William couldn’t stop his head from spinning. Moments before, he had held Elizabeth in his arms, his lips just inches from hers. Now she stood several feet away, arms crossed over her chest. Caroline wore a brittle smile on her face and a murderous gleam in her eye.

“What do you want, Caroline?” he stammered, trying to clear his mind.

“I need to speak to you at once,” she proclaimed, her attempt at a regal bearing spoiled by her petulant tone.

He glared at her. “What is it?”

“It’s private.” Caroline stared pointedly at Elizabeth.

“I should go back to the party anyway,” Elizabeth said. “Jane might be looking for me.”

“Don’t go,” he said softly. “Caroline can wait.”

“I can do no such thing,” Caroline huffed. “It’s extremely urgent.” She threaded her arm through William’s. “So why don’t you just run along, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t answer Caroline. Instead, she flashed William a tight smile and headed up the path toward the Terrace Room.

He turned to follow her, but Caroline tightened her grip on his arm, digging in with her long red fingernails. “Darling.” she said with the air of a mother lecturing a naughty child, “this is a matter of life and death. There will be time later to go back to whatever you were doing, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to.”

“It’s none of your business what I was doing.”

“I have a pretty good idea.” Her supercilious tone infuriated him, but at least she had loosened her grip, allowing him to pull his arm free. “Darling, I know men like to go slumming once in a while, but, really, I thought you had better taste than that.”

William clenched his jaw, the tendons of his neck standing out. He had long tolerated her proprietary behavior with gritted teeth rather than make things awkward for Charles, but insolence toward Elizabeth was a different matter. Yet an angry response might goad her into doing something worse. He began to count to ten in Italian, as his mother had long ago taught him. He finished counting, muttering under his breath, “Otto … nove … dieci.”

“What did you say? Oh, never mind. I’ve had the most awful news, and I need your help. Jane never signed the pre-nuptial agreement! I can’t let the wedding go on without it. Darling, you simply must help me decide what to do.”

She had his attention now. He feigned ignorance, hoping to learn more. “Are you sure?”

“I’m positive! I was talking to Jane just now and the subject came up. In fact, she says she never even saw a pre-nup! Charles must have lied to us. How could he do that to Daddy? To the family? To me!”

She launched herself at him, sobbing, but he knew that Caroline never cried unless it suited her purposes. “Come on,” he said, extricating himself from her arms gently but insistently. “Crying isn’t going to accomplish anything.”

She retrieved a Kleenex from her purse and made a show of dabbing her eyes and nose. “Oh, darling, I don’t know what I’m going to do if you don’t help me.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“Has Charles said anything to you about the pre-nup?”

He hesitated, unwilling to tell the truth but also reluctant to lie. “Why would he do that? It has nothing to do with me.”

“Do you think Jane’s telling the truth about never seeing it?”

He shrugged. “You spoke to Jane. Do you think she was lying?”

“No.” She sniffled and paused to deploy the Kleenex again. “But what should I do? Charles risked everything, put my future in jeopardy, for that little …” She practically spat out those last words, but then, like a curtain falling across a stage, her expression softened and she adopted a pleading tone. “Isn’t this the most irresponsible thing you’ve ever heard?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but if you’re right about what happened, it was … ill-advised.”

“Ill-advised?” she wailed. “It’s a calamity! Charles doesn’t care about Daddy’s company the way I do. But Daddy always gives him preference because he’s a man.”

“Charles is in love, and he expects to be married for the rest of his life. He probably doesn’t think a pre-nup would serve any purpose.” William found himself in the awkward position of arguing for the very point he had argued against earlier that day.

“Then he’s a fool. I doubt anybody goes into a marriage planning for it to fail, but look how many divorces there are these days! And if anything did happen, that horrid Bennet woman would be right there, prodding Jane to grab every penny she could get.”

As little as he wanted to support Caroline over Charles, she was right about all of that. “Why aren’t you speaking to Charles about this instead of me?”

“I can’t. He never listens to me. Can’t you talk to him? He respects your opinion so much.”

“All right, I will.” At the least, he needed to warn Charles that his house of cards was about to topple, courtesy of Hurricane Caroline.

“And if he won’t listen to reason, you have to go to Daddy and tell him what you know.”

“No. That would be completely inappropriate.” He stared at her, trying to guess her motives. “In fact, why aren’t you talking to him right now, instead of trying to involve me in this mess?’

“Oh, darling, I just can’t bring myself to do it.” She clutched his arm, sniffling. “Charles is my brother. I could never live with myself if I interfered with his marriage, or caused a permanent rift in his relationship with Daddy.”

“So instead, you want me to betray my best friend.”

“It’s not a betrayal if it’s for his own good. He’ll forgive you eventually. But if I tell Daddy, Charles will hate me. He’ll think I’m just concerned about my own fortune; he won’t believe that I’m worried about him.”

William didn’t believe it either. “I’ll talk to Charles, but I’m not going to do your dirty work for you.”

“Darling, what a terrible way to put it! Come on, now, be a good boy and talk to Daddy for me. You’ll be protecting Charles, and the rest of the family too.” She ran a finger slowly along his forearm, gazing at him through her eyelashes. “I’m sure I could find a way to show my gratitude.”

He shook his head and stepped out of her reach. “I said ‘no.’”

“Oh, all right,” she sighed melodramatically. “I should be angry with you, but you’re so attractive when you’re stubborn. As long as you talk to Charles—”

“I already said that I would.”

“I knew I could depend on you to help me.” She took his face info his hands and kissed him enthusiastically on the lips before he could stop her.

He pulled away in disgust. Wouldn’t you know she’d be the one I’d get a kiss from tonight?

 

When Elizabeth saw William step through the doorway from the courtyard, the trembling she had finally conquered began again. He had almost kissed her. He would have kissed her, had Caroline not stormed across the courtyard and all but flung him over her shoulder in her proprietary zeal. And the kiss would have been no innocent peck on the lips. The flames leaping in his eyes had made that all too clear.

But the memory of his heated expression wasn’t what set her body quivering. The startling fact was this: she had wanted his kiss, had craved it with an intensity that halted her breathing and made her knees wobble. A renegade impulse whispered in her ear, daring her to cross the room and press her mouth to his, past caring about the curious eyes surrounding them.

Get a grip, Lizzy, before the guys with the butterfly nets and straitjackets show up.

It was good advice. These impulses were dangerous, even self-destructive. William Darcy didn’t kiss insignificant schoolteachers. And if he did, he could have only one thing in mind: the location of the nearest vacant bed. She wrenched her eyes away from him, her jaw tight. But her eyes, heedless of her inner struggle, drifted back in his direction. He met her gaze, and the warmth brimming in his eyes engulfed her.

But then he strode past her, crossing the room to join a group that included Charles, Jane, and the Bingleys. As he passed, she noted smudges of red lipstick on his cheek and mouth. And Caroline’s lipstick—her bright red lipstick—was smeared and in need of repair.

Now it all made sense. William hadn’t wanted to kiss her—at least, not only her. Any available woman would do. All the better to feed his oversized ego. So stop acting like a swooning idiot. A few minutes in the moonlight with a horny pianist and you lose your mind.

As she stood there lecturing herself, the band announced a short break. Charlotte and Roger left the dance floor together and approached her.

“Hi, Liz!” Charlotte’s voice was a shade too cheerful, almost certainly due to the open bar and its generous supply of Charlotte’s favorite brand of scotch. “Why haven’t you been dancing?”

Elizabeth didn’t answer, too occupied with watching Charles and William heading for the doors to the courtyard.

Charlotte, after skewering Elizabeth with an appraising stare, dispatched Roger to the bar for a fresh round of drinks. As soon as he was gone, she whispered, “Okay, quick, before he comes back, what’s going on between you and William?”

Elizabeth shook her head reluctantly. “It’s a long story. If you’d sent Roger to France for my glass of Chardonnay, there still wouldn’t be enough time.”

Charlotte shrugged. “Then Roger can hang with his jazz buddies for a while.”

“Nonsense. I don’t want to spoil your evening.”

“You’re not spoiling anything. Besides,” Charlotte raised her eyebrows and lowered her voice, “we’ve made plans for later. He’s going to sneak out of the bachelor party as soon as he can and meet me at my place.”

Elizabeth sighed. “How do you do it?”

“How do I do what?”

“Get comfortable with a man so quickly. You just met him a few hours ago, and you’re ready to go to bed with him.”

“I’m not an incurable romantic like you. My requirements in a man are simple. If he’s presentable, interesting, and adventurous in bed, I’m a happy girl. I’ve already confirmed two out of three with Roger, so I might as well go for a hat trick. But never mind that. I saw the way you and William were looking at each other. Start talking.”

Before Elizabeth could begin her story, Roger returned with the drinks. Charlotte drew him aside for a brief conversation, and then led Elizabeth to a table near the doors to the courtyard. Roger sauntered over to a table where the members of Golden Gate Jazz were comfortably ensconced.

“He didn’t mind?” Elizabeth asked.

Charlotte elevated her eyebrows significantly. “I promised I’d make it up to him later. Several times. Okay, let’s hear it.”

Elizabeth frowned, wondering where to begin. “Well, after William and I both performed—”

“Oh, by the way, he was incredible!” Charlotte interrupted. “Apparently my taste has become more sophisticated since we left Interlochen, because I don’t remember being so impressed back then.”

“About time you figured that out.” Elizabeth returned to her story, describing her time alone with William in the courtyard and leading up to the moments after the music stopped.

“Did he kiss you? Please say yes.”

“Just as it was about to happen, Caroline Bingley showed up and started acting like she owned him.”

“That woman is a menace.” Charlotte glowered at Caroline, who was chatting with her parents at the opposite end of the room. “I don’t know how a nice guy like Charles could have such a stone cold bitch for a sister. Maybe we can convince her to go outside and play in traffic, and a nice big bus will come along and flatten her.”

“Good idea.”

“I can’t believe you left poor William with that leech. Haven’t you seen the way she hangs all over him?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Oh, Char, I’m so confused. He put his jacket around my shoulders so I wouldn’t get cold, and he was sincere and sort of shy and … well, sweet. But I keep wondering why he tried to kiss me.”

Caroline Bingley passed by with her father in tow. Elizabeth heard Caroline say, “Now, Daddy, I know Charles wants to speak to you, and he’s outside in the courtyard. It’ll just take a minute.”

After father and daughter had passed by, Elizabeth continued. “I think he was just … hungry. For a woman. Any woman. And I was available.”

Charlotte shook her head. “Why is it so hard to accept that he could genuinely like you?”

“Because we barely know each other. And he’s rich and famous. He can probably have anyone he wants back in New York, but right now he’s separated from his girlfriend. Or girlfriends, more likely. When we were dancing, I could tell that he—that he was … well, kind of worked up. If you know what I mean.”

“I do, but it’s fun watching you squirm,” Charlotte teased.

Elizabeth glared at Charlotte. “Thanks a lot.”

“So, could you tell if Lydia and I were right about the long-fingers business?” Charlotte asked with a wicked grin.

“Char!” Elizabeth gasped. “Of course not! And even if I could, it’s not like I had a yardstick handy.”

“Ah, but you said ‘yardstick’ instead of ‘ruler.’ I assume that’s your delicate way of indicating that a twelve-inch measuring device would have been insufficient for the task?”

“I should wash your mouth out with soap,” Elizabeth sputtered.

Charlotte leered at Elizabeth. “Memo to self: buy Liz a tape measure. An extra-long one.”

“Please be serious, for once in your life.”

Charlotte composed her face into a more solemn expression. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

“So I guess he was looking for someone he could take upstairs to his hotel room. And I’m so gullible that I bought his poor-little-me routine.”

“Look, I’m not saying he doesn’t want you. He probably does. That’s how most guys are wired: they see an attractive woman, and they start thinking about what she’d look like naked. But that doesn’t mean that he was going to try for anything more than a kiss. It also doesn’t mean that his attraction to you is purely physical. Why can’t you accept that he might genuinely like you?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I already told you, I’m not his type. As I was walking back inside, I heard Caroline remark that ‘all men like to go slumming once in a while.’ I guess that’s what I am to him, a little walk on the wild side.”

“Stop putting yourself down, Liz. Being with you does not constitute slumming for William, or for any man. I’m sure Cruella de Bingley was hoping you’d hear her say that. She’s just jealous because you don’t have to pull a loaded gun on William to get his attention.”

Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “Neither does she; his face was covered with her lipstick when he came back inside. For all I know, they had a quickie in the bushes. Maybe that’s why he hasn’t bothered to talk to me since he came back inside. Maybe he got what he wanted from her.”

“If her lipstick ended up on him, I’ll bet you any amount you want that it happened without his cooperation. Whenever I’ve seen them together, she’s just about falling off those spike heels trying to keep up while he runs away from her.”

“So you think I’m just being paranoid?”

“Yeah, I do, and it’s not like you. You’d ordinarily see right through a twit like Caroline. And, Liz, here’s something else to consider. Do you honestly believe that the kind, gentle man you talked to in the courtyard would use you—or any woman, for that matter—just for sex?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “But I don’t know who the real William is. Maybe the charm was just an act to draw me in. It wouldn’t be the first time I fell for that routine.”

“I know,” Charlotte said with a sad smile. “But think about how many times he’s made you angry, and you’ve known him for less than a day. If he’s a professional womanizer, he’s not very good at it.”

Elizabeth laughed. “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night.”

“Perhaps, but I’ve said dozens of smart things. So listen to this next pearl of wisdom. You should admit—to yourself, I mean—that you’re attracted to him, and that the attraction appears to be mutual. This is a good thing, Liz. You should enjoy it, not try to ward it off like it’s an evil curse.”

“And then what? Once we’re back in New York, you think he and his limo will pull up in front of my rundown apartment building and whisk me off to Le Bernardin for a romantic dinner?”

“Why not?”

“Be realistic. I told you what he said to Charles earlier. He’s accustomed to society women. People like Caroline, I suppose.”

“And yet he hasn’t married one of them. Maybe he’s looking for something different.”

“Look, Char, I know you mean well, but he would never want me for anything more than a one-night stand. Besides, he’s got that arrogant side that makes me want to strangle him.”

Charlotte was about to answer when they heard Mr. Bingley’s voice from the terrace, “What?” he shouted. “Did you just say that she didn’t sign it?” Following a muffled response to his question, his angry voice rang out again. “Where is she? Get her out here this instant!”

Caroline swept through the doors from the courtyard and, with great self-importance, interrupted Jane’s conversation with Mrs. Bingley. As Elizabeth and Charlotte watched, Caroline took Jane’s arm and led her firmly out to the courtyard.

Elizabeth looked at Charlotte in horror. “I need to get out there. I don’t know what’s wrong, but Jane’s going to need someone in her corner if she has to take on Mr. Bingley.”

“Isn’t Charles out there? She won’t be alone.”

Elizabeth jumped to her feet. “I’m going. Are you coming with me?”

Charlotte shook her head. “Sounds like a family affair. Maybe I’ll see if I can get the band to start playing again so the whole crowd doesn’t end up eavesdropping. And let’s shut the doors to the courtyard; that might help.”

“Good idea. Thanks, Char.”

“Good luck out there. It doesn’t sound like a fun place to be.”

 

William would have whole-heartedly endorsed Charlotte’s remark, had he heard it. He had been warning Charles about Caroline’s discovery, and advising him to speak to Jane without delay, when Mr. Bingley marched up to them breathing fire and brimstone, with Caroline mincing along at his side. William had half expected to see canary feathers protruding from her mouth.

And now Caroline was back again, with a perplexed-looking Jane in tow.

“Come here, young woman!” Mr. Bingley thundered. “I don’t know what game you think you’re playing with my son, but you have been found out.”

“I don’t understand.” Jane glanced at Charles. “What’s the problem?”

“So you’re going to pretend innocence.” Mr. Bingley snorted. “Fine, then. I’ll be direct. I will not allow my son to marry you unless you sign the pre-nuptial agreement.”

William was surprised to see Elizabeth join the group. She stopped beside Jane, who gave her a quick, nervous smile.

“What pre-nuptial agreement?” Jane asked. “I haven’t seen one.”

Mr. Bingley shook his head. “You may have worked your wiles on my son to make him forget his duty to his family, but fluttering eyelashes and fake tears will be ineffective where I am concerned.”

“Charles?” Jane pleaded. She stepped across the circle of combatants to stand beside him.

Charles opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“Jane hasn’t been asked to sign a pre-nup, Mr. Bingley,” Elizabeth interjected.

“No one asked for your input,” Mr. Bingley snarled. “This is none of your concern. Not that I would expect someone with your background to understand this problem.”

William took a step in Elizabeth’s direction, wishing he could use his body to shield her. But she needed no such protection. “It is absolutely my concern when my sister is unjustly attacked, you pompous, arrogant—”

Jane fixed her gaze on Elizabeth and shook her head. Then she turned to Charles. “What is your father talking about? Was I supposed to sign a pre-nup?”

Charles, after a long pause, finally nodded.

“Then why didn’t you give it to me?”

“I didn’t want you to think I believed it was necessary. I know we’re going to stay married forever.”

“You honestly never gave it to her?” Mr. Bingley asked, glowering at Charles.

“No.” Charles shot a beseeching glance in William’s direction, but William couldn’t think of anything to do or say.

“It’s true, Daddy,” Caroline chimed in. “Jane told me there wasn’t a pre-nup.”

“And why didn’t you tell me this?” Mr. Bingley growled.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. But I found out less than an hour ago. And I wanted to give Charles a chance to tell you himself. I know you already have serious doubts about his commitment to the company, and I didn’t want to make things worse. I was afraid if you learned about this you might cut Charles off without a penny.”

Mr. Bingley blasted an icy glare at Charles. “You’re so weak that an opportunistic young woman can come along and make you forget your obligation to your family. I suppose she’ll be teaching you to roll over and play dead next.”

“How dare you speak about my sister that way?” Elizabeth snapped.

Mr. Bingley turned on her in fury. “I will speak about her as she deserves to be spoken about, and I will not be criticized by a talentless so-called actress.”

“Now, really, Mr. Bingley—” William protested, walking around to stand beside Elizabeth.

“It would be best if you stayed out of this,” Mr. Bingley interrupted. “You showed good judgment in trying to convince Charles to get the pre-nup signed, but I will not be corrected by you any more than I will by this ill-mannered young woman. The best service you could perform would be to take her inside, so we can resolve this matter without any more of her outbursts.”

William could feel waves of fury rolling off Elizabeth’s body. He placed his hand on the small of her back in a soothing gesture, and she took a small step toward him, flashing him a look of surprised gratitude.

Jane took Charles’s hand. “I wish you’d brought me the pre-nup,” she said gently. “I would have understood. In fact, I was expecting one.”

“That’s entirely beside the point now,” Mr. Bingley retorted. “My son has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted while under your influence, so I am taking charge. I will allow the wedding to proceed on schedule, but only if you adhere to my conditions. First, you will sign the pre-nuptial agreement, and you’ll do it tonight. I’ll have my lawyer fax it to the hotel.”

That much had been inevitable. William hoped the remaining conditions would be no worse.

“I know Daddy may sound a bit harsh, Jane, but I’m sure you understand that we need to protect the family business,” Caroline remarked in a conciliatory tone.

“Yes, of course,” Jane replied. “And I’m willing to read it and sign it as long as—”

“No conditions, young woman,” Mr. Bingley interrupted. “You will sign it tonight, as is, or there will be no wedding tomorrow.”

Jane looked toward Charles in a silent appeal for support that even William could read. But Charles, his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast, said nothing.

Mr. Bingley glared at Charles. “Look at me, Charles. A man looks others in the eye.”

Charles looked up, but remained silent. He resembled a frightened dog cowering before an angry master.

“Here is my second condition.” Mr. Bingley continued. “Contrary to the agreement we made a few weeks ago, you may not wait six months to relocate to Los Angeles. I will expect you to report for work in LA one week after you return from your honeymoon.”

Jane turned to Charles. “Six months? What is he talking about?”

Charles closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he replied. “I thought I could convince him to extend it a few months at a time, and eventually you wouldn’t mind moving to LA.”

Elizabeth gasped. William again touched her back gently, and she took another small step toward him.

“Charles, we discussed this” Jane replied, her voice trembling. “We agreed to stay in San Francisco, because we both love it here.”

“That’s absurd,” Mr. Bingley spat out. “Charles will take control of my company some day. It is headquartered in Los Angeles. How can you expect him to prepare for that day if he lives elsewhere? Are you a fool as well as greedy?”

William felt Elizabeth’s muscles tighten, and he feared that she might launch herself at Mr. Bingley in a flurry of fists. He quickly spoke up. “Mr. Bingley, this is a terrible situation for Jane. Perhaps she needs some time to adjust to all these changes.”

Mr. Bingley turned on William. “And I told you to stay out of this. I’ve never approved of your friendship with my son. You’re a bad influence, and that’s probably where Charles has gotten some of his ridiculous ideas.”

William pulled himself up to his full, impressive height. “I am a bad influence?” He spoke each word slowly, in as lofty a tone as he could muster.

“Don’t get on your high horse with me, Darcy. I know that your father disapproved of your obsession with music, just as I did in Charles’s case. The fact that you’ve found some small success changes nothing. I’m sure you were a grave disappointment to your father.”

For Charles’s sake, William would not allow Mr. Bingley to goad him into an angry response, but only his long experience in the public eye allowed him to stay silent. He wished that he knew how to count to 100 in Italian; counting to ten couldn’t possibly be enough. As he labored to regain his composure, he was surprised to feel Elizabeth’s soft touch on his back, mirroring the gestures of support he had offered her.

It was Caroline who broke the charged silence. “Daddy, please don’t say such things about William, when you know he’s a dear friend of mine,” she cooed. “Besides, shouldn’t we get back to the main point, about where Jane and Charles are going to live?”

“Mr. Bingley, Charles and I love San Francisco.” Jane had apparently given up on Charles; her voice was stronger now. “I have a law practice here in San Francisco that I’ve been building for four years. You know what it’s like to start a business, so I’m sure you couldn’t expect me to just give it up.”

“I most certainly do. As Charles’s wife, you will have extensive social responsibilities. You won’t have time to work.”

“Even if I agreed to that, you can’t expect me to shut down my practice in a week so that I can move.”

“Stay here as long as you like.” Mr. Bingley retorted. “But Charles will be in Los Angeles a week after the honeymoon ends.”

“How do you expect us to sell our house here and find one there in so little time?”

“Charles can keep the San Francisco house as an investment. Caroline can use it; she’s taking over Charles’s job up here. And you won’t need a house in LA. You can live on our estate. The guest suite has plenty of space, and it’ll give me a chance to keep a close eye on Charles.”

Jane’s obvious distress finally spurred Charles to action. “Father, you can’t force me to do these things. I’m an adult, whether or not you treat me as one.”

“Defy me if you wish,” Mr. Bingley declared, “but if you do, you are no longer my son. Your shares in the company are under my control, and I will revoke them. You will also be fired from your position. You can try supporting yourself; that is what adults do.”

“Father, you can’t be serious!”

“I’m entirely serious.” Mr. Bingley turned to Jane and continued harshly, “So you see, young woman, if you and Charles don’t meet my conditions, you won’t get a penny from me.” He then redirected his stare to his son. “I think you’ll find that her interest in you will evaporate if you’re nothing but a penniless beach bum whose earthly possessions consist of a surfboard and a saxophone.”

William had had his fill of this distasteful scene. “I think Charles and Jane need some privacy so that they can talk.” He pulled the key card to his suite from his breast pocket, relieved to finally be able to help, and offered it to Charles. “Here, please, use my room.”

“What will we say to our guests?” Jane asked Charles.

“I’ll handle that,” Elizabeth offered. “It’s getting late anyway; I bet most of them are ready to go. But I’ll have to figure out something to tell the guys who are waiting for the bachelor party to start. I assume you want that canceled, or at least postponed.”

“I’ll help with that,” William said. He was immediately rewarded by her tremulous smile.

 

“Lizzy, what are you talking about?” Mrs. Bennet cried. “Where is Jane? Where is dear Charles? I must speak to them. They shouldn’t leave the party before their guests, you know.”

“Mom, please don’t worry. The Bingleys have a family matter to deal with, and Charles and Jane are helping. You might as well go home.”

William and Elizabeth had agreed on this vague cover story before leaving the courtyard. Elizabeth would have told her father the truth had the opportunity presented itself. But she hadn’t found a way to separate him from her mother, whose volatile reaction was best delayed until the drama had been resolved one way or another.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “I’ll wait here till Jane comes back.”

“Really, Mom, it’s getting late. Jane would want you to go home and get some sleep so you’re fresh and rested for the wedding,” Elizabeth said in a wheedling tone. “And Mary is probably at the house by now. Don’t you want to see her?”

“Come on, Francie,” Mr. Bennet said. “Lizzy’s right; you need your beauty sleep. Think of all the photographs you’ll be in tomorrow.”

Elizabeth flashed her father a look of weary gratitude.

“Why don’t you go find Kitty and Lydia,” Mr. Bennet suggested to his wife. “Heaven knows where they’ve gotten to, but I’d suggest looking for a large concentration of young men.”

Just then, Lydia lurched into the Terrace Room. “It’s so gross,” she said, shuddering. “Kitty is barfing in the ladies’ room.”

“Poor dear,” Mrs. Bennet cried. “It must have been something she ate.”

Lydia snorted. “More likely the tequila shooters we’ve been doing at that other party. Great band, lots of booze … tons better than this funeral.” She hiccupped and swayed. “I’d better sit down before I start hurling too.”

Elizabeth glanced toward William in mortification, but he was ushering the Hursts out the door and had missed the exchange. Mrs. Bennet rushed off to the ladies’ room to assist Kitty, with Lydia stumbling along behind her.

Charlotte approached Elizabeth. “Roger and I are off. Hang in there. I’ll call you at Jane’s place in a few hours and find out what’s going on.”

Elizabeth hugged Charlotte. “Are you sure you won’t be too busy to call?”

Charlotte grinned. “I’m sure I can find a minute or two for a telephone break. Just ignore any heavy breathing you hear in the background.” Her smile faded. “Seriously, Liz, if you want me to stay—”

“There’s no point in both of us sitting around feeling helpless. And William’s being very kind.”

“Think about what I said about him,” Charlotte said earnestly. “Certainly you don’t think he’s being helpful and supportive in order to get you into bed.”

“No, but he’s Charles’s best man. He’s doing it for Charles, not for me.”

Charlotte sighed. “You sure are determined to fight this. It’s your prerogative, but I think you’re crazy. Anyway, I’ll call you later.”

Bill Collins approached, his raincoat over one arm.

“Elizabeth, I’m so sorry we didn’t have more time to talk after dinner, and I’m especially sorry that we didn’t dance together. Perhaps I could have the first dance at the reception tomorrow?”

She smiled sadly, wondering if there would be a reception. “Thank you again for accompanying me on my solo tonight.”

“It was my great honor and pleasure, I assure you. I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow. We should spend some time discussing your interview on Monday. I can advise you on what you should say to Dr. de Bourgh, how to compliment her taste and discretion, how to show your respect for her musical gifts and her managerial brilliance …” He glanced across the room, where Jim Pennington stood staring at his watch. “But I must go now. Jim is giving me a ride home. Good night.”

Mr. Bennet appeared at her side. “Whatever’s going on is more serious than you’re saying, isn’t it?”

She nodded, biting her lip. “I’m afraid the wedding might be off, Dad. Poor Jane. Charles has been lying to her, and Mr. Bingley was so angry. It was awful.”

Mr. Bennet took her hand in his. “I’d stay and try to help, but I think the best thing I can do for Jane is to get your mother and sisters out of here. If you or Jane need anything, anything at all, call me, no matter how late it is.”

The combination of worry for Jane and fatigue from her long day overwhelmed Elizabeth, and the tears she had been fighting spilled down her cheeks. Mr. Bennet embraced her gently.

William approached them as Elizabeth stepped out of her father’s embrace. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. The sympathy in his eyes made her want to cry all over again, but she took a deep breath and blinked hard, clearing her vision. She had to stay strong for Jane.

 

The other guests were finally gone, leaving William and Elizabeth alone together in the Terrace Room. He noticed her surreptitiously wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, and a protective instinct welled up in his chest, squeezing his heart. It was everything he could do to restrain himself from drawing her into the comforting circle of his arms and kissing away her tears.

“May I give you a ride home? I’ll even let you drive again.” It was the only thing he could think of that might cheer her up.

She smiled, but her eyes were hollow. “Thanks, but I should wait for Jane. Do you know of any place in the hotel where I could get coffee at this hour? I could use some caffeine.”

Ritz club lounge “We could go to the Club Floor lounge and wait there. It’s just a few doors down from my suite.”

“Thank you. That sounds good.”

Indeed it did, since it gave him a chance to spend some time with her. As they left the Terrace Room together, he caught himself humming quietly.

“You seem pretty chipper, considering everything that’s going on,” she remarked.

“I suppose so,” he answered as they approached the bank of elevators. “I must have just caught my second wind.” He felt a pang of guilt when he realized that she was right. A somber mood was more fitting, given the unpleasant scene in the courtyard and its likely impact on Charles and Jane’s future. But then Elizabeth smiled at him. Without realizing what he was doing, William began to hum again.

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