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Action and Reaction

Chapter XXII

With twinkling white lights, garland and wreaths of evergreen, crimson velvet bows and a dusting of snow on the rooftop and hedges, Netherfield stood for the world like the front of a Christmas card come to life. As was apparent by the decorations, the owner enjoyed celebrating the holidays. Netherfield was as lovingly wrapped as a present under the tree. It stood out from the understated offerings of the nouveau riche neighbours so fearful of making a fashion faux-pas on their exterior that they'd hired consultants to create their 'unique look'. The result? Most houses looked exactly the same. Netherfield most assuredly was not understated, but only Ebenezer Scrooge would dare criticize a home in such a festive state.

The cheerfulness of the outside packaging was mirrored indoors, but none of it outshone the bright smile of Charles Bingley. He was throwing another party - a task which seemed to be his true vocation - but this time it was to celebrate his engagement to the most glorious being of the female species. That it happened to fall four days before Christmas only added to the merriment.

Charles stood with his Jane, welcoming guests and graciously accepting each wish for his future happiness. Champagne was flowing, the band was in full swing and it was practically impossible for anyone to be ill at ease.

But for one person.

Lizzy stood at a distance from Charles and her sister, but still in the foyer of the home, paying strict attention to the door. She repeatedly and nervously stroked her neck, wondering if she'd made the right decision. How would he react? Would he understand her meaning? Would he be as ready to truly put their differences behind them as she was?

She spotted him as he and Georgie removed their overcoats. Her lips curved into a tight 'O' as she admired how dashing he looked in his tuxedo. Would she ever tire of seeing him that way? She hoped she had the chance to answer that question in about sixty years or so.

Lizzy smiled as Georgie took her brother's arm. She looked stunning, yet again, but this time she'd chosen everything herself. The look on Georgie's face spoke of confidence and comfort. It was incredible to think of the transformation that must have taken place in the past two and a half years. Darcy's pride in his sister was not the least bit surprising.

Lizzy dipped out of Darcy's possible line of sight momentarily to allow him to greet Charles and Jane without distraction. She then stood at the entrance to the parlour - a room with bittersweet memories for the two of them.

Darcy's eyes rested on her, first with the pleasure of spotting the person for whom he'd been searching, then with perplexity. Lizzy's hand immediately shot to her neck. With Darcy temporarily rooted in place, Georgie turned to see what was up. As subtly as possible, she yanked him toward Lizzy.

Lizzy knew Darcy was not staring at her unsurpassable beauty. She looked attractive in a fitted velvet sapphire party dress, but she was not attempting to be the belle of the ball ... nor could she when Jane was present and radiating joy. No, the usually unflappable Fitzwilliam Darcy had surprise openly displayed on his face for something other than Lizzy's physical attributes. Again, Lizzy questioned her decision.

Georgie opened the conversation, and they all took their turns politely commenting on each other's appearance and the festive Netherfield decorations. Darcy managed to be cordial, but it was obvious he was distracted. As much as Georgie desperately wanted to be part of Lizzy and Darcy's tête-à-tête, she knew very well nothing of substance would be discussed in her presence. Besides, she hoped to get the whole story once whatever problems led them to this moment were resolved.

Giving up her attempts at social small talk, Georgie looked around and was fortunate in spotting Richard - the perfect excuse to tactfully exit the scene.

Though Darcy had managed the perfunctory words of admiration of Lizzy's appearance, the look of astonishment had never left his face. Lizzy gave her daring answer before the question ever passed Darcy's lips. "I decided I wasn't making enough of an effort to get us on the right track - I've sort of been coasting, I think." She paused, raised her eyebrow, shrugged her shoulders lightly, and fingered the diamond necklace.

"So I thought wearing extravagant jewels seemed like a good sacrifice for the cause, don't you think?"

The dry remark was actually a good defense - a line behind which she hid her fear he would not be pleased.

"Well then ... I should probably come up with something equally as charitable to the cause myself." Darcy glanced above his head and Lizzy followed his gaze to a sizeable bunch of fresh mistletoe.

Neither hesitated with their approach, though they were both unhurried. Lizzy stared at his lips until she closed her eyes in anticipation. This was the kiss with which she wanted to answer his question. It wasn't lusty or overtly passionate; it was tender, open and reciprocal. Slow and delectable, but full of meaning; the kind of kiss that makes broken-hearted lovers forget their sadness and allows them to open up to a renewed faith in the other, mixed with the tingling excitement of a future of certain, uncomplicated love.

Lizzy's insides fluttered like butterfly wings. The touch of his lips was light and endearing; she felt his love and forgiveness. Her heart swelled with such an intense sensation that it suddenly caused her overwhelming happiness to morph into ill-timed bashfulness. She had so much bottled up emotion to release, so much relief and joy, so large a desire to physically show her need for him, that it embarrassed her.

When they broke away from each other, Lizzy's eyes remained closed and didn't open until she looked down shyly, trying to keep her emotions from overwhelming her. She had no wish to collapse into a blubbering mess of relief in front of so many people. She felt herself blushing and was angry. She bit her lip at the silliness of it all.

Determined to overcome her girlish reaction, she looked up to see what she expected would be an amused Darcy. He did not meet her expectations.

His face was clearly full of emotion but one she could only describe as sadness; he somehow seemed disappointed. She stared at him for a few moments, her face showing her confusion, but he offered no explanation. His look shocked her, but instead of questioning it, she suddenly felt embarrassed again, this time for her assumptions. Doubt swallowed whatever daring confidence was left in her after such a heart-wrenching stare. Perhaps all she felt with the kiss were her own emotions. Perhaps she had misjudged everything, from his kiss the other night to his reaction to the necklace now. The looked stabbed at her, and she didn't have the guts to question it. They had been through so much; she felt she knew Darcy well enough to judge what he was saying. Insecure as she felt, she needed to get away.

With self-assurance in her voice she did not feel, she told Darcy she needed to speak to her mother and walked away, looking straight ahead at a light fixture in the Netherfield ballroom. She didn't notice when she passed a curious Georgie nor anyone else until she located her mother, asked an obligatory question and headed for the stairs at the other end of the ballroom. She didn't want to use the main foyer staircase; she didn't want Darcy to see her run to her room to hide.

Walking down the deserted second floor hallway, Lizzy tried to make sense of Darcy's face. She could only think of one possible explanation: the kiss the other night was a test, not for her, but for him. He kissed her firmly to see if he could still feel his old emotions, if he could still love her. But from tonight's despondent face, it looked as if he had his answer. He couldn't forgive her for not accepting his opinion as the right one; he had given it a chance, given much effort, but he couldn't get past it. The frightful part of it all for her was she had finally gotten past her stubbornness and was back to being in love with a man who seemingly didn't love her enough.

Before returning to her room to avoid the party as long as possible, she peeked over the first floor balcony, strategically hidden in the shadows so as to see but not be seen. She looked down to see Darcy near where she'd left him. He was now in an earnest conversation with Georgie. She smiled at the two, so different but so good for the other. They were a tiny family with a special bond.

Her eyes trailed away from them, scanning the foyer and into the large entryway of the ballroom. There she spotted Lydia and her father. Because this was a family event, Lydia had been permitted to attend - Lizzy believed it was to keep an eye on her as much as anything else. However, it was obvious Lydia was truly suffering. Having Wickham cruelly show his low opinion of her had tamed her; she was subdued and uninterested in the festivities around her.

What was more fascinating than Lydia not enjoying a party was the actual interaction between her and her father. Lizzy watched as her father seemed uncharacteristically gentle toward her sister. He was trying to cheer her up, softly lifting her chin up to look at him while he smiled as all fathers should smile upon all daughters. It filled Lizzy with a sense of relief - perhaps this fiasco could improve their relationship, or at least bring them to a closer understanding of each other. As Thomas Bennet brushed his youngest's hair with his hand, Lizzy turned her attention back to Georgie and Darcy. It was at that moment Darcy's actions seemed to mirror her father's. The tender look and touch was uncanny.

Lizzy's eyes darted back and forth between the two pairs a few more times as a rising anxiety welled inside her.

Her own private epiphany came four days before Christmas.

Lizzy finally understood - the disconnect in Darcy's explanation was gone, and she felt incredibly stupid, heartless and ashamed. She may have believed she understood his perspective, but she had not. When he said 'put yourself in my shoes' she'd only put herself in the same situation, pretending it was Lydia. She would have told Darcy, but she was simply Lydia's sister, not her mother-figure, not her guardian or protector.

She looked to Lydia and Mr. Bennet again. If someone mentioned Wickham's name in front of her father tomorrow, he'd act as if he'd never heard of him. He would protect his daughter's reputation even if it meant keeping information from people he otherwise trusted, and Lydia was nowhere as innocent as Georgie. It wasn't that Lizzy wouldn't want to protect Lydia's reputation, but the scope of protection a sister deems necessary is far different than that of a father - or surrogate father.

I, who have prided myself on good judgment, my ability to listen, my diplomacy! I was so blind!

Whether right or wrong, Darcy pushed the sphere of protection around Georgie to as wide a berth as possible. No doubt, it had been extremely difficult for him to admit he even knew about Wickham at all to her, not to mention talking to Wickham's boss, Forster. It must have killed him! It all seemed so clear to her now. Maybe she wouldn't do the same thing for Lydia, but would she do the same thing if she had her own daughter?

She wanted to run down the stairs and shout, "I understand!" She wanted to pull him into the parlour and apologize for not seeing his side, but when she looked down to Georgie and Darcy again, they were gone, and the past fifteen minutes came flooding back into her brain.

It might be too late, even if I explain now. He may never be able to deal with my obstinacy. He probably thinks I wore the diamonds to taunt him. Clutching the second floor balustrade, Lizzy allowed those defeatist thoughts to repeat themselves for about a minute, but she had never been one to dwell on the negative and she formed her resolution to rectify the damage, or at least to let him know she now appreciated his reasoning. She would locate Darcy and speak to him.

Ten minutes later, she deduced he was in the parlour with Georgie. She was waiting impatiently when her mother caught her eye. Dutifully, Lizzy joined Mrs. Bennet and an elderly couple. The man had been a diplomatic attaché years ago and wanted to talk shop - his shop. He was bound and determined to reminisce about the good ol' days in the Department of Foreign Affairs, and fortunately Fanny Bennet had been kind enough to locate an ear who actually understood the jargon.

Lizzy was bored stiff but could not find a polite way to extricate herself. Halfway through the conversation, she noticed Darcy and Georgie emerge from the parlour but quickly had to turn back to the elderly gentleman as he'd asked her a direct question. She caught Darcy's eye at one point, whereupon she drew a deep breath and gave him a pathetic moue hoping he might save her, but he seemed not to notice.

Charlotte must have observed her predicament, and thankfully approached her with an alarmed look, somewhat forcefully insisting Lizzy be excused for an urgent matter.

Out of earshot, Lizzy spoke. "Thanks for saving me, Char. I was about to drown in bureaucratic gobbledygook. But I have to go-"

"You can't go!" Charlotte interrupted with bulging eyes. "I've been trying to hunt you down since I arrived. I need to speak to you alone."

Darcy had taken the chance to approach Lizzy now that she seemed free. He touched her arm. "Elizabeth, I'd like to speak to you. If you'll excuse us, Charlotte."

She looked at Darcy's stern face as he took her by the elbow, and then to Charlotte. Even though Lizzy suspected Darcy was about to end their relationship, she still desperately wanted to speak with him, but her friend had an expression fraught with anxiety. She gave a rather pathetic look of her own when asking, "Charlotte, is this urgent?"

Charlotte gave Darcy a nasty glare. She wanted Lizzy's time first. "It is quite urgent. I'm sure Darcy won't mind waiting."

Lizzy had never seen Charlotte so demanding of her presence. Whether it was loyalty to her long-time friend, or fear of the man she loved telling her it was over, she felt Charlotte's request had priority. Giving Darcy an apologetic look, she asked, "Can we talk later? Charlotte was technically here first."

With a curt nod, Darcy turned on his heel, decidedly displeased with being dismissed.

"This better be good," an exasperated Lizzy muttered as Charlotte led her down the hallway to Charles's library.

"It's about Richard and me." Charlotte guided Lizzy through the doorway and locked it once they were inside.

Lizzy was upset at being delayed. First, Darcy disappeared, then she'd been stuck with an old, boring man, now she needed to deal with a crisis in Charlotte's world. Life didn't seem fair. She fidgeted and paced the room while listening as patiently as possible to Charlotte's plight. It seemed Richard had made her an offer. He had been promoted to High Commissioner; however, it was for New Zealand and it started in four months. He wanted Charlotte to join him, but the word marriage never crossed his lips. Charlotte wanted some sort of commitment. She had friends, family and a secure career in her life. Love without commitment wasn't enough for her.

Lizzy was not a bad friend, in fact, she could be counted upon in the most dire situations, but tonight ... tonight she inwardly cursed herself for being a trustworthy confidante. She was stuck with Charlotte whether she wanted to be or not. It wasn't in her to do the selfish thing and leave. She resignedly sat down next to her friend, took a deep breath, put her arm around her, and tried her damndest to forget about her current situation with Darcy and her desperate need to apologize, hoping a delay wouldn't ruin her attempts to salvage the most important relationship of her life.

Fifteen minutes later, she emerged from Charles's library to the worried face of Richard - yet another person to contend with before being able to get to Darcy. Richard seemed to be in the way at the most inconvenient times! However, knowing Charlotte's state behind the door, she calmly chatted with Richard, and advised him to speak with Charlotte in more detail about his move to New Zealand. While speaking to him, she caught Darcy's eye and discreetly gave him a frustrated face, indicating she was trying to break free. Again, he appeared not to notice as he walked out of her sight rather quickly.

Lizzy's insides were now frazzled and it wasn't even nine o'clock. All she wanted was to locate Darcy and get him alone. It felt like she had been torn in a dozen different directions since they had kissed under the mistletoe and none were toward her preferred destination. When she walked into the ballroom, she was relieved to see him standing next to Charles and Jane. His returning stare was rather serious and her heart jumped to her throat. She was certain she looked terrified, which was only natural as she feared their conversation, but hadn't wanted to delay it. He suddenly turned away from her, briefly spoke with Charles and Jane, then walked away ... but not toward Lizzy. She stopped; bewildered and a bit scared by his behaviour.

She followed him with her eyes as he unbelievably took the stage. The band had just finished a song and he stood in front of the microphone looking stiff and serious - nothing unusual to most of those in attendance. What is he doing up there?

"Ladies and gentlemen." His deep, authoritative voice brought everyone to attention quickly. He then seemed to relax a bit. "As best man for Charles's upcoming nuptials, I felt it my duty to say a few words this evening. Those who know me understand that anytime I'm in front of a microphone, it is indeed a duty." He paused to a few knowing laughs and nods.

"I've known Charles for a long time. He is trustworthy, easy-going and eager to please, as you can all tell by the number of parties he throws. However, being the more contemplative one in our friendship, I've always worried Charles would not find someone worthy. I can hear Charles now - oh, ye of little faith ... and he would be right. Charles knew his fate from the moment he met Jane. My worrying was for naught. Jane Bennet is more than worthy. She is kind, forgiving and intelligent, not to mention beautiful. I raise my glass to both of you. May you always be as happy and as in love as you are at this moment."

Darcy paused to sip from his glass as did everyone else. After a raucous round of applause, he placed the glass aside and returned to the microphone, a move that surprised Lizzy and the rest of the room.

"As Charles and Jane have already given me permission, I have one more announcement." He cleared his throat before continuing. "I was wise enough to follow Charles's lead awhile back, and for the past few months have also had the good fortune of a Bennet sister by my side. However, I've made a mistake." Darcy paused uncomfortably as he was unaccustomed to making an admission of this magnitude in front of so many people. He wasn't hesitating because he didn't want to continue, but because he needed to choose his words carefully. The pause was ill-timed but Darcy had no idea, he was so lost in thought.

Elizabeth's blood ran cold. He called her a mistake! He couldn't possibly be attempting to dump her in front of all and sundry, could he? She had never been one to feel weak in stressful situations, but she had to admit, she was mighty woozy. Luckily, Charles approached her side and she gripped his arm to steady herself. Her forever-pleasant future brother-in-law seemed confused by her terror-stricken face. As Darcy continued with his speech, she barely comprehended it for a moment, so frozen by his words and actions.

"I have hurt Elizabeth. I wanted to tell her: I was wrong and I'm sorry. I believe it's worth saying this publicly rather than privately. I hope it will show my sincerity and she will forgive me."

Darcy paused again to look Lizzy straight in the eye for a response, but she was still trying to digest the moment; the flip-flopping of her mind from believing he was about to end their relationship publicly to the even more shocking revelation he was actually apologizing publicly.

Darcy shifted uncomfortably, becoming increasingly nervous from her silence even if it had only been mere seconds. He was not a man who wanted to be onstage, let alone waiting for an answer that may not be what he wanted. Knowing she was also a relatively private person with her personal feelings, he had considered the possibility Lizzy would not be moved. He had to resort to a Plan B to, at least, get her to end the public moment and go somewhere private to talk. She had just been so difficult to cordon off this evening; he wanted to truly gain her attention.

With more confidence than he actually felt, he steamed ahead with a devilishly convincing smile worthy of Anthony Robbins. "Ladies and gentlemen, since Elizabeth is not quite convinced, desperate times call for desperate measures. The lady in question once had me perform to strangers. I believe it's time to do so again to show the depth of my apology." Darcy turned away for a moment to talk with the band. With a cocked head and an apologetic look he continued, "Kevin, our band leader, has suggested Ain't Too Proud to Beg as an appropriate song for me - unless Elizabeth realizes the folly of me singing in front of these nice people."

Darcy's gamble paid off instantly. With the threat of a vocal performance - of Motown, no less - her senses were tweaked and she rushed to the stage. She spoke to him in as quiet a voice as possible, but her discretion was negated by her inability to control her hand movements which urged him forward. "Wait! You crazy man, of course I forgive you. Now get down!"

Satisfied with his achievement, a smiling Darcy suddenly became at ease with the crowd and needed to make one last comment to his bemused public. "The lady has forgiven me but more importantly, she has spared you all. Enjoy your evening."

Darcy jumped off the stage and into the waiting, shaking arms of Lizzy. She looked ghostly white, but she was smiling and clutching him ferociously tight. Charles had followed her when she rushed to the stage, and with more presence of mind than she knew she had, she asked, "Charles, please go up there and distract everyone from us ... somehow." The last word had a definite note of desperation.

Charles nodded, but before taking the stage, he couldn't resist teasing his friend. "Now I understand the need for the cufflinks tonight. I thought they'd been retired!"

Lizzy gave Darcy a quizzical look, but he just shook his head and murmured, "Later."

Charles was more than effective in distracting the crowd, thanks to, surprisingly enough, the convenient contribution of Caroline. At her earlier insistence, he'd already planned a surprise draw for the lucky guests - a personally designed ensemble by his talented sister. Lizzy and Darcy's moment was quickly forgotten by all but a few interested parties. They whisked themselves upstairs to Lizzy's bedroom.

With the door shut, Lizzy turned to face Darcy, but not with a beaming smile or a welcoming embrace. She was still baffled by his out-of-character public demonstration and in turmoil over wanting to apologize to him, her temperament was erratic, and more than a little frayed around the edges. She blurted out exactly what was on her mind. "I thought you were going to leave me!"

Darcy's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Where did you get that idea?"

"You've been avoiding me since we kissed! I thought you were convinced I wasn't worth loving." Lizzy began to pace around the room, nervous energy coursing through her body as she tried to work out what was going on. She wasn't doing it in an orderly way and hadn't realized how her reaction could be hurting Darcy.

With these accusations, Darcy's composure cracked a bit. He had just professed his regrets in front of a room full of people. He had humbled himself in an unprecedented manner and she had not yet acknowledged it. "Me? Avoiding you? You were the one avoiding me. Why would I need to go onstage otherwise?"

Lizzy was still frustrated by her inability to break free from all the unwanted interruptions that evening. It had been like an undertow that kept sucking her away from Darcy, and now that she was free, she didn't know where to start. She pressed her hands to her temples before continuing, trying to calm her mind and slow her breathing, but couldn't contain her voice from rising several notes and becoming unsteady. "All I've been trying to do all night is talk to you, but ... but ... no one would let me."

Darcy noticed the hopelessness in her voice and it dawned on him she was having difficulty processing everything. He would have reached for her but she was on the other side of the room, still pacing. His own tone softened but he made sure he got his point across. "That's not the way it seemed to me."

Lizzy walked back from across the room and answered him. The highs and lows she had felt through the evening had taken their toll. She was trembling. "Looks can be deceiving. And then you go onstage and start talking about me and saying it was a mistake." She paused to take a deep breath to stifle a crack in her voice. "I was terrified ... and then ... and then ... you apologized."

She now stood directly before Darcy and he could see from the light in her eyes that her own words seemed to click like a switch in her mind. Before he could speak, she roughly pulled his head down, forcing his lips to hers, and delivered a raw, hungry kiss. He responded almost instantly, and she wound her arms around him as greedily as a drowning woman to a life preserver.

To be in his arms again, knowing that things were going to work out was nearly too much for Lizzy. The details of the evening had yet to add up coherently to her, but she knew from his words onstage and her own personal thoughts of regret, that everything would work out. She knew they had much to discuss; she knew she had yet to offer her apology, but the taste of his lips, the feel of his hair between her fingers and his skin under her stroking thumb was all she wanted to think about, to absorb, to appreciate. He wanted to be there with her, he wanted to kiss her and he wanted her in his life. That's all that mattered.

Darcy had, at first, been shocked by Lizzy's sudden, fierce onslaught, but it quickly relieved him, and from there, logical feelings were abandoned. He wrapped his arms around her waist and plunged deeply into reciprocating her advances. Though she was a bit scattered in her thoughts, she seemed to have come to her senses. Having her kiss him with such fire after her last words, reassured him of her willingness to forgive him. He could tell by the sheer determination of the kiss things would be resolved and with that, he could enjoy the unfettered bliss of feeling her against him again.

Initially heavy with ardor, their embrace finally slowed to a simmer; the two not only finding passion, but also comfort in the other's arms. They tempered the other's worries by responding so convincingly.

Gaining some control over her bodily impulses, Lizzy pulled away slightly, her eyelids weighted down by a love-drunk potion coursing through her blood. "Mmm ... thank you. I needed that. I'm much calmer now."

"Calmer? That did anything but calm me." Darcy smiled and was about to repeat Lizzy's earlier action, but Lizzy pulled away before he had the chance.

"Keep your pants on, Mr. Darcy, we have a lot to talk about," Lizzy spoke playfully, but softly, over her shoulder as she walked away from him. She couldn't resist teasing him after such a comment, even if she had a lot of explaining to do. She retrieved a desk chair and placed it to face the foot of the bed. She motioned for Darcy to sit while she hopped on the edge of the bed so they could speak face to face.

"Yes, I suppose you're right, we do have a lot to discuss," Darcy answered grudgingly, sitting down.

Placing her hands on her knees, and widening her eyes, Lizzy began. "May I explain myself? Because the fact is, I was trying to talk to you all night to apologize to you. I never expected you to go up there and apologize to me!"

"What do you have to apologize for?"

Lizzy smacked her hands over her eyes, then slid them down her face, looking heavenward. "Oh God, what don't I have to apologize for?"

She first explained her feelings about Darcy's domineering kiss two nights prior, feeling he was questioning her constancy and her ability to move forward. She also thanked him for his interference with Lydia, explaining what had happened at Wickham's office, and how his influence finally exposed Wickham to Lydia and his employer. Knowing Darcy had done that had also shamed her into realizing she hadn't been fair. That was why she wore the diamonds, to show no matter how difficult she'd been, she was as committed as he was to working things out and for them to be a permanent relationship.

Darcy sheepishly explained himself. "I wish I deserved such a judgment. Forster is an old colleague of mine, and informing him was my way of trying to, at least, get Wickham exposed to his employers. It's a shame Lydia had to experience such an ordeal. As for when I kissed you Thursday night, I was actually angry - angry at myself for not being able to let go of my wounded ego. I kissed you hard in the hopes of forgetting it all. I hadn't been able to truly move on since our argument as I've never had my opinion dismissed. I'm not used to that, you know. You don't know how unique you are, Elizabeth, to contradict me. I was also angry at you because after all our disagreements, you seemed to be able to move on so easily."

"Easily? You've got to be kidding!"

She then added that because of the thought she hadn't worked hard enough on the relationship, she sensed he had made a decision to leave her after they'd kissed under the mistletoe.

"Where did you get that idea?"

"The look on your face; it said it all. You seemed disappointed and sad, as if the kiss should have meant more to you and didn't."

"I looked that way because I was watching your reaction! You looked positively uncomfortable and because you were wearing the diamonds, I thought it meant you had decided to forget your convictions and acquiesce to me. I thought I had broken your spirit, and you were trying to be someone you're not. When you walked away, I believed I'd either turned the Elizabeth I loved into someone submissive and you were trying to deal with it, or you would eventually return and tell me it was over. Either way, your look caused me great pain. "

"That wasn't why I looked that way at all! I was just so flustered. I know it's silly, but you know me. I was so elated by the kiss and the thought of things to come, that I was positively giddy inside, and because of that I got shy and embarrassed at my reaction."

"That's it? You had one of your bashful moments and you were embarrassed?" Darcy let out a rueful chuckle. "We're both guilty of making assumptions, aren't we?"

Lizzy nodded and smiled. "Yes. Here I thought we had really improved at communication since the beginning of our relationship, now, I think that's something we'll still have to work on."

Lizzy continued on, explaining her revelation earlier in the evening while watching him with Georgie, and Lydia with her father.

While he tried to interrupt throughout her talk, she gently but firmly asserted herself. "I'll let you explain why you feel you need to apologize when I'm finished."

Finally she summed up, "I'm apologizing because I was wrong. I was stubborn and blind to your perspective even if I said I wasn't. When I came here tonight, I was determined to show you it didn't matter to me if you didn't understand me, but the truth is, I wasn't trying hard enough to understand you. I finally clued in, and it's liberating and embarrassing all at the same time. I had this sick feeling in my gut most of the night because I had been so unfair - and to you, of all people! I thought I was a better person than that. I wasn't objective enough to see things the way you did. I hope you can forgive me."

It was on the tip of Darcy's tongue to tell Lizzy there was no need to ask forgiveness, but he realized that would not be the right answer. If he was ready to respect her for standing up for her opinion, he should also respect her reasoning as to why she felt she had behaved badly. He just wanted his chance to explain as well. "I have no reason not to forgive you. What you've described was exactly the way I interpreted things, until tonight, until I spoke about it with Georgie. You see, I never told her we were arguing. I never gave her details about the whole situation - just that we found George and Lydia together."

"You didn't?"

"I have never confided in Georgie or anyone regarding my love life, Elizabeth. I wasn't going to start at this point ... but perhaps I should have."

Lizzy shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't about to chastise him at this point. She was just happy she'd finally purged herself of the guilt she was feeling all night, though she still felt Darcy was too easy on her for wanting to apologize as well. However, she gave him the green light to explain.

Even with her lingering feelings of shame, had she been able to eavesdrop on his conversation an hour and a half earlier, she would have been amused at Georgie's thorough tongue-lashing.

~ * ~

One and half-hours earlier

When Georgie saw the look on Lizzy's face as she walked away from Darcy after what appeared to be a true lover's kiss, she was confused; and when Lizzy breezed past her without a look or acknowledgment, she was worried. She immediately approached Darcy.

"What's going on with you and Lizzy?"

A noticeably troubled Darcy shook his head, furrowed his brow and tried to act oblivious. "I'm not certain. But it doesn't concern you at the moment."

"Yes, it does. It's my fault."

"Your fault? Why would you think that?" Darcy was incredulous.

"I was the one who gave her the necklace. She told me you had a disagreement and felt if she wore the diamonds, you'd get her meaning and everything would work out right. Was she lying to me or was she just wrong?" Georgie's face was fraught with distress. She liked Lizzy, but she never wanted to hurt her brother

"Oh, I definitely got her meaning and it wasn't wrong of her, but it's not the kind of message I want."

"William, I'm confused. What's wrong with you two? You never said anything to me, but somehow I feel like I'm in the middle of something I know nothing about."

If only Georgie knew the significance of her words, Darcy thought. He looked at his sister while lightly brushing her cheek. She was so eager to help Lizzy and him; he decided to tell her everything he'd neglected to explain for the past few weeks. She deserved to know, considering who was involved. He had a sneaking suspicion they might have a difference of opinion, but he wasn't sure why. He led her into the parlour and locked the door.

As Georgie sat down, Darcy remained standing to tell his tale. "I misled you when I told you about Elizabeth and me seeing Wickham with Lydia. I didn't tell you that both Elizabeth and Lydia had a previous acquaintance with him and I was aware of it."

"So Lizzy knew George's history? What does this have to do with why you two are having trouble?"

"She didn't know his history. I didn't tell Elizabeth about you and George, I simply warned her that he was not to be trusted."

"You what? Why wouldn't you tell her?" Georgie quickly got to her feet and stood before Darcy. "I certainly tell every woman who will listen what kind of sleaze that man is."

Darcy wasn't sure he heard correctly. "You tell people about you and Wickham?"

"Well, no. I tell them George had an STD and had unprotected sex with a young girl who had no clue. If people push, I tell them the girl was a close friend of mine. I don't want any girl to ever be stupid enough to fall for him. People understand when I don't want to give names."

Darcy was defensive. She had asked him to remain mum about their connection. "But you made me promise never to utter a word about you and Wickham. I never felt I could say anything."

"When did I do that?" Georgie looked completely baffled.

"When we began therapy together."

"At the beginning of therapy? I was a wreck then. Surely you could have figured out by the end of therapy I had a healthier attitude," Georgie paused for a moment and added with a scrunched up face, " ... and a streak of vengeance."

"I knew you had a healthier grasp of everything, but then, you never mentioned the situation to me outside therapy so I thought you didn't want me to bring it up."

"I figured you didn't want me to bring it up. You're the one who always moves on so quickly and maturely from these things. I suspected you ... you were still embarrassed about the whole situation for me and wanted to forget it. I would have loved to talk to you more about it. I just wasn't strong enough to bring it up in conversation."

Darcy reached out and took Georgie's hands. She was right - he wanted it to be a distant memory and he assumed she did as well. He admitted, "I was embarrassed, but it was because I felt I'd failed you."

"But in therapy you said-"

"Yes, I know what I said, but ... it's not easy to forgive yourself."

"Tell me about it," Georgie sighed.

He felt awful hearing about her feelings two years too late and ashamed of his own. As badly as he had always felt for Georgie, as much as he tried to improve her confidence, underneath, he hadn't wanted to discuss Wickham, but he hated she had sensed it. "I never wanted you to feel uncomfortable talking to me about Wickham."

"I wish you had said that then." There was a ring of bitterness in that statement and Georgie held her breath. It was the biggest criticism she had ever levelled on her brother, who, as far as she was concerned, was next to flawless.

"I'm sorry I didn't," was his reply, bowing his head and feeling utterly guilty.

"Did my brother just apologize?" Georgie's voice held a tinge of sarcastic shock. She knew he felt bad but the quickest way to relieve the tension was to tease him. She had learned that from Lizzy.

"Yes, I did. I hear it's a good idea to try it every once in a while." He quirked his lips in a slanted, hangdog smile.

"You're right, it is." She smiled back.

Darcy couldn't help but be serious again. "I haven't told you everything. Let me finish, alright?"

He told her the whole story, ending with, "Because I didn't tell Elizabeth about Wickham's past until the night we saw them at the casino, she was quite upset with me. I tried to explain my reasoning - I tried to tell her to put herself in my shoes. I wanted to protect you and keep a promise and she says she would have told me if the situation was reversed."

"And you don't believe her."

"Yes, I do now, but we're not the same people. We've had a hard time grasping the other's point of view."

"So you'd expect Lizzy to act the same way as you if situations were reversed?" Georgie had a pensive brow, confused by her brother's logic.

"Yes."

"And you would understand."

"Of course."

"Bullshit." Georgie stated to Darcy's utter shock.

"Excuse me?"

"I said bullshit. Say Lydia met George first and got an STD. Lizzy knows about it." Georgie paused for a moment, thinking through the situation. "Now let's say you have business dealings with George, and all Lizzy says is he isn't to be trusted. Okay... fine, so far. You take Lizzy's word but she doesn't go into detail. Then you happen to introduce me to him and you're called away for a phone call with Lizzy, and you tell her George and I are talking - maybe Mrs. R. is in the room. Lizzy doesn't say anything again except that you shouldn't trust him, and then never brings up the subject again. You then find out I had been seeing him behind your back after you had introduced him to me. Do I think you'd be angry at Lizzy for not saying more to you? I'd bet my trust fund on it, Mr. Protective Big Brother."

Georgie's scenario struck Darcy like a speeding car against a brick wall. He uncharacteristically flopped down on the chair behind him. His little sister had just set a scene that made perfect sense. She knew him well and was bang on with her assessment of whether he'd be angry or not. He'd never thought of it from that perspective.

He felt like a clueless, unfeeling ogre. He had stood firm against Lizzy's attempts to explain her point of view. He never truly endeavoured to reverse positions; he had just expected her to do it. He had felt like the injured party.

~ * ~

Now, sitting in front of Lizzy, repeating the contents of the conversation, Darcy couldn't help but bow his head in shame. "My sister has more common sense than I do. So after I praised and thanked her profusely for her logic, I knew I had to apologize to you, but I thought you were avoiding me. At that point, I couldn't blame you. After adding up all your reasoning for being upset, I thought you'd come to your senses and you were ready to leave me. I felt you deserved an apology worthy of the misdeeds, particularly because of our past discussions about my lack of apologies. Public humiliation was the best bet, so I went onstage ... and you know the rest."

"Fitzwilliam Darcy, you are being much too hard on yourself."

Darcy shook his head at Lizzy's attempt to soothe him. "No. My absolute certainty in my own view was unpardonable; I suppose it was based on a lifetime of always believing I was right; others never told me any different. They allowed me, even encouraged me to be selfish and conceited."

He stroked the tops of her hands while he spoke. "I was telling you how wrong and stubborn you were, telling you to think logically, telling you to get over it and come back to me. Why you didn't just walk away, I don't know. I hope my apology was a start. I don't know if I'll ever to able to completely make amends."

Such an admission, an outpouring of blame, was almost too much for Lizzy to handle. She was the one who was selfish and ashamed. She now clasped his hands and swallowed the lump in her throat. She was having a hard time accepting his profusions; she felt guilty listening to him when she was the one to blame. He was about to speak again when she softly placed her fingers to his lips and let out a small sigh. She felt the best option was to attempt to lighten his mood. "For someone who hardly ever apologizes, you certainly are thorough when the mood hits you. "

She stopped to smile at him and he returned the gesture half-heartedly. He was still beating himself up, that much was obvious, so she continued. "I must say my apology to you pales in comparison. In fact, I feel like doing it again with more adjectives and melodrama. I feel like a heel for not verbally abusing myself enough."

"Lizzy," Darcy admonished, "don't tease me. This isn't easy."

"Okay, I'll be serious for one minute." She paused for a contrived glance at her watch, but then her face grew sombre. "I have accepted your apologies even though I don't find them necessary anymore. We've both moved beyond that point. I think it's absolutely wonderful we've both seen the light, though I think I should have been faster in seeing your side. We've gone from a place where we had to forgive each other when the other wasn't sorry to both being sorry and neither wanting apologies. We continue to be stubborn. I can't help but see the silliness in our behaviour."

Darcy's face brightened into a genuine smile. Keeping hold of her hands and moving his chair closer, he said, "You definitely have a way with words, you know."

"That's why they pay me the big bucks," Lizzy laughed, feeling Darcy's tension wane. She leaned toward him and kissed him lovingly. Pulling back, her face grew pensive. Her hands rose and grasped his face gently. She admired it intently -- every line and crease, its tone and strength, its warmth and smoothness. Her examination was unabashed, free of the discomfort that had been haunting them for weeks.

Darcy enjoyed her silent perusal; it was a pleasure to see her unfettered by conflict, simply enjoying looking at him. After giving her a few moments, however, he questioned, "So, what now?"

Lizzy stood, guiding him to his feet as well. "Now, I have to go back on my word. I need to be serious again."

Getting a slight nod from Darcy, Lizzy breathed deeply. "During the whole of our argument, one thing remained constant; every time I thought of the future, were it an invitation to an event, a weekend where I'd have to work overtime, or some sort of odd change to my schedule - every time, I thought about you, and if it would be okay with you. I wondered if you'd be free for a party or if you'd be upset about me working long hours.

Even though I was angry and confused about us, the first thing that popped into my head about the future was you. You were always there, even if the present felt awful ... and, you know, I tried to dismiss it, I tried to plan things without assuming you'd be there, and it felt terrible. It didn't fit.

Fitzwilliam, I not only love you, I need you in my life. My feelings will never change; my need will never go away."

Darcy bowed his head until he was touching hers. "Thank you. I'm glad you told me. I had been living with the possibility of you never really feeling that way. To know you never stopped thinking of me - of us, throughout everything, it means the world to me. I feel very much the same. I love you. I never want to think about a life without you."

And with his last words, Darcy slowly lowered his lips to hers. Everything was resolved. Both knew the other's heart was theirs to hold forever, no second-guessing of what they were expressing to each other.

Slowly drifting apart, Lizzy kept her eyes closed, savouring the taste of him on her lips. Darcy was the first to speak.

"We should probably head back down."

Lizzy's eyes popped open questioningly. Her brow creased. "Do we have to? It's not exactly what I expected out of this moment. We are in my bedroom...." Saying these words, Lizzy's libido kicked in, and her seductive instincts revved up. Her hands drifted from his chest, down his torso and wound round his waist as she nuzzled into his body. "I think we'd accomplish way more up here."

As tempting as she was - and Lizzy was always tempting to Darcy - he grasped her hands before she tried any further persuasions. "People will wonder where we are. It's still relatively early and Georgie expects me to drive home with her. I can't just leave her alone to figure out her brother is upstairs getting it on with you."

"You're such a spoil sport." Lizzy pouted. Darcy was never so happy to see that fat lower lip; it hadn't been around for ages. He grinned broadly at her genuine playfulness.

"I am," he admitted. "but maybe you could come home with us later?"

Lizzy shrugged her shoulders and glanced up at the ceiling, feigning disinterest. "We'll see."

"You're such a bad actress." Darcy tugged her hand, leading her to the door.

"Once upon a time, I believe you thought I was far too convincing an actress."

Just before opening the door, he brought her to him once more for an intimate kiss. "I believe I did, but that was only when I first knew you. It has been quite some time since I've considered you one of the most genuine women of my acquaintance. Sometimes first impressions are horribly wrong."

Chapter XXIII - part 1

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Curious eyes noticed Lizzy and Darcy's glowing faces upon their return to the festivities, several people glanced subtly at the re-emergence of the earlier dramatic couple, but much of the crowd was in full party mode. Whatever observations made, were made discreetly.

The couple's eyes, however, never strayed from each other. For the next half hour, their world was a bubble; their bodies remained in contact and the rest of the party seemed as blurry as a car scene backdrop to a 1940s movie.

In their current state of euphoria, Lizzy managed to get Darcy on the floor for an actual Triple Swing, a vast leap from his "slow-songs-only" rule. They had no intention of leaving the other's side for the night, the next week, the rest of their lives. Side by side as often as possible, Darcy's preferred position would be Lizzy to the left of him... in his bed, naked, often. Could Lizzy read his mind, she wouldn't be opposed to such a suggestion.

With steely determination, Charlotte eventually caught Lizzy's notice, and even then Lizzy inwardly debated the pros and cons of briefly separating from Darcy to speak with her. From Charlotte's eager face, Lizzy could see her friend wasn't about to give up.

"Fitzwilliam?" Lizzy's eyes were full of guilt but the effect was wasted. Darcy's eyes remained closed as they danced, shutting out any unnecessary distractions. "You know earlier this evening when I had to talk to Charlotte?"

"Mm-mm."

"It really was important."

"That's good to know."

"I think she needs me again."

Those six words catapulted him back to reality. He glanced sternly at Charlotte and then back to Lizzy. "I didn't intend to share you for the rest of the night."

"I know, and I'm sure this won't take long. I don't want to leave your side either..." She looked up to him pitifully trying to show commiseration. To brighten his mood, she sweetly added, "... ever."

"Ever?"

"You betcha." She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a quick peck. Her perky expression made him shake his head. "You and me forever, Fitzwilliam, I'm sure of it."

Delighted by her words, he nodded and released her, a smug expression on his face. "When you put it that way, I suppose I can let you loose for a few minutes. I'll find something to occupy myself." He paused for a moment and his eyes brightened. "In fact, I believe Charles gave me a couple of errands tonight that I've neglected. Maybe I'll do them now. Take your time. It seems we have our whole life ahead of us."

They kissed a little longer than usual in the presence of others, but it couldn't be helped. Their insides were far too mushy to care about quashing public displays of affection. The fever would pass and their heady reunion sentiments would subside; they'd become rational human beings again and they'd get back to being their normal private selves when they calmed down ... in about a year or so.

Darcy went down the hall towards the back of the house, while Charlotte led Lizzy to Charles's office again. First, she insisted Lizzy give her the scoop on the whole "apology or karaoke" threat Darcy gave onstage, and then when Lizzy tired of being teased, Charlotte relented and told her Richard crisis resolution.

He still hadn't offered marriage. He explained he didn't really believe it necessary; his commitment didn't change because of a piece of paper. He didn't need it sanctioned by anyone other than themselves.

"Lizzy, you know me. I'm not the romantic type that can just give up my life here for the chance of happiness on the other side of the world. He said the only way he would consider marriage was if he was worth me taking that risk."

"Sounds like you had some tough negotiations."

"We did. I explained to him if I quit my job and went off with him and things didn't work out, I'd be stuck in New Zealand, probably jobless. He saw my point, so we eventually made a deal."

"Which is?"

"I'm going to ask for a leave of absence and we'll see where we are in year. Richard said if marriage is still what I need and want, he'll consider it more seriously then, but he's not ready to do it at this point."

"Do you think he'll change his mind in a year?"

"I don't know, but at least I know that if he doesn't, I'm not stuck, and if he does, going with him will have been worth it."

"A practical solution." Lizzy paused, considering her words. "As much as I like Richard, I hope you're not setting yourself up for disappointment. The longer you're with him, the more committed you'll feel. If things don't work out, it'll take longer to recover. But, if you don't take the chance, you may always regret it."

"I know the pitfalls. I think a year's reasonable," Charlotte answered with her usual steady voice.

This was a daring decision for Charlotte. Lizzy was happy to see her friend take a risk - her whole life had been carefully planned - but at the same time she worried about her getting hurt. Richard's position didn't seem all that flexible, but perhaps she was jumping to conclusions. Charlotte had made up her mind, and knowing her friend, she had measured the risks.

Lizzy wondered what she'd do in a similar situation. Jumping into marriage so quickly wasn't exactly reasonable, so she could see Richard's point of view. They'd only been together a few months. Hadn't she felt that way with Darcy? But if Darcy was relocating due to his job, what would she do? She didn't really need to wonder. She knew she'd go anywhere for him and would be willing to take the risk without flinching. However, she also knew Darcy would never force her to make the kind of decision Charlotte now faced.

With little to add, Lizzy subtly urged Charlotte to go back to Richard. What a night to deal with her friend's needs! Whereas earlier she was desperate to see Darcy for depressing reasons, now she was starving for the touch of his skin and his loving whispers. She had not wanted to be separated for this long.

Hurrying back to the ballroom, she meticulously scanned the crowd only to be disappointed. Darcy had not returned from whatever task he had set out on. She felt ridiculous for feeling lonely, but she hadn't yet settled down from the highs and lows of the night, and without Darcy near, her body tensed like a live wire.

Eventually, she glanced down the hall where she had last seen him. There he stood, near the French doors leading out to the patio where they had first kissed last summer. Catching her eye, Darcy nodded his head slightly, indicating to her to join him. She was there in a flash. She noticed their coats slung over the back of a nearby club chair. Confused, she looked up to see Darcy's hopeful eyes as he asked, "I thought we could...maybe, go for a walk."

Lizzy was so surprised by the request to go out in the cold she didn't notice how his speech faltered slightly. She paused to think about it. Sensing her hesitation, Darcy explained, "I just want to be alone with you, and it's not too chilly. I thought it might be nice."

Bemused, Lizzy shrugged her shoulders and smiled indulgently. They bundled up and Darcy guided her out to the patio, the location of their auspicious beginning as a couple.

He had been right. The night was crisp and still, rather than cold, and while the garden path and patio were swept free of snow, the garden itself was dressed with a light coat of white, and Christmas lights twinkled on the house and trees throughout the backyard.

Lizzy suddenly appreciated Darcy's spontaneity. It was refreshing to be outside with him in the brisk night and she couldn't help but make a beeline to a certain spot on the patio. "I believe you were standing right here when I saved you." She stood a little taller as she pointed to the spot before her, her face puckish from the memory.

Darcy joined her at his mark, taking her hands and grinning back. "I believe you're right. You did save me." Bending down, he kissed her lightly. "Thank you."

"You sure weren't thanking me that night. I believe you were angry at being put in such a situation."

"Foolish, wasn't I? Why didn't we just admit we were goners? Things would have been much simpler."

"I wouldn't want to have missed any of it."

"Come on-"

"No, seriously. I mean just what happened between us, of course. As awful as our bumpy spots have been, I think they taught us both a lot about ourselves. I don't think I'll ever be so stubborn again. I thought I knew myself better. I thought I was more open-minded, and now I know I truly had a lot to learn. Sometimes there are several reasonable ways to read a situation. Mine is not necessarily a better viewpoint, just different. That's valuable."

"Forever putting a positive spin on things, my dearest little diplomat - think of the past only as a learning experience." His lips formed a mischievous, slanted smile.

A dark curl dropped onto his forehead, distracting Lizzy slightly, somehow teasing her more than his words. "Something like that," she murmured as she rose on her toes to give Darcy a lingering kiss, entwining the curl in her fingers and gingerly putting it back in place.

Though he reciprocated the kiss, Darcy withdrew faster than she would have liked. Now that things were resolved, Lizzy was allowing her passion to flare; it warmed her insides on the wintry night.

Her longing, though, was temporarily stalled as Darcy took her hand and led her down the steps of the patio. For the time being, she would have to settle for an evening stroll. Darcy's mind was obviously chaster than hers. What a switch!

As they curved around a high cedar hedge at the entrance of the garden, Lizzy abruptly stopped, taking in a sharp, chilled breath of night air. The dusting of snow on the evergreens, the glitter of lights from the house and trees, the music softly echoing in the background all made for a highly romanticized moment, but beyond all that, the path itself was lined on either side with what appeared to be dozens, maybe even hundreds, of tiny, delicate tea lights. The candles would be hard pressed to stay lit on any other winter's night, but the stillness of the evening allowed them to burn without threat of blowing out.

Scanning the walkway, Lizzy shook her head in amazement. "How could Charles predict someone would-" Lizzy stopped and looked up at Darcy's face. "This wasn't done by Charles, was it? This was your errand."

With a hint of a smile, Darcy shrugged, hooked Lizzy's arm in his and continued walking.

"You are a mushy, romantic fool, you know?" Lizzy glanced up with a perfectly delighted glint in her eyes.

"Something wrong with that?"

"It wasn't a complaint. Very much the opposite! I'm beginning to think I'm spoiled rotten to have you in my life." Lizzy felt she just might burst with their renewed happiness.

"Only beginning to think it?" Darcy smirked and nudged her gently.

Lizzy's mirth overflowed in giggles, but before she could make any kind of retort, she was again left speechless by the latest sight before her eyes. Darcy had led her around another hedge to an open air gazebo along the path. Not only was the circumference edged with more tea lights, but hundreds of them were perfectly spread across the snow-dusted grounds surrounding the gazebo. The effect was fairy-tale like, and Lizzy's eyes unwittingly filled with tears with the knowledge Darcy had planned this all for her, the same night when she'd worried she had lost him forever.

Choking down a lump in her throat, she asked in a whisper, "How did you manage all of this? It's beautiful - more than that, really. Magical."

"I admit, I had a great deal of help from Charles's staff and a fortuitous surplus of tea lights sitting in the kitchen pantry."

Lizzy walked around the gazebo in awe, hardly hearing how he explained the wonder before her eyes. She couldn't resist twirling around like a child, her long swing coat flaring out around her. With mystified eyes, she asked, "But why? Why go through all this effort?"

Again, Darcy simply shrugged, a slight smile on his face and was about to speak when something caught his attention to the left. "Oh." His voice seemed disappointed.

"It's not quite perfect, though. It looks like we missed lighting a tea light or two over there." He nodded in the direction of the unlit candles and watched as Lizzy quickly took action, venturing over to remedy the problem.

"Oh, we can fix that." She bent down and reached out to light one candle with another, but her arm froze in place after getting a good look at why there wasn't much light ... but somehow, plenty of sparkle. She turned to Darcy, her lips parted in astonishment, her eyes questioning.

Darcy took over, reaching for the item in the tiny candle holder and grasping it in his hand. He then helped Lizzy to her feet.

"I've been saving my third wish for my genie for quite awhile. I'd like to use it now."

Lizzy's eyes widened further. They had only just resolved their differences... he wasn't really going to ... but he had a ring in his hand and this whole candlelit walk ... it was just so unexpected ... and surreal. She felt like she was watching the scene unfold rather than being an actual part of it.

Darcy took off her gloves and started talking. In her shock, she almost didn't notice, feeling two steps behind and trying to catch up. "I know what you're thinking. It's too soon. You're wondering if I've learned anything. Believe me, I have. But tonight, you said something that crushed any hesitation: when you thought of your future, I was always there. It wouldn't feel right otherwise. I feel the same. I can't imagine a future without you. I so love and admire you, Elizabeth." He paused as he gently fell to one knee. His adoring eyes never strayed from hers, and his face was as earnest and hopeful as she'd ever seen. "May I have the honour of being your husband?"

He was right, of course; her thoughts were exactly what he mentioned. His proposal was too soon and she did wonder if he'd learned anything through the course of their relationship about taking things slow or even at a regular pace, but above all these mental deliberations, her heart, her soul ... her gut pleaded with her to say yes. Only her mind was wavering. Shocked and pensive, she took a little too much time for Darcy's liking.

"Lizzy, if the thought of this being too fast is stopping you, please know our engagement can be as long as you chose. We'll be a step closer to marriage, but the final step will be your decision." He paused, and still Lizzy had a slight look of confusion on her face. For the first time, he doubted the decision to ask her so soon. "Am I being too presumptuous? I thought we-"

"Yes. Yes! YES!" Lizzy cut him off, wrapped her arms soundly around his neck and kissed him hard on the lips. Pulling back, she held his face in her hands. She looked down at the man on bended knee with bright, shining eyes. "Would you give a girl a chance to get a word in edgewise? Sheesh! You're such a chatterbox tonight!" She winked before continuing. "It is too soon, you are too pushy and you bet we'll wait until we take that last step, but Fitzwilliam Darcy, I don't care! You're absolutely right. I cannot think of my life without you in it. I wouldn't be happy otherwise, and there's no honour in the world I'd rather have than to be your wife!"

Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she urged Darcy to stand, and then barreled into him with an even fiercer hug. Snuggling into his chest, she gripped him tightly proclaiming, "I love you, oh, how I love you, Fitzwilliam."

The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before; and Darcy murmured reciprocal words as he brushed his face against her sweet-smelling curls.

When they finally parted, Lizzy wiped her now-flowing tears with the back of her hands and Darcy handed her a handkerchief for her sniffles. Blowing her nose, her puffy eyes showed how mortified she was. "Do I know how to take the glamour out of the moment, or what? I'm such a wuss."

Darcy grinned; a man so violently in love could see no fault in her reaction. "You're emotional. I wouldn't have it any other way."

"You can't say anything wrong tonight," Lizzy sniffed again but was determined to pull herself together. Stuffing the borrowed handkerchief in her pocket, she exhaled deeply and lifted her chin high. "There now, I'm better."

She followed up her resolve with a dazzling grin and a determined flourish of her arm, sticking out her left hand, her fingers tickling the air, overtly hinting something was missing.

Darcy willingly obliged her hungry ring finger, the delighted smile not having left his face since she'd uttered the first 'yes'. Every word she spoke thrilled him, every action delighted him. She was perfect. Before he had a chance to express himself, a girlishly excited Lizzy piped up, "Besides, I had to say yes. You went and used up your last wish ... a wish a genie like me couldn't refuse."

Sweeping her to him, Darcy quieted her silly mood with a decidedly sobering kiss. It was reminiscent of two nights prior when he had been so potent she'd felt branded. Yet this time, she wasn't overwhelmed, in fact her response fed upon the powerful kiss from this powerful man, giving her strength to counter with her own passion. He pulled her in and she pulled him back. There was no one-upmanship; they willingly fell under the other's spell.

By the time they finished, Lizzy's giggles had been smothered, replaced by a sensation far less trivial and far stronger, one that had been put on ice for several weeks, and had been bursting her seams since they'd been in the upstairs bedroom. She gazed at Darcy through heavy eyelids. Every astounding act and gesture he'd displayed throughout the course of the evening had converged inside her to re-ignite a smouldering urge that no longer needed to be repressed.

"Fitzzzzzwilliam? I think it's time to tell your sister you won't be joining her on the journey home this evening." There was no denying the commanding tone of Lizzy's voice. There would be no more dilly-dallying.

Darcy nodded, amused and aroused by her determination. She had used that tone of voice on occasion, but never for such a titillating reason. He would never suspend her pleasure, particularly when she said his name that way. Besides, he had desperately wanted to stay upstairs with her earlier, but instead, had decided to propose. Excruciating as it had been to deny that earlier request, he had been certain it would be worth it. He was right.

Leading him up the path toward the house, a question shifted her resolution to immediately drag him upstairs. She stopped abruptly, her brow creased, glancing down at the ring on her finger. "How did you know you'd need this ring tonight? You couldn't have guessed what would happen in a million years!"

Darcy looked down to his shoes with a quirky smile and then faced his beloved Lizzy. If this was the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life, he might as well tell her the truth. "That was my mother's ring. It's been in my pocket whenever we've been together since the night you and Georgie attended Caroline's shop opening. I didn't intend to use it right away; it was just there if the right moment came along. Then, when we fought, I kept it to assure myself I would use it someday. I didn't want our disagreement to take away my hope for the future. Carrying it around seems to have paid off, hasn't it?" He grinned broadly, bringing her bejewelled hand to his lips.

"I was right! You are a mushy, romantic fool."

"More like superstitious," he said, adjusting his cuffs unconsciously. Lizzy, attuned to his every move, spotted the motion. It reminded her of Charles's comment earlier in the evening.

"So are you finally going to explain the real power of those cufflinks? I remember you being entirely too flustered about leaving them downstairs at Pemberley the night of the poker match."

Darcy was caught slightly off guard by Lizzy's sharp eyes. Though the timing was horrific, he thought it best to tell the whole truth even though it could put a dent in the shining armour in which she had dressed him that night. This was a special moment in their lives and he didn't want to tarnish the memory. However, he knew deflecting questions from her in the past had only amounted to trouble. As they reached the patio, he admitted it all; from his father's explanation - sober and under the influence - to his own success while wearing them, but still, he emphasized it was Charles who had coined the phrase "Get Lucky" cufflinks. Obviously, the name fit.

He braced himself for one of her biting comments. She had been expressionless throughout his whole story. She would now sit on her feminist high horse and tell him how juvenile he and Charles were. She really didn't have to say a word - hearing himself explain it aloud made him sound like a hormonal, pubescent boy.

Lizzy turned and reached for the French doors, never showing her face or speaking a word after he'd told his tale. His worry increased and he braced himself. Opening one door, she glanced over her shoulder, her eyebrows raised in what looked like a sure castigation. Darcy prepared to face the firing squad that was Lizzy's mouth. She cleared her throat imperiously and Darcy took a deep breath.

"I assure you, tonight those cufflinks will live up to their 'Get Lucky' moniker."

She sashayed back into the party as Darcy was left to smile in relief and delight that this woman, this Lizzy, would be his bride.

Chapter XXIII, Part 2

After hanging up their coats, Lizzy and Darcy separated to give their goodbyes to their respective sisters. Lizzy was aware Darcy would despise any conversation with Georgie in which his sister could deduce anything sexual, so she left him to handle it alone; besides, if they divided tasks, it would get them in her bedroom faster.

She quickly spotted Jane and gave her a brief summary of events. Jane knew things had been tense between the couple for the past few weeks, but Lizzy's details had been sketchy. Darcy apologizing on-stage certainly tipped off the whole party that all had not been paradise between the two. News of their reunion delighted Jane, but Lizzy saved the big news for another day. This was Jane's night -- learning of another engagement could wait 'til the morrow. Lizzy made her way to the Darcys, who were still chatting.

"I'm so happy you two have truly patched things up. William was just filling me in." Georgie grasped Lizzy's hands affectionately.

Lizzy held her breath at first, worried Georgie would feel the ring that hadn't been there earlier, then calmed down enough to realize it was too little a detail for anyone to catch, particularly because the diamond was turned into her palm. "I heard you championed me a bit."

"Heck yes! If you'd only told me what was going on from the beginning..." Georgie didn't need to finish her sentence for them to understand.

"It's resolved now, though. That's all that matters." Lizzy tactfully avoided any rehashing of the episode and sighed inwardly. As right as she had felt about her view of things, her opinion had changed; to let Georgie chastise Darcy would serve no purpose.

Emotional growth notwithstanding, Lizzy had corporal needs that weren't being fulfilled while chit-chatting with 'the sister'. She had ants in her pants and they wanted her to go marching upstairs, two by two if necessary, and to stop only to shut the door after Darcy was safely inside. So as to ensure no delay, she turned to her fiancé. "Ready, Fitzwilliam?"

Darcy's widened eyes gave her an indication things had not progressed to where she wanted them. His stuttering answer confirmed it. "Well, I ... can you wait a-"

"You didn't tell her you were leaving yet?"

"I was getting to it."

Darcy looked suspiciously defensive. Georgie didn't think she'd ever seen him that flustered.

"Getting to it?" Lizzy's hands now sat squarely at her hips. Yes, she was blissfully happy about being engaged and having a mutual understanding of the minds, blah, blah, blah, but more importantly, she was horny. "I gave you plenty of time."

"Lizzy." Darcy's scowled dramatically and his voice was a deep hush.

Georgie burst into giggles. "You two are acting like an old married couple. Are you telling me you want to go home since you've kissed and made up?"

Lizzy turned to Georgie with a delighted grin at her use of words. "Not exactly. Since my things are all here, I convinced Darcy to stay tonight. It's easier for me. So, we're turning in now. I'm sure Quinn will see you home safely."

"Whatever happened to your subtle diplomatic language, darling?" Darcy asked, hamming up the debate for his sister's benefit, and also to distract her from what Lizzy was getting at. He needn't have bothered as Georgie was distracted by someone beyond Darcy's shoulder

"We're amongst family." Lizzy winked at Darcy out of Georgie's view, but so as to not raise suspicion, she quickly added, "But since I've done your dirty work, I think it's safe to say goodnight now?"

Hearing the word 'goodnight', Georgie realized she hadn't been paying attention. She tried to recover and absently answered, "Mmm? Oh, you're leaving? That's fine, uh, have a good night."

Listening to her rushed parting words, Lizzy followed Georgie's line of vision to the object of her distraction. Her mouth curled into a knowing grin, and before Darcy caught on to Georgie's young, handsome preoccupation, Lizzy grasped his hand and tugged him away, hoping he'd assume her quick getaway was for their sake and not Georgie's - not that his train of thought would be on the wrong track.

At the stairs, one more obstacle lay in their wake. Caroline sauntered unstably into the main hallway, an empty martini glass balanced precariously between her thumb and middle finger. Seeing the couple soured her countenance and her fingers gripped the glass much tighter than necessary, testing its strength. Her spitefulness could no longer be suppressed.

"Darcy... I must say that was quite the performance you gave for your little Elizabeth. Perhaps you two deserve each other after all. An apology in front of the entire room? Where is your pride?"

Lizzy was about to speak up but wisely bit her tongue. It would be fruitless for her to lash out in Darcy's defense against a woman who had no respect for her.

For years, Caroline had masked any smidgeon of ill-will she had felt for Darcy, always deferring to his tastes, always forgiving him any slight, always eager to be his sycophant despite it being the last thing he'd ever want. To actually have her question and even insult him, was a refreshing change for Darcy. That didn't mean he would allow it to go unchallenged.

"The type of pride I gave up by being onstage was worth losing; far easier to give up than Elizabeth would be. She deserved that apology. Perhaps someday you'll understand."

"Hmmph," Caroline replied skeptically, sipping the non-existent remnants of her martini, trying desperately to look unimpressed. "The Darcy I knew would never have done such a thing."

"You're right, but then, the Darcy you knew was never in love. Excuse us, we're calling it an evening."

The full impact of the honest put-down jabbed Caroline square in the stomach as she watched the couple turn and walk upstairs. Lizzy briefly whispered in Darcy's ear when they reached the landing, whereupon Darcy chuckled and replied, then kissed her softly on the cheek. They faded into the darkness of the upstairs hallway and Caroline could only feel the truth - Darcy may have answered her snarky questions, but she was easily forgotten by both when they turned away.

~ * ~

"I hope you noticed. It took a lot to keep my mouth shut back there." Lizzy squeezed Darcy's hand on the landing as they were walking away from the woman who had tried her best to spoil a perfect evening. While she was lightly joking, Darcy still respected the truth behind it.

"Of course I noticed. You are a fortress of restraint." He winked, waggled his eyebrows and kissed her cheek. "A fabulously curvaceous fortress, I might add."

Even though it was a silly little come-on, Lizzy's blood tingled; she was hell-bent on doing things her way tonight. She turned to him with a haughty moue as she opened the door. "We've returned to the scene of the crime."

Darcy's brow crinkled at the quip. "What do you mean crime? We worked things out in this room, quite amicably." He smiled and pulled Lizzy close as he shut the door behind.

Before he got a secure grip, Lizzy pulled away and swept her arms dramatically until they crossed against her chest. "This is where I was most brutally pulled away from a loving moment, back to a party where I had no desire to return." A little huff came out of her mouth before she added, "All I wanted was to take you to bed."

"While I appreciate the thought, was it really such a crime?" Darcy played along, confident he had the upper hand. "Had I not taken you downstairs again, you wouldn't be engaged."

Lizzy puckered her lips in thought for a moment and shook her head. "Hmmph. The end doesn't justify the means."

She sauntered away from him, with an exaggerated sway to her hips, and grabbed the chair Darcy had used earlier. Placing its back against the foot of the bed, she then brought him to stand in front of it and removed his black tie, explaining, "So, I'm going to dole out a suitable punishment for the crime ..." She threw the tie on their bed and his jacket quickly followed. "...as I see fit."

With a concentrated silence, she started at the buttons of his shirt. The only sounds were the swish of fabric and the thumping beat of the band's dance music downstairs; her brisk pace seemed in time with the music. Darcy tried to match her movements, but she brushed his hands aside. Soon, she had stripped an amused Darcy down to his boxer briefs and sat him in the chair.

"Efficient tonight, aren't you, Miss Bennet?"

Lizzy re-crossed her arms and defiantly lifted her chin. "Crime doesn't pay. Your sentence will be swift and unforgiving."

"I'm ready to face the consequences." Darcy's comment wasn't so much brave as blasé.

There was no way Lizzy would allow him to be blasé. She straddled Darcy's lap, giving him a deliberate, lingering kiss, subtly shifting her hips, balancing the pressure of her thighs against him. Her body's touch was feather-light, teasing in its synchronous proximity and distance.

The teasing was short-lived; Darcy wasn't as indifferent as he let on and didn't wait for Lizzy to make the next move. Clutching the soft curves of her bottom, he drew her to his body and ground her against him to prove a slow seduction was unnecessary.

Through gropes and kisses, Lizzy couldn't help her giggles. Touching her nose to his, she rolled her eyes. "Patience will never be your strong suit."

"Mm-mm," Darcy mumbled before dipping into the hollow of her neck.

However, Lizzy was not to be derailed. To his disappointment and surprise, she stood up, and began to unbutton her dress, stopping just below her chest, leaving a lovely, but ultimately unsatisfying, view for her audience. Lifting a leg beside him, she balanced her d'Orsay pump on the footboard of the bed. Gravity slipped her dress up her thigh revealing the top of a stocking, held in place by a garter, screaming to be unsnapped.

Darcy slowly and reverently pressed his cheek and hand to either side of her calf and caressed her leg upwards. His teeth nipped at the garter but didn't stop long as he was interested in nuzzling in a more desirable locale.

A little taken aback, a determined Lizzy backed away again. She didn't want him to seduce her. She wanted to thrill him, with proper foreplay to boot. She placed a high heel on one of his knees before he lunged at her. "Stay."

That brief command was followed by another. "Lift."

Removing her leg, she reached for the elastic band of his boxers and he obeyed, but not without clutching the sides of her chest and plunging his tongue into her exposed cleavage.

Though his action sliced razor sharp pangs of excitement down her body, Lizzy broke free and casually tossed aside his boxers. She then lowered her mouth to his erection, licking him teasingly, glancing up momentarily to catch the mix of bliss and strain on his face. She then rose, swaying her hips to the music, and deftly unbuttoned the rest of her dress, letting it fall to the floor. Darcy had a front row view exhibiting one of man's greatest sexual fantasies. Her corset, stockings and barely-there panties sculpted Lizzy's body into a provocative work of art, and Darcy eyed the details like a true connoisseur with the masterpiece of his dreams.

But this was performance art at its finest, so the barely-there panties were soon no longer there, and reality outstripped the fantasy a hundredfold. Lizzy slowly brought her hands to her breasts, cupping and stroking them sensuously through the lace of her bra, her nipples tightening through her own touch and Darcy's penetrating stare. She was taut and needy, watching him watch her. She could tell by the stare he was ravenous, a caged animal who could see and smell his prey. His cage, however, was her simple request that he stay still, a request he had respected despite her tantalizing actions. She loved and wanted him for it all the more. Her own eyes blazed right back as she continued her enticement, one hand daring to slip down her body to rest between her legs.

Darcy's body visibly twitched as his eyes followed her hand. He licked his lips and drew a sharp breath; his hands gripped the chair as he tried to comply with Lizzy's wish for him to stay in place. It was getting rather difficult, excruciatingly so. Here was his Lizzy at her boldest, her raw sexuality driving him wild, a Lizzy who would not have dared act this way two months prior, but now... now with him, she was open, trusting ... and naughty. Watching her this way was too much, but before he could react, she was above him, her legs spread at his lap, her cleavage in his face and her hands braced on his shoulders. She swiftly sank down onto him.

While Darcy was physically prepared for her sudden deluge - he had been at attention for several minutes - based on her lead-up, his mind had expected a slower approach. The effect could have been a catastrophe. He had barely touched her; foreplay hadn't really been initiated except by Lizzy to provoke him. To be inside her so suddenly, after watching her strip and touch herself, was a shock to his system. And lord, she was so slick, so ready with no real assistance from him! That alone had him crazed. He composed himself with an incredible amount of self-discipline but the battle was almost futile as she was already writhing atop him, her moans echoing in his ear, her body pulsing against his. For her and only her, he conquered his body's desire before taking an equal part in their encounter.

While Lizzy's intention was to fulfill his every sexual whim, somewhere along the way she had become oblivious to all but her desires. Feeling his sweat and bare skin against hers again, and having him inside her so completely, she wasn't quite attuned to the subtleties of Darcy's mental state. While what was happening physically was cast permanently into her memory, deeper thoughts were scarce and her surroundings and the party below were forgotten. Her own physical reactions monopolized her body and mind.

Rocking against him, she'd even forgotten he could now explore her body. She was reminded most pleasantly when she felt his hands slide off her shoulders and over her chest, lowering the cups of her corset bra. She arched her back in response. Instinctively, his hand was at her back for support, and without hesitation, he engulfed an aroused nipple into his mouth, sucking deeply. It was exactly what she had craved and she let out a groan of approval as she stretched backwards, relishing every single millimetre of their connection.

Completely carried away with her own satisfaction, her feet made their way to the footboard for support, her arms wrapped around his shoulders and her hands clutched his back urgently, holding her in place as her hips gyrated. The thin soles of her heels were precariously pressed against wooden slats, and had she been in a less aroused state, she would have worried about damage to either her shoes or the bed. However, her mind and reflexes were smothered in the steam of sex, and responsible body positions were not a priority.

Lizzy had planned to prolong their lovemaking to give Darcy ultimate satisfaction. She had wanted their experience to steadily mount until they peaked in the blissful simultaneousness of a newly engaged couple. However, while she rode him hard and fast, while she felt his lips everywhere and while she watched beads of perspiration form on his forehead, her excitement spiked much quicker than expected. Still, she could have held out a little longer had Darcy not leaned into her ear and whispered something surprisingly... shockingly... dirty.

Mercy, that sent her spiralling out of control. Such a comment may have been unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. Sexy sentiments swirled in her ear, and she seemed to lose all aural capabilities but for his dark, rough words. Eyes closed, she slammed against him with increased vigour, and the pulsing rush of her blood joined the inner riot, drowning out everything else. All was overtaken by the white heat of her orgasm, echoing through her body and superseding all other sounds like the crescendo of some bombastic symphony. Had anyone asked, she could almost swear she heard the cracking of thunder to match the lightning bolt inside her.

In the midst of one of the best damn orgasms of her life, she was suddenly on her back on the floor with Darcy on top, thrusting hard. At least he had the decency to cushion her landing with his arm. She was still reeling; aftershocks humming through her body, but she wasn't one to let him just 'finish up'. Feeling him catch up took over and Lizzy's hips rose as he bore down; she clenched tighter as she felt him draw closer. It wasn't long before she heard, and felt, and watched, a final, groan - no, closer to a growl.

Soon, they were breathing at a measured pace, trying to regain the ability to speak coherently. Darcy lay on top of Lizzy lightly, having learned from their first time together, and his breath was tickling her ear. She laughed lightly, moved away and opened her eyes. Her eyes popped when she saw what was left in their wake.

"We broke the chair!" Lizzy's face was as shocked as her exclamation. "So that was the noise!"

Darcy, on the other hand, chuckled. "You're just realizing this are you?"

Lizzy covered her face with her hands and cringed. Peeking between her fingers, she admitted quietly, "You're not going to believe this, but I thought the sound of the chair cracking was actually a part of my orgasm. I had no clue we broke it."

While Lizzy slid her hands down her face and rolled her eyes at her own dramatic imagery, Darcy let out a rare, deep belly-laugh "I didn't know orgasms made their own sounds. I'll listen for it next time...but my darling Lizzy, I must correct one thing. We didn't break the chair, you did. I was just along for the ride," he paused and smirked, "and I got us both off just in time."

Lizzy waggled her eyebrows. "You certainly did."

Her mood turned on a dime, however. She grew serious, averted her eyes and proceeded a wee bit hesitantly. "I... I guess I was a bit frantic."

"Frantic?" Darcy wasn't going to let another bout of bashfulness stop him from teasing her. "You were more like a rogue wave overtaking forty feet of solid rock!"

"Forty feet of solid rock? My, don't we think a lot of our equipment."

"No, no, my dear, you are not going to shift the spotlight onto my ... ego. You broke the chair, you're going to have to admit, you're a wild, wanton woman."

Lizzy's face pursed defensively. "It's you who made me that way. It's not every day a girl gets that whispered in her ear!"

Darcy would not budge. "You were well on your way to wantonness before those words ever passed my lips."

"You're... absolutely right. But it helped!" Lizzy smiled sheepishly. "I have a confession to make." She glanced down, and looked as shy as possible for a woman post-coitus. "I came upstairs with a slow seduction in mind. Your bedroom methods always make me melt, but the truth is, you smile in my direction across a crowded room and my panties drop of their own volition. You don't need to wow me every time we close the bedroom door. I thought I'd take a turn at wearing you down for a change. The speed at which we resolved things shows how much control I have when it comes to you. I wanted to be slower, I wanted it to last longer, but I just couldn't. You see what you do to me?"

Such an admission brought a broad, hot-shot grin to the man looking down at her. He soaked up her words like a sponge and his body shook with a quiet laugh. "If I'd only known, I would have let you do all the work a long time ago."

"Don't even joke about that! It's too late, anyway. You've spoiled me with your expertise." Lizzy glanced down, "... and your forty feet of solid rock."

Darcy countered with a kiss that kept getting interrupted by giggles and smiles. When he spoke again, he lifted his torso and gave Lizzy's body the once-over. "I must say, I quite enjoyed your version of seduction. You certainly planned well."

Lizzy feigned ignorance, batting her eyelashes. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Do you usually wear such unmentionables to family functions? If so, I want to go to more of them. Panties over your garters, no less. Such easy access." He paused to lightly brush away a wisp of hair that had fallen over her cheek. "Or perhaps you were more confident about me than you admitted?"

"Not confident, just determined ... and prepared. Don't I always come prepared?"

Darcy nodded in approval. "You do, indeed. Have I mentioned I'm a lucky man?"

"Well, relatively lucky man, I really didn't want to be the one to... achieve satisfaction first. I wanted to draw things out a bit, make it a bit more memorable for our first time as an engaged couple." Lizzy's face showed chagrin at what she saw as a slight failure.

Darcy momentarily thought about stretching out her guilt, but decided it would be ungentlemanly -- given the circumstances. However, he did begin his reply with a deliberately somber voice. "Here's an opportunity to show where we see things differently, yet I'm sure we'll move on faster with this disagreement than with the last.

You think you've failed me in some way by not prolonging things. Now here's my version. We haven't had sex for weeks. You take me to your room, you strip and tease just long enough - two seconds more, Lizzy, and you would have been on your back on the floor from the start. You're my little fetish come to life in your stockings and heels. But before I can get to you, you're on me so hard you break the chair! If we were fast, it was only because we were both ready and you were damn sexy and ... a little bit kinky." He smiled at the memory. "I'm a man! Does that sound like disappointing sex for a man?"

Squeezing her eyes and lips, Lizzy had withheld her laughter until Darcy had finished. "I'm an idiot," she managed to choke out between giggles.

"No, you're a mushy, romantic fool, somewhat like that guy who proposed to you. We have plenty of time tonight to take things a little slower. I'm just happy we had great make-up sex." Darcy smirked and nodded his head, as if agreeing with himself.

"Yes, yes, we did." She smiled but then shifted a little. Having been on the floor for this entire conversation, Lizzy was ready to be vertical again, but ever the polite house guest, she wanted to avoid creating any other damage. "Hmm... we should roll over onto the hardwood rather than just getting up off this rug."

"Why?"

Lizzy couldn't believe Darcy was that dense. She hadn't thought she needed to spell it out for him. "I just don't want to leave any of ... us ... on the carpet."

Darcy obliged, rolling them so that his back was on the cold hardwood floor. Her mind still back on the rug, Lizzy promptly forgot how uncomfortable the floor was and kept talking. "I mean, it would be embarrassing if they found something like that."

Now Darcy was confounded by her. "Lizzy, you just broke Charles's chair. Don't you think they'll figure out what's been going on?"

Lizzy opened her mouth to speak, shut it, then opened it again before anything came out. "They wouldn't... I mean ... it's not obvious how the chair cracked," she sputtered indignantly. "There are any number of ways it could have ended up like that."

She rose to her feet and thought for a moment, adjusting the bra of her corset to cover her exposed breasts, rather pointless considering she'd no panties on. Darcy remained on the floor, amused by his fiancée's attitude and taking considerable pleasure in the unique view.

"We could ... we could ... tell them you sat on it too hard." Her eyes were expectant of his agreement.

"I am not taking responsibility for your aggressive nature," Darcy insisted, folding his arms behind his head and watching her eager look deflate. Her practical but demure attitude amused him and the view was still appealing, so extending the conversation was to his advantage.

"Fine. We could say I sat on the chair too hard," Lizzy huffed, walking over to the en suite bathroom to freshen up.

While Darcy enjoyed watching her derriere wiggle as she walked away, her departure finally got him to his feet. She needed to be told the hard reality even if it upset her sensibilities. "Lizzy, I'm staying the night with you. Charles is aware we've had some problems. He saw my apology tonight, and he's already remarked on the cufflinks. Tomorrow, when I leave, I'll be wearing the same clothes I arrived in. He also knows our relationship is rather combustible at times. He'll know what went on."

After a minute of silence but for running water, Lizzy returned and put her hands to her hips completely forgetting her get-up. While the woman before him stood in a corset, stockings, high heels, diamonds and no panties, her face was all business. She closed her eyes, brooding about her ideas being shot down, and when they re-opened, her expression had switched from business woman to a teenage girl caught red-handed. "You're right. He's going to know and so is Jane. This is so embarrassing, and I'll have to buy him a new chair!"

"I'm just glad we're here and not at my place after all." Darcy licked his lips, ready for more reconciliation.

Lizzy was oblivious to his train of thought. She was all about the chair. "What do you mean? If we'd been at Pemberley, no one would be the wiser."

"But then it would have been one of my chairs." He grinned and began to swagger towards her, a torrid look in his eyes, watching his barely dressed fiancée in thoughtful contemplation.

"Oh, you." She bit her lower lip and hardly glanced at him, a million miles away pondering how she was going to apologize to Charles.

It was all too much for Darcy to take seriously. With a slightly wicked chuckle, he suddenly swooped in, picked her up and tumbled onto the bed with her underneath. Distracted and a little obtuse, Lizzy felt completely blind-sided. "Wh-what are you doing?"

"If the chair is already broken, the jig is up. I just thought we'd try and do the same thing to the bed."

Given the options, Lizzy took little time to come round to his way of thinking. They gave their best efforts to replicate the splintering occurrence throughout the night and early morning, much to their mutual satisfaction.

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