At long last, this is what used to be called Chapter 79, for which some of you have been waiting for over a decade. The numbering has changed because I split some long chapters in half. It’s the same story; I’ve just cut it into more pieces. I’ve also done some editing and polishing along the way, but just minor tweaking.
If you haven’t been part of the group reading (or re-reading) the story over the past few months, I recommend at least reading Chapter 137 (formerly called Chapter 78), which is the first chapter after Elizabeth relocates to New York in early March. Also, the events of the next several chapters are connected to something that happened at the New Year’s Eve gala (Chapters 126-130); that would be a good place to start if you need a light refresher.
Huge thanks to Wendy and Debra, who reviewed the upcoming story arc when it wasn’t much more than an outline, and to Maria, who reviewed drafts of the next several chapters and discussed them with me in depth, helping me to clarify some key points and address some pesky threads I’d left dangling. Also, thanks to Mari J. for some legal advice that was helpful in this story arc.
Elizabeth passed through the revolving doors into the W hotel lobby and entered the Living Room lounge. Had it really been almost three months since she had surprised—and seduced—William in this bar by pretending that he was a stranger? Every moment of that night was etched in her memory, from the daring black dress she had worn to their passionate tryst upstairs.
She continued across the room and perched on a stool at the dimly-lit bar, setting her overnight bag beside her on the floor. “Hey, bartender.”
“Hey,” Sally replied. “You’re right on time.”
“I made good time getting down here. Is my dress okay for our mystery expedition?”
Sally frowned. “Didn’t I tell you to wear something sexy?”
“Yes, and I ignored you. I have no interest in trolling for guys in whatever hot club you’ve discovered this week. I’m just looking forward to having some fun.”
“I think I can guarantee that you will.” Sally raised her eyebrows and smirked.
“You’re being so mysterious.”
Sally’s smirk grew to insufferable proportions. “Patience, grasshopper. All will reveal itself.”
Elizabeth gusted a loud sigh and shook her head. “Okay, fine. I give up.”
“White wine, not too dry, right?”
Sally reached into the cooler behind the bar and retrieved a bottle.
“When does your shift end?” Elizabeth asked idly, propping her elbows on the bar as she watched Sally pour the wine.
“Not until eight.”
“Then why did you tell me to be here at six?”
Sally’s eyes shifted to Elizabeth’s left. “Good evening, sir. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have what the lady’s having.”
Elizabeth’s heart leapt; she knew that deep voice almost as well as her own. She hopped off her barstool and, with a little squeal, flung her arms around William’s neck.
At first, kissing was a higher priority than speech for both of them, but finally Elizabeth found her voice. “What are you doing here? Sonya said your flight was canceled and you wouldn’t be home till tomorrow.”
William smoothed Elizabeth’s hair. “Sonya is a good liar.”
Sally placed two glasses of wine on the bar.
“Thank you,” William said with a nod. “Can you put that on my tab?”
“And thanks for everything else, too,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Couldn’t have done what?” Elizabeth shook her head, her eyes shifting between the apparent co-conspirators. “I don’t understand.”
William collected their wine glasses. “Let’s go sit over there,” he said, tipping his head in the direction of an empty sofa.
Elizabeth grabbed her overnight bag from beneath the barstool and followed him across the room. Once they were seated, he handed Elizabeth her wine glass and raised his in a toast. “To us.”
“To us,” she echoed. “Now, enough stalling. What’s going on?”
“I should think it would be obvious to a smart girl like you,” he said, grinning. “I wanted some time alone with my fiancée. And I knew what would happen the minute I arrived home. Sonya would be waiting there with a stack of papers for me to sign, and Gran would have a dinner party in progress that I had to attend.”
“You’re not far wrong. Your grandmother was disappointed that you were going to miss a reception this evening.”
He groaned. “See? No time for us. And then there’s Georgie. Although the way things have been going lately, she’d probably ignore me.”
“We should discuss Georgie later, but right now I want to hear more about your nefarious plot. Obviously you enlisted Sally to get me down here.”
He nodded. “Since she helped you set up what happened the last time we were here, I figured she’d be willing to help.”
Elizabeth glanced in the direction of the bar. “I wondered why she was so insistent that I bring an overnight bag so I could spend the night downtown.”
“That was Sonya’s idea. She said you’d be more comfortable if you had a few things with you. And Allen will meet us here tomorrow afternoon; he’s in on the plot as well. It’ll look to everyone else like he picked you up at Sally’s place and then the two of you went to the airport to meet me.”
“You are so clever.” She sipped her wine, eyeing him. “Or maybe Sonya’s the clever one. Or both of you.”
“I don’t know if I was clever or just seriously motivated.” He tightened his arm around her shoulders and she shifted closer. “But I had a feeling you wouldn’t object.”
“Of course not. I can’t believe I get you all to myself for the next 24 hours.” Elizabeth leaned her head against his shoulder. He responded by kissing the top of her head and toying with a lock of her hair.
They fell silent, sipping their wine, until at last she whispered, “I missed you so much.”
“Not half as much as I missed you.” He tightened his arm around her shoulders. “I’m pretty sure I never stopped thinking about you the whole trip. The week in London was bad enough, but I’d never been to Edinburgh before, and all I could think about was how much I wished we could have explored the city together. That’s when I decided I was going to carve out some time just for us when I got home.”
“I’d comment that my fiancé is a brilliant man, but I’ve already called you clever. I don’t want to overfeed the ego.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said with a grin. “And I thought this was the perfect place, considering what happened the last time we were here.” He raised one eyebrow, a wicked glint in his eye. “By the way, I even managed to get the same room as last time, up on the seventeenth floor.”
She felt herself melting under the heat of his gaze. “You thought of everything.”
“I did my best,” he said. “I made us a dinner reservation at a new place not far from here that I’ve been wanting to try. Richard’s been there and he said it was excellent.”
Elizabeth scraped her fingernail gently over the stubble on his chin. “Or we could save that for another night, and just order room service.” She leaned in and brushed her lips across his.
“Mmm.” He returned the kiss, his lips lingering on hers. She curled her hand around his neck and inhaled, her eyes closed, letting him fill her senses.
He was the first to draw back, no doubt in deference to their public surroundings. “Room service. That was my first thought, but I didn’t think I should walk in here and immediately rush you upstairs. However, since you suggested it ….” His eyes swept over her, a half-lidded assessment that made her tremble.
A minute later, as they headed for the elevators, Elizabeth glanced toward the bar and saw Sally watching them. She waved and blew Sally a kiss.
“That was a great dinner,” Elizabeth said, settling back into her pillow. They were nestled together on the large bed in their hotel room, propped up against a small mountain of pillows and swathed in soft robes provided by the hotel. She hadn’t felt this contented since … well, since the last time they were together.
“The appetizer was my favorite part,” William murmured in her ear, “and I’m looking forward to dessert.”
“You, sir, are insatiable.”
“Is that a complaint?”
“Not at all.” Her words dissolved into a giggle when William began to nuzzle her neck.
“You’re coming to St. Louis with me next weekend, right?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” Elizabeth answered, “but—”
“No. No buts.” He attempted a stern glare, but a smile crept across his face. “You can’t expect me to visit the Arch on my own.”
She laughed. “Well, okay, since you put it that way.”
“Good. Then it’s settled.”
“But here’s the thing,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I have a meeting Friday morning that I can’t miss.”
“At Georgie’s school—I mean the school where she’s doing her community service. I’m helping with their grant application. I thought I told you about it.”
“You told me you were helping, but you didn’t mention a meeting.”
“We just scheduled it a couple of days ago They really need help, and the next deadline for grant submissions is a week from tomorrow. But I’ll fly out to St. Louis on Friday afternoon and we’ll still have the rest of the weekend together.”
“Hmm.” She could tell from his sidelong glance that he wasn’t pleased, but at last his mouth relaxed and he nodded. “I guess I can survive without you for one day since it’s for a good cause.”
“You’re so generous,” she retorted, rolling her eyes.
“Seriously, Lizzy, I’m glad you’re interested in the foundation.”
“Good.” She hesitated. “Because working with the school gave me an idea.”
“I thought about discussing it with you while you were gone, but ….”
He regarded her in silence, waiting for her to go on.
She took a deep breath and then forged ahead, speaking quickly. “Here’s the thing. Your foundation does fantastic work. You’ve awarded scholarships to lots of aspiring musicians, and that’s wonderful.”
“Am I hearing a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”
His slightly haughty tone was exactly what she had feared. William was quick to take offense at criticism—whether real or imagined—of anything associated with the Darcy family. She sat up, turned to face him, and summoned all her energy and enthusiasm. “But music programs in public schools, especially schools like the one where Georgie is helping out, are struggling. Their funding is being cut or even eliminated. Yet all the research shows that kids benefit in so many ways from studying music.”
“I know,” he answered with a shrug. “We fund public school music programs from time to time.”
“Sonya and I did some research. Did you know that public school programs make up less than five percent of your grant awards?”
He frowned. “What percentage of our grant applications are from public schools?”
“Also about five percent.”
“Well, then,” he said, his frown morphing into a scowl, “what are we supposed to do? You’re making it sound like we’re discriminating against the schools.”
“Of course not!” She grasped his hand. “That’s not what I meant at all. But I was thinking that there are ways to encourage more schools to apply for grants. For starters, let them know you’re interested in helping. Your foundation is so closely associated with conservatories that most of them probably wouldn’t even think to apply.”
He fell silent, his gaze directed across the room. She stifled the urge to press him for an immediate response; he was considering her idea and would speak when he was ready.
She knew she had won when William, his gaze still directed across the room, nodded slowly several times. He turned back to her. “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”
She flashed a self-conscious smile. “I just thought it was a way that we … I mean you could make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives.”
“You were right the first time,” he said gently. “We can make a difference.”
“So you like the idea?”
“I do, very much. In fact, I’ll discuss it with Gran tomorrow when I get home.”
“Actually, I’d like to do that myself. With you there for moral support, of course.”
“Good idea. Let her see that you’re a woman to be reckoned with.”
“I think she saw that last Thanksgiving.”
They grinned at each other. Then Elizabeth said, “Georgie should be part of the conversation, too.”
“Because she’s developed an interest in the foundation, and she’s excited about the school’s grant proposal. In fact, she helped to develop it. And she’s going to be part of the Friday meeting at the school if your grandmother agrees.”
“She’s never shown any interest in the foundation before.”
“Well, she’s interested now, and I hope you’ll encourage her. Like I told you on the phone, we’ve sort of bonded over the visits to the school. I’ve been there with her three times now, and although I’m not going tomorrow, I’ll make a point of asking her about it when she gets home. You should see how happy and animated she is after we’ve been there; it’s the only time I ever see her smile. And I told you how wonderful she is with the kids. She says she wants to be a teacher, and I think she’d be a great one.”
William opened his mouth as though to speak, hesitated, and then pressed his lips together.
“I bet you’re trying to figure out how to explain that your sister can’t lower herself to being a teacher, when you’re about to marry one.” She ran a finger along his jaw. “How’s that for irony?”
“No matter what I say right now, I can’t win, so I think I’ll just change the subject. How are the wedding plans coming along? I don’t think you mentioned the wedding once the whole time I was gone, and I’ve been afraid to ask.”
“Your grandmother and I have been busy. For one thing, we have a design for the invitations you can look at.”
“You mean I get a say about something related to the wedding?” he asked, feigning shock.
She glared at him in mock disgust. “I didn’t say you could approve the invitations, just that you could see them.”
“I figured as much,” he retorted.
“Trust me; I’m doing you a huge favor by keeping you out of most of this stuff. But next week we have an appointment at the Plaza to choose the menu for the reception; you should probably come along with us. Also, we apparently need to order the cake and the flowers soon. I didn’t know those things had to be done so far in advance, but your grandmother says it’s necessary if we want the very best.” A sigh escaped before Elizabeth could stifle it.
“It’s starting to get to you, too, isn’t it?” He caressed her cheek with gentle fingers.
“It’s just a little overwhelming. Everything is so extravagant—elegant and tasteful, of course, but there’s just so … much of everything.”
“I know,” he said, a pained look on his face. “I’m dreading it—not marrying you, of course, just the wedding.” He sighed. “I wish we could elope, or have a quiet wedding and celebrate with the people we love, like Charles and Jane did. But ….” He shrugged. “Well, you know.”
It wasn’t the first time he had shared his misgivings about the large society wedding being planned under Rose’s direction. At first, Elizabeth had been surprised at the depth of his distress. She knew he wasn’t fond of large parties, but he was accustomed to them, and even to being the guest of honor at symphony events. Then she realized the problem. At a normal party, he could fade into the background, and at a symphony event, he could talk to everyone about music. Neither of those things would be true at their wedding reception.
“And I hate that I’m dreading it,” he continued. “Because the idea of our wedding day ….” He kissed her gently. “To make you my wife—there’s nothing I want more. But this three-ring circus Gran is organizing is another matter.”
“Maybe you should talk to her and ask if we can scale back.”
He shook his head. “I understand why she’s doing it; her … I mean, our social circle expects a certain kind of event. Anything less, and she’d be afraid of hurting the family’s reputation. Plus, this is the first wedding she’s ever gotten to plan. But I just want it to be over with.”
”You’re just saying that because after the wedding I’ll have no choice but to share your bed at the townhouse.”
He chuckled and kissed her; then his smile faded. “You know it’s about much more than that, right?”
“Of course I do. I was just kidding.”
“I know, but sometimes I worry that … well, I hope you never think that sex is the main thing I want from you.”
“Of course not.”
“It’s like earlier, when you said I was insatiable.”
“I also said I had no complaints.”
“I know, but every time we’re together it seems like within ten seconds I’m dragging you to the nearest bed, or at least trying to.” He glanced around. “Look at us now. I’ve been back in New York for three hours, and I’ve already got you out of your clothes and into bed.”
“And isn’t it lovely,” she murmured, her fingers wandering across his chest. “Besides, you intended for us to go to a restaurant. I was the one who suggested room service.”
“And it took so much convincing to get me on board.” He smiled and kissed her. “I don’t deserve you.”
“That’s probably true,” she teased, “but if you’re worried that I feel like a sex object, you can relax. I’m a more than willing participant.”
“Except at the townhouse.”
“Touché. But other than that ….” With his encouragement, and to her continual surprise, she had gradually cast off most of her inhibitions regarding intimate activities. Except at the townhouse. Elizabeth shook her head as though to dislodge that thought. “And remember, for the past few months we’ve been apart a lot more than we’ve been together.”
He sighed and drew her into his arms. “True.”
“And we spend a lot of time on the phone when we’re apart.” She pressed a soft kiss to his cheek.
“Yes, we do.”
“So we talk to each other all the time. But when we’re finally in the same room, and we’re alone ….” she whispered in his ear.
“It’s natural to want to make the most of the opportunity?”
She lay back on the bed and drew him down with her. “Exactly,” she breathed, threading her hands through his hair.
“Speaking of which,” he murmured, his voice a deep rumble, “I think it’s time for dessert.”
If William had thought he could get away with it, he would have added another day’s delay to his supposed flight cancellation. It had been almost a month since he and Elizabeth had spent a day alone together, making these twenty-four stolen hours all the sweeter.
William craned his neck to study the carvings on the arch, its design clearly inspired by the work of the ancient Romans. “Of course,” he remarked, “the arches built by the Roman emperors were much more ornate; they were usually built in celebration of winning a major battle, and the carvings would tell the story—at least, the story from the victor’s viewpoint.”
“Speaking of Romans,” Elizabeth replied. “I’ve always meant to ask you if you have any family in Italy. It seems like you must have at least a few relatives over there.”
“I probably do. But Mamma had a big argument with her mother—I think her parents didn’t want her to marry my father—so they weren’t in contact, at least not once she moved to New York.”
“So you might have grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins that you’ve never met?”
He nodded. “Sonya got word to them after Mamma died, and I got a short letter afterwards—in Italian—from my grandmother, but that’s the only time I ever heard from them. I might have written back but I don’t remember; it was a long time ago.”
Their conversation turned to Georgiana, whose spring break had just begun. “Poor kid,” Elizabeth said. “Your grandmother insists that she has to spend it at home. With all the restrictions she’s under, she won’t be allowed to do much of anything.”
“I need to talk to Gran,” William said. “I think it would be good for her to get away. Maybe Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Robert could still take her to Pemberley, like they suggested. We could even join them for a few days after we get back from St. Louis.”
“I don’t know if you really understand how badly the whole shoplifting incident scarred her.” Elizabeth sighed. “I told her about Kitty and Lydia and what happened with them, and she opened up a little after that. She thinks your grandmother hates her because of the embarrassment she caused.”
“Of course Gran doesn’t hate her.” But he suspected that Rose did resent, at least unconsciously, the embarrassment she had experienced when Georgiana’s arrest became a topic of society gossip.
“I’m not the one you have to convince.” Elizabeth paused and took William’s hand in hers. “I understand why your grandmother is concerned about Georgie, but she’s practically imprisoned in the house.”
William nodded. “I think Gran blames herself for giving Georgie too much freedom last fall. If she—and I—had kept closer track of what Georgie was doing, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble.”
“Maybe, but you can’t keep a teenager on a leash 24 hours a day. If Georgie was looking for a way to rebel, I think she would have found it regardless.”
“I suppose so. But it’s hard for me to understand why she would want to rebel.”
“Remember how you told me about hiding your running shoes in Richard’s closet, so your mother wouldn’t see them? Weren’t you rebelling against her restrictions? You wanted to run, and you weren’t going to let her stop you.”
“I see what you mean.”
“I think getting Georgie interested in new things could make a difference. That’s why I’ve been encouraging her interest in the foundation as much as I can. I’m hoping we can convince her to join us tomorrow when we talk to your grandmother about the school grant idea.”
They paused by the fountain in the center of the park. “We should come back later this spring,” Elizabeth said, “after they turn the fountain on. It’s fun to come here on a nice day and see the kids running around enjoying themselves. Everyone just seems to be in a good mood.”
“That sounds nice,” William replied. And maybe someday we’ll bring our kids here.
Despite Elizabeth’s best efforts, Georgiana refused to join them the following morning, even for breakfast. William was hurt at first, but Elizabeth explained that Georgiana rarely stayed in the same room with her grandmother if she could help it, and there was always a chance of encountering Rose at the breakfast table. His sister seemed to have been replaced by a sullen, mute alien with only Georgiana’s outer shell intact.
After breakfast, William and Elizabeth asked to speak to Rose. They sat down with her in the library. William chose to share a sofa with Elizabeth; moral support would be easier to provide at close range.
“I assume this is about the wedding.” Rose said as she seated herself.
“Actually, no, Mrs. Darcy,” Elizabeth replied. “I wondered if I could talk to you about the foundation.”
William could feel Elizabeth’s muscles growing tense. He was about to drape a comforting arm around her shoulders when she took a quick breath and continued. “I have an idea—a possible new program—for the foundation. I’ve already discussed it with William, so now we’re bringing it to you. I hope it’s not inappropriate for me to suggest it, since I’m an outsider.”
“You’re not an outsider, Lizzy,” William interjected. “You’ll be a Darcy in just a few months, and as far as I’m concerned you’re part of the family already.”
“Please tell me your idea,” Rose said, with her practiced air of detached courtesy.
Elizabeth went on to explain her proposal to direct more of the foundation’s money toward public school music programs, ending by saying, “What if the next William Darcy is out there, but never gets music lessons? What a loss to that child, and to the world.” She smiled at William, and he reached for her hand.
“I’d have to check with Sonya,” Rose said, “but I believe we receive very few grant proposals from public schools.” William nodded; he had raised the same issue himself.
“Sonya and I looked into that, and you’re right,” Elizabeth said. “But these teachers are overworked, and they may not understand how to find grant sources or how to write a good proposal. I’ve been talking to Ms. Martinez, the after-school coordinator where Georgie’s doing her community service. She trained as a music educator but funding was cut for her school. I suggested applying for a grant to support an after-school music program. She loved the idea, but she said she’d never applied for a grant before.” Elizabeth’s eyes were shining, she was leaning forward, and her voice was strong now. William’s heart swelled with pride.
“How do you suggest addressing that problem?” Rose asked.
“We could have someone assist teachers through the application process. We could even help them with applications to other foundations. And once we’ve funded some successful programs, we could provide templates to other schools.”
Rose tilted her head to one side. “An interesting idea, but we don’t have anyone available to do that. Sonya is our only employee, and she only works part-time for the foundation.”
“Well …” Elizabeth glanced at William before continuing. “What about me? I’m not an expert, but I learned a little about grant writing when I got my master’s degree. I’ve been talking to Sonya—she gave me some great suggestions—and I’m sure you and William would have good advice to offer as well. I thought I’d test out the idea by helping Ms. Martinez, and if it works well, maybe approach some other schools in the area.”
“We wouldn’t want to abandon our current scholarship programs,” Rose said, addressing William.
“Remember, Gran, we’re dropping support of Pacific Conservatory.” William had to labor to keep a smug expression off his face. “We can use that money for some initial projects, and then decide how to proceed.”
Rose paused for a moment, her eyes seemingly focused on some books on a high shelf. “All right, then. It sounds like a good idea. And you feel that you have the time?”
Elizabeth beamed. “Right now I have plenty of time, and after I get a job … I’ll just have to be careful not to overcommit myself. So you wouldn’t mind my representing the foundation in this way?”
“Of course not,” William interjected. “I think it’s fantastic.”
“As William pointed out,” Rose said, “you will be part of the family very soon, and as such your involvement with the foundation is most welcome. This seems like a fine way to start.”
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