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Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the stars of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me ... .*



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Ae Fond Kiss

Chapter Six

"Lizzy, I've a favour to ask you ... if you haven't anything planned for Saturday night, that is."

"Nope - no plans as yet, Jane. Charles is down in London this week - he's taking the ugly sisters back home and then ..."

"Really, Lizzy, you shouldn't call them that," Jane interjected. "How would Charles feel if he heard you? They are his sisters after all."

"Don't worry, Jane," Elizabeth laughed. "Let me see now - how was it Charles described them when he called to tell me he was going to be away? Oh yes - it was something about having 'pried the leeches off at long last' and 'rushing them back down to London before they have a chance reattach themselves and' ... now what was it ... 'bleed me dry' was the exact phrase, I think."

"Honestly, you two are horrible! Caroline and Louisa can't be that bad, surely."

"Oh, but yes they are," Elizabeth insisted. "I know you see the best in everyone, Jane, but you haven't met them. I knew I should've taken you with me to Charles' house when I went to dinner last weekend. I can assure you, my dear, they were frightful." Elizabeth grimaced, rolling her eyes as she remembered the ordeal. "You could have found out for yourself, you know - Charles did want you to come."

"I know, it was very kind of him to invite me, but Helen had already asked me to babysit." Jane shrugged her shoulders. "And with William being away ..."

"Yes, okay, you had a good excuse," Elizabeth replied with a grin. "Charles was disappointed though; he thought you, Miss Serenity, might be just the one to charm his sisters. As it was the evening was fraught, to say the least. Anyway, enough of that ... you wanted to ask me a favour. What is it?"

"Well, William phoned last night. He went for a pint with an old friend in Aberfeldy yesterday - someone he knew years ago. They went to some sort of dance class together, would you believe! Anyway, this guy now plays the bagpipes in a ceilidh band and he's doing a gig at the Arches on Saturday night."

"Hmmm ... and?"

"Well, he's given William four tickets and I wondered if you and Charles would like to come?"

"I don't know, Jane," Elizabeth deliberated, "you were the one who wanted us to stop going out together - and I think you were right. You and William seem to get on so much better when we're not around. Sorry, dearest, I really think Charles and I should give it a miss."

"But, Lizzy, you know I can't do these dances ... and I'm not really into that kind of music. Please come," Jane begged, "I need you. I don't want to make a fool of myself in front of William. Pretty please!" She smiled hopefully as she saw signs of wavering on Elizabeth's face and she added, "You know how much you love a ceilidh, Liz."

"Yes, I must admit, I am tempted - a band with a piper ... just like the 'Peat Bog Faeries'. Do you know what they're called?"

"Oh, William did say - it begins with 'Sh...' - can't remember the rest. Sorry!"

"Hmm. How come I haven't heard of them? I wonder if Charles would enjoy it though - it's not his kind of thing either. I'll tell you what," she proposed finally, "I'll give Charles a ring to make sure he'll be back by Saturday night and if he agrees, we'll come with you. But if he's not back, Jane," Elizabeth warned, "I'm not coming on my own - so don't even think of asking."

"No, of course not," Jane replied, the relief evident on her face. "But thank you, Lizzy, I know you'll have a great time."

"I'd better, Jane, or I'll phone mum and tell her all about William Darcy."

"You wouldn't want to do that, Miss Bennet," Jane warned, narrowing her eyes.

"Oh ... and why not?"

"Because, dear sister, I would then have to inform her of a certain Mr Charles Bingley."

"Ah," Elizabeth laughed, "an impasse. Oh well, it was worth a try, Jane," she grinned. "How long d'you think it would take mum to make her way up here if she found out about William and Charles?"

"Elizabeth," Jane's voice squeaked in alarm as she responded, "don't even think about it!"

~ * ~

Elizabeth wouldn't have believed it if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes; William Darcy was a good dancer ... no, strike that ... he was an excellent dancer! She'd have laughed had she known that William's mother had sent him, determinedly dragging his heels, to Scottish Country Dance lessons when he was only seven years old. It was, unfortunately for him, one of her passions and he, much to his disgust, was the only boy among a clutch of giggling girls. He did, however, come to take pleasure in the classes, especially as several boys joined soon after him (the lure of Lady Anne's son being a considerable incentive for the ambitious mothers of the village).

Included among the new additions to the class was a short, stocky, red headed lad called Roddie Graham who, it had to be said, took to dancing like a duck to the desert sands but who was, nonetheless, great fun to have around - for the pupils! So much fun, in fact, that after a few weeks their teacher, Mrs Stewart, suggested to Roddie's mother that, even though he had two left feet, he had indeed a very good ear for music and should consider learning to play an instrument - something loud that would use up his boundless energy ... like the bagpipes for instance! His mother took the teacher's advice in good part and Roddie was allowed to leave the dance class that was so unsuited to his wayward talents.

Fortunately for Roddie, it was exactly the right thing to do and he embarked on the lessons that would lead him to a very satisfying and lucrative career. He started off in the Breadalbane and District Pipe Band, but being part of such a large and disciplined group was not for him and, as he improved, he began to do solo work. He also, quite by chance, became involved in the setting up of a local ceilidh band called Schiehallion (after one of the mountains in the area) and realised he had at last found his niche. For the last few years the band had travelled the world, to wherever the Scots Diaspora had ventured - and that, he found, was just about everywhere!!

Although Roddie's stay in the dance class was brief, it was enough time for William, a lonely and introverted child, to become very attached to him and they grew to be inseparable friends at primary school. The boys lost touch, however, when William went to Gordonstoun and Roddie stayed in Aberfeldy to attend the local secondary school. For the first few years they met up during the holidays, determined to keep their friendship alive despite the lengthy separations, but in their later teenage years they grew apart as each began to feel uncomfortable amongst the other's friends.

And now, William thought with amazement, here he is playing his bagpipes on the stage - shit, he's good! As he watched his friend tap his foot in time to the music, William's eyes were drawn to the crush of swirling dancers as they whooped their way around the dance floor. Hell, I've missed this - and I've missed Roddie.

William had actually carried on with Scottish Country Dance classes while he attended Gordonstoun; and later at Glasgow University he enjoyed being a member of the university demonstration team - he even danced on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle during the Military Tattoo. He had lately though, due to work commitments and the amount of travelling he was doing between Pemberley, Glasgow and Strathlyon House, had to give up his dance class and the associated social life enjoyed by the Scottish Country Dance community. But he did enjoy a ceilidh - these were easy dances that didn't demand a great deal of concentration; it was the one time that he was able to let himself go and just feel the music that had always seemed to stir his blood!

~ * ~

The venue was packed to the gills and the two couples, having arrived late because Jane had been on call until 7pm, were lucky to get a table. William and Elizabeth were all set to join in, their feet itching to get up on to the dance floor. Jane, however, would have been more than happy to remain in her seat all night. Never having been to a ceilidh, she had no idea how to do any of the dances and was reluctant to try even though William had promised to guide her. Charles, on the other hand, had a vague memory of being forced - very much against his will at the time - to take part in social dancing at school and believed he could remember one or two of the dances if he got the chance to watch for a few minutes. Anyway, Elizabeth had elicited a promise from him before they'd left her flat that he would at least attempt a few dances with her - she'd said something about an Eightsome Reel being her favourite, but that was one he remembered as being way too intricate for him! He was hoping that William and Elizabeth - well, they were the ones who'd wanted to come, after all - would give up on their reluctant partners and dance with each other, leaving him to sit and chat with Jane.

Charles watched Elizabeth drumming her fingers on the table as she listened intently to the music and he knew it was only a matter of time before she asked him up for a dance. Hoping to put off the dreaded moment for as long as possible, he stood up and gestured in the direction of the bar.

"Drink anyone?" he asked. "I'll get the first round in. What are you all having?"

"Oh, Charles, can't that wait until we see what the next dance is?" Elizabeth urged, looking excitedly towards the dancers.

"I'll only be two minutes, Lizzy. The bar's quiet just now, so I might as well get in there before this dance ends and there's a rush. Now, William, a lager?"

"Please, Charles. And a white wine for Jane," William replied as he looked to Jane for confirmation.

"Red wine for me, Charles," Elizabeth sighed. Perhaps someone else would ask her to dance, because Charles looked about as enthusiastic as a wet rag and she didn't intend to spend her evening sitting on the sidelines.

"It's okay, Lizzy," Jane laughed at the peeved expression on her sister's face, "I'm sure William will be glad of a partner who truly wants to dance once he's dragged me around the floor a few times. This all looks a bit too complicated for me, I'm afraid!"

"Yes, Elizabeth," William agreed, "if Jane doesn't care to dance, I'd be happy to partner you. Although I have to say that I think Charles remembers these dances better than he's admitting. I can't understand it," he added, "Charles usually loves to dance."

No, I can't either, Elizabeth thought. Just what is his problem tonight?

When Charles returned from the bar, having taken as long as he possibly could (and yes it really was very interesting to him that the barman had once belonged to a circus), Elizabeth was already dancing with a young lad who'd been sitting at the next table.

"Charles, what a pity. You've missed an Eightsome Reel," William said with a wry grin. "Elizabeth knew you'd be disappointed, but she couldn't wait for you."

"Never mind," Charles replied, shrugging his shoulders and winking at Jane, "I can live with the deprivation."

"I've been watching Lizzy, Charles," Jane groaned. "There's not a hope of me doing a dance like that - heavens, they all have to go into the middle and do some sort of Highland Fling thing on their own. I'd be so embarrassed."

"That's okay, Jane, I can't do that one either. I remember trying it at school - I think I tied the whole set up in knots. We'll just have to sit and enjoy the music, I think."

"Enjoy?" Jane whispered behind her hand, not wanting to offend William. "This music, Charles ... d'you really mean that?"

Charles bent his head towards her and whispered back, "No, but don't tell my friend there ... or your sister. To be honest, I'd rather have spent the evening at home."

"Yes, me too, Charles. But we're here now, so let's make the best of it. We don't want to spoil the night for Lizzy and William. I'll tell you what though - if we all go out again, you and I should get to choose the entertainment."

"Agreed, Jane," Charles grinned. "Now, just what kind of entertainment do you have in mind? I'd be glad to treat you to my rendition of 'My Way' at the next Curlers Bar karaoke night. Perhaps you'd like to join me on stage."

"Oh no, Mr Bingley!" Jane smiled. You'd never get me drunk enough to do that - though if you want to entertain me in such a way, I'm all yours."

Poor Charles just managed a smile as he almost choked on his pint.

As the final note of the Eightsome Reel sounded and the dancers bowed and curtsied to their partners, Schiehallion's drummer announced that the next dance would be a Canadian Barn Dance. William managed to persuade Jane to give it a try, assuring her that she wouldn't have to dance with anyone else - just him ... and it was easy. Jane threw a wry glance at Charles as she took to the floor and laughed at his answering shake of the head.

Elizabeth didn't even make it back to the table. Her young partner's friend caught her hand as she passed his seat and she was dragged off, laughing, leaving Charles to enjoy his pint in peace.

~ * ~

When the band took a break, Roddie came down from the stage, eager to be introduced to the beautiful sisters William had told him about when they'd met in Aberfeldy earlier in the week. Elizabeth was immediately touched by the very close bond between the two men, even though as William had explained, they'd had little contact over recent years. It was obvious, though, that there was something of the old ties of childhood in their unabashed greeting and close embrace. As they stood side by side in their kilts - both of the same tartan, Elizabeth noticed - arms around each other's shoulders, they looked like clansmen from days long past ... well, apart from the tee shirts and the Caterpillar boots, she smiled, not quite the traditional dress of Highlanders - kind of ... the up-to-date version, I suppose!

As soon as she felt the warmth of his handshake and detected the devilish gleam in his eye, Elizabeth knew she was going to like Roddie Graham - though she did have cause to roll her eyes moments later as he pulled her close and whispered, "Well, when William described YOU, he wasn't exaggerating! I'm delighted to meet you, Elizabeth." Then, while she contemplated the meaning of his strange observation, he gave her a quick wink and turned away to shake hands with Charles and Jane. What on earth did he mean by that? Shit, I'm sure I've no idea!

William invited Roddie to sit at their table, hoping to catch up on all the gossip from home that his housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds didn't have time to share with him during their weekly phone calls. But as Roddie eyed the pint glasses on the table, his thirst got the better of him and, regretfully, he excused himself to go to the bar before the band was called back for a second set. William, having gathered up their empty glasses followed behind, not ready to let his old friend go just yet.

"It's so good to see you again, Roddie. You know there aren't many people you can meet after years apart and it just seems as though you were together the day before."

"I know what you mean, Will. I've thought about you often - especially when your mum and then your dad died." Roddie put his hand on his friend's shoulder, giving it a friendly rub as he added, "I'm sorry I couldn't be at your mum's funeral; we were touring Australia at the time - I ... couldn't get away."

"I know ... you're mum told me. It's okay, Roddie," William answered, a wistful smile playing on his lips, "I'm fine ... really."

"Good, Will, I'm glad to hear it."

By the time Roddie finally got served at the crowded bar, the two men had moved on to happier reflections. William was dumbfounded to learn that Roddie had recently married 'an Aussie sheila' he'd met on his last tour. Her name was Michelle and apparently she was dark and petite, just like Elizabeth.

"Well, Roddie - I didn't think you'd marry for a years yet. Your mum always said you were having too good a time with the 'ceilidh groupies'. I'm surprised Mrs Reynolds never mentioned your marriage though. She always kept me up to date with your love life."

"Well, maybe the smoke signals haven't reached Strathlyon yet. It was a ... kind of ... spur-of-the-moment thing, Will. I'd love you to meet her - maybe next time you're home?"

"Be glad to, Roddie. Just let me know when you'll both be there."

"Sure thing, Will. Now, enough about me - you've been talking about my love life ... what about yours? Which beautiful sister belongs to you? You sly thing - you didn't happen to say when we met in Aberfeldy."

"Go on, Roddie, have a guess."

"Well, let me see," Roddie reflected. "They're both very beautiful - no doubt about that. Now you were always a man for tall, leggy blondes and Jane certainly fits that bill - and she's stunning into the bargain. Hmmm," he puzzled, examining William's face for clues, "it's a hard one, that's for sure, but I'll go for ... Elizabeth."

"Do you mind telling me why?" William asked, surprised by Roddie's choice.

Roddie gave him a long and searching look, pretty sure his intuition had led him in the right direction. Judging by his friend's reaction, though, he had a feeling he was just about to be told he was wrong, but - what the heck - he continued anyway. "Because when we met in Aberfeldy the other day, Will, you talked about Elizabeth a fair bit - about how she loved the area, her enjoyment of ceilidhs and ceilidh music, how much I'd like her if I met her. The only thing you said about Jane, if I remember correctly, was that she was rather quiet. So ...I got the impression that you were quite interested in Elizabeth, hence my choice," he ended more decisively than he now felt. "Well ... ?"

"Well, what?"

"Well am I right?"

William let out a sigh as he replied, "Jane is my girlfriend, Roddie."

"Ah, Will, but that's not what I asked."

"Yes it is - you asked which sister belonged to me."

"Mmm, yes I suppose that's true - but it's not what I meant."

"Ah, too late, my friend," William smiled wryly. "Now, I'd better get back to the table with these drinks ... and I suppose you'll have to return to your ... adoring fans; they're starting to look restless. And the others are already on the stage."

"Okay, Will, but don't think we're finished with this conversation," Roddie warned.

Oh yes we are, William thought as he watched his friend mount the stage to enthusiastic cheers from the audience, there's no way I can share this - even with you.

When Roddie went back to his place on the stage and the music started up again, William pulled a reluctant Jane up on to the floor for another easy dance. He very thoughtfully made sure that they were situated at the bottom of their set so that Jane could watch the formations of the dance before she had to participate.

"It's quite easy, Jane, just watch the others and when someone sticks an arm out towards you - grab it and twirl round. By the time we get to the top of the set you should have got the hang of it."

As Elizabeth sat, elbow resting on the table and her chin cupped in her palm, she watched William and her sister dance Strip the Willow. She smiled at the look of concentration on Jane's face as she studied the dancers at the top of the set and could see her determination that she'd know what to do when her turn came. Elizabeth meditated, as she acknowledged William's wave towards their table, on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine legs encased in a kilt could bestow. Boy, does he look good in that kilt - he ought to have a health warning attached to his sporran! she thought. Wonder if he's a true Scotsman? Nah, with the amount of whirling about done at a ceilidh, there surely isn't a man here who'd risk it! Great pair of thighs though. Don't you just love the way a kilt swings? she sighed.

Reluctantly, Elizabeth turned her attention away from the dancers and looked at Charles sitting beside her; he was very quiet tonight, though she'd noticed when she was dancing that he'd had plenty to say to Jane. Something was obviously up, but when she'd asked he'd been very non-committal. It was so strange to see him looking so ... how could she describe it ... thoughtful? Reserved, almost! She'd certainly never seen him like this before and she just didn't know what to do about it.

"Charles, you're not enjoying yourself," she said. "I told Jane I didn't think this was your kind of thing. We can go home if you like."

"No, Lizzy, really, I'm fine. I've just got a lot on my mind just now, you know ... with dad retiring and expecting me to take over the business." Charles replied, a rueful smile on his face. "I'm sorry - I really don't want to spoil your evening. Let's do the next dance."

"Sure, Charles, but only if you want to ..."

"Well, as long as it's not too difficult - I'll give it a try."

When Strip the Willow ended, Jane and William collapsed into their seats, laughing together and trying to get their breath back. Jane was glowing with pleasure that she'd managed to do the dance without embarrassing herself - or her partner. Elizabeth examined them as they sipped their drinks - they looked so comfortable together, his arm draped casually along the back of her chair. It was funny to think that at first she and Charles had seemed the more compatible couple and yet Charles had hardly spoken more than a few words to her tonight - and Jane and William seemed to be getting on so well now; like old friends.

Fortunately for Charles the next dance was The Dashing White Sergeant - this was definitely one he remembered from school with particular pleasure - hell, he'd almost been sent out of the hall for enjoying it too much! He proffered his hand to Elizabeth with a smile and she rose from the table, glad that he'd decided to ask her up for at least one dance.

"Charles we need another man . . or a woman . . for this dance. D'you think Jane or William ... ?" Elizabeth asked as they moved towards the dance floor.

They looked at William and Jane hopefully, but they both shook their heads - they'd promised themselves a rest - and another drink. As she and Charles passed the neighbouring table, Elizabeth gestured to the young man who'd danced with her earlier and he smiled and jumped up to take her hand.

"Thanks," he grinned as they lined up opposite another group of three dancers to make up a set, "this one's a favourite of mine."

"Mine too," Elizabeth replied, just as Schiehallion's fiddler played the long chord that announced the start of the dance and the end of any possibility of further conversation.

William watched Elizabeth and her two partners dance their way around the hall, meeting a new threesome with each progression. Once they were out of sight he returned to the bar for another round of drinks, leaving Jane sitting at the table on her own. Thank goodness I'm not doing this one, Jane reflected as she shook her head and smiled in amazement at the antics of the dancers just a couple of feet from her table. The most alarming example - to Jane's untrained eye anyway - was the set of teenagers before her right now. They were so unruly when they danced round in a circle - the boys all pulling the girls as fast as they could go - that they just about landed in Jane's lap, leading her to wonder if she should join William at the bar - for her own safety! But then as the youngsters moved on, Jane spied Charles and Elizabeth, who had almost danced their way back to where they'd started. I'm glad to see Charles has cheered up a bit, she smiled to herself. That dance has certainly done him some good. Pity he doesn't have a kilt, though. I don't think I care much for the dancing ... or the music ... but the kilts - mmm hmm, not bad at all!

~ * ~

When the Gay Gordons was announced, Charles declared to Jane and William as he stood up from the table that this was the other dance that he actually remembered from his schooldays. "Come on, Jane," he urged, "we haven't had a dance yet - even I can lead you through this one! William can get Elizabeth up when she gets back from the toilet - you don't mind, Will, do you?"

"No, no," William replied, "on you go. I think this is one Jane will enjoy."

William waited for Elizabeth to return, hoping for the chance to dance with her without Jane and Charles watching from the sidelines. Where is she, for goodness' sake? The dance will have started by the time she gets back. Elizabeth, however, had been waylaid by her young friend from the next table as he returned from the bar and was already on the dance floor waiting for the music to begin. Just as William decided he should go and seek her out, he caught sight of her in the midst of the dancers and he had no choice but to settle down and wait for the next dance. As he waited, though, he got the best laugh of the night watching Charles' attempts to teach Jane this dance that he 'actually remembered from his schooldays.' It seemed that his friend's memory wasn't quite as good as he'd supposed and poor Jane ended up dragging him through the dance! Just as well she's a quick learner, William thought.

When Elizabeth returned to their table, William made sure he got his request in before any other young pup approached her. "Elizabeth, would you care to dance the next - they haven't announced what it is, but I'm sure we'll know it." Throwing a smile towards a giggling Charles and Jane, Elizabeth followed William back on to the dance floor that she'd only just left. To be quite honest she'd hoped to have a rest, but she'd noticed that William had sat the last dance out and she didn't want to disappoint him.

As Schiehallion's drummer moved away from his drum kit, he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, you'll be grateful to know that we've decide to show you some mercy. Please take your partners for a slow dance as Duncan plays 'Night in that Land' by Johnny Cunningham." And with a wink to the waiting dancers, he shouted to the back of the hall, "Dim the lights, Hector, give our dancers some privacy."

Elizabeth watched with alarm as the couples on the floor moved together for a slow dance to the wistful music played by Duncan, the band's fiddler who was now on stage alone. Sad, heart-touching notes seeped into her consciousness as Duncan, in a single spotlight, wove his spell. William looked at her, not quite knowing what to do, obviously having expected another fast and furious jig when he'd asked her to dance. Perceiving the shocked expression on Elizabeth's face, he felt once again an ache in his chest that she belonged to his friend.

"Would you prefer to sit this one out, Elizabeth?" he asked softly.

"I don't mind; it's up to you. You asked me to dance, but if you'd rather not ..."

"We'd look a bit silly if we walked off now, don't you think?"

Slowly, watching for her reaction and ready to back off in an instant, William put his fingertips on Elizabeth's waist and, just as gingerly, she grasped his shoulders with the lightest touch she could manage. The six inches between them felt like a very uncomfortable distance; an unaccustomed closeness and yet ... so far away and so ... awkward. Without realising they were doing it, the couple slowly danced their way to the other side of the hall, as far as possible from the table where Charles and Jane sat in darkness. It was too intimate a moment, uneasily shared, to be observed by their respective partners.

Gradually, as the sad notes insinuated themselves into Elizabeth and William on this public, but at the same time dark and intimate dance floor, they moved closer and closer together, each drawn inexorably to the other. William, feeling no resistance to his actions, clasped his hands behind Elizabeth's back and, pulling her close, felt the length of her against his body - toe to toe, head to chest, just as it should be. With a soft, gentle sigh, Elizabeth allowed herself to forget everything as she embraced William's neck, drawing him ever closer, feeling his desire for her in every fibre of her being. What, she thought abruptly, coming to her senses, his desire? SHOCK!! She knew this was wrong - shit, this was her sister's boyfriend! She was wading in too deep and, boy, was she going to be the one to get hurt! But for once, just for a little while, she didn't care. Rather, she felt a tingling from head to toe as she relaxed back into the comfort of William's ever-closer embrace. Hell, it's only a dance! With growing disquiet, however, Elizabeth realized that she had never felt this way about Charles, even in those hopeful first days of their relationship - if relationship was the correct word for something that felt as comfortable (and as boring) as an old, baggy - I don't have to make any effort - sweater.

William, too, felt the current spark between them - as he fully expected it would! The poignant fiddle music, echoing distant cries in sad glens; the welcome darkness that made him feel alone with Elizabeth; the way she felt in his arms - so right, so soft and sweet. Why could she not feel the 'rightness' of this? She must surely know within herself that Charles was not the one for her - or was that just what he wanted to believe? A little voice sounded in his head - who are you again ... oh, yes, her sister's BOYFRIEND. He did feel guilty, but he was, at this point, unable - and unwilling - to draw away from her.

"Elizabeth ... I have to tell you ... I . ."

"No, William," she interrupted, putting her fingertips to his lips.

For Elizabeth had just, in the instant that William had pulled her close, been hit by a massive thunderbolt; she'd just realised that she wasn't the only one longing for something she couldn't have; she'd just realised, from the way he held her as they danced, that William liked her more than he should. "You don't have to tell me anything. I understand, but it just ... can't ... be."

"I know, I know ... but I just want to say ... I'm sorry," William whispered into her hair, sending unanticipated frissons of yearning down through her body, right to her very toes.

"You ... we ... have done nothing to be sorry for at the moment, William. But," she warned, "let's just keep it that way." Then Elizabeth laughed wryly as she drew back her head and looked into his eyes. "Well, when I say you've nothing to be sorry for, Mr Darcy, I am of course forgetting your comment that I'm 'not your type'. You'll have to do a lot of grovelling to make me overlook that one!"

"Elizabeth," William cried, his mind racing back to his discussion with Charles on the night they first met Elizabeth. "You heard that conversation ... but how?"

"Oh, I was standing close to you at the bar." Sensing William's discomfort, Elizabeth took pity on him. "Don't fret, William. It's forgotten ... honestly. I'm glad we can be ... friends"

"But Elizabeth, please let me assure you that I didn't mean it." At Elizabeth's look of disbelief he smiled sheepishly. "Really! I was annoyed with Charles for getting in first with the best looking woman in the place. I ... I didn't want him to know that it mattered to me. I'm so sorry that you overheard my words." William drew her in close, engulfing her in a hug as he offered, "Charles is the luckiest man I know, Elizabeth, and there hasn't been a day since our first meeting that I haven't regretted my reticence that night."

Elizabeth was on the point of replying that their conversation was covering very dangerous ground and that they should perhaps put an end to it, when the final note of the fiddle soared into the darkness and the audience burst into rapturous applause. With greater reluctance than they'd ever felt in their lives, Elizabeth and William separated and returned to their table, hoping that their partners hadn't noticed anything untoward. Back at the table, however, they found Jane and Charles deep in conversation, blind to all that was going on around them - in fact Charles had moved into William's seat so that he could whisper into Jane's ear. Elizabeth reflected that they looked very cosy indeed and that thought went some way to alleviate her guilt over her dance with William.

Elizabeth couldn't help observing Will and Jane as they waited for Charles to fetch his car from the nearby car park. William appeared to be ... agitated? And Jane ... well she was even quieter than usual. It appeared that they stood side by side with a million miles between them ... or did it just seem that way because of what had just happened on the dance floor? Elizabeth closed her eyes and remembered the intimate closeness in which she and Will had danced ... the tingling in her arms as she wrapped them around his neck ... the feeling of his body pressed against hers. Oh, shit, she thought, I hope Jane didn't watch us dance; maybe they've had a disagreement. This won't do - I can't bear to hurt her, she doesn't deserve it - just because of my stupid emotions. As the thoughts rushed through her mind, Elizabeth knew that she had to have some time to herself to think things through - thank goodness the October holiday was coming up. She knew that what she felt for Charles wasn't enough to sustain a relationship and she knew she wasn't being fair to him. But what to do about it ... that was the question that she needed time on her own to contemplate.

~ * ~

That night in the sanctuary of her room, as she wondered how she'd got herself into such a mess, Elizabeth gave herself over to an unaccustomed bout of weeping. She finally admitted to herself that she had very deep feelings for William - she wouldn't allow herself to call it love ... yet ... but she knew she was close to reaching that destination. She silently and painfully wept for herself and for William, who tonight had more than hinted at his feelings for her, and for Charles - she'd have to tell this dear, delightful man that their short-lived relationship was over. And finally she wept for her sister - the gentlest, most beautiful person she knew.

Elizabeth fetched her grandmother's favourite book of poetry and settled into bed to wallow in a poem that reflected her sadness. She was feeling so sorry for herself and there was nothing she could do about it without upsetting someone she cared for. Softly, with tears running down her face and dripping on to the well-thumbed page; as thoughts of William and memories of her grandmother swirled in her mind, she read:

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae farewell, and then forever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the stars of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerfu' twinkle lights me,
Dark despair around benights me ... .*

Elizabeth stopped there, unable to continue to the end. She'd always loved this poem - the words, both yearning and hopeless, had always touched her deeply. But tonight they mirrored too closely her own feelings. Emptied of tears, Elizabeth dropped the book to the floor and lay down on her bed, sleep eluding her for some considerable time. Just before she dropped off, she reviewed her miserable behaviour since she'd returned from the ceilidh. "Elizabeth Bennet," she castigated herself aloud, "you are getting way too melodramatic, repeating sad love poems and crying over your sister's boyfriend. For God's sake, get a grip!"

The next day Jane was thoughtful and rather quieter than usual, but to Elizabeth's relief there was no hint of anger or any indication that she'd noticed anything untoward the night before. She did mention that she'd really enjoyed her dance with Charles and thanked Elizabeth for letting her borrow him for a little while. Elizabeth observed that Jane couldn't bring herself to look her in the eye as she said her thank you - strange, she thought, it's almost as though she's feeling guilty. My God, wouldn't it be ironic if she liked Charles. But no ... Elizabeth banished the thought from her mind. She'd seen the way her sister looked at William - and she should know that look, hell she tried so hard to keep that same expression off her own face often enough. And, let's face it, she mused, who'd want Charles when they could have William?!

~ * ~

When William returned home from the ceilidh, his agitated mind prevented him from settling to anything. Sleep escaped him, and he eventually gave up the chase. But he could not calm his spirit enough to read or listen to music - his usual pastimes on wakeful nights. He knew now that he could not remain in a relationship with Jane while he cared for Elizabeth - and he no longer had any doubts about that. Apart from anything else, it was too hard for him to see her with Charles; to see Charles kiss her cheek or casually put his arm around her shoulder. Yes, he felt that Elizabeth could return his feelings if the circumstances were different but what could he do about it? He could see no way to resolve the situation without someone dear to him being hurt. He was glad he'd begun to make the arrangements to escape to Strathlyon for a while because he certainly couldn't go on like this! He knew now, however, that before he left he'd have to break up with Jane. And then Elizabeth will hate me - and who'd blame her!

* 'Ae Fond Kiss' by Robert Burns.

Chapter Seven

Elizabeth was on an outing with her third year class when she got the phone call. She and her pupils were enjoying The Merchant of Venice, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Touring Company at the Tramway in Glasgow's south side. Well, Elizabeth was enjoying the play - by the looks on their faces, her pupils were barely enduring the spectacle.... with one or two exceptions, of course. The students were growing restless as the first half drew to a close and Elizabeth had to glower at her charges to maintain their reluctant silence. For the life of her, she could not understand their dislike of any work of literature that was written earlier than 'Trainspotting'. And she knew many of them had read every Irvine Welsh novel with little apparent difficulty!

At the interval, just before the second half was about to begin, there was an announcement. "Would Elizabeth Bennet, of Hillhead High School, please come to the house telephone."

Her pupils turned to look at her in amazement, intrigued by an interruption that just might be the source of some diversion. They all knew, however, that the call must be very important or their teacher wouldn't have been disturbed at the theatre. Elizabeth, the same thought crossing her mind, rushed anxiously to the phone.

"Hello, this is Elizabeth Bennet speaking."

"Elizabeth, at last, thank God! It's William here. Now don't panic, but I have some very bad news ...I'm sorry. Jane has been attacked," William paused as Elizabeth drew a painful gulp of air into her lungs. He continued when no further sound came from her but a low moan, "She's not in danger, Elizabeth, but she's had a stab wound to her shoulder and she's been beaten about the head and body. She's..."

Elizabeth, barely able to understand William's words, broke in, "What happened? Where was she? William, she is going to be all right?"

"Jane will be okay, Elizabeth, but she'll be out of action for a while, I'm afraid. I managed to have a few words with her before the doctor took over. As far as I can gather she was out on a routine visit to one of her clients, a woman ...a drug addict with three children on the at-risk register. Unfortunately, Jane didn't know that her client had a new boyfriend who took exception to the questions she was asking about the welfare of the children. He was high, Elizabeth, and just ...lost it, I guess. He beat Jane about the head as she struggled to get herself out of the flat and then when she tried to get to the door of the close, he stabbed her and she fell against the wall. She hit her head and can't remember anything else. Thank God the woman had enough decency in her to call for an ambulance."

"William, I'll get a taxi as soon as I've organised someone to take charge of my pupils. I'll be there as soon as possible. Can you stay until I get to the hospital?"

"Of course," William replied, reminding Elizabeth with his next words that he was her sister's boyfriend, "I'm not going anywhere as long as I'm needed here. But Elizabeth, hang on a moment, Charles is on his way ...I called him when I couldn't contact you at the school. He's going to wait outside the theatre for you ...to bring you to the hospital. Is that all right?"

"Yes, thanks, Will. Oh, I'm so glad you're there."

"As I said, as long as you ...and Jane ...need me, I'll be here."

As Elizabeth put the phone down, Charles walked in through the theatre entrance, concern showing in his expression as he saw the tears streaming down her face. Gently he took her hand in his and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. Elizabeth would love to have paused for a few minutes, soothed by Charles' warm hug - but she had no time to waste, she had to see her sister.

"Oh, Charles, Jane has been attacked. I have to get to the hospital as quickly as possible, but I must phone the school first. I can't leave all of these children with Mrs Frost."

"Lizzy, you take my car. I'll phone the school and stay with Mrs Frost and your pupils until someone gets here. Surely that'll be allowed under the circumstances?" Charles looked at her panic-stricken face and added, "Will you be able to drive, Lizzy? ...Lizzy?" But Charles was calling to an empty space. Elizabeth had grabbed the keys from his outstretched hand and was making for the door of the theatre without a backward glance.

~ * ~

Elizabeth hurried into Accident and Emergency and spied William sitting with his head in his hands. For a moment she panicked, her heart stopping as she jumped immediately to the conclusion that Jane's condition must have deteriorated, but then William looked up and gave her a weak smile. Elizabeth ran to him and, without even giving it a thought, threw herself into his arms.

"William, how is Jane?" she cried as she looked up into his face.

"Don't worry, Elizabeth. She's in theatre, but the doctor has assured me that the wound hasn't done any damage that can't be repaired. Jane'll be fine, you'll see," William promised her. "She'll be here for a few days, though, and then of course she'll be off work for some time." William was mortified, under these circumstances, to find that he thoroughly enjoyed having Elizabeth in his arms - if only this moment would never end.

"Oh, William, how can this have happened to Jane? You know her, she is the kindest, most caring person ..." Elizabeth felt so much better with William holding her to him so tightly, but after a few seconds she flinched, suddenly coming to her senses, and, regretfully extricating herself from William's embrace, she added, "I knew something like this would happen - that bloody job, it's just not right for her. How could she be so stupid as to risk her safety?"

"Elizabeth, don't be too harsh on her," William admonished, sad that she'd just pushed him away when he longed to comfort her. "She didn't know the woman's boyfriend was there. She was just doing ...what she was supposed to do."

"I know, I'm sorry, Will." Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders, her eyes filling with tears. "It's just that everyone else knows the job doesn't suit her - but she's got more than a smidgen of that Bennet stubborn streak when she thinks she's in the right and she won't listen to reason."

"Well I think this will be quite a wake-up call for her, don't you?" William put his hand on her arm. "Elizabeth, you will be gentle with her when you go in to see her." "

What do you think I am, William?" Elizabeth retorted, angry that he felt he needed to protect her sister from her. "You surely don't think I'd bring up anything about her job at a time like this?"

"I apologise, Elizabeth," William said, passing his hand over his eyes. "This morning has been overwhelming. I wasn't criticising, honestly."

Elizabeth gave him a long, slow look. What is he feeling now, she wondered? Had the thought of losing Jane made him feel more tenderly towards her? He certainly looked ...perturbed? Elizabeth shook her head, angry with herself.

"Will I be allowed to see her, do you think?"

"The doctor said we'll be allowed in as soon as she comes down from theatre," William answered. "Perhaps while you're waiting you could contact your parents? I thought I should leave that to you."

"Oh yes, I suppose I should." Elizabeth winced at the thought of her mother's reaction to this drama. "But William, why did the police get in touch with you? I'm Jane's nearest relative here in Glasgow."

"Well I'm afraid the man who attacked Jane escaped with her bag - looking for money, I suspect. The woman - Jane's client - gave the police no indication that Jane was her social worker, which was a bit stupid because they were bound to connect them very quickly. Anyway, the police found a business card I'd given Jane in the pocket of her jacket when they searched her, so they phoned me. I gave them her work number and the name of your school, but you'd already gone off to the theatre."

"Oh, okay." Elizabeth was silent for a while, taking in all that William had said. Then she asked, "William, you mentioned that the police searched her - that means she was unconscious?"

"I'm afraid she was, Elizabeth. She came round in the ambulance." Elizabeth looked so tiny and so forlorn at that moment that he longed to hug her again, to absorb some of the pain plainly visible on her face. But he knew that such comfort was not likely to be acceptable from him.

~ * ~

Having been prompted again by William and then by Charles when he arrived, Elizabeth reluctantly called her parents. They had, however, been informed by the local police and were already aware of the attack. As expected Frances Bennet had collapsed, her nerves shattered by the dreadful news concerning her favourite daughter. Elizabeth could hear her mother's whining voice in the background as her father spoke to her.

"Elizabeth, are you all right, my dear?" enquired Rob Bennet.

"Yes, dad. I am now that I know Jane will recover - physically, that is; heaven knows how this will affect her mentally!" Elizabeth struggled to keep her voice from trembling as she thought of her sister's ordeal. "Dad, are you and mum coming up?"

"Yes, of course. Your mother has started packing already. I should think we'll be able to leave within the hour."

"I suppose mum must come ..."

"I can't see any way round it, Lizzy, can you?"

"No, I suppose not. When do you think you'll get here?"

"Well, now that I know Jane isn't in grave danger, I'll not speed up the motorway. We should certainly be with you very late this evening or, more likely, early tomorrow morning. We'll make a few stops on the way and we'll visit Jane some time tomorrow."

"What about Lydia?"

"Well, there's no way I'm leaving her in this house on her own - not after the party she had last year when we went on holiday. I'm afraid she'll have to come with us."

"I suppose," Elizabeth agreed reluctantly. "Okay, dad. I'll see you when you get here. Bye."

"Bye, Lizzy, take care ...and give our love to Jane when you see her."

~ * ~

Elizabeth, Charles and William stood in silence outside Jane's room awaiting her return from theatre. Charles, normally a mild and easy-going man, felt himself to be as angry as he'd ever been in his life. How could anyone do this to Jane? She was an angel. He couldn't bring himself to speak because he knew if he tried to discuss the attack with the others, he'd surely let his feelings show. Shit, I shouldn't even be having these feelings - what am I going to be like when I see her? And poor William, he must be devastated.

But no, William was not exactly feeling devastated. He was of course sorry that Jane had been attacked, but at that moment he was feeling very guilty. Here was his 'girlfriend' lying in a hospital bed, having been punched and stabbed by some drugged up thug and all he could think about was how Elizabeth was coping and how she'd pushed him away when he'd only wanted to offer his reassurance. He glanced down at her - she looked so white, so anxious as she scanned the corridor for the first sight of her sister being returned to her room. How he wanted her to come to him for comfort. After all, he thought, Charles isn't doing a very good job at the moment. Look at him - lost in a dream. You'd think he could at least provide her with some support. Can't he see she needs him now?

After what seemed like hours two nurses appeared in the corridor, pushing Jane's bed towards her room. They smiled at the trio as they passed, but Elizabeth, William and Charles didn't notice - they were too busy gasping in horror as they took in Jane's appearance. Charles just had time to murmur, "My God ...did you see ..." before one of the nurses reappeared through the door.

"If you'd like to wait out here for a few minutes we'll just get Jane settled, then you can come in and see her." The nurse gave them a sympathetic smile as she observed their shocked faces. "You won't stay for long though, she'll need to rest ..."

"No, of course not," Elizabeth muttered, looking on the point of tears yet again. "We just want a few words with her, just to ...to give her our love."

When the nurse opened the door Elizabeth was the first to rush to Jane's bedside. She so wanted to take Jane's hand in hers but her sister's poor fingers were black and blue and her beautiful nails ragged and torn. "Jane," Elizabeth groaned, "Look at you."

"I'd rather not, if you don't mind, Lizzy," Jane replied, trying to give them all as much of a smile as she could manage, "I don't think I'm looking my best at the moment. Elizabeth," she continued, "why are you here? You should be at the theatre with your pupils."

"Don't be daft, Jane. How could I be anywhere but here?"

"I'm so sorry, Lizzy, to put you through this. I wouldn't have wanted you to be taken away from your class if I'd had a choice." Jane glanced at William, trying her best to frown. He just shrugged his shoulders. He knew he'd done the right thing.

"Jane, what do you think I'd have said to William if he hadn't phoned me until after the play was finished?" Elizabeth very gently kissed her sister's bruised cheek then sat on the chair beside her bed. "I can assure you, his life would not be worth living," she continued, winking at Jane in a half-hearted attempt to tease her.

"Oh, Lizzy, don't make me laugh, please. It's too painful."

"Sorry, Jane. I can see from the bruising that your face must hurt terribly. What about the rest of you? Your ...wound." Elizabeth asked hesitantly, "Is it sore?"

"It's not too bad now, thanks. The doctor gave me something for the pain and it seems to be taking effect." Jane gave a feeble smile and looked across the room to where William and Charles were standing. "You two don't need to stay. I know how busy you are."

"I'm not going anywhere, Jane," William replied. "Work can wait."

Charles nodded his head in agreement, almost too shocked at Jane's appearance to speak. "I'll stay too if you don't mind, Jane," he mumbled. "Lizzy may need me to take her home - or back to the school to get her car."

"Thank you both, you're very kind."

"Jane," Elizabeth said, "I'm going to take leave so that I can look after you when you come out of hospital."

"No, Lizzy. I'm sure that won't be necessary. It would have to be unpaid leave and I know you can't afford that."

"I must, Jane, they'll have you out of here in no time and it'll be a while before you can manage on your own."

"Perhaps," William offered tentatively, "I could have Mrs Reynolds nurse you, Jane. She's my Strathlyon housekeeper and she's down in Glasgow just now. I really don't need her."

"That's okay, William," Elizabeth retorted, highly insulted that he should think for a moment that she would allow a stranger to care for her sister, "Jane has family - she doesn't need to be attended to by a servant."

"Mrs Reynolds is not a servant, Elizabeth," William replied with a frown, "she's an employee."

"Hmmph, seems more like a servant to me if you can change her job description without even consulting her."

"I'm sorry if I've offended you, Elizabeth. I was only trying to help," William offered, rather insulted that she should turn on him in such an angry way. God, she is so mercurial - I never know how she is going to react!

"Well, we can manage quite well without your help, William. I'm sure I can ..."

"Please, you two," Charles cut in. "Look, you're upsetting Jane. There's no need to discuss this just now. I'm sure she'll be here for a few days anyway."

"Well ..." Elizabeth sighed, wondering where her sudden resentment towards William had come from. "I'm sorry, William, I shouldn't have had a go at you like that. But Jane," she continued, turning towards her sister, "I am going to look after you - no arguments!"

"We'll see, Lizzy, I ..."

Just then the nurse popped her head round the door. "Sorry, folks, I think it's time to leave. Jane needs to rest after all that's happened today. You can come back tomorrow - I'm sure she'll be feeling a lot better after a night's sleep."

~ * ~

William, Elizabeth and Charles walked slowly to the car park, each of them coming to terms with the shock they'd got when they'd caught sight of Jane's bruised face. Elizabeth was, of course, able to give vent freely to her feelings - which she did ...vehemently. She was also, however, feeling guilty over the way she'd snapped at William. Where had that come from? After all, he'd only been trying to help - and why shouldn't he? - he was Jane's boyfriend, after all. And she wasn't within her rights to be angry about that. She stopped suddenly and clutched at William's arm. She thought for a moment that he was going to ignore her and, worse still, pull away from her grasp. But he turned reluctantly towards her, allowing her to see momentarily the injured look on his face.

"I'm so sorry, William. I don't know what came over me. It was very kind of you to offer Mrs Reynolds' services. Please forgive me."

"Of course, Elizabeth. I know you must be feeling overwrought. I shouldn't have blurted it out like that - I should have discussed it with you first. I just ...sort of ...said it as soon as I thought it."

Elizabeth smiled up at him, watching the hurt begin to disappear from his eyes as he made the effort to return her smile. "Thank you ...for everything, William." They looked at each other for several long moments, both glad that their disagreement was over, though William was still left wondering how it had come about. After all, his only thought had been to help her - surely after their dance at the ceilidh that was obvious to her?

~ * ~

That evening Elizabeth called her mother's mobile. She wanted to let her know that she'd seen Jane and that, despite the bruising and the flesh wound, her precious daughter wasn't too badly hurt. She also wanted to tell her about William and Charles - before she came into their company and embarrassed everyone with her overwhelming gratitude. Elizabeth knew that her mother wouldn't care too much about her 'conquest' - she'd just be surprised and wonder how long it would take Elizabeth to muck it up. But Jane ...and with a millionaire, why possibly a billionaire! No words would be able to express her joy ...though she'd certainly try ...and at length ...and to everyone's mortification except her own.

"Lizzy, I don't believe it! Why didn't you girls tell me this before? What do you think, Lydia?" Frances cried, turning to her youngest daughter in the back seat of the car. "Your sister has caught herself a very rich boyfriend. Oh, I knew she could not be so beautiful for nothing. The Darcy family - of course I've heard of them. They have an estate not far from where your grandmother was brought up, Elizabeth. I remember seeing his mother, Lady Anne, once in Aberfeldy. Oh, I can hardly breathe, I'm so excited. Lizzy, I'll have to go. Why I'm almost speechless."

With that there was silence. Poor William, thought Elizabeth. He doesn't know what he's letting himself in for - my mother's display of gushing attention is enough to put anyone off. Well, she sighed, maybe she'll frighten him away - and I'll be free of this heartache ...and this guilt. But then, what would that do to poor Jane? My God, how can I think like that after all she's been through? And when she seems to be so keen on him - oh, what a great sister I am, right enough!

~ * ~

Elizabeth heard her mother before she saw her. Frances Bennet entered Jane's room sobbing and leaning heavily on her husband's arm - so affected was she by her nerves that her legs were barely able to support her weight.

"Jane, Jane, my poor dear girl," she cried as she hovered over her daughter. "Who could have done this to you? What a dreadful state I'm in, my dear. You know we stopped at a Travel Inn at - oh, somewhere on the motorway - and I didn't get a moment's sleep. All I could think about was you. I'm ..." At that moment Frances looked around the room and noticed William and Charles who'd moved away from Jane's bed to allow her parents in to see her. "Oh, you must be William," she said, suddenly all smiles as she held out her hand to Charles. "You're just as handsome as I expected you to be and if I may say so just right for my Jane. And this must be Charles ...a pleasure to meet you too."

"Mum, you really should wait until you're introduced," Elizabeth laughed. "You've got them mixed up, I'm afraid." Elizabeth then introduced the two men, wondering at her mother's mistake as William was quite obviously the more handsome of the pair. She smiled to herself then as William began to receive the full onslaught of her mother's charm - and Charles was left to languish in the background.

Well, Frances reasoned, there's no point in wasting my time on Charles - Lizzy will never hang on to him. I must say though, he's more my Jane's type than William, who looks a bit of a cold fish to me. Hah! she sniggered to herself, what am I thinking? It's the millionaire bit that's important, after all.

From then on Frances addressed all her conversation towards William, beckoning him to come and sit by her at Jane's bedside so that she could have the pleasure of seeing them together.

"Oh, what a beautiful couple you make, don't you think so, Lizzy - don't they make a beautiful couple? My dear," she said turning towards her husband, who'd sat himself on the other side of Jane's bed and was holding her hand and speaking softly to her, "I'm quite parched, could you get me a cup of tea from somewhere?"

"Frances, I've just got here. Can't it wait?"

"I'll go if you like, Mrs Bennet," offered William.

"I'm sure you can't be spared, William," Frances replied, holding on to his arm as he tried to rise from his seat. "Jane needs you here. Lizzy will go - or perhaps Charles would ..."

Of course Charles was glad to oblige. He didn't know how much of this fawning over Jane's precious boyfriend he could take. "Does anyone else want anything from the coffee bar?"

As Charles left the room with just the one order for a cup of tea, Elizabeth asked her mother, "Where's Lydia, mum? I thought she'd be here with you."

Oh, don't talk to me about that little madam. We stopped off at your flat to leave our bags - I have to say, Lizzy, you've left it in quite a state - and she flatly refused to come to the hospital with us. She said something about meeting up with that young girl she met last summer - Kelly, was it? - you know, the one who lives in the next close to you. I said we'd pick her up at the flat before going out to dinner. Don't worry, Jane, I'll make sure she comes to see you tomorrow," she smiled, patting Jane's bruised hand and causing her to wince, "I know how fond you two are of each other."

Jane looked at her mother with raised eyebrows - but there was no point in disagreeing with her for she was always right. Elizabeth and her father just smiled at each other without comment.

Frances turned to William, who was annoyed with himself for not escaping to the coffee bar in Charles' place, and remarked, "When the policeman came to the door, William, and said he had some bad news concerning our daughter, I was quite calm because I thought he'd come to tell us that something had happened to Lizzy - it never occurred to me that it would be about our Jane. Well," she laughed, wondering at the stunned look on William's face, "if anything bad happens in our family, Lizzy is always involved somehow or other. It's never Jane, I can assure you - unless Lizzy has dragged her into it, of course."

"Mother!" Elizabeth cried.

"Mrs Bennet!" William exclaimed as he watched Elizabeth rise from her seat at the other side of the bed, hurt etched across her face. "That is hardly an appropriate comment to make at a time like this."

"Well I didn't say that I wished it on her, for heaven's sake! I didn't say I'd rather it had been Lizzy! There's no need for her to be flying off in a temper when I'm in such a state with my nerves that I hardly know what I'm saying. And please, William," she simpered, getting an inkling that maybe she'd gone too far, "call me Frances."

Elizabeth walked slowly out of Jane's room, wanting to put a distance between herself and her mother before she said something in the heat of the moment that she'd regret later. William caught sight of her face as she left - tears were welling in her eyes. Frowning pointedly at Mrs Bennet he followed, hoping to catch up with her before she got too far. As he turned the corner, though, he almost collided with Elizabeth secure in Charles' arms. He winced as he heard Charles softly comfort her and he turned away, knowing he had no place there and wishing, for the umpteenth time, that he had never become involved with the Bennet sisters.

What a fucking mess, he thought. I'm not going to be able to say anything about splitting up to Jane now that she's been hurt and I feel such a jerk for not being able to get Elizabeth out of my mind.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was exhausted; whether it was the result of a couple of days worrying about Jane or just a few hours listening to her mother's whining, nagging voice, she wasn't quite sure. But by the time she and her parents got back to her flat with William and Charles, she was fit to drop. She'd been at the hospital almost all day - as had the two men - and now that Jane was resting peacefully after the twin ordeals of the attack and her mother's visit, they'd all decided to go for something to eat. Food or rest ...food or rest, Elizabeth considered. My stomach's rumbling so hard that I don't think I'll be able to sleep until I eat. One thing she did know though was that she didn't feel up to going out for a meal with her mother and was now trying to persuade her to stay at the flat; but Frances was having none of it.

"No, Lizzy, we're going out for dinner - you know you can't cook." Frances turned to William as she continued, "Jane does all the cooking, William. She's such a wonderful homemaker, you know."

"Mum," Elizabeth sighed, "that's just not true. I've been away from home for almost six years now. You've got no idea what I can do. I ..."

"Hmph! I know that you turned your sister into one of these ...vegetarians," Frances interrupted, disgust lacing her words. "She'd never have gone against my wishes like that without your influence. And she's beginning to look so thin - I'm sure her diet is bad for her. And you, Lizzy ...you're getting plump, my girl. You've got that kind of figure that turns to fat if you don't watch what you eat."

"Mother, you can't have it both ways," Elizabeth laughed ruefully. "Jane and I eat the same food - vegetarianism cannot be making her thin ...and me fat!"

Charles decided to intervene at this point; he was appalled at the way Frances had taken every opportunity throughout the day to pick on Elizabeth and frankly he was fed up with her behaviour. "Frances, I think going out would be a good idea," he said, looking at Elizabeth with an apologetic smile. "What about Gardiner's then? I'm sure you'll all feel more comfortable at your brother's restaurant than anywhere else at the present time. Unfortunately," he continued, "I won't be able to join you. I have to make some important calls this evening."

As Charles spoke, William was busy staring at Elizabeth. How on earth could her mother call her - what was it - plump? Why, she had the most exquisite figure ...the most perfect hourglass shape ...a shape that made a man just want to reach out and ...He stopped in his tracks when his conscious mind caught up with what had just been said and he realised that he was going to have to go to dinner with the Bennet family while Charles was managing to escape. Bloody Charles got in first with his excuse. There's no getting out of it for me now. How do I just know that this will be a nightmare?

"No, I'm not going to Gardiner's," huffed Frances, not in the least concerned that Charles would not be accompanying them to dinner. "I don't want to go there - it's all that hippy veggie food and I know I won't like anything."

"But mum, it's your brother's restaurant - we can't really go anywhere else. They'll be expecting us and of course they'll want to hear all about Jane." Elizabeth frowned, frustration evident on her face ...to everyone except her mother.

"Are you coming, William. If you'll come, I might be persuaded," Frances simpered, patting his arm affectionately. "Then I can tell you all about Jane. Won't that be nice now?"

Not waiting for a reply, Frances went off to get her coat as Elizabeth began to follow in her wake, leaving William feeling as if he'd been knocked on the head by the Frances Bennet sledgehammer. Elizabeth's father chuckled at his stunned look and, turning to face him, commiserated, "Don't worry, son, if you come into constant contact with her, you will learn some coping strategies, I assure you." As William was just considering that he didn't want to learn 'coping strategies', certainly not for Jane's sake anyway, Frances rushed back into the room.

"My goodness, how could I have forgotten about Lydia? Where is she, Robert? Something's happened to her. I told you this city's not safe. Lizzy, there's nothing else for it, you're going to have to look for her. Perhaps Charles will help you before he rushes off home."

"I'm so sorry, Frances," Charles replied. "As I said, I have to get back; I've missed a lot of work in the last couple of days.... I'd love to help, really, but I can't.

Frances gave him a look that said she just knew Lizzy's boyfriend wouldn't be much use then she sighed and turned to her husband. "Robert, you'll have to ..."

"I'll help Elizabeth, Frances." William cut her short, welcoming the opportunity to avoid sharing in what he thought was going to be an unpleasant family dinner. "I know the city much better than Robert, I'm sure. Perhaps he can drive you to the restaurant and we'll join you there when we find your daughter."

Frances wasn't happy with this arrangement. She was considered by most people of her acquaintance to be a stupid and insensitive woman, but she was not unobservant, especially where her daughters were concerned. She'd noticed very soon after meeting him that William Darcy treated Elizabeth very ...tenderly ...and she didn't like it. To her it smacked too much of attraction. She'd be watching that pair - after all someone had to look after poor Jane's interests while she was stuck in hospital, not looking her best!

"Well, I suppose that'll have to do," Frances admitted reluctantly. "We'll not wait for you at the Gardiners though, Lizzy. Heaven knows how long it will take you to find your sister. I always said Kelly was a bad influence on our Lydia. You know I never like to criticise anyone, but she sounds like such a common sort of girl."

"Who, Kelly?" Elizabeth asked with surprise. "She is not! Her family may not be ...all that it should be, but she's a very bright student - one of the brightest in my class. I would venture, in fact, that Lydia is far more likely to be the bad influence in that friendship. Her track record ..."

"How can you say that about your own sister, Elizabeth Bennet," cried Frances. "You know she's been well brought up - not dragged up in the streets of this God-forsaken city. Now just go and find her please ...my nerves can't take any more of this kind of talk."

~ * ~

As William followed Elizabeth downstairs to the close entrance, he breathed a rather loud sigh of relief. He'd never in his life wanted to punch a woman - never - but with Frances Bennet his patience had been sorely tried - all day!

Just before they reached the front door leading out on to the street, William caught hold of Elizabeth's arm. He'd had to share her with her family (and of course with Charles!) all day and he needed a few moments alone with her before they went in search of Lydia. He couldn't have explained what he hoped to achieve by stopping her, except that he'd had a horrible feeling that she'd been slipping away from him over the last couple of days and he needed to re-establish the connection he felt they'd made at the ceilidh. What am I thinking? - slipping away from ...she was never mine in the first place. Of course she should rely on Charles at a time like this, much as it makes me sick to the stomach to think it. God, when did I become such a selfish bastard? Still, his longing was becoming overwhelming and, selfish or not, he wanted her attention to himself, even if it was in anger. To William's surprise, she didn't pull her arm away but looked up into his face, a tiny smile gracing her lips.

No, Elizabeth didn't pull her arm away as she knew she should have done. Rather, she felt immediately comforted by his touch and allowed herself to become intoxicated by the warm expression in his eyes. Having watched his gentleness with Jane at the hospital, she'd wondered ...well no matter what she'd wondered ...she was sick to death of wondering!

William interrupted her thoughts. "Is your mother always like that, Elizabeth?"

She laughed, having caught the note of exasperation in his voice. "Always like what?"

"Well ...you know ...criticising you, praising Jane. Is she always so ...demanding? And your father - he just ignores her. Why doesn't he ever defend you?"

"Phew!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "That's quite a summation of my parents, William, and on such a short acquaintance too. I am impressed."

"Well, I would apologise, Elizabeth, but from what you and Jane have said in the past, and from what I've observed, it's ..."

"True. Yes, I know. Don't worry, you don't need to apologise. And as for my dad ...well, he did try to defend me when I was younger, but," she shrugged, "it just seemed to make things worse. We - he and I, that is - have found it best just to ignore her."

"But you can't tell me that you're not hurt by the things she says - she is your mother."

"It's okay, William. This has been going on all my life; I'm used to it." The rather too bright smile left her face abruptly. "I will admit to you that it is hurtful though. Anyway," she added, "let's not talk about this any more. We need to find Lydia before she gets up to any mischief - or that'll be my fault too." William watched as shiny tears pooled in her eyes and began to slide down her face.

"Oh, Elizabeth," he sighed, "I didn't mean to upset you." And unable to stop himself, he caught her in his arms and drew her to him, not caring that she'd be angry, not caring that she'd reject him soon enough.

Surprisingly, though, she did not fight him. Instead he was amazed to feel her arms slowly encircle his neck and she clung to him tightly, her head resting against his chest, as though she never wanted to let go. William, though he knew she was upset, was overwhelmed that she was allowing herself at last to be comforted by him. As she turned her face up to his, he couldn't resist and tenderly he placed his lips against hers in a longed-for kiss and allowed his fingers to touch the soft tendrils of her hair. The rush of feeling that merely holding her brought to his senses was exquisite. How he wished he could just take her home with him and forget the mess they were in.

Elizabeth sobbed as she responded to the gentle pressure of William's mouth. This feels so good. I don't want him ever to stop. For the first time in years she did not feel the familiar panic close around her heart. Here was her home. I knew it - I knew it would be like this with him.... But then her conscience kicked in - what was she doing but making things harder for herself? And why was he taking advantage of her vulnerability? So she backed off, withdrawing her arms from his neck ...even though every fibre of her being was telling her to keep holding him close.

"We can't do that ever again, William." Elizabeth spoke in a whisper, unable to look him in the face.

"Don't say that ...please, Elizabeth."

"William, you're my sister's boyfriend ...I'm you're best friend's girlfriend. It would be too painful to unravel our lives and tie them up differently."

"You don't know how things can change, Elizabeth."

"I think Jane likes you a lot, Will," Elizabeth explained as gently as she could. "Don't you see, even if you break it off with her - there'll be no future for us. I couldn't do that to her ...or to Charles, for that matter. Now," she continued, striving to make her voice sound calm, "please let's look for Lydia. I think we should start with Kelly's mum - she lives in the next close."

William could hear the resolve in Elizabeth's tone and knew better than to continue ...for now. He could certainly see the truth of her argument - after all it was nothing if not a messy business. But he was too far in to give her up now. All he could do was hope for a miracle ...though what form that could possibly take was a mystery to him at the moment.

~ * ~

When Elizabeth and her parents arrived at the hospital the next day they passed two policemen coming out of Jane's room.

"How are you feeling today, Jane," Elizabeth enquired. "Those bruises are quite spectacular now, I must say."

"I'm a bit tired out actually, Lizzy. The police have been here half the morning, asking questions about the guy who attacked me. And would you believe a reporter was here? That's the last thing I need. I ...by the way, mum, where's Lydia?" Jane asked as she looked around the room. "I'm beginning to think that you left her at home after all."

"Oh, Jane, Lydia's in the bad books - big time," laughed Elizabeth. "Do you think you're well enough to hear of her latest escapade?"

Frances Bennet raised her eyes to the ceiling. "I've no wish to hear this again. Your father and I will get a cup of tea, Jane. We'll be back in a while, once Lizzy has enjoyed her bit of gossip."

"Go on, Lizzy," Jane whispered, as their mum and dad walked to the door. "What has Lydia done now?"

"Well, when we got back to the flat last evening, Lydia was nowhere to be found, so mum asked Charles and me to look for her. Unfortunately, Charles had to get home, so William offered to help instead. I think quite honestly, sis," Elizabeth laughed, "he was desperate to get away from our mother for a while.

"I wouldn't be surprised, Lizzy," Jane laughed. "I think of all the scheming mothers William has met, ours must be the most obvious."

"Jane Bennet," Elizabeth gasped, "I don't think I've ever heard you say such an unkind thing about mum."

"What do you expect? The only reason you don't see my blushes at the things she says to him is because my face is covered in purple bruises," Jane replied with a frown. "But you were telling me about Lydia ..."

"Okay, where was I? Yes, we started at Kelly's house - you know, in the next close to us. Lydia got friendly with her last summer. Anyway, Kelly's mum was livid because Kelly was supposed to have come home to let her get off to work. You know how she is when she's angry - talks double time with hardly a pause for breath. You should have seen William's face, Jane. It was a picture. I swear he didn't catch more than one or two words in every sentence. I had to relay everything back to him - minus the swear words, of course ...I think he could make them out quite well enough."

"But, Lizzy, William has lived in Glasgow for years - he surely understands ..." Her voice tailed off as Elizabeth laughed at her defensive tone.

"Ah ...but, Jane, he's not used to mixing with the likes of Senga McAuley. You know, he really does live in a very confined world, dear sister, for all his wealth. He's in need of some re-education, I think."

"Oh, I don't think I know him well enough for that, Lizzy - not yet anyway," Jane replied, smiling. "I think his heart's in the right place, though. I know he does a lot for charity; in fact he runs the Darcy Foundation himself."

"Does he indeed? Well, he's got so much money; it'd be criminal not to give some of it away."

"He doesn't have to though; many other rich people don't."

"I know, I know," Elizabeth laughed. "Just ignore me - you know how I am about rich, superior folks."

"It's just as well William is my boyfriend then," Jane said with a grin. "That 'chip on the shoulder' you've got, Lizzy; you must watch out for it, you know - it's getting too heavy for you. And anyway," she added, "Charles has a few pounds himself. It doesn't seem to have stopped you liking him."

"You're right. Somehow, though, you don't notice Charles' wealth. Not that I'm saying William flaunts it," Elizabeth said quickly. "It's just that ...oh, I don't know. How did we get on to this, Jane?" she asked, wondering to herself why she should be attacking William after all he'd done to help Lydia. "I was telling you about Lydia and Kelly. Now, where did I get to? Yes - we walked up Crow Road to that little park where the teenagers often congregate - it was one of the places Senga told us to try. But there wasn't a sign of the girls, unfortunately. I asked some kids who were playing on the swings if they knew Kelly and it turned out that they were friends of her younger brothers. They went on to tell me that she and another girl, who I presumed was Lydia, had been sitting on the park bench with a group of neds.* Their words, not mine, Jane, so don't look at me like that! They'd all been sharing a few bottles of Buckfast,* would you believe, and smoking what the kids called 'that wacky baccy'.

"No ...Lizzy!" Jane exclaimed. "Trust Lydia - and she's only just got here ...so where had she gone if she wasn't around when you and William got to the park?"

"Well, apparently, a couple of policemen happened to be strolling up Crow Road and spotted this large group loitering at the park bench. They sauntered over to see what was going on. Of course the boys, used to being on the lookout for trouble, spotted the officers as soon as they entered the park - I assume Lydia and Kelly were too busy flirting to notice..."

"Oh, yes, that would be Lydia anyway."

"The boys calmly handed their bottles and ciggies to our unsuspecting dimwits and promptly scattered in all directions. Lydia and Kelly were the only ones there when the policemen got to them, so of course they were the only ones to be caught. Kelly seemed to know to keep her mouth shut and to cooperate - according to the kids. Lydia, on the other hand, thought she was dealing with the local village bobby in Meryton and argued with the officers that she'd done nothing wrong. She then refused to go with them to the police station and - wait for this, Jane - she called them 'neanderthal fucking pigs'."

"Oh, Lizzy, what a stupid girl!" Jane struggled to keep a straight face.

"No, don't laugh, Jane Bennet. Can't you imagine how mortified I felt, especially in front of the great William Darcy?"

"I'm sorry, Lizzy. It's just the image of Lydia swearing at a burly Glasgow policeman.

"Oh, Jane," Elizabeth sighed, "how I wished then that I'd taken dad with me instead of William. I was so embarrassed that he had to hear about this, especially after putting up with our mother for the last couple of days. I'll tell you, Jane, he's certainly seen the worst of our family. Don't be surprised," she giggled, "if it scares him away."

"Why, what did he say, Lizzy?"

"Nothing, actually. He was a complete gentleman. I just wish he hadn't been there, that's all." Elizabeth sighed and stared off into space for a few minutes, then added, "On reflection, though, it's just as well he was there because when we got to the police station, he sorted it all out."

"How did he manage that?"

"I don't know, really. William asked me to stay in the waiting room while he went off to speak to the officer in charge of the station. He was away for ages, Jane. When he came back, he had Lydia and Kelly with him. I heard the desk sergeant mumble something about the 'Chief Constable' and 'not pressing any charges' but I didn't get to speak to William alone to ask him about it.

"And how was Lydia? - she must have been terrified."

"She just flew into my arms - so that tells you how upset she was. I can tell you though, Jane, within five minutes she was back to her usual self. She called those policemen such names - it was all we could do to rush her out of the police station before she was overheard. We dropped her off at Gardiners and took Kelly home. I think poor William had had enough, so he escaped and I ..."

At that Frances and Rob came back into the room and Elizabeth decided to end her tale - her mother had heard enough of the unpleasant episode to be almost angry with her youngest daughter and she was finding ways to blame the whole episode on Elizabeth ...as usual. There wasn't much more she could tell Jane anyway. William had refused to go to dinner and Elizabeth couldn't face it. So he'd seen her home and as he'd said goodbye at her front door, she'd again apologised for Lydia's behaviour - and had thanked him once again for his help on behalf of all her family.

"I don't need their thanks, Elizabeth," he'd said. "I wasn't thinking about them. I ...well, I did it for you. Sorry, I know you won't want to hear that, so let's just leave it there." Then he'd turned and run down the stairs before she could pull him up for what he'd just said, leaving her, as usual, with a great deal to mull over ...

Her mother's voice broke into her thoughts.

" ...so wasn't William wonderful, Jane. He must care for you a great deal to do so much for your sister - why he'd never even met her - it must all have been for you, Jane. Oh, to have William Darcy for a son-in-law. Who'd have thought? You know I've known the Darcy name since my childhood. Little did I ever think one of them would marry my daughter. I knew you couldn't have been so beautiful for nothing, Jane."

"Mother, if he has any interest in me - and he hasn't spoken in such a way - you'll put him off by going on about it. And anyway I have to be sure I like him - it's early days yet."

"Like him ...of course you like him," Frances exclaimed. "What's not to like? He's very handsome, he's extremely rich ...and he's obviously besotted with you. There's nothing about him not to like, as far as I can see."

"Mum, I think Jane will have to be the judge of that, don't you."

"And what's it to you, young lady? This is between Jane and William - don't you go sticking your nose in where it's not wanted."

Elizabeth shook her head as she rose from her seat. "I'm going for a coffee - anyone want anything." She couldn't bear to hear any more about William and Jane - the perfect bloody couple.

*Neds - non educated delinquents. Generally attired in baseball caps tilted skywards, track suits (with bottoms sometimes tucked into football socks) and white trainers.

*Buckfast - Tonic wine (apparently a popular drink amongst neds).

Chapter Eight

The next morning Jane had good news for her visitors - the doctor had said that she could get home on the following day provided there was someone to look after her. Of course an argument then ensued amongst the family as to who was going to take care of her and where she was to stay while she recuperated. As this discussion was going on, Charles and William entered Jane's room . . . though on hearing Frances Bennet's raised voice through the open door, they truly wished that they'd turned around before being seen.

"She's coming back home with us, Robert. I can't leave her here - you know Lizzy's no nurse. Who could look after her better than her own mother?" Noticing William's appearance Frances turned to him and declared, "You must agree with me, William, surely?"

William shrugged his shoulders - he certainly didn't want to get involved in this confrontation. "I'd say it's up to Jane," he answered Frances. "What does she want to do?"

"Well . . . I . . ." Jane began.

"She wants to come home, of course," Frances interrupted.

"But, mum, I'll take time off work," Elizabeth offered. "The journey all the way to Meryton will be too much for her so soon after leaving hospital. And you'll all be squashed in the car - with Lydia, Jane and all of the luggage. And you know Lydia can't be quiet for more than two seconds - poor Jane will be a wreck by the time she gets home."

"Aw, mum, you know how I like to spread out in the back seat," Lydia whined. "And I can't travel without my music - Jane'll want it off, I'll bet. Can't she stay here with Lizzy?"

"Don't be selfish, Lydia. You're not back in my good books yet, young lady! I must have Jane at home where she'll be properly cared for. I'm sure," Frances continued as she patted Jane's hand, "that she wants to come back to Meryton."

"Mum, you know I'd love to come home but I think Lizzy's right about the car," Jane ventured. "I just don't . . ." She let out a deep sigh and didn't bother to complete her sentence. She knew she was never going to sway her mother when she had her mind made up.

As he noted Jane's reluctance to travel with her parents and sister, Charles saw an opportunity to have her all to himself - quite legitimately. "Jane, I have a proposition. I'm travelling down to London tomorrow. I'd be glad to take you home on the way. I think you'll be very comfortable in my car - you'll be able to put the passenger seat right back if you need to."

"I thought you told me last week that you were flying down, Charles." William said.

"No, sorry . . . I forgot to mention," Charles replied. "Caroline called me a couple of nights ago. She asked me to bring down the few things she'd purchased in Glasgow that she couldn't manage to get stuffed into her suitcase before she left. When I looked in the guest wardrobe . . . well," he said, raising his eyebrows to the ceiling, "you know what Caroline's like . . . there were enough clothes and shoes to fill at least three suitcases. So I decided to drive rather than fly. You don't mind me offering to take Jane, do you? Perhaps you have a better idea?"

"No, not at all," William responded. "I think it's a fine solution if it suits Jane . . ."

William happened to look at Elizabeth as he spoke. Oh dear, from the expression on her face I think I've said the wrong thing - but she must realise that I need to be away from her when she's made it quite clear she sees no future for us. With Jane at her mother's and Charles in London, it's very unlikely that we'll meet. After all, there's only so much frustration a man can take.

"I'll be going down to London myself," William continued, addressing himself to Jane, "but it won't be for a few days yet - perhaps I might pop up to Meryton to visit you before I return to Glasgow." And hopefully put an end to this sorry business, he added to himself.

"That would be lovely, William," Jane replied, barely glancing in his direction. Then, smiling at Charles, she said, "Thank you so much, Charles. I'd like to accept your offer."

"You're very welcome, Jane. It'll be nice to have company on the long drive."

Noting Elizabeth's furrowed brow, Jane reached out to grasp her hand. "I hope you don't mind me going, Lizzy. It means you won't have to take time off work - you know I wouldn't be comfortable with that."

"Well it looks as though I'm in a minority of one anyway," Elizabeth said, glancing at William with a sigh and wondering why he should go out of his way to visit Jane when he didn't need to. "But it's for the best I suppose," she agreed. "I'll miss you though."

"Me too, Lizzy - but it won't be for long."

"Oh, a few weeks, Jane," Frances insisted. "There's no way you can go back to work until you're quite ready - if you should go back at all, that is."

"Good, that's settled then." Charles interjected before yet another argument arose about the suitability of Jane's job. He allowed himself a tiny smile as he spoke. In reality he was beside himself with pleasure at the thought of a l-o-n-g car journey with Jane . . . just the two of them . . . at last.

"Thank you, Charles," Rob said with feeling, "that will make both our journeys a lot easier, I can assure you."

"And thank you, William," Frances effused. "A visit from you will be very welcome at any time. And you must stay over with us. I'm sure by the time you come Jane will be well enough to show you around our beautiful little village. Isn't that so Jane?"

Jane nodded absently, giving no thought to William's prospective visit, so wrapped up was she in the idea of travelling all the way to Meryton with Charles.

~ * ~

As they walked back to their cars, Elizabeth offered to bring her sister's luggage to Charles' flat that evening so that he and Jane could make an early start for Meryton in the morning.

"That's a great idea, Lizzy. I'll make you dinner if you like - you haven't experienced my cooking yet. I do a mean st... - oh, I forgot; you're vegetarian." Charles gave an embarrassed laugh. "Oh well, we can get a take away, I suppose. I'm afraid my culinary skills are rather limited."

"What," asked a bemused Elizabeth, "just bacon butties and st...., Charles. How do you survive?"

"Hmm, I'll have you know I can manage a rather tasty omelette . . . and anything out of a packet that can go in the microwave," Charles replied with a grin.

"It doesn't matter anyway, Charles. I'll have something to eat before I come to you - I want to get back to the hospital for an evening visit . . . since it looks as though Jane is going to be away for ages."

William, who'd been holding his breath thinking about Elizabeth alone with Charles in his flat all evening, sighed with relief that she'd turned down dinner. God, it'll be a load off my mind to have him down in London and her here in Glasgow. Once he gets back this wretched affair will have to be sorted out - one way or another.

~ * ~

Elizabeth stepped up to the door of Charles' beautiful red sandstone flat. She glanced hurriedly at her watch and hoped that dropping Jane's luggage off with him wouldn't take too long as she wanted to get back to the hospital to see her sister before the evening visiting time was over. I'm going to be so lonely. Jane gone . . . and I'll have no valid reason to come into contact with William while she's not here. How will I manage without seeing his face or hearing his voice? Elizabeth experienced such a sharp pain in her chest at the thought of William's absence that she felt like dumping Jane's suitcases on Charles' doorstep and just driving off. William wasn't hers to miss, she knew, but she hadn't realised how much she needed to be in his presence . . . even if it was only as a friend. She wondered where he was at this moment and whether he was feeling the same way about her. And she wondered once again, with not a little envy, why he'd offered to visit Jane in Meryton - she thought he'd made it clear that he preferred her, so why not avoid her sister when he had the chance. Puzzling man!

She looked around her as she waited for Charles to answer the door. It was a magnificent flat on a quiet but impressive street . . . well it wasn't a street, actually; it was a square with a luscious tree-filled oasis in the centre surrounded by ornate metal palings and a neat privet hedge. To sit on a bench in that little secluded garden would be like heaven at the moment - if one could only freeze out the insistent drone of the city traffic, Elizabeth laughed to herself. How she wished she could just sit there alone for a couple of hours. She hadn't realised how stressed she'd become - with Jane's attack and her mother's visit, not to mention Lydia's escapade. How could one girl come up to Glasgow for a few days and get herself lifted by the police? Elizabeth wondered, shaking her head as she thought over the last few days. Thank goodness William had been there to help her out - though she still blushed at the knowledge that he'd had to become involved. Although why she should feel humiliation, she didn't know - Lydia certainly didn't!

Elizabeth noticed an odd look on Charles' face when he eventually answered the door - a look she hadn't seen before - apprehension, perhaps? He was certainly agitated about something, with no sign of the easygoing manners he usually displayed. It was enough to put her on her guard.

"Charles, is something wrong?" Elizabeth asked with alarm.

"No, Lizzy, nothing's wrong . . . well, there is something. Come and sit down . . . please."

Charles took her by the arm and led her to a gargantuan sofa that dominated his living room. There he gestured to her to sit down, while he walked back and forth reflecting on what he wanted to say.

Oh, oh, Elizabeth thought, What's going on here?

"Lizzy, this is so hard for me," Charles said at last, strafing his hand through his hair. "I really like you but . . ."

With that 'but' Elizabeth suddenly realised the reason for Charles' agitation. My God, am I slow on the uptake or what?

"Lizzy . . . I'll just say it . . . it's the only way. I think we should split up. There. It's not you . . . I'm sorry, it's me. Hell, I know this is bad timing, with Jane just coming out of hospital. But you and I . . . well, I just don't think we're . . . compatible. You're so much more . . . lively. What do you think, Lizzy? I'm so sorry; I would never want to hurt you - I'm very fond of you, actually. Please say something." The words tumbled out of his mouth in a rush before he lost his nerve.

How did she feel, she wondered - humiliated at being dumped (or 'chucked' as her pupils would say) - not really; relieved under the circumstances that she was the dumpee and not the dumper; ecstatic that she was once again free to follow her heart. Now why did that come to mind - after all he isn't free; no, he's still with my sister - remember. Thoughts flashed through her mind - but distress at the break up wasn't one of them.

"Charles, please don't fret," Elizabeth urged. "I've come to consider you a good friend; indeed I hope we'll always be friends. But, to be honest, I didn't see our relationship going anywhere. I suppose I'm quite . . . relieved, really."

"Thank God!" Charles exclaimed with feeling. "You know I was a bit anxious about telling you. I thought we'd end up having a fight, and you'd . . . ."

"I'd what? Were you frightened that I'd rant and rave at you? Charles," she asked in astonishment, "are you afraid of me? - surely I'm not that bad?" Elizabeth was incredulous at the expressions that flitted over his face as she voiced her suspicions. "You're not afraid of me . . . are you?"

"Well, Lizzy. . ." Charles faltered and put his palms over his eyes as he took a few moments to gather his thoughts - oh, he'd suspected he'd have to explain himself further. Why couldn't she just have accepted the account he'd given? No, Lizzy had to analyze it then she'd want to drag him over hot coals, no doubt.

"Well, Lizzy," he repeated, "let me put it this way. Caroline, in one of her more perceptive moments, told me that you'd be too much for me - I think her exact words were: "Don't be stupid, Charles, she'll eat you alive!"

"I'm sorry you have such a poor impression of me, Charles. I'd no idea . . ."

"But I don't have a poor impression of you, Lizzy, honestly. You can care for someone as a friend but be incompatible as . . . anything closer."

Charles hoped fervently that Elizabeth would ask no further questions. He had a horrible feeling that she might have the ability to wheedle the real reason out of him and he knew he could not share that with her. He had little expectation of a future with Jane, so why tell all? Even if Elizabeth, after a time, came to accept it, he knew William wouldn't. After all, if I had Jane, I wouldn't let her go without a fight!

"Why now, Charles? It is as you say a bad time for me."

"I know . . . I'm sorry, Lizzy. But I'm going to be down in London for a few weeks and I didn't want to have you hanging on for me up here."

"Okay, that's reasonable, I suppose," Elizabeth agreed. "I have one favour to ask you though, Charles - well, two favours really."

"Of course," Charles replied, breathing a sigh of relief that Elizabeth had accepted his explanation.

"Let's keep this from Jane for now. She's still recovering from her ordeal - I don't want her to be worrying about me . . . or about you for that matter. You know what she's like - she's so kind hearted . . ."

"No problem as far as I'm concerned," Charles said, feeling the colour rising in his cheeks and hoping Elizabeth wouldn't notice. "I dare say she'll not be very happy when she finds out what I've done to her precious sister. I'll be glad to put the dreaded moment off for a while. And the other favour . . ."

"You'll still take Jane down to Meryton?"

"Of course I shall. You and I are still friends, remember? I don't know if I'll be able to keep our secret from her for long though," Charles offered tentatively. "It's a long way from Glasgow to Meryton."

"Well, if you can wait until she's a bit better, I can ask no more."

"I'll do my best. Lizzy, are you sure you're okay with this?"

"I'm fine, Charles. You've done the right thing here," Elizabeth replied. Little did he know how fine she actually felt. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get to the hospital . . . since you're taking Jane so far away tomorrow. You will look after her, Charles?"

"You can depend upon it, Lizzy," Charles promised, feeling ever-so-slightly guilty.

"Thank you. And I do hope we'll always be friends."

"Absolutely, Lizzy. And thank you for being such a good sport about this."

"No worries - I don't usually wrench the heads off teddy bears, you know."

"Pardon . . . ? You've lost me, I'm afraid," Charles replied as he opened his front door for her.

"Just a joke, Charles," Elizabeth teased. "Bye, now. Perhaps I'll see you when you get back?"

Charles just smiled in agreement as he watched Elizabeth run down the steps to her car. I certainly hope so, but will you be happy to see Jane and me as a couple? - that's the question.

~ * ~

Will's reaction to the news Charles imparted on the phone later that evening was one of complete shock. "You've done what, Charles? How could you? How could you let a woman like Elizabeth Bennet slip through your fingers? I thought you were really keen on her." All the while, though, William was feeling ecstatic . . . hope . . . for the first time since the charity fundraiser, he was filled with hope. "And you must have hurt her; is she all right?"

Charles was not usually one to detect undercurrents, being a man who made every effort to sail through life on tranquil seas; however, he wondered, was it possible that his friend felt something for Elizabeth Bennet? That tiny note of concern in William's voice certainly aroused his suspicions.

"Charles!"

Charles' mind went into overdrive. Boy, he hoped he was right! That would leave Jane free. . . . well once they got the pain of her split from William out of the way, of course. Hell, she might be heartbroken for a while, but he was sure he could help her forget . . . he'd certainly love to try anyway, however long it took. That's the problem with Jane, he thought, she doesn't give much away, so it's hard to tell exactly how she's feeling. But when we sat together at the ceilidh . . . her eyes had shone so and she'd seemed filled with such uncharacteristic . . . exuberance . . . Well, let's just say Charles was pretty sure that she liked his company. In matters such as these, though, he usually turned to his friend for advice and reassurance . . . but in this case . . . no, he didn't think so!

"Charles, are you there?"

"Sorry, William, what did you say? I was a million miles away."

"I was saying, Charles, that I'm not really all that surprised," William responded. "I never thought Elizabeth was right for you and the better I've got to know her, the more fixed that opinion has become. I'm just surprised that you had the courage to confront her - that's not your usual style," he recalled with a laugh. "Remember the girl you dumped by email."

"Yes, well . . . that was a while ago, thank you. I have matured a little bit since then," Charles protested, blushing at the memory.

"Yes, I know. I was just kidding you. Anyway, as I asked before, is Elizabeth okay with this?"

"Actually, she took it very well - I was almost insulted. She said she was relieved that I'd ended our relationship because it wasn't going anywhere."

"But that's more or less what you thought, wasn't it?" William frowned as he tried to understand Charles' problem.

"Yes . . . but I didn't think she felt that way too. I know she's been preoccupied for the last few days, but I just thought that was because of Jane, and her mother being here, and Lydia's antics as well . . ." Charles was silent for a few moments as he remembered Elizabeth's words. "She agreed so quickly and without even a hint of sadness . . . well, I suppose I was a bit taken aback."

William asked his next question not sure if he wanted to hear the answer. "Charles, are you having second thoughts?"

"No, Will, it's over. Even if I thought I'd made a mistake, which I'm sure I haven't, I can tell Lizzy wouldn't have me back." William waited patiently as Charles was lost in thought once again.

"Are you still there, Charles?"

"Yes, William. Look, I've got to go - I've still got some packing to do. I'll give you a ring when I get down to London." Charles was thankful that he was coming to the end of this phone call. He was finding it increasingly difficult to be in contact with William while he was having such feelings about Jane. "Bye, William."

"Goodbye, Charles. Have a good journey."

"Oh, I fully intend to, my friend, I fully intend to!" Charles muttered to himself as he put down the receiver.

~ * ~

William was very relieved by the news that Elizabeth and Charles were finished - he no longer had to worry about them getting serious and doing something catastrophic . . . . like marrying, for instance!! He hadn't really thought that would happen - he strongly suspected that Elizabeth was more than fond of him. But she was so evasive regarding her feelings . . . and would remain so, he realised, as long as he was with her sister - a position that he couldn't really fault. Anyway, he reflected, one obstacle is out of the way at least, though I admit the harder one has still to be tackled.

As he sat nursing a late night whisky, William considered ways in which his future might now unfold. He had to admit he hated the idea that his happiness depended on one person - he'd never been in such a position before and he wondered yet again how he'd allowed the whole situation to get to this stage. God, love does funny things . . . and I don't know that I like it very much! "Love," he remarked to the empty room. "Now where did that little notion leap out from?

He decided that going down to Meryton to see how the land lay with Jane should be his next step. If he felt she was well enough, he would put an end to this farce once and for all. His thoughts then turned back to Elizabeth - boy, would she be upset with him for a while! But it had to be done . . . and the sooner the better if he was to have any peace of mind. Of course he would have to bide his time until he could talk Elizabeth into any kind of relationship - but that was his goal and part of him at least was hopeful that he'd succeed. Another part told him that he'd no chance once he'd dumped her sister. But . . . earlier in the day he'd felt matters were totally hopeless - at least now they were only partially so. Well, it is a step in the right direction and Elizabeth can be reasonable when she wants to be - I think! I'm just praying that she cares for me as much as I believe she does or I'm in for a really rough ride.

~ * ~

Elizabeth sat staring at the television, quite unaware of what was on the screen. How she hated it when her sister was away. Not that she minded being alone for a few days, but she had a feeling that now her mother had her claws into Jane, she wouldn't be back any time soon. And next week was her October school holiday . . . what was she going to do with herself for a whole week? The shrill ring of the telephone aroused her from her musings.

"Hi, Lizzy."

"Charlotte, how are you? Enjoying Aberfeldy . . . and Bill, I hope?"

"Yes to both questions, Lizzy."

"Good . . . I'm glad for you. Oh, Charlotte, it's great to hear your voice. I've just been sitting here feeling sorry for myself," Elizabeth said with an embarrassed laugh. "You've phoned at exactly the right time."

"Well, I am glad, but this is not like you, Lizzy. What's wrong?"

Elizabeth sighed as she answered, "Jane went off down to Meryton today - you find me all alone, Charlotte."

"Oh, so your mum won the battle after all," Charlotte said with a knowing laugh. "Poor Jane . . . travelling all that way with Frances and Lydia - and still not feeling too good, I'm sure."

"No actually, you've not been updated," Elizabeth explained. "Charles is driving her down. He had to go to London on business and offered to drop Jane off on the way - it'll be much more comfortable for her than sitting in a car with mum and Lydia."

Yes, I'll bet! Charlotte thought. "So you really are all alone, Lizzy, with both Jane and Charles gone."

"That's not all, Charlotte. Charles split up with me this evening."

"He did? Well, I would say I'm sorry, but I know of your growing interest in . . . someone else. How are you feeling?"

"I'm glad he did it, Charlotte," Elizabeth replied. "I like Charles, as you know, but just as a friend - there was no . . . spark. And we really have nothing much in common."

"Not like you and William, you mean?"

"Well . . . no, I suppose not," Elizabeth ventured. "Oh, Charlotte, how did I get myself into such a muddle?"

"I take it from that question that you still like William and he's still with Jane."

"I do . . . and he is!" Elizabeth admitted then added cagily, "I've reason to believe he's not all that keen on her but I just don't know how she feels, Char. I think she likes him - but you know Jane, she always plays her cards close to her chest."

Charlotte raised her eyes to the ceiling and was glad Elizabeth couldn't see her face right then. Oh well, perhaps it's just that Elizabeth is so smitten with William that she can't see how anyone could prefer Charles - silly girl! "Sounds like you're between a rock and a hard place, Lizzy. I know you don't have much patience, and waiting is hard for you - but I don't see what else you can do - unless you decide to speak to Jane, of course."

"I know I should have done that," Elizabeth sighed. "I suppose I was hoping things would just fizzle out between them. And now Jane has gone, Charles and I are no more and I'll not even have the opportunity to see William."

"Wow, we are feeling sorry for ourselves, aren't we? Is that a hint that you're looking for some 'uncomplicated' company?"

"Oh, Charlotte, of course not," Elizabeth cried. "Please don't think I said that in want of an invitation."

"That's okay," Charlotte laughed. "I was phoning to ask you up next week anyway. Bill and I . . . well, we're getting married next Thursday."

"Charlotte, how wonderful! My goodness . . . are you sure?" Elizabeth exclaimed. "Oh, of course you are - ignore that. I'm just so surprised."

"I don't know why you're surprised, Lizzy. You know we're engaged."

"Yes . . . sorry, Charlotte. It's nice to hear some good news for a change. Where's the wedding to be?"

"Just in the local Registry Office in Aberfeldy. You know Bill's not religious - he refuses to get married in a church," Charlotte explained. "Afterwards we're going down to Meryton so that he can meet my folks when they get back from holiday."

"Won't you mind your mum and dad not being at your wedding, Charlotte?"

"I'm not bothered, Lizzy. Bill has started work at Glenlyon - you know, William's aunt's school - and she insists on him being married as soon as possible. Apparently she doesn't approve of couples living together . . . bad influence and all that, you know."

"She sounds like an old battle axe, Char. Have you met her?"

"Oh, yes. I don't think she'd take on a member of staff without knowing all about his life in intimate detail."

"Well, not that intimate, Charlotte, I hope," Elizabeth sniggered.

"I can assure you, Lizzy, if Lady Catherine had wanted that information from Bill, he would have provided it. He's absolutely in awe of her, you know. I have to say she's quite intimidating."

"Thank goodness I won't ever have to meet her then," Elizabeth replied, smiling at the thought that Lady Catherine sounded an ideal recipient for Bill's toadying behaviour. "Anyway, Charlotte, when would you like me to come?"

"Well, I thought you could come this weekend and help me prepare for the wedding on Thursday. Bill and I will be leaving for Meryton on Thursday evening - you can have the house to yourself for a couple of days before you go back to Glasgow."

"That sounds perfect, Charlotte. I'll start organising things here and I'll give you a call on Friday night."

"Oh, I almost forgot, Lizzy - will you be a witness . . . at the registry office?"

"Yes, of course, Charlotte. I'd love to. Who's the other witness?"

"An old friend of Bill's. He teaches at Glenlyon - in fact he's the one who told Bill about the job. I'm afraid that's it, though . . . just the four of us."

"Never mind, Char. You'll have a huge party in Meryton when you get down there."

"I know. I'm not sad, Lizzy. You know I don't really care for big, flashy weddings."

"No, nor do I. Jane's the one who'll have the huge traditional wedding. The way things are going," Elizabeth sighed, "I'll never find anyone to marry anyway. Bye now, I'll call you on Friday."

"Bye, Lizzy."

Chapter Nine

Elizabeth had enjoyed the drive up through Stirlingshire and Perthshire to Aberfeldy - she'd forgotten how breathtaking the autumn scenery was ... the leaves on the trees varying from green to golden brown to the deepest russet. Always as she approached Aberfeldy, she felt a sense of 'coming home' as it was here that her much loved Gran Peggy had been raised on a farm a few miles out of the small town.

Although she'd been apprehensive about her first visit to Bill's home, Elizabeth had anticipated with pleasure the prospect of revisiting her grandmother's old haunting grounds. She'd also, she had to admit, been curious to find out how Charlotte was coping with her new life ... and with her new man! She hadn't been disappointed in either respect and, to her surprise, Bill had made her very welcome, even if he had taken every opportunity to point out in his own 'subtle' way that all this could have been hers! And Elizabeth had been delighted, though incredulous, to see Charlotte looking so happy. There's no accounting for taste, right enough, she'd laughed to herself, but I am glad for them both.

Bill and Charlotte's home was about five miles out of Aberfeldy. It was a quaint little cottage that had once been the lodge for a grand estate and sat on its own in the midst of a vast forest, with only a single track road meandering past the front garden that led, after several miles, to the 'big house'. This grand establishment was now a holiday home for rich southern weekenders, the extensive lands having been sold off to the incumbent tenant farmers. The curving, narrow road leading from the big house to the town was the only indication that the cottage was indeed on the edge of civilization. Otherwise one felt the overwhelming force and closeness of nature in the height and compactness of the trees and the absence of humankind. Elizabeth loved the place as soon as she saw it, and walked out in the forest early every morning before Charlotte and Bill had even got out of bed. Often, as she sat spellbound beneath the trees, she closed her eyes and listened to the profusion of dawn birdsong that brought tears to her eyes with its natural beauty.

She remembered as a child her Gran Peggy taking her on walks not far from here, when she would teach her the name every tree and plant, and together they would search the base of each tree looking for fairy doors, which her grandmother assured her were there. Elizabeth had been convinced that if she waited long enough, she would be afforded the privilege of a fairy encounter. Her disappointment had been tangible when she'd returned home without the longed for sighting, but her grandmother had comforted her with the assurance that the fairies were always with her, even though she'd never been able to catch sight of them. If Gran Peggy had only known how that thought sustained me when I was at home, Elizabeth thought.

Now with Bill and Charlotte's wedding over and the happy couple off to a large family gathering in Meryton, Elizabeth was enjoying a few days of blissful peace before she returned to Glasgow ... and normal life. She had just revisited the little country church where her grandparents had married. What a situation for a church, close to the banks of the Tay where the water was deep and peaty brown and the silver birches, in spring, would whisper in the breeze and feather the river's surface with their verdant-leafed branches.

At the moment Elizabeth was walking along the road between Grandtully and Aberfeldy, carefully avoiding the puddles that were the result of heavy overnight rainfall. She was on her way back to the cottage, absentmindedly treasuring the beauties set out before her eyes. The trees were beginning to lose the adornment of their leaves; the sun was warm for the time of year and the waters of the River Tay glistened in the morning sunlight. Captivated, she closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the countryside as she drew in its earthy, post-rainfall smells. This was heavenly. Elizabeth loved Glasgow - the bustle of the city, the friendliness of the 'natives' - but the beautiful Perthshire landscape always enchanted and soothed her.

Not far from here, on an estate called Edradynate, her grandmother had lived for the first twenty years of her life. It had broken her heart to move 'down south' when she fell in love with, and married, a young welder called Frank Gardiner, whom she met while on her first shopping trip to Glasgow. Elizabeth's grandfather had laboured his whole life in Clydebank's shipyards, working on the great Clyde-built liners that sailed the oceans of the world. But he had died just before Elizabeth's birth and after several years on her own, her grandmother had moved in with her son, Edward. Her daughters, Frances and Lesley, had wanted her to come down to Meryton to live near them - but that was an idea that did not appeal to her.

~ * ~

On hearing the approach of an oncoming vehicle - travelling at speed by the sound of it - Elizabeth stepped swiftly on to the grass verge. Unfortunately, though, she'd been so busy musing over her past that she hadn't noticed there was a huge puddle in the road in front of her. She watched in horror as the vehicle, a sleek black Range Rover, sped through the middle of the puddle, splashing her from head to foot, soaking her jacket and trousers thoroughly. Bastard, she thought, he could at least have slowed down when he saw me - I'm not invisible, am I? She was amazed when she saw the car stop and reverse towards her.

Thank goodness I didn't give him the 'hand signal' that I intended, Elizabeth giggled to herself, forgiving the driver instantly now that he was returning, she assumed, to apologise. The shock on her face was a picture when she looked in the half-open window of the Range Rover and discovered that the driver was none other than William Darcy.

Her wet clothes were completely forgotten as she gasped, "William! What are you doing here? You didn't say you were coming up before going to London."

"It was a last minute decision, Elizabeth," William answered. "My sister, Georgiana, decided to come back up to Strathlyon after our night out at the theatre - remember we went to see Hamlet?"

"Of course, William. I'm so sorry, I forgot to ask if you and Georgiana enjoyed it ... did you? You went the night before the ceilidh, if I remember correctly?"

"Yes to both questions, Elizabeth." Then he stretched over to open the car door as he added, "Look, you'd better get in. I'll take you back to wherever you're staying - you're soaked. I must apologise ... I'm afraid I was daydreaming."

As Elizabeth stepped up into the passenger seat, she teased, "And what were you daydreaming about, William Darcy, that made you such a danger on the road?" While speaking she flashed him one of her beaming smiles to show him he was forgiven for showering her.

"Aha, now that would be telling, wouldn't it?" Well, he thought, I can't very well say I was thinking about a certain beautiful brunette - somehow I don't think she'd appreciate that piece of information!

William sat in silence for a few moments. His heart was just getting over the shock of finding the object of his reflections standing at the side of a deserted road not too far from his home. How he wished he could take her to see Strathlyon. Even better, he considered, would be to have the right to introduce her to his sister ... as more than just a friend!

"Wait a minute, William, that means Georgiana was here all the time Jane was in hospital."

"Yes, that's correct."

"Why didn't you say something? You should have been up here with her."

"Don't be concerned, Elizabeth. I phoned Georgie to tell her what happened to Jane - she was happy for me to stay in Glasgow until your sister was out of hospital. Now," he asked, wondering if he was travelling in the right direction, "I'm driving blind here - where are we going?"

"Oh, I'm staying with Charlotte and Bill," Elizabeth informed him. "They got married yesterday."

"Ah, so you came to Aberfeldy for their wedding," William said. He'd been wondering what had brought her all the way up to his neck of the woods. "Was it a big affair?"

"No," Elizabeth replied with a laugh, "there were only four of us at the registry office - Charlotte, Bill, Bill's friend and me."

Hm, just the four of them - that sounds cosy. I hope I'm not going to find out that another man has come into Elizabeth's life. "This friend of Bill's," William asked in what he hoped was a neutral voice, "is he someone you know?"

"Who ... Trevor? No, I met him yesterday for the first time. And all I can hope is that I'll never meet him again."

Thank God! "Why is that, Elizabeth?"

"Let's just say he showed enough interest in me to make me feel uncomfortable. I didn't think it possible that there could be another Bill Collins in the world."

"Did he come on to you?"

"Well, he tried, but I got him on his own and made it quite clear to him that I wasn't interested. Thank goodness he's working at your aunt's school, William, and not in Glasgow - if he's anything like Bill he won't know how to take 'no' for an answer."

This was a new revelation to William. "Bill was interested in you? So how did he end up with Charlotte?"

"Well, I think he got fed up asking me out - and Charlotte was more ... receptive."

William laughed at the expression on Elizabeth's face as she said the word 'receptive'. She obviously couldn't understand Charlotte's involvement with Bill Collins any more that he could.

"So, Elizabeth," William said with a wide grin, "are you out for an early morning walk to give the newly married couple some privacy?"

"Oh no, I'm all on my own at their place - they drove off last night to Meryton to visit Charlotte's folks."

"Driving down on their wedding night? Interesting!"

"Actually, they booked to stay the night in a quiet little hotel just outside Perth." Elizabeth replied. "Though I'm sure Bill will be distraught when he hears you were at his house - his beloved employer's nephew; what an opportunity missed."

"Yes," William pondered, "I suppose he is rather ... ingratiating."

"Elizabeth laughed. "Well I'd say 'rather ingratiating' is an understatement, but he seems, unbelievably, to make Charlotte happy so I tend to tune out the wealth of advice poured upon him by his new-found benefactress, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Sorry William, I know she's your aunt, but she's all he can talk about ..."

"It's okay, Elizabeth. Georgie and I have been tuning out our dear aunt for years, as I believe our mother did before us." William glanced at Elizabeth, enjoying her giggle at his irreverence. A sudden impulse made him change the subject completely.

"Elizabeth, would you like to come and meet my sister? If you remember, I did offer to show you Strathlyon House the next time you were in the area." Then he added hesitantly, "You could perhaps have lunch with us."

Elizabeth gave his offer some thought. How she'd love to go to Strathlyon with William; to pretend, for just a few hours here in her favourite place, that he wasn't connected in any way with her sister. But would it be too much of a temptation for her ... and for him? Surely I can manage to be in his company as a friend, she considered. Anyway when he splits up with Jane which, let's face it, is inevitable - why, I'll never see him again. She could not believe how painful that thought was - she'd honestly never felt like this about any man before. She could see that William was waiting for an answer. Oh, damn it ... !!!

"I'd like that, William."

William could not but be aware of her hesitation. "It's all right, Elizabeth, Georgie will be with us; I'll be on my best behaviour."

"Of course, William, I fully expect it."

They were both deep in thought as William drove towards Bill's cottage. He was delighted that Elizabeth had agreed to spend the day with him ... and with Georgie, of course. He fully intended to keep his word - he'd make no romantic overtures that would make her uncomfortable. But he hadn't said anything about not keeping her with him for as long as possible. He wondered if he could extend the day to lunch and dinner - after all, once she went back down to Glasgow at the weekend, he'd have no excuse to come into contact with her. And once he split up with Jane ... well!

Elizabeth was less happy ... why did I do that? Why do I want to be with him when it is so painful? I'm only hurting myself and possibly giving him reason to persist with his interest in me. She frowned as she turned her head to look out of the window.

Catching sight of her expression before she looked away, William called her name, "Elizabeth."

"Yes?"

"I can see that you're unhappy. If it's because you've agreed to come to Strathlyon with me, I'll take you back to Bill's. You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

"No, William, it's okay. I'm sure we can be in each other's company for a few hours ... as friends."

"Elizabeth, I ... I know that you and Charles finished ... I hope you're not too sad. Charles did say you were okay with it."

"Ah, you've been discussing me, I see." Elizabeth laughed at his look of dismay. "It's all right, Will, I knew Charles would confide in you." She paused, brow furrowed, before asking, "He's fine, is he?

"Well I don't know that I'd say he's fine - something seems to have been getting him down recently, but he won't divulge ... and I would never press him; he'll let me know in his own time." William glanced at Elizabeth's face and frowned at her troubled expression. "Would you go back with him if you found out he'd regretted his decision to break up with you?"

"Do you think that's what's wrong with him?" Elizabeth wondered then shook her head decisively. "No it can't be. You didn't see the grateful look on his face when I didn't put up a fight. Of course," she laughed, "the relief could have been because I didn't punch him on the nose - it seems that your very agreeable friend, Mr Bingley, is distrustful of my temper." This accurate assessment of Charles' wariness of her brought a smile to William's lips. Elizabeth continued, "No, it can't be our break up; there must be some other reason for his despondency."

"Anyway, I did tell him he was mad to let you go, Elizabeth." William glanced at her once again to see how she received his words. Her troubled look told him not to continue and he changed the subject. "I remember the night we had dinner at your flat that you said you loved this area - any particular reason?"

Elizabeth threw him a grateful smile. "My grandmother, Gran Peggy, came from here."

"Your grandmother lived near here?"

"Yes, she was brought up on an estate called Edradynate - her uncle was a tenant farmer there. She and her elder brother lived with him from early childhood until they left the area."

"Why, I know that estate," he said. "It's been in the same family for generations. The current owner was a great friend of my mother and used to keep an eye on me at Strathlyon after she died. I keep in touch with him and his wife when I come up. Now I believe his father would have been the owner when your grandmother lived on the estate."

"I don't think he'd have known Gran Peggy very well. They'd have moved in very different circles and my gran left when she was twenty, after she'd met and married my grandfather. He lured her away to Glasgow, I'm afraid." Elizabeth looked wistful as she remembered her grandmother's tears when she visited her beloved Aberfeldy with her favourite granddaughter. "I used to come up here with her during school holidays. We stayed with a relative in town and used to sneak up the private road to Edradynate to visit the old house. She always commented on how small it looked, as though it had shrunk over the years of her absence."

"Yes, everything from childhood looks so much smaller when you grow up."

"Well, in most people's cases that might be so - but somehow I don't think Strathlyon or your other home - Pemberley? - look any smaller than they did when you were a child."

"No, I suppose not. They are rather grand, I'm afraid. Hey, that means you must have been in Aberfeldy when I lived at Strathlyon - God, it's a small world," William said. "I don't ever remember seeing you.

"I should think not. As I said, my gran moved in very different circles from your mother's... set. It was unlikely that we'd have met."

"Well, I don't know about that," William replied. "You know, I did go to the local primary school - my mother insisted on it despite it being highly unusual for a Fitzwilliam ... or a Darcy. She always mixed with the local community even though she was Lady Anne - she never set herself apart."

"And why shouldn't she have mixed?" Elizabeth asked, thinking William was beginning to sound a bit pompous. "I assume she was human just the same as the rest of us."

"Of course, Elizabeth - I wasn't suggesting otherwise," William responded, puzzled at the slight tone of antagonism in her voice.

He drove on in silence, thinking it better to let the subject drop. He didn't quite know what Elizabeth was getting at but he didn't care for the way the conversation was going. After a few minutes they came to a crossroads. "This is where we turn in for Bill's cottage, I think."

"Yes, this is the road. It's not far now."

"I know this road quite well, Elizabeth. The house at the end used to belong to my aunt, Lady Catherine, and her husband, Sir Lewis de Bourgh. It was called Rosings Brae at that time. When my uncle died, my aunt sold up to a developer who turned the house into apartments."

"I knew that, actually," Elizabeth replied dryly. "You don't think that Bill has omitted to tell me any piece of information he felt I needed to know about his new boss."

"No, I can imagine not."

"And I know your aunt now lives close to her school ... just outside Perth."

"Yes. I'm afraid that she likes to keep a very close eye on her staff and her charges."

"You don't say!! My God, she couldn't be more perfect for Bill," Elizabeth laughed. "Here we are, William. Do you want to come in or would you rather wait in the car?"

"I'll come in, Elizabeth, if you don't mind. If I may use Bill's phone, I'll just let Georgie and Mrs Reynolds know that we'll be having a guest for lunch."

"What, William ... no mobile?"

"I'm afraid the signal's not very good here."

"Oh, I didn't realise ... I haven't used my mobile since I arrived. Anyway, you'll find Bill's phone in the living room." Elizabeth pointed to the door before she made her way upstairs to change out of her wet clothes.

William made his phone call then sat on the sofa, glancing around the tiny room as he waited for Elizabeth to return. Not that he was taking much in - he was thinking with amazement about the way the day had turned out. His shock at seeing Elizabeth standing at the side of the road so far from where he expected her to be had almost made him lose control of his car. Even yet he could hardly believe that she was here.

After twenty minutes or so the door opened and Elizabeth appeared before him. She was wearing a beautiful velvet fluted dress in the softest blackberry and she'd let her hair down ... a mass of luxurious, vibrant curls. Her outfit was more demure than the one she'd worn at the charity dinner, but William noticed that the soft velvet still hugged in all the right places. Over her arm she had a black riding coat.

"Elizabeth, you look... stunning," William uttered. He could feel himself staring and reluctantly turned his eyes away.

"Thank you. I didn't know what to wear to a stately home - I'm not in the habit of going to such places," she laughed. "This is the only smart thing I have up here with me. I got it for Charlotte and Bill's wedding."

"It suits you very well. The colour is ... just right for you." Taking Elizabeth's coat from her, William slipped it over her shoulders ... and made the mistake of looking straight into her sparkling green eyes. He was caught in their brilliancy for what seemed an eternity - like a rabbit in headlights.

"Elizabeth."

"William, you promised ..."

He heard the warning tone in her voice but, forgetting his earlier assurance, he ignored it. "I know ... but this is so hard, Elizabeth. Look at you; you take my breath away. Tell me how I am supposed to exist without you in my life now that I've come to... care so much for you."

"We've been over this, William," she sighed. "Let's not spoil the day ... please. What you want ... well, it just can't happen."

"I can't accept that, Elizabeth. I'm a businessman; I own Darcy International - I'm accustomed to create positive outcomes ... in all aspects of my life."

"You're a businessman ... ? For God's sake, William, would you listen to yourself," Elizabeth responded with growing anger. "What's that got to do with anything? Why not just add that you're a millionaire and you have a right to your own way. Bloody rich men - I should have known; you're all the same!"

"I'm sorry. That didn't come out the way I intended. But Elizabeth, there must be some way that this situation can be resolved so that we can be together."

"Trust me, William, when I tell you that there is not. My sister is the dearest person in the world to me. She's stood by me through all the difficult times with my mother and my ... well, certain other people. I won't take her boyfriend from her - not now, not in six months from now, not ever!"

"She is dearer to you than your own happiness?"

"Who's to say that my happiness depends on being with you, William? I like you ... I do. And if things were different ... but no, there's no point in going there. How could I face Jane if I stole the man she cared for? Sisters just don't do that to each other."

"But she's never said anything that shows she cares for me. Heavens, Elizabeth, we've only been seeing each other for a few weeks!"

"Jane doesn't show her feelings easily. But I can assure you, William, she wouldn't be going out with you if she wasn't attracted to you. I'll not be the one who splits you up."

"Are you saying that you don't care for me, Elizabeth?"

"I'm saying, William, that I don't care for you enough to ruin the happiness of a most beloved sister." Elizabeth closed her eyes - she could not bear to witness the look of pain that flitted across his face. It's for the best, she reasoned to herself. He must give this up while I still have the strength to resist him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realise I was so mistaken. Perhaps I should just stick with Jane then," he retorted heatedly.

"Perhaps you should," Elizabeth replied, her eyes flashing. "It won't make any difference to me!"

"You don't mean that - what about the time we kissed? You responded, Elizabeth, I know you did."

"You took me off guard, William. It was just a kiss - it didn't mean anything."

William looked away from her and took a few moments to compose himself before replying, "Okay, Elizabeth, I think you've said enough - I get the picture. There's no point in you coming to Strathlyon, is there?"

"No, I think not."

"I'll say goodbye then." With that William brushed past Elizabeth, opened the living room door and left without a backward glance.

As soon as the front door closed Elizabeth ran upstairs to take off the blasted dress that William had so admired only minutes before. She couldn't believe that he was gone and that she'd probably never see him again. The tears that ran down her face were tears of loss - the loss of something she knew she'd never really had. But while they'd been friends, she and William, there had been hope ... faint though it was. Now there was nothing ... emptiness ... and she was devastated.

William, as he drove back home to Strathlyon, felt as though he'd been winded by a severe blow, such was the pain in his chest. How the fuck did that happen? Everything was going so well and I had to push her into saying what I didn't want to hear. But no, he admitted to himself, it hasn't really been going that well, has it? She obviously doesn't care for me at all - I've been fooling myself all these weeks. God, the sooner I get down to Meryton to finish with Jane the better - then I never want to see either Bennet sister ever again!

As William parked his Range Rover in the garage at Strathlyon, he considered his earlier words to Elizabeth. If he remembered accurately he'd said something about not worrying; he'd be on his best behaviour. Well, William Darcy, you did a good job there - you managed that for all of ... five minutes!

~ * ~

"William." Georgiana turned slightly in her seat to look at her brother.

"Yes Georgie. I thought you were asleep - you were so quiet lounging there on the sofa."

"I was just thinking."

"Yes, and ... ?"

"I'm sorry you and Elizabeth had a quarrel. Won't that make things awkward with Jane? From what you say they are very close - are you going to tell Jane about it when you go down to see her?"

"Somehow I don't think that will be necessary," William commented dryly. "Elizabeth will no doubt get in there before me." Although exactly how she'll explain the disagreement, I can't imagine.

"That won't put Jane off, William?" Georgiana asked. "Elizabeth wouldn't want to spoil her sister's happiness just because she's angry with you?"

William sighed as he got up from the sofa. "Who knows, Georgie, who knows? One thing I've found out about Elizabeth is that you never know what she'll do ... or what she's thinking, for that matter! Anyway, I'm off to bed, sweetheart. I'll see you in the morning."

"'Night, William. And William ... don't fret about your argument with Elizabeth. It seems to me that you've got the nicer sister. Elizabeth sounds like a bit of a hothead."

"She's not that bad - I suppose I'm just angry at the moment. You might meet her some day, Georgie. Though the way things are going that seems more and more unlikely. I wouldn't like your opinion of her to be coloured by my current feelings."

"I promise, dear brother, that I'll make up my own mind. I can say, though, that I am looking forward to meeting Jane - she sounds delightful. And," she teased, "at least I can be safe in the knowledge now that you aren't going to marry Caroline Bingley."

William, his hand stretched out to open the sitting room door, looked at her in amazement. "Did you think there was ever any likelihood of that happening?"

"Well, she fawns over you such a lot, Will. I thought at one time that she might wear you down by sheer persistence."

"Georgiana Darcy, I can assure you that there has never been a time when I contemplated any kind of relationship with Caroline - my God, it doesn't bear thinking about!"

"Poor Caroline, she seems to be the only person who thinks she has a chance."

"Well I don't know what gives her that impression - I've made it perfectly clear that I'm not interested. Now," William gave Georgiana a look that said he'd had enough, "I'm going to bed ... and if I dream about Caroline Bingley tonight, I'll make you suffer for it in the morning, young lady!"

Georgiana laughed as she picked up the book she'd discarded earlier ... a few pages and she'd be off to bed herself.

~ * ~

Elizabeth opened the door of her flat to hear the ringing of the telephone. She dropped her briefcase and ran to answer it before it stopped. She hoped it would be Jane; she hadn't heard from her for at least a fortnight.

"Hi, Lizzy. Mum called me to tell me you'd phoned - can't talk for long, I'm afraid. I'm on my way out."

"Jane ... where have you been? I thought you'd fallen off the face of the earth. When I phoned home, mum said that you'd gone to stay with an old university friend in London. She was none too pleased, I can tell you."

"Yes, that's right, Liz. I've come to London and I'm still here. I'm feeling much better and ... I just had to get away for a few days. Well, you know what mum's like! She was driving me up the wall."

"God, you needn't to tell me, Jane. It must have been bad, though, if she tried your patience," Elizabeth teased. "So, what have you been up to? You must give me all the details."

"Well, let's see ... William came to visit me in Meryton. You should have seen mum, Lizzy - she was all over him like a rash; she wouldn't give us a moment's peace. Dad had to take him to The Black Swan for a breather. And then she insisted he stay over because he got quite tipsy. I must say, he seemed to be a bit subdued when he arrived but he's very amusing when he's had a drink, Lizzy."

"Subdued ... really? And tipsy? I'd never have thought William would allow himself such a loss of self control."

"Oh yes, he fairly unwinds under the influence of alcohol. Anyway, I'll not be seeing him for a few weeks because he's gone off to Canada - his company owns a chain of hotels over there. He'll be back for Christmas, though."

"Funny, he didn't tell me he was going to Canada..." The words were out of Elizabeth's mouth before she realised what she'd just revealed.

"Oh, you've seen him then? That's strange; he didn't mention it."

"Yes, just briefly though. I bumped into him in Aberfeldy when I was up for Charlotte's wedding."

"Isn't that a coincidence? I bumped into Charles briefly ... in London, Lizzy. And he told me about your break-up. Why didn't you let me know? Are you really okay?"

"Well, that's one of the reasons I've been calling you - to tell you about Charles. Yes I'm fine, Jane. Oh, it's so good to talk to you. Any idea when you're coming ba...."

"Sorry, Lizzy," Jane interrupted. "I have to go ... there's my taxi. I'll phone you later and we'll have a longer chat. Bye."

Elizabeth was left holding the receiver in her hand and wondering why Jane would call her when she was obviously on the point of leaving the house. And she had so needed to have a long talk with her. She knew she couldn't tell her sister about the argument she'd had with William - for obvious reasons - but she was feeling so down and so lonely that she needed to hear Jane's comforting voice.

There was one thing that kept coming into her mind - William was still with her sister. He is still with Jane. How could that be when he'd said he cared for her? Then she remembered their argument in Bill's cottage when William had said that he should perhaps just stick with Jane. Surely one argument couldn't have altered his feelings to such an extent? If so, his attachment to her hadn't been very deep. And if he has decided to stay with Jane, I'm going to have to face him when he gets back to Glasgow. That, she knew, was beyond her capability and would be for a long time to come.

~ * ~

As the weeks passed, Elizabeth began to wonder if Jane was ever coming home. Christmas was approaching fast and if her sister didn't return to Glasgow soon, Elizabeth knew she'd have to go down and spent the holiday in the same house as her mother ... and that was not a prospect she looked forward to with pleasure!

She was in such a low mood that she couldn't be bothered with anything that was going on around her - her job was a drag; her friends were all busy with Christmas preparations. Even Lynda Anderson had a new man in her life and had no time to notice Elizabeth's low mood. There was one person who she knew would commiserate though - Charlotte. She hadn't wanted to bother her so soon after her wedding but she was becoming desperate for someone to confide in.

"Charlotte, how are you? Enjoying married life, I hope?"

"Lizzy! Yes, married life is fine," Charlotte replied with a giggle. "Oh, it's good to hear from you. But I'm afraid you've caught me at a bad time. Bill and I are just on our way out - we're going to have dinner with Lady Catherine. You should see Bill; he's beside himself with excitement. How about I give you a ring tomorrow?"

"That would be great, Char," Elizabeth replied, hiding her disappointment. "Have a lovely time then. Bye."

"Bye, Lizzy - until tomorrow."

~ * ~

Just as Elizabeth was resigning herself to the idea of Christmas at Meryton, Jane arrived back in Glasgow quite unexpectedly. Elizabeth got home from work one Monday evening and Jane was sitting on the sofa as if she'd never been away.

"My God, Jane, you nearly gave me a heart attack! Why didn't you phone to say you were coming back," Elizabeth gasped as she embraced her sister.

"Sorry, Lizzy! It was all done in such a rush. William called me from Canada just last night. Apparently there's a vacancy for a social worker with that new charity, Glasgow's Weans. You know - the one the dinner at the museum was for."

"Yes ... and?"

"William has arranged an interview for me. If I get the job, Lizzy, I'll be able to leave the social work department. I'll be working nine to five ..."

"Doing what, Jane?"

"Well, the charity organises local activities and educational holidays for disadvantaged children. I'd be involved in ... all aspects of the work as far as I can gather. I don't have all the details yet."

"That sounds ideal, Jane. But what has it got to do with William?"

"It appears that the Darcy Foundation is one of the main benefactors of Glasgow's Weans," Jane explained. "William recommended me to the Lord Provost. It's so exciting, Lizzy. Oh, and the interview is tomorrow," she added. "That's why I had to rush back so quickly."

"I'm so pleased for you, Jane ... and hopeful that you'll not be going back to your old job."

"Me too, sis. Now, let's have dinner and then you can help me to choose a winning interview outfit."

"Jane," Elizabeth asked as the sisters went into the kitchen, "when does William get back from Canada?"

"Friday night, I think, if nothing important keeps him there."

"Perhaps you'll be able to go out at the weekend to celebrate your new job."

"Yes ... well ... we'll see," Jane replied.

Chapter Ten

Jane entered the living room looking wide-eyed and close to hysterics. "Lizzy, oh Lizzy, what am I going to do? I've been so stupid .... so stupid."

"For heaven's sake, Jane, tell me what's wrong."

"Lizzy ...I ...I'm pregnant."

Elizabeth felt her world crumble at her sister's devastating news... William's child! "Are you sure, Jane ...how did it happen? No, stupid me - I know that; you don't have to answer. But Jane, you're the most cautious person I've ever known."

Feeling numb and suddenly very cold, Elizabeth instantly considered her own future if William felt obliged to marry Jane... no, he surely won't do that. But he will support her ...how am I to tolerate the years ahead, knowing I love him? I'll not be able to get over him if he's always around. And I can't imagine losing contact with Jane.

"It must have been a ...a faulty condom, Lizzy," Jane cried, her cheeks red with embarrassment. "It can't be anything else. We were so careful."

"Jane, calm down. It'll all work out. William won't abandon you." Elizabeth almost choked on the words, but she had to comfort her sister who was growing more hysterical with each passing moment.

"No, Lizzy, you don't understand. I can never tell Will; he'll never forgive me. And I'm due to start a new job - I've let everyone down." With that Jane sobbed uncontrollably.

Elizabeth would have laughed at her sister's words ...if she'd been able. "Jane, this is not news that you can hide for long. And anyway, it takes two to make a baby. How can he possibly be annoyed with you?" Elizabeth was growing in anger at her sister's news. How dare he, she thought, even though he'd just said he cared for me, he managed to sleep with my sister ...two timing bastard. Just wait 'til I get my hands on him! And I'm going to do it now while I'm good and fucking angry.

"Jane, have a lie down ...you're distraught, and you know that's not good for the baby or for you." Elizabeth took her sister's arm and led her towards her bedroom, extremely alarmed at the state she'd got herself into. "Lie here for a while. We'll talk about this later when you're feeling calmer."

Elizabeth sat with Jane until her sobs petered out and she fell into an exhausted sleep, then, grim faced, she picked up her car keys and left the flat.

~ * ~

"I'd like to speak to Mr Darcy, please." Elizabeth informed the elderly man who answered William's front door. God, trust William to have a butler!

"I'm sorry, miss. Mr Darcy has only just returned from abroad. He'll not be seeing anyone today. If you'd like to give me your name, I'll ask him to get back to you."

"I'm sorry, Mr...?"

"Cruickshank, miss."

"I'm sorry, Mr Cruickshank, but this is urgent. I'm not going until I've spoken to Mr Darcy."

"Well ..."

"I have very important news for him."

"In that case, if you'd like to come into the study, miss, I'll find out if Mr Darcy wishes to see you. Your name, please?"

"Miss Bennet."

"Thank you, miss. If you'd like to take a seat ..."

Elizabeth decided she'd rather not - after all, this wasn't going to take very long! She intended to have her say and go - without interruption. Not wanting to give William the chance even of a greeting, she started as soon as he opened the study door. She found it hard, though, to ignore the wide smile that came to his lips when he realised which 'Miss Bennet' had called.

"You bastard, how could you ...how could you sleep with my sister when you'd just said a few days before that you cared for me? No ...sorry ...that came out all wrong. I suppose I don't deserve to be angry for myself." Elizabeth tried again. "How could you, when you were obviously in such a close relationship with my sister, betray her by telling me that you were attracted to me? ...Or something like that ..."

"Elizabeth ...please ...calm down and tell me ..."

Realising that she hadn't taken the time to explain to William ...that he was quite in the dark as to the reason for her outburst, Elizabeth backed up. "William, I have just had to put my distraught sister to bed. She's in a dreadful state. She's pregnant!"

Elizabeth knew she would never forget the incredulous look on William's face and in that moment she realised that she shouldn't be here telling him this - it was after all none of her business. This was a very private matter to be shared between William and her sister. Elizabeth wished once again that the ground would open up and swallow her and she sank down on to the sofa behind her with a feeling of self-disgust. God, this is becoming a habit with him! How could she? Jane would probably never forgive her for blurting out her news like this.

"Elizabeth!" Her attention was drawn to William by the bewilderment she heard in his voice, but she could not look at him. "Jane is pregnant? But how ...?"

"Already been through that, pal. I think you know how it's done," Elizabeth's voice sounded so full of sarcasm that it almost took his breath away.

"Elizabeth, the child cannot be mine," William stated very deliberately and with a finality that made her look up with a start.

She stared at him for a scant moment before she could trust herself to speak. "What are you saying about my sister, you bastard?"

"Elizabeth, please ask Jane. I'm sure she'll not lie about this. We haven't even slept together. I couldn't have ...not with the way I ...I felt about you. You must believe me."

"Are you sure....?"

"Elizabeth," William smiled ruefully despite his current confusion, "I hardly think it's something I'd forget."

"Then who ...?"

"Well obviously if she's been having a relationship with someone else, I'd be the last to know." William shook his head in disbelief ...not Jane ...he'd never have believed it of Jane. But she was pregnant, so it must be true!

Elizabeth said one word as enlightenment struck, and observed from William's reaction that the very same thought had just crossed his mind.

"CHARLES!"

With that she jumped up from the sofa and ran from William's home feeling almost as disgusted with herself as she'd ever felt in her life. She couldn't get away from Will fast enough - how would she ever face him again?

~ * ~

Poor William, Elizabeth thought as she drove back to her flat. My God, how that must have shocked him. When will I ever learn to bite my tongue until I have all the facts? - stupid girl, Elizabeth berated herself. She couldn't resist, however, feeling greatly relieved that William had not slept with her sister.

Elizabeth had to wait until late in the evening when Jane finally awoke from her restless sleep. "Jane I think you've got some explaining to do. I've been to see William and we've worked out ..."

At that Jane burst into tears. "Oh, Lizzy, you didn't," she cried miserably, unable to look her sister in the face. "So you know about me and ...Charles? I must tell you then that nothing happened between us until you and he split up - I promise that's the truth."

Elizabeth sat beside Jane on the bed and embraced her, kissing her forehead gently and assuring her that it would all work out. But Jane could not be consoled. "A baby conceived in guilt, Lizzy, I can't bear it. What a burden to place on a little child. I feel so bad, and I'll have to confess to William. He'll be so hurt - his girlfriend and his best friend. Oh, Lizzy, please rant and rave at me, I deserve it."

Elizabeth felt such compassion for her sister at that moment and was so glad that she'd be able to reassure her.... she hoped! "Jane, do you love Charles?"

"Yes, Lizzy, with all my heart, I love him dearly."

"And does Charles love you?"

"I'm sorry, Lizzy, but yes he does."

"Then your child was conceived by two loving parents, Jane." And with a smile she added, "They just didn't know they were making a new life at the time."

Jane looked into her sister's face for the first time since her admission that Charles was the father of her baby. "Lizzy, you and Charles were finished when we ...well, you know; but William ...as far as he is concerned, we are still together and he has been so good to me."

"Jane, I have something to tell you. It will ease your mind, but ...you might be somewhat annoyed with William ...and with me."

"Go on, Lizzy, I cannot think that'll be the case."

"Well ...do you remember the ceilidh?" Jane nodded, thinking back to the night when she knew without a doubt that she cared for Charles. "Do you remember that William and I danced together?" Again Jane nodded. "William let me know during that dance that he liked me ...more than just as his girlfriend's sister."

Jane let out a gasp of surprise. "And what did you say to him, Lizzy?" Then, realising what she'd just asked, she added, "Oh, I'm so sorry, Lizzy. In view of what I've done, I've no right to ask that."

"I told him exactly that, Jane ...that he was your boyfriend and there could never be anything between us."

"So all the time that I felt an attraction towards Charles, William was feeling the same way about you." Jane was slowly putting two and two together and feeling slightly better with each passing moment. She continued, "And while Charles was with you, he wanted to be with me, he told me so. But what about you, Lizzy? Have you harboured secret longings for William all this time?"

"Well ...I liked the look of him the moment I saw him, but I didn't care for his silence or his pride. And let's face it," she smiled ruefully, "his opinion of me was a drawback." Elizabeth pondered a few moments, wondering just when the strong feelings she now had for William actually materialized. "He grew on me I suppose, rather quicker than I'd have liked, to be honest. I know I felt very attracted to him at the ceilidh, but I wouldn't allow myself to respond to his wishes, Jane, and that's the honest truth." Well, more or less, she thought to herself.

"Well you've been stronger and more loyal than I have, Lizzy, that's for sure," Jane commented, shaking her head as she gave thought to her behaviour. "But what fools we've all been," she added. "If only I'd gone to the charity dinner with you and Aunt Helen and Uncle Edward that night ...perhaps we'd all have been saved a lot of heartache.

"Perhaps, Jane, perhaps not," Elizabeth replied, thinking back to William's opinion of her that night. "Who knows what might have happened." She was silent for several minutes, then addressed her sister in a more serious vein, "Jane, what are you going to do about William?"

"Well, I suppose I'll have to go and see him tomorrow. I take it that you told him I was pregnant."

"Yes, Jane ...sorry. I would never have done so if I'd known he wasn't the father. I was so angry with him. But I realise now that I was angry with him for myself, not for you as I led him to believe. It wasn't my place to tell him anyway ...I do apologise, Jane."

"That's okay, Lizzy," Jane replied. "It's done now. I should have told you that Charles was the father. I ...I just wasn't thinking straight earlier. If I'd known how you felt about William ...well, I'm sorry too."

The sisters sat in silent reflection over the events of the evening, and of the last few months - events that had made such a difference to their lives. Consequently, both felt their hearts jump into their mouths at the unexpected sound of the doorbell. Elizabeth shot up from her seat in surprise and made for the door, gasping when she opened it.

William stood in the doorway.

Elizabeth gazed into eyes that were deep, dark pools. There she saw confusion and sadness. She took his hand and gently drew him into the hall, trying to convey in her manner an apology for her earlier words ...and actions. Before guiding him to Jane, she helped him remove his coat and, stroking his cheek with her fingertips, asked if he was okay. He nodded silently and then followed her into the living room. Elizabeth closed her eyes on observing the tear-stained face of her sister as she looked up at William and felt that this would be an appropriate moment to disappear out of hearing of this very private conversation.

"Would you like me to leave, Jane?"

"No, Lizzy, please stay. You know it all anyway, I assume." She turned to William and gestured to the seat across from her, tears glistening in her eyes. "Please sit down, William. I have such an apology to make."

William sat back in his chair and waited for Jane to begin. His face was a mask - Elizabeth could not make out his thoughts at all. Was he pleased that he was now free? Would he want anything to do with any of them after this? One thing was certain, she felt for him - but what did she feel? ...Pity? ...No. Because she knew that, almost from the start, he had wanted her and not her sister. On the other hand he must be feeling stunned and at the same time betrayed and guilty. His girlfriend and his best friend - what a mess! Perhaps he would decide that it would be better to do without any of them. Oh, I wish I could tell what he's thinking right now!

Jane spoke hesitantly, her tear-filled eyes now downcast. From time to time she dabbed her face with the paper hanky that she held bunched in her hand. Slowly, almost in a whisper, she explained how she and Charles had met in London while William was at Strathlyon and Elizabeth was visiting Charlotte and Bill.

"We decided, both of us being at a loose end, to go out to dinner to cheer ourselves up. I was having trouble getting over the attack, Will, or so I thought, and Charles was feeling very down - I didn't know why at the time so I put it down to regretting his break-up with Lizzy. Anyway, I had the best time ever that night." Jane shot a stealthy glance at William, but his expression was a blank to her. "We talked; we laughed; we drank too much. He told me he'd felt an attraction for me the moment he saw me that first night in Gardiners - I was amazed." At that Jane looked up at Elizabeth and shrugged her shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Lizzy." Her tears welled up in her eyes once again and she faltered.

William, taking pity on her, decided to make his feelings clear, something he thought perhaps they should all have done some time ago. "Jane ...oh, this is a real mess, isn't it? I think for four supposedly intelligent adults, we've all been extremely stupid." He rose from his seat and, crouching before Jane, gently took her hand in his. "Sorry, Jane, but I've been fighting off my feelings for Elizabeth from the night of the charity dinner. She, I believed ...well I had hoped until Strathlyon ...had similar feelings for me. Charles is obviously in love with you, and you ...well, I'm afraid I could never fathom your sentiments, Jane, though obviously I know now."

Jane, head still bent, regarded William from beneath her wet lashes and slowly explained, "I have to tell you William that I liked you both to begin with. I left it to Lizzy to decide, since she'd met you and Charles first."

William's eyes were drawn to Elizabeth at Jane's words. She'd chosen Charles. He hadn't know that, and the realisation made his heart plummet.

"And at first I was really happy. But you and Lizzy seemed so well suited to one another - you know ...your music, your books and everything ...And whenever Charles and I were alone together, we got on so well. I suppose he just grew on me. I'm so sorry, Will. I never wanted to hurt you ...and Charles, he's distraught. He thinks he's lost his best friend."

"Don't worry about Charles; I'll sort it out with him. And Jane," William said, moving on to the sofa beside her and putting on a smile for her as she looked into his face," never fear, I won't hit him too hard."

"Oh, William! You're even beginning to sound like Lizzy." Jane returned William's smile, albeit cautiously, relieved that William had taken her news so well. Then she hugged him and extended her hand towards her watching sister. Elizabeth came towards them and took Jane's hand, grateful that William had made it so much easier for them all than she'd expected. Jane stood up, her legs shaky, saying, "I'm off to bed. I'm sure you two have a lot to talk about."

William and Elizabeth watched as Jane left the room. Tentatively, they turned to each other, suddenly at a loss for words as the realisation hit them that they were now free to follow their inclinations. But she'd chosen Charles!

"You've let your hair grow. I like it." My God, how trite does that sound?

"Thanks, I couldn't be bothered ..." he shrugged his shoulders and paused for a few moments as he decided how best to ask about Jane's earlier comment. "Elizabeth I didn't realise ..."

"I know what you're going to say, Will, but please, let me speak first. I know Jane just told you that I chose Charles, but that's not strictly true." Elizabeth sat in the place vacated by her sister and shyly placed her hand in William's. "Firstly," she said, "I fancied you from the moment I saw you at the museum, but I, as you know, overheard your conversation with Charles at the bar - so I tried to put you out of my mind as a non-starter. And you must admit," she added, "you didn't really put yourself out to be friendly that night."

"Elizabeth ..."

"Then Charles asked me out - I had no reason to refuse, he's a really nice guy and I liked his company. The next night when we all went out together, I saw the way you looked at Jane when we came into Gardiners - don't deny it - you thought she was gorgeous. That was it as far as I was concerned. I tried so hard to make a go of it with Charles and I might have succeeded if you hadn't been around - well, for a while at least." Elizabeth gave a wry smile as William tightened his grip on her hand. She was very aware of his proximity and was beginning to find the room exceedingly hot. "So, you see, there was no point where I actively chose Charles over you - I just didn't think I had a choice, that's all."

"Elizabeth, I'm sorry..."

"Oh, there's no need for you to apologise, Will. I think we all mucked up, didn't we? The question is - where do we go from here?"

"I don't care, as long as we go together."

"That's not what you said when we last met, Mr Darcy. I think I remember something about sticking with Jane."

"Oh ...I was angry because you chose Jane over me. It was an incredibly childish thing to say and I've regretted it ever since. But you said you didn't care for me ..."

Elizabeth couldn't help but smirk at William's petulant tone. "William, if you only knew how hard it was for me to say those words - I cried buckets after you left."

"I'm glad to hear it, Elizabeth. I've been miserable ever since that day. But suddenly," he added with a disarming smile, "I feel an awful lot better. Now, you asked where we go from here - what do you want?"

"Oh, I don't know, William. I'm still in shock!" she said, shaking her head.

"Well I know what I want, Elizabeth ...I want you."

Elizabeth's stomach flipped at his words - she felt an immediate rush of desire mingled with ...fear? Slow down here, Lizzy, her mind was warning, he's moving too fast for you, girl. She forced herself to ignore the hopeful look in William's eyes - the look that tugged at her heart. "William, I think we need to take things slowly. This has all been too much for me ...Charles and Jane ...her pregnancy ...you and me."

"What are you saying, Elizabeth? You don't want to go out with me? - I hope you're not saying that."

"No, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that I can't jump into the middle of a relationship. Let's go out together - and I mean with each other this time," she said with a teasing smile, "and see where it takes us, okay?"

William laughed, relief written across his face. "Of course, Elizabeth. That's all I'm asking, honestly. I'm sorry if I alarmed you. I..." William was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell.

"Shit," exclaimed Elizabeth, "who can that be? Can you get rid of them, Will?"

"Before I go to the door, Elizabeth, promise that you'll give 'us' a chance. Jane and Charles have made their decision, however badly done; surely there can be no obstacle in our way now."

In her mind Elizabeth considered one rather large, black obstacle in their way, but she agreed to William's request - she would cross the 'obstacle' bridge when she came to it.

William went off to answer the door happier than he'd been in a long time. He'd had a startling evening, no doubt about that - but the outcome was something he could only have dreamt of that morning. All of the frustration he'd felt over the last few months fell from his shoulders and he felt a lightness return to his long stride as he walked towards the door.

The look on Charles' face when William answered was one of total disbelief ...and devastation. He'd fully expected to be confronted by an incensed Elizabeth, but William was the last person he'd anticipated encountering at Jane's door. He had never in his life dreaded anything as much as he did this meeting ...and for it to come so soon! But what could he say to his best friend - I'm so sorry that I slept with your girlfriend and got her pregnant; hope you don't mind, old pal!

The two men looked at each other silently as they considered the best way to handle the situation. William, while feeling relief and a growing sense of joy that he was now free to be with Elizabeth, wasn't sure that he wanted to let Charles off the hook quite so easily. So he waited as Charles' discomfort increased with the growing silence.

Eventually Charles offered a faltering apology, "I'm sorry, William ...I suppose you know about ...?" As William nodded wordlessly, he continued, "What can I say? I'm appalled at my behaviour ...but I've no excuse to make," he said decisively. "Jane and I... well we discussed our feelings of guilt right from the start, but the attraction was so strong...!" Charles closed his eyes as words failed him.

"Charles, come in. I think Jane needs you just now. There'll be time to discuss all of this later." With that William stood aside, allowing Charles to enter the flat.

"Is Lizzy here, Will?"

"Yes."

"Is she angry?"

"Let's just say that she's already expended her anger on someone else."

"You mean...? Not Jane?"

"Of course not, Charles!"

"No! ...William!" Charles' brain was working furiously. "She thought you were the one who made her sister pregnant? Jane didn't tell her about me? What a mess... I'm so sorry. My God, Lizzy's going to kill me."

"Somehow I don't think so, Charles. I believe you should hear the full story before you bare your throat."

Elizabeth was sitting on the sofa waiting for the two men to enter. She'd heard the voices in the hallway and had decided to leave the friends to themselves for this first awkward meeting. When Charles entered the living room, hardly able to meet her eyes with his, she spoke gently to him, "Charles, I think Jane could do with a hug right now."

Charles, having hardly crossed the threshold, exited the room with a lengthy and grateful 'whew'. He made his way to Jane's room, thankful despite everything that their relationship was now out in the open and they could express without guilt the joy they felt at the precious life they'd created. To Elizabeth's amusement he didn't emerge from Jane's room until the morning.

~ *

"So you didn't mean what you said in Bill's cottage, Elizabeth?"

"I think I said quite a few things that day, William," Elizabeth teased, taking his hand in hers again.

"Were you lying when you said that you didn't care for me?"

"Would I have cried if I didn't care?"

"Elizabeth," William responded with an exasperated sigh, "don't you know that you shouldn't answer a question with a question?"

"Sorry, Will. Yes, I was lying - okay? I didn't see any point in telling you the truth - it could only make things harder ... for both of us."

"Elizabeth, don't ever lie to me ... please. I'm not talking about little things like - 'Oh, you've grown your hair; it's very nice.' But saying you don't care is not a little thing."

"I'm sorry, I ...knew what you wanted was impossible - or seemed to be at the time. God, how things have changed; I'd never have thought it this morning!" Elizabeth gazed at William, taking delight in the fact that she could now do so without the pangs of guilt that assailed her before. "Hey, wait a minute," she asked as she thought over what he'd just said, "are you saying I don't like your hair? - what makes you think that?"

"Elizabeth," William replied, raising his eyes to the ceiling, "your mouth can be saying one thing and your eyes something completely different."

"Well, Mr 'observant' Darcy, that just shows how well you know me. I'll have you know that I love long curly hair."

"You do? Well, you'll be sorry to hear that I'm getting it cut tomorrow," he said with a grin. "And, Elizabeth, you say I don't know you very well - get used to the idea that I plan to become very much better acquainted with you in the next few weeks."

My God!!! "Ah ...! Well ...! That depends on how much I choose to reveal, William."

"I can be very persuasive," he replied, moving closer to her and putting his arm around her shoulder."

"Yes, I had noticed." With a shy smile, Elizabeth cuddled into William, allowing her head to rest on his chest. She was amazed to find that she still felt quite comfortable, her delight in being close to him keeping any other feelings at bay... for the present. They sat in quiet intimacy for many minutes, each enjoying the closeness they'd denied themselves for so long.

Eventually William came back to the topic that had been on his mind earlier when Elizabeth had distracted him about his hair. "Seriously though, Elizabeth, the thing that hurt most was you saying you didn't care for me. I'd rather you'd said that you did care but couldn't hurt your sister. You don't know how your words have tortured me over the last few weeks."

"What can I say, William? I've apologised. I did what I thought was best at the time. If you can't forgive that then ..."

"Oh, no, madam," he interrupted, "you can't get away that easily - not after all I've been through."

"God, William," she replied, looking up at him, "it's taken me so long to get here - I'm not going anywhere."

"Good," William answered with relief as he took the opportunity of her upturned face to lower his mouth to hers.

Elizabeth felt a thrill dart through her entire body at the touch of his lips - it seemed to explode inside her with a delicious intensity that she'd only felt once before ...when William kissed her on the day they went looking for Lydia. Just behind the heady rush, though, came that unwelcome niggle of anxiety - but she endeavoured to ignore it and managed instead to hold on to the pleasure of his kiss. I'm going to make this work - I won't let what happened in the past spoil this for us.

It was William who reluctantly ended their embrace. He'd sensed a slight tenseness in Elizabeth's body at his kiss and he didn't want to press her. "I know these are early days yet, Elizabeth, and I know you don't want to rush things. But let me tell you that I feel happier than I have done for many weeks."

"I do too, William," she replied with a shy blush that captivated his heart.

"I'm afraid I have to leave, though, Elizabeth. I just got back from Canada this afternoon - I'm exhausted."

"Of course. And once again, Will, I'm sorry for ...tonight."

"Well, I didn't enjoy the beginning - but in the end it was all worth it, I can assure you," he said with a quick kiss to her brow as he rose from the sofa and picked up his coat.

Elizabeth opened the front door and, grasping his arm, said with a smile, "By the way, William, don't get too much cut off."

"Sorry?"

"Your hair. I really do like it longer."

"Well, my barber will take a lot of persuading, but I'll see what I can do. I'll give you a call tomorrow, Elizabeth." With that he kissed her cheek and fled downstairs while he was still able to leave her ...

As Elizabeth thought over all that had happened since she'd come home from work, she said to herself, Well, you've got what you wanted now, girl, let's just hope you haven't taken on more than you can handle!

~ * ~

Later that night a shame-faced Charles greeted Elizabeth in the kitchen. "Hi, Lizzy. Jane's having a sleep - she's not feeling too good."

"I'm not surprised, Charles, after all that's happened. How are you?"

"I'm fine - just glad that it's all out in the open now. Jane told me everything, Lizzy. What fools we've all been. It's hard to imagine that we all do jobs in which we have to communicate, isn't it?"

"Ah well, Charles, communication is always harder when it concerns emotions, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose you're right. But we have been fools, Lizzy."

"Yes, that we have, Charles. Things have worked out well for you and Jane, though."

"That's true," he replied, his smile beaming. "And for you and William?"

"Well, we'll have to see. We are going out together, so ..." She shrugged her shoulders, not willing to predict what the future might hold for them.

"I'm so glad, Lizzy. It's funny, but Jane did say down in London that you and William seemed to get on very well."

"Charles," Elizabeth exclaimed, "were you the 'university friend' that Jane was staying with in London?"

Shit, me and my big mouth! "Yes, I'm afraid I was, Lizzy ...sorry!"

"No wonder she felt guilty. What have you done to my sister, Charles? I've never known her to lie before - well, not about anything like this anyway."

"It was hard for her. She hated lying to you about staying with me - that's why she avoided calling you. It wasn't so much you we felt bad about; after all you and I were no longer an item. But we both felt terrible about William."

"Not that terrible, Charles!" Elizabeth pointed out.

"Oh, we did, Lizzy, I can assure you," Charles insisted. "I guess we're just ...not as strong willed as you."

Elizabeth shook her head in amazement as she replied, "You know, Charles, I've never known Jane to do something she felt was wrong. I've always looked up to her as such a paragon of virtue - and I don't mean that in a sarcastic way! She's always been so ...upright."

"We didn't intend for her to get pregnant, Lizzy."

"No, I could tell that from Jane's panic last night. So, what were your intentions as far as ...?" Elizabeth stopped herself - she knew she was beginning to sound aggressive, and after all, she and William weren't exactly innocent in all of this. "I'm sorry, Charles. I shouldn't question you like this - it's all in the past now."

"That's okay, Lizzy. We had discussed what we'd do ...we'd come back to Glasgow, Jane would split up with William and after a few months we'd 'accidently' meet and ...get together."

"And what about William's feelings?"

"I suppose we just reckoned ..." Charles hesitated for a few moments to collect his thoughts. "You're right, Lizzy, we didn't really think about anyone else but ourselves. In her defence, though, I have to say that Jane didn't think she was the love of William's life. But we were in the wrong, I know that ..."

"Let's forget it, Charles," Elizabeth suggested, moved by the dejected look on his face. Impulsively she hugged him and added with a wide grin, "Everything has worked out for the best. And I'm glad my sister has met someone who has made her so happy - and has obviously enticed her into losing some of her precious equilibrium - though I'd never have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes!"

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