“Lizzy! I’ve been hoping you’d call. How was the White House luncheon?”
“Very elegant, and packed with famous faces.”
“He wasn’t there. But William and I had our picture taken with the First Lady, who was very nice. And we saw the official gingerbread house. And the tree in the Blue Room was gorgeous1. All the decorations were amazing. And—” She stopped abruptly. “Sorry. I’m babbling.”
“He seemed to. He was mixing with the other guests more than usual, even when I wasn’t with him.”
“That’s your influence, Lizzy. You’ve made such a difference in him.”
“I hope I haven’t created a monster. He sat next to Gloria Estefan at lunch, and they had quite the conversation.”
Elizabeth laughed. “Maybe I should be. But I sat next to Josh Groban, so I guess we’re even.”
“Uh huh. Did you know he spent two summers at Interlochen? It was after I graduated, but we had a good time comparing notes.”
“I guess there will be even more famous people there tonight.”
This was true, though many of tonight’s attendees would be prominent business and political figures, not performers. The First Lady had organized the high-profile concert to benefit a variety of charities working to fight poverty and homelessness in the United States, with even the worst seats in the house selling for at least $1,000.
“That’s me,” Elizabeth said, “always hobnobbing with the A-list. But Charles and the guys have a big night coming up, too. I can’t believe I’m missing the most important gig the band has ever had.”
“They’re going to miss you, but they’re definitely looking forward to it. Anne de Bourgh is coming over this afternoon, and I’m going to help her with her hair. Then we’re going to get some dinner before we join the guys at the hotel.”
“Oh, good. You’ll have her looking like a princess.”
“You’re the one who’s going to look like a princess in your new dress and your diamonds.”
A fresh squadron of butterflies took flight in Elizabeth’s stomach. In her excitement over the White House luncheon, she had forgotten the finery in her closet. “I can’t wait to play Cinderella at the ball. And don’t worry, I’m not doing my own hair. Mrs. Darcy arranged for a hairstylist to come to the hotel late this afternoon.”
“Have someone take your picture, okay?”
“No problem. I bet there will be plenty of photographers there tonight.”
“Then maybe I’ll see you online tomorrow. Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask. How are things going with Georgie?”
“Not bad. She and I toured the city yesterday afternoon while William practiced, and he took her to Georgetown for dinner last night, just the two of them. My idea.”
“Good for you. Did it go well?”
William stepped into the bedroom and pointed at his watch. She nodded, and he departed again. “I’m sorry, Jane,” she said, “but I’ve got to run. I’m going with William to his rehearsal, and he’s getting antsy.”
“I understand,” Jane said.
“Have a great time tonight, and give each of the guys a kiss on the cheek for me, even Bill. Tell them it’s for luck.”
“I will. And have a wonderful time, Lizzy.”
They said their goodbyes, and Elizabeth turned her full attention to her appearance. Her hair would do, but her makeup needed a little work. She reached for her purse just as William entered the bedroom.
“We have to leave now, or we’ll be late,” he said with an air of implacable authority.
She knew better than to argue; his professional reputation was at stake. “Okay. I’m right behind you.”
She applied lip gloss, snatched up her coat, and sprinted down the hall after William, who was holding the elevator while staring pointedly at his watch.
“Where’s Gran?” William was all business, his eyes sweeping the lobby.
“She’s not coming,” Georgiana replied. “She said she was tired and wanted to rest, since we’ll be up late tonight.”
“Is she all right?” William frowned.
“She’s not sick,” Georgiana retorted, rolling her eyes. “Just tired. You know, she’s old.”
“All right,” he said in a curt tone. “The limo’s waiting. Let’s go.”
Traffic was light and the distance short. Within a few minutes they walked through the doors of the Kennedy Center. “You go ahead,” Elizabeth said to William. “Georgie and I are going to do some exploring.” She glanced at Georgiana. “Okay?”
Georgiana shrugged and nodded. Elizabeth was encouraged by this neutral display; at least she hadn’t rolled her eyes.
William leaned forward and kissed Elizabeth. “I’ll see you later.” A glance toward Georgiana showed an eye-roll in full bloom, provoked by their public display of affection.
Elizabeth smiled in response. They wandered out a set of doors and onto a terrace overlooking the Potomac River. A man in a navy blue suit but no coat stood alone at the railing smoking a cigarette, his body hunched over like a tortoise retreating into its shell.
“What’s that over there?” Georgiana pointed to a cluster of reddish buildings a short distance up the river.
“It is,” the man said, turning toward them and smiling. “Up there on the hill.”
Elizabeth thanked him with a smile. Then she and Georgiana strolled along the terrace. “Too bad it’s supposed to rain tonight,” she said. “This would be a great place to escape to, if it gets too hot and noisy inside.”
They returned inside and took an escalator to the second floor. “William said the Presidential box is up here,” Elizabeth said. “But I don’t know if we’ll be able to get anywhere near it.” They made their way along a corridor. “There’s always a chance we’ll get wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents. All those serious-looking men in the dark suits downstairs—I’m sure they’re part of the President’s security detail.”
“Look over there,” Georgiana said, pointing ahead of her. The Presidential seal was mounted above a roped-off doorway.
They crept closer for a peek, but two black-suited men emerged from the room and stood blocking the doorway. Two others emerged from a nearby box and stood at attention. “This is a restricted area,” one of the men said, his tone calm but authoritative. “You’ll have to leave.”
Elizabeth and Georgiana glanced at each other as they hurried off, both suppressing huge smiles until they were far enough away to laugh safely. “Well, on the bright side,” Elizabeth chortled, “no wrestling to the ground was involved. But I bet we’ll have FBI files now.”
“One of those guys looked exactly like Will Smith in Men in Black,” Georgiana said amid giggles.
“He wishes he looked that good!”
They scampered down the escalator, still laughing. “I think we’d better go to the concert hall before we cause any more trouble,” Elizabeth said.
William sat at the grand piano at the front of the stage, alternately playing scales and conversing earnestly with a gray-haired piano tuner, who rummaged through a battered black case. The orchestra members played random melodies or excerpts from the night’s selections, creating the musical cacophony that so often precedes concerts.
Elizabeth and Georgiana slid into a row in the middle of the hall. “I haven’t seen him perform that often,” Elizabeth said softly. “At least, not since we started dating. So it’s still a major treat for me. He’s so …” She sighed, smiling ruefully at Georgiana.
“Yeah. All his girlfriends get mushy when he performs,” Georgiana said, with a poorly-concealed hint of malice.
“Why do you do that?” Elizabeth asked, in a sharper tone than she intended.
“What?” Georgiana lifted her chin in a gesture identical to one William often made.
“Remind me at every opportunity that he’s had lots of girlfriends. Are you trying to suggest that I’m temporary, just like they were?”
Georgiana donned a sullen expression. “No,” she mumbled.
Elizabeth took a deep breath and forced herself to continue in a gentler voice. “Georgie, I know he’s had other girlfriends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’d just as soon not have my nose rubbed in it.”
Apparently Georgiana had decided that the silent treatment was the best punishment she could exact, because for the next several minutes she stared at her hands and responded to Elizabeth’s remarks in frosty monosyllables, if at all. Elizabeth sighed and rubbed her forehead, trying to banish the seeds of a headache.
Georgiana stood up abruptly.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the terrace.”
“All right, but please don’t go anywhere else without telling me.”
Georgiana heaved a huge sigh and rolled her eyes. “I’m fifteen, not five. And you’re not my mother.”
Elizabeth bit back an angry retort. “I had a reason for my request, and it’s not because I think you’re a child.”
Georgiana’s expression was carefully blasé as she waited for Elizabeth to continue.
“It looks like the rehearsal is running behind schedule; there seems to be a problem with the piano. And that means we’re going to need to rush out of here the minute William’s done, or we’ll be late for the hairdresser. If I know where you are, it’ll be easier to find you when it’s time to go.”
“Oh.” Georgiana licked her lips, her eyes averted. After a pause, she looked up and said, “I could give you my cell phone number.”
Not long after Georgiana departed, the chaos on the stage settled into order and Leonard Slatkin stepped onto the podium. He spoke briefly and then raised his baton. The famous glissando opening Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue oozed from the principal clarinetist’s instrument.
Elizabeth settled back in her seat, her eyes fixed on William with pride. But just as he began his first solo passage, the man from the terrace stepped into the row in front of her. “We meet again,” he said with a crooked grin.
“Excuse me,” she said tartly. “You’re blocking my view.” When William was at the keyboard, that was an unforgivable sin.
“Your view?” He chuckled. “It’s music, not an art exhibit.”
“Which I can’t hear if you’re talking.”
He mimed zipping his lips and seated himself. No more than a minute later, the stage director stepped toward the podium and the music stopped. Two technicians came on stage and began to adjust the lights illuminating the piano.
The man twisted around in his seat to face her. “Excellent. Now I’m not interfering with anything.”
He seemed unflappable, but she was determined to puncture his self-assured air. “Maybe I wanted to sit quietly by myself and think deep thoughts.”
“I’ll take my chances.” He grinned. “You don’t look a sit-alone-and-ponder-the-universe kind of girl.”
“And you can tell that just by looking at me?”
He rose to his feet and turned up the wattage on his smile. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude. But I’ve been stroking massive egos for the past two days, and I’ve had enough. I saw you outside, and then I overheard you laughing on your way down the escalator. It was the most beautiful sound I’d heard all week. So when I saw you sitting here alone, I thought, ‘I’m going to give myself a treat and flirt with this lovely woman for a few minutes.’”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Aren’t you the flatterer.”
“Not at all. I just call them as I see them.” He raised his eyebrows in a rueful entreaty. “Please, talk to me for a few minutes. Don’t send me back to the Ego Patrol just yet.”
Her smile widened. “I suppose I can be merciful just this once.”
She studied him as he came around the row to sit beside her. She judged him to be in his early fifties. He was undeniably handsome, with cheerful brown eyes and sandy hair liberally sprinkled with gray. But despite his light-hearted charm, something about him made her wary. She decided to probe for information. “I assume, from what you said about the egos, that you’re involved with the concert?”
“I’m with the National Endowment for the Arts, and we’re helping with logistics. I’m working as a talent escort, hence the incessant ego stroking.”
“I can imagine.” Talent escorts were glorified babysitters, walking the stars through the rehearsal, fetching coffee, and absorbing bitter complaints if the rehearsal ran behind schedule. She wondered if William’s ego was one of those he’d had to stroke. “I did that a few times in college, when we had guest artists on campus.”
“Where did you go?”
He nodded approvingly. “What’s your instrument?”
She pointed to her throat.
“That explains the beautiful laugh; you’re a songbird. Then you must be performing tonight.” He grimaced. “Oops; I shouldn’t have said anything about the egos.”
“No, I’m here with my fiancé.” She felt a little thrill; she wasn’t accustomed to using the word. “He’s rehearsing right now.”
“Which is why you wanted to watch as well as listen. I do apologize.” He scanned the stage. “Let’s see if I can guess which one he is. The concertmaster?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
“Give me a hint. Is it anyone in the string section?”
She shook her head again, smiling. There was something disarming about his breezy manner.
“Hmm. So, woodwinds, brass, or percussion. Let’s start with brass. You don’t look like a girl who would marry a tuba player. But the principal trombonist, maybe? Do well-developed facial muscles make for a better kisser?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” She had dated a trombonist once, but she didn’t intend to share that detail.
He studied her, squinting in exaggerated concentration. Fully engaged in their little contest, she double-checked to make sure her left hand was still hidden beneath her purse, lest he pick up clues from her engagement ring. But the music resumed before he could guess again. She sent him a look of warning and he nodded, raising a finger to his lips.
The Rhapsody was magnificent. When it ended she applauded vigorously, along with several members of the crew. But her companion offered only four or five half-hearted claps.
“You didn’t like it?” she asked.
“The music was fine. It’s the man playing it.”
“No, I’m talking about the pianist, William Darcy.”
Elizabeth’s body tightened, but she managed to project outward calm. William could be difficult, especially with strangers. “Was his one of the egos you spent the day stroking?”
“No, somebody else dealt with him, thank God.”
William must have been distant, or a bit too demanding, and word had gotten around. If only he would allow others to see the charming man beneath his chilly exterior.
On stage, the musicians were chatting and packing up their instruments. William shook hands with the conductor and walked offstage. Her companion rose to his feet. “I’m afraid I have to go,” he said. “Duty calls. But perhaps I’ll see you tonight.”
She stood as well. “Do you get to watch the concert, or will you be stroking more egos?”
“You know, when you say it, it sounds sexy.” He glanced toward the stage and stepped into the aisle. “The latter, I’m afraid. I’ll be working backstage. But we’re allowed to stay for the party afterwards. Will you save me a dance?”
“Sure, if we run into each other.” He seemed harmless enough.
“See?” he said, grinning. “I knew you’d be fun to flirt with. See you tonight.” He winked at her and strode rapidly up the aisle.
William, moving almost as quickly, reached her side soon afterwards. “Where’s Georgie?” he asked.
“Wandering around. I didn’t think she could get into much trouble, especially with the Secret Service on patrol.” She rummaged through her purse. “I’ll call her and have her meet us in the hallway.”
They reached the meeting place Elizabeth had specified, by the large bust of John F. Kennedy, and William took her hand. “Who were you talking to in the theater?”
“One of the workers.” She considered asking if he’d had problems with any of the staff. Before she had a chance, Georgiana breezed through the doors from the terrace.
She glanced at Elizabeth, her expression a perfect imitation of William at his haughtiest. “I stayed on the terrace, just like I said I would,” she declared. But then her lips twitched, and a ghost of a smile touched her eyes.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth answered. “Let’s go. Our hairdresser awaits.” She threaded her arm through William’s. “Georgie and I are going to be so gorgeous tonight we’ll knock your socks off.”
1 The photos are of the 2001 White House Gingerbread House and the official Christmas tree.