“Anne, I’m sorry I’m late!” Elizabeth slid into the booth across from Anne de Bourgh. She shrugged off her soggy raincoat and deposited her even soggier umbrella on the floor. Thank goodness the restaurant was warm. She had stepped into a deep puddle on her way across the street and her feet were soaked. San Francisco received more rain in the winter than at any other time of the year, but rarely did a mid-January day combine such chilly temperatures with heavy showers and swirling wind.
“I just got here myself,” Anne replied. “Traffic is such a mess with this terrible weather.”
“Jane’s going to be a little late, too. She has an emergency meeting with a client.”
“That sounds serious.”
“She couldn’t tell me the specifics, of course, but a lot of times emergency meetings involve spousal abuse situations.”
“That’s terrible.” Anne sighed. “I so admire the way she helps people. I look at you and Jane and I feel so useless.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jane rescues women from abusive husbands, and you open up the world of music to kids. And what do I do? I develop spreadsheets, send e-mails, and shuffle paper.”
“You’re helping to run a conservatory where aspiring musicians are trained. That’s hardly being useless.”
“If I left there, nothing would change.” Anne’s eyes dropped to the wood veneer tabletop and she lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “In fact, I’m thinking of leaving.”
“You are?” Elizabeth didn’t need to ask if Anne had discussed the idea with her mother. “What would you do instead?”
“You’ll probably think it’s silly,” Anne said reluctantly, her eyes still averted.
“I bet I won’t.”
Anne pulled a packet of artificial sweetener from a container on the table and ran a finger along its edges. “I’ve always wanted to get a Ph.D. in math.”
“I knew you were a math whiz, but, wow, a Ph.D?”
“I majored in math at Stanford.” Anne looked up, a surprising degree of animation in her pale blue eyes. “I was accepted into the Ph.D. program back then, but Mother wanted me to get an MBA so I could help with the business side of the conservatory.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t want you to get a degree in music.”
“That was the original plan. I was going to be a classical musician, preferably a soloist, or even a conductor like my father. She liked that idea, since there are so few prominent female conductors.”
“I bet. So what happened?”
“Reality intruded. We have a closet full of instruments at home that I never quite learned to play, despite lessons with all the best teachers. By the time I started college, it was evident that I didn’t have a scrap of musical talent.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Elizabeth shot back, grinning. “You sounded pretty good at the karaoke bar last week.”
Anne pressed her palms to her cheeks. “Don’t remind me! I’m so embarrassed about that.” Jane had managed, with great difficulty, to convince Anne to join in a group performance of “We Are Family.”
“Don’t be. That’s the whole point of karaoke, to act silly without anybody thinking you’re certifiably insane.”
Elizabeth ordinarily avoided karaoke bars; the last thing she needed was to listen to tone-deaf amateurs murdering perfectly good songs. But aside from a few truly cringeworthy performances by others in the bar, she had enjoyed the evening out with Jane, Charlotte, and Anne, part of a series of weekly “girls’ nights out” that the foursome had decided to arrange. Tonight’s get-together, though, would involve only three of them. Charlotte had left that morning for New York and her long-awaited interview at Columbia University.
William had been relieved to hear about Charlotte’s trip for reasons of his own. “Richard and I need to go over the contracts for at least half a dozen performances,” he had grumbled, “but he’s never here anymore. At least he’ll finally be home for a few days.”
“What can I say?” Elizabeth had answered smugly. “He’s in love, even if he won’t admit it.”
“For the hundredth time, yes, you were right about Richard and Charlotte.”
Richard had stayed in San Francisco for the past two weeks, ever since his impetuous cross-country dash on New Year’s Eve. He and Charlotte were quick to declare to anyone who would listen that their relationship wasn’t serious, but Elizabeth rarely saw one without the other. He had accompanied Charlotte to New York, using the excuse, “Will has been yammering nonstop about needing to see me. I figured I’d better show my face in Manhattan before his head explodes.”
The waiter arrived with two glasses of ice water. Elizabeth and Anne ordered chips, salsa, and a pitcher of frozen margaritas with three glasses.
“So, back to this business about you being a math genius,” Elizabeth said. “Are you going to apply to some Ph.D. programs?”
“I already did, over the holidays.”
“Wow, I had no idea.”
“I didn’t want to say much. I’m sure I won’t get in anywhere. But I mentioned it to Jane, and she encouraged me to try. Roger said the same thing.”
Elizabeth wasn’t surprised. Like a trembling rosebud, Anne had begun to bloom under the warm light of Roger’s warm friendship and Jane’s encouragement. “Where did you apply?”
“MIT, Harvard, and Princeton.” Anne traced her finger over the beads of moisture clinging to her water glass. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Those are three of the best programs in the country; they’ll never accept me. But Jane said I ought to aim high. Two of my Stanford professors said so, too, when I asked for references. They still remembered me.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. Anne’s appearance and personality did nothing to make her stand out, so she must have been an exceptional student. “Well, then, you should listen to them. And speaking of Stanford, why didn’t you apply there?”
Anne heaved a sigh. “I thought about it. Stanford’s program is just as good as Harvard’s or Princeton’s, and I already know some of the faculty. They practically promised they’d accept me.” She stared into her glass. “But I need to get away. I love my mother, but sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe. Like she uses up all the oxygen in the room.” She looked up at Elizabeth, a pleading expression in her eyes. “Does that make sense?”
Anyone would feel that way with Catherine de Bourgh as a mother. For that matter, anyone who had ever ridden in an elevator with Catherine would feel that way, but Elizabeth thought it better to answer in general terms. “I think we all need to go out on our own eventually, or we get stuck in childhood mode.” She thought involuntarily of William and the New York townhouse.
“Maybe so, but I’m an extreme case. I still haven’t told Mother anything about Roger, and she doesn’t know that I’m friends with you and Jane. I’m almost thirty years old, and I’m afraid to look my mother in the eye and tell her that I’m having dinner with friends. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Elizabeth swallowed the sharp criticism of Catherine that practically leapt from her tongue. “Your mother’s got definite ideas about how you should do things. It’s no wonder you don’t want to challenge her head on. She intimidates a lot of people.”
“Not you. You’ve stood up to her more than once.”
“It’s easier for me. She’s not my mother.”
“You would have been a better daughter for her. I’m afraid of my own shadow, I’m hopeless as a musician, and ….” Anne bit her lip and fell silent.
And William Darcy is marrying me. Elizabeth had heard stories from her former colleagues at the conservatory about Catherine’s bitter diatribes, alternating between savage attacks on Elizabeth and dire predictions of the marriage’s quick demise—if the wedding happened at all. Elizabeth knew without being told that Anne had to swallow daily doses of her mother’s bile.
Elizabeth considered rebutting Anne’s remark, but she wasn’t sure what she could say. Instead, she called attention to the eclectic items hung on the wall above their heads: colorful serapes, maracas, and sepia-toned photographs. Soon they were laughing together at their attempts to pronounce some very lengthy place names on a series of road signs.
Their drinks and chips arrived. Elizabeth licked her lips as she watched the waiter fill two glasses to the brim. She lifted hers gingerly and sipped the slushy concoction. It was icy cold and perfectly tart, with a powerful kick from the tequila. No refills for me, not on a school night.
“I’m here, finally!” It was Jane, her raincoat covered in droplets, yet every hair was perfectly in place save one damp strand that clung to her cheek. She brushed it away and slid into the booth next to Elizabeth. “Sorry I’m late.”
“No problem,” Elizabeth said. “Did everything go okay?”
“As well as could be expected.” Jane’s eyes lacked their usual warm glow. “It’s a terrible situation for my client, but I did my best to help.”
“As you always do,” Elizabeth said, pouring Jane a margarita. “Anne and I were just talking about that.”
Jane shrugged. “I don’t do anywhere near enough. We take so much for granted.” She sighed and forced a smile onto her face. “But I don’t want to bother you with my troubles. Anne, did Lizzy tell you about her trip last weekend?”
“Oh, that’s right,” Anne said. “I meant to ask how it was.”
“Wonderful,” Elizabeth sighed. She had met William in Denver, where he had been guest artist with the Colorado Symphony. He had gone to great lengths to make her feel like a princess, from the roses awaiting her in the limo at the airport to the elegant suite at the Four Seasons. Everyone she had met—the limo driver, the hotel staff, even the symphony intern who escorted her to her seat in the concert hall—seemed to be part of a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to pamper her. “If that’s what it’s like to travel with him, I’m going to enjoy it.” The trip had also afforded more time alone with him than she had expected. They had spent Saturday morning and afternoon touring the mountains to the west of Denver, and two memorable nights in each other’s arms.
“He must have been so happy to have you there,” Anne said. “I’m surprised he hasn’t tried to convince you to stop working and travel with him full-time.”
Elizabeth flicked an amused glance at Jane before answering. “He tried. We worked out a compromise.”
Anne winced. “I wasn’t suggesting that you should quit teaching. I know you enjoy it, and you’re so good at it.”
Elizabeth had begun her temporary job at the private school immediately after the New Year’s holiday. In just two weeks she had fallen in love with the school and with her students. The school’s emphasis on performing arts made the music teachers influential members of the staff, in contrast to public school districts where budget cutbacks often forced them to become vagabonds, covering multiple schools in the course of a week or even a day.
Meanwhile, she had made a few contacts in New York that might lead to job offers for the fall. Her short-term prospects, though, were bleak. Teaching jobs rarely materialized in March, and earning a living as a private voice teacher was impractical in such a competitive marketplace. She had considered returning to her job at the French restaurant despite William’s objections, but after some thought and a conversation with Jane, she had decided to respect his wishes. Although he was rarely of interest to the gossip columns, they would have a field day if they found the fiancée of such a wealthy man waiting tables downtown. In one area, though, she refused to compromise. Until she and William were married, she would continue to support herself … if only she could figure out how.
The wedding now had a date, a church, and a reception location. Rose had managed, using every ounce of the family’s influence, to secure the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza for a Saturday evening in mid-June. Engagement announcements had appeared in the New York and San Francisco papers, and Mrs. Bennet had already worn out her friends’ good will with her prattle about the future Mrs. Darcy and her elegant New York wedding.
Elizabeth and Jane had spent most of a recent Saturday morning at an exclusive bridal salon, selecting a designer gown whose price tag had left Elizabeth gasping. But Rose had been emphatic in her instructions: “A wedding of this scale requires a dress to match.” William had announced that he would pay for Elizabeth’s dress, but at a family dinner the evening before the shopping trip, Elizabeth’s father had called her aside.
“Jane said you’re picking out your dress tomorrow,” he had said quietly. “That fiancé of yours hasn’t given me a chance to pick up the tab for anything else, but I’m buying the dress.”
“Thank you, Dad.” Elizabeth had kissed his cheek. “But I would have thought you’d be relieved that William is paying, considering how expensive the wedding is going to be.”
“Oh, trust me, I’m indecently relieved,” Mr. Bennet had replied mildly. “You know the standard offer I made each of you girls.”
“Five thousand dollars if we’d sneak away and elope, and you’d hold the ladder.”
“But that was a while ago, and with inflation, I thought five thousand might not be enough.” He had removed an envelope from his shirt pocket and pressed it into her hand.
“Thank you, Dad. But—”
He had held up a hand to stop her protests. “Jane told me how much you’d probably have to spend on your dress. You’re marrying New York royalty, and I want you to feel like a queen when you walk down that aisle.”
Elizabeth sighed and flicked away a tear, remembering the watery brightness in her father’s eyes as he said those words. Then she smiled to herself, remembering his next words: “And, by the way, I’m still available to hold a ladder if need be.”
Jane’s voice recalled Elizabeth to the present. Jane and Anne were staring at her with inquiring expressions. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Daydreaming about William?” Jane teased. She glanced at Anne. “She does that a lot.”
“Not this time, believe it or not.”
“Anne was asking me about the wedding plans.” Jane and Charles’s wedding was just over ten days away. “And that reminds me. Are you free tomorrow or Thursday after school? I’ve ordered all the flowers except yours, and the florist needs at least a week’s notice. She’s giving us a discount, so I want to make sure we cooperate.”
“Let’s go tomorrow,” Elizabeth replied. “I have my night class on Thursday.”
“Oh, I keep forgetting about that. Okay, then, tomorrow it is.”
“You’re taking a night class?” Anne asked.
“Not taking, teaching. It’s an adult ed musical theater class, to earn some extra money. It started last week, and I think it’s going to be fun. In fact, after your karaoke debut, I was thinking of asking the two of you to come to class to demonstrate performance technique.”
“I know what she means, Anne,” Jane said, a mischievous sparkle in her eye. “Sometimes you can learn as much from a bad example as from a good one.”
“In that case,” Elizabeth answered, reaching for her menu, “it’s good we went to the karaoke bar last week. The entire night was highly … educational.”
William looked up from his book and cocked his head to one side. There it was again—a halting knock. “Come in,” he said, stabbing the “pause” button on his CD player’s remote control.
The door opened, and Georgiana sidled into the room. “Hi, Will.”
“Hi,” he said, doing a poor job of concealing his surprise. It had been months since she had dropped by his sitting room. “You vanished right after dinner. Was everything okay?”
She shrugged. “I had homework.” She stood in the doorway, shifting from one bare foot to another. Her shoulders slumped as though weighted down by her oversized gray tee shirt, its sleeves covering her hands down to her fingertips. A pair of black and red plaid flannel boxer shorts, also much too large for her, peeked out from beneath the shirt.
“Come in and sit down,” he said, indicating Elizabeth’s chair.
She took his suggestion. “Remember, when I was little, you used to pull the piano seat over for me to sit on?”
He smiled and nodded. “And your feet didn’t touch the floor.”
“Did you and Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert keep on talking about Richard and his girlfriend?”
Richard and Charlotte had returned to San Francisco the previous afternoon after joining the family for Sunday brunch, an unprecedented event brought about by much wheedling on Eleanor’s part. Tonight’s dinner had been the first opportunity for the Darcys and Fitzwilliams to compare notes.
William shook his head, feigning disapproval. “You know the rules. No using the ‘g’ word.”
She flashed a quick smile. “Richard’s not here, so I’m allowed. Aunt Eleanor sure seems happy that he’s finally going with someone.”
“Aunt Eleanor shouldn’t get her hopes up.”
“That’s what Uncle Robert kept saying. You don’t think they’ll get married?”
“I have trouble imagining Richard ever giving up bachelorhood. But I guess stranger things have happened.”
“Charlotte is funny. She talks a lot like Richard.”
“They’re alike in many ways.”
“Yeah.” She fell silent for a minute. “You and Elizabeth seem different. From each other, I mean.”
“In some ways, we are. But we complement each other. We’re better, and stronger, together than apart.”
Georgiana studied her fingernails. “You smile more when she’s around.”
“She makes me happy,” he said softly.
A wrinkle creased Georgiana’s pale forehead. She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I expected you to go out there to be with her after New Year’s.”
“I had things to do back here.”
“You stayed because of me, didn’t you? Because of my trial?”
He pondered the question briefly and decided to be honest. “Yes.”
“I thought so.” Her face took on a pinched look. “Gran has spies everywhere, in case I steal a glass of water from the kitchen or something.”
“No, she doesn’t. And besides, I stayed to support you, not to spy on you. I know I neglected you last fall.”
“I don’t need anybody watching over me. I’m not a little girl anymore.” Her mouth tightened in a harsh line.
“I know that. But we used to spend more time together, and I miss you.”
She shrugged. “You said Elizabeth makes you happy.”
“So do you.”
“Not lately,” she said, staring at her lap. “I just embarrass you.”
Georgiana’s trial had gone better than William had feared, but not as well as he had hoped. Courtney, with her attorney/father controlling her every word, had doggedly insisted that Georgiana had masterminded the shoplifting incident, pressuring an unwilling Courtney to serve as an accomplice. Since Georgiana had been caught shoplifting once before, the story had seemed credible to the judge. Courtney’s only punishment had been a fine, while Georgiana’s sentence added community service and probation.
Although Georgiana hadn’t said anything, William was sure that she was suffering from the loss of her friend. But as sorry as he felt for his sister, William was grateful that Courtney’s corrosive influence had been eliminated. If only he had listened to Elizabeth’s advice about Courtney last fall, the whole painful incident might have been avoided.
“You don’t embarrass me,” he said gently. “You made a mistake, one I know you won’t repeat. And you’re doing things to make up for it, like your community service, and paying the fine out of your allowance.” Rose had been emphatic about the latter point, and William, after a conversation with Elizabeth, had agreed. Despite the size of Georgiana’s trust fund, Rose allowed her only a small weekly sum.
“Yeah, I know,” Georgiana said with a heavy sigh. “Not that it matters. It’s not as though I have anything to spend my allowance on anyway, since I’m grounded for the next fifty years.”
Rose had decreed that for the next six months Georgiana was allowed out of the house only for official purposes such as school, community service, and music lessons—always driven there and back by Allen—and on occasional excursions with a family member. William, Eleanor, and Robert had entered into a quiet conspiracy to get Georgiana out of the house periodically, taking her to dinner or to a movie. While they agreed that she needed close supervision, they feared that hours spent alone in her room would only exacerbate her moods and her secretive tendencies.
“Want to go out to dinner tomorrow?” he asked. “You can pick the place.”
“Are you sure?” He arched an eyebrow. “Gran invited the Van Hoyts over for dinner.”
Georgiana grimaced and made retching noises. She and William grinned at each other. “But I can’t,” she said. “I have community service tomorrow, plus I have a history test on Wednesday. And I’ll be late getting home because of all the traffic. I wish Gran would let me take the subway instead of having Allen drive me. It would be faster.”
“That’s out of the question, and you know it,” he said firmly. “But I’m going to talk to your probation officer, or better yet, your lawyer. There must be someplace you could work closer to home.” Georgiana’s assigned community service was with an after-school program in Washington Heights, in the uppermost part of Manhattan.
“You mean, like, a place that helps all the disadvantaged kids who live on Park Avenue?” Her sarcasm made her sound twice her age.
“I worry about you going up there. It’s too far away.”
“I like it up there. I like helping the kids with their homework, and I get a chance to practice speaking Spanish. And my supervisor said I could work with the music enrichment program starting tomorrow.” Her eyes widened and she began to speak rapidly. “Oh, that reminds me. I told her that maybe our foundation could give them some money. We can, can’t we?”
“Certainly, if they submit a grant application. In fact, we could already be supporting a program at that school, though I don’t recall.”
“Can we check the foundation records and find out?”
“Of course. I’ll have Sonya look into it first thing tomorrow.”
The light in her eyes vanished. “Oh. Okay.”
He rose from his chair. “Or if you want, we can go downstairs right now and try to find out for ourselves.”
She nodded and hopped to her feet, smiling again.
“I hope Sonya has a printed list somewhere,” he said as they left the sitting room, “because if it’s on the computer I’ll never find it.”
Georgiana snickered. “You know, I could teach you how to use a computer.”
“I know how,” he retorted. He did—somewhat. “But I don’t know where Sonya keeps the electronic copies of the grant files.”
Georgiana led the way downstairs to Sonya’s office. She had begun showing an interest in the foundation after he had explained about George Wickham. William had omitted any mention of Wickham’s personal relationship with their mother, describing him solely as a foundation employee who had embezzled a large sum. She had seemed satisfied with this explanation, to William’s great relief.
In the immediate aftermath of the New Year’s Eve debacle, William had contemplated calling the chairman of the NEA to report Wickham’s history as an embezzler, but Elizabeth had dissuaded him. “He’s in a low-level position,” she had pointed out. “It’s probably easy to embezzle from a small organization when you’re in charge; it would be a lot harder to sneak anything through the bureaucracy of a government agency when you’re a nobody. Besides, let sleeping dogs lie.”
William had misgivings about his decision, but it appeared that Wickham had faded from view again. To cause him to lose his job might provoke him to retaliate. Sleeping dogs, indeed. More like wolves.
He and Georgiana flipped through Sonya’s file cabinet without success, so Georgiana seated herself at Sonya’s desk and booted up the computer.
“Elizabeth must be mad at you for spending most of your time here,” Georgiana said.
“Not at all. We talked about it over the holidays, and we agreed that this was best. Besides, I’m going to see her later this week, when I go out for Charles’s wedding.”
“If I were her, I think I’d be mad that my boyfriend didn’t want to be with me. And if it was because of his sister, I’d hate her.”
He chose his words carefully. “Elizabeth knows that you’re important to me. And she doesn’t hate you.” He hesitated. “But she thinks you don’t like her.”
“That’s not true.” Georgiana’s eyes stayed fixed on the monitor.
Before William could press the subject further, Sonya’s PC sprang to life. He and Georgiana huddled in front of the monitor, checking various folders related to the foundation, but they were unable to locate the master list of grant awardees. At William’s suggestion, they left Sonya a note asking her to call Georgiana with the information. “That way,” he said, “you’ll have an answer before you go there tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thanks, Will,” Georgiana said as they exited Sonya’s office. She hesitated at the second-floor landing.
“I was thinking of going downstairs for a snack,” he said. “Maybe a piece of the apple tart from brunch yesterday. Want to join me?”
She frowned and nibbled her lip, and for a moment he thought she would accept his offer, but then she shook her head. “No, thanks. I have more homework.” She headed slowly upstairs, her bare feet making no sound on the pale marble steps.
He hadn’t initially wanted a snack; it had been an excuse to keep her downstairs. But his stomach had rumbled to life at the suggestion. He headed for the kitchen, hoping Mrs. Reynolds hadn’t taken the rest of the tart upstairs to Allen.