“Anne, I’m sorry I’m late!” Elizabeth slid into the booth across from Anne de Bourgh. She shrugged off her soggy raincoat and deposited her even soggier umbrella on the floor. Thank goodness the restaurant was warm. She had stepped into a deep puddle on her way across the street and her feet were soaked. San Francisco received more rain in the winter than at any other time of the year, but rarely did a mid-January day combine chilly temperatures, heavy showers, and swirling wind.

“I just got here myself,” Anne replied. “Traffic is such a mess with this terrible weather.”

“Jane’s going to be a little late too. She has an emergency meeting with a client.” Elizabeth slipped off her shoes under the table, hoping her feet would dry faster that way.

“That sounds serious.”

“She couldn’t tell me the specifics, of course, but a lot of times emergency meetings involve spousal abuse situations.”

“That’s terrible.” Anne sighed. “I so admire the way she helps people. I look at you and Jane and I feel so useless.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Jane rescues women from abusive husbands, and you open up the world of music to kids. And what do I do? I develop spreadsheets, send e-mails, and shuffle paper.”

“You’re helping to run a conservatory where aspiring musicians are trained. That’s hardly being useless.”

“If I left there, nothing would change.” Anne’s eyes dropped to the wood veneer tabletop and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “In fact, I’m thinking of leaving.”

“Really?” Elizabeth didn’t need to ask if Anne had discussed the idea with her mother. “What would you do instead?”

“You’ll probably think it’s silly,” Anne said reluctantly, her eyes still averted.

“I bet I won’t.”

Anne pulled a packet of artificial sweetener from a container on the table and ran a finger along its edges. “I’ve always wanted to get a Ph.D. in math.”

“I didn’t know you were a math whiz.” Math had been one of Elizabeth’s best subjects in high school, but she hadn’t taken any in college.

“I majored in math at Stanford.” Anne looked up, a surprising degree of animation in her pale blue eyes. “I was accepted into the Ph.D. program back then, but Mother wanted me to get an MBA so I could help with the business side of the conservatory.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t want you to get a degree in music.”

“That was the original plan. I was going to be a classical musician, preferably a soloist, or even a conductor like my father. She liked that idea, since there are so few prominent female conductors.”

“I bet. So what happened?”

“Reality intruded. We have a closet full of instruments at home that I never quite learned to play, despite lessons with all the best teachers. By the time I started college, it was evident that I didn’t have a scrap of musical talent.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Elizabeth shot back, grinning. “You sounded pretty good at the karaoke bar last week.”

Anne pressed her palms to her cheeks. “Don’t remind me! I’m so embarrassed about that.” Jane had managed, with great difficulty, to convince Anne to join in a group performance of “We Are Family.”

“Don’t be. That’s the whole point of karaoke, to act silly without anybody thinking you’re certifiably insane.”

Elizabeth ordinarily avoided karaoke bars; the last thing she needed was to listen to tone-deaf amateurs murdering perfectly good songs. But aside from a few truly cringeworthy performances by others in the bar, she had enjoyed the evening out with Jane, Charlotte, and Anne, part of a series of weekly “girls’ nights out” that the foursome had decided to arrange. Tonight’s get-together, though, would involve only three of them. Charlotte had left that morning for New York and her long-awaited interview at Columbia University.

William had been relieved to hear about Charlotte’s trip for reasons of his own. “Richard and I need to go over the contracts for at least half a dozen performances,” he had grumbled into the phone the night before, “but he’s never here anymore. At least he’ll finally be home for a few days.”

“What can I say?” Elizabeth had answered smugly. “He’s in love, even if he won’t admit it.”

“For the hundredth time, yes, you were right about Richard and Charlotte.”

Richard had stayed in San Francisco after his impetuous cross-country dash on New Year’s Eve. He and Charlotte were quick to declare to anyone who would listen that their relationship wasn’t serious, but Elizabeth rarely saw one without the other. He had accompanied Charlotte to New York, using the excuse, “Will has been yammering nonstop about needing to see me. I figured I’d better show my face in Manhattan before his head explodes.”

The waiter arrived with two glasses of ice water. Elizabeth and Anne ordered chips, salsa, and a pitcher of frozen margaritas with three glasses.

“So, back to this business about you being a math genius,” Elizabeth said. “Are you thinking about applying to some Ph.D. programs?”

“I already did, over the holidays.”

“Really? Wow, I had no idea.”

“I didn’t want to say much. I’m sure I won’t get in anywhere. But I mentioned it to Jane, and she encouraged me to try. Roger said the same thing.”

Elizabeth wasn’t surprised. Like a trembling violet, Anne had begun to bloom under the warm light of Jane’s encouragement. “Where did you apply?”

“MIT, Harvard, and Princeton.” Anne traced her finger over the beads of moisture clinging to her water glass. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Those are three of the best programs in the country, and they’ll never accept me. But Jane said I ought to aim high. Two of my Stanford professors said so too, when I asked for references. They still remembered me.”

Elizabeth couldn’t think of more convincing proof of Anne’s talent. Certainly nothing else about her was memorable. “Well, then, you should listen to them. And speaking of Stanford, why didn’t you apply there?”

Anne heaved a sigh. “I thought about it. Stanford’s program is just as good as Harvard’s or Princeton’s, and I already know some of the faculty. They practically promised me they’d accept me.” She stared into her glass. “But I need to get away. I love my mother, but sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe. Like she uses up all the oxygen in the room.” She looked up at Elizabeth, a pleading expression in her eyes. “Does that make sense?”

Anyone would feel that way with Catherine de Bourgh as a mother. For that matter, anyone who had ever ridden in an elevator with Catherine would feel that way, but Elizabeth thought it better to answer in general terms. “I think we all need to go out on our own eventually, or we get stuck in childhood mode.” She thought involuntarily of William and the New York townhouse.

“Maybe so, but I’m an extreme case. I still haven’t told Mother about Roger, and she doesn’t know that I’m friends with you and Jane. I’m almost thirty years old, and I’m afraid to look my mother in the eye and tell her that I’m having dinner with friends. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Elizabeth swallowed the sharp criticism of Catherine that practically leapt from her tongue. “Your mother’s got definite ideas about how you should do things. It’s no wonder you don’t want to challenge her head on. She intimidates a lot of people.”

“Not you. You’ve stood up to her more than once.”

“It’s easier for me. She’s not my mother.”

“You would have been a better daughter for her. I’m afraid of my own shadow, I’m hopeless as a musician, and …” Anne bit her lip and fell silent.

And William is marrying me, not you. Elizabeth had heard stories from her former colleagues at the conservatory about Catherine’s bitter diatribes, alternating between savage attacks on Elizabeth and dire predictions of the marriage’s quick demise—if the wedding happened at all. Elizabeth knew without being told that Anne had to swallow daily doses of her mother’s bile.

Mexican road signElizabeth considered rebutting Anne’s remark, but she wasn’t sure what she could say. Instead, she called attention to the eclectic items hung on the wall above their heads: colorful serapes, maracas, and sepia-toned photographs. Soon they were laughing together at their attempts to pronounce the place names on a series of Mexican road signs.

margaritaTheir drinks and chips arrived. Elizabeth licked her lips as she watched the waiter fill two glasses to the brim. She lifted hers gingerly and sipped the slushy concoction. It was icy cold and perfectly tart, with a powerful kick from the tequila. No refills for me, not on a school night.

“I’m here, finally!” It was Jane, her raincoat covered in droplets, yet every hair was perfectly in place save one damp strand that clung to her cheek. She brushed it away and slid into the booth next to Elizabeth. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

chips and salsa“No problem. We ordered margaritas,” Elizabeth said. “Did everything go okay?”

“As well as could be expected.” Jane’s eyes lacked their usual warm glow. “It’s a terrible situation, but I did my best to help.”

“As you always do,” Elizabeth said, pouring Jane a margarita. “Anne and I were just talking about that.”

Jane shrugged. “I don’t do anywhere near enough. We take so much for granted.” She sighed and forced a smile onto her face. “But I don’t want to bother you with my troubles. Anne, did Lizzy tell you about her trip last weekend?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Anne said. “I meant to ask how it was.”

hotel suite“Wonderful,” Elizabeth sighed. She had met William in Denver, where he had been guest artist with the Colorado Symphony. He had gone to great lengths to make her feel like a princess, from the roses awaiting her in the limo at the airport to the elegant suite at the Brown Palace Hotel. Everyone she had met—the limo driver, the hotel staff, even the symphony intern who escorted her to her seat in the concert hall—seemed to be part of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to pamper her. “If that’s what it’s like to travel with him, I’m going to enjoy it.”

“He must have been so happy to have you there,” Anne said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t tried to convince you to stop working and travel with him full-time.”

Elizabeth flicked an amused glance at Jane before answering. “He tried. We worked out a compromise.”

Anne winced. “I wasn’t suggesting that you should quit working. I know how much you love teaching, and you’re so good at it.”

Elizabeth had begun her temporary job at the private school immediately after her return from Washington. In just two weeks she had fallen in love with the school and with her students, who ranged in age from five to twelve years. The school’s emphasis on performing arts made the music teachers influential members of the staff, in contrast to public school districts where budget cutbacks often forced music teachers to become vagabonds, covering multiple schools in the course of a week or even a day.

Meanwhile, she had made several contacts in New York that might lead to job offers for the fall. Her short-term prospects, though, were bleak. Teaching jobs rarely materialized in early March, and earning a living as a private voice teacher was impractical due to the time it would take to establish herself in such a competitive marketplace.

William had adamantly opposed her alternate plan: to return to her job at the French restaurant. Initially she had resisted, arguing that there was nothing dishonorable about the job. But after some thought and a talk with Jane, she had decided to respect his wishes. As one of New York’s wealthiest bachelors, he was a figure of occaisonal interest in the gossip columns. They would have a field day if they found his fiancée waiting tables downtown.

In one area, though, Elizabeth refused to compromise. Until she and William were married, she would continue to support herself. If only I could figure out how.

The wedding now had a date, a church, and a reception location. Rose had managed, using every ounce of the family’s influence, to secure the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza for a Saturday evening in mid-June. Engagement announcements had appeared in the New York and San Francisco papers, and Mrs. Bennet had already worn out her friends’ good will with her prattle about the future Mrs. Darcy and her elegant New York wedding.

Elizabeth and Jane had spent most of a recent Saturday morning with a bridal consultant at Saks, selecting a dress whose price tag had left Elizabeth gasping for air. But Rose had been emphatic in her instructions: “A wedding of this scale requires a dress to match.”

William had announced that he would pay for Elizabeth’s dress, but at a family dinner the evening before the shopping trip, Elizabeth’s father had called her aside. “Jane said you’re picking out your dress tomorrow,” he had said quietly. “That fiancé of yours hasn’t given me a chance to pick up the tab for anything else, but I’m buying the dress. It’s my one chance to contribute.”

“Thank you, Dad.” Elizabeth had kissed his cheek. “But I would have thought you’d be relieved that William is paying, considering how expensive the wedding is going to be.”

“Oh, trust me, I’m indecently relieved,” Mr. Bennet had replied mildly. “You know the standard offer I made to each of you girls.”

“Five thousand dollars if we’d sneak away and elope, and you’d hold the ladder.”

“But that was a while ago, and with inflation, I thought five thousand might not be enough.” He had removed an envelope from his shirt pocket, pressing it into her hand.

“Thank you, Dad. But—”

He had held up a hand to stop her protests. “Jane told me how much you’d probably have to spend on your dress. You’re marrying New York royalty, and I want you to feel like a queen when you walk down that aisle.”

Elizabeth sighed and flicked away a tear, remembering the watery brightness in her father’s eyes as he said those words. Then she smiled to herself, remembering his next words: “And, by the way, I’m still available to hold a ladder if need be.”

“Lizzy?”

Jane’s voice recalled Elizabeth to the present. Jane and Anne were staring at her with inquiring expressions. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Daydreaming about William?” Jane teased. She glanced at Anne. “She does that a lot.”

“Not this time, believe it or not.”

“Anne was asking me about the wedding plans.” Jane and Charles’s wedding was just over ten days away. “And that reminds me. Are you free tomorrow or Thursday after school? I’ve ordered all the flowers except yours, and the florist needs at least a week’s notice. She’s giving us a big discount, so I want to make sure we cooperate.”

“Let’s go tomorrow,” Elizabeth replied. “I have my night class on Thursday.”

“Oh, I keep forgetting about that. Okay, then, tomorrow it is.”

“You’re taking a night class?” Anne asked.

“Not taking, teaching. It’s an adult ed musical theater class, to earn some extra money. It started last week, and I think it’s going to be fun. In fact, after your karaoke debut, I was thinking of asking the two of you to come to class to demonstrate performance technique.”

“I know what she really means, Anne,” Jane said, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “Sometimes you can learn as much from a bad example as from a good one. Right, Lizzy?”

“In that case,” Elizabeth answered, reaching for her menu, “it’s good we went to the karaoke bar last week. The entire night was highly … educational.”

 

William looked up from his book and cocked his head to one side. There it was again—a halting knock. “Come in,” he said, stabbing the “pause” button on his CD player’s remote control.

The door opened, and Georgiana sidled into the room. “Hi, Will.”

“Hi,” he said, doing a poor job of concealing his surprise. It had been months since she had dropped by his sitting room. “You vanished right after dinner. Was everything okay?”

She shrugged. “I had homework.” She stood in the doorway, shifting from one bare foot to another. Her shoulders slumped as though weighted down by her oversized gray tee shirt, its sleeves covering her hands down to her fingertips. A pair of black and red plaid flannel boxer shorts, also much too large for her, peeked out from beneath the shirt.

“Come in and sit down,” he said, indicating Elizabeth’s chair.

She took his suggestion. “This is really comfortable,” she said, once she had seated herself. “Remember, when I was little, you used to pull the piano seat over for me to sit on?”

He smiled and nodded. “And your feet didn’t touch the floor.”

“Did you and Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert keep on talking about Richard and his girlfriend?”

Richard and Charlotte had returned to San Francisco that afternoon after joining the family for Sunday brunch, an unprecedented event brought about by much wheedling on Eleanor’s part. Tonight’s dinner had been the first opportunity for the Darcys and Fitzwilliams to compare notes.

William shook his head, feigning disapproval. “You know the rules. No using the ‘g’ word.”

She flashed a quick smile. “Richard’s not here, so I’m allowed. Aunt Eleanor sure seems happy that he’s finally going with someone.”

“Aunt Eleanor shouldn’t get her hopes up.”

“That’s what Uncle Robert kept saying. You don’t think they’ll get married?”

“I have trouble imagining Richard ever giving up bachelorhood. But I guess stranger things have happened.”

“Charlotte is funny. She talks a lot like Richard.”

“They’re alike in many ways.”

“Yeah.” She fell silent for a minute. “You and Elizabeth seem really different. From each other, I mean.”

“In some ways, we are. But we complement each other. We’re better, and stronger, together than apart.”

Georgiana studied her fingernails. “You smile more when she’s around.”

“She makes me happy,” he said softly.

A wrinkle creased Georgiana’s pale forehead. She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I expected you to go out there to be with her after New Year’s.”

“I had things to do back here.”

“You stayed because of me, didn’t you? Because of my trial?”

He pondered the question briefly and decided to be honest. “Yes.”

“I thought so.” Her face took on a pinched look. “Gran has spies everywhere, in case I steal a glass of water from the kitchen or something.”

“No, she doesn’t. And besides, I stayed to support you, not to spy on you. I know I neglected you last fall.”

“I don’t need anybody watching over me. I’m not a little girl anymore.” Her mouth tightened in a harsh line.

“I know that. But we used to spend more time together, and I miss you.”

She shrugged. “You said Elizabeth made you happy.”

“So do you.”

“Not lately,” she said, staring at her lap. “I just embarrass you.”

Georgiana’s trial had gone better than William had feared, but not as well as he had hoped. Courtney, with her attorney/father controlling her every word, had doggedly insisted that Georgiana had masterminded the shoplifting incident, pressuring an unwilling Courtney to serve as an accomplice. Since Georgiana had been caught shoplifting once before, the story had seemed credible to the judge. Courtney’s only punishment had been a fine, while Georgiana’s sentence added community service and probation.

According to Sonya, in whom Georgiana had confided one afternoon, losing Courtney’s friendship in such a painful way had been the greatest punishment of all. Georgiana had few friends; the loss of one, especially one she had admired and tried to emulate, was a bitter blow. But as sorry as he felt for his sister, William was grateful that Courtney’s corrosive influence had been eliminated. If only he had listened to Elizabeth’s advice last fall, the whole painful incident might have been avoided.

“You don’t embarrass me,” he said gently. “You made a mistake, one I know you won’t repeat. And you’re doing things to make up for it, like your community service, and paying the fine out of your allowance.” Rose had been emphatic about this latter point, and William, after a conversation with Elizabeth, had agreed. Despite the size of Georgiana’s trust fund, Rose allowed her only a small weekly sum.

“Yeah, I know,” Georgiana said with a heavy sigh. “Not that it matters. It’s not as though I have anything to spend my allowance on anyway, since I’m grounded for the next fifty years.”

Rose had decreed that for the next six months Georgiana was allowed out of the house only for official purposes such as school and music lessons—always driven there and back by Allen—and on occasional excursions with a family member. William, Eleanor, and Robert had entered into a quiet conspiracy to get Georgiana out of the house periodically, taking her to dinner or to a movie. While they agreed that she needed close supervision, they feared that hours spent alone in her room would only exacerbate her moods and her secretive tendencies.

“Want to go out to dinner tomorrow?” he asked. “You can pick the place.”

“I can’t.”

“Are you sure?” He arched an eyebrow. “Gran invited the Van Hoyts over for dinner.”

Georgiana grimaced and made retching noises. She and William grinned at each other. “Really, I can’t,” she said. “I have community service tomorrow, plus I have a history test on Tuesday. And I’ll be late getting home because of all the traffic. I wish Gran would let me take the subway instead of having Allen drive me. It would be faster.”

“That’s out of the question, and you know it,” he said firmly. “But I’m going to talk to your probation officer, or better yet, your lawyer. There must be someplace you could work closer to home.” Georgiana’s assigned community service was with an after-school program in Washington Heights, in the uppermost part of Manhattan.

“You mean, like, a place that helps all the disadvantaged kids who live on Park Avenue?” Her sarcasm made her sound twice her age.

“It’s not funny. I worry about you going way up there.”

“I like it up there. I like helping the kids with their homework, and my supervisor said I could work with the music enrichment program starting tomorrow.” Her eyes widened and she began to speak rapidly. “Oh, that reminds me. I told her that maybe our foundation could give them some money. We can, can’t we?”

“Certainly, if they submit a grant application. In fact, we may already be supporting the program.”

“Really? Can we check the foundation records and find out?”

“Of course. I’ll have Sonya look into it first thing tomorrow.”

The light in her eyes vanished. “Oh. Okay.”

He rose from his chair. “Or if you want, we can go downstairs right now and try to find out for ourselves.”

She nodded and hopped to her feet, smiling again.

“I hope Sonya has a printed list somewhere,” he said as they left the sitting room, “because if it’s on the computer I’ll never find it.”

Georgiana snickered. “You know, I could teach you how to use a computer.”

“I know how,” he retorted. He did—somewhat. “But I don’t know where Sonya keeps the grant files.”

Georgiana led the way downstairs to Sonya’s office. She had begun showing an interest in the foundation after he had explained about George Wickham. William had omitted any mention of Wickham’s personal relationship with their mother, describing him solely as a foundation employee who had embezzled a large sum. She had seemed satisfied with this explanation, to William’s great relief.

In the immediate aftermath of the New Year’s Eve debacle, William had contemplated calling the chairman of the NEA to report Wickham’s history as an embezzler, but Elizabeth had dissuaded him. “He’s in a low-level position,” she had pointed out. “It’s probably easy to embezzle from a small organization when you’re in charge; it would be a lot harder to sneak anything through the bureaucracy of a government agency when you’re a nobody. Besides, let sleeping dogs lie.”

William had misgivings about his decision, but it appeared that Wickham had faded from view again. To cause him to lose his job might provoke him to retaliate. Sleeping dogs, indeed. More like wolves.

He and Georgiana flipped through Sonya’s file cabinet without success, so Georgiana seated herself at Sonya’s desk and booted up the computer. William drummed his fingers on the back of her chair and stared at the Windows startup screen. He wondered, as always, what it could be doing that took so long.

“Elizabeth must be mad at you for spending most of your time here,” Georgiana said.

“Not at all. We talked about it over the holidays, and we agreed that this was best. Besides, I’m going to see her later this week, when I go out for Charles’s wedding.”

“If I were her, I think I’d be mad that my boyfriend didn’t want to be with me. And if it was because of his sister, I’d hate her.”

He chose his words carefully. “Elizabeth understands that you’re important to me. And she doesn’t hate you. She’s looking forward to having you for a sister.” He hesitated. “But she thinks you don’t like her.”

“That’s not true.” Georgiana’s eyes stayed fixed on the monitor.

Before William could press the subject further, Sonya’s PC sprang to life, displaying the Windows desktop. He and Georgiana huddled in front of the monitor, checking various folders related to the foundation, but they were unable to locate the master list of grant awardees. At William’s suggestion, they left Sonya a note asking her to text Georgiana with the information. “That way,” he said, “you’ll have an answer before you go there tomorrow afternoon.”

“Thanks, Will,” Georgiana said as they exited Sonya’s office. She hesitated at the second-floor landing.

“I was thinking of going downstairs for a snack,” he said. “Maybe a piece of the apple tart from brunch. Want to join me?”

She frowned and nibbled her lip, and for a moment he thought she would accept his offer, but then she shook her head. “No, thanks. I have more homework.” She headed slowly upstairs, her bare feet making no sound on the pale marble steps.

apple tart“Good night, Georgie,” he called after her. She didn’t answer, but as she passed through the third-floor landing he saw her glance down at him.

He hadn’t initially wanted a snack; it had been an excuse to keep her downstairs. But his stomach had rumbled to life at the suggestion. He made his way downstairs, hoping Mrs. Reynolds hadn’t taken the rest of the tart upstairs to Allen.

 

William shifted his book-crammed suitcase from one hand to the other and strode from the jetway into the terminal. How long had it been since the last time he had arrived in San Francisco for Charles Bingley’s wedding? Some quick mental arithmetic supplied the answer: slightly more than eight months. Eight months that had profoundly changed his life.

Outside the security area, he looked for Charles. To his delight, he saw Elizabeth hurrying toward him instead. He barely had time to drop his suitcase before she flung her arms around him without a word. He held her tightly, closing his eyes and savoring the feel of her in his arms. “Lizzy,” he whispered.

“Hi.” She reached up to smooth his hair off his forehead and then drew his head down to hers for a kiss.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you till this afternoon.” He thought with a pang of his first sight of the green-eyed girl at the airport, all those months ago.

“I swapped some things around,” she explained. “Traded lunchroom patrol duty, stuff like that. Luckily there’s a lot of teamwork at the school or I could never have worked it out.”

“Then you’re done for the day?”

“I wish! I have to be back by twelve thirty. I have just enough time to deliver you to the house.”

Victorian houseThe trip from the airport to the city was much too brief to suit William. Elizabeth, who treated speed limits as rough guidelines, zipped along Highway 101, weaving in and out of traffic and glancing frequently at her watch. All too soon, she pulled into the driveway of Charles’s Victorian house.

Noting the “For Sale” sign planted on the lawn, William shook his head and sighed. Elizabeth must have guessed the reason for his frustration. “Now, remember,” she said, “you promised you wouldn’t try to give Charles the house as a wedding present again.”

“I know. But it seems ridiculous for them to move back to the condo when—”

“Stop right there.” She jammed the car into park and seized his hand. “You are the most generous man in the world, and it’s one of things I love about you. But when you try to force your generosity on unwilling recipients, people get hurt, yourself included. I don’t need to give you any examples, do I?”

“No,” he mumbled. She was right, of course. But he couldn’t understand why the people he loved found it so difficult to accept his help.

“I know it’s going to drive you crazy, but trust me, it’s for the best. Yes, they love the house, but they’re not going to stay here if it means accepting charity from friends. And neither would you, in their position.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

“Thank you.” She leaned across the car and kissed him. “Have fun with Charles this afternoon.”

“Aren’t you coming in?”

“I can’t. I’ll barely make it back to school on time as it is. But tell Jane I’ll be over right after school, okay? Oh, and by the way, she has her hands full right now getting things set up for toinght, so it would be great if you and Charles could give her some help this afternoon.” She fixed him with a stern but loving glance. “And I’m talking about setting the table or running to the store for ice, not flying in the top caterer on the West coast.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he grumbled.

She kissed him again. “You’re cute when you pout. I’ll see you later.”

He stood at the curb, watching forlornly as her car zoomed around a corner and disappeared from view.

Jane and Charles had evidently been watching for him, because the door opened before he was halfway up the walk. Both greeted him warmly: Charles with one of his bear hugs, and Jane with a kiss on the cheek.

“Did Lizzy head back to school?” Jane asked, glancing out the front door.

William nodded glumly.

“She knew she’d be cutting it close,” Charles said. “In fact, we tracked your flight all morning to make sure it wasn’t delayed. I was standing by, just in case.”

“I’m glad it worked out,” Jane added. “Lizzy wanted so badly to meet you at the airport, even though it meant doing everything but standing on her head to rearrange her schedule.”

Shame flooded William. Seeing Elizabeth at the airport had been an unexpected treat, yet he’d managed to turn it into a disappointment. “She said to tell you that she’d be here right after school.”

“Oh, good. I still have so much to do before tonight.” Jane glanced at her watch. “In fact, I have to get over to Lesley’s.”

“For the last time,” Charles said, “will you please let me come with you? I don’t want you exhausting yourself hauling tables around.” He glanced at William. “Jane is running herself into the ground with all the wedding arrangements, and she insists on doing it all herself. I think she’s trying to out-Martha Martha Stewart.”

“I’m fine, Charles, and I can handle it,” Jane said firmly. “Besides, you can’t just go off and leave William alone all afternoon.”

“I bet Will would be happy to come along and help.”

“Charles Bingley, shame on you! William is our guest, and he hasn’t even had his lunch yet. I can’t believe you’re trying to put him to work.”

William had never heard Jane raise her voice before, which probably explained Charles’s wince. But it was hard to feel any sympathy for Charles. Even at Jane’s current level of stress, she was a purring kitten compared to Elizabeth on an average day. He grinned to himself. That’s my Lizzy. “I’ll be happy to help,” he said. “I can eat later.”

“Don’t be silly,” Jane replied briskly, leading the way into the gleaming, modern kitchen. “There’s soup on the stove, and I made some sandwiches. Charles will show you where everything is. I’m sorry I have to run.” She grabbed her purse and keys.

“Jane—”

“Charles, you’re sweet to worry about me, but I’m fine.” She kissed him and hurried from the kitchen. Charles watched her go, his face contorted into a deep frown. Then he sighed, shook his head, and turned back to William with a weak smile.

The savory aroma rising from the steaming soup pot bumped William’s appetite into the red zone. Charles must have seen him eyeing the pot. “Here,” he said, “let me get you some of that.”

“No, I can do it.” William ladled soup into the bowl sitting beside the stove.

“Okay, then I’ll get us something to drink.” Charles pulled two beers—Anchor Steam, of course—from the refrigerator and joined William at the table. “I thought small weddings were supposed to be more relaxing, but I don’t think that applies when you try to do everything yourself.”

The last time William had consumed a beer, it had been at this same table. “Let’s go over the schedule for the weekend,” he said. “Lizzy has told me about it, but it’s been mixed in with things related to our wedding. I don’t know about you, but I can only handle two minutes of wedding talk before my eyes start glazing over.”

Charles grinned and nodded. “All the endless details that don’t make any difference. Like, what color should the napkins be on the food table? How many varieties of cheese should we serve? Will the aunts expect corsages? You’d think the fate of civilization depended on the answers.”

“Exactly. And I’m getting it from both sides of the continent, because Sonya and my grandmother are involved, too.”

“Yeah, but just wait till the date gets closer. You’ll barely recognize the girl you fell in love with. You’ll think she’s been possessed by an evil spirit. My married buddies all say it happened to them too.”

“But everything goes back to normal afterwards, right?”

“I sure hope so.” Charles pushed back his chair. “Jane made some roast beef sandwiches. Want one?”

“Sounds good.” William picked up his soup spoon. “I’m surprised Jane would be affected. She always seems so calm and capable.”

Charles opened the refrigerator and pulled out a large plate. “I know, and she wasn’t like this last time. But it’s different this time. For a lot of reasons.” He sighed. “And it’s my fault we have to be so careful of the wedding budget.”

“It’s not your fault. It’s just the way things are.” If anyone deserved the blame, it was Mr. Bingley. “Lizzy said the reception is at someone’s house?” That much, he had managed to remember.

“Right.” Charles set the plate on the table and removed the plastic wrap. “A friend of Jane’s from the bar association owns a big place up on Russian Hill. It seemed like such a great idea when she offered the house, but it’s made things harder on Jane. You know, at a hotel or a restaurant there’d be staff to help with things. And Jane is worried sick that she’ll impose on her friend without meaning to, so she’s bending over backwards to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything.”

“Is that where she went just now?”

“Right. She wanted to get things set up as much as possible this afternoon, because we’ve got the dinner tonight.”

“That reminds me. What time is the wedding rehearsal?” William reached for a sandwich.

“No rehearsal.”

“Wasn’t the church available?”

“No church.”

“Oh?”

“The ceremony and the reception are both at Lesley’s house. Jane knows some clergy through her pro bono work, and one of them agreed to marry us at the house.”

It took William a minute to swallow his first bite of the sandwich, piled high with rare roast beef. “But you said there was a rehearsal dinner tonight.”

Charles grinned and leaned back in his chair, cradling his beer bottle in both hands. “No, actually, I didn’t. I think Richard was the one who christened it the rehearse-less dinner. It’s just a relaxed get-together here at the house. Nothing like that three-ring circus last May. But it’s still extra work for Jane, and there doesn’t seem to be much I can do to help.”

William thought of Elizabeth’s request in the car. “There must be something.”

“You heard Jane. I offered, and she said no. That’s the way it’s been. I mean, I helped her with some of the cleaning, and she’s putting me to work on the grill later, but other than that …” He shrugged. “Unless you’re volunteering to do dishes, that is. And I bet those million-dollar hands have never been sullied by dishwater.”

“You’d lose that bet. Though my expertise is more in drying dishes than in washing them.”

“I’m impressed.” Charles gulped his beer. “With Lizzy, not with you. Obviously she has you well trained.”

“Hardly,” William growled, fixing a mocking stare on Charles. “Besides, I’m not the one sitting here drinking beer while his fiancée moves heavy furniture, just because she told him to stay home.”

“Ouch!” Charles clutched his chest in mock agony. “And if Lizzy told you to stay put, you’d ignore her and risk the consequences?”

“Absolutely. I wouldn’t want her wearing herself out with heavy lifting.”

“Amen, brother. Don’t want the little woman doing man’s work.” Charles, who had been eyeing the sandwich plate since bringing it to the table, finally grabbed one. “I feel like we should do something macho right about now. A belching contest, or maybe arm-wrestling?”

William chuckled. “I don’t need to prove my masculinity. I do that every time I stand up to Lizzy.”

Charles chuckled. “Better you than me, my friend. But I guess you can handle her. You have to be the two most stubborn people I know.”

“If that were true …” William paused and then shook his head. “Never mind.”

“No, go ahead.”

“It was nothing.” If that were true, I wouldn’t have taken “no” for an answer when I tried to give you this house. But he had promised Elizabeth not to mention it.

A brief silence fell as they bit into their sandwiches. For the first time, William noticed the sound of cars passing on the street outside, and then the percussive beat of a helicopter overhead. He picked up his untouched beer and then set it down again. While he didn’t want to insult Charles’s favorite brew, in William’s opinion it didn’t go with soup and a sandwich. Of course, In William’s opinion, beer went with few foods. Pretzels and hot dogs … and pizza, if an appropriate wine wasn’t available.

“You know,” Charles said, “you’re right. Let’s finish lunch and go over to Lesley’s house. I bet Jane will be glad to see us. And if not …” Charles raised his eyebrows, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

“And if not, we’ll head over to the penthouse and pick up the Ferrari.” William had revoked Richard’s temporary custody of the car for the duration of his visit.

“See? That’s why we get along so well. Two great minds, one great idea.”

Grinning, William attacked his food with renewed purpose.

 

Elizabeth’s heart surprised her by accelerating as she pulled into the driveway of Jane and Charles’s house for the second time that day. She would have thought that by now the prospect of seeing William wouldn’t set a million pixies to whirling through her stomach. Well, okay, a thousand. Let’s not exaggerate.

Despite her impatience to be with William, she sometimes thought it best that her temporary teaching job had prevented her from relocating to New York in December. At that time, she would have left California with a measure of ambivalence. But as much as she loved San Francisco and her new job, and as much as she would miss Jane, her father, and her friends, she was looking forward to starting her new life. And she knew, with a measure of clarity that astonished her, that she would never regret her choice.

Sooner or later, when their brief intervals together were more than just punctuation marks on interminable pages of time, it might be possible to take each other’s presence for granted. But she hoped that would never happen, that they would always remember how hard they had worked to build the bond that kept growing stronger, even across the miles.

Jane and Charles's houseJane’s pansies, planted in meticulous rows of purple and yellow blossoms along the front walk, smiled up at her as she passed. She found herself smiling back, imagining that they shared her enjoyment of the cool but sunny afternoon. Her nose began to itch, no doubt the result of the sharp green scent of freshly-cut grass that enveloped her. Just as she reached the steps, she let out an explosive sneeze.

Charles and Jane's living roomTo her surprise, no one answered her “Hello!” when she let herself into the house. She called out again, the single word a question this time, and again received no response. Then she heard the distinctive sound of muffled laughter at the rear of the house. She followed the sound through the living room and found the doors to the deck open. The distinctive scent of burning mesquite tickled her still-sensitive nostrils.

She stepped onto the large cedar deck and found Charles hovering over the grill, wielding a pair of tongs. William leaned on the railing, gazing out at the back yard and sipping a glass of white wine. His hair looked more tousled than usual, and a small dark smear sullied one arm of his sweater. The late afternoon sun slanted across his face like a warm golden spotlight, highlighting his aristocratic nose and his strong chin. She didn’t move, didn’t speak; she just inhaled the sight of him.

“There you are.” He reached her in two long-legged strides. Then she was in his arms and his lips were on hers.

At last she reluctantly dislodged herself from his embrace and kissed a grinning Charles on the cheek. “What’s so amusing, almost-brother-in-law?”

“My pal William Darcy, the Prince of Privacy, the Duke of Dignity. If I’d told him five years ago that he’d give a woman that kind of kiss in public …”

“This isn’t public,” William retorted haughtily, grabbing Elizabeth’s hand and pulling her back toward him.

“Maybe not, but once upon a time you wouldn’t have kissed a woman in front of anyone, except maybe on the cheek. Don’t you remember how you used to lecture me about public and semi-public displays of affection?”

“That was different.” William wrapped his arms around Elizabeth from behind. “Every time the jazz group would be playing at a club and we’d take a break, Charles would vanish. We’d usually find him outside the back door plastered against yet another utterly inappropriate woman with whom he’d supposedly fallen in love.”

Elizabeth winced. “An image designed to warm the heart of a future sister-in-law.”

“That was a long time ago,” Charles retorted, shooting an annoyed glance at William. “I was nineteen, with an overactive libido and an underactive brain. Meanwhile, Will spent every band break sitting alone, mentally composing new piano arrangements. He was so intense it was scary.”

“I was … focused back then.”

“What do you mean ‘back then’?” Charles teased.

Elizabeth leaned back against William, her head on his shoulder. He and Charles continued their good-natured banter, but their words receded from her mind. The sun slipped behind the house, leaving the deck in shadows, and she was grateful for his warmth surrounding her. She closed her eyes, her hands clasped with his at her waist, and inhaled slowly. Her nose twitched. Something was different about him besides his unusually disheveled appearance. She identified extra scents blending with Eau de William: a hint of sweat, a dollop of … gasoline? And—

She sneezed, confirming the identity of the final scent: freshly cut grass. As improbable as it seemed, there was only one reasonable explanation. “Did you mow the lawn?”

He nodded, looking supremely proud of himself. “Front and back.”

“Wow. I don’t even need to ask if it was your first time.” She turned to Charles. “How did you get him to do it?”

“The Tom Sawyer method.” Charles closed the lid on the grill. “I made using the lawn mower look like so much fun that he insisted on trying it. But it took him so long to finish that, for all I know, he could have been out there cutting each blade to a precise height with his nail clippers.”

“Excuse me for wanting to make it look perfect,” William retorted, and Elizabeth could tell that his pride was slightly wounded. “I had to learn how to handle edges, and at first I was leaving some long grass between rows.”

“Well, it looks wonderful,” Elizabeth said in a soothing tone, patting the hand at her waist.

“I did my best,” he said with a depth of sincerity that was both comical and touching. “After all, you asked me to help Jane if I could. Charles and I helped her set up for the wedding, and then we came back here. I mowed the lawn while Charles did some chores in the house.”

Elizabeth turned to William and pulled his head down to hers for an enthusiastic kiss. “My hero.”

“Hold on.” Charles pointed the tongs at William. “After all that tough talk about how I should ignore Jane’s instructions, the only reason you wanted to go over there and help was because Lizzy told you to?”

William grinned sheepishly. “It wasn’t the only reason.”

“I was right!” Charles hooted. “Thoroughly whipped.”

Elizabeth felt William squaring his shoulders, no doubt preparing an appropriately haughty retort, but Jane’s arrival pre-empted him. She looked serene and ravishing in a violet blue sheath dress, the silky fabric floating gracefully around her as though stirred by a faint breeze. Elizabeth glanced with envy at the deep vee neckline, which on Jane’s sleek body looked only a tiny bit daring. Jane had always been able to wear anything and look fantastic.

“Private Bennet, reporting for duty,” Elizabeth said. “Whatever you need, just put me to work.”

Jane smiled. “Actually, the guys and I have everything ready. I’m sure I’ll need your help later, but not right now. Why don’t you and William go upstairs and change? The guests are due in about half an hour. Besides, you should come inside; it’s chilly out here.”

Elizabeth led William upstairs to a cheerful guest bedroom at the back of the house.

“Alone at last.” He pulled her into his arms so tightly that it nearly drove the air from her lungs.

“Not that being alone makes that big a difference,” she gasped, gulping in a breath when he loosened his hold. “Charles was right. You’re usually not that demonstrative in front of other people.”

“I knew Charles would understand. Besides, I couldn’t help myself. I got that tiny glimpse of you earlier today to tantalize me, and then I had to wait all afternoon to see you again.”

“I thought the school day would never end.” She pulled reluctantly out of his arms. “I think we’d better change. We don’t have much time, and I assume you’re planning to shower.”

He grasped her shoulders, a wicked glint in his eye. “Half an hour, Jane said. You’re right; that’s not much time. Do you think she’d mind if we were late?” He lowered his head, pressing kisses along her neck. “And I mean very, very late.”

Her skin prickled with heat wherever he touched her. “Yes, I think she’d mind.” He found a particularly sensitive spot, and a shiver coursed through her. “Besides, since when are you late for anything?”

He nibbled her ear and then whispered, “For you, I’m willing to spoil my perfect record.”

Summoning her remaining self-control, she wriggled away and stepped out of reach. “We can’t. The house is going to be full of people, and besides …” Noting his frown, she changed tactics and continued in a wheedling tone. “If you can find a little patience, I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Is that so?” he asked, tipping his head slightly to one side and studying her.

She nodded slowly, her smile as seductive as she could manage. His eyes flashed, their predatory expression making her feel like she wore a red hooded cape and carried a basket of goodies for Grandma.

Too late, she realized that “seductive” might not have been her best choice in that moment, not with over six feet of hot-blooded male strolling toward her with lascivious intent. “The problem,” he murmured, his arms snaking around her waist “is that I don’t think I can wait.”

He lowered his head slowly, and her brain barked out instructions: to step away, to remember that Jane might knock on the door seeking assistance in the kitchen. But her body had other ideas. So did William, who covered her mouth with his in a sultry kiss. A sly, knowing voice in her head assured her that she and William could be discreet, that no one would find out, and that Jane and Charles would understand. She slid her hands up his chest and threaded her arms around his neck, leaning into him. He groaned low in his throat and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss until she felt dizzy.

Then he lifted his head. “I don’t need to tell you how much I want you,” he said, his voice low and husky. “And unless I’m seriously off base, if I carried you over to the bed right now, you wouldn’t say no.”

In lieu of a response, she pressed her lips to the hollow at the base of his throat, where his pulse throbbed.

He tipped her chin up until their eyes met, and then dragged an unsteady breath into his lungs. “But I know you, Lizzy. Afterwards, you’d wonder if Jane and Charles heard us. If we showed up late for the party, you’d be afraid that people would guess the reason. And you might regret what we’d done.”

Slowly, reluctantly, she nodded. Much as she wanted him, the thought of the aftermath chilled her. She could see herself, cheeks flaming as she tried to slink downstairs unnoticed, only to be greeted by Charlotte’s knowing smirk or an off-color quip from Richard.

“I don’t ever want you to regret making love with me.” He bent down and kissed her so tenderly that it brought a lump to her throat. “So I’m going to look for some of that patience you asked me to find.”

“You really are my hero,” she said in a wobbly voice, brushing a finger along the stubbly edge of his jaw.

“I try.” He gusted a loud sigh. “Though I have to admit, it’s not entirely for your sake. I wouldn’t be comfortable either, if I thought people were speculating about what we’d been doing.”

“Especially since we both know Richard would do his speculating out loud.”

“Right. I wasn’t thinking clearly, in my pathetically deprived state. What was it Charles said earlier? Overactive libido, underactive brain?” He kissed her again. “But you know what this means.”

“What?”

“It means that I’m going to spend the entire evening fantasizing about scooping you up, tossing you over my shoulder, and finding someplace where I can ravish you in complete privacy.” He arched one eyebrow. “And as the night wears on, I suspect that privacy will become less of a concern in my scenarios.”

“Poor William. Sometimes that imagination of yours works against you.”

“Tell me about it,” he grumbled, but a wry grin curved his lips. He tightened his arms around her again, and she nestled against him in a warm, comforting hug.

“Okay,” she said at last, raising her head from his shoulder, “we need to get moving.” She began to disentangle herself from his arms.

“Not so fast,” he said. “My heroic sacrifice comes with two strings attached.”

“Oh?”

“First, I’m going to hold you to the promise you made, to make the wait worth my while.”

“Absolutely. My pleasure.”

“Mine too, I hope,” he retorted, smirking. “And second, is there another room where you could change?”

She nodded in sympathy. “Better to have temptation out of reach?”

“Exactly. Hero or not, I’m only human.”

“Wow,” she breathed in a tone of exaggerated awe. “William Darcy admits that he’s human, and here I am without a recording device.”

He swatted her lightly on the rear end and released her. “Get out of here.”

She grabbed her bag and left the room, pausing at the threshold. “You do know how much I love you.”

He nodded. “Even if sometimes you don’t know why.”

“Right this minute, I do.” She opened the door. “I’ll see you downstairs.”