“May I propose a toast?” Charles raised his champagne glass. “To Lizzy, one of the two most beautiful brides-to-be on the planet.”

Elizabeth winked at Jane. “Notice how cleverly he avoided having to name a winner and a first runner-up.”

“Well, I’m biased on that point.” Charles grinned, his white teeth gleaming against his perennial surfer’s tan. “But I think Will would beg to differ, and he’s not here to argue his case, so let’s call it a draw.”

Elizabeth felt a pang every time she glanced at the empty chair at the kitchen table. She had hoped William might call when his flight landed in New York. But he hadn’t, nor had he answered when she had called him on her way to Charles’s house for lunch.

She sighed and forced a smile onto her face. He would call eventually. In the meantime, she was grateful to be with Jane and Charles. Her stomach groaned in agreement, enticed by the spicy scent of Jane’s homemade pizza baking in the oven.

“Poor William,” Jane said. “Please tell him, if there’s anything I can do to help, he’s welcome to call any time.”

“Thanks. He said he might want to do that after he meets with Georgie’s lawyer.”

Charles frowned and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the kitchen table. “Georgie’s a good kid. I bet that friend of hers twisted her arm into doing it.”

“Did you tell William about Kitty and Lydia?” Jane asked.

“What about them?” Charles asked, cocking his head to one side.

The oven timer buzzed. Jane rose to her feet and grabbed an oven mitt. “When they were younger, they were caught shoplifting.”

“Lydia’s a little too fearless for her own good, isn’t she?”

Charles’s rueful remark contrasted sharply with William’s cold disdain at the same news. Elizabeth winced at the disloyal reflection, but she couldn’t deny its truth.

Jane removed the pizza from the oven. “Well, I’m sorry for Georgiana, and for William too. He must be so worried about her.”

“Well, yeah,” Charles said, brandishing a carrot stick. “But you must have cheered him up big-time when you proposed.”

“Yeah, right,” Elizabeth retorted. “Just what he wanted, to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of strangers. I mean, could I possibly have found a less romantic place to do it?”

“Trust me, he loved it.” Charles stood up and grabbed his empty glass. He paused to squeeze Elizabeth’s shoulder on his way past. “Think about it. You’re so nuts about him that you ran after him and proposed. I can’t speak for you girls, but on the Guy Scale that’s some Grade A romantic stuff.”

“It is on the Girl Scale too,” Jane said. “And William must have been happy that you asked him, instead of waiting for him to ask you again.”

“Right.” Charles nodded emphatically. “Why should we guys be the only ones to risk getting our hearts stomped? Not that you had anything to worry about. Obviously he was going to say yes.”

Elizabeth stared at her champagne, watching the bubbles shimmy along the edges of the glass. “You were right about him planning to propose again. He said he almost asked me yesterday morning in Golden Gate Park.”

“You told her about the ring?” Charles grabbed Jane playfully at the waist and nuzzled her neck. “Big mouth.”

“I couldn’t keep a secret like that from Lizzy.” Jane wriggled from his grasp.

Charles opened the refrigerator and retrieved three bottles of beer, one for each of them. “So what do you think, Lizzy? A double wedding, some time in January?”

“Oh, no, that’s much too soon. Besides, he’s traveling a lot in January. And February, for that matter.”

Jane looked up, holding the pizza cutter suspended in mid-air. “Besides, his grandmother will probably want a big wedding. That’s going to take time to plan.”

Elizabeth grabbed a carrot stick from the plate on the table and began to gnaw on it. She hadn’t thought of that, but of course Jane was right. Rose would insist that William’s wedding be the social event of the season, if not the decade, complete with formal photos in the New York Times and a reception in the Plaza’s largest ballroom.

Jane returned to the table with the pizza. It looked delicious, topped with plenty of cheese and extra pepperoni. Elizabeth grabbed a slice and bit off the triangular end, immediately regretting not checking the temperature first.

Charles grabbed a slice of pizza as well. “So, Lizzy, tell us more about last night. I assume William was fantastic as always?”

He was certainly asking about the recital, but Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow as hot as the roof of her mouth. Even now, her body throbbed at the memory of their late-night lovemaking. She forced her mind in a more appropriate direction and offered a summary of the recital. Along the way she mentioned Anne de Bourgh and the planned shopping trip.

“Oh, of course,” Jane said. “I’d love to take her shopping. She could be beautiful with the right clothes and make-up, like a perfect little china doll.”

Trust Jane to be able to see the beauty inside a colorless waif like Anne. “I have my doubts that the shopping trip will actually happen,” Elizabeth replied. “Catherine would probably fling herself in front of our car before she’d let Anne go anywhere with us.”

“Ah, but would you brake, or gun the engine?” Charles asked, grinning.

“Don’t tempt me,” Elizabeth shot back.

“You two are terrible,” Jane said, shaking her head. But she smiled all the same.

“Catherine de Bourgh brings out the worst in us,” Charles said. “Seriously, though, Anne knows how to get around her mother. Roger says he never picks her up or takes her home; she meets him for their dates. He figures it’s so her mother doesn’t find out.”

“Poor Anne,” Jane said. “To be that afraid of her own mother.”

Elizabeth nibbled the crust on her pizza. “Roger seems to like her, doesn’t he?”

“It’s nice to see him having fun,” Jane said. “I guess he’s finally gotten over what happened with Charlotte and … everything.”

Elizabeth frowned, resting her arms on the edge of the table. “I’m kind of surprised. I mean, Anne’s a nice person, but she’s so quiet. You’d think Roger would want someone lively and fun, like he is.”

“He talks and she listens,” Charles said. “Sounds like you and Will in reverse.”

Elizabeth nodded ruefully and glanced at the empty chair again. I hope you’re doing okay.

 

“All right, then,” Spencer Hamilton, the Darcys’ attorney, said. “I think we’ve covered everything. Any questions?” His eyes moved from the Fitzwilliams to Rose and then to William, and finally came to rest on Georgiana’s bowed head.

“Will you be in court on Monday?” William asked, guiltily stifling a yawn. His sleepless night had begun to exact a numbing toll.

“I wasn’t planning on it. Victor is the one representing Georgiana, so I’d be superfluous.” The trim, silver-haired attorney rose to his feet and buttoned his impeccably tailored jacket. “But if you want me to be there—”

“Yes, Spencer, I do.” Rose spoke firmly. She remained in her seat, a delicate china cup in one hand, the skirt of her blue wool dress draped perfectly over her knees. “You and your firm have a history with the family, a long history that has benefited us all. I’m sure Mr. Rossi understands that.”

Victor Rossi nodded and snapped his briefcase shut. “Of course.” His glance flicked to Hamilton. “You’re welcome to ride shotgun, Spence.”

William suppressed a snicker at his grandmother’s lack of subtlety. Spencer Hamilton’s prestigious law firm collected substantial management fees each year from the Darcy family’s network of trust funds, and also handled legal affairs for the charitable foundation. But because the firm didn’t handle criminal cases, Hamilton had recruited Victor Rossi, a prominent defense attorney, to represent Georgiana.

A stranger might not have noticed Rose’s distaste for Rossi, but William saw it clearly in the slight flare of her nostrils and the hauteur that stole over her face whenever she spoke to the man. Her reasons were clear. Rossi’s suit was expensive and well-made, but its style was slightly too trendy. His coal-black hair was perhaps an inch too long, covering the collar of the shirt whose stripes were a shade too bright. A gold ring gleamed on his finger, the ruby at its center too large. His features were too sharply chiseled, his hands too restless, and he spoke in too loud a voice, using words that were too brash. Small things, all of them, but they added up to one inevitable conclusion: Rossi was an outsider.

By contrast, Spencer Hamilton’s appearance, manners, and pedigree were impeccable. The sober, responsible Hamilton men had quietly managed trusts and estates for wealthy New York families for over a century. Standing together in the library, the two attorneys resembled a shiny copper penny alongside a priceless Roman coin.

Yet William had heard that Hamilton’s son had recently flunked out of Yale. Gossips whispered of wild parties, binge drinking and cocaine, and drunk driving charges filed in the Hamptons, but then quietly dismissed through his father’s influence. A good family name didn’t guarantee good behavior. And Victor Rossi, outsider or not, had come here willingly on a Saturday to help Georgiana. Rose had no business judging him harshly simply because he hadn’t been born to privilege. It was past time for such antiquated prejudices to die.

But isn’t that what I’ve been doing with the Bennets?

His ego scrambled to his defense. It wasn’t the same, not at all. Lydia and Mrs. Bennet, and Kitty to a lesser degree, had earned his disdain through their actions, not their backgrounds. Yet hadn’t he dismissed similar behavior from his New York acquaintances with little more than a rueful shake of his head? Am I really that big of a snob?

The attorneys said their goodbyes, and Rose escorted them into the hall. Only Georgiana failed to acknowledge their departure. She sat huddled in a large armchair that seemed to dwarf her, legs folded under her and arms wrapped around her mid-section. Her eyes were fixed on the floor, as they had been for most of the meeting.

It hurt William to look at her. She had barely acknowledged his presence in the hour since his arrival from the airport. He thought of the times he had comforted her in her childhood, gathering her into his arms to soothe away her tears. But Elizabeth was right. Georgie wasn’t a child anymore, and her wounds were far worse than a skinned knee or the sting of a sharp rebuke from Rose. Hhe missed his mother with a force that compressed his chest, making it hard to breathe. Anna would have known what to do, how to help the sister he had failed.

What would Lizzy tell me to do, if she were here now? The thought was a slender ray of light in a world drenched in gray shadows.

He had arrived at the gate at San Francisco Airport to find the Fitzwilliams already there, and in his giddy state he had been unable to keep the news of his engagement a secret. The glow had almost compensated for his uncomfortable seat on the plane, with his knees colliding with the seat in front of him every time he shifted his position. But by the time the plane had lurched onto the runway in New York, worry for Georgiana had overwhelmed him again.

He glanced at his watch. Elizabeth would be at the cheerful Victorian house in Pacific Heights, lunching with Jane and Charles. He closed his eyes and saw her, laughter dancing in her eyes as she described her impromptu marriage proposal. He would have relished being there to accept Jane’s kiss on the cheek and Charles’s congratulatory handshake, and even a ration of good-natured teasing about his new status as an almost-married man.

“We’re going to head for home,” Robert said, clapping William on the shoulder. “We’ll see you at church tomorrow.” He bent forward to kiss the top of Georgiana’s head, with no visible response from her.

Eleanor stepped directly in front of her niece and spoke softly but firmly. “Georgie, look at me.” Georgiana complied, her eyes dull and remote. “I know you’re scared,” Eleanor said, “but you’ll get past this, I promise.” William saw his sister’s mouth quiver. “Your uncle and I will be at home tonight. If you need anything, or just want to talk, call us.”

“Okay.” Georgiana’s voice was barely more than a whisper. She had spoken as little as possible during the meeting with the attorneys.

William walked the Fitzwilliams to the door. He paused in the foyer and forced a weak smile onto his face. “Thank you for coming out for the recital,” he said.

“Our pleasure,” Robert replied. “Well, except for—” He sighed. “You know what I mean.”

“Why don’t you find Allen and tell him we’re ready to go,” Eleanor said. “I want to talk to William for a minute.”

“Don’t let her order you around like she does with me.” Robert winked at William as he departed for the kitchen.

Eleanor lowered her voice. “When are you going to tell Mother? About your engagement, I mean.”

“Not until we’ve talked about Georgie. Later tonight, maybe. She’s not going to be happy.” The best he could expect from Rose was quiet resignation, and the worst—no, he preferred not to think about the worst.

“She’ll adjust,” Eleanor said with a shrug. “Elizabeth has proved that she has what it takes to make it as a Darcy. She went toe to toe with Catherine de Bourgh at Thanksgiving, and she survived her stare-down with Mother at the Plaza. Not to mention what a trooper she was at the reception last night.”

“I know.”

“And in spite of all that, she still wants to marry you.”

A wave of pride engulfed him, followed immediately by a wave of longing.

“Mother already knows about Thanksgiving and the Plaza. And tomorrow at brunch I’m going to tell her about the reception. You should tell her too.”

He nodded. “Good idea.”

“She’s already said her piece about the fact that Elizabeth’s ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, and I think she knows she’s lost that battle. But she’s still going to have two genuine concerns. First, will Elizabeth represent the family well? And second, will she make you happy? And in her mind, the first is a necessary condition for the second. ”

“Yes, and yes.” William spoke with absolute conviction.

“Mother is the one you need to convince, not me,” Eleanor said with a smile. “I think Elizabeth is terrific. I wish there were the slightest hope of Richard finding someone just like her.”

Robert emerged from the kitchen. “Allen’s putting on his coat; he’ll be right out. Done giving unsolicited advice, my little busybody?” He draped an arm around Eleanor’s shoulders.

She flashed an amused glance at her husband and then turned back to William. “Talk to her tonight. And tomorrow at brunch we’ll help you seal the deal.”

The Fitzwilliams departed for home. William returned to the library to find Rose there alone. “Where’s Georgie?” he asked.

“I sent her upstairs. You and I need to talk.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee—it wasn’t decaf, but he needed the caffeine—and sat in a chair close to hers.

“I’m glad you’re home,” she said. “Yesterday was … difficult.” She sat ramrod straight as always, her head held at a regal angle, but he saw the lines of strain around her mouth and eyes.

“I can imagine. Tell me about it.”

“There’s little to tell. I was playing bridge at Joanna Barton’s house when Allen appeared at the door with the news. Of course I called Spencer at once. But he was on his way back from Boston, and in any case he said we needed someone who specializes in these matters. He contacted Mr. Rossi, who met me at the detention center. It took a few hours; evidently Family Court had adjourned for the day before Georgiana was brought in, and we had to wait while they decided what to do and then filed the paperwork. Eventually they released her and I took her home.”

“And you had to wait there alone all that time? Oh, Gran, I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “Sonya was there too.”

That was an improvement, but he hated the thought of his grandmother sitting for hours on a hard plastic chair in a seedy waiting room. “I’m glad you called Sonya.”

“I didn’t. Mrs. Reynolds did. It was unnecessary.”

“Regardless, I’m glad you weren’t alone.” He hesitated. “What do you think is going to happen Monday?”

“I have no idea. But I’m relieved to hear that Rossi thinks he can get the charges reduced.”

He nodded. The idea of Georgiana facing felony charges was impossible to fathom. “Have you talked to her? Since last night, I mean.”

“I’ve tried, but she refuses to speak to me, beyond the bare minimum. Sonya stopped by this morning, but Georgiana didn’t say much to her either, just that she’s tired and wants to be left alone. Perhaps that’s best for now.”

“But I have to talk to her. I have to make sure she knows that I love her.”

Rose eyed William intently. “What are your plans, after we go to court on Monday? I hope you’re not thinking of going back to San Francisco.”

He sighed. “No. I’m going to stay here for a while.”

“I think that’s wise.” She scrutinized him again. “What does Elizabeth say about this?”

“She understands.”

“Then she’ll spend Christmas with her family?”

“No. She’s still coming out here, but a little sooner. Probably next weekend.”

Rose shifted in her chair, frowning. “You should have spoken to me before you made those arrangements.”

“Why? You already knew she’d be here for Christmas.” He and Elizabeth had planned to spend Christmas Eve with the Bennets, catching a red-eye and arriving in New York early on Christmas morning. “The only change is that she’s arriving a few days early.”

“It’s not a good idea.”

He lifted his chin and fixed a cool stare on her. “Why not?”

“We have quite enough tension in this house already without introducing an outsider.”

garlandThis was exactly the objection Elizabeth had predicted. “She isn’t an outsider. She’s my—” Fighting to control his burgeoning anger, he fixed his gaze on the lush evergreen garlands hung along the library’s second-floor railings. “She’s part of my life. I’m sorry if this sounds disrespectful, but Elizabeth and I are going to spend Christmas together, and that’s not negotiable.”

Rose nodded calmly, as though she had anticipated his remark. “If she wants to fly out for a visit, she’s welcome to join us on Christmas Day, and at other times, of course. But I’d prefer that she find somewhere else to stay.”

“Where would you suggest?” he snapped, glaring at her. “You didn’t like it when she stayed at the Four Seasons over Thanksgiving.”

“Don’t twist my words, William. What I didn’t like was that you stayed there with her so openly.” She paused, her hands wrapped around her coffee cup, and continued in a more conciliatory tone. “Under normal circumstances, Elizabeth would be welcome to stay with us. In one of the guest rooms, of course.”

He snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. “Of course.”

“But Georgiana is already upset, and we don’t know what will happen on Monday. You’ve been gone almost constantly for the past four months. We need some quiet time as a family.”

“Lizzy won’t be here for at least a week. And even after that I’ll have time to spend with Georgie. Lizzy has plenty of friends in New York, and she’ll want to visit them.”

“With so many friends, can’t she find somewhere else to stay?”

“No.” His sharp retort echoed through the room. Rose shot a challenging glance at him, but he didn’t care. “My future wife is not going to spend Christmas Eve tossing and turning on a threadbare sofa on the Lower East Side.”

“What did you say?”

He closed his eyes and sighed. “I didn’t mean to tell you that way.”

“You and Elizabeth are engaged?”

“Yes.” He regarded her coolly.

“I see.” A muscle twitched on Rose’s cheek.

William felt weary, far too weary to cross swords with his grandmother. “You said at Thanksgiving that you’d give her a chance.”

“I intend to do that. She seems like a pleasant young woman, one with whom you share an interest in music. And she’s attractive, of course. I can see why you might find yourself drawn to her.”

He gripped the armrests of his chair. “Drawn to her? Gran, I’ve been in love with her for months. I’ve been looking for her … my whole life, I think.”

“William …” Rose sighed and shook her head.

“I wish you could have seen her last night, at the reception. I wanted to skip it, to sit in the dark and worry about Georgie. But Lizzy convinced me do the right thing, and she propped me up every step of the way. She charmed the people who came to talk to me, and kept them from noticing that mentally I was three thousand miles away.”

Rose set her coffee cup aside, her eyes never leaving his face.

The words were spilling from his lips now, beyond his control. “Then she took me home and tried to comfort me, and I behaved like an ass. But I didn’t scare her away. And neither did you, when you tried to intimidate her over tea at the Plaza.”

“I wasn’t trying to intimidate her.”

“Of course you were.” He paused, staring into his grandmother’s eyes with all the intensity he could muster. “Lizzy knows me, Gran, like no one else has ever known me. And she loves me anyway.”

Rose didn’t speak, but he saw her eyes warm slightly. He continued, her small reaction giving him fresh courage. “I know she isn’t the kind of woman you envisioned me marrying, but she’s the one I want. The one I need. I know what I’m doing, Gran, and until you know her better, you’ll have to trust me.”

“Very well. I’ll do my best.” Rose reached for her coffee cup and refilled it from the ornate silver pot on the side table. “Given Elizabeth’s status as your fiancée, you’re correct in saying that she should stay with us. But make sure she understands that the atmosphere may be strained, and that she will need to make some allowances.”

“She already knows that. Thank you, Gran.” He sighed, releasing a huge weight of tension along with his breath. “I’m going to go unpack and take a nap. I was too upset to sleep last night.” He rose to his feet and started across the room.

“William?”

He turned back at the library doors and raised his eyebrows.

“Congratulations. I should have said that sooner.”

“Thank you.”

“I still have reservations. Not about Elizabeth as a person, but about her suitability to be your wife. But obviously she makes you happy.”

“She does, more than I can say. This isn’t going to be like what happened with my parents. Lizzy and I are going to have a long, happy marriage.”

“I hope so.” Rose retrieved her reading glasses from the table to her right and positioned them on her nose. Then she reached for the newspaper.

He trotted up the steps, anxious to reach his room and collapse on the bed. But he paused on the third-floor landing, glancing upward. He continued up the circular staircase to the fifth floor and knocked on Georgiana’s bedroom door. There was no answer, so he knocked again, louder this time. “Georgie? It’s me.”

“I’m busy,” came the faint voice from within.

“I need to talk to you for a minute.”

His announcement was followed by silence, but then he heard slow footsteps. She pulled the door open and stood in the doorway, her expression impassive.

“Are you okay?” He thought he could detect a trail of dried tears on her cheek.

“I’m doing my homework.”

“I just …” He paused. “I’m worried about you, Georgie. Yesterday must have been a terrible day.”

She shrugged.

“Gran told me that you said you didn’t think I cared about you.”

She shrugged again and her eyes dropped to the floor. “I didn’t say that.”

“Then what did you say?”

Her eyes stayed locked on the floor. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does.” He reached out and tucked her hair behind one ear. “I love you, Georgie. You’re my sister, and nothing could ever make me stop loving you.”

She exhaled a soft sigh but didn’t answer.

“I know I’ve been gone a lot lately, but I’m going to be home for a while. I hope you’ll have some time to spend with me.”

“Gran grounded me.”

“For how long?”

“She didn’t say. Probably forever.”

He suppressed a smile. “Then I guess you’ll have plenty of free time.”

“Unless I’m in jail.”

He winced but quickly composed himself. “You won’t be. Gran and I would never let that happen.”

She glanced up, finally meeting his gaze, and he saw the fear in her eyes. “Promise?”

“I promise.” He said a silent prayer that he hadn’t just lied to her.

She nodded and glanced down at her hands.

“Wouldn’t you like to talk, to tell me what’s going on? I know Courtney pressured you into it, but this is the second time. There must be some other problem, something that makes you think you need to do this.” He reached for her hand.

Georgiana took a step backward. “I have to do my homework.”

“Georgie—”

“I have to do my homework.” She retreated, shutting the door firmly in his face. He reached up to knock again, searching for the words that would melt her wall of indifference.

cocoa“It’s better to let her be for now, William.” It was Mrs. Reynolds, carrying a small plate of sugar cookies and a mug of steaming cocoa topped with little marshmallows. “She needs some time to herself.”

“But she’s frightened and upset, and she needs to talk to someone.”

“When she’s ready, she’ll talk. Until then, there’s no point in trying to force her.”

sugar cookiesHe opened his mouth to argue, but stopped as her words sank in. In this area, at least, he and Georgiana were exactly alike.

Mrs. Reynolds continued, her kind eyes resting on him. “You told her you loved her; I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was on the stairs. And you told her you’d protect her. That’s what she needs to know right now. The rest can wait.”

He sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”

“You look exhausted. Why don’t you go lie down for a while? Or would you like me to bring you a snack first?” She glanced at the plate and mug she held.

Memories flooded his mind and heart of quiet afternoons spent in her cozy, fragrant kitchen, munching oven-warm cookies. “A snack sounds good, but I’ll come downstairs. You can tell me about what happened yesterday. And I have something to tell you, too.” She would be thrilled by the news of his engagement. “Unless I’d be in the way.”

Her fond smile warmed him. “You could never be in the way, and you know it. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

As William made his way downstairs, he saw his son, in some future time, rushing in from school and plopping down at the small table in the kitchen. The boy’s short legs swung in the air as he devoured Mrs. Reynolds’s cookies, his brilliant green eyes flashing with youthful joy.

A smile touched William’s lips, and he realized that he was glad to be home.

 

“Are you okay, Lizzy?” Jane asked. “You were quiet during lunch.”

steep hill in san francisco“Just thinking about things,” Elizabeth gasped. It annoyed her that Jane seemed barely winded, despite the steep hill they had just climbed. Elizabeth had always thought that the hills of San Francisco should come equipped with ski tow lines along the sidewalks.

“About the wedding?”

“Yeah. It’s a little intimidating. But it’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Elizabeth decided to change the subject. “Has Charles told his parents that you and he are engaged again?”

“He called his mother, and she’s planning to come up for the wedding.”

“Oh, good.”

“We’re not pinning our hopes on it, though. Charles doubts that his father will let her come.”

“How is Mr. Bingley doing?” Elizabeth hadn’t asked about him lately.

“Not that well, actually. According to Caroline, he still seems lethargic, and his memory isn’t good. They expected he’d be able to work at least part-time by now, but he’s nowhere near strong enough.”

“So Caroline is still running the company?”

Jane nodded. “Charles says it’s obvious that she loves being in charge. Whenever they talk he hears about her most recent battle with one of the vice presidents. Of course, she always wins.”

“In her version of events, anyway.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Anything new on the legal front?”

“Not that I know of.” No charges had been filed against Caroline—not yet—but Charles had heard hints that the SEC appeared to be steadily building its insider-trading case against her.

view of san francisco from broadway“Here we are,” Jane said. “I didn’t exaggerate about the view, did I?”

Elizabeth stared at the panorama below them in rapt silence. They stood at the peak of one of the highest points in Pacific Heights. An open area between two houses afforded a spectacular view of the city, the bay, and the foothills beyond.

“Wow,” Elizabeth said finally. “Can you imagine looking at this while you ate your raisin bran every morning? Which house would you pick?”

house on broadway in sf“Hmm.” Jane scanned the row of luxurious homes lining the crest of the hill. “That one, with the Mediterranean courtyard. How about you?”

house on broadway in sfElizabeth pointed at the brick house directly in front of them. “This one. It’s not as big and fancy as the others, but I love the ivy covering the brick. It looks cozy, somehow. Or as cozy as a multi-million dollar house can look, anyway.”

A gust of wind whipped past them, and Elizabeth pulled her fleece jacket more tightly around her. “Of course,” she said with as casual an air as she could muster, “Charles’s house is pretty terrific too.”

“I know.” Jane sighed. “But we’ll be fine at the condo. We don’t need anything extravagant.”

“Isn’t the condo small for raising a family? And there aren’t many kids in the building.”

“We’ve talked about that. We’ll probably look for a place in the East Bay in a year or so. Real estate is more reasonable over there.”

Elizabeth pushed her windblown hair out of her eyes. “What if you didn’t have to move?”

“We’ve looked at it from every angle, Lizzy. We can’t afford it, and the longer we stay, the harder it’ll be to let it go. Actually, we’re surprised our mysterious buyer isn’t pushing for an early closing, before the holidays.”

“Maybe the buyer …” Elizabeth pressed her lips together, searching for the right words. “Maybe the buyer isn’t planning on living in the house. Maybe he has another interest.”

“Like what?”

“The thing is … I know who the buyer is.”

Jane simply stared at Elizabeth, bewildered.

Elizabeth plowed ahead. “It’s William.”

“But …” Jane shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“He bought the house for you.”

“For me?”

“For you and Charles. As a form of atonement, I guess you’d say, for his role in keeping you and Charles apart.”

Jane shook her head again. “He bought the house? Without saying anything to Charles?”

“I know. He has an unfortunate habit of making grand gestures without thinking things through. But, Jane, think about it. You could keep the house!”

“How long have you known about this?”

“He just told me this morning, on the way to the airport. He wanted me to talk to you about it.”

“It’s generous of him, but of course we have to refuse. I know Charles would never go along with this, and I agree with him.”

Elizabeth sighed. Jane’s reaction was no surprise. “It’s just that William is determined to make up for what he did. And it would make him so happy to do this for you.”

“But you understand why we have to say no, don’t you?”

Elizabeth did, as hard as she had tried to convince herself that a compromise might be possible. She nodded. “I told him you’d turn down his offer.”

“We’ll have to put the house back on the market after the holidays.” Jane sighed. “I knew the high price we got was too good to be true.”

“No, don’t do that. Let William go ahead and buy it. He and I can stay there when we come out to visit, and maybe some day you’ll be able to afford to buy it back from him.”

Jane’s fragile smile was tinged with sadness. “I doubt it. I love my law practice, but I do way too much pro bono work to ever get rich. And that jazz club Charles wants to open is going to take every spare penny we earn, and then some.”

“Couldn’t you live in the house when we’re not here, kind of like caretakers?” Elizabeth knew she should stop pushing, but she couldn’t help herself. “All we need is a guest room to sleep in. The rest could be yours.”

Jane shook her head slowly, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Lizzy, even if Charles agreed to that, I couldn’t let him. Standing on his own is new to him. If he accepted that kind of help from William, it would destroy what he’s trying to build.”

“I’m sorry.” Elizabeth pushed her hands into her pockets, feeling helpless. “I just wish there were a way to make it work, for your sake and for William’s. If you could have seen the look on his face when he told me about it …” She shook her head. “Never mind. I understand, and I’ll tell him. Please don’t say anything to Charles.”

“I have to. Charles is going to find out sooner or later that William is the buyer. And if he finds out that I knew and didn’t tell him…” Jane shook her head.

Elizabeth stared out at the panorama below, watching a ferry boat plow across the bay from Sausalito. Finally she spoke. “I’ve got to get home. I need a nap; William and I were up most of the night talking about Georgie. And then I’ve got to get ready for tonight.”

“Lizzy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I understand, really. When he did something like this with my job, I was furious. I’m the last person who should expect you to accept such a huge gift. Poor William. He means well, but he goes overboard.”

Jane nodded. “It was thoughtful and generous, though. Please tell him I said that.”

The sisters headed down the hill, back to the house Jane loved but would lose all too soon.

 

William paused at the bottom of the steps and rubbed his temples, yawning. Taking a nap had seemed like a good idea when he collapsed on his bed, but he hadn’t counted on sleeping through dinner and into the evening. Had Rose been home, she would probably have awakened him for dinner, but she was at the Daltons’ annual Christmas party. William had escaped this obligation because of his plans to be in California; he was grateful to Rose for keeping his early return a secret. He lacked the energy and the patience to spend the evening fending off Mitzi Dalton’s advances.

The living room was dark, but light shone out of the kitchen into the hall and he heard the sound of running water. He paused in the doorway. “Hi, Mrs. Reynolds.”

“There you are! Have you been asleep all this time?”

He nodded, trying to stifle a yawn that finally won the battle.

“Are you hungry?”

He was. “I assume Georgie already had dinner?”

“Yes, quite a while ago, though she left most of it on her plate. What are you hungry for?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about a nice salmon steak with a baked potato and a salad?”

“That sounds fine. I’ll be in the library.”

white lights on christmas treeHe wandered down the hall. The library was dark, illuminated only by the tiny white lights on the massive Fraser fir in front of the patio doors. It soared perhaps fifteen feet into the air, but even at that height the lofted ceiling stretched out of reach of the star on top. As always, the tree was decorated primarily in gold and red, with fragile glass ornaments and shining garlands of beads draped in graceful swags over its fragrant branches. He settled into an armchair and stared at it, watching it glitter in the darkness.

christmas ornamentsThen his eyes fell on the piano. Had it really been less than twenty-four hours since his recital? It seemed impossible. He wandered over to the instrument and, operating on instinct, seated himself and rested his hands on the keys. To his surprise, an arrangement he hadn’t played since his youth, interweaving “Silent Night” and “Oh Holy Night,”1 streamed from his fingers.

The final chord vibrated from the piano strings and faded into the air. He stared down at the keyboard, his eyelids growing heavy. In his mind, he saw Elizabeth standing behind him, her smile warm, her eyes glowing. She stepped close to him, and he felt the whisper of her hands stroking his neck and shoulders.

“William?”

His head jerked up. Mrs. Reynolds stood to one side. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but Charles Bingley is on the phone. I can tell him you’ll call him back if you like, but he said it was important.”

“No, it’s fine.” He cleared his throat, which felt dry as sandpaper. “Could you bring me a glass of ice water?”

She left on that errand, and he crossed the room to pick up the phone. “Hello, Charles?”

“Will, I’m glad I caught you. You didn’t answer your cell phone, so I tried the house number. We’ve got to leave in a few minutes for Lizzy’s concert, and it’ll be late by the time it’s over.”

William sighed. The concert! He had forgotten it in the turmoil over Georgiana. “What’s going on?” He dropped onto the sofa, kicked off his shoes, and propped his feet on the coffee table with a guilty twitch of his lips.

“How the hell could you do that?”

“How the hell could I do what?” William blinked and yawned.

“How the hell could you buy my house without asking me, or at least telling me?”

“Oh.” William grimaced. Something else he had forgotten. He was momentarily annoyed that Elizabeth hadn’t called to warn him, but then he remembered his cell phone, powered off and still in his briefcase from the flight that morning.

“That’s all you have to say for yourself?”

William scrambled to clear his mind. “I did you and Jane some serious harm last May. I wanted to make up for it.”

“I know. Lizzy explained it to Jane. Some bizarre form of atonement, right?”

“What’s so bizarre about trying to compensate for a mistake?”

“Look, Will, we’ve been over this before. You apologized, and I told you that you were taking too much of the blame on yourself. How did that turn into you buying me a house?”

“When I visited you in LA, you talked about how much you and Jane loved the house. I didn’t want you to lose it. Besides, why shouldn’t I help a friend, when I have the resources to do it?”

“Will, there’s helping, and then there’s helping too much. You helped me get back on my feet by putting me in touch with the people at the symphony. I wouldn’t have gotten that job if it weren’t for you. I’ll always be grateful for that. But this crosses the line.”

Mrs. Reynolds arrived with William’s ice water. He accepted it gratefully, gulping the cold liquid.

“Anyhow, we have to undo this deal,” Charles said in a resigned tone, “I’ll tell the realtor what happened and have her put the house back on the market.”

“No, I’ll buy it anyway.”

“Can’t let you do that. You paid too much.”

“You need the money from the sale. It wouldn’t be fair to you to have to start over.”

Charles was silent for a moment. “What would you do with the place?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have Sonya investigate the investment potential and then decide.” A thought struggled to the surface. “If I decide to keep it, I might be looking for a tenant. Perhaps you and Jane—”

“No way. We can’t afford the rent on a house like that.”

William scowled. “You won’t let me do anything to help you?”

“Would you, if our situations were reversed?”

The truth of Charles’s words hit home. “All right. Put it back on the market if you want. But I’m still willing to buy it, if you change your mind or have trouble finding another buyer.”

“Thanks for understanding, Will. And, on another topic, I hear congratulations are in order.”

“Yes, they are.” William sat back in the chair and sipped his water again.

“You’re completely nuts about her, aren’t you?”

William smiled. “You already know the answer to that.”

“I just like to hear it now and then, so I can remind you that I introduced the two of you. Congratulations, by the way. It’s not every guy who gets proposed to, and on bended knee, no less. Especially not at the airport.”

“I know.” William’s smile broadened. “It was …” He chuckled softly. “Indescribable. But quintessentially Lizzy. And congratulations to you as well.”

“Thank you, and thanks for the encouragement. But, you know, you could have told me you were thinking about proposing. I saw you with the ring, and I kept dropping boulder-sized hints, but you didn’t say a word.”

“I hadn’t made up my mind yet.”

“Well, anyway, now comes the terrifying part—the wedding.”

“Don’t remind me.” William hadn’t thought about it, perhaps out of pure denial. “You’re lucky you can do what you want this time. If I know Gran, it’s going to be a three-ring circus.”

“Look, Will, Jane’s signaling me and she’s getting more frantic by the second. Gotta go, or we’ll be late for Lizzy’s concert. I’ll give her a kiss for you.”

“On the cheek,” William retorted.

Charles laughed. “You got it. Have a good evening.”

William returned to the piano. He stared down at the keys, frowning. His grandmother would expect him to play at her holiday party next weekend. Although he rarely played at parties, he made exceptions for Rose.

Maybe “Rudolph”? He had found a lively arrangement mixing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with “Let It Snow,” and had used it as a light-hearted encore at last night’s recital. But it was boisterous, perhaps too much so for the library. He jumped up and strode around the room turning on lamps, simulating a party atmosphere as best he could. Then he returned to the piano and launched into the piece2. The music transported him back to the previous evening, before the news of Georgie, before the bitter argument and his sleepless night. He saw Elizabeth in the audience, a wide smile lighting her face, and his fatigue fell away.

His hands exploded off the keys with a flourish following the final note of the song. The sound of tentative applause startled him. Georgiana stood near the door to the library. “I like that one,” she said softly.

“I played it as an encore last night.” His heartbeat seemed to thunder in his ears. He forced himself to remain seated, to remain outwardly calm. He didn’t want to frighten her away again.

She stood motionless, her expression unreadable. After a long silence she spoke again. “I … I’ll see you later.” She turned to go.

“Georgie, wait.”

She froze and turned back slowly. “What?”

“Mrs. Reynolds is fixing me a late dinner. Why not keep me company while I eat?”

She hesitated. “I have homework.”

“Keep me company, and I’ll help you with your homework.”

A brief silence followed, broken only by the muffled sound of traffic on Fifth Avenue. At last she spoke. “I don’t want to talk about what happened yesterday.”

“Fine. We’ll talk about other things. I’ll tell you about the recital.” Not about his engagement, though; he didn’t want to threaten this fragile truce.

She sighed. “Okay.”

“Good.” He rose to his feet. “Let’s see if dinner’s ready, because I’m starved.”

 

Elizabeth stood backstage, listening to two of her students singing, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” I guess I won’t. She had called her mother that afternoon to share the news that she and William would not be spending Christmas Eve with the Bennets after all. Her mother had fretted and fussed until Elizabeth had explained that she would instead be in New York, a guest of the Darcys.

“Oh, my goodness, Lizzy! Well, of course, if they want you to come for a longer visit, that’s wonderful! What an honor! William must be thinking of proposing, or he wouldn’t have invited you to spend so much time with his family. Oh, my goodness! My Lizzy, married to the heir to the Darcy fortune! My dear, have Jane help you to pack your clothes. You’ve never had the slightest idea how to dress yourself, and you have to look your best if you have any hope of wringing a proposal out of him.”

Elizabeth grinned at the thought of the faded jeans and well-worn cable-knit sweater she had worn to the airport, flung on in haste in the pre-dawn gloom. I guess if you do the asking, you get to wear anything you want.

She returned her attention to the performers on stage. The concert, made up of lesser-known Broadway songs plus a few holiday selections, was going well. Ticket sales had been brisk, guaranteeing a sizable sum for the conservatory’s scholarship fund. William had purchased seats for himself, his grandmother, and the Fitzwilliams—seats that would now be empty.

Her students finished their duet, and enthusiastic applause filled the auditorium. It was Elizabeth’s turn now. The applause dwindled to silence, and then she took three long, slow breaths and switched on a bright smile. She stepped on stage with a confidence she had learned long ago to simulate. You could often muster genuine confidence if you began by faking it.

Her eyes widened when she saw that William’s seats were full. Warmth streamed through her when she identified the occupants: Roger Stonefield, Warren Black, and Jim Pennington from Golden Gate Jazz, along with Jim’s wife. Elizabeth sent a grateful smile to Jane and Charles, who sat beside her band-mates; they had undoubtedly made the arrangements.

She nodded to the conductor in the orchestra pit, his baton raised and ready. He signaled the pianist, who played the introduction, and she began to sing:

I’ve spent Christmas in Peoria, Christmas in Schenectady,
Christmas in Las Vegas and LA,
And I always thought it couldn’t matter less.
But lately, come December, I confess …

I want the tree full of toys and tinsel,
I want the wreath on the red front door,
I want the elves in the yard,
And each sentimental card dripping glitter on the floor.
I want a roof full of plywood reindeer,
I want a road full of horse-drawn sleighs,
All those Christmas clichés.

I want the turkey with all the trimmings,
The turkey Mom hardly ever made.
I want the gulp and the tear
At the moment when I hear Johnny Mathis being played.
I want a lake full of perfect skaters,
I want that fruitcake with sugar glaze,
All those Christmas clichés.

Not to mention the snow,
Not to mention the choir,
Not to mention the candles in the window
And chestnuts roasting on the fire.

Inside a house filled with noise and laughter,
Along a street bathed in twinkling light,
I want the bells and the drums,
Mistletoe and sugarplums, and kids to tuck in tight.
As for that guy in the bright red outfit,
Instead of flying off, he stays!
All those Christmas clichés.
I want those overused, corny, endlessly lovely Christmas clichés.3

The final lines, with their poignant reminder of William’s absence, filled her eyes with unanticipated tears, but she blinked them back and smiled lovingly at her sister and her friends. Jane beamed with pride, applauding vigorously, while Charles and her band-mates punctuated their applause with raucous hoots of approval loud enough to make her blush. She nodded her thanks again and, with a little wave at her friends, left the stage.

“You’ve got quite a cheering section,” the next performer observed. “Lucky you.”

Elizabeth nodded and dabbed the tears from her eyes. “Lucky me.”

She picked her way through the backstage area, skirting loose rigging lines and thick extension cords resembling coiled orange snakes, some secured to the floor with duct tape. Chaos reigned in the green room, the result of the large cadre of performers, half of them chattering loudly while the other half stared into mirrors, humming softly like a hive of formally dressed bees. She retrieved her purse from under the counter, donned her coat, and exited the stage doors into the cool, damp night. Then she pulled her phone from her purse and speed dialed.

“Hi, there,” she said softly, after he answered.

“There’s my girl. At least, I assume this is the future Mrs. William Darcy.”

“I don’t know. Is this the future Mr. Elizabeth Bennet?”

They laughed together, bridging three thousand miles in seconds. “I’m sorry I haven’t called yet,” he said. “It was a strange day, and then tonight I knew you had your concert. Is it over?”

“No, but I don’t sing again until after intermission.” She leaned against the theater door and pulled the collar of her coat up to cover her throat. “I have an important question that couldn’t wait any longer. When do I get my ring?”

He chuckled, a warm rumble that coaxed an answering smile onto her face. “I have it right here. You’ll just have to come and get it.”

“It’s a deal. Now, tell me all about your day.”

As she listened to his deep voice, contentment stole over her, silencing the twinges of worry and discontent that had skittered through her brain for most of the day. Only now could she feel the full weight of the words she had spoken with more than a little irony backstage. Lucky me.

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1 “Silent Night/Oh Holy Night,” performed by John Bayless on Christmas Rhapsody, © 2004, Koch Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

2 “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Let It Snow,” performed by John Bayless on Christmas Rhapsody, © 2004, Koch Records. Listen to a sample on iTunes.

3 “All Those Christmas Clichés,” written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Performed by Christiane Noll on A Christmas Survival Guide, © 1999, 2Die4Productions. Not available on iTunes, but you can listen to a sample of Nancy Lamott’s recording.