Elizabeth barely recognized the elegant woman in the ladies’ room mirror—that is, until she made a face and the woman staring back reciprocated. Still the same old me underneath all this finery.
Madeline Gardiner squeezed into a spot next to Elizabeth at the mirror. “I can’t get over that necklace,” Madeline said, shaking her head. “Edward has some serious catching up to do in the jewelry department.”
“I’m scared to death it’ll fall off and I’ll lose it.” Elizabeth reached up to touch the glittering diamond choker, as she had done dozens of times that evening.
Madeline stepped behind Elizabeth and inspected the clasp. “It looks secure to me, especially with the safety chain. And William would have insured it. By the way, I know I already said this, but I’m going to repeat myself. You look absolutely beautiful tonight.”
“I have to admit, I feel beautiful.” Even Rose had complimented Elizabeth’s appearance. “Of course, I can’t take much of the credit. William paid for the dress and the jewelry, and the hairdresser did my hair.”
“It isn’t just the clothes and the hairstyle. You’re a beautiful woman. I’m glad you’re finally letting it show.”
Elizabeth flashed a quick, awkward smile and led the way out of the ladies’ room, past the long line snaking out the door. She pulled her filmy shawl around her shoulders. “How was dinner?”
“Good food and excellent company.” The Gardiners, the Fitzwilliams, and Georgiana had dined together at a Washington restaurant while Elizabeth and Rose attended the VIP dinner with William.
“I’m sorry I had to run off and leave you right after introducing you to everyone.”
“Don’t worry about it. By the end of dinner we were like old friends.”
“I knew you’d like the Fitzwilliams. How did it go with Georgie?”
“She seemed a little moody, but with this legal trouble hanging over her head, I’m not surprised.”
Elizabeth nodded. Sometimes she forgot that Georgiana had a court date the following week.
“Besides, between raising three daughters and dealing with five nieces, I’m used to moody girls. You had your moments at that age, too, Lizzy. All of you did.”
Madeline chuckled. “True. Anyway, we had a nice chat about the sights she’s seen in Washington.”
“Georgie chatted with you?”
“I’m sure it’s easier for me, since I’m not the one who’s marrying her brother.”
“That seems to be the consensus. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed dinner. How are your seats?”
“Wonderful, though of course we’re not sitting with all the important people like you are.”
Elizabeth grinned. “I don’t know a soul up there except Mrs. Darcy.” She and Rose were seated in the mezzanine, near the Presidential box, along with guests of the concert’s other headliners. William had been able to secure two tickets in that area, as well as seats in the orchestra section for the others.
A chime sounded, signaling the end of intermission. Elizabeth smiled apologetically at Rose as she slid into her chair; she hadn’t planned on being gone for so long. But before she had a chance to speak, the lights dimmed and Tom Brokaw, the emcee, returned to the stage.
The second half, like the first, offered a procession of top talent in a wide range of musical genres. But at last, the performer Elizabeth had awaited all evening appeared. As she had told Georgiana the day before, she hadn’t seen William perform often enough since their relationship had begun for the novelty to fade. When he strode on stage, tall and lean and oozing magnetism, she emitted a soft sigh.
Her cheeks flamed; Rose would think her a lovesick idiot. But an involuntary sideways glance relieved her worry. Rose’s eyes were locked on her grandson, her face awash in pride and affection.
William seemed to be scanning the mezzanine, but Elizabeth couldn’t tell if he had located her. After a quick bow, he took his place at the piano—no flinging of coattails tonight, since he wore black tie. The concert hall grew almost eerily silent as the conductor raised his baton. Then the distinctive clarinet solo opened the Rhapsody in Blue.1
She smiled to herself, thinking of William’s continual grousing about the producers’ musical selection. He much preferred Gershwin’s Concerto in F; it hadn’t been, in his words, “performed to death.” She wondered if that was why the talent escort she’d met that afternoon had criticized William. Maybe he had argued with the organizers, and the rumor mill had picked it up.
But if William lacked enthusiasm for his task, no one could have guessed it. As always, he practiced his unique brand of musical sorcery, breathing life into the piano until it seemed to speak, cry, and sing to the audience, until she half expected the instrument to rise up at the end of the piece and join in accepting the applause thundering through the hall.
She brushed away her tears and jumped to her feet along with the rest of the crowd. A glance at Rose revealed an astonishing sight: the track of a tear on the old woman’s pale, lined cheek. Their eyes met and something passed between them, something warm and harmonious and unexpected. Rose nodded slightly and then turned her attention back to the stage.
William’s eyes again scanned the mezzanine, and Elizabeth had to restrain the urge to wave. She knew the moment he found her; his smile widened and he touched a hand to his heart. She blew a kiss in response. Maybe the elegant socialite in the ladies’ room mirror wouldn’t have done such an undignified thing, but dignity was overrated.
“This is quite a shindig,” Edward Gardiner remarked as he and Madeline inched their way through the crowd.
With a sigh of relief, she joined the Gardiners just inside the theater doors. A dance band occupied the stage, playing “Mood Indigo.” The seats had been removed, making room for a dance floor that was filled with couples swaying to the music.
Georgiana materialized beside Elizabeth. “I hope it was worth coming in here,” she said. “I nearly got crushed on my way down the hall.” She glanced at the band and snickered. “Old people’s music.”
Madeline smiled. “Supposedly there’s a band upstairs playing more up-to-date selections.”
“Probably disco or something lame like that.” Georgiana rolled her eyes.
“Poor Georgiana,” Edward said jovially. “Face it; you’re stuck with a bunch of old fogies.”
“I didn’t mean that you’re old …”
“It’s okay.” Madeline patted Georgiana’s arm. “We’re about three times your age; I know we seem ancient to you.”
“Well, Grandma, what do you say to a dance?” Edward asked. “Think you can still handle kicking up your heels?”
“I think I can manage it.” Madeline placed her hand in his and smiled at Elizabeth and Georgiana. “Excuse us.”
“They’re really nice,” Georgiana said softly.
“Yes, they are,” Elizabeth answered. “And they like you a lot, too.”
After a brief silence, Georgiana sighed. “How much longer do you think Will is going to have to talk to those reporters?”
“I don’t know.” Not long before coming into the theater, Elizabeth had fought her way across the Grand Foyer to the roped-off press area, where most of the performers were cornered. Talking to William had been impossible, but his eyes had pleaded for rescue. “He looked miserable.”
“Yeah. He doesn’t like reporters, and he hates having his picture taken. He says he’s always blind for hours from the flashes going off.”
“He ought to be finished soon. Do you know where your grandmother is?”
“I think she’s still talking to the Governor. Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert were with her.”
“The Governor of what?”
Georgiana shrugged. “New York, I guess.”
Elizabeth suppressed a smile at the girl’s offhand air.
A smooth, masculine voice spoke in Elizabeth’s ear. “Well, hello. I was hoping I’d find you.”
It was the talent escort from the afternoon rehearsal. “Hi,” she said. “How did things go backstage?”
“So well that we were getting nervous. With all those performers and the TV cameras, something had to go wrong. At the very least, we expected to have to chase a streaker up the aisle.”
Georgiana let out a tiny giggle, and the man smiled at her. “That would have been more interesting than parts of the concert, right?”
He studied Elizabeth, smiling. “You are an absolute knockout, by the way.”
She might have been embarrassed, especially with Georgiana as a witness, but he offered the compliment in perfect pitch: genuine appreciation without a whiff of anything improper. “Thank you, kind sir,” she replied. “It’s fun to dress up, isn’t it?”
“It is, though my tux has seen better days, and I can’t afford a new one on a government salary.” He flashed a bright smile. “But there’s more to life than clothes.”
“Exactly.” Elizabeth nodded emphatically. She felt immediately hypocritical when her hand rose up to touch the cool, polished stones in her diamond necklace.
“And where is the elusive fiancé tonight? Lurking in the organ bay, lest we see his horribly disfigured face?”
Elizabeth, noting Georgiana’s frown, explained. “He saw me in the concert hall this afternoon and tried to guess who my fiancé was. He never did figure it out, but it was fun watching him try.” She still preferred not to offer a name, hoping to have a chance to explore—and neutralize—his animosity toward William. She doubted he would speak with candor if he knew the truth.
“But I bet you’ll tell me,” he said, raising his eyebrows at Georgiana. “Won’t you?”
Georgiana eyed him coolly, lifting her chin in an uncanny imitation of Rose. “I don’t think so.”
“Good for you, Georgie,” Elizabeth stage-whispered, flicking a teasing glance at the man.
“Your name is Georgie?” he asked. “What a coincidence. I’m George.”
“Uh huh.” Georgiana was clearly unimpressed.
“Do you know the old song?” He sang softly, “‘Hey, there, Georgy Girl.’”
Georgiana stared at him as though he had grown antlers. “Yes,” she said, stretching the word into a two-syllable indictment of his idiocy. “My cousin used to always sing that, until finally my aunt made him stop because he was driving me crazy.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to threaten your sanity.” He spoke contritely, but he winked at Elizabeth.
Madeline and Edward returned, and Edward extended his hand to Georgiana. “What do you say, Georgie? How about a dance with a member of the geriatric set?”
Georgiana hesitated briefly, inspecting the band with a pained expression, but then she nodded.
“Excuse us,” Edward said, and he ushered her to the dance floor.
After a brief pause, Madeline smiled at George. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Madeline Gardiner.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “Aunt Maddie, this is George …” She winced and gave him an apologetic smile.
“Wickham,” he said smoothly. “Pleased to meet you, Madeline.” He glanced at Elizabeth. “Now, do I get to know your name too, or are we going to play another guessing game?”
She smiled and extended her hand. “Elizabeth Bennet.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Elizabeth.”
“I’m sorry,” Madeline said. “I saw you two standing together and assumed you’d already met.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” he remarked genially. “I bothered your niece for a while during the rehearsal this afternoon, but we never got around to exchanging names.” He eyed Elizabeth, one eyebrow raised. “As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that you promised me a dance.”
Elizabeth shook her head, glad for a ready excuse. “I can’t leave Aunt Maddie standing here alone.”
“Don’t be silly,” Madeline said. “I’ll be fine. In fact, I think I’ll have some champagne.” She signaled a circling waiter with a tray of glasses.
“Well …” Elizabeth considered refusing, but she still hoped to repair William’s reputation within the NEA, or at least with George Wickham. “All right. One dance, and then I need to find my fiancé.”
“It’s a deal.” He winked at Madeline. “See you later, Aunt Maddie.”
He led Elizabeth to the floor, joining the couples already dancing to “Mack the Knife.” To Elizabeth’s surprise, Georgiana looked comfortable dancing to the decades-old pop standard. Then she remembered William’s stories of forced attendance at ballroom dancing classes.
George Wickham turned out to be an excellent dancer. To her great relief, he maintained a courteous distance, eliminating any need to fend him off.
“How long have you been with the NEA?” she asked.
“About five years.”
“Have you always lived in Washington?”
“No. I came here from New York.”
“What part of New York?”
“Upper East Side, for a while. But then ….” He stared over her shoulder, his expression grim.
He shrugged. “I had some bad luck and I had to move out to Queens.”
His shuttered expression suggested that he didn’t want to pursue the subject. She took the hint. “Are you at the NEA because you’re interested in the arts? Or did you transfer from some other government agency?”
“I wanted to be a concert pianist.”
“My mother took me to see Van Cliburn not long after he won the Tchaikovsky Competition. I watched him on stage, soaking up the standing ovation like he was king of the world, and I knew that was what I wanted. For a while I thought it might happen, too. I’ll never forget how excited I was the day I got into Juilliard.”
She performed a quick mental calculation. Even with William’s early entry into Juilliard, George would have graduated long before William’s arrival. “Then what happened?”
“Harsh reality descended. Too many pianists, too few opportunities. I tried to make a go of it for a while, entering competitions to establish myself and playing in piano bars to make the rent, but finally I had to admit that I was never going to be famous.”
“It’s hard. There are so many talented people competing for a few top spots.” It was the same in musical theater.
He nodded, and they shared a sad smile. “Eventually I went into fund raising for the arts. I thought, if I couldn’t have a musical career myself, at least I could help someone else.”
“I feel the same way. I used to dream about being a Broadway star, but now I teach music. I love helping young people develop their talent.”
“You see? I knew, the moment I met you, that we had something in common.”
When the song ended, Elizabeth smiled at him and glanced toward the door, preparing to head that way.
“No, please, don’t go yet,” he said.
“We had our dance, and thank you very much; you’re a wonderful dancer. But I really need to look for my fiancé.”
“The song was almost over by the time we got out here. Half a dance doesn’t count.” He tossed a wheedling smile at her. “Come on, Elizabeth. One more dance.”
She was tempted to agree; she still hadn’t probed his feelings about William. When she heard the energetic opening strains of “In the Mood,” she nodded. “Okay. One more dance.”
“Excellent.” His grin widened until she couldn’t help but return his smile.
“Can I ask about something you said this afternoon?” she asked. It was going to be harder to talk now; he was leading her through a series of exuberant dance moves. Off to one side, she saw the Gardiners jitterbugging their way across the floor.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
Her shawl threatened to fly away. She secured it around her arms as best she could, wishing she had checked it along with her coat. “You said you didn’t like William Darcy. I’ve been wondering why not.”
“Aha.” He smirked at her just as he spun her away from him and back again. “Looking for some hot gossip to share with your fiancé?”
She didn’t want to lie, but she also didn’t want to reveal the truth … not yet, anyway. “It’s just that from what I’ve heard, he seems like a good person. A little reserved, maybe, but that’s not a crime.”
He grimaced. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me.”
“Don’t tell you what?”
“You’re part of his army of adoring fans, aren’t you? Just can’t get enough of those soulful brown eyes.”
“It’s not about his eyes.” In answer to his skeptical smirk, she continued. “All right, it’s not just about his eyes. There are plenty of other reasons to admire him.”
“Name one.” He twirled her away from him, and then pulled her back.
Again, she had to wrestle her shawl back into control. “I’ll name two. First, his musical talent.”
“Okay, I’ll grant you that one. He’s a good pianist.”
“Much better than just good, and you know it. Second, his foundation. He does a lot to help young artists, and we were just talking about how important that is.”
He snorted. “Funny you should mention that. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but people don’t know the truth about William Darcy. If they did, he wouldn’t have been out there playing for the President.”
Elizabeth stopped dancing and pulled away from him. “What are you talking about?” She wanted to stay calm in order to draw him out, but his increasingly snide comments about William were threatening her self-control.
“Mr. ‘Classical Sex Symbol,’ or whatever that idiotic magazine called him, has no scruples about destroying other people’s lives when it suits him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t go into it here.” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “If you’re sure you want to know the whole sordid tale, let’s find a quiet corner.”
“I don’t want to hear it. You’re probably just jealous because he’s living the life you wanted to have.” She yanked the shawl around her shoulders. “He was one of the stars tonight, while you worked backstage. He’s out there being interviewed and photographed, while you—”
“While I’m in here dancing with you. As far as I’m concerned, that makes me the lucky one.” He stepped toward her, extending his hand.
But his charm couldn’t placate her now. “I don’t dance with men who are into character assassination.”
“Boy, was I ever right. You’re a huge fan of his.”
His patronizing tone infuriated her. “Excuse me. I need to find Georgiana.”
“Georgiana?” His eyes locked on hers, the pupils huge. “Then ‘Georgy’ isn’t short for Georgia or Georgette?”
“What difference does that make?”
“How is she related to you?”
“She’s my fiancé’s sister.”
He shook his head and muttered, “Of course. I should have realized.” His eyes dropped to her neck. “And those aren’t rhinestones or cubic zirconia. They’re the real thing.”
“That’s none of your business. Excuse me.”
He grabbed her arm. “Why didn’t you tell me that you’re engaged to William Darcy?”
“Let go of me.” She wrenched her arm away. “I don’t like you badmouthing him behind his back.”
“At least give me a chance to explain.”
“I’m not interested in anything you have to say. Goodbye.”
Elizabeth whirled and stalked off, damaging the impact of her exit by stumbling over one end of her shawl. She scanned the room for Georgiana but couldn’t locate her, so she continued into the foyer. It seemed noisier than ever, perhaps due to the cumulative effect of the cartons of empty champagne bottles in the arms of three passing waiters.
She grabbed a glass of champagne from a waiter’s tray, emptied half of it in a quick gulp, shuddered at the bone-dry taste, and then struggled through the crowd toward the press area. But it was empty; William had been released from captivity at last. She longed to find him, to glue herself to his side for the rest of the evening. And later, when they were alone, she would ask if he had ever known a man named George Wickham.
1 "Rhapsody in Blue" from Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, © 1990, Sony Music Entertainment. Originally recorded 1959. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.