To his surprise, his suite was unoccupied. Charles’s suit jacket was still draped over a chair, and the blanket with which William had quietly covered him the night before lay in a heap on the floor.
William next checked the Club Lounge, thinking that perhaps Charles had gone in search of coffee. But the concierge on duty hadn’t seen him. A smile touched William’s lips as he glanced at the armchair in which Elizabeth had sat the night before. She had been lovely, her skin glowing in the firelight.
He returned to his suite, showered and changed, and seated himself in the living room with a book. Charles would certainly be back, if only to retrieve his jacket.
William could see now that he should have softened his remarks at the café to avoid offending Elizabeth. But it had been strangely exhilarating to sit across the table and debate with her, despite—or perhaps because of—her flushed cheeks and blazing eyes. And in the long run, he wasn’t worried about her anger. Once the events of yesterday retreated into the past, she would be able to view the situation with more objectivity than she could be expected to achieve now.
Besides, he had seen evidence that Elizabeth’s wrath, though fierce, was short-lived. She had been angry and sarcastic the previous evening when she sang her song, yet a short time later she had stood in his arms as they danced, her head resting contentedly on his shoulder. And that morning on the beach …. William smiled at the memory of their kiss. She was momentarily angry, but a sincere apology, followed by a romantic dinner in New York, would put them on the right track again.
But the track to where? Charles’s predicament offered a vivid demonstration of what happened when a man got involved with a woman who didn’t understand his world. William’s parents had been another such example.
Edmund Darcy and Anna Forlini had met in Rome while Edmund, still in his mid-twenties, was helping to manage Darcy Industries’ European operations. Edmund, his experience with women limited to the daughters of wealthy New York families, was dazzled by Anna’s dark beauty, her passionate energy, and her collection of bohemian friends. He found himself swept along on a romantic tide and, much to his parents’ dismay, he impulsively married her just a few months after they met. William was born less than a year later, his arrival briefly interrupting Anna’s burgeoning operatic career.
A few weeks before William’s second birthday, Edmund was called back to New York following the sudden death of his father. Almost overnight, Edmund’s romantic impulses were embalmed under the weight of responsibility. Anna never recovered from Edmund’s insistence that she abandon the operatic stage, an unseemly occupation for the wife of a prominent Manhattan business leader. Edmund expected his wife to manage their social lives while he managed the Darcy empire; however, Anna hated the life of a Manhattan socialite. They were soon estranged, and before long Edmund was seen at the Darcy townhouse only when his presence was required for the sake of appearances.
William suspected that he was the only reason Anna had not divorced Edmund, returned to Italy, and resumed her career. His father would never have permitted the Darcy heir to be taken out of the United States, and Anna would never have left her son.
A muffled knock roused William from his reverie. When he opened the door, he found Charles and Caroline standing together in the hallway. Charles’s features were haggard and his eyes bloodshot. Caroline, though, was bright-eyed and chipper. William stood aside to allow them to enter, wishing he could admit Charles but leave Caroline in the hall.
“Where have you been, Charles? You were gone when I got back from my run.”
“You went running, William? How wonderful,” Caroline cooed. “I do love a man who takes good care of his body.”
William exhaled a gust of air as Caroline’s avid gaze devoured him.”So, Charles? What’s going on?”
Caroline began to speak, but William shot her a warning glance. He hadn’t expected it to work, but to his surprise she fell silent.
“I went to see Father,” Charles said, his voice strained.
“I proposed the compromise that Jane suggested.”
“I would take a leave of absence from the company for a year and get a job with another company, up here.”
“And you think that’s best?” It sounded to William like a way for Jane to have her cake and eat it too. She could stay in San Francisco without cutting ties to the elder Bingleys … and their money.
“It doesn’t matter, because he turned me down flat. Wouldn’t even listen. It was almost as though he already knew what I was going to say.”
“He was terribly overbearing,” Caroline said, patting Charles on the shoulder. “I felt so sorry for you, and I was surprised you were able to tolerate the horrid things he said. But you’re so much more accepting of his insults than I could ever be.”
William frowned at Caroline. What was she up to? “Why don’t we sit down?” he suggested, motioning toward the living room. He selected a chair instead of the sofa to prevent Caroline from sitting beside him.
Charles collapsed onto the sofa, pulled out his cell phone, and began to dial. “I need to try to reach Jane again. Her line has been busy for ages.”
“Yes, they’re making calls about the cancellation of the wedding,” William said.
“How do you know that?” Charles asked, frowning.
“I meant, that’s probably why the line is busy.” William wasn’t ready to admit that he had seen Elizabeth that morning, especially not in front of Caroline.
“I’ll try a few more times, but then I’m just going over there,” Charles declared. “I need to talk to her.”
“About what?” William asked.
“I should have listened to her last night. But I was upset about the blow-up with Father and feeling so guilty about lying to everyone that I couldn’t think straight.”
“Listened to her about what? You haven’t told me much about what happened.”
“I’m sorry, Will. I’ll tell you later, but right now I have to reach Jane. I hate to have to choose between Jane and Father, but obviously I can’t please them both, not if Father won’t even listen to my suggestions. And if I have to choose ….” Charles paused and nodded, as though checking with himself for confirmation. “I choose Jane. She makes me happier than I’ve ever been.”
“Good for you, Charles! I knew love would conquer all in the end,” Caroline gushed.
“What do you intend to do?” William asked.
“If Jane will still have me, I’m going to marry her. No prenup. No moving to LA. I hope Father will still want me to work for him under those conditions, but if not … well, there are other companies and other jobs.” Charles’s voice wavered slightly.
“You’re so brave, Charles. It’s inspiring, isn’t it, William?” Caroline chirped.
“Why is this of so much interest to you?” William asked her.
“Why, what a question, darling!” Caroline exclaimed. “I love my brother, and I want him to be happy.” She smiled brightly—too brightly—at Charles.
William decided to voice his suspicions. “And it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that if he marries Jane and is disinherited, that means fewer heirs with whom to split the family fortune?”
“What a terrible accusation! How could you think I’d be so selfish?”
William stood up and went to the bar, pouring himself a glass of water. He walked back to the sitting area and stood glaring down at Caroline, towering over her. “I find it curious that you’re so much in favor of this marriage, when last night at dinner you were telling me how tacky the Bennets were, and how Charles could do much better than Jane.”
Caroline jumped to her feet. “My goodness, darling, you are in a grumpy mood this morning. You must be tired and sore from your run. Sit down and I’ll rub your shoulders. Wouldn’t that feel nice?”
“No,” William snapped.
“Oh, of course it would, darling,” Caroline said, taking his hand. “Now, sit down and I’ll make you feel all better.”
William yanked his hand away from Caroline’s and turned on her, cold distaste in his eyes. “Basta!” he shouted.
“What did you just call me?” she asked, her eyes wide with alarm.
“That’s Italian for ‘Enough!’” Charles chimed in from his seat on the sofa.
“I’ll thank you to stop … taking liberties with my person,” William sputtered.
Caroline blinked and stared at him, one hand to her chest, but then her expression cleared, replaced by a bright smile. “‘Taking liberties with your person’?” she laughed. “My goodness, darling, how formal you are all of a sudden!”
William glanced at Charles. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let this go on any longer.”
“No need to apologize; she’s earned it. Carry on. I’m going to call Jane again.” Charles grabbed his cell phone and rose to his feet. He clutched the arm of the sofa briefly, wincing, but then seemed to get his bearings. He walked toward the suite’s main door, staring at his phone.
William glared at Caroline. “I’ll be blunt so there’s no misunderstanding. I don’t want you mauling me.”
“Mauling you? Why, what a terrible thing to say!”
“Maybe so, but it’s the truth. All last evening, you had your hands all over me.”
“What if I did, darling? You didn’t seem to mind,” Caroline purred.
“You’re mistaken,” William said, his eyes glacial. “I tolerated it for Charles’s sake, because I didn’t want to cause unpleasantness at the rehearsal dinner. But I will not tolerate it any longer.”
“I can’t see why you’re overreacting this way. My goodness, it’s a sad day when two dear friends can’t link arms or share an innocent kiss.”
“Charles is my friend. You are my friend’s sister. We are acquaintances, not ‘dear friends,’ or friends of any kind. I’m tired of you acting as though we’re closer than that, and giving other people the wrong impression.”
“I am not your darling. My name is ‘William,’ and in the future that is what you will call me,” he proclaimed, squaring his shoulders.
“My goodness, you’re sexy when you take charge,” she replied, raising her eyebrows and licking her lips. “Come on, now, darling—”
“I meant it, Caroline.” William’s face was stern.
“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal, dar—er, William.”
“It matters because ‘darling’ is a term that’s used between lovers. We are not lovers, we have never been lovers, and we will never be lovers.”
“You should never say ‘never.’ One never knows about these things.”
“Nothing about you appeals to me. The only thing I feel for you is distaste, because you refuse to leave me alone. I can’t think of any clearer way to put it. I’m sorry to be blunt, but I want you to understand how serious I am.” William glared at her through narrowed eyes.
“All right,” she replied, pouting. “I suppose I might have been a bit too forward … on occasion.” She flounced across the room and poured a glass of water. “But I still consider you a dear friend, despite the way you’re treating me right now.”
“It wasn’t my intention to treat you badly. I just wanted to make sure we understood each other.”
Charles rejoined them, a glum look on his face. “Still a busy signal. I’m going over there. I hope she doesn’t kick me out before I have a chance to explain.”
“Wait, Charles.” William said. “We should discuss this first, before you do anything rash.”
“Sorry, Will, but it can’t wait. I have to fix this.”
William followed him to the door, speaking emphatically. “This will just take a few minutes, Charles. I think it’s vital that you hear me out. Jane will still be there when we’re done.”
Charles stopped, his hand on the doorknob. He turned back and stared at William for a moment, and then spoke. “Okay, You’ve got five minutes. I guess you deserve that for putting up with me last night.”
William glanced at Caroline. “Could you please excuse us? I want to talk to Charles privately.”
She eyed William defiantly. “I’m staying. Charles is my brother, and even if you don’t think so, I love him.”
“Caro, please,” Charles said. “This will go faster if he can speak his piece uninterrupted. So if you’d just—”
“But I won’t interrupt, I promise!”
“Please, Caroline,” Charles said.
She stared at him with mournful eyes. “So this is the thanks I get for supporting you and wanting the best for you,” she sniffed.
“I appreciate your support, but I need to talk to Will right now. Why don’t you go and see Father? Maybe you can calm him down.”
“Oh, all right.” She jumped to her feet and adopted her trademark pout. “I must say, the two of you have been terribly rude to me today.”
Caroline flung a reproachful glance at William and stalked into the hall, closing the door behind her. The two men returned to the living room and sat down.
“Charles, be careful about taking Caroline’s advice.”
“Don’t worry. She hasn’t influenced me. I made this decision on my own.”
“Still, be careful. I think she’s trying to drive a wedge between you and your father for her own benefit.”
Charles shook his head slowly. “Will, you’re too cynical about her. I know she can be self-absorbed and annoying, but do you really believe my own sister would do something that rotten?”
William shrugged. “Just be careful, okay?”
“I will, I promise. Now, let’s get this over with, whatever it is. I want to go see Jane before it gets any later.”
William paused for a moment to organize his thoughts. He had to find a way to warn Charles without breaking his heart. “First of all, you’ve only known Jane for a few months. Aren’t you blowing her importance to you out of proportion, in choosing her over your family?”
“I don’t think there’s a minimum time requirement to know when you’ve met the right woman. I’m certain Jane is the one.”
“Shall I remind you of several other times when you’ve said that?”
“But I didn’t understand then what it felt like to be in love, really in love. It’s different with Jane.”
William shrugged; Charles clearly wouldn’t listen to reason on this point. “Second, are you sure you want Mrs. Bennet for a mother-in-law? I’ll grant you, Jane and Elizabeth conduct themselves well, but their mother is dreadful. And those sisters! If you stay here in San Francisco, I’m sure the Bennets will be on your doorstep constantly.”
“I don’t care. I’m marrying Jane, not her family.”
“You’re not naïve enough to believe that. Aren’t family issues a large part of the problem between you and Jane right now?” William hated to be so blunt, but Charles needed to acknowledge the facts.
Charles opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again, frowning.
William nodded. Perhaps he was finally getting through. He leaned forward in his chair, intent on pressing his advantage. “And has it occurred to you that you’ve never had to support yourself? You’ve lived your life with almost unlimited financial resources. You have no experience with paying bills or living on a budget.”
Charles sighed, slumping back against the sofa cushions. He was silent for a moment and then sat forward again, his face brightening. “But it’s not as though we’ll be destitute. Jane has her law practice. She’s not making that much, but it’s a start. Plus, I have business experience and contacts; I’ll find a job somewhere.”
William hesitated before continuing. “There’s something else. I’m sorry to say this, but I’m not convinced that Jane’s feelings for you are anywhere near as strong as yours are for her.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Jane loves me.” Charles jumped to his feet, swaying only slightly this time.
William noted the hurt expression on his friend’s face, but he forced himself to proceed. “Does she? I’d like to think so, but I’ve seen evidence to the contrary. And don’t you think you should be absolutely certain of her feelings before you give up your family, your job, and your income for her?”
Charles sat back down. “What’s your evidence?” His arms were folded across his chest and his mouth was set in a defiant line.
“Don’t you find it strange that she was so unemotional last night while breaking up with you?”
“But that’s just Jane. She doesn’t show emotion in public.”
“What was she like when you talked privately?”
“She had tears in her eyes … a little bit, a couple of times, I think.” Charles thought for a minute. Then he shook his head. “No, Will. She loves me. I know she does.”
“There’s something else. I didn’t want to say this in front of Caroline, but I saw Elizabeth Bennet this morning during my run.”
Charles raised his eyebrows.
William continued, “She said Jane was somewhat upset but would be fine. Jane and some of their family are calmly making calls to cancel the wedding; that’s why her phone is busy. So even Elizabeth thinks that Jane wasn’t much affected by what happened.”
“You must have misunderstood. I’m sure Jane is devastated this morning, just like I am.”
“Not according to her sister. I’m not saying that Jane doesn’t care about you at some level, but she doesn’t seem like someone who falls deeply in love. She doesn’t seem like someone for whom you should sacrifice everything you’ve ever known.”
Charles sat staring at the wall, his shoulders slumped. With a reluctant sigh, William kept going.
“I also overheard a conversation between Mrs. Bennet and Jane’s aunt last night. Mrs. Bennet said she encouraged Jane to marry you because of your money, and that she raised Jane to look for a rich man.”
“But that doesn’t make sense. Jane said she didn’t mind if I walked away from the money,” Charles muttered, frowning. “You must have heard wrong, or there’s some other mistake.”
William shook his head confidently. “No. There’s no mistake. Look, I hate to have to tell you these things, but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Maybe she thought there would still be some money left over, perhaps that trust fund from your grandparents.”
Charles bent over, elbows on his knees, his head buried in his hands. “This can’t be true. Not my Jane.”
“And are you certain that you’re ready to walk away from your family? Forget the money for a minute. I know your father is difficult, but isn’t he still important to you?”
Charles looked up, his eyes brimming with pain, but he didn’t speak.
“And obviously you’re important to him. He wants to give you his business, the work of his entire life. That’s a remarkable gift.”
“The problem is, even though I hate to disappoint him, I don’t want it. You should understand that; after all, you’re not running your family’s business.”
William had tried to avoid mentioning his own situation, but it seemed that he had no choice. “That’s right. I’m not. And that’s exactly why I’m giving you this advice.”
“But didn’t things work out for the best for you? You have the musical career you wanted. You’re not stuck behind a desk like I am.”
“I could never have given up my music; it means too much to me. But maybe I could have found a way to do both. It might not have worked, but I never even got the chance to try. I wish—” William stopped abruptly. He hadn’t intended to reveal so much.
Charles looked up at him. “I knew your father didn’t want you to become a musician, but I never knew you had regrets about your choice.”
“Regardless of the way he expresses it, your father cares deeply about sharing his life’s work with you. You don’t know how lucky you are to be able to say that.”
“What should I do?” Charles asked in a hushed tone, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
“If I were you, I’d go to Los Angeles. You can always change your mind later if it doesn’t work out, but at least you’ll have made an honest effort. You won’t wonder what might have been.”
“After things have cooled down, you could call her, maybe arrange to come up to San Francisco on weekends and spend some time getting to know each other better.”
“Oh, c’mon. She’ll never speak to me again if I move to LA.”
“That sounds pretty inflexible to me,” William said, raising an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t she want what’s best for you if she loves you? Shouldn’t she be willing to stand by you, and not insist on staying in San Francisco just because it suits her?”
Charles sighed, his posture slumped. He looked defeated. “I said the same thing last night—that she was being inflexible.”
“And there’s one more thing.” William hated to pile even more misery onto Charles’s head, but in the long run he—and even Jane—would be better off for it. “If you decide that you do want to run the company, I think you should consider whether or not Jane is the right sort of wife for you. She doesn’t understand your world, and neither does her family. That could make for a disastrous marriage. You might make her miserable by forcing her into a position she’s not equipped to handle.”
Charles buried his head in his hands again. “I’m so confused, and so tired. I don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t I drive you home, and you can rest for a while. We can talk more later. Once you have some time to think, you’ll know what to do.”
Caroline Bingley had made a useful discovery on Friday night during her visit to William’s suite. It was possible to balance the door so that it was open just a crack. If she listened carefully from out in the hall, she could follow conversations in the living room. While she hadn’t heard every word last night, she had heard everything that mattered. Specifically, she had heard the compromise that Jane had proposed to Charles.
A one-year leave of absence for Charles! Why should he get to goof off for a year and then come back and take over? And her father had even considered it at first! Despite all of Mr. Bingley’s threats, Caroline knew that he feared losing the son for whom he had built an empire.
Charles was like the Prodigal Son. It didn’t matter what stupid, feckless thing he did, their father fell over himself to kill the fatted calf and throw a party. This elaborate wedding—to an inappropriate woman—was a prime example. Meanwhile, Caroline had always done whatever her father asked. And what reward did she get for her loyalty? Nothing. She had to grab everything for herself.
After eavesdropping on Charles and Jane on Friday night, Caroline had hurried back to her parents’ suite with her news and had easily convinced her father that the leave of absence was an irresponsible, childish request. He had performed so beautifully when Charles arrived in the morning to pitch the idea. She snickered, recalling her father’s apoplectic reaction and Charles’s deer-in-the-headlights befuddlement, magnified by his hangover.
Now she was in eavesdropping mode again, listening to William’s conversation with Charles. To her disgust, William seemed to have talked Charles out of defying their father. After so much clever planning, her perfect scheme was in jeopardy.
The plan had been born a month before, when Jane and Charles visited Los Angeles. At a “just us girls” brunch with Jane, Caroline had discovered that Jane was unaware of the prenuptial agreement’s existence. Yet the night before, she had heard Charles assure their father that Jane had already signed it. While there had been a chance that Charles was simply trying to avoid a tirade from his father about procrastination, Caroline had made the shrewd guess that the prenup offended her brother’s hyper-romantic spirit; he had a long history of making a fool of himself for love. So she had stored this tasty morsel away, ready to be deployed at just the right moment.
By waiting until the night before the wedding to blow the whistle, Caroline had created chaos beyond her wildest dreams. Never had she imagined that her hapless brother might be disinherited as a result of the conflict. She had merely intended to demonstrate his unfitness to run the company, hoping that her father would hand her the mantle of succession.
Men think they’re so smart. But they’re all balls and bluster, no brains, so easy to manipulate with a few words of praise and a pat on the head.
Except for William Darcy, unfortunately.
Caroline had two overriding ambitions in life. One was to run her father’s business; the other was to marry William Darcy. She was not in love with him; she had never been in love with any man. But William had several points in his favor. First, he was wealthy, a non-negotiable requirement in a husband. Second, his family was socially prominent. They even had old-money respectability, and while that didn’t matter in LA, it opened doors in New York. Third, he was famous and knew other famous people. And fourth, he was insanely attractive. While Caroline did not consider this an absolute necessity in a husband, it was a pleasant fringe benefit.
This fourth factor, Caroline knew, was a two-edged sword. She sometimes failed to keep her physical attraction to William under control, and this failure had led directly to the humiliating lecture he had given her just now. She had promised herself that she would allow William to pursue her instead of doing the pursuing herself. But yesterday he had started panting after that slutty chorus girl, barely acknowledging that Caroline existed. Fine eyes, indeed.
She tuned her ear to the living room again and heard William suggest that he drive Charles back to the house. That was acceptable. She would check in with her father and then go to the house herself. Perhaps she would have a chance to undo William’s influence and set Charles back on her chosen path. And while I’m at it, maybe I can get William out of the snit he’s in.