Miss Elizabeth Bennet had led her swain to the small wilderness where once she had defied his aunt. It was the first day of his return and, short as his absence had been, they both had felt it keenly.

They had come such a long way in the now two and one half weeks since their betrothal. It had been strange and sweet and awkward, after so many months apart and so many misunderstandings, to have it all settled so quickly, and to find themselves in a relationship of such unprecedented intimacy. Darcy, in particular, had walked very softly, not wanting to rush Elizabeth or make her uncomfortable in any way. He had loved her for so long, but her feelings were recent and untried. So he had tried not to hope for too much too soon, but his fears had quickly proved groundless. Elizabeth did little by halves, including loving. Through long walks and quiet talks in the parlor they had come to know each other, reestablishing the witty repartee that Darcy had loved so much—except that this time Elizabeth's sallies had no hidden barbs. They talked of books, at long last, and of music and art and of Derbyshire and Hertfordshire, and even their childhoods, so that Elizabeth had never been entertained so well in any room at all before, nor Darcy either, and both were beautifully, bountifully, blissfully and even a bit beatifically (sorry, I couldn't resist) in love.

"You have not yet said how your business in town went," said Elizabeth.

Darcy grimaced briefly. "Everything was resolved satisfactorily, I think."

"That sounds almost ominous."

"More than you can know," he muttered under his breath. When she glanced at him questioningly he raised his voice and said, "I had the opportunity to speak to my Aunt Fitzwilliam about our engagement. She was very surprised, but did not seem displeased. I believe she was quite impressed by the fact that you refused me initially."

Elizabeth blinked. "I confess I had not expected you to relate that."

"I had not planned to," he admitted, "but it came out in the conversation and I cannot regret it. I want my family to know that I pursued you, not the other way around." His hand caressed hers on his arm. "My cousin the colonel came in while we were speaking."

"Dear Colonel Fitzwilliam," she said warmly. "How is he?"

"He appeared well. He was also surprised to hear my news, but very pleased."

"I shall like having him as a cousin. Will we see much of him?"

"When his military service does not require his absence, yes. He is a frequent guest at Pemberley."

"I am glad." She smiled up at him. "I must say I am surprised that Lady Catherine had not already written to your other aunt about me."

"She most likely did, but Lady Matlock was ignoring her correspondence." Seeing her surprised look he chuckled. "My two aunts are frequently at outs with each other. They are both very strong willed women, you see, and accustomed to having others defer to them."

"Ah," said Elizabeth. "I can see how that would make a mutually gratifying relationship difficult."

"Yes it does." They had come to a small bench. Darcy motioned for Elizabeth to sit and sat himself beside her. He was frowning now. "Elizabeth," he began slowly, rubbing a hand across his forehead, "there is a matter I must speak to you of. I wish I could avoid the necessity, for it may well pain you, but if I do not you may hear of it from other sources instead."

Elizabeth, growing rather alarmed, immediately implored him to explain himself. So, hesitantly, watching her face, Darcy began to relate the nature of the mistake that had just recently occurred in London. As he spoke her eyes grew wide and round, and her mouth fell gently open—then she shut it with a snap and bit down hard on her lower lip as her cheeks began turning pink.

Darcy, peering at her in concern, sat back with a roll of his eyes when he realized that she was shaking, not with rage or mortification, but with suppressed laughter. It would appear his anxiety over her reaction to the news had been somewhat excessive. "What a—" she choked— "horrible mistake!" Gasp. "Poor, poor," a gurgle escaped and she swallowed hard, "Miss Bingley!" Snort. At that unfeminine sound she reigned herself in firmly and said in a calmer voice, "How very uncomfortable for her. I find I—" she choked again— "I hardly even have the heart to dislike her any more!" And then she couldn't help it any more and broke out into trilling giggles.

Darcy saw her mirth with a sheepish grin, too relieved to be offended. Now that the matter was behind him he found it was growing rather funny to him too, and, encouraged by her amusement, he began to give an expansive description of the various strange conversations he had had upon arriving in London, even including a slightly edited version of his encounter with the Hon. George. Elizabeth laughed until the tears ran down her face, while Darcy watched her appreciatively.

"I suppose," he said drily, when she had begun to calm, "that I should be grateful you are taking it so well."

"I am sorry for Miss Bingley," she answered, mopping her eyes with her handkerchief; "it was not, after all, her doing. And I am sorry for you because you had so much trouble, but really, what can one do but laugh?"

He kissed her hand. "You are a remarkable woman, my dear."

"After all, I am the one who gets to lead you to the altar. Why should I care about the misapprehensions of a group of people I have never met?"

Darcy, who could not but think of how things might go once she did have occasion to meet them, remained silent.

"Perhaps I ought to write Miss Bingley a note to tell her she should be grateful she didn't receive a visit from your Aunt Catherine at least," she offered with a twinkle. "Although I am sure she would have given her rather more satisfaction than I did."

"Somehow I doubt that would be of much comfort to her." He clasped her hand more tightly. "The important thing is that by now everyone in London knows that I am engaged to you, and none other. If we are only mildly fortunate, by the time we make a stay there after our marriage, the local gossip will have moved on to other—er—victims." He reached into his pocket. "Perhaps I ought also to clarify that I bought this for you before finding out about the rumors, so that it will not be regarded in light of a bribe."

Elizabeth took the small case he held out to her with eyes again grown wide. "A gift for me?"

"The first of many, I expect," he smiled at her.

She opened it gingerly, and he heard her delighted gasp as she saw the small flower-shaped pin set with pearls. "It's perfect," she breathed, lifting it. With nimble fingers she quickly pinned it on the shoulder of her gown, and raised shining eyes to Darcy's. "Thank you."

He swallowed, emotions unaccustomed and yet now accustomed filling him, and could only kiss her hand again. "You are welcome." He looked away, cleared his throat, and then said, "There's something else."

"Something else?" she repeated. "On top of everything you've already recounted to me there's something else?"

Now it was his turn to chuckle. "I meant there is something else I bought you. However—" he cleared his throat again, "I am not sure if it would be better to give it to you now, or after we are married."

"I see," replied Elizabeth softly. "May I see it?"

Silently he handed her the larger case, produced from his other capacious pocket. Elizabeth looked at it a moment, tracing the leather with her fingertip. She did not gasp this time when she opened it, but her lips formed a soundless 'o.' She studied the brilliant gems respectfully, every now and then touching one gently.

Darcy reached a finger and touched a curl on her cheek. "A worthy woman, who can find?" he murmured. "Her price is far above rubies."*

She smiled at him mistily. "They are the most beautiful jewels I've ever seen. I shall be delighted to wear them. However," she drew a deep breath, "I do think it would be best if you were to keep them for now. Such ornaments may do for Mrs. Darcy, but not Miss Bennet."

He received them back without comment, and slipped them into his pocket. "I do hope that when next you see Bingley you will reassure him that you are not angry at him."

"What? Oh!" She laughed. "His infamous blunder! Shall he ever be allowed to forget it?"

"I have no greater desire than to forget it… except," he added thoughtfully, "when he requires a good reminder of the consequences of carelessness."

Elizabeth shook her head at him, her eyes very merry. "You must be kind to him now. He is not only your friend, but soon my brother."

"I'm always kind to him," he protested. "It is he who is less than kind to me. Why, he mocked me relentlessly when he first found out I was in love with you."

"I'm sure he found it good sport. Better than coveys, I daresay, and far more rare."

"Well perhaps I deserved it," he acknowledged. "He was certainly pleased to think so. You will see how forbearing I can really be in how little I will tease him about this escapade!"

"I already know how forbearing you can be!" she retorted. "I, on the other hand, make no such claim, so I am free to tease Mr. Bingley as much as I please. I have always wanted a brother and now that I have one I intend to make full use of him."

"I think it is I who should beg you to be kind to him."

"I'm perfectly harmless."

"Are you?" He quirked his eyebrow at her sardonically and she blushed.

"I have not always been, I know, but I hope I have since learned some lessons on the proper use of one's wit."

Darcy leaned forward until their faces almost touched. "You do make proper use of your wit."

"I do?" she murmured, a bit breathless.

"Yes. You use it…" he leaned forward even further so that his cheek brushed hers, "to make me even more in love with you than ever."

"Oh. Well, you are right. That is a very proper use for it."

And after that there was no more talking but only silence in the little wilderness outside of Longbourn.

In the great wilderness that was London, well, that's another matter….

*Proverbs 31:10