Fiction writers have to be careful about portraying real people in their writing. It’s possibly libelous, depending on what the people do or say in the story, and it’s just not nice to attribute fictional words or actions to someone without their permission. So far I’ve used real people’s names only in offhand references (like Catherine de Bourgh doing some name-dropping).

In this chapter and the next, I’m going to occasionally mention the names of some of the performers and attendees of the real Concert for America (held in September, 2002, not on New Year’s Eve as I have portrayed it). They’ll attend a White House luncheon and populate the concert hall, places they could certainly have appeared during the real event. We’ll see them only at a distance, and they won’t say anything, in order to avoid depicting anyone in an inappropriate way.

Elizabeth mentions one detail about the educational background of one of these famous people, and I assure you, I didn’t invent it. Since it intersects with her fictional history, I couldn’t resist including it.

Incidentally, the original Concert for America was a first-anniversary tribute related to the September, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. My fictional version of the concert, taking place on a festive date in the annual calendar, lacks that connection and is held to benefit other charitable causes.

Thanks, as always, to my betas, Alyson, Kathy, Linda, and Terry; they contributed several excellent insights to the chapter. Thanks also to Shawna, my favorite Hoya, for sharing her Georgetown expertise.

 

Elizabeth awoke to find her face pressed against the cool glass of the train’s window. She rotated her head slowly, not yet ready to be “officially” awake, and watched William through her eyelashes. He was, of course, absorbed in a book, his unaccountably sexy reading glasses perched on his aristocratic nose. She spread the fingers of her left hand and studied her ring, a habit she would have to break before returning to San Francisco, or else endure endless teasing from Charlotte.

She leaned over and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. He bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Hi,” he said softly. “Have a nice nap?”

“I don’t know why I fell asleep. I wasn’t really tired.” She blinked to clear her vision.

“It’s just as well,” he replied with a sly grin. “You’re going to be awake most of the night.”

“Is that so?”

“I told you I’d make you pay for callously forcing me to sleep alone for the past week.”

So he had been telling her for the past two days, ever since she had vetoed his plan to stay the night at the W Hotel. She had managed, with some difficulty, to drag him downstairs, into a taxi, and back to the townhouse in the misty hours before dawn. Then she had performed the even more difficult task of sending him off to bed alone, despite his heartfelt pleas and sultry kisses.

He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Though if you’d be willing to arrange a repeat of the other evening, I could see my way clear to forgiving you.”

“I don’t know. That may have been a one-night-only performance.”

“I hope not.”

Elizabeth couldn’t think about that evening without blushing. She had intended to meet William at the townhouse and suggest a room service dinner at the Four Seasons. But Sally had proposed a bolder scheme that day at lunch, when Elizabeth confessed her curiosity about one-night stands. “I’ve never had one,” she had said, “and I guess I never will. I meant, I don’t want to, exactly, but talking to Richard has made me wonder what it would be like.”

“So have a one-night stand with William,” Sally had suggested. “Pretend you don’t know him, and seduce him.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t. I don’t mean to sound like a prude, but I’m not that kind of girl.”

“You’re an actress. You can be any kind of girl you want to be.”

Sally had helped with the arrangements, from the borrowed black dress to the hotel room quietly allocated by a friend on the front desk, a room Elizabeth had used only to change clothes, since William had rewritten her script by getting a room of his own.

It had been exhilarating to step out of herself for an evening, to be a woman who would stroll into a bar and seduce a handsome stranger—yet not really a stranger, which had made it both possible and enjoyable. William had been different, too, less solicitous, more forthright in pursuing his own pleasure. She wouldn’t want a regular diet of frantic coupling on the bathroom counter, but it had been the perfect remedy for their mutual frustration.

Best of all, the hotel room had offered an alternative to the unthinkable: making love to him in that house, where she couldn’t banish the image of curious housemates listening at doors or overhearing incriminating noises through the heating vents. She would have to accept this risk once they were married, but she had months before the wedding to worry about that.

She pressed a hand against her cheek and decided to change the subject. “When are we due into Washington?”

“In about an hour.” He hesitated, glancing around them. The car was sparsely occupied; it had gradually emptied since leaving New York. “There’s something we need to talk about, and I’d rather do it before we get to Washington.”

“Did the President find out I didn’t vote for him and kick me off the guest list for the luncheon?”

“Very funny.” But his smile died only half-realized, and a muscle twitched at the corner of his eye. “It’s about a meeting I had with Gran a few days ago … actually, with Gran and our lawyer.”

“I asked you about that, and you said it was nothing.”

He licked his lips. “I know. I’ve been putting it off.”

“It sounds like you’d better just blurt it out.”

“It’s …” He shook his head and started again. “Gran arranged the meeting to discuss …” He sighed. “A pre-nuptial agreement.”

She almost laughed, but restrained herself in sympathy for his obvious dismay. “Is that all?”

“You’re not upset?”

“I knew we were going to have this conversation eventually. Why should I be upset?”

“I was.” He removed his glasses and slipped them into the breast pocket of his jacket. “It was an ambush. Gran didn’t tell me what the meeting was about. When the attorney pulled out the draft of the pre-nup, I nearly walked out of the room.”

“Well, it wasn’t nice of them to spring it on you.”

“I wonder if Gran guessed how I’d react? If so, I give her credit, because I surprised myself.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve always known that the woman I married would have to sign a pre-nup. I considered it the sensible, responsible thing to do. But as I sat looking at the paper, my first thought was, ‘We don’t need a pre-nup. We’re going to be together for the rest of our lives.’ And my second thought was, ‘If I ask her to sign this, she’ll think I’m expecting the marriage to fail.” He shook his head. “Ironic, all things considered.”

“I assume that’s what Charles said to you last May?”

“Almost word for word, but I brushed it aside and told him he was being irresponsible.”

She couldn’t help smiling. “Talk about your chickens coming home to roost.”

He nodded. “I deserve that.”

“I don’t mean to tease you. Well, yeah, I do,” she continued, flashing him a mischievous grin. “But go on with your story. You said you nearly walked out of the room.”

“I was halfway out of my chair, but then I forced myself to look at it from Gran’s perspective.” He smiled. “See what a good influence you are?”

“Good for you. She’d never be comfortable if we got married without a pre-nup.”

“It’s not that she doesn’t trust you.”

“Yes, it is,” she retorted with a little laugh, “but I don’t blame her. If I decide to run off with the mailman some day, she doesn’t want me taking your trust fund—and her silver tea service—with me.”

“It isn’t personal. She wants the pre-nup because I’m getting married, not because I’m marrying you.”

“I know.” She grasped his hand. “Look, I agree with what you said; I think we’re going to have a long, happy life together. And in that case, the pre-nup is a non-issue. So what’s the harm in having one, if it means your grandmother can sleep at night?”

“I should have known you’d understand.”

“Yes, you should have. And, by the way, if Charles had approached Jane in the same way, she would have been just as understanding. But neither of you gave her the benefit of the doubt.”

His eyes narrowed, a change of expression so subtle that only someone who knew him intimately would have recognized it. “I know that, and so does Charles. I’ve already apologized more than once for misjudging Jane. I hope I’m not going to spend the next fifty years having to repeatedly apologize for my shortcomings.”

“You’re right. We said we were putting that behind us.” She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek, and his eyes softened. Even with all the progress they had made as a couple, a clumsy remark could reopen old wounds.

They sat quietly for a minute, and then she remembered the pre-nup. “Did you bring the dreaded document with you?”

“No. I insisted on some changes; I didn’t think it was generous enough. But there’s plenty of time. We can handle it after you move to New York.”

“I’d rather not wait that long. I’d like to review it with Jane before I sign it, and that’ll be easier to do in California.”

“I thought you considered it a non-issue.” He glanced down at her, his half-smile slanted at a skeptical angle.

“You don’t think we need it either, but you still went to the trouble to have changes made.”

He nodded. “Fair enough.”

“And remember, my attorney is also my sister. If I signed something without having her approve it, she’d kill me.” She laughed softly. “Well, no, she wouldn’t, but she might raise her voice half a decibel.”

He grinned. “We wouldn’t want that. Incidentally, I’m also having my will revised. If something happens to me, even before the wedding, you’ll be well provided for.”

“I don’t want to think about that.”

“Neither do I, but it’s important.” He didn’t have to explain that he was thinking of his heart. Elizabeth preferred an optimistic attitude; his cardiologist was pleased with his condition, and he hadn’t shown signs of dizziness or undue fatigue in months. But the worry was there, always.

The conductor’s voice sounded weakly through the speakers above their heads, announcing Baltimore as the next stop. Two people sitting near the front of the car stood up and collected their luggage and coats.

“I used to get off the train in Baltimore when I visited Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward,” she said.

“It’ll be good to see them again.”

“I know they’ll say this themselves, but it was so sweet of you to offer them the extra tickets.” The Gardiners were attending the New Year’s Eve Concert for America gala, using the VIP tickets William had originally obtained for Richard.

“I owe them a debt I can never repay,” he said, his tone painfully earnest. “If they hadn’t invited you to Barbados, I might be here alone right now.”

She shook her head. “We’d still have found our way back together. But it was a lot more fun having our reunion in paradise.”

“Which reminds me. I thought we’d go to Pemberley for our honeymoon.”

“And I don’t get any say in the matter?”

He stared back at her, his chin jutting out, but humor glinted in his eyes. “Just like I don’t get any say about the wedding.”

“Touché. Anyway, I’m just teasing. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather go.”

“And we’re staying for two weeks. Sonya made sure my calendar was clear.” He smiled. “I wish we were on our way there now.”

Acela train engine“Me too, although I’m not sure the train goes that far.” She brushed a rebellious curl off his forehead. “But a White House luncheon and a nationally-televised gala aren’t too shabby, as New Year’s Eve celebrations go.”

After a brief silence, William opened his book. Elizabeth stared out the window as the train glided to a stop at Baltimore’s Penn Station.

 

The next morning, Elizabeth and William indulged themselves with a late room service breakfast. Elizabeth stayed in the bedroom while William dealt with the waiter in the foyer of their suite. He returned rolling a cart laden with covered dishes.

“You put on a bathrobe?” He frowned at her, almost pouting.

She fingered the sleeve of the plush robe, provided by the hotel. “Well, so did you.”

“I had to. Call me crazy, but it seemed like a bad idea to answer the door naked.”

“I guess you’re right, though the waiter’s reaction would have been worth seeing.”

He bent over and retrieved her filmy black nightgown from the floor. “If you insist on getting dressed for breakfast, why not wear this? You didn’t have it on for more than ten minutes last night.”

National Christmas tree“And whose fault was that?”

He grinned and kissed her. “Yours, for being so sexy. You were a tantalizing Christmas present, and I simply had to unwrap you.”

National Christmas treeThe night before, after a leisurely dinner, Elizabeth had suggested walking the few blocks from their hotel to see the National Christmas Tree. They had circled it with hundreds of fellow tourists, pausing frequently to admire one of the dozen or more miniature trains clacking past, or inspecting the custom-made ornaments on the trees representing the different states.

National Christmas treeThen, clutching cups of hot chocolate purchased from a street vendor, they had admired the brightly-lit White House behind its sturdy iron fence. At last they had returned to their suite, their noses red from the cold, and she had modeled her as-yet unworn Christmas gift. With the sight of her in the revealing nightgown as inspiration, William had made good on his threat to keep her awake most of the night.

They ate their breakfast lounging in bed, feeding each other an occasional morsel and chatting about nothing in particular. Elizabeth returned their empty plates to the cart and then slid back under the covers, her head propped on his chest as he leaned against a stack of pillows. He wrapped his arms around her waist.

Canopy bed“This is so nice,” she murmured.

“Mmm.” He lifted a hand to tangle lazily in her hair.

“I love this suite. It’s so romantic and secluded.”

“Originally it was booked, but the hotel had a last-minute cancellation and Sonya found out about it.”

“She’s a miracle worker.”

Jacuzzi with view of Washington MonumentTucked away by itself in the hotel’s attic, the suite was designed for lovers, with its wrought iron canopy bed and its sunken Jacuzzi tub. They had tried out the tub the night before, sipping champagne amid a sea of bubbles as they gazed at the Washington Monument through the bathroom’s large circular window.

“Will?”

“Hmm?”

“There’s something I’ve been thinking about.”

He didn’t respond, which she knew gave her tacit permission to continue. “It’s about us living at the townhouse. After the wedding, I mean. I know how important the townhouse is to you. But what if it just won’t work?”

“Are you still worrying about making love in the house?” The hand caressing her hair moved to her cheek. “I can almost understand why you’re uncomfortable with the idea now, but once we’re married it’ll be different.”

“What if it’s not? What if I can’t get past the feeling that I’m living in a fishbowl?”

“Gran and Georgie are arriving in a couple of hours, and they’re staying here at the hotel. Does that mean you’re going to get your own room and refuse to sleep with me?”

“That’s different.” She sat up and scooted around to face him. “They’re not going to be in the room next door. And nobody’s going to walk in unannounced.”

“No one will be next door at home either; you know that. And no one comes into my bedroom without permission. Gran always taught us to respect the privacy of others.”

“Maybe so, but I feel like the walls there have ears, and I don’t know if a wedding ring is going to change that. I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way, considering how particular you are about your privacy.”

“But that’s just it. The house is the most private place I know, after Pemberley.”

“Maybe that’s the difference. It doesn’t feel private to me.”

“It will, once you’re living there as a member of the family.”

“What if it doesn’t? Besides, this isn’t just about sleeping together. No matter how well we think we know each other, all newlyweds have to make some adjustments and compromises. But in our case, we’ll have extra people to worry about, and extra adjustments to make.”

“Are you saying you don’t want to live at the townhouse?”

She hesitated for a second and took a deep breath. “Not necessarily. But what if I find that I can’t be happy there? After giving it a sincere try, I mean.”

He pressed his lips together, frowning. “The townhouse is my home, my heritage. My family is there. It’s a lot to ask of me, to give that up.” He stopped and took a breath.

“Wait a minute. I’m not asking you to give anything up yet. I’m asking if we have other options, just in case. And, by the way, if you want to talk about giving things up—”

He grasped her arm lightly. “Lizzy. Let me finish.”

“Oops. Sorry.”

“Living there is important to me. But, as I was about to say, I’d give it up for you, if that’s what it took to make you happy.” He brushed his knuckles tenderly against her cheek, a hint of awe in his voice.

“Thank you.” Her shoulders relaxed, and she took his hand in hers, toying with his fingers. “I won’t ask unless I have to, I promise.”

“Good. Because it wouldn’t be easy.”

“I know. For one thing, your grandmother would never speak to me again.”

“I’d be more concerned about Georgie’s reaction.”

“Just to clarify, I’m not talking about moving across the country. Just a place of our own, somewhere close by. We could be at the townhouse every day.” She sighed. “But I suppose it might still look like desertion to Georgie, and she’d blame me. Heaven knows she dislikes me enough already.”

“No, she doesn’t. Why do you think that?”

“I don’t know how you can be so blind. For heaven’s sake, she uses me as a human scratching post.”

“That’s rather melodramatic.” He got out of bed and walked to the room service cart, ostensibly to pour a cup of coffee. But she heard the tightness in his voice and saw the firm set of his jaw.

“Will, she’s taking her frustrations out on me. I’ve put up with it so far, and actually it’s gotten a little better in the past few days. But long term, something has to change.”

“Richard mentioned it to me the other night.” William set his coffee cup on the night table and sat on the edge of the bed, his back to Elizabeth. “I know Georgie hasn’t been herself, but I assumed he was blowing things out of proportion.”

She slid across the bed and sat beside him. “He’s not. You just don’t want to see it. Plus, now that I think of it, she doesn’t do it as much when you’re around. I guess she doesn’t want to risk antagonizing you.”

“I didn’t know this was a problem.” He dragged a hand through his hair and sighed. “I wish you’d said something sooner.”

“I mentioned it once. On your last night in San Francisco, after the recital.”

“I don’t remember, but that night is a blur.”

She had hesitated to raise the subject again, unsure whose side he would take. “Like I said, Georgie and I have made some progress, especially the other day when we went shopping.”

“Do you want me to talk to her?” he asked, his reluctance obvious in the tension around his eyes.

“Yes, but only if you see her do or say something specific.”

“I’ll try to be more aware of it.”

“You know what else you could do? Tell her things about our relationship; talk about our future plans, things like that.”

“I already do.”

“Not always. By the time you got around to telling her we were engaged, she’d already overheard you and your grandmother discussing it.”

“I waited because I didn’t want to upset her.”

“Upset her?” Elizabeth jumped off the bed and grabbed her coffee cup from the night table. “Don’t you see what a negative message that sends, that you thought the news of our engagement would traumatize your fifteen-year-old sister?”

“You’re taking it out of context. She’d just been arrested.”

“And I wouldn’t have expected you to blurt it out the instant you walked in the door.” The coffee emitted rich, fragrant steam as she poured it from the chrome pot. “But you waited almost a week. It made it seem like you didn’t care enough about her to want to share the good news.”

He glanced up at her, frowning. “Is that what she thinks?”

“Either that, or maybe she thinks you didn’t consider it such good news after all.”

“There’s no way she could think that. Sonya and Richard teased me nonstop for a week, going out of their way to mention your name just to watch me smile. Oh, and they also told me that I’m not nearly as big a pain in the ass—their words, not mine—as I used to be.”

She couldn’t help but snicker at that. “All right. So you’re a grinning idiot and everybody knows it. But Georgie still could have assumed that you didn’t care whether or not she knew what was going on in your life. Plus, if you’re keeping secrets like that from her, it doesn’t encourage her to open up to you.”

“It’s just that she’s so fragile,” he said softly, as though to himself.

“That’s the problem. You all treat her like she’s made of blown glass, and it makes her feel patronized and pushed aside. You didn’t even tell her we were going to live in New York after the wedding. She assumed you were moving to San Francisco.”

“She did?” He slumped forward, elbows propped on his knees. “I had no idea.”

She set her coffee cup on the cart and knelt behind him on the bed, pushing his robe aside so she could massage his shoulders. His skin felt hot beneath her fingers. “I know it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with her. To make matters worse, she doesn’t know how to talk to you right now. She thinks you and your grandmother are ashamed of her.”

“I’m worried about her, not ashamed.”

“You need to tell her that.” She bent forward and kissed his neck just below the ear. “Why don’t you take her out to dinner tonight, just the two of you? Not a stuffy, fancy place. Someplace young and trendy that she’d enjoy.”

“What would you do?”

She shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I may skip dinner anyway. The way I’ve been eating, I’ll need an extra seat on the plane home.”

He leaned back against her. “You might have a good idea. Georgie and I haven’t spent much time together lately.”

“Then you should do it.”

He rolled his head from side to side and she took the hint, kneading the tight muscles in his neck. He groaned softly, a low, rumbling sound she often heard under more passionate circumstances. She leaned forward, slipped her arms around his neck, and nipped his ear.

He twisted around and lunged at her, pushing her onto her back. “I have a better idea than skipping meals. Let’s burn some calories.”

“When is your rehearsal?”

He didn’t seem to hear the question, too busy untying her belt and pushing her robe open. Then he flung off his own robe and rolled on top of her.

Elizabeth decided to let him worry about the time; she doubted he had ever been late for anything. Besides, alone in their private hideaway with his lips forging a steamy path down her neck, clocks seemed unimportant.

 

White House gate“Hi, Jane.”

“Lizzy! I’ve been hoping you’d call. How was the White House luncheon?”

“Very elegant, and packed with famous faces.”

Monticello in gingerbread“Did you meet the President?”

“He wasn’t there. But William and I had our picture taken with the First Lady, who was very nice. And the White House was decorated with dozens of gingerbread houses. Some of them were replicas of presidents’ homes. And the tree in the Blue Room was gorgeous. All the decorations were amazing. And—” She stopped abruptly. “Sorry. I’m babbling.”

Blue room tree“It’s okay. You have a good reason to be excited. Did William enjoy himself?”

“He seemed to. He was mixing with the other guests more than usual, even when I wasn’t with him.”

“That’s your influence, Lizzy. You’ve made such a difference in him.”

“I hope I haven’t created a monster. He sat next to Gloria Estefan at lunch, and they had quite the conversation.”

“Jealous?”

1800 White House in gingerbreadElizabeth laughed. “Maybe I should be. But I sat next to Josh Groban, so I guess we’re even.”

“Wow. Really?”

“Uh huh. Did you know, he spent two summers at Interlochen? But it was after I graduated. We had a good time comparing notes.”

“I guess there will be even more famous people there tonight.”

This was true, though many of tonight’s attendees would be prominent business and political figures, not performers. The First Lady had organized the high-profile concert to benefit a variety of charities working to fight poverty and homelessness in the United States, with even the worst seats in the house selling for at least $1,000.

“That’s me,” Elizabeth said, “always hobnobbing with the A list. But Charles and the other guys have a big night coming up too. I can’t believe I’m missing the most important gig the band has ever had.”

“I think they’d say you’re the lucky one, but they’re definitely looking forward to it. Anne de Bourgh is coming over this afternoon, and I’m going to help her with her hair. Then we’re going to get some dinner before we join the guys at the hotel.”

“Oh, good. You’ll have her looking like a princess.”

“You’re the one who’s going to look like a princess in your gorgeous new dress and your diamonds.”

A fresh squadron of butterflies took flight in Elizabeth’s stomach. In her excitement over the White House luncheon, she had forgotten the finery in her closet. “I can’t wait to play Cinderella at the ball. And don’t worry, I’m not doing my own hair. Mrs. Darcy arranged for a hairstylist to come to the hotel late this afternoon.”

“Have someone take your picture, okay?”

“No problem. I bet there will be plenty of photographers there tonight.”

“Then maybe I’ll see you in the paper tomorrow. Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask. How are things going with Georgie?”

The Tombs“Not bad. She and I visited the National Mall together while William rehearsed, and he took her to Georgetown for dinner last night, just the two of them. My idea.”

“Good for you. Did it go well?”

The Tombs“I think so. He let her choose the restaurant, and she picked a place called the Tombs that’s a popular student hangout. He said she was disappointed to find mostly ‘old people’ there, what with so many of the students gone for the holidays. But she seemed to enjoy herself all the same, and he managed to find a wine he liked, so everyone was happy.”

William stepped into the bedroom and pointed at his watch. She nodded, and he departed again. “I’m sorry, Jane,” she said, “but I’ve got to run. I’m going with William to his rehearsal, and he’s getting antsy.”

“I understand,” Jane said.

“But there’s one more quick thing. I talked to Richard a few mornings ago, and you have to tell Char what he said. I assume you’ll see her tonight?”

“She said she’d be there.”

Elizabeth grabbed her brush from the dresser and frowned at herself in the mirror. William wouldn’t tolerate hair and make-up delays once she got off the phone, so she would have to do two things at once. “I almost called her, but I thought it would be better if you told her in person. Richard all but admitted that he’s in love with her.”

“He said that?”

“More or less. I always suspected that he’d fallen for her. But she told him they were too much alike, and that she wanted to keep things casual.”

“But, Lizzy, that isn’t news. She told us the same thing. In fact, didn’t she decide to keep him at a distance because she was afraid he cared about her more than she cared about him?”

Elizabeth shook her head. Jane could be so gullible sometimes. “You didn’t believe that hogwash, did you? She’s got a thing for Richard, but she’s too scared to act on it. Have you noticed that she hasn’t even mentioned another man since she met him?”

“She’s been busy finishing her dissertation and looking for a job,” Jane said in her sensible-older-sister voice. “She hasn’t had time for other men.”

“Oh, come on, Jane.”

“Lizzy, I know you’re trying to help, but we have to let Richard and Charlotte make their own choices.”

“I’d be happy to, if they’d choose something! But they’re just avoiding, avoiding, and avoiding some more.” Elizabeth tried, without success, to brace the phone under her chin so she could use both hands to tame her hair. “Wouldn’t you like to see Char as happy as we are?”

Jane was silent for a minute. “All right, Lizzy. I’ll tell her that you talked to Richard, and that he ‘more or less’ admitted to having feelings for her. But this could backfire. She may just run further away.”

“Ha! See, you think she’s avoiding her feelings too.”

“Yes, I do. But I also think it’s her decision.”

Elizabeth made a mental note to call Charlotte the following day, ostensibly to wish her a Happy New Year, but really to administer a loving kick in the butt. Heaven knows she had performed that service for Elizabeth more than once. “Have a great time tonight, and give each of the guys a kiss on the cheek for me, even Bill. Tell them it’s for luck.”

“I will. And have a wonderful time, Lizzy. I’m recording the concert; maybe I’ll see you in the audience.”

They said their goodbyes, and Elizabeth turned her full attention to her appearance. Her hair would do, but her make-up still needed work. She reached for her purse just as William entered the bedroom.

“We have to leave now, or we’ll be late,” he said with an air of implacable authority.

She knew better than to argue. “Okay. I’m right behind you.”

She applied lip gloss, snatched up her coat, and sprinted down the hall after William, who was holding the elevator while staring pointedly at his watch.

Georgiana, who apparently possessed the Darcy punctuality gene, awaited them in the lobby. She stood near the large Christmas tree, inspecting the ornaments. “Did you see the teddy bears?” she asked, her smile lighting up the room. The jaded young woman Elizabeth had been handling with kid gloves had vanished, replaced by a giddy child enchanted by the stuffed bear ornaments sprinkled around the tree. These quicksilver transformations were the most baffling aspect of Georgiana’s personality.

Bear on Christmas tree“Where’s Gran?” William was all business, his eyes sweeping the lobby.

“She’s not coming,” Georgiana replied. “She said she was tired and wanted to rest, since we’d be up late tonight.”

“Is she all right?” William frowned. Elizabeth knew he considered Rose indestructible, despite her age.

“She’s not sick,” Georgiana retorted, rolling her eyes. “Just tired.”

“All right,” he said in a curt tone. “The limo’s waiting. Let’s go.”

Kennedy CenterTraffic was light and the distance short. Within a few minutes they walked through the doors of the Kennedy Center. “You go ahead,” Elizabeth said to William. “Georgie and I are going to do some exploring.” She glanced at Georgiana. “Okay?”

Hall of NationsGeorgiana nodded without enthusiasm, but also without any signs of annoyance.

William leaned over and kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. “I’ll see you later.” A glance toward Georgiana showed her rolling her eyes at their public display of affection.

balloon archElizabeth and Georgiana strolled along the red-carpeted foyer, its walls flanked by brightly-colored flags. Arches made of balloons stretched between the walls, in preparation for the New Year’s Eve party after the concert. At the far end of the foyer they encountered a bust of John F. Kennedy, for whom the performing arts center was named.

“He didn’t really look like that, did he?” Georgiana wrinkled her nose. The bronze statue offered a craggy rendering of the slain president.

Elizabeth smiled in response. They wandered out a set of doors and onto a terrace overlooking the Potomac River. A man in a navy suit but no coat stood alone at the railing smoking a cigarette, his body hunched over like a tortoise retreating into its shell.

“What’s that over there?” Georgiana pointed to a cluster of reddish buildings a short distance up the river.

“It might be Georgetown University,” Elizabeth said.

“It is,” the man said, turning toward them and smiling. “Up there on the hill.”

Elizabeth thanked him with a smile. Then she and Georgiana strolled along the terrace. “Too bad it’s supposed to rain tonight,” she said. “This would be a great place to escape to, if it gets too hot and noisy inside.”

They returned inside and took an escalator to the second floor. “William said the Presidential box is up here,” Elizabeth said. “But I don’t know if we’ll be able to get anywhere near it.” They made their way along a corridor. “There’s always a chance we’ll get wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents. All those serious-looking men in the dark suits downstairs—I’m sure they’re part of the President’s security detail.”

“Look over there,” Georgiana said, pointing ahead of her. The Presidential seal was mounted above a roped-off doorway.

They crept closer for a peek, but two black-suited men emerged from the room and stood blocking the doorway. Two others emerged from a nearby box and stood at attention. “This is a restricted area,” one of the men said, his tone calm but authoritative. “You’ll have to leave.”

Elizabeth and Georgiana glanced at each other as they hurried off, both suppressing huge smiles until they were far enough away to laugh safely. “Well, on the bright side,” Elizabeth chortled, “no wrestling to the ground was involved. But I bet we’ll have FBI files now.”

“One of those guys looked exactly like Will Smith in Men in Black,” Georgiana said amid giggles.

“He wishes he looked that good!”

They scampered down the escalator, still laughing. “I think we’d better go to the concert hall before we cause any more trouble,” Elizabeth said.

William sat at the grand piano at the front of the stage, alternately playing scales and conversing earnestly with the gray-haired piano tuner, who rummaged through a battered black case. The orchestra members played random melodies or excerpts from the night’s selections, creating the musical cacophony that so often precedes concerts.

Elizabeth and Georgiana slid into a row in the middle of the hall. “I haven’t seen him perform that often,” Elizabeth said softly. “At least, not since we started dating. So it’s still a major treat for me. He’s so …” She sighed, smiling ruefully at Georgiana.

“Yeah. All his girlfriends get mushy when he performs,” Georgiana said, with a poorly-concealed hint of malice.

“Why do you do that?” Elizabeth asked, in a sharper tone than she intended.

“What?” Georgiana lifted her chin in a gesture identical to one William often made.

“Remind me at every opportunity that he’s had lots of girlfriends. Are you trying to suggest that I’m temporary, just like they were?”

Georgiana donned a sullen expression. “No,” she mumbled.

Elizabeth took a deep breath and forced herself to continue in a gentler voice. “Georgie, I know he’s had other girlfriends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’d just as soon not have my nose rubbed in the details.”

“Whatever.”

Apparently Georgiana had decided that the silent treatment was the best punishment she could exact, because for the next several minutes she stared at her hands and responded to Elizabeth’s remarks in frosty monosyllables, if at all. Elizabeth sighed and rubbed her forehead, trying to banish the seeds of a headache.

Georgiana stood up abruptly.

“Where are you going?”

Georgiana rolled her eyes. “Back to the terrace.”

“All right, but please don’t go anywhere else without telling me.”

Georgiana gusted a huge sigh and rolled her eyes again. “I’m fifteen, not five. And you’re not my mother.”

Elizabeth bit back an angry retort. “I had a reason for my request, and it’s not because I think you’re a child.”

Georgiana’s expression was carefully blasé as she waited for Elizabeth to continue.

“It looks like the rehearsal is running behind schedule. We’re probably going to need to rush out of here the minute William’s done, or we’ll be late for the hairdresser. If I know where you are, it’ll be easier to find you when it’s time to go.”

“Oh.” Georgiana licked her lips, her eyes averted. After a pause, she looked up and said, “I could give you my cell phone number. Then you could text me.”

“Good idea.”

Not long after Georgiana departed, the chaos on the stage settled into order and Leonard Slatkin stepped onto the podium. He spoke briefly with William and with the orchestra, and then raised his baton. The famous glissando opening Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue oozed from the principal clarinetist’s instrument.

Elizabeth settled back in her seat, her eyes fixed on William with pride. But just as he began his first solo passage, the man from the terrace stepped into the row in front of her. “We meet again,” he said with a crooked grin.

“Excuse me,” she said tartly. “You’re blocking my view.” When William was at the keyboard, that was an unforgivable sin.

“Your view?” He chuckled. “It’s music, not an art exhibit.”

“Which we can’t hear if we’re talking.”

He mimed zipping his lips and seated himself. No more than a minute later, the stage director stepped toward the podium and the music stopped. Two technicians came on stage and began to adjust the lights.

The man twisted around in his seat to face her. “Excellent. Now I’m not interfering with anything.”

He seemed unflappable, but she was determined to puncture his self-assured air. “Maybe I wanted to sit quietly by myself and think deep thoughts.”

“I’ll take my chances.” He grinned. “You don’t look a sit-alone-and-ponder-the-universe kind of girl.”

“And you can tell that just by looking at me?”

He rose to his feet and turned up the wattage on his smile. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude. But I’ve been stroking massive egos for the past two days, and I’ve had enough. I saw you outside, and then I overheard you laughing on your way down the escalator. It was the most beautiful sound I’d heard all day. So when I saw you sitting here alone, I thought, ‘I’m going to give myself a treat and flirt with this lovely woman for a few minutes.’”

She couldn’t help but smile. “Aren’t you the flatterer.”

“Not at all. I just call them as I see them.” He raised his eyebrows in a rueful entreaty. “Please, talk to me for a few minutes. Don’t send me back to the Ego Patrol just yet.”

Her smile widened. “I suppose I can be merciful just this once.”

“Bless you.”

She studied him as he came around the row to sit beside her. She judged him to be in his mid to late forties. He was undeniably handsome, with cheerful brown eyes and sandy hair liberally sprinkled with gray. But despite his light-hearted charm, something about him made her wary. She decided to probe for information. “I assume, from what you said about the egos, that you’re involved with the concert?”

“I’m with the National Endowment for the Arts, and we’re helping with logistics. I’m working as a talent escort, hence the incessant ego stroking.”

“I can imagine.” Talent escorts were glorified babysitters, walking the stars through the rehearsal, fetching coffee, and absorbing bitter complaints if the rehearsal ran behind schedule. She wondered if William’s ego was one of those he’d had to stroke. “I did that a few times in college, when we had guest artists on campus.”

“Where did you go?”

“Cincinnati Conservatory.”

He nodded approvingly. “What’s your instrument?”

She pointed to her throat.

“That explains the beautiful laugh; you’re a songbird. Then you must be performing tonight.” He grimaced. “Oops; I shouldn’t have said anything about the egos.”

“No, I’m here with my fiancé.” She felt a little thrill; she wasn’t accustomed to using the word. “He’s rehearsing right now.”

“Which is why you wanted to watch as well as listen. I do apologize.” He scanned the stage. “Let’s see if I can guess who he is. The concertmaster?”

Elizabeth shook her head.

“Give me a hint. Is it anyone in the string section?”

She shook her head again, smiling. There was something disarming about his breezy manner.

“Hmm. So, woodwinds, brass, or percussion. Let’s start with brass. You don’t look like a girl who would marry a tuba player. But the principal trombonist, maybe? Do well-developed facial muscles make for a better kisser?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” She had dated a trombonist once, but she didn’t intend to share that detail.

He studied her, squinting in exaggerated concentration. Fully engaged in their little contest, she double-checked to make sure her left hand was still hidden beneath her purse, lest he pick up clues from her engagement ring. But the music resumed before he could guess again. She sent him a look of warning and he nodded, raising a finger to his lips.

The Rhapsody was magnificent. When it ended she applauded vigorously, along with several members of the crew. But her companion offered only four or five half-hearted claps.

“You didn’t like it?” she asked.

“The music was fine. It’s the man playing it.”

“Leonard Slatkin?”

“No, I’m talking about the pianist. William Darcy.”

Elizabeth’s body tightened, but she managed to project outward calm. William could be difficult, especially with strangers. “Was his one of the egos you spent the day stroking?”

“No, somebody else dealt with him, thank God.”

William must have been distant, or a bit too demanding, and word had gotten around. If only he would allow others to see the charming man beneath his chilly exterior.

On stage, the musicians were chatting, most packing up their instruments. William shook hands with the conductor and walked offstage. Her companion rose to his feet. “I’m afraid I have to go,” he said. “Duty calls. But perhaps I’ll see you tonight.”

She stood as well. “Do you get to watch the concert, or will you be stroking more egos?”

“You know, when you say it, it sounds sexy.” He glanced toward the stage and stepped into the aisle. “The latter, I’m afraid. I’ll be working backstage. But we’re allowed to stay for the party afterwards. Will you save me a dance?”

“Sure, if we run into each other.” He seemed harmless enough.

“You see?” he said, grinning. “I knew you’d be fun to flirt with. See you tonight.” He winked at her and strode rapidly up the aisle.

William, moving almost as quickly, reached her side soon afterwards. “Where’s Georgie?” he asked.

“Wandering around. I didn’t think she could get into much trouble, especially with the Secret Service on patrol.” She rummaged through her purse. “I’ll text her and have her meet us in the hallway.”

Grand Foyer set for dinnerThe brightly-lit Grand Foyer, stretching across the back of the building and leading to the largest of the theaters, was filled with circular tables set with festive decorations. William had grudgingly agreed to attend the pre-concert dinner for VIP guests, though he had complained to Elizabeth about the disruption it would represent. He prepared for his performances in quiet and solitude. “Not,” he had grumbled, “by making small talk with strangers who paid $50,000 for the privilege.”

They reached the meeting place Elizabeth had specfied, by the large bust of John F. Kennedy, and William took her hand. “Who were you talking to in the theater?”

“One of the workers.” She considered asking if he’d had problems with any of the staff. Before she had a chance, Georgiana came through the doors from the terrace, and William turned toward her.

Georgiana glanced at Elizabeth, her expression a perfect imitation of William at his haughtiest. “I stayed on the terrace, just like I said I would,” she declared. But then her lips twitched, and a ghost of a smile touched her eyes.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth answered. “Let’s go. Our hairdresser awaits.” She threaded her arm through William’s. “Georgie and I are going to be so gorgeous tonight we’ll knock your socks off.”