bookshelf5:03.

William glared at his watch, willing it to move faster, but only two minutes had passed since his last time check. He glanced up at the rows of books stretching toward the ceiling, their covers bathed in shadows. He had always loved the library. With its vaulted ceiling, it was like a cathedral venerating the printed word, smelling of furniture polish instead of incense. But today tension vibrated through the room until he could almost feel the waves buffeting his body. He leaned back in his armchair, one ankle propped on the opposite knee, and gently swirled the Merlot in his glass. Perhaps if he managed to look relaxed no one would see through the illusion.

Elizabeth seemed to have adopted the same strategy. She sat across the room conversing with Richard and his parents, a cheerful smile lighting her face. Only her hands told a different story, rising periodically to touch her emerald pendant before returning to the chair arm to absently toy with the cording along the edge.

After the formal greetings and introductions had taken place, Richard had waylaid Elizabeth with inquiries about Charlotte and Jane. It had been natural for her to slip into the empty seat beside his, and there she had stayed. The other available seat—the one William occupied—might as well have come with iron straps to lock his ankles and wrists in place. Catherine de Bourgh was enthroned in a high-backed armchair to his left, and he shared a loveseat with Anne, who had long ago perfected her impersonation of a statue in her mother’s presence.

At first Catherine had said little, contenting herself with glaring in Elizabeth’s general direction. But soon she had embarked on a steady stream of self-aggrandizing tales peppered with famous names from the music world. Her eyes still launched occasional salvos of invisible daggers across the room, but Elizabeth wisely failed to notice.

William cast a sidelong glance across Catherine at his grandmother. She was unusually silent, perhaps because during their greeting he had made no effort to disguise his resentment. Her betrayal stunned him; he would have thought it beneath her to engineer such an ambush. Only for Georgiana’s sake had he suppressed the urge to sweep Elizabeth into his arms, stalk out the door, and hop the next flight back to Pemberley.

Georgiana seemed indifferent to his sacrifice. She slouched at the far end of the sofa she shared with her aunt, her eyes fastened on the thick patterned rug beneath her feet. She had accepted his hug with little enthusiasm and offered Elizabeth only a brief, mumbled greeting before lapsing into silence.

His aunt and uncle might have appeared relaxed to a stranger, but he could sense the tension in their cheerful conversation. Even Richard, ordinarily the most disinterested of observers, seemed wary of the powder keg that sat in their midst, one with a perilously short fuse.

William’s hand tightened on his wine glass. He swirled the liquid again, this time with too much enthusiasm, nearly spilling it onto his trousers.

“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he heard Elizabeth say during a pause in Catherine’s running commentary.

“Isn’t it?” Eleanor Fitzwilliam, his aunt, nodded. “And William probably told you that his mother added to the gardens over the years. The grounds were always lovely but now they’re spectacular.”

“If I know Will, he gave Lizzy the complete history of every plant in the garden and every brick in the house,” Richard said, lobbing his trademark smirk in William’s direction. “I think he’s convinced himself that he built Pemberley with his own hands.”

“Pemberley?” Catherine’s face lit up like a jungle cat spotting its dinner. “Ah, yes. Anne and I have been there several times. As invited guests, of course.” Her mouth curled into a disdainful smile as her eyes skewered Elizabeth. “I understand you followed William to Barbados.”

William flashed a resentful glance at his grandmother, the most likely source of this misinformation. “It was the other way around,” he said in a leaden tone. “I followed her.”

Catherine ignored him, her eyes boring into Elizabeth. “And I take it you canceled your classes last Monday so as to lengthen your vacation, violating my clearly stated policies.”

“My department chair assured me there wouldn’t be a problem,” Elizabeth said calmly. “She said attendance is always sparse the Monday before Thanksgiving.”

“And why not?” Catherine snapped, “When irresponsible instructors cancel classes according to their whims, it sends a message that classes are unimportant.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Irresponsible?” she said in a tight voice. “I am not—” She colored and glanced at Rose. When she spoke again, the tension around her eyes belied her light, almost flippant tone. “Then it’s just as well I’m leaving in a few weeks.”

Richard jumped into the fray, forestalling Catherine, who had just taken a deep breath as if winding up for a lengthy rant. “You’d better watch out, your ladyship. Gran has a strict ‘no shop talk’ policy on holidays. Dad could show you the scars from times when he tried to flout the rules.”

“Richard.” The disapproval in Rose’s voice would have wilted a faint-hearted adversary. Richard fell silent, but a smirk emerged from one corner of his mouth that even Catherine’s freezing glare couldn’t extinguish. William exchanged glances with Elizabeth, barely concealing his smile. It was nice to have someone else under the microscope for a change.

“Richard is exaggerating,” Robert Fitzwilliam said genially, “but not by much. I don’t have any scars, but Rose has sent me to my room without dessert more than once. And since I don’t live here, that’s quite a trek.”

“Catherine, I’m sure we would all like to hear about the arrangements for William’s recital next month.” Rose’s precise voice underlined each word. “I understand you are planning a gala affair.”

Catherine paused, her eyes still cold, but Rose’s air of cool command must have restrained her. “Anne is handling everything. She has such a talent for planning elegant social events. Of course, you know how valuable those skills are. It’s a pity when young men of prominent families fail to recognize true superiority in a woman, and waste their time and energies elsewhere.”

William’s gaze flew to Elizabeth as well. He saw her eyes flare and and her hand clench around the emerald pendant. He lifted his chin and stared at Catherine. “Perhaps the men you speak of are capable of judging superiority for themselves.”

Rose looked past Catherine and William and spoke in the gentle voice she seemed to reserve solely for Anne. “Why don’t you tell us about your plans for the recital, my dear.”

Anne glanced up, startled. Her eyes looked damp. Shame flooded William as he realized that his defense of Elizabeth had been, albeit unintentionally, at Anne’s expense. “Yes, of course, Aunt Rose,” she said in her soft, halting voice. “I considered several possibilities, and finally I decided that we—”

“It will have a holiday theme,” Catherine said loudly. “Holiday decorations, very elegant of course, and a champagne reception afterwards. Of course we expect all the prominent people in the music world to attend, as well as representatives of the major foundations. I assume you’ll all be flying out for it. Georgiana too, if she can manage it without missing school. Otherwise she had better stay at home. We’ll set aside enough VIP seats for all of you—next to Anne and me, of course.”

“I’ll need another VIP ticket,” William said. “For Elizabeth.”

“That won’t be possible. We’ve reserved a few seats for faculty in the balcony, but they will be offered to the most senior professors, prominent musicians who have demonstrated their skill and their dedication to teaching.”

“That’s unacceptable.” William squared his shoulders and sat up straight. “You have two choices. You can find Elizabeth a seat down front, or you can find another performer for the recital.”

“I can’t believe you’re speaking to me this way, William,” Catherine shot back, bristling. “Your poor mother would be horrified if she could hear you.”

Rose sent him a warning glance and then addressed Catherine. “I’m certain that William meant no disrespect.”

“Lizzy can have my ticket.” The wicked glint in Richard’s eye told William that his cousin was up to no good.

Catherine let out a small snort. “I suppose this event is too tame for a man of your … tastes.”

“Damn straight, your ladyship. I bet I can find myself some hell to raise that evening so I’m not in anybody’s way.”

Richard’s speech won him glares from Catherine and Rose and a milder admonishing glance from his mother, but his smirk was unrepentant. Robert crossed the room to visit the bar in the corner, nodding at William as he passed.

Clifford the dog balloonElizabeth turned to Richard and deftly changed the subject. “I missed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade this morning for the first time in years—we were on the plane. I don’t suppose you saw it?”

“Just a few minutes, at my health club.”

“You worked out on Thanksgiving?” Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “I’m impressed.”

“I always do. That way I can pig out with impunity.”

“I wish I’d thought of that. Have you ever gone to the parade?”

“Once, when I was a kid.” Richard glanced at his parents. “How long ago was it?”

“About twenty years ago, right after we moved here,” Robert replied. “We got a hotel room with a parade view.”

Macy's Thanksgiving parade“The balloons floated right past the window,” William said. “I’m surprised I didn’t permanently flatten my nose, the way I had it pressed to the window the whole time.”

“You were easily impressed at that age, old man.”

“Oh, you liked it too,” Eleanor retorted, shaking her head at her son. “You just couldn’t admit it.” She smiled and addressed Elizabeth. “Richard was thirteen and determined to be bored with everything.”

“I had my reputation to protect. The Cool Dude Code requires that you be jaded and cynical on all occasions.”

“Then obviously I wasn’t a cool dude,” William said with a grin, “because I was spellbound. In fact, I took Georgie to the same hotel when she was eight so she could see the parade from the same angle, and she loved it too. Didn’t you, Georgie?”

“It was okay,” she replied with a shrug.

“That’s my little cool dudesse,” Richard shot back, winking at her. Georgie rolled her eyes and stared at the rug.

“That parade is nothing but a major annoyance,” Catherine said. “I had a breakfast meeting with Marcel LeBrand today—you know, he’s the new director of the opera company. He wanted my advice on developing young singers. I could scarcely get there for all the detours. I can’t see why the mayor allows such nonsense.”

Rose handed her empty wine glass to Robert, who returned to the bar to refill it. “The parade brings tourist dollars to the city, and New York needs that.”

“I went to the parade a couple of times when I lived here,” Elizabeth said. “I loved the excitement of being down on the street with the crowds.”

“I suppose for children, and for others with plebeian tastes, it might have some entertainment value. But Anne and I have never considered it worth our time.”

William heaved a sigh and checked his watch again. 5:09.

 

Elizabeth stood looking at herself in the gilt-framed powder room mirror, amazed that the twisted condition of her insides didn’t show on her face. She clutched a thick, soft guest towel in her hands, squeezing it tightly. Too bad it’s not Catherine’s neck. It was also too bad she couldn’t stay in the small but sumptuous room forever. Not to hide—she was quick to assure herself of that—but to admire the stunning black glass sink bowl shot through with veins of gold. But she needed to return to the library soon. Perhaps she’d stop by the kitchen on her way for another dose of Mrs. Reynolds’s motherly warmth.

She flung open the bathroom door, nearly springing into the air when she saw William looming in the hallway. Her hand flew to her chest. “You startled me.”

He apologized, took her hand, and led her into the dimly-lit living room. He enfolded her in his arms. “Lizzy, I’m so sorry,” he sighed against her hair.

She nestled against him, absorbing his strength and comfort. “I had no idea how badly I needed a hug.”

His lips grazed the top of her head. “I swear I didn’t know Catherine and Anne would be here.”

“Of course you didn’t.” She stepped back and glanced to either side, half expecting to see Catherine and Rose standing in the shadows, hands on their hips in glacial disapproval. “If you’d known, you would have warned me.”

“If I’d known, we would have stayed at Pemberley.”

She sighed, envisioning a candlelit table for two in the fragrant tropical garden, a soft breeze rustling through the lush foliage. “I’m trying to behave myself, but if this goes on much longer I’m simply going to have to kill her.”

“I’ll be happy to help. And Gran has a lot to answer for too, inviting the de Bourghs. She must have known Catherine would behave this way.”

“But remember, your grandmother didn’t know I was coming to dinner till two nights ago. I’m sure Catherine and Anne were already on the guest list by then.”

“Perhaps,” he said, shrugging. “No wonder Gran was so upset when I said I was staying at Pemberley for Thanksgiving. She and Catherine probably cooked up this scheme to shove Anne down my throat yet again.”

“So when Catherine said your grandmother wanted you to marry Anne, she was telling the truth?”

He nodded slowly. “Gran has always had a soft spot for Anne. For that matter, so did Mamma.” He rested his hands on her waist. “But I’ve told Gran time and again that Anne and I are just friends.”

“There you are.” It was Richard’s roguish voice. A lamp clicked on, flooding the room with light. “Making out in the living room. I’m shocked, shocked and appalled.”

William tightened his hold on Elizabeth. “Go away, Richard.”

“Oh, don’t get your boxers in a twist, Will. I’m here on a mission of mercy.” Richard drained his half-empty scotch glass before continuing. “Your joint absence was remarked on by The Powers That Be, so I volunteered to hunt you down. I figured, better me than Gran or the Duchess, especially since I wasn’t sure what you were doing out here.”

“Lizzy needed a break from Catherine, and so did I.”

Richard nodded. “Lizzy, you are one cool customer. I don’t know how you’re stopping yourself from ripping out her throat. Incidentally, I’d pay big bucks to see that, so don’t hold back on my account.”

“There’s really nothing I can do,” she said, shaking her head. “Most of her insults have been indirect, so I can’t defend myself.”

“Have we been sitting in the same library?” Richard eyed her with skepticism. “She’s been on you constantly.”

“Yes and no. It’s like when she told William he was slumming and didn’t appreciate a truly ‘superior’ woman.” She imitated Catherine’s haughty tone. “Obviously I was the inferior harlot, but she never actually said so. If I’d taken offense she’d have denied the connection and accused me of being oversensitive. And worse yet, I’d have been claiming that low position for myself.”

“A fairly clever strategy, coming from her,” Richard said with a thoughtful frown. “What a shame—a mud-wrestling match between the two of you would be lots more fun than her sniper-with-poison-darts routine.”

Elizabeth chuckled. William rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly, but he couldn’t completely quench his smile.

“Seriously, though,” Richard continued, “Catherine must know that Gran would step in if she went any further out on that limb.”

“She would?” Elizabeth had seen little evidence of concern on Rose’s part, aside from an occasional strategic change of subject.

“Absolutely, if it ever escalates to open warfare. But as it is, she’s chosen to keep the peace. People like Gran are good at pretending not to notice the elephant in the room, and even stepping around a few piles of elephant droppings, as long as the beast doesn’t go on a rampage.”

“I’m disappointed that she’s let it go as far as she has,” William said. “I expected her to say something when Catherine went after you for canceling your class.”

“That made me so angry. How dare she suggest that my students don’t matter to me!”

“I can vouch for you there,” Richard said. He grinned at William. “So can the old man here. He practically blew himself to bits all those nights you had rehearsals for the play and he was stuck having dinner with Jane and me.”

“I don’t know how much more I can take without losing my temper,” Elizabeth said, fingering the polished surface of her emerald pendant. “I’m going to bite all the way through my tongue before long.”

“I say give her back a helping of the sort of crap she’s dishing out,” Richard said without hesitation. “God knows she deserves it, and I could use the entertainment.”

Elizabeth shook her head sadly. “The problem is, what would your grandmother think of me if I did that? I promised myself I’d make a good impression on her tonight.”

“You’re right,” William sighed. “Gran would consider that a sign of bad breeding. Though why that doesn’t apply to Catherine is an interesting question.”

“She’s not the one on trial here,” Elizabeth said a bit too loudly. She grimaced and continued in a soft voice. “I am. And Catherine knows that. She’s baiting me, hoping I’ll blow up in front of your grandmother and demonstrate that I’m not fit to associate with you.”

Richard shrugged. “Then again, Gran might admire your spunk. Catherine gets on her nerves too.”

“Then why on earth is Catherine here?”

“Because of Anne,” William said. “Catherine is her only family, and Gran feels sorry for her.”

“Don’t we all. We only have to tolerate Catherine once in a while; for Anne it’s a full-time job.” Richard peered into his glass. “Look, much as I’m tempted to escape while I have the chance, I’m out of scotch and the bottle is in the library. So you know what that means. I wouldn’t recommend staying away much longer. They’ll send the bloodhounds after you.”

Richard departed, and William reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “Let’s just leave. We can go to the hotel and order room service. I’ll tell Gran; you don’t even have to go back in there.”

“No. We flew up here so you could have Thanksgiving dinner with your family, and that’s what you’re going to do.” She hesitated, biting her lip, and then made the suggestion she’d been contemplating. “But maybe I should leave. I could fake a headache or something. Catherine would probably calm down, and the rest of you could enjoy your day together.”

“Out of the question. Before I let you leave here without me, I’ll tell Catherine exactly what I think of her. Or better yet, I’ll pick her up and pitch her out the front door.”

She almost laughed. “I wish you could.”

“Of course, if I did, Gran would probably pitch me out after her.” He drew her into his arms. “But at least then we could be alone.”

She traced a finger down his cheek. “We can be alone later. Right now you need to be here, especially for Georgie’s sake. She’s really glad to see you.”

“What makes you say that? She won’t even look at me.”

“Not when she knows you’re watching her. But she’s been looking at you plenty when she thinks you won’t notice.”

He frowned. “Really?”

“Uh huh. She’s the only teenager in a room full of annoying adults, so of course she has to act like she’s bored by it all, but I’m sure she’d be hurt if you left before dinner.”

“I admit, I’m concerned about her.” He ran his hands up Elizabeth’s arms and massaged her shoulders. “All right, then, when we go back in there I’ll do whatever it takes to get Catherine under control.”

“How? If you pick a fight with her you’ll upset your grandmother, and she’ll probably take it as a sign of my bad influence.”

“Gran will have to deal with it. I don’t want you to leave, and I also don’t want you subjected to any more of Catherine’s rudeness.”

“Well, if you’re sure it’s what you want, I’ll stay.” She kissed his cheek. “But I might have to come out here from time to time and smash a few priceless Ming vases.”

“If you think it’ll help, feel free,” he said with a rueful smile. “I could point out the most valuable pieces so you maximize the benefit. It’s the least I can do; after all, it’s my fault you’re here.”

“No, it’s not. We agreed that we needed to do this.”

“But if it weren’t for me you could be enjoying yourself in Barbados with the Gardiners.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck. “If I were there, I’d be sad and lonely, pining for you.”

“No matter what happens, I owe you for this.” He reached up and brushed a tendril of hair off her cheek. “Ready?”

She nodded and they moved down the hall together, the delicious scent of a perfectly-roasted turkey offering solace. As they passed the dining room, the table majestically adorned with the family silver, crystal, and china, she offered William an impish grin. “I should warn you of one thing. I wouldn’t rule out a food fight at dinner. I’d love to see what Catherine would look like covered in gravy.”

 

William heaved a sigh of relief as he rose from the dinner table. Throughout the meal, Catherine had continued her campaign of thinly-veiled insults. Elizabeth and Eleanor, with help from Rose and the Fitzwilliam men, had labored to keep some semblance of appropriate dinner-table conversation going. But by the end of the meal their efforts had collapsed under the weight of the tension around the table. William had barely tasted his food, his thoughts absorbed by dark fantasies of leaping from his chair and throttling Catherine.

“We’ll have coffee and dessert in the library,” Rose said.

bottle of Macallan 30“I think the men need to linger over a cognac first,” Robert said, his voice a shade too hearty. Richard had inherited his taste for scotch from his father, and the two had liberally indulged their fondness for 30-year Macallan before dinner. “I don’t know why that fine old tradition was ever discontinued.”

“As long as you don’t stay too long,” Rose answered. “And no cigars.” She scarcely needed to include that instruction. Smoking was forbidden throughout the townhouse.

William caught Elizabeth’s hand under the table and squeezed it. She gave him a wan smile and followed Rose from the room. He heard her ask Georgie about her youth orchestra as they passed through the doorway, but his sister’s brief response was unintelligible.

Robert fetched a bottle of cognac and three tulip glasses from the massive walnut cabinet in one corner of the room. He returned to the table, a beatific smile lighting his face. “Finally, some peace,” he said, seating himself with a soft grunt. “That woman is a menace.”

glass of cognacRichard poured the cognac and distributed the glasses, the amber liquid glowing in the light of the massive crystal chandelier. William raised his glass, reverently inhaling the rich bouquet, and then sat back in his chair as he drank. Warmth seeped into his veins, soothing his jangled nerves.

“That’s a terrific girl you have there, William,” Robert said. “Richard said we’d like her and he was right.”

William yawned and blinked, trying to force his drooping eyelids open. “I wish Gran agreed with you.”

“Rose will come around. She wasn’t sure about me at first either.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Richard retorted. “She’s still not sure about you.”

Robert chuckled. “Rose prefers her money old and her blood blue.” He grinned at his son. “And you’d better watch out. Your mother’s going to be all over you about why you can’t find a nice girl like Elizabeth.”

“I tried, but like so many before her, she succumbed to the William Darcy Magnetic Field. It’s tough being the cousin of a living legend.”

“I’ve noticed how you suffer,” William retorted, shifting in his chair. “It limits you to two women per night instead of three or four.”

“Precisely.” Richard raised his glass to his lips. “How am I supposed to put up with that?”

Voices floated down the hall from the library. “We ought to get back in there,” William said, glancing at the doorway.

“Relax, Will.” Richard refilled his glass. “Elizabeth can hold her own against Lady Voldemort. Maybe if we stay here long enough she’ll climb back on her broom and we’ll be rid of her.”

William passed his glass to Richard for a refill, torn between worry over the scene in the library and enjoyment of the relative peace of the dining room. One more glass of cognac, and then he’d go to the library with or without the Fitzwilliam men.

 

Elizabeth took a break from the arduous task of trying to pry words out of Georgiana, and turned her attention across the room. Eleanor, who had seated herself between Rose and Catherine, deserved a medal for exceptional valor. Since their return to the library she had encouraged Catherine’s name-dropping tendencies with admiring questions and soft exclamations, saving Elizabeth from the lash of Catherine’s acid tongue. Surprisingly, Rose had proved a skillful second-in-command to her daughter.

But in spite of these efforts the atmosphere remained as brittle as the delicate china cup Elizabeth clutched in her hand. She watched with increasing impatience for the men to return from the dining room, since it brought closer the moment when she and William could make a graceful exit. Unfortunately, Richard and William loved to linger over good cognac, and the Darcy home was sure to stock only the finest vintage.

Elizabeth smiled at Georgiana and excused herself, ostensibly for the powder room. Of course it was mere coincidence that her errand forced her to pass through the dining room.

“Lizzy!” Richard set his glass on the table with a loud clink.

“Had all you can take of the hen party?” Robert asked.

Richard snorted. “Or have the rest pecked one another to death, and you’re the sole survivor?”

She smiled, though without much enthusiasm. “I’m just stretching my legs. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Of course not.” William extended his hand. “Is it bad in there?”

“Everything’s fine.” The warmth of his fingers entwined with hers gave her a fresh jolt of energy.

“We’ll join you soon, I promise.” William directed a pointed stare at Richard and spoke firmly. “This is our last glass of cognac.”

She released his hand and made her way into the hall, pausing to peek into the kitchen. Mrs. Reynolds, with Allen’s help, was busy stowing the leftovers in the refrigerator and didn’t need to be disturbed. Elizabeth continued down the hall and into the living room.

A soft gasp escaped her throat at the sight of Anne de Bourgh huddled in a chair in one corner. When had Anne left the library? Elizabeth hadn’t noticed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone was here.”

“It’s all right,” Anne whispered, wiping her eyes. “I just needed a few minutes of quiet.”

“I’ll leave you alone.”

“No. Please, stay. I’d like to talk to you.”

Elizabeth hesitated before crossing the room and seating herself. She and Anne saw each other occasionally in the halls at the conservatory, but their conversations had always been brief and superficial.

“I …” Anne paused and took an unsteady breath. “I need to apologize for the way my mother is treating you.”

“You aren’t responsible for her behavior.”

“In a way I am. She can see how much William cares about you, and she’s always hoped that he and I would …” She gave Elizabeth an awkward smile, little more than a twitch of her cheek muscles.

“But surely you’ve told her that the two of you are just friends.”

Anne’s eyes dropped to her lap and she fidgeted with a tissue in her hand.

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You’re in love with him?” Immediately she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s all right.” Anne glanced up quickly. “Friendship is the only thing between us, on his side at least.” She sighed and stared at the floor. “I’ve known William since I was a little girl. Daddy had just left us, and Mother was so angry and hurt.”

Elizabeth didn’t feel sorry for Catherine, but it must have devastated Anne to lose him, and then to hear all the gossip, even if she was too young to understand it.

“Aunt Anna invited us over for dinner now and then. William and I were close to the same age, and we used to play together while the adults talked. He must have thought I was an awful bore, but he was always so nice to me. I’d always wanted a brother or sister, and it was like God had finally answered my prayers.”

“And when you were older, you started to see him as more than a brother?”

“How could I help it?” Anne’s voice rose. She swallowed and continued in a subdued tone. “I knew he didn’t feel that way about me. But he was kind and gentle, and …” Her voice trailed off.

“I understand.”

“It wasn’t just William. Aunt Anna always treated me like a member of the family. Aunt Rose still does. I thought how wonderful it would be if it were true.”

“Did you ever tell anyone how you felt?”

“No, but Mother must have sensed it. She works hard to keep us in close touch with the Darcys by visiting New York and inviting them to visit us in California. And she talks about him all the time, and what a good son-in-law he would be.”

It required all of Elizabeth’s self-control to stifle the comment that Catherine had her own reasons unrelated to Anne’s happiness for wanting to snare William as a son-in-law.

“Mother assumed that he and I would see a lot of each other while we were in town for the holiday. But then yesterday she found out that William had invited you to New York, and she was upset.”

“But certainly she already knew that William and I were seeing each other.”

“She’d heard rumors on campus, but she insisted that he was only—” Anne stopped abruptly. “She insisted it wasn’t serious.”

Elizabeth could imagine what Catherine had said. “Once she heard that he was taking me home to meet his family, she knew it wasn’t just a casual fling.”

“I never thought it was. About a month ago when he took me to dinner, he seemed so happy, and I could tell it was because of you. He and Roger talked about you constantly.”

“William said you and Roger seemed to enjoy meeting each other.”

It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but Anne appeared to blush. “Yes, I liked him.”

“Roger is a terrific guy.” Unfortunately, it was hard to imagine friendly, jovial Roger developing any serious interest in someone as glum and silent as Anne.

“We had dinner again last week.”

“Really?” So much for her instant psychoanalysis. “That’s great! Did you have a good time?”

“I did, and I think maybe he did too.” Anne sounded surprised. “We’re going to have dinner again when I get back from New York.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but what does your mother think of this?”

“She doesn’t know. She had her own plans for dinner the night I went out with him, and I made sure I got home before she did.”

Elizabeth bit back the advice that clamored to escape her lips. It seemed absurd for a single woman in her late twenties to be sneaking out of the house on dates, but most women didn’t have Catherine de Bourgh for a mother.

“I thought of inviting him to William’s recital, but of course there’s no way I could keep that from Mother.”

“I suppose William could request another VIP ticket, but he’s already in trouble for doing that.” Elizabeth processed what she had just said and winced. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound bitter.”

Anne’s watery blue eyes were bottomless wells of sadness, multiplying Elizabeth’s shame. “I don’t blame you for being angry. I know what most people think of her. But she’s my mother, and she loves me in her own way.”

“I know. My mom isn’t exactly Mother of the Year, but she’s still my mom.”

Anne sighed and stood up. “I’d better get back in there. Mother will consider it bad breeding that I’ve been gone this long.”

“I’ll come with you.” Elizabeth followed Anne into the hall. There was no sense in giving Catherine fresh material to use against her.

 

cup of coffeeBy the time Anne and Elizabeth rejoined the group in the library, the men were scattered around the room, each holding a steaming cup of coffee—except for William, who was absent, as was Georgiana. Eleanor, perhaps noting the way Elizabeth’s eyes combed the room, explained that the two had gone upstairs together. Georgiana had learned a new Chopin nocturne and wanted to play it for William, but had refused to perform it in the library.

This news pleased Elizabeth. William needed a few minutes alone with his sister, away from the tension of the gathering. And when he came back downstairs, perhaps they could finally escape.

Anne accepted Rose’s offer of coffee, and Robert delivered the cup. “Are you going to any Broadway shows while you’re in town?” he asked.

“I don’t think so.” Anne gave him a ghost of a smile.

“Certainly not,” Catherine proclaimed. “But we do have tickets for the Philharmonic tomorrow night. While I’m sure the Thanksgiving parade crowd finds Broadway musicals an acceptable form of entertainment, Anne and I do not.”

Several sympathetic pairs of eyes turned in Elizabeth’s direction. During dinner, she had shared humorous stories of her time in the national touring company of Les Miserables.

“I’m surprised to hear that,” Robert said, a note of challenge in his voice. “Eleanor and I attend the symphony, but we enjoy musicals too. The singing and dancing, all the energy—I find it exhilarating.”

“If I wish to watch singers and dancers on stage, I will go to the opera and the ballet, where the performers possess talent, training, and above all, discipline. Broadway performers are nothing but glorified amateurs.” Catherine pronounced the last word with an affected French accent.

Elizabeth couldn’t remain silent, but she forced herself to speak calmly. “I’m surprised to hear you belittle Broadway performers when your own conservatory offers a musical theater program.”

Catherine snorted. “We have received grants for that purpose from a few misguided arts foundations. Otherwise the musical theater program, even in its limited form, would not exist.”

Elizabeth could almost hear her self-control shatter. “And of course one must never turn down a grant,” she snapped, her green eyes flashing. “It’s far more honorable to pocket the money and then belittle the donor at every opportunity, even in his own home.”

Catherine raised an eyebrow and then spoke in an imperious tone. “I will not be spoken to this way, particularly not by you, Ms. Bennet.”

“And yet you’ll criticize your host and expect us all to sit by and say nothing.”

Rose stood upl, stretching herself to her full, regal height. “Catherine, will you join me upstairs in my sitting room? I have a new painting I would like to show you.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Elizabeth was also on her feet. “I apologize, Mrs. Darcy. I know this hasn’t been the pleasant holiday you envisioned, and I’m part of the reason. I’ve allowed her to insult me without defending myself out of respect for you and the rest of the family. But I will not sit here with a false smile pasted on my face while she insults William’s generosity. I’m sure you already know that he sponsored my position at the conservatory this semester, teaching musical theater classes.” Her voice shook, but she managed to hold her hands steady.

Rose’s aged but still piercing eyes bored into Elizabeth’s in a blue-eyed replica of her grandson’s stare. “Ms. Bennet—” she began.

But Elizabeth was past listening. “I apologize for leaving so abruptly, but I seem to have developed a sudden headache. Thank you for the lovely dinner.”

“Wait, Lizzy.” William’s voice rang out from the doorway. “I’m coming with you.”

He stepped into the room and wrapped an arm firmly around her waist. “Aunt Eleanor, Uncle Robert, Richard, sorry to rush off this way. I’ll see you Sunday morning if not sooner.”

Robert rose to his feet. “Elizabeth, I hope to see you again soon.”

“Thank you. It was wonderful meeting you.”

Richard winked at Elizabeth and raised his coffee cup in a jaunty salute.

Eleanor crossed the room, kissed William’s cheek, and then addressed Elizabeth. “I’m sorry about all of this. But we’ll see you again before you fly back to California.”

Elizabeth accepted Eleanor’s proffered hand. “I hope so.”

William turned to Anne. “Take care of yourself,” he said gently. “I’ll get in touch the next time I’m in San Francisco, and we’ll have lunch.”

“I’d like that,” Anne said, her voice trembling. “I’m sorry that—” She stopped and sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Next William eyed his grandmother. “Good night, Gran.”

Rose watched him carefully but didn’t speak, perhaps shocked into silence by the coldness in his voice.

And then his eyes slid to Catherine, who still sat in her chair. “I’ll still play at your recital, Catherine, because I said I would. But from now on you’ll have one less ‘misguided’ arts foundation to worry about. You’ve seen your last dollar from the Darcy Arts Trust.”

Nothing, apparently, could shock Catherine into silence. “Because of one possibly careless remark on my part?” She shook her head, her expression derisive. “That’s absurd. Sit down and be reasonable.”

Elizabeth had to admit, the woman had moxie. But even Catherine blanched at William’s furious glare.

“I am being reasonable, finally,” he snarled. “You’ve spent the entire evening insulting Elizabeth, and then insulting me for caring about her. You’ve spent years trying to order me around based on God knows what imagined authority. I’ve given you far too much leeway out of respect for your friendship with my mother.”

Catherine had regained her nerve. She rose and faced William, her imperious attitude somehow neutralizing the difference in their heights. “I’ve only been trying to point you in the direction your mother would have wanted, since you’ve lost sight of it yourself.”

“My mother would have wanted me to be happy.” William tightened his arm around Elizabeth’s waist. “Once many years ago Mamma was a stranger in this house, hoping to find a warm welcome. If she’d been here tonight, she would have been horrified to witness how you’ve treated Elizabeth, and she would have been angry with me—with all of us—for letting it go on. In fact, she would have dealt with it herself long before this. She had more courage than the rest of us put together.”

“I can’t believe the way you’re blowing this out of proportion, simply because I believe that opera is a serious art form, and musical theater is not.”

“An opinion you might better have kept to yourself, considering the circumstances,” Robert said, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest.

“Robert makes a worthwhile point,” Rose said stiffly.

“I am always truthful about my views, and if some people are too weak to handle honesty, I’m not to blame.” Catherine planted her hands on her hips. “I merely expressed my opinion—an opinion, I might add, that I’ve heard William voice on several occasions.”

William stiffened but he recovered quickly. “I’m not going to stand here and argue with you, Catherine. I can’t eject you from the house because you’re Gran’s guest. But if for some unimaginable reason she ever invites you back here, I’ll be among the missing.”

Catherine’s lips compressed to an almost microscopic line. Why she hadn’t stormed out the door by now, Elizabeth couldn’t imagine. Then she remembered the six-foot-plus of enraged male standing in the way.

The male in question continued to breathe fire at Catherine. “And as I’ve already said, I can—and will—withdraw the foundation’s support of the conservatory.”

“William—”

“Not now, Gran. Elizabeth and I are leaving. Good night.”

He turned on his heel and led Elizabeth from the room, nearly tripping over Mrs. Reynolds, who lurked near the doorway holding a tray of used coffee cups. The gleam in her eyes made it clear she had heard the confrontation. “I’ll let Allen know you need a ride at once,” she said. “But before you go I’ll put together a little care package for you. After all, you haven’t had your dessert yet.”

“That’s sweet of you. I’ll come to the kitchen and help.” Elizabeth glanced at William. “I’ll meet you in the foyer in just a minute.” She followed Mrs. Reynolds into the kitchen, studying the terra cotta tile floor while Mrs. Reynolds called Allen on the house phone.

kitchen of Darcy townhouse“You poor thing.” Mrs. Reynolds patted Elizabeth’s hand. “And poor William, too. That woman would try the patience of a saint even on a good day.”

“She doesn’t think much of me and she’s not shy about sharing that opinion.”

“It’s just jealousy, because it’s obvious how much William loves you. As if that pale ghost of a daughter were good enough for him.” Mrs. Reynolds began to slice through a pumpkin pie with an unnecessary degree of force.

“Poor Anne. I think she’s had a difficult life.”

“I don’t mean to criticize her. But William needs a woman with spirit, not a timid thing who flinches at the sight of her own shadow.”

When Mrs. Reynolds turned to retrieve the apple pie cooling on the counter, Elizabeth hastily wiped a wayward sliver of pumpkin filling from the table and licked it off her finger. The warm essence of autumn filled her mouth.

slice of Dutch apple pie“My dear, I hope you know that the worst is yet to come,” Mrs. Reynolds remarked, cutting two slices from the pie, whose apples-and-cinnamon scent alone was packing extra pounds on Elizabeth’s hips.

“What do you mean?”

Mrs. Reynolds silently inclined her head toward the doorway as Rose Darcy passed, heading toward the front of the house. “I knew she wouldn’t let him leave without a fight. You might as well sit down, dear. We’ll have ourselves a pot of tea and some pie. They’re both stubborn as mules, and tonight he’s in no mood to let her have her way, so this will take a while.”

 

William, had he known of Mrs. Reynolds’s prediction, would have laughed—a humorless sound, but a laugh all the same. Nothing would keep him in the house any longer than the time it took Allen to fetch their coats and the car keys.

“William.” It was Rose, standing behind him in the foyer.

He spoke without turning around. “Gran, trust me when I say that you don’t want to discuss this with me right now. We can talk tomorrow.”

“I would rather talk now.”

He pivoted slowly and faced her. “All right, but you’ve been warned.”

“I understand why you’re upset, but you’ve been angry since the moment you arrived at the house. Why?”

“You really don’t know?” He folded his arms across his chest. “Are you saying that you couldn’t predict that Catherine would attack Elizabeth at every opportunity?”

Rose winced, perhaps at his words, or perhaps at the way his deep voice bounced through the foyer. “I knew that Catherine disapproved of Elizabeth. I only learned today that it was mutual.”

“But you knew that one of your guests, one with a reputation for speaking her mind, disliked another. And despite that knowledge you let Elizabeth walk into this ambush. Why? To embarrass her?”

“Of course not. When I invited Catherine and Anne to join us, I didn’t anticipate that you would reinstate Elizabeth’s invitation. It’s been less than 48 hours since you informed me of the change of plans.”

“Then you’re saying we shouldn’t have come?”

Rose’s stern expression, from her tightly-drawn lips to her steely eyes, awoke dozens of childhood memories. “I am saying nothing of the kind. But if you had given me more time to prepare, perhaps this unpleasantness could have been avoided. And considering the short notice, perhaps you should have come to dinner alone.”

“Out of the question. It might interest you to know that the only reason I’m here today is because Elizabeth talked me into it. She thought it was important for me to be with my family today. And I couldn’t leave her behind in Barbados.”

“Why not? I understood that her aunt and uncle accompanied her there.”

“Because I love her, and I’ve been missing her for weeks. And because I wanted you and Georgie to get to know her better.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “So I walked her in the door and into this nest of vipers. And there sat my grandmother, the impeccable hostess, who didn’t even bother to warn me that Catherine and Anne would be here.”

Rose paused, fingering the strands of pearls at her throat. “Perhaps I should have.”

“Perhaps?” She could scarcely have made a smaller concession. He inhaled a deep breath, trying to slow the furious pounding of his heart. “Of course you should have. And in spite of everything, Lizzy sat there and put up with Catherine treating her like dirt.”

“She handled herself well this evening until a short time ago.”

“Yes, Lizzy finally lost her temper because Catherine said something that questioned my judgment, and I wasn’t there to defend myself. If you’re expecting me to apologize for her, I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

Rose sighed and shook her head. “William, we’ve always seen eye to eye on things. How did we end up like this?”

“I have a better question. Why can’t you be happy for me? I’ve fallen in love with a beautiful, courageous woman who took a lot of abuse today for my sake, and who was willing to go to the mat to defend my honor despite the fact that she agrees with Catherine’s assessment of what I did. What do we have to argue about?”

Rose didn’t answer immediately. He could see thoughts crystallizing in her clear blue eyes. “Sit down with me and let’s talk about this.”

William shook his head and held up both hands, palms forward. “Lizzy and I are leaving. Tell Georgie I’ll call her in the morning.”

He signaled to Allen, who was lurking in the foyer entrance. “Go warm up the car,” he said, taking the coats from the chauffeur’s arms. “Elizabeth and I will be right out.”

“All right,” Rose said, a thoughtful note in her voice. “You’re upset and not listening to reason. Perhaps it’s best that you go. But we will continue this conversation tomorrow.”

“Good night, Gran,” he said, stepping around Rose in the direction of the kitchen. “You’d better get back to your guests.”

 

Much later, Elizabeth lounged in William’s arms, listening to the sounds of traffic on the streets below. A vague glow from the city lights radiated through the broad picture window, painting the otherwise dark bedroom with a faint sheen of light and shadow.

champagne glassShe reached across his bare chest and lifted a half-full champagne glass from the nightstand. The stem of the glass bumped a pair of eyeglasses, which tumbled to the floor.

“Oops,” she whispered, peering down at the floor.

“It’s okay. I’ll get them.”

She sipped her champagne while he rolled to the edge of the mattress. The sparkling liquid was too dry for her tastes, but she was thirsty enough not to care.

“Should I put these on again?” he asked with a rakish grin, brandishing the eyeglasses.

“Mmm, maybe you should. That was the best fashion show I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m happy to repeat it as often as you want, as long as you promise it’ll always end the same way.” He pressed a soft, slow kiss to her lips.

She returned the champagne glass to the nightstand and snuggled against his chest, pulling the satiny comforter over her shoulders. Her head rose and fell with his deep sigh.

“I’m sorry, cara,” he whispered. “I know I keep saying it, but you didn’t deserve what happened at the house tonight.”

slice of pumpkin pieOn their return to the hotel, she had put her worries aside and had attempted to cajole him out of his dark mood. At first he had paced the living room, threatening to unleash all manner of mayhem on Catherine. But Elizabeth had soon coaxed him onto the sofa, exploiting his weakness for back rubs until her angry lion purred beneath her hands. Then they had devoured Mrs. Reynolds’s pumpkin pie, accompanied by the manager’s welcoming bottle of champagne. Afterwards they had moved blithely on to William’s promised turn as an eyeglass model. But now, in the quiet afterglow of their lovemaking, the full impact of the evening’s events seemed to settle around them like a suffocating blanket.

“I’m fine.” She stroked his stubble-roughened jaw. “How about you?”

He didn’t seem to have heard her. “I should have kicked Catherine out of the house the minute she started in on you.”

“You couldn’t. She was your grandmother’s guest.”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand Gran at all.”

“Well, we knew she had reservations about me. Is it so surprising that she took Catherine’s side?” It wasn’t easy to defend Rose, but for William’s sake she made an effort. “And you’ve told me that she thinks public confrontations are—let’s see, what word would she use … unseemly? Most of the time she can probably keep things under control with meaningful looks and little gestures, but that sort of subtlety escapes Catherine.”

“But she sat there and let Catherine slice you to bits.”

“Only for as long as I was handling it. When I finally lost my temper she tried to drag Catherine off for a private talk. It’s really my fault she wasn’t successful, because that’s when I said I was leaving.”

“Nothing that happened tonight was your fault.” He kissed the top of her head. “You were the best-behaved person there.”

“I think I lost that title when I yelled at Catherine,” she said with a rueful smile. “But I’d like to nominate your aunt for sainthood. You should have seen the way she kept Catherine on a short leash after dinner while you guys were off snorting cognac.”

The “snorting cognac” remark earned her a gentle pinch at her waist. “She and Uncle Robert were impressed with you,” he murmured, trailing a caressing hand over her hip. “He mentioned it after dinner.”

“They’re wonderful people.” She shoved aside, for the hundredth time, the wish that Eleanor and Robert were William’s parents. “How did your aunt turn out the way she did, growing up in that house?”

“She broke from the family when she was eighteen, ran off to San Francisco, and became a hippie.”

Haight-Ashbury hippyElizabeth propped herself up, forearms resting on his chest, and stared at him. “No way.”

“Cross my heart. She paid for her degree at UC Berkeley by working at a head shop1 in Haight-Ashbury. That’s where she met Uncle Robert.”

“A head shop in the Haight?” She jabbed an accusing finger into his chest. “You never said a word about this! Not even when I took you down there that first time.”

He grabbed her hand, restraining her from poking him further. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure what you’d think. I guess you could say she’s our black sheep. I don’t know all the details of her life back then, but I can guess.”

“This was during the sixties?”

He nodded.

She shook her head, smiling. “Drugs, free love, flower power … You should ask her to tell you about it some time. I bet she has some fascinating stories. How on earth did she end up back in the family’s good graces?”

“After she finished college, she and Uncle Robert opened a health food store in Berkeley. Somehow the whole thing snowballed until they ended up with a chain of stores, a manufacturing operation, and hundreds of employees. And by then they had Richard, too.”

“Ah. The curse of adult responsibility.”

“Aunt Eleanor finally decided she still wanted to be a Darcy, as long as she could do it on her terms.”

“What did that mean?”

“She didn’t want any of the family money. So my father ended up with his inheritance plus everything Aunt Eleanor would have gotten.”

It explained why so much pressure rested on William’s shoulders. With Eleanor removing herself from the line of succession and Georgiana’s parentage hazy, William was the sole heir on whom Rose could depend to carry the family into the future. “And your grandmother forgave her for leaving?”

“Family is the thing Gran values most. She would have preferred to dictate the terms of Aunt Eleanor’s surrender, but failing that, I think she took what she could get.”

“What does Richard think about missing out on all that money?”

“My grandfather’s will set up a trust fund for each of the grandchildren. I think it’s the one thing Aunt Eleanor regrets. The trust fund gave Richard the chance to be idle and frivolous, and his primary interests seem to lie in those areas. She was thrilled when I asked him to be my manager.”

Elizabeth rolled onto her side and leaned over William, tracing abstract designs on his chest. “I’m so sorry to have caused this trouble between you and your grandmother. Maybe I should have stayed in Barbados, and we could have found a more gradual way for me to get to know her so she wouldn’t feel like I was being forced on her.”

“Don’t apologize.” His voice was gruff. “I told you, none of this is your fault. Besides, I wouldn’t have left Barbados without you.” He sighed. “I wish we’d stayed there.”

“Maybe I should fly home tomorrow. That way you could go and make peace with your grandmother, spend some more time with Georgie, and—”

“No. I’m not letting you leave.” The imperious William Darcy had spoken, in a tone that brooked no argument.

“Or I can stay, but keep myself busy with Sally and Jon, and you can be at the house as much as you need to be.”

“Lizzy, we’re together now.” He propped a pillow against the headboard and rested his head on it. “Gran needs to accept that.”

“I don’t want to cause a permanent rift between the two of you.” She took one of his hands in hers, toying with his long, tapered fingers.

“I don’t think it’ll come to that. Gran accepted Mamma eventually, and she forgave Aunt Eleanor. It may take time, but she’ll come around.”

It might mean a future of awkward meetings and stilted conversations, but Elizabeth would bear that for William’s sake. “I’ll say one thing.” She brushed her fingers lightly over his stomach. “You don’t get to complain about anything related to my family ever again.”

They fell into a contemplative silence. She continued her gentle exploration of his torso while his hands drifted over her body.

“I almost forgot,” she said, rousing herself from the peaceful fog surrounding her. “How did your conversation with Georgie go?”

“I’m not sure. She seemed more relaxed when we went upstairs, but she still didn’t say much. She never used to be so hard to talk to.”

“Don’t take it personally. Fifteen-year-old girls can be secretive. Did she at least tell you what was bothering her?”

“She was angry because Gran wouldn’t let her invite a friend over for the day.”

“So she was stuck with the adults and bored to death. I thought it might be something like that. Did she play the piano for you?”

A fond smile softened his eyes. “Yes. Mamma’s favorite Nocturne.”

“You must be proud of her.”

He nodded. “She played it beautifully.”

Elizabeth decided she didn’t want to talk about Georgiana or Eleanor or Rose any more, or any other Darcy but the one whose body was so warm and vital beneath her hands. She massaged his chest gently. He closed his eyes and exhaled a deep sigh of surrender.

“I’m giving you an hour to stop doing that,” he murmured. His words dissolved into a groan when she bent lower to press a line of kisses down his torso.

She teased him with more kisses, some slow and wet, others mere butterfly brushes of her lips, and smiled to herself when he groaned again, louder this time. His chest hair tickled her nose as she inhaled the tangy male scent she would always think of as Eau de William.

Then she found herself flat on her back. He loomed over her, his eyes dark with passion. He pressed her wrists flat against the bed, the weight of his powerful lower body pinning her to the mattress. For an instant another bed and another night swam before her frightened eyes, but then William’s mouth came down on hers and the image faded. She would know his kiss anywhere: the softness of his lips, the passion mingled with fathomless tenderness. And the taste of him, clean and masculine and … William.

“I love you,” she sighed, drawing her wrists from his grasp and cupping his face in her hands.

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1 A “head shop” is a store selling items associated with drug culture, counterculture, and New Age philosophy. The first one is believed to have been opened in San Francisco in the mid-1960s.