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Ae Fond Kiss

Chapter Twenty

It seemed to Elizabeth that she could have floated a Clyde liner on all the tears she wept on her train journey back to Glasgow. She hoped for a time that she could find solace in music, but had to switch off her iPod when she became aware that every album she listened to had at least one song that was the twist of a very sharp knife.

Desperate not to dwell on the events of the day before, she tried to concentrate on the magazine she'd picked up in Matlock. However, after reading the same paragraph several times without the slightest grasp of the content, she gave up and tossed it on to the seat beside her. She tried to sleep, but even that escape was denied her. Every time she closed her eyes the William of yesterday stood before her, cold, distant and unforgiving - the antithesis of the man she'd come to know and love.

When the train finally trundled into Central Station, Elizabeth put on her jacket and stood up to get her bag down from the passenger rack. As she waited in the aisle for the doors to open, the elderly woman who'd been sitting across from her since she'd changed trains at Derby took her by the hand and said in a broad Glasgow accent, "If some eejit's made you greet like this, hen, he's no' worth it. A pretty lassie like you'll soon find a better man."

Not sure whether she should tell her to mind her own business or hug her for her concern, Elizabeth glanced down fleetingly at the woman's hand still clasping hers and asked, "How do you know this has anything to do with a man?"

The woman tutted and shook her head, her expression all-knowing. "Oh, it's aye a man, pet. Ah'm right, eh?"

"Well . . ."

"Ye see," she continued, "ah've had three lassies o' ma ain an' ah've seen it aw before. "If ah wis yer mammy," she added grimly, " ah'd kick his arse for him, whoever he is."*

Elizabeth gasped in astonishment. If only she had the energy to laugh at the picture drawn by the woman's words. Kick William Darcy's arse!! "The way I'm feeling just now," she confided, "I'd hold your bag for you while you did it!"

~ * ~

As soon as Elizabeth got into her flat and was confronted by all of her belongings boxed up and waiting to be transported to Thornlea, she burst into a fresh bout of tears. Before she'd even taken off her jacket, she was on the phone to Jane.

"Hi, it's me. I know it's late but could you come down for a little while?" Elizabeth pleaded, her voice small and shaky. "I need you."

Jane's heart sank at her sister's despondent tone. "Oh, Lizzy, it went badly."

"I'd say it did. William and I are finished."

"No! I'm so sorry to hear that. Look," she offered gently, "why don't you jump in the car and come here? You shouldn't be alone just now."

"I can't, Jane. I left the car at Pemberley and came home on the train."

"You did what? But why would you . . . ? Oh, of course, I'd forgotten that you've been running around in William's car since winter."

"Yes, I'd forgotten too . . . until I had a little fight with an embankment when I foolishly tried to cry and drive at the same time," Elizabeth explained. "So I decided to stay overnight in a little place called Lambton. The hotel staff very kindly made sure that William's car was returned to him."

"William wouldn't have minded if you'd driven up to Glasgow, Lizzy. I'm sure he'd have had your car brought back to you and his picked up."

"I did think of that. But I was scared that my mind would be too occupied for driving safely. And anyway, I don't want to have to deal with William or any of his staff. I think a clean break is best."

"William will still have to return your car to you somehow."

"Yes, I know. I'm sure he'll find a way to do it without coming into contact with me." Elizabeth's voice broke at the thought that she'd never see him again. "Oh, Jane," she cried, "how am I going to get through this?"

Jane had no answer. As far as she could see, this was going to be a lot harder for Elizabeth than her break-up with George Wickham.

"I'll be down right away, Lizzy," she said, her voice filled with compassion. "If you'd like, I'll bring you back here."

"I can't come back to yours, Jane," Elizabeth said, looking around her living room. "I have to start unpacking all of these boxes. And tomorrow I'll have to call the estate agent and take the flat off the market. If you could just come to me for a little while . . ."

"You pour yourself a glass of wine and try to calm down. I'm on my way."

Jane arrived within ten minutes and joined Elizabeth in the kitchen where she was eyeing up the wine bottle, wondering if she should allow herself a second glass. Sometimes alcohol made her maudlin and she knew she didn't need any help in that direction at the moment! As soon as Elizabeth saw her sister the inevitable tears pooled in her eyes once again.

"Leave that, Lizzy. Come and sit down and tell me how all this happened."

Elizabeth slumped into the seat across from Jane. "Well, as I said on the phone, William and I are finished."

"But you told him everything . . . that it was only George?"

"I did. But, guess what," she said bitterly, "he already knew that."

"How? But that's not possible. He's never set eyes on George, has he?"

"No, but he did meet stupid, stupid Bill Collins in Aberfeldy and got some muddled story that Bill had picked up wrongly from Charlotte. Would you believe that William thought George and I were back together?"

"No!" Jane exclaimed. "What a prat!"

"Who?" Elizabeth asked derisively. "Bill or William?"

Jane snorted. "Both, by the sounds of things. But you told William it wasn't true?"

"I did."

"And he believed you?"

"Yes . . . well . . . I think he did. But it didn't make any difference. He'd already made up his mind that we couldn't go back to the way we were. He said he needed space."

"Because you didn't tell him about George's letter? That's a bit extreme. What did you say to that?"

"I told him if that's what he needed then he could have it . . . permanently!"

"Oh, Lizzy, are you sure that was wise?"

"Bloody right it was!" Elizabeth shot back. "The more I consider the whole sorry affair, Jane, the more I think that the only thing I did wrong was not to inform William about the letter. And you know that's because I wanted to tell him in person when he got back from Canada. I didn't deliberately keep him out of the loop."

Jane grasped her sister's hand and squeezed it gently. "I know that, Lizzy. I can't understand William. I thought he'd have been over the moon to hear your explanation."

"I don't understand him either," Elizabeth reflected sadly. "I've been trying to figure it out but I can't come up with any answer. I knew something was seriously wrong when he wouldn't allow me to contact him, but I thought he'd come round once I'd put him in the picture."

"That's what Charles and I were hoping would happen."

"But, Jane, I can't explain it . . . it was as though he'd already decided to close me out and nothing I could say would change his mind. I've never seen him like that before. Maybe," she offered disconsolately, "he didn't really love me after all."

"No, Lizzy, I can't believe that - not after all he went through to get you."

Elizabeth ignored Jane's comment and went on, "I was just thinking while I was sitting feeling sorry for myself on that blasted train journey that I should have taken more note of what Gran Peggy always used to say about the fickleness of rich people. I shouldn't have let myself get drawn in like I did."

"But William wanted to marry you. You know he wasn't like the people gran used to know. Perhaps he'll come to his senses. If you give him the time he asked for, he'll maybe . . ."

"No, Jane. If you'd seen his face you'd have known he wasn't asking for time. He wanted our relationship finished - kaput - he just didn't have the bottle to say it."

"I still don't understand what you did that was so wrong."

"Well, William thinks I'm some kind of serial secret-keeper, I know that. And I suppose," Elizabeth said with a sigh, "that was true in the past. But I thought I was improving, Jane. I've told him things I've never told anyone else . . . not even you. It's been so hard for me to trust another man after George, and I thought he appreciated that."

Elizabeth began to cry again, prompting Jane to get up and fetch a box of tissues from the worktop. "I'd never have believed this of William," she said angrily, handing the box to her sister. "Are you sure there's not something else, Lizzy?"

Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. "If there is, I'm not aware of it. He was really ticked off that Bill Collins was able to tell him about George's letter. And," she added, "he was none too pleased that you, Charlotte and Charles knew about it before he did."

"Oh, Lizzy, it sounds as though Bill Collins has a lot to answer for. If only he'd kept his mouth shut . . ." Jane was silent for a moment, then added, "If only Charlotte had kept her mouth shut, for that matter."

Elizabeth's reply was almost a whisper. "Yeah, well, she only did the same as you."

Jane began to protest, "But Charles didn't . . ." Then she stopped and looked at Elizabeth's pained expression. "You're right, Lizzy," she admitted. "I'd like to think that Charles wouldn't have been as careless as Bill, but I should have kept my mouth shut too. You should have been able to confide in us without anything getting back to William. I'm so sorry."

"Well, it's all water under the bridge now. I'll just have to get over it as best I can."

"You will, Lizzy, eventually," Jane said, tightening her grip on Elizabeth's hand. "I can see it won't be easy. But look how you managed after George."

"You know, Jane, when I split up with George, I hated him for what he'd done to me. Even then it was hard to get my life back together again. I don't know how I'm going to manage this time because although I'm really pissed off with William just now, I still love him. Hell," she added bleakly, "just look around you - I'm all packed up ready to go and spend the rest of my life with him."

"I wish there was something I could do to help you. Maybe if I asked Charles to speak to William . . . ? I know they haven't been in contact with each other since William got back from Canada, but Charles would do anything to help you, you know that."

Elizabeth shook her head vigorously. "No, Jane, please don't. I know you mean well, but I don't want anyone interceding for me. William and I are finished. You can help me by just listening to my moans and wiping up my silly tears."

Jane winced at the wisp of a smile on her sister's face as she tried to make light of her distress. "Lizzy, I've got bad news for you. My blood pressure's still causing my doctor concern. He wants to admit me to hospital. If my BP doesn't come down, I'll be there until the baby's born."

"Jane," Elizabeth gasped, "why didn't you stop me going on about William? The last thing you need just now is to have me crying on your shoulder."

"I'd have been mad if you hadn't called me, Lizzy. But," she went on tentatively, "I do have some news that you might not like."

"Go on, tell me. I don't think things can get much worse than they are now."

"Charles has business in London and he's arranged for me to be admitted to a hospital down there so that he can visit me every evening after work. We're also hoping we'll be able to patch up this rift with his family - maybe even bring Susan and mum together."

"God, I don't envy you that task. So, where's this fairy-tale family reunion to take place?"

"St Mary's Hospital - it's where Charles and his sisters were born. Lizzy, I'll be in the private wing. I know how you feel about private healthcare. I hope you won't be too angry with me."

"Jane, if you want to pay to have your baby, that's your choice. Charles can afford it. To be quite honest, I've made such a muck up of my life, I'm in no position to be critical of anyone else."

"So you will come and see me when the baby's born?"

"My first niece or nephew! Are you kidding? Of course I'll be there."

"And remember, if you need someone to talk to, I'm just at the other end of the telephone line - even if it is in a hospital room."

"Don't worry about me, Jane. Your priority is to stay well and deliver a healthy baby. As you said, I've been through this before. And I have Lynda here - she'll not mind getting her ear bent for the next few months."

"Lizzy, do you remember I mentioned to you before about counselling? I know someone really good . . ."

"Thanks for the offer, Jane. But I don't need counselling - not now. Seeing George and hearing his apology did me a lot of good. All the hurt and anger I'd felt for so long . . . it kind of flew out the window that night. I was able to let George stay in my flat precisely because I felt nothing for him. And I truly do forgive him. Now I just need to get over William - and I don't believe going to a counsellor will make that any easier."

"Well, if you change your mind . . ."

Elizabeth was about to reply when the ringing of the telephone interrupted her.

"Do you want me to get that, Lizzy?"

"Could you, please? I'm not in the mood to be sociable tonight."

Jane picked up the receiver. After a few moments she mouthed to Elizabeth, "It's Charlotte. She wants to know if you've heard from William."

"Tell her I'll call her tomorrow," Elizabeth whispered back. "I can't go through all of this again tonight."

~ * ~

Elizabeth waited until the afternoon to return Charlotte's phone call. Ever since William had told her about meeting Bill Collins she knew this conversation would have to take place. Much as she hated confrontation, she had to let Charlotte know that she was angry with her . . . and with Bill . . . for being so indiscreet. She didn't want to lose them as friends, but she couldn't allow them to get away with interfering in her life.

"Charlotte, hi. I'm sorry I wasn't up to a telephone conversation yesterday. I'd just got back from Pemberley."

"Oh, good, you've been down to see William. I hope you two have sorted things out?"

"No . . . well, we sorted things out, I suppose, but not amicably. We're finished, Char."

"You and William?" Charlotte gasped. "But how could that happen? You did explain everything to him?"

"I did, but apparently your dear husband got there before me."

"He . . . what? Bill spoke to William? When?"

"They met in Aberfeldy the day after George stayed here."

"That's strange. Bill never mentioned meeting William to me."

"I'm not surprised. It appears that he spilled the beans about my private letter and gave William the impression that I was back with George. That's why I couldn't contact him for so long - he was too angry with me. What I'd like to know," Elizabeth demanded, "is just what you told that blabber-mouthed husband of yours when you spoke to him on the phone?"

"Lizzy, that's not very fair. Bill wouldn't have meant . . ." Charlotte's voice tailed off. She was appalled that Bill might have played a part in mucking up her best friend's relationship. She took a deep breath and began again. "Of course he shouldn't have said anything to William about the letter, I accept that. As far as you and George are concerned, well, all I can say is he must have misunderstood - his mind was on other things. He was so angry with me for having my mobile switched off and he was obviously impatient to tell me about my dad."

Charlotte was silent as she thought through the conversation she'd had with her husband. "I can't remember my exact words, but I'm sure I didn't say anything that would give Bill the impression that you were back with George."

"I didn't think you would have, Char, but that's what he led William to believe, just the same."

"Bill must have got it wrong. Idiot man!" she sputtered. "Just wait until I get my hands on him."

"Maybe, Elizabeth ventured quietly, "you should be a bit more careful about sharing confidences with him."

Elizabeth heard Charlotte draw in a deep breath. Here it comes! Knowing her friend had a much quicker temper than Jane, she fully expected a defensive, if not an openly irate, response.

"My God, you're right, Lizzy!" Charlotte cried. "I'm so sorry. If I hadn't said anything to him about the letter . . . or anything else to do with you and George . . ."

Surprised by the swiftness of Charlotte's apology, Elizabeth felt her resentment evaporate instantly. "Well, it didn't really matter in the end," she admitted. "William split up with me because he'd had enough of all my skeletons. Despite what Bill said, I'm pretty sure he believed me when I told him there was nothing going on between George and me."

"Lizzy, I feel terrible. I hope you'll forgive me . . . and Bill . . . for this. We've known each other for such a long time - I'd hate to lose our friendship."

"That's not going to happen, Char. I made the error of judgment in not telling William about the letter as soon as I got it. He, for whatever reason, couldn't see his way past that. It seems to me," she added sadly, "that we've really only ourselves to blame."

"This is going to be hard for you, Lizzy, isn't it?"

"I won't lie, Char: I'm feeling pretty wretched at the moment."

"If you're finding it difficult to cope and you need to get away for a while, remember that you're always welcome at ours."

"Thanks for that. I might take you up on your offer during the summer holidays, if that's okay. I've no other plans now that . . . I won't be going to Italy."

"If that's the case, you must come to us . . . for your whole summer break, if you like."

"Maybe you'd better check with Bill about that."

Charlotte laughed. "After what he's done, he owes you, Lizzy," she declared. "Now, I hate to leave you when you're so upset, but mum's waiting for me. We were just leaving for the hospital when you phoned."

"Oh, Char, I'm sorry I didn't ask . . . your dad . . . how is he?"

"Good news. He's recovering well and his consultant says he'll soon be fit enough to have his bypass."

"I'm pleased for you all. Give my love to your parents. Bye for now."

"Bye, Lizzy. Take care, and remember I'll be here for you if you need me."

~ * ~

Let's face it, Elizabeth was never going to return after the things I said to her. The triumph of hope over experience*, right enough, William told himself ruefully as he retreated to his study to lick his wounds. I was stupid to think there was any chance of her coming back.

Only twice during the day was William's self-imposed solitude disturbed. Even though Mrs Reynolds was seriously displeased with his actions of the day before, she insisted on bringing breakfast and lunch to him on a tray. Each time she entered the room William could see that she was itching to speak her mind. He, however, gave her no opening. He'd berated himself more than enough since Elizabeth had left and he was in no humour to hear her voice her disapproval.

Later, in the evening, she returned to his room to collect his trays. She frowned but made no comment when she saw that his food had hardly been touched. "You'll be down for dinner at seven as usual?" she demanded.

William, who was standing looking out of the window, replied without turning round, "I thought I'd eat here, if you don't mind."

"You can please yourself about that," she retorted, "but your dinner will be on the table in the dining room. I've got enough to do without running up and down all these stairs after you."

William bit back a sharp rebuke. He deserved her censure - even though he did pay her wages. "Of course, Mrs Reynolds, as you wish."

When William got to the dinning room, he was surprised to find his sister there. He'd expected her to stay well out of his way after the ear bashing he'd given her for inviting Elizabeth down to Pemberley when he wasn't ready to face her.

Georgiana wasn't in the least bit chastened by her brother's anger. In fact, she felt she'd done him a good turn and, in a few months when he was over Elizabeth Bennet, she was sure he'd thank her for her intervention. She observed him for some minutes as he sat at the table staring into space, his meal untouched. His determined silence told her that he wanted to be left alone, but she'd been waiting all day to find out what had happened between him and Elizabeth and she wasn't prepared to be kept in the dark any longer.

"Well?" She waited for several moments before William allowed her a fleeting glance.

"Well what, Georgie?"

"I take it that you and Elizabeth are finished?"

"I'm afraid we are."

"What do you mean . . . you're afraid?" she asked disgustedly. "I hope you're not going to forgive her and take her back? - not after what she's done!"

William flashed his sister an angry look. "If Elizabeth and I don't get back together, it'll be because she can't bring herself to forgive me - not the other way around."

Georgiana looked at him as though he had two heads. "After she slept with another man? What has she got to forgive?"

"Elizabeth has told me that's not what happened, Georgie. It's what I thought initially, I grant you. But I found out from Elizabeth's friend, Bill Collins - you remember him; you met him at Jane's wedding - that the guy with her wasn't someone she'd just met. He was her ex-boyfriend and . . ."

"Oh," Georgiana retorted sarcastically, "so it's all right for her to sleep with her ex, just for old time's sake."

"If you'd let me finish. Elizabeth said she didn't sleep with him. He'd written to her because he . . . well, because he'd been a complete bastard to her when they were together, and he had a lot to apologise for. She was going to reply to him but decided to wait until I got back from Canada so she could discuss it with me. Then he turned up on her doorstep unexpectedly. She thought it would be all right to have dinner with him to sort things out. At the end of the evening he was too sick to drive so she let him stay the night in her flat."

"What - he'd got drunk?"

"No. He was ill."

"Come on, William; you're not going to fall for that. Look at her appalling mother . . . and at the way her sister, Jane, cheated on you. Elizabeth would have said anything to get you back. You know what a catch you must be for a woman like that."

"I'll forgive that remark, Georgie, because you haven't had a chance to get to know Elizabeth. But believe me, she's no gold-digger. Hell, she almost left me because she couldn't come to terms with all my wealth."

"Yeah, right!"

'I don't care whether or not you believe me. I know it's true. And anyway I didn't finish with her - she finished with me."

Georgiana's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "She didn't!"

"She did," William returned emphatically. "I let her know that even if I could believe she was telling the truth, I couldn't go back to the way we were before . . . that I needed some time to get over the shock of seeing her with her ex. That picture of them together - I've been unable to get it out of my head."

William looked directly at his sister. "Then she told me that if I needed time, we were finished."

"Wow! She ditched you. Maybe I was wrong about her."

"That's what I've been telling you, Georgie. She's nothing like her appalling mother or her cheating sister. In fact, Elizabeth would agree with your assessment of her mother. Hell knows, she's suffered more from that woman's vicious tongue than anyone else. And as far as Jane is concerned she only did to me what I'd have done to her if Elizabeth had permitted it. In the end, Elizabeth was the only one who acted nobly amongst the four of us."

Georgiana carried on with her meal. As she ate she puzzled over her brother's words. "William, I don't get you. You were able to forgive Jane for sleeping with your best friend while she was supposed to be going out with you. Yet you couldn't forgive Elizabeth for . . . for what? She told you she hadn't slept with her ex-boyfriend and you appear to believe her."

William sighed wearily. "I do believe her."

"You know, William, I think you should give up on the relationship front until you sort yourself out. From what you say of Elizabeth it sounds as though you weren't the best person for her. She seems . . . fragile . . . and you're attitude towards her has been rather cruel, to say the least."

"Do you think I don't know that now? Look, Georgie, I really don't want to discuss this."

"No, I suppose I wouldn't want to discuss this either if I'd been such an idiot!"

"Georgiana!"

Ignoring the warning note in her brother's voice, Georgiana continued. "You've done one thing though, William, you've made me feel some sympathy for Elizabeth. I'd never have believed that you'd let your Darcy pride come between you and the woman you professed to love."

"Darcy pride?" William asked, a puzzled frown on his face. "What Darcy pride?"

"Well. Maybe I should say Darcy/Fitzwilliam pride. You know," Georgiana went on, "the pride that caused our parents to live apart because neither could face the idea of giving way to the other."

William pushed his untouched plate away and got up from the table. "Don't bring our parents into this," he warned.

"Why not? Let's face it, you couldn't forgive them either."

"I said no more, Georgie. I have my reasons."

As he was leaving the room Georgiana couldn't resist adding, "I'm not suggesting for a moment that you should try to get Elizabeth back after what you've done, but this problem you seem to have with forgiveness, maybe you need to see someone about it."

William turned to Georgiana and answered tersely, "I made a big mistake with Elizabeth, but our parents lied to us, Georgie. As you pointed out, they had no intention of living in one house so that we could be like other families."

"They tried to be together as often as possible, William. Maybe one day . . ."

"Take my word for it, Georgie, it was never going to happen."

Georgiana's expression was petulant as she answered her brother. "You don't know that. I always imagined them compromising in their old age - spending the summer months at Strathlyon and going off down to Pemberley for winter."

William looked as though he was going to say something, then he changed his mind. "As I said, that was never going to happen."

~ * ~

When William went into the dining room the next morning, there was a slim package bundled with the mail at the side of his cereal bowl. It had been sent to Strathlyon and redirected to Pemberley. Inside was a CD and wrapped around it was a note from Roddie Graham. Ignoring the rest of his post, William opened Roddie's letter.

Dear William,

Elizabeth made the enclosed for you when she was in my studio. She gave me her address so that I could send it to her but I seem to have misplaced it.

She didn't want you to hear this CD until she'd checked it out herself - she seems to think that she's just an average singer. I'm sure you'll agree that she's anything but average. Apologise to her for me for losing her address and for sending this to you. When she hears it I don't think she'll mind that you've had the pleasure of listening to it first.

Looking forward to seeing you both again. I'm glad you've found someone who suits you so well.

Your friend,

Roddie.

William sat with the CD in his hand, grateful that his sister hadn't yet emerged from her bedroom to witness the tears trickling down his face. It isn't enough that I've made the biggest mistake of my life, he thought bitterly. I now have to have my faced rubbed in it. Talk about instant karma!

He knew, of course, that he was in no way obliged to listen to the disc. Maybe I should just shut this away in the bottom of a cupboard until I can face hearing Elizabeth's voice without blubbering like an infant. Or I could wrap it back up straight away and send it to her. William almost laughed - as if it wouldn't take more willpower than he possessed to do that!

Unable to face his breakfast, he fetched his CD player and his coat and slipped out for an early morning walk around the estate so that he could listen to Elizabeth's songs without being disturbed by his sister - or by Mrs Reynolds giving him dirty looks or fussing over his lack of appetite.

He wandered aimlessly, taking no notice of the spring landscape bursting with new life all around him. His attention was held completely by the voice singing in his ear.

An hour later, and several plays of the disc, found William sitting by the lake deep in thought. He recalled Elizabeth saying at Strathlyon that she liked to indulge in sad songs when she was feeling happy. All I can say is you must have been feeling extremely happy when you made this CD, sweetheart.

As he stared dejectedly into the still water he replayed Desire. Elizabeth's warm, sultry voice carried him back to the elation he'd felt when she'd arrived at Strathlyon . . . quite unexpectedly. He'd been out visiting Rory Macpherson's family and had returned to find her waiting nervously in his sitting room, not sure that she'd done the right thing travelling all the way up from Glasgow. Outside, the garden had been covered in a thick blanket of snow and Elizabeth had persuaded him out of the warm house to build a snowman; an undertaking, he remembered, that had soon been swapped for more pleasurable activities. That had been the night . . . no, he stopped himself, don't go there.

William pressed PLAY again and listened to the poignant lyrics of Ae Fond Kiss. He remembered now that he'd had to learn this very song in his last year at primary school. God, this is a day for reminiscing. I haven't thought of that night in years. His class had performed Burns' love song at an end of term concert. Many of the mothers had brushed away a tear as they'd proudly watched their children come off the stage. His mother, he recalled, hadn't been able to attend - she'd been too busy entertaining guests at Strathlyon.

He lay back on the damp grass and closed his eyes to shut out the bright morning sun. The first notes of the next song began - Pearl Jam's Black. So appropriate. Would Elizabeth be able to listen to these songs again, he wondered, or had he spoiled them for her forever?

She used to laugh at him for not knowing all the lyrics to his favourite songs. She was always able to sing along, word-perfect; he liked to let the music wash over him, only learning the words if something caught his attention. This time Elizabeth's voice held him spellbound . . .

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as his body once did.
All five horizons revolved around his soul
As the earth to the sun,
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn.
Ooh, and all I taught him was everything
Ooh, I know he gave me all that he wore.
And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything.
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything...
I take a walk outside,
I'm surrounded by some kids at play.
I can feel their laughter, so why do I sear?
Oh, and twisted thoughts that spin round my head,
I'm spinning, oh, I'm spinning
How quick the sun can, drop away.
And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything.
All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything...
All the love gone bad, turned my world to black,
Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I will be.
I know someday you'll have a beautiful life, I know you'll be a star
In somebody else's sky, but why, why, why
Can't it be, can't it be mine?

As he took in the final words of yearning and despair, tears pooled in William's eyes and slowly trickled down into his hair.

~ * ~

Georgiana tapped sharply on William's bedroom door. No reply. What am I thinking? He'll never hear me with that dratted volume turned up so loud. She entered her brother's room to find him lying on the bed with his eyes closed, impervious to everything except the music blasting from his speakers.

How many times have I heard these songs now, I wonder. I wish to God Elizabeth had had a voice like a foghorn! "William," she shouted into his ear.

William got such a fright he almost jumped into the air. "For God's sake, Georgie. You'd think the house was on fire. What do you want?"

"Mrs Reynolds says you've eaten hardly anything for days. You'll make yourself ill. All you do is listen to that blasted CD morning, noon and night. It would be better if I took it away since it's clearly upsetting you. You'll never get over Elizabeth if you listen to her voice over and over."

"Take it if you like," William replied, pulling himself up and sitting with his back against the headboard.

Georgiana raised her eyebrows suspiciously. "Really?"

"Yes. Go ahead."

She switched off the CD player and put the CD into its case. She'd hide it in her room for a few days then she'd get rid of it.

"By the way, Georgie," William said when she was almost out of his bedroom door, "Elizabeth's disc is on my computer, my iPod and I've made a back-up copy. You can keep that one to listen to, if you like."

Georgiana marched back into the room. "Huh, I thought that was too easy. And why would I want to keep this?" she asked, tossing the CD back on to her brother's bed. "I've heard it more times than I want to already."

William ignored her jibe. "It's beautiful, don't you think?"

"What does that matter? It doesn't do any good to discuss it, Will. You must try to forget her."

"I want to talk about it, Georgie," William replied firmly. "Did you like the CD?"

"Elizabeth has got a beautiful voice," she admitted reluctantly.

"And the songs?"

Georgiana shrugged her shoulders. "Robert Burns, some band I've never heard, and Ryan Adams. An odd mix - not one I'd have put on a CD."

"It wouldn't be odd if you knew Elizabeth," William explained. "Ae Fond Kiss was a favourite of her grandmother's. The second song, Pearl Jam's Black, is her own favourite. And the Ryan Adams - that was for me. She didn't know much about him until we met."

"Ah, I see." Georgiana sat down on the edge of William's bed. It broke her heart to see the look on her brother's face when he spoke of Elizabeth. "You know, William, when the Bingleys drove me home from Jane's wedding they were really nasty about the Bennet family and really worried that Charles had made a huge mistake. I let their attitude influence my feelings about Elizabeth. I shouldn't have done that. Then, of course, when you told me that she'd cheated on you I . . . I hated her. I was so mean to her when she phoned here. I wish I could apologise for that."

"Well, if it's any consolation, Georgie," William reflected, "in the queue of people needing to apologise to Elizabeth, you're miles behind me."

"Maybe," Georgiana ventured, "you'll get the chance some time."

"I don't think I deserve another chance," William replied, shaking his head sadly.

"Why don't you write to her? You can tell her how sorry you are and leave it up to her to get in touch with you if she wants. Surely that would be better than just doing nothing, William."

"You've changed your tune, Georgie. Five minutes ago you wanted me to have nothing to do with her."

"I'm prepared to admit I misjudged her, Will. I really do hope you two can sort something out - especially if she's as miserable as you are right now!"

"I'll think about it" was all William would concede. "But I'm not going to do anything until I get back from Canada, so you needn't bother harassing me. Anyway, since when did you appoint yourself my nanny?"

"When you started acting like a child, dear brother. And, as your nanny, I must insist that you come downstairs and have something to eat."

~ * ~

Elizabeth was finding life without William every bit as tough as she'd expected. She hadn't realised how accustomed she was to have him around. Even though Jane and Charlotte phoned her every evening, and Lynda Anderson popped up to check on her frequently, she was finding it difficult spending so much time on her own.

When the phone rang one evening, Elizabeth answered it with reasonable cheerfulness, expecting to hear Jane or Charlotte's voice. "Hello?"

"Lizzy, where have you been? I've been calling you every five minutes since half four."

Elizabeth's heart sank. It was her mother. She'd been dreading this call since Jane had moved down to London. The last thing she needed to hear tonight was I told you so.

"Hi mum, I've just this minute walked through the door. I've been to the hairdresser's."

"Oh, you've had nothing drastic done, I hope. I'll never forget the time you had your hair dyed that bleachy blonde colour because you wanted to be just like Jane. You looked like . . . well, I'll not say what you looked like, but it certainly wasn't Jane!"

Elizabeth glanced at her reflection in the hall mirror. She hardly recognised herself with her new haircut. "No, I've had nothing drastic done," she replied. "I'm a bit past that sort of thing now, mum."

"Thank God for that!"

"Mum, I've got a lot of marking to do this evening. Are you phoning for something in particular?"

"Yes, I am, Lizzy. I know you're moving in with William soon, but you haven't given me your new address and telephone number. Jane says she can't remember them, which is really not like her. I know that pregnant women can be forgetful, but that's ridiculous. I'd ask Charles if I ever got a chance to see him - but he's never at the hospital when I'm there."

Elizabeth was stunned into silence for several moments. Jane hadn't told their mother about her break up with William. She really took to heart what I said about not interfering! "You won't need it, mum," she said when she eventually found her voice. "William and I aren't together any more, so I'll not be moving."

"But . . . when did this happen? I visited Jane today and she didn't mention it."

"It happened a couple of weeks ago. Jane probably felt it was something I should tell you myself."

"Well, I'll be . . . ! You know, now that I think about it, Jane has been very vague about you moving in with William. I thought that was strange. Well, well, didn't I tell your dad this would happen sooner or later?"

"Mum, if you're going to gloat, I'm not in the mood to hear it."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, Lizzy, I'm not criticising you," Frances stressed. "But . . . I always thought William Darcy was up to no good, jumping from Jane to you without so much as a by-your-leave. He was just a rich guy looking to have a good time before settling down. Your grandmother was right - these relationships rarely come to anything."

"It worked out for Jane," Elizabeth pointed out.

"Yes, she must be the exception. Unfortunately, you and I weren't so fortunate."

"There you are," Elizabeth replied bitterly, "at last we have something in common."

"No need to be like that, Lizzy. It's not as though you've known William for very long . . . not like George Wickham."

Elizabeth swore under her breath. Would this woman ever understand her? "Mum, I was all packed up ready to move in with William. I'm devastated that we've split up. Oh, I have to go," she insisted. "I don't even know why I'm having this conversation with you."

"I expect you won't believe this, but I am sorry about you and William, even though I didn't think there was a hope in hell that you'd stay together. But . . . Hold on a moment, Lizzy."

Elizabeth could hear her parents muffled voices, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. After what felt like several minutes she'd had enough and was just about to hang up when her mother came back on to the line.

"Your dad's had to go out to see a client. He says he's very sorry to hear your news and he'll phone you later on when he gets back. Now, since we're on our own, I want to offer you a piece of advice."

Elizabeth began to protest, but Frances interrupted her.

"I know you don't want my opinion but I have to say this . . . don't, for God's sake, take up with the first man who shows an interest in you. Give yourself some time to get over William Darcy."

"For goodness' sake, mum," Elizabeth gasped, "you make me sound as though I jump from one man straight into the arms of the next. I've only had two boyfriends in my whole life!"

"That wasn't my intention, Lizzy. You can disbelieve me if you wish, but I don't want to see you make the same mistake I did."

Whoa, too much information, mum! "Okay, okay, I'll accept your advice. But please don't say any more on this subject . . . you're talking about my dad and I love him."

"That's all I wanted to say. I'll go and let you get on with your marking. Good bye, Lizzy."

Bye, mum."

"Oh, hold on a minute, Lizzy. I've remembered my other reason for calling. Your cousin, Jamie, is travelling up to Skye to do some climbing in the Cuillins. Your Aunt Lesley asked if it would be okay for him to spend a couple of days with you on his way up."

"I don't know, mum. I'm not very good company at the moment . . ."

"That's all right, Lizzy. I'll explain everything to Lesley. I'm sure Jamie will understand. He can just drive straight on up to Skye."

Elizabeth couldn't believe her ears. Normally her mother would have nagged her into submission, and here she was, actually sounding quite . . . civil.

"No, tell Lesley that Jamie's very welcome. I'm sure his company will do me a world of good. After all, I can't carry on feeling sorry for myself forever."

"Quite right, Lizzy," Frances agreed. "You show that William Darcy that you're not going to sit pining over him."

~ * ~

Having satisfied himself that Anne was doing a fine job despite her crutches and her plaster cast, William was able to return from Canada much earlier than expected. He'd realised very quickly that his longing for Elizabeth wasn't diminished by a change of surroundings. So he arrived back at Thornlea, having figured that he might as well be miserable in the comfort of his own home.

One Friday night when he was trying to garner the concentration to read more than a few words of an important report without his mind drifting off to thoughts of Elizabeth, the phone rang.

"Hello, Darcy residence."

"William, it's so good to hear your voice. How are you?"

William cringed as he recognised the familiar drawl. "Hi, Caroline, I'm fine. What can I do for you?"

"Oh, William," Caroline gushed, "I'm so glad you're fine after . . . well, you know."

Who the hell told Caroline Bingley? "I presume by you know, you're talking about Elizabeth and me splitting up. Who's been gossiping to you, Caroline?"

"Gossiping, William?" Caroline's voice was filled with indignation. "I never gossip. And I know nothing more than that you and Elizabeth are finished." She paused as though waiting for William to fill her in. When no explanation was forthcoming, she carried on. "Anyway, forget Elizabeth, that's not why I'm phoning. Will, it's my birthday tomorrow and I thought it would be nice to spend it with Charles and Jane. But I turned up on their doorstep hoping to surprise them and they're not here - thank God the housekeeper was around to let me in or I'd have to have come to you begging for a bed."

Here Caroline laughed at her little joke, not in the least concerned that William didn't join her "Don't you think it was mean of them," she asked, "to up sticks to London without telling me? Anyway, enough of them. I thought I could take you out for a meal to cheer us both up."

"Caroline, I'm really busy at the . . ."

"William, you're not going to leave me to sit all alone in my brother's house, in a strange city, on my birthday." Caroline's voice oozed self-pity. "It's only dinner," she added beseechingly.

William hesitated, another attempt at a refusal already forming on his lips. His world had changed, oh how it had changed, and here was Caroline Bingley, the same self-centred, conniving person she'd always been. Did she really think he wouldn't see the implausibility of her knowing about his break up with Elizabeth and yet not knowing that Jane and Charles were down in London? But then, he considered, perhaps this was an opportunity to nip Caroline's renewed interest in the bud. It was taking enough resolve just to get through each day; having Caroline Bingley hanging on to his coat tails was more than he could endure.

"Okay, Caroline," William offered, trying to disguise the sigh that escaped his lips, "I can cancel my plans for tomorrow night so . . . where would you like to go?"

"Great, William, thank you! No need to book though, it's all arranged. I've ordered a taxi. I'll pick you up at seven thirty."

~ * ~

William had hardly got himself settled in Caroline's taxi when he realised it was following a very familiar route. With alarm bells ringing loudly in his head, he asked, "Where exactly are we heading?"

Caroline slid closer to William and put her arm through his as she replied, "It's a surprise, William."

"Caroline!"

"Charles mentioned to me a while back that you're a vegetarian now, or has that changed since you dumped Elizabeth?"

"Damn you, Caroline," William replied heatedly, freeing his arm from hers. "I didn't dump Elizabeth. I . . ."

"I'm so sorry, William," she interrupted, taken aback by his angry tone, "please forget I said that. You asked where we're going. I've booked us a table at a little place Charles recommended."

"It wouldn't be called Gardiners, by any chance?"

"Yes, that's it. "

"Caroline, do you know that Gardiners belongs to Elizabeth's aunt and uncle?"

"No, William, I'd no . . ." She paused to give the matter some thought. "Now wait a moment, though. Charles might have mentioned it."

"Don't you think it would be rather crass of me to eat there so soon after my split up with their niece?"

"I don't see why, William. I presume you're not banned from the restaurant. Aren't the Gardiners business people? They'd be mad to turn away business from a Darcy. And at least we'll get decent service, since Charles is one of the family . . . more's the pity!"

"I can't do it, Caroline," William said firmly. "Apart from the fact that I might not be welcome, I have too many happy memories of that place. We'll have to go somewhere else."

"At this time on a Saturday night? Everywhere decent will be booked to the hilt."

William turned to Caroline with a scornful frown. "You've just commented on Helen and Edward being mad to turn away business from a Darcy, Caroline. You must surely know I can get a table anywhere . . . at any time."

Caroline could see that William wasn't prepared to change his mind even though the taxi had just arrived at the door of Gardiners. Maybe, she thought, it's not wise to try to compete with William's happy memories of Elizabeth Bennet - not just yet anyway. "Okay, fine, you choose somewhere else. I'm really not that bothered. I would never have booked this restaurant if I'd seen it beforehand," she went on, her nose turned up in disdain as she examined Gardiners' entrance through the taxi window. What on earth had given Charles the idea that this establishment should be recommended, she wondered? Well, they do say love is blind . . .

William leant forward in his seat and asked the taxi driver to take them to the Ubiquitous Chip in Ashton Lane. On the way there he cancelled Caroline's booking at Gardiners and called the Chip's owner to make sure a table would be available for him. Having completed his tasks, he slipped his mobile into his pocket and informed Caroline that everything had been arranged. As she offered her gratitude . . . profusely, William closed his eyes and, breathing a sigh of relief that he'd avoided the embarrassment of meeting Elizabeth's relatives, wished that he could close his ears as easily!

William was certain he'd made the right choice over the change of restaurant. Gardiners was last place in Glasgow he'd have chosen to enter on that or any night . . . especially with Caroline. What would Helen and Edward have said? They'd probably have turfed him out as soon as he'd put his nose through the door. And as he'd told Caroline, there was also the matter of his memories - the meals he and Elizabeth had shared in Gardiners had been such delightful experiences.

Blushing, William remembered one Saturday night after they'd returned from Strathlyon when Elizabeth had sat across from him, her hand placed on his thigh, gently - and arousingly - stroking him and smiling wickedly at his discomfort. He remembered hissing at her to desist when he spied her uncle approaching their table, obviously coming to greet his favourite niece and her new boyfriend and to sit with them for a while. As often as William sought to remove her hand, Elizabeth persisted in returning to her mission. Eventually he gave up and tried to hold her hand tightly in his while attempting to eat his meal with the other. Fortunately, it had been too busy a night for Edward to sit with them for very long - and he was called away by Helen before he could ask what was causing his niece to giggle so naughtily.

Caroline jogged him out of his reminiscences as the taxi drew up at the Ubiquitous Chip. "William, where are you?" she asked, shaking his arm. "Miles away, by the looks of it. We're here and it looks much better than the dive we've just left."

William frowned. "Caroline, if you're going to criticise Jane's family all night then I'm going home."

"Don't be silly, William. It was just a joke. I won't say another word about the Bennets. Now, can we go inside? I'm cold and I'm hungry."

They were shown to a table in the dining room, closer to the entrance than Caroline would have liked. She was on the point of objecting when William put a warning hand on her arm. Her complaint died on her lips.

"Don't take this as criticism of the Bennets, William," she said as she sat down, "but I'm surprised to find that you and Charles liked Gardiners so much - it's not your usual style."

William's eyes were filled with sadness as he replied, "It's maybe not the most refined restaurant in Glasgow, but we had many happy nights there. Elizabeth's aunt and uncle always made us very welcome."

Caroline, observing that William dwelt with rather too much fondness on the subject of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her wonderful family, decided to bring him smartly into the present. "You haven't complimented me on my dress. I rushed out and bought it especially for tonight."

Although William thought to himself that she needn't have bothered, he replied as politely as he could. "It's very nice, Caroline - a striking shade of orange."

"Orange, William," Caroline cried. "I never wear orange! This is a Valentino - Valentino doesn't do orange. The colour is mango."

"I beg your pardon," William replied, and under his breath he added, it looks exactly like orange to me.

~ * ~

William very quickly remembered that he was not required to pay attention to Caroline's conversation. As long as he wore an interested expression on his face, he could allow his mind to wander. Which it did - back to the last time he and Elizabeth enjoyed a meal here. It was the night before his fatal departure for Canada. Little did he know, he thought sadly, as Elizabeth sat holding hands with him, that it would be their last evening together.

As William poured over the menu, seeking out the vegetarian options, the owner of the restaurant came into the dining room and immediately came over to his table.

"William," he said, holding out his hand, "you've arrived. It's grand to see you again."

William stood up to shake hands with his friend. "Ronnie, I'd like to introduce you to Caroline. She's Charles Bingley's sister. Caroline, this is Ronnie."

"Pleased to meet you, Caroline. I've met your brother and his lovely wife, Jane. Ronnie hesitated as though unsure of what he should do next, then said, "Excuse us a moment, Caroline," and drew William a few feet away from the table.

"William, I don't know what's going on, but I have to tell you, Elizabeth is coming here tonight . . . very soon, I believe. I haven't spoken to her, but one of my waiting staff took a call from her yesterday." Ronnie observed the look of shock that crossed William's face at his news. He was puzzled. The last time William and Elizabeth had eaten in his restaurant, they'd told him that they were going to be living together, and now here he was with another woman.

"Shit, Ronnie, I think Caroline and I should leave. Elizabeth and I have split up. The last thing I want to do is upset her."

"That's up to you, William. I thought I should warn you . . ." Ronnie turned his gaze on Caroline and added ". . . under the circumstances."

As William was trying to persuade Caroline out of her seat, his eyes were drawn towards the dining room entrance. At that very moment Elizabeth walked in with a man he'd never seen before. He watched as Ronnie kissed her cheek, bringing an affectionate smile to her face. Ronnie then drew Elizabeth aside and, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder, whispered in her ear. The smile on her face disappeared instantly as she glanced around. William was determined not to look away - he wanted to see her reaction when she caught sight of him. Their eyes met, and for William it seemed as though everything from then on happened in slow motion. He was aware of Caroline tugging his sleeve and talking at him. When she couldn't attract his attention, she looked around to find out the cause of his disregard.

They were now close enough to detect the tears glistening in Elizabeth's eyes as she observed them together. They saw her look down at Caroline's hand wrapped possessively around William's arm. Without a word, she turned on her heel and ran from the restaurant, Ronnie and the mystery man trailing behind.

"Well!! Wasn't that Elizabeth Bennet? I never though much of her in the looks department, but why on earth has she had her hair cut so short? It certainly doesn't suit her. And hasn't she lost a lot of weight. She obviously hasn't taken your separation as well as you have, William. William?"

"Excuse me, Caroline," William tossed back as he followed Elizabeth out of the restaurant.

Quickly outstripping Ronnie and Elizabeth's dinner companion, William chased Elizabeth out of Ashton Lane and along Byres Road. How did she manage to run so fast in those heels? When he got close to her he shouted, "Elizabeth, wait . . . please."

Elizabeth stopped suddenly, almost causing him to crash into her. She turned reluctantly to face him. "How could you, William?" she cried, out of breath from running so fast. "You're with Caroline Bingley . . . and you were holding on to her."

"No, Elizabeth, she was holding on to me. She grabbed my arm . . . I was taken off guard. You know I don't care a jot for Caroline Bingley!"

"Isn't it funny, William," Elizabeth commented, her voice filled with sarcasm, "how that can happen to you? I was taken off guard by George Wickham, but you didn't let that interfere with your righteous indignation."

"There is a difference, Elizabeth, between someone holding my arm and you being caught in your bedroom with a naked man. Anyway," William added, peering around to see if Elizabeth's friend had caught up, "you seem to have found someone else very quickly."

Elizabeth's eyes followed William's gaze, then she looked back at him, her face furious. "How dare you bring George up after I'd explained everything to you. And so what if I'm out with someone else - you're no longer my boyfriend."

"Well, the same goes for you," William retorted. "You're the one who's angry about Caroline."

"Me?" she spat back. "Angry about Caroline? You can marry her for all I care, William. I'm angry that you took her to one of our places. I . . . can't believe you did that."

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth. I . . . it's Caroline's birthday."

He took her out for her birthday. And he says he doesn't give a jot for her. Bastard! Elizabeth was speechless. Seeing him was hard enough, but seeing him with that woman, a woman who, however objectionable, wouldn't be out of place in his world. It was just too much for her.

"Are you all right, Elizabeth?"

"I'm doing just dandy, William. Can't you tell?" she replied, wiping the tears from her face with the back of her hand.

William couldn't help but stare at her. She'd had her beautiful hair cut very short. All those curls that he loved to bury his face in when they were in bed together. He certainly didn't like this new hairstyle - not that it was any of his business now. And she was thinner, as Caroline had noticed. What had he done to her?

William's silence made Elizabeth even angrier. Why had he followed her if it was only to stare? "I'd like to ask you a favour, William."

"Anything, Elizabeth."

"If you happen to catch sight of me again, please just leave me alone. I'm trying to get on with my life. Seeing you just makes it all the harder."

Having said her piece, she turned to cross University Avenue. William opened his mouth to call her back just as the lights changed and Elizabeth ran across the road.

"And, by the way," she shouted, indicating the man who'd just that moment caught up with her, "this is my cousin, Jamie. Arsehole!"

* eejit - idiot, greet - cry, hen - term of endearment in Glasgow, like dear or love,
aye - always, ma ain - my own, wis yer - was your
* The triumph of hope over experience - Samuel Johnston
* Ae Fond Kiss - Robert Burns
* Desire - Ryan Adams, Demolition
* Black - Pearl Jam, Ten (she and her changed to he, his, him)

Chapter 21

"I hope you didn't walk all the way from your flat with that lot," Lynda said, pointing to the huge pile of notebooks in Elizabeth's arms. "You'll do your back in."

"No, I drove," Elizabeth replied. Her smile of greeting disappeared as she went on, "My car was returned to me yesterday."

"At long last. William certainly took his time getting it back to you."

Elizabeth nodded her agreement. "Yeah, I'd kind of given up on it."

"I gather, judging by your long face, that he didn't bring it himself."

"No, but I didn't honestly expect he would," Elizabeth answered, thinking back to Saturday night. "Jim Cruickshank, his . . . I don't know what you'd call him . . . his retired-employee-who-lives-at-Thornlea brought it yesterday."

"Oh, I am disappointed. I was hoping William would try to see you himself now that he's had some time to think things over."

"Huh, you've not heard the worst of it, Lynda. I spoke to William on Saturday night when I was out for a meal with my cousin, Jamie. After our little discussion, I think I can safely predict he'll not be contacting me again."

"Why? What did you say to him?"

"I told him to leave me alone," Elizabeth answered. "And I called him an . . ." she closed her eyes and hesitated briefly, "I called him an arsehole."

"Lizzy!"

"I know, I know. I can't believe I said it myself. And what's worse," she continued, "is that I shouted it right across University Avenue. Everyone on Byres Road must have heard me."

"I know you're mad as hell with him, Lizzy, but I thought you still loved him. You're certainly going the wrong way about letting him see that."

"He was arm-in-arm with Caroline Bingley, Lynda. My temper just got the better of me when I saw them together. How could he take her out when we've just split up? I can't believe I meant so little to him."

Elizabeth felt her eyes filling up. God, she'd cried half the weekend and she was determined not to waste another tear on William Darcy. Fortunately, at that moment, the bell rang and she was able to concentrate on gathering up her books.

Lynda put her hand on her friend's arm as she rose from her seat. "How about going for a coffee after school?" she asked. "You know you can bend my ear as much as you like."

Elizabeth attempted a half-hearted smile. "My cousin Jamie's had his ear bent all weekend. But yes . . . I'd like that, Lynda. Beanscene okay with you?'

"Ideal. We can get a table at the back where it's nice and private. I'll meet you there."

~ * ~

Elizabeth purchased her coffee and found a quiet table, away from all the students and the mums with their buggies and toddlers. It wasn't long before Lynda joined her.

"How are you feeling now, Lizzy?"

"I'm fine."

Lynda studied her friend thoughtfully. Since she'd had all her beautiful hair cut off it was more noticeable that she'd lost weight. She could see it in her face. And with the air of sadness surrounding her, she looked anything but fine.

"You really don't look so good."

"I had a bad weekend," Elizabeth replied, raising her hands in surrender. "It'll take me a while to get over it."

"So, as I thought, you're not fine."

"Not at the moment," she admitted grudgingly, "but I shall get to a state of . . . I don't know . . . acceptance, maybe."

Lynda turned her head away so that Elizabeth wouldn't catch her look of disbelief. Acceptance was a long way off as far as she could see.

"You were saying this morning that you met William. What happened?"

"I went to the Ubiquitous Chip with my cousin Jamie. It's ironic really, because he wanted to go to Gardiners, but I couldn't . . . too many happy memories. If I'd just gone where he'd suggested, we wouldn't have bumped into William and Caroline."

"My God, Lizzy! Don't tell me you had a huge fight in the restaurant."

"No, I just turned and fled and William followed me."

"He did! You see," Lynda pointed out, "he must still have feelings for you."

Elizabeth's response was dismissive. "No, if he'd had feelings for me, he wouldn't have been out to dinner with Caroline Bingley. He saw my distress . . . and I suppose he wanted to check that I was all right . . . that was all."

"Well, if you say so . . ."

"What does it matter anyway? I let my anger get the better of me. I told him to leave me alone and I called him an arsehole . . . out in the street." Elizabeth, feeling overwhelmed by the urge to cry, struggled to control herself. "As soon as I said it I wished I could take it back. I'd have been appalled if I'd seen one of my pupils behave like that."

"I presume he complied with your wishes - to leave you alone, I mean?"

"Well, he didn't attempt to follow me," Elizabeth answered bleakly. "Then yesterday Jim turned up at the door with my car key, house key and some bits and pieces that I'd left at Thornlea. That's pretty final in my book."

"But, Lizzy, why the sad voice? William was just obeying your wishes. You can't expect him to know what you want if you tell him something different."

"I don't know what I want, Lynda. I'm so mixed up. I love William - I don't think I'll ever love anyone else the way I love him. But I hate that he was able to cast me off like a piece of garbage. I don't know if I can forgive him for that."

"Well, if that's the case," Lynda stated decisively, "you're better off without him."

The stricken look on Elizabeth's face told Lynda all she needed to know about that opinion and she added rather more gently, "It seems to me that you still have a lot of thinking to do."

Elizabeth fished around in her handbag for a tissue to wipe her eyes. This holding back tears idea was something she just wasn't very good at. "What would be the point," she sniffed. "William won't want to be with someone who behaves like a petulant teenager?"

"You know, Lizzy," Lynda answered, her smile conciliatory, "the green-eyed monster does funny things to a person's reason. I'm sure William is able understand that. And anyway, it doesn't seem to me that he's behaved much better."

"You're too kind. I know I don't deserve your sympathy - I've behaved like a child."

"As the song says, that's what friends are for. You've helped me through a few rough patches." Lynda stretched across the table and gently touched Elizabeth's arm. "Make sure you work out what you truly want, Lizzy, before you do anything else."

"And if I decide I want William and he doesn't want me - what then, Lynda?"

"Then you'll just have to accept it. Whatever happens, Lizzy, you'll survive."

"Oh, I know that - I've done it before. But it wasn't so hard the last time." Elizabeth subsided into silence, slowly sipping her cappuccino and thinking about the last few ghastly weeks. "I've been wondering, actually, if I should go down south for the summer . . . to give myself a little breathing space. I feel as though I'm looking out for William everywhere I go. Can you believe I almost followed a guy yesterday coming out of the underground? But," she finished lamely, "he didn't have William's long stride . . . or his broad shoulders."

"Well, I suppose it might be a good idea to be away from here while you make up your mind, but do you really think you'd be better off back home with your mother?"

"My mother? No way, Lynda," Elizabeth groaned. "I was thinking London, perhaps . . . I'd be near Jane . . . to keep her company in hospital."

"And you'd stay with Charles?"

"Yes . . . well . . . I'd go back to his house in the evenings. I'd be spending most of my time with Jane."

"But isn't it possible you might meet William there? He is Charles' friend, after all."

Elizabeth sighed and leant back in her chair. "Charles hasn't spoken to William since our break-up."

"I thought they had some joint business ventures. They'll surely have to make up eventually."

"Yeah, you're right. They'll have to get together at some point. But Charles is adamant that it'll only be for business. And Jane says she won't have William in her house. I am working on them - not for myself, of course," she added hastily.

"Oh, of course," Lynda repeated, her tone sceptical.

"You think I'm trying to get Jane and Charles to patch things up with William for my own benefit. That's not true, Lynda. Although I still care for William, I'm not at all sure that he's good for me." Her eyes glistening with tears, she continued, "No, it's just that he and Charles have been friends since school; I'd hate to see that friendship end over this."

"You know, Lizzy," Lynda said after a moment of reflection, "it was William Shakespeare who wrote, The course of true love never did run smooth*. I don't think I've known two people on a bumpier ride than you and William."

Elizabeth's expression was melancholy as she stared at her empty coffee cup. Lynda was right; she and William had stumbled from one obstacle to another. Was there an Oberon or a Puck out there to sort out her love life, she wondered? Because one thing was for sure, she could certainly do with some supernatural help right now!

~ * ~

As William drove home through the dense rush hour traffic all he looked forward to was an evening of mindless television . . . and the numbing comfort of a bottle of malt whisky. If only he could stop thinking about Elizabeth and the furious expression on her face when she'd told him to leave her alone, he might attain some peace of mind. "And I might be able to get some work done . . . before my reputation goes down the company toilet,' he told himself sternly.

When he arrived at Thornlea, however, he discovered that Georgiana had invited herself up from Pemberley. No opportunity for peace of mind here then, he thought wistfully as he embraced his sister. Of course he was always glad to see her, but just at the moment, he'd have preferred solitude.

Georgiana's first words established the purpose of her visit. "Have you written that letter to Elizabeth yet?"

"Georgie, hi to you too. I didn't expect you up here with the tourist season just getting into full swing at Pemberley."

"I'm worried about you . . . and so is Mrs Reynolds. She wanted to come, actually, but we tossed a coin and," she added with a smirk, "guess who won?"

William's attempt at a chuckle was no more than half-hearted. "Mrs Reynolds, obviously," he said as he crossed the hall towards the stairs. "I'm surprised she's not back at Strathlyon. She doesn't like to be away from there for too long."

"She's leaving when I get back."

"Which will be?"

"Oh, I thought I might stay with you for a month or so."

"A month!" William echoed, "But that's . . . a long time to be away from Pemberley."

Georgiana smothered a laugh. Her brother might not have expressed his displeasure, but his true feelings were written all over his face. "Just as well I don't take offence easily, William," she joked. "I was kidding you - I'm only staying for a couple of days."

"This is your home too, Georgie. You know you can come here whenever you like. I'm just not very good company at the moment."

"Yes, William, I am aware of that," Georgiana retorted. "That's why I'm here to chivvy you into action. So . . . about Elizabeth?"

William gave no indication that he'd heard his sister's question. Without turning towards her, he asked, "Have you eaten yet?"

She shook her head.

"I'll just get changed then, and we can have some dinner."

Georgiana studied her brother's back for a few moments. When he got to the first step she said, "You're avoiding my question, William."

He turned to her, a puzzled look on his face. "What question? Oh, yes . . . Elizabeth. No, I haven't written to her, Georgie - and I'm not going to."

"Why not?"

William closed his eyes and paused for a few moments to compose himself. "Because I met her quite by chance on Saturday night and she told me what she wanted from me."

"Yes . . . and what was that?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing? What does that mean?"

Irritated by his sister's obtuseness, William spoke more harshly than he'd normally have done. "God, Georgie, I'd have thought that was obvious! It means that she doesn't want anything more to do with me."

Georgiana shrugged off her brother's exasperation. He should know by now that there was no way to put her off. "Where did you meet her?"

"At the Ubiquitous Chip." William hesitated then sighing imperceptibly, added, "I might as well tell you I was there with . . . Caroline Bingley."

"You were what? William, please don't tell me that you asked Caroline out."

"As if I'd do that . . ." He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "She caught me out. It was her birthday . . ."

"And Elizabeth saw the two of you together?"

"She did," he answered flatly.

"No wonder she doesn't want anything more to do with you. She must have been really hurt that you were out with another woman. She . . ."

"Yes, Georgie," William cut in, "I managed to work that one out for myself."

"So, what are you going to do about it?"

He shook his head. "There's not much I can do."

"You're not giving up, I hope."

"What am I supposed to do? She asked me to leave her alone."

"She didn't mean it - I'm sure she didn't mean it, William. You must try again."

As William slowly climbed the stairs he called back to his sister, "If I say I'll think about it, will you leave me alone?"

"Don't take too long, William," Georgiana warned, sidestepping his request. "Elizabeth is beautiful; she might meet someone else."

"Not if she loves me as much as I love her," William muttered to himself. "If she doesn't then . . . it wasn't meant to be anyway."

~ * ~

William's heartbeat thumped in his chest as he rushed to answer the telephone. Maybe she's reconsidered her angry words.

"Hello, William Darcy speaking."

"Hi, Will, it's me."

Disappointment welled up into his throat so that he felt he'd have difficulty forming another word. It was only his cousin, Richard phoning from Ireland. How many times was he going to have his hopes dashed before he realised she was never going to call? He should have known she wouldn't call.

"Hi, Richard. How are you?"

"Not too bad, Will. And you?"

"I'm . . . okay."

"Oh, really! That's not what I was told by your very worried little sister. She wants me to come over for a few days to try and knock some sense into you."

"There's no need, Richard. I know how things are at home with Uncle Andrew. I'm fine really."

"Are you, though? According to Georgie you're as much in love with this . . . Elizabeth as ever and you won't do anything about it. Is that true?"

"I'm sorry, Richard, I know you mean well, but I don't think that's any of your business."

"Which means it is true," Richard returned matter-of-factly.

"It doesn't make any difference. She doesn't want anything more to do with me. I don't think she'll ever be able to forgive me for the way I treated her."

"I have to say, Will, from what Georgie has told me I can't understand your actions . . . if you love her as much as you say you do, that is. When you found her with her ex why didn't you just walk over, punch the guy's lights out, then ask Elizabeth what the hell was going on?"

"I . . . I couldn't. It was such a shock. I had to get away."

"But why?"

"I . . ." William stopped. "For fuck's sake, Richard, will you just leave it?"

"No, I won't, Will. This is so out of character for you."

"I have my reasons."

"Which I take it you are not going to share?"

"I presume Georgie told you everything she's been able to prise out of me," William replied. "That's all either of you needs to know."

"Well . . ." Richard's voice tailed off and William could almost see him shrug his shoulders in resignation. " . . . as long as you told Elizabeth, I suppose that's all that matters."

"Yes, Richard," William retorted angrily, "I did tell her everything that was relevant to our relationship. There was something I didn't reveal to her . . . something that happened a long time ago. But it's a family matter," he added decisively, "nothing to do with Elizabeth and me."

"Are you sure about that, Will?"

William's silence lasted for several minutes as he thought over the information he'd just shared with his cousin. He'd never uttered a word about it to anyone ever before. Questions he'd been trying to repress since the morning he'd caught Elizabeth with George Wickham flooded his mind. Was he sure? Was it possible that he was lying to himself? - That it wasn't only Elizabeth's secrecy and evasiveness that had devastated him, but the memory of an incident he thought he'd put to rest a long time ago? No! It couldn't be!

"William?"

"Yes, I'm still here. I've got things to do, Richard. I have to go."

"Okay, but I'm going to make arrangements to visit you."

"Well . . . if you're sure Aunt Jenny and the staff can cope with Uncle Andrew. How is he anyway?"

"He's much the same. His Alzheimer's is . . . progressing slowly, but progressing, nonetheless. I have a nurse now who comes in at night to stop him wandering out of the house."

"Richard, much as I'd love to see you," William said, "it sounds as though you have your hands full."

"Oh, you haven't heard, then - Harry is coming back to live in Ireland. I think my dear brother is scared he'll lose out on his inheritance if he doesn't start to show an interest in the estate. Anyway, it's time he took a share in caring for his father. And mother is happy for me to take a break when he gets here."

"Well, in that case, come any time you like. You know you're always welcome. We could go up to Strathlyon and get some hill walking done."

"I'd love that, Will," Richard replied. "It's been so long since I've seen a mountain, I've forgotten what they look like."

~ * ~

"Elizabeth Bennet?"

"Yes, speaking," Elizabeth replied, trying to place the voice at the other end of the line.

"Hi, Elizabeth. It's Roddie Graham here."

"Roddie! I didn't expect to hear from you. How's it going?"

"Very well, thanks. How are you? I was sorry to hear about you and William. For what it's worth, I thought you were perfect for him."

"Yes . . . well . . . he didn't agree." Not wishing to say any more about the break-up, she changed the subject. "I'm so glad you called, Roddie. I got the CD we made in Aberfeldy and I wanted to thank you for sending it, but I didn't know how get hold of you."

"The CD?" Roddie asked, his voice puzzled. "Ah yes, William must have sent it on to you. I really should apologise to you about that. I know you wanted to hear it first, but I misplaced your address and phone number - which, obviously, I've managed to find. I hope you didn't mind that I sent it to Strathlyon."

"It came from William?" Elizabeth paused for a few moments to swallow her disappointment that William had sent the CD without the courtesy of a note. "I'm sorry, I just assumed the package was from you."

"You liked it I hope."

"I was really surprised when I listened to it, Roddie. You made me sound . . . really quite good."

"You are good, Elizabeth. That's why I'm calling you, actually. There's an old church in Aberfeldy called St Andrew's - do you know it?"

"I think I remember my gran talking about it, but I've never seen it."

"I'm not surprised, it's been lying empty for twenty years or so. Now it's been refurbished and is opening up as a music venue. Schiehallion has been asked to arrange the opening night. We've decided to do a night of Burns' songs. Elizabeth, I'd like you to come and perform with us."

Elizabeth was stunned into silence for several seconds. "My God, Roddie, I couldn't do that. A proper paying gig . . . no way!"

"Elizabeth, the boys in the band have heard your CD. We all think you're up to it. It's no big deal - Aberfeldy is a small place, so we don't expect a huge crowd. And you'll not be the only support act. A group of young fiddlers from my old school are playing, and there are a couple of local singers too. It'll be just like one of your school concerts."

"When is this gig?"

"Saturday, the ninth of July. I've checked, and the school term is over by then."

Shit, she thought wildly, how am I going to get out of this?

"I couldn't do it without a practice session or two, Roddie. And I don't have a free weekend to travel up to Aberfeldy between now and the end of term. I'm sorry, but I think I'll have to decline your generous invitation."

"No problem with that, Elizabeth. We're back at the Arches in a fortnight. In fact, you can jam with us if you like."

Elizabeth thought back to the ceilidh and the huge crowd of dancers there that night and replied decisively, "Oh, I don't think so, Roddie."

"Come along in the afternoon, then. We can practise a couple of songs. If you're uncomfortable we won't take things any further, I promise you'll be sorry, though, if you turn down this opportunity to show Aberfeldy how good you are."

"I . . ." she didn't know what to say. The thought of performing in front of a Schiehallion audience terrified her but, on the other hand, it might be just the distraction she needed right now.

"Come on," Roddie urged, "do it for your gran. Two songs - that's all I ask - and the boys will back you. You'll sound fantastic."

Elizabeth groaned. "Ooh, that was a low blow, Roddie, bringing my Gran Peggy into this. Well . . . I had planned to spend the school holidays in London . . . but I suppose I could manage a few days in Aberfeldy before I go. But," she warned, "if I'm uncomfortable with the practice session, I'm pulling out. Okay?"

"Fine by me, Elizabeth. I can't ask fairer than that. I'll be in touch about times. Bye for now."

"Bye, Roddie."

What have I let myself in for? Elizabeth thought as she put down the receiver.

~ * ~

It was with a huge sigh of relief that Elizabeth welcomed the last day of the school year. After Easter, when William's image had intruded into every waking moment, she'd been glad to occupy her days and nights with the busyness of lesson plans, exams, and marking. As the term came to an end and activity wound down, however, she realised she was drained by the effort it took to show any interest in work while she still felt her heart was broken in two.

She kept telling herself she'd burnt her boats and it was time to move on, but that wasn't possible, not yet at any rate. William had stubbornly taken up residence in her mind and she couldn't bear to kick him out. Thinking about him was a kind of sweet torture - the memory of their time together so pleasurable and, at the same time, so painful.

When the school bell finally rang, Elizabeth rushed home to collect her luggage and her guitar. Within an hour she was on her way to Aberfeldy and to Charlotte's cottage. Her plan had been to stay with Roddie and his wife, Michelle, whom she'd met at the Arches rehearsal. But when Charlotte phoned and told her that she and Bill would be away on a school trip, and that she could have the house to herself if she wanted, she jumped at the chance. Fond as she was of Roddie and Michelle, she didn't think she was ready to be good company just yet.

~ * ~

"Richard and I are off to the concert, William. Why don't you leave that damned computer and come with us."

"I told you earlier, Georgie, I'm staying here. You and Richard go and enjoy yourselves."

Georgiana stood in the doorway for several minutes. "William."

"Haven't you gone yet?"

"William," she went on quietly, "Elizabeth will be there tonight."

William turned around very slowly. "My Elizabeth . . . will be at the concert?"

"Yes. I met Roddie Graham in Aberfeldy. Elizabeth is performing tonight."

"I don't know why you're telling me this, Georgie," William said, turning back to his keyboard. "You know what Elizabeth's instructions were the last time I saw her."

"She was just upset seeing you with Caroline Bingley, Will. I'm sure she didn't mean what she said."

"You don't know that, Georgie."

"No, I don't, but come on, Will, you're not going to give up this chance to try again. What have you got to lose? You couldn't be any more miserable than you are now."

"There's no way I'm going to approach Elizabeth in such a public place, Georgie. Now, will you please leave me alone to get on with my work?"

"William . . . please . . ." Georgiana waited but there was no response.

"Okay, William, I'm going. If you want to muck up your life some more, why should I try to help you?"

~ * ~

Elizabeth had performed at quite a few school concerts since she'd begun teaching, but on those occasions pupils had always surrounded her. And, as she was well aware, the ears of the parents were trained on their own offspring, not on her. Here, in this beautiful old church, she was going to be the focus of attention . . . for the length of two songs, at least, and as she looked up at the building before her, she clutched her guitar a little tighter and felt the panic rise in her chest once again.

You're some liar, Roddie, she reflected as she forced herself to walk through the massive oak doors. I was expecting a little village church like the one Gran Peggy married in - not anything like this.

Once on stage Elizabeth peeked through the curtains at the vast space already filling up with Schiehallion fans, and estimated that it would hold over a thousand people, maybe even fifteen hundred since there wasn't a pew or a seat in sight. "What have I done?" she muttered to herself. Then, turning to Roddie, who was setting out his instruments, she said in a loud whisper, "You promised me this would be a small affair. That's the last time I'll take anything you say at face value, Roddie Graham!"

Roddie's grin was wide as he replied, "And what would you have done if I'd told you the truth, Elizabeth?"

"I wouldn't be here, of course."

"There you are, then," he laughed. "I did the right thing."

Trying desperately to keep her anxiety in check, Elizabeth closed her eyes and immersed herself in the cacophony of sound made by the tuning of guitars, the bustling hum of excited fans on the other side of the curtains, and the clink of glasses and bottles coming from the bar at the back of the hall. Live music, she thought, there's nothing to beat it. Now, if only I was standing down there with a glass in my hand, I might be able to enjoy myself . . .

She joined the roadies in the wings as soon as the band members appeared from the dressing rooms ready to take their places on stage. Although she almost fled the building on hearing the thunderous cheer that went up when the curtains were raised, she had to smile at the waves of adoration emanating from the crowd. On the first roll of the drums the front rows began to jump up and down en masse and the strains of Braw*, Braw Lads filled the hall.

Half way through the set Elizabeth slipped unannounced on to the stage and joined the band in their performance of Charlie is My Darling and Brose* and Butter, two Burns' songs she'd had to learn for the night. She was just beginning to enjoy herself when, all too soon, it was time for her solo spot. As Roddie introduced her he motioned her to step forward. "I'd like you to give a warm Aberfeldy welcome to a friend all the way from Glasgow," he announced. "Elizabeth Bennet." Roddie, clapping and smiling his encouragement, then moved out of the spotlight to the side of the stage.

Elizabeth waited for the applause to die down. "Thank you," she said. "It's a great privilege for me to be here. My grandmother was brought up just outside Aberfeldy, so it's always been a very special place for me." Not trusting herself to string another sentence together, she began to play the introduction to her first song - My love is like a red, red rose.

O my love's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O my love's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lad,
So deep in love am I,
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun!
O I will love thee still my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only love,
And fare-thee-weel awhile!
And I will come again, my love,
Tho' 'twere ten thousand mile!

As Elizabeth sang, she tried to picture her family, her friends, even her students - anyone but William. But the more she tried to blank him out, the more she felt his presence. With a sad smile playing on her lips, she struggled to master her overwhelming emotions and prayed that her voice wouldn't die on her.

When the song ended there was a few seconds of silence . . . and then the crowd broke out into a crescendo of whistles, whoops and applause. Trembling with relief she raised her hand to her face to brush away the tears that she hadn't been able to hold back. "Thank you," she said into the mike. Thank you so much."

Grateful now that she had control of her nerves, Elizabeth waited for her audience to become silent again before she strummed the first notes of Ae Fond Kiss. Behind her some of the boys in the band came on to the stage and joined in - the accordion, the whistle and, very gently, Duncan on his fiddle.

As Elizabeth began to sing she closed her eyes in the hope that she could stop the flow of tears. What in God's name, she wondered, had made her decide to bare her soul like this in front of hundreds of people? Even if she could have sung these verses without crying over William, there was still the picture in her mind of Gran Peggy reciting them to her when she was a child.

Had we never lov'd sae kindly, Had we never lov'd sae blindly, she sang, her voice raw and passionate, Never met - or never parted - We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

As Roddie watched from the side of the stage, he felt Elizabeth's agony in every word. What, he speculated, could she have done to William to make him give her up?

Elizabeth sang the whole song without once opening her eyes - not very professional, she knew, but it was better than breaking down in front of everyone. While she was strumming the last few notes on her guitar she almost sighed with relief that her ordeal was over. At last she allowed herself to glance down into a crowd still swaying as one in time to the music. Slowly, her tearful gaze trailed along the front row . . . settling at last on a tall figure that stood out from the others in its stillness. It couldn't be . . . Her eyes widened in surprise and she let out an involuntary gasp, loud enough for everyone to hear. But it was. It was William.

The colour drained instantly from Elizabeth's face. Already aware of the tears pouring from her eyes, she bowed quickly and made for the door next to Roddie. Behind her the audience carried on clapping and Duncan, who'd spotted William and grasped the reason for Elizabeth's flight, launched into the next tune as if nothing had happened.

As Elizabeth rushed past Roddie, she called to him, "I didn't know William was going to be here, Roddie. I can't face him in front of all these people. I must go . . . I'm so sorry."

"That's okay, Elizabeth. I saw him push his way to the front, but there was nothing I could do to warn you. Are you all right? You're as white as a sheet. Hold on and I'll get Michelle to come with you."

"No, Roddie. Don't spoil her night. I'll be fine. It's just the strain of performing . . . and seeing William . . . it's all too much. I'll ring you tomorrow."

Elizabeth reached the sanctuary of her car and hastily tried to fumble the key into the ignition, wondering every moment if William would tap her on the shoulder. "Stupid, stupid Lizzy," she chided, "why would he follow you after the things you said to him the last time you met? Bloody key! Just go in, why won't you?"

The car started immediately despite her unsteadiness and she sped away from the car park, looking through her rear view mirror for the familiar sight of a black Range Rover and knowing all the while that she wouldn't see it.

~ * ~

When Elizabeth arrived at the cottage, she sat for a few minutes to calm her racing heart. She should have stayed at the church. How could she have made such a fool of herself? God, she'd never be able to show her face in Aberfeldy after tonight's fiasco. Maybe it would be best if she left for London right away . . . at least she'd avoid the holiday traffic on the A9; it was bound to be quiet at this time. As she attempted to slow her breathing, she berated herself angrily, "You are supposed to be a grown woman, Elizabeth Bennet. You can't just run away every time you see him. For God's sake, pull yourself together." But no amount of stern self-talk could prevent the bitter tears from streaming down her face. How was she supposed to cope with this mass of pain that was constantly pressing down on her chest? Was it ever going to go away? Slowly, she dragged herself to her feet and made her way towards the stairs. Glancing out of the hall window at the blackness of the forest, she said a silent goodbye to the little cottage and its surroundings - it was too painful to come here, she decided. The area no longer belonged to her alone. Where it had once spoken of Gran Peggy and her happiest childhood memories, it now whispered William's name.

As she mounted the stairs, she heard the sound of a car door slam shut. Shit, she thought, Roddie must have sent Michelle after all. Quickly, she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt and rushed back downstairs past the open front door to the living room. Outside rapid footsteps scrunched along the gravel path and stepped briskly on to the flagstones in the hallway. Thoroughly mortified by her behaviour at the church, Elizabeth threw herself on to the sofa and waited for Michelle to enter.

But, to her astonishment, it was not Roddie's wife who came through the door - it was William, uncertain and hesitant, his dark eyes locked on hers. Despite her plea when they'd last met, he had followed her. She rose to her feet with a gasp and blinked back her tears as she watched him approach.

"Elizabeth," he said, his voice almost a whisper.

She opened her mouth to speak but William, now close enough to touch her, gently placed his fingertips against her lips. Then he leant over and kissed her. Inside her head she heard a voice telling her to resist, to wound him as she'd been wounded; but her body betrayed her and she could not prevent a moan of delight from escaping her lips as he slid his arms around her shoulders and hugged her tight.

Elizabeth knew she should pull away, but it felt so good to be in William's arms again. Just a little while, she thought. I'll let him hold me for just a little while.

"Thank God, Elizabeth," he breathed into her hair, grateful that she was returning his embrace, "It's been so long. I've been miserable without you."

Elizabeth looked up at him, shocked, and then she pushed him away. "Hold on a minute, William. This doesn't mean we're back together, if that's what you're thinking."

"But . . . we've just kissed. And, don't deny it, you wanted to as much as I did."

"So?" Elizabeth retorted. "I couldn't resist it. You must remember, I go in for one night stands."

"Elizabeth, what are you talking about?"

"You didn't trust me over George, William. Surely you can never trust me again. After all," she went on bitterly, "who might it be next time?"

William sat down on the sofa and put his head in his hands. How could he have imagined it would be so easy? "I've got nothing to say in my defence, Elizabeth. I was wrong. I can't tell you how sorry I am about the way I treated you. I believe nothing happened with George. I do trust you." He glanced up, searching her face. "It'll never happen again, I promise."

"Huh," Elizabeth scoffed, "promises are cheap. Why should I believe you? You hurt me more than George or my mother ever did, William - because I loved you more than I've loved anyone in my life."

"Loved, Elizabeth? Are you saying that you no longer love me?"

Elizabeth folded her arms around herself. Sighing deeply, she answered, "No, William, I'm not saying that. I love you . . . very much. But I have to protect myself. I can't go through another time like this - it's been horrendous. Just because you love someone," she added, "it doesn't mean that they're good for you."

"Please don't say that, sweetheart. I made a mistake when you came to see me at Pemberley - in my head I was so angry with you."

"But I don't understand why, William. I thought I explained everything that day."

"You did," he agreed. "But I couldn't get over the fact that everyone around you knew about your letter and your meeting with George. They'd obviously given you well-intentioned advice about telling me, and yet you didn't feel you could take that advice. Not only that - you didn't have any confidence that I'd know how to handle myself; you didn't want, or appear to need, my support. I was relieved that you said you weren't back with George, but . . . oh, I don't know, Lizzy . . . I was hurt and wanted to hurt you back - not very mature, I know."

"But I didn't ask George to write his letter or to turn up on my doorstep. And I was going to confide in you . . . I just wanted to wait until you got back from Canada."

"I know that. I was completely out of order . . ." William closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I can't change the past, Elizabeth, but what I want to know now is . . . can you forgive me?"

"The thing that upset me most," Elizabeth went on, ignoring his question, "was that you didn't care enough to work through your feelings with me. You cast me off so harshly. That's why," she said decidedly, "I don't see that we can have a future."

William closed his eyes in pain. "You don't mean that, Elizabeth."

"I do, William. I understand that seeing George and me as we were that morning must have been awful for you. But I had a reasonable explanation . . . which you obviously didn't want to hear at the time . . . and I don't think I deserved the punishment you handed out."

William sat in silence as he considered what he should do. No, he thought, there's nothing else for it . . . I'll have to tell her why I was so devastated that morning. It might not make a difference - probably won't judging by the look on her face - but I can see that by saying nothing I am going to lose her.

"There was another reason why I didn't wait for that explanation when I saw you and George together, Elizabeth," he said, "though it took me a while to drag it into daylight."

"So there was something else," Elizabeth cried. "You did lie to me! I thought so."

"I didn't exactly lie . . . I just didn't reveal everything."

"You kept a secret." Elizabeth shook her head. "Well, you'd better spit it out. I think I deserve to know."

"Can't you just take my word for it?" William pleaded. "I promise you I've come to terms with this . . . incident. It'll never affect us again."

"You mean even after all this you still don't want to tell me?" Elizabeth stood with her hands on her hips as she waited for William's next move. She was as angry with him as she'd ever been and could only thank God that she hadn't fallen back into his arms . . . well, not really. At least she could congratulate herself for acting with a little more dignity than she'd done the last time they'd met!

"Okay, William, you've given me your answer. I can see how much you want really want us to get back together. You'd better go."

"No," William replied decisively, "I will tell you. It's something that happened a long time ago. I hadn't thought about it for years - until I saw you and George together."

Elizabeth sat down on the chair across from William and waited for him to continue.

"Please, sweetheart, come and sit beside me. Let me hold you."

She shook her head. "Not until I've heard what you have to say."

Sighing unhappily, he began, "You know my mother and father lived apart for most of their marriage."

"Yes, you told me your mum refused to live at Pemberley."

"She did try, for a while at least. But as the months passed she grew more and more depressed. My father, at his wit's end with his new, young wife, took her to a psychologist in London. He advised that she was suffering from as extreme a case of homesickness as he'd ever seen and that she should go home. So my father took her back to Strathlyon. But he couldn't stay - Perthshire was too remote for him to run the Darcy Corporation from there and," William added with a shrug of his shoulders, "Pemberley and his businesses came first in his life. He was an old fashioned man, always going on about duty, family history . . . that sort of thing. He did come north for holidays and my mother visited Pemberley often - she didn't mind as long as she knew it was just for a couple of weeks at a time.

"When I was born my mother, quite naturally, kept me at Strathlyon with my father joining us as often as he could. Then, when I reached school age, my parents had a huge argument because my father wanted me to go to a prep school in London and then on to Eton, as was the Darcy family tradition. My mother wouldn't hear of it, though. She'd been bundled off to boarding school and vowed that no child of hers would suffer that fate. My father had to give in - he feared that my mother would get depressed again -and I stayed at Strathlyon.

"I was eleven years old, in my last year of primary school and expecting to go to Breadalbane Academy along with all of my friends. One day, during lunchtime, a boy from my class kicked me while we were playing football. Normally I'd have walked away from a fight, but on this day I retaliated - and, of course, I was the one who was caught and sent to the head teacher's office. I remember Mr Taylor gave me such a dressing-down that he reduced me to tears. I was shocked. No one had ever spoken to me like that before." William shook his head at the memory. "He must have been in a really bad mood because my mother was someone he wouldn't have wanted to upset."

"You mean, Lady Anne?" Elizabeth asked witheringly, "Yes, I can imagine."

"Anyway," William went on, "I didn't want to go back to class with red eyes, so I sneaked out of school and got the bus back home. I rushed into the house and looked all over for my mother so that I could tell her my side of the story before Mr Taylor phoned. I . . . eventually found her in her bedroom . . . she wasn't alone."

Elizabeth opened her mouth in shock. "Are you saying she was in bed? With another man?"

"Yes, someone I didn't know. She caught sight of me over his shoulder . . . didn't say anything . . . just gave a slight nod of her head to tell me to get out of her room. There was music playing, her friend had no idea I'd seen them."

"Oh, William," Elizabeth said, moving to sit beside him. "How awful for you."

"That was the only time I saw my mother's friend, and she never spoke of the incident except to say that I was never to mention it to my father because it would destroy our family."

"You mean you didn't know why she had this . . . affair?"

"I don't imagine she felt it necessary to discuss her love life with an eleven year old boy," William replied, sighing forlornly. "When my father next came up I could hardly look at him; I felt so guilty for keeping my mother's secret. I became quite difficult - withdrawn."

"I remember you saying once that you were quiet as a child. Is this the reason why?"

"Not really - I was already quiet before . . ." William replied. "But this was different. Of course my mother knew why my behaviour had altered, but she couldn't explain it to my father. A couple of months later I was told that I was to attend Gordonstoun. By then," he added, "I was quite glad to go."

"Hmmph, so your mum changed her mind about boarding school, then."

"Our relationship had deteriorated . . . and she had Georgie to think of."

"So that was her answer - to send you away."

"It was for the best. I made a life for myself away from my parents. Their marriage went on as it had always done. My father never found out what had happened and I believe he loved my mother to the end. She . . . well, I think she loved him in her own way."

"I'm sorry for what happened to you, William. It must have been an awful time. But when I think of your attitude towards secrets and . . . and trust . . . what a hypocrite you are to have kept this hidden from me!"

"I didn't think it was necessary to tell you, Elizabeth. It was, after all, my mother's secret and I honestly didn't consider that it had affected my adult life - hell, I would have sworn I'd completely forgotten it. The incident didn't even cross my mind when my mother died . . . I never gave it a thought until I saw you and George together."

Elizabeth was silent for a while as she thought over William's explanation. "But William," she said, "your mother's circumstances and mine are completely different. Why would you think I'd ever act like her?"

"I don't know, Elizabeth. When I saw you with George it took me right back to that day in my mother's bedroom. Then I kept getting these awful pictures in my head of the two of you together . . . That's why I didn't want to listen to you when you came to Pemberley - I wasn't ready. But I didn't think of you and what you were going through. I was wrong, sweetheart, totally wrong."

"I'm gutted that you didn't feel you could tell me all of this. How can I ever trust you again? You're the one who lectured me on the importance of trust . . . of not keeping secrets."

William's shoulders sagged. This was no more than he deserved. "I understand, Elizabeth, you're quite right. Nothing can excuse the way I treated you. You should find someone else." Rising from the sofa, he went on, "I'd better get back to Strathlyon. I've got my cousin, Richard, staying for a few days."

Elizabeth's heart jumped into her throat. Could she just let him walk out of her life? In the next few moments she was going to have to choose between the desolation of life without William . . . and taking a chance with him. She got up from her seat just as he reached the living room door.

Her decision made, she called, "William . . . wait."

William stopped in his tracks, his hand already on the doorknob. Slowly, he looked around.

"I don't want you to go," she said softly.

He almost couldn't believe his ears. "What did you say?" he asked, turning back to stand directly in front of her.

"I said I don't want you to go."

The look of gratitude that spread across his face took her breath away. In one swift movement he caught her in his arms and kissed her mouth fiercely.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," he gasped when he finally broke off the kiss. "I'll never let you down again." "I'm glad to hear it, William," Elizabeth replied, smiling for the first time since he'd entered the cottage. "But there's one thing I must say. If we're going to give this relationship another chance, it'll have to be on my terms."

William, happy at that moment to agree to anything she desired, replied, "Whatever you say, sweetheart." Then, with a sinking feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer, he asked, "And what would those terms be?"

"Well, I would like us to date . . . to take things slowly . . . a new start, if you like. When we get back to Glasgow we can go out together, but nothing more for the moment. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

William, as he thought back to the frustration of their early days together, knew exactly what she was saying. But, he decided, she was right to be cautious - he'd have to prove that she could trust him. He asked, "How long do you think this taking things slowly will last, Elizabeth?"

"Hell knows! Until I can look at you without hating and loving you at the same time, perhaps."

"Well, I deserve that."

"Oh, yes," Elizabeth agreed, "you certainly do."

"Does this taking things slowly allow you to come back to Strathlyon with me?"

"Oh, I don't know, William . . . I'm leaving for Glasgow tomorrow, then on Monday I'm flying to London to spend some time with Jane. She's in hospital at the moment and she's really fed up."

"Yes, I'd heard. Look, Elizabeth, if you come and stay overnight I'll come down to Glasgow with you."

"In my car?"

"Yes," William sighed, "in your car. And I'll take you to London. I've an apology to make to Charles and Jane. Hopefully, now, they'll hear me out."

Elizabeth was doubtful. "That's sounds like a lot of hassle, William. Why don't I just carry on with my original plan? I'll call you when I get back from London?"

"Please, Elizabeth. I can't bear the thought of you leaving me when we've just got back together. And . . . I'd like you to get to know Georgie better and meet Richard before he flies back home to Ireland."

"Wait a minute, William, your sister and your cousin are staying at Strathlyon and you want to fly off to London?"

"Well, Georgie has been your greatest defender ever since we split up, and Richard only came to comfort me over losing you. I think they'll be delighted to see me happy for a change."

"Georgie was really on my side?"

"Yes really!"

Elizabeth hesitated for a moment then asked, "I'll have my own room?"

"Of course."

"Come on then," she said, dragging William to his feet, "you can help me pack. It'll be worth it just to have Richard and Georgie watch you drive away from Strathlyon in my old banger."

"Yes," William replied with a laugh, "you've no idea how much they'll enjoy that!"

~ * ~

As he drove back to Strathlyon, William was quietly congratulating himself on his last-minute decision to go to the Schiehallion gig. He could hardly believe that only this morning he was wallowing in the depths of despair, and now he was . . . well, ecstatic could barely describe the way he was feeling at the moment.

Elizabeth, too, was silent, obviously deep in thought. Suddenly, she cried out," Hey, I almost forgot. You went out with Caroline Bingley!"

William got such a fright at Elizabeth's outburst he almost veered off the road. "She asked me out," he replied, taking a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart. "She'd come up to visit Jane and Charles and found they'd left for London. It was her birthday . . ."

"And you fell for that, William?"

"But it was her birthday!"

Elizabeth shook her head. "No, not that. The other thing . . . I know for a fact she was well aware that Jane and Charles had left for London."

"I suspected that, actually. I had another reason for our dinner, though. I thought it would be a good opportunity, once again, to put her right about my feelings for her - which are zilch, as you very well know!"

"And you were going to do that on her birthday. That was kind of you."

"Elizabeth, Caroline Bingley has thought for years that she was just the person to share my wealth - unfortunately for her, I didn't see it that way and I've told her so . . . on many occasions. But she, I'm sure you'll recognise, is as astute as Bill Collins when it comes to a knock-back and takes every slight with the sensitivity of a brick wall."

"Which means?"

"Which means that even after I dropped her off that night and told her in no uncertain terms that she had NO chance, she still phoned me the next day to ask how I was and to say she'd love to meet me when I was next in London."

Elizabeth giggled. "Bloody cheek! And what was your reply?"

"You really don't want to hear it, sweetheart," William answered, sharing her laugh. "I can tell you though that she hasn't called me since that night."

"I'll probably see her when I'm at the hospital. It'll be a great pleasure to tell her we're back together."

As Elizabeth turned to look at William she caught sight of a wide smile that made his eyes appear to glint in the darkness. "What?" she asked.

"Back and together, Elizabeth. I'd given up hope that I'd hear those words in relation to us!"

"You're not the only one, William," she replied, reaching out to take hold of his hand on the steering wheel.

~ * ~

On their arrival at Strathlyon, William and Elizabeth were surprised when the front door opened as they approached. Mrs Reynolds, with a beaming smile, appeared in the doorway to welcome them in, noticing immediately that William had his arm placed possessively around Elizabeth's shoulders.

"Miss Bennet, it is so good to see you again. William didn't say that you were expected, but you are very welcome."

"Thank you, Mrs Reynolds. But please, can you do me a favour - call me Elizabeth? It would make me feel so much more comfortable."

"Of course, Elizabeth, it would be my pleasure. Now, if you'll settle yourselves in the drawing room, I'll see to supper. Or would you rather freshen up, Elizabeth? I'm sure William will be glad to show you to his room. You are staying I hope?"

Elizabeth glanced at William, who informed the housekeeper, "Her own room, Mrs Reynolds." Then, blushing, he added, "We're taking things one step at a time."

As Mrs Reynolds turned and bustled towards the kitchen, Elizabeth and William heard her mutter, "Very wise, Elizabeth, my dear, very wise."

* ilka - every
* from A midsummer Night's Dream
* braw - handsome
* brose - oatmeal and water

To be continued


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