by Anton M.
Elizabeth's eyes fixed on his chest. "I'm sorry, sir, I fear I misheard you."
Aware of the cold fingertips brushing against her cheek, she neither stepped forward nor backtracked. Raising her eyes to meet his, she dared to see spite or mischief in his expression, but he appeared in earnest.
"Such a person has never existed. Did your uncle make you aware of this?"
"My uncle?" she repeated, confused. "No. My aunt did."
"Mr. Gardiner disclosed to me that you are to expect a proposal from a man named Mr. Mortimer."
"Mr.—" Her eyes widened. "But my aunt… sir!"
Her reaction and fondness for reading made further confirmation unnecessary, and Darcy rejoiced in her reluctance to step away from him. Her eyes never left his, and she moved to touch his hand but reconsidered.
Hopeful and filled with disbelief, she whispered, "You are not to marry?"
He felt like he could burst from the love he felt for the woman under his fingertips.
"It appears to me that your relations intended to speed up my decision with this lie, and they would have, had my offer to you in April not been so wholly inadequate."
Her lips twisted as she retreated against Eos. "You need not apologise for not wishing to offer for me twice, sir. I quite understand."
Confused and feeling the loss of her proximity, Darcy frowned. "You… understand?"
She pressed her lips together, stroking the side of his horse. "You need not elaborate, sir. You have discovered me today from the unacceptable position of riding astride your horse. I am sure that whatever inkling of affection you might have held for me must've been replaced by gratitude for my refusal. Any apologies that should be voiced are all mine."
She curtsied, and in a flash of brown hair, turned around and started walking away. Eos, lifting his head to look at his master as if in disapproval, shook his head before trotting after Elizabeth.
In a daze, Darcy jogged after his horse and the woman he hoped to marry. Had he unintentionally insulted her? He did not understand.
"But you love me," he said once he was close enough for her to hear him. She halted to a stop, head held high but eyes avoiding his.
"I apologise if that offends you. I will be grateful for your discretion on the matter."
The determination and pain in her voice made his heart ache. Did she believe his feelings to be so transient as to buckle under the slightest pressure?
"Please, Miss Elizabeth, you misunderstand. I only ask for a moment of your time, and if you still wish for my absence, I will never mention this again."
Judging by the way she nudged Elizabeth's shoulder, Eos, too, had chosen a side in this conversation. Elizabeth's hair flew in the wind as she caressed his horse, pressing her lips together and, briefly, held Darcy's eyes. She nodded. He did not dare move closer than three feet from her.
"I love you," he said, voice low and filled with suppressed emotion. "Most ardently. I cannot imagine a life with anyone but you."
Her eyes, those sharp, twinkling, beautiful eyes, snapped in his.
"But sir! You cannot."
Carefully, he replied, "I believe myself capable of understanding my own heart, Miss Elizabeth."
Hesitating but no longer avoiding his towering presence, the woman in question took a step closer to him. She clutched her hands in front of her to keep herself from reaching out.
"But… how?" Her eyes, filled with sorrow, searched his. "After the abominable way I treated you in April, after all the ways I insulted you… how can you still… I do not find it possible that you would still…"
He took a strand of her hair between his fingertips to distract himself from her proximity. "You were right to accuse me of not being gentlemanly. Every mistake I made caused by my conceit, pride, and inability of understand your feelings, your desires, and your will, it all proved my unworthiness. I did nothing to prove that I deserved you. Can I hope to be forgiven for my words?"
Nervous but determined, Elizabeth covered his knuckles with her palm. "If you can forgive me my misguided determination to believe the worst of you."
Heart bursting from his chest, he took a careful step forward. He couldn't resist touching the smooth, warm skin of her cheek. "You showed me the man I wanted to be, the man who might, if given some time, grow to be worthy of your love."
When she leaned into his touch, shutting her eyes, he resolved to spend the rest of his life working hard to deserve her.
"I was ready to give you up," he continued, now close enough to breathe against her forehead. "I was ready to see you be happy with another man, with someone more worthy of you. I was prepared to see you once a year and love you from afar while making sure you were taken care of. I was ready to lose you and see you have children with the man you loved."
She blinked once before their eyes locked and she pressed herself flush against him. Darcy bumped against his horse, who huffed loudly. She pressed her cheek against his chest, and Darcy wrapped his arms around her. Her curves, warmth, heartbeat—nothing had ever felt so sweet in his arms. Her scent overwhelmed him, and he lowered his head to brush his lips against her hair. Incredulous of having the opportunity to hold her in his arms, he started stroking the length of her spine. A low groan left his throat when she arched against him.
"Please, don't let me go," she whispered. "Don't give me up to anyone."
He smiled, delirious with happiness and dazed by the soft curves against him. Slowly, he pulled away. He intended to treat her right, and having her pressed so tightly against him made him desire intimacy that had to wait. So, he pressed a kiss on the back of her hand before they started walking. He couldn't take his eyes off her shy smile and beautiful eyes.
"May I ask why the lady I intend to court stole my horse this fine morning?"
"You intend to court me?" She threw a playful glance at him. "I had hoped for a special licence."
Darcy took a breath to calm himself. "Please, Miss. I only have so much restraint."
"And why would you wish to go through the trouble of restraining yourself?"
Her teasing smile was covered by his chest as he threw caution to the wind and, once again, pressed her sweet, soft body against his. "Elizabeth," he whispered, his breath ghosting against her ear. "Have mercy."
She tilted her head back to see his eyes, and stroked the side of his jaw. "Do you wish to live a life that makes you happy or a life in which you seek approval of the society you so vehemently dislike?"
Incapable of tearing his eyes from hers, he paused.
"I wish to take you to theatre and show everyone how proud I am of the woman I intend to marry."
Smiling, she bit her lip. "Are you quite determined, sir?"
He pressed a soft kiss on top of her head and moved to keep walking. Her proximity tempted him to agree with her.
"You may ask anything your heart desires, but I very much wish to do right by you. Please, do not ask me for a special licence. I may not have the heart to refuse you."
"If that is what you desire."
Pastel colours had covered the edge of the sky, and both admired the sight. Locking eyes with his beloved, Darcy felt like the weight of the world had been pulled from his shoulders. A man could be driven to insanity with so much love in his heart and so much hope for the future.
"I would like to ask you something, and I want you to know that your answer will decide the matter."
"With your permission, I would like to suggest that your youngest sisters be sent to a private school or be given a governess. I do not mean to imply insult, but it has come to my attention—"
"—that one cannot expect… I'm sorry?"
"Yes." Elizabeth squeezed his elbow. "I am not eager to exploit your good will, but I find it hypocritical that good behaviour is expected from people who have not been exposed to good examples. If you will allow me to be selfish in accepting your offer, I would like to do so most gratefully."
He searched her eyes. "I mean not to offend your relations."
"Sir, I have spent too much time seeing bad intentions in your behaviour where none existed. You wounded me, I admit, by suggesting that my family was unsuitable for you, but what hurt me most was that I understood you. My father did not have the money to formally educate us, and I believe my sisters would benefit from the experience."
He sent her a relieved, grateful smile, lowering his head slightly. "Will you ever know how much I admire you?"
"I don't understand it. I spent most of our time together insulting you. How did you grow to love me?"
"You did not yield to anyone. You tease people who disillusion themselves with their superiority. You earned my respect and admiration, and before I knew it, my heart was full of you. I will spend the rest of my life proving my worthiness to you."
"You are a silly man then, Mr. Darcy, for I don't believe I deserve so much credit."
"I disagree," he replied. "Much more credit is due than I could hope to express, but I am a selfish creature and wish to have you all for myself to love."
She bit her lip, warmed by his words, and brushed her fingertips against Eos, who loyally stayed by her side.
"Will you continue to do so after I tell you that I wish to continue riding horses as men do?"
Although he had been shocked, their conversation had given him time to consider her peculiar but useful mastery of horse-riding.
"Would you agree to teach my sister how to ride astride a horse?"
Elizabeth's eyes widened in surprise.
He gazed at the horizon. "My sister has been in a situation where the skill would have proven highly useful. If she were to know how to ride the horse as you and I do, she would be at an advantage against—anyone wishing harm on her."
"Sir, I… of course." Elizabeth caressed the horse's mane, thinking. "You do not mind, then?"
"I am just as surprised to discover my feelings on the matter as you are, Miss Elizabeth. But I cannot deny I am still curious as to why I found you this morning with my horse."
"I will tell you if you promise me that the second person involved will not be punished for his actions."
Darcy, intrigued, searched her eyes and remembered her mention of Andrew.
"Has my stableboy done anything illegal or immoral?"
"Most certainly not."
"Then I promise no harm will come to him."
She squeezed Darcy's elbow against her chest as she walked, leaning slightly toward him, and he wondered if he'd ever be able to tear his eyes off of her.
"Andrew and I grew up together."
Feeling a twinge of jealousy, he cleared his throat.
"Your familiarity with my stableboy is unexpected, I must say."
"Growing up in the countryside encourages friendships frowned upon by society. Did you ever have friendships your parents would have discouraged, had they known about them?"
He could not argue.
"Andrew knows of my affection for horses, and remembers how frequently I found horses that had gone missing from his father's stable. Eos escaped yesterday night, and Andrew spent the day trying to find her in vain. Because he was wary of letting you know that your favourite horse had disappeared, he sent me a message yesterday evening, asking if I had any ideas about where to find the horse. He did not explicitly ask me to go find your mare, but I sneaked out after midnight, and succeeded in finding Eos about an hour before you arrived. I had every intention to bring her back to your stable, unharmed."
Darcy, amazed by how little he knew some aspects of her character, felt incredibly protective of her, sneaking out in the darkness.
"Elizabeth, do you know how dangerous that is? A single, unchaperoned lady sneaking out in the middle of the night?"
Lifting her chin, she held his gaze. "When do you think I get the opportunity to ride astride a horse? I certainly cannot do it in the middle of the day, now can I."
"I am careful, sir, and I hope that once you get to know me, you will see that I am a proficient rider."
"It is not your riding skills that I worry about," he admitted, halting to a stop when he faced her. "Elizabeth, please promise to wake me up if you feel the desire to go riding in the middle of the night."
She blushed. "You are speaking of a future you have not explicitly asked for, sir."
Blinking, Darcy realised that he had done it, yet again—he had assumed an answer to a question he had not even asked. Immediately, he fell on his knee and took her hand in his.
"Sir," she said, stifling a smile. "You must know me well enough to know my proclivity to tease. I do not require such grand gestures."
"Elizabeth." He pulled her closer. Instead of waiting for him to continue, she crouched in front of him and took his jaw in her hands.
"Yes," she whispered, grinning.
"I have not even—"
Her eyes sparkled when she nudged him to stand. Darcy cupped her jaw, drinking in her loose hair and soft lips. "I ask for no less than a lifetime."
She pressed herself flush against him as she ran her finger through his hair, whispering, "Fitzwilliam."
It was his given name on her lips that made him lose all sense of composure. His palms gripped her waist as he pulled her fully in his arms and pressed his mouth against hers. Soft, wet lips brushed against his as she gripped his neck, opening her mouth to him. She felt sweet and delicate in his arms, and her soft gasp against his mouth nearly undid him. He pressed tender kisses against her jaw and nose before he forced himself to withdraw. Her scent surrounded him.
"I want a dozen children," she said, breathless from his kisses and eyes filled with mirth.
"A dozen?" he repeated, wrapping her in his arms so tightly that her heartbeat raced against him.
"And a house full of love and laughter."
"Yes," he replied, kissing her hair softly, swaying with her. "Please." First rays of light covered the field, and Eos nudged Elizabeth's back, impatient to move or jealous of the attention. Resting his jaw against the top of Elizabeth's head, Darcy shut his eyes and stroked her lower back.
"I love you," he said. "But I have compromised you horribly tonight."
"I quite enjoyed it." Elizabeth hummed against his chest. "Should we make sure somebody sees us so that we are required to marry with a special licence?"
He groaned, shaking with silent laughter. "You wouldn't."
"Oh, wouldn't I?"
Her twinkling eyes told him all he needed to know. Brushing hair away from her face, he said, "I must speak to your father."
She smiled, nodding in agreement and taking his hand in hers. "But first, how would you like to punish my relations for meddling in our business?"
A/N: Thanks for reading my silliness! I'm thrilled that there are some P&P fans among my readers. Your comments are always appreciated, if you have two seconds. :) Hope you're having a wonderful day!