Chapter Seven. Again at Netherfield

“Where are you two boys off to?”

Darcy turned toward his wife. “Nowhere in particular…”

“The stables!” interrupted the ringing voice above his head.

Lizzy laughed, glancing at her sheepish husband before gazing into the shining eyes of Alexander, perched on Darcy’s shoulders. “Well, it is nice to know you have learned the lesson of honesty, Alexander.”

“We plan to start in the stables, but one never knows where one may end up. That is all I meant,” Darcy intoned with a straight face, reaching to tickle Michael, who was waving every limb in wild mirth from his comfortable roost in Lizzy’s arms.

“Of course. Alexander, you understand that Xerxes is not here but home at Pemberley with the other ponies?”

“Yes, Mama. Papa say we ride Moon.”

“Oh, did he now?” She looked sharply at her spouse, who was now making faces at a giggling Michael. “Do you really think this wise, Fitzwilliam?”

“Moon is as docile as old Sheba. We will only be walking around the yard. Nothing more, I promise, and he will be on my lap. I will hold on very tight, dearest. You need not worry.” He bent to kiss her on the cheek, securely clasping Alexander’s legs to his chest, and then blew into Michael’s neck, sending the baby into fresh gales of laughter.

Lizzy looked from her sincere husband to the enthusiastic face of her firstborn and sighed. When it came to horses her authority was nonexistent. Darcy’s infatuation with all things equestrian had been passed to Alexander.

“Very well. Just be careful.”

“You know I will.” Darcy caressed her chin. “I love you, Mrs. Darcy. Have fun with your mother and sister planning wedding minutiae.”

“I am sure I will, although Mama will be heartbroken not to greet her favorite son-in-law.”

“She can share her delight in my presence tonight,” he responded to her tease. “Perhaps by then the bulk of her raptures will be exhausted.”

“I would not count on that! So you will not be taking tea with us?”

He winced. “Ah, well, I was thinking I would take Alexander into Meryton later and…”

Lizzy shook her head as she rose to bestow a tender kiss. “I understand. Be prepared for some scolding, however, as my mother is anxious to see Alexander and will be vexed that you have spirited him away.”

“I daresay she will be easily comforted in spoiling Michael all afternoon. Feel free to expose my selfishness in keeping Alexander with me before he is diverted by dozens of cousins come tomorrow. Undoubtedly I will barely glimpse any of you once Netherfield is descended upon.”

“Poor Mr. Darcy!” Lizzy laughed up at him. “Now go and enjoy yourselves.”

“We will.” He bent for a last kiss for himself and Alexander.

“Bye, Mama! Love!”

Lizzy waved as they exited the manor, Darcy bouncing and weaving side to side with Alexander laughing and holding on tightly to his father’s collar.

Both parties passed pleasant afternoons their first full day in Hertfordshire—Darcy alone with his son, exploring the stables and countryside, and Lizzy with her mother and Kitty. Evening would bring them together again as they hosted the first of several planned dinners.

Lizzy and Darcy stood in the parlor, the warm, spring-like evening air of mid-March flowing through the open windows.

“There,” she said with a tug to her husband’s impeccably tied cravat, “you are perfect.”

“Thank you, madam. I am sure Samuel will once again rest easier knowing my wife has given her approval.” He kissed her cheek and then turned to Alexander with a solemn nod toward Lizzy. “What have I taught you, Alexander?”

“Mama, you beautiful. Pretty dress.”

Lizzy curtsied, brown taffeta crunching. “Why thank you, kind sir.” Then she laughed gaily, kneeling for a tight embrace. “You are as handsome as your father, sweetheart. How do you like your suit?” She fingered the frilly, chambray collar framing his round face, brushing invisible lint from the blue flannel jacket tailored to mimic a gentleman’s coat only far looser and lighter. The roomy breeches were adorned with simple gold buttons, white-stockinged feet encased in basic house slippers of kid leather. It was the first time the toddler had ever worn anything other than the typical free flowing children’s dresses, or the airy Indian garments his godfather managed to provide no matter how Darcy frowned. He was a bit young for his garments, but he did look absolutely adorable.

Nonetheless, it was clear by the expression on his face, coupled with the constant tugging on clinging fabric, that he was far from enthusiastic about the change in attire.

“Itchy, Mama.”

“It is flannel, love. It cannot be scratchy. You will grow used to these clothes in time, but I promise you can change into your nightgown soon. Try not to squirm. Look at your papa. He is not fidgeting, is he? And his jacket is wool, which is scratchy.”

“Your mother is correct, Alexander. Try to be strong.”

“Ah! The corruption begins already!” George strode through the door at that moment, breezy and regal in an Indian silk of navy blue and silver, his three years in England not affecting his clothing preferences appreciably. Alexander took one look at his unencumbered godfather and assumed a childish pout astonishingly similar to his father’s frown.

“We were beginning to presume you had decided not to join us, Uncle. The Bennets should be here at any moment.”

“I was assuring that the chess set was ready. Elizabeth’s father has now surmounted me by three games at last count. I must prove my superiority!” He dramatically lifted his chin, fist high in the air, and winked at Alexander, who erupted in giggles, itchy clothing forgotten.

A footman entered, announcing the arrival of the Bennets. George scooped a still giggling Alexander into his arms as they moved into the foyer to greet their guests.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet had changed little in the past years. Mrs. Bennet continued to bemoan her husband’s imminent demise, but the older gentleman showed nary a sign of going anywhere. If anything he held himself with an unusual spunkiness. Apparently the joys of observing his eldest daughters find happiness while providing him with an ever-increasing clutch of grandchildren had restored a semblance of youth. Mrs. Bennet was as breathless and flighty as ever; the consolation of fulfilling her appointed task in marrying her daughters adequately not yet penetrating her consciousness.

“Why, Mr. Darcy! How delightful it is to see you! How can we ever repay you for leasing Netherfield for the wedding? Your generosity is a testament to your excellent character!”

“Thank you, madam, but once again I must assert your error. All praise must be extended to Mrs. Darcy.”

“Nonsense! We know it is your doing, sir! Blessed we were the day you entered our lives, is it not so, Lizzy?”

“Absolutely, Mama. However, in this instance I fear my husband is telling the truth. You see, he preferred the joy of dwelling at Longbourn until I prevailed upon him the need for additional guest quarters. Quite distressed he was at the sacrifice, but I insisted.”

“Oh! What a dear, dear man you are!” She daubed at her teary eyes, missing Lizzy’s smirk and Darcy’s barely concealed frown of disgust.

Greetings erupted in earnest. Alexander was engulfed with hugs and kisses while the men greeted each other with more restraint. Lizzy promised that Michael would be brought down later, only then able to steer her sister to the back of the small crowd for a private chat.

“Have you heard from your fianc??”

“Not as yet. I know he is busy in his own way to prepare for our wedding, but I do wish he would hurry along.”

“Have no fears, sister dear. I am sure he is as frantic to be with you as you are to be with him.” Lizzy smiled at Kitty’s pretty blush. “Surely you do not believe otherwise?”

Kitty shook her head. “No. I no longer doubt his devotion and honesty. I merely persist in a ridiculous fear that an unnameable force will separate us for yet a few more months!”

“I doubt that shall happen. When do you expect him to arrive?”

“Tomorrow or the following day. He was unsure, but he is insistent on passing a few days with the entire family prior to our wedding. How about Georgiana? Have you heard from her?”

“Not since they departed from Paris. William is fretful, not that there is anything remarkable in that.” She glanced fondly toward her spouse. “I assure him that all is well. She is in competent hands and would not miss your wedding.”

Kitty halted her just outside the parlor doorway, lowering her voice seriously. “Lizzy, I must inform you. We received word today that Lydia and Mr. Wickham will be coming to the wedding. I did not expect them; after all, they did not stand at your and Jane’s wedding, or at Mary’s. I am very sorry!”

“Do not be anxious. It was inevitable and we have been fortunate not to encounter Mr. Wickham in all these years. I appreciate you warning me so I can prepare William and Georgiana.” She looked at Darcy, who was currently in amused conversation with his father-in-law while Alexander tugged on his grandfather’s bushy muttonchops from his perch in the older man’s arms. “They do not anticipate residing at Netherfield, I pray.”

“Oh no! Papa disabused Mama of that notion immediately! There is more than enough room at Longbourn.” She too glanced toward Darcy with warmth. “I would never allow such disregard for Mr. Darcy’s feelings, nor Georgiana’s. I am truly sorry, Lizzy!”

Lizzy smiled warmly, kissing Kitty’s forehead. “Think on it no further, my dear. This is your time to celebrate. Nothing shall be allowed to mar that. Come, let us start the rejoicing now.”

1

The evening’s festivities were over, the Bennets safely returned to Longbourn after a delicious meal. Mrs. Hanford hummed while she knitted and kept an eye on Alexander, who was finally rid of the encumbering garments and nestled in sleep wearing a loose, cotton nightgown and hugging Dog against his chest. Miss Lisa read a book by the fire, all comfortably ensconced in the chamber selected to serve as nursery for the duration of their stay. The remaining Darcys relaxed in the tiny sitting room attached to their favorite Netherfield sleeping chamber.

Darcy sat at the small writing desk attending to a stack of papers that Mr. Andrew Daniels, his London solicitor, had sent to Netherfield. Mostly they were lists of various business matters to be handled upon his arrival in London, nothing urgent thankfully, as Darcy was distracted by the vision of his wife nursing their son.

As always, Lizzy respected his preference for silence as he worked. Her gentle murmurs and crooning to Michael were dulcet. She rocked slowly, eyes intent on the calm face of the babe, by all appearances ignoring her husband. If there was a bit more breast showing than was strictly necessary for the task it seemed to be guileless.

Darcy smiled, turning his gaze toward the parchment before him. He was not really fooled by her ploy, reasonably familiar with his wife’s tactics. Nor was he in the slightest bit dismayed, except that he really did want to peruse these lists and pen a brief note for Georgiana to be posted on the morrow.

He frowned. As Lizzy had intimated to Kitty, he was concerned that there was no letter from his sister. She may have been twenty years of age and well cared for, but some habits never die and one was the need to protect her. And, of course, he simply missed her horribly and was anxious to be reunited.

Movement from the chair again diverted him, pleasantly so as Lizzy transferred Michael to the right breast and apparently forgot to cover the left. She glanced up at her husband, the expression of contented innocence belied by a twinkle in her eyes. Darcy smiled in return, certain that his eyes were glowing even though he avoided directly gazing at the abundant display.

He pulled a blank parchment from the pile, dipped the pen as a prelude to writing while his thoughts veered not to wayward sister, but to his beautifully sensuous wife. A fresh wave of joy and relief washed over him, borne not from what he was certain would evolve into a delightful night of pleasure, but from the peace that now ruled after what had been several months of difficulty.

He shook his head, willed the unpleasant memory aside, and concentrated on his letter, unaware when Lizzy exited to the next-door nursery to place Michael into his cradle.

Lizzy brushed over the wispy hair on Michael’s head and tucked the blanket tightly around his plump body. She knew she would tell Darcy about Wickham, just not tonight. It was not cowardice—well, not completely—but rather because she wanted and needed this time to focus solely on her husband.

Lizzy was indeed fully conscious of her actions while nursing Michael. Last night’s lovemaking was wonderful as always, but somewhat perfunctory after days of forced abstinence due to preparations for their departure from Pemberley and residing at an inn while traveling. Tonight’s seduction was designed to evoke a response!

The memories surrounding Netherfield were numerous, as she had said upon their arrival earlier yesterday. They dated to the beginning of their relationship and involved dozens of strange and incredible moments. She paused in her caress over Michael’s skin, smiling as she recalled one particularly erotic encounter that sparked her plans for tonight. She crossed to their chambers, halting only for a last minute pinch to her cheeks, to fluff her flowing waist-length hair, and to loosen the ties to her gossamer robe.

“Are you almost finished with your letter?”

Darcy jumped, not hearing her sneak behind him, and grasped the hand running inside the opening in his shirt. “Nearly. Give me a few minutes, please.”

“Hmmm… In a few minutes I may be asleep. Then what would you do, Mr. Darcy?”

“Wake you.”

“How ungentlemanly! I am appalled.” She escaped his grasp, resuming her exploration of his chest, and poked the tip of her tongue into his ear.

Darcy groaned, grabbed the searching hand tighter, and bent his head away from her lips. “Patently unfair! Seriously, love, please give me a few minutes. I really want to send this at first light.”

“You do worry too much, dearest. Georgie will be here. She has probably decided to surprise you.” She stood, running her fingers through his hair and massaging his temples. “Richard will play the wounded soldier for you having so little faith in his capacity as protector, and the rest of us will have to endure his dramatics. Have you no mercy?”

He laughed, clasping one hand and kissing her palm. “I am certain Richard will have far too many delightful stories to tell for overt dramatics. Now, leave me be for a bit and I promise I shall make it up to you.”

“Very well.” She kissed the top of his head. “I shall be in there, alone, trying to stay awake.” She glided toward the bedchamber doorway, diaphanous robe billowing, and paused halfway to glance seductively over her shoulder. Darcy watched her, pen poised over the parchment. She held his gaze and proceeded to peel the robe off her shoulders, revealing one of Madame du Loire’s skimpy concoctions.

“Ah, Lizzy! You vixen!”

She laughed and sauntered into the bedroom with a toss of her hair.

Less than fifteen minutes later he was there, warm hands stroking over her arms and moist lips nuzzling the bend of her neck. She stood by the window, gazing at the familiar landscape bathed in faint moonlight.

“You are still awake.”

“Waiting for my obsessive husband.”

He chuckled, arms clasping hers around her slender waist and drawing fast onto the solid surface of his body. “Yes, indeed I am obsessive. Obsessively in love with and desirous of you. I abhor traveling if for no other reason than it is difficult to relax with you in an inn with our sons upset.”

“Oh, you seemed comfortable enough with Michael asleep on your chest and Alexander curled between us.”

“As much as I adore our babies I concede I would rather you be on my chest.” He ran two fingers under her strap, knuckles grazing over a fragile collarbone and then down to a swelling breast.

Lizzy melted further onto his body. “I do believe, husband mine, that it was on my agenda to seduce you tonight.”

“Hmmm… Is that so?” His mouth was now at the nape of her neck, the other hand stroking over a thigh. “How did you intend to go about your seduction? It really does not take all that much, you know.”

“This is true, but I have discovered that driving you a wee bit insane does heighten the experience.”

“I cannot argue that fact. Merely picturing you in this slip of satin”—his fingertips smoothed over the fabric covering her belly—“has kept me pleasantly distracted while attempting to compose a brotherly correspondence.”

She sighed, loudly and theatrically. “Unfortunately, I have had to wait for so long that I think I am no longer in the mood.” She twisted from his embrace and strolled with a sway of her hips to the middle of the room.

Darcy grinned, leaning against the wall with arms and feet crossed in a picture of blas? attitude. “What a pity. Is there anything I can do to restore your interest?”

She tapped a finger against her lower lip as she studied him contemplatively. Then she shrugged, arms waving as if bored by the question although she managed to sweep through her hair and push her chest out. “Oh bother! I suppose you could remove your shirt. That may spark my enthusiasm. If you do it properly.”

He lifted a brow. “Are there varying methods to removing a shirt?”

“Oh, indeed, yes! I daresay if one performs adequately it can be quite stimulating. Have you not discovered this to be true, lover?”

She leered—there was no other way to put it—and Darcy flushed. The truth is that even after three years of marriage and numerous seductive stripping dances on her part, always observed with tremendous enthusiasm, he still did not grasp that she experienced the same titillation from observing him disrobing. He had lost track of the number of times she joined him in his dressing room with that singular expression indicating passionate arousal. Samuel still blanched and scurried from the room. And how often she had lingered over each button and tie, unveiling him as she kissed and caressed until she was wild with need.

That she esteemed his figure was obvious, and highly appreciated, but his humble nature shied from taking it to the next level. As she grew bolder in her attire and the flirtatious exposing of her flesh to his eyes, he quailed at the idea of such exhibitionism. However, the brightness in her eyes and lascivious smirk were encouraging, so he decided to do his best to please her.

He started with the buttons, the top two already undone, feeling utterly ridiculous as she avidly watched.

“Now, slowly pull the ends from your waistband.”

His eyes widened in surprise at her command, realizing that she intended to talk him through it! He blushed deeper, but also felt a scorching surge of lust, especially as her gaze was no longer on his face, but clearly inventorying his person with rising ardor.

“Take it off, Fitzwilliam, unhastily, while turning in a circle.”

His face was scarlet but only partially from embarrassment. Heat was flowing through him, her vibrant voice and covetous stare enlivening.

“Hmmm… I love the way your muscles flex as you move,” she whispered with a reflexive moan.

She kept up the train of admiration and instruction, the removal of breeches never taking so long in his life. It was awkward, and he felt a bit the fool, but it was obvious by her deepened voice, panting breaths, and visible shivers that she was profusely pleased by his performance. By the time every bit of clothing was removed, he too was intensely aroused, much to his surprise.

Then she floated toward him, hands lifting to airily brush over the hairs on his chest, and he thought he would burst into flames. She touched him everywhere, murmuring appreciatively over each feature, finally leaning into his back. With lips pressed between his shoulder blades, the level most comfortable for her to reach, and hands stroking intimately, she asked, “Are you adequately seduced, my love?”

He growled in response and stilled her stimulating hands. “Are you adequately in the mood, sweet love?”

“Come to bed and we shall see.”

Quite some time later, the bed tousled and their bodies entangled and lying diagonally, Lizzy rose on one elbow to gaze at her gasping spouse. She kissed his chin, fingertips dipping into his navel. “You performed stupendously, my love.”

“Yes,” he agreed with a smug leer, “I sense you are pleased.”

Lizzy rubbed over the fingertip-sized pressure marks across his posterior shoulder blades. “Indeed I am satisfied, but I was not primarily referring to your prowess and ability to send me to the moon. I was talking about your impressive disrobing. I was not sure if you were up to the task. But considering the last time we were here and my excellent lesson in the art of seductive undressing, I trusted you had learned capably.”

“Ah! Indeed I remember quite vividly. So that was your impetus, was it?”

“I was praying for an adequate, perhaps somewhat neophytic, performance, but you wildly exceeded my expectations.”

Darcy grinned, snatching her teasing hand and bringing it to his mouth for a kiss. He drew her body closer, encircling her with both arms and delivering a long, lazy kiss.

“Mmmm… I forgot to ask if you remembered to lock the door.”

He nodded as he swept the snarled hair from her face. “That lesson has been indelibly etched into my brain! Yes, the door is locked. But now that you have touched upon the subject, I am going to ease my mind of their welfare ere I fall asleep in your arms. I shall return momentarily.” And after another kiss, he left.

Lizzy stretched and sighed happily, belatedly recalling the foul news of Wickham. Tomorrow is soon enough, she thought, nestling deeper into the linens warmed by their love and yielding to drowsiness.

1

The tentative knock that roused the Darcys on their second morning in Hertfordshire brought instant wakefulness to Lizzy but only a rumbled groan from Darcy. She leapt from the bed and grabbed her robe, while Darcy turned onto his stomach and burrowed deeper into the mattress. No bell was installed to alert of a hungry infant, but the morning routine was ingrained.

A half hour later Lizzy returned. Darcy had not budged and was breathing regularly, but instead of snuggling gratefully into his welcoming warmth, Lizzy stirred the fire and curled up in the chair. She gazed into the flames as her racing mind drifted to matters both pleasant and distressing.

It was always a joy to visit with family and friends after the long winter sequestered in Derbyshire. This year was extra thrilling due to the wedding and new lives born in the intervening months. Letters passed over the miles at a regular pace, but there was only so much information that could be inscribed onto parchment. Long hours of fellowship were required to catch up on all the news.

Lizzy sighed and drew her legs against her chest. She knew it was imperative that she inform her husband of Wickham’s appearance before he heard of it from a less understanding source, like her mother.

Oddly, she did not know how Darcy would respond to meeting George Wickham after all these years. He certainly would not be thrilled by the idea, but she was unsure how deeply his animosity yet ran.

It was nearly two years since the information reached them of Wickham’s discharge from the army and his subsequent relocation to Devon. Letters to Lizzy from her flighty sister were nonexistent, but Mrs. Bennet received sporadic updates. They were always vague, no one sure what the full details of their living conditions or Wickham’s employment were. Knowing how irresponsible her sister was, it never crossed Lizzy’s mind to consider the mystery a sinister one.

Darcy relinquished his guilt over Lydia’s situation, recognizing that they were a married couple who were responsible for their own lives. The dearth of explicit information with only Lydia’s giddy ramblings to discern from together with the great distance to Devon meant that it was not a topic often broached. Darcy, like Lizzy, simply did not think of the Wickhams.

Now they were to be here for Kitty’s wedding. Why? It was baffling and she feared Darcy would interpret it as an ominous sign. She hated to see her husband or Georgiana discomfited and she fretted over Kitty’s wedding being disturbed, her own thoughts dark as she stared into the flames.

Darcy roused, groggily noted the emptiness of his arms, and groped for where his wife’s luscious body should lay. While his sleepy mind decided she was probably nursing Michael, his eyes slit open and noted with surprise that she sat by the fire. After a few seconds of sluggish mental assimilation, his gravely morning voice broke the calm, “Beloved? Are you well?”

“I am fine, love. Just thinking.”

“Come back to bed. I need you.”

Lizzy joined him under the quilted counterpane, their arms embracing naturally and hands caressing. Darcy nestled his head onto her right chest, cheek pillowed by her bosom with warm breath wafting over her sensitive skin, humming in cat-like satisfaction.

“I love you, Mrs. Darcy,” he mumbled in a thick sleepy voice.

“I love you more, Mr. Darcy,” she retorted with the standard playful response, feeling Darcy’s amused smile against the soft flesh of her breast.

“How long do I have you all to myself before your mother and sister descend upon Netherfield?”

“They will be here mid-morning, before noon. Charles and Jane should arrive shortly thereafter.”

“Yes, and that reminds me. Do you mind terribly if Bingley and I desert you all this evening and spend some time at the Meryton billiard hall? Mr. Bennet has informed the men of our visit and although I am sure they are more delighted at the prospect of Bingley’s presence than mine, a dinner and games have been arranged.”

“They undoubtedly fear being humiliated once again at the billiard table.” She responded, rubbing her face against his silky hair. Darcy snickered evilly, offering no rebuttal to the plausible truth. “Do not fret about us womenfolk, my love. We can entertain ourselves without the dashing men about to liven the atmosphere.”

“I have no doubt of that. I was most concerned for Jane. Do you think she will be distressed to have Bingley gone?”

Lizzy shook her head after thinking on his query for a moment. “I do not believe so. We can dine at Longbourn as planned and I judge that the familiarity of family with the children playing at our feet will soothe her. She needed to distance herself from Hasberry for a while and this is a perfect place to start.” She continued to play with his hair, fingers running through the brown locks absently. “Physically she has recovered and is overcoming her grief. Also, Ethan’s walking has evolved to running so she is keeping busy!”

Again she felt Darcy’s smiling lips graze her skin. “Indeed! Life is never the same again once they begin to walk. Alexander was easy to control, but I have a feeling I will need to install stout locks or barricades over the stairways to prevent escape and severe tumbles when Michael begins to toddle, which, considering his precociousness, will likely be well before Alexander did.”

They both laughed and nodded. Darcy’s hand traveled from its warm roost on her hip to the flat expanse of her abdomen, pressing gently into the soft flesh, his voice low when he spoke. “I do not like to think on the sadness of losing a child. Bingley has recovered from the loss for the most part, but it must be extremely difficult for a woman.”

Lizzy squeezed tightly and said nothing. The trauma Jane suffered in miscarrying her second child during the middle of her pregnancy was profound, as they both knew, thus words on the subject were unpleasant. The midwife assured them that Jane was healthy and should conceive and carry easily in the future, as the stillborn, a girl baby that Charles would not allow Jane to see, was malformed, hence the cause of the miscarriage. It was a tragedy nonetheless, the past three months a difficult period for both Bingleys. The sturdiness of their now nearly two-year-old son was a balm to aching hearts.

Silence fell for a spell. Darcy closed his eyes, stroking his wife’s velvet skin, utterly at peace. Lizzy, conversely, was tense. Breaking the news about Wickham’s imminent return into their lives was not a topic she relished relaying, yet she knew it needed to be spoken, before events intruded and he discovered the information in a more startling manner.

How to broach the subject? For the past hour she had played through scenarios, practiced the best words to ease his distress, but nothing would make the blow any easier. Just say it! She chastised her cowardice and opened her mouth to speak…

“How long ago did Michael nurse?” He interrupted in a sultry drawl, fingers initiating the subtle frolicking over her skin that drove her mad. “Experience has taught how diverted we become with family and activities intruding, so I think it essential we make love while we have the opportunity to do so. Agreed?”

“Lydia and Wickham are coming to the wedding.”

Darcy froze, the hand that encompassed her left breast clenching.

Lizzy bit her lip, the blurted statement shrilly spoken in her haste to forestall his amorous attentions that would surely have driven thoughts of offensive family members out of her mind. She groaned and cringed at her lack of tact. “William, I…”

“Yes, I know they are coming.”

“You… What?”

He rose up, serious eyes engaging hers. “Mr. Bennet told me last night. He thought I should know and be prepared.” He smiled, smoothing the hair by her startled eyes. “Your father does not know all the details of my past interactions with Wickham, but he knows there is a certain… animosity, shall we say? I gathered that he is none too thrilled either, although I am sure he is anxious about Lydia and will be pleased to see her.” He paused, frowning and cocking his head. “Is this why you were sitting by the fire in thought rather than nestling with your husband?”

She nodded. “I was trying to think how to tell you. You… you do not seem too upset. I thought you would be furious.”

“I am not sure how I feel. I have known our meeting was inevitable, but over these past months I have given up dwelling on it. Time does heal some wounds, I suppose. That is not to say I trust him.” His face grew sterner, mouth pressed into the thin line Lizzy recognized as stubbornness and a precursor to a domineering demand. “I command you to avoid him as much as feasible, Elizabeth. And I forbid him to have any interaction with our sons. My opinion has not changed and my decree that the Wickhams have no place in our lives persists.”

“Do you think him dangerous?”

“I put nothing past him. I know for cert that he has no love for a Darcy and do not want you or our children subjected to his tongue or possible exploitation. Primarily I merely wish to avoid any unpleasantness. Perhaps we will all be shocked and discover him to have matured or tamed or found God. Who knows? But I will not take any chances with my family. Do you understand?” She nodded, Darcy intently examining her eyes for the tiniest hint of disobedience, but in this situation she was in total agreement. “As we have discussed in the past, he is not a man to be taken lightly. I will be watching him closely, so you do not need to fret. I want you to enjoy this time with Kitty. Leave the vigilance to me.”

“You are worrying me, William.”

He smiled, bending to kiss her forehead. “Forgive me, dearest. You really have nothing to be concerned about. I doubt if Wickham will attempt to cross me, and remember that Richard will be here as well. Wickham was always far more terrified of him than me, for some reason. Even now that he no longer wears the uniform, Wickham will be quelled by the presence of Colonel Fitzwilliam.”

He brushed a thumb over her lips, leaning closer while pushing his taut muscled body onto hers. “Now, what say we return to the previous topic? The far more pleasant one involving me loving you.” He lingered, lips a scant hairbreadth away from hers. “I am positive I can drive all other thoughts from your mind, Mrs. Darcy.”

“I would accuse you of arrogance, but in this matter you speak the truth, Mr. Darcy.”

He laughed, rolling to his back with her encased amid strong arms and long legs. Every muscle rippled, Lizzy shivering at the feel of his solid thighs tenaciously clutching her hips and the radiant heat oozing from the steely plains of his torso. He lifted his head to close the small gap for a kiss, but Lizzy withdrew.

“William, I worry for you.” His brow rose questioningly and eyes widened. “Promise me you will avoid Wickham as well. Do not let him bait you into acting foolishly.”

“Elizabeth, I have greater forbearance than you give me credit for!”

“Do you? I seem to recall a rash urge to strangle him with your bare hands not too many months ago! You are a man of great passion, my love, despite your uncommon self-control and wisdom. Your emotions do, upon occasion, overrule your temperance and reserve. Thankfully your shortswords and dueling pistols are secured at Pemberley! Please be careful, that is all I ask. Remember your family in the present and not the conflicts of the past. Promise me.”

“I promise. I will happily pretend the man is invisible as much as is possible. Even if that means being a poor host.”

“It will give you a ready excuse to stand in the corner and glower, since that is what you prefer in large gatherings anyway.”

Darcy grunted at her tease, pulling her firmly to his mouth and tightening every muscle enclosing her body. “Can we stop talking now? My need for you has taken on an urgency that I fear may be interrupted at any moment by a demanding baby. Thwarted sexual satisfaction will put me in a fouler mood, and we would not want that, now would we?”

Lizzy’s laugh and retort were stayed by a fervidly seeking tongue, communication essentially nonverbal from there on. No interruptions occurred, both exiting the bedchamber sometime later tremendously satisfied and in buoyant spirits.

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