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Portrait of a Lady

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On her fourth morning at Pemberley, Elizabeth Darcy stared out the library window into the driving rain.

"No, I do not believe I will be walking today," she decided with a sigh.

She had arranged to meet with Mrs. Reynolds later this morning, to continue going over the household accounts and learning the procedures that had been in place for the years the housekeeper had spent as Pemberley's de facto mistress, but for a little while, the morning was hers. She had come to the library with the intention of beginning her quest to read every book her husband owned. It is an impossible quest, she thought with an incredulous laugh, marveling at the sheer number of books that surrounded her. William has every right to be proud of this collection!

Though the gleam of the books in the soft, inviting light of the library was a momentary distraction, it could not long draw her attention away from Nature's gaudy show of power, and Elizabeth found herself once more gazing through the glass.

Even with the fury of the storm, the quiet of Pemberley was more than welcome. The weeks of unrelenting social obligations with the ton in London following her wedding had been exhausting. She had been introduced as Mrs. Darcy so often that she had nearly become accustomed to it.

Nearly, she thought wryly. Simply thinking of her new name was enough to bring a smile to her face.

The whirl of activity would have gone on much longer, but William's distaste for the false veneer of polite society and his disinclination to share her with others had finally driven him to spirit his wife away to his beloved Pemberley.

Elizabeth tried to imagine Caroline Bingley's dismay if, after mere weeks of the ton's fawning and insincere adoration, William had whisked her away to the quiet wilds of Derbyshire.

She laughed. Not even the glories of Pemberley would have made up for it, she thought, as she would have no appreciation for them. Elizabeth wondered at the fact that in all her detailed study of William, Miss Bingley had never realized that he only truly felt at home in Derbyshire at his country estate, a circumstance plainly at odds with Miss Bingley's wish to be the darling of London's drawing rooms.

"She is welcome to them," she bit out, crossing her arms over her chest. The charming smiles and vicious eyes of the ladies of the ton had shown her all too clearly what they thought of her.

She pushed thoughts of London away. In her beautiful new home, with her adored and adoring husband nearby, she would waste no time on thoughts of the ton and their machinations.

Elizabeth had, as yet, no impression of the tone of her reception in Derbyshire, as the Darcys were not yet at home to visitors. After the incessant activity in London, she and William had both longed for some peace and solitude, some time to simply enjoy each other's company. She wished to learn as much about her new home as possible, and William wished to share it with her.

Unfortunately, while visitors could be ignored, estate matters could not. Not half an hour earlier, after they had breakfasted together, her devoted husband had torn himself from her side to deal with the towering pile of correspondence in his study.

Elizabeth had thought to walk the grounds of her new home and reflect on how her life had changed, but Derbyshire's weather was not obliging her.

This was no light shower. The morning was dark and wild, rain swirling in the howling wind and pounding against the walls and the windows with a force that was almost frightening. The fierce and untamed beauty of the distant landscape showed briefly in harsh flashes of lightning.

Elizabeth shivered at the sight and fervently hoped that none of William's pressing business would require him to leave the house in this weather.

She smiled to herself. She had gone nearly half a minute without a thought of William. It was the longest stretch of time yet.

She missed him with an intensity that was absolutely preposterous after a mere half hour apart. She longed to indulge in her new favourite hobby of watching his beautiful face as they talked. His eyes were so expressive, showing her his every thought, and she was quickly learning how to read his moods in the smallest change of his features.

She could not forgive herself for ever thinking him cold and unfeeling.

Thunder cracked loudly overhead, and she jumped, startled.

An idea struck her, and she smiled again. She could not interrupt William's work, but she knew where to go to look upon his face.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Mere moments later, Elizabeth was regretting her hasty decision. She stood before William's portrait in the gallery, fruitlessly attempting to focus on the face she loved. Her gaze was continually drawn away from his likeness by the other portraits that surrounded her. She had ignored them on her first visit, thinking them insignificant to her purpose, but she could not ignore them now.

Judges and generals, bishops and royal advisors stared down at her, their uniformly haughty expressions unsettlingly familiar to her. Their sleek and powerful horses seemed to stare down their long noses at her.

"The horses most likely have a better pedigree than I do," she laughed sadly.

She could not bring herself to look at the dozens of beautiful ladies that graced the walls. She imagined them staring at her as the ladies of first circles of the ton had, smiles on their lips and daggers in their eyes, waiting impatiently for her to make a mistake and expose her lack of sophistication.

She had tried to laugh off their silky cruelty, tried to be Lizzy Bennet, who cared not for others' opinions of her except for the amusement their actions afforded her. She could not, for she was no longer Lizzy Bennet. She was Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy, and every whispered word and sardonic smile was a weapon aimed at that good name.

Startled out of her musings as the gallery door opened, she could not help but smile as her husband entered. Suddenly, her worries seemed as far away as London itself.

"William! You cannot already be done with your morning's work."

"No. I could not concentrate on matters. Rather than trying and failing, I decided to take a few minutes to find you before I return to the drudgery of estate business."

"This will not do," she said with a laugh. "Pemberley will fall down around our ears, and you will blame me."

Darcy smiled sheepishly. "Every piece of correspondence I deal with reminds me of yet another piece of Pemberley I wish to share with you, and I find myself hopelessly distracted."

William's embarrassment charmed her, even as it caused her own. She gestured to the portrait she had been studying. "As you see, sir, you have been on my mind as well."

Elizabeth watched as he studied his own portrait. "It is a very good likeness," she said.

"Hmm," he answered noncommitally. "It is incomplete without yours beside it. We shall have to arrange for a sitting soon."

Elizabeth repressed her unease at the idea of her portrait hanging here on these hallowed walls. "Will you sit as well, William? I would like a miniature of you."

Darcy shifted uncomfortably on his feet. "If you wish it. I must admit, I would like a miniature as well. Of you, of course."

She laughed. "If we are this inattentive to duty now, we shall truly never get any work done when we have likenesses of each other to carry with us wherever we go."

He smiled in acknowledgment as he offered his arm. "What brings you here this morning?"

"I wished to walk and think of you," she said boldly as she took his arm, grinning when he coloured once more. "The rain curtailed my plans, but I knew I would find your likeness here, so I came to stand and think of you instead. I remember thinking, all those months ago, that it was very like you."

At his questioning look, it was her turn to smile sheepishly. "When I visited Pemberley with my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, Mrs. Reynolds showed us to the portrait gallery. Then, I must confess, just as now, I had eyes for only one face."

She glanced back up at William's portrait. His eyes followed hers, and she smiled at the happy expression that settled on his features at the idea that she had been captivated by his image even then.

The rest of the portraits pressed in on her again, and her smile faded.

"Elizabeth? What troubles you?"

She thought of denying that anything was wrong, of attempting to deflect his concern, but she knew enough of him now to know that that would simply cause him more anxiety.

"At that time, the other portraits were of no significance to me. Now all I can see are generations of disapproving Darcys," she murmured.

"Elizabeth, no!" he exclaimed as he turned to face her, distressed by her unhappiness. "They would not disapprove, dearest. They could not. You would win them all over in an instant with your beauty, your charm, your lively wit. They would be as entranced as I."

His absolute assurance and passionate defence of her brought a smile to her lips once more. She thought of Georgiana, her new sister, and the man beside her. They were both pleased she was here, and that must be enough for her.

It was foolish to wonder whether she would have received approval from those who had gone to their final rest long ago.

And yet... she thought unhappily as she walked several paces further, her arm in William's.

Lady Anne Darcy stared down on them. Her dark curls and dark eyes were so familiar, her figure slim and tall, her features more delicate than those of her son. Though her small smile was perfectly decorous, there was laughter in her eyes, in her countenance.

It was a remarkably well-done portrait. Elizabeth imagined the artist had been at least half in love with his subject by the time of its completion.

"You are very like her, William."

He smiled the same half-smile that graced his mother's lips.

"In looks, perhaps, but that is all. Georgiana and I both seem to share our father's more serious disposition, though I often wonder if Georgiana might be more spirited now if she had not been left so often with only me for company."

William frowned, and she could see him falling into the guilt and recriminations that so often attended his thoughts of his sister. Wanting to keep his thoughts with her, she asked, "Your mother was livelier?"

His frown lifted as he lost himself in memory. His smile suddenly seemed very far away. "She was. I was very young, but I remember that she loved balls and dinners and dancing."

"Ah. No, I am afraid she certainly did not share that affinity with her son."

With a wry smile, Darcy sketched half a bow. "No. I believe she spent more time here at Pemberley out of the house than in it. She loved strolling in the gardens and exploring the grounds. She was a great rider."

His dark mood returned as he remembered how it had all slowly stopped as she'd taken more and more often to her bed. One unsuccessful confinement after another had robbed her of her health and her vitality. He recalled the joy that had swept through the house at his sister's birth, immediately followed by horror and grief as his mother failed to regain her strength, dying before the dawn of her daughter's second day.

Fear clawed at him at the reminder of the danger that lay ahead someday for his own lovely young wife. A heartfelt if incoherent prayer burst silently from him at the mere thought.

"William?"

Her hand gripped his arm and her voice brought him out of the darkness as he looked down into her troubled face. He forced his wild fears down. He would not have her made unhappy or anxious by his own black moods.

Elizabeth realized that his mother's death haunted him still, and she chastised herself for causing him pain in her own selfish quest for peace of mind.

"I believe it is time for me to meet with Mrs. Reynolds," she said airily, contrition in her eyes as she let go of his arm and moved toward the door. His hand on her arm stopped her, and she turned back to him. He took his hands in hers.

"My mother would have loved you, Elizabeth," he said sincerely.

She blinked, disarmed once again by his seeming ability to see directly into her heart now that it was open to him.

"Are you certain she would not consider the shades of Pemberley polluted?" she jested, her smile a weak and pale imitation of her normal teasing grin.

There was a brief flash of pain in William's eyes before his expression hardened, becoming the blank mask of the man she had met so long ago.

"That is Lady Catherine's foolishness," he said, tightly restrained anger in his voice. "Not my mother's."

Elizabeth uneasily attempted to extract her hands from his, but he would not let go as he struggled to master his temper.

His expression softened abruptly, and he became once more the man she loved. He tugged on her hands, pulling her into his embrace.

"Forgive me, Elizabeth," he said softly, rubbing his cheek along her hair as he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. "I am not angry. Not with you. I am angry with her, and I am angry with myself, for not stopping her nonsense long ago, for not exerting myself to confront her. I believe that my own reticence has allowed her to cause you more pain and uncertainty than you have been willing to admit."

Elizabeth rested in his arms, her cheek against his chest as she listened to the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. She took strength from his solid support.

She realized it had been worrying her more than she had apprehended. Georgiana and Colonel Fitzwilliam had been all that was amiable and friendly, joyously sincere in their congratulations. Lord and Lady Matlock, their heir the Viscount, and all of their other children had all been gracious, if reserved, in their welcome. She had been astounded to receive a short note of congratulations from Miss de Bourgh, tucked clandestinely in Charlotte's own letter.

There was only one member of William's family openly opposed to the match, and despite her best efforts to disregard the woman, Elizabeth could not keep herself from dwelling on Lady Catherine's ravings that William's mother would have been horrified and disgusted by her and by their marriage.

It was easy to say that Lady Catherine's words were nonsense, as so many of her words were, but she was Lady Anne's sister, and if there was anything with which Elizabeth was familiar, it was the bonds of sisterhood. She knew how concerned she was with her sisters' happiness, and she could not help but believe that Lady Catherine's words contained some truth.

It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of her's.

The strident words echoed through her mind, and she closed her eyes.

"Do you not think you will someday regret going against your mother's wishes to marry me?" she asked his chest, her voice barely above a whisper.

"My mother's wishes?" Darcy repeated in disbelief.

"She intended for you to marry your cousin."

He tipped her chin up, but she refused to meet his eyes. With a sigh, he led her to the low, cushioned bench that rested along the gallery wall. When she sat, he lowered himself next to her, his fingers intertwining with hers.

"Elizabeth, those are Lady Catherine's wishes -- to ally herself to my family, to avail herself of my resources and those of this estate. She is more of a fortune hunter than any half dozen young ladies I ignored in London. Those are not my mother's wishes."

"How do you know?" she asked him, still staring at the tiled floor.

They sat in silence as Darcy gathered his thoughts. He had spent so long now subtly sidestepping his aunt's manoeuvres that it took some moments before he remembered his initial rage at Lady Catherine's audacity after his father's death. Though his aunt had spent the entirety of his adolescence reminding him of his duty to his family, the subject had never been raised in his father's presence, and Darcy had only just come out of deep mourning when he was told to start preparing for his engagement.

How dare that woman presume to know any of my mother's wishes for me, he thought angrily. He, unlike poor Georgiana, had fond memories of his mother, and she had never once shown any expectation that he and his cousin would one day marry. And now, because he had desired peace and quiet for less than a month every year, his Elizabeth was unhappy. It was insupportable.

"My mother was very young when she married my father, and she gave him an heir rather quickly. It was not quickly enough to set tongues wagging, but only just. I was born very shortly after her nineteenth birthday. Lady Catherine was several years older than my mother, had been married longer, and my cousin Anne is a few months older than I am. I believe that Lady Catherine has always -- wrongly -- considered herself superior to my mother in understanding, and under the circumstances, she would have felt herself vastly more experienced in marriage and motherhood. You may have noticed that Lady Catherine has a somewhat... forceful personality."

Elizabeth glanced up to see the flash of his sardonic smile, and she found herself grinning in return.

She struggled to school her features into a mask of polite attention as she said, seriously, "I had not noticed, in truth."

She delighted in his laugh.

"Yes, well, you can imagine the profusion of advice and suggestions Lady Catherine most likely had for my mother. If this... pact that Lady Catherine is so vehement about existed at all on my mother's side, it was nothing more than the idle dreaming of a young mother as her babe slept. I am sure she imagined all manner of marriages and mischiefs for me. Do not all new mothers?"

Elizabeth looked unconvinced, and he took her hand in both of his, pressing it tightly.

"My parents' match was a good one, in the eyes of the ton," he told her. "She was the daughter of an earl, and he was young and wealthy."

Elizabeth dropped her gaze at the unwelcome reminder that her marriage was not looked on so highly by the ton. William tipped her chin up once more, and this time, she made herself hold his anxious gaze.

"Though it made their lives easier, it was not why they married," he said softly. "The strength of the marriage and of their love, their esteem and respect for each other, were very clear to see, even for someone as young as I was."

She watched as William's gaze drifted from his smiling mother's portrait to that of his serious and solemn father.

"It quite broke my father when she died," he struggled to admit, glancing back with gratitude as Elizabeth now took his hand in both of hers, lifting it to her lips.

The simple gesture of comfort moved Darcy deeply. It was only with great effort that he once more pushed away the dark concerns and fears that insisted on crowding in on him at the thought of his mother's death.

"So, you see, after the happiness she had found in her own marriage, my mother would not have wanted mine to be nothing more than an alliance. If Anne and I loved each other and wanted the marriage, that would be one thing, but my mother would not have wanted me to sacrifice myself and my future for the sake of connections and family duty. She wanted my happiness."

He raised his hand to stroke her cheek, to cup the softness of it in his palm.

"Even she could not have imagined how happy you have made me, Elizabeth."

Undone by the depth of feeling in William's words, by the quiet joy in his eyes, Elizabeth closed her eyes and leaned into his chest.

Darcy held his treasured wife close, breathing in deeply to draw in her familiar scent. It brought him immeasurable pain to know that she was still not convinced of the strength of their marriage. He had no doubt she believed in his love for her, but he would never be easy until Elizabeth realized that what they shared was right and true and more precious to him than anything else.

"I have many regrets, my love. I regret that my foolish pride nearly cost me all the happiness I have now, all the happiness our life together will bring me. I regret that there is anyone -- anyone -- who could make you feel unworthy of me when I am the unworthy one. I regret that the lack of a proper courtship has left you unable to trust in our love. I do not, and I will never, regret marrying you."

William's words rumbled through his chest, his breath was warm against her ear, his arm solid and sure around her, and she allowed the multitude of sensations to calm and soothe her.

"I did not realize how troubled I have been over all of this," she admitted after several deep breaths.

"I hope that I have helped to ease your concerns, my love," he murmured, his voice soft in her ear, and she shivered. Darcy bit back a groan as she moved against him. He had taken her in his arms with the purest intentions of comforting her in her distress, but he found his concerned attentions hopelessly redirected by the way her body fit against his, her breath against his neck, the warmth of her hand on his chest even through his shirt and waistcoat.

"Yes, I -- " her words ended in a light gasp as he whispered her name and brushed a kiss just under her ear.

"It is still so new," Darcy said softly, his lips against the sweet softness of her neck. "This need I have for your happiness, for your comfort and peace of mind."

"And I for yours," she murmured. She took another deep breath and forced herself to look up into his eyes. "That is why -- "

"Shh." He brushed a finger along her lips, smiling wickedly as she shivered at the sensation. She shifted against his side, needing to be closer to him, and his finger stroked down her shoulder and along the low neckline of her dress as he pressed soft, whispery kisses down her neck. Feeling drugged, overwhelmed by sensation, she struggled to raise her head and catch his gaze.

His eyes were dark with passion, and Elizabeth dizzily wondered how she could ever have imagined that he had looked at her with censure and disdain.

This was not their bedchamber. Darcy was well aware that he should respect his wife enough not to indulge himself in this wholly indecorous behavior in the middle of the portrait gallery in the middle of the morning, but the temptation was too much to master.

"Elizabeth," he murmured, just before his lips found hers.

Darcy fought to keep the kiss gentle, a simple taste to fortify himself for the day ahead, and then Elizabeth smiled against his lips, bringing one hand up to feather over his cheek and anchor in his hair to hold him to her. He groaned and deepened the kiss, feasting hungrily on her as his arms caught her to him, pulling her into his lap and holding her tightly.

Lost in him, Elizabeth barely registered the sound of passing footsteps in the hall beyond the gallery. With great reluctance, she ended the kiss, resting one hand on his chest to feel the racing of his heart.

"I really must go find Mrs. Reynolds," she said breathlessly. William simply stared at her, his eyes dark and dazed, and she laughed, fondly raking her fingers through his dark curls in a futile attempt to tame them. "Surely the master of Pemberley should be doing something more important than reassuring his foolish wife once again of his regard."

"I... yes... there is... the letters..." he said incoherently, and she laughed again. Then, he blinked, and shook his head. "No. Nothing is more important than that. Than you, Elizabeth. Nothing."

She smiled, filled to bursting with love for him, as she stood. Instantly, he rose beside her. She tucked her arm in his as they both regarded his mother's portrait once more.

"I am afraid your mother -- and all your relations here -- must be scandalized by the shocking conduct they have just witnessed," she said, mirth dancing in her voice.

Darcy smiled even as he dismissed with a gesture the countless generations of ancestors that surrounded them. "I know not what they would think, and I find I do not care. My mother would not be scandalized, I think. She was a new bride once, young and in love."

"I am sure your father was the best of men, William, but even your mother could not have been as happy in her marriage as I am in mine."

Darcy found he could not breathe as joy swept through him. It was not the first time she had openly admitted her happiness and the strength of her regard for him, but he had loved her for so long, through reluctance and acceptance and despair and resignation and finally hope. Reassurance of her attachment to him was still new enough that he prized every such utterance. It was more than he could bear with equanimity, and he pulled her into his embrace once more.

"My Elizabeth..."

Before his lips could find hers again, the door at the end of the gallery opened and one of the parlour maids stepped in.

"Oh!" she exclaimed upon realizing she was not alone. She would have instantly turned around and departed, but they were both staring at her, and the mistress smiled reassuringly even as she flushed in mortification.

"Beggin' your pardon, sir. Ma'am." Bobbing into a hasty curtsey, the maid lowered her gaze but was unable to completely stifle the smile that came at the sight of the master and new mistress wrapped in each other's arms.

"Mary, is it?" Elizabeth asked, blushing as she untangled herself from William and more properly took his arm. Pemberley had so many servants that Elizabeth had begun to doubt that she would ever know them all, and she was gratified when the girl confirmed her guess, surprise in her eyes.

She and William moved toward the opposite gallery door. As they reached the door, they both, as one, glanced back at Lady Anne's portrait.

"She would have loved you, Elizabeth, as I do," he whispered as they left the gallery.

Elizabeth smiled, but she could not help but glance back once more. As her eyes again found the serene canvas countenance of Lady Anne, she wondered.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

That night, Elizabeth dreamed.

She found herself standing in a darkened corner of her own bedchamber, but the room was clearly not hers. It was decorated as it had been for William's mother, and it was occupied.

In a pool of soft light, Lady Anne sat before a large mirror as her maid circled her, fussing with her hair and lace. She wore a beautiful, elegant gown of midnight blue, and brilliant jewels sparkled at her ears and around her neck. Her smile teased as she laughed with her maid.

She looked just as she did in her portrait, young and lively and happy.

From the distant sounds Elizabeth could hear it seemed as though the household was making final preparations for hosting a ball.

Lady Anne stopped speaking in midsentence as her gaze was caught by something at the door, and her whole countenance lit up.

Elizabeth turned to follow her gaze and gasped.

"You look very beautiful, Mama!"

Smiling, the boy her husband had been left his nursemaid's side and ran into the room and into his mother's open arms. Neither of them lamented or even noticed the damage his exuberant embrace was afflicting on her ensemble.

William was perhaps six, tall for a boy of his age, and slim. His dark curls were, as usual, untamed and unruly, and Elizabeth watched as Lady Anne lovingly brushed them away from his face before enfolding him in her arms again.

"With that smile and those pretty words, you'll soon have every woman in England in love with you, my son," Lady Anne teased.

"May I go to the ball and dance with you?" William asked her hopefully.

"I would be the envy of all the other ladies there! There will be balls for you soon enough, my love. For now, I wish to keep you all to myself."

Elizabeth watched as Lady Anne held her son tightly and whispered something in his ear, something that had him squealing with laughter and wriggling in her arms. Her heart ached for them both, for the years that had been stolen from them.

"He is beautiful, is he not?"

The voice came from just beside her, and she jumped and gasped again, her hand flying to her heart. She turned to find another Lady Anne standing just beside her.

This one was thinner, her youthful face ravaged by illness and pain, making her appear much older than she had ever been. Struck silent, Elizabeth could only stare.

Smiling wistfully, this Lady Anne gestured with a trembling hand toward her younger self, and her son.

"My son. Is he not beautiful?"

Elizabeth's gaze drifted once again to where the younger Lady Anne spoke earnestly with her son, their voices now too quiet to hear.

"Yes, milady. He was a beautiful boy."

Lady Anne smiled knowingly. "And now?"

Elizabeth blushed as images of her husband flashed behind her eyes -- images she did not wish to share with his mother, spirit or dream or otherwise. "Even more so."

"He was such a happy child. You would not think it to see him now. He has been so unhappy, for so long. I do not think he knows how unhappy he has been," Lady Anne told her, her voice soft and sad.

Her dark eyes, so familiar, found Elizabeth's as she smiled. Her sorrow melted away, leaving her young and beautiful once more.

"Thank you," she said. Her hands grasped Elizabeth's, gripped them tightly. "Thank you, my dear girl, for bringing my William back. For giving him the happiness he has always deserved."

Young William's laughter echoed through the room again, and Elizabeth woke with a start.

It was night, and she was in William's bed, wrapped in his arms, her legs tangled with his. His breathing was quiet and even beside her, and she stared at his beloved face in the soft light of the dying fire.

His lips twitched into a tiny smile as he dreamed, and Elizabeth felt such a rush of tenderness that her eyes filled and her vision blurred.

She reached up to smooth a disorderly curl off his forehead. It dawned on her that it was the same curl that Lady Anne had tried to tame in the dream.

Elizabeth tried to convince herself that it had been merely a dream, that her own mind had attempted to ease her concerns after the things she had discussed with her husband earlier in the day.

"Just a dream," she murmured to herself. "Nothing more."

The whisper came from nowhere, and everywhere. Be happy, my children.

It brought Elizabeth no fear or anxiety -- only peace and contentment.

She settled back into her husband's arms with a quiet, happy sigh.

"We will. Thank you, Lady Anne," she whispered just before she fell into sleep once more.