oak bar“What the hell is taking Aunt Eleanor so long?” William grumbled. A scowl creased his forehead as he gulped from his glass of scotch. He had graduated from wine twenty minutes earlier, when Richard arrived.

“Relax, old man.” Richard flashed his trademark lazy smirk. “It’s not like Mom could tuck Lizzy under one arm and sprint out of there like an All-Pro running back.”

William snorted and stared into his glass. Richard had just described what he’d been tempted to do for the past hour.

oak barOrdinarily William enjoyed the dark-paneled atmosphere of the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar, a restful retreat from the chaos of midtown Manhattan. But today he couldn’t stop glancing at his watch. A small pile of shredded paper sat in front of him, the tattered remains of two cocktail napkins. The pile might have been taller if not for the waitstaff’s vigilance. At least with Richard here he didn’t have to sit alone anymore, glancing compulsively toward the entrance to the bar.

“I have to admit,” Richard said, “I’m getting impatient too. I’m dying to tell you my story, but it has to wait till Lizzy gets here.”

Richard kept hinting at a sensational story he was practically bursting to share, but William couldn’t work up even a molecule of interest. “I am so tired of hearing about your damned story. Either tell it, or stop talking about—”

At the sound of a familiar voice, his head snapped toward the doorway. Relief flooded him at the sight of Elizabeth and Eleanor approaching. “Thank God,” he muttered, jumping from his chair.

Elizabeth’s eyes lacked their usual energetic gleam, and she wore a muted imitation of her bright smile. “Is everything okay?” he asked, grasping her hand.

Her smile widened mechanically, as though she had turned a knob to accomplish the feat. “I’m fine. Thanks for the rescue, though. I was ready for a break.”

“Thank Aunt Eleanor,” he replied, tipping his head in his aunt’s direction. “It was her suggestion.”

“I didn’t think William could handle much more suspense,” Eleanor said, winking at Elizabeth.

William assisted Eleanor, and then Elizabeth, in seating themselves. “Thank you,” Eleanor said, smiling up at him. “I don’t suppose you could arrange for your good manners to rub off on Richard?”

“Oh, come on, Mom. I’m beyond help. You know that.”

“It’s true,” William said as he settled into his own chair. “I gave up on him years ago.” He reached for the wine list and motioned to the cocktail waitress. He’d had more than enough scotch for one day. “I thought I’d order a bottle of wine.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to count me out,” Eleanor said. “I can only stay for a few minutes. And you’ll never lure Richard away from his precious Macallan.”

“Damn right.” Richard glanced up at the waitress and tapped his half-empty glass. “Another, and keep ’em coming.”

“Congratulations, Lizzy,” Richard said, as soon as the waitress departed. “Looks like you survived the Grannish Inquisition. And not much blood lost, from the look of things. But my money was on you all along.”

William longed to hear every detail of the conversation, but not in front of an audience. For now he had to content himself with the assurance that if anyone could lock horns with Rose and survive, it was his Lizzy. She met his worried gaze, her smile starting small but warming rapidly. “Relax,” she said softly, resting her hand on his arm. “I’m fine.”

“A toast,” Richard said, once their drinks had arrived. “To Lizzy, for making yesterday the most exciting Thanksgiving we’ve ever had.”

“Richard Fitwilliam, behave yourself.” Eleanor glared at her son. “I doubt Elizabeth and William consider it a laughing matter.”

“Oh, come on, Mom. We might as well laugh about it. You have to admit, it made for good theater, especially at the end.” He grinned at Elizabeth. “Not that a food fight wouldn’t have been even better.”

She smiled, but again it was only a pale imitation of the real thing. “Somehow I don’t think your grandmother would agree.”

“About the food fight?” Richard snickered. “Probably not.”

“About any of it. She wasn’t exactly laughing today.”

“Maybe not, but …” Richard glanced at his mother. “You didn’t tell her, did you?”

“I promised I wouldn’t.”

“Tell me what?” Elizabeth pulled her chair closer to the table.

“After you two left last night, the hits just kept on coming.”

“Oh, good,” Elizabeth said. “We were hoping we’d get to hear what happened.”

William sat back in his chair, feigning indifference. After his curmudgeonly remarks about Richard’s story, any show of curiosity would earn him a whopping dose of sarcasm. As it was, Richard tossed an offhand smirk in William’s direction before beginning his story.

“Catherine started in on you almost as soon as you left the library, Lizzy. I’m sure you figured that would happen. She said she’d never heard anything so rude in her life, and what a little blankety-blank you were—and, by the way, she actually said ‘blankety-blank,’ I guess to demonstrate that she’s too ladylike to curse.”

“She really did,” Eleanor said. “I almost laughed in spite of the tension.”

“Anyway, she huffed and she puffed, and blah, blah, blah. That was while Gran was out in the hall arguing with the old man here.”

“Please understand, we didn’t just sit still and let her rant,” Eleanor said. “In fact, Robert told her that as far as he was concerned, everything you’d said had been more than amply provoked.”

“She can’t have liked that,” Elizabeth said, setting her wine glass on the table.

“Ah, I see we have the Mistress of Understatement with us today.” Richard paused for a sip of his drink. “No, she didn’t like it at all. She turned an impressive shade of purple, especially when Mom added that she admired your restraint. Then Gran came back and dragged Catherine from the room. Not literally, of course, but you don’t say no to Gran when she uses that tone of voice.”

“And then what?”

“They went to the living room for a private talk.”

“Rats,” Elizabeth said, sighing. “You were just getting to the good part.”

William was disappointed too, but he froze an impassive expression on his face.

“Never fear,” Eleanor said, shooting a narrowed glance at Richard. “When he says ‘private,’ he means ‘private except for the person who eavesdropped.’”

“You didn’t!” Elizabeth leaned forward, her eyes huge.

“Of course I did,” Richard retorted. “It was my duty to investigate so I could offer a full report. After all, Will is my boss. Besides, I was hoping they were going to settle their differences by mud-wrestling in the garden. Gran’s height advantage would have been tough to beat.”

“And you thought they might need a referee,” Elizabeth said, laughing.

William shook his head, torn between amusement and disgust. “I can’t believe you skulked in the hallway.”

“I didn’t,” Richard said, lifting his chin, “and I’m insulted by the suggestion.”

“Then how—”

“I skulked in the kitchen doorway. As did Mrs. R. She wasn’t blatant about it, but she kept finding excuses to fiddle around in the cabinets near the door. You can’t tell me that was a coincidence. ”

Sometimes William couldn’t believe he and Richard were related. “The two of you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“Well, excuse me, Mr. Integrity. Do you want to hear the scoop or not?”

“Yes, he does,” Elizabeth said. “Go ahead.”

“I can’t give it to you word for word, but bottom line, Gran picked up where Lizzy left off. She ripped Catherine a new one.”

William raised his eyebrows. He’d been hoping to hear something like this.

“Catherine tried to get Gran to say she’d preserve the conservatory’s grant money. But Gran said that nobody ridiculed a Darcy and got away with it. Catherine insisted that she hadn’t done that. She said Lizzy had just stirred up a tsunami in a teapot. And besides, she was sure Gran didn’t approve of William paying Lizzy’s salary.” Richard frowned at William. “Speaking of which, how did you stop Lizzy from gelding you for pulling that little stunt? I understand you did it without consulting her first. I’d have thought you’d be singing soprano, or counter-tenor at the very least.”

“Drop it.” William glared at his cousin.

“Spoilsport.” Richard’s smirk was maddening. “I bet it’s an even better story than the one I’m telling.”

Elizabeth patted Richard’s arm. “William has paid his penance, and I assure you he’s not missing any critical body parts. Let it go, please?”

“For you, my dear, anything,” Richard replied. “After yesterday, you’re my hero.” With exaggerated gallantry, he grasped her hand and kissed it.

“Are we ever going to get to the end of this story?” William glared at Richard.

“Excuse me, oh Impatient One. Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yeah. Gran told Catherine that she and the conservatory could stuff it. And before you ask, no, not in those exact words. Bottom line, Gran more or less agreed with you, Lizzy. She said it was disgusting to take someone’s money and then look down your nose at them for giving it. And she said the foundation had plenty of other beneficiaries who wouldn’t bite the hand that ladled cash down their throats.”

“Good for her.” William draped his arm across the back of Elizabeth’s chair. “Did she say anything about the rest of Catherine’s behavior?”

“Her misbehavior, you mean,” Eleanor remarked.

Richard smirked at his mother and then continued. “Catherine started in on Lizzy again, but Gran stopped her and said—this is the part I especially wanted you to hear, Lizzy—that even though you’d gone a little overboard at the end, she admired you for all the crap you’d swallowed up to that point.”

“In other words, I had a chance to win her seal of approval if I’d just kept my mouth shut.” Elizabeth sighed.

“You won my seal of approval by defending me,” William said, leaning over for a gentle kiss.

When William drew back, he saw Richard open his mouth, obviously warming up for a sarcastic quip. Eleanor grasped Richard’s arm and sent him a warning look that silenced him.

“Thanks for your detective work, Richard,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “I’m touched that you put your dignity on the line for us.”

“And I’m touched that you think I have any dignity to put on the line.”

“And on that note,” Eleanor said, “I have to be going. But before I do …” She paused and turned to Elizabeth. “Robert and I hoped that you and William would join us for dinner tomorrow night.”

Elizabeth glanced at William, her eyebrows raised. They silently communicated their assent, and then Elizabeth nodded and smiled at Eleanor. “We’d love to.”

William sat back in his chair while the women arranged the details. He had often watched couples “discuss” an invitation without the need for words, and had wondered what it would feel like to have that close a connection, and now he knew. A warm glow spread through him, his earlier tension forgotten.

 

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Elizabeth murmured, smoothing the lapels of William’s overcoat. “It might be better to give her another day or so.”

William shook his head. “It might, but I’m tired of this hanging over my head. She and I need to come to an understanding.”

After brooding about the situation with Rose nonstop during dinner, he had decided to storm the lioness’s den. He and Elizabeth were standing in the hallway of their suite saying a private goodbye, while Jon and Sally chatted in the living room.

“I hope you’re not going to be hard on your grandmother about this afternoon. She’s just concerned about you.”

“I know, but my love life is none of her business. For God’s sake, I’m a grown man.”

“You certainly are,” Elizabeth said in a low voice. She stepped closer, a wicked gleam in her eye, and traced a path just inside the open neck of his shirt. “Fully grown. And I can vouch for it.”

Grinning in spite of himself, he wrapped his arms around her waist and bent his head to kiss her. He had intended it to be a quick caress, but she tasted so warm and sweet that his lips lingered on hers. He was tempted to sweep her into his arms, carry her to the bedroom, and wrap the warmth of her love around him like a cocoon. But attractive as that plan sounded, he couldn’t take Elizabeth to bed while her friends lounged in the living room. “Will Jon and Sally be here when I get back?”

“I doubt it. Sally has to go in early tomorrow, and with all the tourists in town it’s going to be a zoo. She’ll want a good night’s sleep. As for Jon, I’m sure he’ll leave with her.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Why?” She pressed a kiss to his neck, just below his ear. “Did you have something in mind?”

He nodded slowly and whispered an incendiary suggestion.

“Ooh, talk about incentive! Don’t worry. By the time you get back I’ll be all alone, waiting for you.”

He kissed her again. “Please apologize to Jon and Sally again for me. I wouldn’t ordinarily walk out on guests, but I need to get this done. Besides, they’ll probably enjoy getting rid of me or a while.” And he wouldn’t have to put up with Jon any longer.

She pulled the door open. “Now, get going, because the sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll be back.” She stepped closer until their bodies touched. “All of a sudden I’m … impatient to be alone with you.”

He took her advice, but only after one more kiss.

 

“Oh, good, he’s gone.” Jon bounced on the sofa cushion like an excited child. “Now we can get the straight skinny. So, I take it Granny is being a total bitch on wheels?”

Over dinner—a gourmet feast prepared by the hotel kitchen—Elizabeth had shared a brief account of the Thanksgiving debacle with Catherine. But out of deference to William, her only mention of Rose had been a passing reference to tea at the Plaza. “What makes you say that?”

“His fevered imagination,” Sally said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, please. Here’s the thing.” Jon counted off each point on his fingers. “You had a private pow-wow with Granny a few hours ago. William looked even gloomier than usual all through dinner. And suddenly he decides he has to rush off to see his grandmama? At this hour? For what? A bedtime story? I smell trouble.”

Elizabeth shifted on the sofa and nodded. “Well, okay. She’s not thrilled that William and I are together. She’d rather see him consorting with someone with a similar ‘social level.’”

“Poor Lizzy,” Jon said, patting her hand. “Born with a plastic spoon in your mouth instead of silver. They probably want to add a place setting or two to their collection.”

They laughed together. “But seriously,” Elizabeth said, “Mrs. Darcy made it clear that this isn’t about my not having money.”

Sally shook her head. “Well, of course she’s going to say that.”

“No, I think it’s true.” Elizabeth couldn’t imagine Rose feigning her arrogance about the Darcys’ more than sufficient resources and social standing. “It’s more the upbringing and the lifestyle that goes with having money. Old money, anyway.”

“Ah, yes.” Jon raised his voice an octave and adopted an exaggerated British accent. “We can’t have anyone in the family who doesn’t know which fork to use.” He dropped the affected tone and continued. “Forks, spoons; I see a theme developing. Did you tell her to fork off?”

Sally smacked Jon on the arm.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“This isn’t a laughing matter.” Sally nodded at Elizabeth. “Go on.”

“It’s okay, really. I’d rather laugh about it than cry.”

Jon thrust his chin forward and stuck out his tongue at Sally. Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile. As maddening as these two could be, she had missed them. “Mrs. Darcy thinks William needs a wife who’s ornamental but basically useless, planning elegant soirees and playing Lady Bountiful to the masses.”

“A wife?” Sally raised her eyebrows. “Was that a subtle announcement? I haven’t noticed a ring.”

Elizabeth inspected her fingernails. “No. We …” She sighed. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Seems easy enough to me.” Jon propped his feet on the coffee table. “You haven’t been offered the role yet, but this weekend is your audition. And you gave up three extra days in Barbados to be here, so you must want the part. Not that I blame you. This is the big time, not some crappy dinner theater on Long Island.”

“If yesterday was my audition, I blew it.” Elizabeth struggled to explain the situation without mentioning the rejected marriage proposal. William would be mortified if Jon ever joked about it. “I guess you’d say we have an understanding. A vague one, anyway.”

“You’re engaged to be engaged,” Sally said.

“I guess so.” Elizabeth wished she knew how William would have responded to Jon and Sally’s questions.

“Oh, good! I had a feeling it was getting serious.”

“Thank you, Sherlock Holmes,” Jon said, rolling his eyes. “You had a feeling? Didn’t you see the five-alarm looks they were giving each other all through dinner?” He leaned over and kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. “I’m happy for you, Lizzy. He’s not the kind of guy I thought you’d go for, but I can see how that whole ‘dark and tormented’ thing could be a major turn-on. And he’s obviously stark raving nuts about you.”

“Plus,” Sally said, “he comes with a boatload of advantages.”

Jon snorted. “More like a super-tanker. I’d sell my soul for that Ferrari you were talking about.”

“That’s not why I love him,” Elizabeth protested.

“We know that.” Jon folded his arms behind his head and burrowed deeper into the plush sofa cushion. “But you’d better get used to people assuming the worst.”

Elizabeth winced. She hated the thought of being forever misjudged.

“Jon makes a good point,” Sally said, “much as it amazes me to hear myself saying it. Look around you, Lizzy. How long would one of us have to work to afford even one night in this suite?”

“Let’s see,” Jon said, stroking his chin sagely. “If you and I pooled everything we’ve saved in the past year, we could maybe afford one of those bottles of French wine we had with dinner. Or a couple of glasses of this stuff.” He leaned forward and lifted his glass of cognac from the coffee table. He sniffed it reverently, closed his eyes, and took a long, slow sip. “Mondo fabuloso. You know, I could get used to being friends with a rich man’s almost-perhaps-maybe-someday-wife-to-be.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. She hadn’t forgotten her starstruck reaction to her first glimpse of the suite. Perhaps Rose had a good point after all. What did she know about being rich? Dating William for a few months hardly made her an authority.

I need to stop worrying. This isn’t rocket science. What I don’t know, I can learn.

Oh, really? Like William’s mother did?

She silenced her inner debate and turned her attention back to her friends.

“One thing for sure,” Jon was saying. “If you marry him, your life is going to change, big time. Servants and limos and all that. Not that change is necessarily a bad thing.” He sipped his cognac again, sighing blissfully.

“And it’s not like you’d go on teaching,” Sally said.

“Why not?” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest. She was growing tired of people telling her what she thought, what she wanted, and what she should or shouldn’t do.

“Well, for openers, why bother? Your salary would be a drop in the bucket.”

“And it is one massive bucket,” Jon added. “Besides, William doesn’t strike me as the sort who’d want his wife to be a working stiff.”

“Has he said anything about it?” Sally asked.

“We haven’t exactly talked about it.” Not since that night in San Francisco, anyway.

“As far as I’m concerned you should just kick back and enjoy the good life. In fact—”

Elizabeth jumped to her feet. “Look, I know you two mean well, but I’ve had all the advice I can handle for one day. Can we change the subject?” She grabbed her wine glass and stalked across the room to stare out the window, her pulse pounding in her ears.

Sally joined her by the window, with Jon following close behind. “I’m sorry; we didn’t mean to go overboard.”

“It’s okay,” Elizabeth replied. “It’s just been a tough day, that’s all.”

“Anyway, Jon and I are the last people who should be giving relationship advice. Neither of us has had so much as a nibble since you left town.”

“Yeah, kind of like hiring Stevie Wonder as a NASCAR driver.” Jon stretched his arms wide. “Group hug?”

Elizabeth had never been able to stay mad at Jon. The tension between them dissolved as they clustered in a tight circle, arms around one another’s shoulders. Then they stood side by side, gazing out the window.

“I’m glad it’s not snowing yet,” Sally said.

Manhattan at night stretched out below them. Reflected light colored the night sky with an orange glow. Central Park resembled a black lake dotted with tiny, bright islands floating on its surface. Elizabeth studied the skyline carefully, as though if she looked closely enough she could find answers to the questions swirling in her head.

 

“I didn’t expect to see you tonight.” Rose looked up from her book and stared at William over the reading glasses perched on her nose.

“I know.” He had decided to ambush her, appearing in her sitting room unannounced in hopes of gaining a psychological advantage. “Gran, we need to talk.”

“I quite agree. But it’s rather late.”

“This can’t wait till tomorrow,” William said. “Besides, our last ‘discussion,’ the night before I went to Barbados, happened even later than this.”

She nodded. “All right, then. Sit down.” She removed her reading glasses and set them on the table beside her.

William had a thousand childhood memories of this room. It was here, with a plate of Mrs. Reynolds’s warm-from-the-oven cookies by his side, that he had been schooled in the appreciation of jazz music. Jazz might seem an incongruous passion for someone as conventional and orderly as Rose, but she had learned to love it from her husband, the grandfather William had never known. Even now, Ella Fitzgerald crooned softly in the background.

rugHow many times had he sat in this chair, its red velvet upholstery faded to a dull rose with the passing years? How often had he dutifully crossed the room to fetch a hammered brass coaster, rather than risk his milk glass leaving a ring on the walnut end table with the oak leaf design carved into its sturdy legs? How often had he gazed at the pale blue Savonnerie rug beneath his feet, worn in spots but still beautiful, and imagined it adorning a stone floor in a French castle?

tea caddyHe knew every knickknack: the Wedgwood ash tray that had never been sullied by a cigarette, the Baccarat crystal vase that always held one perfect rose, the 18th-century Chippendale tea caddy he and Georgiana had given Rose on her 75th birthday. And, of course, the family photos in their gilt-edged frames, each one arranged at a meticulous angle.

Suddenly he was seven again, or eight, or nine, a lonely boy with long, coltish limbs, finding fresh sources of solace in music under his grandmother’s guidance. It was a timely reminder of the immense debt he owed her.

Rose watched him in silence, her hands neatly folded over the book on her lap. Like William, she rarely spoke on impulse, preferring to measure her words. He knew that she would wait for him to speak first.

“Gran, I don’t want us to be angry with each other.”

She glanced at her hands and then up at him. “I intended to call you tomorrow morning.”

He nodded. “In some ways we’re very much alike. Perhaps too much alike, because we’re both stubborn.”

An uninitiated observer might have thought she hadn’t heard him, but he had years of practice in reading her restrained body language. Her answer was a faint nod of the head, and perhaps a flicker of amusement in her eyes.

“I love you, Gran. But I love Elizabeth too. I need both of you in my life.”

She stared at him unmoving for a long moment and then sighed. “My dear, dear boy. I’m worried about you.”

William had rarely earned one “dear” from her, much less two, and it took him a moment to absorb the rest of her words. “Why? Because I’m in love with a wonderful woman? Because for the first time in my life I’m genuinely happy? Why do you find that so worrisome?”

“Because I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly.”

“I could say the same to you. Lizzy said you have the peculiar idea that she and I are a virtual reincarnation of my parents. That’s absurd.”

“Is it? Your grandfather and I visited them in Rome shortly after their marriage. Your mother was like a whirlwind, and your father was utterly bewitched, just as you seem to be. But by the time they came to New York, the spell had been broken. They were fundamentally different people connected by nothing but fleeting passion.”

“And you think that’s all Lizzy and I have? What is your basis for that dubious conclusion?”

She set her book on the table beside her reading glasses, a slight tremor in her hand. “You remind me so much of your father in those early days.” Her gaze flicked to a photo of Edmund on the coffee table.

“That’s extremely weak evidence, particularly when I’m telling you that you’re wrong.”

Rose hesitated. “I realize that young men have … needs. You’ve always been circumspect in that regard, unlike your cousin. Yet you’re openly sharing a hotel room—and obviously a bed—with Ms. Bennet. I’ve never seen you behave with so little discretion.”

William felt a flush creeping up his neck. “Gran—”

“You’re not even concerned about Georgiana. You didn’t think twice about having her meet you at the hotel this morning, thus flaunting the fact that you spent the night there. Can you see why I’m worried that, like your father, you’ve forsaken your upbringing to pursue your passions?”

Rose was the last person on earth with whom he wanted to discuss his sex life. “Lizzy is staying at the hotel because the guest rooms here are full, and we knew it would be awkward if she shared my room. I’m staying at the hotel because my place is with her. If any of your friends mention seeing me at the Four Seasons, tell them I was escorting my guest back to her hotel or picking her up in the morning.”

“And Georgiana?” Rose’s eyebrows curved in an imperious arch.

He sighed. “Perhaps I should have picked her up at the townhouse. But we were planning to shop at Barneys, and it’s just a few blocks from the hotel. Besides, either way she would have known that I didn’t spend the night at home.”

“Precisely.” She eyed him with obvious disapproval.

“I think she can handle it. She already knows plenty about Richard’s habits, and although it’s been a while, there have been other nights when I didn’t get home until after breakfast.”

“You’re setting a poor example for her at a critical time in her life.”

He hadn’t thought of that. Georgiana was reaching the age when she might be tempted to experiment, and he didn’t want her using his behavior to justify casual sex. “I’ll have a talk with her, so she understands that Elizabeth and I are committed to each other. I realize that’s not a complete answer, but it’s the best I can do.”

Rose inclined her head. “I would appreciate that. As you know, I disapprove of intimacy before marriage, but if it does occur, it should happen only in the context of a serious relationship.”

William was more than ready to change the subject. “What else?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you have other objections to Elizabeth. You had enough of them last Saturday night, when you ordered me not to go to Barbados.”

“A request you ignored.”

“Because I’m not eight years old. I’m an adult, and I make my own decisions.” Sitting in this room, he could feel the pull of childhood patterns. It occurred to him that Rose might be similarly affected.

“You’ve been an adult for years, but you’ve never defied me that way before.”

“Usually when we disagree, it’s about foundation business or social commitments. And usually I defer to you, unless logic is clearly on my side. But this is my future, my life. I don’t need to justify my choices.”

“So you’re determined to marry her.” Rose spoke quietly, without emotion. She stared at the rug, as though memorizing its intricate pattern.

“Yes, if she’ll have me. And let me repeat what I said last Saturday night. You shouldn’t believe anything Catherine said about her. Lizzy is not after my money, and although her family isn’t like ours, she’s from a better background than you were led to believe.”

Rose met his gaze and nodded slowly. “She’s not at all as Catherine described her.”

“Why did you believe Catherine in the first place, instead of trusting my judgment?”

“I was afraid your infatuation had blinded you.”

“Then why not trust your own eyes? You saw her last summer at the Juilliard reception, and then again when she had dinner at the house. You could see that she was a well-bred, intelligent woman.”

“But I saw her only those two times. She worked for Catherine for months.”

Only out of respect for Rose did William suppress a derisive snort. “It should have been obvious that Catherine would be biased. She thinks Elizabeth is the only thing keeping me from marrying Anne.” He paused and studied Rose carefully. “You believe it too, don’t you?”

“I’ve been thinking about that this evening.” She paused, pressing her lips together. “Today at tea, Elizabeth said some things about you—about why Anne wasn’t the right woman for you. I have to admit that she was right. I should have seen it myself.”

“Lizzy knows me very well.” He relaxed in his chair. “Doesn’t that prove that there’s more here than passion?”

Rose gazed down at her hands. “Perhaps.”

“Are you willing to get to know her better? I think the more you see of her, the more you’ll understand why I love her.”

She nodded, but her reluctance was obvious. “It’s a reasonable request. I can hardly say no.”

“Something is still bothering you. Whatever it is, just say it.” He almost grinned as he processed his words; it sounded like something Elizabeth would say.

“I’m concerned that she is woefully unprepared for the life we live.” She grasped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. “That could be disastrous for both of you.”

“But you’ll help her with that, like you did with Mamma.”

“Your mother is exactly the reason I raise the issue. She was miserable here.”

“That was because of the way Father treated her. And, besides, I’m not the head of a corporation like Father was. Lizzy understands my profession. In fact, music is one of the bonds we share.”

“It’s more complicated than that. A great deal is expected of our family. Have you and Elizabeth discussed it?”

He shook his head. He didn’t want to think about their one discussion of the future, with the diamond ring sitting between them.

“I think you should do so before you take any rash steps. Because if you don’t—”

He waited for her to continue. She fell silent, staring at her hands. When she looked up, the sadness in her eyes astonished him. He had seen raw emotion on her face only twice in his life, in the aftermath of his parents’ deaths. “What’s wrong, Gran?”

Silence hung between them, and at last she spoke. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” he said in a soothing voice. “You’re family, Gran, and you’ve taught me how important that is.”

“You said it yourself. If you had to choose, you’d choose her. And if she hates our world as much as your mother did …”

The pieces clicked together. He spoke softly. “You’re afraid she’ll convince me to leave here.”

“You’ve already left us for her once, when you went to San Francisco.”

“Whereas if I marry someone in our circle …” There was no need to finish the sentence.

Acting on impulse, he jumped to his feet and covered the few steps between their chairs. He crouched down beside her and took her hand in both of his. She stared at him, her eyes wide with surprise. “I was angry and hurt when I said what I did, about choosing between you. Lizzy knows how important you and Georgie are to me. That’s why she’s moving back to New York, even though it means leaving her family behind.” He released her hand and stood.

“I didn’t know that.” Using both arms to push herself upright, she rose slowly from her chair. He was struck by how frail she seemed, slender and fragile-looking, the blue veins in her hands standing out in sharp relief beneath her nearly transparent skin. She smelled, as always, of her favorite rose-scented hand lotion. Like everything else in the room, the fragrance propelled him back through the years.

“There’s one more thing you should consider,” he said softly, taking her hand again. “Have you wondered why Elizabeth and I are up here shivering in the cold, instead of taking a moonlit walk in the garden at Pemberley?”

“I assumed you had an attack of conscience.” Her tone was sharp, but he saw a faint twinkle in her eyes.

“Only if my conscience is named Elizabeth. I wanted to stay at Pemberley, but she insisted that I had to be with my family for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“You do realize that’s not an entirely comforting piece of news,” Rose said, pursing her lips. “I’m impressed with Elizabeth’s good judgment, but your filial devotion is less than overwhelming.”

“You can scold me for that later. My point is that Lizzy doesn’t want to take me away from you and Georgie. She just wants to share. Can’t we work that out?”

“I suppose we can try.”

William leaned forward and kissed her soft cheek. “I love you, Gran.”

“And I love you.” She offered him a faint smile. “Eleanor is always telling me that I don’t say it enough. But you know it, don’t you?”

“I’ve always known it.”

“I only want what’s best for you.”

“I know that too. But, Gran, Elizabeth is what’s best for me.”

“She said the same thing. I thought it was cheeky of her.” She must have noticed his wince, because she smiled and touched his arm. “I admired her for it.”

“Good. I think you’ll find there’s plenty more to admire.” He glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. “I should go. It’s getting late.”

She accompanied him into the center hall. “Do you and Elizabeth have plans for lunch tomorrow? Perhaps we could work on getting better acquainted.”

“That sounds good, with one proviso. Will Catherine be there?” he asked, pretending to cringe.

“Perish the thought. We won’t be seeing much of Catherine from now on.”

“Good.” He wished he could thank her for her defense of him, and also of Elizabeth, but to do so would expose Richard’s eavesdropping.

“And I hope you’ll bring Elizabeth with you to brunch on Sunday. Unless she has to leave for home before then.”

“No, she planned her flight to stay for brunch.”

“Did she?” Rose nodded. After a moment of silence, she spoke in a contemplative tone. “She really is like your mother.”

“I don’t see it.” William shrugged and shook his head. “Lizzy doesn’t look anything like Mamma, except their hair color.”

“That’s not what I’m referring to.”

“I haven’t noticed many similarities in personality either. You’ll see what I mean when you know Lizzy better. She’s far more relaxed, and much happier, than Mamma was.”

“You remember your mother later in her life, when she was worried about your health and battling your father over your musical career.”

William swallowed and pressed his lips together. His poor mother. He had brought so much trouble into her life.

“I was thinking of something else,” Rose said, grasping the wrought iron railing that flanked the staircase. “When it came to protecting you, your mother would rain down the fury of the gods without a second thought. I’ve seen Elizabeth lose her temper twice, and both times it was in your defense.”

Pride swelled his chest. “That’s because she loves me, Gran.”

Rose didn’t answer, but he saw the thoughtful expression in her eyes. He kissed his grandmother’s cheek again and trotted down the steps, smiling to himself.