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George Knightley leaned one shoulder against the entryway, watching her.
It wasn't like her to duck out of a good party. In that dress, a short, one-shouldered blue number, she'd drawn more than the lion's share of attention in a room full of oxbridge boys, ivy leaguers, and heiresses. Rather than reveling in it, she'd weaved and ducked past the dance floor, charmed and flirted out of prolonged conversations, and finally escaped to this dark room.
The fact that she'd settled in with easy familiarity, turning on his cd player, pleased him. On the lower floors, the band competed with the chatter of a mansion's worth of well dressed guests. Here in his room, only a mellow song strummed from the stereo system. Curled up against his pillow, she looked serious, and smaller than usual.
She looked intensely lost.
From age thirteen to sixteen Emma was the 'next big thing,' in modeling. She scored contracts with everyone who mattered in print.
It was easy to see why. She had the features of an angel, wide blue eyes, a decadent mouth, milk pale skin, golden hair. Her enviable figure was a cheerleader's body, a genuine hourglass. At 5'3, she was too short for high fashion or the runway, but age and time would remedy that problem. So her manager had insisted.
At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, Emma of the angel face and the perfect figure didn't grow one inch.
Now twenty, ancient for a model, she'd been dropped by her modeling agency. She'd been their golden girl once, booking print ads with everyone who mattered. And now...now she was just short.
They were fools to terminate her contract, he mused. Even now, for as long as he'd known her and as well as he knew her, one long look at Emma could make his mouth dry and his blood hot. Instead of admitting this, he shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled into the room.
As he settled next to her on the bed, he realized something else. Her eyes were wet, free from the artfully applied make-up that hid her earlier in the night. He raised his hand to her face, touching her with an intimacy that came not from romance, but from life-long knowledge friendship. One thumb ran down her cheek. She turned her face towards him and leaned into his hand, brushing her mouth to his palm.
"You smell like lemons," she whispered with a contented sigh.
"Ah." The aforementioned hand traveled to her hair, brushing it back from her face as she curled next to him in a natural embrace. "I was giving Rob a hand mixing drinks the bar."
"You're nice,"she muffled, somewhere in the realm of his tuxedo jacket. Only Knightley would think to assist the hired help at his own party.
"Sometimes." His mouth quirked."When I'm not telling you I'm right about something."
Laughter bubbled out of her."When I'm not telling you why you're wrong about something." Emma raised her head to look at him properly, and gave a wane, apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I'm not a very good new year's eve date."
Date. The term was still so new for them, and it still produced a thrill in the veins. It was not the phrase he would have used when she was still sixteen, his glowing friend who was far too young to be anything but his friend. He was twenty-six now. She was twenty, still glowing, still witty. And now, finally, his date.
Their romance was newly minted, barely a week old. It was a mutual gift from this Christmas when various events had led to a very serious and very overdue midnight confessional.
He let his hand drop and pulled her gently up so they were sitting face to face.
"You don't have anything to apologize for."
"If you knew why I came up here, you'd probably disagree." She allowed herself a youthful sniffle, her mouth twisting to a pout. "I'm feeling sorry for myself. Self-indulgent is the phrase you'd use."
"Is this about the agency dropping you?"
"No." She drew away from him, pushed off the bed, and began pacing the room. "Yes.... maybe, a bit. That's not all of it, though. I've been thinking about my life. And about your life. About us being together."
There were photographs on his bookshelf, a collage of his life up to this point. The most recent photo was the one of him was the day he graduated from medical school. Tall, lean, his heartbreakingly handsome face was made of angles and planes, dark eyes and a subtle smile. He was holding a diploma which indicated he'd earned top honors.
Beside that was a photograph of him in Sierra Leon.It was during Knightley's volunteer stint at an HIV/AIDS clinic. He'd met up with two good friends during his time there, Will Darcy and Fred Wentworth. Darcy was living in Africa to fulfil a contract with the peace corp. Wentworth was on loan from the military as a search and rescue pilot.
They'd reunited on a plain in Africa and gone skydiving, just for the fun of it. The trio in the photo stood in the middle of a deserted field wearing parachutes on their backs.
In his closet she knew there would be other reminders of her fears, jerseys from his years not just playing soccer, but running a youth soccer camp with Darcy for disadvantaged children.
Oh, heavens. She knew all of this about him, but it was quite another thing to weigh it in the context of their new relationship. She'd never gone skydiving. She'd never volunteered in some poverty stricken African clinic. She'd gone to Morocco once, for a Calvin Klein shoot. She'd been sixteen, forced to wear a skimpy gold bikini, and had probably complained to Knightley later about getting sunburned. She was as selfish as Caroline had said, just a dumb model who'd never even gone to university. And now she wasn't even that.
"I should be the one apologizing, Knightley," she said with miserable certainty. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Please, go back to your party---I--I don't want to ruin your evening. I'll take a cab home." She walked to the door. "We can catch up again in the morning, okay?"
As she reached for the door handle, Knightley grabbed her by the wrist, turning her around to face him.
"Emma, wait." There was no way on earth he was going to let her leave like this. To say that this mood was uncharacteristic of Emma was an understatement. She was usually sunshine itself, even when they argued, but they'd only been dating a week and right now she looked like she was about to break up with him. No, that wasn't it. She looked like she was expecting to be dumped. Like he was on the verge of breaking up with her. And that made no sense at all.
"Talk to me, Emma. Yell at me if you have to---just tell me whatever it is that's gotten you twisted up like this."
This was a million times harder with him looking at her like that. It didn't matter how many male models she'd been paired with in photo shoots, no one could compare to Knightley. Not only did she find his face devastating, he also had the darkest eyes she'd ever seen and when he looked at her like that, so solemn and so intense, she could barely swallow, much less think. But she never could lie to him, she might as well spit it out and let the chips fall where they may.
"I've been thinking," she began, "About you. And about you and me. You...you've slept in tents in places where there were bugs the size of stilettos. You never think twice about scary snakes, or the tribal warfare. You work late in the hospital. You get up early on your days off to go teach kids to play soccer. You've gone skydiving. You're always doing good things for people in far away places, you excel in every class you take. I'm nothing like that! I'm not some brilliant academic, Knightley. I'm--I'm just some silly model who's never even been to university. I don't know a scalpel from a syringe and I've never had a proper job in my life! I just---" her blue eyes looked beseeching, "As of yesterday I'm not even a model any more. And I'm worried. I'm worried that I'm not good enough for you."
He could give her an hour's oration on the subject, but the most immediate way to prove it seemed to be what he did next. He tilted her chin up. "Did you believe me Christmas day when I tell you I love you? That I've always loved you?"
"Yes, Knightely. Of course. But--"
"No buts. I don't want to argue on this, Emme. It's a yes or no question and I'm telling you my answer. My answer is yes, I'm in love with you. I didn't want to come here tonight with anyone else. I don't want to start my life with anyone else, on new year's eve or any other. And it's not just because you're a model--"
"Was," Emma grumbled. "Elect Modeling didn't think I was good enough to keep on contract."
"That was because of your height," he reminded her gently. "Not because of your skills as a model. Calvin Klein thought enough of you to make you the face of that rank perfume."
"That perfume's not rank," she laughed. "It's a complex scent. It has a base of jasmine and amber, very delicate top nodes of orchid blossom and sandlewood and--"
"And we all have our areas of expertise, Emme." He sensed that this was less about them as a couple or her truly doubting his love for her, and more about a sudden identity crisis with the loss of her job. "Your expertise is different from a lot of people, but it doesn't make it any less valid. You know more about fashion than every other person in the mansion."
"It's not the same as what you or your university friends do, Knightley. Half the people at your party could do calculus in their sleep!"
"And you can sell a multi million dollar ad campaign with a single glance at the camera. How many people in the world could do that? Argue me, Emma, and I will call you self-indulgent. "
"I could do that once. Now I have to find something else I'm good at." She sighed. "Besides, I want to be more than that. I don't want people to think I'm just that girl people in the fashion industry thought was pretty once. I need to be more than that. For myself, and for you."
"Emma," He was looking at her, hard and long and straight in the eyes, "if you want to find a career to please yourself, than do it for yourself. I promise you, I will love you no matter what you do."
She snorted in disbelief. They'd gotten in enough arguments over the fashion industry to give her the impression that he thought it was more than a little superfluous. "Really, Knightley? You wouldn't like it a little bit more if I were some kind of rocket scientist?"
"Do you love me just because of the way I look? Would you like me better if I were some kind of model?"
"Of course not," she answered, although she couldn't help but tease him just a little, because she was smart enough to realize where he was going with this. "But if you did want to model, you're just what Tom Ford's keen on. Tall, lean, great cheekbones, strong jaw. You could make it on a runway tomorrow."
"I'd sooner eat glass," he cut her off, veering back to the topic at hand. "Do you need me to try modeling just because that was your career?"
"Okay. Do you love me just because I've finished med school? Or because I'm the only living heir to my parent's fortune. Do you love me because I live in a mansion?"
"No," she said quietly, pressing a hand to his cheek. "I love you because you're George Knightley. My best friend."
His solemn mouth softened. "You're mine, Emma. I don't want to dismiss what you're feeling, but I want you to know that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to make me happy. And by the same token, your beauty isn't all that you are. God knows it would be a little easier on me if you were a bit less gorgeous, Emme. Then I wouldn't have to worry about punching out every skevy bloke with a bad pick-up line who catches sight of you."
"You don't need to do that, Knightley," she laughed gently. "I can do the punching all by myself."
"That's my girl." He grinned back at her. "That's why I love you, Emme. Because you're more than your face, or your body. There's steel in your veins. I've had a lifetime of experience with it. You're brave, Emma. You're smart---and no, don't say it, don't say you're not---because going to university has nothing to do with it. You're inquisitive and sharp and when something interests you, you excel at it. You argue with me better than anyone else in the world. I love you because you don't tell me I'm right just because I'm a doctor. I love you because you tell me to shut up when you think I ought to."
His dark eyes softened. "I love you because you never let me celebrate Christmas alone. Because you try to help every person you meet. Because you can talk the ears off anyone in the world, a millionaire or a maid. I love you because you see beauty in people who don't see it in themselves. You're a good friend. You've never abandoned anyone you loved, including me. You love without limits. Emma, I don't need you to go to Africa to prove to me that you're a good person. I already know you're a good person, and that's why I love you."
And with that, he did what he'd wanted to do since the start of this conversation: he slid his arm around her waist and pulled her into a kiss.
It was gentle and loving at first, sweet even, as she twinned her arms around his neck, craving his kiss in return. But after a lifetime of restraint on both sides, loving and soft seemed to turn into hot and impassioned on a dime. The kiss deepened, hot and generous and passionate, and suddenly she was tugging at his collar, melded hip to hip, and by the time they broke apart, she found her back pressed to the door, his ragged breath and her own heartbeat ringing in her ears.
"I---" Emma tried a trembling breath, then another, but no coherent sentence was emerging. She put a hand to her temple as if to steady herself, certain her cheeks were as pink as her mouth. "Wow."
"Yeah." There was a husky strain in his voice that indicated he hadn't entirely recovered from the kiss either, though his grip on her waist loosened very deliberately. Knightley touched her cheek. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah. Uh-huh. I'm fine." It felt like a lie. Her head was still buzzing. On the one hand, she was better than fine. She felt like she hadn't even known the definition of the word kiss until the first time George Knightley kissed her, and repeat experience hadn't dampened it's affect. She craved him. His touch and his mouth, everything about him sparked desire in her. On the other, she was trembling all over, as if the experience had frightened her. In truth, it was the depth of her own feelings for him that scared her. She'd never experienced genuine desire before, and she didn't know quite how to deal with it.
"We should go back down the the party."
"Yeah," she nodded, brushing back her hair and picking up her purse. There was an hour till midnight, and the guests would be expecting him. She followed him into the hallway.
"I was serious, by the way. About your career. I'll support you no matter what you decide to do, even if it is rocket science." He gave her a good natured wink. "I still think you could handle it. You know more about the smallest details in fashion than anyone I've ever met. I'm sure you could tell me more about this outfit you're wearing then I'd ever think to ask. I know it's short and...blue."
Emma smiled. "Prussian blue."
"Which is different from regular blue because...?"
"It's darker than teal and lighter than sapphire. Though even calling it Prussian blue is deceptive because it's not simply one shade. The fabric is really a lamā. There are silver threads sewn into the material, see? That's what gives it a slight sheen. The design is very clever, actually. The shoulder has a very subtle shutter-pleat that melts into these asymmetrical seams along bodice. It make the waist look dainty. See? Anyone could wear it and look great because the constructed bodice gives the same effect as a corset. And as for the skirt, even though it cuts above the knee, it's really a ballerina hem. Th pale silver underpinning acts like a petticoat. It gives the raw silk extra shape."
"See, this is why it baffles me that you somehow woke up this morning and decided you weren't smart."
"Knightley, I never said I was an idiot," Emma interrupted with a sudden flame in her blue eyes, showing more than a hint of her usual pluck. "I'm just not...I'm not certifiably brilliant, not like some of your friends..."
"Like who," he questioned with a suspicious edge.
"I don't know," she shrugged, even though she knew exactly who. "Like your old schoolmate, Caroline Bingley?"
"I wouldn't call Caro an old mate." He countered, raking his hands through his hair. More like a tolerated nuisance. "What does she have to do with anything?"
"I was downstairs on the balcony, talking to Will Darcy and she...she might have said a few things downstairs to me that weren't exactly...flattering."
"Emme, she probably thought you were here as Darcy's date. Just stay clear of her. She's had a thing for Will since her first year at Oxford. She'd say anything to cut down her competition."
"Me and Darcy dating?" Emma teased him. "Ooh, there's a thought."
His dark eyes flashed at the mere concept.
"Don't get too used to it," he warned, "I can be competitive with more than just grades."
"Don't worry," she grinned, tiptoeing to kiss his cheek. "I waited long enough for you, I'm not going to give you up now for some millionaire, no matter how pretty his curly hair is. I still like yours better, I promise."
"I'll hold you to that," he winked, they'd reached the base of the steps to the first floor, where the party-goers were milling around, and if he was going to kiss her again, it would have to wait. Emma had a very particular look in her eyes. Like she was suddenly plotting something. "Darcy came here without a date, right?"
"No girlfriends? No long lost loves?"
"None that I know of," George confirmed, though his voice was edged with caution.
"I don't know why I never thought of this before---I hated leaving her in our flat alone tonight, and there's an hour left till midnight. Lizzie could get here in plenty of time. Oh, Knightley, I have the perfect girl for him!"
Will Darcy was restless.
Knightley's home was nestled between two much larger estates on this prestigious London avenue, and while it was a far cry from ostentatious, it was certainly large enough for a good crowd. The home was a perfectly white Italianate home with a wrap-around column porch, tiered with balconies and a few chimneys. His aunt Catherine would call it modest for his family's stature, and very well-kept. Filled with so many people, however, it seemed smaller than usual, even claustrophobic.
Or maybe it was just his mood.
Nevertheless, he stayed at the party. Will Darcy and George Knightley traveled in the same circles. They'd gone to the same prep school and the same university. Will knew a lot people all over the world, but his list of true friends was small and Knightley was at the top of it. He'd come tonight to catch up with his friend, have a drink, relax, chat with Emma, and wish the pair a happy, health new year. It had certainly taken Knightley and Emma long enough to become a couple, but he couldn't think of two people better suited for each other. Emma was gorgeous, funny, kind, loving, loyal and gregarious. Knightley was a lucky man to call her his.
He didn't call it an early night, even though he sorely wanted to. It wasn't that Will was a recluse. He certainly had an independent streak and an itch for adventure, but he also a steady hand and a natural bent for leadership. He was a Darcy, and young as he was, he could work a crowd if the mood struck him.
Tonight it definitely hadn't. Not when his tuxedo collar felt tight around his neck, and Caroline Bingley felt even tighter on his arm. And it wasn't just Caroline. In the midst of mingling, he had to fend off aggressive advances Mariah and Julia Bertram, both of whom seemed barely old enough to be here, and notorious party-girl Marlena Crawford.
Marlena was perhaps the worst of them. It was hard for the others to top a girl who threw her arms around him, suggested they go somewhere more cozy, and promptly threw up on his shoes. With his temper cutting into halves by the second, he'd cleaned up his shoes and called a taxi for Marlena, guiding her to it when the car arrived.
"Oh, Will," Julia Bertram cooed as Will came back inside. She was trailing him like a puppy. "That was so decent of you. I don't know a single person who would bother with me if I were drunk like Marlena, not even my friends!"
"Get better friends," he snapped, brushing past her as he shook rain from his jacket.
Good intentions. He had come here tonight full of them. Three hours in, all his good intentions, along with his temper, had been whittled to the quick. And not just from Caroline Bingley, Marlena Crawford, or any of the other fortune hunters, but from one single phone call. It was from the headmaster of Georgina's preparatory school. Georgiana had gone missing earlier in the night.
"What do you mean by 'missing,'" Will's voice lowered, blade-sharp. "Why am I only being informed of this now? Did she leave a note? Were the police called?"
"She's back, Mr. Darcy, she's returned to the school. I mean--" the headmaster stuttered, "what I mean is, she just left for a few hours, sir. Her roommate noticed and told the head girl, who told a teacher, who told me. But she's back now, safe and sound. She's a very nice girl, we all think so, and we're so relieved to have this little hiccup taken care of."
Hiccup. He called this a hiccup?
"I am Georgiana's only immediate family and her legal guardian. She could have been halfway to bloody Amsterdam by the time you bothered to tell me," he said with tight fury. "She could have been kidnapped, she could have been lying unconscious in a ditch. She's returned. Consider yourself inestimably lucky. My sister is in her final year at St. Sebastian's Preparatory, this school has cost my family 20,000 pounds annually, and you call me to tell me you've lost track of her in the same tone that you'd explain losing a cat."
"Mr. Darcy, if you'd please understand, she was only missing for a few hours..."
"I understand plenty," Will scoffed. "I understand that it took this long to tell me she'd even left. Do you understand me? Do you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth, or do I have to explain myself with smaller phrases. I can do that for you, Mr. Collins, trust me, I know plenty of small words and each one of them will offend you."
"Mr. Darcy, sir, I think if you'd just calm down a minute and--"
"Collins, given the circumstances I assure you I am being remarkably calm. My sister comes from a very prominent family. Her safety is paramount. As you're doubtless more than aware, I am a practicing barrister, and although the organization I work with handles cases of quite a different nature from willful neglect or reckless endangerment, I'm sure I would happily prosecute the whole of St. Sebastian's and you in particular, should the situation prove necessary."
"That's all." He flipped the phone shut, wishing he could smash it into a thousand pieces. Instead, he leaned one palm against the wall, eyes closed, and took an unsteady breath. His other hand had clenched into a first so tight he could barely loosen it through sheer force of will.
He wasn't just angry. He was frightened. For her to go missing tonight, of all nights? He was so, so frightened. He would have demanded to speak with her immediately, but for the fact that he didn't trust himself. He would wait until morning, when his words could sound less about anger and more about love. He loved her more than his own life, did she understand that? If she'd had even the slightest idea of the danger she'd put herself in by running away...she was the only real family he had in the whole world, the only link he had to his parents, the only person in the whole world who truly loved him. And not one person in that bloody school had bothered to tell him she'd even gone missing until she'd already returned.
He was so upset, he could barely see straight. Amidst crowds of happy couples, he was alone on new year's eve and he felt every inch of his solitude.
He grabbed a drink from a nearby waiter's plate hoping that the quick bite of alcohol could cool his anger. Just as he brought the glass to his lips--
--a slight figure collided with him, sending both of them, and the Vodka, flying. Most of it covered him.
This night just couldn't get any better.
"Are you naturally clumsy, boy, or do you work at it?" Will cut into his offender, pulling the figure up brusquely to his feet. The clumsy figure wore a warm coat and a knit cap. Huge glasses obscured the face. A teenager? Some gatecrasher looking to sneak into a grown up party, like his sister might have done?
"I'm sorry. As the truth would have it, I'm not either. Clumsy, or a boy." This voice that answered him was sweet and youthful, a charming Irish lilt, very feminine. Will's angry vision cleared. A of huge glasses obscured the face, making it hard to see quite what she looked like, but behind the knit cap and the coat, a pair of bright green eyes examined him with a touch wry amusement. It was a young woman.
And here he was, holding her with a grip that was rough enough to bruise. Will dropped her as if the touch had burned him, feeling a rush of self-reproach at his own brusque handling.
"I'm sorry," he let out in a low, breathless voice. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. Really," the young woman tried, rubbing at her arm, "I ran into you. Please, let me get you a new drink."
"Forget it," he cut her off.
He didn't bother sparing another glance in her direction. The sooner he could get away from polite company, the better. In the wake of his sister's phone call, he wasn't fit for anyone tonight.
Elizabeth rubbed at her bruised arm, trying to shake off the stinging comment in his wake. Clearly, she hadn't picked the right evening to look like a total disaster, particularly if she was going to collide with Tall Dark and Mercurial over there.
Cool, short tempered, she could add those traits to the stranger's list, and one other: he was gorgeous. It was just as well she'd been sitting down when she first caught sight of him, because that first piercing look had left her speechless. He had a sharp jawline, a poet's mouth, dark curls, and dark eyes so intensely saturated that in the shadowy light she'd almost mistaken them for black. Strong arms, too. She knew that first hand.
I knew I should have gone back to the flat to change, she thought wryly. The glasses she was sporting for the evening were huge, unflattering, a relic of her youth. As for the knit cap hiding hair, and the coat she'd thrown on merely because it was warm, she knew she'd arrived looking a far cry from her best.
Not that it probably would have done her much good, she thought as she tugged the cap off, revealing black hair underneath. She doubted very seriously that he would be interested in anyone who didn't look as spectacular as the girl running up to her now. Emma Woodhouse.
"Elizabeth!" Emma's warm voice melted through her thoughts. She practically bowled over Lizzie with an enthusiastic hug. "You're here! I was so worried you'd get stuck in traffic! Don't worry, though, you're here still in plenty of time to meet---" Emma pulled away, noticing the way Elizabeth was dressed with more confusion than recrimination. "Lizzie...why are you dressed like this? If I hadn't known it was you, I wouldn't have even recognized you."
This definitely wasn't quite the impression Emma had hoped Lizzie would make on Darcy. Elizabeth was a beauty. Her beauty was not as obvious as Emma's, but she was still beautiful. She had classically feminine, delicate features, the most incredible green eyes and a knockout smile. She was petite, though, and wearing an oversized jacket and a set of hugely overpowering glasses that took up half her face, she was hardly recognizable.
"This was a last minute invite, remember?" Elizabeth reminded the girl. "You texted me asking if I could rush over here as soon as possible-and before midnight. I just finished my shift at MacClaren's, I didn't have time to change if I wanted to get here in time. I know the glasses make me look hideous, but it's not like I came here with a date, right? Anyway, what's the emergency?"
"Your never hideous," Emma protested gently, "The glasses just makes it hard to see what you really look like, that's all. And the coat?"
"It's pouring rain and absolutely freezing outside, Emme." Lizzie laughed. "I'm sorry I arrived in jeans. Once I take off this coat, I won't look so bad, I promise. I feel bad because I practically flattened that ridiculously good-looking guy over there. I probably ruined his trillion dollar suit in the process."
Emma craned her neck to see who the offended trillion dollar suit wearer was.
"You ran into, Darcy?" Emma slid her arm around her friend's shoulders. "Of all people! That's wonderful!"
Somehow in the slightly unusual world of Emma's mind, this seemed like something to be happy about.
"He looked pretty ticked off about it," Lizzie straightened. "He still looks ticked off. Or can't you tell? Emme, have you been drinking?"
Emma's nose wrinkled.
"I'm not drunk," Emma sniffed.
Still, she did something that to Lizzie's mind indicated Emma's judgment had to be impaired. Instead of taking her as far from Mr. Tall Dark And Moody as possible, she tugged her back over to him.
"Um, Emma," Elizabeth tried to squirm out of her grip, "maybe this isn't a good idea--"
"No, no. It's fine. I don't want you to miss your chance at a real conversation. Darcy will be crazy about you!"
"I only spoke to him for about five seconds but somehow I really, really doubt that a guy like him would be interested in a talking to an Irish fisherman's daughter. Especially not one that looks like me."
"Oh, Lizzie, even if you're a bit messy, your inner beauty shines through." She squeezed her friend's arm. "So you spilled a drink on him, it's not the end of the world. Look, he's already gotten himself a new one! Come on. Please? Darcy will be happy to talk with you, I'm sure of it."
Hearing his name, the man in question turned. There was warmth and more than a little familiarity in his eyes as he glanced at Emma. Clearly that relationship was easy and well established. Catching a glimpse of Elizabeth however, caused his eyes to frost anew.
"Will," Emma said with breathless enthusiasm, "I want you to meet someone. You have the joy of being introduced to one of my greatest friends, Elizabeth Bennet. Lizzie, this is Will Darcy."
Emma practically shoved her forward another step. Lizzie politely reached out a embarrassed hand.
"Hello, again," she tried a smile.
He didn't take it. He simply raise his new drink to his lips, swallowed and lowered it again.
"We've met." His eyes remained at a cool simmer. The ice at the base of his glass clinked.
Lizzie was a ballerina. A lifetime of honing one's body lent many dancers to develop a very singular habit: she was an almost compulsive observer of the way people moved. In the same way painters dissected color and chefs could pick apart scent, a ballet dancer noticed movement. Sometimes even the simple gestures caught her eye. This was one of those moments.
For a man who probably wasn't a ballet dancer, she thought, he had remarkable control of his body. She could see it the strength of his shoulders, in the muscle of his arms. It was a certain tense, controlled power, not simply in the muscle and bone, but also in the way he held himself. Certain people brought to mind very strong images and this man made her think of a lion, proud and still and completely in control.
It also made even the twitch of disdain in his mouth that much more noticeable. Beneath a veneer of icy control, behind that dark gaze, something forceful, almost animalistic, stirred. Perhaps, she thought as she met his icy gaze, this chill was preferable to whatever fire he held underneath. The ice was bad enough.
"Lizzie mentioned that you'd had a bit of a run in," Emma chirped. "And I was thinking there's no night more ideal for making friends than New Year's Eve. So, I thought if you were interested, you and Lizzie could just enjoy being friendly...together?"
Oh boy. That surely was the wrong line to feed him. If he'd been an ice storm a moment ago, Elizabeth thought he was a bloody blizzard now.
"Except for yourself, Emma, there hasn't been a woman here all night that I've been able to tolerate," he answered coolly. "You're not going to change my mind with this one, I promise you that."
It was amazing, Lizzie thought, how one man could cut into her with such a small number of words. He had a gift for it, he really did.
I was right, she thought with a flare of self-effacing amusement, he's most definitely not interested in an Irish fisherman's daughter. They were worlds apart, couldn't Emma see that? Elizabeth glanced at her friend with wry humor, but Emma carried on.
"Lizzie here is everyone's idea of a good companion. In fact, she was voted Miss Congeniality by a little informal poll of her company members recently. You should go see her work sometime! She's an incredibly talented---"
"Waitress," Elizabeth interrupted deliberately, a small little smirk on her face.
Emma's brow furrowed. "Lizzie, what do you mean you're a--"
"Waitress," Elizabeth all but insisted, warning her friend with a shake of her head not to contradict her.
It wasn't entirely a lie. The pay for corp de ballet ballerinas---even with the British Opera Ballet--was fairly low. She was hoping to be promoted to soloist in the upcoming season, which in turn would merit a better paycheck, but she'd had to take a second job waitressing weekly at McClaren's Pub but to make ends meet. The title 'ballerina' came with such a gloss of gentility. Let's see how Mr. Trillion Dollar Suit responds to that one.
"An Irish waitress. Fascinating." He took another swallow of his drink.
"Irish, indeed. As I live and breathe," Lizzie responded with her warm Irish lilt, "the world is more than England, Mr. Darcy."
"On a waitress's salary, I doubt you'll ever see any of it beyond a kitchen and a frying pan, Miss Bennet. What an exciting life you must lead."
"Some of us have to work for our living, that's true," she answered, her voice edging into mock sweetness, "though I'm sure a life lived as rudely as yours is, Mr. Darcy, yelling at strangers, sponging off a trust fund and drinking alone at parties, must make you feel wonderfully fulfilled. Your family must be so proud of you."
Something about that last sentance sparked a fire in his eyes, one that even Emma was wary of.
"Uh, Lizzie," Emma whispered, worried her friend had inadvertently stepped on a landmine. "Maybe you shouldn't--"
"Elizabeth, good to see you," George Knightley interrupted, strolling up to the crowd with a smile. He slid a casual arm around Emma. "Will, mate, are you enjoying the party?"
"I've had better." Though he spoke to Knightley, Will's gaze remained on Lizzie, steady and ice cold. "Next time Emma brings me company, make sure it isn't a barely tolerable, social charity case who gets passed around at parties like a bad plate of food."
Oh, that was it. The last straw. Lizzie could play as dirty as the best of them. Elizabeth grabbed the drink forcibly from his hand and tossed the contents all over his face. She slammed the glass back onto a nearby table and gave him a poisonous smile.
"I'll take that over being thought a beauty in your eyes any day of the week," she said with a flash of her own green gaze. "Good evening, Mr. Darcy."
Emma knew that Darcy could be mercurial at times. She also knew Lizzie's Irish temperament could flare when provoked, but she never thought this would be the outcome of their first meeting. She watched with nothing less than astonishment as Elizabeth ran off. Meanwhile, Will drew his cuffed sleeve across his wet face.
"Fitzwilliam, why were you acting like such an idiot?" Emma blurted out at Will before turning away from the boys with a huff. She needed to go find her friend.
Emma fought her way through the crowd, only managing to grab her friend's arm when she'd already reached the doorstep.
"Wait! Lizzie, wait!" Rain was still pouring from the sky in sheets. A typical English new year. "Please, I'm sorry about Darcy. Please don't go."
"I'd say it was nice to meet him, Emme, but I'd be lying," Lizzie retorted as she rebuttoned her coat and tugged more firmly at the cap she'd never even had a chance to take off.
"Elizabeth," Emma said breathlessly, "you just got here and it's raining buckets. Stay for awhile longer. We can go home together. You can have some food in the kitchen, and a glass of wine. We can make sure the night isn't a total loss, I promise."
Elizabeth turned to her friend, shaking her head. "Thanks for the offer, Emma, but I don't think so. Not if that guy's sticking around. It's best if I get out of here."
"Where do you need to go to?" came a voice behind them. Emma glanced behind them. It was Robert Martin, a friend of Knightley. He reached into his pocket, pulling a pair of jingling keys.
"16 Dorin Lane," Elizabeth supplied, "Could you take me?"
"I've got a car and I'm headed home myself. Come along, I'll drop you off."
"I'm sorry about tonight, Lizzie," she said, "it was a total disaster, wasn't it?"
"Train wreck," Elizabeth confirmed with a wry twist of her mouth. The sooner she could be out of any building with him in it, the better. "It's okay, Emma. I'll go back home. I wasn't dressed for a party like Knightley's, anyway. Maybe Anne will be back from babysitting her nephews by now. She'll keep me company at the flat," she said, referencing their third flatmate, Anne Elliot. "Enjoy the rest of the party, okay? At least one of the three of us should have a nice guy to kiss at midnight."
"Will Darcy is a nice guy," Emma tried. "I promise, Lizzie, I don't know what was wrong with him tonight, but he--"
"He's no Knightley," Elizabeth reminded her friend. I'll see you when you get back to the flat, okay?"
"Okay," She gave her friend a tight hug. "Happy new year, Lizzie."
With that, Elizabeth ducked out into the darkness. When Emma returned to Knightley, it was with arms folded. She was flummoxed and clearly more than a little discontent. Knightley too, was alone.
"Gone back to his home. He was pretty wound up, Emme, and I don't think it was just because of Lizzie. New Years Eve is always a hard night for him, given his history. Best to just leave him be."
"Elizabeth left too," Emma conceded grudgingly. Confusion warred with speculation on her face. "On the surface I know it seemed bad, but I think they had an interesting sort of chemistry. You didn't think so?"
"If by chemistry what you mean is mutual loathing, than sure."
"I wouldn't say loathing," Emma protested.
He arched a brow at her. "Well, I definitely don't think she liked him. She threw a drink in his face. And as for Darcy, I've known him since Eton and I haven't seen any girl get him quite that wound up-ever. I have to take it as a bad sign."
"Happy new year, George!" A party goer with a gold top-hat shouted. She cut across Emma to give him an enthusiastic hug. She had golden red hair, a bright smile, and seemed completely oblivious to the beautiful blond who was currently staring incredulously at her with both hands on her hips. "Sir Robert Astley is giving a great lecture about postpartum anti-retroviral therapies at the Royal Society on Monday. Will Brandon and I see you there?"
"The lecture? You can bet on it." He carefully detached the woman from him, maneuvering around her to bring Emma to the forefront again. "Henrietta, I'd like you to meet Emma Woodhouse. Emma, this is Henrietta McGovern. Henrietta's in her final year at an undergrad at the University of London. She just started doing some work at the hospital downtown. Henny, Emma is my girlfriend."
"Your girlfriend?" Henrietta's pause was noticeable. "I've heard you mention a girl named Emma before, George, but I didn't realize you were dating her."
"Since Christmas day," Emma supplied.
"So soon..." her gaze traveled back to Knightley. "Anyway, thanks for the great party, George. See you Monday!"
"Royal Society?" Emma questioned carefully as Henrietta left.
"Yeah, they've got some great key-note speakers coming up in January."
The buzzing crowd of people around them had begun to crowd closer in the count down to midnight. Warm bodies were pressing around them, guests were hugging and shaking hands, milling about and wishing each other well.
He glanced down at Emma, gently massaging her shoulder. "What were we talking about?"
"Elizabeth and Darcy," she repeated with slightly less conviction, trying to shake off worries about the very clever "Henrietta" and the rest of this crowd, and return her attention to the matter at hand.
"Right." he nodded. "After what happened tonight, Emme, I don't think Elizabeth's gonna get within ten feet of him."
The challenge in the statement was enough to draw her mind more fully off Henrietta, perked her up again.
"I'll take care of Lizzie. She thinks she hates him, sure, but that's only because he was acting like a jerk. He isn't one. You know it, and I know it. Darcy's amazing."
Ten! the crowd shouted.
"Good luck convincing Lizzie," Knightley said skeptically over the roar of the people. A noise-maker blew nearby, and he had to lower his head to speak directly into her ear. "As for Will, I know him better than most people. I know he's a great guy. I'd tell that to anyone. He's just complicated, and he had a lot on his mind tonight. From now on, Emma, it's best to let him decide his who and what he wants. No one can know that as well as he does."
The band's drummer began a steady rolling beat on his drum. Nine!
"But most guys don't even know what they want!" Emma insisted, "Maybe it wasn't love at first sight, but Will and Lizzie are perfect for each other. I'm sure of it! I don't see the problem in helping them out a bit."
His mouth twitched in amusement. "That's because you're stubborn as a mule."
"Hey, Knightley," a well-wisher raise a drink as he passed close by the pair, "all the best for the new year!"
"And you." Knightley answered with a grin and a slap to his friend's back as he walked away.
"Who's the babe, Knightley?" Another young man called out. "Is this the Emma that you mentioned? Your girl is hot!"
"Yeah, yeah. I noticed, too. Eyes to yourself, Blakeney."
"This is like dating the prom king," Emma laughed, willing to let the other matter drop for now. "I thought I knew a few of your London friends, but half the city's shown up here. Why didn't you ever mention this legion of people to me before?"
"Funny, that," he shot back with a grin, "they've all heard your name."
"And why's that?"
"Because there's usually just one person on my mind worth talking about, and as luck would have it, I'm looking right at her."
Emma settled her finger on the crook of his tie, drawing Knightley's head even closer to her own. "I guess that makes us both lucky," she said with a smile.
She tiptoed, bridging the gap between them with a kiss just as the raucous cheers of 'happy new year!' broke around them. Noise makers blew, sparkling confetti was thrown, people cheered and kissed and toasted and hugged. The band struck a song. It was a brand new year and at least two people in London had exactly what they wanted.
Anyone who claimed ballet wasn't competitive was a liar. Anyone who said dancers, male or female, didn't watch their fellow company members keenly from the sidelines to assess who among them was jumping higher, faster, stronger than they were, wasn't just a liar---they were a rubbish liar at that.
For Lizzie though, there was only one person she had it in her heart to be better than: herself. Perfection was impossible, but if she had worked as hard as she could, if she had jumped as high as her body would go, pointed her feet as sharply as possible, prepared as best as she could, remembered her steps, than she could go to bed at night contented, but when training and preparation fused together, when the movements became effortless, that was when passion sparked. That was when she felt like she was flying.
"Lizzie, that was incredible," Fay Price said in a whisper at the end of their warm-up class, kneeling down to massage her calf.
Quietly lovely Fay Price had dark eyes and black curls twinned tightly in a bun. She usually kept to herself. She'd earned the rank of first soloist last season. She wasn't headlining like Elin Dashwood or Lucy Steele, but the title was a mark of real distinction. She'd played the Dew Drop Fairy in this season's Nutcracker, and Elizabeth thought she was a shoe-in for meatier roles. "The height you get in your jumps...you executed that Kitri jump beautifully, better than the rest of us combined."
A 'Kitri' jump---so called because it was an iconic leap from the role in Don Quixote--was actually a type of grand jetee, or great leap. Also called a sissone, the front leg remained straight in the air while the back leg extended up in attitude, as if trying to touch the spine. Done properly, they were beautiful and dramatic and very, very difficult.
Elizabeth loved them.
"Thanks, Fay," she answered with a warm smile, both surprised and flattered by the comment. Nothing gave her a rush like flying across the floor could, but the fact was she hardly remembered people were watching until she hit the ground again. "I wouldn't say 'better,' though. Your leaps were lovely. No one can rise up into relevee as easily as you can. Honest Fay, I think you're a lock for the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty this year."
"Oh, Lizzie, I wish that were true!"
Further discussion was interrupted by the fact that Alistair Allen, the company, rose from his seat at the edge of the rehearsal space. Sitting beside him against the wall was a barrage of Who's Who in the company. Ballet master, choreographer, administrative director, music director, costumer, teachers.
Morning class was mandated for the whole company, from the principals to the corps de ballet. It was a great equalizer, one of the few times the entire company of dancers came together when they weren't on rehearsing on the stage. Most days it had a wonderfully predictable routine. The purpose was to get warmed up for the rest of the day's rehearsal. It meant bar work for the start, then center work ranging from arabesques to port-de-bras, then jumps and turns (often in combination, with a variety of elements), and lastly, stretching. Today, while the company stretched, Alistair would talk.
Most of the company settled on the floor, legs extended into splits or stretches. A few hands reached for leg warmers, sweats, or large puffy booties to slip feet into. Anything to keep the muscles warm, and the muscles of the foot were particularly important. A handful of dancers grabbed water bottles.
As for Elizabeth, apart from tugging her blue booties onto her feet, she simply sat and waited. She watched Charlotte Lucas, the lead choreographer, slip into the room. Charlotte had become her first friend at the Royal, and she was well familiar with Charlotte's little quirks. Rather than taking a seat with the rest of the staff in chairs beside the mirrored wall, Charlotte waved to Elizabeth and zig-zagged through the dancers, to stopping to talk to a few of them before edging towards Lizzie. It was quite clear where Charlotte's loyalties rested in the company, and it wasn't with the administration.
"Morning, Lizzie," Charlotte Lucas greeted her.
"Char. Always the egalitarian," Elizabeth observed with a grin, noting there were more than a few disapproving looks that Charlotte chose to fraternize with the dancers rather than the staff.
"You know it," Charlotte answered, settling cross-legged beside her. "What's you schedule after this?"
"I'm rehearsing Sylvie at 11:00, Themes and Variations at 12:30, Ashton's La Valse at 2:00, physiotherapy appointment at 3:00, and a dress rehearsal for a role in 'Diamonds' at 3:30. My call time for stage is at 8:00. I'm Katia Ivanonva's understudy, and she twisted her ankle last weekend, so--"
"You'll be dancing her part at the Balanchine exhibition tonight? Lizzie, that's wonderful! They're closing the exhibit tonight with Diamonds, and Katia's role is the focal point. I knew you'd make it out of the corps de ballet this season!"
Elizabeth grinned, but further comment was prohibited. Alistair Allen was pacing in front of the crowd, already demanding attention.
"Now that we have conquered the Christmas season,I think we can all give a hearty thanks over the fact that we will no longer be hearing the waltz of the sugarplum fairy backwards and forwards in our heads. Let us have a company wide round of applause for that, and also for our lovely Elin Dashwood."
Elin Dashwood was the most established-oldest---principal dancer in the company. When she was all dolled up on stage, Elin could look as regal any lead, but here amongst the white walls of the rehearsal room she looked just like any other dancer. Unusually tall for a ballerina, with sandy hair, muted eyes and a lean face, Elin's face didn't immediately leap out of the crowd. She'd settled herself far in the back near the corps, and only managed a quiet smile and a wave when her name was mentioned.
"Elin," Alistair conclude, "as always, your performance was lovely from start to finish."
"No need to mention she's done Sugarplum fairy twenty times by now," Charlotte retorted under her breath. "She could do the bloody thing in her sleep, and the rest of us could fall asleep watching her do it."
"I thought she was great." Lizzie remarked with a shrug, choosing to clap for Elin.
Elizabeth supposed this was the big difference between a choreographer and a ballet dancer. The choreographer felt the movement, sure, but the dancer was the one actually doing it. Twenty times or not, the Sugar Plum Fairy wasn't a role to sleepwalk through. It took skill, not just in evening performances but also in matinees. Before coming to the British Opera Ballet, Lizzie herself had danced it in smaller, Irish productions. She knew the difficulty of it. Movements conveying airy, effortless grace could be just as hard as ones communicating grave conviction. Certainly the role wasn't Giselle or Odette, but it often went to the lead ballerina of the company for a good reason. Any dancer would conclude the night with a few aches and pains, and she was forced to do it all with a huge smile plastered on her face.
"As you know, our winter season continues enter the spring season preparing for a variety of challenging works. The showpieces for the coming season are Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote. Lucy Steele will be dancing Kitri in Don Quixote. It's well earned, Lucy. As for Sleeping Beauty, Elin will be tackling the role of Aurora."
Lucy Steele for Kitri in Don Quixote. Elizabeth leaned against the mirrored wall, mulling that decision over as she drew her booted foot to her chest, flexing her arch. It wasn't Lizzie's immediate choice, but it made a certain kind of sense. Lucy had paid her dues with the company, she was not the prettiest of girls, nor the most naturally gifted, she had to work twice as hard as every other dancer, but she certainly possessed grit, determination and the drive to succeed. Whatever the cost. She always attacked her roles. The role of Kitri would make good use of her determination.
The true test would be if Elin could still handle the technical difficulty of Aurora. It was a plum role and there were more than a few disgruntled sighs amongst the dancers about giving it to the oldest ballerina in the company. Complaints seemed especially strong among the soloists.
"Elin's playing Aurora? Ridiculous." Charlotte snarked. "Look over there. Jenna looks less than thrilled." Jenna Fairfax was a pretty, golden haired soloist. "Honestly, who can blame her? Dashwood should have retired a season ago. Allen wants her as Aurora, fine. I'll help her pin down Nureyev's choreography, but let's see if she can even get through Beauty's first act. Her knees aren't as good as they used to be, and I thought her timing in Nutcracker was off."
Aurora's first variation in Sleeping Beauty-her 'entrance', so to speak--was quick, sharp, powerful and full of energy. This variation was followed directly by the rose adage, one of the slowest, most controlled, most challenging portions in the whole act. The lead had to partner with not just one, but four male dancers. The two portions combined required speed and energy, stamina, delicacy and incredible control.
"Aurora's first variation in Sleeping Beauty is long and difficult, you know that as well as I do," Charlotte continued. "If she messes up, it'll make for a long two hours. The role should have gone to Jenna, or Fay, or you, Lizzie. Alistair knows it. Elin should do us all a favor and retire."
"Elin's thirty-nine, not ninety-nine." Elizabeth answered, poking her friend in the side. "She'll be fine. Thank God she's still dancing. I'd like to have a career past thirty, you know, Char. Quite a few do it. Alessandra Ferri danced well into her forties."
"Elin Dashwood is no Alessandra Ferri."
It was a stinging remark, and one that made Lizzie frown.
"She's a beautiful dancer and she's worked hard for this company," Lizzie defended, "Alistair thinks she's strong enough to handle Aurora. Even more importantly, Sir Titus Bertram thinks so too."
"You could do this role, Lizzie. You deserve it! You're stuck playing handmaids and snowflakes right now. Lizzie, you're so much better than the corps de ballet, and you know it. The few solos you do get, you shine in. You could handle this part. Honestly, I don't get why you weren't promoted in your last company in Dublin."
"It's irrelevant, Char," Elizabeth shot back with sudden unthinking annoyance. She knew exactly why she'd never been promoted in Dublin. Conscious that her muscles were cooling as her temper as flaring, she began flexing from her toe to the arch of her foot, heel to ankle, to keep both problems at an impasse. She slid into a split, stretching her muscles further. The slight discomfort as she pressed her muscles in a stretch beyond the body's natural limits suited her mood. Slight discomfort. She could hear other ballet dancers, both male and female, chatting amongst themselves. She knew she wasn't the only one getting tense at all this talk of who had earned what roles and promotions.
As for Allen, he loved the sound of his own voice even more than he loved creating drama amongst his audience. He was still talking. Lizzie loosened the deliberate tension in her legs and began to listen again.
"The company's own Edmund Bertram will be dancing opposite Elin as our Prince Dāsirā in Sleeping Beauty..."
Edmund was a wonderful lead, strong but sensitive. Suited for the prince in Sleeping Beauty.
The whole company could agree on that, for everyone clapped quite enthusiastically at both announcements. Fay, to Lizzie's interest, seemed to clap the loudest. Hearing it, Lizzie glanced at the girl with a curious little smile only to see her blush and quickly still her hands.
"Lastly," Allen continued, "the Royal is thrilled to announce a very exciting guest artist. American Ballet Theater's Frank Churchill recently signed for a spot as a guest artist. He'll be arriving within days to begin rehearsal for the part of Don Quixote."
Frank Churchill was a surprise. Lizzie had heard of him by reputation, of course. He was frenetic in his energy, muscled in the calves, and from what she'd seen on film, capable of a theater's worth of bravado. He would practically leap off the stage in Don Quixote.
"Further division of roles will be announced in the coming weeks. Some of you will have to familiarize yourself with new material, new practice hours and different teachers. There are a few important casting changes coming up at the Company. Not all of you will be pleased to see yourselves shuffled about, but do remember, there's no "I" in ballet. We are a company, we are a team, we are the British Opera Ballet, and each of you is expected to perform better than your best. Further questions about upcoming decisions can be fielded in my office, or for those of you feeling masochistic, may be taken up directly with our executive program director, Sir Titus Bertram."
"Titus Bertram. Now there's a casting couch none of us wants to be on," Lucy Steele whispered to one of her fellow dancers, Lydia Bourne.
Lucy Steele wasn't her favorite person in the company, but Elizabeth had to admit as she got to her feet that she agreed with the sentiment. Sir Titus was dictatorial, controlling, and was known for his wandering eye. He had a penchant for girls in tights, and generally made every woman from the principal to the lowest corps girl, uncomfortable. When he made decision there might be quite a bit of grumbling, but few would truly question it.
"Sir Titus? Definitely not," Lydia Bourne agreed, "I wouldn't mind his son, though."
"Edmund?" Lucy questioned incredulously.
"No, Sir Titus's other son, Titus Bertram IV," Lydia corrected. "They call him Tye, and he's the one that's due to inherit the Bertram fortune. He stops in to watch rehearsals sometimes. I tell you, Lucy, you never saw such a man. Shame he doesn't have an interest in running the place when his father's done, because I'd get onto Tye Bertram's casting couch any day of the week."
Charlotte and Elizabeth exchanged amused looks as the pair wandered past them.
"I guess that's Lydia's great plan to get ahead," Charlotte observed with dry intonation, "romancing the director's son. He's a bad boy through and through, from what I've heard. The way of the world, Lizzie?"
"Not for all of us," Elizabeth answered, giving her friend an easy smile. "I'd take a right proper good lad over a scoundrel any day. As for getting ahead, this is one ballerina that prefers hard work, determination, and a strong dose of her father's Irish pride."
"I'd like to remind you that you've barely been back in the country a week," Darcy jokingly observed. It was Friday, and he was sitting in a cramped chair in a crowded London office, examining a very familiar view: the sunset. "Tell me again why I'm getting dragged along to this ballet thing? Because last I checked, I not only picked you up when you got in from the aeroport--"
"A bit late, Will."
"By about five and a half minutes." Darcy corrected.
"And we military men are right on time."
"Keep telling yourself that," Will chuckled, although he knew there was truth in the statement.
Hardly anyone could beat Frederick Wentworth for punctuality. Or neatness. Or politeness. Wentworth had been staying with Darcy for a week, and the only real indicators of Fred's presence in Will's luxury flat were the front door shutting quietly at 5:00 AM when Fred went for his morning jog (if one could call a five mile run a "jog"), and the steady decrease of food in his fridge. Apart from that, the kitchen remained spotless, the room Fred was staying in remained pristine, and there wasn't so much as a crumb out of place.
Nevertheless, Will hadn't seen Fred in over a year. Wentworth had been heaven knows where and had been doing only the highest branch of the navy knew what. Will had to rag on him a bit, it was brotherly duty. "You're staying rent free in my flat, you're eating all my food.."
"Right proper selection you've got too, Will. I love a good pile of cold cuts--"
"Plus you're barely back a week, and already you've lined up a date. It's not such a bad way to start your leave, Captain Wentworth. You work for the SBS, Royal Navy Special Forces. You work in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. Surely you're not afraid of a little blind date."
"Correction, this is a little blind date my sister lined up for me. I need a wing man, Will. I'll tell you what, if the date goes flat, I'll walk her home after the ballet like a gentleman and then we'll grab a pint and catch the end of the United match."
"A wing man for meeting a girl at the ballet? Fine lady as your sister Sophia is, Fred, please tell her to request the odd football or rugby match next time." Will teased, though his mind was already made up. One of his best friends need him to tag along, perhaps for more reasons than he was letting on. He could deal with a few hours at the ballet like the best of them.
"Remember what you told me before we jumped from that airplane in Africa? You said, and we all three agreed, that if one of us got stranded in a brush patch, the other two would hike until we found him. You can't leave me stranded here, Will," Fred reminded him. "No man left behind, you said to us. I'll hold it to you now."
Will Darcy grinned from ear to ear at the memory of his time with his friends in Africa. The effect was rare and spectacular, even on the elderly Mrs. Norris who wandered in with a stack of briefings.
"You can leave those briefings right on my desk, Mrs. Norris. Thank you," Will thanked her politely, cradling the phone. He flipped one open, scanning it quickly, before returning his attention back to Wentworth. "You know I'd rather have that brush patch in Africa. But I won't keep torturing you, mate, you had me at United. I'll be there."
"You're a good man, Darcy."
"Maybe some of the time." Will let his eyes drift from the page, glancing instead at the clock on his desk and rubbing his tension filled neck muscles.
He had been working on a tough case regarding a group of child labor victims. The group of victims, nearly twenty in all had been found malnourished and badly abused in an underground factory raid. Authorities suspected the children were connected to a larger group of international slave traders, which is where Darcy came into play. He was responsible for prosecuting the slave traders, and building a case against them. He specialized in international law, and was particularly active in working with the government to prosecute drug traffickers, slave traders, and child labor victims. Even when he wasn't thinking about work, he was thinking about it. Will had been holed up here since half-six in the morning working.
He had a stack of paperwork he had to finish, and dinner would probably consist of the cold cup of coffee sitting at the edge of his desk, but he could manage. It would be good to get out, stretch his legs, interact with the rest of the world. "Enjoy the cold cuts, Fred. See you at 8:00."
Will had seen Frederick Wentworth in love. They'd all seen it---not just him, Knightley, too. While Will and George were holding court at Eton, Frederick Wentworth was holding his own at a state run school, getting excellent grades and fist fights in equal measure. The latter, unfortunately, came part and parcel with the former. It was at a public youth football league that the two best friends in turn befriended Frederick Wentworth. Wentworth was the league's keeper, Will was a striker, and George played defense. And it was at a league game, on Frederick Wentworth's seventeenth birthday as it happened, that a young girl had shown at the sidelines of the match.
Her name-and Will Darcy would never forget it---was Anne Elliot.
Wearing a uniform indicating she attended Queen's College and barely sixteen, she'd sat on the sidelines and watched the boys play. For some reason she'd caught Fred's eye, even from afar. He'd gone up to her after the match, breathless, sweat drenched, and unable to stay away from her even then. He'd described her later as shy, sweet, too innocent to realize he was flirting, too beautiful to ignore.
And that was it for him. He'd been crazy about her, had fallen hard and fast and with every inch of his heart.
Anne had been half-Spanish on her mother's side, with an olive complexion and dark brown hair, eyes like a fawn, and a soft smile. She was refined and delicate, and Wentworth hung on her every word, watched every gesture, smiled at the barest encouragement and finally, improbably, became her boyfriend.
Poor and smart, Wentworth had joined the navy at eighteen. And at nineteen, with Anne eighteen and at the cusp of entering university, he'd proposed.
The end, of course, was heartbreak. She came from money, Darcy recalled. Lots of it. There was more than a little disapproval of the poor navy boy who wanted to make her his wife. Wentworth's total and utter devastation at the breakup was something neither George nor Will ever wanted to see again. He'd shown up at the boy's Oxford dormitory, got roaring drunk for a solid week, trashed everything in sight, and swore on his life that were he never to have Anne Elliot, than he would never know the meaning of the word 'love' again.
The following week he cleaned up, shipped off, and never spoke the words 'Anne Elliot' in either man's hearing ever again.
Perhaps, Will thought, Fred would never be as madly in love with anyone the way he'd loved Anne. He hadn't dated since, but now he seemed not just open to the idea of a new relationship, but rather to be actively encouraging it. Louisa Musgrove, as it turned out, was a credit to his sister's taste. She seemed quite young to Darcy's eyes, and not in the way that he found particularly charming. In fact, she was as far from Anne Elliot as it seemed Fred could get. She was pale blond where Anne had been quite dark, chatty where Anne had been quiet, giggly where Anne had been placid.
Still, it seemed that Wentworth liked her well enough and that was what mattered. He was attentive and amiable, more than simple politeness required, and there was more than a little flirting passing between the couple. Feeling more like a third wheel by the second, Will leaned back in the upholstered theater chair and began planning his post-performance exit. He knew how to make a discrete exit when required, especially where his friend and a girl were concerned.
And then the performance started. Rather than performing a single ballet like Swan Lake or Giselle, the dancers at the exhibition were performing a series of shorter pieces linked by a common famed choreographer, Balanchine. The first piece, entitled 'Emeralds', was cool and serene, with high jumps and graceful movements.
"What's this performance about?" Will asked in a confused whisper, watching the dancers leap about. They were wearing green, it was called Emeralds. That much he got. The rest of this was leaving him a bit confused. Frederick, who was sitting on the opposite side of his date Louisa, shrugged with a rueful little smile on his face.
"It's not about anything," answered Louisa primly. "It's Balanchine, very modern. It's all about movement and music."
"Not about anything," Darcy repeated her words coolly, flipping through the playbill. "Great."
The second piece of the night, 'Rubies,' managed to catch his attention a bit more. The two leads-listed as Edmund Bertram and Fay Price in the playbill---were vibrant and energetic and had a definite frisson of romantic chemistry between them. This lent an interesting dynamic to the routine, even Will noticed it, and it made him wonder if the pair were a couple off the stage as well as on.
The last piece, set to Tchaikovsky, was entitled 'Diamonds'. By now, Will's attention was keenly focused, not simply by the royal, romantic, ethereal costuming which did credit to the title, but by one person particularly. The lead dancer of the piece entranced him in a way that none of the ballerinas had managed yet. They'd all been very good, of course, but there was something about this girl...she wore an ethereal costume of silver and white, glittering with diamond accents. Her skin was milk pale and her eyes were bright. A shining coronet rested atop her black hair. Delicate, beautiful, entirely alive, she had the face of a princess and the smile of a gypsy. Will decided she looked like she'd stepped out of a fairytale he'd heard once. Or maybe a dream.
Or maybe a fantasy, he decided, and flipped open his playbill once again to see who was dancing the lead in this piece. It was listed in the bill as 'Katia Ivanova.' Katia. Somehow the name didn't suit her. Here was a dancer who could capture the audience's attention with a single glance of those remarkably expressive eyes and one sweetly mischievous smile.
"What color are those eyes," he wondered under his breath.
But they were too far from the stage to judge, and the dancer was now executing a rapid and complicated series of turns and leaps. It was as if springs were hidden in her pointe shoes. In the final part of her pas de deux, she melted against the male lead as if his embrace were so warm, so desperately necessary, that she would freeze without it. Darcy felt a rush of jealousy, even as the curtain shut.
She could be married, he realized, perhaps even to the man she was dancing with. The ballet world seemed more than a little incestuous and from what he knew, it was fairly common for the men and women who danced together to be romantically involved. Whoever got to hold her at the end of the night was a lucky man, he decided, and stood to clap loudly when she made her curtain call.
"That was just beautiful, wasn't it?" Louisa Musgrove gushed as they exited the theater.
"The third act certainly was," Will agreed, sliding his hands into his pockets.
"It was alright," Frederick conceded.
"Right. Yeah, I thought it was alright too...." Louisa commented with a sudden lack of certainty. "Anyway, Frederick, don't you love it when you're on a boat and the ocean waves are just right and everything's calm enough to rock you asleep? I love that!"
Will fell back, letting the two walk ahead. He was silently skeptical of Louisa's seafaring devotion, but that was for Frederick to figure out. Besides, he had other things on his mind. Like that ballerina with the incredible eyes. Finally, his friend's voice interrupted his thoughts.
"Darcy, we're gonna stop and get something from the nearby chip and fish stand on the corner. Do you want anything"
"No, Wentworth, you go on ahead. I've...uh...got a call to make on my mobile, anyway." Reaching for a reason to let them have some time alone, he called the only other person on his mind apart from that enchanting ballerina. His sister.
"Will!" her young voice instantly warmed him on the other line. "Where are you tonight? Not still at the office, I hope?"
"Actually, I've spent the evening at Covent Garden. A friend asked me to go to an exhibition here. A ballet."
"A ballet? Oh, Will, I'm so jealous! Was it very beautiful?"
"It was wonderful. We should go to another show in the spring when you're on holiday from school. I just wanted to let you know I was thinking about you," Will spoke with a quiet smile as he strolled leisurely behind the couple. " I wish you were here with me now."
"So do I," she sounded so wistful, and so very young. "Look, Will, I am sorry about last weekend, truly I am. I know how very mad you were, even the day after. I can imagine how furious you were on the night."
"Furious about sums it up. It's a good thing you weren't there to see me, Georgie." He tugged his tie looser, embarrassment in his voice. "I was real beast. Not just with Emma and George, either. With everyone. I yelled at some girl I'd never even met before. Fury, impatience and vodka. A real credit to our Aunt Cat, to say the least."
"Ouch." That single word expressed how painfully their family could cut when they wanted to. "Did you at least get to say a proper apology?"
"No, I--" his voice tapered off.
There, standing at the corner chip stand like some Cinderella who'd fled from her ball, was the lead ballerina from the Diamonds number. A black coat was draped around her shoulders, covered her sparkling costume, but it was her. There was no doubt about it. It was the same large, expressive eyes and delicate cheekbones, the same dark hair, twined up in a bun. A silver headpiece still rested on her head like a crown. Her rosebud mouth, colored with lipstick for the stage, was biting eagerly into a freshly fried chip. But what he found most charming wasn't the costume or the makeup. It was the fact that as she stood waiting, she was subconsciously doing little dance with her shoulders, trying to keep warm as she waited for two other women to place their order.
There was no boyfriend waiting for her with a bouquet of roses. No man to draw her coat more securely around her in the January chill, or to lean down and kiss her neck to warm her. The rush of desire he felt to do so himself nearly made him drop his phone.
"Georgie," he said with an odd note in his voice, "...I'll call you back."
"Another two orders of chips and cheese, please," Anne spoke, raising her voice for the man behind the portable stand to hear her. Chips and cheese had been the order of the night from their very own ballerina, Elizabeth Bennet.
"Lizzie, I can't believe they didn't print your name in the playbill!" Emma said with a disappointed sigh. "Your very first chance at a leading role and they put in the wrong name as the lead dancer for Diamonds! I was going to frame the playbill for you, or at least put it up on the refrigerator."
"That's the company printing press for you," Lizzie laughed. "It's okay. There will be other opportunities. At least I didn't do badly by Katia's name. If anyone raves about how great she was tonight, I'll know I did my job well. When I get to dance my first lead role in a full length ballet at the British Opera Ballet, then you can frame the playbill."
"That's a promise," Emma agreed with a wink.
"That's going to happen this season, Lizzie, I'm sure of it," Anne assured her, giving her friend a quiet smile. Waiting for her order, she buttoned the top button of her coat. A cool gust of wind brushed past the trio, and it seemed to be getting colder by the minute.
Emma wore a petal pink bandeau dress, sky high heels, and nothing else and seemed not the slightest bit bothered by the cold. Anne handed her friend her order and shook her head in amazement. "I don't know how you do it, Emma, I'd absolutely freeze in that outfit."
I'd also never manage to fill out that outfit, Anne thought practically. At least not at this point in time.
Emma had a bombshell figure to go with her dress. As twenty-five year old Anne had gotten busier and busier in her work as an elementary school teacher, she'd found herself forgetting to eat a proper lunch, if she managed one at all. The weight had steadily melted off her until she'd gotten nearly as thin as Lizzie and with not nearly as good an excuse.
In fact, of the trio Anne was certainly the odd one out. Emma was gorgeous as always, her hair swept up into an elegant french twist with a few golden tendrils framing her face. Her dusky eye makeup perfectly complimented those famous, sky blue eyes and a touch of lip gloss made her mouth gleam. She might have been done with photo shoots, but still she looked like a picture perfect model.
As for Elizabeth, with her thick black Irish hair pulled off her exquisitely delicate face, and her bright green eyes gleaming under the silver accents of her stage makeup, her beauty was truly otherworldly. She looked like the queen of the sprites, dusted with silver glitter, wearing a glistening white dress and a shining crown.
Anne loved her friends, she was far closer to either of them then her own two sisters. Her sisters were often selfish and distant, whereas her friends were nothing like that. She was continually inspired by Emma and Elizabeth, in awe of them, and encouraged by them.
Nevertheless, standing beside them when they were both so dressed up, she couldn't help but feel a bit drab. Emma and Lizzie liked her no matter how she looked, but perhaps she should have worn something with a bit more color to it. Emma had generously offered her anything in her wardrobe to wear to Elizabeth's performance, but instead she'd worn an old reliable dress from the far reaches of her closet. It was tan and not particularly well shaped. It had been a long time since she'd dressed up for anyone in particular, including herself. A long, long time.
Sometimes she saw a man from a far and for a split second, she was certain it was him. It never was. Tonight she came face to face with a pair of impossibly blue eyes in an impossibly familiar face, and there wasn't a question. She just knew. He looked so much the same, taller, leaner, more muscled in his arms and a bit harder in the mouth but even brighter in the eyes. It had been seven years since she'd last seen him, but she just knew. This was Frederick.
"Frederick?" she whispered. "Frederick Wentworth?"
His eyes sharped in careful assessment, and then widened in disbelief. All the color drained from his face.
"Anne?" He rubbed his eyes as if he were dreaming, and then looked again. "Anne Elliot? I-I never would have recognized you..."
It wasn't just the sight of another girl on his arm that broke her heart. It was the fact that she recognized him before he did. Had she changed so very much?
"I...um...I'm here with my two friends," Anne tried to respond, feeling her own heart flutter with miserable anxiety. "Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet. Lizzie was dancing in tonight's performance. She was the lead in the last act, Diamonds."
At the mention of the one person who's name he'd thought was forbidden, Will strolled up beside him. Anne Elliot. Wentworth wasn't the only one who thought her changed. It was the last name, however, that truly shocked him.
"Elizabeth Bennet?" he said in confusion.
At the mention of her name, Lizzie glanced up. Will's darkly searching gaze met hers. At last his question was answered. The color of the dancer's lively and enigmatic eyes weren't blue or hazel or gray or brown. They were rich, vibrant green. Elizabeth Bennet's eyes.
"Darcy?" she questioned with a frosty edge in her voice. Where was another drink to throw when she needed one.
"I--" for once Will Darcy was at a complete loss for words. This was the dancer who'd enchanted him to the point of distraction, the one he'd wanted to give roses to, the girl who's neck he'd wanted to kiss on this dark chilly night. Elizabeth. "Elizabeth---"
"Will," Emma greeted him in return as if hers had been the name he'd spoken in such a daze. Seeing immediate tension between the various pairs, she stepped between both in an effort to do some rapid fire damage control. "And...Frederick Wentworth, is it? Fancy seeing you all here tonight! All we'd need is Knightley and we'd make a pretty little trio! He's pulling a night shift at the hospital though, I expect he won't get off till sunrise. And look at my rudeness, I don't think you all have been properly introduced. Anne Elliot, this is a good friend of Knightley's, Will Darcy. He's a lawyer." She kept on chatting, although she had the distinct feeling no one was listening to her.
"You're a lawyer?" Elizabeth repeated, springing to life with the sudden flash of fire that she lent to her dance steps. Suddenly the queenly fairy looked like an avenging angel. "Isn't that just perfect. How about you leave the cultural events to the rest of us, Will Darcy, and go spend your evening chasing ambulances." She looked to Wentworth, her expression more than a little curious. "It was nice to meet you, Frederick. I hope you enjoy your evening."
She linked arms with the clearly miserable Anne. "Emme, I'll meet you at Anne's car?"
"Sure," Emma agreed with a sigh, watching the pair wander off. Glancing only momentarily at Frederick and his date, she then turned her attention wholly to Will Darcy. There was more than speculation in her blue eyes, delighting in the turmoil that reflected in his almost impossibly handsome face. "You like her, don't you? I knew you would."
With a satisfied grin, Emma turned away from him, heading for the parking lot.
Their flat was small, nestled at the top corner of an old brick Victorian building. It boasted a small kitchen, a living room with two sweeping windows, one tiny bathroom that the three girls somehow managed to share, three bedrooms, and a fire escape which snaked upward to a flat rooftop, and downward to a dark alley.
It was the best Elizabeth and Anne could afford. Emma could afford much better, of course, especially given her inheritance, but she said she'd rather be flatmates with two of her best friends than suffer loneliness in a luxury apartment without them.
Elizabeth and Emma hung back in the kitchen when they returned from Covent Garden, letting Anne flee to her bedroom to compose herself. Biting her lower lip in worry, Elizabeth's green eyes met Emma's blue ones. Neither held much in the way of answers.
"Frederick Wentworth," Elizabeth repeated the name with quiet concern. "There's a name she rarely mentions. I'd never even seen a photo of him."
"I've seen photographs, but had never met him in person," Emma answered. "Knightley has a bunch of photos with Fred Wentworth in them. Wentworth's great friends with Knightley, and with Will. These last few years they've hardly seen him. They met up in Africa awhile back, and they keep in touch through letters, but every time Knightley mentioned Wentworth it was always in the context of the navy. 'Wentworth's shipped out to the far ends of the earth,' that sort of thing. When Knightley and Wentworth and Darcy were teenagers together, I was only ten or eleven. Knightley and I were very close of course, but I was just a kid. I knew next to nothing about his circle of teenage friends. I didn't even get to meet Will until I was about fourteen, visiting England for a photo shoot. And by then they were at university, Wentworth had already joined the navy. I had no idea she even knew Wentworth."
Anne had formed such an insular life here in London, it would have been easy to assume she had never even met Knightley or Darcy or Wentworth. But if she'd known one as a teen, she probably knew all three. "How odd that she's never mentioned him before."
Mulling this over, Elizabeth's gaze traveled to the closed door to Anne's room. Their friend lingered there alone, dealing with whatever storm of sorrow and misery and memories this new encounter with Frederick Wentworth had produced.
Elizabeth looked back to Emma, seeing decisive agreement in the blond's eyes.
"Ice cream?" Elizabeth suggested, heading for the freezer to search for Anne's favorite.
"I'll grab the spoons," agreed Emma, who was already reaching for the drawer.
Nearly two hours later, all three were crowded in Anne's room. They'd settled on the floor, eating and talking in equal parts while they listened to Anne tell the story of Frederick, showing pictures and mementos which were now scattered on the carpet.
"Your first love," Elizabeth said quietly. Anne's only love, she realized, picking up a photograph.
The photo she was looking at had been taken in the center of London, Trafalgar Square, from the looks of it. She recognized the iconic fountain at the center. The boy and the girl in the picture were knee-deep in the water, as if they'd just gone for a swim.
They were soaking wet, facing one another in a close embrace, chest to chest. Anne wore a schoolgirl's uniform, very posh, Elizabeth decided, from the crest on her blazer right down to the precise press of her pleated skirt.
His school uniform was decidedly less glorified--simply gray trousers and a white shirt. If he'd had a jumper to go along with it, that had long since been discarded, and the state-mandated tie that hung loose around his neck that looked as if it had seen better days.
Both were quite young, sixteen, not much older. The boy showed many hints of the handsome man he would become, with his blond hair and pale, vibrant blue eyes that even the low resolution camera couldn't manage to dampen. The girl in the photo was quite beautiful and obviously even younger than the boy. It was obviously warm weather, for her complexion which due to her mother's Spanish blood held an olive tone even in winter, was now certifiably tan. Her dark brown hair, which looked as soaking wet as the rest of her, fell straight down to her waist.
"Anne's looking at him as if he were the only thing in the world that mattered," Emma whispered to Elizabeth softly, quietly enough to avoid Anne's ears.
"And Fred has the grin of a lottery winner," Lizzie agreed. Plus, the way her chin was tilted, she thought, the way his thumb lingered on her jaw...the photograph had captured the pair just before a kiss. With the light of the sun in the background, it was beautiful. Simply beautiful.
"Annie, you look so very--" so very happy, Emma thought silently as she peered over Lizzie's shoulder to examine the photo. Instead, she finished with a wistful smile, "--young."
"It was June, right before I sat for exams. I was sixteen," Anne said, knowing which photo they were discussing without even glancing at it. Instead, she held a golden locket in her hands, tracing the heart as if it were a lost treasure. "Frederick was seventeen." Suddenly she had the hint of the same smile that showed in the photograph, even at the memory of that day. "I'd ducked out of school to meet him, missed my riding lesson, and came back late for the midday meal in the hall."
"What a wonderful memory." Emma set the photograph down onto the carpet, drawing her knees close. Her romantic imagination was already ten steps ahead. She was itching to ask who had thrown whom into the fountain, plus how exactly had the strict Queen's College teachers and a formal dining hall's worth of students responded to Anne Elliot returning to the school gate, wet from head to heel?
Emma thought Anne and Frederick's story was the stuff great plays were made from. But to experience that sort of all-consuming love so young...small wonder it had marked Anne for life. Anne's parents had disapproved of the pair and all this time later, she still hadn't recovered from the loss. The injustice of it practically crushed Emma, and she hadn't even been the victim. There had to be something she could do to help...
"Maybe this is the perfect time to make more memories with Wentworth? You're single. He's here in London, and it's not like you're under your parents' thumb any longer..." Her eyes lit up with sudden enthusiasm. "I could get his phone number from George, at least find out where he's staying, it might even be with Knightley, they're great friends. You two could talk, maybe even tonight? Meet up for coffee tomorrow? Or another meeting at Trafalgar Square? After all these years, oh Annie, wouldn't it be romantic?"
"Trafalgar Square," Anne breathed. The mere thought brought panic. He would never want to meet her there, of all places. In fact, after tonight she was certain he would never want to see her again. He hadn't even recognized her, that was how thoroughly he'd blocked her from his memory. He had loved her as no one in her life had loved her, and in return all she had given him was a broken heart. Small wonder he wanted nothing to do with the thought of her.
"That was a long time ago," Anne brushed the suggestion aside, pocketing the old charm, and pitched her voice to calmness. "We were little more than children, really. He's all but forgotten me, you see. It was just the shock of seeing him that threw me tonight, but I'm quite alright now. I'm sorry if it ruined your evening, Lizzie, Emma."
"Forgotten you?" Emma interrupted in confusion. "I don't think--"
"Oh Annie, it didn't ruin anything," Elizabeth was quick to jump in.
"--it's been a long time," Anne continued, tucking her hair behind her ears and cleaning up with sudden speed. "He's obviously found someone else that makes him happy, as well he should-he's...he's the best of men, and I want him to be happy. I do. I'm pleased for him, really I am. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, but I'm alright for now. I promise. You know how much you both mean to me, and I'm so grateful you were here when I met him again, but these are nothing but old memories--" she gave her best attempt at a brave smile. "And I'm quite tired. I think I should get some sleep."
"We understand," Elizabeth answered warmly, squeezing Anne's hand. "We'll let you get some rest. Right, Emma?"
Seeing Elizabeth's not so subtle nod toward the toward, Emma managed to stifle her own further impulse towards questioning and romantic musings and encouragement.
"I-oh, yes, of course." Emma nodded decisively, hugging her friend tightly, though there was still a furrow in her brow as she pulled away. Anne and Frederick had lost so much time, and destiny had brought them together again. Surely Anne wasn't just intending to let this second chance pass them by?
Anne's bedroom door had shut behind them, Emma sighed and turned to Elizabeth. "I think she should call him.
"I noticed." Elizabeth answered with a wry little smile. The smile quickly faded to concern. "I'm worried about her, though. She hasn't been looking healthy lately, she's much too thin. And I'd love for things to work out for her and Frederick, but it looks like he's gotten himself a new girlfriend."
"Anne is too thin," Emma agreed without hesitation. "Especially compared to those old photographs. The ice cream tonight has to do a little good, right? And as for the new girl, I'm not overly worried about that. Didn't you see the way Fred was looking at Anne tonight? Too busy looking at Will Darcy, were you?"
"Will Darcy?" Elizabeth's eyes sparked. "Emma I swear, I don't know how you're friends with him."
"Yes, I am friends with him," Emma repeated. "And so's Knightley. I know he's not your favorite person, Lizzie, but if you could just try to get along with him. Not just for me, but for George. Knightley's known Darcy almost as long as he's known me, and they've gone through some very difficult but very similar experiences." Seeing Elizabeth's confusion at that statement, Emma simply shook her head and continued. "It would hurt him if you hated him, and that would hurt me, too. Trust me on this, please. He doesn't have to be your best friend, but if you could at least manage to be a bit nicer to him?"
"For you, and for George," Elizabeth agreed with a mild smile. "I'll try, okay? And as for Fred, I'm not as blind as you might think. Annie might not have seen it, but I noticed the look in Frederick's eyes when he realized who she was. It definitely wasn't the look of a man who's forgotten that day in Trafalgar Square."
She'd been just a week without him, and already she missed him like crazy.
Knightley finished his shift at the Royal London Hospital at 4:00 AM. He would probably sleep until noon. This meant that she could go for her morning run with Elizabeth, come back to her flat, make breakfast, do the dishes, clean her closet, call her father who was currently visiting Japan to attend an international business summit, shower, dress, and catch the tube from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate, and still manage to get to his home in time to be the first person he saw when he woke.
And then her mobile rang. It was Will Darcy, of all people. He hadn't had much time to talk, and offered zero explanation, but he'd wanted to know one thing: when could he speak with Elizabeth Bennet in person, what was her schedule like today, and would she be available to talk...
She couldn't smother her own grin even as she recollected this on the underground. Elizabeth was working her second job tonight, waitressing at McClaren's Pub, she'd told him that much. Darcy would show up and apologize for acting so atrocious their first meeting, Lizzie in turn would say she was sorry for her behavior, they would make amends, he'd ask her out, she'd say yes, they'd fall madly in love and one day end up getting married. Possibly next Christmas.
This was the first step, and she hadn't even had to push Will into it. It was all working out perfectly.
The sun was shining as she walked from the tube station to Knightley's home. The air was crisp and cool, and in no time at all she reached his home and pulled out the key to the back door. She would cut through the kitchen to the dining room staircase, bound up the steps, and wake him.
Only she found once she opened the kitchen door that George Knightley was wide awake, in the kitchen making his morning cup of tea at noon, and grilling himself a sandwich on the oven top. And, it seemed, he was doing all of this without his shirt.
"I--" Emma faltered in the doorway, momentarily voiceless. He was sporting jeans that hung low around a lean waist, damp hair, freshly shaven cheeks, and the end of a Christmas candy cane in his mouth. The radio played quietly in the background.
Heavens, he's gorgeous, she realized as her gaze slid from his chest to the play of his mouth. Momentarily unable to tear her gaze away from him, she blushed and turned her head in the general direction of the teapot.
"Sorry, Knightley," Emma's voice emerged as a squeak, "I should have called."
"Emma," Knightley lowered the burner, walked over to where he'd tossed his a faded rugby shirt and tugged it on. "You're welcome any time, you know that. Come in. You're the best surprise I've had all day."
"I'm not sure that counts when you just woke up," Emma reminded him with an indulgent smile, dropping her purse on the kitchen table. If he'd noticed her embarrassment or had guessed at the direction of her thoughts, he'd tactfully sidestepped the issue. At least for now. "How was your shift in the E.R. last night?"
"Long. Stressful." He turned his attention back to the sandwich on the grill. "Four car accidents, one with severe head trauma, an elderly woman who fell in her bathtub, a man on a bicycle who got hit by a taxi, a boy who swallowed half a bottle of Tylenol, three over-doses, two of which were heroine, and a uni kid who's stomach needed to be pumped. I was assisting Dr. Ferris. He's brilliant, but completely impossible." He gave her a tired grin, one that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I get stuck working with him all night, so of course he'd be crazy."
"That must have been hard for you," she said softly, wanting to reach out and touch him but unsure if she should. The things he saw every day..she wanted to help him somehow, to relieve his stress and to comfort him. His world at the hospital was so removed from her own, though, and when he recounted all of the horrible things he bore witness to, she felt that much more helpless.
As for George Knightley, he flipped his grilled sandwich and deliberately didn't mention that most difficult part of his night had been Emma's absence.
He didn't mention how lonely he'd been coming home to an empty house. How much he'd ached for her when he got here. Not just the warmth of her embrace, the sweet lavender scent of her hair and what it would be like to explore her soft skin. He had those thoughts, and they were enough to cause the worst kind of insomnia. But what he longed for was more than simply physical. It was her. Emma Woodhouse. Her laugh, her smile, the kindness in her eyes, the way she lit up enthusiastically at the littlest things. The way she could make him feel like the world could still be sweet and good when he'd spent all night steeped in blood and sorrow...
"How was Elizabeth's exhibition?" he asked, clearing his throat and deliberately turning the conversation in a direction that was quite the opposite of his thoughts. Her friends, that was a safe subject...
"It was amazing," Emma admitted, unbuttoning her coat and discarded it on a nearby chair. "Elizabeth was remarkable. I see her every day, and I know how hard she works at what she does. But sometimes I forget, you know? And then she gets up on stage, and she's just transformed. Honestly, Knightley, it's incredible how talented she is. I was in awe of it." She raked her hands through her golden hair and allowed herself an ironic laugh. "Maybe not the best thing to ponder when I'm dealing with my own inferiority complex, but still...I was so proud of her, I could burst."
With no preamble at all, Knightley put both hands firmly around her waist, lifted her up onto the counter top and leaned in close, forcing her to look at him eye to eye.
"Emma. Whoever you are right now," Knightley told her quite seriously, "whoever you want to be in the future, I'm always proud of you. Okay?"
His dark eyes were so serious, so sincere but still so incredibly warm, she felt her insecurity melt away like ice after a sunrise. She managed a sincere smile back and nodded quietly. "Okay."
"Good." He turned back to the oven and switched off the burner before transferring his sandwich to a ceramic plate. When he walked back over to her, he put the plate next to where she sat perched on the counter. She noticed it had been sliced in two.
"Want to help me eat my lunch?" he offered with a quirking smile.
"Hmm...models can't eat like this," she reminded him. The sandwich on the plate consisted of mozzarella and cheddar cheese, avocado, and plenty of turkey between thick, freshly baked Italian bread. It smelled divine. "You don't keep your figure on food like this, you know."
"Ah, but you're not a model anymore."
"I know." She grinned, picked up half the sandwich and took a large bite. "It's great, huh?"
She was here at the pub, right where Emma had told him she'd be. He stood in the back at first, watched her work, flirt with the customers and fill pints with warmth and a charming smile.
Her ivory pale skin was scrubbed clean. If she wore any makeup at all, it was just a touch of eyeliner.
In full makeup and a tiara, she truly looked like a fairy queen. But as awe inspiring as that woman certainly was, he realized preferred her like this. Her black hair was pulled up in a ponytail, slightly messy. Her outfit was a simple tee-shirt with McClaren's Pub scrawled across it and a pair of well fitted jeans which he couldn't help but appreciate in every way that a man his age could, especially when she bent over to pick up a tray. She was bright and engaging and full of life, giving a ready smile to whoever crossed her path.
Get a hold of yourself, Darcy, he gave himself a silent reprimand, tugging nervously at his collar.
She heard the customer approach before she saw him.
"Welcome to McClaren's where you'll get service with a smile. What can I do for you?" That famed McClaren's pub smile faded the instant she saw who was approaching her. Will Darcy.
Her immediate thought of, 'you have got to be kidding me,' was followed directly by the memory of her late-night conversation with Emma.
She'd made a promise. About being nice. And about honoring her friendship with George and Emma, which meant in turn being civil to their mutual friend. She wasn't rude by nature, quite the opposite in fact, but somehow this one man brought out her most argumentative side.
And there had been something else in that conversation, something Emma had mentioned so seriously. Something about George Knightley and Darcy and the importance of their friendship. Something about a shared, difficult experience that made their connection particularly important. What in the world was it? She examined him with wide-eyed curiosity. Whatever it was, she'd made a promise.
Be nice, be nice, be nice. And if you can't be nice...at least be civil.
"The ballerina waitress, serving till midnight," she explained, "I didn't lie about waiting tables, you see?"
Will took a seat at the bar. "Theaters are underfunded, even the national ones. Most people in the performing arts don't get paid nearly what they're worth."
There was a good deal of compassion in that statement, as well as an unspoken compliment. Elizabeth faltered from whatever quick line she could have answered him with. It seemed that momentary kindness from Will Darcy threw off much more quickly than any insult.
"Lizzie, my lass," an elderly man pipped up, "have I told you how bright your eyes are tonight? How beautiful your hair falls? How sweet your smile shines?"
Elizabeth leaned against the polished bar, trying to ignore the heat she felt coming from Will's gaze. With a tilt of her head she focused her gaze on the old man at the end of the bar and gave him a smile.
"What can I get you tonight, Grandfather?"
He was not her grandfather. But old McKennet was every inch of eighty, half his heart valves were replacements, and she loved him to pieces just like he were her very own blood.
"Two shots of whiskey with supper, love, if you please. That bright smile can warm me up, but not quite as well as a nice, warm shot."
"Oh, you'd sweet-talk anyone for whiskey, Miles McKennet." Lizzie answered with a grin, rubbing the bar down with a wash cloth. "How about some coffee? The best in London. I guarantee it."
"Huh," he snorted, "where's it come from? Two-pound and ten at the corner Tesco's?"
"No, Indeed. It's pure Italian. Old Niall practically walks it here all the way from Venice."
"Does he, now?"
"Of course." She nodded, smiling at the story. "And it tastes like sunshine and Italian love. Can I get you a cup?"
"Is this on the house?"
"Only 'cause I fancy you," she told him with a wink that, even though it wasn't directed towards Will, nearly caused his heart to stop. Rather than reveal it, he tried to school his face to impassivity. Elizabeth glanced at him with a good deal of curiosity and absolutely no understanding.
"So," she spoke very cautiously, "did you really come here because you're wanting a pint?"
"No, actually. I came to discuss something more serious. But that coffee...it comes all the way from Italy? And it tastes like--"
"Sunshine and Italian love," she repeated with something close to a smile, and rubbed at an invisible mark on the bar. When she looked back at him, her eyes were once again filled with curiosity. "Would you want some?"
"I'd actually like to hear where you got your silver tongue from. Is it from your mother?"
She knelt below the bar, partly to grab one of the serviceable white coffee cups, partly because she didn't want him to see that he'd nearly made her laugh. Her mother. A tale-teller. That was a good one. The only tale she ever told was making up some story about how her darling Elizabeth was surely on the cusp of engagement to a handsome London boy.
By the time she stood again, her face had been properly schooled to neutrality. "My tongue is all my own," she said as she poured McKennet's coffee. "My mother would be happy to tell you that."
"Liz, the boys at the corner are hungering for their bangers and mash, lass!"
"Order for table nine!" another waitress shouted.
"Rory McCloughlin says his kidney pie is cold--"
"I've got it," she called out to her work colleagues, twisting her apron around her waist. She ducked beneath the bar flap and walked amongst the tables, taking orders and divvying up with the same speed and alacrity that she traversed the stage.
Will Darcy, she pondered between tables. She just didn't understand him. The man she'd met at Knightley's party had been cold and abrupt and too rude to deal with. This man who'd shown up at her work was still on the chilly side, and even more impossible to read, but it seemed like was almost trying to be...friendly.
After she made her rounds, Poppy, another waitress at the pub, sidled up beside her. "Lizzie, who's the man at the bar? He is fit. Is he your boyfriend?"
Elizabeth put pencil to her order pad, piquing her voice to disinterest. "You think he's handsome?"
"Think so--" the redhead countered, "Honey, you have two eyes and a heartbeat, right? Oh, here he comes. Does my hair look okay?"
Elizabeth however, stood her ground, pleased as punch that she didn't care a bit how messy her hair probably looked tonight in its haphazard ponytail. Will Darcy had certain seen her looking worse.
Still, the fact that he was right in front of her when she turned around unnerved her. It was bad enough that she woke up thinking about their encounters and about the way his eyes were so dark, so mysterious, impossible to read when he looked her over. He already haunted her thoughts half the day. Did he have to haunt her steps as well?
"I know you're working," he began, slipping his hands into his pockets.
"Yes, keenly spotted. Is this about your coffee? I'll get to it, I promise."
"So this is your boyfriend?" Poppy interrupted. "Oh, I knew she'd find a nice bloke eventually! Our Lizzie here is too much of a sweetheart not to have a nice man to take care of her."
"He's not my boyfriend," Elizabeth corrected. He arched a speculative brow at her as if amused when she turned to look him right in the eye. "Actually, we just met last week. He called me talentless waitress who would never make her way out of the kitchen. And as for me--"
"She wasn't exactly a saint either," he supplied to Poppy, who was examining the pair with a good bit of curiosity.
"You noticed?" Elizabeth's tone shifted to a deliberate tease.
"Are you sure you're not dating?" Poppy questioned, looking sincerely confused.
"Evening, Lizzie," one of the regular patrons strolled past. "Brought a lad in for the night, have you?"
Elizabeth groaned at the inquiry, and motioned for Will to follow her into a nearby booth.
"Well, Darcy, I'm happy to hear your list as to why I won't be a saint, I'm sure it's a long one."
Were she not to think him incapable of it, she would have thought there was honest to goodness amusement in his voice. "Right. The first time we met, you threw a drink in my face." Now that memory did amuse her. But she was easily amused. She leaned forward, flashing her green eyes at him as if they were old friends.
"I'm still convinced you deserved that one."
"And the second time we met you told me to go chase an--"
"Ambulance?" she finished. "I was mad. We Irish can get a bit carried away with our insults. And as for you, Mr. Darcy," she answered, "you thought me a boy when we first met. And not just that, an ugly, misbehaving boy. It's a bit hard on a girl's ego, you see?"
"Believe me, Elizabeth, I'm very aware that you're neither." Was it the way he said it in that rich, Shakespearean voice of his, or was it the particular look in his dark eyes that was causing her to blush.
Oh, she was being ridiculous and imaginative. She wasn't blushing, she told herself, it was just crowded in here. And Will Darcy, of all people, would not have looked at her in any way that was the least bit suggestive. He'd made that quite clear on their first meeting. She wasn't his "type," which in her imagination she assumed was something to the tune of a glorious and blonde lingerie model. No wonder he was friends with Emma Woodhouse, she should really get busy to setting him up with one.
Maybe it would make him a little cheerier at parties.
She gave him a slightly quizzical, utterly curious look. "So what exactly did you come here to say?"
Her features were so delicate, it made those full and expressive eyes that much more dominant in her face. Even as brief as their conversation was, he already noticed that she gave the most interesting feedback through her face. Her eyebrows would arch in skepticism. Her nose would wrinkle comically. And then she would bite her lower lip, just like she was doing now, and look up at him through a fringe of long, dark lashes like she were trying to solve a puzzle she couldn't quite make out.
It was killing him.
"I-uh--" For an instant, he couldn't think of a single thing to say other than the thought that he thought she had the most incredible eyes he'd ever seen. He felt like he could look at her all day. "I actually came here to talk to you about Anne."
"About...Anne?" There was that green-eyed look again. He let out a breath, trying to slow his heartbeat. What was wrong with him? He'd certainly been around much more traditionally beautiful women, and somehow this girl unnerved him as no one else had.
"Yeah," he rubbed his neck. "About Anne and Fred Wentworth."
"Anne and Frederick?"
"Right." He was being ridiculous. Here he was sitting directly across from her in a pub, fantasizing, when he should just get to the point. "Look, Elizabeth, I was thinking--"
"About Anne and Frederick," she supplied.
"I realize I've only met you twice. Emma, on the other hand, I've known for a very long time..."
"Emma?" Elizabeth repeated. How had Emma gotten into this conversation?
"Yes, and I know what she's like. She can get a bit--" Will gestured, "imaginative when it comes to other peoples' relationships."
Elizabeth wanted to argue the point, but...well, she knew Emma even better than he did, if not for as long a time. She knew he was right. Silently, she let him continue.
"I don't know you very well, but I thought you might be a more even-handed influence on Anne. Frederick, last night after the exhibition--he was more shaken up than I've seen him in a long time. They had something special, a long time ago, Frederick and Anne, and it's taken Frederick years to get over it. Years. I know you and Emma are friends with Anne, and that is why I wanted to talk to you tonight. I was hoping you could convince Anne to keep her distance from Frederick."
There was a long pause after he said this, as if she were trying to decipher his meaning.
"She should keep her distance?" Elizabeth repeated, incredulity creeping into her voice. "Anne Elliot? Anne should keep her distance?"
"Wentworth is one of my best friends. He's had a very difficult life up to this point. His job is very dangerous and much of it depends on a sharp mind and steady emotions. He won't be on leave forever, but while he is back in England, I don't want to see him get hurt again."
"Last I checked, there were two people in this equation. And you think Wentworth is the only one who ended up broken-hearted?"
"I know Anne," Will continued calmly. "I've known her since we were teenagers. She's a sweet, kind girl. I know she wouldn't deliberately hurt anyone. I like her, Elizabeth, I do. But she said no to his proposal, didn't she, all those years ago? So yeah, I'm telling the truth when I say that she left him brokenhearted, that it took him years-perhaps even up to now, to recover. That's what a woman turning down an engagement will do to the man who loves her. I think it's best for both of them if they keep their distance from one another."
"Elizabeth," Her boss Niall shouted across the room, "these drinks won't serve themselves!"
"Two seconds, Niall, I'm almost done here!" Elizabeth stood up, retying the apron around her waist to indicate she was back on the clock. "I can't even believe we had this conversation. Let Wentworth and Anne make their own mistakes okay? And as for me, I'll be polite to you Will Darcy, because you're friends with my friends. But apart from that, I'd prefer if you'd please leave me alone."
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a pressing appointment must be due for a power outage.
Unfortunately, that power outage disabled all three morning alarms in the Bennet-Woodhouse-Elliot flat. It also meant that Elizabeth Bennet opened her eyes to a quiet room and a face full of pillow with barely twenty minutes to get to morning class.
This was not a morning to be late. Franklin Churchill, American Ballet's resident superstar and all-around golden boy, was due to arrive at the opera house today. Supposedly he would be lighting up the floorboards with the same energy that produced acclaim in the States; full company attendance was required to greet a guest artist of such prominence, and her absence would be noticed by the higher ups, Alistair Allen included.
Bad, Elizabeth thought as she hobbled around her room. Very bad. She changed into tights and whatever leotard she could grab, twisted her hair into as tight a bun as she could manage with haphazard hairpins, then shoved a sweatshirt and legwarmers into her warm-up bag, not caring that none of her ensemble matched. She couldn't be late. She was never late.
Worst of all---terrible, in fact---was the fact that world renowned director Igor Tilney would be stalking the halls this morning.
It was a last minute announcement from the British Opera Ballet's press department. The leading director and choreographer for one of the greatest Russian ballet companies, Igor Tilney was on loan for the winter/spring season. Half Russian, half English, Igor Tilney was called 'The General' of classical ballet, and for good reason. Part MacMillan, part Petipa, he had a reputation for leaving a reign of terror in his wake. He was called brilliant and innovative, intuitive and dramatic, short-tempered, cruel, and altogether terrifying.
And she was in danger of being late.
Normally she took the underground to work, but today she took a taxi, scraping the bottom of her purse for tip money in order to pay the cab driver. Throwing money in his hands, she darted from the cab to the opera house. The lifts at Covent Garden were slow. Much too slow. Save for a few that went back and forth between offices, most of them were large and industrial and built big enough to carry scenery and lighting equipment, racks of costumes and half an orchestra. Rather than waiting around for one to show up, Elizabeth took the stairs. It was a two-for-one deal. She would get to the practice room faster if she took the stairs. And the hustle, she told herself, would help warm up her muscles.
She couldn't be late. As Elizabeth rounded the last flight of steps with a breathless huff, a tall, blond figure crashed directly into her. Or perhaps she crashed into him. It was becoming a habit these days.
"Sorry-so sorry," Elizabeth managed breathlessly, scrambling to her feet with more than a little help from the man. "I've got to dash to an appointment. I didn't hurt you though, did I?"
This was the second time in a month that she'd run straight into someone. Rather than being angry with her, or impatient or downright rude, this man didn't look flustered in the least. In fact, she realized as he gave her a firm lift upwards to her feet, he looked quite the opposite. The eyes that examined her showed warmth and pleasant surprise.
"Seeing as I'm twice your size, I should probably be the one asking that question. Don't worry, I'm tougher than I look, I promise." The comment produced an unthinking laugh on her part, which was perhaps why the man held onto her for a solid beat longer than necessary, his merry brown eyes focusing keenly.
At last he declared, this time with absolute certainty, "Now here's a face I won't forget."
Elizabeth hesitated, trying to place his face. There was something vaguely familiar about him. He had blond hair, tan skin, mischievous brown eyes and a tall, solidly muscular build. He also had the glossy smile of a matinee actor. Perhaps he was a musician in the opera house's orchestra, or even one of the opera singers?
"Is it, now? I don't think we've met," Lizzie answered, shouldering her ballet bag and taking a step further up the stairwell.
"Meeting and remembering isn't quite the same thing," he called after her, "and the next time I see you, I'll demand more than just a memory. I'd like a name to go with it!"
"I'm keen on it myself, thanks. And I'll try to sidestep your toes," she called, offering him only a distracted smile before she bounded further up the steps.
"I'll hold you to that!" he called as the stairwell door clanged behind her.
She didn't even have time to worry about whoever he was. She couldn't worry that her bun was falling out again, or that she'd forgotten her water bottle on the kitchen counter. All she could worry about was Igor Tilney and the looks of reproach she would get if she showed up late...
"Lizzie!" Charlotte Lucas was jogging own the other end of the hall. Her bobbed hair had been shoved up into a bandana, her glasses were flashing. A coffee cup was in her hands.
"I know, I know, I'm late by ten minutes. My alarm didn't sound this morning. I was asleep till half past eight." Elizabeth preempted as Charlotte caught up with her. "How furious is Alistair?"
"Are you joking? Alistair hasn't even noticed. He's upstairs sulking in the coffee lounge." Charlotte sighed. "And as for the rest of the company, we've all been waiting hand and foot on the General's every whim."
"Igor's running class today?" Elizabeth repeated. The mere thought produced a grimace. "Is he as mental as everyone says he is?"
"Worse. He called the piano player tone deaf, he yelled at half the company, and I already had to leave once to fetch him a stick." Clearly, she wasn't keen on being cast aside as someone's Girl Friday, even for a morning. "This time I'm bringing him his morning drink. Two thirds coffee, black, and one third vodka."
"And the stick you brought earlier, that was in order to..." Elizabeth searched blindly for a cause, "thrash us with it?"
Given what she'd heard of Igor Tilney, the answer didn't seem so impossible.
"He says the British Opera Ballet's ballet dancers are lazy with their musicality, and that they ignore the natural counts in the score. Not only that, Igor's scrapped part of Alistair's casting. Lucy Steele is no longer dancing Kitri. And before you go saying our executive director Sir Titus Bertram would never agree, rumor has it that Igor sold him on the notion that with an older dancer like Elin in the part of Aurora, someone young and fresh would be better for the company's bottom line with Don Quixote."
"Are Frank Churchill and Edmund Bertram still the male leads?"
"Please. Is the sky blue?" Charlotte snorted. "Lizzie, Edmund is still Titus Bertram's son, no one was going to question that casting decision. As for Frank, he's so huge overseas that Igor said he doesn't need to see him dance today. He's left to have a quick chat with Titus instead. The male roles were never in jeopardy. Whoever dances Kitri has to have the talent to dance the part, and much of it will be up to Igor Tilney's discretion, but Titus needs a fresh face on the Don Quixote posters. Bad luck for Lucy, but I never thought much of her anyway. Honestly, Lizzie, this could be your making here at the British Opera Ballet. So get in there, warm up and whatever he asks you to do for him, dance the hell out of it. The General is waiting!"
Charlotte Lucas could be remarkably loyal to her friends, Elizabeth mused as she opened the rehearsal room door, but then she would say or do something so calculating, so excessively practical, that it verged on cut-throat. These were the moments that Lizzie simply couldn't understand her.
Especially, she pondered as she caught a glimpse of Lucy Steele and Elin Dashwood by the barre, when it came to any matter that was even remotely emotional. As for Lizzie, she'd resigned herself to Lucy dancing the part of Kitri, and she thought she deserved to have her fair shot in the role Alistair Allen had assigned to her.
But, much like everything else in the world of ballet, those choices weren't hers to make.
When she stepped into the studio behind Charlotte, everything was misaligned. There were no ballet barres at the center of the room, with dancers lined against executing patterns on the floor. Instead, they were sitting around the edges of the room., Lucy was huddled in a far corner, rather than preening like a queen. Elin was stretching her muscles and looking positively stoic, but Lucy was a picture of misery and righteous fury. Her hands were clenched too tight to blot her tears.
In the center of the room stood Igor Tilney himself, tall, heavy set, with a head of grey wire curls, thick black eyebrows and a pair of owlish eyes set deep within a craggy face. In his hand he held the aforementioned stick. As Lizzy settled next to Edmund Bertram, she watched the General work.
One thick hand was clenched around the yard stick, pounding a drum like beat on the floor. The other was fisted in discontent. And it was shaking at Fay Price. From the looks of it, she'd only managed to get half way through the combination he'd devised before he stopped her, pounding his staff on the ground.
"Terrible! Try the turns again! You're lazy with your diagonal movements and the spotting must be sharper! Again!"
Edmund Bertram stirred beside her, shoulders hunching with visible anger on Fay's behalf. Sincere, level-headed, kind, intelligent, Edmund was everything Sir Titus Bertram wasn't. He was a man of peace, intellect, and an even temper. Except, it seemed, when Fay was getting badgered.
"Testing a dancer repeatedly because they are executing a fault in a step is reasonable. Testing her because he gets some perverse enjoyment from it is inexcusable." Edmund scowled. "Her spotting on those turns was plenty sharp, and this is the fourth time he's made her do it in front of all of us. He's just laying into her because he can."
"I reckon he wants to see how far he can push her before she breaks," Elizabeth agreed, letting her gaze flit back to Fay Price and General Tilney. "But you're right, her turns are cleaner than Lucy's ever were. He has to realize what an excellent dancer she is."
In the meantime, Fay was trying again.
"No! No, no, no, no!" Despite the British surname, Igor Tilney had the voice of a true Russian taskmaster, booming to the rafters, heavily accented. His voice was thick with criticism, vodka and residual cigar smoke. "Inexcusable! I am asking for the movements of a dancer, and you are giving me a lead-footed elephant! Your extension was lazy, you're off your box when you relevee, and the series of bourrees was weak when it should have been sharp! Are you too stupid and small-brained to remember the steps, or are you just lazy? Forget the combination. Do you know the prayer solo in Coppelia? Or better still, execute something from Swan Lake. There's a test that will prove to me that you're worth something, anything, on a stage."
"Just a minute, Tilney--" Edmund stood up with a clenched jaw.
"Ed," Elizabeth warned, grabbing onto Edmund's sleeve to prevent further outburst.
Fay was gentle and quiet, certainly, but she wasn't made of glass. She looked strained, intimidated, and more than a little insecure, but she wasn't broken yet. There was stubborn resolve in her eyes. Elizabeth could see it, even if Edmund couldn't. Whatever Tilney was doing with this impromptu audition, Elizabeth suspected it was because he had further designs on her dancing a lead role. Edmund hammering back at General Tilney could-no, she corrected internally, it absolutely would---get him in trouble with his dictatorial father Titus Bertram, and it could ruin whatever chance Fay had of a starring part in whatever Tilney directed.
"She danced the act one, scene one pas de trois in Swan Lake's last year," Elizabeth supplied suddenly. "It's the dance of Benno and the two courtesans." When Edmund, Igor and the rest of the company focused solely on her, she took breath and met General Tilney bravely in the eye. "She was one of the two courtesans, and she performed it beautifully. Fay never missed a step the whole run. I know that better than anyone. I was the other courtesan."
Tilney withered her with a dark glare. "Prove it. Go on, whoever you are, get up and dance it with her."
"I am Elizabeth Bennet," she answered evenly, tugging off her sweatshirt and dropping it to the floor, "and I'd be happy to."
"I'll dance the male part," Edmund offered.
Tilney rested both hands on his measuring stick and glowered.
"Edmund, you have no need of such theatrics. As for the pair of you," he dared Elizabeth and Fay, "you had better make this good."
"I'll dance the male part," Edmund repeated with a chill.
And with that, Edmund showed exactly where his loyalties rested.
"Clever Lizzie," Fay said with a quiet smile as Elizabeth positioned herself in the middle of the room beside her. The pas de trois was a small part in Swan Lake, but Fay had shined in it. She knew that piece backwards and forwards. "Thank you."
"No need for it," Elizabeth answered with a light grin. "This routine has lots turns, a ton of leaps and arabesques, and nearly all of it's en pointe? Sounds like a good time to me and Edmund. Right, Ed?"
"Sure thing. Wow 'em like always, Fay," Edmund whispered in Fay Price's ear. Elizabeth had to smother her grin when she saw Fay's pleased smile.
As the piano player struck up a tune, the three dancers began. The routine was fun and flirtatious, and quite a contrast from the overall mood of doom in the stark practice hall. Benno, here played by Edmund, was Prince Siegfried's best friend, and it was his responsibility to cheer him on his 21st birthday, and to entice him with the women at the party.
The courtly dance began in tangent, with Edmund in the middle, leaping and spinning in unison. Just as Benno flirted with one court girl, partnering her with light ease and smile, the other would sneak up beside him in an elegant arabesque, held en pointe just long enough to catch Benno's attention again. Benno's attention focused on a single partner, Elizabeth, chasing her, catching her, and lifting her up. A split second later, though, Fay would come beside him and entice him away. The pair danced together with natural ease, 'Benno' spinning Fay in a light pirouette, until Elizabeth would flirt to his side again, teasing him away from Fay. The pairs switched again and again, first Edmund and Fay as a pair, then Edmund and Elizabeth pairing off, until they were a trio once more, dancing in unison, both girls circling around Edmund with high, sprightly leaps, followed by grand jettee, grand jettee, piroutte, and at last, the pose, both women poised around their man.
The routine was what many dancers liked to term a 'heavy breather', high energy, rapid footwork, and lots of leaping jumps. Both Fay and Elizabeth were breathing heavily by the end, and even the pianist who'd played the music for them looked exhausted.
The whole company erupted in enthusiastic applause. Even Lucy was clapping, Elizabeth realized as she stood from her pose, mopping sweat from her brow and trying to catch her breath. There was one other person in the room she hadn't noticed before, someone who had changed into dance clothes since last she'd seen him. He was next to Jenna Fairfax, whispering something intimately to the pretty blond until she blushed and looked away. When he finally turned his attention back to the performers in the center of the room, he sought Elizabeth's gaze and then gave her a bold wink.
"Ed," Elizabeth questioned uncertainly, glancing up back at Fay and Edmund, "who is that man in the back, the one next to Jenna Fairfax?"
Edmund managed to tear his gaze away from Fay long enough to see who Lizzie was gesturing to. "You don't recognize him? It's our Basilio for Don Quixote. That's Frank Churchill."
It was the blond man she'd met in the stairwell, the one with the matinee smile. Had she been so rushed that she hadn't even noticed his American accent? He was watching her with a very pleased look on his face, like watching her perform in front of Igor Tilney had told him a secret that she had yet to be informed of.
"Not bad," Igor Tilney grumbled to himself, taking a swig of his drink. He, too, was now studying Elizabeth with his dark, glowering gaze. There was a spark in this dancer, a certain brave verve and joyful energy that might just work perfectly. Igor had found his Kitri. "Not bad at all."
Elizabeth wasn't the only one who fretted about being late that morning. Rather than a room full of expectant dancers, Anne Elliot's lateness to her post meant a room full of screaming seven year olds tearing the room apart, losing fifteen minutes from the morning lesson, and a stern lecture about punctuality from a strict and very disapproving headmistress.
At least she managed to avoid one of the three things on that list, she thought as she sunk into her chair at the end of the day. The grammar lesson had gone just as long as always.
"Go'night, Miss Ell'ot," Molly Elias, one of her sweetest students, waved a cheerful goodbye and skipped past her desk. Molly was usually the last to leave, as she had to wait until her father came to fetch her. Little pigtails and her Cinderella backpack bobbed in time with the skipping until she had reached her daddy, standing in the doorway. Wilhelm Elias picked up his daughter with one hand, holding onto his briefcase with the other.
"Thanks for watching her until I got here, Anne," said Wilhelm, "my meeting ran late. Her mum's started a new job that keeps her working late too, but she should be able to pick her up tomorrow."
"That's alright, Mr. Elias. I was happy to watch her. Molly, I'll see you tomorrow," Anne smiled warmly and waved back, watching until the pair was out of sight. That was why she rushed to get here, and why she worked herself to the ground even when the administration was cutting costs and her superiors gave her a difficult time. Her parents had been disappointed that she hadn't done more with her university degree than become a teacher, but the truth was that she loved her job teaching children like little Molly Elias.
She was certainly glad that she had a profession to distract herself with given the fact that as of late, her head was so cluttered with thoughts of one particular person. Frederick Wentworth.
Anne pressed her hand to her temple, closed her eyes and tried to stop memories of him from playing over and over in her mind. She had finally seen him for the first time in seven long years, and the look of shock and disbelief in his pale blue eyes still seemed to surface the instant that she shut her eyes.
Anne opened her eyes to see Wilhelm Elias standing at the door one more time.
"Sorry, Mr. Elias? What did you need? Did Molly forget her homework?"
"No, Molly's safely in the car with everything she needs. I just--" he smoothed out his tie and tried a winning smile, "I just wanted to let you know that I really do appreciate everything you do for Molly. You're her favorite teacher, did you know that? If I'd had a smile like yours to look at as a kid, I believe that you would have been my favorite teacher, too."
"I like Molly, she's a sweet little girl," Anne answered. Confusion was beginning to seep into her voice. "Is there something else I can do for you?"
"There is, actually. I was just wondering-hoping," he corrected in a tone that was more than a little flirtatious, despite the gold band on his wedding finger indicating that his marriage to his wife was alive if possibly not well, "next time you see me, you can call me by my first name. Wilhelm. The only Mr. Elias I know is my dad who lives in Bath."
"If that's what you'd prefer...Wilhelm," she repeated the name with confusion.
"Okay. Good. Great, actually. That's all I wanted. Goodnight again, Anne. Hopefully I'll be seeing more of you this year."
And with that, Mr. Wilhelm Elias with his briefcase and his pressed suit left her classroom for a second time.
Strange man, Anne thought as she picked up the nearest red pen on her desk and began to mark the first of a stack of papers.
"Annie, if a pile of paperwork and ink on your fingers is your idea of a good time, I swear I'll scream." A warm voice infused her ears. Anne looked up from her grading. A golden haired angel was staring at her from the other side of the desk. Emma Woodhouse, looking casually serene, had settled in one of the children's little plastic chairs. "Just when were you planning on getting out of here, Miss Elliot?"
"I had to stay late," Anne explained. "Molly Elias's father was late picking her up. He said he had a business meeting that went late."
"Three hours late?" Emma frowned, hoping that the Mr. Elias she was referring to wasn't the creeper in the suit who'd given her a wolf whistle in the hallway. She wouldn't care to be alone with him in a dark, empty school. "Do you get overtime for waiting around?"
Anne laughed. "It's not like a photo shoot, Emma. Teachers aren't paid by the hour."
"Fine. Here's a better question: what were you planning on having for dinner?"
"Dinner? I...um..." Anne faltered. She hadn't thought about it at all. "I have to finish these marks first, and then I have to put up a new display for our unit on nouns."
"Come on, Annie. It's so late. Can't that keep till later? I'm sure the seven year olds can wait one more day to find out if they passed their 'coloring inside the lines' test, or whatever it was."
"The test was about subtracting odd numbers," Anne sniffed.
"Okay, fine. But subtraction and nouns aren't going anywhere, right?" Emma cajoled. "We both need to eat. Elizabeth will be rehearsing at the theater until midnight, Knightley's working late at the hospital again, and I'm lonely. Let's go to a nice restaurant and order something expensive, my treat! I still want to hear lots more about Frederick!"
Twenty minutes and a cab ride later, they'd settled themselves in a cozy little table at one of the best restaurants in London. It was a good thing Emma was footing the bill, Anne decided as she skimmed down the menu. On her teacher's salary, the best she could afford at a place like this was water and a salad fork. Emma ordered the most decadent food on the menu for both, blithely ignoring how the young man waiting on them was staring at her.
"Aren't you that girl?" the waiter asked, his cheeks going slightly pink. "The one from those adverts? Perfume and clothing and stuff. My cousin has a poster in his room of a blonde wearing a white bikini. It was for some fancy perfume, but the picture was killer. It hangs right on his door. You look just like her, I swear it."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," Emma lied comfortably, brushing him off with a tight smile as she handed him the menus. When he had departed, she leaned forward to focus on Anne instead.
"So," Emma pressed on, summoning bright enthusiasm as if the waiter had never spoken, "have you given any more consideration to giving Frederick a call? He's staying at Will Darcy's, I've gleaned that much. Give me a little more time and I'll be able to find out more."
"I haven't thought about it much," Anne tried to brush off the topic with a mild lie of her own. Instead, she looked at Emma quizzically, genuinely curious, "Does that bother you? The waiter?"
"Does what bother me?"
"What he said," Anne continued gently. Anne was so accustomed to slipping in and out of rooms unnoticed, she couldn't imagine getting stared at and chatted up as constantly as Emma was. In fact, it had been so long since anyone had tried to chat her up, she doubted she'd notice if someone was attempting it. "Does that bother you? Or are you just used to it?
At the mention of this, Emma's full mouth compressed to a tight line. She looked down at her hands, clearly not as naÜve about the attention she received as she occasionally feigned. "Yes, of course it bothers me. Sometimes more than others." She picked up her water glass and took a sip, deliberately looking at nothing at all. "Lately more than usual. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, right? I've been modeling for long enough."
"Why did you even start modeling? I couldn't imagine it. I've never been much to look at, but even if I had been, I couldn't imagine being prodded and powdered and turned into an ad campaign."
Now Emma did look up, meeting Anne's gaze with a deliberately direct smile. "Not much to look at? Now that is a boldfaced lie. And even if you don't think it's a lie, I certainly do. You're lovely, Annie. You could get plenty of stares if you wanted to."
The Anne of seven or eight years ago and the Anne of today were certainly very different in appearance, but the raw material was the same. She still had the same dark, doe-like eyes, the same flawless olive skin and beautifully shy smile. Sixteen year old Anne certainly caught the eye more readily, but that was because her clothes had been more fitted and flattering, her dark hair had been allowed to spill down to her waist and she hadn't been quite so thin. More dinners like this would certainly help with the last problem, and maybe she could convince Anne to wear a little more color and wear her hair down like she used to, instead of keeping it bunched up with a clip. Emma had a whole wardrobe full of clothing, surely Anne would accept some of it.
It suddenly occurred to Emma that Anne's attempt to become as nondescript as possible, to disappear into the background, was probably purposeful. Perhaps her relationship with Frederick Wentworth had left her so fractured that the attempt to disappear had been a defense mechanism. Of course she hadn't wanted attention from anyone else, the risk was too great. Emma wanted to mention this theory just see how Anne would respond, but she sensed instinctively that this wasn't the time to press the topic.
"My modeling career," Emma continued, "I can't quite say I just fell into it. My father is an incredibly wealthy man. Very protective of me, but also very busy. He has two children, a daughter from his first marriage, and me. My mother was his second wife. There was infidelity involved, mostly on his end. They split when I was about seven or eight. My mother is an actress. She was quite popular at one point. Roxanne Presley. Have you heard of her?"
"My father probably has," Anne responded. She hadn't told her father that she was good friends with Emma Woodhouse precisely because her father was more than a little image obsessed, and hearing that she was the daughter of a reasonably well known actress would make matters even worse.
She'd never heard Emma speak about her mother. It was almost as if she didn't have one. Roxanne, she had called her. Not 'mum.' Whatever their relationship had been, she assumed that they were currently estranged.
"Roxanne thought no harm would come from pushing me into modeling. I had just turned thirteen. They had joint custody, but I was visiting her in California at the time. I think it was her way of getting back at my father, proving she still had control of him, that she could still hurt him through me. Roxanne knew he wouldn't like the idea of me modeling. He was preparing for his third marriage, and I guess she felt threatened. I was an early bloomer, even if I was petite, and Elect Modeling liked the way I photographed. They said I had natural talent. I was signed within weeks, and doing photo spreads for major fashion magazines the end of the year. Roxanne forbid me from telling him. Instead, she tore out my first ad campaign, stuck it in an envelop and mailed it to him. Father was furious."
No, furious didn't even begin to cover the term. Her father had been absolutely furious. His precious daughter, thirteen, little more than a child, getting pawed at photo shoots. The thought of a Woodhouse schilling perfume and jewelry and makeup and clothes she wasn't really old enough to wear made him absolutely livid. "His lawyers revoked custody and shuffled me back to Hartfield, his estate. It was just as well, I suppose. Roxanne enjoyed the money I was bringing in, but she'd started to distance herself from me emotionally, as soon as my career became more successful than hers. She'd never been much of a mother to begin with." Emma had reached out to contact Roxanne from time to time, but the gesture was always rebuffed. Her mother wanted nothing to do with her. Emma had accepted that years ago, but that didn't keep the loss from stinging. "As for modeling, once Roxanne started me on that path, it was too late to turn back. I was gaining ground as a big name in the modeling industry, plus I'd signed a multi-year binding contract with Elect. Father was stuck with me modeling, whether he liked it or not."
"And you?" Anne questioned, picking up her fork as their food was set in front of them. "What did you think?"
Emma laughed. "What does any thirteen year old girl think when she gets to wear fancy clothes and makeup? I liked it fine, at first. I didn't understand it, but it all seemed very glamorous. By the time I reached sixteen or so, the nature of the photo shoots were starting to change. The picture that the waiter was talking about, the one of me in the bikini? It was a shoot for Calvin Klein. I still remember it. I was surrounded by a bunch of adults who were telling me what to wear and how to stand. I hadn't even been kissed, and yet I had to stand under a waterfall and pose for the camera like I was some kind of fantasy goddess. I was a teenager. I didn't know how to be that creature in the photo."
She raked her beautiful hair back, this time it was a more than nervous gesture. "I still don't." She fiddled with the food on her plate and made a rare, vulnerable admission. "So many people see me and expect me to be whatever fantasy they've created. It scares me."
Smart, intuitive Anne was always guessing at what wasn't being readily supplied.
"George Knightley doesn't want you to be some perfect goddess for him," Anne put forth gently, filling in the gap between what Emma had said and what she wasn't saying. "I've watched him watching you, Emma. The way George looks at you, it's a world away from the way the waiter looked at you. He doesn't only desire you, Emma, he loves you. And the feelings of desire that he does have, they're so different from what you'd see in a strangers eyes."
Anne knew this was true because she recognized it from her own experiences. She remembered just such a look, the kind that could make it's object feel warm and protected, or flushed and heady. There was nothing quite like it. Frederick had looked at her like that once, a long time ago.
"I know," Emma said, giving her first hint of an easy smile since they'd started down this topic. "I feel so many things for Knightley, sometimes it's overwhelming. Other times I get so nervous with him I can barely move, or think, or breathe."
This fear, rather than being career-related, was entirely personal. Emma knew she didn't have to be a perfect fantasy girl for George Knightley, but there was still a lot of underlying fear in her heart. She'd spent her teen years as a fantasy object for men around the world, and that was a large part of the problem. She knew she could never live up to the person in the photos. And when it came to the man she truly did love, she was terrified of falling short of whatever expectations he had for her as a lover.
Whenever that happened. And if the way her fork was trembling at the thought was any indication, it wasn't going to be any time soon.
"Anyway," Emma continued, feeling unusually sober and keen on discussing any subject but the one they'd fallen into. She set her fork down. "You're too smart, Annie, getting me off topic. We came to discuss you and Fred, remember?"
"There is no 'me and Fred'," Anne answered with quiet acceptance. If Emma hadn't known her so very well, she wouldn't have been able to discern the sorrow in her voice. "And despite what I might wish, I don't think there ever will be. London's a big city. I doubt I'll be seeing him again."
Emma took a bite of her meal, silently disagreeing. She was already working on that. As for the group of them, Emma and Knightley, Anne and Fred, Will and Elizabeth, she'd already arranged their next run-in.
A bad winter storm was usually enough to bring it on. The icy chill in the air, the patter of hail against a glass window and being alone in a dark room: it was a perfect recipe to make him dream.
He was fifteen. Tall for his age, and lanky. The door handles were stuck. It was the first means of escape he tried. Ice and the pressure of the water caused a jam. The locks were frozen, no matter how hard he fought or cursed or yanked.
He had the voice of a man, but none of the power in the arms and when the locks proved useless, he tried to slam his elbow against the passenger window. The window cracked, splintered into the pattern of a star, and didn't break.
Even in his panic, the first thing he had done was yank, scramble, claw, and wrench at the car seat bindings in order to free Georgie. He was trembling, holding her close to keep her above the rising water. The two year old was clinging to him, crying, weeping-wailing. In the front seat, his parents weren't moving, weren't fighting, weren't panicked, weren't helping their children live. Why weren't they moving? He tried shaking them awake, tried weeping their names. Fear, panic, tears, blood everywhere, and the answer was clear when they said nothing at all.
He pounded again, coming away with nothing but a bloody elbow. Ice water was already up to his waist, numbing him and weighing him down.
Georgie was crying. God help him. God help him. The window. If he couldn't break the passenger window, she would die. He had perhaps a minute more, maybe less, before the car became a flooded tomb. If he couldn't break the window, this would be the last sight she had of the world.
Rather than using his elbow, Will slammed his whole shoulder into it, using the force of his entire body. Once. Twice. A third time, with ice in his lungs and a sob in his throat, the window shattered, showering him with glass and blood and a watery deluge. Promising that he would return for his parents, he pulled two year old Georgie into his arms and held his breath, bracing himself against the river as he made his escape.
Will Darcy screamed, reaching for the surface, for air, for life.
For nothing but a cold, empty pre-dawn bed.
Trembling, he pressed both palms to his eyes and took a deep breath, and then another. His heart was racing. His muscles must have clenched during the nightmare because his whole body, particularly his back and his bad shoulder, felt tight.
His sleeping patterns were always worse in the wintertime. Certain weather made nightmare and memory blend. But he'd had a late night reviewing depositions and had stumbled into bed around midnight hoping fatigue would be enough to blot out his dreams. No such luck.
The clock glared 5:00 AM. Will pushed himself out of bed, turned on the light. Drenched in sweat, he tugged off his shirt and dropped it to the ground. There was no one else here to notice the large, angry scar that lashed from the base of his collar bone to mid-bicep, wrapping around his right shoulder like a swipe from a huge, angry claw.
Restless, he crossed to the window. His luxury flat came with a sweeping view of the city, but on this early January morning there wasn't much to see beyond the ice storm. Hail continued to hammer at the windows.
When the adrenaline in his blood finally calmed--when he could finally feel that the air around him was simply the chill of his flat, not the impossible cold depths of a lake---he went to his dresser and grabbed another tee shirt, tugging it on. His gaze wandered to a framed picture on the dresser. The nightmare was nearly as vivid as the day it had happened and any topic but that would be welcome contemplation. The photo on the dresser was possibly his favorite when it came to vanishing sorrow and memories. It was a picture of his little Georgie, thirteen now, sitting on the steps of Pemberley. She wasn't so little anymore, he realized. With that head of dark curls and that smile, she was looking more and more like their mother by the day. She would be a beautiful woman some day soon.
But not too soon, he thought, feeling a tug of near parental worry. He would go visit her. Soon. Even better than a day trip, he would order her a train ticket to London. Maybe he would make good on his own promise to return to Covent Garden, and take her to a ballet.
Will rubbed his cheek, thumb grazing early morning stubble. Never before had he had such an interest in Covent Garden, or in ballet particularly. It was an art form he admitted that he was largely ignorant about. Suddenly he found it incredibly interesting. How big was the company, and how often did they perform each week? How many hours did they have to be there? Was it nine to five, or were their professional dancers only required to show up for rehearsals? The performance he'd seen earlier in the month showed a lifetime of discipline, but clearly their schedule must have some flexibility. Her schedule wouldn't allow her to work another job, otherwise.
Her. The one person in that scenario that interested him. Elizabeth Bennet. The fact that she also hated him was pretty clear, but the strange thing was that when he was in a dark room with nothing to do but think, his mind tended to drift back to her, no matter the starting place. He pictured her at the pub with that messy ponytail of black hair and those bright green eyes framed by dark lashes. She looked up at him teasingly, shifted from mild to willful with a single glance, said exactly what was on her mind, and told him to leave her alone. She could have the bearing of a queen when she wanted, and yet she slopped up beer at a local pub and flirted with the old men who were regulars with a smile on her face. She was a mystery to him.
It was simple infatuation, Will told himself, crouching down to pack his gym bag. Nothing more.
If he couldn't sleep, he would go to the gym two flights up and work some of his frustration and adrenaline off.
When he opened the door to the room, however, he found he wasn't alone. Frederick Wentworth was already there, his hands encased in boxing gloves. His gloved hands were pounding away at the punching bag with relish. When he noticed Will's entrance he stopped, breathing heavily.
"Morning, Darcy." He huffed, catching his breath. "You're up early. Couldn't sleep?"
"No." Darcy rarely spoke of such things, but the remnants of what bothered him in his dream was in his eyes, as was the decisive declaration that he didn't want to talk about it. Wentworth read the look with the familiarity of long-term friendship.
No offense, mate. That was in Darcy's eyes, too. It wasn't in Frederick's nature to be offended. He knew that the topic of Will's parents' death was largely untouchable and Frederick was too good of a friend to do anything but leave it unspoken. Besides, living a military life for the past seven years had given him plenty of his own nightmares. It wasn't the same, but it was enough to understand now more than ever.
The image of a hearty sailor with a girl in every port was a far cry from the reality of his life. Work was life, life was work, and both meant getting the job done, staying alive, and keeping his squad breathing in the process. It was a life spent slipping in and out of ports unseen, sleeping on barges and air craft carriers, staying locked and loaded all hours of the night unless he found a gun to his neck. No one but his squad and his superiors aware of his movements, or the fact that he lived or died. The Navy had been good to him, and he'd been good to the Navy. He was Captain Wentworth now, a Navy man through and through. But he was so tired of being alone. That was the worst part of his military life, risking his life every day only to come home to a lonely bed.
His second date with Louisa was today. He should be happy about that. Excited, even. She was a sweet girl, pretty. A bit young, but she'd liked the Navy well enough and that was as good a starting place as any.
He hadn't felt any spark when he'd seen her for the first time. Not like...not like before. But that had only happened once in his life, and he doubted it would ever happen again. It was a youthful, foolish standard to judge by. Sure, when Emma and Knightley were together it was fireworks central, but that wasn't a good standard to judge against, either. It seemed like most peoples' romantic lives didn't have anything of the sort, and they all seemed happy enough.
Louisa would be good for him.
So why had the image of a half-Castilian beauty been the first thing that came to mind when he rolled over that morning? He'd barely recognized her when he saw her last weekend, perhaps only because his last image of her had been a tear-streaked teenager saying the worst 'no' he'd ever heard in his life. She wasn't that teenager anymore; she was a grown woman with a life of her own. And so what Frederick felt for Anne, what had once been complete, blindingly devoted love---that couldn't be the same anymore either.
That was what he kept telling himself.
"It's too cold for a run. This works nearly as well," Frederick answered mildly enough. One would think there was nothing the least bit wrong with Frederick, but for the fact that he was hitting the punching bag within an inch of its life. "Want to try?"
"I think you're having a good enough time for both of us." He'd come up here with the intention of running on the treadmill. Much as he'd like to do otherwise, his shoulder stung too much for boxing. It wasn't that he couldn't go to sleep again. It was that he simply didn't want to. There was no need to have that nightmare in his head twice in one morning.
Instead, he braced the punching bag with both hands, nodding at Frederick to go ahead and punch. "Busy day ahead?"
"I have a few things lined up." Frederick punched again, "I don't want to spend my whole leave doing nothing."
"Yeah, you've been extremely lazy so far." Darcy made a sound between a chuckle and a grunt as Frederick punched the bag that much harder. Still he didn't loosen his grip. "Knightley and I are helping out with a kid's club today. Twenty children and an ice rink. It's a good time. You should come."
Frederick stilled his gloves, pondering the offer. "Louisa and I are supposed to meet up. You think she'd mind if I stopped there first? I wonder if she likes kids..."
"I don't know, Fred. You like her, huh?"
"Enough for a second date."
"Seems a step in the right direction."
"Says the man with the social life of a monk," Frederick laughed. "And when you do date-which is rarely---the girls you end up with aren't even smart enough to realize the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around. I think you should widen your circle of women to choose from."
He punched twice more at the punching bag. "Anyway," Frederick continued, "I'm ready for something. For some one. I need more in my life to hold onto than the money in my pocket. And I'm tired of being alone."
Will understood. He had only met Louisa once, and the impression she'd left had been nominal at best, but she seemed nice and her enthusiasm for his friend had seemed genuine, even if her love of ships and all the Navy entailed hadn't. She certainly didn't seem like the type of girl who would play with his heart. Frederick seemed more than ready to settle down, and whatever Will could do to help his friend find the right girl for him, he would do it.
Frederick punched again, this time even harder. As the force reverberated through Will he could feel his shoulder react again, stinging in active resistance.
"Okay," Will winced, rotating his sore shoulder and stepping away from the bag. "Forget the punching bag. There's an Xbox in the living room. It's 5:00am on a Saturday. We should be having some fun. Want to play?"
"Deal." Frederick grinned, ripping off his boxing gloves. "You know I'm going to beat you, Will, but I'll let you hold out as long as I can."
"You are all talk, old man."
Many things had changed since they were kids. Other things hadn't changed at all.
"Mr. Knightley, where's the hot chocolate stand? Daisy and I want some!"
"It's next to where we hung our coats." George Knightley dug into his pocket to see if he had any loose change. "Do you need any money?"
"No, my mum gave me some. And I've got enough for Daisy."
"Alright. Just make sure you head back to Mr. Darcy and Captain Wentworth when you're done."
"Mr. Knightley! My skate came untied."
Knightley turned. Sitting on a metal bench behind him was Emma Woodhouse looking effortlessly beguiling in tights, a skating skirt and a cable-knit jumper. Her blonde hair was hidden in a winter cap. She put both hands on her hips. "Fix it for me, will you?"
He skated the short distance between them and sat beside her, shifting her booted foot up over his lap.
"I think I can manage it. Although twenty is too old for this youth program, Miss." Picking up the laces she had undoubtedly untied herself, he twisted them into a tight bow, double-knotting the laces just as he would have for any of the children in the program.
"One of the program directors is pretty cute. Do you think he could make an exception? Just for me?"
At that question, he looked up at her with a grin.
"Depends on your approach. I hear one of them is partial to blondes."
"I love an upper hand," Emma's eyes lit up with teasing mischief. "Fred Wentworth over there looks pretty lonely, so I guess I'll just wander over that way--"
Emma tried to stand up from the bench even as he held onto her foot, only to squeal with laughter as he looped his arm around her waist and dragged her back down to him.
"Try it, Blondie," he said, trapping her in an embrace, "and I'm booting you from the ice rink."
"I guess you're stuck with me then." She grinned and shifted in his arms, giving him a kiss that was just enough to warm them, though not enough to scandalize the underage crowd.
When the kiss broke, he smiled. "Morning, Emma."
"You don't usually show up at these things. Do you have a soft spot for ice skating that I didn't know about?"
"It's a good cause." she countered, shivering a bit and pulling up the collar of her jumper. "Plus, it's the best way to get hold of you with your work schedule. I feel like the lab techs see more of you than I do."
"Henrietta does say she sees so much of me during the day, she's started dreaming about me at night," George chuckled. Apparently this wasn't quite so amusing to Emma, because her eyes narrowed considerably.
"What kind of dreams are these?" she questioned flatly.
"I didn't ask," Knightley answered with confusion. "Probably the type of dream that don't make much sense, where the hospital has turned into a pyramid and the patients are all sea creatures. She was probably just joking around. It's long days and long hours, you know?"
Emma sighed, mildly mollified. She should be contented that she was the one in Knightley's arms right now, not some lab tech intern. "I know. I know your work is important, and I know it means long hours...an it would probably be less noticeable to me if I had a job to do in the meantime."
"Given further thought to that, have you?"
"Yes. No. I don't know. Some days I wake up wanting to be something ludicrous, like an astronaut."
"An astronaut?" His brow furrowed skeptically.
"An astronaut with cute shoes," she laughed. "Other days my list of potential jobs are a little more down to earth, but mostly it changes by the hour. I just need to find something other than hemlines and shoe sizes that I'm decent at, and try to get on with it while you go on saving lives." Noticing her chill as she spoke, Knightley took her fingers in his hands and drew them close to his own chest, rubbing them between his own to warm them. At the gesture, her gaze softened. He made it so easy to love him, it was no wonder that her heart ached at the thought of being apart from him. "I just miss you, that's all."
"I miss you, too." His dark gaze locked with hers. He missed her, yes. It was the honest, simple truth, straight from the heart. It was also an intense understatement. He spent his down time at the hospital thinking about her. He delighted in the shortest messages she left on his answering machine. He woke up in the middle of the night wishing for her and when she wasn't there, his bed felt empty indeed. He more than missed her. "Emma, I think--"
"Eeew, are you going to kiss her again?" Marco, roughly six and full of delighted repulsion, interrupted them with a squeal. The couple turned to see two little boys staring at them with bold faced curiosity.
"Course not, stupid. Girls have cooties!" said Diego, his older brother. Even if Emma one was an unusually pretty one, she was still a girl. Like his mum. And his father hardly ever kissed his mum, at least not when he and Marco were watching.
"This girl doesn't have cooties," Emma sniffed with feigned indignation.
"I'm sure Mr. Knightley has taken proper precautions, Diego." It was Elizabeth Bennet who caught up with the boys. Her dark hair was off her face in an intricate side braid that swept from ear to ear like headband. She wore black leggings, a white top and equally white skating boots. " After all, he is a doctor. I'm sure he's had all his proper cootie shots."
"Elizabeth," Knightley greeted her with more than a touch of surprise.
"Morning, Knightley. Sorry to interrupt. You two looked cozy together, and I tried to get these two lads here to leave you be, but they ran ahead faster than I could manage. Battery powered, I think," Elizabeth laughed. "Do you fancy a spot of tea? Annie's already getting one herself."
"No, I'm alright, thanks." When Emma tried to pop off the bench like a little jackrabbit, Knightley's hand clamped down upon her firm enough to keep her right where she was. "Anne's here too, is she?"
"Yes, to be sure," Elizabeth answered pleasantly. "These are her nephews, Marco and Diego Musgrove. Emma suggested the ice rink for the lot of us and it's a right fine day for a skate even if it is a mite chilly." She placed a hand on both boys' shoulders. "We'll leave you to your chat."
When the trio had skated off, George Knightley turned to his girlfriend.
"Emma," he said with more than a little suspicion.
"Don't you think I should say hello to Annie over there? I don't want to be rude..."
"Emma, you knew that they would be here," he pressed, "Darcy and Wentworth."
"And you, and twenty other children," Emma persisted, "and Anne got stuck with babysitting duty for the day. They're her sister Marguerite's children. What's the harm in everyone coming together and having a fun time?"
"You knew Darcy and Wentworth were coming today, and you deliberately went out of your way to make sure Elizabeth and Anne were here too. Not only do you have a scheme to set up Darcy and Elizabeth, now you are plotting to set up Anne and Frederick again, too."
"And what's so wrong with that?"
"What's so wrong with it? Emma, do the names Harriet Smith and Christopher Martin not bring back memories?"
"Don't be silly, this is completely different," she placated him. "Besides, they ended up happy afterall, didn't they?"
"Only after you tried to push her into the arms of Elton and any other guy who came along, except for the man she was already in love with."
"Not any other guy. I never pushed her into your arms. She tried that all on her own."
"Yes, thankfully," Emma's face broke into a grin. "Anyway, I've learned a lot since then. I can spot a perfect couple much better now. Probably because we're together now, and I'm so terribly in love with you, I finally know what it's supposed to look like." She pushed off the bench and gestured towards Anne. "I really do have to go say hello to her."
"Emma." He halted her with a hand on her arm. "Next Friday."
"Yes?" she answered with pleasant curiosity. "What happens next Friday?"
"We're going out. On a proper date. No interruptions, no plotting, no surprise guests. Just you and me." his eyes darkened with sincerity, "no one between us. Okay?"
"Okay." Her insides fluttered into a million little butterflies even as he skated away.
"Diego, stop it. Stop that at once. You mustn't pull on Marco like that, it isn't nice and you could hurt him. He's much smaller than you. Instead of pulling him ahead by his coat, just skate more slowly so he can keep up with you." Watching the boys take their first loop around the rink which was already crowded with children, Anne was unable to contain her sigh. "I hate that every other sentence out of my mouth with them is a correction."
"It isn't your fault, Annie," Elizabeth sympathized. In her charity, Anne routinely volunteered to babysit her nephews while their mother suffered from whatever imaginary malady she could concoct for an afternoon free of them. "They haven't even the least bit of discipline at home, and so everywhere you take them, they run wild. At least they listen to you when you tell them no."
"I'm just afraid of them getting hurt," Anne said, holding her breath as one boy tried to leap over the other in some game of ice-skate leap frog. Leaning over the barrier into the ice rink, she switched to Spanish for extra emphasis, "both feet on the ground, please!"
"Oh, Saints preserve us," Elizabeth blurted out, "what is he doing here?"
"Who?" Anne questioned over the steam of her cup of tea. She took a careful sip and let her gaze roam. There were quite a lot of children here, and so far Marco and Diego hadn't managed to integrate with any of them. The other children, both boys and girls, looked to be taking part in some kind of program which George Knightley appeared to be involved in. He was at the opposite end of the rink with two other men, talking and playing with the children. One of the men was Will Darcy, and the other was-- "Ay Dios mio..."
"Who's doing what where?" Emma questioned as she skated up to the pair.
"Will Darcy?" Elizabeth questioned.
"Frederick," Emma glanced to Anne. "The thing is, Annie, we have a very small social circle. We do. I'm in love with Knightley. Knightley's best friends are Will and Fred. My best friends, apart from Knightley, are you two. I know it's hard for you to see Fred, Annie, but I figured the more you two ran into each other, the more you talked, the less awkward things would be. And the easier it would be for both of you to tolerate each other in social situations." The explanation made sense, at least in Emma's mind. It almost sounded like the truth, even if it was only part of the truth. Anne was still looking at her with concern, though. And it seemed all it took was one mention of the name Will Darcy for Elizabeth to look at her like she was a bit nuts. "And as for Darcy, Lizzie, it's a bit of the same reasoning. Although you also told me that you'd be nice to him for Knightley's sake, remember?"
"I remember. And then I remember changing my mind when he left the pub acting like an git. That's mostly all I remember about him because it's mostly how he acts when he comes round me. It makes things a bit uncomfortable for me."
"You never did mention what he said at the pub," Anne questioned with quiet curiosity, her dark doe-eyes turning speculative.
She hadn't wanted to hurt Anne by repeating what Will Darcy had said, and so she avoided the question altogether. "Emme," Lizzie pleaded, "you don't know him like I do."
"You're right, I don't know him like you do," Emma agreed with a firm nod. "I know him better. Please, Lizzie? Give him another shot. You'll be surprised by what you discover, I promise." She grabbed her friend by the shoulders, turning her to face in Will Darcy's direction. "Do you see what he's doing over there? He volunteers for this group for children once a month and from the looks of it, all the kids love him. Just go over and talk to him a little, and then tell me if you really think he's so terrible."
When five year old Katie McGovern tried for the second time to skate and fell for the second time, it was Will Darcy who knelt down beside her.
"Third time's a charm, right Katie?" he questioned with the relaxed, entirely free smile that he usually reserved only for his little sister. It was the dark, curling hair that reminded him of her and so each time she fell with hot, wet tears on her face, the sight was like a shard straight into his heart. "Maybe we need to tighten these laces."
"I can't skate," she sniffled. "I tried. And I tried. Ev'ryone else can skate plenty, but I can't. I'll never learn!"
"You know what, Katie? When I was your age, I was rubbish at football. My dad, mind you, he was aces at it. He could use his head, his feet, his knees, anywhere, any time and get a goal. He probably could have been a pro footballer if he'd wanted to--" And if not for the family name, Darcy amended internally. Football star wasn't a good enough goal for the Darcy clan, and his father had known it, even as a teenager. But he had loved the beautiful game and Will had a scrap book full of old shots of his father as a teenager in a football kit, winning medals and trophies. "I knew my dad loved it, and the first time I got on the pitch, I wanted to be just as good as he was. And you know what?"
"What?" the five year old questioned.
"I was awful at it. I had to work twice as hard as the rest of my mates to even keep up with them. But because of that, because I had to work so hard, I got better and better at it until one day I was the best player on the team, just like my dad. Sometimes, Katie, it's the stuff we have to work hardest at that we love the most. And because it was hard to get, it means that much more to us."
He didn't know how much of what he said had sunk in with Katie McGovern, but by the time he stopped talking, her tears were dry and there was a smile on her face. That had to count for something.
"You tie shoe laces like my daddy used to tie 'em." She looked up at him with hopeful, watery eyes. "Doubled."
There. That, right there, was the secret that joined all of these children together. It was also what had drawn Darcy and Knightley into volunteering for the group in the first place. This commonality wasn't painted on signs or tee shirts, but what set these kids apart from others was the fact that this club consisted of fun activities for children who had lost one or both parents. The ages ranged from five to eighteen, and they met once a month. Darcy and Knightley had been part of the group as teens. Now as adults, they were volunteers.
"Well, that memory has to bring us luck, doesn't it?" Darcy said with a wink, helping the child to her feet. "Go on, Kate. Show me how it's done."
"Sometimes it's easier with someone holding your hand, as well," another voice added, "I think I can help with that if you'd like."
Elizabeth Bennet skated up to them with her arms folded. Her dark hair was braided off her face, and her green eyes were a bright contrast against the white ice rink. It wasn't quite the girl on the street look he'd encountered last, he realized. The jeans and ponytail had been casual and relaxed and more than a little sexy. This version of her was somehow more refined, despite the fact that this wasn't a stage and she had traded her pointe shoes for skates. Still, her comfort in the realm where sports and art met was obvious, simply in the way she held her body, and so the effect was similar. She looked fit and elegant and completely at ease.
"Mr. Darcy, who's this?" little Katie questioned. "Is this your wife?"
"This is, um--" Will stuttered. Elizabeth's inquisitive eyes danced, and suddenly his palms were damp and his mouth was dry.
"Wife? And last time we met, people were just mistaking you for my boyfriend, Mr. Darcy. It's a good thing my father isn't hearing any of these rumors," she teased, moving forward to extend her hand with a warm smile for the little girl. She didn't notice the way the child's eyes watered at the mention of "my father." She didn't yet realize that this was more than a simple club for children to get together and have fun. That was cause enough for her to be impressed. "It's grand to meet you, Katie. And no, I'm not Mr. Darcy's wife. But I'd like to be your friend, if that's okay?"
"Sure! Maybe you and Mr. Darcy can skate behind me and see if I do okay?"
" Trust me, we'll be right behind you Katie." She set a slow pace skating behind the child, but it didn't take long for her to glance over at Will. He spoke first.
"I'm surprised to see you here," he admitted. "The last time we talked, you told me to leave you alone."
"Emma talked me into coming." Emma was here? He'd been so focused on the children, he hadn't even noticed her entrance. "Going up to you and having a bit of a chat isn't what I thought I'd be doing when I got here, but I like kids. I saw you with this one and I thought maybe I could help." There was an awkward pause, before Elizabeth ventured, "You have a soft spot in that heart of yours for children, do you?"
"I guess so. Surprised?"
"Uh-huh. Until five seconds ago, I thought you were mean to absolutely everyone in Great Britain, no matter how old or young."
"Just Great Britain? I think that I could handle both sides of the Atlantic if I tried." He glanced over at her. "We Darcys are ambitious."
"I'll bet," Elizabeth laughed. The fact that this was the second conversation he'd managed to make her laugh in surprised Elizabeth herself more than anyone. "Maybe we can extend the list to the whole western hemisphere."
"Now you're talking like a Darcy. Or a bit like my aunt Catherine."
"Really?" She arched a brow at him, certain he was teasing her, "She must be brilliant fun at dinner parties."
"You don't know the half of it." He raked back his thick hair and grinned. The gesture distracted her, mostly because he looked so handsome doing it. Instead of staring, she focused on the opposite end of the rink. Anne and Emma were there with Anne's nephews, Marco and Diego. If he'd heard her mention Emma, surely he must have noticed Anne. Maybe he wasn't going to be as uptight about her fraternizing with Frederick as she had assumed. This further lightened her mood.
"If you're nice to children and animals, I guess that means you can't be completely vile all the time," she teased lightly. "Are you nice to animals?"
"I had a horse as a kid. Valkyrie. I think between the ages of eight and ten I spoke to it more than I spoke to my parents."
"Truly?" Elizabeth laughed again. "A horse. Wow, what a job that must have been. I was blessed to get a goldfish I'd won at a fair, and that was responsibility enough. My mum thought it would live a week and she cursed it for the next six months every time I forgot to clean its bowl."
The way she spoke to him was unlike anyone else he'd ever met in his life. Clearly, she knew he was wealthy. Very wealthy, she was certainly smart enough to put those pieces together. Still, she didn't seem to be the least bit enticed by his privileged upbringing. She'd had a normal, modest life up to this point and she'd seemed to enjoy it rather than wish for what he had. As for their conversations, they were teasing, challenging, flirting, or arguing (it was hard to tell exactly which), and he loved it. He was just hoping this conversation wouldn't end the way the last one had.
"Look, Elizabeth, I know I didn't make the best first impression," he tried, feeling his heart race for reasons that seemed to go beyond mild infatuation as she halted her skating and looked up at him, "but it's like I told Katie, if you don't get something right the first time, you should try until you manage it. We don't always have to agree- we possibly won't most of the time---but I think at least we can be friends. Right?"
Friends. It was a sincere offer, even if it wasn't quite what his racing heart was telling him he wanted. But friends was the safe, less complicated choice.
She was looking at him quite seriously through those lush, dark lashes of hers. Again, he'd become a puzzle in her eyes. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, a small child cried out.
Marco Musgrove had fallen and apparently broken his leg.
A chance late night encounter at a chip stand had been his only glimpse of her , and he'd barely heard her speak. The light had been dim, with only the street lamp to reveal her. He'd noticed her at the skating rink, almost from the minute she'd entered and most definitely before she'd realized he was there. But she'd been far off, obscured behind a cup of steaming tea and hiding next to Emma Woodhouse. Without her aware of it, for the first time in seven years, Frederick Wentworth could really see her.
In the sterile light of the hospital's emergency room, there was nowhere to hide. Never one for adornment or fuss, Anne wore a simple white turtleneck and a pair of jeans. Her cheeks were more sharply defined than he remembered, and with less of a blush. Her figure was slighter and her chestnut curls were pulled back in a practical bun, not falling down past her shoulders as it had in their youth.
But her eyes were as dark and limitless as ever; their depths conveying a caring, generous and soulful woman. As the little boy cried out in pain and fear, her lips softened with loving concern and her mouth, ever generous, whispered words of comfort and love to him.
She's still beautiful, Frederick thought with a sudden stab of pain.
It was obvious this little boy, Marco was his name, adored her.
Was it possible that this Marco and the other small boy at the rink were her sons? He'd wondered it at the rink, and her reaction to Marco's injury had added credence to the theory. He'd barely said a word to her the entire drive over to the hospital.
What a fool he'd been, allowing hope to creep into his heart after seeing her at the chip stand. They had been apart for seven years. The coming summer would mark eight. Eight years...that was long enough for her to have two children. And just because she had said no to his proposal didn't mean she hadn't accepted another man's proposal, perhaps even soon afterward. So much for constancy, he thought bitterly.
Likewise, just because he'd returned the night of the ballet to an empty flat, didn't mean she had done the same. Maybe these were children she had returned to, with a husband to greet her. What a fool he was to assume otherwise.
Shock, a wretched stab of jealously, and a sudden burst of anger were impossible to ignore. They'd been apart for so long, he'd long ago reconciled himself to his hurt, his anger, his disappointment, his broken heart, and yet this loss of hope wrenched him apart. She had always liked children, why wouldn't she have a life of her own now, whatever that life was? Why was he so jealous, so angry? Just the thought of her loving another man, giving herself to him fully, making a family with him made him sick with anger and jealousy and regret. Why?
Of course her husband, lover, boyfriend, whoever this man was, would have a stamp of approval from her parents. He would be rich, Frederick thought bitterly. Perhaps he is the son of a landowner or politician; someone with a name, a lineage and an inheritance. Someone who could provide for her in the manner in which they expected an Elliot daughter to live. An Eton boy, like Darcy and Knightley had gone to school with, one who would go on to be an Oxbridge man. The Elliots had never approved of their daughter consorting with a penniless boy from Hackney, East London, no matter what his goals or what he wanted to make of himself. Their disapproval of him hadn't hurt him as much as her absence in his life had, but it was a close second in terms of festering wounds.
As for these two boys, they were lively children, but somehow much less disciplined than how he would expect her children to behave, for all that she kept trying to reign them in. And for all the vague similarities in facial features, he realized, they weren't quite how he had pictured her children. And yes, Frederick had contemplated them. No one, no matter how young or old, could give a proper proposal without fantasizing about the future. He had imagined a son, dark haired like Anne, but with Frederick's love of the sea. He would have taught that boy to swim, to fish, to sail. And a daughter. Dark haired or perhaps blond like he was. A little girl with Anne's smile.
Those fantasies had been dashed long ago, Frederick reminded himself. They had been foolish, boyhood daydreams that were not grounded in reality. This was apparently their reality now.
In the wake of the accident, George Knightley had rushed to the boy's side. The little boy was shivering, more in shock than actual cold, and it was Frederick who tugged off his jacket and draped it around the boy's tiny shoulders.
"Can you feel my hand, Marco? Do you feel pressure or pain when I press here? Or here?" Knightley was asking the boy, touching gingerly at the boy's leg to test nerve endings and check for swelling.
"Marco, corazon," Anne was telling the child, "hold my hand."
Hearing the term of endearment spoken, Frederick-who had been deliberately looking at anyone but Anne- he couldn't help himself. He looked up, just in time to see her do the same. It had been a long time since he'd heard that, and the instant it was out of her mouth, he was seventeen again.
Te amo, corazon. That phrase that she'd told him once reverberated in his memory, and stung him when he looked at her. If she felt his gaze, she gave no indication of it. Instead, she remained firmly focused on Marco.
"How bad is it, George?" Darcy had asked.
"He'll need x-rays to confirm this, but based on what I'm feeling, it's just a greenstick fracture..." Because he was the only person in the room who understood the phrase, he explained further, "It's common in children because their bones are soft. There's no external injury. There's swelling, but the nerve endings appear intact. St Bart's hospital is just blocks away. I'll need to do a preliminary stabilization with a wrap and a brace, and ice to reduce swelling, but I think it's faster if we transport him ourselves."
"Can I fetch you anything?" Elizabeth questioned.
"There's an emergency medical kit in the back seat of my car. It's a blue Audi, parked at the far end of the car park. Bring it to me, would you?" Knightley dug into his pocket, pulling out a set of car keys, tossing them to her. Elizabeth caught the keys one-handed and gave him an efficient nod.
"Consider it done."
"Emma," Knightley had continued, "could you call ahead to let the ER know we're arriving?"
"Of course," said Emma, who was already breaking out her mobile phone. A lifetime of knowing George Knightley allowed her more than a little insight into the way he thought. Once she completed the call however, her mind sprung into action. As Elizabeth returned with Knightley's medical kit, Emma spoke up.
"Wentworth, would you mind taking Anne and Marco to the hospital? Darcy and Lizzie can gather Diego and meet you there, and Knightley and I can stay here and make sure all the other children get home safely."
There had been a bit of wrangling about the car arrangements, but in the end it was Emma who prevailed.
And so here he was, standing opposite Anne in an emergency room, waiting for a doctor to arrive while Marco sniffled painfully. "Tia, could you come with me when they take pictures of my leg, like Dr. Knightley said?"
"If they let me, corazon."
Tia. It was the first time Marco had called her that. Another word for mother? Frederick was trying to wrack his brain to remember what 'tia' meant in Spanish as the dividing curtain was brushed aside and the doctor entered.
Knightley had already injected a mild sedative on site, and the little boy's eyes were starting to droop even as he looked around the room, pointing and inquiring, "Tia, what's that? What's that, Tia?"
Finally, his bleary eyes looked up to Frederick, as if truly noticing him for the first time. "Tia, who's that?"
Frederick answered for her. "My name's Frederick Wentworth. You can call me Fred."
"Are you a doctor, like Dr. Knightley?"
"I'm afraid not, buddy. I'm a captain in the Royal Navy."
"Captain? Frederick, I---" Anne spoke up with a sudden and uncharacteristic lack of caution. Their eyes met again, and she blushed scarlet. She had no idea he'd been promoted. "Congratulations."
Frederick allowed himself a tight smile. "It was hard earned, believe me."
"I do," she whispered back, holding his gaze for just a moment longer than was necessary, before looking down at her hands.
"Captain!" Marco chirped, breaking the moment, "have you seen any mermaids?"
"If I do, you'll be the first to know, I promise," Frederick sai.
"Good afternoon, Marco, is it?" said the doctor, flipping open his chart and pulling out a pen. "I'm Dr. Andrews. Looks like we had a bit of an accident today."
"Diego pushed me, and I fell," Marco sniffed.
"We were at the ice rink," Anne explained, "a friend braced his leg for transport."
"Quite expertly, I see," said Dr. Andrews, pulling up a stool and undoing the bindings. "From his medical forms, I take it you're the person who signed for his entrance into the hospital. Which would make you Anne Elliot, Marco's," his gaze shifted to the paperwork beside him, "...aunt?"
"Tia!" Marco blurted out.
"Wait. Wait-" interrupted Frederick, "his aunt? You're his aunt?"
"Yes, I'm his aunt," Anne said with a curious inflection, glancing at Frederick with arched brows. "His mother is my younger sister, Marguerite. She's Marguerite Musgrove now, married to Charles Musgrove. You remember Marguerite, don't you?"
Musgrove. It was the same last name as Louisa's. Louisa hadn't seemed to recognize Anne at the ballet, though, nor had Anne recognized her, so he supposed the fact that they had relatives that shared a last name seemed only a coincidence. A very distant cousin, perhaps.
"I--" Frederick put a hand to his temple, mind reeling. Marguerite was Marco's mother. He remembered her sisters with sudden clarity. Pretty, imperial Elisabetta, the oldest sister. Anne was in the middle. Marguerite, needy and childish, was the youngest.
While Anne and the doctor talked about Marco's injuries and treatment, Frederick leaned against the wall. On the outside he remained silent and stoic, but inwardly he was reeling. Aunt. His aunt. That was what 'tia' meant in Spanish. No wonder there was a resemblance. She was their aunt. She didn't have children.
Even hearing her say his name hurt, he realized as he pushed off the wall and stood to attention. It was the same. The way she said his name was the same. Why did he think it would sound different? But her voice was just as sweet and soft as he'd remembered it.
"Yes, what is it?" he questioned, more severely than he'd intended, probably because the emotions she'd stirred in him were more raw than he wanted. Hesitation flitted across her face.
"I--I just wanted to say thank you. They've taken Marco for x-rays, and to get fitted for a cast . He'll be there quite awhile and...and you can leave, if you'd like to. Marguerite and Charles will be here soon enough."
"Yes, and how is your family, Anne?" Frederick questioned, completely skirting the bulk of her comments. "Happy?"
Anne flinched. The way he said 'happy', the barb was obvious. Her family, the people who had discouraged their relationship which led to her rejection of him. She thought she shouldn't blame him for inflicting that pain, but the hurt was the same nonetheless.
"Not particularly," Anne admitted with quiet candor. Emma would flirt her answer. Elizabeth would tease it. But Anne? Her answers tended to be more polite, simple, and entirely candid. She ventured delicately, "And your family? How are they?"
Instead of answering her straight away, Frederick took a step towards her, and then another, until he was close enough to hear her ragged intake of her breath. He leaned in, almost as if he were about to kiss her.
"Proud of me," Frederick answered with a piercing look.
The answer was sharp, to match his mood, and still there was danger in it. There was a time when they never would have stood this close without reaching out and touching each other. She remembered it, and wondered if he did as well. Something radiated from him that could sweep her up or crush her if she let it, and oh how she wanted to give into it, to give into him, to try to fix what had gone wrong, to be his again....
"Anne!" a shrill voice called. "Anne! Where are you? Where's Diego? Marco?! I only get one day free, and I can't believe I have to miss my restorative facial. My pores feel tight. Where's Marco?"
Anne jerked back, stumbling awkwardly against the exam table.
"It's my sister, Marguerite. I have to go. Marguerite needs me."
It was Anne who walked away first, just like before. Frustration, sorrow, regret, resentment, and heaven help him, longing, all coursed through him in her wake. He pulled out his car keys. He was late for his date with Louisa.
Elizabeth never expected to find herself babysitting Anne's hyperactive nephew, Diego Musgrove, in a hospital waiting room. As Anne emerged to fetch him, she told Lizzie her plan to stay at her sister's home for the night to watch the boys so Marguerite and Charles could attend a concert.
"You're doing what?" Elizabeth had repeated incredulously. "Anne, these are Marguerite's children. Her son just broke his leg! How can she even think of wandering off at all hours to do as she pleases?"
But Anne wasn't to be talked out of it. Lizze suspected it was as much for Marco's sake as it was to do Marguerite any favors. Anne wanted to make sure that her nephew Marco would be taken care of properly so soon after the accident.
This, coincidentally, also left Elizabeth only one option when it came to getting home. Will Darcy. Which, she suspected, was exactly how Emma had wanted it when she suggested this little arrangement.
This afternoon showed he was a good deal more capable of kindness than she had thought him capable of. First she'd actually witnessed him being friendly to people. Children, no less. Then that comment about starting over on the ice, which even if it wasn't quite an apology, was still a gesture of kindness. After that he'd helped her mind Diego for the better part of an afternoon at the hospital, which was no small feat. In fact, it had been his idea to draw a checkerboard on a newspaper and use colored paperclips from the nurse's station as checkers. He'd sat on the waiting room floor with the boy playing this makeshift version of checkers, and Diego was enraptured with the game and him.
It was like wandering into an alternate universe.
As Anne wandered off with Diego in tow, Will Darcy dug into his pocket and pulled out a set of silver keys and offered her a ride home. Much to her own shock, it was goodwill not animosity, that caused her to decline.
"I couldn't. Truly. You were a miracle with Diego, but you must be tired. I'll just catch a taxi home."
"I insist. Let me get you home." It was said without much inflection, and offered with the ease of a young man who was used to getting his own way. That alone could have been a spark for further refusal on her end, but for the fact that he also gestured toward the window. It had started to rain again, a dreary icy rain that coated all of London in misery. "You'll never get a taxi in this weather."
He was right. And so she found herself being driven through icy London streets by a man she thought she hated.
"It's getting late," he said. "Are you hungry?"
"Um..." she kept her arms folded, "I guess. Are you?"
"I am," he acknowledged. "We're near my flat. If you wanted, I could make us dinner?"
"I...um," Elizabeth hesitated. She couldn't think of a single reasonable excuse (Sorry Darcy, I need to go home and...wash my hair? No, that wouldn't work...). "Sure."
Instead of turning east toward King's Cross, they headed toward Mayfair. When he pulled into the covered car park of a large, posh building, he announced, "My cooking's not bad, and I haven't burned the flat down once, I swear it."
With calm efficiency, he shut off the car, unhooked his seat belt, and got out of the car. A moment later, he pulled open the passenger door, one hand pressed against the hood as he looked down at her.
Even the lifts here looked expensive, she noted, paneled with antique mirrors, and with a fancy automated operator voice that spoke from an intercom when arriving at each floor. He was on the ninth floor.
The decorative sense in his flat was cool, modern, and very masculine. The couches were white, the carpet was white over dark hardwood floors. The accents were dark blues, grays, and black.
"There's a no-horses clause in my contract."
He gave her a rare grin. "I think so. Want a drink?"
"Please," she said, perhaps a bit too quickly, worrying that perhaps this dinner thing wasn't such a great plan after all. She wasn't a drinker, but it might help take the edge off her nerves.
"Red or white wine?"
"Neither," she answered with easy decisiveness. "A whiskey if you have it."
"Difficult to please, Elizabeth?"
"Just sure of what I want," she responded lightly. She watched him reach into a cabinet and pull out a bottle of prize whiskey and two glasses.
"And what is that?" he questioned, handing her a glass.
"To be true to myself," she answered simply, watching him fill up her glass, and then his own. "Isn't that what everyone wants?"
"Most people don't bother," Will admitted. But then Elizabeth wasn't most people. He could tell that just from the way she looked around the living room, with definite interest but no degree awe. He wondered fleetingly how she would react to Pemberley. Or his aunt Catherine.
"So, what do you like to eat?" Will scanned the few other ingredients in the fridge. Maybe he'd underestimated his food content.
"Can I help?" she piped up, walking around the island in the center of the kitchen so that she could examine the contents of the fridge herself. "It's the least I can do for saving me from being stranded, hoping for a taxi in the middle of an ice storm."
"Next time I should let you walk it, you think?"
Laughter bubbled out of her. "I could handle it." Elizabeth raised one slight arm and flexed comically. "Muscles for days, you see?"
He glanced at her again, giving her a proper once over. Those bright eyes were dancing, she had a pert little smile on her face, and in an effort to examine the inside of the fridge, she was standing quite close. He could see the flush of her pale cheeks, and dark tendrils had loosened from her braid, trailing over her delicate ear and down a slender neck. Get a grip, Will, he told himself sternly. Instead of letting his eyes wander any further, he cleared his throat and looked back at the fridge. "Uh--looks like Wentworth and I cleaned out the fridge. But there might be a steak in the freezer, or we could do chicken or..."
"Eggs?" She knelt down to move a few canisters around. Eggs, chicken, orange juice and a bottle of vodka. That was the extent of the contents of Darcy's fridge at the moment. A bachelor pad, indeed. "How about omelets?"
"You'd be okay with omelets?" Will questioned with a skeptical arch of his brow.
"It's the breakfast of champions," Elizabeth answered. "I hear it makes a pretty fine dinner, too."
"How about we throw in some peppers and tomatoes?"
"Hmm," her eyes narrowed in mock-disapproval at this suggestion, "and cheese?"
He bit his lower lip to keep from grinning. "Deal."
Once they'd managed cooking the omelets, they settled themselves on the couch and dug in. Even Elizabeth was surprised how comfortable she was just sitting and chatting with him as the rainy evening shifted into night. Maybe it was the whiskey.
"Is this how you spend most of your Saturdays when Wentworth isn't visiting?" she questioned as she took a bite of her omelet. "A simple supper in a peaceful flat?"
"You think it's peaceful?" Will asked, genuinely curious. He liked it well enough, but he often thought it was more lonely than peaceful.
Elizabeth laughed. "You haven't seen where I live. The neighbors are noisy as anything, and the hallways are poky. The roof leaks after a fierce storm, and half of London could break into our flat through the fire escape if they felt like a wee climb. It's the best Anne and I could afford, though. I've never been in a flat this nice. It's like heaven."
Will silently corrected that the conditions were greatly improved by her presence there with him, curled up on his couch.
"And Emma doesn't mind living there?" he questioned instead.
"Since she stopped modeling she's trying to scale back, I think. She slips occasionally and uses her father's money for meals and things, but I don't think she minds living in a place where the rent is so low. I think it was a bit of a laugh for her at first, though. Like camping. Her own little rebellion."
"Did you camp much growing up?"
"Oh, I had to. I'm a culchie through and through." Seeing his blank confusion at the Irish term, she set down her plate on the nearby table and turned. "A country girl, from County Cork. We lived along the coast. I had four brothers growing up, and me the youngest, but I had to keep up with them. Sibling duty. They were always wandering about in the summer, camping and fishing." She rested her chin on her palm and flashed him a curious look. "Do you have brothers and sisters, then?"
"I have one sister. Georgiana. I wish I saw more of her." From the small smile that emerged as he said this and the way his tone softened, she instantly sensed they were as close as a brother and sister could be. Just one sibling, and him a millionaire, or so she could only infer after seeing his car, his flat, his wardrobe. What in the world did his family end up doing with all that money, if not spend it on a bunch of children? A household of five children was a financial burden indeed, her mother had always been scraping by with coupons and hand-me downs. Just one sibling sounded a bit lonely after growing up in her rambunctious house hold.
His mind, however, was drifting in another direction altogether. "Four brothers, huh?"
"Liam, Magnus, Kilian, and Seamus. They're protective as the day is long, but they're four of my best friends. I'm a lucky girl."
She obviously adored them, and there was little that he found more attractive than family loyalty. But she had not just one, but four older brothers? It was more than a little intimidating. He rattled the names off in his head. Liam, Magnus, Kilian, Seamus. The names themselves sounded like monikers of angry Irish warriors, ready to tear him apart for even one of the thoughts that drifted through his head when he so much as glanced at their little sister.
He could understand. To say he would do the same for Georgiana was an understatement. He would eviscerate anyone who tried to hurt his little sister. Still, it was a good thing he'd decided to get a handle on his thoughts, to curb his infatuation to the best of his abilities and try to convince her that he could be a decent friend. It was certainly the safer choice.
"It's a miracle I grew up wanting to be a ballerina and not a football player like the rest of them," Elizabeth continued, "Do you play it?"
"Football? Like the best of 'em."
Her green eyes flashed with pleasure at the answer. "Fancy meeting me on the pitch come springtime?"
"If you think you can keep up with me," Will replied with a bold grin.
She tilted her head to look up at him. The comment was an undeniable dare, and she had always liked a good dare, she thought inwardly, extending her hand to shake his. "You've got yourself a match, Will Darcy. I like to play football with my friends."
"Friends?" he repeated. "Would you be okay with that?"
She hesitated, before offering a nod. "I would."
While Elizabeth was having an unexpected dinner at Will Darcy's flat, George Knightley was eating in at Emma's. It was Knightley who offered to cook, and Emma certainly wasn't about to argue with his offer. He had managed a quick, tasty Mediterranean meal. Knightley had a ten hour shift at the hospital that night, from 10:00 PM to 8:00 AM, and swinging by Emma's flat had been both a convenient way to get dinner and also a good way for them to spend a bit of time together.
Still, Emma had their upcoming date night for Friday on her mind as she did the washing up.
"So for Friday," she questioned, "do you want 'normal Emma,' or 'dressy Emma'?"
George Knightley couldn't hear her. He'd strolled to the edge of the living room and pulled back the rather romantic bit of drapery Emma had used to cover the broad windows in order to check that the broad window out to the fire escape was secure from "Peeping Toms". When he walked back to her little kitchenette, he could only manage, "Hmm?"
As he walked toward her, she gave him a teasing little smile, throwing her dish towel over her right shoulder.
"Everything in place?" Emma asked. "We won't get attacked by crazies or drug addicts in the middle of the night, I promise."
"I know," Knightley said firmly, turning around to look at her. Emma's flat wasn't in the nicest part of town, and the window by the fire escape was of particular concern, especially because Emma in her more romantic moods occasionally opened it in order to let the air mix with whatever incense candle she decided to burn. "Because I checked the locks myself."
She sighed, turning off the sink water. "I know it's not Notting Hill, but it's also not such a terrible neighborhood. I moved here because I wanted to spend time with my friends, but now I think I'm lucky the way things ended up. I'm not making any money, I don't have a job, and it's very affordable."
"You have seen where you live, right?" he questioned, sounding more than a little skeptical. Working in a hospital, caring for crime victims nightly, caused him to worry about her safety more than he ever had before. "Let me put it this way, Emma, you think your father would like this place?"
"That's not a fair question in the slightest. Daddy's only happy and convinced I'm safe if I'm living at Hartfield, with him. And maybe the Ritz-Carlton would be okay in a pinch." Emma's nose wrinkled. "I'm fine. If Anne and Lizzie aren't worried about it, why should I be?"
"Because I'm worried," Knightley answered sincerely.
He always knew how to hit right at the heart of the matter, and that honest truth combined with his dark eyes cut to her core every time.
"I'll check the window. Every night before I go to bed, I promise." she answered back with equal sincerity. She wasn't an idiot. She understood why he worried. That was perhaps the worst part of being in love, the fear of losing that person, and she certainly worried about him when he worked at the hospital. He saw his fair share of both victims and criminals at the Royal Hospital, and the fear that someone who wandered in there and was out of his mind, or drugged up, or simply violent, would injure him with a knife or a syringe or who knows what else, scared her half to death.
Still, it was difficult to get too far with her worry when she was standing so close to him. Inhaling a comforting breath of his cologne, she deliberately shifted topics.
"So about this date Friday...where are we going?"
She heard him chuckle. "It's a surprise. Don't you like surprises?"
"Depends on what they are."
"You won't need to wear your trainers, if that's what you're after."
"So that means a fancy dress?" she perked up. "That's wonderful, because I have a killer outfit that I've been saving for a special occasion."
"Something nice. Maybe not too killer. I want to be able to walk you across the street without stopping traffic." Knightley warned with a grin. "Besides, I like you like this."
Now it was her turn to be skeptical. She'd changed out of her little ice skating outfit almost the minute they'd gotten here, and was wearing one of her least inspired-albeit, most comfortable outfits---in her whole wardrobe.
"Grey track pants, a black tee shirt and a dish towel over my shoulder?"
"Especially the dish towel," he agreed with a grin. Before she could manage a proper answer, the pair heard a brisk knock on the door.
"That might be Lizzie without her keys."
"Where has she wandered off to for the night?" Knightley questioned, folding his arms and giving her a slightly accusatory look. "You practically shoved her and Darcy into a car together, but I still thought she'd be back ages ago."
"I don't know. She could be absolutely anywhere," Emma tried to play off the question with what was supposed to be a casual shrug, although the coy look on her face made her look more than a little guilty. "Maybe she was called for a shift at the pub."
"Emma--" Knightley warned.
Instead of defending herself further, she quickly undid the latched lock and swung the door open.
The man who stood in the hallway, with golden curls and a rakish smile, had raised his hand to knock again. When he saw Emma in front of him, however, the hand fell down to his side and the rakish smile became a grin.
"God help me, Emme." He let out a low whistle. "Sexy as always, aren't you?"
"Thanks, Henry," Emma took the remark in stride. Henry was one of the most unrepentant flirts she'd ever met in her life, and so the comment didn't shock her. But the confusion in her voice remained. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"I'm here to extend a business offer. A potential contract." Henry put a hand on the door post, leaning against it as he eyed her up and down. "And I would like to interest you in something more personal as well. What are you doing here in the boondocks of London, Woodhouse? You're young and beautiful. You should be out on the scene, and no one knows it better than I do, I promise."
"I wasn't into your scene when I was sixteen, Henry," she answered with polite disinterest. "And I'm not modeling anymore, Elect dropped me. But if you have a business proposal, you can contact my agent."
"Your agent? Come on, Emme, lighten up. Seeing you standing in front of me is all the invite I need." His grin was firmly in place. "It's a Saturday. We're both grown-ups. Are you telling me I need more of a reason than that to visit one of the hottest women in the world?"
"It couldn't hurt," George Knightley spoke up behind Emma.
The palm that propped Henry up against the doorpost slid rapidly from its place, causing the golden-haired man to falter. He straightened, however, and squared his shoulders with a frown.
"Who is this, Emme? Your brother?"
"Boyfriend," Knightley answered coolly. "And you are?"
"Henry Crawford," Emma interrupted with deliberate tact, looking from one man to the next. "A photographer; Henry and I have worked together a few times. Henry, I'd like you to meet Dr. George Knightley. And yes, Henry, he is my boyfriend."
"No kidding." Henry straightened up further, fixing his collar.
"Crawford." Knightley repeated, resting his hand on Emma's shoulder as he took the other man's measure. "Any relation to Marlena Crawford?"
"Marlena is my sister," Henry answered. The fact this George Knightley knew his sister surprised him not at all. He was just the type of bloke his sister would go for. Shame for both of them that Emma was tied up with him, Henry thought to himself as his eyes wandered subtly and appreciatively over Emma. A definite loss But nonetheless, perhaps something could be done about it. "Anyway, Emma, about the potential contract--"
"I told you that I'm not modeling for Elect anymore," Emma repeated. "In fact, I'm giving it up altogether."
"Not even for De Bourgh?"
De Bourgh. One of the biggest, most lucrative names in the jewelry business. Currently their pieces were designed by up-and-coming young ingānue/heiress Andromeda de Bourgh. But De Bourgh Jewelry itself had two hundred years of prestige to it's name . They designed some of the world's most intricate and valuable pieces of jewelry, including pieces for Britain's royal family. Modeling for de Bourgh wouldn't just resurrect her career, it could put her back on top.
Not that she wanted such things. She was done with the whole world of modeling. She was done with being poked and prodded and leered at and ogled. Still, the name carried weight.
Her eyes narrowed. "What about them?"
"They called me up, wanting a hot face to front their new campaign."
"Just the face, or full body shots?"
"It would be you covered in diamonds, Emme, splashed across billboards and magazines and store fronts all over the world. Full body. Why else do you think I thought of you? You're the whole package, Emme."
Emma shook her head decisively, "Unless Andromeda de Bourgh calls me herself and asks me, I'm not interested."
"Not so fast, Emme. There's one last thing you should know," Henry said before she could close the door on him completely. "The contract price. Three million pounds."
Three million pounds? It was a ridiculous amount of money. Laughable, even. Suddenly irritated for reasons she could barely explain, and not even wanting to dignify him with an answer, Emma shut the door on Henry Crawford with a huff. Who did he think he was, coming here late at night to try and proposition her back to modeling? She'd been dropped by Elect. The modeling world didn't even want her anymore, and day by day she was starting to realize that going back to modeling was the last thing she wanted.
She started filling up the sink again, throwing in soap with the water. Three million pounds. She had made a tidy sum modeling, but nothing compared to that. And she wouldn't have to rely on her father's money anymore. She could invest the money, go to university, or maybe open a business-did she want to open a business? She didn't even know!
"No small offer, is it?" Knightley questioned quietly, filling in the silence of her thoughts. "De Bourgh Jewelry and three million pounds."
The dishes clanked. She turned to him, up to her arms in bubbles. "I don't care. I don't about the money. I don't want to go back to modeling. I don't even think I really like modeling! But it's the only thing I know I'm good at and--" Emma inhaled sharply, suddenly so confused she could barely think straight. "--three million pounds is an absurd amount of money. Elect has decided my modeling days are done. Why would anyone want to pay that much money for me?"
"Because they know you're worth it. But if you're worried about money, Emma, you shouldn't be, not just because of your father but...because of me," George added very carefully. One day he would marry her. One day he would make her his wife, he had decided that a long time ago and while it was too soon to mention that now, he wanted her to know that he had the means to take care of her, and that he always would.
"I am not about to let you lend me money, Knightley, no matter how much I love you," Emma shot back, completely misunderstanding his point. "And as for Daddy's money, I take what I need, but it's high time I started making my own way in the world."
"Do you want the job?"
"I don't think so," she said, shutting the sink water off again. "No, I don't. And I definitely don't want to work with Henry Crawford. But if Andromeda de Bourgh called me and wanted me to model for de Bourgh...I would consider it."
"Andromeda de Bourgh. Will knows her." Knightley spoke up. Seeing Emma's quizzical expression, he explained further. "Andromeda de Bourgh is his cousin. I've met her a few times. The more interesting question to me is how long have you known Henry Crawford?"
"I've known Henry since I was sixteen. Don't be concerned about him, Knightley. He's been trying the same lines on me since then, but he's harmless enough."
"I wouldn't worry, Emma, except he looked you up and down long enough to guess everything about you, and not just your shoe size. He didn't take any of those shots for your Ralph Lauren campaign, did he?"
Ralph Lauren. Interesting that he would mention that campaign and not some of her more provocative shots. She took a moment to remember it. She'd been perched on a wooden fence in the American back country, wearing riding boots, flowers in her hair, and a ridiculously expensive white lace dress. One leg had been propped up on the fence with her, the dress hiked to the knee, the other leg remained draped over the fence, the skirt spilling down. It wasn't an overtly sexy photo, but the very fact that he'd mentioned it indicated there was something about it that had stirred him, and he didn't enjoy the concept that it might have been Henry Crawford who had captured it.
"The photographer for the Ralph Lauren shoot was named Paolo Patrizio. He was seventy if he was a day," she answered with a laugh, splashing a good deal of bubbly water on him. "Jealous, are you?"
"Not a bit," Knightley splashed her back. "He's got nothing on me and that dish towel."
"We'll see about that, Knightley," she laughed as he reached for her, suddenly feeling him launch a tickle attack around her ribs. Suffering a fit of laughter, Emma reached for the sink nozzle, turning the water on full blast and aiming it towards him.
"Nice try, Emme. I've known you played dirty since you were five," he shot back, tried blocking her and only causing the nozzle to escape from her grip completely and spray everywhere.
"Knightley!" she squeaked, slipping and sliding.
Both Emma and Knightley grappled with the faucet. When they finally calmed the watery storm, laughing, soaked to the skin and covered in bubbles, they looked at each other.
"Oops," she said with a giggle. "Look what you did!"
"Me? You have bubbles in your hair," he laughed.
"Do I?" Emma questioned, looking up at him with an impish grin.
Maybe it was the bubbles, or the water droplets on her cheeks that got to him. Maybe it was the mischevious smile, or the light in her eyes. But Emma just as she stood, right at that moment, was more provocotive to him than any bimbo on the cover of any lads' magazine. He didn't say it aloud. Instead, he did something much simpler.
He kissed her.
Emma melted. Between the water and their own heat, the kiss was electric. She responded to it with her own desire, her own love, her fear, her frustration and need. Her fingers raked down his neck as he tasted her, feeling her skin flush as his hands traveled to her waist, tightened around it, and then pulled her closer still.
Two things in tangent brought them back to reality: the rattle of a pair of keys outside, and the hiss of his beeper. They broke apart like teenagers caught kissing by the headmaster.
"Work," Knightley took a deep, unsteady breath, and then another. His hospital beeper buzzed again, ever the stern task master. The E.R. needed him, and would brook no prolonged goodbyes. He pressed an unsteady kiss to her temple. "I have to go."
"I know," Emma answered, wishing she could cool her blushing cheeks. No goodbye felt sufficient, and so she simply said the only thought she had left in her head. "I love you."
"I love you, too." One thumb lingered at her cheek. He couldn't help it. "I'll see you Friday?"
She managed an unsteady nod, just as the door opened. "Right. Friday."
"Good evening Knightley," Elizabeth greeted the pair with a curious note in her voice. The kitchen was a mess and they were both soaked. "Fun evening?"
Rather than offer much of an explanation, he simply gave her a brisk nod. "Elizabeth. Have a good night."
And that was as much of a goodbye as she got before he was out the door.
"Something sure got him keyed up," Elizabeth said as the door shut behind him.
Emma sighed and reached for another towel to wipe up some of the mess they'd created. If he'd gotten keyed up, he wasn't the only one.
"But when you asked after his family, what did he say?" Elizabeth questioned mid way through Anne's narration. It was Friday evening and Anne was only now getting to the point where she felt ready to talk about her encounter with Frederick Wentworth at the hospital.
Elizabeth Bennet sat on the floor, enjoying a rare break in her day's activities. Her final practice for La Valse had ended at 4:00. She didn't have to be back at the opera house until 6:00 to begin a run-through for tonight's program, Tales from Beatrix Potter, but her costume was going to be heavy and her muscles needed to stay warm. So here she stretched, legs extending into a split, back arching forward until her stomach touched the floor. As a professional ballerina, flexibility was a job requirement. Sixty percent of it was natural ability. Forty percent of it was maintenance, however, and that meant it was her own personal homework. She was always continually stretching muscles when doing random activities: watching television, listening to music, or simply having a chat with her flatmates. Above her, Anne was deep in her own homework: marking papers. She sat on the bed with a stack of tests and aroyal purple pen. The only hint of Emma's presence was the occasional frock flying out of her closet. A dress had just landed somewhere south of Elizabeth's elbow.
"He said they were proud of him. But it wasn't just what he said, it was how he said it." Anne sighed, rubbing her temple and inadvertently leaving a mark. "He's still angry with me and with my family. He has every right to be."
Elizabeth pushed herself up with her palms, shifting her legs out of the split and into an arch until she could touch her toes to her ponytail. "With your family? How do you reckon?"
"My family never approved of him. Father thought that because he came from such a bad part of town, that he was a council house boy. Part of a gang, or something. Elisabetta, Marguerite and I all went to Queens College, but we were required to attend a candle-light dinner every Friday night. I brought Frederick with me once, to try and show them who he was, and what he was really like. I wanted them to like him."
"And how did that go?" Emma said, barely visible as she emerged behind an armload of clothing, boxes and books. She dumped these contents on the floor and settled next to Anne, sorting through them.
"Badly." Anne couldn't help her grim smile at the memory. She still remembered the night when he'd shown up for her family's candle-light dinner. Frederick had been the perfect gentleman, polite, well-spoken and, despite his nerves, maintaining proud posture while seated at her father's table. Even as a teen, he had already looked like an aspiring Navy man. His blond hair had gleamed, well-combed, and he'd worn his best suit jacket. She remembered looking at him over the light of the gold candelabras and thinking he was the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen.
They'd hated him.
"He hadn't even held my hand during dinner, and still Mother pulled me aside at the end of the night and demanded to know if we were sleeping together."
Anne said this without much inflection, as if all parents created such a hyper-controlled environment for their children. She knew this wasn't the case, and certainly wouldn't create that for her own children, but she'd long ago accepted this as her home life.
"Please tell me I heard that wrong." Elizabeth moved out of her stretch, rolling over to lie on her back. She reached her knee to her stomach, pulling her leg up until it touched her face. "How old were you?"
"Sixteen. I think they were just waiting for us to break up. But a year went by, and then another. I thought they'd come to accept him. Frederick probably thought so, too, because he asked me to marry him." Or maybe he thought I loved him enough to do what I wanted, regardless of whatever they said. Because that thought was enough to break her, she didn't indulge it further. Instead, she simply continued the tale. "Their disapproval up to that point was nothing compared to the proposal. Father said I would shame the family. Mother said I'd be throwing my life away."
Done with her stretching and hearing a good deal more self-blame than she thought was due in Anne's voice, Elizabeth pushed off the ground and settled next to the pair on the bed.
"Annie, you hadn't even gone to university and your family was against the match. No one can blame you for saying no to him." Elizabeth said gently, resting a hand on Anne's shoulder. " You were eighteen. No one knows what they want at eighteen."
"Some of us don't know what we want at twenty, either," Emma chimed in with a smile.
Anne smiled mildly back. "But Emma, even if your father disapproved, you would be with George regardless. Wouldn't you?"
"There wasn't much chance of that. Daddy's known Knightley since he and I were kids. My half-sister Sandra is married to Knightley's uncle."
"Married to his uncle?" Elizabeth repeated incredulously. "Isn't he loads older than her?"
"Not really. I'm the product of Daddy's second marriage, remember? My half-sister and I are almost twenty years apart. Sandra married Knightley's uncle Jack when I was four and Knightley was ten. And the next year, when his parents died, Sandra and Jack took him in. He was their ward until he turned eighteen, and so we celebrated nearly all our holidays together. So my father knows Knightley almost as well as he knows Sandra and me. Knightley is probably the only man in the world he's willing to think is good enough for me. It would break my heart if he didn't approve of him, though."
What she didn't add was the fact that yes, she would still be with George Knightley even if her father hadn't approved of the match. But she would also have moved to Hartfield with Knightley himself if she'd had to, working on her father daily until he'd caved. But that was the sort of relationship they had.
Besides, the situations weren't entirely comparable for other reasons. She was twenty now, and would be twenty-one her upcoming birthday. She could approach the situation differently than if she'd had it arise at seventeen or eighteen.
"The worst of it is how we've grown so far apart." Anne continued with her paperwork. "He's a captain in the Royal Navy. How could I not know that?"
"I'm sure there's plenty he doesn't know about you, too. You've had lots of accomplishments to be proud about all on your own," Elizabeth reminded her.
"And think of it this way: this is a perfect opportunity to take some time to get to know each other again," Emma added. "By the way, will you let me do your makeup next time we go out somewhere?"
"Makeup?" Anne repeated, distractingly calculating the grade for Molly Elias and writing it at the top of the paper.
"Yeah, that stuff people put on their faces from time to time," Elizabeth spoke up with a teasing note in her voice, although it was Emma she looked at with the bulk of her amusement. " Just why would you be wishing to try a bit of makeup on our Annie, Emma?"
She gave Emma a look that said quite clearly, 'Let's see you talk your way out of this one.'
"I've got so much of it that I never wear. I'd love to give some of it to Anne so she can make use of it," Emma insisted from the other side of Anne, sticking a playful tongue out at Elizabeth who responded in kind by giggling, picking up a pillow and threatening to toss it. In return, Emma grabbed a nearby sock, rolled it up, and threatened it like a curve ball. When Anne looked up, Emma dropped the sock, and Elizabeth dropped the pillow, choking back a laugh.
"That's sweet of you, Emma, but I don't wear much makeup anymore," Anne deferred politely, oblivious to the playful war between her flatmates.
"Please?" Emma pressed with a slight pout. "I have too much of it as it is. You'd be doing me a favor by taking some of it from me. And I would love to practice a few techniques on you."
"If you really think it would help," Anne said doubtfully.
"It will! Which reminds me," she reached into the pile of clothes she'd unceremoniously dumped on the floor. "I'm getting rid of a lot of my extra clothes. I want you two to have some of them. This dress, for instance. Lizzie, you would look dynamite in this. I want you to take it."
At the sight of the dress, amusement on Elizabeth's part shifted to dumbfounded shock.
"Emma," said Elizabeth, "Are you mental? This frock must be worth a king's ransom. I can't be taking it from you like it's something you'd hand to a charity shop."
"Please, Lizzie? A designer gave it to me when I was thirteen and still the proportions of a waif. I haven't been able to wear it for years. You've got that dancer's frame. You'll look beautiful in it, and you'd be doing me a favor." They were roughly the same petite height, she and Lizzie, but while puberty had gifted Emma an enviable figure it had also reduced her wardrobe choices. She could never wear this dress again, and she knew it. "Wear it to one of those fancy ballet galas you'll have to go to in the spring."
Or the first night that Will Darcy takes you out somewhere really expensive.
She knew Elizabeth had come back to the flat the other night making an off-handed comment about her and Will and a tentative agreement to be friends. Friends, she had repeated firmly to Emma, only that. Right. That seemed just as unlikely as Frederick Wentworth hating Anne forever. Now it's just a matter of seeing who caves first, Emma thought, Will or Frederick. Emma handed the dress over to Elizabeth, watching her handle the garment with care. "You have a performance tonight?"
"Aye. Family Night on the Linbury stage. Beatrix Potter. The opera singers have the main stage this evening for Carmen. Full orchestra, beautiful costumes, music up to the rafters. It's supposed to be a beauty. But it's bunny ears for me." She leaped up as if she'd spent the better part of the last hour lounging around instead of stretching. "I'd best be off. Have fun tonight, the pair of you.And Emme, thank you for the dress. It's too generous by half, I swear it. Let Knightley know I was asking after him, will you?"
Emma smiled. "I will."
She gave the pair a cheerful wave, grabbed her workout bag, and was out the door. Little did she know that by the end of the night she would end up with a whole lot more than bunny ears.
"Almost done, Miss Dashwood," Knightley looked up with a reassuring smile. His patient, Marianne Dashwood, had been a last-minute assignment in the always frantic ER. She was a chestnut haired beauty with dewy skin and golden exotically-shaped eyes. The warmth of the smile he got in return vaguely reminded him of Emma. He was due to change out of his scrubs and pick her up for their date soon. He'd been counting down the minutes all day.
"Will it scar? " Marianne questioned. It was the second time she'd injured it on a nature walk within the past year. She'd been too busy admiring the sky to notice the rock she'd tripped on. "I wouldn't care so much, but the agency I'm booked with will be furious if it did. They'll be mad enough that this takes me out of rotation for the next few weeks."
"Elect. I'm a runway model," she said this with very little import, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I like it well enough, but what I really want to do is sing. I write poetry, too."
He wasn't as impressed by the title of 'model' as most men tended to be. Instead he just nodded and responded conversationally, "My girlfriend's a former model. Emma Woodhouse. Once my shift's done here, I'm taking her out on a date."
"Emma Woodhouse? Of course I know her! Tell her to give me a call, will you?" She dug into her pocket for a piece of paper and a pen, scribbled her number on it, then handed it to him with a friendly smile. She could see what Emma saw in him. Tall, handsome, dark hair, great face. She might have fancied him herself if not for Willoughby. "What a pair you and Emma must make. She's got that gorgeous smile, and I would commit highway robbery for that figure of hers. I always hoped she'd end up with a nice chap. There must be something in the water around here that breeds handsome doctors. Every time I come in here, I meet one that's positively gorgeous. I bet you're a wonderful kisser, too."
Emma could steer a conversation in the direction that suited her, but she could also make casual social chatter an elegant art, discrete and charming. Marianne, it seemed spoke whatever romantic thought came into her head, without much of a filter.
"I'm dating a staff member too. Dr. Willoughby," she continued blithely, "it's how I met him in the first place. I twisted my ankle on a walk a year ago."
"And he was the attending physician?"
"Uh-huh. I was sort of hoping he would be available to see me when I came in this time around, but Jamie never tells me his work schedule. I think he's worried I'll pop up here unannounced with flowers or a balloon bouquet and embarrass him, or something."
The comment made him bite back a grin. Knightley finished the last stitch and cocked a brow at her.
"Of course. I love a grand gesture." Marianne smiled brightly. She looked curiously at the work he'd done. "Do you know Jamie? Jamie Willoughby?"
Dr. James Willoughby. Forty years old, a senior physician. The man had a boisterous laugh and a dashing smile, a keen intellect and a more than healthy ego. Knightley couldn't claim they were friends, but he had a working knowledge of the man. One thing was certain: Willoughby was probably twice her age.
"Only a little," Knightley hedged. "I'm not certain if he's working this shift, or not."
"Hey, George. You paged me?"
Brandon Cornwall stood in the doorway, holding a handful of papers. Introspective and quiet, he had a musician's voice and an even temperament. His dark hair was closely cropped, the remnant of a brief stint as a military doctor. He looked more like a priest than a soldier, though, with ascetic features, a sharp jaw and soulful eyes. He was twenty-seven.
"My shift's at an end, but there's still a bit of paperwork to be filled out for this patient. Marianne Dashwood is her name. I was hoping you could schedule her for a follow-up appointment?"
"Absolutely." Brandon nodded efficiently. "I'm scheduled to work till midnight and my schedule's cleared out while I wait for some lab---"
Brandon's voice tampered off completely once his eyes drifted to the patient on the table. It was like watching a man wander into a dream, Knightley thought more than a little sympathetically.
As for Marianne, for a girl who had hitherto been lounging unaware, she suddenly seemed more than aware of this stranger's gaze. Rather than revel in it like a true exhibitionist, she sat up, rolled her trouser leg down over the stitches and looked away.
Perhaps she had a touch of discretion after all.
"The patient's chart," Knightley picked up the object and handed it to Brandon with a pat on the arm. Brandon settled in the vacated chair beside the exam table, eyes fixed squarely to the chart as if he were afraid to look at her again.
"Is that a flannel bow tie?" she questioned the young doctor.
"Hmm? It was a gift from an old friend."
A very old friend, Marianne suspected. It looked more suitable for an eighty year old than a man in his twenties.
"Interesting taste, your friend," was all she said before the conversation turned to silence once more.
"George?" Henrietta questioned, poking her head into the room. "There's birthday cake for Nurse Miller in the break room. If you're interested, I'd go get some soon.Or I could fetch some for you and leave it at the nurse's station, if you want?"
" That's sweet of you, Henny, but I think I'll pass," Knightley replied. " "The trauma surgeons are changing shift soon and I'd like to leave some for them." "Thoughtful, as always," Henrietta gushed. "Are you shadowing Dr. Ferris again in the ER tonight?"
"He has plans." Marianne interjected herself into the conversation. The brunette, ever canny, looked over Henrietta with a deliberate smile. Marianne could spot a crush when she saw one, and this Henrietta girl definitely had a big one on George Knightley. As Emma wasn't here, Marianne was more than willing to defend what was rightfully hers in her absence. "He'll be with Emma tonight. His girlfriend. On a date."
"Which I'm already ten minutes late for." Knightley agreed as he finished Marianne's medical record for the day, oblivious to the girl war around him.
"A date?" Henrietta bit her lower lip, frowning.
"Henny," Dr. Willoughby spoke up from behind the assembling group, derision lacing his tone, "it's that thing two people do when they like each other. They go out. They have dinner, maybe see a show. Maybe you could try it once in a while. And speaking of people I like, how's my Mari doing? I heard you were hurt."
"Willoughby! You got my text?" Marianne's eyes widened and she leaped off the table as if nothing at all were the matter with her leg. "I hoped you were working today."
It was a hard thing, watching a man go from mesmerized to shattered in a second. But that was precisely what happened as Brandon watched Marianne leap into Willoughby's arms, planting a sound kiss on his lips.
Fixing bodies was easy compared to fixing hearts, George Knightley thought as he said his discrete goodbyes and scrawled his name at the bottom of his final medical chart. He was officially off the clock.
They cut through the theater district, with its bustling crowds, sparkling lights and colored billboards
, then down a dimly lit alleyway. Here was a series of boutique shops, late night cafes and brightly lit bookstores. At the edge of the row, Emma saw a small restaurant with a sign, "Moroccan Flower," painted artfully over a scarlet red lintel. George held the door, guiding her in with a smile.
Inside, golden lamps cast shadowy light on red walls. Votive candles flickered at each small, intimate table setting. Couples sat on embroidered cushions, talking or laughing quietly as they enjoyed their meals. The smell of fresh mint and spices lingered in the air.
"Welcome to Moroccan Flower," a lovely, dark haired hostess greeted the pair with a smile. "Table for two?"
Knightley glanced at her.
"Is this okay with you? I thought about the Savoy, but this seemed more fun."
Emma squeezed his hand. "It's perfect."
She'd been in a plethora of expensive, fashionable restaurants during her modeling days, yet somehow stepping into this intimate little restaurant with the man she knew best in the world made her feel more alive than ten Michelin meals combined. Which is perhaps why she literally jumped when her mobile phone buzzed. Of all the people to get interrupted by work on their date night, Emma hadn't anticipated that it would be her. With a furrowed brow, she dug the object out of her coat pocket.
"A text from Norris." She tilted the phone to try and glimpse it better in the shadowy light. "She says it's an emergency. That I need to call her."
Norris Mansfield. Norris was the person who'd overseeing her professional contracts since age thirteen, the person who' secured her deal with Elect Modeling in the first place. Sixty-five years old, she was a chain-smoking hard drinking, hard talking California talent agent. If she thought she needed a man's name to be considered tough in the hard boiled world of entertainment, she was wrong. Norris was as tough as steel tipped nails, with or without the name.
Hearing the name, Knightley willfully schooled his expression to passivity. A cool remark about the modeling world suddenly wanting what they couldn't have was right on the tip of his tongue, but dealing with Norris and the world she represented would be Emma's decision. No one else should make those decisions for her, least of all him. "If you think you need to take the call, go ahead."
"Are you sure?" Emma bit her lip. "I wouldn't, but she said it was an emergency."
"I'm sure." George nodded,. "I'll wait."
Emma ducked into the coat room, dialing her agent's number quickly.
"Norris? It's 8:00 pm on a Friday. What's the emergency, are you okay?"
"Am I okay? Am I okay? Emma, I'll be okay when you to start answering your emails in a timely manner! Have you gotten any of the contract details I've sent you in the past few days? The lawyers from De Bourgh are already on my back about this, and we can't keep them waiting around forever. It's been five business days and I'm still waiting to hear from you!"
"I--" Emma momentarily closed her eyes, frustration mounting. "De Bourgh. I've already told Henry Crawford I'm not interested. Why do they even want me, I'm not booking jobs through Elect anymore."
"Who cares about Elect? The De Bourgh contract is the biggest payoff I've seen on my desk in months. Months. They don't care about your bookings through Elect. Think about this rationally, child, with Elect out of the equation it's one less cut from your salary. You need to come back to America, sign on the dotted line, and get a dose of some California common sense! Your contract with Elect Modeling might be terminated, but you're still in my client book, honey. I can still negotiate on your behalf and I will, Emma, if you'll just let me do it! I've known you since you were a kid, haven't I? I thought we were like family, Emma. I thought I was like a second mother to you!" At the word mother, Emma's spine stiffened and her grip on her phone tightened. "I could have your usual requirements, percentages and residuals faxed over to De Bourgh's legal team tonight. Just give me the okay. We could have this whole thing ironed out within weeks. You never want to book another gig? Fine. But this could be one worthwhile final job."
"Norris, I can't talk about this right now. I'm on a date. I--" she let out a frustrated breath, "we'll talk Monday, okay?"
"Date? Never let the press hear you have a boyfriend, sweetie. How many times have I told you that? Any man who sees a photo of you needs to think he can have you--"
Emma let out a frustrated huff and did what she should have done the moment she heard the name De Bourgh thrown into the conversation: she turned off her phone completely. She didn't need Norris calling her back. Or her father checking in on her from a business conference in Rio, or her half-sister ringing to see how her date was going, or anyone else in the world trying to talk her ear off.
What she needed more than anything else was the very man who was currently patiently waiting for her. Determined not to let anything get in the way of her evening, she unbuttoned her coat and slipped it off, turning in search of a hook to hang it on.
"I know, Louisa, I can't believe he said he was working on a Friday night either."
Emma allowed herself a casual glance at the woman who'd just entered the coat check room, talking animatedly on her mobile. Tall--a solid six inches above Emma's diminutive 5'2-well tanned, with white blond hair and features as sharp as her voice, the woman was familiar, just like the outfit. Emma knew two things when she spotted them: a designer-cut chiffon mini-dress, and an acquaintance of Knightley's. The former was a Roberto Cavalli. The latter was Caroline Bingley.
"Don't worry, Louisa, I've come up with a master plan," Caroline continued. "I'll be in his arms by Valentine's Day. Just wait and see."
Once she'd concluded her call, Emma couldn't help herself. She was naturally gregarious by nature, and to leave without acknowledging the woman would be rude. No matter how uncharitable Caroline had seemed the last time they'd run into one another, her father's stress on good manners was paramount.
"Caroline, right? I'm Emma. George Knightley's girlfriend? I was just noticing your outfit. No one does a tiered ruffle quite like Cavalli. I remember that dress from his spring collection last year. It's a lovely piece."
Emma would know that collection in detail, considering she had been dressed by him for a photo shoot in Paris. Twice. This was a filmy, red and white number, more appropriate for a San Tropez summer than a London snow storm. Emma could out-last cold weather like the best of her old profession, but even she drew the line at snow storms.
Unfortunately for Emma, however, Caroline heard the phrase 'last year' from the mouth of a picture perfect beauty and her mind immediately turned to barbs and arrows.
"The New Year's Eve party. Yes, I remember you. The model, right?" Her smile turned icy. "Here's a piece of advice, little model: I find a year old Cavalli effectively holds men like George Knightley or Will Darcy or whomever it is that you're currently taking your clothes off for, much more effectively than a knit shirt from whatever bargain bin you pulled that from. One would think a model could do better. If you'll excuse me."
Stunned to silence, Emma watched her walk off. The 'taking your clothes off' remark was the bit that really stung. That was one of the worst parts about modeling, the not uncommon perception that a model was just a step up from a whore. But she could either shrug off that remark, or seethe and hit back and lucky for Caroline, she had already done her seething for the night.
And, she thought dryly, this was the first time in her entire life that anyone had accused the daughter of business tycoon Royce Woodhouse of shopping in a bargain bin.
Emma looked down at her own outfit with a shrug. A modest budget was something she'd have to get used to, but she liked what she'd chosen. Instead of short, daring and sexy like Caroline, she'd opted for a blue shirt-dress clung to her curves, leggings and a clever pair of suede ankle boots.
She emerged from the coat room to see Knightley leaning against wall, still patiently waiting for her.
In her absence, Knightley had quietly charmed a rather awkward looking bus boy into a companionable conversation. The young man was talking, laughing, gesturing animatedly. Knightley chuckled quietly in return.
Surely, she thought as she watched him, even Caroline would approve of his outfit. The crisp white shirt along with black trousers-also an Italian cut, Emma's keen eye recognized-were a perfect fit. Understated, handsome, vital, that was her Knightley.
He'd always had a soft spot for outcasts, Emma thought with a wistful smile. Including her, she thought with a flash of introspection. A genetic freak, solitary and high in Hartfield when she wasn't in front of a camera. For so long, she'd felt like a perpetual thirteen years old with a crush, always fretting over her appearance before Hartfield's annual holiday dinners, feeling as giddy as a puppy whenever he'd strolled into her father's living room. She was crazy about him, but the fact that he'd chosen her to fall in love with out of every woman he could possibly have chosen was equal part blessing and mystery to Emma.
At the sight of her, his brows lifted and he pushed off the wall with that handsome, subtle smile.
"Is the outfit okay?" she questioned, keenly aware of his gaze. "I know it's not a Ghesqui?re or a Galliano or anything, but it's comfortable and warm and--"
"You look beautiful. And I don't even know how to say those names properly."
"You can say ten books of medical nonsense," she countered, the edges of her mouth turning upwards. She could feel her worries fade away as his hand slid down her arm, fingering the fabric at her wrist appreciatively.
"Tricks of the trade, Emme," he answered with a grin. She'd felt certain he would kiss her, but instead of taking her lips, he lowered his mouth to her exposed neck, letting it linger there until he heard her sharp inhale of desire.
Satisfied that he'd proved his point, he lifted his head and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear, meeting her gaze with an easy smile. "I like the outfit."
As the hostess led them towards their table, Emma began to observe the restaurant layout in greater detail. The florid, modern artwork adorned more than just the outside. The small sign near one corner of the entryway piqued her interest.
"Does that sign say gallery?"
"Yes." The hostess smiled. "My husband's art work. It hangs throughout the restaurant, as well. Talented, isn't he?"
Life long experience of her interests warned Knightley as to where her mind had drifted. "Art first, then food?"
"Art first," she agreed.
The impromptu gallery was small, with red wallpaper and modestly framed pieces. The restaurant seemed fittingly named, given most of the paintings were flowers. Some were painted in delicate colors, others were flashy oils.
They walked the small space independently, each admiring, assessing and enjoying in a natural and comfortable silence. Emma lingered on the soft, petal-like watercolors. Knightley seemed drawn to the bolder oil works.
It was only when she passed the last painting that Knightley slid a companionable arm around her shoulder. It was an old gesture from a lifetime ago, when they'd been simply best friends. Perhaps, she realized as she relaxed against him, it had always held the undercurrent of something more. A place where trust and love met.
A slow, easy smile spread across her face. "Starving."
When they settled at their table, Emma decided she was happy she'd chosen a practical outfit for once. The table was cozy and intimate, but low on the ground. The chairs consisted of pillows on the ground. It would make managing a short dress like the one she'd seen on Caroline more than a little difficult. A band had set up, and syncopated rhythm danced in her ears. Candle light flickered between them.
Both placed their orders, and after the food was set out to artful display in bowls and dishes, they eased into a comfortable conversation. He seemed to know she didn't want to discuss the phone call to Norris, the modeling agency, or the De Bourgh contract, and so the topic was sidestepped deftly. The discussion turned to his work at the hospital, and to his last patient of the day.
"I met a friend of yours." Knightley paused, hesitating at the term. "Acquaintance. She said she knew you. Marianne Dashwood?"
"Marianne? I know she lives in London, but I haven't heard from her in ages." She took a bite of her meal, letting her fork linger in her mouth as she contemplated her friend.
They'd fallen out of contact recently, but she would still consider her a friend. Marianne would get into moods where she'd want to chat or get together every other day, and then suddenly Emma wouldn't hear from her for months. For all Marianne's charm, she was a difficult girl to get close to.
"She wanted me to give you her mobile number," Knightley reached into his pocket to slip it to her. "Said you two should catch up for coffee."
Emma picked up the slip of paper, seeing the 0 in the number had been shaped like a heart. Typical Marianne. Unlike Emma, who'd tried to sidestepped relationships completely until Knightley, Marianne was always flinging herself directly into the path of love. She was always bringing boyfriends to runways, falling in and out of love. Marianne was romantic, dramatic, audacious, reckless, and she had a weakness for the most incredibly beautiful men.
"Marianne's quite the charmer, when she feels like it. Did she try to chat you up? You're just her type. You have a serious streak, and she's never liked serious, but--" Emma glanced at him mischievously, twisting the paper between her fingers before pocketing it, "I think she could ignore that once she saw those smoldering eyes of yours."
Knightley cringed, raking his hand through his hair. Nothing made him squirm quite like a comment on his appearance, which he was largely unaware of, and preferred to ignore. "My eyes don't smolder."
"Sure they do." Her own blue eyes brightenedwith obvious humor. Oh, this was a fun game. "And when you're trying to argue something, you tug at your collar and you furrow your brows; it's all very sexy. Any girl would think so." She paused, looking around the room discretely. "Caroline Bingley's certainly been staring at you half the night. I saw her earlier in the coat check room. And for the record, she did not approve of my outfit."
His dark gaze strayed from her for the first time all evening. Caroline Bingley. He hadn't even noticed the icy blonde was in the room or that she was, in fact, staring at him. It didn't worry him much. He'd known Caroline since they were attending colloquium at university as freshers, and her long standing obsession with Will Darcy didn't seem near fading if the New Year's Eve party had been any indication. If Caroline had been watching them half the night, it was probably to ascertain that Emma was truly on a date with Knightley. Will Darcy's single status would then be secure.
"Whatever you see in my eyes, Emma, it's for you. No one else." Behind that serious mouth and those dark eyes there was a great deal of heat, especially sitting this close. Smoldering, Emma decided breathlessly. His eyes were definitely smoldering.
The waitress's discrete throat clearing alerting the pair to her presence. "Would you want dessert for the evening?"
"No, thank you," Emma politely demurred, "I think we're fine with coffee."
"The food was wonderful," Knightley added with a warm smile as the waitress gathered their dishes. "The best I've had since Marrakesh."
The waitress's surprise was obvious. "You both have been to Morocco?"
"Yes," Knightley said, just as Emma answered, "No."
After the waitress departed, Knightley looked at her, both curious and amused. "You've been to Morocco."
"It doesn't count."
He chuckled. "Is it the photo shoot that doesn't count, or is it the sunburn you complained about when you came back that doesn't count?"
"I was there three days." She allowed herself a sigh. "I saw a hotel, an airport and Taylor, who was assigned to both tutor and babysit me." The glamorous life of a teenage model on a campaign shoot, she thought with more than a little irony: no autonomy for sightseeing, bad airplane food, rock hard hotel beds and homework. "You traveled there with Darcy. Having adventures. Backpacking from Tangier to Marrakesh, you told me once. That counts as going to Morocco. I know I'm not a camping sort of girl, and I don't like bugs, or mountain lions or whatever else they have there, but I used to be so jealous of you. You were off having all these adventures, meeting all sorts of people, and seeing so many things..."
Knightley set his coffee cup down.
"You could too, Emme. You could go tomorrow if you wanted, leave for Paris, or Russia, or wherever you want. See the world on your terms, with no one to answer to, not even me. I wouldn't blame you. I'd understand."
He squeezed her hand. He would miss her. Heaven help him, he would miss her more now than ever. But he would understand. He'd known her all her life, her protective father, her tutor Taylor, her schedule dictated by Norris or Elect or whatever designer needed her, wherever they needed her. He understood all of that, and what it was to be twenty and craving independence and control. "I'd wait for you."
"I don't want to spend my father's money to go anywhere. If I went, it would be with my savings. Something I'd earned. Besides, you weren't alone. A lot of your travels were with Darcy. I don't think I'd want to be completely alone, either." She squeezed his hand back and gave him a grateful smile. He would never believe that he was the first person who'd ever said anything of the sort to her. Or maybe he would. Maybe that was why he'd said it. "For now, it's enough for me to hear about your adventures. Tell me more about Morocco. I want to hear more about it than just the airport and the hotel I was able to see..."
"Darcy and I took a ferry from Spain and stayed a week. It's beautiful. Dangerous, in parts. We saw Roman ruins and desert valleys, a dozen little ports with hidden beaches. Sea grass and palm trees. The water in summer is as warm as a bath." He lifted her hand and kissed it gently. He would float the idea of taking her there someday, he decided suddenly. Or maybe Greece or Spain would suit her more. Somewhere hidden away, just the two of them.
"Are the flowers there like the paintings in that gallery?"
"Some of them." He turned her hand over, as if examining the inside of her palm, then lowered his mouth to her wrist. It was a small gesture, gentlemanly even, but still so intimate that her heart skipped. When his mouth drew away, his thumb began a sensuous pattern on the soft skin. "Why don't you paint anymore?"
Distracted by his touch, the question took her completely off guard. "Hmm?"
"You used to paint, draw, sketch. All the time. I have a stack of letters you've written me from around the world and all of them include sketches or paintings, even little pencil drawings in the margins. And I know for a fact that you couldn't get through a math lesson without drawing the pattern of a bird or an ivy branch or a cloud on your geometry notebook. I tried to tutor you once over Christmas holiday, remember?"
The slight tease in his tone cleared her head a bit, but the question remained. He was right. At one point in her life, she'd always been drawing or painting or sketching. Why had she given it up?
"No one seemed to approve of it as anything more than a hobby. Sandra said it wasn't sensible. Taylor thought I should be spending my free time reading."
"What did you think?"
"I thought that painting could be lonely or difficult. Or exhilarating and wonderful" She shrugged. "Mostly, I think it made me happy."
"If it makes you happy, you should paint."
It wasn't dictation or advice. It was just a simple statement. If she liked it, she should do it. He was planting the idea rather than suggesting a decision, but he made it sound incredibly easy. It wasn't. Painting, drawing, art in general, was often a solitary activity, full of self-doubt and perfectionist tenancies. Besides, the phrase starving artist was all too true. The thought of continuing modeling, be it for De Bourgh or freelance, made her miserable but the money was good. Art did not pay well.
Not that she'd ever tried selling any of her art. The thought of painting again, of trying to earn an honest wage from it, both terrified and thrilled her.
"Daddy would say I should set my mind to more constructive tasks, like understanding how to file a tax return."
"It's your life, Emma, isn't it?"
Her life. Hers. He'd said it gently enough, without accusation, but he'd been touching on something crucial for much of the night. So much of her life was controlled by other people. Her mother had pushed her into modeling when she'd been too young to realize she was being used, sold, and exploited. Photographers decided how she posed in photographs, designers chose what she wore, and stylists dictated her makeup and hair. Her father loved her, but even from afar that love was tempered by what she should and shouldn't do, where she should and shouldn't go-what was safe or unsafe. He did it because he loved her, worried about her, wanted to protect her. But there were days when that sort of behavior made it hard to breathe. She'd never leaped from a plane like Knightley, or worked in a clinic in Africa, or backpacked from Marrakesh to Tangier. But he was right. She could if she really wanted to. It was her life. Hers.
"Anything that can make you happy has to be better for you than learning about tax returns or geometry."
Her head was filled with such serious thoughts, it somehow compelled her to strike on the lighter vein in that remark. "You still remember that tutoring session, all those years ago?"
"You bet." His eyes gleamed in the candle-light, and he gave her a crooked grin. She' been sixteen, trudging through geometry homework over the Christmas holiday weekend. He'd been twenty-one and assigned to help her before dinner. Two hours into their labor, she'd stood from her father's polished chair in Hartfield's gothic library, pushed the window sash wide open and flung the book from her sight. "Please, please never consider a career in mathematics."
"It wasn't so bad, really," she laughed, "It was probably my best geometry lesson ever."
"Until we saw the dent it put in your father's Lamborghini."
"Yeah." Emma's laughter was spontaneous and youthful. "Not for an instant did he believe that Mittens the cat had accidentally pushed it out with her tail."
"Worst lie I've ever heard," Knightley laughed.
"Don't get me started on bad lies, George Carter Knightley." She answered with pluck as the conversation relaxed into familiar ground. "You never lie, but when you do, you lie terribly."
His eyes narrowed. "Like when?"
"Like the time you came to Hartfield with three stitches on your leg and I asked what happened, and you said you'd gone sailing with Darcy and Fred. Two hours later, you told my father and Uncle Jack it was a football injury."
"Hey, cleats can be sharp."
"Sharp as a rudder when a boat capsizes?" she teased.
He grinned. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"Incredible. Or how about when I wanted to learn how to ice skate, and Daddy wouldn't let me because he thought it was too dangerous. I left the dinner table in tears..."
He remembered that as well. He'd been fourteen. She'd been nine.
"You'd been watching it on television and decided you wanted to be an Olympian..."
"The next morning you woke me up, told me to get my warmest clothes on, and we walked to Donwell Pond. I didn't have ice skates. You stuffed your hockey skates with old socks until they fit me. And then you taught me how to ice skate." Her eyes softened at the memory. Fourteen year old Knightley, gangly and reed thin, stuffing his hockey skates until they could fit a nine year old girl. They had spent hours slipping and sliding and giggling breathlessly, but she'd learned to skate.
"When we got home hours later, caked in snow, flushed and with blisters on my feet, you told Daddy we'd gone for a long walk and had fallen in a snow drift. You said the blisters were from tying my shoe laces too tight."
"That was a terrible lie, wasn't it?" Knightley's chuckle turned to a full out laugh. "But at least you always got the truth out of me..."
"Except for once," she countered with a curious little smile. "I was sixteen, you were twenty-one. I came to stay with you at Oxford the weekend before you graduated."
That stilled his laughter. He recalled that night, probably with much more clarity than she did. The night she'd come to stay had also been the night half the colleges in Oxford had a roaring graduation party. The music had been blaring, the crowds were massive and somewhere in the mix, he'd lost track of her. George Wickham had coaxed her into countless cups of alcohol in his absence. It was the first time he'd ever seen her drunk, and the last. Will Darcy had been the one to find her, surrounded by the lush Oxford elite, up to her elbows in punch. Knightley had carried her back to his room, and then gone to find George.
"How much do you remember about that night?"
"I remember the boy who served me drinks telling me that my drink was only fruit punch. And I remember waking up in your room to the sight of you with a bruise on your jaw. Someone socked you in the face. You never have told me who, or why."
"And you really want to know."
"Oh, only since I was sixteen," she teased.
"Okay." He leaned in close, his voice lowering. "You wandered off during the party. Darcy found you . He brought you to me. I took you to my room, made sure you were in bed, and then went back to find who'd served you. It was a man named George Wickham. He made a remark about leaving the door unlocked so he could get you into bed by sunrise and so I punched him. He punched back. It was Darcy who dragged us apart. He threatened Wickham, said that things would be infinitely worse for him if he had both of us to deal with. Wickham backed off." After this rather sparse rendering of events, his tone warmed noticeably, "After which, Darcy gave me an ice pack and a beer, sat me down and calmly asked when, exactly, had I realized I was in love with you?"
Even though it was a casual admission, her heart trilled. "What did you say?"
"I said all my life, and ten minutes ago. That is the truth, Emme." His voice was rich and calm, and his dark eyes were warm in the candle-light as they met her gaze. "And here's another: I've wanted to dance with you since we got here. Will you dance with me?"
"You don't dance," she countered. The trill in her heart turning to doves which fluttered wildly.
"True. But I can't resist that bluedress." He leaned in to kiss her ear, adding in a teasing whisper, "Don't tell Caroline."
The floor of the small dance space was covered in lush rugs. The walls were redwith twinkling lights hung all around. They walked to the edge of the dance floor, then came together, arms encircling. The light was low and gold and the band played a soft, sensual, heated rhythm that reminded Emma of a desert summer. Emotionally, she'd never been as close to anyone as she'd been to him; physically, she'd never felt what he could conjure. Even simply holding her like this, his hand in the small of her back, made her feel breathless and dizzy and dreamy.
They lingered there, dancing hip to hip until the band packed up and the votive candles were blown out. Knightley took her back to her building, walking with her up to her fourth-floor flat and waiting even as she rattled around in her purse to find her keys. She couldn't believe the night was already at its conclusion. The thought of parting from him made her heart ache.
"Thank you, George." It was an incredibly rare use of his first name, made more special because of its infrequency. She slipped her right hand into his, and then her left, drawing him close. "I had a great time."
"So did I," he said quietly, giving her a soft smile. Knightley looked down at their conjoined hands, pondering something, and then up at her again. "Emma...about the night you came to Oxford and stayed with me. You really don't remember anything else about that night, do you?"
She tilted her head and gave him a look that Knightley found was unique to her alone, coy and curious. "No..."
Rather than look worried or embarrassed, his smile became boyish. He actually chuckled.
"Then there's something I should tell you. This Christmas wasn't the first time I kissed you. Or, more accurately, you kissed me."
Her eyes widened, and then narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"You were sixteen and drunk. I had no idea you wanted to kiss me when you did it. For all I knew, you didn't even realize it was me that you kissed. And then when you woke up and never mentioned it once, I was certain it meant nothing to you."
"I kissed you. As in, I honestly kissed you? Knightley--" it both surprised and amused him how pink her cheeks went. "I have wanted to get kissed by you since I was about twelve years old!"
"Yes, really. You have no idea what torture it is to wake up at twelve years old and suddenly realize the boy who you adored all your life is eighteen, not at all related to you, and completely gorgeous. Years of torture, Knightley. Years. And if our first kiss actually happened when I was sixteen, it is the world's worst joke that I can't even remember it."
He knew more than a little about pain where she was concerned. He had, after all, realized at twenty-one that he was in full-grown love with his sixteen year old best friend. She'd been far too young for him, was the person he knew best in the world, and was one of most popular models at the time. All of that basically ensured in his mind that when she did turn eighteen, he would be the last person she'd consider romantically. It was one of the most excruciating realizations of his life. Even after she'd turned eighteen, the fear of losing her completely had compelled him to still waited two years more before confessing how he felt.
"You were sixteen and really, really drunk," he reminded her, brushing her hair back gently. "If you going to Morocco and only seeing the airport doesn't count, that kiss definitely doesn't count."
"Can you tell me what happened?"
"I took you back to my room and put you into bed. You said your head hurt and asked me to lie down with you until you fell asleep. I stayed with you awhile, watching you breathe, waiting for you to sleep. I thought you had until you opened your eyes, rolled onto your side, touched my face with both hands--" Knightley mimicked the gesture, softly cupping her face with his hands, "and you did this."
As gentle as a whisper, he touched his mouth to hers. She'd been expecting fire in this kiss, but instead found a soft, slow burn that melted her heart. She leaned into him, completely enamored, and breathed deep.
The kiss ended as gently as it had begun, breaking apart naturally. Emma met his gaze.
"It was a good first kiss," she whispered.
He smiled in agreement. "It was a very good first kiss."
Once they'd said their goodbyes, she shut the door quietly behind him, already replaying the night in her mind. True and complete happiness didn't come often, but while it lasted she was determined to hold on to it.