It may be, as they say, a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. It is not, however, universally known that when such a man is also a vampire, he must, above all, be in want of blood. (It is not, of course, universally known that vampires exist, much less that they dare to inhabit the upper echelon of English society.)
Sadly, as the ever thwarted Mrs. Bennet would undoubtedly attest to, what one actually receives is not necessarily what one needs. And certainly almost never what one wants.
Of this disparity between what one wanted and what one received, Mr. Darcy was intimately familiar.
Having what he believed was the unfortunate luck to be both a vampire and an English gentleman in possession of a good fortune, Mr. Darcy quite often felt the burning disappointment of his wants and needs being at very definite odds. Indeed, it seemed to him that he had felt it most keenly from the moment he laid eyes on Miss Elizabeth Bennet on the night of that ridiculous country ball.
From the first his gaze landed upon her laughing face, Darcy had wanted Miss Bennet, in every way imaginable. And, from that moment, he knew that he must avoid her – for her sake, and for his – yet found it impossible to do so.
Darcy was drawn to Elizabeth's youth and vivacity like the proverbial moth to a flame. When it became obvious (truth be told, almost immediately) that he did not have the willpower necessary to do the right thing, he had hoped that he might drive her away by making himself disagreeable. It had very nearly succeeded.
Unfortunately for them both, the more time Darcy spent in her company, the more difficult it became to maintain an attitude of insolence and disrespect. What he had come to feel for Miss Bennet during their visits together at Rosings was exactly the opposite of what he professed. He had come to regard her very highly indeed.
When Mr. Collins brought news that Miss Bennet was too ill to join them for tea, Darcy's first instinct was to rush immediately to her side. Only Mrs. Collins's assurances that Miss Bennet was simply indisposed kept Darcy from acting the fool. He managed to remain with the company for exactly as long as good manners required and not a second longer.
Under the pretence of preparing for his imminent journey, Darcy excused himself. He went with haste toward the Parsonage. Good sense only just stopped him from barging straight in. What possessed him? It was certainly folly to force his company on a lady who so clearly wanted to be alone.
Alone. Oh, the thoughts and emotions one little word could stir in a man! He envisioned Elizabeth, reclining on one of Mr. Collins's stiff yet perfectly appointed settees. She would be reading some novel, no doubt, or even more likely, a letter from one of her many sisters.
Darcy imagined Miss Bennet dozing off, the letter slipping unnoticed from her fingers onto the floor. He pictured quietly letting himself into the house, stealing into the drawing room like a thief, advancing upon her sleeping form. He would lean over Elizabeth – carefully, so as not to wake her – and place his lips upon her slender throat. Darcy imagined the way her sleeping mind would respond to his presence, making her chest heave and his name slip from her lips...
Hell and damnation!
He turned sharply and strode away from the house once more. The woman would be his ruin! Darcy attempted to gain mastery of his wayward thoughts but the attempt was in vain; Elizabeth Bennet remained the sole mistress of his thoughts, his mind, and indeed, his heart.
Yes, as surely as the dreaded vampirism claimed his body Miss Bennet did claim his heart. He, Darcy – lord of Pemberley and cursed monster of darkness – was in love with a woman who, according to all the laws of society, should be beneath his notice. And who, by the very laws of Nature and the Divine, should be far, far above his.
It was a match that could never be.
It was a match that every fibre of his being demanded.
Even if he did not have their perspective fortunes to consider, marriage to Miss Bennet would incur the wrath of his very formidable aunt, Lady Catherine. The grand lady would never approve of such a match. Unlike her nephew, however, Lady Catherine was not the bloodsucking fiend some of her social inferiors might call her in private. Weather her fury, Darcy might, if he believed such a union would end in anything but tragedy.
But how in Heaven's name could it end in anything else? He struggled to control his bestial nature now, with yards of ground and a solid wall between them. If he were to take Miss Bennet to his bed, if he had her soft, luscious body spread beneath him, ripe for the-
He was not such a monster that he would defile an innocent, honourable creature just to satisfy his own dark desires. This vow Darcy made in his mind only; his body would not, could not, concede. Every inch of his flesh raged at him to claim Miss Bennet for his own and take all that she had to offer.
And his heart?
That organ was every bit as traitorous as his body. His heart, which had been claimed so thoroughly by Miss Bennet, demanded he likewise claim hers. Heart and body conspired to make Miss Bennet his own regardless of Darcy's best intentions.
Darcy was a man (if he could make such bold use of the word) torn. The desire to have Elizabeth Bennet and the desire to save her from himself fought a desperate battle within his breast. They fought mercilessly, leaving Darcy, their poor battlefield, riddled with numerous, invisible scars that he would, he was certain, carry for the remainder of his days.
If anyone had happened to pass at that moment, they would have discerned no outward sign of the internal struggled taking place within Darcy. They might only have taken note of the far away look in his eyes or the uncertain step that carried him first toward the Parsonage, then away again. They would certainly know nothing of the anguish Darcy felt as he finally gave into the demands of his heart and body.
He would have Elizabeth Bennet. Even if it destroyed them both.
It was decided. He had fixed his resolve on a union, cursed though it may be, with Miss Elizabeth Bennet. All that remained was to obtain the lady's consent. Darcy strode purposefully toward the house once more, hoping against hope that Miss Bennet might save them both by rejecting his offer of marriage.
Once he had gained entrance to the Parsonage, Darcy allowed himself the briefest of moments to enjoy being out of the sun. He had only been infected with vampirism a few short years and already he was starting to feel the heavy lethargy that came with prolonged exposure to direct sunlight.
No! Not yet!
He had hoped for at least a decade or two before his affliction drove him into the darkness but it seemed it was not to be. At this rate, he would likely be forced to give up the sun before his fortieth birthday.
And this is the life you would have Elizabeth live?
Darcy shoved the thought aside and strode into the drawing room before his conscious had time to talk him out of proposing to Miss Bennet. That lady exhibited a certain degree of surprise at seeing him. Had she been expecting someone else?
Jealousy erupted in his chest like a fire that threatened to consume him. Was she awaiting another man? Another suitor, perhaps? Darcy struggled to control the rage that overcame him at the thought of Elizabeth with another man.
Attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to reign his temper, Darcy reminded himself that, despite the possessiveness he felt toward her, he had no claim over Elizabeth. Yet. Another few moments could see that change.
He hurriedly made his apologies for disturbing her to cover the awkward silence that stretched between them. Elizabeth seemed in no hurry to fill the silence herself, he noted. Indeed, when she did reply to his inquiries about her health and the health of her family, it was in a cool, clipped tone. Her manner was, in fact, almost impolite.
Having been so intent on mastering his own emotions, Darcy had failed to note the heightened state of Miss Bennet's. The lady was clearly agitated; she appeared to be struggling with some inner thought or emotion that made her restless. There were spots of colour on her cheeks and her eyes were swollen and red. He suspected that she had recently been crying.
Darcy briefly considered whether his presence could be the cause of Miss Bennet's agitation but speedily dismissed the idea. Why should his presence affect her so? He did wonder, however, if perhaps now was not the best time to press his suit. After some deliberation, Darcy decided, rather selfishly, that it simply could not wait. Anticipation would eat him alive if he did not ask Miss Elizabeth Bennet for her hand. Immediately.
Eternal life, it seemed, had not graced Darcy with an abundance of patience.
Surprising both Elizabeth and himself, he came forward and, taking both her hands in his, spoke earnestly of his feelings.
"In vain I have struggled," he told her. "It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
He went on to make her an offer of marriage which, though less than eloquent, was most ardent. Then he waited.
Miss Bennet's reaction was not precisely what he had been expecting – and certainly not the one he had hoped for. Darcy watched, with no little amount of trepidation, as a host of emotions played across Elizabeth's face. If he had expected to see joy at his declaration, he was sorely mistaken; there was most assuredly no evidence of his feelings being reciprocated.
Silence descended, uncertainty hanging heavy in the air. Darcy, keenly aware of Miss Bennet's delicate hands resting in his, had to remind himself to breathe. To be this close to Elizabeth, to touch her, and not have her was the sweetest form of torture.
The waiting… that was a different torture altogether. Why did she not say something? Yes, no, perhaps – anything, he thought, would be preferable to strained silence. He was wrong. When Elizabeth did finally speak, Darcy found silence was, in fact, preferable to what she had to say.
Miss Bennet did not simply reject his proposal. She rejected it with a force that was almost physically staggering. Darcy dropped her hands numbly and recoiled a step, trying to distance himself from the hateful words she spoke.
He was stunned by the anger and animosity Elizabeth levelled at him. If there was any doubt on Darcy's part as to the reason for her anger, and her ultimate refusal, the next few moments were sufficient to dispel them.
Mr. Darcy fought to regain his composure which, at Elizabeth's scathing words, had taken a terrible blow. The animal that lived within him roared to life and threatened to devour him whole. To hell with her objections! it screamed. She belongs to you! Take her!
He planted his feet firmly on the floor and clasped his hands tightly behind his back. His gums ached as his fangs elongated, much in the same way a certain other part of his anatomy reacted. Each demanded that their hunger be assuaged first, leaving Darcy to fight a losing battle against his own desires.
Despite the monster that dwelt within his soul, regardless of the cursed beast he had become that fateful night Wickham shared his unholy secret, Darcy was, above all else, an English gentleman. This he reminded himself repeatedly as he forced himself to take one deep, steadying breath after another.
Second by agonising second, he reined his inner daemon back. As his canines began to recede, Darcy felt his control return in increments. Slowly, and though his hands still itched to touch Elizabeth, he lowered his hands to his sides, forcing them to remain there. With control came the return of reason. Miss Bennet, he realised, had not only rejected him, she had also insulted his honour as a gentleman. His pride stung.
A small voice in the back of his mind attempted to remind him that this was exactly what he had hoped for: Elizabeth 's rejected saved them both from certain ruin.
So why did he suddenly feel as though he had been stripped bare in the street and publicly flogged?
Who was she to insult his honour?
He attempted – though perhaps less than successfully – to keep the indignation he felt from his voice as he said, "And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting?"
Logically, Darcy knew that he should be counting his lucky stars that Elizabeth had the good sense to reject his proposal. He should beat a hasty retreat least she change her mind… but it seemed he could not make himself leave. Not yet. His needs as a man, and the desires of the monster within the man, might be held – albeit tenuously – in check but his pride as a gentleman demanded satisfaction.
"I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance."
The hurt of rejection made Darcy lash out, speaking before he had given thought to the consequences.
"Forgive me," he said recklessly. "It had not occurred to me that you might already have a suitor for your hand."
His voice was laced with condescension as he spoke, deliberately looking down his noise at Miss Bennet. "Someone more suited to your station… a farmer, perhaps? But what was I thinking? It matters not so long as your mother is relieved of the burden of marrying you off."
Darcy regretted the words nearly the moment they left his lips. He did not need to see the colour rise to Elizabeth's cheeks or watch her hands clench into fists at her sides to know that he had crossed a line.
All men, if they are wise, have a sense for when they have spoken words that a lady would not wish to hear. Perhaps, if they were wiser, that sense would warn them before those words were spoken. For Mr. Darcy, it was too late. The words were spoken and could not be retracted. All he could do was wait for the verbal tirade that Miss Bennet was surely to unleash upon him and know, without a doubt, that he deserved it.
It would appear that his gentlemanly pride had led him to behave in a less than gentleman-like manner.
Elizabeth had not been graced with the patience that her father and dear sister, Jane, possessed. Her temper could be, at times, rather too short and her blood rather too quick to boil. In this way – and this way only – Elizabeth Bennet took after her mother. Unlike her mother, however, Elizabeth was usually able to rely on her dignity and intellect to save her from making a spectacle on those occasions when her temper threatened to get the better of her. Ordinarily. This, she was forced to concede, was not one of those occasions.
She had been all astonishment at Mr. Darcy's proposal. Astonished and, yes, a little pleased, despite herself. What woman could be completely unmoved by an offer of marriage from a man of such consequence? Certainly not she.
But then, even before he stooped to insulting her rank, she remembered that Mr. Darcy had been the one responsible for ruining, perhaps forever, the happiness of her most beloved sister. That alone prompted Elizabeth to reject his proposal.
Perhaps she failed to reject Mr. Darcy as kindly as she ought to have. It would not be right if Elizabeth, who was so quick to find fault in others, turned a blind eye to her own. Whether her anger was justified or not, it was most unladylike to lash out as she had.
Elizabeth had been on the verge of offering Mr. Darcy her sincerest apologies when he suggested that her mother would be happy to marry her off to a farmer, so long as she was rid of her. Her temper flared.
"How dare you, sir!" she snapped, her ire rising to a point that could not be held silent. "Say what you will about me but I beg you to kindly keep a civil tongue in your mouth when speaking of my family!"
Mr. Darcy's countenance immediately adopted a look of utmost contrition. He opened his mouth, perhaps to offer an apology. Elizabeth never knew for, in that moment, her wild temper got the best of her at last – that, or some mischievous sprite took temporary possession of her body. Indeed, she could not say what made her strike Mr. Darcy, only that she felt as surprised by her action as he looked.
Even more shocking, to Elizabeth, at least, was the fact that her palm never made contact with Mr. Darcy's cheek. His own darted up with a speed that she found startling. One moment his hand rested limply by his side and, the next, his fingers were wrapped around her wrist in a vice-like grip. He looked first at the place where their hands merged before raising his eyes to Elizabeth's face.
"Miss Bennet!" he said in a voice loaded with incredulity. "You would strike me?"
Elizabeth did not know how to respond; she could scarce believe it herself.
Darcy shook his head, a wry smile upon his lips.
"I must say that I cannot blame you," he told her. "My own behaviour was so reprehensible that it is no less than I deserve."
He had not yet released his grip on her wrist, though his hold had softened. His gloved thumb stroked the sensitive flesh on the inside of her wrist.
Elizabeth wished that he would release her! It really was most disconcerting. She tried to pull her hand free but Darcy refused to relinquish his hold on her.
"But," Mr. Darcy continued. "I must say I never would have expected such behaviour from you! Lydia, perhaps," he muttered almost to himself. "But not you, Elizabeth."
Shame made Elizabeth's face flame. He was right, of course; behaviour such as she had exhibited was unworthy of her and, as Mr. Darcy said, would have been more likely to have come from one of her younger sisters than herself. Fine behaviour for a woman of nearly one and twenty, indeed.
She began to make her apologies but the words never crossed her lips. Mr. Darcy interrupted her.
"It would seem that we have both been guilty of disregarding the decorum required of us by our good breeding," he said. "We might as well throw it out the window entirely."
With that, he tugged sharply on her outstretched arm with a force that brooked no protest. Elizabeth was helpless against Mr. Darcy's superior strength; she tumbled into his arms with naught but a squeak of surprise.
He supported her weight with one arm while the other slipped around her waist.
"What say you, Miss Bennet?" he asked in a low, dangerous voice. "Shall we take impropriety to new heights?"
He did not allow her time to reply, which was just as well considering Elizabeth doubted her ability to form a coherent reply. Her amazement was so complete that the most she could manage was a quick flutter of her eyelids before Mr. Darcy's lips descended upon hers.
Darcy's kiss was nothing like the chaste kisses Elizabeth had, on rare occasion, fantasized about. It was hot, hungry, and drove all reason from her mind.
He nibbled her lower lip, wringing a sigh of both pleasure and surprise from her. Darcy took advantage, thrusting his tongue between her parted lips, taking the kiss deeper. Elizabeth, untried in such things, responded tentatively but eagerly, earning a low groan from Darcy.
Elizabeth was breathless when he broke the kiss. Her chest heaved and her mind swam. She did not stop to consider the shame she would bring upon her family only because she could not think, could only feel. Rational thought had been driven away by a tumult of sensations the likes of which she had never known.
Darcy did not release Elizabeth but rather dropped his head to rain kisses along her jaw and throat. He nipped and teased her earlobe until she was certain she would never be able to view anything as innocent as an ear again without feeling terribly aroused. Her fingers tangled in his dark curls as his mouth worked its strange magic. His hand travelled upward as his lips travelled lower. He gripped her neck firmly and-
Pain exploded to life in her throat. Elizabeth tried to push herself free from his hold but Darcy was not to be budged. His arm tightened around her waist, calling a unpleasant halt to her struggles.
"Mr. Darcy! Please!"
Her pleas fell upon deaf ears. Darcy gave no indication that he heard her, only continued to... to...
Oh, dear Lord in Heaven! Was he sucking her neck? What could he mean by this?
Elizabeth's brain worked frantically, trying to make sense of an impossible situation. Oh, but her throat ached! It felt as though someone had stabbed her – exactly where Mr. Darcy's mouth was. Had he bitten her? What would possess him to do such a thing?
She continued to struggle but he was simply too powerful. At a loss, Elizabeth resorted to desperate measures: she sunk her nails into the flesh of his face as hard as possible and dragged them down.
Darcy, at long last, released his hold on her, his hands rising to cover the deep gouges her nails had left. Elizabeth fell in a heap on the floor. Her breaths came in short, panicked gasps.
Lowering his hands, Darcy looked down at the blood he saw uncomprehendingly, as if he could not understand just how it had gotten there. A moment later, he turned those same wide, confused eyes on Elizabeth, who gasped in horror. His eyes, usually the colour of dark chocolate, were a dark burgundy. Worse than that, though, was his mouth...
Darcy's mouth, which had so skilfully awakened Elizabeth to passion just moments ago was now streaked with her blood.
Elizabeth froze, seized by a terror so complete it stole the warmth from her body and set her limbs to tremble. She had thought many things of Mr. Darcy during the course of their acquaintance, some truly unkind, but she could never have imagined this of him.
She raised one hand to press shaky fingers against the spot on her neck that still throbbed with a dull ache, surprised by the warm stickiness they found there. When she pulled her fingers away, Elizabeth was horrified to see that they were streaked with blood.
The same blood that now stained Darcy's lips.
Elizabeth's mind raced as she attempted, in vain, to make sense of what her eyes were seeing. Blood on his lips… Blood on her throat… Had he bitten her? It appeared so... but why? What purpose could such a thing serve?
The incident replayed itself in her mind's eye; the memory of the heated kiss they had shared made her cheeks flame even as that of Darcy's attack made her blood run cold. Yes, she felt certain that he had bitten her. Bitten her and… She remembered her frantic struggles to free herself from his determined grip. He had resisted her attempts at first, his mouth latched onto her throat, not just biting but… sucking?
It couldn't be. Elizabeth could scarce believe it; did not dare to trust her own memories. Mr. Darcy, drinking her blood? What manner of man would do such a thing?
Not a man, she thought.
Of one thing Elizabeth was certain: this… this creature, which had been held up as the very model of English society, was nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing. Look the part though he might, Fitzwilliam Darcy was not a man – and certainly not a gentleman!
"What are you?" she demanded, her chest heaving with the effort it took to inhale one laborious breath after another.
Darcy blinked away the confusion that clouded his features. Elizabeth stared, wide-eyed and disbelieving, and watched as the look of bewilderment he wore faded into realisation that was swiftly swept away by a tidal wave of self-loathing. He buried his face in his hands.
"My dearest Elizabeth," he groaned, the words muffled by his hands. "What have I done?"
Irrational though it was, Elizabeth's first thought was to comfort Darcy. The remorse in his voice was a cold fist 'round her heart. She longed to reach out, to tell him everything was all right, truly, that no harm had been done. But, though her arms ached to hold him, fear – of what he had done, of what he might yet do – held her immobile.
"Mr. Darcy?" When Elizabeth spoke, her voice sounded weak and timid, even to her own ears. "Are you... well?"
She thought she heard him laugh but it was a choked, humourless sound. Darcy shook his head.
"No," he replied, raising his head at long last. "I am not well. Not well at all."
He met her frightened gaze with eyes the colour of dark chocolate. They were, Elizabeth thought, the saddest eyes she had ever seen. "I am very ill indeed," he told her.
Perhaps it was the remorse she saw in his eyes. Perhaps it was the dejected slump of his shoulders. Whatever the reason, Elizabeth believed him; there was no doubt in her mind that Darcy spoke the truth when he told her that he was unwell.
Nonetheless, it did not stop her reaction – which was both violent and immediate – when, as if noticing Miss Bennet's position for the first time, Darcy took a step forward, extending his hand to offer her assistance in rising. As she dared not trust her legs to hold her weight, Elizabeth instead scuttled backward as she avoided his touch, using her hands and feet to propel herself until her shoulders slammed against the wall.
Darcy winced, his expression stricken as his hand dropped limply to his side. Retreating a few steps, he widened the distance between them.
"I cannot begin to imagine what you must be thinking," he said without looking at her, "now that you have seen me for the monster I really am."
Elizabeth cringed at his bitter use of the word monster. Had she not thought the very same thing herself, just moments before? Yet, hearing the words spoken from Darcy's own lips made her feel ashamed.
No man who hated himself that much could ever truly be a monster.
"My actions have been so reprehensible that I know not where to begin."
Darcy dropped to his knees before her so abruptly that Elizabeth flinched. He caught and held her frightened gaze but did not attempt to draw any nearer.
"I do not offer my apologies because my actions cannot be forgiven," he told her. Regret softened his voice. "But believe me when I say that I am more sorry than you can ever know. I-"
Halting abruptly, Darcy tilted his head to the side as though perceiving some faraway sound. She strained to listen but could hear nothing over the pounding of her own heart. Darcy, evidently, could hear something more – and what he heard made his movements frantic.
"I owe you an explanation, if naught else," he told her hurriedly. "But now is not the time, for I fear Mr. and Mrs. Collins will be upon us ere long."
Elizabeth could form no sensible reply; her mind was a whirling cloud of conflicting thoughts and emotions. Too much had occurred, in too short a time. She could hardly reconcile the gentleman she saw now with the red-eyed daemon who, only moments ago, had been intent upon leeching the life's blood from her body.
She could scarce breathe, much less make sense of the impossible situation in which she found herself.
"Please, Elizabeth," Darcy implored, his voice earnest. "I must beg you not to speak of this to anyone."
His eyes burned with an intensity she could not name. "I ask you not for my sake but for the sake of my dear sister, Georgiana," he said. "She – sweet, innocent soul that she is – has no part in this, yet I fear it is she who would suffer worst of all were my secret be made public."
There was a real affection present in his tone when Darcy spoke of Georgiana. It made Eliza think of her own sisters. She would do anything to protect them – anything – and did not doubt Mr. Darcy felt the same about his own. She dared not ask herself how far he would go to protect his sister; in truth, she thought she knew the answer already and it terrified her.
It also made her eager to agree when Darcy said, "I have no right, but I ask that you please, please, for the sake of my sister, keep secret what happened today between us. Will you promise me that, Elizabeth?"
"Yes," she said. What else could she say? "I promise."
Her voice was barely more than a whisper, but Elizabeth was proud, for it did not shake. If only the same could be said of her limbs.
Mr. Darcy's relief at her words was nearly palpable; his shoulders sagged, and he gave a small smile. Elizabeth found herself wanting to return that smile, even though his lips were still stained red from her blood.
"I cannot thank you enough," he told her. Then, with many assurances that, though he could never make it right, he could – and would – offer her an explanation, Darcy quitted the Parsonage in a great hurry, leaving Elizabeth in a rumpled heap on the drawing room floor.
No sooner had he gone than did she hear the clatter of Lady Catherine's carriage approaching the house.
But how had he known they were come? she wondered dazedly.
He couldn't have heard them from so great a distance... could he? No normal man could have heard the carriage so soon... but there was no doubt in Eliza's mind that Mr. Darcy was no ordinary man. Elizabeth had, on more than one occasion, thought Mr. Darcy quite unlike any other gentleman of her acquaintance. Now she was beginning to suspect that what had just passed was but a glimpse of how different he truly was.
Though the thought terrified her, it intrigued her too.
But Elizabeth was not at liberty to pursue that particular thought at any length for the present. If she did not make haste, Charlotte and Mr. Collins would be upon her, and she was in no fit state for their company.
She hauled herself to her feet, surprised they had strength enough to hold her. Elizabeth hurried from the drawing room, up the stairs, and into the room she'd been given where she promptly threw herself upon the bed. It was not long before her friend appeared at the door, making enquiries as to the state of her health. Lady Catherine, she was told, had been most concerned for her welfare.
Elizabeth evaded her friend's well-meaning scrutiny as best she could, promising that she would be right as rain after a good rest. Charlotte's narrowed eyes told Elizabeth the lie was not as convincing as she had hoped, but her friend did not press the issue. Bidding her a good night, Charlotte left. Muffled voices rose in conversation on the other side of the door and then slowly faded as they moved down the hallway.
She closed her eyes, trying her best to do as Charlotte had suggested and rest. They flew open almost at once as her mind filled with an image of Mr. Darcy, his lips pulled back in an inhuman snarl. Rolling on to her side, Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut again, telling herself that she would not think about that Darcy; she would think only of the other Darcy, the one whose kiss ignited a fire within her veins that-
No, it would not do.
The blissful unconsciousness that sleep offered was not to be hers. Elizabeth ceased her futile attempts to rest and was on her feet once more, pacing the length of the small chamber with short, agitated steps.
Regardless of how many times she replayed the day's events in her mind, Elizabeth could make no better sense of what had transpired. Worse, she could not say which was a cause of greater confusion, the passion or the pain. One was as unknown to her as the other.
As for her own behaviour, Elizabeth could not have been more mortified. To act in so wanton a manner was shameful and unbecoming of a lady. How she wished she could say she regretted it. Truth be told, Darcy had awakened something within her that she had not known to even exist. Now that she didknow, now that she'd had a taste of it, she could not say that she did not want more.
Her thoughts were drawn to her impetuous younger sisters. She thought of the way that Lydia and Kitty chased after the coattails of the officers stationed near their home. Could it be that they were in possession of some knowledge of the kind of intimacies between a man and a woman that Elizabeth, until today, had lacked?
The thought of the regiment stationed in Meryton could not but draw her thoughts to a certain soldier; yet, the face of Mr. Wickham, who Eliza had formerly given no small amount of consideration, would not long stay in her mind, for it was quickly replaced with an image of blood-stained lips and warm brown eyes filled with sorrow.
Oh, but she was conflicted.
Elizabeth sank into a chair that sat before the room's small dressing table. She was startled at first to find that she could not see her own reflection in the mirror upon the table. Her reverie had been so great it had blinded her to the passing of time. So lost in thought was she that she had not noticed until that moment that night had long since fallen.
She was not usually a squeamish person, but, for some reason she could not name, Elizabeth found the darkness unnerving. It was as though every shadow was filled with strange, unnatural forms that loomed, menacing, in every corner. Striking a match to chase the shadows away, Elizabeth gasped at the image that was thrown back at her in the flickering candlelight. She stared, wide eyed and pale, back at herself from the mirror's depths, mesmerised by the two angry red welts that marred her slim throat.
How Darcy came to be from the parsonage to Rosings Park, Darcy knew not how. The maelstrom of emotion assailing him seemed simply to pick him up from one location, toss him about, then deposit him in another. He was not even aware of entering that grand house until Colonel Fitzwilliam called out to him.
Fitzwilliam, who knew every particular of Darcy’s past, was instantly on guard when his gaze fell upon Darcy’s wild, dishevelled appearance. His hand instinctively went to the place where, if he had worn his usual regimentals, his sword would have been.
He had to give the man credit. Though they were as fond of one another as cousins could be, Darcy knew Fitzwilliam wouldn’t hesitate to do what must be done to protect their great family.
“Darcy,” Fitzwilliam said, placing himself between the parlous entrance and Darcy, “you are… unwell?” His words were steely, full of questions he dare not speak.
Are you in control?
Are you a danger?
What have you done?
Raising gloved fingers to his lips, Darcy found them still wet with blood. With Elizabeth’s blood.
Hunger flared to life within him. At once, all Darcy could think or feel was her. Already, Elizabeth coursed through him, energizing him, filling him with life and power yet the hint of blood tickled Darcy’s senses drove him wild.
Fitzwilliam took a warning step forward as Darcy’s eyes brightened with Bloodlust.
Get control of yourself, man!
Grabbing the elegant balustrade for support with one hand, Darcy held up the other to halt the other man.
“No,” he said in a voice that was nowhere near certain. “I am well.” His grip on the bannister tightened as he fought himself. “I am well,” he insisted, more to himself than Fitzwilliam.
Darcy heard what his cousin could not: the faint crack of wood coming apart. He slowly unwrapped his fingers from around the highly polished wood. Begging Fitzwilliam to make his excuses, Darcy hurried up the staircase seconds before his aunt’s indelicate footstep warned of her approach.
He would, no doubt, be subjected to more than one lecture about proper decorum when next his aunt got a hold of him, but he cared not. The only concern Darcy had was to get Miss Bennet’s blood off his lips before it led him to do something regrettable.
Such as attacking the woman you love in broad daylight? Forcing yourself upon her person after she so succinctly dismissed your affections?
The door slammed behind Darcy as he enshrined himself in his room. His manservant took one look at Darcy and hastily excused himself under the pretence of finalizing their travel arrangements. Darcy could not blame the man; he was faithful, but not foolhardy.
Alone, Darcy removed his gloves, splashed water into a basin, dipped his hands in, and raised the pooled water to his lips. There, he hesitated, unable – perhaps, if he were honest, unwilling – to remove the final traces of Miss Bennet’s blood from his person.
His tongue darted out, seemingly of its own accord, to press against the fullness of his bottom lip. Just the merest taste of her was enough to shatter Darcy’s tentative control. In two quick strides, he was at the door. Throwing it wide, he-
-found himself staring down the muzzle of a pistol.
Fitzwilliam’s eyes were hard. “I love you as though you were my brother,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper, “but you are not leaving that room until you are in full control once more.”
The rational part of Darcy’s mind was grateful for the man’s interference. It was not so large nor so fierce, as the part that longed to tear through his beloved cousin on his way to Elizabeth. Dimly, through the haze of furious hunger, Darcy heard the click of a gun being cocked.
“You cannot kill me with that,” Darcy snarled.
“No,” Fitzwilliam conceded, “but it will, at least, inconvenience you.”
Amusement broke through the Bloodlust. ‘Inconvenience,’ indeed. Spending the next several days regrowing a brain would certainly be that. A dry chuckle escaped Darcy as he retreated into his room once more. Fitzwilliam kept his wary vigil.
“Hold your fire,” Darcy said, dragging a hand through his already mussed hair. “I assure you I am in control.”
“I have no intention of leaving this room, regardless,” he assured the other man.
Colonel Fitzwilliam’s gaze did not waver as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. “And I? Am I to be called away to Hunsford, to the site of some unexplainable tragedy?”
A shiver ripped through Darcy. He had, himself, never been the cause of such a tragedy, but both he and Fitzwilliam had been called upon to conceal the truth of Wickham’s wrongdoings. The thought of Elizabeth’s body, completely drained of blood, shook him.
What he had done…
What he might have done!
“No,” he breathed. “No.” No matter what, Darcy must never again lose control around Elizabeth. But, could he trust himself? Resist the daemon within?
Fitzwilliam’s stance relaxed after a moment’s consideration. “That is a comfort. Tell me, cousin, what happened to cause you arrive in such a state?”
Darcy could keep nothing from his dear friend. He haltingly told of his failed proposal. Though he said nothing, a range of emotions crossed the man’s face, from surprise, to disappointment, and horror.
“And Miss Bennet?”
Motioning to the bloody gouges streaking his face, Darcy gave his cousin a wry grin. “That lady defends herself admirably.”
“So I see.” Fitzwilliam gazed out the window a moment before continuing. “Your behaviour is unforgivable, Darcy.”
As if that must be said!
“Yes, it is.”
Fitzwilliam knew Darcy too well to doubt the torment he put himself through. As such, he kindly chose not to focus on the attack but, rather, the proposal.
“I must confess my astonishment that Miss Bennet rejected you so vehemently before she knew of your ailment,” he said. “That someone of her circumstance should-”
“No,” Darcy interrupted. “The fault is my own. I have used my affliction as an excuse for ungentlemanly behaviour.”
Pressing his lips together, Fitzwilliam did not press the issue but turned to give Darcy a curious look. “And you say her refusal was based on the fact that you wronged Wickham?”
Anger flashed through Darcy at the mention of his childhood friend. At the man who had cursed him to this existence. To think Miss Bennet might prefer that scoundrel made him want to…
He shook off the rage clawing at him with some difficulty. “It would seem Mr. Wickham has been spreading untruths among some social circles.”
“Indeed, it does,” Fitzwilliam agreed. He crossed to where Darcy stood and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Well,” he said, “at least in that you may defend yourself.”
Darcy stalked through the park with long, impatient strides. His eyes were blind to the well manicured lawns and carefully trimmed foliage; there was but one image he could see and that was Elizabeth scuttling across the drawing room floor, her face a mask of horror and a bright trickle of blood rolling down her neck. It was an image that would haunt him for the rest of his long existence.
Elizabeth was disgusted by him. She had not uttered the words aloud, of course, but there was no need; the revulsion on her face revealed all. In truth, Darcy did not blame the lady. He was more disgusted with himself than she could ever be.
What on God's green Earth had possessed him to lay hands on her? To kiss her? To...
Monster. Savage. Daemon.
His conscious taunted him, delighting in the agony that tore through him. The monster in him preened; it had claimed Elizabeth for its own, at long last. It called to mind the sweet taste of her blood on his tongue, the delicate sent of rose that clung to her skin, the feel of her skin beneath his lips...
The events that had transpired the day previous proved that Darcy could not be trusted alone with Miss Bennet. He would not allow it to happen again. Ever. Though it nigh on broke his heart, Darcy vowed that he would remove himself from Elizabeth's society, never to return again.
Almost the moment he thought it, he caught her scent on the wind.
His fingers tightened reflexively on the letter he carried. Darcy had promised Miss Bennet an explanation, so an explanation she would have - but not from his lips. He dared not trust himself to be in her presence long enough to tell her his sad tale, to bare his dark soul to her, to lay open the truth of his failures and await her judgement.
Darcy had laboured long over the narrative, destroying more than a few drafts that had become clumsy in their haste to be written. He was not a little grateful, perhaps for the first time that he could recall, that his curse left him restless through the night; the brief hours of sleep he'd managed to steal around dawn were not much less than he usually had.
Closing his eyes, Darcy sifted through the cacophony of noise that surrounded him. The chorus of birds and insects were of no interest to him - and less so were the mating rituals of the squirrels in the tree nearby. Distantly, he could make out the incessant ramblings of Mr. Collins; rehearsing, no doubt, some new flattery for Her Ladyship.
The fool must be on his way to Rosings, Darcy mused, for his daily dose of condescension.
Though he fancied an encounter with the clergyman only slightly more than a shaft of wood through his heart, Darcy took comfort in the fact that he was nearby, should a situation arise where Miss Bennet found herself in need of an ally.
God, but I pray that is not the case.
Surely Darcy could control himself long enough to pass the lady a letter - could he not? The answer was not as quick in coming as he would have liked.
I will die the ultimate death before I hurt Elizabeth, Darcy swore.
You have already hurt her, his conscious reminded him cruelly.
A startled gasp stopped Darcy from becoming embroiled in an argument with himself that he could not hope to win. He knew that the sound came from Elizabeth, even before he turned to find her staring at him, one gloved hand pressed against her lips.
Curses! He should not have allowed his attention to wander to her lips; he could not help but remember the taste of them... of their softness as they yielded to him, parting to allow him...
For a moment that stretched too long, Darcy struggled to force his attention away from Elizabeth's lips, only to find his gaze drawn to the slender column of her throat. The high lapels of her spencer did nothing to hide the twin wounds that marred the once perfect flesh there.
The darker part of Darcy crowed that she had made no real effort to cover his mark. The rational part of him despaired; one look from the wrong person – one who knew at least of the creature he had become, if not that he, personally, had become one – would be his undoing. That was to say nothing of the anguish he felt at physical reminder of the pain that he had inflicted upon Miss Elizabeth Bennet.
"Mr. Darcy," that fine lady said, breaking their prologued silence. Darcy marvelled that there was only the slightest hint of a tremor in her voice. Elizabeth was, indeed, a strong woman.
Not strong enough to survive you.
Uncomfortable silence threatened to stretch between them once more. Darcy forcefully reminded himself that the longer it took to deliver his communication, the longer Elizabeth would be in danger.
Do the deed and be gone, he schooled himself.
The letter he carried seemed to grow in weight, becoming an anchor that held him firmly in place. For the first time since penning his story, it occurred to Darcy that it could be the cause of his ruin. What if Miss Bennet chose to use the information it contained against him? Was it not in his own handwriting? He had even, perhaps foolishly, signed his name.
If he gave Elizabeth the letter, he would also be giving the lady a tremendous amount of power over him.
That, I gave her the moment she claimed my heart.
"I-" he began, cursing his lack of easy discourse, which so many of his social equals seemed blessed with. "I have been walking the grove some time, in the hope of meeting you. Will you do me the honour of reading this letter?"
Before he could change his mind, Darcy thrust it forward. Elizabeth, wearing a look of trepidation normally reserved for bedlamites and poisonous animals, cautiously took the proffered letter.
Not waiting for a response to his query, and not daring to meet Elizabeth's eye, Darcy turned sharply on his heel and strode away with all possible haste. He was, he told himself, doing an honourable deed by removing the threat of his presence, and not – most certainly not – running away like a base coward.
Elizabeth stared in astonishment at the envelop in her hands for many long minutes before she could bring herself to even contemplate opening it. Though she could scarce bring herself to admit it, her thoughts had followed the rather more dishevelled than customary Mr. Darcy as he sped away from her, his long stride eating up distance in his haste to be away.
Irrationally – for she told herself it must be irrational to long for someone who had, less than twenty-four hours hence, assaulted her – Elizabeth felt a sting of rejection at his departure. It was as though he could not be from her presence rapidly enough. Her pride was wounded.
Yes, pride. Elizabeth told herself very resolutely that it had everything to do with pride and nothing at all to do with any romantic imaginings on her part.
What would her long suffering father have to say about that, Eliza wondered? Many, many things, no doubt – all of them loaded with the words "hopeless" and "silly". It was only by picturing the look of severe disapproval on Papa's face that she was able to shake off her irrational fancy and, turning her back on the spot Darcy had vacated, for good measure, began walking in the opposite direction.
Upon finding a comfortable enough looking spot on a fallen tree, Elizabeth sat and broke the seal on the envelope. Within, there were two sheets of fine letter paper, the space of each full to bursting with an elegant, if somehow frustrated, script. She had, Elizabeth realized, never seen Mr. Darcy's handwriting before. It was perfectly him: evidence of a good upbringing, barely holding strong against some internal struggle that gave the words an almost angry slant.
Elizabeth hesitated, hesitant over what the letter might hold. What could it contain? Apologies?
"I do not offer my apologies because my actions cannot be forgiven."
No, she doubted very much that it might contain that.
There was, she knew, only one way to discover the answer to that question... yet still she delayed. She was not, unlike some of the women in her family, given to fits of fancy, but Elizabeth was in the grips of a strange premonition; reading Mr. Darcy's letter, she suspected, would take her down a path that, once started, she could not untravel. Her stomach performed a nauseating somersault.
In the end, curiosity triumphed over fear. She simply could not carry on, not knowing. Wishing that the hand holding Darcy's letter did not shake so, Elizabeth began to read.
''Let me begin, madam, by saying that I regret the alarm and apprehension that you must have been facing since our meeting yesterday. Please be assured that such a display will never again be repeated. I remain at Rosings Park only long enough to pen this letter; I will remove myself from the vicinity with all due haste once you have received it and will never plague you with my presence again thereafter.''
Eliza felt as though a blizzard had passed through her heart. Against all reason, she was sorry to learn that she would never again be in Mr. Darcy's presence. Something fell onto the paper, blurring the words that it landed on. It took a long moment for Elizabeth's stunned brain to make out what it was.
Frustrated, she dashed at her cheeks, striking the moisture away. Be sensible, she ordered herself. It is for the best. But no manner of scolding could convince her wayward heart that never seeing Mr. Darcy again was a good thing.
"Such a host of offences did I commit against you yesterday that I cannot begin to humble myself enough to atone for a single one of them," the letter continued. "I can never forgive myself for the manner in which I offended your station, your family, and your good breeding. Neither can I ask for your forgiveness in this matter. I was, however, wholly in the wrong. The pain of your repudiation caused me to lash out in a way that was deplorably – as you rightly said – ungentlemanly.
"You accused me, quite rightly, of plotting to keep Charles Bingley from forming romantic attachments to your sister, Jane. I cannot deny this; I went to great lengths to keep my friend from acting on his affections."
Anger returned and, with it, shame. Eliza had been so overwhelmed by what had occured after, that she had completely forgotten that which had prompted her to refuse Mr. Darcy in the first place. Jane. That Elizabeth could have allowed a man – even a man such as Mr. Darcy – put her dearest sister and lifelong companion from her mind did not sit well with her.
"I did this, not out of spite, as you must have thought-" Indeed, that was what she had thought. "-but in an effort to protect your sister. Mr. Bingley, you see, suffers from the same affliction that I myself have struggled against, these many years now. Mr Bingley, you see, is a vampire."
The word held no meaning for Elizabeth, save for vague impressions of strange, exotic creatures that dwelled in the troubled mind of poets. But then an image rose to mind of Mr. Darcy's scarlet eyes and bloodstained lips. If such a creature did exist, there was no refuting that Mr. Darcy was one - but Mr. Bingley?
There was something in Mr. Darcy's countenance, in the cool, aloof way he behaved amongst society, that suggested an otherness about him. Mr. Bingley, on the other hand, was quite possibly the most amiable, cordial gentleman she had ever known. Elizabeth tried to picture his face contorted in an animalistic snarl of rage, all deadly canines and burning ferocity. The thought was laughable.
The letter's next lines mirrored her thoughts
"This revelation must be a great surprise to you. You may, perhaps, think that I jest. Please believe me when I say that I speak the truth – for, contrary to what my behaviour yesterday might lead you to believe, I would not trifle with your health, nor the health of those you hold dear.
"To understand the disease from which I, and Mr. Bingley, suffer, you must be made familiar with the method of our infection. This, I can lay at the feet of one man in particular. Perhaps you will be willing to forgive me my supposed slights against George Wickham when you learn it was that man who cursed both myself and Mr. Bingley to be, forever more, creatures of the night."
Elizabeth's shock was so great that the letter slipped from her numb fingers to land on the ground at her feet. First Mr. Bingley, and now Mr. Wickham? Good Lord above! How many monsters were there in England?