Elizabeth had known all along that her luck would run out eventually. There were only so many excuses she could offer, so many times she could claim to be dashing madly from one commitment to the next, before she was bound to get trapped, especially when so many people seemed to be involved in the chase. Why couldn’t they understand that she didn’t want to talk about it?
Charlotte was in some respects the easiest to handle, a voice on the telephone that could be sidestepped by the arrival of a mythical student or the need to grade phantom papers. By now Charlotte had no doubt extracted information from Jane, but Elizabeth continued to parry her friend’s attempts to draw her out.
Jane was another matter. Elizabeth saw her sister’s eyes following her constantly, full of maternal concern. But, thank heaven, it rarely went beyond that. They had always respected each other’s boundaries, neither pushing to induce reluctant confidences nor revealing things the other preferred not to know.
Elizabeth knew that he had visited Jane before leaving for Australia, but that had been all she could bear to hear. Anything more might have cracked the fragile shell in which she had encased herself, and that was something she couldn’t permit.
She hadn’t allowed herself to cry since Saturday night, when his parting declaration of love had shattered her heart. Since then she had taken refuge in a continuous round of activity. Backstage work for the continuing performances of South Pacific, a fortunately timed rehearsal of Golden Gate Jazz, even a whirlwind course of house cleaning—anything that kept her too busy to think.
Last night, Elizabeth had tagged along with their neighbor Chloe to a bar with a reputation as the hottest singles gathering spot in town. She had danced up a storm at first, laboring to throw herself into the spirit of the evening. But then her breath had caught at the sight of a tall frame topped with a head of dark hair, and it was as though she had been drenched in ice water. She had left for home soon after and had busied herself with organizing her closet until two in the morning.
Time spent at the conservatory was a trial in its own right, now that she knew she had arrived there unwanted, and that her only value to Catherine de Bourgh was as a warm body obtained at no cost and minimal effort. But Elizabeth did her best to walk the halls with her head held high, investing everything she did with an extra helping of diligence. The Powers That Be might not appreciate her, but her students did, a fact she kept firmly in mind whenever her energy threatened to flag.
This morning, as was her habit on Wednesdays, she lingered after her morning class, using the classroom as a private rehearsal hall. She immersed herself in the imaginary world of the characters she portrayed, but midway through her fourth song her heart leapt in her chest at the sight of someone standing in the doorway, obscured by shadows. He had often lurked there, a cherished audience for whom she had sung with her heart in her eyes.
Today, though, the shadowy figure moved into the room and revealed a different identity: Bill Collins, someone else she had avoided with success … until now. Yes, her luck had indeed run out.
He trotted down the steps to the front of the room. “Elizabeth, my dear,” he began in an unctuous tone that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. “I’m glad I found you. There’s something I need to discuss with you.”
“Bill, I’m rehearsing right now. I could stop by your office later.” Later she would think of another excuse.
“It’s rather important, if you could spare a few minutes now.”
She hit the “stop” button on the CD player with an unnecessary degree of force. “What is it?” she asked, concealing her impatience under a thin veneer of courtesy. Maybe at least he would be quick. She almost laughed at the depths of her wishful thinking. Conversations with Bill were never quick.
He slid one hand over the polished black lid of the piano beside them. “I overheard you talking to Jim the other night after rehearsal.”
“Oh.” She had been afraid of this. “I thought Jim might know of a school that needed a music teacher.”
His hand continued to caress the piano almost as though it were encased in flesh and not hardwood. Elizabeth found it creepy, yet fascinating. “I was surprised you didn’t choose to take me into your confidence as well,” he said, a hint of petulance in his voice. “I’m not without influence, and I’d be honored to help you in any way I can.”
She scrambled for a tactful excuse. “Thank you, but I was afraid I’d put you in an awkward position if I told you my plans before I was ready to make them official.”
“That was thoughtful of you. I must tell you that I think you’re making a mistake in resigning from the conservatory.”
“Because of my contract?”
“No, not really.” The hand stroking the piano paused in its ministrations. “Anyone would understand that you don’t want to continue under the burden of that man’s charity, now that you know the truth. But you’ve become a valued member of the faculty. Perhaps if you met with Dr. de Bourgh and asked her, with all due humility, to award you an ordinary contract—at a reduced salary, of course—she might consider it.”
“She’s never wanted me here, and now I know why. She’ll be glad to be rid of me.”
“I confess, I’ve sometimes wondered about her lack of enthusiasm for you, when you’re clearly a dedicated teacher. It would have been different had she known of your, ah, personal association with William Darcy. She must have suspected something after he made his gift. It would have been natural for her to assume that he expected … er, favors from you in return for his generosity.” He glanced down at his shoes, his face turning pink.
“William isn’t like that. He did it because he knew I wanted to be here with Jane, especially after the wedding was called off.” It was odd to be defending William’s actions, but she couldn’t bear for Bill to criticize him.
“Please allow me to apologize,” he answered immediately, touching her arm. “I meant no criticism of you, of course. You’re far too fine a person to enter into such a tawdry arrangement. My point was that we must consider appearances.” His hand returned to the piano, now just resting on the lid as though for moral support. “How unseemly, for Darcy to bring a woman onto the faculty, apparently in the hope of using her to satisfy his intimate needs … particularly when he’s destined for Dr. de Bourgh’s own cherished daughter!”
There it was again: Bill’s unshakable belief that William would marry Anne. Elizabeth made a non-committal sound in her throat, ignoring his implication that William’s only possible interest in her was sexual. However unflattering the idea, she had believed it herself for a time and could hardly blame Bill for drawing the same conclusion.
He continued in a pedantic tone. “So, you see, Dr. de Bourgh’s resentment is natural, given the way things appear.”
“That’s why it’s best that I resign at the end of the semester.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, stepping closer, “though I hate to admit it. If you need assistance of any sort, please promise that you’ll call on me.”
“That’s nice of you, Bill.”
He dropped his eyes to the floor and spoke with some hesitation. “And I’m sure you know that I’d go to great lengths to help you stay in San Francisco.”
“Because of Golden Gate Jazz.” She knew there was more, but hoped to deflect him.
“Yes, of course, in part, but I have a much more personal reason.”
The limpid expression in his eyes almost made her groan. She was in no condition to deal with a lovesick Bill Collins. “You know,” she said, gesturing toward the classroom door, “I have an appointment in a few minutes, and—”
He grasped her hand. “Elizabeth, I know you’re aware that I have deep feelings for you. Ever since I met you at your poor sister’s wedding rehearsal, I haven’t been able to put you out of my mind.”
She withdrew her hand from his. “This really isn’t a good time.”
“I know you told me over the summer that you wanted friendship, and friendship only, from me, and I’ve stayed within those boundaries. It hasn’t been easy. I was forced to stand by and watch that man use you, knowing he would break your heart yet powerless to stop him. I did what I could to alert you to his arrangement with Anne, but beyond that I could only stay close at hand, ready to comfort you when you finally realized the truth.”
“Bill, what I told you last summer is still true. I’m glad to have you as a friend. But only as a friend.”
“Friendship often breeds love, given some time. I know you’re grieving now, and in part I blame myself. Perhaps I should have done more to try to warn you.” He extracted a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “But you’ll move past it with the help of your friends, among whom I’m honored to count myself. And when you’re ready for more, I’ll be here, my hand outstretched, waiting to claim you as my own.” He reached toward her.
“Bill, please stop this, and let’s forget it ever happened.” She moved quickly toward the steps.
“I can’t forget, Elizabeth. I love you!”
“I’m sorry, Bill, but I don’t have romantic feelings for you, and that’s not going to change.” With her patience exhausted and her emotions in a precarious state, she spoke in a harsher tone than she had intended.
He looked pitiful standing there, his sloping shoulders hunched slightly, his arm hanging in the air and then dropping to his side. He opened his mouth to speak, his upper lip trembling slightly, and then closed it again.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a softer voice, sympathy for him blunting her frustration. “I know you have … well, I’ve always thought of it as a crush on me. But I never did anything to suggest that I thought of you in that way—or if it seemed that I did, it was unintentional. You’re a colleague at work and a friend in my jazz group, but that’s all.” She began to climb the steps.
“It’s because of him, isn’t it?” She was surprised by the vehemence of his tone. “You deserve so much more than he’ll ever give you, and I don’t mean material things. He belongs to someone else, however unfaithful he may have been to her. He exposed you to ridicule in your professional life, without even the decency to tell you what he’d done. But in spite of all that, you still love him, don’t you?”
This remark, made by the foolish, angry man standing a few steps below her, shattered her protective shell. Tears she had suppressed for days sprang to her eyes, and she answered him in a broken voice, “Yes, I still love him. Excuse me.” With a little sob, she raced up the steps and out of the room.
Half an hour alone in her office was sufficient to regain her composure, at least sufficiently to survive the rest of the day. She pulled her compact from her purse and checked her reflection in the tiny circular mirror, applying blush and lipstick to combat her unusual pallor.
She hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in almost a week. She spent her nights watching Clark Gable with Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn with Spencer Tracy, and other famous faces in soothing shades of gray. Often she drifted to sleep on the sofa, awakening a few hours before dawn and feeling her way gingerly through the darkness to her room. Then she would slide between cool sheets with an involuntary shiver and await the second portion of the evening’s entertainment, the memories.
Sometimes she watched him walk away with a slow, reluctant gait, his head bowed and his shoulders slumped. Other times she saw him on stage, drawing intoxicating music from the piano. But the worst was when she remembered their few nights together. She could almost feel William holding her tenderly, his body surrounding hers with a blanket of warmth. And if she managed to sleep, her dreams made no sense, little more than a random jumble of her past and present tossed into a blender, with no solid ground on which to plant her feet.
But now was not the time to think about sleep, or dreams, or any of a thousand other things. She snapped her compact shut and returned it to her purse. Almost immediately there was a knock on her door announcing the arrival of the first of her afternoon voice students. She called “Come in,” in a steady, almost cheerful voice.
A few hours later, after her final student of the day had departed, Elizabeth sat in her office reviewing teaching notes for the next day’s classes. The hallways of the school were still at this hour, with only faint echoes of laughter from a nearby corridor and a muffled note or two escaping the practice rooms nearby. A peek out her window confirmed that the fog was rolling back in, obscuring even the half-hearted traces of sunlight visible earlier in the day.
Late afternoon was usually her most productive time, a buffer between the busy day and her plans for the evening, but today she found herself restless and inattentive. She was about to leave for home when the phone rang. It was Jim Pennington, the unofficial leader of Golden Gate Jazz.
“I may have a line on a job for you,” he said.
“Already? You work fast!”
“I bumped into the director of the Newberry School at a lunch meeting today, and she told me they need a vocal music teacher starting right after the holidays.”
“You’re kidding.” Newberry was a private school focused on performing arts.
“It’s only for a couple of months. They have a teacher going on maternity leave. But I still thought you might be interested.”
“Oh, absolutely! You know, I begged my parents to send me there when I was nine, after I got bitten by the musical theater bug.”
“I take it your folks said no?”
“We didn’t have the money. Besides, Mom insisted that I’d get over being stage-struck, that it was just a phase.”
“Then this seems to have ‘fate’ written all over it.
Jim dictated the phone number and Elizabeth scribbled it on her desk blotter. “I owe you, Jim. Dinner for you and Jan, anyplace in the city you want.”
“Anyplace you can afford on a schoolteacher’s salary, you mean. In other words, Jan and I can share a hot dog.”
“Oh, I think I can afford one for each of you.” They laughed together. “We must love what we do. Either that, or we’re insane.”
“Some of both, I think. Have a good evening, Lizzy, and let me know how the interview goes.”
The interview went well. Elizabeth slipped away from the conservatory between her Thursday classes to meet Marian Charleston, director of the Newberry School. Marian was impressed with Elizabeth’s qualifications and didn’t seem bothered by her desire to leave her job after only one semester. “I’ve met Catherine de Bourgh,” had been her only comment, uttered in a dry tone that spoke volumes.
Except for its brief duration, the job sounded perfect. Starting after the Christmas holidays, Elizabeth would offer private vocal instruction to the older students and direct two school choirs until the permanent teacher returned from maternity leave at the end of February. “But there could be other, permanent opportunities in the future,” Marian had assured her. “You seem like you’d fit in very well here.” It was a powerful balm to Elizabeth’s wounded pride to feel wanted and appreciated.
Before driving back to the conservatory, she checked her voicemail, finding a message from her aunt. Elizabeth returned the call, smiling when she heard Madeline Gardner’s brisk, cheerful voice.
“Lizzy, thanks for calling. Look, I don’t mean to be abrupt, but my book group will be here in a few minutes so I’ll get right to the point. Your uncle and I have a proposition for you.”
Elizabeth considered joking about being propositioned by relatives, but thought better of it and waited for her aunt to continue.
“I think you know that I finally managed to twist Jessie’s arm into coming with us over Thanksgiving.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth replied. “Jane mentioned something about that.”
“You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to get one of your own children to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Barbados.”
“They know what a relentless tourist you are. With Uncle Edward tied up all day in his conference sessions, they’d be completely at your mercy.”
“Which is probably why Jessie was so relieved to find a way to wiggle out of it. Her best friend from college just announced that she’s getting married the Saturday after Thanksgiving—talk about short notice—and she wants Jessie to be her maid of honor. So your uncle and I find ourselves with a spare bedroom in our suite for Thanksgiving week. I know last month you said you had other plans, but I thought I’d see if your schedule might have freed up.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed and she pressed her lips together. “Did Jane call you?”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. “Don’t be upset with her. She’s worried about you, and from what she told me I don’t blame her.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine.”
“Not from what I’ve heard, but let’s discuss that when seven people aren’t about to descend on my house. What do you say? Will you come with us?”
“Well, I’m not going to New York for Thanksgiving anymore, and I’d love to get away. But ….” Elizabeth swallowed and licked her lips. “He has a house there.”
“Somewhere on the east coast.”
“Will he be there for Thanksgiving?”
“No, he’ll be in New York with his family.” A raindrop plopped against the outside of her window, sliding down the glass like a solitary tear.
“Then I don’t see what difference it makes,” Aunt Madeline said firmly. “If you’re interested, we’ll find out where the house is and see if we can have a look around the grounds.”
“No, I don’t want to go there,” Elizabeth said, gripping the phone tightly. The last thing she needed was a reminder of the wistful smile that had shone on his face whenever he told her childhood stories of Pemberley.
“Then we won’t go. There are plenty of other things for us to do.”
“It would do you good to have some time away to relax. And, you know, it’s a great excuse to buy a sexy new bikini.”
“I’m not so sure about the bikini,” Elizabeth said, “but I’d love to go. Thanks, Aunt Maddie.”
They discussed travel plans quickly in deference to the imminent arrival of the book group and then said goodbye. A tiny smile played around the corners of Elizabeth’s mouth as she thought again of the lounge chair, just a few steps across the sugar-white sand from the warm, turquoise ocean. Aunt Madeline was right. The trip would do her good.
Late on Friday afternoon, Elizabeth sat on an oatmeal-colored sofa in her therapist’s office, her fingers absently trailing along the armrest, traversing the tiny hills and valleys of the nubby fabric. Her eyes were continually drawn to a jug of dahlias on the coffee table, their heads proudly upright, pastel-colored advertisements for the power of high self-esteem.
“I’m sorry. Something came up at the last minute.” Elizabeth glanced down at her fingernails. They were short and ragged. She didn’t remember biting them; she hadn’t done that since childhood.
Elizabeth looked up from her studious inspection of her fingernails to find Dr. Diane Walker’s large gray eyes fixed on her from behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. Elizabeth was accustomed to this. The doctor would ask a probing question and then wait, hands folded serenely in her lap, for Elizabeth to incriminate herself—or at least, that was how Elizabeth thought of it. The technique was rendered even more annoying by its high success rate. There was something magnetic about those wise, penetrating eyes.
“Oh, all right,” she grumbled, staring at her nails again. “I canceled Tuesday because I didn’t feel like talking.”
“Do you feel like talking now?”
“No, but Jane made me come anyway.” Jane rarely issued ultimatums, but she had made an exception last night when Elizabeth had mentioned her plan to cancel today’s session. Jane had given the order with a perfect mixture of authority and gentle affection. She was going to make a wonderful mother someday.
“Why do you think she made you come?” Diane asked as she set the file folder on the table beside her.
“She’s worried about me.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I broke up with my boyfriend. But I’m fine.”
“You broke up with William?”
Elizabeth nodded. “A week ago.”
“And that’s why you haven’t felt like talking?”
“I thought you’d make too much of it, try to connect it to other things.”
Elizabeth sighed. “I knew you’d say it was somehow related to Michael.”
“Of course not. Just because Michael did something, it doesn’t mean William would.” Elizabeth said the words with a singsong lilt. “I know those words so well I ought to set them to music.”
Diane smiled. “Any time you’d like to sing during our sessions, feel free. I already told you that I’d love to hear you. But there’s a difference between knowing the words and knowing them, deep down. Which type of knowing are you talking about?”
Elizabeth mirrored Diane’s silent technique, folding her hands demurely in her lap. Green eyes challenged gray ones to a battle of wills. Her lips twitching, Diane awarded Elizabeth a small victory by speaking again. “Why did you expect me to think the breakup was related to Michael?”
“Because you think everything is related to him.”
“Does it seem that way? I wonder if it’s difficult thinking about how your past experiences have shaped the way you view things in your life.”
“But I’m better now.”
“You’ve made a lot of progress in the short time we’ve been meeting, but you’ve been carrying that burden for years. Be patient with yourself.”
Sudden tears stung Elizabeth’s eyes and she stared at her fingernails again.
“For now, let’s not worry about whether or not it’s connected to Michael,” Diane said. “Would you like to tell me what happened with William?”
Elizabeth forced back her tears and swallowed. “Not if I can help it.”
“Because I hate to cry, and if I tell you, I’m going to.”
“You might cry, but is that so terrible? We’ve talked about the problem with bottling up your pain. Things keep fizzling and bubbling until the lid blows off.”
With a shaky sigh, Elizabeth nodded. “Is there an extra charge if I use up all your Kleenex?”
Diane’s mouth was too wide for her face, one of several small imperfections that denied her any pretense of conventional beauty. But her infectious smile transformed her appearance. “Knock yourself out. They’re on the house.” She slid a box of tissues across the coffee table. The box came to rest alongside the relentlessly confident dahlias.
It took a while, but Elizabeth told the story of her weekend, starting with the unpleasant scene with Caroline on Thursday evening and ending with William’s passionate goodbye kiss on Saturday night. Diane listened, asking for occasional clarifications but not commenting further. By the time Elizabeth finished, a small blizzard of Kleenex surrounded her.
Diane glanced at her watch. “Oh, my goodness, our time is up. I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.”
“That’s okay. I’m pretty much talked out for today,” Elizabeth said, digging into her purse for a mirror.
“How do you feel?”
“Okay, I guess. Relieved, in a way.” She glanced at herself in her compact mirror and grimaced, dabbing at her eyes with a Kleenex.
“Good. We’ll explore this a little more at our next session and see if any patterns emerge. And I have some homework for you. I’d like you to think about the issue you raised a while ago.”
“How these problems with William might be connected to your experience with Michael.”
Elizabeth scowled, crumpling the damp Kleenex in her hand. “So you’re saying it’s my fault? William is blameless, and I’m just blowing things out of proportion because I’m a few high kicks short of a chorus line?”
“Good joke about the chorus line, but, no, I’m not saying that. I simply asked you to think about a possible connection. And maybe we’ll find that there’s no connection at all.”
“I can save us both some time. There isn’t.”
“Give it some thought anyway. After all, you’re the one who brought it up.”
“I’ve got to stop doing that,” Elizabeth grumbled.
Diane rose to her feet. “Do you have plans for the weekend? Something fun, I hope?”
“Nothing special.” Elizabeth stood up. “It’s the final weekend of South Pacific. I’ll probably stop by the cast party tomorrow night, but it’s more for the students than for the faculty.”
Diane walked Elizabeth through the waiting room. A massive peace lily languished in the corner by the window, its leaves limp and downcast. It needed water, or perhaps a visit from the ever-cheerful dahlias. “Then here’s another homework assignment,” Diane said. “Have some fun this weekend. And I mean it. I’ll expect a full report on Tuesday.”
Elizabeth was a few steps from Sushi Rika1 restaurant when she slipped and nearly fell on the slick sidewalk. She paused to regain her equilibrium, huddling under her umbrella against the drizzle that had fallen for most of the day. A sea of cars jammed the road, their brake lights reflected in the wet pavement. Every car in San Francisco seemed to be in motion this evening.
The restaurant doors opened and a young couple emerged. Elizabeth grabbed the half-open door and, careful of her footing, stepped gingerly inside. She brushed raindrops from her gray wool blazer and patted her hair, grimacing. As always in damp weather, her curls had morphed into an unmanageable frizz.
She located Jane and Charlotte and hurried toward their table, brushing her flyaway hair out of her eyes. “Sorry I’m late. Traffic was a mess.”
“Tell me about it,” Charlotte said, rolling her eyes. “I wouldn’t brave Friday rush hour traffic for anybody but the two of you.” She drained her glass and signaled their server. “Another Sapporo, and …?” She glanced at Jane, who shook her head, and then at Elizabeth, who nodded. “Make that two.”
Once the server was gone, Jane raised her eyebrows at Elizabeth, who understood the silent question at once. “It went fine,” Elizabeth said. She had repaired her appearance as best she could, but she knew her eyes were still red. Perhaps it wouldn’t be obvious. The lighting was relatively dim in their corner.
“Was that top-secret Sister Code, or can anybody play?” Charlotte asked.
“I saw my counselor today, right before I came here,” Elizabeth explained. She always used the term “counselor” instead of “therapist” when talking to others; it sounded less like she was a a demented mess. Even though I am.
“So that’s why you’ve been crying. I assume you told her about William?”
Elizabeth had suspected that she’d be prodded into discussing William over dinner, but she had hoped that at least the raindrops in her hair would have time to dry before the grilling began.
“Maybe Lizzy would rather not talk about it,” Jane interjected.
“Sorry, Liz,” Charlotte said. “It’s just that you haven’t been yourself, and I’m worried about you.”
Elizabeth hid behind her menu as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. She forced them back relentlessly—she’d cried more than enough for one day—and took a deep breath. “I know. But right now I think we should order. What looks good?”
They turned their collective attention to the menu, which offered brightly-colored illustrations of the specialty rolls prepared by the sushi chefs. Selecting items to share was, as always, a laborious task. Jane’s tastes were conservative, while in Charlotte’s opinion, the more exotic the dish, the better. Elizabeth, whose preferences fell somewhere in between, sat back and watched the negotiations.
Their order placed at last, Elizabeth grabbed control of the conversation before it could loop back in her direction. “Char, I want to hear all about your weekend in Phoenix. Did you even make it to the ballpark, or did you just lock yourselves in your suite all weekend?”
“I wouldn’t have minded that, but Richard’s too big a baseball fan to give up the World Series.”
“He must have been upset that the Yankees lost,” Jane said. “Especially that one game. What was the score, 15-2?”
“Plus, I kept rooting for the Diamondbacks just to yank his chain. He needed lots of cheering up afterwards. Luckily, I know the kind of cheering up he likes.”
“Did you two make any plans to get together again, maybe over the holidays?” Elizabeth asked.
Charlotte shrugged. “I told you, it’s not like that. I mean, he’s a terrific guy, but neither of us wants a Relationship, with a capital ‘R’.”
“It just seems like you two have so much in common,” Jane said.
“Yeah, not the least of which is a severe allergy to commitment. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m ever in his corner of the world I’ll call him, and he’ll probably do the same.” Charlotte turned to Jane. “Is Charles still coming up for the weekend?”
“He’s due in late tonight,” Jane answered, smiling, “and I’m meeting him for a run first thing in the morning.”
“What’s his excuse?”
Elizabeth stared at Charlotte, wrinkling her nose. “His excuse?”
“For coming to town. I mean, obviously his reason is to see Jane. But what’s his cover story? The jazz group?”
“No,” Elizabeth answered, “we’re not playing this weekend.”
Two pairs of eyes turned to Jane, who tilted her head to the side and shrugged, still smiling. “He just said he needed to talk to me.”
“That sounds promising,” Charlotte said. “You think he’s hoping for a reconciliation?”
Elizabeth nodded, raising her eyebrows. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Jane shook her head. “He didn’t say anything to suggest that. Maybe he wants legal advice about Caroline and how it might affect the rest of the family.”
“Legal advice?” Charlotte asked, her eyes gleaming. “What has Cruella done now?”
Elizabeth glanced at Charlotte, making no attempt to suppress her smirk. “She’s under investigation for insider trading.”
“Fabulous!” Charlotte clinked glasses with Elizabeth. “Do they ever give the death penalty for that?”
“Not so far,” Elizabeth said, “but maybe we can convince Jane to lobby the court in favor of it.”
Jane shook her head, her expression mildly disapproving. “Now, come on, you two. If you can’t manage any sympathy for Caroline—”
“We can’t.” Charlotte clinked glasses with Elizabeth again.
“Then at least think about Charles and the rest of the family. This can’t be easy for them.”
“True,” Elizabeth said. “I feel sorry for them, just not for her. Has Charles told you anything more?”
“Just that Caroline is beside herself. I’m so glad William was there for part of the week. I know Charles appreciated the moral support.”
Elizabeth’s stomach clenched and her eyes flew to Jane. “He was there?”
Jane winced. “He spent two days with Charles before going on to Sydney. You didn’t want to talk about him, so I didn’t mention it.”
“I’m glad he went,” Elizabeth said. “Some time with Charles was probably just what he needed.” The news summoned up a much more cheerful image than the one she had been carrying of him, lonely and rudderless in a foreign city.
“And it meant a lot to Charles,” Jane added. “William is a good friend to him.”
Elizabeth blew a gust of air through her nostrils but didn’t comment. Jane still didn’t know about William’s interference in her love life.
“May we open the subject, finally?” Charlotte asked, her frank gaze on Elizabeth. “And don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.”
“As long as we don’t spend the rest of the evening dissecting every detail.” Elizabeth sat back in her chair, clutching her beer glass. “What do you want to know?”
“I already know the basics, Liz. I’m just tired of pretending that nothing’s wrong.”
Elizabeth eyed Jane, making no effort to conceal her annoyance, though she had already guessed as much. “Aunt Madeline, and now Charlotte. Who else have you told?”
“Lizzy, please don’t be angry. Charlotte was worried about you.”
“And I get why you’re mad at William,” Charlotte said. “He had no business paying for your job behind your back.”
The tension in Elizabeth’s shoulders relaxed. “It’s like he handed Catherine a loaded gun. All she has to do is twist the truth a little and it’ll sound like I slept my way into a job. And once that kind of gossip starts, you can’t stop it.”
Charlotte nodded pensively, dragging her teeth across her lower lip. “Yeah, you’re going to be this week’s special in the cafeteria. That’s tough. What are you going to do about it?”
“For starters, I’m submitting my resignation on Monday.”
“Effective when? End of the semester?”
Elizabeth nodded. “I can’t leave before then.”
“No, that would be bad.” Charlotte paused, and then her eyes widened. “Say, I don’t know if the Music Department at Berkeley is looking for any adjuncts for the spring, but I could ask. Part-time would be better than nothing.”
“Thanks, but I accepted a job this afternoon.”
“You already made up your mind?” Jane’s surprise showed on her face.
Elizabeth explained the circumstances leading to her substitute teaching job at Newberry. “It’s not what I had in mind when I got my master’s degree, but I think it’ll be fun.”
Charlotte raised one eyebrow. “Things sure are moving along fast.”
“I’m a little concerned about that.” Jane lifted a red and white ceramic teapot from the table. Jasmine-scented steam rose from her cup as she poured.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m being impulsive. But the job seems great, the timing is perfect, and it leaves my options open for the future. And it feels so good to know that I only have to spend a few more weeks walking around the conservatory feeling like a kept woman. You can’t imagine how humiliating it is.”
Jane patted Elizabeth’s hand. “Poor Lizzy.”
“This sucks,” Charlotte said. “You seemed like you were settling in there and enjoying it. Except for the dragon lady, of course.”
Elizabeth shrugged, doing her best to look nonchalant, but Charlotte was correct.
“Still, I could see you having the time of your life in this new job.” Charlotte glanced at Jane. “You didn’t see her at Interlochen, working with the kids in the summer program. She loved it.”
“Are you mad at me?” Jane asked Elizabeth. “For telling Charlotte, I mean.”
“I guess you had to. She knew something was wrong and she wasn’t going to stop asking questions.”
“Damn straight,” Charlotte said.
Jane smiled. “And you’re sure about this job? You didn’t just take it for my sake, so you could stay in town?”
“Like Char said, I think it’s going to be fun. And, yeah, I took it so I could stay in town, but I want to stay. I love San Francisco, and I love getting to see you all the time.”
“Poor William,” Charlotte said. “I feel for the guy, alone in Australia with no idea what you’re going to do. I mean, I know he kinda deserves it, but he must be a wreck.”
Elizabeth fidgeted with the threads holding her bamboo placemat together. “I don’t like thinking about that.”
“Are you going to take him back eventually?”
“I don’t know. I still love him, but he did what he did, and nothing can change that.”
“And he deserves to pay the price.” Charlotte nodded firmly. “I get that. But what’s the point in sending him away and refusing to talk to him?”
“I need time to think.”
“About what? Just grab him by the balls and tell him he’ll be singing soprano if he ever pulls a stunt like that again.”
Elizabeth couldn’t help but laugh at Charlotte’s suggestion. “Thank you, Ms. ‘I’m allergic to Relationships with a capital R.’ I’m afraid the situation is a little more complicated than that.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be if you didn’t insist on overcomplicating things. C’mon, Liz. The guy made one mistake. A whopper, I’ll grant you, but he meant well. And for that you voted him off the island?”
This was exactly the sort of conversation Elizabeth didn’t want to have. She answered in a measured tone. “It wasn’t just the job. Did Jane tell you about his marriage-and-every-detail-of-my-life proposal?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.” Charlotte nodded. “Though couldn’t you just have said, “Back to the drawing board, Bub, and let’s come up with a new plan.”
Charlotte had a point. He had told her what he wanted; couldn’t she have responded by telling him what she wanted? She shrugged. “And about the job, it isn’t so much what he did as his dishonesty about it, not telling me for months, even when Catherine was torturing me.”
“Well, yeah, good point. That was pretty low. Except ….”
“It’s just that you’ve got quite a temper these days. And from what I’ve heard, you’ve landed on him with both feet more than once. Was he maybe so afraid of the explosion that ….” Charlotte shook his head. “Never mind. He should have manned up and told you, no matter what. Forget I brought it up.”
Elizabeth was spared further commentary by the arrival of their food. Jane scanned the plates, anxiously seeking out the items she had ordered, while Charlotte exclaimed over an unpronounceable delicacy she had discussed with the server. It looked vaguely menacing to Elizabeth, as though not long ago it had waved its tentacles in a grim warning.
“I’ve got some other news,” Elizabeth said, hoping to divert the conversation onto safer ground. “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Barbados with my aunt and uncle.”
“Isn’t that great?” Jane said, her eyes shining as she smiled at Elizabeth.
“Well, yeah,” Elizabeth retorted with a sidelong glance at her sister. “You’d certainly think so, since you engineered it.”
“All I did was tell Aunt Madeline that you could use some cheering up.”
“Can I stow away in your suitcase?” Charlotte asked, a wistful look in her eyes. “I’ll do whatever you want—reserve you a lounge chair by the pool each morning, bring you piña coladas on the beach, find you lots of men to keep you too busy to think about your troubles. Anything, as long as I don’t have to go home to Michigan and freeze my ass off.”
“I’ll send you a postcard,” Elizabeth said with a smirk. “Maybe its sympathetic vibrations will warm you up.”
Charlotte sniffed, refilling her plate. “Thanks a bunch. I suppose I could set it on fire and warm my poor, frostbitten hands over the flame.”
“Glad I could help.” Elizabeth grinned, nibbling a piece of sushi, and the last of the tension in her shoulders drained away. All things considered, it hadn’t been a bad day.
1 Yes, there really used to be a place called Sushi Rika in San Francisco. Sadly, it’s closed now.