Elizabeth barely recognized the elegant woman in the ladies’ room mirror—that is, until she made a face and the woman staring back reciprocated. Still the same old me underneath all this finery.

Madeline Gardiner squeezed into a spot next to Elizabeth at the mirror. “I can’t get over that necklace,” Madeline said, shaking her head. “Edward has some serious catching up to do in the jewelry department.”

“I’m scared to death it’ll fall off and I’ll lose it.” Elizabeth reached up to touch the glittering diamond necklace, as she had done dozens of times that evening.

Madeline stepped behind Elizabeth and inspected the clasp. “It looks secure to me, especially with the safety chain. By the way, I know I already said this, but I’m going to repeat myself. You look absolutely beautiful tonight.”

“I have to admit, I feel beautiful.” Even Rose had complimented Elizabeth’s appearance. “Of course, I can’t take much of the credit. William bought the dress and the jewelry, and the hairdresser did my hair.”

“It isn’t just the clothes and the hairstyle. You’re a beautiful woman. I’m glad you’re finally letting it show.”

Elizabeth flashed a quick, awkward smile and led the way out of the ladies’ room, past the long line snaking out the door. She pulled her filmy shawl around her shoulders. “How was dinner?”

“Good food and excellent company.” The Gardiners, the Fitzwilliams, and Georgiana had dined together while Elizabeth and Rose attended the VIP dinner with William.

“I was sorry I had to run off and leave you right after introducing you to everyone.”

“Don’t worry about it. By the end of dinner we were like old friends.”

“I knew you’d like the Fitzwilliams. How did it go with Georgie?”

“She seemed a little moody, but with this legal trouble hanging over her head, I’m not surprised.”

Elizabeth nodded. Sometimes she forgot that Georgiana had a court date the following week.

“Besides, after raising three daughters and dealing with five nieces, I’m used to moody girls. You had your moments at that age too, Lizzy. All of you did.”

“Except Jane.”

Madeline chuckled. “True. Anyway, we had a nice chat about the sights she’s seen in Washington.”

“She chatted with you?”

“I’m sure it’s easier for me, since I’m not the one who’s marrying her brother.”

“That seems to be the consensus. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed dinner. How are your seats?”

“Wonderful, though of course we’re not sitting with all the important people like you are.”

Elizabeth grinned. “I don’t know a soul up there except Mrs. Darcy.” She and Rose were seated near the Presidential box, along with the guests of the concert’s other headliners. William had been able to secure only two tickets in that area, but he had obtained seats in the orchestra section for the others. “That’s why I’m glad we bumped into each other out here. It’s good to see a friendly face.”

Kennedy Center Opera HouseA chime sounded, signaling the end of intermission. Elizabeth smiled apologetically at Rose as she slid into her chair; she hadn’t planned on being gone for so long. But before she had a chance to speak, the lights dimmed and Tom Brokaw, the emcee, returned to the stage.

The second half, like the first, offered a procession of top talent in a wide range of musical genres. But at last, the performer Elizabeth had awaited all evening appeared. As she had told Georgiana the day before, she hadn’t seen William perform often enough for the novelty to have faded. When he strode on stage, tall and lean and oozing magnetism, she emitted a soft sigh.

Her cheeks flamed; Rose would think her a lovesick idiot. But an involuntary sideways glance relieved her worry. Rose’s eyes were locked on her grandson, her face awash in pride and affection.

William seemed to be scanning the mezzanine, but Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he had located her. After a quick bow, he took his place at the piano—no flinging of coattails tonight, since he wore black tie. The concert hall grew almost eerily silent as the conductor raised his baton. Then the distinctive clarinet solo opened the Rhapsody in Blue.1

She smiled to herself, thinking of William’s continual grousing about the producers’ musical selection. He much preferred Gershwin’s Concerto in F; it hadn’t been, in his words, “performed to death.” I wonder if that’s why that man badmouthed William this afternoon? Maybe William argued with the organizers, and the rumor mill picked it up.

But if William lacked enthusiasm for his task, no one could have guessed it. As always, he practiced his unique brand of musical sorcery, breathing life into the piano until it seemed to speak, cry, and sing to the audience, until she half expected it to rise up at the end of the piece and join in acknowledging the applause thundering through the hall.

She brushed away her tears and jumped to her feet along with the rest of the crowd. A glance at Rose revealed an astonishing sight: the track of a tear on the old woman’s pale, lined cheek. Their eyes met and something passed between them, something warm and harmonious and unexpected. Rose nodded slightly, and then turned her attention back to the stage.

William’s eyes again scanned the mezzanine, and Elizabeth had to restrain the urge to wave. She knew the moment he found her; his smile widened and he touched a hand to his heart. She blew a kiss in response. Maybe the elegant socialite in the ladies’ room mirror wouldn’t have committed such an undignified act, but dignity was overrated.

 

Kennedy Center party“This is quite the shindig,” Edward Gardiner remarked as he and Madeline inched their way through the crowd.

Elizabeth could barely hear her uncle above the din. Every scrap of the Grand Foyer’s red carpet seemed to be occupied by expensively-shod feet, and the owners of those feet were ringing in the new year with exuberance.

She accepted a glass of champagne from a circling waiter and immediately regretted it when a woman in a black bead-encrusted gown stepped backward, causing a collision. Elizabeth winced and extended her arm, narrowly saving her dress from ruin as champagne sloshed over the rim of the glass and dribbled onto the carpet. She took a gulp of the fizzing liquid and then hurried after her aunt and uncle, who were headed for one of the Kennedy Center’s smaller theaters.

With a sigh of relief, she joined the Gardiners just inside the theater doors. A dance band occupied the stage, playing “Mood Indigo.” The seats had been removed, making room for a dance floor that was filled with couples swaying to the music.

Georgiana materialized beside Elizabeth. “I hope it was worth coming in here,” she said. “I nearly got crushed on my way down the hall.”

“I didn’t know you were coming with us,” Elizabeth said.

Georgiana shrugged. “I thought I’d check it out.” She glanced at the band and snickered. “Old people’s music.”

Madeline smiled. “Supposedly there’s a band upstairs playing more up-to-date selections.”

“Probably disco or something lame like that.” Georgiana rolled her eyes.

“Poor Georgiana,” Edward said jovially. “Face it; you’re stuck with a bunch of old fogeys.”

“I didn’t mean that you’re old …”

“It’s okay.” Madeline patted Georgiana’s arm. “We’re about three times your age; I know we seem ancient to you.”

“Well, Grandma, what do you say to a dance?” Edward asked. “Think you can still handle kicking up your heels?”

“I think I can manage it.” Madeline placed her hand in his and smiled at Elizabeth and Georgiana. “Excuse us.”

“They’re really nice,” Georgiana said softly.

“Yes, they are,” Elizabeth answered. “And they like you a lot, too.”

After a brief silence, Georgiana sighed. “How much longer do you think Will is going to have to talk to those reporters?”

“I don’t know.” Not long before coming into the theater, Elizabeth had fought her way across the Grand Foyer to the roped-off press area, where most of the performers were cornered. Talking to William had been impossible, but his eyes had pleaded for rescue. “He looked miserable.”

“Yeah. He doesn’t like reporters, and he hates having his picture taken. He says he’s always blind for hours afterwards from the flashes going off.”

“He ought to be finished soon. Do you know where your grandmother is?”

“I think she’s still talking to the Governor.”

“The Governor of what?”

Georgiana shrugged. “New York, I guess.”

Elizabeth suppressed a smile at the girl’s offhand air.

A smooth, masculine voice spoke in Elizabeth’s ear. “Well, hello. I was hoping I’d find you.”

She turned and saw the man from that afternoon’s rehearsal. “Hi,” she said. “How did things go backstage?”

“So well that we were getting nervous. With all those performers and the live TV broadcast, something had to go wrong. At the least, we expected to have to chase a streaker up the aisle.”

Georgiana let out a tiny giggle, and the man smiled at her. “That would have been more interesting than parts of the concert, right?”

“I guess.”

He turned back to Elizabeth. “You are an absolute knockout, by the way.”

She might have been embarrassed, especially with Georgiana as a witness, but he offered the compliment in perfect pitch: genuine appreciation without even a whiff of anything improper. “Thank you, kind sir,” she replied. “It’s fun to dress up, isn’t it?”

“It is, though my tux has seen better days, and I can’t afford a new one on a government salary.” He flashed a bright smile. “But there’s more to life than clothes.”

“Exactly.” Elizabeth nodded emphatically. She felt immediately hypocritical when her hand rose up to touch the cool, polished stones in her diamond necklace.

“And where is the elusive fiancé tonight? Lurking in the organ bay, lest we see his horribly disfigured face?”

Elizabeth, noting Georgiana’s frown, explained. “He saw me in the concert hall, and he tried to guess who my fiancé was. He never did figure it out, but it was fun watching him try.” She still preferred not to offer a name, hoping to have a chance to explore—and neutralize—his animosity toward William. She doubted he would speak with candor if he knew the truth.

“But I bet you’ll tell me,” he said, raising his eyebrows at Georgiana. “Won’t you?”

Georgiana eyed him coolly, lifting her chin in an uncanny imitation of Rose. “I don’t think so.”

“Good for you, Georgie,” Elizabeth stage-whispered, flicking a teasing glance at the man.

“Your name is Georgie?” he asked. “What a coincidence. I’m George.”

“Uh huh.” Georgiana was clearly unimpressed.

“Do you know the old song?” He sang softly, “‘Hey, there, Georgy Girl.’”

Georgiana stared at him as though he had grown antlers. “Yes,” she said, stretching the word into a two-syllable indictment of his idiocy. “My cousin used to always sing that, until finally my aunt made him stop because he was driving me crazy.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to threaten your sanity.” He spoke contritely, but he winked at Elizabeth.

Madeline and Edward returned, and Edward extended his hand to Georgiana. “What do you say, Georgie? How about a dance with a member of the geriatric set?”

Georgiana hesitated briefly, inspecting the band with a pained expression, but then she nodded.

“Excuse us,” Edward said, and he ushered her to the dance floor.

After a brief pause, Madeline smiled at George. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Madeline Gardiner.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “Aunt Maddie, this is George …” She winced and gave him an apologetic smile.

“Wickham,” he said smoothly. “Pleased to meet you, Madeline.” He glanced at Elizabeth. “Now, do I get to know your name too, or are we going to play another guessing game?”

She smiled and extended her hand. “Elizabeth Bennet.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Elizabeth.”

“I’m sorry,” Madeline said. “I saw you two standing together and assumed you’d already met.”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” he remarked genially. “Actually, I bothered your niece for a while during the rehearsal this afternoon, but we never got around to exchanging names.” He eyed Elizabeth, one eyebrow raised. “As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that you promised me a dance.”

Elizabeth shook her head, glad for a ready excuse. “I can’t leave Aunt Maddie standing here alone.”

champagne“Don’t be silly,” Madeline said. “I’ll be fine. In fact, I think I’ll have some champagne.” She signaled a circling waiter with a tray of glasses.

“Well …” Elizabeth considered refusing, but she still hoped to repair William’s reputation within the NEA, or at least with George Wickham. “All right. One dance, and then I need to find my fiancé.”

“It’s a deal.” He winked at Madeline. “See you later, Aunt Maddie.”

He led Elizabeth to the floor, joining the couples already dancing to “Mack the Knife.” To Elizabeth’s surprise, Georgiana looked comfortable dancing to the decades-old pop standard. Then she remembered William’s stories of ballroom dancing classes, a rite of passage for children in his social circle.

George Wickham turned out to be an excellent dancer. To her great relief, he maintained a courteous distance, eliminating any need to fend him off.

“How long have you been with the NEA?” she asked.

“About five years.”

“Have you always lived in Washington?”

“No. I came here from New York.”

“I’ve lived in New York, too. Where did you live?”

“Upper East Side, for a while. But then …” He stared over her shoulder, his expression grim.

“Then?”

He shrugged. “I had some bad luck and I had to move to Brooklyn.”

His shuttered expression made it clear that he didn’t want to pursue the subject. She took the hint. “So are you at the NEA because you’re interested in the arts? Or did you transfer from some other government agency?”

“I wanted to be a concert pianist.”

“Really?”

“My mother took me to see Van Cliburn not long after he won the Tchaikovsky Competition. I watched him on stage, soaking up the standing ovation like he was king of the world, and I knew that was what I wanted. For a while I thought it might happen, too. I’ll never forget how excited I was the day I got into Juilliard.”

She performed a quick mental calculation. Even with William’s early entry into Juilliard, Wickham would have graduated long before William’s arrival. She doubted their paths had crossed at school. “Then what happened?”

“Harsh reality descended. Too many pianists, too few opportunities. I tried to make a go of it for a while, entering competitions to establish myself and playing in piano bars to pay the rent, but finally I had to admit that I was never going to be famous.”

“It’s hard. There are so many people competing for a few top spots.” It was the same in musical theater.

He nodded, and they shared a sad smile. “Eventually I went into fund raising for the arts. I thought, if I couldn’t have a musical career myself, at least I could help someone else.”

“I feel the same way. I used to dream about being a Broadway star, but now I teach music. I love helping young people to develop their talent.”

“You see? I knew, the minute I met you, that we had something in common.”

When the song ended, Elizabeth smiled at him and glanced toward the door, preparing to head that way.

“No, please, don’t go yet,” he said.

“I said one dance.”

“The song was almost over by the time we got out here. Half a dance doesn’t count. And you are such a wonderful dancer.” He tossed a wheedling smile at her. “Come on, Elizabeth. One more dance.”

She was tempted to agree; she still hadn’t probed his feelings about William. When she heard the energetic opening strains of “In the Mood,” she nodded. “Okay. One more dance.”

“Excellent.” His grin widened until she couldn’t help but return his smile.

“Can I ask about something you said this afternoon?” she asked. It was going to be harder to talk now; he was leading her through a series of exuberant dance moves. Off to one side, she saw the Gardiners jitterbugging their way across the floor.

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Her shawl threatened to fly away. She secured it around her arms as best she could, wishing she had checked it along with her coat. “You said you didn’t like William Darcy. I’ve been wondering why not.”

“Aha.” He smirked at her just as he spun her away from him and back again. “Looking for some hot gossip to share with your fiancé?”

She didn’t want to lie, but she also didn’t want to reveal the truth … not yet, anyway. “It’s just that from what I’ve heard, he seems like a good person. A little reserved, maybe, but that’s not a crime.”

He grimaced. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me.”

“Don’t tell you what?”

“You’re part of his army of fans, aren’t you? Just can’t get enough of those soulful brown eyes.”

“It’s not about his eyes.” In answer to his skeptical smirk, she continued. “All right, it’s not just about his eyes. There are plenty of other reasons to admire him.”

“Name one.” He twirled her away from him, and then pulled her back.

Again, she had to wrestle her shawl back into control. “His foundation. He does a lot to help young artists, and we were just talking about how important that is.”

He snorted. “Funny you should mention that. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but people don’t know the truth about William Darcy. If they did, he wouldn’t be out there shaking hands with the President.”

Elizabeth stopped dancing and pulled away from him. “What are you talking about?” She wanted to stay calm in order to draw him out, but his increasingly snide comments about William were threatening her self-control.

“Mr. ‘Classical Sex Symbol,’ or whatever that idiotic magazine called him, has no scruples about destroying other people’s lives when it suits his purposes.”

“What?” Her hand closed into a fist—a fist that trembled with the urge to land a right hook on his jaw.

“I can’t go into it here.” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “If you really want to know the whole sordid tale, let’s find a quiet corner somewhere.”

“I don’t want to hear it. You’re probably just jealous because he’s living the life you wanted to have.” She yanked the shawl around her shoulders. “He was one of the stars tonight, while you worked backstage. He’s out there being interviewed and photographed, while you—”

“While I’m in here dancing with you. As far as I’m concerned, that makes me the lucky one.” He stepped toward her, extending his hand.

But his charm couldn’t placate her now. “I don’t dance with men who are into character assassination.”

“Boy, was I ever right. You’re a huge fan of his. Either that, or—”

“Excuse me. I need to find Georgiana.” His patronizing tone infuriated her.

“Georgiana?” His eyes locked on hers, the pupils huge. “Then ‘Georgy’ isn’t short for Georgia or Georgette?”

“What difference does that make?”

“I thought she was your sister. She’s not, is she?”

“No, she’s my fiancé’s sister.”

He shook his head and muttered, “Of course. I should have realized.” His eyes dropped to her neck. “And those aren’t rhinestones. They’re the real thing.”

“That’s none of your business. Excuse me.”

He grabbed her arm. “Why didn’t you tell me that you’re engaged to William Darcy?”

“Let go of me.” She wrenched her arm away. “I don’t like you badmouthing him behind his back.”

“At least give me a chance to explain.”

“I’m not interested in anything you have to say. Goodbye.”

Elizabeth whirled and stalked off, damaging the impact of her exit by stumbling over the hem of her dress. She scanned the room for Georgiana but couldn’t locate her, so she continued into the foyer. It seemed noisier than ever, perhaps the cumulative effect of the cartons of empty champagne bottles in the arms of three passing waiters.

Kennedy Center New Year's EveShe grabbed a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray, emptied half of it in a quick gulp, shuddered at the bone-dry taste, and then struggled through the crowd toward the press area. But it was empty; William had been released from captivity at last. She longed to find him, to glue herself to his side for the rest of the evening. And later, when they were alone, she would ask him if he had ever known a man named George Wickham.

She wove her way down the length of the foyer, but found not one familiar face. How could she be unable to locate even one of the seven people in her group? She had left the Gardiners on the dance floor, but perhaps the others were together somewhere. Then her eyes landed on the terrace doors. She could see small clumps of people scattered about in the dim light. William would like it out there: fewer people and less noise, despite the chilly, raw weather. But shouldn’t he be looking for her? Had he entered the theater without her knowledge, seen her dancing with another man, and stomped off in a huff?

Kennedy Center fountainA search of the terrace from end to end produced no William, no Darcys, not even a Fitzwilliam. She turned back toward the doors and nearly collided with George Wickham.

“There you are,” he said. In the cold air, his breath produced a small vapor trail.

“Leave me alone,” she snapped.

“I need to talk to you.”

“I told you, I’m not interested in anything you have to say.”

“I have to talk to you.” He sighed and shook his head. “You can’t tell him that you saw me.”

“I can do whatever I want.” She stepped sideways, intending to walk around Wickham, but he blocked her path.

“All I’m asking is that you listen to my story. After that, if you still think you need to tell him about me, I won’t try to stop you.”

“And just how do you plan to stop me if I refuse to listen?” She planted her hands on her hips.

He gave her a rueful nod. “Fair enough. You’re in charge here, so I’ll just throw myself on your mercy. All I’m asking for is a few minutes of your time. Please, Elizabeth, let me explain. Don’t you deserve to know what sort of man you’re thinking of marrying?”

Georgetown in the mistLest he see any hint of curiosity on her face, she turned her back and faced the river, clutching the cold iron railing. Heavy mist hung in the air, blurring the view of brightly-lit Georgetown into a living impressionist painting. A boat drifted past, its motor rumbling lazily as its searchlight strafed the river banks. “All right. I’m listening.”

“I never imagined that you could be somehow connected to him. You’re not the sort of woman I expected him to marry.”

“Why not?” She whirled to face him, glowering, her arms crossed over her chest in a gesture that was part annoyance, part a futile attempt to stay warm.

“You’re too good for him.” Wickham reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a pack of cigarettes. “May I?” When she didn’t object, he pulled a gold lighter from his pocket and lit a cigarette. “When I saw you come dashing down the escalator with Georgiana, both of you giggling like mad …” He shook his head. “Seriously, Elizabeth, are you sure you want to marry into that family?”

“I’m absolutely sure, and I can’t see why it’s any of your business.”

“Because his mother meant a great deal to me, and I saw what living in that house did to her. They’ll crush your spirit. It’s what they do to women like you.”

Elizabeth wrapped the ends of her shawl around her hands. “You knew Anna?”

“Yes.” He paused, taking another long pull on the cigarette. “I met her almost twenty years ago. I was playing with a small chamber orchestra in Hartford, and I ended up on the committee that wrote grant requests. The Darcy foundation was only a few years old at the time. Did you know that Anna started it?”

“With Rose Darcy.”

“No, it was all Anna’s doing. She approved our grant request, and we met because of that. There was a spark between us right from the start. She came to a concert, and we talked at the reception afterwards. You can’t imagine how lonely she was. She needed a friend, and at first that’s all it was.”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she saw the intersection with the story William had told her in Barbados. “Let me guess. You two got closer, and after a while she hired you to work with her at the foundation.”

He looked surprised, even flattered. “So the Crown Prince has talked about me?”

“Not by name.” She stared at him, and a shiver ran up her spine that had nothing to do with the damp air wafting across her shoulders. The man standing in front of her had been driving the car in which Anna had died, that night in the Hamptons. He had also been Anna’s lover. His interest in Georgiana’s name made entirely too much sense.

“Cold?” He shrugged off his tuxedo jacket and extended it to her.

“No, thank you,” she answered with her best imitation of Rose’s glacial disdain. “I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself.” He slipped the jacket on again. “I’m surprised Darcy mentioned me. He hates me. He always hated me, right from the start. He was obsessed with his mother, and insanely jealous of anyone who stole the smallest morsel of her attention away from him. Even at that age, he had to be the center of everyone’s universe. It was the old woman’s fault; she taught him that the world revolved around him. And of course everyone fawned over the little musical prodigy. Not so little by the time I knew him. He was about thirteen when I joined the foundation.”

William had described his close relationship with Anna, but in his story she had been the possessive one. Wickham’s description of Rose, though, wasn’t far from Elizabeth’s own views. “So you and Anna …?” She couldn’t bring herself to frame the question.

He nodded. “She was a fascinating woman in her prime, and I was completely dazzled.”

“And you didn’t let the small technicality that she was married bother you?”

He snorted. “Her marriage to that miserable bastard was over long before I met her, in everything but the legal sense. She told me I was the first man she’d gotten involved with since he left her, and I’m sure it was true.”

She could barely restrain herself from asking about Georgiana’s parentage, but a public place—even a relatively quiet one—was no place to raise such a dangerous subject. “So your grievance against William is that he was self-absorbed at the age of thirteen?” She reached up to touch her diamond necklace. “Gee, I’m overcome with pity.”

“I’m only getting started,” he shot back. “The Crown Prince found all sorts of ways to interfere. For example, he saw us together once, in her office. We were kissing, and he walked in. He ran off and told the old woman, who hadn’t known about us before. She and Anna had a terrible argument that night.”

Elizabeth didn’t believe him. Even as an adult, William hadn’t discussed his mother’s affair with Rose; it seemed inconceivable that he would have done so as a teenager. But she decided to argue from a different perspective. “I can’t say that I blame him. I’m sure it upset him, finding his mother—his married mother—with another man.”

“I think he mostly saw an opportunity to get rid of me. And eventually he succeeded. I suppose you’ve heard that Anna died in a car accident not long after Georgiana was born?”

“In a car you were driving.” She hadn’t intended for it to sound so harsh.

Wickham nodded sadly. “Darcy blames me, of course, but it wasn’t my fault. The other driver had been drinking, and lost control of his car.” He paused, shook his head, and then continued. “Sometimes I think, if I’d just reacted a little faster, or if I’d convinced her to stay a little later at the party…”

The sentiment sounded heartfelt, but she saw him watching her carefully as he spoke, as though gauging her reaction. She didn’t comment.

He continued. “No one knew how much she meant to me. She would have wanted me to stay on at the foundation, to continue the work we started together. But the old woman fired me the day of Anna’s funeral. She said she wanted to run things herself for a while, but I know it was really to placate the Crown Prince.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Elizabeth couldn’t stay outside much longer. Her arms were beginning to tremble from the cold, and soon the damp air would incite her hair to rebel and start frizzing. “Regardless of the state of Anna’s marriage, you were helping her to cheat on her husband. You remember him, right? Mrs. Darcy’s son? Of course you got fired. Why would you think it had anything to do with William?”

“You’d think so too, if you’d seen the look on his face as he watched from across the room. It was the first time I’d ever seen him smile, and the sheer malevolence was almost frightening.”

William had wonderfully warm smiles in his repertoire, and sarcastic ones, and several lustful ones, but an evil smile? No. Wickham was either inventing or exaggerating to the point of absurdity. “So you lost your job at the Darcy foundation, and for some bizarre reason you blame William instead of yourself.”

“You’d blame him too, if you could see things objectively.” He brought his cigarette to his lips, and then exhaling a long stream of smoke. “Then I moved to Chicago. I was damaged goods after being fired by the Darcys, and I couldn’t find work in any of the New York-based arts foundations. It took several years, but I rebuilt my reputation, and eventually I found a job in New York. Things were finally going well for me, apparently too well to suit Darcy. He trumped up some charges against me, said I’d cooked the books of the Darcy foundation when I worked there, that I’d stolen money.”

William hadn’t told her about this. But it seemed unlikely that Wickham would invent such an accusation, since it carried with it the possibility of guilt. “Did you do it?”

“Of course not.” He flung his cigarette over the terrace railing as though tossing the idea aside. “I would never have desecrated Anna’s memory that way. I loved her.”

She eyed him in non-committal silence, though his indignation seemed genuine.

“If you need proof, consider this. As much as William hated me, he would have loved to see me in jail. But he never filed charges. Why not? Obviously, because he invented the whole thing. So instead he spread his lies to his colleagues. Those old-money types are like sheep. Where one goes, the others follow.”

“After that, I assume you were damaged goods again.”

“Worse. A pariah. My employer found a flimsy excuse to fire me, and no one else would even interview me. Not the foundations in New York, or Philadelphia, or Chicago. Not even LA. Darcy spread the word out there through a friend of his.”

Charles Bingley, no doubt. “What did you do?”

“Whatever I could. I taught piano lessons and went back to playing piano bars. I worked as a rehearsal accompanist for a couple of off-Broadway musicals. And I sold ads for Playbill magazine—the one they hand out at concerts and plays. But I forgot, you’re a Broadway girl, so of course you’ve heard of it.”

“Of course.”

“Sometimes friends who aren’t in the business think I said Playboy,” he explained with a humorless grin. “Anyway, I finally found the NEA job, and things are better now. But does it seem fair to you, what Darcy did to me? My career, my life, ruined. All because he couldn’t handle the fact that his mother loved me?”

Elizabeth was surprised to find herself believing parts of the story, with one glaring exception. “William would never have accused you of embezzlement if he hadn’t believed it was true. He’s not like that.”

“He’s exactly like that, to people he considers beneath him. Besides, even if you’re right, what about due process? Shouldn’t I have been innocent until proven guilty? I never had a chance to defend myself, to explain whatever he claimed to have seen. He didn’t want the truth. He just wanted vengeance.” Wickham lit another cigarette, and she saw his hands shaking slightly.

Kennedy Center terraceThe terrace had gradually emptied, until fewer than a dozen people remained outside. The noise inside seemed to have risen to an even more frantic pitch, judging from the sound overflowing the room, forcing its way under the doors and through the walls. “I’m not sure how much of this I believe, but I can see why you don’t want him to know you’re here.”

“So far it hasn’t occurred to him to look for me here in Washington. But if he finds out that I’m working for the NEA—” He shook his head fiercely. “I’m too old to start over again.”

“I understand. You’ve got a good job, and you want to keep it.”

“A good job?” His voice was harsh. “I’m a bottom-dweller in a bureaucratic machine. I’m grateful to be here, but if he hadn’t derailed my career, I’d be running this place, not taking orders from unimaginative bureaucrats with half my ability.”

Elizabeth felt a shred of sympathy. He seemed harmless, with his lofty ambitions lying shattered at his feet. But then she reminded herself of the unreasoning virulence of his hatred for William, and her heart snapped shut. “So you’ve spent the past two days ducking him?”

He nodded. “In fact, when you saw me out here this afternoon, I was staying out of the way until he was situated on stage.” He dropped his cigarette butt and ground it beneath his heel.

“Why didn’t you just tell your boss you had plans and couldn’t be here?”

“We were told in fairly strong terms that we were expected to work the event. Besides …” He sighed. “This used to be my world. Black tie parties, the finest champagne, women draped in diamonds; why should I miss it because of William Darcy?” He raised his eyebrows, and a faint twinkle stole into his eye. “And I’m glad I came. Otherwise, I would have missed my dance with a certain gorgeous brunette.”

His charm was a lethal weapon, one he wielded with great skill, but she was immune now. Whatever else he might be, he had lured Anna into infidelity and might be to blame for her death. He had caused William tremendous pain on both scores.

“So what do you say?” he asked. “Will you help me out, and not blow my cover?”

She hesitated. For his sake she had little concern, but to mention him to William, thus dredging up painful old memories, seemed pointless.

“Please, Elizabeth?” Wickham’s brown eyes practically oozed warmth. “Isn’t it best for all of us if he and I go our separate ways and avoid all the unpleasantness? ‘Live and let live,’ that’s my motto.”

“If you really believed that, you wouldn’t go around saying nasty things about him.”

“Now, hold on. All I did this afternoon was to applaud half-heartedly. You asked me why, and I said I didn’t like William. That was it; no specifics, no lengthy tale of woe. And tonight, you were the one who asked me about him.”

“Well, okay. But I bet I’m not the only person who’s ever heard this story.”

He shook his head. “Ordinarily I don’t talk about this stuff. And if you want me to promise that I won’t—”

“Elizabeth?”

She whirled and her heart plunged as though it had flung itself off a steep cliff. William and Georgiana approached with their similar long-legged strides.

“Lizzy, I’ve been looking everywhere for you—” William’s words halted abruptly. First she saw the dawning of recognition on his face, and then his expression hardened into a mask of repulsion.

“Hello, Darcy,” Wickham said with a degree of calm that Elizabeth suspected he didn’t feel. She certainly didn’t.

“What the hell are you doing here?” William’s voice crackled with menace.

“William, please, don’t.” Elizabeth stepped toward him and tried to take his hand, to relax the fingers that had balled into a fist, but he yanked his arm from her grasp.

“What’s wrong, Will?” Georgiana scanned the others’ faces, her pale brow furrowed. “Do you know George?”

“Yes, he does,” Wickham answered. “Shall I tell her about it, Darcy, or do you want to?”

William’s eyes flared. “Go back inside, Georgiana.”

Few people would have dared to challenge an order issued in that imperious tone, but Georgiana planted her hands on her slender hips. “No. You’re just trying to get rid of me because there’s something you don’t want me to find out.”

“That’s right,” Wickham said. “For example, your cousin wasn’t the first person to sing ‘Georgy Girl’ to you. Your mother was, in that beautiful voice of hers. Ask him how I know that. Ask him—”

“Say one more word, and you will regret it.” William spoke softly, mindful of eavesdroppers, but every word was laced with menace. He grasped Georgiana’s arm and placed his other hand on the small of Elizabeth’s back, propelling them firmly toward the doors to the foyer.

“Goodbye, Elizabeth,” Wickham called after her. “I enjoyed our time together. And it was good to see you again, Georgie.”

Elizabeth winced at the freezing glance William shot in her direction. “Will, I can explain.”

“Later,” he said softly.

“Will, why didn’t you want to talk to George?” Georgiana looked behind her, craning her neck to peer at Wickham. “He knew Mamma. He could tell me about her.”

“That man is a liar, Georgie, and a thief. You shouldn’t believe a word he says. No one should.”

William opened the door and ushered Georgiana and Elizabeth into the chaos in the foyer. The countdown to midnight had begun, and the crowd was chanting, “Seven … six … five … four … three … two … one …”

Balloons at midnightCheers and noisemakers erupted, and “Auld Lang Syne” sounded over the loudspeaker system, piped into the foyer from the improvised ballroom nearby. Balloons cascaded from the ceiling, bouncing off the heads and shoulders of revelers clinking champagne glasses and embracing one another.

William kissed Georgiana’s cheek. “Happy New Year, Georgie.” Then he turned to Elizabeth and kissed her, barely more than a peck on the lips. Righteous indignation welled up inside her. She didn’t intend to let him shut her out for the rest of the night, especially not when she had done nothing wrong. She grasped his arm. “Will—”

“Lizzy, there you are!”

It was the Gardiners, squeezing their way through the crowd. Edward wore a glitter-strewn top hat cocked at a rakish angle. Madeline brandished a noisemaker that couldn’t compete with the din around them.

Stars in the ceiling“Happy New Year!” the pair exclaimed in unison. They embraced Elizabeth and then an embarrassed but obviously pleased Georgiana. Edward shook hands with William, and Madeline planted a kiss on his cheek. “Privilege of a future aunt-in-law,” she said. “Except I got lipstick on you.”

“No problem.” William pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.

“Here, let me get it,” Elizabeth said, reaching for the handkerchief.

“I can do it,” he replied without looking at her.

“Thank goodness William found you in time,” Madeline said. “He’s been looking everywhere. I thought you might still be on the dance floor, but you were gone.”

“She was on the terrace,” Georgiana said eagerly, before Elizabeth could interject a comment. “With George, that guy she was dancing with.”

William didn’t reply, but the narrowed stare he directed at Elizabeth required no explanation.

“It was just one dance.” Elizabeth hated the defensive tone in her voice; she had no reason to defend herself. She saw Georgiana purse her lips, not quite suppressing a smug smile.

“Well, of course,” Madeline said, her eyes darting between William and Elizabeth. “It was completely innocent. George was a perfect gentleman, and utterly charming, too.”

William didn’t look at Elizabeth, but his jaw clenched and one eye twitched.

“Would anyone like some more champagne?” Edward asked, signaling an approaching waiter.

“Absolutely,” Elizabeth said.

“No thank you,” William replied in a chilly tone. “I’ve had quite enough.”

Elizabeth looked down to find herself twisting the end of her shawl into a slender cord. She released it and tried to smooth out the wrinkles. Happy New Year, indeed.

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1 “Rhapsody in Blue” from Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, © 1990, Sony Music Entertainment. Originally recorded 1959. Listen to a sample on iTunes.