“There it is! I can see it!”
William leaned toward Elizabeth, hoping to catch a glimpse of the coastline that had finally come into view. All he could see from his vantage point on the aisle was the sky, dotted with clouds. Still, anticipation tingled through him, and he answered her smile as she squeezed his hand. And why shouldn’t they be excited? The church where they were to be married in five days was somewhere below.
“It’s been almost six months since we left here last Thanksgiving,” Elizabeth mused.
“To go home to a disaster,” William retorted.
“But it all worked out in the end. We’ve been through a lot, but think how far we’ve come together.”
She was right. Everything seemed to be falling into place. Georgiana, though unhappy at school, found solace nightly by poring over information about area high schools. Elizabeth had persuaded him to allow Georgiana to find a new school for the fall … even a public one, if that was her preference. Elizabeth had helped her to develop a list of things to consider, and Georgiana had built a spreadsheet to document her research, leaving William to wonder if his sister had inherited their father’s talent for business after all.
Outside of school, Georgiana seemed to be happier and more resilient, due almost entirely—in his opinion, at least—to Elizabeth’s influence, though both Elizabeth and Georgiana insisted that the girl’s sessions with a therapist were making a difference. Rose and Georgiana were gradually repairing their relationship, including a return to the Plaza for tea, this time just the two of them. Not long ago, William had wandered upstairs one evening to find them in their shared sitting room, listening to—and occasionally laughing at—each other’s favorite music.
And the wedding! Elizabeth had devised the perfect compromise: a quiet wedding in a place they both loved, followed in about four weeks by the gala reception as originally planned. He was more than willing to grin and bear it on that day—even under the increased scrutiny the event would place on him—in return for a relaxed wedding day among family and friends.
Elizabeth was gazing out the window, studying the countryside as the car ascended into the hills. My wife. Almost. He had called her that in jest on occasion over the past six weeks, but now it would be official ... not that much would really be different.
As soon as the change of Georgiana’s legal guardianship had been approved, Elizabeth had agreed to move down to the third floor. His dressing room, despite her teasing about closet space, had proved to be more than large enough for the two of them, and the bedroom had become their cherished private space. She and Mrs. Reynolds had some ideas to soften the décor, to which he had cheerfully agreed without hearing the details. As long as Elizabeth was happy, he didn’t care what changes she made … within reason, anyway, and he trusted her taste and good sense.
However, she had declined to share his study, except to sit with him in the evenings. He had been surprised at first, even a little hurt, but had then realized that she was right. He needed the space for his daily practice sessions, which made equal sharing of the room impossible. Renovations were in progress on the second floor to create an office and private retreat for her.
He leaned back, yawned, and closed his eyes; their early morning flight had required an even earlier departure from the townhouse and he hadn’t slept on the way. It seemed only moments later that Elizabeth nudged him awake. “We’re here,” she said softly.
They walked toward the house together, hands clasped. As they reached the front door, it opened, revealing the housekeeper, smiling broadly. “Mr. Darcy, Ms. Elizabeth, welcome!”
Elizabeth embraced her. “Mrs. Shepherd, it’s so good to see you again.”
“And for me to see you, Ms. Elizabeth. Or should I call you Mrs. Darcy?”
“Well, not yet,” Elizabeth replied. “Anyway, just ‘Elizabeth’ will be fine.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that, Ms. Elizabeth. You’re the mistress of this house now. And that means anything you want from me, or anything you want changed about the way things are, you just say the word. Isn’t that right, Mr. Darcy?”
He smiled. “It is, indeed.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth said, “but I think Pemberley is perfect just as it is.”
“Well, you two go on upstairs. Winston will bring the bags up. Later, I do need to talk to you about final arrangements for the guests—when they’re flying in, so we can make sure their drivers are available, what rooms I should put them in for the ones staying here, all of that.”
“Absolutely,” Elizabeth said. “We’ll be back down as soon as we get settled.”
But William had other ideas. When they reached the master bedroom, he grabbed Elizabeth and dropped onto the bed with her in his arms.
“William!” she admonished. “Mr. Shepherd is going to be up here with our bags any second. We can’t start—”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m too tired for that right now,” he replied, yawning. “I need a nap, and you must need one, too.” It was proof positive of his fatigue that being in this bed with Elizabeth—the bed that had seen their passionate reunion six months before—didn’t entice him to repeat at least some of what they had done back then. But there was time for that later.
She struggled into a sitting position. “I’m not tired. You take your nap, and I’ll discuss the arrangements with Mrs. Shepherd while you sleep.”
“Thank you, Lizzy,” he murmured, already half asleep.
“I’m surprised Mrs. Darcy isn’t staying at the house,” Mrs. Shepherd replied. “I prepared all the rooms; there’s lots of space.”
“She and I talked about it, and we thought it was better to let the guys have Pemberley to themselves until after the wedding. If she stayed there, they’d have to behave themselves.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad thing,” Mrs. Shepherd remarked with a smirk. “Mr. Richard is a wild one.”
“That’s for sure! But I think Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Barton will be fine at Sandy Lane. I’ve never stayed there, but I hear it’s amazing.” Elizabeth was glad that Rose had invited her friend, Joanna Barton, to keep her company at the resort.
“And you girls have your own place down on the beach. You can have your hen party right there.”
“We’re going over there this afternoon, and also to the house we rented for my family. I can’t wait to see both places.” Elizabeth sighed happily. “I’m so glad everything worked out.”
Everything had, indeed, worked out remarkably well, especially given the speed with which Elizabeth, Rose, and William had been required to put the plans in motion. Since the reception in the Plaza ballroom was still scheduled for mid-June, it had been necessary to pick another weekend for the wedding. This week in mid-May had been the sole opening on William’s calendar, affording a scant six weeks to organize the event. Fortunately, almost everyone on the small guest list had managed to rearrange their schedules to come to Barbados. In fact, there was only one exception.
Lydia, to the astonishment of nearly everyone, had a genuine acting job on a popular TV show. To hear Lydia crow about it, one would think she was the star; however, on further questioning, Lydia had confessed that she was in just one scene, with only three lines. But it was an acting role all the same, and the shooting schedule would keep her in Los Angeles. Elizabeth felt a twinge of guilt for not entirely regretting Lydia’s absence; it relieved Jane of the unenviable task of attempting to control Lydia’s wild behavior. It was too easy to imagine her trying to seduce the bartender at the small outdoor reception that would follow the wedding.
“Also, I wanted to talk about the food at the reception again,” Elizabeth said. “William and I still think it would be better to call a caterer. William talked to the owner of The Cliff, and they said they could do it, even on such short notice.”
“You saying you don’t like my food?” Mrs. Shepherd’s expression was awash in wounded pride.
“Heavens, no!” Elizabeth grabbed Mrs. Shepherd’s hand. “Your food is so incredible, I can’t even tell you. It’s just that you and your husband have so much to do already. We’re descending on you with all this chaos, and house guests to handle, and all the local arrangements you’ve made for drivers and so on. I hate to think of you having to cook around the clock on top of everything else.”
Mrs. Shepherd relaxed and patted Elizabeth’s hand. “Cooking for your wedding reception is an honor. I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone else do it.”
“It just seems like too much to ask.”
“But, Ms. Elizabeth—”
“Really, won’t you please just call me Elizabeth?”
Mrs. Shepherd regarded her in silence and then said, softly, “All right, then. Elizabeth.” She frowned, as though trying the name on for size. After a brief pause, she continued in a gentler voice than her normal, jovial tone. “Winston and I, we owe the Darcys a lot. We’ve lived here for years, and most of the time we just sit around and relax like we’re on vacation. I have time to visit my daughter and see my grandchildren, and Mr. Darcy doesn’t mind if they come up here to swim in the pool. Those kids—there’s ocean all around us, but they like the pool better.” She shook her head, but her eyes twinkled. “And Mr. Darcy pays us way too much for the bits of work we do. So let’s hear no more about the food for the reception. Please, let the cooking be my wedding gift.”
Elizabeth smiled. “All right, then. Thank you so much, Mrs. Shepherd.”
Mrs. Shepherd wagged a finger at her. “Now, if I’m to call you Elizabeth, I’m Naomi.”
“Fair enough … Naomi.”
They grinned at each other, and finally dissolved into laughter, just as William arrived on the terrace, looking rested and impeccably groomed in linen trousers and a crisp white shirt. He stood behind Elizabeth, his hands settling on her shoulders. “How’s everything going out here?” he asked.
“Couldn’t be better,” Mrs. Shepherd replied.
“Naomi and I have everything under control.”
“Who’s Naomi?” William asked, provoking another burst of laughter from both women. He still looked confused a few minutes later, when they drove through the gates on the way to see the houses they had rented for their guests.
William and Elizabeth reclined together on the middle step in Pemberley’s pool—wearing swimsuits this time, unlike their skinny-dipping adventures on their previous visit. With the Shepherds in residence, some inhibitions were necessary. He didn’t mind; it was enough to share the evening with her. Across the lawn, the silhouetted palm trees were lightly gilded by moonlight, their fronds ruffling in a gentle breeze. The balmy air whispered across his shoulders like a warm caress. He leaned back and closed his eyes, feeling entirely at peace.
“It’s so beautiful here,” she sighed, settling back against his shoulder.
He tightened his arms around her. “The weather forecast is good for the rest of the week,” he said. “Though of course we can get quick rain showers even on a sunny day.”
“That’s okay. We’ll pull out umbrellas till it stops. Or we’ll just dance in the rain.”
He chuckled and kissed her forehead. “That might not be good for your dress.”
“How would you know?” She lifted her chin and gave him a pert grin. “You haven’t seen it.”
“I think it’s a safe generalization that wedding gowns aren’t designed to be worn in the rain.”
They fell silent, listening to the distant roar of the sea and the song of the tree frogs. Then she turned toward him, still resting on his lap, and cupped his face in her hands. “I’ve been sitting here thinking how lucky I am to have found you,” she said. “Who would have thought we’d end up being so good together?” She kissed him, her lips warm and soft against his.
“I think I knew it from the first time I saw you.”
“Nonsense. You thought I was a teenaged groupie.”
“But there was something in your eyes. Not just the color; the expression. You looked lively and energetic and … I can’t explain it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
She nodded. “Well, I have to admit, there was something about you, too. I mean, at first it was just that you were the Great William Darcy. But when I saw you in the baggage area in San Francisco, something about you tugged at my heart. You looked so … so vulnerable and kind of lonely. Until you started acting like a pompous ass, anyway.”
He chuckled. “I know better than to argue that point.”
Silence fell between them again. The tree frog chorus was reaching its apex. He grinned; males would do almost anything to attract females, and here was yet another example. They were exhibiting their strength by the speed at which they could whistle.
Her voice interrupted his reverie. “Hey, I was thinking about something.”
“Did we make a mistake, locating the wedding guests so far from Pemberley? And scattered around in three different places? I mean, the houses we rented look great, but it’s going to be a lot of driving, and the roads here aren’t the best.”
“That’s why we’re hiring drivers to handle the transportation. And we picked places we knew people would like. It’ll be fine.”
“Maybe everyone should have stayed at Sandy Lane.” She sighed and shook her head. “No, I’m worrying too much. Mom fell in love with the photos of that huge estate you found for my family, and as for the beach house ….” She kissed his cheek. “You’re right; it’s going to be fine. Perfect, in fact.”
They fell silent again. Elizabeth began to caress his chest, and soon her lips followed the same path, at least to the water line. Her hands continued downward, slipping beneath his swim trunks to caress his hips and abdomen. A surge of heat rippled through him, and he slid a hand inside her bikini top, wrapping his fingers around her breast. It felt soft and cool and lush in his hand, and he barely resisted the urge to push the triangle of fabric aside and taste her. Suddenly, all the things he’d been too sleepy to even contemplate doing that morning seemed not only possible, but urgent and necessary. He captured her lips in a kiss that quickly caught fire; from her response, her thoughts were on a similar track. He groaned as her seeking hand found a particularly sensitive target.
“Maybe we’d better go inside,” she murmured against his lips.
“Mmm. Right now.”
Later, they lay together in his bed—their bed, from now on—caressing each other lazily, tired but not ready for sleep. Elizabeth cherished these times; as much as she enjoyed making love with William, the quiet intimacy they shared afterwards was even more precious. She was grateful that William didn’t immediately fall asleep, as she had heard that some men did; he seemed to share her enjoyment of the sweet afterglow.
She gazed at his face, illuminated by a candle on the night table. “You look like you’re worried about something.”
“Not worried, just thinking about the past.”
She stroked his forehead. “An unhappy past, from your expression. Tell me.”
He pressed his lips together for a moment and then continued. “Do you remember, not long after you brought Georgie home, when you asked about my father?”
“And you said you couldn’t bear to talk about him. I understand; for a long time, I couldn’t bear to talk about Michael.”
“I’m ready to tell you about him now, if you still want to know.” He rolled onto his side, facing her.
“Of course I do.” She kissed him, a soft, lingering touch, and then caressed his cheek.
He took a deep breath, as though collecting himself before he began. “Father believed, above all, that Darcy men should be strong. Showing weakness of any sort, even for a moment, was shameful. For him to say someone was a weakling—there wasn’t a worse insult in his vocabulary.”
He had mentioned this before, but hadn’t elaborated. “And by ‘strong,’ he meant …?”
“Physically and emotionally invulnerable. Absolutely confident and in control. Requiring help from no one.”
Elizabeth nodded. Until recently, she had held herself to the same impossible standard when it came to recovery from her dark night with Michael. “He was so wrong. Sometimes the strongest, bravest thing you can do is to ask for help.”
William’s smile in response was so sweet it broke her heart. He caressed her cheek. “You are the bravest person I’ve ever met, cara.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I doubt that, but having you in my life has made me feel like I can take more risks.”
“And you keep succeeding at everything. I’m proud of you.”
She was surprised to feel mildly embarrassed by his praise. “But this isn’t about me. We were talking about your father.”
His nod was so small as to seem reluctant, and he averted his gaze. For a moment, she feared that he wouldn’t continue. But after a pause, he said, “As I said, with him, everything was about being a tower of strength. And right from the start, I failed that test because of my heart defect.”
“But you couldn’t help that!”
He shrugged. “Didn’t matter.”
“And besides,” she spat out, full of indignation, “he had the same defect. For heaven’s sake, he gave it to you!”
“He didn’t know that; he was never diagnosed.” William sighed. “Anyway, I suppose he must have liked me well enough until I was two; that was when I started being sick so much. I don’t remember this, but Mamma told me later that he believed there was nothing wrong with me, that she was just coddling me too much.”
Elizabeth frowned but otherwise managed to keep her disapproval to herself. Anna shouldn’t have told William about Edmund’s dismissal of his symptoms. Catherine de Bourgh had mentioned that sometimes Anna’s emotions had overcome her common sense, putting William in the middle between his parents. “I remember you told me about this before; you said that when you were finally diagnosed and had your surgery, your father’s attitude didn’t change.”
“Again, I don’t remember, but I suppose it would have made things all the worse, because it was proof that he had a weakling for a son.”
“But the surgery made you better, right?” Then Elizabeth remembered the aftermath, just before William explained it.
“I had a long, slow recovery, and even after that, Mamma didn’t let me exert myself at all. So I remained weak—even defective, I suppose—in his eyes.”
“And around that time, your mother discovered your musical talent.”
William nodded. “Which made things worse. He enjoyed music and was fairly knowledgeable—his fondness for opera was how he met Mamma—but he didn’t consider it a fit occupation for any Darcy, much less the heir to the Darcy fortune. He probably wouldn’t have minded if my interest had been casual. For example, if piano lessons had taken up just one afternoon a week while I spent the rest of my time playing soccer or little league baseball. And later, if I’d been captain of the varsity lacrosse team, like he was, or even on the cross-country team, like Richard was.” He heaved a sigh. “I could have done that, you know. Richard made the team, and by the time I got to high school I had him beat in both speed and stamina.”
“It seems like you would have enjoyed doing that.”
“But Mamma would never have allowed it. One time, a couple of years after Richard and his parents moved to New York, Mrs. Reynolds found my running shoes hidden under my bed. It was the only time Mamma ever really punished me for anything. She was practically hysterical, screaming that I had risked my life, that I should be ashamed for being so reckless. She threw the shoes off my balcony. I went looking for them later that day, but they were gone; supposedly Allen retrieved them, and I think they were donated somewhere. That evening, I heard her on the phone shouting at Aunt Eleanor about Richard’s bad influence on me. For a while, I was only allowed out of the house to go to school, and Richard wasn’t permitted anywhere near me. I spent a lot of time alone in my room, reading.”
Elizabeth was tempted to point out how similar this punishment was to the restrictions placed on Georgiana after the shoplifting incident. But she didn’t want to distract William from his story, so she simply filed that observation away. “How long was it before you started running again?”
“After about a month, Mamma relented slightly. Not about running, but about Richard. She and Aunt Eleanor made Richard promise not to let me run or exert myself when we were together, and Mamma made me promise, too. At first, I kept the promise, but I knew Richard didn’t want to hang out with a ‘sissy boy’ four years his junior who couldn’t do much of anything, and he was my only friend. So from then on, my running shoes lived in his closet.”
“Richard actually called you a sissy boy?”
Nodding, he said, “I knew it was the same thing my father meant when he called me a weakling.”
She felt a surge of anger at Richard, but it was the sort of thing he’d say in jest, not realizing that it would bruise his sensitive cousin’s feelings. In any case, he wasn’t the main problem; if anything, he had been young William’s lifeline. “You poor thing. There was literally no way you could please both of your parents.”
He blinked and licked his lips. “I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. And it was so obvious how they felt about each other, too. Mamma complained about him all the time, and as for Father, you know that he moved out while I was still quite young, right?”
“Yes. And he had a … girlfriend, I guess you’d say.”
“I never met her, but Mamma encountered her at an occasional social event. Not the more exclusive ones, and never at our house, of course. I found it odd that Mamma didn’t seem to care that she existed.”
“Well, eventually she had Wickham. Not in quite the same way, but still.”
“Right.” His brow lowered and he sighed loudly.
Next in his history came the military school idea, followed by Georgiana’s conception, but she thought it best to skip past those events. “After your mother died, did things change at all?”
“He came by to see Georgie once in a while, and occasionally he took her to the apartment where he lived, I suppose to visit with his ….” He shrugged, clearly uncomfortable defining the relationship. “But he continued to ignore me, most of the time. Anyway, I was at Juilliard by then, and spending most of my time there; I really only came home to sleep.”
“And then he died, the same day you won the Van Cliburn Competition.”
He stared at the ceiling in silence. She nestled closer and stroked his hair.
“Did he find out that you’d won before he died?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
His eyes were still trained on the ceiling, seemingly fixed on the fan rotating lazily above them. “No. Gran was in Texas with me, and we didn’t find out about his heart attack until we got back to our hotel after the awards ceremony. We flew straight home, but he was gone by the time we got to the hospital.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He nodded and closed his eyes. After a moment, he spoke, his voice clogged with emotion. “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the prizes I won meant nothing to him …. I meant nothing to him.”
She couldn’t bear to see him still in pain over a man who didn’t deserve that kind of power. But she understood what that felt like. “William, listen to me.”
He opened his eyes and turned his head to meet her gaze.
“He was cruel, and he was also a narrow-minded dimwit if he didn’t recognize what an amazing son he had. Just because you didn’t fit his narrow definition of the so-called perfect man ….” Elizabeth expelled a shaky sigh and sat up in bed, unable to lie still while her stomach churned with rage. “I hate him for the way he treated you. None of this was your fault.” Her hands involuntarily clenched into fists.
“Maybe it was. Maybe I should have gone to the military school. If I’d told Mamma I wanted to go, she might have let me. And maybe I should have at least tried to get interested in the business.” He sat up as well, his gaze focused across the room. She saw a tear trickling from the corner of one eye. “Didn’t I owe him that, as his son?”
“No, absolutely not!” She reached out, taking his face in her hands to force him to look at her. “You had a passion and an extraordinary talent for music. You applied your gift with dedication and hard work and became incredibly successful. Think how proud your mother was, and how proud your grandmother still is. And Georgie, and your aunt and uncle. And Richard, too, though of course he’d rather die than admit it. And how proud I am. Do you think all of us are wrong about you?”
He stared at her, a thoughtful frown creeping onto his face.
“Well, do you?”
He shook his head.
“Then who was wrong? Wasn’t it that cruel, bitter man who deserted you and your mother when you got sick? The one who doesn’t even deserve to be called a father?”
“Lizzy, that’s too harsh.”
“Is it? If you and I have a child someday who has your heart defect, are you going to walk out on us? Would you ever, in a million years, even consider doing that?”
“Of course not.”
“And yet, he did. Can’t you see that he was the problem, not you?”
He didn’t answer, but she saw his expression softening.
“When you think about the kind of father you want to be, isn’t he a good model of what not to do?”
“But he led the company well, and the whole family depended on that for our livelihood, and our future. Maybe I’d have been better off if I had tried harder to be strong and dependable, like he was.”
“Sorry, but I see nothing to admire in an unfeeling business mogul who made his son feel worthless.” She was surprised to feel tears stinging her eyes; it was painful to hear him defending a man who had let him down so profoundly. “Will, you’re going to be such a wonderful father, and you’re going to give your kids so many things that he didn’t. Things that really matter, like your love and your attention.”
He reached up and took one of her hands from the side of his face, twining his fingers with hers. “But what if I repeat his mistakes?”
“You won’t, because you’re not like him. You’ve got a tender heart—and I’m talking about emotion, not physiology. You know how to love with every ounce of your being. And you are so much wiser than he was.” She smiled. “Also, you’ve got me to help you.”
He pulled her into his arms and they clung to each other. “I love you so much,” he whispered. “How did you end up with a broken-down wreck like me?”
She kissed his throat and rested her head on his chest. “I ended up with a wonderful man, someone I love to pieces, and who loves me, too. I said it earlier; I’m so lucky to have you in my life. You’re the reason I’m letting go of Michael; maybe I can help you to let go of your father.”
He almost smiled. “I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do.”
“And, you know, it might help to talk to a therapist.”
He snorted. “And then you and Georgie and I can all be in therapy.”
“Don’t dismiss it without some thought. You might be surprised how much it would help.” She saw him shaking his head, and added, “But if you just can’t do it, like I said, I can try to help you; at least we can talk about it from time to time.”
They lay quietly, pressed close together. She watched the candle on the bed table flicker as a fresh breeze blew in the open window. At length his hands began to skim over her body. She felt him growing aroused and glanced up into his eyes. “It’s pretty late, isn’t it?”
His answer was to claim her lips in a kiss that started gently but grew warmer and more urgent by the moment. Then his lips began to trace a path across her neck and downward. “Not … that … late,” he muttered between kisses. His hand cupped her breast, and he captured the nipple between his lips.
She sighed, smiling, and cradled his head in her hands. He was right; it wasn’t that late after all.
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