Friday, wee hours of the morning (Sydney) / Thursday, around noon (New York)
William switched off the lamp beside the piano and made his way through the darkness blanketing the living room, guided by the anemic light trickling from the bedroom. The hour he had spent playing Bach had been therapeutic but he wasn’t ready to sleep until he made a phone call. The bed bounced slightly as he plopped down on the edge of the mattress.
“Hello? I mean, William Darcy’s office.”
William had expected to hear Sonya’s brisk tones, not a husky male voice. “Richard? Is that you?”
“Will? How the hell are you?”
It had been more than a week since the cousins had spoken, and William’s insides twisted with an unexpected wave of homesickness. “I’m fine.”
“I don’t have a firm grasp on this time zone thing, but isn’t it late over there?”
“It’s around two.”
“In the afternoon?”
“No, the morning.” William stifled a yawn.
“What are you, nuts? You should be in bed, old man, and preferably not alone.”
William wondered what Richard would say if he shared the story of the amorously inclined cellist. “I couldn’t sleep so I practiced a little. Then I realized I might catch Sonya around lunchtime if I called now.”
“‘Fraid not. She’s gone for the rest of the week, remember?”
William had forgotten about Sonya’s brief vacation. She was helping her mother move into a retirement community in Charlotte. Or was it Charlottesville? He wasn’t sure. “She reminded me the last time we talked, but I must have my days confused. Did she recruit you to man the phones?”
Richard scoffed. “Yeah, right. I’d be one place below a chimp from the zoo on her list of candidates. And that’s just as well, because the chimp would be more likely to volunteer. I was sitting here going through the file for the New Year’s Eve concert when the phone rang, and I decided to make myself useful for a change.”
“The New Year’s Eve concert? Is there a problem?”
“No. I just thought I’d ride shotgun on the trip if it’s okay. I promise to keep myself busy; I know you and Lizzy won’t want me underfoot.”
William sighed. He could only hope that would be an issue. At some point he might have to tell Richard about Elizabeth, but not yet. Richard’s clumsy sympathy would only make William feel worse.
“Well, that idea certainly dropped like a rock,” Richard said. “I guess I’d better make other plans for New Year’s.”
William hadn’t realized he’d been silent for so long. Flustered but determined to hide it, he kept his tone light-hearted. “You’re welcome to come, but isn’t the Kennedy Center a little dull for your tastes, especially on New Year’s Eve? I seem to recall something about you ringing in the year with not one, but two female companions last December.”
“Twins, in fact.” Richard sighed with a theatrical air. “That was one for the record books, but I’m ready to try something different. I thought maybe I’d invite Charlotte to fly out to Washington and join us.”
“I see,” William said, raising an eyebrow. “Is there something I should know about the two of you?”
“As I’ve told you before, we’re just having fun.”
It was, as usual, a non-denial denial. After Elizabeth had suggested that Richard and Charlotte might have feelings that they were unwilling to admit, he’d noticed that Richard’s conversations all tended to curve around to include Charlotte, a symptom William recognized in himself.
“So, old man, did you just call to shoot the breeze, or do you need something?” Richard asked.
William hesitated, smoothing the sleeve of his silk robe. Sonya understood the basic situation and could be trusted to handle things with tact and subtlety, whereas Richard was … Richard. “I was checking for messages.”
“None that I can see. Nothing written down, and the message light is off.”
“Okay. Thanks.” William sank back against the pillows. She wasn’t going to call, and the sooner he accepted it, the better.
“What day is it out there?”
“Friday,” William answered, his eyelids drooping. He could almost feel his remaining energy draining away. “My last concert is tonight and I leave for home tomorrow morning.”
“From what I hear, everything’s going well?”
“Just great,” William answered, unable to squeeze the bitterness out of his voice. “Couldn’t be better.”
Thursday, 10:00 am (San Francisco) / Thursday, 1:00 pm (New York) / Friday, still the wee hours of the morning (Sydney)
Clammy, insubstantial fingers seemed to tickle the hairs on the back of her neck, but it was only the morning air, thick with moisture as it rolled through the open window. She shuddered and jumped to her feet, bumping her desk in the process. The orchid’s fragile yellow blossoms bobbed their heads as though gossiping among themselves about her predicament.
“If you’ve got suggestions, don’t be shy.” She closed the window and dropped into her chair again. “Heaven knows I could use the help.”
Last night, after leaving Roger’s apartment, she had considered her options for reaching William. Ordinarily she would simply have called his cell phone. But in his letter, and also in his farewell before he left San Francisco, he had asked her to call Sonya. At last evening’s Golden Gate Jazz rehearsal, she had found out why: Australia’s cell phone networks were incompatible with most U.S. mobile phones1. So her only option was to do as he had asked.
And here she sat, preparing to make the call, vibrating with a volatile blend of excitement and trepidation. But Sonya’s current voicemail greeting informed callers that the offices of William Darcy and the Darcy Arts Trust were closed. Messages could be left, but they would not be answered until the Monday after Thanksgiving. Elizabeth left a vague message, asking Sonya to call her to “answer a question.” She assumed that William had acquainted Sonya with the basic facts of their estrangement, but she doubted that others in the family who might hear her message had been similarly informed.
“And there you have it,” she remarked to her attentive floral audience. “I’ve blown it, haven’t I?” She pursed her lips and glared at the blooms, daring them to begin nodding again. “Fat lot of good you’re doing me so far.”
Next, she tried to find him on her own. Armed with a list of the best hotels in Sydney gleaned from Internet research, she began placing international calls, shuddering at the thought of her next cell phone bill. Unfortunately, hotels often listed him under a false name to protect him from the occasional persistent fan. She tried asking to speak to Mr. Darcy, Mr. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Lawrence—in case Sonya had used her own last name—and even Mr. Reynolds, but her efforts yielded nothing but a sheet of paper with a thick black line scratched through each hotel’s phone number.
Time was running short. She was to leave for Barbados early the next morning, and he would be traveling soon himself, making the long trip to New York. While they were both on the move, like two knights hopping around a massive chessboard, reaching each other would be even more of a challenge.
She fixed her gaze on the orchid. He had tried so hard to show her he was sorry, but she hadn’t been ready to hear him. She ran a gentle finger along the petals of a blossom, both of them flinching when the phone rang. Her heart jittered in her chest as she reached for the receiver, but the voice she heard wasn’t Sonya’s … nor was it his.
“Hello, Elizabeth. It’s Bill Collins.”
Had he been in the room and not on the phone, the frost in his tone would have killed the orchid instantly. It had been this way ever since his unsuccessful romantic overture eight days before; whenever they encountered each other on campus, he made a show of being too lofty to notice her. The most recent Golden Gate Jazz rehearsal had been marred by the tension as well, and she feared that one of them would have to leave the group if things didn’t improve.
“Hello, Bill,” she said, rolling her eyes for the benefit of the watching orchid blossoms.
“I’m calling on behalf of Dr. de Bourgh,” he said. “She would like to see you in her office.”
Elizabeth had been expecting this. When she had delivered her letter of resignation to the Dean’s office on Monday morning, she had learned that Catherine was out of town until Thursday. And here it was, Thursday morning. She supposed it was flattering to be so high on Catherine’s priority list. “I’ll be right there.”
“Oh, no,” Bill replied in a lofty tone. “She’s busy at present; she wishes to see you at five thirty.”
Elizabeth agreed to the appointment and hung up the phone, her lips twitching. At least she had time to prepare herself for the showdown to come.
Elizabeth stepped into the reception area of the Dean’s suite at precisely half past five. The receptionist’s desk was unoccupied; the secretarial staff had gone home for the day. The overhead lights were off, the area illuminated only by the anemic glow of two floor lamps. The effect would have been peaceful if not for Catherine’s emphatic voice echoing through the hallway. She was on the phone, intoning each word as though it would soon be inscribed on a stone tablet.
Seeking distraction, Elizabeth studied the coffee table, its clean lines and glass-covered latticework top suggesting an Asian influence. But it would require more than a piece of furniture to take her mind off the coming battle. Whether or not Catherine intended to interfere with her departure, it was likely that the gloves would come off at last. Adrenalin coursed through her veins, girding her for combat and setting her heart pounding so hard she thought it might knock her off her feet.
Judging from the thick silence that soon descended, Catherine’s call must have ended. Elizabeth sat tall and proud in a sleek but remarkably uncomfortable armless chair, flipping absently through a recent copy of the Journal of Musicology. A suspicion that the delay was intended to rattle her only strengthened her resolve to remain calm.
At last Bill Collins appeared, sporting his newly habitual injured expression. He nodded, offered a cold and uncharacteristically terse greeting, and escorted her down the shadowy hallway to the Dean’s office.
“Dr. de Bourgh,” Elizabeth replied in an equally chilly tone. Two could play the name game. She stepped close to the desk, attempting to exploit her height advantage.
Catherine rose to her feet and fixed her eyes on Bill Collins, who lurked just inside the door. “Collins, what do you want?”
“I thought you might—that is, in case you wanted me to assist you in any way, I could—not that I consider you incapable of handling this matter on your own, because of course no one could think that—but perhaps I might be of service in some small way?”
Catherine was not similarly amused. “I asked you to fetch Ms. Bennet, and you have done so,” she snapped, glowering at Bill. “Go back to your office, and shut the door on your way out.”
Bill clasped his hands together in an obsequious gesture. “Of course, Dr. de Bourgh.” Just before he turned to go his eyes met Elizabeth’s, and she saw a faint note of sympathy there.
Once he was gone, Catherine’s steely gaze skewered Elizabeth again. “Now, as for you, Ms. Bennet ….” She slapped the sheet of paper, which was indeed the resignation letter, onto the desk. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I would have thought the meaning was clear,” Elizabeth said, summoning up a haughty stare of her own. “I’m leaving at the end of the semester.”
“You have a contract for the entire school year.” Catherine seated herself and deposited her reading glasses on the desk with what seemed like unnecessary force.
“I have excellent reasons for resigning, as you know quite well.”
Catherine sniffed. “Take a seat, and we will discuss these so-called reasons of yours.”
Elizabeth hesitated, in no mood to follow orders, yet it seemed foolish to pick a fight over the use of a chair when more controversial matters loomed. She sat down, squaring her shoulders in a gesture she belatedly recognized as a sign of William’s influence. It bolstered her courage, almost as though he sat by her side. She turned an insolent stare on Catherine, challenging her to fire the first salvo.
She didn’t have long to wait. “Don’t try to play the injured party,” Catherine snapped. “You managed to pull the wool over my eyes for a time, but I’ve heard all about your tawdry affair with William Darcy.”
“Tawdry?” Elizabeth rolled her eyes and shook her head. “It’s true that we’ve been dating, but I hardly see what’s tawdry about two single people having a relationship.”
“If we were speaking of two unattached people who were suitable for each other, I might agree. But your situation falls short of that description on two counts.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.” Elizabeth’s imagination was in perfect working order, but she refused to yield an inch of the battleground.
“First of all, William Darcy has an understanding with my daughter.”
“Does he understand that he has an understanding?” Elizabeth asked mildly, her eyebrows raised in a silent challenge.
Catherine’s jaw set in a dangerous line. “Don’t play word games with me, young woman. I won’t tolerate it.”
“From what William has told me, he and Anne are friends, nothing more.”
Catherine’s eye twitched and she adjusted a photograph on her desk. “His mother and I always intended that they should marry. But he and Anne have unfortunately seen little of each other in recent years. His visit to San Francisco this fall was intended to give them the opportunity to become reacquainted, which would have happened had you not interfered.”
Elizabeth blew a stream of air through her nostrils. “It seems to me that this is William’s business and Anne’s, not yours. Besides, my absence wouldn’t have guaranteed that William would choose to spend more time with Anne.”
“It most certainly would have. He’s always been conscientious about his duty to his family until now. His grandmother is horrified at his behavior, as am I. It’s clear to us that you’ve used your wiles to lure him into forgetting what he owes the Darcys and my daughter, just as you lured him into buying you a position here, at a prestigious institution far beyond anything you could have achieved on your own merit, and at a salary that’s an insult to our more deserving faculty.”
“I didn’t lure him into anything.” Elizabeth jumped to her feet, every muscle trembling with indignation. “I only found out what he did a short time ago. That’s why I submitted my resignation.”
“Young woman, sit down.” Catherine’s eyes were like black ice, every word a mallet striking the desk.
After a moment’s consideration, Elizabeth lowered herself stiffly into her chair. Catherine was studying her carefully, no doubt seeking a weakness to exploit. “Dr. de Bourgh,” she said, forcing her voice to sound cool, “believe what you like, but I didn’t know—”
Catherine made a dismissive gesture. “William and Collins both told me you were ignorant of the arrangement until recently. Obviously you and William have gone to some trouble to get your stories straight. As for Collins, you’re a convincing actress. I’m sure it was a simple matter of fluttering your eyelashes and feigning surprise when he showed you the contents of your file.” A speculative light shone in Catherine’s eyes. “Or did you give that weak-minded fool something more intimate in order to buy his sympathy?”
“How dare you?” Elizabeth grabbed the chair arms, her knuckles white with the force of her grip, to keep from leaping to her feet again.
Catherine continued, ignoring Elizabeth’s indignation. “But it would make no difference if you were telling the truth. Whether or not you asked William to do it, you manipulated him to a place where he considered such an outrageous act appropriate.”
“If you considered his offer to fund my position so outrageous, why did you accept it?” Elizabeth eyed Catherine defiantly.
“I had grave doubts, I assure you; however, I thought it unwise to antagonize one of the conservatory’s major benefactors by refusing his generosity, however misguided it might have been. But don’t try to shift the focus off your own actions, Ms. Bennet. My mind is made up about you. It disgusts me to see a woman using her body to advance her career. Such behavior hurts other women who refuse to stoop to immorality for personal gain.”
Elizabeth’s arms could barely hold her in her seat. “And you’ve reached this conclusion based on what? You scarcely know me, yet you’re willing to accuse me of selling myself to get what I want? I presume you’re a mind reader as well as a musician?”
“It scarcely requires clairvoyance to recognize a scheming woman using a wealthy man’s weaknesses against him. There’s no other explanation for William’s utter disregard for everything—his family’s reputation, his personal honor—in consorting with someone so utterly unsuitable.”
“You can’t possibly hold such an antiquated attitude.” Elizabeth sternly repressed her own insecurities on the subject of their social equality, lest Catherine pounce at the slightest scent of doubt. “You make it sound like I grew up in a brothel or was raised by wolves. My father is a manager. I have a master’s degree and a sister with her own law practice. There’s no dishonor in any of that.”
“Perhaps not, but I notice you don’t mention your mother. I’ve been told that she’s uneducated and vulgar. And I’ve heard that your youngest sister works, if that word is even appropriate, at a restaurant where she does little more than flaunt her body for the titillation of the male patrons. So it’s appropriate that you mentioned a brothel. You can’t have any genuine affection for William if you expect him to debase himself by associating with such people.”
Elizabeth sprang to her feet like a fierce jack-in-the-box. “That’s enough. You’ve insulted my abilities, my morals, and now my family. There’s only one thing I want to hear from you, and that’s whether or not you’re going to try to stop me from leaving the conservatory. After all, why would you want me to stay, since you disapprove of me so much?”
Catherine rose as well, her oversized personality seeming to add several inches to her diminutive frame. As she moved, her perfume wafted across the desk, the scent infused with the faint tang of sandalwood. “No, I won’t interfere,” she said with obvious resentment. “I can’t, as you know quite well already. William has made that impossible.”
“What are you talking about?”
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Are we truly going to play out this charade, as though you’re ignorant of the insolence he showed me before he left for Australia? Very well. If I dismiss you should you wish to stay, or if I attempt to block your departure should you choose to leave, he threatens to withdraw his foundation’s support of the conservatory.”
“Oh?” Elizabeth could almost feel the room tilt as power shifted to her side of the desk.
“Wipe that smirk off your face, young woman. I’ve spoken to his grandmother, who could no doubt put a stop to such spiteful and unprofessional behavior on his part. But I prefer not to start a fight inside the foundation’s board of directors. It might reflect poorly on the conservatory, and you aren’t worth that risk. Besides, as you point out, you are not someone I care to have associated with this institution.”
Elizabeth brushed this latest insult aside; it wasn’t worthy of a response, not when William had handed her such an easy victory. “Then it sounds like my departure is the best thing for both of us. Will you be able to accommodate my voice students with other teachers next semester?” It was her greatest concern about leaving.
“How admirable of you to consider their welfare,” Catherine said, her tone rich with sarcasm. “But, yes, coverage will be available. We have enough funds from William’s original gift to hire a replacement for the spring, and he has pledged funds to pay for this person for an additional year.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The generosity of William’s gesture had her blinking back sudden tears. She knew that he had done this for her, to assuage the guilt she might have felt in leaving so suddenly and to defuse Catherine’s sole legitimate grievance against her departure.
“I suppose you intend to follow him to New York and to continue to exploit his weaknesses,” Catherine remarked, a haughty tilt to her chin.
“My future plans are none of your business.” Elizabeth lifted her own chin in response.
Catherine snorted, a low, crude sound Elizabeth was surprised to hear issuing from the imperious woman’s throat. “So you think you have the upper hand, do you? Don’t delude yourself. William has always had a healthy appetite for the company of attractive, willing women, but he tires of them quickly, just as he will with you.”
“He’s not like that, and I’m sure you know it. Besides, if he were as fickle as you’re making him out to be, you wouldn’t want him for a son-in-law.”
Catherine’s smug expression made Elizabeth want to leap across the desk and grab her by the throat. “All young men go through a phase where they’re vulnerable to the wiles of manipulative women with questionable morals, and William’s fortune has made him an unusually attractive target. But soon he will want more than just meaningless physical satisfaction, and then I am confident that he will remember his responsibility to Anne. Take my advice and give him up now, before he casts you aside like all the others.”
Elizabeth wondered how many more ways Catherine could find to accuse her of using sex to entrap William. Considering the truth, it was laughable, but she wasn’t laughing. “I’m amazed at the way you draw these conclusions about my relationship with William when you know absolutely nothing about it. If I choose to continue to be with him, I will do so, and you have no business passing judgment on my choice. He and I are the only people involved.”
“Which shows how little you understand him. His grandmother will never allow him to marry you, if that’s your goal. She would never allow the Darcy name to be degraded in that way.”
“Degraded?” Elizabeth took a step toward the desk. Her hands were in fists at her sides, her eyes steaming with rage. “I won’t listen to another word of this. You’ve treated me with contempt since the day of my job interview, and I’ve done nothing to deserve it.”
“You most certainly—”
“I’m not finished,” Elizabeth snapped, pointing an angry finger at Catherine and stabbing it forward periodically to emphasize her words. “Furthermore, I will act according to my judgment, for my happiness and for William’s, and I have no interest in your opinion on the subject. I will be leaving the conservatory at the end of the semester, and once I’m gone it’s none of your business where I go or what I do. Now, please excuse me. I have to get ready for my evening class.”
With a curt nod, Elizabeth whirled and stalked out of the room. Catherine’s strident voice followed her, nipping at her heels. “William Darcy is my daughter’s future husband, and I won’t allow you to interfere. You think I can’t stop you, but I have influence with those who can. You will come to regret speaking to me this way.”
Back in her office, Elizabeth closed her eyes and took some slow, deep breaths to calm herself. On reflection, she was proud of herself for managing her anger fairly well. She had defended herself when necessary, attacked when appropriate, and, most importantly, hadn't lost control till almost the end of their meeting. By then, as far as she was concerned, Catherine had deserved every angry word, though whatever retribution Catherine planned would probably be worse because of Elizabeth's emphatic final speech. Still, it was a shame she wouldn't see her therapist again until after Thanksgiving, because this was a story she would enjoy sharing.
Friday, late afternoon (Miami) / Saturday, early morning (Sydney)
Elizabeth considered flinging her cell phone across the concourse, but she was unwilling to risk bruising a fellow traveler. She imagined a new version of the banner hanging above her head: Welcome to Miami. Beware of flying phones! What good was it to have a phone when nobody she called ever seemed to be available?
After her showdown with Catherine the previous evening, her mind had returned to finding a way to reach William. She had called Charlotte, requesting Richard’s phone number, but her call had been answered by voicemail. Much later, when her night class had ended, Elizabeth had retrieved Charlotte’s message in return. Charlotte had supplied Richard’s number as requested and then continued. “I think you’re right that he doesn’t know what’s going on. He called a few days ago and didn’t mention it, and he loves to gossip. Don’t worry—he won’t hear it from me.”
By then it had been almost ten in the evening, and three hours later in New York, but Elizabeth had placed the call anyway, reasoning that for Richard the evening was just getting started. He hadn’t answered, so she had left a message and headed home to pack her suitcase, her stomach churning with frustration.
She had called Richard again first thing in the morning, and again received no answer. On the plane, she had left her phone turned on until the last possible moment. The notion that an inexpensive hunk of metal could scramble a jumbo jet’s navigation and communication systems was something Elizabeth preferred not to ponder, especially right before take-off, but she had obediently shut off her phone at the flight attendant’s announcement. Five and a half jittery hours later, on reaching Miami, she had lunged for the phone, finding that a message awaited her—finally.
“Lizzy, good to hear from you.” It was Richard’s hearty voice. “Sorry I didn’t call sooner. My phone was in my jacket pocket, and my jacket was … elsewhere both times you called. Anyway, as I’m sure you already know, Will’s at the Park Hyatt. But I guess you need the name he’s registered under. I’m not absolutely sure, but lately Sonya’s been using ‘Edmund Forlini’ a lot, so try that.”
Two calls later, one to obtain the Park Hyatt’s phone number, and another to the hotel itself, she found herself seething with frustration. ‘Mr. Forlini’ had checked out less than an hour before and was on his way to the airport for the nearly 24-hour trip to New York.
She stared at the phone cradled in her palm, again fighting the temptation to throw it against something hard if only for the savage pleasure of watching it disintegrate into a shower of small metallic body parts. But it wasn’t the phone’s fault that she had missed William. And it wasn’t the phone’s fault that it would be useless to her in Barbados.1 Dejected, she made her way along the concourse to meet the Gardiners when their flight arrived.
1 This was true at the time of the story, when mobile phone manufacturers had not standardized on cellular communication bands. Even today there are differences between countries, but most newer phones are manufactured to support multiple bands.