Darcy pulled his wife closer. His wife! How often he had dreamt of calling Elizabeth that. Here she was, finally in his arms. His lips found the curve of her neck, delighting in the shiver he felt wrack her petite frame. As he kissed her smooth skin, he felt goose pimples emerge. He found her earlobe and sucked on it until she let out a breathy exhale. The hand around her waist wandered north. She was so soft, so comforting, so everything he had ever needed but never knew. The tightening bud under his palm and the sharp inhale he heard brought his mind to the present.
The glorious dream evaporated and Darcy wrenched his hand away as he realised he was not embracing Elizabeth, his loving wife, but instead Elizabeth, his skittish betrothed.
She was still beside him, making neither a sound nor a move. Darcy rolled to his back and raised to his elbows. They were no longer touching, but he could feel the heat from her body still. The taste of her skin was on her mouth and the feel of her imprinted on his hand.
Fighting through the temptation and embarrassment, his honour demanded he speak. “Touch…you…apologise…pardon…”
He squeezed his eyes shut and let out a growl as his tongue could not form coherent words. Elizabeth sat up as well. She placed a hand on his arm, causing him to jump. The last thing he needed at the moment was her touching him. Need still coursed through his veins and thrummed in every muscle of his body.
“Fitzwilliam?” Elizabeth coaxed and finally, he turned his face to hers. “There is no need to apologise. Your touch was heavenly.” She picked up his hand and held it in hers.
“I had no right. This is precisely why I suggested you should journey ahead.”
“Are you ashamed of what you feel?” Elizabeth’s voice was just above a whisper.
“Only of the timing. We are not wed, and even then, I vowed I would not demand any husbandly rights. I wish for you to desire me as much as I long for you.”
“I think I do,” Elizabeth acknowledged as she blushed. “Perhaps not as much and certainly not with as much knowledge or for as long but your touch is not unwelcome.”
The noble part of Darcy’s mind stuttered to understand her confession. She was not saying she loved him. She esteemed him enough to feel attraction. She trusted him enough to voice it and know that it would not mark her as wanton. They were engaged to be married and had shared a bed for several nights. Most couples in their position would have gone far past an accidental touch. These were all good signs. However, he was unsure if they were enough to satisfy him.
“What do you feel for me, Elizabeth?” Darcy asked. “We only met again a few days ago, and yet sometimes it feels as if years have passed. I do not wish to rush you. However, I confess to confusion. Sometimes you seem nearly enamoured with me. You have said you esteem and respect me, but you have also been quick to doubt me. You have attempted to flee more than once.”
“Those are my failings, not yours. Trusting you makes me uncomfortable.”
Darcy sucked in a breath. He had known it to be true, had he not?
“It is not because of anything you have done or said. My fears and doubts are not a reflection of your or even reality. I am attempting to improve. I trust you. It still makes me uncomfortable after spending my entire life having only myself to trust, but I do trust you. In time, my unease will pass away. I know you shall not give me any reason to doubt or regret giving you my trust.”
It was hardly the stuff of romance. However, Elizabeth had been so wounded perhaps she did not wish for poetry, flowers, and flattery as most ladies did during courtship.
Interrupting his thoughts, she tugged on him to lay back down. She nestled against him, with her head resting over his heart in what had become a favourite position for him. She let out a happy sigh.
“I feel safe here with you, like this.”
Darcy tightened his arm around her. His injured arm was nearly healed and could stretch out to add to the embrace. “Does my holding you give you comfort?”
Elizabeth nodded against his chest.
“It brings me comfort, as well,” he said. “It settles something in my soul—something only you can satisfy. I love you so very much.” He pressed a kiss to her hair.
He held her in silence for so long he had thought she fell back asleep. It was just as well with him if she preferred to rest in bed all day. Holding her was far preferable to going through the motions of a regular day. They had both tired of reading and sitting in silence in this room. He was just beginning to wonder if they could leave on the morrow when Elizabeth spoke.
“What is love, Fitzwilliam? I do not think I know anymore.”
“There are many types of love, of course. I think at its root is a selfless desire for the other’s well-being and a feeling of belonging. You accept and acknowledge the other’s faults without it lessening their value.”
“I do not know that I have ever felt that,” Elizabeth whispered. “So much of my life was merely a duty to others.”
“I can perfectly understand that. However, did you walk through three miles of mud to take care of Jane at Netherfield only out of duty? She was not gravely ill.”
“Who could do less for Jane? No, caring for her was never a duty.”
“Then that is one person you have loved. Elizabeth,” Darcy said as he pulled her up to meet his eyes, “you have a very great capacity to love. Are you concerned that you do not?”
“I have felt empty and broken for so long.” Tears glittered in her eyes.
“You have felt unloved, but I do not believe for one moment that love did not drive all your actions and thoughts.”
“Perhaps I was only as selfish as my parents.”
“We have already established there was no selfishness in visiting Jane. Indeed, I can think of few places you would have preferred less than to be at Netherfield.”
“I did not do enough for my other sisters. I preferred Jane’s company because she was the easiest and could soothe me. I shunned Kitty and Lydia and look at what they did.”
“You did not reward their ill-behaviour. Did you view their actions with concern?”
“And did you think about yourself then?”
“No, I feared for them—for their reputations if not for their strength of mind.”
“Now, let us compare matters. Let us recall the evening of Bingley’s ball, as I have already explained it was important in my understanding of your family. One of your sisters played the pianoforte.”
“You do not need to remind me,” Elizabeth groaned. “I was embarrassed by her putting herself forward so much as to perform a second song when her skills could not support it. I pleaded with my father to intervene.”
“Indeed? Did you? If you recall, I sat very near you and could hear everything else said at your area of the table. I heard no application.”
“I gave him looks which meant I wished him to stop her.”
“Ah, so then you are certainly not accountable for the manner in which he did so.”
Elizabeth agreed. “However, I was selfish at the time. I feared what Mary’s actions would mean for us. My mother was loudly extolling how Jane would marry Bingley. Kitty and Lydia were outrageously flirtatious. How could I not be embarrassed?”
“Momentary embarrassment does not mean you do not love them. Did you fear it meant others whose opinion you valued would cease to admire you?”
“Of course not. Everyone in Meryton was used to our behaviour, and if Mr. Bingley really loved Jane, then he would never blame her for the actions of her family.”
“So you worried, then, for their own account. They ought to have known better and have more pride in their own reputations to behave better.”
“I suppose that would be the best way to say it.”
“That does not sound very selfish to me.”
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. “It does not. However, how is that different from my mother?”
“Do you feel like a lesser person because Lydia eloped?” Elizabeth shook her head. “Has Jane’s situation affected your perception of yourself?”
“No. However, I blame myself for the things we spoke of yesterday.”
“I do not mean to say that you should blame yourself for those reasons, however, it’s certainly not due to selfishness. You have not thought of yourself in all of this.”
“When I left Longbourn, I did.”
“You left to seek help because you could no longer bear the problems at home. You intended to make matters better for others no matter the cost to yourself. Even now, you speak of Jane and Mary often.”
“I was exhausted from it all,” Elizabeth whispered. “I felt as fragile as glass and knew I would be the next to break.”
“It is not selfish to care for yourself, especially when no one else is capable of doing such.” Darcy kissed her forehead. “However, you are no longer alone. I care for you. You need only ask.”
Elizabeth let out a deep exhale. “It will take some time to get used to the idea of not blaming myself. I have spent my life being measured to my mother and have always prided myself in not being like her. My greatest fear was that I became her by rashly choosing to leave Longbourn and indulge in what was best for me alone.”
“Do not be so harsh on yourself. I think you can agree you have deeply loved your family. You have accepted all of their flaws. However, you despise yourself. You demand unreasonable perfection.”
Elizabeth blinked rapidly at his words. “I had not considered that before.”
He wished he could tell her that he would love her enough for both of them, but he believed that would be insufficient. Even if he could convince her of that, one day she would be angry that she relied entirely on him for feelings of worth. She needed to learn to be satisfied with herself, and he could not do that work for her.
“Speaking of love, I have been wondering if you think I ought to inform Bingley of my error. Would Jane welcome his suit if he returned to Netherfield?”
Elizabeth sighed. “I do not know. I do not know that she is well enough to be courted by anyone. She would hate that I broke her confidence and told you of her feelings at all. I wish there were some way for me to know how she fared.”
“Why not write to her?”
“I cannot. I do not wish for my family to discover my location.”
“You felt that way when you first arrived because you feared they would take you back to Longbourn. It was one of the first things you said to me. However, no one can forcibly remove you, and I will not allow them. We are betrothed, and I will not give you up.” He smiled before raising her hand to his lips.
“I suppose I could try. By the time the letter arrived, we might have already left. I would have to indicate where to send the reply and when we expected to be there. However, there would be no way they could journey there faster than us.”
“I doubt they would even try or confront us at all. They would probably only be relieved that you were safe, even if they refused to acknowledge their part in your situation.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said before kissing him. “I can hardly tell you how pleased I am to write to Jane.”
“Your kiss spoke for you very well,” he said before claiming one for himself.
“Then I shall communicate more in such a wa—”
Darcy ceased her words with a kiss. The sun was high in the sky before they ordered breakfast and Darcy sent for a maid to assist Elizabeth in dressing. They had agreed to leave on the morrow and spend the day in bed with each other. Amidst more light-hearted conversation than they had previously indulged in, they each grew bolder in their caresses. As they learned their bodies and the preferences of both, they discovered a shared affinity for history, poetry, and certain novels. Elizabeth had never been beyond London and delighted in hearing Darcy’s descriptions of Pemberley and the adjacent area as well as his memories of Scotland and Ireland. He fell asleep with a pleased smile on his face. Some things were even better than dreams.