Elizabeth hurried down the corridor toward the Ritz-Carlton’s Terrace Room. She paused to smooth her dress. The heavy oak door flew open, nearly knocking her off her feet. Kitty and Lydia stumbled out into the hall, shrieking with laughter.

beer “Lizzy!” Lydia raised a pilsner glass towards Elizabeth in an offhand toast. “Everyone’s been looking for you.”

Elizabeth stepped back, mindful of the beer sloshing toward the rim of Lydia’s glass. “Where are you two going?”

“Oh, God, it’s so dull in there, we had to get out,” Lydia moaned. “But one of the waiters told us about a party in the ballroom. We’re going to crash it.”

“You can’t just crash a private party.”

“We can do what we want. Come on, Kitty.”

“Hang on, Lyds. I want to talk to Lizzy for a minute.” Kitty hiccupped and handed her glass to Lydia.

Elizabeth and Kitty exchanged a warm hug. “I hear you’re going to be working for Jane,” Elizabeth said.

Kitty reclaimed her glass and took a large gulp. She swallowed, blinking hard, and replied, “Starting next week.”

Elizabeth turned to Lydia. “How are things in LA?”

“Great! Fantastic parties, and I love going to the beach. And what do you think of my tan?”

“I was talking about your acting career.” Lydia hadn’t changed, not that Elizabeth had expected anything different.

“Oh, that. Auditions, agents, the usual.” Lydia took a large swallow from her glass.

“Did Mom see you with that beer?” Elizabeth asked. “You’re underage.”

“Oh, please. Mom doesn’t care. And the bartender didn’t ask. I just leaned forward so he could stare down my dress.”

Shaking her head, Elizabeth turned to back to Kitty. “Are you going to move up to the city?”

“Uh huh. I’m getting a place with some friends.” Kitty giggled and clutched Lydia’s arm. “You should come up and visit, Lyds. We could go clubbing, like we used to do before you moved to LA. Remember that night last summer, right before you left town?”

Lydia shrieked. “Oh, my God! That was crazy! Remember those guys who kept coming on to us, the ones who danced like robots?” She began to imitate them, waving her arms and jerking her body.

“Lydia, stop acting like such an idiot,” Elizabeth snapped. “And be careful, or you’re going to spill that beer on someone.”

Kitty burst out laughing. “She almost spilled it on that hunky friend of Charles’s. You know, the one who’s standing alone in the corner staring at everybody.”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together. “You spilled a beer on William Darcy?”

“No.” Lydia extending the word into a lengthy syllable of indignation. “Kitty said ‘almost.’ But, hey, if I had spilled anything on him, I’d have been happy to lick it off. Kitty’s right; he’s a hot one. And I bet he’s really good in bed.”

“What makes you say that?” The words tumbled out before Elizabeth could stop them.

Lydia snorted. “Oh, come on. Use your imagination. First off, he plays the piano, right?”

“Well, yeah!” Kitty giggled. “Mom talked and talked about him in the car on the way here, remember?”

“I wasn’t listening.” Lydia waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, he’s a musician. You know how they are. Artistic, emotional, get all worked up over things. Hot-blooded.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Elizabeth said, “but he seems pretty cold. So far today I haven’t seen him get ‘all worked up’ over anything.”

Lydia eyed Elizabeth’s dress and smirked. “Probably because he didn’t see anything worth getting worked up over.”

“Lydia!” Kitty cried. “That was mean. Lizzy looks really nice.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Lydia shrugged. “But, geez, Lizzy, you could show a little skin now and then.”

“You’re showing more than enough for both of us.” Elizabeth cast a disdainful glance at Lydia’s low-cut, backless halter dress, which either revealed or clung to every curve of her body.

Kitty, who had been drinking her beer when Elizabeth spoke, snorted and began to cough.

“Well, don’t blame me if I collect all the hot guys tonight. We both have prime raw material.” Lydia glanced down at her ample display of cleavage and then stared pointedly at the far less revealing neckline of Elizabeth’s dress. “But unlike you, I know how to use it.”

“Why do you always have to be so crude?” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest.

Lydia stamped her foot and whirled to glare at Kitty. “Would you stop it with the coughing already?”

“I can’t help it; I inhaled some beer,” Kitty wheezed between coughs.

“Well, you’re getting on my nerves,” Lydia snapped.

“Are you okay?” Elizabeth asked, patting Kitty on the back. Kitty nodded, her eyes watering.

“But I was talking about His Studliness,” Lydia said in a breezy tone. “Since he plays the piano, he’d have good manual—what’s the word—dexter? Dextrose? Something like that?”

“Dexterity,” Elizabeth grumbled.

“Yeah. That. He’s good with his hands. And probably not just on the piano, if you catch my drift.”

Kitty, whose coughing had almost subsided, wheezed, “I see what you mean. Mmmmm!”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Are you quite finished?”

“No, I haven’t gotten to the best part yet.” Lydia’s eyes gleamed.

“I know I’m going to regret asking, but what’s the best part?”

“He’s really tall. And doesn’t he need to have long fingers to play those fancy piano pieces?”

Elizabeth frowned at Lydia. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Duh! It means the rest of him is probably super-sized too. I bet he’s hung like a horse.”

Kitty squealed and exploded into a fit of giggles.

“Lydia!” Elizabeth gasped, her face flushing. “You are disgusting.”

Lydia shrugged. “Well, excuse me if I’m not a prude like you. Come on, Kitty, I need another beer. Maybe I’ll spill it in that Darcy guy’s lap. That would liven up the party!”

The girls skittered back to the ballroom, their giggles punctuated by tiny shrieks. Elizabeth took a deep breath, cleared her mind, and opened the door to the Terrace Room.

horse Unfortunately for her tenuous composure, the first person she saw was William. He stood alone in a corner, his fingers—his long fingers—encircling a glass of white wine. She froze in the doorway, mortified to feel her cheeks growing warm. His eyes locked with hers briefly, and then he withdrew his gaze, staring impassively across the room.

So now I’m invisible. Fine. Saves me the trouble of having to be polite.

 

William felt an ache in his chest as he watched Elizabeth cross the room to join Jane. How could he have ever thought her the less attractive of the two sisters? He imagined himself striding over to join the conversation, dazzling her with his intelligence and wit. But his feet refused to move.

His headache was back, and worse than ever. He tried massaging his temples, but it didn’t help. He placed his empty wine glass on a nearby table, retrieved a small package of ibuprofen from his pocket, and dry-swallowed four tablets.

Energy seemed to crackle around Elizabeth, whereas William stood like a leper in his solitary corner. Usually the William Darcy Magnetic Field more than compensated for his inability to make small talk, but tonight everyone seemed immune.

He had retreated to his corner soon after arriving, and had stood sipping a glass of mediocre white wine and glancing incessantly toward the door. He hadn’t realized he was watching for Elizabeth until she appeared. Fortunately, years of practice had allowed him to maintain a neutral expression.

Unfortunately, her family had been all too visible during her absence. He turned a disdainful stare toward the bar, where two of Elizabeth’s sisters flirted shamelessly with the bartender. One was poured into a dress that left as little as possible to the imagination. The other was more appropriately dressed, but both were shrieking, giggling, and guzzling their drinks. His sister Georgiana would never behave that way.

And the mother doesn’t have much to recommend her. Mrs. Bennet sat at a table a short distance away, chattering nonstop with Jane’s aunt. From the conspiratorial tilt of their heads and their speculative glances in his direction, he was sure they were gossiping about him.

He closed his eyes and massaged his forehead again. The ibuprofen wasn’t working yet. When he opened his eyes, he saw Charles approaching. “Hey, Will. You okay?”

“I’m just tired.”

“Long day, huh?”

“Why didn’t you tell me more about Elizabeth this afternoon?”

Charles blinked. “What?”

“Elizabeth teaches at a college in New York, she’s finishing a master’s degree in music, and she has the voice of an angel. From what little you told me, I expected a no-talent, starstruck teenager.”

“I tried to tell you the rest, but you were too busy calling me an idiot for thinking that you might like her.”

“You shouldn’t have been surprised that I didn’t want you playing matchmaker.” Besides, there were worse things than loneliness, as Lydia’s shrill laughter reminded him. He lowered his voice and continued, “But not knowing much about her made things awkward. Elizabeth overheard our conversation this afternoon.”

Charles nodded. “Jane told me.” A speculative light gleamed in his eyes. “Hmmm … apparently I wasn’t an idiot after all.”

“What do you mean?”

“It wasn’t such a crazy idea, that you might like Elizabeth. You do, don’t you?”

William made sure his impassive mask was in place before answering. “Yes, I like her. I like Jane. I like their friend Charlotte. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Charles’s crooked grin widened. “No wonder you offered to hang around the church after the rehearsal and give her a ride.”

“I was simply doing my duty as best man, trying to help you.”

“In that case, it won’t interest you to know that I think Jane put you and Elizabeth next to each other at dinner.”

“She did,” William answered quickly—too quickly, he realized.

Charles hooted. “Busted! You checked the place cards on the tables, didn’t you?”

William favored Charles with an imperious stare, silently gathering his tattered dignity around him.

“Why not just admit that you’re attracted to her?” Charles asked. “I mean, what’s not to like? She’s smart, she’s funny, and although I probably shouldn’t say this about my future sister-in-law, she just about knocked my eyes out of their sockets when I saw her at the church.”

“Mine too.” William confessed.

“Then why not go talk to her instead of standing here like a statue?” Charles asked, clapping William on the back. “I need to go see how Jane and my parents are getting along.”

wine glasses Charles made his way back across the room. Elizabeth, after a brief conversation with the Hursts, was approaching the bar. William took a deep breath and strode purposefully in that direction. Just as he arrived, the bartender handed Elizabeth a glass of wine. She thanked him and walked off before William had a chance to say a word. Dejected, he retreated to his corner.

This is ridiculous. There is no reason to follow her around like a cocker spaniel. He stretched his frame to its full height and squared his broad shoulders, feeling better already. Now, if only he could figure out what to do next.

As if in answer, the ballroom door opened and Charlotte Lucas strolled in. Elizabeth hurried forward to greet her friend. Elizabeth and Charlotte approached the bar, and with great intrepidity William headed there as well.

“Hi, William,” Charlotte said, with a warm smile.

He returned her greeting and then said hello to Elizabeth, whose only reply was a nod. At least he could talk to Charlotte. “Was your bridesmaid’s dress ready?”

“Yes. I got there right before they closed.”

“I’m surprised it wasn’t ready sooner.” William didn’t believe in leaving things till the last minute.

“When the dress arrived, it was too short. At my height, that happens a lot. They had to let down the hem so it would at least cover my knees.”

Elizabeth laughed, and he glanced at her, confused. “The bridesmaid’s dresses are floor length,” she explained. He chuckled softly at the joke, enjoying the sparkle in her eyes when she laughed.

“Did you two have a nice ride in the Z3?” Charlotte asked.

“William risked life and limb and let me drive,” Elizabeth said with mock gravity.

“So that means you lost your sports-car virginity, right? And William did the honors.” Charlotte grinned, a wicked gleam in her eyes.

Of course Charlotte was referring to Elizabeth’s first ride in a sports car, but his mind flashed to his earlier erotic vision of ravishing her on the hood of the Z3. A sudden wave of heat coursed through his body, and he stared blindly across the room, swallowing hard.

scotch “Here you are, ma’am.” The bartender handed Charlotte a glass. “Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks.”

Elizabeth shuddered. “I don’t know how you drink that vile stuff. Come on, let’s sit down somewhere and catch up.”

“See you later, William,” Charlotte said.

He sighed and watched them walk away, his arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he slunk back to his corner.

 

“Okay, what’s going on with you and William Darcy?”

Elizabeth stared at Charlotte. “What are you talking about?”

Charlotte nodded knowingly. “Come on, Liz, we’ve known each other since we were thirteen. You can’t fool me.”

“Seriously, nothing is happening.”

“Which is why he couldn’t take his eyes off you at the church? Or at the bar a minute ago? Or right now?” Charlotte tipped her head toward William’s corner.

“If he’s looking at me at all, it’s to find fault.”

“Bullshit,” Charlotte said succinctly. “He’s got a thing for you.”

“Oh, come on. This is William Darcy we’re talking about. You know, the one Newsweek called ‘Classical Music’s Sex Symbol’? What would he want with me?”

“Knock it off, Liz. You’re fun to be around, you’re smart, you’ve got a voice that could melt a heart of stone, and you’ve got the kind of curves that drive men crazy. Though the way you usually dress nobody would know it.”

“Don’t start.”

“I just wish you’d stop building walls to keep men out.”

“Just because I choose not to dress like Lydia doesn’t mean I’m building walls. I have a good life and I’m happy.”

“Hmmm.” Charlotte wasn’t convinced. “When was the last time you had a boyfriend?”

“Define ‘boyfriend.’”

“Now, see, the very fact that we have to agree on a definition is bad enough. But how about this: a guy you went out with at least four times. Notice that I’m setting the bar pretty low.”

Elizabeth sipped her wine slowly before she replied. “I’ve been busy lately, working an extra job so I could afford this trip.”

“How long has it been? Two months? Four? Six?”

“Well … a little longer than that, I guess. A year or so.” Elizabeth studied her wine glass.

“And how long did you go out with him?”

“A month or two.”

“How long was it before you slept with him?”

“I didn’t,” Elizabeth replied, allowing a hint of defiance to creep into her voice.

“He didn’t try to get you in bed?”

“He tried. That’s why I stopped seeing him.”

“Because he wanted to go to bed with you?”

“Yes, and I wasn’t ready. Let’s change the subject.”

“Not yet. This is important. How long has it been since you’ve slept with a guy?”

“None of your business,” Elizabeth snapped.

“Look, Liz, you know I’m not usually one to pry, but Jane and I are worried about you. Jane’s too nice to force you to talk, but I’m not. So talk. How long has it been?”

Elizabeth stared at Charlotte for a moment before answering. “A while.”

“How long? Please tell me it hasn’t been since—”

“It’s been a long time,” Elizabeth repeated with finality. “And I’m not going to be any more specific than that.”

“Liz—”

“Look, I know you’re comfortable having casual affairs. I’m not. It’s been a long time since I met anyone I really cared about. And when I did …” Elizabeth’s voice trailed off and she looked down at the table, sighing quietly.

“I know,” Charlotte said gently. “But that was a long time ago. And there are some good men out there, you know.”

“Maybe, but I can’t seem to tell the good ones from the creeps.”

“So you’ve taken an oath of celibacy? That’s unnatural.”

“To me, it would be unnatural to rush into a physical relationship with someone I just met.”

“Okay, I get that. But sometimes don’t you want to just grab the closest guy, throw him down, and jump his bones?”

Elizabeth laughed, breaking the tension. “Yes, Char, I think about sex sometimes. But it’ll have to wait till I find someone I love and who loves me, someone I can trust.”

“How are you going to find someone if you keep avoiding men?”

“I’m not avoiding men. I have lots of guy friends.”

“Friends are great. But you need to get laid.”

“And I suppose you’re going to make it your mission to find me a likely candidate?”

“Mission accomplished. William Darcy, Classical Music’s Sex Symbol. Excellent potential there, I think.” Charlotte raised her eyebrows suggestively.

“You’re as bad as Lydia. Earlier she was pointing out all the reasons why William was probably, and I quote, good in bed.”

Charlotte nodded, impressed. “Smart girl. I bet he’s a virtuoso in more places than just concert halls.”

Elizabeth stared at Charlotte, shaking her head. “I don’t know which of you has the dirtier mind.”

“Well, I’d like to think that I do. I have a reputation to uphold. But say what you will about Lydia, she knows a thing or two about men. More than you do, that’s for sure. Maybe you should conduct a hands-on investigation and find out if she and I are right about William.”

“Investigate him yourself. You’re the one he’s interested in anyway.”

“I wish. He’s the sexiest guy I’ve met in a long time. On top of that, he knows about 17th century Dutch painters, and you know what a huge turn-on that is for me.” Charlotte grinned.

“So what’s holding you back? He’s right over there.”

“You’re the one he wants.”

“As if. He has no interest in me, and I think he’s a jerk.”

“Oh, please. Tell it to someone who didn’t get dragged to every concert he gave those two summers at Interlochen. You’ve had a massive crush on him forever.”

“Had. Past tense. That was before I met him. Look at him over there, Mr. Stuck-Up, too exalted to talk to any of us.”

“Liz, he came over to talk to us, and you blew him off.”

“He was just getting a drink. I’m telling you, he’s a conceited snob.”

Charlotte shook her head. “I know I just met him, but he seems charming.”

“To you, maybe,” Elizabeth snapped. “You’re closer to his ‘social level.’ You’re not an ‘under-employed chorus girl’ like me.”

“Whoa, you lost me there. What are you talking about?”

Elizabeth told Charlotte the story of the airport encounter with William, and went on to repeat his comments in the garden. By the end of the story, Charlotte was laughing merrily.

“Well, I’ll give him credit,” she said, shaking her head. “Most people can’t cram their feet that far into their mouths without choking. I’m sorry; I know it probably wasn’t funny at the time. But in retrospect—”

“It’s still not funny.”

“Wow. He’s really gotten under your skin.”

“And when I arrived at the church today, he was unbelievably rude. I walked up to him and he just stared at me. I practically had to kick him in the shins to get him to say anything. But he had no problem getting out the comment that I looked old.”

“He said you looked old?” Charlotte frowned. “No, he can’t have said that.”

“He informed me that I looked older than I had earlier in the day.”

“Liz, give the poor guy a break. It was badly worded, I’ll grant you, but I bet I know what he meant. What were you wearing earlier today? A big, baggy shirt and jeans, hair in a pony tail? No make-up?”

“A skirt, not jeans. And eye shadow wasn’t exactly a priority at four o’clock this morning when I got up. What’s your point?”

“You look about sixteen when you’re dressed like that. You look closer to your age when you dress up. That’s probably all he meant.”

“Nonsense. Charles knew how old I was, and he would have told William. Besides, after that—”

“There’s more?” Charlotte propped one elbow on the table. “Let’s hear it.”

Elizabeth paused, assembling her thoughts. “Okay, I admit, a few times I’ve noticed something about him. Like there’s a real person under all that arrogance. Someone I might even like. And when we went out to the car, that’s the way he was at first. Polite, and kind of sweet. And I think he was flirting with me.”

Charlotte raised her eyebrows. “Sounds promising.”

“But then he got in the car and it was like he flipped a switch and turned back into Mr. Hyde. He had the nerve to tell me I was wasting my time on Broadway, when I should have been an opera singer.”

Charlotte’s glass of scotch froze on its way to her lips. “He said that?”

“He said that I ‘settled’ for Broadway. He actually thought it was a compliment, believe it or not.”

“I can just imagine how you jumped on that remark,” Charlotte chortled. “I bet he was missing some vital body parts by the time you were through with him.”

“I promised Jane I’d be polite to him for the weekend. So his body parts are intact. But you should see the bite marks on my tongue.”

Charlotte grinned. “Okay, I admit, I can see why you’re not ready to hop into bed with him quite yet.”

“Quite yet?” Elizabeth’s laugh was harsh even to her own ears. “Why would I ever want to ‘hop into bed’ with someone so arrogant and rude?”

“For a guy that sexy, it would be worth trying to work it out. I mean, if you gagged him, he couldn’t talk. Ooh … William Darcy in bondage, and nothing else ….” Charlotte closed her eyes, a blissful smile on her face. “Oh, yeah, I’m liking that mental image.”

“Enjoy any mental image you want,” Elizabeth retorted. “But leave me out of your plans. I think I can safely promise you never to share a bed with William Darcy.”

 

William’s headache had not improved. His most fervent wish was to go upstairs to his room and collapse on his bed until morning. But he had a long night ahead.

Armed with a cup of coffee, he left the room and sank into an overstuffed armchair in the corridor. The light was dimmer, and it was quiet except for the muffled sounds of the party guests on the other side of the heavy doors. He wrapped his hands around the cup, leaned back in the chair, and allowed his eyes to drift shut.

He couldn’t recall the last time he had felt so utterly out of place. At “meet the artist” receptions during his concert tours, an official of the host orchestra steered him around like a respectful chaperone. And back in New York, he had already met most of the guests at any party he attended.

Here, he had no such advantages. The Bennets and Bingleys each congregated together, while the members of Bingley’s jazz group made up a third circle. William, meanwhile, had retained sole occupancy of his corner, aside from occasional brief visits from Jane or Charles.

As much as he would have preferred to remain in the peaceful hallway, dinner would be served soon. He hauled himself to his feet with a heavy sigh. As he reached out to open the door to the Terrace Room, it flew open, bumping his arm. The contents of his coffee cup splattered onto his shirt for the second time that day. Kitty and Lydia stood in the doorway, their hands flying up to cover their mouths, their eyes wide with inebriated hilarity.

“Excuse us!” Kitty gasped, between bouts of hysterical giggles.

Lydia’s eyes roved down his body and then traveled back to his face. As she and Kitty scampered down the hall, he heard their shrill laughter as well as a sound like… the whinny of a horse?

He stepped into the Terrace Room, rubbing the stains on his shirt. He was accustomed to the admiring glance of females, but rarely had he felt so utterly molested by an insolent stare. In fact, the only other woman I can ever remember making me so uncomfortable was—

“William, darling!”

Caroline Bingley stood in the doorway, a predatory smile on her bright red lips. Her long, copper-colored hair surprised him; it had been blonde the last time they met. Her black dress was classic Caroline: strapless, snug, and expensive.

It took all his self-control not to groan or, better yet, run away. “Hello, Caroline.”

She threw her arms around his neck, pressing her bony frame against him and kissing him on the lips. As he attempted to disentangle himself, he glanced involuntarily at Elizabeth. He saw her nudge Charlotte and tip her head in his direction. His patience exhausted, he yanked himself out of Caroline’s grip and stepped out of her reach.

“I’ve missed you, darling,” Caroline pouted. “You haven’t visited Charles and me in so long!”

“I’ve been traveling. I haven’t had time for visits.”

“And you’re always too busy when I try to visit you in New York. But we’ll have lots of time to catch up this weekend, since we’re both staying at Charles’s house.”

“Actually, I’m here at the hotel.”

A narrow-eyed scowl appeared and vanished in a flash, replaced by a cheery smile. “My brother can be such a fluff-brain sometimes. He told me you were staying with him. But that’s all right. We can go somewhere after dinner tonight; a quiet drink in your suite, perhaps.”

He was grateful to have a ready excuse. “Tonight is Charles’s bachelor party.”

“Tomorrow night after the wedding, then. Come back to the house with me. We’ll have it all to ourselves.” She sidled toward him, her eyes slithering over his body.

He rubbed his forehead. “I shouldn’t schedule anything, since I don’t know what Charles might need me to do.”

“I doubt he’ll need your help on his wedding night, darling.” She lowered her voice, a suggestive gleam in her eyes. “Although I’m sure you could offer some excellent pointers.”

He clenched his jaw so hard that he feared for the safety of his teeth. “Caroline, you’ll have to excuse me—”

She interrupted blithely, as though she hadn’t heard him. “And we can sit together at dinner tonight.”

“No, they have a seating arrangement and—”

Raucous laughter shattered the air in the corridor; Kitty and Lydia had returned. Caroline glanced at them, her lip curled in disgust.

“Aren’t those Bennets horrid? Jane seems like a sweet girl, but that mother! And those terrible girls! Charles could have done much better.”

Although he agreed with her, he simply said, “Charles seems happy.”

She shrugged. “I’m just glad Daddy insisted on an iron-clad pre-nup.”

William didn’t reply; he owed Charles his silence. He saw Elizabeth across the room, standing in a circle with Charlotte and the members of Golden Gate Jazz. As he watched, she smiled at something Charlotte had said, lending a fresh sparkle to her eyes.

“Never fear, darling,” Caroline cooed, patting his arm. “I’ll keep you company and protect you from the barbarian horde this weekend. I know you must be thinking how miserable it’s going to be.”

“No, I’m not.” I’m appreciating a pair of fine eyes.

“Whose fine eyes, if I may ask?”

“Excuse me?” He flinched and eyed her warily. Had he said it aloud?

“You said you were appreciating a pair of fine eyes.” She fixed her eyes on his face and asked, with a provocative smile, “Whose eyes?”

He was too rattled to think of a lie, so he told the truth. “Elizabeth Bennet’s.”

Caroline blanched, but soon her cheerful mask was back in place. “Oh, how sweet. I had no idea you and she were an item.”

“We’re not.” He gritted his teeth, desperate to escape. “I spilled coffee on my shirt, and I need to change before dinner. Excuse me.”

He practically sprinted from the room. As always, her relentless pursuit disgusted him. In the ten years of their acquaintance he had never given her the slightest shred of encouragement, but she seemed to need none.

The situation had become untenable several years ago during a visit with Charles in Los Angeles. At the time, both Charles and Caroline had lived in their family’s sprawling estate, and Caroline’s overt attempts at seduction had become unbearable. After two days of feeling like a choice steak dangled in front of a hungry jungle cat, William had cut his visit short and never returned.

Whenever she visited New York, he could be sure of receiving a stream of invitations from her, all of which he refused. At least he was safe from uninvited visits to his home. His staff had instructions never to admit her to the house.

 

By the time William arrived downstairs wearing a fresh shirt, the guests were seating themselves for dinner. He proceeded to his table, anticipating a pleasant dinner with Elizabeth, and instead found himself seated next to Caroline.

“Darling,” she gushed, “what a lovely surprise!”

His eyes narrowed. “A surprise, at any rate.” She must have switched the place cards while he was upstairs. Elizabeth was seated at a nearby table with Bill Collins, two other members of Golden Gate Jazz and their wives, and the Hursts.

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were seated to William’s left, with the Bingleys on the other side of Caroline. Jane and Charles took their places across from William. Jane stared at Caroline for a moment wearing a faint frown, and William saw her scan the other tables until she located Elizabeth.

An appetizer in a glass dish sat in front of each diner. “Crab cocktail,” Caroline murmured in William’s ear, placing her hand on his knee. “How bourgeois and unimaginative. I thought San Francisco was known for cutting edge cuisine. But I shouldn’t expect any sophistication from the Bennets.”

William shifted his chair away from her, dislodging her hand. “Mrs. Bingley, I believe Charles told me you selected the menu for dinner tonight?”

Charles’s mother, a slender shadow of a woman dressed in a conservative black dress and pearls, nodded. “I hope you enjoy it,” she answered in a whispery voice, darting a glance at her husband.

“Of course we will, Mom,” Charles said.

“I love crab cocktail,” Jane added. “It’s a perfect choice to welcome our out-of-town guests to San Francisco.”

William stole a smug glance at Caroline, who was staring at her dish of crabmeat. He turned his attention to his food.

“Charles, is your jazz group going to perform for us tonight?” Mrs. Bennet asked.

“Not tonight. But they’ll be playing before dinner at the reception. They found someone to fill in for me.”

“I thought we might ask Lizzy to sing tonight,” Jane said. “What do you think, Charles?”

“She’ll be happy to do it, dear,” Mrs. Bennet interjected before Charles could answer. “What a pity that certain other people think they’re too important to play for us.”

“What do you say, William?” Charles sent him an apologetic smile. “Apparently it would mean a great deal to my future mother-in-law if you’d play for us tonight.”

“I suppose I could,” William answered, unable to muster a shred of enthusiasm even for Charles’s sake. “That is, assuming that the piano has the right sort of tone quality and has been properly tuned. I’ll have to check it after dinner.”

“Oh, Mr. Darcy, thank you!” Mrs. Bennet’s former coldness towards William was washed away on a tidal wave of boisterous gratitude. “I’m so excited! To think that I’ll be able to tell people that William Darcy, Classical Music’s Sex Symbol himself, played a solo at my daughter’s rehearsal dinner!”

Mrs. Bennet continued to thank him, but William retreated into himself, filtering out her shrill voice as best he could. His head throbbed, and dinner had just begun. He heaved a deep sigh. Caroline pulled her chair toward his, returned her hand to his knee, and eyed him with exaggerated pity, her vermilion lips arranged in an infantile pout. He dragged his chair away for the second time and closed his eyes.

Laughter rang out from Elizabeth’s table. He watched in helpless fascination as she reached up and ran her hands through her hair, flipping it behind her shoulders. He could almost feel the waves sliding through his own fingers.

Mrs. Bennet finally ran out of ways to express her appreciation. Mr. Bingley quickly changed the subject, asking Jane about her fourth sister.

“Mary had a department meeting this afternoon that she couldn’t miss,” Jane explained. “Her flight gets in late tonight.”

“My brother Edward and his wife aren’t here yet either,” Mrs. Bennet lamented. “Their flight was canceled. Mechanical problems, he said when he called. I’m so afraid they’ll miss the wedding!”

“They called again, and they’re on their way now,” Jane said in a soothing tone.

“Well, I don’t see why the airline couldn’t have found an extra plane instead of canceling the flight. Or—well, I don’t know, but they’re the airlines, they should know what to do. They shouldn’t let their planes break down, anyway. There should be laws against that.”

“What is your brother’s profession?” Mr. Bingley asked Mrs. Bennet.

salad“Edward? He’s a famous doctor,” Mrs. Bennet said proudly.

“He’s an orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore,” Jane said.

“And Jane’s Aunt Madeline is a pediatric surgeon,” Charles added.

William was only half aware of the conversation swirling around him: he was too busy watching Bill Collins lean over and whisper in Elizabeth’s ear. Then a foot, minus its shoe, rubbed sinuously along his leg. He shifted his chair away from Caroline for the third time since dinner had begun, disentangling his leg from hers. I am in hell.

 

salmon Dinner seemed to drag on with no end in sight. William’s table had descended into silence after the entrees arrived, except for Mrs. Bennet, who gushed nonstop about every aspect of the wedding. Unfortunately, she did so even with her mouth full of food, sending occasional crumbs spraying onto the tablecloth.

“Oh! And the bridesmaid’s dresses! Have you seen them, Mrs. Bingley? The fabric Jane selected for the skirt, with a lovely lace bodice—”

“Please, Francie, no lace, I beg you,” Mr. Bennet groaned. “Or bodices either, for that matter.”

Mrs. Bennet fell silent and attacked her food.

“I told Charles that no expense should be spared,” Mr. Bingley said. “It’s important to have the right sort of wedding. Many of our business associates will be here tomorrow.”

“And we do so appreciate your offer to help out with the cost,” Mrs. Bennet replied.

“Help out?” snorted Mr. Bingley. “The way I understand it, I’m paying for everything.”

Charles winced, and Jane stared fixedly at her plate.

“Yes, indeed, and it’s so kind of you!” Mrs. Bennet hastened to assure him. “As I was saying, what a lovely wedding it’s going to be. The music should be beautiful too. You heard Lizzy’s song this evening, didn’t you, Mr. Darcy?”

William started at the sound of his name. Elizabeth was telling a story at her table, and he had been straining to hear it. He eyed Mrs. Bennet, frowning, and she repeated her question with unconcealed impatience.

“Yes. She has a beautiful voice.”

“We don’t know where Lizzy got her musical talent,” Mr. Bennet remarked. “Not from me, that’s for sure. Francie claims that she had something to do with it, but when I think of the lullabies she used to sing to the girls, it’s a wonder they didn’t suffer from chronic nightmares.”

“My mother’s lullabies were something special,” William mused softly. “She was building a career in opera when she met my father. But she gave it up when we moved from Rome to New York.”

“Did she miss singing?” Mr. Bennet asked.

William nodded. “Very much. She used to tell me stories about being on stage. It left a void in her life when she had to stop.”

Mr. Bingley shrugged. “Your father had responsibilities as head of a large conglomerate. And it was your mother’s responsibility to support him, not waste her time on frivolities. That’s as it should be.”

Jane pressed her lips together and glanced at Charles, who shifted in his chair, fiddling with his fork.

“I must say, I like the idea of a woman supporting me,” Mr. Bennet quipped. “What about it, Francie?”

“What? Oh, Andrew, don’t be silly.” Mrs. Bennet shook her head, and William half expected to hear her brain rattling around in her skull. “That’s not what Mr. Bingley meant. Would we have heard of your mother, Mr. Darcy?”

“I doubt it. She was still young when she stopped singing, and she performed mostly in Europe.” Besides, he was sure that Mrs. Bennet’s knowledge of opera began and ended with Pavarotti. “Her name was Anna Forlini.”

Mrs. Bennet shrugged. “Some of Lizzy’s voice teachers wanted her to be an opera singer, but she wanted to be on Broadway. I thought that was better. Who wants to hear some silly opera singer shrieking anyway?”

William ignored her annoying, yet expected, opinion on opera. “I told her this evening that I thought she had the talent for a classical career,” he said. “She has a fine voice, and it’s a shame she chose to use it on something beneath her talents.”

Charles’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth, but Mrs. Bennet spoke first. “Then you think she made a mistake, trying to be a Broadway star?”

William nodded sagely. “New York is full of struggling actresses, but few become big stars. That takes luck; talent is no guarantee. And I understand she hasn’t had the success she hoped for.”

“Lizzy has always known her own mind,” Mr. Bennet remarked mildly. “Even as a little girl. She loved to dance as well as sing, and musicals gave her the chance to do both. But now she plans to teach, so instead she’ll be training the next generation of starving New York actors. It’s a noble calling. After all, someone has to wait tables and tend bar at all those restaurants.”

“You always defend her, Andrew, but she’s stubborn and foolish, and you know it. How many times did I tell her to listen to her teachers? But she never listened to them or to me!”

“But, Mom,” Jane said quietly, “You always said you wanted Lizzy to become a Broadway star. Don’t you remember? You used to say that perhaps she’d get a leading role in the film version of a musical and become rich and famous.”

“Jane’s right, Francie,” Mr. Bennet added. “I seem to remember something about wanting Lizzy to be the next Barbra Streisand, except without the nose.”

“Opera is a more sophisticated art form,” Mr. Bingley declared, “but if notoriety is what you want for your daughter, it hardly seems like the best choice. Few opera singers are household names.”

Placido Domingo and Placido Flamingo on Sesame Street“Why, that’s not true at all!” Mrs. Bennet protested. “There’s that Pavarotti fellow. And Placido Flamingo. And the third tenor. What’s his name?”

William pressed his lips together and shook his head slightly. Caroline chortled into her napkin.

“Besides,” Mrs. Bennet continued, “my sweet Lydia is the one who’s going to be famous. Have you met her, Mr. Darcy?”

“We weren’t introduced, but I’ve … noticed her.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Bennet said with a proud smile. “She’s so popular with all the young men.”

Caroline snickered, no longer even bothering to hide her derision.

“I understand she lives in Los Angeles,” Mr. Bingley said. “In what part of town?”

“Oh, somewhere down there,” Mrs. Bennet answered with a vague wave of her hand. “Who can keep track of such things? She’s still waiting for her big break, but we know it’ll happen soon. She got her first television role recently, on a detective show. We’re so excited!”

“What kind of role?” Charles asked.

“A murder victim,” Mrs. Bennet said.

“Then she dies during the show,” Charles said. “That should be interesting to see.”

“No, I’m pretty sure she’s dead when it starts,” Mrs. Bennet answered.

“She was cast as a corpse?” William asked, certain that he must have misunderstood. Caroline clutched his arm and snorted softly.

“Yes, that’s right. And of course she also has her part-time job. She was so lucky to get it; they’re selective about the people they hire,” Mrs. Bennet crowed.

“Where does she work?” Mr. Bingley asked.

“She’s called a ‘Hooper’s Girl.’ That’s the name of the restaurant: Hooper’s. She has a special uniform and everything. The restaurant is named after an owl. Isn’t that cute?” Mrs. Bennet smiled in obvious pride.

hooters girls “Francie, that’s ‘Hooters,’ not ‘Hooper’s,’” Mr. Bennet said, his lips twitching.

Caroline choked on a bite of salmon, her face turning pinkish-purple as she hid her mouth behind her napkin again. William glanced across the table and saw Jane staring down at her plate, her face expressionless.

“Well, that makes more sense!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “I wondered why the owl’s name was Hooper! Have you heard of that restaurant, Mr. Bingley?”

Mr. Bingley’s face was stern. “Yes, I have. And I’m sure her tip income is substantial.”

I have no doubt of that, William thought as the table fell silent.

 

cake Elizabeth was finishing her chocolate cake when Charles approached her table. “Hey, there, almost-brother-in-law,” she greeted him, smiling. “Dinner was delicious.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.”

“Oh, yes,” Bill added. “Simply delicious. The appetizer was wonderful, and the salad was so fresh, and the salmon simply melted in my mouth. And the rolls—”

“Yes, Bill,” Charles interrupted gently. “I’m glad you enjoyed everything. But I have an important favor to ask Lizzy.” He turned back to Elizabeth. “Jane and I wondered if you’d consider singing tonight.”

Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I’d need an accompanist and I don’t have any music with me.”

“Oh, but, Elizabeth, you must sing! You simply must!” Bill exclaimed. “I’d be happy to play for you. I have a box of music books in Jim’s car; I was taking them home from the conservatory. We might find something suitable.”

Her eyes strayed to William’s table. He was staring at her again, as he had done frequently throughout dinner. His present disapproving expression had also been in place for most of the meal. What’s his problem now? My table manners?

She was tired of his disdain, and of keeping her promise to hold her tongue. She didn’t want to give a poor performance in front of him, validating his opinion that she wasn’t a real musician. But, wait …

Her frown vanished. “Bill, would you really be willing to accompany me?”

“Of course!” he cried. “It would be my very great honor.”

“Terrific!” She leaned over and impulsively kissed him on the cheek, which brought a wide smile to his face. Then she glanced up at Charles. “Just give us a few minutes to prepare.”

“Wonderful! I’ll tell Jane.”

Charles returned to his table, and Elizabeth turned to Jim Pennington. “May Bill and I borrow your car keys? We need to go through his music. I know just what I want to sing; I hope it’s in one of those books.”

She noted that William’s dark stare followed her as she left the room with Bill. Look down your nose all you want, William Darcy. I’m going to give you a performance to remember.

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