He checked his watch. It wasn’t quite ten thirty. Charles was at the office meeting with his former assistant and didn’t expect to be back until lunchtime. It was a good opportunity to contact Sonya, who had some documents to fax him for his signature. He remembered seeing a combination printer/scanner/fax machine in Mr. Bingley’s study, so he headed in that direction.
“Good morning,” William said.
“Hello, William.” She shoved the folder into a desk drawer and then, hands folded on the desk, twisted her lips into an unconvincing attempt at a guileless smile.
He raised an eyebrow, intrigued by her peculiar behavior. “I wanted to use the fax machine, but I can come back later.”
“No, feel free to use it now,” she said, leaning over abruptly to switch off the paper shredder and rising to her feet. “We’ve scarcely had a chance to chat while you’ve been here, and you’re leaving tonight, aren’t you?”
“You’ve been busy the past few days.” Her absences had been an unanticipated blessing.
“Things have been … stressful.”
“You must be thrilled that Charles and your father are going their separate ways.”
“Thrilled?” She made a tut-tutting sound and glanced down, her eyes scanning the floor. “How can you think that? Charles is my brother, and he’s going to be penniless.” With an air that was a few degrees too casual, she slid her foot forward, pushing a slip of shredded paper under the edge of the rug.
“Which means more money for you. Wasn’t that why you manipulated the situation with the prenup, the weekend of his wedding? Weren’t you trying to drive a wedge between Charles and your father, hoping you’d get Charles out of the way so you could finally be taken seriously?”
“Men are such fools,” Caroline spat out, her sudden vehemence startling William. “I’m ten times more qualified to run the company than any man, because I don’t carry ninety percent of my brains around between my legs. Yet nothing I do is appreciated. Charles spent the summer and fall traipsing around writing press releases, leaving me to keep things running when Daddy got sick. And despite all that, Daddy handed him the keys to the empire. And then, Charles actually turned him down.”
He was surprised to feel a shred or two of sympathy for Caroline. From everything he’d heard she possessed genuine business acumen, yet Mr. Bingley considered her to be one Y chromosome shy of the required number for an executive. “But since Charles is leaving, it’s your turn now, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. It might have been, but now ….” She shook her head, trotting out another cheery smile that made William wonder if she stored them up for future use, like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter. “So you’re off to Australia tonight. Is Elizabeth going with you?”
William made a mental note never to feel sympathy for Caroline again, no matter what calamity befell her. He knew where she intended to steer the conversation, and it promised to be unpleasant. “Lizzy can’t get away for that long because of her job.”
“Oh, what a pity,” she said in a sweet voice laced with arsenic. “She seems to have so many priorities in her life—her job, her sister, her friends … and you, whenever she can spare a few minutes. Oh, and that little jazz group she sings with, too. Did she mention that I saw them perform on Thursday?”
“Yes.” William rapped out the word, his tone intended to discourage further discussion.
“And did Elizabeth tell you what we talked about?”
He spoke in a tight voice, his jaw clenched. “That’s enough of the coy routine. Yes, she told me. You made certain she knew that I’d kept Charles from reconciling with Jane. And you did it out of pure spite.”
“Out of spite? I beg your pardon.” She raised her eyebrows, her supercilious tone making William grind his teeth. “As close as you two are reputed to be, naturally I assumed you’d have confessed everything to her long ago. How could I have known that I was giving away your secret?”
“Stop it,” he snapped, shoving his hands into his pockets. “You were thrilled to have the chance to hurt her and you know it. Just once, why don’t you surprise both of us and be honest?”
“You want honesty?” Caroline’s gaze slid over him. “All right. I’ve said it before. She’s not good enough for you, not even close. And if you can’t see that, someone needs to show you.”
“And you’ve appointed yourself to that post.” His dreams last night had tormented him with a vision of Elizabeth as he had last seen her, her face wet with tears because of him. He needed to lash out at something, and the red-haired menace standing in front of him, hands planted on her hips, was a deserving target.
“I doubt I’m the only one,” she replied in a snide tone, a knowing look in her eyes. “Your grandmother must be beside herself. A little slut like Elizabeth Bennet gives you a come-hither look and jiggles her boobs in your face, and you start panting and drooling and letting her lead you around by the nose … or, really, by another part of your anatomy that I’m too much of a lady to mention. Never mind class or style or breeding. Can’t you see that she’s beneath you? Literally and figuratively, I suppose.” One side of her mouth curled as she enjoyed her double entendre.
“I thought I’d made it clear in the past that I wouldn’t tolerate you speaking that way about Elizabeth. She has far more class than you could ever hope to have. And as for your so-called breeding, I haven’t noticed it doing you much good.”
She lifted her chin with a petulant air. “I can’t believe you’d waste your time on a little piece of fluff like that when you could have a woman of substance.” She glanced at her hands, polishing her ostentatious ruby ring with her thumb.
“Such as you, I suppose.”
“Yes, though when you behave this way, it makes me question why I’d want you.”
“For me, there’s no question. I want nothing to do with you, Caroline. I’ve told you that before, but somehow it never registers.” He turned to leave the library. “This conversation is pointless. I’ll let you get back to whatever you were shredding.”
“Don’t you walk away from me!”
Against his better judgment, William turned back to face her. The relentless Southern California sun streamed in a window and glinted off her hair, its highlights the color of new-minted pennies. She moved around the desk and approached him, her aggressive perfume wrestling with the odor of pipe tobacco. He stepped away, finding it difficult to breathe the air saturated by her presence. “What do you want?” he asked, hands in his pockets again.
“Why can’t you see that you don’t belong with Elizabeth? You have everything—wealth, breeding, fame—and you’re going to squander it on some little nobody who used her body and a pair of ‘fine eyes’ to lure you into bed?”
“You don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” He was surprised by the calm settling over him like a blanket. Her rudeness had become so outrageous that it didn’t even merit his anger.
“I know she went to bed with you in New York. I bet your grandmother had a fit.”
“What Elizabeth and I did or didn’t do in New York is none of your business. And considering your behavior in New York, particularly the way you tried to pass off her gift as yours, I’d advise you to drop the subject.” He was becoming angry again, reminded that Caroline had figured in his previous estrangement from Elizabeth as well as the current one.
“Whatever I did was for your sake. She was leaving New York. You hadn’t returned her phone calls, so she showed up at the hospital with that orchid. It was nothing but a desperate ploy to hold onto you. You were better off without her.”
A germ of an idea, born of something she had just said, plucked at his sleeve, but he brushed it away, too annoyed at Caroline to humor it with his attention. “I don’t know where you got the idea that my concerns are any business of yours.”
“As little sense as you have about women, you need someone taking care of these things. You’re as bad as my brother.” She smoothed her hair in a preening gesture and leaned against the desk, crossing one ankle over the other in an obvious attempt to draw attention to her long, tanned legs.
William ignored the display, staring into the fireplace while he searched for something to say. He had felt a painful twinge at her mention of Charles, but his ego soon stormed the battlefield, pennants waving. His interference in Charles’s personal life had been an entirely different matter. However misguided his actions, at least his intentions had been good. There was no comparison to Caroline’s manipulative behavior.
The timid thought tapped his arm again, and again he tried to deflect it, but this time it held fast. His eyes traveled to her face, eyeing her closely to gauge her reaction. “How did you know Elizabeth called me while I was in the hospital?”
Caroline’s gaze flicked to the side and then back. “You must have mentioned it in August when you scolded me about that misunderstanding with the orchid.”
William shook his head at the far-fetched suspicion forming in his mind, but he couldn’t seem to dislodge it. “You knew she called at least twice, because you just referred to her calls, plural. And somehow you know that I didn’t return the calls, which I didn’t because I never got the messages. And that makes me wonder, how do you know all that? Did you find a way to listen to my phone messages?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. How could I have gotten into your cell phone?” She rolled her eyes, blowing a gust of air through her nose.
“I never said the calls were on my cell phone,” he replied in a smooth voice, his dark eyes full of danger. “How could you know that, unless you heard them?”
She stared at him in silence, her chin jutting out.
He went on talking, as much to himself as to her. “And if you were able to hear them, that means ….” He shot her a look of disbelief. “How did you get my voicemail password?”
“You made it easy enough,” she hissed. “Who writes their password on a Post-It attached to the phone, for God’s sake?”
“So you listened to her messages, and you deleted them.”
“Yes, I did. Is that what you wanted to hear? You shouldn’t let a little leech like that attach herself to you. But like all men, you spend all your time being led around by what’s in your trousers instead of using your brain. So you need a woman to step in and take care of things.”
William thought of the misery he had endured, deprived of Elizabeth’s affection and support during his endless summer of convalescence, and a murderous rage built in his heart. “You miserable bitch,” he spat out. “Do you have any idea how much you disgust me?”
“I did it for you. Sooner or later you’ll see that.”
“Listen carefully, because these are the last words I ever intend to say to you.” He spoke in clipped tones, his hands formed into fists that trembled with fury barely held in check. “Nothing could ever induce me to get involved with you. Nothing. The only reason I ever paid you any attention was to be polite to my friend’s sister. It’s a cliché, but even if you were the last woman on earth, I wouldn’t touch you.”
“William—” Her bravado finally exhausted, her voice became a shrill whine.
“Stay away from me, and above all, leave Elizabeth alone. If you do anything else to hurt her ….” He shook his head. “I’m not a violent man, but I might be compelled to make an exception in your case. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need some fresh air.”
He turned abruptly and stalked out of the library. Caroline, apparently gifted with a rare dose of good judgment, didn’t follow.
Charles merged onto the 405 and accelerated. The car shot forward, its powerful engine growling. "I'm going to miss this car," he said, sighing.
“Miss it?” William asked, frowning. “Why?” It was a Porsche Boxster convertible in a gleaming metallic gray, still exuding faint whiffs of the intoxicating new-car smell that lures so many shoppers to exceed their transportation budgets. Charles had allowed William to drive it that afternoon on the way to the beach, and although it didn’t have the raw muscle of the Ferrari, it was sleek and fast and handled beautifully.
“You don’t have even a small trust fund that you control?”
“Not till I’m 35. Until then I’m too young to be, um, trusted.”
William rolled his eyes at the bad pun and gave silent thanks to his ancestors, who hadn’t placed such restrictions on his various financial resources. “There’s no chance your assets could get tied up in this investigation, is there?”
Charles shuddered. “God, I hope not. The search warrants were aimed just at Caro. Not that I have much in the way of assets anymore.”
“Do you think she’s guilty?”
“She hasn’t told me anything, but I don’t think she’d be so frightened if she were innocent.”
William had never imagined, when he vowed that morning never to sympathize with Caroline again, how soon his promise would be tested. He and Charles had returned from an afternoon at the beach to find the house in an uproar. Federal agents had arrived with a search warrant for all papers related to Caroline’s financial dealings, while another group of agents carried out a similar search at company headquarters.
“She seemed to know in advance that they might show up,” William mused.
“Yeah.” Charles zipped into the left lane to pass a convoy of trucks. “The SEC filed insider trading charges against her broker yesterday morning. Once that happened, they were bound to investigate some of his clients.”
William hadn’t heard any mention of the broker until now. Given the chaos in the house, it had been difficult to piece together the entire story. “So he gave her insider tips?”
“That’s what they’re saying. But maybe she thought his tips were above board, and she was just an innocent dupe.”
An innocent dupe wouldn’t have been shredding paper, but William hadn’t shared that story with Charles. “She was waiting for a phone call yesterday at the hospital, I suppose from the broker?”
“Could be. But obviously Bruce was busy with the authorities.”
William’s eyebrows shot up. “Bruce?”
Charles glanced at him and shrugged. “Yeah, Bruce Gormley, her broker. Why?”
“She mentioned someone named Bruce when I saw her at the airport, but she made it sound like they were lovers.”
“Not a chance. She’s known him since college. He’s nuts about her, but she treats him like her lapdog.”
“And he’s her broker.” William smirked, remembering her declaration of eternal devotion to the mystery man.
“I must say, she’s been singing his praises lately. You know that huge ruby ring she has? She’s always telling people that she owes it to Bruce, because she bought it with the killing he helped her make in the market. I wonder if the agents will seize the ring?”
William coughed to cover a snicker. He knew Charles was sincerely worried about Caroline, and he felt a twinge of guilt for enjoying her predicament … but only a twinge. “I hope this mess doesn’t cause you or your mother any harm. Are you still going to San Francisco tomorrow?”
“Unfortunately, no. I called Jane before we left and pushed it back to the weekend. Mom is upset, and word has leaked out. A reporter from the Times called the house while you were packing. But things should be calmer by Friday.”
“Does Jane know why you’re coming?”
“It seemed too hard to explain on the phone. I just told her I’d be in town and wanted to see her.”
Charles’s timidity amused William for a moment, but then he remembered his own hesitation to declare himself to Elizabeth when he had first arrived in San Francisco. “I assume you’ll stay at the house for now.”
“I don’t know. I’d hate to be there and have Federal agents break down the doors looking for evidence against Caro. I thought it might be smarter to stay away this trip. Besides, if things don’t go well with Jane, that’s the last place I’ll want to be.”
“You could stay at the penthouse.”
“That would be great, if you don’t mind.” From Charles’s immediate acceptance, it appeared that he’d been hoping for the invitation.
“I’ll have to check with my aunt, but I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
William’s offer held a small measure of self-interest. If Charles stayed at the penthouse, it would be evident to Jane, and, more importantly, to Elizabeth, that the visit was taking place with William’s knowledge and endorsement.
“Charles, while you’re there ….” William hesitated, but then forced himself to continue. “There’s something you’ll undoubtedly find out about.”
“About you and Lizzy having problems?” Charles glanced over, and even in the dim light William saw the sympathy on his friend’s face.
“Who told you?”
“Jane didn’t know you were down here till I mentioned it. I thought it was strange that Lizzy wouldn’t have told her. Then she asked how you were doing, and she said a few other things, and I figured it out. She assumed you’d already told me.”
“I haven’t felt like talking about it.”
“I’m sorry, Will. I wondered why you were willing to leave her to come down here and hang out with me.”
“I couldn’t have left her if she hadn’t sent me away. She’s my life.” William was embarrassed when these words slipped out of his mouth, but he couldn’t deny them. “And I don’t know how to get her back. Or even if it’s possible.”
“Look, tell me to mind my own business if you want, but what happened? I thought you two were doing great.”
“She found out some things I’d done that upset her. Part of it was the advice I’d given you about Jane.”
“Is that why you decided to talk to me about it?”
“It was the only way I could think of to atone. But also, I just found out on Sunday that I might have been mistaken about the prenup.”
“From something Jane said.”
“You know, I bet Lizzy will forgive you if Jane and I get back together.”
“That wasn’t the only problem,” William said in a voice so low that Charles had to ask him to repeat it.
“Give her a little time. She probably just needs to get over being mad.”
“Jane said that might be true.”
“Then listen to her. She’s a wise woman. But just in case, let’s talk strategy. Hmm … how can we get around the ‘no visits, no talking’ rule? Jane told me about that.” Charles frowned, licking his lips, and then smacked the steering wheel, causing the horn to sound briefly. “I’ve got it! Send her an email.”
“That’s too impersonal.” William knew his views were old-fashioned, but he didn’t care.
“It’s better than nothing.”
“Besides, I didn’t bring my computer with me. I didn’t think I’d need it for anything.”
Charles shrugged. “I wish we’d talked about this sooner; you could have sent an email from the house. Well, then, scratch that idea. If I get a chance, I’ll put in a good word for you. After all, I’m looking forward to giving a smart-ass toast at your wedding, reminding you that Jane and I always thought you and Lizzy would hit it off.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve only mentioned it a few hundred times.” William glanced at his watch. “Are we almost there? I don’t want to miss my flight.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Charles said. “Let’s see what the Porsche can do about getting us there a little faster.” Charles pressed the accelerator, and the car leapt forward.
Three hours later, William’s seat was the sole island of light in the first class cabin. Jazz music filled his ears through his noise canceling headphones. His fellow travelers were either sleeping or trying to do so, and he supposed he would have to follow their example at some point during the 18-hour flight. They were due to arrive in Sydney early in the morning, affording him time for little more than a shower and a change of clothes before he embarked on a full day of rehearsals.
He closed his book, shut off his light, and stared out the window. The ocean was somewhere below, obscured by thick clouds turned a dull pewter by the sliver of moon riding above them. He absorbed the view while the events of the past four days slid in and out of focus, a kaleidoscope of images.
Charles had said something, addressed to his father, that had set off a persistent echo: “The only thing that matters is that I’m done taking orders from you. The cost is too high, and I can’t do it anymore.” The words expressed a sentiment similar to Elizabeth’s: “I love you, but I don’t know if I can sacrifice my identity and my free will to be with you.”
William had never intended to ask that of her; he loved her as she was, spirited and independent. At first he hadn’t understood where he had gone wrong, but Jane had helped him to see that he had made all the choices for their future, taking for granted that she would simply adapt and fit into his life. To build the partnership Elizabeth sought would no doubt be far more difficult, changing things he had always assumed would stay the same for the rest of his life. But wasn’t that her point? They needed to build a new life together. It was a daunting prospect, but he was beginning to see the necessity.
First, though, he had to convince her to give him a second chance. He remembered Charles’s suggestion of sending an email. Although he had rejected the idea, on reflection he wished he could do it. Sending a single email wouldn’t violate his promise not to see her or talk to her. But without his computer, he didn’t have the faintest idea how to accomplish it. So, what to do instead?
Of course. He almost laughed at himself for forgetting that, before cell phones and computers, people had still been able to communicate. He switched on his reading light and rooted through his briefcase, frowning at the yellow legal pad that seemed inappropriate to the task. But it was all he had, and he could recopy the words onto better paper once he reached Sydney. He removed his favorite gold pen from his briefcase and rolled its cool, polished surface between his fingers, his mind already juggling a thousand things he wanted to say.
Her face floated before him as he set the tip of the pen to the paper and wrote two simple words: