“Are you okay, Lizzy?” Jane asked. “You were quiet during lunch.”
“About the wedding?”
“Yeah. It’s a little intimidating. But it’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Elizabeth decided to change the subject. “I assume you’ve told Mom that you’re engaged.”
“Yes, and she’s thrilled. I don’t think she understands yet that Charles’s financial situation has changed, but I know she’ll be happy for us regardless. What about you? Have you told her yet?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I might wait and tell them in person. Has Charles told his parents?”
“He called his mother, and she’s planning to come up for the wedding.”
“We’re not pinning our hopes on it, though. Charles doubts that his father will let her come.”
“How is Mr. Bingley doing?” Elizabeth hadn’t asked about him lately.
“Not that well. According to Caroline, he still seems lethargic, and his memory isn’t good. They expected he’d be able to work at least part-time by now, but he’s nowhere near strong enough.”
“So Caroline is still running the company?”
Jane nodded. “Charles says it’s obvious that she loves being in charge. Whenever they talk, he hears about her most recent battle with one of the vice presidents. Of course, she always wins.”
“In her version of events, anyway.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Anything new on the legal front?”
“Here we are,” Jane said. “I didn’t exaggerate about the view, did I?”
Elizabeth stared at the panorama below them in rapt silence. They stood at one of the highest points in Pacific Heights. An open area between two houses afforded a spectacular view of the city, the bay, and the foothills beyond.
“Hmm.” Jane scanned the row of luxurious homes lining the crest of the hill. “That one, with all the windows and the Mediterranean courtyard. How about you?”
A gust of wind whipped past them, and Elizabeth pulled her fleece jacket more tightly around her. “Of course,” she said with as casual an air as she could muster, “Charles’s house is pretty terrific too.”
“I know.” Jane sighed. “But we’ll be fine at the condo. We don’t need anything extravagant.”
“Isn’t the condo small for raising a family? And there aren’t many kids in the building.”
“We’ve talked about that. We’ll probably look for a place in the East Bay in a year or so. Real estate is more reasonable over there.”
Elizabeth pushed her windblown hair out of her eyes. “What if you didn’t have to move?”
“We’ve looked at it from every angle, Lizzy. We can’t afford it, and the longer we stay, the harder it’ll be to let it go. In fact, we’re surprised our mysterious buyer isn’t pushing for an early closing, before the holidays.”
“Maybe the buyer ….” Elizabeth pressed her lips together, searching for the right words. “Maybe the buyer isn’t planning on living in the house. Maybe he has another interest.”
“The thing is … I know who the buyer is.”
Jane simply stared at Elizabeth, bewildered.
Elizabeth plowed ahead. “It’s William. He wants to buy the house for you and Charles. As a form of atonement for his role in keeping the two of you apart.”
Jane shook her head. “I don’t understand. He made an offer on the house? Without saying anything to Charles first?”
“I know. Another grand gesture without thinking it through.”
“But ….” Jane shook her head again. “How long have you known about this?”
“He just told me this morning, on the way to the airport. He wanted me to talk to you about it.”
“It’s generous of him, but of course we have to refuse. I know Charles would never go along with this, and I agree with him.”
Elizabeth sighed. Jane’s reaction was no surprise. “It’s just that William is determined to make up for what he did.”
“You understand why we have to say no, don’t you?”
Elizabeth did, as hard as she had tried to convince herself that a compromise might be possible. “I told him that’s what you’d say.”
“We’ll have to put the house back on the market after the holidays.” Jane sighed. “I knew the high price we got was too good to be true.”
“Maybe you should let William go ahead and buy it. It’s not fair to Charles to have to put it on the market again. William can keep it as an investment, and maybe some day you’ll be able to afford to buy it back.”
Jane’s fragile smile was tinged with sadness. “I doubt it. I love my law practice, but I do way too much pro bono work to ever get rich. And the jazz club Charles wants to open is going to take every spare penny we earn, and then some.”
“Couldn’t you live in the house, kind of like caretakers, and keep an eye on it for William?” Elizabeth knew she should stop pushing, but she had to admit that she wanted to see Jane and Charles stay in the house at least as much as William did.
Jane shook her head slowly, tears shimmering in her eyes. “Lizzy, even if Charles agreed to that, I couldn’t let him. Standing on his own is new to him. If he accepted that kind of help from William, it would destroy what he’s trying to build.”
“I’m sorry.” Elizabeth pushed her hands into her pockets. “You’re right, of course. I just wish there were a way to make it work. William wanted so much to do this for you.” She shook her head. “But I understand completely, and I’ll tell explain it to him. Charles is going to be angry, isn’t he?”
“I”m afraid so, but I have to tell him.”
Elizabeth stared out at the panorama below, watching a ferry plow across the bay from Sausalito. Finally she spoke. “I’ve got to get home. I need a nap; William and I were up most of the night talking about Georgie. And then I’ve got to get ready for tonight.”
“Lizzy, I’m sorry we can’t accept the house.”
“No, I understand. When he did something like this with my job, I was furious. I’m the last person who should expect you to accept such a huge gift. He means well, but he goes way overboard.”
Jane nodded. “It was thoughtful and generous. Please tell him I said that.”
The sisters headed down the hill, back to the house Jane loved but would lose all too soon.
William paused near the bottom of the steps and rubbed his temples, yawning. Taking a nap had seemed like a good idea when he collapsed on his bed, but he hadn’t counted on sleeping through dinner and into the evening. Had Rose been home, she would probably have awakened him for dinner, but she was at the Daltons’ annual Christmas party. William had escaped this obligation because of his original plan to be in California; he was grateful to Rose for keeping his early return a secret. He lacked the energy and the patience to spend the evening fending off Mitzi Dalton.
The living room was dark, but light shone out of the kitchen into the hall and he heard the sound of running water. He paused in the doorway. “Hi, Mrs. Reynolds.”
“There you are! Have you been asleep all this time?”
He nodded, trying to stifle a yawn that finally won the battle.
“Are you hungry?”
He was. “I assume Georgie already had dinner?”
“Yes, though she left most of it on her plate. What are you hungry for?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about a nice salmon steak with a baked potato and a salad?”
“That sounds good.” He hesitated. “I have some news I wanted to share.”
Mrs. Reynolds set down the pan she was holding. “Yes, earlier you said you had something to tell me.”
“Elizabeth Bennet and I are engaged.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” She hurried over and flung her arms around his neck, no mean feat given their height difference. William patted her back in an awkward gesture—it had been years since he’d received a hug from her, and he wasn’t sure what to do. Perhaps sensing his discomfort, she released him and continued, “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am! Elizabeth is such a lovely girl. I’m so glad you finally asked her.”
William grinned. “Actually, she asked me.”
“Well, good for her! I just know you two will be very happy together. Have you set a wedding date?”
“Not yet. I suppose we’ll have to talk to Gran about that.” He paused, not sure what else to say. “I’ll get out of your way now. I’ll be in the library.”
He wandered down the hall. The library was dark, illuminated only by the tiny white lights on the massive Fraser fir in front of the patio doors. It soared perhaps fifteen feet into the air, but even at that height the lofted ceiling stretched out of reach of the star topping the tree. As always, the tree was decorated primarily in gold and red, with fragile glass ornaments and shining garlands of beads draped in graceful swags over its fragrant branches. He settled into an armchair and stared at it, watching it glitter in the dim light.
Then his eyes fell on the piano. Had it been less than twenty-four hours since his recital? It seemed impossible. He wandered over to the instrument and, operating on instinct, seated himself and rested his hands on the keys. To his surprise, an arrangement he hadn’t played since his youth, interweaving “Silent Night” and “Oh Holy Night,”1 flowed from his fingers.
The final chord left the piano strings vibrating; the sound gradually faded into the air. He stared down at the keyboard, his eyelids growing heavy. In his mind, he saw Elizabeth standing behind him, her smile warm, her eyes glowing. She stepped close to him, and he felt her caressing his neck and shoulders.
His head jerked up. Mrs. Reynolds stood beside the piano. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but Charles Bingley is on the phone. I can tell him you’ll call him back if you like, but he said it was important.”
“No, it’s fine.” He cleared his throat, which felt dry as sandpaper. “Could you please bring me a glass of ice water?”
She left on that errand, and he crossed the room to pick up the phone. “Hello, Charles?”
“Will, I’m glad I caught you. We’ve got to leave in a few minutes for Lizzy’s concert.”
William sighed. The concert! He had forgotten it in the turmoil over Georgiana. “What’s going on?” He dropped onto the sofa, kicked off his shoes, and, after checking to make sure Mrs. Reynolds was nowhere in sight, propped his feet on the coffee table.
“How the hell could you do that?”
“How the hell could I do what?” William blinked, suddenly awake.
“How the hell could you make an offer on my house without asking me, or at least telling me?”
“Oh.” William grimaced. Something else he had forgotten. He was momentarily annoyed that Elizabeth hadn’t called to warn him, but then he remembered his cell phone, powered off and still in his briefcase from the flight that morning.
“That’s all you have to say for yourself?”
William scrambled to clear his mind. “I did you and Jane some serious harm last May. I wanted to make up for it.”
“I know. Lizzy explained it to Jane. Some bizarre form of atonement.”
“What’s so bizarre about trying to compensate for a mistake?”
“Look, Will, we’ve been over this. You apologized, and I told you that you were taking too much of the blame on yourself. How did that turn into you buying me a house?”
“But you’ve talked about how much you and Jane love the house. I didn’t want you to lose it. Besides, why shouldn’t I help a friend, when I have the resources to do it?”
“Will, there’s helping, and then there’s helping too much. You helped me get back on my feet by putting me in touch with the people at the symphony. I wouldn’t have gotten that job if it weren’t for you. I’ll always be grateful for that. But this crosses the line.”
Mrs. Reynolds arrived with William’s ice water. He scrambled to remove his feet from the coffee table, but not before he saw her sidelong glance.
“We have to undo this deal,” Charles said in a resigned tone, “I’ll tell the realtor what happened and have her put the house back on the market.”
“No, I’ll buy it anyway.”
“Can’t let you do that. You paid too much.”
“But it wouldn’t be fair to you to have to start over trying to sell it.”
Charles was silent for a moment. “What would you do with the place if you kept it?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have Sonya investigate the investment potential and then decide.” A thought struggled to the surface. “If I decide to keep it, I might be looking for a tenant. Perhaps you and Jane—”
“No way. We can’t afford the rent on a house like that.”
William scowled. “You won’t let me do anything to help you?”
“Would you, if our situations were reversed?”
The truth of Charles’s words hit home. “All right. Put it back on the market if you want. But I’m still willing to buy it, if you change your mind or have trouble finding another buyer.”
“Thanks for understanding, Will. On another topic, Jane and I were sorry to hear about Georgie. The poor kid.”
“Thanks.” For his few minutes at the piano, William had managed to forget his sister’s troubles. They came flooding back now.”
“Anything we can do, let us know. Jane is standing by any time you want to talk” Charles paused for a moment. “On a more cheerful note, I hear congratulations are in order.”
“Yes, they are.” William sat back in the chair and sipped his water.
“You’re completely crazy about her, aren’t you?”
William smiled. “You already know the answer to that.”
“I just like to hear it now and then, so I can remind you that I introduced the two of you. And, by the way. It’s not every guy who gets proposed to, on bended knee, no less. At the airport.”
“I know.” William’s smile broadened. “It was ….” He chuckled softly. “It was quintessentially Lizzy. And congratulations to you as well.”
“Thank you, and thanks for the encouragement. But, you know, you could have told me you were thinking about proposing. I saw you with the ring, and I kept dropping boulder-sized hints, but you didn’t say a word.”
“I hadn’t made up my mind yet.”
“Well, now comes the terrifying part—the wedding.”
“Don’t remind me.” William hadn’t thought about it, perhaps out of pure denial. “You’re lucky you can do what you want this time. If I know Gran, it’s going to be a three-ring circus.”
“Look, Will, Jane’s signaling me and she’s getting more frantic by the second. Gotta go, or we’ll be late for Lizzy’s concert. I’ll give her a kiss for you.”
“On the cheek,” William retorted.
Charles laughed. “You got it. Have a good evening.”
William returned to the piano. He stared down at the keys, frowning. His grandmother would expect him to play at her holiday party next weekend, which was still going to happen despite Georgie’s problems. Although he rarely played at parties, he made exceptions for Rose.
Maybe “Rudolph”? He had found a lively arrangement mixing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with “Let It Snow,” and had used it as a light-hearted encore at last night’s recital. But it was boisterous, perhaps too much so for the library. He jumped up and strode around the room turning on lamps, simulating a party atmosphere as best he could. Then he returned to the piano and launched into the piece. The music transported him back to the previous evening, before the news of Georgie, before the bitter argument and his sleepless night … but also before the woman he adored had asked him to marry her. With this reminder of her, his fatigue fell away.
His hands exploded off the keys with a flourish following the final note of the song. The sound of tentative applause startled him. Georgiana stood near the door to the library. “I like that one,” she said softly.
“I played it as an encore last night.” He forced himself to remain seated, to appear calm. He didn’t want to frighten her away again.
She stood motionless, her expression unreadable. After a long silence she spoke again. “I … I’ll see you later.” She turned to go.
She froze and turned back slowly. “What?”
“Mrs. Reynolds is fixing me a late dinner. Why not keep me company while I eat?”
She hesitated. “I have homework.”
A brief silence followed, broken only by the muffled sound of traffic on Fifth Avenue. At last she spoke. “I don’t want to talk about what happened yesterday.”
“Then we’ll talk about other things.”
She sighed. “Okay.”
“Good.” He rose to his feet. “Let’s see if my dinner’s ready, because I’m starved.”
Elizabeth stood backstage, listening to two of her students singing, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” It reminded her that she wouldn’t be home on December 25. She had called her mother that afternoon to share the news that she and William would not be spending Christmas Eve with the Bennets after all, but she had held back the news of her engagement. Her mother had fretted and fussed until Elizabeth had explained that she would instead be in New York, a guest of the Darcys.
“Oh, my goodness, Lizzy! Well, of course, if they want you to come for a longer visit, that’s wonderful! What an honor! William must be thinking of proposing, or he wouldn’t have invited you to spend so much time with his family. Oh, my goodness! My Lizzy, married to the heir to the Darcy fortune! I would never have thought it possible! My dear, have Jane help you to choose what clothes to take. You’ve never had the slightest idea how to dress yourself, and you have to look your best if you have any hope of wringing a proposal out of him.”
Elizabeth grinned at the thought of the faded jeans and well-worn cable-knit sweater she had worn to the airport, flung on in haste in the pre-dawn gloom.
She returned her attention to the performers on stage. The concert, made up of lesser-known Broadway songs plus a few holiday selections, was going well. Ticket sales had been brisk, guaranteeing a sizable sum for the conservatory’s scholarship fund. William had purchased seats in advance for himself, his grandmother, and the Fitzwilliams—seats that would now be empty.
Her students finished their duet, and enthusiastic applause filled the auditorium. It was Elizabeth’s turn now. The applause dwindled to silence, and then she took three long, slow breaths and switched on a bright smile. She stepped on stage with a confidence she had learned long ago to simulate. You could often muster genuine confidence if you began by faking it.
Her eyes widened when she saw that William’s seats were occupied. Warmth streamed through her when she identified the occupants: Roger Stonefield, Warren Black, and Jim Pennington from Golden Gate Jazz, along with Jim’s wife. Elizabeth sent a grateful smile to Jane and Charles, who sat beside her band-mates; they had undoubtedly made the arrangements.
She nodded to the conductor in the orchestra pit, his baton raised and ready. He signaled the pianist, who played the introduction, and she began to sing:
Christmas in Las Vegas and LA,
And I always thought it couldn’t matter less.
But lately, come December, I confess …
I want the tree full of toys and tinsel,
I want the wreath on the red front door,
I want the elves in the yard,
And each sentimental card dripping glitter on the floor.
I want a roof full of plywood reindeer,
I want a road full of horse-drawn sleighs,
All those Christmas clichés.
I want the turkey with all the trimmings,
The turkey Mom hardly ever made.
I want the gulp and the tear
At the moment when I hear Johnny Mathis being played.
I want a lake full of perfect skaters,
I want that fruitcake with sugar glaze,
All those Christmas clichés.
Not to mention the snow,
Not to mention the choir,
Not to mention the candles in the window
And chestnuts roasting on the fire.
Inside a house filled with noise and laughter,
Along a street bathed in twinkling light,
I want the bells and the drums,
Mistletoe and sugarplums, and kids to tuck in tight.
As for that guy in the bright red outfit,
Instead of flying off, he stays!
All those Christmas clichés.
I want those overused, corny, endlessly lovely Christmas clichés.2
The final lines, with their poignant reminder of William’s absence, filled her eyes with unanticipated tears, but she blinked them back and smiled lovingly at her sister and her friends. Jane beamed with pride, applauding vigorously, while Charles and her band-mates punctuated their applause with raucous hoots of approval loud enough to make her blush. She nodded her thanks again and, with a little wave at her friends, left the stage.
“You’ve got quite a cheering section,” the next performer observed. “Lucky you.”
Elizabeth nodded and dabbed a tear from her eye. “Lucky me.”
She picked her way through the backstage area, skirting loose rigging lines and thick extension cords resembling coiled orange snakes, some secured to the floor with duct tape. Chaos reigned in the green room, the result of the large cadre of performers, half of them chattering loudly while the other half stared into mirrors, humming softly like a hive of formally dressed bees. She retrieved her purse from under the counter, donned her coat, and exited the stage doors into the cool, damp night. Then she pulled her phone from her purse and speed dialed.
“Hi, there,” she said softly, after he answered.
“There’s my girl. At least, I assume this is the future Mrs. William Darcy.”
“I don’t know. Is this the future Mr. Elizabeth Bennet?”
They laughed together, bridging three thousand miles in seconds. “I’m sorry I haven’t called yet,” he said. “It was a strange day, and then tonight I knew you had your concert. Is it over?”
“No, but I don’t sing again until after intermission.” She leaned against the theater door and pulled up her collar to cover her throat. “I have an important question that couldn’t wait any longer. When do I get my ring?”
He chuckled, a warm rumble that coaxed an answering smile onto her face. “I have it right here. You’ll just have to come and get it.”
“It’s a deal. Now, tell me all about your day.”
As she listened to his deep voice, contentment stole over her, silencing the twinges of worry and discontent that had plagued her for most of the day. Only now could she feel the full weight of the words she had spoken with more than a little irony backstage. Lucky me.
1 “Silent Night/Oh Holy Night,” performed by John Bayless on Christmas Rhapsody, © 2004, Koch Records. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
2 “All Those Christmas Clichés,” written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Performed by Christiane Noll on A Christmas Survival Guide, © 1999, 2Die4Productions. CD available on Amazon. Noll’s recording is not available for online listening, but you can hear Nancy Lamott’s recording on Youtube.