“May I propose a toast?” Charles raised his champagne glass. “To Lizzy, one of the two most beautiful brides-to-be on the planet.”
Elizabeth smiled at Jane. “Notice how cleverly he avoided having to name a winner and a first runner-up.”
“Well, I’m biased on that point.” Charles grinned, his white teeth gleaming against his perennial surfer’s tan. “But I think Will would beg to differ, and he’s not here to argue his case, so let’s call it a draw.”
Elizabeth felt a pang every time she glanced at the empty chair at the kitchen table. She had hoped to hear from William when his flight landed in New York. But he hadn’t called yet, nor had he answered when she had called him on her way to Charles’s house for lunch.
She sighed and forced a smile onto her face. He would call when he could; no doubt he had been instantly immersed in a living nightmare on his arrival at home. In the meantime, she was grateful to be with Jane and Charles. Her stomach groaned in agreement, enticed by the spicy scent of Jane’s homemade pizza baking in the oven.
“Poor William,” Jane said. “Please tell him if there’s anything I can do to help, he’s welcome to call any time.”
“Thanks. He said he might call you after he meets with Georgie’s lawyer.”
Charles frowned and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the kitchen table. “Georgie’s a good kid. I bet that friend of hers twisted her arm into doing it.”
“Did you tell William about Kitty and Lydia?” Jane asked.
“What about them?” Charles asked, cocking his head to one side.
The oven timer buzzed. Jane rose to her feet and grabbed an oven mitt. “When they were younger, they were caught shoplifting.”
“Lydia’s a little too fearless for her own good, isn’t she?”
Charles’s rueful remark contrasted sharply with William’s cold disdain at the same news. Elizabeth winced at the disloyal reflection, but she couldn’t deny its truth.
Jane removed the pizza from the oven. “Well, I’m sorry for Georgiana, and for William, too. He must be so worried about her.”
“Well, sure,” Charles said, brandishing a celery stick from a small vegetable platter on the table. “But you must have cheered him up big-time when you proposed.”
“Yeah, right,” Elizabeth retorted. “Just what he wanted, to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of strangers. I mean, could I possibly have found a less romantic place to do it?”
“Trust me, he loved it.” Charles stood up and grabbed his empty glass. He paused to squeeze Elizabeth’s shoulder on his way past. “Think about it. You’re so nuts about him that you told the driver to turn around, and then you ran after him and proposed. I can’t speak for you girls, but on the Guy Scale that’s some Grade A romantic stuff.”
“It is on the Girl Scale too,” Jane said. “And William must have been happy that you asked him, instead of waiting for him to ask you again.”
“Right.” Charles nodded emphatically. “Why should us guys be the only ones to risk getting our hearts stomped? Not that you had anything to worry about. Obviously he was going to say yes.”
Elizabeth stared at her champagne, watching the bubbles shimmy along the perimeter of the glass. “You were right about him planning to propose again. He said he almost asked me yesterday morning in Golden Gate Park.”
“You told her about the ring?” Charles grabbed Jane playfully at the waist and nuzzled her neck. “Big mouth.”
“I couldn’t keep a secret like that from Lizzy.” Jane wriggled from his grasp.
Charles opened the refrigerator and retrieved three bottles of Anchor Steam. “So what do you think, Lizzy? A double wedding, some time in January?”
“Oh, no, that’s much too soon. Besides, he’s traveling a lot in January. And February, too, for that matter.”
Jane looked up, holding the pizza cutter suspended in mid-air. “And his grandmother will probably want a big, lavish wedding in New York. That’s going to take time to plan.”
Elizabeth grabbed a carrot stick and began to gnaw on it. She hadn’t thought about that, but of course Jane was right. Rose would insist that William’s wedding be the social event of the season, if not the decade, complete with an engagement photo in the New York Times and a reception in the Plaza’s largest ballroom. Unless, of course, her horror at his choice of bride overwhelmed those desires.
Jane returned to the table with the pizza. It looked delicious, topped with plenty of cheese and extra pepperoni. Elizabeth grabbed a slice and bit off the triangular end, immediately regretting not checking the temperature first.
Charles grabbed a slice of pizza as well. “So, Lizzy, tell us more about last night. I assume William was fantastic as always?”
Of course he was asking about the recital, but Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow as hot as the roof of her mouth. Even now, her body throbbed at the memory of their late-night lovemaking. She forced her mind in a more appropriate direction and offered a summary of the recital. Along the way she mentioned Anne de Bourgh and the planned shopping trip.
“Oh, of course,” Jane said. “I’d love to take her shopping. She could be beautiful with the right clothes and make-up, like a perfect little china doll.”
“That’s what I told her. But I have my doubts that the shopping trip will happen,” Elizabeth replied. “Catherine would probably fling herself in front of our car before she’d let Anne go anywhere with us.”
“Ah, but would you brake, or gun the engine?” Charles asked, grinning.
“Don’t tempt me,” Elizabeth shot back.
“You two are terrible,” Jane said, shaking her head. But she smiled all the same.
“Catherine de Bourgh brings out the worst in us,” Charles said. “Seriously, though, Anne knows how to get around her mother. Roger says he never picks her up or takes her home; she meets him for their dates. He figures it’s so her mother doesn’t find out.”
“Poor Anne,” Jane said. “To be that afraid of her own mother.”
Elizabeth nibbled the crust on her pizza. “Roger seems to like her, doesn’t he?”
“It’s nice to see him having fun,” Jane said. “I guess he’s finally gotten over … everything.”
Elizabeth frowned, resting her arms on the edge of the table. “I’m kind of surprised. I mean, Anne’s nice, but she’s so quiet. You’d think Roger would want someone lively and fun, like he is.”
“He talks and she listens,” Charles said. “Sounds like you and Will in reverse. But Roger says they’re just friends.”
Elizabeth nodded ruefully and glanced at the empty chair again, wishing he would call.
“All right, then,” Spencer Hamilton, the Darcys’ attorney, said. “I think we’ve covered everything. Any questions?” His eyes moved from the Fitzwilliams to Rose and then to William, and finally came to rest on Georgiana’s bowed head.
“Will you be in court on Monday?” William asked, guiltily stifling a yawn. His sleepless night had begun to exact a numbing toll.
“I wasn’t planning on it. Victor is the one representing Georgiana, so I’d be superfluous.” The trim, silver-haired attorney rose to his feet and buttoned his impeccably tailored jacket. “But if you want me to be there—”
“Yes, Spencer, I do.” Rose spoke firmly. She remained in her seat, a delicate china cup in one hand, the skirt of her blue wool dress draped perfectly over her knees. “You and your firm have a history with the family, a long history that has benefited us all. I’m sure Mr. Rossi understands that.”
Victor Rossi nodded and snapped his briefcase shut. “Of course.” His glance flicked to Hamilton. “You’re welcome to ride shotgun, Spence.”
William shook his head at his grandmother’s lack of subtlety. Spencer Hamilton’s prestigious law firm collected substantial management fees each year from the Darcy family’s network of trust funds and also handled legal affairs for their charitable foundation. But because the firm didn’t handle criminal cases, Hamilton had recruited Victor Rossi, a prominent defense attorney, to represent Georgiana.
A stranger might not have noticed Rose’s distaste for Rossi, but William saw it in the slight flare of her nostrils and the hauteur that stole over her face whenever she spoke to the man. Rossi’s suit was expensive and well-made, but its style was slightly too trendy. His coal-black hair was perhaps an inch too long, covering the collar of the shirt whose stripes were a shade too bright. A gold ring gleamed on his finger, the ruby at its center too large. His features were too sharply chiseled, his hands too restless, and he spoke in too loud a voice, using words that were too brash. Small things, all of them, but they added up to one inevitable conclusion: Rossi was an outsider.
By contrast, Spencer Hamilton’s appearance, manners, and pedigree were impeccable. The sober, responsible Hamilton men had quietly managed trusts and estates for wealthy New York families for over a century. Standing together in the library, the two attorneys resembled a shiny copper penny alongside an ancient Roman coin.
Yet William had heard that Hamilton’s son had flunked out of Yale last spring. Gossips whispered of wild parties, binge drinking and cocaine, along with drunk driving charges filed in the Hamptons but quietly dismissed through his father’s influence. A good family name didn’t guarantee good behavior. And Victor Rossi, outsider or not, had come here willingly on a Saturday to help Georgiana. Rose had no business judging him harshly simply because he hadn’t been born to privilege. It was past time for such antiquated prejudices to die.
But wasn’t that what he had been doing with the Bennets?
His ego scrambled to his defense. It wasn’t the same, not at all. Lydia and Mrs. Bennet, and Kitty to a lesser degree, had earned his disdain through their behavior, not their backgrounds. Yet didn’t he sometimes dismiss equally inappropriate behavior from his New York acquaintances with little more than a rueful shake of his head? Was he that big of a snob?
The attorneys said their goodbyes, and Rose escorted them into the hall. Only Georgiana failed to acknowledge their departure. She sat huddled in a large armchair that seemed to dwarf her, legs folded under her and arms wrapped around her mid-section. Her eyes were fixed on the floor, as they had been for most of the meeting.
It hurt William to look at her. She had barely acknowledged his presence in the hour since his arrival from the airport. He thought of the times he had comforted her in her childhood, gathering her into his arms to soothe away her tears. But Elizabeth was right. Georgie wasn’t a child anymore, and her wounds were far worse than a skinned knee or the sting of a sharp rebuke from Rose. He missed his mother with a force that compressed his chest, making it hard to breathe. Anna would have known what to do, how to help the sister he had failed.
He wondered what Lizzy would advise him to do, if she were with him. The thought of her was a slender ray of light in a world drenched in gray shadows.
He had arrived at the gate in San Francisco to find the Fitzwilliams already there, and in his giddy state he had been unable to keep the news of his engagement a secret. The glow had almost compensated for his uncomfortable seat on the plane, his knees pressed continually against the seat in front of him. But by the time the plane had lurched onto the runway in New York, worry for Georgiana had overwhelmed him again.
He glanced at his watch. Elizabeth would be at the cheerful Victorian house in Pacific Heights, lunching with Jane and Charles. He closed his eyes and saw her, laughter dancing in her eyes as she described her marriage proposal. He would have relished being there to accept Jane’s kiss on the cheek and Charles’s congratulatory handshake, and even a ration of good-natured teasing about his new status as an almost-married man.
“We’re going to head for home,” Robert said, clapping William on the shoulder. “We’ll see you at church tomorrow.” He bent forward to kiss the top of Georgiana’s head, with no visible response from her.
Eleanor stepped directly in front of her niece and spoke softly but firmly. “Georgie, look at me.” Georgiana complied, her eyes dull and remote. “I know you’re scared,” Eleanor said, “but you’ll get past this, I promise.” William saw his sister’s mouth quiver. “Your uncle and I will be at home tonight. If you need anything, or if you just want to talk, call us.”
“Okay.” Georgiana’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
William walked the Fitzwilliams to the door. He paused in the foyer and forced a weak smile onto his face. “Thank you for coming out for the recital,” he said.
“Our pleasure,” Robert replied. “Well, except for—” He sighed. “You know what I mean.”
“Why don’t you get our coats,” Eleanor said to Robert. “I want to talk to William for a minute.”
“Don’t let her order you around like she does with me.” Robert winked at William as he departed.
Eleanor lowered her voice. “When are you going to tell Mother? About your engagement, I mean.”
“Not until we’ve talked about Georgie. Later tonight, maybe. She’s not going to be happy.” The best he could expect from Rose was quiet resignation, and the worst—no, he preferred not to think about the worst.
“She’ll adjust,” Eleanor said with a shrug. “Elizabeth has what it takes to be a Darcy. She went toe to toe with Catherine de Bourgh at Thanksgiving, and she survived her stare-down with Mother at the Plaza. Not to mention what a trooper she was at the reception last night.”
“And in spite of all that, she still wants to marry you.”
A wave of pride engulfed him, followed immediately by a wave of longing.
“Mother already knows about Thanksgiving and the Plaza. And tomorrow at brunch I’m going to tell her about the reception. You should tell her too.”
He nodded. “Good idea.”
“She’s going to have two genuine concerns. First, will Elizabeth represent the family well? And second, will she make you happy? And in her mind, the first is a necessary condition for the second.”
“Yes, and yes.” William spoke with absolute conviction.
“Mother is the one you need to convince, not me,” Eleanor said with a smile. “I think Elizabeth is terrific. I wish there were the slightest hope of Richard finding someone just like her.”
Robert returned with their coats. “Done giving unsolicited advice, my little busybody?” He draped an arm around Eleanor’s shoulders.
She flashed an amused glance at her husband and then addressed William. “Talk to her tonight. And tomorrow at brunch we’ll help you seal the deal.”
The Fitzwilliams departed for home. William returned to the library to find Rose there alone. “Where’s Georgie?” he asked.
“I sent her upstairs. You and I need to talk.”
He poured himself a cup of coffee—it wasn’t decaf, but he needed the caffeine—and sat in a chair close to hers.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she said. “Yesterday was … difficult.” She sat ramrod straight as always, her head held at a regal angle, but he saw the lines of strain around her mouth and eyes.
“I can imagine. Tell me about it.”
“There’s little to tell. I was playing bridge at Joanna Barton’s house when Mrs. Reynolds called with the news. Of course I called Spencer at once. But he was on his way back from Boston, and in any case he said we needed someone who specializes in these matters. He contacted Mr. Rossi, who met me at the detention center. It took a few hours; Family Court had adjourned for the day before Georgiana was brought in, and we had to wait while they decided what to do and then filed the paperwork. Eventually they released her and I brought her home.”
“And you had to wait there alone all that time? Oh, Gran, I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Sonya was there too.”
“Good. I’m glad you weren’t alone.” He hesitated. “What do you think is going to happen Monday?”
“I have no idea. But I’m relieved to hear that Rossi thinks he can get the charges reduced.”
He nodded. The idea of Georgiana facing felony charges was impossible to fathom. “Have you talked to Georgie? Since last night, I mean.”
“I’ve tried, but she refuses to speak to me, beyond the bare minimum. Sonya stopped by this morning, but Georgiana didn’t say much to her either, just that she’s tired and wants to be left alone. Perhaps that’s best for now.”
“But I have to talk to her. I have to make sure she knows that I love her.”
Rose eyed William intently. “What are your plans, after we go to court on Monday? I hope you’re not thinking of going back to San Francisco.”
He sighed. “No. I’m going to stay here for a while.”
“I think that’s wise.” She scrutinized him again. “What does Elizabeth say about your change of plans?”
“She understands that I need to be here.”
“Then she’ll spend Christmas with her family.”
“No. She’s still coming out. Probably next weekend.”
Rose shifted in her chair, frowning. “You should have spoken to me before you made those arrangements.”
“Why? You already knew she’d be here for Christmas.” He and Elizabeth had planned to spend Christmas Eve with the Bennets, catching a red-eye and arriving in New York on Christmas morning. “The only change is that she may arrive a few days early.”
“It’s not a good idea.”
He lifted his chin and fixed a cool stare on her. “Why not?”
“We have quite enough tension in this house already without introducing an outsider.”
This was exactly the objection Elizabeth had anticipated. “She isn’t an outsider. She’s my—” Fighting to control his burgeoning anger, he fixed his gaze on the lush evergreen garlands hung along the library’s second-floor railings. “She’s part of my life. I’m sorry if this sounds disrespectful, but Elizabeth and I are going to spend Christmas together, and that’s not negotiable.”
Rose nodded calmly, as though she had anticipated his remark. “If she wants to fly out for a visit, she’s welcome to join us on Christmas Day, and at other times, of course. But I’d prefer that she find somewhere else to stay.”
“Where would you suggest?” he snapped, glaring at her. “You didn’t like it when she stayed at the Four Seasons over Thanksgiving.”
“Don’t twist my words, William. What I didn’t like was that you stayed there with her so openly.” She paused, her hands wrapped around her coffee cup, and continued in a more conciliatory tone. “Under normal circumstances, Elizabeth would be welcome to stay with us. In one of the guest rooms, of course.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “Of course.”
“But Georgiana is already upset, and we don’t know what will happen on Monday. You’ve been gone almost constantly for the past four months. We need some quiet time as a family.”
“Lizzy won’t be here for at least a week. And even after that I’ll have time to spend with Georgie. Lizzy has plenty of friends in New York, and she’ll want to visit them.”
“With so many friends, can’t she find somewhere else to stay?”
“No.” His sharp retort echoed through the room. Rose shot a challenging glance at him, but he didn’t care. “My future wife is not going to spend Christmas Eve tossing and turning on a threadbare sofa on the Lower East Side.”
“What did you say?”
He closed his eyes and sighed. “I didn’t mean to tell you that way.”
“You and Elizabeth are engaged?”
“Yes.” He regarded her coolly.
“I see.” A muscle twitched on Rose’s cheek.
William felt far too weary to cross swords with his grandmother. “You said at Thanksgiving that you’d give her a chance.”
“And I intend to do that. She seems like a pleasant young woman, one with whom you share an interest in music. And she’s attractive, of course. I can see why you might find yourself drawn to her.”
He gripped the armrests of his chair. “Drawn to her? Gran, I’ve been in love with her for months. I’ve been looking for her … my whole life, I think.”
“William ….” Rose sighed and shook her head.
“I wish you could have seen her last night, at the reception. I wanted to skip it, to sit in the dark and worry about Georgie, or to catch the first flight home. But Lizzy convinced me do the right thing, and she propped me up every step of the way. She charmed the people who came to talk to me and kept them from noticing that mentally I was three thousand miles away.”
Rose set her coffee cup aside, her eyes never leaving his face.
The words were spilling from his lips now, beyond his control. “Then she took me home and tried to comfort me, and I behaved like a jackass. But I didn’t scare her away. And neither did you, when you tried to intimidate her over tea at the Plaza.”
“I wasn’t trying to intimidate her.”
“Of course you were.” He paused, staring into his grandmother’s eyes with all the intensity he could muster. “Lizzy knows me, Gran, like no one else has ever known me. And she loves me anyway.”
Rose didn’t speak, but he saw her eyes warm slightly. He continued, her small reaction giving him fresh courage. “I know she isn’t the kind of woman you envisioned me marrying, but she’s the one I want. The one I need. And I’m so lucky that I’m the one she wants. I know what I’m doing, Gran, and until you know her better, you’ll have to trust me.”
“I’ll do my best.” Rose reached for her coffee cup and refilled it from the ornate silver pot on the side table. “Given Elizabeth’s status as your fiancée, you’re correct in saying that she should stay with us. But make sure she understands that the atmosphere may be strained, and that she will need to make allowances.”
“She knows that. Thank you, Gran.” He sighed, releasing a huge weight of tension along with his breath. “I’m going to go unpack and take a nap. I was too upset to sleep last night.” He rose to his feet and started across the room.
He turned back at the library doors and raised his eyebrows.
“Congratulations. I should have said that sooner.”
“I still have reservations. Not about Elizabeth as a person, but about her suitability to be your wife. But obviously she makes you happy.”
“She does, more than I can say. This isn’t going to be like what happened with my parents. Lizzy and I are going to have a long, happy marriage.”
“I hope so.” Rose retrieved her reading glasses from the table to her right and positioned them on her nose. Then she reached for the newspaper.
He trotted up the steps, anxious to reach his room and collapse on the bed. But he paused on the third-floor landing, glancing upward. He continued up the circular staircase to the fifth floor and knocked on Georgiana’s bedroom door. There was no answer, so he knocked again, louder this time. “Georgie? It’s me.”
“I’m busy,” came the faint voice from within.
“I need to talk to you for a minute.”
His announcement was followed by silence, but then he heard slow footsteps. She pulled the door open and stood in the doorway, her expression impassive.
“Are you okay?” He thought he could detect a trail of dried tears on her cheek.
“I’m doing my homework.”
“I just ….” He paused. “I’m worried about you, Georgie. Yesterday must have been a terrible day.”
“Gran told me that you said you didn’t think I cared about you.”
She shrugged again and her eyes dropped to the floor. “I didn’t say that.”
“Then what did you say?”
Her eyes stayed locked on the floor. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.” He reached out and tucked her hair behind one ear. “I love you, Georgie. You’re my sister, and nothing could ever make me stop loving you.”
She exhaled a soft sigh but didn’t answer.
“I know I’ve been gone a lot lately, but I’m going to be home for a while. I hope you’ll have some time to spend with me.”
“Gran grounded me.”
“For how long?”
“She didn’t say. Probably forever.”
He suppressed a smile. “Then I guess you’ll have plenty of free time.”
“Unless I’m in jail.”
He winced but quickly composed himself. “You won’t be. Gran and I would never let that happen.”
She glanced up, finally meeting his gaze, and he saw the fear in her eyes. “Promise?”
“I promise.” He said a silent prayer that he hadn’t just lied to her.
She nodded and glanced down at her hands.
“Would you like to talk, to tell me what’s going on? I know Courtney pressured you into it, but this is the second time. There must be some other problem, something that makes you think you need to do this.” He reached for her hand.
Georgiana took a step backward. “I have to do my homework.”
“I have to do my homework.” She retreated, shutting the door firmly in his face. He reached up to knock again, searching for the words that would melt her wall of indifference.
“It’s better to let her be for now, William.” It was Mrs. Reynolds, carrying a small plate of sugar cookies and a mug of steaming cocoa topped with little marshmallows. “She needs some time to herself.”
“But she’s frightened and upset.”
“When she’s ready, she’ll talk. Until then, there’s no point in trying to force her.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but stopped as her words sank in. In this area, at least, he and Georgiana were exactly alike.
Mrs. Reynolds continued, her kind eyes resting on him. “You told her you loved her; I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was bringing her a snack. And you told her you’d protect her. That’s what she needs to know right now. The rest can wait.”
He sighed. “Maybe you’re right.”
“You look exhausted. Why don’t you go lie down for a while? Or would you like me to bring you a snack, too?” She glanced at the plate and mug she held.
Memories flooded his mind and heart of quiet afternoons spent in her kitchen. “A snack sounds good, but I’ll come downstairs. You can tell me about what happened yesterday. And I have something to tell you, too.” At least one person in the house would be thrilled by the news of his engagement. “Unless I’d be in the way.”
Her fond smile warmed him. “You could never be in the way, and you know it. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
As William made his way down the stairs, he saw his son, in some future time, rushing in from school and plopping down at the small table in the kitchen. The boy’s short legs swung in the air as he devoured Mrs. Reynolds’s cookies, his brilliant green eyes flashing with youthful joy.
A smile touched William’s lips, and he realized that, much as he would miss Elizabeth until she arrived, it felt good to be home.