“Should we give Mabel her first present, Fitzwilliam?” Elizabeth turned to her fiancé as they all settled underneath the hotel provided Christmas tree.
“Presents!” Mabel cried happily.
Elizabeth took the little girl in her arms. “Now, Maple Leaf, do you remember the story of ‘The Forgotten Prince’?”
Georgiana looked confused.
“It’s a children’s book I wrote late last month,” she quickly explained before turning again to their daughter. “Well, the forgotten prince is your father. And,” she stressed, “the evil wizard has died so he can come home to us again.”
“The evil wizard?” G inquired.
“Read the story when it comes out in hardcover,” Elizabeth teased. Her future sister couldn’t help but laugh.
“Where is he? Where’s my father?” Mabel asked excitedly.
Elizabeth smiled and touched her forehead to Mabel’s. Looking up at Darcy she pointed at him. “Mabel, this is your father, Prince Fitz,” she said as she introduced them. “Fitzwilliam, your little girl.”
Mabel cried out happily and launched herself into the arms of her father, who was laughing with joy. “I knew I was a princess!”
“Yes, you’re a princess,” Darcy kissed her head, “my beautiful little girl.” He couldn’t help smiling and laughing. Finally, everything he had dreamed of for so long was falling into place.
Jane wondered how it had come to this. She had thought that meeting CB was the turning point in her life, the moment that everything else had been leading up to. How had it all gone so terribly wrong? Today was Christmas and she found herself spending it with a nonentity named Alexander Hayworth. She wistfully recalled the past two Christmases in the apartment she shared Elizabeth and Mae. Since Elizabeth could not go back to Longbourn with her bastard in tow, Jane did the sisterly thing and stayed with them. It had seemed dull at the time but nothing like Hayworth.
(In her history-rewriting fantasy, Jane conveniently forgot that she had never liked spending Christmas with her parents and that she relished having someplace else to be.).
Jane would have imagined that Alex’s wealth would carry some thrill in being with him, but no.
Yes, the man was loaded: he was ungodly wealthy for an author of illustrated children’s books. A rarity in the industry, he did his own illustrations as well and was considered a top-flight artist, too. He had just landed a major contract with Grendel Films for his Little Amy series. He had no ex-wives, no children, and no grasping siblings. His parents had been obliging and popped off, leaving him a nice little trust fund that could make any woman happy on its own.
Jane could play the game as well as the next girl. Tell a guy what he wants to hear, and he’s yours—for as long as you want him. At her mother’s knee, she learned early to play very well, even way back when her mother had thought it would be great if a girl barely out of her teens landed a forty-something CEO. Becoming engaged to him was quick work. Jane had made him think she loved him and had kept men who were more appetizing on the side. Unfortunately, she had gotten a bit sloppy and he had caught her at it. Then again, sometimes she wondered if part of her made sure he walked in on them.
Jane had sought out Elizabeth at the apartment earlier that day but no one answered. She tried her key but was not surprised to find the lock changed. Probably the first thing Elizabeth did when Jane agreed to give up her rights to the place. She could almost hear Elizabeth’s voice, so insistent, so stubborn. “Look, you have plenty of places you can go, and you were always saying you wanted to move on to some place better. I cannot live with you the way you are at the moment, and I won’t have us fighting around Mabel.” Jane had protested weakly, “You mean you’re choosing to let Charlotte stay? You’re choosing Charlotte over me?”
Elizabeth said, in her brook-no-argument voice, “I’m choosing my daughter. Charlotte and I don’t fight all the time, and you and I do these days. I’m not saying it’s all your fault—but I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong and I won’t have these arguments around Mae.”
Vaguely Jane remembered that Char was going to go have Christmas with her brothers, but that didn’t explain Lizzy’s absence. She would never in a million years go to their parents’ in Connecticut, nor would she tag along to Charlotte’s where there were far too many men around. If she knew one thing it was that Elizabeth distrusted the opposite gender.
Perhaps that was part of the reason why she had poisoned CB against her?
Almost on a whim, Jane tried Elizabeth’s cell phone. Although it was new phone for Jane (she changed her number after Wickham had tried calling her from jail), she had already programmed in her sister’s old number. Up to this point, she had afraid to call, afraid her sister would blame her for Wickham. But, where ever her sister was, maybe she could wish her Merry Christmas—and maybe get together? On the fourth ring of her third phone call, someone had finally picked up.
“Elizabeth Bennet’s phone,” a decidedly masculine and cheery voice answered.
“Um,” Jane stammered, but couldn’t quite find the words.
“Hello?” the man asked, and Jane inhaled sharply as she recognized the voice. She wondered if he could tell who she was through Caller ID.
“Darcy?” she inquired.
There was a pause. “Miss Bennet?”
“Y-yes,” she stammered. “Could I speak to my sister please?”
Darcy was silent for a few seconds before saying in a distant voice, “Mae is opening up her presents at the moment. Could I have her call you back later?”
“Look,” Jane said somewhat defensively, “I just wanted to see if I could spend Christmas with my sister and niece.”
“So you called on Christmas Day?” Jane could hear the anger rise in his voice. She perceived footsteps on the other end of the line and heard a door quickly shut. “Where were you when your sister was beaten and raped by your boyfriend in a Starbucks? Where were you when she was in critical condition and begging the doctors for a morning after pill because she couldn’t bear the thought carrying that monster’s child?” Darcy took a deep breath, trying to quench his anger toward his fiancée’s sister. “Look, I’ll tell her you called once Mabel finishes opening up her presents.”
“Who are you to speak to me like this?” Jane asked angrily.
“Merry Christmas, Miss Bennet,” he responded and turned off the phone.
Seeing Elizabeth as he turned, he noted her previously happy eyes looked a little dimmer. He wanted them to get back the shine they had when she had opened the package containing her engagement ring.
“What’s wrong, Fitzwilliam?” she inquired quietly. “Who was on my cell?”
He kissed the palm of her hand before replying, “Jane called. I told her you would call her later if you wished.”
Elizabeth instantly tensed.
“What did she want?” Her voice was small but her stance was determined.
“To spend Christmas with you and Mae – but I need to tell you something first.” He ran his free hand through his hair, looked at her and quickly looked away. “I—I didn’t find out until yesterday, and I didn’t want to tell you just yet. You need more time to—h-heal,” he stammered.
She brought her palm that he had just kissed to his face and looked up lovingly at him. “Why don’t you give me the sparknotes for now then?” she said. “You can tell me the rest when you think I’m ready.”
He nodded and took her in his arms. “The incident with Hayworth wasn’t the first time Jane let a man into your apartment when Mabel was there and—“ he paused as Elizabeth instantly stiffened. “Jane locked her in her room while she entertained a guest.”
Elizabeth’s sharp intake of breath ended in a moan of disbelief. She almost started to ask him if he was sure but instead inquired, “How’d you find out?”
“Mae said something. And then I talked her into telling me the whole story. Jane told her something bad would happen if she told the secret—but Mae was afraid that something bad had already happened—in her four-year old mind, she couldn’t quite figure it all out—but I think she’s been worried.”
Elizabeth pulled away and said, “And Jane has the audacity to ask if she can come spend Christmas with us?”
Darcy smiled bitterly and nodded. “In fairness, she’s not totally deluded—she has no idea that Mae told me what happened.”
Elizabeth reached for the cell phone from the table where Darcy had set it down. Turning it on, she hit recall to get the number Jane had just dialed from. “Hi, Jane?” she asked. “Yes. Merry Christmas. Thanks, but we already have plans.”
There was a pause in the conversation and Darcy drew her more firmly into his embrace.
“Yes, I know, but frankly I am spending the holiday with family. Why don’t you go to Connecticut and see Mom and Dad?”
After a few more seconds she hung up and turned off her phone. She smiled warily. “I think I’m going to have to change my number,” she said. “Presents?” she asked happily, a little too happily, trying to brighten the mood.
Darcy nodded and gave her a quick kiss. Despite Wickham and despite everything, she held on tenaciously to that spark in her eye and the joyously wondrous openness that was so sweet and strong at the same time—this girl who had made him fall in love with her at first glance. He led her back out of their room to the happy faces of his daughter and sister.
Charlotte Lucas had connections. They weren’t the type that W alums usually possessed. She had pulled through college, enjoying the learning process but not caring if she got a B instead of an A, unlike most of the Wendys – the horrible nickname for her alma mater’s students – and when she graduated she wanted nothing more than to settle down for a year or so and figure out what she wanted because, frankly, she had no idea.
While Jane was on the radar of many of the movers and shakers in the theatre world in New York City, Elizabeth was known as a rising star in the publishing industry. Char’s contacts were of a completely different order. A party-goer with a happy personality and the ability to chat up everything and anyone meant that she now knew several people in the service industry—including the servers, the cooks, even the people who took out the trash. She had barmen on speed dial. She could get a table on short notice at the Big Apple’s brightest new restaurant because she had dirty danced with the maitre d’s brother after a break up and let him take her home.
After tracking Jane Bennet to Corgi Press, she had managed to have a brief and rather unpleasant affair with a greasy little lawyer named Bill Colly – or Willy Collins – it really didn’t matter what his name was as long as she could groan something that sounded vaguely like it at the appropriate moments. This little lawyer told her that the “ethereal sister of the gorgeous Eliza” had left with the children’s author, Alexander Hayworth, and that from the office gossip he’d picked up when he was lurking behind copy machines, Hayworth and Jane had become quite the item—very quickly.
With a goodbye to Cabbage Weed or whoever he was and a brief word in her network, she found out that indeed the infamous Miss Bennet had been seen about town at certain haunts with the pudgy and nondescript Hayworth. Two weeks of reconnaissance later, and Char had the perfect plan. Hayworth never realized that the woman down the counter from him at Tiffany’s was his girlfriend’s ex roommate or that she was scribbling notes when he mentioned to the assistant behind the counter when and where he was planning to “pop the question.”
This is just too easy, thought Charlotte, grinning.
A few phone calls later and everything was set up. This was the favor of all favors. She knew that she could probably never step foot in this particular restaurant again, but it would be well worth it.
The night of her mission, she gave herself one last detailed inspection in front of the mirror. Ripped jeans, leather jacket, hair teased into waves in a sophisticated but edgy pompadour. She looked provocative with her dark make-up, dangerous and street savvy—the type of person who would instantly embarrass her former friend by claiming an acquaintance.
Hanging out in the restaurant’s kitchens an hour and a half later, Charlotte peeped out the little window and saw the table. She sighed, briefly letting herself miss Elizabeth and Mabel. After Christmas, she had gone out for hot chocolate with her college roommate and had seen that she was looking much happier though still subdued. “Char,” she had begun tentatively, “good news or bad news?”
Charlotte laughed at the allusion to many similar conversations they had had during college. It reminded her of the time when Elizabeth told her she was pregnant. The good news was that apparently she had slept with a guy with gorgeous eyes and she chose to believe that it must have been mind blowing even though she could not actually recall the details (Charlotte let her have that perception, especially considering the dreamy look that came over her face whenever Eliza thought of him), the bad news was that she was going to be a single mother.
Returning to the present in the patisserie with a thump, Charlotte had grabbed Elizabeth hands and demanded, “Oh my god, are you pregnant?”
Elizabeth’s eyes had bulged. “No, no I’m not!”
Char had relaxed. “Okay, then, um, bad news.”
“I’ve taken an indefinite leave from Corgi and am moving out to California with Fitzwilliam and Mabel. I’ll still pay rent for the next six months or so. I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch and I want to make sure I have a place to come back to. But, I need this, Charlotte. I need to get away from all of this – start over, start the life that Fitzwilliam and I should have had five years ago.”
Charlotte had blinked. “That’s bad news? It sounds good to me.” She understood that her friend was concerned for her but she wasn’t having it. With a smirk, she lowered her voice and inquired, “So, is he good in bed?”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows had furrowed.
Her friend had groaned. “You haven’t slept together yet. Girl,” she had taken her friend’s hands in her own, “you’ve got to get your game on. You have Mr. Gorgeous Multi-Millionaire at your feet, adoring you, and you haven’t taken advantage of it yet!”
Elizabeth couldn’t help laughing. “Char, you never change.”
“Neither do you, Virgin Mary.”
Elizabeth had mock sighed. “If only I had actually been married Mary.”
“Your sister—and I use the term loosely—is about to have that dubious honor. Marriage can be so over-rated. What’s the good news?”
“You’re right about marriage, but sometimes—anyway, here’s the reason why I’m waiting,” Elizabeth had smiled as she pulled a ring out of her purse and slipped it onto her hand.
“Old fashioned girl to the last,” Char had cheered before taking another sip of her drink.
“And don’t you forget it,” Elizabeth had laughed. “And what’s this about my sister getting married?”
Char had smirked. “It’s not official. He’s bought the ring.” With a look from her friend, Charlotte added, “Reconnaissance. Don’t ask. Everything will soon be in the bag and then I’ll tell you.”
Elizabeth had sighed. “It’s about Jane locking up Mae, isn’t it?”
Charlotte at first had started in her chair but then had nodded.
“What have you got up your sleeve?”
Charlotte had smiled. “Nothing, Elizabeth. Just be happy. I’ll tell you about your sister’s misery when she actually has ruined her life.” This wasn’t a complete lie since she concluded from Eliza’s calm reference to Jane that Darcy had not yet told her everything about Jane’s slapping Mae. Charlotte respected that Darcy would tell Elizabeth when he felt the time was right, and she would leave that up to him. In fact, Char was quite happy not to be the one who would tell her.
Everything, Charlotte realized, was falling into place for her friend. She was happily living outside of L.A. in an idyllic house out in the country, away from city noise; she had her beloved daughter and fiancé, was waiting for god knew what reason, and was seeing a therapist who was helping her put the pieces together. She was even studying for her LSATs, saying that she wanted to put the next George Wickham behind bars before he managed to actually hurt more than one woman.
Eliza had asked Charlotte to be her maid of honor, which of course she had accepted. Now, all she needed to know was the date of the wedding, but she supposed that both Eliza and Darcy would want time to heal before really embarking on their life together. There was just the last little speck of dirt that Char was going to clean up as a wedding gift to help them move on. When the time was right, it would make an excellent story to tell them.
“It’s time,” Char’s current boy-toy Harry said as he came into the kitchen. He was a waiter and had been serving Jane and her own boy-toy all evening. Not that Charlotte would ever really consider Hayworth a proper boy-toy. Even she had some standards. Yes, she dated cave men that were all brawn and no beauty, but at least they weren’t – well – completely hideous to look at.
Charlotte looked out the window and saw that Hayworth was pulling out what looked like the ring.
“Showtime,” she grinned as she quickly exited the kitchen. Walking determinedly to the couple, she was happily surprised when another waiter grabbed a spare chair and set it down for her. Connections in the right place could do so much, she thought smugly.
“Jane, Hayworth,” she greeted the surprised couple. Hayworth had just opened the box to reveal what Char believed to be the most hideous engagement ring she had ever seen, and Jane hadn’t even had a chance to pretend that she was crying for joy. “Ah, you’re getting engaged. How lovely.” Her voice was deprecating and she gratefully accepted the Sex on a Beach the bartender had sent over.
Both Jane and Hayworth were shocked speechless at her appearance and behavior.
Charlotte sipped her drink and said, “Now, Jane dear, that you’re engaged, I suppose you’ll have no reason to lock up four-year olds for hours on end in their room past dinner while you get all good and cozy with CB on the apartment couch. I knew you were selfish years ago, I began to suspect your negligence just before that night at the club, but now I know that frankly you’re a bi-otch who should be behind bars.”
“I—what?” Jane stammered, ignoring the fishlike look on her not-quite-fiancé’s face.
“Don’t even try to deny. You, CB, couch. Mabel locked behind a door for hours. CB leaves, you take shower without feeding a flippin’ four-year-old child. Should I tell your boyfriend what happened next?”
Jane’s eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t dare,” she hissed, but Hayworth heard her completely.
Charlotte paused and laughed. “There are bitches and then there’s the scum so low that even bitches walk over it—that’s you, Jane, a bi-otch.”
Hayworth began to open his mouth, but Charlotte silenced him with a deadly look. Turning back to Jane, who had turned white, she continued, “Oh, and the whole letting your loser boyfriend rape your sister in a Starbucks just clearly shows that you’ll be little better than cockroach in the next life.”
“She stole both CB and George—” she began before changing tactics. “And what am I, her babysitter? Christ, she went out andn got date raped her first week in college. Maybe she just attracts violence.”
“You really shouldn’t spread such scandalous rumors, especially when you don’t have the facts.” Remembering Jane’s earlier statement, Char threw back her head and cackled, drawing the attention of nearby tables. She was having fun putting on this show. “CB left of his own accord because I’m sure the stunt you pulled with Mae showed him you had no heart. It’s not that difficult to figure out. And George – George drugged Elizabeth five years ago the night she conceived Mabel. He targeted her during college and he targeted her again. You were just a means to an end, a pawn, a way to get close to his victim.”
Jane blinked. “Are you saying he’s Mabel’s father?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but no. Open your eyes. Her father has been right before you, and he and Elizabeth have finally found each other and are happy. Not that you will ever be. I see that you’re out for revenge against Eliza for whatever pathetic reason you’ve concocted in your sick head.”
Jane started to protest, “That’s not true. I never meant Lizzy any harm. I just wanted—”
“Wanted what, Jane? Wanted CB back? Read my lips. You lost him all by yourself.” Charlotte turned and looked directly at Hayworth, smiling slightly as she wondered if Jane still looked as good to him. But then again, maybe he didn’t mind being second to CB. “If either of you go near Eliza or Mae again, trust me, you’ll be sorry. Darcy’s got so many lawyers and probably has politicians in his pocket, come to think of it. And then of course, you’ll also have me to answer to, and I play dirty.”
Jane, finally regaining her senses, picked up her water glass as if making to pour it over Charlotte’s head.
Char stood up quickly with her cocktail. “Well, happy life. You two rats deserve each other.”
And with that she stepped past the table, grinning happily in the heat of the death glare Jane was sending her.
The story in the New York Times was the last straw. Jane had picked it up by accident, the paper having been left on the breakfast table by her husband of one month, and had been shocked to see that Wickham had taken a plea bargain after the overwhelming evidence in the Starbucks rape case and several previous victims coming forward. While some speculation regarding the identity of the woman in the “Starbucks incident” floated about, no news outlet had ever disclosed her name. There were hints that either the wife or sister of a celebrity had been the target.
Jane sneered at the thought. Despite what Charlotte might think, Darcy would never marry Elizabeth. She was damaged goods. He would never be able to touch her without thinking about George. Jane thought that George had done her at least one favor in keeping her sister from having what she wanted. Why should Elizabeth have Darcy if she could not have CB?
Jane took the newspaper, rolled it into a tight tube, and threw it across the room. It collided with a lovely antique vase that shattered into a hundred pieces on the hardwood floor. The maid was going to hate cleaning that up—finding every single shard would be a nightmare. And if she missed even one, the maid knew what the new mistress of the house would do. Jane chuckled at how Hayworth’s service staff was terrified of her. A few even looked as if they were wetting themselves each time she walked into the room.
It was what Jane had always wanted. She was the wife of a wealthy man who adored her, would let her do anything, and she loved the proof of his devotion each time he let her get away with something new—an extravagant bauble, a terrified servant, a headache when he was plainly desperate to have her.
Not that she hadn’t made certain concessions. She let his bizarre paintings stay on the walls, pictures of little girls walking around dark, scary landscapes in little more than wispy nightdresses, illustrations that never made it into his books. The drawings made her uneasy but Jane decided that she simply did not understand art and so let it be at that.
They were also in the process of adopting a little girl. After Charlotte had left the restaurant and a startled Jane had given an affirmative answer to his proposal before he could change his mind, Hayworth had asked if they could start a family immediately.
“I’ve always wanted one,” he explained, “and I know with your career you probably wouldn’t want to get pregnant, so why don’t we adopt a child? A three- or four-year-old girl perhaps? We could name her anything you want, darling.”
Of course she had said ‘yes’ after she had made him grovel a little. She had then gone to B&N and bought every book about raising a young child and adoption. Jane even was having fun choosing names. Currently she was leaning toward Belinda or Lola – yes, Lola would be a sweet name. She remembered how she had loved dressing Mae up, just like a little doll. Now she’d have one all her own!
But despite it all, Jane felt empty and defeated. Just before the wedding she had tried to call Charles and had only gotten voice mail. She had waited, calling back just before walking down the aisle in her small ceremony, but still nothing. And then he had called her back.
“Jane, hey, how are you?”
“Charles, I did not expect you to return my call—“ She hadn’t known what else to say. That she wished he had called before she got married?
Charles was saying in a sheepish voice, “Yeah. You know, I’m sorry about all that—I’ve been an ass. I just needed some time to think. And I was thrilled to get your message.”
“Really? You just got my message?”
“No, I got it earlier but, Jane, I needed time. . . Well, you know, after what happened with Mabel, I mean, when I got my head straight, I was really upset about what we had done.”
“What do you mean? We didn’t do anything!”
“We locked a little girl in a room while we had sex. That was wrong, Jane. I mean, I know the stuff I was doing—the drugs—made me horny as hell, but when I came down the next day, I was—god, I was horrified at what I had done. Jane, it was so wrong. . .”
Jane was silent over the phone.
Charles waited and then asked, “Jane, are you there?”
“Yes.” Jane gritted her teeth and blew out her breath in a frustrated sigh. “Charles, maybe we shouldn’t have. But you know, I don’t think it mattered—I mean, Mae didn’t care—or notice. She was very happy playing in her room.”
Charles paused before replying. “I don’t know. I thought I heard her crying.”
“No. No, she wasn’t crying. Look, Charles, let’s face it, you were pretty high. You imagined you heard her crying. She was fine.”
Charles so wanted to believe this although a little voice in the back of his mind demurred. But maybe it was time to let it go. “Ok, maybe you’re right. You know, I was thinking—now that Darcy is together with Elizabeth—maybe we should get together again?”
Jane’s mind began racing, figuring, so she stalled.
“So she’s really with Darcy-Darce?” she inquired.
He chuckled over the phone. “Yeah, apparently they’re living out in California at the moment. I just got back to the country so I haven’t seen them yet, but Darcy said he wanted to talk to me about something important, so I guess there’s a wedding in the making. Who’d a thunk he would ever have gotten over that girl he fell for in grad school?”
“Sorry?” Jane was now definitely confused.
“Oh, sorry, you don’t know about The break up. It was pretty nasty. He was up in Boston one weekend to visit an old friend – who’s in jail, coincidentally. He raped some woman in a NYC Starbucks.”
Jane felt ill and had to grab the wall to steady herself.
Charles didn’t seem to notice and just continued rambling. “Anyway, he met this girl named Elizabeth, oddly enough, and just fell head over heals. She left and he couldn’t find her afterwards and then this friend of his admitted that he had actually drugged her. Darcy’s been going silently crazy for years, wondering if she was dead in a ditch or could even remember anything. The guy was heartbroken.” He sighed. “But I guess that’s over now. He has his new Elizabeth. Funny how they both have the same name and are blonde, but whatever. Whatever floats.” He paused and cleared his throat.
“So,” he continued, “why don’t I fly out to New York and we can pick up where we left off?”
At just that moment, Hayworth came into the bedroom he shared with his wife. “Darling,” he said, “will you be ready soon? The car is waiting.”
Over the phone, CB’s voice asked, “Jane, who’s that?”
Jane wanted to tell Charles that the man in the room was nobody.
When she didn’t answer, Bingley again questioned. “Jane?”
“Yes, sorry, I’m here.” She put up one finger to indicate to her husband that she would be there in about a minute. She quickly got up off of the bed and found her shoes.
“Darling,” Hayworth said, coming up behind her. Jane tensed despite herself when his arms wrapped around her waist.
“Jane?” Charles’ voice said again.
“Um, sorry, it’s – well, it’s my husband, Alex,” she blurted.
There had been dead silence over the other end of the line and then nothing. It had all been gone in that second—everything she had ever dreamed about. Why had Elizabeth done this to her?
A small voice in the back of her head whispered that her sister had done nothing, but she quickly shoved it aside. It had to be someone’s fault. Elizabeth was the person her parents had always said she was, stubborn and demanding that she must have her own way. In that moment, phone still in hand, Jane wished she had never let Elizabeth back into her life when she found out her sister had been hiding a bastard. What had her kindness brought her, she thought, as she looked over at her husband, who was noisily coughing up phlegm. Ugh, Jane moaned inwardly.
Aloud, she said, “ We have to do something about that cold, dear,” and then resignedly hung up the phone.