William Darcy was having a bad day.

On the surface, William seemed an unlikely object for sympathy. Any passenger preparing to board United Flight 853 that morning would have been thrilled to be in his hand-stitched Italian loafers, polished to an impeccable shine. He could have found dozens of volunteers to trade their coach seats for the first-class ticket tucked in his pocket. And few of his fellow male passengers would have minded being the focus of so many admiring female gazes.

But William, oblivious to this surfeit of blessings, hunched forward in a hard plastic chair, elbows propped on his knees, a scowl etched on his face. His head drooped as though his neck couldn’t support the weight of his troubles, and his bloodshot eyes focused absently on the gray tiles beneath his feet.

What a wonderful way to start this trip, he thought. Heaving a sigh, he buried his face in his hands and massaged his forehead.

His troubles had started early—much too early—that morning. His alarm clock had shocked him awake at half past four, a barbaric hour for anyone to rise, but all the worse for a night owl like William. It made no difference that he had set the alarm himself. The clock should have known better than to obey such an absurd instruction.

He wasn’t sure how many times he had smacked the alarm’s snooze button in retribution for its bad manners, but at five o’clock Mrs. Reynolds had knocked on his bedroom door to announce that breakfast awaited. The promise of a cup of coffee had lured him into a sitting position until a sudden wave of dizziness reversed even that minimal progress. By the time he managed to haul himself out of bed, it was too late for breakfast, a shower, or even coffee. Fortunately, Mrs. Reynolds always tucked a thermos in the car to fortify him on morning drives.

The drive from Manhattan to JFK Airport had continued the downward spiral. Allen, William’s driver, had fought valiantly to make up lost time. Unfortunately, the abrupt lane changes hadn’t mixed well with William’s attempts to sign some last-minute papers. He doubted anyone would recognize the drunken scrawl as his signature, and he owed his pounding headache to his attempts to read as the car swerved along the road.

His head wasn’t the only casualty of the drive. He glared at the coffee-colored splotches marring his Egyptian cotton shirt, courtesy of a sudden stop just as he had raised the silver thermos cup to his lips.

And after all the frantic haste, he had sprinted to the gate only to learn that his flight was delayed. Lacking the energy to backtrack to the Red Carpet Club, he had collapsed into the nearest chair.

“Oh, well,” he muttered under his breath. “At least this day can’t get any worse.”

He should have known better than to tempt fate. Almost immediately, he heard the sound of insistent throat-clearing as a pair of sensible black pumps entered his line of vision. An upward glance revealed a Burberry raincoat and a hand wearing a large diamond ring, and above that, a pair of wide eyes and a crimson mouth hanging open. He knew that look all too well.

“Excuse me. Aren’t you William Darcy? The concert pianist?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered in a clipped tone without making eye contact.

“My name is Linda Hopewell and I’m a huge fan. You’re such a wonderful performer!”

“Thank you,” he mumbled, forcing himself to look up at her.

“I own all your recordings!” Linda had one hand pressed to her chest, as though to help her catch her breath. “And I’ve seen you in concert so many times I’ve lost count. I can’t believe it’s really you!”

He twisted his mouth into a weak smile. “I’m glad you enjoyed the performances.” Now, go away.

“I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t ask. Could my husband take a picture of us together?”

He barely stifled a groan, thinking of how unkempt he must look, with coffee stains on his shirt, his wavy hair unwashed and unruly, and his square jaw nicked from shaving at a hazardous pace. But he heaved himself to his feet with a sigh. “Very well.”

“Oh, thank you so much! I’ll get Bob to come take the photo.”

Linda waved frantically at a bespectacled man on the other side of the gate area. He wandered over, produced a camera, and fiddled with it for what seemed like hours. All the while, Linda chattered about concerts she had attended, her favorite recordings, and comparisons with other pianists, until William couldn’t even pretend to listen anymore. Seeking a distraction, he scanned the crowd in the gate area.

A young woman with a backpack slung over one shoulder strolled past, detouring behind Bob as he continued to squint at the camera. After a first casual glance, her head snapped back toward William. She stared for a moment, and then her eyes widened. He knew that look too.

She appeared to be eighteen or nineteen, probably one of his music-student groupies. Her pale face was devoid of make-up, and her thick mass of dark, curly hair was gathered into a loose pony tail. She wore a baggy, wrinkled white shirt over a faded denim skirt. He was about to dismiss her from his thoughts when their eyes met. Her eyes were extraordinary: a fresh shade of green, sparkling with energy and intelligence.

“Mr. Darcy? Bob is ready to take the picture.”

Linda’s words broke the spell. William arranged his features in what he hoped was a smile.

“Say ‘Tchaikovsky’!” Bob quipped as the flash fired and the shutter clicked.

William blinked, momentarily blinded by the flash. Linda hurried over to her husband to inspect the photo and then brought the camera to William. The photo wasn’t as bad as he had feared; he looked miserable, but that was a given on this particular morning. Linda clutched his arm. “Oh, I simply can’t thank you enough! The picture will look just wonderful on the home page of your web site!”

“My web site?” A befuddled look spread across his face. His record company had a web page about him; his sister Georgiana had shown it to him once. But Linda hadn’t mentioned working for them.

“Yes. I created a fan site as a tribute to you. I even have MP3 files with music clips from your recordings.”

He frowned. He didn’t know much about MP3 files, except that a lot of people shared them instead of buying music.

“I learned HTML to create the site so I could customize it, and now I’m using some PHP scripts for special features like the guest book.”

“I see.” HTML? PHP?

“It’s a lot of work being a Webmistress, but I enjoy it.”

Webmistress? That sounds … kinky. He backed away, eyeing her warily.

“Perhaps you’d like to see the site. Let me find some paper, and I’ll write down the URL for you.” She dug in her purse. “I’d be honored if you’d visit us some time, and maybe even post a message. A little ‘hello’ to your fans, perhaps?”

She produced a dogeared slip of paper, scribbled a line on it, and held it out to him. He stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment and then slipped it into his coat pocket. His eyes traveled around the gate area, but the girl with the green eyes had vanished. Not that a starstruck college girl matters.

The instant the gate agent announced early boarding, a grateful William practically sprinted away from Linda with only a clipped, “Excuse me.”

On board the plane, he leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes with a deep sigh. Thank goodness he could sleep most of the way to San Francisco.

 

Five hours later William removed his headphones and dropped them into his lap. He massaged his temples and reflected further on his interminable Day From Hell.

For at least the twentieth time, he wondered what masochistic impulse had led him to take an early-morning flight. Charles’s cheerful voice echoed in his aching head: “Try to get here by lunchtime so we can catch up before things get crazy.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

But now, lunch was the last thing William wanted. Constant turbulence for the past two hours had intensified his headache. Worse yet, his stomach had forged a queasy alliance with his head; it had been executing slow rolls for the past hour.

He groaned as the plane lurched, sending the roller coaster in his digestive system careening down a huge vertical drop. Sweat dampened his skin, his head throbbed, and he prayed he wouldn’t be reduced to the indignity of using an airsickness bag.

He rang for the flight attendant. She appeared instantly, smoothing her hair, a cheery smile pasted on her face. “Yes, Mr. Darcy? May I help you?”

“Could you please bring me a glass of ginger ale?” His mother had sworn by ginger ale to settle an upset stomach.

“Of course,” she chirped. “I’ll be right back.”

She returned a minute later, shaking her head sadly. “I’m so sorry; we’re all out of ginger ale. Is there something else I could bring you?”

That exhausted his repertoire of upset-stomach remedies. “No, thank you. How soon will we be landing?”

“In a little over an hour.”

The plane lurched again. The flight attendant clutched a seat back; William clutched his stomach. His internal roller coaster entered a corkscrew section of the track. Closing his eyes, he took several slow, deep breaths.

When he opened his eyes, he found her gazing at him again. “Are you sure I can’t get you something?” she asked gently.

“I’m fine,” he lied, annoyed that his voice sounded weak. She nodded and returned to the galley.

Rhythmic snoring issued from the window seat. William glared at his seat-mate, astonished that such a tiny man could make so much noise for so many hours.

William had tried to drown out the noise with music, but his beloved noise-canceling headphones couldn’t drown out the throaty snorts and sighs coming from his neighbor. He had tried nudging the man awake, but had only provoked louder snores. Resigned to a sleepless flight, he had opened a book and absorbed himself in the history of Napoleon’s military campaign in Russia. Then the turbulence had started.

He needed to hold himself together until the plane landed. He would buy something at the airport to take care of his headache. He always carried a small bottle of ibuprofen in his jacket pocket, but he had used the last of it on his way to the airport. When had he last refilled it? Yesterday? The day before?

The headaches were getting worse, but they were undoubtedly caused by stress and a lack of sleep. He would find some time to relax next weekend—no, he had a recital in Boston. The weekend after that? Not then either. He had a concert weekend at the Hollywood Bowl.

He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes, listening to the drone of the jet engines and the snores of his seatmate. A pair of brilliant green eyes danced through his mind, and as he focused on them he finally drifted into a light sleep.

 

Elizabeth Bennet was having a great day.

The coach cabin of Flight 853 was as hot and stuffy as an attic on a July afternoon. Besides that, she was wedged into a middle seat near the back of the plane, between two tall men who felt entitled to occupy half of her seat as well as all of their own. But these discomforts couldn’t quell the anticipation she felt. She was on her way home for Jane’s wedding, and nothing else mattered.

In the grand tradition of struggling actress/singers in New York, she was barely scraping by and could rarely afford to fly across the country; it had been months since her last visit. She loved her part-time teaching job, but her tuition at NYU ate up every extra dime and then some, not to mention the mountain of student loans she had accumulated over the years. But she had discovered a deep love for teaching, and she hoped to be doing it full-time soon.

Tight budget or not, missing Jane’s wedding wasn’t an option. Each night she dragged home on aching feet from her second job as a restaurant server, longing for a leisurely bubble bath. But her master’s thesis and lesson plans awaited her, trilling, “Hey, Lizzy! Remember us?” Late into the night she renewed the acquaintance, often falling asleep on the sofa surrounded by papers.

Tomorrow when she stood beside Jane in the church, it would all be worthwhile. Jane was everything Elizabeth admired but couldn’t quite seem to manage herself: kind-hearted, gentle, level-headed, and unselfish to a fault. And beautiful, too. The first time Elizabeth had heard the children’s story about the ugly duckling, she had identified with it, comparing herself to her perfect sister. It was no wonder Jane had found a wonderful man who adored her, while Elizabeth had long since given up all hope of becoming a swan.

Enough of the self-pitying whine! Besides, who needs to be covered in feathers? I’d probably molt several times a year? She chuckled, attracting a curious stare from the man in the window seat.

She had a good life, and it would be even better in a few weeks when she finished her master’s degree and could begin her teaching career in earnest. On Monday morning she had a job interview at the most prestigious conservatory on the West coast. She had grown to love New York, but she missed northern California’s wild, scenic coastline, its relaxed lifestyle, and its mild winters. She also missed Jane, who was her best friend as well as her sister.

Jane’s wedding and a possible teaching job at home were all good reasons for a raging case of high spirits. But that wasn’t all. William Darcy was on the plane!

At a time when many girls her age had drooled over Luke Perry on Beverly Hills 90210, Elizabeth had dreamed about William Darcy. She had bickered constantly with Charlotte Lucas, her high school roommate, over control of the music played in their dorm room. Whenever Elizabeth got her way, it was likely to be one of William’s recordings.

And this morning … Elizabeth wasn’t a starstruck teenager anymore, but all the same, she had just about melted when she saw him. And then … His intense gaze had locked on her, and she couldn’t breathe. But the moment had ended as abruptly as it had begun, and he hadn’t even glanced at her a few minutes later when she shuffled past him on the plane, en route to her seat.

She shook her head and blew a stream of air through her nose. Of course he hadn’t glanced at her. She had probably imagined the whole thing; no doubt he’d been staring absently into the distance and hadn’t even noticed her. She should be working on her thesis, not wasting time on pointless daydreams. As if William Darcy would ever have the slightest interest in me.

 

Elizabeth might have danced off the plane in a fit of excitement, had slower travelers not clogged the path in front of her. The cool air and open space in the terminal were ambrosial after six hours spent impersonating a veal calf. She located Jane standing to one side and dashed toward her.

After an initial round of hugs and greetings, Elizabeth stepped back and inspected her sister. “You look radiant, like a bride should.”

“I’m so happy, Lizzy. And now that you’re here everything is perfect!”

The sisters embraced again. Then they set off toward baggage claim, Elizabeth’s heavy backpack hanging off one shoulder like the shell on a drunken snail.

“You’ll never guess who was on the flight!” Elizabeth executed a little hop-skip, nearly dislodging her backpack. She hefted it into a more secure position.

“Who?”

“William Darcy! I saw him in the gate area at JFK, posing for a photo with a fan.”

Jane’s thoughtful nod wasn’t the reaction Elizabeth had expected. “I wondered if that was him. He was one of the first people off the plane.”

“Well, yeah. Obviously he doesn’t fly coach.”

“I wish we’d known he was going to be on your flight.”

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “Why would you care about William Darcy’s travel plans?”

“I decided to save this news and surprise you, Lizzy. William is going to be Charles’s best man.”

Elizabeth’s squeal attracted the stares of some fellow travelers. She pressed her lips together and managed to restrain herself while Jane told her more. When they reached the noisy baggage claim area, she dragged Jane into a corner and dropped her backpack with a thud.

“I can’t believe you’re marrying a man whose best friend is William Darcy!”

Jane nodded, wearing a mischievous smile. “Somehow, I had a hunch you’d be impressed.”

“And you’re sure it’s the William Darcy?”

“Of course I’m sure. I’ve heard you talk about him often enough, and I went with you once to see him in concert. Or was it twice?”

“I know I’m acting like an idiot, but I don’t care.” Elizabeth grasped Jane’s arm. “How did Charles meet him? You have to tell me everything.”

“They met at Juilliard.”

“Charles graduated from Juilliard?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows shot up.

“He left after two years and got a business degree at Southern Cal. He wanted to be a professional musician, but his father—well, I’ll tell you that part later.”

“What is Charles’s instrument?”

“The saxophone, mostly. While he was in New York he started a jazz group.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I bet William was the pianist.”

“That’s right. Charles said William’s teachers didn’t like him ‘wasting’ his time on jazz music, but William loved jazz as much as Charles did.”

“William’s encores are usually jazz solos. It’s one of his trademarks.”

“Charles mentioned that,” Jane replied. “He hasn’t seen much of William in the past few years, but they’ve stayed in touch. We were lucky he could be here on short notice.”

“But you didn’t know when he was arriving in town?”

“He said he’d get into the city on his own. Too bad; we could have given him a ride.”

Elizabeth giggled at the thought of the celebrated concert pianist stuffed into the back seat of Jane’s well-worn Honda Civic. “Oh, please. He’s probably never ridden in anything smaller than a stretch limo in his entire life.”

“That may be true, but I want him to know how much we appreciate his being here.”

Elizabeth still couldn’t believe the news. “So I’m going to walk up the aisle on William Darcy’s arm, and dance with him at the reception.”

“That’s the general idea,” Jane said, smiling. “I take it you like my little surprise?”

Elizabeth threw her arms around Jane. “You are my favorite older sister!”

“I’m your only older sister,” Jane said. “Now, Lizzy, you won’t go nuts when you meet him, will you? I’d expect this reaction from Kitty or Lydia if they met one of their idols, but I can count on you to handle this, right?”

Elizabeth glared at Jane in mock annoyance. “I beg your pardon? You’re comparing me to Kitty and Lydia? That hurts.”

“Lizzy, please be serious.”

“I swear I’ll be calm, sophisticated, and the soul of discretion, just like you.”

Then Elizabeth saw him leaning against a pillar, his arms crossed over his chest. His wavy hair was attractively tousled, making Elizabeth’s fingers itch to smooth it. His eyes were closed, his face immobile. As she stared in helpless fascination, he opened his eyes and scanned the crowd, as though sensing her scrutiny. His eyes locked on hers for the second time that day, and her breath caught in her throat. She dragged her eyes from his, willing her trembling legs not to collapse beneath her.

“He’s handsome, no doubt about it,” Jane murmured.

Elizabeth nodded, her throat too tight for speech. But beneath his surface attractions, she sensed something more. Vulnerability. Yes, that was it. Vulnerability, perhaps even sadness. She rolled her eyes. Sure, Lizzy, you’re so good at understanding men’s thoughts.

The luggage conveyor squealed to life, and suitcases began to lurch past the line of waiting passengers. Elizabeth struggled through the crowd and dragged her bag off the conveyor.

“Before we go I want to introduce myself to him,” Jane said. “If he finds out later that we were here and didn’t even say hello, he’ll think we’re terribly rude.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth to protest. She didn’t want to go anywhere near him so soon after being caught ogling him, but Jane had already started in his direction. Elizabeth, her progress impeded by her suitcase, struggled along behind. William grabbed a suitcase off the conveyor, his back to Jane.

“Excuse me, Mr. Darcy?” Jane called out.

He didn’t respond at first. Finally, he turned to face her. The same eyes that had burned into Elizabeth’s a few minutes before were cold. His voice dripped icicles as he said, “I beg your pardon, but I am not available to sign autographs at present. Please excuse me.”

He strode away, leaving Jane gaping. Elizabeth felt steam building up behind her eyes as she watched him sit down in a chair on the fringe of the baggage claim area.

“Why, the nerve of that man!” Elizabeth exclaimed. “I guess talent and manners don’t necessarily go together.”

Jane’s face was pale and her lower lip quivered. “No, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have accosted him in a public place.”

“Why are you always so forgiving?” Elizabeth’s indignation was simmering nicely, and she refused to let Jane calm her down. “There is no excuse for him blowing you off before he even knew what you wanted!”

She glared at William, who sat staring into the distance with a look of intense concentration. “And even if you did want an autograph, so what? He couldn’t spare a few seconds from his extremely important task of sitting in that chair and looking all imperious and forbidding? It’s not like he’s a movie star who gets mobbed by fans wherever he goes.”

“It might happen more often than you think. Didn’t you say that someone asked to take his picture just this morning?”

“That doesn’t give him the right to treat you this way. Just wait till he finds out he was rude to his best friend’s fiancée!” Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw William rise slowly from the chair and turn toward the exit.

“Lizzy, please be nice. He may not recognize us later, so let’s not say anything unless he does. I wouldn’t want him to be embarrassed.”

Elizabeth didn’t answer. The man deserved a piece of her mind, and he would get it, no matter what Jane said.

“Come on,” Jane said, patting Elizabeth’s arm, “let’s get some lunch. Where would you like to go?”

Elizabeth didn’t answer, distracted by the sight of William walking ahead of them through the automatic exit doors. She glanced at Jane and murmured, “Nobody who’s that big of a jerk should be allowed to look that good in a pair of jeans.”

Elizabeth and Jane dissolved into peals of laughter as they exited the airport and headed for Jane’s car.

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