“You need to teach me your hair-wrangling secrets,” Elizabeth said, inspecting herself in the car’s vanity mirror. “It never behaves this well for me.”
“I’d be happy to teach you. I’ve volunteered often enough,” Jane said. “I’d love to see you do more to show off how beautiful you are.”
“Who would notice me, with you around?”
Jane looked angelic as always, in a pale blue slip dress that showed off her slender build and her lightly tanned arms and shoulders. Her chin-length blonde hair feathered gently around her face, every strand falling precisely into place.
“Lizzy, don’t say that! You look gorgeous. I’m so glad we found that dress. It’s perfect on you.”
Elizabeth smoothed the champagne-colored skirt of her knee-length sheath dress. Ordinarily she gave her appearance little thought, but tonight she knew that she looked—not gorgeous, which was merely Jane’s loving exaggeration, but at least pretty.
Not that it mattered. It wasn’t as if she was hoping to impress a certain concert pianist. She didn’t care what that insufferable boor thought of her.
“Go over the guest list for me,” Elizabeth said. “Especially Charles’s family.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Bingley will be there, of course. And there’s his sister, Caroline.”
“Younger or older?”
“She’s about two years older than Charles. His other sister, Louisa, and her husband will be there too.”
“What are his sisters like?”
“Louisa is married to someone named Hurst; that’s all I know about her. I don’t think she and Charles are close. Caroline is very involved in the family business. She seems to care about it a lot more than Charles does.”
“So they both work for their father?”
“Yes. Caroline works at headquarters; Charles is at the San Francisco branch office.”
“What does the company do?”
“They manufacture specialized medical equipment. They have major contracts with big hospitals all over the world.”
A traffic light ahead turned yellow. Elizabeth would have hurried to beat the red light, had she been driving, but Jane slowed the car to a smooth, careful stop. A car to their left flew through the intersection just as the light turned red, to the accompaniment of the angry blare of horns.
“Is there something else Charles would rather be doing?” Elizabeth asked, smoothing her dress again. “Like getting back into music?”
Jane nodded. “He loves music, and he has a lot of talent. But his father always disapproved of him ‘wasting his time’—those are Mr. Bingley’s words, not mine.”
“Yet he let Charles go to Juilliard.”
“He finally agreed after a lot of arguments. He said that failure would teach Charles a lesson.”
“How awful! Is that why Charles left Juilliard, because he was failing?”
“No, he was doing fine. But after two years, Mr. Bingley insisted that Charles drop out and return home.”
“Poor guy,” Elizabeth said, shaking her head. “Well, at least he has his jazz ensemble.”
Jane smiled. “He loves that group. Most of the guys will be at the rehearsal dinner, including the one who helped arrange your job interview.”
“He’s also the one who’s going to be my accompanist at the wedding, right?”
Jane nodded. “Right. Bill Collins.”
“Short for William?”
“I’m adrift in a sea of Williams! I hope I don’t get them confused.”
Jane burst out laughing. “Oh, Lizzy, wait till you see Bill! You have nothing to worry about on that score.”
“So there won’t be two tall, dark, and handsome men stalking around acting haughty all night?” Elizabeth pretended to pout.
“Not exactly,” Jane answered, laughing. “By the way, I should warn you that Bill doesn’t always make the best first impression. But he’s been kind and helpful, so please give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“Of course. I owe him a big ‘thank you’ for arranging the job interview.”
“And, Lizzy, speaking of being nice ….”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “I’ll be polite to William, I promise.”
“I know you’re upset about the things he said. But he didn’t know you were listening.”
“And that makes it okay?” Elizabeth sniffed.
“Of course not. But Charles and I may be to blame. We decided to do some matchmaking, and it may have made William uncomfortable. Charles warned me that William doesn’t like to discuss his personal life.”
“Why would William Darcy, of all people, need a matchmaker?” Elizabeth stared at Jane in disbelief. “I bet he has to fight the women off.”
“I guess not. Charles says William is lonely, though he doesn’t necessarily admit it. Apparently he’s a bit shy.”
“He hasn’t been shy about bad-mouthing us. More likely he doesn’t think anybody’s good enough for him, and especially not an ‘under-employed chorus girl’ like me. You know, we common people aren’t at his social level.”
“I wonder if he realizes that you overheard him? If so, I’m sure he’s embarrassed.”
“I doubt anything I said had the slightest impact on the great William Darcy.”
“Lizzy, he’s a man, not an icon. He has feelings just like everyone else.”
“I think he mostly has an ego the size of the Pacific Ocean.”
“But can’t you see how a prominent person like William would get used to being constantly flattered and admired? I can understand how he would have developed some pride.”
“Pride is one thing. Arrogance is another.” Elizabeth crossed her arms over her chest. Nothing Jane said was going to sway her on this point. “Besides, what about my pride? Am I just supposed to let him say nasty things about me?”
“Of course not. But won’t you please give him another chance? Charles speaks very highly of William, so he must have lots of good qualities. Maybe he was just having a bad day.”
“Sorry, Jane. He’s smug and conceited. Besides, he’s already made it clear that he thinks I’m unworthy of his notice. But I’ll behave. I don’t want you worrying about your maid of honor breaking the best man’s nose with a well-timed right hook.”
Jane smiled at Elizabeth’s choice of words. “And you won’t take any verbal jabs at him either?”
“I’ll keep my inner smart-ass quiet for the weekend, no matter how hard I have to bite my tongue.” It wasn’t going to be easy. Elizabeth’s sense of the absurd usually helped her to laugh off insults and smile at awkward situations, but William was proving to be an exception.
Jane slowed the car in front of a brick building, its facade dominated by a large rose window. “That’s the church,” she said. She drove on, pulling into a nearby parking garage. As the sisters walked through the garage, Elizabeth noticed a bright red BMW Z3 parked near the exit. Two of them in one day. Weird.
“Charles, it’s twenty past six. The rehearsal isn’t until six thirty. Sit down before you wear a trench into the floor.” William was finding his duties as best man a bigger challenge than he had anticipated.
Charles sat down beside William and began drumming his fingers on the back of the pew in front of them. “I thought Jane would be here by now.”
“Relax. This is the first time in your life you’ve been early, or even on time, for anything. You’re just not used to being the first person to arrive.”
Charles checked his watch again. “Where did the minister go? He was here a minute ago. Did he leave?”
William restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “He’s in his office. He’ll be ready as soon as everyone is here.”
Charles resumed his restless pacing, and William decided they needed a diversion. Perhaps the hushed atmosphere in the church was making things worse.
“Let’s wait for Jane outside,” William suggested. “That way you’ll see her as soon as possible.”
“But what if she goes in another entrance? Then we’ll miss her.”
Patience, William admonished himself, running one hand through his hair. “All right, then, I’ll go outside and serve as the lookout, and you can stay in here.”
“Okay, good. No, wait. Maybe I should be the one to go outside.”
“Fine. You go ahead, and I’ll stay here. You could probably use the fresh air.”
With a rueful smile, William watched Charles trot up the center aisle and out of the church. People talked about pre-wedding jitters, and Charles was certainly a walking illustration of the concept. But William couldn’t imagine panicking on the eve of his own wedding, not if he were marrying the right woman.
William believed that his perfect match existed somewhere in the world: his partner, his other half, even his soulmate, though that term sounded foolish. The idea of her, whoever she was, had recently assumed almost mythic importance to him. Perhaps turning 30 last year had emphasized the passage of time, making him wonder when, if ever, she would appear.
In the meantime, he had ample opportunities for female companionship when he wanted it. His status as a respected concert artist, his family’s wealth, and his good looks generated what his cousin Richard only half-jokingly called “The William Darcy Magnetic Field.”
William’s ability to exert this inexorable pull on women was all the more maddening to his cousin because it involved no conscious effort. He wore aloofness like a shield, hoping to ward off unwanted attention. Richard had once grumbled, “Will, you drive me nuts. You don’t even pretend to give a damn, and it just makes them work harder to catch you.”
During William’s late teens, led by Richard’s example, he had occasionally accepted an offer for a night of no-strings-attached sex. But he had soon developed a distaste for the sort of casual connections on which his cousin thrived. William’s social life since then had followed a precise pattern. He identified, to use his grandmother’s old-fashioned phrase, a “suitable woman“ to join him at charity events, concerts, and dinners—and, occasionally, breakfast the next morning. He sought women who wanted, or at least said they wanted, a relationship of friendship and convenience with no expectation of romance. It was a practical approach, and it protected him from the many women determined to snag the title of Mrs. William Darcy and brandish it like an Olympic medal.
But it was a lonely life, and his profession increased his isolation. The more successful he became, the more time he spent traveling the world alone. It had been almost a year since his last relationship with a woman. It had been even longer since he’d had—Hold on, I’m in church. If I’m not careful, I may be struck by lightning.
The church doors swung open, and Jane entered the building, accompanied by a triumphant but fidgety Charles.
“Hi, William,” Jane said with a warm smile. “I’m guessing you’ve had your hands full keeping my fiancé; from bouncing off the walls.”
He smiled. “He’ll be fine once the pomp and circumstance is over.”
Footsteps echoed through the church, and the minister appeared by the altar. “Hello, Reverend Wallace,” Charles called out. “We’re still waiting for some of the wedding party to get here.”
“That’s all right. It’s not quite six thirty yet. But if I could speak to you and Ms. Bennet while we wait, we could go over some details. Oh, and didn’t you say the maid of honor is going to sing? We need to decide where she’ll stand.”
Jane smiled at William. “Would you please go and get Lizzy? She’s outside watching for our family.”
He nodded and strode up the aisle with a degree of alacrity that he preferred not to analyze.
The late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the buildings, but a damp breeze cooled his cheeks. He scanned the block, but saw no sign of Elizabeth. Perhaps she had slipped into the church through a side entrance.
As he turned toward the church, he saw a woman approaching from the parking garage. Something about her seemed familiar; perhaps this was yet another Bennet sister. As she came closer, he stared at her with growing interest. His eyes traveled slowly up her body, starting with a pair of marvelously toned legs enhanced by high-heeled sandals. Next he drank in her gently curving hips, and above there, a subtle hint of lush cleavage.
She stopped directly in front of him, and although her eyes were hidden by sunglasses, she seemed to be staring at him. Her pale complexion and her small, straight nose looked familiar, but it was her hair that arrested his attention. He ached to bury his hands in the mass of dark curls cascading over her shoulders, to feel its texture. And then he would kiss her, to see if her lips were as soft as they appeared.
The sudden burst of desire, provoked by a stranger, shocked him. I guess it really has been too long since I’ve had—
He nearly gasped when the woman removed her sunglasses. A pair of bright green eyes regarded him with curiosity.
“Hello, William,” Elizabeth said in a neutral tone.
He stared at her, open-mouthed.
“William?” she repeated, louder.
His mouth snapped shut and he swallowed hard. “I’m sorry,” he said, mortified to hear his voice trembling. “I didn’t … you … that is, your … your hair is different.” He hated sounding like an idiot.
She nodded gravely, the corners of her mouth twitching. “Yes, it is.”
“And you … you aren’t … that is to say … you look ….” He took a deep breath and struggled to compose himself. “How old are you?”
She raised one eyebrow. “I’m 26. Why do you ask?”
“When I saw you at the airport, I thought … that is, you seemed less ….” He grasped frantically for the right phrase: less mature, less sexy, less like a goddess? The first complete sentence he thought of spilled out in a rush. “You look older now than you did earlier today.”
A faint frown line appeared between her eyebrows. She opened her mouth, closed it again, paused, and then finally spoke. “What are you doing out here?”
He finally remembered his errand. “I came looking for you. You’re needed inside.”
He considered apologizing for the remarks she had overheard that afternoon, but he was too rattled to manage a decent apology. Instead, he opened the heavy oak door to the church and motioned her ahead of him. As she passed though the doorway, the outline of her shapely derriere made him want to groan. He reminded himself that he was re-entering the church. He needed to control himself.
“Liz!” A woman’s voice echoed in the church. Only one person called Elizabeth by that nickname.
“Char! Hi!” Elizabeth ran to Charlotte Lucas, hugging her tightly. “Jane and I missed you this afternoon. If you’d come over earlier, you could have gone shopping with us.”
“And been forced to play Fashion Mistake? Not a chance. You look great, by the way. I assume Jane did your hair?”
“Obviously. You look terrific; I think you’re even taller than the last time I saw you.” Charlotte was nearly six feet tall even without the high heels she wore.
William stood nearby, obviously eavesdropping on their conversation. Elizabeth turned to him, determined to keep her promise to be polite. “Charlotte, this is William Darcy, Charles’s best man. William, this is my friend Charlotte Lucas; she’s Jane’s other bridesmaid.”
Charlotte and William shook hands. “It’s a pleasure,” Charlotte said. “I’ve followed your career since I was in high school. In fact, one of my friends used to play your recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto day and night.” Charlotte shot a teasing glance at Elizabeth, who glared back at her.
“I do apologize,” William said solemnly, but the spark of mischief in his eyes surprised Elizabeth. Apparently he wasn’t completely lacking a sense of humor after all. “How do you know Jane?”
“Through Liz, originally. We were high school roommates at Interlochen.”
“You attended Interlochen Arts Academy?” William asked Elizabeth, raising his eyebrows.
She understood the reason for his surprise. Boarding school usually implied a privileged upbringing. Elizabeth had relied on financial aid, along with some help from her grandparents.
“Liz was in the music program—a singer, and a good dancer too,” Charlotte said. “I was into visual arts.”
William nodded. “My foundation supports Interlochen’s scholarship fund, and I make a visit every summer during the Arts Camp.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said. William glanced at her sharply and seemed about to ask a question, but instead Charlotte continued her story.
“After Interlochen, I went to UC Berkeley. Jane was already there, and Liz introduced us. Jane and I shared an apartment for a few years.”
“Char refuses to live with anyone whose last name isn’t Bennet,” Elizabeth teased. “Since I don’t have any brothers, it’s put quite a damper on her love life.”
Charlotte smirked. “My love life is fine, thank you very much. I just don’t invite them to move in. Who wants a man underfoot 24 hours a day anyway?”
William smiled. “Are you still at Berkeley?”
“Yes. I’m finishing a Ph.D. in art history. I hope to defend my dissertation early next year.”
William nodded, clearly impressed. “What is your topic?”
“Like Judith Leyster and Maria van Oosterwyck?”
“That’s right,” Charlotte answered, her eyes widening. “You’ve heard of them?”
“A few years ago, my grandmother and I attended an exhibit at the Met featuring Dutch artists from that period,” William said. “Several of Gran’s ancestors were Dutch, and she took a particular interest in the women painters. It’s a shame Leyster’s work was attributed to male painters for so long.”
“Not to mention that she and the other women were excluded from the painter’s guild. Typical, though. Boys always want to keep the girls out of their clubhouse.”
William’s only response was a tight smile.
“Sorry. I know men hate remarks like that. But I’m so immersed in these women’s lives, I get carried away.”
“I understand. Your work is important to you.” This time William’s smile was warm and seemed genuine. “I could recommend some arts foundations that might fund your research. My family’s foundation supports music education programs, but I’d be happy to arrange some contacts for you.”
Elizabeth stared at him in shock. Where had William ‘I’m So Superior’ Darcy gone, and who was the charming man with the killer smile? There was something poignant about the way the smile transformed his usually solemn face, and for a moment she longed to see that smile directed at her. Then she remembered his rudeness and arrogance.
“Thank you! I’d appreciate any help you could give me.” Charlotte touched William’s arm. “I wish I were the maid of honor instead of Liz, considering what a charming best man Charles has.”
William licked his lips and glanced in Elizabeth’s direction. She understood the significance of his look. He was undoubtedly wishing the same thing.
She stood by, feeling utterly superfluous as William and Charlotte discussed various art museums they had visited around the world. It made sense that William was so obviously drawn to Charlotte. Her dark hair was cut short, its spiky style flattering her strong features. She wore a severe but elegant gray pantsuit, accessorized by an unusual choker and earrings made of silver and onyx. She looked and acted like a person of William’s “social level.”
And the attraction was obviously mutual. Charlotte kept finding opportunities to touch his arm or to step closer to him. An unwanted image arose in Elizabeth’s mind, of the two of them in William’s hotel room later that night, tearing off each other’s clothes and tumbling into bed, passionately entwined. She felt her face flush, and wondered why the image bothered her so much.
“So, Liz, how is school going? Is the semester almost over?”
Charlotte’s question pulled Elizabeth out of her discontented reverie. She took a deep breath before she answered. “Almost. In fact, it was hard to get away right now. Lots of exams and papers.”
“You’re attending college in New York?” William asked.
Elizabeth stifled her instinctive angry response. But of course it would never occur to him that she might be in graduate school. An underemployed chorus girl couldn’t possibly have a degree in anything, except maybe dancing on tables.
Charlotte laughed. “Not quite. She’s teaching while she finishes her master’s degree.” She smiled at Elizabeth. “Speaking of which, Jane said you have an interview at Pacific Conservatory on Monday?”
“Yes, for a job starting in the fall,” Elizabeth replied. “I’d mostly be teaching classes in musical theater and performance technique. You know, warbling show tunes, stuff like that.”
Elizabeth almost managed to stifle her snicker when William winced. He opened his mouth as though to speak, but another voice rang out from behind them.
“You must be Miss Elizabeth Bennet!”
A man of average height and slender build approached, an ingratiating smile creasing his slightly pink face. A tight ponytail pulled his hair back, revealing a high, shiny forehead. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “I am William Collins.”
“Of course; it’s nice to meet you. And, yes, I’m Elizabeth.”
Collins engulfed her outstretched hand in a moist grip. “It is such a great pleasure to meet you at last.”
“I understand I have you to thank for my interview at the conservatory,” she said, withdrawing her hand and surreptitiously wiping it on the back of the coat draped over her arm.
“It was my pleasure. I can already tell that we’re going to be good friends. In fact, I was discussing you with Charles the other day, reviewing the various things that convince me that we’re unusually compatible. I’d love to tell you all about it at dinner.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure if she should laugh or retch. Before she had a chance to do either, Bill Collins peered up at William through his thick glasses. In a hushed, reverent voice, he said, “My goodness, Mr. Darcy, I can’t tell you what a thrill this is. I’m a keyboard player myself, and to meet you—such an immense honor.”
William squared his shoulders and stepped backwards, as though he feared that the man might try to embrace him. Elizabeth had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing.
Bill Collins continued, oblivious to William’s reaction. “My employer, the esteemed Dean of Pacific Conservatory, Dr. Catherine de Bourgh, has nothing but the highest praise for you. Of course you’re acquainted with her. Everyone who matters in the music world knows Dr. de Bourgh. Elizabeth, when you meet her at your interview on Monday, you should mention that your brother-in-law is a close friend of Mr. Darcy’s.”
“I’d rather get the job based on my qualifications,” Elizabeth said tartly. She continued in a gentler tone. “But thank you for the advice.”
“And I’m so thrilled to be able to accompany your solo at the wedding tomorrow,” Bill gushed. “Jane has told me what a lovely voice you have, and I simply can’t wait to hear you sing. I can’t tell you how honored I was when Jane asked me to assist you, especially given the esteemed musicians in attendance.” Bill nodded in William’s direction. “I was surprised, Mr. Darcy, that you were not asked to do the honors.”
“I am not an accompanist,” William responded in a haughty tone.
“Of course not,” Elizabeth remarked with false cheer. “William prefers to work alone.”
“What are you singing at the wedding, Liz?” Charlotte asked.
“‘Ave Maria.’ It’s Jane’s favorite.”
William raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t think you sang the classical repertoire.”
Right, because I’m not a real musician. “Most of my singing is in musical theater and jazz, but I’ve had some classical training,” she answered in as neutral a tone as she could manage. “Still, it only goes so far; you won’t hear me singing Wagner.”
“I’m sure you’re a first-rate performer in whatever milieu you choose,” Bill effused, beaming at her. “Ah, and here’s Jim! Over here, Jim! Come and meet Elizabeth Bennet and her friends!”
Jim Pennington, Charles’s groomsman, joined the group. Bill’s long-winded introduction revealed that Jim was the bass player in Golden Gate Jazz, the ensemble in which both Charles and Bill played. Elizabeth was about to ask a question about the group when Rev. Wallace reappeared with Charles and Jane.
“Is the bride’s father here?” Rev. Wallace asked. “We need to get started soon.”
Jane shook her head. “My parents are running late. I don’t want to keep you waiting, so let’s go ahead. I can fill Dad in when he gets here.”
“I would be honored to stand in for your esteemed father until he arrives,” Bill said, extending his arm with exaggerated gallantry.
She glanced at William and saw his lips twitching with a suppressed grin. He met her gaze, and his grin widened. For a moment, their shared amusement spun a fragile thread, connecting them. But then she reminded herself that no matter how handsome the face or how charming the smile, this was William Darcy, Arrogant Snob. She looked away abruptly, focusing on the rose window above the balcony. After all, it was also attractive but pointless to talk to.