Elizabeth found Jane in the kitchen, a baking sheet full of cookies in her hand. “There you are!” Jane’s smile held a measure of relief. “Your meeting ran long, I guess?”
“It sure did; Catherine de Bourgh wouldn’t stop pontificating. Sorry to leave you on your own for so long. But I picked up the party platters. They’re on the table against the far wall.”
“Thanks, Lizzy. That’s a big help.”
“Everything looks wonderful, as usual.” Elizabeth sighed. “You’re the perfect hostess.”
“Thank you, but Kitty deserves most of the credit.”
“I doubt that, but I’m glad you had some help. What needs to be done?”
“Just one thing. When is the cake supposed to arrive?”
“It’s not here yet? They promised they’d deliver it no later than five.” It was close to six thirty.
Jane shook her head. “We haven’t seen or heard from them. Could you call them?”
Elizabeth hurried up to their apartment and called the bakery while shedding her clothes. It was getting late, and she wanted to take a quick shower before the party.
“Oh, thank goodness,” the manager sighed. “We’ve been trying to reach you, but apparently we don’t have your correct phone number. The delivery van was in a small accident this afternoon, and I’m afraid your cake was ruined.”
“Oh, no! I hope no one was hurt.”
“The driver has a few bumps and bruises, but nothing serious.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I suppose it’s too late to bake a new cake?” This was a disappointment; she had been proud of her idea for the cake’s theme.
“We baked another one, and it’s being decorated now; it should be ready in about an hour. But because of the accident, we don’t have a van or a driver available. I’d deliver it myself, but I have five other rush orders that we’re also re-doing. Is there any chance you could pick up the cake?”
She didn’t have time, but there wasn’t any alternative. “Sure. No problem.”
“Thank you so much. We’ll refund part of the cost to apologize for the inconvenience.”
So much for taking a shower, but there was no point in sulking about it. Then a simple solution occurred to her. She called William, who agreed to pick up the cake. Then she rushed through her shower and, swathed in a large bath towel, went to work on her hair. She hoped the cake would be worth the extra trouble. Charlotte had been so stressed out lately about her dissertation that Elizabeth thought it would be good therapy to use the cake to poke a little fun at it.
Elizabeth inspected her hair in the mirror; it wasn’t bad at all. She rooted through her lingerie drawer until she found a strapless bra, and then carefully pulled her new floral print top over her head. Like her pink sweater last Monday, it left her shoulders bare, but this top had short sleeves and was smocked, its stretchy contours clinging to her body. Her eyes fell on her bottle of jasmine-vanilla scented moisturizer, and she spread a thin layer of lotion on her neck and shoulders, a warm light in her eyes as she imagined William’s hands and lips caressing her there. Then she stepped into a pair of snug jeans and slipped her feet into high-heeled sandals.
As she peered in the mirror, sparingly applying make-up, she laughed. For years, she had prided herself on being more sensible than other women, thinking she’d escaped the primping gene.
Ready at last, she grabbed Charlotte’s gift and her keys and dashed out of the apartment, tripping over the rug near the front door in her haste. Elegant and refined. Mr. Darcy would be so impressed. Her eyes alive with amusement and anticipation, she locked the door behind her and raced down the hall.
By the time Elizabeth arrived downstairs, the party guests had begun to trickle in. Charlotte, looking effortlessly elegant in an animal-print silk blouse and black jeans, stood near the bar.
“Hey, Liz. You look great. And from the sparkle in your eye, I don’t need to ask if William’s going to be here.”
“As a matter of fact, he’s bringing your birthday cake.”
“Aha. Jane said it was an unusual cake, but that’s all she’d tell me.” Charlotte’s glance flicked to the door, where more guests were arriving. “Oh, it’s Rudy and Vanessa! Excuse me for a minute; I need to find out about their trip to Alaska.”
Elizabeth made her way across the room to Jane, who was chatting with Roger Stonefield.
“Hi, sweetie.” Roger leaned over to kiss Elizabeth’s cheek. “You look beautiful. And you smell good, too.”
“Thanks, Roger. You’re looking pretty good yourself.” It was true. He was tall and athletically built with strong drummer’s arms, piercing blue eyes, and a perennial smile. In the few months of their acquaintance, he and Elizabeth had developed a warm friendship.
“You and Jane did a great job pulling this together,” he remarked, scanning the rapidly-filling room.
“That’s not true,” Jane said. “You and Kitty did a lot.” She smiled at Roger. “And you and the other guys helped too. It was a team effort.” She turned in the direction of the self-service bar and frowned. “I think I’d better go help open that wine bottle before the cork ends up in a hundred pieces. Excuse me.” She hurried off.
Elizabeth grinned at Roger. “Like I said, mostly Jane.”
“Where’s Darcy? Charlotte says you two are pretty much inseparable these days.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far. But he should be here soon. I asked him to run an errand on his way over.”
The man behind the bakery counter offered William a bright smile. “May I help you?”
“Yes,” William replied briskly. “I’m here to pick up a cake.”
“What’s the name?”
The employee checked a shelving unit holding a few large bakery boxes. “Bennet … Bennet … ah, here it is. Oh, yes, this was one of the cakes we had to re-bake because of the delivery van accident.” The man peeked into the box, and he licked his lips. “Mmmm. Delicious.” He flipped the box open with a flourish. “Don’t you just love it?”
William gaped at the cake, trying to cover up a gasp with a feigned coughing fit. It was shaped like a large, and disturbingly anatomically correct, male appendage.
“Doesn’t it look good enough to eat?” the bakery employee enthused, with a smile that was too suggestive to miss.
A flush of intense embarrassment enveloped William’s body. He inspected the cake again, more as a defense against making eye contact than anything else, but the more details he absorbed, the worse his discomfort became. “And you’re sure that this is the cake for Bennet?” It seemed impossible that Elizabeth, with her reticence about sexual matters, would choose a cake like this.
“Isn’t it what you ordered?”
“It’s just that … that ….” William paused, silently ordering himself to stop stammering. “I’m not the one who placed the order.”
The man checked the shelf again. “It’s the only cake we have here for Bennet. Looks like it’ll be a lively party.”
William had never been so mortified in his life. Attempting to gather the tattered shreds of his dignity, he donned a haughty air and said, “How much do I owe you?”
“Let’s see.” The man checked the sales slip attached to the box. “After the discount the manager deducted because of the problems today, twenty dollars.”
William proffered his black American Express card. The man accepted the card, gaped at it for a moment, and then looked up, a quizzical expression on his face.
“William Darcy. I know that name.”
“It’s a common name,” William said in a dismissive tone, silently castigating himself for not paying cash.
“Sure, I’ve got it now! I thought you looked familiar. You’re a musician, right? A pianist.”
Much as he was tempted to lie, he nodded.
“How about that!” The man extended his hand. “My name’s Jess. My partner is a big fan of yours.”
William shook hands, and Jess began to babble. “You were in some magazine a few months ago, right? They called you a sex symbol. Scott saved the issue; it’s still on the coffee table. He’ll be excited to hear that I met you, and wait till he hears that you’re living in San Francisco now.”
“Oh, just visiting? Well, if you’re looking for a place to hang out while you’re in town, to meet some great guys—”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. If we could just get the charge taken care of ….”
Jess shook his head, handing back the credit card. “It’s on the house. It’s not every day we get a celebrity in here picking up one of our special cakes.”
William thanked Jess, grabbed the box, and escaped the store.
Elizabeth saw the familiar head of dark, wavy hair looming above a group of guests near the doorway. As she approached him, she saw that his eyes were cool, his carriage regal and stiff. She fought back a sharp wave of anger. Not this again. His expression softened slightly when he saw her, though he remained cloaked in haughty reserve. She advanced toward him, doing her best to hide her annoyance.
“Hi, William. Welcome to the party.”
”Hello.” He held out a large white cardboard box, his features twisted into a peculiar expression that she couldn’t identify. “Here’s the cake.”
“I’m surprised you’re here so soon—I thought you might have to wait while they finished it.” She took the box from his hands, smiling her thanks.
He hesitated, his brow lowered, his lips pressed together. “Elizabeth … are you sure … that is, did you ….”
It was even worse than she had feared. He had retreated to the formality of calling her Elizabeth. “What is it?”
“The cake. It’s … unorthodox. Who chose it?”
“I don’t know her well enough to answer that, but it seems rather ….” His voice trailed off.
She had learned to accept that he could be stuffy at times, but to be so bothered by the whimsical defacement in frosting of a 350-year-old painting seemed absurd. Her voice took on a defensive tone as she said, “I think it’s the perfect choice for Char. It’s funny, and it sums up the way she’s been spending the vast majority of her time lately.”
He blanched, and for a moment he didn’t speak. “I see.”
“In fact, Jane and I thought about building the whole theme of the party around the cake—decorations, costumes, maybe even a game along the lines of ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’—but we decided that would be a bit much.”
His disdainful expression deepened. “I would certainly think so. But you know Charlotte and her friends better than I do.”
His tone annoyed her; apparently he was too exalted for some good-natured fun. But she did her best to set her annoyance aside. “I’m going to hide the cake; I want it to be a surprise later. Why don’t you go say hello to Char, and I’ll join you in a minute.”
William did as she suggested while she headed in the direction of the kitchen with the bakery box. She was about to peek under the lid, curious to see how the cake had turned out, when someone grabbed her arm and she heard a loud shriek in her ear.
She whirled, nearly dropping the box, and saw Lydia, with Kitty at her side. “Lydia, what are you doing here?”
“She was sitting on my doorstep, literally, when I went home to change,” Kitty explained. “So I invited her to the party.”
“I was bored to death in LA, so I skipped out on my job and hopped a plane. I thought I’d see how much trouble Kitty and I could get in this weekend.”
“How could you afford the plane fare?” Elizabeth asked, setting the bakery box on a nearby table. Lydia’s on-again, off-again work habits left her with perennially empty pockets.
“Oh, I’ve got a credit card. And Mom will give me the money; she always does.” Lydia scanned the room. “See, Kitty, I told you; everybody here is so old.”
“Why, thank you,” Elizabeth snapped.
Lydia laughed with her peculiar hyena-like abandon. “Well, don’t feel bad. It’s not like you can help it. How old are you now, like, 30?”
“I’m 26,” Elizabeth replied tartly.
“Close enough. Still, you look good tonight, Lizzy. Even showing a little skin, though you could do with plenty more.” Lydia adjusted the neckline of her tank top. “C’mon, Kitty. Let’s get something to drink.”
As Lydia turned to go, she spotted William, his back to them, conversing with Charlotte a short distance away. “Ooh, isn’t that the hunk from Jane’s wedding weekend? He’s even hotter than I remembered. Tall, broad shoulders, and that nice, tight butt.”
“Lydia, lower your voice.” The last thing Elizabeth needed was for William to hear Lydia speculating about his anatomy. But her eyes involuntarily fixed on William, and she couldn’t disagree with her sister’s assessment.
Kitty leaned over to Lydia and whispered something that dissolved them both into giggles. Lydia’s astonished gaze swept from Elizabeth to William and back again.
“He’s your boyfriend, Lizzy? Way to go! A major hottie with a huge bank balance, and probably a huge—”
“Lydia!” Elizabeth glanced at William, mortified. He wasn’t looking directly at them, but she could see the muscles in his jaw working, and she was certain he’d heard Lydia’s crude remark. Then he glanced in their direction, and Elizabeth’s humiliation was complete when Lydia winked at him suggestively. He looked away immediately, and although she couldn’t see his expression, she knew it was full of distaste.
Elizabeth planted her hands on her hips and glared at Lydia. “Why do you have to act like this?” she whispered fiercely. Elizabeth tried to love her youngest sister, but her wild, reckless behavior, especially where men were concerned, made it a challenge.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Lydia replied carelessly, waving her hands in a dismissive gesture. “I’m not going to steal him. I’m happy for you.”
Elizabeth bristled at Lydia’s assumption that she could “steal” William if she chose to do so. “Excuse me,” she muttered, stalking away from her sisters to join Charlotte and William.
The warning look in Charlotte’s eyes confirmed that Lydia’s voice had been audible, and she decided that it would be best to address the matter head on. “William, you must have heard what Lydia said. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he replied, his voice cool.
“She’s—well, she’s young, and she’s wild. She was always my mother’s favorite, and Mom pretty much let her do whatever she wanted.”
“Besides,” Charlotte added, with a sympathetic glance at Elizabeth, “most of what Lydia says is just for shock value. She’s not nearly as experienced and worldly as she’d like people to believe.”
Their group fell silent until William said, “Charlotte was just telling me that she’s hoping to finish her dissertation in the spring.”
Charlotte nodded eagerly, obviously happy to encourage William’s abrupt change of subject. “By this time next year, I hope to be torturing an unsuspecting generation of undergrads in art history classes.”
“Any idea where you’d like to teach?” he asked.
“Somewhere in or near a large city. NYU or Columbia would be the dream, or maybe UCLA. But those are very selective programs.”
Elizabeth listened while William and Charlotte continued their relaxed conversation. It had been the same at the rehearsal dinner. For whatever reason, William always dropped his distant hauteur when speaking to Charlotte, conversing with ease.
“How’s the birthday girl?” It was Jane, standing at Charlotte’s elbow.
“Just great,” Charlotte answered cheerfully.
“Hi, William.” Jane smiled at him. “It’s good to see you again. Thank you so much for helping with the cake.”
“Good evening, Jane. I’m glad I could be of assistance.”
Although he was perfectly polite and he even smiled, all his warmth when speaking to Charlotte had vanished in favor of a neutral tone. Elizabeth pressed her lips tightly together, her frustration and annoyance almost at the boiling point. But she didn’t want to make a public scene, so she swallowed the bile rising in her throat.
Jane’s eyes flicked away from them, toward the door. “Would you please excuse me?”
Elizabeth glanced in that direction and saw Jordan, the handsome blond man from the party at Rosings, sauntering into the room.
“Where’s Charles Bingley?” Charlotte asked. “I thought he was going to be here.”
William’s eyes were on Jane and Jordan, and he answered somewhat absently. “I don’t know what’s keeping him.”
“I thought he’d be coming with you,” Elizabeth remarked.
“No, he said he’d meet me here. He’s not staying with me this weekend after all. Caroline guilted him into staying with her.”
“There’s no chance she’ll invite herself to the party, is there?” The thought horrified Elizabeth. Lydia’s presence, William’s attitude, and Charles’s pending arrival were more than sufficient sources of stress.
Charlotte snorted. “She wouldn’t be caught dead at a gathering of the hoi polloi. Besides, when I met her at the rehearsal dinner, we only had two things in common: our height and our instant mutual dislike. I can’t imagine that she’d be tempted to crash my birthday party.”
“Char calls her ‘Cruella de Bingley,’” Elizabeth explained, giving William a tentative smile.
“Good name,” he snickered, smiling back at her. A flicker of warmth passed between them. Her smile widened, and she felt herself beginning to relax.
“Elizabeth, there you are! You look positively ravishing. And Charlotte, happy birthday! And William Darcy as well; what a surprise. Good evening, Darcy.”
It was Bill Collins, who had been invited along with the rest of Golden Gate Jazz. Although his greeting had included all three of them, Elizabeth noted that his admiring smile was directed solely at her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw William’s vertical frown line creasing his forehead, and she could almost feel the temperature in their little circle grow frosty. Across the room, Lydia’s wild laugh rang out, and she couldn’t suppress a deep sigh. It was Jane’s rehearsal dinner all over again.
1 Jane and Lizzy live in the Park Hill complex across from Buena Vista Park, up a steep hill from Haight-Ashbury. It used to be St. Joseph’s Hospital, used in the Hitchcock film, Vertigo, as the sanatorium where Scottie recovers from his breakdown. Here is a screen capture from the film of the front of the hospital: