“Is there anything else about the Berlin Philharmonic gig?” Richard’s bleary eyes swept from William to Sonya. “Or—and oh, please, say yes—have we stomped that subject sufficiently into the muck by now?”
William exchanged an eye-roll with Sonya. Richard had arrived for their meeting in a spectacularly foul mood. Not even his favorite pastry—Mrs. Reynolds’s cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven and exuding tantalizing waves of calorie-laden fragrance—had been able to coax him into civilized behavior.
“Sorry if we’re keeping you from a more pressing engagement,” William said dryly.
Richard took a swig from his teacup. “What you’re keeping me from, old man, is my bed. When did we decide that these meetings should start at nine instead of ten?” He fixed a dark stare on William. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me. These days you have other plans at ten.”
William glanced at his watch. It was 9:46; there was still plenty of time to finish the meeting.
“Look at the bright side,” Sonya said, snapping the schedule book shut. “While William’s in Germany, you can sleep all day if you want.”
“Don’t try to sweet talk me,” Richard grumbled. He leaned back, uttered a muffled curse, and turned to glare at his high-backed chair, with its intricate carving and burgundy velvet upholstery. “Why can’t you get comfortable chairs? These damned relics make you sit up like you’ve got a ramrod stuffed up your—”
“I think you can go,” William said. “Sonya and I have some things to discuss, but they don’t involve you.”
“Thank God.” Richard hauled himself to his feet, scooped up the papers in front of him, and headed for the door.
William glanced at Sonya. “I’ll be right back.” He followed Richard into the hall, stopping him at the top of the steps. “What’s wrong with you?”
Richard heaved a loud sigh. “Sorry, old man. I should be wearing a ‘toxic mood’ warning. It was a long night, most of which I don’t remember, and I feel like crap. Actually, come to think of it, when I work my way up to feeling like crap I’ll issue a press release.”
“All that snarling because of a hangover? I’m surprised you’re not immune by now.”
“This is the mother of all hangovers,” Richard groaned, rubbing his forehead. “Damn, I’m speaking in clichés; it’s even worse than I thought. Change that to ‘second cousin on my father’s side of all hangovers.’”
“I thought you were cutting back on the carousing, that you’d gotten tired of it.”
“I said cutting back, not quitting. We weren’t all born middle-aged.”
William ignored Richard’s jibe. “I’m going for a run in the park right before lunch. Think you’ll be sufficiently recovered to come along?”
“That’s all I need.” Richard pressed his palm to his forehead and groaned. “Why don’t you just put me on a pogo stick while you’re at it?”
William shook his head and chuckled. “All right. Go home and get some rest.”
“Later, Will. Give my regards to the Autobahn.”
Richard made his way gingerly down the curved staircase, his hand clutching the rail in a death grip. William watched for a few seconds, still shaking his head in silent amusement, and then returned to his office.
“Did you find out what was behind his sunny disposition?” Sonya asked.
“A hangover,” he said, sinking into his chair. Richard had a point; the chairs were more decorative than functional. But they, along with the desk and the conference table, had been purchased by the William Darcy who built the house. They had been valuable antiques even then, and to William their value was magnified by their connection to his heritage. Perhaps the chairs could line the walls, with more comfortable chairs around the table. He ran a finger along the table’s polished surface, admiring the wood grain.
“A hangover? Is that all?” She set down her coffee cup with a soft clink. “I was on the verge of shoving a cinnamon roll in his mouth to shut him up.”
“You’d have been in line behind me,” William retorted with a grin.
“Are you sure there isn’t something else the matter with him? Lately he seems ….” She paused for a second and then shrugged. “Never mind. We need to talk about the Kennedy Center concert for a minute. The White House protocol officer needs to know the name of your guest for the luncheon. I assume you’re taking Elizabeth?”
He scowled at a tiny inkblot on the cuff of his shirt. “Yes, give them her name.” Gran would be disappointed, but he couldn’t help that.
“I still need to make her travel arrangements. Will she be meeting you in Washington?”
“No. She’s coming here first. We’ll be flying back from San Francisco together, but I don’t know the exact date yet.”
“I assume you’re going to give me those dates soon? Or are you planning to change your mind daily for the next two weeks and then send me groveling to the airlines for—”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I can.” William wasn’t interested in another diatribe about his ever-changing travel arrangements. “Have you finished the analysis of my schedule?”
Her eyes flicked in his direction, but she didn’t comment on the interruption. Despite her acerbic manner, Sonya never forgot who was boss. “Yes. You’re almost completely booked for the next two years.”
He had expected as much. “And after that?”
“There are several gigs on the calendar after that, but there’s some open space. Do you want to set a new policy? No more than two trips a month, maybe?”
“No more than one long-distance trip per month—and I’d prefer it if they were six to eight weeks apart—plus one weekend trip per month to a city that is … let’s say no more than a two-hour plane trip.”
She raised her eyebrows. “And you really think that kind of cutback is practical?”
“We’ll make up for it during the summer. You can book me more heavily then.”
“But you know what summers are like. Outdoor venues, pops concerts … stuff you’re not wild about. And there aren’t enough good music festivals to fill your calendar. I’m surprised you’d want to—”
“I’m not interested in debating it.”
She gave him a long, appraising look over the rim of her coffee cup. “Is there something going on? Your health?”
“I’ve never felt better.” He was tempted to tell her that it wasn’t her place to pry; hadn’t he just been reflecting on her excellent grasp of the employer/employee relationship? But she was his friend as well as his secretary. Absent some explanation, she would worry. “I’d like to be more settled in New York during the school year.”
“I see.” Sonya wore a guarded smile, but he detected a glimmer of amusement in her eyes.
“I want Elizabeth to travel with me.”
“But since she’s a teacher, she can’t travel easily except on quick weekend trips or in the summer.”
“I see.” Sonya’s voice kept rising slightly in pitch, as though she sipped helium and not coffee.
“Stop saying that.” William refilled his coffee cup, inhaling the rich scent of hazelnuts and vanilla. He glanced away from her knowing smile, starting to feel like an amoeba trapped under a microscope.
“Does this mean congratulations are in order?”
The question startled him, but he realized that he should have expected it. “Not yet, but we’re heading in that direction.”
She nodded, her smile widening slightly. “Well, good for you. I’m glad you two got over that bump in the road last month.”
Calling it a bump in the road was a massive understatement, but he nodded and replied, “So am I.”
“You already know how much I like her. Aside from her dubious taste in men, obviously.”
He snorted and glowered at her, failing in his attempt to feign outrage. An unprecedented urge seized him to open his heart, sharing the tale of his recent weeks of emotional turmoil. But it was 9:55, and they had one more item to discuss. “Where do we stand on that real estate transaction?”
As before, she shifted gears effortlessly, following his lead. “I’m waiting to hear from the realtor. I expect to have some news before you leave for the airport.”
“Excellent. Thank you. That’s all for now.” He rose to his feet, snatched his cell phone from his desk, and strode across the room. He had just enough time to get upstairs before—
He paused in the doorway. “What?”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you discussed this purchase with Elizabeth before we take definitive action? And Charles Bingley, too”
“I don’t want them to know about it yet.”
“You’re going to have to tell them eventually.”
“But not yet.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I do. Now, if you’ll excuse me ….”
Sonya nodded. “Tell her I said hello.”
He took the steps to the third floor two at a time. As he rounded the corner into his sitting room, the phone in his hand rang. Smiling, he raised it to his ear. “Good morning, cara.”
He settled into his chair, his smile growing broader. “How are you this morning?”
“It’s too soon to tell. I just woke up.”
“I bet you look gorgeous.”
“Oh, yeah. Lying in bed with my hair a mess and my eyes all bleary.”
“Precisely. Gorgeous.” His vivid memories of their mornings together were all the more precious for their scarcity.
“I wish you were here,” she sighed. “I’d love to snuggle with you for a while before I get up.”
“Close your eyes.”
“I’m there with you, holding you.”
She exhaled a long, slow sigh. “You’re so warm.”
“And you’re so soft.” He shut his eyes and felt her cradled against his body.
He was deep in reverie when she finally spoke. “I miss you.” The little quaver in her voice reached across the miles like a ghostly hand trembling against his cheek.
“And I miss you.” Almost ten days had passed since her return to San Francisco. “If it weren’t for this trip to Berlin, you might have found me standing on your doorstep yesterday when you got home from school.”
“That would have been wonderful. Uncomfortable for you, though. Our doorstep is small and your feet are so big, they’d never fit.”
He grinned. “There you go again about my feet. They’re not that big.”
“If you say so. What are your plans for today? Until your flight, I mean.”
“I’m going for a run, and then taking Gran and Aunt Eleanor out to lunch.”
“What a good boy you are.”
Despite her teasing tone, he paused for a moment of self-congratulation. The extra time devoted to his family had begun to produce results. In particular, he had noticed a softening in Rose’s questions and remarks about Elizabeth. “And after lunch I’ll practice until it’s time to leave for the airport.”
“Will you see Georgie before you go?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He had suggested that Georgiana come directly home from school instead of going to Courtney’s house and staying there until dinnertime, as was her usual practice. Georgiana’s response, a non-committal shrug, had left him perplexed and annoyed. Hard as he tried to deny it, his sister seemed to be slipping away.
“Have you met Courtney’s parents?”
“Gran knows her mother. They’re in the Opera Guild.”
“But doesn’t Courtney live with her father and stepmother?”
“I believe so.”
“And Georgie spends a lot of time there after school, right?”
“Is anybody at home in the afternoons, or are the girls there alone?”
“Isn’t Georgie too old to need a babysitter? You’re the one who’s always reminding me that she’s not a child anymore.” No matter what he did where Georgiana was concerned, Elizabeth always seemed to find fault with it.
“I’m not talking about a babysitter, just some basic supervision.”
Annoyance began to simmer inside him, as it usually did when they discussed Georgiana. “I didn’t need ‘basic supervision’ when I was fifteen.”
“At fifteen, you were a college student with a raft of concert gigs on your calendar. Your closet was full of tuxedos, not jeans and tee shirts. Besides, you were never fifteen.”
“You sound like Richard,” he grumbled. “This morning he said I was born middle-aged.”
“Then it’s a good thing I have a weakness for middle-aged pianists.”
“You mean like Bill Collins?” He smirked, pleased with his quick retort.
“Yikes!” She laughed. “Yeah, you two are practically twins. But back to Georgie. Seriously, Will, do you even know for sure that they go to Courtney’s house after school? Kitty and Lydia used to cause all sorts of trouble wandering around on their own.”
He pressed his lips together and blew a gust of air through his nose. Georgiana was nothing like Lydia, and only his affection for Elizabeth silenced the sharp retort that sprang to his lips. “I know you mean well, Lizzy, but I trust Georgie. We had one misunderstanding about her whereabouts, but she’s given us no other reason to doubt her.”
“I’m not suggesting that you do anything drastic. I’m just saying, call Courtney’s father and invite him to the house for a glass of wine. Or, better yet, try to get him to invite you, so you can get a feel for the environment at his house.”
William didn’t answer. She was right, but it annoyed him to feel like an inadequate older brother yet again.
After a brief pause, she continued. “No matter how much you trust Georgie, don’t you want to know that she’s spending time in a safe place?”
“Fine,” he said, sounding curt even to his own ears. “I’ll call him when I get back from Berlin.”
“Good. It can’t hurt to be a little careful, right?”
He grunted in agreement.
She paused, perhaps waiting for a more enthusiastic response to her remark. When he didn’t offer one, she said, “Well, I hate to cut this short, but I have an early meeting at school. I guess you won’t be able to call me tonight?”
“By the time my flight lands, you’ll be asleep. I could probably call you from the plane, though.”
“No, wait till you get there and wake me up. You’re worth it.”
They said their goodbyes, taking long enough that Elizabeth joked that she would have to attend her meeting in her nightshirt. Grinning at that image, he slipped the phone into his pocket and leaned back in his chair. He wouldn’t be surprised if a nightshirt-clad Elizabeth materialized on the flight to Germany that night. In fact, he could almost guarantee it.
Elizabeth scowled at her laptop as she scrolled through the practice room schedule, searching for an open room. Classes had just ended for the semester, but one of her students had asked for an emergency voice lesson to help prepare for an audition. Once upon a time, such requests had been simple to fill; she had met with her voice students in her office. But things had changed.
Catherine de Bourgh’s most effective form of punishment had been to banish Elizabeth from her office. Claiming that the space was needed “for someone who is committed to teaching here,” she had forced Elizabeth to move to a broom closet-sized room for the rest of the semester—worse yet, a broom closet shared with two doctoral students. Elizabeth would have borne it with tolerance and humor had her officemates not been such a disruptive presence. They tended to burst into song without warning, warbling excerpts from the opera they were composing together. When they weren’t singing, they shared a habit of humming randomly chosen arias. And if one started, the other invariably hummed along with a single-voice reduction of the orchestral accompaniment.
Had she not been so busy, she might have snuck a peek at the musical score scattered across their desks in order to surprise them with a soprano aria. But she had exams to review, term papers to read, and grades to assign, and the sooner it was done, the sooner she could pack her things and depart. Now was not the time for good-natured hijinks.
The composing duo had crooned their way off to lunch a short time ago, leaving Elizabeth with a precious interval of peace. They had invited her to join them, issuing the invitation in an impromptu—and admittedly funny—tenor/baritone duet, but she had refused with a smile, citing the work waiting to be done. She reached for the top paper in a stack to one side of her desk. A purple pen in one hand, she was soon immersed in the life and work of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, the subject of an unusually well-written student paper.
Her cell phone came to life, playing a shrill electronic version of the overture to The Magic Flute. She dove for her purse, barely extracting the phone by the fourth ring.
Sonya’s voice at the other end of the line surprised her and gave her a moment of fear. William’s flight home from Berlin was due to land within the hour; had he missed the flight, or worse? But Sonya relieved her worries. “No, everything is fine. But I wanted to make sure you knew that William’s birthday is on Thursday.”
“Of course.” William was due to arrive in San Francisco on Thursday afternoon. Everything was under control for his birthday celebration, more or less.
“Good. I thought you probably knew, but I decided I’d better make sure.”
“Thanks. I’m glad you’re looking out for me. How’s your mother doing?”
“Health-wise, she’s fine, but she doesn’t like her new apartment. I think it’ll be better when she makes some friends; right now, she’s lonely. William’s giving me some extra time off over the holidays so I can go down there for a long visit.”
“I’m glad. Heaven knows you’ve earned it.”
“I think it suits his purposes, too. It means I won’t be bugging him with foundation business when he’d rather be spending time with you.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but smile; Sonya was probably right. “Then it sounds like I won’t see you when I’m in New York?”
“It depends on your schedule. Which, by the way, he still hasn’t given me. If we don’t make your plane reservations soon, I may have trouble getting you the flights you want.”
“That’s my fault; I’ve been procrastinating. We’ll get it figured out this week, I promise.”
As Elizabeth leaned forward to drop her phone back into her purse, she heard the faint sound of a throat being cleared. She turned and her eyes widened. Anne de Bourgh stood in the doorway. In her dull gray dress, she almost faded into the shadows in the hall. She seemed to be trying to compress herself into the smallest possible space, all round shoulders and averted eyes.
“Anne! I see you found me here in the janitor’s closet.” Elizabeth couldn’t quite extract the sarcasm from her tone.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” Anne said in her frail voice. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“No, not at all. What can I do for you?”
“I ….” Anne raised her eyes to meet Elizabeth’s. She stood gnawing her lip for a long moment. “I need to apologize for my mother again. I must sound like a broken record.”
“Thank you, but like I said in New York, you’re not responsible for her actions.”
“I told her that she shouldn’t treat you like this.” Anne glanced around the office and winced, no doubt comparing it to her plush quarters in the Dean’s suite. “But she’s so angry, and she won’t listen to me.”
“I understand. Your mother makes her own decisions. But it was nice of you to try.”
“The reception on Friday … you’ve gotten your invitation by now, haven’t you? I know at first you didn’t get one.”
Elizabeth nodded. “William’s grandmother did something about it. I don’t know what.”
“She had her secretary call and refuse the invitation to the reception on behalf of the entire family, William included.”
“You’re kidding!” Elizabeth already knew that Rose could play rough, but to deprive the reception of its guest of honor was a fatal body blow. No wonder Catherine had crumbled under the pressure.
“That’s not all. Aunt Rose was thinking of hosting her own reception at the Fairmont, where all of William’s friends would be welcome. I believe that’s a direct quote.”
“I see.” Elizabeth pressed her lips tightly together to suppress a smile. If only Anne had delivered this news fifteen minutes earlier; it would have been fun to hear the other side of the story from Sonya.
“You’re so lucky to have Aunt Rose defending you. I should warn you, though; it made Mother even angrier. I’ve overheard her calling colleagues here in California, and also out in New York, telling them not to hire you.”
Elizabeth sighed. “I knew she’d do that, but thanks for the warning.”
Anne blinked and stared past Elizabeth at a poster of Mozart, depicted in baggy pants, balanced on a skateboard with a violin in his hands. “Well, I should let you get back to work.” But she remained in the doorway. Her posture looked unbalanced, as though the slightest breeze would topple her.
Elizabeth swallowed her impatience and forced herself to speak gently. “Was there something else you wanted to talk about? You’re welcome to come in.”
“Oh, no.” Anne licked her lips. “I don’t want to take up your time. I just … I wondered ….”
“What is it?”
Anne developed a sudden interest in her shoes. “Have you talked to Roger lately?”
“I saw him at rehearsal a few days ago.”
“Did he … mention me?”
Elizabeth smiled. “As a matter of fact, he did. I understand you had dinner with him last weekend.”
Anne looked up. In the depths of her eyes, Elizabeth could see a tremulous smile struggling to assert itself. “Yes,” Anne said. “And I … I’m confused.”
“He’s so outgoing, and so easy to talk to, and I’m … not.” Anne sighed. “It seems like he should be spending time with someone different. Someone like you.”
“Me?” Elizabeth shook her head. “Oh, no. Roger’s a wonderful guy, but we’re just friends.”
“But it seems like he’d want to spend time with someone lively and fun, not a wallflower like me.”
Elizabeth couldn’t disagree, not even for politeness’s sake. Catherine de Bourgh’s colorless daughter seemed ill-suited to a warm, fun-loving man like Roger.
She sighed as she studied the pile of papers on her desk. If left alone, they were certain to reproduce and double the size of the stack. And the draft of her Music Appreciation final exam awaited, still in need of editing. She would be working well into the evening under the best of circumstances.
Then she scrutinized Anne’s face. A glimmer of hope lit up the pale blue eyes, but such a tiny spark could be too easily extinguished. Elizabeth made her decision. “Would you like to go get some lunch, and we can talk about it?”
The glimmer bloomed into something stronger, and in that moment Anne was almost pretty. “That would be wonderful.”
Elizabeth rose to her feet and grabbed her purse. “Let’s go.”
Anne’s eyes widened. “I almost forgot.” She extracted a key from her pocket and handed it to Elizabeth. “To your old office. I know Mother told you something different, but it’s just going to sit empty till next semester. As long as you keep the door shut when you’re in there, she’ll will never know the difference.”
“Thank you so much!” Elizabeth wanted to bound down the hall in glee. She would have to employ stealth tactics to use the office, but it would be worth it to escape the Opera Geeks. “Anne, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”