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Ae Fond Kiss

Chapter Sixteen

Even though Charles and Jane's wedding wasn't the fairy tale extravaganza of which Frances Bennet had dreamt, she had to admit it turned out to be a little more upmarket than she'd envisaged for such a rushed job. Oh, the registry office ceremony was just as she'd expected on a busy Saturday afternoon - it had all the elegance of a conveyer belt. But ...Jane was radiant, obviously very much in love with Charles and as beautiful as a bride could be. Even Elizabeth had scrubbed up well ...for once! And Frances was willing to bet that no other wedding that day had a groom who was the son of a very rich man and a best man who also happened to be a multi-millionaire. But it's such a small affair - with only my family, the Bingleys, the Collinses and Georgiana Darcy invited as guests. And with Charlotte here, she thought to herself as her gaze fell on the huge wedding party next in line for the registry office, I'll not be able to embellish the proceedings because I know that she always tells her mother everything!

Although the registry office ceremony had been nothing special, Frances was very pleased to see that all the stops had been pulled out for the reception. For once she was speechless as she took in the tastefully decorated room, the profusion of very expensive flowers and the elegant tables. And the staff were so respectful and well trained - which was more than she'd expected ...in Glasgow! How she wished that her Meryton friends could have been invited to see the splendour for themselves.

"Oh, Jane," Frances gushed as she stretched across Charles to speak to her daughter, "this top table is the nicest I've ever seen. But," she added, a perplexed look on her face, "I thought I was supposed to sit beside the groom's father. Why have you got me here beside your dad?"

"I know it's tradition for the bride's mother to sit beside the groom's father, mum, but Susan wanted to sit with Henry. You don't mind, do you?"

"I suppose not. But I've hardly had a chance to speak to the Bingleys. Every time I've tried to get close to them, Helen or Lesley has appeared at my side as though to distract me. Honestly," she said with an indignant shake of her head, "you'd almost think there was some conspiracy afoot to keep me from talking to them."

Jane sent Charles a look that warned him not to laugh and give the game away. God, she thought, my mother can certainly be perceptive at times . It was true that while planning her reception she had spent a considerable time thinking about the seating arrangements at the top table. After all the complaining her mother had done about the wedding, she knew very well that she'd have to keep her as far away from the Bingleys as possible if she wanted to avoid a humiliating display of disgruntlement. To do this she had enlisted the assistance of Helen and Lesley, and so far her plan had worked. The meal had passed without incident and the guests were now milling around, chatting to each other and enjoying the last of the champagne.

"Lizzy," Jane whispered to her sister, "it's all going really well ...considering."

"Yes, our aunts have been doing a great job keeping mum away from the Bingleys. And I have to say she's been on her best behaviour - I'd never have thought it possible. You know, Jane, it's just as well because your new father-in-law doesn't appear to be the type of man who suffers fools gladly."

"Ah, you've noticed. He's very quiet, but you're right, he does have an air of the benevolent dictator about him. You can see he's a man who's accustomed to have his own way. Charles admires him tremendously."

"Yes, admiration tinged with trepidation, Jane. You wonder, though," Elizabeth added as she glanced at Caroline and Louisa, who were now sitting with their mother and Georgiana at the top table, "how he could have failed with his two delightful daughters."

"Louisa's not so bad, Lizzy, at least when Caroline isn't around."

"No, she's ..." Elizabeth's mirthful expression suddenly changed as she watched her mother make her way determinedly towards Susan Bingley, with Kitty and Lydia following in her wake. "Jane, mum has escaped from Helen and Lesley. Look where she's heading."

"Oh, no," Jane groaned, "where's Charles? I think, all of a sudden, it's time for this reception to end."

"That went rather well, Susan, don't you think," Frances commented, taking the seat beside Charles' mother. "Of course, it's not what I wanted for my daughter. I expected her to have a big wedding down in Meryton."

"Yes, it was very ...nice," Susan replied. "Personally, I would have preferred a church ceremony, but the young people wouldn't hear of it. I suppose under the circumstances, it was for the best."

Frances bristled at the disapproval she detected in Susan's tone and raised her voice slightly as she asked, "And what circumstances would those be, Susan?"

"Well ...you know ...the baby."

"Oh, that's all," Frances said with relief, "I thought for a moment you were referring to the other little complication and blaming it on my Jane. You know it wasn't her fault that she had two such eligible men in love with her at the same time. I do feel sorry for William for having lost out, but what could Jane do?" Frances asked with a shrug of her shoulders. "She had to follow her heart. And of course I wasn't surprised to find that Charles actually cared for Jane all the time he was with Lizzy. Never mind, it all worked out in the end. What a romantic story - Jane and Charles meeting down in London and not able to resist each other ...and Lizzy and William quite in the dark."

"Excuse me, Frances. I don't know what you're talking about. Are you telling me that Jane was with William first? And was still with him when she got pregnant with my son's child? I didn't know anything about this. Henry," she called to her husband, who was standing nearby with Charles and William, "did you know anything about this?"

"I'm sorry, my dear," Henry replied as he approached the table, "I didn't hear what you were discussing."

"Jane was with William when she got pregnant."

Henry Bingley was silent for a few moments as he tried to work out what his wife was telling him. "You mean the baby is William's?"

"No, no, Henry. Jane got pregnant with our son's child while she was still involved with William."

Frances Bennet didn't like what she was hearing; she much preferred her own romanticised version of events. But no one was going to make her daughter the scapegoat. "And Charles was with Elizabeth," she pointed out, rising to her feet as her voice became more piercing with each word, "don't forget that, Susan. And he hurt his best friend."

"And your daughter cheated on her boyfriend and hurt her sister - her sister, for goodness' sake," Susan retaliated indignantly.

Jane was aghast to find that all conversation in the room had ceased as soon as her mother had begun to raise her voice, and everyone was now listening to the confrontation at the top table. "Mum, could you just drop it, please," she hissed. Then she pulled Frances down into the seat beside her and whispered in her ear, "We didn't tell Charles' mum and dad about all this. You're making a scene."

"I'm not making a scene, Jane. Susan seems to think you are some kind of scarlet woman. I'll not have her think that of my daughter."

Henry Bingley sat in silence, looking first at Jane then at his son. "You did that to William, my boy? I'm very disappointed, Charles, very disappointed indeed. I'd never have thought you capable of that. William has been like a brother to you ..."

"Dad, I'm sorry. I ..."

"...and you cheated on your girlfriend. I can't understand it, Charles. You weren't brought up to behave like this."

"He didn't cheat on Lizzy, Henry," Jane explained. "I ...I can't let you think that about Charles. He split up with her before he drove me down to London."

Charles put his hands on his new wife's shoulders before he made his reply. "I won't allow Jane to take the blame for this on her own, dad. When I met her down in London, it wouldn't have mattered if I'd split up with Lizzy or not - I was in love with Jane and that's all I thought about. Mum, dad, we are sorry for what we did to William and Lizzy. We owned up and I think they've forgiven us. But could we move on now. This is not," he said emphatically, glancing around the hushed room, "a subject for general consumption."

Henry Bingley turned his gaze to the wedding guests, then to the best man and bridesmaid. He could see that Elizabeth was now standing beside William, her look one of horror as she stared at her sister's distraught face. William had his arm around her waist and was doing his best to comfort her. "Is this true, William, that you and Elizabeth have forgiven my son and Jane."

"Absolutely, Henry," William said, "This was a private matter and was resolved to everyone's satisfaction." Looking pointedly at Frances Bennet, he added, "Elizabeth and I would never have wished this to be broadcast here on Charles and Jane's special day."

"Nor would I, William. You're quite right to upbraid Henry and Susan - such bad manners," Frances exclaimed. Before anyone could reply, she got up from her seat and strode off to the terraced garden to find her husband who, she observed to herself, was never there to defend his family when she required him.

As the guests turned away from the sight of Elizabeth and Jane's stricken faces, Caroline and Louisa sat open-mouthed at the brazen impertinence of Frances Bennet. Never in their hearing had anyone spoken of their parents in such a way.

"Louisa," Caroline muttered behind her hand, "what kind of family has Charles married into? That mother!! What an embarrassment." Without waiting for a reply from her sister, she continued, "William is the lucky one, you know - at least he hasn't committed himself yet. He'll surely drop Elizabeth Bennet after this spectacle. If she'd had any sense, she'd have trapped him with a pregnancy just as that sister of hers has done with our gullible brother."

"No, no, Caroline," Louisa replied, keeping her voice low so that Georgiana wouldn't hear her comments, "what century are you living in? A man doesn't have to marry a woman nowadays when she gets pregnant. You'll just have to get used to the idea that our brother loves Jane. And I for one don't mind. She's a lovely girl - calm, sweet natured and very beautiful. Just look at her - she certainly didn't deserve to have her wedding spoiled like this. But what could one expect - her mother is an embarrassment, her sisters are common and her father obviously has no control over his family! I'm so glad my Arthur couldn't get back from Bahrain to witness this spectacle."

"God, Louisa, you know what an old gossip your husband is. We must make sure the Bennets are never invited to anything in our neck of the woods. Could you imagine the derision we'd be exposed to if our friends got a whiff of our brother's low connections?"

"Don't worry, Caroline, after that display there's no way dad will have that woman and her brood in his home. Judging by the look on his face, I'd say that even Jane and Charles would be advised to stay away from him for a while. You know what a stickler he is for propriety and rules."

Jane and Elizabeth sat in a state of bewilderment for some time after their mother left the group. They knew from past experience that she could cause a storm in a teacup, but they'd never expected her to embarrass them to quite such an extent ...here ...at the wedding of her favourite daughter.

"Come on, Jane," Charles urged, "let's go up to our suite. I'm sure William won't mind seeing our guests off."

"Yes, of course," William agreed, taking a hankie out of his pocket so that Jane could wipe her eyes, "you and Charles go to your room. I'll take care of everything here before we go back to the Gardiners. And," he added, bending down to address her alone, "it might be a good idea to escape while your mother is out of the way."

"Thank you, Will. I don't think I could be polite to her right now."

Once Jane had hugged Elizabeth and William and said a subdued farewell to the Bingleys, Charles led her from the room. Within moments of the bride and groom's departure, Henry and Susan Bingley, followed by their contemptuous daughters and a distraught Georgiana, left the hotel. Within the hour they were on their way back down to London, despite their plan to stay in Glasgow for another night. They knew that it was in everyone's best interest that they get on with their new daughter-in-law, but they hoped that it would be a while before they saw her again. They needed some time to get over the ignominy of this day.

~ * ~

As William sat in the Gardiner's sitting room waiting for Elizabeth to change out of her dress, Frances sidled up beside him. "William, I'm so sorry for you that things didn't work out with Jane," she whispered confidentially. "You must be so disappointed to ...well, not to put too fine a point on it ...to end up with our Lizzy. Not that I'm complaining of course," she added hastily. After all, she thought, better to have him marry one of my daughters than someone else's.

"I beg your pardon, Frances?"

"Well, Lizzy is rather a ...second choice, isn't she?"

"How could you say that about your own daughter? Of course she's not second choice. I fell in love with her almost from the moment I met her."

"Now you don't need to lie to me, William. Remember, I'm her mother. I know she's not a patch on Jane."

"Frances, would you mind accompanying me out to the garden for a moment. I have something I'd like to discuss with you."

"Certainly, William. It would be my pleasure."

"No, William." Elizabeth's voice startled him. He hadn't known she was standing behind them. "I think it's time I had a word with my mother."

"Are you sure, Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth put a steadying hand on his arm. She could see that he was close to the limit of his endurance. Anyway, it was time that she took action - she'd let her mother have her own way for too long.

"I'm sure, William."

Elizabeth led her mother to her Aunt Helen's bedroom. She didn't have high expectations for this long overdue conversation, but by the end of it she intended to know why her mother treated her the way she did. As she followed her daughter, Frances whined, "I don't know what you can have to say to me that can't be said in the sitting room, Lizzy. I hope this won't take too long. I'd really like to get to know the Bingleys a bit better. You never know how useful it might be for your sisters."

"The Bingleys are not coming back here, mum. They've already left for London."

"Why is that? I thought they were staying another night so that they could get to know us all better." Frances looked at Elizabeth suspiciously. "Have you said something to upset them, Lizzy?

"Mum, I didn't say anything to upset them - you'd already done that at the reception when you told them, in front of all the guests, about Jane and Charles down in London."

"They left because of that? Why should they be bothered by the way Jane and Charles got together? - it has all worked out perfectly well."

"Anyway, let's leave that now. I heard what you said to William. Mum, this has to stop. I've been a fool for letting it go on for so long."

"What do you mean, Lizzy? What has to stop?"

"These constant digs at me. Do you realise that all you ever do is criticise me?"

"I do not! I ...I may be a little hard on you sometimes but it's for your own good, Lizzy. You were always such a difficult child."

"Yes, so difficult you could never bring yourself to love me."

"What do you mean? I think you're being very ungrateful. Of course I ...well, I've looked after you all these years, haven't I? You've been well provided for."

"You see, you can't even say it. Why, mum? What did I do to deserve to be treated so differently from Jane ...and from Mary, Kitty and Lydia?"

"I ...I've done my best, Lizzy. You didn't make things easy for me."

"Is that all you've got to say?"

"What else is there to say? You and I have never got on. It's been very hard for me that you weren't more like Jane, but I've learned to accept it."

"I was a child, mum. Please - there must be a reason for the way you feel about me."

"I don't want to discuss this any further, Lizzy. You're going to make me ill with all this aggravation. It's quite cruel of you to bring this up on Jane's wedding day. It's always the same - you've got to be the centre of attention no matter who you hurt in the process."

"Mum that's just not true. I've tried so many times to please you, but you refuse even to meet me halfway."

"This is a waste of time, Lizzy. I'm going back downstairs. I hardly ever get a chance to be with Helen and Edward."

As Frances got up to leave, there was a knock at the door and Elizabeth's Aunt Lesley entered the room.

"Is everything okay in here? We can hear your voice downstairs, Frances."

"Oh, it's you, Lesley, I was just leaving. Can you believe it, after all I've been through with this farce of a wedding and those Bingleys attacking my daughter, Lizzy is now having a go at me for being a bad mother. After all I've done for her!"

"Lizzy, maybe this is not the best time ..."

"I agree it's not, but I've just overheard mum telling my boyfriend how sorry she is that he didn't manage to hang on to Jane and is now stuck with his second choice. I've had enough, Lesley."

Lesley looked at her sister. "Frances, you didn't?"

"What's wrong with that? I just felt a bit sad for him ...losing a girl like Jane to his best friend. He must be broken-hearted."

"For God's sake, Frances, open your eyes. It's quite obvious that William is very much in love with Lizzy. Have you seen the way he looks at her?"

"No, no, Lesley, that's not possible. You must be mistaken."

Lesley let out a groan of exasperation. "A man like William Darcy could have his pick of women, Frances. Do you really think he'd ever settle for second choice?"

A fleeting moment of doubt crossed Frances Bennet's mind. She thought back to her suspicions concerning William and Elizabeth when Jane was lying helpless in her hospital bed. Was it possible? No, surely not ...there was no way Lizzy could have hooked herself a better catch than her dear Jane.

"If that's the case," Frances declared, "she's a ...a passing whim. It won't last."

"That's it," Elizabeth snapped as she made for the bedroom door, "I'm out of here. This is just a waste of time."

Lesley caught hold of Elizabeth's arm to prevent her from leaving. "Please wait a moment, Lizzy." Then, turning to her sister she said, "Frances, you go down to the kitchen and get yourself a cup of tea. Once you feel a little calmer I think you should come back and have a talk with your daughter. And Frances," she added as her sister opened the door, "while we're waiting for you I'm going to tell Lizzy some things I think she should know. Is that okay with you?"

"No, it's not okay! There is nothing Lizzy needs to know about our relationship except that she's been trouble to me since the day she was born."

"Frances," Lesley said, her voice filled with exasperation, "do you want to lose your daughter?"

"Huh, I'm sure I can't stop her if she decides to have nothing more to do with me."

Lesley decided to try a different approach - one she knew would appeal to her sister's sense of self-importance. "How would it look in Meryton, Frances, if it became known that you and Lizzy were on bad terms?"

Frances stopped in her tracks as she considered Lesley's words. She thought of the field day the Meryton gossips would have if talk of a quarrel got out. Maybe it was time to back off a little. "I'll think about it while I'm downstairs," she replied. "If Lizzy can be civil, I'll consider hearing her out. That's as much as I can promise for now."

Once her mother had closed the bedroom door, Elizabeth sat down on the bed beside her aunt. "This is useless, Lesley. My mother will never admit she's wrong. And anyway, there's no need for her to smooth this over just so that she can save face with her friends - they've all sussed out what she's really like. The only reason she doesn't know that is because no one's ever had the guts to say it to her face. I'm quite prepared to move on if that's what she wants."

"What about your dad, Lizzy ...and your sisters? Seeing them will be difficult if you cut all ties with your mum."

"That may have to happen, Lesley," Elizabeth admitted sadly. "I can't go on being treated like this."

"It would be better, then, if this could be sorted out now. I must say, Lizzy, I've had my eyes opened this weekend. I know Frances has never favoured you, but I didn't realise she was so bad ...and the way she spoke to the Bingleys in front of everyone at the reception - I've never seen her behave quite so carelessly before."

"She's always at her worst when she's stressed."

Lesley shook her head. "It hasn't always been like this, you know. You'll find it hard to believe but she was an exceptionally sweet child. Oh, she was never the brightest tool in the box, but she was good fun, and very loving."

Elizabeth was amazed at this description of her mother. "Really?"

"Yes. Your Grandpa Gardiner adored her. She was his little blonde angel. She was a bit of a disappointment to your Gran Peggy, though, because she wasn't clever like Edward. I wasn't either," Lesley admitted with a grin, "but since I was the eldest I was never compared with him. Your gran was ...how can I put it? ...let's just say she used praise sparingly when we were children."

"I'm surprised to hear that," Elizabeth replied, "because gran was the one person in my life who always tried to make me feel good about myself."

"But it's so much easier to be indulgent with grandchildren, Lizzy, don't you think? I know your gran was horrified by your mum's obvious partiality for Jane, and your dad's inability to check her. She became your champion. That, of course, made your mum bitter because she saw you having the relationship with her mother that she'd never had."

"But what made her change from that loving girl to the woman she is now, Lesley? It can't have been all because of my relationship with Gran Peggy?"

"No, Lizzy, I don't think so. But this is where I'm guessing, really. You see, I married and moved down to London when Frances was seventeen. I left behind this little sister I'd known and loved since the day she was born. The next time I saw her she was like a different person."

"What happened to her, Lesley?"

"Well, when she was eighteen, your mum's letters started to mention this young student she'd met in a pub in Glasgow - his name was Iain Robertson. I could tell from her correspondence that she was absolutely besotted with him and when I came up to visit, I could see what the attraction was. He was incredibly handsome, Lizzy; not unlike your William, actually. He'd the kind of looks that made women turn and stare when they passed him in the street."

Elizabeth gave a wry laugh. "Yes, I've had first hand experience of those stares when I've been out with Will. But mum was pretty too, Lesley, so he couldn't have been out of her league."

"Oh, no, your mum was undoubtedly a beauty - they were a well-matched couple in that respect. But Iain came from an extremely wealthy family - heavens, his father owned an estate that covered half of Aberdeenshire!"

"Hmm, he's sounding more and more like William."

"Yes, but William is a free agent, I believe," Lesley replied. "Iain's parents already had a young lady in mind for their son and they certainly let it be known that they didn't consent to his relationship with a girl who worked in a shop. As you can imagine, Lizzy," Lesley added, "your gran was just as vociferous in her disapproval."

"I can believe that," Elizabeth said, thinking back to Gran Peggy's distaste for the upper classes.

"She tried to get your mum to give him up, but Frances was adamant that Iain loved her and would defy his family. Of course, he didn't. After they'd been together for six months or so and he'd ...well, you know ...once he'd got what he wanted, he suddenly stopped calling."

"How awful, Lesley. I've never heard any of this."

"I doubt if your mum has ever told anyone the whole story, Lizzy," Lesley said. "She really went off the rails when Iain stopped seeing her. She used to stand outside his flat for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of him. She followed him; she phoned him; she pestered his friends. Then she read in the newspaper that he was engaged to this other girl - the one his parents had more or less chosen for him. She was devastated."

"So Gran Peggy was right?"

Lesley nodded. "As always, it seems. And your mum hated her for it. Then one day your gran came back early from work to find Frances unconscious on her bed, an empty Paracetamol bottle beside her. If your gran had stayed at work until her usual finishing time, your mum wouldn't have survived. She was lucky the doctors were able to save her, though she didn't think so at the time. When Frances got out of hospital she was sent down to stay with me and your Uncle John. By this time we'd moved out of London to Meryton and I'd already had Jamie and was pregnant with Ewan."

"So that's how she ended up meeting my dad. She would never tell us why she left Glasgow ...except to say that she hated the place."

"Well, now you know why," Lesley remarked sadly. "Your mum and dad met at our house when your dad delivered a coffee table he'd made for us. I think he fell in love with her looks and her ...I don't know ... her vulnerability, because she was still in a sorry state at that time." Lesley stared off into space as she thought back to those difficult days. "Within three weeks he'd asked her to marry him - and she accepted even though she couldn't possibly have loved him. I have to say I advised her against it, Lizzy. It was far too soon after her break-up with Iain. When I saw she was determined, though, I begged her to have a long engagement because I knew how out-of-control her emotions had been and still were, and I thought she'd change her mind once she became more rational. But she'd altered so much - her sweet temperament had disappeared. At first I thought the change was temporary ...after all, she'd been through such an ordeal. But no, it was as if she couldn't bear to see happiness when she was so troubled herself and you can see," Lesley said with a shrug, "she's been like that ever since. She married your dad as soon as arrangements could be made. Then, a couple of months later, she found out she was pregnant."

"You don't mean that Jane is ..."

"No, Lizzy. She is Rob's child. I know that for cert ..." Lesley stopped mid-sentence as her sister pushed open the door and entered the room.

"Frances, you're back. I've just been telling Lizzy how you came to be living in Meryton. We're just coming to a happy time - Jane's birth."

Frances clasped her hands to her chest and allowed an affectionate smile to appear on her face. "Oh, that was the happiest moment of my life. I never thought I'd love again, but I fell in love that day." Then, within an instant, all hint of that smile was gone as she looked down at Lesley and said coolly, "I suppose you've told Lizzy all about Iain Robertson?"

"Yes, Frances, I have ...I've told her everything that I know."

"I don't see why, Lesley. I'm sure she doesn't care about anything that happened to me before she was born."

"That's not true, mum. I'm sorry for what you went through. No one deserved that."

"I don't need your sympathy, Lizzy. I ...." Frances stopped suddenly. She'd been thinking a few things over as she'd had her cup of tea in the kitchen and, though she was loath to admit it, she could see she hadn't acted with her customary tact during this important weekend.

Good Heavens, Frances thought, when I look back on it ...I shouldn't have said anything to the Bingleys about Jane and William or Charles and Elizabeth - especially not in front of all the wedding guests. I wasn't thinking about how that would look. And I suppose I shouldn't have commiserated with William - but how was I to know Lizzy was standing right behind me. Normally, Elizabeth's reaction would have been of little consequence to Frances, but something in her daughter's manner alarmed her. Lesley had been right - she didn't want her friends and neighbours in Meryton to think ill of her. Yes, it might go against the grain, but a bit of backtracking appeared to be in order.

Lesley interrupted her sister's reflections. "Perhaps you'd like to continue, Frances."

"There's not much more to tell," she replied. "Jane's birth brought joy back into my life and for a while we were a happy little family. I was so content with being a mum that I even began to feel ..." Frances looked up to the ceiling as she searched for the appropriate word, "a fondness for your father. And I thought that in time I could grow to love him - not ever in the way that I'd loved Iain, but look where that got me. Then I became pregnant again. I was devastated."

"Frances!" Lesley groaned.

"I'm sorry, Lizzy, but I can't lie. I didn't want another baby - not for a few years anyway. I didn't see that I had any love to give another child. And so you came along after a difficult pregnancy and a long and painful labour. You were taken away to intensive care as soon as you were born and I hardly saw you for the next few days. Once I got home I struggled with two babies and you were so difficult. You cried most of the time; you hardly slept, and I was exhausted. Your dad had to help out - neglecting his business and having to take on an extra man. You and your dad bonded so well and I never liked it that he seemed to prefer you to Jane. Then, when he had to get back to work, my mum came down to help. She took over your care and from then on your dad and your gran meant all the world to you. To top it all, as Jane got older, you and she became best friends and I felt you'd taken everyone away from me."

"Mum, that was never the case."

That's it really. I've always found you difficult to deal with and, because of that, you obviously consider me to be a bad mother. I don't suppose there's much we can do to change our feelings now. However, I think you and I, for the sake of the family, should try to get on a little better. You're a grown woman now and I accept that I should be less ...that I shouldn't be giving you advice - you must make your own mistakes. Will that do, Lizzy?"

Elizabeth was well aware that Frances had once again avoided acknowledging her failings as a mother. And would she keep to her word about getting on better and not giving advice? Hell, no! But Elizabeth didn't really care any more - it was too late. "Let's just see how things go, mum."

"And you will still visit us in Meryton - and bring William down some time soon?"

God, this woman really does have a brass neck! "I'll think about it."

"Good, that's settled," Frances said, glad this uncomfortable discussion was over. "I must get back downstairs. Helen will be wondering what we're up to!"

Lesley looked at Elizabeth once Frances had left the bedroom. The tears were trickling down her face. "Lizzy," she asked, her voice filled with concern, "are you okay?"

"You know, Lesley," Elizabeth replied sadly, "when I was younger I'd have given anything to be loved by my mother as Jane was, but it's too late now. I don't really care how she feels about me because I have no respect for her. I do, however, want to keep in touch with my dad and my sisters - so if mum can be civil, I'll do my best to put up with her."

"Lizzy," Lesley said, giving her niece a hug, "you're a dear girl. If I'd had a little sister for my two boys, I'd have wanted her to be just like you."

"Thank you, Lesley, for saying that. And thanks for everything you've told me tonight. I can't excuse the way mum has treated me, but I think I understand her a little better. Now, you should get back to John, and I'd better get William home - I think he's had enough of the Bennet family for one day."

~ * ~

William breathed a deep sigh of relief when he was finally able to usher Elizabeth from the Gardiners' house to his waiting car. Although he'd grown very fond of Helen and Edward, and he found the Philipses a much more agreeable couple than he'd anticipated, he didn't think he could spend much longer in Frances Bennet's company without succumbing to his intense desire to throttle her.

To William's consternation Elizabeth burst into tears as soon as his driver shut the car door. Very gently he pulled her close to his side and put his arm around her shoulders.

"Elizabeth, how do you feel about spending the night at Thornlea? I don't think you're up to facing Charlotte and Bill after all that's happened today."

"Oh, could we, William? Charlotte I could manage, but Bill ..."

"I'll call Charlotte when we get home. I'm sure she'll understand. I'll take you back to your flat in the morning before they leave for Aberfeldy."

"Thank you so much, William," Elizabeth replied. "I'm sure I'll feel better tomorrow - it's all just so raw at the moment."

"Was your talk with your mother so awful, Elizabeth?"

"Well, my Aunt Lesley gave me a lot to think about. But the talk with my mum was ...was what I expected, I suppose." Elizabeth rummaged through her bag and pulled out a tissue which she used to wipe away her tears. "I am glad I confronted her. And she has agreed to stop giving me the benefit of what she calls her advice."

"That's something, surely."

"She's never loved me though, William, and doesn't even feel any guilt about that. Our poor relationship is still my fault as far as she's concerned."

"How do you feel about that?"

Elizabeth gave a strained laugh. "I feel pretty mixed up right now. Half of me wants nothing more to do with her and the other half just wants to know what it's like to have a mother's love. God," she cried, "that makes me sound so sappy."

"It's not sappy, Elizabeth, for a child to expect some degree of love from her mother. Frances is in the wrong here - not you!"

"I'm so sorry that you've been dragged into my mess, William. And poor Georgie ...she was whisked off by the Bingleys before I got the chance to have a proper conversation with her. What must she think of us all?"

"Don't worry about Georgie. I'll call her tomorrow. She'll understand when I tell her what your mum is like."

"But she'll think you're mad to have connected yourself with the Bennet family. And after today, I'd have to agree with her." Elizabeth began to weep again, mortified that William should have to make such a call to his sister.

"Please don't cry, Elizabeth," William urged as he cradled her in his arms. "I love you. You were so beautiful today, sweetheart, so beautiful. I thought my heart would burst out of my chest when I saw you get out of the car at the registry office."

"And I love you, William. I don't know what I'd do without you."

William placed a gentle kiss on her brow as he assured her, "I'll always be here for you, Elizabeth. You can trust me on that!

Chapter Seventeen

Over the next few days Elizabeth's mind kept leading her back to the events of Saturday. She felt her face flush with embarrassment every time she remembered the angry words spoken at the reception, and wished she could put the whole sorry affair behind her as quickly as William seemed to have done - not surprising, she supposed, since it hadn't been his mother who'd made a fool of herself in front of everyone. It was only when Jane called her from Italy, happily gushing over the location of William's house and the beauties of Lake Garda, that she began to let go of her painful recollections. After all, if the bride and groom weren't upset, why should she feel so troubled? And Jane had been quite adamant that she and Charles weren't going allow the unpleasantness that ended their special day to spoil their honeymoon - they'd face Charles' mum and dad when they got back and until then they intended to enjoy themselves.

It wasn't so easy, though, for Elizabeth to dismiss the conversation she'd had with her mother at the Gardiner's house. Just the thought of it brought back all those feelings of hurt and rejection she'd experienced as a child. She was cross with herself for allowing her mother to maintain such a hold over her emotions - and she was angry for the vulnerable little girl who'd tried so hard to please a woman who'd never had any intention of being pleased.

As the days turned into weeks, however, the raw ache dulled and Elizabeth began to reflect more objectively on this most difficult of relationships. Gradually she came to the conclusion that Frances Bennet was not a woman who merited her love or her respect. William put it more bluntly ...her mother was a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper, and she didn't deserve such a beautiful, intelligent, daughter. Harsh though it may sound, he'd said, it was time to cut the umbilical cord and move on. Elizabeth had gasped at his words, but she knew he was right. It was time to stop hoping for something that was never going to happen.

~ * ~

It was early on the first Monday morning in April and Elizabeth awoke unsettled, as if from a troublesome dream. Her mood lightened when she pulled open the curtains to find Glasgow waking to the golden glow of spring sunshine. Not bad for this time of year, she thought, especially since we had snow only last week. God, global warming is making the weather very strange! She gave a slight shiver as she rested her palm against the cold window pane - the sun might have been shining, but it wasn't anything like warm yet.

Elizabeth made her way through to the kitchen where William was just finishing off his breakfast. His hurried movements as he drank his tea and finished off his toast reminded her that he was leaving for London and would be away until Friday night. Now she realised why she'd awakened in such a strange humour - she was going to miss him.

"You're driving to the airport?" she asked as he picked up his car key and brief case from the kitchen worktop.

William turned to gaze at her standing in the frame of the doorway, her eyes fixed on his. God, she was so beautiful in the mornings in those skimpy little scraps of silk she wore to bed, her hair all loose and tousled and her face free of make-up. She had no idea how hard it was for him to leave her.

"No. I'm driving the Range Rover back to Thornlea. My driver will pick me up there."

Elizabeth came towards him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I wish you didn't have to go," she whispered, clinging to him.

William smiled ruefully. "Me too, sweetheart. But, much as I'd prefer to be here with you, I do have a business to run. It's only a few days. You'll be able to catch up with Jane and hear all about her honeymoon."

When Elizabeth didn't let go, William dropped his briefcase and hugged her tight, kissing her upturned face. "Elizabeth," he groaned between kisses, "I'll be late if I don't leave now. I'll see you on Friday evening."

Reluctantly, she withdrew her arms and turned away before he could see the stupid tears in her eyes. "Have a good trip, William."

~ * ~

Elizabeth had just turned on the shower and was about to step into the cubicle when she heard the front door slam shut. That's funny, William only left five minutes ago. She quickly grabbed a towel and opened the bathroom door to find him standing in the hallway. The look on his face was one she'd never seen before.

"William," she exclaimed, "you're back. That was qui..."

"Some bastard has stolen my car!"

"Oh, William - no! Have you called the police station?"

William snorted dismissively. "Well, I've been on to the Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, if that's what you mean. He's sending a couple of his detectives to Thornlea. My driver's coming to collect me shortly and I'm meeting them there in half an hour."

It was on the tip of Elizabeth's tongue to comment that it would be a wonderful service if everyone who'd had a car stolen in Glasgow could go right to the top man for assistance, but she kept her silence. She could see that he was seething with anger, and disapproval from her wouldn't help the situation. Nevertheless, she hated it when rich people used their wealth and connections to get preferential treatment.

"You'll miss your flight, then."

"I'll call my secretary when I get home. She'll reschedule for me. Unfortunately I have to get down to London for this board meeting tomorrow, or I'd cancel my trip."

"I don't suppose there's much you could do - it is a matter for the police. I wonder if your car was stolen by joyriders. We had a problem with them a while back. But it's been quiet for months. I ...I suppose," Elizabeth continued hesitantly, "your car did stand out from all the others parked in the street."

"The Chief Constable mentioned a gang that steals luxury cars and ships them off to the continent - so I don't think joyriders are involved." William shook his head angrily as he added almost to himself, "I should've had more sense than to leave my car parked night after night in your street."

Elizabeth recoiled as if he'd slapped her, and then retorted, "What do you mean by that? You're almost making it sound as though the theft of your car is my fault."

"For heaven's sake, Elizabeth, don't be so melodramatic. Of course I know it's not your fault that you live in a street like this," William returned heatedly. "I just wish now that I'd insisted we spend our evenings at my house."

"What do you mean by a street like this?"

Elizabeth waited, but William gave no reply. "I'll answer for you, shall I? You mean a street filled with reprobates who were just waiting for the chance to steal your precious Range Rover! Well, you might have said something sooner, William. I'd no idea you felt like this. Silly me ...I thought you were happy here."

"I am happy to be with you, yes. But I'd prefer it if you moved into Thornlea. You have to admit, it is more ..." he looked around the room " ...commodious than this. And I wouldn't have to worry about my car being parked outside. It would be safe in my garage."

"Wait a moment, William. You want me to move in with you because your car got stolen from my street!"

"You know that's not quite what I said, Elizabeth. But it does make sense, doesn't it? It would have happened eventually."

"Oh, is that so? Funny, I don't remember being consulted."

"Well, it's what you want too, is it not?"

Elizabeth was silent for so long William began to wonder if he was going to receive a reply. Finally, she spoke. "You know, William, I can't quite remember how George Wickham asked me to move in with him when I told him I was coming to university in Glasgow. But I do know that his proposition didn't have anything to do with stopping his car from getting knocked off. I think even he was a little more refined than that."

"For God's sake, Elizabeth, are you going to throw George Wickham in my face every time I say or do something you don't like? Okay, I didn't mean it to come out the way it did - I'm sorry for that. But you must have expected me to ask you to move in with me at some point. There's no way we can live together here indefinitely."

"Oh, no, I imagine this little flat is okay if you're slumming it for a while, but it wouldn't exactly do as an addition to the Darcy portfolio of properties." Elizabeth gave a wry laugh as she looked William up and down. "You know, William, my gran always told me not to get involved with a rich man. 'Stay among your own, Lizzy,' she'd say, 'don't give any man the opportunity to look down on you.' I think you've just proved her point."

William took a deep breath before he spoke. Now he knew where all of Elizabeth's snarky little remarks about wealth had come from. "I've just asked you to move in with me, Elizabeth. Would I have done that if I did look down on you as you put it? You know I didn't mean anything like that."

"Oh, I do, do I? I'm glad you're now in a position to tell me what I know, William. Of course, I forget," she added mockingly, "you're accustomed to have your own way in everything. I should have known better than to think you'd be any different with me."

"That's not fair, Elizabeth. I have ..."

"Look," Elizabeth interjected, glancing at her watch, "I have to get ready for work and you have to get home. We can discuss this when you get back from London."

"But that won't be until the end of the week. I'd rather get this sorted now."

"Neither of us is calm enough for rational discussion at the moment. I need time to think, William, perhaps you do too."

"Elizabeth ..."

"No, William. I'm too upset ...I'm going for my shower."

Elizabeth watched as William, without a backward glance or a goodbye, angrily turned on his heel and left the room. With another slam of the door he was gone. Elizabeth shook her head in consternation. Quarter of an hour ago I was in his arms telling him how much I'd miss him. How did we get to this state of affairs so quickly?

As William was driven home he mentally kicked himself. He'd been thinking of inviting Elizabeth to move in with him for weeks - he'd just been waiting for the right moment to ask her. And now he'd blown it because he'd let his anger over the theft of his car get the better of him. What had he said about her street? ...and her home? And she ...did she really think he looked down on her? God, the whole thing was a mess! He was going to have to call her in the evening. No, he thought after a few moments, not over the telephone. That could make things ten times worse. I'll wait until I get back from London on Friday. We've a lot to sort out!

~ * ~

Lynda Anderson wended her way across the busy staffroom and collapsed into the seat beside Elizabeth, nodding her head gratefully as she spotted the welcome mug of coffee waiting for her. "Thanks, Lizzy, I really need this. Those bloody fifth years!"

"You don't need to tell me," Elizabeth said with a sympathetic look. "Try having them last two periods on a Friday when they think the weekend has already begun."

"Oh, don't worry, the third year class I have is just as bad. Anyway ...never mind school ...tell me how you're feeling now. I have to say you don't look any cheerier. You're surely not still upset about your mum?"

Elizabeth let out a forlorn sigh. "No, I'm getting over that. William and I had a disagreement this morning just before he left for London."

"You two love birds argued - never! Well, come on, you can't stop there. Details, Lizzy, details."

"He asked me to move in with him."

"And your problem with that is ...?"

"Well, he only asked me because his precious Range Rover got stolen when it was parked outside my flat last night."

"It was stolen? That beautiful car! He must be gutted."

"Oh, he certainly is. Gutted and furious - and I got the full force of it."

Lynda gave her friend a puzzled frown. "You did? But what had it to do with you? And, more to the point, what had that to do with asking you to live with him?"

"Hell, how would I know? I suppose if I'm living with him at Thornlea, he'll never have to risk parking in my street again."

"Don't you think you'd have done that eventually, Lizzy? - move in with him, I mean. It'd be a bit daft for you both to live together at your flat when he has this huge house ten minutes away from you."

"He took me by surprise, Lynda One minute he was livid about his car, the next he was saying I should move in with him. I'd no idea he had it in mind. I'm not even sure that he did have it in mind, to be quite honest! Anyway, he was hardly going to win me round by telling me that I live in a poky flat in a run-down street."

"Did he really say that? - a run-down street? Cheeky bugger!"

"Well ...maybe not in so many words ...but that's what he meant."

"So," Lynda asked, "what are you going to do?"

"I won't know until I've spoken to him," Elizabeth replied sadly. "We both said some rather hurtful things."

"How would you have reacted if the whole car affair hadn't happened and he'd just asked you to move in with him?"

"I don't know, Lynda. There's a lot for me to think about before I could consider such a huge step."

"Such as?"

"Well, there's his wealth, for one. You know, I could manage living at Thornlea. It's lovely. It is huge, but within the realm of my reality. But his other places, Lynda - Strathlyon, the villa in Italy, houses in New York and London and, to top it all, a stately home in Derbyshire. Middle class I can cope with, but that's mind-boggling."

"Oh, oh," Lynda said with raised eyebrows, "I think I can hear the 'Gran Peggy' socialist manifesto coming on again. Time for the bell, I think."

"Very funny, Lynda. But when you think about it, what need shall we have of my paltry little salary with all his millions? I'll be like a little family firm swallowed up by a huge conglomerate. Then there's his family - what would their reaction be? I've only met his sister so far, and as you know, that didn't go down too well. Rich people ...they've always made me feel so ...uncomfortable."

"But you're not uncomfortable with William."

"No," Elizabeth replied, sighing deeply, "He's not what I imagined a millionaire to be like at all."

"There you are, then. The rich are not exalted beings from some other planet, Lizzy. They're just ordinary people with money - no better than you or I. Maybe you should just give it a go."

But ...how can I move in with him, Lynda, when I don't know what his long term intentions are?"

"By long term intentions I take it you mean marriage?"

"I can't get it out of my head that men like William Darcy don't marry women like me. They have their bit of fun then they settle down with someone who ...oh, I don't know ...fits into their world."

"Forgive me for being honest, Lizzy, but that doesn't sound like the man you've been enthusing over for the last few months. Besides, look at Jane and Charles, it worked for them."

"Yes, but the difference between Charles and Jane is not as great as the difference between William and me. Charles' father may be a millionaire now, but he started as an office clerk and worked his way up. William comes from generations of landed gentry. And anyway," Elizabeth added, "Charles has married Jane. He's made a long term commitment. What if, say after six months or so, William meets someone else. I'd have to move out. I'd be left with nothing. I've been through that once before, Lynda; I don't want to go through it again."

"What would your answer have been if William had popped the question?"

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows - the thought had never crossed her might that William might ask her to marry him. But he hadn't, had he. "I don't know, Lynda."

"You're talking as though William doesn't really love you. You can't believe that, surely."

"I know he says he loves me. But he certainly hasn't said anything about spending the rest of his life with me."

"He's maybe taking it for granted, Lizzy. Have you ever spoken to William about your concerns?"

"No. He's never even mentioned anything about living together before today."

"Do you love him?"

"Absolutely, Lynda! But that doesn't necessarily mean that I should go and live with him and risk everything."

"Sorry to sound clichéd, Lizzy, but the only certainties in life are birth and death. You can't live without risk."

"I know, Elizabeth replied, her tone defensive. "It just seems as though I'm the one who'll be risking everything here."

"You need to have this discussion with William. Find out what his intentions are."

"How do you ask that question to someone like William Darcy without sounding as though you're after his money?"

Lynda looked at Elizabeth thoughtfully. "If he doesn't know you're not a gold-digger now, Lizzy, he never will."

~ * ~

For the first couple of days following William's departure Elizabeth didn't welcome the prospect of a telephone call; she was still feeling too self-righteously angry to speak to him. By Wednesday, however, she'd admitted to herself that her contribution to their conversation hadn't exactly helped matters. Her anger seemed to dissipate as her anxiety over William's silence grew.

At lunchtime on Thursday she called Jane at work and asked if she could prise herself away from that new husband of hers and come to dinner. She couldn't bear the thought of another evening on her own wondering what William was thinking and why he hadn't been in touch. Maybe this disagreement was the last straw. She'd put him through so much during their short relationship ...perhaps he'd had enough.

Jane knew there was something wrong with her sister as soon as she saw her, but it was only after they'd finished their meal that she broached her concerns. "What is it, Lizzy? I've told you all about William's house, about Garda and all the other places we visited, but I get the feeling that you're not really listening. Has something happened while we've been away?

Elizabeth answered flatly, "William asked me to move in with him."

"But, Lizzy, that's wonderful ...isn't it?"

"I'm not sure," Elizabeth replied. "I think he only asked because his car was stolen from out there in the street."

"I don't understand ..."

"William's Range Rover was stolen some time on Sunday night or Monday morning. The police suspect it was taken by some gang that goes around stealing prestige cars and selling them on the continent. According to William it wouldn't have happened if I'd been living at Thornlea because his car would have been safely tucked up in his garage and he wouldn't have been in such an undesirable neighbourhood. So you see, he wouldn't even have mentioned the idea of us living together if he hadn't been angry about his stupid car."

"But, Lizzy, that's not why William wants you to live with him. Okay, his timing and his style of asking may have left a lot to be desired. But he wants you to move into Thornlea because he loves you - you know that."

"But he disparaged my home ...the place where I live. He must have been staying here for weeks thinking all the time what a dive it is."

Jane looked at her sister thoughtfully. "What did you say to him, Lizzy?"

"What do you think? ...I defended myself."

Jane waited.

"Well, I accused him of ...looking down on me."

"Oh, Lizzy! What did I say to you about that chip on your shoulder?" Jane cried. "I know better than anyone how close you were to Gran Peggy and I know you've been influenced by her socialist ideals. But they're not the issue here, because I know - and you do too, if you'll admit it to yourself - that William actually does share many of those ideals. He'd never look down on anyone because they had less money than he has, or lived in a less affluent street. I think the problem is that you've taken on board some of Gran Peggy's prejudices as well as her principles - ones that grew out of her life experiences. And they're not applicable to you."

"And what prejudices would those be, Jane?" Elizabeth demanded, her voice dangerously cool.

"Don't bother looking at me like that. You know gran hated all landowners, all bosses ... all rich people, for heaven's sake!"

Jane held up her hand as Elizabeth started to protest. "I'm not saying she didn't meet with more than her fair share of injustice, Lizzy, but I don't want to go into all that. We're talking about one man here, William. You knew he was more than ordinarily rich right from the start. You shouldn't have allowed him to fall in love with you if you couldn't see yourself having a future with him."

"I have wanted to speak to him about ...you know, his wealthy and everything, but he's never talked about any plans beyond going on holiday together in the summer. I'd have looked pretty stupid if I'd brought up the subject of our future then found out that this relationship was just a ...a fling for him."

"So that's what this is all about. You think you're just a casual affair - that William considers himself to be too good for you!"

"Well ...I ..."

"Elizabeth Bennet," Jane cried, her voice filled with exasperation, "look at what he went through to get you - you're anything but a fling, I'd bet my life on it!" Jane's eyes narrowed as she observed the myriad of expressions flitting across her sister's face. "Didn't you tell me that he asked you never to leave him? That sounds pretty long term to me."

"Hmmph, all men say things like that."

"You're feeling insecure because you don't think you're good enough to be with him, Lizzy. Is that not the truth of it?

Elizabeth knew the moment the words left her sister's mouth that she was right. She was insecure, and it didn't have anything to do with William's money or his status. It was all down to her lack of self-worth, her low opinion of herself.

"Oh, Jane, what have I done? I knew he spoke without thinking because he was angry about his car. And I used it to have yet another dig at him, just as I've been doing ever since I met him. It'll serve me right if I never hear from him again."

"People don't fall out of love after one disagreement. Stop thinking the worst. Wait and see what he says when he gets back tomorrow."

"And what if he doesn't ...come back here, I mean? He hasn't even called me once."

Jane shook her head. "William wouldn't do that. Have some faith in him, Lizzy. And for goodness' sake, go and get some books about self esteem - or, better still, get some counselling. You've been living with these negative feelings about yourself for far too long."

~ * ~

When William arrived back in Glasgow it was well after midnight. He had intended to get home much earlier so that he could go straight to Elizabeth's flat, but his sister had contacted him in London and asked him to stop at Pemberley on his way home. He'd known from the call his sister had made to him the day after Charles and Jane's wedding reception that she'd been disturbed by the events she'd witnessed there, but he had no idea that it would take so long to assure her that Elizabeth was nothing like her mother and that he wasn't making a big mistake getting involved with her.

So, as William was driven across the river towards the west end, he'd already decided to go back to his own house. How he wished now that he'd called Elizabeth from London. At first he'd been too angry with the whole car situation and their consequent argument to talk to her. Then he thought it best to wait until they could speak in person. Now that he was so late getting back, he would have to phone her to apologise for not arriving at her flat as he'd promised. What would she read into it, he wondered?

"Hi, Elizabeth. I'm sorry to call you so late. I just got back from the airport."

A sleepy voice answered. "William? Where are you? I waited up as long as I could."

"I'm at Thornlea."

"Oh, I was expecting you here. I thought we needed to talk."

"I'm bushed, Elizabeth. Could we leave this until the morning?"

"If that's what you want," she replied sadly.

"If you don't mind ..."

Elizabeth did mind. She wanted to see his face, to touch him, to know that everything was going to be all right. But she couldn't bring herself to ask him to change his mind.

"Until tomorrow then, William."

"Goodnight, Elizabeth."

~ * ~

Ever since she'd moved away from home Elizabeth had enjoyed having a lie-in on a Saturday morning; it was one of the delights of her week - one that she'd persuaded an early rising William to share with her. This Saturday morning, however, found her up, showered, dressed, and listening intently for the sound of her front door opening. It felt as though the minutes ticked by in slow motion as she paced back and forth, back and forth, between the living room window and her front hall.

When she heard footsteps in the landing her heart jumped into her throat, only to sink to her toes moments later when the doorbell rang. He hadn't used his key. What the hell did that mean? And he made no attempt to enter the flat when Elizabeth opened the door. He just stood there looking at her, waiting to be invited in as though he hadn't actually been living with her for the last few months.

There wasn't a glimmer of a smile on his face. "How are we, Elizabeth? he asked"

"I don't know, William," she replied cagily. She'd been so desperate to feel his body next to hers that she'd been ready to throw herself into his arms given the littlest bit of encouragement - but not now. He needn't think she was going to reveal anything until he gave an indication of how he felt. "Perhaps you could tell me."

"Me?" He shook his head. "I haven't a clue at the moment."

Instead of asking him in Elizabeth picked up her jacket from the hall table. "It's a beautiful morning. Would you mind very much if we went for a drive? There's a place ...where my grandfather used to work ...I'd like to show it to you."

William followed her downstairs, thrusting his hands into his pockets as he went. The urge to reach out and pull her into his arms was hard to resist.

"Did you have a good trip?" she asked.

"No, not really. I was too preoccupied thinking about us."

Elizabeth turned to him and considered his expression for a few moments then, shutting her eyes, she whispered, "And that made you sad."

William, now unable to resist his desire to caress her, gently cupped her chin and brushed his thumb across her lips. "Not sad, Elizabeth," he replied, "angry with myself, perhaps, worried about what you're going to tell me, but never sad."

They stood as if in a dwam*, staring into each other's eyes. Then ...almost of their own volition ...their bodies came together, urgently, filled with need. It was as though a bolt of lightening had struck, melding them together as their lips met time and time again.

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth, I didn't mean the things I said. My only excuse is that I was pissed off at the time. Can you forgive me?"

"I wasn't much better," she admitted, "although it took me a few days and some words of wisdom to see it. I missed you so much ...and when you didn't phone, I thought ..."

"Never, sweetheart," he said, stopping her words with a kiss. "I wanted to wait until I could talk to you face-to-face, that was all. I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression."

"Oh, I'll forgive you if you promise me nightly phone calls the next time you're away - whether or not we've fallen out." When William made no response, she added, "Is that too much to ask?"

"No, no, of course not. You've just reminded me that I'm going to have to travel back over to Canada very soon."

"Why, William? I thought your cousin was in charge over there."

"She is, but she fell and broke her leg when she was skiing in Vermont. I want to make sure she's coping."

"When are you leaving?

"Next weekend - probably Saturday."

"You'll be away for ages, I suppose."

"That depends on how Anne is doing. I can assure you I won't be there any longer than I have to."

"Well, we'd better make the most of today then. Let's get going."

As they stepped out of the close Elizabeth took him by the arm and started to walk towards her car. "Did you walk down from Thornlea?"

"No, I drove."

Oh, I didn't think ...never mind. Where's your car then?"

Elizabeth looked along the row of parked car until she spied a sleek, black Jaguar. She turned to him and laughed. "You just don't have any cars that would fit in with all the others in this street, do you?"

William just shrugged his shoulders, thinking it best this time to keep his silence.

~ * ~

Elizabeth took William to a wasteland on the north bank of the River Clyde, in the town of Clydebank. Overhead, the bright morning sun contrasted sharply with the jagged cranes and abandoned buildings of the once-famous shipbuilding industry.

"My Gran Peggy moved to Glasgow after her marriage. She loved Aberfeldy, but she was glad to get away to a place where no one knew her background. You see, she was illegitimate. My great grandmother, Elsie, had been a servant in a big house in the north, up around Inverness. You know the kind of place, I'm sure - a playground for the rich and powerful. People with nothing better to do with their time than kill innocent animals for their own amusement and lord it over the locals. Elsie was ...how can I put this? ...made aware that saying no to the male guests wasn't an option if she wanted to keep her job. From what I can gather she was a simple, uneducated country girl with no family to go back to, so she complied. I don't know the details - even Gran Peggy never really knew, but Elsie ended up with a daughter, born out of wedlock. My gran always suspected, from hints picked up from grown ups around her that her 'father' had been a rich man, a visitor to the estate. And she hated him for it. She hated him and she resented her mother. The stigma of being an illegitimate child was much greater then than it is now and it haunted her all her life."

"My great grandmother did eventually find a man who wanted to marry her, but he wouldn't take her child. So he and Elsie went off to Edinburgh to live in his home. My gran was more or less given away to an uncle who farmed just outside Aberfeldy. She was very happy with him and his family, and grew to love her life there, but her illegitimacy was well known in the area and always a source of great embarrassment to her."

"It's hard to believe looking at it now," Elizabeth said as she gazed around the bleak landscape, "but my grandfather worked here. Gran Peggy told me that she sometimes used to sit on a wall across the road from the yard's massive gates waiting for him to finish work. A siren that could be heard from one end of the town to the other used to wail and then the gates would open and men would stream out back into the world, wave after wave of them, thousands of men - dirty, tired, glad to be going home. These were the workers who built some of the greatest ships the world has seen. Then, when it was found that the work could be done cheaper in the Far East, the contracts dwindled and the men were made redundant, tossed on the scrapheap, surplus to requirements."

"Just look at your car, Will, does it look as though it belongs here? That's how I feel in your world." Elizabeth caught him with her gaze, willing him to understand. You're not just rich, William. Hell, I always imagined myself with another teacher, maybe even a solicitor or a doctor - I have nothing against living comfortably. But you're a ...what? ...a multi millionaire William. Let's face it, that's outside most people's frame of reference - and it's certainly well outside mine."

Slowly they picked their way over the rubble and debris of a bygone age and stood with their arms around each other at the water's edge. The contrast between this desolate place and the shore of loch Tay was not lost on either of them.

"These are the people my gran told me all about, William - people who fought for social justice - a decent safety net called the welfare state; a health service that's free at the point of need; a decent education for all children ...not just the ones whose parents could pay for the privilege; trades unions and fairer treatment for workers."

"What are you saying, Elizabeth? Do you honestly believe that I'm like the people who took advantage of your great grandmother all those years ago; that I don't share your values because I'm a rich man? I started The Darcy Foundation because I wanted to address many of those issues you've just mentioned."

"I know that, William, and I've been reading up on The Darcy Foundation on the Internet. I was very impressed; you've done a wonderful job in a few short years ...more than I or my grandparents have ever done. So I'm truly sorry for all the comments I've made about your wealth - you didn't deserve them."

"Does this mean you'll move in with me?"

"I'd like to say yes, William, but I'm still not sure about moving into your world."

"My world! What do you mean by that, Elizabeth? You've been part of my world ever since I met you."

"Come on, William, we've been together in my flat. We've been living in my world. I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with my life changing to the extent that I know it will if I move in with you."

"But Elizabeth, you've known me for several months now. I don't live a celebrity lifestyle. I'm a businessman - I work during the day and at night I enjoy doing the things that you enjoy - or at least I thought I did. You haven't been uncomfortable in the last few weeks have you?"

"No," Elizabeth replied, "but as I said you've been living in my flat. Living with you would be a giant step - one I made before and have regretted ever since. What if I sold my flat and our relationship didn't work out? I'd be the one who'd have to leave and start all over again - with no Jane to help me this time. I went through a painful break-up before and I don't want to do it again - especially not with you ...you've become too important to me and I want to be absolutely sure."

"Elizabeth, this is ridiculous. No relationship can be guaranteed. All I can say is that I love you and I want you to be with me."

"Yes, but for how long? What happens when you want to settle down and produce an heir to all of your businesses and properties? I've had this notion ever since we got together that, when the time comes, you'll marry a woman from your own ..."

"From my own what?"

"From your own ...class."

"For God's sake, Elizabeth! Why would I want to marry another woman when I love you? And anyway, what century do you think we're living in? There's no such thing as class nowadays."

"I know you're not naïve, William - don't act it. Class, or social order if you prefer, is an issue everywhere in the world - whether explicitly or implicitly. Why else are people interested in what your job is, what kind of car you drive, how much you earn, what kind of house you live in?"

"These things are not important to me."

Elizabeth barely allowed him to finish his sentence, so swift was her reply. "I would have agreed with you a week ago - now I'm not so sure."

"Elizabeth, you know I was angry about my car. I didn't mean the things I said."

"This is all too much for me, William. I don't know what to think any more."

"Elizabeth!" She could hear the frustration in his voice. "Why haven't you discussed this with me before? Don't you trust me yet? I know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I had hoped that you felt the same, but ..." He paused, wondering if he should really tell her what was on his mind. Oh well, in for a penny ..."You know ...I sometimes think you are as much of a snob as the people you despise."

Elizabeth looked at him in shock. He wants to spend the rest of his life with me. But ...but he called me a snob - he's not getting away with that!

"I beg your pardon, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth cried, pulling away from him. "You mean you think I suffer from some kind of ...inverse snobbery?"

"Well, it seems to me that you are prepared to enjoy antipathy towards people you don't know - just because of their class. Does that sound familiar?"

"Well, I suppose ..." Elizabeth considered reluctantly, as William drew her back to his side. "I hadn't thought of it that way. I suppose that I ...as a liberal person should be able to accept others without prejudice, whatever their social standing. Oh, I don't know, William - these people always make me feel so ...insignificant."

"That, my very dear Elizabeth, is surely a problem within you." William gently kissed her hair in an attempt to soften his statement. "You know, wealth has nothing to do with it, you are a wonderful and valuable person. I just wish you could see that for yourself - you are the equal of anyone."

"I know that in my head, William. My heart just doesn't seem to understand." Elizabeth managed a weak smile. "By the way, did you really mean what you said about spending the rest of your life with me?"

"Of course I did. I'd have thought that was obvious when I asked you to move in with me."

"Not to me. Asking someone to live with you is not the same as saying you want to spend the rest of your life with them."

"Elizabeth, would you have been happier if I'd asked you to marry me?"

"That's irrelevant - you didn't. And you only asked me to move in with you because you don't like where I live."

William raised his eyebrows as he let out a sigh of exasperation. "That's not true. I'd been considering asking you for weeks - I was just waiting for the right moment. And sweetheart, I would have asked you to marry me if I'd thought you'd accept."

"What do you mean?"

"I heard you making fun of Charlotte and Bill because they'd hardly taken the time to get to know each other. Then you teased Charles and Jane for being in such a rush down the aisle. I looked on you moving into Thornlea as a step towards marriage some time in the future ...if you wanted it."

"You did?"

"I did. Now, are you prepared to take that first step? Will you come and live at Thornlea with me?"

"What - only Thornlea?" Elizabeth asked, grinning up at him impertinently. "Not Strathlyon or Pemberley?

"Wherever you want, sweetheart, just say yes."

"Yes."

"You mean it?" William smiled back at her. "Despite all my money?"

"This week has taught me a few valuable lessons, William, and the most important of those is that I love you too much to give you up. If that means I have to put up with a rich man then so be it."

"You are incorrigible, Elizabeth Bennet."

"I know, but you love me just the same."

"I don't know what I've done to deserve it, but God help me, I do."

~ * ~

William would have had Elizabeth packed up and settled into Thornlea before he left for Canada, but she wouldn't hear of it.

"I know I'll have to get used to the idea of household staff, William; I just want you around to ease me in. And anyway, there's so much to do here - packing; disposal of unwanted furniture - in other words, just about all of it; meeting estate agents."

"So you've decided to sell, then?" he asked thoughtfully.

"I haven't discussed it with Jane yet, though I don't think she'll be bothered one way or the other. I thought I'd just get a valuation at the moment with a view to selling in the next few months. You don't mind, do you?"

"It's what you want that matters, sweetheart. Don't sell if it'll make you unhappy."

"No, I'm okay with selling. But I'd rather wait until you get back from Canada and I've moved in with you."

"Good idea. Then you can let the estate agent take care of viewing."

"Anyway I got an email from Charlotte this evening. She's coming down to a conference at the Glasgow Hilton next week. She's taking a couple of days leave once it's over so I've invited her to stay here. It'll be nice to have her to myself without Bill butting in all the time."

~ * ~

Elizabeth, Jane and Charlotte were having a girls' night in amidst stacks of cardboard boxes filled with hundreds of books, CDs and DVDs - in other words, as Elizabeth told Charlotte, all her important stuff.

Once dinner was over Elizabeth pulled an envelope out of her bag and waved it in the air. "You'll never guess who this is from, girls."

"Well, Lizzy, if we'll never guess, you'd better tell us," Charlotte said with a laugh.

"It's from someone I never thought I'd hear from again."

Jane opened her eyes wide. "Not ...no ...you don't mean George Wickham, Lizzy?"

"That's the one, Jane."

"And what does that creep have to say for himself?" Charlotte asked.

"He says:

Dear Lizzy,

I have a feeling you'll want to tear up this letter when you see it's from me. Please don't.

I've been stationed in Cyprus for the last few months. One night when I was out for a meal with my fiancée, Gail, I met an old friend who'd played rugby with me at university. He and I had a few beers and we were reminiscing about old times when we got around to talking about the night we got drunk at the rugby club dinner. Lizzy, I hope you'll believe me when I tell you I have very little memory of that night and I certainly don't remember you being there. The details my friend gave me were sketchy, but enough for me to know that something unpleasant happened that caused you to leave me. (Here was I thinking all this time that you left because I got drunk once too often.) I was angry with you, Lizzy, when you wouldn't answer your phone or reply to my letters. Now it appears that you had good reason.

I know this is a lot to ask, but I'm hoping that you'll meet with me. I need to know what happened that night.

I'm going to be in Glasgow shortly. Please drop me a line if you can bring yourself to see me.

Yours hopefully,

George

"Oh my God, can it be true?" Jane exclaimed. "Do you really think he was so drunk that he doesn't remember what happened?

"I don't know. It's possible, I suppose," Elizabeth replied.

"What are you going to do, Lizzy?"

"Hell knows ...I'll have to think about it."

*Dwam - day-dream (Scots)

Chapter Eighteen

Charlotte finished pouring her second cup of coffee and set the cafetière down on the dining table with a determined thud. The look on her face told Elizabeth that she was going to offer her opinion - like it or not! "What's to think about, Lizzy?" she cried. "You'll have to meet George Wickham! It's time he knew why you walked out and never got in touch with him."

"But I'm over him and ...everything that happened then," Elizabeth explained. "My life is looking good right now. Why should I rake up the past?"

Her friend shook her head in exasperation. "Because he needs to know what a bastard he was. Don't you agree, Jane?"

"It's got to be Lizzy's decision, Char," Jane replied. Turning to her sister she asked, "How do you feel about seeing him again, Lizzy? Would it upset you too much?"

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. "The idea of it doesn't disturb me as much as it would have done a few months ago - before I met William."

"Then I suppose if I were you I'd want him to know exactly what happened that night so that he can at least offer an apology. But you should only meet him if you think it will do you good. You certainly don't owe him anything."

"Huh! George apologise? I doubt it," Elizabeth exclaimed. "He could never do any wrong. The hot water he frequently got himself into with his big mouth was always someone else's fault."

"You haven't seen him for several years, Lizzy. You don't know what he's like now. The very fact that he wants to meet you, having heard from his friend that something unpleasant happened, must surely be a good sign. He could have left well alone."

"Perhaps you're right, Jane," Elizabeth admitted reluctantly. "Maybe I should put an end to the George Wickham chapter so that I can truly move on." She sat in silence for several minutes then added softly, almost to herself, "In all this time it never occurred to me that he was too drunk to know what went on."

"Huh, no one should ever get so drunk that they don't know what they're doing," Charlotte stated. "And that's not all he's got to apologise for. He never treated you well as far as I remember. He always acted as though he was doing you a favour going out with you. Pompous arsehole!"

Elizabeth stood up. Now seemed like a good time to start gathering up the dinner plates. She didn't want to go in the direction this conversation looked to be heading. "I'm sure there's no need to drag all that up."

"If it were me I'd want to let George know what I felt about that night," Charlotte called after her as she made for the kitchen. "I suppose William knows everything?"

"I didn't really want to ...confide in him," Elizabeth tossed back. "But it became ...necessary ..." Her voice petered out. Fuck, I'm not going over all this again!

"William will thrash the living daylights out of George when he meets him," Charlotte shouted gleefully, "and I for one hope I'm there to see it."

Elizabeth's eyes widened at the thought of a meeting between the two men and she rushed back into the living room. "Oh no, I couldn't take William with me," she cried. "I'm not even sure I need to tell him about this letter. After all, he's in Canada. If I do meet with George, the whole thing could be done and dusted before William gets back and he won't have to know a thing about it."

"That, my dear Elizabeth, has to be one of your worst ideas," Charlotte told her.

"I agree with Charlotte, Lizzy. Please, please don't reply to George's letter until you've had a chance to discuss it with William. And take him with you if you do arrange a meeting," Jane urged, only to close her eyes in frustration moments later as she watched her sister shake her head vehemently.

"You kept your feelings for him a secret when you were with Charles, leading him to the conclusion that you didn't care for him. It appears that you didn't tell him about George until you had to. Then you kept quiet over your concerns about his wealth until the pair of you had a fight over it. Don't shut him out of this," Jane warned. "He won't like to hear later on that you faced George alone and kept the whole thing a secret from him."

"God, Jane, you make me sound so deceitful," Elizabeth protested. "I've never kept William in the dark without good reason. I couldn't tell him how I felt as long as I thought you liked him - I couldn't do that to you. As far as George is concerned - well, I've never shared what happened with anyone. Not even you or Charlotte know everything about our relationship."

"There was more than just that night?" Jane sat back in her seat and shared a knowing glance with Charlotte. "I suspected as much. But you were always so secretive about George."

"Yes," Elizabeth said with a sigh, 'there was a fair bit I kept to myself."

"Lizzy! Why?"

"I was ...ashamed that I ...wasn't able to handle ..." Elizabeth halted briefly and rubbed her hand over her eyes. "Look, I don't want to discuss this. I already told you, it has nothing to do with my life now."

"I'm sorry, Lizzy. I didn't mean to bring up painful memories. But if there were other problems with George, surely that's even more reason to have William with you if you decide to see him. After all, you've nothing to hide now."

"No, I think I can safely say that William has been exposed to all of my failings and prejudices now. I'm just worried that he'll thump George if he meets him. That's why I want to do this alone."

"A good thump is what George Wickham deserves, if you ask me," Charlotte declared. "I agree with Jane. You know the truth has a way of coming along and biting you on the bum. You're just about to go and share William's home - don't keep him out of this, Lizzy. Even if you don't take him along for back up ...you have to discuss it with him. William is a reasonable man. He'll not force you to take him with you if you really don't want to."

"He's not so reasonable where George Wickham is concerned, I assure you."

"Nevertheless, Lizzy, perhaps you should sound him out about George's letter and see what his reaction is. Then you can decide if you want him with you."

Elizabeth gave a wry laugh at her sister's suggestion. "As if I'll have any choice once I've told him. You don't honestly think he'll let me meet with George alone after everything he's heard about him."

"Well, I'm obviously not party to all that William knows, but I still think you should give him the chance," Jane answered.

"Okay, okay," Elizabeth raised her hands in resignation. "I'll think about it. Now can we talk about something else? This has been buzzing around my head all day. Charlotte, how was your conference?"

"God, Lizzy, do you want to go to sleep right now? Because there's nothing that'll send you off to the land of nod quicker than me talking about banking."

"Oh, oh, hang on. I've got some news that you might both be interested in," Jane said excitedly. "Charles has got us tickets for Mamma Mia at the Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh tomorrow night. And he's also booked us in at The Glasshouse so we won't have to drive back until the morning."

"Abba - yeuch! No way," Elizabeth groaned. "Tell Charles it was a lovely gesture, Jane, but I don't think I could sit through a whole musical of Abba songs. Now if it had been Guys and Dolls down in London with Ewan McGregor playing Sky Masterson, I might have considered it."

"I know you're not an Abba fan," Jane replied, her voice betraying her disappointment at Elizabeth's blunt rejection. "I just thought you might enjoy a trip to Edinburgh since William is away."

Elizabeth bent down to hug her sister. When will I ever learn to be more diplomatic? "Don't be mad with me, Janie," she pleaded. "You go and have a great time. And take Charles with you. I'm sure he'll enjoy it much more than Hamlet. Anyway, I'd rather be here when William phones on Friday night."

"What about you, Char?" Jane asked. "You like Abba. I know you're staying with Lizzy for the weekend but I'm sure she could spare you for one night."

"Well, I'd love to see Mamma Mia," Charlotte admitted. "But I'm only here for the weekend - and as you say I'm supposed to be visiting Lizzy."

"Go, Charlotte. I don't mind. We'll go out on Saturday night."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course I am," Elizabeth said, then added with a wink, "you old dancing queen."

"Thanks, Lizzy ...I think. And I remember you dancing to Abba at the school discos, so less of the 'old dancing queen', if you don't mind."

"Yeah, well, Abba might be okay to dance to - but to sit through a whole musical ...no thanks!"

"Right, girls," Charlotte said, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece as she got up from her seat, "if that's settled I'd better get back to the hotel - I've got an early meeting in the morning ...last one, thank God! Thanks for dinner, Lizzy - and for the company. It's been great to talk about something other than banking. Jane, perhaps I could meet you here tomorrow. I'll need to drop off my bag when I leave the Hilton."

"No problem, Char. I'll look forward to tomorrow night."

"God, I'm a real moron - I haven't even asked how things are going with you and your immaculately neat bump?"

"Not too bad, Charlotte," Jane replied. "My blood pressure is a little high which means more frequent visits to the antenatal clinic. I'm feeling fine though. Just a bit tired."

"You didn't mention high blood pressure to me," Elizabeth said, realising that she'd been so caught up in her letter that she hadn't asked how Jane's clinic visit had gone.

"It's not really high, Lizzy. My doctor would like it to be a bit lower though. I'm sure it's just the strain of getting to the hospital - you know what it's like trying to get a parking space."

"What's your doctor doing about it? Hey, maybe you shouldn't go to Edinburgh tomorrow evening."

"Don't worry. My doctor's going to keep a close eye on me. If my blood pressure remains high I'll be admitted to hospital." The expression on Jane's face showed exactly what she thought of that prospect. "In the meantime he said I've just to carry on as normal ...though he did mention that I should try to get plenty of rest."

"And what does Charles have to say? I'm surprised he allowed you out of the house tonight," Charlotte teased.

Jane rolled her eyes. "I haven't had a chance to tell him yet. I expect he'll overreact though - probably want me to give up work or something stupid like that."

"That might not be such a bad idea, Jane," Elizabeth ventured. "You don't need ..."

"The doctor hasn't advised it, Lizzy." With that determined reply Jane stood up to hug Charlotte and her sister. "I'd better get going too, Lizzy," she said. "Charlotte, I'll give you a lift back to your hotel, if Lizzy doesn't think driving will be too stressful for me."

"I'm just concerned for you, Jane. Remember that's my first niece or nephew you're carrying in there."

"I know, Lizzy. And I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I was only joking."

"Talking about stress, Jane, how are things with the in-laws?" Charlotte asked.

Jane raised her eyes to the ceiling. "Blood pressure, Charlotte, blood pressure!" she warned as she took Charlotte's arm and pulled her towards the door. "Come on, I'll fill you in as we go downstairs."

~ * ~

The end of the week and no William, Elizabeth thought sadly as she let herself into her flat. Usually, on a Friday afternoon he'd be here before her, waiting impatiently for her to come home from school so that they could enjoy the weekend together. But not today. She was missing him so much she was almost tempted to call Jane and say she'd changed her mind about Mamma Mia.

"Now that is desperation," she admitted to herself. "The sooner William gets back the better."

She'd just settled herself comfortably on the sofa with a cup of coffee and The Glasgow Herald when Charlotte and Jane arrived together.

"Charles not going with you, then?" Elizabeth asked as she looked past the two women for her brother-in-law.

"He's on his way," Jane answered, checking her watch. " He'll be here in about half an hour."

"Give me your coats, then and have a seat while you're waiting for him. Would you like a coffee - or something to eat?"

"No thanks, Lizzy. We're going to stop off at Henderson's before we go to the hotel."

Elizabeth pouted dramatically. "You had to tell me that, Jane, didn't you? You know that's my favourite veggie restaurant in Edinburgh."

"I want to show it to Charles ...and to Charlotte. I just know they'll love the deliciously tasty food. And you can wipe that look off your face, Elizabeth Bennet. You know you could have come if you'd wanted to."

"I know, I know. But deliciously tasty food - just rub it in, why don't you."

"Sorry, sis, I couldn't resist," Jane said with a wide grin.

"Oh well, I was going to tell you what I've decided to do about George's letter. Maybe I just won't bother."

"Don't be mean, Lizzy," Charlotte begged. "We're desperate to know."

"Well, on reflection ...in other words I hardly slept last night for thinking about it ...I agree with you both that keeping George's letter a secret is not a good idea. I won't reply to it until I've had a chance to talk it over with William when he gets back from Canada. And if William wants to come with me to meet George, I'll take him."

"Thank goodness, Lizzy. You're doing the right thing. I mentioned your letter to Bill last night on the phone and he agreed with me ..."

"You what, Charlotte?" Elizabeth demanded.

"I asked Bill whether he'd want to know, and he ..."

"Charlotte, how could you? You knew I hadn't decided whether or not to tell William - and you told Bill! What if I'd chosen to keep quiet? You know Bill can't keep a secret to save his life."

"I ...I ...Lizzy, I'm sorry. I didn't think."

"Lizzy, you're going to be annoyed with me too," Jane said guiltily. "I told Charles. I thought, since he's known William for a long time, his opinion would carry more weight with you than mine or Charlotte's. He said ..."

Elizabeth's voice was filled with indignation as she interrupted her sister. "Jane, I don't care what Charles said. I can't believe you told him. For God's sake, he's William's best friend. I'd have been really pissed off with you two if I'd decided to say nothing about George's letter to William. Hell, I'm pissed off anyway. I didn't give you permission to gossip about my affairs with your spouses."

"That's a bit strong, Lizzy. Charles and I don't keep secrets from each other. Anyway, you didn't ask me not to tell him."

"I didn't think I'd need to ask. I didn't expect you to say anything to anyone until I told you what I wanted to do about George's blasted letter."

Charlotte and Jane shared shamefaced glances. Elizabeth was right to be angry.

Jane spoke for both of them. "We're sorry, Lizzy. Forgive us, please. We were trying to help you with your decision and we had no right to do that."

Elizabeth shook her head angrily. "I don't see how telling Bill and Charles was a help to me. But ...Oh, never mind. It's done now. Thank goodness I'd decided to tell William, that's all I can say."

Jane was about to offer another apology when there was a loud knock at the door. "Oh dear, that'll be Charles," she said. "We'd better get going if we want to eat before the show. We can talk about this when we get back, Lizzy. Okay?"

"No need, Jane," Elizabeth replied. "I've had my say. Now you two go off and enjoy yourselves. I'll see you tomorrow."

~ * ~

Once Jane, Charles and Charlotte had left, Elizabeth made a start on the job she was least looking forward to - sorting out and packing up her clothes. She carried a pile of garments from her wardrobe through to her living room and divided them between boxes for Thornlea and black bin bags for the charity shop. As she worked she nursed her irritation with Jane and Charlotte. Stupid, stupid! I should never have mentioned George Wickham's letter to them. If you don't want everyone to know your business, keep mum!

The ringing of the doorbell jolted her out of her reflections.

"Hell's bells, why does someone always come to the door when I'm right in the middle of something? And the place is like a tip!" Elizabeth wondered if she should take a few moments to tidy up before she answered the door. She chuckled as she looked around the devastation that had once been her living room. What the hell, I'm moving. A mess comes with the territory.

When Elizabeth opened her door the last person she expected to see on the other side of it was the man who'd been a constant in her mind for the last couple of days.

George Wickham!

"George! My God! What are you doing here? I haven't replied to your letter yet."

"I'm sorry to come here like this, Lizzy. My leave has been cancelled. My battalion's been called to Afghanistan and I'm leaving on Monday. I'd really like to speak to you before I go." George's words gushed out, as though he expected her to slam the door shut on him.

Elizabeth couldn't help noticing that his face was pallid and he looked extremely uncomfortable as he waited for her reply. Shit, what should I do? It was only moments ago that I assured the girls I wouldn't see him on my own. And William ...I haven't had a chance to tell him yet.

"I ...I hadn't decided. I don't know ..." she finished off lamely.

"Please, Lizzy. I don't want to pressure you but I'm not sure when I'll be back in Glasgow."

Her heart beating wildly, Elizabeth considered what she should do. I could just say no and shut the door. But then, a quick meeting in a public place surely can't do any harm, she reflected. It's not my fault he's turned up like this. I'm sure William will understand if I explain it to him.

George sensed that she was undecided and tried again, "I want to set things to rights between us - if that's possible."

If Elizabeth hadn't been so shocked at his unexpected appearance, she'd have laughed in his face. "That's a tall order, George. I'm surprised you think you've any chance after everything you did."

"I'm aware of that, Lizzy. But my fiancée, Gail, said I should ..."

"Wait a minute," Elizabeth interrupted, "are you only here because your fiancée forced you to come? If that's the case I'm not interested in anything you have to say."

"No, Lizzy," George protested. "I ...well, I can't deny that Gail wanted me to get in touch with you. She's really pissed off with me, actually. But that's not why ..."

With an emphatic "Get lost, George" Elizabeth began to close the door. She should have known better than to give him even a few moments of her time.

George put a hand out to stop her. "Please hear me out. I've come because I want to know what happened on the night of the rugby club dinner. And I believe, having discussed you and me with Gail ..."

"My God," Elizabeth interjected, thinking back to her exasperation with Jane and Charlotte earlier, "is my life an open book for every Tom, Dick and bloody Gail to gossip over?

"Don't be like that about her, Lizzy," George pleaded. "She's the one who pointed out to me that I have ...other things to apologise for."

"Well ..." Elizabeth hesitated. She gave George a long, serious look as she tried to work out whether or not he was telling the truth. After all, he'd hoodwinked her so many times in the past. But then, what other reason would he have to seek her out? As Jane had said the night before, he could have left well alone. And ...it would certainly be interesting to find out what other things he felt he ought to apologise for, because she was damned sure they didn't cover all of her grievances. He'd maybe be sorry he'd come by the time she was finished.

God, she thought, six months ago I would have slammed the door in his face - so much has changed since I met William.

But what to do now? It surely wouldn't hurt to give him an hour of her time since he was already here. Then he'd be out of her life for good.

"I haven't had dinner yet, George. Why don't we go to the pub round the corner?" she offered. "We'll be able to get something to eat while I acquaint you with everything I think you ought to apologise for. Hey," she added mockingly, "we can compare notes and see if Gail agrees with me. If she's been stupid enough to agree to be your fiancée, she must be aware of all your shortcomings!"

"I know I deserve that, Lizzy. But I do thank you for agreeing to hear me out."

Elizabeth pulled the door open. "You'd better come in till I get ready. I can't stay out too long, though. My boyfriend is phoning me at eleven and I don't want to miss his call."

"I assure you, I'll be long gone before then. I'm driving to Stirling tonight to be with Gail for the weekend before I go overseas."

"Gail's from Stirling?"

"No, she comes from up north. She's at Stirling University doing a nursing degree."

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in surprise. "She's at university? What age is she, George?"

"She's ...It's okay, she's not a teenager, Lizzy. She's a mature student."

"Oh. Right. I thought for a moment you were cradle snatching."

"She's anything but an innocent baby. In fact, she's one of the wisest people I've ever met."

Can't be that wise if she's marrying you! Elizabeth thought to herself as she went off to her bedroom to fetch her coat and bag.

"You're moving?" George shouted as he glanced at the boxes scattered around the living room.

"Yes. I'm going to live with my boyfriend."

"Going far?"

Elizabeth laughed as she came back into the room. "About two miles up the road from here. Most of this stuff is going to the charity shop, though. William's house is much too grand for it."

"He's wealthy, is he?"

"You could say that."

"What does he do?"

It's really none of your business, George, but I think I'm going to enjoy telling you this. "He has his own business."

"Ah - one I might have heard of?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth replied. "He runs the Darcy Corporation?"

"You don't mean ...William Darcy?"

"You've heard of him?"

"I've never met him, but I have seen him. He was in my year at uni. Of course everyone knew who he was, and all the girls fancied him - something to do with him being a millionaire, I think."

"Oh, he has much more important attributes than money, I can assure you," Elizabeth replied with a self-satisfied wink. "Now, if you're ready, George ..."

~ * ~

"What would you like to drink, Lizzy?"

"Just a diet coke, George, thanks," Elizabeth replied as she took off her coat. "And I'll have a veggie burger and salad - no chips. You have to order at the bar. The waitress will bring our meals to us."

Elizabeth studied George as he waited to be served. He looked just as she remembered, except that his hair was cropped extremely short - army style. And he'd had such beautiful silky curls. His shorn locks didn't detract from his looks, though; he was still an extremely handsome man.

Was he more handsome than William? To an impartial observer perhaps, but never to her. After all, attraction depended on more than just aesthetics, didn't they. William had a good heart, and that certainly hadn't been her experience of George Wickham. It seemed though that George wasn't the same man he used to be. She wondered what had brought about the change - surely not a mere woman!

Elizabeth noted with surprise the bottle of mineral water that George brought back to the table along with her coke. "You're having water? If Gail has got you to give up drinking, she's really worked a miracle."

"Well, I'm not tea-total, but I don't drink anything like as much as I used to," George answered. "It's just that I've had a bit of an upset stomach all day; alcohol wouldn't help."

"You do look a bit pale, George - I thought that when you were standing at my door. We don't have to do this if you're not feeling well. I don't imagine it's going to be much fun for either of us."

"I'll be fine, Lizzy. This has been preying on my mind since I had that conversation with my friend in Cyprus. I'd like to ...er ..."

"Get it over with tonight so that you can tell Gail that it's all taken care of?" Elizabeth finished for him.

"I wouldn't quite have put it that way, but ...yes, I suppose you're right. That okay with you?"

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. "I'm here, aren't I? So, where do you want to start?"

"I want to know what happened that night."

"Don't you recall any of it?"

"I remember having a meal with all the guys. We had a yard of ale drinking competition. I won. I was pretty sloshed after that. I vaguely remember a stripper because I'm pretty sure she sat on my knee and kissed me. After that I must have passed out."

"It wasn't the stripper who sat on your knee, George. At least, if she did, she wasn't the only one."

George looked puzzled. "Then who ...? And how do you know ...? No, Lizzy." He paused as understanding sank in. "It wasn't you, was it? Why would you have been there?"

"I lost my key to the flat. I came to borrow yours."

"But ..."

"The stripper had just finished when I arrived. Your rugby buddies were drunk as lords and seemed to think I would be happy to carry on the entertainment. They crowded round me and pushed me on to your knee. I thought they were going to strip me, George."

He shook his head vehemently. "I wouldn't have let them do that."

"You didn't stop the guy who unzipped my dress and pulled it down. You just held me tight and stuck your tongue down my throat. The guys were all whooping and egging you on and then ...you ...you offered to share me around." Elizabeth's face crumpled as she relived that awful feeling of helplessness. Tears began to flow freely down her face. "George, what you did to me that night at the rugby club - I hope you realise - that was much worse than anything else you ever did. Persuading me to have sex with you when I wasn't ready ...the other girls ...nothing else compared to what you did that night."

"No, Lizzy. I can't believe it. Not even drunk would I ever have ..."

"But you did, George," Elizabeth cried. "I was terrified ...and humiliated ...and bloody angry. Didn't it occur to you to wonder why I wouldn't see you the next day ...or anytime after that?"

George shook his head, appalled. "I thought you'd had enough of my drinking. I know I didn't make it home that night because I woke up in the morning on the floor of a mate's flat with no idea how I'd got there."

"I'm not surprised. You were as drunk as I've ever seen you."

"Lizzy, I can't tell you how sorry I am. That was completely and utterly unforgivable. I'm stunned. That night ...it was a blur to me. Honestly, if I'd been sober, it would never have happened."

"It should never have happened even when you were drunk, George," she retorted, angrily wiping the tears from her face.

"There's no doubting that," he agreed.

"Will you tell Gail?"

"I'll have to," George replied. "I wouldn't lie to her. God, she's going to kill me, Lizzy."

Elizabeth could see that he was genuinely distraught. Hell, he hadn't looked that well when he'd appeared at her door, but now his face was positively ashen. She suggested to him that they'd perhaps covered enough ground, but it seemed he wanted to tell her what had made him change his ways.

"I had a really hard time when I joined my regiment. Right from the start I was unpopular. My fellow officers avoided me and the men barely hid their contempt. I had to do a lot of soul-searching before I realised what an arrogant bastard I was. Everyone giving me a hard time ...well, it forced me to take a long, hard look at myself. And I didn't like what I saw - neither did my commanding officer. I was told to pull my sock up or I'd be out. The army broke me down and built me back up again - that's the only way I can explain it. I don't know what I'd have become if I hadn't joined up."

"Then I met Gail when she was on holiday in Germany. She's from a little fishing village in the north-east of Scotland, called Buckie. I can tell you, Lizzy, she's one of six children and when I go up there and the whole family is gathered together, all talking at once, I can hardly understand a word they're saying. It's this Doric that they speak - it's incomprehensible. But they're such a big, chaotic, loving family. I've never experienced anything like it."

"Gail hated me when she met me - wouldn't give me the time of day. Heaven knows why I pursued her when she was so contemptuous of me, but I was smitten. I've never met anyone like her before. She's strong, independent, opinionated, doesn't suffer fools gladly - and, boy, did she think I was a fool! She was a real challenge. At first I told myself that she wasn't worth the effort it would take to change her opinion of me. But I couldn't get her out of my mind."

"It was going out with Gail that made me realise how badly I'd treated you. She wouldn't put up with any nonsense, you see. And then I ...I fell in love with her and, for the first time in my life, I put someone else's feelings before my own. I just knew I never wanted to do anything that would hurt her." George stopped when the waitress brought their food to the table. Once she'd attended to them and moved out of earshot, he continued, "The truth is, Lizzy, I didn't know what love was when I was with you. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be cruel; I'm just trying to be truthful."

"That's okay, George, I kind of worked out that you didn't love me once I knew what it felt like to be truly loved. I know now that I didn't really love you either. I'd like to know, though, what else you feel you should apologise for?"

"Well," George replied with a deep sigh, "let's just say that Gail taught me what was unacceptable in a ...boyfriend. To be honest, she told me I was a lousy lover - and completely selfish."

"God, she wasn't wrong there. It took me years to trust a man after being with you. Sorry, George; like you, I'm just being truthful."

"Anyway," George said, ignoring Elizabeth's jibe, "that was the other thing I wanted to apologise for. I treated you very badly right from the start, Lizzy. I'm not surprised you hate me."

"I don't hate you ...well, not now anyway. You were my first boyfriend - I didn't know any better." Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and with a knowing look added, "I know better now."

George closed his eyes and Elizabeth, taking the opportunity to observe him closely, could see that his face was growing greyer by the minute.

"George, are you all right? You've hardly touched your meal."

"I am feeling a bit sick, actually," he admitted. "But we're almost finished here. I just want to explain why I was such a shit."

"You've already told me that. You didn't love me."

He shook his head sadly. "That doesn't excuse my behaviour, Lizzy."

"Go on, then. But don't take too long, George. I don't think you're up to it."

George took a deep breath then began, "I was brought up to believe that money was all that mattered in life. My mum and dad ...well, you must remember what they were like. All they were interested in was keeping one step ahead of their wealthy neighbours. Oh, I had every material possession anyone could possibly want, but my parents had no time for me. My folks didn't care about anyone but themselves and I'm ashamed to say I followed their example. I grew up, as you found out, to be totally self-centred."

Elizabeth thought that George had given her a very apposite evaluation of himself and his parents but she refrained from making any comment. She'd met George's mum and dad a few times and remembered them as cold and aloof. At the time she'd put it down to them thinking she wasn't good enough for their son. "You know," she said feelingly, "parents have a lot to answer for. I've always thought Philip Larkin had it about right."

"Philip Larkin? He was a poet, wasn't he? What did he have to say about parents?"

"He wrote a poem called This Be The Verse. It's not too long. Would you like to hear it?"

"Yeah, go ahead."

Elizabeth recited:

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself."

"As soon as I read that poem at school, I knew it applied to me," Elizabeth said with a wry smile. "Since then I've coming to the conclusion that I'm not the only one."

"I'm not blaming my parents for the way I turned out, Lizzy. I didn't like the way they behaved, but I was no better. I'm just like them," he said sadly.

"Maybe you were like them, George, but you've turned your life around. From what you say it sounds as though you're not like them now."

"Thank you. That's very generous considering everything I did to you. And Lizzy, I'm glad you've found someone special, truthfully I am."

"You know, George, I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I'm glad you've got someone special too. Gail sounds good for you. Now I'm sorry to rush you," Elizabeth said, reaching for her coat, "but I think we're finished here. You need to head up to Stirling. You're really not looking too good."

"Okay, but let me just go to the loo first. I think if I could be sick I'd start to feel a lot better."

As Elizabeth waited for George's return, she went over everything he'd said. She was glad now that she'd come. And she was glad, too, that he'd turned up at her door without warning, denying her the opportunity to bring William with her. She felt sure that she and George couldn't have been so open with each other in his presence.

When George eventually emerged from the toilet he looked ghastly. His face was still a pasty grey, but his cheeks were now flushed red.

"George, do you feel well enough to drive?"

"I'm fine, Lizzy, now that I've been sick. I just need some fresh air."

"Let's get out of here then."

George walked Elizabeth back to her close, hoping by the time they got there that he'd feel well enough for the drive to Stirling.

Elizabeth could see, though, that he wasn't looking any better. "You're not fit to drive yet, George. Come up to the flat for a while. I wouldn't like you to have an accident on the road."

"Thanks, Lizzy. I'm sorry to be so much trouble to you. As soon as I feel able I'll be off."

~ * ~

Elizabeth made some coffee, but when George got a whiff of it he had to rush to the toilet to be sick again. After he'd been gone for half an hour Elizabeth tapped gently on the bathroom door. "George, are you okay?"

"Lizzy, I'm sorry. Every time I try to come out of here I feel I'm going to be sick again. If you give me a basin I can go down and sit in my car."

"Don't be daft. As if I'd let you sit in your car in this state. You'll have to stay here. I'll get you a basin and you can get into my bed."

"No way, Lizzy! You didn't even want me here tonight. There's no way I can stay - and I certainly can't take your bed."

"Yes, you can," Elizabeth insisted. "The spare bed isn't made up and I'll have to search through the boxes in the living room for its covers."

"Well, if you're sure ..." George replied. "I am feeling really rough."

"I am. Now, into bed before you collapse. And George," she added as she led him to her bedroom, "perhaps you should give Gail a quick call to let her know what's happening."

"Oh, of course. Thanks for this, Lizzy."

Eleven o' clock saw Elizabeth sitting nervously by the phone waiting for William's call. How on earth was she to chatter happily to him after all that had happened tonight ...and with George Wickham sleeping in her bed? She'd been so looking forward to hearing his voice and now what did she have? - yet another thing to hide from him.

At half past eleven she could barely keep her eyes open. She went off to make up Jane's bed wondering to herself why William hadn't called. She didn't know whether to feel disappointed ...or relieved.

~ * ~

Elizabeth thought it was still the middle of the night when she heard her name being called, but when she glanced at her alarm clock she was surprised to find it was already six thirty. Immediately concerned that George needed her help, she jumped out of bed and rushed through to her bedroom.

There she found George sitting on the edge of the bed, stark naked and thoroughly mortified. It was obvious that he'd been sick during the night and hadn't managed to make it to the basin in time. With his tee shirt and boxers covered in vomit, he'd stripped off then gone straight back to sleep. Now he was awake and aware of the mess he'd made in Elizabeth's bedroom.

"Lizzy, I'm sorry. I must have tried to make it to the basin. As you can see I missed."

"George Wickham," she cried. "Look at this ..." Then she stopped. How could she rant at him when he looked so sorry for himself? She began again, much more gently, "George, how do you feel now? I can give you one of William's shirts and a pair of his boxers. Would you like some breakfast. Maybe it would help to eat someth ..." At that moment Elizabeth heard a key unlock her front door and a deep voice addressed her.

"Elizabeth, you still in bed? I managed to get back earlier than I thought."

OH MY GOD! It's William!

William stopped at the bedroom door ...and promptly dropped the bag he was carrying. Elizabeth would never, ever, ever forget the dumbstruck look on his face as he took in the scene before him. She opened her mouth to try to explain but the words seemed to get stuck in her throat as, panic stricken, she watched William gather up his bag, turn back towards the front door, and flee.

Elizabeth ran after him, calling, "William, its not .... ." She heard the front door slam shut.

".... what you think." But she was talking to empty space, and as she heard the door of the close bang shut on the ground floor, she knew that he wouldn't be back for an explanation anytime soon. She walked back into the bedroom, where George stood with the duvet wrapped around him. He looked as though he wanted to say something, but Elizabeth cut him off. "Just go, George. And please, I understand that you are sorry and I'm glad that I had a chance to hear your apology, however I don't ever want to see you again." With that she went into Jane's old room, lifted the duvet cover, slipped beneath it and began to weep with gut wrenching sobs.

He will get in touch with me ...he will ...he will, Elizabeth told herself. We have too much going for us - surely he'll not give up on us without an explanation ...Will he?

~ * ~

As William drove home to Thornlea, he could barely see because of the tears blurring his vision. How could Elizabeth do this to me? he wondered. Fuck, I was only gone a week and she's already found someone else. After all they'd been through ...and just about to move in together. And yet ...his eyes hadn't deceived him.

Driving becoming increasingly hazardous, William pulled in at the side of the road and stared into the bleakness of the rain-filled darkness. How the weather, he noted wryly, mirrored his emotions ...dreich and murky. His deep brown eyes reflected his feelings of despondency and absorbed the greyness of the morning. In one ghastly moment that was constantly replaying in his mind's eye, William's newly found joy had been eclipsed and he had a horrible feeling that he'd never recapture it. Whatever the outcome of the morning's events, and he had no idea yet what he was going to do, his world was now tainted by a memory he couldn't erase.

More than anything else William wanted to talk to Elizabeth - to ask her why. But not yet. He decided to go back to his house, gather a few things, then drive up to Strathlyon to think this through. Yes, he'd give himself a few days to calm down before he called Elizabeth to ask her ...why?

Chapter Nineteen

"God, Jane, I can't wait to tell Lizzy all about Mama Mia," Charlotte said with a grin. "Do you think we should regale her with excerpts from every song, or just our favourites?"

Jane raised her eyebrows as she noted the wicked glint in her friend's eye. "You go ahead, Char, if you want to. Don't blame me, though, if Lizzy's show of appreciation fails to impress you. You know how much she hates Abba ..."

"Yes, almost as much as she hates Queen," Charlotte replied disgustedly. "I've never understood why, though. I think they're both great bands!"

"Well, to be blunt, my mum loves Abba and my dad hates Queen. That should tell you all you need to know."

"Of course they do!" Charlotte hit her head with palm of her hand at her own slowness. "I knew that. Oh, well," she continued, "I'll just have to tell her how much I enjoyed eating at her favourite veggie restaurant, then."

Having waved a brisk goodbye to Charles as he drove off from the kerbside, Jane turned to her friend and nodded her head in approval. "That's definitely a less risky option. She'll forgive you for that much quicker than for subjecting her to ...what does she call it? ...your 'appalling taste in music'."

"Hmmph," Charlotte snorted, "it might be an 'appalling taste in music' to Lizzy, but I don't have to agree with her. We don't all want to listen to songs about global warming and saving the whale, for Pete's sake. Some of us just want a bit of fun."

"Oh, I agree. But you know Lizzy; she takes her music and films very seriously." Jane shrugged her shoulders as she buzzed up to Elizabeth to let them into the close. When there was no reply, she buzzed again, more impatiently this time. Still there was no reply.

With an exasperated sigh Jane raked through her bag to find the keys she hadn't used since she'd gone to live with Charles. "Thank goodness I still keep these on me," she said as she thrust the key to the close entrance into the lock. "I wonder where Lizzy is? Funny that she'd go out when she knew you could be back at any time."

"She didn't mention that she was going anywhere today," Charlotte commented, following her friend upstairs. "Maybe she's just nipped out to the shops. I'll try her mobile when we get inside."

"Could you, Char? I'll burst if I don't get to the loo this minute. I've been needing to go since the outskirts of Glasgow. If I'd known the traffic was going to be so slow in the city centre I'd have got Charles to stop at Harthill."

"Well, he did offer ..."

"I know, but I didn't need then."

Once inside the flat, Jane threw her jacket over a chair in the hall and almost ran to the bathroom. Before she closed the door she turned to Charlotte and gestured towards her old room. "You can put your bag in there if you like. Then you could maybe pop the kettle on. I'm desperate for a cuppa."

"Yeah, I'll see to it as soon as I've found out where Lizzy is."

Jane was just sinking gratefully on to the toilet seat when Charlotte called out her name.

What the ...! Can't a pregnant woman even get a moment's peace to use the loo? Oh well, too late to stop now. "In a minute, Char," she shouted back irritably.

"No, now, Jane. It's Lizzy. She's in your bed."

"In my bed? And at this time of day! Hang on I'll be there in a minute."

Jane rushed out of the bathroom, drying her hands on the towel as she went. She stopped at the bedroom door and peered across the darkened room. All she could make out, aided by a shaft of light from the hall, was a bump under the bedclothes and a profusion of curls spread over the pillow. "What on earth were you up to last night, Miss Bennet, that you're still in bed at half one in the afternoon?"

Elizabeth's only reply was a muffled sob. Slowly she lowered the duvet to reveal a tear-stained face.

"What's the matter?" Charlotte asked. "Are you ill?"

"Lizzy," Jane cried, rushing to the side of the bed, alarmed to see that her sister's eyes were red and puffy from crying, "you look awful. What's happened?"

Elizabeth pulled herself up, the duvet still wrapped tightly around her body. Her tone was low as she answered. "Just after you left George Wickham turned up at my door."

"Oh, Lizzy, no!" Charlotte exclaimed. "But you hadn't contacted him ..."

"I know. But he's off to Afghanistan on Monday. He wanted to talk to me before he left." Then she added tentatively, "We went out for dinner."

"Shit, Lizzy! But ...that's surely not a reason to be in this state. If it's William you're worried about - well, you didn't invite George to come. He'll understand when you tell him what happened."

"It's worse than that, Charlotte."

"What do you mean?" she asked, her voice filled with apprehension. "Did George Wickham hurt you?"

"No, no," Elizabeth shook her head as she answered, "nothing like that."

"What, then?" Jane blurted out. "Come on, Lizzy, you're frightening me."

"In a nutshell - George didn't remember what happened to me that night at the rugby club - I enlightened him - we talked and he actually did apologise."

"But that's good, isn't it?" Jane asked, still puzzled by her sister's distress.

"There's more. He hadn't been feeling well all night and when we got back to the flat I could see that he wasn't fit to drive. So I invited him to stay the night."

Charlotte shook her head in disbelief. "Lizzy, after all he did to you!"

"I didn't want to have him here, Char. But he looked so ill that I felt I'd no choice. Anyway, I put him into my bed."

Charlotte continued to shake her head. "You what?"

"Well, Jane's wasn't made up and the spare bedding was packed away. I knew it would take me ages to find it."

"Stupid move, Lizzy. Then?"

"Then, early this morning, I heard George call my name and I rushed through to see what was wrong. He'd been sick down his tee shirt and boxers during the night and was sitting on the edge of my bed ...without a stitch of clothing on."

Jane's intake of breath was audible. "Oh, Lizzy," she gasped.

"Then what happened," Charlotte pressed. "Because a naked George Wickham with vomit down his front wouldn't upset me like this ...not if he'd treated me the way he treated you."

"Then ...William walked in."

"Oh, my God!" Charlotte and Jane shrieked in unison.

The horrified look on the two women's faces brought the tears back into Elizabeth's eyes.

"I didn't even get a chance to tell him that there was nothing improper going on - that it was only George. He didn't wait for an explanation - he just turned and left," she said flatly.

"Well, at least you weren't naked," Charlotte consoled. "You had your dressing gown on, right?"

"No, I didn't, actually. I jumped out of bed when I heard George's shout. I was wearing this." Elizabeth pulled down the duvet to reveal her skimpy top and shorts.

"Next to nothing, you mean?" Jane observed, shaking her head. "Oh, Lizzy!"

"But this is what I always wear to bed. You know that, Jane. I didn't expect George to see me like this. And I certainly didn't expect my boyfriend, who was supposed to be in Canada, to walk in."

"You're right. I'm sorry. But how must it have looked to William?" Jane shook her head once again, lost for words.

"I know." Elizabeth closed her eyes and asked dejectedly, "What am I going to do, Jane?"

"Give him a couple of days, Lizzy, then call him. He's probably in a state of shock at the moment. When he calms down he'll realise there has to be an explanation for this."

"I wouldn't," Charlotte declared. "I'd phone him right away. He doesn't know it was George Wickham sitting naked on Lizzy's bed. He might think she's gone out and found herself another man while he's been away."

"Don't be daft, Charlotte. He must know Lizzy isn't capable of that."

"After what he'd just seen? I would wager that's exactly what he's thinking at the moment. The sooner Lizzy sets him straight the better."

Elizabeth wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. "I will phone him ...tomorrow ...when I've calmed down a bit. I just hope he'll hear me out."

"Of course he will, Lizzy," Jane said comfortingly as she wrapped her arms around her sister's neck and hugged her tight. "He loves you. And I bet he'll be relieved when he hears the true version of events."

"I hope so, Jane, I really hope so."

Jane stood up and fetched Elizabeth's dressing gown from the chair beside the bed. "Now, Lizzy, you look as though you haven't eaten. How about you get up and I'll make you something?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't think I could eat, Jane, but I could do with a very strong coffee."

"Come on, then. I'll put the kettle on. Charlotte, a coffee for you?"

"Yes, thanks, Jane," Charlotte replied, pulling her mobile phone out of her bag. "I'll be through in a minute. I want to give Bill a ring to tell him I'm going to stay with Lizzy for a few days - just until she gets this misunderstanding sorted out with William."

"Oh, are you sure, Char?" Elizabeth asked, her face brightening for a few moments. "The thought of facing the Easter holidays on my own if ..." She stopped to fight the tears that were threatening to fill her eyes again. "if William won't believe me ...I'd love it if you could stay. But what about your work?"

"No problem there. I'm also on leave next week," Charlotte answered. "All I had planned was some decorating and I won't be sorry to miss out on that!"

"I could stay too, if you want me to, Lizzy," Jane offered.

"No need for that, Jane, if Charlotte's here. I don't think I'd be too good for your blood pressure at the moment. Come on," she said as she got out of bed and shrugged on her dressing gown, "let's get that kettle on and leave Charlotte to her phone call."

~ * ~

As Jane made the coffee she attempted to entertain Elizabeth with details of her trip to Edinburgh with Charles and Charlotte. She hoped that some light conversation would take her sister's mind off her distress for a little while. She gave up when it became obvious to her that Elizabeth was barely feigning interest.

"Elizabeth, try to stop worrying," she urged. "You know William loves you very much. I'm willing to bet he'll actually be relieved when you explain everything to him."

"I don't know, Jane. I just wish now that I'd told him about the letter right away."

"Don't blame yourself. You were going to tell him. It wasn't your fault that George arrived on your doorstep without warning. For what it's worth, I wouldn't have turned him away either ...in those circumstances."

As the sisters were considering Elizabeth's options Charlotte walked into the room still talking on her mobile. "Bye, mum. I'll be down as soon as I can."

"That was your mum?" Jane asked. "I thought you were calling Bill."

"I did call Bill. He's just given me a right good rollicking for having my mobile switched off all the time we were in Edinburgh. My mum's been trying to reach me. My dad ..." Charlotte shook her head in disbelief. "My dad had a heart attack late last night. I'm sorry, Lizzy. I don't want to leave you but I'll have to drive down to Meryton to see him."

"Oh, Charlotte!" Elizabeth cried. "Of course you'll have to go. How is he?"

"He's in intensive care at the moment. The doctors have said he'll need a bypass. I feel really bad that I was enjoying myself while he was fighting for his life. Why didn't I have my stupid phone on?"

"Charlotte, have Bill and your mum been calling here? The phone's rung several times this morning. I just thought it was George calling to find out if I was okay. I couldn't bear to speak to him."

"Bill said he's called here several times. He thought we'd maybe gone out for the day."

"I'd no idea ...I'm so sorry."

"That's okay, Lizzy. Of course you weren't to know. And anyway, as Bill said, I should have had my mobile switched on."

"Charlotte, have your coffee. Do you want something to eat before you go? You've got a long drive ahead of you."

"I won't have anything, Jane. I want to get to Meryton as soon as possible." As she turned to Elizabeth she said, "I hope you don't mind, but I told Bill why I didn't want to leave you. I don't know if it was the right thing to do ...when you were so angry yesterday that I'd told him about George's letter."

"It's okay, Char," Elizabeth replied, gracing her friend with a half-hearted smile, "I've made a huge mess of things myself. Bill knowing about it can't do any harm now."

Relieved, Charlotte kissed Elizabeth and Jane goodbye. "I'd better get going. I'll let you know how things are with my dad when I find out more." Giving Elizabeth a final hug, she added, "Good luck with William."

"I hope I won't need it, but thanks Char. You drive carefully ...and give our love to your mum and dad."

~ * ~

On Sunday morning Elizabeth awoke early, her head groggy once again after a poor night's sleep. Before she could allow her jittery nerves to stop her, she called Thornlea. The telephone rang so many times she was sure the answering machine would pick up. She was just considering how she should frame her message when an out-of-breath Jim Cruickshank answered the call.

"Darcy residence."

"Hello, Jim. It's Elizabeth Bennet here. I'd like to speak to Mr Darcy, please."

There was a long pause before Jim replied.

"Mr Darcy's not at home, Miss Bennet."

And ...Elizabeth waited for Jim to go on, but after several seconds of silence, she realised that was all the explanation she was going to receive.

"Can you tell me where I might contact him?" she asked, an edge of irritability creeping into her voice.

"Mr Darcy left instructions that I shouldn't give out his whereabouts to anyone."

"But I'm not anyone," Elizabeth retorted.

"I'm sorry, but he emphasised anyone, miss. It's more than my job's worth to give out that kind of information when I've been told not to." After a pause, Jim added, "He did ask me to tell you if you phoned that he'd be in touch. I hope that's of help to you."

"Oh ...okay. I'll wait for his call, then. Thanks, Jim."

So Elizabeth waited on tenterhooks for a few more days. For the first time since she'd become a teacher she was sorry to be on holiday - what she'd have given to have the busyness of work to distract her from her worrying thoughts that were constantly running through her mind. All she could do was sit and watch the phone, imploring it to ring. Each time it did her heart thudded in her chest. But it was never William on the other end of the line.

She grew daily more perturbed by William's silent treatment; she'd never have believed he could be so childish as to cut her off like this. So much for the man who runs a huge, multi-million pound corporation, she thought contemptuously. If my students behaved like this I'd have plenty to say about their juvenile behaviour!

After a week of waiting, Elizabeth decided she'd had enough. Whatever the outcome, she needed to find out where she stood. With her heart thudding again she called William's mobile. No reply. She tried dozens of times and left countless messages but he obviously had no intention of answering.

Turning to her sister, who seemed to be spending more time with her than with her husband, she gave vent to her frustration. "Where the hell is he? He's not answering his mobile. He's not at Thornlea. Could he really think that I found someone else so quickly? You know, Jane, I thought he knew me better than that. Surely he wants to find out the truth from the only person who can tell it?"

"Not if he thinks he knows it already," Jane pointed out. "You must get a hold of him. Have you tried Strathlyon?"

"No, not yet. It's obvious that he doesn't want to speak to me; I've tried his mobile hundreds of times. I'd rather avoid making a complete fool of myself, Jane."

"Phone Strathlyon, Lizzy. If he's not there, his housekeeper might tell you where he is."

"Not if he doesn't want to be contacted," Elizabeth replied, thinking back to her brief conversation with Jim Cruickshank.

"You'll never know unless you try."

Elizabeth sat deep in thought for several minutes then asked, "Any word from Charlotte?"

"God, Lizzy, change the subject, why don't you! I guess that means I don't want to hear any more advice, sister.

"Sorry, Jane," Elizabeth replied. "I know you're right. I'm just scared of having another door slammed in my face."

"It can't be worse than not knowing what's going on."

"I suppose not. I'm too tired to think about it tonight ...maybe tomorrow, eh. Now, I really did want to know if there's been any word from Charlotte?"

"She phoned earlier today. Her dad is out of intensive care. She's taking some compassionate leave so that she can help her mum when her dad gets out of hospital. It looks as though she's going to be down in Meryton for some time."

"Is Bill down with her?"

"Not yet. He can't take time off at the moment - something to do with Lady Catherine being away unexpectedly. He's hoping to get down to Meryton next week."

~ * ~

Elizabeth was alone, sitting in her darkened living room, nursing the feelings of hurt and anger that had been building up inside her since Friday. How could he do this to her after all they'd shared? From his perspective, she could have found another man in a week and jumped into bed with him, that was certainly true. But wouldn't he want to confirm it? Jane was right - it was time to call Strathlyon. And damn it, he'd better give me the chance to explain this time!

"Hello, Strathlyon House. Mr Darcy's housekeeper speaking."

"Mrs Reynolds. Thank goodness. Could you put me through to William, please?"

"Mrs Reynolds is at ...that is, she's not here at the moment."

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Ms ...?"

"Mrs Harris," the woman replied.

"Mrs Harris, my name is Elizabeth Bennet. I'd like to speak to Mr Darcy. Could you put me through to him, please?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Bennet, Mr Darcy is not at Strathlyon."

Shit, this is like trying to hold of the bloody queen! "Can you tell me where he is, then?"

"I'm unable to provide that information, Miss Bennet. I ..."

"For heaven's sake, this is ridiculous ..." Elizabeth shouted down the line, her temper rising. Realising, though, that there was no point in taking her frustration out on an employee, she stopped short of giving vent to the worst of her anger.

Mrs Harris continued, her voice calm despite Elizabeth's outburst, "I'm sorry I can't help you, miss. If you hold on I'll put you through to Mr Darcy's aunt."

"Oh, no, that won't be necessary ..." After everything she'd heard from Charlotte, the last person Elizabeth wanted to speak to was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She considered putting the phone down but decided that wasn't an option since she'd been stupid enough to give Mrs Harris her name.

Within a few seconds an imperious voice came on to the line. "Hello, Miss Bennet I believe?"

"Lady Catherine, I'm sorry to have bothered you. I didn't ask to be put through to you, but Mrs Harris cut me off before I had the chance to stop her."

"You may not have wanted to speak to me, Miss Bennet, but you can be at no loss to understand the reason why I would wish to speak to you. Why, my anxiety for my nephew demands it!"

Elizabeth listened with unaffected astonishment to Lady Catherine's abrupt tone. Why should she be so unpleasant when they'd never even met? William wouldn't have confided in her, would he?

"Indeed, you are mistaken, Lady Catherine," she gasped. I have no idea why you should have any reason to interfere in my affairs ...or your nephew's, for that matter. He is a grown man, for goodness' sake."

"Miss Bennet," replied her ladyship angrily, "I thought you'd have heard enough of me to know that I am not to be trifled with. I've been like a mother to William and Georgiana since my sister died, and I claim a mother's right to ...show her concern. I," she added haughtily, "do not interfere. I came to Strathlyon because Georgiana told me about the farce that was your sister's wedding. She was so worried about the kind of family her brother was connecting himself to that she asked me to speak to him. And thank God I'm here since I've now found that you, young lady, have wreaked devastation on his life."

"He told you about ...?"

"He told me very little, but I'm not stupid. I can read between the lines. You've done something to hurt him very badly and he's gone off to Pemberley to ...to get over you, I imagine."

"But it's all a mistake."

Lady Catherine gave a snort of derision. "A mistake? It certainly was that. How William thought he could have a lasting relationship with a girl of your sort, I can't imagine."

Elizabeth paused for a long time before she answered. There it was again - that 'looking down the nose' that her Gran Peggy had warned her about so many years ago. She'd been so right!

"A girl of my sort?" Elizabeth repeated incredulously. "And what sort might that be?"

"The sort who doesn't know how to behave when connected with someone of my nephew's standing!"

"How dare you!" Elizabeth spat back. "It always amazes me that people who think themselves from the upper ranks of society frequently display such appalling manners. You're a real classy example, aren't you, Lady Catherine?"

Lady Catherine was almost speechless - but not for long. "Why, you little madam! Do you have the gall to criticise me? All I can say is thank the Lord William found out what you were like before he made the biggest mistake of his life."

As Elizabeth was considering how insulting she should make her reply - this was William's aunt, after all - the line went dead and she was left to cry tears of anger and frustration that such a woman had been so unfair ...and had got the last word!

~ * ~

"He'll get in touch, Lizzy. He told Jim Cruickshank he would. Maybe you'll just have to wait."

"The longer I wait, Jane, the more angry I'm going to be when I do speak to him. I might just tell him to get lost."

"You know that won't help. Not if you still love him."

"I know, I know. A person can be pushed too far, though." Elizabeth paused and looked at her sister uncertainly as she formed a question she'd wanted to ask for some time. "I know Charles must be in a difficult position between his best friend and his wife's sister, Jane, but I was just wondering if he's heard from William?"

"Not a peep, I'm afraid. He has tried loads of times, but he keeps getting fobbed off by William's staff."

"Huh, tell me about it!" Elizabeth muttered as she tapped her fingers angrily on the kitchen table. "That's it. I'm going to phone Pemberley."

"Are you sure that's the best thing to do, Lizzy, after your clash with Lady Catherine?"

"Right now I don't care if it's the best thing to do. I can't take this uncertainty any longer. If it's over, I want to know it's over."

"Well, I'll leave you to it, then," Jane said as she reached for her jacket. "I promised Charles I'd come home early this evening. You don't mind, do you?"

"Of course not, Jane. You get off home. I'll let you know what happens. Maybe," she added gloomily, "you'll find me crying on your doorstep in half an hour."

"Oh, I hope not, Lizzy, but don't stay here on your own if you're upset. Please come to us."

Once Elizabeth heard the front door close she picked up the phone ready to brave yet another of William's guardians - Georgiana. And from what Lady Catherine had said this confrontation wasn't going to be any easier than the last. Unfortunately, though, Georgiana's was the only number she had for Pemberley - one William had given her just in case and one that she'd never expected to use.

She sat still as a statue with the receiver in her hand, unable to force herself to make the call. Her mind was filled with bitterness that she had to phone his sister, to beg for his attention when she was as much a victim of this misunderstanding as he!

"Bastard," she cried to the empty room as she slammed down the phone, "why didn't you care enough to find out the truth?" With that Elizabeth, shaking and knowing she was allowing her stupid anger to control her, decided that even if Will never spoke to her again, she wouldn't be the first to make contact. "He can fuck off ...just fuck off! It'll be a cold day in hell before I get in touch with him!"

The next day, though, she'd changed her mind yet again. She had to speak to him - her life was in limbo and she couldn't survive this uncertainty much longer. So Elizabeth found herself ringing Georgiana's personal number, and hesitantly identified herself when the telephone was answered. She heard the coldness in Georgiana's voice immediately.

"Yes, Elizabeth, he is here and, no, he doesn't want to speak to you - not now or in the future - and, as you can imagine, I'll certainly not be trying to persuade him. And Elizabeth," Georgiana paused as Elizabeth muttered a quiet 'yes', shocked at the harshness in the voice at the other end of the line, "don't phone here again, Mrs Reynolds will be told that your call is not be taken." Having said all that she wanted, Georgiana slammed down the phone.

~ * ~

"That's that, then," Elizabeth declared to herself, "I've got my answer." Saddened though she was at the cold-hearted words used by Georgiana, she understood that she was only taking her brother's side. Hell, what would she have said to someone she believed had hurt Jane in the way Georgiana obviously believed she'd hurt William? - in fact she'd probably have been much more merciless.

So, there it was; time to give up - even though she still wanted William to hear her side of the story. Somehow, despite her resentment at the way she'd been treated by the Darcy family, she could not bear the idea that he was hidden away at Pemberley thinking badly of her. But she'd done the best she could, and there seemed to be no way to get to him. Georgiana, and probably Mrs Reynolds, were barriers that she could not pass - they would undoubtedly guard William like lionesses.

In view of the apparent finality of Georgiana's angry words, Elizabeth was very surprised later in the evening to receive a telephone call from her.

"Elizabeth, I have spoken to Will. He feels, reluctantly I have to say, that you should be given the chance to tell him ...well, whatever it is you think he needs to know. I have to say I'm not happy about it - I know this sounds clichéd, Elizabeth, but you've broken my brother's heart ...you've hurt him so much. I've never seen him like this, not even when our mother died ..."

Georgiana paused, sighing deeply. Elizabeth remained silent, allowing the angry sibling to have her say. "If I'd only your feelings to consider, I wouldn't even have told William that you'd called. I told him - only, and I stress only - because I know he needs closure on this relationship - he needs to know it's finished so that he can move on. I think he sees that himself."

Elizabeth closed her eyes - it appeared that he'd already made up his mind, no matter what she might reveal.

Georgiana continued, "Next week he's going to Toronto for a while - could be a long while - to help my cousin Anne with the expansion of our hotel chain. The project is something that I hope will keep his mind occupied while he gets over you. I suppose he deserves an explanation, Elizabeth. After all, he was prepared to give you everything. Anyway, that's all I have to say. Please get in touch with Mrs Reynolds if you still want to speak to William. I'm afraid it will have to be in person - he doesn't want to discuss this over the phone - so you'll have to come down to Pemberley." Without giving Elizabeth the chance to say a word, Georgiana bid her a cold goodbye and hung up.

Elizabeth sat in a stunned stupor for several minutes. Where did these people get the idea that they were entitled to speak to her as though she were muck they'd scraped off the bottom of their shoe? "Fuck it," she cried in exasperation. "I'm not going down there all contrite and apologetic. I DID NOTHING WRONG! I can't help it if he jumped to the wrong conclusion."

A little voice inside her head goaded her - Why shouldn't he be peeved? ...it did look very bad.

Elizabeth wept tears of frustration at what she knew she had to do ...for her own sanity if for nothing else. She was aware that she too had to have some sort of closure. If the relationship wasn't to be, she needed to see him to know it for sure. She needed, though it would give her indescribable pain, to hear it from William's own mouth.

~ * ~

How was she to do this without making a pathetic fool of herself by rushing into his arms and clinging to him? She imagined the setting as though watching a film - his cold disdain as he disengaged her arms from around his neck and called Mrs Reynolds to have her shown the door. How could she bear his rejection if he didn't believe her? Nothing, she thought, that I've ever done in my life has been as terrifying - or as important - as this.

Approaching Pemberley with a trepidation that seemed to engulf her every thought, imprisoning her somewhere in a cold, dark funk, Elizabeth was nonetheless impressed by the beauty of William's paternal home. She could see what he'd meant when he'd said it was not a fairy-tale castle like Strathlyon, with its towers and turrets, but it was a very grand and beautiful mansion. Again she was struck by the difference in their positions in life and wondered that she'd ever thought two such disparate existences could be joined as one.

Elizabeth had an uncertain smile on her lips as she waited for the massive front door to open. "Mrs Reynolds!" she exclaimed. "How nice to see you again. Georgiana mentioned you were here?"

"Yes, Miss Bennet," Mrs Reynolds replied, her face polite but unsmiling. "I like to be where I'm needed. If you'll follow me ..."

Elizabeth was shown upstairs and along a lengthy corridor to William's study. During the long walk Mrs Reynolds made no effort at further conversation, but when they reached the door, she turned to Elizabeth and patted her arm with a gentleness that was deeply touching.

William was sitting behind his desk awaiting her entry, his head bowed and his eyes closed. She gasped when he looked up at her. His face was so gaunt and pale, with what looked like the effect of sleeplessness etched around his eyes and mouth. Hell, this was going to be hard.

"William."

"Elizabeth."

William's eyes ate her up and his heart raced at the sight of her. He'd erased from his mind the pleasure of observing the delicate movements of her slender hands, the way her mass of hair obscured her face when she looked down, her enchanting smile that lit up her eyes - not that there was even the trace of a smile at the moment.

But no, she was no longer his. Not his hands, not his hair, not his smile.

"You wanted to speak to me? I'm sorry, I only found out today that you were coming - I think I'm still in a state of shock. I'm not so sure that this is a good idea, Elizabeth, and I have to say that I'm not too pleased with Georgie or Mrs Reynolds for arranging it."

Elizabeth was dumbstruck - she was sure Georgiana had said she'd approached William after her initial call and that he'd agreed to speak with her, though not over the telephone. That's why she'd made this long trek down to Pemberley, for goodness' sake.

She took a deep breath to try to regain her already shaky composure. So Georgiana had arranged this without informing her brother - why? She couldn't fathom it out, certainly not at the moment when he was looking at her so intensely.

"As I said, Elizabeth, you wanted to tell me something I presume," William prompted not unkindly when the pause became a chasm and he recognised that Elizabeth looked on the point of flight. He supposed he had to have an explanation - and only she could give it to him, though he was reluctant to pain himself further by hearing it.

"I don't know, William, I thought I'd given myself time to face you ...I didn't realise how angry I still am with you."

"You" he echoed, "...angry with me?" William was stunned. "What right have you to be angry with me? I did nothing wrong."

"But you did, William. You didn't trust me - you left without waiting for me to explain. You assumed my guilt."

"What explanation could there be, Elizabeth, tell me that? You were standing, wearing next to nothing, in your bedroom - in front of your ex-boyfriend, who was sitting on your bed ...naked ...and with the guilty look of a man caught in the act."

William paused and closed his eyes as the scenario, for the umpteenth time, unfolded in his mind. After several minutes' contemplation with his elbows on the desk and his hands covering his face, he continued, "However, I realise since you've gone to all this trouble to seek me out, facing Georgie's wrath to do so from what I hear, that there must be something more to this ...incident. But I don't know, Elizabeth, if I want to hear it. It will not ease my spirits to hear why you decided to go back to George Wickham ...and after what he did to you. Though I understand that he is much reformed since your relationship ended ...and I'm glad for you if that's the case.

He knew it had been George in her room! Elizabeth's face showed her astonishment at William's words. "Go back to George?" she repeated. "What do you mean? And you say that George is much reformed? How did you know that?"

"Then it's true," William sighed. "I met Bill Collins in Aberfeldy the day after I left Thornlea. He told me that even though Charlotte was supposed to be staying with you for the weekend, she and Jane went off to Edinburgh, leaving you behind ...at your request ...to have dinner with George Wickham."

"But it wasn't like that."

William barely heeded her denial. "Bill also mentioned something about a letter that you'd received from George, in which he claimed to be unaware of what happened to you that night at the rugby dinner. He repeated Charlotte's opinion, which I believe came from you, that George was a changed man - I think his words were that the army had 'made a man of him'."

William, who'd been staring at his desk during his speech, looked up at Elizabeth, the hurt clearly visible in his eyes. He continued. "I had thought of coming back to have things out with you until I met Bill. But then I decided that if you were truly back with George, I didn't want to hear about it."

Elizabeth averted her gaze. As she stared unseeingly out of the window she felt her eyes fill with hot tears at the thought of the pain they'd both suffered during these last two weeks - pain that could so easily have been avoided had he only allowed her to communicate with him. She could understand now, though, why he'd been so elusive. If only she'd known that Bill had met William, but Charlotte, no doubt too busy worrying about her dad, had never mentioned it to her - perhaps she didn't even know.

Trust Bill Collins to pass on half a story! Typical! Profuse tears ran down her face as she closed her eyes in resignation. Nothing about William's demeanour spelt out good news.

Even though he knew himself to be the injured party, William was filled with sorrow at Elizabeth's obvious anguish. How he longed to wipe her tears away, but it was no longer his place to do so. The thought of George Wickham touching her, gently brushing her cheek with his thumb filled him with an indescribable pain and he felt the desire to be away from her presence.

"William, please do not interrupt me. I want this to be quite clear to you." Elizabeth brushed her tears away and looked directly at him as she felt her resolve harden. She had to get this over with, even if it meant leaving Pemberley and never seeing William again. "I was wrong ...not telling you about the letter from George as soon as I received it."

"Eliza ..." William sat forwards in his chair. He didn't want to hear the details.

"No William, I asked you not to interrupt me. You must hear me out. You owe me that, I think."

William could see the determined look on her face and slumped back into his chair ready to listen, if he must.

"I thought at first that I could meet George, gain an understanding of what he remembered about that night, enlighten him and move on without you even becoming involved. But I decided, admittedly after discussing it with Jane and Charlotte, and getting some unsolicited input from Bill and Charles, that I wanted you to know everything."

William glanced up sharply when Elizabeth mentioned Charles' name - even his best friend was in on this ...he was the only one, it seemed, who'd been kept in the dark. William shook his head at his friend's betrayal, then added to himself, When he married her sister I suppose. Bastard!"

Elizabeth continued, unaware of William's angry thoughts, "So, you see, I was going to tell you when you got back from Canada. But George ...he turned up on my doorstep completely out of the blue." She shrugged her shoulders apologetically. "There seemed to be no reason to turn him away. I just wanted to get it over with ...you know ...to make him aware of how he'd hurt me - not just that night, but throughout our whole relationship." Elizabeth brought her gaze back to William's face, but he was staring at his desk. "You see I now had something to compare it with and I ...wanted him to know that."

She paused, hoping that William would look up and acknowledge her compliment to him, but his eyes remained downcast. "So, we had dinner. And George is indeed a changed man, as Bill said. I think he had the stuffing knocked out of him in the army and then, somehow, they built him up again, turning out a vastly improved product in the process. He didn't talk about it much, but it was obviously a very profound - a life changing - experience for him."

"He told me that while he was stationed in Cyprus, he met an old rugby pal and, once they'd had a couple of beers, his pal mentioned their last night together and wondered if what had happened at the dinner had been the cause of our break-up. As Bill told you, George had very little memory of that night and he was concerned to hear that something unpleasant had occurred." Elizabeth paused, fingers wiping away her tears as she observed William now staring into space, still avoiding eye contact.

"Once back in Scotland, he felt he had to see me to find out what had happened and, if necessary, to apologise. He said he'd always wondered why I'd broken up with him so abruptly - he thought perhaps I'd found out about one of his one-night-stands or had got tired of his drinking. Believe me, William; I didn't want to see him alone with the memory of what he'd done to me still in my mind. I soon realised, though, that I had nothing to fear. George had changed significantly ..."

At that William looked up abruptly, a frown on his face.

" ...and I poured out all of my hurt on to him. And he took it and owned it, realising the truth in my words and, I'm ashamed to say, my tears. George told me he had a fiancée, whom he could not face again until he'd apologised to me and sought my forgiveness. And, believe it or not William, I did forgive him. In a way I was glad that he was so drunk that he couldn't remember what happened - the worst part of that whole episode was that he'd knowingly humiliated me then offered me to his friends. Not that he was making excuses for himself - he knew that he shouldn't have been drinking so much. He knew that what he'd done was unforgivable under any circumstances."

"By the end of the evening it was clear to me that George wasn't feeling too well. He was supposed to be driving to Stirling to see his fiancée, but I was afraid he wouldn't make it so I, very reluctantly, invited him to stay the night in my flat. I let him sleep in my bed as Jane's old bed wasn't made up and he needed to lie down rather quickly - with a basin at the side of the bed! I slept in Jane's room, William, and that is the truth."

"I heard George call me in the morning; he sounded terrible, so I rushed through to him. He'd been sick during the night down the front of his tee shirt and boxers and had removed them and gone straight back to sleep. He was very embarrassed. I was just berating the poor man for making such a mess on my bed and my carpet when you came into the flat."

She looked at William, tears once again coursing down her face, "I shouted after you, Will, to explain but you left so quickly. I'm sorry, I didn't know about your conversation with Bill telling only half the story. When I realised you weren't going to contact me for an explanation, I called Thornlea, then Strathlyon. All I can say is you have a very loyal staff, William. It was your Aunt Catherine who finally let it slip that you were here - though she made it quite clear that she wanted you to have nothing to do with me."

"So I thought that was it and I tried so hard to get on with my life. But you were always there, a part of me that was raw, in need of healing. Eventually, I called Pemberley and spoke to Georgiana." Elizabeth sobbed as she recalled that telephone conversation and William, at that moment, desperately wanted to comfort her. "She was, understandably, very scathing of me and refused to let me speak to you. However, she called later in the day to tell me that you were going to Canada for an extended stay ...that you would meet me in order to achieve some kind of closure so that you could get on with your life. She made it very clear that this was your choice for your future and that she approved of it. So I agreed to this meeting, difficult though it's been, because I wanted you to know the truth before you left."

"Elizabeth." William arose from his chair and came round his desk to stand before her.

Now that she'd finished, she sobbed and turned away from him. She hadn't wanted to let him see her weep and what had she done throughout their meeting? ...cry like a baby. She was ashamed of herself and now wanted to retreat, preferably without having to hear his judgment. She had a feeling that it was not going to go in her favour. But hadn't she felt that their relationship was likely to end long before today? That was why the pain in her chest was so insistent.

"Elizabeth, please sit down." William sat on the corner of his desk trying to ignore her tear stained face. This was going to be the hardest thing he'd ever done because even now he wasn't sure he was making the right decision.

"Elizabeth, I thank you for coming all the way to Pemberley to ...set the record straight. I'm glad that you didn't sleep with George as I'd mistakenly surmised and I'm sorry that I didn't wait for your explanation - though you must admit that my conclusion wasn't that far-fetched under the circumstances. However, much as I still do love you and always will, I think, I ...I'm not ready to go back to what we were." William stood up and walked to the window. He couldn't say what he was feeling whilst she was looking at him with such pain in her eyes. "It's the secrecy, you see, the subterfuge. You were talking, laughing with me on the phone ...and at the same time you knew you'd received a letter from your ex-boyfriend, a man who'd let you down so badly ...and you didn't tell me. Jane, Charlotte, fucking Bill Collins, and even Charles knew ...what had it to do with Charles? ...but you didn't tell me, the man who loved you and wanted to be with you. I'd rather have been told on the phone, Elizabeth, than find out I was the last to know. I'm sorry; I wish with all my heart that I could feel differently. I thought you'd become more open with me but this withholding of important information, this concealment, seems to be part of a pattern and it's one I can't live with."

"A pattern, William ...a pattern?" Elizabeth flung back angrily. "I'm a human being who makes mistakes, not a fucking pattern. And as far as saying you're 'not ready to go back to where we were' - I take it that's just a way of letting me down the coward's way. I take it what you're really saying is that we're finished but you don't want to tell me to my face."

"No Elizabeth. Look, this relationship ...it's been a rollercoaster from beginning to end. I just need some space."

Elizabeth took a deep breath and counted to ten before she answered. Her voice when she next spoke was tightly contained. How she wished she had as much control over the blasted tears streaming down her face. "You can have all the space you want, William," she replied, "because I'm going to do your job for you. I'm saying we're finished.

"Elizabeth, that's not what I want."

"Oh, it is, William," Elizabeth answered. "I realised it when you wouldn't take my calls or return my messages - I just didn't want to admit it to myself. Hell, I could see it in your face when I walked into this room."

"Elizabeth, I ..."

Elizabeth shook her head contemptuously as she got out of her chair. "You know, William, I understand now what you meant when you said you find it hard to forgive. I don't see that I've done anything that needs forgiveness ...but there you are ...we're very different."

Angrily wiping the tears from her cheeks, she resolved to end their interview with at least some shred of dignity. "Please don't think that I came here to beg my way back into your life - I know you're going off to Canada anyway. I wanted, as you put it, to set the record straight. I didn't expect any more than that from our meeting. I know you are hurting, William, and I am sorry to be the cause of your pain, but be assured that I am hurting too." Elizabeth arose shakily from her chair and approached William, holding out her hand to make her farewell. "Goodbye, William."

William clasped her hand in his own and looked for the last time into her face. "Goodbye, Elizabeth. I ..."

But she interrupted him, desiring only to get away from him. "No, William, there's nothing further to say."

He lowered his head to give Elizabeth one last fond kiss, but she drew him such a look that he straightened immediately; then she turned away from him and exited the room knowing she was finally, after weeks of turmoil and indecision, walking out of his life for good.

As she made for the front door, Mrs Reynolds approached her and, observing Elizabeth's blotchy and tearstained face, took pity on her and clasped her in a gentle hug. Elizabeth promptly burst into tears - the kindness of the old woman too much for her.

"I'm so sorry, my dear. I had hoped ...but I can see from your face ..." Mrs Reynolds stopped; words were superfluous and Elizabeth was sobbing too much to hear her anyway. She attempted to lead her away from the front door towards the kitchen; perhaps a cup of tea would calm her down before she got behind the wheel of her car, but Elizabeth was insistent that she needed to leave immediately.

"Thank you, Mrs Reynolds, for your kindness, but I must go ...I can't bear to be here a moment longer." Without giving the woman a chance to change her mind for her, Elizabeth swiftly opened the door and stumbled towards her car. Behind her she could hear Mrs Reynolds following, asking if she was safe to drive and offering the services of a driver to take her wherever she wanted to go. Her only reply was a shake of the head as she opened her car door and slumped into her seat. Mrs Reynolds then watched as the woman she'd thought was so perfect for her William lowered her head to the steering wheel and wept with abandon.

From his study window, William Darcy watched and held himself back from rushing out to comfort her. It was finished. But he did not leave the window until her car was well out of sight.

~ * ~

William didn't sleep that night. Inside his head his conversation with Elizabeth played out endlessly, churning and churning. The result was always the same - a gnawing feeling that he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life. And what could he do about it now? She'd never forgive him for this. All she'd wanted was wait until he got home from Canada to tell him about a stupid letter from an ex-boyfriend for whom she no longer cared. And what had he done? He'd run away. And when she'd followed him, he'd discarded her contemptuously.

Morning brought with a bright orange sun in a clear blue sky and birds chirping noisily in the trees outside William's bedroom window. How strange, he thought, as he listened to the incessant chatter, that the world should appear as it has always been, when mine has been crushed - and all by my own hand. He rubbed his cheek pensively as his gaze wandered over the wood and the lake all covered by a fine mist. Suddenly, his eye was caught by a car sitting on his driveway next to his shiny new Range Rover. It couldn't be ...yes, it was ...Elizabeth's car!

"Thank you, God," he said to himself, "after all I said yesterday, she's come back." A feeling of elation surged through him as he ran out of his room towards the stairs. Taking them two at a time, he shouted to Mrs Reynolds, "She's come back. Where is she?"

Mrs Reynolds, who'd been collecting the mail, gave him a puzzled look. "I'm sorry, William," she answered, holding out a car key that she'd just picked up. "This was on the doormat. I was just about to bring it up to you."

"You mean ...Elizabeth's not here?"

"Elizabeth? What has she to do with this key?"

"I gave her one of the Thornlea cars - it's parked outside now. She's come back."

As Mrs Reynolds dropped the key into William's hand she said, "Elizabeth's not here, William. It looks as though she's returned your car to you, though."

Filled with bitter disappointment, William turned around and went back upstairs to his room. The feeling of joy he'd experienced when he thought Elizabeth was back in his home told him all he needed to know. Without her neither houses, nor wealth, nor life itself held any value for him. Whatever it took, he had to win her forgiveness. He had to get her back. How to do it, though, when he'd treated her so shabbily, was something he couldn't answer at the moment.

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