No sooner had the elevator doors closed than William engulfed Elizabeth in his arms. “It’s not too late to go back to bed,” he said, his voice a deep rumble. “We can get off at the next floor and catch an elevator on its way up.”

“Aren’t you worn out by now?” she asked, tracing a finger along his jaw. She smoothed the plush lapels of his cashmere overcoat, not because they needed attention, but because it gave her an excuse to touch him.

“It’s your fault. You’re irresistible.” He waggled his eyebrows. “I could pull the ‘stop’ button and we could stay right here. I’ve never made love in an elevator.”

She grabbed his hand as he reached for the elevator buttons. “That would be fun, right up to the point when the maintenance people pried the doors open and found us…”

In flagrante delicto? Thanks for spoiling a perfectly good fantasy.” He attempted a scowl, but nothing seemed able to quench the smile in his eyes.

The elevator stopped, and she wriggled out of his arms just as the doors opened. A tall woman with elegantly coiffed silver hair stepped aboard, and the elevator resumed its descent. William pinched Elizabeth on the rear, wringing a startled squeak from her. She wrestled his hand back down to his side, responding to the woman’s curious glance with a sheepish smile. William’s expression would have looked at home on a choirboy—that is, one who had just launched a spitball from the church balcony.

Their shared whimsical mood surprised Elizabeth after yesterday’s disaster. Perhaps they were overcompensating as a form of denial, just as they seemed determined to avoid mentioning Rose or Catherine. But whatever the reason for their high spirits, she wished going back upstairs was a genuine option. A long, lazy day in bed, supplemented by plenty of goodies from room service, sounded much better than braving the Black Friday crowds and the frigid November gloom.

lobby of Four SeasonsThey stepped off the elevator into the lobby of the Four Seasons. Warm, neutral colors dominated the space, from the beige limestone pillars lining the walkways to the blond wood trim and the light panels radiating from the ceiling. The woman from the elevator approached the hotel reception desk, the click of her heels fading to a hollow echo.

Georgiana slouched against a pillar just inside the 57th Street entrance, a cell phone plastered to her ear. A smile flickered across her face as they approached, but she continued her conversation in hushed tones. Finally she snapped the phone shut. “Hi, Will.”

William kissed her cheek. Elizabeth and Georgiana exchanged greetings, though Georgiana didn’t return Elizabeth’s smile.

“I’m so glad you’re coming with us,” Elizabeth said. “I’m picking a dress for the New Year’s Eve gala, and I could use a second opinion. I hear you’re getting a new dress too.”

“Yeah, but not for the Kennedy Center thingie. I’m not going.”

William frowned. “Since when? No one discussed this with me.”

“You haven’t been around,” Georgiana said with an offhand shrug. “Gran said it was okay. Courtney’s having a New Year’s Eve party, and everybody’s going to be there.”

“Courtney?” A core of steel vibrated in William’s voice. “Isn’t she the girl you were running all over New York with when you were supposed to be at my recital last month?”

Georgiana shrugged again and stared back at William, hands on her hips. But her bravado faltered under his intense scrutiny, and her gaze dropped to the floor.

Elizabeth rested her hand on the small of William’s back in a futile attempt to soothe away his tension. She smiled at Georgiana. “Is Courtney your best friend?”

“Yeah.” Georgiana bent her head, and her long, straight hair fell in her eyes. She tucked the limp strands behind one ear and rummaged through her purse, finally extracting a tin of mints. “I wanted to invite her over yesterday, but Gran said no.”

“Didn’t Courtney’s family have something planned for Thanksgiving?” Elizabeth asked.

Georgiana rolled her eyes and popped a mint into her mouth. “Her father didn’t care if she was there or not. All he cares about is Courtney’s stepmother, and she’s a real bi—” She licked her lips, her epithet withering under William’s glare. “She and Courtney hate each other.”

“It’s a shame they don’t get along.” Elizabeth said mildly. She could feel herself wanting to try too hard with Georgiana. Relax. She’ll like you once she knows you better. Maybe.

“Yeah, well, it figures. She’s only, like, ten years older than Courtney, and her dad is so old. He must be at least forty. It’s so embarrassing.”

William wore a bemused half-smile. “Is the plan for today still to go to Barneys?”

“That’s up to Georgie,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “She’s the expert on shopping in this part of town.”

“Yeah, Barneys first. I like the pizza at Fred’s.” It was a trendy eatery located inside Barneys, Manhattan’s most exclusive department store.

“Great idea.” Elizabeth had set foot in Barneys only once in her life, for a goggle-eyed stroll through the first floor during Jane’s visit to New York last year, but Georgiana didn’t need to know that.

“All right, then,” William said. “Let’s go.”

After no more than three steps, Georgiana halted abruptly and gasped. “Oh, geez, Gran is going to kill me. She’s waiting in the car and she wants to talk to you.”

“Gran’s been outside all this time? Why didn’t you say something sooner?” William’s scowl deepened.

“I would have,” Georgiana said in a petulant tone, rolling her eyes, “but you got all weird about Courtney and I forgot.”

“All right. There’s no point standing here discussing it.” He glanced at Elizabeth. “I’ll be right back.”

“No,” Georgiana said, a smug gleam in her eye. Having the upper hand seemed to agree with her. “She wants to talk to Elizabeth.”

“Elizabeth? Why?”

Georgiana shrugged her waiflike shoulders once more. “I didn’t ask.”

“You and Georgie might as well stay here where it’s warm,” Elizabeth said, giving William a wan smile. “I’ll go talk to her.” She chafed at this imperial summons, but resolved to be on her best behavior.

He shook his head. “I’m coming with you.”

“You don’t need to protect me.”

“I’m coming with you,” he repeated, emphasizing every word. “Stay here, Georgie. We won’t be long.”

“Whatever.” She whipped her phone out of her purse.

A blast of frigid air enveloped Elizabeth as she and William passed through the hotel doors. She shivered and pulled her coat tightly around her. The temperature must have plummeted overnight. Either that, or Rose’s presence had added an extra chill to the air.

 

Four Seasons exteriorWilliam mentally girded himself for battle as he escorted Elizabeth toward the car. The back passenger window slid down as they approached. “Good morning,” Rose said. “I was about to send Allen in to look for you.” She glanced at William. “I asked to see Ms. Bennet.”

He squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. “Where she goes, I go.”

“Very well.” The window rolled back up into place. Allen emerged from the car and helped Elizabeth into the back seat. He remained outside the car, standing at attention with his back to the driver’s door.

William slid into the front passenger seat and twisted around to eye his grandmother. “Before you start, Gran, I have something to say.”

Rose met his imperious glance with one of her own. “Perhaps we could discuss whatever it is later. I’m on my way to a luncheon, and after my lengthy wait out here on the street I have only a moment to spare.”

A wave of annoyance prickled his skin and brought a hard edge to his voice. “Then I’ll come right to the point. I’d like you to apologize to Elizabeth. I never thought you’d let a guest in our home use another guest as a punching bag.”

“I should perhaps have dealt more decisively with Catherine, but to do so would have caused an unpleasant scene.”

“An unpleasant scene?” He snorted. “The whole evening was a nonstop unpleasant scene.”

Rose’s gaze flicked out the window. “It would also have humiliated poor Anne.”

“I’m sure it was just as humiliating to sit through hours of her mother’s obnoxious behavior.”

Rose lifted her chin, her eyes cool. “William, I realize that you’re upset, and you are not without legitimate grounds. But I will not, to use your words, be your punching bag.”

“Please, William, it’s okay,” Elizabeth said, leaning forward to touch his shoulder. “Your grandmother did what she thought best for everyone concerned.” She turned to Rose. “Mrs. Darcy, please let me apologize again for losing my temper.”

“Don’t apologize, cara. You were defending me. I find it interesting that with my entire family sitting there, you were the only one who spoke up on my behalf.”

“Maybe everyone else knew it was best to ignore Catherine and hope she’d go away.” Elizabeth’s smile was rueful.

Rose pressed her lips together, and William thought he saw a hint of amusement in her eyes. “The reason I’m here, Ms. Bennet, is that you and I need to sit down together and get better acquainted.” She flashed an imperious glance at William. “Alone.” She turned back to Elizabeth. “Would you join me for tea at the Plaza this afternoon?”

Before William could voice his objections, Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, thank you,” she said. “I’d like that.”

“Four o’clock, then,” Rose said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.” She knocked on the window to signal Allen.

Elizabeth said her goodbyes and left the car with Allen’s assistance, but William stayed in his seat. Rose raised her eyebrows in silent inquiry.

“Don’t make me choose between you and Elizabeth,” he said. “You wouldn’t like the choice I’d make.”

“William, why must you be this way?”

“I won’t keep you any longer. Enjoy your lunch.”

William jumped from the car before Rose could respond. The sounds of the city seemed to assault him: a pack of noisy tourists chattering on their way down the sidewalk, the shrill whistle of the doorman as he summoned a taxi, the squealing of tires followed by the angry shout of a horn on Madison Avenue.

Elizabeth stood huddled in the shelter of the building, her hands buried in the pockets of her coat. “What happened after I left the car?”

“Nothing important.” He shepherded her through the door and headed for Georgiana, who stood frowning at the display on her phone. “Ready to go?” he asked.

Georgiana jammed her phone into her purse. “I’ve been ready.”

“All right, then.” He pulled his leather gloves from his coat pockets and slipped them on. Noting Elizabeth’s worried scrutiny, he inhaled slowly and forced the tension out of his neck and shoulders. “I have my two favorite girls all to myself for the day, and I’m feeling brave. Let’s go shopping.”

 

Plaza hotel exteriorElizabeth glanced down at herself and grimaced. The wrinkles in her charcoal gray skirt were visible through the gap in her coat, which she hadn’t bothered to button on exiting the hotel limo. She hadn’t expected to need another dressy outfit so soon. But here she was, mounting the steps in front of the Plaza Hotel on her way to meet Rose Darcy for tea.

William had insisted on accompanying her to the hotel despite her protests. He marched them through the ornate lobby and turned in the direction of the Palm Court restaurant. She halted, grasping his arm and forcing him to stop as well. “I think we’d better part company here.”

Plaza hotel lobby“I want to walk you down there so Gran knows I’m here.”

She shook her head. “I’ll make a stronger impression if I show up alone. I don’t want her to think I’m afraid of her.”

“But I don’t like her ‘divide and conquer’ approach.”

She absorbed his careworn expression, searching for a glimpse of the ardent, carefree man who had awakened in her arms that morning. “Will,” she said softly, taking his hand, “are you afraid she’s going to say or do something to change my mind about you?”

“Not really.” He hesitated. “Though I wouldn’t blame you if you decided I wasn’t worth all this trouble.”

“Well, now that you mention it …” She saw the lines around his eyes deepen, and she squeezed his hand. “Silly boy, I’m teasing. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Just remember that we’re together, and I won’t let Gran, or anyone else, interfere.”

“Me neither.” She slipped off her coat. “I guess I’d better get in there.”

He raised her hand to his lips. “I’d kiss you properly, but the walls have eyes. One of her friends would probably see us and be only too thrilled to carry the tale of our shocking behavior.”

She surveyed the lobby and saw several haughty-looking elderly women who might have been Rose’s cronies. “I understand. I’ll take a rain check.”

“I’ll be in the Oak Bar. Come and join me when you’re done.”

“Yes, sir,” she said with a smile far brighter than her mood. “I have a feeling I’ll need something stronger than tea by then.”

“Oh, to hell with it. Let them talk.” He stepped forward and gave her a quick, hard kiss. “I promise I’ll make this up to you somehow.”

“I’d tell you not to worry,” she said, “but I think I like having you indebted to me.” She watched him go, and then gathered her courage and turned in the direction of the Palm Court.

Rose sat at a small table in the corner, sipping tea and inspecting her wristwatch. Elizabeth glanced at her own watch to confirm that she had arrived on time. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Darcy.”

Christmas flower arrangement “Ah, Ms. Bennet, there you are. Thank you for joining me.”

“How was your luncheon?” Elizabeth asked as she slipped into the chair across from Rose’s.

“Rather dull, I’m afraid.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No need. I expected as much.”

Elizabeth had toured the Plaza with out-of-town guests on several occasions, but this was her first experience with its lavish tea service. Today, a distinct flavor of the holidays filled the room. Everywhere she looked, she saw fresh flowers in deep red and creamy white, garnished with deep green sprigs of holly. In one corner, a harpist plucked a mellifluous version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Even the petit fours reinforced the Christmas spirit, with tiny frosting poinsettias and silver bells piped on top.

petit fours To her surprise, the room felt chaotic and overcrowded. The buzz of conversation was a few decibels too loud, the servers dashed about the room with more speed than grace, and the hostess’s smile seemed glued on and in danger of slipping out of place. Elizabeth had expected a more exclusive atmosphere, given the Plaza’s fabled reputation. “I suppose it’s extra busy here today, with all the tourists in town and all the shoppers out the day after Thanksgiving.”

Rose set her delicate china cup on its saucer with such precision that it made no sound. “I’m afraid these days the Plaza serves far too many tourists. Some of my friends prefer the St. Regis or the Pierre, but my grandmother brought me here for my first grown-up tea when I was six, and I’ve been coming here ever since.”

teacup “I understand. The memories make it special.”

Rose’s gaze rested on a table in the center of the room. “My bridesmaids and I came here a few days before my wedding. That was almost sixty years ago, but I can still remember everything. We sat right there, at a large table decorated with lilies.”

“It sounds beautiful.” Elizabeth hadn’t expected to find Rose chatting amiably. No doubt it was the calm before the storm.

“That was during the war,” Rose continued, “and the menu was limited because so many things were rationed, even tea by then. But it couldn’t have been a more perfect afternoon.”

“How long were you and Mr. Darcy married?”

“Twenty-nine years. He died of a heart attack while still a fairly young man, just as my son did.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It was a long time ago.”

A petite woman with steel gray hair and a kind smile bustled over to the table. “Good afternoon, miss. What kind of tea would you like?”

Elizabeth glanced at the menu. Overwhelmed by the list of specialty teas, she chose the first one that caught her eye. “Jasmine, please.”

“Are you ready for your tray, Mrs. Darcy?”

“Yes, thank you, Margaret.”

Margaret smiled and hurried away.

Elizabeth smiled. “It’s nice to sit back and be waited on. I’ve been on my feet all day.”

“I understand that you and William took Georgiana shopping.”

“That’s right. She found a dress at Barneys for New Year’s Eve.” Elizabeth thought it best not to mention her own new dress, purchased by William as an early Christmas gift.

“I hope she chose something appropriate.”

“She and William didn’t see eye to eye on that subject, but they finally compromised. I think you’ll like what she bought.” Elizabeth didn’t add that she had been the one to locate the dress that satisfied them both.

“If I do, William will indeed have worked a miracle.” Rose took a delicate sip of her tea.

“I’m glad she spent the day with us. I think she and William needed some time together.”

“His recent absences have been difficult for her. To a sensitive young girl, his failure to spend time at home could suggest a lack of interest.”

Judging from Rose’s cool tone, a forceful old woman might draw the same conclusion. “Oh, but that’s not true,” Elizabeth blurted out. “He talks about both of you all the time. He’s devoted to you.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

Elizabeth winced at Rose’s cool tone. She hadn’t intended to sound presumptuous. She folded her hands in her lap, fidgeting with a loose thread on her damask napkin.

teapot Margaret’s arrival with Elizabeth’s tea service broke the awkward silence. “We’re out of cucumber sandwiches, Mrs. Darcy, and I knew you wouldn’t want your tray without those. They’re making up another batch. It should be just another minute or two.”

Elizabeth poured a few splashes of the pale amber liquid into her cup. Jasmine-scented steam rose in a twisting ribbon, but the tea needed to steep a little longer. She flailed about for a safe topic of conversation. The harpist’s new selection, “Winter Wonderland,” offered an idea. “Are they still calling for snow tonight?”

“I believe so.”

“Thank heaven I brought my winter coat and gloves. I wish I had boots with me too. If there’s enough snow it would be nice to take a walk in the park”

“How did you happen to take those items to Barbados? I understood that William decided to visit Pemberley on the spur of the moment. In that case, you couldn’t have known you’d be returning here with him. Certainly you had no need for a heavy winter coat, or even the clothes you’re wearing now, in the Caribbean.”

I guess we’re done with the small talk. “I thought I might leave Barbados early and fly up here to see him. We needed to talk.” Elizabeth hesitated. “We had an argument before he left San Francisco.”

“Yes, he told me.”

“He did?” Elizabeth had difficulty imagining William opening his heart to his grandmother about something so painful.

“The night before he flew to Barbados. I preferred that he stay home, but he insisted that he had to see you at once.”

Based on William’s account of that night, “preferred that he stay at home” must have referred to Rose’s angry diatribe forbidding him to leave. “I didn’t know he was coming to Barbados until I saw him down there.”

Rose trickled a few drops of cream into her tea, her mask of reserve eerily familiar. “Ms. Bennet, I invited you here for two reasons. The first was to discuss your … association with my grandson.”

“I know, and I—”

“But before we delve into that subject, I would like to apologize for what happened at my house yesterday.”

“Really, Mrs. Darcy, it’s not necessary,” Elizabeth said, out of politeness rather than sincerity. She poured herself a cup of tea.

“I would have taken care of the matter this morning, but the explanation for my actions is somewhat involved and my time was limited.”

Elizabeth concealed a smile behind the teacup she raised to her lips. Rose’s procrastination probably had more to do with pride. To apologize in the car would have been a humbling experience following William’s demand for an apology.

“I originally met Catherine de Bourgh through my daughter-in-law. Despite their dissimilar personalities, they grew fond of each other. I believe they bonded over the sad state of their marriages. I assume William has told you something of his parents’ estrangement?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“And as for Lewis de Bourgh—” Rose paused, frowning.

Elizabeth considered feigning ignorance in order to force Rose to explain; it would be entertaining to watch her fumble for a polite euphemism. Instead, she decided instead to be merciful. “William told me about the violinist.”

“Then you can imagine how difficult it was for Catherine. Bad enough to lose one’s husband to another woman, but this …” Rose shook her head. “It was a sensational piece of gossip for months, all the more so because Catherine has a talent for making enemies. Anne was too young to understand most of the details, but she grasped enough to be devastated. She has always been fragile, both physically and emotionally.”

“With a mother like that, it’s no wonder,” Elizabeth muttered before she could stop herself.

Rose stared at her over the rim of her teacup, and for a moment Elizabeth’s stomach compressed into a tiny ball. But then Rose barely nodded her head. She continued. “My daughter-in-law was deeply attached to Anne. Much as she loved William, she longed for a daughter, and in Anne she saw a girl in desperate need of an affectionate mother.”

“So she tried to fill that role.”

“With substantial success. She and Anne genuinely loved each other. When Anna died so suddenly, I think Anne grieved even more than William did.”

Elizabeth bristled at the suggestion. William had merely buried the worst of his pain where no one—not even his family—could see it.

“For Anne’s sake, I include the de Bourghs in family activities whenever I can.”

“I appreciate the explanation, Mrs. Darcy. But when William called to say I was back on the guest list, I’m surprised you didn’t warn him.” Elizabeth had a theory about Rose’s motivation but kept it to herself. “I know your guest list was set before he called, and you couldn’t take back your invitation to her even if you wanted to. But you must have known you had a dangerous situation on your hands. Catherine said she intended to call you and give you an earful about me, and I assume she did.”

Rose, who was sipping her tea, didn’t comment at first. At last she set down her cup, and again Elizabeth noticed its silent, meticulous arrival on the saucer. “Yes, I knew Catherine had a low opinion of you. Yesterday, before you arrived, I extracted her promise not to turn Thanksgiving into a battleground. I was foolish to trust her.”

It couldn’t have been easy for this proud, regal woman to humble herself even so slightly. Elizabeth offered more sympathy than she felt, speaking gently. “And I know how hard she is to stop, once she gets started.”

“Any action I could have taken seemed likely to make your situation worse. Catherine, as you may have noticed, does not take direction well, nor does she respond to hints. But I regret the discomfort you suffered.”

Elizabeth had rarely received a more anemic apology. She could have pointed out many other missed opportunities to preserve the peace. But antagonizing Rose would accomplish nothing, so Elizabeth pushed her resentment aside and flashed a weak smile. “Thank you. I know you didn’t intend for things to turn out the way they did.”

Rose inclined her head slightly, and Elizabeth was struck by the noble grace of the gesture. “Then we’ve dispensed with that subject. Where my grandson is concerned, I have a great deal more to say.”

Margaret arrived with a three-tiered silver tray filled with tiny pastries and sandwiches. “Here you go, Mrs. Darcy. I gave you some extra cucumber sandwiches. If you need more of anything, you just let me know.”

eclair Rose offered the tray to Elizabeth. The cucumber sandwiches looked tasty, but after Margaret’s comments it seemed safer to leave them for Rose. Elizabeth chose a petit four decorated with a tiny Christmas tree, a mini-eclair, and a triangle of toast topped with thin shavings of smoked salmon. While Rose selected her own morsels, Elizabeth decided to take control of the conversation.

salmon toast “Mrs. Darcy, I know I’m not the kind of girlfriend you had in mind for William. I’m a stranger to you, and I wasn’t born to wealth and privilege like he was.”

Rose nibbled a cucumber sandwich, her features arranged in a neutral expression, and said nothing. Again, Elizabeth felt a flash of recognition. She continued. “Catherine de Bourgh has probably told you some things about my family. That concerns me, because she got her information second-hand from someone who doesn’t like me. I think you may know her—Caroline Bingley?”

Rose’s dispassionate mask stayed in place, but Elizabeth thought she saw a flicker of distaste in the sharp blue eyes. “Then perhaps you’d like a chance to set the record straight.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but then she froze. What was she doing? Rose had no business judging her according to her father’s bank balance or her mother’s lack of education. A tart refusal hovered on her lips, but she remembered her goal—to smooth things over for William’s sake. For him, she would swallow her pride, even if it gave her indigestion. “My father is an engineering manager; he’s been with the same company since he graduated from college. I have four sisters; the eldest is a lawyer.” And the youngest is … Lydia.

“And your mother?”

Elizabeth bit the inside of her lip, marshaled her patience, and continued. “My mother used to be a secretary, before my sisters and I were born. But I’m curious. Why didn’t you just ask William about my family?”

“I did ask him. Bear in mind that I didn’t raise the subject of your background just now. You did.” Rose raised her teacup, her expression impenetrable.

Elizabeth rolled her eyes before she could stop herself. She lobbed a blunt remark back across the table to cover her chagrin. “But you’d prefer to see William with a woman from your social circle.”

“Yes, I would. And some day, when you have a son, you will understand why.” Rose drank her tea with a maddeningly serene air. “Ms. Bennet, you seem to consider me a snob. And perhaps I am, but you should understand something. My friends sometimes try to influence their children’s or grandchildren’s choice of spouses for social or financial advantage. I find that sort of behavior mercenary and utterly distasteful. The Darcys have no need to augment our social position or our resources through marriage.”

Elizabeth hid her smile behind her napkin. Any remaining mystery about the source of William’s pompous tendencies had just been solved.

“But I believe that William will be happier in the long run if he stays in his own sphere. And nothing matters to me more than my grandson and his happiness.”

“Then we have something in common. We both love him and want him to be happy.”

Rose eyed her intently but didn’t comment.

Elizabeth wished she didn’t find Rose’s silence so unnerving. “Or do you suspect me of trying to ‘augment’ my own ‘position and resources’?”

Rose’s eyes narrowed in response to the sarcasm in Elizabeth’s voice, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “No, I don’t. Were that the case, you wouldn’t have refused his marriage proposal.”

“He told you that?” Elizabeth’s mouth hung open for a moment.

“The night before he left for Barbados. I understand your surprise—ordinarily he isn’t forthcoming with personal details—but he wasn’t himself that night. I’ve never seen him so overwrought.”

“Overwrought? Do you mean angry?” It seemed likely, based on what Elizabeth had heard from William.

Rose waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. “That’s irrelevant. What matters is that he convinced me that your interest in him extended beyond the financial.”

Elizabeth gritted her teeth at the implication that William’s money had any influence on her feelings at all, but more important issues hovered overhead. “So you believe that I love him, but you think I’m an inappropriate choice.”

“‘Inappropriate’ is a strong word. But I have serious concerns. William lives in a far more restrictive world than you realize. His wife will have responsibilities and obligations that can be corrosive for someone unprepared for the realities of our life.”

“Whereas Anne de Bourgh knows what to expect.”

Rose’s sharp stare betrayed her surprise at Elizabeth’s impertinence, but she answered calmly. “Yes, she does. And not just regarding the obligations that accompany our position. As the daughter of a prominent symphony conductor, she also understands the demands of William’s profession.”

Elizabeth was hardly a stranger to those issues herself, but she had a more important point to make. “But he doesn’t love her.”

“Catherine and I thought that might change, given time. In addition to the similarity in their backgrounds, their temperaments are compatible—they’re quiet and introspective, not given to sudden outbursts of emotion.”

“Apparently you don’t believe that opposites attract.”

“They may, but they rarely stay together in the long run. Passion runs its course, and then nothing is left to sustain a connection.”

Elizabeth’s teacup landed in its saucer with a clatter. Unlike Rose, Elizabeth didn’t possess the knack for handling it silently. Furthermore, she didn’t care. “If you’re insinuating that William and I have nothing in common but—” She swallowed hard and continued. “How can you pass judgment on our relationship when you know nothing about it?”

“I know more than you might think.”

“I don’t see how. William may have told you a few details to calm your fears, but beyond that there’s no way he’s been confiding in you or anyone else.” Chanel #5

“Ah, good afternoon, Virginia, Barbara. How are you today?”

Elizabeth blinked at the sudden change in Rose’s voice. Then she noticed the two well-dressed women passing by, their tight, wide-eyed expressions suggesting recent face lifts. They paused beside the table, the air around them rich with fumes of Chanel No. 5. Rose introduced Elizabeth as “a visitor from San Francisco,” with no mention of her connection to William.

The small talk gave Elizabeth time to regroup. Her last few comments had been idiotic. First she had cited the attraction of opposites, and then she had become livid at the suggestion that she and William shared little in common. She needed to stop blurting out every thought manufactured by her whirling brain.

Once Rose’s friends had moved on to their table, she continued in her original emphatic tone. “As I was about to say, William’s moods since he met you have told me a great deal. You have led him a merry chase, and he has suffered for it. Certainly you can see that he isn’t suited for life on a roller coaster. The low points cause him too much despair, and I do not use that term lightly.”

Elizabeth wasn’t sure which took precedence—her annoyance at Rose, or her guilt at this reminder of the pain she’d caused William. She answered as calmly as she could. “We’ve had some unfortunate misunderstandings that have been hard on both of us. But I think we’re past that now.”

“Aren’t you more likely to simply continue in the same pattern?”

“I don’t think so. It’s true that we’re both stubborn, and we’re likely to have disagreements from time to time. But isn’t that true of most couples?” She paused and took a deep breath, during which Rose regarded her in silence. “If it helps at all, Mrs. Darcy, I love him with all my heart. And despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t walked away, so he must think it’s worthwhile.”

“I’m not surprised. In many ways you’re his mother reincarnated.”

“What makes you say that? I’ve seen her portrait, and we don’t look much alike.”

“I’m not referring to a physical resemblance.” Rose scrutinized Elizabeth for a moment before she continued. “You have her spirit, her fire … and also a forthright quality that set her apart. Add to that a fine singing voice, which I’m told you possess, and William was bound to be drawn to you.”

“Is that at the root of your concerns? That I remind you of his mother? I thought you were fond of her.”

“I was.” The sadness in Rose’s eyes caught Elizabeth by surprise.

“I don’t understand.”

Margaret approached their table, but Rose waved her away. “How much has William told you about his parents?”

“I know their marriage fell apart after they moved to New York. His father forced his mother to give up her operatic career, and she never forgave him.”

“That’s essentially correct, though it was far more complicated. The Darcys live a busy, but sedate and well-ordered, life. Anna was like a bolt of raw energy sizzling through the hallways—exciting, but not altogether comfortable to be around. I’m sure her energy was what initially attracted Edmund, but by the time they arrived in New York it had already begun to wear on him.”

“Why did he make her quit singing? Wouldn’t her career have been an outlet for all that excess energy?”

Rose stared into her teacup, frowning, and then looked up. “He didn’t approve of his wife having a profession. He felt it would distract her from her other responsibilities. To her credit, she tried to fill the role expected of her, but she said it felt like wearing a straitjacket.”

“She must have adjusted eventually.”

“It never stopped being a struggle. For years, William was her life. She loved him, of course, but on occasion she used his fragile health to shield herself from other obligations. When his musical gifts became evident, she devoted herself to their development, I think as much for herself as for him.”

“So let me jump ahead. You think I’d be as unsatisfactory a Mrs. Darcy as she was.”

“Can you blame me for worrying? Anna and Edmund fell passionately in love in Italy, but passion wasn’t enough to bridge the chasm between them once Edmund assumed his place as head of the family.”

“All right.” Elizabeth rubbed her temples, battling the beginnings of a headache. “I see the parallels. You think history is about to repeat itself.”

“Their mistake did them irreparable harm, and it hurt those closest to them as well. And yet at the start they seemed to be deeply in love.”

“But you’re assuming they were doomed simply because of their different backgrounds. I’m sure their personalities played into it as well. You say I’m a lot like Anna, and perhaps I am. But William is not his father.”

“No, he most certainly is not. He has his mother’s deep feelings combined with his father’s reserve, which is a difficult combination. That’s why someone placid and quiet like Anne would be a better choice for him.”

“When you say that, it makes me wonder how well you really know him.” Elizabeth saw Rose’s eyes flare, but she had no patience left for careful word choices. Mindful of the public setting, she leaned forward and spoke in a low but impassioned voice. “How can you think he’s better off pretending he doesn’t have feelings? He’s spent his life burying them, and all it’s done is to make him horribly lonely.” To her dismay, tears filled her eyes. “Is that really what you want for him?”

“You presume to tell me that I don’t know my grandson? You, who have known him for all of six months, two of which you spent three thousand miles away from him? How fortunate that you’ve arrived on the scene to rescue him.” Rose’s hand shook as she set down her cup, this time with a soft “clink.”

Elizabeth looked into Rose’s eyes, their expression no longer hidden by a dispassionate mask. In a flash of insight she recognized the emotion blazing there. Rose was afraid. Whether she feared an unhappy ending like his parents’ for William, or simply dreaded losing her influence over him, wasn’t clear. Either way, the knowledge softened the biting retort Elizabeth had been about to deliver.

“That’s not what I meant,” Elizabeth said, a tremor in her voice. “But I think it helps him to share his feelings, and to know that his heart is safe with me, just as mine is safe with him. You can’t possibly think it’s better for him to brood alone and shove everything down deep, where it eats away at his soul.” Elizabeth flicked a tear from the corner of her eye.

Rose stared across the room, obviously battling the emotion that had momentarily gripped her. At last she spoke quietly. “Ms. Bennet—”

“Why, hello, Rose! I didn’t know you were coming here this afternoon.”

At the sound of the voice, both Rose and Elizabeth started slightly. Rose abruptly donned a pleasant, noncommittal mask. The maneuver, which Elizabeth had seen William perform too often to count, was poignant. She wondered if Rose’s heart had ever had its own safe haven in which to rest.

“Hello, Dorothy,” Rose said, her manner polite but not welcoming. “Did you and Hubert have a pleasant day?”

“Why, yes, we did.” Dorothy’s eyes shone white in a deeply tanned face, her skin turned to leather from untold hours in the sun. “We’ve been flitting around town visiting friends. We popped in here for a cup of tea before we head back to your house to change for dinner.”

The woman was evidently Dorothy Scofield, half of the couple from Florida occupying the guest suite at the townhouse. A moment later, Rose confirmed Elizabeth’s suspicions by making the introductions. Elizabeth was relieved to find herself promoted to “William’s friend from California.”

Dorothy chattered nonstop—William had described her well the day before—but finally Rose gained a conversational toehold. “I’d love to hear more about your visits. Perhaps you’d tell me more at home, over cocktails. But right now Ms. Bennet and I are in the middle of something we need to finish.”

After a lengthy apology, Dorothy retreated to a table across the room occupied by an equally leathery man. Elizabeth resolved to make one last attempt at a peaceful resolution. “I know you have William’s best interests at heart, Mrs. Darcy. But you barely know me. Wouldn’t it be worth getting acquainted before you make up your mind? After all, you liked Anna, and you say I remind you of her. You might like me too, if you got to know me better.”

“This has nothing to do with my liking or disliking you, Ms. Bennet. This is strictly about what’s good for William.”

I’m good for him, Mrs. Darcy. I know you don’t believe that, but I am. Do you know what he tells me more than anything else? That I make him happy. Shouldn’t that count for something?”

Rose nodded, a slow, reluctant gesture. “It does.” Elizabeth had to strain to hear her.

“I wish you could have seen him in Barbados. Or this morning, for that matter. He was relaxed and light-hearted, smiling and laughing and teasing me. But then after we talked to you in the car, all the tension came back.”

“You’re blaming me for making him unhappy?”

“This conflict between you is hurting him more than you realize. He can’t see why someone who loves him wouldn’t want him to be happy.”

“The situation is upsetting for me too.”

“Then please tell him you’ll give me a chance. You don’t have to welcome me with open arms. Just let him know you’ll keep an open mind. It would mean so much to him.”

Rose didn’t answer, her expression as blank and controlled as ever.

Elizabeth let out a loud sigh and massaged her temples briefly. She seemed to be arguing with a brick wall, but she gave it one more push. “Look, I know I’m the worst person in the world to give you this advice because I’m personally involved. But if you force him to choose between us, you could lose him.”

“So he told me earlier today.” Rose’s voice was brittle. “Does it please you that he’s chosen you over his family?”

“Of course not. This isn’t a contest, and he shouldn’t have to choose.”

“Elizabeth, there you are. William said you were in here.” Eleanor Fitzwilliam approached their table, smiling. “Hello, Mom.”

“Eleanor, what brings you here? I thought you preferred coffee to tea.” A glint in Rose’s eye suggested an inside joke to which Elizabeth wasn’t privy.

The FItzwilliams' building, exterior Eleanor grinned. “I’m not here for tea. Richard wanted to meet William for a drink, and I decided I could use some fresh air so I tagged along.” She smiled at Elizabeth. “We live just a few blocks up Fifth Avenue.”

“William is here?” Rose glanced at Elizabeth for confirmation.

“He’s in the bar,” Elizabeth said. “I told him he didn’t have to come with me, but he insisted.”

“He’s sitting in there nursing a glass of scotch and worrying about you,” Eleanor said with a smile. “He sent me in to remind you about your dinner plans. You need to be back at the hotel soon.”

Elizabeth glanced at her watch. Dinner with Jon and Sally was still more than two hours in the future. Weary of crossing swords with Rose to no apparent effect, she snatched at the offered escape route. “Oh, my goodness, he’s right. Mrs. Darcy. I need to be going soon.”

Rose, who made no objections, settled the bill, and the trio left the Palm Court together. In the lobby, Rose paused. “I will consider what you’ve said, Ms. Bennet.”

“Thank you.” It was only a small concession, but it was a start. “And thank you for tea.”

Eleanor asked Elizabeth to wait while she escorted Rose outside, where Allen waited in the car. When she returned to the lobby, Eleanor patted Elizabeth’s arm. “I bet you’re exhausted. That must have been an ordeal.”

“It was fine, really.” They turned together toward the Oak Bar.

“I know Mom comes across as a little cold. Who am I kidding? She can be the original Ice Queen. But that’s from her stiff-upper-lip upbringing, and her pride. It’s a major ordeal for her to admit she’s wrong about anything.”

Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “I can be a little stubborn about that myself.”

“Then you ought to fit right in, because it runs in the family.”

They chuckled together, but then Eleanor’s expression became pensive. “With Mom, you have to look down deep. It took me years to understand, but eventually I saw how much she loves us. She doesn’t often show how she feels, but if the slightest threat appears on the horizon, she’s out there with her sword and shield to protect us.”

“The problem being that in this case, I’m the threat.”

electric fence warning Eleanor sighed softly. “William is the crown prince, the center of her universe. So if it seems like she’s built a fifteen-foot electric fence around him—”

“It’s because she has,” Elizabeth retorted with a smile.

Eleanor chuckled. “She’d certainly like to. I don’t know what her issues are with you and William, beyond her belief that there isn’t a woman alive who’s good enough for him. But just now, when she told you she was going to think about whatever you said to her … she wouldn’t say that just out of empty politeness. My guess is, you impressed her.”

“I don’t see how. I kept telling myself to keep my mouth shut, and to think before I spoke, but I rarely listen when I give myself advice.”

“I’m sure you did fine. You’re still standing and in one piece, and that’s saying something. Why do you think William has been in the bar wringing his hands all this time? Mother can be downright terrifying when she wants to be.”

Elizabeth smiled weakly as they stepped into the Oak Bar. If Eleanor had intended to offer reassurance, her routine needed practice.