Posted on 2012-12-23
It was hot in the ballroom, and muggy enough to steam up a few windows. Elizabeth was certain that the swirling snow outside the floor-to-ceiling windows would be a relief from the overheated dramas playing out around her. Louisa Hurst was annoyed with her husband, whose delight in sipping the `92 Merlot was darkening his mood while loosening his lips. His comments to Caroline about her overlong stay on the tanning bed had been the last straw for the younger of the sisters; she was off in a corner, frustrated by her painful discoloration, and wondering how to gain the favor of the elusive man she desired.
Jane and Charles were the center of attention, and Elizabeth gloried in watching them dance and laugh, exchanging warm glances with each other and all of those wishing them well. It was, thought Elizabeth, the happiest of all engagement parties.
Her fingers, like her shoulders, were bare. She pressed her forehead against the glass, willing her mind to be blank. Happy though she was for her sister's joy, Elizabeth was exhausted--from thinking and remembering and reshaping events and conversations she desperately wished she could change, editing her anger and stupidity and recasting the role she played in this drama.
Where was he? she wondered.
The small ballroom down the hall hadn't been booked. The economy was slow, and the owners were thrilled to turn off the heat in the smaller, unused room and fill up the larger of the ballrooms to keep their staff on and well-paid throughout the holidays.
It was cooler in here, William thought, away from everyone. He frowned and shook his head. Away from her. He had made his toast, warmly championing Charles and his great luck in finding a woman who could tolerate his love for `80s techno music, architectural boat tours and oversized mutts. The crowd had chuckled and then sighed when he quoted Pablo Neruda, a poet, he said, "even Charles would read." He didn't know how Elizabeth had reacted. He couldn't look at her, couldn't look at her eyes as he talked about romance and its meaning to a man whose heart had been captured and broken by his own great love. It was bad enough, he thought ruefully, that his voice quavered a bit on the poem. So he'd stolen away, seeking a quiet place to sit and wait it out. Now, looking outside, he wondered if this long evening might grow even longer and more painful; the snow was pouring down and the crowd--surrounded by an abundance of food and drink served by the well-compensated staff--might settle in till morning.
He strolled over to the baby grand in the corner and began fingering the keys.
Elizabeth wandered out of the ballroom. There was a small bench at the end of the hallway. If she could just sit there for a few minutes, perhaps she could face another dance with another cousin or nice guy who knew Charles way back when. The pounding of the band's almost note-for-note recreation of an English Beat tune faded as she neared the bench. Elizabeth heard music, piano not synthesizer, just a few feet away. She pushed open the door and walked in, smiling at the familiar tune and humming along. She stood behind the potted palms and listened, the player barely discernible in the room lit only by moonlit snow. Then he looked up, eyes met, and there was a mutual gasp.
Ever the gentleman, he broke the silence first. "Um, hi." William's fingers froze, and he lowered his hands to the bench and grasped its smooth edge.
"Hi," she said sheepishly, dipping her head to one side. "I'm sorry to interrupt, um, it was hot in there, so I needed some air…."
William glanced at her, trying to read her expression, before staring back at the keys. She was so beautiful he could barely form words. "Yeah, parties are a bit much sometimes."
Elizabeth looked down at the carpet. It was patterned in squares, only half a dozen lay between them. She moved a little closer. One square down. "You made a great toast."
He dared a look up at her. Emerald green eyes met his and his throat went dry. Her dress matched her eyes. It would have matched the ring that sat in a box in his sock drawer. "Thanks. Charles is a lucky man."
That brought a smile. "Well, Jane's lucky too." Elizabeth braved another two squares, stopping at the edge of the piano. He watched her fingers as they rubbed the gleaming wood. "You play very well. Charlie Brown?" she was smiling, her eyebrows raised.
He stared at her hands. They were beautiful, her nails were red, her fingers were bare. Did she mind that?
"Yes. Um, when Georgie was about five, she was obsessed with "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and especially with Snoopy. I learned the song so she could dance to it." He looked up at Elizabeth, his cheeks blushing, his shoulders shrugging. "I still play it for her every year on Christmas Day."
Something swelled in her. "Does she still dance to it?"
"Er, no. Not anymore." William looked past her, avoiding her eyes and staring at the lights in the ficus tree. He wanted to stand up, he felt trapped with embarrassment but he was afraid to move and scare her away.
Elizabeth shook her head. "That was, I mean is, very sweet of you. She's lucky to have such a nice big brother." She smiled at him, her eyes sparkling. The wariness he was so used to was gone, replaced by the warmth he'd thought reserved for the likes of Jane or her father.
William froze and bit his lip. He looked down and stared at his hands, rubbing his fingers on the edge of the keyboard. "Well, I-- . She seems to think so, but, well, we'll see if she likes her present this year. It's harder as she gets older and I'm never sure…."
The memory of William's leaving last spring to celebrate his sister's birthday--the sister she thought to be in drug rehab; the sister she had so thoughtlessly assumed had parents raising her, not a lonely 27-year-old brother; and her angry and cruel willingness to believe lies--suddenly hit her. Elizabeth's smile weakened, she blinked rapidly.
"What is it? The gift? I mean, if you don't mind telling me."
He shook his head. He'd tell her anything she asked him. "Four front-row tickets to Lady Gaga in London next month…for her and some friends."
It had taken more than good connections to get these tickets, it had taken a long pep talk from Richard to convince him that allowing Georgie to go to the concert--without him along--wouldn't be dangerous. Two hours of loud dance-pop, strobe lights and wild costumes might have damaged his hearing, insulted his artistic sensibilities and killed his will to live, but William Darcy would have hazarded anything to give his sister this gift.
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "Wow. I think she'll love it."
"Really?" he smiled at Elizabeth's words. "I hope so. I just, I just love to see the look on her face every year when she opens her gifts."
Elizabeth looked at his earnest expression and envisioned the two of them--brother and sister--alone every year, opening presents around the big tree in their enormous house. No parents on the couch to turn `round to and thank, or roll your eyes at or mug for the camera. Just them. Her eyes stung and she blinked quickly.
William stood up and leaned toward her. "Are you all right, Elizabeth?"
She looked past him, at the window, watching the snow swirling down. "Yeah, just a bit, I don't know, overwhelmed, I guess. It's all so much, isn't it?"
His mind raced, wondering if he had said something wrong. "You mean the party, the holidays and all?"
Elizabeth looked up at him and shivered. "Would you like my jacket?" He shrugged it off and placed it around her shoulders. It hung nearly to her knees. She looked perfect. He'd never have it cleaned again.
She pulled it around herself. The jacket felt so warm and smelled so good, so so him. She looked down at the lapels and then up at him. She could hear the final notes of "Obsession" drifting down from the ballroom.
"Thank you." She held his eyes. "Please, sit down. I didn't mean to interrupt you. You play beautifully. I didn't even know you played. Or knew poetry so well. Or about architecture and the Cure and all those things you talked about." She took a deep breath and looked at the floor. One carpet square separated them. "I actually guess I don't know you at all."
Seated again on the bench, William's mind reeled at the rush of compliments. He pulled on his cufflink, tracing the small crest with his finger. "Um, well, I don't really talk that much about me. I'm not very good at that kind of thing."
"You mean small talk? Are you shy, like your sister?" He looked at her, confused. Elizabeth rushed to assure him of her meaning. "I mean, you told me that once about her."
He nodded. "We're both a little quiet. Well, Georgie is," he said softly. "Richard says I'm just awkward." He cleared his throat and rolled his eyes. "It's not the best personality trait sometimes."
Memories of a long-ago dance marked by graceful feet and sharp words flew into Elizabeth's mind. She tilted her head and said, quietly, "Well, I don't remember you being awkward on the dance floor. And you sure make a graceful toast." Her palms were hot and her heart seemed a little too loud for this quiet room. "And you're doing just fine now."
"I am?" Thank God he was sitting down. His legs were shaking. She was so close. She was in his jacket. They were alone in a dark room. "West End Girls" was playing down the hall. And she kept saying nice things and he could barely form a coherent sentence. Summoning every ounce of bravery he owned, he looked up. "Thanks. Um, Elizabeth, I--."
She couldn't look at him as the words she'd been thinking for months came rushing out. "Will, before you say anything, can I just tell you that I'm sorry I've been so awful to you? I just wish we could start over."
His mind raced. From when? Last year? Last spring? As friends?
Nodding slowly, he stared at the top of her head. She seemed to find the carpeting as fascinating as he found her. He furrowed his brow, trying to find the right words. "You're…"
Then, desperate not to ruin the moment by reaching for her, he slid his hands under his thighs and slowly exhaled, "Um, can you forget what an idiot I was? Am?"
Elizabeth raised her head, resting her eyes on his and smiling softly. "My mom has this refrigerator magnet. A lot of them, actually, but buried around the report cards and recipes up on our fridge there is one that actually is worth having. It says, `Remember the past only as it brings you pleasure.' I don't think she'd notice if it was gone, but instead of stealing it for my fridge, I'm just trying to live by the words."
He looked confused. Was he stunned by her skill at quoting gas station refrigerator magnets? Disgusted? Amused? Elizabeth needed to know. She slipped his jacket off her shoulders and laid it across the piano. She put out her hand.
"Hi. I'm Jane's sister, Elizabeth. You're Charlie's friend, Will?"
He relaxed. She kept calling him Will. A slow smile spread across his face, and he took her hand. "Um, yes."
"You made a nice toast. And Neruda was a wonderful choice."
His heart was beating so loudly he could barely make out the opening notes of "In Your Eyes." As the music drifted in, he smiled, brown eyes meeting green, his hand gripping hers. He stood up, holding tight to her hand and to her gaze. "Thank you. Would you like to dance?"The End