Friday Night (Barbados)
It was scarcely an original thought, but one word echoed repeatedly in Elizabeth’s mind as she stood on her terrace, gazing out into the tropical night: Paradise. The pictures she’d seen hadn’t prepared her for the relentless beauty of the landscape unfolding before her.
Elizabeth saw her aunt standing in the doorway. “Hi, Aunt Maddie,” she said, smiling.
Madeline Gardiner joined her on the terrace. “Would you believe your uncle is already asleep? But he has to get up early for a breakfast meeting with the Conference Steering Committee, so maybe it’s just as well.”
“I’ve been enjoying the view,” Elizabeth said softly.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?”
“Unbelievable. I can’t thank you enough for inviting me here.”
The landscape wasn’t the only gorgeous thing within view. Elizabeth had never stayed in such a plush hotel room. She had wandered around in awe taking in the details--the sleek modern furniture, the tasteful tropical-themed fabrics in neutral shades, and the incredibly thick mattress that felt like lying on a cloud--and that was before she saw the palatial bathroom and the spacious terrace. It occurred to her that William was accustomed to this sort of pampering; in fact, he took it for granted. It made her oddly melancholy to consider that he had never known the joy of unexpected luxury. Then again, he had also never known the joy of a fifth-floor walk-up with drafty windows and heat that barely worked.
“I knew this was a beautiful place,” Madeline said, “but so far it’s exceeding my expectations. Tomorrow we’ll have to take a walk around the grounds before we head off on our adventure.”
Elizabeth grinned. She had known that Madeline would have their entire week organized in advance. “What’s the plan, General Gardiner?”
Madeline’s attempt at a scowl dissolved into a smile. “There’s nothing worse than a smart-mouthed niece, but I guess I knew what I was getting myself into when I invited you along. I thought we’d drive down the coast to Christchurch Parish. I should warn you, I’m determined to tour every great house on the island or die trying.”
Elizabeth snickered. “I guess I’m going to get a chance to work off the extra ice cream I’ve been eating lately.”
“Stick with me and I’ll whip you into shape. Then, to show that I’m capable of mercy, on Sunday morning we’ll hit the spa. And there are a few possibilities for Sunday afternoon, depending on what interests you.”
“Anything you want to do is fine,” Elizabeth answered, only half listening. A couple, hands clasped, stood on the path below, sniffing the blossoms of a night-blooming plant. As she watched they stepped into an embrace, seemingly wafted together by the breeze.
“Lizzy? Is everything all right?”
Elizabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“No, seriously,” Madeline said firmly. “You haven’t seemed like yourself today.”
“I’m sorry.” Elizabeth flashed a bright smile. “It was a long travel day, but I’ll be chipper and ready to go in the morning, I promise.”
Madeline shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem. You seem distracted and jumpy. Is it about work? Worried about all the things you had to rearrange?”
Elizabeth nearly snatched at that excuse, but in truth it hadn’t been difficult to free up her schedule for Monday, and the conservatory was closed the rest of the week. “It’s not that,” she said slowly. “I’ve been thinking about William.”
“I wondered if that was the problem, but I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up,” Madeline said, resting a hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“You must be tired; we can talk tomorrow.”
“I’m not tired in the least,” Madeline said briskly.
Elizabeth followed Madeline into the living room of their suite, and they settled onto the sofa together.
“You already know that he and I had a serious disagreement two weeks ago, right? I think Jane told you.”
Madeline nodded. “She said he’d left town, and it had hit you hard.”
“I told him I needed time alone to think, and I made him promise not to call me. And then—I don’t know exactly how to explain. I guess I climbed into a hole and tried to hide from everything and everyone. I didn’t really start processing what happened until about a week ago. And it took me till a few days ago to see more than just my side of the situation.”
Madeline’s mouth turned up in a crooked grin. “That’s our Lizzy.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m not good at admitting I’m wrong, but neither is he. Although he did—admit some mistakes, I mean. He sent me a letter from Australia. A wonderful letter, even if a few parts of it made me want to whack him between the eyes with a two-by-four.”
“Only a few parts? I guess that’s good.” Madeline’s eyes sparkled with mirth. “So what did you do after the letter arrived?”
“I read it incessantly and agonized over what to do. He did some things that were wrong—and I mean wrong—and the fact that his intentions were good doesn’t completely make up for that. Finally, after I obsessed about the letter for a couple of days, I decided I had to call him, because that’s the only way we’re going to work this out. I’m still not sure if we can fix everything, but I know I want to try, and I’m hoping he feels the same way.”
Elizabeth went on to explain the steps she’d taken to try to reach William. “It’s so frustrating,” she said in conclusion, “because if I’d started even a few hours earlier, I’d have reached him.”
“And now the suspense is killing you.”
“Which is my own fault. The main thing is, unless he’s changed his mind about me, he’s been hoping to hear from me for days. And since I haven’t called, it would be natural for him to assume I’m still furious with him. And ….” Elizabeth sighed. “That means that I’m still causing him pain, and it’s not going to stop till I talk to him.”
“You must have understood, when you told him not to call you, how hard it would be for him.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and saw his anguished expression as he’d said goodbye. When she opened her eyes, her lashes were damp with tears. “I didn’t think I had any options. And I think we really did need a time-out. Just not one this long, and it’s getting longer with every hour that goes by.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure the two of you will connect soon. Do you know what you’re going to say when you talk to him?”
“I’m working with a counselor about … something that happened to me a long time ago, and she’s been helping me figure out what I want to say. In the end, I think it all comes down to one basic thing: if we’re going to make it together, we need an equal partnership. And it’s hard because we come from such different worlds. How can we be equal when he has all the money and all the status, and he’s used to being surrounded by people whose job it is to satisfy his every need? Plus, we don’t have good examples to follow in our parents’ relationships. I hate to say that about Mom and Dad, but ….”
“I understand,” Madeline replied.
“At least I have you and Uncle Edward as role models,” Elizabeth said, smiling.
Madeline smiled in return. “It isn’t always a bed of roses; sometimes marriage is hard work. But we’re happy, we’re proud of our girls, and we’ve supported each other in our careers.”
“I would love to have a marriage like yours.”
“I understand your concerns about what his experiences have taught him,” Madeline said. “But if you love one another and if you’re both committed to making this work, perhaps you can learn and grow together.”
“That’s what I want, so I guess it depends on him.”
They fell silent. Elizabeth noticed that, even indoors, she could hear the faint chorus of the tree frogs.
“Lizzy, what is that around your neck?” Madeline asked abruptly. “You can’t seem to stop touching it.”
Elizabeth drew the emerald pendant out from under the neckline of her shirt. “It was from him … for my birthday.”
Madeline drew the pendant away from Elizabeth’s chest, lifting it to inspect it. “What a lovely emerald.”
“I had it in my purse on the trip here. I’ve heard of jewelry being yanked right off people’s necks in a crowd. I know they say you should leave valuable jewelry at home when you travel, but ….” She sighed softly.
“I understand,” Madeline said. She released the pendant and patted Elizabeth’s arm. “You should probably leave it in the hotel safe while we’re out touring the island, but you can certainly wear it in the evenings.”
Elizabeth’s half-smile died quickly as she remembered him saying, about the pendant, It’s yours, and it stays here with you … just like my heart.
Madeline’s voice roused Elizabeth from her reverie. “Does he know you’re spending the holiday down here?”
“I left a message on his cell phone right before I met you at the airport. He won’t hear it till he’s back in the States, probably some time tomorrow. I told him the name of the resort.”
“Then I have no doubt he’ll call tomorrow. He must be as anxious to talk as you are.”
“Which leads me to something I need to ask you,” Elizabeth said. “When William and I finally get around to talking ….” She paused, pulling a throw pillow from behind her and setting it on her lap. “We’re going to need more than just a phone call to work things out. We’re going to need to be in the same room.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to speak from the heart when you’re close to the person you love,” Madeline said, understanding warming her expression.
“Exactly. That’s what he wanted to do, when the trouble first happened, but I wasn’t ready and I was pretty stubborn about it.”
“I suppose I could have predicted that when you fell in love, you wouldn’t take the easy way out,” Madeline teased.
Elizabeth smiled. “No, you know me better than that. I shouldn’t be making it sound like we fight constantly. We don’t. I’m surprised by how compatible we are most of the time. But when things go wrong, they go really, really wrong.”
“It can take time for a couple to learn to communicate, but if you’re both willing to work at it, you can do it. For starters, it sounds like you need to learn to listen to each other.”
“I think so,” Elizabeth said with a sad smile. “He tends to think he has all the answers. And as for me … drop a nuclear warhead first, ask questions later; that seems to be my strategy lately.”
“But you’re ready to listen?”
Elizabeth nodded. “Except I’m supposed to be here all next week, and he’ll be in New York. I don’t want to wait that long to talk things out, but like I said, I don’t think phone calls will be enough.”
“Besides which, you miss him and you want to see him.” Madeline tugged at her wedding ring for a moment and then raised her eyebrows. “He’s got a house here; why don’t you ask him to come down for a few days?”
“His grandmother would never let him do that over Thanksgiving week.”
“A hard-core traditionalist about family and holidays, is she?” Madeline asked, grinning. “My mother was that way. Every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas she and your grandmother would battle for custody of Edward and the kids … and me, though I could probably have gotten away with being AWOL as long as I sent the kids.”
“It’s partly that, but also, Mrs. Darcy doesn’t approve of me.”
Madeline frowned. “Then maybe you should go to New York and win her over.”
Elizabeth ran a finger along the pristine satin cording on the edge of the throw pillow. “That’s what I was thinking. Not because of Mrs. Darcy, but to see William.” She wrinkled her nose. “But the thing is, you invited me here to be your playmate.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Madeline said with the tone of someone who’s accustomed to being obeyed. She brushed a flyaway strand of hair out of her face. “I’ll be absolutely fine.”
“I won’t go anywhere till I’ve talked to him, so it’ll be a couple of days at least, probably almost till Uncle Edward’s conference ends.”
“As I said, don’t worry about me. Should we make you a hotel reservation up there? Edward and I usually stay at a wonderful boutique hotel in Midtown.”
“Thanks, but that’s covered. I called my old roommate yesterday, and I’ve got the living room couch reserved.”
“What about clothes? Swimsuits and shorts won’t be quite the thing in Manhattan this time of year.”
“I packed some warm clothes just in case; that’s why my suitcase is so heavy.” The biggest challenge would be buying a plane ticket on such a busy travel week, but at least she had money—William’s money—saved from her job.
“Well, dear, if there’s anything Edward and I can do to help, just tell us.”
“Thanks, Aunt Maddie. And you don’t think it sounds crazy, for me to go tearing off to New York like this?”
“Not if he’s as important to you as I think he is.”
Elizabeth nodded slowly, cradling the pillow in her arms. “He is,” she said in a low voice.
“And you know,” Madeline continued with a sly grin, “there’s another good reason to do this in person instead of on the phone.”
“Fighting with your man may not be much fun, but I highly recommend making up.”
Elizabeth smiled down at the pillow in her lap.
“I think I’m starting to get a touch of arthritis in my left hand,” Madeline muttered, wincing as she massaged her thumb. “It’s so easy to get rid of gray hair; too bad the other signs of aging aren’t as cooperative.”
Elizabeth stared at her aunt’s hands. They were strong rather than delicate, with square fingers tipped by short, neatly trimmed nails. They were capable hands, a reflection of the supportive, no-nonsense woman who had for years been such a valuable sounding board. She reached out and took her aunt’s hand, clasping it gently. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Around midnight, Saturday night/Sunday morning (New York)
William opened his eyes, frowning. He was flying, wasn’t he? And doing so without the assistance of a plane. A moment ago he had been in a lazy dive, drifting toward the earth, exulting in the freedom of the crystal blue sky that stretched to infinity in every direction.
And now? He rubbed his eyes and opened them again, and his bedroom swam in front of him. His suitcase stood at attention on the floor beside the bed, and he could almost hear the soft click in his head as awareness snapped into focus.
The trip to New York had been brutal, even in the relative luxury of the first class section. Nearly 26 hours had elapsed between his departure from his Sydney hotel and his arrival at the foot of the townhouse’s curving staircase, and he had slept for no more than two or three hours along the way. Home at last, he had dragged his suitcase upstairs, too proud to accept Allen’s assistance or even take the elevator, and had collapsed on his bed in a state of trembling exhaustion. He had intended to rest only briefly before unpacking, but a quick glance at the clock confirmed that five hours, not five minutes, had passed since then.
He sat up, yawning and stretching. He needed more sleep, but his empty stomach was long on complaints and short on patience. Even more than food, though, he needed a shower. He had taken one that morning in his airline’s lounge at San Francisco Airport, but that had been before a long ground delay on the stuffy, overheated plane bound for New York.
William lingered in the shower, rivulets of water streaming over his skin as the powerful spray pummeled his back muscles into a state of blissful surrender and the hot, humid air cleared his sinuses. He might have stayed in the steamy glass-walled compartment for the rest of the night had his stomach not begun to grumble at ever more frequent intervals.
Swathed in a warm robe over his boxers and tee shirt, he crept downstairs, the marble steps chilly against his bare feet. No doubt everyone else was asleep; the townhouse was hushed and still, with only a few scattered lights providing tiny spheres of illumination. He often prowled the house alone at night and usually relished the sleepy peace, as though the house itself snored gently against a pillow. But tonight it was a melancholy sort of quiet. Tonight, he didn’t want to be alone.
He felt a twinge of guilt for offering Rose and Georgiana only a kiss and a perfunctory greeting earlier in the evening. He had intended to sit with them after he finished unpacking, but that was before his bed had held him hostage for hours. There would be plenty of time to atone in the morning, when he would escort them to church and join in the family’s traditional Sunday brunch.
The tantalizing redolence of apples and spice in Mrs. Reynolds’s domain magnified his hunger tenfold. He switched on the light and saw a large plate on the counter, covered with a slightly damp napkin. A sheet of paper folded into a tent shape stood beside it, bearing his name.
I thought you might wake up hungry during the night, so I left you these sandwiches. There’s also a bowl of soup in the refrigerator. Two minutes in the microwave under full power should have it nice and hot. And you’ll find an apple pie in the pantry; a slice of that might taste good with a glass of milk. If you need anything else, just call upstairs, even if it’s late.
It’s nice to have you home. We’ve missed you.
Mrs. Reynolds had, as usual, anticipated his needs. He grinned at her mention of the milk; she even thought he needed help accessorizing his meals.
He devoured the food, his brain idling in quiet contentment. His mind rarely fell quiet, but perhaps he was too tired and hungry for introspection. Soon the sandwiches were gone, the soup bowl was practically dry, and his fork clattered onto the empty plate that had once held a hefty slice of pie.
It didn’t occur to him until he had almost finished rinsing his dishes that he’d never before executed this domestic task at the townhouse. Mrs. Reynolds might faint away at the sight when she came downstairs in the morning. As for Elizabeth, he thought she’d be proud of this proof of her influence … if she cared at all.
His smile vanished, replaced by a familiar heaviness in his body and spirits. With a sigh, he dragged himself out of the kitchen and upstairs, stopping at the second floor to check the condition of his office, or so he told himself. If by coincidence he found a message from Elizabeth awaiting him, so much the better, not that he expected one after so much time. Clearly, the letter had failed to do its job.
His attempts to reach her in San Francisco had failed. He had at first intended to appear on her doorstep unannounced during his extended layover, but had lost his nerve and decided that a phone call first would be wise. But voicemail had answered both the apartment phone and her cell phone. Next he had steeled his courage and made the trip to her apartment, willing to risk an ambush if no other option was available, but no one was home. Finally, he had left a message on her cell phone, in case her pride required him to make the first move. As for himself, he had little pride left to protect.
In his office, he switched on a lamp and scanned the room; everything looked clean and tidy as ever. Mrs. Reynolds would never let a speck of dust flourish, even in a room that had seen little use in the past three months. As expected, his desk blotter was empty, no pink message slips adorning its corners. He wandered around, seeking comfort in familiar objects: brushing his fingers over the smooth polished top of the conference table, studying the antique maps on the walls, setting a large globe spinning lazily on its axis. He felt oddly detached, as though these were a stranger’s possessions, but he would acclimate again now that he was home.
Home. For his entire life, or at least all the years he could remember, this had been his home, the foundation of his life. His career took him away with regularity but he always returned, and the house always waited, filled with echoes of the past and bonds of the present. Everything and everyone he held dearest had always resided under this roof.
But not anymore. Now he knew why his office felt like the domain of a stranger, why the silence in the house felt oppressive instead of comforting. If the cliché were true and home was where the heart was, he was thousands of miles off course. He had never considered that home could be a person, not a place, and the thought offered confirmation of an insight that had begun to develop while writing the letter. His efforts to bring Elizabeth into his world had been misdirected; instead, they needed to build a new world that would belong to them both.
His family and his ancestral home—he grinned ruefully at the arrogance of that phrase—would be a part of that world, of course. But so would hers, something he hadn’t stopped to consider when planning the future. That was what she had been trying to tell him when she sent him away.
Pressing his lips together, he moved on to Sonya’s office, tightening the belt on his robe as he walked. The message light on her phone blinked lazily, as if exhausted by the repetition. His heart thudded, seeming loud enough to wake the entire house. He said a silent prayer of gratitude that the messages could be picked up with the touch of one button: no menus, no complicated technical feats, and no passwords. He pressed the “play” button in a deliberate motion and froze when he heard her voice.
“Sonya? It’s Elizabeth Bennet. The voicemail greeting says the office is closed, but if you get this message could you please call me? I have an important question and I’m hoping you can answer it. It’s Thursday morning and I’ll be at school all day. The number here is—”
He pressed the “stop” button, stabbed “rewind,” and played the message again. He had scarcely comprehended her words the first time, immersed in the sheer pleasure of hearing her voice. This time he paid closer attention. She had a question for Sonya. What did that mean? Perhaps she had planned to ask for his phone number. Or perhaps she just wanted the number of a shop in the Village; he had occasionally heard them discussing their favorite shops during Sonya’s visit to San Francisco. And Elizabeth hadn’t mentioned him in the message. But, on the other hand, she had said the question was important. He was about to hit “rewind” again when the next message began.
“Sonya, it’s Elizabeth again. I tried to reach William at his hotel a short time ago, but he’d already left for the airport. Could you please tell him that I left a message on his cell phone, just in case he forgets to check? Thanks.”
His cell phone! He trotted out of Sonya’s office and took the steps two at a time to the third floor. Once in his bedroom, he grabbed his suitcase and flung it on the bed, where it landed with a thud that vibrated through the bed frame and into the floor. Working rapidly, he removed layers of neatly folded clothing and stacked them on the bed, finally reaching the bottom of the suitcase where he had stowed the phone. But its battery was dead.
William rolled his eyes and heaved a loud sigh. He might have predicted that the phone would try to thwart him. He had remembered neither to charge it nor to pack the charger when he left San Francisco. Despite using a borrowed charger during his stay in Los Angeles, he had exhausted nearly all of the phone’s available power even before leaving LAX Airport. It hadn’t mattered till now; the phone had been useless, a high-priced metallic paperweight incompatible with mobile phone standards in Australia. He had forgotten about it altogether during his stop in San Francisco, using a phone in the airline’s club lounge to make his calls.
He bounded downstairs, his feet barely touching the frigid steps, and hurled himself around the corner into Sonya’s office. The third desk drawer he yanked open yielded his quarry, and he hunched down behind her desk to plug in the charger. When the phone finally powered up and the display flashed its welcome message, he exhaled with relief. Several new voicemails awaited him but he skipped through them, listening to only the first second or two of each until he located the one that mattered.
“Hi, William. It’s Elizabeth. I’d like for us to talk. I … I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and … well, I’m seeing things differently. I know I … oh, gosh, it’s awkward trying to say this to your voicemail, so … could you please call me? I’m on my way to Barbados right now; I decided to tag along with my aunt and uncle after all. We’re staying at the Royal Palm Resort, so you can reach me there. I … I hope you’ll call soon.”
William sagged against the desk, almost weak with relief. She had called, and she wanted to talk. That was enough for now. But as he listened to her message again, absorbing more of the words, his definition of “enough” upgraded itself. She wanted to talk, but she had said nothing about reconciling. What if “seeing things differently” meant she didn’t want to be with him anymore? He glanced at the clock on Sonya’s desk, wondering if the hotel switchboard would permit him to awaken a guest at this hour of the night … or morning.
He flinched, dropped the phone on the desk, and turned to see his grandmother standing behind him. “Gran. You startled me. What are you doing up so late?”
“I’m afraid sleep has eluded me tonight,” she said, pausing for a sigh. “I’ve been listening to you going up and down the stairs.”
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
She shook her head and almost smiled. “You didn’t. In fact, it’s comforting to hear you, because it means you’re back under our roof. When you’re gone, we miss you.”
Coming from his grandmother, this admission was tantamount to a declaration of eternal devotion. “I’ve missed you, too. And I’m sorry I disappeared so soon after I arrived home.”
She waved away his apology. “You were exhausted from your trip. But there is something I wanted to discuss with you. I’m concerned about some reports I’ve received from San Francisco.”
William was torn between amusement and annoyance. As happened so often with Rose when she seemed to be in a benevolent mood, the other shoe had just plummeted to the ground. “What kind of reports?” he asked, allowing a warning note to slip into his voice.
“I received two disturbing phone calls from Catherine de Bourgh this week, and we need to discuss them.”
“I realize it’s late, but we’re awake and we have privacy that we might not enjoy tomorrow. Shall we sit down and talk?”
She had phrased it as a question, but William knew he had little choice. No matter what Catherine had said, this couldn’t be good. “Okay, Gran,” he said, already following her out of Sonya’s office and into the dimly-lit center hall, “let’s talk.”