“It sounds like he’s doing well.” William leaned back in his chair, propping his feet on the matching ottoman.

Charles, who sat on the edge of his chair, nodded. “I never thought they’d have him up and walking so soon.”

“And it’s encouraging that they moved him out of the CCU.”

“I still can’t believe he kicked us all out of the hospital. He was sure in a foul mood today.”

“So was Sonya,” William answered, grinning.

Bingley estate exterior Mr. Bingley, tired of “all the fussing going on,” had ejected his family from the hospital late in the afternoon. Charles had reached William, still in San Francisco, to advise him that they would be at home that evening. Sonya had made no secret of her annoyance, muttering, “I’m certainly glad Sunday is a day of rest,” as she rebooked William on an evening flight into John Wayne Airport in Orange County, near the Bingleys’ Newport Beach estate.

Bingley estate library After an hour of awkward conversation with Mrs. Bingley and Louisa—mercifully, Caroline was absent—he and Charles had settled into the walnut-paneled library. It was an unmistakably masculine retreat with its soft leather chairs, a well-stocked bar in the corner, and the acrid perfume of pipe tobacco hanging in the air. A fire popped and crackled in the fireplace, contributing ambience but little light or warmth.

Anchor Steam beer bottle “It sounds like I got here too late to be of any help with the crisis,” William said.

Charles nearly choked on a mouthful of Anchor Steam, his favorite San Francisco microbrew. “Are you kidding? Like I said on the phone, his health is just the beginning.”

“Then let’s hear the rest.” William swirled the cognac in his glass, inhaling its aroma with appreciation. Whatever Mr. Bingley’s other failings might be, he knew good cognac.

Charles set his beer bottle on the end table, knocking a silver ashtray onto the floor. He leaned over to retrieve it and dropped it on the table with a clatter. “We knew he hadn’t been feeling well lately. But he never told us it was angina, getting progressively worse. The doctor had told Father he needed bypass surgery, but he refused. As far as he’s concerned, he’s too busy to be sick.” He raised his eyebrows, directing a crooked grin at William. “Remind you of anyone?”

William decided it was pointless to protest that Elizabeth had cured him of disregarding his health. At the thought of her, a wave of pain threatened to engulf him, but he gripped his glass tightly and maintained a neutral expression while Charles continued his story.

“Anyway, after his heart attack Thursday night the doctors said the surgery couldn’t be delayed any longer. Father told me he’d been putting it off because if he died there was no one he trusted to take his place at the helm of the company.”

“I thought bypass surgery had a high success rate.”

“Even the smallest risk is unacceptable to Father when it comes to medical decisions—he subscribes to the ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ theory. But I guess Thursday night he came face to face with his mortality.”

William understood how frightening that could be from his own heart problems last spring and summer. “What happened?”

“He told me I’d had my ‘fun,’ as he called it, and it was time to move into the executive suite and start learning to run the company.” Charles paused to take another gulp from his beer bottle.

“I guess that was to be expected.”

Charles’s foot, resting on his opposite knee, began to waggle in a fast-paced dance. “My father is a smart man. Why can’t he accept that I’m not executive material?”

“You’re his son, and clearly that means something to him.” William sighed, staring at the amber liquid in his glass. This wasn’t a good time to draw parallels to his own family history.

“But Caroline is the one who’s qualified for the job. How long do you think it would take me to run the company into the ground? Five years, maybe? Unless I’d already blown my brains out by then.”

This was dark, bitter talk, especially from someone with Charles’s usually sunny disposition. “If you feel that strongly about it …” William stopped himself. He was already in serious trouble for advice he’d given Charles in the past. “What did you tell him?”

“The nurse came in and shooed me away, so I didn’t have a chance to say anything that night.”

“Has the subject come up again since then?”

Charles’s left hand, resting on his calf, joined his foot in tapping out a staccato rhythm. “Yeah, though I managed to avoid it till today. ICU patients are allowed only limited visitation, and I used that as an excuse to hang out in the lounge and let Mom and Caroline and Louisa be the ones to see him.”

“But now that he’s on an ordinary ward, the restrictions are gone.”

“You got it. Today he asked to see me alone before we left the hospital. He had a bunch of things for me to do—meetings I need to attend in his place, calls I’m supposed to make, stuff like that. And he told me which of my people I should promote into my current job. I’m supposed to take care of it first thing in the morning.”

“So the wheels are turning.”

“And I can’t seem to stop them. I don’t even know if I should.” Charles lifted a small glass paperweight from the table beside him and began to roll it in his hand. “I’ve been arguing with myself since Thursday night, and I thought I’d decided to accept my fate. After all, how can I say ‘no’ to a critically ill man? And is it really so much to ask, for him to know his legacy will be cared for?”

Before William could devise an appropriate response, Charles went on. “In spite of that, I almost told him to take his job and … well, you know. It was like somebody else had taken over my body. I was standing there sweating and shivering both at once.”

William stared at Charles. “You ‘almost’ told him? What did you say?”

“Nothing. I just left the room.” Charles took a long pull from his beer bottle. “Do you remember when he was so sick during my sophomore year at Juilliard? I missed spring break at Pemberley with you and Richard because Mom asked me to fly home. That was when Father told me I had to leave Juilliard, and that he’d enrolled me in the business school at USC starting in the fall. I can’t seem to stop thinking about that day.”

Charles hauled himself to his feet and strode across the room to the bar, retrieving another beer from the small refrigerator. He leaned against the bar, its surface polished to a high sheen. The harsh beam of the track lighting above the bar lit one side of his face, leaving the rest of it in shadows. “I’ll always remember that hospital room—the nondescript beige walls, the diamond pattern in the floor tiles, the antiseptic smell coming from the bathroom. When he told me I had to drop out of Juilliard, it was like someone had reached into my gut and yanked out a piece of me. I was … less, somehow, after that.”

“I understand. I know what it feels like to be told to give up music as a career.”

“But you didn’t let it happen. That’s the difference between us. You seem to find a way to achieve your goals no matter what. I’ve always admired that about you.”

“That’s not fair. When my father tried to stop my music education, Mamma and Gran protected me. You didn’t have anyone doing that for you.”

“How old were you then?” Charles asked, folding his arms over his chest.

William shrugged. “Eight or nine.”

“Yeah. You were just a kid; I’m a grown man. But that’s me. I just drift along. People like you and my father make things happen; people like me have things happen to them.”

“It’s not a crime to want to please your parents.”

“I’ve been telling myself that for years. But isn’t it maybe a crime to let yourself disappear in the process?” Charles’s voice, though quiet, held a note of desperation.

William had no answer for that. He sipped his cognac and then stared into the glass in silence.

A log split in two in the fireplace, and the flames leapt momentarily to life. Charles prodded the embers energetically with a poker. “This afternoon when Father started barking orders, all of a sudden I was twenty again and back in that other hospital room, inspecting those diamond-patterned floor tiles so I didn’t have to look him in the eye while he took my future away from me. Ever since, I’ve been wondering why I didn’t fight him harder back then.”

“Maybe you knew from experience that you’d lose.”

“Maybe, but I have to take some of the responsibility, don’t I?” Charles flung himself into his chair, hunching forward, chin supported by his fists. “I gave up my dream of being a professional musician because he said I had to. I studied what he told me to study. I took the jobs he told me to take, and then he micro-managed me until he might as well have been doing the jobs himself. And I let him do it because it ensured me a comfortable life, with time for surfing and training for 10K races during the day, and hanging out at jazz clubs at night.”

William couldn’t think of anything helpful to say.

“But then he sent me to San Francisco, and I was finally a real boy, not a puppet, or so I thought. I found out later that my assistant was sending Father in-depth reports on my activities.”

“He had someone spying on you?”

“When I asked him about it, he called it ‘information gathering.’ But that wasn’t enough, so he yanked my strings again … and again I let him do it. And this time I didn’t just lose the little shred of freedom I’d earned; I lost the love of my life.”

“Your father is a difficult man. Anyone would have trouble dealing with him.”

Charles leaned back in his chair, fidgeting with the paperweight again. “He’s been whittling away at me my whole life. There isn’t enough of me left to stand up to him.”

“I think there is, if you decide that’s what you want to do.”

“Besides, let’s be realistic. No matter what I decide, tomorrow morning I’m going to take one look at that sick old man in his hospital bed and agree to whatever he asks. And we haven’t even talked about the effect on Mom if Father told me to get lost. She’d be alone with him, with nobody to protect her.”

“Protect her?” William sat forward. This sounded worse than he had thought.

“When Father gets angry, he lashes out at whoever is closest to him, and usually that’s Mom. I don’t mean that he lashes out physically, but you’ve heard how cruel his words can be. At least when I’m here, I draw some of his fire so she isn’t the only target.”

William sighed. “You’re in a difficult position.”

“Tell me something I don’t already know.”

They fell silent. William settled back in his chair, his eyes drawn to the faint glow in the hearth. The accumulated effect of two sleepless nights was catching up with him, and he stifled a yawn behind his hand.

Charles must have noticed, because he smiled and said, “I’m sorry, Will. I didn’t mean to talk your ear off.”

“You didn’t. I just haven’t slept much lately.”

Charles raised his eyebrows, wearing a hint of a leer. “Sounds like you and Lizzy enjoyed yourselves.”

William’s heart contracted, his only answer a weak smile.

“Come on, let’s get some sleep,” Charles said, rising to his feet. “I was thinking we ought to get up early tomorrow and go to the beach—maybe go for a run, and I can catch a wave or two before we head for the hospital. There’s a storm in the Pacific that’s supposed to be generating some decent swells.”

“That sounds good.” William stood up. “You know, I’m getting my strength back. I bet I can beat you in a sprint.”

“I’ve got fifty bucks that says you can’t.”

“Done.”

Charles chuckled and clapped William on the back. “I’m glad you’re here, Will. And by the way, thank Lizzy for me. I know it was tough for her to let you go two days early. She’s quite a girl.”

William attempted a smile as they left the library. “Yes, she is.”

 

huntington beach surferWilliam hugged his arms around his knees and dug his toes deeper into the sand. The early-morning sun offered only anemic warmth, and a chilly breeze blew in from the ocean. He inhaled the damp salty air, tinged with the acrid odor of oil, though the offshore oil platforms, hulking gray ghosts floating behind the morning mist, might have suggested that detail.

Huntington Beach, immortalized by Jan & Dean as “Surf City” in their 1960s song, was sparsely occupied on this November morning. A few runners and walkers moved along the water’s edge, and a group of surfers—Charles among them—bobbed about in the ocean like oversized seabirds, awaiting a wave worthy of their skill. William zipped up his jacket and shoved his hands in his pockets as the offshore breeze began to rise. Despite his current discomfort, the chill had its advantages. Combined with an energetic run along the beach, the bracing temperatures had cleared the worst of the fog from his brain, leaving behind only a few remnants of a third largely sleepless night.

He had occasionally dozed, but his brief naps had been a mixed blessing, bringing with them two disturbing dreams. In the first, Elizabeth taunted him with his failings, her green eyes icy with contempt as she ordered him from her home … and her life. He awoke to find his mood dark, his eyes full of tears.

His other dream was in its own way just as disturbing. Instead of rejecting him, this time she had played the consummate seductress, seeking out every sensitive spot on his body and besieging him with merciless pleasure. He awoke from this dream drenched in sweat, his heart pounding out a frantic rhythm. Sleep had eluded him after that. He had welcomed Charles’s quiet knock on his door not long after dawn, renewing the suggestion of an early-morning trip to the beach.

William didn’t know how his life had become such a nightmare. Friday morning he had boarded a plane, anticipating the moment when he would slip the diamond ring in his pocket onto the finger of the most wonderful woman in the world. Only three days later he was alone and despondent, the ring stashed in the San Francisco penthouse, where it would remain until he could bear to dispose of it somehow.

He tried to convince himself that he was being too pessimistic, that there was still a chance he could win her forgiveness. But he couldn’t believe it, despite Jane’s tentative encouragement the previous afternoon. Elizabeth, for all her virtues, was stubborn and quick to judge others. Without his persuasive influence, her opinions would calcify and their temporary estrangement would become permanent.

Huntington Beach pier Charles was up on his feet, balancing on a wave, but halfway to shore it tossed him aside. William didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he exhaled in a loud rush when Charles’s head emerged from the foaming water and he reached for his surfboard. Then, as though he had hit “play” on a paused video, William resumed contemplating his troubles.

Last night, Charles said I was a person who makes things happen. But how do I do that with Lizzy? She would judge him harshly if he failed to keep his promise to stay away. Gifts wouldn’t work either; she would scoff at them as examples of his tendency to throw money at problems. Though what’s the point in having money if you can’t use it to make the lives of the people you love better?

Three small shorebirds toddled past in search of breakfast. William’s melancholy expression softened as they skittered away from the rising water, and then abruptly veered toward it, and away from him, when he startled them by stretching his legs.

The roar of the ocean seemed to grow louder, punctuated by distant shouts. William glanced up to see that Charles and two of his comrades had caught by far the largest wave of the morning. Looking every inch the quintessential California surfer, he skimmed across the curling wall of water, moving in tandem with the wave in a powerful yet graceful pas de deux. When the wave disintegrated into chaos near the shore, he dropped off his board and trotted out of the surf, his eyes flashing in triumph.

“Well done,” William said. He admired his friend’s ability to compartmentalize his life, finding enjoyment even in the midst of a crisis.

Charles’s grin grew wider. He set down his board and reached for his towel. “I wish we could stay for a few more hours, but we’ve still got to stop at home and get cleaned up, and I’d like to get to the hospital by eleven at the latest.”

William rose to his feet, grabbing his running shoes. “Then let’s go.”

“We have time for breakfast first, though. I thought we’d go to a diner up on the pier—more fun than eating at home. I just need to change out of my wetsuit first.”

Ruby’s exterior A few minutes later they stepped through the doors of Ruby’s, a red-roofed structure at the end of Huntington Beach Pier decorated in the style of an old-style diner. William couldn’t help smiling at the sound of the cheerful 1950’s tune—the one about the purple people eater—playing in the background.

Ruby’s interiorFinding himself unusually famished, he added scrambled eggs to his usual Spartan breakfast, and when the food arrived he ate with gusto. Charles ate heartily as well, sharing stories of his teenaged hijinks at the beach between bites of his huevos rancheros.

“It sounds like you practically lived at the beach while you were in high school,” William said.

“Pretty much. We hung out down here even when the waves weren’t any good. So did our girlfriends; a few of them surfed too, and the rest would sunbathe and gossip while we were out in the water. In fact, I lost my ‘virginity’ on the beach, not that far from the pier.”

“I assume there’s a commemorative plaque on the spot.” William’s sarcasm masked envy. His teen years had been spent chiefly in practice rooms and concert halls, while Charles had drifted through a golden stream of carefree days.

Charles laughed. “There should be, considering the price I paid. I was a junior and she was a senior, a friend of Caroline’s. I’d been drooling over her for months, so when she started coming on to me at a beach party one night I didn’t ask any questions. Afterwards I found out it was a ploy to make her boyfriend jealous. He wanted to play the field, so she decided to give him a helping of sauce for the gander.”

“Did it work?”

“Yes, unfortunately for me. He was an All-State fullback, and he beat me bloody after he heard about it. Come to think of it, that happened on the beach too.”

“I suppose you learned the error of your ways after that and turned to a life of celibacy.”

“Yeah, right.” Charles rolled his eyes. “From then on I just made sure the girl didn’t have a jealous boyfriend, especially not one who outweighed me by fifty pounds.”

William chuckled. “A wise choice.”

“How old were you, your first time?” Charles asked, spearing a mouthful of eggs.

“It happened on my sixteenth birthday.”

“Where?”

“In a suite at the Plaza.”

“It figures,” Charles retorted, his mouth twisting in a crooked grin. “You feasted on champagne and caviar. I got my ass whupped.”

“I can’t take the credit. The evening was my birthday present from Richard.”

Charles’s eyes shot open. “He got you a hooker for your sixteenth birthday?”

“No. He called two girls he’d met the summer before and invited them to join us for dinner. A private dinner in our two-bedroom suite, that is.”

Charles’s fork clattered onto his plate. “Nice birthday party.”

William couldn’t help but enjoy Charles’s astonishment. “Richard always treated me like a peer, not like his kid cousin. He protected me when I needed it, but he never patronized me.”

“And he decided it was time to expand your education. Did he tell her, ‘I give you the boy. Give me back the man’?”

“He may have,” William answered, chuckling. “No, seriously, Richard didn’t tell her anything except that I was his cousin and a college student, both of which were true.”

“Did anybody tell her that she was initiating a novice?”

“She saw how nervous I was and guessed. I was terrified. Among other things, I wasn’t sure if my heart was strong enough. I kept imagining Gran getting a call telling her that I’d expired in flagrante delicto.”

Charles’s whoop of laughter turned into a cough when he nearly inhaled his coffee. “Sorry,” he sputtered, gasping for air. “I don’t mean to make fun of—” His words dissolved into a coughing fit.

“Are you okay?”

Charles nodded, still coughing, his face a bright pink. When he was able to speak again, he grinned. “I guess that’s what I get for laughing at you.”

“Serves you right. It wasn’t the least bit amusing at the time. But I admit, in retrospect it’s funny.”

Charles wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I guess I’ve learned my lesson about swapping high school stories with you.” He glanced at his watch. “Hey, it’s getting late. We’d better be on our way. And you’re buying, right, with your ill-gotten fifty bucks from our bet?”

“Ill-gotten? Hardly.” William signaled for their check. “You’re just a sore loser.”

 

The long drive to the hospital was a quiet one, the light-hearted mood of their morning left behind at the beach. Charles seemed fully focused on the road in front of him, his fingers tapping incessantly against the steering wheel, his conversation limited to occasional remarks about area restaurants and jazz clubs they might visit that evening.

William used the time to wrestle with a perplexing dilemma. He intended to find out the truth about Jane and the pre-nup and, if necessary, confess his error. But he was determined to conceal the sorry state of his relationship with Elizabeth. His impromptu trip to Los Angeles was proving a blessed distraction, but should he open the emotional floodgates he doubted his ability to shut them again. Yet the two matters were tightly interwoven, as Charles’s inevitable questions would demonstrate.

Cedars Sinai Medical Center At last they arrived at the sprawling campus of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Charles handed the keys to a hovering parking attendant and glanced at William. “I wish I knew what I was going to say to Father.”

William had been on the verge of asking that question. “You seemed so carefree at the beach, I thought perhaps you’d made a decision.”

“Nope, not even close. It’s just that surfing helps me relax and forget my troubles.”

Running offered William similar benefits. He grunted softly, nodding, as they passed through the oversized revolving doors and into the massive lobby.

“It’s just me, the board, and the wave,” Charles said, pointing the way to the elevators. “No manipulation, no mind games, just a test of strength and skill. And if you get a good ride … in a weird way it’s like being one with nature, though I suppose that sounds like metaphysical nonsense. Anyway, it’s a cliché, but you really are sitting on top of the world.”

“Sounds like a powerful experience.”

“I know I always say this, but you really should let me teach you. It’s such a waste to have a house practically on top of Bathsheba and not surf.”

“I’d rather walk on the beach than on water.” Pemberley was located just a short drive from Bathsheba Beach, a well-known surfing spot on the east shore of Barbados.

“If Father hadn’t pushed me to do other things, I’d probably have ended up surfing competitively. I think he knew that. Maybe that’s why he let me go to Juilliard for a while. Better a musician in the family than a professional beach bum, though neither is as good as a boardroom barracuda.”

As they approached Mr. Bingley’s room, Caroline’s strident voice echoed in the hall. “I demand to see my father now. It’s urgent.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the doctor is with him,” a harried female voice answered. “If you’d just go to the waiting room, I’ll be happy to—”

“I’ll wait right here. Perhaps that will encourage the doctor to be quick.”

They rounded a corner and saw Caroline, hands on her hips, tossing her mane of copper-colored hair. She towered over the petite blonde nurse, her height advantage magnifying the impact of her imperious glare. Relief flooded the nurse’s face when she saw Charles approaching.

“Hey, there, Caro, what’s up?” Charles asked, kissing his sister’s cheek and offering the nurse a reassuring smile.

“They won’t let me see Daddy! And I have to see him right away. It’s important.”

“What’s the matter?”

Caroline’s eyes darted to the side and then back. “It’s … a business matter. I have to leave at once, and I have to speak to him before I go.” Her gaze landed on William, and her harsh expression softened. “William, you’re such a dear to come down and keep us company.” She stepped forward to kiss him but he drew back, eyeing her with glacial disdain. Her scowl returned as she stepped away from him.

“Where’s Mom?” Charles asked. “Down in the lounge?” Louisa, satisfied with her father’s progress, had left for home that morning, but they had expected to find Mrs. Bingley already at the hospital.

“I haven’t seen her.” Caroline rummaged through her purse and extracted her cell phone. After a quick glance at the display she jammed it back into her purse, her vermillion lips pressed together in an angry line. “Why doesn’t that idiot call me?” she hissed under her breath.

“Why don’t the three of us go to the lounge?” Charles stretched out his arm, inviting Caroline to precede him. “I’m sure the nurse will come and get us as soon as the doctor is finished.”

“I’m not leaving this spot,” Caroline insisted, hands on her hips again.

“Come on, Caro,” Charles said, wearing his brightest smile. “We’re in the way here. Besides, we’ll be more comfortable in the lounge.”

“More comfortable? On those horrid chairs, with one of those awful talk shows where people swear and fight with one another blaring on the television? Besides, these people do their jobs better if they know someone’s watching.”

“Suit yourself.” Charles shot an apologetic glance at the nurse and then turned to William. “I’m going to get some coffee. Want to come along?”

William was surprised not to hear the rapid-fire click of Caroline’s heels in hot pursuit as he and Charles headed down the hall, but when he glanced over his shoulder she was still standing guard outside Mr. Bingley’s door, staring at it as though willing it to open.

The coffee left a great deal to be desired, as did the chairs in the waiting room—Caroline had been right about that—but William and Charles made themselves as comfortable as possible. After a few minutes they heard the squeak of rubber-soled shoes in the hall and saw the nurse approaching. “Mr. Bingley, you can see your father now.”

Charles thanked her and rose to his feet. William stayed seated. “I should stay here and give you and your father some privacy.”

“No, that’s not necessary. Come along and say hello to him.”

The door to Mr. Bingley’s room was pulled partway shut. Charles glanced at the nurse, raising his eyebrows, and she nodded in reply. “Go on in, it’s fine. Your sister is with him.”

As the door swung open, William heard Mr. Bingley’s gruff voice. “In that case, what are you doing here wasting time? Go and deal with it.”

“I will, Daddy, but—” Caroline’s head swiveled toward the door and she fell silent.

“Hello, Father.” Charles stepped toward the bed, wearing a smile that looked a few shades too cheerful to be genuine. His greeting withered in the face of his father’s angry stare.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Mr. Bingley looked as though he might leap from the bed and grab Charles by the throat. “You’re supposed to be at the office handling the instructions I gave you yesterday. I didn’t expect to see you till this afternoon.”

“I know, but I wanted to—”

“And don’t try to pretend that you got an early start and you’re done with everything. I know how you spent your morning.” Mr. Bingley fumbled with the controls to his bed, raising himself to a more upright position as he continued his diatribe. “There’s work to be done, and where are you? On the beach, of course. This is exactly why I can’t trust you.”

Charles seemed to shrink two or three sizes. William pressed his lips together, shaking his head. If he were ever lucky enough to have a son, he vowed to remember the chilling power of a father’s disapproval.

“I should be going,” Caroline said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I’ll be back this afternoon.”

“And you’ll take care of what we discussed.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Of course, Daddy,” she said in a soothing voice, leaning over to give him a kiss on the cheek that he seemed to tolerate but not welcome. “You can count on me.” On her way out of the room she brushed against William, her quick but sultry glance making it clear that it was no accident.

Once she was out of sight, William stepped toward the door. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to wait in the lounge.” he said.

“No, Will, stay.”

Mr. Bingley shook his head. “Your friend understands, as you apparently do not, that we have things to discuss that don’t concern him.”

“I’ll be right down the hall,” William said firmly, despite the imploring look in Charles’s eyes. His presence would not soften Mr. Bingley’s verbal blows; it would merely add the humiliation of a witness. And if Charles chose to stand up to his father, any hint that his defiance required the moral support of a friend would damage his cause.

William sat in the lounge for several minutes, doing his best to concentrate on his book while a bored-looking teenager flipped channels on the television and slurped noisily from a soda cup. Finally Charles appeared, looking pale and agitated.

“I need to go downtown, to the office,” he said, his voice trembling as he rubbed a hand against his cheek.

“What happened?”

Charles shrugged. “The usual. Let’s get going. I need to be back here with some papers by the time he’s done with his lunch.”

“Couldn’t a courier deliver the papers?”

“They’re in his private files. Besides, he … he just wants me to do it.”

“Charles, wait,” William said. He’d held his tongue until now, but he couldn’t stand by and watch his friend dismembered before his eyes. “Are you sure—”

“I know what you’re going to say, Will. I’m fine, really … or at least I will be.” Charles’s grim expression suggested otherwise. “Let’s get going.” He led the way down the hall.

They arrived at the elevators just as Mrs. Bingley emerged from one. She greeted them in her whispery voice, inclining her head toward the pile of clothing clutched in her hands.

“I’m glad you’re here. I need your advice. Your father sent me back to the house for some things.” She led the way back to the lounge and, once there, deposited her bundle on a table, displaying a collection of bathrobes and slippers.

Charles frowned. “But, Mom, he already has a robe and slippers. I saw them in his room.”

“I know,” she answered, biting her lip. “I brought the wrong ones this morning, so I had to go back home and get these. He said he wanted his velour robe, but he has three and he didn’t say which one so I brought all of them. And the slippers—he didn’t want the moccasins I brought earlier, but I wasn’t sure if he wanted the plain leather pair or the ones lined in fleece. Which do you think he’d want?”

William didn’t understand the problem. “Why don’t you show him his options and let him choose?”

Out of the corner of his eye, William saw Charles shake his head. Mrs. Bingley re-folded each robe into a pristine package, every tiny wrinkle smoothed away. “He’d be upset if it seemed as though I hadn’t listened to his instructions,” she said, staring at the slippers in earnest contemplation. “I think I’ll take him the fleece-lined ones. He keeps saying it’s too cold in his room. I’ll leave the others here and take them home later. And I’ll give him the burgundy robe. I think he likes that one best.”

“I’m sure that will be fine,” Charles said gently. “I have some things to do at the office, Mom, but we’ll be back this afternoon.”

She kissed Charles on the cheek and then smiled at William. “Thank you so much for coming down,” she said softly, pressing his hand. “You have no idea how much it means to Charles.”

“I’m glad to be here,” he replied. She might have been an attractive woman once, with her delicate features, blonde hair, and cornflower blue eyes—Charles’s eyes. But her face bore the ravages of a lifetime of worry, habitual sadness dimming her glow to a mere flicker. She turned away from them, drifting down the hall without a sound, her body curling in on itself as though she strove to take up as little space as possible.

Charles tapped out a constant rhythm against his thigh while they awaited an elevator. At last the doors opened and they stepped aboard. Charles thrust out his arm to stop the doors from closing. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I have to—” He nearly leapt off the elevator, followed by a perplexed William, who had to move briskly to keep up.

Mr. Bingley’s loud voice echoed into the hall through his open doorway as they approached his room. “No, I didn’t want the fleece-lined slippers! They’re too warm for this time of year. My God, you’re as bad as your son. Neither one of you can follow a simple set of instructions. And I wanted the blue robe, the one with the oversized pockets. Do you really have to make three trips to the house to get it right?”

Mrs. Bingley’s trembling voice responded, the words too soft to be intelligible.

“Of course I told you which velour robe I wanted!” Mr. Bingley thundered. “Stop trying to make this my fault when we both know it’s yours, as usual. Now go back there and bring me the right clothes. And if you can’t do that, don’t bother coming back.”

Mrs. Bingley wandered into the hall, Mr. Bingley’s robe and slippers piled haphazardly in her arms. Charles hurried to her side. “Mom, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Her eyes were full of tears, but she forced her trembling mouth into a dignified smile. “He’s right; I probably just didn’t listen well enough.” She patted Charles’s hand where it lay on her forearm. “You go take care of your errands. Everything is fine.”

Charles stared at her, tension building in his jaw, and then pushed past her into his father’s room. William and Mrs. Bingley followed behind, pausing just inside the door.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Mr. Bingley snapped. “You’re supposed to be on your way to the office. Or did you forget where it was?”

“What gives you the right to speak to Mom that way?” Charles glared down at his father, practically breathing fire. William had never seen Charles this way before.

“I don’t see how it’s any business of yours how I speak to my wife,” Mr. Bingley answered, his voice icy calm.

“She’s also my mother, and that makes it my business.”

“Charles, it’s all right,” Mrs. Bingley said, stepping forward.

“No, Mom, it’s not.” Charles directed an agitated glance her way before turning back to his father, his eyes blazing. “I know you’re not feeling well, and you’re stuck in a hospital bed when there’s work to be done and that’s driving you crazy. But none of that gives you the right to tear Mom to shreds.”

Mr. Bingley arched an imperious eyebrow at his son. “I will not be lectured, particularly not by you.”

Charles continued, gesturing wildly with his hands. “So she forgot which color robe you wanted. Big deal. Maybe you forgot to tell her. You do that a lot, you know—give vague instructions and then you get angry when people can’t read your mind.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“And would it have killed you to wear the other robe, the first one Mom brought you, till tomorrow? Or are you such a self-absorbed bastard that you don’t care how many trips she has to make to satisfy your whims? She’s been worried sick about you, and she’s done everything she could think of to help you, and this is how you thank her?”

“I will not listen to any more of this.” Mr. Bingley’s quiet voice was tight with fury, every word sharp as broken glass. “I’ve had enough of your insolence. Leave here immediately, go to the office, and follow the instructions I gave you, before I decide to fire you.”

Charles opened his mouth as if to speak, but he closed it again, frowning. He shot a bewildered glance at William. “No.” he said softly.

“What?” Mr. Bingley struggled to sit up straight, grunting in pain as he moved.

“No,” Charles repeated, with more conviction this time. The surprise on his face might have been comical under other circumstances.

“What did you say?” Mr. Bingley eyed Charles warily.

“I said no.” Charles glanced at William again. “That was it—end of the line.” His voice was eerily calm, the fidgety aura that had vibrated around him entirely gone. He shook his head slowly. “I’ve had enough.”

“Enough of what?” Mr. Bingley’s growl might have yanked Charles back into line under normal circumstances, but this situation was anything but normal.

“Enough of doing what I’m told instead of what I think is best. Enough of pretending I give a damn about the business world. And enough of being your verbal punching bag. 32 years is more than enough, don’t you think?”

“Stop wasting my time and explain what you’re talking about.” Mr. Bingley yanked the covers up higher across his chest.

“For starters, I’m quitting my job, Father.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re doing no such thing.”

“Yes, I am. I’m sorry, but I can’t work for you anymore.”

Mr. Bingley snorted. “And who do you think is going to hire you? You’ve never worked for anyone else. Every penny you’ve ever earned has come from me.”

“Then it’s time for a change.”

“Or perhaps you expect to live off your mother and me while you spend every day at the beach with that surfer riffraff, and every night out till God knows what hour drinking beer and piddling around with your saxophone.”

“I’m not asking you for anything.”

“Good, because you won’t get a penny from me, not now, and not in my will either, if that’s what you’re thinking. And I’m not changing my mind in a week or two, when you’ve blown through whatever little you’ve managed to save and you’re tending bar in some seedy dive.”

“I don’t need your money, Father.”

Mr. Bingley eyed William coldly from across the room. “Is that why you’re here? Is Charles expecting you to support him in idleness? I hope you have better sense than that.”

“William has nothing to do with this. The only thing that matters is that I’m done taking orders from you.”

“And you pick a time like this, when I’m lying in a hospital bed healing from heart surgery, to make such a pronouncement.” His furious stare locked on Mrs. Bingley. “Congratulations, Ellen. You certainly raised a son to be proud of.”

“Don’t blame her.” Warring emotions raced across Charles’s face as his eyes moved from one parent to the other, words trembling on his lips. At last he spoke to his father. “I should have done this thirteen years ago, when you made me come home from Juilliard.”

“Not this worn-out tune again. You had no future as a musician. You’d be nowhere today if I hadn’t forced you to face reality.”

“Your decision had nothing to do with my future as a musician. Did you talk to any of my teachers? Ask them about my progress or my prospects? Of course not.”

“I didn’t need to. It was obvious you could never support yourself as a musician.”

“I think I could have. I don’t have William’s talent, and maybe the best I could have hoped for was to play in a good jazz band and to give lessons to supplement my income. But I would have gotten by, and I would have been happy.”

“Happy?” Mr. Bingley snorted. “You don’t know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing and try to live on it. That’s how I started out, and believe me, you’re too weak to handle it. I was doing what was best for you, just as I always do, since you can’t seem to take care of yourself.”

“How could you possibly know what’s best for me?” Charles’s voice was growing louder, his hands forming into fists at his sides. “You barely know me. You never talk to me; you talk at me. You want a clone, not a son.”

“No, I want a son, but one I can trust to continue my work, one who appreciates what I built with my own two hands, not one who wanders through life looking for the easy way out of every situation.”

Charles flinched and took a deep breath. “You may not have a son like that, but you have Caroline.”

“Women don’t have the ruthless streak required to run a large company.”

William coughed to conceal a snicker. Mr. Bingley apparently didn’t know his daughter very well.

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Charles said emphatically. “She’s tough, she loves the company, and she’d do anything to prove herself if you gave her a chance.”

Mr. Bingley shook his head. “She’s cunning, but she’s weak, like all women. If Darcy so much as crooked his little finger at her, she’d walk away from here without a backward glance.”

William considered protesting, but he didn’t want to end up in the middle of this confrontation. He retreated to a corner near the door and leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets. Mrs. Bingley stepped to his side, touching his arm in a superfluous gesture of comfort.

“Well, Father, I think you’re wrong, but it doesn’t change anything. I’ll stay for a month or so and help you during your convalescence, but then I’m leaving.”

“I don’t want any favors from you,” Mr. Bingley said, his eyes the color of winter storm clouds. “If you’re going, go now and good riddance. I’ll call my lawyer and tell him to cut you out of my will and tie up your trust funds in knots you’ve never even heard of. If being my son is so damned distasteful, that’s easy to fix. As of this moment, you are no longer my son.”

“I never said it was distasteful. I just—”

“I don’t want to hear it. I’ve given you everything you could ever want.”

“Everything except your approval!” Charles shouted. The vehemence of his declaration seemed to freeze the other occupants of the room in place. “And that was what I wanted most of all,” he added, not as loudly, a catch in his voice. He stepped toward Mrs. Bingley, who had begun to cry. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

The nurse poked her head into the room. “Is there a problem?” William caught her eye and shook his head, and she vanished. He pulled the door shut to stave off further interruptions.

Charles took a deep breath. “Remove me from your will if that’s your decision. I’m sorry I’m not the son you were hoping for. You’ll never know how much I wanted …” He paused, blinking hard, and gnawed his lip. Then he took an unsteady breath. “But don’t you think it’s time I made my own choices, and started to live my own life? Can’t we at least agree on that?”

He extended his hand. Father and son stared at each other, silent and immobile. Mrs. Bingley stood frozen in place as well, her hand pressed to her mouth. Mr. Bingley was the first to look away, staring fixedly at the ceiling, and Charles’s outstretched hand dropped to his side.

Mr. Bingley closed his eyes, looking perfectly calm except for his hands, which held the sheets in a white-knuckled grip. When he opened his eyes his expression was distant. “Do whatever you want with your life,” he said coldly. “Throw it away, for all I care. From this moment, you’re on your own.”

Charles swallowed. “I understand.”

“And now I need to rest. I’d like you all to leave.” He reached for the control hanging over the bed rail and lowered himself into a reclining position.

Charles still stood close to his father. “I’ll be back with the papers you need this afternoon.”

“No. You don’t work for me anymore.”

“But, Father—”

“You don’t work for me anymore.” Mr. Bingley’s voice sounded like the flat computer-generated voices William hated to hear on the telephone.

Charles stumbled back from the bed as though pushed, shooting a bewildered glance at William. “All right. We’ll let you get some rest. I’ll see you later.”

“No.” Mr. Bingley closed his eyes. “Don’t come back.”

William opened the door and stepped out into the hall with Charles close behind him. Mrs. Bingley remained behind, fussing with her husband’s blankets and speaking to him in a soft voice, though he seemed to be ignoring her. Charles and William remained silent until they reached the visitors’ lounge, which was empty.

“What just happened?” Charles asked, shoving his hands into his hair.

“I’m not entirely sure,” William said.

“All I know is, when we got on the elevator, I had a feeling he was going to take out his frustrations on Mom, like he often does, and I had to stop him. When I got there and heard him yelling at her …” Charles pressed the heels of both hands to his forehead. “Something snapped. But how did that turn into my declaration of independence?”

“Do you regret it?”

“I don’t know yet.” Charles collapsed into a chair, the color draining from his face. “This is surreal. Did I do the right thing?”

“I think so.”

“But six months ago you told me I should come down here and work for him.”

William grimaced and sank into a chair across from Charles. “Six months ago I said a lot of things. But even back then, what I said was not to walk away from your family unless you were certain it was the right choice.”

“I know.” Charles slumped forward in his chair. “And you were right. I’ve thought about it a lot. As much as I’ve hated being here, if I hadn’t done it I’d always have wondered if I made a mistake.” A sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob escaped his throat. “Of course, I’m sitting here wondering the same thing right now.”

“You seemed sure about it earlier, when you first told him you were leaving.”

“That was before reality set in. I mean, he’s right. I’ve never had a job he didn’t give me. How am I going to support myself? Where am I going to live?”

“You’ll find something. If you want, I’ll talk to my uncle. He’s on our board, plus he and my aunt have their own company, and I’m sure they could find something for you.”

“Thanks, but I think I need to get away from the corporate world.”

William sighed. “Sorry. I’m told I have a tendency to arrange people’s lives even when they haven’t asked for help.”

“Charles?” It was Mrs. Bingley, her face tear-stained. “Are you all right, dear?”

Charles embraced her, and William heard her little choked sob. He rose to his feet and crossed the room, his book tucked under his arm. “I’ll be in the main lobby,” he said softly, slipping into the hall.