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Action and Reaction

Chapter XIX - part 1

Lizzy hadn't worn her red dress since that dreadful night in September when she had thrown it into the corner of her room. A few days after that fit of melodrama, she picked it up, had it dry-cleaned, realizing on at least one level, the dress had nothing to do with the hellish evening when she and Darcy had fought so bitterly. However, it had remained in its plastic packaging since that time; whether because she never had no occasion to wear it, or she feared wearing it, she didn't allow herself to guess.

She stared at it now. Darcy had specifically requested it tonight. He thought it looked lovely on her and would prefer to see her smiling in it again. He wanted to wipe away any bad memories with new enjoyable ones. She agreed, but couldn't help but look at the dress warily.

"Don't be so silly, Lizzy, it's an inanimate object. It does not define an evening," she said out loud as if to chastise her own thoughts. She took it from the hanger and pulled it over her head.

Tonight, she and Darcy had finally decided to put his $10,000 auction date to good use. There was no need to waste such an evening, she told him after stumbling across the slip of paper that gave her a day at the spa and a night with "William Darcy". Little did the charity auction organizer know by the time Lizzy redeemed it, a day at the spa for Lizzy was a far less frequent occurrence than a night spent with the man on the auction block. Not that she'd rather have it the other way round.

Assessing herself in the mirror, she couldn't help but feel confident. After a day of indulgence from a pedicure to an elegant up-do, she looked fresh-faced, stylish and content. Combined with her dress, she was eager for Darcy to see her. She briefly thought of the stunning evening gown in Caroline's store and how much she would have liked to stand before Darcy with it draping her figure, but quickly dismissed the thought. This dress was far more "her", not too formal but still dressy.

She reached for her diamond studs - a gift from her parents upon her graduation from university. She laughed recalling Georgie wore a pair of studs about the same size. Georgie's were a gift from her father given to her as a child, and she rarely removed them for sentimental reasons. Lizzy wore hers because they were the most glamourous earrings she owned. She wondered if she'd ever get used to the Darcys' level of wealth.

The doorbell rang before she'd decided if she wanted to wear a necklace or not. Guess not. Lizzy rushed down the stairs like a schoolgirl. Even after being with Darcy for a few blissful weeks, she still had butterflies in her belly before seeing him.

She breathed in deeply at the sight of him. He looked impeccable as usual in a charcoal suit and a subtle matching tie. Somehow, when he dressed for the evening, he knew how to make a suit look substantially more debonair than it did in daytime. The effect made her momentarily speechless.

He would have teased her but for the fact he had the same problem. This was one of those moments where they were happy no one else could see them, one of those icky, lovey, mushy moments, and they knew it. Lizzy was the first to break it. She eyed him up and down playfully, and then nodded approvingly. "Nice clean up job, Fitzwilliam. You do know how to make yourself look puurty when you want."

His countenance suddenly austere, Darcy reacted with an affronted voice. "I've never been called 'purty' before and I don't expect I ever will again."

"We'll just see about that," Lizzy cracked, pulling his tie to bring him in. Under normal circumstances, no matter how much he was panting after her, Darcy would never allow Lizzy to lead him like a puppy on a leash, but his hands were full. Having recognized that fact, Lizzy enjoyed their little game immensely.

"Maybe I won't give you what's behind my back then," Darcy countered, knowing Lizzy's curiosity.

"You brought me flowers again? You're so sweet. I have told you I don't like red roses even though red is my favourite colour, right?"

"Yes, you've told me. Isn't subtlety supposed to be an art in diplomatic circles?"

Lizzy stuck out her tongue at the dig. He shook his head. "Besides, it's only one flower and that's only one hand." He presented her with a single coral rose, reminiscent of the first bouquet he'd ever given her.

Lizzy loved the simple elegance of a single flower but fat chance she'd let him know. She accepted the flower, brought it to her nose and replied, "Getting stingy are we?"

"Depends what's in the other hand, doesn't it?"

"Chocolates?" she asked, truly starting to become curious.

"No."

"Bath salts?"

"Not even close."

"Are you just trying to find out how greedy I really am? Seriously, you spoil me rotten and I don't deserve it; I've no need of anything." Lizzy tried to look uninterested, but Darcy could tell she was dying.

"You're a saint," Darcy remarked and waited. He wasn't disappointed. She couldn't hide her nosiness.

"Are you going to let me see?" She leaned to the right trying to sneak a peak.

"Are you going to let go of my tie?"

With a show of reluctance, Lizzy dropped his tie and patted it down against his torso, then looked up at him with expectant eyes.

From behind his back, Darcy revealed a navy blue velvet box, quite large. The size should have been a relief to Lizzy, but for some reason she had a knot of disappointment in her gut. She had been worried about him proposing ever since Jane and Charles became engaged. He had a habit of rushing their relationship, and she was quite content in their cozy lover stage. However, she now felt such a sharp sense of loss at the fact it wasn't a ring, that it shocked her, and she quickly buried the feeling, trying to convince herself she was simply nervous about a gift that was obviously jewellery and likely expensive.

He opened the box for her, revealing something far worse than an engagement ring. It was like being given ten engagement rings all at once. Shining brilliantly before her was a diamond and platinum lace necklace with a sizeable rock at the centre that tapered down to smaller ones as it progressed towards the clasp. Lizzy gasped, her eyes widened. She was not ready for that piece of jewellery to be around her neck.

Darcy stared at her expectantly while she thought of something to say. He obviously thought it would please her to receive such a gift, but it terrified her, so she was very careful about how she expressed herself. "It's magnificent." She lightly touched the cool stones but stopped short of accepting the gift.

"Do you like it?"

"Who wouldn't?"

"Would you like to try it on? I thought it would look lovely with your dress."

"Um, don't you think it's a tad formal for the dress?"

"Not at all. I've been envisioning you in this for some time."

"You have? How long have you had this?" She was a bit shocked by that confession. She was beginning to realize that Darcy had impetuous moments too.

Darcy preferred not to reveal that he'd bought it a day or two after their 'first' date where she specifically told him he was her interest and not his money, so he answered vaguely, "Not too long ago. Why don't I put it on you?"

"I don't think so."

"Excuse me?"

Lizzy thought she'd admit the lesser reason why she didn't want to accept it. "I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing it. I'd need an armed guard standing next to me."

"I'll be standing next to you all evening. Isn't that enough?" he answered jokingly, relieved that was her biggest concern.

"I still don't think it's a good idea." Lizzy turned and walked into the kitchen to find a vase for the rose. Her voice may have been casual, but Darcy had witnessed enough of her tactical manoeuvres in avoiding a topic to know something was up, so he followed her closely.

With a slow, questioning voice he simply uttered, "Lizzy?"

After reaching in the cupboard for a vase, she turned round knowing she'd been found out. She turned from him again to fill the vase with tap water. "Yes?"

"You're avoiding my eyes. Tell me the truth. Why don't you want to wear this? Do you find it garish? Ostentatious? Do you just not like the style?"

"No, no, it's gorgeous! I . I just don't think it's the kind of gift you should be giving me at this point."

"Why ever not?"

"This is a gift a man gives in a permanent relationship." She put her hand up in protest as he was about to interrupt. "Let me finish. I'm not saying I think we're going to break up. I hope we never do, but I'm not your wife; I'm not even your fiancée, and that's okay at this point," she added as much for herself as for him. "I don't expect valuable gifts like this. My God, Fitzwilliam, this probably cost more than what I clear in a year! I don't want to belittle what we have, but it's just not something I'm willing to accept while I'm simply your girlfriend."

"Isn't it my decision what kind of gifts I want to give to you and when?" He was slightly wounded by her reasoning even though he knew her to be cautious about the steps they took to further their relationship. He also was a tad hurt that he'd chosen a gift that displeased her.

"There's another associated reason." Lizzy felt that since she started, she may as well explain all her feelings. "What did you think of me when we first met?" She paused to let him answer, but he didn't, knowing it would help her argument. She continued. "You thought I was a gold-digger. And then you met my mother. Well, that confirmed it. I have to live with people who think that of me all the time because my mother is so crude about it. I've been seeing you how long? What are people going to think if they see this around my neck?"

"I don't care what people think." He was quite adamant, and she wasn't surprised, but he was only seeing things from his perspective.

"Yes, but I do, and not in the way you think. You're not the one everyone will be judging. You're not the one with an average government job who snagged themselves a rich partner. You're not the one with a mother who will scream that fact from the top of her lungs to anyone who will listen. I don't want people to doubt why we're together and I don't want them to doubt you for choosing to see me. Maybe I worry too much about what people think, but I'm the one who will get the catty comments, not you. I can handle someone like a Caroline Bingley but not a whole slew of them at once."

"Lizzy, you realize you may have to face that type of slander for the rest of your life." Darcy was taking her comments seriously and wanted her to think about the consequences.

"I know, and I think if I was on your arm as your wife, I could deal with it. but we're not there yet and in no way is that comment meant to push you." Lizzy stopped to make sure he understood. Now that her emotions were flirting absurdly with matrimony, she wanted to make doubly sure he didn't act on a proposal. Her heart may have been ready, but her head was telling her she was being rash. She didn't want to make any mistakes by rushing.

"I know, don't worry, I know." Darcy chuckled a bit at her insistence. As if he needed to be reminded yet again to slow down. He'd never let her know he'd been carrying around an engagement ring for a week hoping for an indication that she'd like an offer. It was burning a hole in his pocket as he spoke, but he knew it was stuck there for the evening.

However, he still wanted her to wear the necklace. "But as long as you're on my arm no one will be so rude . and I don't intend to let you out of my sight tonight."

Lizzy smiled. He was being insistent and a bit boyish. It was quite adorable, and little did he know how charmed she could be when he was enthusiastic about something. He had another question before she could decide. "Would it bother you to wear it if I said you could borrow it?"

"Sorry?"

"If you just borrowed it for the night?"

"That doesn't change anything."

"Sure it does. You have to give it back to me at the end of the night. We'll put it back in the box and bring it back to my place. I'll make you a deal. You can borrow it as often as you like until I'm engaged. Then it'll belong to my fiancée." He gave her such a puckish grin she could tell he was proud of his little idea.

An undeniable thrill zipped through her body as he teased her about giving it up to his betrothed, knowing perfectly well what he meant. She thought about the consequences of wearing the necklace, and even though she had her reservations, she knew eventually she would have to face the skeptics. She might as well do it now, though it would be easier if she had the moniker of Mrs. Darcy to back her up. She knew in her heart she was strong enough to deal with shallow people with Darcy by her side, and he seemed so eager to give her the necklace that she hadn't the heart to disappoint him. Besides, it was an incredibly elegant piece of jewellery.

"Okay." She bowed to his wishes but couldn't help but add, "You are a little boy who always gets his way. Someday it may come back to bite you."

"Could you make sure it comes back as a nibble instead of a bite?" he retorted as he draped the cool gems around her neck. "Preferably on the earlobe." He proceeded to show her the exact spot he meant.

~ * ~

Lizzy and Darcy's evening was turning into a grand success. They thoroughly enjoyed their meal at a candlelit table in Le Baccarat, the casino's finest restaurant and one of the premiere dining establishments in Canada. Once down on the casino floor, Lizzy was anxious to use the complimentary gambling chips she'd received as part of her auction package. She watched Darcy play a few hands of Black Jack and then confidently joined the fray.

"Stretching your gambling chops a bit further than strip poker?" Darcy asked quietly after she'd beat the house with her first hand.

"Don't even whisper that! Look where it got us last time!" Lizzy pursed her lips and widened her twinkling eyes.

"I happen to like where it got us last time," Darcy replied, his voice husky against her ear, his hand splaying against the bare skin of her back.

Darcy could have gotten unadvisedly carried away had Lizzy not suddenly stiffened. At first, he thought she was just reacting to his touch in such a public place until she muttered, "Oh my God."

He looked at her face, assessed her level of shock, quickly collected their winnings and walked her away from the table as calmly as possible without uttering a word. She knew he was a pro at looking inconspicuous, so she remained silent as well. However, she kept looking back until he had her in a more private area of the casino.

Before he had time to ask, Lizzy blurted out, "Lydia is here. I just saw her. She's underage and she's at a gaming table. Dad would kill her if he knew."

"She'll be in far more trouble if she's caught here, not to mention if she were caught by gaming authorities rather than the casino."

"What should we do?"

"Do you think she'd leave with us?"

"I don't know. I didn't see who she was with, some older friends, I guess . or that college boyfriend of hers. But she's at a high priced table. Who would she know that could afford that?"

For a moment, Darcy's gut told him who it was, but he rejected the idea. There was no benefit for Wickham in using a girl like Lydia. "Why don't we go over and find out. I'm sure when she sees us, she'll realize she needs to leave."

"You don't know Lydia very well, do you?" Lizzy asked cynically.

"We'll do our best to get her out with as little fuss as possible." Darcy looked at Lizzy hopefully. They walked to where Lizzy had originally espied Lydia, and Lizzy scanned the area in search of her. Darcy followed her lead. He'd no real idea where Lydia was and had only a vague memory of her appearance. Darcy narrowly avoided bumping into Lizzy's back when she halted abruptly.

"Oh, my God," she repeated. "I can't believe she's here with him."

Darcy's stomach clenched at the way she expressed herself. "Who?" He asked unnecessarily, turning in the direction of her gaze.

"George Wickham." As she said the name, he spotted him with one arm slung casually around Lydia's shoulder, bending over to place a bet while his eyes darted back and forth from the table to her cleavage. Darcy was enraged; troubles with George repeating themselves again on another clueless, gullible teenager.

Plans to avoid a scene were wiped away by the fear of Wickham's deceitfulness. Darcy needed to get Lydia away from him. He was sure she wouldn't know the truth any more than Georgie did.

Lizzy didn't think clearly at first. Her mind was on what Darcy said about no fuss. She definitely didn't want him involved now that the possibilities were so tawdry. If Lydia were to protest, there was William Darcy, well- known publishing giant, and George Wickham, local celebrity, to draw a spotlight. She was nauseated with the thought of that sleaze ball taking advantage of Lydia's idolization of him, but what could she do? They were in a public place and if Lydia made a to-do, it would be a nightmare. She couldn't believe what she was going to suggest but she did anyway. "We could keep an eye on things and when they leave, meet them at the door. We'll take her home then. It might be a long night but I think it's for the best. If we go over there now, well, you and George don't like each other, she's underage here, and it could get messy."

"We're getting her away from that filth now." Darcy took Lizzy's hand and made a step in their direction. Lizzy stood firm.

"Wait." Lizzy's voice was a bit harsher than she wanted but Darcy was acting unreasonable. "This is my sister. Shouldn't I be the one who decides what we do?"

"You don't know what he's like," Darcy answered vaguely.

"I know enough. But what I know I've figured out on my own because you never told me what you know." Lizzy wouldn't give an inch. This was the old high-handed Darcy taking total control of a situation, and she would have none of it. She was getting frustrated with his bull-headedness.

Darcy glanced over to Lydia and George and could tell they had no intention of going anywhere. He stared intently at Lizzy. "How long do you think they've been seeing each other?"

"I've no clue. This is the first time I've seen them together since they met briefly the night of the auction. Do you think it could have started then?" It occurred to Lizzy that George and Lydia may have been dating for more than a month. She was shocked and disgusted by George and his interest in a young girl like Lydia.

Darcy didn't answer the question but posed one of his own. "Do you think they've been intimate?"

"What? Where did that come from? I don't know! Why are you asking me that? What's going on?" Lizzy was indignant and hurling out questions before Darcy had a chance to answer. She had been unconsciously suppressing the thought of them being sexual until Darcy had voiced the possibility. Now, everything was sinking in. She was watching a man in his thirties who was perhaps intimately involved with her sister, a seventeen year old. She stood frozen, not knowing what to do, and waiting for Darcy to answer, something she was beginning to think he should have done a long time ago.

Darcy ran his hand over his face. He'd never wanted to repeat this, but Lizzy had a right to know. He felt he was betraying Georgie, but there was no other way. Letting out a heavy sigh, he leaned closely into Lizzy's ear to ensure no one else heard, even taking the precaution of shielding his lips with his hand. "George Wickham gave someone I know a sexually transmitted disease. He knew very well he was contagious and didn't let his partner know. They had unprotected sex. I suspect he's been treated by now, but with the way he lives, I wouldn't be surprised if he's contracted another STD."

Lizzy put her hand over her mouth certain she was going to be ill. That man was with her sister! Lord knows what they had done together. As much as she would like to think Lydia was innocent, she knew in her heart she wasn't. She wouldn't be like Lizzy and delay the physical aspect of a relationship. Lizzy also couldn't be certain that Lydia would insist on safe sex. In fact, she was more likely to think Lydia wouldn't really care.

Her skin crawled as she remembered George's touches when she'd been forced to push his advances away the night of their 'date'. She wouldn't judge anyone who had the misfortune of contracting a disease by accident, but Darcy said George knew he had one and had unprotected sex. As far as she was concerned the man was a depraved monster, and Lydia was his current victim.

Lizzy wasn't aware her legs had gone weak and that Darcy was supporting her. He led her to a chair while she took heavy breaths to keep from vomiting. Darcy grabbed a glass of water from a passing casino attendant and gave it to her. It took awhile but slowly Lizzy's breathing returned to normal. She regained her composure, her eyes narrowing in thought. She suddenly had a steely determination about her as she looked up to Darcy. As revolted as she was by the turn of events, she had also grown enormously angry; at George, at Lydia and at Darcy. She wouldn't betray her true feelings until she was out of the casino and in a place where she felt safe to let loose. She knew her temper wouldn't help the situation, so she buried it under a cool, determined focus.

"We should at least have a plan. I'll do the talking. I'd like to think Lydia would be concerned about being caught by the casino, so if she doesn't go with us, we'll threaten to go to security."

"Fine," Darcy concurred, allowing Lizzy to take the lead, sensing she needed to. However, he did worry about her serene composure after such a violent reaction to what he'd revealed. He hoped it was her professional diplomatic capabilities kicking in, but he suspected that was only part of it.

They walked to the couple with no hesitation. Lizzy immediately spoke to her sister. "Fancy meeting you here, Lydia."

Lydia's head jerked around at the familiar voice, but instead of being ashamed at being caught, her eyes focussed on Lizzy's neck. A look of shock and envy crossed her face. "Holy shit Lizzy, where'd you get the bling?" She looked up to Darcy and nodded her head. "Oh, yeah, your sugar daddy. Must be nice. Mom will be so impressed."

Darcy could sense Lizzy's body tense from behind. Of all the people to prove her earlier concerns about wearing this jewellery, a member of her family was the last one he expected. He was so affronted for Lizzy, he wanted to defend her honour, but what was the point with an immature seventeen year old?

Lizzy counted to ten before speaking. She wanted to smack her sister in the face: for her rude comment; for her total disregard for propriety; for breaking the law; for her stupid, self-centered behaviour. She didn't know what kept her from doing it - perhaps her slight amusement at Lydia's pathetic attempt to use hip hop slang - but luckily she managed to remain outwardly collected. "Acting your age as usual, Lydia."

That comment caught Lydia's notice. Her face stiffened, if not with fear, then at least with attention. She asked a little more cautiously, "Is there something you want?"

"I think you can guess. Perhaps it's best if we discuss this at home."

"I'm sort of busy here with George. You remember George, don't you?"

George barely looked up. He was diligently attending to his cards. He nodded briefly. He'd be losing his date but more importantly, he wasn't having much luck that night. He had used his last big win on partying rather than paying off some long-time debts and his creditors were none too pleased. Their badgering was escalating, bordering on violence, and he couldn't put them off any longer. Lydia was a diversion; one he knew wouldn't be around forever. Better to let her go quietly. He'd no worries about a commotion. Darcy was there and George knew he avoided publicity.

Not even the decency to look me in the eye, Lizzy thought disdainfully. "How could I forget? Lydia, I don't think you understand me clearly. You are coming home with me now. George can certainly take care of himself."

"Why do you care? You've got your Donald Trump knock-off. Why are you jealous of me with George?"

Darcy felt the tremors of disgust and contempt through Lizzy's body as he stroked her back in a feeble attempt to soothe her. He wouldn't be able to be rational to Lydia if he opened his mouth. He felt like picking her up and dragging her off. It suited her childish behaviour, but he knew this part wasn't his fight.

Lizzy gained enough composure to lean into Lydia and threaten, "If you don't come with me now I will go to that security guard and let him know that Mr. George Wickham's date is underage. If, for some reason, the guard does not act on this, I will not hesitate to phone the police to alert the gaming authorities. I don't think the casino would be too pleased with you or George at that point, would they?"

Lizzy backed away, her eyes blazing in fury at her sister's attitude. Lydia realized the seriousness of Lizzy's intentions and acquiescence finally showed on her face. "Alright." She pouted and turned to George who had just won his hand. "George, do you forgive me if I leave?"

George acted as if he'd no clue Lizzy and Darcy were angry. "Of course, Lydia. I'll be fine here on my own."

"But you always say I'm your lucky charm." Lydia whined and pouted again, not knowing she was overdoing it.

"You're absolutely right and I'll probably leave very soon after you," George answered suavely. Lydia ate it up like the sucker she was.

George turned his attention to Lizzy and Darcy. Well, mostly Lizzy. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Lizzy. I see your opinion of Darcy must have changed since we last spoke."

Lizzy couldn't believe the nerve of the man to say such a thing in front of Darcy. If he weren't nearly twice Lydia's age, she actually would have believed they were made for each other. "He improves on closer acquaintance," Lizzy replied sarcastically, although at the moment, she doubted her own words.

George simply nodded with an amused smirk on his face. He obviously had no compunction about being with Lydia in these circumstances. Lizzy needed air. "Come on, Lydia, we have some talking to do."

Before leaving with Lizzy, Lydia threw her arms around George and gave him a highly demonstrative kiss. "For luck!" Lydia called as Lizzy grabbed her hand and led her away.

Darcy stayed back momentarily. He may have given Lizzy the lead with Lydia, but there was no need for him to hold back with George. "Have you any idea how despicable you are? That word doesn't even do you justice. You really need psychological help. Does taking advantage of impressionable girls give you kicks? If you did to her what you did to Georgie, you'll pay dearly."

George rolled his eyes at Darcy's attempt at a morality lesson. "Well, I liked that pretty little Lizzy, but she must be the type that smells money. Why don't you go and blame her for my depravity."

Darcy wanted to hit him, he really did; a nice, solid punch on the nose to ruin that pretty boy sportscaster face. He knew George was egging him on with the knowledge he wouldn't bite. If Lizzy and Lydia weren't around, Darcy would have gladly dealt with the ramifications of destroying George's nasal cartilage. However, it wasn't the time or place.

George's mistakes would catch up with him though, Darcy was certain of it.

Chapter XIX Part II

Darcy found Lizzy and Lydia waiting just outside the door at the red-carpeted entrance. "Why didn't you wait inside? It's freezing out here."

Lizzy shot her now-silent sister a fierce sideways glance. "We would have, but Lydia was whining so loudly about me treating her like a child and how she was mature for her age, that the security guard began to take an interest in our conversation. Before he asked for I.D., I decided it was best to wait here."

"Good thinking," Darcy said, noticing Quinn had arrived. As Lizzy ushered Lydia into the back seat of the car, Darcy added, "Now do you realize the importance of having your own car and driver rather than a substitute?"

Lizzy had teased him earlier in the evening for refusing to use the complimentary limo and driver that the auction package allowed. She now nodded her head at his clairvoyance.

Lydia chose to remain silent. Complaining only seemed to get her in trouble, and she felt Lizzy didn't deserve any answers. She plunked down on a seat and immediately reached for the stereo system, wishfully thinking the music would drown out any questions.

Darcy entered the car and turned off a blaring symphony seconds later. Lydia knew enough to realize she'd overstepped her limits in his car so she sat back, arms crossed and eyes lowered. Besides, the music sucked.

Lizzy noted Darcy had capably disciplined Lydia without looking at her. Though he had been haughty and dismissive, Lizzy agreed with his actions. This was his vehicle, Lydia was ruining his evening and he would set the rules. Under normal circumstances, Lizzy would have had to stifle a giggle at Darcy's behaviour ... but at the moment she had no laughter to keep in check.

"Take us home, please." Darcy's instructions to Quinn broke the silence. He reached for the controls to raise the privacy panel until Lizzy stopped him.

"Quinn, could you actually take us to my place first?"

Quinn nodded. He didn't even look to his boss for approval, but he didn't need to as Darcy simply elevated the panel after Lizzy's request.

Finally in private, Lizzy began her inquisition in earnest. Her disposition was still controlled, but she didn't know how long that would last. She simply asked, "Lydia, what were you thinking?"

Lydia gave her an eye roll.

This was not going to be pretty.

After a dramatic pause, pretending she wasn't going to answer, Lydia gave a snarky response. "Oh, come off it. I've been having a great time with George. I've been to the casino lots, and he's even taken me to a hockey game and introduced me to some players. They are so hot. You'd have done the same thing if he'd shown the slightest interest in you - which he obviously didn't."

Lizzy hadn't reached her patience threshold, so she could still ignore the petty remark. She decided to state the obvious. "This isn't about me; it's about you and the fact you're with a man old enough to be your father."

"Barely," Lydia muttered, arms still crossed defiantly.

"No. Not barely. He's almost twice your age."

"George says I'm really mature for my age." Lydia's repeated her earlier assertion, chin lifted proudly as if George's word was gospel.

"Did he mention that before or after he had his hands in your pants?" Lizzy snapped back nastily, her calm vanishing. Lydia showed no shame, no remorse. She was acting like the injured party in a scenario where she was lucky have to scaped without being arrested. It was all too ridiculous.

Darcy couldn't help but notice the change in Lizzy's demeanour. "Let's try to address this a little more calmly," he interjected before violence ensued.

This rational approach resulted in Lydia returning to her mute non-cooperation and did nothing but irk Lizzy. She had no need for Darcy's patronizing attitude tonight. The Lord and Master of the back of the limo had tried to soothe her most inappropriately. The poor man had no idea.

"Calmly you say? Well, you know, Darcy, I've surpassed my quota for calm this evening so why don't you take over. You seem to know all the details of George and his sordid life. You can inform my sister."

Lydia's eyebrows twitched in interest briefly before turning away. Darcy surveyed the two - they were as far apart as humanly possible in the small space, both with arms crossed and facing a window. Until that point, he'd seen no familial similarities. Now was not the opportune time to discover the one family trait they shared was stubbornness.

He took some time to figure out what he was going to say. Hell, he'd never had to do this with Georgie; she had been the one to inform him at Richard's insistence. That still cut him deeply. Georgie had been so frightened of his reaction, she'd approached Richard first to help buffer what she thought would be Darcy's rage. Once she told him the truth, however, communication had improved significantly and their relationship began to develop from a father- daughter bond to that of brother and sister.

He looked at Lydia and realized Georgie had been the same age when her troubles with George had occurred, and though vastly different girls, both were still young and easily swayed by the charms of an older, calculating man. Darcy's approach softened with that awareness, and since Lizzy was far too angry, he took on the burden of asking the pertinent questions.

Questions first, or explain his knowledge of George? He decided on the gentler path. "We took you away from George tonight because of some details of which I'm aware. Just under two years ago, George was involved with a young woman I know personally. She contracted a sexually transmitted disease. She knew he had given it to her as she'd been tested shortly after her relationship with him ended. You see, she was a bit too trusting of him when he insisted they not use ..." He hesitated for a moment, uncomfortable with giving these details to a virtual stranger, "... protection. He never told her about his condition and later, when he was confronted, he didn't deny that he knew about his STD before entering the relationship. That meant he willfully gave this woman a disease."

Lydia took this all in skeptically. She really didn't want to hear any negatives about the man who had made her life so thrilling, who had made her the envy of her friends, who had introduced her to a whole locker room of professional hockey players.

Darcy interrupted her thoughts. "Lydia," he spoke in a deadly serious tone, his brow creased severely. "Elizabeth and I took you from him because we were worried for your health. George may have been treated and cured. However, based on his lifestyle, I wouldn't be surprised if he caught something else since then, perhaps more serious. All this is irrelevant though if you haven't been intimate with him."

Lydia had enough sense to grasp the seriousness of the information, but she was also defensive. She didn't want to admit to having sex with George. As much as she liked to brag to her friends about it, telling Lizzy and her uptight boyfriend was a different matter. She thought she was being clever when she asked, "Say we did and we used condoms?"

From her position at her window, Lizzy lowered her eyelids and quietly sighed in relief. If nothing else, at least Lydia was responsible enough to use protection. It was the one bright spot on a devastatingly dark canvas of problems.

Darcy was also relieved and absently nodded. "Then I would say you are probably okay. Did George ever tell you he'd had an STD?"

"No," Lydia sulked. She'd already forgotten her plan to not admit to sex and felt she needed to come to his defense. "But he's probably cured so he didn't need to tell me."

Lizzy had mellowed significantly with Lydia's assertions. If the only problem here was Lydia getting in over her head, she believed her parents could deal with it. It would be a wake-up call to them, one serious enough they'd probably question how they'd raised her these past few years, but hopefully it would come in time to make a real difference to Lydia's upbringing.

She decided to comment on Lydia's good sexual practices but also needed to express a worry. "Lydia, it was wise of you to use condoms. But can I ask if you're on the pill too? You know condoms aren't perfect."

"Lizzy, you sound like a nurse. Of course I'm on the pill."

Darcy had been impressed and somewhat confused by Lydia's ability to sway George to use preventative measures. It didn't seem likely, based on what he knew of him. Slightly disappointed with the fact his bright, dependable sister hadn't been able to do the same; curiosity got the better of him. "Can you tell me how you convinced George to use protection? From what I understand, he's not easily persuaded."

Now knowing that George might be disease-infested, Lydia was beginning to feel quite the clever, responsible woman. She openly bragged to Darcy. "He wasn't willing. I was about to cave when I realized I'd forgotten to take my pill that day and I told him. He said that wasn't a big deal, but-" She stopped and turned to Lizzy. "I don't know about you, Lizzy, but I suck at remembering to take a pill every day and I told him. I probably miss about six a month, at least. Well, he was willing to slap on the latex pretty quickly then."

Lizzy nodded, not because of an affinity with Lydia's pill-taking deficiencies, but because Lydia's supposed conscientiousness was in fact, the opposite. It seemed apropos that only Lydia's irresponsibility could save her from further irresponsibility.

However, one further scare popped into Lizzy's head, and now that she had gained possession of her emotions, she was willing to keep talking to Lydia. "I don't really want details of your love life, Lydia, however, I want you to keep in mind that regular sex isn't the only way to contract an STD. If you had ... say ... oral sex without protection, you're still susceptible."

"Lizzy!" Very little embarrassed Lydia, but she had just come to the realization that her sister and her boyfriend were learning details about her sex life that were far too personal. "I can't believe you're asking me that and in front of him" She gestured toward Darcy. "First, there's no way I'm going to tell you that; second, George is probably cured and neither of you have any idea if he really does have an STD right now and last, even if he does, it doesn't mean I have one."

"No, but I'm taking you to the doctor's first thing tomorrow to be tested," Lizzy asserted.

Although Darcy was highly uncomfortable discussing this topic with Lydia, he was accustomed to the facts after he and Georgie had sought counseling together. "Just to put your mind at ease a bit, the STD George had was Chlamydia. The most likely way to contract that is through regular ... sex."

"Oh, my God!" Lydia suddenly looked panicked. "I can't have that! Can you imagine if it got out? It's my worst nightmare. People would call me Chlamydia Lydia!"

Lizzy cringed. Her seventeen-year-old sister was facing the possibility of having contracted a disease that, if undetected, could affect her ability to have children, and she was worried about nicknames? She looked to Darcy, who was as perplexed as she, and couldn't help but be embarrassed. As upset as she was with him, she had no desire to have him think a good portion of her family were fools.

Thankfully, they had reached her townhouse and Lydia was eager to get out of the car. She didn't have to be told to go upstairs, she kicked off her shoes and headed to a bedroom without turning back. Seconds later, Lizzy could hear Jane's television blaring MuchMusic.

Though the tempo of Lizzy's blood pressure was a tad slower due to Lydia's admissions in the limo-cum-confessional box, she was not truly calm. Her emotions had been stretched to the snapping point from the beginning of the evening. She had been abnormally nervous about wearing the red dress again, the gift of diamonds had disconcerted her, seeing Lydia had antagonized her, Darcy's revelations had shocked and disgusted her, and then to have Darcy witness her sister's juvenile attitude cut deeply as well. These ingredients combined and boiled into a blistering anger, and now that Lydia's mess was temporarily placed on the back burner, she turned her attention to Darcy.

"I can't believe you," she said quietly, staring intently at Darcy, a look of hurt and bewilderment on her face.

"What do you mean?" Darcy was incredulous. He'd noticed a bit of hostility toward him since dealing with Lydia at the casino, but he deduced Lizzy was so upset that no one would be in her good books that evening. However, her low pronouncement of disbelief discomfited him.

She lifted both hands to her face and then threw them off as if they were posing a question to him. Darcy's inability to read her body language frustrated her so she elaborated, "How could you not tell me about George Wickham?"

"You didn't need to know, and I'd made a promise never to tell."

"I can't believe you," Lizzy repeated louder, her eyes widening, clearly losing whatever composure she had fooled herself into believing she had. "After all we've talked about -- you didn't see fit to let me know?"

"It had nothing to do with us. You must see that. I knew your date with him was solely to go to the concert, and as far as I knew, that was the end of it." He wasn't sure why she was lashing out at him. He couldn't have guessed Wickham would be interested in Lydia, in fact, Darcy wasn't surprised by Wickham's snide remark earlier that evening about his designs on Lizzy. Darcy had always believed his sister, who said Wickham's interest in her had been an aberration.

"Nothing to do with us? A woman catches an STD, a woman you're close enough to that she tells you, and you don't think I need to know? I know you, Darcy, and the only woman you'd discuss that with would be your lover. How often have we discussed our sexual histories, and how important it is to us to be honest about our pasts?"

Lizzy still felt the nausea she'd had earlier when Darcy had told her the truth about Wickham. Now that she'd confronted him, the last thread of her sanity was unraveling. Darcy seemed so cool and calm; it felt like he was holding a pair of scissors to that final thin, flimsy strand.

Comprehension dawned on Darcy's face. Of course, she would come to that conclusion and, of course, she would think he hadn't been honest about his previous love life. He could imagine how her anger would have only escalated throughout the evening, dealing with Lydia and what she thought was a betrayal by him. He was quick to clear up the confusion.

"It wasn't a lover," Darcy stated firmly. "If it was, I would have informed you. You thought I lied to you?"

"How could I not?" Lizzy asked back with a quivering voice, her emotional level still unstable. She wasn't instantly relieved by his assertions; she didn't know what to think. She had not only been angry with Darcy but fearful of the possibility he'd been dishonest with her. "Who else could it be?"

"You're a clever woman, Elizabeth. I'm sure given enough time you'll figure it out." Darcy's anger flared, evident by an edge to his voice. He hated breaking a trust, but he was forced to do it to salvage Lizzy's trust in him. He hoped Georgie would understand.

At first, Lizzy was perplexed, so much so, she concentrated on who it could be, rather than looking at Darcy. Who did Darcy know well enough to discuss such things ... Anne? Maybe Richard told him of one of his acquaintances? No, Darcy seemed to be keeping the secret for the woman. Lizzy finally looked back to him and the mask of indifference Darcy typically wore was gone. His face said it all. Anger, gravity and a touch of sadness. They all added up to one person. "Georgie?" Lizzy asked in disbelief.

With an imperceptible nod, he spoke quietly, "Now do you understand?"

Lizzy was stunned. How could a sensible girl like Georgie have been fooled? She's far too bright, far too perceptive to be conned by Wickham. Lizzy briefly thought back to her initial meeting with the man and how she was able to brush him off. She had attributed it to her knowledge of men through her work. She reflected that had she been younger she might have fallen for his charms. And Georgie wasn't always so outgoing according to Darcy. He once said she was naïve.

Her thoughts drifted to the age difference between Georgie and Lydia, realizing that there wasn't much of one. While sympathizing with the awful situation Darcy and Georgie must have faced, her anger flared as she saw history repeating itself. Her present emotional state didn't help her see things from Darcy's point of view. "All the more reason for you to have told me," she accused.

"What do you mean?" He was tempted to leave, sensing Lizzy was now trying to pick a fight rather than deal with her obstinate sister. With this in mind, he unknowingly let out a heavy sigh at her behaviour. Lizzy was not amused.

"Bored are you? Is this tedious? Too bad, Darcy, you're going to hear me out. The night of the auction, all you had to do was say that George was known to have an STD and I would have stopped bidding. At the very least, I would never have allowed him into my home and I certainly wouldn't have allowed him to be anywhere near my sister."

"I could not betray a trust, and Georgie trusted me to keep her secret."

"Are you even listening? Fine, you didn't have to tell me that night, but couldn't you have mentioned it on the phone when you knew Wickham was in my house? I would have appreciated a head's up at that point. So now, instead of just one young girl being infected, there's a possibility of two."

"I never suspected Wickham would be interested in your sister."

"And why not? Lydia is close enough in age to your sister. Or was she not good enough to tempt him?"

"That's not what I mean. Wickham went after my sister for specific reasons. From what she told me, she was unusual for him. In fact, if there was anyone I would have expected him to hit on, it was you."

"And he did! And I had to push him away the entire evening. Thanks for your support!"

"I told you he wasn't to be trusted, that he didn't deserve to be anywhere near you. You wanted my trust, so I gave it to you. I knew you enough by that point to know that you wouldn't let anything happen."

"What if he had forced himself on me?"

"He's despicable, Elizabeth, but he's not a rapist."

"You and I were on unstable ground at that point. I really needed to learn to trust you, yes, but I also needed to be trusted. I needed your respect, and now I learn you gave me none. But even if you told me later ... I mean, from the very first night we were together you knew how sensitive I was about safe sex. You could have explained then that that was why you didn't want me near George." Holding back the sting of tears, she shouted, "Damn it, why didn't you just say something!"

"Technically, I did." Darcy replied softly, shrugging. He wasn't sure this would go over well, but it was out of his mouth and he couldn't take it back.

"What do you mean, technically?" Lizzy narrowed her eyes like a cat ready to pounce on his answer.

"The night of the auction, when you wouldn't stop bidding, I said just don't sleep with him, you might catch something."

She didn't just pounce; she ripped at the argument with the sharpness of cat's claws. It was a wonder she didn't hiss. "That is so low, Darcy, especially for you. You said that flippantly, in the heat of the moment. You were a petulant little boy who was lashing out desperately to get me to stop bidding. I didn't take you seriously, and you didn't expect me to take you seriously. Now you're throwing it back in my face. How dare you."

He knew she was right and he never should have reminded her. He was not one to use technicalities in arguments, he used logic and sense. Those were enough to almost always guarantee he'd win. However, tonight wasn't about winning the argument, tonight he was simply trying to save himself from drowning under Lizzy's accusations. He still felt he did the right thing, and he decided to reiterate his reasoning more strenuously. "I didn't tell you because at the time we were in the beginning of our relationship. As you said, it was tenuous at best. My relationship with my sister was still my priority, and she had made me promise never to utter a word of the situation to another soul except Richard, who already knew. I've done nothing wrong in keeping my word, and I don't regret it."

"You didn't need to tell me it was Georgie. You could have said you had knowledge of George's STD."

Darcy took a deep breath before speaking. He was certain of his answer, but she wasn't going to like it. "Protection of my sister's privacy was paramount, and you would have questioned it, just as you have tonight. You like to push until you know everything. I will not apologize for doing what was best."

Lizzy may have been able to take that criticism under normal circumstances, but she was far too incensed and she lashed back defensively. "No, you never do anything wrong, do you? And you know what else you never do? You never say I'm sorry. It's all about you and what's right for you, isn't it? You are so damn proud of your family and of your self-righteousness, that you'd never want anyone to know that Georgie was tricked and used. It might reveal a failing in you somehow."

Lizzy hit near the mark; however, it was something Darcy wasn't ready to reveal, even to himself. He wanted her to understand his position but there seemed no way to explain it to her satisfaction. "Elizabeth, I don't think you're speaking rationally right now. This is not about me as a person; this is about a specific matter in which we disagree."

Lizzy believed she had already reached her limits of anger. She was clearly mistaken. "Oh, it certainly is about you. You will not apologize for anything, Darcy. You never apologized for not telling Caroline about our fake relationship right away, for eavesdropping on me and my mother, for calling me a gold-digger, for distracting me at the auction, or even for treating me like a sex object the night we had dinner with Eli. Even in that lovely letter you wrote, you said you were boorish, you said you were misunderstood, you said you were misinformed - you have all the excuses - but you have never just said 'I'm wrong' or 'I'm sorry'. I don't think that's an accident. I'm tired of being the one who lets you off the hook because you come with flowers or jewels or seductive words. And tonight is just the last straw."

Now it was Lizzy who may have had a point through all her vitriol, but there was no way Darcy could calmly think about it. She had just launched into a list of perceived faults that, truly, his pride could not take. He wanted to discuss the issue at hand, not his apparently flawed psyche. He fought back. "You're bringing all this up now? Have my deficiencies always bothered you so much? You could have said something at the time, I may have adjusted my behaviour, but now, it simply sounds like you're grasping at every tiny flaw in my character in order to further your anger and push me away."

"I'm just pointing out a trend. You always get your way, and when you do need to bend, you never really want to, nor do you ever admit to any fault. Why don't I add another example?" She reached around the back of her neck to unclasp the diamond necklace. "You had to have me wear this tonight. No matter my reasons against it, you kept persisting and -- silly, accommodating girl that I am -- I finally bowed to your wishes."

With a bit of difficulty that only frustrated her further, Lizzy removed the jewels from her neck and thrust them into his hand. "I've finished borrowing the necklace; you can keep it until you have your fiancée. Good luck to her, she'll need it."

Darcy had enough of her performance. He reached for the box, still on her coffee table and placed the necklace inside. He looked up at Lizzy and felt he hardly knew her. She was being irrational and hurtful, as if purposely trying to destroy their relationship. It was so unlike her; he could hardly believe what was happening. He made one last attempt to make her see reason, disappointed with what he saw as childish arguing. "Elizabeth, can't we try to discuss the issue at hand? If you have problems with me, that's one thing, but combined with your jumbled emotions over what happened tonight, you're not making much sense."

"Oh, everything's crystal clear to me. Perhaps for the first time in a long time. But you know what? You're absolutely right. I'm not rational about you. I don't know if I've ever been. Right now, I'm hurt and I'm nowhere near being calm. Any more discussion would be fruitless. In fact, it would probably cause more damage. I think you should just leave."

"Can I just ask you to think about my reasoning and what you'd do in the same position?"

"Do you need to get the last word? Just leave. Now."

Her words stunned him, but he didn't delay. With one last disappointed glance, he turned and headed for the door. He didn't even look at her when he said, "Goodbye Elizabeth."

"Goodbye."

She waited for the door to close before she collapsed in a heap on the living room sofa. She had been holding back tears, trying to argue fairly without letting her weeping woman routine get in the way. It had been a struggle but she'd managed, though she knew nothing else had gone well. She was upset and rightly so. She should have been told about Wickham at some point, preferably before she had let her sister get anywhere near him. It didn't matter whether or not Darcy had told her about Georgie, all he really needed to do was tell her about George. Why did he not see that?

"Lizzy?" A small, curious voice came from above her. She looked up from the sofa to see the surprisingly concerned face of Lydia. "I didn't mean to cause a fight between you and Darcy. I mean, I guess I understand why you wanted me away from George, if he really is diseased, but I didn't mean to ruin things with you two. Is there anything I can do?"

Lizzy couldn't help but smile at her sister. She was usually so self-absorbed, like a lot of teenagers, and hardly ever noticed anything going on around her unless it mattered to her - but here she was, actually giving sympathy.

"Thanks, Lyd, but there's nothing you can do. Besides, it wasn't finding you with George that specifically made us fight. It just brought up some things about Darcy that disappointed me."

"Oh, sorry." Lydia had no idea what to say or how to console her sister.

"Yes, I am too," Lizzy said more to herself than her sister. Trying her best to get her thoughts away from Darcy, she stood and motioned toward the stairs. "Come on, let's try to sleep on it. We'll go to Outpatients in the morning. We probably won't get results for a couple of days though. Lydia, you're in deep trouble, regardless of the tests. Mom and Dad - well, you thought I was angry..."

"Can't we just skip telling them? Do they really need to know?" Lydia tried to take advantage of their momentary camaraderie.

Lizzy would have none of it. "Nice try, but I'm telling them no matter how nice you are to me. In the end, it will be better that they know. You'll see. Now come to bed."

Lizzy sighed deeply as she walked behind Lydia. She had done what she could for the night, and she'd visit her parents with Lydia in the morning, but what happened next was for them to decide and control. She phoned her parents to let them know Lydia would be staying the night with her at the townhouse. She made sure they'd be home Sunday afternoon, telling them she had something important to discuss with them. She didn't want to get into the particulars at that time of night.

As Lizzy prepared for bed in her own room for the first time in a long time, she slipped off the 'red dress'. It would be dropped off in the nearest goodwill clothing box as early as possible, the next day. The dress may not have been at fault for the two worst nights of her life, but it would forever be tainted.

She was devastated - not only because Darcy had disappointed her, not only because they had fought so much, not only because she couldn't think of how they could end their disagreement, but also because even with all her anger, frustration and disillusionment toward Fitzwilliam Darcy, she was still madly in love with him and she had no idea how her love and her disappointment could be reconciled.

Chapter 20

Lizzy hauled Lydia out of bed bright and early. After another call to ensure her parents would be home in the afternoon, they promptly set out. Lizzy made a quick stop at a local Salvation Army clothing drop off to dispose of a no-longer-suitable piece of wardrobe, then they made their way to the Ottawa Civic Hospital's Outpatients department. Lydia's request was considered a low priority so they waited several hours before someone administered a test. Luckily for Lizzy, Lydia grasped the severity of her predicament and remained subdued for the waiting period. They wouldn't get the results for a few days so once the test was taken, Lizzy drove directly to her parents' home.

Thomas and Fanny Bennet had been attentive parents with their older children, but as Thomas enveloped himself in his career and Fanny became overwhelmed raising more and more daughters, their diligence waned. The eldest, Jane, was responsible and serene; Lizzy was responsible but excitable; Kitty was simply excitable and Lydia, well, Lydia was wild. The two youngest had enough sense between them to stay out of major trouble; however, Lydia had roamed free for the past school year while Kitty matured at university. Thomas and Fanny hardly noticed. Thomas felt he was too old and out of touch to be dealing with a teenage girl, and Fanny felt Lydia acted like all the other girls her age.

Lizzy gave her parents every detail of the previous evening's encounter; she hid nothing - not even to save Lydia or herself from embarrassment. She felt they had the right to know. She also informed them of George's past and what she and Lydia had been doing all morning.

Lydia remained silent through Lizzy's detailing of events as well as the history of how Lydia and George 'hooked up'. Throughout the tale, Fanny sunk sullenly into her bright, floral chintz easy chair, and Thomas clutched the mantelpiece - tighter and tighter.

When Lizzy finished, she heard her father mutter something with respect to reaping what he sowed, but then he just shook his head. Fanny was the first to scold. "Lydia! What am I to say to you? Will you even listen? He is far too old for you. Perhaps if you met him in five or six years it would be different, but even so, he's obviously a man with a sordid past. I knew when Lizzy bid on him that night at the auction he was just too handsome and charming to be real. Men like that are Lotharios ... Don Juans. Lizzy was a grown woman and thankfully made the right decision by going with an upstanding man like Darcy. You, my dear, don't know any better."

Thomas Bennet ignored his wife's ramblings and most likely, so did the two others in the room. His concentration was fixed on asking Lydia a simple question. "And how do you feel about Lizzy's description of all this?"

His voice was so calm and smooth, Lydia might have hoped for a minimal punishment had her eyes been closed, but her father's stare was as hard and sharp as the tip of a diamond drill.

With a weak voice, she asked rather than responded, "Um ... the facts are true, but her description is a little harsh, don't you think?"

"Harsh?" Thomas felt like ripping the mantelpiece right off the wall. "Harsh?" He walked to the other side of the room before continuing. "Let me restate the facts based on Lizzy's harsh comments. Unknown to your parents, you've been dating a much older man we have never met. You've been sneaking around behind our backs and lying about your whereabouts for more than a month. Correct?"

"Correct," Lydia repeated quietly.

"That alone is enough to ground you for six months, child. However, there's more, isn't there? These whereabouts include a casino. You're underage, so you've broken the law. Correct?"

"Yes." Lydia kept her eyes on the gold fringe of the Bennets' Persian rug. She'd no desire to meet her father's gaze.

"I suspect you've also gone to some clubs with this man and have done some drinking."

Lydia didn't say anything but she didn't try to deny it. She lowered her head a bit farther down in reply.

Thomas continued where he left off. "... also against the law. Now, sadly, sex between the two of you isn't against the law, otherwise I'd have him charged so quickly he wouldn't be able to blink before his pretty face was behind bars. As much as I wish all my unmarried daughters were virgins," he paused and Lizzy's eyebrows shot up, "I realize a father can't control such things. However, if you can tell me he had some kind of authority over you, that you somehow were coerced into these relations, I can press charges."

At this, Lydia leapt to her lover's defense. She was tired of people attacking her lifestyle. "No! I was with him by choice. He's not like that, Dad. He's really great. He treats me so nice. I knew you wouldn't like the age thing so I didn't introduce you, and George respects me. He wouldn't date me or take me to places like the casino if he didn't think I was mature. He's not some unemployed loser who only goes for seventeen year olds because he never got past high school; he's a great sports anchor who's even about to get a new national network job. Why can't you realize I'm growing up? So what if he's a little older - I've always believed age doesn't matter when you're in love."

"Age doesn't matter, does it?" Mr. Bennet again approached the mantle for moral, if not physical support. Sometimes, a piece of wood had more sense than his daughter. "What do you think of Mr. Richardson?"

"Who? Mr. Richardson? Down the street? What do I care about him?" Lydia was confused as to why her father was suddenly changing topics so quickly. Was he going to send her to live with Mr. Richardson and his two kids?

"What would you say if I asked you to go out with him?"

"Ew. Dad. He's so old! I mean, he's got two kids and he's divorced. Why would I go out with him?"

"Because age doesn't matter to you, and he's actually younger than George Wickham."

She started at that. She looked to Lizzy and her mother for confirmation and they nodded. For one brief moment, Lizzy thought she saw comprehension on Lydia's features, but they were quickly buried under her desire to remain with George. "But George is young at heart. He's fun - he doesn't have any kids. It's not the same."

"None that we know of," Lizzy quipped under her breath and Lydia shot her a killer glance.

Thomas outwardly ignored Lizzy's remark though he was thinking the same thing. "It doesn't matter if he was only twenty, Lydia, he took you to these places behind our back; he's a man with a highly checkered past and you didn't have the sense to ask about it before being intimate. Thankfully, you used protection but the potential trouble you're in is far worse than any punishment I could give you." Thomas paused and gave Lydia a firm but questioning stare. "This man may have knowingly exposed you to a disease and you still defend him?"

Lydia folded her arms against her chest resolutely. "I'm not going to put any blame on him until I see the test results and talk to him about it."

"Oh, no, young lady, you will not be talking to him about it. You're forbidden to speak to him and you're forbidden to leave this house for anything other than scholastic activities or a job, if you care to get one, until you graduate."

Lydia couldn't believe her father's words and turned to her mother for support. "Mom! You can't let him do that! It's my senior year! The prom! Christmas and New Year's! The parties and events! Spring Fever! Cammie's cottage weekend! The prom!"

Fanny was far too agitated to make any sense of the situation. She vaguely understood Lydia's plea so she grabbed onto her last words. "Oh, I think I can convince him to let you go to your prom - it's in June, right?"

Lydia gasped, shocked with her mother's compliance to her father's overzealous punishment.

Thomas was about to spout off again when the shrill ring of the phone interrupted the scene.

Wanting anything to distract her from the disappointment of her youngest daughter, Fanny scurried to answer. Her face completely transformed upon hearing the voice on the other end. "Mr. Darcy! How lovely of you to call ... oh yes, I'm sorry, just Darcy. How silly of me." She giggled to confirm her words.

Lizzy heard her mother and tried waving her off, shaking her head back and forth, hoping Fanny understood the universal sign of 'I don't want to talk to him'.

Who was Lizzy kidding? When had her mother ever deflected the attentions of any man away from one of her daughters, let alone a man as eligible as Darcy?

"She's right here by the phone, eager and waiting." Fanny shot her daughter a stern glance, warning her not to let this man slip away. She put her hand over the receiver and her voice suddenly changed from tinkling to tyrannical. "Be nice to this man. With your attitude, I'm amazed he's dating you at all."

Thanks for the motherly support, Lizzy thought as she was handed the portable receiver. She walked out of the parlour and up to her old bedroom, shutting the door behind her and not worrying a bit about Darcy waiting on the other end.

"Darcy."

"Elizabeth. I've been trying to reach you. You're difficult to find."

"I am."

"Your cell phone is turned off."

"It is."

"I take it you don't really want to speak to me."

"That's right." She wasn't trying to be rude; she truly had no wish to talk to him at the moment. She hadn't really thought things through on her own yet.

"Why?"

"Darcy, forgive me if I'm not ready yet. I've had a long day. I've sat for about five hours with Lydia at Outpatients. I then drove here to inform my parents that I introduced their youngest daughter to a pervert, someone with whom she's since had sex and from whom she may have caught a disease. I then listened to my father ream into my sister and then I got to listen to Lydia defend the slime, making him sound like a fine upstanding citizen. He's a hard worker, did you know? Up for a national network job. What a catch for a seventeen year old high school senior."

"I can see how this has been difficult for you." He really did sympathize with her. She was definitely having a hell of a weekend.

"Then, I have my mother tell me not to screw things up with you when I try to tell her I don't want to talk to you. Mom's always sympathetic to her daughters' plights."

He really didn't need to know that last bit of information, but he didn't blame her for being bitter with a mother like that. "Alright, Elizabeth, I understand. But when can I talk to you?"

"I don't know, Darcy ... I don't know," she said to herself as much as him. He could hear the confusion in her voice. "You'll just have to live with that for now."

"I don't have a choice, do I?"

"I'm afraid not." There was no words left to say and after a moment, she added, "Goodbye Darcy."

"Goodbye."

~ * ~

Darcy placed the phone down with resignation. He could tell Lizzy was struggling, she was an emotional person who often saw reason with her heart not her mind. Her state of mind was why she wasn't yet prepared to see his side of the story and that he was not to blame for this situation.

However, something Lizzy said gave him pause. Wickham had been offered a national job with the network? As always Darcy was surprised at the shallowness of television news. He supposed George was competent as a 'sports analyst', but he couldn't believe his transgressions had never surfaced to hinder his career.

Well, it's about time they did.

Two and a half years ago, Darcy had collaborated with the president of Wickham's network for a book about the history of sports at the station. Although rather jocular, the president was talented and intelligent when work needed to be done. Retrospectively, Darcy had enjoyed working with the man, but had never followed up with any communication as Georgie's troubles surfaced shortly after the project was completed and his thoughts turned elsewhere.

Whereas there had been no retribution on behalf of Georgie at the time, Darcy now had the chance to take some action in a private manner. The ghosts of Wickham's past and present were going to haunt him, with the hope of dashing his future plans.

Darcy opened his e-mail and began a letter to Mr. Forster.

~ * ~

Returning to the parlour, Lizzy was just in time to see her father take possession of Lydia's cell phone. Lydia seemed shocked with this rare form of torture, but it would only get worse. After noticing Lizzy's distressed state, Thomas asked Fanny to accompany Lydia to her room. "Fanny, please make sure you remove her regular telephone as well as her keyboard and mouse from the computer."

"The keyboard? My mouse? But that's for schoolwork!"

"Schoolwork? This afternoon?" Thomas queried but answered for her. "I highly doubt it, but if you feel so inclined, I might like to watch. I'll return your keyboard then."

After Fanny headed upstairs with Lydia trailing close behind, Lizzy was quick to apologize to her father for her role in the nasty turn of events.

Thomas silenced her with a wave of his hand. "George and Lydia are the responsible parties - no one else. They can share the blame; you have nothing to be sorry for."

"But I could tell he was a sleaze-"

Thomas cut her off again. He wanted to make sure she understood. "Lizzy, do not beat yourself up. Lydia's actions aren't your responsibility. If there's anyone else to blame beside those two, it's your mother and me."

Lizzy couldn't shake the guilt, she couldn't take her father's assurances, but she could tell he would not blame his favourite daughter - which led to even further guilt.

Wanting time alone, she soon left for her townhouse, her mind distressed with overwrought emotions: anger, sadness, regret, disappointment. She had cried the night before, but not since and was gearing up for another weep-fest as she turned the corner to her street.

Timing was not on her side, however, for she could see the form of a man sitting on her steps, and she didn't think twice about who it could be.

Why won't he give me time? She closed her eyes briefly as she put the car in park, trying to collect her wits and compartmentalize her raw emotions, but to no avail. They were as scattered as ticker tape raining on her very own pity parade.

Darcy's insides weren't much better. He had been recalling the previous night after he'd left Elizabeth. He had torn through his home, slamming doors, shoving furniture and punching walls. He wasn't a violent man; however, he needed an outlet for the frustration and anger he'd kept bottled during his argument with Lizzy.

He paced the night away, ruminating over every accusation and every moment Lizzy ignored his words in order to lambaste him. He only succeeded in falling asleep when he calmed down enough to recognize, in spite of everything she had thrown at him and everything she said about his character, he still loved her deeply. Hell, he'd always loved her for her intensity and passion, and he had to admit that was shown in spades during their quarrel.

As he waited on her doorstep, he mulled over what he was going to say. Though she didn't want to hear his side, Darcy felt she now needed to hear all of Georgie's story. In retrospect, he knew he'd handled things badly. To start, not telling Lizzy at the casino that the woman in question was Georgie was a mistake. In her position, he would have jumped to the same conclusion and stewed about it as she had.

He hoped now that she had some time to take a step back, she would be ready to talk. He had spoken to Georgie that morning to get her permission to tell the whole tale. He did not inform her he and Lizzy had argued. He rarely shared this kind of emotional problem with Georgie, even with their improved communication over the past year. He also didn't want to mention it because he hoped he and Lizzy would have things resolved sooner rather than later. He wasn't admitting a third reason for not telling her was the potential she might have more to say on the subject than he'd want to hear.

So, in order to avoid a long conversation, he simply explained they'd discovered Lizzy's sister with George at the casino, and he had felt the need to tell Lizzy about Georgie's connection to George.

She had been incredibly understanding and wondered why he hadn't told Lizzy the whole story the night prior, considering the circumstances. He only said there hadn't been an appropriate moment which fortunately gave him a chance to talk to Georgie first.

Now, watching Lizzy approach, his thoughts of Georgie dissipated and his nerves stiffened, anxious for her reaction to him being there. Somehow, he managed a small conciliatory smile.

She did not mirror his look. Thankfully, he had no clue she was trying to withhold tears, a possible torrent ready to spill should he push the wrong button. She was in the midst of blaming both herself and him as she dreaded the possibility of Lydia's test results and ultimately, she was terrified of where that left the future of their relationship.

Standing before him, she hated the clash of being disappointed and angry at Darcy but still attracted to him, even though he was the cause of her grief. She felt lost without the option of falling into his arms for support. She'd always been self-reliant, and damn him, he'd taken part of that away when she'd fallen in love with him.

He easily read pain in her eyes and wished he could take it away, wished he could wrap his arms around her and allow her to lean on him, but he knew she wouldn't let him. He also wanted her to understand why he did what he did, and she just wasn't listening. He knew once he explained himself, and Lizzy listened rationally, she would forgive the perceived sins she'd placed upon him. She had to know he was always careful to react reasonably. She was the one with the tendency to go overboard.

Once she steadied herself, the only emotion that escaped her mouth was annoyance. "I told you I wasn't ready to talk."

"I don't think it's a good idea to avoid each other, but if you don't want to talk, why not just listen?" Darcy didn't want their disagreement to continue. He was convinced he just needed her open mind and attentive ears and all would be well.

Lizzy sighed heavily before speaking. "I see you want things your way ... again."

She walked up to unlock the door, turning her back to him. He stood close behind her, and she could feel his eyes focussed on the exposed nape of her neck. Suddenly, the first night he told her he loved her came vividly to her mind causing a wracking spasm through her tired body. Please, God, make him leave. It was tortuous to have him so close, and she choked down the heartache lodged firmly in her throat. She couldn't hold back her tears much longer.

"I want to fix things now, if possible." His words were determined, but his voice was hushed. He was also struggling being so near Lizzy with his mangled feelings. He was accustomed to touching her at will, to the comfort of both; restraining himself took Herculean effort.

"Sometimes things can't be fixed when you want them to be." Lizzy spoke quietly but clearly as she opened the door, not capable of turning around for fear he'd see her watery eyes.

Darcy wouldn't accept that answer and followed her in without invitation. "That's awfully defeatist."

Lizzy wiped away any evidence of tears before facing him. She was frustrated with his insistence and wanted to tell him so, straight on. "I don't mean things can't be fixed at all, I just mean I don't want to try right now. I don't have enough energy to argue."

"Elizabeth, we don't need to argue, and not talking things through certainly won't help matters." The night prior, Darcy had spoken calmly over his embroiled insides, but now he truly wanted to reach out, to work things out. He found Lizzy's hesitancy confounding.

Lizzy took another deep breath, as if to fortify her determination. "Darcy, we agreed last night it's a bad idea to discuss things when I'm not thinking rationally, and I'm sorry to say, my mind isn't prepared to listen to your excuses. I haven't calmed down enough yet."

He couldn't help but notice she'd reverted to calling him Darcy even in the privacy of her own home, totally alone. He could feel her raising her defences. "I've spoken with Georgie, and she wants me to tell you the whole truth."

The mention of Georgie knocked down the wall Lizzy been erecting. She walked further into her townhouse, hanging her jacket in the closet and holding out a hand for his, a sure sign he could stay. "How is she?"

"She's fine. She doesn't like being reminded of that part of her past, but otherwise she's doing well."

"If she wants me to know the entire story, I'll listen for her." Lizzy brought Darcy into her living room and sat, waiting patiently for him to begin.

Darcy explained in Georgie's senior year of high school, she was a promising junior tennis player and was the highest ranked female in the province. Even though Georgie was introverted and shy off the court, she transformed into a controlled, focussed player on the court.

Darcy wasn't able to make every match; however, he made his best efforts to see her play. During one particular tournament at the beginning of the school year, Georgie approached him excitedly and introduced him to George Wickham, known only to Darcy as a local sportscaster. Wickham briefly mentioned his father had once worked for Darcy's father, but quickly shifted topics.

As a human interest piece, Wickham wanted to follow Georgie in an on-going profile for television throughout her year, since she was favoured to win the junior championship. He thought it would be great to have such a detailed story about the local girl who would likely win it all.

After politely saying they'd consider it, Darcy eventually refused the request. Off the court, Georgie was not only shy; she was awkward, especially when discussing her success. He knew she was excited about the possible attention but also knew having cameras at her matches, and having constant questions asked about her performance, would eventually wear her down and perhaps increase her nerves to the point where she no longer focussed on the court. Darcy informed Wickham, who was quite understanding, and didn't think about it again.

It seemed Wickham decided instead of befriending the Darcy family, he would deflower the Darcy daughter.

He approached her discreetly at local tournaments when Darcy wasn't around and gained her trust. She fell in love with the handsome sportscaster who said all the right things. Their relationship flourished.

After a few months, Wickham's interest in Georgie waned. They were still seeing each other, but more and more, 'work' took precedence. Georgie was accommodating and believed Wickham's career was advancing, possibly so much that their relationship might end, and though it hurt her, she was proud of his success.

One particular day, however, she called his office to learn he'd called in sick. Thinking only of surprising him with a house call, she arrived at his condo and was shocked when the door was answered by a scantily clad woman who simply dragged her in saying something about Wickham being voracious. The woman also shouted to him that she had assumed it was just a threesome, not a foursome, and that he better pay her extra.

"Well, you can imagine what Georgie saw when she was pulled into his bedroom." Darcy looked up to Lizzy's horrified face. Darcy continued on. "Not only that, but the room reeked of marijuana, and Wickham offered no explanation. She said he just laughed at her. She drove directly to our doctor's office, terrified of what being with Wickham might have done to her body. After that, she withdrew and simply told me she was quitting tennis. As hard as I tried, she offered no explanation. When the results came back positive for chlamydia, she chose to talk to Richard. She was too frightened she would disappoint me. I must have seemed so distant to her. She went to counseling shortly afterward and I eventually joined her. We have a much better relationship now."

The affair would have always remained unknown to Darcy had it not been for Richard. He convinced Georgie that Darcy needed to know the truth and would help her rather than punish her.

"I must admit, I didn't handle things well when I was told. I walked out on Georgiana without saying a word. I went straight to my office and phoned the television station with accusations and was put through to the station manager. In my anger, I told him what Wickham had done; I must have sounded like a lunatic because he asked me rather angrily who I was and what I was going to do about it. That made me snap out of it. Did I want anyone to know someone did this to Georgie? Did Georgie? I wanted to protect her. I slammed down the phone, knowing at that point there was really nothing I could do unless she wanted something done. That's when I was able to face her and talk to her. That's not to say I behaved well afterwards. It took time for me to accept my little sister made unfortunate decisions because she felt she was mature enough to handle things. The truth was, I had sheltered her too much. Only then could I start dealing with the whole situation in a healthy way."

Lizzy had been so absorbed in the story that when Darcy finally paused, it took a moment for her to react. She was crushed for Georgie and Darcy. To have to go through such an ordeal was horrendous. As bad as Lydia's situation was, Georgie must have been devastated. Unlike Lydia, Georgie had been an innocent and had been smacked in the face with a seedy reality of which she was completely unaware. She could easily sympathize with Darcy. She was going through those feelings herself. She couldn't help her natural reaction to reach out and squeeze his hand tenderly. "I wish I could have been there for you both. How awful." She couldn't think of anything else to say.

"I had no clue he'd have any interest in anyone else Georgie's age, well, any regular girl Georgie's age. He obviously frequented prostitutes, and I later discovered his father was actually fired by my father. That man unsuccessfully sued to get his job back. George was never an impartial stranger to our family. I suspect his reason for requesting the profile was to ultimately damage us in some way. On top of everything, Georgie admitted she'd spent money on George to help him through some bad financial situations."

Darcy went onto explain Georgie's trust fund allowance was rarely spent. It had just sat in her bank account as she was no spendthrift. There was a build-up over time and Wickham used it. All of it.

"Georgie was a naïve, wealthy, parentless teenager with a guardian who wasn't attentive enough. She was involved in sports, and he was a sportscaster. He took advantage of a specific situation."

Lizzy was coming to grips with Darcy's story. What an ordeal! For a moment, all thoughts of Darcy's faults and his silence about Wickham were forgotten. As bitter as Lizzy was about having no knowledge of Wickham's level of filth, her heart was too connected to this family not to empathize. "Don't say you weren't attentive. You're a wonderful brother. Georgie has told me as much and I've seen it first hand. You're right. Georgie was naïve and George preyed on that. You would have protected her had you known."

"I know I wasn't completely to blame, but it's hard to remove myself from the situation. Georgie felt so dirty and blind, and it took a long time for her to recover. How could I not feel the burden of responsibility?"

Lizzy couldn't answer. She felt the same burden. Why hadn't she have just stayed in her living room with Lydia and Wickham that one time after her auction date? Why had she flirted with Darcy on the phone when she should have been kicking the slime ball out of her house? Thoughts of Wickham and Lydia mingled with Georgie's experiences, and Lizzy lips suddenly tightened in thought. "Did you say George took advantage of Georgie by using her money?"

"Yes."

"Did he do anything else? You're not keeping anything else from me, are you?"

"No, I've told you everything." He supposed he couldn't blame her for asking.

Without explanation, Lizzy headed to the phone. Darcy followed and listened as she questioned her mother about credit and debit cards. Lizzy was silent and stared icily out the window for a few minutes while waiting for answers, and Darcy didn't dare speak. She finally cursed and told her mother she'd be there shortly.

Turning to Darcy she asked accusatorily, "Why didn't you tell me about the money issue last night?"

"You wouldn't let me."

Lizzy was about to argue but acknowledged with a nod he was right. She hadn't let him explain anything the night before. She collected her keys, grabbed her purse and turned to Darcy with a pained expression. "It's just a mess. Lydia had access to Mom's household bank account and a credit card. Mom doesn't look at her bank statements that often, and the monthly credit card bill just came in on Friday. She hadn't opened it yet. There's cash advances, and her chequing account has been severely affected. I have to go to them."

"I never thought he'd be so desperate," Darcy murmured, stunned by the revelation. "I really never thought he'd do this to anyone else."

"No, you never thought, did you." She was angry again, a new worry flaring. First, her sister's health, now her family's money. She tossed Darcy his jacket, grabbed hers and headed for the door.

"Elizabeth, what can you do? This is no longer your responsibility. Your parents should handle their daughter."

"Darcy, don't you realize how responsible I feel? You just said yourself you placed most of the blame squarely on your shoulders for Georgie's mistakes because you didn't react. I'm in the exact same position. I need to feel like I'm doing something to help, even if it's trying to figure out finances. And it brings me back to the reason I'm angry with you. You had no clue George would take advantage of your sister, well, neither did I. I figured Lydia was okay to be alone with him for a couple of minutes while I was in the very next room."

"Jane was there, though." "Jane went upstairs."

"Why would she leave?"

"I can't remember and, to be honest, it doesn't really matter. I was right there making coffee. She wasn't concerned and frankly, I wasn't either. Yes, I figured he was a bit slick, but I'm sorry, I guess Jane and I are a bit naïve too. I'm not surprised when a thirty-three year old man hits on me, but when he's an established local celebrity who needs to keep up appearances, I didn't think he'd seriously dabble with a seventeen year old, and I didn't think much could happen in the three minutes they were alone. I now know I was terribly wrong."

"You can't blame yourself forever, Elizabeth."

Lizzy didn't want platitudes or sympathy. Things had gone from bad to worse, and she still didn't think Darcy was even attempting to understand why she was so upset. He was comparing her emotions to his own, bringing it back to his situation with Georgie and how he'd overcome his feelings, rather than trying to understand the specific stresses Lizzy was presently undergoing and the fact it would take time to recover just as it took time for him to recover. She didn't have the inclination to explain at the moment, but she tried.

"No, but I blame myself right now, and I'm angry I didn't have enough information to protect my sister - information you could have given me - which means, as badly as I feel for you and Georgie and what happened, I'm still upset with you. I really don't want to talk anymore, so I'd appreciate if you kept your distance. You said you were a mess when you first learned about Georgie. Well, I'm the same. You'll just have to give me time. I'll let you know when we can talk."

Darcy nodded in agreement. Even if she still wanted to blame him, she was rational enough to know she wasn't going to work things out with her present disposition. She was emotionally drained and she couldn't deal with their differences sensibly. He wouldn't have been a very engaging boyfriend at the time of Georgie's difficulties either. He would give her space. As much as he wanted to resolve their problems, it was the least he could do.

~ * ~

Though Darcy hadn't expected Lizzy to contact him speedily after their last conversation, he was concerned when time had stretched to four days without a word from her. As difficult as it was for him, he fought all proactive urges to dial her number or send her e-mail. He not only disliked the feeling of limbo, he also detested his lack of control. He wanted things resolved, the quicker the better. They should have been working this out together, not separately. Time was wasted, it was unproductive, and damn it, he had troubling sleeping without her by his side.

Thursday afternoon, he sat at his desk and absently stared at the setting sun. He couldn't handle the lack of communication any longer. He had difficulty focussing. Though Lizzy created much daydreaming while they were together, she distracted him tenfold when apart. Deep in resentful concentration, he unconsciously picked up the phone and dialed her work number. When her voicemail answered, he slammed down the receiver, cursing and thanking his lucky stars she wasn't there. If she wanted him to feel impotent, she achieved her goal. He had no idea if she'd ever contact him. He turned back to the window, resuming his blank stare into the burnished sky.

Lizzy approached the receptionist cautiously. She was well aware of the young woman's inspection of her upon each visit. Lizzy wasn't clueless; she knew Ms. Blonde Ambition was judging what she thought was competition. Had Darcy decided against speaking to her, the receptionist would jump at the chance to stop her from passing. The blonde simply nodded as Lizzy walked by.

Darcy's assistant's reaction was far different. She started in surprise, and before Lizzy could breathe a word, Julie called her boss on the phone.

Lizzy had decided to pay a surprise visit to Darcy's office, slightly in self-defense. She wanted to catch him off guard so she would be able to set the agenda of what they were to talk about. It wasn't that she wanted to control everything, it was that she wanted to make sure he wouldn't try to take control. Although, four days wasn't enough to deal with her frustration and hurt, it did put things in perspective and she knew she couldn't leave Darcy in the dark. She had arrived with a specific purpose in mind and it was all she was ready to deal with at the moment.

The double doors of Darcy's office suddenly parted ominously, and Lizzy bit her lip at the sight of him. He looked exhausted. From the collar down, his appearance was characteristically flawless. His complexion, however, was pale, but for the dark encircling his eyes, his hair looked unkempt and he had five o'clock shadow - something Lizzy had only seen on weekends.

Guilt slithered in Lizzy's gut knowing she was the cause of his stress, but she quickly reminded herself she looked and felt the worse for wear as well, and he had a great deal to do with it. We're even.

With nothing but a nod to Julie, a small, polite smile and a hand to indicate Lizzy's entry, Darcy remained silent as he closed his double doors and waited.

"Hello Darcy."

"Elizabeth, it's nice to see you."

Both stood unnaturally still; their bodies, accustomed to more affectionate greetings, seemed stilted and awkward. They both felt it. Suddenly, Darcy's arm twitched, and Lizzy began to step toward him. The movements lasted less than a second but it was torture. Neither one wanted to acknowledge their bodies' obvious and involuntary movements. Had they not been so upset, both would have laughed at their appendages having minds of their own.

Lizzy quickly ended their self-conscious moment as she had come with a purpose. "I had a couple of things I wanted to talk to you about."

"I imagine you do." Darcy led her to his sitting area and was silently disappointed when she chose a chair rather than the sofa. He sat across from her.

"I wanted to let you know Lydia's test results came back negative. We're relieved as you can imagine - even Lydia. Of course, she took a smug attitude, telling us she knew it would be fine, but I think it's all bravado."

"That's great news." Darcy hoped Lizzy's anger toward him would be abated since Lydia had luckily not contracted an STD as feared, but he didn't dare guess how much or little her opinion might be changed. He also wanted to learn more about any financial repercussions the Bennets may have suffered. "And has anything been done about Lydia's spending?"

"It's been taken care of." Lizzy replied shortly. She didn't want to dwell on Lydia's situation. "I actually have something else to discuss. It's separate from our disagreement about Lydia and George, but it has to do with how I argued the other night." Lizzy paused to ensure Darcy comprehended the difference. After a slow nod from him, she continued, her eyes steadfast on his. "I wanted to apologize for bringing up the past. It wasn't fair and it certainly wasn't the appropriate time."

She cast her eyes downward to her fidgeting fingers as she explained further. "In my defense, I wasn't thinking rationally. As we discussed, finding out your sister dates a sleaze like George Wickham doesn't exactly put one in a clear state of mind." Lizzy looked up from under her eyelashes and saw a small smile of agreement from Darcy. "So, it wasn't fair of me to bring up the past, especially when I'd never mentioned these things bothered me. You were completely unaware, and frankly, so was I until they came out of my mouth. I guess little things add up. On an individual basis, my annoyance was barely existent - each little problem was irrelevant - but that night, I suddenly exploded. I think some of the things I mentioned were valid and some weren't. When you didn't seem to be getting my point, they all suddenly surged together and terrified me."

Darcy's brow creased with surprise. "Terrified you? I terrified you?"

His disbelief buoyed her assertive explanation. "Yes! There I was, standing in front of the man I love, and we fundamentally disagreed on something important. I felt betrayed." Lizzy stopped herself before she digressed. "But we're not getting into that, we'll deal with that later. The point is, I'll admit, earlier that evening when I talked about not wanting to marry you yet, there was a part of me considering that very thing even though it was far too soon. Then everything happened with Lydia, and I suddenly don't know you as well as I thought. So I looked back to some of our disagreements and realized you weren't always sorry. There's a part of me afraid of being swallowed up - letting you win. That's what's terrifying. I looked back and saw all these small things, and there was a trend, as if I was willing to give in to make you happy, regardless of whether I should have."

Lizzy's shoulders slumped with the admission. Even though she was still a young woman, she prided herself on her confidence and determination, but also her willingness to compromise in the right situation. She knew she needed a strong man in her life to compliment those traits, but not one who would take advantage of her peace-making nature.

"Elizabeth, I don't think you've ever just given in to me," Darcy replied seriously.

"From your perspective, no, but from mine, I've definitely seen myself caving to your wishes. You have to understand, once or twice, here and there, that's normal, and though I accused you of never apologizing, I know that was unfair. The exact words weren't there, but you have certainly expressed regret, so I didn't push. You see, making things work and being happy is sometimes more important than being the winner of an argument." She paused, letting those words sink in. She didn't know if he'd ever thought about life in that way. It was something she often faced at work, and it had helped her in her personal life. With a sigh, she added, "But when I lose too many times ... well, the other night, it felt stifling."

"Stifling? The main reason I was attracted to you in the first place, the main reason I love you is because you challenge me, and you don't back down. The last thing I would want is for you to feel I was stifling you."

Lizzy saw earnestness on his face, she saw his concern, but she was still unsure. "You think you don't want to, but even if you enjoy a challenge, you still want to win. Think about it. You rarely ever lose out or even compromise. Like I said, they just all added up to a point where it made me feel weak."

Darcy couldn't help himself. He moved forward in his seat on the sofa and clutched Lizzy's hands firmly. His voice was determined and clear, and he made sure they were eye to eye. "I could never make you weak. It's not in you. You are far too strong, and I need that from you."

With a sense of relief, she believed him, but she needed to correct his view of her. "Most times I am strong, but you know what? I can be weak. You've seen my vulnerability and you were sweet and understanding when I needed you. Having said that, I need to ask you: can you allow yourself to be weak from time to time? Because if losing an argument or apologizing is a weakness to you, we may have bigger troubles than our current disagreement."

He wasn't sure how to answer that. He did view those examples as weaknesses, he was not one to lose gracefully nor one who apologized often, having always taken care to avoid those circumstances. However, he saw her need for him to admit those deficiencies were possible; in fact, she wanted him to realize they weren't failings. He had never thought otherwise, so to change so dramatically would take a bit of time. Not sure exactly what kind of response she expected, but wanting to make amends, he asked, "Do you want an apology for all my stubborn moments?"

Lizzy glanced at his eager face and slowly lifted his hand from hers, placing it on the arm of the chair and patting it softly, truly touched and slightly amused by his expectant face. She left her hand atop of his. "No, Darcy. I don't want an apology. Not now. Those things happened ages ago, and I know you understand how they affected me. Last Saturday, I was harping on semantics. Like I said, I know you were sorry for many of the things you'd done, even if those exact words were never spoken. I suddenly brought up all those issues in the hopes you'd finally agree to my side of the argument. And that certainly didn't happen. Most importantly, at the time, it was unfair to throw those into our fight. That's why I wanted to discuss them separately today. It's not an apology I want as much as your understanding."

He could give her that. He chose his words carefully. "I see where all the examples you gave built up like an unknown weight on you. I can't change my personality, Elizabeth, but I'll try to be more aware of your feelings. I can also try to express myself more clearly and I hope I can argue fairly as well, without feeling the need to get the upper hand all the time. It's a new concept for me though." Darcy tried to lighten the mood with his last line, shrugging his shoulders.

"Thank you," Lizzy answered sincerely and removed her hand from his, placing it on her lap.

Darcy was confused by her movement, as he felt they'd just resolved something significant. Shouldn't that have brought us closer together? By virtue of his confusion, he tentatively asked, "So where do we stand?"

He wasn't accustomed to asking for clarification in a relationship. Others usually asked him such a question, but Lizzy wasn't 'others'. He needed to hear her feelings and was truly unaware of what to expect. Without knowing it, by posing that simple question, he had already shown her a slight sign of weakness.

Lizzy appreciated his candour but couldn't give him much. She could only answer honestly. "I don't know. Those things ... what I said ... they were a barrier I created during the argument we had. As much as I came here to clarify that, I still don't think we're anywhere near agreeing about how we feel we should have dealt with George Wickham. Because of what you did, in my heart, I feel like you haven't totally respected me. You saw no problem with hiding information from me which I think could have been freely given without revealing anything about Georgie. I don't think you see why I feel this way."

"Whether my opinion about my own behaviour has changed or not, please know whatever I did wasn't out of disrespect for you, it wasn't because I didn't trust you; it was simply a matter of protecting my sister," Darcy explained.

"And so, we are at a standstill," Lizzy summarized. Before he could question whether she heard anything he said, she added, "I do believe you when you say it wasn't a matter of disrespect, but I can't stop myself feeling this way. In my mind, your respect for me doesn't change your actions. You felt what you did was right. I felt what you did was wrong and combined with my inaction the night Lydia met George, it led to another disastrous situation."

"That's not fair, Elizabeth. I won't take responsibility for Lydia's and George's behaviour."

"Maybe it's not fair in your eyes, but when I look at you, I see a man who hid things to keep a promise, but I don't think you would have broken your promise had you told me about George. And if you did need to break it - well, sometimes it's better to do so in order to avert a repeat of a terrible situation."

Darcy knew Lizzy wasn't going to bend. Her face was resolute and solemn. She wasn't playing games, she was giving him her genuine, elemental view. He knew her enough to realize that in a different situation with a similar set of circumstances, she would react the same way. The problem was so would he.

With a grimly set jaw, Darcy responded, "We have diametrically opposed opinions on this."

Lizzy nodded. "That is the only thing we can agree on, and it scares me, because I feel I'm right and I know you feel the same."

She stood and walked behind the chair, at first to distance herself, but then she recognized nothing else could be accomplished for the moment. She was as firm in her beliefs as he was, and neither could find any common ground.

Suddenly, she was truly depressed. It hurt that they couldn't even acknowledge any value to the other's viewpoint. It felt rotten that she couldn't respect his stance. Her body seemed to deflate and her shoulders slouched dejectedly.

Darcy may have been surprised by Lizzy's vehemence in defending her perspective, but he was no less disappointed. She expected too much of him, she viewed the incident through a lens coloured by their eventual intimacy. At the time, as much as he wanted to further their relationship, nothing was definite; they were attracted to each other, they had a mutual respect, but they were not committed. Had Lizzy gone to the bachelor auction at a later point in their relationship, perhaps he may have warned her more strenuously, perhaps he would have given her more details, but he still would have protected Georgie.

Even knowing all of this, he rose to comfort Lizzy through this discouraging moment. They were far too intimate by this point, their natural instinct was to reassure the other regardless of being on opposing sides. He gently took her hands off the back of the chair and turned her to face him. Resting his forehead to hers and receiving no resistance, he said, "I don't know what this is doing to you, I don't know how much your feelings have changed toward me, but I'm not willing to let go without a fight. I fell in love with you, Elizabeth, that won't easily change. It's been a constant in my life for some time now and I hate not holding you, not being near you, not having you love me back."

Lizzy's head shot up quickly, temporarily ending their momentary connection. "I never said I didn't love you," she replied, a wounded tone evident in her voice and vulnerable eyes staring back at his. Feeling his skin against hers had been soothing, she didn't hesitate to resume their touch again, closing her eyes to explain. "That has been the hardest part, loving you so much and feeling this distance. There are a lot of emotions inside me battling it out right now. I came here with a bit of a peace offering, but I knew the bigger issue wouldn't be solved. If it is to be solved, if we are to get back to where we were before last weekend, it can't be resolved in one conversation. I've never had anyone in my life who means as much to me as you do so, I've never had someone so capable of hurting me. Even though it's not your intention, your decisions, your words and your unwavering certainty in them have hurt, and I need to work through what's reasonable and what's not."

Her own words told her their gentle moment had ended. Lizzy distanced herself from Darcy, retrieving her handbag and coat. "I think I better leave now. I'll be in touch. Believe me."

With a brief, detached goodbye, Lizzy left Darcy alone with his thoughts. He was frustrated by her need for time and space and her refusal to see reason, but he was powerless to change things. He couldn't make Lizzy act as he would, and he knew he wouldn't always understand the way she worked. It was a rare individual who apologized in person for fighting unfairly and no one had ever asked him to show his weaknesses. As difficult as she was being, her sensitivity impressed him, and the way she slowly navigated through her feelings fascinated him. She was an extraordinary woman, and he would not let her slip from his grasp, but he knew for now, he had little choice but to wait for her next move.

Chapter XXI Part I

Lizzy would not let the simple physical fact of missing his arms around her alter her decision to meet him again. She needed to logically assess where she thought their relationship could progress after the events of the past couple of weeks. They were at an impasse. She wanted the opinion of someone she trusted, and in any other circumstance, she would have gone directly to him. She valued his judgment; he always listened attentively to her problems and gave her sensible suggestions. Now, however, his opinion was the problem, it hurt her, and as much as she valued his thoughts, she valued her own judgment as well.

She considered speaking to Charlotte or Jane but didn't really want to reveal the whole problem, as the crux of Darcy's argument was he didn't want to reveal his sister's secret, and who knew what kind of pillow talk would happen? Darcy would not be impressed to learn Richard or Charles knew the intimate details of their quarrel. Besides, Jane and Charlotte were far too happy in their relationships at the moment. She didn't want to burden them.

Finally, she came full circle and knew the only way to truly progress past their dispute was to talk with him again. They arranged to meet at Zoe's Lounge in the Chateau Laurier Hotel where they had celebrated Darcy's birthday months ago. Darcy wanted her to come to Pemberley but she had refused. It wasn't neutral territory and would give him an unfair advantage; Darcy always seemed more potent in the comfort and privacy of his home.

Also, based on Darcy's reputation, she was certain nothing dramatic would happen in public. Whether they still disagreed or someone capitulated, there would be no scene. It would all be discreet.

Lizzy arrived early and waited with a glass of cranberry soda at a corner table in the solarium section of the restaurant, there was privacy from the other guests, but they were surrounded by a glass wall looking out onto a quiet street. It was six o'clock, and the view consisted of street lamps and a slow but steady glare of headlights. Anyone with an interest could have watched her table from the sidewalk. Private and public simultaneously, exactly what Lizzy needed.

She was absently watching the lights change from red to green at a nearby intersection when Darcy came to her table.

He was determined to resolve the matter that night, if not - he wasn't prepared to think about negatives. He vacillated between wanting to reach out to Lizzy and sulking over having to wait for her to be ready to talk. He was prepared to negotiate, although not ready to admit any fault in his decision to remain mute about Wickham's sexual status. While Lizzy wanted to blame both of them for Wickham and Lydia's behaviour, Darcy was not prepared to do so. Visiting a counsellor with Georgie had taken that burden off his back; he would not let Lizzy load it back on.

He watched her stare blankly out at the sparse Sunday evening traffic. He begrudgingly admired her resolve. She was feisty and stubborn; he just wished they were on the same side. Maybe things can change tonight. With that thought, he approached the table and sat down in front of her.

"I hope I'm not late," he began cautiously. "No, I was early," she explained, her body language somewhat shy and tentative.

Lizzy was nervous. She felt somehow this discussion could make or break their future. That thought speared fear down the core of her body.

"How was your weekend?" As much as Darcy would have liked to dive right into their issues, he could tell Lizzy wasn't ready. She needed a comfort level, and he was prepared to give it - he was prepared to give her just about anything she needed to get her back in his life.

"Quiet," Lizzy answered and looked up to his warm coffee-coloured eyes, ... and lonely..." She paused, her eyes held captive in his. ... "and miserable."

Her admission made Darcy's insides do somersaults. "Mine was the same."

They both smiled softy, a tenuous peace to start a dark discussion. "I've been thinking," Darcy started, feeling he had an opening, "that perhaps we should simply give one another a chance to completely explain our positions from beginning to end without interruption. Perhaps then we might understand the other's perspective."

"That's a good idea. You can start if you like."

"I thought you might like to, ladies first, right?" He winked; one of the first playful moments they'd had in awhile.

"But-" Before she could continue, they were interrupted by a server who took Darcy's order. When she left, Lizzy started.

She explained her point of view from the night of the auction to the night of the casino. She even admitted understanding why he didn't feel the need to tell her on the first night, but not so much when he knew Wickham had been in her home and later as they grew closer and had talked about sexual histories. She understood his rationale of trusting her not to get involved with a man like George Wickham, but once a younger person was introduced, warning flags should have shot up in his mind.

After being interrupted again by the server with Darcy's drink, she reiterated that just because Georgie had a secret didn't mean he needed to protect Wickham's name and reputation. Finally, she explained that even if he'd told her about Wickham as late as the night before the casino, she would have been more understanding, but by getting the news when she did, it seemed like he was forced into telling her, as if he didn't really trust her.

Darcy was then given his chance. He felt that based on her limited contact with George Wickham, Lizzy didn't need to know something that was Georgie's private affair. If Georgie wanted to tell her personally, he'd have no problem, but his lips were sealed. He felt Lizzy would have questioned the information too much, as she was wont to do. He was certain Wickham approached his sister with a specific goal in mind. That she happened to be young may have facilitated his desire for money and perhaps revenge, but he hadn't felt age was a factor based on what his own sister had told him.

"In retrospect, of course I would have liked to have warned you, but I had no clue, and I didn't want to be probed had I revealed these things."

She understood his fear but felt a little misjudged. "Have I really pushed for information about George Wickham? Do you really think I'm so nosy that you couldn't have given me his details without me trying to find out more?"

"Well, based on other moments in our relationship?" Darcy shrugged, letting Lizzy fill in the blank.

Lizzy shifted in her seat, her back's posture now at an acute ninety degree angle; straight as a school marm. "How much did I pressure you for answers on Wickham in all the time we've been together? Maybe a couple of questions the night of the auction and then once afterwards, rather casually, I might add. I let the matter drop because I felt you'd tell me in due time if it was important enough to you. I don't think I pushed."

"I couldn't take the risk."

"For Georgie's sake or for your own?" She was angry he thought she was so prying and lashed out with an unproductive question.

"What are you implying?" Darcy was now equally affronted.

"I'm not implying anything. I'm asking if you were afraid to talk about George Wickham because it would look bad if you knew such dirty details about the man, and you didn't want yourself or your family name associated with him."

"Of course I didn't want him associated with me, but that's not why I kept it from you. It was for Georgie's sake. Why can't you believe that?"

"I believe you, but maybe there's also a part of you who did it to protect yourself and your family pride."

"My main concern was Georgie; if my pride was protected it was simply a by-product. Besides, you wouldn't want Wickham associated with your family, would you?"

"Of course not, but as far as I knew, he was a reputable guy. If you had told me in no uncertain terms of his reputation the night of the auction, I would have placed the auction paddle on my lap and stopped bidding. Instead, you sounded like a jealous boyfriend. Now, Wickham is associated with my family, and I still feel somewhat responsible for it, no matter what you or anyone else says."

"If we're talking of trust, why didn't you trust my judgment that night? Why didn't you believe me when I said he couldn't be trusted?"

"I've already explained this. We were at the beginning of a relationship where you had misjudged me unfairly. How was I to know that wasn't a regular occurrence?"

"If I could change things I would, Elizabeth, don't doubt that, but hindsight is crystal clear on both our parts it would seem. Maybe you should have trusted me, maybe I should have trusted you, but you or I shouldn't take responsibility for your sister's actions with Wickham. He was not typically after young girls. Georgie's age was irrelevant."

"Darcy, think for a minute." Lizzy wasn't shouting but her emotions were running high. She had no idea if anything she'd said affected him. "A grown man who's willing to sleep with a seventeen year old isn't just after money. If he's willing to take that opportunity once, he's willing to do it again, especially with someone like Lydia whose personality screams 'available'. I feel responsible because, even with her little hints, I never believed she would consider an older man. I could have stopped this from happening - at the very least, I would have liked the opportunity." Lizzy voice caught slightly so she turned to the window with her linen napkin over her lips. She needed some kind of support from him and she wasn't getting it.

"Elizabeth, if you put yourself in my shoes, based on the knowledge I've given you about why Wickham approached Georgie, and then what she eventually saw of his behaviour, can you really state you'd react differently than I did?"

Darcy had asked the side of her face. She turned to look him in the eye to answer. Her face was stern and determined, and her eyes targeted his sharply. "Yes."

Darcy nodded his understanding. He knew he couldn't convince her and he accepted that.

With that question asked, Lizzy didn't bother to counter-question. She hadn't changed his mind either. She knew her short answer was the truth, but it wasn't going to help solve their problems. However, he had been right to keep the communication going, and he wasn't forcing her to accept his position. Although unbending in his beliefs, she knew Darcy had been trying to discuss their problem rationally, and as much as she respected that, the ultimate reason he was doing it was thankfully not to win or lose an argument, it was to ensure he didn't lose her.

She hadn't been acting that way. She had only been trying to whittle through their tangled problems in order to get her feelings in some semblance of order. She was wounded and wanted recompense. She wasn't going to get what she wanted, and though his main goal was to salvage their relationship, she knew he would have liked that to happen in tandem with her acknowledging he was justified. She could not do that, but she could accept a truce and begin anew.

Both of them were tense. It showed in their tightened muscles and their defensive posture. Lizzy knew she was being difficult and finally realized she needed to stop arguing and deal with their relationship before she lost him. If he hadn't treated her like an adult, it would have made the process way more painful and confusing, but he had, and she loved him for it all the more.

Beyond the hurt, sitting so near Darcy, with all this strain, was maddening for her. She wanted to stroke his hands, talk about their work-week, be a mundane, happy couple, and soothe him with teasing remarks. Everything about the man before her, even his obstinate disposition, told her they were meant to be together. They'd had a glimpse of bliss, but it had been cruelly snatched from them through no fault but that of their own determined backbones. Lizzy deeply believed that glimpse had a strong foundation on which they could rebuild. She had pushed her case long enough. It was time to let go. Her facial features softened and she reached out to touch his hand, stroking his knuckles lightly. Her voice was hushed as if hoping the gentleness would express her honest desire to move on.

"Darcy, I'm going to forgive you, even if you're not offering an apology, and you have to forgive me, even though I'm not offering one either." She paused and gave him a small, earnest smile. He was about to speak when she lightly pressed a finger to his lips for a moment - a silent request rather than an order - and continued. "We have to just accept each other's positions in this instance and move on. I know you feel what you did was right and though I see what you're saying, I would have handled it differently. As far as I'm concerned, there's a disconnect somewhere in your thought process - what's completely logical to you has missing pieces for me though you've thoroughly explained yourself. I'm guessing that's the way you feel about my reaction."

"Yes, that's exactly the way I feel." His relief was evident in his voice, and her physical gestures of touching his hand and lips so tenderly was not lost on him.

Holding his hand more tightly as if to strengthen their determination, she continued, "So, do you agree we have to forgive each other for the hurt we've caused with the knowledge we'll never be the perfect couple? It'll take some time to get back to where we were, but I think we can."

"Elizabeth, we don't have to be the perfect couple. I never expected that. I agree, though, we need to move on." Darcy wanted to jump for joy, buy a round of drinks for all the patrons of the lounge, lift Lizzy from her seat and fulfill the fantasy he'd had months prior in this exact room of carrying her upstairs to a hotel suite, but he knew it really wasn't that kind of celebration. She was right; though he was disappointed she couldn't see things his way. He was rather hurt as well, but at least she acknowledged it. With any other woman he'd ever met, had there been a disagreement of this magnitude, he would have been satisfied to cut his losses and move on alone. That was not the case with Lizzy. If they had some things to overcome, if they had to go through a stage of awkwardness, he was accepting of those fates.

Their evening continued with less stress, but an uneasy mood lingered. It can be simple to say one forgives, but to actually feel that way, to truly recover from the hurt, takes more time. Far more difficult than that, is forgetting.

Darcy dropped Lizzy off at her townhouse without a word about Pemberley. It was not an option. They still needed a time of separation - not to remain separate, but to rebuild trust and a comfort zone, not to mention the consuming need they'd once shared.

With a soft, cautious kiss on the lips, a stroke of Lizzy's cheek with the back of his fingers, and a tender, if slightly melancholy, smile, Darcy finally said goodnight.

Lizzy was thankful for his courteous behaviour and squeezed his hand just before leaving him. They may have a ways to go, but they were now both consciously committed to the journey and grateful their separation had only been temporary. They knew reconciliation was no guarantee of never being at odds, in fact, they were both quite certain that would happen again, but they felt they had learned from this situation and their relationship would be stronger the next time round.

~ * ~

Minutes before midnight that same evening, Lydia crept down the stairs and snuck out the patio door, leaving it open a crack for her return in a few hours. She had managed to call Wickham two days earlier to see how things were between them. She explained her situation, and he smoothly defended himself, even insisting he'd planned to pay her back but had been suffering from a string of bad luck of late. He also claimed he never thought telling her about his disease was necessary because it had been cured.

Lydia accepted every lie without question. She was pleased he still wanted to see her.

So under the dark cloak of night, she escaped to her star-crossed lover waiting in his car on the next street; the ultimate in romance in the eyes of a silly seventeen year old - regardless of the fact she was about to get it on in the backseat of a Ford Explorer. No one would be the wiser and she would return in a few hours. However, she had learned one lesson from the whole experience - in her pocket was her personal supply of condoms.

~ * ~

The damage a rift can cause to a relationship is often proportional to its depth of feeling, so Lizzy and Darcy's reunion didn't coalesce as quickly or smoothly as Lydia and Wickham's. They remained tentative, though well aware their strong physical attraction had never ceased. Since the night they decided to work things out, they were wary of touching the other too much, of letting go of the struggles in their minds and allowing their physical needs help to mend the damage. It was perhaps a wise decision, perhaps not. Neither was sure if it would complicate things so their dates remained quite public. Being Christmas season, there were requirements on both ends.

Lizzy was on Darcy's arm at his company's holiday soiree She was pleasant to all and her face was friendly and welcoming, but he could tell she was more reserved, less bubbly than she would have been the month earlier. Only once did she tease him to get on the dance floor, and though he refused - this was, after all, his own company's party - he was still disappointed she only made a single effort and then let it rest.

He knew she had cajoled him in the past because she felt he needed it and she had been comfortable enough with him to encourage him. Not only that, the more she teased, the more it showed she cared. While he didn't doubt her affection for him - she, after all, wanted to move forward in the relationship - he wasn't yet capable of making her at ease.

He secretly acknowledged he didn't really help matters. At certain points in the evening, he saw her swaying to the music showing she was eager to dance. He didn't rise to the occasion and no other man dared to request a dance from the boss's girlfriend, leaving Lizzy in want of a partner for the whole evening.

They openly talked about their feelings, but only so far. They kept assuring the other they were trying their best and things were progressing, but in their hearts, they wished they could get over the hump.

After a week of spending several evenings together, things began to relax, even warm up. Conversations flowed, quiet gaps weren't discomforting, and their hands touched more often than not - whether walking side by side or sitting across a dinner table. While they hadn't reached a point where they could tease and carelessly flirt, they were enjoying themselves, if still tempered by bruised emotions.

During one of those dinner table hand-holding sessions, Lizzy appeared so calm Darcy felt it was an opening for which he'd been searching. "Would you mind if I asked you something about Lydia and Wickham?"

It was the first time he'd mentioned anything since their drink at Zoe's, and Lizzy was momentarily flustered, her hand fluttering slightly under his, but she managed to say, "Go ahead."

"You never told me how much of your family's money Wickham spent."

Lizzy's composure cracked enough for her to pull her hand away, ostensibly to dab her lips with a napkin. "No, I didn't." She answered quietly and succinctly, her face changed from confused to blank. Her body language made it evident she did not wish to continue discussing the subject.

Darcy was disappointed with Lizzy's physical withdrawal but wasn't ready to let the matter drop. "Was it substantial? He took an awful lot from Georgie, and I know credit card limits can be quite high."

"You're right, they are. But we'll handle it." Lizzy's attempt at being nonchalant was failing miserably.

"Elizabeth, if your family is in any kind of financial trouble, it's within my means to help."

Lizzy softened a little with his subtle statement. "We have no right to ask that of you."

"You didn't - I'm offering. Just because we argued over responsibility, doesn't mean I don't regret what happened." Darcy gauged Lizzy's disposition and bluntly asked, "Was it a large sum?"

Lizzy debated whether or not she should tell him. It would seem like a pittance to him, and though it wouldn't cause her family bankruptcy, it would set things back. She was afraid he'd look at her with pity, but she didn't want to hide it from him simply for that reason.

"Eighteen thousand."

"He works fast, doesn't he?" Darcy's expression remained constant.

"Yup." Lizzy returned to a clipped tone. She turned to watch a waiter cross the room.

"Would you accept my help?"

"Even if I did, what's it really going to accomplish? It's a lot of money, but my parents don't have to do anything drastic. Dad may work an extra year as a precaution for retirement savings, but the point is Lydia is aware of the money she spent on him and has very little shame about it. Of course, she insists he'll pay it back when he has the chance. If you write out a cheque and solve the problem, she'll never realize what damage her irresponsibility caused."

Darcy understood Lizzy's view. He wanted to help but not to free Lydia's conscience - what little of it seemed to be affected. Furrowing his brow, he formed an idea. "What if Lydia worked to pay off what she owes her father?"

Lizzy nearly snorted. "Lydia? Work? Why would she do that?"

"Perhaps your father could insist upon it."

"I don't think he wants her working during the school year. Her marks aren't good enough."

"Have her work in the summer."

"These are all lovely suggestions, but there's one big problem. Who would ever hire Lydia?"

"I would."

Lizzy looked at Darcy as if he'd just grown two extra heads. "Are you insane? What would she do at a publishing house? I don't know if she's read a book since The Cat in the Hat!"

"I'm sure we could find something that suits her," Darcy replied, a little less decisively. Lizzy's skepticism was apparent so Darcy quickly added, "Or something where she'd do the least amount of damage."

At this remark, Lizzy finally broke out in laughter and placed her hand back on his. "You have an incredibly kind nature, you know? The offer is wonderful, but it might be safer for you to write out that cheque rather than inflicting Lydia on your office. Besides, she'd probably think working for you was glamourous."

Darcy was quietly pleased to have Lizzy's hand back where it belonged, but had enough sense to devise more of a plan, even if he was a bit diverted. "Lydia could work for my offices for the next few summers in the mailroom. It's away from the regular operations. Since her paycheques come from me, I could have them sent directly to your father. This way, he's being paid back. Lydia would learn her lesson and get a taste of the real world."

Lizzy looked at him in amazement. It was a perfect plan but could it work? "Would you really do that? It's very generous of you. I don't expect it. It's brilliant if it works out, but do you really want to deny a capable applicant a job just to help Lydia?"

"It's a job that's only useful to someone who works hard and wants to move up. Otherwise, it's as glamourous as flipping hamburgers. Truthfully, I'm not doing this for Lydia or your family; I'm thinking of you and your conscience."

"But-"

"I know you'd never feel quite right about things if your family had to suffer in any way. This way, I'm not just throwing money around, and your father may even be able to retire on the date he planned." Lizzy brought his hand to her lips, and kissed it sweetly with a gratified look in her eyes. Placing it down, she conjectured, "Eighteen thousand may take awhile to pay off."

"She won't make that much if she just works summers, but it will help."

Lizzy thought for a moment and sighed, "You better prepare for the possibility of a mailroom romance."

Darcy laughed. "You haven't seen the men who work in my mailroom."

Lizzy laughed lightly as well. He was being so considerate, and though the hurt was going away, it just didn't seem to be fast enough for her. They were together, having a perfectly lovely meal, their conversation was interesting and varied, he was gallantly saving her family a fortune, and yet she just didn't feel quite right.

It was like staring though a glass wall. You could see what you wanted on the other side, but you just couldn't touch it. She could see what she and Darcy had been like before their argument, she remembered how it had felt, she longed for it again, she could almost taste it, yet this sober, dull ache had a way of coalescing inside her, keeping her from looking for ways around the wall. She knew she had a mental block when it came to creatively getting past these feelings, and if her instincts were correct, so did Darcy.

All these internal psychological battles didn't mean they'd forgotten how to kiss. In fact, it was the only way to release their longings and cease worrying about the other's thoughts. Their goodbyes progressively became longer and more intense. From a soft peck the first night they'd agreed to start over to a fifteen minute tongue-plunging, finger-searching, pant-heavy make-out session. As thoroughly sexy and tempting as the quarter-hour of regressive teenage behaviour could be, one of them would inevitably break free, their eyes would meet and a hint of confusion would glaze over either Lizzy or Darcy's eyes. One would shrug a bit awkwardly, the other would nod, and subdued goodnights followed.

Surprisingly enough, Darcy was as guilty of backing away as Lizzy. While he had agreed to the mutual forgiveness without apology idea, Darcy was lousy at letting his point go unacknowledged. Even if the other person in a dispute had the better argument - which, as far as Darcy was concerned, almost never happened - he wanted his opponent to validate his thoughts. He was a rational human being and when he decided on something, it wasn't done simply on a gut feeling, there was a thought process and logical steps were taken to reach a conclusion. Lizzy had never admitted his thought process was right - or even logical.

His annoyance was incessant, a white noise in the back of his mind, and though he was increasingly able to block it out - particularly when engrossed with the physical pleasures of Lizzy's body - the irritating buzz inopportunely resurfaced. He also saw Lizzy's similar moments of hesitation and suspected her feelings were comparable to his as far as lack of validation was concerned.

There was a leap that needed to be taken - a question of whether to trust and to be trusted, but because there was still a fear of not being respected enough, an opinion not being heard, both hesitated to be the brave one, the one who didn't fear being hurt. The body may have been willing, but the mind was not yet able.

Part II

Lizzy was surprised when Darcy confirmed he still intended to be her date for her workplace Christmas party. Most government functions were boring, monetarily cautious and sickeningly schmoozy- not exactly up Darcy's alley. However, he insisted it was always a pleasure to be with her, and it was only fair as she had attended his company function at a time when she wasn't entirely comfortable being in his presence. The least he could do was to make her night more enjoyable. Though touched by his gesture, Lizzy wasn't sure that would be the case.

Whether she wanted people to know or not, her entire section, perhaps even the whole of Foreign Affairs knew she was involved with 'William Darcy'. For days in advance, women with whom she had a less than familiar acquaintance approached her to ask if she was going to the party and bringing a date. Even a few director generals and those who fancied the idea of hob-knobbing with a scion of Canadian publishing brought up the holiday season party to Lizzy. She knew it would be excruciating. She was right.

To his credit, Darcy handled circumstances remarkably well. He withstood the onslaught of besotted and simply sotted females who all felt this was their one chance to tempt a currently single, enormously wealthy man. Lizzy was an obstacle that could be surpassed by the flaunting of their assets- usually cleavage, ample or otherwise.

Darcy remained stoic and polite and only left Lizzy's side if necessary. Unfortunately, that still left one side unguarded which became the strategic angle of attack for the night for offensively-minded women.

Not only did he face the blitz of desperate secretaries, he also had to deal with managers, directors and even a deputy minister who all felt, due to their titles, they were at liberty to be his best buddy for the evening. Of course, no one was worse than Billy Collins who could honestly claim a previous acquaintance with the illustrious guest. Lizzy cursed herself for ever inviting Billy to Charles's party.

Two hours into the party, Lizzy had a headache- at least she convinced herself and Darcy she did. He didn't need to be told twice. They high-tailed it out quick as bunnies, and stood next to the elevator willing it to arrive before some big wigor bimbo spotted them.

As the elevator doors shut, they just barely made out the lunging body of Billy Collins heading straight for them. Time, thankfully, was on their ide.

However horrid the evening had been, Lizzy could no longer look at it seriously. The elevator suddenly filled with the sound of her deep chuckling as she squeezed her eyes shut, held her belly and slid to the floor. She looked up to Darcy, expecting some sort of censure, but was greeted with a man in the midst of a ilent chuckle, his whole body shaking. He held out his hand to help her up; the elevator ride wasn't long.

Not a word was spoken until they reached Darcy's car whereupon Lizzy shimmied up against him provocatively and couldn't resist asking, "So how many sets of breasts were pressed against your right arm tonight?"

Darcy looked askance, surprised by pointed question and intimate gesture, but decided to answer truthfully. "Who knew civil servants were so... uncivil."

"You mean silly servants," Lizzy replied, lowering her eyelids in embarrassment. As well as Darcy was taking it, she still felt for him. "Although I think Billy Collin's preposterous friendship claims were even more painful. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. After about the first half-hour, I couldn't help but see the farce that it was."

Lizzy repeated her earlier stream of giggles, this time falling into Darcy's chest. "I wonder if I'll be able to blackmail the deputy minister. I heard him try to convince you to publish some melodramatic fishing holiday story. I think if he'd been sober, he'd have had more sense."

Darcy was hardly listening. He was too busy enjoying Lizzy's carefree disposition and snuggling body. He knew she wasn't tipsy as she had had very little to drink. It seemed so long since she'd acted this freely with him, and he was feeling the same. It gave him hope they could finally overcome their distance. They were working past their disappointment in the other's failure to comprehend a different perspective. It happened in life all the time, but it was painful when you felt sure the one you loved understood you completely, only to be proven otherwise.

Reaching the door, Darcy kicked himself. Acknowledging he was enjoying her liveliness drove his thoughts back to their persistent differences, and yet again that uncomfortable knot formed inside, battling the joy he had been appreciating.

Lizzy was still living in the moment, oblivious to Darcy's swerve in thought. Her hand clasped his tightly and she was pointedly dragging him toward her door. It was obvious she was intending to ask him in. At the door, he asked, "Is Jane ready for their engagement party, or has she enlisted you to run errands for her for the next couple of days?"

Taken aback by his abrupt change in subject at that particular moment, Lizzy turned to answer him rather than opening the door. "A few little things, but Jane is very organized. Anything that's left to do now could only be done at the last minute."

"Shall Georgie and I come round on Saturday or will you be going early?"

The arty was two days away. Is he saying he won't be in touch with me until then? I thought things had turned a corner. Lizzy's confused visage simply looked ike she was deciding on her answer so Darcy stood patiently, waiting for her response.

"I'll have to be there early. In fact, I planned to spend the night at etherfield."

"Right then." Darcy nodded efficiently. His mood then softened. "It's been fun. Truly. I haven't had such a good laugh in a long time, and I'm glad it was with you."

By this point, Lizzy was lost in the barrage of mixed signals. She was about to ask him in to talk it through when out of nowhere he pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips forcefully on hers- less of a kiss than a branding, sudden and mind-swirling, something that strived to possess her and take her very soul to depths of hunger. He seemed to be searching but not sharing, seducing but not giving. She recalled him making love to her once or twice in such a manner- not something you wanted all the time, but when you were in the right mood, having the power of a man seep through you with such fierceness was absolutely fever-inducing. She was in the right mood. His masculine strength swallowed her up and sapped her of all coherent thought. She was his to have any way he wanted.

When he pulled away swiftly, his eyes burned like embers but were as dark and confused as her own. With a brief goodnight, Darcy left Lizzy standing there- limp. She didn't have time to be confused before he was gone, and then she was left to ponder what such a kiss meant. Was it a question or a statement? Had she misread the meaning?

No. She knew they'd been going through similar stages as they worked toward a true reconciliation. It must be both a question and a statement. Lizzy knew she had to respond in kind, she knew she was ready, but she wasn't sure how.

~ * ~

Lydia sat in the newsroom lobby and stared at the clock as the receptionist kept a curious eye on her after she'd explained she was there to see George Wickham, but was early and wanted to wait. Wickham had told her she could visit his office but only after five. She knew well enough not to disturb him until it was time. He wanted to celebrate with her; his final interview was taking place and soon he'd be a national personality. Good news always made Wickham treat Lydia better. Yes, she knew better than to screw up, and potentially interrupt an interview.

Bored from what seemed an endless wait, she decided to call Harriet on her cell phone. She'd swiped the confiscated item out of her mother's lingerie drawer as the logistics of sneaking around these days were much tougher.

"They haven't called you, have they?" Lydia asked louder than she realized upon hearing the voice on the other end. "I'm just waiting "til George finishes his meeting and then we're going out."

"Next year?" she repeated the last of Harriet's question. "I'll drive down to see him on the weekends, of course. By the way, you do know what to say if my parents call? what do you mean? who were you chatting with when I told you? Oh, that's cool. Did he ask you out? Awwwwwwesome!" Lydia squealed and glanced at the receptionist. She turned away from the desk but couldn't seem to manage lowering her voice. "Okay, I'll explain now. I'm studying with you for my history exam because my mark was low and yours isn't, and I need to pull up my marks to get into college. So that's why I had permission. Now if they call, tell them I'm in the bathroom or maybe gone to the store for some junk. Call me and then I'll call them back. They don't know I have my cell. "K, good luck with Chad." Lydia snapped her phone closed, looked at the clock again determining it would be safe, approached the receptionist and stated proudly, "If George Wickham is free, could you tell him Lydia Bennet is here to see him?"

"Is he expecting you?"

Lydia raised eyebrows and adopted a cocky grin. "Definitely."

After a brief call to his office, the receptionist led Lydia down the hall.

~ * ~

Mr.James Forster finished his interview later than expected, but confident with his

choice. He congratulated Wickham, informed him the contracts would be couriered

the next day and left the office a happy man. William Darcy's e-mail never entered his mind. He had been surprised when he received it so he had double-checked Wickham's standing with the manager of the local station. As far as they were all concerned, Wickham's references were air-tight and his reputation stellar, but for the infrequent requests for salary advances. Working for a national network would certainly fix whatever financial woes afflicted the young man.

This left Darcy's tale of Wickham's penchant for young women dubious. Darcy was virtually a stranger to Forster, even though they'd worked together for months. Forster had begun to believe their collaboration had created a mutual respect; however, he'd never heard from Darcy again after their work was completed. He didn't know the reasons behind Darcy's accusations- the gambling may be true but who could corroborate the rest, seeing as Darcy wasn't giving any particulars. While he reacted cynically, he decided to take the extra precaution of offering the position to Wickham personally, thereby getting the chance to see Wickham's behaviour at work and with his co-workers, to gauge his personality in his own environment and to see his personal style in his office. Everything appeared perfectly in order.

On his way out the door, however, the young girl's cell phone chat halted him. He heard everything he needed. Darcy's accusations now seemed plausible; and though not illegal, dating teenaged girls was not a desirable habit for his newsports caster. He waited for the receptionist to return and informed her he'd left a file in Wickham's office. He assured her Wickham would not mind the interruption.

~* ~

George Wickham was reckless in his private life, but he was not a stupid man. He kept his intimate life quite separate from work and his sexual indulgences were no one's business but his own. Lydia had been a slight exception since physically, she looked older than most seventeen-year-olds. He had trained her to say she was twenty-two so no one was the wiser. Lydia may not have a huge attention span, but when it came to her enjoyment, she never forgot important details.

Even with all his careful planning, he knew things could still slip up. He promised himself that when he reached the national sports position, he would curb his exploits and enjoy the pleasures of slightly more mature females on a regular basis. The money and fame were too comfortable at that level to allow any mistakes. So, Lydia was to be his last and most enjoyable transgression. Besides, seeing Darcy and Lizzy's faces at the casino had been priceless- or so he had thought.

He would gladly give up that moment to avoid the present one. When Forster barged in, he became privy to Lydia on her knees, congratulating her man by fulfilling a request. Forster ripped into him, saying he knew all about his fetish and should have trusted the warning he was given. The national news offer was reneged, and Forster assured Wickham was no longer welcome at his local job either.

Wickhamknew what he had to do. Once Forster left, he quickly dismissed a hysterical Lydia and e-mailed dozens of resumes to unaffiliated television stations across the country, desperately hoping a response came quickly. He knew news would travel fast- after all, this wasn't just any industry.

Within an hour, he had packed what he knew he could take -his laptop, his cell phone and a few personal items and was on the way out the door. His phone rang.

"George Wickham?" The female voice had a slight European accent, giving his name an enticing air.

"Yes?" Wickham was suspicious, but didn't want to give anything away.

"This is Evena Fedeev, station manager from WPPD in Winnipeg. I received your e-mail and I thought I should contact you immediately."

"That's fabulous, Ms. Fedeev-"

"Call me Evena." The accent gave her deep voice a definite sensuality making Wickham slightly aroused. After all, his fulfillment had been interrupted earlier.

"Certainly, Evena. Have we ever met?"

"Unfortunately, no. I was recently in Ottawa and saw your broadcast. I was impressed with your on-screen presence. I had little free time, so I was unable to contact you. In ever thought you would be interested in Winnipeg. I would have assumed you would move from Ottawa to loftier places." "Um," Wickham stumbled but recovered quickly. "Sometimes your life plan changes."

"Do I sense a broken heart?" Evena asked out of the blue.

Getting a free excuse was a bonus for Wickham. He played along to the woman's sympathetic ear. "How did you know?"

"I have a gift." Evena paused a moment and in a quieter voice added, "I hope we can mend it here in Winnipeg- maybe you'll come?"

The slight lilt of her accent and the awkward phrasing of the question put Wickham to mind of a far more erotic offer. She sounded as kittenish as a Bond girl-perhaps she could keep him warm in frosty 'Winter-peg'. He decided to flirt back a little. "You make a tempting offer."

"I like to think I do," she replied with a smile in her voice.

Before they got too suggestive, Wickham got down to business. "Could you e-mail theoffer tonight? I'd like to weigh the pros and cons. I hadn't really thoughtabout leaving Ottawa, but, as you mentioned, a broken heart makes you do crazythings."

"You poor man. You will have your offer within the hour. You can come here as soon as you wish. My assistant can book a flight for you and arrange for your complete move."

"You are definitely a take-charge woman. I look forward to working under you." Wickham was so psyched for the move he didn't even notice his own double-entendre.

"I look forward to that as well," Evena agreed. "I also look forward to seeing you in person. Until then, goodbye."

A half-hour later, Wickham opened his e-mail at home and couldn't believe his luck. He went from being jobless, in debt and at the mercy of a couple of loan sharks, to being hired for the same pay in a much cheaper city, by a woman who seemed to worship him from afar- and if she was hot, who knows what could happen? She had a voice meant for a 1-900 line.

Two nights later, Wickham was on a flight to Winnipeg, eager to escape Ottawa, ready for what awaited him. If he hadn't been so desperate, he may have done a bit more homework, but there wasn't time. There hadn't been any other offers either.

He should have realized he had run out of luck.

Waiting for him in Winnipeg was Evena Fedeev, 1976 Olympic silver medalist in shot put. She was built like a line-backer and had no qualms about making sexual advances on her male employees. George Wickham was about to live through a custom-tailored version of poetic justice.

~ * ~

Lizzy held a sobbing Lydia in her arms. Ten minutes before, she'd opened the door to the overwrought teenager, and now she was at a loss as to what to do beyond patting her back and stroking her hair. In between then and now, she heard a convoluted story about how Lydia had been viciously dumped by George Wickham. Wickham bandied about choice words like 'stupid slut', 'cry baby', 'air head', and 'clueless cu-' Lydia had convulsed into a desperate sob before giving that last expression, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what Wickham had said.

The dilemma facing Lizzy was how to deal with her younger sister, knowing she blatantly broke whatever rules and punishment had been laid down by her parents. She had again snuck behind their back to see and pleasure a man nearly twice her age. She lied to them repeatedly and didn't seem at all fazed by his failure to repay her parents' money.

Yet the seventeen-year-old in her arms was wracked with grief and humiliation. She had just been mercilessly degraded by a man she only wanted to impress and please. Had she not suffered enough?

Lizzy proceeded with what she thought was the best first step- counselling a broken heart.

"Lydia, George took advantage of your youthful eagerness. He's manipulative; he lied to you and you kept giving him the benefit of the doubt. He lured you with his looks and charms and the kind of excitement you haven't yet experienced, but it was never for you. He was using you. He has a dangerous sexual lifestyle and preys on young girls who don't know any better."

Lydia sat up and wiped her eyes. She actually listened to Lizzy's explanation. "Who else did he do this to?"

"Remember how Darcy mentioned the other young woman the night of the casino?"

Lydia nodded in recognition and Lizzy continued. "Well, George did the same to her as he did to you. He seduced her, took her money and humiliated her. She even ended up with a disease. So far you've managed to escape that but I think you should see a doctor again. You may not be so lucky this time. You see, he's also been involved with prostitutes and drugs. It's better for you to be away from him. He might appear respectable but he's definitely not."

Lydia wiped her eyes again and sniffed loudly. There was still a trace of defensiveness when she heard someone else slam George. "How does Darcy know all of this? Were he and George friends?"

Lizzy answered carefully. "No, but the young woman... was a close friend of Darcy's family, and Darcy helped her after her bad experience with George."

"So that's why George thought Darcy ratted on him."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, when George asked his new boss who told him about me, Mr. Forster wouldn't say, but he did say it made him suspicious enough to personally come to Ottawa to see George. Then George asked if it was Darcy." Lydia blew her nose into a tissue.

"And?"Lizzy urged with little attempt at patience.

"He said something about George being a good investigative reporter in another life, whatever that means."

Darcy told Wickham's boss? When? How did he know him? Did I mention something to him about Wickham's job? What exactly did he tell him? All of these questions needed answers but for now, she had to quickly put that matter aside. She needed to deal with Lydia and what to do next.

Stalling, Lizzy got her sister a Coke from the fridge, while gauging Lydia's mood. The girl was distraught but still, she'd defied her parents' orders- to her own detriment. Placing the glass of pop on the coffee table, Lizzy spoke up. "We have to tell Mom and Dad."

"But-"

Lizzy lifted her hand to stop Lydia. "I'll tell them over the phone. You can stay here tonight. I'll let them know how awful you feel, how badly you've been treated and how sorry you are for disobeying them." Lizzy stopped to put emphasis on that last point. "I'm letting them know why you're here but you need to make your apologies in person. I can't change what they decide to do after that, but if you'd like to temper their reaction, you can tell them you got a job to pay back the money George swindled out of you."

"But I don't-"

Again, Lizzy's hand shot up. "Darcy has been kind enough to offer you a job in his mailroom. However, he's going to make sure your pay cheques go to Dad."

Lydia's face brightened as Lizzy explained the job offer, but changed to an indignant grimace when the method of payment was mentioned.

"That's not fair." Lydia crossed her arms and shifted in her seat like a three-year-old.

"It absolutely is!" Lizzy cried back just as indignantly. She'd had enough of Lydia's self-centered childish attitude. "You gave George Wickham eighteen thousand dollars of someone else's money and he's not paying it back. You are responsible, and up until now have shown no remorse. You decided to sleep with a man twice your age and lie to everyone about it. Your age is no excuse. You should know right from wrong, Lydia! Not only that, you need to learn the value of the dollar and see what it's like to have money you've earned taken away from you. If you take this job and agree to the conditions, I think Mom and Dad may be more lenient. If you don't, I don't know what they'll do with you."

Lydia knew Lizzy was right and she saw no other way out. Wickham had lied to her and she had fallen for it all. She had thought she was so streetwise, sneaking around with an older man. She had thought they really loved each other, but in the end, she saw she'd been fooling herself. She just hoped the job at Darcy's Publishing might lead to meeting a guy who truly liked her and could really pay his own way- and hers too for a change. She made a quiet apology to Lizzy, genuinely thanked her for the offer of work and made her way to Jane's room to cry into a pillow while Lizzy called their parents with this latest drama.

Lizzy explained things to her parents but couldn't help but lash out at them as well. They had done very little to stop Lydia from running around behind their backs. They had given her such liberties compared to Jane and her, even though Lydia's personality and marks at school hadn't warranted such freedom. She reiterated her feelings of responsibility in introducing Lydia to Wickham, but she was quick to add something like this was bound to happen because her wild spirits had never been checked.

Her parents didn't dispute Lizzy's assertions. They were truly shocked at how void of morals Lydia seemed to be. She had no sense of shame or guilt, and their lack of guidance was even more apparent to them.

After finishing the call, Lizzy was left with privacy for her own thoughts. What she couldn't erase from her mind for the rest of the night was the knowledge of Darcy's fateful interference. If he hadn't told that Forster man, he would have been none the wiser about Lydia, and Wickham would have been sitting pretty in Toronto with his glamourous career. Darcy hadn't even told her he'd done anything! He could have used it to convince Lizzy of his compassion towards her and her family- to show that even though he didn't feel responsible for not speaking up about Wickham, at least he was willing to seek justice on Lydia's behalf.

He could be so damn noble even when stubbornly standing his ground. Why hadn't he told her- and why had he pulled away the other night? He always seemed like he was fighting to keep their relationship going while she had her doubts. He also seemed to be progressing since they'd resolved things, making steps toward being more relaxed with her. So why the mixed signals?

Lizzy mulled over as many details as possible and finally came back to her thoughts after Darcy had left her with that searing goodbye kiss. It was now her move. She needed to prove to him that even if she had been hurt, she could overcome it and not dwell on the past. She loved him and never wanted to lose him. She knew he understood the ordeal her family had experienced and she knew he respected her- whether he had taken care of Wickham because he loved her or as a parting gift, she wasn't sure.

If he had doubts about her, she would prove them wrong. If his kiss had been a question, she would answer it with a resounding 'YES'. She was now more certain of what she needed to do and she knew exactly how to show him.

Continue "Action and Reaction" here


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