SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME Chapter 10 Fanfiction by Suz Home Page CHAPTER TEN


Pom: colloquial; abbrev. of Pommies, a person who is a resident of or has emmigrated from the British Isles, esp. England.

Stuff up: colloquial; to cause to fail, act incompetently, ruin.

Bloody minded: obstructive, unhelpful, difficult, deliberately cruel or unpleasant.

Wednesdays, thought Charlotte, should be an international holiday for secretaries and PA's. Whereas most people thought of it as hump day - the beginning of the homeward stretch for the rest of the working week - for her it was a right royal pain in the butt. It seemed to be the day when all the problems for the week peaked, and the mad rush was on to get as much tidied up as possible before the weekend. It signified the beginning of the craziness instead of the promise of days off. Which could explain why she was a little bit abrupt with the woman who breezed up to her desk at lunchtime when she was trying to organise a dozen tasks that had to be completed by the end of the day before they turned into Thursday's disasters.

She lifted her head when a long, perfectly manicured fingernail tapped impatiently on her desk. Her eyes moved up the expensively silk-draped arm until it reached the face of the owner. One look at who was standing in front of her, full of arrogance, was enough to send the rest of her day to hell in a hand-basket. Masking her surprise, she raised an eyebrow at the woman, not trusting her voice to speak in case a bark came out.

"I'd like to see Charles, please. And make it snappy, Charlene!"

"Oh, really?" said Charlotte with unusual brusqueness. Silly cow doesn't even remember my name! "Do you have an appointment?" Her professional veneer was dissolving quicker than an ice cube in boiling water.

"Don't be ridiculous! As if I, of all people …" huffed the lady indignantly.

"Whatever. Keep your panties on. Just … take a seat," said Charlotte, cutting her off rudely and waving to the comfortable sofa near her desk. "I'll check and see if he's busy."

Closing the door to Charles' office behind her, she leaned against the teak. "You have a visitor." Still aggravated, she forced the words out through gritted teeth.

Charles looked up quizzically. He was unused to seeing his normally unflappable PA become so agitated. "Who? What is it, Charlotte? What's wrong?"

"Caroline." She almost spat out the dreaded 'C' word.

"But she's in …"

"Apparently not. She's out in the reception in full, living and nauseating colour," she said distastefully, a grimace creasing her normally attractive features. "Obviously she's not here to see me."

This did not bode well. Charles' instinct for self-preservation overrode his curiosity. "I don't suppose I can duck out the back way?"

"You don't have a back way, Boss. Unless you plan on hiding in the bathroom," she asked, cocking an eyebrow in bemusement.

"But she's supposed to be in London …"

"Personally, I'm just surprised the Poms didn't boot her out before this. All I can figure is that they finally classified her as an undesirable alien, or one of the airlines must have been hard-up for passengers," said Charlotte dryly. "Either way, it's our lo …"

A surprised look on her face, Charlotte gasped as she suddenly went stumbling forward when the door she was leaning on was pushed open with some force. Regaining her balance she turned around to face the person responsible for her near tumble.

"I thought I told you to take a seat?" she snapped at Caroline, making no attempt to hide her dislike.

Brushing past her in a choking haze of sharp floral notes, Charles' sister seated herself and smoothed the fabric of her skirt, leaving Charlotte gasping for fresh air as the strength of the perfume assaulted her like a ton of bricks.

"God, Caroline! I don't suppose you've ever heard of 'less is more', have you?" she asked, waving her hand in front of her face.

"You really should do something about the hired help, Charlie. Surely you can do better than her?" she asked, flinging a withering glance at Charlotte.

"Hello, to you, too, Caroline, and DON'T call me Charlie. You know how I hate that."

"Coffee, black, no sugar," Caroline flung over her shoulder at a surprised Charlotte.

"No way, girlie! Go get your own. The machine's down the hall. And try and get lost on your way there, will you?"

"Well, I never!" exclaimed Caroline.

"Charlotte …" said Charles chidingly. "That will be all for now."

"Sorry, Boss. Let me know if you want the trash taken out; I'll be right outside if you need me," she said pointedly, and with a glare at the back of Caroline's head she left the room, walked over to her desk and sat there tapping her pencil on a pad, silently fuming.

"What are you doing here, Caroline? You're supposed to be in London."

"I fly all the way back here, and that's all the welcome I get? I missed home. I decided to come back and see everybody again. Is there something wrong with that?"

"No, if it's as innocent as you say. However, you'll have to forgive me if I suspect you have other motives. Just recalling the reason for your rather hasty departure …" He left the sentence unfinished. A feeling of foreboding crept over him as she sat in front of him, preening, checking her manicure.

"I think it's time to forgive and forget, kiss and makeup and all that, don't you? So … how is everyone? Is my gorgeous little nephew much grown?"

"My son is just fine," he said suspiciously. "Where are you staying? Mum and Dad are in Canada at the moment, but I have the keys to their place. You can stay there."

"Oh, no need to bother with that. I'll stay with you. You don't mind, do you? Good," she said, ignoring the look of surprise that filled his features. "That's settled then."

"Actually, Caroline, no, you may not stay with me. It's neither convenient nor possible. I'll give you the keys to Mum and Dad's house. They won't mind you squatting there, I'm sure."

"But, Charl …

"But nothing. Maybe if you let people know you were coming instead of dropping in out of the blue, it would be a different matter." Although I doubt it, said his expression.

"Fine, if you want to be like that. I have a couple of errands to run and then I'll go back to the hotel and check out. I don't suppose somebody could drive me out to Whale Beach? No, I guess not," she said at the testy look on her brother's face. "Oh, and I have a surprise. You'll love it-I'm sure of it. Anyhoo, I'll see you later, then." Picking up her handbag, she stood, ignoring his annoyed expression. "Don't worry, I'll see myself out."

"Leaving so soon?" called Charlotte sweetly as she passed. "Can I get you a taxi to the airport?"

"Ha! You wish!" carried Caroline's reply, as she swished into the lift.

"Charlotte, could you come in here, please?" called Charles from his office.

"I'm sorry, Charles …" started Charlotte as she walked towards him, but he just waved his hand, dismissing her apology.

"Not that I condone your behaviour, but with Caroline I don't mind at all." A suspicious glint lit his eye. "Now, take a seat. We need to try and work out what my conniving little sister is up to this time."

Charles was never happier to get home than he was that night. Caroline dropping in had stuffed up his entire day, and he hurried inside hoping to see Jane and Robbie, if only to get the bad taste out of his mouth as a result of meeting with his sister. You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family.

There wasn't one good thing he could say about her, not even if he was pushed, except perhaps that he felt happier only when there was a continent dividing them. For a reason he had never been able to fathom, neither as a child nor as an adult, his parents had over-indulged Caroline, emotionally and materially, from the moment of her birth when he was four years old. He had watched her grow up into a grasping, self-centered, self-indulgent person to whom he was embarrassed to admit any familial ties.

It had been two years since she'd left Australia for England, a trail of wreckage littering her wake as usual, leaving those behind to pick up the pieces. Knowing her, there was only one thing that would have brought her home.

He finally found Jane and Robbie in the living room watching TV. Actually Robbie was watching TV while Jane read, but the picture they presented made him smile. Robbie was curled up, nestled into Jane's side watching re-runs of 'The Wiggles', while Jane read one-handed, stroking his forehead absently.

"Hello, you two."

Blowing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, Jane looked up at Charles, gifting him with a loving smile.

"Dad!" said Robbie, bouncing up off the lounge and giving his dad a hug.

"What's happening?" asked Charles tiredly, picking up Robbie and perching on the armrest next to Jane.

"Robbie and I went for a walk this afternoon along the beach …"

"You won't believe it, Dad. Jane taught me how to skip stones. Isn't that awesome?"

"It sure is, mate. She's a pretty clever lady, isn't she?" laughed Charles, smiling at Jane before leaning down to kiss her lightly.

"You okay?" she asked, noticing that Charles seemed a little more tired than usual. "Big day?"

Robbie wriggled off his lap and plopped face down in front of the TV again, resting his chin on his hands.

"Come with me," Charles said, taking Jane's hand and leading her into the kitchen, leaving Robbie glued once again to the TV.

Jane grabbed two beers out of the fridge, passing him one, and then leaned up against the cupboard, waiting for him to speak. It was no surprise when he put his beer down and reached for her, wrapping his arms around her. They stood quietly together for a few moments, Charles wishing he could shut out the world from within her arms.

Finally he spoke, his voice muffled by her hair. "In the last two years since Cassie's death, this is what I've missed, love - more than anything else, I've missed the cuddling." His arms tightened briefly around her once more before her released her. "I had a visit today. From my sister, Caroline."

"Your sister? I wasn't even aware you had one, Charles. Why didn't you tell me about her?"

"Probably because I try to forget about her when she's not here."

Jane looked questioningly at him.

"She's been in England for a couple of years. I think we were all hoping she'd stay put over there. Look, this is all very curious I know, but you need to know all about it. I may need your help before all this is over."

He proceeded to fill her in on all the details of Caroline's hasty departure a couple of years ago, and the implications of her return. Knowing Charles to be such a loving and gentle soul, she found it hard to believe that he could be talking about his sister-they seemed so opposite. But hearing what had happened left her with similar misgivings as Charles. Surely it couldn't be true? And it seemed there was no way they could avoid whatever was coming; they would all be at Whale Beach this weekend. Together, they tried to figure out what they could do to make the situation any better. Caroline spelled 'trouble' - with a capital 'T'.

Lizzy lay on the lounge with Will, her aching feet in his lap. She had spent the entire morning shopping with Jane in the city and had come home tired and footsore. William was absently massaging her feet as he read, totally absorbed in a book. She was meant to be dozing, but instead, she lay there perfectly still, looking at him intently; he seemed totally unaware he was the object of her scrutiny. He had such a masculine profile, she mused - strong jaw line, solid brows, straight nose … but the lips … not full, but soft … very soft … very, hmmm, kissable, she thought, smiling to herself.

"What are you staring at?" he asked, without lifting his eyes from the book.

"How did you know?"

"I can feel it. You're sending out vibes."

Lizzy chuckled. "Vibes, hey? I don't suppose you can tell what I'm thinking, too, can you?"

He looked up, his dark, sexy eyes nailing her. "I hope it's the same thing I'm thinking …"

She felt the heat of that look go through her like wildfire. The first time he had done that, was also the first time she had realised that a blush had heat as well as colour. She glared playfully at him. "If we didn't have to get ready for this ball of Catherine's, I'm sure it would be."

"Hmmm, the ball. This should be fun … not." "You know, if you'd rather go on your own, William, I'll understand."

"Come again?"

"This function at Catherine's. You know what I mean, honey. She didn't actually invite me. She invited you and …"

"Whoa, sweetheart. You know how these charity functions work - the more wallets the better - and if you think I'm going there without you, you've got another thing coming. Catherine will be trying to get Annie and me alone together, and the only way I can avoid that is if I have you with me. Besides, I hate these society functions. You can be my moral support."

"Surely it's not that bad? Anyway, why do you have to go? I didn't think Catherine was one of your most favourite people?"

"She isn't, but Dad and Catherine go way back, and each year Pemberley Estates makes a big donation to this charity through her ball. Dad generally can't get away, or won't come more like it, so Georgie and I take turns putting in the family appearance. But I'm sick of the society mums giving me the once over to see if I'd be good 'marriage' material for their daughters. I feel like a piece of meat; like they're checking out the size of my bank book to see if I measure up."

"I'd say they're checking out more than the size of your bank book, honey," she winked mischievously, her eyes trailing suggestively lower.

"Oh, great! You mean all this time they've been checking out my package? How embarrassing!"

"Hey, you're a good looking man. Any woman would have to be either gay or dead not to be checking you out. I did."

"You did?"

"Oh, yeah."

Will couldn't resist a smug smile spreading across his face. "Well, in that case, I guess it was worth it. Anyway, don't you think it's about time a few more people knew about our engagement?"

"The people that matter to us know already. I don't want every society journo in Sydney bearing down on us trying to get the goss on your fiancée, thank you very much, and I don't think you do, either."

"You're right about that! But that's one bit of news I can't wait to give Catherine." He paused, wrinkling his brow as a thought flashed through his mind. "I don't know, Lizzy. I really don't want to go tonight. I just have a bad feeling about this."

"Sage words, Obi-wan. You want to tell me why?"

"I don't know … just a feeling I guess." He tried to shake of the irrational notion. "Anyway, we're staying at your old boyfriend's place tonight, and I'm very much looking forward to telling him you'll be an old married woman again soon."

"What? You mean Richard?" Her face lit up with happiness, a fact that was not lost on her fiancé.

"Well, you don't have to look quite so bloody happy about it. I might start to get a complex." He attempted to look wounded, which lasted as long as it took for Lizzy to wrap her arms around his neck and start to kiss him. His closed teeth stopped any inroads her tongue might have made … until she reached down and tickled him. At that, his mouth dropped open and she seized her advantage while she could, leaving him breathless moments later.

"You cheated!"

"I know," she said mischievously, laughing as she quickly moved out of range of his long arms that reached to grab her. His revenge would be swift as usual … if he could catch her. Scooting around the lounge she made for the stairs, and then realised her mistake almost as soon as she reached the second step. For a start, his legs were considerably longer than hers and, therefore, so were his strides. She could hear the sound of his tread thundering behind her. She squealed as she heard him getting closer, adrenaline pumping through her body as she heard his breathing right behind her. She didn't even make the first floor landing before he caught up, his hands grabbing her around the waist, tackling her as she lunged forward, sending them both sprawling.

"That's going to cost you," he said laughing, slipping his hand up her skimpy little top and caressing a braless breast.

"No, Will. What if somebody sees us?" she panted.

"Like who? Mrs Reynolds doesn't come in on Saturdays, so it's just you and me."

"But we're on the stairs …"

"Your point being? I kind of like the thought of taking you here," he said as his other hand snaked up underneath her short skirt, stroking her inner thigh. "I was hoping we might do a tour of the whole house," he mumbled as he encircled her hardened nipple with his hot, wet lips, his tongue like raw silk rasping over the tip.

Lizzy gasped at the heat of his mouth tugging on her nipple as his other hand slipped inside her little lace panties and started to caress her there. Intoxicated with the smell and the feel of him, she gave herself up to the sensations and was unable to stop a moan from bubbling up, bringing a wicked smile to his face. He continued a few moments more watching her excitement grow before he withdrew both hands and lips from her body and sat back on his haunches, looking at her.

She opened her eyes when she felt him move away from her. "Will?"

"Hmmm?" A rakish grin spread across his face.

"Don't stop … please?" Her skin felt chilled where his hands had been.

"But you said …"

"Forget what I said. What do I know?"

"No, I'm done. I think I made my point," he said, grinning as he stood and started back down the stairs.

Lizzy sat there fuming. You rat! she thought, and then smiled to herself as a thought hit her. Standing up she undid her skirt and left it on the step. A few more steps up, she called out to him. "Oh, Will? You go on your own, honey. I'm going to stay home and have a nice, long, hot … bath …"

He turned around and saw her standing there in nothing but a tight tiny top and a little pair of panties. He watched her walk slowly up the stairs, her bottom rising and falling with each one, her soft laughter tinkling back down to him.

Not wanting her to get the best of him, he stood there, undecided, for all of five seconds, before he thought, What the hell! and sprinted up the stairs to join her. The sound of her laughter as he caught her at the top of the stairs was cut off sharply, followed by the sound of a large rip as her t-shirt was torn off her body.

It was the quickest Lizzy had ever got ready. After being severely distracted and comprehensively convinced, she only had to finish applying her makeup to be ready. "Twenty minutes - not bad, she thought. She lightly brushed some blush on her cheeks. "Are we very late?" she called out to William who was just coming out of the ensuite.

"Only about half an hour. Do I look like I'm worried? I'd much rather be in bed with you than dressing up and spending an evening with a whole lot of posers who just want to be seen." He straightened his tie in the mirror as Lizzy touched up her lipstick. She had a healthy glow on her face that had little to do with makeup, and he loved the fact that he was the one who had put it there.

Actually, Will was feeling torn between wanting to show off his beautiful fiancée and wanting to keep her hidden away in a corner all night. She had gone shopping with Jane earlier in the day and ended up at Georgie's boutique to buy a dress for tonight, and as much as he hated shopping, he wished he had gone with her. His choice would have been for something just a little more plain. She was dressed in a soft pink dress that had looked innocent enough on the hanger, until, that is, Lizzy poured her curvy body into it. The bias cut filled, nipped and hugged in all the right places and the split up the front gaped with each step she took exposing a good measure of stockinged leg that he would much rather was kept hidden. And even though the neckline went all the way up, it was the way it moulded to her breasts that had him worried. The back of the dress was cutaway which meant that a bra was out of the question, and each time she moved, he could see her breasts moving under the fabric, not to mention what happened when she felt cool. She had left her hair down, the waves falling softly around her bare shoulders. She looked sexy and beautiful-a fact that would not be lost on all the single guys there tonight. What she wasn't, though, was available - a point he intended to make quite clear.

The drive up the coast didn't take too long, and they pulled into Richard's driveway a short time later. Will helped Lizzy out of the car and led her in without knocking.

"Hey, Rich? You ready?" called Will.

"Just a sec," came his cousin's voice from another room. "Just trying to get this stupid tie to sit right."

Lizzy took this opportunity to straighten Will's, and after a couple of minutes, Rich walked out to greet them, whistling softly when he saw Lizzy.

"Lizzy Bennet," he said softly. "Don't you look beautiful? You sure you don't want to ditch this no-hoper and come back to me?"

"You missed your chance, Rich m'boy. This woman is mine. All mine." And with little ceremony, Will lifted Lizzy's left hand to show his cousin the proof.

"Don't tell me you finally got up the nerve to ask her to marry you? Well, I'll be buggered!" He looked in surprise to Will and his new fiancée. "You sure about this, Lizzy? It's not too late - I'm not taken yet, you know," he winked.

"Very tempting, Richard … but no," she laughed.

"Then I must be allowed to kiss the bride-to-be," said Richard, as he wrapped her in his arms and proceeded to kiss her in a familiar and slightly more than congratulatory fashion. At a tapping on his shoulder, he pulled away, looking first into Lizzy's surprised eyes in her flushed face, and then, glancing up, meeting the dark stare of his cousin.

"I think you covered the engagement and the wedding one in that effort, Rich. Now, would you mind putting my woman down."

"Such a shame, Lizzy," sighed Richard, "but at least you had the good taste to pick one of us Fitzwilliam men. Of course, you realise you picked the wrong one …"

Lizzy couldn't stifle a giggle from escaping. "Come on, you two - settle down. Shouldn't we be going?"

"Just waiting for Charles and Jane to get here," said Richard. "We decided a frontal attack might be the thing. Overwhelm the enemy, so to speak. Anyway, they shouldn't be long - they called just before you arrived to say they were leaving right then."

Charles and Jane arrived a few minutes later and together they walked the short distance to 'Rosings', the de Bourgh residence, a rather imposing place that stood slightly back from the street, so large it still managed to dominate the impressive grounds. The sounds of the ball in full swing filtered to them from within.

Catherine looked at the newest arrivals with curiosity. Richard and William … finally! She smiled to herself. She caught sight of Richard turning around to smile and say something to the woman behind him. She looked vaguely familiar … but she just couldn't put her finger on it. There was Charles and that woman with whom he appeared to be living. She would have to have a talk to her nephew about that. Her lips pouted in disgust.

Paying little heed to the conversation around her, she silently observed the group as they made their way to the bar. She looked around for Anne, to see if she was anywhere near. She had better snatch William up before the rest of the unattached females here noticed him and beat her to it. She finally caught Anne's eye and motioned with her head over at William. Her message was clear - get yourself over there … and pronto!

She watched as Anne headed in the direction of the group, smiling at them and kissing the men 'hello'. Satisfied that things were under control, she turned back to the conversation with the stuffed up little man at her side. Now what was he blathering about? Something about finances … hmmm …

"Good, you're here at last," said Annie. "We were wondering when you'd arrive. Should've known you'd want to make an entrance, Richard."

"Anytime you want to see me, you know where I live, my darling Annie. Just come on over and ring my bell," winked Richard suggestively.

Annie rolled her eyes, but kissed him hello just the same. "I've heard about women going into your lair and never being seen or heard of again, Richard Fitzwilliam. What exactly goes on over there?"

"Why don't you come over sometime and find out for yourself?" he laughed.

"Alas, my reputation would be shattered. But then again, knowing my luck, if I did come over, you'd be out of the country." Annie shook her head, smiling, and moved around to the next couple. "Hello, Charles," she said, kissing her cousin, " … and Jane, isn't it?"

"Yes. Hello, Annie," said Jane. "There certainly are a lot of people here tonight. I wasn't expecting such a large crowd."

"Mother likes to invite as many people as we can fit in here. More people, more cheque books, more money for the charity," she stated with candour. "And William, it's wonderful to see you again. I was hoping you'd call after Charles' party so we could catch up."

"I've been a bit busy, Annie," he said uncomfortably. He felt behind him for Lizzy's hand, relieved to feel it slip into his. Pulling her around to stand beside him, he looked down at her and smiled, before turning back to Annie.

"I'm not sure if you recall … This is Lizzy Bennet."

"Hello, Lizzy. I believe we met at Charles' party." Anne felt a small sliver of dread flicker through her from the way that William was looking at the woman at his side.

"Lizzy is my fiancée. We've recently become engaged."

Annie felt rocked to the souls of her stiletto heels. William? Engaged? Struggling to regain her composure, she put on her 'business' face and turned to Lizzy. "I'm very happy for both of you. Please, allow me to extend my congratulations."

"Thank you, Annie," said Lizzy, not failing to notice the ruffle in Anne's demeanour and wishing there was some way to make it easier for her. She knew how she would feel if she were Annie and the man she loved had just told her she was getting married to someone else. She would be devastated.

"Come on, Annie. I'm dying to dance," said Richard, deftly stepping in and breaking up the awkward moment. "Fancy a spin?"

Consciously bringing herself back into focus, Annie looked at Richard with silent thanks. "Sure, but no dips. Okay?"

"No dips," he promised, leading her off to dance to one of the slow tunes the orchestra was playing.

"One down," said Will, "and one to go."

"What do you mean?" asked Lizzy.

"Now we only have to cross the 'Catherine' hurdle. Somehow I think that one won't be quite so easy."

"I'm sorry. I'm not following," said Jane in confusion, looking around at the other three.

"Aunt Catherine has had her eye on Will for years as a suitable, or should I say the only, husband for Annie," explained Charles, "a fact that Annie has been more than happy to go along with. She's had a crush on Will since we were kids. Unfortunately, I suspect Catherine won't be quite so gracious when she hears the news of their engagement. Ask Richard. He knows what she's like where Annie and Will are concerned."

Jane glanced over at the look on Will's face and saw the truth of it. He looked even more nervous and uncomfortable than normal, but Lizzy was smiling up at him, offering him whatever moral support she could. Even though Lizzy was acquainted with this level of society, Jane was finding that moving in Charles' circle was not without its ups and downs. From what she'd seen of Catherine at Charles' party, she wasn't impressed, not that she'd say as much to Charles, although she suspected he felt the same. She had been rude to Jane, looking down her nose at her, and she had accidentally overheard Charles and Catherine having a heated conversation about her. She hoped that tonight wouldn't end up badly, but at least it wasn't far to go to get back to Charles' should they need to leave in a hurry.

Finally getting rid of the insufferable, but rich, little bore she had been talking to, Catherine started to wend her way through the crowd in the direction of the bar where the group was standing. She noticed Richard take Anne's hand and walk her onto the dance floor. Why won't that man take a hint! William should be dancing with Anne - not Richard. Her face stiffened as she saw William take the hand of the other, shorter woman standing with them, and smiling, bring it to his lips.

"Good evening. So glad you could make it. Charles," she said, leaning over to kiss his cheek. "I'm sorry, what was your name again, dear?" she said to Jane.

Without waiting for a reply, Catherine rudely talked right over the top of her, leaving Jane looking nonplussed. Turning to Will, she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "William! Won't you introduce me to your little friend?"

Beside him, Lizzy bristled at Catherine's description. Will steeled himself for what was coming. "Hello, Catherine. I'd like you to meet my fiancée, Miss Lizzy Bennet. Lizzy, this is Catherine de Bourgh, Charles' aunt."

Catherine felt the shock travel through her. Fiancée? No! What foolishness was this? She covered her surprise as best she could and returned the greeting. "I had no idea you were seeing anyone, William. This is rather sudden, isn't it?"

"Not really. Besides, when it's the right person, you know straight away, don't you?"

As benign as his words were, the look in his eye sent a fuller message to Catherine that she could not misinterpret. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at Will and Lizzy, her displeasure with this turn of events immediately obvious.

"Your father didn't mention anything about your engagement. I wonder why?"

"Oh? You've spoken to Dad?"

"Naturally. We caught up through the week; in fact, he's here tonight. We were chatting just a little while ago. And now, if you'll excuse me, I must see to my guests."

Will watched her go. He felt uneasy that Catherine had accepted the news of his engagement with such apparent equanimity. He was still pondering this when Lizzy spoke to him.

"Should we go and talk to him, William? It might be best to get this over with straight away, so we aren't wondering when we're going to be running into him all night."

"No, if he wants to speak to me, he knows I'm here. I have nothing to say to him." His arm around her waist pulled tighter. "Dance with me?"

Richard pulled Annie in tighter, feeling the tension in her body. He knew how much of a shock this must have been to her, but it wasn't anything he hadn't been trying to tell her for years. It wasn't the engagement as such that was the issue, but the fact that she had been flogging a dead horse where she and Will were concerned for some time now. He supposed that the reality didn't make it any easier to take. He felt for Annie. Even though he was fairly 'love 'em and leave 'em' about his own love life, there had been one or two who had been harder to let go and he remembered the pain pretty well. He glanced over at Lizzy dancing with his cousin and smiled ruefully. Yes, that could have been you, you silly twat! he thought. He felt Annie misstep slightly and brought his thoughts back to his partner.

"You okay, Annie darlin'? I know that news must have come as a bit of a shock."

"I don't think 'shock' is quite the word for it, Rich. 'Shattered' would do much better. Thanks for getting me away from there before I lost it."

Annie was still reeling. She had been in love with Will for so much of her life, that it was as if a huge door had just slammed shut and she was still reeling from the impact. Even when they had broken up a couple of years ago, she had never given up hope that somehow, someday, they would get back together. And now that hope had just turned to dust. 'Shattered' was a very good word for what she felt, actually.

"Take me outside, Rich?" she sighed. "I need some fresh air. It feels a bit close in here."

"Sure thing."

Threading their way through the clusters of people, they made their way out to the paved garden area, twinkling with fairy lights especially for the occasion. It would look very romantic to most, but Annie was feeling anything but romantic. She leaned her head against Richard's shoulder, grateful that she could lean on him, physically and emotionally.

"Tell me about her, Rich. What's she like?" She caught the look of surprise on his face. "No, truly, I would like to know a bit more about the woman who was able to do what I never could … make Will fall in love with her."

"She's a lovely girl, Annie. I know that that's the last thing you want to hear, but it's the truth. And Will loves her, very much."

Richard started to tell Annie about Lizzy, drawing on his own knowledge as well as what he knew of Lizzy's relationship with Will. Annie glanced back at Will as he danced with Lizzy. It was obvious from the way they looked at each other that they were both very much in love. She would have given anything for Will to look at her that way, but their chance had come and gone, she realised sadly.

"It sounds like you think she's pretty fantastic, Richard. Why didn't you marry her?"

"Bad timing, that's all. Neither of us was ready for that step. In a lot of ways, I'm sorry - she's grown into a beautiful woman, inside and out."

"You sound like you still love her …

"I do, but as a friend. There's something about Lizzy," he reflected, "that inspires that kind of loyalty and affection in people. I guess that's what makes her unique. She's as sassy as they come, but she doesn't have a mean bone in her body. Wait until you get to know her, Annie. I think you'll like her, too. She hasn't had an easy run, but she and Will really are perfect together. I mean, look at him. Does that look like the old Will to you?"

Another first, thought Lizzy to herself as she moved easily in William's arms. They had never danced with each other before and she was surprised at how naturally they moved together. But as much as she was enjoying the feel of being in his arms, there was somebody else who looked like she needed it more.

"Why don't you ask Annie to dance, honey? It will give you two a chance to talk."

"But, I don't want to leave you alone. The sharks are still circling," he said, not failing to notice Catherine casting looks in their direction.

"I'm a big girl, William Darcy. I can look after myself. Besides, they're hardly likely to make a scene here, are they? Hmmm? Go on. I'll be fine."

They walked off the floor to their group of friends at the table by the door leading out onto the courtyard. William sat down next to her and draped his arm over the back of her chair, showing no sign of moving. Discreetly, Lizzy placed her hand on his leg and squeezed. He knew the sign she was giving him, and chuckled softly to himself. Words were not necessary for her message to be loud and clear.

When William stood and moved around to Annie's seat and quietly asked her to dance, Lizzy felt a small stab of pain for the other woman as she observed the look that flashed across her features. It said so much … about dashed hopes, of resignation, of gratitude for this moment.

What had happened between Will and Annie two years ago still weighed heavily on his mind, but this was neither the time nor the place to attempt to resolve it. Still, he felt bad that Annie had found out in such a blunt way that he had closed that chapter of his life with such finality. They were both aware of the expectations the families had of them marrying someday, but for him, at least, there was always the knowledge that a marriage between them would never happen. He had never felt for Annie the kind of need and passion he felt for Lizzy. He was, however, not insensitive to how Annie felt about him, and she would always hold a special place in his heart. "I'm sorry you had to find out like that, Annie. I never meant to hurt you."

"I know that, Will. I can see how much you love her. You never looked at me that way, and if I'm being totally honest with myself, I guess I know that if we were meant to be, it would've happened long before this. If only that mess with Caroline …" She bit back a sob that threatened to break free.

"I know what you're thinking, Annie. For once though, Caroline wasn't the real reason. You and I were just drifting, long before she pulled her little stunt. I think that just brought it to a head and made me realise how unstable what we had was. If our relationship had been stronger, we would have trusted each other more and talked it out. As it was, I guess we found out just how weak our ties to each other were. But I hope we'll always be friends, Annie. I mean that. I want you to find what I've found with Lizzy."

"How did your dad take the news?"

"The news?"

"God, you can be vague sometimes, Will," she laughed softly. "The news about your engagement to Lizzy. It's pretty sudden, even for you, and you know he and Mum have been anticipating our wedding for years. What did he say when you told him?"

Will sighed. "Dad doesn't know of the engagement yet. But as for his opinion on my involvement with Lizzy … let's just say he wasn't pleased, but then, he has his own agenda."

"But surely once he gets to know Lizzy, he'll start to see what a wonderful girl she is. And she makes you very happy - that's as plain as the nose on your face. Give him time, Will."

"That's the problem. He won't give her a chance." Now that he knew that his father was here tonight, he realised that another confrontation was inevitable. It was unrealistic to expect that they could pass the entire evening without them talking. He had no doubt that Catherine had headed over to inform him the minute she found out that her grand plans had been foiled.

"For what it's worth, you have my support against the two of them, Will."

He looked at Annie in surprise.

"I asked Richard about Lizzy. As rough around the edges as your cousin can be, he was surprisingly protective of her, and sincere. She sounds like a wonderful girl. I know she'll make you very happy. And let's face it, Will - I don't think I've ever seen you smile as much as you have tonight when you look at her. I mean, you were never "Mr Expressive" at the best of times," she teased gently.

He laughed softly at her jibe. It was true, though, he realised. His quality of life had improved considerably since meeting Lizzy. Sure, he never had to worry about material things, or making ends meet, but Lizzy's freshness and lively spirit had added a dimension to his existence that had been missing since his mother's passing.

"So … now you can take me back to the table, Will. I feel a lot better now that we've had a chance to talk. And thank Lizzy for letting me have this time with you." She smiled at the look of surprise that crossed his face. "Oh, come on. I know she suggested it, but it just shows how much class your lady has."

They were still smiling when they reached the table. At Lizzy's curious glance, he nodded slightly to show her that all was well.

Annie moved away to talk to some friends and Jane and Charles jumped up to dance when a swing number started playing, leaving the other three at the table.

Richard smiled, a glint in his eye. "Would you trust me to take your lady for a dance, Cuz?"


"William!" exclaimed Lizzy.

Will laughed at the look on her face. "I was only teasing. I think I can let Richard have you for one dance, especially as I'll be having you for the rest of my life," he winked as he raised her fingers to his lips and kissed them softly.

'You're terrible," she admonished him playfully. "But gorgeous."

"Ahem," coughed a voice across the table. "If I could just intrude on this wonderful little love-fest for a minute, and get back to my request?"

"Sure," smiled Will as he kept his gaze locked with his fiancée's. "Just be careful how you handle the merchandise."

"Oh, you!" said Lizzy, slapping him lightly on the arm.

"Come on, Lizzy. Let's show him how it's done. Rhythm was never his strong point. Keep watching, mate - you might learn a thing or two from the master."

"Yeah, right," said Will, shaking his head.

Unable to help himself, Will watched them dance, admiring the way that Lizzy moved. She was laughing at something Richard had said, and her face was alight with happiness. This was Lizzy at her most beautiful - the way she smiled with her eyes. Those eyes turned him on like nothing else. He knew the effect they had on him, and, looking around, he could see he wasn't the only male who was thinking the same thing. There was definitely something about her. He felt a little obvious sitting alone at the table watching them dance, so, picking up his drink, he wandered out onto the courtyard, grateful for the fresh night air smelling of the ocean nearby after the mugginess of the other room. There's a lot of salt on the air tonight - must be an onshore breeze, he thought to himself. Leaning against the low brick wall, he closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift as he enjoyed the feel of the cool breeze on his face.

"Why did you bring her here, William?"

The sound of his father's deep voice brought him out of his reflections.

"Hello, to you, too, Dad."

"There was no need to bring a date, William - Annie's here."

Will sighed. The confrontation he had been hoping to avoid had arrived. "We've been over this before, Dad. I told you - I love Lizzy."

"Why don't you just come to your senses and drop this foolishness. The girl you should be with has been in front of your eyes the whole time - you're just too bloody stubborn or blind to see it."

"Lizzy is the one I want."

"Yes, and I can hardly applaud your choice. I mean, look at her. She's hardly what you'd call stunning, and that dress? She might as well have come naked - it hardly leaves anything to the imagination. Every man here can practically tell what she had for breakfast. Is that the sort of girl who'll be a good representative for the company?"

Will could feel the rumblings of his anger threatening to surface, and that was the last thing he wanted, especially here. "What on earth are you talking about, Dad? She's not applying for a job as the PR for Pemberley." He struggled to maintain his calm. It would do no good to antagonise his father, but he knew he had to tell him about their engagement, if only so he would let the whole 'Annie' thing drop. "Look, there's something you need to know, Dad, and I guess this is as good a time as any." He paused and took a deep breath. "I've asked Lizzy to marry me … and she accepted."

"You what?"

"You heard me."

"Are you out of your mind? You must have rocks in your head if you think I'm going to approve this choice of yours. Why she's … she's …"

His father's voice had become raised, and Will noticed a few looks being thrown their way from curious bystanders. He moved closer to his father, speaking quietly so that his words were for his father's ears alone. "Be very, very careful what you say next, Dad."

Bill didn't fail to miss the threatening tone of his son's voice, and he, too, noticed the attention they were starting to attract. With difficulty, he swallowed the words he was going to say. "So, your mind is made up?"

"Yes. Completely."

"Why are you doing this, William? You must realise she's unsuitable."

"For heaven's sake, give it up!" Will's voice raised in exasperation. To hear his father, of all people, say something like that, was blatantly hypocritical.

"Keep your voice down!" growled Bill. "We don't want the whole town knowing our business."

"Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you brought up the subject. Tell me, Dad, did you stop to think how suitable Mum was before you asked her to marry you? If I recall correctly, she was the daughter of the Head Storeman at Pemberley at the time."

Bill looked away, a grim expression on his face. "That has nothing to do with this."

"You're wrong, Dad. That has everything to do with it. Would you have let anyone talk you out of marrying the woman you loved?"

The fact that he was met with stony silence did little to reassure him that his point had been made. But as he watched, a look came over his father's features - a mixture of tenderness suffused with pain. Knowing how much his father had loved his mother, he just couldn't understand why his father was being so bloody-minded about the whole thing. "Think about it, Dad," he said and walked off, leaving his father lost in his memories.

The music had finally wound down to a slower number, and Richard pulled Lizzy in close. "Now, that's better," he murmured.

"Hmmm," she said distractedly.

Turning her round, he noticed where her gaze had been, and sighed dramatically. "Liz, I know I'm not my cousin, but I would like to feel that I'm not dancing here on my own. You're not doing much for my reputation as a lady-killer by casting goo-goo eyes at your fiancé over my shoulder every two seconds."

"I'm sorry, Rich, but I think I need to go to William," she said, looking worriedly over at where William was talking heatedly with his father. The unintelligible sound of their voices was even filtering out onto the dance floor.

Rich glanced at his cousin and his uncle and had a pretty good inkling, as Lizzy had, as to what their topic of conversation was. "Sorry, Lizzy, but no. You have to leave this fight to Will. Believe me, you won't help matters by going over there and getting caught up in the middle."

"But it's all my fault … them fighting like this."

"No, my sweet, you're wrong. This has been coming for some time. Will never had any intention of going back to the company, or fulfilling the expectations of the rellies for him to marry Annie. He just never bothered to inform them. That's Will's way. Let him be. He and Bill will work this out. Trust me."

"I hope you're right."

"I'm always right. Don't you remember?" he winked at her.

"Sure, how could I forget?"

Richard heard her laugh, but the tension in her body and the look in her eyes told him that she wasn't convinced. Finally the set ended. They met up with Jane and Charles coming off the floor and walked back to the table with them.

Lizzy knew that Richard was right, but that still didn't make the waiting any easier. Excusing herself, she picked up her small handbag and walked over to the powder room. The only other woman in there was in the middle of a repair job on her makeup. She snapped her compact shut and was putting it back in her purse when Lizzy walked in.

"Annie? I'm sorry. I didn't realise there was anyone else in here. Would you rather I come back later?"

"Don't be silly. I'm fine. But I would like to extend my congratulations on your engagement, Lizzie. I guess you know the whole story about Will and me?"

"Thanks, Annie. Will has told me enough of it. I'm sorry you had to hear about our engagement like that."

"It's all right. I'll get over it. I want Will to be happy, and from the looks of the two of you together, you do that for him. I would like to get to know you better, though. I've heard glowing reports about you from so many people."

"About me? Really? Who from?"

Annie laughed. "Will, Richard, Charles …"

"The sum total of my fan club," grinned Lizzy.

"Yes, but they're all opinions I trust. It would mean a lot to me if you and I could be friends."

"I'd like that, Annie. Very much."

"And don't worry - I'm nothing like my mother. She'll just have to get over it. Friends?" asked Annie, holding out her hand.

"Friends," said Lizzy.

When she came out of the ladies room, William was nowhere to be seen, so Lizzy decided to take a short walk in the garden. The night had been full of tension so far, and from the throbbing in her temples, she could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. Hoping that fresh air would help, she walked around the corner looking for the steps to access the grounds and walked smack dab into the last woman she wanted to see. She stifled a groan and braced herself for what she knew was coming.

"I remember you now. You used to be married to Muriel's son, Anthony. Correct?"

The waspish tones of Catherine De Bourgh stung her with their implied accusation. "Yes, I was, Catherine, but Anthony and I divorced last year."

"Yes, I heard about that. You certainly moved fast to snap up another rich man. Is that your game?"

"I resent the implication of what you're saying." Her head had started to pound, and she wondered if she had the energy to fight the battle she felt was looming. The fact that Catherine recognised her from her previous marriage did not bode well. The woman must have the memory of an elephant, because Lizzy sure as hell didn't remember her! But Catherine's accusation smarted nonetheless. Lizzy found patience with the double talk that predominated at this level of society's circle deserting her. "Falling in love with two rich men was more coincidence than good planning, although I doubt you would understand that. Why don't you just say whatever it is you want to say, so that I can get back to my fiancé?"

"Fine. I can be blunt, too, Miss Bennet, or whatever you call yourself now. I can see what your scheme is, and don't think for one second that I won't do my damnedest to expose you. Nobody just waltzes into this family …"

She could feel the stab of Catherine's stare travel all the way through her. But she started to feel angry and it gave her strength. She straightened up to meet and return the volley with some ire of her own. "Expose me? For a start, I didn't waltz anywhere, and secondly, as far as I know, William is not part of your family, so this has absolutely nothing to do with you."

"Oh, but it has everything to do with me! My Anne and William are meant to be together - they have been since they were children. Why, it was the fondest wish of his parents and myself that our two families would be joined through their marriage."

"How very neat and cosy! There was, however, one person you all forgot to ask … William. I'm sorry to spoil your grand plan, Catherine, but this is our decision, not yours, and you have underestimated both William and me if you think that our intention and resolve to marry is so feeble that you or anyone else could influence us against it. Now if you will excuse me …"

"Not so hasty, if you please! If you don't care for yourself, think of what this marriage will mean for Will and Pemberley. What of your family? Who are your parents? You have already proved you don't fit into this world. You can't honestly think that you can give him what my Anne can?" she asked incredulously. "Why, you're nothing but a divorced, little gold …"

"Mother!" Annie's voice sliced swiftly through the tension vibrating between Lizzy and Catherine as they faced off. People were listening to the exchange-indeed, it was hard to ignore it.

Lizzy looked gratefully at Annie. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt they both must be able to hear it. Gathering her battered dignity, she stood straighter and took a deep breath to try and slow her racing pulse. "I resent your insinuations, Catherine. I doubt that I have ever been more insulted in my life. I did, however, think you would have better manners than to confront this issue in front of half of your guests. I've said all I'm going to say. I am going to go now and find my fiancé. Excuse me."

"No matter what you think, Ms Bennet," uttered Catherine threateningly, "this conversation is not over."

Lizzy missed the glare that Annie threw her mother. To be honest she was past caring. All she wanted to do was get away.

"How're you holding up, Sis?" Jane could see the flushed and unsettled expression on her sister's face as she came back in from the courtyard. She knew the evening had not been easy for her little sister, but right now, Lizzy looked decidedly pale. "Come with me." She led Lizzy over to the bar. "What would you like to drink?"

"Just a tonic water would be fine, thanks."

"No gin, Lizzy?" asked Jane with a smile. "You look like you could do with something a little stronger."

"Somehow I don't think me getting plastered is going to help matters tonight.

"Are you all right, Liz? You look very pale."

"Actually, I'd leave right now if I could. At least I know now that we aren't the only ones with a strange family. I don't feel nearly so freaked about William meeting our lot. It couldn't possibly be any worse than this."

"Are you kidding?" Jane asked incredulously.

"Believe me. I just had a run-in with Charles' aunt. Mum may say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but at least she's not malicious. Catherine, on the other hand … Look, have you seen William, Jane? I'd really like to talk to him."

"He and Charles are talking to a couple of guys they know. See?"

Following the direction Jane was indicating, her eyes found him, standing in a group of four men chatting on the other side of the room. As the anger from her confrontation had worn off, she had felt close to tears, but just seeing her man standing there made her feel better, stronger. As if feeling the intensity of her gaze, he looked around, his eyes settling on her, and a crooked smile turned up the corner of his mouth. He looked back at her intently, and then inclined his head at her, motioning in the direction of … what? What does he mean? Lizzy queried him with a look until he nodded discreetly in the direction of the band. But the band wasn't playing. What? Suddenly it dawned on her! Even though the band was taking a break, taped music was still playing through the speakers. She smiled back him when she heard the song ...

"I'd like to add her initial to my monogram
Tell me where is the shepherdess for this lost lamb?

There's a somebody I'm longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone who'll watch over me

I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who'll watch over me

Although I may not be the man some girls think of as handsome
To her heart I carry the key
Won't you tell her please to put on some speed, follow my lead
Oh, how I need someone who'll watch over me…"

… and watched him mouth the words, 'I love you' to her. She knew he meant the words for her and her thoughts skipped back to their first 'date' on Bedarra, the idyllic setting - it had been such a beautiful night. With all the ups and downs since that they had overcome, the reality of just how far they'd travelled to be here, together, tonight, hit her solidly. She smiled back at him. They were two different people now. Who would have thought that the closeness they now shared had been so near? Certainly not her. That meeting on Bedarra seemed like another lifetime. Now she loved him and he loved her and there was nothing anyone could say or do that would change that. She pulled her attention back to Jane.

"Some of Charles' friends have asked me to join their table, Lizzy. Would you like to come and meet them? They're lovely people, and our age too."

"No, Jane. Look, William's busy and I need to get out of here for a bit. When the guys come back, would you tell William that I'm in the garden? I really need some time to get myself together."

"Sure, Liz. Would you rather I come with you?"

"No, I'll be fine. I will," she said at her sister's look of concern. Wandering out a different door, she headed down the stairs into the softly lit garden, wandering alongside the beds of roses and trellises of jasmine, inhaling their sweet, heady fragrance, until she found a garden seat. Sighing gratefully, she sat down, hanging her head and closing her eyes for a moment.

Bill Darcy noticed the young lady leave the room and followed her. He had calmed down slightly after his earlier argument with his son, but seeing Lizzy brought it back. But anger would not achieve anything, and he resolved to approach the situation logically, but with purpose just the same. His footfall muffled on the grass, he soundlessly walked over to her and sat down beside her on the seat.

"Why won't you let my son go?" he asked quietly.

He noticed Lizzy, obviously a million miles away, start with surprise, but she rallied quickly, coming back at him with resolve. "Why won't you give me a chance? I would never hurt, William. I love him too much for that."

He had to admire her resilience. If nothing else, the girl was not one to back down - her tone told him that. Another time, another place, he might have been impressed. "But do you love him enough to let him go? You must realise he has responsibilities. Aren't you being just a little bit selfish?"

He noticed with surprise the flash of anger that lit her eyes.

"Selfish? Is that what you call it? Your son and I are very happy together, Mr Darcy. Isn't that what every parent wants - for their children to find someone to love and make them happy?"

He laughed harshly. "You're living in a dream world, Miss Bennet. In the real world, love isn't enough. Are you so naïve that you don't realise that?"

He was unprepared though, for the backlash when it came.

She stood up abruptly, angry, and faced him. "You can call it naiveté if you like, but I've lived in your 'real' world, and been hurt by it - very badly. Living your life to conform to what is expected or what others want is a recipe for disaster, and if that kind of unhappiness is what you wish for your son, then I'm sorry, but you aren't much of a parent in my book." "And you're deliberately ignoring the main issue. You may not think so, but I know my son, and Will loves children, he craves kids of his own and he needs to provide an heir. You can't give that to him. I'm just being realistic. How long do you think this cosy little love affair will last until Will starts to feel bitter towards you because you can't give him what he wants? Have you thought of that?"

It was like a slap in the face, and Lizzy stood there speechless until she felt someone come up behind her and put his arms around her. She recognised William's aftershave and felt some of the tension she had been holding let go. Closing her eyes to stop the hot tears that she could feel prickling behind her shuttered lids, ready to fall, she leaned back against him, comforted by his strength, his warmth, and the security he offered.

Will had noticed Lizzy heading out the doors after talking to Jane, and excused himself. He needed to feel her, touch her. From where he had been standing, she hadn't looked well and he wondered what had happened. He wandered through the pathways, walking faster as he heard the voices not far off. He recognised both of them, and he approached just in time to hear his father's final words. Fury rushed through him, and he came up behind Lizzy, wanting to protect her from any more of his father's hurtful words. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled her close, feeling her relax against him.

Trying to quell the anger flooding through him, he spoke, quietly and with purpose. "For your information, Dad, Lizzy and I have already discussed this, and she knows that I would rather have her and no kids, than live my life without her. I can't say it any plainer and nothing, absolutely nothing, you can say will change my mind. Come on, Lizzy. We're leaving. I've had as much of the company here tonight as I can stomach."

After they had gone, Bill Darcy remained seated, gazing off into the night, time slipping by unnoticed, when he felt someone sit down beside him.

"What are you going to do about this engagement, Bill?" asked Catherine.

"What can I do?" he asked churlishly. "He's old enough to make his own decisions."

"But, surely you aren't happy about this?"

"For god's sake, woman! Of course I'm not, but what do you expect me to do? Forbid him? He's a grown man. I just wish his mother were here," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "She'd know what to do."

"Don't just sit there moaning, Bill Darcy. Do something about it. Cut him off without a cent, threaten to disinherit him … something!"

Bill was becoming peeved with Catherine's interference and pushing. He needed time to think. Annie was a lovely girl, but maybe Will had the right idea after all. Even though he had known Catherine for a long time, he knew how obsessed she could become over certain things. "Will is independently wealthy, Catherine. It won't work. I must say though, I have to hand it to Will - this one certainly has some fire in her." A thought occurred to him. "I wonder if her sister is the same?" he mused.

"What do you mean, 'her sister'? What does her sister have to do with it?"

"You mean you didn't know? Apparently Lizzy's sister is Charles' new lady friend, Jane."

"She's not!"

"Oh, yes indeed." He laughed mirthlessly at the look on Catherine's face as she went hurrying off.

Catherine's confrontation with Charles came off with less than the hoped for results. Whilst she realised that her ability to influence William was limited at best, she had expected more from Charles. Certainly she did not expect the serve volleyed at her by her incensed nephew when she tried to delicately broach the subject of his companion. And then that … that … hussy had the nerve come to along and interrupt her conversation with Charles to rudely upbraid her - Catherine de Bourgh- for her treatment of her sister!

The world has gone totally, stark, raving mad. Whatever happened to 'respect for one's elders'? she thought.

Lizzy just wanted to leave. She wanted to get out before the clock struck 12, because she had a horrible feeling that if she didn't, just like Cinderella, she would be reduced to rags and humiliated even more. But the gods, fates or angels in charge of such intervention were not listening, for on the stroke of 10, the night had one more highlight to reveal … the coup de grâce … the pièce de résistance … the icing, as it would turn out, on the bloody cake.

She hurried to catch up to William who was walking a few paces ahead with Richard, deep in conversation. At first she didn't understand. All she saw was a late arrival - a woman in her late twenties, moderately attractive in a hard, angular sort of way, who was obviously dressed to impress.

"Caroline," sighed Charles. "Oh, shit!"

Caroline? Who the hell is Caroline? Lizzy looked at Jane questioningly, but her sister stood transfixed, staring at something in front of her before stating expressionlessly, "Charles' sister."

Oh great! thought Lizzy. What? Enter the 'ugly stepsister'?

Lizzy turned around just in time to see the woman wrap herself around William and kiss him. The scene unfolding in front of her flicked forward slowly, and frame by frame she watched in mute horror as William's arms came up Caroline's and he seemed to pull her to him … no, no … Lizzy blinked and opened her eyes again to see he was actually trying to unclench the woman's arms from around his neck, but she was hanging on in a lip-lock tighter than a barnacle on a rusted hull. This looked all the more real in that William was starting to turn blue, hopefully through lack of oxygen and not anything else.

Finally breaking free, he stood gasping, turning quickly to find Lizzy amid the group of onlookers. Dammit!

"Let … go … of me, Caroline," he growled, extricating himself from the remnants of her grasp.

"Come now, Willy darling. Aren't you just a little bit glad to see me?"

Willy was speechless. A thousand thoughts rushed through his head … but at least now he knew his instincts had been right - he and Lizzy should have stayed home. He turned back to face Caroline, successfully keeping his anger to a slow simmer. "Can you handle the truth, Caroline?"

Luckily he was rescued from further assaults on his person by Caroline when Charles came over to confront his sister.

"What are you doing here? I wasn't aware you were invited."

"I wasn't, but they're hardly likely to turn me away, now are they, brother dear?" She watched as Will moved over to one of the girls and put his arm around her. She saw them taking animatedly. Oh dear, she thought, it looks like darling Will didn't tell the girlfriend about me. She inspected the woman from head to toe and nearly laughed. Things certainly have gone from bad to worse while I've been gone. Maybe I should have come back sooner? But, at least the competition this time will be a pushover. "So, where are you all going?"

"We're leaving. Heading home."

"Oh." Her face dropped. "Can I come with you?"

"No, you're not invited, so don't bother turning up there uninvited either."

"What's gotten into you, Charlie? You seem awfully tense these days."

But her words had little effect - the shell-shocked group had already started walking down the road.

The morning sun was pouring in through the kitchen windows while Jane stood and waited for the kettle to boil. She was still pondering on the events of last night when Mrs Chifley came in behind her and touched her gently on the shoulder.

"Everything all right, Jane dear? You look a million miles away."

"Hmmm? Oh, no, everything's fine, Mrs Chifley. Still a little tired I guess."

"Call me Carol, Jane, please. I've given up on Charles. It seems silly being so formal."

Jane smiled and chuckled. "Thanks for staying over last night. Did Robbie behave himself?"

"We watched a couple of Star Wars videos, and then played Monopoly™ until it was time for bed. That boy will be a millionaire by the time he's 25, I swear."

"Are you off home now?"

"No, Robbie and I are going in to see the latest Star Wars movie at Warriewood. I have to see it, apparently. That was the reason for watching the other two last night - we had bring me up to speed. In fact we'll be leaving shortly."

"Thanks, Carol. Things will be a little quiet here this morning anyway. I think we're all a bit tired after the ball last night. Richard, Will and Lizzy will be here shortly and Charles has just ducked down to the bakery to get some croissants for brunch."

"I'll leave you with it then, dear. Robbie and I should be back about 3pm."

"Bye, Carol."

Jane was halfway through her coffee when Charles walked in carrying four paper bags. The delicious smell of freshly baked croissants wafted around the kitchen.

"What do I do with these, love?"

"You grab a coffee. The kettle's boiled. I'll just pop these in the oven to keep warm until the others arrive. Oh, hang on. It looks like you just made it back in time."

The sound of voices filtered up the stairs …

"Well, I still think she had a bloody nerve if you ask me. And your father was no better - two of a kind."

"They can think what they like - it doesn't matter to us, Rich …"

"Here they come, Jane," said Charles. "You okay? You still look a bit tired."

"I'm fine. Not used to all the late nights. Is it all set up out on the deck?"

"Yes, I asked Mrs Chifley to set for six."

"Six? Oh no … not Caroline?"

"No, she hasn't been invited. Charlotte's coming, actually. She called this morning while you were in the shower. Apparently she found out something about Caroline and she's coming here this morning to tell me - didn't want to tell me on the phone, so that in itself doesn't sound good."

Further conversation was interrupted as the trio from Richard's place walked into the kitchen. After a round of hellos, the guys moved out to the deck, sitting under the shade of the huge market umbrella. Lizzy and Jane followed with the croissants and coffee.

They were just sitting down when Charlotte walked in.

"Can I come in?" they heard her call.

"Out here, Charlotte. You're just in time."

She came out onto the deck to a whistle of appreciation from Richard - the only one whose outward display of enthusiasm didn't seem dampened.

"There's a seat right here for you, my darling Charlotte," said Richard, patting the seat next to him which he discreetly pulled closer.

"Give it a break, Fitzy. So, how are we all?" A chorus of unenthusiastic 'Okays' greeted her. "And … how was the ball?"

"I think 'eventful' pretty well covers it," filled in Richard. "It was one of those evenings when one longs to be an orphan."

Charlotte looked around at the faces. Sparkling would not have described them, and hangovers certainly did not appear to be the reason. In fact, there was nary a hangover to be seen. She discreetly looked at Charles, but he inconspicuously shook his head. She guessed he wanted to wait until brunch was over for the information about Caroline. Well, that was fine, her news wasn't going to go anywhere. She reached for a croissant from the tray that Richard handed her, murmuring her thanks.

Something had definitely gone down last night, in fact Richard was the only one who seemed 'normal', if that were possible, she smiled to herself. Never one for pussyfooting, she waited until everyone had finished eating and came right out and said it. "Okay, who died?"

All the heads looked up at her in surprise.

"That's what I love about you, Charlotte," said Richard with a smirk, "you don't pull any punches. Well … it's like this … you and I are the only two here who don't seem to be attached, so why don't we run off today, now, and get married? What do you say?"

Charlotte couldn't help a laugh from escaping. She half expected him to get down on one knee. "Let's face it, Richard Fitzwilliam, I'm more woman than you could handle, even on a good day, but thanks for the offer. It's the best one I've had in ages."

"Just keep it in mind some night when you're feeling cold and lonely."

"Sure thing, handsome. Now, why all the long faces? Is anybody going to take pity on me and bring me up to speed? Hmmm?"

"Let's just say that our little group made quite an impact last night," said Charles.

"That's putting it mildly," said Will quietly. "I think most of Sydney knows who's sleeping with whom this morning."

At Charlotte's enquiring look, Richard took it upon himself to fill her in as none of the others seemed eager to rehash it, even for Charlotte. "It's like this … Catherine not only told Will that he was basically a fool, but she kinda got stuck into Lizzy a bit later on."

Will looked at Lizzy in confusion. "You didn't tell me about that?"

"That's because it wasn't important and I didn't want to worry you."

Charlotte looked over at Lizzy and Will and took Lizzy's hand and squeezed it in support. "That's terrible. I'm so sorry, you two."

"Aaah, but wait, there's more … Good old Uncle Bill got in on the act later and cast some rather nasty aspersions on Lizzy's character. Naturally, Will flew to her defence and there was a slight to do in the garden. That's not to mention Catherine chewing out Charles for attaching himself to a certain someone who I believe Catherine inferred didn't have a brain in her head … Sorry, Jane." He looked at Jane and winked. "Don't worry, we know how clever you are, sweetie. Catherine was just putting her mouth in motion before putting her brain in gear as usual."

"No wonder you all look so shocked! I just can't believe it …"

"The grand finale, of course, was the arrival of Caroline, and I don't think I can go there without bringing up my breakfast …"

"Talking about me again, Richard?"

Caroline walked out onto the deck, her heels clipping on the timber slats. Stares in varying degrees of animosity greeted her arrival.

"Caroline, what a surprise," said Richard dryly. "Where did you park the broom?"

"Very funny, Dickie. I can see your sense of humour hasn't improved. William, darling …" She eyed off the main reason for her visit, not failing to notice Lizzy's hand resting on his thigh. A steely glint came into her eye. Enjoy it while it lasts, missy, because it won't be there for long.

"What do you want, Caroline," said Charles. He noticed Charlotte making strange faces at him, inclining her head toward the doorway to the kitchen. He glanced around Caroline and froze. None of the others had noticed yet, but it wouldn't be long.

"I came to show you my 'surprise'. How nice that the gang's all here … well, almost," she said, looking around, "I notice Annie's missing, but the rest of you are here." She motioned with her hand to the quiet little toddler who stood in the shade of the door, waiting nervously. "Come here, James. Come to Mummy."

The little boy with a mop of dark hair came running over to his mother, nervously looking at all the adults peering intently down at him.

The expressions ranged from shock to suspicion to confusion.

"Everyone, I'd like you to meet my son, James."

They all looked on speechless - with the exception of Richard.

"Well, aren't you just full of surprises, Caroline. What are you playing at now?"

"I have no idea what you mean. I thought it was time my son met his father. Do you have a problem with that?" She moved around the table until she met the hardened glare of Will. "William Darcy, I would like you to meet your son, James."


Complete … utter … shocked … silence.

Song Credits "Someone To Watch Over Me" performed by Sting - Sting at the movies A&M Records 1997

Music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin

Chapter Eleven