Chapter 135

“Stay where you are. I want to get one more shot of the four of you.”

Jim Pennington moved his tripod slightly and peered at his camera’s LCD screen. William froze a mechanical smile on his face and waited.

“All right, Mr. Pennington,” Elizabeth declaimed in her best Norma Desmond voice. “I’m ready for my close-up.” She peeked across Jane and Charles, sending William a sympathetic smile. Had she read his mind? Could she detect the scent of impatience in bloom? No. She just knows me that well.

“I never knew posing and smiling could be so much work,” Charles muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “But I guess you’re used to being camera fodder, Will.”

“No kidding,” Elizabeth said. “You should have seen the press area on New Year’s Eve.”

“My favorite pictures were of the two of you at the dinner,” Jane added. “I was so excited when I saw them online.”

“With the caption, ‘Concert pianist William Darcy and guest,’” Elizabeth retorted. “Didn’t I feel special.”

“Okay,” Jim said, “on the count of three. One, two—”

“We’re here! We’re here! I hope we haven’t kept you waiting.”

Mrs. Bennet raced into the dining room as fast as her heels could carry her, like a motorboat bouncing across choppy water. The three youngest Bennet daughters followed in her wake. “Lydia was outside,” she gasped, pressing her hand to her chest. “I don’t know what she was doing out there, but thank goodness Kitty knew where to find her.”

“I still don’t see what the big deal was.” Lydia planted a hand on one hip and sniffed. “It’s just a picture.”

Mary Bennet, her sallow face twisted in an expression of distaste, spoke through gritted teeth. “The big deal, Lydia, is that we always have to chase after you. You never stop to think about the people you inconvenience.”

Lydia rolled her eyes. “Well, excuse me if I don’t spend twenty-four hours a day chained to my computer. Some of us have lives.”

Mr. Bennet stepped into the room. “That would make an excellent epitaph for Lydia, wouldn’t it? ‘She had a life.’ Pretty much says it all.”

William stifled a snicker behind a quiet cough. The more he saw of Mr. Bennet, the more he was growing to appreciate his future father-in-law’s wry sense of humor.

“An epitaph? You mean one of those cartoon character versions of people from those weird games on the Internet?” Lydia wrinkled her nose. “Why would I need one of those?”

Mary’s eyes lifted to the ceiling and she sighed with such force that William half expected her to fly backwards out of the room. “That’s an avatar, Lydia. And just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it weird.”

William had spoken to Mary before the ceremony, and had realized within thirty seconds that he shouldn’t expect to understand a word she said. The polar opposite of Lydia, Mary was rising quickly through the ranks at Microsoft on the strength of her brilliant mind and her single-minded passion for technology.

“Where would you like us to stand?” Mrs. Bennet pulled Kitty forward so hard she stumbled. “It’s so kind of you to take the wedding photos, Jim. You’re so talented, leading Lizzy’s jazz group and taking photos and … um ….” Evidently her mouth had outpaced her brain, leaving it unoccupied when Jim’s list of accomplishments ended unexpectedly. She bit her lip but then switched on an ultra-bright smile. “Come over here, Andrew! You and I can stand behind Jane and Charles. Jane, my dear, you look just lovely. But of course, you always do. I knew you’d be the most beautiful bride in the world. Doesn’t she look like an angel, Charles?”

“She certainly does, though I think ‘goddess’ is an even better description.”

William envied Charles’s composure when dealing with Mrs. Bennet. Something about her made William feel as though hives were rising all over his body, prickling and itching and exuding furnace-like heat. Was it possible to be allergic to one’s future mother-in-law?

“Goddess! Oh, my dear boy, how lovely! But it’s true, isn’t it? My sweet, sweet Jane, the most beautiful girl in the world! I’ve never seen anyone half as lovely, not even all those so-called beauty queens. No one can compare to my Jane.”

“I beg to differ,” William huffed, his eyes locked on Elizabeth. She had been studying the polished granite surface of the dining table, but at his words she glanced up and gave him a tiny smile.

“Oh, well, yes, of course,” Mrs. Bennet stammered, “Lizzy is a pretty girl, too, when she puts some effort into her appearance. I didn’t mean to suggest that she wasn’t. I only meant to say that Jane—”

“Fanny,” Mr. Bennet interrupted, “I’d tell you to quit while you’re ahead, but I think that’s in the rear view mirror at this point.”

“Mom,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t think Jim is quite ready for the family. He wanted to get another photo of the four of us.”

“It’s fine.” Jim said. “I probably have enough.”

William shot him a look of desperate gratitude and stepped to one side, scanning the room for the clearest escape path.

“Oh, no, William, you can’t go yet!” Mrs. Bennet reached out as though to grasp his arm. Her hand froze in mid-air, probably in response to the frigid glare that he knew had flashed instinctively into his eyes. “This is going to be a family photo,” she continued, a slight quiver in her voice, “and you’re part of the family now.”

“Strictly speaking, I’m not a family member yet,” he said in as gracious a tone as he could manage. “At the wedding in June, we’ll have plenty of opportunities for family photos.”

“The wedding in June!” Mrs. Bennet pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh, my goodness, I can’t begin to tell you how excited we are! That nice secretary of yours said she’d take care of our plane tickets and the hotel reservations. The Four Seasons, I think she said—not the Plaza, which I must say surprised me at first, but since then I’ve heard that it’s just extraordinary! The Four Seasons, I mean, not the Plaza. Though of course the Plaza is extraordinary, too.”

She finally paused for a breath, and William thought his escape opportunity had arrived, but he had underestimated her ability to fill her lungs at lightning speed. “And I got the most beautiful note from your grandmother,” she continued in a headlong rush. “It was so lovely. She said the nicest things! And the beautiful engraved note card! I’ve been showing it to all my friends ever since it arrived!”

“Indeed she has,” Mr. Bennet added cheerfully. “They’ve taken to running away as fast as they can when they see her coming.”

“Andrew, don’t be ridiculous. Why would they do that?” Mrs. Bennet brushed her hair off her temple as though flicking away this contrary notion. “My friends love hearing about the wedding plans. It’s like something out of a fairy tale—the ceremony and Lizzy’s dress and the ballroom at the Plaza and the beautiful flowers and the gourmet food.” She paused for another breath.

This time, William leapt into the split-second void before she could continue. “I’ll give Gran your best regards, Mrs. Bennet. I know she’s looking forward to meeting you.” Fortunately he wasn’t Pinocchio and didn’t have to risk leaving the room with a nose the size of the Transamerica Pyramid. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get out of the way.” With an affectionate glance at Elizabeth, he strode off as though pursued by demons.

He made a beeline for the bar, where Charlotte and Richard presided over a small but impeccable collection of wines, along with the makings for a selection of simple mixed drinks. And, of course, a generous supply of Anchor Steam beer.

“Finally done in the photo studio? I bet you need a drink.” With a knowing smirk, Richard pulled a bottle of Macallan 30 from below the bar. “Jane thought we only needed one bottle of scotch, but I couldn’t condone that kind of heresy. Can I pour you a shot, Aunt Wilhelmina?”

“Don’t even start.” William pressed his lips together and gave Richard a dark stare. He’d had enough of that nickname the night before.

“If you insist on putting a damper on bachelor parties by acting like everybody’s fussy old maiden aunt, you have to expect to hear about it. I tried to bring you up right, but obviously I crashed and burned somewhere along the line.” Richard shook his head in mock dismay, his lips twisted in a maddening smirk.

“I’m sorry, William,” Charlotte said. “I understand you led the fight for decorum last night and paid a heavy price.”

“Yes. I committed the unforgivable sin of making sure that Charles would be able to stand unaided at his wedding.”

“I don’t envy you. But if it helps, I guarantee that you’re Jane’s hero. So, tell me, what does a hero drink?”

“I’d like a glass of the Cabernet.” He was familiar with the wines, having selected them himself at Jane’s request.

“By the way, you did a great job accompanying Liz,” Charlotte said as Richard uncorked the bottle of wine. “But I guess that stuff is child’s play for you.”

“You’d be surprised,” William said. “I’m used to musicians following my lead, not the other way around. Not that I’m complaining.”

William had assumed that he would accompany Elizabeth on the piano in her long-deferred performance of “Ave Maria.” But to his astonishment and annoyance, she had been reluctant to push Bill Collins, her original accompanist, aside for fear of hurting his feelings. They had burned cell phone minutes bickering about it until they learned that Collins wouldn’t be at the wedding. Instead, he was trotting along at the end of Catherine de Bourgh’s leash at a conference in New York, clearing the way for William to do the honors without further argument.

Charlotte handed William his glass of wine. He thanked her, ignoring Richard’s “See you later, Auntie,” with glacial indifference.

A young woman Charlotte had introduced earlier as a friend from college bustled past carrying a silver tray piled high with small sandwiches. William followed her to the food table and watched, his stomach rumbling, as she exchanged the tray for another that was nearly empty.

He had initially raised an eyebrow at the news that nothing but finger foods would be served at the reception, but the table seemed liberally stocked. He wandered along, filling his plate to overflowing with interesting canapés, fresh fruit and vegetables, and small pastries, along with the sandwiches just delivered.

Roger Stonefield and Anne de Bourgh approached him, and they chatted while he ate. Anne revealed that she had baked the wedding cake with the help of the de Bourgh housekeeper, a former bakery owner. “Really, she did all the work,” Anne explained with a self-deprecating shrug. “I watched, asked questions, and helped a little. Mother was out of town this week, or I’d have had some explaining to do. She hates it when I spend time in the kitchen.”

Roger took Anne across the room to meet a friend of his, and William mounted a second attack on the food table.

“William, darling! It’s been so long.”

The cloying voice, heavily flavored with artificial sweetener, killed his appetite instantly. “Hello, Caroline,” he said in a monotone, without turning around. Her late arrival at the wedding and their respective obligations in the makeshift photo studio had protected him so far, but he had known she would catch up with him eventually.

She stepped closer and deposited a heavily perfumed kiss on his cheek. He could feel the smear of lipstick she had left behind. With a grimace, he set down his plate and wiped his cheek with a napkin from the food table.

“How have  you been, darling? It’s been ages. Nearly three months, isn’t it?”

He glared at her. “Caroline, I’ve told you not to call me ‘darling.’” He might have ignored it, but two “darlings” in ten seconds was more than he could stand.

Unfortunately, the glare worked better when he towered over someone. Caroline, her height matching his with the aid of her shoes, merely gave him a pitying smile. “Now, now, you were just being grumpy. And I see you’re grumpy again today. I hope this doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy with your life.”

He dialed the glare up into the danger zone, but she didn’t seem to notice. It occurred to him that their equal heights weren’t his only problem; the glare also worked better with people who paid at least minimal attention to the feelings of others. “I’m very happy with my life, but thank you for your concern,” he said, squaring his shoulders and setting his jaw.

“Oh, I’m so glad. It means so much to me to know that you’re happy.”

He snorted and rolled his eyes.

Her bright red lips pursed in an exaggerated pout. “Darling, you’ve cut me to the quick. Certainly you don’t doubt that I want the best for you.”

“As long as it fits your definition of ‘the best.’”

“Well, of course. We’re exactly alike in that regard. You’ve always tried to steer Charles in the right direction.”

“While you steered him out of the family.”

“Nonsense.” Caroline patted his arm. He tried the sharp stare that had withered Mrs. Bennet earlier, but Caroline’s hand stayed put. “Why would I want to do that? Charles is my brother.”

“Not according to your father. Aren’t you afraid he’ll be angry with you for being here?” William’s question was genuine; he had expected her to skip the wedding rather than risk Ronald Bingley’s wrath.

“I couldn’t possibly snub Charles on his wedding day. I adore him, no matter what you think, and Jane is such a sweet girl. I know they’ll be happy together.”

“Far away from the family money,” William retorted. “If you’ll excuse me—”

“No, wait.” Caroline grabbed his arm and dropped her supercilious tone. “I think you’ve misunderstood some things, and we need to clear the air.”

This could be interesting. He raised an eyebrow and waited.

“You’re like a brother to me, William. A dear, charming brother.”

“A brother?” He almost spat the word. Roger, who had returned to the table and was scanning the pastry selection, glanced at him quizzically. William grabbed Caroline’s arm and dragged her to a quiet corner. “You expect me to believe that you’ve always thought of me as a brother.”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“And that’s why you’ve always thrown yourself at me at every opportunity?”

“My, my. Aren’t we full of ourselves today.” There it was again: that patronizing tone infused with fake cheer that left him grinding his teeth. “Well, of course, you’re not really  my brother. And I must admit, as brothers go, you’re very attractive. What is it Charles said once? That horrid cousin of yours calls it the ….” She frowned as though searching her memory, but William sensed that she was pausing for dramatic effect. “The William Darcy Magnetic Field? Isn’t that it?”

He rolled his eyes and drained his wine glass in one gulp.

“It’s quite apt, you know.” Her hand landed on his sleeve again. The red-lacquered nails reminded him of the bloody talons of a bird of prey. He noted that she wore no rings today. Perhaps her jewelry had gone into hiding, out of view of the government investigators working on her insider trading case. “I imagine it’s a rare woman who doesn’t fall at least a teeny bit under your spell. But surely you know the difference between a mild flirtation and something more.”

“Yes.” He let the word hang in mid-air before he continued. “I do.”

“Oh, good, then we understand each other. Mother had some silly notion that I had serious designs on you. Can you believe it?” She shook her head. “She’s not as discerning as you are.”

He wasn’t going to let her wave away her misdeeds that easily. “And the reason you interfered with my relationship with Elizabeth is …?”

“My goodness, you’re testy this afternoon. Don’t you know that I was only trying to look out for your best interests, just like you did for Charles where Jane was concerned?”

At this unwelcome reminder, his planned retort stuck in his throat.

“You’ve made your choice,” she continued, “and of course I hope everything will work out for you. But seriously, darling, it’s always been obvious that Elizabeth is not—”

“Should my ears be burning?”

Caroline’s eyes darted to the right, and the muscles around her mouth tightened. “Oh, hello, Elizabeth. How lovely to see you.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” A mischievous glint in her eye, Elizabeth deftly nudged Caroline aside and stepped up to William.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he murmured, bending to kiss Elizabeth’s cheek. In the background, Caroline gusted a petulant sigh.

“Sorry,” she said, lacing her fingers with his. “Jane and I went upstairs for a few minutes after the photos were done. She was feeling a bit light-headed, but she’s better now.”

“I’ve been keeping him company.” Caroline’s bright red lips curved in an angelic smile. “But how nice that you joined us.”

“Yes, isn’t it,” Elizabeth answered, her expression bland. “How have you been, Caroline?”

“Just wonderful. Of course you know I’m running the company for Daddy while he recuperates. Our profits are up fifteen percent since I took over!”

“Congratulations,” Elizabeth said calmly.

“And how are you, Elizabeth? I understand you’re not at the conservatory anymore. What a shame you lost your job.”

“I didn’t lose the job. It’s right where I left it. I quit.”

“I think I heard that you’re teaching little children now?” Caroline said the word “children” as though it tasted foul rolling off her tongue.

“I’m teaching at a private performing arts school in the city, and I love it. But I have to leave the job in about a month to move to New York.”

“Oh, yes. And when is the wedding?”

“It’s June fifteenth.”

“Oh, a June wedding. How nice. May I see your ring?

Elizabeth extended her hand. Caroline leaned down in an exaggerated pose that suggested the need for a jeweler’s loop. “Oh, how … sweet.” She straightened up and thrust out her chest. “I hope you’ll be very happy together.” The word “hope” was faintly underlined.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth shot back, and William saw the sparks in her eyes. “I was sorry to hear about your legal problems. Jane told me that sometimes they really throw the book at people who get involved with insider trading.”

Caroline’s smug mask slipped briefly, but she recovered quickly and answered in a breezy tone. “But I’m innocent, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Of course,” Elizabeth said. “Well, if there’s anything William and I can do, please don’t hesitate to ask. For example, if you need a character reference. After everything you’ve done for us, we’d be only too happy to reciprocate.”

Only a lifetime of Rose’s training kept William from laughing. Caroline, the wind temporarily knocked out of her, merely stared across the room, the muscles around her eyes tight. Her predicament was obvious. If she took offense, as she so clearly wished to do, she would be admitting the maliciousness of her past behavior.

“Oh, look,” Elizabeth said, “there’s Uncle Edward, over by the bar.” She smiled at William. “He and Aunt Maddie are talking about going to Australia, and they want to pick your brain. And I could use a glass of wine.”

“I don’t doubt it. Please excuse us, Caroline.”

William steered Elizabeth away. Caroline called after him, “I’ll talk to you later, darling.”

“What is it about that woman that makes me want to do violence?” Elizabeth snatched a carrot stick as they passed the food table.

“You, my love, were brilliant. Gran would have loved your remark about returning the favor. So polite, yet so menacing.”

“For ten bucks, I would have shoved her smug face into that bowl of hummus.”

William reached for his wallet. “Why didn’t you say something sooner? That’s a bargain at ten times the price.”

She laughed and looped her arm through his. “Come on, darling. Let’s find some actual humans to talk to.”

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