William would have whole-heartedly endorsed Charlotte’s remark, had he heard her: it was definitely not fun to be involved in this mess. He had been warning Charles about Caroline’s discovery when Mr. Bingley marched up to them breathing fire, with Caroline mincing along at his side. William had half expected to see canary feathers protruding from her mouth.
And now Caroline was back again, with a perplexed-looking Jane in tow.
“Come here, young woman!” Mr. Bingley thundered. “I don’t know what game you think you’re playing with my son, but you have been found out.”
“I don’t understand.” Jane’s eyes fixed on Charles. “What’s wrong?”
“So you’re going to pretend innocence.” Mr. Bingley snorted. “Fine, then. I’ll be direct. I will not allow my son to marry you unless you sign the prenuptial agreement.”
William was surprised to see Elizabeth join the group. She placed herself beside Jane, who gave her a quick, nervous smile.
“What prenuptial agreement?” Jane asked. “I haven’t seen one.”
Mr. Bingley shook his head. “You may have worked your wiles on my son to make him forget his duty to his family, but fluttering eyelashes and fake tears will be ineffective where I am concerned.”
“Charles?” Jane pleaded. She stepped across the circle of combatants to stand beside him.
Charles opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Jane hasn’t been asked to sign a prenup, Mr. Bingley,” Elizabeth interjected.
“No one asked for your input,” Mr. Bingley snarled. “This is none of your concern, nor would I expect someone with your background to understand the problem.”
William took a step in Elizabeth’s direction, wishing he could use his body to shield her. But she needed no such protection. “It is absolutely my concern when my sister is unjustly attacked, you pompous, arrogant—”
“Lizzy, it’s okay.” Jane fixed her gaze on Elizabeth and shook her head. Then she looked at Charles. “What is your father talking about? Was I supposed to sign a prenup?”
Charles, after a long pause, finally nodded.
“Why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I didn’t want you to think I believed it was necessary. I know we’re going to stay married forever.”
“You honestly never gave it to her?” Mr. Bingley asked, glowering at Charles.
“No.” Charles shot a beseeching glance in William’s direction, but William couldn’t think of anything helpful to do or say.
“It’s true, Daddy,” Caroline chimed in. “Jane told me there wasn’t a prenup.”
“Then why did I only learn this by accident?” Mr. Bingley growled. “You should have told me at once”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. But I found out less than an hour ago, and I wanted to give Charles a chance to tell you himself. I know you already have serious doubts about his commitment to the company, and I didn’t want to make things worse. I was afraid if you learned about this, you might cut Charles off without a penny.”
Mr. Bingley blasted an icy glare at Charles. “You’re so weak that a greedy, opportunistic young woman can come along and make you forget your obligation to your family.”
“How dare you speak about my sister that way?” Elizabeth snapped.
Mr. Bingley turned on her in fury. “I will speak about her as I please, and I will not be criticized by a talentless so-called actress.”
William heard Elizabeth, who was beside him, gasp. To his surprise, no angry tirade followed. He took a small step closer to her and spoke himself. “Mr. Bingley—”
“It would be best if you stayed out of this, Darcy. You showed good judgment in trying to convince Charles to get the prenup signed, but I will not be corrected by you any more than I will by this ill-mannered young woman. The best service you could perform would be to take her inside, and for both of you to stay there, so we can resolve this matter without any more outbursts.”
William could feel waves of fury rolling off Elizabeth’s body. He placed his hand on the small of her back in a soothing gesture. She flashed him a surprised look and moved a few inches closer to him.
Jane took Charles’s hand. “I wish you’d brought me the prenup,” she said gently. “I would have understood. In fact, I was expecting one.”
“That’s entirely beside the point now,” Mr. Bingley retorted. “My son has demonstrated that he cannot be trusted while under your influence, so I am taking charge. I will allow the wedding to proceed on schedule, but only if you adhere to my conditions. First, you will sign the prenuptial agreement, and you’ll do it tonight. I’ll have my lawyer fax it to the hotel.”
That much had been inevitable. William hoped the remaining conditions would be as reasonable.
“I know Daddy may sound a bit harsh, Jane, but I’m sure you understand that we need to protect the family business,” Caroline remarked in a conciliatory tone.
“Yes, of course,” Jane replied. “And I’m willing to read it and sign it as long as—”
“No conditions, young woman,” Mr. Bingley interrupted. “You will sign it tonight, as is, or there will be no wedding tomorrow.”
Jane eyed Charles in a silent appeal for support that even William could read. But Charles, his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast, said nothing.
Mr. Bingley glared at Charles. “Look at me, Charles. A man looks others in the eye.”
Charles looked up, but remained silent. William had seen Charles wither under Mr. Bingley’s disapproval on a few occasions, but he had never before seen his friend resemble a frightened dog cowering before an angry master.
“Here is my second condition.” Mr. Bingley continued. “Contrary to the agreement we made a few weeks ago, you may not wait six months to relocate to Los Angeles. I will expect you to report for work in LA one week after you return from your honeymoon.”
Jane shook her head, frowning. “Charles, what is he talking about?”
Charles closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he replied. “I thought I could convince him to extend it a few months at a time, and eventually you wouldn’t mind moving to LA.”
Elizabeth gasped again. William again touched her back gently, and she took another small step toward him.
“But, Charles, we discussed this“ Jane said, her voice trembling. “We agreed to stay in San Francisco, because we both love it here.”
“That’s absurd,” Mr. Bingley spat out. “Charles will take control of my company someday. It is headquartered in Los Angeles. How can you expect him to prepare for that day if he lives elsewhere? Are you a fool as well as greedy?”
William felt Elizabeth’s muscles tighten, and he feared that she might launch herself at Mr. Bingley in a flurry of fists. He spoke quickly, hoping to forestall her. “Mr. Bingley, this is an awkward situation for Jane and Charles. They need a chance to talk in private.”
Mr. Bingley shot a furious glare at William. “I told you to stay out of this. I’ve never approved of your friendship with my son. You’re a bad influence, and that’s probably where Charles has gotten some of his ridiculous ideas.”
William pulled himself up to his full, impressive height. “I am a bad influence?” He spoke each word slowly, in as lofty a tone as he could muster.
“Don’t get on your high horse with me, Darcy. I know that your father disapproved of your obsession with music, just as I did in Charles’s case. The fact that you’ve found some degree of success changes nothing. I’m sure you were a grave disappointment to your father.”
For Charles’s sake, William would not allow Mr. Bingley to goad him into an angry response, but only his long experience in the public eye allowed him to stay silent. He wished that he knew how to count to 100 in Italian; counting to ten couldn’t possibly be enough. As he labored to regain his composure, he was surprised to feel Elizabeth’s soft touch on his back, mirroring the gestures of support he had offered her.
Caroline broke the charged silence. “Daddy, please don’t say such things about William, when you know he’s a dear friend of mine,” she cooed. “Besides, shouldn’t we get back to the main point, about where Jane and Charles are going to live?”
“Mr. Bingley, Charles and I love San Francisco.” Jane’s voice was stronger now. “I have a law practice here that I’ve been building for four years. You know what it’s like to start a business, so I’m sure you couldn’t expect me to just give it up.”
“I most certainly do expect that. As Charles’s wife, you will have extensive social responsibilities. You won’t have time to work.”
“Even if I agreed to that, it would be impossible for me to shut down my practice so quickly.”
“Stay here as long as you like.” Mr. Bingley retorted. “But Charles will be in Los Angeles a week after the honeymoon ends.”
Jane continued, her tone remarkably level considering the situation. “Also, we would never be able to sell our house and find one down there in so little time.”
“Charles can keep the San Francisco house as an investment. Caroline will use it; she’s taking over Charles’s job up here. And you won’t need a house in LA. You can live on our estate. The guest suite has plenty of space, and it will give me a chance to keep a close eye on both of you.”
At long last, Charles entered the discussion, his voice trembling. “Father, you can’t force us to do these things. I’m an adult, whether or not you treat me as one.”
“Defy me if you wish,” Mr. Bingley declared, “but if you do, you are no longer my son. Your shares in the company are under my control, and I will revoke them. You will be fired from your position. You will still have the trust fund from your grandparents, but I am the trustee until your 35th birthday. I’ll simply refuse to let you spend any of it. You can try supporting yourself; that is what adults do.”
“But ….” Charles stared at his father in silence, his eyes huge, his mouth hanging open.
Mr. Bingley glared at Jane and continued, “So, you see, young woman, if you and Charles don’t meet my conditions, you won’t get a penny from me.” He then redirected his stare to his son. “I think you’ll find that her interest in you will evaporate if you’re nothing but a penniless beach bum whose sole earthly possessions are a surfboard and a saxophone.”
William had had his fill of the distasteful scene. He pulled the key card to his suite from his breast pocket and offered it to Charles. “You and Jane need to talk in private. You can go up to my suite if you like.”
“Thank you, William,” Jane said, “but we can’t just desert our guests.”
“I’ll handle that,” Elizabeth offered. “It’s getting late anyway; I bet most of them are ready to go home. But I’ll have to figure out something to tell the guys who are waiting for the bachelor party to start.”
“I’ll help with that,” William said. He was immediately rewarded by her tremulous smile.
“Lizzy, what are you talking about?” Mrs. Bennet cried. “Where is Jane? Where is dear Charles? I must speak to them. They shouldn’t leave the party before their guests, you know.”
“Mom, please don’t worry. The Bingleys have a family matter to deal with, and Charles and Jane are helping. You might as well go home.”
William and Elizabeth had agreed on this vague cover story before leaving the courtyard. Elizabeth would have told her father the truth had the opportunity presented itself, but she hadn’t found a way to separate him from her mother, whose volatile reaction was best delayed until the drama had been resolved one way or another.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “I’ll wait here till Jane comes back.”
“Really, Mom, it’s getting late. Go on home and get some sleep so you’re fresh and rested for the wedding,” Elizabeth said in a wheedling tone. “And Mary is probably at the house by now. Don’t you want to see her?”
“Come on, Francie,” Mr. Bennet said. “Lizzy’s right; you need your beauty sleep. Think of all the photographs you’ll be in tomorrow.”
Elizabeth gave her father a weary smile. His support—and William’s, strangely enough—were helping her to maintain at least a surface level of calm.
“Why don’t you go find Kitty and Lydia,” Mr. Bennet suggested to his wife. “Heaven knows where they’ve gotten to, but I’d suggest looking for a large concentration of young men.”
Just then, Lydia lurched into the Terrace Room. “It’s so gross,” she said, shuddering. “Kitty is barfing in the ladies’ room.”
“Poor dear,” Mrs. Bennet cried. “It must have been something she ate.”
Lydia scoffed. “More likely the tequila shooters we’ve been doing at that other party. Great band, lots of booze … tons better than this funeral.” She hiccupped and swayed. “I’d better sit down before I start hurling too.”
Elizabeth glanced toward William in mortification, but he was ushering the Hursts out the door and had missed the exchange. Mrs. Bennet rushed off to the ladies’ room to assist Kitty, with Lydia stumbling along behind her.
Charlotte approached Elizabeth. “Roger and I are leaving. Hang in there. I’ll call you at Jane’s place in a few hours to see how things are going. I hope they can work it out.”
Elizabeth hugged Charlotte. “Are you sure you won’t be too busy to call?”
Charlotte grinned. “I’m sure I can find a minute or two for a telephone break. Just ignore any heavy breathing you hear in the background.” Her smile faded. “Seriously, Liz, if you want me to stay—”
“There’s no point in both of us sitting around feeling helpless. And William’s being very kind.”
“Think about what I said about him,” Charlotte said earnestly. “Certainly you don’t think he’s being helpful and supportive in order to get you into bed.”
“No, but he’s Charles’s best man. He’s doing it for Charles, not me.”
Charlotte sighed. “You are determined to fight this. It’s your prerogative, but I think you’re crazy. Anyway, I’ll call you later.”
Bill Collins approached, his raincoat over one arm.
“Elizabeth, I’m so sorry we didn’t have more time to talk after dinner, and I’m especially sorry that we didn’t dance together. Perhaps I could have the first dance at the reception tomorrow?”
She smiled sadly, wondering if there would be a reception. “Thank you again for accompanying me on my solo tonight.”
“It was my great honor and pleasure, I assure you. I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow. We should spend some time discussing your interview on Monday. I can advise you on what to say to Dr. de Bourgh, how to compliment her taste and show your respect for her musical gifts and her managerial brilliance ….” He glanced across the room, where Jim Pennington stood staring at his watch. “But I must go. Jim is giving me a ride home.”
A short time later, Mr. Bennet appeared at her side. “Whatever’s going on is more serious than you’re saying, isn’t it?”
She nodded, pressing her lips together. “I’m afraid the wedding might be off, Dad. Charles has been lying to Jane about some important things, and Mr. Bingley is involved in it too. He was so angry. It was awful.”
Mr. Bennet took her hand in his. “I’d stay and try to help, but I think the best thing I can do for Jane is to get your mother and sisters out of here. If you or Jane need anything, call me, no matter how late it is.”
The combination of worry for Jane and fatigue from her long day overwhelmed Elizabeth, and the tears she had been fighting spilled down her cheeks. Mr. Bennet embraced her gently.
William approached them as Elizabeth stepped out of her father’s arms. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. The sympathy in his eyes made her want to cry all over again, but she took a deep breath and blinked hard, clearing her vision. She had to stay strong for Jane.
The other guests were finally gone, leaving William and Elizabeth alone together in the Terrace Room. He noticed her surreptitiously wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, and a protective instinct welled up in his chest. It was everything he could do to restrain himself from drawing her into the comforting circle of his arms and kissing away her tears.
“May I give you a ride home? I’ll even let you drive again.” It was the only thing he could think of that might cheer her up.
She smiled, but her eyes were hollow. “Thanks, but I should wait for Jane. Do you know of any place in the hotel where I could get coffee at this hour? I could use some caffeine.”
“We could go to the Club Lounge and wait there. It’s just a few doors down from my suite, and I believe it’s open late.”
“Thank you. That sounds good.”
Indeed it did, since it gave him a chance to spend some time with her. As they left the Terrace Room together, he caught himself humming quietly.
“You seem pretty chipper, considering everything that’s going on,” she remarked.
“I suppose so,” he answered. “I must have just caught my second wind.” He felt a pang of guilt when he realized that she was right: a somber mood was more fitting. But then Elizabeth smiled at him. It was only a weak, tremulous smile, but without realizing what he was doing, William began to hum again.