ear to reprimand him. "Stop that Darcy. That's not very nice."

"Come on, Elizabeth. She sets herself up for these things. Don't pity her."

"Speaking of being set up," Lizzy grinned, placing a finger on her chin, "What are you going to sing? I know...Sweet Caroline?"

He began to laugh at her joke, but her reminder brought him back to the task at hand, as well as the fact that she had so successfully manipulated him into the situation. He marched determinedly over to the play list near Charles's seat, but turned back to the stage as he heard Caroline bludgeon You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman. It wasn't that Caroline couldn't sing, it was just she didn't know her limitations. She didn't have a soulful bone in her body and her version was so bland, it made Pat Boone seem downright edgy.

Richard and Henry were so entertained with the performance, they both held up lighters and swayed. Charlotte put a hand over her mouth to stop from laughing and Lizzy had to turn away to hide her face.

Darcy had blocked her out completely and was now searching the list. He wasn't really a fan of pop music, but secretly craved alternative rock when he really needed to let go. Overall, music was what played in the background while other things were going on, although he had to admit, he'd enjoyed his last concert...but there were other reasons for that.

"Darcy, why don't you try some Elvis, that's always popular," Charles suggested with a laugh.

Darcy merely scoffed at the remark and kept perusing, while he carried on an argument in his head. How the hell did I get myself into this? I can't back down now. Look at her, with that smirk...the cat that swallowed the canary. I wonder if she's the kind of cat who purrs... or growls...Oh, she's taking off her jacket again. That dress...those curves... Darcy, stop! Concentrate. This was her plan the whole time, wasn't it? Okay, find a song that you don't really have to sing to...

Then he spied it - a particular favourite of his. That would do.

He granted Caroline a slight smile as she returned from her performance, and then headed up to face the music. As he reached the stage, one of the most self- assured men in the country almost balked with fear, but he spotted Elizabeth with that same self-satisfied grin, and eyes ablaze with what looked to be excitement. He wouldn't let her down, even if she wanted him to. He cued the music and began his singing career; one he hoped would go no further than this one song.

His table was hooting and hollering as the first guitar riff began for Short Skirt, Long Jacket. As a drunken man, Darcy thought his ode to Elizabeth quite subtle, but every single person at their table knew he was singing those quirky lyrics for her.

Other tables did not; however, and soon the boisterous women's group, who had so coveted Richard, had found a new object of lust. They screamed, "Check out my fingernails"..."I'll get up early for you"... "I'm fast and thorough."

Darcy actually had to smile at their eagerness. He knew he was no crooner (thank God the song didn't call for that), but he also knew these ladies had no clue who he was. Their flirting was fun and innocent, something he hadn't experienced in a long time. Even though he couldn't say he was enjoying the experience, it wasn't as awful as he thought it would be.

Lizzy thought Darcy was quite hilarious until the rest of the table started needling her. Richard shouted, "Ah, isn't that cute. He's serenading you. It must be love."

To this Lizzy's eyes fired him a warning shot, while Caroline was offended by his presumption and replied, "Don't be so silly Richard. How do you know who he's singing about? It could be for me for all you know. It's just a song. He's doing quite well."

Lizzy was getting a little uncomfortable with the attention, and as Darcy neared the end of his song, she excused herself. Jane had mentioned there was a bit of a prop room backstage and she thought she might have a look to help spice up her performance.

Charles followed suit shortly thereafter and greeted Darcy with a huge grin in the back hallway. "Darcy, you have hidden talent. I wish I'd brought my camcorder."

"I'm very glad you didn't."

"So are you going to ask her out now?"

"What...who are you talking about?" Darcy asked, a bit flustered.

"Lizzy, of course. We know who inspired you to sing, especially after the argument that got you up on the stage in the first place. If you'd been any closer to her, you'd have tasted her."

Darcy refused to respond, choosing instead to avert his eyes (for we all know how much he hated lying).

"Darcy," Charles urged.

"Alright. You're right. The truth is I've never been so attracted to a woman in my life. I've almost asked her out but I'm...well, to be honest...I'm a little afraid of her."

"Afraid?" Charles asked, bewildered by such a strange admission.

"You've seen her Charles. Jane is beautiful, yes...but you'd have to be blind not to notice Elizabeth as well...her figure, her attitude, her whole...aura." He paused, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. "It's like...she emits pheromones or something. Men flock to her and I think it's her intention. I overheard a conversation...at the barbecue...with her mother ..."

"You eavesdropped? Darcy that's beneath you," Charles admonished. "I didn't mean to...at first. I just intended to spend more time with Elizabeth and then I heard the two talking of her former...conquests. You know I never trusted her. Well, her mother seemed to be proud of the fact that Elizabeth, and Jane for that matter, had caught rich men. She's just a gold-digger. In fact, Elizabeth-- " he stopped as he heard someone clear their throat. He and Charles both looked to the side to see Lizzy, who had been rummaging in the prop room with the door open. She had heard every word, and her face was stern and red with rage. surprisingly, she spoke rather flippantly. "Go on...finish your story."

Darcy should have learned from previous exchanges to apologize and shut up; he should have recognized that Lizzy was in no mood to be goaded. However, William Darcy felt he had done nothing of which to be ashamed. He was revealing the truth to Charles, a truth Lizzy hadn't denied to her mother. He was also using this as a way to defend himself from her appealing clutches, and above all, he had consumed a formidable amount of whisky, which was unquestionably affecting his good judgement.

"I was going to say...that Elizabeth has quite willingly been involved with wealthy, married men. She agreed with her mother that it was a shame she lost her opportunities." He looked at her for a reaction and was not disappointed.

"So, this is your opinion of me. My faults by your account are great indeed," she spoke harshly.

"Do you deny it?" Darcy asked, secretly wishing she would.

"Why should I even bother? You've already jumped to your conclusion. Would you believe me if I did?" she asked.

"I might consider it," he retorted angrily.

"Listen, I've never desired your good opinion and you certainly haven't given it willingly. I don't care what you believe. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a bargain to fulfill. Believe it or not, I never go back on my word, and besides, you know how much I love to put on a show."

She slammed the door to the prop room and promptly began to hyperventilate. The nerve! The gall of that man! He thinks I'm a gold-digger. Didn't he even hear me tonight? How many offers did I have this week! How laughable! But she wasn't laughing. She felt absolutely empty. She tried not to dwell on the hurt growing inside of her, focusing only on the anger. Once she had called him every conceivable insulting name, she turned her thoughts to her mother, and that conversation. Oh, if Darcy had only asked her about it right away, she would have willingly explained it, but now, she was frustrated by his continued lack of respect for her, and she wanted to put him in his place. Somehow.

There was a soft knock on the door and it opened to reveal Jane. "Lizzy, Charles told me what happened. Are you okay? Have you been crying?"

"No, not yet," Lizzy answered, inhaling deeply. "Is he still here?"

"Yes, but I don't know for how long. Charles is pretty frustrated with him...as am I," Jane replied honestly.

"Don't be. He's not worth it. Besides, it's just between the two of us. Don't get mixed up in it," Lizzy tried to reason with her protective sister. "By the way, you have told Charles about Mom, right?"

"Oh, yeah. He knows. I told him on our first date. Don't worry about that. Are you sure you're okay? I could arrange for punishment on Darcy's next dental visit. I have friends, you know," Jane kidded with a waggle of her eyebrows.

That got Lizzy smiling. Jane had often joked about belonging to the "Dental Mafia." Lizzy almost started to believe her when a root canal correlated with a particularly strong disagreement she'd had with her sister.

"No, I don't think I'd be that cruel. He's just guilty of bad ... stupid ... idiotic judgement," Lizzy reasoned. "I would like to do something to punish him somehow though ..."

Lizzy's eyes suddenly caught the glint of rhinestones in one of the prop boxes. A small smile crept onto her face. "I think I have an idea, Jane. Maybe it'll put him in his place without being truly vindictive." Lizzy smiled and got ready for her song.

Upon gracing the stage, Lizzy automatically received a few whistles. She cut a naughty figure in her lacy dress and stockings, but what got the crowd going was a pink feather boa and a rhinestone tiara. The music did not start. Instead, she tapped on the microphone and spoke, completely at ease in front of the curious crowd.

"Hello! Tonight I decided to try one of my favourite songs...until I heard a certain gentleman's conversation. It reminded me of a simpler time ... when men were men and women were ... girls... and girls had only one goal in life...to latch onto a man with money."

As Lizzy drawled on, the crowd roared and Darcy stiffened defensively. As usual, little emotion escaped, but his mind was churning...questioning...freaking out. How far will she take this? Will she actually single me out? Should I make a break for it?

Even with this impending sense of doom, Darcy remained in his seat, virtually frozen to the spot; terrified of the possible embarrassment and mesmerized by Elizabeth's stage presence. Devil with a blue dress on, indeed.

"And although I'm not blonde," Lizzy continued, "which I hear is what some gentleman prefer, I'd like to sing this song in honour of those times, as well as for the man who reminded me of them."

With that, the karaoke machine began to play a surprisingly good instrumental version of Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. Lizzy never even bothered to look at the screen. She proceeded to perform every line with a campy, sarcastic and truth-be-told, very Marilyn intonation. She started with a husky, deep voice and slipped just as easily into girlish giddiness.

Darcy felt like the butt of a cigarette being crushed under Lizzy's three-inch heels. Thank God only Charles...well, and Jane...know what's going on...and they were both cheering Lizzy on. In fact, as she pranced, posed and paraded in front of the audience, they were all energetically egging her on. The truth was, she was fabulous and funny, cheeky and sexy and heartily enjoying her playful revenge.

Every line of that old standard seemed to dig at Darcy and his earlier accusations. Every look she passed his way was a saucy taunt, and every flirtatious wink or nod she made towards other men was a rejection of any move he'd ever made on her.

Once again, she managed to stir conflicting emotions in him. He was not amused by her cheekiness. He was insulted. What had he done that was so wrong? Charles had a right to know about the Bennet women! But Lizzy's reaction to his words...this performance, seemed to throw everything he said back in his face, and he began to doubt himself. Did he hear wrong? Did she have a valid answer to his question? As it was, he doubted she'd ever speak to him again so his uncertainty made little difference.

He also wondered about her singing. She was very talented, particularly to be able to perform so well with so little help...in a crummy bar, with a pitiful microphone and a bloody karaoke machine as accompaniment. Didn't she say she couldn't sing! She lied to get me up there! She did it again! All those negative, accusatory thoughts were ultimately pushed aside as he watched her move. Near the end of the song, mirroring one of Marilyn Monroe's poses; Lizzy stretched her arms high in the air and belted out, "But stiff back or stiff knees, you stand straight as...Tiffany's..."

This action enabled Darcy to meditate on the very great pleasure a pair of sexy garters on the legs of a pretty woman can bestow.

Elizabeth Bennet had again succeeded in discombobulating William Darcy. He didn't know what to think. His mind was as convoluted as Caroline Bingley's wardrobe. His body, unfortunately, was more ready for hers than ever. When Lizzy finished her song, to calls for an encore, he hardly knew what to do or feel. Again, he remained in his chair, dumbstruck; watching the events of the evening sweep over him, unused to having so little control. What a hell of a birthday. I should have just stayed in bed.

Lizzy disappeared offstage and the crowd died down; the bar grew almost silent. No one in their right mind would follow a show like that, so it marked the finale of the entertainment for the evening. When the bartender realized the eerily quiet atmosphere, he cranked the music and the place returned to normal.

"Where did that little lady learn to do that?" Henry asked, quite amazed and a bit disappointed, knowing he'd be a fool to try a turn at strutting his stuff now.

"Well, to be honest, that's kind of her signature number, although she hasn't done it since high school. Sort of a love/hate thing," Jane answered, only making the group more curious to hear the story. They all looked at her expectantly, so she continued.

"In her senior year, her school was putting on a revue of old movie musicals. Lizzy was picked to be Marilyn."

"Humph, she's not even blonde," Caroline interjected, overtly jealous of the attention to Lizzy's talent.

"Caroline, it's beside the point, but neither was Marilyn," Charlotte spoke up. "Anyway, Lizzy solved that with a wig. And if you have to ask which features she and Marilyn have in common, I suggest you put the question to any man at this table. I'm sure they'd give you an answer or two."

This brought wide grins and a few nods from three of the four men...Darcy did not want any of them to so blatantly enjoy Lizzy's assets.

"Anyway, she hasn't performed this song since then, not that she's really had a reason to...until now," Jane said, glancing at Darcy. "She got frustrated in school when guys seemed to take her act on stage to heart. You know, stupid high school boys who thought they could get lucky if they bought her off. She's so not like that."

Jane again turned directly to Darcy, hoping he was catching every point she made. The object of the conversation chose that moment to appear.

"As I live and breathe, if it isn't Ms. Monroe herself," Richard called as Lizzy returned to stand by the table. "You were incredible! Brilliant! Bravo!"

A chorus of similar compliments flowed from the table.

"Thank you. Thank you. You're all very sweet. I hate to sing and run, but this little girl is quite tired."

"I thought you said you couldn't sing," Darcy stated abruptly.

"I said no such thing."

"Yes you did," he insisted. "It was to get me up there...to try to embarrass me."

"Darcy, if you listened to me rather than trying to interpret my words to suit your own perceived notions, you would recall I said that I'd never done karaoke and I didn't want to start now. In fact, I only started arguing about going up when you began to push me into it."

"She's right, you know," Richard interjected, much to Darcy's displeasure.

"Listen, Darcy, I'd love to stay and argue some more but I'm going home. I've been up since 5 am and it's nearly midnight. I'm tired," Lizzy said, weary, not only from the events of the day, but also from the gamut of emotions she had experienced that evening.

"Ah, a girl who gets up early and stays up late," Richard repeated the words of Darcy's earlier song. He gave Darcy a wicked grin. Darcy countered with a nasty scowl.

"I think I'll head out too," Darcy said, wanting to get Lizzy alone to try to talk rationally, without an audience.

"Oh, no, birthday boy," Lizzy said, placing her hand on his shoulder, momentarily diverted by its firmness. "You're the guest of honour. You can't leave. I'm just going to grab a cab. It's been great meeting you, Henry. See you again, all. Richard, it's been wonderful to finally see you in the flesh."

Richard gave her a kiss upon the cheek and a warm hug. In his estimation, she was a phenomenal woman for putting it to Darcy so easily. He was glad to have met her.

Darcy didn't like this chain of events at all. He stood up and this time, he placed a hand on Elizabeth's still-bare shoulder. A rush of desire crept over him as he felt her soft skin.

"Elizabeth, let me call my driver. He'll take you home."

"What? Oh, Darcy, no. I've already called a cab. Don't be silly. I don't need a driver." She laughed at the ridiculousness of the offer. I just want to get away from everything associated with you, Mr. Darcy. I definitely don't need to sit in your car.

"I insist. It's not safe for a woman to take a taxi alone. If you won't let me join you-"

"Give it up, Darcy. You don't need to protect a girl like me. I can take care of myself." Lizzy turned and retrieved her jacket, scarf and handbag, gave a final wave and walked out of the bar.

There was no way Darcy was going to leave it at that.

"Elizabeth!" he called to her as he exited the bar.

"Why are you following me Darcy? Your opinion of me is perfectly clear and I believe I told you what I think of it."

"Would you please explain to me what I misconstrued in your conversation with your mother?" he asked politely, softly taking her arm to make it a little more difficult for her to bolt, which she seemed to do on almost every occasion they'd met.

"The time for you to ask that question of me has come and gone. You obviously want to think of me as some conniving chequebook-chasing she-devil with a penchant for lying," Lizzy paused, deciding to twist the knife a little before leaving. "It's a shame too, things might have worked out this evening."

"What do you mean?" Darcy asked, furrowing his brow but stepping a little closer to her. She did the same, then walked her fingers up his chest and answered unabashedly, "Come now, Darcy, you're no fool. I'm not usually like this...but tonight...for some reason...had you said the word, when we were at the hotel, I would have willingly followed you upstairs...or wherever..."

She could hear his breathing become laboured; she could feel it as she touched his chest, and once again, she took a step closer, biting her lip temptingly. He wound his arm around her waist and pulled her against him to probe even further. "And then what, Elizabeth?"

"Well, quite honestly, you would have been treated to a night of hot...sweaty...wild...obscene sex. You've had a taste of me. You know it would have been incredible," she said in a breathy but forceful whisper, getting a hot and bothered by her own description of their union. Damn it Lizzy, you're taking this too far...remember what he said.

"What's stopping us now?" Darcy asked huskily. His eyes darkened in pure lust and he awaited her consent. He was already visualizing her - and those garters - - in his bed.

Lizzy forced herself to close her eyes, swallow hard and remember his previous words. You know I never trusted her... She's just a gold-digger...

"What's stopping us?" she repeated strongly, and with a willpower that shocked even her, wrenched her body out of his arms and spoke from behind clenched teeth. "Only the fact you've insulted me all night. You dismissed me earlier, you humiliated me in front of a bouncer, and you had no hesitation in calling me a liar. Most of all, you think I'm out to get your money...or any other man's for that matter. So, forgive me if I'm not really ready to rip my clothes off for you."

She began to walk towards the waiting cab when she had another thought. If anything, Lizzy liked to speak her mind. "And are you any different, if that were the case? Are you after anything else but my body? Ready to use it one night and dispose of me once you've sated your...curiosity?"

He didn't answer right away. He knew he wanted her, and then to have her out of his system. It was hypocritical of him, but there was no way he was going to admit it. Besides, a snag in the process was his worry that if he did have her once, he might never be able to let her go.

Lizzy interrupted his thoughts as she stood by the door of her cab. "If you ever figure out your answer, call someone who cares...because I certainly don't."

And with that Lizzy hopped into the backseat, slammed the door and didn't look back. Not once. Tears stung in her eyes for the second time that night but she willed them not to fall. To hell with him if he just wants a quick fuck. I'm nothing to him, so he'll be nothing to me.

She continued to ruminate over these facts - as the cab drove on, as she walked up her stairs and as she opened the door of her townhouse. At the last moment before entering, she turned to look back towards the street and noticed a second cab slowly leaving the curb behind hers. She was momentarily confused, as the passenger hadn't bothered to get out. Wrong address, I guess, she thought. Closing the door, her only desire was to be asleep and be free of continuous thoughts of Darcy.

Chapter V

Lizzy slept fitfully that night with erratic dreams; a mishmash of skin against skin, strong hands furrowing through her dark hair and conversely hers through her lover's. When she felt a crest of pleasure mounting, the lover would disappear and the dream would quickly stop. Then later, she dreamt she was dripping from head to toe in diamonds. They seemed glued to her body like scales to a mermaid.

Darcy stood in front of her with admiring eyes and she eagerly requested, *Take me now."

He tried. He kissed her passionately and attempted to remove the diamonds from her body. "I can't, they won't come off. Tell me what to do."

"Of course they will. You're not trying hard enough. All I want is you," Lizzy urged.

"I'm sorry. I'm afraid you're not worth it. I have to leave," Darcy said, turning and walking away.

"Please, please, don't give up on me! Darcy, please," Lizzy begged to no avail. She watched him walk through a door. "NO!"

She awoke sweating and disoriented, with a pounding headache. She looked at the clock and it read 11:47. She had slept more than 10 hours. She'd needed it, but it was a rare occurrence and now the effects of the night before were coming back to haunt her.

Forget about him, Lizzy. He's not worth it. He's too distrustful. He's even hurtful. You can't deal with someone like that.

She made her way to the bathroom and popped a couple of ibuprofen. I really didn't drink that much, did I? No, I just didn't have a very restful sleep. That's what it is. She reasoned with herself down the hallway to the kitchen where she met a very curious eyes Jane.

"I was wondering when you'd show your face. Are you feeling okay?"

"Just a headache, a pounding, throbbing, nasty one. Next time, remind me that five is way too much. I'll get over it eventually... I think I'll lay low today though."

"What happened after you and Darcy left us last night?" Jane asked.

"What do you mean, when Darcy and I left you? He went back into the bar when I got in the cab, didn't he?"

"No. About 10 minutes after you two headed out the door, Darcy called Charles on his cell phone to let him know he'd hopped in a cab and was on his way home. We thought maybe you'd patched things up," Jane explained. She didn't elaborate on the fact the men had thought Darcy was getting a prettily packaged birthday gift.

"Far from it," Lizzy answered, pouring herself a glass of water. However, she began to think about last night and the realization hit her. He made sure I got home safely...

"Lizzy, do you want to talk? What happened when you two left?" Jane asked tentatively. As humourous as Lizzy's performance was last night, Jane knew her sister had been hurt much more than she wanted to admit. Lizzy and Darcy seemed so intense, in either their like or dislike of each other, that she didn't necessarily think they would be healthy together.

"We fought again. I'm not going into details, Jane. You wouldn't like some of the words that were thrown about," Lizzy answered, side- stepping the question as best as she could. She hadn't sorted out her feelings yet so she didn't want to express them to anyone else.

Jane decided to press the issue. "Lizzy, can you two ever speak rationally together?"

Lizzy accepted she wasn't getting anywhere without fessing up, so she thought the best route with Jane would be to spell out exactly what Darcy was after. Speaking plainly might put an end to her sister's questions. "Not when all he wanted to do was take me home and have his way with me. I mean we hardly speak to each other civilly, he says nasty things about me to his friends, he insulted me in every possible manner, and he still thought I'd be open to the option of screwing his brains out."

"Lizzy! You can't be serious!" Jane said, as aghast by Lizzy's bluntness as by the actual course of the argument.

"Totally. After all he said about me last night, he still thought he could get lucky."

Jane pondered this for a moment, trying to rationalize Darcy's expectations. "Well, you did start off in a rather unorthodox manner the first time you met."

"It doesn't give him the right to presume I'd sleep with him," Lizzy countered, although a bit guiltily. She was replaying the argument in her mind and she knew she was just as much to blame for his presumption as he was.

"No, you're right," Jane said, wondering if that was the end of it.

"Of course, it doesn't give me the right to tease him with the idea either," Lizzy confessed penitently.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, Jane. It wasn't all his fault - our disagreement last night, at least the last one. He was just trying to make sense of what he'd heard Mom say and I didn't think he deserved to be answered. Then I told him, if he had played his cards right, he might have gotten lucky," Lizzy said, looking down and rubbing an imaginary spot on the kitchen floor with her foot.

"It wasn't right for you to lead him on like that. You'd never have done that," Jane chastised.

"But the truth is...I was ready to...if he'd been nice. I know, I've never done anything like that before...but with this man, it's...it's so extreme. It's like a chemical reaction when he enters the room. I start to remember our kiss that night...and wham, all these powerful feelings hit me. I think we fit...physically...but mentally...it's a whole other story."

"You weren't really..." Jane began again, disbelieving.

"That's what scares me the most, Jane. I was...really... earlier on, but then... I never realized how badly he thought of me until last night." Lizzy stood defeated. Jane knew Darcy already had the power to hurt Lizzy even more than she first imagined, more than Lizzy realized. She wanted to tread carefully here, but she also wanted to tell Lizzy what she truly thought of the situation.

"I think he really does like you, and that his distrust is more about him than you. He seems to be a rather complicated man. If you were to begin to get involved with him, I don't know if it would be easy."

"You're probably right on both counts. I think he is complicated, but unfortunately, complicated always seems to be interesting. Having said that, unless he treats me as nothing less than a princess from here on in, I don't want to have anything to do with him," Lizzy decided resolutely. Jane nodded in agreement. Thinking it over, Lizzy added resignedly, "Then again, I don't think he wants a relationship, particularly with me, so I guess I don't really have to worry about these things."

"Lizzy, even if he does make it up to you, don't play with fire. He's much older than anyone you've ever been involved with. You aren't as experienced as you like to think and he doesn't know that. Be careful, for both your sakes," Jane said reasonably.

Jane wasn't exaggerating as she warned her sister. Although Lizzy knew how to flirt with abandon, she rarely went further with a man. She had had only two serious relationships in her life; one steady boyfriend at the end of high school who was gone after her first semester of university, and the other in her third year of university. The first was a young love, one of innocence and discovery that ended amicably. It was no great passion on either part. The second was with a younger man. She was 21, he 20 - no serious age difference but one where she had kept all the control. They had dated for a year and a half and although she had thought of him warmly, she had known it wasn't love. She never realized it, but she ensured the upper hand with both men. Darcy was a very different beast, but very similar to her in this regard. As opposed to letting her lead him, they would most likely butt heads - hell, they already had.

"I highly doubt there's much to worry about. I don't think his pride will allow him to get back in touch with me. I burned him pretty good," Lizzy said, scrunching her nose.

She put her now empty glass in the sink and stretched. "Now, if you'll excuse me, my bed awaits my return. Are you off anywhere today?"

"I just need to run a few errands this afternoon and then Charles wants me to come over tonight so you may not see me for the rest of the day. By the way, can you make it to Charles's place for dinner on Friday? He's having a get together with a few of his friends."

"Friday? Sorry, can't make it. Some of my friends at work are getting together for a wine and cheese... a girl's night in. We've been putting it off forever. Maybe some other time?"

"Sure," Jane said quietly, not really wanting to press the fact she had wanted Lizzy there for moral support. The dinner party was for Charles to introduce her to all of his friends, and other than Darcy, she knew no one. She was rather nervous at the prospect but Charles had insisted they have it right away as their coming month's schedule would be hectic. Lizzy brought her back to the present and never noticed her sister's pensive mood.

"Before you leave, can you take the phone off the hook? I just want to sleep. And thanks for listening, Jane. I do appreciate your concern," Lizzy said, assuring Jane that she wasn't interfering. Jane smiled and silently hoped Lizzy would have an easier time of it, with or without Darcy in her life.

~ * ~

Pemberley stood in the chi-chi enclave of Rockcliffe Park; a neighborhood in central Ottawa that bordered the Ottawa River and was abundant in trees, parks and that other form of greenery that enabled people to live there. Ottawa was founded by lumber barons, and their homes were as sturdy as their industry, but now many of them housed ambassadors, high-tech tycoons and an assortment of overachievers. Pemberley was the grandest; a fine stone structure on ten acres of land, quite a hefty piece of yardage for the centre of the city. The only property with more acreage was the Governor General's Residence, and the taxpayers of Canada owned that.

Within the confines of this grandest of homes, Darcy had awoken, two hours earlier than Lizzy, with a smile on his face. His dreams had been very fulfilling; involving feather boas, seemed stockings, lacy garter belts, and a very alluring brunette. But as the sunlight finally peeked between the clouds and then his curtains, Darcy's grin quickly faded. For indeed, he was in a similar state as the elusive Ms. Bennet - his head ached, as did the rest of his body.

Elizabeth...she had infiltrated his conscious and unconscious dreams. She was a tornado; barging into his life, sweeping him off his feet, turning his daily routine upside down and making sure he landed harshly on his face at every opportunity. Should he wish her away? Would he wish away last night from his memory if he had the chance? No way in hell. The indelible memories were too sweet: the sight of her garters, the scoop of her neckline, those killer heels, the silkiness of her skin when he touched her shoulders, and especially the touch of her lips when she had kissed him on the cheek. He took a moment and blocked out the rest of the evening to just enjoy the snippets that had given him pleasure. They only included Elizabeth.

The pounding inside his head brought him back to the present and he slipped into the washroom for some medication.

As he reassessed their discussion, he recognized Elizabeth was right for the most part; he had been an ass to her. She had had any number of potential bedfellows, it would seem, and she had rejected them time and time again. Even Richard seemed ready to make a move if she had let him, but she had not. She flirted, yes, but she hadn't given him any indication of interest, unlike her provocative birthday wish to him and her admission that she had been ready to sleep with him. He had lost his chance. Well, no more of that, Darcy thought resolutely. Regardless of what might be in her past, Darcy wanted her now. If she won't explain herself, I'll just have to believe her. It's my turn to sweep her away.

As he wandered downstairs for some strong coffee, he began to devise a plan. He would call her today, start afresh. He was determined things would go his way, he would not fail.

~ * ~

Monday morning, Lizzy entered her sprawling office, otherwise known as Corner Cubicle Number 30, and was intrigued to find a long white box on her desk and a lovely vase. A thank you from the delegation perhaps? A thank you from Monsieur Martel for ensuring they had paid their bill?

The box contained a dozen long stem coral roses. Coral roses - desire, she thought absently.

She fumbled a little with the card and when she finally had a look at it, the writing simply said: Can we start over?

No name. None needed. She was not happy, and yet she couldn't help but be a little satisfied.

As she sat down at her desk, she tried to make sense of her feelings... and his. What does he want? What does he mean "start over"? Do I want him anywhere near me? Does he think a dozen roses can impress or appease me?

Most of her morning was wasted through various permutations of these questions. She wasn't ready to say yes to the question posed on the card, but she wasn't quite ready to say no either. She didn't know exactly why she felt this way. She reasoned her interest must be purely physical, just as his was, but that superficial explanation didn't quite sit right. The phone interrupted her reverie.

"Elizabeth Bennet, bonjour."

"Good morning Elizabeth."

"Darcy."

"You're very difficult to track down."

"Really?"

"Yes, I couldn't get in touch with you all weekend."

Silence.

"Did you get your delivery?" he asked, not knowing what else to say.

She pursed her lips and kept her sarcastic comment to herself. Shall I swoon over his gallantry now or later?

"Lizzy, did you want to come for - hey look at those roses, who-" Mary Ellen stopped when she saw Lizzy was on the phone. She mouthed a "Sorry" and was about to leave when Lizzy held up her hand to stop her.

"Just a moment please," Lizzy said in a sugary intonation into the phone. She moved the receiver to her shoulder and turned to her friend with a big smile. "You wanted to know who sent those to me? They happen to be from a guy who treated me like crap and then expected me to have sex with him this weekend."

Mary Ellen looked at the receiver and then at Lizzy and figured out who was on the phone. She held in her laughter and whispered, "Boyfriend?"

"Not at all," Lizzy replied, perky as a cheerleader but with sarcasm infiltrating every word. "He's not even attempted to get that far. Just casual sex after insulting remarks. I better finish this call. Give me 30 seconds or so and I'll come for coffee."

Mary Ellen's mouth rounded in a tight "O", knowing the man on the other end was probably not enjoying this conversation. In their line of work, she had seen Lizzy dismiss men without them even knowing it; however, this man was feeling her wrath. He must have screwed up big time. She walked back down to her cubicle and waited patiently, knowing this coffee break chat was going to be juicy.

"So, you were saying?" Lizzy said casually, returning to her caller.

"I guess that answers both my questions," Darcy said sullenly.

"Goodbye Darcy."

As one could imagine, William Darcy, successful publishing baron, was not pleased with how his first strategy had utterly failed. He'd lost the battle, but the war was not over. He failed to recognize Lizzy would hardly like the idea of being conquered.

~ * ~

Monday evening, approximately 7:30 P.M.

"Hello."

"Elizabeth?"

"Yes?"

"Are you willing to reconsider? I will try to be nicer, I promise."

"Goodnight Darcy."

Well, she hadn't said no...

~ * ~

Lizzy was hesitant to answer her phone on Tuesday knowing he might call. She steadily worked through a pile of papers and then took a little break upon noticing an e-mail that told her she'd received an e-card. Although she could guess the sender, she couldn't resist. She clicked on the link and was soon staring at a cartoon of a very sad Dalmatian puppy sitting in his doghouse. The message read, "Can I please come out now?" Another click later, the puppy had vacated the doghouse and began to run around wagging his tail. Another message popped up. "So what do you say...can we start over yet?"

Despite herself, Lizzy chuckled and wondered what time he would call her today. But he didn't, and it was with a little regret she left her office that evening. She needn't have worried, for, once again, at about 7:30 P.M., the phone rang.

"Hello."

"Elizabeth?"

"Yes, Darcy."

"Did you get my message?"

"Yes, Darcy."

"Did you like it?"

The question hung in the air for several moments before Lizzy decided to answer.

"I laughed."

"Any more consideration to my question?"

"Considering."

"Good. I'll take that as a positive step."

"I said I'd consider it." Lizzy was not yet convinced. Two charming olive branches in two days did not suffice as far she was concerned... no matter how cute that puppy cartoon was.

"Are you going to Charles's dinner on Friday?"

"As a matter of fact I can't make it. Are you going?" Lizzy asked.

"Oh," Darcy said, obviously surprised by her answer. "I was looking forward to seeing you there."

"Oh," Lizzy answered back calmly, but her stomach muscles tightened at his comment.

"Are you sure you can't make it?" he pressed.

"I'm sure. Some friends from work are having a wine and cheese. I can't miss it," Lizzy explained.

"Are you free for lunch tomorrow?" he asked. He had her talking calmly and thought it best to strike while the iron was hot.

"No, I haven't been taking lunch much lately," Lizzy answered truthfully. She was trying to tie up loose ends from the last diplomatic visit before jumping into her duties for the Queen's tour; she'd had no time to do anything lately. She had just managed to get home for seven o'clock that night.

"You shouldn't neglect your health, you know. What are they doing to you there?" Darcy said, his over-protectiveness suddenly taking over.

"I do eat, don't worry, but it's usually only cafeteria crap. I'm just really busy. Oh, gosh Darcy, I have to go, my pasta's boiling over and Jane's not here to help. Sorry... bye."

"But-"

He never got the chance to finish. She ran away from me again. Well, there's always tomorrow, Darcy thought with a small smile, a little happier with Tuesday's progress.

~ * ~

Wednesday, 10:30 am. No e-mail, no telephone call -- Lizzy was getting worried. She had to admit she was pleased with his attention. He was finally behaving; but now, she was getting a little greedy. She ran off to a meeting and thought about calling him. No, Lizzy. He knows you're attracted to him. No need to throw yourself at him again.

As hard as she tried, she couldn't concentrate on reviewing the schedule of events for the Royal tour. When she rushed back to her cubicle to check her voice-mail, she felt giddy and sheepish all at once; for in the middle of her desk sat a beautiful basket of food -- baguettes, Brie, grapes, apples, chocolate dipped strawberries and sparkling water. The only thing missing was a handsome man to accompany the rest of the delicacies. Of course, she realized, with a frown, that was her own fault, but she couldn't help but smile as she read the card: Wouldn't want you to suffer from malnutrition - Darcy

There was no way she was going to leave this unanswered. She quickly dialed the main switchboard of Darcy Publishing and was given his assistant. After a few minutes on hold, a familiar but skeptical deep voice answered the phone.

"Hello?"

"What did I do to deserve this?" Lizzy asked, a smile evident in the warmth of her voice. It sent a rush of relief and pleasure through Darcy's body. He hadn't been sure what her reaction would be; she'd been giving him the cold shoulder but it seemed to be thawing.

"I just didn't like the thought of you eating some dreadful cafeteria food," he said casually, not wanting to come on too strong. What he truly wanted to do was crawl through the phone line and wrap himself around the warmth of her voice. She called me! he thought, a bit amazed. He hadn't expected that kind of result, not yet anyway. He had assumed she'd been playing hard to get.

"It's very sweet of you, but you know there's no need for you to do this...and there's an awful lot of food here," she said.

"You can share it with your friends if you like. I'm afraid I took your song literally the other night. I thought you said something about liking big baguettes," he said dryly, hoping she'd find the joke amusing rather than antagonistic.

"How did you know that's what I really meant," she replied, laughing.

Darcy was enchanted. In fact, if anyone could have observed him, they would have never believed the sight. He had his elbows on his desk, one hand on the phone, the other in a fist against his cheek. His eyes were glazed over and his smile was simply goofy. He was far more thrilled by the fact she had called him than he was capable of realizing. He was delighted by the sound of her voice, didn't understand why every word she spoke seemed to disarm him. He was so enraptured, had she requested a king's ransom at that moment, he would have asked in what denominations. However, he knew that wasn't what she was after. Even though he had resolved to believe her, Charles insisted on telling Darcy Mrs. Bennet's history of hyperbole. Instead of having to go on Elizabeth's word alone, he had Charles backing her up.

"Sometimes I learn quickly. Other times, well, let's not go there," Darcy paused briefly before forging ahead with some serious flirting. "By the way, you really were quite entertaining on Friday night. Would you be willing to give a private show?"

Lizzy caught her breath. Although he had been all politeness up to this point, she didn't know quite how to react to the sexual innuendo. She had still not forgiven him 100 percent and she wanted to be courted slowly. She ultimately wanted time to figure out if all he wanted from her was sex... and if she was willing to agree to it or not.

"What do you mean?" Lizzy asked back lightly.

"Are you still busy Friday night?" he asked, quite certain her plans had changed now that they were getting along.

"Yes... still busy," Lizzy answered, a little confused. "I do have a life!"

"Oh," he said, again surprised by this answer but didn't falter. "Well then, are you available tomorrow night for dinner? Oh wait, I can't ask you to see me tomorrow. I'm tied up in meetings all day with a business dinner as well. I'm sorry, would tonight be too short notice?"

"I never said we could start over," Lizzy answered coyly. She was actually stalling for time. To start, she had an appointment to get her legs waxed tonight, but there was no way in hell she'd give that as an excuse. She didn't know if she was ready to see him tonight. She was enjoying this flirting at a distance, the slow-building anticipation, the protection granted by the phone line, and wasn't quite sure she wanted her first date with him to be mid-week. Of course, maybe it would be safer that way...

"Of course, if I misunderstood your interest-" Darcy began tersely. He did not know what to think if her answer, but sensed she was toying with him; something he did not like when he was being serious.

"No, no, I'm just teasing, but tonight's not really good for me. Could you wait until Saturday?" she asked, only realizing her presumptuousness after the request was out of her mouth.

"I'm afraid I can't," he replied with disappointment. Lizzy bit her lip and wanted to kick herself. He was only asking her out, he wasn't asking her to wear his school ring. Grow up, girl. He has a life too.

So lost in her self-scolding, she almost didn't hear him continue. "I have to fly to New Zealand and Australia on Saturday. I'll be there for nearly three weeks. I'm looking at purchasing some smaller publishing companies there and the negotiations are near completion. I wanted to go on-site to see their facilities before I agree to anything further."

"Wow... yes, well, that makes sense. Unfortunately, it seems we have a hard time connecting-"

"What about Saturday morning?" he interrupted, desperate to see her.

"Will you have time?" Lizzy asked honestly.

"I would make time," he said in a determined voice that made Lizzy's toes curl.

"Saturday morning would be lovely," Lizzy answered, wishing she had said yes to his earlier offer of that evening.

"How does the Ritz on Clarence sound, say, 10 A.M?"

"Perfect. I'll be there," she replied.

"May I call you tomorrow night? It could be quite late...around 10:30?" he asked, almost hesitantly. He sounded as earnest as the schoolboy she had just convinced herself he wasn't. It was terribly endearing and she wished she could give him a squeeze for it ... among other things.

"Of course you can call me," she answered. "But on that note, I must get back to work. I want to make sure I don't get too far behind."

"Certainly. Thank you for calling Elizabeth," he said genuinely.

"Thank you, Darcy. You've made my day. Bye for now," Lizzy answered.

"Bye for now," he repeated, feeling light-headed and totally lost.

~ * ~

Lizzy worked very late Wednesday night, then headed straight to her 8:00 P.M. aesthetician's appointment, an unconscious response for her not accepting Darcy's offer of dinner. Ultimately, all that work was a good idea for she really was getting swamped lately. Thursday ended up being rather hectic as well, but her day was brightened by the arrival of a small basket of lavender toiletries - soap, powder and bubble bath. The time the note read: This reminded me of you. Think of me when you use it. - Darcy

She wasn't sure if she should accept this gift. After all, it was rather personal. However, he had pinpointed one of her weaknesses; the basket contained her favourite imported brand and it was often difficult to find.

She could hardly contain her excitement waiting for his call as she ran in the door of her townhouse that evening. Jane had to put up with her pacing, cleaning and edginess without knowing why her sister was so hyper. Lizzy hadn't said a word to Jane about Darcy. She didn't want to worry her or jinx the streak.

She did, however, want to find out more about Charles's get-together. "So, Jane, is there anyone going tomorrow night whom I know, besides Darcy?"

"I think Charles asked Richard the other day, but I don't think there's anyone else you know. I've no idea if Richard's bringing a date or not, but everyone else is," Jane answered absently.

This totally piqued Lizzy's interest. "Everyone else? Even Darcy?"

"Yes. Oh, I'm sorry Lizzy, is that a problem? I didn't think you'd care," Jane said, watching her sister's reaction closely.

"Oh, no. It's no big deal. I certainly don't own him," Lizzy reasoned as much to herself as to Jane. Who is he bringing? He doesn't think I'll cave, does he? Guess I'll just have to ask him.

She finally decided a half-hour lavender bubble bath with a glass of wine would take her mind off her impending phone call. Of course, the phone came into the bathroom with her, but that's beside the point.

As she sunk into the hot water and bubbles, she did as she was told; she thought about him. Her mind wandered to that first night, that delicious kiss, the way he enveloped her in his arms and the firm way his hands had touched her body. Then she jumped to the concert and the way he swayed so rhythmically against her. Mmm, what would it be like to have him here now, she thought, closing her eyes and losing herself in a vision of him walking through her bathroom door, lifting her from the tub and taking her right then and there; hot, wet, and bubbly.

So lost in her fantasies, she practically jumped out of the tub with the sound of a shrill ring. It's not 10:30 yet! It can't be!

"I've got it," she shouted to Jane and breathlessly she answered the phone, "Hello?"

"Did I catch you at a bad time?" Darcy asked.

"No, it's just early, isn't it?" she asked, not wanting to move for fear he'd hear a splash. She reddened, hearing the voice of the man she had been visualizing in a most compromising position.

"Yes, it's only 10 o'clock. I didn't think you'd mind."

"Not at all. Did your meetings go well?" she asked, hoping for him to do most of the talking while she gathered her wits about her.

He briefly explained his day to her, asking several times if she was really interested. She whole-heartedly confirmed she was, the truth being she wanted to know more about him and what better way than to hear about his daily routine.

"And what are you up to this evening?" he asked.

"Nothing much," she said casually, but at that very moment she slipped slightly in the tub and nearly lost the phone. The sloshing of water alerted Darcy to her peculiar location.

"Where are you?" he asked, quite certain he had heard a squeak and a swoosh.

Though he could not see her, Lizzy was blushing furiously. She didn't know what to tell him. Although she had never shied away from flirting, actually being naked affected her comfort level. What would he think of me? She had hesitated long enough for him to add, "Are you in the bathtub? Are you putting my little gift to good use?"

Darcy was elated with the idea of her being unclothed at the other end of the line, and was quite ready to drive over and join her.

Upon hearing his delight, she relaxed but still felt... a little... well... exposed. The playing field suddenly favoured Darcy and she didn't enjoy the feeling.

"As a matter of fact I am," Lizzy finally answered honestly. "I am lying here, surrounded by lovely smelling bubbles with a glass of Chardonnay in one hand and the charming voice of a man in the other."

"Elizabeth, you paint a lovely picture," Darcy said in a dark, dreamy voice. He had not been expecting this treat, and as he lay down on his duvet, he loosened his tie and closed his eyes, envisioning the site that was only a ten minute drive away... five if necessary.

"Yes, well, thank you once again for the gifts, though I really don't expect any," she said uncomfortably, again pondering whether she should have returned this more intimate gift.

"I know you don't. That's why it makes me happy. Besides, I'm just trying to make up for my boorish behaviour. Those very small gifts are things to help you relax, to help your body. I'm sure I've put you through some stress in the past few weeks, now I'm trying to relieve it," he answered, hoping she wouldn't back away. As lovely as she was, she was very touchy when it came to certain subjects. He would have to remember that.

"You did cause me some distress. A woman doesn't like to be rejected in front of a lobby full of people," she remarked pointedly.

"Nor does she like overhearing a rude man spouting off incorrectly about her love life, I suppose," he ventured sheepishly.

"Excellent observation," she returned playfully.

"Of course, a man doesn't like to have a carrot dangled in front of him only to have it pulled away," he countered, pushing his side of the story.

"I did nothing of the sort." Lizzy responded archly, "I dangled sex in front of you."

"I stand corrected," Darcy laughed lightly, thrilled to be back on track in his pursuit of the delightful Elizabeth. He decided to try one last effort in getting her to Charles's party. "You know, if you come tomorrow night, you could correct me all night long."

"Well, you have been a naughty boy - a spanking might do you good -- but I'm afraid I still have to decline. I am busy, Darcy. My previous engagement stands. Besides, don't you already have a date?"

"Oh yes, Anne. She's a friend of the family," Darcy replied, not venturing any other information, but then adding, "Why do you ask? Are you worried?"

"Should I be?" she asked back.

"You'll only know if you come," he dared.

"There's nothing to be resolved then. I can't come. I'll just have to look forward to our breakfast and hope it won't be a threesome."

"That's an interesting concept...but not likely in this case. Besides, I'm free right now. I could come over and scrub your back," Darcy offered.

"You are such a selfless man. But unfortunately, I'm beginning to look like a prune so I think I'll be getting out. Perhaps I'll talk with you briefly tomorrow?"

"Why do you have to hang up now?" Darcy asked, wanting to hear her every movement.

"Well, it's a bit awkward," Lizzy explained.

"We've never had such a pleasant, uninterrupted conversation. Please don't be in a rush for it to end," Darcy said genuinely, knowing he'd be quite content just listening to her breathe for the rest of the night if she'd let him.

Lizzy giggled slightly. Sometimes, I think he's bi-polar; so charming in one instant, yet so dismissive in others. He'd be a fascinating case study for a psych thesis.

"Alright, I'll stay on the line. Do you mind if I put the phone down while I dry myself off?"

"Ah, where is video conferencing when you need it?" he asked with a deep regretful sigh.

"God, Darcy, you're shameless," Lizzy said in mock indignation. "You really need to get yourself some action."

No sooner had the words passed from her lips than she wished she'd bitten her tongue.

Apparently Darcy didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable with the suggestion. "Indeed I do. It seems my recent methods have left something to be desired."

"I suppose you're being too picky lately," Lizzy mused, trying to sound casual but very relieved by his reaction.

"I have been particular, haven't I? However, I'd like to think my choice will be worth the wait," he replied provocatively.

Oh, Lizzy, what have you gotten yourself into? You are such a flirt! Her body was flushed red again from their conversation. She needed to step away from the direction it was taking, and luckily she had a built in excuse.

"I'm getting out of my bath now so can you hang on while I dry?"

"I'll hang on as long as you want me to," he said, smiling to himself for confounding her so. It was rather nice to give her a bit of her own medicine.

He heard her step out of the bathtub and allowed himself a mental picture. He couldn't believe how fortunate his timing had been with the call and her willingness to carry on the conversation. He could hear her rustling, fidgeting and finally dressing. He didn't know if he could wait until Saturday morning to see her... and then nearly three weeks before seeing her again. It was going to be torture!

"Okay, now what?" Lizzy asked as she picked up the phone.

"Just do what you'd normally do on any other night," Darcy urged.

"I'd probably just head to bed."

"Mind if I join you?" His husky voice gave her goose bumps.

"You're quite the flirt when you want to be, aren't you? Where was this the other night - oh, wait - I remember. You thought I was looking to be your little Material Girl."

"Can we not bring that up again," Darcy asked, wanting her to forget about his caddish behaviour.

"I suppose, but it is a bit of a secret weapon for me. It makes you very uncomfortable," Lizzy answered impishly.

"That it does...are you in bed yet?" he asked, changing the subject rather abruptly.

"Yes."

"What are you wearing?" he asked in a deep, seductive whisper.

"PJs. What else?" she replied calmly, not biting.

"I guess I had other visions in my head."

"Do you think I go to bed in a merry widow?" she asked, at once exasperated and amused with his constant flirting.

"Something like that. I did notice you were wearing garters for my birthday," he mentioned slyly.

"What? How? I-" Lizzy sputtered in disbelief. He shouldn't have been able to figure that out. I didn't wear them for his birthday. Oh, that man!

"You struck a delightful pose during your lovely performance and I happened to notice your stockings and garters. I would think everyone noticed. The view was quite striking." Darcy had to hold in a mirth- filled chuckle.

"William Darcy!" Lizzy's shocked cry defeated any attempt he had made to keep from laughing. His low rumble did nothing to stop Lizzy from feeling quite aghast at being discovered by so many people. Wearing stockings and garters had always been her little secret, and though she may have enjoyed being considered attractive by men, she wanted to keep that more sensual part of her apparel hidden. She had always found them quite comfortable, but knowing the entire bar had seen them, she felt like she had just flashed the world.

"Elizabeth, you looked quite lovely. Don't be prudish," Darcy teased.

"I can't decide if I should be insulted about your insinuation that I'm some kind of floozy in cheap lingerie or affronted you think I'm now being a prude."

"I hope you won't be either. You are well aware that I find you extremely attractive, regardless of what you're wearing, or not wearing, and I would never truthfully think you were repressed."

Once again, Darcy was the one beguiling Lizzy rather than the opposite case. For William Darcy was already sold on the merits of Elizabeth Bennet. Since his realization on Saturday morning, he was determined she would be his next and perhaps final conquest. She was a mixture of sensuality, vivacity, intelligence and charm. She had a joie de vivre that lit up a room. She glowed, and for the first time in his life, he basked in someone else's light and drank it in.

Lizzy was also feeling the warmth of his charms but she was not certain where it would all lead. She liked the Darcy she was getting to know, but she had seen his judgmental, imperious behaviour. She didn't know if she could handle if he slipped into that demeanour again, whether with her or someone else.

"Thank you, Darcy, you are too kind," she said in a very Caroline- esque drawl to lighten the mood.

"Ach! Who has taken over this phone?" he asked banging on the receiver.

"You do have a sense of humour when you want, don't you? Now, tell me more about your trip," Lizzy urged, happy to be free of the overt flirting. Darcy went on to describe the areas where he'd be visiting, the things he'd been looking for in the companies in order to feel comfortable with the purchase, and that he'd hoped to get things finished in about two weeks.

"So then why are you away almost three?" Lizzy wondered aloud.

"I'll be visiting my sister, Georgiana, in London, Ontario when I return. She's studying music at Western," he answered.

"You never mentioned you had a sister. How old is she?"

"Nineteen. She's in second year. She worked in Toronto this summer so I didn't get to see her much. I'd like to spend a few days with her."

"Of course you would. I hope you have a wonderful time. My, that's a big age difference between the two of you. I really had never heard you had any other siblings."

"She's the only one and she keeps out of the limelight as much as possible. She's a little gun-shy of the media," he said cryptically.

"You must have been responsible for her at quite an early age," Lizzy said, figuring the time of his father's death was about 10 years ago. She faintly remembered it in the news.

"Yes, but she's a wonderful person. She's never been a bother, although she used to be a bit naÔve."

"Used to be?" Lizzy probed, not knowing she was trekking over dangerous ground.

"She's matured," was Darcy's curt answer. She could only imagine what mischief a teenage girl would have caused without strong parental figures. As staid as Darcy could be, he probably wasn't ready to take on the responsibility of being a father to a young girl when he was 21. Perhaps that was what made him so serious at times... although she was beginning to recognize that all was not so solemn in this man's demeanour. Lizzy decided to take the path of least resistance and change the subject.

"So, I shouldn't be jealous of this Anne, then, should I?"

"My, my, are you getting possessive of me? I'm flattered."

"I - uh - I'm just teasing, really," Lizzy stumbled badly. She had just wanted to change the subject and instead she had put her foot in her mouth.

"Uh-huh. Let me put your mind at ease. There is only one woman I would truly like on my arm tomorrow night and I think you can guess who it is."

"Caroline Bingley?"

"Not a chance in hell."

"Such strong language, Sir. I'm aghast," she said jokingly. "But I have to admit, I'm starting to regret my promise to go to my friend's get-together. I think an evening at Charles's would be far more interesting."

"I would guarantee it."

"And how would you do that?" Lizzy asked, intrigued.

"If you were there, we could pick up where we left off, the last time we were at Bingley's together," he suggested.

"Arguing?"

"Okay, perhaps not exactly where we left off. We could back up to a little earlier in the evening," he said smoothly, his lowered voice flowing over her senses like a warm breeze.

Lizzy let out a quiet "Mmmm", agreeing with Darcy's wish. Without realizing, they both silently revisited the sensations of their first kiss. They were longing for more of each other, but neither was daring enough to suggest a late night rendez-vous; though each would have readily agreed had the other brought it up.

But it was getting late, and both had a full day ahead. Lizzy tried to fight a yawn; she was now unwilling to let the conversation die, so cozy was she in her bed with the soothing voice of an enamoured man in her ear.

"I heard that. I think it's an indication I've been keeping you up. I'll let you go, wishing you only the sweetest of dreams. I know mine will be," he said in that same warm whisper of a voice.

"Until Saturday then. I look forward to it. Goodnight," Lizzy softly, her eyelids heavy, as much from his hushed voice as from fatigue.

"Not half as much as I am," Darcy guessed aloud. Barely audible, he whispered, "Goodnight, dearest Elizabeth."

Only with those last two words and the click of the receiver did Lizzy return to full consciousness. She bolted upright in bed - short of breath and light-headed. She had a desire to twirl around her room like a teenager. He had called her dearest ... and as the thought truly sunk in, she virtually floated down upon her pillow and drifted into sleep, surrounded by the warm, fuzzy cocoon of his closing words.

Chapter VI

Lizzy skipped into work on Friday. She hadn't been so energized in weeks and it was all because of a man she had wanted to strangle all but a week ago. She swung into her cubicle, stopping briefly to inhale the roses sitting on her credenza, and glided into her seat. Her day would have been perfect but for her commitment to the wine and cheese party. Why couldn't it have been Saturday night?

She tried to keep focused on her work, but it was an arduous task. Her mind kept wandering to that voice, that laugh, that gaze, that smile - al that man had to offer in terms of possible delights. He was dreadfully appealing when he behaved himself. Well, it depends on what your definition of behaving is, Lizzy thought with a smile.

Like clockwork, Mary Ellen popped her face in Lizzy's cubicle at 10:30. "Any gifts yet?" she asked with a smirk. Lizzy's progression from insulted lady to big pile of mush for the "Telephone Man" had been an entertaining sight for her friend. Mary Ellen did have an inkling that Lizzy's initial vehement dismissal of the man had more to do with attraction than revulsion.

"You're awful! Why should he send me anything today?" Lizzy asked, trying to convince herself of the same.

"Oh, come on. Flowers, food, and something you hid from me yesterday... but I smelled something pretty. The man knows his stuff. He's not dense enough to give up now," Mary Ellen conjectured.

"Is it coffee time?" Lizzy asked, trying to change the subject. She had indeed become an object of discussion amongst her co-workers. It wasn't often that a woman kept receiving gifts. They wanted to know when they could meet the man, who he was and why she hadn't already married him.

Lizzy revealed nothing. Earlier in the week she hadn't been sure enough of her feelings and now, she didn't want to jeopardize anything. She'd wait to see how her breakfast would go. She also had no desire to reveal the name of her Telephone Man. Her friends were curious enough as it was, were they to know the man was Darcy... well... they'd be at her desk waiting for him to arrive, hoping to be second in line should Lizzy bow out.

As she was leaving her cubicle the phone rang and she lurched to answer it, much to the continued amusement of Mary Ellen. A crestfallen look was soon supplanted by a smile and when she hung up from the call she explained. "That was the commissionaire. There's a parcel for me. They were about to deliver it but I told them I'd pick it up on my way down."

She arrived at the commissionaire's desk to face the bicycle courier who told her, "Mr. Darcy told me not to leave this with anyone but you. He suggests you open it alone."

She thanked him while Mary Ellen's jaw settled onto the ground. Lizzy gave her a warning look and kept walking. That was no deterrent to her friend.

"That wouldn't be the Mr. Darcy, would it?"

Lizzy gave no response.

"Telling you to open it alone? Whoever your mystery man is, he's making me more curious with those directions."

Again, Lizzy kept silent. She was not going to discuss this in front of half a dozen people.

"Let's get our coffee," she said, walking towards the cafeteria.

As she held the small package in her hand, she wondered if she could wait to open it. She'd no idea what it could be and really didn't want prying eyes to witness her moment, particularly after Darcy's warning. With a Herculean effort, she entered the cafeteria, wrapped box in hand, and tried to casually talk with a table of co-workers. It was more than she could bear... an impossible task, really. She rushed back upstairs with ten minutes to spare on her break. A few others followed her shortly afterwards, determined to find out what was in the tastefully wrapped package.

Once Lizzy sat down at her desk, she forced herself to take the time to open it nicely, untying the sheer gold ribbon rather than ripping it off. When she peeked underneath the tissue, her eyes widened like saucers and she caught her breath in shock. Subtle innuendo? Innocent flirting? Not on your life. Darcy was giving her a blatant indication of his train of thought.

As she mused over his nerve, and whether or not she was happy about it, she heard someone clearing their throat at her door. She quickly clamped the box shut. Two of her co-workers were waiting impatiently for the verdict.

"Go away," Lizzy said authoritatively.

"Oh, she's red-faced. It must be something spicy," the older one of the two said knowingly.

Lizzy closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply, trying to calm herself. She then opened the note which read: Once again, I hope you think of me when you use these. Yours, Darcy. P.S. Call me if you get the chance. My direct line is 555-2121.

She fanned her blushing face with a meeting agenda, and picked up the phone. But what would I say? Thank you? How did you know I didn't have that colour? Oh, hell, if he had the nerve to send these to me, I'm not going to feel uncomfortable calling him about it.

After one ring she heard his familiar baritone voice. "Darcy speaking."

"So, did you have a clerk model them to make sure they're what you wanted?" Lizzy asked pertly, without so much as a 'How do you do'.

"Now, why didn't I think of that?" he answered laughing, not missing a beat.

"You're incorrigible, you know?"

"I know, but I thought you could use a spicier colour, navy's a little demure."

"But red?" Lizzy asked incredulously.

"It seemed to suit your personality," Darcy replied honestly. She did have a fiery disposition.

"What am I going to do with you?" she asked in exasperation.

"Anything you want, my dear, anything at all," he answered in a husky voice that left no doubt of his meaning. She was momentarily startled by his intimacy. It was one thing to listen to him drop hints while she was in her own home, but she was totally flustered trying to keep herself composed at work.

For Darcy's part, he once again took pleasure in rousing her with his playfulness. He had never been able to banter provocatively with a woman like this before. The words had never tripped off his tongue so fluidly and he was thoroughly enjoying the experience. Elizabeth brings it out in me; yet another reason to admire her, he thought.

"So you probably want me to wear these for breakfast tomorrow. Is that the kind of woman you think I am?" she asked, genuinely curious at his nerve.

"It's the kind of woman I hope you are, at least in my company," he responded. He was irrepressible this morning, pleased as punch she was so easy and fun to tease.

"Try not to jump to any conclusions, Mr. Darcy. It's gotten you into trouble before," she responded archly.

"What kind of trouble? You did mention a spanking last night. I'm all for it," he said chuckling.

"William Darcy!" she practically squealed.

"Behave yourself, madam, aren't you at work?" Darcy said jokingly, but with those words she came back to earth and realized she had just shouted his name for all in her vicinity. No sooner had the realization hit her than she heard a few suppressed gasps and a smattering of coughs from the cubicles surrounding hers.

"I think I just unmasked you," she admitted.

"I'm not hiding from anyone. I have no need to," he replied, not at all perturbed about being considered her love interest. He shocked himself with the realization. Darcy was usually quite private, even when he had a regular companion. However, he would like nothing better than to have Lizzy on his arm for the world to see.

She was once again taken aback by his directness. As flattered as she was by all his attention, she still had no idea where he wanted to go with it, nor did she know what she wanted from him. In no hurry to get into seductive repartée at her place of work, she decided she would end the conversation and get back to work.

"Well, as lovely as this gift is," she whispered, "and, oh, you do have excellent taste in ladies undergarments - I must let you go. I'm sure you have a lot of work to do considering your trip tomorrow."

"I'm the boss. If I wanted to talk to you all day, it's my prerogative," he said decisively.

"Well, I'm not the boss. I don't have that luxury," she retorted and added playfully, "I hope you have an awful time tonight and your date is a bore."

"And here I thought you were a sweet and wholesome girl."

"You thought nothing of the sort, that's obvious by what's on my desk at the moment," Lizzy said with a laugh. "Until tomorrow, Darcy."

"If it has to be so, until tomorrow," he replied resignedly.

Moments after Lizzy had placed the phone on its cradle, Mary Ellen entered her cubicle and said quietly, "Now I know it's the William Darcy. I remembered you mentioning your sister Jane was dating Charles Bingley...now spill."

Lizzy decided she'd give in a little. "I've known him since Jane and I crashed the big Bingley bash in August, but we haven't really gotten along since, until he sent the flowers this week. He wasn't exactly the nicest of men until then."

"Uh-huh. So the most amazing looking, successful man in Ottawa, quite possibly the country, wants you, and is sending you gifts, and you're hardly giving him the time of day," Mary Ellen summarized, accurately.

"You've got it."

"Are you going out with him?"

"For breakfast, Saturday morning."

"What? The guy can't spring for dinner?" Mary Ellen asked, laughing at the thought.

"He wanted to go out tonight, but as you know I'm previously engaged, and he's on his way to Australia and New Zealand later in the day on Saturday," Lizzy explained.

"Wait a second...you turned him down for tonight? Are you insane? Do you truly dislike this man? Is he that awful?" Mary Ellen needed more of an explanation from her friend before she'd leave her in peace.

"No, I like him... now. But I promised I'd go tonight. This has been planned for a long time," Lizzy reasoned.

"The man is going out of the country. Do you not want to spend some more time with him if you're interested in him?" Mary Ellen asked, furrowing her brow. Lizzy is not thinking straight.

"I'm not going to back out of a party for a guy... any guy," Lizzy said, trying to convince herself as much as Mary Ellen.

"Okay, okay. You deal with your regret on your own. Don't come crying to me on Monday," Mary Ellen said laughing as she left the cubicle.

Lizzy looked down at her package again and cursed her luck. I have the absolute perfect dress to wear with those if I was going to a dinner party - but for breakfast, it's out of the question. Damn!

Early in the afternoon, Lizzy took a call from a distraught Jane, changing the course of her next two days.

"Thank goodness I caught you. I have a confession." Jane's voice was full of worry, catching Lizzy off guard.

"What's wrong?" she asked, concern evident in her voice.

"I've been trying to be an adult about this all week, but today I almost injured a patient, my hands were shaking so much. I have one more appointment this afternoon and if I don't ask you again, I don't think I'll be able to do it. Lizzy, I'm never like this. I'm never this nervous."

Lizzy was genuinely concerned for her sister's health at this point. Jane wasn't one to get unnerved about anything. It's what made her a fabulous dentist. She was soft, smooth and soothing. She calmed people, not the other way around.

"Please, Jane, explain," Lizzy urged.

"It's silly - it really is. I'm nervous about Charles's party tonight. He kind of threw it on me last week. He insisted it be right away and I couldn't convince him otherwise. I feel like it's an initiation into a snooty sorority. I really care for Charles, but I don't need to meet all his friends at once... and all alone."

Jane's fears suddenly became apparent to Lizzy.

"Can you please change your plans, Lizzy? Charles doesn't understand why I'm so nervous. He sees me through rose-coloured glasses, you know. He thinks because he's charmed, everyone else will be. Right now, I feel like I'm about to face a firing squad. I don't know what his friends will be like. I know Darcy and Richard, but not that well. I need someone there on my side, you know what I mean? Can you please, please come tonight?" Jane was begging. She sounded absolutely terrified with the possibility of spending an evening with a bunch of strangers. Lizzy knew it wasn't just because she was meeting new people, it was because her sister was falling in love with Charles and only wanted what was best for him. In her usual unassuming way, Jane wasn't sure if she was worthy of the man.

It made Lizzy's heart ache. Poor Jane had been keeping this to herself all week and Lizzy had had no clue. She had been wrapped up in her own little world of flirtation with Darcy. I've been so blind, so selfish.

"I'm so sorry I didn't realize how important tonight is to you. You should have said something sooner. Of course, I'll change my plans. I couldn't let you go through this alone... even though I think you'll have nothing to worry about," Lizzy said, hoping her comments helped her sister.

"Thank you so much. I owe you big time," Jane said, relief evident in her voice.

Lizzy pondered the situation for a moment and then asked, "Is anyone else going alone?"

"Um, Richard maybe. It's no big deal to be there on your own, you know," Jane tried to assure her.

"Oh, there's no way I'm walking into that party alone, not when Darcy has a date," Lizzy answered.

"What's going on with you two? What don't I know about?" Jane asked, extremely curious.

"We've called a truce and he had really wanted me there tonight ... but now he already has another date. I'll give Richard a call, but one way or the other, I am going to have a man on my arm when I walk into that party," Lizzy said resolutely.

"Well then I'll see you tonight. And let me know if it's someone other than Richard. We'll make sure to set an extra place," Jane explained.

Lizzy soon found out Richard already had a date. As delighted as he was to hear Lizzy's voice and offer, he had to give her bad news.

"I'm afraid you've missed out on being with the most charming man there tonight," he said laughing. "Your good friend Charlotte has agreed to accompany me."

"Charlotte?" Lizzy exclaimed, more in surprise than disappointment.

"Why? Is there something I should know about her?" Richard asked, jesting.

"Oh, no. That's lovely. Great idea," Lizzy stammered. "Jane had just mentioned you didn't have a date and I thought we could buddy up." Now I'll have to scramble to find someone!

"Sorry to disappoint. I did let Charles know, though. Do you really need a date, Lizzy? You could go on your own," Richard suggested. He had been speaking with his cousin on Wednesday and Darcy had indicated things were progressing. Richard was sure Darcy would rather see a single Lizzy, rather than one who was part of a couple.

"First Jane, now you! I am not going to stick out like a sore thumb. I guess I'll have to find a second choice."

You mean third choice, Richard thought knowingly but said, "Well, then, I won't keep you. I look forward to seeing you tonight."

Once they said their goodbyes, Lizzy flipped quickly through her address book and started making calls. One after one, potential dates fell through the cracks. One was busy, one now had a jealous girlfriend and another was insulted she had called so late. When all her reasonable escorts had dried up, she finally decided to take a long walk down the hallway.

"Hi Billy. How are you this afternoon?" she asked brightly. It was almost quitting time and she needed a date for seven that night. If she had to be sweet to Billy Collins, so be it.

"Elizabeth, what a treat to see you," Billy replied, giving her an obvious once over.

Billy Collins had had a crush on Lizzy since he transferred to her group two months prior. He was rather incompetent in his job, but since his daddy was the department's deputy minister, he had been placed in a smoothly functioning unit, figuring he wouldn't be noticed. He may not have done much work, but he certainly wasn't someone you could ignore. Lizzy knew he had a strange obsession with her, but in most cases, she was able to cope with the tall, lanky, spectacled young man. In his horn-rimmed glasses, black turtle-neck and pants, he looked like a cross between Buddy Holly and a country parson. She didn't have the nerve to tell him black wasn't his colour.

Lizzy didn't dawdle. She didn't want any extraneous words spoken between them if possible. "I have a dinner party I need to attend tonight unexpectedly. Are you... free to... come with me to Charles Bingley's?" She nearly choked on the words... but they did come out of her mouth.

Billy looked like he'd just won the Powerball lottery. Here, before him, stood the luscious woman of his workplace fantasies, asking him out to a dinner party at none-other than the most successful high-tech tycoon in the city. Billy was the quintessential name dropper but rarely had the opportunity to hobnob with the names he chose to drop.

"Why I'd be delighted! Elizabeth, I'm honoured you'd think of including me; however, I'm not surprised. Do you need any pointers on how to behave at such a function?"

Lizzy knitted her brow, stunned by the man's uncouth and totally ridiculous response to her invitation. What does he think I do for a living? I must be absolutely insane to have asked him... insane and desperate, she noted.

"Charles is dating my sister. He's become quite a good friend," Lizzy stated bluntly.

Luckily Billy had some sense. He realized his advice wasn't needed but felt no embarrassment for making it. "Oh, well, I suppose you'll be fine, then."

Lizzy explained when she would pick him up and quickly made her escape, excusing herself to call Jane, go home and get ready.

Once out the door of her office building, she quickly forgot her Billy Collins concerns, lost in the excitement of seeing and surprising Darcy. She had been able to book a last-minute manicure, but the rest of her beauty regimen was up to her. Although she would have liked a professional to handle her mop of curls, she was resigned to tying it up herself, loose tendrils escaping around her bare neck. She was so hell bent on knocking him out with a grand entrance she hadn't really thought past the party. Lizzy's mind was on the next five hours of her life, not what came afterwards.

She should have been thinking soberly about the idea of having sex with Darcy after the party, because that could be a distinct possibility. But, she wasn't pondering if that was what she wanted. She wasn't even asking herself if she was really ready. No, Lizzy was only thinking about how he'd react when he saw her in her stunning red dress. She had worn it once before and damn near set off security alarms. There weren't too many outfits where she felt absolutely seductive, but this one came close. She was ready to face him: red dress, red shoes and most importantly, her new ultra-sheer red silk stockings and lace garters.

Lizzy drove the half-hour to Charles's home in silence. Of course that didn't mean the car was quiet. Billy talked the whole way... of what, Lizzy had no idea. Her mind had wandered to the nouveau riche neighbourhood of Manotick, a community just outside of Ottawa, where Charles lived. She was wondering if Darcy was already at Netherfield, what he'd be wearing and if he would want to whisk her away. She knew that wouldn't happen, but it didn't stop her from fantasizing.

Upon entering Netherfield's foyer, Lizzy and Billy met Charlotte and Richard who had arrived moments earlier. Introductions were made to Billy's obvious delight, but Lizzy hardly noticed. She had taken a few steps toward the drawing room of the grand home and gazed at the rigid back of Darcy. He was dressed in monochromatic black; suit jacket, shirt and pants all in perfect coordination with the curls of his hair. He was simply gorgeous and her heart skipped a beat or two as she prepared her body and mind for the desire she knew she'd feel when he looked her way.

He was standing alone, away from the others at the unlit fireplace, leaning on the mantle, drink in hand and deep in thought. He looked as uncomfortable as he had been at her parent's barbecue and the last party at Bingley's. She felt the need to rush to him and wrap her arms about him in an effort to soothe his unease.

As if sensing her gaze, he turned toward her. His stern face transformed into a look of poignant surprise upon catching the light of her eyes. He was awestruck by their vibrancy. He could tell their excitement was only for him. A smile slowly began to cross his face as his eyes slipped downward from hers.

He first noticed the bareness of her neck and shoulders, but for a simple strand of pearls. The long-sleeved red silk dress's neckline started from the crest of her shoulders and fell into a wide V. The cleavage revealed wasn't vulgar; just enough to promise something more underneath the fabric of the dress. The fitted bodice met a cinched waist that flowed into a full skirt reaching just past her knees. It was in the style of a '50s cocktail dress, relatively demure... until a body like Lizzy's was poured into it. The fabric clung to her curves as if it were hanging on for dear life.

Finally, his gaze rested upon her legs and his small smile expanded as he saw what had been in his fantasies all day. Nothing on earth could ruin this moment, he thought as he was about to make his way to her.

She turned her face away suddenly - her name had been called from behind. Richard soon came to her, placing his hand around the back of her waist and whispering something in her ear to make her laugh.

Darcy stood frozen; absolutely incensed at his cousin. Did she come with him? Is this some sort of sick joke? He was about to march away then another couple approached the two and led Richard to the bar, leaving a solitary Lizzy once again.

She confidently sauntered towards Darcy and he decided to follow suit and meet her half-way, determined to hear what she had to say before jumping to the wrong conclusion. Regardless, he didn't like the way Richard had touched her.

"Elizabeth, you assured me you wouldn't be here tonight," Darcy stated austerely.

She was a bit taken aback by his formality, particularly after their last two conversations, but was determined to continue where they'd left off.

"Well, good evening to you too, Darcy. You look devastating all in black, I must say. Does that make you the bad cowboy?" she asked puckishly.

"Did you always intend on coming? Were you pulling me along all this time?" Darcy asked accusingly, ignoring her flirtatious comment. She could at least explain herself.

"No, of course not. There was a change in plans late this afternoon so I was able to come. I thought you'd be pleased," she answered, confused by his antagonistic questioning.

"And you decided to bring a date instead of coming alone?" was his next question. He was stiff as a two by four as he looked coolly over to the group at the bar.

"Calm down. I wasn't going to come alone when everyone else had a date. I don't think the rest of the ladies in the room would like that, do you? By the way, where's your date?" she asked, trying to move on. What was wrong with him?

"She's talking to Fanny Bertram, over by Charles. But don't change the subject. Did you think it would be funny to come with a date? Are you trying to make me jealous?"

"I guess it's working," she said, wide-eyed by his behaviour. She didn't get a good look at Anne as she decided to focus on Darcy's questions. She also decided to keep her side of the conversation agreeable. "Besides, my preference for a date was already taken. I couldn't very well expect you to dump your friend in lieu of me, could I?"

She hoped her assurances would relieve him of his anxiety. Although she was flattered by his jealousy, he had no right to be possessive of her and expect her to come alone.

With these pacifying words, Darcy came to his senses. He lowered his eyes, embarrassed at his overreaction. He decided to explain his discomfiture. "I guess I just didn't like your choice of escort."

"Well, it was sort of last minute," Lizzy explained, somewhat confused. She hoped he didn't know Billy, because if that were the case, she would be mortified. She'd already regretted taking him to the function, although Charlotte and Richard seemed to be managing him rather well. "I was kind of desperate and he was the only one available. I'm sorry it's such a poor choice."

Darcy chuckled momentarily under his breath and finally said, "I realize I might not like the choice, but do you have to be so hard on him? He is my cousin, after all. I think his ears are burning."

"Billy Collins is your cousin?" Lizzy asked incredulously.

"Who's Billy Collins?"

"My date."

"Richard's not your date?"

"No, he's with Charlotte."

He emitted a sigh of relief, but she still didn't like his attitude so she continued, "I would have come with him but he was already taken too. I wasn't having much luck with my date selection today."

"I'm glad you're with Billy Collins then," Darcy said, smiling mischievously.

Finally, he's a little more light-hearted, Lizzy thought. She smiled back at him and said, "I wish I wasn't. I wish I was here with you."

And with those sincere words, his manners returned. He took one of her hands and leaned down to it, his eyes following her curves until his lips reached the soft skin of her hand, whereupon he looked up, directly into her eyes, and finally kissed her.

His look, his touch and his feather-light kiss sent shivers throughout her body. He rose to his intimidating height once again, never failing to take his eyes from hers. She reflexively took a step towards him and though they were not obvious, they were certainly well within each other's personal space.

"You look stunning. You outshine every woman in this room," he whispered genuinely, mesmerized by the vision before him. He wanted to leave with her at that very moment. He didn't want to share. He wanted whatever time he had left before leaving the country to be with her alone.

"You couldn't mean every woman," Lizzy answered back with a smile. "Jane has always been thought of as the great beauty of our family. Oh - Jane. Shoot! I almost forgot. Will you excuse me, I need to speak with her."

She looked at him apologetically; she had no desire to leave his presence. He nodded his acquiescence to her request and she walked towards Jane, feeling guilty for not being at her side sooner. Remember Lizzy, you're here for her, not for him Darcy then had the opportunity to notice the plunging swag back of her dress and wanted nothing more than to splay his fingers across her bare skin. How the hell am I going to get through this dinner party without mauling her?

Lizzy took a moment to observe Darcy's date before reaching Jane. Anne was pretty in a waifish, pixie sort of way. She looked like someone you wanted to wrap your arms around to protect from the horrors of the world. This thought didn't exactly sit comfortably with Lizzy - she wondered what man would do just that on a regular basis -- but she had no time to ponder it further, as she reached Jane.

"Sorry I wasn't over earlier. I just had to clear up a thing or two with Darcy," was Lizzy's paltry excuse. However, Jane saw right through her sister and rolled her eyes.

"Uh-huh. He can't take his eyes off you, you know. Of course, neither can any other man in the room," Jane said, looking around to notice most of the party were staring at the two sisters.

Jane was only half-right. The dinner guests were staring at both of them, quite amazed these beauties were sisters, yet looked so strikingly different. Lizzy was a firecracker on Canada Day in her ruby red number and Jane, a summer zephyr in a whispy butter cream sheath. Neither of them realized their overpowering presence when standing united.

"They are staring at you, and so they should. You look amazing. You know, I think you're glowing. How could you ever worry about a small get-together like this?" Lizzy asked.

"Whether you think so or not, most of my nervousness was alleviated when you agreed to come. I'm sure you'll be thankful to hear I don't need you standing next to me for the entire evening. I just need you around in case things get difficult. So far, everyone has been very sweet. Of course, why should I have doubted Charles would have friends any different than he is?" Jane said, rather remorsefully.

"Perhaps because his closest friend can be quite off-putting," Lizzy answered with a grin. They both burst into giggles and glanced over at Darcy who looked to Lizzy, questioning her.

"Go back to him, Lizzy. I know you want to," Jane said.

"Unfortunately, I can't. My date is Billy Collins. I have to protect the rest of the party from him." Lizzy said, turning and walking towards the gentleman who was supposed to be on her arm.

"Elizabeth, I can't thank you enough for inviting me. I'm having a marvelous time here with Charlotte and Richard. Now, was that William Darcy I saw you talking to earlier? I had no idea you knew him. I would love to be introduced," Billy said, starting towards him without her.

"Wait!" Lizzy cried, grabbing Billy by the sleeve, trying to think of some excuse to avoid the encounter.

Richard had had enough of this squeaky third wheel. Since meeting Charlotte again on Monday, he had been intrigued with her smooth serenity that hid a devilish sense of humour. He was enormously pleased when she accepted his invitation to Charles's party. Now, this gangly geek was droning on about his vital role in the upcoming Royal visit. Funny, Richard had never heard his name uttered in any conversations with Canadian Foreign Affairs. He wanted to have a few moments alone with his date; the bothersome braggart would have to leave.

"Go ahead and introduce them, Lizzy, unless you'd like me to do it," Richard said in a slightly threatening tone. She gathered by the look on his face he would fashion some damage were he to do what he suggested. She took his warning at face value.

"No, that's alright, I just wanted him to wait for me. Thank you, Richard."

She nodded and tentatively took Billy's arm to walk over to Darcy.

She bit her lip and opened her eyes wide, giving Darcy a warning look, a pre-emptive apology of sorts. He read her look and nodded in understanding.

"Darcy, I'd like you to meet Billy-"

"Elizabeth, it's Bill. We already discussed this," Billy said curtly, cutting her off.

"Sorry, of course," Lizzy said rolling her eyes. "Darcy, this is Bill Collins. Bill is a colleague of mine at Foreign Affairs."

Darcy shook his hand, only briefly taking his eyes from Lizzy and politely responded, "Elizabeth, Bill, I'd like you to meet Anne deBourgh. She works for the National Art Gallery."

The deBourgh name sparked Billy's interest, not to mention the fact she was far less intimidating than Darcy. He ensured she was from the prominent Ottawa family and then began an exploration of the deBourgh family history. The other two were then free to begin playing a coy game of mischievous glances. Lizzy placed her hand at her chin and lightly brushed her lower lip with a finger, Darcy gingerly licked his lips. Both regarded the other with smouldering eyes as Darcy tried to restrain a small smirk from forming on his lips. Watching his obvious effort, Lizzy had to lower her eyes and hold a giggle from escaping. How she wanted to touch him, kiss him, feel his body pressed firmly against hers! She wondered if she would be able to get him alone for a little while during the evening just so she could be near him without enquiring eyes.

Unconsciously, they again neared each other until their arms were side by side and their fingers grazed lightly against each other. Lizzy's skin prickled; it craved a stronger connection to his. Darcy's muscles were tense trying to contain the fire ready to combust from his every pore.

And then Charles announced dinner was served. They were momentarily brought back to reality, but before parting Darcy whispered, "Why don't you feign sickness and I'll take you home."

"Have you forgotten we both have dates?" she said, glancing up into his mischievous eyes.

"Details, details," he said, winking before he turned to walk with Anne.

Lizzy just smiled and shook her head. It was going to be a very long night.

Chapter VII, Part I

As the group of 14 seated themselves, Darcy's tension subsided as he saw his name card was placed next to Lizzy's. Indeed, Lizzy found herself as the rose between two thorns: Richard was seated at her left, Darcy to her right. Billy was seated across from her, happily surrounded by Charlotte and Anne. As enamoured as he had been with Lizzy, having two new, accomplished ladies beside him took up all his time. Lizzy would have to thank whoever did the seating plan later. "Elizabeth, where did you find him?" Darcy whispered into her ear.

"Can we not discuss Billy Collins? I'd like to enjoy my meal," Lizzy responded, glancing sideways at her dinner companion.

"What would you like me to talk about? The sparkle of your eyes, the desirable neckline of your dress, the daring colour of your stockings?" he asked, knowing it would make her blush.

As a pinkish hue did indeed overcome her face, she lowered her eyes and breathed in deeply.

"You sweet talker," was all she was able to whisper, realizing he would play this game over the course of the meal, so she prepared herself to fight back.

Their wordplay became more risqué as the dinner progressed. Lizzy giggled a little more, Darcy leaned in to whisper to her a little longer, and the table couldn't help but notice Darcy's light-hearted demeanour and flirtatious behaviour towards this woman.

Between the second and third course, Darcy surreptitiously dipped his hand below the tablecloth and began to gently rub a circle around her knee. Lizzy used all her willpower to keep her eyes from rolling back inside her head. She leaned towards his ear and whispered, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Making your evening more interesting, as promised," he murmured back with a waggle of his eyebrows.

"You know, you and Richard are more alike than I thought," Lizzy replied with a half-smile.

Darcy's eyes shot wide open. "What do you mean?"

Lizzy had to stifle a laugh at his obvious train of thought. "No, he hasn't been rubbing my other knee. I just mean you're as much of a flirt as he is."

"I think you're the only person who's ever accused me of that," he said honestly.

"I guess I have a special talent in seeing your true nature."

"I guess you do," Darcy agreed. While they were talking, the third course was served and Darcy unwillingly brought his hands to the table. As they ate, Lizzy decided on an idea for pleasurable revenge. She had slipped out of one of her shoes, and her foot slowly made its way under the cuff of his trousers, leisurely caressing his leg with her stockinged toes.

As Darcy placed his fork in his mouth, he slowly closed his eyes. To anyone who noticed, he looked like a man who really enjoyed pork tenderloin. Only he and Lizzy knew what he was truly appreciating.

Marianne Dashwood observed Darcy and his interaction with the lady by his side. She was rather curious to know if this was the same woman Caroline had mentioned as his latest girlfriend a while back. She thought she recalled her dancing with Darcy at Charles's party in August. However, they weren't at the party together tonight... as dates anyway. She wanted the scoop and thought the best course of action was to ask Charles loudly, "So Charles, where on earth did you ever meet Jane and her sister?"

Little did she know she hit the nail right on the head and Charles was ready to tell all.

"Interesting you should ask... may I tell them the truth, Lizzy? ...Lizzy?"

"Mmmm? Truth?" Lizzy turned absently and slightly dazed to Charles, not really having heard a word he said as Darcy had been commenting quietly in her ear about how relieved he was that their dates couldn't care less about them. He was then quite at liberty to stroke her hand under the table.

"About when we met at the party," Charles explained.

"Go right ahead. It was your party," Lizzy laughed, not at all embarrassed with what she had done. Jane, on the other hand, lowered her head in dread.

"Just make sure you let everyone know Jane wasn't there of her own volition," Lizzy responded, not missing her sister's paling face.

Charles recounted the story with his usual flourishes, then came to the part of Lizzy being Darcy's saviour. He looked to both of them on this. Lizzy now found the whole encounter amusing, shrugging her shoulders in response to Charles's unasked question of what could be said about it. However, Darcy wasn't ready to allow his personal problems to be held up for public scrutiny, even if it was with mostly familiar acquaintances. He gave Charles a warning look, letting him know to tread carefully.

"Well, to make a long story short, our fearless Lizzy gave a marvellous performance as Darcy's girlfriend in order to shoo away my dear sister Caroline," Charles said succinctly with a furtive glance towards Darcy to see if that was acceptable. Most at the table knew of Caroline's obsession with Darcy and got a good chuckle at the remark.

Darcy had been content in the relative privacy of his moments with Lizzy; but now, everyone's attention was centered on the two. He wanted to end the moment quickly; however, he noticed Lizzy was laughing becomingly right along with them. He bowed to her enjoyment rather than censure Charles.

"I must say, Elizabeth was certainly my heroine on that occasion," he said and smiled, looking directly into her eyes. His gaze remained locked with hers long enough to let everyone know something special was happening between the two of them. Lizzy finally returned to her senses and turned to Charles.

"Where is Caroline tonight?" she asked, surprised at her not being there when Darcy was in attendance.

"I've finally been able to arrange a party without her knowledge," Charles responded to another roar of laughter.

Charles spoke too soon, as was often the case when he underestimated his resourceful sister. His arrangements flew out the door when, moments later, it was opened by none other than Caroline.

"Oh! Charles, I'm so sorry. I had no idea you were entertaining this evening. I just stopped by to use your computer. Something seems to be wrong with mine," Caroline explained.

What would seem like a valid reason for most, lacked the ring of truth to all at the party as Caroline appeared at the doorway in a multi- colour skin tight micro mini and thigh high black stiletto boots that made Dolce & Gabbana seem tame. Many of the invited guests had to hold in their chuckling at her audacity.

"Go right ahead, Caroline. You know where the computer is," Charles responded coolly.How does she manage to learn about everything I do!

Caroline eyed the table set-up, noting Anne would only be there if she was with Darcy, so she knew Lizzy wasn't his date. However, Lizzy's chair seemed awfully close to the man in question.

"Oh, hello Darcy and Richard! Why Edward! Edmund! Chris! I haven't seen you all in ages! And ladies, a pleasure as always," Caroline said while teetering up to the table.

"Well, it couldn't hurt for me to sit with you all for a moment. You could set up a place setting for me here, at the head of the table, between Darcy and Anne."

Darcy held in his frustration, nodding politely to Caroline but quickly turning his face from her to speak to Lizzy and Richard.

Anne noticed Darcy's dismissal and speedily engaged Caroline in a discussion about her outfit. First, I'm stuck with this Billy creature, now I get to chat with Caroline. Darcy owes me big time.

Darcy once again leaned closer to Lizzy and stealthily grabbed her hand while asking his cousin a question. If Darcy thought Richard hadn't caught on to his undercover manoeuvres, he severely underestimated his cousin's experience in such situations. Luckily, Richard was prepared to be Darcy's partner in crime and kept him chatting for several minutes while Darcy's eyes continued to stray to Lizzy's.

When he finally sat back, upright against the chair, Caroline took over.

"Darcy, don't you look handsome this evening. Is that Versace?"

"I believe so," he responded curtly, not really sure, but fearing she'd attempt to strip his jacket off to see the tag if he said otherwise.

She began to bombard him with stories of how her shop was progressing and how well he would look in one of her designs. His eyes glazed over in preparation for the long assault. Suddenly, his devilish side took over, and while one hand held his wine glass, his other was at Lizzy's knee. This time, however, he began inching her skirt up until his hand was under the fabric. He never glanced at Lizzy, keeping a controlled but unconcerned expression towards Caroline; however, Lizzy's eyes were darting from Caroline to him. Her body nearly convulsed at his touch but her mind thought about punching him out. Such cheek!

Lizzy was forced to stretch her acting ability even further when his fingers made it to the top of her stocking. They tucked themselves underneath and began stroking her bare thigh. Jesus, I'm glad I had my legs waxed on Wednesday. What is he trying to do to me? Her blood pressure was rising, her heart was racing and her breath was short. When the power of speech returned, she leaned to his ear and murmured, "Please say you don't do this to all the women who sit next to you at a dinner party."

"Just wanted to make sure they were the right fit," he replied with a Cheshire cat grin.

Richard glanced at Charlotte several times over the meal and simply rolled his eyes. If Darcy thought he was fooling anyone, he was sadly mistaken. It was a source of great delight for the pair, their sense of humour quite similar, particularly when it came to the interactions of their friends. They both wondered how the two would handle each other for the rest of the evening.

By the time the meal ended, Lizzy and Darcy's bodies were taut and in desperate need of relief. However, leaving together was not an option. They were forced to be social, though neither strayed far from the other.

At one of their momentary separations, Jane approached Lizzy and brought her to a quiet corner. While she hadn't seen the interactions above or below the tablecloth (she had focused her attention on Charles's friends), she had noted the two's obvious obsession with the other's presence. The speed with which Lizzy had changed her opinion of Darcy worried her.

"Are you having a good time?" Jane asked, beginning innocently enough.

"Lovely," Lizzy answered dreamily.

"You and Darcy seem awfully chummy... a far cry from last Friday... only a week ago," Jane said, trying to remind Lizzy of their previous discord. She didn't want to be a wet towel, but she wanted to have a talk with Lizzy before she did something she regretted.

"What do you intend to do tonight after the party?"

"What do you mean? Is there something else going on?" Lizzy asked, oblivious to her sister's inference.

"I mean has Darcy asked you to join him anywhere?" Jane questioned more pointedly.

"Well, no, not yet Jane," Lizzy answered with a chuckle. Does she really expect me to answer a question like that?

"Lizzy, please be careful. I know I mentioned this before, but I want you to think about what you're doing before you jump into anything," Jane said, circling around the issue as best as possible.

"You're such a big sister! We're just having some fun. There's nothing wrong with teasing someone you like. Besides, he's going away tomorrow so you have nothing to worry about," Lizzy said, hoping Jane would stop admonishing her behaviour.

This didn't comfort Jane at all. Lizzy seemed to have blinders on, so rapt was she with Darcy's attentions. Jane and Charles were intimate, yes, but they'd only made love after three weeks of constant dating. She thought that was relatively fast, but they had discussed their commitment to each other and proceeded with eyes wide open. Up until four days ago, Lizzy wasn't even speaking to Darcy, regardless of the sexual attraction between them.

William Darcy was a grown man who had had his choice of partners. Regardless of Charles's assertions, Jane couldn't be sure of the extent of Darcy's interest in her sister. Based on what she had gathered from Lizzy, it seemed he might just want a fling.

"But what about between now and tomorrow?" Jane persisted.

Lizzy's eyes narrowed at her sister's nerve. She wasn't going to take mothering. She was a grown woman. With an iron-coated voice, she responded, "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."

Jane couldn't handle skirting the issue anymore. She walked her out into the hallway and whispered discreetly. "You may know how to banter provocatively with a man, but are you prepared to sleep with him? I know you said you'd thought about it, but have you reallythought about it... seriously? Do you know his sexual history? Does he know yours? Are you prepared to sleep with him and then not hear from him again? Think about those questions, Lizzy. I'm worried that you're not thinking rationally."

"That's enough. I get your point. I'll think about it, okay?" Lizzy said tersely.

Jane's face could not hide the hurt she felt inside. It took a lot for her to be so direct, Lizzy realized and softened. "I'm sorry. You're right, but you can't really think I wouldn't be responsible about sleeping with a man whose sexual history was a mystery to me. I'm not Lydia. And I will think about if it's what I want or not... okay?"

"That's all I ask," Jane answered. "I just want you to do what's right for you. I don't want you to be pressured into anything, especially because he is going away for awhile."

"Thank you," Lizzy said earnestly, squeezing her hand. "Now, we better get back in there. They'll be wondering if the Bennet sisters flew the coop."

Lizzy believed in her heart she would soberly think about the repercussions of intimate relations with Darcy that night. Truthfully, what was going to happen after the dinner party hadn't entered her mind until Jane had pushed the point. She was too busy living in the moment. Jane had made some valid arguments and she would examine her feelings. But good intentions are sometimes fleeting, particularly when the lady in question walked back into the room to see Darcy's face light up upon her return. All rational thought dissolved to mush.

They managed to keep their hands off each other, and even carried on separate conversations in different parts of the drawing room. They behaved with a bit more control than they had displayed at the dinner table, but it only led to craving each other's presence all the more. They needed to be alone but there was still no opportunity. Lizzy was ready to use Jane's idea of asking him to go elsewhere afterwards.

As the couples began to depart, Lizzy was returning from the washroom when she bumped into Caroline. She had intended to nod and walk riskly by when Caroline piped up, "Elizabeth, may I have a word with you?"

"Yes?" Lizzy replied politely.

"I see Darcy has brought Anne with him this evening," she stated without any other explanation.

"Yes. He mentioned she's a friend of the family," Lizzy answered, a bit defensively. She didn't want Caroline to know how little she knew about this Anne.

"Is that what he told you? Oh, well, Elizabeth, I must let you know. She's his stand-by. Whenever he's without a woman, he has Anne waiting in the wings. Her family home is right next door to Pemberley and Darcy's mother and hers were the best of friends. In fact, Darcy and Anne were engaged at one time," Caroline jabbed the last point home.

Lizzy blanched. Why wouldn't Darcy have mentioned this to me earlier?

"I... I wasn't aware of that," Lizzy stammered, taken off guard by Caroline's information. She drew in her breath and decided to take the offensive. Raising an eyebrow, she countered. "He doesn't seem very interested in her tonight, does he?"

"I noticed you've had the fortune of being in Darcy's good books again. I must congratulate you; that's a rare feat. He enjoys the chase though, always has. Usually he tires once the woman has been caught. Of course, most of the women he's been with - and there have been several - aren't really much of a challenge. Perhaps because you left the relationship, he feels he hasn't achieved his goal. Be careful, my dear, you may think you're unique but he can be as ruthless with women as he is in business."

"How do I know you're not just a bitter, jilted lover?" Lizzy retorted.

"Perhaps I am, but it doesn't mean it's not the truth," Caroline said haughtily. "My advice was kindly meant."

"I'm sure it was," Lizzy said acerbically, walking away from the woman, trying to withhold her fury. She failed to see the look of triumph on Caroline's face as she walked away.

She entered the parlour where she and Darcy had sparred so long ago. She needed to collect her thoughts. As confidently as she had replied to Caroline, her information combined with Jane's words of warning had managed to trouble her deeply. She had gone from a "fly by the seat of her pants" attitude towards the events at hand, to one of nervousness and frustration. The sad part was Caroline had unknowingly pointed out a key fact: she thought Lizzy was an ex-girlfriend, but the truth of the matter was she had not even achieved that status, so his chase was not quite complete. Perhaps he would tire of her like all the others.

What was I thinking? she began to ask herself.

She had little time to dwell on that question, however, for Darcy had assumed by her absence she was expecting him to come and find her.

He opened the door carefully and watched her pace for a moment before making his presence known. She looked terribly frustrated and he assumed it was pent up sexual energy. She looks ready to pounce and I'm ready to be pounced upon, he thought expectantly.

"Waiting long?" he asked in a deep timber.

"Darcy! What are - why are you here?" she asked, unnerved at his appearance in the room.

"I thought you might like my company," he said as he walked towards her.

"We need to talk," she said, holding her hand out and furrowing her brow.

He was startled by her facial expression and defensive stance. Memories of their previous Friday and her teasing departure scene flashed before his eyes. "Is there something wrong?"

"Were you engaged to Anne?" she asked directly; no beating around the bush from this woman.

"Where did you hear that?" he asked quickly, angry she'd been told that sort of information.

"So it's true then," she assumed, as he gave no automatic denial.

"No. It was a rumour circulated years ago by her mother. There was no truth to it," he said, frustrated with having to refute false accusations once again - accusations that should have been buried years ago.

"Her mother? Why would Caroline..." Lizzy started to ask but stopped.

"Caroline told you did she? Why does that not surprise me?" Darcy asked rhetorically.

"Well, did you date her, then?"

"We have an agreement. When we're in need of a date and neither is seeing anyone, we go as a couple. We've never been involved. We're simply friends," Darcy said coming closer.

"Arrrgh, I could ring her neck!" Lizzy said, clenching her fists and turning away from Darcy, lost in the thought of being so taken in by Caroline.

Darcy grinned at the sight of her. She was a terribly alluring when she was fired up, but he wanted to harness that passion into something more productive... or reproductive as the case may be.

"It's not worth it," he said soothingly as he came up behind her and gently placed a hand upon her bare shoulder. "Leave it be, Lizzy. We're here now... alone."

Darcy placed his other hand upon the opposite shoulder then slowly eased them down her arms, as his body inched closer to hers. He pressed against her, inhaled the sweetness of her hair and watched the rise and fall of her chest as her breath became erratic with his contact. She knew what would happen next; not because of his nearness, not because the hair on her neck stood on ends, but because he'd called her Lizzy for the first time, and the intimate sound of her name on his voice was as warm and enticing as the gentlest of caresses.

Darcy couldn't take another moment without his lips upon hers. He swung her around and kissed her roughly. She responded as wildly; lip to lip, chest to chest, hip to hip. They melded as tightly together as their clothes would allow, constricting each other in a boa's grip, arms and legs entwined, not wanting to let go, feeding off the other, knowing they would be lost without the other's touch.

Their tongues battled fiercely, but not for control. Fulfilling an impulsive need, they searched the other's mouth for the relief they'd sought since that very first night, that very first kiss. They didn't repeat what they'd done then, they exceeded every pleasure, over and above anything they'd expected.

Darcy was shocked by the absolute splendour he'd found enfolded in her arms, in the pressure of her body, in the sweetness of her lips. Lizzy immersed herself in his strength, the heat of his passion and his overwhelming sense of power. She felt his excitement against her and was thrilled by the sensation. They remained locked in the embrace for as long as their lungs would permit and when they parted, dark, lusty eyes reflected back at one another, their chests heaving in the need for oxygen.

Before words could be spoken, Darcy dove for Lizzy's neck, desperate to taste her skin. She released a small high-pitched gasp, the touch of his lips on her bare skin sending shockwaves from the outside in. Her hands slid up and down, exploring his shoulders and back, and finally his tight bottom, aroused to no end by the chance to touch what she had admired for so very long.

In between kisses, he began to whisper; the man of few words seemed to need to express himself. "Lizzy, you're so beautiful... so enticing."

His hands had joined his lips in a journey over her body, initially traversing her neck and shoulders. He soon realized standing upright would not allow as much leeway as he desired. He swooped her into his arms and placed her gently on the sofa, kneeling reverently next to her.

"Your skin... do you know how much I want this?"

Her hands were now imbedded in his thick curls as his lips trailed down her chest to the warmth of her cleavage, where he lightly traced his tongue along the inside curves of her breasts. "God, you taste so good."

He looked up to her face and saw the need in her eyes. He couldn't resist that look and again ravaged her already swollen lips, his left hand outlining her body with its touch. Before she knew it, his fingers were tracing the edge of her stockings again, but this time, stroking the inside of her thigh. She was no longer capable of keeping her eyes from rolling back, so lost was she in the sensations of his touch.

"You have devil lips, do you know that?"

She hadn't the ability to respond but for mindless gasps. The hand upon her thigh was inching its way higher while his other hand began moving her dress off a shoulder, with his kisses following the disappearing neckline. He was surprised and delighted to find she wore no bra, but questions of her intimate apparel remained unasked as his concentration focused on her exposed breast. He gently licked the very tip of her nipple and stared, captivated as it puckered in response. He finally looked up to her with pleading eyes.

"Come home with me tonight. I can't leave you now."

As he returned to taste her again, she let out another gasp, this time sitting straight up. She could take no more of his teasing and touches without some kind of response. She savagely kissed him while she pushed his jacket off and pulled his shirt out from his trousers. Her hands shot up underneath the fabric and she felt the true firmness of his bare chest for the first time.

This only drove Darcy further over the edge and he fought back for control. He loved her hands upon him but right now he needed to touch her, taste her, pleasure her. It had been so long since that first night when he'd only felt a small measure of her passion. He was now lost in the mud of desire; thick, rich, dark and dirty -- and he was revelling in every moment.

"Let me touch you. I can't get enough," he gasped urgently, guiding her back down onto the sofa, finding her nipple again and taking it with a hot open mouth, his tongue continuing the torment.

His other hand now rubbed the silk of her panties, threatening to go further. Lizzy wasn't resisting but she finally managed to speak. Somewhere in a deep crevice of her brain, a worry occurred to her. "What... what if someone walks in?"

Darcy barely heard her, he was far too busy savouring her hardened nipple and wanting to do the same to the other. As he engulfed the second peak, his fingers felt her wetness and he lost any semblance of reason. She let out a deep moan and didn't know if she could stop him, aching for him to be inside her. He began to murmur again.

"I can't resist you, even if you'd lied."

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every foot in mouth statement, there is an equal and opposite kick in the ass. Darcy was about to get a refresher course in physical science.

It took a moment for her synapses to convert his message to her brain. She stopped all her movement and remained still. He didn't even notice until she said, "What did you just say?"

He looked up to her face, his breath haggard, his hair askew, his eyes black and lusty. Upon seeing her face, his brow furrowed. "What?"

Her head still cloudy with desire, she nearly stopped herself from pursuing what she'd heard, but Jane's and Caroline's warnings suddenly came rushing back with crystal clarity.

"Did you just say you still didn't believe me?"

Darcy lacked logical thought and had no clue from where these questions were coming. In all honesty, he couldn't remember a word he'd said, but Lizzy could care less.

"What are you talking about?" Darcy asked, truthfully confused.

"You just said you couldn't resist me, even if I was lying. So you still have doubts," she accused, pushing his hands away.

"That's not what I said," Darcy replied, shaking his head. "Lizzy... Elizabeth, don't do this."

Darcy was worried. She had justifiably rejected him before, leading him on with tempting words, but would she take it this far only to stop him again?

"Then what did you mean?" she cried, standing up, walking away and adjusting her dress.

"I meant I found you irresistible, I wouldn't have been able to stop myself."

"You mean you were ready to sleep with me, even though you didn't trust me?" She turned to him accusingly.

"You're twisting my words," Darcy said, standing up as well, feeling like she had planned this interruption all along. He had shown he was serious, he had wooed her all week. Why was she doing this?

"I want you, Lizzy. I trust you. I didn't mean what you thought I meant."

"Isn't that great? You trust me. Well, did you ever think about the possibility that with words like that I don't trust you? You know, maybe it's good you said what you did. It brought me back to my senses," Lizzy said walking behind the sofa, keeping a safe distance from Darcy. Her voice was shaky and her confidence was dwindling. She had little memory of how she'd ended up with her breasts exposed and his fingers ready to slide inside her. She knew she'd lost control, blinded by her hunger to have him in every way, and this frightened her. She gripped the back of the sofa and continued. "I mean, what are we? A couple of teenagers? This isn't your house, you know. Anyone could have walked in. I would have looked like a whore."

"Elizabeth, you're not a whore," Darcy said, closing his eyes trying to reign in his frustration.

"Easy for you to say. You're fully dressed," Lizzy replied tartly.

"What's really wrong? You can't say you didn't expect me to kiss you or touch you," Darcy asked, trying to be reasonable.

Lizzy looked at him - the perfect physical male specimen before her - and tears welled up in her eyes. She was afraid - afraid that after tonight she wouldn't see him again, afraid he'd take her once and leave her, afraid of her growing feelings for him and how if he did leave her, she would ache from the loss. William Darcy was rich, he was successful, he was handsome, he was charming and he could have any woman he wanted. As confident as Lizzy was, she couldn't be sure of anything with a man like that. He hadn't talked about wanting her beyond one night. He had only professed his sexual attraction.

She had never been in this position before, never felt this strongly before and had never been so overpowered by lust. She had always held the advantage in any relationship. She couldn't express her fears to him - it would just expose her too much. She knew she couldn't separate sex and emotion with him... she didn't know if she ever could have.

She decided to use her youth as an excuse. "You... you just went a little farther than I expected. I can't say I didn't enjoy it. I did... but believe it or not, I'm fairly inexperienced. I know you're used to women who have no problem falling into bed with you. I'm not like that. I'm a little slower."

Her explanation rang insincere. She couldn't look him in the eye as she said those words. While it wasn't exactly a lie - she was relatively inexperienced, he was more... practiced - she would have been ready to be with him had she had his assurances he wanted more than a one night stand. She just couldn't express her feelings without him doing so first, and she knew that wasn't likely to happen.

"Are you playing games, Elizabeth? Because if you are, I'm warning you right now that it won't work with me," Darcy said, his anger rising. "You know I want you. I've made myself perfectly clear. You might say you're inexperienced but you're not naÔve."

It killed her that she was making him so bitter so fast. He didn't understand. He wouldn't understand. Suddenly, the magnitude of what could have happened surged through her.

"Are you trying to force me into something? Can't a woman back away? Am I not allowed to say no to the formidable stamina of William Darcy? How dare you accuse me of playing games. I mean really, what would have happened if I hadn't stopped? Do you have a condom on you? Do you know my sexual history? Because I certainly don't know yours."

She really hadn't wanted to say any of those things in the heat of anger, but she did have a point. In reality, she knew little about Darcy. She did face a very real risk in giving herself to him... but in her heart it didn't matter. Inexplicably, she cared deeply for a man who didn't feel the same, who had treated her contemptuously time and again. At that moment, she did feel young and inexperienced... and absolutely foolish.

Darcy was angry. She had physically and emotionally pushed him away. There was pain in her eyes and it tore at his heart, but she was accusing him of something so horrid, so vile to him, it incensed his morality.

"You think I'd take advantage of you? What do you think I am?"

He looked at her; shock, hurt, anger and disappointment crossing his face, and when she didn't respond, he pressed his argument further than he intended. "Do you really think I need to be with someone who isn't willing? If I just wanted sex, don't you worry, I could have someone else before the end of the night."

Lizzy only heard the malice in his voice and it broke her spirit. She tried to blink her tears away but they fell silently down her cheek. She had been angry at herself for losing her control and she had lashed out at him, but when he admitted he could have any one else if she left... it justified all her doubts. She was replaceable. She wasn't special to him. Just like in her dream, she wasn't worth it.

Through an uncontrolled sob, she finally said, "I was a fool, wasn't I? I'm really sorry if I led you to think I could be one of your many conquests. I'm not anyone's conquest."

Darcy realized too late that she was reaching out to him for something more. She had totally misunderstood everything he had said except for what he wished he hadn't. She ran towards the door and opened it as he called to her, "Please stop! Let me explain. Please, Lizzy!"

She turned round to face him and with a hard, bitter voice, "I never said you could call me that, did I? Just leave me alone."

Slamming the door behind her, she turned to face the worried eyes of Jane.

Before running away, she let out another sob and uttered a heart- wrenching plea. "Don't let him follow me."

She rushed out of the house and to her car, forgetting her jacket, her purse and her date.

If she had only explained a bit of the situation, Jane may have been more rational. However, from Jane's perspective Lizzy was a wreck - her hair was a mess, her mascara was running and her dress was askew. When she had spoken those few words to Jane, she'd had fear in her eyes. Her older sister jumped to the wrong conclusion and as Darcy opened the parlour door, she was standing right in front of him, ready to do battle.

"Inside now," Jane ordered. When he hesitated, she added, "She's gone."

Chapter VII, Part II

With the door shut behind them, Jane stood with a face of steel, a stark contrast to the gentle sway of her willowy dress.

"Did you hurt her?" she asked, rage bubbling in her voice.

"What?" he asked, shocked by the implication of the question.

"Did you hurt her?" Jane repeated with no less anger.

Darcy was already down for the count because of the words from one Bennet woman. Little did he realize he was about to get kicked around by another. All he wanted to do was follow Lizzy and explain away every stupid word he'd uttered, but he was faced with a determined elder sister who wasn't going to let him take a step out that door until he explained himself.

"I would never hurt her. We just had a misunderstanding," he answered, not wanting to explain further.

"A misunderstanding? Is that what you call it?" Jane spat. "When Lizzy left this room she was in shambles. You and I both know that's not exactly her style. What happened in here? What did you do to her?"

"That is between Elizabeth and me," Darcy replied bluntly. He truly believed she had no right to interfere.

"You are going to answer my questions, Darcy, whether you want to or not. Since you've known Lizzy, you have consistently hurt her feelings under the guise of being interested in her. But you can't exactly decide on that either, can you? I've been watching how you treat her. You've been stringing her along, expecting her to comply with your wishes at the drop of a hat. She may act coy with you but she has a heart, you know, and you've been doing a very good job of trampling on it."

"I have explained my misconceptions to her and she was willing to give me a chance. If you let me leave to find her, this can be resolved. Elizabeth is a grown woman and doesn't need her big sister to defend her," Darcy said tersely.

"Then why did she leave here in tears, looking at me with absolute fear in her eyes? I'm not kidding, Darcy. She looked terrified. Do you know what she said to me - the only thing she said to me when she left? Don't let him follow me."

Darcy was silent but he visibly flinched, Jane's words had filled his heart with anguish. She saw his reaction and continued. "You may think Lizzy is a grown woman but she's still young in many ways. Were you expecting a quick fling with her? Did you expect to sleep with her tonight and go off on your merry way to the other side of the world?"

"No, it's not like that," Darcy insisted, needing to defend himself, but not knowing exactly what would appease the lady in front of him.

"Does she know this?" she asked, trying to bang some sense into his head. Before he could respond she continued. "Oh, I know, she talks the big talk but she's not a worldly woman. She's never had casual sex. Her intimate experiences are fairly limited for this day and age. If she was willing with you, it's because she has serious feelings. I don't think I can say the same for you." She looked at him with disdain.

"You know nothing about my feelings," Darcy said, not willing to share with Jane that he felt like a heel, ashamed of his overactive libido and his demands of pleasure from Lizzy. He had never even asked Lizzy what she wanted, what she expected, what she was comfortable with. He just went full speed ahead at a dizzying pace - a whirlwind that spun Lizzy into premature submission. All he wanted to do was impress her, spoil her, tease her; but all he had managed to do was drive her away in fear. She was afraid of him. She ran away from him and didn't want him near her. He was a beast. He knew he didn't deserve her, and he was now facing a much-deserved firing squad.

"I don't really care about your feelings. I care about my sister. You've done nothing but hurt her; do you know that? I think it would be best if you kept your distance. Go on your trip and good riddance. Why don't you just stay on the other side of the world. She'd be better off without you."

As Darcy listened to Jane, her words re-enforced everything he had begun to think. He had no right to put Elizabeth through any more pain. How do I know I won't just turn around and hurt her again. I managed to do it tonight without even trying. As much as he hated to admit defeat, it wasn't his feelings that mattered. She had told him to leave her alone and now her sister was telling him the same. He would obey Elizabeth's wishes, as his attentions were obviously unwanted.

"Alright, you've made your point. Don't worry. I won't bother her anymore. She doesn't deserve that," he said, crushed over his failure.

Jane didn't trust his words but silently nodded, satisfied with the outcome of their discussion.

"Excuse me," Darcy said suddenly and hurried out of the room.

Jane immediately picked up a phone and called the townhouse. She knew Lizzy wouldn't be home yet, but wanted to leave a message to let her sister know she would return home shortly as well. She didn't want Lizzy to be alone and she didn't want Darcy trying to contact her.

She sat on the edge of the sofa, emotionally exhausted. She had been stressed all week and though the evening had gone smoothly, the events with Lizzy and Darcy had upset her terribly. She needed time to collect herself before speaking with Charles. She was feeling rather antagonistic, and didn't want that interfering with their evening. She would have liked a few moments to gather her thoughts, but she didn't get the opportunity as Charles immediately entered the room looking confused.

"Are you able to explain what's going on?" he asked without noticing her state. This was uncharacteristic of him, but he was somewhat perturbed and worried by Lizzy's and then Darcy's sudden departures.

Whether or not he would have realized her emotional duress under normal circumstances didn't matter to Jane at this point. Before she even replied, she felt slighted.

"What do you want to know?" she asked, trying hard to return to a calm demeanour.

"Well, Darcy went from being giddy like a schoolgirl, at least as far as Darcy could be, to a nasty brooding version of himself. And why did Lizzy leave so suddenly and without her date? Bill was not at all impressed." Charles explained.

"Darcy and Lizzy argued," Jane simply said.

"Again? When will those two ever learn to play nice?" Charles asked to no one in particular.

"What do you mean, those two? Lizzy has always been nice to him. He's the one who trumped up this whole ridiculous idea that she was after is money. How could she not be a little defensive when faced with that?" Jane asked, startled by Charles's opinion that Lizzy was as much to blame as Darcy.

"It's obvious Darcy only did that as some kind of defense mechanism to fight his attraction. He's crazy over her. Lizzy is great, but she hasn't made it easy for him and he's not used to that. She should really cut him some slack."

"Cut him some slack? You've heard what he's said about her. He's lucky she's even talking to him. And you don't even know what he did to her tonight, alone in this room." Jane stopped, not able to continue. She was angry with Darcy, and now she was frustrated with Charles's blind faith in his friend.

"Darcy would never be overly forward with a woman. He doesn't have to be. I'm sure Lizzy just overreacted. She's great, a real bundle of energy, but she can be a little emotional," Charles reasoned.

As much as he liked Lizzy, he didn't understand why she'd put up any resistance to Darcy. He was certain they were perfect for each other. He thought all they needed to do was stop playing around and admit it.

"Charles, where is this coming from? You've seen the way he's treated her. You know perfectly well he has hurt her and if Lizzy is emotional she has every cause to be. She's strong and she can usually hold her own, but when I saw her tonight, she was a mess - she had been crying, her make-up was running and her dress - well, it wasn't quite in place. I'm not only worried for her emotional state but for her physical state as well."

"You're not suggesting Darcy did something?" Charles asked accusingly.

"He says he didn't but I haven't talked to Lizzy yet. I think I'll go home tonight. I think Lizzy will need someone."

Charles hardly heard Jane's last sentence as his mind was reeling with indignant anger on behalf of his friend. Yes, Darcy could treat people dismissively but he wasn't violent and he would never harm a woman - it was absolutely abhorrent to him, just as it was to Charles.

"Do you understand you are talking about my closest friend? Someone whom I respect beyond measure. I don't think you should be suggesting such things unless you know all the details," Charles said guardedly. He cared for Jane but she was treading on seriously hazardous territory. Regardless of how powerful his feelings were towards Jane, almost 15 years of friendship was a stronger bond than a new two-month love affair.

"It's not like I'm shouting accusations out to the media. I'm just telling you what I saw," Jane cried defensively.

"Is that a threat?" Charles questioned aggressively, becoming very protective of Darcy. She had used the one word that piqued Charles's suspicions - media. He had seen rumours surface about his friend over the years that had been entirely false and malicious. Even though Charles was a carefree sort of man, he saw why Darcy felt the need to be so secretive with his life, and when it came to his friend, Charles was highly apprehensive with anyone who even jested about such things.

"A threat? What are you talking about? Why are you so protective of him? Has he gotten into this sort of trouble before?" Jane asked suspiciously. She was worried for Lizzy and if Charles had held back things about his friend and allowed him to pursue her sister, well, she didn't know if she could trust the man with whom she had thought she was falling in love.

"No! Listen. If Lizzy is too sensitive and won't accept the advances of a man who's obviously crazy over her, that's her decision, but don't go twisting it into something sordid. Darcy's a very good man and Lizzy would be lucky to have him," Charles replied heatedly. He was extremely hurt by Jane's comments and was rather insulted she didn't take his word. He knew Darcy far too well to ever believe anything so horrible could have happened.

"You think Lizzy would be lucky to have a man who insulted her and then thought he could have a go at her in the same night? Charles, you're living in a dream world if you think Darcy is a good man. He's conceited and cruel and you're absolutely blind if you don't see it. I think I've seen enough this evening to know that I don't want to be a part of your life if you measure that man's value so highly. I'm afraid our relationship isn't based on very much if someone like that can get in the way," Jane said, frustrated and hurt with Charles's unmovable opinion.

"Someone like that happens to be a very old, very good friend and I'm sorry to have to tell you that at this point in our relationship, his friendship is more valuable to me than yours," he replied, determined for her to know she was overstepping her bounds.

"If you'll excuse me, I guess that's as good a reason as any to leave," Jane said, walking towards the door. However, she was worried about what she'd do next for she had no way of getting home unless she called a taxi.

Luckily for her, Caroline had been eavesdropping and immediately volunteered to take her home. Unluckily for her, Caroline had been eavesdropping with a purpose and taking Jane home fit perfectly in her plan to ensure the final nail was hammered in the coffin of Lizzy and Darcy's relationship.

Although she knew about Lizzy's hasty departure, Caroline wasn't certain what was happening between her man and that tart of a woman. Tonight she had realized that if Jane was a constant presence in her brother's life, Lizzy would always be around. She decided drastic measures were in order and as she heard Charles defend his life-long friend, an idea came to mind.

When Jane sat in Caroline's passenger seat, she held back her tears. It would be of no use to cry in front of his sister, she thought, determined to be strong. But Caroline wouldn't have it. As soon as they left the driveway, she said, "Jane, dear, it's okay to cry. That was a nasty fight. I can't believe what he said to you."

"You didn't hear us, did you?" Jane looked at Caroline, horrified. Jane rarely got angry and though she felt justified in being agitated at the situation, she didn't like the thought of an audience. Her tears fell quietly from her eyes, not only for the pain she was feeling but also the embarrassment of her situation.

"I'm afraid it was hard not to. Charles left the door open and after I said my goodbyes to Darcy, I overheard your remarks."

"I'm sorry, Caroline. I wish you didn't have to be put in the middle. I appreciate the drive home," Jane responded. She may not have been totally comfortable with Charles's sister, particularly because of her coolness to Lizzy, but she didn't want to cause any additional distress.

"Don't apologize. It's not like I haven't heard Charles in arguments like that before," Caroline said, setting her bait.

"Do you mean he's had to cover for Darcy before?" Jane asked incredulously. This was not Caroline's intention so she quickly plowed ahead with her plan.

"No, no. Darcy is an irreproachable man. I wouldn't care so much for him if he wasn't." She wanted to seem as sincere as possible so she knew she had to admit to certain genuine emotions. However, she didn't want to let Jane ponder her loyalty to Darcy for too long, so she continued. "I know you're well aware I see Elizabeth as a bit of a rival for Darcy's affections, but if that were the case, I'd keep my mouth shut and have you think the worst of him. I'm sure your sister was justified in leaving so suddenly, but you have to admit neither of us knows the intricacies of their relationship. I just know Darcy has never done anything to upset a woman in the past... unless it was leaving them."

She glanced over to Jane who was listening intently. Caroline was having difficulty keeping her eyes on the road while trying to look empathetic. Jane turned to her and actually smiled. "You know, if Charles had explained himself and Darcy the way you just did, we wouldn't have fought."

"Well, Charles and Darcy are uncommonly close. Charles has looked up to him since he was a young teenager," Caroline said cautiously. "That's why I've heard this argument before."

"What do you mean?" Jane asked, falling hook, line and sinker.

"Jane, I like you, I really do. I don't often like Charles's choice of girlfriend but I don't usually have much of a say in the matter, now do I?" Caroline paused and glanced over at Jane with a smile. "But regardless of who Charles has been involved with, the relationship only reaches a certain point and often ends the same way. There's an ultimatum made by his girlfriends - their relationship or Darcy. Now, yours wasn't so cut and dry, but the result is the same. He always chooses Darcy."

"But why? Does Darcy insist upon it? Does he have some sort of hold on him?" Jane asked, convinced the root of all evil was the man who had hurt her sister.

"No. Darcy doesn't need to insist on anything. Jane... I know Charles is my brother," Caroline paused, looking over at Jane, lowering her voice to add, "but I have to admit, Charles has no one to blame but himself. I do worry about how devoted he is to Darcy. It's more than a little odd..."

Caroline left the sentence unfinished, hoping Jane would begin to jump to her own conclusions with her carefully chosen words. It worked like a charm. Jane filled in all the right blanks.

"He's not gay, Caroline. I can tell you that much." She laughed bitterly at the thought. Not that it matters anymore.

"Oh, obviously," Caroline said chuckling, and paused as if lost in thought. She finally added tentatively, "Although... don't you think... there are people who have... some tendencies... with the right person?"

Jane looked to Caroline who was now staring straight ahead, her eyes focused on the road. She knew what Caroline was inferring. There were those who swung both ways in this world.

"And is Darcy the right person?"

"Oh, Charles would never act on his... thoughts, if that's what's going on. I can't be sure, you know. It's just a suspicion. But the biggest reason for him not to, if he was that way, is that he knows he'd be rejected. Darcy would never be interested. Charles would jeopardize their friendship... and he'd never let anything come between their friendship, as you are well aware," Caroline said, pleased she'd brought it back to the beginning of the conversation. Things were going exceedingly well in her estimation.

Jane was not totally convinced of Charles's homosexual tendencies. Their lovemaking had been wonderful. He had been so attentive and so enthralled by her body. However, she admitted she wouldn't know how a bisexual would behave in such situations.

Jane was an open-minded woman and understood the concept of some people finding both sexes attractive. She just hadn't been in contact with anyone who was like that. She had to admit she had no clue what such a person would be like... it could be someone like Charles for all she knew... and Caroline was giving a fairly strong argument. A thought suddenly occurred to her. "But he's been encouraging Lizzy's relationship with Darcy. Why would he do that?" "Like I said, I don't think Charles would ever act on his impulses but it would be convenient for him if he and Darcy were involved with sisters," Caroline reasoned. She did her best to appear flustered and shy about her supposition. "Jane, I can't believe I'm revealing these thoughts to you. I've never done this with anyone before. I really shouldn't have said anything. I'm only guessing, really, but it's based on years of observation."

"Well, why wouldn't he want you involved with Darcy?" Jane asked defensively, a sure sign she was convinced as far as Caroline was concerned.

Charles's sister was ready with a smooth answer. "He wouldn't want him with me. I know Charles too well. He may have already realized I suspect something."

Jane became silent. She was far past tears at this point; she was on the verge of shock. As she added up what she'd heard from Charles and now what his own sister had to say about him, she couldn't help but believe there was truth to it.

Caroline decided she needed one last comment to bring it home. "Jane, my dear, I don't want you to feel like it's your fault. He's a very confused man and I think he covers it very well. I'd always hoped he'd find someone who would make him happy and if there was anyone who could, it would have been you, but unfortunately his dedication to Darcy seems to be unshakeable. He may hide it for a few months at a time but it eventually rears its ugly head."

Jane continued her silence the rest of the way home. She felt nauseous. She went over and over what Caroline had said and it made absolute sense. Why else would he be so protective of the man? Why would he defend him over Lizzy? Why would he pick him over her? Her heart was crumbling into bits and as they neared the townhouse she finally let it all out. She cried for the short, wonderful time she'd had with Charles, she cried for their bitter words that evening, and she cried for what could have been.

Caroline couldn't help but feel bad, for she wasn't so heartless as to not feel guilty. She truly did like Jane, she thought she suited her brother very well; however, she was determined to let nothing stand in her way of her designs on Darcy. When she stopped the car, she gave Jane a hug and actually felt the prickle of tears in her eyes. Jane was touched at the apparent sympathy. Caroline could only think that perhaps she had gone too far... but there was no turning back now.

Lizzy rushed into the townhouse, slammed her keys on the counter and stripped out of her stockings, dress and garter, pitching them into the corner of her bedroom. She flopped onto the bed face first and proceeded to cry uncontrollably into her pillow for half an hour.

Why, why, why, why? Why couldn't he have continued to be a jerk? Why do I find him so attractive? Why doesn't he care for me like I care for him? Why couldn't I have been a big girl and just enjoyed the best sex of my life?

When she finally came up for air, the pillowcase was stained with the remainder of her make-up. She roughly pulled it off the pillow and heaved it into the corner with her clothes. I must have looked like such an easy little tart to him. The woman in red... even Lydia would have been impressed, she thought bitterly.

She kept repeating all these thoughts as she showered and put her pajamas on, damning herself for her stupidity. By the time Jane arrived home, Lizzy was sitting at the edge of her bed in a daze, seemingly forgetting the simple task of crawling under the covers. She was getting to the point of emotional and mental exhaustion.

Jane had also had her share of despondency, but had composed herself by the time she entered the townhouse. As horrible as Jane felt, she still had no clue what Darcy had done to upset Lizzy so. It could have been far worse than her break-up with Charles.

"Are you home?" Jane called as she walked down the hall. She didn't receive a reply but had seen Lizzy's car in the driveway and her keys were on the counter. She found her still sitting at the side of the bed.

Lizzy looked up and pathetically uttered, "Hi."

"Lizzy, I've been worried sick about you. Are you okay? Did he hurt you?" Jane asked entering the room in a flutter.

Lizzy had a momentary vision of her mother and furrowed her brow at Jane's questions, "Hurt me? What do you mean?"

"Well, you left without your things... including your date. You were a mess and Darcy wouldn't tell me what happened."

"Oh, I wonder how Billy got home?" Lizzy asked absently, unknowingly frustrating Jane with an evasion of her question.

"Lizzy, please tell me the truth. I'm worried," Jane said directly.

"Alright, alright. He didn't hurt me... physically. Oh, I blew it again, Jane. The whole fight wasn't really all his fault, well, the bulk of it was. The fact of the matter is, I've developed strong feelings for him and he hasn't done the same for me. So, there I was, looking available...I mean, look at what I was wearing tonight... I bet he thought I was low hanging fruit - ripe for the picking. Why should he have expected anything more than a woman who was ready for a quick romp before he headed off to the wonderful land of Oz? Why should I have expected anything more from him?"

Lizzy nibbled on her lip trying to fight tears and a lump in her throat that was aching to be let out as a sob, but she didn't want Jane to worry anymore. She should have known better. It was ridiculous to feel so much pain for a man whom she'd hardly ever spoken to civilly.

"You're much more than low hanging fruit. He had no reason to expect you to just fall on your knees and beg for him. So you flirted. Lots of women flirt, even I flirt. And you looked lovely tonight. Red has always suited you."

At that pronouncement, tears escaped down Lizzy's cheeks as she remembered Darcy uttering nearly the exact statement earlier that day. Had it only been that morning? It seemed so long ago.

Jane held her while Lizzy let a new set of tears do their worst. She worried about the extent of feeling her sister had for someone who acted so cold. Lizzy usually became indignant when a man tried to hurt her, not that they'd ever been successful. She was always so sure of herself, if someone didn't seem interested, she figured he wasn't worth it.

Lizzy finally pulled away to look at her sister, but held onto her hands. "I'm sorry. I know I need to pull myself together, but for some reason, it's really hard. I don't even want to get under my covers because when I did it last night I was on the phone with him and he was so charming. It's hard to equate that man with the one I spoke to tonight. I guess it was all a ploy... I was some kind of challenge to him."

Jane looked down at their entwined hands and said softly, "He won't bother you anymore."

"I'm sure he won't," Lizzy replied, not comprehending Jane's meaning.

"I made myself clear. I couldn't do what he wanted."

A silence befell the sisters as they both pondered their evening. Neither could have envisioned the night unfolding in such a way and both would do anything to turn back the hands of time if they could.

Lizzy finally released herself from all-consuming thoughts of Darcy to ask Jane, "Did anyone hear our argument?"

"Just me, but your exit kind of told the story. And I spoke with Darcy."

"You did?" Lizzy looked at her sister with horror, but what injured Jane most was the hope she also detected in Lizzy's countenance. It tore at her heart to see Lizzy's emotions so raw and open for the man.

"I didn't get much out of him, but I wasn't impressed with his behaviour and paltry excuses. I told Charles so afterwards."

"Oh, you didn't," Lizzy smiled, knowing Jane must have reached her patience limit... and that was a pretty high threshold. But the smile was quickly replaced by a creased forehead and a disturbed frown. "Don't let him get between the two of you."

"Too late," Jane said with a weak smile, shrugging her shoulders.

"What do you mean?"

Jane's face said it all, as her thoughts wandered from the present to her earlier argument. "Charles and I argued tonight."

"No, no. Not over Darcy and me! I'm so sorry! Please say you worked it out before you left." Lizzy begged. She was beginning to think she had a detrimental effect on everything she touched.

"It may have started over you two, but it opened up other matters... matters of commitment and trust. Our relationship wasn't as solid as I thought. Something came out that made me realize he wasn't who I thought he was. It's best to realize this now, I think. It doesn't hurt as much as it could have, later."

"Oh, my God. I don't know what to say. What kind of sister am I? I've ruined your relationship and then I've been going on and on, pitying myself over something that hasn't even happened." Lizzy shook her head at her self-centeredness. "Are you sure? What could have been so awful as to stop seeing him?"

"I don't really want to rehash things, but it boiled down to the same thing as you felt with Darcy. I wasn't as important to Charles as I thought I was. I wanted more. He wasn't willing to give it to me and I don't think that would ever change, no matter how long we dated."

"But he seemed to just adore you. I don't understand..." Lizzy was truly baffled. If their smooth as butter relationship couldn't last, there was no way she and Darcy could have succeeded.

"Caroline drove me home afterwards and we had a good talk. She gave me some insight into his attitude. She does know him very well," Jane explained.

"How can you trust anything that comes out of that woman's mouth? She lies to get what she wants," Lizzy stated decisively, affronted by Jane's belief in that woman's opinion.

"Lizzy, I know she's not the most genuine person in the world, but I have to admit, she's only ever been kind to me. She actually opened up to me. She was on my side, not her brother's."

"I still don't think you should take her at her word. She lied to me tonight. She must have another motive," Lizzy said, still frustrated with her sister's judgment.

"She readily admitted her partiality to Darcy and that she saw you as... well... as a threat, but that wasn't really what we were dealing with. She felt I was perfect for Charles, but he wasn't perfect for me, and I'm of the opinion she's right."

Jane was not going to reveal the content of their conversation. It was all just supposition and it would only be spreading gossip to repeat it, even if it was to Lizzy. Caroline had confided in her and she had no right to divulge such personal information. She was confident enough in her own feelings to know her decision to end her connection with Charles was hers alone, and the right thing to do.

Lizzy had enough trust in Jane to accept her reasons without too much more of an argument. Jane may have been the quieter sister, but that didn't mean she lacked any self-esteem. If she felt Charles wasn't right for her, she must have justifiable reasons. Lizzy just wished she knew what they were, but decided not to dwell on it for the moment. She also didn't like Caroline's interference, but it sounded like Jane had already made up her mind prior to their discussion.

"Oh, we haven't done very well for ourselves, have we? I'm sorry I ever convinced you to crash the party in August," Lizzy said, sad for herself, but devastated over her sister's news. She really hadn't expected anything but happiness between Jane and Charles. She was still doubtful of Jane's denial of Caroline's influence, but there wasn't much Lizzy could do. If she pushed Jane, she would just clam up.

"We just weren't meant to be," Jane responded sadly. The sisters again slid into a silence, each lost in thoughts of the evening. Jane finally refused to wallow anymore, at least in front of Lizzy.

"I think we'd better get some some sleep. There's no use dwelling on this. We'll hurt, yes, but we'll just have to get on with our lives without those complicated, rich men. Mom will be very disappointed."

With Jane's little joke, they both mustered a small rueful smile. Jane made her way to her room, releasing her emotions more profoundly once she was alone. As much as she loved her sister, Jane didn't need or want Lizzy's empathy, she didn't need to share her sorrow. She just wanted to be alone with her disappointment, hoping it wouldn't take too long to recover. She knew she was kidding herself if she thought her heart could be repaired any time soon.

Lizzy finally managed to slip into her covers, and was resigned to trying to forget a deep, dark voice that had soothed her to sleep only the night before... but somehow, it just wouldn't go away.

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