On the morning of Jane and Charles’s wedding, William awoke a few minutes past five. He often awoke early on the first day of a visit to San Francisco, but he had learned not to mind. Few things were more luxurious than wrapping himself around Elizabeth’s soft body and drifting back to sleep.

But this morning, he was alone. He glared up at the ceiling and sighed heavily at the injustice of it all.

The night before, when Elizabeth had asked for his patience, she hadn’t explained just how far it would have to stretch. He had learned the truth after dinner when the female guests collected their coats, preparing to leave for Jane’s bachelorette party. William had brought his suitcase down from the guest room.

“I’m going to put this in your trunk,” he had told Elizabeth. “That way, I won’t have to come back here after the bachelor party; I can just get a cab to your place.”

“But …” Her grimace had spoken volumes. “Charles didn’t tell you the plan?”

Jane, he soon learned, wanted to spend the night before her wedding with Elizabeth. She also wanted to avoid being seen by the groom on the morning of the wedding. As Elizabeth had explained, Jane wasn’t exactly superstitious, but there was no point in tempting fate.

“And, besides, you’re going to be with Charles and the guys this evening, and I’m going to be with Jane, and we’ll all be out late. So we thought it made sense for Jane to stay at the condo with me, and for you to stay here.”

The most maddening part had been his inability to poke a hole in her logic.

“It’s just for one night.” She had smoothed his shirt front, smiling up at him with the soft look that rarely failed to bend him to her will. “After the wedding we’ll have the condo all to ourselves, I promise.”

He had done some harrumphing about breach of promise and the convenient supply of lawyers just down the hall, but in the end he and his suitcase had plodded back to the guest room.

And here I am, awake before dawn. Alone. It wasn’t fair, especially considering his exemplary behavior. He had conscientiously fulfilled his role as the bachelor party’s designated driver, sipping ice water all evening. He had quashed Richard’s racier suggestions—most involving naked women, lap dances, or both—and had suffered his cousin’s derision as a result. He had postponed a long-awaited joyride in his Ferrari in order to be of help to Jane. He had mowed a lawn, for heaven’s sake!

He tried to get back to sleep but finally gave up; it was impossible with this litany of injustice swarming in his head like a colony of indignant bees. He sat up and swung his legs out of bed, hoping a run in the pre-dawn gloom would distract him from his troubles.

An hour later, as he jogged the final block back to the house, the first hints of dawn were glowing on the horizon, adding shades of pink and yellow to the dull orange already tinting the steel gray sky. The air felt like clammy fingers against his face, made all the worse by the damp tendrils of hair glued to his forehead. But at least he was finished with hills for one day. Central Park had nothing to rival the brutal inclines in this city.

At least the hills had served as a worthy target for his frustrations, helping him to achieve a more optimistic frame of mind. He could easily imagine what Elizabeth would say to cajole him out of his bad mood: “Your best friend is getting married, and you will never again have to feel guilty about what happened last May. Besides, you may have started the day alone, but you won’t end it that way.”

Now there was genuine cause for optimism. Elizabeth had promised to make the wait worthwhile, and by his reckoning he was entitled to generous compensation. He let himself into the house, sifting through the tantalizing possibilities.

He showered, dressed, and trotted downstairs for breakfast. Charles’s mother stood in front of the stove, removing a steaming kettle from a burner. The thick, dark scent of strong coffee filled the kitchen. He returned the greeting she offered in her whispery voice.

“Would you like some coffee or tea?” she asked.

“Is the coffee decaf?”

“No, but there’s herbal tea.”

“I’ll have some of that, please.”

“Have a seat and I’ll bring it over.” She reached into the cabinet above her head and withdrew two yellow ceramic mugs. “You boys were out late last night.”

“You heard us come in?”

“My room is next to Charles’s, and he was singing to himself for a while.”

“‘Going to the Chapel’? In falsetto?”

Mrs. Bingley smiled and nodded.

William grinned. “He was doing that in the car, too.”

She set their mugs on the table. “I hope he’s not going to be hung over today.”

“I think he’ll be all right. I made the others stop buying him drinks as early as I could.”

“I don’t suppose that made you popular,” she said with a smile.

“No.” In fact, it had earned him a new nickname. “But yesterday afternoon, Charles made me promise not to let him go overboard.”

“I’m sure he appreciates it, even if he didn’t say so last night. May I fix you some breakfast?”

“Thank you, but I can do it.”

“Please, won’t you let me? I feel useless; the mother of the groom has so little to do.”

William smiled and thanked her. He ordered his usual breakfast and sipped his tea while she glided silently around the kitchen. A few minutes later they sat across from each other, spreading cream cheese on their bagels.

“I had a nice chat with Elizabeth last evening while we were cleaning up the kitchen,” Mrs. Bingley said. “She said the wedding is in June?”

“Yes.”

“I’m happy for you. She seems like a lovely girl.”

“Thank you. She is.”

Mrs. Bingley’s smile widened and she sipped her coffee. “I think it’s wonderful that you and Charles are going to be brothers-in-law. He already thinks of you as his brother. This just makes it official.”

Charles had said almost the same thing last night in an embarrassing yet touching toast to his best man. “It’s been good seeing more of him lately,” William said, “and obviously that’s going to continue.”

“He said you and Elizabeth were the first people he and Jane checked with before they scheduled the wedding.”

“Only because they know how heavily booked my weekends are. I know how much it means to Jane and Charles that you’re here. They weren’t sure if it would be possible.”

“Ronald wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t try to stop me,” she said, and then hesitated before continuing. “He’s different since his surgery.”

“How is his health?”

“He’s making progress, but it’s slow; he has so little energy. I think that’s why he’s quiet and withdrawn.”

It was a phrase that would never have described Charles’s father in the past. “I understand he isn’t back at work yet. I assume that’s on doctor’s orders?”

“The doctor told Ronald a while ago that he could go back part-time, but he insists that he’s not ready. When he first came home from the hospital, I thought we’d have to lock him in the library to keep him away from the office, but it’s been more than two months and he’s only been there two or three times for meetings that Caroline begged him to attend. Poor Caroline; she’s so busy, handling everything for him.”

Busy, and undoubtedly thrilled to be in control. “I understand she’s coming to the wedding.”

“Oh, yes, of course. She would have been at the dinner last night, but she had to represent the company at a charity event back at home. She’s so pleased that Jane and Charles found their way back together, and she’s so sorry that she inadvertently set off that terrible chain reaction last May.”

William bit into his bagel to save himself the need to comment. Caroline’s actions last May had been anything but inadvertent.

A few tentative rays of early sun shone through the window above the sink and painted irregular stripes of light across the counters. Apparently the fog was burning away, a good omen for the day’s weather.

“How is Charles doing?” she asked, after a long silence. “He tells me that everything is fine, but he’s always been one to put on a smile no matter what.”

“I think everything is fine. Everyone is impressed by how well he’s adjusting to all the changes.”

“I know you look out for him. If he needed anything, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t think he needs anything, precisely. But his ambition is to open a jazz club, and it’s going to take him a long time to save enough money.”

Her eyes widened. “Is that why they’re not keeping the house?”

“To raise money for a jazz club?” William frowned. “Is that what he told you?”

“He said that he and Jane don’t need a place this big. But it isn’t all that large, especially not for a family. Can you tell me about the condominium they’re moving into?”

“It’s small. Two bedrooms, one bath. Adequate for two people, I suppose.”

She pressed her lips together. “Is it about money? Are the taxes too high? Because it can’t have anything to do with a mortgage. He paid cash for the house.”

William took refuge in his bagel again, but Mrs. Bingley was studying him closely. “Oh, dear. He didn't tell the truth about that, did he?”

It seemed impossible that Charles’s lies from last spring were still hanging over everyone like a moth-ridden blanket. Mrs. Bingley shook her head slowly, interpreting William’s silence correctly.

“I should have known,” she said sadly. “Ronald was angry about the house. He didn’t want Charles putting down roots in San Francisco. I suppose Charles thought Ronald would handle it better if he didn’t know about the mortgage.”

“I tried to buy the house and give it to them as a wedding present, but Charles refused.”

“Ronald would be proud of Charles for that. I’ll have to tell him.” She gave William a conciliatory smile. “But it was kind of you to offer.”

“Even after he said no, I still intended to buy the house.” He relished the chance to tell the story to a sympathetic audience. “After all, I’d made an offer and he had accepted it in good faith, not knowing I was the buyer. It seemed only right to follow through.”

“Did you think that if you bought it, you’d eventually find a way to give it to him?”

William nodded ruefully, surprised by her insight. “Charles must have guessed what I was thinking, because he put the house back on the market.”

“He and Jane seem to love living here. Do you think—”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs, and then in the hall, halted their conversation. Charles sagged against the doorway, bleary-eyed and unshaven, a rumpled blue bathrobe belted carelessly over his pajamas. “Morning,” he croaked.

Mrs. Bingley jumped to her feet. “Come and sit down, dear. How are you feeling?”

He crossed the room and dropped into a chair. “A little rough around the edges, but it could be worse.” He smiled weakly at William. “Thanks, Will. I know you took a lot of crap from the guys when you wouldn’t let them get me roaring drunk.”

“Would you like coffee or tea?” Mrs. Bingley asked.

“Coffee, please. Lots and lots. In fact, do you think you could fill a bathtub with the stuff?”

“I don’t understand the point of it,” William mused.

“Of coffee?” Charles gave William a crooked grin. “Or baths?”

“Of turning a bachelor party into a drunken orgy. Why would a man want to be hung over for his wedding?” The wedding day seemed intimidating enough without the additional weight of a hangover.

“It’s a last gasp of freedom as a bachelor, a last chance to raise hell with the guys.” Charles arched an eyebrow. “Come to think of it, I’m not surprised you don’t understand.”

William flicked an annoyed glance at Charles in response to his patronizing tone. “I have never pretended to be one of the guys.”

“Thank heaven for that,” Mrs. Bingley interjected in a sympathetic tone as she delivered Charles’s coffee. “Don’t let Charles tease you for being mature and sensible.”

“That’s not quite the way Richard worded it last night,” William grumbled.

Charles lifted his cup and inhaled the steam, his expression beatific. “Oh, yeah, this is what the doctor ordered.” He took a sip and set the cup back on the table. “You’re just different, Will, that’s all. I bet you didn’t even go through the terrible twos.”

William had been ill almost continually as a two-year-old, leading up to his surgery. “I don’t remember.” He pushed back his chair and rose abruptly to his feet. “I’m going to call Lizzy and find out what time we should be at The House.” He had noticed that Jane and Charles seemed to use audible capital letters when they talked about the Russian Hill mansion where the wedding would take place.

“Okay.” Charles rubbed his forehead. “Thanks again for saving me from myself last night.”

“No problem. You can do the same thing for me at my bachelor party.”

“Oh, like you’ll need saving.”

“Richard will be there.”

“Good point.” Charles raised his coffee cup. “Not to worry, Will, You can count on me.”

 

Modern white mansion with lots of windows on Russian HillElizabeth hurried up the walk to the massive white house and flung open the front door. Panic seized her when she saw a handful of guests already milling around in the foyer. She pretended not to notice them; she had no time for idle chit-chat or even a hurried greeting. Rounding a corner at full speed, she slammed into William. Had he not reached out to grasp her shoulders, she might have flown backwards, landing in a heap of embarrassment on the smooth hardwood floor.

“Good morning,” he said, both a smile and a question in his voice.

“Hi,” she gasped.

“You’re not dressed for the wedding.” His eyes swept over her.

She felt self-conscious in her faded jeans, red sweater, and denim jacket. “No wonder you’re rich and famous,” she retorted. “It’s those keen powers of observation. Can’t slip a thing past you.”

He smiled, dimples creasing his cheeks, and shook his head. “No respect, as usual. I only mentioned it because you don’t have much time. The guests are starting to arrive.”

“I know.” She heaved a sigh. “Kitty wanted to help Jane get ready this morning, and unfortunately she brought Lydia with her. We gave Lydia one job, to bring Jane’s shoes. You can guess what happened.”

He chuckled and tucked a few wayward strands of hair behind her ear. “I assume you had to go back and get them.”

“It was my fault for trusting Lydia with anything that wasn’t bolted or glued to her body.”

She moved away from him, preparing to race onward to the back staircase, but he stepped into her path and looped his arms around her waist. “William, I’m in a hurry,” she protested. “As you so cleverly noted, I’m not dressed yet.”

“Don’t I at least get a good morning kiss?”

“Good morning.” She dropped a quick peck on his cheek.

Elizabeth pushed past him and headed for the stairs, but a voice in her head stopped her. Weren’t you saying just yesterday that you didn’t ever want to take him for granted? Acting on impulse, she whirled and grabbed his arm. He grunted in surprise when she dropped the shoebox, flung her arms around his neck, and pulled his head down to hers for a hearty kiss.

“Hi,” she murmured afterwards, her lips still inches from his, their foreheads touching.

His hands slid up from her shoulders to cup her face, and he replied to her kiss with one of his own, gentle and slow and full of aching desire. His lips were as soft and warm as ever, and the little sigh that trilled in the air came from her own throat.

“Hi,” he whispered. “I missed you last night.”

“Same here.” She rubbed noses with him, wishing she could spend the day—the week? the decade?—in his arms. “I’m sorry, but I really do have to go.”

He nodded, his eyes warm with affection, and kissed her once more before releasing her. “I’ll see you later, cara.”

Elizabeth was still smiling when she reached the large, airy bedroom she and Jane were using to dress. The room made a fitting bridal landscape, decorated almost entirely in white and cream, with fleeting touches of black that might have represented the bridegroom’s tuxedo. “Where is everyone?” she asked Kitty, who was preening in front of a full-length mirror.

“Jane’s in the bathroom checking her make-up,” Kitty replied. “She fixed my hair while you were gone. Doesn’t it look fabulous?”

“It looks nice, but you shouldn’t have asked her to do it. She doesn’t need to be taking care of you on her wedding day.” Although Kitty had made great strides toward becoming a responsible adult during her months as Jane’s paralegal, much of that progress had been lost last night, the instant Lydia sauntered into the bachelorette party flicking cigarette ashes onto the floor.

“It’s not like it took her an hour.” Kitty flashed a resentful glance at Elizabeth. “Besides, she’s almost ready.”

“Where’s Lydia?”

“Outside, probably. I’m surprised you didn’t see her. That guy parking cars—you know, the tall one—is really cute.”

“Of course. She’s been here for more than five minutes, so obviously she’s found a guy to chase.” Elizabeth glanced at the clock. “I’m surprised Mom isn’t here yet.”

“Dad called right after you left to get the shoes. Mary’s flight was delayed, but they’re on their way. They should be here any minute.”

“Lizzy, you’re back.”

Elizabeth turned and saw Jane coming through the doorway from the bathroom. She seemed lit by her own soft pastel spotlight. “Oh, Jane.” Elizabeth stared at her in awe. “Just wait till Charles sees you.”

“You don’t think the dress is too much for a simple wedding?”

sleeveless low-cut white satin gown with beading at the waist“Of course not,” Elizabeth answered. “It’s perfect.” The satin sheath draped smoothly over Jane’s slender form, and the cummerbund-style waistline sparkled with delicate beadwork.

“Perfect,” Kitty echoed softly. “Thank goodness you kept it.”

“I’m still going to donate it to that foundation, but I’m so glad I got a chance to wear it first.” Jane flashed a rueful smile. “For lots of reasons, obviously.” She had identified a charity that collected and resold wedding gowns1, but before she could force herself to make the donation, Charles had re-entered her life.

“I wish I’d kept my bridesmaid’s dress,” Elizabeth said. The precarious state of her finances last May had forced her to sell the dress.

“I like the new one better anyway,” Kitty said, pulling Elizabeth’s dress from the closet and fingering its chiffon skirt. “You didn’t wear stuff like this back then.”

“The other dress was nice,” Jane said, “but I agree with Kitty. The new one is gorgeous, and it’s so flattering.”

“I guess you’re right.” While the neckline on the new dress wasn’t low enough to be considered daring, it was far from the high-necked, blousy style behind which Elizabeth had preferred to hide her body in those days.

“Thank you for letting me wear your diamond earrings,” Jane said, nudging her hair back from one ear so the earring showed to best advantage. “They’re beautiful, and they’re my ‘something borrowed.’”

“You know you’re welcome to the necklace, too, right?”

“The earrings are enough, really. You should wear the necklace.”

“I’ll wear it!” Kitty bounced across the room, her hand outstretched.

A sharp knock interrupted Elizabeth’s half-formed retort. She opened the door.

“How’s everything going up here?” It was Charlotte. “Wow, Jane, you look fantastic.”

“Char, you’re wearing a dress!” Elizabeth pretended to stumble backwards, one hand pressed to her chest. “Has anybody checked outside for flying pigs?” The dress was simple, black, and severely tailored, but it was a dress.

“Seriously,” Kitty said. “I didn’t know you had legs.”

“I figured I might get better tips this way,” Charlotte quipped. She and Richard had volunteered to tend bar for the reception.

“It’s because of Richard,” Elizabeth stage-whispered to Jane and Kitty. “He’s a leg man.”

“Indeed he is,” Charlotte said with a smirk, “among other things. But that’s beside the point. You know, Liz, for someone who isn’t even dressed yet, you’ve sure got a lot to say about what I’m wearing.”

“I know, I know. I need to get moving.”

“Well, unless anybody needs help, I’m going to head back downstairs. We have the bar all ready to go, so we can hit the ground running the instant you say, ‘I do.’”

“I’ll come with you,” Kitty said. “I need to find Lydia.”

Charlotte stopped in the doorway. “I almost forgot why I came upstairs. Your parents are here. Your mother is introducing Mary to Mrs. Bingley and the Hursts, but she said to tell you she’d be up in a few minutes.”

Kitty and Charlotte departed, and Elizabeth dressed with blazing speed, interrupted only briefly by an emotionally overwrought but blessedly quick visit from Mrs. Bennet. With five minutes to spare, she sat on the bed and slipped into her high-heeled sandals.

“It’s almost time,” Jane said softly.

Elizabeth finished tussling with the uncooperative strap on one shoe and jumped to her feet. “I’m ready.” Then she took a closer look at Jane, who was staring at herself in the mirror with a dazed expression. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling light-headed again?”

“No, I’m fine.” Jane shook her head slowly, as though second-guessing her answer. “It’s just … it struck me just now. I’ve been dreaming about my wedding since I was a little girl. And this is it.”

“Yes, indeed. But this isn’t precisely the way I remember you describing everything back when you had that huge crush on Bobby Cranston.”

“I can’t believe you remember his name! I was completely into the fairy tale princess look back then. Yards of tulle and lace, and a long veil with a tiara.”

burgundy chiffon gown with spaghetti straps and ruching at the waist“And Pepto Bismol pink for the bridesmaid’s dresses, as I recall. With puffy sleeves and a huge bow at the back.” Elizabeth shuddered, and then smoothed the skirt of her burgundy chiffon dress. Like Jane’s gown, it had a high waist with a cummerbund effect, after which the skirt floated to just below her knees. “Thank goodness you didn’t get married when you were twelve.”

“But that isn’t really what I meant. This is it. I’m going to be married. And in a few months, so are you.” Jane blinked hard and bit her lip. “It feels like something is ending. We’ve always been so close.”

“And we always will be.” Elizabeth wrapped an arm around Jane’s waist. “Nothing is ending. Something new is starting, that’s all. You’ll still have the whole Bennet Brigade on your side: Mom and Dad and Mary and Kitty and me. And Lydia, whether you want her or not.”

Jane giggled and then sniffled.

“But you’ll also have Charles, and a family of your own.”

“A little sooner than we planned.” Jane’s hand dropped to her abdomen. “I wonder if Charles has told William yet?”

“I don’t think so. William didn’t mention it on the phone this morning.”

“Poor Charles. He’s so worried that William will pressure him about the house again.”

“He promised me he wouldn’t.” Elizabeth rubbed a finger over the cool surface of her diamond necklace. “But if he knew he had a niece or nephew on the way … well, you know what I mean.”

“If Charles doesn’t tell him today, I think you should do it. People are finding out. Charlotte figured it out last night when I kept ordering club soda. And once I tell Mom, it won’t be a secret anymore. I don’t want him to hear the news accidentally.”

A little shiver of awe passed through Elizabeth. “Does this all seem kind of surreal? Like if someone pinched you, you might wake up?”

Jane nodded smiled, her eyes swimming with tears. “I love you, Lizzy. And I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Where else would I be, on your wedding day?” Sudden tears stung Elizabeth’s eyes. “I love you, too.”

They enfolded each other in a warm but careful hug, mindful of hair and make-up and freshly pressed dresses. Out in the hallway, a clock chimed half past twelve.

“Time to go,” Elizabeth said.

Jane nodded and dabbed at her nose and eyes with a tissue.

Elizabeth removed Charles’s ring from its box and slid it onto her finger for safekeeping. She handed Jane a simple spray of gardenias and then retrieved her own bouquet of orchids from the florist’s box on the bed. “Okay, Ms. Bennet-Bingley-to-be,” she said. “Let’s go downstairs and get you married.”

 

“Stay where you are. I want to get one more shot of the four of you.”

Jim Pennington moved his tripod slightly and peered at his camera’s LCD screen. William froze a mechanical smile on his face and waited.

“All right, Mr. Pennington,” Elizabeth declaimed in her best Norma Desmond voice. “I’m ready for my close-up.” She peeked across Jane and Charles, sending William a sympathetic smile. Had she read his mind? Could she detect the scent of impatience in bloom? No. She just knows me that well.

“I never knew posing and smiling could be so much work,” Charles muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “But I guess you’re used to being camera fodder, Will.”

“No kidding,” Elizabeth said. “You should have seen the press area on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know how he kept from going blind from all the flashes.”

“My favorite pictures were of the two of you at the dinner,” Jane added. “I was so excited when I saw them online.”

“With the caption, ‘Concert pianist William Darcy and guest,’” Elizabeth retorted. “Didn’t I feel special.”

“Okay,” Jim said, “on the count of three. One, two—”

“We’re here! We’re here! I hope we haven’t kept you waiting.”

Mrs. Bennet raced into the dining room as fast as her heels could carry her, like a motorboat bouncing across choppy water. The three youngest Bennet daughters followed in her wake. “Lydia was outside,” she gasped, pressing her hand to her chest. “I don’t know what she was doing out there, but thank goodness Kitty knew where to find her.”

“I still don’t see what the big deal was.” Lydia planted a hand on one hip and sniffed. “It’s just a picture.”

Mary Bennet, her sallow face twisted in an expression of distaste, spoke through gritted teeth. “The big deal, Lydia, is that we always have to chase after you. You never stop to think about the people you inconvenience.”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Well, excuse me if I don’t spend twenty-four hours a day chained to my computer. Some of us have lives.”

Mr. Bennet stepped into the room. “That would make an excellent epitaph for Lydia, wouldn’t it? ‘She had a life.’ Says it all, really.”

William stifled a snicker behind a quiet cough. The more he saw of Mr. Bennet, the more he appreciated his future father-in-law’s wry sense of humor.

“An epitaph? You mean one of those cartoon character versions of people from those weird games on the Internet?” Lydia wrinkled her nose. “Why would I need one of those?”

Mary’s eyes lifted to the ceiling and she sighed with such force that William half expected her to fly backwards out of the room. “That’s an avatar, Lydia. And just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it weird.”

William had spoken to Mary before the ceremony, and had realized within thirty seconds that he shouldn’t expect to understand a word she said. The polar opposite of Lydia, Mary was rising quickly through the ranks at Microsoft on the strength of her brilliant mind and her single-minded passion for technology.

“Where would you like us to stand?” Mrs. Bennet pulled Kitty forward so hard she stumbled. “It’s so kind of you to take the wedding photos, Jim. You’re so talented, leading Lizzy’s jazz group and taking photos and … um …” Evidently her mouth had outpaced her brain, leaving it unoccupied when Jim’s list of accomplishments ended unexpectedly. She bit her lip but then switched on an ultra-bright smile. “Come over here, Andrew! You and I can stand behind Jane and Charles. Jane, my dear, you look just lovely. But of course, you always do. I knew you’d be the most beautiful bride in the world. Doesn’t she look like an angel, Charles?”

“She certainly does, though I think ‘goddess’ is an even better description.”

William envied Charles’s composure when dealing with Mrs. Bennet. Something about her made William feel as though hives were rising all over his body, prickling and itching and exuding furnace-like heat. Was it possible to be allergic to one’s future mother-in-law?

“Goddess! Oh, my dear boy, how lovely! But it’s true, isn’t it? My sweet, sweet Jane, the most beautiful girl in the world! I’ve never seen anyone half as lovely, not even all those so-called beauty queens. No one can compare to my Jane.”

“I beg to differ,” William huffed, his eyes locked on Elizabeth. She had been studying the polished granite surface of the dining table, but at his words she glanced up and gave him a tiny smile.

“Oh, well, yes, of course,” Mrs. Bennet stammered, “Lizzy is a pretty girl, too, when she puts some effort into her appearance. I didn’t mean to suggest that she wasn’t. I only meant to say that Jane—”

“Fanny,” Mr. Bennet interrupted, “I’d tell you to quit while you’re ahead, but I think ‘ahead’ is in the rear view mirror at this point.”

“Mom,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t think Jim is quite ready for the family. He wanted to get another photo of the four of us.”

“It’s fine.” Jim said. “I probably have enough.”

William shot him a look of desperate gratitude and stepped to one side, scanning the room for the clearest escape path.

“Oh, no, William, you can’t go yet!” Mrs. Bennet reached out as though to grasp his arm. Her hand froze in mid-air, probably in response to the frigid glare that he knew had flashed instinctively into his eyes. “This is going to be a family photo,” she continued, a slight quiver in her voice, “and you’re part of the family now.”

Part of the family. “Strictly speaking, I’m not a family member yet,” he said in as gracious a tone as he could manage. “At the wedding in June, we’ll have plenty of opportunities for family photos.”

“The wedding in June!” Mrs. Bennet pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh, my goodness, I can’t begin to tell you how excited we are! We got our plane tickets last week—did Lizzy tell you? And that nice secretary of yours said she’d take care of hotel reservations. The Four Seasons, I think she said—not the Plaza, which I must say surprised me at first, but since then I’ve heard that it’s just extraordinary! The Four Seasons, I mean, not the Plaza. Though of course I’m sure the Plaza is extraordinary, too.”

She finally paused for a breath, and William turned toward the doorway, but he had underestimated her ability to fill her lungs at lightning speed. “And I got the most beautiful note from your grandmother,” she continued in a headlong rush. “It was so lovely. She said the nicest things! And the beautiful engraved note card! I’ve been showing it to all my friends ever since it arrived!”

“Indeed she has,” Mr. Bennet added cheerfully. “They’ve taken to walking, or running, away as fast as they can when they see her coming.”

“Andrew, don’t be ridiculous. Why would they do that?” Mrs. Bennet brushed her hair off her temple as though flicking away this contrary notion. “My friends love hearing about the wedding plans. It’s like something out of a fairy tale—the ceremony and Lizzy’s dress and the ballroom at the Plaza and the beautiful flowers and the gourmet food.” She paused for another breath.

This time, William leapt into the split-second void before she could continue. “I’ll give Gran your best regards, Mrs. Bennet. I know she’s looking forward to meeting you.” Fortunately he wasn’t Pinocchio and didn’t have to risk leaving the room with a nose the size of the Transamerica Pyramid. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get out of the way so Jim can set up the next shot.” With an affectionate glance at Elizabeth, he strode off as though pursued by demons.

He made a beeline for the bar, where Charlotte and Richard presided over a small but impeccable collection of wines, along with the makings for a selection of simple mixed drinks. And, of course, a generous supply of Anchor Steam beer.

“Finally done in the photo studio? I bet you really need a drink.” With a knowing smirk, Richard pulled a bottle of Macallan 30 from below the bar. “Jane thought we only needed one bottle of scotch, but I couldn’t condone that kind of heresy. Can I pour you a shot, Aunt Wilhelmina?”

“Don’t even start.” William pressed his lips together and gave Richard a dark stare. He’d had enough of the nickname the night before.

“If you insist on putting a damper on bachelor parties by acting like everybody’s fussy old maiden aunt, you have to expect to hear about it. I tried to bring you up right, but obviously I crashed and burned somewhere along the line.” Richard shook his head in mock dismay, his lips twisted in a maddening smirk.

“I’m sorry, William,” Charlotte said. “I understand you led the fight for decorum last night and paid a heavy price.”

“Yes. I committed the unforgivable sin of making sure that Charles would be able to stand unaided at his wedding.”

“I don’t envy you. But if it helps, I guarantee that you’re Jane’s hero. So, tell me, what does a hero drink?”

“I’d like a glass of the Merlot.” He was familiar with the wines, having selected them himself at Jane’s request.

“By the way, you did a great job accompanying Liz,” Charlotte said as Richard uncorked the bottle of wine. “But I guess that stuff is child’s play for you.”

“You’d be surprised,” William said. “I’m used to musicians following my lead, not the other way around. Not that I’m complaining.”

William had assumed that he would accompany Elizabeth on the piano in her long-deferred performance of “Ave Maria.” But to his astonishment and annoyance, she had been reluctant to push Bill Collins, her original accompanist, aside for fear of hurting his feelings. “What about my feelings?” William had grumbled. They had burned cell phone minutes bickering about it until they learned that Collins wouldn’t be at the wedding. Instead, he was trotting along at the end of Catherine de Bourgh’s leash at a conference in New York, clearing the way for William to do the honors without further argument.

Charlotte handed William his glass of wine. He thanked her, ignoring Richard’s “See you later, Auntie,” with glacial indifference.

A young woman Charlotte had introduced earlier as a friend from college bustled past carrying a silver tray piled high with small sandwiches. William followed her to the food table and watched, his stomach rumbling, as she exchanged the tray for another that was nearly empty. She smiled, inspecting William with frank interest, but he ignored her overture and grabbed a plate.

He had initially raised an eyebrow at the news that nothing but finger foods would be served at the reception, but the table seemed liberally stocked. He wandered along, filling his plate to overflowing with interesting canapés, fresh fruit and vegetables, and small pastries, along with the sandwiches just delivered.

Roger Stonefield and Anne de Bourgh approached him, and they chatted while he ate. Anne revealed that she had baked the wedding cake with the help of the de Bourgh housekeeper, a former bakery owner. “Really, she did all the work,” Anne explained with a self-deprecating shrug. “I watched, asked questions, and helped a little. Mother was out of town this week, or I’d have had some explaining to do. She hates it when I spend time in the kitchen.”

Roger took Anne across the room to meet a friend of his, and William mounted a second attack on the food table.

“William, darling! It’s been so long.”

The cloying voice, heavily flavored with artificial sweetener, killed his appetite instantly. “Hello, Caroline,” he said in a monotone, without turning around. Her late arrival at the wedding and their respective obligations in the makeshift photo studio had protected him from her attentions so far, but he had known his luck would run out eventually.

She stepped closer and deposited a heavily perfumed kiss on his cheek, the smell of roses enveloping him like a stifling fog. He could feel the smear of lipstick she had left behind. With a grimace, he set down his plate and reached for his handkerchief. A wave of unease jittered down his spine, annoying him. Why should I be afraid of her?

A moment of reflection answered that question. He feared her in the same way rational people feared tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Hurricane Caroline.

“How have you been, darling? It really has been ages. Nearly three months, isn’t it?”

He shoved his handkerchief into his pocket and glared at her. “Caroline, I’ve told you not to call me ‘darling.’” He might have ignored it, but two “darlings” in ten seconds was more than he could stand.

Unfortunately, the glare worked better when he towered over someone. Caroline, her height matching his with the aid of her shoes, merely gave him a pitying smile. “Now, now, I knew you didn’t mean it. You were just being grumpy. And I see you’re grumpy again today. I hope this doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy with your life.”

He dialed the glare up into the danger zone, but she didn’t seem to notice. It occurred to him that their equal heights weren’t his only problem; the glare also worked better with people who paid at least minimal attention to the feelings of others. “I’m happy with my life, but thank you for your concern,” he said, squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw.

“Oh, I’m so glad. It means so much to me to know that you’re happy.”

He snorted and rolled his eyes.

Her bright red lips pursed in an exaggerated pout. Apparently she did pay attention to others’ feelings when it suited her purposes. “Darling, you’ve cut me to the quick. Certainly you don’t doubt that I want only the best for you.”

“As long as it fits your definition of ‘the best.’”

“Well, of course. We’re exactly alike in that regard. You’ve always tried to steer Charles in the right direction.”

“While you steered him out of the family.”

“Nonsense.” Caroline patted his arm. He tried the sharp stare that had withered Mrs. Bennet earlier, but Caroline’s hand stayed put. “Why would I want to do that? Charles is my brother.”

“Not according to your father. Aren’t you afraid he’ll be angry with you for being here?” William’s question was genuine; he had expected her to skip the wedding rather than risk Ronald Bingley’s wrath.

“I couldn’t possibly snub Charles on his wedding day. I adore him, no matter what you think, and Jane is such a sweet girl. I know they’ll be very happy together.”

“Far away from the family money,” William retorted. “If you’ll excuse me—”

“No, wait.” Caroline grabbed his arm and dropped her supercilious tone. “I think you’ve misunderstood some things, and we need to clear the air.”

This should be interesting. He raised an eyebrow and waited.

“You’re like a brother to me, William. A dear, charming brother.”

“A brother?” He almost spat the word. Roger, who had returned to the table and was scanning the pastry selection, glanced at him quizzically. William grabbed Caroline’s arm and dragged her to a quiet corner. “You expect me to believe that you think of me as a brother.”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“And that’s why you’ve thrown yourself at me at every opportunity for the past five years?”

“My, my. Aren’t we full of ourselves today.” There it was again: that patronizing tone infused with fake cheer that left him grinding his teeth. “Well, of course, you’re not really my brother. And I must admit, as brothers go, you’re very attractive. What is it Charles said once? That horrid cousin of yours calls it the …” She frowned as though searching her memory, but William sensed that she was pausing for dramatic effect. “The William Darcy Magnetic Field? Isn’t that it?”

He rolled his eyes and drained his wine glass in one gulp.

“It’s very apt, you know.” Her hand landed on his sleeve again. The red-lacquered nails reminded him of the bloody talons of a bird of prey. He noted that she wore no rings today. Perhaps her jewelry had gone into hiding, out of view of the government investigators working on her insider trading case. “I imagine it’s a rare woman who doesn’t fall at least a teeny bit under your spell. But surely you know the difference between a mild flirtation and something more.”

“Yes.” He let the word hang in mid-air before he continued. “I do.”

“Oh, good, then we understand each other. Mother had some silly notion that I had serious designs on you, can you believe it?” She shook her head. “She’s not as discerning as you are. But it doesn’t matter, since you and I are on the same page.”

He wasn’t going to let her wave away her misdeeds that easily. “And the reason you interfered with my relationship with Elizabeth is …?”

“My goodness, you’re testy this afternoon. Don’t you know that I was only trying to look out for your best interests, just like you did for Charles where Jane was concerned?”

At this unwelcome reminder, his planned retort stuck in his throat.

“You’ve made your choice,” she continued, “and of course I hope everything will work out for you. But seriously, darling, it’s always been obvious that Elizabeth is not—”

“Should my ears be burning?”

Caroline’s eyes darted to the right, and the muscles around her mouth tightened. “Oh, hello, Elizabeth. How lovely to see you.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” A mischievous glint in her eye, Elizabeth deftly nudged Caroline aside and stepped up to William.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he murmured, bending to kiss Elizabeth’s cheek. In the background, Caroline gusted a petulant sigh.

“Sorry,” she said, lacing her fingers with his. “Jane and I went upstairs for a few minutes after the photos were done. She was feeling a bit light-headed, but she’s better now.”

“I’ve been keeping him company.” Caroline’s bright red lips curved in an angelic smile. “But how nice that you joined us.”

“Yes, isn’t it,” Elizabeth answered, her expression bland. “How have you been, Caroline?”

“Just wonderful. Of course you know I’m running the company for Daddy while he recuperates. Our profits are up fifteen percent since I took over!”

“Congratulations,” Elizabeth said calmly.

Caroline’s modest smile was as genuine as her artificially enhanced cleavage, which lunged in William’s direction when she flipped her glossy hair over her shoulder. “And how are you, Elizabeth? I understand you’re not at the conservatory anymore. What a shame you lost your job.”

“I didn’t lose the job. I quit.”

“I think I heard that you’re teaching little children now?” Caroline said the word “children” as though it tasted foul rolling off her tongue. “What a change that must be!”

“I’m teaching at a private performing arts school in the city, and I love it. But I have to leave the job in about a month to move to New York.”

“Oh, yes. And when is the wedding? I’m sure I must have heard, but, you know, with all the important issues I have to deal with every day, it’s hard to keep track of the little things.”

“It’s the fifteenth of June.”

“Oh, a June wedding. How nice. May I see your ring?

Elizabeth extended her hand. Caroline leaned down in an exaggerated pose that suggested the need for a jeweler’s loop. “Oh, how … sweet.” She straightened up and thrust out her chest. “I hope you’ll be very happy together.” The word “hope” was faintly underlined.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth shot back, and William saw the sparks in her eyes. “I was sorry to hear about your legal problems. Jane told me that sometimes they really throw the book at people who get involved with insider trading. You must be so worried.”

Caroline’s smug mask slipped briefly, but she recovered quickly and answered in a breezy tone. “Not at all. I’m innocent, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said. “Well, if there’s anything William and I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask. For example, if you need a character reference. After everything you’ve done for the two of us, we’d be only too happy to return the favor.”

Only a lifetime of Rose’s training kept William from laughing. It was as perfect a verbal blow as he had ever heard, made even more so by Elizabeth’s bland smile and neutral tone. Caroline, the wind temporarily knocked out of her, merely stared across the room, the muscles around her eyes tight. Her predicament was obvious. If she took offense, as she so clearly wished to do, she would be admitting the maliciousness of her past behavior.

“Oh, look,” Elizabeth said, “there’s Uncle Edward, over by the bar.” She smiled at William. “He and Aunt Maddie are talking about going to Australia, and they want to pick your brain. And I could use a glass of wine.”

“I don’t doubt it. Please excuse us, Caroline.”

William steered Elizabeth away. Caroline called after them, “I’ll talk to you later, darling.”

“What is it about that woman that makes me want to do violence?” Elizabeth snatched a carrot stick as they passed the food table.

“You, my love, were brilliant. Gran would have loved your remark about returning the favor. So polite, yet so menacing.”

“For ten bucks, I would have shoved her smug face into that bowl of hummus.”

William reached for his wallet. “Why didn’t you say something sooner? That’s a bargain at ten times the price.”

She laughed and looped her arm through his. “Come on, darling. Let’s find some actual humans to talk to.”

 

William glanced at his watch, surprised to see that half an hour had passed since his last time check. As often happened, Elizabeth’s ease and confidence at parties had rubbed off on him, at least a little bit, and he was enjoying himself far more than he would have thought possible. But time alone with his fiancée had been in short supply since his arrival yesterday, and his patience was waning.

She intercepted his beseeching look. “If you’ll excuse us,” she said to two college friends of Jane’s during the next lull in the conversation, “I think I need some fresh air.” She smiled up at William. “Want to go outside for a walk?”

Two minutes later they stood on the sidewalk, admiring the house’s exterior. Noting her slight shiver, he removed his jacket and placed it over her bare shoulders.

“This place is amazing, isn’t it?” she asked, her eyes wide with awe.

“And the owner is one of Jane’s Bar Association friends?”

“Right. An entertainment lawyer who married a client. I hear she got the house in the divorce. It sure is a perfect place for a wedding.”

“Yes.” The white walls, high ceilings, and towering Palladian windows lent a contemporary yet spiritual feel to the occasion. But his thoughts weren’t on the house. “I’ve missed you,” he murmured, wrapping his arm around her shoulder.

“I know.” She rested her head on his shoulder and he committed the moment to memory: the crisp, sunny day, the satisfaction of his friend’s happy ending, and above all, the warmth of his future wife’s presence at his side. He sighed happily and drew her into an embrace.

“Will?” It was Charles, sounding apologetic.

William opened his eyes. “Go away, Charles.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt. But Jane and I have to leave for the airport soon, and there’s something I have to tell you first.”

William heaved a sigh, released Elizabeth, and turned his full attention on Charles. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

“No, no, it’s good news. At least, I think so. I just haven’t gotten around to telling you yet, and Jane says—well, anyway, I don’t want to leave on my honeymoon without telling you.”

“Go ahead and talk to Charles,” Elizabeth said. “I’m going to go back inside and hit the food table again. At the rate I’m going, I’ll have to take about ten extra dance classes this week.”

Her quick departure surprised William. Although he wouldn’t call her a busybody, she possessed curiosity as healthy as anyone’s. “So what is it, Charles?”

“I wanted to tell you this yesterday, but I was afraid …” Charles shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Will, I’m going to be a father.”

William’s eyes, and then his mouth, flew open. “Jane is pregnant?”

Charles nodded, his face alight with bashful pride. “ We hadn’t intended for this to happen quite so soon, but …” He grinned. “Can you believe it?”

“Congratulations.” William extended his hand, but then thought better of it and gave Charles a hearty hug.

“We just found out a few days ago, and we’re only telling a few people for now. Lizzy’s been dying to tell you, but I wanted to be the one to do it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? We were together all afteroon.”

Charles grimaced. “I was afraid you’d resurrect the argument about the house.”

“I would have, if I hadn’t promised Lizzy that I’d stop mentioning it. The house is a much better place to raise a family.”

“The condo will be fine for now. It has a second bedroom for a nursery, and the living room is small but we’ll make do. Once I’ve been working for a while, we’ll be able to buy something bigger.” Charles smiled ruefully. “But there’s one aspect of parenthood I guess I hadn’t thought through.”

“What’s that?”

“Kids are expensive. I may as well put the jazz club on hold for the next twenty years or so.”

“I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. Any time you want an investor, just ask.”

“Thanks, Will. If I had my own capital to invest along with yours, I might say yes. But I can’t let you carry me.”

William nodded. He would have said the same thing in Charles’s position.

Charles sighed. “I don’t mind living within a budget, or not being able to go out and buy a new surfboard, or a new Porsche, whenever I’m in a bad mood. All of that came at way too high a price.”

William nodded again.

“But sometimes I think about the things I could have given Jane … and my children.” Charles shoved a hand through his hair. “Even the wedding. My God, Will, she worked herself to death to keep the cost down. It was bad enough before, but once I found out she was pregnant and she still wouldn’t slow down …” He shook his head.

William didn’t need any further explanation. It would have dealt his pride a fatal blow to watch his fiancée pinching pennies until they squeaked in order to afford even a modest wedding. A pregnant fiancée pinching pennies would be a thousand times worse. “That’s why you were so anxious to help her yesterday afternoon.” Sudden realization struck. “And why Lizzy asked me to make myself useful.”

Charles nodded. “She and I have been nagging Jane about taking it easy. To no visible effect.” He grinned. “So what do you say? Does ‘Uncle Will’ sound good to you?”

It did. “It sounds a lot better than ‘Aunt Wilhelmina.’”

The two men chuckled, and Charles thumped William on the back. “Let’s get back to the party.”

Just as they reached the front door, it opened. Mrs. Bingley stood in the doorway. “Charles, I’ve been looking for you. Jane said you were out here.”

“Hi, Mom. I was just telling William about the baby.”

“Oh, good.” Mrs. Bingley smiled at William. “This morning at breakfast, I wasn’t sure if you knew, so I had to be careful what I said. Isn’t it wonderful news?”

William smiled. “Yes, it is.”

Mrs. Bingley turned to Charles. “Can we talk for just a minute, dear? There’s something I need to discuss with you, and I’ve put it off for long enough.”

Charles grinned at William. “Sounds familiar. It must run in the family.”

“I’m going to go find Lizzy,” William said. “I’ll see you later.”

 

“Did you enjoy yourself today?” Charles asked his mother as she led the way into a small study at the rear of the house. He was glad for the chance for a private talk. She looked ten years older than when he had seen her last, the lines of chronic sadness etched deeply into her face.

“Oh, my goodness, yes. Jane is a marvelous hostess. What a shame that …” She winced and gave him a pained smile.

“It’s okay, Mom,” he said gently. “I’m happy with my life. I have an interesting job and good friends, and today I married the most amazing woman in the world.”

“I’m glad.” She smiled, but the shadows in her eyes remained. “I miss you, Charlie.”

The use of his childhood nickname touched him. “I know. I miss you, too. And I’m worried about you.”

“About me? Why?”

“Because things can’t be easy at home. I’m gone, and Caroline is busy running the company, and that means you’re the only one Father has to use as an emotional punching bag.”

She shook her head, her sadness so palpable it seemed to dim the room. “He almost never speaks to me anymore, or to anyone, for that matter. He’s so deep inside himself. They say depression after heart surgery isn’t unusual, but I think there’s an even bigger problem. He regrets what happened with you.”

“Has he said so?”

“No, he’d never admit it. But he misses you. I can tell.”

Charles shook his head. “You’re just seeing what you want to see, Mom. I’ve never been anything but a huge disappointment to him.”

“That’s not true. He loves you; he just doesn’t know how to show it. And it’s my fault you don’t know that.”

“It is not.” He spoke with unintended force. “Mom, you’re not to blame for his failings.”

“But I’m to blame for not protecting you. I sat by year after year and watched while he chipped away at your self-esteem.” Her eyes filled with tears and she spoke in a voice thick with emotion. “You deserved more than that from me.”

“It’s not your fault. He’s always been hard on all of us.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I let you down. But I’m not going to do it anymore.”

She leaned down and retrieved her purse from beneath a small table. Then she removed an envelope from her purse and handed it to him.

“What is this, Mom?”

“You’re still a member of this family, and you deserve to share in the family’s possessions.” She spoke with an intensity he had never heard from her.

He tore open the envelope and glanced at the top of the document. “You got him to release my trust fund?”

She sighed. “No. He refused to discuss it. But a few weeks ago, his accountant brought me some forms to sign. Ronald usually stands over me while I sign them, so I usually don’t read them. But this time I did, and I asked some questions.”

“And?”

“It turns out that your father has been gradually putting assets in my name. At this point I control over half the family money, along with a sizable chunk of the company.”

Charles’s mouth dropped open. “Why would he do that?”

“He’s protecting the assets. From what, I’m not sure.” She inclined her head toward the papers in his hand. “I got my own accountant, and set up a new trust fund for you. It should be more than enough to let you keep your house. I hope you’ll do that. It would be a wonderful place for my grandchild to grow up.”

Images washed over Charles of his child’s first, wobbly steps, taken in the bright, spacious kitchen, or perhaps in the leafy back yard. “Mom, thank you, but I can’t let you do this. When Father finds out, he’ll be furious.”

“He already knows, and he can’t do a thing about it. He’s given me power by signing so many things over to me, and I’m using that power to help you.” She grasped his arms. “Please, let me do this. I know it doesn’t make up for the way I failed you, but it’s the best I can do now.”

He stared at the hand gripping his forearm. Blue veins stood out under her pale skin, giving her an almost transparent look. “Thank you, Mom. This means so much. We would have been fine living in Jane’s condo, but we love that house.”

“I know.”

“I’m going to have to talk to Jane.”

“Of course. And, Charles, about the jazz club. If you need funds, I’ll help you.”

He shook his head. “I’ll tell you the same thing I told Will. When I buy a club, it’s going to be at least in part with my own money. But when that day comes, if you’re still willing, I’d love to have you as an investor.”

“Nothing could make me more proud.” She brushed a tear off her cheek. “You are happy, aren’t you, Charlie?”

“Happier than I’ve ever been in my life.” He enfolded her in a warm hug. “I love you, Mom,” he whispered, feeling tears sting his own eyes.

 

“Are you comfortable?”

“Mmm.” Elizabeth snuggled deeper into the pillow on William’s lap.

The long, busy day had left Elizabeth with a headache. William, demonstrating a talent for nurturing that astonished her, had coaxed her out of her bridesmaid’s dress, into her most comfortable robe, and onto the sofa, her head cradled in his lap. His fingers traced a lazy circle over her forehead. Whether it was the mesmerizing rhythm of the caress or the ibuprofen he had given her, the throbbing had begun to recede.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, her voice sounding weak, almost rusty, to her ears.

“For what?”

“I know the last thing you wanted to hear was, ‘Not tonight, dear. I have a headache.’ Especially after I made you sleep across town last night.”

“I reserve the right to deny it later,” he said softly, “but I think I’ll survive. I certainly owe you, after all my headaches last fall.”

She nodded gingerly, trying not to jar anything loose inside her head. “I’m so glad that’s in the past. I used to worry about you all the time.”

“But you always made me feel better. I’ll never forget the first time you did this for me, in my studio at the conservatory.”

“I remember. You were upset about the doctor’s diagnosis. You took it out on Bill Collins, and then you turned on me.”

“Thank God you realized something was wrong, and instead of walking out on me, you got me to talk about it.” He caressed her cheek. “If I hadn’t already been in love with you, I would have fallen for you that day.”

“I knew it was a big thing for you, to open up and tell me how scared you were. It was one of the things that made me start trusting you.”

“It was a new experience, to have someone I could talk to.” His voice was wistful.

Elizabeth raised his hand to her lips. Then she turned on her side and gazed across the room through bleary eyes. The small spray of orchids she had carried in the ceremony lay on the coffee table, its fragile blooms a ghostly white in the deep shadows of late afternoon. Somewhere outside a dog yapped in frantic tones, and then fell silent. A chilly breeze tiptoed through the half-open window, and with a shiver she tucked her bare feet under the hem of her pink flannel bathrobe.

“It was a good day,” she murmured.

“Mm hmm.”

“They’re going to be happy together.”

“The second happiest couple in the world.”

She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Absolutely.” She closed her eyes while images of the wedding washed over her. ”And Mrs. Bingley came through so they can keep the house.”

“She and I talked at breakfast this morning, and I thought she might be planning something.”

“Aha!” She pulled herself into a sitting position, pleased to find that the throbbing didn’t resume. “You couldn’t give them the house yourself, so you schemed with his mother.”

“It wasn’t like that. I answered a question or two about the house, nothing more.”

She studied him with a narrowed gaze, but saw no hint of guilt. With a shrug, she rested her head on his shoulder. “I meant to ask you. What did you think of the ceremony?”

He paused before he responded. “I liked it.”

“But…?”

Another pause. “Nothing.”

“Oh, come on. I saw you raising your eyebrows when the minister invited everyone to form a circle around Jane and Charles. I could almost hear you thinking, ‘Only in California.’”

“When did you learn to read my mind?” he asked, stroking her hair.

“It didn’t take psychic powers. You looked like you weren’t sure if you should go with it or run off in terror, in case the live snakes were coming out next.”

He huffed air through his nose. “I wasn’t that bad.”

“No, but you’re so much fun to tease.” She patted his knee. “Jane saw the guests-in-a-circle thing at a friend’s wedding in Ohio. She liked the way it created a sense of community.”

“Mmm.”

After a brief silence, he spoke again. “You know what I wish?”

“Hmm?”

“That we’d gotten a marriage license and made it a double wedding.”

“And broken your grandmother’s heart?” she asked in a light-hearted tone.

His only answer was a soft sigh.

She lifted her head from his shoulder and studied his expression. “Our wedding isn’t going to be anything like this one, is it?”

He shook his head sadly. “It’s going to be a three-ring circus.”

“But afterwards, we have two weeks at Pemberley, just the two of us.”

“We’ll need it.”

“You know, if it’s bothering you this much, let’s talk to your grandmother. It’s our wedding, and if we want something quieter, we should tell her.”

“No, I couldn’t do that to her.” He sighed. “Besides, it’ll be all right. I’ve been to plenty of big parties, and it won’t be any worse than one of those.”

She chuckled. “Now there’s a ringing endorsement.”

“I’m marrying you,” he said, pausing to kiss her forehead. “It wouldn’t matter if the ceremony involved walking on hot coals; it would still be worth it.” He kissed her again, this time a slow, soft caress of her lips.

Elizabeth lowered her head to the pillow on his lap and closed her eyes. It occurred to her, as she sank ever closer to sleep, that she was literally in the lap of luxury. Try saying that three times fast.

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1 The Brides Against Breast Cancer Foundation accepts and resells donated wedding dresses.