The tall figure walked purposefully across the room. "Miss Bennet, if you would give me the honor of a dance."

Jane smiled warmly. "Certainly, sir."

Mr. Darcy thanked her and bowed, then walked away.

Jane had given little thought to what she would do at the Netherfield ball outside of the time she could spend in Mr. Bingley's company. But she was glad to see that Mr. Darcy was participating in the dancing. She had noticed him dancing earlier, with Elizabeth, and she was happy to see that he wished to continue. Bingley agreed that it was an encouraging sign.

She took her place across from Mr. Darcy as the next dance began. His gaze was piercing. Jane wondered why she had never noticed its intensity before.

At her first opportunity, Jane attempted to make conversation. "How much of Hertforsdshire have you seen during your time here, Mr. Darcy?"

"Enough to know that I like the countryside well enough, and I like some of the inhabitants significantly more."

"I'm delighted to hear it!" she replied.

She looked at him expectantly, hoping to hear more about whom in the neighborhood he had taken such a liking to.

"Miss Bennet," his gaze intensified and he spoke a little more softly, "What if I told you that you outshine every woman in Hertfordshire, as well as any I have met in all of England?"

Jane stammered. "I suppose . . . that I would take it as a compliment, but . . ."

Darcy continued, "And that is not the only compliment I would like to give you. I would value the opportunity to spend more time in your company." He paused. "I often ride early in the mornings. If you happened to be out walking at such a time, we could converse without anyone else observing us. Have you been told much about Pemberley?"

She took a moment to steady herself and answered calmly. "A little," she said. "But, Mr. Darcy, I must tell you that while it is a compliment, such attention from you is not something that I would desire or seek."

He observed her for any sign of coquetry and saw none, but neither did he see what would strike him as determination. He smiled faintly, "You do not appear to be adamant on the subject, Miss Bennet. Perhaps I can still have hope that I am not completely unsuitable."

Jane was gentle, but firm. "I do not know what you consider to be a correct display of adamancy, sir, but do believe me when I say that my feelings are resolute. In my view, your nature and my own are so wholly different that we both would be unsuitable for a more intimate acquaintance with each other."

"What is so wrong about my nature that it would negate everything else I might offer to induce your interest? There are not many who would call me inferior to other men of your acquaintance." At this last, he cast a look in the direction of Mr. Bingley.

Jane noticed the look and flushed slightly. "Mr. Darcy, I don't mean to say that anything is wrong with you. Every person has their own tastes and preferences. Being more or less highly regarded in one person's opinion does not make someone inferior in the whole. It is no indictment of you if I say that, in my singular estimation, Mr. Bingley is the most delightful man that ever . . ." She stopped herself.

For the rest of the dance, Jane did all she could to avoid looking at Mr. Darcy. As the dance ended, he spoke again. "Miss Bennet, I have to tell you something. If you will give me a few more minutes of your time, I will explain myself."

They walked to the side of the room and sat.

"Miss Bennet, your response to my declarations is quite the opposite of what I expected. I must confess to you that I thought, partly because of my observations of your family, that your inclination was toward wealth and status. I feared that you were attaching yourself to Mr. Bingley out of an interest in his fortune and not in the man himself. He is like a brother to me, and I would do anything in my power to spare him from being hurt."

He continued. "My advances toward you just now were pretended. I felt certain that you would eagerly accept an invitation from a man who has twice the material advantages that Bingley does, which would have proven your unworthiness of his esteem. Your refusal showed me that you do not have the mercenary spirit that I had imagined.

"There was something else that I observed, Miss Bennet. I was struck by the calmness of manner that you displayed as you spurned the wealthiest man you've likely ever met. I am coming to realize that you are not one for grand displays of emotion."

Jane felt surprise at this revelation of her personality from a man she barely knew. "I do try to maintain a proper composure as much as I am able."

"And I, madam, had interpreted your mildness of manner to mean that you felt little, if any, affection for my friend. I now suspect that you have much affection for him."

She blushed. "I hardly know what to say, Mr. Darcy."

"What I would hope to hear you say, Miss Bennet, is that you can forgive me. For the deceit, I apologize, and for misjudging your character I apologize far more. I must say that I admire you. Not the sort of admiration that inclines toward love, but the admiration one feels toward a person who has a noble spirit. I sincerely hope that, however disturbing my behavior tonight may have been, you can eventually come to consider me a friend."

Jane was silent for a moment, and then said, "I think I can understand why you would do what you did. I don't hold it against you."

Darcy went on. "I will be frank. I do not know what Bingley's intentions are. He may choose to seek someone who will advance his standing in society. Looking at the matter objectively, it would clearly be in his best interest to do so. But Bingley is indifferent to concerns of society. He wants only to be happy. And if he were to decide that his happiness rests with you, I would not attempt to dissuade him."

Jane felt the color rising in her face even more. Mr. Darcy gave her a hint of a reassuring smile, then his expression changed as other thoughts came to his mind.

"Miss Bennet, I feel that I should warn you of something. You should be aware that Bingley's sisters are intent on his making every effort to propel himself, and them along with him, into the highest circles of society. Because of this, they have already been trying at every opportunity to disparage any interest Bingley has in you."

"Sir, are you certain? Caroline and Louisa have been very friendly toward me."

"I assure you that I have heard myself, on numerous occasions, their assertions that you and your family are beneath them. I advise you not to be fooled by the way they act when they are in your presence."

She nodded thoughtfully.

"It is likely, Miss Bennet, that they will continue their attempts to push their brother away from you. But they will find no ally in me."

"Mr. Bingley is a very warmhearted person," Jane ventured. "It would be very sad if he had to live with someone who had no affection for him."

"I agree that he deserves far better than that. But now, Miss Bennet, I think we have talked as long as we dare without setting tongues wagging all around us. I see Bingley by the fire, looking quite alone. I suspect that he would much rather be talking to you. Allow me to take you to him."

"I thank you. And, sir?", Darcy looked directly at her as she continued, "I hope you agree with me that there is no need for our friends or relations to be told about the discourse we've had tonight."

"My feelings on that point are exactly the same as yours, madam."

They approached the side of the room where Mr. Bingley stood.

He greeted them warmly. "There, Darcy, how did you enjoy your dance?"

"Greatly," Darcy replied. "Miss Bennet and I discussed something that we have in common. An uncommon regard for you."

Bingley glowed at this declaration and immediately lost himself in conversation with Jane.

Mr. Darcy walked to the window and observed them from there for a few moments. His friend cared about nothing but being happy. Did that make him a wise man or a fool?