“Come on, Jane, you’ve got to try one.”
Jane eyed the plate Charlotte had nudged in her direction. “I don’t know, Char. It just doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy.”
“You might be surprised,” Elizabeth said, raising her voice to be heard over the percussive beat of the jazz group playing across the room. “I admit, ‘fried’ and ‘olives’ are two words that don’t really belong side by side, but actually they’re good.”
Jane continued to look unconvinced. “Maybe I’ll try one later.”
“Later they’ll be gone, at the rate Char is eating them,” Elizabeth said. “But never mind the olives. It’s time for a toast. To Dr. Charlotte Lucas, who faced down her dissertation committee and lived to tell the tale.”
The trio clinked glasses and sampled the wine. Elizabeth was gratified when the others approved of its light, crisp flavor. Six months ago, she would have laughed at the notion that anyone would trust her to select a wine.
She reached for an olive. Unfortunately it fell off her fork and plopped onto the crisp white tablecloth, leaving a faint oil stain. With a rueful grin at her tablemates, she plucked the olive off the tablecloth and popped it into her mouth. So much for Elizabeth Bennet, sophisticated gourmet and oenophile.
“Of course, I’m not technically a doctor yet,” Charlotte mused.
“But the rest is just paperwork,” Jane said, smiling. “I bet it feels good to be done.”
“It sure does. I might actually get some sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll return some phone calls and emails too. I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicado lately.”
“It’s okay,” Elizabeth said. “We knew how busy you were.”
“And it’s been my loss. I mean, look at the two of you. Huge developments on the romantic front, and all I’ve heard is the Cliff Notes version.” Charlotte leaned forward, her eyes gleaming. “So, come on. Spill the details.”
Jane and Elizabeth exchanged sheepish smiles. “You go first,” Elizabeth said.
The band stopped playing, much to Elizabeth’s relief. The room was still noisy, with servers bustling about and diners’ voices echoing off the vaulted ceilings, but now at least they wouldn’t have to shout the personal details of their lives at the top of their voices.
“Really, there’s not much to tell,” Jane said with an apologetic shrug. “You already know what’s happened with Charles.”
“Yeah, and I think it’s great, especially that he found a job already. Who is it with again? The opera?”
“The symphony. As their new communications director.”
Charlotte speared another olive. “I thought he was in communications at his father’s company and hated it.”
“Well, yeah,” Elizabeth said, “but that was because of all the pressure from his father.”
Jane nodded. “He likes that kind of work, and he’s excited about being part of a musical organization. And meanwhile, we’ll save up so he can open a jazz club someday.”
“Couldn’t Charles sell the house in Pacific Heights to get the money to buy a club?” Charlotte rested her elbow on the edge of the table. “Although it’s such a great house. It would be a shame to have to sell it.”
Jane darted an uncomfortable glance at Elizabeth. “He is selling it, but not for that reason. Now that his inheritance and the money from his father are gone, he can’t afford the mortgage payments.”
Charlotte shook her head. “That sucks. Will there be anything left from the sale after he pays off the mortgage?”
“Not much. But he has a good job, and he’s determined to stand on his own.” Jane paused and sipped her wine. “I’m so proud of him.”
“And where does your relationship stand?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows and continued, “Or maybe ‘stand’ is the wrong word. I assume you’ve moved on to prone positions by now?”
Jane sat up straight and licked her lips. Elizabeth was about to tell Charlotte to mind her own business when Jane spoke in a halting voice. “We’re taking things slowly, getting to know each other again.”
“Oh, come on.” Charlotte shook her head, wearing a sly grin. “I know he spent last night with you, because when I called this morning he answered the phone.”
Jane shook her head. “He’s living at the house until it sells. After that … we’ll see. This morning he came by early and we went running. He answered the phone because I was in the bedroom getting my jacket.”
“Right. Whatever you say.”
“No, Char, it’s true,” Elizabeth interjected. “Jane means it when she says they’ve been taking things slowly.”
Elizabeth didn’t add that the pace seemed to be accelerating. A few nights before, unable to sleep in the chill of her lonely bed, she had wandered toward the kitchen in search of a snack. On entering the living room, she had seen Charles, his shirt unbuttoned and his face flushed, spring into a sitting position on the sofa. Jane, clutching her blouse around her, had greeted Elizabeth in breathless accents. Elizabeth had stammered an apology and sprinted back to her room, her rumbling stomach forgotten.
“In that case, I’m in awe of your restraint,” Charlotte said, piercing an olive with her fork. “I’m more of a ‘sleep together first, get acquainted later’ kind of gal.”
“Really?” Elizabeth said, grinning. “We’d never have guessed.” Once she would have teased Charlotte mercilessly about her lack of self-control, but not now—not after she and William, while in Barbados, had made love first and resolved their differences later.
The waiter arrived with their salads. Elizabeth drizzled only a tiny stream of dressing onto hers. The weight she had gained in Barbados still clung stubbornly to her hips.
Charlotte waved her fork. “Your turn, Liz.”
“You’ve heard how they met accidentally in Barbados, haven’t you?” Jane asked, her eyes shining.
“Bumping into each other on the beach one afternoon? I have to give you bonus points, Liz. Very romantic.”
“Not really. Aunt Madeline was there so we couldn’t really talk, and we were both so nervous. He told me later that he was mortified because he was all sweaty and tousled from running.” Elizabeth smiled. “Trust me, he had nothing to be mortified about.”
“I can imagine,” Charlotte said, her eyebrows tilted at a wicked angle. “Okay, so what happened after that? Omit nothing, especially not any details involving a deserted beach, skinny-dipping, and a full moon.”
“What makes you think anything like that happened?” Elizabeth pursed her lips and stared back at Charlotte. Nothing exactly like that had happened.
Charlotte sat back, crossing her arms over her chest. “I am so disappointed in you.”
“Sorry,” Elizabeth said. “The beaches are public, and William and I aren’t into exhibitionism.” Charlotte didn’t need to know about the private swimming pool.
“Good grief. If you lacked the imagination to do it, at least you could make something up. I’ve been buried under a mountain of paper for weeks. I’m counting on you for some vicarious thrills.”
“Being there was amazing.” Vivid memories flooded her mind with sunlight. “I can’t imagine anyplace more romantic than Pemberley. The house and the gardens, and the incredible view of the ocean. I can’t begin to do it justice.”
“I assume you two were inseparable?”
“Pretty much,” Elizabeth said. “Aunt Madeline and Uncle Edward were wonderful about it when I basically deserted them and moved to Pemberley. They had a great time, too. William set them up with a local dive operator, and Uncle Edward said it was the best dive he’d ever been on.”
“So William has the Gardiners firmly in his corner.”
Elizabeth sighed. “William isn’t the one who needs to worry about garnering support.”
“So I understand,” Charlotte said with a smirk. “I heard about the Thanksgiving smackdown.”
“From Richard, I assume.” Elizabeth could easily imagine him regaling Charlotte with the tale.
“Don’t tease poor Lizzy about it,” Jane said. “Dr. de Bourgh has been taking it out on her since she got back.”
“I’ve only been back at school for a week,” Elizabeth said, shaking he head, “but it feels much longer.”
“Oh, no. What has that miserable old hag been doing to you?”
“I’d better not talk about it too much; I’ll just get mad. But I will share one tidbit. She started sending other faculty members to ‘observe’ my classes. She even showed up herself one day.”
“Oh, c’mon!” Charlotte shook her head. “Is she looking for a pretext to fire you before you quit?”
“At first I thought so, but this late in the semester, why bother? I think she’s just trying to rattle me.”
“Is it working?”
Elizabeth sighed. “More than I’d like to admit. I’m trying not to let her mess with my head, but it’s hard not to stiffen up when you know you’re being scrutinized by a colleague. Academics are notoriously judgmental of one another. But you know that.”
“Do I ever! Shooting holes in other people’s research is the intellectual’s version of an Olympic event.” Charlotte paused and shook her head slowly. “All this because you finally stood up to her after she smacked you around for hours? Not too vengeful, is she?”
“It’s more than that,” Elizabeth said. “The conservatory lost its funding from the Darcy Arts Trust; William told her she’s not getting another penny, and his grandmother agreed.”
“Plus, she wanted William for a son-in-law,” Jane added. “I’m sure she hates to see Anne disappointed.”
“Oh, right.” Charlotte rolled her eyes. “As if William were stupid enough to consider marrying into that viper’s nest. What does he have to say about your persecution?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I haven’t told him, and I don’t plan to, if I can help it. He feels guilty enough already. Though I did tell him about the reception.”
“He’s giving his final recital at the conservatory next Friday; it was scheduled before all this happened, so he’s going through with it. And she’s throwing a big party—I beg your pardon, a ‘reception’—afterwards. I guess she’s trying to put a good face on things for public consumption. As far as I can tell, I was the only faculty member not invited.”
“I assume William did something about that.”
“His grandmother handled it.”
“Way to go, Granny! What did she do?”
“I don’t know, but it worked. Catherine’s secretary called this morning to let me know that my presence at the reception would be tolerated. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent me around to the kitchen to pick up my apron and tray.”
Charlotte set down her wine glass. “So does this mean you’re in Granny’s good books now?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I guess you’d call us cordial.” Elizabeth and Rose had taken tentative steps toward a more cordial relationship during the last two days of Thanksgiving break, but the inbred hauteur that clung to Rose like an expensive perfume still formed a wall between them. But William’s mother had found a way to thaw the old woman’s frosty heart, and Elizabeth was determined to do the same.
“I assume you’re going to New York over Christmas break?” Charlotte asked.
“Uh huh. In fact, Mrs. Darcy wrote me a note after Thanksgiving, officially inviting me for the holidays. In her day, it was improper for young ladies to visit gentlemen in their homes. Instead they used the pretext of visiting a female member of the family.”
“And by amazing coincidence, the gentleman just happened to be present?”
“You got it. William and I have to figure out how to divide our holiday between the two coasts while offending as few people as possible. And then there’s the New Year’s Eve concert in Washington, which reminds me. You’re going with Richard, aren’t you?”
Charlotte’s face took on a pinched, closed look. She stabbed a chunk of tomato on her salad plate. “No, I’m not.”
Elizabeth winced. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. William told me that Richard was going to invite you.”
“He did. I said no.”
“But why? The four of us could have a great time together.”
“It made absolutely no sense that he’d invite me to go with him.”
“Why do you say that? You went to Phoenix with him.”
“Right. Just the two of us, dividing our time between our hotel room and the ballpark. But when did we move from that to meeting his parents?” She shuddered.
“You’d love his parents,” Elizabeth said. “They met in the Haight, back in the sixties. Now they own a natural food company.”
“It wouldn’t help if they were the Dalai Lama and the Dalai Lam-ess. My point is, why does he want me to meet them?”
“He’s not inviting you to Washington to meet his parents,” Elizabeth said, not bothering to conceal her impatience. “He’s inviting you to Washington for New Year’s Eve, and it just happens that his parents will be there, too.”
“Maybe, but it’s still a gathering of the clan, the Darcys turning out to watch the favorite son in action. That’s a ‘steady girlfriend’ kind of event. I like Richard, but as for anything more ….” She shrugged.
“Couldn’t it be more if you let it?” Elizabeth asked. “You two have so much in common.”
“Too much. You know that saying about leopards and their spots? Well, it’s true. It wouldn’t matter how much time either of us spent with a brush and a can of paint. We’re not designed for the long haul.”
“The why would you think that he’s getting serious?” Jane asked.
Charlotte ran a finger along the rim of her wine glass. “I don’t know. I’ve been picking up a weird vibe from him.”
Elizabeth scowled at Charlotte. “Didn’t you spend most of the last six months lecturing me about giving men a chance? Maybe you need to take some of your own advice. First you pushed Roger away, and now you’re all, ‘Oh, heaven forbid that Richard might care about me as more than a bed partner.’”
“Don’t lecture me about Roger,” Charlotte snapped. “There’s stuff you don’t know.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth, preparing a tart reply, but she fell silent when Jane’s hand rested gently on her arm. “Lizzy and I just want you to be happy,” Jane said, her voice rich with sympathy. “And you and Richard seemed to hit it off so well.”
“We did,” Charlotte said, and the harsh glint in her eyes faded away. She fingered the hammered gold choker she wore. “But I’m not going to Washington. Maybe I’m reading too much into the invitation, but it feels like a signal that he’s looking for something more.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Charlotte’s commitment-phobia was exasperating. “Even if he is, that doesn’t mean he’s ready to pick out china patterns. After all, his baseline for relationship-length comparisons is two or three hours. Eight, if he stays for breakfast. Finding out a woman’s last name before he disappears into the mist is a big step for him.”
Charlotte snickered. “You have a point. Well, anyway, we’re planning to get together when I’m in New York interviewing at Columbia. If I get an interview.”
“They still haven’t called?” Jane asked.
Charlotte shook her head. “Not yet.” With her dissertation complete, seeking a faculty position for the fall was her next logical step. “But it’s still early. My letters went out a couple of weeks ago, and my advisor is beating the bushes. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Jane held up both hands, her fingers twined together as directed. “Absolutely.”
Elizabeth raised her glass. “Another toast. To Dr. Lucas finding the perfect job, preferably in a city crammed with sexy single men.”
“Tall ones,” Charlotte shot back.
The three clinked glasses, their shared smiles dissolving the last of the tension.