Pulse pounding, Elizabeth quickly ran off the stage and sat heavily in her seat. “Happy, Lids?” she asked, trying to smile but only managing to smirk.
“God, Lizzy, why don’t you sing professionally like Jane?” Mary interrupted.
“That was plan C,” she responded sarcastically.
“You have tell us more than that, Lizzy,” Mary prompted.
Elizabeth sighed. “I’ve had offers, obviously. You know how I used to frequent karaoke bars and all in high school when Dad thought I was over at a friend’s house to work on group projects.” She smiled at the memory, of her own small bit of defiance before her ultimate break. “Occasionally I got approached, I always save their business cards, but it just wasn’t my thing.”
Lydia stared at her incredulously. “I do it for fun. I do not want applause and fame. Never did. I just wanted a relatively quiet life, and I’ve found that – with Mabel.”
“What plan are you on now?” Kitty asked, remembering that singing was Elizabeth’s plan C. There was also some talk of her possibly wanting to go into law, but she couldn’t quite recall.
She sighed. “A combination of plan B and plan ‘what the fuck’?”
Lydia cracked up, but sobering when she saw a strange man standing behind her sister, asked, “Can we help you?”
Confused, Elizabeth turned to see Darcy. The look of anxiousness on his face surprised her, and instinctively polite, she pulled out the chair next to her. With his sudden appearance at her table came flashes of her dream from the night before. She remembered him holding her as she had been sobbing. Why had she been crying in his arms?
“I don’t believe you’ve met my other sisters?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
Instead of his usual cold arrogance, Darcy looked chastened. Elizabeth peered at him more closely and saw bags under his eyes. She also detected the faint but clear aroma of Scotch. He had seemed just a bit wobbly before he sat down and even now, his eyes were a little unfocused—and Elizabeth thought she even saw traces of tears on his face. She had never seen him look such a mess.
With sudden insight from having seen him interact with his cousin, she knew what had happened. “Fitzwilliam tried to get you drunk, didn’t he.” It was a statement, not a question.
By this time, Fitzwilliam had also found his way over to the table. He ducked his head and admitted, “I thought he needed to loosen up a bit.”
“Alcohol was not the way to get him to do that.” Colors swept through her mind again. “At least not in this state.”
“What would you then suggest?” Fitzwilliam was genuinely curious.
Elizabeth searched through her faded dream. She knew what would give him comfort, but it was the one thing she couldn’t give him. Sighing, she replied, “Intelligent conversation, mild flirtation – make him comfortable and happy. Just giving him alcohol without either made it worse.”
Darcy laughed softly at Elizabeth’s tone and wondered if she realized how much concern she was betraying in the accusatory glances and insightful speech she threw at his cousin.
“Fitzwilliam,” she next ordered, “get Darcy a large bottle of water and a plate of cheese nachos.” She couldn’t help but try to take care of him, just a little. He looked so vulnerable and she could see Mabel’s face outlined in his features. Even his expression at the moment reminded her of Mabel when she was having trouble finding the book she wanted or had scraped her knee playing.
Fitzwilliam looked slightly affronted at her command, wondering how she could possibly know better than him since she got his cousin in this sorry state.
“Well, thanks to you,” Elizabeth told Fitzwilliam, “he’s going to have an awful headache tomorrow. And even right now, he looks terrible. Get the water and the nachos—please.”
As Fitzwilliam moved away to do as he was told, Darcy looked at her askance.
“I’m a mother. I know how to mother properly.” She looked him over. “How old are you anyway?”
“How old were you?”
She could hear the subtle change in verb tense.
Her heart skipped a beat. How could she possibly tell him?
“I knew you were a freshman,” he said bitterly.
Something jogged in her memory, but it was unclear. “First year. We were called ‘first years.’” Her sisters looked incredibly confused by everything that had just occurred, but they had the sense to remain silent. “Darcy, these are my three other sisters, all brilliant in their own ways. This is Mary,” he looked at a well dressed blonde who was wearing slightly too much eyeliner, “Kitty,” she was the tone-deaf girl and was in jeans and beaten up sneakers, “and Lydia.” The last girl had short brown hair and her eyes shone with laughter. “Everyone, this is Fitzwilliam Darcy, he’s V.P. of Grendel Films.”
“Oh my god,” Lydia said, unable to contain herself. “Mom will shit herself.”
“Lyds,” Elizabeth warned.
Mary said quietly, “Lydia, we don’t want to lose Lizzy now. Not again. Talking about who she—” Mary paused, trying to discern the relationship between her sister and this gorgeous though drunk stranger. Although Elizabeth’s body language was stiff, there appeared to be a deeper connection between them. “Anyway, we shouldn’t talk about Lizzy’s personal life to them.”
“Yeah, and she was supposed to marry a Nobel Prize winner according to Dad. Weren’t you also supposed to find a cure to some type of incurable disease?” Kitty inquired. Then, thinking a moment, she turned to Darcy. “How old when?”
Darcy’s confused mind shifted to the question. “September 2004.” That month would forever be ingrained on his memory.
Mary did the math and came up with an answer. She wasn’t sure if she should say it.
Lydia laughed. “Her first month in college? She was seventeen—”
Richard Fitzwilliam sat down at the table and everyone ignored him, except for Elizabeth who took the nachos and water and thrust them at Darcy. “Drink and eat,” she commanded.
“Who was seventeen?” Richard inquired.
“Lizzy. When she went to college. September ’04.” Kitty swiped a nacho and stuffed it in her mouth.
Elizabeth cursed under her breath. She knew it was ridiculous that she was worrying about a little white lie she dreamed about saying five or so years ago, but she didn’t want Darcy to know that she had legally been a minor.
“Shit,” Richard said under his breath.
Darcy could only stare at her, stunned. “So, not only were you not twenty-one, but you were a minor,” he whispered to himself. Elizabeth glanced at him, shocked. How could he know what the dream him had said to her?
“Yeah, she was seventeen,” Kitty remarked, heedless of the tension between Elizabeth, Richard, and Darcy. “Dad made her push forward and jump ahead a year because she was ‘brilliant,’ as he said. Had her whole life planned out for her and everything.”
“God, remember when he locked you in your room when you got a ninety on that test and wouldn’t let you go to junior prom?” Lydia said sympathetically.
“And you had a date with that hot guy,” Kitty supplied, playing with her hair slightly and smiling.
“He was gay,” Lyds chimed in.
Kitty stared at her.
“It was so obvious. Even Lizzy knew. It was a plot to keep the jocks away or some such.” When Kitty continued to just gaze at her. “He was definitely gay.”
“How could anyone forget that night?” Mary tried to tactfully direct the conversation. “Dad basically chained her to her desk.”
“I really should have just flunked out to spite him,” Elizabeth commented, trying to shake off the nervous tension that was coursing through her. “Or crawled out the window.” In an effort to change the subject and bring them all back to the present, Elizabeth turned a critical eye on Richard Fitzwilliam and asked, “Do you really think that getting him drunk was the best idea? Couldn’t you think of some other plan?”
He leaned back and watched her carefully. “Seemed like a good plan, considering.”
“So, how do you know Lizzy?” Mary asked.
Lydia snorted. “Oh, sorry, Mary, I forgot. You haven’t been hanging out at the apartment.”
Mary looked confused.
“You haven’t actually seen Mabel,” Lydia continued and Elizabeth’s eyes went wide.
“Lydia …” she began, but there was no stopping her.
“I don’t get it.”
Lydia grabbed Elizabeth’s purse and started going through it. Richard Fitzwilliam looked highly amused and Elizabeth wanted to strangle him at that point. Trying to diffuse the situation, Elizabeth blurted, “I know what you are trying to say, but that’s only your conjecture, Lyds.”
“If you say so,” she said, finally finding a recent picture of Mabel wedged in Elizabeth’s wallet. Elizabeth lunged for it, but it was Darcy who managed to intercept it. Even in his inebriated state, he was aware enough to realize that Elizabeth did not want to have this conversation in the presence of her sisters. He tucked the picture away in his pocket and had no intention of giving it up.
Elizabeth glared at him and he looked coolly back.
“Control freak,” she muttered.
“I still don’t get it.” Mary said. “What am I missing here?”
“It’s all kind of legendary,” Fitzwilliam put in. “Darcy went to Boston one weekend to visit an old childhood friend, met a girl, and then there was what we call the break up. No one really knows anything else, except that the somewhat somber and responsible Darcy became a menace and hasn’t smiled in years. Before, women would flock to him, but now they’re like a stampeding pack of antelope after one glare from him. They can’t get away fast enough. Caroline is the notable exception, of course.”
“Charles Bingley’s sister,” Elizabeth explained.
“That asshole,” Lydia spat.
“I don’t think I can put up with her wailing anymore,” Kitty agreed, not clarifying whether she was agreeing that Bingley was an asshole for making Jane wail or Jane an asshole for wailing. “Why’d you kick her out of the apartment, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth glanced over at Darcy. “Every time she sees me she accuses me of trying to break up her and Charles.” She sighed. “I didn’t want Mabel around that.”
“Don’t you listen, Kitty?” Lydia added. “She also let in that guy to the apartment, and according to Charlotte, she had left Mae alone a few times. She’s lucky Elizabeth didn’t throw her clothes out of the window onto the street below.”
“I was tempted,” Elizabeth muttered.
She could feel Darcy rest his hand on her arm in silent support. She looked up at him questioningly before returning to the conversation.
“I still don’t get why Charles broke it off with Jane,” Kitty mused. “Must have been something.”
“But hang on,” Mary jumped in. “You and this Darcy dated? Back in college? How old are you Darcy?”
“Yes, how old are you?” Elizabeth said sweetly.
Darcy looked like he didn’t want to answer the question, especially after knowing Elizabeth’s age.
“He’s now twenty-eight.” Fitzwilliam responded happily. “And you’re twenty-two.”
“She’s twenty-three.” Lydia was only half listening as she had spotted a rather gorgeous girl looking at her.
“Your cradle is the only one he’s ever robbed, though, Elizabeth,” Fitzwilliam put in hastily.
“Oh god,” Mary said quietly as she put the pieces together. Darcy asked Elizabeth’s age the time she had been pregnant with Mabel. They had dated in college. This other guy said that Darcy had robbed the cradle. Grabbing Lydia and Kitty, she hauled them across the room. “You, Fitz-something,” she said to Fitzwilliam. “You’re buying us cokes and nachos.”
Fitzwilliam looked between his cousin and the three young girls.
“Richard –“ Darcy warned, not wanting his cousin to interfere any more than he already had, and Fitzwilliam quickly got up out of his seat and ran over to the three now quiet girls.
“Look,” Darcy explained as he ran a hand over his face, “I didn’t know you would be here. Richard dragged me out of my hotel room and just pushed me into a seat.”
She looked down at her hands. “We seem to be a mass of coincidental meetings, from the very beginning.”
“I’d prefer to call it serendipity.”
An emotion he couldn’t identify flashed through her eyes as she looked up at him.
“I didn’t know you sang,” he began again, shame-faced.
“Yes,” she smiled slightly, “I do. Did, rather.” She laughed at a memory. “First audition Jane ever went to in the city, she was so nervous, she had me come with her and also try out. And then I accidentally got it.”
“You didn’t take it, I gather.”
“No, I didn’t want it,” she confessed, “and there was Mabel.” She looked at him again. “What the hell do you want, Darcy?”
Before he could answer, however, she continued. “I’ve been fine – we’ve been fine – since you left. You never tried to find me, you left me alone, confused. Christ, I didn’t even know I’d lost my virginity until I started vomiting every morning before Latin.”
He reached out for her, but she pulled away again. “I did try to find you,” he told her, “but all I knew was that your name was Elizabeth and you didn’t go to B.U. No one knew who you were. And I gave you my fucking number and you never called.”
She rolled her eyes. “There was no number.”
“Yes, there was,” he said stubbornly. “I know I was, well, under the influence that night, but I do remember writing down my private number. I stuffed it in your pocket before helping you into your jeans and begged you to call me.”
He did not notice the way she knitted her brows in thought at this statement, and instead, rushed on, “I figured you would have thought you hit the jackpot when you figured out who I was at the least. Part of me was afraid you’d never want to see me again after –” His voice faltered, remembering how she had wept when he had entered her. “But then when you didn’t call, I started to think you didn’t know who I was—that you hadn’t figured it out. Did you think I was some poor schmuck not worth your time? How could you doubt me after I held you to me and told you how much I loved you? Did you think I would say that to just any girl I met at a party?”
His jaw set in frustration. “But all that’s over now. You and Mabel still need me, and now I’m here. We can go back to how we were that night before we lost each other.”
Elizabeth looked away to where her sisters were dragging Fitzwilliam onto the stage. It looked like they were forcing him to sing ‘Toxic.’ She really shouldn’t have gotten them addicted to Britney Spears when they were small.
She smiled at a sudden insight. “Of course. You want the ‘Oops!..I did it again’ Elizabeth. Everyone does. Sexy innocence.” She sighed and noticed that he didn’t deny it.
“Darcy,” she said coolly, despite her awareness as she looked into his eyes that he had suffered, too. “Fitzwilliam,” she amended, a symbolic extension of friendship, which was the most she could offer. “I’m not the same eighteen-year-old who would try out frat parties wearing her best friend’s jeans and dress up in my pjs and sing Britney Spears songs to my sisters, pretending to be a half-innocent boy-whore. I kept Mabel and I made it on my own. I got away from Dad and did what I wanted for the first time of my life. Why would I need you now? You’d just want me to be someone I’m not, and I spent too many years of my life trying to pretend for fear of what my own father would do to me, and that’s over.”
“Elizabeth, I love you.” Unfortunately, he grimaced at just that moment as his cousin tried to hit a high note.
Elizabeth hesitated before replying as she was also caught up momentarily in Fitzwilliam’s performance. It was truly horrendous, worse than Kitty’s even, and that was saying something.
When she didn’t say anything, Darcy sighed. “I want a paternity test, Elizabeth, please don’t keep me from Mabel.”
As soon as Elizabeth fixed her angry gaze upon him, he knew he had made a mistake.
“How can you say you love me one moment and the next ask …” She took a deep breath and exhaled calmly. “You don’t love me. If you have been pining for some sweet little girl whose virginity you took by mistake…” She paused, took another deep breath, “Well, that’s not me.”
“You can’t deny me at least this,” Darcy explained. He had already dug himself into this hole, he might as well dig himself in deeper if it meant he could see his little girl, and by extension her mother.
“Mabel is not a prize to be won and neither am I. You did nothing, absolutely nothing, to try to find us. How difficult can it be to find one drunken first year in Boston when you clearly had an entire company at your fingertips? You come from a wealthy and powerful family. And we’re happy, Darcy. Mabel is happy and that’s all that matters. Don’t come into our lives and make us miserable.” She closed her eyes in pain. “Just go and forget us again – you forgot us for five years, you can do it again.”
Although she tried to hold back the tears, she broke down completely. He gathered her into his arms and gently stroked her hair.
It felt good to her—too good. But it had to stop. She knew that was the only way to end all of these years of loneliness and pain. She had survived before, been happy. She could not now endure this misery, bittersweet and confusing as it was. This man was a stranger, she reasoned, nothing more. “Just go. Please,” she begged as she began to control herself.
His hand stilled in her hair and he looked down at the top of her head. Slowly, he disengaged himself from her and she averted her tear stained eyes. Without a word, he gently kissed the top of her head and committed her scent to memory. He signaled Richard who was just now coming off the stage, and they reluctantly left the Bennet sisters in the club.
Darcy wondered how he could feel so bereft at losing something he had never had.