Jane could see Charles’s hands shaking as he tried to unlock the door to William’s suite. He finally aligned the key card correctly, and the lock clicked open.
Before she could say anything, Charles took both her hands in his. With great remorse, he said, “I’m so sorry. I know I should have told you the truth. But I was afraid I’d lose you.”
She shook her head sadly. “I know you were in a difficult situation. But, Charles, your dishonesty shows a total lack of respect for me.”
“That’s not true, sweetheart! I just hated to think about the prenup. I knew we’d never need one.”
She pulled her hands out of his grasp. “Have you forgotten that I’m an attorney? And not just any attorney, but one who specializes in family law? Your father was absolutely right to insist on a prenup to protect both the company and the family’s assets, and I don’t blame him for being angry.”
“Then you’ll sign it?” he asked, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
“I’m sure I would if I had time to read it first, and to ask a friend of mine to take a quick look at it. Prenups aren’t my specialty, and considering how much your father dislikes me, I wouldn’t feel safe signing anything he gave me without some advice.” She paused; she hadn’t meant to be so blunt. “I’m sorry; that was unkind.”
“I understand. Father has given you good reason to mistrust him.”
“The problem is that he expects me to sign it tonight, and I’m afraid I can’t do that. Besides, we have much bigger problems.”
He winced. “You mean the business about moving to LA. I’m so sorry. But I wanted you to be happy.”
“And the way to make me happy was to lie to me? Charles, we agreed that we were staying in San Francisco. We even bought a house big enough to—” Jane’s voice broke. “To raise our children,” she finished, very softly.
“I thought we’d be able to stay for at least a year or two, and after that I thought you’d understand. Father was right, you know. If I’m going to run the company some day, of course we need to live in LA.”
“But do you want to run the company? From what I’ve seen, you’re miserable there.”
“I wouldn’t say miserable, exactly.”
“But I think you are,” Jane said gently. “You’re always looking for reasons to get out of the office, and you’re so tense and tired when you get home from work.”
Charles sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Okay, you’re right. I hate my job. But what am I supposed to do about it?”
She took his hand in both of hers and looked intently into his eyes. “Let Caroline take your place. She loves the business and desperately wants to run it. You’d be happier, and so would she.”
“Father insists that as his son, I have to take responsibility.”
“I’m sure he’d adjust eventually, if he saw Caroline was doing a good job. And then you’d be free to follow your own dreams, like that jazz club you’re always talking about opening. I’ve been thinking about this ever since we went to LA last month.”
Charles was silent for a moment, but then he shook his head. “No, he’d never consider it. Come on, sweetheart, just agree to Father’s terms and everything will work out. Plenty of people hate their jobs—I’ll be fine as long as I have you to come home to. And we won’t have to live with them, not for long anyway. We’ll get our own place eventually—maybe at the beach—and we’ll make our own choices.”
Jane’s heart broke for him. Growing up under his father’s thumb, he had lost the ability to see how little control he had over his life. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but I don’t believe you. I think you’d let your father make all our choices for us.”
“I admit that Father’s strong-willed. But he’s the head of the family, and he’s smart. He built his company from nothing. He’s accomplished things that most men only dream of, and he deserves my loyalty.”
“Loyalty, yes. But do you owe him your free will? You’re 32 years old. Shouldn’t you be allowed to make decisions for yourself?”
“So if you had a disagreement with your parents, you’d just walk away from them?” Charles sounded angry, or perhaps just frustrated.
Jane’s voice rose in pitch, and she fought back tears. “This is more than a disagreement. Your father controls your every action. From what you’ve told me, he watches every decision you make at work and second-guesses everything. He might as well be doing the job himself. It’s no wonder you hate it there. He makes you feel incompetent. And now he wants to control the rest of our life too.”
He pressed his lips together tightly, his face flushed. “Stop saying that. I’m not under his control, not the way you’re making it sound,” he muttered. He crossed the room and stood looking out a window into the darkness, his back to her.
“But you are; you just can’t see it because it’s been going on for so long. When we were in LA last month, you turned into a pale, quiet shadow. You let your father say terrible things to me. You never intervened, never defended me, never even tried to help me explain things to him. You just stood there and said nothing.” Tears ran down her cheeks. “I lost so much respect for you that weekend.”
He covered the distance between them quickly, suddenly contrite. “I know, sweetheart. It was terrible for you and it was my fault. But I thought we had put that behind us.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. This was even harder than she had feared. “We had, but only because you lied to me. And just now, in the courtyard, it was the same thing again. William and Lizzy did their best to support me, but from you—nothing. Charles, I can’t spend my life with a man I don’t respect. And I’m so terribly sorry, but right now, I don’t respect you.”
“Please, let me finish.” Jane feared that if she didn’t get the words out now, she would be unable to say them. “Worse yet, I don’t trust you, not after the way you’ve been lying to me about the prenup, about moving to LA, about … our future.” Tears she could no longer control rolled down her cheeks. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but—”
A loud knock at the door interrupted her. “Ignore it,” he whispered. “They’ll go away.”
“Charles, Jane, it’s me,” Caroline trilled through the door. “Daddy sent me over with a copy of the prenup.”
Charles answered the door, and Jane took the opportunity to brush away her tears and calm herself with some slow, deep breaths.
Caroline bustled into the room, blithely ignoring the tense atmosphere. She handed several sheets of paper to Jane. “Here it is. Be sure you read it carefully. There are some conditions that you’ll probably need to think hard about. I had no idea Daddy had asked the lawyers to write it that way.” She stood between Jane and Charles, looking back and forth expectantly, as though she were at Wimbledon watching a tennis match. An awkward silence fell over the trio.
“Thank you for bringing this, Caroline,” Jane said, struggling to sound calm. “But could you excuse us now? We’re in the middle of an important conversation.”
Caroline turned to leave, remarking, “I just want you to know that I’m rooting for you two lovebirds! I’m so sorry that this happened. I feel as though it’s all my fault, for accidentally discovering what had happened.”
Charles closed the door behind his sister and drew Jane into his arms. “Sweetheart, I promise, we’ll work everything out after the honeymoon. Father is just angry with me right now. And he has a right to be. I lied to both of you.”
“If we agree to his conditions now, and show him respect, he’ll have cooled down by the time we get back from the honeymoon. Maybe he’ll even let us stay in San Francisco for a few months. That would give us time to sell the house, and for you to figure out what to do with your law practice.”
“Come on, sweetheart, sign the prenup, and I’ll see if the Bridal Suite is available tonight. How about a nice whirlpool bath for two, some champagne and strawberries … and I’ll devote myself to making everything up to you. Doesn’t that sound perfect?” He trailed a path of kisses along her neck in an attempt to coax the tension out of her body.
Jane pulled reluctantly out of his arms. “You don’t understand. You lied to me, and you won’t stand up for me, or for us, or even for yourself, which is the part that matters most. I love you, but I can’t marry you. We have to call off the wedding.”
“No, sweetheart, you can’t do that! I need you too much.”
She grasped his forearms and gazed intently into his eyes, making one final attempt to reach him. “Then go with me to your father right now. Let’s tell him that I’ll sign the prenup tomorrow before the wedding, but not tonight, because I need more time to review it.”
“All right, I can do that,” Charles said, his expression resolute. “He’ll understand why you need the extra time. He would never sign a contract without reading it carefully.”
She took a deep breath. “And let’s tell him that you need to take a leave of absence from the company for a year or two. Caroline can take over for you, and you can look for a different sort of job and try to figure out what you kind of career you want. And then, if you decide that you truly want to work for your father, we’ll move to LA.”
Charles blanched at the suggestion. “Leave the company for a year? He would never agree to that.”
“We’ll never know until we try. If he agrees, I’ll even do my best to be the kind of society wife he wants me to be.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I can’t ask him that. He’d be terribly angry if I said I didn’t want to work for him. Things would just get worse.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?”
“He could cut me off without a penny, like he threatened to do earlier.”
“We don’t need the money. I have my law practice, and you have an MBA plus your experience working for your father. I’m sure you’d have no trouble finding a good job, one you’d like better than what you’re doing now.”
He thought for a moment, but then shook his head. “I’m sorry. I just … I can’t.”
“You won’t even suggest it to him?”
“No. I’m sorry, sweetheart.” His voice was clogged with emotion. “I can’t disappoint him that way.”
Jane wiped the tears from her eyes and took a deep breath. “Then I have to say goodbye.”
“No, Jane, don’t say that. Please, don’t leave me.”
Her heart broke as she watched a tear roll slowly down his cheek. She longed to kiss it away, but instead she squared her shoulders. “I guess everyone was right. We rushed into this marriage without knowing each other well enough.”
He stepped toward her and took her in his arms. “I love you. That’s all I need to know.”
The tears she had conquered began to swim in her eyes again. She stroked his cheek and kissed him gently. “And I love you, so much. But as things are, I can’t be with you.”
“Please, Jane, don’t do this.” The desperation in his eyes reproached her. “It’s not like you to be so inflexible.”
She stepped away from him. “I suppose you’re right. I avoid unpleasantness when I can, and I’m willing to do quite a lot to make the people I love happy. But I respect myself too much to let someone else control my life. And I can’t respect others who let that happen. So as much as I hate to say it, I can’t marry you.”
The lounge had only two occupants. William sat on a gray leather sofa. He had chosen it hoping that Elizabeth would share it with him, but she had selected an armchair across from him instead. She had removed her shoes and was curled up in the chair, her head resting on a throw pillow, her eyes closed.
He sipped his coffee, a contemplative smile on his face. Oddly enough, despite the long day and his exhaustion earlier in the evening, he was alert and awake now. Perhaps it was the coffee, or perhaps it was the odd protective instinct he felt as he watched Elizabeth sleep.
A truck backfired in the street nearby. Elizabeth stirred and opened her eyes. She blinked and yawned, smiling self-consciously when she saw William watching her. “Did I fall asleep?” she murmured, her voice husky, her eyes still only half open. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said quietly. “This has been a long day.”
She rubbed her neck and stretched her arms, sighing. “And it’s not over yet. No word from Jane and Charles?”
“Nothing. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad one.”
“I hope they can work things out, but I just don’t know.”
William took a deep breath. There was something he’d been waiting to say. “Elizabeth?”
She looked at him, eyebrows raised, and silently waited for him to continue.
“About what happened earlier.”
“When we were out in the courtyard together. I should apologize.”
She glanced down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. “Why? Nothing happened that I didn’t want to happen.”
A hint of a smile touched his lips at her admission. “I wasn’t apologizing for anything that happened when we were alone. My only regret on that score is that we didn’t get the chance to finish what we started.”
“We finished our dance,” she said with a ghost of a smile.
“That’s not what I meant, and I think you know it.”
For a moment their eyes locked, and William felt the now-familiar wave of desire that Elizabeth so easily provoked in him. Had she been sitting beside him, he would have reached for her, gathered her into his arms, and kissed her at last. But the distance between them felt too large to bridge, especially after she looked away, staring at her hands again.
“What I meant,” he said, “was that I’m sorry Caroline Bingley was rude to you.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“Indirectly, it was. Caroline and I have known each other for a long time, and she’s … attracted to me.”
“From what I’ve seen, that’s quite an understatement.” Elizabeth paused and then asked, “So are you two … um ….”
William shuddered. “Absolutely not. There’s nothing between us, except in Caroline’s imagination. But she’s always been difficult to discourage, and tonight that was particularly true.”
“Maybe the wedding atmosphere encouraged her.”
“I think it was for another reason.” His fine eyes remark, voiced unintentionally, had alerted Caroline to his interest in Elizabeth. And then … “She saw us dancing together, and I’m sure she could tell that I was about to kiss you. She was trying to protect what she imagines to be her turf.”
“I’ve dealt with guys who didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer, but I get the feeling Caroline would make them look like amateurs.”
“I avoid her whenever I can, and I try to discourage her by disengaging from whatever she’s trying to start. But I try to avoid being overly confrontational; I don’t want to risk embarrassing Charles, especially not this weekend. But I’m sorry that she treated you badly because of me.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can’t help it if you’re irresistible.” She quickly added, “To her, I mean.”
Her little slip pleased him. “I wanted you to understand about her, and to know that she’s not part of my life, except as my friend’s sister.”
“I suppose she came looking for you to tell you about the prenup?”
He nodded slowly. It annoyed him that Caroline had manipulated him into talking to Charles at a time when she could “accidentally“ bring Mr. Bingley out to overhear the conversation.
Elizabeth glanced at a clock in the corner. “Goodness, it’s late. With everything that’s happened, are you still planning on going for a run in the morning?”
“I hope so. I try not to miss two days in a row, and I didn’t get any exercise today. How early will the fog burn off down by the bay?”
“It’s hard to predict exactly, but on warm days at this time of year it usually burns off pretty early in that part of town. It’s worse closer to the ocean. But you still might get to see the Golden Gate Bridge fogged in.”
“I’d like to see that.” William had only seen this particular phenomenon in photographs.
“It’s an amazing sight. And you know where you should go to run? Crissy Field in the Presidio. It’s down by the waterfront. They converted an old Army airfield into a recreation area. I haven’t been there yet but I’ve heard it’s nice. There’s just one thing.”
“Driving around there confuses me, so I usually take the bus. But I guess you wouldn’t even consider leaving the Z3 at the hotel,” she teased, an impudent light in her eyes.
He grinned smugly. “Oh, I think I can find my way around. I have an excellent sense of direction.”
“Then I’d recommend parking at Crissy Field. From there you can follow the Golden Gate Promenade toward Fort Point, or you can go east toward Marina Green. Either way you’ll be right along the bay, and the views are gorgeous.”
“Thank you. I’ve always wanted to go down there to run when I’ve been in town, but it’s just never worked out.”
“I’m not a runner, but I love going for walks, especially here at home.”
Noting the enthusiasm in her voice, he asked, “Do you prefer San Francisco to New York?”
“I like New York, but Northern California is in my blood and I can always feel it calling me back.”
“I understand that you have a job interview for a teaching position at Pacific Conservatory.”
“Yes, but my chances aren’t good. It’s only because of Bill Collins that I got an interview at all.”
“You probably don’t know this,” he said, congratulating himself on directing the discussion toward the revelation he’d been waiting to share, “but Catherine de Bourgh, the dean, is—”
They heard a door slam shut. Then Charles’s voice echoed in the hallway. “Jane, please don’t go!”
Elizabeth exchanged a worried glance with William. She heard rapid footsteps in the hall, and then Jane entered the lounge.
“There you are, Lizzy. Are you ready to go?” Jane’s voice was calm, but Elizabeth saw that her eyes were red from crying.
Charles rushed into the lounge. “Jane, wait. Don’t go.”
Jane shook her head slowly. “We’ve said everything there is to say. Goodbye, Charles.”
“You can’t end it like this! I love you! We’ll work out the rest, I promise.”
Jane paused for a long moment, facing Elizabeth, her back to Charles and William. Jane took a shaky breath, seemingly on the verge of sobbing, and Elizabeth nearly began to cry herself. But then Jane wiped a tear from her eye and swallowed hard. She lifted her chin and, with an appearance of composure, turned back to Charles.
“Are you saying that you’ve changed your mind and you’re willing to talk to your father?”
“I told you, he’d never agree. We have no choice but to accept his terms.”
“Then I’m sorry, Charles, but there’s nothing more to talk about. I can’t marry you. Lizzy, please, can we go now?”
“Of course,” Elizabeth answered, grabbing her purse. She hurried after Jane, who was already out the door of the lounge.
An elevator arrived, and they stepped on board. As soon as the doors closed, tears began to run down Jane’s cheeks. “Lizzy, please, get me out of here,” she sobbed.
Elizabeth embraced her weeping sister, her own eyes wet with tears. “I’m here, Jane. I’ll take care of you.”
“The manager didn’t leave you a complimentary bottle of something? What kind of dump is this?” Charles was ransacking the bar area of William’s suite.
William sighed. “Why don’t we sit down and talk about it.”
“I don’t want to talk. I want to get drunk. Very drunk.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Alcohol is—”
“Alcohol is the only thing that’s going to make me feel better right now. So do I have to leave here and go down to the bar, or are you going to call room service and order a bottle of scotch and two glasses?”
“Okay, fine. Have it your way. See you later.” Charles turned toward the door.
“All right, sit down. I’m calling them now.” Getting drunk was only going to make Charles feel worse, but if he was determined to do it, he would be safer here in the suite than roaming around on his own.
Charles collapsed in a chair, burying his head in his hands. “Oh, God, Will, I’ve made such a mess of my life.”
“You’ve made some mistakes, but your father is a difficult man to deal with.”
“According to Jane, the problem is me, not my father.” Charles’s face was a tortured mask. “She said that I was weak and pathetic, that I don’t deserve any respect.”
William frowned. That didn’t sound like the warm, gentle Jane he had encountered earlier in the day. Still, he had seen with his own eyes how chilly and distant she had been when she returned to the lounge. It seemed strange that a woman who had just broken an engagement with a man she supposedly loved would be so calm and unemotional, and he began to wonder about Jane’s true nature. “What did she say about the prenup?” he asked.
“Refused to sign it.”
William raised his eyebrows. He thought back to Mrs. Bennet’s overheard remark:“Jane’s a smart girl. I taught her well.” Still, if money were her primary interest, wouldn’t she have signed the prenup and become Mrs. Bingley, thus gaining entry into her in-laws’ lavish lifestyle? William wasn’t sure what to think.
A waiter arrived with the bottle of scotch, and William poured two drinks. He wasn’t fond of scotch and didn’t intend to drink much, but he suspected that Charles would take offense if he didn’t at least pretend to share the bottle. He dropped into a chair, kicked off his shoes, and stretched his long legs, fighting fatigue. “What was Jane referring to when she asked if you were willing to talk to your father?”
Charles drained his glass in one gulp and reached for the bottle. “I told you, I don’t want to talk. I want to drink. After all, this is my bachelor party.”
William sighed and settled back into his chair. It was going to be a long night.
Elizabeth crept out of Jane’s bedroom with a sigh of relief. It had been a painful evening for both of them. Jane had described her conversation with Charles, at last surrendering to the agonized sobs she had managed to choke back until then. Elizabeth had managed to coax her into lying down, and despite Jane’s insistence that she would be unable to sleep, she had finally drifted off.
The spare bedroom was just across the hall. Elizabeth dropped her new dress at the foot of the bed and unzipped a side pocket of her suitcase, rooting through until she found the knee-length tee shirt in which she slept. She pulled it on and tiptoed to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Once there, she inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her hair had survived the evening surprisingly well. She reached up and captured a curl, twirling it around her fingers as she recalled the gentle touch of William’s hands in her hair.
What might have happened if Caroline hadn’t shown up when she did? It was a tantalizing question. Elizabeth shivered, remembering the heat in William’s eyes when, in the lounge, he had told her that he regretted not finishing what they had started. She ran a finger along her lips, wondering what his mouth would have felt like on hers.
The phone rang, and she jumped, startled. She dashed to the kitchen to answer it, hoping that the sound had not awakened Jane.
“It’s Charlotte.” Her friend spoke in a rough whisper. “Sorry to call so late.”
“It’s okay. I was still up. Did you score a hat trick?”
Charlotte’s laugh was low and throaty. “You might say that.”
“Well, at least somebody had some fun.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t be gloating at a time like this. What happened?”
“Jane canceled the wedding.”
“Oh, no. That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
Elizabeth felt tears coming to her eyes again. “She’s devastated, of course.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Elizabeth thought for a moment. “Yes. Come over in the morning and bring your cell phone. We have to call a lot of people very quickly to tell them the wedding is off.”
“I’ll be there. How is your mother taking it?”
“We decided not to tell her till the morning. We couldn’t handle another messy scene tonight.”
“Any chance Jane will change her mind by morning?”
“I don’t think so,” Elizabeth replied. “Not after the way Charles lied to her for weeks, and refused to stand up for her, or even for himself. I’m hoping he’ll reconsider his position after a night of thinking about losing her. I don’t think he believed she’d actually call off the wedding.”
“I’m so sorry about all of this. I know she’s crazy about him in spite of everything, though she deserves a man with some cojones.”
“Yes, she does. I just hope he figures it out and grows some.”
“Well, I’ll let you get some sleep. Just call me if you need anything.”
“Okay, Char. Good night.”
Elizabeth hung up the phone and tiptoed down the hall to bed. It had been a very long day.