“No problem; it didn’t get on my dress,” Elizabeth replied.
She grabbed a napkin from the bar and dabbed the splashes of sangria off her forearm, the result of a collision with a wildly gesticulating woman who had evidently been drinking for a while. Elizabeth continued to inch her way through the throng, finally reaching the far end of the bar where Charlotte and Jane awaited her, a half-empty pitcher of sangria between them. “Sorry I’m late,” she shouted, to be heard above the crowd.
“You’ve got some catching up to do.” Charlotte poured a glass of sangria and pressed it into Elizabeth’s hand.
“I assume you already put our name in for a table?”
“As soon as I got here. It’s going to be another twenty minutes at least.”
Elizabeth ordinarily enjoyed Cha Cha Cha’s party atmosphere, but tonight she wished they had chosen someplace quieter. Her day with William had given her plenty to think about, and introspection was impossible in the midst of the raucous crowd. Further, she had begun to regret refusing William’s dinner invitation. A quiet corner table bathed in candlelight, a good bottle of wine, and William … I said no to that?
But dinner with Jane and Charlotte would be plenty of fun, too.
“How is Roger?” Elizabeth asked. She had intended to call him before leaving for the restaurant, but there hadn’t been enough time.
“He’s fine,” Charlotte answered. “It must have been something he ate, because he was miserable for a few hours last night, but then he started improving.”
Their conversation was interrupted when they were jostled by a group of people trying to find a corner in which to congregate. After the confusion was sorted out, Jane turned to Elizabeth. “You look beautiful tonight, Lizzy.”
Knowing that the wait for a table would be a long one, Elizabeth had taken extra time with her hair before leaving for the restaurant. It fell in a cascade of curls around her shoulders. She wasn’t sure what impulse had motivated her to put extra effort into her appearance, but she had been pleased with the results.
“Jane’s right,” Charlotte remarked. “The two of us might as well have paper bags over our heads, because every guy in this place is looking at you. You’re practically glowing. So your date with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Shaggable went well?”
Elizabeth had made the mistake of telling Charlotte about Jon Prentiss’s nickname for William, and she had adopted it with enthusiasm. “We had a very nice time.”
“I’m so glad.” Jane’s soft voice was barely audible above the din.
“But let’s back up,” Charlotte said, her eyes bright with anticipation. “I want to hear about last night. Jane said you and William worked out your differences at the party, but I understand you didn’t get home till almost three.”
“I was still awake when you came in,” Jane explained.
“And since it doesn’t take that long to drive back from Tiburon, I bet there’s an interesting story here. What were you doing that late at night?” Charlotte asked, her eyes gleaming.
“It wasn’t like that,” Elizabeth said, hating that she sounded so defensive. “We were late leaving Rosings, and he wanted to stop somewhere for a drink, but everything was closed.”
“You’re holding out on us; I can tell.”
Elizabeth intended to mention neither the romantic interlude at the Marin Headlands nor the conversation about their physical relationship. “You should see his new car. If you thought the Z3 was hot …” she said, deftly tossing out the conversational equivalent of a raw steak to a hungry jungle cat. The jungle cat in question was leaning against the bar with offhand grace, clad in an off-the-shoulder black top, black skinny jeans, and a fabulous pair of hammered gold earrings. Elizabeth had always envied Charlotte’s effortless style and her lithe five-foot eleven-inch frame, which could carry off any clothing ever made.
Charlotte devoured the bait, as Elizabeth had expected. “He’s got something better than the Z3?”
“Way better. He bought a Ferrari.”
Charlotte gasped. “Be still, my heart.”
“I bet you just about died when you saw it!” Jane’s eyes were lit with a mischievous sparkle as she continued. “So, I assume you’ve already asked him if you can take it for a test drive?”
Elizabeth set her empty glass on the end of the bar. “Sort of. He didn’t exactly say yes, but he also didn’t say no.”
Charlotte groaned, shaking her head. “William Darcy in a Ferrari. I think that’s hotter than the law allows. Men like that shouldn’t be allowed to walk around unsupervised; it could be dangerous.”
“But you’ve got Roger, and he’s pretty hot himself,” Elizabeth said. “You two have been spending so much time together lately, I wondered if love was starting to bloom.”
“In the immortal words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it? Sure, I like him, but we’re just having fun. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s got his eye on someone else.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?” Jane asked.
Charlotte shrugged. “Why should it? You know me; I’m not looking for romance. Too bad William isn’t available. I bet he’d have an impressive supply of energy; he’s got to be mighty frustrated from dealing with our little singing nun here.”
“Cut it out, Char,” Elizabeth said in a sharp tone.
Jane frowned at Charlotte, shaking her head in disapproval. Her voice was gentle but firm when she spoke. “Char, you’re getting carried away. I know you meant it as a joke, but you’re embarrassing Lizzy.”
“I’m sorry, Liz,” Charlotte said, her expression remorseful. “That was rude and crude and I shouldn’t have said it. Too much sangria and my mouth stops taking orders from my brain.”
“Yeah, I know. I learned a long time ago not to listen to a word you say.”
“Smart girl. I mean, you’re like my sister. Hell, I’m a lot closer to the two of you than I am to my real sister. Of course that means William Darcy is off limits, because he’s yours. I shouldn’t even joke about it.”
“He’s not mine.” But Elizabeth felt a tiny thrill go through her.
“Oh, I think he is,” Jane said. “You didn’t see him when he was done playing his solo last night. It was so obvious that he’d seen you leave, and he couldn’t wait to go after you. In fact, I’m afraid he may have offended some of the party guests. He just walked away from a group of them and came over to ask if I knew where you’d gone.”
Charlotte nodded. “Based on what I saw that weekend in May, I doubt he’d notice me, or any other woman either, if we did the Dance of the Seven Veils for him and left six of the veils at home. He’s got it bad. And I think you’ve got it bad too.”
“I don’t know. I wish I could figure it out.” Elizabeth brushed her hair away from her face.
“Well, let’s put our collective brain power to work on it,” Charlotte said. She raised her half-full glass. “Another pitcher of this stuff, and we can probably solve your problem, find a way to eliminate world hunger, and then … what? World peace? Shoes that are both stylish and comfortable?”
“Oh, c’mon,” Elizabeth retorted. “World hunger, sure, but you’re pushing it with the shoes.”
“In sangria veritas,” Charlotte declared. She and Elizabeth clinked glasses.
“Not to change the subject, but I was wondering if William … no, never mind.” Jane sighed.
“Did William mention Charles? Is that what you were going to ask?” Elizabeth said, noting the sadness in Jane’s eyes.
“Yes, he did. And that reminds me; Elena flew home this morning. So you don’t need to torture yourself, imagining the two of them having a romantic weekend. Caroline was making that up, as usual.”
“I wasn’t torturing myself,” Jane protested. “I want Charles to be happy.”
Elizabeth reached out and squeezed her sister’s hand. Jane was brave and generous, but Elizabeth knew that she suffered a great deal more than she ever admitted. “William and Charles are having dinner tonight.”
“So we’re having a girls’ night out, and they’re having a guys’ night out,” Charlotte said. “I bet we’re having more fun. How about a toast? To three hot chicks, out on the town.”
Ever since he had entered the restaurant, William’s stomach had been growling. He eagerly sampled the rack of lamb, savoring its delicate flavor. The restaurant was decorated in dark wood paneling, lead-glass mirrors, and green upholstery. It had been designed to resemble an exclusive men’s club, the sort of place where fortunes were once made—and lost—over brandy and cigars.
William took a sip of the wine Charles had selected. “Excellent choice,” he commented. “And you call me a wine snob! Obviously you know your California wines.”
Charles shrugged. “I guess so. Father insists on French wine, but when I first moved up here I dated a girl who liked to go to Napa Valley on weekends. If you go there often enough, you’re bound to learn something about wine.”
William grunted, taking another bite of the lamb. The two men fell into an awkward silence, not for the first time that evening. Charles was not his usual happy-go-lucky self, offering only perfunctory answers to William’s questions about life in Los Angeles, and any situation requiring William to be the chatty one was a ready-made disaster.
Besides, William couldn’t seem to focus on Charles and their dinner; instead, his mind continually summoned up reminders of his afternoon with Elizabeth, as though he were flipping through an album of sensory memories. A turn of the page, and he saw her green eyes sparkling with laughter when she teased him, and clouded with passion when she had lain beneath him on the blanket. Even the images of his problems on Telegraph Hill were softened by the echo of her sweet voice, gentle and full of compassion.
And she kissed me! William couldn’t help smiling as he congratulated himself for his wisdom and self-control. He had kept himself under stern regulation, resolving to follow her lead. In the heat of their embrace, his hands and lips had itched to wander, but instead he had, very reluctantly, released her. But it was too soon to rest on his laurels. How long he would be able to keep himself under control was another question entirely. Had they been alone in his living room instead of in the more public setting in the park, he was less certain of his success.
“What are you grinning about?” Charles asked, setting down his wine glass. “You’re looking mighty pleased with yourself this evening.”
“I had a good day,” William said, spearing a forkful of vegetables.
“You must have, considering the mood you’re in. What did you do?”
William hesitated. His initial impulse was to offer a vague answer, but Charles would probably figure it out on his own soon enough. Both Sonya and Mrs. Reynolds had warned him that where Elizabeth was concerned, his heart was on prominent display for all to see. He took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “Elizabeth Bennet took me on a tour of the city.”
“Aha. So Caroline was right about the two of you,” Charles said with a grin. “And you said last night that you were just friends!”
“I said we were friends, and we are,” William said, instantly regretting his decision to open up.
“But not just friends, I take it. Did you two have something going on in New York? I never told you this, but when Caroline came back from her trip out there in June, she swore up and down that you and Elizabeth were sleeping together.” Charles raised his eyebrows and drained his wine glass.
“As usual, Caroline invented an alternate reality.” William dropped his fork onto his plate with a clatter that sent their waiter hurrying over to ascertain that nothing was wrong. “She has no business spreading lies about Elizabeth and me.”
“Sorry,” Charles said, wincing. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I know she was getting on your nerves last night.”
William shrugged. He considered telling Charles about the nasty scene with Caroline after the party, and about her deceitful behavior in New York, but it was pointless. Charles had no control over his sister’s behavior.
“I suppose you figured out that Caroline got her … enhancement done mostly for your benefit,” Charles said. “From what I heard her telling Louisa, she got the idea somewhere that you’re a connoisseur of cleavage.”
William barely stifled a snicker. Caroline wasn’t wrong, but the cleavage had to belong to the right woman for his interest to move beyond casual appreciation. “I hope she didn’t do it just for my sake, because in that case she went to a lot of trouble for nothing.”
“Enough about my sister. At the risk of sounding like I’m hosting one of those TV shows where they sit around and gossip for hours, is something serious going on between you and Elizabeth?”
Exhibiting a flair for drama he never knew he possessed, William proceeded in leisurely fashion to cut a piece of lamb, chew it slowly, and swallow it before he responded. “Define ‘serious.’”
Charles shook his head. “Who needs a sphinx when you’ve got William Darcy for a friend?”
“What do you want me to say? We’re seeing each other. I enjoy spending time with her.” That was all he was willing to admit.
“Well, I’m happy for you. I didn’t get to know her that well back in May, but she seemed like a terrific girl. In fact ….” Charles paused and glanced upward, his eyes twinkling. “I could swear that I recall trying to fix you up with her, but you weren’t having any of it.”
William’s eyes narrowed, but he was smiling. “Get it over with. Go ahead and say ‘I told you so.’ You’ll feel better.”
“No, that’s okay,” Charles said with a grin. “It’s enough that we both know that, for once in our lives, I was right and you were wrong.”
William grinned but didn’t comment.
“Anyway,” Charles remarked after a short silence, “I’m glad one of us is having some luck with the opposite sex.”
“But you have Elena.”
“Yeah. She’s Father’s idea of the perfect wife.”
“But not yours?”
“I hate to say it, but she bores me. No interest in sports of any kind; her eyes glazed over the first time I tried to explain why I love surfing. She doesn’t seem to care about much besides parties, clothes, and jewelry. I don’t mean to put her down, but we have almost nothing in common … except for growing up with money, I guess. Still, when I need a date for a party or something, she’s usually available.”
“And you’re not seeing anyone else?” William had hoped that by now Charles would have begun to move on from Jane.
“Can’t seem to find the right girl. Well, I found her, but I was stupid enough to let her go. I wish I’d known Jane was going to be there last night. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
“I know. When I saw her in the receiving line with Elizabeth, I was concerned.”
“Yeah.” Charles propped one elbow on the table and rested his chin on his fist, sighing loudly.
“Did you talk to her?”
“Not much. She was polite, of course—Jane would never be rude to anyone—but she didn’t seem glad to see me. I guess you were right about her feelings. She sure got over me in a hurry.”
William’s conscience pricked at him, and he picked up his wine glass, stalling for time before he responded. His advice in May had been sound; however, with his newfound appreciation for the complexities of love, he wished he hadn’t been so forceful in expressing his opinions. “Charles, what I said back in May was based on a few hours of observation. I could have misread her feelings. And last night she might have felt as awkward as you did.”
“I don’t know. A few minutes later I saw her talking and laughing with another guy, and they were having a wonderful time. Her face absolutely glows when she smiles. Wasn’t she the most beautiful woman at the party?”
“She looked very nice,” William said politely. He had barely noticed Jane; in his eyes, Elizabeth had outshone every other woman.
Neither seemed to know what to say after that; they turned their attention to their food. Finally, Charles broke the silence. “I’ve dragged us down long enough with my bad mood,” he said. “We should be celebrating your arrival. It’s going to be nice having you closer so we can get together more often.”
“That reminds me. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you for coming to New York last month. It meant a lot.”
“No problem. You needed some cheering up, and I was glad I could help. It seems like you’re doing better now; what’s the latest?”
William gave Charles a sketchy health update, omitting any mention of his problems that morning.
“Sounds like you’re back on track,” Charles said. “I know you’re frustrated with the time it’s taking, but maybe what you need is a little TLC from Nurse Lizzy.”
William’s mouth was full, so he couldn’t reply, but he suspected that his agreement was written clearly on his face. Charles had hit on the perfect prescription.
“Okay, who wants the last shrimp?” Charlotte asked, licking her lips.
“Jane, I think it’s yours,” Elizabeth said. “But you’d better grab it quick before the Prawn Bandito can snatch it.”
Jane eyed the lone shrimp sitting in the small skillet. “Go ahead and take it, Char.”
“No, no,” Charlotte said, with an air of martyrdom. “Lizzy’s right; it’s yours. Go for it.”
“Why don’t we split it three ways?”
“Thanks,” Elizabeth said, “but I couldn’t eat another bite.”
“But I know you’d like half of it.” Jane smiled at Charlotte as she cut the shrimp into two pieces.
“Gee, what gave me away?” Charlotte asked with a snicker. “It couldn’t have been the saliva dribbling down my chin.”
While Jane and Charlotte savored the last shrimp, Elizabeth shared the tale of Bill Collins in bloodhound mode, huffing across the lawn at Rosings in pursuit of William. She finished the story with a spot-on imitation of Bill that caused Charlotte to choke on her sangria, and Jane to laugh in spite of herself.
“Jane said Cruella was at the party last night.” This was Charlotte’s nickname for Caroline Bingley.
“I wish you wouldn’t call her that,” Jane said, dunking a piece of bread into the leftover Cajun cream sauce. “You and Lizzy just won’t give her a chance. She’s been nice to me.”
Elizabeth put her hand on Jane’s arm. “You won’t be singing her praises after you hear what she did.” She described her unpleasant encounter with Caroline, and then went on to explain the incident involving the orchid.
Charlotte’s lip curled in disgust. “She took credit for your orchid, and threw away the note? She’s even lower than I thought.”
“Well, she claims William misunderstood, and that the note must have fallen on the floor, but let’s be serious.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.
“And there’s no chance this is all a misunderstanding?” Jane asked, frowning.
“No. She lied, and she conspired to keep William from finding out that I’d been to see him. And because of that, he spent two miserable months thinking I hated him.”
“So you’re ready to admit that he was miserable because he was missing you?” Charlotte asked with a smug grin. “My, we have made progress, haven’t we?”
Elizabeth pursed her lips, casting about for a suitable retort, but Jane spoke first. “I hate the idea that Charles’s sister would do something so callous and dishonest, and hurt you and William that way. You’re absolutely certain there hasn’t been some mistake?”
“Open your eyes, Jane,” Charlotte said. “That woman is a cold-hearted, selfish bitch. I don’t know why she’s been nice to you, but I promise you, she’s got some twisted agenda.”
“I just ….” Jane paused and shook her head. “It’s so hard for me to imagine, because it’s so different from the way she’s been with me.”
Charlotte leaned forward abruptly, nearly upsetting the glass of sangria at her elbow. “The difference is, the man she’s lusting after isn’t head over heels for you. If you were in her way, she’d cut you dead.”
Jane sighed. “I know you two think I delude myself about people, but I think it’s important to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“Well, now you know the truth,” Charlotte said. “Besides that despicable stunt with the orchid, don’t forget the nasty things she said to Liz, like that crack about back seats. As if Liz were a slut. It’s like calling Mother Teresa greedy.”
“She had no right to say that,” Jane retorted. “What did you say to her, Lizzy?”
“I never got the chance to say anything. William started yelling at her. He was furious.”
“Isn’t he the brave knight,” Charlotte quipped. “Defending his lady fair from the evil monster.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I admit, it was a little like that. I could have handled her myself, but it was sweet of him to want to protect me.” Her smile faded as she turned to Jane. “Please promise me that you’re going to keep her at arm’s length. Char is right; she must be up to something where you’re concerned, and it can’t be good.”
“Of course, Lizzy. I’d never maintain a friendship with someone who’s treated you that way. I’ll still be cordial, naturally, but that’s all.”
“Good,” Elizabeth said. “She’s like a poisonous snake. She slithers around your ankles till she’s ready to bare her fangs.”
“Good analogy!” Charlotte’s eyes gleamed. “You’ve even got the body type right.”
Elizabeth let out a little hoot and grabbed Charlotte’s arm, laughter bubbling in her eyes. “Char, I almost forgot! She got a boob job! You should have seen her strutting around showing them off like prize melons at the state fair. All she needed was a ‘Best in Show’ ribbon pinned on her dress.”
“Damn, I wish I’d been there! But I can just see it. Her plastic surgeon ought to have tattooed his name on them. Sounds like he’d have gotten plenty of free publicity.”
Even Jane laughed at this remark. Charlotte refilled their glasses with sangria and then said, “I assume Cruella was shoving her new accessories under William’s nose at every opportunity?”
“You should have seen his face when he noticed them!” Elizabeth burst into peals of laughter. “He looked like he’d just been catapulted into an alternate universe.”
“Like a new chapter in Gulliver’s Travels: The Land of Suddenly Large-Breasted Women,” Jane said with a giggle.
Elizabeth and Charlotte gaped, first at Jane and then at each other. Charlotte reached into her purse and made a great show of pulling out a pen. “I have to make a note of this,” she said. She wrote on a cocktail napkin, narrating as she did so, “On this date, Jane Bennet said something almost catty.” Then she signaled the waiter. “I think this calls for another pitcher of sangria.”
“Only if you and Jane can finish it on your own,” Elizabeth said. “I had half a bottle of wine this afternoon, so I think I’ve hit my limit and then some.”
Charlotte dropped her pen back into her purse. “You were drinking wine this afternoon? So this was the Platinum City Tour, complete with champagne and caviar?”
“It wasn’t a big deal. We had a picnic in Golden Gate Park, and William’s housekeeper included a bottle of wine.”
Charlotte flashed an amused look at Jane. “His housekeeper. Don’t you love it? The junior member of our trio has bagged herself some serious big game.”
“But that stuff isn’t important to me.” Elizabeth had tried to explain the same thing to Sally in New York. “I mean, yes, he wears expensive clothes and lives on Nob Hill, and he’s got a hot car and a housekeeper who packs elegant picnic lunches. But … when I’m with him, he’s just William, and I really, really like being with him.”
“Charlotte was right earlier, wasn’t she?” Jane asked gently, smiling at Elizabeth. “You’re falling for him.”
“I guess I am.” Elizabeth swallowed hard, feeling a dizzying blend of exhilaration and terror. “I wish you could see what he’s like when it’s just the two of us. He’s more relaxed, not all solemn and forbidding like he usually is in public. He’s sweet and charming, and he’s funny, too. He likes to tease me, and he even seems to enjoy it when I tease him. We never run out of things to talk about, and even when we’re quiet, it’s a comfortable sort of quiet.”
“But you left out something important. When he kisses you, you get all hot and bothered, right?” Charlotte asked, raising her eyebrows.
“You have a one-track mind,” Elizabeth retorted.
“That’s true. Now answer the question.”
Elizabeth’s mouth twisted into a reluctant smile. “Yes. A little too much so.”
“Excellent! You have my complete approval.” Charlotte pressed her napkin to her lips. “And, by the way, there is no such thing as getting too hot and bothered.”
Now that Elizabeth had started talking about William, she was finding it hard to stop. “I wish you could have seen him at Squat & Gobble this morning, studying the menu on the chalkboards. There was just something so adorable about it.”
“You took him to Squat & Gobble?” Charlotte asked, her eyebrows arched in astonishment. “Good grief. You could have had eggs Benedict at the Ritz.”
“But she doesn’t care about eggs Benedict at the Ritz,” Jane said. “That’s what she’s been saying. It was the same with Charles and me. I mean, of course it was wonderful that his money made it possible for us to buy that beautiful house, but the money wasn’t what made me love him.”
“Right,” Elizabeth said. “I’d enjoy being with William every bit as much if he were a struggling musician, like most of my friends in New York.”
“Well, okay,” Charlotte replied with a smirk. “But what’s wrong with hooking up with a charming hunk who also happens to be loaded?”
The waiter arrived with the sangria to find the three women laughing. Elizabeth raised her glass. “I guess I can handle a little more sangria, because it’s time for another toast. To Char: no matter what else you might say about her, you have to admit, she’s got a way with words.”