William reached his backstage dressing room with a sigh of relief. It had been a day of continual tension, ever since the news of Georgiana’s disappearance. Thank goodness she was safe now, at the Gardiners’ home—physically safe, at least. But according to Elizabeth’s last report, delivered on her way to Baltimore, Georgiana had been too upset so far to offer any explanations.
He recalled almost nothing of the performance he had just given. Extensive preparation and years of experience had allowed him to give a technically solid performance—he was confident of that much—but he knew that his usual emotion and musicality had been blunted by the heart-rending vision of his sister, tears flowing down her cheeks, alone on a street corner in an unfamiliar city. She was in pain, and whatever the reason for her flight from home, it was his fault.
During the limo ride to the hotel, he closed his eyes, guilt pressing in on him like a weight crushing his chest. Elizabeth had tried, again and again, to warn him that Georgiana was deeply unhappy and on the verge of rebellion. He had been too quick to dismiss her concerns, reassuring himself—with blindness born of excessive family pride—that his gentle, well-bred sister would never steal or lie or run away from home. Now that illusion was shattered.
At the hotel, he plodded through the elegant lobby, his eyes downcast. Upstairs in his suite, he felt a pang at the sight of the bottle of wine and the roses he had ordered that morning to greet Elizabeth on her arrival. He gently drew one bloom from the vase, inhaled its heady sweetness, and studied it in mournful silence.
At last, with a heavy sigh, he returned the rose to the vase and collapsed into a chair, withdrawing his phone from his pocket. Although it was a poor substitute for her presence, at least he could talk to her and offer the apology he owed her. She answered his call on the first ring.
“Hi, Will,” she said. “I was just getting ready to call you. How did the performance go tonight?”
“Well enough, I guess, but all I could think about was Georgie. How is she?”
“We had a long talk, and I think she’s feeling a little better. She went to bed not long ago.”
“Tell me everything.”
“I’ll give you the short version first. Georgie has been emailing with George Wickham. She came down to Washington to talk to him in person, and he told her that he’s her father.”
William froze for a moment, horrified. Then he spat out, “That despicable, lying bastard!”
“I know.” Elizabeth paused and heaved a deep sigh. “Except … what if it’s not a lie? What if he really is her father?”
No, it couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. Except, of course, that it could. This was a nightmare.
“We need to talk about that,” she said, when he didn’t respond, “but first, let me tell you the rest. I’m afraid it’s all bad news. She let me read his emails, and he painted the worst possible picture of you, your father, and your grandmother. He has convinced her that after your mother died, you and your grandmother conspired to keep him away despite knowing he was her father, and he’s even suggested that you invented the embezzlement thing because you hated him.”
“I do hate him, but with good reason. As for the embezzlement, he’s guilty, and he’s lying if he says anything else. I can show her the proof if necessary.”
“It might be. Unfortunately, he’s done a skillful job of manipulating the poor girl. Aunt Madeline and I have been doing our best to cast doubt on the things he said, and I think it’s helping a little, but she felt so alienated from the family that she was an easy mark.”
“So he contacted her, after New Year’s Eve, I assume, to poison her against us?” He had been afraid of something exactly like this after seeing Wickham at the Kennedy Center.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Actually, Georgie contacted him first, not quite two weeks ago. You see … she’s been looking for a way to connect with her mother. That’s how her interest in the foundation got started. And she found a diary of Anna’s in a file cabinet somewhere in the office.”
“Really? I didn’t even know she kept one.”
“It’s in Italian and Georgie couldn’t make out much of it, but that was enough to whet her appetite. And then, she remembered Wickham saying that he was around when she was born, and she wanted to hear more. She figured out how to reach him at the NEA, and that was all the opening he needed.” Elizabeth paused, sighing. “And then ….”
“What?” He didn’t see how things could get any worse.
“Then she overheard Mrs. Scofield gossiping about your mom and Wickham, and saying that everyone knew Georgie was the product of their affair.”
“She said what?” William shouted the last word. He jumped to his feet and strode to the window, staring out at the lights shimmering on the river. He wanted to throw something, to break something; counting to ten in Italian would never suffice.
“I know. She sat there in your library and gossiped about your mother. It makes me sick. And she’s supposedly such a good friend of your grandmother’s.”
“That woman has seen the inside of the townhouse for the last time.” He took a deep breath. “Is there anything else?”
“You’re pretty much caught up on what Georgie’s been through. As you can imagine, she’s pretty upset, but the main thing is, she says that she has to know who her father is, and soon.”
“Can’t we just tell her that Wickham lied, and that she and I have the same father?”
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. “Will, I know how much you want that to be true, and so do I, but our wishes and hopes don’t make it true. Besides, Wickham has shaken her faith in you and your grandmother. I doubt she’d take your word for it at this point.”
“Then can’t we tell her that it doesn’t matter? That she’s my sister, and she’s a Darcy, no matter what?” Even as he said the words, he knew his forlorn suggestion would never work.
“But it does matter, to her. Wouldn’t you feel the same, in her position?”
He sighed. “Yes. I’d want the truth.”
“Good; I’m glad you understand. And just to be clear, I won’t lie to her, and I won’t let anyone else lie to her either.”
He almost smiled at her vehement tone. Elizabeth had defended him more than once, and now she had taken Georgiana under her wing as well. “So, what are you proposing?”
“Two things. First, you told me you weren’t sure what your grandmother knows about the situation. It’s time to find out.”
“So can you call her tonight, or first thing in the morning if you think it’s too late, and ask her?”
He blanched at the thought. “I guess I … but ….” He tried to imagine the scene, and couldn’t.
“You’ve been asking what you can do to help,” Elizabeth said, a hint of steel in her voice. “This is what I need you to do.”
Shame flooded him. “Of course, cara. I wasn’t hesitating because I was going to refuse. I was just envisioning what an excruciating conversation it’s going to be.”
“I know. I don’t envy you. Maybe try to keep it short and simple. Though I suppose first you’ll have to fill her in on some of what I’ve told you, in order to justify asking the question.”
“Okay,” he said, glad she couldn’t see his grimace. “I’ll do it.”
“That’s my brave boy.” Her voice held a hint of a smile.
“Going back to what Georgie did, I lost a thread from earlier. You said she went to Washington to talk to Wickham face to face. Did she actually see him?”
“That snake had a lot of nerve, luring her to Washington. Did he hurt her?” He wondered what else Wickham had in mind—kidnapping? Or worse?
“He hurt her feelings with some things he said, but all they did was talk, only briefly from what I can tell. And assuming she didn’t hide any of his emails from me, I don’t think he actually invited her. But that’s one of the things I’m going to find out tomorrow.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I”m meeting him in DC tomorrow morning.”
“Lizzy, no!” He barely restrained himself from shouting the words. “I don’t want you anywhere near him. It’s not safe.”
“Oh, come on. I’m meeting him in a very public place. Besides, he’s a liar, not a thug. He’s not going to harm me.”
“Still, cara, if anything happened to you—”
“I promise, I’ll be careful.”
He didn’t like this development at all, but he could tell from her tone that her mind was made up and argument was futile. “What are you going to say to him?”
“I’m going to try to find out what he’s up to with Georgie, beyond what he’s already done. And then I’m going to call his bluff and ask for a paternity test. If he refuses, that almost certainly means he’s not her father. I think she might accept that as evidence.”
“But … but …” William sputtered. “What if—”
“I know. What if we do the test and he really is her father? Aunt Maddie and I talked about that, but we don’t see any way to avoid it.”
“You mentioned Mamma’s diary. Does it cover the time when she was pregnant?”
“Based on the dates I could read—and she had terrible handwriting so there weren’t many—it seems to. Why?”
“When I get home, I can try to translate it.”
“But you said your Italian was really rusty.”
“It is. The longer Mamma was in the US, the less she spoke it to me, so it’s at least twenty years since I spoke more than a few words. And you’re right about her handwriting. Sonya used to joke that she ought to have been a spy; she could have written secret messages in her normal handwriting and nobody would have been able to decipher them. But I can try, and maybe the answer is there.”
“Or maybe it’s not.”
“It’s better than involving that man in a paternity test.”
“Okay, granted. But we also need to figure out what else Wickham has up his sleeve, so we know how to protect Georgie. Maybe if he sees that the family will fight back, now that we know what he’s doing, he’ll back off. And it’s worth at least seeing how he reacts to the idea of a test. Given his claim to be her father, I’m sure he’ll expect us to ask for proof.”
Much as he wanted to argue the point, he couldn’t. Elizabeth was making sense, and it was time to trust her instincts. “You’re right,” he said with a sigh.
“I mean, of course we won’t actually do the test unless we have to. And if it turns out that he is her biological father, it’ll be bad, at least for a while. But Edmund is still her legal father, and a paternity test doesn’t change that. And from what Georgie said, Wickham has no interest in custody, so maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.”
William doubted that; Wickham would find a way to exploit the situation. “Be careful with him, cara. Don’t underestimate the damage he’s capable of doing.”
“I’ll be very careful, I promise. Oh, and before I forget, there’s one more thing you could do to help. Call Georgie tomorrow. I think she’d like to hear from you.”
“She ignored my calls all day today.”
“Mine, too, but things are different now. And even if she doesn’t pick up, she’ll know you were thinking about her.”
“Okay, I’ll call her in the morning. But first I’ll call Gran, so you know her answer before you see Wickham. If she knows the truth, we can avoid paternity testing.”
“Maybe. At this point I don’t know if Georgie would trust your grandmother’s word.”
What a sad statement that was, yet he sensed that Elizabeth was right, as she had been right about almost everything where Georgiana was concerned. “Lizzy, I don’t know how to thank you for everything you’re doing, or how to apologize for putting you through it. I know we could have avoided all of this if I’d listened to your advice. It’s been a difficult day for me, but I know it’s been much worse for you, and it’s my fault. I’m so sorry, cara.”
“It’s not your fault, and I’m fine,” she replied, but he heard a slight quaver in her voice. “Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward have been wonderful, and that helps a lot. But I wish you were here. I miss you.”
“Same here. I wish I’d been home when Georgie vanished. Then I’d be the one dealing with this.”
“If you’d been home when Georgie vanished, we’d be dealing with it together.”
Despite his worries, her remark brought a smile to his face. That was his Elizabeth in a nutshell. “I love you,” he said softly.
“And I love you.”
Elizabeth scanned the walkway, pausing beside an unoccupied bench. They had agreed to meet at this spot, near the boathouse, but she saw no sign of him yet. She thrust her hands into the pockets of her denim jacket; although the sun shone, the air was chilly.
William had called shortly before she and Edward left the house and had reported on his brief but agonizing conversation with Rose. Surprisingly, she had no certain knowledge of Georgiana’s parentage. “She said she’d explain more when we got home, but she doesn’t know the answer. And she wanted me to thank you for everything you’re doing.” William had then repeated his plea for Elizabeth to be careful with Wickham. “Like I said last night, don’t let him hurt you.”
“You sound like Aunt Madeline and Uncle Edward. Everybody seems to expect him to try to kidnap me or something.”
“That’s not what worries me. Words can hurt, too, and he’ll say anything to try to make you doubt me, or even yourself. I don’t want to see him cause you any pain.”
“Don’t worry. After everything we went through to be together, I’m not going to let a liar like Wickham come between us.”
Elizabeth had also called Sonya, who had little information to contribute. “Anna and I were friendly,” she said, “but we weren’t confidantes. I mean, now and then I saw them touching hands or exchanging looks, and occasionally it looked like I might have interrupted something, but that’s all. And really, Elizabeth, I wouldn’t believe a word Wickham says. He presents himself as Mr. Charming, but he’s a nasty piece of work.”
Elizabeth scanned the walkway again; there was still no sign of him. All the warnings had begun to erode her confidence. She reached up and ran a finger over her emerald pendant; as always, it had a strangely calming effect.
A voice sounded behind her. “Why, if it isn’t Elizabeth Bennet!” She whirled to see Wickham approaching. “It’s so good to see you again.” He extended his hand, which she ignored.
“I wish I could say the same,” she shot back.
“Now, now, we were friends before all this unpleasantness happened.”
“No, we were not.” She folded her arms in front of her with in a gesture she hoped looked forceful. “And even if we had been, I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with a man who would prey on a 15-year-old girl.”
“Prey on her?” He scoffed and shook his head. “You think my tastes run to skinny, sulky teenagers? Hardly. Now, if you want to talk about grown women, that’s a different matter, especially beautiful ones with dark hair, luscious curves, and gorgeous green eyes.” He flashed what might have been, at another time, a charming smile, but Elizabeth wasn’t charmed.
“That’s not what I meant by preying on her.”
“Let’s sit down, unless you’d like to take a romantic stroll among the cherry blossoms while we talk.”
“I’m not here for a stroll,” she snapped. She plopped onto the nearby bench, placing herself as far to one side as possible.
He joined her, sitting close beside her so that their bodies touched. She answered his smirk with a freezing stare; he laughed and slid further away. “All right, madam, your virtue is safe.”
“I’ll rephrase my question. What do you want with Georgie? And why did you lure her down here?”
“Why would I have wanted the kid to come here? That was entirely on her; I didn’t invite her or encourage her, or even know she was on her way. I was annoyed when she called me yesterday and said she was in the lobby of my office building.”
“But you sent her over a dozen emails; you don’t deny that, do you?”
“Last I checked, personal email with an acquaintance was entirely legal.”
“But why did you do it?”
“We met New Year’s Eve, and she was interested in knowing more about her mother. And she was the one who contacted me. I was just providing information out of the goodness of my heart, since apparently Darcy can’t be bothered to tell his sister about their mother.”
“Yeah. I’ve read your so-called information. You did lots more than tell her about Anna. You’ve been poisoning her against William and Rose, and when you saw her yesterday, you told her you were her father.
He shrugged. “I admit, I decided to have a little fun along the way. Darcy deserves it, and so does his witch of a grandmother, for the way they treated me.”
“You stole from their foundation. What did you expect them to do? Pat you on the back and thank you? They could have done a lot worse, from what I’ve heard.”
“As I told you on New Year’s Eve, I’m innocent. But they chose to frame me for it so they could punish me.”
“Which I don’t believe for a second. You’re just angry because you got caught, and you’re trying to get even by making Georgie hate her family.”
“She was already starting to see them for what they really are. I just filled in a few blanks to help her decide, like any good friend would do.”
“And you didn’t encourage her to come down here to see you?”
“I repeat, no, I didn’t. She overheard some gossipy old bat talking about Anna and me. The old woman was the one who said I was Georgie’s father.”
“But you said it, too.”
He raised his eyebrows and smirked. “All I did was confirm her suspicions.”
“Did you tell her the truth? Are you her father?”
He snickered but otherwise didn’t respond.
Finally, he replied. “I take it Anna never explained our relationship to the old witch? What a pity.” He snickered again. “It must be eating Darcy up, not knowing. He was so jealous of my relationship with Anna, knowing I was doing the horizontal mambo with her. I think he wanted to do that particular dance with his ‘Mamma’ himself.”
Elizabeth gasped. “How dare you? You’ll say anything to hurt him, won’t you?”
“Aren’t you the loyal fiancée, leaping to his defense! But you never saw the way he looked at her.”
“You’re disgusting!” Elizabeth wanted to slap the smug expression off his face. “First you try to poison Georgie against him, and now you’re trying to plant nasty lies in my head.”
“Just calling ‘em as I saw ‘em. You should ask some of Anna’s friends. Like that bossy cow, Catherine de Bourgh. Oh, pardon me, Lady Catherine. She was always underfoot back then.”
“You still haven’t answered my question. Are you Georgie’s father?”
“Why would I just tell you the answer? That’s no fun. Why don’t you try to guess?” His eyes held a sly glint.
Since this seemed to be a game to him, she thought she might get a better response if she played along for a while. “Okay, here’s my theory. If you knew for certain that you were her father, you’d have used it to blackmail the family long ago. You’d have threatened to sue for custody in order to extort whatever you wanted.”
He looked impressed. “You’re a sharp girl. I thought so the first time I met you.”
“So either you know you’re not her father, or else you’re not sure and decided not to risk poking the bear, in case Anna had told them the truth before she died.”
“And which of those explanations do you prefer?”
She shook her head and heaved a sigh. “I don’t know.”
“So, we’re at an impasse. And yet I know how desperately poor, dear Georgiana yearns to know the truth. One might even say that she’s traumatized by the uncertainty.”
He wasn’t far wrong, but Elizabeth didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of agreeing.
He continued, “And of course we can’t leave the poor child in that painful state. I’ll tell you what; I’ll agree to a paternity test to resolve this once and for all.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “You’d be willing to do that, if we asked you to?”
“Absolutely; I’m a reasonable man.”
“Thank you.” She hadn’t expected it to be so easy.
“For one million dollars.”
“What?” She stared at him. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Not at all. Shouldn’t it be worth a million bucks to help Darcy’s precious sister? And we both know he can afford it.”
Elizabeth glared at him, seething.
He smirked. “You didn’t seriously think I’d do anything for the Darcys out of the goodness of my heart, did you? I thought you were smarter than that.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“But, fair warning, my dear. If the test shows that I’m her father, it’s going to cost a lot more. For example, her dear old dad should be trustee of her shares in the company, don’t you think? Maybe even get a seat on the board, as her representative? And I really think her dad should manage her trust fund, which I’m sure is very generous. And she told me that she owns half of the townhouse; certainly, she’ll want her dear papa to come and visit now and then, or maybe even move in permanently.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” Elizabeth tried to hide her horror at that suggestion.
“No, probably not,” he said with a chuckle. “The thought of having to see Darcy and his wrinkled prune of a grandmother every day—that’s nauseating. Besides, I have no interest in parenting a sulky, dull dish rag of a teenager. But perhaps a visit now and then when Darcy is off tickling the ivories somewhere far away. And if I’m very lucky, his lovely wife will be at home to keep me company. And if she’s as bored with him by then as Anna was with Edmund, maybe she’ll even let me tickle her ivories.”
Elizabeth jumped to her feet, fiery heat in her eyes. “How dare you?”
“Oh, sit down and relax,” he said, grinning. “I was kidding; the joke was too good to pass up.”
It took several seconds and some slow, deep breaths to calm herself, but she managed it. Too much was riding on this to risk losing control. She resumed her seat and glared at him. “You make me sick.”
He laughed. “You didn’t think so on New Year’s Eve. You found me quite charming.”
“That was before I knew you.” She studied him, glaring. “And I think you know you’re not her father. If you thought there was the slightest possibility, you would have tried to blackmail them back when Georgie was born. If they’d demanded a paternity test2, why not go through with it? Even if the test was negative, you had nothing to lose.”
He adopted a saintly expression, his eyes wide and innocent, and spoke in a tone of sham sincerity. “Ah, but you forget that if the test had come back positive and the news had gotten out, it would have besmirched my beloved Anna’s memory—after all, it would have been proof that she cheated on that nasty son of a bitch she married. But if I do it now, enough time has passed that it shouldn’t matter.” He smirked again. “At least, not to anyone but Darcy, and ruining his week is a nice side benefit.”
He was right about that. William would be horrified if Wickham made public the news that Anna had slept with a man besides her husband.
“And consider this. Maybe I was also hesitant to tell the truth about the embezzling back then. Maybe my sweet Anna concocted the scheme herself, so that she and Georgiana and I would have money to live on after she left Edmund. I couldn’t allow the mother of my child to have her name dragged through the mud that way. But she’s been gone a long time now; how much could it matter to her memory? Mind you, it would probably destroy the foundation’s reputation if people learned that the missing cash was hushed up. But that only hurts Darcy and the old witch, so as far as I’m concerned it’s a win-win.”
It was getting worse all the time. “Oh, come on. You’re just making up lies on the spot now.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” He shrugged, still wearing the same smirk. “You can’t be sure what I know and what I don’t, and I’m not telling. It’ll cost you—or, rather, the family you’re crazy enough to be marrying into—a million dollars to find out. Go tell them that.”
Elizabeth rose to her feet. “Fine. I’ll tell them that. But I think you’re despicable.”
“Think what you like. I’ll have their money to keep me warm at night.” He stood and smiled at her. “Elizabeth, it really was wonderful to see you again, even under these trying circumstances. It’s a shame we didn’t meet before you got entangled with the Darcys. I think we could have been friends, and maybe a great deal more.”
“Not in a million years,” Elizabeth snapped. She stalked away without saying goodbye.
I’d love to read your comments! You have several ways to comment:
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1Jefferson Memorial photo by Bobt54, Wikimedia Commons.
2Actually, the first DNA-based paternity tests didn’t happen until two years after Georgie was born. But Elizabeth doesn’t know that, and if Wickham knows, he’s not telling.