Part 4: December, 2001 - June, 2002
William hated that friends and family couldn’t meet arriving air travelers at the gate, but instead had to wait outside the security area. He stood along the wall, anxiously craning his neck to see as far as possible down the dimly-lit concourse. At least the airport was quiet. No doubt it would be thronged with holiday travelers later in the day, but so early in the morning there were few arriving flights.
Finally he saw her hurrying toward him. A few seconds more, and he swept her into his arms. They held each other in blissful silence. Elizabeth raised her head from his shoulder and beamed up at him. She began to laugh, her eyes dancing.
“Why are you laughing?” he asked, brushing a stray hair off her face. Her joy was infectious, and he found himself chuckling without knowing why.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m just so glad to see you.”
He bent his head to kiss her, and then released her and reached for her carry-on bag. “I assume you checked a suitcase?”
“Absolutely. No way I could dress for a White House luncheon and Christmas with the Darcys out of the stuff in my carry-on.” Her gown and shoes for New Year’s Eve, purchased during her Thanksgiving visit, were in William’s closet. He had enjoyed seeing them each day, a reminder that soon she would share his space.
Her suitcase arrived with merciful speed, and soon they were outside at the curb. Allen hopped from the car, a warm smile on his weathered face. “Welcome back to New York, Ms. Bennet.”
“It’s good to see you, Allen.” Elizabeth offered him her hand.
“Marcia and I were so pleased to hear that you’re going to be part of the family.” He patted her hand with fatherly affection, astonishing William. Allen rarely behaved with anything but dignified formality.
Once they were on their way back to Manhattan, William gathered Elizabeth into his arms. Heedless of Allen’s presence in the front seat, he kissed her repeatedly. By the time he lifted his head, her face was flushed and her eyes held the soft, drowsy look he loved. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve missed you,” he murmured, stroking her rosy cheek.
“Mmm. Me too.” Her words dissolved into a yawn.
“Did you get any sleep on the plane?”
“A little, but I hope your grandmother won’t think I’m rude if I take a nap as soon as we get to the house.”
“No, she’ll understand. Red-eye flights are brutal.”
She rested her head on his shoulder with a happy sigh. “See, this is what I needed on the flight,” she said softly. “I could fall asleep in an instant.”
“Go ahead.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Traffic is light this morning, but it’ll still take us a while to get there. You might as well get some rest.”
She nestled closer and her eyes drifted shut. A few minutes later, he heard her breathing shift into the slow cadence of sleep. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the seat back. Then he allowed his mind to float into contented oblivion, a small smile curving his lips. He couldn’t remember ever looking forward to a Christmas more than this one.
“Here you are!” Mrs. Reynolds hurried into the foyer. “Welcome!”
Elizabeth returned the housekeeper’s warm smile. “Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.”
“And we’re thrilled at the news!” Mrs. Reynolds enveloped Elizabeth in a motherly hug. “I knew you were the right girl for William. I came home from San Francisco and told Allen, ‘She’s the one. Now he just has to get up the gumption to ask her.’ But I hear you did the asking—I’m proud of you!”
Elizabeth flashed an amused glance at William.
“Give me your coat, dear. Allen will hang it up. I’m sure Mrs. Darcy will be right—” Mrs. Reynolds’s words died at the sight of Rose gliding down the steps.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” the elderly woman said, her voice as smooth and cool as polished marble. “Welcome.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Darcy. It’s good to be here.”
“I hope your flight was pleasant.”
“It was, thank you.” Elizabeth was conscious of her hands dangling awkwardly at her sides. How did this woman manage to make her feel like a gawky teenager? She lifted her chin, fastened a confident smile on her face, and met Rose’s level gaze.
“I’m sure you’re tired from flying all night and would like to rest. Mrs. Reynolds, would you please show Elizabeth to her room?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Reynolds replied. “No, dear, leave your bags. Allen will bring them.”
Elizabeth followed Mrs. Reynolds up the stairs. William started to follow, but Rose pre-empted him. “William? I need to speak to you for a moment in the library.”
The fourth-floor guest room was decorated in pale yellow and white, accented with touches of blue. It was lighter and far more modern in appearance than Elizabeth had expected. “This is beautiful,” she said softly.
“I always thought this room would make a wonderful nursery,” Mrs. Reynolds said with a sly smile.
Elizabeth chose to ignore the hint. She strolled to the balcony doors and peeked out. While she stood there, Allen arrived with Elizabeth’s suitcase and carry-on bag.
“Would you like me to unpack for you?” Mrs. Reynolds asked.
Elizabeth whirled to face her, horrified. “Oh, no, thanks. I can do it.” Perhaps a high-class lady would have taken for granted that someone else would unpack her clothes, but a high-class lady wouldn’t have a haphazardly packed suitcase.
“What can I fix you for breakfast, dear? You must be hungry.”
“Oh, no, you don’t need to do that. They fed us on the plane.”
“Airline food.” Mrs. Reynolds sniffed. “I’ve got fresh-baked blueberry muffins downstairs, still warm from the oven. Or I could make eggs, any way you want them, or pancakes or waffles or French toast. With bacon, sausage, hash browns—just name it.”
“A blueberry muffin sounds delicious.”
“With coffee or tea?”
“Coffee, please.” Elizabeth could no longer suppress the yawn she’d been fighting.
“Poor dear, sitting up on a plane all night! You make yourself comfortable and I’ll bring your breakfast up here. I can set a table in the sitting room.”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to be any trouble. I’ll come downstairs.”
“It’s no trouble,” Mrs. Reynolds called over her shoulder, already on her way out of the room. “You get yourself settled in. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Elizabeth smiled to herself as she opened her suitcase. She had never met anyone who better deserved the label “mother hen.”
She carried a pile of clothing to the walk-in closet, stopping to gawk at the large space, fitted out with shelves, drawers, and rods at various heights. She reached up for a hanger, and shrieked as a pair of arms grabbed her around the waist.
“Sorry.” William’s deep voice rumbled in her ear. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He pulled her against him, his breath hot on her neck.
She wriggled away from him. “I bet your grandmother would throw a fit if she knew you were in here.”
“You’re right. She called me into the library just now to lecture me on ‘proper decorum where female houseguests are concerned.’ But I don’t care. It’s been a week since I’ve had you in my arms, and it seems more like a month.”
She looped her arms around his neck and admired his wicked leer. “Are you trying to lead me astray?”
“As far as possible,” he muttered, leaning down to nuzzle her neck.
When he began to nudge her out of the closet and toward the bed, she pulled out of his arms. “Will, I’m exhausted. I need some rest.”
“No problem.” He scooped her up and trudged over to the bed. “We’ll take a nap together.” He collapsed onto the bed with her, his fingers immediately going to work unbuttoning her blouse.
“No!” Elizabeth struggled into a sitting position and grabbed his hands. “Mrs. Reynolds is going to be back any second with my breakfast.”
“When she sees that the bedroom door is shut, she’ll put it in the sitting room and leave.”
“And you don’t mind if everybody in the house knows you’re in here with me?”
“How would they know?”
“They’ll see you sneaking out of here. Or they’ll hear something. Or they’ll go looking for you and figure out where you are by process of elimination. The house isn’t that big.”
“Lizzy ….” he groaned. He flopped onto his back and covered his eyes with his forearm.
“You know I’m right.”
He sighed and sat up, his expression sullen. “Fine. I guess I can wait a little longer.” He hefted himself off the bed and loomed over her, scowling.
“That’s a good boy.”
Hard as he tried to go on pouting, a reluctant smile flitted around the corners of his mouth. “Will you at least promise to have lunch with me, after your nap?”
She winced. “I’m meeting Laura Church at noon.”
His pout snapped back into focus. “Who?”
“My thesis advisor. Remember? You met her at the reception after the Juilliard benefit recital.”
“You have to see her today?”
“She’s leaving town tomorrow and won’t be back till after the holidays. I want to ask her advice about my job search.”
He nodded slowly, his gaze drifting up to the ceiling. “Where are you meeting her?”
“At that little French restaurant where I used to work. That way I can say hello to the staff at the same time.”
“It’s in the Village?”
“Right. And then I want to do some Christmas shopping nearby.”
“All right. That works.” He said the words quietly, as though to himself.
“Never mind.” He shook his head. “Will you meet me for coffee after you finish shopping?”
“That sounds nice. Where?”
“La Lanterna di Vittorio.”
She laughed. “You still remember that place? Oh, wait, you said you went back a few times last summer, didn’t you?”
“When can you be there?”
“Let’s say four o’clock. That way we’ll still have time to get ready for the party.”
“Okay.” He bent over and kissed her, softly at first but with growing hunger. “I’d better get out of here while I still can.”
“I’ll see you later.”
He paused at the door. “I have to go out on an errand this morning. If I’m not here when you’re ready to leave, find Allen and tell him where you want to go.”
“But that’s so much trouble for him. I can catch a bus right out on Fifth Avenue that stops a couple of blocks from the restaurant.”
He gave her a stern look. “Ask Allen to drive you. My future wife does not need to ride the bus.” He crossed the room to kiss her again, and then departed.
“Yes, sir,” she called after him, her lips twitching into a smile. It echoed a similar conversation at the airport while waiting for her suitcase. Unbeknownst to her, he had instructed Sonya to upgrade her airplane ticket, the one she had insisted on buying herself, to first class—at his expense, of course. When she had thanked him, though with a mild protest, he had declared that his future wife didn’t need to fly coach.
At some point she would have to draw a line, but she couldn’t deny that her first class seat had made the overnight flight much more bearable. Still, she was teetering on a treacherous slope. Next he might rent her a penthouse till the wedding, because his future wife shouldn’t live in whatever small apartment she would be able to afford. Or he would offer her a generous allowance, because his future wife shouldn’t have to work.
She was still pondering the matter when Mrs. Reynolds arrived with a basket of muffins bursting with blueberries and a pot of coffee exuding a faint hazelnut fragrance. Because his future wife shouldn’t have to walk downstairs for breakfast.
Vivid memories flooded William’s mind as he stood on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Six months ago he had stood in the same spot on the night of their first date, which he had almost ruined with an overdose of anxiety. If not for his frantic plea for a second chance, she would have walked out of the café, and out of his life, before their relationship had even begun.
“Hi,” she said, greeting him with a brilliant smile. She turned her face up to his for a kiss. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. My shopping took a little longer than I thought.”
He reached for her shopping bags. “I always expect you about five minutes late, so you’re right on time.”
She laughed. “Boy, do you have my number! Of course, I couldn’t be on time by Mr. Punctuality’s standards unless I showed up fifteen minutes early.”
“You sound just like Charles.” Grinning, he ushered her up the steps into the café. “How was your lunch?”
“Good. Laura’s doing great; she just won an award for a journal article she wrote. And she said she’d help me look for a job. She knows tons of people, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
“That sounds good.”
An employee standing near the door greeted them warmly. “Hello, Mr. Darcy. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“Hello. Yes, I’ve been traveling.”
“Well, it’s good to have you back. I assume you want to sit over there?”
“I knew you came here sometimes over the summer,” Elizabeth remarked, “but you’re practically a regular! How on earth did that happen?”
“I used to come here in the afternoon with a book and drink herbal tea. One day a customer recognized me and made a fuss. After that, the staff remembered me.”
“As though they’d need help remembering a handsome guy who’s a good tipper. She even knew which table you’d want.”
“I always took this table if it was open. I’d sit here alone, missing you, and I’d imagine you walking in and joining me.”
“Well, we’re together now. And recreating our first date, apparently. You ordered the same thing we had that night.”
He reached out and clasped her hand in both of his. “Lizzy, there’s something we need to talk about. Something important.”
“That doesn’t sound good.” Her smile faded.
“I went to see my cardiologist a few days ago.”
Her grip on his hand tightened. “Oh, no. What is it?”
“Don’t worry; I’m fine. But when I told her I was getting married, she mentioned something.”
Elizabeth placed her free hand on top of his, a frown compressing her brow. Once, she would have filled the silence with anxious questions. But she had learned to wait, to give him time to tell his story. The thought gave him fresh courage.
“I think you know that my father died of a heart attack when he was forty-five. My grandfather also died of a heart attack, just before his fiftieth birthday. And my great-grandfather died at forty—another heart attack.”
“Are you worried that the same thing will happen to you?”
“Probably not, because I’ve gotten better medical care. But Dr. Rosemont said that my particular heart defect is suspected to be hereditary, and based on my family history, it looks that way.”
“Wouldn’t they have been terribly ill when they were young, like you were? And even if not, wouldn’t the doctors have diagnosed it eventually?”
“Diagnostic tools weren’t as good back then. And Dr. Rosemont said that mild cases were often missed. When that happens, it gradually damages the heart, and people tend to die in their forties or fifties.”
“But it was detected in your case, and they treated it. So you’re going to live a long time, right?”
He raised her hand to his lips, touched by the plaintive tone of her question. “I hope so. But—”
Their order arrived, interrupting him. He released Elizabeth’s hands, and they sat in tense silence until the server departed.
“But?” She watched him with anxious eyes.
He took a deep breath. This was the moment he had been dreading. “If the condition is hereditary, I could pass it on to our children.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh.”
“Lizzy, you have no idea what it was like for my mother. She lived in continual terror that I would drop dead some day without warning.”
“You’ve told me how protective she was.”
“She worried about me constantly.” Emotion clogged his throat, making it difficult to get the words out. “It frightened her if I got breathless going up the stairs, or if I got excited and my heart started beating faster. She rarely let me out of her sight except at school, and I was never permitted to leave the house without an adult.”
“Until Richard moved to New York. Then she let you go out with him, right?”
“But it was hard to convince her. She gave him a long list of rules, which I don’t need to tell you he completely ignored.”
“I take it you ignored them, too?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
He nodded. “I was scared at first. Mamma had taught me that if I exerted myself, bad things would happen. But Richard was only a step or two shy of godhood to me. Anything he did, I wanted to do.” He paused, studying the remaining foam on his cappuccino. “My point is that all the worry gradually stole her energy, her zest. Maybe ….” He stopped, balancing at the edge of some dangerous emotional ground.
She reached out and captured his hand. “Tell me.”
He took a deep breath. “My father must have fallen in love with that zest. I understand, because it’s one of the things I love most about you. Maybe when it faded ….” He shrugged, unable to voice the obvious conclusion.
The fierce light in her eyes startled him, and her grip on his hand tightened. “No. I won’t let you do this. William Darcy, you are not to blame for your parents’ mistakes. If I mellow with age and have a little less ‘zest’ twenty years from now, are you going to leave me?”
“Of course not.”
“And did it ever occur to you that maybe your mother lost some of her zest because her husband took away her operatic career and then walked out on her?”
It had occurred to him, but he had still ended up blaming himself.
“Of course it was hard for her when you got sick, and of course she worried about you. But I bet you were the greatest joy in her life.”
He didn’t answer, letting her words wash over him. His eyes dropped to study the scarred surface of the table.
“In fact,” she said, “it makes me think of that photo in your sitting room, of the two of you at Pemberley. How long after your surgery was it taken?”
“I’m not sure; probably a year or two later.”
“Well, it’s obvious in that photo how happy she is. Because she’s with her son—her bright, talented, wonderful son.”
She stroked his hand, and he struggled to control the emotion constricting his throat. When she spoke again, her voice was gentle. “You didn’t think I was going to change my mind about marrying you because of this, did you?”
“I hoped not, but if you married someone else, someone who didn’t have these problems ….”
“I don’t want to marry someone else. I want you.”
He exhaled, the tension leaving his body. He had known that she would respond this way, but he had needed to hear the words.
“Besides, you promised to marry me, and you’re not getting out of it that easily.”
He chuckled and twined his fingers with hers. “So you’re saying I’m stuck with you.”
“You got it,” she answered. Then her smile faded. “But I have to ask. Are you thinking that maybe we shouldn’t have children?”
He had always imagined himself becoming a father. His children were essential to preserving the Darcy name and its legacy. But it wasn’t fair to subject Elizabeth to the pain of having a child with a chronic illness. He had struggled with this issue and had yet to find an answer. “I don’t know.”
“Here’s what I think,” she said. “Since we know it’s a possibility, the doctors will be on the lookout for it. If it happens, they can treat it, like they did with you. And we won’t let fear rule our lives like your mother did.” She paused. “But if it did come down to a choice—between being with you and having children, I mean—I’d choose you.”
There was only one possible response to her declaration: he leaned over and kissed her. “I hate to think of you going through everything Mamma did,” he whispered hoarsely.
“I won’t. She was basically alone. If it happens to us, we’ll have each other to lean on, and that will make all the difference.” Her gaze, full of warm assurance, captured and held his. “Besides, I bet they’ve got more effective treatments these days, with lower risk.”
He nodded; he and Dr. Rosemont had discussed this point.
“And regardless, we’ll make sure that William, Jr., or Wilhelmina, has a happier, healthier childhood than you did. Okay?”
“I love you,” he murmured, and kissed her again.
He sat back and sipped his cappuccino, noting the café staff watching with interest. Too happy to care, he reached into his pocket and drew out a black velvet box, the same one he had pocketed in Elizabeth’s dining room on that terrible night. He opened the box and removed the glittering diamond ring. “I believe this is yours,” he said.
Her eyes shining, she extended her left hand, and he slid the ring onto her finger. “It’s so beautiful,” she said softly. “And I love you so much.”
“My dearest, loveliest Elizabeth.” He leaned forward to kiss her again.
They finished their cappuccinos while chatting about nothing in particular, their conversation interrupted by brief silences during which they simply looked into each other’s eyes, smiling.
Elizabeth glanced up and giggled. “Look.”
He followed her gaze, and for the first time he noticed the sprig of mistletoe hanging above their table. “Well, you know what that means.”
“Except we already kissed. A few times, in fact.”
“That was before we saw the mistletoe, so it doesn’t count.” He leaned toward her.
She leaned forward as well, meeting him halfway. “Are those William Darcy’s rules for mistletoe?” she murmured, an impish light in her eyes.
She arched an eyebrow, but he silenced her retort with his lips.