“Are you sure we’ll be allowed backstage?” Eleanor asked.
“I think so,” Elizabeth said as she led the way through the heavy double doors. “He specifically asked me to stop by his dressing room after the recital.”
Robert frowned, obviously skeptical. “I doubt he expected you to bring chaperones.”
Elizabeth hadn’t expected it either. But Eleanor, on hearing Elizabeth’s plan, had asked to go along.
The sour-faced security guard waved Elizabeth through but staunchly refused to admit the Fitzwilliams. “Sorry, Miss,” he said in a voice like gravel crunching beneath a car’s tires. “If they aren’t on my list, they aren’t going back there.”
“See?” Robert said, raising an eyebrow. “I told you William didn’t want chaperones.”
Elizabeth grinned. “I’ll go get him.” She hurried down the dingy corridor, skidding slightly as she turned down the side hall the guard had pointed out. The clacking of her heels sounded like a snare drum, filling the narrow space.
William stood framed in his dressing room doorway, facing a semicircle of visitors that included Catherine de Bourgh. The shuttered expression on his face cleared the moment he saw Elizabeth. “Excuse me,” he said, stepping around them. Catherine glanced behind her and snorted, tossing her head.
When he reached Elizabeth’s side, William glanced back at Catherine and her entourage, who were whispering among themselves. “Hi,” he said softly. “I’ve been watching for you.”
“You were wonderful.” She reached for his hand and interlaced her fingers with his. “I don’t even know how to tell you how amazing you were. I was so proud of you, from beginning to end. And the Intermezzo ….” She shrugged, tears springing to her eyes at the memory.
He raised her hand to his lips, his eyes burning into hers. “Having you down front made all the difference. I’ve never—” He glanced backward again, grimacing. “Oh, to hell with them.” He bent his head and kissed her with a warmth that surprised her, given the four pairs of curious eyes trained in their direction.
Then he took her hand, clearly intending to lead her back to his dressing room, but Elizabeth resisted. “Your aunt and uncle are waiting out by the guard station. He wouldn’t let them come back here.”
“They can wait a few more minutes.” He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “I’m going to get rid of Catherine and her cronies, and then I want some time alone with you before I have to suffer through the reception.”
Elizabeth shook her head reluctantly. “Eleanor needs to talk to you about something. She says it’s urgent.”
He scowled. “Can’t it wait till the reception?”
“She said it couldn’t.”
He sighed. “All right. Go tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can. Much as I’d like to, I can’t just walk away from these people. I promise I won’t be long.”
Elizabeth made her way back up the hall, wondering about Eleanor’s news. She was certain it had to do with the dinnertime phone call. Maybe Richard had done something tabloid-worthy. It wouldn’t do for William to be blindsided by one of the reporters Catherine habitually invited to conservatory events, though why San Francisco reporters would care about Richard’s antics was a question she couldn’t answer. No, it had to be something else.
As she approached the guard station, she heard a familiar voice talking nonstop. “Ms. Nguyen’s work is interesting in a jejeune way, I suppose. But here at the conservatory we have several excellent young composers whose work is superior. Dr. de Bourgh was surprised that William chose to honor Ms. Nguyen and to slight some of our more deserving local talent.”
“Ah, here she is,” Eleanor said, sending Elizabeth a wide-eyed grimace that begged for rescue.
“Good evening, Elizabeth,” Bill Collins intoned with a solemn nod. He had treated her with exaggerated formality since her return from New York.
“Did you enjoy the recital?” The words escaped Elizabeth’s mouth before she realized the perils of the question, reinforced by Eleanor’s sidelong glance of dismay.
Bill stroked his chin sagely. “Well, yes, I did, for the most part. Darcy’s an excellent pianist, of course. But much as it pains me to say so, I had issues with a few of his selections. As I was saying to Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam, Dr. de Bourgh was displeased with the composer William chose to honor. It seems to me that … “ Bill continued, his lengthy discourse seasoned with frequent references to Catherine de Bourgh.
Elizabeth snatched the first opportunity to grab the conversational reins. “I’m surprised you’re not back there with Catherine and her guests.”
Bill’s already pink face seemed to darken. “Well, yes, there was a misunderstanding in that regard. Goodness, it’s hot!” He drew a large handkerchief from his pocket, mopped his moist forehead, and glared at the security guard, who responded with a blank stare. “That man won’t let me go back. I tried to explain that Dr. de Bourgh might need my assistance. The people with her are major supporters of the conservatory.”
“She’s fortunate to have such a devoted right-hand man,” Robert remarked. He winked almost imperceptibly at Elizabeth, the corner of his mouth twitching.
“I flatter myself that she finds me indispensable,” Bill answered, puffing out his chest like an oversized songbird. He treated Robert’s remark as an invitation to pontificate on the smallest details of his job, his steady drone turning the minutes into weeks.
Finally, Catherine and her entourage appeared. Elizabeth had to choke back a giggle when Catherine barked, “What are you doing here, Collins? I told you to go up to the reception and make sure the food tables were properly set.” Catherine cut off Bill’s stammered explanation. “Never mind. We need to get upstairs. Come along.” She gave the Fitzwilliams a cool nod as she swept past but pointedly ignored Elizabeth. Bill offered them a harried smile as he trotted off in Catherine’s wake.
The backstage doors had scarcely closed behind Catherine’s group when Elizabeth saw William striding toward them, his coattails flying behind him. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “Catherine brought some people backstage to meet me.”
“We saw them leave,” Robert replied. “How is she acting around you? A touch of winter frost? Or is it more like an ice storm?”
“She seems to have convinced herself that we were in the wrong and she’s the injured party,” William said with a shrug. “At least she’s stopped trying to tell me how to live my life.” He draped a possessive arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders. “Lizzy said there was something you needed to tell me.”
Eleanor nodded. “Could we go back to your dressing room?”
“What is this about?”
“Something unfortunate has happened, and I don’t think we should discuss it out here.” Her eyes flicked to the guard.
William frowned, but he shrugged and led the way down the hall. They filed into his dressing room and he pulled the door shut behind them.
A spray of exotic flowers in brilliant jewel tones exuded a sweet fragrance, layered on top of the musty smell Elizabeth associated with old theaters. She had spent countless hours in rooms exactly like this one, humming to keep her voice warm, stretching to stay limber, and frowning at her reflection in the garishly-lit mirror topped with a row of bare bulbs, while ten other people crowded around doing the same things. She checked her appearance now. Considering the crying she’d done during the Intermezzo, it could have been worse.
Eleanor looked grim. “I hate to ask, Elizabeth, but would you excuse us for a few minutes?”
“Of course.” Elizabeth stepped toward the door, but William caught her hand.
“No,” he said. “Whatever your news is, I want Lizzy to hear it.”
“All right.” Eleanor gave Elizabeth a wan smile. “I got a call from Mother during dinner.”
“Is Gran all right?”
Eleanor nodded. “She’s fine, health-wise at least. It’s Georgie.”
William’s grip on Elizabeth’s hand tightened, and she stepped closer to him, offering what little comfort she could. “What happened? Is she hurt?”
“She was arrested. For shoplifting.”
“Shoplifting?” He shook his head, tentatively at first but then more decisively. “No, that’s impossible.”
“She and her friend Courtney were caught leaving a Madison Avenue boutique with several stolen items.”
“It must be a mistake.” The frown line in his forehead deepened. “Obviously she meant to pay and just forgot.”
“That’s what she claimed, but it wasn’t the first time she’d been caught.”
“No.” He shook his head again. “No, that’s absurd. If this had happened before, I’d know about it.”
Eleanor and Robert exchanged an uncomfortable glance. “Actually,” Eleanor said, “you don’t know about it because we didn’t tell you.”
“What?” The single word crackled in the air. William released Elizabeth’s hand, staring at his aunt in open disbelief.
“A little over a month ago, I got a call. Georgie had been detained at a store, a different location of the same chain that stopped her today, and she’d given them my phone number. I went down and talked to them.” Eleanor paused and glanced at Robert again.
“Go on.” William’s face was entirely devoid of expression.
“The store said they’d press charges unless we signed a statement admitting her guilt.”
William folded his arms over his chest, thunderclouds in his eyes. “Of course. To legitimize their behavior in falsely accusing her. I hope you didn’t let them coerce you into it.”
Eleanor glanced at Elizabeth and then continued. “It wasn’t a false accusation. Georgie admitted that she’d taken a pair of earrings on a dare from Courtney. She swore it was the first time, and she promised she’d never do it again. She begged me to help her, and not to tell you or Mother.”
“Gran doesn’t know about this either?” William took a step back, sagging slightly as he leaned against the scarred Formica counter beneath the lighted mirror.
Eleanor grimaced. “She does now. But, no, she didn’t know at the time. Their relationship has deteriorated badly over the past several months. I assume you’ve noticed.”
William nodded. “She’s behaving differently around both of us. But Lizzy keeps reminding me that Georgie is at a difficult age.”
“Which is a big part of it,” Eleanor said. “I also think you’re a stabilizing influence, a buffer between the two of them. But as much as you’ve been gone lately, they’ve had to deal with each other directly. It hasn’t gone well.”
“So you thought it would be better to handle things quietly,” Elizabeth said, “rather than have the incident make things even worse between them.” She could completely sympathize with Eleanor.
Eleanor’s eyes brightened, her gratitude obvious. “Exactly. Mother tends toward the sledgehammer approach to parenting. I should know; the hammer came down on me plenty of times before I finally decided to leave.”
“You’re being too hard on Gran.” William folded his arms across his chest. “She has high expectations, but she just wants to see us live up to our potential.”
“It’s different for you,” Eleanor said, sighing. “You’re the crown prince, just like your father was. Trust me, it’s hard growing up alongside that. You have no idea what a huge shadow you cast.”
“We’re getting off track,” Robert said in a testy voice. “Let’s debate family dynamics some other time.”
Eleanor shot an annoyed glance at her husband, but she took his advice. “Georgie returned the earrings, and the store banned her from shopping at any of their locations for a year. We made her donate the price of the earrings to charity out of her allowance. She worked some weekend shifts with us at the soup kitchen. And we required her to visit us a couple of days a week after school, partly to try to stop her from spending so much time with Courtney.”
“We thought she’d learned her lesson,” Robert added. “Obviously we were wrong.”
“Obviously.” Resentment flickered in William’s eyes. “And I’m sure Gran will have quite a bit to say about that.”
“Oh, she already has,” Eleanor retorted, her lips twisting into a grim smile, “and I know it’s only the beginning. All I can say is, we thought we were doing the right thing for everyone concerned.”
William stood slightly apart from the others, fiddling with his cufflinks. He shook his head. “This whole thing makes no sense. Georgie knows right from wrong. And besides, she has a credit card and a generous allowance. She doesn’t need to steal.”
“But—” Elizabeth and Eleanor began speaking at once. Their eyes met, and Eleanor nodded.
Elizabeth touched William’s arm, speaking gently. “Teenagers shoplift for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it’s about not having the money, but they also do it to rebel, or for attention. And the first time, she said she did it on a dare. Maybe Courtney pressured her into it this time, too.”
William stared at Elizabeth in painful silence that seemed to expand, stealing the oxygen from the room. She ached to draw him into the shelter of her arms despite the inhibiting presence of the Fitzwilliams. At last, he sighed and addressed his aunt. “Where do things stand now?
“Georgie’s lawyer was able to get her out of the juvenile detention center this evening.”
“Detention center?” William rapped out the words in a harsh voice. Elizabeth reached for his hand but he evaded her, his fingers clenching into fists. “You mean jail? Like a common criminal?”
“I know,” Eleanor said gently. “It seems harsh. But she had several hundred dollars worth of stolen items. And she had been banned from those stores for the previous incident.”
“But she’s not a criminal. We would have reimbursed them for everything if they’d just ….” He sounded lost, drowning in waves of denial.
Elizabeth reached for his hand again, and this time he allowed her to grasp it. “She’s at home now?” she asked.
Eleanor nodded. “But she has to be in court first thing Monday morning.”
“I have to get back to New York right away.” William dragged a hand through his hair. He crossed the room and yanked his cell phone from the inside pocket of his topcoat. “Maybe I can catch a red-eye if I skip the reception and leave right now.”
“Sonya made you a reservation on the first flight out tomorrow morning. I have the information.” Eleanor dug a scrap of paper out of her black silk evening bag.
“But what about a red-eye?”
“Sonya said there wasn’t one that left late enough. And Mother told me I was to sit on you if necessary to make sure you attended the reception.”
“Out of the question. I’m not going to prance out there like a show pony and prop up Catherine’s reputation when Georgie is in trouble.” William’s grip on Elizabeth’s hand tightened, and his eyes held a steely glint.
“It’s not for Catherine,” Elizabeth said. She was surprised to find herself agreeing with Rose. “I’m sure Mrs. Darcy was thinking about your professional reputation.”
“That’s right,” Eleanor said with an emphatic nod. “If you don’t show up, people will have plenty to say about it.”
“Let them say what they want. This is my sister’s life we’re talking about.”
Elizabeth released his hand and stepped around to face him, gently grasping the lapels of his tailcoat. “I know this is hard, but Georgie is safe at home now, and you’ll see her tomorrow.”
“Not that anyone asked my opinion,” Robert said, “but it does sound like things are under control for the moment. And besides,” he continued, a faint twinkle in his eye despite the heavy mood in the room, “I can’t imagine you prancing under any circumstances.”
William ignored Robert’s quip, his jaw jutting out at a defiant angle. “Why didn’t Gran call me instead of you?”
“She knew it would distract you from the recital. Besides, we all know you don’t take phone calls when you’re preparing to go on stage.”
“Hmph.” Scowling, William glanced at his shoes.
Eleanor handed him the flight information. “I called the airline at intermission and got us on the same flight.” She smoothed her dress and glanced at Robert. “And now, I think you and I should go over to the reception.”
“Good idea.” Robert opened the dressing room door for his wife, and then nodded at William and Elizabeth. “We’ll tell everyone you’re on your way.”
“We’ll see you soon?” Eleanor raised her eyebrows at Elizabeth, who nodded in response.
Elizabeth closed the door behind the Fitzwilliams. Then she crossed the room and wrapped her arms around William. “I’m so sorry.”
He stood stiffly in her embrace at first, but she held on, and at last she felt the tension draining from his body. He released a long, painful sigh and burrowed closer, his long frame draped around hers. “Oh, God,” he muttered against her hair. “How could this happen?”
“I don’t know.” She held him, rubbing his back gently. Finally she released him and stepped back. “But we aren’t going to figure it out tonight. Let’s pull ourselves together and go to the reception.”
“I don’t know if I can.” It hurt to see him looking so deflated. “How am I going to think about anything but Georgie?”
“You can do it,” she said, infusing her voice with as much confidence as she could muster. “Everybody wants to see William Darcy, the musical genius who enthralled us tonight. That’s a role you know how to play. Later tonight, when we’re alone, we’ll open that bottle of cognac you bought and curl up together and try to make sense of it.”
His eyes locked on her, seeming to feed off her energy. “That sounds good.”
“And I’ll be right next to you every minute at the reception.”
He sighed and lifted a lock of hair from her shoulder, toying with it. “What would I do without you?”
She touched his cheek. “That’s something you don’t need to worry about, because I’m not going anywhere. Now, let’s get out there and be charming.”
William slipped off his topcoat and hung it in Elizabeth’s closet. His eyelids drooped, blurring his vision, and his arms seemed to hang at his sides, useless. His physical and emotional reservoirs were bone dry.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Elizabeth asked. She still looked fresh and lovely. Usually her seemingly inexhaustible vitality was endearing, but tonight it annoyed him. “Or decaf coffee? Or some of your cognac?”
“Cognac.” He belatedly added, “Please.”
She paused in the kitchen doorway, studying him intently. “Why don’t you change out of your tux? You’d be much more comfortable in your bathrobe.”
His warm robe and a pair of slippers sounded enticing, but he lacked the energy for the trip down the hall. He shrugged off his tailcoat and vest and hung them carefully over a dining room chair. As he crossed into the living room, he yanked open his bow tie. Then he collapsed in an armchair, kicked off his shoes, and propped his feet on the coffee table.
Elizabeth emerged from the kitchen carrying a glass of cognac. Affection and desire stirred somewhere deep inside as he watched her approach, but fatigue blunted his emotions, as though he were swathed in thick layers of cotton wool.
“Here you go,” she said, handing him the glass. She moved behind him to massage his shoulders, saying softly, “You had a tough evening; maybe this will help to relax you.”
He inhaled the spicy oak-and-leather scent of the cognac and tilted the glass back, letting the smooth amber liquid flood his taste buds. His eyes drifted shut, and he tried without success to focus on Elizabeth’s touch.
He remembered little about the reception except that it had been excruciating. Soon after their arrival, he had slipped away to call the townhouse, heedless of the late hour. Rose had confirmed Eleanor’s information and supplied some even more distressing news, news he hadn’t been able to banish from his thoughts since then.
Eleanor, Robert, and Elizabeth had surrounded him with a human shield at the reception, engaging his admirers in lively conversation that diverted the focus from him. He had retreated behind his familiar wall, his body and mind increasingly numb as the evening crept past. At last he had insisted on leaving the reception, unable to pretend to care about pointless conversation with strangers while his sister’s future was in jeopardy.
The only enjoyable moment had been a brief conversation with Jennifer Nguyen, whose compositions he had played at the recital. She had practically leapt into the air at the news that he planned to use her pieces as concert encores. At least someone had ended the evening on a high note.
“Did you recognize the reception hall?” Elizabeth dug her hands into his shoulders.
He nodded, staring into his cognac glass. Soon after his arrival in San Francisco last August, he had met Elizabeth there to drive her to the penthouse for dinner.
“I’ll never forget how handsome you looked that night. I saw you walking toward me and I thought, ‘Every woman in this place is going to be eaten up with envy when I leave on his arm.’”
The memory almost made him smile. She had kissed him on the steps outside the building, one of the first times she had initiated a kiss.
She brushed her hands across his shoulders, smoothed the collar of his shirt, and then stepped around his chair. “Why don’t you move over to the sofa? Then we could sit closer together.”
“I’d rather stay here.”
“Oh. Okay.” She sounded small, probably wounded by his brusque tone, but he couldn’t help it. His wall of remoteness was the only thing keeping him from shattering into a thousand pieces.
She sat on the sofa, curling her legs under her, and reached for her water glass. “What did your grandmother tell you when you called her?”
He shook his head. He wasn’t ready to discuss that, not yet. He scarcely wanted to think about it, though he couldn’t seem to stop.
Elizabeth set her glass down. It landed only halfway on its coaster and tipped on its side, splashing across the coffee table. She yelped and grabbed the glass, righting it. “Sorry; I’ll be right back!” She hopped up and dashed to the kitchen.
William removed his feet from the table, his movements sluggish. He watched passively as she returned with a blue kitchen towel and mopped up the water. “Jane is going to kill me,” she said. “She just refinished this table over the summer.”
He didn’t answer.
She seated herself, the towel bunched up in her hand. “Will, please tell me what your grandmother said.”
“It’s late and I’m tired. I’m going to bed.” He sat up, gathering the energy to haul himself upright.
“Tell me what’s wrong first. You looked terrible when you got back from talking to her.”
“My sister’s arrest isn’t reason enough for that?” His voice sounded harsher than he intended, but it was too late to take it back.
She paused and folded the towel into precise quarters, seeming to study the irregular patches of dampness mottling its surface. Then she looked up at him. “Of course you’re upset about that. But your grandmother told you something worse, didn’t she?”
He stared at the floor in silence.
“Please tell me,” she said, her tone warm and loving and difficult to resist. “Maybe I can help. I know something about teenagers and shoplifting.”
He glanced up. “You didn’t—?”
“No, not me. Kitty and Lydia were caught shoplifting when Lydia was about thirteen.”
He grunted in lieu of a more articulate response. This news was hardly shocking.
“Maybe we could call Jane. She won’t mind that it’s late, and she could tell you more.”
“I hardly think that Lydia’s experiences have any relevance for Georgie.”
Elizabeth frowned and set the towel carefully on the edge of the table. “I just meant that since Jane’s a lawyer, she could tell you about the legal ramifications. Of course, I think Kitty and Lydia were caught with just one small item each. I’m sure the severity of the charges depends partly on the amount of stolen merchandise.”
The word “stolen” pierced William’s stomach like an arrow. “This is a sort of vindication for you, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice rough with fatigue.
“What are you talking about?”
“You kept telling me to find out more about Courtney and her family. You kept saying Georgie might be getting into trouble in the afternoons.” His anger was energizing him, though he wasn’t sure at whom he was angry. “I’m sure you can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’ Go ahead, say it.”
“Okay, stop right there.” Elizabeth jumped to her feet and moved forward till she stood directly in front of his chair. “I know you’re upset, and I’m trying to be understanding, despite the fact that you’ve been miserable to be around all night. But keep this up and you’re going to be singing boy soprano.”
“I suppose in my place, you’d have been cheerful and pleasant?”
“Of course not.” She planted her hands on her hips. “But you haven’t even tried to be civil. I’ve made plenty of allowances for your mood. I covered for you with the people at the reception, and I did it gladly. But I’m not going to let you speak to me this way.”
He stared up at her, ignoring distant warning bells. “I’m sorry if you think it’s unreasonable for me to be upset. Obviously none of this bothers you, because you already had such a low opinion of Georgie. That’s why you nagged me constantly about checking up on her.”
“For all the good it did.”
“That sounded suspiciously like, ‘I told you so.’”
Elizabeth stared at him. She crossed her arms over her chest in a slow, almost menacing gesture. “If it did, you deserved it.”
He struggled to his feet—sitting while she stood above him was making him feel vulnerable—and their eyes locked in a contest of wills.
Elizabeth continued, her voice rising in pitch. “As for me disliking Georgie, you have it backwards. I know she needs time to get used to sharing her brother with an outsider, and I know girls her age can be difficult; heaven knows I was. But at Thanksgiving, she never missed an opportunity to be rude to me. And the worst part was that you never called her on it, so she probably got the message that it was okay to keep doing it.”
“Is that why you’re unconcerned about the fact that she was dragged off to jail today? Because you think Georgie hasn’t been nice to you?”
“I’m not unconcerned! I feel bad for her, and for your grandmother, and above all I hate to see you so upset.”
“You have an interesting way of showing it.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked in a hard voice, her eyes crackling.
He spoke instinctively, without thinking. “I’m sick of hearing you compare her to Lydia, as if my sister could ever have anything in common with—”
“Enough!” Her loud exclamation silenced him, and she spun around and stormed from the room without another word. A minute later, she returned with a pillow and a blanket and threw them at him.
“You said it was late,” she snapped. “You’re right. We both need some sleep. But if you think you’re crawling into my bed after speaking to me that way, you’re out of your mind.”
He struggled through layers of anger, despair, and fatigue to reconstruct what he had said. “Elizabeth—”
“No. You’ve said quite enough; it’s my turn to talk now. I know you disapprove of Lydia. You’ve made that clear, over and over. And I’m not trying to defend her. I know exactly who and what she is, and I understand why you wouldn’t want Georgie to have anything in common with her. But Lydia is my sister, just as Georgie is yours. And they do have something in common now, whether you like it or not.”
William’s head was spinning. His cocoon held fast, but even through its protective layers he could feel the heat of her fierce glare. His mouth rarely ran ahead of his brain, but in this case it had, and he was facing the consequences.
“I’ll set an alarm in my room, and I’ll make sure you’re awake in time to get to the airport,” she said. “Good night.” She whirled and stalked off, and a moment later he heard her bedroom door slam. He stood hugging the pillow and blanket to his chest and blinking.
Her bedroom door opened, and he heard her footsteps in the hall. Evidently she had already changed her mind. But then he heard the bathroom door close, followed by the sound of running water. With a loud sigh, he flung the pillow and blanket toward the sofa. The blanket unfurled in midair and dragged against her half-empty water glass, spilling the rest of the contents across the table and soaking the blanket. It was a fitting end to a terrible night.