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The course of true love never did run smooth. That is certainly the experience of Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy in this modern story set in Glasgow and Perthshire, Scotland.


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Ae Fond Kiss

Chapter 1

As the last student left her class, Elizabeth Bennet heaved a sigh of relief. Two whole days of peace and quiet, she thought, smiling to herself, as the din that had moments before been pervading her classroom disappeared down the corridor. Boy, these fifth years are hard work on a Friday afternoon. Closing her eyes, she perched on the edge of her desk for a few solitary moments, savouring the silence... heavenly ... then, picking up her briefcase, she hurried to the staff room to fetch her jacket - and the pile of marking she'd started on at lunchtime. Now, if she could just get away before the bell, she'd maybe make it out of the car park before the 'Friday dash' got underway!

Elizabeth entered the normally bustling staff room and was delighted to find it empty, just as she'd hoped - obviously everyone who has the last period free has already knocked off... lucky beggars! Thinking that she might yet manage to get to the dressmakers and at least one or two shoe shops before they closed, she quickly collected her jacket and her 'homework' and made for the open door. Of course, it's my own fault, she berated herself, as she struggled into her jacket, I should have got myself sorted out during the week - why do I have to leave everything to the last minute?

"Lizzy!"

Elizabeth backed up as her colleague and good friend, Lynda Anderson, suddenly appeared before her. "Hi, Lynda, where have you been? I haven't seen you all day."

"Oh, Lizzy, I have had the best day!" Lynda replied, grinning widely, "I took a group of sixth years to an acting workshop at the Citizen's Theatre. My friend Andy led it - do you remember him?" she asked. "I think you met him along with his partner Neil at my birthday party last year. Anyway," Lynda continued, smugly rubbing her fingernails up and down the lapel of her jacket, "I think my students were rather impressed that he's a friend of mine. And guess what, Lizzy, he was just telling me today that he's got the part of Algernon in 'The Importance of Being Ernest' - he's promised me tickets. I thought you might like to come?"

"Lynda Anderson, you are so lucky. I should be teaching drama instead of English," laughed Elizabeth. "Although I am taking my third year class to see the Royal Shakespeare Touring Company's 'Merchant of Venice' next month. Are you going?"

"No, well, yes... but not with students, thank goodness. I'm going to the evening performance with Andy and Neil. Just think, Lizzy, I'll be able to enjoy it without having to keep an evil eye trained on pesky little people trying to escape. Oh, bliss!" "Trust you, Mrs Anderson - how did you manage to get out of it when you're our one and only drama teacher? Not fair! But look," Elizabeth said, glancing hurriedly at her watch, "tell me everything later, because I have to go. I'm going out tonight and I have a lot to do if I'm going to make it on time."

"Oh? ... a date? You didn't tell me about this, Lizzy." Lynda sidled up beside her and teased, "Not our illustrious headmaster, I hope? Or even worse - don't tell me that Bill Collins has worn you down at last?"

Elizabeth gave an exaggerated sigh. In the couple of years that she and Lynda had been working at Hillhead High School, it had come to their notice that the headmaster had a 'more than passing interest' in his newest English teacher - a state of affairs that was of great amusement to Lynda and caused no end of embarrassment to Elizabeth ... especially once her pupils had got wind of the elderly gentleman's courtly attentions. And as for Bill, Elizabeth grimaced, well, that will never happen!

"Lynda Anderson, wash your mouth out with soap!" Elizabeth laughed. "No, it's not a date. If you must know, I'm going to a charity dinner with Jane and the Gardiners - and I'm not going to make it if I don't get a move on," Elizabeth complained, glancing once again at her watch.

Lynda moved out of the doorway and gave a sweeping bow. "Madam, let me not impede you then. And, Lizzy," she added as Elizabeth exited the staff room, "give my love to Helen and Edward. We must have a coffee with them - next week? I haven't seen them in ages. Oh, and perhaps Jane could join us too; I'd love to catch up with her."

"Great idea, Lynda, I'll let them know and see what we can arrange. And, Lynda, that's a yes for the 'Ernest' ticket, if you have one available," Elizabeth called over her shoulder as the click-click of her heels echoed along the deserted corridor. Just as she reached the swing doors that led to the car park, the school bell pierced the air and within twenty seconds hordes of eager pupils were rushing the doors, barging past her and embracing their liberty. Now if only they came into school with such enthusiasm . . .

~ * ~

As Elizabeth crossed the car park, she smiled to herself. Freedom! She loved her job, no doubt about that - it was very satisfying, but after five long days the weekend was enticingly welcome. Just as she reached her battered old Renault, she heard footsteps behind her and almost jumped out of her skin when something brushed against her back. Oh I bet I know what this is! Shit, I almost made it too! She turned resignedly - yes, as she expected, standing before her was Bill Collins ... her faithful shadow.

Elizabeth had met Bill - one of several mature students in her class - several years before at teacher training college and he'd been the proverbial pain in her neck ever since. At first his constant attention had made her feel extremely uncomfortable. But she soon found that, although he was an obsequious little crawler (well, see him with the headmaster!!), he was actually harmless ... just a nuisance, really. It didn't help that he had the hide of an elephant and just would not accept her complete lack of interest in him. Here we go again, she thought. What exciting date has he planned this time?

"Hi, Bill. Sorry, have to dash. I'm going out this evening and I still have to buy a pair of shoes and get to the dressmaker before she closes; I don't have much time."

"Well, Elizabeth, I thought perhaps we could go to the cinema tomorrow night. The Glasgow Film Theatre is showing this stunning Albanian film that I really want to see. I'm sure you'd enjoy it." With that Bill gave her what he thought was his most winning smile as he waited, once again, in full expectation of a positive answer.

Yes, I'm sure I would love to see the film, just not with you, was Elizabeth's exasperated thought. It amazed her that Bill Collins had such confidence in himself; that he would keep asking in the face of downright, and increasingly sarcastic, refusal. She'd made it quite plain that she had no interest in him, but he would persist. And he would be refused - time and time again.

"Sorry, Bill, no can do. Would you believe, I actually met a guy earlier this week, and you know," she leaned in conspiratorially, fingers crossed behind her back, "I very much think he could be 'the one'. So, take my advice, Bill, give up - you're wasting your time with me!"

"Well... I'm sorry for it, Elizabeth, indeed I am. ...but I've been meaning to ask you, when is your lovely friend Charlotte coming back up to Glasgow for a visit? She and I... I think we hit it off, you know."

Elizabeth almost laughed in Bill's face. Of all his talents... huh?... talents? - this is definitely his most astounding, she thought. This ability to express his undying affection for me and, at the same time, keep a constant lookout for fresh . . . targets. He certainly appears to have no difficulty in manoeuvring from interest in one member of the female species to another - hell he hardly even pauses for breath. Elizabeth had to admit, she was impressed at the speed with which he could change allegiance - but then, she had heard that he'd already propositioned every other female teacher at the school who was under the age of fifty. The man surely had no depth of feeling at all. Looking at Bill now, though, Elizabeth did feel rather sorry for him; he just seemed desperate for someone to pay him some attention and, let's face it; he didn't have much going for him, being a typical nerdy guy - glasses, longish greasy hair, 1970s clothes, slightly plump. No, he's no oil painting.

On the other hand, Elizabeth considered thoughtfully, neither is Charlotte, as she's frequently admitted herself. Her friend, Charlotte Lucas, had gone through the whole of school without a boyfriend - always the wallflower with whom no boy would dance, the last person to be chosen for team games, the studious one who didn't even seem to notice the opposite sex. However, just among the girls, she was good fun and next to her sister Jane, she was Elizabeth's best friend. But would she be interested in Bill Collins? Surely not! For a moment Elizabeth closed her eyes, deep in thought. She couldn't recollect where Bill could have met Charlotte. "But, Bill," she began, "when...?"

"Don't you remember, Elizabeth," he interrupted, catching the puzzled look on her face, "you were on your way to the cinema... I met you both in Sauchiehall Street... last winter, I believe."

"Oh yes, of course," Elizabeth said as she thought back to that night. They'd been rushing because they were late - another thing about Charlotte... she was always late. And now that Elizabeth recalled the meeting, she remembered that Charlotte had asked some cautious questions about Bill Collins. I think she even expressed the opinion that he looked rather interesting. Elizabeth had just laughed at the time and had managed to gasp aloud, "Oh, Charlotte!" But who knows, maybe there was something there...!

"Actually, Bill, she's coming up sometime in the next few weeks for a visit. I'll be sure to let her know you asked after her. If she agrees, I might invite you to dinner. But remember, I said if she agrees," Elizabeth laughed as she observed the look of anticipation cross his face. "Now, I must dash... sorry."

She left Bill wondering how he could engineer that dinner invitation to Elizabeth's flat to reacquaint himself with Charlotte, without hurting Elizabeth's feelings at dropping her as a potential amour. . . of course he wasn't fooled, Elizabeth was rejecting him because she was just playing hard to get! But he was getting fed up with that game! Elizabeth jumped into her car, unaware of her former suitor's treacherous intentions, and threw her bag and briefcase on to the passenger seat before Bill could engage her in further conversation. She laughed to herself as she closed the door and started up her engine. Met someone earlier this week'... huh, I wish... or then again, knowing my luck with men, maybe I don't!

~ * ~

Just as Elizabeth got to the school gate, her mobile phone rang. Damn it! She debated with herself - answer it . . . or let it ring; no it might be Jane, so she did an emergency stop in the middle of the car park entrance and rushed to fish her phone out of her briefcase.

"Hello, mum," Elizabeth groaned when she heard the shrill voice on the other end of the line. Damn, two minutes later and she would have been on the road and the answering machine would have picked up. "Mum, how did you get my mobile number?"

"For goodness sake, child, why shouldn't I have your mobile number? I'm your mother. If you must know, I managed to wangle it out of Jane, and I must say she was most reluctant to give me it. She said she'd have to check with you - what nonsense! Why ever would you want your own mother not to have your mobile number, Lizzy?"

"Mum, I really don't have time to talk. Jane and I are going out tonight with Helen and Edward. I have to..."

But Frances Bennet was not on the phone to listen. "Elizabeth, I've been trying to get Jane all afternoon, but her mobile must be switched off - so you'll just have to do! Helen phoned me last night and told me all about this charity thingy. Now listen to me, tell Jane to make an effort tonight and tell her not to talk about her work. Rich young men don't want to hear about deprived families from the east end of Glasgow." Elizabeth heard her mother's deep sigh and waited for the whining words she knew would follow, "And she's so beautiful too; I don't know why she always has to be so serious. She'll never get a nice, rich husband at this rate."

"Any advice for me, mum?" Elizabeth asked, knowing she'd never get off the phone as long as her mother was discussing her favourite subject.

"Oh, you can do as you like, dear. I stopped instructing you years ago, when I realized you'd stopped listening."

But of course Frances couldn't resist wheedling a little piece of advice down the phone as Elizabeth's jaw dropped at the idea that her mother had stopped passing on her words of wisdom some time ago - funny she'd never noticed! "Just make an effort, Lizzy; try not to embarrass your sister. And if you attract any half decent men - keep your opinions to yourself! Oh, and remember, don't..."

At that an impatient teacher honked a horn behind her and Elizabeth gratefully snapped the phone shut with a, "Bye mum, got to go," and threw it on to the passenger seat - damn, she'd need to get a new phone now that her mother knew her number!

"Jane, I'm home at last. Where are you?" Elizabeth yelled. "I had to wait for over half an hour at the dressmaker's... she was sick yesterday and couldn't finish the alterations to my jacket, and then it took me ages to get shoes to go with my black dress... doesn't that always happen when you leave it to the last minute? I'm not going to make it in time... how about you, ready yet?"

Gabbling furiously, Elizabeth flew into her room, undressing as she went. She and her sister Jane were joining her aunt and uncle, Helen and Edward Gardiner, as their guests at a function being held in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum... an exclusive dinner to launch the Lord Provost's newly announced children's charity... and she was running late.

Jane appeared at the bathroom door followed by a cloud of steam, a towel wrapped around her. "Lizzy, I'm finished with the shower if you want in now. Hurry up; the taxi's coming in forty-five minutes. I've already had to phone and put the driver off for half an hour... and I've called Helen to say we'll be late. Thank goodness we were going for pre-dinner drinks, or we'd be late for the 'main event'." Jane rushed into her bedroom and shut the door.

"Yes and good evening to you too, Jane," laughed Elizabeth as she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

By the time Elizabeth emerged from the bathroom, Jane had dried her hair and was putting on make-up at her dressing table mirror. Elizabeth, tossing her mass of curls upside down as she bent over to pick up Jane's discarded hairdryer, began her often-voiced grumble as she switched on the hot blast.

"Why do I have the curly hair that takes ages to dry? It's going to frizz, I just know it - and I don't have time to do anything with it. Jane, I'm going to look like Albert 'bloody' Einstein!"

"Oh, Lizzy, don't start," Jane laughed. "Anyway, wasn't his hair straight? Look, I'm nearly finished. You dry your hair and I'll put it up for you while you see to your make-up."

"Thanks, Jane. You're a life-saver!" Elizabeth raised her hair-covered face for a second to kiss her sister's cheek. "I'll maybe make it in time with your help. Anyway Jane, are we still meeting Helen and Edward at the pub? I've had such a day, I'd kill for a whisky right now!"

"No, I'm afraid we won't have time, so we're meeting them at the museum." Jane slipped her dress over her head and tapped Elizabeth on her shoulder. "Do me up, Lizzy, please."

"Jane! You look fantastic! That really is a beautiful shade of blue." Elizabeth swept her hair back so that she could admire her sister's outfit and at the same time tackle the line of tiny buttons on the back of her dress. "My goodness, Jane Bennet, your eyes, your dress and your shoes match perfectly. Tell me, did you plan that? I swear, you're eyes look so blue . . . !"

"Thank you, my dear - you do know how to make a woman feel good when she's going out - now if only you were a handsome boyfriend!" Jane winked as she took Elizabeth by the shoulders and sat her down before the dressing table mirror. As quickly as she could she began to comb through her sister's hair, attempting to subdue its exuberance into some kind of order.

"So, how was your day, Lizzy? Trying, I presume."

Elizabeth giggled as she looked at Jane in the mirror.

Jane frowned. "What?"

"What 'what'?"

What's so funny, Elizabeth?"

Jane, you're standing behind me, doing my hair, and asking how my day was. You sound just like David."

"Oh yes? And pray tell me what I have in common with your gay Glaswegian hairdresser?"

"Mmmm, I'm not sure... but one thing I do know... his eyes, dress and shoes always match - just like yours!"

I think you're exaggerating, Lizzy. And anyway the last time I saw David he was wearing a kilt. I know he was 'a wee bit pissed', as he said at the time, but his eyes certainly weren't red, green and blue!"

Elizabeth snorted at the image Jane's portrayal brought to mind. "I bet they were in the morning, though! And anyway, my dear sister, the last time I saw him - at his salon, so he wasn't pissed - he had on a blue leather kilt, blue Doc Martens and a lycra Superman tee shirt. And all matched, just like little old you - even down to the colour!"

"Now that I'd surely have paid to see, Lizzy! Even in the hairdressing world, he's a real one-off. Anyway," Jane said, reverting to her original question, "you said you'd kill for a whisky... so... how was your day? That bad?"

"W-e-l-l, I had my best offer in ages. One of my colleagues invited me to the Glasgow Film Theatre to see an Albanian film. I would have been interested in the film, but the offer came from..."

"Bill Collins," Jane interrupted.

"Yes," Elizabeth laughed, "how did you guess?"

"Don't know," Jane paused, tapping her forefinger against her chin. I think it had something to do with 'Albanian film'. Surely no one else would want to see it."

"Well," retorted Elizabeth, feigning an indignant look, "I did want to see it actually, Miss Philistine. I just didn't want to go with Bill."

"So, you've turned down a date on . . . Saturday night? Jane sighed ruefully as Elizabeth nodded her head. "What a pair we are. Oh well, we'll just have to stay in and rent a DVD - how about 'This Year's Love' again? We'll get a bottle of wine and phone for a curry."

"Yes, Jane, great idea! Another night with Dougray Scott and Dougie Henshall; what more could a girl ask for." Elizabeth winked as she added, "Not much of an improvement on Bill Collins, but hey... beggars can't be choosers!"

"Oh, Lizzy," Jane giggled. Just don't drool on the carpet this time!"

"Ha, ha, Jane," Elizabeth retorted. "I noticed you didn't peel your eyes away from the screen for the duration of the film. Anyway, getting on to another subject, Bill Collins asked after Charlotte today. I thought we could invite him to dinner when she's here. Do you think...?"

Jane interrupted, knowing exactly what her sister had in mind, "Do I think, Lizzy dear, that you've perhaps seen a convenient way to get Bill off your tail? Well... I suppose it's up to Charlotte... but she just might be interested. You know I've never found him as objectionable as you have."

"Well, Miss Bennet, why didn't you tell me this before?" Elizabeth grinned. "I could have set you up with him - hell, his little feet would hardly have touched the ground in his rush to get to you."

"Elizabeth, I said that I didn't find him objectionable. I didn't say I wanted him as a life partner. As far as Lottie is concerned," she added, "let's just wait and see what she wants. I suppose there's no harm in asking him to dinner - if she agrees. After all, Charlotte lives down in Meryton, so if she's not interested, at least he won't be able to stalk her."

"Good, that's decided then," Elizabeth laughed. "Now just let me get my dress and jacket on and we're ready to go."

The sisters kept the taxi driver waiting for a mere five minutes - not bad they thought considering the late hour they'd both got home from work. Tonight, despite the rush, the sisters looked stunning, and as usual, completely contrasting. Jane was tall, her hair straight and blonde, and she had startlingly cold blue eyes - a typical Nordic look. Her fair hair and slim, boyish figure had caused Elizabeth to be a very envious teenager, though she'd now grown to accept... no, even like... her own appearance. Elizabeth was, as her male students and colleagues appreciated, dark, petite, and curvy with the greenest, most striking eyes, like looking into the sunlit Caribbean Sea just before it hits the sand - warm and inviting. While Jane was lightly tanned, Elizabeth had the palest ivory skin. While Jane was calm and demure, Elizabeth was feisty and sharp-witted, renowned for her quick temper; a temper that sometimes - as Elizabeth shamefacedly admitted - led her to jump to conclusions too quickly and connect her foot with her mouth before her thought process was engaged. Jane on the other hand, had the patience of a saint - patience that she needed in a liberal supply to deal with their neurotic mother - and a father who'd given up on his marriage and retreated to his workroom years ago. In fact Rob Bennet considered his eldest two daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, to be the only family members worthy of his notice. His wife, Frances, and younger daughters - Mary, Kitty and Lydia - were often the recipients of his cynical sense of humour, and Frances Bennet often took out her hurt and anger on Elizabeth - her husband's obvious favourite.

Just as Elizabeth turned the lock in the front door of their flat, Jane groaned at the unwelcome sound of her mobile phone ringing out doom in her bag. "Lizzy, wait a minute - this is either mum or the office, and somehow I don't think it's mum." Elizabeth frowned as Jane took the call; she just knew what was coming next. How many times now had they eagerly made plans, only to have them spoilt by an emergency call from the social work department where Jane worked?

"Yes, Gregor. Is she okay? And there's no one else there who can go?" Jane sighed quietly then added, "Yes, I'll be there in about twenty minutes. Bye."

"Jane, for goodness' sake, why didn't you tell him that you couldn't come? Even social workers are entitled to a life." Elizabeth chaffed her sister, nudging her arm, "Not much of one, I admit, but a very little one at least."

Giving Elizabeth a genuinely doleful glance as she re-entered their flat to change out of her glad rags and pick up her car key, Jane sighed, "Sorry, Lizzy, it's an emergency. One of my clients has locked her three-year-old out of the house and gone off... well, heaven knows where. I'll have to sort it out tonight, there's nothing else for it - she is my client. You go on though," Jane urged. "Give Aunt Helen and Uncle Edward my apologies; tell them I was so looking forward to our get-together. If I can get this sorted out, I'll come to you - just don't hold your breath." Jane tried her best to smile for her sister, but the disappointment showed in her eyes. "Enjoy yourself for me, Lizzy. I know, how about we go out tomorrow night instead of staying in - okay?"

"I'm going to keep you to that, Jane Bennet. I don't care if Partick* falls into the River Clyde and the families all need to be rehoused - we're going to have a good time tomorrow night."

As Elizabeth stepped sadly down the stairs to the door of the close, she pondered the number of nights out that her sister had vicariously 'enjoyed' through her. Once again she wished that Jane would find herself another job . . . no . . . another career, really. Apart from the constant out-of-hours calls to emergency situations, Elizabeth worried about her sister's safety dealing with drug addicts, neglectful parents and the like. She knew that Jane had once or twice found herself in a very scary situation - and it frightened her terribly. Also, it seemed to Elizabeth that Jane was constantly tired, often sleeping for hours as soon as she got home from work, as if she were somehow being dragged down by this ever needy job of hers. We have to sit down and have a talk about this, thought Elizabeth, before Jane becomes ill. She shrugged her shoulders despondently as she approached the waiting taxi, knowing that any decision on the subject of career was ultimately her sister's to make.

*District in the west end of Glasgow.

Chapter 2

Hugging her aunt and uncle warmly, Elizabeth apologized for her tardiness and for Jane's absence - though like Elizabeth, Helen and Edward were getting used to Jane missing some gathering or other. With no little concern, Helen Gardiner thought to herself that these calls from Jane's office were occurring ever more frequently. As she and Edward accompanied their niece up the steps to the museum's entrance, she also considered, as Elizabeth had done before her, that perhaps her gentle and compassionate niece needed a change of job... . or at the very least fewer hours. She wondered if her husband could have a quiet word with his close friend, Jack MacDonald, their local councillor. If she remembered correctly he'd once mentioned that he was on the social work committee - surely the department needed more staff if such frequent call-outs were necessary?

"Such a shame about Jane, Lizzy," Helen Gardiner remarked. "Don't you think her job is becoming too demanding?"

"There's no 'becoming' about it, Helen. This has been going on for some time - Jane just keeps it to herself. I have to admit," Elizabeth continued with a sigh, "I'm worried about her. Jane's just not the kind of person who'll refuse a call-out when she hears of someone in need. "

"Well, we'll have to have a family get-together. She'll ..."

"Helen, my dear," Edward Gardiner interrupted his wife, giving her a warning look, "Jane is a grown woman. If she wants to talk to us about her job, I'm sure she'll come to us herself. She knows we're always here for her."

"I know, dear, I know," Helen agreed, albeit reluctantly. "It's just that I don't like to see her working so hard. She's starting to get thin, Lizzy - too thin, don't you think?"

"Oh, you've noticed that too," Elizabeth said. "I thought perhaps it was just my imagination - or so Jane keeps telling me ..."

Edward broke in once again, emitting a gentle groan before he spoke, "Ladies, we can do nothing about this right now, let's just enjoy the evening. After all," he reasoned, "Jane wouldn't want us all to be miserable. Helen, we'll have dinner with Jane and Lizzy soon and maybe we'll get a chance to see how things stand." With that he strode off across the vestibule to deposit their coats in the temporary cloakroom.

Helen turned to Elizabeth with a wry smile. "Edward's right I suppose, Lizzy. But try not to worry. I'll see what I can do." And with a sly wink, she made her way in pursuit of her husband with Elizabeth trailing behind, glad she'd been able to share her concerns about her sister with the people she could trust most to help.

Inside the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum a cavernous room that once held the remains of stuffed animals from times long past had been turned, temporarily, into a ballroom prior to its refurbishment - a massive job that would involve years of work and millions of pounds. Elizabeth admired the grand room that was already festooned with the beautiful people of Glasgow - the designer-labelled, upwardly mobile denizens of the 'dear green place'. They were all here for the launch of the Lord Provost's new charity, which with typical Glasgwegian humour had been named 'Glasgow's Weans'* - an organisation that had been set up to support a cause close to the hearts of both Jane and Elizabeth, who saw the effects of poverty on the 'weans' of the city every working day.

Elizabeth wondered sadly if these very wealthy people, gathered in anticipation of an entertaining night out, had any idea of the deprivation that many children experienced; deprivation that caused her soft-hearted sister to weep when she arrived back at her office after a day of home visits; difficult family circumstances that made going to school just another burden to be evaded where possible - as Elizabeth very well knew.

Glasgow is a place, though, where it is very difficult to avoid the poor and needy. Indeed, the sprawling 1960s council estates lie cheek by jowl with the affluent suburbs of the city, and the dilapidated housing and signs of poverty are, quite rightly, very hard to avoid. Elizabeth knew that the millions due to be spent on this very museum would go a long way to provide for the disadvantaged children of the city - especially in her main area of interest, education - but her heart also pointed out the importance of knowledge and beauty and ... . she mentally shook herself out of her thoughts. Quit it, Bennet - you're finished work for the day; try to enjoy yourself, for goodness' sake.

Seated next to her aunt, awaiting her uncle's arrival with their drinks, Elizabeth gazed at the beautifully dressed round table. Mmmm, she mused, seating for eight. I wonder who'll be joining us. Maybe my earlier assertion to Bill Collins will not be such a lie after all. She giggled to herself, I should be so lucky. Where am I ever going to find a man who'll suit me? Elizabeth glanced sadly at Jane's empty seat and wondered how she was getting on. Lost in her thoughts about Jane's disappointment, Elizabeth did not hear the approach of the aforementioned dinner companions. So she gave a start when a pleasant and very polite male voice disturbed her thoughts.

"Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

Elizabeth looked up into the bright blue eyes of a very handsome man. "No, sadly it's not," replied Elizabeth, shrugging her shoulders.

"I'm sorry?"

"No, oh ... I'm sorry, you must think me very rude. It's just that my sister was supposed to be joining us and she ... had to work ... unexpectedly." Elizabeth gave a wry smile. He really had the bluest eyes ... Well, she thought, things are certainly looking up! He looks very ... agreeable. Maybe it's a good thing that Jane isn't here after all. Perhaps I'll have a chance tonight! Elizabeth shook herself out of that reflection. After all, it wasn't Jane's fault that men had eyes only for her, other women paling into insignificance when she was present. And Jane's saving grace was that she had absolutely no idea of the effect she had on the male population, even when they were falling like dominoes all around her!

Looking beyond this charmingly smiling man towards the guests accompanying him, Elizabeth caught sight of the most beautiful ... yes beautiful ... face she'd seen in a long time. Well! He eclipses blue eyes any day, she thought, remembering to close her mouth as she gaped inelegantly at the sight of deep brown, almost black, eyes and dark curls that were just calling out to be stroked. Lord Byron, eat your heart out - this man wouldn't even have to write romantic poems, his face says it all! But ... too hot for you to handle, Lizzy girl, she quickly told herself, unnerved by his unsmiling, penetrating gaze. Nice to look at though - what do the Americans call it? ... yes, " eye candy". Very appropriate!

"So you don't mind if I steal your sister's seat?" blue eyes cajoled with a laughing twinkle as he held out his hand to introduce himself. "Hi, I'm Charles Bingley," and turning to his friends he added, "this is my friend, William Darcy, and these are my sisters Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst. Elizabeth and Helen stood up to shake hands with the party. No one noticed Elizabeth's raised eyebrows when she heard the name 'Darcy' and she hurriedly introduced her aunt as though nothing had happened. While Charles' handshake was warm and enveloping, William's was as stiff as his stance and Caroline and Louisa ... well they just looked Elizabeth up and down and offered only disdainful fingertips. As they sat in their seats, Caroline turned to Louisa and in a loud whisper exclaimed, "My first impressions are never wrong, Louisa, take it from me ... . she's not worth getting to know." And with shrugs of their very elegant shoulders, they virtually ignored Elizabeth and her family for the rest of the evening.

~ * ~

The meal was sumptuous, leading Elizabeth once again to think that it all seemed such an extravagance when the aim of the function was to raise money for impoverished children. Elizabeth, however, was not na´ve. She realized that the guests, who'd paid an exorbitant amount for their tickets in aid of the Lord Provost's charity, wouldn't have turned out in their 'Sunday best' for fish and chips wrapped in yesterday's Daily Record! She wondered, though, as she looked around her, what she was doing amongst such exalted company. Little did she think, as she readied herself for her night out, that she'd be sharing a table with William Darcy, one of the wealthiest men in the country - pity he looked like such a proud, disagreeable man though. Smiling to herself, she took a sip from her wine glass. What does it matter to me that he looks as though he's got a stick up his arse - I'm not likely to meet him again.

Elizabeth enjoyed a lively discussion with Charles during their meal. Being a gregarious sort of person she tried to include William in the conversation, however having been met several times by a wall of monosyllabic replies, she gave up - he obviously wasn't worth the bother and didn't appear to be interested in meeting anyone outwith his little party. She wondered how it could be that he and Charles were friends - they seemed so dissimilar. He may be better looking, thought Elizabeth, but Charles definitely has the more pleasing personality. Pity though, Mr 'don't give a toss' Darcy is the epitome of tall, dark and handsome - prick!!

After the tables had been cleared and the flurry at the bar had subsided, the band bustled on to a temporary stage set up at one end of the hall. At the sound of the first note, Helen and Edward Gardiner were up on the dance floor ready to do their thing. Elizabeth knew that she'd hardly see them again, ballroom dancing being one of their passions. It was one, though, that as the owners of a very successful vegetarian restaurant in the city's west end and as parents of three small children, they had little time to pursue - so she didn't begrudge them their pleasure.

Charles watched with a smile as Helen and Edward embraced each other on the rapidly filling dance floor, waiting for the dancing to begin. "They seem to be a lovely couple, Elizabeth. You're obviously very fond of them."

"Oh yes, Charles," Elizabeth replied, gazing at her aunt and uncle. "They're wonderful - two of my very favourite people. They've been so good to my sister and me since we came to Glasgow."

"Yes, I didn't think you were from here. But you've got quite a mixed-up accent - if you don't mind me saying so," Charles laughed. "Where's home, then?"

"Well," Elizabeth answered, "I was brought up in a small town in Hertfordshire - you probably haven't heard of it - it's called Meryton; my dad's family has lived there for generations. I came up here to go to university. But as for the accent," she added as she shrugged her shoulders, "my mother is Scottish; she moved to Meryton after she and my dad married. I used to visit my gran every summer for the whole of the school holidays; she lived just outside Glasgow, though she was originally from further north. So yes, Charles, I suppose I have a rather odd accent."

"Now I didn't say it was odd, Elizabeth - in fact I think it's very attractive." Charles smiled as a blush appeared on Elizabeth's cheeks and she looked down at her hands, embarrassed by the compliment. He continued, "And do you intend to stay here, or will you move back to Meryton?"

"Oh no," she replied, looking up again into his eyes - such clear, blue eyes - "I have a job, a flat, friends and family here - I've no wish to leave. And," she added, leaning in as she lowered her voice, "Glasgow has the added advantage that my mother hates the place ... and rarely visits."

At that Charles laughed and whispered in reply, "Well, I don't know about mothers, but do you think Glasgow might frighten my sisters away? I've just moved up here and they've already landed themselves on me, as you can see."

Elizabeth looked around the table at Caroline and Louisa, who had finished their drinks and were, at that moment, trying to attract their brother's attention. "I don't know, Charles, your sisters look like a formidable force to me. They might ..."

Elizabeth was cut off as Caroline, happy to interrupt this woman who'd commandeered her brother all night, stretched her hand across William and tugged at Charles' sleeve. "Charles, do be a dear and go up to the bar for us. Louisa and I are off to the ladies' room. And then," she said, glancing significantly at William though addressing her brother, "you could perhaps grace us with a dance?"

Elizabeth had caught Caroline's glance and allowed herself a discreet smile. Ah, that's how the land lies, is it? Ms Caroline Bingley is hoping to catch herself a mighty big fish. And, quite frankly, from the snooty look on his face, I can't think of a better net for him!

As Elizabeth expected, Helen and Edward left the dance floor only when they needed a rest - though often, instead of returning to her, they could be found at one of the other tables enjoying a chat with their many friends and business acquaintances. Though Elizabeth did have the opportunity to dance on several occasions, she had good reason to be grateful for Charles' company, having been 'abandoned' by her relatives for the remainder of the night. Yes, Charles was rapidly growing on her - she considered to herself that she hadn't met anyone as interesting, or as attentive, in ages and he was so easy to talk to - it was as if she'd known him for years.

His friend, however, the enigmatic Mr Darcy, appeared resolved to be taciturn and, for some reason that Elizabeth certainly couldn't figure, rather angry looking. That he was listening to their conversation she was pretty sure, but he did not contribute ... no, not one word, except, rather rudely she thought, to whisper in Charles' ear from time to time. Elizabeth was rather shocked to learn from Charles, in his unassuming, matter-of-fact way that he too was a man of property ... and also from a very wealthy family. But he was so ... down-to-earth, so approachable, such a gentleman. She could see immediately that it didn't matter to him that she was 'just a schoolteacher' ... she wasn't so sure about his silent friend though; she thought she'd detected a look of disdain when Charles had asked her about her occupation and place of work. But why does he keep staring at me? I'm not that offensive, surely? She had thought that she'd scrubbed up rather well this evening, even if she did say so herself, but he was making her feel as though she'd come out in her tattiest jeans and oldest baggy sweatshirt!

When the bandleader announced a waltz, Charles jumped up and held out his hand to Elizabeth, laughingly stating that this was one of the few 'old fashioned' dances he could do.

"Miss Bennet, would you care to dance?"

Elizabeth nodded her assent, smiling at his stately manner. Once on the dance floor Charles bowed and then swept Elizabeth into his arms with a flourish. At first she tried to maintain a distance, but Charles would have none of it and pulled her close. Elizabeth began to feel the customary panic rise in her chest, but she managed to suppress it without giving herself away ...she certainly saw nothing to fear in his engaging demeanour and she began to relax.

They found immediately that they were very compatible dance partners, much to the admiration of Helen and Edward who watched from their seats as they took a well-earned rest. Caroline and her sister, having returned to their table, were not so impressed. "Look at that, Louisa, another little fortune hunter after our brother. She's tried to monopolise him all night. He could at least give us a dance." She drew closer to her sister as she whispered, "And William ...not dancing much, is he Louisa? What is a girl to do with that man? Hey, maybe we should ask the band to play 'The Dashing White . . .' whatever it is. You know how Will loves these awful ceilidh dances. It might just persuade him out of his seat."

"Caroline, I know you've - excuse my vulgarity - been after Will for more years than we care to remember, but I'm not getting up to do one of these boisterous, so-called 'dances' for anyone. You'll have to think of something else to peel his eyes off Charles and his new friend."

"What do you mean . . .peel his eyes . . .?" Caroline asked, narrowing her own eyes as she realized just what Louisa was implying. "You don't think ...? No, not William ...not with little Miss Nobody. Louisa?"

"Well, he has watched their every step, Caro. But ...no, William's got too good a sense of his family's worth to entangle himself with someone so obviously," Louisa lifted her hand to shield her mouth as she whispered in her sister's ear, "not of our circle."

Returning to their seats, Charles managed to keep Elizabeth's hand in his. He'd enjoyed their dance very much; they'd chatted effortlessly with no awkwardness, no embarrassing pauses .... as though they'd been friends for years. Now, how was he going to ask to see her again after such a short acquaintance? More significantly at the moment, however, how was he going to find out what was niggling William? His face had been tripping him since they'd sat at their table.

Not that William had wanted to come anyway - Charles knew that very well - large social gatherings like this were such a trial for him. If only he'd dance and just ...enjoy himself for a change - there are plenty of beautiful women here. But no, Charles could safely predict that William would dance once, grudgingly, with Caroline and once with Louisa and apart from that he'd only leave his seat to go to the bar for drinks or to walk around the room to stretch his legs and confer with his many business associates.

Charles had an inkling, though - call it intuition - that his friend also liked the look of Elizabeth ... he'd caught William staring at her on a number of occasions when he'd turned to try and include him in the conversation. In fact Charles had had to repeat himself several times, such was his friend's uncustomary inattention. But, Charles asked himself, would William do anything about it? He was such a stubborn man, with such odd ideas. Yes, he smiled to himself, Mr 'no-effort' Darcy expects women to flock to him - which, let's face it they tend to do because of his looks ...and his physique and ...um ...one other little thing ...oh yes ...his vast wealth has something to do with it as well!Then, no sooner had William paid a modicum of attention to one of these hopeful ladies, raising her expectations, than he wanted nothing more than to be rid of her. He'd never felt the inclination to chase a woman in his life - he didn't need to! And it appeared that he wasn't about to start now, despite his piercing glances. Yes, Charles had seen it time and time again and often reflected that it would take some woman to tickle William Darcy's fancy. Charles just hoped he'd be there to watch his friend's capitulation when it did happen - that would indeed be something to savour!

In an effort to establish the reason for William's silence, Charles persuaded him to retreat to the bar. Perhaps there his friend would open up and let him know why he was being more than usually taciturn tonight.

Now dragging personal information out of William was like drawing teeth but, as he'd suspected, William - surprise, surprise - was not enjoying himself. He had no intention of dancing with unfamiliar partners and he didn't want to dance with Caroline more than once - and that was just for the sake of politeness - she was already more than clingy enough without encouragement. And the most important reason is, William thought to himself, I don't want to sit and watch you make a conquest of the best looking woman in the room - but I'm damned if I'm going to inflate your ego by telling you that.

Elizabeth, desiring to buy her aunt and uncle a drink to thank them for inviting her as their guest tonight, waited at the busy bar to be served. She noticed that Charles and William were deep in a conversation that looked to be getting rather heated - both facing the bar as though neither wanted to look at the other. The expression on William's face was one of exasperation as Charles talked at him. Neither man noticed that Elizabeth had approached the bar, standing next but one to them as she waited to be served. She strained her neck as close as she could, all curiosity to eavesdrop on their conversation - this had to be good because William looked like a little boy being told off by his mother - but, damn, the music is too loud and I can't get any closer without them seeing me. However, before Elizabeth could be served, the dance (conveniently) came to an end, the dancers clapping enthusiastically while the band members rose to take a break. As the bandleader finished his announcement that there would be a fifteen-minute interval, the noise level dropped momentarily in the vast room and Elizabeth was able to overhear a fragment of Charles and William's conversation.

"Look, William, if you like her, I won't stand in your way. I know I always tend to barge in first," Charles offered. "Would you like to ask her to dance?"

William looked fit to explode. "Like her! Where on earth did you get that idea?" he almost snorted. "It's okay, Charles, she's not that bad looking, I'll admit, but as you well know, she's not my type. Truly, I'm not in the least bit interested. Go ahead ...you ask her out ...if you must."

Now William was lying to Charles; he actually did think that Elizabeth was very pretty - there was just something about her eyes ...they sparkled when she smiled. And she had fantastic long legs even though she was on the petite side for his taste. But Charles always had that easy way with women; he was able to charm them - and it appeared to be working like a dream tonight. William, on the other hand, made no effort to please ...it was as simple as that, and he wasn't going to put himself in the position of being second best. Anyone could see that she was very taken with Charles ...hell, she'd talked to him for most of the night.

My God, what am I? A tennis ball to be bounced back and forth? Elizabeth shuddered at the words with which she'd been brushed off - not that bad looking ...hmph! Talk about being damned with faint praise! And she was none too pleased at Charles' offer either. As if she'd want to dance with William Darcy anyway, she could see he was too proud, too superior for her. It seemed, however, that she was not even worthy of his consideration ...that was quite clear. Mr 'Croesus' Darcy. How I hate these rich fucking men who make me feel less than nothing. Why do they have to do that?

She seemed to have met them all her life, having been brought up in a little pocket of England that was full of wealthy families and had its own little 'millionaires' corner' not far from her family home. Her uncle was a very prosperous man, yet no one would have known it from his manner, his words or his actions - he was a perfect gentleman to everyone. As she walked back to the table with her tray of drinks, Elizabeth decided that William Darcy was an arsehole and that she needn't give him another thought. Her mind, unfortunately, would not comply with her resolve and she dwelt uncomfortably on his words for the rest of the evening, storing them up to share later with Jane - thinking that by then she'd maybe be able to laugh off their sting.

Elizabeth took herself off to the ladies' room as Charles and William returned from the bar. Her feelings had been hurt, and though she knew she was being stupid, she needed to put some space between herself and the decidedly pompous William Darcy before she let her temper get the better of her and she gave him a good old 'Glasgow kiss'* for a comment she knew she wasn't supposed to have heard.

Crossing the dance floor on her way back to the table Elizabeth, feeling the heat that had built up in the room and quite unconscious of the effect it would have, removed the elegant little jacket that matched her dress. Charles was stretched over William conversing with his sisters, so he missed the very pleasurable sight of Elizabeth's tight fitting, sleeveless, black dress as it hugged her very pleasurable hourglass shape. William noticed, though, as did several other observant men in the huge barn of a room. In fact William couldn't take his eyes off her even though, for some strange reason, she seemed to be scowling directly at him. She has surely been poured into that dress. I could certainly change my mind about tall, leggy blondes with that figure to hold on to - yes, there's no doubt about it, that's some body. I wonder how long that hair is when it's down. And he was beginning to see the advantage of her petite stature - it made him feel as though he'd like to protect her - especially at this moment he noted as he looked around - from all of these damned men ogling her from their seats.

Little did William know that he might be the one man in the room who'd need protection from Elizabeth if she caught him making one more, even vaguely, disparaging remark about her!

Damn, but Charles always gets in there first with his easy-going patter and his friendly smile! William was very aware of a missed opportunity and knew he was going to have no pleasure in having to grit his teeth and watch Charles make headway with this incredibly attractive woman. Damn my stupid pride, he berated himself. Why didn't I take Charles up on his offer to step back - after all, she's not really his usual type either. And, more importantly ...what have I done that she should look at me in such a disgusted way?

Before the evening was over, Charles had indeed secured a date with a reluctant and still miffed Elizabeth for the next night. Oh, shit, she thought, Saturday ...I promised Jane....But Elizabeth, good hearted sister that she was, explained her dilemma to Charles and asked him if perhaps he had a friend - she meant another friend but couldn't bring herself to be rude enough to say it - who would make up a foursome ...no strings attached of course ...as she'd promised her sister a night out to make up for having to work tonight. Throwing her a meaningful look that just told her it was going to be William, Charles took his friend off to the bar once again, out of Elizabeth's hearing. He knew that persuading William to go on his date with Elizabeth, to accompany a woman he'd never met, would prove to be very difficult. In fact it took so long that Elizabeth was beginning to think they'd gone home. However, they returned to the table, Charles all smiles and William looking as though he'd just dug his own grave.

Don't worry, pal, thought Elizabeth, pointedly ignoring him, you're not my first choice as a date for my lovely sister ...but it's just one night ...and Jane is such an angel, hell she'll probably like the SOB! And just wait until he sees her! I defy him to think she's 'not his type'.

"Elizabeth we're on. William has agreed to come. Any ideas for something to do - cinema, a meal?" Charles suggested hopefully.

"Well," said Elizabeth, trying unsuccessfully to mask her displeasure at the inclusion of Mr 'arsehole' Darcy in their little party. "I thought perhaps we could go out for a meal, if that's okay with you - but Jane and I are both vegetarian - would you consider a veggie restaurant ...or we could go for an Indian?"

"Gosh, I didn't know there was an exclusively vegetarian restaurant in Glasgow. I've never been to one, so I don't mind giving it a go. Okay, Will?" Charles nodded encouragingly to William, who rolled his eyes to the ceiling and let his breath out with a sharp 'hmmph' - a sound of displeasure that his friend chose to ignore. "Will we get a reservation at this late stage though?"

"Just leave it to me, boys. It's a very popular place but I have a . . umm ...a relationship with the owner - we're very close," Elizabeth winked as she discerned the surprised look on the faces of both Charles and William and she laughingly explained, "It's okay, gentlemen, the owner is Edward ...Edward Gardiner? ...you know, my uncle ...you just met him tonight."

Charles smiled with relief at Elizabeth's joke. "Shall we pick you up then? Oh ...and do we need to bring references for your uncle before we're allowed to date his precious nieces? It might save the third degree at the restaurant."

"No, Charles," Elizabeth giggled, "don't even think of depriving Uncle Edward of his fun. But seriously, we'll meet you there - it'd be better, since I haven't even had a chance to tell Jane she's going out on a blind date! She'll not be best pleased, I'm afraid." As she spoke, Elizabeth looked pointedly at William, expecting, and finding, a frown on his face at the words 'blind date'. She continued, smiling to herself, "The restaurant - it's called 'Gardiners' and it's on Otago Street, off Great Western Road. Do you know where that is?"

"No I don't think so, remember I didn't go to Uni here and I've just moved up from London. I don't know the ..."

"That's all right, Charles," William interrupted. "I know where it is. We'll meet you there at eight, Elizabeth, if that's acceptable." And turning to Charles without waiting for her reply, he continued, "Now Charles, can we just get out of here? I'd like to go home."

What a prick! Elizabeth thought. Poor Jane. What have I done?

Elizabeth watched as Caroline and Louisa joined the waiting men and the party walked towards the exit. She almost laughed out loud at the sight of Caroline tottering along in her preposterously high-heeled designer shoes - well they looked so awful, they had to be designer shoes - trying desperately to catch up with William who was striding away from her without a backward glance as she whined, "William, you're not going out with that woman's sister, are you? Wait for me. William ...!"

Elizabeth would have been astonished to find that William's thoughts remained with her as he strode towards his car. Indeed, he was considering to himself how insupportable it was going to be to pass an evening in the company of a woman who, for some reason unknown to him, looked as though she hated the very sight of him. At the same time a myriad of compelling impressions were running through his head - she was beautiful; her dark hair, her sparkling eyes; she had the most desirable body he'd seen in a long time; he fancied her and he'd denied it; she was going out tomorrow night with Charles - and he was, god help him, tagging along for the ride!

* wean (pronounced 'wane') - child.
* Glasgow kiss - a headbutt.

Chapter Three

Jane Bennet just about choked on her muesli. "Elizabeth how could you?" she objected as her blushing sister tried to justify the blind date she'd arranged for her. "I'm quite capable of finding my own dates, thank you very much!"

"I'm sorry, Jane. I wasn't trying to hook you up, honestly - I was trying to fulfil two commitments at the one time." Acknowledging the disgruntled look on her sister's face, Elizabeth had the decency to look shamefaced. "I wanted to go out with Charles . . . and at the same time I didn't want to let you down. I decided to kill two birds with one stone - so sue me!"

"Well, since you've got me into this, you can at least tell me what this William Darcy is like." Jane gave her sister a warning look as she added, "He'd better be worth it!"

"Well he's exceptionally handsome and exceptionally rich - what more could you possibly want to know?"

"Elizabeth Bennet! If I didn't know you better, I'd think you were turning into our mother."

"Well, you know, Jane," Elizabeth joked as she finished off her toast, "when you learn from the best . . . . !"

"Lizzy!!"

Laughing, Elizabeth returned to Jane's question. "Well, as I said, he's incredibly handsome, very rich, like 'millionaire' rich, Jane - oh, and he considers me to be 'not bad looking, but not his type'. I'm thinking somehow," she winked, "that he'll be more appreciative of your . . . charms."

"Oh, Lizzy, how do you know that's what he thinks? Are you jumping to conclusions again?" Jane asked. "You know you're not that good at picking up these subliminal messages - especially where men are concerned." She was almost beginning to hope that her office might call again - this blind date was not looking too good . . . !

"No, Jane, this was very easy to pick up, I assure you. I happened to overhear his conversation with Charles while I was waiting at the bar . . . and I wasn't snooping, before you say anything. I had no idea they were talking about me. If I remember correctly William said that he wasn't in the least bit interested in me."

"Poor Lizzy, that was most unkind. But maybe his manners will improve on further acquaintance," Jane suggested hopefully.

"Maybe, Jane, maybe. But that won't take away what he said, so he needn't think he's going to get a second chance with me," Elizabeth pouted, causing her sister to smile whilst simultaneously shaking her head. "One night, that's all, then I won't have to see him again. As for you, my dear sister . . . well, that's up to you. He's certainly not going to say you're not bad looking, that's for sure."

Crossing the kitchen to hug her sister, Jane replied, "Elizabeth, you are a beautiful woman. If William Darcy can't see that then he must be myopic. And anyway, you've obviously impressed Charles - and you think you might get to like him. Isn't that all that matters?"

"Yes, well . . ." Elizabeth saw the truth of Jane's statement; while into a wee, small corner of her mind, quite uninvited and unwanted, crept the heart-stopping vision of deep brown eyes and dark curls. She looked away from her sister to hide the stupid tears that pooled unexpectedly on her lashes. He made me feel so . . . insignificant, not worthy of his notice. How can I face seeing him again?

"Elizabeth, try to focus on your date," Jane urged, as if reading her sister's thoughts. "Never mind about William."

"I'd feel much better if Charles hadn't offered to stand back and let William ask me to dance," Elizabeth sighed. I don't know what that was all about."

"He did what?!" her sister exclaimed indignantly. After pausing to consider the little snatch of conversation that Elizabeth then related, Jane added, "Maybe Charles thought that William was interested in you - and was somehow deferring to him. D'you think that's possible, Lizzy? Anyway," she continued, not waiting for Elizabeth's reply, "Charles was obviously wrong. Hey, he sounds about as adept as you at reading subliminal messages - you two should get on so well together!"

"Really, Jane, I'm not that bad - just because I messed up once . . !"

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Lizzy," Jane cried, a look of regret spreading across her beautiful face. "Honestly, I was just teasing. I wasn't thinking back to . . . that. You know I never thought you were at fault."

"I know, I know. It's okay," Elizabeth replied, gently touching her sister's arm to show there were no hard feelings. "To answer your first question, Jane . . . well, there's no way that man was or is interested in me - I wasn't even worth getting to know last night. And as to your second question - yes, I have a feeling that Charles - and probably everyone else around him - defers to the great William Darcy. Rich as he is, he must be used to it!

"Well, he's in for a shock tonight, by the looks of things - I dare say you'll have nothing to offer him but a cold shoulder. Never mind, Liz, if William doesn't like you then he's not good enough for you, despite all his millions."

"Yes, I agree," Elizabeth said, then after a few moments of reflection, added, "but I'm so sorry for landing you in it, Jane. I suppose I just wasn't thinking."

"Don't fret, Lizzy," Jane comforted. "As you say, it's only for one night. And if it's going to get you closer to Charles . . . well, it'll have been worth it."

"Jane Bennet, have I ever told you that you are the best?" Elizabeth wrapped her arms round her sister and hugged her tight. "Someday you'll get the man you deserve . . . and he'll be a better man than William Darcy, that's for sure! Now," she asked as she started to load the dishwasher, "what are you going to wear tonight?"

"I don't know, Lizzy," Jane answered, "perhaps you can tell me how to impress a millionaire."

"I wouldn't worry about that, sis. I'd be very surprised if someone on a social worker's salary could impress Mr Darcy," Elizabeth grinned. "Just please yourself, I'd say."

Elizabeth, relieved that her conversation with her sister hadn't gone a lot worse, picked up Saturday's Herald and flicked through the pages to see if there was an article about last night's event.

"Jane, look at this. Might have known they'd photograph him - he was probably the richest man there."

"Who, Lizzy?"

"Look . . . William Darcy. There. That's your date for tonight."

"Wow!! Well, he is . . . extremely handsome. I bet he's even better when he smiles. Those eyes . . ."

"Huh! I wouldn't know about that - I've yet to see him smile and I've spent an evening with him! But yes, you're right; he is handsome." Elizabeth sighed then added with a self satisfied grin, "Well Miss Bennet, I take it that I am forgiven."

"Yes, Lizzy, you are definitely forgiven," Jane laughed as she took the newspaper out of her sister's hand to better study the photograph of her now not-so-blind date.

~ * ~

"Charles, I don't know why I'm doing this . . . you owe me one . . . big time! And did we really have to come to a bloody vegetarian restaurant?" William really, really wished he had refused to come on this double date. He had never done anything like this before - he didn't have to! Women were always coming on to him, trying to grab his attention, offering themselves to him (much to his disgust) - why should he put himself out to accommodate his friend? Charles, used to William's moodiness, blithely ignored his words and continued to scan the restaurant, wondering if he'd be able to pick out Jane, wondering if she looked anything like her beautiful sister.

"William," laughed Charles, leaning forward in his seat, "I don't think 'bloody' and 'vegetarian' go together - isn't that the whole point? Now, stop making such a fuss - it's only one night. Here," he said, tossing a menu to his friend, "have a look at this . . . and William, it wouldn't hurt to smile."

"Now Charles, you persuaded me to come - you didn't say anything about me having to be agreeable!" William allowed a slight smile to appear on his lips - because he was only kidding, right?

Wow!" Charles exclaimed. "Never mind that now, William, goddess to your right - is she not a beauty?" Charles' eyes widened as he stared openly at the woman who'd just entered the restaurant. "Just my type . . . . and yours too if I'm not mistaken. Hell, I wish I wasn't on a date tonight - she's an angel."

"Charles, put your tongue back in your mouth, for goodness' sake. Don't let Elizabeth see you drooling when she comes in." William laughed for the first time since Charles had coaxed him out of his front door, but he couldn't take his eyes off the beautiful, leggy blonde either.

At that, Elizabeth appeared behind the 'goddess' and both men realized at the same moment that THIS was Jane. "Well Charles," William laughed, his evening suddenly looking a lot better than he'd expected, "it seems as though the early bird doesn't catch the worm this time!" William was, all of a sudden, perfectly content and enjoying the look of disgruntled dismay on his friend's face. As Charles had said, Jane was William's type - in looks definitely - no doubt about that. He just hoped that finding out about her other qualities would be an equally pleasurable experience.

Elizabeth, used to the expression on men's faces when they beheld her sister for the first time, laughingly ridiculed them, "Boys, close your mouths, you're catching flies. I'd like to introduce you to my sister, Jane." Both men rose from their seats and proffered their hands, never taking their eyes from Jane's beautiful face. "Honestly," Elizabeth pouted as she was completely ignored, "I'd be insulted, but guess what . . . I'm used to it!"

Elizabeth's customary bravado, however, gave her words an authenticity that she did not feel inside - thank god she was so good at hiding her emotions . . . well with strangers, at least. She would never have wanted William or Charles - especially Charles, her date - to know that she was hurt by their complete absorption in her sister's beauty. She had a good mind to sulk, but somehow she didn't think the two men at her table would even notice!

By the time the introductions were over and they'd settled at their table, Elizabeth had cast off her fit of pique and resumed her usual good humour. That good humour, however, stretched only as far as Charles as she wasn't yet ready to let William off the hook for those hurtful words of the previous evening. But somehow the ever-diplomatic Charles, aware of the tension at the table, though not sure of its reason, managed to be so engaging that she felt herself melt under his irrepressible personality - and his wide grin.

Elizabeth, bless her, hadn't the nature to hold a grudge for long and decided . . . magnanimously, she thought . . . that she should - perhaps - give William Darcy another chance - but just the one . . . and if she should get even the slightest inkling of a repetition of his previous sentiments . . . my god, she wouldn't miss him and hit the wall! And, she thought to herself wickedly, it wouldn't do any harm to have a laugh at his expense if I can, just to pay him back - I think he deserves it!

William had felt the frosty chill in the air as soon as he'd met the sisters and he got the distinct impression once again that Elizabeth was angry with him - though he still couldn't for the life of him figure out why. After all, he'd scarcely spoken to her the night before - what could he possibly have done to offend her? This is going to be a long night if she keeps this up, he thought. How can I get anywhere with her sister if she keeps giving me the cold shoulder? They're obviously very close. He was relieved when the mood at the table warmed slightly and Elizabeth was able to look at him without scowling - and he silently, though grudgingly, thanked his friend for working his charm once again. Charles, meanwhile, made every attempt not to stare at Jane's delightful countenance and determined to devote his attention to Elizabeth. Fortunately for him, Elizabeth did not appear to notice his struggle or he might have found himself in the firing line along with William.

So the foursome studied the menu, and the sisters, who'd worked in the restaurant when they were students, pointed out the most appetizing dishes - even for carnivores as Elizabeth quipped with a teasing smile. This led Charles to comment on his surprise at the variety and appeal of the choices on offer and he happily plied Jane and Elizabeth with questions about their vegetarian lifestyle, much to their amusement.

"Well, ladies, you've told me why you gave up meat, but how long have you been living on tofu and lentils?"

"Oh, Charles, somehow I expected better from you," Elizabeth responded, as she raised her eyes to the ceiling. "I just wish I had a pound for every person who's asked me that - or some daft question like it!"

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry," Charles grinned. "But I don't know any vegetarians, so I'm genuinely interested . . . honestly!"

"Yes I'm sure, Charles . . . and I suppose that explains the glazed look in your eyes?"

Charles placed his hand on Elizabeth's arm as he replied, "No, really Elizabeth, I am interested - just don't expect me to give up bacon butties*, because that would be beyond my power of endurance!"

"Bacon butties, Charles? Surely not!" Elizabeth raised her eyebrows at the thought. "And here I was thinking you were a man of wealth with the prerequisite epicurean tastes."

"No, no, Elizabeth, you've got it wrong . . . that's William," he pointed out, a devilish grin lighting up his eyes. "I'll have you know that I lived in a flat with five other guys when I was at university. Bacon butties were 'de rigueur' every Sunday morning. And," he winked, "we didn't have a cook living with us, so we made them ourselves!"

"No . . . you don't mean . . !" Elizabeth threw a quick glance at William and smiled impishly, "But of course Mr Darcy had a cook - and I'll hazard a guess that he didn't share his accommodation with five smelly male bodies either!"

"Hardly, Elizabeth," Charles agreed, laughing at the idea of the fastidious William Darcy mucking in with lads like his university friends. "You should see William's Glasgow home - it's a mansion! And he lived there all by himself . . . well, apart from the staff of course."

"Oh, but of course, Charles. How we managed without staff, Jane," she continued as she turned to her sister, a definite note of sarcasm creeping into her voice, "I'll never know."

Jane had been watching William during Charles and Elizabeth's humorous exchanges and noted his growing discomfort at being the target of her sister's ridicule. Although her general preference was to observe rather than to participate in conversations - unless amongst her family and close friends - Jane felt she should stop Elizabeth before her dislike of William soured the evening. The last thing she wanted was to have everyone eat in angry silence! "Lizzy, Charles was asking about our veggie lifestyle - I think you've gone off the subject somewhat."

Elizabeth was the only one at the table who perceived the very slight note of warning in Jane's voice, but decided that the opportunity to have a joke at William's expense was too good to miss. So she smiled sweetly - and knowingly - at her sister and replied, "I know, Jane, but this is much more interesting, don't you think? Now, where were we? Yes, Charles, what happened to your grand house? Or did your parents want you to know how the other half lives?"

"Yes, Charles," William said with a wry smile, "tell Elizabeth and Jane about your flat. I think you were being a little economical with the truth before."

"W-e-l-l, there's nothing to tell really. It actually belongs to my parents. . ."

"But, ladies," William interjected, "what Charles fails to mention is that the whole block of flats - in fact almost all of the houses in the street - belong to his parents."

"Oh, well, Charles, you're wealthy - we already knew that. At least you tried to experience as normal a student life as possible," Elizabeth observed, then turning her gaze on William, she added, "How can you do that if you're holed up in some mausoleum all on your own?"

"Elizabeth," Charles gasped, glancing at William who now sat motionless, his head bent and his eyes closed. "William's home was an open house when he started at Glasgow, with friends and family always visiting, but then his mum died suddenly at the end of his first year and his dad . . . well he didn't last long after that. William did well to look after his sister and keep going with his studies - he didn't have the heart for anything else at the time."

Elizabeth heard Jane's gentle "Oh, William, I'm so sorry" and just wished that the floor would open up and swallow her. "William," she murmured, "please accept my apology. I didn't know, of course . . . but that doesn't excuse . . ."

It's all right, Elizabeth," William interrupted, encountering the tears in her eyes as he glanced up into her face. "Please don't feel badly about it. It was a terrible time, but it's in the past." He looked at her earnestly as he continued, "Don't let's spoil our evening, Elizabeth. Okay?"

"Yes . . . thank you, William," Elizabeth faltered. She was astonished at the concerned expression on his face and the gentleness in his voice as he addressed her. She rifled through her bag for a tissue as tears spilled on to her cheeks - so much for having a bit of fun . . . well done, Lizzy, she berated herself.

Charles and Jane, feeling very awkward, began a subdued conversation to give Elizabeth and William a few moments to collect themselves. Suddenly the delicious meal that they'd just been enjoying no longer looked so appetizing and they both wondered how they could end the date early, ready to give it up as a lost cause. But it was William, surprisingly, who made the effort to lighten the atmosphere. He was more affected by Elizabeth's tears than he cared to admit and he wanted to see her beautiful smile light up her eyes once again. He certainly wasn't leaving until everything was set to rights and Elizabeth was back to her teasing self.

Thinking it a good idea to give Elizabeth some time to regain her composure, William made a determined effort to keep the conversation going with the others - not something that came naturally to him, he'd freely have admitted. Once again he was grateful for the assistance of his friend, whose happy manners moved them all on from the discomfort of the last few moments and even managed to get the quiet and reserved Jane to grace them with a smile and a few words of conversation. After a while, though, she fell silent and seemed happiest just to listen as the two men chatted inconsequentially about their day. Try then as he might, William was unable to draw Jane out of her silence. Boy, she is hard work. Still, he considered, this is our first meeting; she'll surely come out of her shell once she gets to know me a bit better, especially when we're alone. And Jane was so beautiful that William felt it was definitely worth taking the time to let things develop at her pace.

Just as the others were coming to the conclusion that they weren't going to hear her voice again that night, Elizabeth made her tentative way back into the conversation. She was still hugely embarrassed at having inadvertently hurt William, but she felt she had to make things right before the end of the meal. She could see from her sister's furtive glances that she was interested in William - and she didn't want to spoil Jane's chances of another date.

So Elizabeth put on a brave face, despite her discomfiture, and made a great effort to resume her lively banter with Charles. Otherwise we might just as well all go home now, she reasoned. William, encouraged by the return of her smile, even though it hadn't yet reached her eyes, was happy to join in and Elizabeth found to her surprise that when he bothered to make the effort, he was quite different from what she'd expected after last night. My lord, she thought, he even has a treacherous smile . . . with dimples, and oh, I'm a sucker for dimples! But then, she reminded herself sadly, I'm not his type, and it's obvious from the way he's looking at her, that Jane is. She didn't know why, but the fact that he was so handsome yet so unavailable to her was extremely painful. Jane always gets the best looking ones. Stupid physical attraction, she griped, it always gets me when I least expect it.

Charles was all amazement as he observed his friend - William was certainly making an effort to be sociable tonight, in a way that he'd never witnessed before. Well, he observed rather enviously, who wouldn't want to be "sociable" with an angel like Jane Bennet. Hell, just give me half a chance . . ! She was quiet as a little church mouse though; how William would deal with that he just didn't know! After all, he himself was usually a man of few words. Well, I suppose they could always just sit and stare admiringly at each other. . . .

Grateful that Elizabeth's manner had now softened towards him, William grasped the opportunity to make a fresh start with her - even if just for the sake of his beautiful date, or so he told himself. Once he remembered that Elizabeth taught English, he was able to engage her in a discussion on literature which, he was pleased to learn, turned out to be a mutually longstanding love affair . . . especially, he was delighted to find, Scottish novels and poetry. The pair discovered that they both admired Burns, Scott, McCaig, Morgan, Grassic Gibbon among many others. For a while each sentence began with - 'Have you read . . .' or 'Did you enjoy . . .' or 'What about . . .' as they considered their favourite writers.

"What's your favourite Norman McCaig poem?" Elizabeth asked, her smile becoming wider as her enthusiasm grew.

"Oh, I don't know," William pondered. "It has to be between "Assisi" and "Aunt Julia", I think. Don't you love the beginning of Assisi?" he said, then recited fluently:

The dwarf with his hands on backwards
sat, slumped like a half-filled sack
on tiny twisted legs from which
sawdust might run,
outside the three tiers of churches built
in honour of St Francis, brother
of the poor, talker with birds, over whom
he had the advantage
of not being dead yet.

How about you, Elizabeth? What's your favourite?"

Elizabeth, amazed to find that their tastes matched so well, replied, "Definitely "Assisi" for me - it's so poignant. It's one I teach to my Higher* pupils - and it usually has quite an effect on them, though they tend to prefer Edwin Morgan's Glasgow poems to anything by McCaig."

"Yes, I like Morgan's Glasgow poems," William said. "You know I heard him read once at university. It made me wish I'd been there when he was lecturing in the English Lit. Department - but he retired in . . . umm . . . 1980, I think. Well before my time."

"Oh, you did English Lit. I didn't know that . . . I mean . . I didn't think an arts degree would have been your thing!"

"Yes, I did an MA - in History and Philosophy actually. But I did English Literature in first year then Scottish Literature the next year as part of my degree. I was very tempted to switch to English, but changed my mind when I looked at the syllabus - Pope and Dryden weren't for me I'm afraid," he laughed.

Hell's bells, that laugh - I'm beginning to feel as though I've had too much to drink, Elizabeth reflected to herself. "Yes, second year was harder going, I must admit," she agreed. But I was introduced to so many works that I wouldn't have considered reading - I have to say I'm grateful for that."

"Such as?"

"Well . . . let's see . . . I read 'Paradise Lost' - we hadn't done any Milton at school, so I was quite ignorant of him. And of course we studied several Shakespeare plays - oh, and the sonnets. I'd say they were my favourites."

"Yes, I'd agree about the sonnets," William acknowledged. I'm afraid I've never tackled Milton though."

"You should, William, he's well worth the effort."

"Yes, Miss," was William's emphatic reply, which he was pleased to see brought a smile to Elizabeth's lips - one that, at last, reached all the way to her beautiful eyes.

Noticing that Charles and Jane had grown steadily more and more silent, Elizabeth tried to open out the discussion to include them . . . but to no avail. Charles admitted with an embarrassed laugh that he was a confirmed bibliophobe who only read when absolutely necessary and Elizabeth already knew that Jane, who had a preference for fluffy, escapist romance novels, would not be in the least bit interested in this conversation. In fact, she could see from the expressions on their faces that Charles and Jane were in danger of becoming exceedingly bored and decided, reluctantly, that she should change the subject to something they could all enjoy. Charles, however, still amazed at his friend's unusual loquacity with someone he'd only recently met, turned towards Jane and seized the opportunity to ask about her interests. And so they began to chat in muted voices, revealing little snippets of information to each other as they gradually became better acquainted.

Elizabeth and William, glad that their dates were now quietly occupied, moved on animatedly to other reciprocal pleasures - hillwalking, celtic fiddle music, ceilidh dances. Wow, Elizabeth thought, I'd never have believed we'd have so much in common - hell, we both love the Peat Bog Faeries - I don't know anyone amongst my friends who's even heard of them. And this is the man that I hated only last night! She felt certain, despite his decidedly shaky start and her earlier embarrassment, that they could become friends - what could be better than being on good terms with your sister's new boyfriend? she asked herself, wondering at the same time if she wasn't being a bit premature. But no, she couldn't possibly have misread the look of admiration on William's face when he first saw Jane; she was sure he'd ask her out again. And she could see that Jane and Charles were chatting away contentedly as if they'd known each other for years. Things were working out very well indeed.

As the evening progressed, Charles found himself further drawn to Jane's calm and gentle manner; it seemed somehow to compliment his own personality and was such a contrast, he thought, to Elizabeth's sharp wit, which he could see was being encouraged by William's rarely displayed, rather acerbic, sense of humour. William, however, found Elizabeth's manner to be direct rather than sharp and, at the same time, totally disarming - there was certainly no malice in her observations, which were made with such an engaging smile that it seemed she could get away with anything. In fact, he had to acknowledge to himself - he was charmed by her. But he couldn't allow himself such feelings . . . . she was here with his best friend and, after all, he'd had his chance! At least, he thought ironically to himself, I seem to have managed to get myself out of her bad books - though how I got in there, I'll probably never know!

It was very difficult to tell what Jane was thinking about her blind date, as she kept her feelings very much to herself. Certainly, she liked Charles' blonde looks and easy personality, but William, with his brooding countenance and intense stares was also very appealing to her. She glanced at Elizabeth, who also seemed to be enjoying the company of both men in her usual flirty, exuberant way. But Jane suspected that, at the moment anyway, Elizabeth would be happier with the open and light-hearted character of Charles, as opposed to the darker, more exacting temperament of his friend. But she could live with that - heavens, what a choice! She was certainly prepared to hold back and let her sister make up her mind first, finding each man compelling in his own way.

Little did Jane know that Elizabeth, very much against her will, found herself to be captivated by William's looks. But she told herself with a sigh that it was just his looks - something about the depth of his regard unnerved her. . . . heck, every time she looked at him it seemed as though his eyes were boring into her. Her cautious inner voice told her that William would be better kept as a friend - as if I have any choice anyway; remember I'm not his type. Jane, she decided, would cope well with him - as a beautiful woman she'd had her fair share of boyfriends and although Elizabeth couldn't remember anyone quite like William in Jane's life, she felt sure that her very composed and careful sister could handle him. Pity his looks were so breathtaking though - and she was even warming to his personality. His staring, now that was perturbing!

~ * ~

When the girls got home, having been escorted to their door by Charles and William and asked out again the next weekend, they proceeded to dissect their dates - as they usually did. Well, to be honest, Elizabeth thought to herself, we usually dissect Jane's dates - after all, when was I last out with a man worth discussing?

"Well, Lizzy, what do you think of Charles - you were right, he's charming and pleasant . . . and very handsome too. He'll be so good for you after . . . well, you know." Jane plumped down on the sofa and kicked off her shoes with a sigh of pleasure.

Elizabeth sidled up to her with a wicked grin on her face, "Ooh, Jane, you think he's very handsome - more handsome than William?"

"No - actually," she answered decidedly, "they're so different, I don't think they can be compared."

"Ahhh, but which handsome man do you prefer, my dear sister?"

"W-e-l-l," pondered Jane, "I like them both very much, but Charles was your date and, as I say, I think he'll be very good for you. William is perhaps going to take a bit of getting to know - I think he and I are both rather quiet - but I think he'll be worth it." Jane chose her next words carefully, a slight frown appearing on her face. "It seems that he has more in common with you than with me, Elizabeth, but you know what they say," she continued, her voice perking up, "opposites attract. For heaven's sake, Lizzy, listen to me getting all philosophical - it was only a first date, after all." Jane grasped Elizabeth's arm as she sighed, smiling, "Couldn't you just drown in those eyes, Lizzy?"

Perceiving exactly Jane's meaning, Elizabeth chose, nonetheless, to continue her banter with her sister, "What do you mean, Janie - the baby blue ones or the scary deep brown ones?"

"Oh, Elizabeth!" Jane gave a hearty laugh, "you know I meant William's eyes. I will, however, endeavour to make no further comment about your new boyfriend in case you accuse me of fancying him."

Elizabeth had to agree with her sister about William's eyes - and there wasn't much wrong with the rest of him either, she'd noticed - though she wouldn't dream of acknowledging it aloud. But perhaps Jane was right - Charles would be good for her; and hell, didn't she need a bit of fun with no strings attached . . . when was the last time she'd gone out with anyone for more than a couple of dates?

In fact she could remember very well when, but she closed her mind to that time before tonight was spoiled by painful recollections.

As Jane got ready for bed she mulled over the extraordinary events of the last two evenings. She'd told her sister the truth; she did like William and Charles. But if she'd been there last night at the charity dinner and she'd had a choice, funnily enough her inclination would have been to go for Charles. No use thinking about that now, she decided matter-of-factly, he's with Lizzy and right now he's just what she needs. With that thought Jane turned off the light and got into bed. Who knows, perhaps William will grow on me as we get to know each other better. And he certainly is tasty, no doubt about that!

* Bacon rolls
* Highers are exams that are sat in fifth and/or sixth year in Scottish secondary schools.

Chapter Four

"Oh well," Elizabeth sighed aloud. "Tonight's the night."

She was getting ready to go out on her first solo date with Charles . . . on my own . . . without the comfort of Jane and William's presence, and to be honest, she was a bit nervous - all right, more than a bit nervous! The sisters had been out with Charles and William a couple of times now as a foursome - to the cinema last Saturday, then shopping in town on Sunday - and, Elizabeth smiled to herself at the memory, didn't the guys just love that - I bet that's a first for them, standing outside the changing rooms in Dorothy Perkins!

But this was different. Yes, she and Charles got on very well; yes, they had a good laugh together, but it had been such a long time since she'd been out alone with a man who was interested in her - well at least I think he is . . . he's certainly very attentive, but, she shrugged her shoulders, he's like that anyway and it's so hard to tell when there are always other people around.

Elizabeth was an outgoing person who, without even being conscious of it, enjoyed flirting and joking with male friends. But her flirting was never provocative, never overtly sexual. In fact there was an innocence about her that made men, and even women, want to befriend and protect her. Like her sister, she was unaware of the effect she had on the opposite sex - right from her very appreciative male pupils to the soon-to-retire headmaster of her school who had taken such a keen interest in her classes. It hadn't occurred to her for a moment that he liked to look at her - until, that is, it was pointed out to her by an extremely diverted Lynda Anderson.

For the last few years Elizabeth had avoided the dating scene and generally didn't allow herself to get to the stage of becoming really acquainted with a man - yeh, since my preference is for 'safe' dates, preferably as part of a crowd and then . . . guess what . . . the guy's gone, fed up waiting!! That had been the story of her love life since the break-up of her only serious, not-to-be-talked-about, disaster of a relationship. And, she had to admit, she hadn't met anyone she'd even consider being one-to-one with. Until now!

The only reason she'd agreed to go out alone with Charles was - quite simply - because she wasn't threatened by him, rather she felt he was comfortable, like a well-loved teddy bear. Now William, on the other hand - she could sense that he wasn't quite so safe - he had a depth to him that she hadn't yet fathomed, though they were becoming firm friends; he would demand honesty from a partner and, at some stage she sensed, he would require passion . . . not something she associated with Charles, to be honest. And yes, it did cross her mind that she shouldn't be thinking about a relationship with a man whom she didn't consider to be passionate - she just felt at the moment, that she needed someone who wouldn't try to drag her kicking and screaming from her comfort zone - surely that wasn't too much to ask? But why on earth William always seemed to pop into her mind as if she were comparing him with Charles, she didn't know. After all he was taking Jane out tonight . . . alone of course . . . and her dear sister appeared to be growing quite fond of him. And Elizabeth, remembering the look on his face when he met Jane at the restaurant on their first date, felt that Will was definitely interested in her. So far, she thought sadly, I haven't noticed anything to change that opinion.

It was Jane who'd finally - very delicately and with some trepidation knowing her sister's history - suggested separate dates to Elizabeth. To be honest, she was feeling a touch overshadowed. Elizabeth and Charles were gregarious, talkative and obviously enjoyed being amongst company. Even the often-silent William was more animated in their presence (much to his friend's bewildered incredulity). Jane would never have acknowledged it to anyone else, but she didn't want to share William's smiles and conversation with her sister - she wanted his attention all to herself . . . for them to be alone . . . with no distractions. Only then, she felt, would she find out if she really had feelings for him; only then would she have the chance to come into her own, to show William that she wasn't really the demure, silent woman that she appeared to be, hidden in the shade of her vibrant sister. Not that Jane begrudged Elizabeth her lively personality, mind you, for she knew it had been hard won. No, she just wanted to give her very new relationship with William a chance to develop, for only then would she know if it had a future.

~ * ~

Charles had managed to get tickets for Iain Glen's performance of 'Hamlet' at Elizabeth's favourite venue, the Citizen's Theatre on the south side of Glasgow. Elizabeth was impressed; the tickets were like gold dust and she had tried, unsuccessfully, to get them for herself and Charlotte for the next week. Great what money and influence can do, she thought to herself feeling somewhat irritated that Charles had been able to achieve what she couldn't . . . and he wasn't in the least bit interested in the theatre!

The couple took a taxi to the Citizen's, so that Charles could have a drink at the interval - followed, Elizabeth hoped, by several more at her local pub after the play. She had arranged to meet some friends there and was looking forward to introducing her rather handsome new boyfriend to them - mostly because she was sure they were beginning to think that she was some sort of closet nun. It'd be nice not to be the loner for a change!

Charles kissed her affectionately on the cheek when they met and held her hand in the taxi and again as they merged with the bustling, noisy crowd at the theatre entrance. Isn't he such a dear! Here he is coming to a play he doesn't particularly want to see, that he admits he barely understood when he was forced to study it at school - just to please me. Perhaps Jane was right; perhaps he was exactly what she needed! She decided as she settled down in her theatre seat, eagerly anticipating the start of the play, that she had to stop comparing Charles with William and just enjoy their time together. After all, if it didn't work out, she was sure they'd always be the very best of mates - you just couldn't help but be friends with Charles.

As soon as the curtain went up Elizabeth was lost to all thoughts of Charles and William. She'd loved this play since high school and she wanted to experience every moment of it without distraction. Eyes closed, she listened for what seemed like an age as the hum of the audience gradually faded to silence; then she opened them just as the castle at Elsinore appeared starkly and solemnly out of the mist.

As Elizabeth immersed herself in the unfolding drama, Charles indulged in the pleasure of watching her reactions flit across her face. She had such beguiling, expressive eyes - they were truly the windows to her soul. They're damn near sparkling like diamonds, he thought admiringly as she sat forward in her seat, intent on capturing every word. He watched her wipe away a tear as Gertrude announced Ophelia's death to her brother Laertes; he saw her dab her eyes with a tissue towards the end of the play as Hamlet took his last breath, saying:

"O! I die, Horatio; The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:"

Charles, mesmerized by the depth of emotion so openly visible on her face, gently took her hand in his and brought it to his lips. She gave him a fleeting, teary smile as the curtain closed and the thunderous applause of the audience brought her back to the present. To be quite honest, Charles couldn't understand why she should get so caught up in a play he could only follow if he concentrated really hard, but then his sister, Caroline, always did say he was such a lowbrow!

~ * ~

Elizabeth had to admit that she'd truly enjoyed her visit to the theatre. The play was exceptional, just as reported in The Herald. Iain Glen was all she'd expected - an intense, brooding (and handsome!) Hamlet. And Charles had not tried, even once, to distract her - perfect. As she left the theatre her face seemed to beam with pleasure, leading Charles to the belief that he'd never seen her look more striking. She's almost as beautiful as her sister, the treacherous little voice in his mind uttered. Elizabeth certainly was feeling exuberant, as she always did after such an enthralling experience, and Charles, though not a Shakespeare fan, had caught some of that exuberance; had caught something of her vibrant magic. And so they chatted comfortably about their favourite scenes all the way to Elizabeth's local. Well, truth be told, Elizabeth talked; Charles was content to listen and to admire, adding only the odd remark to show that he had been at the same performance!

As the taxi stopped outside Curlers Bar in Byres Road, Elizabeth alighted and waited on the pavement while Charles paid the taxi driver. Her gaze was drawn up and down the still busy, brightly lit street as she observed the flurry of revellers milling in and out of the many bars and cafes, some of her favourite haunts since she'd become a student at Glasgow University.

"Okay, Lizzy, let's go," Charles said as he tapped her arm, motioning towards the pub. "Let's meet these friends of yours."

Elizabeth laughed as she observed the hesitant expression on his face. "I hope you're not nervous, Charles. They don't bite, you know - well," she winked as she added, "I can't account for Lynda, but the others are quite normal. Just expect them to be slightly inebriated by now," she said, pointedly looking at her watch, "and make allowances."

Inside the packed bar she and Charles met many of Elizabeth's friends and some of her colleagues from school, including a now slightly-drunk Lynda Anderson, who gave Charles such an enthusiastic welcome that even he was somewhat embarrassed. But then Elizabeth had warned him well about her over-the-top friend - so he quickly regained his composure and endeavoured to make light of her attentions. He had to admit, she was a striking woman, though several years his senior. Observing her as she chatted to Elizabeth, he noticed that she had Jane's tall slim figure - though where Jane was an angel, Lynda definitely had a bit of the devil in her. Charles could tell that from the wicked glint in her eyes whenever she looked his way!

"Elizabeth Bennet, you sly thing, you didn't tell me that Charlie here was so damned good looking," Lynda smirked, enjoying his blush as she held on to his arm and pulled him towards her table. "I'm sure you won't mind if I introduce him to Mandy." Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders, extricating herself from Charles' tight grasp and making her way towards the bar to get their drinks. Charles would just have to learn to fend for himself if he was going to be around her friends! She couldn't help smiling, though, at the panicked look on his face as Lynda dragged him to a huge round table that had been commandeered by their 'happy' clan for the evening. Elizabeth doubted if Charles had ever met anyone quite like Lynda in his entire life!

Lynda motioned towards a young woman sitting at the table. "Mandy, this is Lizzy's devastatingly handsome boyfriend, Charles. Charles, meet Mandy - she's a friend of mine from my theatre days." Lynda leaned towards Charles as she added admiringly, "She's now one of our up-and-coming film directors - she's made some very acclaimed short films."

Mandy, Charles noted with amusement, might be an 'acclaimed director', but she was also the oddest-looking creature he'd seen in a long time. She was as thin as a stick insect and her hair was bright orange and stood out from her head in peaks. Nothing - and Charles meant nothing - she wore matched. But somehow her ensemble all worked together, though he was sure he'd never be able to understand quite how. My God, I wish Caroline could see this. Mandy looks as though her clothes come from a jumble sale, but she still has more style than my 'Chanel-loving' sister has ever had.

"Really, how interesting," Charles replied, looking Mandy up and down then glancing towards Elizabeth, wondering how long she was going to be, feeling a bit miffed that she'd left him in Lynda's clutches. Why couldn't she let me get the drinks? These 'ladies' are going to eat me alive if she doesn't come and save me!

Lynda pulled a reluctant Charles down on to the seat beside her and she and Mandy immediately launched into an eager discussion about Hamlet. Mandy, it appeared, had begun her career as a set designer and wanted to know all about the production. Unfortunately for Charles, though, his ear was not yet attuned to the Glasgow accent - especially when it was spoken quickly and excitedly - and he had difficulty following their questions. It wasn't long before he was sending beseeching glances towards Elizabeth who was still trying to attract the attention of the barman. . . .

After one or two drinks, Charles began to relax, and although he often had to look to Elizabeth for 'translation', he soon warmed to the exuberant affection of her much-loved friends. Indeed everyone went out of their way to make him feel very welcome and as the pints of lager flowed, he started to loosen up and enjoy the experience.

So they ended up in a huge, laughing, boisterous, semi-inebriated group and Elizabeth was pleased to note that Charles seemed to fit in well with the motley crew. It was when he lurched up on to the stage, however, along with Elizabeth's colleague, Jim Cameron, to perform a rather drunken - and dreadfully out of tune - karaoke rendition of 'My Way' that Elizabeth decided it was about time to head for home. She did wish, though, that she had a camera with her to capture the spectacle - Jane and William would never believe her! And from that night on, whenever she looked at Jim in school in his smart double-breasted suit - he was after all the head of her department - she remembered him standing on the stage, arm round Charles' shoulder for support, slopping beer glass in hand, doing his best Frank Sinatra impersonation.

Lynda, as usual, surpassed them all with her over-the-top interpretation of Shirley Bassey's 'Big Spender' and Elizabeth couldn't possibly think of dragging Charles away until she'd finished. Hell, that girl knows how to work an audience, Elizabeth giggled to herself. As Lynda acted out the well-known song, all conversation in the bar stopped and the punters gathered round the stage to enjoy her performance. Actually, Elizabeth observed admiringly, she was more of a 'Marilyn Monroe' than a 'Shirley Bassey', performing the song in a sexy little girl voice, teasing the men at the front of the low stage with her 'come hither' smile and her hitched up skirt.

"My God, she's got some voice," Charles enthused, dragging his heels as Elizabeth tried to pull him up out of his seat. "She should still be on the stage."

"Yes she should, Charles," Elizabeth replied. "But she decided, when her husband left her, that it wasn't a career she could combine with motherhood. So she did a university degree and then went on to teacher training college. Her heart's still on the stage though - it was her life from childhood!"

"Is that why her husband left her . . . because she was so caught up in her career?" Charles asked, waving his goodbyes to Elizabeth's friends as the group broke up to head for home.

"No, he was just a lazy sod who couldn't cope with an ambitious and talented wife. He made things so difficult for her - and still does. He . . ." Elizabeth halted her whispered confidence as Lynda approached and enveloped her in an affectionate farewell embrace that was immediately opened up to include a now-wobbly Charles Bingley.

From behind them, a loud voice sniggered, interrupting their group hug, "Well, Mrs Anderson, that was fuckin' - oops sorry, miss - fantastic. Ah'll look forward to that in drama on Monday, eh miss?"

They all turned around to be confronted by an obviously intoxicated, but somehow magically-upright teenager, bent on giving Lynda a very favourable critique of her performance. Lynda rolled her eyes as she disengaged her arms from Charles and Elizabeth's necks. She looked the young man unashamedly in the eye and laughed, "By the looks of you, Simon, you won't remember anything about tonight! And anyway, what are you doing here? I know you're only seventeen. Perhaps I should have a word with the manager . . . !"

"Okay, ah'm gone, miss," he slurred as he turned towards the door, "but ye were still fuckin' great, man!"

"Oh dear," Lynda sighed dramatically, "I should try to remember that this pub is so close to the school, shouldn't I? Lizzy," she accused, "you're supposed to keep me right when I've had a little drink. How am I going to live this down on Monday?"

"Lynda, by the looks of Simon McEwan, he won't recall anything about tonight." Elizabeth proffered her most evil smile and continued, "I think your reputation is quite safe - whatever there is of it anyway . . . remember the show you put on at the party after the last Senior Ball?"

"What do you mean?" Lynda spluttered. "Elizabeth Bennet, you told me that I was the 'epitomé of decorum' - your exact words! Lizzy, don't you dare disappear until you explain. Lizzy . . ."

~ * ~

As Charles walked her home from the pub, his arm around her shoulder - she suspected for support as much as for anything else - Elizabeth wondered whether she should bite the bullet and invite him up for coffee or make an excuse and leave the decision for another day. Would he think she meant more than coffee? That's what worried her. As she was pondering her dilemma, Charles interrupted her thoughts.

"I really enjoyed that, Lizzy."

"You see, Charles, I knew you'd like Shakespeare if you just gave him a chance."

Charles sniggered at her words. "I meant I enjoyed our time at the pub, Lizzy, as you very well know. Shakespeare and I are forever destined to be strangers, I'm afraid . . . though I did take pleasure in watching your enjoyment of the play."

"Thank you, Charles. And thank you for taking me, especially when you didn't really want to see it yourself."

"That's okay. Now perhaps," he continued, "you'll be kind enough to tell me what it was all about. Caroline always likes to point out how stupid I am . . . and I'd like to prove her wrong for once."

"You're not stupid, Charles. There are plenty of people who aren't interested in the theatre. Take Jane, for instance, she won't go to the theatre unless it's to a musical . . . or the pantomime at Christmas time. And Jane is anything but stupid."

Charles didn't reply - going through his mind at that moment was something Elizabeth had just said . . . . something to do with 'take Jane, for instance'. Chance would be a fine thing, he reflected. God, I'd better get myself home - I've obviously had too much to drink. How the hell did Jane come into my thoughts all of a sudden?

At the door of her close, Elizabeth decided that it would be rude to send Charles away after they'd had such a wonderful evening. And anyway, by the time she'd explained the story of the play to him, the drink . . . or boredom . . . would probably have sent him to sleep.

"Charles, would you like to . . . ?"

As she was making her invitation a taxi drew up at the kerb and Elizabeth's next-door-neighbour got out - his carry-out in one hand and his bottle of Irn-Bru* in the other. Charles, who was beginning to wish he hadn't allowed himself to be egged on to drink so much, was feeling the effects of the alcohol now that he was out in the fresh air. Shit, I haven't done anything like this since I was at uni. What will Lizzy think? Sensing that he might embarrass himself by spewing up the contents of his stomach if he didn't get home quickly, Charles shouted to the taxi driver to wait and, brushing his lips across Elizabeth's as he embraced her and said he'd phone her during the week, he boarded the taxi and was gone - just like that!

Elizabeth was shocked at the speed with which Charles had left, but at the same time she was relieved that his overindulgence had given her a reprieve. As she walked upstairs to her flat, though, she was perturbed to find she wasn't disappointed by his swift departure. And at the same time a little, niggling wisp of an idea floated through her mind that perhaps Charles hadn't wanted to come up for coffee anyway.

Elizabeth mused over her evening with Charles as she got ready for bed. She'd had a wonderful time - the play was all that she'd expected and she'd really enjoyed herself in the pub with all her friends around her. There, stupid, she thought, hitting her forehead with the heel of her hand, that's the problem. I had my 'friends' around me. That's what Charles feels like - and no more. His kiss was a friend's kiss and I had no desire for anything more passionate than that. As she lay in bed, however, she wavered yet again and considered that maybe she hadn't given Charles a chance - maybe she lacked desire for him because her one disastrous relationship had left her in such bad shape? And maybe Charles was unconsciously acknowledging her reserve? Maybe, maybe, maybe. Perhaps they both just needed a nudge in the right direction - but what was that direction? She certainly didn't know. Oh, she was becoming very confused . . . and . . . why, oh, why did a pair of brown eyes keep coming into her head to complicate matters?

~ * ~

William lay on his bed well into the wee small hours of the morning and thought about his date with Jane. They'd had a lovely time - just the two of them - and Jane was certainly one of the most delightful women he'd ever met - genuine, kind and beautiful. And as he'd expected, she'd been much more communicative on her own. Indeed, William was thinking that had he never encountered Elizabeth, he could happily have enjoyed a warm, perhaps even a lasting, relationship with Jane. But it wasn't Jane's face that I pictured when I kissed her, he thought guiltily, and that can't be right.

Once again, William's thoughts turned to Elizabeth and Charles and their visit to the theatre. How had their date gone? Did he go back to her flat? The picture of Elizabeth kissing Charles as he had kissed Jane - well it didn't bear thinking about! At least I know Charles didn't stay the night, he reflected as he remembered a very sleepy, tousle-haired Elizabeth wandering through to the living room as he and Jane were having a coffee before William left for home. Why did she have to look so fucking good in her skimpy little top and too-short shorts - she's certainly not making things easy for me!

He wondered what Charles would say if he could read his friend's mind at this moment. The last thing William wanted was to jeopardize their long-standing relationship - hell, they'd been best mates since their first day at boarding school - but, as he was able to admit only to himself, he couldn't go on pretending that he wasn't fascinated by Elizabeth. Jane was a great girl, no doubt about that, but Elizabeth . . . well, for him she was . . . something special. He could just feel it and he knew he should take himself out of his predicament before he made the mistake of betraying his feelings to . . . well, to any of those involved! William wasn't stupid, he knew very well that if he split up with Jane, he wouldn't see Elizabeth again - he knew enough of her protective nature to realize that she'd never forgive him if he hurt her sister. And he had no idea what Elizabeth thought of him anyway. Yes, she was affable now; her manner with him was teasing rather than sarcastic as it had been in the beginning - that was good. But as far as he could see, she treated him as a friend whose company she enjoyed because of their uncannily similar interests. A FRIEND - yes, maybe all she wanted from him was friendship. And what did he want? Did he want to give Jane up and end up with no one? Surely, though, that would be better than standing by watching Charles and Elizabeth grow closer - and at the same time pretending feelings for Jane that he did not have. That wouldn't be fair . . . on either of them!

Sleep continued to elude him as he considered his options. Perhaps he needed to escape from Glasgow for a few weeks. Away from contact with either sister, he might be able to get back his rational perspective - that jealously guarded tool that had fled him the moment he'd watched Elizabeth, in that tight, black dress, cross the floor to their table at the charity dinner. Yes, Strathlyon beckoned; a few days of 'Munro bagging',* a few weeks of working away from Glasgow - and he might be able to get both women out of his system, because, as far as he could see, that was his only solution - fuck, they are sisters, after all! He knew, though, that it would take him a couple of weeks to organize his departure and in the meantime, he intended to play things very cool - and that meant no more kisses for the 'wrong' Bennet sister.

If William could have seen Charles at that moment he'd certainly, despite his conflicting emotions, have enjoyed a wry laugh at his friend's expense. For Charles, having made it home in the taxi without disgracing himself, was now hugging the toilet seat. And at the door of the bathroom, making things a hundred times worse for his befuddled head, stood his sister, Caroline, tut-tutting and swearing that she knew Elizabeth Bennet would be a bad influence the moment she saw her.

"But of course no one ever listens to me," she snapped, causing Charles to wince at the strident tone of her voice. She just wondered why Charles kept muttering something about angels!

~ * ~

The next morning Jane got up early, foregoing her customary and much coveted long lie to get the flat ready for Charlotte's arrival later in the day. Elizabeth, however, did not take kindly to having the duvet torn away from her tight grasp and complained bitterly as Jane pulled her out of her warm bed.

"Damn it, Jane, Lottie will just have to take us as she finds us," she moaned as she sat on the floor at the side of her bed, having been unceremoniously dumped there. "Anyway, the flat's not too bad - I tidied it a bit yesterday in case Charles or William came back for a coffee, remember?"

Jane managed to grab Elizabeth's arm as she attempted to retreat back into bed and under the covers. "No, Lizzy, giving the living room a quick vacuum and shoving the clutter into the spare bedroom won't do. Charlotte's not just coming for a coffee, she's coming to stay for a fortnight and I want the place clean before she gets here." She pushed Elizabeth towards the kitchen as she continued, "Now, you have your breakfast and your shower then we'll make a start on the kitchen."

"Good Lord, Jane, just when did mum take over your body? You'd better watch; you're beginning to sound just like her!"

"Not funny, Lizzy," Jane giggled - though quite unmoved by Elizabeth's joke. "Now, get a move on with breakfast - and while you're doing that you can tell me about your date with Charles."

"Well, I know you'll not be interested in hearing about 'Hamlet', so let's start at the pub. Guess who almost devoured Charles last night while I was getting our drinks?" Elizabeth laughed.

"Well now, let me see, which of your friends likes to think of herself as a man eater? That would be Lynda Anderson," Jane replied, shaking her head. "Poor Charles!"

"The laugh was, Jane, he was sitting with Lynda and Mandy and they were firing questions at him about 'Hamlet'. And he couldn't understand what they were saying well enough to answer them. You know what they're like when they get excited . . . ?" Jane nodded, smiling widely as Elizabeth added, "Well, you should hear them when they're excited and drunk. Poor Charles, right enough."

"Lizzy, you're so cruel. How could you leave him like that?"

"It's okay, Jane. After a couple of pints he was sitting between them quite happily. And don't worry, I did a good job of translating for him."

"I wish I could have been there. It sounds like you had a great night."

"Hmmph, that's not the best of it, sis," Elizabeth beamed. "It was a karaoke night and Charles got up with Jim Cameron. I don't know which one was holding the other up, to be quite honest. And Jane," she continued, "I'll tell you something, Charles Bingley can't sing to save himself, nor can Jim for that matter. You should have heard them murder one of your favourites - 'My Way' - must have had Frank Sinatra turning in his grave. Anyway," she inquired, deciding it was time to change the subject, "enough about Charles and me, Janie, did you have a nice time last night?"

"Lizzy, I had the most wonderful evening." Jane's eyes were shining, her smile reaching them in a way Elizabeth had not seen in a long time. "William is such a great guy. You'll never believe where we went. He flew me . . . he flew me, Lizzy . . . in his private plane to Inverness Airport, where a limousine was waiting to take us to Culloden House Hotel for dinner. Oh, it was such a beautiful place - we had dinner in the morning room, very intimate . . . subdued lighting . . . violin music . . ." Jane paused as she recaptured the evening in her mind. "Much as I love going out with you and Charles, Lizzy, I think Will and I were kind of forced to get better acquainted because we were on our own. We talked the whole night. . . . !"

Elizabeth pictured them, settled comfortably at a secluded table, sharing an intimate tête-à-tête by muted candlelight, holding hands and gazing into each other's eyes. Well, they're both so beautiful, she mused sadly, they make quite a couple.

"William wanted to know all about Meryton and our childhood, and about our time at university. Come to think of it," Jane pondered, "I actually did most of the talking - isn't that a surprise . . . but he did seem to be very interested. I didn't get much out of him though; except that his parents are both dead, as we already knew, and he has a sister called Georgiana who lives mostly at their home in Derbyshire . . . it's called Pemberley . . . a very grand house by the sound of things. And Lizzy," Jane suddenly remembered, her coffee cup midway to her mouth as she spoke, "did you know that he has another home not far from where Gran Peggy was brought up?" Elizabeth nodded her head in response as Jane added, "You know then that it's called Strathlyon House - it belonged to his mother's family and William says she stayed in it for almost all of her married life. Apparently she was so homesick when she went down to Derbyshire after her marriage that she became very depressed and had to return to Strathlyon. Will's father, poor man, had to travel up to see her as often as he could. So William and his sister were both born at Strathlyon instead of at Pemberley as their father would have wished." The words tumbled out of Jane's mouth in a rush - most unusual - and Elizabeth had to feel glad for her. She deserved someone like William, someone who could afford to spoil her. Maybe they would marry and Jane could give up her awful job. Now why doesn't that thought give me anything but a lump in my throat? she thought uncomfortably. I really must get a grip on myself - there's no way I can allow myself to fall for my sister's boyfriend!

Jane sat in silent contemplation for some minutes, remembering William's reluctance to share his unhappy childhood recollections of being shunted back and forth between two parents, each of whom was determined to stay in a much loved ancestral home. She remembered the pain etched on his face as he told her hesitantly and most reluctantly of his parents' promises that they would all be together one day as a family - and the sense of betrayal he'd felt when that day never came. Yes, she sighed to herself, William certainly is going to be hard to get close to; unlike his friend who is always so open and easy to read. But, never mind, at least I made a start tonight.

"And then?" Elizabeth smiled gently, bringing her sister back to the present.

"And then - what, Lizzy?" Jane asked, blushing as she suddenly caught on to her sister's meaning.

"Don't be obtuse, Jane. Were there any . . . developments later . . . since you were alone?"

"Well, he did kiss me, if that's what you mean."

"And?"

"And it was very nice."

"Nice, huh? It didn't tickle your toes then."

"No," Jane sighed. "It didn't tickle my toes. But it wasn't bad for a first kiss."

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders and went back to her bedroom to get her towel. Funny, she reflected, I'd have pegged William as a great kisser. No one could look that good and just give 'nice' kisses. She was aware that deep inside a little part of her was angry that William had kissed Jane. My God, I'm becoming infatuated with a pair of fine eyes in a beautiful face - unfortunately, though, it's the fine eyes and beautiful face of my sister's new boyfriend. I'd better nip this in the bud before it goes too far.

As she was just about to go for her shower, there was a gentle tap on her door.

"Come in, Jane."

"Lizzy, I meant to ask you - was there any 'and then' with you and Charles?"

"Oh, just a peck on the cheek before he lurched to his taxi, Jane. He was a bit too drunk for anything else, I think." And under her breath as Jane left her bedroom Lizzy mouthed, "Thank God!"

* Scotland's other national drink - or so it's advertised. Caffeinated soft drink.
* Munro - a Scottish hill over 3,000ft in height. Munro baggers are climbers who have climbed or are climbing all of these hills.

Chapter Five

Elizabeth had been wondering, after Charlotte's phone call a few weeks earlier to arrange a visit, why she'd decided to come up at a time when the sisters were both working. They'd have hardly any time with her and she'd be on her own in the flat for most of the day. But Charlotte had come bearing excellent news.

"I was going to hand in my notice, girls. But my wonderful employers decided they didn't want to lose my expertise and have offered me a transfer. So I'm moving away from Meryton at long last. Can you guess where I'm moving to, I wonder?"

"No ... Lottie!" Elizabeth exclaimed, a huge grin on her face. "You're not moving to Glasgow. Ooooh, please tell me you're coming to join us."

"That's the plan," Charlotte replied. "I've taken some annual leave from the bank and I've come up to look for a flat. I'm hoping you girls will put me up until I can get something sorted out - I know it might take a while."

"Of course, Char," Jane answered as she rushed over to the sofa to hug her friend. "It'll be like old times - what wonderful news!"

"What's made you decide to move?" Elizabeth asked. "I thought you loved your job."

"Well, let's just say my mother's been on my back about 'getting on' - and she means 'getting old' not 'being successful', by the way. And, ladies, I think Glasgow must be the place to meet interesting men, if your recent phone calls are anything to go by."

"Hmmph, you're in luck then, Charlotte, my dear. I'm thinking of inviting Bill Collins to dinner on Saturday night. Do you remember meeting him the last time you were here?"

"Bill Collins? No, I can't remember meeting a Bill Collins ..."

"Well," Elizabeth sighed, "this is a fine start to the romance of your life. You met him for all of ...oooh, five minutes when we were on our way to the cinema. He wa..."

"Oh, I remember the name now," Charlotte butted in. "He's the guy who's had a crush on you for ages, Lizzy. Sorry, but that doesn't sound very hopeful to me ..."

"Ah, but a man can change his mind, Char. It seems that you made quite an impression on him and he asked to meet you the next time you came up ... honestly," Elizabeth added in reply to the quizzical tilt of Charlotte's eyebrows.

"So you'll maybe end up with a flat and a boyfriend out of this visit, Lottie," Jane grinned.

"Well girls," Charlotte replied with a wink, "stranger things have happened. But let's face it, it's not very likely!"

~ * ~

"Come in, Bill. Let me introduce you to everyone. You've already met Charlotte and my sister, Jane, and this is Charles Bingley and his friend William Darcy. We're just waiting for my aunt and uncle to arrive then we'll sit down to dinner." Elizabeth edged Bill into the living room and made for the kitchen as soon as the introductions were over.

"Darcy? ... Darcy?" Bill raised his eyebrows as he contemplated William. "I've heard that name. You don't belong to the Aberfeldy area by any chance, do you?" he enquired, his interest growing as William nodded his head. "I know of a rather large estate up in that part of the country, Strathlyon I believe it's called. It belongs to the Darcy family. I have a little cottage not far from there, a bit closer to Aberfeldy actually - belonged to my grandfather." After a momentary pause, he added, "Your home, William? That's a grand business you have there. It must bring in a tidy sum of money."

"Yes, Bill," William answered brusquely, shocked that such a subject should be brought up - and by someone he'd only just met! He glanced at Jane who raised her eyes to the ceiling at the brazenness of Bill's comment, then continued, "It was my mother's family home." And that was all William was prepared to say on the matter, despite Bill's expectant look. To emphasize his displeasure, William turned away from Bill and attempted to renew his conversation with Jane.

Bill, however, had just discovered someone who could be very useful to him and wasn't prepared to let such an opportunity pass. "Your aunt is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, yes?" he exclaimed excitedly, tugging on William's sleeve and forcing him to turn back once again. "She is headmistress of Glenlyon School, just outside Perth?" Observing William's nod, though completely missing the irritation in his eyes at the invasion of his personal space, Bill added, "Well, would you believe it? I applied for a job there only last week. Between you and me," he said from behind his hand, while William glanced at the others in the room wondering if they'd suddenly become invisible, "I'm so looking forward to leaving the state sector and teaching in a private school as well equipped as Glenlyon. It has such a good reputation, and all down to your aunt I believe."

William gave a half-hearted smile, "Yes my aunt is a very exacting headmistress. I'm sure you will find that staff, pupils and parents are all in awe of her."

"Well, well, William, if you happen to be speaking to your aunt in the near future, I'm sure you could put in a good word for me. I do expect to have an excellent chance of getting the position - why, I've even handed in my notice at Hillhead High. I went to a very good private school myself down in London. Old boys' network, you know how it is!" With that Bill tapped his nose and winked in what William considered to be a very disconcerting manner and added, "I dare say you went to your aunt's school yourself?"

"No I didn't actually. My aunt and my mother didn't see eye to eye concerning education." William replied, thinking all the time that he wouldn't be so polite if this wasn't Elizabeth and Jane's guest. "Lady Catherine was most annoyed that I was sent to the local primary school."

"Well, I can understand that, William. Such an illustrious personage ... to attend such a place."

"It was simply that my mother didn't want me to be away from home, Bill," William answered, hoping that would be an end to the topic.

Bill, however, was of an inquisitive nature and wanted to find out as much as he could about his prospective employer's nephew. "So where did you go on to ... ?"

William answered in one word, "Gordonstoun," and turned back to Jane.

"Ooh, Prince Charles' old school. I am impressed, William." Noting, however, that he was talking to William's back, Bill turned to Charlotte and gave her his most engaging smile. Now that he'd done his 'networking' for the evening with the only person who could possibly be of any use to him, he intended to bestow upon her his undivided attention. He led her to a snug two-seater sofa in the corner of the room where he could keep her all to himself - much to William's relief and Jane's amazement.

When the telephone rang and Jane interrupted their conversation to answer it, William left Charles browsing the sisters' huge assortment of CDs and wandered into the kitchen to ask Elizabeth if she needed any help.

"No thanks, William, I've got everything under control, but you can stay and chat if you like while Jane's on the phone - I know Bill can be a bit much."

So William, assuring her that Bill was now very busy monopolizing Charlotte, sat on a stool where he could watch Elizabeth's every move and, after a few moments' silent contemplation, thought he'd better make some conversation.

"Did you enjoy Hamlet."

"Oh yes, William," she enthused, "It was a wonderful production and Iain Glen was just superb. Have you seen it?"

"Not yet. I'm going a week on Friday."

"Oh yes, of course, with your sister ... Georgiana, isn't it? Jane did mention something about that," Elizabeth replied as she turned towards William with a smile - and almost gasped aloud with surprise as she caught the intensity of his gaze before he had a chance to avert his eyes. Shit, what was that all about? With blushing cheeks and shaky hands, a very flustered Elizabeth turned away and made herself busy setting out the serving dishes, wondering once again why William looked at her so earnestly. After all, he was the one who'd said she wasn't his type. God, he was a puzzle! But that look! She was sure it had been a ... yes ... a yearning look, but no ... it couldn't have been ... she must have been mistaken. Huh, when has a boyfriend of Jane's ever given me a second glance?

Silent for a few moments as he mentally kicked himself for getting caught out, William decided there was nothing else to do but carry on as if nothing had happened. "Georgie's a big Iain Glen fan," he said in as calm a voice as he could manage, "has been since she saw him in 'Wives and Daughters.' Since then she's seen just about everything he's done - including his stage work."

"What, even Silent Scream?" Elizabeth enquired, relieved that the moment had passed without her making a fool of herself.

"Yes, even Silent Scream, Elizabeth."

"Wow, that is a heavy film. Did she actually enjoy it?"

"Yes ... well I don't know if 'enjoy' is the correct word, but she does favour these gritty films - you know, like Trainspotting, Orphans, Reservoir Dogs - that sort of thing." William paused, lost for words as Elizabeth approached his stool and reached over him, excusing herself as she lifted some plates off the shelf above his head. He closed his eyes as he caught a hint of the gentle lavender fragrance that he'd come to associate with her - a scent that reminded him of his gardens at Pemberley where lavender grew in lavish abundance.

Elizabeth's voice brought him out of his reverie. "She's sounds like quite a girl, your sister! I'd love to have a good chat with her about her favourite films - I think we might be on the same wavelength."

"Well I hope you'll get to meet her sometime. I'm sure she'd like you ... and Jane, of course," he added.

William was silent for some time as he watched Elizabeth prepare the meal. Her mass of hair was hanging loose tonight and he was captivated by its fullness. Just to grab a fistful of those curls ...! Since he'd met her, he'd only seen her hair down once - the night she'd wandered into the kitchen when he'd dropped Jane off after their trip to Inverness. It was all mussed up that night as she'd just got up out of bed. He hadn't realised then that her hair was so long, right down to her waist. Tonight it shone so vibrantly in the kitchen light. And ... William began to think ... that he needed ... to stop thinking so much about Elizabeth!!

He turned his eyes away from her and went back to their earlier topic, "I hear you went for a drink after the theatre - I believe Charles had a good time."

"Oh, yes, I think we can safely say that Charles had a good time." Elizabeth raised her voice slightly so that it could be heard in the living room. "By the way, William, you've seen nothing until you've seen your drunken friend through there murder My Way at a karaoke night. I thought I'd wet myself I laughed so much."

A voice from the living room called through to them, "I heard that. I may have been tipsy, but I wasn't drunk." With that, a smiling Charles appeared in the doorway and, giving Elizabeth a playful tap on the shoulder for her cheek, sat on the stool nearest to her and helped himself to a sliver of tomato from the salad bowl. As he reached over for a second slice, Elizabeth slapped his hand away and turned to the two men to announce that dinner was ready to be served.

As they rose from their stools Jane rushed into the kitchen with the phone still in her hand and an anxious look on her face. "Lizzy, that was Edward; he and Helen can't come to dinner - little Kirsty had a fall this afternoon. Would you believe that Lewis actually tied her up with skipping ropes and pushed her off the top bunk to see if she could abseil?" Jane hurried on, seeing her sister's shocked expression, "Don't worry, she's been seen by the doctor and she's okay, but Helen doesn't want to leave her with the babysitter ... just in case. Since Edward has the wine for the meal, he's asked if I can pop up to fetch it." Jane turned to William, "I was wondering if you'd like to help me, Will? I believe there are quite a few bottles."

"Well, of course I would, Jane, but I came in Charles' car. Perhaps he'd ..."

"Certainly," Charles interjected standing up without a moment's hesitation, "I'd be delighted, Jane - as long as you direct me."

Elizabeth called after them as they left the flat, "Give Kirsty a kiss from me, Jane, and tell Helen I'll visit tomorrow."

William glanced at Elizabeth as he helped her to carry the serving dishes through to the dining table. "I was actually going to ask to borrow Charles' car. I just didn't get the chance to finish my sentence."

"What's wrong, William," teased Elizabeth with a wink, "don't tell me you think my boyfriend is chasing after your girlfriend."

Mmm, I just wonder, William thought to himself. It would certainly solve all my problems - but what would Elizabeth make of it?

~ * ~

Jane and Charles enjoyed a lively conversation during their trip to the Gardiner's - much to Charles' surprise. The little church mouse isn't so quiet after all, he decided, every now and then throwing an admiring glance her way as he followed her directions through the busy city streets. He had the pleasure of hearing her delightful laugh as he entertained her with his take on last week's visit to the theatre, admitting that he'd sooner have sat at home and watched Eastenders on TV.

"I'm sorry, Jane, but I can't understand this fascination with Shakespeare. When I go out I don't want to feel that I'm back at school." Charles gave a shamefaced grin as Jane nodded her head in agreement. "Take William, now he'll travel any distance - just to watch a play. Amazing, isn't it?"

"Yes, Lizzy's just the same, Charles. Well - not that she travels anywhere; she can't afford to - but she tries to see everything that comes to Glasgow. Just wait," Jane grinned, "until you've been to some obscure Chinese film with her. If there's one thing I hate more than Shakespeare, it's films with subtitles - and I've been dragged along to a few, I can tell you!"

"Oh no," Charles groaned. "I draw the line at that - definitely. Perhaps we can persuade William to accompany Lizzy - that would be just down his street." He and Jane laughed and Charles added, "What kind of films do you like, Jane?"

"Well, I enjoy romantic comedies," Jane replied with a blush. "You know, like Pretty Woman and Green Card - that kind of film. Grim reality is the last thing I want to watch after a day at my work. I have to say that Lizzy likes my kind of film too - it's just that she considers me a philistine where 'culture' is concerned."

"Yes, well ... you and me both, Jane. And guess what - I don't care."

"No, Charles, nor do I. Now," she teased, "about your hidden talent for karaoke ...!"

"I'll kill your sister, Jane," Charles replied with a grin as he drew up at the entrance to the sisters' close. "Well, we're back - better get this wine up to our parched diners. I hope they've left some food for us."

Charles struggled with his emotions as he followed Jane up the stairs to her flat. From the moment he'd met her, he'd thought her an angel with a sweet and charming disposition. Their time alone together this evening had just confirmed his feelings and he was aghast to realize that he was well and truly smitten. This is my best friend's girlfriend ... and Lizzy's sister. Shit!! What a mess!

To be honest Charles was perturbed when he considered how much he looked forward to seeing Jane; it had been that way ever since their dinner at Gardiners. At first he told himself it was because she was so beautiful - breathtaking, really - and what man didn't like to look at a beautiful woman? But then he realized that he was drawn to that sweet nature, which he liked to think was so compatible with his own. The guilt he was feeling spoiled his pleasure somewhat, but ... damn it, he just couldn't stop thinking about her!

~ * ~

The meal was very enjoyable for everyone, mainly because Bill was so engrossed in Charlotte that he didn't share his attention with the others. In fact once the three couples moved away from the dining area, Bill led Charlotte back to his preferred corner of the room, only rising occasionally to refill their wine glasses. And from the flush evident on Charlotte's face, Elizabeth could see that she wasn't complaining! - either that or the wine is going to her head. My Lord, it's certainly true when they say that it takes all kinds to make a world - who'd have thought ... Charlotte Lucas and Bill Collins! And so quickly!

Meanwhile the others enjoyed a lively discussion about the sisters' CD collection - well Elizabeth, William and Charles did. Jane slipped back into her role of observer. Elizabeth made every effort to include her in the conversation but, for some reason, she seemed to have become rather subdued, leaving her sister wondering if she was feeling a bit left out.

"You obviously like Pearl Jam, ladies," Charles noted. "I didn't know they'd made so many albums."

"Yes, we're Pearl Jam fans, Charles. We love Eddie's voice, don't we, Jane? We went to see them at the S.E.C.C. a while back - fantastic gig. What about you guys, who d'you like?"

"Well," Charles offered, rather bashfully, "I'm a bit old-fashioned, I like Frank Sinatra, he's ..."

"Oh, I do too, Charles," Jane interrupted, glad that someone else was a fan of her favourite singer. "I think he's the best ever, though Eddie is a close second, especially when he sings the softer songs. What do you think, William?"

"I think that's some combination, Jane - Frank Sinatra and Eddie Vedder... wow! Sorry to disappoint you though," he said with a shrug, "I quite like Pearl Jam, but I'm not keen on ol' blue eyes - and I can assure you, I've heard enough of him in Charles' car to last me a lifetime!"

"Isn't that funny," Jane replied. "That's how I got to like Pearl Jam - from hearing Lizzy playing their music all the time. I'm not really into grunge, but I suppose I just got used to hearing them. What do you like then, William?"

My preference is for classical when I'm in the mood - I'm enjoying Satie's piano works at the moment. His Gymnopédies are exqu...."

"Oh, no!" Charles butted in with a groan. "Not classical music, William, please."

"Well," said William, throwing Charles a look of disdain, "I also like 70s stuff - Zeppelin, Free ... that sort of thing." Smiling at the enthusiastic grin on Elizabeth's face, he continued, "And I've just been introduced to Ryan Adams and the Dave Matthew's Band by my sister Georgie - she keeps me up to date with music from over the pond."

"I must say I like your choices, William - and Paul Rodgers* is our dad's favourite singer, so we grew up with him," enthused Elizabeth, her mind boggling once again at the similarity of their tastes, "and what about the Scottish bands - The Blue Nile, Travis, The Silencers ... oh, and have you heard Paul Quinn," she added, "another fantastic voice."

"No I haven't heard of Paul Quinn," William pondered, searching his memory, "but I do like the others - especially The Blue Nile. I saw them at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh a few years ago. I'm amazed, Elizabeth - usually when I mention The Blue Nile to people, they say they've never heard of them." William looked pointedly at Charles who just shrugged his shoulders and offered that the band wasn't exactly world famous, so why should he have heard of them.

"William ...! We went to see The Blue Nile at the Usher Hall the last time they played there," Elizabeth and Jane exclaimed in unison. Elizabeth motioned Jane to continue but she shook her head - after all, she'd only gone to the gig to keep Elizabeth company. The band was not a favourite of hers.

"We must have been there on the same night as you, William. Coincidence, eh?" Elizabeth added, smiling as she remembered that thrilling night. "I saw Travis there too - and I saw them at T in the Park a few years ago. Have you been, Charles? William?"

William replied, "I have ... several times. Charles usually goes to Glastonbury though; he has loads of friends from university down in that area."

Jane watched in dismay as her boyfriend and her sister had a lengthy discussion about their most enjoyable concerts - finding it extremely diverting that they'd attended the same venues several times without knowing it. She was really beginning to wonder if Elizabeth was monopolizing William on purpose. But why would she want to do that? After all, she had Charles!

Elizabeth could see that Jane had lost interest in the conversation and decided to back off. "Anyone for coffee? Charles, perhaps you'd like to give me a hand in the kitchen?"

"No problem, Lizzy. Bill, Charlotte ... coffee?" Charles asked then, having received no reply, repeated, "Bill, Charlotte, do you want a coffee? My God, they're definitely not with us tonight!"

By the time they came back through to the living room with the tray of coffees, Jane and William were sitting on the sofa talking quietly, William bending his head close to Jane's to hear her soft words. Elizabeth reflected sadly as she served the coffees that it was hardly her fault that she and William had so much in common. Nonetheless, she resolved that the two couples should definitely spend less time together and she determined to be less communicative when William was around. She sighed to herself as she admitted, though, that she'd really miss their talks.

So Elizabeth kept her distance for the rest of the evening - in fact she became rather quiet, leading the others to wonder at the change in her. Charles used the silence to enjoy furtive glances towards Jane's lovely face, while at the same encountering sentiments similar to those earlier felt by Elizabeth - perhaps the two couples needed time away from each other to allow their relationships to develop - things were getting way too complicated.

William, on the other hand, was at a loss to understand Elizabeth's swift change of mood and wondered what had occurred in the kitchen to affect her so much. He certainly hoped that Charles hadn't done anything to upset her.

Soon Jane, who could not be irritated for long - especially with her much-loved sister - decided that she was being silly and that Elizabeth would never do anything to hurt her. So what if she and William had a lot in common! She felt guilty for being momentarily jealous of Elizabeth's vivacity - it just wasn't like her to be envious. After all, Elizabeth was just being Elizabeth - her usual friendly self. But Jane knew it didn't mean anything. She was aware of Elizabeth's unhappy past and knew very well that she held men at arm's length. Is this what she is doing with Charles?Jane wondered - they seemed to have established a kind of 'buddy' relationship; they enjoyed friendly exchanges, but she realized that she'd never seen a real show of affection on Elizabeth's part. Such a shame, Jane thought, Charles is a delightful bloke too.

Elizabeth was pleased to see the return of her sister's good humour, observing that its arrival coincided with her own attempt to withdraw from William's notice. She could see, however, that although she'd removed herself from his company, she could not avoid his intense gaze. Those dark eyes seemed to be resting on her each time she looked in his direction. She did wonder at his scrutiny, which she felt upon her every time they were together - after all he'd had his chance at the charity dinner and turned it down ... quite decidedly ... and much to her mortification, as she remembered!

By the end of the evening Elizabeth had engineered it so that the two couples were placed as far apart as possible from each other within the large living room. She and Charles sat at the dining table and leafed through an old photograph album that Charles had found when he'd been searching the CDs earlier. They laughed at pictures of Elizabeth and Jane as children, Charles noting silently that even then Jane had the tranquil countenance of an angel. Aloud he intimated to Elizabeth that he hadn't failed to spot the look of devilment shining from her eyes in every photograph.

"Oh yes," laughed Elizabeth, "I'm afraid any scrapes that we got ourselves into were dreamt up by me. This photo here," said she pointing to two smiling infants in white sundresses showing off their chubby arms as they cuddled into each other, "that was taken just before I managed to open the garden gate and lead Jane across the busy main road to the bike shop where I attempted to buy a little trike using a penny I'd found in my pocket. The shop owner, Mrs Long, telephoned my mother to let her know where we were. Dad told me, years later, that mum blustered across the road in high dudgeon, her nerves shot to pieces - so she claimed - at the thought of us crossing the road on our own. I don't remember the incident at all, but dad said I was sent to bed ... you know, being the instigator."

"And Jane?" Charles enquired.

"Oh Jane was never punished. My mother always knew I was the culprit ... the one who led Jane astray ... or at least she always assumed it was me." Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders as she looked Charles directly in the eye and added, "Jane wasn't always the little angel, you know," leading him to wonder if she'd been mind reading his earlier reflection.

Taken aback by her perceptiveness Charles quickly asked, "And what age were you both when you went on this grand adventure, Lizzy?"

"Well," replied Elizabeth giggling, "I was three and Jane was four."

"Didn't your mum think that it was a big sister's job to look after her little sister?"

Elizabeth looked down at the photograph of the smiling children - rather wistfully, Charles thought. "No, I don't think that idea ever crossed her mind." Charles stretched out his hand and gently stroked Elizabeth's cheek as he gained an important insight into her troubled relationship with her mother.

"You and your mum didn't get on?" he offered quietly.

"No," Elizabeth smiled ruefully, "And we still don't, I'm afraid. I was an accident, you see, arriving just ten months after Jane and quite a handful apparently. So much so, I'm constantly reminded, that my dad had to step in to help whenever he could, even though he was tired from long hours at the workshop. "So," Elizabeth continued, "my dad and I became very close ... I don't think my mother appreciated that ... I think she was pretty jealous actually." Elizabeth looked over towards Jane and William as she added pensively, "Jane is her darling. You can't imagine how pleased my mother will be when she finds out about Will. For his sake, and for Jane's, I hope it won't be too soon."

"Why," Charles laughed, "do you think she'll frighten him away?"

Elizabeth, shaking herself out of her reflective mood, returned Charles' mirthful expression as she replied, "She very well might - not that she'd mean to, of course. But he might just find the shackles she'll want to fasten around his ankles a little too constricting."

Charles laughed outrageously at the picture Elizabeth painted for him - as if anyone, even Elizabeth's mother - would dare to try her hand at harnessing William Darcy. "I think Will has had more experience with ambitious mothers than you or I can imagine, Lizzy. Don't worry about him. But what about you? What are your mother's aspirations for you?"

"Well, I think her expectation is that I'll manage to lose any man who might show an interest in me. So Charles," Elizabeth added, laying her hand on his arm, "perhaps I should buy a shackle for you. We don't want you wandering off across any busy roads, now do we?"

At the sound of Charles and Elizabeth's laughter, William glanced towards the table. What do they find to laugh about? he wondered, wishing he could go over and join them. But no, Elizabeth had effectively split the two couples up for some reason that he certainly couldn't figure out. He hoped, though, that he'd done nothing to upset her.

And so the evening drew to a close. Charlotte walked Bill down to his car while the others filled the dishwasher and tidied up the kitchen - well, I'm filling the dishwasher and William is tidying up - but where have Jane and Charles disappeared to?

"Look, William, you don't have to help, really. I can manage."

"But I'd like to help, Elizabeth, to thank you for the meal. I enjoyed it very much."

"You enjoyed it? I'll turn you into a vegetarian yet, William," she winked, starting on the pile of pans in the sink, "just give me time!"

"Now my sister, Georgie would like that," he smiled. "She's always getting at me to keep my cholesterol level down."

"Quite right, too," Elizabeth remarked as she handed him the dishtowel. Well, he did offer to help ...

"Yes," he continued, "Georgie likes to keep tabs on me, I'm afraid."

"Ah, is that why she's coming up? Nothing to do with Iain Glen then! When is she arriving anyway?" Elizabeth asked.

"Tomorrow," William answered, "and on Tuesday we're going up to Strathlyon for a few days. Georgie hasn't been there for a while, what with university and now her work at Pemberley ..."

"Oh, lucky you, William!" Elizabeth exclaimed. It's coming into autumn - the trees will be so beautiful."

"You've been up that way then?" William observed, silently wishing that he could take her with him to show her the estate and introduce her to his sister.

"Yes, many times," she replied. "I love that part of Perthshire; I go up quite often."

"I love it too," he acknowledged. Then after a few moments of silence, he added shyly, "If you're ever in the area, Elizabeth, I hope you'll visit Strathlyon."

"Oh, is it open to the public, William? I thought it was a private estate."

"It is, Elizabeth... . a private estate, that is. But I didn't mean ... well, what I'm trying to say is that I hope we know each other well enough now for you to visit as a friend."

"Why, thank you," Elizabeth responded, blushing at the familiarity of his request. Did he just invite me up to his place? Whew, it seems to be getting very hot in here all of a sudden. Shit, she thought as reality kicked in, this is my sister's boyfriend who's getting me all flustered here. Where are Jane and Charles anyway?

Just at that moment the missing pair came back into the kitchen, Charles brandishing a Sinatra CD that he'd asked to borrow from Jane while Charlotte and Bill were leaving earlier. "Where have you two skivers been?" Elizabeth exclaimed, relieved nonetheless to see them back. "We're all finished here, you know, and you haven't done a thing."

"Oh, Lizzy." Jane kissed her sister's cheek in apology, "I'm sorry, Charles and I just got talking about music ... and we forgot the time."

"That's okay," Elizabeth joked, turning to William as she added, "we'll just remember that it's their turn to do the dishes next time, won't we William?'

As William smiled at Elizabeth in reply, he wondered how it could be that Jane could find so much to say to Charles about her musical tastes. Why, earlier she could barely be persuaded to open her mouth!

The sisters accompanied Charles and William to the close entrance where all four stopped in their tracks, astounded at the sight that met their eyes. For there before them were Bill and Charlotte in a decidedly amorous clinch. They watched open mouthed as Bill's hand crept down and cupped Charlotte's buttock. Even more astonishing to Elizabeth was that her friend didn't bat his hand away, though she appeared to be squirming - was that pleasure or embarrassment? she wondered. Both William and Charles felt, on receipt of a chaste kiss from their dates, that they'd been short changed in comparison to good old Bill. But each secretly ... and guiltily ... would have wished for more only from his date's sister!

As the appealing notion of kissing Elizabeth presented itself to William, a quote from one of his much-loved authors popped into his head. Yes, Walter Scott was certainly perceptive when he said, "O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive". William wondered to himself once again how he'd got himself into this 'tangle' and, more importantly, how soon would he be able to get himself out of it?

~ * ~

Elizabeth and Jane were itching to hear Charlotte's opinion of Bill once the men had left, but she was being rather coy. "It's really too early to tell, Lizzy, but he has asked me out tomorrow night - you don't mind, do you?"

"Of course not, Lottie. And as to it being too early to tell - it certainly didn't look like that, not," Elizabeth paused to give a significant glance at her watch, "five minutes ago when you were winching him at his car." At Charlotte's puzzled expression Elizabeth explained that 'winching' was a word her pupils used for 'kissing'. Pleased to have brought a bright red blush to the face of her normally imperturbable friend, Elizabeth continued, "Tell me, Miss Lucas, is our Bill a good kisser?" She ducked as Charlotte threw a cushion at her.

"Elizabeth! Not telling!" Looking rather anxious, Charlotte asked, "But really, do you think I'm being too forward?"

Elizabeth put her arm round Charlotte's shoulder. "Love, if you agreed to marry him tomorrow, I don't think it would be too forward for Bill. Go for it, I say - but only if you really want to." Jane was silent, but nodded her head in agreement.

"Yes ... well, we'll see," Charlotte replied, "I'm in no rush - I've just met the man, for goodness' sake."

Elizabeth laughed aloud at her friend, "Charlotte Lucas, you are being ironic, I hope - not rushing indeed! Listen, I've been out with Charles quite a few times now and I can assure you, his hand hasn't been where Bill's was when we came down the stairs tonight."

"Well, I should think not, Lizzy," Charlotte returned with a red-faced grin. "He is your boyfriend, after all. You can be quite sure I'd have told him to keep his hands to himself."

"You two, really," Jane said with a giggle that turned into a yawn. "Oh, I'm for turning in before I fall asleep here. 'Night, girls."

After Jane had gone off to bed, Elizabeth and Charlotte sat well into the early hours of the morning, talking about anything and everything as they'd done many, many times in the past. Eventually, having told Elizabeth all the news from Meryton, Charlotte worked the conversation around to the two men she'd just met. It may have seemed that she was totally engrossed in her conversation with Bill, but she'd been watching her friends - and she was intrigued.

"What made you go for Charles, Lizzy?" Charlotte asked. "Don't get me wrong, he is lovely," she added quickly, "but William - wow!"

"Well, Char, let's just say I didn't have a choice. I found out on the night we met that William wasn't interested in me."

"Mmmm, I'm surprised to hear that. You know he looks at you a great deal, Lizzy."

"Yes, I have noticed," Elizabeth replied, her mind going back to that look in the kitchen. Immediately the image came into her head though, she dismissed it - she simply must have been mistaken. "But we've become good friends, Charlotte. There's nothing more in it than that."

"Well ... if you say so. But take care, Lizzy," Charlotte urged. "I'm sure William is not as indifferent as you think."

"Charlotte, you're forgetting one thing here - William is my sister's boyfriend! So it doesn't make any difference what he thinks of me - or what I think of him, for that matter."

"Ah, so you do like him."

"Yes ... I like him, Char, but what of it? He's Jane's."

Charlotte began to make a response to that assertion, but changed her mind - after all it wasn't her place to interfere. And even though she felt she could see quite clearly what was going on here, she knew it was up to the two couples to work it out for themselves. So instead she said, "And what about Charles, Lizzy? How do you feel about him?"

Elizabeth sighed as she answered, telling Charlotte all she needed to know. "He's a really lovely guy, Char, one of the nicest I've ever met. But for the life of me I can't think of him romantically. To tell you the honest truth - I think he's a wee bit sappy."

Charlotte's smile was sad as she shook her head at the expression on Elizabeth's face. "Lizzy, I hate to say it, but you're in a bit of a mess here. I do hope it works out for you - for all of you."

"Oh, I dare say it will, Lottie - one way or another. Hey, perhaps you should stay down in Meryton; I might be back there myself."

"Surely not, Lizzy. You love it here in Glasgow."

"Yes, I know - but Charlotte, I don't think I could live here if William and Jane married. Seeing them together ... it would be too difficult for me. Fuck," she exclaimed, "what a fool I am! Why can't I find a decent man, Char?"

"But you have, my dear - you've found a decent man and found he's not right for you. I'm afraid you're going to have to throw him back into the sea, Lizzy. And," Charlotte reflected, "who knows - Jane and William ... well, that might never happen anyway."

"Yes, you're right, Lottie. I suppose I am getting ahead of myself. Oh, I'm so glad you're here," Elizabeth said as she got up to hug her friend. "I've had no one else to talk to about this. Hell, Char," she added as she peered at her watch, "it's three o' clock. We'll be like zombies in the morning. Time for bed, I think."

Charlotte went off to bed wondering how it was that Elizabeth hadn't noticed the admiring glances that Charles had sent in her sister's direction all evening. What are these people playing at - anyone observing them can see that they're mismatched. Oooh, I'd love to know if the other three are as mixed up as Lizzy, she thought. As far as the men are concerned, I'd say a definite yes ... but Jane ... well, who knows. But then, the way she looked when she got back from Helen and Edward's - I'd say it was a pretty safe bet that our dark horse likes Charles a little more than she should ... !

~ * ~

Jane and Elizabeth saw very little of their friend from that night on and were only a little surprised when, midweek, she moved her belongings into Bill's flat and stopped searching for one of her own. They were flabbergasted, however, at the end of the week when Charlotte told them that Bill had asked her to marry him. "And, girls," she ventured shyly and with some degree of hesitance, "I accepted." Very thorough assurances were sought that this was indeed what Charlotte wanted and, once given, the sisters embraced their friend and wished her all the luck in the world, both thinking privately that she'd need it.

Charlotte proceeded to shock them yet again when she told them that Bill, once he was offered the job at Glenlyon School (a foregone conclusion, in his opinion) wanted her to move up to his cottage just outside Aberfeldy. So the very next day Charlotte travelled home to Meryton to gather up her possessions from her parents' home and organize her transfer as quickly as possible so that she could return to Glasgow to stay with Bill and await a summons from the great Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Jane and Elizabeth were overwhelmed by the speed of the whole undertaking. Looking back on the last few days, Elizabeth joked to her gobsmacked sister, "Where have we gone wrong, Jane? Where are our Bill Collinses to sweep us off our feet and entrap, no sorry ... engage us, in holy matrimony?"

Elizabeth did manage, though, to have a heart to heart with Charlotte before she left for Meryton. She knew that her friend had never had a serious boyfriend - hell, she'd hardly ever had a date - and did worry that she was acting hastily. Cautioning Charlotte that she should perhaps take a bit longer to be sure of her feelings, Elizabeth pointed out the folly of making a bad choice of marriage partner. "Look at my mum and dad, Lottie. You wouldn't like to end up like them."

"Elizabeth ... oh, how do I explain this?" Charlotte paused, looking for the right words to account for her choice. "I'm not like you, Lizzy. I know I'm plain and, frankly, a bit odd to most people - but Bill doesn't think I'm plain or odd, in fact he finds me attractive and - believe it or not - interesting." Charlotte, looking directly at Elizabeth, blushed to the roots of her hair, causing her friend to wonder what was coming next. "I know you don't care much for him, Lizzy, and I know you probably won't want to hear this, but we are quite 'compatible' - if you know what I mean!" Charlotte winked suggestively in an uncannily accurate imitation of her fiancé. Elizabeth, as the former recipient of his unwelcome attentions, laughed quietly to herself, remembering that very look on the face of her former suitor.

"Charlotte Lucas, you're a fast one when you get started!" Elizabeth put her hand out in front of her to signal that she did not want to hear any more, a feigned look of shock on her face. "Too much information, Lottie! Seriously though, if you are truly happy, I'm glad. And I can tell you that you are going to live in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland - I envy you that."

"Thank you, Lizzy, you don't know how much your approbation means to me." And as she embraced her best friend, Charlotte added, "You will come up and visit me - as soon as possible?"

Elizabeth laughed, "You just try and keep me away, Lottie. It's my favourite place in all the world."

*Paul Rodgers - Lead singer with the bands 'Free' and 'Bad Company'.

Continue "Ae Fond Kiss" here


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