William lit his cigar, darting a guilty glance at the door to his sitting room. It was closed, but Gran had a discerning nose and an antipathy for cigar smoke. Only Richard would have been reckless enough to bring cigars into the house, even with William’s engagement as a pretext for celebration.

Richard sat across from William looking utterly in his element, a cigar in one hand and a glass of cognac in the other. He was the first person besides William to try out the plush new armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace. The sitting room would need to accommodate two from now on.

cognac“I’d like to propose a toast,” Richard said, raising his glass. “To Elizabeth, who is pretty terrific, despite her dubious taste in men.”

“I beg your pardon.” William turned a narrow-eyed glare on Richard. He wasn’t offended, but he knew Richard would be disappointed if he didn’t act the part.

“Oh, come on. You have to admit, you got lucky. Unless I’ve seriously misread Miss Lizzy, she doesn’t care about the money.”

“You haven’t misread her.”

“Well, there you go. And in spite of that, she’s willing to put up with the insanity.”

“What insanity?”

“Hello?” Richard waggled his cigar, imitating Groucho Marx. “Say the secret word and earn a trip to the nuthouse.” He paused to puff on the cigar, releasing a cloud of blue-white smoke. “Perhaps you recall Thanksgiving? You know, that sacred family holiday? The one where Lizzy got served up to the lions while the rest of us sat and watched? Nice introduction to Darcy family life.”

William sighed. “That was an extreme case.”

“And I don’t envy her, having to move into this house. Gran isn’t exactly the sort of mother-in-law every blushing bride dreams of.”

“Grandmother-in-law.”

“Whatever. You’d be a challenge to live with all by yourself, old man. But as a group, we are the familial equivalent of Mount Everest. Definitely not for amateurs.”

“Lizzy can handle it.”

“Yeah, I think she can. That’s the wonder of it.” Richard raised his glass once more. “Let me try that toast again. To you and Lizzy and a long, happy life together. Congratulations, old man.”

“Thank you.” William inhaled the rich bouquet of the cognac and then tasted it reverently. Smooth and dark, it seeped lazily through his veins. But Richard’s take on the Darcys gnawed at the edges of his contentment. Elizabeth would indeed have plenty to deal with as his wife, including one thing neither she nor Richard knew about. He didn’t think it would change her mind, but he dreaded telling her all the same.

cognac bottleRichard set his glass on the end table and nodded approvingly. “The cognac’s not bad.”

“Not bad? That’s a Remy Martin Louis XIII.”

“As I said, not bad. It’s no Macallan 30, mind you, but I’m slumming in honor of your engagement..”

“I’m touched by your sacrifice,” William said dryly.

“As you should be. But it’s a special occasion; you don’t get engaged every day of the week. Thank God, because it’s set Mom off on another of her campaigns to get me to settle down.”

“Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

“You’re right; I’m not.” William smirked. “Is she making you wish you’d stayed at Pemberley?”

“Everything makes me wish I’d stayed at Pemberley.” Richard had surprised everyone by flying to Barbados on the day of William’s recital. He had returned to New York only a few hours ago, wearing a deep tan and a lazy smile the family hadn’t seen in weeks.

“How was the weather?”

“Hot. Like the women.”

William shook his head, grinning. “In other words, you didn’t get much sleep.”

“Plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead. There are better ways to spend my nights. Speaking of which, when does Lizzy arrive?”

“Saturday.”

“And she’s staying through New Year’s?”

“That reminds me.” William tapped his cigar against the ash tray. “Lizzy and I are taking the train to Washington the morning of the 29th. Do you want to come with us, or are you going to wait and drive down with your parents?”

“Actually, I’m going to skip the whole shebang and ring in the New Year right here.”

“Why?”

Richard shrugged. “It all sounds too tame for me.”

“But when I asked you, weeks ago, if Washington wasn’t a little too dull for you, you said—”

“I changed my mind. And it’s not as though you’ll miss me. The fewer people who go with you, the easier it’ll be for you to sneak off for some quality time with Miss Lizzy.”

William couldn’t argue that point, not that he intended to wait until New Year’s Eve for some intensive … celebrating. He sat back and closed his eyes, indulging one of his favorite fantasies: Elizabeth, lounging in his bathtub amid thick clouds of fragrant bubbles. She held a glass of champagne in one hand and beckoned him with the other, her eyes half-lidded with desire, her smile full of lascivious promise. He let out a soft groan before he could stop himself.

“What are you thinking about? As if I didn’t know.”

William sat upright, his eyes focused across the room in avoidance of Richard’s knowing smirk. “Nothing in particular.”

“Fine, we’ll change the subject. Tell me more about Georgie’s situation. I know the basics, but that’s it.”

“You know we went to court on Monday?”

“Yeah. But it sounds like it was just an arraignment.”

“They don’t call it that in Family Court, but essentially, yes. The judge made sure Georgie understood the charges, and set a date for the hearing—that’s what they call it, but really it’s a trial.” William was learning more about the juvenile justice system than he had ever wanted to know.

“Why didn’t they handle the preliminaries on Friday when they first brought her in?”

“Court had already adjourned for the weekend.”

“And this hearing isn’t until January?”

“Right. I hate that it’s going to be hanging over her head for so long.”

“But won’t she just get a slap on the wrist? I mean, she’s only a kid, and it’s not like she killed someone or robbed a bank.”

“There are two complications. First, technically it’s a felony because of the dollar value of the items she …” William still couldn’t bring himself to say the word “stole.” He fell silent, staring into his glass of cognac.

“And second?”

“Georgie’s attorney thinks something strange is going on with Courtney.” Victor Rossi had stopped by the house the day before to deliver this unwelcome news, and William had been brooding about it ever since.

“Ah, her partner in crime.”

“The instigator, you mean.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Courtney’s father is a defense attorney, and apparently he has a reputation for questionable courtroom tactics. Which might not be a concern, except that for some reason he’s refusing to talk to Georgie’s attorney. And Georgie says Courtney seems to be avoiding her.”

“Doesn’t sound good.” Richard paused, studying his cigar. “Do you believe Georgie, when she says Courtney pushed her into shoplifting?”

“Of course. She’d never think to do it on her own. Why?”

Richard shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just that the first time this happened, Georgie was the only one who got caught.”

“Georgie says Courtney steals things constantly, but she just hasn’t been caught before. Maybe all that practice has improved her technique.”

“Hmm.”

“Did you know about the first time? I mean, did Aunt Eleanor tell you about it right after it happened?”

“Yeah, I knew. I overheard Mom talking to Georgie a day or two after it happened. Mom says Gran’s mad at her for keeping it a secret.”

William nodded. “I don’t blame Gran. Aunt Eleanor should have told us.”

“Maybe.” Richard stubbed out his cigar. “But Gran and Georgie have been like extra virgin olive oil and Perrier lately. Mom was just trying to keep things between them from getting any worse. And she thought Georgie had learned her lesson.”

William sighed. “What a mess.”

“Okay, we need a new subject again. We’re supposed to be celebrating your engagement, not getting depressed.” Richard reached for the bottle of cognac. “And you need a refill.”

“Thanks. How about some music?”

“As long as it’s not holiday crapola. I’ve already OD’d on ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Deck the Halls,’ and Christmas is still five days off.”

“Fair enough.” William put on his favorite John Coltrane CD and returned to his chair. “Thanks for bringing the cigars, by the way. Did you smuggle them home from Barbados?”

“Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.” Richard winked at him. “I’m just glad I had them so we could do a proper job of acknowledging the end of your carefree bachelor days. And don’t worry. I have some saved for your bachelor party, whenever that may be. I have to hand it to you, old man; I could never put my head in that particular noose.”

“If you met the right woman, I bet you could.”

“Even if I got married, I’d be a terrible husband. Seriously, stay faithful to one woman, when there are so many out there? Not a chance.”

William smiled and shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“And that’s the way I like it.” Richard raised his glass. “Another toast. To choices. May we always make the right ones.”

“I’ll drink to that.”

 

Elizabeth stepped onto the patio at her parents’ house and shut the doors behind her. They were French doors, mostly glass, but they helped to muffle the shrill voices bouncing off the kitchen walls. To her surprise, all her sisters had arrived in time for the family’s Christmas celebration, held four days early to accommodate Elizabeth’s travel plans. For better or worse—and it was definitely some of both—the house was crammed with Bennets.

Dinner had been a chaotic but cheerful affair. Mrs. Bennet, her spirits launched into the stratosphere by the news of Elizabeth’s engagement, had spent most of the meal prattling happily about massive wedding cakes, designer wedding gowns, and illustrious in-laws. She had occasionally interrupted her monologue for a breathless question, but had rarely awaited an answer.

Elizabeth hadn’t minded the fuss, largely because William hadn’t been there to witness it. Besides, she couldn’t remember the last time her mother had spoken to her with such obvious pride. Who knew? All I had to do to be her favorite daughter was to snare myself a millionaire.

But after dinner, the noise had escalated to toxic levels. The World Championship of Loud, Fast Talking seemed to be in progress in the kitchen, with Kitty doing her best but being entirely outclassed by Lydia and their mother. Finally, her nerves frayed almost beyond repair, Elizabeth had handed Mary her dish towel and escaped onto the patio.

crescent moonThe clear sky promised falling temperatures later, but for the moment the air held only a hint of a chill. She gazed up at the moon, awed by the thought that the same fragile-looking crescent shone over Manhattan. William might be watching it even now. Perhaps tomorrow they would admire it together from the townhouse rooftop.

Three citrus trees stood clustered at one edge of the tiny lawn, as though gossiping about the neighbors they could glimpse over the top of the redwood fence. In her childhood Elizabeth had loved to climb up and balance precariously on top of the fence, until the day she had attempted to imitate a tightrope walker she had seen at the circus. She had tumbled off the fence and into the yard next door, breaking her arm in the process. No wonder Mom gave up on ever turning me into a lady.

She wandered over to the trees, her progress guided by the patio lights that cast ghostly shadows across the lawn. Mary had hated the yard after dark, convinced by a long-ago babysitter that monsters lurked in the shadows. Elizabeth blushed at the memory of teasing her timid sister with tales of hulking fiends she had seen prowling outside the bedroom window.

Every object in the yard—a tree, a watering can, a rusty lawn chair—evoked memories as she wandered along. Strongest of all were images of her father on some long-ago winter morning, leaning over to place lemons and oranges in her small, eager hands.

The patio doors opened, and a burst of kitchen noise spilled out. She heard her name, the word “Darcy,” and “fabulously wealthy” in her mother’s high-pitched tones. The sound receded as her father shut the doors behind him. “Lizzy?” He crossed the small patch of lawn, joining her beside the trees. “I thought I might find you out here. Resting your eardrums?”

She smiled. “Think they’d notice if we escaped to someplace quieter?”

“Someplace quieter? That doesn’t limit our options much.” He raised one eyebrow, and they smiled at each other. “What time is your flight?”

“At eleven. I don’t have to leave for at least an hour.” She inclined her head toward the tree on the left. “I thought I’d take a couple of Meyer lemons to Mrs. Reynolds—that’s William’s housekeeper—if it’s okay.”

meyer lemon tree“Of course.” He reached out and plucked two lemons from the tree. “I think these are ripe.”

“I told her how every Christmas morning you and I pick fresh fruit for everyone.”

“I suppose this year I’ll have to do it myself.” He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, but his words seemed to hang in the air, opening a gulf between them.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said softly. “William and I intended to be here Christmas Eve. It’s only because of his family issues that it didn’t work out.” Given her mother’s talent for gossip, she hadn’t shared the details of Georgiana’s problems.

“Lizzy …” He hesitated, studying the tree, and then picked another lemon. “I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to say this.”

“What’s wrong? I could tell something was bothering you at dinner.”

He sighed and rubbed his nose. “Obviously your mother couldn’t be happier about your engagement. I half expected her to break into a jig when you told her the news. In fact, she’d probably have done that if somebody had pulled out a fiddle. First time in my life I wished I could play one.”

Elizabeth giggled, but her smile faded when she remembered the start of his speech. “So, Mom is happy. What about you?”

He frowned and studied her face in silence before answering. “Lizzy, are you sure about this marriage?”

“Why do you ask?” She squared her shoulders and faced him.

“Because I’m afraid you might be marrying him for the wrong reasons.”

“You can’t possibly think I’m marrying him for his money.” She hadn’t expected such an insult from her father.

“Of course not. I know you better than that. But his fame? There, I’m not so sure.”

“I’m not marrying him because he’s famous, Dad.”

“But are you marrying him because he’s William Darcy?”

“I don’t understand—” But then, suddenly, she did.

“You own all his CDs. After you saw him that first time at Interlochen—what was it, ten years ago?—you talked about him for months. You’ve seen him in concert … I don’t know how many times, but too often to claim just a casual appreciation.” He paused to shake his head. “Lizzy, I’m sure it’s exciting to have someone you’ve idolized for years take an interest in you, but that’s not the basis for a good marriage.”

“I know that.” She took a deep breath and marshaled her patience. After all, early in her relationship with William she had harbored the same concerns. “That’s not why I’m marrying him.”

He continued, not seeming to hear her. “I was worried about you, that night at the rehearsal dinner. He spent most of the evening watching you, even during dinner, when you were at another table. Not that I blamed him; you lit up the room that night. But given his fascination with you, I was afraid he might try to take advantage of your … ” He hesitated, frowning.

“My adolescent crush?”

He shrugged. “I was going to say your susceptibility to him. At first you seemed to be ignoring him, but by the end of the evening that had changed, and it concerned me.”

She remembered her father’s unusually warm farewell that evening, as she had stood with William at her side. “You had nothing to worry about. He was kind and supportive, and a perfect gentleman.”

“You didn’t describe him that way the next day, when we were making those calls to cancel Jane’s wedding. You called him ‘arrogant,’ ‘self-important,’ and ‘snobbish,’ among other things.”

Elizabeth winced. She had returned from Crissy Field that morning simmering with rage.

“And then last summer—I think it was the Fourth of July—we were all out in the yard and I was barbecuing. You were talking to Charlotte about William, and I overheard some of the conversation. Your remarks about him were anything but complimentary, and I thought I heard you say something about him ‘wanting only one thing’ from you.”

She winced again. She had been hurt and humiliated by William’s apparent rejection, and had done her best to convince her friends—and herself—that he didn’t deserve her attention.

“A few months ago your mother and I found out that you were dating him. Whenever your mother asked about it you changed the subject, and she didn’t do much better trying to grill Jane. What little she learned came from Kitty, who said that you two were ‘an item,’ whatever that meant.”

“I didn’t mean to be so secretive, but …” But she hadn’t trusted William, or her own feelings.

“Do you see my dilemma? First you tell us emphatically how much you despise him. Then you start dating him but you won’t talk about it, as though you’re ashamed of what you’re doing. And now you’re marrying him?” He grasped her hand. “A bad marriage—you have no idea how much harm it can cause. I’d hate to see that happen to you.”

“Is that the only thing that worries you? That I’m marrying him for the wrong reasons?”

He nodded. “Heaven knows he can provide for you.” He raised a warning hand when she opened her mouth to protest. “Yes, I know that’s old-fashioned. I’m not like your mother, hoping that you’ll all marry rich men. But I’d like to see you at least end up with men you won’t have to support.”

“You’re just afraid you’ll have to support them,” she teased.

“Maybe that’s it,” he said, grinning. “At any rate, Darcy passes muster on that score, and then some. And he obviously has a brain in his head. But he has no sense of humor that I could detect, and he said some things about your career that I didn’t care for, that night at the rehearsal dinner. And heaven knows he’s full of himself. But if you care about him, none of that matters.”

“Dad, ‘care about him’ doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.” Her eyes filled with sudden tears. “I love him. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.”

“And you’re sure it’s not just because you’ve worshipped him from afar all these years?”

“I’m absolutely sure. William Darcy the performer still takes my breath away, and I guess he always will, but I’m in love with William Darcy the man.”

He didn’t respond, except with a slight nod.

“He has a sense of humor. No, really, he does,” she insisted in response to her father’s raised eyebrow. “He’s just awkward with strangers, so he comes across as kind of stiff. But underneath that he’s entirely different.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“I know he can seem arrogant if you don’t know him well.” She flashed a rueful smile. “Actually, sometimes he seems that way whether you know him or not. But he’s also thoughtful and generous and sweet and …” Her voice caught in her throat. “I love him so much, Dad. He makes me feel happy and safe and …” She sniffled, feeling her eyes growing damp. “And loved.”

“Then I’m happy for you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “I don’t talk much about my feelings, but you know you’ve always been special to me.”

She nodded, feeling an ache in the back of her throat.

“You have a quality—I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on it. It’s as though you’re lit from within. And that light never fails to brighten my day.”

She sniffled again and flicked a teardrop away from the corner of her eye.

“I always thought there wasn’t a man alive who could possibly deserve you. But I have to say, right now you’re not just lit from within, you’re positively glowing. And I suppose it’s because of Darcy.”

“Lizzy? Dad? Are you out there?”

Elizabeth glanced toward the house and saw Jane in the doorway.

“Mom has been looking all over for you,” Jane said. “She wants to open presents now.”

“We’ll be right there.” Andrew Bennet held out his arm to Elizabeth with exaggerated gallantry. “Would you care to accompany me into the house, my dear?”

“Why, thank you, kind sir.” Smiling, she took his arm.

“Promise me one thing. Give us a chance to get to know William.”

“I will. I’m sorry I haven’t done it before now. I think you’ll like him.”

“He has one thing going for him from the start. He was smart enough to fall in love with my little girl.”

She swallowed hard. “I love you, Dad.”

He patted her hand where it rested in the crook of his elbow. “Now, Lizzy, don’t go getting sentimental on me. I could still decide that I loathe him, and boycott the wedding.”

She darted a sideways glance at him and saw his lips twitching. Laughing together, they passed through the patio doors, instantly enveloped by the good-natured insanity within.

 

jfk airport security areaWilliam hated the fact that friends and family couldn’t meet arriving air travelers at the gate, but instead had to wait outside the security area. He stood along the wall, anxiously craning his neck to see as far as possible down the dimly-lit concourse. At least the airport was reasonably quiet. No doubt it would be thronged with holiday travelers later in the day, but so early in the morning there were few arriving flights.

Finally he saw her hurrying toward him. A few seconds more, and he swept her into his arms. They held each other in blissful silence. She felt even softer and warmer than he remembered.

Elizabeth raised her head from his shoulder and beamed up at him.

“Why are you laughing?” he asked, brushing a stray hair off her face. Her joy was infectious, and he found himself chuckling without knowing why.

She shook her head. “I’m just so glad to see you.”

He bent his head to kiss her, and then released her and reached for her carry-on luggage. “I assume you checked a bag?”

“Absolutely. No way I could dress for a White House luncheon and a New Year’s Eve gala out of the stuff in my carry-on. Not to mention Christmas with the Darcys.”

jfk airport curbsideHer suitcase arrived with merciful speed, and soon they were outside at the curb. Allen hopped from the car, a warm smile on his weathered face. “Welcome back to New York, Ms. Bennet.”

“It’s good to see you, Allen.” Elizabeth offered him her hand.

“Marcia and I were so pleased to hear that you’re going to be part of the family.” He patted her hand with fatherly affection, astonishing William. Allen ordinarily behaved with dignified formality with everyone.

Once they were in the car and on their way back to Manhattan, William gathered Elizabeth into his arms. Heedless of Allen’s presence in the front seat, he kissed her, long and deep. By the time he lifted his head, her face was flushed and her eyes held the soft, drowsy look he loved. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve missed you,” he murmured, stroking her rosy cheek.

“Mmm. Me too.” Her words dissolved into a yawn.

“Did you get any sleep on the plane?”

“Not much. I hope your grandmother won’t think I’m rude if I take a nap as soon as we get to the house.”

“No, she’ll understand. Red-eye flights are brutal.”

She rested her head on his shoulder with a happy sigh. “See, this is what I needed on the flight,” she said softly. “I could fall asleep in an instant.”

“Go ahead.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Traffic is light this morning, but it’ll still take us a while to get there. You might as well get some rest.”

She nestled closer and her eyes drifted shut. A few minutes later, he heard her breathing shift into the slow cadence of sleep. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the seat back. Then he allowed his mind to float into contented oblivion, a small smile curving his lips. He couldn’t remember ever looking forward to a Christmas more than this one.