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Ae Fond Kiss

Chapter Eleven

"Hi, Elizabeth. It's William."

"William, this is a nice surprise. I didn't expect to hear from you until later in the week. Don't tell me," Elizabeth quipped cheekily, "you're missing me already!" He'd bloody better be, because I've hardly been able to think about anything but him all day!

To her surprise, William didn't respond to her teasing. "Unfortunately, Elizabeth, I am going to be missing you very shortly. I'm afraid I have to go down to London tomorrow ...on business that can't be delayed. Then I'll not be back in Glasgow until after New Year."

"What? William ...that's ages away!"

"Yes, it is," William replied, the frustration in his voice unmistakable. "Elizabeth, I know it's short notice, but I was hoping we could go out to dinner tonight."

"I don't know, William ..." Elizabeth said, pausing to give the impression that she actually had something to think over. "Tomorrow's a working day - a girl has to get her beauty sleep, you know."

"Well, 'a girl' might," he returned, "but you don't have to, I'm sure."

Elizabeth laughed at his compliment. God, he's changed his tune!! "Who can refuse such an invitation? ...as long as we're not out too late, though."

"No need to worry, Elizabeth, I have an early start tomorrow. I'll pick you up at seven, if that's all right with you."

"Yes - I should be able to manage that. Where are we going?"

"Ah ...that's a surprise. And don't try to get it out of me ..."

Hmph! You think you know me, William Darcy. So," she asked sweetly, "jeans and tee shirt will be okay, then?"

"No," William replied quickly, "those won't be approp ..." He was silent for a moment, knowing that she'd almost tricked him. "Dress smartly, Elizabeth - very smartly."

Elizabeth laughed - her vivacious, throaty laugh that sent a shiver up his spine. "Thanks, Will. I'll see you at seven then."

"I'm looking forward to it, Elizabeth - I think!"

~ * ~

Elizabeth was more anxious about her date with William than any other she'd ever been on - she wanted so much for it to go well. But ...and it was a big but ...she was worried about William's expectations for this new relationship. She was quite prepared to acknowledge that her feelings for him were overwhelming - hell, she'd fought against them long enough to know just how powerful they were! But while she was thrilled that they could now be together without guilt, she was not yet ready for the depth of intimacy she thought William would expect. The idea made her ...uneasy.

Elizabeth knew that despite this being their first proper date, she and William were beyond the strangeness of a new couple. They'd been in each other's company many times; knew each other's tastes in many things; knew they'd fitted together remarkably well as ...what? ...friends, at the very least. But how would they fit together on an intimate level? - could she contemplate allowing him that close? Or would she keep him at arm's length, as she'd done with other men ...and risk losing him too? She was determined not to allow that to happen - but would he have the patience to wait until she was ready? After all, he must surely look at Charles and Jane and think ...why not us? Well, Elizabeth thought with a wry smile, maybe not the pregnancy bit! Or the cheating bit, for that matter!

The sound of the doorbell interrupted her troublesome reflections. Oh well, here goes. God, I wish I didn't feel so ...awkward! Elizabeth put on what she hoped was a confident smile before she opened the door to him.

"William, hi! Come on in. I just have to turn off the music and get my coat - I won't be a moment."

William followed Elizabeth into the living room and, as she turned to ask him about his day, he caught her hand in his and gently pulled her towards him. Cupping her cheeks, he brushed her lips with the softest of kisses then released her, mindful of his promise the night before that he'd take things slowly.

"Elizabeth, you look beautiful."

Hell, just the way he looks at me makes me melt. Who am I kidding? - I'm never going to be able to keep this man at a distance for long. He's just not the type to stand for it.

"Thank you, William," Elizabeth replied, surprised that her voice didn't sound as shaky as she felt. "I have to say, I wasn't sure about this dress, though - we weren't on the best of terms the last time I wore it."

"Your dress is stunning, Elizabeth," William assured her. "And our little ...disagreement at Charlotte's cottage - I think we can safely say that's all in the past," he added decisively.

"Yes, you're right. Let's just enjoy tonight," was her smiling response. Giving him a sly look, she slipped in a question that had been on her mind since his phone call. "Would you like to tell me where we're going?"

William shook his head, not even attempting to hide a self satisfied grin. "No," was his brief answer.

"Hmmph, I thought not!"

"Now, my driver is waiting, Elizabeth. Are you ready?"

"Your driver ...?"

"Well, I thought I might want to have a few drinks."

"Oh ...and let me hazard a guess, William - you've never used a taxi."

"No, Elizabeth, I haven't," he answered, shaking his head at the look of disbelief that covered her face. "Why would I order a taxi when I already have a driver in my employ?"

"God, I keep forgetting that you're life is so different from mine," Elizabeth gasped, dramatically placing her hand on her heart. "I don't think I'll ever be able to pull myself up on to your exalted plane, Mr Darcy."

"Elizabeth," he urged, with a hint of a groan "Let's just go and have dinner - before I begin to think that dress does have a jinx on it."

"It's okay, William; don't mind me. I enjoy teasing you. And," she declared with a laugh, "you'll just have to get used to it."

"Yes, so it would seem," he sighed as he guided her towards the door.

~ * ~

At last, thought William as they sat in One Devonshire Garden's elegant drawing room waiting to be shown to the private suite he'd reserved for dinner. After all that has happened, we're here together. At that moment, as William sat on the comfortable sofa beside Elizabeth, he felt a deep contentment. He could hardly believe that only yesterday this seemed to be impossible. I suppose I should feel grateful to Charles and Jane - despite everything!

But when he glanced at Elizabeth, he could see that she appeared to be slightly tense ...he would almost say nervous ...but why? He couldn't quite make out her expression, but she did look rather edgy, though trying to mask it with idle chatter. Why? he asked himself. Isn't this what we've both wanted almost from the moment we met?

"Why the private suite, William?" Elizabeth asked suspiciously.

Ah, does she perhaps think I'm planning a grand seduction? William wondered. Then, hoping to reassure her, he replied, "It's no big deal, Elizabeth. Quite a few of my business associates dine here regularly. Actually," he added, "I don't think I've ever been in the restaurant for a meal without some acquaintance coming over to speak to me. I didn't want us to be disturbed tonight. I hope it doesn't make you feel uncomfortable to be alone with me."

"No, I'm not uncomfortable," she lied, feeling stupid that the thought had even crossed her mind. "It's just that I usually share the bill when I go out for a meal. I doubt very much if I can afford this! - in fact, I know I can't."

"Elizabeth," William sighed, "you invited me to dinner at your flat. Now it's my turn - and I'm paying!"

"Dinner at my flat hardly compares with this, William," she said as she waved a hand to indicate the handsomely furnished drawing room.

"Elizabeth, please let me do this. Every gesture I make doesn't have to be a battle between us, you know."

"I'm sorry, William. You're right" Elizabeth admitted, wondering why she always felt this need to challenge him. To make up for her words, she put her hand into his and, moving closer to him on the sofa, whispered in his ear, "I'm so happy to be here with you - truly, I am."

Now that's better, William thought, pleased that Elizabeth had gone some way towards expressing her feelings. She's certainly looking more relaxed than she did a moment ago. "I'm delighted to hear you say that, Elizabeth. I was never really sure that you had anything more to offer me than friendship ...though of course I did hope ..."

"I suppose I didn't feel I had a right to show what I felt ...until now," Elizabeth replied as she gazed at him with those fine eyes that so beguiled him. "And by the way, Mr Darcy," she continued indignantly, "I'll have you know that I'm not in the habit of dancing quite so intimately with my male friends as I did with you at the ceilidh."

"Thank God for that, Elizabeth!" William exclaimed. "The way men look at you is bad enough - I don't think I could cope with 'intimate dancing'."

"What do you mean? ...I'm not aware of men looking at me - God, chance would be a fine thing," she declared. Then, noting William's raised eyebrows, she added hastily, "Not that it's relevant any more, of course."

"Well, you caught the attention of quite a few men at the charity dinner - especially when you took off the little jacket you were wearing. I remember thinking you must have been poured into that dress."

"You thought that ...about me?" Elizabeth blurted out. "And other men were looking at me? I'm amazed, William."

"Yes, Elizabeth," William replied, shaking his head in disbelief, "I can see that you are."

"Anyway," she stated after a moment's reflection, "that's just because Jane wasn't there. When she and I go out together, all eyes are on her, I can assure you."

"Elizabeth," William responded with a groan, "Jane is beautiful - no one would deny that. But you are beautiful ...and spirited and challenging ...yes, definitely challenging," he emphasised, "as I have found to my cost."

"Yes, you can have no doubt about that," she laughed. "But, William - your expression when you saw Jane come into Gardiners ...you were attracted to her."

"Every man likes to look at a beautiful woman, Elizabeth - but at that point I was just delighted to have got one over on Charles after the night before - childish, I know," William admitted sheepishly. "I'll confess that Jane was my 'type', as you like to call it. And as you seemed to get on so well with Charles," he said pointedly, "I did think Jane and I might be able to make a go of it. But you - you had already made inroads into my subconscious mind ...and once I realised that, I found there was no place for Jane. I'm sorry if that sounds a touch over-dramatic, but it's the truth."

"Oh dear, William, that is soppy," Elizabeth said with a giggle, trying to hide the fact that she was deeply moved by his words. "But you can say it any time you like."

"And Elizabeth," William added, "I know Jane is your sister, and you love her and will no doubt forgive her anything, but I've had some time to think things over and I'm not too thrilled with her at the moment - and the same goes for Charles, to be quite honest. Believe me when I tell you that you are worth ten Janes."

"Oh, William," Elizabeth gasped, "you think that of me? But you will forgive them, as I've done" she pleaded, tightening her grip on his hand. "Otherwise things are going to be very awkward for us all."

"I'll do my best, Elizabeth, but only for you. If I hadn't got what I wanted out of all this, I would have found it very difficult to excuse their deceit."

Elizabeth was all astonishment. She'd just had an insight into the depth of William's regard for her and her heart surged with gratitude and ...affection. More than affection, I think. God, I am falling in love with this man ...and it's all happening so fast!

As they sat in the drawing room, both lost in their thoughts, their waiter approached them. "Your suite is ready now, Mr Darcy. If you'd like to follow me ..."

~ * ~

At the end of their meal, as William brought out his mobile phone to summon his driver, Elizabeth announced that if he didn't mind she'd like to walk home.

William looked at her as if she'd just lost her senses. "Elizabeth, it's nearly the end of December - we'll freeze!"

"Come on, Will. It's not snowing, or raining, and we've both got coats," she replied as William helped her into hers. "I'm stuffed full after that enormous meal - I need to walk some of it off."

"I have to say, Elizabeth," William observed as he shook his head, "you have an exquisite turn of phrase. Not many people would describe their experience of dining at One Devonshire Gardens as being 'stuffed full'.

"Oh, I'm sorry, William, not refined enough for you? My goodness, you just can't get the girlfriends these days," Elizabeth teased as she stepped out of the hotel into the crisp, dark night.

William put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to him as they set out for her flat. "I like that, Elizabeth," he murmured in her ear.

"Like what, Mr Darcy?"

"I like to hear you call yourself my girlfriend."

"Yes, it has a nice ring to it," she agreed with a contented grin.

"It certainly does - and all the more sweet because I thought I'd never hear it from your lips."

Elizabeth smiled up into his face. She didn't trust her voice just at that moment.

As they wandered slowly down Hyndland Road, nether of them wanting this night to end, they carried on the discussion they'd been having over dinner. They'd already covered the joys ...and stresses ...of teaching; Elizabeth's reasons for being vegetarian; William's sister, Georgiana; his charity work. There seemed to be so much still to discover about each other. The one thing, though, that William had been unable to coax from Elizabeth was information about her childhood and teenage years. Even when they talked about their time at university, she mentioned only the courses she'd done - it was as if she hadn't had any social life at all. She seemed to be more interested in hearing about his past than in talking about her own. He could tell she was being evasive ...but why? ...she'd given him no clue.

Now Elizabeth wanted to know the extent of William's business empire - if he didn't mind her asking, of course. "Not at all, Elizabeth," William answered. "Let me think now ...we have a chain of hotels in Canada - they're managed by my cousin, Anne, my Aunt Catherine's daughter. There are publishing houses in London and Edinburgh; property in the UK, France, the USA ...well, all over the world, really; then there's Pemberley - it's run as a business, with tours, holiday cottages, that sort of thing. I'm hoping Georgiana will take over there once she's had some experience. And if she can cope with that, perhaps she'll take on a bit more of the business in a few years' time. And finally, there's Strathlyon - we have some small enterprises there, but it's really more of a family home."

"How on earth do you keep tags on all of these companies, William?

"Good people, Elizabeth. Each component of our organisation has a director - and that allows me to avoid running myself ragged trying to control everything."

"But your degree was in History and Philosophy, wasn't it? Those subjects don't equip you to run a large collection of businesses."

"That's true," William agreed. "My father died when I was in second year at university. I carried on with my MA, but I also took some classes in Business Administration. When I finished my degree I worked for three years with Henry Bingley, Charles' father. That got me the experience I needed to fulfil the entry requirement to do my MBA. Henry also took charge of Darcy International and put in place the directors needed to run each division. I was fortunate enough to take over a very smooth operation a couple of years ago - and that's all down to Henry. He took me under his wing as a father would; I'll always be very grateful to him."

"Those years must have been tough for you, William."

William nodded his head in agreement. "They certainly weren't easy. I had to learn a great deal in a very short time. And I wasn't particularly suited to the work," he admitted. "I was rather quiet and solitary. In fact, my ambition was to do my PHD and teach history at the university.

"And are you sad that you didn't get to do that?"

"No ...not now, I suppose," William replied after giving some thought to Elizabeth's question. "I take pleasure in my work and I especially enjoy running the Darcy Foundation. Anyway," he reflected, "enough about me, Elizabeth. Do you mind if I change the subject?"

"No, I don't mind."

"I was wondering if you enjoyed your meal?"

"I did, thank you, William. Those little parcels filled with vegetables - didn't they just melt in your mouth? And the passion fruit tart was delicious. How about you? You didn't have to go veggie, you know."

"I was happy to," he said. "I'm not all that fussy about food."

"Well, for someone who's not fussy about food," she laughed, "you certainly like to eat in pretty ostentatious establishments."

"That was supposed to be a treat for you, Elizabeth."

"I appreciate that, William, I really do," she said as she cuddled closer to him. "But, you know, the very best thing about tonight was being with you - not the expensive meal or the plush surroundings. I'd be just as happy at Gardiners or my local Indian restaurant as long as we're together."

Speechless, William gazed down at her for a moment before he gave her cheek an appreciative kiss. She would never understand how much those words meant to him. Most of the women he'd gone out with in the past had been happy for him to spend as much money on them as possible. Here was someone who was delighted to be with him ...just for himself. It was becoming clear to him that she didn't care about his wealth; in fact he got the impression sometimes that she was almost disdainful of it!

~ * ~

As they approached her flat, Elizabeth considered the 'coffee dilemma' once again. Should I invite him up, she thought, or should I make the excuse that I have work tomorrow? The dilemma was tougher this time, though, than it had been before; with Charles she hadn't felt this deep longing inside that battled with her anxiety. She knew she wanted to surrender to that longing for William at some time in the future - but not tonight. Then, as she was weighing up what she should do, she noticed Charles' car parked in front of her close. Well, that makes the decision easy for me tonight. Thank you Charles and Jane!

"I see Charles is here, William. Would you like to come up for a coffee?"

William looked at his watch. "Yes, thanks. I think I can manage a quick one - if that's all right with you? I know you don't want to be up too late."

"Huh, if Jane and Charles are still up, I'll be lucky to get to bed before midnight."

"Charles is staying here, then?" William asked.

"Yes - well, he did last night ...and tonight by the looks of it. It seems they can't bear to be parted."

How the hell did Charles Bingley get to be so damned lucky? thought William as he followed Elizabeth upstairs.

When they entered the living room they found Jane and Charles curled up together on the sofa watching TV. Elizabeth shook her head as she took in the scene. They look so cosy there - as though they've been together for years. Though when I think about it, she considered, they have packed quite a lot into a very few weeks!

When Jane saw William and Elizabeth standing at the door, she untangled herself from Charles and rose with her arms outstretched to hug her sister. "Oh, Lizzy," she cried, "I could hardly wait for you to come home. I've got such good news - well, I hope you'll think it good news. Charles has asked me to marry him - and I've accepted!

"Jane, Charles, that's wonderful! I'm so pleased for you," Elizabeth declared as she returned her sister's hug and bent down to kiss Charles' cheek.

"Really, Elizabeth?" Jane asked. "You're not angry with us?"

"Why should I be angry?"

"Well ...after everything!"

"I'm not angry, Jane. But you do realise that I'll have to start calling you Bill and Charlotte," she said with a laugh while William, with markedly less enthusiasm, added his congratulations to the happy couple.

"Bill and Charlotte, Lizzy?" Jane asked with a puzzled look on her face.

"Yes, Jane," Elizabeth teased, "you know 'break-neck speed' isn't the only way to do things - though I am beginning to wonder. And it's so unlike my cautious sister, Charles. What have you done to her?"

"Ha, ha, Lizzy. You are funny. I know it's a bit sudden. But," Jane said, glancing over at Charles with a cautious smile, "we're so sure that this is what we want ...and with the baby on the way ...there's no reason to wait."

"I'm joking, Jane. This is great news after all that's happened."

"There's some news you might not like though, Lizzy," Jane ventured. "Firstly, I'm moving in with Charles."

"That's not unexpected under the circumstances," Elizabeth replied. "I'll be fine here on my own. And secondly, Jane?"

"We're going down to London for Christmas and New Year. Charles wants me to meet his parents and his sisters and of course we'll have to go up to Meryton to visit mum and dad. Mum wants to welcome Charles into the family now that we're engaged."

"You've told mum already?" Elizabeth gasped. "How did she take it?"

"Well ...I don't think I'd like to repeat what she said at first. But once she knew it was what I wanted," Jane replied with a shrug, "she seemed okay about it."

"So Charles has become the blue-eyed boy," Elizabeth commented with a giggle. Then, turning to William, she added, "You've fallen from your pedestal now, Mr Darcy."

"Thank God for that, Elizabeth. Charles is welcome to it!"

As the other three turned to see his reaction to his new position as Frances Bennet's favourite, Charles uttered a loud and protracted groan. After a moment's consideration, though, he took Jane's hand and announced that she was definitely worth it ...really she was!

"The thing is, Lizzy," Jane said, her eyes misting up at Charles' words, "you'll have to come down with us or you'll be here all alone over Christmas and New Year. Unless William is staying in Glasgow, that is."

"I'm afraid not, Jane," William said regretfully. "I'm off to Pemberley at the weekend to be with Georgie. We usually have all of the family for Christmas - my aunts, uncle, cousins. You're welcome to come, Elizabeth, if you don't want to go home," he offered.

"Thanks, William, but I don't think so. I'm sure I'd like to meet your family some day ...just not at Christmas - for the first time anyway."

"Well, the offer's there if you change your mind."

"I hate to say it but I think the best thing would be to go home with Jane and Charles. I intend to come back to Glasgow for Hogmanay, though. My friend, Lynda, is having a party and I've already offered to give her a hand." Elizabeth wasn't happy with the idea of spending Christmas with her mother, but she knew her father would be delighted to have her at home. "Now, William, about that coffee I promised you."

In the kitchen Elizabeth busied herself making coffee while William sat on a stool watching her ...just as he'd done all those weeks ago when he'd been invited to dinner. "What do you think your mother will say to you, Elizabeth? It must seem odd to her that we've all swapped partners."

"Odd to her, William? - I can hardly believe it myself," Elizabeth exclaimed. "She won't mind as long as she knows it was Jane who made the decision. If I'd been the one to split you and my sister up she'd have been livid. And if I'd got pregnant ...huh, there'd have been hell to pay."

"Why do you let her get away with her treatment of you?" William asked. "You seem so ...able with everyone else."

"Is that a polite way of saying that I'm a tad confrontational, William?" Elizabeth asked with raised eyebrows. "Seriously, though, I don't know. I've asked myself that often enough over the years. She's the only person who seems to get under my skin in the way she does. When she gets critical - which, let's face it, is most of the time," she sighed, "I feel like a five year old again. I ...God, can we talk about something else, Will? This topic just gets me upset and I don't want to spoil such a lovely evening."

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," William replied, angry that he'd caused her bright expression to fade. "I can think of much better ways to wait for a kettle to boil." With that observation, William got up from his stool and approached Elizabeth, causing her to catch her breath as his fathomless gaze captured her. He stood for a few moments, holding her eyes in his then, with a slow and delicate touch, he smoothed his hands over her shoulders and down her bare arms. Tantalisingly, he placed a myriad of gentle kisses against her forehead ...eyelids ...cheeks ...and finally her lips. His mouth lulled her disquiet with the warmest of caresses.

When Elizabeth felt William's tongue against her lips, though, she experienced such a mixture of desire and shock that she thought she would spontaneously combust. Only then did that familiar feeling of panic rise in her throat ...but she pushed it down ...this was William, after all. This was not going to be like before ...! She knew she'd have to learn to trust him because she'd discovered in the last few weeks ...without any doubt ...what it was to fall in love. Her heart told her to let him in ...to allow herself to trust him. But her head said - too fast, too fast! - and Elizabeth wasn't ready ...yet ...to go with her heart.

"William," she said, gently pulling back her face from his, "the kettle has boiled."

William held her close to him ...silent, still ...giving himself time to calm down. He was disappointed that she had ended their kiss just when it was getting interesting. Well, I suppose she did ask me to take things slowly ...but for how long?

"Jesus, Elizabeth," he said, still with his arms around her waist, unwilling to let her go, "how can you think about coffee just now? I ..."

At that moment Charles walked into the kitchen. "Is that coffee ready, Lizzy? And could Jane just have some water, please? The thought of coffee is making her feel quite nauseous. Sorry," he added with a sudden blush as he noticed their close embrace, "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

Bloody Charles, thought William, he's got a pregnant Jane and I've got ...a friend who interrupts at the wrong moment! "No, it's okay, Charles. I've got to go," he replied with a sigh, tearing his gaze away from Elizabeth's flushed face. "I have to fly down to London tomorrow before I go to Pemberley at the weekend."

"Oh, nothing serious, I hope?"

"Not if I can get things dealt with quickly," William responded as he moved towards the kitchen door. "I'll call you from London and let you know how it goes."

"Okay, I'll hear from you soon, then."

"Charles," Elizabeth asked, "could you see to your coffee while I say goodbye to William? The kettle has just boiled."

"Of course, Lizzy. Bye, William," Charles said. "I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas. Say 'Hi' to Richard and Georgie for me."

"Will do, Charles. Give my love to your mum and dad."

At the front door William turned to Elizabeth with an apologetic look. "I don't like having to leave you just when things are starting to work out for us. Would you like me to call you now and again while I'm away?"

"I'd love that, Will." Elizabeth was able to make her mouth form a smile but William could see that it didn't reach her eyes.

"I don't suppose it'll be much fun for you to spend Christmas at home."

"I'll be fine, William. My mother will be so delighted by Charles and Jane's news that she won't have time to bother about me. And my sisters, my Aunt Lesley and Uncle John, and all my cousins will be there to keep her very busy. I will miss you though, William ..."

"I'll miss you too, Elizabeth." As he spoke, William brought a beautifully wrapped package out of his coat pocket. "This is for you - not to be opened until Christmas day."

"Is that an order, Mr Darcy?"

"It is."

"Well ...I'll think about it," she laughed.

"I suppose that's as much as I can expect," William replied, gathering Elizabeth to him and placing his forehead against hers.

They stood in silence for several minutes, neither prepared to give up the pleasure of the other's embrace. Then, reluctantly, William kissed the tip of Elizabeth's nose and, without uttering a word, turned to leave.

"William," Elizabeth called after him as he started to make his way down the stairs, "I haven't got you a Christmas present yet. I didn't know you were going away so soon ..."

"I don't need a present, Elizabeth, as long as you'll be here when I get back."

"I'll be here, William," she replied without hesitation.

~ * ~

When Elizabeth went back into the living room, she found Jane on her own.

"Where has Charles disappeared to?" Elizabeth asked, peeking into the kitchen. "I thought you two were joined at the hip!"

"Oh, he's watching football on the TV in my room," Jane replied. "Lizzy, do you mind if we have a chat before you go off to bed?"

"Of course not, Jane. There's nothing wrong, I hope."

"No ...not between Charles and me anyway. But Lizzy, I just wanted to apologise again for what happened down in London - it's been on my mind so much today. I can't believe I let myself get carried away like that. And now, just when I feel I don't deserve it, I'm being handed such good fortune."

"What do you mean? Of course you deserve it."

"Lizzy," Jane stressed, "I slept with my boyfriend's best friend. Even though we hadn't been going out for long, it was unforgivable."

"Okay, that was wrong. You should have split up with William first, I'll grant you that. But, Jane, you'd just been through a terrifying experience - my God, you could have been murdered by that moron who attacked you. I can understand that you weren't thinking clearly at the time. Anyway," she added, "and I haven't discussed this with William because it's not a subject I'd be comfortable bringing up, but if I'd gone to lunch with him that day at Strathlyon and had given him any sign of encouragement to ...well, you know, I don't think he'd have turned me down."

"But you didn't, Lizzy."

"Yes, Jane ...and you know my real reason for that. And, if you want to know the truth, I was tempted."

Jane sat in silence thinking over Elizabeth's words. She knew she'd been in the wrong but she was grateful for her sister's generosity ...and her forgiveness. "I do hope that you and William are going to be as happy as Charles and me, Lizzy."

"It's too early to say yet, Jane. But this time I'm determined not to back away - that's a start, isn't it?"

"Have you told him ...everything?"

"Not yet - but I do intend to, Jane, when I'm ready."

"I'm so glad, Lizzy. You can't push the past to the back of your mind forever. Remember," she offered, "I'm here if you need someone to talk to."

"Thanks, sis, I know that."

"I'm sorry I've disappointed you and William, Lizzy."

"Jane," Elizabeth groaned, "let's drop this and move on. You know I love you ...and always will. You're my best friend as well as my sister and I appreciate that you've supported me through some tough times. But," she confessed, "I think it has actually been good for me to find out that you're not this ...embodiment of perfection ...that I've always thought you to be."

"I wanted to talk to you about that, Lizzy. I know you've always seen me as this virtuous, angel-like person because that's the way mum has portrayed me - but that's not the real me."

"I know, Jane, and I love you all the better for knowing you're human ...just like me."

"I love you too, Lizzy. And thank you for being so understanding."

"Well," Elizabeth sighed, "we've all got what we wanted in the end. At least, you and Charles have. And William and I - we may have some obstacles yet to overcome, but I think we'll get there."

"You will, Lizzy, you will."

"And now, Jane," Elizabeth said as she bent to kiss her sister, "I'm off to bed. I'll see you both in the morning."

"Goodnight, Lizzy."

Chapter Twelve

William had to admit - Elizabeth's behaviour since he'd come back from Pemberley was very puzzling to him. They'd been out together several times now and Elizabeth was definitely blowing hot and cold. One minute he thought he could see a look of desire on her face ...and the next she was pulling back, all hurt eyes and fluttering hands, like a little bird trapped by the bars of a cage. It hadn't taken him long to work out that anything more intimate than a gentle kiss made her tense up. But why? He couldn't fathom it - he knew she could be rather unpredictable at times, but he could see no reason in their admittedly short acquaintance for her present conduct. Whatever the difficulty was, though, he felt sure they could resolve it if only she would confide in him.

It was the middle of January and they had just returned from a drive to Loch Lomond - Elizabeth's mad idea, William remembered with a shake of his head. He'd known that a wet and windy day in winter wasn't the time to explore the area's spectacular scenery. But Elizabeth had ridiculed him for having no sense of adventure and he'd allowed himself to rise to her teasing. As he'd forewarned the gale force wind and the vertical rain prevented them from getting out of the car - except to take shelter in the very comfortable Inversnaid Hotel, right on the shore of the loch, where they'd enjoyed an impromptu dinner in front of a blazing log fire. Now they were sitting in his Range Rover at the door of her close and, as it looked as though he wasn't going to be invited up to her flat, he was determined to bring up the subject that was the cause of growing concern to him.

"Elizabeth, I was wondering ..." William faltered as he considered how best to express his doubts without sounding too reproachful. After a brief pause he began again, "I was wondering if there's a problem between us ...something you'd like to tell me about. We've known each other for several months now and you seem at times ...to be ... uncomfortable around me." He shook his head to indicate that he wasn't explaining himself very well. "I'm sorry, that sounds clumsy ...I'll be more specific. It seems to me that you are uncomfortable with the thought of a physical relationship."

William waited for some sort of reaction from her, but when he saw that she wasn't even prepared to look up at him, he carried on, "I don't know if I can continue like this, Elizabeth, without knowing why you're pushing me away. I ...I don't want to put any pressure on you, but I'm just feeling baffled ...I don't understand what the problem is. I ...thought you liked me."

Elizabeth felt a wrench in her chest as she looked up to see his anxious frown. She answered hesitantly, "Oh, I do, William ...very much ...and I don't want to lose you, really I don't. But ..." She closed her eyes, unable to go on. She'd known this disclosure would have to come some day, but had never been able to prepare herself for it - nor had she ever dreamt that the man she'd have to make this confession to would be so vital to her.

"Elizabeth," he said, his voice gentle, "I hate to ask - and please don't give me too much detail - but was it this way with you and Charles?"

"God, Will," Elizabeth gasped, "I didn't have any desire to ...even kiss Charles once I knew I was attracted to you. I should have split up with him as soon as I realised - I don't know why I let it drag on. I'm just ...not very good with relationships, I guess."

"Well," William sighed, "I'm just as guilty as you there, Elizabeth."

"When I look back on it, Charles didn't seem that bothered by our lack of ...closeness. Now I know why," she said with a wry laugh. "He was too busy lusting after Jane."

Although William was relieved to hear that Elizabeth and Charles had shared nothing more than a few kisses, it didn't bring him any closer to an understanding of her problem with him. "Elizabeth, the night we found out about Jane and Charles, you said you wanted to take things slowly. I didn't think much about it at the time - I suppose I just thought you were overwhelmed by all that had happened. But now I ...need an explanation of why you said that." William waited, hoping she'd make some sort of response. After several minutes of awkward silence, though, he continued, "Am I putting too much pressure on you? God, I don't want to do that, Elizabeth; I just want to understand what's wrong. You said you shared kisses with Charles, but I get the feeling when we kiss .... that you'd rather not. Why, Elizabeth?"

"That's not true, William. I ...I ...oh Will, I'm just not ready for this discussion now." As her hand fumbled for the door handle, she added despondently, "If ...if you want to break up, just say so, I'll quite understand."

William was shocked. After all they'd been through to get to this point, she seemed willing to give up on them too easily. His voice, when he felt able to speak, was filled with exasperation. "Elizabeth, you must know that is not what I want."

As she caught sight of his uncompromising glare, Elizabeth's eyes filled with tears and she fled the car without even their customary farewell kiss. Before she closed the car door, she looked in at him and said almost in a whisper, "Let me think about it. We'll discuss it later, I promise. Give me a little more time, Will."

He was left wondering exactly what Elizabeth was going off to 'think about' ...for he had no idea what was in that secretive mind of hers!

~ * ~

William had waited with growing impatience for a sign that Elizabeth was ready to confide in him, but it seemed she was determined to forget they'd ever had their discussion in the car. It had become his habit - begun when he was down in London before Christmas - to phone Elizabeth on the nights he wasn't able to see her. It hadn't escaped his notice during his recent calls that she'd been intent on steering him away from anything remotely intimate. For the first time since they'd got together, talking to Elizabeth wasn't making him happy.

Eventually, his vexation at its limit, William had decided enough was enough. Either they had to get to the bottom of this or ...unthinkably ...he'd have to consider walking away! So he'd invited her to his home for dinner, knowing it was the only place where he could guarantee privacy. She, as he'd anticipated, had been reluctant to come but he'd made her aware as gently as possible that they couldn't carry on like this - well, perhaps she is able to, but I can't. He'd tried to joke with her, "It's all right, Elizabeth. I'm not inviting you to look at my etchings. You're quite safe. I just want us to be able to talk without interruption."

"That's okay, Will," she'd returned half-heartedly, "just make sure I'm nearest the door so that I can make a quick getaway." Somehow William had known ...she hadn't been kidding.

~ * ~

As she drove to William's house that evening, Elizabeth remembered back to her first date with him - Hell, I thought I was nervous then ...but this is crunch time! She knew she'd either have to give him up - as had happened in the past with other men - or divulge everything to him. But what would he think of her once she'd done that? What had she been anyway but a stupid, naïve little girl who had allowed herself to be manipulated? Did she really want him to know that about her?

During dinner William tried to bring the conversation round to the subject that had been plaguing his thoughts, but Elizabeth requested that they wait until after they'd eaten. She didn't want to discuss her past foolishness at all ...but she was certainly not prepared to do so at his elegant dining table.

After their meal, William led Elizabeth into the sitting room. He noticed with sadness that she waited until he sat down and then chose a seat across from him. God, she won't even sit beside me. This is a wretched beginning indeed.

Elizabeth began hesitantly, "William, I am well aware that we have a problem ...no, sorry, I shouldn't say that - that I have a problem. And I know ..."

"Elizabeth," William interrupted, his voice low and comforting, "you were right with the first statement - if you have a problem that's having an effect on our relationship then I share that problem."

"Thank you, William. I appreciate your support ...and your patience, really I do." Elizabeth gave him a sad smile and at that moment he wanted more than anything else to be close to her.

"Please, Elizabeth," he ventured, almost certain she'd refuse, "come and sit here with me. I just want to hold your hand - I promise I'll do nothing more."

Without any outward sign of reluctance, she crossed the room to the space beside him on the sofa and sat down. Then, with a faint sigh, she began to explain, "The truth is, William, that although I may come across as quite confident, I've never felt very good about myself."

"Really? I can't say I've noticed that about you," he observed. "But I suppose men don't always pick up on these signals."

"No? Well," Elizabeth replied, letting her hand rest gently on his, "let's just say I'm an old hand at hiding it from everyone. I've always believed my mother's constant disapproval has something to do with the way I feel inside, but perhaps," she said with a shrug of her shoulders, "I'm just using her as an excuse. I do know that for years as a child I tried to earn her affection, always wondering why it was necessary when it was freely given to Jane. But as you saw for yourself when she was up here, I haven't had any success; she is to this day my severest critic."

"Hmmph, there's no doubt about that!" William responded emphatically.

"Then I gave up trying to get her to love me and became the proverbial stroppy teenager. In the last few years, I suppose I've really just tried to ignore her."

"She seems the type of woman who's hard to ignore," William observed wryly.

"Yes, she's certainly that," Elizabeth stressed. "She would tell you - and I've heard it so many times - that I was the difficult child in the family, always mouthy, always up to mischief ...and it was her responsibility to make me toe the line. Jane, you see, was always Miss Perfect in her eyes; placid and well-behaved - except when she was led astray by me, of course. Despite that Jane and I have always been close and that, as you can imagine, has been a constant source of annoyance to my mother."

"Yes, I thought she was jealous of your relationship with Jane."

Oh, she's definitely that," Elizabeth agreed. "When I wasn't around, it seemed to me that mum, Jane, my dad and sisters all got on tolerably well together - as long as things were done mum's way. It was when I was present that family life became a constant battle."

"Not because of your presence, Elizabeth. I'm sure it couldn't have been your fault that she hasn't ever treated you well."

"No, I suppose not. I always blamed myself though, William. But I guess it was just that she never loved me, and still doesn't. However," Elizabeth urged," don't feel too sorry for me. I have always had people in my life who have cared about me - my dad, Jane, Charlotte, Helen and Edward. And until she died my Gran Peggy was my staunchest ally."

"And your other sisters?"

"Well, Mary and I get on reasonably well. She's a goth, though, so we don't have much in common." Elizabeth laughed at William's puzzled expression and added, "Haven't you heard of goths, William? - dress in black, love Marilyn Manson and HIM? ...No? ...I didn't think so, somehow. And you already know what Lydia is like - and I'm afraid Kitty has always been her partner in crime. They're into dance music, clubbing, getting smashed - again not my scene."

"Hasn't anyone in your family ever tried to do anything about the way your mother treats you, Elizabeth?"

"They've all tried, William, at different times. Helen and Edward are actually very good at putting my mum in her place, but they've always lived in Glasgow - we didn't see much of them when I was growing up. Jane and my dad found quite early on that if they took my side against mum, she would punish me!"

William turned his hand upwards so that he could grasp Elizabeth's fingers in his. He was aware that she had tears in her eyes and he longed to embrace her. "But your father should ..."

Elizabeth cut him off. She didn't want to have a discussion about her father's faults at the present moment. "My dad did as much as he was able, William. I was born ten months after Jane ...a mistake, of course ...and for a while dad cut his working hours to help out at home. Eventually though, he had to get back to his business or he'd have lost it. You see," Elizabeth explained, "he designs and crafts bespoke furniture and that's a very labour intensive job. He's always had to spend most of his day at his workshop, which suits him as he's a very solitary man ...and it keeps him away from many of the trials of family life."

"And your grandmother?"

"My gran came down to Meryton as often as she could to help my mum out when my dad went back to work - that's how she and I came to be so close. And when I was old enough, I used to be sent up to Glasgow during the summer holidays to stay with her ...those were the happiest days of my childhood, William," she said with a sliver of a smile. "But although dear old Frances was glad to see the back of me, she was jealous of my close relationship with her mother - just as she was with Jane and my dad."

"I think I can understand how your childhood has affected your self-image, Elizabeth, but what bearing does this have on the difficulties we're having? It seems that you don't want me to desire you - that can't have anything to do with your mother."

"Well, I suppose I don't feel very desirable most of the time," she admitted.

"Elizabeth! You are ..."

"No, don't say anything, William," she interrupted. "Let me finish. You see, you're the first person I've told this to. Jane and Charlotte know a little because they became involved in the end. But I haven't told the whole sorry tale to anyone else."

"Why, Elizabeth?"

"What are you asking, William? Why haven't I told anyone else ...or why you?"

"Both, really."

"Well, I haven't told anyone else because I'm ashamed that I wasn't more astute when all of this happened," she replied. "And why you? Because if I don't have your help to work through this, I'm afraid I'll ...lose you."

William tightened his grasp on Elizabeth's hand. "You'll not lose me as long as you can be honest with me, Elizabeth; nothing can emerge from your past that will change the way I feel about you now."

"Yeah, well, we'll see about that. But thanks anyway, William. You don't know how much I appreciate you saying it." Then, settling herself a little closer to him, she began, "When I was fifteen, I became interested in a boy from my school. His name was George Wickham. He was two years ahead of me and he was incredibly good looking; tall, dark, captain of the rugby team. You know the type - hell, William, you probably were that type at your school."

"No, actually, I think I was too quiet for the girls. Charles was always much more popular," William replied. "But you were saying, Elizabeth ..."

"There's no putting you off, is there?" she said with a groan. "Well ...nearly all the girls fancied George like mad ...including me. Although, when I think about it, Jane was the only girl I knew who wouldn't have gone out with him if he'd asked her. She tried to put me off him but I thought I knew better ...I was in love. Of course, I realise now that it was just infatuation, with possibly a large sprinkling of gratitude for his interest in me," Elizabeth reflected. "I was too young and inexperienced to know what love was."

"Why didn't Jane like him?"

"She thought he was too full of himself," Elizabeth answered. "She was always telling me to watch out for him, that he wasn't 'genuine' - whatever that meant. I remember we had quite a few arguments about him ...which was quite unusual for us; then, once she saw that I wasn't going to be swayed, she stopped making any comments about him."

Elizabeth continued, "We started going out together in his final year, though I'd fancied him from the moment I first saw him. He was very confident, arrogant I suppose you could say ...we all found that exciting and attractive at the time. His family was very wealthy compared to mine, so I was astounded when I found out that he chose me - out of all the girls he could have picked." She paused and stared into the distance, reminiscing over those days.

"For the first few months everything was fine between us. Yes, we'd kiss and cuddle but that was it. Then George started to ...want more. He always wanted us to be alone ...he wanted to touch me ...he wanted me to - well, you know ..." Elizabeth looked down, her cheeks red with embarrassment. "I didn't want to go any further than kisses because I was only fifteen and I knew I wasn't ready. But George would go into this black mood - he was never angry or violent. I think if he'd got angry," she observed, "I would have found it easier to cope with him, but somehow he was able to play on my lack of experience.

"We used to go out with a large group of friends and many times he'd spoil my night, especially once he'd had a drink - he'd say he wanted us to split up, that he'd quite easily find someone else who'd be more ...accommodating. I'd be in tears and would want to go home, then the next day he would comfort me - and he'd be so loving and apologetic that I would forgive him. For a while after each row, he'd back off, saying that he respected my feelings. After a few weeks, though, he'd start badgering me again. It didn't help that everyone knew I was the only one who hadn't had sex amongst our crowd - I think, quite honestly, that affected George's reputation with the other boys. Even Jane had ...well," Elizabeth shrugged, "she was already sixteen."

"Anyway, gradually over the months, George wore me down; he'd take things a little bit further each time we were alone. He'd say, 'But Lizzy, this is not sex, you can't have any objection to this if you love me.' I knew I was being manipulated and I was resentful, but I did think that I loved him, stupid though that may sound to you. Once I'd passed my sixteenth birthday he got more insistent, saying I had no excuse now. So eventually he wore me down and the deed was done - hell, it was over in five minutes. And I felt nothing but humiliation and disappointment - no ecstasy, no fulfilment, no joy." Elizabeth paused, lost in the distant memory, while William waited to see if that was it ...or was there more?

"I felt so bad about myself after that, William," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "I can remember the shame now as I'm speaking to you. I regretted my acquiescence bitterly. You see I felt it was such a huge step that I'd taken and it couldn't be undone. So," Elizabeth sighed, "there you are. George had got his way and he was very pleased with himself. He didn't dump me, if that's what you're thinking. In fact for a while, he treated me really well - after all, he'd got what he wanted. And although I didn't care for the sex, I felt much more a part of the crowd and, I'm ashamed to say, I did like being the girlfriend of the most popular boy in the school. So as you can see, William, I'm not a very good judge of character where men are concerned." With a shrug of her shoulders, she added, "George seemed pretty much like most of the boys in our group, according to what the other girls said."

"You shouldn't blame yourself, Elizabeth," William replied as he gave her hand a gentle squeeze and tried to hide his anger. "You were still a child. He was the one who coerced you."

"Yes, but Jane saw through him - and I always thought I was so perceptive ..."

"But Jane wasn't emotionally involved. It was easier for her to be objective."

"Well, I don't know ..." Elizabeth paused, lost in her past once again.

William waited for her to continue but after she was silent for several minutes, he asked, "Is that it, Elizabeth?"

"No, I'm afraid not. I'm sorry, William, but you wanted to hear it all," Elizabeth stated. "George and I carried on dating. Sex didn't improve much and quite honestly it wasn't a priority for me - I could never see what all the fuss was about. But I put up with it because it made him happy - and when he was happy, he was able to make himself agreeable. I suppose once we'd got that 'first time' out of the way, he became more like the guy I'd first gone out with. That was the best time for our relationship - if there ever was a 'best time'; I really thought I loved him then," Elizabeth said, shaking her head at her naïveté.

"That's not love, Elizabeth, when someone forces you to do something you don't want to do."

"Yes, of course I know that now," she replied defensively. "Anyway ...as I'd said earlier, George was in his final year. After the summer holidays, he went up to Glasgow University to do engineering. You see, he wanted a career in the army - a Highland regiment - and thought it would be a good idea to attend university in Scotland. I remember him telling me that his grandmother was from Inverness; maybe that was the connection. I think he had this romantic notion of kilts and pipe bands and whisky ...especially whisky," she said with a shake of her head. "Even then he was quite a drinker, just like many teenage boys, I suppose. So I spent two years in Meryton, only seeing George during holidays, missing him and waiting for the day when I could join him. You see, I had applied to Glasgow too ...not just because of George - I wanted to go to university in the city where my gran had spent so much of her life. I have to say," she reflected, "an added attraction was that I'd be so far away from my mother. I didn't mention to you, William, that my gran had died when I was fourteen - a year or so before all this happened."

"How appalling for you, Elizabeth. You must have been heartbroken." William, watching the tears glisten once again in her eyes, had to hold himself back from hugging her. It was obvious that her grandmother had been a very significant person in her life.

"Oh, I was. Do you know," she said, closing her eyes in pain at the recollection, "my mother wouldn't let me attend her funeral - she said I had to look after my sisters and cousins. Jane was allowed to go and she was never all that close to Gran Peggy."

Elizabeth shook herself mentally - this wouldn't do. By the time she got to the end of her confession, she'd be a blubbering idiot. "But I'm losing track of my story. I loved Glasgow and got on well with everyone. George was struggling, however, by the time I got there - mainly because of his own conduct. Although he could be very charming when he wanted, he had this imperious way that put people's backs up. You know Glasgow people, William. They can be quite 'in your face' and don't take well to bullshitters. George was often the butt of humour, sometimes rather cruel, though well deserved. I often had to mediate, especially in pubs where, after a few glasses of whisky, George would spout forth his arrogant, condescending opinions ...I can tell you they did not go down well. Towards the end of his time at university the only friends he had in his life apart from me were his rugby boozing buddies."

"He and I lived together once I arrived at university. I even thought in the beginning that we might eventually marry." Will started at this revelation and drew back from her. She noted the slight movement with pain. "But he began to change, and it happened so gradually that it took a while for me to notice. In a way," she reflected, "he took over from my mother ...criticising, controlling and demanding. Oh, it was only snide little comments at first - he didn't like the way I dressed; he wanted me to have my hair cut; he thought I needed to lose weight. And he became very possessive - I'd made lots of new friends and he didn't like that. I felt as though I was slipping right back into my childhood and I became very unhappy."

"At the end of his fourth year, George finished his degree. He'd joined up as intended and was set to leave for his officer training. Frankly, I was desperate by this time to see him go. I'd found out from a girlfriend of one of his team mates that he'd been enjoying more than rugby at away matches. You'd have to know George to understand what he was like, William. I'm sure you must think me a naïve fool not to have sussed him out .... but he was so ...plausible and he made sure it was never with anyone in our circle and I suppose I ...wanted to believe in him. Also, Jane had moved up to Glasgow after an unhappy year at university in London and I wanted desperately by then to end it with George and move into her flat."

Elizabeth turned her body slightly away from Will so that he was no longer able to see her face. The next part was very painful for her to recall ...and she didn't want to look at him. "On George's last evening in Glasgow, he went on a farewell night out with his rugby crowd - boys only, of course, while I went out for a meal with Jane and Charlotte. I remember it was a beautiful evening just at the beginning of summer, warm, with the gentlest breeze. We had a great time catching up on all the Meryton news with Charlotte, who'd just arrived up from London that day. Anyway, when we got back to the car, I found that I'd lost my house key. It had been so warm that I'd carried my jacket - the key must have slipped out of my pocket somewhere. So we drove to the rugby clubhouse where I knew George would be getting merrily drunk along with the rest of the team. I didn't know they'd hired a private room, or I'd have taken Jane and Charlotte with me - but I thought I was just running in for a few seconds. When I got there the lads were pretty high, having just enjoyed the delights of a strip-o-gram in honour of George's imminent departure. As I entered the room, some of them started whistling and jeering - how I wish I'd followed my intuition and got out then. I remember that one of them shouted, 'Come on, Lizzy, let's see your show for George, I bet you can't top the tart.' I felt very uncomfortable because, although I'd seen these boys at home matches, I didn't know them very well and I could see they'd had a tankful. One of them came towards me and put his arm round my shoulder, hugging me tight. I elbowed him - gently - in the ribs, trying to keep things light, despite my growing feeling of apprehension."

Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut as she saw the events of that horrible night play out in her mind. She could remember the feeling, as fresh as ever, of being trapped, of being powerless. "I find it very difficult to work out what happened next. Suddenly they all seemed to gather round me like vultures. I was jostled and crowded in. I remember someone put his hand over my mouth, although I don't suppose anyone would have heard me scream anyway with the music playing so loud. They pulled me over to where George was sitting ...boy, was he out of it by then ...and they pushed me on to his lap facing him, straddling his legs. As they did that my dress rode up and George put his hands on my knees and slid them up my thighs. This seemed to excite the guys watching because they started to clap and egg George on to keep moving his hands up. Someone, to this day I don't know who, very quickly unzipped my dress and pulled the straps down."

Elizabeth paused, not sure that she could go on. William could see that tears were running freely down her face and every few seconds she would wipe them away with the back of her hand. How he wanted to comfort her at that moment. Afraid that anything more would alarm her, he gently stroked her hand and was relieved when she didn't draw away from him.

"Don't go on, Elizabeth. It's too painful for you." Elizabeth looked up, trying to gauge his feelings by the expression on his face.

"No Will, please, I must get it out of the way ...unless you can't bear to listen." William was having a hard time controlling his emotions - he felt compassion and at the same time horror for the trap Elizabeth found herself in, but his overwhelming feeling was one of immense anger. If he had George Wickham before him now ...slow torture would be too good for him! He nodded to her, indicating that she should carry on if she wished.

"When this person behind me pulled the straps of my dress down he trapped my arms at my side ...and - heaven forgive me - I wasn't wearing a bra." She shrugged her shoulders, "the dress didn't need it ...so I had to push myself towards George to keep my breasts hidden and he, very drunkenly, put his arms round me in a tight grip and just about thrust his tongue down my throat. The others whooped and whistled their encouragement, making lewd comments about what they'd like to do to me if they were in George's place. I won't tell you what he said, Will. Let's just say that at that point he was very willing to share me around."

"Just then ...and I've thanked God for it often ...my saviours arrived in the form of Jane and Charlotte. They felt they'd waited long enough in the car and came in to see what was keeping me. Their entry brought some of the guys to their senses. The girls couldn't see what was happening because of the crowd gathered round George's seat. Someone, very roughly and speedily, pulled up and zipped my dress and the crowd parted. At first, as Jane told me later, she and Charlotte stared at me in disbelief, thinking I was having a very private moment with George in front of all these drunken rugby players. But when I dashed out of the room with tears streaming down my face, they knew something was very wrong. They took me back to Jane's flat and, having heard the sordid details, they wanted to call the police. But I was adamant ...there was no way," Elizabeth sobbed with her hands over her face, "there was no way ...I was repeating the details of my humiliation ...to strangers. You see I felt so worthless, Will, and I hated ...hated ...that feeling of powerlessness. These guys could have done anything they wanted and I ...I was totally vulnerable."

"I never saw George again - I couldn't bear to look at him. Jane and Charlotte collected my things from the flat the next day after George had left and I moved in with Jane. I was so glad that she'd decided to follow me to Glasgow, William. She saved me, you know. Without her I would have curled up and died. But she wouldn't give up on me ...she cared for me for months until I felt able to look after myself again. George phoned once or twice and I know that he wrote to me a few times. Jane destroyed the letters, though; I didn't want to read them."

"So you see, Will, ever since then I've avoided getting serious with anyone. Although I function well enough in everyday life, I have no confidence in myself where intimate relationships are concerned ...and I haven't been able to let a man get close to me since then. Oh I can be witty and flirt with them, but as soon as they want to get in the least bit passionate, I get uptight up and back off."

William looked at her silently for a long moment; little knowing that Elizabeth needed him to say that it was okay, that he cared for her just as much as ever. But what could he say? Her hurt was palpable and he wasn't sure how to handle it. Would she take flight if he embraced her? Elizabeth saw the uncertainty in his eyes and interpreted it as disillusionment.

"You've changed your mind about me now, William, haven't you? I can see it in your eyes ...you think I was incredibly stupid." Elizabeth's voice was accusing and full of bitterness.

"Elizabeth," William declared, getting up from his seat to pace the floor in front of her, "would you listen while I tell you what I really feel, rather than what you've made up in your head. What you see in my eyes is sympathy for your appalling experience, one that I suppose I cannot ever truly understand. But you also see such fucking anger - if I ever lay my hands on George Whatshisname, I will thrash him, I promise you."

To soften his harsh words, William sat back down and embraced Elizabeth, carefully watching for any sign of panic on her face. It angered him that something as normal as a hug could perhaps be a source of anxiety for her, all because of that ...bastard!

"Elizabeth, please look at me," William gently lifted her chin with his fingertips, almost afraid that any touch would be too much for her following her revelations. "I haven't changed my mind about you. I couldn't. I want to make love to you - 'make love' to you, Elizabeth, not 'have sex' - more than anything I've ever wanted, but you have only my word for that and you obviously no longer have trust in words." William searched her face, looking for a sign that she at least believed him to be sincere. "I cannot convince you with words. As far as I can see it will take time to build up trust ...and I'm prepared to wait as long as it takes."

"Oh, Will, please just hold me." Elizabeth wondered how she ever deserved such a sweet man. "Thank you for being so understanding." Tentatively, William wrapped his arms around her, making sure that his embrace was no more than a friend would give. Elizabeth felt immediately the lack of ardour, but understood and was grateful for his self-control. At the same time she became aware of an immense sadness that he had to behave in this way towards her.

Now that Elizabeth had shared the memories that had troubled her for years, she felt as though a heavy black stone had been plucked out of her heart. She hadn't actually realised it was there - she'd lived with it for so long. She knew deep within that she wasn't all of a sudden going to feel at ease about her past, but it was a start. Her healing had begun tonight with the shedding of her secrets - she just prayed that she hadn't damaged her connection with William.

Elizabeth mentally shook herself as William's deep voice penetrated her thoughts. "You know, Elizabeth, trust is very important to me - without it there is no relationship. If you love someone, but cannot trust them ...well the quality of that love is impoverished ...diminished."

"Will, you sound as though you have personal experience of this ...of loving someone but being unable to trust them."

"Yes," he said with a heavy sigh, "I have."

"Since this seems to be the night for bringing skeletons out of the closet, perhaps you'd like to tell me about it."

William was silent for so long that Elizabeth feared he couldn't bring himself to share this experience with her. That thought saddened her greatly. Had she not just shared the most humiliating time of her life with him? Did he not trust her?"

"You must be feeling drained, Elizabeth. Are you sure you want to hear this?"

"I do, William."

After several minutes he began to speak, not in his usual confident way, but falteringly, stumbling over his painful words. "My mother ...she married my father with every intention of living at Pemberley after the wedding. But within a few months, she realised that she couldn't stay there. It was her doctor who, in the end, advised my father that she needed to go back to her home in Scotland if she wasn't to fall into a deep depression. She hoped then that my father would be prepared to come and live with her or, failing that, to spend at least part of the year at Strathlyon. But he felt his responsibility to Pemberley came first and he wouldn't compromise. So they lived apart for most of their marriage ...both sad, both stubborn. Georgie and I ...well, we were stuck in the middle, travelling up and down the country ...feeling we were being torn in two. I was an only child for six years before Georgie was born so I suppose I felt it more than she did. When I was young my parents promised that we'd all be together ...soon. It was always 'soon'. But that time never came. They lied to me, Elizabeth, and they lied to Georgiana. I spent my early school years at Strathlyon because my mother couldn't bear me to part from her - until I was sent off to board at Gordonstoun, that is. I only saw my father during holidays."

"Why couldn't your mother live at Pemberley, William?"

"I don't know. She said she was homesick but I never understood her tie to Strathlyon. Don't get me wrong, I love the place myself but, at the end of the day, it's only a house - family is much more important. She told me once that she felt torn in two when she went away from her home."

"How did your parents get on when they were together?"

"Well ...my mother was an independent woman, Elizabeth - she ruled Strathlyon just as my father ruled Pemberley. I suppose you could say that their times together were filled with constant struggles for dominance. But one thing I do know, they loved each other in their own way. When my mother died, my father just went to pieces. As soon as she was gone he regretted all the time they'd spent apart ...unfortunately, it was too late by then."

"Are you saying then, William, that you couldn't trust your parents because they weren't able to deliver in that one area of your life?"

"They lied to me, Elizabeth. They promised that we'd be together as a family. It never happened. You can't trust someone who lies," he stated flatly.

"Is that why you're still miffed with Charles and Jane?"

"Yes, I suppose I am," William replied. "As I said before, if I hadn't won you, I'd have found it very hard to excuse their actions."

"God, I hope I never do anything to upset you, William," Elizabeth exclaimed. "Implacable resentment is not an attractive quality. You'll have to learn to forgive."

"Well, Elizabeth, I'm prepared to try and follow your philosophy, but I've felt this way for a long time. I'll need a lot of coaching - do you think you're up to it?"

Elizabeth laughed for the first time that evening. "Do you doubt it, Mr Darcy?"

"Of you? Definitely not," he said emphatically.

"Funnily enough," Elizabeth returned, "it's good to know that you have some flaws - that makes me feel like so much less of an idiot after all I've had to relate tonight."

"I'm so glad I could help," was William's sardonic reply.

~ * ~

William stayed true to his word about waiting as long as it took - in fact he was 'bustin' a gut' to show Elizabeth that he'd meant what he'd said. In the end it was Elizabeth who was compelled by her growing frustration to do something about their situation. William's quite understandable determination to let her make the first move was so strong that he'd stopped all the little gestures of affection that she had enjoyed - the arm around her shoulder, the guiding hand on the small of her back, the longing look in his eyes - and perversely she was missing them.

Don't get me wrong, she thought to herself, I really appreciate Will's restraint - but isn't he carrying it a bit too far? Hell, he hasn't given me more than a peck on the cheek since the night I told him about George! And he's being so careful around me - I feel like a bloody china doll. Well, Elizabeth smiled daringly to herself, he did say he'd wait as long as it takes - I think four weeks is long enough. I just hope I can go through with this without mucking it up.

Elizabeth did try - she really did ...but it turned out to be much harder, and to take much longer, than she'd hoped. Sometimes, thinking that she was making progress, she would encourage William to give her more than that 'peck on the cheek', but when she felt his tongue against her lips, she remembered that last kiss from George and she'd freeze. Once, by accident, he brushed her breast with his fingers - and she burst into tears, causing William to feel an agony of guilt.

This was a very difficult time for William; he felt he was walking on eggshells and actually began to wonder if there was ever going to be a physical side to their relationship. But slowly, little by little, Elizabeth felt herself become more relaxed when he touched her and even managed one night to allow him to give her a massage - on top of her clothes, of course. At least, though, she felt a warm, tingling sensation instead of panic ...and actually found herself hoping that he'd try to become a little more adventurous ...soon.

One night as William kissed her at the front door of her flat, she parted her lips and, for the first time, allowed his tongue to touch hers. Suddenly, in the deeps of her body a wonderful rippling thrill broke out where before there had always been anxiety. She felt the strong thudding of his heart as he held her against his chest. And she was not afraid. Ever since that night with George she'd struggled to suppress the seed of fear that had grown inside her. Tonight she felt that fear begin to loosen its grip.

William ran downstairs thinking there appeared, at last, to be light at the end of a very long, frustrating tunnel and he was delighted - especially when he remembered the wide grin that appeared when he showered her face with joyful kisses.

~ * ~

It was Friday night and William was due to fly down to Pemberley the next day for a long delayed business meeting. He'd been stalling for ages in the hope that he and Elizabeth could make progress before they had to part - but kissing was as much as she seemed comfortable with and he couldn't put off his trip any longer.

Elizabeth had invited him to her flat for a farewell meal, as he'd be gone until the end of the next week and both were viewing the separation with some apprehension. She had decided to attempt to go a little further than a kiss ...she hesitated to use the word 'seduction' because she'd never done such a thing before and quite frankly had no idea how to go about it ...but that was what she was aiming for - and she was a quick learner when it suited her!

Nervously, she cooked a light meal, lit candles, chose a gentle classical CD and donned her most appealing outfit, making sure that she also wore her laciest lingerie ...just in case she was able to get that far. Shit, it makes me nervous to know I'm even thinking like that! Elizabeth, surprised that the pictures flitting through her mind did not cause her to panic, pondered with delight the change in her feelings. George was in the past; she would no longer allow him to reach over the years and spoil her life. Now, she said to herself, determined to banish all negative thoughts, if William can keep his hands off me tonight, he is indeed a man of steel!

William was quite overwhelmed when he walked into the living room behind Elizabeth. The subdued lighting, the music, Elizabeth's attire - especially Elizabeth's attire - set off signals in his head. All of this was very unusual and surely a hopeful sign. His body began to tell him, this could be it. But he would bide his time and wait for Elizabeth to make the first move.

After their meal, which had been beautifully cooked, but for some reason barely touched, Elizabeth and William moved hand-in-hand to the sofa. Instead of sitting at the opposite end, as she'd done on too many occasions, she sat beside him and, curling her legs up at her side, cuddled into him, thus allowing him to put his arm around her shoulders. She closed her eyes and decided to go for it, softly entreating him, "Is there anything you'd like to do now, William?"

William had to ask her to repeat what she'd just said, so surprised was he at her question. Now she blushed and looked up at him and he saw in her eyes, for the first time, the mirror image of the desire that had filled his ...almost from the first moment he beheld her.

William, having sought permission and received it in Elizabeth's answering nod, slowly let down her mass of hair and lost his hands in her curls as he pulled her head back to enjoy kissing her face and neck. When he felt Elizabeth begin to pull his polo shirt out of his trousers, though, an alarm bell started to ring in his head.

"Elizabeth, perhaps we should stick with kisses tonight."

"Why, William. Don't you want to ...?" Elizabeth tailed off, embarrassed to say the words.

"You know the answer to that question, Elizabeth. But I'm not certain that you're ready yet - I think I'll do myself an injury if we get half way and you feel the need to stop."

"William, only I can be the judge of whether or not I'm ready. And I don't want to stop tonight," she said in a decisive voice that William hadn't heard for some time.

"Are you sure? Are you quite, quite sure?"

"I'm as sure as I can be."

"Elizabeth," William said, his cheeks reddening, "I haven't got any condoms with me. I didn't expect ..."

"That's okay, William, I'm on the pill. Unless that's not acceptable to you," she gabbled. "We can go up to Somerfield if you'd ..."

"Elizabeth," and with that William lowered his mouth to hers, effectively ending any further conversation. Elizabeth waited for the rush of panic to envelop her as William tentatively parted her lips with his tongue, but it did not come. Instead a wave of excitement swept through her body - she felt as though someone had switched on an electric fire, so quickly did the heat build up within her. Into that first passionate kiss, she tried to pour out all the longing she'd felt since the moment at the charity dinner when she'd first glimpsed those deep brown eyes. During that kiss she allowed herself to undo the ties of the past and to think only of the present. Boy, she thought, did that kiss tickle my toes or what ...Jane Bennet, what were you talking about?

Willing to test her assertion that she was ready, William unfastened the top buttons of her sheer blouse, moving it off her shoulders while lowering his kisses towards her breasts. Impassioned by his mouth on her bare skin, Elizabeth began again to pull William's polo shirt out of his trousers so that she could enjoy the feel of his taut muscles as she slid her hands again and again across his chest. William groaned when she lifted his shirt over his head and moved her hands down towards the button of his jeans. As he was about to unfasten her bra, a tragedy occurred - well it was a tragedy of the first order in William Darcy's book, anyway. The doorbell rang!

Now it was Elizabeth's turn to cry out - though certainly not with pleasure - as she hurried to button up her blouse and run her fingers through her hair. William swore in frustration as she left him to make himself decent while she answered the door. As he pulled on his polo shirt he deliberated that he could cheerfully murder whoever was calling on Elizabeth at this particular moment.

Elizabeth soon came back into the room followed by Charles and Jane. She smiled apologetically at William, saying with a laugh, "I found these two at the door, Will, and I just couldn't get rid of them." William returned the smile - just - thinking to himself about words spoken in jest ...!

"I'm sorry," Jane exclaimed, looking around at the candles and the dishes left on the table, "we should have phoned. We just came to see Will off, but we've spoiled your meal."

William and Elizabeth just looked at each other ruefully - if only Charles and Jane knew what they'd actually 'spoiled'. Neither he nor Elizabeth could refute her assertion, so William rather awkwardly changed the subject. "So, Jane ...how are the wedding plans going?"

If William's wish had been for Charles and Jane's visit to be as short as possible, he'd made the mistake of asking the wrong question. The excited couple stayed until midnight discussing their arrangements which, William and Elizabeth had to admit, did involve them as best man and bridesmaid. By the time Jane indicated to Charles that it was time to leave, William intimated reluctantly that he too had to go as he had an early start the next morning. Elizabeth could barely hide her disappointment at his words. Charles and Jane left with a quiet 'goodbye' as the couple, everything else forgotten, stared into each other's eyes.

~ * ~

"Well, Jane, I got the distinct impression that we interrupted something there," Charles observed as he followed his fiancée downstairs.

"Yes, Charles, isn't it wonderful."

"Wonderful? That's not what I'd have called it!"

"Not that we interrupted them, silly - but that there was something for us to interrupt."

"Sorry, Jane, I don't get it. I don't understand why this should be such a big thing."

Jane considered whether or not she should tell Charles about Elizabeth's past. "If I tell you this, it must go no further. I don't even want you to discuss it with William. Charles nodded in agreement as he and Jane got into their car to drive home. On the way, Jane told Charles as much as she knew of the story of Elizabeth's relationship with George Wickham.

~ * ~

Elizabeth, feeling about to explode with pent up frustration, was loath to let William leave her. But she knew that he was already going to be a few hours short of a full night's sleep - he wouldn't get home and settled until one and he had to be on his way to the airport at five.

"Stay the night, William - at least that way you'll get another hour of sleep."

"If I stay, I won't get any sleep, Elizabeth," he said with a provocative look.

"I promise I'll ..."

William stopped her words with a kiss. He knew, tempting though the offer was, that he could not stay. He pressed Elizabeth back against the door of the flat as his kiss grew more needy and his hands tangled in her unruly hair. She could feel him hard against her and removed her hand from his shoulder to caress him, enjoying the moan she extracted from his lips - her revenge for his cruel departure. In retaliation, William slipped his fingers inside her bra and gently stroked her breast as he continued to explore her mouth. When he felt Elizabeth try to pull him back into the flat, though, he knew he had to put a stop to this very agreeable diversion.

"I know what you're doing Elizabeth Bennet," he groaned, "but I have to go." With that he withdrew from her and, displaying a wry grin, he turned and made his way downstairs, calling goodbye to what he knew was one very aggrieved lady.

Elizabeth was shaking as she went back into her living room. On the one hand she felt frustrated and, perversely, annoyed with William for getting her to this state and not staying to satisfy her. After all, who could know how she'd be feeling the next time they had such an encounter - she might not be able to respond in the way she'd done tonight. At the same time she was elated that she had indeed experienced emotions that she'd read and heard about (with not a little jealousy at times) but had never felt with George - or with any other man since. For the first time in years she felt she could have an intimate relationship without panic seizing control of her body ...how wonderful!!

William, though feeling as frustrated as Elizabeth, was nonetheless overjoyed at the way the evening had turned out. He knew he'd been prepared to walk on eggshells for longer if necessary, but boy was he glad that Elizabeth had taken the initiative tonight. As he remembered the silkiness of her hair and the softness of her skin under his lips' caresses, he cursed Pemberley, his business and everything else that was taking him away from her. I just hope, for the sake of my sanity, William thought, that when I get back we'll be able to take up where we left off.

Chapter Thirteen

William phoned Elizabeth every evening from Pemberley and they talked for hours about their day, their thoughts, the people they'd had contact with ...anything that would prolong the long distance connection between them. William often spoke of the night before he'd left Glasgow, as if to lodge in her memory that they'd made some progress and there was no going back despite this time of separation. Within himself he knew that he'd left at an inopportune moment and he needed to hear Elizabeth say that she was missing him and, most importantly, that she didn't regret her actions that night. He found her halting and, if he was catching the tone of her voice correctly, embarrassed reassurances so touching that he wished he could return to her without the inconvenience of concluding his business.

Elizabeth wasn't surprised to find that William could turn her insides to jelly ...with only his words on the telephone. In fact she was glad that Jane no longer lived with her, as she'd have hated to try to explain her scarlet cheeks at the end of William's nightly phone calls. It would be appropriate to say that she was very keen to have him home ...and the sooner the better!

Bad news, however, arrived with his final call before he was due to fly back to Glasgow. William had been informed by his housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds, that Strathlyon's estate manager, Rory Macpherson, had suffered a heart attack and would be in Perth Royal Infirmary for several weeks. William realised that as Rory's depute was on holiday, he'd have to get back to the estate to appoint a temporary manager and to visit Rory's wife and children to make sure they had all the support they needed.

Elizabeth could barely hide her frustration when she heard William's news - she'd been looking forward with such anticipation (and a little apprehension) to tomorrow night. "I'm sorry to hear about your estate manager, William, but I'm even sorrier that you're not coming home to me... I know I shouldn't be so selfish," she finished off lamely.

"That's all right, Elizabeth. I'm disappointed too," William replied. "But I can't leave the estate without someone in charge. And Rory has been with us for twenty years - I must call in on his family."

"Of course you must," Elizabeth agreed. "Is there any chance that you could come here for a little while tomorrow, so that I can at least see you before you go off again?"

"Not really, I'm afraid. I'm taking the helicopter up from the airport at about lunch-time - I want to arrive at Strathlyon before it gets too dark."

"Oh, okay. I'll see you when you get back then."

"Elizabeth," William urged, "why don't you meet me there ...at the airport, I mean. You could fly up with me and stay for the weekend."

Elizabeth caught the excitement in his voice and was sorry to have to let him down. "I can't, William. I'm teaching until half three, then I've promised to go with Jane to her pre-natal appointment at the hospital - Charles has a meeting and can't manage. She's invited me back to their place for dinner as a thank you. I had hoped you'd be back in time to come too."

"I'm sorry I won't able to accompany you, Elizabeth." William's voice betrayed his disappointment as he said goodbye and assured her that he would be back in Glasgow as soon as possible.

~ * ~

Elizabeth walked out into the bitterly cold evening and actually had to scrape the windscreen before she got into her car. It had been unseasonably mild in the last few days - when had the weather turned so cold again? Pulling her collar up around her neck, she cursed herself for not bringing her scarf and gloves. It's cold enough for snow, she thought. Now that would be just my luck for this long trek!

As she drove away from her flat, she silently thanked Charles for making it to the hospital in time for Jane's appointment. She remembered the look of delight on her sister's face as she caught sight of him entering the waiting room, and once again Elizabeth felt that fraught though the circumstances had been, all had worked out for the best. Charles' timely arrival allowed her to revisit William's earlier idea, though slightly altered - she'd now have to drive up to Strathlyon as his helicopter had long gone. What a surprise he'll get when I turn up on his doorstep!

The snow started to fall before Elizabeth left the outskirts of Glasgow. As she drove on the motorway huge flakes fluttered on to her windscreen reducing her visibility considerably. Damn, she considered, should I turn back? But as she thought of what awaited her at Strathlyon, she decided to continue. If she drove slowly and carefully - she'd make it, though perhaps later than she would have hoped. She gave a little shiver of excitement as she anticipated the look of shock on William's face at her unexpected arrival.

As Elizabeth drove farther north, she was astonished at the depth of snow on either side of the A9 - that'll teach me for not having listened to the weather forecast before I left! It had obviously been snowing all day up here and she was grateful that the snow ploughs had been busy keeping this notorious stretch of road clear. Please, please don't let the road be closed before the turn-off for Aberfeldy, she begged silently. I couldn't bear to be turned back now.

Elizabeth reached Strathlyon House at ten-thirty, stressed and tired from the high level of concentration required to keep her car on the road all the way from Glasgow. She was extremely pleased to find that the road alongside Loch Tay had been cleared well enough for her to drive with relative ease - she had thought it was going to be the worst part of her journey. She realised, though, by the feeling of stiffness in her back and legs when she got out of the car, just how tense the drive had been. The stress in her body, however, was not able to prevent a smile from playing on her lips at the thought of seeing William imminently.

Disappointment was not too strong a word for the way Elizabeth felt moments later when informed by William's housekeeper that her employer was not in. Damn, I knew I should have phoned before I left home.

"Ah ...well ...my name is Elizabeth Bennet. I'm a friend of William's from ..."

"Miss Bennet - so sorry to interrupt - of course I know who you are. William has spoken of you often. Please, come in. You must be frozen after your long drive."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said as she entered the expansive hall, wondering what she should do now - the idea that William wouldn't be at home when she arrived hadn't occurred to her. Of course I can always go and stay with Charlotte ...

"You must be frozen, Miss Bennet. Come on into the sitting room and sit yourself in front of the fire. Would you like some tea or coffee? Have you eaten?"

"No, I ...haven't and ...and I wouldn't want to bother you." Elizabeth was now filled with embarrassment at her impetuous decision to visit William without informing him. I'm sorry, Mrs Reynolds, I shouldn't have shown up like this. I have friends closer to Aberfeldy, I'm sure they'll put me up until tomorrow." Elizabeth began to rise from her chair, wishing only to leave the house as quickly as possible. "I'll phone William in the morning ..."

"Nonsense, my dear, it's no bother at all. William has just popped out to visit Shona Macpherson; he'll be back very soon. Now was that tea or coffee?"

"Well, if you're sure ...?" Elizabeth offered hesitantly. "I'd love a coffee."

As she was leaving the room Mrs Reynolds laughed and said, "I could just imagine William's face if I told him you'd come all the way up from Glasgow and I let you go off to stay with friends because he wasn't here." Elizabeth smiled with relief at the housekeeper's words, inwardly glowing with happiness that she was important enough to William for Mrs Reynolds to wish her to 'stay put'.

As Elizabeth waited for her coffee, she studied the high-ceilinged sitting room. It was light and pleasing - and, she noted ruefully, she could have fitted her entire flat into it! Feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer size and dignity of William's house, she wandered over to the window - and immediately became enthralled by the sight of the garden covered in a thick blanket of untouched snow.

A noise behind her told Elizabeth that Mrs Reynolds had returned with her coffee. But when she turned around, it was William who stood before her, tray in hand, and for a moment they just stood grinning foolishly at each other.

"Elizabeth, you decided to come." William looked so pleased that Elizabeth was immediately put at ease, glad now that she'd persevered with her arduous journey. "But you must be hungry - or did you eat before you left?"

"No, I didn't have time," Elizabeth said with an apologetic smile. "Charles turned up at the hospital in time for Jane's appointment - so I made a rather impulsive decision, bowed out of our dinner engagement, rushed home and packed a few things and set off before I had time to think about what I was doing." Shyly, she walked towards him. "I hope you don't mind."

"Elizabeth - this is the best surprise I've ever had," he offered as he closed the distance between them and drew her towards the sofa, placing the tray on her lap once she'd sat down. "Mrs Reynolds has made you some supper. Or perhaps you'd prefer to eat in the dining room?"

"No thanks, Will, I'm fine here if that's okay."

"No problem. If you give me your car key, Elizabeth, I'll have your bag taken up to your room - that is," William said as a faint blush shaded his cheeks, "if you want to stay here with me, of course."

Elizabeth, her flushed features matching his, fished her key out of her bag and held it in her hand as she answered him, "If that's all right with you, Will. I can go to Charlotte's if it's not." Elizabeth examined the food on her tray as she waited for his answer.

"Elizabeth Bennet, you know I'd be devastated if you went off to stay with anyone else," he tossed back as he walked towards the door. "And Elizabeth," he added, misunderstanding her close inspection of the contents of her plate, "you may eat. Mrs Reynolds knows you're a veggie..."

William was back within minutes, having ordered Elizabeth's bag to be taken to her room. She felt his eyes devour her as she in turn enjoyed her first meal since lunchtime.

"I see," he commented, never taking his eyes off her, "you're wearing your cross."

"Yes," Elizabeth replied as she put a hand up to clasp the beautiful Celtic cross that he'd given her for Christmas. "I love it, William. I'm afraid my present to you is nothing to this. But then," she observed with a laugh, "what do you give to a man who can buy himself just about anything he wants?"

"Elizabeth, I couldn't have asked for anything more special than a framed photograph of you. It came with me from London to Pemberley and is now on my bedside table upstairs." As he sat down beside her and reached over to kiss her cheek, he added, "I wouldn't wish to part with it."

~ * ~

"William." Elizabeth was lying back on the sofa with her feet in William's lap. Her eyes were closed and she was enjoying a foot massage administered by William's very supple fingers.

"Hmmm?"

"Let's go out into the garden and build a snowman."

"Elizabeth, it's almost midnight, it's freezing and it's dark - you must be joking!"

"Come on, Will, the garden's well lit. Where's your sense of adventure?"

"God, not this again," was his exasperated response as he remembered their trip to Loch Lomond. "If you must know Elizabeth, I was hoping to use my 'sense of adventure' more creatively tonight." The look he gave her left her in no doubt as to his meaning.

"William Darcy, what could be more creative than building a snowman?" Elizabeth teased.

William closed his eyes in frustration. "Well, I thought we had unfinished business, Elizabeth..."

Elizabeth, on her way to wrap up warmly, leaned over William so that she could whisper in his ear, "Just think of it as foreplay, Will." In order to make sure that he quite understood her meaning, she gave him a smacking great kiss and ran her fingers through his hair, enticing his curls into an unruly mess.

Did she just say what I think she said? And did she just kiss me ...like that? Funny, William would almost have sworn it was his imagination. To say that he was astounded by her forwardness was an understatement but, never slow on the uptake, he actually preceded her to the door, with the intention of building the fastest snowman known to man. Elizabeth laughed at his sudden enthusiasm as she followed him out of the room.

Well wrapped up against the biting chill in the air, Elizabeth stared in wonder at the beauty of the snow-laden garden. Huge white flakes were falling thick and fast and the boughs of the trees looked to be creaking beneath their burden. She closed her eyes and listened to the silence, broken intermittently by dull thuds as snow fell from overwhelmed branches. Shivering against the cold, Elizabeth ran across the lawn, making sure that her footprints - her presence - covered the unspoiled layer of whiteness. William, meanwhile, always one to get down to the task in hand, ignored the stark splendour of his surroundings and began to form the body of the snowman.

"Come on, Elizabeth, you were the one who wanted to build this creature - get your butt over here and make yourself useful."

"Why, Mr Darcy? I'm in no hurry," she declared coyly. "I've come out to play." With that she picked up a handful of snow, formed it into a ball and launched it at William's head, hitting him squarely on the nose. "Bull's-eye!" she laughed.

"Right, that's it!" William's eyes glinted with devilment as he considered the best way to retaliate. Elizabeth, fully expecting him to give chase, started to make her escape just as William lunged at her. But she was too quick - the fingertips of his gloves glanced across her jacket as she fled back towards the house. Peeking over her shoulder as she changed direction and made for the trees, Elizabeth shrieked with laughter at the sight of the great William Darcy languishing in the snow. As quick as a flash, though, he was up and after her. She could hear his rasping breath as his long stride closed in and her sudden yell of anticipatory glee pierced the night air as he grabbed her around the waist and finally felled her to the ground. Using his superior strength, William turned her over and, pinning her down with his body, wondered aloud what he was going to do now he had her where he wanted her. Elizabeth squirmed provocatively beneath him, hoping to distract him from his intended retribution now that she was helpless. But no, William wasn't to be thwarted. Slowly, very slowly William pulled off his gloves and, snaking his way beneath her innumerable layers of clothing, he put his cold hands on her warm skin and began, with a wicked grin, to tickle her. Elizabeth's piercing screams brought Mrs Reynolds and the kitchen staff to the window to see what was disturbing the usually silent darkness. But William had hushed her with a hungry kiss ...and she ...well, she was quite content to take her punishment, the half-built snowman utterly forgotten.

~ * ~

Having soaked themselves while 'building the snowman' (much to the shock of the Strathlyon House staff watching from the window!) Elizabeth and William peeled off snow-heavy, sodden clothes and warmed themselves up with a hot shower - each in their own en suite bathroom, much to Elizabeth's relief. I know I'm prepared to give this a try, she thought, when back in her bedroom warmly wrapped in a thick, creamy towelling robe, but naked together in a shower - I'm not quite ready for that ...yet! Perversely, though, Elizabeth wondered at the same time if William had truly got past his promise to take things slowly. She was worried that he was never going to take off these damned 'kid gloves' and treat her like the woman she now considered herself to be.

Elizabeth sat perched on the corner of a huge bed, before the mirror of an ornate antique dressing table. She was drying her hair - a job that took some considerable time because of its length and thickness. Over the hum of the hairdryer she heard what sounded like a faint knock at the door.

"Please come in."

Once she'd swept back her hair, she saw with a leap of her heart that William had entered the room. He was wearing a robe similar to hers, but in royal blue. He gazed openly at her, enthralled by the luxuriance of her hair and the luminosity of her ivory skin, now tinged with a glow of the palest pink following her shower. Elizabeth saw the passionate glint radiate from the depths of his eyes and felt a sudden rush of excited anticipation. Yes, Lizzy Bennet, I think you could say the kid gloves are ready to come off!

"Would you like to dry my hair for me?" she asked shyly, holding out the hairdryer. Without saying a word, William took it, and instead of standing in front of her as she'd expected, he put a leg over the corner of the bed and sat down behind her, thighs parallel to hers, cosy as spoons in a drawer. Well, smiled Elizabeth, her cheeks growing more flushed by the moment, this is a bit close for drying hair, but I think it's the end of slowly ...at last! He then, very lightly, pushed her head down so that he could brush her hair forward with his fingers, massaging her scalp and exposing her delicate neck. How he longed to enjoy planting his kisses there on that spot just below her hairline. How her neck had enticed him during those long months when she could not belong to him. But kisses would have to wait ...helping Elizabeth to dry her hair; feeling his body pressed against her back ...he wanted to experience it all ...bit by bit.

Elizabeth positively quivered when she felt William's long fingers run through her mass of curls. She savoured the slow, sweeping movements as he stroked her hair from root to end, pausing every now and then to detangle a stubborn knot, and all the while she felt growing within her an ache for William to kiss her and end this exquisite expectancy. He continued, however, to dry her hair, unaware of the rising tide of her desire. Until, that is, she began to run her fingertips up and down his thigh, furtively pushing aside his robe a little bit more with each stroke ...she'd waited long enough! She could feel his hardness press into her back and she was just on the point of reaching ...when William caught hold of her hand.

"Elizabeth, are you sure about this?" he asked as he switched off the hairdryer.

Elizabeth sighed on hearing the hesitancy in his voice. His uncertainty was, after all, her fault and she supposed that it was only to be expected after her past reticence. "I'm very sure, William," she replied. "I know I've let you down in the past, but please don't treat me as though I'm broken."

"I'll try, but you will stop me if you're in any way uncomfortable," William urged. "And, Elizabeth," he added, "You've never let me down - remember, I know what you've been through."

"Thank you, William."

"Now," he murmured into her ear, his breath tickling her, "I think we were in the middle of something here. And I also think I'd just stopped you from moving things on too fast. Let's take it slowly and enjoy the experience."

As he returned to the task of drying her hair, Elizabeth fought the urge to grab him, and be damned with 'take it slowly'. But he was right, after all that had happened this was a time to relish, to savour. She lowered her hand and contented herself with caressing his thigh, and teasing ...just a little.

Once William got to a stage where he could contain himself no longer, he switched off the hairdryer and let it slip to the floor. He swept Elizabeth's hair forward to expose her neck ...upon which he then proceeded to feather the lightest of kisses. Elizabeth attempted to turn round, but William, hands on her arms, wouldn't allow it.

"No I want you to face the mirror ...I want to see your pleasure there," William demanded boldly, wondering if what he was asking would be too much for her.

But, no ...Elizabeth complied, closing her eyes in surprise at the profound feelings that were coursing through her body as his lips brushed butterfly wings across her neck and ears. Just when she was getting to the point where she needed more than his soft kisses, she felt his fingers hesitantly trace a path over her shoulder and down into the opening at the front of her robe, there to enjoy the overwhelming sensation at last of caressing her breast. Elizabeth arched her back, emitting a soft moan as she covered his hand with hers, holding it in place, letting him know without a doubt that she desired his touch ...that she would not pull back from him. He let the palm of his hand fondle her breast, feeling in the hardness of her nipple a sign that she was already aroused, and he watched in the mirror as she lay her head back against his shoulder, eyes closed, breathing ragged, expression filled with passionate longing. This was the picture that had cruelly filled his dreams when she was still with Charles; this was the possibility he'd wanted to show her after she'd told him about George Wickham. Slowly, William closed his eyes, enjoying the exploration of her soft skin and the gentle pressure of her hand holding his where she wanted it to be.

"William," Elizabeth gasped. So lost was he in delightful sensation that he didn't heed her and she had to repeat herself.

"Will ...I want to feel your mouth on mine ...please, William."

Elizabeth was rather shocked at her ability to voice her need to him. It certainly hadn't been like this with George. Oh, she had loved him; well, to be truthful, she now realised that in her inexperience she thought she had ...but sex with him had been ...just sex - over in five minutes. That was all the time it took for George to take his grunting, speedy pleasure - and even that had been too long for her! But this, she considered with an exultant leap of her heart, this is surely what making love is all about. So there was a difference - she'd known there was something not quite right between her and George. But she'd always put it down to naïveté on her part; that although the act satisfied him, she was left unfulfilled - and he, of course, quite happily encouraged her to blame herself when she tentatively voiced her disappointment. But now that she knew what this felt like - this tingling with excitement, this anticipation from her head to her toes at William's merest touch ...well, now she realised that there was nothing wrong with her, that George had not been a very skilled lover - at least not with her. He'd always wanted a quick fuck, usually after he'd had a drink, and didn't care a bit about her needs.

William, hand now on her cheek, turned her head so that their lips could meet. He covered her partly open mouth with his and let his tongue flick across her lips, sending a flash of lightning through her body. Reacting impulsively, Elizabeth sucked his tongue into her mouth, there to enjoy its insistent probing.

Meanwhile William's hand meandered slowly back down from her delicately blushing cheek, over the swell of her breast, halting momentarily to cup its full softness. The thought crossed his mind that his previous girlfriends had always had boyish figures, much like Jane's. He'd never considered himself to be a 'breast man'. But nothing he'd experienced before had ever fulfilled him as the pleasure of cupping Elizabeth's full breast in his hand. As he ended the kiss - much to Elizabeth's chagrin as she certainly wasn't finished with his mouth - William marvelled at the silkiness of her skin as his hand slid down to loosen the belt of her robe, exposing her stunning beauty to his gaze in the mirror.

"My God, Elizabeth, you are so beautiful!" William looked into her eyes and noted with relief that there didn't appear to be any sign of fear.

Elizabeth had indeed felt the vulnerability of her nakedness, but had not panicked. Admittedly, as soon as William had begun to untie her belt, she'd felt a strong urge to stop him - but this time she resisted. Instead, she held herself still for a steadying moment then moved her thighs slightly apart, allowing him to continue the journey his hand was making, her legs pressed against his as they opened for his touch.

William was enraptured with the vision he encountered as he glanced towards the mirror. He let his hand rest lightly between her legs, whispering into her ear, "Is this what you want, Elizabeth?"

Astounded at the sensations that were coursing through her body, she groaned an indecipherable reply, bringing a satisfied smile to William's lips. It was then he decided, after all, that he'd had enough of watching her in the mirror; now he wanted to taste, to caress, to experience her face to face. So he rose from his position behind her and lowered her gently on to the bed so that he could finally move to her side. There he helped her out of her robe and threw it on to the floor before he bent his head to her breast, murmuring softly once again, "Are you sure, Elizabeth?"

Nothing in her wildest dreams prepared Elizabeth for the rush of emotions that washed over her as William suckled her breast. Good lord, George never, ever did this! She grasped a handful of his hair, daring him to pull away as he had done from her mouth - but he had no intention of removing his lips, instead he continued to tease her nipple with his tongue, encircling its tip and enjoying the sweet taste of her tender skin. Slowly William trailed his fingertips over her hip, down her leg to her knee. Elizabeth felt the thrill of anticipation as his hand then moved to her inner thigh, where he paused to stroke her silky skin. 'Keep going, keep going,' Elizabeth's body urged, 'almost there'.

"Elizabeth, do you want me to continue?" William's concerned eyes looked into hers. "You didn't answer ..."

She nodded in silent rapture as she smoothed her hand over his chest and flat stomach - how strong he felt, how still, his moulded muscles firm beneath her trembling fingers. She opened her eyes wide in amazement as her hand ventured lower still and she felt his tense hardness covered by the softest of velvety skin. He was beautiful ...beautiful. My God, she thought then as she stroked the length of him, he's not small, is he?

William raised his eyebrows as he caught the look of astonishment that flitted across her expressive face. After all, it wasn't the first time he'd seen that expression. But he was certain he could reassure her as long as he was slow and gentle. The last thing he wanted to do was panic her. "Are you okay, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth, deciding that now might be just the right time to put her trust in him, pushed off his robe to show her consent. "Go for it ...I was going to say 'big boy' ...but I won't."

William's laugh rang out with pleasure that Elizabeth had come so far she could joke at such a time. "Yes ...hmmm ...I'm very glad you didn't, madam."

Elizabeth was just about to reply, but William silenced her very successfully ...apart from her long slow gasp, that is ...as he trailed his fingers up the tender skin of her inner thigh and placed them inside her. She was so excited by his touch that she almost climaxed immediately and, grabbing hold of his wrist, she closed her thighs and pleaded, "William, you'll have to stop that or I'll come now, before you ...go any further."

"I want to please you, Elizabeth. We have all night - don't think you're getting away with just once after I've waited so long." With that William feathered soft kisses down the length of her torso taking what Elizabeth considered to be an inordinately l-o-n-g time and, gently parting her legs once again, he showed her how much more effective his tongue was than his fingers ...

Elizabeth couldn't believe the blissful feelings William was evoking in her body ...George had certainly never done this! Hell's bells, this was so good, it should surely be illegal! As she felt his mouth nuzzle her and then his tongue gently stroke her clitoris, Elizabeth was overcome by the strength and rapidity of her climax as it surged, pulsing, through her entire being. Shuddering, she cried out his name, "Will, oh William!"

William felt gratified, and somewhat surprised, that she'd allowed him such intimacy after her experiences with George. To be honest he'd considered it to be a risky move on his part, but he was glad now that he'd done it. Everything is going to be okay, he thought with relief. Slowly, he moved up beside her and, covering her body with his, lowered his mouth to capture her lips.

Elizabeth tasted herself on his mouth as his tongue, soft and probing, sought out hers. She was lost in a whirlpool of pure sensation, all cohesive thought having long since fled her mind.

William could feel his excitement growing almost beyond his endurance at the thought of joining with her ...at long last. His precious Elizabeth. Slowly, he guided himself into her and closed his eyes as he felt her envelope him tightly, the pulse of her dying climax evident to him as he paused for a moment to enjoy the sensation. Elizabeth clasped her legs tightly around him as she encountered the depth of his first thrust. Then, her body leading her, she began to move in concert with him, hips undulating, enjoying in their rhythm this new and powerful experience. Much to his consternation and embarrassment, though, William found that he could not hold out for more than a couple of minutes before the intensity of the moment caused him to come inside her with a groan of sheer pleasure.

"Shit, Elizabeth." William breathed, once he felt capable of speech. "I'm sorry ...I guess I've just waited too long for this."

"William, it's okay. That was ...very ...pleasurable. And anyway," she grinned playfully, "you were the one who said we had all night. I just might let you try again."

"Well," laughed William, "I might oblige ...if you'll give me a little while to recover."

~ * ~

When Elizabeth awoke in the morning, a weak wintry sun was peeking through a gap in the curtains. She turned her head to find that William was lying on his back beside her, dead to the world. Yes, he should be exhausted, she thought as memories of the night before flooded her mind. God, if that's how it's going to be between us, I can see us never getting out of this room!

Elizabeth turned on to her side so that she could observe William asleep. He looked so young and so vulnerable lying beside her that tears came unbidden to her eyes. As she watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest, she marvelled at this feeling of longing that infused her senses whenever she looked at him ...or thought of him. It was almost painful, like an exquisite ache in her heart. She could honestly say she'd never felt anything like it before. The sensation brought to mind something Mr Rochester said to Jane Eyre. What was it now? Elizabeth thought, searching her memory, I remember learning it for an English exam - something about him having a string somewhere under his left ribs tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of her little frame. Elizabeth had to put a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter. Hell, I must have it bad when I'm quoting a Brontė novel; next thing you know I'll be up on the moors shouting for Heathcliff.

Closing her eyes, Elizabeth remembered the taste of William's lips on hers, the feel of his hands on her body, the expression on his face as he came inside her for the first time. She blushed as she recalled his intimate words and her replies - treasured moments the like of which she'd never shared with any man before. As she placed her arm across his chest, a sense of peace filled her. Nothing could harm her here - not even the memory of George. All was wiped away in the wonder of her burgeoning love. With a smile on her face, she lay quite still and waited for William to awaken to this wonderful new morning.

After ten minutes or so, though, Elizabeth got bored with looking. I wish he'd open his eyes. This girl has been deprived for too long - she's getting hungry!God, she smiled to herself, did I really just think that! Deliberating on the best way to waken him up, she shuffled a little closer to his side of the bed and placed her lips against his chest. When that didn't elicit a response, she slid a hand down his side to stroke his thigh. Still there was not a flicker of life.

Though he lay still, William had indeed been awakened by the gentle pressure of her mouth against his skin. He wanted to remain as he was and encourage her exploration of his body, but he thought she might become disheartened if he didn't make some response. With a swiftness that surprised her, William's hand grasped hers and brought it to his lips.

"Good morning, Elizabeth," he said as he tenderly kissed each finger. "Did you sleep well?"

"I didn't actually, William, because someone kept waking me up - not really the way to treat a house guest, I'd have thought," she teased.

"Ah, but my dear Miss Bennet," William replied, "you are the first guest to have come here who also has the distinction of being my girlfriend."

"Really?"

"Yes," he answered smugly.

"You haven't brought a girlfriend here before?"

"No, I haven't."

"Well, I am honoured, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth replied, a tad mockingly to William's ear. "That is quite a distinction. And, by the way," she added as the thought occurred to her, "how many girlfriends have you actually had?"

William shook his head as he answered. "Oh no, Elizabeth, I'm not getting into that discussion right now."

"Ah," Elizabeth commented with raised eyebrows, "that many!"

William silenced her questioning look with a kiss and then moved on to other activities that ensured Elizabeth had nothing else on her mind but him ...and only him.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was surprised to find, once she'd navigated her way to the kitchen after her shower, that William was preparing lunch himself. She settled herself at his huge oak table and had the pleasure of watching him cook for a change.

"Mmm, pasta and salad, William - I am impressed. I wouldn't have thought Mrs Reynolds would let you near her kitchen. Where is she anyway?"

"She generally has weekends off unless we have guests," William explained, then held up his hand to stop Elizabeth as she opened her mouth to comment. "I know what you're going to say, Elizabeth, and as I've already made clear to you, although you are - technically speaking - a guest, you're much, much more than that. I knew as soon as I saw you last night that I wanted to have you to myself this weekend, so I asked Mrs Reynolds not to come in today."

Once again Elizabeth was delighted that William could so easily express his desire for her company. It was a new feeling for her to be cherished in such an open way. Was it possible that he might love her, she wondered? He was certainly the first man to make her feel as though he did.

Elizabeth wouldn't allow for such a thought at the moment - it was too soon. "Come in from where, Will? I thought she lived here."

"No, Mrs Reynolds doesn't live in, Elizabeth. She has a cottage in the grounds; she's lived there for almost forty years. She has overall responsibility for the domestic arrangements and staffing for Strathlyon, Pemberley and Thornlea and spends time in each of the houses as she sees fit."

"Thornlea?"

"My house in Glasgow."

"Oh, I didn't notice that was its name. I'm afraid the couple of times I was there I had other things on my mind."

"When you next come, Elizabeth, I'll show you around - I want you to feel comfortable in my home."

She could tell from William's penetrating look what he meant by that statement - but this was another idea she was not yet ready to pursue - so she changed the subject. "You said Mrs Reynolds was down in Glasgow a while back ...you know, when Jane was in hospital. Was she at Thornlea then?"

"Yes. She was down to appoint a housekeeper to help out Jim Cruichshank. I'm afraid he's getting a bit too old to run the place himself."

"Your butler?"

"Who ...Jim? He's not a butler now, Elizabeth. I suppose you could call him a caretaker of sorts. He's been with the family since he was a boy - he was my grandfather's butler originally, but he's retired from that post now and ...has nowhere else to go. He feels useful; I know that he's safe," William explained. "It works out for both of us."

Elizabeth got up from her seat and stood behind William as he was working at the cooker. She wrapped her arms around his waist and cuddled into his back. "You're just a big softy, William Darcy."

William turned around and returned her embrace. "For heaven's sake, Elizabeth," he said, "don't tell anyone. That's not an image one would want to have in the world of business."

"No, William," Elizabeth replied smiling as she stood on her tiptoes to kiss him, "that image is just for me alone. And I'm not sharing it with anyone else."

By the time William got back to the task of cooking, the water in which he'd been boiling the pasta had evaporated to nothing and the pasta was stuck to the bottom of the steaming pan.

"Just salad for lunch then," Elizabeth laughed as she scraped the ruined pasta into the bin.

"Well," William replied putting on his best pout. "You distracted me."

Elizabeth shook her head and sighed. "It is possible to do two things at the one time, William - women have been doing it for years."

"Not if one wants to do each one thoroughly, Elizabeth." And with that comment William silenced her in his favourite way.

~ * ~

As Elizabeth finished off her lunch, she was thinking about the night to come. "William."

"Yes, Elizabeth."

"What does a girl have to do around here to get to sleep in the master's bedroom?"

"Elizabeth," William sighed, "I didn't want to presume ... remember I told you that you'd have to make the first move."

"Well, I'd have thought attempting to seduce you in my flat - unsuccessfully, I may remind you, as you ran away that night ...and ...driving all the way up here, braving snowdrifts and icy roads, would have been enough to tell you that I was quite interested in being with you."

"Yes ...well," William mumbled - with Elizabeth he'd never been sure ...until last night. "I'll move your stuff now if you like."

"Oh, I don't know now," she teased. "Perhaps I like having a room to myself."

"You please yourself where you sleep, Elizabeth. There's one thing I can tell you though," William added determinedly. "You won't have the room to yourself."

"Now why might that be, Mr Darcy?" Elizabeth asked. "It's not as though you're short of bedrooms. And you are the one who put me in a lonely room."

"But, sweetheart," William replied with a self satisfied grin, "I don't recall you mentioning you were lonely last night."

Elizabeth looked at him, wondering if he realised what had just slipped out. "What did you call me?" she gasped. Then, as William's smile turned to a look of dismay, she burst into tears.

"Elizabeth," he cried, "I'm so sorry. Please tell me what I've done wrong."

"You've done nothing wrong, William. That was Gran Peggy's name for me," Elizabeth sobbed. "She's the only person . . who ever called me . . sweetheart."

"Please don't cry, Elizabeth. I promise I won't say it again. I didn't know ..."

"Oh, William," Elizabeth said, a tremulous half-smile appearing on her face, "I can't think of anyone I'd rather have call me that ...than you. I'm sorry for being so emotional - I was just caught off guard."

William breathed a sigh of relief as he watched Elizabeth get up from the table. Her smile growing wider every moment, she stood behind his chair and ran her hands down his body as far as she could reach. And that was quite far enough as far as William was concerned. Grabbing her arms, he pulled her around the chair on to his lap and kissed her soundly. Then he advised her that she should get her coat and boots if she wanted to see the estate any time soon ...

He heard her mutter the word 'spoilsport' as she made for the door of the kitchen. He had to laugh at her mercurial change of mood. Life would certainly never be dull with Elizabeth around!

Chapter Fourteen

Elizabeth sat on a huge flat rock and looked out over Loch Tay. The water was smooth as a mirror and slate grey ...almost the colour of the sky now that the sun had disappeared behind the gathering clouds. Before her was not the bright winter scene of the picture postcards, but a brooding landscape with the mountains on the other side of the loch looming ghost-like out of the distant waters. As far as the eye could see the pebbled shore was almost completely carpeted with a thick layer of snow.

As she breathed in the bitterly cold air, snowflakes began to flutter on to her outstretched glove. It wasn't long before the snow was falling thick and fast as it had done the night before when she'd arrived at Strathlyon.

If Elizabeth hadn't been so elated with her current situation ...that is, if she hadn't been with William ...she'd have considered the day to be entirely depressing - a day for staying indoors in front of a blazing fire. But there was no place for gloominess in her mind despite the inclement weather. Not even the freezing temperature could extinguish her feeling of contentment.

Quietly, hypnotically, moved by the scene before her, Elizabeth began to sing to herself. Her voice was surprisingly warm and earthy, its tone a contrast with the chill of the afternoon. William, standing close to the water's edge, recognised the tune and closed his eyes at the memories it evoked. She was singing The Tay Boat Song:

When I've done my work of day, and I row my boat away
Doon the waters o' Loch Tay as the evening light is fading,
And I look upon Ben Lawers where the after glory glows
And I think on two bright eyes and the melting mouth below.

Elizabeth's wistful notes tailed into silence as she bent her head back and allowed the snowflakes to fall on to her face.

Without turning around William called out to her, "Don't stop, Elizabeth. I remember my mother sitting on this very shore, singing that song to Georgiana. I believe there are three more verses."

Was that a quiver she detected in his voice, Elizabeth wondered? "You should be singing it to me, William," she returned lightly. "It is a man's song, after all."

"Please, Elizabeth" was his only reply.

How could she resist? She began, more self-consciously now that she knew he was listening, to sing the additional verses:

She's my beauteous nighean ruadh, she's my joy and sorrow too,
And although she is untrue, well I cannot live without her.
For my heart's a boat in tow and I'd give the world to know
Why she means to let me go, as I sing horee horo.

Nighean ruadh, your lovely hair has more glamour I declare
Than all the tresses rare 'tween Killin and Aberfeldy,
Be they lint white, brown or gold, be they blacker than the sloe,
They are no more worth to me than the melting flake of snow.

Her eyes are like the gleam o' the sunlight on the stream
And the songs the fairies sing seem like songs she sings at milking.
But my heart is full of woe, for last night she bade me go
And the tears begin to flow, as I sing horee, horo.

*Nighean Ruidh - Red haired girl

Getting up from the rock and rubbing her numb behind, Elizabeth trudged down the shore towards the water's edge, coming to a stop beside William who appeared to be lost in thought as he stared into the bleak water. She lifted his jacket and slipped her hand into the back pocket of his jeans, causing him to smile down at her. Such a small gesture, but intimate ...little did Elizabeth know how much it pleased him. He put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her tight.

"You have a beautiful voice, Elizabeth, but why such a sad song?"

"Well, it seemed, somehow, to suit the day. And anyway," she said with a wry smile, "I enjoy indulging in sad songs ...when I'm feeling happy."

"I take it, then, that you're happy today?"

"Exceedingly, blissfully happy, William," she replied as she snuggled into his side.

They stood looking out across the loch in contemplative silence, arms wrapped around each other. William, thinking back over the lyrics of the song Elizabeth had just sung, whispered into her ear, "Say that you won't leave me, Elizabeth."

She turned her head to look up into his face, wondering if he was joking with her. But no, he appeared to be quite serious. "Who can say what the future may hold, William," she answered. "You never know ...you might want rid of me one day."

"Never!" he replied fervently, turning her insides to mush with the warmth of his response.

Elizabeth gazed back into his dark eyes for several seconds as she considered her reply. "Let me put it this way, William," she offered, "I can't imagine ever leaving you as long as you want me around. Will that do?"

"I'll keep you to that declaration," William murmured as he turned her to face him so that he could kiss her mouth. "Mmmm, you're lips are cold. We'd better get back, Elizabeth, before you freeze to death."

"I don't know, William," she replied as she withdrew her arms from his waist and draped them around his neck, "I quite like your way of heating me up."

"Yes, I'm partial to it myself," he laughed, happy to warm up her lips once again.

After an agreeably long and passionate kiss, William gave a deep sigh and informed Elizabeth that he'd have to go into Aberfeldy to see an ex-employee about taking over Rory Macpherson's job for a few weeks. "It'll need to be this afternoon, Elizabeth."

"Can't it wait until Monday, William - or tomorrow once I've left?"

"Well, I've been thinking about you going off home and leaving me here and I'm not happy with that idea."

"You're going to keep me here?" she asked, her lips twitching at the thought. "Much as I'd like that, I do have work to go to on Monday."

"I know that, Elizabeth. I thought I'd drive back down to Glasgow with you - if I can persuade old Davie Campbell to come out of retirement until Rory's assistant, Fergus, returns from holiday. And," he added with a wink, "as you know I can be very persuasive when I want to be."

"Yes ...well ...I'm rapidly learning that lesson! Are you sure, though, William?" she asked. "Will it fit in with your plans?"

"My only plan is not to let you out of my sight if I can help it."

"Ooh," Elizabeth said with a giggle, "my female students will enjoy their new classroom helper. I don't know if it's a good idea for our relationship if we're together twenty-four hours a day, though."

"Well," William replied, pretending to give the matter further consideration, "I might let you go to school on your own - as long as I'm there when you get home."

"Ah, you're going to be staying at my flat too," she teased. "In that case, I'll have every reason to hurry home." After giving a few minutes thought to the delightful insight that William intended to see a great deal of her once they got back to Glasgow, Elizabeth remembered the reason for his trip northwards. "But what about Rory Macpherson, William? You wanted to visit him in hospital."

"I thought I'd come back up when he's out of the high dependency unit. He's only allowed visits from family members at the moment anyway, so there's no rush. And Mrs Reynolds has promised to keep an eye on Shona and her boys, so once I have a manager in place, there's no need for me to be here."

"Well, if you're sure ..."

"I am," William replied resolutely. Now are you coming to Aberfeldy with me?"

"Well, I'm not staying here on my own."

"Great. Let's go then."

As they walked back to the house, Elizabeth couldn't help but be impressed by the size and situation of William's home. "Strathlyon is a magnificent house, William. It actually looks like a small castle."

"Yes, I suppose it does, though it would be more correct to call it a tower. That," said William, pointing to the imposing central section, "is the original tower with its stepped gables and corbelled turrets at the four corners. The other buildings that you see are all later additions - added on during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

"How old is the tower part, then?"

"It was built between 1566 and 1572 - during the reigns of Mary, Queen of Scots, and James VI." William turned Elizabeth around towards the long drive that led down to the main road. "Do you see those trees lining the driveway, Elizabeth?"

"Yes. I noticed them when I looked out of my bedroom window this morning. I'm not very good at recognising trees, William - especially in winter. What are they?"

"They're Spanish chestnuts and they were planted six hundred years ago."

"They're very imposing," she observed. "I wish I'd seen them in summer."

"I hope you'll see them in full bloom this summer, Elizabeth - and in autumn when the leaves turn yellow."

Elizabeth didn't say anything but she was gratified to hear that he was thinking of their relationship in the long term - at least for the moment. She was beginning to consider the thought of not being in William's life (or more correctly, of not having him in her life) a frightening one. Despite any difficulties she could see in the future regarding the disparity of their lifestyles, she couldn't bear the idea of ever being parted from him.

As the couple approached the front door, they came across their half-built snowman. The sight of the forlorn creature brought the activities of the night before to their minds and each clasped the other's hand a little tighter as they went indoors to collect William's car key.

~ * ~

William stopped in the town square to drop Elizabeth off. She thought it better that he make his visit alone so she'd decided to explore the local shops while she waited for him.

"I'll ring you on my mobile when I leave Davie's house, Elizabeth, and we can meet up and get something to eat before we go home."

"What, you're not making me dinner, William?" Elizabeth asked as she opened the car door. "Though when I think back on lunch," she added with a giggle, "maybe it's just as well."

"That's not fair. How was I meant to concentrate on cooking when you were distracting me so thoroughly?"

"Yes," she rejoined, raising her eyebrows at his cheeky grin, "I had a feeling it would be my fault."

William pulled Elizabeth back towards him and gave her a lingering kiss, frustrated that his duties should separate them for even a little of their precious weekend. As he was about to suggest that they return to Strathlyon and damn the running of the estate, a voice called his name.

"Well, well, Mr Darcy, kissing your best friend's girl in the town square. I'd never have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."

With no little embarrassment William and Elizabeth parted to find Roddie Graham standing at the passenger side of the Range Rover, shaking his head and tut-tutting at them through the open door.

"Roddie! God, what a fright you gave me!" William exclaimed. "Elizabeth's not ...well, she and I are ...together now. What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were touring."

"Just finished," Roddie replied, laughing at William's discomposed 'explanation'. "I'm working on our second album in my grand, new recording studio - also known as the garage - and doing some local gigs. I didn't know you were at Strathlyon, William. I was going to call Mrs Reynolds to ask if you were coming up any time soon. And Elizabeth," he continued with a bemused look on his face, "nice to see you again. If you're not doing anything special you could both come back to my house - I'd love to hear all your news."

"I can't just now, Roddie. I'm just on my way to visit Davie Campbell," William explained. "I'm sure you've heard about Rory."

"Yes, I have. Mrs Reynolds told my mum the last time she was in town. How is he?"

"He's doing well. But he'll be off work for some time. And of course Fergus is away in New Zealand at his sister's wedding and won't be back until next month, so I'm hoping Davie will come out of retirement and run the estate for a few weeks."

"Oh, I expect he'll jump at your offer. From what I've heard he's been like a bear with a sore head since he's had to give up work."

"I'm relieved to hear it - it'll make my job of persuading him a lot easier."

"Why don't you come to me after your visit, then, William?"

"I'd like that, Roddie, if it's okay with Elizabeth. And I think," he said with a laugh, "if you're willing to promise us a sneak preview of the new album, she's very likely to jump at the chance."

"Well, I think I could manage that. I'll even throw in dinner if you've time." Roddie put on a hangdog expression as he added, "I'm all on my lonesome - Michelle and mum went off to Edinburgh yesterday to do some shopping."

"You know, Roddie, I think Elizabeth might like to come with you now. She was going to wander around the shops while I was at Davie's, but I'm sure she'd rather be in a warm house now that it's starting to get dark." William looked to Elizabeth for confirmation.

"I'd like that, Roddie, if it's all right with you?"

"Great! Let's go then, Elizabeth. I'll just pick up some wine on the way. Don't let Davie keep you too long, William. You know how he likes to talk ..."

"I'll be as quick as I can," William replied. "See you soon."

~ * ~

"Elizabeth, I don't want to pry," Roddie said as they walked towards his street, "but when I met you at the ceilidh, you were with Charles Bingley and William was with your sister, Jane. I take it things have changed since then."

"Yes, they have, Roddie. But there's nothing clandestine going on," she explained, "Let's just say we realised, each of us, that we were with the wrong person. Jane and Charles are together now - in fact, they're expecting a baby and getting married next month."

"They're what?!!

"Yes, I know." Elizabeth sighed and raised her eyes skywards. "It surprised us too."

"That was quick work. I would never have guessed it when I saw them together. I knew William liked you, though. And I told him so at the ceilidh. But he tried to be so circumspect ...only to give it all away when he danced with you."

"You saw that?"

"I did indeed," Roddie replied. "There was no mistaking the way you two felt about each other during that dance."

"Well, I can't deny it," Elizabeth said with a laugh. "It was fortunate for us that Jane and Charles felt the same way about each other."

As he opened his front door and ushered Elizabeth into his hall, Roddie asked, "And are your sister and Charles still talking to you?"

"Why wouldn't they be talking to us? It was all settled ...well, I won't say one hundred per cent amicably ...but without too much distress. Ah," Elizabeth said as she grasped Roddie's meaning. "I see what you're getting at ...you think William and I cheated on Jane and Charles."

"But the way you and William danced that night ..."

"Ah, but Jane and Charles didn't see us. In fact, they were the ones who jumped the gun in the end."

"Phew! That must have caused quite a stooshie*.

"It didn't really. We all got what we wanted. I suppose William was a bit peeved at the way Jane and Charles went about it - but he's getting over it."

"You must be a good influence on him, then, Elizabeth."

"Why do you say that?"

"From what I remember of William, he can't bear to be deceived. It happened to him so many times throughout his childhood and he was very bitter about it." Roddie paused, feeling he was getting in too deep then added apologetically, "But I'm sorry, Elizabeth, I shouldn't really be discussing this with you - it's William's business."

"It's okay, Roddie. I know all about his parents."

"Ah ...now ...that tells me he really is serious about you, Elizabeth."

"Does it? Really?"

"Will rarely goes into detail about his relationship with his parents. I only knew because I was with him such a lot before he went off to Gordonstoun. I even went down to Pemberley with him one summer and met his father."

"Did you? And how did you like it there?"

"Elizabeth, I was like a fish out of water," Roddie admitted. "And Will's father obviously didn't approve of our friendship though he was very polite. I've never been so relieved to leave a place in my life. If you think Strathlyon is grand, wait until you see Pemberley. I can tell you, it's not the place for a working class boy from a small town like Aberfeldy."

Or for a schoolteacher from a small town like Meryton, I suspect, Elizabeth thought sadly. "Hmmm, yes, I was afraid of that."

"Anyway, enough about William. Come on into my studio, Elizabeth, and I'll let you hear the tracks we've put down so far.

~ * ~

"I loved that last track, Roddie. William let me hear your first album - this is quite a departure from it. I detect that you're moving away from the traditional scene."

"Yes, that's what we're trying to do anyway. We'll still play the old tunes at ceilidhs because we always have such a great time but we don't want to be known just as a dance band."

"I'd love to teach that last song to my students - they like to try something a bit different."

Roddie looked puzzled. "I thought you taught English, Elizabeth."

"I do. But I also run the folk club at my school."

"Ah, so you sing," Roddie said as he poured her a glass of wine.

"A little," she replied. "And I play the guitar."

"Funny ...William didn't mention it when he told me about your love of music."

"You know," Elizabeth answered with a thoughtful frown, "he didn't know himself until this afternoon. It's just something I do with a bunch of students on a Thursday lunch time. It never occurred to me to mention it to him. And anyway," she asked, "when did William speak to you about me?"

"When he was up in Aberfeldy before the ceilidh. He talked about you and hardly mentioned Jane. That gave me a pretty good indication that he liked you."

Elizabeth laughed. "And he tries to be so unreadable, bless him."

"From what I remember of him I'd say he was always quite guarded, but I've known him too long to be fooled by a bit of dissembling."

"Do you mind if I ask, Roddie, what happened between you and William. Your close friendship faltered, I believe, when he went off to Gordonstoun."

"I don't mind answering that, Elizabeth. And I'm not saying anything that Will wouldn't tell you himself. It was quite simply that William made new friends at school - understandable since he was boarding there. I didn't see too much of him after that. At first when he came home for holidays he'd meet up with his old pals. But it wasn't the same - he'd become an outsider. Then he started to bring his Gordonstoun friends home with him. I know this is just my opinion, Elizabeth, but those guys - and sometimes, girls - thought they were too good for us. Looking back on it I'm sure that wasn't the case, but it's what we felt at the time. William was no different with us, of course. For a while he tried to have a foot in both camps then, when he saw that it wasn't working, he sided with the group that had become his family ...the ones he spent most of his year with. I imagine," Roddie said with a shrug of his shoulders, "that life at school would have been unbearable if he hadn't. Later on he stopped coming into town. I believe he started to spend more of his summer holiday at Pemberley and with his father's friends, the Bingleys. My mum and Mrs Reynolds are good friends, so I was always aware of what was going on in his life even though we rarely met."

"That's so sad, Roddie. I'm glad you've got back in touch again."

"And I'm glad he's found you, Elizabeth. I had visions of William ending up with some social climbing airhead who'd marry him for his money and his status."

"Oh, I'm sure William can hold his own with that type of woman."

"Don't underestimate these women, Elizabeth. They are very crafty ...as are their mothers ...! Believe me, I've been the 'hired help' at enough well-heeled ceilidhs to know what they're like."

"My grandmother would have loved you, Roddie. She grew up not far from here and she developed quite a distaste for those who considered themselves 'her betters'."

"She came from Aberfeldy?"

"Yes. Well, just about. She lived on an estate called Edradynate," Elizabeth replied. "It's on the road to Grandtully."

"I know it. In fact Lady Anne was a great friend of the current owner's mother."

"Yes, so I believe. She was no friend of my grandmother's family, though."

"No, from what I remember," Roddie said, "she was a wicked old battle-axe and made the estate workers' lives a misery."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Roddie, because it's exactly what my Gran Peggy told me."

He shook his head in wonder. "Well, they do say it's a small world, Elizabeth. Who'd have believed that you and William would ever meet? I'm glad for your sake that he's not a Sloane Ranger type - even though he is enormously wealthy. If he were, I don't imagine you two would get on at all well."

"No," Elizabeth stated with a chuckle, "I wouldn't have touched him with a barge pole, Roddie."

"And how do you feel about becoming part of such a different way of life, Elizabeth? And would your Gran Peggy have approved?"

"Elizabeth blushed. "Who can say, Roddie, whether or not I am going to be a long term part of his life. But no, my gran would not have approved. She was a fervent socialist and she'd have felt I was betraying my roots."

"Does William know this?"

She shook her head. "We haven't really discussed it ...though I think he's aware that I'm not impressed by his money or his rank. There's no point in bringing up something that might turn out to be irrelevant."

"Well, I think you might be underestimating William's commitment to you - but as you say, perhaps it's too early to tell yet."

Roddie could see that Elizabeth was becoming uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation so he went back to the topic they'd first discussed. "How about singing a song for me, Elizabeth? What's your favourite?"

"God, Roddie, that's a hard one! I like so many different types of music." Elizabeth gave the matter some thought. "My grandmother taught me so many beautiful traditional songs - Ae Fond Kiss was her favourite. I've sung it a couple of times at the school folk concert. I suppose my all time favourite at the moment is Black by Pearl Jam.

"I've heard of the band, but I don't know any of their songs. Perhaps you'd like to sing it to me."

"Oh, I couldn't do that, Roddie." Elizabeth was stunned at the very idea. "You're a professional."

"But I play the bagpipes, Elizabeth, I don't sing. Go on," Roddie urged, nudging her on the arm jokily. "In fact, I could record you. I bet William would love to hear your voice on a CD."

"Oh I don't think he'd be interested in hearing me sing - I'm just average."

"Come on, Elizabeth. If it's no good William need never know."

Elizabeth could see that Roddie was keen to make use of his new recording studio - and wasn't about to take no for an answer. "Oh, well, if you'll lend me a guitar ..."

Once she'd settled herself in front of the microphone and strummed a few chords to get used to the unfamiliar instrument, Elizabeth sang Ae Fond Kiss once over for Roddie. When she finished the last poignant verse they both had tears in their eyes. Roddie hadn't expected to be so moved by her haunting voice singing those words of longing and loss. And Elizabeth, well ...she wept for her beloved Gran Peggy.

"Who's the dissembler now, Elizabeth?" Roddie asked. "That certainly wasn't anything like average. Now if you'll just do it once again, I'll record you this time. Then we'll do your Pearl Jam song."

Elizabeth was flattered that Roddie, who must have heard many accomplished singers, liked her voice. She felt her confidence grow and, as her nerves settled down, she began to enjoy herself.

Having recorded the two songs they'd discussed, Elizabeth thought she was finished, but Roddie asked, "Now they're your favourite songs, Elizabeth. Is there one you could do just for William - one that he's particularly fond of?"

"God, there are so many, Roddie." Elizabeth thought for a while. "I do know one by Ryan Adams that he likes - it's called Desire.

"Let's give it a try, then."

Elizabeth began to sing once again, only wishing that she had musicians with her to play the harmonica and the drums as on the original:

Two hearts fading, like a flower,
And all this waiting, for the power,
For some answer to this fire,
Sinking slowly. The water's higher.
Mmm, desire, desire.

With no secrets. No obsession.
This time I'm speeding with no direction.
Without a reason. What is this fire?
Burning slowly. My one and only.
Mmm, desire, desire, desire, desire.

You know me. You know my way.
You just can't show me, but God I'm praying,
That you'll find me, and that you'll see me,
That you run and never tire.
Mmm, desire, desire, desire, desire.

"I've never heard that before, Elizabeth. I must say it's incredibly ...sexy - suits your voice perfectly."

"You should listen to Ryan Adams sing it, Roddie - it's a beautiful arrangement."

"I'm going to do that ...and I want to hear Black. The lyrics were a surprise to me - not what I'd have expected from a ...what are they called? ...a grunge band?

"That's just a label, Roddie. Give them a listen and see what you think."

"I intend to. Now, Elizabeth, don't forget to give me your address. Once I've played around with this recording, I'll send you a CD. It might take me a while since we're still working on our album, but I'll get it to you some time."

"There's no rush, Roddie. It was just a bit of fun. And I have to thank you because I really enjoyed it."

"Me too," he replied. "Now, I don't know about you but my stomach is telling me that it's time to start dinner."

As they were walking through to the kitchen, the doorbell rang. "That'll be William, Elizabeth. Could you get the door while I switch on the oven? I hope jacket potato, quiche and salad will be okay - I'm not much of a cook."

"That sounds wonderful. Oh, but what kind of quiche, Roddie?" Elizabeth asked. "I'm vegetarian"

"You're in luck, Elizabeth," he said with a wink. "It's cheese and onion."

~ * ~

The drive back to Strathlyon had to be at a snail's pace - the snow had stopped falling but the snow-plough hadn't yet made it along the Killin - Aberfeldy road and William skidded several time on patches of black ice. Elizabeth wondered mischievously if they should stop off at Charlotte and Bill's and perhaps even stay the night to avoid the risk of an accident. William was horrified, but one glance at her face told him that she appeared to be teasing him.

"A night with Bill Collins! You are a cruel woman, Elizabeth Bennet!"

"I don't know, William. I've spent the evening with your friend - you can surely return the favour."

"Didn't you enjoy yourself, then?"

"I did, actually. I really like Roddie. He's a wealth of knowledge about you. And I enjoyed hearing all about your childhood scrapes. Roddie certainly led you into a lot of mischief."

"Yes, he did. And I was always the one who got the blame because I was expected to be responsible. For some reason," William observed, "no one ever expected that of him."

"Oh, I can believe that!" Elizabeth replied. "Anyway I learned quite a lot of interesting information about you tonight."

"Hmm, I don't know if I like the sound of that."

"Oh, don't worry; Roddie said nothing bad about you. Although he did think you'd stolen me away from your best friend."

"Well, I did try ..."

"He was quite surprised to hear that Jane and Charles were the guilty ones. He seems to think that you have a way of getting what you want. William," Elizabeth said, her voice suddenly becoming more serious, "you have forgiven them, haven't you? Roddie seemed to think you would find forgiveness very difficult."

"I admit it is difficult for me, Elizabeth. But as I said, I'll do my best ...for you."

"Thank you, William. I'd hate there to be any discord between you and Jane ...and Charles, of course."

"Don't worry about it, Elizabeth. When I think it over, I don't know that I'd have acted any differently if I'd met you down in London. No, that's not strictly true," William corrected himself. "I'd like to think I'd have phoned Jane and split up with her before I attempted to lure you into bed."

"You'd have had no chance there, William Darcy," Elizabeth gasped.

"Yes, I know. That's why I can indulge in self-righteous anger," William replied with a sheepish grin.

~ * ~

"Elizabeth," William said matter-of-factly as soon as he'd closed the front door against the chill night, "let's go to bed. I don't know how I've kept my hands to myself all day."

She felt a frisson of excitement sweep through her body as he bent to kiss her lips. God, he's good. She didn't know how he was doing it, and right now she didn't care, but this longing ...this desire ...that he was able to create inside her - it was literally breathtaking.

Elizabeth was quick to follow William upstairs to his bedroom. But when she saw it, she let out a gasp of surprise. It was a huge, elegant, masculine room. She stood in the doorway, almost afraid to enter. Immediately, as she took it all in, her feeling of excitement vanished - what had she been thinking? This man's sphere was too far removed from hers. Hell, she had more in common with Roddie Graham than with William! All of a sudden, she felt very out-of-place.

Slowly, she entered the room and walked around in wonder, touching the rich furnishings. It wasn't that the room was gaudy or grandiose - in fact, everything in it was exquisitely tasteful. She just wasn't comfortable with the richness of it all. She thought of her own little flat with its second hand furniture and charity shop purchases. Somehow she and Jane had never got round to replacing their student buys. How she wished now that he'd never been in her flat! What must he have thought when he saw it?

"Something's wrong, Elizabeth. What is it?"

"Your room, William. It's ..."

"But you've seen most of the rooms in the house. I don't understand ..."

"Yes, but this room is different - and it's bigger than my flat." What am I doing here? This is not for me.

"Elizabeth," William said, walking towards her and taking her hands in his. "It's just a bedroom. It's the only room I've had redecorated - the others are just as they were when my mother was alive. I hope you don't think it flashy or pretentious?"

"No, not at all - it's beautiful. You have excellent taste, William."

"What's the problem, then?"

Elizabeth was on the point of giving William a glimpse of her true feelings, but she decided not to spoil this very special weekend. As she'd said to Roddie earlier, who knew where they were headed anyway?

"There's no problem, William - I'm just a bit overwhelmed. Let me just freshen up," she said, withdrawing her hands from his and making for the bathroom. "I'll be back in a minute."

When Elizabeth came out of the bathroom, William was lying on top of the bed still fully clothed. He was staring at the ceiling with his hands clasped behind his head.

"That's a sad face, William," she said as she approached him. "I thought you'd be in bed waiting for me."

"You seemed a bit upset, Elizabeth. I decided to wait and see if you wanted to be here with me. You can go back to the other bedroom if that's what you want."

In reply, Elizabeth climbed on to the bed and, cupping his cheeks in her hands, she bent to kiss his lips.

With a laugh she asked, "Does that answer your question?"

"It'll do for now," he growled back at her as he pushed her down on to the bed and began to remove her sweater ...swiftly followed by her jeans and underwear. Then, slowly, he untied the ribbon that was holding up her hair and, spreading it out on the pillow, he buried his face in its fullness. "I love your hair so much, Elizabeth. Promise me you'll never cut it."

"I don't intend to, William. But I promise that if I ever do, I'll discuss it with you first."

"No point," he replied in between kisses to her neck, "I won't let you."

"It's my hair, William," Elizabeth gasped indignantly, feeling she was losing the battle under the onslaught of his lips.

"You wouldn't deprive me of it," he said with a pout, "when you know it means so much to me."

"God, William Darcy, you are good at getting your own way. I'll keep my hair this length as long as we're together - okay?"

"Well, that's the same as saying that you'll never cut it, as far as I'm concerned."

"You really think we'll always be together?" she wondered aloud.

"That's certainly my intention - and I hope it's yours too."

"I have to admit, William, that I get panicky at the thought of us not being together. But now," she asked, feeling that this conversation was interrupting their activities, "can we get back to what we were doing? We've both got a long drive tomorrow."

William was more than happy to comply and within minutes he'd divested himself of his clothes and had her pinned down on his bed. As he caressed her body with his mouth and his creative fingers, her warm responsiveness evoked in him a craving that only she could satisfy and he felt moved to tell her so.

"Elizabeth," he whispered huskily, "I love you."

Elizabeth, distracted by William's touch, took a moment to comprehend what he'd just said. She looked up at him in amazement. Somehow, she hadn't expected that word to come from his lips quite so soon. As she gazed into his dark eyes she hesitated ...she loved him, she was pretty sure of that. But was she ready to tell him so?

"God, William, what do I say to that?" she blurted out.

"It's simple, Elizabeth," he replied. "Say you love me too ...unless you don't, of course."

"Oh, I do. I do love you. But it's so ...soon, William."

"So soon, sweetheart? Why, I've loved you for months."

When she heard him use Gran Peggy's endearment once again, tears pooled in her eyes. "You, William Darcy, are a very special man," she said. With that, she pulled his face down to hers and just before she kissed him, she added, "You're mine, all mine and I'm not giving you up for anyone or anything."

~ * ~

On Sunday morning, when it was time to leave for Glasgow, William wanted Elizabeth to travel down in his Range Rover - he couldn't imagine them travelling separately and he certainly wasn't risking a trip all the way down south in her old banger ...especially not in this weather.

"Elizabeth, why don't we leave your car here?" William suggested. "You can travel with me in the Range Rover."

"William, I need my car for work," she explained. "I can't leave it here."

William thought for a while then offered, "Then I'll lend you a car when we get back. One of the estate workers will bring yours down later."

Elizabeth knew exactly what his problem was. "No, William. You can surely slum it in my Renault this once."

"But what if we break down ...in this weather? And anyway," he added, "I don't really like being driven."

"Huh, by a woman, you mean! I have RAC cover, William," she replied as she laughed at the thought of the great William Darcy being towed all the way back to Glasgow. "And I'll call my insurance company to have you put on my insurance - then you can drive me."

"Elizabeth!"

"Oh, okay, I know you couldn't lower yourself to drive a clapped out old rust bucket. I'll come with you in your wonderful Range Rover. And I'll allow you to lend me a car for a little while. But what kind of car?" she asked. "I'm not going to school in a fancy one, William."

Again, William gave the matter some thought. The truth was that he didn't have anything but 'fancy' cars. But no, he remembered, there was one that would suit - a Renault Clio that Georgie preferred to drive when she was up in Glasgow.

"I do have an appropriate car, actually - a Clio. You shouldn't have any problem with it since it's the same make as yours ...and it has the added advantage that it's only a few months old - much safer at this time of year."

"Okay," Elizabeth agreed reluctantly, "you've convinced me. But my car had better make its way down to Glasgow very soon, William," she warned.

William agreed to her demand but secretly his idea was that he'd conveniently forget about her car. Once she'd got used to the Clio, she surely wouldn't want her old one back. She won't be pleased with me when she realises what I've done - but what the heck - it'll always be tucked away in the garage at Thornlea if she asks for it.

"I must admit," Elizabeth said, "I am glad we're travelling down together - I wasn't looking forward to driving back in this weather, William."

William did feel a bit guilty - after all it wasn't so long ago that he'd asked her not to lie to him. But he wasn't lying, not really, he was just looking out for her. And he wasn't making her a gift of the car ...just lending it ...for as long as he could get away with it. And it would give him peace of mind over the winter period. Who knows, he thought, by spring she could be living at Thornlea herself and everything that's mine will be hers anyway!

* Stooshie - rumpus
* Desire - from Demolition by Ryan Adams

Chapter Fifteen

When William got back to Glasgow from Strathlyon, he stayed true to his word ...almost. He didn't arrive at Elizabeth's flat every evening after she got home from school, but she was delighted to find he was a very frequent guest. It occurred to her after a few days of William's company that he was certainly at ease in her home despite its modest character. In fact, she was all astonishment that this hugely wealthy man was able to fit so well into her environment when she considered how far removed it must be from his own.

Although she had enjoyed a blissful (and enlightening!) weekend at Strathlyon, Elizabeth knew it had been exceptional for them to have the place to themselves, and she found it much more to her liking when William was on her territory once again. In her own home she was able to forget housekeepers, cooks and gardeners; here she could ignore the differences between them ...and close her eyes to her insistent, though unfounded, suspicion that this relationship, unlike Charles and Jane's, would never turn into anything as substantial as a marriage. Try as she might, though, to keep at least a little bit of herself detached from him, just in case everything turned out as she feared, it seemed that he'd been able to capture all of her heart. The realisation that she was becoming so vulnerable to this man was disconcerting to say the least!

For William, on the other hand, the idyll of the weekend carried on through the weeks that followed. It was a new experience for him not to have staff wait on him hand and foot, and he was enjoying every moment of it. For the first time in his life he experienced the novelty of domestic chores and, to Elizabeth's surprise, he took them on with more enthusiasm than she'd ever shown.

~ * ~

Elizabeth muffled a laugh and shook her head on hearing the clatter coming from the kitchen as William emptied the dishwasher. She wondered yet again how long it would be before this desire to be helpful wore off. Oh well, she mused, he's a man, so I suspect it'll be sooner rather than later. As long as his enthusiasm for me doesn't wear off, I'll not complain.

"Anything I can get you, Elizabeth - a coffee, a herbal tea?" William asked as he wandered through to the living room, interrupting her thoughts and sending her back to the marking she'd been working on since she'd returned from school.

"No thanks, William," she replied without looking up. "On second thoughts, perhaps you could bring me that little bottle of lavender oil that's lying beside the sink. This marking is bringing on a headache. Sometimes I wonder if my students listen to a word I say!"

William stared at her for a long moment but she was too busy with her work to notice. "You use lavender ...for headaches?" he queried.

"Yes, I hate taking paracetamol. Gran Peggy always advocated a little lavender oil dabbed on the temples to help alleviate the pain."

William stood in silence for several minutes. Finally, with a wry smile, he said, "I am disillusioned, Elizabeth."

"Disillusioned?" she asked, looking up at him. "Why?"

"I associate the scent of lavender with you."

"Why on earth ...?"

"Well," William explained, "that night when Charles and I came to dinner - remember, when Bill and Charlotte were here - I was sitting in the kitchen watching you prepare the meal and every time you came near me I got a waft of your perfume. The smell reminded me of the lavender bushes at Pemberley and I wondered that night if you and I would ever see them together. Ever since then I've linked the lavender scent with ..." He shook his head. "Well, it doesn't really matter, I suppose."

"With what, William? Come on, you can't stop there."

William sighed. He was beginning to wish he hadn't started this stupid conversation. "With ...falling in love with you."

Elizabeth giggled until the doleful expression on William's face made her stop. "I'm sorry, William. The thought of having Bill Collins to dinner must have brought on a headache that night." After a pause she added, "I use lavender quite often, but I don't wear it as a perfume. I'm not even particularly fond of its scent, to be quite honest. The idea of you getting captivated by a headache remedy is rather funny, don't you think?"

"You, Miss Bennet," he chided lightly, "are not much of a romantic."

"No, I suppose I'm not," Elizabeth murmured as she returned her attention to her marking, "but I do love you just the same."

Lost in concentration, she didn't notice as William came up behind her and gently kissed her neck, distracting her as his hands wandered over her shoulders and covered her breasts. Elizabeth felt that immediate and familiar surge of longing arise in her body at his touch.

"William," she groaned, "I have to finish this work for tomorrow - you're distracting me. You promised that if you came tonight, you'd let me get it done in peace."

"Well, sweetheart," he said with an unrepentant gleam in his eyes, "I meant to do that. But you are just so tempting. And let's face it, you do have to make up for shattering one of my illusions tonight."

"And I shall ...later. And you can stop that now!"

"Stop what?

"You know I can't resist you when you touch me like that."

William brought his lips close to Elizabeth's ear and whispered, "It was my intention to be irresistible."

"Oh, I don't doubt it. William," Elizabeth said, brushing his hands away, "Just three more papers to mark, then I'm all yours."

"And how long will that take?" he asked, clearly frustrated as he moved away from her chair.

"About half an hour, maybe an hour if they need as many comments as some of the others."

William looked at his watch, then replied, "I think I'll just nip home, Elizabeth. I need to check up on a few things."

"William. Before you go ..." Elizabeth called, remembering something she'd been meaning to ask for some time.

"Hmmm?"

"Has my car been driven down from Strathlyon yet?"

"I'm afraid not, Elizabeth. I have spoken to Davie Campbell about it, though. He's hoping one of the men will be down in Glasgow in the next week or two." William paused, waiting for her to show her disapproval at the length of time he was taking to get her car back to her. When she didn't make any reply, he slipped in, "How are you getting on with the Clio?"

"It's great, William, and it is comforting to go downstairs in the morning to a car that you know is going to start - but it was just a loan."

Oh well, William thought, might as well get this over with now. "Elizabeth, why don't you use it until spring? I'll keep your car nice and safe in my garage at Thornlea and I promise you'll get it back when the weather improves."

"That's a very tempting offer," Elizabeth replied, turning to look at him, "but it's too much."

"But your car is such a ...a ramshackle!" As he saw Elizabeth draw in a breath, ready to give what he expected would be a scathing reply, he added disarmingly, "I worry about you in that car."

"William Darcy," Elizabeth exclaimed, looking at him suspiciously, "is this what you intended all along?"

William had the grace to look shamefaced. "I'll admit it, you've caught me out. Will you think about it, please ...just for the winter?"

Elizabeth was ready to become angry. Wasn't this just like George - trying to run her life for her? Fuck! I'm not going to go through this again! But no, when she thought about it, George never did anything out of consideration for her. His own needs and desires were his sole concerns. And when she searched William's face she saw only love for her - and, if she wasn't mistaken, a little bit of apprehension - which served him right for putting his plan into action without consulting her. "I should say no, William, but I will take some time to think about it."

William walked towards the door and was just leaving as Elizabeth added quite calmly, "George used to try to run my life for me - I didn't like it. It's important to me that I'm included in your ideas for my comfort."

"Elizabeth, I'm so sorry," William gasped as he turned back to her. She could see from the stricken look on his face that he hadn't considered for a moment that he'd acted in any way like George Wickham. "I didn't think ..."

"It's okay. I know you're no George Wickham. And I do appreciate your concern for me. Please just keep what I've said in mind."

William could have kicked himself for treating Elizabeth in a way that led her even to consider equating him with her old boyfriend. As he ran downstairs he thought that, under the circumstances, he'd got off lighter than he'd deserved!

~ * ~

While Elizabeth was working on her final paper, the telephone rang. She huffed as she got up to answer the call. Bloody telephone! Couldn't have given me five more minutes, could you?

As she sounded a terse "Hello" an equally exasperated female voice asked, "Is William Darcy there, please?"

"I'm sorry, he's just left. May I take a message?"

"Oh ...er ...hi, I'm Georgiana ...William's sister. You must be Elizabeth?"

"Yes, that's right," Elizabeth replied, "so nice to talk to you at last, Georgiana."

"Please, Elizabeth, call me Georgie - everyone else does."

"Well, I'm Elizabeth or Lizzy. Take your pick."

"Do you have a preference?"

"No, not really. Most people call me Lizzy. I've noticed though that I'm always Elizabeth to your brother."

"I prefer Elizabeth, if you don't mind."

"Fine by me, Georgie. Now, about William - he's just left for Thornlea. You'll catch him there in ten minutes or so."

"Thanks, I'll do that. I just wanted to let him know that I'm coming up for your sister's wedding."

"Oh, I am pleased, Georgie. It'll be nice to meet you at last."

"Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting you," Georgiana replied. Then, having taken a few moments to gather up her courage, she added cautiously, "You ...you do care for him, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth was momentarily taken aback that William's sister would ask such a question when they'd only just introduced themselves to each other. "I do, Georgie. I care for him very much," she replied.

"I'm sorry, I know it's none of my business - and William wouldn't be pleased with me for asking. It's just that ...I've been worried about him. He was very upset that day you were supposed to come back with him to Strathlyon for lunch - I knew there was something odd about that when you were just his girlfriend's sister. A few weeks later he called to tell me Jane had been attacked and was in hospital. Then the next thing I knew he was with you and Jane was with Charles. I began to wonder what kind of mess he'd got himself into. He's been such a supportive brother to me through all of the difficulties in my life ...you know, with my parents and everything. I just want him to be happy."

"I understand your concern, Georgie. When you put our past situation like that, it does sound like a bit of a mess. I hope that when you come to the wedding you'll see that your brother is happy."

"Oh, I'm sure I shall. He certainly seems to be in ...to be very fond of you. I just hoped that you felt the same way about him."

"I'm glad to have been able to reassure you, then."

"I'd better go, Elizabeth. I'm going out this evening and I want to catch William before I leave. I'm looking forward to meeting you at the wedding."

"Me too, Georgie," Elizabeth replied, then added to herself, I think.

She sat for a while pondering her conversation with Georgiana. There was a little ...something ...in the girl's voice that Elizabeth couldn't quite put her finger on - a hint of reproach perhaps? Elizabeth sighed; it had all seemed so straightforward to her - they swapped partners and all got what they wanted in the end. What she hadn't considered was how it would look to outsiders. Never mind, when Georgie sees Charles and Jane together and William and me together, she'll know that we did the right thing. And she's only looking out for her brother - there's nothing wrong with that!

~ * ~

"Jane, have you two really thought about this?"

"Yes we have, Lizzy," Jane replied. "We've made up our minds - even though mum threatened never to have anything to do with us again!"

"Please don't be hasty - are you sure? Ever since I've known you, you've wanted the whole fairy-tale wedding thing. Don't decide on something you'll regret."

"I am sure, Lizzy," Jane stressed. "We're having a small wedding at Martha Street Registry Office and a reception at One Devonshire Gardens. We can't go back on the arrangements now - everything is booked." Jane paused as she examined the intricate beadwork on the wedding dress hanging on the rail before her. "You know," she went on, "for a while I worried that we weren't going to get a venue for our reception at such short notice, but William managed to organise it ...which was very kind of him under the circumstances."

"Yes ...well, I suppose it's hard for a hotel owner to turn down the personal request of an obscenely wealthy client."

"Lizzy!"

"I know, I know, it was very good of William."

"It was. And Charles and I were delighted that he offered." Jane hesitated before adding, "We thought perhaps you'd nudged him into it."

"No, Jane," Elizabeth replied, shaking her head. "I can't take credit for it. He thought of it all by himself."

"I so glad ...that he thought of it himself, that is. Perhaps he has forgiven us after all."

"Is that what this is all about?"

"Well, Charles and I ...oh, Lizzy, we feel so guilty about what we did to William. And with the baby ..." Jane explained. Then with a knowing look she added, "And you know what mum's like. If we can get through the marriage ceremony and the reception without her exposing us all to ridicule, I'll be very grateful."

Elizabeth gave an undignified snort, causing the sales assistant to send a surprised glance her way. "Jane, you'll never get away with a cringe-free wedding ...not with our mother there. That's something we Bennet girls will just have to put up with."

"I know. I suppose it can't be avoided. But at least if it's a small wedding well away from Meryton fewer people will witness it."

"As to your other reasons," Elizabeth continued, "you know it's not uncommon nowadays for a bride to be an expectant mother. I still don't see why giving up on your dream is necessary. And William would be ..." The expression on Jane's face was enough to stop Elizabeth mid sentence. She hadn't seen her sister look anything but disgustingly happy since the night she'd broken the news of her engagement.

"It was never part of my dream to be pregnant when I married, Lizzy. And Charles' parents - they're church-going people. I could see they were shocked to hear that I was having a baby ...before Charles and I married. I got the feeling when they met me that they expected to be faced by some sort of gold digger who'd managed to capture their son."

"Well, I'm sure once they saw you two together they realised that wasn't true," Elizabeth exclaimed. "Why haven't you mentioned any of this before, Jane? I thought your visit down to Henry and Susan Bingley's at Christmas went really well."

"It did, Lizzy. It was just their initial reaction that got to me. Shocked was probably the wrong word to use; they were disappointed and ...wary. And Charles really looks up to his parents, so their displeasure knocked him for six."

Elizabeth put a comforting arm around her sister's shoulder. "No one could know you and think anything like that about you. After all," Elizabeth said with a laugh, "you gave up a much bigger fish for Charles - one you'd surely have clung to if you'd been in the least mercenary."

"Oh, we didn't tell them about that. You know, I was on tenterhooks the whole time I was there in case Caroline or Louisa mentioned it. I don't think the Bingleys would approve. They look on William as a son and if they knew what we did to him ..."

" ... they'd get over it. Jane. This 'William' thing - it'll have to stop. He's ..."

"I hope you don't mind me saying, Lizzy," Jane interrupted, "but you weren't the one hurt by all of this. Charles at least did the decent thing by you - he split up with you before he told me of his feelings. We both feel awful about William though. I know he tries, but we both sense a change in his attitude towards us. But for Charles it's ...well, it's hard for him to feel that rift with someone he's looked on as a brother."

"I won't deny that William was hurt, Jane. And I suppose if he and I hadn't got together things would have been different. But we are together and he's very happy ...at least he says he is. I'm sure he'd hate it if he knew you'd scaled down your wedding plans because of guilt over him."

Jane looked ready to burst into tears. "You won't tell him we've been talking about this, Lizzy. The last thing I want is for him to feel awkward."

"I won't tell him. But Jane," Elizabeth warned, "you and Charles will have to get over this guilt trip if we four are going to get along together. And get along together we must because I don't intend to have to choose between you and William. And as for William, he's a grown man, for God's sake, and worse things have happened to him in his life."

"I suppose you're right. I know it's time to move on. Don't think I'm unhappy with my wedding arrangements. After all, I love Charles and marrying him is the important thing."

"Quite right," Elizabeth agreed. "Now, can we get on with choosing our dresses? I really don't want to spend another day trailing around bridal shops."

Jane sighed as she gazed at the sea of white before her. "Choosing would be easier if I could make my mind up between short and long."

"Oh, go for long," Elizabeth urged. "Mum will never forgive you if you don't have a traditional wedding dress, especially since you're foregoing the traditional wedding. Look, how about this one?"

"It's beautiful," Jane replied, examining the dress, "but the back is too low, Lizzy - my scar hasn't faded yet. It would show with that neckline."

"Shame - it would really suit you."

"I don't see anything here," Jane sighed. "Do you mind if we go back to that first shop in Bath Street."

As the sisters walked towards the underground station, Elizabeth asked, "You mentioned your scar back in the shop, Jane. Have you heard anything from the police about the guy who attacked you?"

"Not much, I'm afraid. They think he's left the country. It seems that he was a dealer whose suppliers don't want him questioned. It doesn't sound very hopeful that they'll catch him."

"How do you feel about that?"

Jane thought for a moment before answering. "I'm not sure, Lizzy. I've been so busy settling in with Charles, getting excited about the baby and preparing for the wedding - I've almost forgotten it happened."

"I'm sorry to have brought it up then, Jane. Let me change the subject to a happier one. Do you know where you're going on your honeymoon, or is Charles keeping it a secret?"

"No, it's no secret. You really don't know? I thought William might have told you since we're going to his villa in Italy. In fact, he is paying for the whole trip. It's his wedding present to us."

"No, William didn't mention it. Nor did I know he has a place in Italy - whereabouts is it?"

"Oh, I'm not sure. Somewhere around Verona, I think."

"Ah, Jane, you're going to honeymoon in Romeo and Juliet country - how romantic. I'd love to visit Verona. You must visit Juliet's balcony ...and try to get tickets for The Arena."

Jane shrugged. "What's that - a theatre?"

"You could call it," Elizabeth replied with a shake of her head at her sister's lack of knowledge. "It's a very famous Roman amphitheatre. I've heard they do wonderful open-air operas in the summer months."

"Well, I think I can safely say we won't be going there! Charles might have gone to see gladiators fighting to the death," she said with a laugh, "but I don't think he could be dragged to an opera."

~ * ~

Elizabeth emerged tired and foot-sore from Hillhead Underground Station feeling as though she'd run a marathon. It had never occurred to her that there was such a range of wedding and bridesmaids' dresses - and as far as she was concerned, she'd seen every last one in Glasgow! And, as she had predicted halfway through their search, she and Jane had ended up back at the first shop they'd visited, where Jane had eventually plumped for the first dress she'd tried on. Elizabeth promised herself that if she ever got married, she wouldn't leave the buying of her dress to the weekend before her wedding. She was still amazed that her sister had felt the need to do everything in such a rush - it was so out of character, or had been until she'd met Charles.

Elizabeth got home to find William lying sprawled on the sofa sound asleep with half of Saturday's Herald spread across his chest and half fallen on the floor. She stood for a full five minutes smiling to herself as she gazed at him and wondered yet again how she had ever managed to capture the regard of such a beautiful man. Every little detail about him tugged at her heartstrings - God, that's love for you - and the more she learned of him the more captivated she became.

Hell, Elizabeth thought, as she gathered the pages of the newspaper together and laid it on the coffee table, even his walk turns me on. When have I ever even noticed a man's walk before?

Finally, unable to resist, Elizabeth knelt down in front of the sofa and placed a gentle kiss on William's brow, causing him to open his eyes with a start and give her that welcoming smile she'd been looking forward to since she'd left him that morning.

"You're back, sweetheart. Did you and Jane have a successful hunt for dresses?"

"Yes, we did, thank goodness, because it's an experience I never want to repeat."

"That bad, huh?"

"I have trudged several miles around the city centre, William, and been on more buses and trains than I care to count."

"I did offer you my driver for the day ..."

"And if I'd know there were so many wedding dress shops in so many different parts of Glasgow, I'd have taken you up on your offer."

William pulled himself up on the sofa and wrapped his arms around Elizabeth drawing her to him for a much-needed hug. "I thought you enjoyed shopping with Jane."

"I do," Elizabeth replied, "when there's no pressure, but we had to get our dresses today - whether we saw anything we wanted to buy or not."

"I hope you did see something to your taste, then."

Elizabeth raised her eyes to the ceiling and gave a sigh. "Well, I got a dress."

"That's not quite the same thing, sweetheart. Are you not happy with it?"

"Yes, I suppose I am," she admitted reluctantly. "It's just that there were so many to choose from ...and I'm not a fan of bridesmaid dresses - too frothy."

"Describe it to me," William said, visions of Elizabeth in a huge pastel crinoline coming into his head.

"Oh no," Elizabeth replied with a wink. "You'll have to wait until the big day."

"Tell me about Jane's, then?"

"Well, it's white and long ...What else can I say about it?"

William shrugged. "I just wondered if she'd go for something less ...traditional since it's not a church wedding."

"That would be too much for my mother, William. It's bad enough that her first mother-of-the-bride-wedding isn't going to be the huge Meryton affair that she's looked forward to since Jane was her beautiful little blonde angel. I'm still shocked she wouldn't come up to help choose the dress when Jane asked her."

"Why did she do that? I'd have thought she wouldn't be able to resist."

"For just about the first time in her life my sister has made my mother angry and as she's in one of her I'm quite prepared to cut off my nose to spite my face moods she has decided not to help with this wedding in any way. Unfortunately," Elizabeth added with a sigh, "that bloody-mindedness doesn't stretch to sticking to her threat to stay away since she's now decided that the person behind the whole sorry affair is ...guess who?

"You?" William asked, his eyebrows raised in amazement. "She doesn't have much faith in Jane's independence of mind, does she?"

"Oh, she does when Jane's choices coincide with her own preferences. When they don't, she thinks Jane is being led by her very wilful sister."

"You just can't win, can you Elizabeth? You really should have all of this out with her."

"I know," Elizabeth agreed. "Maybe one day when I'm angry enough, I will."

"That's not the best time, you know. It'll just end up a slanging match."

"The timing won't make any difference, William. My mother is always right."

"God, she reminds me of my Aunt Catherine - she's never been wrong in her life!"

Elizabeth, who'd surmised as much from information she'd gleaned from Charlotte, imagined aloud what it would be like if these two opinionated women ever got together. "That would be an interesting meeting of minds, Will. Perhaps it's just as well they live at opposite ends of the country."

William shared Elizabeth's laugh, but he had detected the sadness in her voice as she'd talked of her mother. "Perhaps you should have a word with your mum before the wedding. When is she arriving?"

Elizabeth, who was still enjoying William's embrace, turned her head to look at him. "No way, William! I won't do anything that might spoil Jane's big day. Anyway, she and my dad and sisters will be here on Friday evening - so you see, there won't be time for a frank discussion. I'm just glad she'll not be here on Thursday for Jane's hen night."

"Are they staying with you, then?"

"Oh no ...thank God!" Elizabeth gasped. "They're staying with Helen and Edward. There won't be room for them here with Charlotte and Bill arriving on Wednesday evening and Jane coming back to the flat on Thursday after work. I hope you won't mind that it'll be a bit of a crush here."

"I'm afraid I won't be around much, either, Elizabeth. Charles has rung round a few of his old uni friends this weekend and has decided to have his stag night down in London so that they can join him. It makes sense, since they're not coming up for the wedding, though I think we both could have done without the travelling. However," he admitted, "it'll work out quite well, because on my way back to Glasgow on Friday, I'll stop at Pemberley and pick up Georgie. I really should spend Friday night with her at Thornlea. Are you okay with that?"

"Of course you must spend time with Georgie." Elizabeth replied. "I only wish I could join you since she won't be here in time for Jane's hen night. I had been hoping to get to know her a little before the wedding."

"Georgie would have liked that, but it would be daft for her to come up on her own on Thursday when I can bring her the next day."

"Well," Elizabeth said, "that's all organised. Is there anything else still to be done?"

"I don't think so - cars, flowers, photographer, reception. Everything seems to be in hand. And Charles and I picked up our suits this morning."

"Suits? Hmm, so, no kilts?"

"I'm afraid not, Elizabeth. Charles has no Scottish connections. Why would he want to wear a kilt?"

"I wasn't interested in seeing Charles in a kilt, William," Elizabeth whispered into his ear as she turned around on the sofa to face him. "I was thinking of you ..." she added, unfastening the buttons of his shirt and kissing the exposed skin, " ...back here - after everyone has gone to bed."

William laughed. "With Charlotte and Bill in the next room - I don't think so. I'll wear my kilt for you some other time, Elizabeth. You only have to ask. I didn't realise you were so interested. My kilt certainly didn't seem to have any effect on you at the ceilidh, if I remember correctly."

Elizabeth, while she was considering William's words, carried on her task of removing his clothes. "It's the easy access, William," she replied with smirk. "And you're wrong about the ceilidh - I spent half the night wanting to find out if you were a true Scotsman!"

"Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I wasn't that night." Giving Elizabeth's words some thought, William pretended to look shocked as he queried, "And what do you know about easy access where a man's kilt is concerned, madam?"

"Oh, I have no personal experience, William ...yet," Elizabeth murmured, "but I am looking forward to finding out."

"Remind me the next time I'm back at Thornlea to bring a kilt here to keep in your wardrobe, Elizabeth. In fact I could nip home now," he offered jokingly.

"You don't have to," Elizabeth purred in his ear. "The kilt's just the wrapping, after all. I'm more interested in the content." As she spoke, she pulled her tee shirt over her head and slid the straps of her bra off her shoulders.

William, his eyes dark with longing at the sight of her undressing for him, cupped Elizabeth's cheeks, drawing her head down towards his. Their lips joined in a gentle kiss that exploded into sudden passion as soon as their tongues touched.

With a deep groan, William broke off the kiss and lowered Elizabeth to the floor. His hungry eyes caressed her body as he stripped her of her jeans and panties.

Elizabeth felt a rush of desire sweep through her as William parted her legs with his knee and lost himself in her depths, his thrusts coming hard and fast. As she cried out her pleasure, William felt her tighten around him and he found his release.

Still holding her close William whispered, "I love you, sweetheart." With great tenderness he brushed her damp hair from her face and placed soothing kisses on her flushed cheeks.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was sitting on the sofa with her feet in William's lap. "I suppose I'd better make a start on dinner."

"No need. It's all under control."

"That's funny," she replied as she sniffed the air. "I can't smell anything cooking."

"That, sweetheart, is because I've ordered a take-away from the Shish Mahal."

"Thank goodness for that. I thought for a moment you were going to say that you'd booked a table somewhere. I don't think I could face going out again after all the trailing around I've done today."

"I've no intention of sharing you with a roomful of diners tonight, Elizabeth. Next weekend we'll have no time to ourselves. Bill and Charlotte will be here, as will your family, and Georgie will be at Thornlea."

"Never mind, Will. By next Sunday the wedding will be all over and everyone will be on their way home. Or is Georgie staying on?"

"No, she's leaving on Sunday. Henry Bingley is taking her back to Pemberley on his way to London."

Elizabeth sighed. "I'll be glad when it's all over and Jane and Charles are off on their honeymoon. By the way, Romeo, you didn't tell me that you have a villa in Verona."

William looked puzzled for a moment. "Ah, Jane must have told you. My house is not in Verona, actually. It's on a hillside overlooking Lake Garda - between the towns of Garda and Bardolino."

Elizabeth laughed. "I see."

"I don't see anything funny about that!"

Elizabeth shook her head as she replied. "Jane has no idea where she's going."

"She'll love it, I'm sure. It's a beautiful part of the country. I was hoping to take you there during the summer holidays if you don't have any other plans."

"I'd like that, William, if you're sure?"

"Why wouldn't I be sure?"

"Well, the summer is still a few months away. We might ..." Elizabeth stopped. She'd been going to say that they might not still be together, but the thought brought a lump to her throat and she couldn't finish the sentence.

William couldn't fail though to understand her allusion. "Elizabeth, I love you. What makes you think anything could change that between now and the summer? Or are you having second thoughts?"

"Of course not, William!"

"What is it, then?"

"It's ...nothing."

"Elizabeth!"

"Well, I'm just not as confident about the future as you seem to be."

"Why not?"

"Just put it down to past experience, William."

"Trust me, Elizabeth. I'll never hurt you the way George Wickham did."

~ * ~

It was Friday, the evening before Charles and Jane's wedding and Elizabeth and Jane were getting ready to go to the Gardiners to await the arrival of their parents and sisters, who were travelling up from Meryton with their aunt and uncle, Lesley and John Philips.

Reluctant though the sisters were to allow their mother another opportunity to berate them over Jane's wedding arrangements, they felt they'd rather she got her complaints off her chest in the presence of as few observers as possible. They knew it certainly wasn't beyond her, if angry enough, to make her feelings known before everyone in the registry office and the thought of the Bingleys witnessing that spectacle was enough to reduce Jane to a quivering wreck.

At the moment, though, the sisters had put their mother's selfish behaviour to the back of their minds and were discussing Jane's hen night.

"Jane," Elizabeth exclaimed, "your expression when you thought that stripper was for you! I thought I'd die laughing."

"Well, I wouldn't have put it past Lynda Anderson to hire a stripper for a hen night. But I'm so glad she didn't. Did you see that poor girl's face when he ...oh, I can't even repeat what he did," Jane said, her face crimson with embarrassment.

"She didn't seem to mind as far as I could see."

"Well, admittedly she was quite drunk by the time the stripper appeared. I, as the only sober person in the whole pub," Jane recalled with a grimace, "certainly blushed for her."

"Quite drunk, Jane!" Elizabeth repeated. "My students would have said she was moroculous."

"Talking about drunk, Elizabeth, how are you feeling? I remember you saying something before we went out about not overindulging last night ...to keep your pregnant sister company."

"What can I say? Lynda Anderson is such a bad influence on me. She persuaded me that I needed to drink for two since you had to abstain. But, my dear Jane, you'll be glad to know I've suffered for it all day. I swear the little - add your own expletive - tossers in my classes sensed that I had a massive hangover and played up no end."

Jane sighed loudly. "I never thought I'd have to stay sober at my own hen night."

"Just as well you are pregnant, Jane. Lynda wanted to do the traditional thing and dress you up as a bride, trail you round the pubs in Byres Road with a chamber pot in your hand and make you kiss every man you met."

"Yes, I remember hearing one of the girls in the Social Work Department discussing her hen night. The chamber pot was filled with salt, I believe, and the men she kissed had to put money in it. I must say, Lizzy, I wouldn't have had a hen night if I'd had to endure making such a spectacle of myself."

"No, nor would I, Jane. But the tradition seems to be dying out. Nowadays girls just hire a stretch limo, dress scantily, and get plastered. And talking of getting plastered - how is Charles? Have you heard from him today?"

"I met him for lunch. And yes, he's hung over, just like you," Jane replied with a giggle. "His excuse for overindulging was that Bill Collins clung to him like a barnacle to a ship's keel and bored him silly with talk of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Glenlyon School. He said that he and William had to get drunk to stop themselves from dying of boredom."

"Yes, so I heard. And they had to put up with him all the way down to London and back."

"Well, on the way down, anyway, Lizzy. I think Charles and William slept most of the way back."

"And left Georgie to enjoy Bill's scintillating conversation - although that's not quite how William put it when he phoned me this morning."

"No, I can imagine. Poor Georgie!"

"Huh, I'd rather listen to Bill than mum any day. But I am ready to go. How about you, Jane?"

Jane sighed. "Yes, let's get this over with."

~ * ~

The sisters arrived at the Gardiners to find their family had arrived earlier than expected. When they walked into the living room, they found themselves in the middle of an argument between Frances and her three youngest daughters.

"That's it. You're all staying at home!"

"Mum, I'm over eighteen. You can't stop me from going out. And I'm not," Mary cried, indicating her sisters, "taking these two with me."

"Oh, I can stop you, Mary, as long as you are living at home and your father and I are supporting you at university."

"Fine," Mary replied, "I'll just leave home and get myself a part time job."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous, child. Robert," Frances called to her husband, who was standing in the doorway, "you needn't sneak off to Edward and John in the TV room just now - I need you to back me up here. I don't want Kitty and Lydia running loose in the city centre. Look what happened the last time Lydia was here, for goodness' sake. If you want to go out, Mary," she said, turning back to her wayward daughter, "you'll have to keep them with you all the time."

"Mary will look after us, mum," Lydia whined. "We'll just go to this Cathouse place with her. We won't go anywhere else, I promise."

"The Cathouse, Lizzy," Jane whispered. "Isn't that a goth hang-out?"

"It is, Jane."

"But Lydia and Kitty will stand out like sore thumbs."

"Indeed they will," Elizabeth replied with a muffled laugh. "Perhaps they'll be back home sooner than they think."

"Well, you can go for a couple of hours," Frances declared. "If there's any trouble you must phone me. Lizzy will come and pick you up at eleven thirty."

"Mum ...I'm not ..."

Frances frowned at Elizabeth's attempt to object. "I don't want them hanging about for a taxi in a strange city, Lizzy, and your dad doesn't know where this club is. You're surely not expecting Jane to go for them on the night before her wedding. And no one else can be spared ..."

"I'm not exactly free myself."

Giving no heed to her daughter's words, Frances carried on, "...and since your car is at the door you can run them to this Cathouse place."

Elizabeth was about to refuse when her father pulled her aside and, shaking his head, said, "Come on, Lizzy, you can show me where this place is. If it's a dive I might not let the girls stay." As he glanced at his wife, he whispered, "You don't want to be here anyway. Your mother has promised that she'll not scold your sister the night before her wedding, but you know she'll not be able to resist. And," he continued, "she's got it into her head that it's all your fault."

"Now why doesn't that surprise me," Elizabeth replied as she followed her father and sisters out of the living room.

"Jane, darling," Frances Bennet exclaimed, as soon as the others had left, "I hope you'll never know the disappointment I had to endure when I heard that your wedding was to be this paltry affair. Why, I'd already been to see our vicar and had started to look at possible reception venues. I'd spoken to everyone I could think of for recommendations of photographers, car hire firms, florists. Then I had to tell everyone that you were having a small wedding up in Glasgow. I've hardly been able to face a soul in Meryton I'm so ashamed! Ever since you were born I've looked forward to our big day. I can't believe you're not having it at home with all your friends and family around you."

Lesley Philips raised her weary eyes to the ceiling and turned to address her sister. "Frances, we've been over all of this numerous times. You promised you'd drop it."

"Yes, Frances," Helen Gardiner agreed, "let's just enjoy the time we all have together. I'm sure it'll be a wonderful day."

"I know but ..."

"I'm sorry, mum," Jane interjected, "but Charles and I decided that with the baby on the way and with the way things happened with Lizzy and William, a big affair wouldn't be appropriate."

"Why should those matters spoil your day? Pregnant brides are quite the norm nowadays, Jane, and as for Elizabeth and William," Frances gave a dismissive wave of her hand, "that won't last. Once William Darcy is long forgotten, you'll have the memory of a shabby registry office wedding to look back on."

"I'll have Charles, mum, and that's all that matters to me. And it won't be shabby. Charles and I have been to see One Devonshire Gardens - it's beautiful and very classy. Do you know that all the celebrities stay in it when they're up in Glasgow?"

"Really?"

"Yes. We only managed to book our reception there because William is an important client."

Frances gave a little smile at the mention of William Darcy's help. "Wasn't that so good of him to help you out, Jane, when he must be - excuse my expression - gutted that you're marrying Charles."

"No, mum, William is ..."

"And what do the Bingleys think of all this? They may not be quite in the Darcys' league, but they are extremely well-to-do. Where are they anyway? I thought we might get to meet them before the wedding."

"They're at Charles' house, mum. I didn't want to invite them here because ...well, to be frank, I expected you to be like this and I didn't want them to witness it. Charles' parents may be rich, but they're not flashy ...and they're perfectly happy with our arrangements."

"Oh, well," Frances said with a shake of her head, "it'll have to do I suppose if that's what you want - and the Bingleys don't mind. You know, I blame Lizzy, Jane. Mark my words; I know she's behind all of this. She's thought of the way to hurt me most then she's hoodwinked you into going along with her."

"Mum," Jane gasped in exasperation, "that's just not true. Lizzy has had very little to do with the arrangements for my wedding. In fact William was the one who helped us with our plans - and that was only because he had the clout to get things done quickly."

"Oh yes, and who is William again?" Frances asked, her voice full of sarcasm, "Oh, he's Lizzy's boyfriend. You see, Jane? She is behind it all. She's always been so jealous of you and you're such an angel you've never seen it."

As an astonished Jane opened her mouth to refute her mother's claims, Frances cut her off. "I won't discuss this any more. And if you continue to defend your sister I'll have it out with her when she gets back. She won't feel so smart after a tongue-lashing from me, I can assure you!"

Having had her say, Frances bustled off to the kitchen to prevent any of the three women present getting in a last word. Jane, her eyes filled with tears, got up from her seat to follow her mother, but she was stopped by Helen Gardiner.

"Leave it for now, Jane," Helen said, giving her niece a hug, "Lizzy didn't hear any of that, so she can't be hurt by it. Your Uncle Edward and I will have a few choice words to say to your mum after the wedding - if you don't mind leaving it to us. I've never heard her speak about Lizzy like that."

"I suppose that would be best. But Helen, if she does confront Lizzy," Jane warned, "I won't let her get away with it ...this time. I've let her treat Lizzy badly for far too long."

Lesley Philips nodded her head in agreement. "Perhaps we've all been guilty of that, Jane. And no doubt it is time for a change. But I'm of the same opinion as Helen; this is not the moment to throw petrol on the fire. Let's get through tomorrow first."

Continue reading Ae Fond Kiss here


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