Caroline Bingley’s entire body tingled with anticipation as she emerged from a cab in front of the Darcy townhouse. Ever since she had seen William at the wedding five weeks before, she had been obsessed with the idea of doing whatever it would take to get him to the altar and into her bed, not necessarily in that order. It was maddening that Elizabeth Bennet had been able to pursue William unchecked for those same five weeks while Caroline worked long hours in San Francisco, untangling the mess Charles had left behind when he returned to Los Angeles.
I suppose William has bedded that little slut a few times; he was panting after her in San Francisco and I’m sure she was only too happy to oblige him. But Caroline was certain that he had no interest in Elizabeth beyond taking advantage of what she was no doubt thrusting in his face. Elizabeth lacked Caroline’s style, elegance, and class, and he would see that eventually.
She passed through the gate and rang the doorbell. She hadn’t warned William of her impromptu visit. Her best chance of gaining admittance to the house was to show up unexpectedly. By now, he would be feeling guilty for the way he had scolded her in San Francisco. If she could just get past that old harridan at the front door, he’d be glad to see her.
To her surprise, an elderly man answered the door. “Yes, ma’am?” he said.
“Good morning. I’m here to see William Darcy. I’m a close friend of his.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, Mr. Darcy is not at home. But if you’ll give me your name, I’ll be happy to tell him that you called.”
Caroline knew better than to fall for the ‘not at home’ ploy. She switched on the warmest smile she could muster; although warmth wasn’t her strong suit, she did her best. “My name is Caroline Bingley. My brother Charles is one of his dearest friends.”
The man’s face lit up with recognition. “You’re Mr. Bingley’s sister? It’s a pleasure to meet anyone related to him.”
“Thank you so much. Now, about seeing William—”
Understanding lit up the man’s features. “Of course! You’re here because Mr. Bingley learned about Mr. Darcy’s troubles and sent you to check on him.”
Caroline had no idea what the man was talking about, but she played along. “Yes, that’s right. Charles was concerned, and we were so pleased that I was in town and could stop by. But you say William’s not here?”
“No, ma’am. He hasn’t been released from the hospital yet.”
Caroline flinched at the word “hospital,” but she quickly molded her features into what she hoped was a sympathetic expression. “Oh, what a shame. I must have misunderstood what Charles told me. I thought William was already home. How is he doing?”
“They expect him to be much better later today, after his procedure. But he’ll be in the hospital for at least another day or two.”
“Then of course I’ll go see him right away.”
Allen hesitated. “I doubt his procedure is finished yet, so it may be a while before he’s allowed any visitors.”
“I don’t mind waiting.” She had no intention of sitting in a depressing waiting room on an ugly plastic chair, but she was sure there would be a way to slip into William’s room unnoticed by the nursing staff.
“In that case, may I offer you a ride? I’m heading over there now.”
Caroline maintained a neutral expression, but underneath she was exulting in her good luck. Things couldn’t have gone better had she planned every detail herself. William’s illness didn’t trouble her at all, since his servant didn’t seem overly concerned. The important part was that William would be a stationary target at the hospital, probably in need of companionship.
The driver escorted her to a spotless Mercedes sedan sitting at the curb. She smiled and leaned back against the soft leather upholstery. The car wasn’t as luxurious as even her father’s smallest limo, but it was adequate for now. After the wedding, she would convince William to upgrade to something larger. She amused herself for the rest of the trip by deciding what special features the new car should have.
“Here we are, ma’am,” the driver said. “I wonder if I might ask you to take something to the information desk for me.”
“Of course. I’d be happy to do anything to help poor, dear William.”
The driver opened the door for Caroline and handed her a cell phone. “I was going to drop this off myself. But if you wouldn’t mind leaving it at the information desk, it would save me from having to convince the parking attendants to let me leave the car here. Just tell them it’s for Mr. Darcy; his secretary will be down to get it later.”
“Of course. Think nothing of it,” Caroline chirped with all the graciousness she could fake.
“Thank you, Ms. Bingley.”
On her way to the information desk, she powered up William’s phone. Once the phone displayed its number, she entered it into her own phone's address book. William had always refused to give her his private number. Now, when that witch of a housekeeper wouldn’t put Caroline’s calls through, she would still be able to reach him.
She looked more closely at the phone, overwhelmed by the notion that his strong, sensuous mouth had been close to it. She ran a finger over the mouthpiece, licking her lips, but then shook her head sternly. Instead of daydreaming, she should be considering what else she could learn from the phone. A small yellow Post-it was attached just below the phone’s LCD display. “VM PW: 061189,” she read aloud. “VM PW,” in the context of a cell phone, probably meant “voicemail password”!
Her eyes gleamed as she navigated the phone’s menus and connected to the voicemail system. When it requested the password, she entered it. “You have two new messages,” the system informed her. But as she listened to the first message, her triumphant smile twisted into a vengeful snarl.
“Hi, William. It’s Elizabeth. I’ve been thinking about last night, and I’d like to talk to you. I’ll be home tonight, so if you could call, or better yet, stop by, I’d like that.”
If Elizabeth had his private phone number and was calling to talk about “last night,” she had manipulated him into more than a one-night stand. That little bimbo! She probably seduced him by flaunting her cleavage. Trust a man to be stupid enough to fall for that tired routine.
Caroline glanced down at her own flat chest, momentarily disheartened, but she rallied her spirits. I’d rather have brains than boobs. Besides, anyone with a little money and a good plastic surgeon can have a bigger chest; that was probably how Elizabeth had gotten hers.
Her attention was drawn back to the phone, which was giving her instructions. “Erase, press seven; save, press nine; more options, press zero.”
Caroline pressed “seven” on the telephone’s keypad. “Message erased,” the system told her. “Next message,” it said, and again Elizabeth’s voice came through the small speaker. Caroline smirked at the diffident tone in Elizabeth’s voice. She had waited all day but he hadn’t called her. Aw, poor thing. Snickering, she erased the message.
There were no more messages. Caroline strode to the information desk to drop off the phone, a predatory gleam in her eyes.
Elizabeth dropped her backpack on the floor beside her suitcase. The moving company had departed with her small collection of boxes a short time ago, and she had just called for a taxi to take her to the airport. Splurging on a taxi was a new experience, but the conservatory’s job offer had included a generous relocation allowance, so she had decided to depart New York in style. She circled the apartment, scanning for anything she might have forgotten to pack, but everything she saw belonged to Sally with one exception: the orchid. William’s orchid.
He hadn’t returned her phone calls. Late last evening she had dialed his number one more time, but she had hung up when he didn’t answer. To leave a third message would have been pathetic. She would never know what might have happened had she behaved differently on Wednesday night, but obviously whatever connection they had shared was broken. For that reason, the orchid belonged with William, back in his rooftop greenhouse.
But how to return it without looking like she was trying to force him to see her? She considered asking Sally to handle it, but that would involve explanations she didn’t want to offer. Besides, that was the coward’s way out. She had enough time before her flight to handle this one last obligation. With the orchid in her hand, she went to the kitchen and found Sally eating a late breakfast of plain yogurt and half a grapefruit.
“Are you ready to go?” Sally asked.
Elizabeth nodded. “More or less.”
“You’re just carrying the orchid like that? Shouldn’t you … I don’t know, put it in a box or stick a huge baggie over it or something?”
“I’m not … never mind; it’ll be fine.” Elizabeth sat down at the table, inspecting her fingernails, but she could feel Sally’s eyes on her.
“Lizzy, is there something you haven’t told me? You’ve been quiet since yesterday, and you seem kind of depressed.”
“I’m leaving you and Jon and my other friends. Isn’t that a good reason to be sad?” Elizabeth stood up, glancing at her watch again.
“I hope that’s all it is.”
“I’m fine. But I guess I do need to say goodbye now.”
Sally rose to her feet. “I’m going to miss you, girl.”
Elizabeth hugged Sally. “I’m going to miss you, too.”
“I don’t know where Jon is. He had to work till closing last night, so he might have overslept. But he meant to be here to say goodbye.”
“Give him a kiss for me.”
“It might be just as well. He’d have started bawling, and then I’d have cried, too, and you know how I hate to do that.”
Elizabeth smiled through her own sudden tears. “Tell him that if he ever gets to the Bay Area, he’s got a place to stay. That applies to you, too.”
“And you’ll be back before long to visit William, won’t you? Or has he already planned his first trip out to see you?”
Elizabeth forced a weak smile onto her face. “I’d better go. I’ll call you in a few days.” She collected her things, took one last look around the dingy apartment, and walked away from her life for the last five years.
Half an hour later, she stood in front of the Darcy townhouse, staring at the door. She had worked out a plan in the taxi. There was no need to deal with the embarrassment of seeing William. She would leave the orchid with Mrs. Reynolds, explaining that she didn’t think she could care for it properly. If Mrs. Reynolds invited her inside, she would explain that she had a plane to catch. Her heart had constructed its own version of the visit, one where William heard her voice and rushed downstairs to see her, blurting out an excellent reason for not calling her. But this wasn’t a fairy tale.
She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. Finally, after a wait that seemed interminable, she heard footsteps approaching. A young woman answered the door. “May I help you?” she asked.
“Hello. My name is Elizabeth Bennet and I’m here to see Mrs. Reynolds.”
“I’m sorry, but she’s not here.”
That took care of Elizabeth’s brilliant plan. “Will she be back soon?”
“I’m not sure. She’s at the hospital.”
Elizabeth gasped. “Oh, no, what happened to her?”
“No, Mrs. Reynolds is fine.”
“So is she just in the hospital for tests?”
“No, she’s not the one who—” The woman stopped speaking abruptly. “I’m sorry. I can’t give out that kind of information to strangers.”
Then was it a friend of the family? Or perhaps something had happened to Rose Darcy. If so, William would be worried and preoccupied, and could easily have forgotten to check his messages. That would change everything. “Is Allen—Mr. Reynolds—here?” Elizabeth asked. She needed to know the truth, and Allen would tell her.
“I think he’s at the hospital with everybody else.”
“Then it must be a family member who’s sick?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I really can’t say.”
Elizabeth decided to try another approach. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Serena. I know you’re just trying to protect the family’s privacy.”
“Mrs. Reynolds is very strict about that.”
“But, you see, I was here for dinner on Tuesday night.”
Serena’s eyes widened. “Wait a minute. You said your name was Elizabeth Bennet?”
“Mrs. Reynolds cooked a fancy meal on Tuesday, and I helped her with the cleaning, and with setting a table up on the roof. She didn’t tell me what was going on, but I heard her talking to Mr. Darcy about a Ms. Bennet, who was coming to dinner.”
“Exactly! So, you see, I’m not a stranger. And you have me worried about the family right now. Please, couldn’t you tell me who’s in the hospital?”
Serena frowned, but at last she leaned forward spoke in a low voice. “You have to promise not to tell Mrs. Reynolds that I said anything.”
Serena glanced to either side and whispered, “It’s Mr. Darcy.”
“Oh, no!” That possibility hadn’t occurred to her. “What’s wrong?”
“All I know is, he was running in Central Park yesterday and got sick, and he had to go to the hospital.”
“New York Presbyterian, at Columbia.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you very much.” She raced back to the curb, jumped into the back seat of the waiting taxi, and told the driver they wouldn’t be going to the airport next after all.