Elizabeth had known her luck would run out eventually. There were only so many excuses she could offer, so many times she could claim to be dashing madly from one commitment to the next, before she’d end up trapped, especially when so many people seemed to be involved in the chase.

Charlotte was in some respects the easiest to handle, a voice on the telephone that could be sidestepped by the arrival of a mythical student or the need to grade phantom papers. By now Charlotte had no doubt extracted some basic information from Jane, but Elizabeth continued to parry her friend’s attempts to draw her out.

Jane was another matter. Elizabeth saw her sister’s eyes following her constantly, brimming with maternal concern. But, thank heaven, it rarely went beyond that. They had always respected each other’s boundaries, neither pushing to induce reluctant confidences nor revealing things the other preferred not to know.

Elizabeth knew that he had visited Jane before leaving for Australia, but that had been all she could bear to hear. Anything more might have cracked the fragile shell in which she had encased herself, and that was something she couldn’t permit.

She hadn’t allowed herself to cry since Saturday night, when the terrible beauty of his music had shattered her heart. Since then she had taken refuge in a continuous round of activity. Backstage work for the continuing performances of South Pacific, a fortunately-timed rehearsal of Golden Gate Jazz, even a whirlwind course of house cleaning—anything that kept her too busy to think.

Last night, Elizabeth had tagged along with their neighbor Chloe to a bar in the Marina with a reputation as the hottest singles gathering spot in town. She had danced up a storm at first, laboring to throw herself into the spirit of the evening. But then her breath had caught at the sight of a tall, broad-shouldered frame topped with a head of dark wavy hair, and it was as though she had been drenched in ice water. She had left for home soon after and had busied herself with organizing her closet until two in the morning.

Time spent at the conservatory was a trial in its own right, now that she knew she had come here unwanted, that her only value to Catherine de Bourgh was as a warm body obtained at no cost and minimal effort. But Elizabeth walked the halls with her head held high, investing everything she did with an extra helping of diligence. The Powers That Be might not appreciate her, but her students did, a fact she kept firmly in mind whenever her energy threatened to flag.

This morning, as was her habit on Wednesdays, she lingered after her morning class, using the classroom as a private rehearsal hall. She immersed herself in the imaginary world of the characters she portrayed, but midway through her fourth song her heart leapt in her chest at the sight of someone standing in the doorway, obscured by shadows. He had often lurked there, a cherished audience for whom she had sung with her heart in her eyes and in her voice.

Today the shadowy figure moved into the room and revealed his identity: Bill Collins, another person she had avoided with success … until now. Yes, her luck had indeed run out.

He trotted down the steps to the front of the room. “Elizabeth, my dear,” he began in an unctuous tone that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. “I’m glad I found you. There’s something I need to discuss with you.”

“Bill, I’m rehearsing right now. I could stop by your office later.” Later she would think of another excuse.

“It’s rather important, if you could spare a few minutes now.”

She hit the “stop” button on the CD player with an unnecessary degree of force. “What is it?” she asked, concealing her impatience under a thin veneer of courtesy. Maybe at least he’ll be quick. She almost laughed at the depths of her wishful thinking; conversations with Bill were never quick.

He slid one hand over the polished black lid of the piano beside them. “I overheard you talking to Jim the other night after rehearsal.”

“Oh.” She had been afraid of this. “I thought Jim might know of a school that needed a music teacher.”

His hand continued to caress the piano almost as though it were encased in flesh and not hardwood. Elizabeth found it creepy, yet fascinating. “I was surprised you didn’t choose to take me into your confidence as well,” he said, a hint of petulance in his voice. “I’m not without influence, and I’d be honored to help you in any way I can.”

She scrambled for a tactful excuse. “Thank you, but I was afraid I’d put you in an awkward position if I told you my plans before I was ready to make them official.”

“That was thoughtful of you. I must tell you that I think you’re making a mistake in resigning from the conservatory.”

“Because of my contract?”

“No, not really.” The hand stroking the piano paused in its ministrations. “Anyone would understand that you don’t want to continue under the burden of that man’s charity, now that you know the situation. But you’ve become a valued member of the faculty. Perhaps if you met with Dr. de Bourgh and asked her, with all due humility, to award you an ordinary contract—at a reduced salary, of course—she might consider it.”

“She’s never wanted me here, and now I know why. She’ll be glad to be rid of me.”

“I confess, I’ve sometimes wondered about her lack of enthusiasm for you, when you’re clearly a dedicated teacher. It would have been different had she known of your, ah, personal association with William Darcy. She must have suspected something after he made his gift. It would have been natural for her to assume that he expected… er, favors from you in return for his generosity.” He glanced down at his shoes, his face turning pink.

“William isn’t like that. He did it because he knew I wanted to be here with Jane, especially after the wedding was called off.” It was odd to be defending William’s actions, but she couldn’t bear for Bill to criticize him.

“Please allow me to apologize,” he answered immediately, touching her arm. “I meant no criticism of you, of course. You’re far too fine a person to enter into such a tawdry arrangement. My point was that we must consider appearances.” His hand returned to the piano, now just resting on the lid as though for moral support. “How unseemly, for Darcy to bring a woman onto the staff, apparently for the purpose of satisfying his intimate needs … particularly when he’s destined for Dr. de Bourgh’s own cherished daughter!”

There it was again: Bill’s unshakable belief that William would marry Anne. Elizabeth made a non-committal sound in her throat, ignoring his implication that William’s only possible interest in her was sexual. However unflattering the idea, she had believed it herself for a time and could hardly blame Bill for drawing the same conclusion.

He continued in a pedantic tone. “So, you see, Dr. de Bourgh’s resentment is natural, given the way things appear.”

“That’s why it’s best that I resign at the end of the semester.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said, stepping closer, “though I hate to admit it. If you need assistance of any sort, please promise that you’ll call on me.”

“That’s nice of you, Bill.”

He dropped his eyes to the floor and spoke with some hesitation. “And I’m sure you know that I’d go to great lengths to help you stay in San Francisco.”

“Because of Golden Gate Jazz.” She knew there was more, but hoped to deflect him.

“Partly, but I have a much more personal reason.”

The limpid expression in his eyes almost made her groan. She was in no condition to deal with a lovesick Bill Collins. “You know,” she said, gesturing toward the classroom door, “I have an appointment in a few minutes, and—”

He grasped her hand. “Elizabeth, I know you’re aware that I have deep feelings for you. Ever since I met you at your poor sister’s wedding rehearsal, I haven’t been able to put you out of my mind.”

She drew her hand from his. “This really isn’t a good time for this.”

“I know you told me over the summer that you wanted friendship, and friendship only, from me, and I’ve stayed within those boundaries. It hasn’t been easy. I was forced to stand by and watch that man use you, knowing he would break your heart yet powerless to stop him. I did what I could to alert you to his arrangement with Anne, but beyond that I could only stay close at hand, ready to comfort you when you finally realized the truth.”

“Bill, what I told you last summer is still true. I’m glad to have you as a friend. But only as a friend.”

“Friendship often breeds love, given some time. I know you’re grieving now, and in part I blame myself. Perhaps I should have done more to try to warn you.” He extracted a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “But you’ll move past it with the help of your friends, among whom I’m honored to count myself. And when you’re ready for more I’ll be here, my hand outstretched, waiting to claim you as my own.” He reached toward her.

“Please stop this, and let’s forget it ever happened.” She moved quickly toward the steps.

“I can’t forget, Elizabeth. I love you!”

“I’m sorry, Bill, but I don’t have romantic feelings for you, and that’s not going to change.” With her patience exhausted and her emotions in a precarious state, she spoke in a harsher tone than she had intended.

He looked pitiful standing there, his sloping shoulders hunched slightly, his arm hanging in the air and then dropping to his side. He opened his mouth to speak, his upper lip trembling slightly, and then closed it again.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a softer voice, sympathy for him blunting her frustration. “I knew you had… well, I’ve always thought of it as a crush on me. But I never did anything, at least, not intentionally, to suggest that I thought of you in that way.” She began to climb the steps.

“It’s because of him, isn’t it?” She was surprised by the vehemence of his tone. “You deserve so much more than he’ll ever give you, and I don’t mean material things. He belongs to someone else, however unfaithful he may have been to her. He exposed you to ridicule in your professional life, without even the decency to tell you what he’d done. But you love him anyway, don’t you?”

This remark, made by the foolish, angry man standing a few steps below her, shattered her protective shell. Tears she had suppressed for days sprang to her eyes, and she answered him in a broken voice, “Yes, I love him anyway. Excuse me.” With a little sob, she raced up the steps and out of the room.

 

Half an hour alone in her office was sufficient to regain her composure, at least sufficienty to survive the rest of the day. She pulled her compact from her purse and checked her reflection in the tiny circular mirror, applying blush and lipstick to combat her unusual pallor.

Gable & Colbert She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in almost a week, her nights spent watching Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, or other famous faces in soothing shades of gray. Often she drifted to sleep on the sofa, awakening a few hours before dawn and feeling her way gingerly through the darkness to her room. Then she would slide between cool sheets with an involuntary shiver and await the second portion of the evening’s entertainment, the memories.

Sometimes she watched him walk away with a slow, reluctant gait, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped. Other times she saw him on stage, drawing intoxicating music from the piano. But it was worst when she remembered their nights together. She could almost feel William holding her tenderly, his body surrounding hers with a blanket of warmth. And if she managed to sleep, her dreams made no sense, little more than a random jumble of her past and present tossed into a blender, with no solid ground on which to plant her feet.

But now was not the time to think about sleep, or dreams, or any of a thousand other things. She snapped her compact shut and returned it to her purse. Almost immediately there was a knock on her door announcing the arrival of the first of the students whose voice lessons made up her Wednesday afternoons. She called “Come in,” in a steady, almost cheerful voice.

 

Not long after her final student had departed, Elizabeth sat in her office reviewing teaching notes for the next day’s classes. The hallways of the school were still at this hour, with only faint echoes of laughter from a nearby corridor, and occasionally a muffled note or two escaping the soundproofed practice rooms nearby. A peek out her window confirmed that the fog was rolling back in, obscuring even the half-hearted traces of sunlight visible earlier in the day.

Late afternoon was usually her most productive time, a buffer between the busy day and her plans for the evening, but today she found herself restless and inattentive. She was about to leave for home when the phone rang. It was Jim Pennington, bass player and unofficial leader of Golden Gate Jazz.

“I may have a line on a job for you,” he said.

“Already? You work fast!”

“I bumped into the director of the Newberry School at lunch today, and she told me they need a music teacher starting right after the holidays.”

“You’re kidding.” Newberry was a private school focused on performing arts.

“It’s only for a couple of months. They have a teacher going on maternity leave. But I still thought you might be interested.”

“Oh, absolutely! You know, I begged my parents to send me there after I got bitten by the musical theater bug.”

“I take it your folks said no?”

“We didn’t have the money for an expensive private school. Besides, Mom insisted that I’d get over being stage-struck, that it was just a phase.”

“Then this seems to have ‘fate’ written all over it.

Jim dictated the phone number and Elizabeth scribbled it on her desk blotter. “I owe you, Jim. Dinner for you and Jan, anyplace in the city you want.”

“Anyplace you can afford on a schoolteacher’s salary, you mean. In other words, Jan and I can share a walk-away cocktail at Fisherman’s Wharf.”

“Oh, I think I can afford one for each of you.” They laughed together. “We must really love what we do. Either that, or we’re insane.”

“Some of both, I think. Have a good evening, Lizzy, and let me know how the interview goes.”

 

The interview went well. Elizabeth slipped away from the conservatory between her Thursday classes to meet Marian Charleston, director of the Newberry School. Marian was impressed with Elizabeth’s qualifications and didn’t seem bothered by her desire to leave her job after only one semester. “I’ve met Catherine de Bourgh,” had been her only comment, uttered in a dry tone that spoke volumes.

Except for its brief duration, the job sounded perfect. Starting after the Christmas holidays Elizabeth would be asked to offer private vocal instruction, teach general music classes, and assist with staging the spring musical until the permanent teacher returned from maternity leave at the end of February. “But there could be other, permanent opportunities in the future,” Marian had assured her. “Jim spoke highly of your abilities, and you seem like you’d fit in very well here.”

It was a powerful balm to Elizabeth’s wounded ego to feel wanted and appreciated. She was to spend all day Friday at Newberry, meeting with teachers and parents and observing classes, after which she would be offered the job—or not.

Before driving back to the conservatory, she checked her voicemail, finding a message from her aunt. Elizabeth returned the call, smiling when she heard Madeline Gardner’s brisk, cheerful voice.

“Lizzy, thanks for calling. Look, I don’t mean to be abrupt, but my book group will be here in a few minutes so I’ll get right to the point. Your uncle and I have a proposition for you.”

Elizabeth considered joking about being propositioned by relatives, but thought better of it and waited for her aunt to continue.

“I think you know that I finally managed to twist Jessie’s arm into coming with us over Thanksgiving.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth replied. “Jane mentioned something about that.”

“You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to get one of your kids to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Barbados.”

“They know what a relentless tourist you are. With Uncle Edward tied up all day in his conference sessions, they’d be completely at your mercy.”

“Which is probably why Jessie was so relieved to find a way to wiggle out of it. Her best friend just announced that she’s getting married the Saturday after Thanksgiving—talk about short notice—and she wants Jessie to be her maid of honor. So your uncle and I find ourselves with a spare bedroom in our suite for Thanksgiving week. I know last month you said you had other plans, but I thought I’d see if your schedule might have freed up.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed and she pressed her lips together. Aunt Madeline’s tone had been casual … too casual. “Did Jane call you?”

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “Don’t be upset with her. She’s worried about you, and from what she told me I don’t blame her.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine.”

“I’m not so sure about that, but we’ll discuss that when seven people aren’t about to descend on my house. So what do you say? Will you come with us?”

“Were you telling the truth about Jessie, or was that just an excuse to ask me again?”

“I was telling the truth. And remember, you were the first person I asked along on this trip. Your uncle and I would love to have you with us.”

“Well, I’m not going to New York for Thanksgiving anymore, and I’d love to get away. But …” Elizabeth swallowed and licked her lips. “He has a house there.” She knew there was no need to explain who “he” was.

“In Barbados? Really?”

“Somewhere on the east coast.”

“Will he be there for Thanksgiving?”

“No, he’ll be in New York with his family.” A raindrop plopped against the outside of her window, sliding down the glass like a solitary tear.

“Then I don’t see what difference it makes,” Aunt Madeline said firmly. “In fact, if you’re interested, we’ll find out where his house is and see if we can have a look around the grounds.”

“No, I don’t want to go there,” Elizabeth said, gripping the phone tightly. The last thing she needed was a reminder of the wistful smile that had shone on his face whenever he told her childhood stories of Pemberley.

Aunt Madeline made a sound that was the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “Then we won’t go. There are plenty of other things for us to do.”

relaxing in the ocean “Well…” Elizabeth saw herself lying on a chaise lounge, a piña colada in one hand and a mystery novel in the other. It was an irresistible image. And perhaps the memories wouldn’t pursue her there.

“It would do you good to have some time away to relax. And, you know, it’s a great excuse to buy a sexy new bikini.”

Elizabeth giggled. “Well, that clinches it. Yes, I’d love to go. Thanks, Aunt Maddie. I’m sorry if I didn’t seem appreciative before.”

“That’s okay. Compared to Jessie, you were like Silly Putty. Get your plane ticket right away; we leave a week from tomorrow.”

“Wow. I didn’t realize Thanksgiving was so soon.”

lounge chair “Two weeks from today.”

They discussed flight times quickly in deference to the imminent arrival of the book group and then said goodbye. A tiny smile played around the corners of Elizabeth’s mouth as she thought again of the lounge chair, just a few steps across the sugar-white sand from the warm, turquoise ocean. Aunt Madeline was right. The trip would do her good.

 

“So you’re starting at Newberry right after the holidays?”

Newberry School Elizabeth nodded, her eyes sparkling. “It’s an amazing place.”

“That happened fast.”

“I know, but my intuition tells me this is right.”

It was late Friday afternoon, and Elizabeth had accepted Marian Charleston’s enthusiastic job offer an hour earlier. She sat on an oatmeal-colored sofa in her counselor’s office, her fingers absently trailing along the armrest, traversing the tiny hills and valleys of the nubby fabric. Her eyes were continually drawn to a vase of dahlias on the coffee table, their heads proudly upright, pastel-colored advertisements for the power of high self-esteem.

“All right, then,” the counselor answered, leaning back in her chair. She picked up Elizabeth’s file and glanced at it. “I was disappointed that you canceled our appointment on Tuesday.”

“I’m sorry. Something came up at the last minute.” Elizabeth glanced down at her fingernails. They were short and ragged. She didn’t remember biting them; she hadn’t done that since childhood.

Elizabeth looked up from her studious inspection of her fingernails to find Dr. Diane Walker’s large gray eyes fixed on her from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Elizabeth was accustomed to this. The doctor would ask a probing question and then wait, hands folded serenely in her lap, for Elizabeth to incriminate herself—or at least, that was how Elizabeth thought of it. The technique was rendered even more annoying by its high success rate. There was something magnetic about those wise, penetrating eyes.

“Oh, all right,” she grumbled, staring at her nails again. “I canceled Tuesday because I didn’t want to talk about anything.”

“Do you want to talk now?”

“No, but Jane made me come anyway.” Jane rarely issued ultimatums, but she had made an exception last night when Elizabeth had mentioned her plan to cancel today’s session. Jane had given the order with a perfect mixture of authority and gentle affection. She was going to make a wonderful mother some day.

“Why do you think she made you come?” Diane asked as she set the file folder on the table beside her.

“She’s worried about me.”

“Why?”

Elizabeth shrugged. “I broke up with my boyfriend. But I’m fine.”

“You broke up with William?”

Elizabeth nodded. “A week ago.”

“And that’s why you didn’t want to talk?”

“I thought you’d make too much of it, try to connect it to … other things.”

“What other things?”

Elizabeth sighed. “I knew you’d say it was somehow related to Michael.”

“Is it?”

“Of course not. Just because Michael did something, it doesn’t mean William would.” Elizabeth said the words with a singsong lilt. “I know those words so well I ought to set them to music.”

Diane smiled. “Any time you’d like to sing during our sessions, feel free. I already told you I’d love to hear you. But there’s a difference between knowing the words and knowing them, deep down. Which type of knowing are you talking about?”

Elizabeth mirrored Diane’s silent technique, folding her hands demurely in her lap. Green eyes challenged gray ones to a duel of wills. Her lips twitching, Diane awarded Elizabeth a small victory by speaking again. “Why did you expect me to think the breakup was related to Michael?”

“Because you think everything is related to him.”

“I don’t believe that’s true, but we have been finding that your experience with Michael colored your view of many aspects of your life.”

“But I’m better now.”

“You are better, and you should be proud of the progress you’ve made. But, Elizabeth, we’ve been meeting for less than a month, and you’ve been carrying that burden around for years. Be patient with yourself.”

Sudden tears stung Elizabeth’s eyes and she bit her lip, staring at her fingernails again.

“For now, let’s not worry about whether or not it’s connected to Michael,” Diane said. “Would you like to tell me what happened with William?”

Elizabeth forced back her tears and swallowed. “Not if I can help it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I hate to cry, and if I tell you, I’m going to.”

“You might cry, but is that really so terrible? We’ve talked about the problem with bottling up your pain. It doesn’t get better; it just takes root inside you and grows.”

With a shaky sigh, Elizabeth nodded. “Is there an extra charge if I use up all your Kleenex?”

Diane’s mouth was too wide for her face, one of several small imperfections that denied her any pretense of conventional beauty. But her infectious smile transformed her appearance. “Knock yourself out. They’re on the house.” She slid a box of tissues across the coffee table, skirting around the relentlessly confident dahlias.

It took a while, but Elizabeth told the story of her weekend, starting with the unpleasant scene with Caroline on Thursday evening and continuing through William’s passionate goodbye kiss on Saturday night. Diane listened, asking for occasional clarifications but not commenting further. By the time Elizabeth finished, a small blizzard of Kleenex surrounded her, but it hadn’t been as harrowing as she had anticipated.

Diane glanced at her watch. “Oh, my goodness, our time is up. I didn’t realize it had gotten so late. Let me check if my next appointment is here yet.”

“That’s okay. I’m pretty much talked out for today,” Elizabeth said, digging into her purse for a mirror.

“How do you feel?”

“Okay, I suppose. Relieved, in a way.” She glanced at herself in her compact mirror and grimaced, dabbing at her eyes with a Kleenex.

“Good. We’ll try to synthesize what happened at our next session. Speaking of which, I have some homework for you. I’d like you to think about the issue you raised a while ago.”

“What issue?”

“How these problems with William might be connected to Michael.”

Elizabeth scowled, crumpling the damp Kleenex in her hand. “So you’re saying it’s my fault? William is blameless, and I’m just blowing things out of proportion because I’m a few high kicks short of a chorus line?”

“I didn’t say that. Good joke about the chorus line, though. I asked you to think about it, nothing more. Maybe we’ll find that there’s no connection to Michael at all.”

“I can save us both some time. There isn’t.”

“Give it some thought anyway. After all, you’re the one who brought it up.”

“I’ve got to stop doing that,” Elizabeth grumbled.

Diane rose to her feet. “Do you have plans for the weekend? Something fun, I hope?”

“Nothing special.” Elizabeth stood up. “It’s the final weekend of South Pacific. I’ll probably stop by the cast party tomorrow night, but it’s more for the students than for the teachers.”

Diane walked Elizabeth through the waiting room. A massive peace lily languished in the corner by the window, its leaves limp and downcast. It needed water, or perhaps a visit from the dahlias. “Well, then, here’s another homework assignment,” Diane said. “Have some fun this weekend. And I mean it. I’ll expect a full report next week.”

 

Elizabeth was a few steps from Sushi Rika1 restaurant when she slipped and nearly fell on the slick sidewalk. She paused to regain her equilibrium, huddling under her umbrella against the drizzle that had fallen for most of the day. A sea of cars jammed the road, their brake lights reflected in the wet pavement. Every car in San Francisco seemed to be in motion this evening.

The restaurant doors opened and a young couple emerged. Elizabeth grabbed the half-open door and, careful of her footing, stepped gingerly inside. She brushed raindrops from her gray wool blazer and patted her hair, grimacing. As always in damp weather, her curls had morphed into an unmanageable frizz.

She located Jane and Charlotte and hurried toward their table, brushing her flyaway hair out of her eyes. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a mess.”

“Tell me about it,” Charlotte said, rolling her eyes. “I wouldn’t brave Friday rush hour traffic for anybody but the two of you.” She drained her glass and signaled their waitress. “Another Sapporo, and…?” She glanced at Jane, who shook her head, and then at Elizabeth, who nodded. “Make that two.” bottle of Sapporo

Once the waitress was gone, Jane raised her eyebrows at Elizabeth, who understood the silent question at once. “It went fine,” Elizabeth said. She had repaired her appearance as best she could, but she knew her eyes were still red. Perhaps it wouldn’t be obvious. The lighting was relatively dim in their corner.

“Was that top-secret Sister Code, or can anybody play?” Charlotte asked.

“I saw my counselor today, right before I came here,” Elizabeth explained. She leaned an elbow on the table, which responded by wobbling.

“So that’s why you’ve been crying. Nothing like therapy to bring on the waterworks. I assume you told her about William?”

Elizabeth had known she’d be prodded into discussing William over dinner, but had hoped that at least the raindrops in her hair would have time to dry before the grilling began.

“Maybe Lizzy would rather not discuss it,” Jane interjected.

“Sorry, Liz,” Charlotte said. “It’s just that you haven’t been yourself, and we’re worried about you.”

Elizabeth hid behind her menu as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. She forced them back relentlessly—she’d cried more than enough for one day—and took a deep breath. “I know. But right now I think we should order. What looks good?”

Sushi Rika menu They turned their collective attention to the menu, which offered brightly-colored illustrations of the specialty rolls prepared by the sushi chefs. Selecting items to share was, as always, a laborious task. Jane’s tastes were conservative, while in Charlotte’s opinion, the more exotic the dish, the better. Elizabeth, whose preferences fell somewhere in between, sat back and watched the negotiations.

Their order placed at last, Elizabeth grabbed control of the conversation before it could loop back in her direction. “Char, I want to hear all about your weekend in Phoenix. Did you even make it to the ballpark, or did you just lock yourselves in your suite all weekend?”

“I wouldn’t have minded that, but Richard’s too big a baseball fan to give up the World Series, even for indoor sports.”

“He must have been upset that the Yankees lost,” Jane said. “Especially that one game. What was the score, 15-2?”

“Plus I kept rooting like mad for the Diamondbacks just to yank his chain. He needed lots of cheering up afterwards. And I know the kind of cheering up he likes.”

“Did you two make any plans to get together again, maybe over the holidays?” Elizabeth asked.

Charlotte shrugged. “It’s not that kind of thing. I mean, he’s a terrific guy, but neither of us wants a Relationship, with a capital ‘R’.”

“It just seems like you two have so much in common,” Jane said.

“Yeah, not the least of which is a severe allergy to commitment. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m ever in his corner of the world I’ll call him, and he’ll probably do the same.”

They were interrupted by raucous laughter from a nearby table occupied by a large group of college students. From the balloons tied to chairs and the tiara gracing the head of a girl at one end of the table, it was obviously a birthday party.

Charlotte leaned one arm on the table, and it wobbled again. “Is Charles still coming up for the weekend?” she asked, sitting back and glaring in the general direction of the table leg.

“He’s due in late tonight,” Jane answered, smiling, “and I’m meeting him at Marina Green first thing in the morning.”

“So what’s his excuse?”

Elizabeth stared at Charlotte, wrinkling her nose. “His excuse for what?”

“For coming to town. I mean, obviously his reason is to see Jane. But what’s his cover story? The jazz group, as usual?”

“No,” Elizabeth answered, “we’re not playing this weekend. Jim’s going out of town.”

Two pairs of eyes turned to Jane, who tilted her head to the side and shrugged, still smiling. “He just said he needed to talk to me.”

“That sounds promising,” Charlotte said. “You think he’s hoping for a reconciliation?”

Elizabeth nodded, raising her eyebrows. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Jane shook her head. “He didn’t say anything to suggest that. Maybe he wants legal advice about Caroline and how it might affect the rest of the family.”

“Legal advice?” Charlotte asked, her eyes gleaming. “What has Cruella done now?”

Elizabeth glanced at Charlotte, making no attempt to suppress her smirk. “She’s under investigation for insider trading.”

“Fabulous!” Charlotte clinked glasses with Elizabeth. “Do they ever give the death penalty for that?”

“Not so far,” Elizabeth said, “but maybe we can convince Jane to lobby the court in favor of it.”

Jane shook her head, her expression mildly disapproving. “Now, come on, you two. If you can’t manage any sympathy for Caroline—”

“We can’t.” Charlotte clinked glasses with Elizabeth again.

“Then at least think about Charles and the rest of the family. This can’t be easy for them.”

“True,” Elizabeth said. “I feel sorry for them, just not for her. Has Charles told you anything more?”

“Not really, just that Caroline is beside herself. I’m so glad William was there for part of the week. I know Charles appreciated the moral support.”

Elizabeth’s stomach clenched and her eyes flew to Jane. “He was there?”

Jane winced. “He spent two days with Charles before going on to Sydney.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“You didn’t want to talk about him, so I didn’t think I should mention it.”

“Well, I’m glad he went,” Elizabeth said softly. “Some time with Charles was probably just what he needed.” The news summoned up a much more cheerful image than the one she had been carrying of him, lonely and rudderless in a foreign city.

“And it meant a great deal to Charles,” Jane added. “William is a good friend to him.”

Elizabeth blew a gust of air through her nostrils but didn’t comment. Jane still didn’t know about William’s interference in her love life.

“May we open the subject, finally?” Charlotte asked, her frank gaze on Elizabeth. “And don’t pretend you don’t know what subject I mean.”

The birthday party group launched into a tuneless rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Elizabeth was glad for the temporary reprieve, but when the din subsided she found herself the object of Charlotte’s scrutiny again.

“As long as we don’t spend the rest of the evening dissecting every detail.” Elizabeth sat back in her chair, clutching her beer glass. “What do you want to know?”

“I already know the basics, Liz. I’m just tired of pretending that nothing’s wrong. ”

Elizabeth eyed Jane, making no effort to conceal her annoyance, though she had already guessed as much. “Aunt Madeline, and now Charlotte … Who else have you told?”

“Lizzy, please don’t be angry. Charlotte was worried about you, and I thought if I told her enough so she’d understand what was going on—”

“That I’d stop plaguing you with questions.” Charlotte folded her arms over her chest. “But didn’t you already try this whole avoidance shtick without success after Michael r—”

“I know.” Elizabeth cut Charlotte off before she could say that word. “Diane helped me to see that today.”

“Well, hallelujah. And I get why you’re mad at William. He had no business paying for your job behind your back.”

The tension in Elizabeth’s shoulders relaxed. “It’s like he handed Catherine a loaded gun. All she has to do is twist the truth a little and it’ll sound like I slept my way into a job. And once that kind of gossip starts…”

Charlotte nodded pensively, dragging her teeth across her lower lip. “Yeah, you’re going to be this week’s special in the cafeteria, all right. That’s tough. What are you going to do about it?”

“For starters, I’m submitting my resignation on Monday.”

“Effective when? End of the semester?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I can’t leave before then.”

“No, that would be tacky.” Charlotte paused, and then her eyes widened. “Say, I don’t know if the Music Department at Berkeley is looking for any adjuncts for the spring, but I could ask. Part-time would be better than nothing.”

“Thanks, but I accepted a job this afternoon.”

“You already made up your mind?” Jane’s surprise showed on her face.

Elizabeth explained the circumstances leading to her substitute teaching job at Newberry. “It’s not what I had in mind when I got my master’s, but I think it’ll be fun.”

Charlotte raised one eyebrow. “Things sure are moving along fast.”

“I’m a little concerned about that.” Jane lifted the red and white ceramic teapot from the table. Jasmine-scented steam rose from her cup as she poured.

“Diane asked about that too. I don’t know, maybe I’m being impulsive. But the job seems great, the timing is perfect, and it leaves my options open for the future. And it feels so good to know that I only have to spend a few more weeks walking around the conservatory feeling like a kept woman. You can’t imagine how humiliating it is.”

Jane patted Elizabeth’s hand. “Poor Lizzy.”

“This really sucks,” Charlotte said. “You seemed like you were settling in there and enjoying it. Except for the dragon lady, of course.”

Elizabeth shrugged, doing her best to look nonchalant. “Easy come, easy go.” Absorbed as she was in other problems, she hadn’t even begun thinking about her students and how much she’d miss them.

“But I could see you having the time of your life in this new job.” Charlotte glanced at Jane. “You never saw Liz at summer camp at Interlochen. She helped out with the young kids’ theater program, and she loved it.”

Charlotte leaned an elbow on the table, which wobbled again. Swearing under her breath, she peered under the table as though she expected to find a gnome attempting to topple the furniture. She excused herself and stalked off in search of a solution, her long strides propelling her toward the hostess with impressive speed.

“Are you mad at me?” Jane asked Elizabeth. “For telling Charlotte, I mean.”

“I guess you had to. She knew something was the matter and she wasn’t going to stop asking questions.”

“And you’re sure about this job? You didn’t just take it for my sake, so you could stay in town?”

“Like Char said, I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. And, yeah, I took it so I could stay in town, but that was for my sake, not yours. I love San Francisco, and I love getting to see you all the time.”

Charlotte returned, accompanied by the hostess, who invited them to move to another table. No sooner were they relocated than Charlotte returned to the topic of William. “I feel for the poor guy, alone in Australia with no idea what you’re going to do. He must be really broken up.”

Elizabeth fidgeted with the threads holding her bamboo placemat together. “I know. I admit, I don’t like thinking about that.”

“But you’re going to take him back eventually, right?”

“I don’t know. I still love him, but he did what he did, and nothing can change that.”

“And he deserves to pay the price.” Charlotte nodded firmly. “I get that. But what’s the point in sending him away and refusing to talk to him?”

“I needed time to think.”

“About what? Just grab him by the balls and give them a good hard twist. And then tell him he’ll be singing boy soprano, permanently, if he ever pulls a stunt like that again.”

Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh at Charlotte’s suggestion. “Thank you, Ms. ‘I’m allergic to Relationships with a capital R.’ I’m afraid the situation is a little more complicated than that.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be if you didn’t insist on overcomplicating things. C’mon, Liz. The guy made one mistake. A whopper, I’ll grant you, but he meant well. And for that you voted him off the island?”

This was exactly the sort of conversation Elizabeth didn’t want to have. She answered Charlotte in a measured tone. “It isn’t so much what he did as his dishonesty about it. I kept talking to him about Catherine de Bourgh and how much she hated me, and speculating on what I might have done to cause it. He knew exactly what was going on, but he never told me.”

“Well, yeah, good point. That was pretty low.”

“There’s more,” Elizabeth said, “something else he did that’s even worse.” She flashed a warning glance at Charlotte. “And there’s a good reason why I can’t tell you about it, so don’t even start.”

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed at this ultimatum, but Elizabeth was spared further commentary by the arrival of their food. Jane scanned the plates, anxiously seeking out the items she had ordered, while Charlotte exclaimed over an unpronounceable delicacy she’d discussed with the waitress. It looked vaguely menacing to Elizabeth, as though not long ago it had waved its tentacles in a grim warning.

“I’ve got some other news,” Elizabeth said, hoping to divert the conversation onto safer ground. “I’m spending Thanksgiving in the Caribbean.”

“Where?” Charlotte glanced up from her plate, still wearing a beatific expression.

“Barbados. I’m going with my aunt and uncle.”

“Isn’t that great?” Jane said, her eyes shining as she smiled at Elizabeth.

“Well, yeah,” Elizabeth retorted with a sidelong glance at her sister. “You’d certainly think so, since you engineered it.”

“All I did was tell Aunt Madeline that you could use some cheering up.”

“Think I could stow away in your suitcase?” Charlotte asked, a wistful look in her eyes. “I’ll do whatever you want—reserve you a lounge chair by the pool each morning, bring you piña coladas on the beach, find you lots of men to keep you too busy to think about your troubles. Anything, as long as I don’t have to go home to Michigan.”

“Aren’t you looking forward to seeing your family?” Jane asked.

“Sure, but I’ve been living out here for almost ten years, and my blood has thinned. I freeze my ass off every time I go back there.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” Elizabeth said with a smirk. “Maybe its sympathetic vibrations will warm you up.”

Charlotte sniffed, refilling her plate. “Thanks a bunch. I suppose I could set it on fire and warm my poor, frostbitten hands over the flame.”

“Glad I could help.” Elizabeth grinned, nibbling a piece of sushi, and the last of the tension in her shoulders drained away. All things considered, it hadn’t been a bad day.

 

Elizabeth opened her eyes and immediately shut them again, temporarily blinded by a ray of sunshine piercing the narrow gap between the living room drapes. She shifted sideways and opened her eyes again, gazing in bleary-eyed contemplation at the tiny dust particles floating in the slender beam of light that now warmed her shoulder. It was Sunday morning—early morning, from the sharp angle of the sun—and she had fallen asleep on the sofa again last night.

She pulled herself upright, yawning, and massaged her groaning neck muscles. A small bouquet of daisies and carnations lay wilting on the coffee table, a gift from the cast of South Pacific. She had attended the final performance last night. She had made a brief appearance at the cast party, departing immediately after one of her students had suggested, in slurred tones, that she join him in his apartment for a “private party.” Fortunately, she doubted he would remember propositioning her.

Hepburn & Tracy in Adam’s Rib Back home again, she had settled in with a dish of peanut butter ice cream and Adam’s Rib, one of her favorite Tracy/Hepburn movies, to await Jane’s return from her evening with Charles. She remembered turning off the lamp, leaving the room illuminated only by the flicker of the black and white image on the television. She recalled reclining on the sofa, her head resting on its puffy arm as she bundled an afghan around her bare legs, and then… nothing, until a few minutes ago.

It was strange that Jane hadn’t awakened her when she arrived home. Unless… Suddenly wide awake, Elizabeth jumped to her feet and flew down the hall. Jane’s bedroom door sat open, the bed in pristine condition. This discovery wasn’t necessarily significant; Jane always made her bed immediately after vacating it, and she might have slipped out for an early-morning run. Elizabeth preferred to believe that Jane was sharing breakfast in bed with Charles.

And if it’s true… what then?

It couldn’t be a coincidence that he had arrived in San Francisco so soon after William’s trip to Los Angeles. Was Charles here with William’s blessing? With his knowledge? In defiance of his continued discouragement? She didn’t know, but she couldn’t seem to stop turning the question over in her mind like a prism.

She stretched her arms above her head and wandered to the living room window. Her eyes fell on Buena Vista Park, the wooded oasis across the street, and could feel its shade-dappled paths beckoning. Nodding to herself, she folded the afghan and headed for her bedroom to get ready for a long walk.

 

Once in the park, Elizabeth couldn’t seem to leave. After days of gray drizzle, the crystal skies and sunshine were a gift from the heavens. She strolled along the woodland paths, twigs snapping beneath her feet, and inhaled the clean, unmistakably green scent of growing things. She stopped occasionally to savor the commanding views for which the park had been named, her thoughts swirling like a leaf carried on the crisp morning breeze.

view from Buena Vista park Inevitably, her mind was full of images of him. She could see him strolling beside her, dust from the path dulling the sheen on his expensive Italian loafers, an insult to his wardrobe he would insist on correcting as soon as their walk ended. She paused at the spot offering the best view of the sun-bleached buildings cascading down to the Golden Gate Bridge, framed by the dusky peaks of the Marin Headlands. She could feel his hand enveloping hers, warm and solid, and she could smell his spicy, masculine scent.

If he were here, what would I ask him? What would I say? The hole in her heart was as ragged and painful as ever, yet she had begun to wonder how much of the damage had been caused by his actions, and how much was simply due to his absence.

But if he appeared at that moment, nothing would have changed. She couldn’t cede control of her life to another, not even the man she loved with a passion she had never thought possible. Yet only a foolish woman opened her heart to a man with the idea of molding him according to her needs. The answer, if there was one, would demand compromise, a sport at which neither she nor William excelled.

view from Buena Vista park A family walking three barking dogs, all straining at their leashes, shattered the serenity of the park. Sighing, she navigated the path back down the hill, hoping to find a message from Jane, if not Jane herself, waiting at home.

But she found the condo as silent and empty as she had left it. Jane and Charles had planned a drive yesterday to the Napa Valley, California’s wine country. Perhaps they had spent the night at a bed and breakfast with lace curtains and a giant four-poster bed covered by a sumptuous down comforter. Elizabeth had often imagined visiting such a place … with him, of course, nestled close to her in their warm hollow beneath the covers, the firelight turning his skin a deep burnished gold. She bit her lip and brushed a tear from the corner of her eye before it dampened her cheek.

She veered away from that dangerous line of thought. The work she hadn’t finished on Saturday still awaited her, and she hadn’t done her vocal exercises in days. But first she needed something to eat. Perhaps Chloe or another of their neighbors would be in the mood for brunch at Squat & Gobble.

She showered quickly, emerging from the bathroom with one towel wrapped around her body and another turban-style around her head.

“Lizzy!” It was Charles BIngley, his face red, but his perennial smile in place.

Aside from her involuntary gasp, she hid her embarrassment well, grateful that her skin was already flushed from the heat of the shower. “Hi, Charles,” she said cheerfully, gripping her towel with a heightened sense of urgency. “Excuse me.” She made her way to the privacy of her room as fast as she could without actually breaking into a gallop. She had barely shut the door to her room when she heard a knock, and Jane entered.

“Lizzy, I’m so sorry! When we got here I didn’t hear you in the bathroom, so I thought you were out.”

“No harm done,” Elizabeth answered, grateful that she hadn’t decided to leave the towel in the bathroom and return to her bedroom naked. “How are you this morning?”

Joy shimmered in Jane’s eyes. “I’m wonderful,” she said softly, grasping Elizabeth’s hand.

Elizabeth had to restrain herself from jumping up and down with excitement. “Then you’re back together?”

“We’re going to take things one step at a time, but … yes, I think so.”

Elizabeth let out a little shriek and threw one arm around Jane, her other hand still clutching the towel. “That’s wonderful!” She stepped away, absorbing the glow of contentment on her sister’s face. “Of course,” she teased, “when you say ‘taking things one step at a time,’ you mean other than spending last night together.”

“We didn’t,” Jane answered quickly, a hint of embarrassment in her smile. “At least, not the way you’re thinking. We kept talking and talking, and before we knew it we’d talked all night.”

“That was probably just what you needed.” Elizabeth stifled a rueful grin as Jane brushed her hair back from her face, the strands floating perfectly into place like soft filaments of spun gold. Even a sleepless night couldn’t mar Jane’s perpetually flawless appearance.

“We got some important things out into the open. I think we understand each other better now.”

“I can’t wait to hear all about it. But we can do that later. It looks like you two are planning to go out.”

“We are, for brunch at Top of the Mark. Come with us.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be alone? Isn’t he going home later today?” Elizabeth unwound the towel on top of her head, and her mass of tangled hair dropped to her shoulders.

“No, he’s staying till tomorrow morning. But the best part is, next Friday he’s coming back to stay.”

“He’s moving back? You’re kidding!” This was better news than Elizabeth had dared to imagine. “Then he’s not going to ask you to reconsider moving to LA?”

Jane beamed at her. “Dry your hair and get dressed as fast as you can. We have a lot to tell you.”

 

Rather than try to tell the story in the car, the threesome made cheerful small talk on the way to Top of the Mark. When at last they were seated, each with a plate filled from the buffet, Charles offered Elizabeth a summary of his personal epiphany and its consequences, leaving her astonished by the sudden turnaround in his life.

“You really just walked away from all of it?” she asked, her wide-eyed gazed glued on him.

He nodded, dragging his fork through his scrambled eggs. “I did it almost a week ago, but I’m not sure if it’s really sunk in yet. I think that’ll happen when I have to start paying rent and grocery bills.”

“Well, I think it took a lot of guts,” Elizabeth said, darting an approving glance at Jane, who was listening intently while sampling her French toast.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” Charles said with a self-deprecating shrug. “I’m almost thirty-three. I just hope it isn’t too late for me to grow up.”

“It’s not,” Jane said, and they smiled at each other, sharing some private joke.

Elizabeth was surprised to find herself close to tears as she watched them. The room, despite its size, threatened to close in on her, and her heart pounded. She set down her fork and shut her eyes, drawing a deep breath. When she regained control she opened her eyes, grateful that Jane and Charles had been too absorbed in each other to notice. “Do you know what sort of job you want?” Elizabeth asked.

“Some day I’d like to own a jazz club, but that’s far in the future,” Charles said. “For now it’s more a question of who would want to hire me. Outside of Father’s company I have no track record, and I won’t be getting a recommendation from him.”

“But you must have business contacts who could help you,” Elizabeth said.

“Maybe, if I wanted the same kind of job in some other corporation. I don’t, if I can avoid it.” Charles paused to eat a large forkful of his eggs. “But I have a job interview tomorrow morning before I fly home, something Will dug up for me.”

Elizabeth’s heart thumped. “Oh?” She hid her expression by taking a long, slow sip from her coffee cup.

“Yeah. He called the executive director of the San Francisco Symphony. Turns out they need a Director of Public Relations. Will put in a good word for me, and they want to talk to me.”

“That makes sense,” Elizabeth said, glancing at Jane, who nodded in return. “You can do the sort of work you’re used to, but for a musical organization.”

“Brilliant, isn’t it?” Charles looked directly into Elizabeth’s eyes, his message obvious. “And it was Will’s idea. He’s been absolutely incredible through this whole thing.”

Elizabeth licked her lips and sighed. “That’s William. He’s generous to a fault.”

Charles squared his shoulders, looking unusually determined, and she steeled herself for the lecture that appeared to be on its way. “Look, Lizzy—” He broke off abruptly, and she noted a warning glance from Jane directed his way. He shook his head and picked up a croissant. “Never mind.”

“Is anything new in Caroline’s situation?” Elizabeth asked.

Charles grimaced. “Not really. But one weird thing happened. After our family attorney talked to Caroline, he advised her to get another lawyer. Doesn’t that sound bad?”

“Not really,” Jane said. “He may just want her to be represented by someone who specializes in white-collar crime. Or he could be worried about a potential conflict of interest. For example, if someone else in the family—say, Louisa—also took part of the scheme, it could cause problems for the same attorney to represent both of them.”

Or maybe he just decided he couldn’t bear to spend another minute with Caroline. Elizabeth presed her lips together to stifle a smile.

“Well, as for me,” Charles said, taking Jane’s hand, “I’ve got my own legal counsel right here.”

A few minutes later Jane saw a colleague across the restaurant and excused herself to say hello. As soon as she was gone, Charles turned to Elizabeth. “There’s something we need to talk about. Jane didn’t want me to do this, but I owe it to Will for everything he’s done for me.”

So she hadn’t escaped Charles’s lecture after all. Elizabeth set down her fork and quirked an eyebrow at him, her unsmiling expression neither inviting him to speak nor warning him to keep silent.

“Will didn’t tell me much about what happened between the two of you,” he began. “He said it was partly because of his advice to me about Jane, and that something else was involved too. Jane told me what he did about your job, so I guess that was the other part. And I can see why you’d be upset with him.”

Elizabeth barely nodded.

“I’m the last person who should tell anybody what to do, but I hope you’re going to give Will a second chance. He’s crazy about you. And if you’re holding out for someone better, no such animal exists. Will is the best there is.”

Elizabeth lifted her chin, instantly defensive. “In spite of the damage he did to you and Jane?”

“Yeah, he screwed up there, and he and I have had words about that. But I was partly at fault for that. I’ve forgiven him; don’t you think you could do the same?”

“I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Elizabeth said, surprised to find that she meant it. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

“Okay. I’ll butt out.” Charles paused for a moment and then continued with a rueful shrug. “On second thought, I’ll butt out after I’ve said this. Lizzy, whoever coined the phrase about a man with a heart of gold was describing Will. He makes mistakes, and he can be difficult sometimes, but I’ve never seen him do anything that wasn’t motivated by good intentions. And that includes the whole business with Jane. He was trying to protect me.”

“Who died and made him your keeper?”

Charles gave her a wry grin. “I more or less asked him the same thing, but to be honest, he’s protected me from myself more than once. There was a time when I needed someone with common sense looking out for me. I guess I still do. He’s had better ideas about my job prospects than I have.”

“He’s a sensible man … sometimes.”

“He did everything he could to make things right, and he deserves credit for that. He confessed his mistake and apologized. He supported my decision to leave Father’s company in spite of the consequences. And now he’s trying to help me find a job. Oh, and he even gave me a place to stay this weekend.”

“The penthouse?” Elizabeth asked. Jane hadn’t mentioned that detail.

“Right.” Charles scowled and smacked his fist lightly on the table, causing the coffee cups to rattle in their saucers. “Damn it! That reminds me. There’s a cookie tin in the kitchen with your name on it.”

“Probably from Mrs. Reynolds.” William hadn’t mentioned anything about it, but the housekeeper had sent Elizabeth tins of homemade cookies before.

“We’re right across the street. We can run over there and get it when we’re done here.”

“Sorry I was gone so long,” Jane said as Charles popped to his feet to pull back her chair. “I got lured into shop talk, and that’s always dangerous.” She smiled at Elizabeth. “What did you two talk about?”

Elizabeth winked at Charles. “Oh, nothing in particular.”

 

Late that night Elizabeth again sat alone in the dimly-lit living room, this time with the latest Death on Demand mystery novel on her lap. Diana Krall crooned softly on the CD player, and a cup of herbal tea sat at Elizabeth’s elbow. Her legs were covered by an afghan, the rest of her body dwarfed by an oversized San Francisco 49ers football jersey with ink stains on the sleeves.

She reached for a chocolate chip cookie and munched it as she read, her taste buds exulting in the sweet, buttery flavor laced with dark chocolate. She had been correct. The package addressed to her had been a tin of homemade cookies from Mrs. Reynolds, wrapped sufficiently to stay fresh during their week spent on the penthouse’s kitchen counter.

Elizabeth had tried every excuse she could concoct to stay downstairs making small talk with the doorman while Jane and Charles made the trek up to the penthouse to retrieve the package. But a cheerfully oblivious Charles had firmly escorted the sisters to the elevator while prattling about William’s generosity in providing him temporary living quarters, his remarks accompanied by a host of pointed but good-natured looks in Elizabeth’s direction.

Trapped into going upstairs, she had resolved to avoid the rooms most haunted by memories. But she soon realized that she’d have to shut herself in the hall closet, and even then, only if she first tossed William’s raincoat out onto the cold marble floor in the foyer.

She had tried to look away as they passed the living room, but like a motorist creeping past an accident site her eyes were involuntarily drawn to the cream-colored sofa where she had spent many cozy evenings curled up beside him. The dining room was even worse, holding memories of her intimate birthday dinner. Even the kitchen, their destination, offered no haven, as she heard a faint echo of her own voice saying, “I love you” and saw the joy that had blazed in his dark eyes.

She had weathered it all with what she thought was admirable nonchalance, though Jane’s occasional worried glances had suggested otherwise. Mercifully there had been no need to visit William’s bedroom. That, she knew she could never have borne. Even now, hours after leaving the penthouse, the thought of it made her eyes sting with unshed tears.

She swallowed the last bite of her cookie, marked her place in the paperback and set it aside, and idly lifted a note from the coffee table. It was dated November 1, the day before William’s return to San Francisco.

Dear Elizabeth:

These cookies are a small token of gratitude for the wonderful care you’ve been taking of William. He seems to have fully recovered his health, and I’ve never seen him so happy. I know you’re the reason for both of those things.

I’m looking forward to your visit at Thanksgiving.

Fondly,
Marcia Reynolds

She heaved a shaky sigh, resisting the urge to scuttle back into her protective shell and triple-lock the door. I wonder what she’d say to you now. First you helped him to heal his heart, and then you broke it.

Her ego jumped to its feet in heated protest. His actions, not hers, had precipitated the crisis and caused the heartache; she had simply responded in the only way she could.

Oh? Do you honestly believe there was nothing else you could have done?

Elizabeth shoved that question aside and set the note on the coffee table. She reached for her mug of tea, finding it lukewarm. With a grimace, she took it to the kitchen to reheat it in the microwave. She had just returned to the sofa and opened her book when she heard the sound of a key in the lock, followed by the sight of Jane coming through the door. Even from across the room, the happiness radiating from her eyes lit up the room.

“I didn’t think you’d be home till tomorrow,” Elizabeth said. “I thought for sure Charles would convince you to spend the night.”

Jane approached her, the pink in her cheeks either a blush or a sign of the chilly temperatures outside. “It’s too soon for that. We’ve barely seen each other for the past six months.”

“But you’re still expecting things to work out, aren’t you?” Elizabeth swung her legs off the sofa to make room for Jane.

“I think so,” Jane said, hanging her jacket in the hall closet. “We’re going to date for a while and give Charles time to get settled in his new life, and that’ll give us time to get to reacquainted.”

“I bet you’re the one who wants the time, not Charles, right?” Elizabeth lifted her mug of tea from the end table and sipped, wincing as the steaming liquid scalded her tongue.

Jane smiled and nodded, seating herself on the sofa. “He’d be perfectly happy to elope to Reno in the morning if I agreed. Charles can be impetuous, but his enthusiasm is one of the things I love most about him.”

“If you want to move back into the house with him sometime soon and sell this place, don’t worry about me. I can find somewhere else to live.”

“We’re not ready to move in together,” Jane said, accepting a cookie from the tin Elizabeth extended to her. “Besides, Charles is going to sell the house.”

“Why?” Elizabeth pulled the afghan up to cover her torso, blocking the chilly draft seeping in through the windows.

“It turns out there’s a mortgage that he didn’t tell me about when we bought the place, and he can’t afford the payments now, not even if I help.”

Elizabeth raised one eyebrow. “He borrowed money for the house and didn’t tell you?”

Jane nodded. “The house and the mortgage were both in his name.”

“And that’s okay with you, that he lied to you?”

“Of course not,” Jane said softly. “But he explained why he did it, and he’s promised not to hide things from me anymore.”

“And just like that you believe him?” This was hitting too close to home for Elizabeth’s comfort.

Jane’s smile was sympathetic; evidently she had divined the source of Elizabeth’s agitation. “I believe that he means it, and that he’ll do his best. But it may be hard for him. He got used to hiding things from his father years ago.”

“I can see why,” Elizabeth said, plucking absently at a loose fiber on the afghan. “It must have been a miserable way to grow up, getting stomped on by that horrid man.”

“I know.” Jane sighed and reached for another cookie. “So I’ll just do the best I can to help him. I’ll reassure him, encourage him… and ask a lot more questions than usual for a while, just in case he backslides,” she finished, with an impish smile.

Elizabeth laughed. “I like that. Cautious optimism with micro-management thrown in as a backup strategy. Do you think Mr. Bingley will try to cause trouble? He’s going to be furious when he hears about you and Charles.”

“And he’ll blame me for Charles’s decision to resign from the company. But Charles came up here with no idea whether or not we’d reconcile.”

“Which is good. I know you’d hate to feel as though you drove a wedge between Charles and his family.”

“Yes, I would.” Jane’s smile faded. “Especially now, with his father’s health problems.”

“That reminds me of something I didn’t want to ask about at brunch.” Elizabeth looked up at Jane, whose open expression invited her to continue. “It’s great that he’s finally standing up for himself, but could his timing have been any worse? I mean, did he really need his father to be flat on his back in order to have the nerve to stand up to him?”

Jane pressed her lips together, her brow compressed in a thoughtful frown. “I know. It makes me feel sorry for Mr. Bingley. But he was harsh with Charles’s mother that morning. Charles said he spoke up to defend her, and just kept going.”

Elizabeth nodded, faintly impressed. “Well, good for him. And I’m sure having William there must have helped.”

“Absolutely. He was supportive and helpful and—well, Charles told you all about it at brunch.”

Elizabeth felt an unpleasant trembling sensation in the pit of her stomach. She snatched a cookie from the tin and nibbled around its edges, staring at the afghan in her lap as she reached a decision.

Jane rose to her feet. “I should get to bed. I’m meeting Charles for an early breakfast before his flight, and I’ve got a full day at the office.”

“Wait.” The word shot out of Elizabeth’s mouth. “I—I mean, please wait, just for a minute. There’s something I need to ask you.”

Jane perched on the sofa arm. “Of course,” she said gently. “What is it?”

The CD stopped playing, leaving the room silent except for the muffled sound of laughter from Chloe’s condo next door. “The day William came here, and you talked to him.”

“Do you want to hear about it?” Jane’s eyes were warm with sympathy.

Elizabeth nodded. “Please.”

“He showed up right around lunchtime,” Jane began, reclaiming her seat beside Elizabeth on the sofa. “He looked tired; I don’t think he’d gotten much sleep. I found out he hadn’t eaten either, so I fixed him some lunch.”

“I’m glad you took care of him. He forgets to eat sometimes, when he has something on his mind.” Elizabeth blinked hard, her eyes moist. “Did he come just to return my things?”

“That’s what he said, but I think mostly he needed someone to talk to. He loves you so much, Lizzy, and he feels terrible about what happened. He was bewildered and hurt by your unwillingness to try to work it out.”

“That’s not fair,” Elizabeth replied, yanking the afghan up over her shoulders. “He doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He thinks I don’t understand his reasons, and that if he explains, all will be forgiven.”

“You really are two of a kind,” Jane said mildly. “You’re both absolutely sure you’re right.”

Elizabeth gritted her teeth, feeling a rare wave of annoyance aimed at Jane. “You don’t know everything he did, because I haven’t told you. If you knew—”

“That he discouraged Charles from reconciling with me?”

“Charles told you that?” Elizabeth goggled at Jane, who sat beside her in utter serenity.

“He made a few comments that I think were designed to see if you’d told me or not, and that confirmed my suspicions. Mostly I guessed because you wouldn’t tell me what had happened. I could only think of two things you wouldn’t want to tell me. Either he’d forced you somehow in an intimate situation, or else it had to do with me. And I couldn’t imagine that he’d take advantage of you, not after he was so gentle and patient the night you told him about Michael.”

“No. He wouldn’t do that.”

“Which left the second option. I know William doesn’t approve of me. He’s polite, of course, but cool. And you said he had reservations about our family. So I can see why he wanted someone different for his friend.”

“Well, I can’t. You’re way too good for Charles.”

Jane smiled and shook her head, touching Elizabeth’s hand. “I think you’re maybe a teeny bit biased. Besides, I can see why William would have encouraged Charles to maintain ties to his father. Charles needed to make a sincere effort before he gave up and walked away, or he’d always have wondered if he did the right thing. We’ve talked about that.”

“But William thought you wanted Charles’s money, and that’s absurd.”

“It was possible, wasn’t it?” Jane lifted one shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Charles has been pursued for his money before, and he and I hadn’t known each other for that long. Plus, Charles told me that William overheard Mom saying some things about marrying for money. You and I know that’s just the way she talks, but William doesn’t. He had lots of reasons to question whether or not I could be trusted.”

Elizabeth had listened to enough of Jane’s excuses for William. “Well, he’s had plenty of chances to get to know you since then, but all he wanted was to confirm his stupid prejudice. Every time I think of all the pain you suffered…” She shook her head, her hands convulsively gripping the afghan. “I can never forgive him for that.”

“I wish you would,” Jane said in a measured tone, “because I have. Whatever William said and did, he only wanted the best for Charles. And have you considered the timing of Charles’s visit here, so soon after William was in Los Angeles?”

Elizabeth nodded reluctantly. She knew what Jane was about to say, having pondered it herself.

“Something you said to William during your argument must have changed his mind about me. I think that’s the main reason he went to LA, to make things right with Charles. And there’s one more thing to consider.”

Elizabeth raised an eyebrow in a silent query.

“Charles made his own choices. Granted, he was influenced by his father, by William, and perhaps by Caroline too, but he still chose for himself. And he’s accepted the responsibility. In fact, that’s why he wanted us to have brunch with you today. He wanted to tell you the story himself, because he knows how important you are to me and he wants to win your respect.”

Jane continued, quietly but with calm authority. “I don’t blame William, and neither does Charles. And aren’t we the two people directly involved in what happened?”

Elizabeth stared at her fingernails, scowling. Jane was entirely too good at winning arguments through mild but relentless logic. “It isn’t just that,” she blurted out, her voice ragged with pain. “How could he think I’d be so attached to you, and respect you so much, if you were shallow and greedy? Is that all the faith he has in me?”

“I think he has a great deal of faith in you. But you and William need to learn to work together as a couple instead of acting as individuals, each bent on making all the decisions.”

Elizabeth sighed, eyes still on her fingernails.

Jane observed her in silence and at last spoke. “Lizzy, you’re the only person who knows how you feel, so I’ll stop nagging. Whatever you decide, I’m in your corner.”

Elizabeth leaned her head on Jane’s shoulder. “Thank heaven, or I’d be lost.”

After a few moments of silent contemplation, Jane asked, “Do you want to hear more about his visit, or is that enough for tonight?”

“I think I can handle the rest,” Elizabeth said, sitting up straight.

“He saw the photos, from the night of your birthday dinner. In fact, he took one with him.”

“I’d forgotten about those.” It was a lie. Elizabeth’s copies of the pictures were safely buried in her bottom nightstand drawer, sharing an envelope with a small green shoot adorned with faded purple orchid blossoms.

“He loved the photo where you’re smiling at each other. He said, ‘That’s my Lizzy.’ In fact, he was trying not to cry.”

Elizabeth brushed a tear from her cheek. She was rapidly changing her mind about her capacity to hear anything more.

“And I almost forgot. When he was in New York, he went to see Michael.”

“He did what?” Elizabeth sat forward, her eyes huge.

“I think it’s been eating away at him, knowing what Michael did to you. He said he went to see Michael on a quixotic impulse, partly to avenge you and partly to somehow make New York a safe place for you.”

“I can’t believe he did that.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure if she wanted to smack William or fling her arms around him. It was yet another example of his presumption that he could arrange other people’s lives or even rewrite history. Still, she couldn’t help but be touched by the depths of his protective instinct. “What happened?”

“Nothing, really. He went the place where Michael was tending bar, but of course there was nothing he could do. So he went away even more frustrated than before.”

“I should have known he’d try to do something.”

“Honestly, Lizzy, he wants so much to make things right. I hope, when you’re ready, you’ll at least let him try.”

“Nothing he says is going to change what he did, but when he comes back from Australia, I’ll talk to him.”

“Good.” Jane leaned over and hugged Elizabeth lightly. “And now I think I’ll be on my way to bed… that is, if you’re okay. Because if you want to talk some more—”

Elizabeth forced a smile onto her face. “No, I’m fine. I’m going to read for a little longer.”

Jane rose to her feet, yawning. “Don’t stay up too late.” Just before she turned the corner to head down the hallway, Jane turned back. “And, Lizzy?”

“Hmm?”

“Long talks. I highly recommend them. You’d be surprised how many things two people can work out in a long talk if they love each other and want to make things right.”

Jane’s bedroom door closed with a soft click, and Elizabeth was alone again in the shadowy living room. She arranged the afghan around her legs and reached for Mrs. Reynolds’s note, poring over it in the deep quiet of the night.

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1 Yes, there’s really a place with that name in San Francisco. And I’ve been there.