Elizabeth wove her way down the length of the foyer, but found not one familiar face. How could she be unable to locate even one of the seven other people in her group? She had left the Gardiners on the dance floor, but perhaps the others were together somewhere. Then her eyes landed on the terrace doors. She could see small clumps of people scattered about in the dim light. William would like it out there, despite the chilly, raw weather: fewer people and less noise. But shouldn’t he be looking for her?
A search of the terrace from end to end produced no William, no Darcys, not even a Fitzwilliam. She turned to go back inside and nearly collided with George Wickham. “There you are,” he said.
“Leave me alone,” she snapped.
“I need to talk to you.”
“I told you, I’m not interested in anything you have to say.”
“I have to talk to you.” He sighed and shook his head. “You can’t tell Darcy that you saw me.”
“I can do whatever I want.” She stepped sideways, intending to walk around him, but he blocked her path.
“All I’m asking is that you listen to my story. After that, if you still think you need to tell him about me, I won’t try to stop you.”
“And just how would you stop me from telling him if I refuse to listen to you?” She planted her hands on her hips.
He gave her a rueful nod. “Fair enough. You’re in charge here, so I’ll just throw myself on your mercy. All I’m asking for is a few minutes of your time. Please, Elizabeth, let me explain. You deserve to know what sort of man you’re thinking of marrying.”
Lest he see any hint of curiosity on her face, she turned her back and faced the river, clutching the cold iron railing. Heavy mist hung in the air, blurring the view of Georgetown into a living impressionist painting. A patrol boat drifted past, its motor rumbling lazily as its searchlight strafed the river banks. “All right. I’m listening.”
“I never imagined that you could be somehow connected to him,” he said. “You’re not the sort of woman I expected him to marry.”
“Why not?” She whirled to face him, glowering, her arms crossed over her chest in a gesture that was part annoyance, part a futile attempt to stay warm.
“You’re too good for him.” Wickham reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a pack of cigarettes. “May I?” When she didn’t object, he pulled a gold lighter from his pocket. “When I saw you yesterday, dashing down the escalator with Georgiana, both of you giggling like mad ….” He shook his head. “Seriously, Elizabeth, are you sure you want to marry into that family?”
“I’m absolutely sure, and I can’t see why it’s any of your business.”
“Because his mother meant a great deal to me, and I saw what living in that house did to her. They’ll crush your spirit. It’s what they do to women like you.”
Elizabeth wrapped the ends of her shawl around her hands. “You knew Anna?”
“Yes.” He paused, taking a long pull on his cigarette. “I met her almost twenty years ago. I was playing with a small chamber orchestra in Hartford, and I ended up on the committee that wrote grant requests. The Darcy foundation was brand new at the time. Did you know that Anna started it?”
“With Rose Darcy.”
“No, it was all Anna’s doing. She approved our grant request, and we met because of that. There was a spark between us right from the start. She came to a concert, and we talked afterwards. You can’t imagine how lonely she was. She needed a friend, and at first that’s all I was.”
“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she saw the intersection with the story William had told her in Barbados. “Let me guess. You two got closer, and after a while she hired you to work with her at the foundation.”
He looked surprised, even flattered. “So the Crown Prince has talked about me!”
“Not by name.” She stared at him and a shiver ran up her spine that had nothing to do with the damp air wafting across her shoulders. The man standing in front of her had been driving the car in which Anna had died, that night in the Hamptons. According to William, he had also been Anna’s lover. Suddenly, his interest in Georgiana’s name made entirely too much sense.
“Cold?” He shrugged off his tuxedo jacket and extended it to her.
“No, thank you,” she answered with her best imitation of Rose’s glacial disdain. “I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself.” He slipped the jacket on again. “I’m surprised Darcy mentioned me. He hates me. He always hated me, right from the start. He was obsessed with his mother, and insanely jealous of anyone who claimed the smallest morsel of her attention. Even at that age, he had to be the center of everyone’s universe. It was the old woman’s fault; she taught him that the world revolved around him. And of course everyone fawned over the little musical prodigy. Not so little by the time I knew him. He was about thirteen when I joined the foundation.”
William had described his close relationship with Anna, but in his story she had been the possessive one. Wickham’s description of Rose, though, wasn’t far from Elizabeth’s own views. “So you and Anna …?” She couldn’t bring herself to frame the question.
He nodded. “She was a beautiful, fascinating woman in her prime, and I was completely dazzled.”
“And you didn’t let the small technicality that she was married bother you?”
He scoffed. “Her marriage to that miserable bastard was over long before I met her, in everything but the legal sense. She told me I was the first man she’d gotten involved with since he left her, and I’m sure it was true.”
She could barely restrain herself from asking about Georgiana’s parentage, but a public place—even in this quiet corner—was no place to raise such a dangerous subject. “So your grievance against William is that he was self-absorbed at the age of thirteen?” She reached up to touch her diamond necklace. “Gee, I’m overcome with pity.”
“I’m just getting started,” he shot back. “Darcy found all sorts of ways to interfere. For example, he saw us together once, kissing, in her office. He ran off and told the old woman, who hadn’t known about us before. She and Anna had a terrible argument that night.”
This story didn’t ring true. Even as an adult, William had avoided discussing his mother’s affair with Rose; it seemed inconceivable that he would have done so as a teenager. Instead, he would have brooded about it in silence. Besides if they had been careless enough for William to discover their affair, certainly Rose could have observed it for herself. But she decided to argue from a different perspective. “I can’t say that I blame him. I’m sure it upset him, finding his mother—his married mother—kissing another man.”
“I think he mostly saw an opportunity to get rid of me. And eventually he succeeded. I suppose you’ve heard that Anna died in a car accident not long after Georgiana was born?”
“In a car you were driving.” She hadn’t intended for it to sound so harsh.
Wickham nodded, his expression grave. “Darcy blames me, of course, but it wasn’t my fault. The other driver had been drinking and lost control of his car.” He paused, shook his head, and then continued. “Sometimes I think, if I’d just reacted a little faster, or if I’d convinced her to stay a little later at the party ….” The sentiment sounded heartfelt, but she saw him watching her carefully as he spoke, as though gauging her reaction. She didn’t comment.
He continued. “No one knew how much she meant to me, how devastated I was to lose her. She would have wanted me to stay on at the foundation, to continue the work we started together. But the old woman fired me the day after Anna’s funeral. She said she wanted to run things herself for a while, but I know it was mainly to placate Darcy.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Elizabeth’s arms were trembling; whether from anger or from the cold, she wasn’t certain. “Regardless of the state of Anna’s marriage, you were helping her to cheat on her husband. You know, Mrs. Darcy’s son? Of course she didn’t want you around. Why would you think it had anything to do with William?”
“You’d think so, too, if you’d seen the look on his face as he watched from across the room while she fired me. It was the first time I’d ever seen him smile, and the sheer malevolence was almost frightening.”
William had wonderfully warm smiles in his repertoire, and mischievous ones, and a few lustful ones as well, but an evil smile? No. Wickham was either inventing or exaggerating to the point of absurdity. “So you lost your job at the Darcy foundation, and for some bizarre reason you blame William instead of Rose or even yourself.”
“You’d understand if you could see things objectively.” He brought his cigarette to his lips, and then exhaled a long stream of smoke. “I was damaged goods after that; for a while I couldn’t find work in any of the New York-based arts foundations. It took a few years, but eventually I found a good fund-raising job. Things were finally going well for me, apparently too well to suit Darcy. He trumped up some charges against me, said I’d cooked the books of the Darcy foundation when I worked there, that I’d stolen money.”
William hadn’t told her about this. But it seemed unlikely that Wickham would invent such an accusation, since it carried with it the possibility of guilt. “Did you do it?”
“Of course not.” He flung his cigarette over the railing as though tossing the idea aside. “I would never have desecrated Anna’s memory that way. I loved her.”
She eyed him, making no attempt to hide her skepticism, though his indignation seemed genuine.
“If you need proof, consider this. As much as William hated me, he would have loved to see me in prison. But he never filed charges. Why not? Obviously, because he invented the whole thing. So instead he spread his lies to his colleagues. Those old money types are like sheep. Where one goes, the others follow.”
“After that, I assume you were damaged goods again.”
“Worse. A pariah. My employer found a flimsy excuse to fire me, and no one else would even interview me. Not the foundations in New York, or Philadelphia, or Chicago. Not even LA. Darcy spread the word out there through a friend of his.”
Charles Bingley, no doubt. “What did you do?”
“Whatever I could. I gave piano lessons to spoiled rich kids and went back to playing in piano bars. I worked as a rehearsal accompanist for a couple of off-Broadway musicals. And I sold ads for Playbill magazine—the one they hand out at concerts and plays. But I forgot, you’re a Broadway girl, so of course you’ve heard of it.”
“Sometimes friends who aren’t in the business think I said Playboy,” he explained with a humorless grin. “Anyway, I eventually found the NEA job, and things are better now. But does it seem fair to you, what Darcy did to me? My career, my life, ruined. All because he couldn’t handle the fact that his mother loved me.”
Elizabeth was surprised to find herself believing parts of the story, but there were glaring exceptions. “William would never have accused you of embezzlement if he hadn’t believed it was true. He’s not like that.”
“He’s exactly like that, to people he considers beneath him. Besides, even if you’re right shouldn’t I have been innocent until proven guilty? I never had a chance to defend myself, to explain whatever he claimed to have seen. He didn’t want the truth. He just wanted vengeance.” Wickham lit another cigarette, and she saw his hands shaking slightly.
The terrace had gradually emptied until fewer than a dozen people remained outside. The noise inside seemed to have risen to an even more frantic pitch. “I’m not sure how much of this I believe,” she said, “but I can see why you don’t want him to know you’re here.”
“So far it hasn’t occurred to him to look for me in Washington. But if he finds out that I’m with the NEA—” He shook his head fiercely. “I’m too old to start over again.”
“I understand. You’ve got a good job, and you want to keep it.”
“A good job?” His voice was harsh. “I’m a bottom-dweller in a soulless bureacracy. I’m grateful to be have the job, but if he hadn’t derailed my career, I’d be running this place, not taking orders from unimaginative idiots with a tenth of my talent and intelligence.”
Elizabeth felt a shred of sympathy despite his arrogance. He seemed harmless, with his lofty ambitions lying shattered at his feet. “So you’ve spent the past two days ducking William?”
He nodded. “When you saw me out here this afternoon, I was staying out of the way until he was situated on stage.” He dropped his cigarette butt and ground it beneath his heel.
“Why didn’t you just tell your boss you had plans and couldn’t be here?”
“We were told in fairly strong terms that we were expected to work the event. Besides ….” He sighed. “This used to be my world. Black tie parties, the finest champagne, women draped in diamonds; why should I miss it because of William Darcy?” He raised his eyebrows, and a faint twinkle stole into his eye. “And I’m glad I came. Otherwise, I would have missed my dance with a certain gorgeous brunette.”
His charm was a lethal weapon, one he wielded with great skill, but she was immune now. Whatever else he might be, he had lured Anna into infidelity and might be to blame for her death. He had caused William tremendous pain on both scores.
“So what do you say?” he asked. “Will you help me out, and not blow my cover?”
She hesitated. For his sake she had little concern, but to mention him to William, dredging up painful old memories, seemed pointless.
“Please, Elizabeth?” Wickham’s brown eyes practically oozed warmth. “Isn’t it best for all of us if he and I go our separate ways and avoid all the unpleasantness? ‘Live and let live,’ that’s my motto.”
“If you really believed that, you wouldn’t go around saying nasty things about him.”
“Now, hold on. All I did this afternoon was to applaud half-heartedly. You asked me why, and I said I didn’t like William. That was it; no specifics, no lengthy tale of woe. And tonight, you were the one who asked me about him.”
“Well, okay. But I bet I’m not the only person who’s ever heard this story.”
“Ordinarily I don’t talk about this stuff. And if you want me to—”
She whirled and her heart plunged as though it had flung itself off the terrace. William and Georgiana approached with their similar long-legged strides.
“Lizzy, I’ve been looking everywhere for you—” William’s words halted abruptly. First she saw the dawning of recognition on his face, and then his expression hardened into a mask of repulsion.
“Hello, Darcy,” Wickham said with a degree of calm that Elizabeth suspected he didn’t feel. She certainly didn’t.
“What the hell are you doing here?” William’s voice crackled with menace.
“William, please, don’t.” Elizabeth stepped toward him and tried to take his hand, to relax the fingers that had balled into a fist, but he yanked his arm from her grasp.
“What’s wrong, Will?” Georgiana scanned the others’ faces, her pale brow furrowed. “Do you know George?”
“Yes, he does,” Wickham answered. “Shall I tell her about it, Darcy, or do you want to?”
William’s eyes flared. “Go back inside, Georgiana.”
Few people would have dared to challenge an order issued in that imperious tone, but Georgiana planted her hands on her slender hips. “No. You’re just trying to get rid of me because there’s something you don’t want me to find out.”
“That’s right,” Wickham said. “For example, your cousin wasn’t the first person to sing ‘Georgy Girl’ to you. Your mother was, in that beautiful voice of hers. Ask him how I know that. Ask him—”
“Say one more word, and you might not live to regret it.” William spoke softly, mindful of eavesdroppers, but every word was laced with fury. He grasped Georgiana’s arm and placed his other hand on the small of Elizabeth’s back, propelling them firmly toward the doors leading back inside.
“Goodbye, Elizabeth,” Wickham called after her. “I enjoyed our time together. And it was good to see you again, Georgie.”
Elizabeth winced at the freezing glance William shot in her direction. “Will, I can explain.”
“Later,” he said softly.
“Will, why didn’t you want to talk to George?” Georgiana looked behind her, craning her neck to peer at Wickham. “He knew Mamma. He could tell me about her.”
“That man is a liar, Georgie, and a thief. You shouldn’t believe a word he says. No one should.”
William opened the door and ushered Georgiana and Elizabeth into the chaos in the foyer. The countdown to midnight had begun, and the crowd was chanting, “Seven … six … five … four … three … two … one …”
Cheers and noisemakers erupted, and “Auld Lang Syne” sounded over the loudspeaker system, piped into the foyer from the improvised ballroom nearby. Balloons cascaded from the ceiling, bouncing off the heads and shoulders of revelers clinking champagne glasses and embracing one another.
William kissed Georgiana’s cheek. “Happy New Year, Georgie.” Then he kissed Elizabeth, barely more than a peck on the lips.
Righteous indignation welled up inside her. She didn’t intend to let him shut her out for the rest of the night, especially not when she had done nothing wrong. She grasped his arm. “Will—”
“Lizzy, there you are!”
It was the Gardiners, squeezing their way through the crowd. Edward’s glitter-strewn top hat was cocked at a rakish angle. Madeline wore a pink plastic tiara and brandished a noisemaker that couldn’t compete with the din around them.
“Happy New Year!” the pair exclaimed in unison. They embraced Elizabeth and then an embarrassed but obviously pleased Georgiana. Edward shook hands with William, and Madeline planted a kiss on his cheek. “Privilege of a future aunt,” she said. “Except I got lipstick on you.”
“It’s all right.” William pulled a handkerchief from his pocket.
“Here, let me get it,” Elizabeth said, reaching for the handkerchief.
“I can do it,” he replied without looking at her.
“Thank goodness William found you in time,” Madeline said. “He’s been looking everywhere. I thought you might still be on the dance floor, but you were gone.”
“She was on the terrace,” Georgiana said. “With George, that guy she was dancing with earlier.”
William didn’t reply, but the narrowed stare he directed at Elizabeth required no explanation.
“I didn’t know who he was. And it was just one dance.” Elizabeth hated the defensive tone in her voice; she had no reason to defend herself.
“Well, of course,” Madeline said, her eyes darting between William and Elizabeth. “It was completely innocent. George was a perfect gentleman, and utterly charming, too.”
William’s jaw clenched and one eye twitched.
“Would anyone like some more champagne?” Edward asked, signaling an approaching waiter.
“Absolutely,” Elizabeth said.
“No thank you,” William replied in a chilly tone. “I’ve had quite enough.”
Elizabeth looked down to find herself twisting the end of her shawl into a slender cord. She released it and tried to smooth out the wrinkles. Happy New Year, indeed.