The drive to the hospital was a quiet one, the light-hearted mood of their morning left behind at the beach. Charles’s fingers tapped incessantly against the steering wheel, his conversation limited to occasional remarks about area restaurants and jazz clubs they might visit that evening.
William used the time to wrestle with a perplexing dilemma: how to talk to Charles about Jane and the prenup without revealing the sorry state of his relationship with Elizabeth. His impromptu trip to Los Angeles was proving a blessed distraction, but should he open the emotional floodgates, he doubted his ability to shut them again.
William had been on the verge of asking that question. “You seemed so carefree at the beach, I thought maybe you’d made a decision.”
“Nope, not even close. It’s just that surfing helps me to relax and forget my troubles.”
Running offered William similar benefits. He grunted softly, nodding, as they passed through the oversized revolving doors and into the massive lobby.
“It’s just me, the board, and the wave,” Charles said, pointing the way to the elevators. “No manipulation, no mind games, just a test of strength and skill. And if you get a good ride … it’s like being one with nature, though I suppose that sounds like metaphysical crap. It’s a cliché, but you really are sitting—or, I guess, standing—on top of the world.”
“Sounds like a powerful experience.”
“I know I always say this, but you should let me teach you. It’s such a waste to have a house practically on top of Bathsheba and not surf.” Pemberley was located just minutes from Bathsheba Beach, a well-regarded surfing beach on the east coast of Barbados.
“I’d rather walk on the beach than on the water.”
“If Father hadn’t pushed me to do other things, I’d probably have ended up surfing competitively. I think he knew that. Maybe that’s why he let me go to Juilliard for a while. Better a musician in the family than a professional beach bum, though neither is as good as a boardroom barracuda.”
As they approached Mr. Bingley’s room, Caroline’s strident voice echoed in the hall. “I demand to see my father now. It’s urgent.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the doctor is with him,” a harried female voice answered. “If you’d just go to the waiting room, I’ll be happy to—”
“I’ll wait right here. Perhaps that will encourage the doctor to be quick.”
They rounded a corner and saw Caroline, hands on her hips, tossing her mane of copper-colored hair. She towered over the petite blonde nurse, her height advantage magnifying the impact of her imperious glare. Relief flooded the nurse’s face when she saw Charles approaching.
“Hey, there, Caro, what’s up?” Charles asked. He kissed his sister’s cheek.
“They won’t let me in to see Daddy! And I have to see him right away. It’s important.”
“What’s the matter?”
Caroline’s eyes darted to the side and then back. “It’s … an urgent business matter. I have to leave at once, and I have to speak to him before I go.” Her gaze landed on William, and her harsh expression softened. “William, you’re such a dear to come down and give us moral support.” She stepped forward to kiss him but he drew back, eyeing her with glacial disdain. Her scowl returned as she stepped away from him.
“Where’s Mom?” Charles asked. “Down in the lounge?” Louisa, satisfied with their father’s progress, had left for home that morning, but they had expected to find Mrs. Bingley already at the hospital.
“I haven’t seen her.” Caroline rummaged through her purse and extracted her cell phone. After a quick glance at the display she jammed it back into her purse, her vermillion lips pressed together in an angry line. “Why doesn’t that idiot call me?” she hissed under her breath.
“Why don’t the three of us go to the lounge?” Charles stretched out his arm, inviting Caroline to precede him. “I’m sure the nurse will come and get us as soon as the doctor is finished.”
“I’m not leaving this spot,” Caroline insisted, hands on her hips again.
“Come on, Caro,” Charles said, wearing his brightest smile. “We’re in the way here. Besides, we’ll be more comfortable in the lounge.”
“Comfortable? On those horrid chairs, with one of those awful talk shows blaring on the TV, with people swearing and fighting? Besides, these people do their jobs better if they know someone’s watching.”
“Suit yourself.” Charles shot an apologetic glance at the nurse. “C’mon, Will, let’s go get some coffee.”
William was surprised not to hear the rapid-fire click of Caroline’s heels in hot pursuit as he and Charles headed down the hall, but when he glanced over his shoulder she was still standing guard outside Mr. Bingley’s door, staring at it as though willing it to open.
The coffee left a great deal to be desired, as did the chairs in the waiting room—Caroline had been right about that—but William and Charles made themselves as comfortable as they could. After a few minutes they heard the squeak of rubber-soled shoes in the hall and saw the nurse approaching. “Mr. Bingley, you can see your father now.”
Charles thanked her and rose to his feet. William stayed seated. “I should stay here and give you and your father some privacy.”
“No, that’s not necessary. Come along and say hello.”
The door to Mr. Bingley’s room was partway shut. Charles glanced at the nurse, raising his eyebrows, and she nodded in reply. “Go on in, it’s fine. Your sister is with him.”
As the door swung open, William heard Mr. Bingley’s gruff voice. “In that case, what are you doing here wasting time? Go and deal with it.”
“I will, Daddy, but—” Caroline’s head swiveled toward the door and she fell silent.
“Hello, Father.” Charles stepped toward the bed, wearing a smile that looked a few shades too cheerful to be genuine. His greeting withered in the face of his father’s angry stare.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Mr. Bingley looked as though he might leap from the bed and grab Charles by the throat. “You’re supposed to be at the office handling the instructions I gave you yesterday. I didn’t expect to see you till this afternoon.”
“I know, but I wanted to—”
“And don’t try to pretend that you got an early start and you’re done with everything. I bet I know how you spent your morning.” Mr. Bingley fumbled with the controls to his bed, raising himself to an upright position as he continued his diatribe. “There’s work to be done, and where are you? On the beach, of course. This is exactly why I can’t trust you.”
“I should be going,” Caroline said, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I’ll be back this afternoon.”
“And you’ll take care of what we discussed.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Of course, Daddy,” she said in a soothing voice, leaning over to give him a kiss on the cheek that he seemed to tolerate but not welcome. “You can count on me.” On her way out of the room she brushed against William, her sultry glance making it clear that it was no accident.
Once she was out of sight, William stepped toward the door. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I’m going to wait in the lounge so you two can talk.”
“No, Will, stay.”
Mr. Bingley shook his head. “Your friend understands, as you apparently do not, that we have things to discuss that don’t concern him.”
“I’ll be right down the hall,” William said firmly, despite the imploring look in Charles’s eyes. His presence would not soften Mr. Bingley’s verbal blows; it would merely add the humiliation of a witness. And if Charles chose to stand up to his father, any hint that his defiance required the moral support of a friend would damage his cause.
William sat in the lounge for several minutes, doing his best to concentrate on his book while a bored-looking teenager flipped channels on the television and slurped noisily from a soda cup. Finally Charles appeared, looking pale and agitated.
“I need to go downtown, to the office,” he said, his voice trembling.
Charles shrugged. “The usual. Let’s get going. I need to be back here with some papers by the time he’s done with his lunch.”
“Couldn’t a courier deliver the papers?”
“They’re in his private files. Besides, he … he just wants me to do it.”
“Charles, wait,” William said. He’d held his tongue until now, but he couldn’t stand by and watch his friend dismembered before his eyes. “Are you sure—”
“I know what you’re going to say, Will. I’m fine … or at least I will be.” Charles’s grim expression suggested otherwise. “Let’s get going.” He led the way down the hall.
They arrived at the elevators just as a set of doors opened and Mrs. Bingley emerged. She greeted them in her whispery voice, inclining her head toward the pile of clothing clutched in her hands.
“I’m glad you’re here. I need your advice. Your father sent me back to the house for some things.” She led the way back to the lounge and, once there, deposited her bundle on a table, displaying a collection of bathrobes and slippers.
Charles frowned. “But, Mom, he already has a robe and slippers. I saw them in his room.”
“I know,” she answered, biting her lip. “I brought the wrong ones this morning, so I had to go back home and get these. He said he wanted his velour robe, but he has three and he didn’t say which one so I brought all of them. And the slippers—he didn’t want the moccasins I brought earlier, but I wasn’t sure if he wanted the plain leather pair or the ones lined in fleece. Which do you think he’d want?”
William didn’t understand the problem. “Couldn’t you show him his options and let him choose?”
Out of the corner of his eye, William saw Charles shake his head. Mrs. Bingley re-folded each robe into a pristine package, every wrinkle smoothed away. “He’d be upset if it seemed as though I hadn’t listened to his instructions,” she said, staring at the slippers in earnest contemplation. “I think I’ll take him the fleece-lined ones. He keeps saying it’s too cold in his room. I’ll leave the others here and take them home later. And I’ll give him the burgundy robe. I think he likes that one best.”
“I’m sure that will be fine,” Charles said gently. “I have some things to do at the office, Mom, but we’ll be back this afternoon.”
She kissed Charles on the cheek and then smiled at William. “I know I already said this, but thank you so much for coming to visit,” she said softly, pressing his hand. “You have no idea how much it means to Charles.”
“I’m glad to be here,” he replied. He studied her delicate features and cornflower blue eyes—Charles’s eyes. Her face bore the ravages of a lifetime of worry, habitual sadness dimming her glow to a mere flicker. She turned away from them, drifting down the hall without a sound, her body curling in on itself as though she strove to take up as little space as possible.
Charles tapped out a constant rhythm against his thigh while they awaited an elevator. At last the doors opened and they stepped aboard. Suddenly, Charles thrust out his arm to stop the doors from closing. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I have to—” He nearly leapt off the elevator, followed by a perplexed William, who had to move briskly to keep up.
Mr. Bingley’s loud voice echoed into the hall through his open doorway as they approached his room. “No, I didn’t want the fleece-lined slippers! They’re too warm. My God, you’re as bad as your son. Neither of you can follow a simple set of instructions. And I wanted the blue robe, not this one. Do you have to make three trips to the house to get it right?”
Mrs. Bingley’s trembling voice responded, the words too soft to be intelligible.
“Of course I told you which robe I wanted!” Mr. Bingley thundered. “Stop trying to blame me when we both know it’s your fault, as usual. Now go back there and bring me the right clothes.”
Mrs. Bingley wandered into the hall, the robe and slippers piled haphazardly in her arms. Charles hurried to her side. “Mom, are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Her eyes were full of tears, but she forced her trembling mouth into a dignified smile. “He’s right; I probably just didn’t listen well enough.” She patted Charles’s hand where it lay on her forearm. “You go take care of your errands. Everything is fine.”
Charles stared at her, his mouth fixed in a grim line, and then he pushed past her into the room. William and Mrs. Bingley followed behind, pausing just inside the door.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Mr. Bingley snapped. “You’re supposed to be on your way to the office. Or did you forget where it was?”
“What gives you the right to speak to Mom that way?” Charles glared down at his father, practically breathing fire. William had never seen Charles this way before.
“I don’t see how it’s any business of yours how I speak to my wife,” Mr. Bingley answered, his voice icy calm.
“She’s also my mother, and that makes it my business.”
“Charles, it’s all right,” Mrs. Bingley said, stepping forward.
“No, Mom, it’s not.” Charles directed an agitated glance her way before turning back to his father, his eyes blazing. “I know you’re not feeling well, and you’re stuck in a hospital bed when there’s work to be done and that’s driving you crazy. But none of that gives you the right to tear Mom to shreds.”
Mr. Bingley arched an imperious eyebrow at his son. “I will not be lectured, particularly not by you.”
Charles continued, gesturing wildly with his hands. “So she forgot which color robe you wanted. Big deal. Or maybe you forgot to tell her. You do that a lot, you know—you give vague instructions and then get angry when people can’t read your mind.”
“And would it have killed you to wear the other robe, the first one Mom brought you, till tomorrow? Or are you such a self-absorbed bastard that you don’t care how many trips she has to make to satisfy your whims?”
“I will not listen to any more of this.” Mr. Bingley’s quiet voice was tight with fury, every word sharp as broken glass. “I’ve had enough of your insolence. Leave here immediately, go to the office, and follow the instructions I gave you before I decide to fire you.”
Charles opened his mouth as if to speak, but he closed it again, frowning. He shot a bewildered glance at William. “No.” he said softly.
“What?” Mr. Bingley struggled to sit up straight, grunting in pain as he moved.
“No,” Charles repeated, with more conviction this time. The surprise on his face might have been comical under other circumstances.
“What did you say?” Mr. Bingley eyed Charles warily.
“I said no.” Charles glanced at William again. “That was it—end of the line.” His voice was eerily calm, the fidgety aura that had vibrated around him entirely gone. He nodded his head slowly and spoke quietly, as though to himself. “Yeah. I’ve had enough.”
“Enough of what?” Mr. Bingley’s growl might have yanked Charles back into line under normal circumstances, but this situation was anything but normal.
“Enough of doing what I’m told instead of what I want to do. Enough of pretending I give a damn about the business world. And enough of you belittling me at every opportunity. 32 years is more than enough, don’t you think?”
“Stop wasting my time and explain what you’re talking about.” Mr. Bingley yanked the covers up higher across his chest.
“For starters, I’m quitting my job.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not. I’m sorry, Father, but I can’t work for you anymore.”
Mr. Bingley snorted. “That’s absurd. You’ve never worked for anyone else. Every penny you’ve ever earned has come from me.”
“Then it’s time for a change.”
“Or perhaps you expect to live off your mother and me while you spend every day at the beach with that surfer riffraff, and every night drinking beer and piddling around with your saxophone till God knows what hour.”
“I’m not asking you for anything.”
“Good, because you won’t get a penny from me, not now, and not in my will either, if that’s what you’re thinking. And I’m not changing my mind in a week or two, when you’ve blown through whatever little you’ve managed to save and you’re tending bar in some seedy dive.”
“I don’t need your money, Father.”
Mr. Bingley eyed William coldly from across the room. “Is that why you’re here? Did he talk you into supporting him in idleness?”
“William has nothing to do with this. The only thing that matters is that I’m done taking orders from you.”
“And you pick a time like this, when I’m lying in a hospital bed healing from heart surgery, to make such a pronouncement.” His furious stare locked on Mrs. Bingley. “Congratulations, Ellen. You certainly raised a son to be proud of.”
“Don’t blame her.” Warring emotions raced across Charles’s face as his eyes moved from one parent to the other, words trembling on his lips. At last he spoke to his father. “I should have done this thirteen years ago, when you made me come home from Juilliard.”
“Not this worn-out tune again. You had no future as a musician. You’d be nowhere today if I hadn’t forced you to face reality.”
“Your decision had nothing to do with my future as a musician. Did you talk to any of my teachers? Ask them about my progress or my prospects? Of course not.”
“I didn’t need to. It was obvious you could never support yourself as a musician.”
“I think I could have. I don’t have William’s talent, and maybe the best I could have hoped for was to play in a good jazz band and give lessons to supplement my income. But I would have gotten by, and I would have been happy.”
“Happy?” Mr. Bingley snorted. “You don’t know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing to live on. That’s how I started out, and believe me, you’re too weak to handle it. I was doing what was best for you, since you can’t seem to take care of yourself.”
“How could you possibly know what’s best for me?” Charles’s voice was growing louder, his hands forming into fists at his sides. “You barely know me. You never talk to me; you talk at me. You want a clone, not a son.”
“What I want is a son I can trust to continue my work, who appreciates what I built with my own two hands, not one who wanders through life looking for the easy way out of every situation.”
Charles flinched and took a deep breath. “You may not have a son like that, but you have Caroline.”
“Women don’t have the ruthless streak required in business.”
William coughed to conceal a snicker. Had Mr. Bingley ever met his daughter?
“Don’t be so sure about that,” Charles said emphatically. “She’s tough, she loves the company, and she’d do anything to prove herself if you gave her a chance.”
Mr. Bingley shook his head. “She’s cunning, but she’s weak, like all women. If Darcy so much as crooked his little finger at her, she’d walk away from here without a backward glance.”
William considered protesting, but he didn’t want to end up in the middle of the confrontation. He retreated to a corner near the door and leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets. Mrs. Bingley stepped to his side, touching his arm in a superfluous gesture of comfort.
“I think you’re wrong about Caroline, but it’s your call. I’ll stay for a month or so and help you during your convalescence, and then I’m leaving.”
“I don’t want any favors from you,” Mr. Bingley snarled. “If you’re going, go now and good riddance. I won’t have to follow you around cleaning up your messes anymore. I’ll call my lawyer and tell him to cut you out of my will and tie up your trust funds in knots you’ve never even heard of. If being my son is so damned distasteful, that’s easy to fix. As of this moment, you are no longer my son.”
“I never said it was distasteful. I just—”
“I don’t want to hear it. I’ve given you everything you could ever want.”
“Everything except your approval!” Charles shouted. The unexpected vehemence of his declaration froze William in place. “And that was what I wanted most of all,” he added in a softer tone, a catch in his voice. He stepped toward Mrs. Bingley, who had begun to cry. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
The nurse poked her head into the room. “Is there a problem?” William caught her eye and shook his head, and she vanished. He shut the door to stave off further interruptions.
Charles took a deep breath. “Remove me from your will if that’s your decision. I’m sorry I’m not the son you were hoping for. You’ll never know how much I wanted you to be proud of me.” He paused, blinking hard, and gnawed his lip. Then he took an unsteady breath. “But don’t you think it’s time I made my own choices, and started to live my own life? Can’t we at least agree on that?”
He extended his hand. Father and son stared at each other, silent and immobile. Mrs. Bingley stood frozen in place as well, her hand pressed to her mouth. Mr. Bingley was the first to look away, staring fixedly at the ceiling, and Charles’s outstretched hand dropped to his side.
Mr. Bingley closed his eyes, looking perfectly calm except for his hands, which held the sheets in a white-knuckled grip. When he opened his eyes his expression was distant. “Do whatever you want with your life,” he said coldly. “Throw it away, for all I care. From this moment, you’re on your own.”
Charles swallowed. “I understand.”
“And now I need to rest. I’d like you all to leave.” He reached for the control hanging over the bed rail and lowered himself into a reclining position.
Charles still stood close to his father. “I’ll be back with the papers you need this afternoon.”
“No. You don’t work for me anymore.”
“I am no longer your father.”
Charles stumbled back from the bed as though pushed, shooting a bewildered glance at William. “All right. We’ll let you get some rest. I’ll see you later.”
“No.” Mr. Bingley closed his eyes. “Don’t come back.”
William opened the door and stepped out into the hall with Charles close behind him. Mrs. Bingley remained behind, fussing with her husband’s blankets and speaking to him in a soft voice, though he seemed to be ignoring her. Charles and William remained silent until they reached the visitors’ lounge, which was empty.
“What just happened?” Charles asked, blinking hard.
“I’m not entirely sure,” William said.
“All I know is, when we got on the elevator, I had a feeling he was going to take out his frustrations on Mom, and I had to stop him. When I got there and heard him yelling at her ….” Charles pressed the heels of both hands to his forehead. “Something snapped. But how did that turn into my declaration of independence?”
“Do you regret it?”
“I don’t know yet.” Charles collapsed into a chair, the color draining from his face. “This is surreal. Did I do the right thing?”
“That’s for you to say, but … I think so.”
“But six months ago you told me I should come down here and work for him.”
William grimaced and sank into a chair across from Charles. “Six months ago I said a lot of things. But even back then, what I said was not to walk away from your family unless you were certain it was the right choice.”
“I know.” Charles slumped forward in his chair. “And you were right. I’ve thought about it a lot. As unpleasant as it’s been sometimes, being here, if I hadn’t done it I’d always have wondered if I made a mistake.” A sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob escaped his throat. “Of course, I’m sitting here wondering the same thing right now.”
“You seemed sure about it when you told him you were leaving.”
“That was before reality set in. I mean, he’s right. I’ve never had a job he didn’t give me. How am I going to support myself? Where am I going to live?”
“You’ll figure things out. And as for a job, I could talk to my aunt and uncle. They have their own company. I’m sure they could find something for you.”
“Thanks, but I think I need to get away from the corporate world.”
William sighed. “Sorry. I’m told I have a tendency to arrange people’s lives even when they haven’t asked for help.”
“Charles?” It was Mrs. Bingley, her face tear-stained. “Are you all right, dear?”
Charles embraced her, and William heard her little choked sob. He rose to his feet, his book tucked under his arm. “I’ll be in the main lobby,” he said softly, slipping out into the hall.