*Chapter Thirty-One*

The air was cold and crisp outside. Will was making an attempt at blowing rings with his breath which caused Liz to tease him. “You look ridiculous! Get in the car before someone sees you!”

He feigned a pouting stance. “Oh, I see how it is. You’re embarrassed to be seen with me. I get it.”

Shaking her head that he could playfully childish, she ordered, “Will, just get in the car already!”

He obeyed dutifully. “Yes, Miss Gardiner.”

She followed him into the car and as they buckled their seatbelts, Will asked, “So… what else should I know before we take on this enormous endeavor of dining with your family?”

As they began their ride over to the Bingley’s, Liz explained some of the details about her family members. Fran was a housewife who was very involved in different clubs and such, which was a polite way of saying she’s a busybody. Tom did security consulting work for events and worked only when it suited him these days. Mimi was a know-it-all and was the first to inform you of it. She took herself much too seriously. CC, now Catherine, was a senior who, thank goodness, seemed to be changing for the better. LiLi was the ultimate spoiled brat. Her mother’s favorite, her every whim was indulged to the point where if something wasn’t done soon, the only job for her would be a future on a sleazy reality show.

Will already knew Jane, but Liz filled in a few details that he didn’t know. JJ had been modeling since she was a baby, Gerber ads, baby clothing and such. As she grew, she kept working steady. She’d been in catalogs, magazines and even a few TV ads. There was even a memorable Campbell’s soup ad from when she was about ten. As she grew into a teenager, Fran tried to push her towards a career as a fashion model, working the runways and becoming a cover girl. JJ wanted nothing to do with it. Print ads and the occasional commercial were fine, but she didn’t aspire to the kind of lifestyle that a high-end model lived. All JJ ever wanted was a family of her own: a husband to love that would love her for herself and not just because she was beautiful and children that she would love without condition.

Since working had left little time for school, JJ was a mediocre student. She was bright and could have done very well if she’d have been encouraged to put any effort into it. Instead, Fran harped on and on about the importance of this face cream and that clarifier. When she finally did graduate high school, she was offered a contract with Ford to come to New York and work print ads. Jane was torn. Now that she was an adult, she was not under the power of her mother any longer, but she knew she was ill-equipped to do anything else except model. JJ flew to New York and found herself sharing a studio apartment with three other girls all trying to ‘make it big’.

Fran, of course, had kept all of JJ’s earnings and when JJ had asked for a small amount so she could begin to attend LaGuardia Community College, Fran said it would be a waste of money. After working for seventeen years, JJ had absolutely nothing to show for it. She began to take every gig she could get. No longer concerned with the ‘glamour’ products; her winning smile accompanied ads for everything from dish-soap to incontinence pads. Once she’d saved up enough money, she began taking accounting and business classes at the college. School wasn’t easy for her, and she was only able to afford one or two classes a semester; but soon she began to understand things once she made the connection to how the principles would work in real life.

While Liz was attempting to finish her freshman year after her transfer to Columbia, JJ finally managed to finish her associate’s degree from LaGuardia. She applied for a number of internships that summer, but only one company called her back: CB Designs, Inc., Caroline Bingley’s accessory company. JJ liked being on the other side of the business and was able to quickly get up-to-speed. Her supervisor’s all thought her work was quite decent, if not exceptional. More than once though, JJ was unnerved as she would swear that she was being talked about. Jane’s instincts had been correct. No one understood how such a natural beauty was wasting away what others would kill for behind an accounts ledger. Carrie had heard the initial scuttlebutt, but had ignored it. Each and every time someone new came on board, the cats got their claws out and soon enough all the furor would die down with things returning to normal. Except for this time. This time, the rumors didn’t stop and they weren’t all that catty. Each thing Carrie heard about the new girl in accounts was said matter-of-factly, without jealousy. When several months passed and she was still hearing about this Bennet girl, she decided she must meet this paragon of beauty.

Paragon of beauty was right. Carrie had just begun working on her new handbag line and was looking for an all-American girl to sell her concept that high-end urban-chic could be worn in middle-America and Jane Bennet was the blonde goddess who could do it! JJ protested repeatedly that she didn’t want to model anymore but Carrie refused, the same as any true diva would, to listen to her. Insisting that no one else could possibly do, Carrie eventually wore Jane down until she reluctantly agreed to do it. Suddenly, Bing-Bling bags and Jane Bennet were everywhere. JJ was the exclusive model for CBD. Jane and Carrie became friends and then when Liz moved to New York to attend Columbia, Carrie befriended Liz as well. Eventually she met Charlie and when Carrie learned she would gain a whole new family through Jane, she was thrilled! The Bennets were an odd lot, but she loved them all nonetheless.

“…and you know what came next after Charlie showed up.”

Will offered a sincere apology. “I am so sorry that I erroneously misjudged Jane. What I find amazing is that your step-mum seems not to recognize that keeping all of your sister’s earnings is essentially stealing. Why did Jane put up with that?”

“JJ is the kindest soul. That’s why.”

“I beg to differ. I have my own nominee for kindest soul right here beside me.” Will smiled as he noticed Liz’s becoming blush. “So, please do not be offended by this…”

She interrupted, “That’s never a good sign. Begging someone in advance not to be offended almost always means they will be.”

“Elisabeth, seriously, I mean no offense here, but I find my curiosity needs an answer. Did you help Jane out with school?”

Liz instantly blushed again, this time from having been caught out. “Jane was the first-ever recipient of the Fiorello LaGuardia Scholarship for Ex-Models. Remarkably, that very exclusive scholarship has since been done away with and replaced with a broader-studies one.”

“Ah, so she unknowingly attended school on a Gardiner Grant?”

“You could say that. She was too proud when I offered to pay her way. I offered to help her apply for scholarships. I buried her under a sea of forms and then when they were done, threw them all away because I knew she’d be receiving aid from me. Now, judge me if you will for sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong, but I won’t apologize for my actions.”

“I would never judge you for that. Actually, it very much sounds like something I would have done.”

She laughed, “People describe you as a pushy bitch too then?”

He joined her with a chuckle, “Admittedly no. Arrogant, overly-ambitious, officious, high-handed, stubborn and willful, along with the ever-popular bastard, but no one has ever yet called me a bitch.”

“Well, I, for one, am glad. You are definitely too manly to have ever been called that.”

Will grinned proudly. “Manly, am I? I’m extremely glad you think so.”

“William, since you do posses those aforementioned qualities of arrogance and bastardism, I probably shouldn’t inflate your ego any more. But yet, the truth is, you are the very epitome of manliness. If you google ‘manly’, I’m sure you’re name would pop up in the first page of hits.”

“Please don’t ever google my name Liz. If you do, it’s nothing but rubbish, lies and nonsense. A few weeks ago someone at Georgie’s school came in proclaiming that I was shipping her off to some posh school in Switzerland because I was marrying some soap actress from Australia. Out of curiosity, we looked me up on the net and I nearly smashed in my screen with my stapler. If it were only myself I had to worry about, I wouldn’t care, but seeing such bold-faced lies about me terrifies her. She’s still living in fear that her one moment of stupidity with that villain will be someday served up for public consumption in the blogosphere.”

Recalling how sensitive she was herself at sixteen, Liz attempted to lighten the mood by teasing Will instead of dwelling on just how intrusive the electronic media could be. “So was there an Australian soap actress?”

Will was surprised. “Really? This is all you have to ask?”

“Seems to me that I live a rather sheltered life, I mean, if you google me, well, Liz Gardiner anyways, all you’ll find is some papers I wrote on sub-atomic physics. I was just curious, that’s all.”

“You, Love, have absolutely nothing to be jealous of. I’ve lived a monk’s existence since the orange terror. Because I go out but rarely, if any woman under forty-five somehow gets her photo shot remotely near me, I must be having an affair. It’s been absolutely ludicrous. The actress actually walked behind me while Georgie and I were dining at Quilon– a great Indian restaurant in London- for her birthday and someone must have snapped her photo. I’ve been too busy to even begin to think about dating anyone before now.”

“And what’s different about now?”

He smiled. “If I didn’t already know better, I’d think you were fishing for a compliment or some other sort of reassurance about the way I feel for you. I really, truly do love you Elisabeth Gardiner. It’s like John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.’ I was running my company, raising my sister, muddling through day-to-day and then the King Car Rental Agency was out of reservations. In one fell swoop you’ve upended my life and I have never been happier to not be in control Elisabeth!”

She shook her head and smiled. “Can I tell you a little secret?”

Will laughed, “More secrets?”

Liz rolled her eyes at that. “You make me sound like Mata Hari or something! Never mind.”

“Oh no, Elizabeth! You cannot just do that to me?”

“Oh? And what is it exactly that I’m doing to you?”

“You, woman, are teasing me!” groaned Will.

Liz goaded him further, “So what if I am? You mocked me and therefore obviously deserve to be teased. Personally? I don’t think you’ve been teased enough in your lifetime.”

Frustrated, he whined and begged, “You don’t have to make it all up in one weekend! Pace yourself! Please? For my sake?”

With a twinkle in her eye, she teased him further still, “Dearest William, I’m fairly certain no one’s ever died of being teased.”

I might.”

Stopped at a light, Liz threw up her hands. “Oh, for heaven’s sake! It’s no big deal or anything and now I’m sure it’ll do nothing but disappoint.”

In all seriousness, Will said, “You, Love, could never disappoint me.”

She reached over and squeezed his hand tightly. “Never say that. I am far from perfect and saying such things can only set me up for failure. If there’s anything I know for sure, it’s that someday I inevitably, unwittingly and possibly even unknowingly will disappoint you. Don’t frown at me like that, either William because someday… you might even disappoint me too. All the same, I’ll still love you when it does eventually happen.”

Giving a slight squeeze in return, Will answered, “I really don’t see how you could. However, I do agree that should you ever somehow manage to disappoint me, I would most definitely still love you. Now, what were you going to tell me?”

“I forgot… Oh, I remember now. Before we detoured into sentiment-land, I was only going to say that keeping things in control is something that we both have very much in common. As much as I teased you earlier about being a control freak, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was the same.”

“Really? You don’t come off that way at all, Liz. You seem so easy-going and with each trouble we’ve had, you just go with the flow.”

That drew a laugh from Liz. “Will, can you imagine a casual physicist? That’d bring a whole new dimension to the definition of chaos theory! While there are some things I can let go, others? Not so much. Just thought I’d let you know you aren’t alone in your neurosis.”

“So long as it’s you keeping me company, I’m satisfied.”

They drove for a moment in happy silence until Will questioned, “Speaking of keeping company… can we please discuss you’re coming to London?”

She flashed him a brilliant smile. “Absolutely. But later.”

“Why not now?”

“Because we’re almost back to JJ’s and this is more than a minute conversation, I think.”

“That’s alright by me, Love. So, is there any last bit of advice before we go in? We’re using divide and conquer, right? You’ve got Carrie and I’m to take on the rest.”

“I think that will be our best bet Will. Incidentally, do you like ELP?”

Confused, he assumed he’d heard incorrectly and begged, “Pardon?”

ELP. Emerson, Lake and the other guy whose name starts with P.”

“Elisabeth, I am English. Of course I know who ELP is. The P incidentally is for Palmer. What brings this up now?”

They parked in front of the house and in a flash, Will was out of the car and made his way around to Liz’s side so he could open the door for her.

“My family. Each time I see them, that one song runs through my head. Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend, step inside, step inside. I swear there are times I feel like I grew up in a freak show.”

He gave Liz a reassuring squeeze. “Are we back to that? We all have certain members of our families that we ought not dare approach without a whip and chair in hand. Together, Love, we’ll go in and tame the lions.”

The mental image of them standing back-to-back, her family encircling them like angry predators while Will wielded a whip and she brandished a chair made her laugh. “And tigers and bears? Oh my.” She tiptoed and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, William.”

“Whatever for, Love?”

“For being the bravest man I know. Let’s go and do this!”

*Chapter Thirty-Two*

 Liz did her best to give Will a brave smile but was unable to hide the truth of her feelings from him. It was clearly evident that both of them dearly wished they were somewhere, anywhere, else. He flashed a brilliant smile that made her feel better despite his smile being just as phony as hers was. They clasped hands tightly and together knocked on the front door of the Bingley’s house.

“It’s open!” yelled an indistinguishable voice from within.

Will whispered in Liz’s ear, “It’s now or never, Love.”

She smiled at that, this time genuinely. “Quick and fast, like ripping off a band-aid.”

At that, he made a face. “That was what you said about meeting your father and yet that was far from painless. You really need to work on your analogies Elisabeth.”

Liz kissed his cheek. “I’m sure you’ll be able to help me with that in the future. For now, let’s just take a deep breath and get this over with.”

“That’s alright by me. First, I need to know what your preference here is. Shall I shield you from any possible oncoming attacks by going first, or shall we let chivalry be our guide and you go first? These are very confusing times for a knight in shining armor.”

 “I think, Sir Darcy, that in this instance, the chivalrous thing to do would be to shield your lady from any and all assaults.”

He took her hand in his, bowed and then lightly kissed her hand. “Very well, my fair Lady Elisabeth.”

Liz was stunned by just how tender such a simple gesture was. “Thank you, good Sir Darcy.”

Had Will harbored any doubts before why he was willing to go through all this trouble and nonsense, they were all dispelled when he saw the look of pure love that shone in Liz’s eyes as she caught his gaze. Plainly written on her face was her love for him and that was the very moment William Darcy knew that he would move heaven and earth to make this woman beside him happy.

Unable to speak, he used the only method he had to communicate his feelings at that moment. Will pulled her into his arms and very gently gave her a kiss into which he poured all of his feelings for her. They were locked in each other’s arms, speaking their hearts to one another when the front door opened.

Thankfully, it was only Catherine. “Oh my God! You two are totally hopeless. What if mom or dad opened this door? Or Carrie? I thought you guys were all wanting to be careful and stuff. How dumb can you be?”

If either Liz or Will, both very highly educated people, found it strange being called dumb by a high school senior, they gave nothing away. They stepped into the house and put their coats and such in the hall closet.

Seeing that Liz was embarrassed from being caught by her little sister, Will answered for them both. “We really weren’t thinking clearly Catherine. We thank you for being on our side and are very grateful to you for keeping our confidence. Was your shopping expedition successful?”

Marveling at Will’s ability to deflect attention elsewhere, Liz watched Catherine’s face brighten as she told them of all the bargains she found and how much fun she had. “When we stopped at Macy’s, we were by the accessories because Carrie wanted to check out what was being merchandised there and the department head was there and recognized Carrie and, I swear, there was nearly a riot! The man, who was so hot by the way, screamed like a girl, no kidding, when he saw Carrie! All of a sudden, she was surrounded by so many people it was kinda scary. Then the hot guy, who I think likes his accessories a bit too much if you get me, handed her a Sharpie and begged her to sign his Bing-Bling wallet. I didn’t even know Carrie made men’s things. Or maybe the hot guy carries a girl’s wallet- figures! Oh well. Anyways, it was completely insane! People were pushing up to the counter and buying any piece of Bing-Bling they could so that they could get it signed by Carrie. I guess they don’t get very many famous people up here in nowhere-land Wisconsin, right? I guess Charlie’s famous, but he’s just Charlie and his books are so… well they’re definitely so not like Stephanie Meyers, Charlaine Harris or Laura K. Hamilton!”

Liz felt compelled to defend Charlie. “Catherine, men need some books to read too and not everyone is fixated by books about vampires you know. Dear Bil writes about many different things from corporate espionage to courtroom mystery thrillers. Just because you don’t find them entertaining, doesn’t mean they aren’t.”

“I know, I know… you sound like such an old person when you get all rational like that. He needs to write more sex in his books in my opinion. I think blowing people up and having people get all violently murdered and stuff is a sign that he’s repressing what he really wants to write about.”

Will was intrigued. “So what you’re saying is that Chip secretly wants to write dime-store bodice-rippers?”

Catherine regarded Will with a look of frustration. Hadn’t she already clearly stated that point? She said in that distinctive know-it-all teenage voice as she rolled her eyes, “Duh, yeah.”

Feeling that she’d been unduly rude, Liz hissed at her sister, “Catherine!”

“What? I stated something and then Captain Obvious stated it again. It’s not my problem if he can’t keep up! Besides, who says dime store anymore anyways?” Having had enough of boring conversation, Catherine sped ahead to tell the others of the late arrivals.

When they were alone again, Will’s suppressed laughter could no longer be contained. Liz, afraid his hiccups would return, tried to refocus his attention because she didn’t think JJ’s living room was a good place to administer her special brand of cure.

“And what is it you find so amusing? I could use a laugh myself just about now and if you don’t cut out the laughter, funny-boy, you’ll end up with another case of the hiccups.”

“Your sister. I think that she and Georgie would get on famously. They each hold my intelligence in such low estimation and love shopping and talking nonstop. Georgie is very much like a shy version of Catherine, that is, from what little I’ve seen of her. I think they’d be fast friends should they ever meet.”

Liz did find the humor after all. “Oh my, you poor man! If your sister enjoys shopping even half so much as mine, then I suppose it is a very good thing that you’ve got some cash to burn!”

The moment of levity helped break the tension and now they were ready for anything. Or so they thought.

They entered the dining room and were disappointed but not surprised to find the two remaining chairs were nowhere near each other. There was an empty seat between LiLi and Carrie and another on the opposite side between Tom and Mimi. Liz made a beeline for the seat near Carrie while Will sat next to her father.

Once they were seated, Fran began her diatribe immediately. “Well, well, well, I’m so glad that you’ve finally decided to grace us all with your presence little Miss Beth. You’ve no doubt been selfishly studying or some other non-profitable nonsense while the rest of us were all spending quality family time together. Of course, you couldn’t be bothered to join us, selfish, unfeeling child that you are. I am so sorry William that you’ve had to endure the company of Beth for far too long. It’ll all be alright now, you’re here with all of us, your dear friend Charlie and, of course, who could ever wish to be parted from dear, sweet Caroline?”

Carrie gushed, “Why thank you so much Fran! You are, and I always tell my friends this, the absolute sweetest mom I know! Will darling, isn’t she just precious?”

Fran was seated directly across from and clearly awaiting some sort of answer from Will. All he could muster, for he refused to outright lie, was, “I can honestly say that I’ve never met another woman quite like her.”

This seemed to satisfy Fran’s vanity enough for now and so she moved on to Catherine. “CC sweetie, I really wish that you’d consider Arizona State or UNLV like Mimi. I cannot fathom why you’d want to spend four or five years of your life where it’s cold and miserable. We left the Midwest for good reason and it can be so much worse in the Northeast! You’d do much better staying where it’s warm and sunny. And the boys are so much more handsome! Besides, when you get married, what good will a degree do you then anyways? I have no idea why you girls insist on going to school. LiLi has no such foolish or unnecessary ideas about getting a higher education. And really Catherine, who do you even know out East anyways? Without LiLi to help you, you’ll no doubt have trouble making friends, I’m sure.”

Fran only paused to sip her wine and during this brief reprieve, glances were shot all around the table. Liz was mortified, Catherine looked like she might never recover, Will was seething, Jane and Charlie were just plain embarrassed and everyone else was unaffected because this, truly, was business as usual.

Jane, ever the peacemaker, said, “Mom, I think that CC will do very well at school. I loved going to school in New York and I met so many wonderful people there. That’s where I met Carrie and Charlie too, if you’ll remember.”

Will would always remember Fran Bennet’s reaction to this for the rest of his life, for the woman looked like one of those cartoons where the light-bulb went off overhead when inspiration struck.

“Oh! Oh! That’s right! Well then, CC, perhaps you should go East then. True, you can’t hold a candle to JJ, beauty that she is, but then, who can? If you insist on living all the way across the entire country from your family, then so be it. Beth will be there at least to help you, though I don’t imagine her very useful, should you need something.”

Will was about to explode. What is wrong with this woman? Does she have no sense at all? Liz supports them and sees that they all have everything they need and they are so ungrateful! Why doesn’t her father stop this? Hell, why aren’t you stopping this? What can I say though? We’re supposed to be low-key to not expose our relationship. Relationship. Georgie will love this. I went to America for turkey and am coming back with a girlfriend. If that unholy woman keeps this up, I may end up throwing these rolls at her head. Hell, maybe I should do that anyways.

Just as Will had a dinner roll in his hand and was contemplating how hard he’d need to throw it to render Fran unconscious, Carrie piped in. “You all will never guess who I had lunch with the other day!”

LiLi shouted her guesses much louder than was necessary, “Kate Spade? Melania Trump? Kim Kardashian?”

Carrie leaned over Liz and motioned for LiLi to lean in also, thereby caging Liz uncomfortably in her seat. “No LiLi! Even better! Shall I give you a hint?”

Liz wished she could just slide down her chair and hide under the table.

“Please!” exclaimed LiLi in Liz’s now ringing ear.

Purring like a cat with cream, she said, “The gentleman in question is a particular acquaintance of Miss Liz here.”

That caught Will’s attention and prevented him from maiming Mrs. Bennet. He was listening now with rapt attention, possibly for the first time ever, to what Carrie was saying.

LiLi derogatively stated, “But Beth doesn’t know any men worth having lunch with!”

Mimi threw her two cents in. “There was Drew. He was nice.”

LiLi looked at her sister as if she had a second head. “Mimi, that was eons ago stupid! And he was way too much of a man for bookworm Beth anyways. Now Carrie, don’t be mean! Tell us, who does Beth know that’s actually interesting!”

Carrie took a long sip of her wine and waited until all eyes were fixed on her before she spoke. “Well, it seems that our very own Miss Liz has something very exciting in her past after all!”

Will was now wondering if there was anything else besides rolls that he could begin to launch. Neither the salad nor the lasagna would work very well. Maybe the salt and pepper shakers would work.

“What? Oh, you must tell us now! Please, please Carrie?” whined LiLi.

“Before I reveal all, Miss Liz, do you have any guesses?”

Liz had assumed she was unneeded for this conversation and had begun to tackle her eggplant lasagna. She had to finish swallowing and quickly sip her water before she could say, “No, Carrie. I have absolutely no idea.”

You will simply die when you hear this! I had lunch with Dennis Fields!”

Liz had begun eating again and nearly choked when she heard the name. “Denny? You had lunch with Denny? Oh my God! How is he? Is he doing well? He still looks good, doesn’t he? He always did. Denny was always the best looking kid around, remember JJ?”

Will was unnerved by this. Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t this.

“Denny?” Jane asked. “Oh wait! He’s the one, right? I remember now! Yes, he was such a doll! Is he still Carrie? I’m sure he is; he’d have to be!”

Now Charlie was unnerved too. The difference was Charlie was used to the circus and felt no fear at jumping in the ring. “So, who is Denny Fields and what was he the one of?”

Liz shot Jane a murderous look but Jane was not afraid of her and answered guilelessly, “Dennis Fields. Come on sweetheart, he’s the shoe designer. I only ever thought of him as Denny and didn’t realize he’d become that Dennis Fields!” Jane watched Liz sigh in relief and then shot her a teasing smirk just as she said, “Oh, and the one just means that he was the first boy that Liz ever kissed.”

Liz’s mortification was now complete indeed.

LiLi laughed so hard that her water came out her nose with a snort. “And now he’s gay! Ha! See what all that studying will do to you? I wonder if Drew still likes women or did you turn him too?”

Liz turned to glare at her sister. “That’s hardly fair! I’m pretty sure my eighth grade boyfriend didn’t ‘turn’ gay because of a kiss when we were thirteen. That’s not really the way that works, and if that’s what you think LiLi then I am greatly afraid for your future.”

Jane tried to take up Liz’s side. “You two were such good friends! He was always so into style and fashion. I have to admit, I was even a little jealous. He could have helped me out so much but instead he hung around with you and you never had any interest in fashion at all! Maybe that’s why you two got along so well; you were certainly different enough.”

As thick as Liz’s skin was, attacks, even unwitting ones, from her allies still hurt. “Gee, thanks. You make it sound as if I needed to use Garanimals to get dressed each day! Just because I don’t spend hours of thought each day to what I wear doesn’t mean I don’t care!”

Carrie hated having the conversation turn away from her and so interjected, “Oh, Garanimals! How adorable they were! Mixing and matching the little tags so everything worked well together! Do they even still make those?”

Liz turned her attention away from Jane and looked to Carrie. “I have no idea.”

She’d been expecting more response from Liz but decided not to pry any further. Instead, she effused about how delicious everything was to Jane. Everyone agreed, and dinner proceeded in relative silence for a little while as everyone concentrated on eating their dinner.

Throughout the whole meal, Tom Bennet had been eyeing the man his Elisa claimed to love. There were a lot of things that he believed in, but love at first sight was not one of them. Lust and infatuation at first sight yes, but love? Love took time, love took trust and love took understanding, compromise and a willingness to care for someone else more than yourself. This was what he understood of love. He had had it once, a long time ago. With this definition of love in mind, he watched Will’s every twitch, every fisting of his hand and every masked grimace with great interest. It would be a cold day in hell before he would let someone else hurt his little girl.

Setting his napkin aside his plate, Tom turned to Will and asked, “So, it’s William, right?”

Will believed this was the first thing Mr. Bennet had said besides “pass the butter Mimi” and was surprised by the direct address. “Yes, sir. William, or Will if you like, Darcy.”

 “So, Darcy, obviously you’re not from around here. Where do you hail from, what do you do and what are you doing here?”

Tom noticed Liz’s distress but chose to ignore it.

Will sipped his water, cleared his throat and replied, “Well, Mr. Bennet, I live in London and also have a home in the north, in Derbyshire. I own a multi-national company that has footholds in finance, real estate and venture capital. And as to why I’m visiting the States, well, I was graciously invited by Bingley whom I’ve had the good fortune to count as my best mate since uni. It’s been a long while since I’ve had the chance to come and just visit so here I am.”

“Here you are.” Tom agreed and then took a swig of his beer.

Carrie, wanting her surrogate family to think only the best of her beloved, sought to shine the best possible light she could on Will for Mr. Bennet. “Did you know, Tom, that Will is considered the second sexi– I mean highly regarded– bachelor in all of England? There was a huge piece about the top twenty in Hello! Only Prince William is ahead of our William on the list and I really think that’s only because if they didn’t do that, the Royals might sue!”

 That bit of information even managed to catch Mimi’s attention. “I wonder at that. Can you sue the press in England for non-libel reasons? I mean really, Wills is a young man, he’s what? Like twenty-five and William here is old. I don’t think when you take the age difference into account you can compare them fairly.”

Liz caught Will’s eye for a moment and offered a look of sympathy and a smile. That solace was the only thing that kept him from clearly stating that Prince William was only about four years younger than him. Old indeed! This evening is going to take ten years off my life before we’re through. She’s smiling at me again… okay old man, you can do this. You can put up with Bennet and all the rest for her sake. When we’re married and living half a world away, we need never see them but rarely. Wait! Married? Yes, married… I quite like the sound of that. Dr. Darcy has a better cadence than Dr. Gardiner. Holy hell, is Bennet speaking to me again?

“….so should Charlie and I can count on you joining us in the morning? We’ll be leaving at five am.”

A bewildered Will nodded and agreed to be ready and then cast a look to Charlie to see what it was exactly he’d agreed to.

Charlie gave a small smile and explained, “Will, I have plenty of extra warm clothing for you to borrow for our hunting trip in the morning. In fact, since everyone’s about finished, why don’t you come with me now and I’ll get it for you while everyone else settles into the family room?”

Carrie didn’t want Will to go anywhere, but since he was leaving, she would too. She grabbed Liz’s hand and nearly yanked her out of her chair. “Come with me, Miss Liz! I have everything ready that you promised to try on. We’ll have a little fashion show for your family. How much fun will that be?”

Liz closed her eyes for a moment and tried to picture the serenity of the hotel room. A few more hours, a few more hours. I can do this! Keeping her occupied keeps her away from Will and all it’ll cost me is a little dignity. At length, she answered Carrie and said, “Loads.”

As Will and Liz were each dragged off in opposite directions, they each had the exact same thought: crud monkey!

*Chapter Thirty-Three*

 As Darcy followed Bingley to his room, the only thought that was running through his mind was that he was going into the woods in the pitch-black of early morning with a man who clearly didn’t like him and would be armed. Holy hell! Liz’s dad is going to shoot me in the woods and they’re never going to find me! What about Liz and Georgie? If I’m gone, who will take care of them? Chip would make sure Liz was alright but maybe Andy would be a better guardian for her. We need to discuss London, Ruislip or wherever it is that she’s going because I can’t stop making plans for our future. I suppose it’ll all be for naught if Bennet shoots me in the head. Damn, you’ve got to remember to never watch Fargo again.

 They reached the Bingley’s suite and Charlie couldn’t help but laugh at Will. “Fitz, good God man, you look like you’ve been to your own execution instead of dinner. Smile for crying out loud, I have it from an excellent authority that Sil finds your smile quite nice.”

“Then why the devil would I waste it on your sorry self?”

“Excellent question, Fitz! And it so happens one that I don’t have an answer for.”

Wishing he could be running interference for Liz instead of preparing to meet his maker in the morning, Will grumbled, “Fine. Then answer me this Chip: is Bennet intending to kill me tomorrow in the middle of nowhere? Please tell me you don’t have a chipper-shredder!”

Charlie laughed. “You really need to stop watching those movies. You should read more instead.”

Will sat on the bench at the end of the bed. “I think so. Do you know that, for just a brief moment, I was actually afraid of that Collins fellow? I thought he was going all rogue on me. He was rather rough when he shoved me in the back of his cruiser last night and then he blared this beyond horrid music so that I couldn’t hear what he and Liz were saying. Is everyone in this family as barmy as they seem, or am I losing my mind? I admit I wasn’t paying attention when this hunting scheme came up. What are we allegedly hunting anyways?”

 Charlie leaned on the edge of his dresser and crossed his arms. “Well, Fitz, this will be a treat for you because we’re in white-tail deer musket season.”

“Muskets? Why the hell would we want to do that?”

“Sport. Had you ever taken my dad up on any of his offers to come spend some summer months with us, you’d already have some musket experience, I guarantee it.”

“And what exactly is it that we would have hunted?” asked a disgusted Will.

Charlie thought for a moment before he remembered one particularly successful trip. “Well, the summer of ’97 we bagged a black bear in Maine. That wasn’t muskets though. I’ve got it! You’d have at least shot turkey with us!”

“You bagged a black bear? Again, I ask why? Never mind. I really can’t get out of this, can I?”

Shaking his head, Charlie agreed with Will. “Not really. Not if you intend to stick around, which I think you do. Tom isn’t really all that complicated. He loves his family, he loves to shoot and he loves a good beer. That’s about all you need to know.”

 “Great. Alcohol and firearms… things that go exceedingly well together. I am hardly prepared to go traipsing about the forest in the snow and even if you have some gear to lend me, we are hardly the same size. How is this going to work?”

“Well, I have some thermals that shouldn’t be too small on you. When you pull up the socks over them, that should help with the inevitable shortness of the pants. I have extra gloves and hats and that stuff which shouldn’t be a problem. You didn’t bring boots, did you?”

“No. Had the Bennets stayed home, as they should have, please tell me hunting wasn’t on the agenda.”

“Not at all. I haven’t actually gone out for a few years. Jane doesn’t like it.”

Will was carefully thinking over his options. “If I don’t go, there’s no redeeming my manhood in Bennet’s eyes, is there?”

“Probably not. But Fitz, you need to ask yourself if you really care for his opinion and if this is worth it to you. I really wouldn’t blame you if you chose to sleep in and stay with Liz in the morning. I leave this up to you.”

Will sighed, “He keeps hurting Elisabeth and he needs to know that he can’t keep doing that. Parents are supposed to protect and nurture their children, not treat them as an inconvenience.”

“Are we still talking about Tom or is this about your dad?”

“What? No. This is definitely about Bennet. Well, it might be about my father too, just a little. It still doesn’t change that she deserves better than cruelty and cold indifference. Tom paid us a little visit this afternoon, did you know that?”

“No, when?”

“While everyone was shopping. He came by the room and said the most heinous things to Liz. For a man that professes to love his girls, he has the oddest means of showing it.”

“It couldn’t have been that bad. I think you’re just feeling over-protective of Liz and that’s making you overly sensitive.”

“No. In this matter I have perfect clarity, I assure you. You seem to have a decent enough connection with the man and I know that you are close with Liz, so I won’t burden you with what was said. I will ask you to trust me when I say that I don’t think Elisabeth takes this mistreatment she receives from her step-mum and dad as lightly as she makes it seem. She’s much more sensitive than she lets on.”

“You can’t leave it there. I don’t need the play-by-play, but I can almost guarantee that Jane will hear from Sil and then I’ll be clueless and won’t know what to do! Please, just give me what the gist of the matter is.”

“Fine. Only because I know that she loves you and Jane and trusts you both. You know about Johnny Thorpe, right?” Charlie nodded. “Good. So Bennet shows up and pulled some cop move to find out what room we were in and he shows up at the door while we were sleeping. I had a raging migraine earlier and had finally had some quality sleep when he comes knocking. He sees me in the bed and starts making the worst sort of character assassinations about Liz. It’s my understanding that there’s hardly been anyone in her life and definitely none that could ever justify calling your own daughter a whore.”

Charlie was shocked, “He did not!”

 “How could I make something like this up? They were arguing and I woke up to shouting. Seems he came with the noble reason of informing her that they keep meddling where this Thorpe guy is concerned. How can they claim to care about her at all and have contact with that man? I really am having a hard time understanding this.”

“That’s understandable. I have to admit I had no idea things had gotten that bad. They had a shout-out this summer, but I thought they’d gotten past that. Tom was way off… Sil is a saint! She’s a great girl.”

Thinking about Liz, Will smiled. “This I know. You were right. I do love her. Very much.”

“Of course you do! What’s not to love? But Jane did ask me to warn you that if you should hurt her, I could always vilify you in one of my books and I do have weapons at my disposal.”

That drew a chuckle from Will. “I really will read one! Just please don’t shoot me. I’d really like to stay as in-tact as possible.”

After a moment of silence, Will sighed deeply and said, “I think I’ve decided that I’m going to brave the cold and go with you guys tomorrow. I intend to, well, let’s just say that Liz is very important to my future and I know that for her sake I should do my best to try to get along with her old man.”

Charlie walked into his closet and flipped on the light. “Okay then. Let me bag you up some clothes and then we can go catch the fashion show. Again, I’m so sorry about Carrie. I really didn’t know she’d be here.”

“It’s not your fault. I just shudder to think what she’ll do when the truth eventually comes out. Liz and I cannot skulk around forever.”

“No, you can’t, and you guys really shouldn’t have to either. You do realize the irony is here is that Carrie’s been saying for years that we really should be brothers… and now it seems we will be.”

Will protested, “But I didn’t say anything…”

“Are you kidding me? You didn’t have to! It’s pretty plain to see, Fitz. On the bright side, you’ll have at least one family member that you can tolerate well enough.”

Will drily answered, “Yes, I do like Catherine quite well.”

Charlie pretended to be hurt by that remark. “I meant me you dolt!”

“I knew bloody well what you meant but you’re getting way ahead of yourself, and me for that matter! I think we need to survive this weekend first before any life-altering decisions can be made.”

“Ha,” scoffed Charlie. “Just a matter of time, Fitz, and you know it!”

“Probably. Now, do you have those clothes ready? We’ve been gone much too long.”

“Here,” Charlie yelled as he tossed Will a small duffle bag, “those should work out alright for you.”

“Thank you. Just make sure that Bennet doesn’t shoot me, please?”

“Holy paranoia, Bat-man! Will you just relax already? I promise nothing bad is going to happen to you tomorrow! Now, if you think you’re ready, should we go and find our women?”

“Yeah, Chip. I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Lead on.”

They wound their way back to the family room where everyone excepting Liz and Carrie were gathered. On the television, home movies were playing. Will immediately was transfixed. When Liz had made a sarcastic remark about wearing a tutu earlier, he’d assumed she was joking or somehow exaggerating. And yet the proof was on the screen, where danced a very slight, young girl. She wore a very serious expression that seemed to contrast her sparkling, bright eyes. Will smiled and knew that those eyes could only belong to Elizabeth.

Fran perked up on her son-in-law’s arrival. “Charlie, my dear boy, see? I found those videos that I promised I would. This is the Little Miss Pageant in 1990 when JJ won the under-thirteen beauty contest. I just need to forward past Beth’s very disappointing dance routine. That ungrateful girl never even tried to apply her best to the lessons she took. She might have actually made something of herself had she done so. It takes a good deal of discipline to compete and she never put forth any effort at all!”

Several other girls sped across the screen, dancing in fast-forward until the stage was empty and Fran pressed play once more. This time, little girls strutted across the stage in evening wear. “Oh yes, this is what I wanted to show you! Coming up in a moment, well, you’ll see, there really was no competition at all! My dear, sweet JJ was always the most exquisite girl, no matter where we went!” Fran wrung her hands together as though this was the very first time she’d watched this contest. Anxiety was plain on her face as though somehow the passage of nearly twenty years could change the outcome. Jane finally   walked onto the runway wearing black high heels and a red halter dress. Her hair was swept into a very elegant up-do and the makeup that was caked on her face made the little girl, who could not have been much older than nine, appear much older. Watching Fran’s eyes light up with pride for Jane, when only moments before they’d held derision for Liz, made Will’s stomach feel queasy.

Charlie shared a look of frustration with Will before he turned to address Fran. “Wow Fran. I can’t believe you remembered that. That was, what, like a year-and-a-half ago that we were talking about this?”

“I always remember everything about my dearest girl! A mother’s love is boundless you know! You’ll see that soon enough when my beautiful girl has her beautiful baby! I cannot wait to be a grandma! I really do wish that you’d change your mind and move out to Arizona and be near us! Imagine all the free babysitting that Tom and I could provide! I don’t know what gets into young people’s heads these days! Moving to where there’s no family around for miles and miles! It’s downright absurd! You and JJ should move to be near us so that we can help you raise the baby!”

Will recalled what Liz had mentioned about the Bingley’s purposefully choosing this community for their family and deduced that the great distance from Arizona was probably one of Sun Prairie’s best merits.

Bingley feigned a smile. “Well, Fran, while we will always be willing to open our home to you whenever you wish to come and visit, Jane and I are very happy here. You and Tom could always move here to Wisconsin.”

Curious as to why Chip would ever suggest such a thing, Will listened intently as Fran proclaimed her extreme dislike of the very thought of moving back to the Midwest. “Wisconsin? Yes, very funny Charlie! You are set on making a great joke, I know. I lived the bulk of my life in the Midwest and the very second we could, we left! Why in heaven’s name would I move to an even worse part of the region? At least in Chicago I could shop! Besides cheese and beer, what else is there in this ridiculous state? I think you’d do much better in the desert with us! Bah! Move to Wisconsin? I don’t think so!”

Tom Bennet looked up from the newspaper he’d been reading and guffawed, “Yes dear, you’ve figured it out: beer and cheese! Those are the very reasons JJ and Charlie moved here, I’m sure. You can get on a plane very easily and come see your grandchild whenever you want Fran. Now do be quiet and leave the poor boy alone.”

Looking around the room, Will was unsurprised by what he saw. Tom turned his attention back to the newspaper so he could both hide from and ignore his wife. Lindsey was busy skyping on her netbook with a friend and laughing in the most unladylike manner while doing so. Mimi was typing furiously away on a paper for school. Fran was loudly praising Jane’s beauty and accomplishments to a room of people who had all heard these proclamations before. He caught Chip’s attention and shrugged his shoulders with his palms up indicating his wonder at the missing Catherine, Jane, Liz and Carrie.

Bingley, feeling all at once the inept host, asked, “Fran, where’s Jane at?”

“Oh, I think JJ is getting dessert and coffee ready dear. I don’t know why, especially now, you don’t hire some help for her! She’s bearing your child and you have her working like some sort of housemaid! Really, I expected better of you Charlie! Are your little books no longer bestsellers? Is that it? Do you need some help? Beth, ungrateful, selfish girl that she is, loves you and JJ and would probably help you out if you ask her to.”

“I promise you Fran, I do alright with my little books. Trial of the Soul stayed at number one for twenty-seven weeks last year and Something in the Water is poised to do equally well. Jane and I have already contracted a live-in nanny and in February we have a housekeeper that will join us as well. If you’ll recall, your family and Carrie caught us a bit unaware this weekend. Had we known that all of you were coming, we’d have made other arrangements.”

Will wondered just how hard Chip had to fight with himself to not go off on Fran. He assumed that years of practice in dealing with this caustic woman must have served him well.

“Very well then, Charlie, I feel much better knowing that my beautiful baby girl won’t prematurely age from all the hard work that motherhood entails. Really! You men have no idea how we suffer so! Like so many other areas of life, men come and put in a few minutes of easy labor and then leave all the heavy lifting, so to speak, to the women! It just isn’t fair now, is it? The least you can do is to make sure you buy my JJ something pretty… a new diamond tennis bracelet or pendant perhaps?”

Will watched Tom Bennet carefully. His newspaper didn’t even flinch. Fran had insulted Chip, in the man’s own home, so many times that Will had lost count- not to mention the malicious things that she’d said about Liz! I thought that there were times that I could be a bastard, but this man, this man takes the cake! What an arse! What is wrong with this man? I guess I couldn’t really expect him to correct his horrendous wife when he said things that were even worse to Liz earlier. I hope Liz is ready to go soon… I don’t know how much more of this I can take! I don’t imagine she’s doing very well either. Where are you Liz?

Lindsey’s friend hadn’t eaten dinner yet, and eventually she had to go. Unfortunately, with little else to attract her attention, she turned it to Fran, Charlie and Will. “Ma, so which tape is this anyways? Oh no, no this one! This one is so boring! It’s only got JJ, Beth and Mimi in it! You need to play the one where I won the five and under talent competition!”

“Now LiLi, we’ll get to those soon enough, I promise. Now William, in addition to being nearly as beautiful as my dear, sweet JJ, LiLi is an extremely accomplished gymnast and cheerleader. She’s co-captain of her squad, and only just sixteen!”

“Yeah, I find that my flexibility really impresses certain people at my school. For instance, I can put my legs behind my head.” Lindsey raked her eyes up and down Will, making him terribly uncomfortable as she said, “And you wouldn’t believe how handy that position can be!”

Finally Will found some relief from Lindsey’s inappropriate attentions when Tom at last set his paper down and curtly said, “That’s enough out of you young lady!”

Lindsey winked at Will just before she bowed her head and answered her father demurely, “Yes, Daddy.”

Will felt dirty and looked around for a different place to sit. Bloody hell! Liz’s sister is out of control! She’s a little Lolita, that one! She was talking about… and in front of her parents… and me, a stranger! I can’t believe this little harlot and my sweet Georgie are the same age!

Continuing to be lost in his thoughts, Will was caught unaware when Catherine, Liz and Carrie made their grand entrance at last. Chip nudged Will from his reverie and pointed to the stairway behind him. What he saw left him quite speechless.

*Chapter Thirty-Four*

The next thing that Will felt was Charlie’s elbow in his ribs as he was teased, “Hey Fitz, close that mouth before you start catching flies!”

Carrie saw Will’s visceral reaction and assumed it was on her behalf. As she descended the stairs, she gushed, “William, darling, you most certainly do know how to make a girl blush! Thank you.”

As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she spun around in her orange micro-mini dress so all could be privileged with a view. “This is, of course, vintage Gucci.” Her simple dress was alarmingly short with long sleeves and featured a deeply-scooped neckline trimmed with a large, crisp, white bow. She was wearing white fishnet stockings and white over-the-knee boots. She wore almost no jewelry save a pair of giant white hoop earrings.

Carrie sauntered over to stand before Will. “These boots,” she said as she raised high a leg and then set her foot between Will’s legs on the edge of the couch, “are by Miss Liz’s friend Dennis Fields. Go-go boots are so fun! Just wearing them makes you want to just wiggle about.” To prove her point, she began to do just that. This whole time, Will was squirming in his seat, watching the stairway, desperately waiting for his Liz to make her descent. Carrie was going on and on about how mod her outfit was and how the next time she was in London, she and Will must simply hit this club and that nightspot.

Will looked up towards the top of the stairs and was relieved to see that Liz looked as distressed as he felt. Liz could easily see that poor Will needed rescuing and so poked Catherine’s back to nudge her from her inactivity.

After Catherine’s attention was diverted towards where Carrie had Will cornered, she cleared her throat and spoke up. “Uh, Carrie? Please don’t forget about us up here! I’m about to tip over in these shoes!”

Carrie touched Will’s arm as she leaned forward to whisper, “Later, darling,” before she turned her attention back to her amateur models who were still stranded on the stairs.

Waving Catherine forward, she began her narration. “Darlings, Miss Catherine Bennet is wearing the ABS version of the dress Nicole wore to the premiere of Luck Would Have It. It is a simply marvelous dress and instantly adds grace and presence to its wearer.” Carrie motioned with her hands for Catherine to turn around to show off the dress. It was a lovely scoop-necked dress with capped sleeves and an Empire waistline that was ruched where the all-black bodice met the short, flouncy skirt which featured orange blossoms set against a black background.  “Doesn’t Catherine look absolutely beautiful?”

Charlie and Will were about to answer, but were cut off as Carrie continued speaking. “Her heels, which are red-carpet ready while not being too much for a Sunday brunch, are of course, Dennis Fields. I considered some simple jewelry, but really, this dress is already all the adornment our lovely Miss Catherine needs. Do you not agree?”

No one answered for fear that she was still not finished. She repeated, with a hint of agitation, “Do you not agree?”

This time everyone offered their congratulations on how well Catherine looked. For her part, Catherine was unused to such praise and was wishing that the ottoman would swallow her up or she could somehow just go hide in her room.

Finally, there was a rustling on the stairs which drew everyone’s, which thankfully included Carrie, attention. Elisabeth slowly made her way down the steps wearing a light orange-colored evening dress. Will had only ever seen wedding attendants wear dresses in such a color, yet somehow, it looked quite stunning on his Liz.  Liz looked at Will anxiously and was reassured by his smile and nod of approval for playing along with the insanity. Seeing Will’s visible approval gave Liz the courage she needed to continue on and so, head held high, she finished making her way down the stairs.

“And at last we have Miss Liz wearing a one-of-a-kind Vera made especially for our Elisabeth at my request. Isn’t she breathtaking in this pale tangerine evening dress? See how the hem of the skirt swings just so as she walks so it looks like she’s floating? The layers of silk give off that effect and I must say, I think she looks amazing. Don’t be bashful, say what you think!”

Jane had returned from down the hall with a tray of goodies and broke the silence by stating, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Beth look quite like this. She looks quite beautiful.”

Liz paused her progress at that comment to say, “Hey! Thanks a lot…”

Fran snorted a laugh which in turn caused Mimi and LiLi to snicker.

Jane had not meant anything offensive by her comment and, only just now realizing how it had sounded, readily apologized. “Bethy, I’m sorry! You always look beautiful. I only meant that now you look so feminine too.”

Liz wasn’t sure which was worse- the original comment or the apology! Before anything else could be said, Carrie chimed in, “I quite agree with you Jane! It’s high time out little Miss Liz gets out there in the world and shows everybody what she’s got!”

Knowing that Carrie truly meant well, Liz quietly said, “Thank you Carrie. It is a lovely dress and without your encouragement, I’m sure I would never have dared such a gown.”

Carrie beamed with this praise. “Thank you! You needed something spectacular and this, this is fabulous on you! Now, we need to get you a big strong man to help you out and you’ll be all set.”

Will did not like this statement asked, “What makes you say that Liz needs a man? I think she’s pretty independent and you’re making it sound like she’s some fragile little girl. A beautiful, strong, brilliant woman like Elisabeth knows her own mind and is more than capable of making decisions for herself!”

“But William, darling, she cannot hide away in her laboratory forever! She needs to get out in the world and begin to attract some real men instead of the basement-dwelling, pocket-protector wearing mama’s boys that she sees at that dreary school! She’s got to use what the good Lord gave her if she ever hopes to have any real man ever look past the fact that she’s likely three times smarter than they are. Oh how much easier finding her a man would be if she was less intelligent!”

Now standing at the bottom of the stairs, Liz let out a sigh of sheer exasperation before stating loudly, “I am standing right here!”

Carrie laughed, “Why of course you are Miss Liz! We can all see you.”

Will could see the frustration on Liz’s face. He had had more than enough of this very strange evening and decided that it was time to make their escape.

Will stood, clapped his hands together and said in an imperious voice, “Yes Carrie, thank you for pointing out the obvious.”

Catherine caught Will’s eye and gave him a thumbs-up.

Knowing that he had the approval of at least one person in the room, Will continued, “It’s getting late and since Liz is my ride, I’m afraid the fault is all mine that we must break up this little party. Charlie, Mr. Bennet, I’ll see you gentlemen in the morning. Ladies, I look forward to seeing all of you again tomorrow afternoon. Elisabeth? Are you ready to go?”

She gave him a small smile of thanks. “I think so. It will take but a minute to change out of this dress.”

Carrie would not hear of it. “Oh Miss Liz, the dress is yours! You can wear it now… you mustn’t keep William waiting. Dearest Jane and I will make certain your clothes are all folded and ready for you when you come back tomorrow. I cannot tell you how much better it makes me feel knowing that you are watching out for my dear William, Miss Liz! Thank you for taking such good care of my dear man.”

Jane felt shame that she had been one of the sources of discomfort for her dearest sister and friend. There were times, few though they were, where she recognized bits of her mother in herself and, though she loved her mother, she sought to amend those deficiencies in her character.

Taking Liz’s hand, Jane leaned in and whispered, “I am sorry Bethy. I really didn’t mean anything by it you know.”

Hugging Jane, Liz whispered back, “I know you didn’t JJ. Sometimes you just need to think first before you speak. I think it’s a family trait. But the good news is it can be overcome! It just takes a lot of practice.”

Squeezing Liz firmly in return, Jane answered, “Thank you Beth. Will is a good man. He came right in to the rescue, didn’t he? You’ll have to fill me in on some details later since we didn’t get a chance to catch up tonight. I love you Bethy.”

“Love you too JJ.”

Carrie could not bear to see the dress crushed and pleaded, “Ladies! The material! Please, you’ll ruin the dress if you keep that up! Now Miss Liz, go and make sure that Will is well taken care of for me. And don’t forget that trick I told you about for your eyes. In the morning those little wrinkles around your eyes should be long gone!”

“Thank you Carrie. I promise I’ll take good care of Will.”

Fran cackled, “Ha. Good care indeed! At least you can be sure that your William is safe from Beth. What man, no matter how you choose to dress her, would ever want such a mousy girl?”

Both Charlie and Jane started to defend Liz but were cut off when Will said, “Mrs. Bennet, Liz is the most kind woman I’ve ever met in my life. She is generous to a fault and any man would be blessed beyond measure to find themselves in her care.”

“Generous? Stuff and nonsense. Now Carrie here is generous, she is truly wonderful.”

“Thank you Fran, you are so sweet.”

Charlie nudged Will who in turn nudged Liz to leave. Leaving fairly unnoticed by the mutual appreciation society, Will and Liz said their goodbyes and apologies to the Bingleys.

They scurried out of the house as quickly as their legs could carry them and once they were in the safety of the car, each let out a deep breath of relief.

Will threw his head back against the headrest and sighed. “Holy hell, I was beginning to doubt we’d ever get out of there!”

She agreed. “Me too! Well, we’re not going to take any chances with them coming after us, so hold on while I get us out of here!”

She pulled out after they were buckled and began the return trip to McGovern’s. As they drove through the town, they observed the twinkle of newly displayed Christmas lights. They took turns pointing out which houses were awfully versus artfully decorated and their mood began to lighten.

Elisabeth was quieter than he had ever known hr to be. Will wanted to ask what had happened with Caroline. He was sure that something had. Should I press her about what happened, or should I wait for her to tell me? I have a bad feeling that nothing I do will be right either way… which one will get me in less trouble I wonder.

They arrived back at the hotel and headed, by mutually silent agreement, back to their room.

Helping Liz with her coat, Will said, “I didn’t have an opportunity yet to tell you how absolutely stunning you are this evening Elisabeth.”

She remained silent as she allowed him to take her coat and scarf to hand them up in the closet. He quickly returned only to find her sitting on the edge of the bed fighting off tears.

Kneeling before her, Will took Liz’s hands into his and begged, “Oh Love, please tell me what I can do to make this better for you. Name it and it’s yours.”

Trying to sound braver than she felt, she answered, “It’s nothing Will. The problem is all mine. Thank you anyways. You are a very sweet man for even wanting to try.”

Sitting next to her on the bed, he cuddled her close and kissed the crown of her head. “I love you Elisabeth. Your problems are my problems. How could I not try to make things better, easier or simpler for you? If it’s your family, or Carrie or any of it at all, then I say to hell with the lot of them! We could just make a break for it now… head back to Chicago until Sunday. Order lots of room service. Hell, we could do that here!”

Snuggling closer into the crook of his arm, she sighed wistfully. “Chicago does sound lovely right now, but I rarely get to see JJ and as awful as everyone else is, I won’t likely be here when the baby comes and so I’d like to stay.”

He kissed her temple. “Then stay we shall. Together.”

Elisabeth sounded more positive as she agreed. “Yes. Together.” After a moment of silence, she said thoughtfully, “Carrie is really, truly delusional you know.”

“This I am well aware of. I was greatly worried about you when you went off together. What happened exactly?”

“She went on and on about how fantastic you are.”

Trying to make light of what was a serious subject, Will tried to tease her. “If she thinks I’m fantastic, then yes, she’s completely barmy!”

“William!” She cried in exasperation. “I love you and though I do know that fantastic doesn’t even begin to describe your many attributes, you will not get me to stroke your oversized ego any more this evening, thank you.”

“Everyone’s a critic.” He chuckled. “Please, Love, go on.”

“Alright, if you can be serious, I’ll try. She pulled me aside and thanked me profusely for ‘protecting’ you from the throngs of women that are throwing themselves at you. Carrie has charged me as your keeper. I know it’s absurd, and that we should be grateful that she’s not suspicious… but is it really so far removed from the realm of possibilities that a man like you might somehow actually find me attractive? Because apparently to her it seems that I’m a non-entity and no cause for worry at all.”

Will continued to pepper her with tender kisses and gently rubbed her back. “Elisabeth, Love, this is good news, is it not? I promise you, the only person Caroline Bingley has ever really been in love with is herself. I have done everything in my power for the last few years to redirect her attentions elsewhere, but the woman is tenacious. And as for her not seeing you as a threat, it just proves once and for all that she is touched in the head.”

“Yeah, well, true as that may be… it didn’t help matters that I also had to listen to her go on and on about how what a god you are in bed. Please tell me the truth… it was just the one time, a long time ago, and you were really drunk and she was horrible and awful and… and…” and the tears came again.

Will’s heart was breaking seeing her so distressed. If it was reassurance she needed, then he would spend all the rest of his days happily providing it. He gently scooped her into his lap and held her tightly. “My dearest, loveliest Elisabeth, in all these years you are the only woman I’ve even looked twice at, let alone consider anything else! It was just once, actually less than… for once I had my wits about me I stopped immediately. And yes, I was well in my cups that night. I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am for my reprehensible behavior. Love, I would not hurt you for the world.”

“I know that. Really, I do. It’s unreasonable I know, to be jealous… don’t laugh! To be jealous of something that happened so long ago… but Carrie? Her? Why did it have to be her? To know that she kissed your lips, she stroked your chest, that she… she… it is not fair! You are mine!”

“I am yours. Yours alone.”

Taking comfort in his words, she sought more. “And you love me? You desire me?”

“Never doubt that Elisabeth. I love you utterly and completely. And desire? You can have no idea how much!”

Liz pushed him until he fell backwards on the bed. “Then perhaps it’s time that I reclaim what is mine?”

Pulling her down so she was atop him, he enthused, “By all means, please do!”

“I cannot leave anything out… you’ll just have to bear with my attentions Will.”

“I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your conquest Love. Proceed at will!”

“Very well!” She kissed his nose and declared, “I claim this nose… this very patrician, very noble, very adorable nose as mine.”

He smiled. “Just my nose?”

“Oh no, I’ve only just begun.” She nibbled his right ear. “This is mine.” Liz moved to the left and marked it as well. “This one too.”

Her attentions caused him to release a deep chuckle which caused a deep vibration in his throat and so received her ministrations next. She kept going, making pronouncements over each square inch she devoured, claiming the whole of him to be in her possession.

*Chapter Thirty-Five*

 After a great deal of time was spent in thorough examination of Will, Liz was beginning, at last, to feel better. The very thought that he had been touched by Carrie in the same manner that should be hers alone did not sit well with Liz. It was an irrational feeling, and she knew it to be so, but that did not stop her from feeling that she somehow needed to, if at all possible, decontaminate William.

Will, for his part, had a very good idea what Liz was about. If she needed to kiss him in this manner to help exorcise the ghost of Caroline past, then who was he to argue with her method? He had scrubbed and scalded himself for days and days after the unfortunate incident, but he had never, no matter how hard he had tried, been able to scrub it away from his mind. Liz’s own particular way of dealing with his past seemed to have a positive and healing effect on Will as well.

After what seemed like ages, but chronologically was about forty-five minutes, Will could bear no more of Liz’s attentions without being allowed to reciprocate.

He was now lying on his stomach while Liz administered an exceptionally effective shoulder massage. Will was growing desperate to touch her. He had allowed Liz complete control over his body but was beginning to now suffer greatly in his need for her. If Will didn’t make love to her very soon, he was positive he might actually combust.

At first, he spoke quietly. “Liz?”

Nothing. She hadn’t seemed to hear him, so Will tried again. “Love?”

Liz was paying particular attention to the knot that had formed on the right side of his neck. She wondered which one of her family members was responsible for this one. Liz had been reviewing her whole history with William Darcy and was curious how it could be that she had only met him yesterday. In less than forty-eight hours, he had become- aside from JJ- the most important person in her life. How could that be? She was weighing the odds of whether or not this extraordinary relationship was truly viable when her thoughts were finally disturbed by Will’s question.

“Elisabeth, are you alright Love?” Will asked with concern evident in his voice.

Shaking off her reverie, Liz finally responded. “Hmm? Oh, yes Will. I’m fine. What made you ask? Are you not enjoying your shoulder rub?”

He propped himself up on his left elbow and turned so he could see her face. “I tried calling you but you didn’t seem to hear me. As for the massage, you, Love, are a very talented woman. I fear I’m enjoying myself much too much and find I am deeply indebted to you.”

She smiled. “I did not do this so that you would owe me. I wanted… I wanted to… oh, never mind. I can’t explain what I was attempting without sounding like a lunatic.”

“Utter nonsense! You could never sound like a lunatic. In case you hadn’t noticed, we speak, you and I, the same language. There may be a few exceptions, chemist comes to mind, but I believe for some things- the important things- we are actually beyond words Love.”

“I feel so foolish.”

“No, please do not. I understand, really I do. If I could undo that night, I would. Honestly, if I could undo all the other nights- and, truly, there were not as many as you might think- I would do so in a heartbeat. If it helps, I found myself extremely jealous of your Dennis Fields tonight. He was the lucky bastard who first discovered just how exquisite your lips are. And no, despite what your moronic, and I can think of no better word for her, sister would have you think, you had nothing to do with your friend’s orientation.”

She smiled again. “Orientation? My, my, Will, what a politically-correct term! And right off the cuff too!”

 “Do not laugh at me! You have no idea how many sensitivity training classes and seminars you have to provide when you’re the CEO of a major company.”

The very fact that he had requested she not laugh had guaranteed she would.

Liz tried diligently, but unsuccessfully, to stifle a giggle as she replied, “I can well imagine! Anyways, Dennis was sweet and all, but I think he knew even then.”

Will tilted her chin up so they were once more face-to-face. “I suppose it would be petty of me to say that I am glad?”

“Probably… but I promise not to say a word.  Your secret is safe with me. Is it wrong that I find that your being jealous kinda makes me happy too?”

Will grinned proudly before bestowing her with both a kiss and an answer. “Since my secret is safe with you, yours is safe with me as well. I look at you, and I find that I am overwhelmed. I must have done something very right, something exceptional, to somehow deserve you. For my part, I cannot think what. But then, who am I to question the fates?”

She laughed in return. “No, we must not mess with the fates!”

He ran his hands over the silky material of her dress and began to contemplate how best to remove it before he agreed. “No, we mustn’t.”

“So, if we are to then, as a logical extension of not going against the fates, choose to accept said fate, then our next course of action is rather obvious, yes?”

Being extremely distracted in his quest to free Liz from her gown, Will was not paying the closest of attention to Liz’s words. He paused his nibbling of hr right shoulder to mumble an approximation of yes.

“Well then?” Liz questioned with a teasing archness in her voice that had managed to cut through Will’s fog of desire.

“Well then what?” Will asked in all seriousness.

That she had caught him unaware was now obvious. Liz wondered just how much of what she’d said was missed. Following the thread of conversation backwards, she knew it could not be much and smiled that she had caused his complete and total distraction. She had never felt such power over anyone before.

While peppering his throat with kisses in return for those he was still placing on her shoulder she said, “What I was saying, my dearest and distracted Fitzwilliam, was that our next course of action should be obvious, do you not agree?”

“Oh yes, very obvious.” He nibbled her collarbone and stopped when he felt her body gently shake with laughter. “Wait… I guess not. What is next Love? I obviously cannot think straight just now. Please help me?”

She giggled. “What are you waiting for? Help me get this ridiculous dress off me!”

 With tremendous relief, Will replied, “Gladly!”

Liz sat up so he could carefully undo the hidden eyehooks at the top of the dress. Will welcomed each new spot uncovered with a kiss as it was freed from its previous confinement.

“As beautiful as you looked in this dress… I must tell you that you look equally beautiful in everything.”

“Really?”

“Definitely. I’ve actually already given this some thought. I would love to see you in your lab coat. You’re wearing a plain skirt, a white blouse and some heels, under the coat of course. You’d wear your hair up in a tight and severe bun held up with only a pin or two. There’d be some tortoise-shelled glasses…”

She giggled again as she interrupted him, “I don’t wear glasses! My eyesight is perfectly fine!”

He nipped her earlobe. “Shh woman! You can have a turn later… now, where was I? Oh yes, there’d be some glasses, perhaps they’re safety glasses since your vision is as perfect as you are. You’re working late in your lab, because you’re so dedicated, and I, wondering what has kept you so long, come to find you and when I arrive… you see me and you smile.”

Liz looked over her shoulder to catch his eye. “Of course I’d smile.”

“Shh! You smile and you whip your very studious-looking glasses off and throw them on the table, reach up and take out your hairpins and then shake loose your long hair.”

“Oh, I do now, do I?”

“Seriously Love, shh! So, now you’ve shaken your hair loose and you lift a finger to wave me over to you and then I am completely at your mercy as we participate in some, shall we say chemistry?  experiments of our own.”

“I rather regret that I didn’t pack my lab coat!”

“I rather regret you packed any clothes at all!” At last, Will had finally divested Liz of the last remnants of clothing and pulled her closer so they were skin to skin at last.

“So…” she was having a hard time focusing on her thoughts as Will was now devouring her with a fervor that matched her earlier one. “is that a long-standing fantasy or is this something new on my behalf?”

He nuzzled that wonderful place behind her ear while he admitted, “This may shock you but I didn’t have any fantasies at all before I met you. Now I can’t seem to stop.”

This confession of Will’s gave her a feeling of security and contentment such as she had never felt before. She had never before considered such things! The thought of sharing her passion with Will in such a way made her blush as she found the idea very appealing. “Well, the lab thing is completely doable.”

“Really?” Excitement was clear in his voice. “That’d be bloody brilliant!”

She sighed contentedly. “What is brilliant is that thing you are doing to my neck. Yes! That’s it… ah, if you keep that up you can have anything you want!”

“You are all that I want and need. And if you should truly be coming to London…”

“Ruislip…” she corrected.

He was persistent. “Ruislip then. If you are truly coming to England, then my life will be beyond anything I had ever imagined. Please tell me it’s true… you are moving, yes?”

Liz managed to pull away from him just enough to clear her head enough to answer him. “I believe so. It looks very likely but is not yet definite, so I cannot make any promises. Should I get this position, then I’ll be in England on a permanent basis.”

“What is in Ruislip anyways? I thought it was just an old US Army base.”

“No… there’s more there than that.” Liz considered whether it was prudent or not to reveal all and decided that trusting Will seemed as natural as breathing. “I am in the process of being vetted, pending my degree, for a position with EOARD. Have you heard of EOARD?”

Will shook his head no.

“EOARD stands for the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development. It’s a division of the Air Force- specifically the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. They coordinate new technologies with countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle-East and the former Soviet bloc. This is what I’ve been studying for- to make a difference in the world.”

“Vetted? Like a spook?”

“No… vetted like any government employee that works with sensitive data. Surely you do background checks at your company?”

“Of course we do. It’s just that yours sounds so impressive. Can you not hear it in conversation? ‘So, what do you do?’ ‘Me? I’m CEO of an unimportant company… but my wife? She’s a government physicist.’”

The second the words left his lips he knew he should regret them but found that he could not.

Liz tried to cover her surprise at what he’d said by teasing in her usual wont. “So you already have a wife that is a government physicist? How strange.”

“Elisabeth…” his voice was husky now, “I apologize for being presumptuous but I cannot and will not say sorry for wishing to make you my wife. Make of it what you will… we were speaking earlier about not tempting the fates and I believe that we’ve been brought together now for a reason. I cannot believe even the devil himself would be so cruel as to stand in the way of our being together.”

Knowing full well that every rationale said this was absurd, Liz purposefully ignored all of the many reasons they shouldn’t jump head first into the great unknown and decided that whatever would happen would be somehow alright. She knew she loved Will with all her heart and decided to trust in their love, come what may. 

Lying together, held in each other’s arms, Liz knew this was where she wished to be for the rest of her life. It could not be calculated, quantified or ticked but it was as real and definable as anything else she knew. Liz smiled as she had, at last, her answer ready to his unasked question.

Will saw the warm smile she gave him and tender look in her eyes. Cautiously, he asked, “Elisabeth, if you are not ready to hear what I want to say, please tell me now.”

In answer, she gently cupped his face to pull him close for a passionate kiss. “I love you Will and I believe I am ready for anything.”

Relief washed across his face. “I love you Elisabeth, more than reason, and I beg you to relieve my suffering and please agree to be my wife. I cannot imagine my life going on without you in it beside me. I love you and am begging you for the chance to show you just how much every day for the rest of our lives.”

“Oh Will! I love you so much. I can think of no better way to spend my life than being married to you.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

Yes! Should I be worried? Did you not hear me or might you be going prematurely senile?”

Will chuckled at that. “No Liz, I promise my faculties are perfectly intact. I just wanted to be certain that I heard your correct answer Liz. Please say it again?”

“Yes, Fitzwilliam George Darcy, I love you very much and will consider it the greatest of honors to marry you and become your wife.”

“Thank you, Love, for the reassurance… I’m afraid that sometimes I worry too much. You’ll have to remind me not to do so.”

 “I look forward to it.” Liz replied. Then, with a twinkle in her eye and mirth in her voice, she asked, “Is this really happening? Did we really, truly, honestly just become engaged?”

“Yes, Love, this is all very real. Is it not astounding that so much has happened in one day?”

She gave him a teasing look as she said, “I think even yesterday I knew that reigning in your bastard tendencies would be a lifetime commitment.”

He huffed with feigned agitation. “Are we back to that? Really?”

“Really.” Liz replied with a kiss upon his insincerely pouting mouth. Then, just realizing something, she gasped, “Oh my! I imagine this is an arrangement that your crack team of lawyers will demand be sealed with more than a kiss!”

He began to nuzzle the spot at the base of her throat. “Oh I can think of several ways to seal this arrangement and, I assure you, none of them involve any lawyers.”

“William!” she moaned. “Be serious! If your lawyers are half so ‘crack’ as mine are, then they’ll have a huge stack of papers for you to sign to protect yourself when we marry.”

Darcy would have gladly signed away everything he owned at that very moment if only she would just be quiet so he could make love to her! “Then let’s not tell them.”

His persistence was admirable, but Liz would not be distracted again. “I don’t think that’s possible. In case you’d forgotten, you’re not American and I’m not British. There’s bound to be some legal issues- even when you discount our money.”

She had his attention now. “I suppose you’re right. I don’t actually know what all is involved… I’ll call Reynolds and have him look into it for me, for us. I think it’s pretty telling that my money doesn’t even phase you. I know you said you had some, but, just out of curiosity, how much are we talking about?”

“Oh geez, you know what? I don’t know. Last time I checked, I think that my liquid assets were around twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five?”

“Yeah, but that number won’t hold for long. I need to sell out my interests in some of the companies I’ve invested in. Conflict of interest and all… I can’t hold stock in businesses that might benefit from my tech position now, can I?”

Initially, he had thought she meant thousand, or even hundred-thousand, but now he wasn’t so sure. “If you have twenty-five liquid, just how much do you have invested?”

“Again, I don’t know. I’m not very good with finance and so I hire people who are. Last quarter’s reports had me at a net worth of something like a hundred and four.”

Completely shocked, Will questioned, “Million?”

“Yes. I know, I know, if I only watched more closely, I could do better, I know. In my defense, I have been busy working on my doctoral thesis and teaching.”

Darcy sat upright in the bed and started to laugh.

Of all the reactions she had anticipated, laughter was not one of them. “What is so funny? I honestly been busy you know.”

“I am just counting my blessings that you are… well, you.”

“And this is funny to you?”

“Can you not see the humour?”

“Not really…”

“Elisabeth Gardiner… you are without a doubt the most amazing woman. To me, you are priceless! I love that you have no idea what your fiscal worth is… that money is not a priority for you. Honestly, I don’t know mine at the moment either.”

“We are quite a pair then, don’t you think?”

“I think we are. You are right though… the lawyers will have a field day with us.”

Liz grabbed his arm and oulled him back down under the covers. “I don’t care so long as in the end I get you.”

“Oh Love, you’ve got me alright. And, if I can get you to just be quiet for a moment you’ll see that you could have gotten me several times already.”

She giggled. “Are you trying to make some sort of point?”

Will rubbed his body closely against her. “The point has already been made… it’s just waiting for you to get to it!”

She shifted beneath Will to accommodate him. “And what a very good point you have there.”

Will began to drive his point home. “You know… after we’re doing going over this point, I may have several others to make.”

This news was met with great enthusiasm on her part. They continued to love each other until they were finally exhausted in every way. There was still much to say, much to resolve, but for now… for now it would keep until tomorrow.

A very sleepy Will quietly stated, “I love you Elisabeth.”

With a yawn, Liz turned into Will’s arms. “I love you too William.”

They shared a brief kiss before letting sleep claim them after a very long and eventful day.

*Chapter Thirty-Six*

 The alarm on Liz’s phone vibrated and loudly blasted the Northwestern Wildcats fight song at four o’clock a.m. as usual.

A very sleepy William gently shook an even sleepier Elisabeth. “Mmm. Liz? Time to check your sugar, Love.”

She pulled the pillow over her head and muttered, “It can’t be four yet… can it?”

“Sadly, it is.” He pulled the pillow away and brushed the hair away from her eyes and as she raised her eyes to his, he smiled. “Good morning Love.”

“It may be morning… but it remains to be seen whether it’s good or not!”

He pulled her into his arms and kissed her nose. “This morning has at least one positive merit.”

Doubtful, she said, “Really? Astonish me.”

He grinned. “Let’s see… one- you love me, two- I love you, three- we’re engaged, four- and, at this moment, this is by far my favorite- you’re lying here in my arms and we’re both conveniently completely naked. If that’s not the beginning of a very good morning, I don’t know what a good morning should be!”

She giggled as he began to trace ever-so-lightly with his fingertips from her shoulder across her collarbone and then down to her stomach where he proceeded to tickle her.

“I give! I give! It’s a beautiful morning! Now Will, please, I surrender…” before she could define the terms of her surrender, she found his lips hard upon hers. Liz wrapped her arms around Will’s neck to bring him closer and just as she began a tickle-assault of her own…

Liz’s snooze alarm on her phone played Go U Northwestern at full volume one more.

“Crud monkey!” cursed Will.

Liz laughed at her fiancé’s choice of words. “Well, I suppose it’s better than saying ‘bloody hell’ or ‘holy hell’ like you usually do.”

Wondering how bad he was, he asked, “I don’t swear too often, do I?”

“No. Not really. I suppose that your lack of colorful euphemisms comes from raising your little sister?”

“I don’t know. I never really gave it much thought. Speaking of baby sisters… Georgiana will adore you. Do you think it would be alright to tell her?”

“I don’t see any problems with that. I ought to tell Catherine and JJ too.”

Telling JJ reminded Will about telling Bingley. Thinking about Bingley reminded him of his early morning appointment. “Bollocks! I’m going hunting with Chip and your father this morning. I think your father fully intends to shoot me.”

“Pop is not going to shoot you. At least not with Charlie there as a witness…” she teased.

It was Will’s turn to hide under a pillow. “Thank you for that. I feel so much better now.”

Instead of being tender like he was when she hid, she lifted the pillow and then whacked it against his head. “Oh Will, come on now! We went over this. You have nothing to prove, you don’t need to go and I honestly would prefer if you didn’t! You told me you don’t even like hunting… why would you put yourself through this?”

“Hey!” he cried as he grabbed the pillow from her hands. “First, conversations at midnight are inadmissible- always. They are often nonsensical and not thought through properly. Second, while you were telling me I didn’t need to go, you seemed not to hear me when I said that I do. Love, we are intending to get married. Your father needs to accept that fact whether or not he chooses to ever accept me. I need to do this… for you and for us. He cannot be allowed to continue spewing his vitriol about the choices you make. I so wish that I could promise you that all will be well, but I don’t hold out much hope. I need to ask, if your father and I can’t get along- would that make a difference? Could you still marry me if you’re estranged even further away from him?”

She thoughtfully answered, “Will, I was already intending to put an ocean and half the world between us. He’s my father and I do, and probably always will, love him. However, he’s chosen, over and over, that devil-woman he married above all the rest of us. No, I can honestly say that giving them up is no great sacrifice if it means that I get to be with you.”

“I’m relieved. I didn’t think you would, but I need you to know that while I understand your family is important and will always hold a place in your heart, I will not stand on the sidelines and let them hurt you any further. I am through with any and all charades.”

She laughed and he had no idea what was funny. The look of confusion on his face only made her laugh harder.

“Elisabeth?”

“I’m sorry! You said shar-odd and I suppose it’s because I’m tired, but we always say it char-aide. I know, it wasn’t a funny moment… I appreciate your protection Will. I really and truly do. You are the very best of men.”

“So long as you think so, I am happy. Now, I’ve got teeth to brush and some ridiculously small clothing to put on. How about you use the loo first for your sugar while I make an attempt to stuff myself in some of Chip’s clothes?”

“Sounds good to me. Have I mentioned how very much I like this? This is all so domestic, don’t you think?”

“I think I understand. And yes, I like this very much also. Don’t laugh, but I actually thought about the possibility the other night when we were stranded at Wander Inn.”

“Great minds. I thought the same thing too. I love you Will.”

“Then my evil plan has worked!” he chuckled. “I love you too Liz. Now be a good girl and go check that sugar! You are my number one concern now and that means I need to make sure that you’ll be around to keep me in check well into our old age.”

Liz teasingly sighed as she grabbed her phone before making her way to the bathroom. “It’s a dirty job… and thankfully, it’s all mine.”

Watching her bare backside saunter into the bathroom was nearly more than poor Will could take. She knows full well what she’s doing to me! And God help me, I love her all the more for it! He smiled as he crossed the room to get the bag of warm clothing that Bingley had lent him. Holding up a pair of thermal underwear, he grimaced. I’m going to shred through these clothes like the Hulk. Ha. Does that make Chip mild-mannered David Banner? Liz would laugh at this… I’m a lucky bastard. Well, here goes nothing. He pulled on his own shorts and then began the task of wriggling into Bingley’s much-too-small thermals.

After the first attempt, it was clear this wouldn’t be easy. So he pulled them off and began to pull and stretch them as best he could. Will tried again and was able to manage to make it as far as his thighs this time. Down they came again, but this time he didn’t take them off completely. He instead used his legs to stretch them apart as far as he could.

The comical sight of Will waddling around the room with thermals pooled around his knees was what greeted the now-dressed Liz when she came back from checking her sugar.

 “What on earth are you doing?” she laughed.

“Hatching an egg.” Will quipped. “I’m trying, unsuccessfully I might add, to stretch these damn things out. Chip is not exactly the same size I am…”

Liz agreed. “Definitely not.”

Will, standing bare-chested, wearing Cambridge boxers with oatmeal-heather thermals trailing down his legs, crossed his arms in an attempt to look dignified as he begged, “So can you please help me?”

“Yes, I can help you.” Liz giggled. “Sit down,” she ordered. He shuffled back to the edge of the bed being careful not to trip and sat obediently as he’d been told. “Now, it seems to me we need to get these on using the tried-and-true method every woman knows.”

He wrinkled his nose in confusion as he asked, “How do you mean?”

Knowing he would not see the joke, she tried to adopt a serious tone. “These are going on like panty-hose.”  

He nearly jumped up off the bed. “Like hell!”

His reaction was no less than she’d expected and it made her laugh. Would life always be like this with Will? She hoped so. With a gleam in her eye, she explained, “Exactly like hell! Panty-hose are the work of the devil, didn’t you know?”

Will slumped his shoulders in defeat. Carefully considering all the options, he questioned, “Do you think frostbite is really all that bad?”

She smacked his arm. “Yes! And if you’ll remember, you have a fiancée now who happens to love you and all of your appendages just the way they are, thank you.”

Resigned, Will said, “So no frostbite then?” Liz shook her head no. “Okay. Then please show me how you ladies manage to do this then?”

Liz took the troublesome thermals and bunched the right leg up as tightly as she could. Then she threaded Will’s foot through the hole and pushed the material up his calf as far as it would go before she began to push the bulk of the material over the knee. Then she did the same with the left. She had him stand upright and then began what every woman knows as the nylon-dance. After a considerable struggle, at last the thermals were on.

“I can’t breathe!” exclaimed Will.

“Oh, quit being such a baby. Sit down and I’ll see what I can do.”

Liz looked around and in the desk drawer she found a small hospitality sewing kit and used the tiny scissors to make a few cuts in Will’s tight elastic waistband.

“Is that better?”

With a great sigh of relief, Will said, “Yes. I never realized that Chip was a Halfling before. Is he really that much smaller than I am?”

“I suppose.” She chose to tease him, “I’ve never really looked at how long Charlie’s legs were before. Should I start now?”

He frowned a little. “No, that’s not really necessary.”

“You are so adorable when you’re jealous.”

“I am not.”

“Which? Adorable or jealous?”

“Neither I hope. You, Love, drive me absolutely insane! I’m glad you never noticed Chip’s legs.” He pulled her into his lap and kissed her. “I find I’m glad about a lot of things this morning.”

“Me too.” Liz stroked his stubbly chin before she kissed his cheek. “It’s twenty after and we’ve got to finish getting you ready. Now, we’ve got you thermal capris on… so what’s next? Ah, yes…” she reached into the bag and pulled out an Under Armour  shirt. “…this should be a nice challenge.”

Will shook his head. “No.”

Liz draped her arms over his shoulders and quirked an eyebrow, “No?”

Firmly, Will replied once more, “No.”

With an authoritative tone that matched his own, she stated, “Fitzwilliam George Darcy! You will wear as many layers of clothing as I can manage to get on you. Do you understand me?”

Recognizing that this was not a battle worth fighting, he answered, “Yes, Liz.” And with that, he held his arms out for her to provide the same dressing service she had provided with the thermals.

For his reluctant cooperation, he was rewarded with loving caresses as Liz covered the broad expanse of his shoulders and back with the bright red mock turtleneck. As she pulled it down as far as she could, her hands lingered on the taut muscles of his chest and abdomen. The problem was that the shirt on Will came down only to his midriff.

Liz looked her man up and down and chuckled.

Will was growing frustrated. “That’s not helping, Love. What is it that you find so amusing now?”

She laughed harder. “I can’t say.”

“Please tell me. I could use a good laugh. I fear that I’ll be angry with your father and would like to remember something diverting.”

That was too much for Liz. She stood up and gulped down some water because she’d grown hoarse from laughing so hard. “Oh William! I am sorry for laughing, really I am! But you look like the Hulk because Charlie’s clothes are so tiny on you. And then…” she gasped a hiccup, “…then you mentioned being angry…” she hiccupped again, “…and all I could hear in my head was your deep voice saying that ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’ and then I lost it. I am sorry!”

If Will had any doubts before that he had been too hasty in his proposal, they were now gone.

Standing up, he crossed to where she was, swept her in his arms and spun her about. Only when she protested that she was dizzy did he stop.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?” asked Will.

“No, not really,” she answered honestly between hiccups. “But if it’s even half so much as I love you, it’s a lot.”

He kissed her lips, her nose, her cheeks and her forehead. “My Liz, my lovely, amazing Liz. I kid you not when I say that I thought the same thing- about the Hulk- when I saw these clothes. My first thought was that you would get it, you would find it as funny as I did… and then you did!”

“I always liked that show.” She then had a terrible thought. “Will you really be content to have a wife that is such a big geek? I couldn’t tell you what the latest fashion is, or where the new trendy spot to be seen might be. Aren’t those things important to you, to your position? I would never want to embarrass you or anything with my lack of ‘society’ manners.”

“To hell with society. Let them rot. You, Love, are perfect just as you are and if you even think about changing to appease someone else, well, then you’ll truly see me angry! Remember, you have a fiancé now who happens to like you, and everything about you, exactly as you are.”

“No fair! Turning my own words…” Liz hiccupped, “…against me!”

“I do what I can. Now, Elisabeth, what do you suppose we ought to do for those hiccups of yours?”

“I’ve only known of one cure that’s worked. I think…” here she hiccupped again. “…that we need to do some more tests, gather more data.”

He held her face in his hands. “Like this?” Will asked as he held her tight and kissed her until her body stopped convulsing with annoying hiccups.

Their kiss had lasted several minutes that time and both were left fairly insensible by it.

Finally, Will remembered what he was doing and asked, “Love, will you help me please finish getting ready for this farce?”

Liz then pulled the long, thermal socks out of the bag and helped him with those as well. Then they layered another pair of boxers over the long-johns and several t-shirts that were also sadly short. Next came Will’s jeans and a borrowed flannel shirt. Will was lacing up his shoes as Liz took out a sweater for him from amongst her things.

As Will pulled the grey woolen cable-knit over his head, he could not hide his surprise. “Hey, this jumper actually fits! Where’d this come from?”

“Oh, it’s old. Promise you won’t be angry?”

“No.” Will stated simply.

She couldn’t believe it. “No?”

“No. But I can promise that I’ll try to temper my reaction… I can’t promise not to be angry. I’m always going to be honest with you Liz and I hope that you’ll always feel you can be the same with me. Now, what is it that you wish to say?”

His explanation made sense, and she could not fault him for it. They had been honest, sometimes brutally so, with each other so far and it did seem like the best course of action for their future.

“Alright. But remember, I’ve had to deal with Carrie in my face. That sweater belonged to my college boyfriend Drew. My family really liked him and we were supposed to be getting engaged when I graduated but we broke up before that. Anyways, I always liked that sweater… it’s mighty comfy and so I kept it. Truly, that sweater is the only good thing that ever came out of my relationship with Drew.”

Will did not like the thought of wearing another man’s jumper… but he had listened carefully to all that Liz had said and found that he could only feel pity for the man who was idiotic enough to have not held on to Elisabeth. It was indeed a very comfy jumper and so he chose to think of it as hers rather than his.

“As it’s the only borrowed item that fits, I thank you. So, Drew?”

“It’s a boring story. Not very interesting, nor very happy at all. I like this story, ours, much better.”

“While I have to agree with you there, I’d still like to hear about the famous Drew.”

 “I promise to tell you all when you get back. For now, I want you to stay focused so you don’t get hurt. Please be careful Will.”

“For you? I promise. You ought to get back to bed for a while…”

“I’d go right now- if you’d join me.”

“You know I can’t!” Will whined. “I need to clarify a few things with your father. Is it alright with you if I speak to him about our engagement?”

“Yes. Oh! Charlie will be thrilled to have you as his honest-to-goodness brother!”

“I look forward to that as well. Mostly because when that happens, it means I’ll be married to you.”

She blushed. “You really are something else; you do know that, don’t you?”

He kissed her again. “As long as I’m your something else, I don’t care.”

Liz wound the scarf around his neck and helped him with his jacket. “You are and always will be.”

“Good.” He put on his hat and gloves. “Kiss me good-bye and wish me luck?”

Kiss him she did. Liz pulled him towards her and gave him such an urgent kiss that Will momentarily considered staying after all. When the kiss broke at last, she said, “Good luck Will, with everything.”

He gave her a reassuring hug and said, “I love you and I will be back as soon as I can. Sleep tight, Love.”

Will had opened the door to head down to the lobby but was stopped in his tracks when she called after him. “I will… I’ll dream of you until you get back.”

He stood leaning his head against the doorframe. “You say the most wonderful things. How am I supposed to leave you now?”

Saucily, she replied, “That was the idea…”

Will was just about to head back into the room for good when the ever-chipper voice of Bingley cried out, “Whoa-ho, what do we have here this morning? Have I interrupted something? It sure looks like it! Dear Sil, were you wishing your man good fortune on the hunt today?”

It was a fortunate thing for Bingley that looks can’t kill because Liz had her brother-in-law dead in her sights as she haughtily answered, “Yes, you did! Go away Bil!”

“Tsk-tsk, Sil! Tom is waiting to spend some quality time with Will here… surely you want them to get along, don’t you?”

“Yes. Please make sure Daddy doesn’t shoot Will.” Liz looked at Will who nodded his approval and she continued, “You’ve got to protect your future brother now.”

Bingley was thrilled. “Seriously? That’s excellent news! See? You two think you’re the only smart ones around here but I know a thing or two about a thing or two.”

That drew a small chuckle from Will. “So you do Chip. Shall we get a move on?”

“Definitely. Are you heading to the house later this morning Sil? Or do you want me to drop Fitz off here?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Here. I think we’ve earned a little quiet time after last night, don’t you think?”

Bingley nodded. “Will do. Congrats Sil! I’m very happy for you both. Now, Fitz, let’s get going!”

As Bingley went ahead to call the elevator, Will turned to Liz. “I love you Liz. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Keep that bed warm…”

How was she supposed to go for hours without his company? She felt lost. “I love you too Will. Hurry, but be safe! I’m afraid the bed will be cold without you…”

Their hearts full, they kissed each other good-bye. Will sadly turned to follow Bingley and Liz shut the door to cry.

*Chapter Thirty-Seven* 

Bingley held open the elevator door for his friend. Upon seeing the miserable hang-dog expression on Will’s face, he decided to try to tease his friend into a better mood. “You look terrible this morning Fitz.”

Will shook his head at his oldest friend, “Sod off.”  

Bingley laughed. “See? I always knew we should be brothers! I think it’s great.”

Here, Will grinned. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Beth, I mean Liz, is great. Are you guys going to say anything before you leave? I mean with Carrie and Fran here…”  

“I know. I fear I keep waiting for something else cataclysmic to happen. There’s already been one disaster after another… but Liz and I are working to be open and honest about everything so that there are no misunderstandings between us. We can’t be mind readers now, can we?”

“No… but I have always noticed a similarity in the turn of your minds. It’s one of the reasons I always thought that you two would be so good together.”

“I think you’re right. She gets me… she understands me in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I’ll say this now, and say this once and then I’ll consider this topic closed- I love her. I can’t believe how much I need her and I think that she needs and loves me just as much. How strange is that?”

“It’s not strange at all. When you find your soul mate, you just know I suppose.”

“And now we’re speaking like women and so we need to stop.”

“Fitz, you really can be a Neanderthal.”

To prove Chip right, he grunted and growled as he held the lobby door open. They stepped into the cold and bitter morning air and trudged through the snow over to Tom’s Excursion. Chip sat ‘shotgun’ and Will chose to sit in the right rear passenger seat so that he could watch Tom.

Tom Bennet, without so much as even turning his head to acknowledge their presence barked, “You boys set to go?”

Bingley curtly replied, “Yes, sir.”

Will merely shrugged his shoulders.

Tom turned around and rested his hand on the back of the passenger seat. His steely blue-grey eyes met Will’s hazel eyes in a challenge. “Darcy, I can’t hear you back there. You ready?”

Never looking away, Will answered, “As I’ll ever be.”

Tom nodded and turned back around and began to drive. Will sighed in relief that maybe the whole morning wouldn’t be entirely awful.

Bingley began rattling off all the things that had been readied in preparation. Will, having no clue what was expected of him, listened as best he could.

Tom drove through Tim Horton’s where they each ordered a breakfast sandwich and coffee to go. Eating was a nice diversion for Will who had a momentary reprieve from thinking about how to broach his engagement with his future father-in-law.

Tom ate his bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and between bites remarked, “Glad to see you eat meat boy.”

Will could not believe the remark was meant for him, but who else could it have been meant for? “Pardon? Sir, I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch that.”

Letting out a noise that was meant show his annoyance, Tom repeated, “Glad to see you eat some meat boy.”

Will was offended by everything. “Excuse me? What exactly do you mean by that? First of all, yes I eat meat… but even if I didn’t, it would be no concern of yours. Secondly, no one has called me ‘boy’ since I was one. Thirdly, I- and pay close attention, because this is the important one- do not take kindly to insults, sir, and you are sadly mistaken if you think that I will be as compliant as some in how I let you address me and my family.”

Ignoring Will, Tom poked Bingley in the shoulder and guffawed, “So Charlie, your friend actually has a backbone, does he? This may prove to be a good morning after all.”

Will was beginning to seethe in the backseat. And to think, I was worried about Tom shooting me! If this keeps up, Chip had better not put a gun in my hands…

Tom flipped on the local am news station and turned it up loud enough to ensure that conversation was impossible. Assuming they had at least a few minutes before reaching their destination, Will leaned his head against the window in an attempt to relax. He now wished he’d enough forethought to grab the Tylenol.

As he closed his eyes, Will gave his mind free rein to drift back to the pretty picture Liz had presented. Hopefully, she’s able to get a little more sleep. I wonder if I’ll start waking up automatically at four each morning? I can’t imagine sleeping through her getting up… and if I’m already up, then I can welcome her back to bed… even better! We need more time together. I’m not ready to leave her tomorrow. I know, I’ll ask if she minds having a houseguest. I could have Reynolds find out whatever is necessary about immigration and he can bring me my laptop and anything else I may need. I don’t think Boston is too far from New York… I could work out of the New York office if there should be any problems. And Georgie! She’s only a few weeks left… perhaps Georgie could fly in. We’ll see. You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself! She’s only been able to focus on you because she left everything else at home… she needs to study and wrap up things here. I can help with that though, can’t I? You’re not a completely useless tosser… I have managed to accomplish one or two things on my own. Good God! Stop over-thinking everything to death! Talk to Liz, find out what she wants and go from there. I was able to bloody-well live without her for nearly thirty-two years, I suppose if I really have to I can do it for a month or two more. But I don’t want to…

Will’s mind recalled the playfulness that they shared when they were alone together and smiled. He had never imagined that loving someone with all you have to give, both physically and emotionally, could be so much better than just sex. Will was beginning a lovely dream where he and Liz were at Pemberley and heading to take a dip in the rock pool when the car stopped abruptly enough that his head rattled against the window with a sudden jerk.

“Where are we?” asked Will as he rubbed his hands over his face to help him wake up a little better.

Bingley turned around to answer, “Beaver Dam Lake. We’re hunting on my property.”

Will was surprised. “You have property?”

“Yes. And so do you.”

“That’s different. I inherited mine.”

“Yes, because someone had the foresight to actually purchase it. You’re being a little dense today Fitz.”

Will said drily, “So I am. Thanks ever so much for pointing that out.”

“It’s my job.”

Tom had listened to these men carefully. He wondered if Darcy was some sort of class-conscious snob. Why should it matter if Charlie bought some land or had it given to him? In truth, to Tom it meant more that Charlie had earned what he had been given rather than been handed everything on a silver platter. That the Bingley family had been far from working-class at present escaped his thoughts for now. Tom was positive he did not like this Darcy guy for his Elisa.

“Boys. Quit your bickering and let’s get going.”

Bingley snapped to attention. “Yes, sir.”

Tom looked to Will who refused to react to the older man’s attempts at intimidation.

In no special hurry, Will got out of the car and shivered. It was well below freezing and all he could think was how stupid he was for agreeing to this scheme. I could be in bed right now… I could be with Liz in bed right now… you are a stupid, stupid man! Sighing, he adjusted his hat, tightened his gloves and rubbed his arms for warmth.

Bingley was already at the rear of the vehicle and checking the muskets with Tom when Will joined them.

Tom handed Will a small satchel and walked off without a word toward the wood.

Will sighed and nodded in Tom’s direction. “Pleasant fellow, isn’t he? Please tell me this is not how he always is.”     

“He’s a little grumpier than normal, but yeah, Tom’s pretty hardline. Now, are you ready for your lesson?”

“Lesson?”

“Oh, my mistake. I didn’t know you were already an expert in loading black-powder rifles. My bad.”

“And they say that I’m a bastard,” Will grumbled before asking, “Chip, please, oh wise one, impart your extensive knowledge of antiquated hunting weapons with your unlearned friend.”

Will’s speech made Bingley laugh. “Oh Fitz, I have missed you! Maybe now that we’ll be brothers I’ll get to see you more than once in a blue moon.”

“We’ll see. I still have to survive this morning first. So… what’s the bag for?”

“Necessities.” Handing Will a rifle, Bingley explained, “That is a black powder rifle, or musket if you prefer. Specifically, this one’s a Brown Bess model.”

“Brown Bess? Like Kipling?”

“Very good! Exactly. Now to load it, first you need to make sure that it’s not primed. It shouldn’t be because I always check them before putting them away, but better safe than sorry. To check that it’s not primed, you need to check the pan like this,” Bingley showed what to do with his own gun and continued, “then you need to take a patch- from your bag there- and make sure the bore’s clean like this.” Will mimicked his friend who was pleased and said, “Yes, just like that.”

“Next we need to fire a few pans of powder to make ready. Here, like this.” They each loaded their guns with the appropriate amount of powder and then Bingley began to fire.

“Now it’s your turn Fitz.”

Will swallowed and held the rifle up to his shoulder and fired. It sickened him a little that he didn’t hate it as much as he thought he would.

Bingley enthused, “Now… let’s get these loaded!”

Will was further instructed on how to properly load and fire his rifle. When he was able to recite the full procedure back to Chip confidently, he was declared ready for the woods.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we could actually see where the hell we were going?” asked Will.

“Nah. It’ll be light out before you know it!”

Ignoring Bingley’s exuberance, Will asked, “Where did Tom go?”

“There’s a blind up ahead and that’s most likely where he headed. We came here about a year ago and he really enjoyed himself. Very nearly caught a doe that time.”

“My feet are wet.”

“Stop complaining.”

“I’ll make no promises. Are we there yet?”

“Sil is a saint for putting up with you! Did you harass her with ‘are we there yet’ on the way up here? I bet you did, didn’t you?”

“A little. Well?”

“Well what?”

“Are we there yet? You didn’t answer the question before.”

“Fitz, I say this out of love, shut up before I shoot you!”

Will trudged on silently beside Chip for a few minutes before he spoke again. “Why couldn’t this be bow season? I know how to use a bow.”

“Hate to break it to you Fitz, but most hunters that go during bow season use crossbows which are hardly the same thing that you’re familiar with.”

“Sorry Rambo, I didn’t mean to be so naïve.”

“For all the times over the years when I’ve been the naïve one, I forgive you. Now, we’re nearly there. See up ahead in the trees there?”

Will peered into the blackness until he finally made out a shape. “The tree-house?”

“It’s not a tree-house! It’s a tree-stand.”

“Uh-huh. Still looks like a tree-house if you ask me.”

“Well I didn’t, did I?”

“Fine. We’re all going to wait together in a tree-house for deer to show up then?”

“No, just one at a time. We’ll take turns.”

From the tree-stand, Tom shouted down, “Quiet!”

Will smiled at the irony and decided to just find a place out of the wind to bide his time.

The winds were strong, it was only twenty-six degrees and Will was now completely soaked and miserable. On top of these problems, the thought just occurred to him that this might be illegal.

I’m a foreigner with a gun. That can’t be good. Surely you need a license to go hunting, right? This has bad idea written all over it! Why didn’t I think of this before? Could they take away my passport should I get caught? Holy hell! What about Elisabeth? I need to be above reproach and I can’t get in trouble doing something so stupid! Bollocks!

Speaking as quietly as he could but still loud enough to be heard, Will called for Bingley’s attention, “Chip!” 

He waited a moment for a response.

Nothing. 

“Damn it Charles! I need to speak with you!”

Will heard the crunch of the wet snow, signaling Bingley’s arrival. “Yeah? You needed something Fitz?”

“You wanker! Are you trying to get me in trouble?”

Offended, Bingley answered, “No! What on earth would make you think that?”

Motioning to his gun, Will began to rant. “Is this even legal? Can’t I get in trouble for doing this? I imagine there’s some governing authority that works awful hard to keep people from just killing things willy-nilly. And I really can’t afford to be added to any no-fly lists, thank you! And Liz! If I get in trouble, that would compromise her security. What the hell am I even doing here? How could you do this to me?”

Bingley wasn’t sure whether to be angry or amused. He decided against both and chose instead to poke fun. “Do this to you? Fitzwilliam Darcy, stop being a self-absorbed ass! This was your decision. You didn’t have to come with us. If you’ll recall I gave you several chances to say no….”

“So you did,” Will admitted. “But still… I need to make sure this bit of stupidity won’t have any repercussions for Liz.”

Bingley thought for a moment. “This is my land… I know I’m allowed to hunt on it- in season- without permit.” He called up to his father-in-law, “Tom? You got a permit?”

No immediate answer came. A minute or two later they saw Tom climb down from his roost.

“You two better learn to shut the hell up before you scare every living thing in this forest away! What were you two geniuses thinking? Suppose you weren’t, and that was the problem,” Tom groused.

“Tom, Darcy here is concerned about not having a permit. We’re on my land, so he’s fine, right?”

Mr. Bennet answered matter-of-factly, “No. You’re fine.” With a smile and a nod towards Will he said, “He’s screwed.”

Will threw up his hands in frustration and shouted, “Crud monkey! I knew it. Chip, you irresponsible git! Will you never grow up?”

Bingley was still looking for clarification. “So then, Tom, are you in the screwed or fine camp?”

Tom gave the boy, for he always thought of his son-in-law as a mere boy, a wry smile before answering. “Oh, no need to worry Charlie. I’m firmly in the fine camp. I planned ahead and have my permit,” he reached into his coat and pulled out a paper, “right here. I order one from the DNR online every season, just in case.”

Bingley was surprised. “Really?” Tom handed him the permit and by the date of issue it was clear that it had been ordered well in advance. “Wow. Talk about advance planning.”

While Bingley was impressed, Darcy was disgusted. What audacity! The man just presumes he’s welcome with open arms by his daughter… wait! Jane isn’t even that man’s daughter! She’s his step-daughter. What hubris! The man is incredible…

Tom nodded. “Well, you never can be sure when we’ll turn up, right Charlie? Better sport available if I’m prepared.”

Darcy pinched the bridge of his nose again, though the effect was not the same through his heavy glove. “So, Bingley is covered, and you’re covered but I’m…”

Charlie and Tom answered simultaneously. “Screwed.”

Will kicked a felled branch that was in his way. “Crud monkey!”

As he watched the young man whom his favorite daughter professed to love stalk off, Tom put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and said, “Son, why don’t you take a turn in the tree-stand?”

 The look in Tom’s face was frighteningly cold and serious. Charlie gulped before stating, “Sir, I promised Beth that I wouldn’t let you shoot Fitz and I’m a man of my word.”

Tom was incensed. “What the hell? I’m not shooting anything except Bambi this morning. Damn. I can’t believe that Elisa would think I could even consider such a thing!”

He was quiet for a moment and Charlie was afraid to disturb him or remind him of all the times he’d threatened to shoot people in jest.

 Finally, Tom asked, “Tell me boy, this Darcy,” he said Will’s name with contempt, “how did the two of you manage to become friends? He seems to me to be a bossy sort of man. I can’t understand how my little girl imagines herself to be in love with such a proud, arrogant jerk.”

Charles Bingley had reached his limit!  “Enough! Tom, I’ve known Fitz for fourteen years now and I can vouch that he’s a great man.” Charlie saw Tom’s look of disbelief and continued, “Yes, he can be all of those things you said- bossy, proud and arrogant are just really the tip or the iceberg if I’m going to tell the truth about his bad qualities. But then, why is he those things?

Bossy? Yes, he owns a huge company and literally has thousands of people for whom he’s responsible all around the world. He’s a natural leader and making tough calls in business comes easy for him and sometimes that need to set everyone’s path carries over elsewhere.

Proud? Not really but I wouldn’t blame him in the least if he was. He’s one of the richest men in the UK if not Europe and possibly the world. He was born to privilege, that’s true, but he took on everything- the company, his sister, his schooling, when he was still a teenager and he’s succeeded where a lesser man would have thrown in the towel.

Arrogant? I’ll give you that one. He comes across as arrogant simply because he won’t play games or suffer fools. Fitz’s time is valuable and he has no need to cow to anyone… nor does he expect anyone to cow to him either.

Jerk? Sometimes… but who isn’t? And this weekend has not gone as originally intended so you can’t judge the man based on your initial impressions. He definitely improves upon acquaintance.

His bad qualities aren’t so bad. But his good qualities? They are legion. William Darcy is the first guy that I’d call if I needed something. He’s the guy who’d go out on a limb, do anything necessary or make most any sacrifice for those he holds close. Will has been my brother and he helped me when my parents died and I was clueless as to what to do. He’d already been there and done that and was able to let me learn from the benefit of his mistakes.

I’m only telling you this now because, as much as Will has been like a brother, Bethy is closer to me than my own sister is and I swear, if you hope to have any sort of relationship in the future with her, you need to start backing the hell off! What more can you put the poor girl through? They love each other Tom and, like it or not, if you don’t want to piss of Beth anymore than you have, you’ll need to learn to deal with Will whether or not he is bossy, proud, arrogant or jerky!”

Tom had heard each and every word that was said, Charlie was certain of that. What remained uncertain is whether or not Tom listened.

“Well son, that was quite a speech. I haven’t heard you talk so much since JJ sent me that audio book of Quarter Past Never you narrated.”

Charlie blushed. He hated doing those things but he hated it more when other people didn’t read his words as he intended them. Bingley had recorded the audio himself for his last twelve novels because he was excessively particular and, well, the pay was simply too good to ignore!

Tom was pleased that he had subdued Charlie somewhat and continued, “I can’t make any promises that I’ll ever like the guy. He’s British for god’s sake! What the hell was wrong with Drew? Or anyone else for that matter? How long has she even known this Darcy?”

“They met Thursday at O’Hare.”

Two days? You’re telling me I have to make allowances for some jackass that had the nerve to pick up my daughter for a weekend fling and now I’m expected to bend over backwards and be nice to the guy? I don’t think so. I won’t shoot him, no matter how sorely I’m tempted to do so… but that’s all that any of you have a right to expect from me. Someday when your baby-girl is all grown up, you’ll understand. You’ll feel the same, you’ll see.”

Bingley sent up a quiet but fervent prayer that no such thing ever happen. He and Jane would never use the Bennets as a model for effective parenting!

“Just try to cool it or you will lose Beth for good,” Charlie warned as he began to climb up into the tree-stand.

Once Charlie waved that he was in place, Tom decided to lay the law of the land with this invading foreigner once and for all.

The sun was beginning to rise at last which afforded Tom the light he needed to follow Will’s tracks in the snow. There was a small clearing roughly 20 yards ahead which he surmised to be where the moody fellow had stomped off to sulk.

Tom had nearly reached the clearing just as the unmistakable sound of a musket ball being fired resounded loudly through the forest.   

*Chapter Thirty-Eight*

Will was sitting on a log trying his best to calm down. He knew that having open animosity with Liz’s family would not make either he or Liz happy in the long run, so Will was trying to think through a solution.

Unfortunately, nothing was coming to mind.

Does no one in this family think ahead to the consequences of their actions? They are ridiculous! I know sometimes I run ahead of my mouth but these people have raised it to an art form. Why am I even trying? We’ll be gone soon and then our life can begin. I know why… because they are her family and she loves them- faults and all! Tom can hate me all he wants… I don’t care… but I’ll be damned if I will allow him to hurt Elisabeth ever again. At least when my father turned into a rotten bastard he had the good sense to leave me and Georgie alone.

Will’s thoughts were interrupted when he heard something coming close. He held his breath and looked about, hoping that it was just a squirrel or rabbit. Oh God! Aren’t there bears in Wisconsin? After he surveyed the areas to the sides and behind him, he turned his attention forward to find he was face to face with a doe.

He steadied his breathing so he could be as quiet as possible. The doe came closer. If she noticed Will, she paid him no mind. She began to nibble on the shrub next to Will while he just watched in amazement. A tickle began at the back of Will’s throat. Not wanting to disturb the deer, he tried to suppress it as best he could, but the more he tried, the greater his need to cough became until he finally let out as quiet a cough as he could manage.

The doe, disturbed from eating, looked up and Will suddenly found himself staring into a pair of the biggest, brownest eyes he’d ever seen. The deer, instead of fleeing, chose to ignore Will and returned to its task of grazing.  Letting out a silent sigh, Will began to relax, finding his mood much improved with his gentle company.

He watched the deer nuzzle deeper into the shrub, trying to reach some greener branches; then the doe lapped at some snow. Will decided he was perfectly content to spend the rest of the morning in the clearing when he heard someone approaching.

“Shoo,” Will whispered.

The deer didn’t move.

Will said a little louder, “Go away!”

The deer decided that Will posed no threat and so continued to ignore him.

Will tried to reason with the poor animal, “Please go away or you’ll get shot! Please!”

Whoever was coming his way was getting closer. Will realized that if someone else were to spot the deer, they would take a shot and he would not let that happen!

Will did the only thing he could think of. He shouldered his musket and shot high into the air, praying that the deer would startle and run away.

The deer ran off and Will prayed she’d not stop until she was well clear of his party.

Tom Bennet was nearly knocked off his feet by Will’s runaway deer. He was pleasantly surprised to find Will holding a smoking gun.

“Good for you. You may not be the total pansy I took you for. You’ll get ‘er next time.”

Will wanted to correct his misconception, he wanted so much to explain that he was protecting the deer from the likes of him, but he didn’t. The back-handed praise was the nicest thing he’d heard the man say in two days.

“I suppose.”

Tom tried, in his way, to be encouraging. “Muskets aren’t the most accurate weapons. The sights are a bitch on these damn things.”

Will shrugged and said, “I couldn’t really say. I don’t have much experience with guns.”

“That’s obvious. But you took a shot and that takes some balls.”

Sitting down, Will answered, “Thank you.”

Tom motioned to the log while Will nodded his permission to sit next to him.

Slapping his knees loudly, Tom demanded, “So, tell me about yourself Darcy.”

Will was not going to play anymore games with Liz’s father. “I’ll tell you whatever you wish to know, but I’m not going to just sit here and rattle off my favourite colour or what I like best on my pizza. I assume you have some specific things you’d like to ask, so let’s cut to the chase and start there.”

Tom smiled. “Charlie said you don’t mess around or suffer fools and I can see that he’s right. I just wonder if he’s right with everything else he said about you.”

“Since I have no idea what Chip said, I really couldn’t say. What I can tell you is that he’s my oldest friend and few, if any, know me like he does.”

“How well does my daughter know you?”

Will decided he could no longer be surprised at anything that this man would dare to ask. “Elisabeth knows me better than I know myself. If you meant anything else by your question, I’m going to have to tell you that it’s none of your business.”

Tom took a forceful, warning tone, “She’s my daughter and she’ll always be my business.”

Will saw Tom’s warning tone and raised it with an irate one. “Sir, she may be your daughter, but she is my fiancée.”

“What? Like hell she is.”

Not wishing to escalate this any further, and remembering his musket was not yet reloaded, Will stated, “Yes, she most definitely is. Listen here, listen now and listen well, I love your daughter. More than I ever thought it was possible to love another human being. I really don’t give a toss whether or not you like me. She loves me and that’s all that matters. I’m not Bingley or Jane; I don’t care what others think of me and never have. But Liz does, at least where her family is concerned and it’s for that reason, and that reason only, that I am here in this damned forsaken forest this morning.”

“Who the hell do you think you are? You come into my daughter’s house and proceed to abscond with my other daughter? After two days? I ask you, since you’re allegedly such a smart man, what am I supposed to think?”
“Who the hell am I? Oh no,” Will shook his head, praying for the strength to not strike this man, “the question Tom is who the hell do you think you are? I have listened to you assault my character, and while that’s bad enough since you don’t know me, what is worse- unpardonable, really- is that you’ve maligned your own daughter, the same one you profess as your favourite, over and over again. What kind of father says the things you said yesterday to their own child? You are some kind of monster and honestly, if I went the whole rest of my life without ever laying my eyes on you again, well, that would do me just fine.”

“You say that I don’t know you. That’s true enough. But you don’t know me either and I’ll be damned before I let the likes of you sit in judgment on me. You don’t know the things I’ve suffered. You can’t imagine the things I’ve been through and until you do, I advise you to mind your own damned business and stay the hell out of mine.”

Will narrowed his eyes, “But I do know what you’ve been through and you are truly ignorant if you think that you are the only one who has suffered.”

Tom dared Will. “You know nothing.”

“I know enough. I know that when a frightened six year old girl was grieving her mother and her brother that her father ignored her. That same father sought warm, carnal comfort before his dearly departed wife was even cold in her grave. You are a cold, cruel bastard.”

Tom was enraged. “You insolent boy! I loved my wife and son and how dare you suggest otherwise!”

Coolly, Will stated, “I dare many things Mr. Bennet.”

“Elisa will never marry you!”

“You do not have that authority. We will marry.”

“Over my dead body!” exclaimed Tom.

“That would be most inconvenient for you because our wedding will take place regardless.”

Tom was growing weary. “What does she see in you?”

“Someone who loves her- unconditionally– for herself and herself alone.”

“I love my daughter, make no mistake about that!”

“Your love is far from being unconditional Mr. Bennet. She’s exhausted by all of your demands. You are not a kind man and it hurts her because she remembers when you used to be so.”

“She told you that?”

“Liz recalls fondly how it used to be with the three of you. She spoke of trips to museums, the beach and even attending amusement parks which her mum seemed to fancy. Liz has a lot of tender memories which makes me happy because the ones from after your marriage to the current Mrs. Bennet make Cinderella’s life seem easy by comparison. The difference? In Cinderella’s story the father had died- else he would have certainly stopped the step-mother’s cruelty.”

Tom half-heartedly defended his wife, “Fran doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“And neither do you I suppose but that doesn’t change the fact that you all make your daughter miserable.”

“What do you know? You can’t know what I do about loss.”

“You arrogant, selfish bastard! Please spare me your melodrama! You left Liz alone to suffer while you wallowed in your own despair. She needed her father and you weren’t there. Because you chose not to be. Liz lost her whole world that day… and then on top of it- as if that alone weren’t enough- she’s had to deal with your family’s perverted relationship with her mother’s killer? It is too much, sir!”

In disbelief, Tom quietly asked, “She… my Elisa… told you all of that?”

“Yes.”

“What else did she tell you?”

“No. I am not having the conversation with you. Elisabeth confided in me and I will not betray that trust for anyone, but most especially you.”

Tom was about to erupt again but Will headed off his outburst by saying, “I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing when you say such cruel and purposefully hurtful things to Elisabeth. It ends now. I will not allow you, your wife, or anyone else for that matter, to ever hurt her again.”

“Will not allow? Will not allow? Ha! You claim to care for my Elisa… what a laugh. Admit it- she’s a convenient piece of tail to keep you from being bored this weekend and nothing more. Seems she’s become an easy lay if she’s willing to be picked up by any lame asshole that she comes across. You claim to love her? I don’t, I can’t and I won’t believe it. What would a moody son-of-a-bitch like you want with my lively, spirited daughter? No, no, you are not an honorable man and you need to stay away from my Elisa before I break my word and shoot you after all.”

Will stood up and towered over Tom. He was seething with such rage that it took all of his willpower to steady himself so he didn’t pound the man into oblivion. His hands were balled into fists at his sides and he was so hot with anger that he no longer felt the cold.

“Stop right there! I’m not an honorable man? What a joke! I suggest, for your own good, that you sit there and you listen to me. If you ever, and I mean ever, call into question her character, call her names or doubt my intentions towards Elisabeth again you will regret it. You do not deserve any consideration from me at all… but because you are the woman I love’s father, I will attempt to show you some nonetheless.

Let me explain to you a thing or two about myself. I am thirty-one years old. I run one of the largest institutions in Great Britain and do not think I idly boast when I tell you that I’m a bit more than well-off. I also make no bones that I am not deserving of all the credit I receive for my success. It’s much easier to take over a successful company than an unsuccessful one. I have a home in London and an estate in the country. Even if Elisabeth had not a farthing to her name, I would love her and offer her all that I have. I am amazed at how unaffected she is by her own wealth- obviously a character trait she didn’t learn from your avaricious wife. Liz’s character and goodness must be a testament to the memory of your first wife as I see absolutely no similarity of character from you, sir. As my wife, Liz will have all she ever could want or need. The only thing I care about is her happiness. I think after all that you, and that insane mob you call a family, have put her through, she deserves some!”

Will was incensed. He tried to not think about how good it would feel to bloody his knuckles by cold-cocking the old man in his jaw. His thoughts had become jumbled, making his head ache even more and that would never do. He knew he needed to bring himself under good regulation before he continued.

For his part, Tom Bennet sat perfectly still, watching his adversary with a cautious eye. His many years on the force had taught him that sometimes it was best to just let the perp vent his anger before you can make your next move.

Will begun pacing back and forth, his ire rising along with the volume of his voice. “You spoke earlier about not knowing about loss? I do. My parents shared a great love. Truly one like from a storybook. My mother had her share of illness- much like Elise Gardiner did- and when my dear mother died just after the birth of my sister, my father then lost his will to live. I was sixteen and was working- with my aunt and uncle’s help- to raise my baby sister. At eighteen, I became her guardian full-time while I was in school. My father couldn’t be bothered with his company, his family, his baby or frankly even life for that matter. He climbed into a bottle of scotch and never climbed back out. By the time I was twenty-two I took over everything that his early death necessitated.

So when you speak to about loss, you need to know you are speaking with someone who knows it intimately. I lost my mother, my father and my youth. My poor sister never had any parents at all, save a brother who did his best. I used to wish that my father had taken some other route, that he didn’t drink himself to death, but no more. If remarrying a shrew such as your wife was the only other option, I’m glad he’s gone because a life with a woman like that is surely worse than death.”

That last part of Will’s impassioned speech brought Tom to his feet. “I did the best I could! What else was I supposed to do? I was unexpectedly a widow with a sick daughter to raise. What should I have done differently?”

“Wait. Grieve. Then move on.”

The fire was now gone out of Mr. Bennet. In a voice laden with despair he said, “Once you’ve been married, once you’ve had love like I had with my Elise, you can’t ever bear to be alone again.”

Will shook his head. God help me, but if something ever happened to Liz, I imagine I’d probably behave like my father. You can’t just swap out one person for another… “But you tried to replace something that was irreplaceable.”

“And I have failed miserably because of it.” Tom sat back down on the log and with a critical eye, regarded Will anew. “Charlie was right. You are formidable.”

“Being so has served me well.”

“So it seems. If you make my daughter in any way unhappy…”

Will said cautiously, “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“That’s a start.” Tom stuck out his hand for a handshake.  “I propose a truce for the rest of this morning.”

Will accepted and answered, “That would be fine by me.”

Tom stood and took up his musket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me… all this damned foolish arguing is scaring off the deer. I’m heading that way to see if I can find any fresh tracks.”

Will nodded and watched the enigmatic man who would someday be his father-in-law walk off in the snow.

*Chapter Thirty-Nine*

I guess that went about like how I expected it to. What a piece of work! Thank God we never have to see him. But if in the future Liz should wish to see him, I’ll have to go with her. I don’t trust him. He gave up too easily… there must be a reason and whatever it is, it can’t be good. God, how I hate that man! What am I going to tell Liz? You arse… you knows what you’ll tell her already. The truth. She deserves nothing less and I can’t imagine that she has any such notion that her father is anything but what he is- a cold, callous, cruel and selfish bastard. Okay, maybe I’ll skip some of that last part… but the gist of our ‘conversation’ I’ll relate in whole. We’ve been honest up until now and I’d like for that to continue… always.

Will was standing alone in his clearing and trying to steady himself. The rush of adrenaline he felt from the confrontation was over. Will’s hands hurt; he had kept them tight-fisted so long in the cold that his joints ached. Flexing them wasn’t helping any and sticking him in his pockets for added warmth didn’t seem to work either. His feet were wet and had lost feeling, his thighs felt frozen, his chest was burning from breathing in the bitter air, he now had a raging headache and his face felt immobile.

He ignored all of these things and chose to concentrate on his hands because he could blame Tom for their present state. Will imagined his hands hurt because he had taken a shot at Tom. He smiled at the satisfaction he knew he’d feel if only he could punch that smug smile off that bully’s face. Will knew what a bruised and damaged fist felt like and that was perhaps the only thing that had kept him from attacking Tom. Yes, he would have felt better for a moment… but at what cost?

Will had no inclination to stand around pretending an interest in hunting, so he turned to head back towards the car. He began by following the tracks that he made earlier. Where he and Tom’s tracks came together, it was easy to distinguish which to follow as Will’s size thirteen made a much larger print than Tom’s nine. This isn’t so bad… I can do this- follow my footprints and get the hell out of here!

Just as he was beginning to feel confident in his abilities to navigate his way through the dense wood, it began to rain. The heavy rain quickly obfuscated Will’s footprints.

“Damn!” said Will aloud. “What the bloody hell am I supposed to do now?”

Will recalled something about when lost in a wood that you are supposed to “hug a tree” so you don’t just walk in circles. He picked a nice looking Aspen and as he leaned against it, he informed it, “You are my tree. Don’t fail me!”

For a moment, Will wondered if this was Mr. Bennet’s grand scheme. Speaking to the tree he whispered conspiratorially, “I’d lay down odds that he intended this to happen! That bastard purposefully had me get lost in the wood. I bet all of Liz’s other would-be boyfriends are somewhere in here. Bastard!”

 He found the Aspen to be a good listener and so he poured out all his frustration and anger to his new friend. Will was growing weary and no longer felt like he could stand. He knew he needed to; he recalled somehow that staying awake, remaining conscious was important… but he couldn’t remember why. He started to call out for Elisabeth, but when she didn’t answer, he slid down to the base of the tree and huddled as best he could in the cold, wet snow and closed his eyes to rest, just for a moment.

“William! Where are you?” cried out a very bemused Liz.

It was a beautiful summer day. He was hiding amid a grove at Pemberley. He was doing his best to remain silent but it was tough. He always wanted to be found, but he had promised to play this game and so he would stay hidden.

Another voice called out, “Dadda! Where you Dadda?”

This time Will could not remain silent any longer. He rustled the branches of the nearest tree to give away his position and, in short order, an ambling toddler came bounding towards him.

The child knocked into Will, hugging his legs and then throwing his arms in the air, waiting to be picked up. “I find Dadda! Danny love Dadda!”

Will scooped up the strapping, young lad who was blessed with a handsome combination of all his parent’s best features. “Daddy loves Danny too! You found me! Well done Danny! Now, shall we find Mommy?”

Danny bounced excitedly in his father’s arms, “Find Momma, find Momma!”

Hand in hand, they moved out of the grove in search of Elisabeth.

When Tom had eventually returned to the tree stand, he had been surprised to find that Will had not returned. With a sense of dread, Bingley asked what had happened between the two of them in the woods and his father-in-law admitted to having had some harsh words with Darcy but explained that they had called a truce, for the day anyways.

Bingley was furious. He informed Tom that Will was hardly an outdoorsman and when Tom snickered at that, Bingley really lost it, “If anything should happen to my friend… if he’s hurt somehow… God help you.”

The two men set off in search Will. Being more familiar with his own woods, Bingley lead the way. It was still raining and it made the going difficult. The snow was now very heavy and every so often a boot would get mired in some muck. Earlier in the week, prior to the snowstorm, it had still been fairly warm for November and the ground underfoot was becoming muddy beneath the snow.  

They reached the clearing where Tom and Darcy had parted ways and began searching in earnest from there. Tom suggested they split up to look, and while under other circumstances that would be the most efficient method, Charlie no longer trusted his father-in-law to do the right thing and instead insisted they stick together.

Another half-hour passed in silence as they searched in a circular fashion from the clearing. If Will had become disoriented, he could be in any direction and so they made certain to check all paths from his last known location. They were about three-quarters of a mile northeast of the clearing when Charlie heard a noise. Bingley held up his hand to halt Tom’s steps and indicated to be silent and listen.

“What? Do you hear something?” asked Tom.

“Shh! Listen,” whispered Charlie.

A tired voice was mumbling from somewhere nearby. “Elisabeth! Come out, come out wherever you are!”

Charlie was so happy to hear Will’s voice. To make sure he wasn’t mistaken, he asked Tom, “Did you hear that?”

Tom nodded and scoffed, “Is your friend drunk? He must have had a flask with him. He sounds hammered.”

“I have had enough of that from you today Tom. I think that when we get home, you and I are going to have a long chat of our own and set down some new ground rules.”

Tom shook his head and smiled. “Oh, I’m scared. Big man and his boundaries. Do whatever it is you think you need to do boy and just let me be.”

“Just letting you be is exactly what I have in mind. For now though, you will help me with my friend, who I can guarantee is not drunk. You get some very strange ideas Tom.”

“Fine. Now shut up so we can hear the lunatic again.”

Will moaned out, “Danny! Yes, that’s it! We found Mommy! Good boy! I think it’s your turn to hide now Danny. One… two… three… four… five… six…”

Bingley and Tom heard him loud and clear this time and were able to find their way clear to his location next to the Aspen. Charlie was trying his best to stay calm but he knew that no one should be that shade of white nor should anyone ever be shaking like that.

Kneeling beside his friend, Charlie gently rolled Will on his back and tried to get through to him. “Fitz? Can you hear me Fitz?”

Will mumbled, “Elisabeth? Did Chip come? I think I hear his voice…”

Charlie just shook his head and turned to speak to Tom, “He’s delirious and soaked through. We’ve got to get him out like yesterday. I think he’s suffering from hypothermia.”

Tom, as much as he didn’t like this interloping foreigner, couldn’t let anyone suffer from hypothermia without treatment. A good friend of his from the force has succumbed to it many years early and Tom knew it was a horrible way to die. He had always made sure the girls had emergency blankets in their cars and knew what to do in dire situations.

With a deep sigh, Tom realized there was nothing else for it. He’d have to help Charlie haul Will back to the car. “Here, I’ll grab him from under his arms if you can grab his feet. He’s too big for either of us to manage a fireman’s carry on our own.”

Charlie nodded and they each got into place. Tom’s arms found their way around Will’s chest and soon Charlie was between Will’s legs.

“One, two, three, lift!” ordered Tom.

Will, already a solidly-built man, was made even heavier by his many layers of sopping-wet clothing.

Tom was struggling with keeping his end up. “Christ almighty Charlie! What’s he weigh? He feels like he’s three-hundred pounds!”

Charlie was having equal trouble with Will’s legs. “I doubt that Tom. I know I weigh one-ninety and while Will’s certainly taller than I am, he can’t be that much heavier than me.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it boy. He’s a heavy son-of-a-bitch, that’s for sure.”

Will was still moaning, but nothing discernable. The shaking had subsided for the moment, most likely due to being moved around. Charlie couldn’t tell if that was good or bad news, but he did recall that he was supposed to keep the victim talking. “Will? Stay with me buddy… Come on now, you don’t want to piss off Liz now, do you?”

“Mmm. Liz? Danny? Where are you? Don’t leave me behind… where did you go? Come back, come back…”

Tom mouthed to Charlie “Who’s Danny?” which Charlie replied back similarly, “I don’t know.”

“Fitz, Old Man, can you hear me? Answer me William… can you hear me?” Charlie asked urgently.

Still mumbling, Will answered, “Chip? I found a tree. I remembered to hug a tree and I stayed put.”

“You did good Old Man. I’m so glad you’re back. You were scaring me and Tom a bit ago.”

“Tom’s an arse. My Elisabeth is a saint… she is everything good and bright and wonderful in the world. I love her.”

Trying to keep the tone light, Charlie teased Will, “Yes Fitz, I know you think Liz is a saint… for putting up with you!”

“I love her and Danny so much.” Will stated firmly.

Charlie was a bit confused. There were no Danny’s around that he knew of, but in the interest of keeping Will alert, asked, “I know you do Old Man. Can you tell me about Danny?”

Will opened his glassy eyes to look at Charlie. Bingley could clearly see that Will was struggling to stay conscious. His friend, in his delirium cracked a crooked smile and said, “Danny is brilliant, my son is bloody brilliant!”

Bingley hoped to keep Will talking. “Of course your son is brilliant, Old Man. He obviously gets that from his mother.”

“Elisabeth is bloody brilliant too.” What little energy he still had was fading fast.  “Hey Chip, I don’t feel well anymore Chip. Can you please call my wife, call my Elisabeth and tell her I don’t feel well. Elisabeth will make it all better. She will. She’s absolutely bloody brilliant.”

Tom had remained silent, just listening to the exchange between friends. If Charlie had no idea where the name Danny had come from, Tom did. He kept this information to himself as he began to re-evaluate what he thought of Will and his character.

“Hey there Darcy,” Tom yelled as he shook Will, “you need to stay awake. Elisa will be waiting to see you and you don’t want to disappoint her.”

“No…” muttered Will, “no… no… don’t wanna disappoint Elisabeth. I love Elisabeth…”

“Then you need to stay awake.” The tree stand finally came into view. “We’re nearly there Darcy. Stay awake… we’ve got another half-mile or so.”

“Can’t stay awake… so tired… sleep… please sleep now…”

Bingley had tears coming down his face as he began to shout, “Damn it Will! You had better stay awake! Wake up Will! I know right now sleep sounds good and you’re tired, but damn it! You need to keep fight it. You need to wake up! Wake up!”

“Try… awake… for Liz… Danny… sleep…”

“Will! Yes! Stay awake for Liz and for Danny! You can’t go to sleep now. We’re almost there and you’ll miss them if you go to sleep.”

Will could no longer fight the fatigue and closed his eyes. “Can’t… try… so hard… can’t… Elisabeth…”

“Darcy… you swore you wouldn’t hurt my daughter, now wake up!” demanded Tom.

Once more Will quietly said, “Elisabeth…” before his head lolled forward and he surrendered consciousness.

*Chapter Forty*

 Elisabeth Bennet had been a good girl. She had listened to her handsome fiancé and had gone back to bed where she had been having the loveliest dreams of what their life together might be.

They were walking hand-in-hand in the most beautiful grove she’d ever seen. The trees were blossoming with the most delicate flowers and everything was wonderful. Will led her to an area where the sunlight streamed through and highlighted a hidden spot he’d set up to surprise her with a picnic. They sat and made themselves comfortable. Liz reached into the basket and pulled out a bunch of grapes. Will laid on his back with his hands behind his head, waiting to be fed with a wicked grin on his face. Liz began to taunt him with the fruit, holding it just out of reach until he begged her for it. She tried to reward him with a grape, but he shook his head no and instead pulled her close to nibble on her. They continued feasting on both what was in the basket and each other until they had their fill.

The green, shaded grove began to blend into a bright, summer day. They were wandering along the shoreline on a private lake. Liz was not able to walk well and was using Will for support. Though Liz was big as a house, she had never felt more beautiful because of her impending motherhood. Will held her hand and was told her how much he loved her and how she meant the world to him. He helped her put on a life-vest, no easy feat for a pregnant woman, and aided her into a rowboat. Will paddled them all about the lake, showing Liz all the best views and excitedly spoke of their child-to-be.

Soon, the boat ride faded into a hospital room. Liz was giving birth, but it was not at all like the stories she’d been told. The pain wasn’t all that unbearable. When it was over, the doctor handed her their son. Swaddled tightly in a blanket, baby Darcy scrunched his face in a look that, although only moments old, Liz could tell was inherited directly from Will. Will sat on the edge of the bed and held them both tightly. He kissed her brow and said, “I think our son needs a name, Love. What think you of the name Daniel?”

The bright lights of the hospital faded into a green and white winter wood. All alone, Will sounded scared and was calling out to her, “Where are you? Don’t leave me behind… where did you go? Come back! Come back!”

Liz bolted upright in the bed.

Something has happened. I know it.

Looking at the bedside alarm clock, the time flashed ten a.m. at her.

If something had happened, they would call, right?

She flopped back on her back and tried to find a comfortable position but could not.

How strange that my whole life I’ve always slept alone and now I cannot. How did I ever sleep without Will holding me? She smiled as she thought of him. And with his gentle snoring tickling my ear. It’s only been a few days, but I can’t remember.

With a grumbling sigh, Liz sat up and decided that it was time to get ready to face the day. She headed to the bathroom where she checked her sugar and took a brief shower. She dressed and made an attempt to tame her hair. Once she felt somewhat presentable, she flipped on the television and not finding anything of interest, settled on an infomercial extolling all the benefits of long-term disability life insurance which could be easily ignored.

Staring at her phone, she willed it to ring but it was being stubborn and refused to cooperate.

I’ll just give Will a quick call, he’ll appreciate that I think.

She picked up her phone and was struck by the oddest truth. I am engaged to the man, but I don’t yet have his phone number! I suppose I’ll just never let him leave my side again. Maybe I’ll call Charlie…

After deliberating whether or not to call, she gave in and decided she would. If they’re still hunting, their phones will be off or out-of-signal anyways so it won’t matter if I call. I really just want to hear his voice. Liz began to scroll through her contacts and just as she had brought up Charlie’s number, the phone began to vibrate in her hand and the screen showed an incoming call from BIL- C. Bingley.

Pressing talk, she answered brightly, “Hey Bil! How’s it going?”

Charlie had to wait a moment before he could gain the strength he needed to inform Liz. “Bethy, I’m afraid I have some bad news…”

Instantly, Liz’s thoughts turned to all the worst possibilities. She blinked back the tears that had instantly sprung up and, despite the lump in her throat, asked, “What happened? Is Will okay? Please tell me he’s okay! No one’s been shot? Tell me now Charles Bingley or the baby JJ’s carrying will be the only one you’ll ever manage!”

Thankful for the distance between them at the moment, Charlie replied, “No Beth, no one was shot. We think Will has hypothermia and we’re on our way to Beaver Dam Community… you’re coming to the hospital, right?”

“Hypothermia? Oh my God! Is it serious? Of course it’s serious, or you wouldn’t be taking him to the hospital… Yes, I’m on my way.” Liz had hung up before she realized she had no idea where Beaver Dam was.

Hitting the talk button again, she rang Charlie’s cell which he answered immediately. “Would you like some directions Bethy?”

Liz already had her jacket on and was fishing the rental keys out of her pocket. “Yes, that would be helpful. Where is it that I’m going?”

“You’re going to go west on Main and head towards Audley… that should be about a mile or so and then you’ll merge onto 151 north. You’ll go about thirty miles and then you’ll get off at exit 130 which should say Lowell/Beaver Dam. The road is County Road G and if you make a left you should then see the signs for the hospital, it shouldn’t be far from there. We’ll meet you in the emergency room.”

“Okay, I think I have all that… if not, I’ll call you back. 151 North to exit 130… I should be fine.” Liz finished scribbling the directions down and stuffed the paper in her pocket. “Can I speak to him? Can he hear me?”

“I don’t know. We kept him awake as long as we could… we don’t know how long he was like that before we found him.” Charlie knew he shouldn’t have said that, but it was too late.

Her anger came through loud and clear. “Found him? Found him? What was he doing off on his own? You and Pop better pray hard that he’s okay or there will be hell to pay! What are you doing for him now?”

“Your dad is always prepared for everything and he had a few emergency blankets in his first aid kit. I’ve got Fitz wrapped up in those and I’m in the backseat here with him to keep him from shivering off the bench. If you’d like, I can put the phone up to his ear.”

“Yes, do that please.”

“Okay, I’m going to put it on speaker phone so I can hear you… if that’s okay with you.”

Liz didn’t even remember leaving the room and now here she was getting into the car. “Fine, fine.”

Putting the phone in place, Charlie said, “All set Bethy. He should be able to hear you now.”

“Will? Can you hear me Will? I love you and I really need to hear you speak to me William.”

Will began to toss a little and Charlie informed Liz of his activity.

“I know that you can hear me William George Darcy! I’d really like to hear you now. Speak to me please? You need to continue your lessons on British-isms or I’ll just keep saying pharmacy. Please Will? Say something, anything.”

Will very quietly mumbled, “Chem… chem… chemist, Love.”

Charlie was ecstatic, “Did you hear that Beth? He answered you!”

“I heard him Charlie! Now Will, please listen to me… I’m going to sing you a song now and I’d like for you to sing along if you can. I’m on my way to see you right now, and I need you to stay awake with me, okay?”

There was no physical response or audible answer this time but they tried not to be discouraged. It seemed to take more energy than Will had to spare to stay conscious.

Desperate, Liz pleaded, “Charlie, please tell me you know Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?”

“I could hardly be this big lug’s friend without it.”

“Fine, we’ll sing it together then… ready?”

“Sure…”

Liz began, “Okay… Some things in life are bad, they can make you really mad, other things just make you swear and curse. When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble- give a whistle, and this’ll help things turn out for the best…”

Here, she paused to take a deep breath and then Charlie joined her, “Always look on the bright side of life… always look on the bright side of life.”

“He’s moving Beth! We need to keep singing.”

Together, they sang loudly and not even close to key. “If life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing. When you’re feeling in the dumps, don’t be silly chumps, just purse your lips and whistle- that’s the thing.”

Liz begged, “Come on Will… Charlie and I need your help here! Sing along with us sweetheart, we need your baritone.”

And always look on the bright side of life… always look on the bright side of life.”

“Nothing that time Beth. Should we keep going?”

“You have any better ideas? How far are you?”

“We should be pulling up any moment to the emergency entrance.”

“Fine. We’ll keep singing but you listen to me… do not hang up this phone until I am there! If someone tries to take it away from you, they’d better damn well be the biggest, scariest looking guy I’ve ever seen, got it?”

“Got it. So the next verse is the sweary one, right?”

“Uh-huh. Okay… follow me. Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it, life’s a laugh and death’s a joke- it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ‘em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.”

“Damn it William! Sing along with me, please? I love you and I need to hear your voice, please?”

Will pulled on Charlie’s coat. “Wait Beth! Hold on… what Will?”

In a voice that you needed to strain to hear, Will said, “Bloody… wrong… verse.”

Charlie laughed which made Liz demand, “What? Did he say something?”

Still chuckling, “He said, ‘Bloody wrong verse.’ Damn know-it-all.”

A new stream of tears was running down Liz’s cheek. While she was relieved, until she saw him, held him, and knew all would be well, she would not rest. “Is he right Will? Are you a know-it all? Prove it William… sing us the right verse.”

Charlie said, “He’s pulling on my coat… he said he’ll try but you have to sing it with him. He says he’s wise to you and it’s just a bloody song.”

That made her smile. “He is wise, and that’s why I love him. Sing it with me Will. For life is quite absurd, and death’s the final word, you must always face the curtain with a bow. Forget about your sin- give the audience a grin, enjoy it- it’s your last chance anyhow.”

Beth? Will wants to say something… he’s not sure if you’ll hear him or not.”

She sniffled, “What is it sweetheart?”

Will’s raspy voice said, “Love you… Just found you… Blood-y song… not go-ing any…an-y-where soon.”

She was fighting off the urge to sob and it made her voice tremble.  “You had better not! I love you too sweetheart and you had better not leave me alone!”

Will croaked out, “Sweet… heart… like that.”

“You’d better! I will be there very soon Will. You do whatever they ask you to, do you hear me? I want you to cooperate so you can get better soon! I need you Will… don’t let me down.”

“Never…  Love…  call G-George… G-Geor-gie… G-Geor-gi-a-na… please, Liz?”

“Will sweetheart, shouldn’t someone else do that? I won’t know what to say!”

“Yes…  you call… you Love… please?”

“Crud monkey. Yes, Will, I’ll call your sister. I’ll call her when I get there and only after we see what exactly the situation is. You wouldn’t want to worry her if all you have is a little cold now, would you?”

Will tried to laugh, but it hurt. “No…”

“Beth, don’t make him laugh again! That was painful to watch.”

“Please tell me you’re almost there!”

“Yes, we’re pulling up now. You’re dad just got out to go get someone to take him in. Yep, here they come with a stretcher. Okay, Will? I’ve got to get up, I’m setting you down on the bench so they can slide the board under you so they can get you some help.”

“Charlie?”

“Still here, I’m just watching them put Will on the bed. They’re taking him in. Tom? I’m going in with him… go park the car.”

“Charlie?”

“Yes Beth?”

“Tell my dad not to bother parking the car.”

Tom, who had been listening with interest the entire time, stopped in his tracks.

Charlie asked, “Why’s that? What do you want him to do?”

Wiping the tears away, Liz answered in her best imitation of a means-business Will voice, “He can go back to your house, he can go home to Arizona, he can go to hell itself. I don’t really care where he goes so long as it’s really far away from me.”

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Out of Reservations by michchick aka Jennifer Hickling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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