Elizabeth sat in her office at school, fingering the thick engraved card. Although she had read it dozens of times since receiving it a week ago, it still had the power to set her pulse racing.

Two months had passed since she had hurried out of William’s hospital room to catch her flight to California. After her initial dejection when had acknowledged neither her phone calls nor her note, she had done her best to forget him and to build a new life in San Francisco.

She loved being at the conservatory and couldn’t wait for the fall semester to begin. She also loved living with Jane, and it was an unaccustomed treat to see Charlotte so frequently. In addition, she was pleased to be performing on a regular basis, as the new vocalist for Golden Gate Jazz, the ensemble started by Charles Bingley.

Only one thing was missing, at least, according to Jane and Charlotte: a man. They were forever proposing single men they knew as possible dates for Elizabeth.

“Oh, please,” Elizabeth had groaned the last time the subject arose. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this from the two of you. Char, you wouldn’t recognize romance if it tripped you and knocked you to the ground. And you’re saying that my love life is lacking?”

“You know perfectly well what I mean,” Charlotte had retorted. “Every time you get asked out, you always find some excuse to say no. You’re living like a nun.”

“I am not. That’s ridiculous.”

Elizabeth wasn’t trying to avoid going on dates. She would have been happy to spend some pleasant evenings with the right sort of man. But so far, no one had measured up. When she had tried to explain this, Charlotte had asked the inevitable question:

“Measured up to whom, Liz? As if I didn’t know.”

Elizabeth preferred not to think about the answer. Meanwhile, she was doing her best not to “hide from men,” to quote another charge Charlotte had leveled at her. She had gradually succumbed to Jane’s gentle but persistent encouragement and had upgraded her wardrobe. Her collection of oversized shirts, except for a few favorites for sleeping in, had joined the dust rags in the hall closet, and she used part of each paycheck to buy more flattering clothes for school and casual wear.

Two weeks ago, primarily to silence Jane and Charlotte, Elizabeth had gone on her first date in San Francisco, with a neighbor in the condominium building. He was nice enough, and he shared her interest in music. But it had been all she could do to keep up her end of the conversation during dinner. His hair was medium brown and straight, not dark and wavy. His eyes were brown, but they were a light shade, like brandy; they weren’t dark and hypnotic in their intensity. He wasn’t tall enough, nor were his shoulders broad enough, and his voice lacked the deep, caressing tone that would have made her shiver.

As an experiment, she had allowed him to kiss her good night. She had felt nothing. The touch of his lips hadn’t made her feel hot and weak and dizzy all at once, and there had been no yearning to feel his arms enfold her. Obviously she hadn’t made much progress in putting William behind her.

It hadn’t helped that his health problems had made him a major topic of discussion in the classical music community over the summer. Her heart had wept for him when she heard that he’d been forced to cancel several months of performances. After hearing this news, she had decided to call him. The call had been answered by voicemail, and she had started to leave a message, but couldn’t seem to put a sentence together. After two vain attempts to leave a coherent message, she gave up. It wasn’t as though he needed or wanted her sympathy; he hadn’t even wanted it when he was in the hospital.

She couldn’t stop worrying, though, no matter how hard she tried. She still held a picture in her mind of William as she had last seen him, lying in his hospital bed looking pale and drawn and so vulnerable. He had borne two heavy burdens within just a few hours: his physical collapse and her insulting accusations. It was no wonder that he wanted nothing more to do with her.

And now he was to spend a semester at the conservatory. When she had first heard the news of his impending arrival, she had wondered if it meant that he had forgiven her and wanted to see her again. Jane and Charlotte had endorsed this view.

“Of course he wants to see you, Lizzy,” Jane had assured her. “I would think that any conservatory in the country, or maybe even the world, would be happy to have him in residence for a semester. He wouldn’t have chosen to come to San Francisco if he didn’t want to see you.”

“Jane’s right,” Charlotte had added. “And I’ll go further than that. I bet he’s coming out here to try to get you back. It wouldn’t surprise me if he calls any day now to beg you to see him as soon as he arrives.”

Although Elizabeth had laughed off this suggestion, she had paid an unusual amount of attention to her voicemail for almost a week. Then she had realized the foolishness of this line of reasoning. This is William Darcy we’re talking about. Why would he plan his life around where I’m living? He’ll come and go as he pleases, and why shouldn’t he? I don’t have exclusive rights to San Francisco.

“Elizabeth?”

She looked up and saw Bill Collins standing in the doorway to her office. He leaned slightly to one side under the weight of a battered leather satchel slung over his shoulder.

“Hi, Bill. I thought you’d be on your way to Rosings by now. Aren’t you in charge of coordinating the musicians at the party?”

“Indeed I am. Dr. de Bourgh is depending on me, and I shan’t let her down. But I wanted to see if you’d changed your mind. I’d still be very pleased to give you a ride to Rosings this evening. I need to be there early, but if you arrived early as well it would give you a chance to see Lady Catherine’s extensive art collection.”

“Thank you, but I’m all set. I’ll see you there.”

“I’m looking forward to it. I know you’ll be the belle of the ball.”

Bill executed an awkward bow and departed. She smiled at the sound of his Rockports squeaking their way down the hall. She heard a door creak open and closed, and then, nothing but silence.

Continued exposure to Bill, both at school and in his role as the jazz group’s keyboard player, had been a trial to Elizabeth’s patience at first. He had embarked on a determined campaign of romantic overtures as soon as she arrived in San Francisco. It had taken a month of patient but persistent refusals before he had finally desisted. Since then she had occasionally shared his table at lunchtime in the conservatory’s dining hall, and now that she had become accustomed to his peculiar manner she found his company almost pleasant. Despite his many oddities, he was kind and well-intentioned, and his obvious admiration provided a balm to her wounded heart.

Bill also had an encyclopedic command of conservatory gossip, and he relished sharing his knowledge. While Elizabeth sometimes tired of his compulsive dissection of faculty politics and personal lives, she usually learned some interesting tidbit in the course of lunch.

What came through loudest in Bill’s discourse was his reverence for Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth had learned a great deal about the woman: her marriage to Sir Lewis de Bourgh, her massive home called Rosings, and her daughter Anne, who worked in Development for the conservatory “when her health permits,” as Bill had added in a mournful tone.

Glancing at the invitation again, Elizabeth snorted and shook her head. Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Well, excuuuuuse me. Technically, Elizabeth supposed that it was true, since Catherine’s husband had been made a knight during their marriage. But could she be any more pretentious?

According to Bill’s information, Catherine had invited every noted musician and patron of the arts living west of the Rockies to tonight’s party, as well as some luminaries from the New York music scene and a few carefully-selected members of the press. Despite the short notice, most of them had apparently RSVP’d in the affirmative. The entire faculty was also invited, which explained Elizabeth’s inclusion on the guest list. Even so, she sometimes wondered if Catherine had simply forgotten to instruct her secretary, “But don’t send one to that horrid Bennet woman.”

Elizabeth didn’t know what she had done to offend Catherine, but whenever they met, the dean simply stared at her with glacial disdain. Elizabeth had tried once to subtly question Bill about the matter, but he had insisted, “Oh, no, you must be mistaken! Dr. de Bourgh is so supportive of the faculty, so generous with her suggestions and advice for their improvement! I’m sure she thinks as highly of you as I do.”

She glanced at her watch and wrinkled her nose in displeasure. She needed to leave for home immediately to ensure that she’d have enough time to get ready. For reasons she hadn’t examined too closely, it was essential that she look her best tonight.

But she still had some last-minute preparations to make for her first class of the fall semester on Monday. It was a seminar in Broadway performance technique, in which the students would critique one another’s vocal performances with Elizabeth’s guidance. She would be singing at the first class in order to help them to learn the critiquing process, and she wanted to double-check the sound system in the classroom.

She set down the invitation and grabbed a CD containing the orchestral accompaniment to her song. She would play it through the sound system, testing the equipment and rehearsing at the same time. Then she would go home, wash her hair, put on her dress, and gather her courage.

 

William left the Dean’s office with a sigh of relief. Catherine had invited him to her office for a late lunch, and two hours later she was still pontificating nonstop on a variety of topics, few of which interested him. She had finally checked her watch and realized that she needed to get home to oversee final preparations for the party, leaving him to his own devices.

He needed to get home too, but first he wanted to explore the building. He had been looking forward to wandering the halls to get a feel for the place. Oh, let’s be honest. I want to find Elizabeth’s office and see if she’s in.

Room 132. Fortunately, Catherine’s secretary kept a directory listing taped to the wall beside her desk. He followed the exit signs until he found a stairwell, and began his descent from the third floor.

He had decided to say hello to Elizabeth in private. Seeing her for the first time in two months would be awkward enough without doing it against the backdrop of Catherine’s glitzy party. Then, if things went well, they could get reacquainted during the evening.

He congratulated himself on ensuring her place on the guest list. Catherine had initially planned to invite only the most senior members of the faculty, along with top administrators. He had casually suggested that if she invited the entire faculty, she could ask some of the junior professors to entertain the guests. “A string quartet on the terrace, a pianist in the library … it would be excellent public relations for the conservatory to show off some of its fine musicians, don’t you think?” Catherine had snapped at the bait, as he had anticipated.

He had considered calling Elizabeth from New York, but had decided that he could present his case more effectively in person. He had planned what he would say; in fact, he had rehearsed it several times. He muttered the words to himself as he arrived at the second-floor landing and continued downward.

“Elizabeth, please allow me to apologize for my ungentlemanly behavior that night in June. I regret it more than I can say, especially that you thought my interest in you was purely physical. If you’re willing to resume our relationship, I promise to show more restraint in the future. But if you don’t want to see me anymore, you needn’t worry that I’ll pursue you or do anything else to make you uncomfortable. I care too much about you to do that.”

The speech sounded stilted and cold to his critical ear. He wanted to say, “Lizzy, I need you so much. You’re always in my thoughts. Please forgive me and let me back into your life, because I’m miserable without you.” But each time he imagined himself saying that, he saw her eyeing him coldly, rejecting him again.

He opened the door and stepped into the first-floor hallway, adrenalin coursing through his veins. The room numbers gradually increased as he paced down the dim, silent hallway, and at last he found himself standing in front of Room 132. Catherine had been right when she told him that Fridays were quiet on campus during the summer. He stood still for a minute, inspecting the nameplate that read, “E. Bennet.” Raising an unsteady hand, he knocked on the door.

There was no answer. He wasn’t sure which emotion was stronger, disappointment or relief.

According to his watch, it was just past four o’clock, and time to head for home. He wanted to rest for a while before dinner, which Mrs. Reynolds would be serving promptly at six. He continued down the corridor, searching for the door that led to the parking lot.

He entered an area of the building that contained classrooms. He was surprised to hear the sound of an orchestra coming from one room. He paused and peeked through the half-open door into a large room with tiered seating, the aisles leading down to an open stage area in the front. A gasp nearly escaped his throat when he saw Elizabeth off to one side, fiddling with some electronic equipment. She was dressed in faded jeans and a pink blouse, her hair in a pony tail, and she looked even more beautiful than he remembered. He tried to propel himself forward, to announce his presence, but he froze in place when she walked to the center of the floor and began to sing. As her sweet voice washed over him, he was helpless to do anything but watch and listen.

A friendly face, a kind of face that melts you with a grin
The kind of eyes that welcome you the minute you walk in.
A tender glance you simply can’t refuse.
It’s times like this a girl could use …
A dog.

He listens when you tell him things, there’s nothing you can’t say,
And unlike certain people, you can teach him how to stay.
And if the world is giving you the blues,
He cheers you up by chewing up the news.
It’s things like that that make you choose …
A dog.

Other people need romance, dancing, playing around,
Other people need constant fun,
Well, I’m not one.
I have my feet on the ground.

A quiet night, a stack of books, a tuna melt on rye,
A simple walk together underneath a starry sky,
And suddenly, the night is something rare,
And all because there’s someone special there.
Who’s gazing at the views, his head upon your shoes.
It’s times like this I sure could use …
A dog.1

The song ended, but William remained immobile, enchanted. He had forgotten the power of her voice to touch his heart. And the message of the song! She was too brave to let life defeat her, yet the song’s wistful undertone exposed the tender heart she tried to hide from view. He could happily spend the rest of his life protecting her, cherishing her, and bringing her all the joy she deserved, if only she would allow him to do so.

Hold on. I’m getting miles ahead of myself. The song isn’t necessarily about me, or about anybody else, for that matter. She’s an actress and she’s playing a part. He’d gotten into trouble before by assuming that her feelings were the same as his. Here he was, in San Francisco for less than 24 hours, already repeating his mistake.

He considered speaking to her, but he was afraid he’d babble like an idiot and ruin everything. He would wait till tonight, when he could be calm and rational. With a sigh, he slipped away and continued his search for the exit.

 

Elizabeth rushed into the condo she shared with Jane, tossing her keys on a small table just inside the door. She was running late. Roger was to pick her up at 6:00 so that they could get a quick dinner before going on to Rosings, although the tales of Catherine’s legendary hospitality suggested that eating beforehand was unnecessary.

It had been Charlotte who suggested that Elizabeth ask Roger Stonefield to the party. Charlotte didn’t mind lending Elizabeth her “beau,” as she euphemistically called him, for the evening, and he had agreed to the plan.

“Sure, why not? I can’t wait to see the house. Architectural Digest ran a feature about Rosings a couple of years ago. It sounds like quite a place.”

Elizabeth was grateful that Roger would be there with her. She didn’t want William to think she couldn’t get a date. Besides, Roger, the drummer for Golden Gate Jazz, was good company. Above all, since he was involved in a casual affair with Charlotte, she could relax with him without worrying about romantic complications. There would be plenty of stress this evening without adding more.

As she walked past the breakfast bar, she noticed the message light blinking on the answering machine. She stabbed the “Play” button.

“Liz, it’s Roger,” croaked an almost unrecognizable voice. “I’m sorry to do this at the last minute, but I can’t go with you tonight. I’ve been sick all afternoon. Either it’s something I ate, or I’ve got the flu. Trust me, you don’t want to know the details. Charlotte is coming over to mop my fevered brow, so you don’t need to worry about me. I’m sorry, sweetie; I know you were counting on me.”

Elizabeth gnawed her lip as she contemplated this bad news. She didn’t blame Roger for standing her up, of course—the poor man sounded miserable—but the prospect of arriving at William’s party alone was unattractive.

By the time she emerged from the bathroom, freshly showered and wrapped in a thick terrycloth robe, she had regained her confidence. She went into the living room just in time to see Jane arrive home.

“Hi, Lizzy! I’m here, ready to help Cinderella prepare for the ball.”

“How was your day?”

“Good. But aren’t you running awfully late?” Jane asked, glancing at her watch. “I thought you’d be closer to ready than this. Isn’t Roger due here in a few minutes?”

“He had to cancel; he’s sick.”

“Oh, no! Is it serious?”

“I don’t think so, but apparently he feels awful. Char is going over to look after him.”

“Poor Roger. And I’m sorry for you, too. I know you didn’t want to go there alone.”

Elizabeth nodded and sighed. “Yeah. But it looks like I’m flying solo after all.”

“Well, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll meet someone at the party. Or who knows what might happen with William?”

A few minutes later, Elizabeth was perched in one of the dining table chairs. Jane hovered over her, a flat iron in her hand.

“What are you doing tonight?” Elizabeth asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll just have a quiet evening at home. Unless …”

“Unless what?”

“No, never mind. It was a silly idea.”

“I could use a good laugh, so tell me.”

“What if I went with you tonight? Or would it be even worse to show up with your sister than to go alone?”

Elizabeth thought for a moment. “Are you really willing to go? You’ll hardly have any time to get ready.”

“It won’t take me long. I’m sure I have something to wear. Maybe the black and white dress I wore to the Bar Association event last month.”

“If you really don’t mind, I’d love to have you go with me.”

“Of course I don’t mind. It’ll be worth it just to see Rosings. And I know it won’t be easy for you, seeing William after all this time.”

“You’re the best! I’d offer to help you with your hair, but you wouldn’t want me touching it.”

Jane shrugged. “I’ll just fluff it up a little, and I think it’ll be fine.”

“You’re right,” Elizabeth answered, sighing. “Ten minutes and a little fluffing, and you’ll look perfect. Whereas I need a week of preparation and a crack team of specialists from around the globe.”

Jane laughed. “We went on one little shopping trip, and I’m helping you with your hair. Which, by the way, is done. Go look in the mirror and see if you like it.”

Elizabeth jumped up and hurried into her bathroom. Jane had arranged it in an elegant twist, leaving some loose curls framing her face. “I love it!” she called out.

“Good.” Jane popped her head into the bathroom, holding a can of hair spray. “I need to spray it.”

Jane wielded the bottle of hair spray, reminding Elizabeth of their childhood, when for a brief time Jane had wanted to be a hairdresser. She had practiced endlessly on Elizabeth, with occasional comical results.

“Okay, that should be enough to hold it in place, but it won’t feel like helmet hair,” Jane said. “Do you need my help with anything else? ‘Cause if not, I’ll go get ready.”

“Go ahead, I’m fine.”

Elizabeth quickly put on her make-up and inspected herself in the bathroom mirror. At least I’m good with this stuff. Years of stage performing had helped her to develop skill in applying make-up, but her hair had always been a challenge.

She slipped off her robe, standing in her black underwear, and smoothed her favorite jasmine and vanilla-scented lotion onto her arms and shoulders.Then she returned to her bedroom and retrieved her new dress, purchased a few days ago especially for the occasion. It was simple and modest, a floor-length black gown with a velvet bodice liberally sprinkled with tiny beads. She slipped the dress over her head and, after struggling slightly to reach, managed to zip it up. Jane had lent her a pair of black earrings cut so they sparkled in the light. She felt like Cinderella dressing for the ball, not an entirely comforting thought, considering what had happened at midnight. But it worked out in the end, thanks to the glass slipper. She hoped her black sandals were up to the task.

The evening would probably grow cool, so Elizabeth searched for something to cover her bare arms. Her black lace shawl, a long-ago gift from her grandmother, would be perfect. She knelt on the floor in order to open her bottom dresser drawer, belatedly realizing that she was probably wrinkling her dress. Oh, well. It’ll get wrinkled in the car anyway.

As she drew the shawl out of the drawer, her eyes fell on an envelope lying beneath the shawl. No. Don’t do it. But it was too late. She opened the envelope and withdrew its contents: a dried stem with two faded orchid blossoms attached.

She should have left the stem in the garden after dropping it out the window. But the next morning, she had rescued it and hidden it in this drawer. She hadn’t permitted herself to look at it … until now.

“Lizzy, are you ready?” Jane called from her bedroom across the hall.

“I’ll be right out.”

Elizabeth slipped the orchid back into its envelope and returned it to the drawer. She stood up, smoothed her skirt, and took one last look in the mirror. Then she collected her shawl and, taking a deep breath, left the bedroom.

 

William stood flanked by Catherine and Anne de Bourgh in the majestic front hallway at Rosings as the party guests filed past. Massive chandeliers suspended from the vaulted ceiling flooded the room with light and set the guests’ jewels glittering. William guessed that Harry Winston and his competitors had millions of dollars in inventory on display tonight.

His head ached from the noise, and the heat in the room made it difficult to breathe. He hated receiving lines, making inane small talk with a parade of strangers, none of whose names he would remember for even five minutes. Worse yet, every guest seemed to know about his health problems. Besides the conventional expressions of concern or sympathy, he had been subjected to too many prying questions. He had rapped out vague answers, his much-practiced air of indifference beginning to wear thin. Why did we have to make any public statements about the situation at all? Why didn’t we just tell people that it was none of their damn business why I was taking some time off? Now everyone’s looking at me like I’m a weakling.

But he had a bigger concern at the moment. He scanned the line of guests waiting to pay their respects. Where is she? He exhaled loudly, earning him a curious glance from Anne.

“Are you okay?” she asked quietly. “If you’re tired and need to sit down …”

He only had time to shake his head before the next guest stepped in front of him, her hand outstretched. “Mr. Darcy, I’m Pamela Allenby. You may remember, we met at the American Cancer Society benefit in New York last winter. It’s a pleasure to see you again. I was so sorry to hear about your heart attack—”

“It wasn’t a heart attack,” he said, for what felt like the hundredth time.

“Oh? But I heard …” She recovered quickly. “It’s wonderful to see you looking so well. My husband is on the board of the conservatory, and …”

Mrs. Allenby kept talking, but William didn’t hear a word. When the next guest stepped in front of him, and the next, and the next, he went on shaking hands and exchanging greetings with mechanical precision.

When I see her, I need to stay calm. At lunch earlier that day, Catherine had spoken with her characteristic bluntness.

“About you and Elizabeth Bennet,” she had begun. “You assured me when we made our arrangement regarding her salary that you were not involved in any sort of liaison with her. I am assuming that this is still the case.”

“I told you the truth, Catherine.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Are you or are you not involved with this young woman?”

“I’m not.” That was true … at the moment, at least. “As I pointed out at the time, I wouldn’t have wanted to send her away from New York, had we been romantically involved. I couldn’t have known then that I’d end up here myself.”

“True. And I suppose if she were an ex-lover you were trying to discard, you wouldn’t have agreed to come here. Unless, of course, you anticipated no problems in keeping her at a distance.”

“She is not an ‘ex-lover,’ to use your term,” William answered in a haughty tone. “Though it would be none of your concern if she were.”

Catherine had stared at him, her face stern. “And you have no intention of becoming involved with her?”

“I don’t understand your fascination with my private life.” William glared at her. “As I said, it isn’t your concern.”

“You are a member of my faculty now, and that makes it my concern.”

“I beg your pardon? You oversee your faculty’s personal lives? Do you prohibit them from socializing with one another?”

“I don’t approve of it, though there’s little I can do to stop it. But your situation is different.”

“Why?”

“Because of Anne. As I told you when I made you this offer, Anne expects to see a great deal of you during your stay, and I am confident that you won’t disappoint her.”

As he recalled this conversation, he glanced involuntarily at Anne, who was greeting a guest in her whispery voice. She was about her mother’s height, making William feel like Gulliver standing between two Lilliputians. He had known Anne for years due to their mothers’ acquaintance, but he felt nothing for her beyond brotherly affection.

He sometimes suspected that Anne’s feelings for him went deeper than his for her, but it was hard to tell. She was as unassuming and passive as her mother was presumptuous and forceful. Even in appearance, she faded into the background with her limp blonde hair, her almost ghostly pallor, and her watery blue eyes. Her beige gown, no doubt custom-made for the occasion, was unremarkable and unflattering.

Catherine claimed that she and his mother had shared the hope that he and Anne would eventually marry. While he doubted Catherine’s claim, he knew that Rose would approve if he married Anne. Rose’s primary qualifications in a wife for him were good breeding and wealth, and Anne possessed both.

Not that it mattered. No one could force him to marry Anne. She would never make him happy, especially not when

His brain froze and his breath caught in his chest. There she stood, a short distance down the receiving line.

 

Elizabeth, aided by William’s height and his conspicuous position, had seen him on entering the room. Since then, as the line of guests had slowly advanced, she had struggled to distract herself so that she wouldn’t stare at him like a drooling fan.

Why did this party have to be black tie? No woman could resist that man in a tuxedo. He looked handsome as always, but she noted signs of recent ill health. He had lost weight and his face looked gaunt and pale. Above all, his usual magnetism was muted.

He glanced in her direction, and their eyes locked. She swallowed hard, steeling herself to withstand his intense gaze. But he looked away and spoke to a guest standing in front of him.

“Are you okay, Lizzy?” Jane asked quietly. “You seem nervous.”

“I’m not sure what to expect.”

“It’ll be fine. Try to relax.”

Elizabeth laughed silently. Jane might as well have told her to try to hold her breath for a week or two. The line crept forward, and at last Elizabeth found herself face to face with Catherine de Bourgh.

“Good evening, Dr. de Bourgh.” Elizabeth could feel William’s eyes on her.

“Ms. Bennet.” Catherine’s voice was glacial.

“I’d like you to meet my sister, Jane Bennet.”

Catherine nodded coolly at Jane.

“You have a lovely home, Dr. de Bourgh,” Jane said.

“Thank you. I presume that you both know William Darcy.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath and raised her eyes to William’s expressionless face.

“Elizabeth, it’s good to see you,” he said, his voice cool.

Her heart sank. Well, I guess I have my answer. “How are you?” she asked softly.

“Well enough, I suppose,” he answered, clasping her outstretched hand. As their hands touched, she thought she saw something flicker in his eyes, but then it was gone.

“You remember my sister Jane, I’m sure.” Elizabeth hadn’t intended to sound so stiff.

“Yes, of course. Hello, Jane.”

“I’m pleased to see you again, William,” Jane answered with a warm smile which, Elizabeth noticed, he didn’t return. Instead, he glanced around the room, frowning.

“I’m Anne de Bourgh, Ms. Bennet. I’ve seen you on campus a few times but we haven’t had a chance to meet.”

Elizabeth studied the tiny, pale woman standing close to William. She greeted Anne, introduced Jane, and then she and Jane walked away, accepting glasses of champagne from a passing waiter.

“He looks so thin, doesn’t he?” Elizabeth asked, looking back at William.

Jane nodded. “That’s not surprising, considering what we’ve heard about his illness.”

“I just hope—I mean, what if he …” Elizabeth bit her lip.

Jane squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “I’m sure he’s doing much better now. His doctors wouldn’t have let him come all this way otherwise.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Elizabeth was chagrined to find herself unable to look away from William. He, by contrast, seemed totally focused on the stream of party guests passing him. She saw him glance occasionally down the line at the people waiting to pay their respects, but he showed no compulsion to look in her direction. And why should he? It’s over. When I get home, I’m throwing that orchid stem in the trash, and I’m going to stop acting like a fool.

“Let’s go explore the house,” Elizabeth suggested. She couldn’t bear to stand around being ignored by William.

They entered a large room to one side of the reception hall. It was opulently decorated, crammed with furniture and bric-a-brac. Elizabeth found herself trying to shrink so she’d take up less space, afraid that she’d knock something over and be presented with a bill for the damage.

A buffet table stood in one corner, offering a wide selection of gourmet delicacies. Elizabeth was too nervous to eat, but Jane took a small plate and selected some hors d’oeuvres.

A string quartet in the opposite corner played Haydn. Bill Collins stood nearby, eyes closed, waving his arms in a small-scale imitation of a conductor. Elizabeth grabbed Jane’s arm. “Let’s find someplace else to hang out,” she whispered urgently.

But it was too late. Bill opened his eyes and his smile widened. “Elizabeth!” he called, much too loudly.

Elizabeth darted an apologetic glance at Jane and then arranged her face in a polite smile. “Hi, Bill,” she said, wincing as he nearly upset an ornate glass clock sitting on an end table in his haste to reach her side.

“You see? I said you’d be the belle of the ball. You look absolutely beautiful. And, Jane, you’re a vision as well.”

Jane and Elizabeth thanked him. “You look nice yourself,” Elizabeth added.

She was almost telling the truth. Bill’s tuxedo, though it couldn’t compare to the custom-tailored formal clothes worn by most of the guests, was conservative and fit well. His hair, arranged in its characteristic ponytail, was obviously freshly washed. And after William’s disinterested greeting, Bill’s ingratiating smile and the genuine appreciation in his eyes comforted her to a surprising degree.

“May I take you two lovely ladies on a tour of the house?”

“Are you sure you can spare the time?” Elizabeth asked. “I know you’re busy tonight handling things for Dr. de Bourgh, and I wouldn’t want to distract you from your responsibilities.”

“No, no, it’s absolutely fine. I need to make the rounds to check on the musicians anyway. Isn’t this the most magnificent house you’ve ever seen? Did you know that Catherine paid $15 million for it when she bought it ten years ago? It has five fireplaces, and the gilt-trimmed ceilings are priceless. Why, the ceiling in this drawing room alone took a month to paint. A month! Can you imagine? Oh, and what a shame it’s growing dark, or you could tour the grounds. There are two swimming pools, spas, even a waterfall. And the views! From this hilltop you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline … it’s breathtaking.”

Bill led them back into the entrance hall, all the while pointing out features of the house. Another buffet table was set up along a wall. Bill inclined his head towards Catherine, William, and Anne, still receiving guests, and said, “Isn’t Anne de Bourgh lovely?”

“She seems very nice,” Jane answered.

“What a shame that her health is so uncertain. Yet in spite of her troubles, she’s such a charming young woman. Did you know that she and William Darcy are expected to marry?”

Elizabeth let out a little gasp before she could stop herself. Jane shot an anxious look at her and answered Bill. “No, I don’t think we’d ever heard that.”

“Oh, yes. And what could be more fitting? A musical genius like William Darcy, married to the daughter of two musical legends such as Sir Lewis de Bourgh and, of course, Dr. de Bourgh. Both children of privileged families, with wealth and importance. They’re like royalty.”

“Are they engaged?” Jane asked.

“I don’t believe the engagement is official yet, but Dr. de Bourgh assures me that it’s nothing more than a formality. They’ve known each other since they were children; their mothers were dear friends in New York. That’s why William came here, to spend time with Anne in preparation for announcing their engagement.”

Elizabeth bit her lower lip hard, nearly drawing blood as she stared at Anne. She couldn’t imagine this lifeless creature coaxing a delighted smile or a shout of laughter from William. She also couldn’t imagine him looking at Anne with the heat of passion in his eyes. But she’s “at his social level.” I’m not, and I never will be.

Bill excused himself with a frustrated exclamation and hurried towards the members of the string quartet, who had just exited the drawing room, apparently taking an unauthorized break.

Jane turned to Elizabeth. “Lizzy, it’s not necessarily true.”

“But it explains so much. I was just a last fling before he settled down. No wonder he didn’t return my calls. And no wonder he acted like he barely knew me tonight, with his fiancée on one side of him and his future mother-in-law on the other.”

“Lizzy, Bill’s just telling you what Catherine de Bourgh told him. And of course she wants William for a son-in-law. It doesn’t mean that he’s interested in Anne. Don’t jump to conclusions.”

Elizabeth’s eyes settled on William. He was smiling with more animation than she had seen in him so far that evening, shaking hands enthusiastically with a male guest who looked vaguely familiar. The man turned in their direction, and Elizabeth gasped. “Oh, my God.”

“What is it?” Jane’s eyes followed Elizabeth’s, and she grasped her sister’s arm.

Charles Bingley was leaving the receiving line, and was heading in their direction, though he didn’t seem to have noticed them yet. Jane’s grip on Elizabeth’s arm tightened as they saw the elegant blonde by his side, her arm linked possessively with his.

“I should have realized he’d be invited,” Jane said, her voice trembling. “Bill got him involved with some fund raising for the conservatory last year.”

“I’m so sorry, Jane.”

“No, it’s all right. It’s over, so why shouldn’t he date other women? We should go over and greet him.”

Jane drew Elizabeth forward. Elizabeth saw Charles start when he noticed Jane, but his expression grew warm. Then he glanced at his date, and Elizabeth saw the corners of his eyes tighten.

“Hello, Charles,” Elizabeth said.

“Elizabeth. Jane. Good evening.” Elizabeth could hear the tension in his voice.

Jane greeted Charles quietly, and then they stood staring mutely at each other. The silence grew awkward until Charles finally remembered his manners.

“I’m sorry. Jane, Elizabeth, this is Elena Foxworth. Elena, I’d like you to meet Jane and Elizabeth Bennet.”

Elena raised one perfectly-shaped eyebrow. “Hello.”

Elizabeth noted the bored look in Elena’s eye and the disdainful curl of her lip. She was perfectly groomed, from her smooth blonde hair to the lacquered toes peeking out of her sandals, below the hem of her stylish black silk gown. Elizabeth’s new dress, purchased at a clearance sale, seemed cheap and tacky. And those diamonds she’s wearing probably cost more than I make in a year.

Another uncomfortable silence fell over the quartet. Elizabeth glanced involuntarily across the room at William, and saw him watching them with a frown. She remembered his discomfort upon seeing Jane, and understood. He must have known that Charles would be here tonight.

“Well, um, I suppose we should get some champagne. Perhaps we’ll see you later,” Charles said, his eyes on Jane.

“Enjoy your evening,” Elizabeth answered.

Elena nodded, still looking bored, and she and Charles walked away.

“Oh, Jane, I’m so sorry,” Elizabeth said. “How awful for you to see him with someone else.”

Jane was clearly fighting back tears. “That’s the woman his father always wanted him to date. He mentioned her name to me once.”

“Well, he looks miserable. I don’t think he has the slightest interest in that arrogant snob.”

“Don’t say that, Lizzy. I’m sure she’s very nice.”

“Give me a break. Didn’t you see the way he looked at you? He still—”

A voice behind the sisters interrupted their conversation. “Well, Jane, I didn’t know that I’d be seeing you tonight! What an unexpected pleasure! And Elizabeth. You’re here too.”

“And the hits just keep on coming,” Elizabeth murmured to Jane. She turned to Caroline Bingley and said coldly, “Hello, Caroline, I didn’t know you’d been invited.”

“Well, of course I was! Catherine wanted some of William’s closest friends here to help welcome him to San Francisco, and, besides, everyone of the highest social rank was invited. It never occurred to me that I’d see you here, but I suppose Catherine felt that she couldn’t exclude any of the faculty, not even the unimportant ones.”

Caroline’s breezy tone maddened Elizabeth, but she swallowed the insult to avoid embarrassing Jane.

“I saw you talking to Charles and Elena just now,” Caroline continued, her tone nauseatingly sweet. “Jane, you poor dear, are you all right?”

“It was a bit of a surprise, but I’m fine.”

“Yes,” Caroline said with a sigh, “Charles has been seeing quite a bit of Elena lately. Father wants him to settle down with her. When I first heard that he was coming up for the party, I hoped he might invite you to accompany him; I even suggested it. You know I’ve never stopped trying to reunite you two lovebirds. But Father wanted him to bring Elena. They’re staying the weekend; Charles booked a suite at the Fairmont.”

“I suppose Charles wanted to stay the weekend so he’d have more time to visit with William,” Elizabeth suggested, hoping to distract Jane from the image of Charles spending a romantic weekend in San Francisco with Elena.

“Well, no, I don’t think that was his plan. He knows that I’ll keep William fully occupied this weekend,” Caroline cooed. She glanced over at him. “The poor darling boy, having to stand all that time in the receiving line when I know he’d rather sit down somewhere with me and relax.”

“He does look tired,” Elizabeth remarked.

“It’s nothing compared to the way he looked earlier this summer, right after he got out of the hospital. I’ve been visiting him regularly, you know. His grandmother said that my visits seemed to cheer him up, and that I was always welcome, so I’ve been flying from coast to coast all summer. What a relief to have him here at last where we can see each other whenever we like.”

“Caroline, you never told me about all of this traveling,” Jane said mildly.

“I don’t tell you all my secrets, Jane, dear,” Caroline replied, her expression coy. “William wanted us to be discreet at first. Now that he’s decided to come here to be with me, of course that will change.”

The last of the guests had finally passed through the receiving line, and Caroline’s eyes lit up like a bloodhound on the trail of an interesting scent when she saw that William was finally free. She stripped off the matching bolero jacket she wore over her emerald green satin gown, and Elizabeth had to feign a coughing fit to cover her loud snort of laughter. Voluptuous cleavage swelled above the plunging neckline of the dress, in sharp contrast to Caroline’s formerly nonexistent curves.

“Excuse me, ladies. Enjoy your evening,” she said abruptly, her stiletto-heeled shoes clattering on the wood floor as she scurried in William’s direction.

She’d better slow down or she’s going to bounce her way right out of that dress. Elizabeth couldn’t hold back her laughter anymore.

“Lizzy,” Jane whispered, “did you see—”

“Yes, of course I did,” Elizabeth replied, laughing. “They were impossible to miss in that dress. I wonder when she had that done?”

“Well, let’s see. We had lunch about a month ago. It’s definitely been since then.”

William looked utterly disgusted when Caroline nearly tripped Anne de Bourgh in her haste to reach him. Caroline stood facing him, with her back arched in a peculiar manner which Elizabeth finally realized was designed to display her newly-acquired curves even more prominently. She watched William intently, curious to see his reaction. His gaze flicked downward, and then he executed a perfect double-take. He looked away, a bewildered expression on his face.

Elizabeth coughed to cover a laugh as she watched him disengage his arm from Caroline’s. If he came out to San Francisco for a rest, I wish him luck. For once, Elizabeth was grateful for Caroline’s presence; it was nice to be momentarily diverted from her own frustrations involving William.

 

Some time later, Jane and Elizabeth stood in the drawing room, each nibbling a pastry. Bill Collins bustled past with a jaunty wave. He had, blessedly, been too busy supervising the party to join them.

“People are going to think he’s the head waiter,” Elizabeth said.

Jane smiled. “But, Lizzy, he means well. He’s trying so hard to help Dr. de Bourgh.”

Elizabeth’s response died in her throat when she saw William approaching. The last time she had seen him, he was deep in conversation with Charles and Elena.

“Hello, Elizabeth, Jane.” It was the deep, gentle voice she knew so well.

“Hello, William,” Jane said. “It’s a lovely party.”

“Catherine pulled out all the stops,” he replied. “But she always does.”

Elizabeth forced herself to look into his eyes. His expression was warmer now than it had been in the receiving line. “I’m glad to see you,” she said quietly.

“Would either of you like a glass of champagne?” Jane asked. “I’m going to get some.”

Elizabeth and William refused, and Jane left them alone together.

“I’ve been concerned about you, I mean, about your health,” Elizabeth stammered. “When I stopped by the hospital, the nurse wouldn’t tell me much.”

His eyes flickered. “So you did come to the hospital.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth shrugged. And left you the note that you completely ignored.

“That was kind of you.” He seemed uncomfortable, as though he were choosing every word with care.

“I wish I’d been able to say hello, but you were asleep, and I had a plane to catch. Besides, you had other people there to take care of you.”

William looked at her. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but no words came out.

“How are you feeling?” Elizabeth asked.

“I get tired easily, and occasionally I get dizzy or breathless, but I’m doing better overall.”

“I’m so glad. Do they expect the remaining symptoms to go away?”

“There are no guarantees. That’s why I’m taking time off, to try to reverse the damage.”

“Damage? That sounds serious.”

William looked away and changed the subject. “Allen said that he saw you at the hospital.”

“Yes. He’s such a nice man. He offered me a ride to the airport, but I knew he was too busy.”

“How did you know I was in the hospital?”

“I promised I wouldn’t reveal my source.”

“Please?” A hint of a twinkle lightened William’s solemn expression. “I’ve been curious.”

If you really wanted to know, you could have called me and asked. “You have to promise not to get her into trouble.”

“Her?”

“Do you promise?”

He sighed and rolled his eyes, his lips curving up in a slight hint of a smile. “I promise. Who are you talking about?”

“Serena.”

“Who?’

“She works for you. I think she helps Mrs. Reynolds sometimes. I stopped by the house to return the orchid, and she answered the door. She said everybody was at the hospital, so of course I had to know why. I just kept badgering her until I wore her down.”

His half-smile died and his eyes widened. “Wait. Did you say you went to the house to return the orchid?”

“Yes, because I thought …” Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Look, William, I—I owe you an apology. I completely overreacted that night. I was rude and insulting, and you didn’t deserve it. I kind of flashed back to something that happened to me a long time ago. But I shouldn’t have behaved that way. It was—well, I’m sorry.”

“So am I. It was ungentlemanly of me to behave that way.”

“I suppose neither of us was at our best that night.”

“Agreed.”

“Anyway, with both of us working at the conservatory, it would make things easier if we could just put that night behind us, don’t you think?”

William didn’t respond at first, and it took all of Elizabeth’s self-control to remain silent and wait. Finally he nodded. “Yes, I suppose that’s best.”

“So I was thinking,” Elizabeth continued, “that maybe we could be friends?”

“Friends.” His tone was neutral, his expression unreadable.

“It would be easier than constantly trying to avoid each other, don’t you think? Besides, we used to have some good conversations. Like those nights on the phone when you were in Chicago?”

A hint of a smile touched his lips again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, we did.”

“So what do you think? Can we manage cordial chats in the hall? Maybe even a friendly lunch once in a while?”

William, who had been avoiding eye contact through most of this exchange, looked directly into her eyes and took a deep breath. “Elizabeth, I—”

“William! There you are. We’ve been looking for you everywhere. Please come with me at once.” It was Catherine de Bourgh, speaking in a strident voice.

Sudden lines creased William’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth; I need to go.”

“You will excuse us, Ms. Bennet,” Catherine said in a regal tone.

“Of course,” Elizabeth said, ignoring Catherine and giving William a smile of false cheer. “Duty calls.”

Friends. It wasn’t what she wanted. But it’s the most I can expect, especially after everything that’s happened.

 

Elizabeth found Jane in the main hall, conversing with an attractive man who bore a faint resemblance to Charles. It was satisfying to see the genuine Charles Bingley standing a short distance away with Elena and Caroline, ignoring them both while he stared at Jane and her companion. Hard as she tried, Elizabeth couldn’t work up any sympathy for him. He had to live with his choices. And so do I.

William and Catherine had vanished after their abrupt departure from the drawing room. Maybe she didn’t like seeing her future son-in-law talking to someone worthless like me. I wish I knew why she hates me. I should just ask her some day.

Bill Collins strutted into the hall, his chest puffed out like a male bird in full courting plumage, and raised his voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?” He repeated himself twice before the guests fell silent.

“Lady Catherine de Bourgh requests that you join her in the ballroom. Our guest of honor, Mr. William Darcy, has consented to play for us.”

He moved on, no doubt to make his announcement in other rooms. Amidst a buzz of conversation, the guests began moving in the direction Bill had indicated.

Jane turned to Elizabeth. “Ready to go to the ballroom?”

Elizabeth saw the strain on Jane’s face as she watched Charles and Elena join the crowd walking ahead of them. “Would you rather leave?”

“Of course not. I’ll stay as long as you want.”

Elizabeth studied her sister and shook her head. “I’m so sorry. I should have gotten you out of here ages ago.”

“No, Lizzy, I’m fine, really,” Jane protested. “I had a nice talk with Jordan.”

“Is that his name? He looks like Charles.”

“I suppose so,” Jane said, her brow furrowed. “I hadn’t really noticed. He asked for my phone number, and he seems nice enough so I gave it to him. Did you get a chance to straighten things out with William?”

Elizabeth hesitated. “More or less.”

“Did you ask him why he didn’t return your calls?”

“I didn’t need to ask. It’s perfectly obvious.”

“No, it’s not. You shouldn’t automatically believe what Bill said about William and Anne de Bourgh.”

“I don’t see why not. It makes perfect sense.”

The hall was nearly deserted. Jane took Elizabeth’s arm. “Come on, Lizzy, I know you want to hear William play. I’ve never known you to turn down an opportunity.”

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly. “Okay, let’s go.”

They arrived in the ballroom to find it nearly full. With the guests drifting from room to room, it hadn’t been obvious how many people were in attendance. Now, assembled in one placed, they made a large and impressive group, sleek and elegant in their formal wear.

The crowd, though, was eclipsed by the room itself. It was as though a gang of hyperactive children had been permitted to run amok with cans of gold paint. With the exception of the gleaming parquet floor, every surface was either gilded, covered with an ornate fresco, or both. Heavy brocade drapes in a rich shade of blue with bright gold trim hung from windows that soared to dizzying heights. Huge, sparkling chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, completing the effect. The room contained yet another buffet table and a fully-stocked bar.

Elizabeth and Jane found a place to stand near a bank of French doors that opened onto a terrace. Elizabeth was disappointed that they would be unable to see William’s hands moving across the keyboard; however, he would be facing them while seated at the piano, allowing them to see the emotions playing across his face. He stood beside Catherine, scanning the faces in the room, his expression anxious. It seemed impossible that playing for this gathering would make him nervous.

Catherine raised an imperious hand to silence the crowd.

“Good evening,” she said. “I am pleased that you’ve joined us this evening to honor William Darcy, Pacific Conservatory’s Artist in Residence. He has consented to play for us as a special gift to my daughter, Anne.”

The crowd applauded as William stepped to the piano, his eyes still surveying the crowd. When his gaze fell on Elizabeth, his eyes widened and he stared into her eyes for a moment. Then, perhaps recalling the waiting audience, he looked away and sat at the piano. He glanced at Elizabeth once more and, after a moment of hesitation, began to play.

Elizabeth made a small, choked sound when she heard the opening phrase of the piece he had chosen. It was the Intermezzo by Brahms2 that he had played for her the night of their dinner at the townhouse. Images and emotions from that evening flooded her mind: the warm intimacy as she sat beside him on the piano bench, the heartbreaking beauty of his music, his gentle concern for her tears, and the passion that had erupted between them. Yet now he played it for another woman.

She turned toward the French doors, searching blindly for an exit. She had to get out of the room, away from the music. At last she managed to fling a door open. She stumbled through the doorway and onto a large terrace overlooking the bay, with a startled Jane close behind her.

“Lizzy, what’s wrong? Are you sick?”

“No,” Elizabeth said, her voice thick with tears. “I just need to be alone for a while. Go back inside, Jane. Really, I’m okay.”

“I can’t leave you like this.”

“I need some quiet time alone. Please, just go back inside.”

Jane took Elizabeth’s hands in hers. “Are you sure?”

Elizabeth nodded, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Really, I’ll be fine. I’m going for a walk on the grounds. I’ll be back soon.”

Jane reluctantly released Elizabeth’s hands. After a long, searching look, she slipped back into the ballroom.

The terrace on which Elizabeth stood was too close to the house; she could still hear the music filtering through the doors. She followed a path heading into the darkness, walking as fast as her gown and her high heels would allow. Even through her tears, she saw that Bill had been correct in his assessment of the views from Catherine’s secluded hilltop. The San Francisco skyline twinkled in the distance as though lit by millions of fireflies.

She continued along the path until she was far from the house and all was quiet. At last she found herself beside a swimming pool on the hillside. A waterfall, lit for dramatic effect, splashed into the pool. She stepped onto the cement deck and stared into the water. As the minutes passed she began to relax, soothed by the gentle splashing sound of the waterfall. A search of her evening bag yielded a tissue, which she used to dry her eyes.

Now that she was calmer, Elizabeth began to regret her idiotic behavior. She hoped that only Jane had observed her frantic exit. Get a grip. Once upon a time he played that piece for you. Big deal. You can’t be falling apart every time he plays something, especially not if you have any hope of following through on the whole “being friends” bit.

Elizabeth wished that she had her shawl, but she had surrendered it to a servant on her arrival at the house. She rubbed her bare arms to warm herself, finally deciding that it was foolish to stand outside freezing. It was time to return to the house, find Jane and go home before anything else happened to unsettle either of them. And when we get home we can gorge ourselves on peanut butter ice cream, with hot fudge, of course.

She turned to go back inside, but stopped abruptly when she saw a tall man striding down the path. Her heart began to pound before she knew the reason; it was quicker than her brain to recognize his silhouette and the powerful grace of his movements. He stopped a short distance from her, and even though his face was hidden in the shadows, she could feel his intense gaze burning into her.

“Elizabeth,” he said, “we need to talk.”

------
1 “Times Like This” from the musical Lucky Stiff (Flaherty & Ahrens). Sung by Christiane Noll on Broadway Love Story (CD available on Amazon.com and on Christiane Noll’s website). Not available on iTunes; however, you can view a performance of this song on Youtube, from a special event on Sirius XM Radio (recorded by an audience member). Lynn Ahrens, the song’s lyricist, sings the introduction, after which Ms. Noll takes over.

2 Intermezzo in A, Opus 118, No. 2, by Johannes Brahms. Performed by Daniel Pollack on First Kiss, © 1996, Four Winds Entertainment. Listen to a sample on iTunes. My favorite version was recorded by Van Cliburn, but it’s not available on iTunes and Pollack’s interpretation is similar. (Repeated from Chapter 15).