On the morning of Jane and Charles’s wedding, William awoke a few minutes past five. He often awoke early on the first day of a visit to San Francisco, but he had learned not to mind. Few things were more luxurious than wrapping himself around Elizabeth’s soft body and drifting back to sleep.
But this morning, he was alone. He stared up at the ceiling and sighed heavily at the injustice of it all.
The night before, when Elizabeth had asked for his patience, she hadn’t explained just how far it would have to stretch. He had learned the truth after dinner when the female guests collected their coats, preparing to leave for Jane’s bachelorette party. William had brought his suitcase down from the guest room.
“I’m going to put this in your trunk,” he had told Elizabeth. “That way, I won’t have to come back here after the bachelor party; I can just get a taxi to your place.”
“But …” Her grimace had spoken volumes. “Charles didn’t tell you the plan?”
Jane, he soon learned, wanted to spend the night before her wedding with Elizabeth. She also wanted to avoid being seen by the groom on the morning of the wedding. As Elizabeth had explained, Jane wasn’t exactly superstitious, but there was no point in tempting fate. “And, besides, you’re going to be with Charles and the guys this evening, and I’m going to be with Jane, and we’ll all be out late. So we thought it made sense for Jane to stay at the condo with me, and for you to stay here.” The most maddening part had been his inability to poke a hole in her logic.
“It’s just for one night.” She had smoothed his shirt front, smiling up at him with the soft look that rarely failed to bend him to her will. “After the wedding we’ll have the condo all to ourselves, I promise.”
He had done some harrumphing about breach of promise and the convenient supply of lawyers just down the hall, but in the end, he and his suitcase had plodded back to the guest room.
And here I am, awake before dawn. Alone. It wasn’t fair, especially considering his exemplary behavior. He had conscientiously fulfilled his role as the bachelor party’s designated driver, sipping ice water all evening. He had quashed Richard’s racier suggestions—most involving naked women, lap dances, or both—and had suffered his cousin’s derision as a result. He had postponed a long-awaited joyride in his Ferrari in order to be of help to Jane. I even mowed a lawn, for heaven’s sake!
He tried to go back to sleep but finally gave up; it was impossible with this litany of injustice filling his head like a swarm of indignant bees. He sat up and swung his legs out of bed, hoping a run in the pre-dawn gloom would distract him from his troubles.
An hour later, as he jogged the final block back to the house, the first hints of dawn were glowing on the horizon, adding shades of pink and yellow to the dull orange already tinting the steel gray sky. The air felt like clammy fingers against his face, made worse by the damp tendrils of hair glued to his forehead. But at least he was finished with hills for one day. Central Park had nothing to rival the brutal inclines in this city.
At least the hills had served as a worthy target for his frustrations. He could easily imagine what Elizabeth would say to cajole him out of his bad mood: “Your best friend is getting married, and you will never again have to feel guilty about what happened last May. Besides, you may have started the day alone, but you won’t end it that way.”
Now there was genuine motivation. Elizabeth had promised to make the wait worthwhile, and by his reckoning he was entitled to generous compensation. He trotted up the front steps and into the house, sifting through the tantalizing possibilities.
He showered, dressed, and returned downstairs for breakfast. Charles’s mother stood in front of the stove, removing a steaming kettle from a burner. The thick, dark scent of strong coffee filled the kitchen. He returned the greeting she offered in her whispery voice and accepted her offer of a cup of coffee. It wasn’t decaf, but this morning he didn’t care.
She reached into the cabinet above her head and withdrew two yellow ceramic mugs. “You boys were out late last night.”
“You heard us come in?”
“My room is next to Charles’s, and he was singing to himself for a while.”
“‘Going to the Chapel’? In falsetto?”
Mrs. Bingley smiled and nodded.
William grinned. “He was doing that in the car, too.”
She set their mugs on the table. “I hope he’s not going to be hung over today.”
“I think he’ll be all right. I made the others stop buying him drinks as early as I could.”
“I don’t suppose that made you popular,” she said with a smile.
“No.” In fact, it had earned him a new nickname. “But yesterday afternoon, Charles made me promise not to let him go overboard.”
“I’m sure he appreciates it, even if he didn’t say so last night. May I fix you some breakfast?”
“Thank you, but, please, sit down. I can do it.”
“Won’t you please let me? I feel useless; the mother of the groom has so little to do.”
William smiled and thanked her. He ordered his usual breakfast and sipped his tea while she glided silently around the kitchen. A few minutes later they sat across from each other, spreading cream cheese on their bagels.
“I had a nice chat with Elizabeth last evening while we were cleaning up the kitchen,” Mrs. Bingley said. “She said the wedding is in June?”
“Yes. June 15.”
“I’m happy for you. She seems like a lovely girl.”
Mrs. Bingley’s smile widened and she sipped her coffee. “I think it’s wonderful that you and Charles are going to be brothers-in-law. He already thinks of you as his brother. This just makes it official.”
Charles had said almost the same thing last night in an inebriated but touching toast to his best man. “It’s been good seeing more of him lately,” William said.
She glanced around the kitchen and sighed. “I'm so glad I could be here to see this wedding finally happen. It was so sad when it was canceled before.”
“I know how much it means to Jane and Charles that you’re here. They weren’t sure if it would be possible.”
“Ronald wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t try to stop me,” she said, and then hesitated before continuing. “He’s different since his surgery.”
“How is his health?”
“He’s making progress, but it’s slow; he has so little energy. I think that’s why he’s quiet and withdrawn.”
It was a phrase that would never have described Charles’s father in the past. “I understand he isn’t back at work yet. I assume that’s on doctor’s orders?”
“The doctor told Ronald that he could go back part-time, but he insists that he’s not ready. When he was first released from the hospital, I thought he’d be spending all his time at the office like he did before. But it’s been more than two months and he’s only been there two or three times, for meetings that Caroline begged him to attend. Poor Caroline; she’s so busy, handling everything for him.”
Busy, and undoubtedly thrilled to be in control. “I understand she’s coming to the wedding.”
“Oh, yes, of course. She would have been at the dinner last night, but she had to represent the company at a charity event back in LA. She’s so pleased that Jane and Charles found their way back together, and she’s sorry that she inadvertently set off that terrible chain reaction last May.”
William bit into his bagel to save himself the need to comment. He remained convinced that Caroline’s actions last May had been anything but inadvertent.
A few tentative rays of early sun shone through the window above the sink and painted irregular stripes of light across the counters. The fog was burning away, a good omen for the day’s weather.
“How is Charles doing?” she asked, after a long silence. “He tells me that everything is fine, but he’s always been one to put on a smile no matter what.”
“I think everything is fine. Everyone is impressed by how well he’s adjusting to all the changes.”
“I know you look out for him. If he needed anything, you’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“Eventually, he wants to open a jazz club, and it’s going to take him a long time to save enough money.”
Her eyes widened. “Is that why they’re not keeping the house?”
“To raise money for a jazz club?” William frowned. “Is that what he told you?”
“He said that he and Jane don’t need a place this big. But it isn’t all that large, especially not for a family. Can you tell me about the condominium they’re moving into?”
“It’s small. Two bedrooms, one bath. Adequate for two people, I suppose.”
“But to raise a family ….” She pressed her lips together. “Is it about money? Are the taxes too high? Because it can’t have anything to do with a mortgage. He paid cash for the house.”
William took refuge in his bagel again, but Mrs. Bingley was studying him closely. “Oh, dear. He didn’t tell the truth about that, did he? I wondered if there was some other reason they were selling.”
It seemed impossible that Charles’s lies from last spring were still hanging over everything like a moth-ridden blanket. Mrs. Bingley shook her head slowly, interpreting William’s silence correctly.
“I should have known,” she said sadly. “Ronald was angry about the house. He didn’t want Charles putting down roots in San Francisco. I suppose Charles thought Ronald would handle it better if he didn’t know Charles had borrowed money to buy it.”
“I tried to buy the house and give it to them as a wedding present, but Charles refused.”
“Ronald would be proud of Charles for that. I’ll have to tell him.” She gave William a conciliatory smile. “But it was kind of you to offer.”
“Even after he said no, I still intended to buy it.” He relished the chance to tell the story to a sympathetic audience.
“Did you think that if you bought it, you’d eventually find a way to give it to him?”
William nodded ruefully, surprised by her insight. “Charles must have guessed what I was thinking, because he put the house back on the market.”
“He and Jane seem to love living here. Do you think—”
The sound of footsteps on the stairs, and then in the hall, halted their conversation. Charles sagged against the doorway, bleary-eyed and unshaven, a rumpled blue bathrobe belted carelessly around his waist. “Morning,” he croaked.
Mrs. Bingley jumped to her feet. “Come and sit down, dear. How are you feeling?”
He crossed the room and dropped into a chair. “A little rough around the edges, but it could be a lot worse.” He smiled weakly at William. “Thanks, Will. I know you took a lot of crap from the guys when you wouldn’t let them get me roaring drunk.”
“Would you like coffee or tea?” Mrs. Bingley asked.
“Coffee, please. Lots and lots. In fact, do you think you could fill a bathtub with the stuff?”
“I don’t understand the point of it,” William mused.
“Of coffee?” Charles gave William a crooked grin. “Or baths?”
“Of turning a bachelor party into a drunken orgy. Why would a man want to be hung over for his wedding?” The wedding day seemed intimidating enough without the additional weight of a hangover.
“It’s a last gasp of freedom as a bachelor, a last chance to raise hell with the guys.” Charles arched an eyebrow. “Come to think of it, I’m not surprised you don’t understand.”
William flicked an annoyed glance at Charles in response to his patronizing tone. “I have never pretended to be one of the guys.”
“Thank heaven for that,” Mrs. Bingley interjected in a sympathetic tone as she delivered Charles’s coffee. “Don’t let Charles tease you for being mature and sensible.”
“That’s not quite the way Richard worded it last night,” William grumbled.
Charles lifted his cup and inhaled the steam, his expression beatific. “Oh, yeah, this is what the doctor ordered.” He took a gulp and set the cup back on the table. “You’re just different, Will, that’s all. I bet you didn’t even go through the terrible twos.”
William had been ill almost continually as a two-year-old, leading up to his surgery. “I don’t remember.” He pushed back his chair and rose abruptly to his feet. “I’m going to call Lizzy and find out what time we should be at The House.” He had noticed that Jane and Charles seemed to use audible capital letters when they talked about the Russian Hill mansion where the wedding would take place.
“Okay.” Charles rubbed his forehead. “Thanks again for saving me from myself last night.”
“No problem. You can do the same thing for me at my bachelor party.”
“Oh, like you’ll need saving.”
“Richard will be there.”
“Good point.” Charles raised his coffee cup. “Not to worry, Will, I’ve got your back.”
“Good morning,” he said, both a smile and a question in his voice.
“Hi,” she gasped.
“You’re not dressed for the wedding.” His eyes swept over her.
She felt self-conscious in her faded jeans, red sweater, and denim jacket. “No wonder you’re rich and famous,” she retorted. “It’s those keen powers of observation. Can’t slip a thing past you.”
He smiled, dimples creasing his cheeks, and shook his head. “No respect, as usual. I only mentioned it because you don’t have much time. The guests are starting to arrive.”
“I know.” She heaved a sigh. “Kitty wanted to help Jane get ready this morning, and unfortunately she brought Lydia with her. We gave Lydia one job, to bring Jane’s shoes. You can guess what happened.”
He chuckled and tucked a few wayward strands of hair behind her ear. “I assume you had to go back and get them.”
“It was my fault for trusting Lydia with anything that wasn’t bolted or glued to her body.” She stepped away from him, preparing to race onward to the back staircase, but he moved into her path and looped his arms around her waist. “William, I’m in a hurry,” she protested. “As you so cleverly noted, I’m not dressed yet.”
“Don’t I at least get a good morning kiss?”
“Good morning.” She dropped a quick peck on his cheek.
Elizabeth pushed past him and headed for the stairs, but a voice in her head stopped her. Weren’t you thinking just yesterday that you never wanted to take him for granted? Acting on impulse, she whirled and grabbed his arm. He grunted in surprise when she dropped the shoebox, flung her arms around his neck, and pulled his head down to hers for a hearty kiss.
“Hi,” she murmured afterwards, her lips still inches from his, their foreheads touching.
His hands slid up from her shoulders to cup her face, and he replied to her kiss with one of his own, gentle and slow and full of aching desire. His lips were as soft and warm as ever, and the little sigh that trilled in the air came from her own throat.
“Hi,” he whispered. “I missed you last night.”
“Same here.” She rubbed noses with him, wishing she could spend the day—the week? the decade?—in his arms. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
He nodded, his eyes warm with affection, and kissed her once more before releasing her. “I’ll see you later, cara.”
Elizabeth was still smiling when she reached the large, airy bedroom she and Jane were using to dress. The room made a fitting bridal landscape, decorated almost entirely in white and cream, with fleeting touches of black that might have represented the bridegroom’s tuxedo. “Where is everyone?” she asked Kitty, who was preening in front of a full-length mirror.
“Jane’s in the bathroom checking her make-up,” Kitty replied. “She fixed my hair while you were gone. Doesn’t it look fabulous?”
“It looks nice, but you shouldn’t have asked her to do it. She doesn’t need to be taking care of you on her wedding day.” Although Kitty had made great strides toward becoming a responsible adult during her months as Jane’s paralegal, much of that progress had been lost the instant Lydia had sauntered into the bachelorette party.
“It’s not like it took her an hour.” Kitty flashed a resentful glance at Elizabeth. “Besides, she’s almost ready.”
“Outside, probably. I’m surprised you didn’t see her. That guy parking cars—you know, the tall one—is really cute.”
“Of course. She’s been here for more than five minutes, so obviously she’s found a guy to chase.” Elizabeth glanced at the clock on the dresser. “I’m surprised Mom and Dad aren’t here yet.”
“Dad called right after you left to get the shoes. Mary’s flight was delayed a little, but they’re on their way. They should be here any minute.”
“Lizzy, you’re back.” Jane came through the doorway from the bathroom. She seemed lit by her own soft pastel spotlight.
“Oh, Jane.” Elizabeth stared at her in awe. “Just wait till Charles sees you.”
“You don’t think the dress is too much for a simple wedding?”
“Of course not,” Elizabeth answered. “It’s perfect.” The satin sheath draped smoothly over Jane’s slender form, and the wide cummerbund-style waistband sparkled with delicate beadwork.
“Perfect,” Kitty echoed softly. “Thank goodness you kept it.”
“I’m still going to donate it to that foundation, but I’m so glad I got a chance to wear it first.” Jane flashed a rueful smile. “For lots of reasons, obviously.” She had identified a charity that collected and resold wedding gowns, but before she could force herself to make the donation, Charles had re-entered her life.
“I wish I’d kept my bridesmaid’s dress,” Elizabeth said. The precarious state of her finances last May had forced her to sell the dress.
“I like the new one better anyway,” Kitty said, pulling Elizabeth’s dress from the closet and fingering its chiffon skirt. “You didn’t wear stuff like this back then.”
“The other dress was nice,” Jane said, “but I agree with Kitty. The new one is gorgeous, and it’s so flattering.”
“I guess you’re right.” While the neckline on the new dress wasn’t low enough to be considered daring, it was far from the high-necked, blousy style behind which Elizabeth had hidden her body in those days.
“Thank you for letting me wear your diamond earrings,” Jane said, nudging her hair back from one ear so the earring showed to best advantage. “They’re beautiful, and they’re my ‘something borrowed.’”
“You know you’re welcome to the necklace, too, right?”
“The earrings are enough. You should wear the necklace.”
“I’ll wear it!” Kitty bounced across the room, her hand outstretched.
A sharp knock interrupted Elizabeth’s half-formed retort. She opened the door.
“How’s everything going up here?” It was Charlotte. “Wow, Jane, you look fantastic.”
“Char, you’re wearing a dress!” Elizabeth pretended to stumble backwards, one hand pressed to her chest. “Has anybody checked outside for flying pigs?” The dress was simple, black, and severely tailored, but it was a dress.
“Seriously,” Kitty said. “I didn’t know you had legs.”
“I figured I might get better tips this way,” Charlotte quipped. She and Richard had volunteered to tend bar for the reception.
“It’s because of Richard,” Elizabeth stage-whispered to Jane and Kitty. “He’s a leg man.”
“Indeed he is,” Charlotte said with a smirk, “among other things. But that’s beside the point. You know, Liz, for someone who isn’t even dressed yet, you’ve got a lot to say about what I’m wearing.”
“I know, I know. I need to get moving.”
“Well, unless anybody needs help, I’m going to head back downstairs. We have the bar all ready to go, so we can hit the ground running the instant you say, ‘I do.’”
“I’ll come with you,” Kitty said. “I need to find Lydia.”
Charlotte stopped in the doorway. “I almost forgot why I came upstairs. Your parents are here. Your mother is introducing Mary to Mrs. Bingley and the Hursts, but she said to tell you she’d be up in a few minutes.”
Kitty and Charlotte departed, and Elizabeth dressed with blazing speed, interrupted only briefly by an emotionally overwrought but blessedly quick visit from Mrs. Bennet. With five minutes to spare, she sat on the bed and slipped into her high-heeled sandals.
“It’s almost time,” Jane said softly.
Elizabeth finished tussling with the uncooperative strap on one sandal and jumped to her feet. “I’m ready.” Then she took a closer look at Jane, who was staring at herself in the mirror with a dazed expression. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling light-headed again?”
“No, I’m fine.” Jane shook her head slowly, as though second-guessing her answer. “It’s just … it struck me just now. I’ve been dreaming about my wedding since I was a little girl. And this is it.”
“This isn’t the way I remember you describing everything back when you had that huge crush on Bobby Cranston.”
“I can’t believe you remember his name! I was completely into the fairy tale princess look back then. Yards of tulle and lace, and a long veil with a tiara.”
“And Pepto-Bismol pink for the bridesmaid’s dresses, as I recall. With puffy sleeves and a huge bow at the back.” Elizabeth shuddered, and then smoothed the skirt of her burgundy chiffon dress. Like Jane’s gown, it had a high waist with a cummerbund effect, after which the skirt floated to her knees. “Thank goodness you didn’t get married when you were twelve.”
“But that isn’t what I meant. This is it. I’m going to be married. And in a few months, so are you.” Jane blinked hard. “It feels like something is ending. We’ve always been so close.”
“And we always will be.” Elizabeth wrapped an arm around Jane’s waist. “Nothing is ending. Something new is starting, that’s all. You’ll still have the whole Bennet Brigade on your side: Mom and Dad and Mary and Kitty and me. And Lydia, whether you want her or not.”
Jane smiled, sniffling.
“But you’ll also have Charles, and a family of your own.”
“A little sooner than we planned.” Jane’s hand dropped to her abdomen. “I wonder if Charles has told William yet?”
“I don’t think so. William didn’t mention it on the phone this morning.”
“Poor Charles. He’s so worried that William will pressure him about the house again once he finds out.”
“He promised he wouldn’t.” Elizabeth rubbed a finger over the cool surface of her diamond necklace. “But I don’t blame Charles for being concerned. If William knew he had a niece or nephew on the way ….”
“If Charles doesn’t tell him today, I think you should do it. People are finding out. Charlotte figured it out last night when I kept ordering club soda. And once I tell Mom, it won’t be a secret anymore. I don’t want him to hear the news accidentally.”
A little shiver of awe passed through Elizabeth. “I’m starting to get what you were saying. This all seems kind of surreal, like if someone pinched me, I might wake up.”
Jane nodded smiled, her eyes swimming with tears. “I love you, Lizzy. And I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Where else would I be, on your wedding day?” Sudden tears stung Elizabeth’s eyes. “I love you, too.”
They enfolded each other in a warm but careful hug, mindful of hair and make-up and freshly pressed dresses. Out in the hallway, a clock chimed half past twelve.
“Time to go,” Elizabeth said.
Jane nodded and dabbed at her nose and eyes with a tissue.
Elizabeth removed Charles’s wedding ring from its box and slid it onto her finger for safekeeping. She handed Jane a simple spray of gardenias and then retrieved her own bouquet of orchids from the florist’s box on the bed. “Okay, Ms. Bennet-Bingley-to-be,” she said. “Let’s go downstairs and get you married.”