William’s headache had not improved. His most fervent wish was to go upstairs to his suite and collapse on the bed until morning. But he had a long night ahead.
Armed with a cup of coffee, he left the room and sank into an overstuffed armchair in the corridor. The light was dimmer, and it was quiet except for the muffled sounds of the party guests on the other side of the doors. He wrapped his hands around the cup, leaned back in the chair, and allowed his eyes to drift shut.
He couldn’t recall the last time he had felt so utterly out of place. At “meet the artist“ receptions during his concert tours, an official of the host orchestra steered him around like a respectful chaperone. Besides, a shared interest in music made conversation easy. And back in New York, he had already met most of the guests at any party he attended.
Here, he had no such advantages. The Bennets and Bingleys each congregated together, while the members of Bingley’s jazz group made up a third circle. William, meanwhile, had retained sole occupancy of his corner, aside from occasional brief visits from Jane or Charles. Both had tried to draw him out of his corner, but standing in a circle with strangers and knowing he was unwelcome would be even worse than standing alone.
As much as he would have preferred to remain in the peaceful hallway, dinner would be served soon. He hauled himself to his feet with a heavy sigh. As he reached out to open the door to the Terrace Room, it flew open, bumping his arm. The contents of his coffee cup splattered onto his shirt for the second time that day. Kitty and Lydia stood in the doorway, their hands flying up to cover their mouths, their eyes wide with inebriated hilarity.
“Excuse us!” Kitty gasped, between bouts of hysterical giggles.
Lydia’s eyes roved down his body and then traveled back to his face. As she and Kitty scampered down the hall, he heard their shrill laughter as well as a sound like … the whinny of a horse?
He stepped into the Terrace Room, rubbing the stains on his shirt. He was accustomed to being noticed, but rarely had he felt so thoroughly molested by an insolent stare. In fact, the only other woman he could recall ever making him so uncomfortable was—
Caroline Bingley stood in the doorway, a predatory smile on her bright red lips. Her long,
copper-colored hair surprised him; it had been blonde the last time they met. Her black dress was classic Caroline: strapless, snug, and expensive. It took all his self-control not to groan or, better yet, run away. “Hello, Caroline.”
She threw her arms around his neck, pressing her bony frame against him and kissing him on the lips. As he attempted to disentangle himself, he glanced involuntarily at Elizabeth. He saw her nudge Charlotte and incline her head in his direction. His patience exhausted, he yanked himself out of Caroline’s grip.
“I’ve missed you, darling,” Caroline pouted. “You haven’t visited Charles and me in so long!”
“I’ve been traveling. I haven’t had time for visits.”
“And you’re always too busy when I try to visit you in New York. But we’ll have lots of time to catch up this weekend, since we’re both staying at Charles’s house.”
“Actually, I’m here at the hotel.”
A narrow-eyed scowl appeared and vanished in a flash, replaced by a brittle smile. “My brother can be such a fluff-brain sometimes. He didn’t tell me your plans had changed. But that’s all right. We can go somewhere after dinner tonight; a quiet drink in your suite, perhaps.”
He was grateful to have a ready excuse. “Tonight is Charles’s bachelor party.”
“Tomorrow night after the wedding, then. We can go back to the house. We’ll have it all to ourselves.” She sidled toward him, her eyes slithering over his body.
He rubbed his forehead. “I shouldn’t schedule anything, since I don’t know what Charles might need me to do.”
“I doubt he’ll need your help on his wedding night, darling.” She lowered her voice, a suggestive gleam in her eyes. “Although I’m sure you could offer some excellent pointers.”
He clenched his jaw so hard that he feared for the safety of his teeth. “Caroline, you’ll have to excuse me—”
She interrupted blithely, as though she hadn’t heard him. “And we can sit together at dinner tonight.”
“No, they have a seating arrangement and—”
Raucous laughter shattered the air in the corridor; Kitty and Lydia had returned. Caroline glanced
at them, her lip curled in disgust.
“Aren’t those Bennets horrid? Jane seems like a sweet girl, but that mother! And those terrible girls! Charles could have done much better.”
Although he agreed with her, he simply said, “Charles seems happy.”
She shrugged. “I’m just glad Daddy insisted on an iron-clad prenup, so those Bennets can’t scheme to steal the company from us.”
William didn’t reply. He saw Elizabeth across the room, standing in a circle with Charlotte and the members of Golden Gate Jazz. She laughed at something Charlotte had said, lending a fresh sparkle to her eyes.
“Never fear, darling,” Caroline cooed, patting his arm. “I’ll keep you company and protect you from the barbarian horde this weekend. I know you must be thinking how miserable it’s going to be.”
No, I’m appreciating a pair of fine eyes.
“Whose fine eyes, if I may ask?”
“Excuse me?” He flinched and eyed her warily. Had he said it aloud?
“You said you were appreciating a pair of fine eyes.” She fixed her eyes on his face and asked, with a provocative smile, “Whose eyes?”
He was too rattled to think of a lie, so he told the truth. “Elizabeth Bennet’s.”
Caroline blanched, but soon her cheerful mask was back in place. “Oh, how sweet. I had no idea you and she were an item.”
“We’re not.” He gritted his teeth, desperate to escape. “Excuse me, Caroline. I spilled coffee on my shirt, and I need to change before dinner.”
He practically sprinted from the room, before she could suggest accompanying him. As always, her relentless pursuit disgusted him. In the ten years of their acquaintance he had never given her the slightest shred of encouragement, but she seemed to need none.
The situation had become untenable several years ago during a visit with Charles in Los Angeles. At the time, both Charles and Caroline had lived in their family’s sprawling estate, and Caroline’s overt attempts at seduction had become unbearable. After two days of feeling like a choice steak dangled in front of a hungry jungle cat, William had cut his visit short and never returned.
Whenever she visited New York, he could be sure of receiving a stream of invitations from her, all of which he refused. At least he was safe from uninvited visits to his home: his staff had instructions never to admit her to the house.
By the time William arrived downstairs wearing his third fresh shirt of the day, the guests were seating themselves for dinner. He proceeded to his table, anticipating a pleasant dinner with Elizabeth, and instead found himself seated next to Caroline.
“Darling,” she gushed, “what a lovely surprise!”
His eyes narrowed. “A surprise, at any rate.” She must have switched the place cards while he was upstairs. Elizabeth was seated at a nearby table with Bill Collins, two other members of Golden Gate Jazz and their wives, and the Hursts.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were seated to William’s left, with the Bingleys on the other side of Caroline. Jane and Charles took their places across from William. Jane stared at Caroline for a moment wearing a faint frown, and William saw her scan the other tables, no doubt looking for Elizabeth.
An appetizer in a glass dish sat in front of each diner. “Crab cocktail,” Caroline murmured in William’s ear, placing her hand on his knee. “How bourgeois and unimaginative. I thought San Francisco was known for cutting edge cuisine. But I suppose one can’t expect sophistication from the Bennets.”
William shifted his chair away from her, dislodging her hand. “Mrs. Bingley, I believe Charles told me you selected the menu for tonight?”
Charles’s mother, a slender shadow of a woman dressed in a conservative black dress and pearls, nodded. “I hope you enjoy it,” she answered in a whispery voice, darting a glance at her husband.
“I love crab cocktail,” Jane added. “It makes me think of enjoying walk-away seafood cocktails down by the water on a bright, sunny afternoon. It’s a perfect choice to welcome our out-of-town guests to San Francisco.”
William stole a glance at Caroline, who was studying her dish of crabmeat, temporarily silenced. He turned his attention to his food.
“Charles, is your jazz group going to perform for us tonight?” Mrs. Bennet asked.
“Not tonight. But they’ll be playing at the reception tomorrow. They found someone to fill in for me.”
“I thought we might ask Lizzy to sing tonight,” Jane said. “What do you think, Charles?”
“I know she’d be happy to do it,” Mrs. Bennet interjected before Charles could answer. “What a pity that certain other people think they’re too important to play for us.”
“What do you say, William?” Charles sent him an apologetic smile. “Apparently it would mean a great deal to my future mother-in-law.”
“I rarely play at private events,” William answered, but then he noted the entreaty in his friend’s eyes. He sighed; Charles should have known better than to put him on the spot. “But I suppose I could. That is, assuming that the piano is in good condition and has been properly tuned. I’ll have to check it after dinner.”
“Oh, Mr. Darcy, thank you!” Mrs. Bennet’s former coldness towards William was washed away on a tidal wave of boisterous gratitude. “I’m so excited! To think that I’ll be able to tell people that a famous piano player performed at my daughter’s rehearsal dinner!”
Mrs. Bennet continued to thank him, but William retreated into himself, filtering out her shrill voice as best he could. His head throbbed, and dinner had just begun. He heaved a deep sigh. Caroline pulled her chair toward his, returned her hand to his knee, and eyed him with exaggerated pity, her vermilion lips arranged in an infantile pout. He dragged his chair away for the second time and closed his eyes.
Laughter rang out at Elizabeth’s table. He watched in helpless fascination as she reached up and ran her hands through her hair, flipping it behind her shoulders. He could almost feel the curls twining around his fingers.
Mrs. Bennet finally ran out of ways to express her appreciation. Mr. Bingley quickly changed the subject, asking Jane about her absent sister.
“Mary had a department meeting this afternoon that she couldn’t miss,” Jane explained. “She’s flying down from Seattle this evening.”
“My brother Edward and his wife aren’t here yet either,” Mrs. Bennet lamented. “Their flight was canceled. Mechanical problems, he said when he called. I’m so afraid they’ll miss the wedding!”
“They called again, and they’re on their way now,” Jane said in a soothing tone.
“Well, I don’t see why the airline couldn’t have found an extra plane instead of canceling the flight. Or—well, I don’t know, but they’re the airlines, they should know what to do. They shouldn’t let their planes break down, anyway. There should be laws against that.”
William was only half aware of the conversation swirling around him: he was too busy watching Bill Collins lean over and whisper in Elizabeth’s ear. Then a foot, minus its shoe, rubbed sinuously along his leg. He shifted his chair away from Caroline for the third time since dinner had begun, disentangling his leg from hers. I am in hell.
Dinner seemed to drag on with no end in sight. William’s table had descended into silence after the entrees arrived, except for Mrs. Bennet, who gushed nonstop about every aspect of the wedding. Unfortunately, she did so even with her mouth full of food, sending occasional crumbs spraying onto the tablecloth in front of him.
“Oh! And the bridesmaid’s dresses! Have you seen them, Mrs. Bingley? The fabric Jane selected for the skirt, with a lovely lace bodice—”
“Please, Francie, no lace, I beg you,” Mr. Bennet groaned. “Or bodices either, for that matter.”
Mrs. Bennet darted an aggrieved glance at her husband, but she fell silent and attacked her food.
“I told Charles that no expense should be spared,” Mr. Bingley said. “It’s important to have the right sort of wedding. Many of our business associates will be attending.”
“And we do so appreciate your offer to help out with the cost,” Mrs. Bennet replied.
“Help out?” snorted Mr. Bingley. “The way I understand it, I’m paying for everything, to the tune of, what, at least $30,000?”
Charles winced, and Jane stared fixedly at her plate. William suppressed a frown at Mr. BIngley’s bad manners. Money talk in a social setting was a cardinal sin, committed solely by those with new money.
“And it’s so kind of you!” Mrs. Bennet assured him, after an awkward pause. “As I was saying, what a lovely wedding it’s going to be! The music should be beautiful too. You heard Lizzy’s song this evening, didn’t you, Mr. Darcy?”
William missed the question at first, hearing only his name. Elizabeth was telling a story at her table, and he had been straining to hear it. He eyed Mrs. Bennet, frowning, and she repeated herself with unconcealed impatience.
“Yes,” he replied. “She has a beautiful voice.”
“We don’t know where Lizzy got her musical talent,” Mr. Bennet remarked. “Not from me, that’s for sure. Francie claims that she had something to do with it, but when I think of the lullabies she used to sing to the girls, it’s a wonder they didn’t suffer from chronic nightmares.”
“My mother’s lullabies were something special,” William mused. “She was building a career in opera when she met my father. But she gave it up when we moved from Rome to New York.”
“Did she miss singing?” Mr. Bennet asked.
William nodded. “Very much. She used to tell me stories about being on stage. It left a void in her life when she had to stop.”
Mr. Bingley shrugged. “Your father had responsibilities as head of a company. And it was your mother’s responsibility to support him, not waste her time on frivolities. That’s as it should be.”
Jane pressed her lips together and glanced at Charles, who shifted in his chair, fiddling with his fork.
“I must say, I like the idea of a woman supporting me,” Mr. Bennet quipped. “What about it, Francie?”
“What? Oh, Andrew, don’t be silly.” Mrs. Bennet shook her head, and William half expected to hear her brain rattling around in her skull. “That’s not what Mr. Bingley meant. Would we have heard of your mother, Mr. Darcy?”
“I doubt it. She was still young when she stopped singing, and she performed mostly in Europe.” Besides, he was sure that Mrs. Bennet’s knowledge of opera began and ended with Pavarotti. “Her name was Anna Forlini.”
Mrs. Bennet shrugged. “One of Lizzy’s voice teachers wanted her to be an opera singer, but she wanted to be on Broadway. It was probably just as well. Who wants to hear some silly opera singer shrieking anyway?”
William ignored her annoying, yet expected, opinion on opera. “I told her this evening that I thought she had the talent for a classical career,” he said. “She has a fine voice, and it’s a shame she chose to use it on something beneath her talents.”
Charles’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth, but Mrs. Bennet spoke first. “Then you think she made a mistake, trying to be a Broadway star?”
William nodded sagely. “New York is full of struggling actresses, but few become big stars. That takes luck; talent is no guarantee. And I understand she hasn’t had the success she hoped for.”
“Lizzy has always known her own mind,” Mr. Bennet remarked mildly, “even as a little girl. She loved to dance as well as sing, and musicals gave her the chance to do both. But now she plans to teach, so instead she’ll be training the next generation of starving New York actors. It’s a noble calling; after all, someone has to wait tables and tend bar at all those restaurants.”
“You always defend her, Andrew, but she’s stubborn and foolish, and you know it. How many times did I tell her to listen to her teachers? But she never listened to them or to me!”
It astonished William how fast Mrs. Bennet had reversed her position on classical singing—or perhaps she didn’t know that the term included the operatic repertoire she had so recently disparaged.
“But, Mom,” Jane said quietly, “You always said you wanted Lizzy to become a Broadway star. Don’t you remember? You used to say that perhaps she’d get a leading role in the film version of a musical and become rich and famous.”
“Jane’s right, Francie,” Mr. Bennet added. “I seem to remember something about wanting Lizzy to be the next Barbra Streisand, except without the nose.”
“Opera is a more sophisticated art form,” Mr. Bingley declared, “but if notoriety is what you want for your daughter, it hardly seems like the best choice. Few opera singers are household names.”
William pressed his lips together and shook his head slightly. Caroline chortled into her napkin.
“Besides,” Mrs. Bennet continued, “my sweet Lydia is the one who’s going to be famous. Have you met her, Mr. Darcy?”
“We weren’t introduced, but I’ve … noticed her.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Bennet said with a proud smile. “She’s so popular with all the young men.”
Caroline snickered, no longer even bothering to hide her derision.
“I understand she lives in Los Angeles,” Mr. Bingley said. “In what part of town?”
“Oh, somewhere down there,” Mrs. Bennet answered with a vague wave of her hand. “Who can keep track of such things? She’s still waiting for her big break, but we know it’ll happen soon. She got her first television role recently, on a detective show. We’re so excited!”
“What kind of role?” Charles asked.
“A murder victim,” Mrs. Bennet said.
“Then she dies during the show,” Charles said. “That should be interesting to see.”
“No, I’m pretty sure she’s dead when it starts,” Mrs. Bennet answered.
“She was cast as a corpse?” William asked, certain that he must have misunderstood. Caroline clutched his arm and snorted softly.
Mrs. Bennett rattled on, ignoring the question. “And of course she also has her part-time job. She was so lucky to get it; they’re selective about the people they hire.”
“Where does she work?” Mr. Bingley asked.
“She’s called a ‘Hooper’s Girl.’ That’s the name of the restaurant: Hooper’s. She has a special uniform and everything. The restaurant is named after an owl. Isn’t that cute?” Mrs. Bennet smiled in obvious pride.
Caroline choked on a bite of salmon, her face turning pinkish-purple as she hid her mouth behind her napkin again. William glanced across the table and saw Jane staring down at her plate, her face expressionless.
“Well, that makes more sense!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “I always wondered why the owl’s name was Hooper! Have you heard of that restaurant, Mr. Bingley?”
Mr. Bingley’s face was stern. “Yes, I have. And I’m sure her tip income is substantial.”
Elizabeth was finishing her chocolate cake when Charles approached her table. “Hey, there, almost-brother-in-law,” she greeted him, smiling. “Dinner was delicious.”
“Glad you enjoyed it.”
“Oh, yes,” Bill added. “Simply delicious. The appetizer was wonderful, and the salad was so fresh, and the salmon simply melted in my mouth. And the rolls—”
“Yes, Bill,” Charles interrupted gently. “I’m glad you enjoyed everything. But I have an important favor to ask Lizzy.” He turned back to Elizabeth. “Jane and I wondered if you’d consider singing tonight.”
Elizabeth’s brow wrinkled. “Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I’d need an accompanist and I don’t have any music with me, and I’d need to warm up first.”
“Oh, but, Elizabeth, you must sing! You simply must!” Bill exclaimed. “I’d be happy to play for you. I have a box of music books in Jim’s car; I was taking them home from the conservatory. We might find something suitable.”
Her eyes strayed to William’s table. He was staring at her again, as he had done frequently throughout dinner. His present disapproving expression had also been in place for most of the meal. She wondered what was wrong now—perhaps her table manners?
She was tired of his disdain, and of keeping her promise to hold her tongue. She didn’t want to risk giving a poor performance in front of him, validating his opinion that she wasn’t a real musician. But then, in a flash, she knew what to do and her frown vanished. “Bill, did you mean it when you said you’d be willing to accompany me?”
“Of course!” he cried. “It would be my very great honor.”
“Terrific!” She leaned over and impulsively kissed him on the cheek, which brought a wide smile to his face. Then she smiled up at Charles. “Just give us a few minutes to prepare.”
“Wonderful! I’ll tell Jane.”
Charles returned to his table, and Elizabeth turned to Jim Pennington. “May Bill and I borrow your car keys? We need to go through his music. I know just what I want to sing; I hope it’s in one of those books.”
She noted that William’s dark stare followed her as she left the room with Bill. He could look down his nose at her all he wanted; she was about to give him a performance to remember.