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Action and Reaction

Chapter XXIV

Despite the diligence of the two occupants, Charles Bingley's guestroom bed suffered no lasting damage. It certainly received a hearty work-out, but proved to be of sturdier construction than the Chippendale desk chair.

Darcy was somewhat disappointed with this result, Lizzy somewhat relieved. She braced herself, expecting sly remarks from Charles or Jane during the following days. Surprisingly, nary a word was uttered about broken antique chairs but for Lizzy's own note of apology to Charles, assuring him a replacement would be ordered. Charles told them both replacement wasn't necessary but Darcy insisted they would take care of it.

By Christmas Day, Lizzy was confident any reference to the event would be passé. Decadent presents were newer, brighter topics of conversation as were New Year's Eve plans. The chair proved a distant memory to a thankful Lizzy.

Boxing Day brought a fresh, new worry. The Bennets - all of them - were landing at Pemberley for the first time. Darcy had arranged for a family dinner to thank Mrs. Bennet for her hospitality over Christmas Eve and Day. She really had outdone herself and Darcy liked to give credit when due. Fanny Bennet nearly burst at the seams when she rushed through the over-sized oak doors of Pemberley. Admirably, she kept from pumping her fists and running a victory lap when she gazed upon what was soon to be the home of her own flesh and blood.

Lizzy watched her mother's beady eyes dart about as she appraised the entry hall and peeked glimpses of other rooms through open doorways. While mortified, she correctly deduced no one else was scrutinizing Mrs. Bennet so carefully. She knew full well her mother would be expecting a tour of every intimate nook and private cranny.

True to Lizzy's suspicions, before Darcy had even managed to offer everyone refreshments in the Drawing Room, Mrs. Bennet tried her best at subtlety, "From the little I've seen so far, your home is lovely, Darcy." She looked at him in expectation but then thought better of it. She wasn't yet at ease with her future son-in-law - she suspected she never would be - so she turned to his much younger sister, figuring she was more amenable. "Georgie, you must miss being away from such a grand family home." She then scanned the room and even craned her neck a little to glance through a doorway out of the room.

Having spent the past two days in Mrs. Bennet's company and having had a conversation or two with Lizzy about her dear mother, Fanny's hints were crystal clear to Georgie, who was also certain Darcy would never lead a tour of his home, particularly not for the lady in question. However, to the delight of Mrs. Bennet, Georgie enjoyed showing people her home and suggested she lead her around a few rooms.

Funnily enough, they remained close even upon their return. An odd couple to be sure, but Georgie seemed to genuinely enjoy Mrs. Bennet's antics - then again, Georgie wasn't aware she was meeting Lizzy's mother at possibly the happiest and most relaxed moment of her life. Her two eldest daughters had hit the marriage jackpot, which would likely lead to a better class of men for her remaining daughters. No need for her and her husband to tighten their purse strings for their senior years, they could now plan a bustling retirement life full of travel, good food and entertainment.

She had not yet begun to worry about possible delays in weddings or troubles in paradise, as the engagements were fresh and the couples too much in love. She, quite literally, luxuriated in the moment, her mood, jovial and engaging. This wasn't a Boxing Day dinner at the Long's or Lucas's; she was with Georgiana Darcy, and as such, she tried to maintain a sense of dignity in her conversation.

What Georgie encountered was a lively, cheerful woman who enjoyed laughing and loved to chat. In fact, she could see much of where Lizzy got her happy nature. Mrs. Bennet wasn't the least bit intimidating and managed to have a motherly quality that was quite endearing. Georgie's heart was soft enough to want to steal a little bit of that away for the evening, particularly because of the memories the holiday season stirred.

Across the room, Lizzy was amused by the pairing. Her mother's aura of inspection had disappeared - she wasn't scoping out the carved details of the fireplace or the signature on a prominently displayed painting - she was animated as she talked to Georgie, but still polite. Lizzy was pleasantly surprised and perhaps a tad proud of her mother's newfound level of propriety. She turned away to give her full attention to her dashing fiancé.

"LIZZY!" Fanny Bennet's perplexed voice stopped all conversation in the room. "Since when have you developed such a fondness for antique chairs?"

Her daughter nearly choked while sipping on her wine. "Wha-what?"

Eyes as fearful as a deer's in headlights, Lizzy wasn't even sure what her mother had asked except for something about 'fondness' and 'antique chairs'. How could her mother have found out? Her eyes then flickered toward Georgie in understanding, then up to Darcy with an I TOLD YOU SO glare.

"Antique chairs?" Mrs. Bennet continued. "A Chippendale. Georgie told me Darcy gave you another Christmas gift after leaving our place last night. She said you told her you have some sort of fascination with them. I had no idea. Is this something new?"

Mrs. Bennet seemed affronted her daughter had kept this new love affair with chairs a secret from her but not from Georgie. In the meantime, Lizzy recognized a snort from behind her - a Charles Bingley snort - and she swore she heard a 'shush' from Jane. She was ready to sink into the floor, but she knew her mother wouldn't let a subject like this rest. Fanny needed some kind of answer, so with as much dignity as she could muster, Lizzy repeated the story she had given to Georgie the night prior.

"I-I became interested in antique chairs when I started spending more time at Pemberley. Some people admire vases, I noticed the chairs. Darcy was so kind," she gave him a hatchet slice of a glance, "as to notice my interest."

Mrs. Bennet turned to Darcy and continued her interrogation. "Why didn't you give it to her with all the other gifts?"

Darcy didn't miss a beat. "The chair was too large for me to bring to your home without tipping off Elizabeth. I only took possession of it on Christmas Eve. It just wasn't practical."

Mrs. Bennet looked perturbed. "Well, where is it? I'd like to see it."

"You can't!" Lizzy blurted without thinking.

"What do you mean, I can't?"

Lizzy's skin was already pink but her next admission gave her a hue close to a cooked lobster. "It's in Darcy's private suite."

"What's it doing there?" Mrs. Bennet had retired her polite Drawing Room voice and returned to her usual shrill pitch, bringing a neighbourhood dog or two to attention.

Darcy decided to give Lizzy some breathing room. "That's where it looks best."

"Why would you want to hide it there? No one will see it!" Mrs. Bennet couldn't understand Lizzy hiding her new gift away. Why wouldn't she show it off to everyone? Of course, a chair wasn't exactly like a diamond or sapphire on the gift meter, but it was antique.

"Perhaps it'll be used most in Darcy's suite," Charles piped in, delighted by the conversation. With that comment, Jane lost out on her attempt to scold him, and instead choked down a giggle.

Lizzy wanted the matter closed. She hoped the kitchen was ready with dinner. She had intended for it to be served in about a quarter hour, but there was no eloquent way to work out of this discussion. "Mom, I love my gift but I'll show you some other time. It's not really convenient for me to get it right now especially since dinner is ready. Why don't we go to the dining room?"

Lizzy grabbed hold of Darcy's suit jacket, keeping him behind to say her piece. "You see! I told you it was a risky little gift, and here I thought you were a private person!"

"I never intended for Georgie to walk in on us when I was giving it to you. There was no harm done tonight, though."

"No harm?" Lizzy's face was incredulous. "To you, maybe not, but I was dying of embarrassment. Did you hear Charles? And Mom kept going on and on."

"No one is the wiser. Charles and Jane already knew, and if we can't trust them to keep a secret, who can we trust? Your mother and my sister still see your interest as purely innocent and the others weren't really paying attention."

"You hardly helped me at all."

"I did a bit, but you were doing fine on your own."

"You... YOU! You enjoyed all this! You liked to see me squirm! How did you know I wouldn't tell them the gift was more of a joke than any interest on my part?"

"I knew perfectly well you'd never say a word. You're a discreet woman. Besides, how would you explain what I was doing without admitting it was all about you breaking a chair during sex? Oh, and I do like to see you squirm. What do you think I bought the chair for?"

Darcy walked ahead of her and paused at the dining room entrance, his hand outstretched to guide her inside first. She looked up at his smug grin and dancing eyes and really wanted to be angry, really and truly... but it wasn't in her power. She shook her head and laughed.

She remembered how she'd once described him to Charlotte as a 'stuffed shirt'. Trying to imagine him months ago being amused by such a private joke that skirted so close to the public line would have been impossible. While she didn't like being the bug caught under the magnifying glass, he had ensured she'd only been singed enough to blush. He knew how to tease, and she knew it had been her influence. It looked good on him.

~ * ~

Under the glow of constant adoration from Darcy, it took just over a week for Lizzy to set a date for their wedding. After a delightful New Year's Eve kiss, she suggested they marry a year to the day they got engaged. It was a proper length of time for an engagement and also far enough away from Jane and Charles's June wedding to ensure no breach of etiquette. Lizzy's vision was slightly clouded by the romantic nature of Darcy's proposal on a perfect winter's night - she envisioned the same for her wedding night, including, perhaps, an outdoor evening ceremony. The reality of an Ottawa winter had not yet entered Lizzy's picture-perfect fantasies - the likelihood of a repeat weather performance was highly suspect, but Lizzy had set her heart on that date and Darcy promptly agreed.

Whether it was sooner than Darcy imagined or a far longer wait, Lizzy could never tell. He had offered no opinion either way, just joy in her decision. When Lizzy expressed her girlhood dream of a formal, relatively large wedding celebration, Darcy agreed again, which surprised her a little. However, after speaking with Mrs. Reynolds regarding engagement party plans, she learned most Darcy weddings had been grand affairs and his agreement made sense.

With her experience organizing official functions with strict rules of protocol, planning her own wedding into such a prominent family should have been a snap, but work functions had never been hindered by the colossal and constant interference of Mrs. Frances Bennet.

Lizzy had incorrectly assumed Fanny would remain focused on Jane's wedding; she thought she'd have months to prepare before her dear mother provided assistance. At that point, help could easily be dismissed since the work would be done. Her mother proved craftier. Now that Lizzy was marrying the Mr. Darcy, Jane's wedding was second-fiddle.

Thankfully, Lizzy and Darcy's engagement party was at his home so Fanny couldn't sink her elbows into that endeavour, but the wedding reception was to be held at the Château Laurier Hotel. She had soon made several visits to the wedding coordinator as well as the director of catering and the executive chef. She was pestering Lizzy to make a decision on her gown and expected to attend consultations with the designer. She had already made numerous style suggestions in order to hide Lizzy's figure flaws and she had flatly told Lizzy to lose a few pounds. The latest demand was that they hire the florist of her choice, since she was an expert gardener and knew best. Fanny's attempts to control every minute detail were driving Lizzy batty.

It wasn't that Lizzy let her mother walk all over her, quite the opposite. She fought her every step of the way, but it was of no use. She wanted to have fun planning her wedding but she didn't want to lose her mother, so her diplomatic training was stretched to its breaking point. She tried, she really did try to keep her mother under control and remain her happy-go-lucky self, but to no avail.

She did succeed in keeping her mother's badgering away from Darcy as long as possible, even after Jane had urged her to open up to him. She wanted to shield him from something to which he was unaccustomed, she'd dealt with her mother's interference all her life, no need to submit the man she loved to it. However, one Friday evening in early March, as she and Darcy cuddled in front of their bedroom fireplace, Lizzy finally allowed some of her frustrations to leak out, controlling the release as tightly as a pin prick in a balloon.

She may have been too controlled. While Darcy was sympathetic, he offered no practical solutions. He admitted he'd never had to deal with a controlling family member and if he had, he probably would have ended the relationship after such behaviour. He would simply give an ultimatum and adhere to it. He understood that wouldn't be possible with Lizzy and her mother, but she could put her foot down in an attempt to end her mother's controlling behaviour.

Darcy didn't seem to understand Lizzy had put her foot down, several times, and her mother pointedly side-stepped it and went behind her back. Short of having her deemed persona non grata at the Château Laurier, Lizzy didn't know how she could stop her. She bit her tongue. She felt she'd shared enough for Darcy to recognize her predicament and he reacted enough to show he didn't really want to get involved as a third party in their argument. The only part that confused her was this was his wedding too.

She continued to relay all these stresses to Jane regularly.

"Lizzy, I really feel for you. Mom seems to trust my judgment a lot more than yours which is ridiculous."

"Mom's ridiculous." Lizzy crossed her arms in frustration.

Jane chuckled softly. "You sound like a teenager."

"She's treating me like a child! Darcy doesn't really want to get involved. He figures it's a mother/daughter power struggle."

"Well, it is."

"But it shouldn't be! Our wedding is not hers to run, it's mine and Darcy's. I'm at my wit's end, I'm breaking out, I'm getting headaches and I have given her ultimatums, but she's unrepentant. You already know how seriously I would consider eloping if Darcy offered. I don't want this to completely ruin my relationship with Mom; I can't kick her out of my life. I do love her and I will manage, but she's making what should be a happy experience into a pain in the ass."

Jane sighed in sympathy, nodding to acknowledge her sister's frustrations, and then her face brightened. "Why don't you and I go for a weekend at the Château Montebello? We'll charge it to the boys as our bill for organizing the weddings," Jane giggled. "We'll relax, take a break from our planning - how about the weekend before your engagement party? Would that be awkward or helpful?"

"Helpful! The engagement party planning has been a breeze. Mom wouldn't dare interfere at Pemberley. There's really nothing more to do but show up. So the weekend before? A spa weekend? Perfect!"

It did wonders. Lizzy reiterated her frustrations for the first hour or so, and Jane, once again, calmly listened to them all. The complaints slowly faded, however, while the women luxuriated in mud baths, massages, facials and manicures. The only downer for Lizzy was that Darcy would be away for the entire week once she returned - she'd even miss his departure from Ottawa as he decided to leave early Sunday afternoon to meet a business acquaintance in New York for a hockey game.

He had told her of his week away rather suddenly, only the Thursday before, but insisted she keep her weekend plans intact. This could be seen as considerate, but the bride-to-be had felt a little neglected as of late. He rarely mentioned the wedding plans and never brought up the subject of her mother after their one conversation. His work schedule had elevated a notch or two, and he seemed like a ghost who arrived in her bed late at night, only to disappear rather quickly in the morning.

She hadn't voiced any of these feelings; she knew there would always be hectic times in both of their professions. While she felt her job was important, in the big scheme of things Darcy's responsibilities were significantly heavier, and relevant to a greater number of people. It was something they would have to manage as a married couple and she saw this as a taste of her future reality. She was being a love sick fiancée who wanted all of her lover's time, so as the weekend with Jane progressed; she let the matter melt away as quickly as an ice cube in a steam room.

While in New York, and later Toronto, Darcy seemed to sense Lizzy's feelings and was diligent in contacting her, not to mention ensuring a gorgeous arrangement of mixed spring flowers greeted her when she entered their bedroom at home - she finally felt it was their bedroom and their home. The gestures went a long way in calming Lizzy's romantic soul.

He assured her he always had his cell phone nearby should she need to call; she only needed to do that once. She called his usual Toronto hotel on a Wednesday afternoon to order his favourite bottle of wine along with a cheese plate for his room. She was informed he had no reservation so she called his cell, worried she'd gotten something mixed up. He had neglected to inform her he'd been dissatisfied with the hotel's service the last two times he'd been there and had decided to try another. Lizzy was relieved, but again, a bit disappointed he hadn't mentioned it. She wondered if it was silly to feel so slighted by such insignificant details.

Halfway through her work day on Friday before the engagement party, she mentally noted Darcy was back in town. An hour passed before she got a call.

"I'm back!"

Hearing his voice and knowing he was calling from his office rather than some hotel room made Lizzy's heart go pitter-patter.

"It's been hell, you know."

"I really didn't want it to be like this, but it couldn't be changed."

"I know, duty calls, but do you think you can sneak out a little early?" Lizzy lowered her voice to a seductive whisper. "Maybe for a nooner?" She giggled at her own lurid suggestion.

The voice on the other end didn't have the same playful intonation. "I can't. I still have some important details to finish up here. I won't be home early."

Lizzy could swear she heard some tension in his voice. He's probably tired of all this work and is anxious to get home, and here I am, teasing him. She tried to keep it relaxed. "I understand. We'll make up for lost time this weekend. I'll let you go so you can get things done."

"Thank you. You're one in a million."

"Only a million?"

"Shame on me, undervaluing you ... a billion ... no six billion."

"That's better."

Though the call ended playfully, Lizzy sat at her desk with a big ball of angst in her stomach and the start of a stress headache. The ball sat there festering, threatening to bubble over as she relived the past few weeks in her mind. She'd been disappointed in his lack of response on her mother issues, he'd been insanely busy to the point it felt like he was avoiding her, and now, he couldn't see her any earlier than normal, despite their having been apart for a week!

Stop! she argued with herself. I purposely toned down my mother's interference and how much it bothered me and he's a busy man who owns a large, successful company.

Her mind's competing sides felt like a tennis match, taking turns to smack the ball churning in her stomach. She wanted to be reasonable, but she missed him.

Before the threatening headache truly latched on, she decided to take charge. Within a half-hour, she was at Pemberley, intent on seducing her man upon his arrival home. She knew she had to talk to him, but another possibility for his slight withdrawal may have had to do with her own negligence. With all the stresses she'd been facing, she probably hadn't been an engaging partner either. She would show him how attentive she could be, mending the error of her ways in a seamlessly sensual manner.

Should it be the genie costume or should I wait for him on the bed with nothing but the tie I snagged from him the night of the auction? This important decision put a much-needed smile on her face and she truly began to relax. She had decided on the genie costume when she was interrupted by a flustered Mrs. Reynolds rushing towards her.

"What are you doing here?" the housekeeper asked bluntly.

"I've been living here for a couple of months, haven't you noticed?" Lizzy replied with a joking smile, having eschewed her worries as she looked forward to the evening.

"Mr. Darcy isn't home yet. You're supposed to be working." Mrs. Reynolds voice seemed agitated - unlike the usually unflappable woman; perhaps tomorrow's engagement party was worrying her.

"I'm just home early. I thought I'd get a few things ready for Darcy's homecoming," she added unnecessarily, feeling like a student who had to explain herself for cutting class.

"I see." Mrs. Reynolds eyes looked to one side as if calculating an idea. Lizzy made a move toward the stairs and the housekeeper spoke up hastily. "Since you're here, would you mind going over everything for the party tomorrow night? You can come in the kitchen."

Lizzy gave her a quizzical glance. "Have any new problems come up?"

"Well - uh, no."

"We've already gone over everything twice this week. I thought we agreed we were fine."

"It doesn't hurt to review - and, uh, I have a few questions." Mrs. Reynolds motioned towards the kitchen in expectation of Lizzy's acquiescence, but Lizzy was in no mood to review menus, seating arrangements or music selections.

"Mrs. Reynolds, I hate to do this to you, but I'm going to have to pass. I'm not feeling my best today and have been quite stressed lately. I just want a hot shower and maybe even a nap before Fitzwilliam gets home. I will gladly review everything tomorrow morning."

Lizzy turned and took the first stair, but surprisingly heard Mrs. Reynolds continuing their conversation. "Why don't you come to the kitchen for a nice cup of tisane, maybe some cookies? That might help."

Lizzy turned, bemused. "Is there something the matter? Is there some reason you don't want me to be alone?"

"Of course not, there's nothing the matter," Mrs. Reynolds looked worried and a little sad. "I just thought you might like some tea."

"No, thank you," was Lizzy's brief reply, shocked by the housekeeper's insistence.

"Are you sure?" Mrs. Reynolds pressed on. "You don't have to come to the kitchen. I can bring it up to your desk. I brought your mail there this morning, and there seemed to be some personal correspondence. I thought you'd like to know."

Lizzy had always treated Darcy's housekeeper with the respect she deserved. She'd been in the Darcy household since just before Darcy's birth and was practically a member of the family. Lizzy had bowed to her wisdom on many an occasion and trusted her judgment implicitly. However, at the moment Lizzy had finally calmed herself, Mrs. Reynolds's questions had unnerved her yet again. She knew there must be more to the housekeeper's behaviour than met the eye, and while Mrs. Reynolds now looked contrite, Lizzy was not in a mood to discuss anything.

Lizzy lifted her chin and had her first -- what she would in future years disdainfully call -- Mistress of Pemberley moment, staring directly into Darcy's housekeeper's eyes and answering definitively, "Thank you, no. I'm going to my room. I'd like to be alone. That will be all."

She turned on her heels and walked upstairs knowing she'd just treated Mrs. Reynolds like a servant, something she'd sworn she'd never do, but the woman was agitating her, unknowingly agitating the ball of worries inside of her. She needed some peace, she needed time to herself, she needed Darcy's sauna.

Walking through the ante-room, she did not stop to peak at the 'personal' mail; she made a beeline for the double doors of the bedroom, already having removed her blazer and beginning to unbutton her blouse.

After taking one step inside, she saw them.

Two large, matching black suitcases stood guard in front of the bed.

She knew they weren't from Darcy's trip; he always took a garment bag and a carry-on. Absently, she dropped her blazer on the floor as she stared at them suspiciously. These were new, curious entities - entities whispering coldly that something wasn't right, and her body chilled in response. Folding her arms to her chest, she warily circled the suitcases as if they would jump out and bite her if she weren't careful.

With a cautious hand, she pushed one enough to know it was packed. Sliding her hand over the frame to the zipper, she gingerly pulled, opening it enough for her hand to slip inside. She pulled out a man's short sleeve linen shirt. Opening it a little more, she pulled out a pair of sandals, Darcy's size. She then laid the suitcase flat and opened it wide. Men's vacation apparel. Darcy's vacation apparel for a warm climate.

He had never said a word.

Dread oozed over her from head to toe. Robotically, she opened the second suitcase, this time laying it flat and unzipping it completely, violently swinging it to reveal an unknown woman's clothing. One item in particular stood out - a rather skimpy hot pink bikini. The dread that had covered her like a dirty film now swallowed her up and numbed her body. She stood for a few moments looking at the clothes in both suitcases, and when things started to add up in her mind, she began to hyperventilate.

Her mind worked fast. He had kept a hand's off attitude about her mother's involvement in their wedding and hadn't given her as much support as she'd hoped, almost as if distracted with other things on his mind. For two weeks, he had been working late, telling her it was that time of the year, but encouraging her to be away for the weekend when they would have had time to be alone before he went away. When was the last time they'd made love? Far too long.

And then he went away.

Lizzy had only ever called his cell phone so how would she know exactly where ... except that when she did call his hotel in Toronto, he hadn't been there. He said he'd checked in elsewhere but hadn't bothered to name the place. Where had he been?

Still breathing heavily and swallowing hard, Lizzy now sat on the bed for support. She closed her eyes to go over the facts backwards and forwards and two fat tears slid down her cheek. She was unaware her eyes had welled up, though not surprised when she felt the wetness on her face.

And Mrs. Reynolds! She was trying to keep me from coming up to the room! She knows!

The sickening ball in her stomach had returned and was bulging up to her throat. She momentarily feared she would vomit, but took deep breaths to rid herself of the nausea. She stood up and walked around the suitcases, eyeing the proof of his betrayal. She moved on from his behaviour in the past few weeks to the question of why.

Why bother proposing? Why bother planning a wedding? Why bother having me move in? Why bother at all? Why not just dump me? Why? Why? Why?

She let out a sob as she sat on the bed again, her fists practically punching her forehead as if to mirror the ache inside her. The ball in her stomach was transforming into fury at the thought of being so badly used. She wanted to rip off the duvet cover, tear the room apart, scream at the top of her lungs, but just as her emotions spiked and threatened to morph into actions, the 'why' questions hit the left side of her brain. That side knew questions deserved answers.

Why would Fitzwilliam Darcy wait until the day before his engagement party to run off with another woman? Cold feet? Nervous jitters? Not likely. The logical answer was he would not. He was a private man who avoided scandal. How would it look if they cancelled the party the day before or even the day of, as Lizzy wasn't even supposed to have seen this luggage?

He was also a sensible man who had always been careful with the friends and companions he kept. He would not woo and propose to Lizzy if he didn't mean it. And most importantly -- Lizzy muddled through the fog of her initial anger with Darcy to chastise herself - he had been nothing short of incredible throughout most of their relationship. A rocky start, yes, some misunderstandings, maybe, but up until the last week and a half, Lizzy had harboured not a doubt in her mind that the man who had proposed to her was more than ready to be with her for the long haul.

Looking at the luggage before her, part of her still couldn't shake the negative feelings. She not only wanted to rip the room to shreds, but to do the same to him, to holler and rant about what a disappointment he was, to tell him he had done a fine job of slicing her heart up into tiny chewable pieces and that she may never recover. But the logical part, who loved and trusted him with good reason - his integrity and honour were unparalleled - knew she had to grow up. The tears still slid over the curve of her cheeks, but they were slowing down. She would wait before judging. She would listen to his explanation and learn his side before attacking. She had learned that much from their disagreement in December.

She sat on the edge of the bed, anger abating but terror rising. Her love was the trifecta - heart, soul and mind. If someone had told her early last summer she could love so completely, so, so ... sacrificially, she would have balked. She was too strong, too sure, too happy in a single life - not that she was against love, she just never expected to be so immersed in the kind of love that she had thought pointed to weakness. She once insisted to Darcy she needed him to be a little weaker in order to know he loved her enough, and she was now faced with the danger of such a love on her part. If he was leaving, if he was having an affair, what would she do when she confronted him? She was terrified because she didn't know.

The self-respecting woman she thought she was began to falter - she could envisage herself collapsing at his feet, begging him to reconsider, as easily as she could see herself slapping him in the face and walking away. It wasn't because she was weak, it was because she loved him too much, had opened herself up to him. He had been just as open and loving. If he had a bout of cold feet, perhaps nothing had happened yet, and they could work at building more trust.

No, no, there's a logical explanation, she chastised herself again, and the cycle of possibilities restarted like a merry-go-round.

She had no clue how long she'd been sitting alone when Darcy walked in. It had taken a moment for Lizzy to notice he'd arrived. His footsteps hadn't been soft, but she was focussed on internal musings.

In the moment before she saw him, the view before Darcy broke his heart. Somehow, Lizzy seemed smaller, her legs curled up against her chest, her hands clasped tightly around them, as she almost imperceptibly rocked back and forth. Her face was ghostly but for the mascara-streaks across her face. He also noticed her rather short, repetitive breaths and was very confused.

His first thought was she'd figured it out, and he'd gone too far. He had made the wrong decision and he already regretted it. Perhaps Jane had misunderstood the level of Lizzy's unease. He quickly stopped himself from jumping to conclusions. His first task was to calm her, somehow make things better. Walking over to face her, he touched her shoulder lightly. "Lizzy, what's wrong?"

Lizzy struggled to compose herself upon realizing his presence. She took deep breaths, each time attempting to speak, but having to swallow the lump in her throat to stop a choking cry from escaping rather than words.

Finally, she clenched her fists and forced her voice to stay calm, each word over-enunciated in a struggle to keep steady. "I don't want to judge too hastily. I'm trying not to overreact to what I see right now. It's obviously not working," she paused, swallowed again, and wiped away the tear stains. Turning to look at the packed bags she expounded. "I would like you to explain why there are suitcases with your clothes and someone else's in our bedroom. I can't imagine a logical reason but I'm trusting you have one. I'm scared to death you don't, because I'm not sure what I'm going to do if my first instincts are proven right."

With her last words, her voice quivered, proving her talk of fear was truthful. Darcy's eyebrows furrowed looking from Lizzy to the suitcases and back. Shaking his head, he couldn't help a shocked half-gasp, half-laugh. Lizzy noticed and opened her mouth in indignation but Darcy spoke. "Your first instinct is wrong, very wrong, incredibly wrong."

Slipping off the bed, Lizzy's body virtually collapsed into his. She had started crying again; Darcy could feel her shake in his arms, but she was in his arms, that had to be a good sign. He remained silent while Lizzy's tremours subsided. Finally, she stepped back and gazed earnestly up into his expectant eyes. Her body still felt fragile but her words were calm, and her eyes, her beautiful glistening eyes, were also filled with warmth and relief.

"I believe you because I love you and know your character. That's what I've been clinging to. However, I would really like a bit of elaboration."

"You haven't looked around the rest of the room, have you?" Darcy asked seriously. Lizzy shook her head but her gaze didn't waiver. She wanted him to speak first before he started asking questions of her.

"Lizzy, you haven't been happy for more than a month, maybe longer. Don't think I didn't notice. Early on, every time I asked you about wedding plans, you said everything was fine, you knew exactly what you wanted, yet as time went on you seemed stressed. When I asked after different areas of your life, you kept telling me all was well, it was almost your mantra. But you were getting paler, you seemed to be having a lot of headaches and you looked like you'd lost weight. By the time you got around to telling me, I'd already figured it out and spoken to Jane. She told me you didn't want to worry me. She said you thought I wanted a big wedding!"

"You agreed to it when I asked!"

"I'd have agreed to anything to marry you, didn't you realize? I could give a damn about the size of the wedding - I just want us married. Then Jane said you swore you wanted to elope, that your dreams of a big wedding had changed but you felt you owed it to me to have a wedding suitable to my family name. I took matters into my own hands. I didn't think three or four weeks would affect you this much. I messed up. The simple truth is, if you're ready and willing, those clothes are for you, and a chartered flight will be ready for us in three hours at the airport. Jane, Charles and Georgie will join us on the flight and tomorrow we can be married in the garden behind my vacation home in Turks and Caicos."

Lizzy let out a small breath of wonder. "Really?" She looked to the suitcases and back to Darcy letting out an almost imperceptible, "Wow."

He hid his smile at her expression and let the offer sink in. He'd learned it often took a bit longer for her to absorb the big picture in her heightened emotional states. She smiled at him slightly, got on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek delicately, then stepped away and again glanced at the suitcases and back to him. "But those aren't my clothes?" she asked rather than stated.

Darcy chuckled under his breath - she needed details to clear her mind. "How would I be able to keep the secret if your clothes were missing? Jane and I decided it was best to get you new things."

"Oh. Okay."

Lizzy still seemed lost in the haze of non-comprehension and it suddenly occurred to Darcy he should really discover how she'd come to her conclusion, not just for her sake, but for his own. "Lizzy, how could you have believed I would desert you for another woman on the eve of our engagement party? Did simply seeing a suitcase with strange woman's clothes break your faith in me?"

"No! There's been so much more than that lately!" Lizzy protested and then blushed at how it sounded. "I mean, I ... I interpreted some of your actions badly. You probably have perfectly valid reasons for everything, but, but I've been feeling a little neglected in certain ways."

"Neglected? How do you mean? I told you I was busy at work but I've tried to compensate by letting you know I'm always thinking of you. Didn't I do that?"

"Yes," she sighed and hoped the rest of her explanation didn't sound as pitiful as she now thought it was. "But I had hoped for more support with my mother. I knew you didn't want to get involved, so I'd kept my struggles from you, which was hard. Then you kept coming home so late and then we've been apart for a week, it just seemed like you didn't want to touch me. Flowers and phone calls are delightful and I understood, but everything started to add up, well, I thought they did anyway."

"You know, you're right. That part of my plan was a little weak."

"Plan?"

Darcy nodded. "I thought you might like the wedding night to be special, but there was no way to tell you I wanted to stop making love. You think you're jumping to conclusions now! Imagine if I had said, 'No sex for the next few weeks, Lizzy'. Your radar would have been spinning out of control! I purposely avoided you, I didn't have to work late or leave early, I didn't have to go to New York, but I knew it would be too hard to resist you if we were together."

"Fitzwilliam, you have the best reasons!" Lizzy hugged him tightly, joy replacing any sense of dread. "I overreact way too much. I need to grow up."

Darcy shook his head. Hearing her say all these concerns out loud had cut at his heart. He felt he'd really messed up. "I know you're an emotionally intense woman. I should have known better by now. I'm sorry I put you through any of this. It doesn't seem to have been a well-thought out surprise."

Lizzy winced. She needed to give him the whole story even if it made him feel worse. No holding back. "You know, all that might have been okay, I may have shrugged it all off, had I not had a couple of other suspicious incidents."

Darcy drew in his breath in surprise. "What else have I done?" he asked, genuinely interested.

"Not exactly you, but," she paused, looking at the suitcases. "After you left New York, were you even in Toronto?"

"How did you-"

"Because of the phone call I made to your usual hotel. You didn't tell me you weren't staying there and then you had never told me you had been unsatisfied with their service. I felt a bit left out."

Darcy nodded in comprehension. "I stayed with Jane and Charles for a couple of days."

"Then, when I arrived home today after you said you couldn't skip out early to see me, Mrs. Reynolds tried to stop me from coming upstairs. It was so unlike her and it made me uncomfortable. I have to admit, I wasn't very nice to her. By the time I found the suitcases, coupled with everything else, I was sure there was something fishy about the whole thing."

"My poor Lizzy," Darcy took her into his arms. "But poor Mrs. Reynolds too. She phoned me immediately after you came upstairs, that's why I was here so fast. She was distraught. She didn't know what to do. She didn't like this idea, figured I was being high-handed in surprising you with an elopement, even though I told her I was sure it was what you wanted it. Now I think she may have been right."

"Oh, no, I was serious when I told Jane I wanted to elope."

"But look how much grief I've caused you by trying to surprise you. Instead of it being a relief, it was an incredibly stressful situation."

"Fitzwilliam, don't blame yourself too much. I should have spoken up more. I kept arguing with myself about your behaviour instead of discussing it with you, coming up with logical explanations and then doubting them."

"Haven't we talked about this time and again? If you have issues, we need to talk them through together. I never want to see you look as frightened as when I walked in this door."

"That's what I was, you know, frightened," Lizzy looked away from him as she recalled her emotions. "As angry as you'd think I would be if you were having an affair, by the time you saw me, that wasn't standing out as my first concern. I was frightened of losing you. I don't know how I'd face that."

"You'll never lose me," Darcy stroked her cheek softly, trying to brush away her anxiety with his loving touch. "But I understand your fear. I have it too. Good God, will we ever learn? We've been doing so well and now, here we go again, keeping quiet. I should have just suggested an elopement instead of trying to be the grand romantic."

"Please, please, no! Never stop being romantic! I love it! What woman doesn't? As awful as you think I looked, as sad as I was with the situation here, did you notice I asked you to explain rather than accusing you of anything? I waited to hear your side before judging?" Lizzy stepped back, nodding to herself with satisfaction, a little mirth finally escaping from her. "Aren't you proud of me? I'm being a mature adult waiting to hear your side of the story, and open-minded enough to realize you could have a logical explanation."

Darcy smiled in amusement and relief. While still not comfortable with how he flubbed up a perfectly romantic plan, Lizzy seemed to be bouncing back rather quickly, her own brand of good humour returning. "Lizzy, you were being a mature adult but you were still hurt and scared. I don't like that, you know."

"In light of your explanations, though, I know I can get over it quickly. I feel rather silly, now, in fact. You need to believe me," she pleaded before giving him a soft kiss on his lips. "Besides, I have a whole new vacation wardrobe! Though I don't think I'd be caught dead in that bikini. Jane obviously wasn't involved in that purchase."

"I think it's perfect for you."

"Men. Of course you do."

"So... does that mean?" Lizzy looked clueless, so Darcy elaborated. "You never mentioned whether you'd actually like to get married tomorrow."

Startled, Lizzy at first only answered, "Oh, I didn't?"

"Lizzy... an answer please."

"What about my work? My passport?"

"Do you think I would have planned all this without getting your vacation days arranged and your documents ready?"

"What about the party tomorrow night? All the guests?"

"It's being handled."

"Well, aren't you Mr. Efficient."

"Elizabeth..."

That voice indicated he had reached his teasing threshold. Lizzy gladly relieved his suffering and casually answered, "Of course I'll get married tomorrow, Fitzwilliam. I can't wait any longer to have sex with you."

Sweeping her off her feet, Darcy planted the first lusty kiss they'd had in weeks. She didn't even have time to catch her breath before his tongue darted between her lips and his arms roamed her most sensitive, feminine curves. Lizzy was starved for these touches and Darcy force-fed them to her. It was heaven. Finally, their lips parted, only for Darcy to move to the pulse point of her neck.

"I - I sup... pose... have to.. to - oh! - stop?" she managed meekly. "Need... to... keep ... special?"

With one last sweep of his hands down her body, Darcy's lips returned to hers for a final go, but he wasn't grumbling. This had been his plan, after all. They were about to fly off into the night with three other people. By this time tomorrow, they'd be married and, with any luck, consummating the union. Tomorrow wasn't very far away in the grand scheme of things.

Darcy's reverie was broken by a sudden shrieking exclamation by Lizzy, who had broken free of his embrace and was now frantically searching through the suitcase. "What about a DRESS?"

~ * ~

Pemberley hadn't seen such a celebration in years. Upon entering the grounds, no one could deny this party was seriously festive. Every light, every decoration, every flower seemed to have been individually selected for perfection. However there was no sign of fussiness. Even in festivity, Pemberley had the Darcy air of taste and understatement that made the guests at once feel cheerful and exceptional.

But there was one smidgeon of a detail out of place - the absence of the guests of honour.

Richard had the duty of greeting all the invitees at the entrance. Each guest asked the same question, each was given the same answer, "Darcy and Lizzy apologize for their lateness. They have been unavoidably detained. They'll make their appearance a little later. Please enter the Ballroom and enjoy yourself."

While whispers and tut-tuts followed, most of the guests were content after consuming a glass or two of champagne and some hot hors-d'oeuvres. The orchestra was fantastic and being at any Pemberley function was a treat in and of itself. Some guests came to the conclusion the pair would make some kind of dramatic entrance. Perhaps a duet on stage?

Mrs. Bennet was beside herself. She knew if she'd been in charge of the party, this sort of blunder would never have happened. Rather than go with the flow, she began to worry the couple had argued, that Lizzy had gotten too pert, that dreams of her daughter being a Darcy were about to be shattered. She tried to calm herself by thinking of Jane marrying Charles, but realized they were also absent and another panic attack ensued. Her husband had to escort her to a private room as she began to feel faint.

Only one other guest reacted with such emotional curiosity. Henry Crawford had invited Caroline as his date - or more accurately, Caroline had wormed an invitation out of him based on their intimate Hallowe'en night. Little did she know that Henry had to finagle an invite via Richard as Darcy had been discovering the true nature of the man.

She stood with champagne in hand and scenarios playing in her mind, calculating the possibilities of a break-up, an accident or some other calamity that would remove Lizzy from the picture. She tried not to get her hopes up, but Darcy liked order, and Caroline was certain being late for his own party had not happened with his blessing.

When the majority of the guests had entered the Ballroom, Richard continued his role as de facto host. He went to the stage, silenced the band, and moved to the microphone. He stared at a room full of silent, expectant guests and gave a quirky smile. He was enjoying this moment -- nothing better than being part of something that would amaze the whole room. "Ladies and gentleman, may I have your attention. As I mentioned, Darcy and Lizzy have an announcement to make. They will explain why they've been detained."

He walked over to the sound system and clicked on a laptop. Just as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet re-entered the Ballroom, the paused faces of Darcy and Lizzy were staring down at them, larger than life, on a huge screen. The room murmured in confusion. They're not here? They left a video? What was going on?

Before people could get too animated, Richard clicked play and Darcy spoke. "Good evening to you all. As Richard has no doubt told you, we regret we haven't shown our faces until now. Logistically, it was impossible for us to make to the party tonight. To be honest, it would be wrong to allow you to continue celebrating our engagement, as we are no longer engaged."

He paused and looked at Lizzy with guilty smile. She returned the look. Gasps of disbelief and confusion erupted in the Ballroom. Mrs. Bennet had reached for her husband for support while people quieted to listen to Darcy's explanation.

Caroline held her breath. She would not react. Lizzy was alive and in Darcy's presence; she wouldn't dare hope. She needed to hear the whole story.

With a mischievous smirk, Lizzy got to deliver their punch-line: "We're no longer engaged because we got married this afternoon."

The earlier gasps now seemed more like whispers. The room practically exploded with shocked comments.

With a million-watt grin, Darcy tried to face the camera but kept glancing over at his beautiful bride while he spoke. "We're at my winter retreat in the Caribbean. Jane, Charles and Georgie were here to witness and share the moment as they were instrumental in my plans to surprise the woman I love with the wedding. I understand Charles has prepared a video of the ceremony for you. We hope you share our joy and continue on with the celebrations. Thank you for coming tonight, please party to your heart's content!" A jovial Darcy lifted a champagne flute to the crowd as he leaned over to kiss his bride.

The video cut to just before the ceremony where Darcy waited with a judge on a beautifully landscaped lawn, pristine white sand and turquoise waters visible in the background. He looked slightly anxious. His expression drastically changed, however, when he spotted Lizzy coming down the garden path. The camera panned to show Lizzy as happy as Darcy as she walked to meet him wearing a flowing gown that seemed perfectly made for her and the seaside ceremony.

Caroline hadn't released her breath since before Darcy stated he was no longer engaged. Upon viewing the resplendent bride, she exhaled violently with a shriek that caused everyone to turn from the video. Luckily for Caroline, her face looked more shocked than disgusted or disappointed.

Months ago the dress had been sold - in fact, the day after her glamourous shop opening. Naturally, she had not gone into the shop that day seeing as she'd partied the night before. She was told a polite young man had paid for the Barrington dress in cash. He'd evaded any direct questions and did not reveal for whom he was buying it. The saleslady had deduced it must have been Mrs. Barrington's young lover. Caroline agreed and had quickly forgotten about it. All that mattered was they had recouped their losses for the creation. Now she knew the owner, but couldn't believe she had to face this news in front of a crowd of eager onlookers who, she felt, wanted nothing more than to see her crumble.

As Lizzy reached Darcy on-screen, Caroline wanted to drown her sorrows in something stronger than champagne, but knew that wouldn't help her out of this moment. She may have been shallow and selfish, but she wasn't stupid and she had learned from her mistakes. Her reaction could turn into a huge embarrassment if she didn't spin it properly. She needed a valid excuse, and thinking quickly, she realized she could turn it to her advantage, indeed she must turn it to her advantage. Lizzy looked exquisite in the dress, everyone could see that. With steely resolve, she morphed her face into a look of pleasant shock and spoke as loudly as decorum would permit. "Why, I had no idea dear Lizzy would wear my very own design to become Mrs. Darcy! Imagine, I, Caroline Bingley, created the new Mrs. Darcy's wedding gown!"

Her insides gnarled and twisted in disgust but there was nothing else to be done. She had to grab her piece of the Darcy mystique, cling to it through Lizzy's apparel. Publicity for her designs beat out public humiliation any day. Caroline's moment in the spotlight ended with outward satisfaction, and the rest of the room returned to viewing the clip of the ceremony, skeptical of Caroline's joy at being the designer and not the bride.

Mrs. Bennet didn't know what to think. She had dreamed of being mother of the bride at the Darcy wedding. She had wanted to bask in the awe of her friends as she stood in a designer gown, crowing about how wonderfully successful her daughters had become and taking credit for it as much as possible. Now, while Jane's wedding was still available for such posturing, the jewel of her crown would be missing.

There was a plus side. Lizzy was married. She was already legally bound to Darcy. There was no chance the wedding would be cancelled or postponed. Fanny was at Pemberley and there was no hostess for this shindig ... and she was, at that very moment, the mother of the bride. All those whom she'd have crowed to at the wedding in December were with her now, and if she'd heard correctly, Darcy had planned this elopement, he couldn't wait to marry her daughter. She gathered herself and began to accept congratulations. Caroline and Mrs. Bennet may not have shared many qualities, but they certainly knew how to salvage their pride, at least in their own eyes.

~ * ~

"I'm guessing, and I sincerely hope, that Jane had as little to do with the lingerie in this closet as she had with the bikini in my suitcase?" Lizzy called out from inside Darcy's walk-in closet at his Turks and Caicos villa.

"How can you tell?" Darcy answered with a smile in his voice, waiting for his bride in their bedroom, the sound of waves floating in from the open patio doors and the curtains swaying with the soft trade winds. Life could not be better, or wouldn't be better once Lizzy joined him on the bed.

"Fitzwilliam! For one, there's a patent leather spandex concoction in here!" She walked out and proceeded to spin slowly, modelling what he had left as her wedding night ensemble. "And this isn't exactly what I'd imagine a blushing bride to wear."

"No?" Darcy asked rather dreamily, perusing the figure before him. To him she was perfection in a red lace chemise, fitted to her body, with matching stockings and garters, naturally. "Good thing you're not a blushing bride."

After Lizzy shot him a look of mock indignation, he added half-seriously, "You don't feel uncomfortable, do you?"

She grabbed one of the bedposts and pressed one leg against her makeshift stripper pole, proceeding to swing herself wildly onto the sheets, landing firmly on her back. She gave Darcy an up-close view of his non-blushing bride.

"No, actually, it makes me feel sexier." She laughed wickedly.

Darcy wasted no time rediscovering his new wife's lips and curves, his hands flitted down her body swiftly. He had missed her, he had longed for her in the past few weeks, but all was forgotten in the midst of her for the night, and forever.

He tried not to rush but Lizzy wasn't helping, her hands as busy as his, her mouth as greedy. When he pulled back to look at her face, to advise her she'd best be a little less persuasive if she wanted an extended first-time-as-man-and-wife lovemaking experience, she stared hotly back at his eyes, panting for air. Shaking her head, she urgently whispered, "Don't slow down."

Clothes were stripped, skin was stroked, and words were few and far between. Husband and wife were well acquainted with the other's preferences, and their month-long abstinence had taken its toll. Frantic, wild and demanding on both sides, they dove into each other, gorging on the taste of their lover to satiate their appetites.

It wasn't pretty, it wasn't sweet, it definitely wasn't slow, better to describe it as impassioned, sweaty and slightly violent. Darcy bruised his elbow when it had slammed against the headboard; Lizzy almost had to stop twice due to muscle cramps in her leg. When they finally lay beside each other, their marriage consummated in an overzealous fashion, they hadn't much to say. Ironically, they almost looked ashamed, as if it were blasphemous to be lustful on their matrimonial bed.

Eventually, Lizzy saw reason as her breathing slowed. She glanced over at him and in all seriousness said, "It had to be done."

"I'm not complaining."

"It had just been too long."

"We're only human."

"I can't lie, I was horny. Is that wrong on your wedding night?" Lizzy asked herself as much as Darcy.

He leaned his head back against the headboard and laughed. "If you can't be horny tonight, when else can you be? Don't feel guilty. Pre-conceived notions of what wedding night love making should be are preposterous. We're adults and we enjoyed ourselves. You did enjoy yourself, didn't you?"

"Immensely," Lizzy smiled and stretched like a cat. Darcy, once again, had calmed her absurd worries. "I'm a bit warped in my thinking sometimes, aren't I?"

"I like warped." He winked at her as he moved toward her. "It makes you more maneuverable."

"Always back to sexual positions. Does your mind ever veer far from the topic?"

"What do you mean veer from the topic. We were talking about sex."

Lizzy collapsed in a fit of giggles. She had a feeling she'd always love their after-sex conversations almost as much as the act itself.

Darcy watched her for a moment, gratified he could humour her so, but then gently brought her to him and kissed her forehead lightly. "You know, we've got the rest of the night to take it slow."

She sighed, nuzzling into his welcoming embrace. "Somehow, I don't think we'll ever manage to take it slow."

~ * ~

Darcy woke in the middle of the night when Lizzy slipped from his grasp and turned onto her side. She was sleeping soundly and he wasn't surprised - the last day or two had been hectic. Who was he kidding? When he thought about how stressed she'd been, he knew this was probably her first relaxed sleep in an age. He didn't want to disturb her - well, he did, but he also wanted to be a gentleman - so he slid out of bed and stepped out to the balcony.

He inhaled the warm, tropical breeze and watched as the moon's silver shine reflected on the rippling waves of the ocean lapping against the shore. The water was the only sound at that time of night - so rhythmic and peaceful it made Darcy realize he also was as relaxed as he'd ever been, but for the excitement of being married to the love of his life.

Taking in the entire balcony, he noticed a bottle of champagne, no longer on ice, but still chilled in the water that remained. He read a small note beside it and smiled. Charles had assumed Lizzy would insist on seeing the view before anything. Instead, she rushed into the closet to check out the lingerie. It's best to keep certain personality traits about your wife private. She already gave away enough with the chair incident.

He turned back to watch the ocean, contemplating life deeply, as only one who wakes in the middle of the night can, when he heard a voice from behind, a voice with a distinct note of merriment. "My own Sweet Fitzzzzzzzwilliam, there you are! I've been looking all over for you." Two arms wrapped around his torso.

Darcy turned and eased his arms around her shoulders in return. He let her continue with her recognizable side of this conversation, though he was still distracted by how perfectly the chemise clung to her body. "You know, a wife could get jealous when her man is out here with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. Fortunately, I trust you implicitly."

Lizzy nodded to one of the glasses. "Are you going to introduce me?"

He saw the twinkle in her eyes and was highly amused and impressed with her memory, not that he could forget the first time they'd met.

"Of course, Elizabeth. This is Dom Perignon, a personal gift from Charles."

"A personal gift? Oh, but I won't be jealous. Charles would never hit on you."

Both laughed at their silliness and the memories they invoked. Darcy poured the champagne, and after clinking their glasses, Lizzy sipped and looked at the panorama before her, shaking her head. "You know, if I wrote a book about us, no one would believe I wasn't a gold-digger."

"What do you mean? You were none too pleased with me that first night. I'd even say after our kiss you were turned off."

"It could be seen as playing hard to get for a man who has everything. I was a challenge - doesn't that make me look smart?"

"I'd say you played hard-to-get rather well. Too well. Many times," Darcy gave an admonishing glance. "If you had been a gold-digger, you were taking an awfully big gamble."

"You've already seen my poker-playing, Fitzwilliam. You know I've always fancied myself a big gambler." She smiled, looking up from under her lashes like the coquette she was describing.

Darcy laughed. "Is this where you reveal to me you married me for my money? You outwitted me so much you got me to rush a surprise wedding?"

"That's it. It was all an elaborate ruse. I'm an evil mastermind in sexy red lingerie."

Darcy lifted his hand to his chin in contemplation. "I like the sound of that, although the black patent leather spandex number might be a more suitable outfit."

He started to walk toward the door and Lizzy gulped her champagne in shock, certain he was off to fetch the outfit, when, to her relief, he reached for the champagne again. "May I propose a toast?"

Lizzy flew her free hand in the air magnanimously. "By all means, celebrate my genius."

Topping up her champagne he happily proclaimed, "To crashing parties, faking relationships and taking things too fast."

"I sense a theme. We do like to rush things."

"I'm man of action. I think you're a woman who reacts well to this, evil mastermind that you are."

"Prove it."

"If you'll just step this way, madam, I'll gladly prove it for the rest of our lives."

The End


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