Edward Gardiner met Elizabeth at the train station. During the drive back to the Gardiner home, he provided her with an account of Georgiana’s flight from the townhouse, as Madeline had briefly explained it to him. On Thursday evening, Georgiana had taken a train to Washington and stayed overnight at a hotel in the city. Why she had chosen Washington as her destination, Edward didn’t know. Madeline was home now with a tearful Georgiana and was doing her best to get the girl to open up.
Elizabeth shook her head and sighed. At least this explained Georgiana’s phone call to the Ramsgate Hotel—she must have been making a reservation—but nothing else made sense. She could easily believe that Georgiana had decided to run away, or to take an unauthorized spring-break trip, to escape the restrictions at home. But why Washington? Had she discovered something during their visit at New Year’s and wanted to explore it further? Had she planned to visit a school friend who had moved there? But in that case, why stay at a hotel, especially one—as Edward had remarked—in an area dominated by government buildings and related businesses?
Madeline met Elizabeth at the front door and embraced her. “I’m glad you’re here, Lizzy.”
“How is she?”
“Physically, she’s fine, but she’s confused and very upset.”
“Has she told you anything yet?”
“Only a little; it took a while for her to calm down enough to say much of anything. And then we agreed that we’d wait until you arrived to discuss the rest, so she could tell us both at once. She didn’t want to have to tell the story twice.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. “She’s willing to talk to me?”
“She said she almost confided in you before she left; in fact, now she wishes she’d done that. She was relieved to hear that you were coming for her and not her grandmother. I take it she’s warmed up to you since New Year’s Eve?”
“I think so,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve found some common ground. Though I imagine she’d rather face almost anyone but her grandmother right now.”
Madeline led the way into the family room. Soft, warm lighting infused the space; the furniture, upholstered in warm neutral tones, invited the visitor to settle in and relax. Elizabeth had spent many evenings curled up on the sofa, a cozy afghan on her lap, in congenial conversation with her aunt, her uncle, and one or more of her cousins. But tonight, tension filled the room. Georgiana sat in a far corner, dwarfed by her chair, her legs folded under her, arms crossed over her chest, and her eyes downcast.
“Hi, Georgie,” Elizabeth said. She selected the chair closest to Georgiana’s, though it was still on the other side of the fireplace.
“Hi.” Georgiana glanced up at her for a split-second before her gaze returned to the floor.
“Are you okay? We’ve been worried about you.”
Georgiana responded by bursting into tears. “I know you hate me now, like everyone else.”
“I don’t hate you. No one else does either.”
“No, she doesn’t, I promise. But she was very worried that something had happened to you. The most important thing right now is, are you okay?”
Georgiana nodded slowly, sniffling. But then she shook her head.
“Tell me,” Elizabeth said. “What’s going on?”
“He didn’t want me.”
“Who?” Was this about a crush? Had she been rejected—or worse? Cold dread filled Elizabeth’s heart.
Edmund had been dead for over a decade; it seemed a strange time to grieve, or to cry over his reputed coldness toward his children. Still, delayed grief was far better than the horrific scenarios Elizabeth had begun to imagine. “It’s natural for you to miss your father,” she said tentatively.
“I didn’t miss him. I saw him today.”
“I don’t understand.” She exchanged perplexed glances with Madeline.
“I went to his office.” Georgiana looked up, meeting Elizabeth’s gaze. “Mamma is dead, and Gran hates me, and Will has you now. I thought maybe he’d want me, at least. But he doesn’t.”
“Who are you talking about?” Elizabeth asked.
“George. My father.”
“I’m confused. Your father’s name was Edmund.”
Georgiana shook her head emphatically. “That’s what they want everyone to think. Remember George, from New Year’s Eve?”
Suddenly the pieces came together, and Elizabeth drew in a quick breath. “Are you talking about George Wickham?”
“I guess Will never told you either.” Georgiana glanced down at her lap, biting her lip.
This was not the time to admit to being aware of Georgiana’s questionable parentage. Elizabeth quickly settled on a vague but honest answer. “What Will told me was that you’re his sister, and he loves you.”
Georgiana shook her head. “Half-sister. Maybe he half loves me.”
Madeline, who had been observing in silence, joined the conversation. “Can you tell us why you think George Wickham is your father?”
At first, Georgiana didn’t respond, but eventually she began to speak in a halting tone. She told them of discovering her mother’s diary and struggling each night to translate it. She went on to describe her email exchanges with George Wickham and, finally, the conversation she had overheard in the library.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened in horror. “Mrs. Scofield shared that kind of spiteful gossip while she was a guest in your home?” It was particularly shocking since Dorothy Scofield seemed kind, if somewhat empty-headed. If this was an indication of the kind of gossip that habitually circulated in Rose’s social circle, her mania for correctness in everything suddenly made sense.
“At least I finally found out the truth, since my family wouldn’t tell me.” Georgiana’s cynical tone was painful to hear.
“But, Georgie,” Elizabeth said, “she was just repeating idle gossip. She has no way of knowing what really happened.”
Georgiana shook her head. “It explains all kinds of stuff. No wonder Gran hates me; I’m not really her grandchild. She must wish she could spend the winter in Florida like all her friends, and go to the Hamptons with them every summer. But she’s stuck in New York because of me, and I’m not even related to her.”
“Let’s not worry right now about what your grandmother wants,” Madeline interjected. “You’re the one Elizabeth and I are worried about. If I understand correctly, you came here to see George Wickham and find out if what you overheard was true?”
“What did he tell you?”
“He said he was my father.” Georgiana’s eyes were filling with tears again. “And after Mamma died, he wanted me, like really a lot, but Gran and Will wouldn’t let him take me because it would have caused a big scandal, and, plus, they hate him.”
Madeline shook her head. “Georgie, that doesn’t make sense. If he were your father and wanted custody, he could have demanded a paternity test and then gone to court, regardless of what the family wanted.”
“He said he was afraid to fight the Darcys back then, because of what they might do to him. And they ruined his life anyway, to punish him for getting Mamma pregnant.” Georgiana paused, taking a shaky breath, and wiped her eyes. “He said it’s too late now; we’ve lived apart for too long and it wouldn’t make sense to change that. Besides, he’s still scared of what Will and Gran would do to him if he tried to get custody of me.” She began to cry again.
Elizabeth had been listening quietly through this exchange. It sounded as though George Wickham had found a clever way to hurt both Rose and William, by poisoning Georgiana’s relationship with them. But was it all a lie, or was he actually her father?
“You’ve been emailing with him,” Elizabeth said, “but have you ever talked to him on the phone?”
“I was afraid someone would hear us talking, so I didn’t, even though he said I could. Until today. I called him when I got to his office building.”
“So, you have his phone number. His office phone?”
“His cell phone,” Georgiana answered with obvious reluctance. “Why?”
“Because I don’t think he’s telling the truth, and I want to talk to him myself.”
At first, Georgiana refused to hand over Wickham’s phone number, objecting to any sort of meeting. “If you say mean things to him, he’ll blame me and then he’ll hate me, like everyone else.” But it was essential to call Wickham’s bluff on the paternity question, and Elizabeth wanted to look him in the eye as she heard his answer. She and Madeline finally convinced Georgiana that if she wanted to know if Wickham was her father, there was only one way to be sure.
Wickham was more than a little surprised to hear from Elizabeth, but he agreed to meet her the following morning. “What a perfect location!” he replied to her suggested meeting place, in a breezy tone that had Elizabeth grinding her teeth. “I’ll be there with bells on.”
At Elizabeth’s request, Georgiana retrieved her mother’s diary, wrapped carefully in a scarf, from her backpack. A quick glance made it clear that, as Georgiana had insisted, it would yield no answers until they found someone fluent in Italian to decipher it.
After some half-hearted resistance, Georgiana also allowed Elizabeth and Madeline read Wickham’s emails. There were fifteen lengthy messages, a remarkable number given how recently their correspondence had begun. The first two were benign enough, telling gentle stories about Anna’s happiness with her newborn daughter. But as the emails continued, Elizabeth read with growing horror the toxic portraits Wickham had gradually painted of Rose, Edmund, and especially William while playing on Georgiana’s feelings of alienation.
As they sat together in front of Madeline’s laptop, Elizabeth and her aunt exchanged frequent pained glances but said nothing. Edward did his best to keep Georgiana engaged, sharing stories of past family vacations, his daughters’ experiences at school … anything to keep her from dissolving into tears again.
Finally, after reading the most recent email, Elizabeth pushed the laptop away. She felt both sick to her stomach and ready to cry. Beyond that, she loathed the despicable man who was causing both William and Georgiana so much pain. Madeline, clearly sensing her distress, placed a gentle hand on her back.
Elizabeth cleared her throat and aimed for a neutral tone as she forced herself to speak. “Okay, Georgie. I can understand why what he said made sense to you. But I think he’s told you some very big lies.”
“But why would he lie to me?” Georgiana asked, sending a challenging stare in Elizabeth’s direction.
Elizabeth was on the verge of a frustration-fueled rant, telling Georgiana exactly how terrible Wickham was, when Madeline placed a hand on Elizabeth’s arm and spoke first. “Dear, that’s an important question, and it’s a good one to ask at a time like this. And Lizzy isn’t saying that every single word is a lie.”
Madeline continued. “But would you be willing to take a few minutes and consider how he might benefit by giving you false information, or at the very least a biased version of events?”
Sniffling, Georgiana hesitated, but at last she nodded. Madeline glanced at Elizabeth.
“First off,” Elizabeth said, “it’s pretty obvious that he hates both William and your grandmother, isn’t it?”
“But that’s because of the things they said and did to him.”
“I know that’s what he told you,” Elizabeth replied. She took a deep breath to calm herself; she needed to try to emulate Madeline’s softer approach. “But let’s think about other possible reasons. Your grandmother fired him after your mother died. I know he said she did it out of spite, but there might have been good reasons. After all, Gran and Will found out later that he’d been stealing from the foundation.”
“He said they made that up to punish him.”
“But do you really think Will would lie about something like that?” Elizabeth had to pause again to calm herself before proceeding. “Just for a minute, set aside what Wickham told you. Stop and think about the brother you’ve known since the day you were born. Is he a liar?”
Georgiana pressed her lips together, her eyes on her lap, but she shook her head. “I guess not. But he hides stuff from me, like when he didn’t tell me he was getting married till I already knew.”
“Yes, sometimes he gets scared of how people will react, and he puts off telling them things when he should speak up sooner. But when he says something, it’s the truth.” Elizabeth paused. “You know, once I accused him of lying about something … something important. I found out later that I was wrong, but not until I had hurt him—and myself—very badly by doubting him. I misjudged him then, and I think you’re misjudging him now.”
Madeline gave Elizabeth an encouraging nod, and Elizabeth pressed on. “So if Will isn’t a liar, and if Will said that George stole from the foundation, then it’s probably true, right?”
“I asked George about that today, ‘cause when Will told me about the theft he seemed really serious, like it was the truth. George said maybe Will wanted it to be true, instead of someone else he liked better being the thief, so he was biased and saw things wrong.”
Elizabeth sighed. Wickham was a highly skilled manipulator, for sure.
“Sometimes people do draw wrong conclusions because they’re biased,” Madeline said. “But don’t you think it’s also possible that George is the guilty party and he doesn’t want you to know? After all, he wants you to like him and trust him. And it’s hard to admit when you’ve done something wrong, isn’t it?”
Georgiana gazed at the floor in silence for a long moment. At last, she nodded.
“Here’s another question,” Elizabeth said. “George says that Will is jealous of you, so much so that he didn’t even want you to be born. But is that how your brother treats you?”
Georgiana didn’t answer right away. Finally, she said, “He used to be really nice to me, when I was little. It was almost like he was my dad.”
“And you knew that he loved you, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so. But he doesn’t love me anymore.”
“I can tell you absolutely for sure that he loves you very much.”
“Elizabeth is right,” Madeline said. “When I met William down in Barbados, he told us all about you. Whenever he mentioned you, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. It was so obvious how important you are to him.”
Georgiana sighed but didn’t respond.
“I think I might understand,” Elizabeth said. “A lot of stuff happened last summer and fall to make you doubt him. First, he had to go to the hospital, which must have been frightening. Then when he came home, he was depressed, and he probably didn’t talk much or seem to care about you or anyone else. And then he went to San Francisco, and later you learned that he had a girlfriend out there. Before that, all of his girlfriends lived in New York, but he left town to be with this one, and he hardly ever came home. And when he finally did come home, he brought her along, and you found out accidentally that he was going to marry her. Worse yet, you thought he was moving away for good to live with her. And that last part was right after you were arrested, so it seemed like you were losing your brother just when you needed him most.”
“You know all of that?” Georgiana asked, shooting a startled glance at Elizabeth.
“Yes, I do. And I know that you disliked me and blamed me for taking him away.”
“But I think you’ve changed your mind about Elizabeth since then, haven’t you?” Madeline asked. “At least a little? From what you told me before she got here, it seemed that way.”
“I’m glad to know that,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “Now, here’s something you probably don’t know. You’re the main reason Will and I are going to live in New York, to be near you, because you’re so important to him. And that has nothing to do with whether or not you share the same father. He would be lost if anything ever happened to you.”
Georgiana bit her lip, blinking hard, and stared at the floor again.
“And, Georgie,” Elizabeth continued gently, “Will isn’t the only one who cares about you and wants you to be happy. You’re getting to be pretty important to me, too. That’s why I asked your grandmother to let me come down here and help you.”
Georgiana was crying again. Elizabeth wanted to offer her a comforting hug, but she feared disturbing the fragile connection they were establishing. She glanced at Madeline, unsure what to do next.
Madeline patted Elizabeth’s arm and rose to her feet. She crossed the room, ostensibly to deliver a tissue, but then she perched on the arm of Georgiana’s chair and began to stroke her hair. With a little sob, Georgiana buried her face against Madeline’s torso. As she watched them, Elizabeth’s own eyes filled with tears.
Once they all dried their eyes, Elizabeth and Madeline did their best to convince Georgiana that she was a Darcy regardless of her biological father’s identity. But Georgiana, still sniffling, shook her head. “I have to know who I am,” she said. “Can’t we ask him to take a paternity test?”
Soon after that, Madeline convinced Georgiana to go to bed. Edward decided to do the same. “I had an early surgery this morning,” he said, “and I’m beat. You two seem to have this under control, not that I’m the least bit surprised. But if you need me for anything, you know where to find me.”
Elizabeth and Madeline went through Wickham’s emails again, discussing how best to show Georgiana how cleverly he had manipulated her into believing the worst of his lies. “The thing is,” Elizabeth said, “some of it is true, or at least partially true. For example, William admitted that he was jealous of the attention his mother paid Wickham. Before that, he was used to being practically the sole focus of her life. But that doesn’t mean he invented the embezzlement charges, and it doesn’t mean that he resented Georgie. He’s adored her since the day she was born.”
“But the half-truths make it hard to recognize the lies,” Madeline replied, nodding.
“However, what if Wickham is telling the truth about being her father? It seems plausible.”
“Yet it sounds like Wickham never suggested it until Georgie brought it up. He may just be taking advantage of her hearing the gossip.”
“But what if he’s not? If he’s really her father, the paternity test could open a huge can of worms.” Above all, Elizabeth feared making the situation worse instead of better.
Madeline sighed. “Maybe, but I think it’s too late to escape it. I think she needs to know, one way or another, or it’ll eat her up inside. So we call his bluff and ask for the test. If he’s lying about being her father, he’ll probably refuse. If he takes the test, we’ll have to live with the answer, whatever it is.”
“I need to get William’s buy-in about the paternity test before I see Wickham. After all, I’m not a Darcy yet and I’m making some big decisions for them.”
“I agree, though I hope he’ll understand that there’s really no other choice.”
“He’s not going to like it,” Elizabeth said, “but I’ll do my best to explain.”
“Also, I have to ask—are you sure that Mrs. Darcy doesn’t know the truth? If there was any doubt, wouldn’t she have insisted on knowing if her granddaughter was legitimate?”
“William said they’ve never discussed it, so he’s not sure what she knows. I guess I’d better call her, too.” Elizabeth winced. “Yikes, talk about an awkward conversation.”
“Shouldn’t William do that? After all, she’s his grandmother.”
Elizabeth almost smiled—that would be an even more awkward conversation. But he’d been asking what he could do to help. “Good idea. In fact, I can call him in just a few minutes. The concert should be over soon.”
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