“Should I wait out front for you, Mr. Darcy?” Allen asked, watching William in the rear view mirror.
“Is there someplace nearby where you could watch the game?” Allen was a Yankees fan, and William knew it was a sacrifice for him to be away from his television during a World Series game.1
“That’s kind of you, but are you sure you’ll be all right?” Allen peered at the East Village bar in front of which they were stopped. “I could just sit here and listen to the radio, in case you needed me.”
“That’s not necessary; I’ll be fine.” William knew Allen was bewildered by their destination, but he was both unable and unwilling to explain.
“All right, then, sir. I won’t be far away. Just call me when you need me.”
As William stepped out of the car, three young women in midriff tops and miniskirts stumbled out of the bar, the throbbing beat of music spilling onto the sidewalk with them. He watched them weave their way across the street. Then with a deep breath he approached the club, paid the cover charge demanded by the muscular bouncer, and passed through the doors.
The walls seemed to pulsate with the thrumming of over-amplified bass. Everything was bathed in red light, obscuring some of the details of the room and its occupants, but the specifics William was able to discern were distasteful. Couples filled a small dance floor in front of a greasy-haired DJ surrounded by dusty equipment. It gives a new meaning to the term ‘grunge rock.’ William might have chuckled at his mild witticism had his errand not been so serious.
He made his way toward the large bar stretched across the back wall, the soles of his shoes sticking to the floor. A tall form, reflected in the cracked mirror along the wall, towered above the patrons sitting at the bar. William noted the bartender’s dark wavy hair and heavily muscled upper body, flaunted beneath a snug-fitting tee shirt, and his hands clenched into fists. Those muscles had once been used to pin a terrified Elizabeth to her bed.
The knowledge that Michael was somewhere in Manhattan had eaten at William’s soul since he had heard Elizabeth’s story. Yesterday, in response to his request, Sonya had handed him a slip of paper containing the name and address of this bar and a list of Michael’s work hours for the rest of the week. William had headed downtown as soon as the foundation board meeting ended, not even taking the time to change out of his gray pinstripe suit, the expert work of his favorite Savile Row tailor. He looked entirely out of place, and he was glad of it.
“What can I get you?” Michael asked, sliding a cocktail napkin onto the bar in front of William.
The question seemed incongruous amid William’s fantasies of dark vengeance, as was the prosaic answer that popped from his mouth. “What’s your best cognac?”
William nodded, not surprised that the bar was supplied with nothing better. Michael set a glass in front of him, filled it, and then sauntered away, pausing to wink at a woman down the bar who sat preening, attempting to attract his attention. William watched their flirtation, fury flashing in his eyes. He longed to be a medieval prince with an army at his disposal to wreak havoc on his enemies. A different sort of man seeking a modern alternative might have waylaid Michael after work and pummeled him mercilessly.
His mood grew even darker when the woman on his right, who had inspected him from head to toe since his arrival, touched his arm, having apparently despaired of getting his attention in any other way. Before she could speak he shot her a freezing glare and turned his back on her.
What am I doing here? What did I think I was going to do? It was pointless to try to get Michael fired; he could no doubt find a similar job at some equally depressing club without much trouble. And William didn’t have the influence necessary to get him blacklisted on Broadway. Helpless rage surged through him as he faced the cold reality that punishing Michael was beyond his power. Seeing the man here, serving cheap liquor in distasteful surroundings instead of garnering standing ovations at the Winter Garden Theater, would have to be satisfaction enough. But it wasn’t enough, not for what he had done; it didn’t come close.
He left payment for his untouched drink on the bar and pulled his phone from his pocket to call Allen. Elizabeth had been right; nothing could change the past. The only thing he could do—and he had already begun to put these plans in place—was to protect Elizabeth, to cherish her and keep her from harm, for the rest of her life.
“We’re going to take a short break, but stick around, because we’ve got more music for you,” Jim Pennington announced. Elizabeth glanced at her watch as she stepped away from the stage area. It was after 10:00, and their next set would be their last.
“Lizzy, I want to put some more of your songs into the final set,” Jim said.
“Sure, that’s fine.” Despite her long teaching day, followed by a mad dash across town to join her band-mates in the hotel lounge, she felt alert and energized.
“They’re responding to you, much more than to the instrumental numbers.”
“That’s for sure,” Roger said. “You’re hot tonight, sweetie; there’s no other word for it.”
Her only answer was a wide, pink-cheeked smile. There was a reason for the high-wattage sparkle she knew she was emitting. The week of separation was nearly over. William would be back tomorrow, earlier than expected.
She had called him that afternoon and he had shared some surprising news. The pianist scheduled to perform with the San Francisco Symphony that weekend had slipped in his hotel bathroom, breaking a finger and spraining his wrist. The symphony executives, aware that William was living in San Francisco but not that he was presently in New York, had called him seeking an emergency replacement. After talking to Georgie, since it meant taking an early flight and skipping her audition, he had consented.
Elizabeth doubted she’d have any time alone with William until late tomorrow evening despite his early arrival. He would be rehearsing most of the afternoon with the symphony. She would be busy too, helping with final preparations for the opening night of South Pacific, which she still planned to see that evening. But she hoped to slip over to Symphony Hall some time during the afternoon to say a quick hello, or at least to watch him while he rehearsed.
Since the start of their relationship she had occasionally seen him in recital, but not yet in concert with an orchestra. That would change on Saturday night, when she would sit in the seat William had secured for her and watch him mesmerize the crowd. She drew a shaky breath. If they hadn’t already become lovers last week, she was sure it would have happened this weekend. After seeing him in concert, she couldn’t possibly have resisted him.
Roger sauntered over to join her at one end of the bar. The bartender handed her a glass of water, her beverage of choice while singing, and she accepted it with thanks.
“Don’t you want to sit?” Roger asked.
She shook her head. “It’s been a long day. I’ve got the adrenaline pumping, but if I let myself relax that much I might fall asleep.”
“And I’ve been parked behind the drums all night, so it feels good to stretch my legs. Is William still due back tomorrow?”
“Yes, he is.” She pressed her lips together to try to tone down her smile, but she felt delight radiating from her eyes.
“I’m glad for you both. It’s good to see two people so completely in love.”
“William said you and Anne de Bourgh seemed to hit it off.”
“Yeah, I guess so. She was nicer than I expected, after all the horror stories about her mother,” he said with a shrug. “Very quiet, but after William left she opened up a little more. Turns out she’s a math whiz, which was a point in her favor.”
“Really? I never thought of math as something that could bring people together.” But Roger had a Ph.D. in biostatistics, so she supposed it was possible.
“Yeah, well, how often do I meet someone who understands confidence intervals? And I got the feeling she could use a friend.”
He remained by her side, leaning casually against the bar while he finished his beer. She sipped her water, absorbing the low-pitched hum of voices punctuated by the occasional clink of glasses. Fatigue began to settle over her like a stifling blanket, and she yawned behind her hand.
Roger frowned and asked, “Who is that woman across the room? She looks familiar, and she keeps staring at us like we’re covered in maggots.”
“Over there.” He inclined his head to one side of the lounge. “The redhead who’s sitting alone.”
Elizabeth followed his gaze and let out a little groan. “Oh, no. That’s Caroline Bingley, Charles’s sister. What is she doing here?” Caroline’s table was off in a corner, but she couldn’t have been there long or Elizabeth would have noticed her while singing.
“That’s right. She was at the rehearsal dinner. Isn’t she the one Charlotte calls Cruella?”
“That’s her. Maybe if we’re lucky she’ll just finish her drink and slither off.”
But that was not to be. Caroline raised her hand in a supercilious wave and rose from her table. As she approached, Elizabeth inspected her stylish black pantsuit with reluctant admiration.
“Elizabeth Bennet! I haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”
Elizabeth studied Caroline’s bright-eyed smile, noting how genuine it looked; it was an admirable display of acting ability. “Hello, Caroline. I’m surprised to see you.”
“I had a business dinner at the hotel, and as I was leaving I saw that Golden Gate Jazz was playing tonight. So of course I simply had to stop in and say hello.”
Elizabeth introduced her to Roger, who responded politely despite Caroline’s curt nod. Obviously she had sized him up and discarded him as a social inferior. Elizabeth expected him to take the opportunity to escape, but he stood his ground.
Since she couldn’t escape a chat with Caroline, Elizabeth decided to troll for information. “It was good to see Charles last weekend. But I understand he cut his trip short.”
Caroline waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Oh, yes, Charles is so busy these days. In fact, I was surprised he didn’t cancel the trip altogether. He’s becoming an important businessman, and he can’t be wasting time on inconsequential things.”
Elizabeth refused to respond to Caroline’s snide reference to her birthday dinner. “But I’m sure he still wants to see his friends now and then.”
“Yes, well, as to that ….” Caroline fixed a cold stare on Roger. “Could you excuse us? I have something to discuss with Elizabeth.”
Roger glanced at Elizabeth, who nodded and gave him a tight smile. He excused himself, joining the other band members at a nearby table.
“He seems … pleasant enough, I guess, if you like that type,” Caroline remarked, watching Roger go. “And obviously you do. You didn’t let grass grow under your feet after William left town.”
“Roger is just a friend,” Elizabeth said, a note of annoyance creeping into her voice.
“Well, of course he is.” Caroline patted Elizabeth’s arm. “I’m sure you have many … friends like Roger. I imagine you hardly even notice that William’s left you.”
Elizabeth’s chin jutted out. “He hasn’t left me. He’ll be back tomorrow.” She instantly regretted volunteering this information, but her pride had gotten the better of her.
“Did he tell you about our nice chat at the airport last weekend?”
“He said that he spoke to you.”
Caroline nodded, and Elizabeth saw a smug light in her eyes. “I’m so glad Charles and I were there to see the poor dear off on his trip, since no one else cared enough to do it.”
Under the table, Elizabeth curled her hand into a fist, concentrating on the feel of her nails pressing into her palm.
“I must say, it was lovely to have some private time with him, to catch up. I’ve been working such long hours, mostly in LA. And then there’s the absolutely delicious man I’ve been seeing.” Caroline breathed a theatrical sigh. “He’s taken up so much of my time. I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting dear William.”
“I don’t think he’s felt neglected.” Elizabeth eyed Caroline with a smug look of her own.
“Yes, I’m sure you’ve taken care of his … needs. No doubt he’s very appreciative.”
Elizabeth’s nails were digging so hard into her palm by now that it hurt. Nothing, it seemed, could puncture Caroline’s cheerful insolence. Caroline raised her left hand to smooth her hair, and Elizabeth’s eyes fell on an immense ring she wore.
“Oh, you noticed my ring,” Caroline said with a coy smile. “Doesn’t it take your breath away?”
Elizabeth coughed to cover a snicker. “It certainly does.” A massive ruby festooned with diamonds, the ring was an ostentatious horror.
“It’s from Bruce, the man I mentioned before. He wanted to get me a diamond solitaire, but … this is a secret, but I can trust you, can’t I? We want to be absolutely sure that we’re ready to ‘forsake all others’ before we make it official. He says he can’t live without me, but he’s giving me a bit more time to be absolutely certain. You mustn’t tell a soul.”
“I won’t.” Elizabeth’s hand drifted up to her neck to touch her pendant, the emerald’s polished surface hard and cool against her fingers.
“What a sweet little necklace,” Caroline cooed, toying with her ring. “Isn’t it amazing the things they can do with costume jewelry these days? The substitutes they make for gemstones are good enough to fool most people.”
“That’s true,” Elizabeth answered sweetly. “I bet most people are fooled by your ring.”
For a second, rage flamed in Caroline’s eyes. Then, like a curtain drawn over a gruesome scene, a complacent smile settled onto her face. “You and your sense of humor, Elizabeth! We both know I was talking about your necklace, not my ring.”
Elizabeth itched to fling the truth about the pendant in Caroline’s face. Instead she smiled and sipped her water, soothing her annoyance by recalling the tenderness in William’s eyes when he gave her the emerald.
Caroline’s smile slipped a notch when Elizabeth refused the bait. “I suppose I should get to the point. I wanted to talk to you about Charles and Jane.”
“What about them?”
“Jane probably told you he’s not planning to come up here anymore?”
“I couldn’t bear to tell her this myself, but perhaps you can. Work is only part of the reason he won’t be back. Charles has chosen his life, and Jane, the poor dear, doesn’t fit into it.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh, you know,” Caroline said with a casual shrug. “Charles needs the right sort of wife. Jane is a sweet girl, but she has … limitations. Isn’t that why she didn’t marry him? Because she realized she’d never fit into his world?”
“Of course not. Don’t you remember your father’s ultimatum?” Elizabeth glared at Caroline. “Either she and Charles agreed to live under your father’s thumb, or Charles was going to be tossed out of the family. And as for her not being an asset, that’s ridiculous. Charles will never find anyone half as wonderful as Jane.”
“As I said, she’s a sweet girl. And considering her upbringing, she’s done well for herself.”
It was just as well that Elizabeth had already finished her water, because otherwise it would have ended up in Caroline’s face. She glanced longingly over her shoulder at the hoses the bartender used to dispense water and soft drinks. Just the thought of spraying Caroline with seltzer made her feel better.
“But there’s more to the story,” Caroline continued, “and this is the part I especially thought you ought to know.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow and fixed an inquiring stare on Caroline, waiting for her to continue.
“Let’s see,” Caroline said. “Where to begin? At the airport, I suppose. As I told you, I had a nice long chat with William while we were waiting for Charles’s flight. Poor William seemed … out of sorts, and eventually I coaxed him into telling me his troubles. You displeased him by going off to pursue your own agenda instead of coming to the airport to see him off.”
“That’s none of your business, Caroline.” She wasn’t sure what angered her more, being subjected to a lecture from Caroline or the possibility that William had confided in her.
Caroline was watching her closely. “I’m sorry if I touched a nerve. But, you know, it takes more than … bestowing favors on a man to hold onto him.”
Elizabeth pressed her lips together, staring across the room. “The band break will be over soon. If you’ve got something to say, get on with it.”
“I wonder if I should?” Caroline said with a pensive frown. “After all, it’s too late to change things. And I’m sure he’s always done what he thought was best for Charles.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about William, and the things he did to keep Jane and Charles apart.”
Remember, she’d lie at the drop of a sapphire. “You mean when William and Charles talked at the airport?”
“Let’s start there.”
“I doubt you were part of the conversation, so how could you know what was said?”
“It’s true, they made me sit by myself. Talk about rudeness!” Caroline leaned forward, raising her eyebrows in a conspiratorial arch, and lowered her voice. “But I was nearby, and I have excellent hearing.”
“So you were eavesdropping.”
“I prefer to call it gleaning valuable information, which I’m now willing to share with you.”
“Go on.” Elizabeth hated seeing how much Caroline was enjoying the moment, but she hated even more that she couldn’t bring herself to end the conversation.
“Charles said he was thinking about getting back together with Jane. A bad idea, but Charles has never been practical. He asked William’s advice, and William discouraged him. For one thing, he said that Jane had moved on to his cousin Richard.”
“You must have heard him wrong. Jane and Richard are just friends, and William knows that perfectly well.”
“He did say that they had been claiming it was just platonic, on Richard’s side, at least, but that there had definitely been some ‘non-platonic’ activity going on—those were almost his exact words.”
“It’s platonic on both sides,” Elizabeth retorted. “Richard is involved with my friend Charlotte Lucas. Charles would have seen that for himself Saturday night. Either you misunderstood, or you’re trying to stir up trouble.”
Caroline shrugged. “If you say so. Then you’re not interested in hearing the rest of what William said?”
Elizabeth wished she could shake her head and walk away, but the words that came out instead were, “I know you’re dying to tell me, so go ahead.”
“William said he still believed that Jane wanted Charles for his money, not for love.”
Pain lanced Elizabeth’s heart. She wished she could defend William, denouncing Caroline as a liar, but Richard’s comments at her birthday dinner supplied some corroboration.
Caroline seemed satisfied with the expression she saw in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Of course I’ve never believed that of Jane, not even when William first said it back in May.”
Elizabeth struggled to maintain a neutral expression. This could all be an elaborate lie. But somehow it didn’t feel like a lie.
After waiting for a response that didn’t come, Caroline continued. “He must have told you how he kept Charles from reconciling with Jane. I’m sure you lovebirds have no secrets.”
“He mentioned something about it.” Elizabeth gripped the edge of the bar.
“Something? So you’ve never heard the whole story.” The eager accents in Caroline’s voice were matched by the malice glinting in her eyes. “The morning after the rehearsal dinner, Charles and I went to see Daddy. Charles didn’t want to lose Jane or his inheritance. He proposed a compromise, but Daddy wouldn’t hear of it.” Caroline stopped to take a breath and admire her ring. “Then we went back to William’s suite. Charles had gotten drunk the night before and slept on William’s sofa. When we got there, William had returned from running not long before, as I recall. I do love a man who takes care of his body.”
“Lizzy, we need to get started.” It was Jim Pennington, calling to her from his nearby table.
“I need a few more minutes,” Elizabeth said. Caroline was probably twisting half the story and inventing the rest, but the details so far—Charles spending a drunken night in William’s suite, and the timing of William’s run that morning—matched Elizabeth’s knowledge of the events. She had to hear the rest.
“Sorry. Break is over.” Jim walked past her toward the stage area, flanked by Bill and Roger.
“I said I need a few more minutes!”
Four male heads swiveled in unison to stare at Elizabeth. “Okay,” Jim said, eyeing her with a frown. “We’ll open with an instrumental number. But after that we need you on stage.”
Elizabeth nodded. Roger shot her a concerned glance, but she waved him away.
“Where was I?” Caroline asked. “Oh, yes, William was back from running. So we sat down and talked. Charles said he was going to defy Daddy, sacrifice his inheritance, give up everything for Jane. I thought that was so romantic. He was on the verge of throwing himself at her feet, but William stopped him.”
“For what reasons?” Elizabeth had to know. A storm seemed to roar inside her head, muddling her thoughts and battering her heart.
“Then he didn’t tell you about this? My, my.” Caroline paused, no doubt for dramatic effect. “Let’s see. He made several points, but the main one was that Charles had fallen for fortune hunters in the past, and he seemed to be doing it again. I defended Jane. I didn’t think she wanted Charles for his money, or at least not only for his money. But you know how forceful William can be when his mind is made up.”
Elizabeth didn’t comment, but a parade of memories marched through her head in which William declared himself an authority on a wide range of subjects.
“Let’s see. What else did he say?” Caroline pondered the subject for a moment. “He shared my concern that Jane lacked the right sort of upbringing to be a proper wife to Charles.”
Elizabeth tried to dismiss the story as a lie, but William’s haughty attitude that weekend hadn’t vanished from her memory. She could all too easily imagine the scene Caroline had described.
“And I guess even after getting to know Jane better, William still hasn’t changed his mind, because he mentioned all of those same things again at the airport last weekend. And he said how Jane didn’t seem to be missing Charles at all, how happy she seemed to be with Richard. I’m surprised his attitude toward Jane hasn’t caused the two of you problems. I’m sure if someone were saying nasty things about my sister Louisa, I’d be furious. But I suppose you’re accustomed to slurs against your family.”
“Would you excuse me, Caroline?” Elizabeth wasn’t sure how much longer she could maintain even a pretense of outward calm.
“Oh, my, I hope I haven’t upset you.” Caroline’s triumph was obvious behind her thin veneer of concern. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have told you, but I thought you’d want to know. After all, your background is the same as Jane’s, so perhaps William thinks of you the same way, and—”
Elizabeth nearly sprinted to the ladies’ room, relieved that Caroline didn’t follow. Once there, she stared at herself in the mirror, trembling. She wanted to be angry, but her emotions seemed to reside on a distant shore, separated from her by a gaping chasm.
It was true, all of it; her instincts told her that. Caroline might have exaggerated some things, but the bald truth remained: if not for William, Jane and Charles would be happily married and living in San Francisco.
She might have forgiven William for his actions in May, had that been his only transgression. But now the cause of Charles’s remoteness over the weekend was clear. William had reinforced the old objections, discouraging Charles from further pursuit. William was so disdainful of Jane that he had even thought that Richard, one of the most notorious womanizers on the planet, needed a warning.
And if Jane wasn’t fit to be a Bingley, William couldn’t have meant any of the things he had said to Elizabeth about the future … unless he’s planning to hide me away in an apartment somewhere while his wife and kids live at the townhouse with Gran and Georgie. A wave of dizziness swept over her and her stomach heaved, and for a moment she thought she might be sick.
She splashed water on her clammy forehead and cheeks and patted her face dry with a paper towel. Her purse was hidden behind Roger’s drums; if not for that, she might have escaped the hotel and apologized later to the band.
But they were waiting for her. She inspected her reflection, practicing a bright smile. It looked more like a grimace, and it did nothing to relieve the misery in her eyes, but perhaps if she smiled enough, no one would notice that she had a gaping hole where her heart should be.
Friday morning, Elizabeth stared out her office window at gray skies full of clouds. An untouched cup of black coffee, long since grown cold, sat at her elbow. Her head ached, her eyes were bloodshot, and a stifling weariness had seeped into her bones.
Sleep had forsaken her last night, except for perhaps an hour near dawn. She had awakened to find herself bathed in sweat, trembling and crying out in the throes of a nightmare. She didn’t remember the details except that Michael had claimed a featured role, but it had put an end to any further attempts to sleep.
She had spent the earlier part of the night reviewing Caroline’s story to the point of obsession. No matter how many ways she turned the evidence, interpreted it, or tried to debunk it, she always reached the same conclusion. The man she loved was responsible for her sister’s misery.
Unable to accept the truth when stated so baldly, she had sought to shift the blame to others. Charles was certainly culpable for being so weak-willed that he had yielded to his friend’s persuasion instead of making his own choices. Mr. Bingley also owned a share of the responsibility for terrorizing his son until he lacked any will of his own, and for his unreasonable demands on Jane.
But in the end, Elizabeth had lost the battle for William’s absolution. Fully aware of the extent of his influence over Charles, he had wielded it with a heavy hand. Every tear Jane had shed over Charles was William Darcy’s fault. William Darcy, who had comforted her while she cried over what Michael had done. William Darcy, who had made love to her with so much tenderness and passion. William Darcy, whom she had trusted enough to allow herself to love again.
Her distress was all the greater because she couldn’t confide in anyone. It would only give Jane greater pain to hear Caroline’s revelations. This need for secrecy deprived Elizabeth of her most trusted confidante.
She fidgeted with a paper clip, barely aware of what her hands were doing. She wouldn’t have come to school at all today if not for her scheduled performance review with Catherine de Bourgh late that morning. After that she hoped to retreat to her apartment for some quiet reflection before returning to the conservatory to assist with the final preparations for South Pacific.
Above all, she had to prepare to see William that night, to decide what to ask him, what to say, and what to do. His plane would be landing soon, and she felt a fresh stab of pain when she remembered his arrival in San Francisco three weeks ago, full of the joy of reunion. Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back with fierce determination. She hadn’t cried yet, and she didn’t intend to start now.
Her cell phone rang and she flinched, fearing that it was William. She wasn’t ready to talk to him yet. But the caller ID said, “Char.” Although Charlotte wasn’t as sympathetic a listener as Jane, Elizabeth desperately needed to talk to someone, and Charlotte could be counted on for objective advice.
“Liz, I’m glad I caught you. You’ll never guess who just called me.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Then you’d better tell me.”
“Richard. He wants me to meet him in Phoenix for the weekend.”
“The Yankees won again last night, and the last two games of the World Series are in Arizona starting tomorrow. Sonya somehow managed to get him tickets to both games, and he wants me to meet him there.”
“I thought you two weren’t planning on staying in touch.” Elizabeth picked up her paper clip again.
“So did I, but it sounds like fun, and I didn’t have any big plans for the weekend. Plus, he got a suite at the Biltmore, and I’ve heard it’s fabulous. I’m on my way to the airport now. I just wanted to check in with you first.”
“Liz, are you okay?”
“I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Couldn’t stop thinking about William, I bet. Maybe you’d better get a nap this afternoon, because I’m sure you have a busy night ahead of you.”
“Right.” Elizabeth bit her lip. “Have a great weekend, and tell Richard I said hello.”
“Will do. I’ll try to catch a foul ball for you.”
Propping her elbows on her desk, Elizabeth rested her head in her hands. She had to find some energy, or she would never survive the meeting with Catherine de Bourgh. Maybe fresh coffee would help. She stood up slowly, stretching, and opened her office door.
A startled Bill Collins stood in the doorway, adjusting his ponytail with one hand, a manila folder clutched in the other. “Hello, Elizabeth. I was just about to knock.”
Elizabeth stifled a loud sigh. She lacked the energy to deal with anyone right now, least of all Bill, but she couldn’t think of an excuse that would convince him to leave. “Hi, Bill. Come on in.” She dropped into her chair and gave him a weak smile, noting his solemn expression.
“Elizabeth ….” He paused, shook his head, and continued. “Yesterday afternoon I was preparing notes for your meeting today with Dr. de Bourgh, and I discovered something that has been troubling me ever since. In fact, you probably noticed that I barely spoke to you last night. I was afraid I might say something careless before I’d had a chance to fully consider the situation. If I seemed rude, I apologize.”
“I didn’t think you were rude.” In truth, she had been relieved that Bill had kept his distance.
“Good, because you know I’d never want you to think that. You’re so lovely, so sweet, and you deserve so much better than ….”
Elizabeth looked up in surprise, the unaccustomed passion in Bill’s voice piercing the thick fog that enveloped her. He wore a harsh expression she had never before seen on his face, and his eyes were black with anger. “Bill, what’s wrong?”
He spoke rapidly. “I’m taking a risk telling you this; I doubt that Dr. de Bourgh would approve. But this is something you deserve to know. I’m assuming it was all done behind your back and you don’t know anything about it. And I know in your position I certainly wouldn’t want to be kept in the dark.”
“Please, Bill, just tell me whatever it is.”
“When Dr. de Bourgh offered you the job, were there any special conditions or provisos?”
Elizabeth frowned. “She told me I’d have to teach summer school and help with the musicals, but that was all.”
“Did your salary seem unusual?”
“It was a lot higher than I expected, but this is an elite conservatory, and I figured I’d just misunderstood the typical salary ranges. Obviously I wasn’t going to say, ‘Excuse me, but you’re not supposed to pay me that much.’”
He set the folder on her desk and opened it, glancing out into the hall. “May I shut the door? I’d rather we weren’t overheard.”
Elizabeth nodded, her eyelids drooping. Ordinarily she would have found such behavior alarming, but given Bill’s tendency to hyperbole she wasn’t concerned. Perhaps Catherine intended to demand that she take a pay cut next year, and Bill was seeking to put her on guard before their meeting. She folded her hands on her desk and tried to energize her smile as Bill pulled the door closed.
1 For anyone thinking, “Wait a minute. The World Series doesn’t run into early November,” that’s usually true. But the end of the baseball season was delayed in 2001 (the year in which the story is set) due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks didn’t happen in this story’s universe, but the delayed schedule worked nicely with baseball fan Richard’s travel schedule so I left it as is.