He half expected the engine of the red BMW Z3 roadster to groan in embarrassment at being seen by the other sports cars zipping past in the left-hand lanes. But in the aftermath of his dizzy spell at the airport, he couldn’t risk going any faster.
He rarely drove a car. At home in New York, the Darcys’ household staff included a driver, and William’s performing trips usually took him to large cities best navigated in a hired limo. But the word “California“ summoned up the irresistible image of a convertible zipping down a sun-soaked freeway. Richard deserved the credit, or the blame, for this association.
Some might think it silly to gratify such a frivolous whim—his grandmother headed that list—but he allowed himself this harmless vice. By now, his secretary knew the owner of every exotic car rental agency from San Diego to San Francisco.
Had he known that he’d have to rein in the engine rumbling under the hood, he might have asked Sonya to arrange for a limo instead. But the weekend had just begun, and he was already feeling better.
Half an hour ago he hadn’t been so optimistic. As he had leaned over the luggage conveyor to retrieve his suitcase, the world had dissolved into near blackness. He had needed every ounce of his concentration to stay on his feet while he searched for a place to sit and rest. He had been curt with the fan who had accosted him at the worst possible moment, but it would have been unthinkable to confess his weakness by saying, “Pardon me, but if I don’t sit down I’m going to fall in a heap at your feet.”
He shrugged. It didn’t matter; she was a stranger, someone he would never see again. He steered the Z3 onto Highway 101 and pressed the gas pedal. The car leapt forward like a thoroughbred bolting toward the finish line, and for the first time that day he began to relax.
The maitre d’ showed him to a table shaded by a canopy of trees. He stretched his long legs and alternated between perusing the menu and gazing absently at the fountain in the center of the terrace. Its gentle splashing sounds underscored the soft hum of voices from nearby tables.
Several minutes later, he sat sipping a glass of iced tea and devouring a small loaf of warm sourdough bread. He glanced at his watch; as he looked up, he saw Charles Bingley striding briskly across the terrace, wearing a broad grin.
“Will! God, it’s good to see you!”
Charles ignored William’s outstretched hand and instead enveloped him in a bear hug. William shifted on his feet and tentatively thumped Charles on the back.
“Sorry I was late,” Charles said as they sat down. “I tried to get here on time.”
“I know.” William grinned at his friend. “I expected you to be at least fifteen minutes late, so actually you’re right on schedule.”
“Okay, Mr. Punctuality-is-next-to-Godliness.”
The waiter arrived to take their order. Once he had collected the menus and departed, Charles asked, “How was the trip?”
William performed a mental edit of his tribulations and then answered, “Most of it isn’t worth talking about. But I had to deal with three fans.”
“Ah, the life of a classical-music sex symbol.”
“Not this again.”
“Deny it all you want,” Charles said, smirking. “But you know it’s true, and not just because Newsweek called you that. Women who don’t even know how to spell ’concerto’ take one look at you, and suddenly they’re big-time classical music fans. They buy your recordings and nag their husbands and boyfriends into taking them to your concerts. And then they hang around your dressing room door afterwards, hoping to meet The Man Himself.”
“You are so full of it.” But Charles wasn’t that far from the truth. Such superficial admiration couldn’t compare to the appreciation of a true classical music aficionado, but William was revered by that audience too. Besides, as Richard was fond of pointing out, symphony orchestras didn’t make that distinction when William’s guest appearances attracted sellout crowds.
Charles snickered. “You think I’m full of it? And that’s why you were overrun by fans this morning? Come on, let’s hear the juicy details. I’m so jealous it’s pathetic.”
“Don’t be. One was a woman old enough to be my mother who wouldn’t stop talking about computers. She claimed to be my Webmistress, which conjured up some lurid images.”
“My techno-phobic pal,” Charles said, chuckling. “The only guy I know who doesn’t have email.”
“Yes, I do.” William delivered this news with a smug smile.
“A few years ago. But I almost never give out the address.”
“Here’s the real test. How often do you check your email?” Charles asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“That’s Sonya’s job.”
“Why am I not surprised? But I want to hear more about the Webmistress.”
“She wanted a photo. And there I was, barely awake, with coffee stains on my shirt.”
Charles laughed. “You and your wardrobe obsession!”
William shook his head, eyeing Charles’s wrinkled khaki shirt. “Just because I haven’t perfected the California beach bum look—”
“Don’t knock it. Women find it irresistible. Which brings me back to your adoring fans. Let’s hear about the others.”
William grimaced. “As I was about to leave the airport, a woman came over for an autograph. I turned her down, and I was rather abrupt.”
“What did she look like?”
“Blonde. Pretty. Why do you ask?”
“Wow. So many women to choose from, you can afford to blow off cute blondes.”
“And what about fan number three? What did she do?”
“Nothing in particular. Just someone on my flight who was staring at me.” William developed a sudden interest in studying his glass of iced tea.
“And did you make a date with Ms. ’Nothing In Particular’ for Saturday night, after the wedding?”
“Of course not. I don’t get romantically involved with fans. You know that.”
Charles rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know that. Everyone who knows you knows that. Hell, our waiter probably knows that. They chase you all over creation, and you can’t run away fast enough. I think you’re nuts.”
“I’m sorry if it punctures your fantasies, but I am not constantly propositioned by groupies. That might happen to rock stars, but not to me. When I’m approached, it’s usually just for an autograph or a photo.”
“Bullshit. I bet you meet plenty of female fans who would be only too happy to get something a lot more personal than an autograph.”
“Taking advantage of my fans that way would be undignified. And ungentlemanly.”
Charles rolled his eyes. “My God, Will, could you possibly be any more stuffy?”
William glared at Charles, but before he could compose a suitably sharp retort, Charles laughed. “I’m just yanking your chain. But, seriously, you could probably have a different woman every night if you wanted.”
“But I don’t want that. You should understand; you’re the one who’s getting married.”
Charles’s face softened. “Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for true love.”
“Tell me about her. All I know so far is her name.”
“Jane is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
William had heard those words from Charles many times before, about many different women. “Of course she is.”
“No, I mean it. Tall, slender, blonde, blue eyes. A real California girl.”
“What does she do?”
“She’s a lawyer. But forget the stereotypes. She’s kind and sweet and sincere. And we have lots in common. We like to run marathons and play tennis, and I’m going to teach her to surf on our honeymoon.”
“How did you meet?”
“At a 10K race in early February. We’ve been together ever since.”
“Then you haven’t known her for long.”
“I knew as soon as I met her that she was the one.”
William frowned. Charles was once again letting his impulsive streak rule his life. “Is she with a large law firm?”
“No, she has her own small practice. Of course she’ll have to shut it down eventually, when we move to LA.”
“You’re going back there?”
“Father insists. He wanted us to move back right after the honeymoon, but I got him to give us six months.” Charles brightened as he continued. “I figure I’ll keep delaying it a few months at a time, and we’ll be able to stay here for at least a year.”
“Does Jane get along well with your parents?”
Charles hesitated. “They’ve only met her once; we went down for a weekend in April. But I’m sure they’ll love her once they get to know her better.”
That didn’t sound promising. “And her family?”
“They live in Cupertino. Her father is a computer engineer. Big family; Jane is the oldest of five girls.”
“So you come from very different backgrounds.”
Charles shrugged. “I don’t care about that.”
“I assume your parents care.”
“Yeah,” Charles said with a sigh. “Father keeps insisting that Jane wants me for my money.”
“Is that a possibility?”
“Of course not! Why does everyone say that? Jane loves me.”
“I’m remembering some of the girls who chased you, and almost caught you, when we were at Juilliard.”
“That was years ago!” Charles shook his head. “I was young and gullible back then.”
“I’m also thinking of my own experiences. I’ve nearly given up on meeting a woman whose interest in me goes beyond my name and my bank balance.”
Charles heaved a sigh. “I told you, Jane has her own law practice. It’s not like she’s been sitting around waiting for a rich husband to show up.”
William smiled at his friend’s naïveté;. “That doesn’t prove anything. Even though the women in my family’s social circle have resources of their own, they’re always looking for more.”
“You sound just like Father. He’s obsessed with the idea that Jane’s a fortune hunter. He even wanted her to sign a prenup.”
“Well, of course. That’s the only sensible thing to do.”
Charles stared at William. “You’re kidding. You want me to go to the woman I love and start planning the divorce, when we’re not even married yet?”
“But look at the statistics on failed marriages.”
“Jane and I aren’t a statistic. We’re two people in love. I don’t want to even suggest that I think it won’t last.”
“Then she hasn’t signed anything?”
“I’m surprised your father agreed to forego the prenup.”
“He didn’t,” Charles murmured in a conspiratorial tone, leaning forward.
“I don’t understand.”
“He gave me a prenup and told me to get Jane to sign it. Our lawyer in LA thinks the San Francisco lawyer has the signed copy, and vice versa. By the time Father finds out, the wedding will be over and it’ll be too late.”
“But you can’t do that,” William replied, shaking his head.
Charles lifted his chin. “The hell I can’t.”
“There’s a family business at stake here. You could lose it if the marriage fails.”
“It isn’t going to fail, so it’s a moot point.” Charles sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Time to change the subject.”
Their lunches arrived, and they ate in silence. William appreciated Charles’s happy-go-lucky nature, though it was entirely different from his own and he had never felt any compulsion to change. But Charles had never quite grown up. He fell in love easily and often unwisely and got his heart broken with predictable regularity.
Charles finally broke the oppressive silence, introducing a safer topic. “What kind of car did you rent?”
“A Z3.” William swallowed a bite of his salmon.
“Nice. By the way, Jane feels bad that we didn’t meet you at the airport. She’s worried about being a good hostess.”
“Did you explain about the car?”
“No, I didn’t think she’d understand sports car lust.”
William chuckled. “Well put.”
“She also wasn’t happy that you’re staying here at the Ritz instead of at the house with me.”
“It seemed best, with ….” William hesitated. “With some of your family staying at the house.”
“In other words, you don’t want to be forced into close quarters with Caroline.”
William couldn’t deny it. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m the one who should apologize, for having such a pushy sister.”
“It’s not your fault.”
The waiter returned and cleared away the plates. Both men refused dessert and coffee. William, over Charles’s protests, charged the lunch to his room.
“Got any plans this afternoon?” Charles asked.
“No. What did you have in mind?”
“Come over to the house. Jane went to meet her sister at the airport. She said they’d probably go out to lunch and do some shopping, so we’ll have the place to ourselves. I’ve got a fridge full of beer—Anchor Steam, a local brew. I know you’re a wine snob, but trust me, you’ll love this stuff. We can sit on the patio and enjoy the calm before the storm.”
“Fine with me. And since we’ll be back here later for the rehearsal dinner, why don’t you leave your car here and we’ll take mine?”
Charles grinned. “You want to put the Z3 through its paces, huh? In that case, let’s take the long way back to the house.”
William smiled as he led the way out of the restaurant. Eat your heart out, Richard. You made up the stories, but I get to experience it for real.