Elizabeth leaned back on her elbows and surveyed the scene. The weather, all blue skies and sunshine on this afternoon in May, matched her breezy mood, as did the location she and Jane had selected for their impromptu picnic.
“What a beautiful day!” Jane collected their sandwich wrappers and folded them carefully into fourths. “And the grounds here are so pretty. I can’t remember the last time I came here.”
“You take it for granted because you’ve always lived nearby.”
Jane nodded. “I love the Bay Area, so I’ve never wanted to leave. And, lucky for me, Charles loves it too.”
“How long has he lived here?”
“About two years. His parents want us to move to Los Angeles, but we’ve agreed that we’re staying here.”
“Well, of course you’re staying! For one thing, there’s your law practice.”
“Right. I’d hate to have to give it up now, when I’m finally starting to get established.” Jane fell silent, staring at her neatly manicured fingernails.
“Is something wrong?”
Jane looked up. “I need your advice about something. I almost mentioned it on the phone, but I decided I was probably making too much of it.”
Jane hesitated. “Oh, on second thought, it’s nothing. Forget about it.” She stood up, brushing a few blades of grass off her tan slacks. “Let’s walk down to the water; I think there are some ducklings with their mothers.”
“Sit back down this instant and tell me what’s wrong. It must be important or you wouldn’t have brought it up.”
Jane sat down next to Elizabeth and sighed, closing her eyes. “Okay, but remember, this is probably just a case of pre-wedding nerves.”
“Stop stalling and start talking.”
“I told you about going to LA to meet Charles’s parents.”
“You said you went, but you never told me much about it.”
“It was ….” Jane shook her head and sighed again. “Charles was different that weekend.”
“Usually he seems confident and happy, and I love that about him. But that weekend at his parents’ house, he seemed scared. And passive.”
“Give me an example.”
Jane paused for a moment before she answered. “Charles and I bought our house right before we went to see his parents. The idea was to choose a home where we could raise a family. But that weekend, his father talked as though we’d be living in LA after the wedding. So finally I mentioned the house and my law practice and our plans.”
Elizabeth nodded, her eyes fixed on Jane. “What happened?”
“Mr. Bingley was upset. He insisted that we move to LA after the wedding. And he told me that I had to stop practicing law, since as Charles’s wife I would have other responsibilities.”
“He just started ordering you around, even though you’d just met?” Elizabeth stared at Jane in disbelief. “What did Charles say?”
“Nothing. He just looked at his father, and then at me, and stammered a bit. Later, he had a private talk with his father and worked everything out. But at the time he just sat there looking nervous.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t stand up for you. Did things at least calm down a little after that?”
“Not really. Mr. Bingley started asking questions about our family. How much money Dad makes, what Mom did before she met Dad, how much our house was worth, and things like that. I thought the questions were ….” Jane paused.
“Insulting? Demeaning? Obnoxious?” Elizabeth spat out the words.
“Well, Lizzy, they do need to be careful. He said that several women have gone after Charles for his money in the past.”
“What? That monster called you a gold-digger?”
“No, he just said other women had been interested in the money. And of course he’s a concerned father.”
Elizabeth’s stomach churned. “I hope Charles put a stop to the interrogation.”
Jane sighed and shook her head. “It looked like he wanted to, but maybe he thought it was best to get it over with.”
“Sounds like he’s afraid of his father. Did you ever ask Charles why he didn’t speak up?”
“Yes. In fact, we had an argument about it after we got home, and I broke the engagement.”
Elizabeth gasped. “You never told me that!”
“We were only broken up for one day. Then Charles came to see me, and he assured me that everything was worked out; we were staying in San Francisco. And the Bingleys must have decided I wasn’t a fortune hunter, because they never even asked me to sign a prenup. I thought that was strange. I even asked Charles about it, and he said we didn’t need one. And I wasn’t worried about protecting my assets, since I really don’t have any. I didn’t want to belabor the point after the unpleasantness we’d already had, so I just put it behind me. But now ….” Jane fell silent.
A gust of wind sent one of their napkins skimming across the lawn. Elizabeth lunged and grabbed it before it could escape. “Tell me.”
“Sometimes I get the feeling Charles is keeping things from me. He’s been nervous and fidgety all week. He might just be nervous about the wedding, but I overheard him on the phone with his father a few nights ago. Charles was saying, ‘Don’t mention it to Jane; it’s taken care of.’”
“Did you find out what he meant?”
“I wasn’t going to bring it up at first; after all, I’d been eavesdropping, even if it was accidental. But finally I told him what I’d heard and asked what he meant.”
“He seemed flustered, but he said he’d asked his father not to make a big deal out of their decision to stay at the Ritz. You see, I think we should be providing hospitality for close family members, not sending them to hotels.” Jane pressed her lips together, and then her expression cleared. “At the time it seemed like he might not have told me everything, but ….” She hesitated, but then continued with a tentative smile. “No, I’m sure he was telling the truth.”
“You don’t sound sure.” Elizabeth retorted, more sharply than she had intended. She continued in a gentler tone. “If you’re having doubts about marrying him, it’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Oh, heavens, no, I’m not saying that. It would be different if he hadn’t worked things out with his father. But he did, and we’ll be fine.” This time, Jane’s smile looked genuine. “It helped to talk to you about it. I feel better now.”
“Good.” But Elizabeth was concerned. It sounded like Jane was marrying into a seriously dysfunctional family. Then again, the Bennets weren’t exactly a model of domestic bliss.
“Lizzy, what are you wearing to the rehearsal dinner?”
“My navy flowered dress.”
“That long, loose dress with the high neck?” Jane frowned. “The one you’ve had since college?”
“Isn’t it fancy enough?”
Jane hesitated, and then shook her head with obvious reluctance. “I’m afraid you’ll feel out of place if you’re not dressed up a little more than that. The Bingleys are holding the dinner in a private room at the Ritz. There’s going to be live music and everything, almost a mini-reception. I’m sorry; I thought I told you.”
“Hmmm.” Elizabeth’s budget hadn’t allowed for a new dress, so she had conveniently forgotten this information.
“Besides, you should show off your assets a little more.” Jane directed a narrowed glance at Elizabeth’s loose-fitting blouse and long skirt.
It was a familiar refrain. “Right. I can’t wait,” Elizabeth snapped. “So I can get hit on by a bunch of horny men who want to get me into bed and then move on to the next conquest.”
“Not all men are like that.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“Come on,” Jane said in a lighter tone. “Let’s go shopping and buy you a fabulous new dress for tonight.”
“No. You are not going to win this argument by taking me to a store and embarrassing me into buying some nightmare in spandex. Besides, I can’t afford a new dress.”
“I’m buying. This is your gift for being my maid of honor. Besides, wouldn’t you like to knock William Darcy right off his feet when he sees you tonight?”
Elizabeth snickered. “I’d rather do it by punching him in his arrogant nose.”
“Okay, I take it back.”
“Besides,” Jane said in a wheedling tone, “if Mom thinks you’re not dressed up enough, you’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Wow. You’re bringing out the heavy artillery.”
“And we can play Fashion Mistake if you want.”
Elizabeth had invented the Fashion Mistake game as a teenager. They each picked a disastrous outfit for the other to try on. She chuckled, recalling the fashion mistakes—or more appropriately, cataclysms—;she had inflicted on Jane in the past.
Jane smiled at her, eyebrows raised. “So? Are we going shopping?”
“We’re going shopping.” Elizabeth stood up and brushed off her skirt. “But nothing too expensive.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll find something absolutely gorgeous on sale.”
“Just one warning,” Elizabeth said as they walked toward the car. “If you think we’re buying a slinky red mini-dress that’s cut down to my navel, you can forget it.”
“As if I’d try. I know how stubborn you are. But let’s not rule out a slinky black mini-dress. You’d look amazing, and I bet William Darcy would love it.”
Unbidden, a pair of intense brown eyes flashed into Elizabeth’s mind. She shook her head quickly, dismissing the image. “As if I care about William Darcy,” she said blithely.
“We’re just a block from the house now,” Jane said, excitement rising in her voice.
The shopping expedition had been a success. Elizabeth had calculated that it wouldn’t take too many extra shifts at the restaurant to pay Jane back for her new dress and shoes. She couldn’t accept charity from Jane, not even in the guise of a bridesmaid’s gift.
“Oh, Jane, it’s beautiful!”
“I didn’t think we should spend so much, but Charles insisted. And it’s a wonderful house.” She glanced up and down the street. “Speaking of Charles, I don’t see his car. He and William must be out somewhere together.”
Elizabeth pointed to a red BMW parked by the curb. “Ooh, check out the Z3!”
“Yes, and I don’t recognize it. One of our neighbors must have a visitor.”
“Maybe it’s a surprise wedding present from Charles,” Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling.
Jane wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “He said he wanted to buy me a new car, but I told him I didn’t need one. My Honda has some miles on it, but it’s still in good shape. Besides, a two-seater isn’t practical.”
“Life isn’t only about practicality. That car would be so much fun to drive!”
Jane led Elizabeth through the rest of the house. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the windows, tinting the rooms with a warm glow. Jane’s taste was evident everywhere: serene and unpretentious, yet utterly chic.
“Why don’t you go see the back yard?” Jane suggested. “There’s a nice little garden, and I’m working on expanding it. I’ll join you after I pack a few things for tonight.”
Elizabeth trotted down the stairs and stepped through the French doors to the patio. Voices floated up from the yard below.
“All I’m saying, Charles, is that you should be careful. You’ve only known her for three months.”
“Will, we’ve covered this already. She’s not marrying me for my money, and we’re going to stay married. Drop it.”
Jane had mentioned Charles’s planned lunch with William Darcy. Apparently they had returned here afterwards. As if insulting Jane at the airport wasn’t enough, now he was trying to interfere with the wedding!
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” William sounded dubious.
“I do. I love her.” Charles’s voice was warm and enthusiastic, and Elizabeth liked him instantly. “Wait till you meet her. I know you’ll love her too. And I’m looking forward to meeting Elizabeth.”
“Jane’s sister, the maid of honor. She lives in New York. Jane and I thought that if the two of you hit it off over the weekend, maybe you could—”
“Stop right there. Please tell me that you’re not trying to turn this wedding into a blind date.”
“Of course not,” Charles retorted. “But Jane thought you might like Elizabeth. She sounds like a lot of fun, and I hear she’s a big admirer of yours.”
“Oh, wonderful, a giggling fan hanging on my arm.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Don’t worry, Mr. Darcy. I’d rather curl up with a rattlesnake than hang on your arm.
“I said admirer, not fan. In fact, Elizabeth is a performer, like you.”
“Oh?” William packed a bushel of arrogance into that one syllable.
“She’s an actress and a singer.”
“What kind of singer?”
“Mostly musical theater. So Jane and I thought, with both of you being musicians—”
William snorted. “The ability to warble a show tune doesn’t impress me. If she sang opera, I’d call her a musician.”
Elizabeth stifled an indignant gasp.
“That’s an elitist attitude,” Charles said, “especially coming from you. After all, you’ve sullied your fingers by playing jazz.”
“Jazz is my hobby, not my profession,” William said in a haughty tone. “Besides, it requires skill and virtuosity. Any high school student who’s not tone deaf can sing the average Broadway song.”
“Why would you say that? I think it takes a lot of talent to be successful in musical theater.”
“And is she successful?”
Charles hesitated. “From what I understand she’s done okay, though you know how competitive it is. But, in addition, she—”
“Not successful, then. Where does she live?”
“Somewhere on the Lower East Side, Jane said.”
“And you thought she’d be a suitable woman for me? Charles, be realistic. I have to make public appearances and attend charity events. An under-employed chorus girl from the Lower East Side would hardly fit in at my social level.”
Elizabeth swallowed hard, her jaw clenched. It took every shred of self-control she possessed to resist storming into the yard to tell William Darcy what he could do with his precious “social level.”
“Will, why are you being so negative when you haven’t even met her?”
“Neither have you, so why are you so convinced she’d be good for me?”
“All right, if you insist on being stubborn, I quit as your matchmaker. But please at least be nice to her this weekend.”
Elizabeth missed William’s answer, distracted by footsteps behind her. She turned and saw Jane approaching, a tote bag over her shoulder.
“Lizzy, why are you standing up here?” Jane asked as she stepped onto the patio. “I thought you’d be down in the garden.”
“Shhhh! Not so loud!” Elizabeth whispered, but it was too late.
“Jane? Sweetheart, is that you?” Charles trotted up the steps to the patio. “Come on, Will. Come up and meet my girl.”
William stood at the foot of the steps and studied Jane. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her. Then Charles’s earlier words drifted through his head: “Jane went to meet her sister at the airport.” The pieces of the puzzle fell into place with a sickening thud. She hadn’t approached him for an autograph; she had been trying to introduce herself.
Then he remembered Jane’s companion at the airport and his embarrassment turned to mortification. There she was, standing beside Jane, hostility blazing in her eyes. Her green eyes.
He dragged himself up the steps, wishing for the San Andreas Fault to open and swallow him. That seemed the only possible escape from humiliation. But by the time he reached the patio, he had managed to don an aloof expression.
Charles, one arm around the waist of each of the sisters, beamed at him. “Will, come here and meet these lovely ladies. This is my fiancée, Jane Bennet.”
William was relieved to see compassion in Jane’s eyes. She offered her hand, which he accepted with a nod. “Please accept my apology.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Jane replied. “You just misunderstood what I wanted. I shouldn’t have bothered you.”
“Wait a minute,” Charles said, frowning. “What’s all this about?”
“William and I spoke briefly at the airport, but he didn’t know who I was. He thought he was being approached for an autograph.”
Charles laughed heartily. “Jane is the pretty blonde from the airport?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said, shooting an insolent glance at William. “Mr. Darcy was the perfect gentleman, wasn’t he, Jane?”
Jane winced and stepped forward. “William, this is my sister, Elizabeth.”
He nodded. “Hello.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt like an awkward 14-year-old.
“Hello,” Elizabeth snapped, her eyes two cold, glittering emeralds.
“Lizzy is my maid of honor,” Jane said.
Elizabeth glared at him, an imperious challenge in her eyes, and he sensed that she was daring him to speak.
“Then … um … I suppose we’ll be seeing a lot of each other this weekend.” William nearly groaned. He sounded completely inane.
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth replied, smiling brightly. “But I promise not to ask for your autograph, and I’ll do my best not to giggle or hang on your arm.”
For a moment, her cheerful tone lulled him into believing that she intended the remark as a good-natured tease. But his relief was short-lived. Although her lips wore a smile, her eyes were cold.
“I think we’re in the guys’ way,” Elizabeth said. “Why don’t we go to the condo for a while?” She gave Charles a warm smile. “It’s wonderful to meet you at last.”
“It sure is,” Charles replied, kissing her cheek. “I’m thrilled to be gaining such a lovely sister.” He grasped Jane’s hands. “And I wish you’d change your mind and spend tonight here, with me.”
Jane shook her head, smiling. “You have your bachelor party tonight; you’re not going to be in any shape for company after that. Besides, it’s bad luck to see me before the wedding.”
“I’d happily wear a blindfold for a good cause.” Charles pulled Jane into his arms for a kiss.
William glanced at Elizabeth, who wore a wistful expression as she watched her sister. She must have sensed his gaze, because her eyes met his and her expression hardened.
Charles escorted Jane and Elizabeth to their car, leaving William alone on the patio. He was grateful for some time to think. He reminded himself of Elizabeth’s occupation, her youth, and her Lower East Side address. A pair of exquisite green eyes changed none of that. Besides, she was too young, and she lacked the elegance and sophistication of the women he encountered socially. Furthermore, her sarcastic tongue and quick temper were unattractive. After all, what had he done to deserve so much hostility? It was a simple misunderstanding, nothing more, yet she was treating him like a social outcast.
He resolved to be polite to her, but no more than that, for the rest of the weekend. Then he would return to New York, separated from her by a wide gulf of wealth and privilege. Back in familiar surroundings, it would be easy to stop thinking about her. He was quite certain of that.
1Since the time of the story, the Exploratorium has been relocated along the Embarcadero. The Palace of Fine Arts is now used primarily as event space.