William glared at his watch, willing it to move faster, but only two minutes had passed since his last time check. He glanced up at the rows of books stretching toward the ceiling, their titles obscured by deep shadows.
He had always loved the library. With its vaulted ceiling, it was like a cathedral venerating the printed word, redolent with furniture polish and the scent of old books instead of incense. But today tension vibrated through the room until he could almost feel the waves buffeting his body. He leaned back in his armchair, one ankle propped on the opposite knee, and gently swirled his glass of wine. Perhaps if he managed to look relaxed no one would see through the illusion.
Elizabeth seemed to have adopted the same strategy. She sat across the room conversing with Richard and his parents, a cheerful smile lighting her face. Only her hands told a different story, rising periodically to touch her emerald pendant before returning to the chair arm to absently toy with the cording along the edge.
After the formal greetings and introductions had taken place, Richard had waylaid Elizabeth with inquiries about Charlotte and Jane. It had been natural for her to slip into the empty seat beside his, and there she had stayed. The other available seat—the one William occupied—might as well have come with iron straps to lock his ankles and wrists in place. Catherine de Bourgh was enthroned in a high-backed armchair to his left, and he shared a loveseat with Anne, who had long ago perfected her impersonation of a statue in her mother’s presence.
At first Catherine had said little, contenting herself with glaring in Elizabeth’s general direction. But soon she had embarked on a steady stream of self-aggrandizing tales peppered with famous names from the music world. Her eyes still launched occasional salvos of invisible daggers across the room, but Elizabeth, engaged in quiet conversation with his aunt, wisely failed to notice.
William cast a sidelong glance across Catherine at his grandmother. She was unusually silent, perhaps because during their greeting he had made no effort to disguise his resentment. Her betrayal stunned him; he would have thought it beneath her to engineer such an ambush. Only for Georgiana’s sake had he suppressed the urge to sweep Elizabeth into his arms, stalk out the door, and board the next flight back to Barbados.
Georgiana seemed indifferent to his sacrifice. She slouched at the far end of the sofa she shared with her aunt, her eyes fastened on the thick patterned rug beneath her feet. She had accepted his hug with little enthusiasm and offered Elizabeth only a brief, mumbled greeting before lapsing into silence.
His aunt and uncle might have appeared relaxed to a stranger, but he could sense the tension in their cheerful conversation. Even Richard, ordinarily the most disinterested of observers, seemed wary of the powder keg that sat in their midst, one with a perilously short fuse.
William’s hand tightened on his wine glass. He swirled the liquid again, this time with too much enthusiasm, nearly spilling it onto his trousers.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” he heard Elizabeth say during a pause in Catherine’s running commentary.
“Isn’t it?” Eleanor Fitzwilliam, his aunt, nodded. “And William probably told you that his mother added to the gardens over the years. The grounds were always lovely but now they’re spectacular.”
“If I know Will, he gave Lizzy the complete history of every plant in the garden and every brick in the house,” Richard said, lobbing his trademark smirk in William’s direction. “I think he’s convinced himself that he built Pemberley with his own hands.”
“Pemberley?” Catherine’s face lit up like a jungle cat spotting its dinner. “Ah, yes. Anne and I have been there several times. As invited guests, of course.” Her mouth curled into a disdainful smile as her eyes skewered Elizabeth. “I understand you followed William to Barbados.”
William flashed a resentful glance at his grandmother, the most likely source of this misinformation. “It was the other way around,” he said in a leaden tone. “Elizabeth was there first.”
Catherine ignored him, her eyes boring into Elizabeth. “And I take it you canceled your classes last Monday so as to lengthen your vacation, violating my clearly stated policies.”
“My department chair assured me there wouldn’t be a problem,” Elizabeth said calmly. “She said attendance is always sparse the Monday before Thanksgiving.”
“And why not?” Catherine snapped, “When irresponsible instructors cancel classes according to their whims, it sends a message that classes are unimportant.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Irresponsible?” she said in a tight voice. “I am not—” She colored and glanced at Rose. When she spoke again, the tension around her eyes belied her light, almost flippant tone. “Then it’s just as well I’m leaving in a few weeks.”
Richard jumped into the fray, forestalling Catherine, who had just taken a deep breath as if winding up for a lengthy rant. “You’d better watch out, your ladyship. Gran has a strict ‘no shop talk’ policy on holidays. Dad could show you the scars from times when he tried to flout the rules.”
“Richard.” The disapproval in Rose’s voice would have wilted a faint-hearted adversary. Richard fell silent, but a smirk emerged from one corner of his mouth that even Catherine’s freezing glare couldn’t extinguish. William exchanged glances with Elizabeth, barely concealing his smile. He was grateful to Richard for drawing attention away from Elizabeth, at least temporarily.
“Richard is exaggerating,” Robert Fitzwilliam said genially, “but not by much. I don’t have any scars, but Rose has sent me to my room without dessert more than once. And since I don’t live here, that’s quite a trek.”
Richard snickered, and William saw Eleanor attempt, with only partial success, to suppress a smile.
“Catherine, I’m sure we would all like to hear about the arrangements for William’s recital next month.” Rose’s precise voice underlined each word. “I understand you are planning a gala affair.”
Catherine paused, her eyes still cold, but Rose’s air of cool command must have restrained her. “Anne is handling everything. She has such a talent for planning elegant social events. Of course, you know how valuable those skills are. It’s a pity when young men of prominent families fail to recognize true superiority in a woman, and waste their time and energies on the undeserving.”
William’s gaze flew to Elizabeth. He saw her eyes narrow and her hand clench around the emerald pendant. He lifted his chin and stared at Catherine. “Perhaps the men you speak of are capable of judging superiority for themselves.”
Rose looked past Catherine and William and spoke in the gentle voice she seemed to reserve solely for Anne. “Why don’t you tell us about your plans for the recital, my dear.”
Anne glanced up, startled. Her eyes looked damp. Shame flooded William as he realized that his defense of Elizabeth had been, albeit unintentionally, at Anne’s expense. “Yes, of course, Aunt Rose,” she said in her soft, halting voice. “I considered several possibilities, and finally I decided that we—”
“It will have a holiday theme,” Catherine said loudly. “Holiday decorations, very elegant of course, and a champagne reception afterwards. Of course we expect all the prominent people in the music world to attend, as well as representatives of the major foundations. I assume you’ll all be flying out for it. Georgiana too, if she can manage it without missing school. Otherwise she had better stay at home. We’ll set aside VIP seats for all of the family—next to Anne and me, of course.”
“I’ll need another VIP ticket,” William said. “For Elizabeth.”
“That won’t be possible. We’ve reserved a few seats for faculty in the balcony, but they will be offered to the most senior professors, prominent musicians and scholars who have demonstrated their expertise.”
“You have two choices.” William squared his shoulders and sat up straight. “You can find Elizabeth a seat down front with the family, or you can find another performer for the recital.”
“It’s disgraceful that you would speak to me that way,” Catherine shot back, bristling. “Your poor mother would be horrified.”
Rose sent him a warning glance and then addressed Catherine. “I’m certain that William meant no disrespect.”
“Lizzy can have my ticket.” The wicked glint in Richard’s eye told William that his cousin was up to no good.
Catherine let out a small snort. “I suppose this event is too tame for a man of your … tastes.”
“Damn straight, your ladyship. I bet I can find myself some hell to raise that evening so I’m not in anybody’s way.”
Richard’s speech won him glares from Catherine and Rose and a milder admonishing glance from his mother, but his smirk was unrepentant. Robert crossed the room to visit the bar in the corner, nodding at William as he passed.
“Just a few minutes on a TV at my health club.”
“You worked out on Thanksgiving?” Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “I’m impressed.”
“I always do. That way I can pig out with impunity.”
“Have you ever gone to the parade?” Elizabeth asked.
“Once, when I was a kid.” Richard glanced at his parents. “How long ago was that?”
“About twenty years ago, right after we moved here,” Robert replied. “We got a hotel room with a parade view.”
“You were easily impressed at that age, old man.”
“Oh, you liked it too,” Eleanor retorted, shaking her head at her son. “You just couldn’t admit it.” She smiled and addressed Elizabeth. “Richard was thirteen and determined to be bored with everything.”
“I had my reputation to protect. The Cool Dude Code requires that you be jaded and cynical on all occasions.”
“Then obviously I wasn’t a cool dude,” William said with a grin, “because I was spellbound. In fact, I took Georgie to the same hotel when she was eight so she could see the parade from the same angle, and she loved it, too. Didn’t you, Georgie?”
“It was okay,” she replied with a shrug.
“That’s my little Cool Dudesse,” Richard shot back, winking at her. Georgie rolled her eyes and stared at the rug.
“That parade is nothing but a major annoyance,” Catherine said. “I had a breakfast meeting with Marcel LeBrand today—you know, he’s starting a new opera company, and of course he wanted my advice on developing young singers. I could scarcely get there for all the detours. I can’t see why the mayor allows such frivolous nonsense.”
Rose handed her empty wine glass to Robert, who returned to the bar to refill it. “The parade brings tourist dollars to the city,” she said, “and New York needs that.”
“I went to the parade a couple of times when I lived here,” Elizabeth said. “I loved the excitement of being down on the street with the crowds.”
“I suppose for children, and for others with plebeian tastes, it might have some entertainment value. But Anne and I have never considered it worth our time.”
William heaved a sigh and checked his watch again. 5:09 pm.
Elizabeth stood looking at herself in the gilt-framed powder room mirror, amazed that the twisted condition of her insides didn’t show on her face. She clutched a thick, soft guest towel in her hands, squeezing it tightly and wishing it could be Catherine’s neck. If only she could stay in the small but sumptuous room forever. Not to hide—she was quick to assure herself of that—but to admire the stunning black glass sink bowl shot through with veins of gold. But she needed to return to the library soon. Perhaps she’d stop by the kitchen on her way for another dose of Mrs. Reynolds’s motherly warmth.
She flung open the bathroom door, nearly jumping into the air when she saw William looming in the hallway. Her hand flew to her chest. “You startled me.”
He apologized, took her hand, and led her into the dimly-lit living room. He enfolded her in his arms. “Lizzy, I’m so sorry,” he sighed against her hair.
She nestled against him, absorbing his strength and comfort. “I had no idea how badly I needed a hug.”
“I swear I didn’t know Catherine and Anne would be here.”
“Of course you didn’t.” She glanced to either side, half expecting to see Catherine and Rose standing in the shadows, hands on their hips in glacial disapproval. “If you’d known, you would have warned me.”
He kissed her forehead. “If I’d known, we would have stayed at Pemberley. Which is probably why Gran didn’t tell me.”
She sighed, envisioning a candlelit table for two in the fragrant tropical garden, a soft breeze rustling through the lush foliage. “I’m trying to behave myself, but if this goes on much longer I’m simply going to have to kill her.”
“I’ll be happy to help. And Gran has a lot to answer for, too. She must have known Catherine would behave this way.”
“But remember, your grandmother didn’t know I was coming to dinner till two nights ago. I’m sure Catherine and Anne were already on the guest list by then.”
“Probably so,” he said, shrugging. “No wonder Gran was so upset when I said I was staying at Pemberley for Thanksgiving. She and Catherine probably cooked up this scheme to shove Anne down my throat yet again.”
“So when Catherine said your grandmother wanted you to marry Anne, she was telling the truth?”
He nodded slowly. “Gran has always had a soft spot for Anne. For that matter, so did Mamma.” He rested his hands on her waist. “But I’ve told Gran time and again that Anne and I are just friends.”
“There you are.” It was Richard’s roguish voice. A lamp clicked on, flooding the room with light. “Making out in the living room. I’m shocked, shocked and appalled.”
William tightened his hold on Elizabeth. “Go away, Richard.”
“Oh, don’t get your boxers in a twist, Will. I’m here on a mission of mercy.” Richard drained his half-empty scotch glass before continuing. “Your joint absence was remarked on by The Powers That Be, so I volunteered to hunt you down. I figured, better me than Gran or Lady Voldemort, especially since I wasn’t sure what you were doing out here.”
“Lizzy needed a break from Catherine, and so did I.”
Richard nodded. “Lizzy, you are one cool customer. I don’t know how you’re stopping yourself from ripping out her throat. Incidentally, I’d pay big bucks to see that, so don’t hold back on my account.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said, shaking her head. “Most of her insults have been indirect, so I can’t defend myself.”
“Have we been sitting in the same library?” Richard eyed her with skepticism. “She’s been on you constantly.”
“Yes and no. It’s like when she told William he was slumming and didn’t appreciate a truly ‘superior’ woman.” She imitated Catherine’s haughty tone. “Obviously I was the inferior harlot, but she never came out and said so. If I’d taken offense she’d have denied the connection and accused me of being oversensitive. And worse yet, I’d have been claiming that low position for myself.”
“A fairly clever strategy, coming from her,” Richard said with a thoughtful frown. “What a shame—a mud-wrestling match between the two of you would be lots more fun than her sniper-with-poison-darts routine.”
Elizabeth chuckled. William rolled his eyes and shook his head slowly, but he couldn’t completely quench his smile.
“Seriously, though,” Richard continued, “Catherine must know that Gran would step in if she went any further out on that limb.”
“She would?” Elizabeth had seen little evidence of concern on Rose’s part, aside from an occasional strategic change of subject.
“Absolutely, if it ever escalates to open warfare,” Richard replied. “But as it is, she’s chosen to keep the peace. People like Gran are good at pretending not to notice the elephant in the room, and even stepping around a few piles of elephant dung, as long as the beast doesn’t go on a rampage.”
“I’m disappointed that she’s let it go as far as she has,” William said. “I expected her to say something when Catherine went after you for canceling your class.”
“That made me so angry. My whole department canceled our Monday classes. How dare she suggest that my students don’t matter to me!”
“I can vouch for you there,” Richard said. He grinned at William. “So can the old man here. He was a wreck all those nights you had rehearsals for that play and he was stuck having dinner with me.”
“I don’t know how much more I can take without losing my temper,” Elizabeth said, fingering the polished surface of her emerald pendant. “I’m going to bite all the way through my tongue before long.”
“I say give her back a helping of the sort of crap she’s dishing out,” Richard said without hesitation. “God knows she deserves it, and I could use the entertainment.”
Elizabeth shook her head sadly. “The problem is, what would your grandmother think of me if I did that? I promised myself I’d make a good impression on her tonight.”
“You’re right,” William sighed. “Gran would consider that a sign of bad breeding. Though why that doesn’t apply to Catherine is an interesting question.”
“She’s not the one on trial here,” Elizabeth said a bit too loudly. She grimaced and continued in a soft voice. “I am. And Catherine knows that. She’s baiting me, hoping I’ll blow up in front of your grandmother and demonstrate that I’m not fit to associate with you.”
Richard shrugged. “Then again, Gran might admire your spunk. Catherine gets on her nerves, too.”
“Then why on earth is she here?” Elizabeth asked.
“Because of Anne,” William said. “Catherine is her only family, and Gran feels sorry for her.”
“Don’t we all. We only have to tolerate Catherine once in a while; for Anne it’s a full-time job.” Richard peered into his glass. “Look, I’m out of scotch and the bottle is in the library, so I’m going back. I wouldn’t recommend staying out here much longer. They’ll send the bloodhounds after you.”
William reached for Elizabeth’s hand. “Let’s just go back to the hotel. We can order room service. I’ll tell Gran; you don’t even have to go back in there.”
“No. We flew up here so you could have Thanksgiving dinner with your family, and that’s what you’re going to do.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “But maybe I should leave. I could fake a headache or something. Catherine would probably calm down, and the rest of you could enjoy your evening.”
“Before I let you leave here without me, I’ll tell Catherine exactly what I think of her. Or better yet, I’ll pick her up and pitch her out the front door.”
She almost laughed. “I wish you could.”
“Of course, if I did, Gran would probably pitch me out after her.” He drew her into his arms. “But at least then we’d be free to go back to the hotel.”
She traced a finger down his cheek. “Right now you need to be here, especially for Georgie’s sake. She’s glad to see you.”
“What makes you say that? She won’t even look at me.”
“Not when she knows you’re watching her. But she’s been looking at you plenty when she thinks you won’t notice.”
He frowned. “Really?”
“Uh huh. She’s the only teenager in a room full of annoying adults, so of course she’s bored, but I’m sure she’d be hurt if you left before dinner.”
“I admit, I’m concerned about her.” He ran his hands up Elizabeth’s arms and massaged her shoulders. “All right, then, when we go back in there I’ll do whatever it takes to get Catherine under control.”
“How? If you pick a fight with her you’ll upset your grandmother, and she’ll probably take it as a sign of my bad influence.”
“Gran will have to deal with it. I don’t want you to leave, and I also don’t want you subjected to any more of Catherine’s rudeness.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s what you want, I’ll stay.” She kissed his cheek. “But I might have to come out here from time to time and smash a few priceless Ming vases.”
“If you think it’ll help, feel free,” he said with a rueful smile. “I could point out the most valuable pieces so you can maximize the benefit. It’s the least I can do; after all, it’s my fault you’re here.”
“No, it’s not. If anything, it’s my fault; I talked you into it.”
“No matter what happens, I owe you for this.” He reached up and brushed a tendril of hair off her cheek. “Ready?”
She nodded and they moved down the hall together, the delicious scent of a perfectly-roasted turkey offering solace. As they passed the dining room, the table majestically adorned with the family silver, crystal, and china, she offered William an impish grin. “I should warn you of one thing. I wouldn’t rule out a food fight at dinner. I’d love to see what Catherine would look like covered in gravy.”
William heaved a sigh of relief as he rose from the dinner table. Throughout the meal, Catherine had continued her campaign of thinly-veiled insults. Elizabeth and Eleanor, with help from Rose and the Fitzwilliam men, had labored to keep some semblance of appropriate dinner-table conversation going. William had done what he could, deflecting an occasional insult and squeezing Elizabeth’s hand under the table. But by the end of the meal their efforts had collapsed under the weight of the tension around the table. William had barely tasted his food, his thoughts absorbed by dark fantasies of leaping from his chair and throttling Catherine.
“We’ll have coffee and dessert in the library,” Rose said.
“I think the men need to linger over a cognac first,” Robert said, his voice a shade too hearty. Richard had inherited his taste for scotch from his father, and the two had liberally indulged their fondness for 30-year Macallan before dinner. “I don’t know why that fine old tradition was ever discontinued.”
“As long as you don’t stay too long,” Rose answered. “And no cigars.”
William caught Elizabeth’s hand under the table. She gave him a wan smile and followed Rose from the room. He heard her ask Georgie about her youth orchestra as they passed through the doorway, but his sister’s brief response was unintelligible.
Robert fetched a bottle of cognac and three tulip glasses from the massive walnut cabinet in one corner of the room. He returned to the table, a beatific smile lighting his face. “Finally, some peace,” he said, seating himself with a soft grunt. “That woman is a menace.”
Richard poured the cognac and distributed the glasses. William inspected the amber liquid and then raised his glass, reverently inhaling the rich bouquet. He sat back in his chair as he drank. Warmth seeped into his veins, soothing his jangled nerves.
“That’s a terrific girl you have there, William,” Robert said. “Richard said we’d like her and he was right.”
William yawned and blinked, trying to force his drooping eyelids open. “I wish Gran agreed with you.”
“Rose will come around. She wasn’t sure about me at first either.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” Richard retorted. “She’s still not sure about you.”
Robert chuckled. “Rose prefers her money old and her blood blue.” He grinned at his son. “And you’d better watch out. Your mother’s going to be all over you about why you can’t find a nice girl like Elizabeth.”
“I tried, but like so many before her, she succumbed to the William Darcy Magnetic Field. It’s tough being the cousin of a living legend.”
“I’ve noticed how you suffer,” William retorted, shifting in his chair. “It limits you to two women per night instead of three or four.”
“Precisely.” Richard raised his glass to his lips. “How am I supposed to put up with that?”
Voices floated down the hall from the library. “We ought to get back in there,” William said, glancing at the doorway.
“Relax, Will.” Richard refilled his glass. “Elizabeth’s been holding her own. Maybe if we stay here long enough, Catherine will climb back on her broom and fly off.”
William passed his glass to Richard for a refill, feeling a twinge of guilt. One more glass of cognac, and then he’d go to the library with or without the Fitzwilliam men.