Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered open and she glanced around, disoriented for only a moment. The airline-cabin configuration was instantly recognizable, especially when combined with the drone of the jet engines. She was several miles above the earth, en route to New York.

And getting there in style. She closed her eyes again, cradled in the embrace of her plush seat. Until today her experience with first class sections had been limited to filing through on her way to the cramped, stuffy main cabin, part of the stream of human cattle being driven to their pens in the rear. She had often imagined that once the flight attendants drew the curtain into place between the cabins, a bacchanalia commenced in the front of the plane complete with dancing in the aisles, massive champagne fountains, and perhaps even a virgin sacrifice.

Now she had joined the privileged few. No one had danced so far, the champagne was served from bottles and blended with orange juice on this morning flight, and there didn’t appear to be any virgins among their numbers, sacrificial or otherwise. But by virtue of comfort alone she was sold on the charms of first class—and well on her way to becoming spoiled.

She peeked at William through her eyelashes. He practically glowed with healthful vigor, all signs of illness and tension eradicated from his lightly tanned features. As usual, his thick coffee-colored waves were slightly disheveled, inviting the smoothing touch of her fingers.

Gotham book cover But a pair of eyeglasses she’d never seen sat on the bridge of his nose, lending him a studious air. He was absorbed in his latest history book, about New York City. At dinner last night he had told a fascinating story from the book, almost convincing her to read it herself. Almost.

Perhaps sensing her scrutiny, he glanced over. A slow smile warmed his features and he slipped off his beloved noise-canceling headphones. “Hello, sleepyhead.”

“How long have I been napping?” She rolled her neck in a slow circle and yawned.

He checked his watch. “Only about an hour, but you were out cold.”

“What’s with the glasses?”

“Oh.” He gave her a sheepish grin. “I got them the week before I went to Australia. Sometimes if I read for a long time I feel some eyestrain.”

“Reading glasses? So this is what it’s like dating an older man.”

He huffed a stream of air through his nose, lifting his chin with an air of injured dignity. “You should be more respectful of your elders, young lady.”

“Yes, sir.” She forced her features into a solemn expression.

After a moment their eyes met in a sidelong glance, their smiles growing wider until at last they chuckled together. To her surprise, his sweet grin sent a bolt of desire hurtling through her. How she could still want him after their passionate night she wasn’t sure, but she did.

“I don’t absolutely need the glasses to read,” he said, “but they help if I’m going to do it for hours at a time.”

“Well, I must admit, they’re kind of sexy. I may have you model them for me tonight.”

“As in, just the glasses and nothing else?”

She nodded slowly, licking her lips. She wouldn’t mind seeing him that way right now.

“It’ll be my pleasure.” He bent closer, speaking as softly as the whine of the engines would allow. “In fact, if you don’t want to wait, we could join the Mile High Club.”

She let out a startled laugh, wondering when he’d learned to read her mind. “Are you serious?”

“Probably not. Airplane lavatories are lacking in the ambience department. Though if the flight were a little longer …” He winked at her.

“Is that all you ever think about?” She attempted a stern look, not an easy task while fantasizing about climbing across the armrest and onto his lap.

He drew his index finger lightly over her palm, leaving the skin tingling. “It’s your fault, cara. I can’t get enough of you.”

It had certainly seemed that way last night. But much as she had enjoyed the bounty of sensual delights, she had sensed a desperate note in his lovemaking, as though he feared the fates were conspiring to separate them. And that was a subject they needed to discuss. Her carefree mood disintegrated like a popped balloon. With a plaintive sigh, she drew her hand gently from his grasp and said, “Will, there’s something I need to ask you.”

He closed his book and removed his glasses. “Please tell me you’re changing the subject, because if that solemn expression has to do with last night—”

“Of course not.” She shrugged. “Well, sort of, I guess. Something was on your mind last night.”

“You were. Can you blame me?” He waggled his eyebrows.

“Cut it out,” she said with an indulgent smile. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it. Something was bothering you, and I have an idea what it might have been.”

He shifted in his seat and squared his shoulders, but he didn’t comment.

“Every time I try to ask you about your grandmother, you change the subject. I don’t know if you’re trying to spare my feelings or sidestep an unpleasant topic. But I think you’re worried about what’s going to happen today.”

He sighed and leaned his head back against his seat. “I guess I knew we needed to have this discussion eventually.”

“So we do have a problem. I thought so. Does your grandmother hate me because of Catherine de Bourgh’s influence?”

“Gran doesn’t hate you. But, yes, Catherine called her and said some things.”

“I assume that’s not the whole problem?”

“No,” he said softly, taking her hand. “But it’s not personal. It worries Gran to see me so deeply involved with someone she barely knows.”

“Aren’t you old enough to choose your own friends?”

“Be fair,” he admonished gently. “You’re more than a friend. She can see how important you are to me, and yet you’re a stranger to her.”

“Is it that I’m a stranger, or that I’m not a pampered rich girl named Muffy with a trust fund, a degree from Sarah Lawrence, and a perfect strand of pearls?”

“Gran’s world is somewhat limited, I suppose,” he said after a pause. “She’s always lived in New York. She’s known most of her friends since they went to school together.”

“And she wants you to stay in her safe little enclave, and spend your time with her sort of people.”

“Which is impossible, with all the traveling I do.”

“Oh, I don’t know. First class sections and limos and luxury suites—I’d say you haven’t strayed that far from home.” It annoyed Elizabeth to find herself in a tug of war for the heart of a thirty-year-old man … with his grandmother.

He pressed his lips together, a frown lowering his brow. “My point was that my absences make her more protective in other areas. And lately I’ve been gone even more than usual, because of you.”

“Okay, I can see that.”

“Until now most of the women I’ve spent time with have been daughters or granddaughters or nieces of people she knows.” His eyes softened as he continued. “But now that I’ve finally fallen in love, it’s with someone she’s only seen twice, and whose family she’s never met.”

“I’m sure Catherine filled that blank with all sorts of unpleasant details.”

“How does Catherine know about your family? I didn’t think she’d ever met them.”

“She hasn’t, except for Jane, at the party at Rosings. But I got an earful about them that day in her office. I think we have Caroline Bingley to thank for that.”

“Caroline?” He shook his head. “More likely Bill Collins.”

“I don’t think so. Caroline was at the Rosings party, so there’s at least a tenuous connection, and the words Catherine said to me sounded like they came right out of Caroline’s spiteful mouth. Considering the slimy trick she pulled with your cell phone, she wouldn’t have thought twice about trashing me and my family to my boss.”

“I suppose not. In any case, you can imagine the unflattering picture Gran got of your family. I did my best to counter it.”

“But I doubt you were all that convincing, since you basically agree with it.”

He opened his mouth, closed it again, and then finally spoke. “Lizzy, I—”

“It’s okay. Well, not exactly okay, but I know where you’re coming from. My mother isn’t easy to be around, and Lydia is”—she sighed and shrugged her shoulders—“Lydia. And Dad quit trying to influence either of them a long time ago. I know the Bennet family must look like a dysfunctional mess to outsiders. I have to admit, it looks a little bit that way from the inside too.”

He captured her hand and waited for her to continue.

“But I love them, even though sometimes I wonder why. And it hurts to hear people criticize them, even if what they say is true. You know what I mean? I can say those things, but I don’t want anyone else saying them.”

“I understand. They’re family.”

The flight attendant approached them, preparing to serve lunch. Elizabeth goggled as a place was set in front of her with a large linen napkin serving as a mini-tablecloth, real flatware instead of plastic forks and spoons, and even tiny crystal salt and pepper shakers. Not only that, but the food that arrived soon afterward looked and smelled like real, earthbound food, a far cry from the synthetic imitation served in coach, if anything was served at all.

Her stomach rumbled as she picked up her fork. She and William had overslept that morning and had compounded their tardiness by spending far too long in the shower, forcing them to rush off to the airport without breakfast. Perhaps it was for the best. She would miss Mrs. Shepherd’s lavish cooking, but her waistline and hips couldn’t have handled much more.

ice cream with caramel sauce For dinner last night, Mrs. Shepherd had prepared a massive feast of local seafood, some dishes steamed or broiled with just a hint of lemon, others garnished with fragrant herbs or swimming in rich sauces, still others mixed into fritters or fried in a delicate batter. The four of them—Elizabeth, William, and the Gardiners—had eaten until they declared they couldn’t swallow another bite. Yet they had managed to make room for homemade coconut ice cream with warm caramel sauce drizzled on top.

Elizabeth could only hope that lovemaking burned plenty of calories. If not, when she got home she would have to pay her penance in the form of cottage cheese, celery sticks, and daily dance classes for the rest of the year.

After a silence during which they attacked their meals with gusto, she set down her fork and turned to William. “Okay, so an unknown woman with an embarrassing family instead of an embarrassing boarding school nickname has stolen your heart. What else bothers your grandmother? Does she think I’m after your money?”

He lifted his coffee cup and took a long sip before answering. “The thought has crossed her mind.”

“In other words, she’s suggested it. I figured as much.”

“Unfortunately, she found out that I sponsored your job.” He pushed the last bite of his omelet around his plate. “She assumed that you talked me into it, and took it as a sign that your interest in me was related to money.”

“Wonderful.” Elizabeth sighed. “Catherine must have enjoyed spilling the beans about the job.”

The plane lurched as though terrorized by the mention of the formidable woman. Elizabeth winced, watching her coffee slosh wildly in its cup. The seat belt sign blinked on above their heads, followed by the inevitable announcement on the intercom.

“When did your grandmother tell you that she knew about my job?” she asked, while double-checking her seat belt.

“The night I got home from Australia. I had just heard your messages, and all I could think about was taking the next flight to Barbados and throwing myself at your feet. Gran found me and insisted on having a talk.”

“About me, and how hazardous I was to your well-being?”

“More about me, actually.” He shook his head, his smile mirthless. “She started by questioning me about your job, and when I confirmed Catherine’s story she tore into me. She called me irresponsible and gullible. I can’t remember the last time she spoke to me that way.”

“What did you do?”

“At first I managed to keep my temper. I explained the circumstances, including the fact that you were just as angry about it as she was.”

“Oh, great. So now I’m the woman who broke your heart on top of everything else.”

“Actually, I think your disapproval impressed her.”

Elizabeth sniffed. “At least she found something about me to like. What else did Catherine tell her?”

“Gran heard all about your confrontation at the conservatory. Catherine went out of her way to describe your ‘lack of respect for your betters.’ But I’m sure Gran took that with a grain of salt. She knows what Catherine is like.”

“Why didn’t you say something about this sooner? When I told you about my meeting with Catherine, you acted like it was news to you.”

“I know. I should have mentioned something.” He paused and took a gulp of his juice. She understood him well enough by now to recognize it as a stalling tactic. “But that was before we had our talk about honesty, and besides, I wasn’t ready to have a conversation about Gran. I knew you’d start worrying if you heard all this.”

“And with good reason, don’t you think?” Elizabeth eyed him sharply, but she decided to let the matter drop. She had made her point about honesty and disclosure, and at least he was leveling with her now. “Did Catherine tell your grandmother anything else about me?”

“I’m not sure. I finally lost my temper. I told her she was wrong about you, and that I didn’t want to hear any more of her criticisms. Then I announced that I was on my way to Barbados first thing in the morning to find you.”

“And let me finish this story. She said, ‘Good for you, William! Follow your heart.’”

His sad smile acknowledged her sarcasm. “She tried every argument she could think of to dissuade me. First she mentioned my health—she said I’d just gotten home from an exhausting trip and needed my rest.”

“She had a point there.”

“I told her Barbados was the most restful place I knew. You have to admit, I ate well and got plenty of rest.”

Elizabeth reached over and traced a path just inside his open shirt collar. “You spent lots of time in bed. How much rest you got is a different question.”

“What we did in bed was far more therapeutic than a few extra hours of sleep.” He grinned, flashing his dimples. “But I’d better get off that subject before I decide to drag you into the lavatory for some impromptu therapy.”

“I wonder if it’s true that people try to fool around in their seats sometimes. Under blankets, I mean.”

He snickered. “I saw it happen once, across the aisle. Honeymooners, I think. They tried to hide it, but between the sounds they made and the movements under the blankets it was obvious what was going on.”

“I always knew things got wild up here in first class.”

“What?”

“Never mind.” She spread jam on her croissant, mentally rewinding their conversation. “So, anyway, you told your grandmother you’d get some R&R in Barbados.”

“Next she tried logic, pointing out how close it was to Thanksgiving. That was when the trouble really started. I told her I’d be spending the holiday at Pemberley.”

“I bet she loved that.”

“She was upset, and hurt, I think. At the time I was too angry to care. Later I felt guilty. But you were right in what you said earlier, even though you were joking. I had to follow my heart.”

“And I’m so glad you did.” She rested her hand on his arm. “But I don’t blame your grandmother for being upset. She and Georgie must have been crushed when you came home after being gone most of the last few months, spent one night, and left again.”

“That’s the only reason I let you talk me into making this trip. Gran has definite ideas about family holidays. Even after my parents separated, she always made my father come to the house for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“It can’t have been easy for your parents to pretend to be civil.”

“There was some tension. But I can remember times when they were cordial, maybe even better than that. I suppose I could have been seeing what I wanted to see.”

“Well, obviously there was some strong initial attraction between them. Maybe once they had separate lives and weren’t fighting anymore, it was easier for them to remember what they originally saw in each other.”

“Maybe. But I could never see what they had in common.”

“They had you.”

“Hardly. I was the main reason their marriage failed.”

“Oh, William, no.” She grasped his arm and forced him to meet her gaze through sheer will power. “It’s not your fault. Your father wanted a wife who would be an ornament in his home, but she wanted a life of her own. They were doomed from the start.”

“But if I hadn’t gotten sick, maybe they would have worked things out.” He sighed. “You don’t need to rush to my defense. I’m just looking at it objectively.”

“No, you’re not. First off, you couldn’t help that you were born with a heart problem. Second, I know we were just talking about how people shouldn’t criticize other people’s relatives, but what sort of father walks away when his son is lying in the hospital in critical condition? Your poor mother! She must have been terrified of losing you. And to have her husband behave that way—”

Her stomach twisted itself into knots as she imagined poor Anna’s distress. Elizabeth had felt a milder version of it the day he had nearly collapsed on Telegraph Hill. She had felt it dozens of times since then while watching him struggle to catch his breath. She had felt it whenever he had grabbed for a stabilizing item of furniture in the throes of a dizzy spell. Those days seemed to be over, but the fear had left a shadow behind, one that still trembled through her when she least expected it. How much worse must it have been for his mother? Rage burned through her at Edmund’s callous rejection of his wife and son.

Then it occurred to her that Rose Darcy had raised Edmund. Things were starting to make sense.

“I’ve done some reading about it,” William said. “Serious illness in a family often breaks up marriages.”

“That doesn’t make it your fault. That just means they weren’t strong enough to handle it.”

“Thank you,” he said softly, “but it doesn’t matter anymore. I have you, and that makes up for everything.”

But it didn’t. It couldn’t. His scars would never vanish completely, just as Michael’s imprint was carved permanently into her soul. But the mark was smaller now and would some day fade into near-invisibility.

“Can I ask you something?” Elizabeth asked softly.

“Of course.”

“It’s about Georgie.” She glanced around and lowered her voice. The background noise on the plane, combined with the distance between rows in first class, gave them at least a modicum of privacy. “Your parents had been estranged for a long time when she was born. And your mother was seeing another man for a year or two beforehand. I hate to ask this, but …”

William closed his eyes briefly and nodded. “You’re wondering who Georgie’s father is.”

“I know it’s none of my business.”

“It’s all right. I don’t know the answer.”

“Your grandmother must know.”

“She might, but we’ve never discussed it.”

“You aren’t curious?”

“Of course.” He hesitated. “But I’m not sure if I really want to know. She’s my sister no matter whose DNA she has.”

“I understand. I’d feel the same way if it were Jane.”

He nodded. “Occasionally I’ve considered asking Gran, but I could never bring myself to do it. Instead I’ve taken my cues from her behavior. She’s never treated Georgie as anything but her legitimate grandchild. Perhaps that’s the best answer.”

“But how would—” Elizabeth stopped, shaking her head, and rephrased her question. She couldn’t ask William whether or not his estranged parents had slept together. “What makes it seem odd is that your mother and her—the man she was seeing went on vacation together so soon after Georgie was born. Doesn’t that suggest … I mean, they were behaving like a little family.”

“I know.” He sighed and his jaw tightened.

“But on the other hand, I keep envisioning all those family events you’ve talked about, the ones your grandmother forced your father to attend. If your mother were—” She stopped, the words dying in her throat when she saw his haunted expression. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be sticking my nose into this.”

“No, it’s all right. In fact, it’s a relief to have someone to share it with.”

“You haven’t talked to anyone about it? Not even Richard?”

“Not really. After Mamma’s pregnancy started to show, Richard made some remarks I didn’t like while we were out running one day. I don’t think he meant to be insulting, but you know how he gets sometimes. I was fifteen, confused, and furious that he’d question my mother’s morals. At least, that was the way it sounded to me. That’s the only time I ever tried to use my fists to settle a dispute.”

“You beat him up?” She couldn’t envision William angry enough to resort to violence. But then she remembered the fury that filled his eyes whenever she mentioned Michael.

“I tried,” he said with a rueful half-smile. “But he was four years older and probably forty pounds heavier, all of it muscle. He could have flattened me if he’d wanted to. Instead he let me land a few harmless punches and then he apologized. He knew he’d stepped over the line.”

“But that was years ago. Certainly you’ve talked about it since then.”

He shook his head. “He’s tried to bring it up a few times, but I’ve never wanted to discuss it. Perhaps I’ve never completely forgiven him for what he said back then.”

“I didn’t mean to dredge all this up.”

“You’re not raising any questions I haven’t thought about hundreds of times. And I know what you were going to ask before. You were thinking that if my mother had been carrying another man’s child, my father couldn’t have sat calmly in the same room with her.”

“It seems that way. After all, he and your mother were the only two people who knew for certain whether or not the baby could be his.”

He nodded. “I used to think that proved he was Georgie’s father. But looking back, I don’t think we saw much of him in the months before my mother died. He’d come to church, but not always to brunch.”

“I thought your grandmother didn’t give excused absence slips for brunch. Sonya even reminded me of that when we planned my flight home.”

“Good for Sonya. Gran will appreciate that you’re staying. And you’re right, she usually doesn’t tolerate absences. Maybe she turned a blind eye in the interests of peace. At the time I thought he was staying away because of me. He had always disapproved of my music. In his opinion it was fine as a hobby, but not a career.”

Some day they needed to have a long talk about Edmund Darcy, but now wasn’t the time. She sensed that words wouldn’t help, so she simply held his hand and waited for him to continue.

“And it wasn’t just my father who started skipping things. Mamma and I missed more than our share of family gatherings because of my performing trips, and when we were home she got headaches sometimes. Maybe that was her way of avoiding Father.”

“What about church services? Did she get headaches then too?”

“My mother was a Catholic, so she went to mass by herself. Even Gran couldn’t argue with that, though obviously she saw to it that I was raised an Episcopalian.”

Silence fell between them. Elizabeth stared out the window at the sparse clouds casting shadows on the ocean below. The answer seemed clear. Edmund and Anna had avoided each other during her pregnancy, and Rose had tolerated their behavior rather than risk angry scenes. Georgiana must not have been his child.

William’s next words sounded like an extension of her thoughts. “But there’s one other thing. If Georgie isn’t my father’s child, why didn’t he cut her out of his will?”

“Wouldn’t that have caused a huge scandal?”

“Only if it became public, and I think that could have been avoided. Pride was my father’s defining characteristic. I can’t see him voluntarily leaving his possessions to another man’s child.”

“But she was, what, three when he died? Certainly he wouldn’t have turned his son’s three-year-old half-sister into a pauper.”

William sniffed. “Don’t be so sure. Besides, Gran would have done the right thing by Georgie no matter what. So he didn’t have to leave her half his share of the townhouse and of the company, yet he did.”

“Pemberley too, I assume?”

“No.” A smile warmed William’s eyes. “Pemberley is mine. It’s part of an old family trust that always goes to the eldest son. Of course the family is welcome to visit any time, but I manage the estate.” He shrugged, still wearing a tender smile. “It doesn’t take much of my time.”

Mrs. Shepherd’s position as housekeeper now made sense to Elizabeth. William, not Rose, had hired her. “No wonder you love it so much,” she said quietly. “It’s completely yours, something you don’t have to share with anyone.”

“That could be part of it. From the time I was a little boy, I always knew it would be mine some day.”

They fell silent again, and Elizabeth breathed a longing sigh. “I hope we can go back soon. I didn’t think it was possible for life to be perfect, but the past few days…”

His dark eyes flared, and after a long, intense look he leaned across and kissed her. “Maybe when we’re old and gray we can retire there,” he whispered, rubbing his nose gently against hers.

Just then the plane lurched again and their faces collided with a painful crunch. Elizabeth yelped and grabbed her nose, and William cupped her shoulder. “Are you okay?” he asked, peering at her anxiously.

The pain was already abating, and she dissolved into giggles. “I’m fine. You?”

He ran his index finger along each side of his nose, frowning in concentration, and then nodded. “Nothing shattered but my dignity.”

“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from,” she said with a teasing grin.

“There used to be. Then I met you.”

“Poor William; your life is so tough,” she cooed with sham sympathy. “I’d kiss you and make it better, but it’s too dangerous.” She sat back in her seat and yawned. “I think I’m going to try to take another nap.”

He pulled his reading glasses from his shirt pocket. “Okay, but if you change your mind and want me to model these for you, the lavatory is only a few steps away.”

“Get thee behind me, Satan,” she intoned, warding him off with her hands, her index fingers forming a cross.

He chuckled, his eyes gleaming. Gradually his mischievous smile faded, replaced by an almost reverent expression that made it hard for her to breathe. “I love you,” he murmured, so softly that she felt the words rather than hearing them.

“Me too.” She squeezed his hand. Then she reclined her seat and settled back with a happy sigh.

 

fruit basketSonya hadn’t just booked a room at the Four Seasons. She had arranged for a lavish one-bedroom suite, easily three times the size of the shabby apartment Elizabeth had shared with Sally on the Lower East Side. While William dealt with the bellman and their luggage, Elizabeth wandered around the stylish living room in awe. Her attention was drawn to a mammoth fruit basket resting on the coffee table, next to a bottle of French champagne chilling in a silver bucket. A plate with knives and forks flanked the basket on the other side, topped by a note of welcome from the hotel manager.

champagne bucketShe returned to the hallway and peered in a door, finding a powder room—for guests, apparently, so they didn’t sully the pristine master bath. Shaking her head at the extravagance, she continued into the bedroom. It featured a king-sized bed, a comfortable chair, enough open floor space to park at least two cars, and an arresting view of Central Park. The snow threatening the area had been delayed, and crystal blue skies floated about the skyscrapers surrounding the hotel.

view from the suiteWilliam found her a few minutes later standing in the walk-in closet, salivating over the plentiful drawers and generous hanging space. “Remind me to talk to the front desk before we leave,” she said. “I’m going to have them pack up this closet and ship it to me in San Francisco.”

“In that case, remind me to take you on a tour of my dressing room at home. You’ll never want to leave.” He wrapped her in his arms.

His kiss, though it stirred her desire, lacked the abandon of his embraces the night before. All too soon he raised his head and sighed, releasing her from his arms. “Much as I want to pick you up and carry you off to bed, I think we’d better get over to the house. Dinner isn’t till six, but the rest of the family is probably already having drinks and hors d’oeuvres.” The staid, responsible William Darcy had taken charge, submerging the playful, passionate lover with whom she had spent three perfect days in paradise.

“Of course,” she said with false cheer. “The bed will still be here when we get back. And remember, you promised to model your glasses, just your glasses, for me later.”

“So I did,” he said, eyeing her with a wolfish expression. Apparently his passionate side wasn’t as deeply buried as she had thought. “Maybe I should bring them along in case the party gets dull. We could always sneak upstairs to my bedroom.”

She followed him out of the closet, smiling and shaking her head. A dull party. We should be so lucky.

 

“Elizabeth! William! It’s so good to see you!” Mrs. Reynolds wiped her hands on her apron and hustled across the kitchen. The motherly hug Elizabeth received bolstered her courage. At least someone in the house welcomed her presence.

“It smells wonderful in here,” Elizabeth said, inhaling the festive scents of a Thanksgiving dinner in progress.

Mrs. Reynolds stepped back and inspected Elizabeth. “And don’t you look beautiful!” She turned to William. “Doesn’t she?”

“She certainly does.” He beamed at her with undisguised pride.

Elizabeth curtsied to him as best she could in her narrow skirt. Before leaving San Francisco she had packed a few warmer items in case she needed to seek William out in New York, cramming them into corners around her sundresses, shorts, and sunscreen. From her meager options she had made what she considered a perfect choice, a black dress in a silky knit that complemented but didn’t flaunt her curves. It was sexy enough to please William, yet conservative enough to pass muster in the Darcy dining room. For jewelry, there had been no question what to wear. She fingered her emerald pendant and gained another tablespoon of confidence.

“I assume everyone’s in the library?” William asked.

Mrs. Reynolds nodded and then shuddered. “I don’t envy you, flying all the way back here and then having to stomach that dreadful woman and her daughter.”

William frowned. “Her daughter? But I thought …” He shrugged and took Elizabeth’s hand. “Never mind. We’ll see you later, Mrs. Reynolds.”

“What dreadful woman?” Elizabeth whispered as they made their way down the hallway. She could hear muffled voices coming from the library.

William stopped halfway down the hall and spoke softly. “Dorothy Scofield, an old friend of Gran’s who’s visiting from West Palm Beach. I’m surprised Mrs. Reynolds spoke so harshly about her. Dorothy can talk non-stop for hours without saying anything of the slightest importance, but she means well and she’s always been kind to me. Her husband rarely says a word. He must think his wife does enough talking for both of them.”

“I take it they’re your grandmother’s house guests?”

“That’s right. Odd that their daughter is here too. In fact, I thought they were going to her place for dinner. Otherwise I would have mentioned them sooner.” He grasped her shoulders and drew her close. “Thank you for coming here with me. I know this isn’t going to be fun for you, and now you have strangers to deal with in addition to family.”

His gentle kiss brought the sparkle back to her eyes, and she felt equal to any challenge as she preceded William into the library.

Richard, whose chair faced the door, saw them first. He couldn’t call out a greeting without interrupting the woman beside him—his mother, no doubt, judging from their similar features—but he flashed a welcoming smile. So far, so good. Georgiana, who shared Eleanor Fitzwilliam’s sofa, stared at her lap, her shoulders slumped, as she fiddled with a beaded bracelet.

Next around the circle was Rose Darcy, her regal carriage making her straight-backed armchair seem like a throne. And beside her sat—

Elizabeth had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep herself from gasping. Behind her, she heard William let out a tiny groan at the sight of Catherine de Bourgh, eyeing them with glacial disdain.

It was going to be a long evening.