“Is there anything else about the Berlin Philharmonic gig?” Richard’s bleary eyes swept from William to Sonya. “Or—and oh, please, say yes—have we stomped that subject sufficiently into the muck by now?”

William exchanged an eye-roll with Sonya. Richard had arrived for their meeting in a spectacularly foul mood. Not even Mrs. Reynolds’s cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven and exuding tantalizing waves of calorie-laden fragrance, had been able to coax him into civilized behavior.

“Sorry if we’re keeping you from a more pressing engagement,” William said dryly.

Richard took a swig from his teacup and then held it in both hands, hunched over it as though warming himself. “What you’re keeping me from, old man, is my bed. When did we decide that these meetings should start at nine instead of ten?” He fixed a dark stare on William. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me. These days you have other plans at ten.”

William glanced at his watch. It was 9:46; there was still plenty of time to finish the meeting.

“Look at the bright side,” Sonya said, snapping the schedule book shut. “While William’s out of town, you can sleep all day if you want.”

“Don’t try to sweet talk me,” Richard grumbled. He leaned back, uttered a muffled curse, and turned to glare at his high-backed chair, with its intricate carving and burgundy velvet upholstery. “Why can’t you get comfortable chairs? These damned relics make you sit up like you’ve got a ramrod stuffed up your—”

“I think you can go,” William said. “Sonya and I have some things to discuss, but they don’t involve you.”

“Thank God.” Richard hauled himself to his feet, scooped up the papers in front of him, and headed for the door. “See ya.”

William glanced at Sonya. “I’ll be right back.” He followed Richard into the hall, stopping him at the top of the steps. “What’s wrong with you?”

Richard heaved a loud sigh. “Sorry, old man. I should be wearing a ‘toxic mood’ warning. It was a long night, most of which I don’t remember, and I feel like crap. Actually, come to think of it, when I work my way up to feeling like crap I’ll issue a press release.”

“All that snarling was because of a hangover? I’m surprised you’re not immune by now.”

“This is the mother of all hangovers,” Richard groaned, rubbing his forehead. “Damn, I’m speaking in clichés; it’s even worse than I thought. Change that to ‘the second cousin on my father’s side of all hangovers.’”

“I thought you were cutting back on the carousing, that you’d gotten tired of it.”

“I said cutting back, not quitting. We weren’t all born middle-aged.”

William ignored Richard’s jibe. “I’m going for a run in the park after lunch. Think you’ll be sufficiently recovered to come along?”

“Oh, God, that’s all I need.” Richard pressed his palm to his forehead and groaned. “Why don’t you just put me on a pogo stick while you’re at it?”

William shook his head and chuckled. “All right. Go home and get some rest.”

“Later, Will. Give my regards to the Autobahn.”

Richard made his way gingerly down the curved staircase, his hand clutching the rail in a death grip. William watched for a few seconds, still shaking his head in silent amusement, and then returned to his office.

“Did you find out what was behind his sunny disposition?” Sonya asked.

“A hangover,” he said, sinking into his chair. Richard had a point; the chairs were more decorative than functional. But they had been purchased by the first William Darcy to occupy this office, as had the desk and the conference table. They had been valuable antiques even then, and to William their value was magnified by their connection to his heritage. He ran a finger along the table’s polished surface, admiring the wood grain. His great-great-grandfather had possessed excellent taste in furniture.

“A hangover? Is that all?” She set down her coffee cup with a soft clink. “I was on the verge of shoving a cinnamon roll in his mouth to shut him up.”

“You’d have been in line behind me,” William retorted with a grin.

“Are you sure there isn’t something else the matter with him? Lately he seems…” She paused for a second and then shrugged. “Never mind. We need to talk about the Kennedy Center concert for a minute. The White House protocol officer needs to know the name of your guest for the luncheon. I assume you’re taking Elizabeth?”

He scowled at a tiny inkblot on the cuff of his shirt. “I keep forgetting to mention it to her, but, yes, give them her name.”

“I still need to make her travel arrangements for the trip. Will she be meeting you in Washington?”

“No. She’s coming here first. We’ll be flying back from California together, either right before or right after Christmas.”

“I assume you’re going to give me those dates soon? Or are you planning to change your mind daily for the next two weeks and then send me groveling to the airlines for—”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I can.” William wasn’t interested in another diatribe about his ever-changing travel arrangements. “Have you finished the analysis of my schedule?”

Her eyes flicked in his direction, but she didn’t comment on the interruption. Despite her acerbic manner, Sonya rarely forgot who was boss. “Yes. You’re almost completely booked for the next two years. We could cancel or reschedule a few things, but not many.”

He had expected to hear this news. “And after that?”

“After that, we have some latitude. Do you want to set a new policy? No more than two trips a month, maybe?”

“One long-distance trip per month, plus one or two more to cities that are … let’s say no more than a two-hour plane ride.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You really think such a big cutback is practical?”

“We’ll make up for it during the summer. You can book me more heavily then.”

“But you know what summers are like. Outdoor venues, pops concerts … stuff you’re not wild about. And there aren’t enough music festivals to fill your calendar. I’m surprised you’d want to—”

“I’m not interested in debating it.”

She gave him a long, appraising look over the rim of her coffee cup. “Is there something going on? Your health, or…?”

“I’ve never felt better.” He was tempted to tell her that it wasn’t her place to pry; hadn’t he just been reflecting on her excellent grasp of the employer/employee relationship? But she was his friend as well as his secretary. Absent some explanation, she would worry about him. “I’d like to be more settled in New York during the school year.”

“I see.” Sonya wore a guarded smile, but he detected a glimmer of amusement in her eyes.

“I want Elizabeth to travel with me.”

“I see.”

“But since she’s a teacher, she can’t travel easily except in the summer.”

“I see.” Sonya’s voice kept rising slightly in pitch, as though she sipped helium and not coffee from her cup.

“Stop saying that.” William refilled his own coffee cup, inhaling the rich scent of hazelnuts and vanilla. He glanced away from her knowing smile, fearing that he might begin to squirm like an amoeba trapped under a microscope.

“Does this mean congratulations are in order?”

The question startled him, but he realized that he should have expected it. The truth seemed to be the simplest response. “Not officially yet, but we have what I suppose you’d call an understanding.”

She nodded, her smile widening slightly. “Well, good for you. I think you know how much I like her. Aside from her dubious taste in men, obviously.”

He snorted and glowered at her, failing in his attempt to feign outrage. An unprecedented urge seized him to open his heart, sharing the tale of his recent weeks of emotional bungee jumping. But it was 9:55, and they had one more item to discuss. “Where do we stand on that real estate transaction?”

As before, she shifted gears effortlessly, following his lead. “I’m waiting to hear from the realtor. I expect to have some news before you leave for the airport.”

“Excellent. That’s all for now.” He rose to his feet, snatched his cell phone from his desk, and strode across the room. He had just enough time to get upstairs before—

“William?”

He paused in the doorway. “What?”

“Wouldn’t it be better if you discussed this with Elizabeth before we take definitive action?”

“I don’t want her to know about it.”

“You’re going to have to tell her eventually.”

“But not yet.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I do. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

Sonya nodded. “Tell her I said hello.”

He took the steps to the third floor two at a time. As he rounded the corner into his sitting room, the phone in his hand rang. Smiling, he raised it to his ear. “Good morning, cara.”

“Hi there.”

He settled into his chair, his smile growing broader. “How are you this morning?”

“It’s too soon to tell. I just woke up.”

“I bet you look gorgeous.”

“Oh, yeah. Lying in bed with my hair a mess and my eyes all bleary.”

“Precisely. Gorgeous.” His vivid memories of their mornings together were all the more precious for their scarcity.

“I wish you were here. I’d love to snuggle with you for a while before I get up.”

“Close your eyes.”

“Okay.”

“I’m there with you, holding you.”

She exhaled a long, slow sigh. “You’re so warm.”

“And you’re so soft.” He shut his eyes and felt her cradled against his body.

He was deep in reverie when she finally spoke. “I miss you.” The little quaver in her voice reached across the miles like a ghostly hand trembling against his cheek.

“And I miss you.” Almost ten days had passed since her return to San Francisco. “If it weren’t for this trip coming up, you might have found me standing on your doorstep yesterday when you got home from school.”

“That would have been wonderful. Uncomfortable for you, though. Our doorstep is small and your feet are so big they’d never fit.”

He grinned. “There you go again about my feet. They’re not that big.”

“If you say so. What are your plans for today? Until your flight, I mean.”

“I’m taking Gran and Aunt Eleanor out for an early lunch.”

“What a good boy you are.”

Despite her teasing tone, he paused for a moment of self-congratulation. The extra time devoted to his family had begun to produce results. In particular, he had noticed a softening in Rose’s questions and remarks about Elizabeth. “After lunch I thought I’d go for a run, and then practice until it’s time to leave for the airport.”

“Will you see Georgie before you go?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He had suggested that Georgiana come directly home from school instead of going to Courtney’s house and staying there until dinnertime, as was her usual practice. Georgiana’s response, a non-committal shrug, had left him perplexed and annoyed. Hard as he tried to deny it, his sister seemed to be slipping away.

“Have you met Courtney’s parents?”

“Gran knows her mother. They’re in the Opera Guild.”

“Yeah, but doesn’t Courtney live with her father and stepmother?”

“I believe so.”

“And Georgie spends a lot of time there after school, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is anybody at home in the afternoons, or are the girls there alone?”

“Isn’t Georgie too old to need a babysitter? You’re the one who’s always reminding me that she’s not a child anymore.” No matter what he did where Georgiana was concerned, Elizabeth always seemed to find fault with it.

“I’m not talking about a babysitter, just some basic supervision.”

Annoyance began to simmer inside him, as it usually did when they discussed Georgiana. “I didn’t need ‘basic supervision’ when I was fifteen.”

“At that age you were a college student with a raft of concert gigs on your calendar. Your closet was full of tuxedos, not jeans and tee shirts. Besides, you were never fifteen.”

“You sound like Richard,” he grumbled. “This morning he said I was born middle-aged.”

“Then it’s a good thing I have a weakness for middle-aged pianists with dark hair.”

“You mean like Bill Collins?” He smirked, pleased with his quick retort.

“Yikes!” She laughed. “Yeah, you two are practically twins. But back to Georgie. Seriously, Will, do you even know for sure that they go to Courtney’s house after school? Kitty and Lydia used to cause all sorts of trouble wandering around on their own.”

He pressed his lips together and exhaled through his nose. Georgiana was nothing like Lydia, and only his affection for Elizabeth silenced the sharp retort that sprang to his lips. “I know you mean well, Lizzy, but I trust Georgie. We had one misunderstanding about her whereabouts, but she’s given us no other reason to doubt her.”

“I’m not suggesting that you do anything drastic. I’m just saying, call Courtney’s father and invite him to the house for a glass of wine. Or, better yet, try to get him to invite you, so you can get a feel for the environment at his house.”

William didn’t answer. She was right, but it annoyed him to feel like an inadequate older brother yet again.

“No matter how much you trust Georgie, don’t you want to know that she’s spending time in a safe place?”

“Fine,” he said, sounding curt even to his own ears. “I’ll call him when I get back from Berlin.”

“Good. It can’t hurt to be a little careful, right?”

He grunted in agreement.

She paused, perhaps waiting for a more enthusiastic response to her remark. When he didn’t offer one, she continued. “Well, I hate to cut this short, but I have an early meeting at school. I guess you won’t be able to call me tonight?”

“By the time my flight lands, you’ll be asleep. I could probably call you from the plane, though.”

“No, wait till you get there and wake me up. You’re worth it.”

They said their goodbyes, taking long enough that Elizabeth joked that she would have to attend her meeting in her nightshirt. Grinning at that image, he slipped the phone into his pocket and leaned back in his chair. He wouldn’t be surprised if a nightshirt-clad Elizabeth materialized on the flight to Germany that night. In fact, he could almost guarantee it.

 

“Come on, Jane, you’ve got to try one.”

Jane eyed the plate Charlotte had nudged in her direction. “I don’t know, Char. It just doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy.”

“You might be surprised,” Elizabeth said, raising her voice to be heard over the percussive beat of the jazz group playing across the room. “I admit, ‘fried’ and ‘olives’ are two words that don’t really belong side by side, but actually they’re good.”

Jane continued to look unconvinced. “Maybe I’ll try one later.”

“Later they’ll be gone, at the rate Char is eating them,” Elizabeth said. “But never mind the olives. It’s time for a toast. To Dr. Charlotte Lucas, who faced down her dissertation committee and lived to tell the tale.”

The trio clinked glasses and sampled the wine. Elizabeth was gratified when the others approved of its clean, tart flavor. Six months ago, she would have laughed at the notion that anyone would trust her to select a wine.

She reached for an olive. Unfortunately it fell off her fork and plopped onto the crisp white tablecloth, leaving a faint oil stain. With a rueful grin at her tablemates, she plucked the olive off the tablecloth and popped it into her mouth. So much for Elizabeth Bennet, sophisticated gourmet and oenophile.

“Of course, I’m not technically a doctor yet,” Charlotte mused, swirling the wine in her glass.

“But the rest is just paperwork,” Jane said, smiling. “I bet it feels good to be done.”

“It sure does. I might actually get some sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll return some phone calls and e-mails too. I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicado lately.”

“It’s okay,” Elizabeth said. “We knew how busy you were.”

“And it’s been my loss. I mean, look at the two of you. Huge developments on the romantic front, and all I’ve heard is the Cliff Notes version.” Charlotte leaned forward, her eyes gleaming. “So, come on. Spill the details.”

Jane and Elizabeth exchanged sheepish smiles. “You go first,” Elizabeth said.

The band stopped playing, much to Elizabeth’s relief. The room was still noisy, with servers bustling about and diners’ voices echoing off the vaulted ceilings, but now at least they wouldn’t have to shout the personal details of their lives at the top of their voices.

“Really, there’s not much to tell,” Jane said with an apologetic shrug. “You already know what’s happened with Charles.”

“Yeah, and I think it’s great, especially that he found a job already. Who is it with again? The opera?”

“The symphony. As their new communications director.”

Charlotte speared another olive. “I thought he was in communications at his father’s company and hated it.”

“Well, yeah,” Elizabeth said, “but that was because of all the pressure from his father.”

Jane nodded. “He likes that kind of work, and he’s excited about being part of a musical organization. And meanwhile, we’ll save up so he can open a jazz club some day.”

“Couldn’t Charles sell the house in Pacific Heights to get the money to buy a club?” Charlotte rested her elbow on the edge of the table. “Alhough it’s such a great house. It would be a shame to have to sell it.”

Jane darted an uncomfortable glance at Elizabeth. “He is selling it, but not for that reason. I didn’t know about it at the time, but he borrowed heavily against his inheritance to buy the house. And now that money is gone and he can’t afford the loan payments. He still has a small trust fund, but his father controls it till Charles is 35. So that’s no help right now either.”

Charlotte shook her head. “That sucks. Will there be anything left from the sale after he pays off the loan?”

“Not much. But he has a good job, and he’s determined to stand on his own.” Jane paused and sipped her wine. “I’m so proud of him.”

“And where does your relationship stand?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows and continued, “Or maybe ‘stand’ is the wrong word. I assume you’ve moved on to prone positions by now?”

Jane sat up straight and licked her lips. Elizabeth was about to tell Charlotte to mind her own business when Jane spoke in a halting voice. “We’re taking things slowly, getting to know each other again.”

“Oh, come on.” Charlotte shook her head, wearing a sly grin. “I know he spent last night with you, because when I called this morning he answered the phone.”

Jane shook her head. “He’s living at the house until it sells. After that … well, we’ll see. This morning he came by early and we went running. He answered the phone because I was in the bedroom getting my jacket.”

“Right. Whatever you say.”

“No, Char, it’s true,” Elizabeth interjected. “Jane means it when she says they’ve been taking things slowly.”

Elizabeth didn’t add that the pace seemed to be accelerating. A few nights before, unable to sleep in the chill of her lonely bed, she had wandered toward the kitchen in search of a snack. She had been mortified on entering the living room to see Charles, his shirt unbuttoned and his face flushed, spring into a sitting position on the sofa. Jane, clutching her blouse around her, had greeted Elizabeth in breathless accents. Elizabeth had stammered an apology and sprinted back to her room, her rumbling stomach forgotten.

“In that case, I’m in awe of your restraint,” Charlotte said, piercing an olive with her fork. “I’m more of a ‘sleep together first, get acquainted later’ kind of gal.”

“Really?” Elizabeth said, grinning. “We’d never have guessed.” Once she would have teased Charlotte mercilessly about her lack of self-control, but not now—not after she and William, while in Barbados, had made love first and resolved their differences later.

The waiter arrived with their salads. Elizabeth drizzled a tiny stream of dressing onto hers. The three pounds she had gained in Barbados and New York clung stubbornly to her hips. I’d better take two dance classes tomorrow.

Charlotte waved her fork. “Your turn, Liz. Thank God you and William finally came to your senses.”

“You’ve heard the story about how they met accidentally in Barbados, haven’t you?” Jane asked, her eyes shining.

“Bumping into each other on the beach one afternoon? I have to give you bonus points, Liz. Very romantic.”

“Not really. Aunt Madeline was there so we couldn’t really talk, and we were both so nervous. He told me later that he was mortified because he was all sweaty and tousled from running.” Elizabeth smiled. “Trust me, he had nothing to be mortified about.”

“I can imagine,” Charlotte said, her eyebrows tilted at a wicked angle. “Okay, so what happened after that? Omit nothing, especially not any details involving a deserted beach, skinny-dipping, and a full moon.”

“What makes you think anything like that happened?” Elizabeth pursed her lips and stared back at Charlotte. Nothing exactly like that had happened; for one thing, the moon had been no more than a sliver in the sky.

Charlotte sat back, crossing her arms over her chest. “I am so disappointed in you.”

“Sorry,” Elizabeth said. “The beaches are public, and William and I aren’t into exhibitionism.” Charlotte didn’t need to know about the private swimming pool.

“Good grief. If you lacked the imagination to do it, at least you could make something up. I’ve been buried under a mountain of paper for weeks. I’m counting on you for some vicarious thrills.”

“It was amazing.” Vivid memories flooded her mind with sunlight and filled her nostrils with the scent of tropical flowers. “I can’t imagine anyplace more romantic than Pemberley. The house and the gardens, and the incredible view of the ocean. I can’t begin to do it justice.”

“I assume you two were inseparable?”

“Pretty much. Aunt Madeline and Uncle Edward were wonderful about it, when I basically deserted them and moved to Pemberley. They had a great time too. William set them up with a local dive operator, and Uncle Edward said it was the best dive he’d ever been on.”

“So William has the Gardiners firmly in his corner.”

Elizabeth sighed. “William isn’t the one who needs to worry about garnering support.”

“So I understand,” Charlotte said with a smirk. “I heard about the Thanksgiving smackdown.”

“From Richard, I assume.” Elizabeth could easily imagine him regaling Charlotte with the tale.

“Don’t tease poor Lizzy about it,” Jane said. “Dr. de Bourgh has been taking it out on her ever since.”

“Oh, no. What has that miserable hag been doing to you?”

“I’d better not talk about it too much; I’ll just get mad. But I will share one tidbit. She’s started sending other faculty members to ‘observe’ my classes. She even showed up herself one day.”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Charlotte shook her head. “Is she looking for a pretext to fire you before you quit?”

“At first I thought so, but this late in the semester, why bother? I think she’s just trying to rattle me.”

“Is it working?”

Elizabeth sighed. “More than I’d like to admit. I’m trying not to let her mess with my head, but it’s hard not to stiffen up when you know you’re being scrutinized by a colleague. Academics are notoriously judgmental of one another. But you know that.”

“Do I ever! Shooting holes in other people’s research is the intellectual’s version of an Olympic event.” Charlotte paused and shook her head slowly. “All this just because you told her off in front of the Darcys? Not too vengeful, is she?”

“It’s more than just that,” Elizabeth said. “The conservatory lost its funding from the Darcy Arts Trust; William told her she’s not getting another penny, and his grandmother agreed.”

“Plus, she wanted William for a son-in-law,” Jane added. “I’m sure she hates to see Anne disappointed.”

“Oh, right.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “As if William were stupid enough to consider marrying into that viper’s nest. What does he have to say about your persecution?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I haven’t told him, and I don’t plan to, if I can help it. He feels guilty enough already. Though I did tell him about the reception.”

“The reception?”

“He’s giving his final recital at the conservatory next Friday; it was scheduled before all this happened, so he’s going through with it. She’s throwing a big party afterwards, trying to put a good face on things for public consumption, I guess. As far as I can tell, I was the only faculty member not invited.”

“I assume William did something about that.”

“His grandmother handled it.”

“Way to go, Granny! What did she do?”

“I don’t know, but it worked. Catherine’s secretary called this morning to let me know that my presence at the reception would be tolerated.”

“Really?” Jane’s eyebrows lifted. “Good for Mrs. Darcy.”

“Don’t get too excited,” Elizabeth said, rolling her eyes. “I won’t be surprised if they send me around to the kitchen to pick up my apron and tray.”

Charlotte set down her wine glass. “So does this mean you’re in Granny’s good books now?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. I guess you’d call us cordial.” Elizabeth and Rose had taken tentative steps toward a closer acquaintance during the last two days of Thanksgiving break, but the inbred hauteur that clung to Rose like an expensive perfume formed a sturdy wall between them. Still, William’s mother had found a way to thaw the old woman’s frosty heart, and Elizabeth was determined to do the same.

“I assume you’re going to New York over Christmas break?” Charlotte asked.

“Uh huh. In fact, Mrs. Darcy wrote me a note after Thanksgiving, officially inviting me for the holidays. In her day, it was improper for young ladies to visit gentlemen in their homes. Instead they used the pretext of visiting a female member of the family.”

“And by amazing coincidence, the gentleman just happened to be present?”

“You got it. William and I have to figure out how to divide our holiday between the two coasts while offending as few people as possible. And then there’s the New Year’s Eve concert in Washington … which reminds me. You’re going with Richard, aren’t you?”

Charlotte’s face took on a pinched, closed look. She stabbed a chunk of tomato on her salad plate. “No, I’m not.”

Elizabeth winced. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. William told me that Richard was going to invite you.”

“He did. I said no.”

“But why? The four of us could have a great time together.”

“It made absolutely no sense that he’d invite me to go with him.”

“Why do you say that? You went to Phoenix with him.”

“Right. Just the two of us, dividing our time between our hotel room and the ballpark. But when did we move from having sex on the hotel balcony at three in the morning to meeting his parents?” She shuddered.

Jane coughed, probably attempting to camouflage her soft gasp. Elizabeth knew, from experience going back to high school, that Charlotte sometimes invented outrageous sexual escapades for shock value. But this story, considering her partner’s reputation, was probably true.

“You’d love his parents,” Elizabeth said. “They’re not like his grandmother. In fact, they used to be hippies in the Haight. Now they own a natural food company.”

“It wouldn’t help if they were the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lam-ess. My point is, why does he want me to meet them?”

“He’s not inviting you to Washington to meet his parents,” Elizabeth said, not bothering to conceal her impatience. “He’s inviting you to Washington for New Year’s Eve, and it just happens that his parents will be there too.”

“Maybe, but it’s still a gathering of the clan, the Darcys turning out to watch the favorite son in action. That’s a ‘steady girlfriend’ kind of event. I like Richard, but as for anything more …” She shrugged.

“Couldn’t be more if you let it?” Elizabeth asked. “You two have so much in common.”

“Too much. You know that saying about leopards and their spots? Well, it’s true. It wouldn’t matter how much time either of us spent with a brush and a can of paint. We’re not designed for the long haul.”

“Doesn’t that argue against the idea that he’s getting serious?” Jane asked.

Charlotte ran a finger along the rim of her wine glass. “He doesn’t seem like the type, but in that case, I’m back to scratching my head over this whole ‘meet the parents’ thing. Besides, I’ve been picking up a weird vibe from him.”

Elizabeth scowled at Charlotte. “Didn’t you spend the past six months lecturing me about giving men a chance? Maybe you need to take some of your own advice. First you pushed Roger away, and now you’re all, ‘Oh, heaven forbid that Richard might care about me as more than a bed partner.’”

“Don’t you lecture me about Roger,” Charlotte snapped. “There’s plenty you don’t know.”

Elizabeth opened her mouth, preparing a tart reply, but she fell silent when Jane’s hand rested gently on her arm. “Lizzy and I just want you to be happy,” Jane said, her voice rich with sympathy. “And you and Richard seemed to hit it off so well.”

“We did,” Charlotte said, and the harsh glint in her eyes faded away. She fingered the hammered gold choker she wore. “It was a fantastic time. But I’m not going to Washington. Maybe I’m reading too much into the invitation, but it feels like a signal that he’s looking for something more.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Charlotte’s commitment-phobia was exasperating. “Even if he is, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to pick out china patterns. After all, his baseline for comparison is a relationship—if you want to call it that—lasting two or three hours. Eight, if he stays the night. Finding out a woman’s last name before he disappears into the mist is a big step for him.”

Charlotte snickered. “You have a point. Well, anyway, we’re planning to get together when I’m in New York interviewing at Columbia. Although I don’t technically have an interview yet.”

“They still haven’t called?” Jane asked.

Charlotte shook her head. “Nobody has.” With her dissertation complete, seeking a faculty position for the fall was her next logical step. “But it’s still early. I’ve sent my letters out, and my advisor is beating the bushes. Keep your fingers crossed.”

Jane held up both hands, her fingers twined together as directed. “Absolutely.”

Elizabeth raised her glass. “Another toast. To Dr. Lucas finding the perfect job, preferably in a city crammed with sexy single men.”

“Tall ones,” Charlotte shot back.

The three clinked glasses, their shared smiles dissolving the last of the tension.

 

Elizabeth scowled at her laptop’s monitor as she scrolled through the practice room schedule, searching for an open room. Classes had just ended for the semester, but one of her students had asked for an emergency voice lesson to help prepare for an audition. Once upon a time, such requests had been simple to fill; she had met with her voice students in her office. But things had changed.

Catherine de Bourgh’s most effective form of punishment had been to banish Elizabeth from her office. Claiming that the space was needed for “someone who is committed to teaching here,” she had forced Elizabeth to move to a broom closet-sized room for the rest of the semester—worse yet, a broom closet she shared with two doctoral students. Elizabeth would have borne it with tolerance and humor, had not her officemates been such a disruptive presence. They tended to burst into song without warning, warbling excerpts from the opera they were composing together. When they weren’t singing, both had the habit of humming randomly chosen arias. And if one started, the other invariably hummed along with a single-voice version of the orchestral accompaniment.

Had she not been so busy, she might have snuck a peek at the musical score scattered across their desks, in order to surprise them with a soprano aria at some opportune moment. But she had exams to review, term papers to read, and grades to assign, and it all had to be done in just over a week. Now was not the time for good-natured hijinks.

The composing duo had crooned their way off to lunch a short time ago, leaving Elizabeth with a precious interval of peace. They had invited her to join them for lunch in an impromptu tenor/baritone duet, but she had refused, citing her pile of papers waiting to be graded.

Okay, that was funny. On a musician-humor scale, anyway. Her lips curled in a reluctant smile and she reached for the top paper in a stack to one side of her desk. A purple pen in one hand, she was soon immersed in the life and work of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, the subject of an unusually well-written student paper.

Her cell phone came to life, playing a shrill electronic version of the overture to The Magic Flute. She dove for her purse, barely extracting the phone by the fourth ring.

Sonya’s voice at the other end of the line surprised her, and gave her a moment of fear. William’s flight home from Germany was due to land within the hour; had he missed the flight, or worse? But Sonya relieved her worries. “No, everything is fine. But I wanted to make sure you knew that William’s birthday is this week.”

“Of course. It’s Thursday.” William was due to arrive in San Francisco on Thursday afternoon. Everything was under control for his birthday celebration … more or less.

“Good. I thought you probably knew, but I decided I’d better make sure.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you’re looking out for me. How’s your mother doing?”

“Health-wise, she’s fine, but she doesn’t like her new apartment. I think it’ll be better when she makes some friends; right now, she’s lonely. William’s giving me some extra time off over the holidays so I can go down there for a long visit.”

“That’s nice of him.”

“It is, but I think it suits his purposes too. It means I won’t be bugging him with foundation business when he’d rather be spending time with you.”

Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile; Sonya was probably right. “Then it sounds like I won’t see you when I’m in New York?”

“It depends on your schedule. Which, by the way, he still hasn’t given me. If we don’t make your plane reservations soon, I may have trouble getting you the flights you want.”

“That’s my fault. I’ve been procrastinating. We’ll get it figured out this week, I promise.”

“Good. Well, I won’t keep you any longer; you must be busy.”

“Thanks for calling, Sonya.”

As Elizabeth leaned forward to drop her phone back in her purse, she heard the faint sound of a throat being cleared. She turned and her eyes widened. Anne de Bourgh stood in the doorway. In her dull gray dress, she almost faded into the shadows in the hall. She seemed to be trying to compress herself into a smaller space, all round shoulders and averted eyes.

“Anne! I see you found me here in the janitor’s closet.” Elizabeth couldn’t quite extract the sarcasm from her tone.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” Anne said in her frail voice. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“No, it’s fine. What can I do for you?”

“I …” Anne raised her eyes to meet Elizabeth’s. She stood gnawing her lip for a long moment. “I need to apologize for my mother again. I must sound like a broken record.”

“Thank you, but just like I told you in New York, you’re not responsible for her actions.”

“I told her that she shouldn’t treat you like this.” Anne glanced around the office and winced, no doubt comparing it to her plush quarters in the Dean’s suite. “But she’s so angry, and she won’t listen to me.”

“I understand. Your mother makes her own decisions. But it was nice of you to try.”

“The reception on Friday … you’ve been invited, haven’t you? I know at first you weren’t.”

Elizabeth nodded. “William’s grandmother did something about it. I don’t know what.”

“She had her secretary call and refuse the invitation to the reception on behalf of the entire family, William included.”

“You’re kidding!” Elizabeth already knew that Rose could play rough, but to deprive the reception of its guest of honor was a fatal body blow. No wonder Catherine had crumbled under the pressure and invited Elizabeth to the event.

“Oh, that’s not all. Sonya told Mother that Mrs. Darcy was thinking of hosting her own reception at the Fairmont, where ‘all of William’s friends would be welcome.’ I believe that’s a direct quote.”

“I see.” Elizabeth pressed her lips tightly together to suppress a smile. If only Anne had delivered this news fifteen minutes earlier! It would have been fun to hear the other side of the story from Sonya.

“You’re so lucky to have Mrs. Darcy defending you. I should warn you, though; it made Mother even angrier. I’ve overheard her calling colleagues here in California, and also out in New York, telling them not to hire you.”

Elizabeth sighed. “I figured she’d do that, but thanks for the warning.”

Anne blinked and stared past Elizabeth at a poster of Mozart, depicted in baggy pants, balanced on a skateboard. “Well, I should let you get back to work.” But she remained in the doorway. Her posture looked unbalanced, as though the slightest breeze would topple her.

Elizabeth swallowed her impatience and forced herself to speak gently. “Was there something else you wanted to talk about? You’re welcome to come in and sit down.”

“Oh, no.” Anne licked her lips. “I don’t want to take up your time. I just … I wondered …”

“What is it?”

Anne developed a sudden interest in her shoes. “Have you talked to Roger lately?”

“I saw him at rehearsal a few days ago.”

“Did he … mention me?”

Elizabeth smiled. “As a matter of fact, he did. I understand you’ve been out with him twice since Thanksgiving.”

Anne looked up. In the depths of her eyes, Elizabeth could see a tremulous smile struggling to assert itself. “Yes, I have,” Anne said. “And I … I’m confused.”

“Confused about what?”

“He’s so outgoing, and so easy to talk to, and I’m … not.” Anne sighed. “It seems like he should be dating someone different. Someone like you.”

“Me?” Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “Oh, no. Roger and I are just friends.”

“But it seems like he’d want someone lively and fun, not a wallflower like me.”

Elizabeth couldn’t disagree, not even for politeness’s sake. Catherine de Bourgh’s colorless daughter seemed ill-suited to a warm, fun-loving man like Roger. But romance was hardly an exact science. Who could have predicted that Elizabeth would end up intimately involved with William Darcy?

She sighed as she studied the pile of papers on her desk. If left alone, they were certain to reproduce and double the size of the stack. And the draft of her Music Appreciation final exam awaited, still in need of editing. She would be working well into the evening under the best of circumstances.

Then she scrutinized Anne’s face. A glimmer of hope lit up the pale blue eyes, but such a tiny spark could be too easily extinguished. Elizabeth made her decision. “Would you like to go get some lunch?”

The glimmer bloomed into something stronger, and in that moment Anne was almost pretty. “That would be wonderful.”

Elizabeth rose to her feet. “Ready to go?”

Anne’s eyes widened. “I almost forgot.” She extracted a key from her pocket and handed it to Elizabeth. “To your old office. I know she told you something different, but it’s just going to sit empty till next semester. As long as you keep the door shut when you’re in there, Mother will never know the difference.”

“Thank you so much!” Elizabeth wanted to bound down the hall in glee. She would have to employ stealth tactics to use the office, lest she get Anne into trouble, but it would be worth it to escape the Opera Geeks.

“I’m just glad I can reverse one of Mother’s punishments.”

Elizabeth grinned as she led the way toward the parking lot. “Anne, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”