FoL cover adn blurbFoundation of Love

(The Gypsy Blessing 2)

by Wendi Sotis

Copyright © 2014 Wendi Sotis

Prologue

Elizabeth Bennett bolted upright in bed and stared wide-eyed into the darkness. A low growl gave her a necessary clue as to where she was—her parents’ house.

The digital numbers of the clock on the bedside table were not visible, and she was almost sure she had fallen asleep with the light on while working on her school project. Dang it! Now the power is out?

It seemed that almost anything that could go wrong, had gone wrong during the few days she had been dog-sitting for her parents. A pipe had broken, flooding the basement. An unusually heavy spring downpour had revealed a leak in the roof. Termites had swarmed in the living room.

After all the repairs she had overseen already this week, she doubted this old house would need any more work done for a long time.

Having a great relationship with all the contractors in this small town through the family business, Meryton Building Supply, had come in handy. Help in the form of carpenters, plumbers, roofers, exterminators and electricians was always just a quick phone call away. She had certainly made use of those contacts this week as she had responded to one disaster after another.

Elizabeth blinked a few times. Her eyes now adjusted to the darkness, she looked at the floor where Lady slept whenever Elizabeth was home from college. The blonde cocker spaniel stood staring at the open doorway—ears cocked, muscles coiled—ready to spring into action.

The sight of that stance on most dogs would make nearly anyone nervous, but with Lady, Elizabeth knew it didn’t mean a thing. Lady was a wimp, pure and simple; almost anything frightened her. Once, Elizabeth had even caught her barking at her own shadow.

Remembering that she had just been having a nightmare, the terror Elizabeth had felt upon waking made more sense. Probably her abrupt waking had scared the nervous pup half to death.

Lady began to growl once again.

Or does she really hear something this time?

Elizabeth drew in deep breaths to slow her racing heart. She reached down to pat Lady’s head, hoping to calm her. This dog’s skittish personality is making me a nervous wreck, too. She couldn’t wait until her brother, Tom, would take over for her at the end of the week.

Angling her wrist toward the window to catch the light from the full moon, she checked her watch. A little before four in the morning—way too early to call the electrician. Good thing she had brought her cell phone since her parents’ cordless phones wouldn’t work without power. The landline phone she had found in the basement had been in bad shape after the flood, and she had thrown it away.

Yawning, she supposed she might as well go back to sleep.

Just as she snuggled down into the covers and closed her eyes, a loud thump sounded directly above her bed. Lady growled louder. Freezing in place, Elizabeth stared at the ceiling.

Maybe a tree fell on the roof… or an animal got into the attic.

I frightening thought popped into her head. Everyone she’d run into in town and all the workmen who had helped her had seemed to know her parents were away on their second honeymoon and that her younger sister had gone on a trip with her friend’s family. They had all had been surprised that Elizabeth was home from college and staying at the house.

Suddenly feeling vulnerable, goose bumps spread across her skin.

Anyone could have overheard my mother chatting away about their plans. If someone didn’t know that my mother refused to inconvenience her dog by putting her in a kennel, they would assume Mom and Dad left Mr. Hill in charge at the store and the house was empty right now. Burglars love unoccupied houses.

But why would a burglar be in the attic?

Holding her breath, she listened for some clue as to what was making the noise, but the house was now silent.

Maybe she should have taken up her sister Lydia’s offer to remain with her at their parents’ house instead of going away for spring break. If she had, there was no doubt that the entire neighborhood would have known they were here. But Elizabeth also knew she would have ended up chasing after her irresponsible younger sister in her spare time instead of working on her school project, which was due after the break, and while Elizabeth was busy filling in for her father at the store, who could know what trouble her young sister might have gotten into.

The loudest crash yet sounded from above, rattling the windows. Lady ran from the room, barking frantically at the noise.

Elizabeth snatched her cell phone off the table next to the bed, but when she pressed the power button, nothing happened. No light, nothing. You’d think I’d actually remember to charge it occasionally. Her heart hammered in her chest.

Sliding from the bed, she slipped a foot into one slipper but couldn’t find the other. Deciding Lady must have kicked it under the bed in her haste to leave the room, she chose not to waste time looking for it. From the corner of the room, she grabbed what she thought of as her lucky bat, the one she had used all four years while playing high school softball.

Elizabeth followed the sound of Lady’s barking into the hall and peeked into her parents’ room—the most logical place for a burglar to look for something valuable. The room was in order, untouched. She opened the closet door, retrieved the battery-powered lantern she knew her mother kept there, and switched it on. Elizabeth sighed in relief when it worked. At least she wouldn’t have to go searching for batteries, too.

Slowly, she moved to peer around the doorway toward the attic door. A shiver passed up her spine. She hesitated, gathering up the nerve to go on.

Elizabeth tried to imagine a raccoon chewing heartily through the wires in the attic as the culprit of the power outage, hoping the idea of a burglar would seem silly. She cringed, thinking of the big raccoon her friend Charlotte’s father, Mr. Lucas, had trapped last year. That thing was huge!

As she padded down the hallway, Elizabeth glanced at Lady, who was now not only barking at the attic door, but also baring her teeth at though she was about to gnaw a hole through it.

The way Elizabeth’s luck was going lately, Lady would not be afraid of whatever was up there. If it was a raccoon, it might chase Lady instead, and then she would have to take her to see the vet. No, she definitely did not need another problem this week—and certainly not at four in the morning.

With some difficulty, Elizabeth made it past Lady and through the door. She crept up the stairs, holding the bat at the ready. Pulling the door open carefully, she thrust the lantern in ahead of her and stole a look inside. A decided lack of holes in the roof, no sign of animals, and certainly no human presence helped the tension in her shoulders ease just a tad. So, what had made all that noise?

The most likely culprit caught her gaze—directly above her bedroom, a trunk had toppled over, and its contents were now scattered across the floor. Relief replaced her fear, and she could not help but laugh at her silly imagination.

Since she required both hands to right the trunk, she placed her lantern and bat on the floor near the many papers and packages that had spilled out all over the area. As she lifted the trunk, the lid flipped closed.

At seeing the name carved into the wood, she gasped. It was her name, though the last name was missing a ‘t’.

Elizabeth Rose Bennet.

She shook her head in disbelief. The trunk looked hundreds of years old.

As she moved some papers to clear a spot to sit on the floor, her interest was piqued by some letters. Although she was tempted to read them, they looked so fragile she was afraid to unfold them—until she came to one labeled only with Elizabeth Rose Bennet and the current day’s date. Her fingers lightly traced the red wax seal holding it closed.

As the effects of adrenaline faded, her normally inquisitive and logical mind began to take over. Had her family set up an elaborate prank? To have arranged for the trunk to fall a full four days after she had been here alone would take planning. Of course, it could not have been her sister Jane—she was so sweet, she never would play a joke on anyone. Lydia would not have had the patience, and her mother would not have thought of something this complex. It was more in the style of something her brother, Tom, would do, though with him away at college, he would not have had the opportunity to arrange it. It had to be her father.

The thought of leaving the letter unopened just to spite him for scaring her so badly occurred to her, but curiosity ate away at her resolve.

Carefully, Elizabeth broke the seal and warily unfolded the delicate pages. A glance at the first page made her gasp. It was a drawing—the perfect likeness of her sitting in the attic, looking at the same drawing of herself. Looking down at her clothes, she realized that even the pattern of dirt on them was exact. She scrambled to the mirror that leaned up against the wall and used her fist to clear the dust. A shudder rolled through her. A black mark stretched across her cheek exactly like the one in the sketch!

Elizabeth froze, staring at her image in the mirror, more than a little frightened to see what else this letter might contain. Deciding she was being a coward, she refused to allow herself to be intimidated and moved on to the next page.

The letter was addressed to her, but again, the odd spelling of her last name was used. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows when she noticed the date—it was written two hundred years earlier. It read:

Dear Elizabeth Rose Bennet,

Do not be afraid, my dear, to read this missive. The knowledge contained herein will not harm you in any way. I hope that I can help you to understand what is about to occur in your life, so that you do not feel you have gone insane, as I did when these happenings first began for me. You see, I am an ancestor of yours, and we two have been honoured with a special blessing.

One day, while I walked about my father’s estate, I came upon a woman who had been injured. Though she was a gypsy, and obviously not a gentlewoman, it mattered not to me. I assisted her by tending her wounds the best I could under the circumstances, and then I helped her to rejoin her family at their gypsy camp just on the edge of our property

The leader of the gypsies was impressed that I, a genteel lady, had helped his wife instead of running away from her in fright or disgust. The gypsy woman said some things in a language that I did not understand, which was later explained as being a great blessing.

It was not until the morning of my twentieth birthday that the letters began to arrive in the post. I thought them only odd at first, for there was no direction telling me from whom they came. Each letter contained only a drawing—some consisting of more than one sheet—but that was all. They were beautifully crafted, and since most depicted people that I knew, I kept them. However, I soon began to doubt my sanity. Only after my sister confirmed that the events shown in the pictures actually were occurring after I received them, as I had thought, did I believe the pictures were not a product of my imagination.

In the bottom of this trunk, I have placed several packages, one of which contains my journal, and another, all of the sketches that I have received as a result of the blessing. I trust they will answer many of your questions.

The drawing I just now received is the one that you hold in your hand. It is interesting for me to see—it seems that the style of ladies’ dress will change dramatically over two hundred years. I envy that you are able to wear trousers.

I cannot explain how I am aware of the date that you will find this letter, nor that your name will be the same as mine. I cannot prove that the drawings come to me as a result of the gypsy blessing. I cannot tell you why I believe that my trunk will open for you only, and that you will experience the same effects from the blessing as I have. I simply knew these things the moment I laid eyes on this drawing, as surely as I know my own name, the same way that I have been intuitively aware of many details about the sketches I have received. I believe you will appreciate that statement soon, as well.

The best advice I can give you now is that you remember to believe in the impossible, dear girl.

Do not fear. In the end, the drawings will lead you to complete happiness—that which you never dreamed could be possible!

Yours, etc.,

Elizabeth

Elizabeth stared at the pages for a few moments before laughter began bubbling out of her. Of all the things for her father to use as a prank, why did he choose this? She wondered how long it had taken him to find the ancient pages of stationery and how much he had paid a calligrapher to write in such beautiful script. Why had he thought she would not notice that there was a delicately engraved “D” in the center of the family crest embossed on the paper? If the woman had the same name, it should have been a “B.”

It was a shame she could not hide the fact that she had read the note. Elizabeth rejected the thought of removing the string and brown paper from the packages that the writer of the letter had directed her to open, though somehow, she knew which they were. That frightened her a bit, because there were several. How could she know? She shook her head to clear the thought from her mind.

She finished replacing all the items into the trunk and closed the lid with a thump. Gathering her bat and lantern, she left the attic, determined not to think of this episode again.

However, over the next few days, thoughts of the trunk, the letter, and the drawing robbed her of sleep. The part of her that, as a little girl, had believed in fairy tales and magic, and later had dreamt of having a fairy godmother who would one day transform her into a beautiful maiden worthy of a boy’s attention—that part of her now longed for the gypsy’s blessing to be authentic.

While occupied with tasks that required little thought, such as signing a stack of time cards at the store or folding laundry at home, she would try to figure out how her family could have pulled off the prank—especially the drawing. How had her father guessed exactly what she would be wearing? How had he known that when she heard the trunk fall, she would have rushed up the stairs without her slipper? Even if there had been someone in the house with her, nobody could draw in such detail that quickly. The wax that sealed the letter was not new, either.

Again and again, she was left without answers, which hinted toward the letter being genuine. What if it really wasn’t a joke? Her father was known for his pranks, but she couldn’t remember him ever putting this much thought or effort into a practical joke.

The night before her brother arrived, Elizabeth lay awake thinking. The lady who wrote the letter had most likely married and changed her surname. When the old family Bible occurred to her, hope bloomed in her breast. If Elizabeth Rose Bennet was truly an ancestor, she should be listed there. Elizabeth sprang out of bed, hurried to her father’s library, and pulled the Bible from the shelf. Her trembling hands turned to the page where births and deaths had been recorded faithfully for generations.

A great sense of disappointment came over her when she realized the citations began in 1851, when Emily Lashbrook received the Bible upon her marriage to Henry Bennett. It proved nothing since the letter was dated 1811, forty years prior.

She walked to the window and looked up at the twinkling stars of the clear night sky. Her thoughts returned time and time again to the misspelling of her last name, but part of her struggled to dismiss it. She wanted to believe, but really, how could she? It was all just too fantastic.

~%~

~A few days later

Elizabeth sat silently shuffling through the photos her mother had printed as a chronicle of their second honeymoon. She blinked rapidly at the sight of her father wearing a gaudily-colored sombrero and realized she hadn’t really been paying attention to any of them up until now. The sound of laughter caused her to look up. She blushed as she noticed her father and her sister Jane were looking at her. Had her father just mentioned the prank he’d played on her last week and she’d missed it?

Her father laid his hand on her arm. “Did you take photos of your adventures, Lizzy?”

Elizabeth was surprised when she felt a bit of fear as she met his gaze. Would he tell her how he managed his stunt? “My… adventures?”

Her father chuckled. “Judging by the stack of bills on my desk, it seems you had an exciting few days while we were away.” He looked around, assuring that nobody else was paying attention to them before speaking again in a tone quiet enough that only she could hear. “I would have rather been here with you and the contractors than floating around the ocean on a cruise ship.”

“Oh, I thought you meant…” She hesitated. “Dad, your prank nearly scared me half to death.”

“You didn’t tell me about a prank when you returned to the dorm, Lizzy.” Jane looked at her father. “What did you do this time, Dad?”

“Prank?” Her father’s confused frown was convincing, making Elizabeth wonder how long he had practiced the expression. “How could I have played a practical joke while I was away?”

“I haven’t been able to figure it out. It must have taken a lot of scheming—I’ll give you that.”

His expression remained serious. “Truly, Lizzy, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Her breath caught as she stared at him. Whenever he had instigated a prank in the past, he had claimed responsibility immediately. Why wasn’t he taking credit for this stunt. Could it all be true? “You didn’t set up the trunk so it would fall over?”

Mr. Bennet’s eyes opened wider, and he cleared his throat. “It has your name on it?”

Elizabeth shifted her gaze several times from her father to her sister and then nodded.

Her father began to chuckle nervously. “I moved some things around when I went upstairs to get the luggage. Perhaps I left it in a precarious position, and after a while, it fell.” He patted her hand. “I’m sorry to have frightened you, Lizzy. It was not intentional.” He winked at her.

Elizabeth understood his final gesture as an admittance of guilt. Her father had set up the hoax, after all. The letter was false… there was no gypsy blessing. She was surprised as a feeling of great disappointment welled up within her.

After dinner, Elizabeth and Jane drove the sixty miles to their dorm rooms at Longbourn University. Once she was again distracted by her normal, hectic routine of attending classes and working as an architectural intern at her aunt and uncle’s firm, Elizabeth almost forgot about the trunk, the letter, and the drawing.

Almost.
Chapter 1

~One month later – Longbourn University

The sounds of feminine giggling bounced off the buildings surrounding William Darcy on three sides. He looked around and then rolled his eyes. The courtyard had practically filled up with college-aged girls, half of whom were staring at him. A group of female co-eds strutted toward him, smiling flirtatiously. He nodded slightly in greeting. One of the girls winked at him and licked her lips. He quickly averted his gaze and had to stop himself from rolling his eyes again.

Internally, he cursed the magazine that had plastered his face on their cover last month after voting him Bachelor of the Year. I should’ve asked Anne to meet me at my car.

“William!”

William blinked and refocused, surprised to find the voice of his old friend Anne coming from the lovely, vibrant creature walking toward him, waving at him from across the courtyard outside her dorm building.

“Anne?”

Even though Anne de Bourgh could afford the best of the best designer clothes, to her mother’s frustration, she always had worn bulky sweaters and long, baggy skirts. It seemed to him that she did her best to cover every inch of skin possible. He had assumed she had been hiding what she thought of as a lack of figure since she was surrounded by socialites of their class who had paid tens of thousands of dollars or more to attain what they viewed as the perfect body. In his opinion, their judgment was deficient.

William raised his eyebrows. Obviously, that had not been the reason Anne had kept herself hidden. She was lovely.

Over the past few months, he had noticed a slow change in her emails, texts, and the way she spoke on the phone, but seeing Anne behave this way in public was astonishing. Ever since they were children, Anne de Bourgh had been painfully shy, always trying to blend into the background. It was something they had in common, though he had learned to put on a mask to be sociable when he had to, which got him through many business meetings, parties, and charity events. Few people knew the real Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Shocking him further, Anne greeted him with a hug. “Will, it’s so good to see you! I’m so glad you had business in the area and could spare a weekend to visit.”

“Anne?” he repeated.

Anne laughed as she pulled away. “Yes, it’s me! Oh, I know, I know… but it is me. I told you I had made some new friends, and they’re doing me a lot of good.”

They decided where they would go for dinner and began to walk toward the parking lot. After a few minutes of silence, William looked over at Anne again. “You look wonderful.”

“Don’t act so shocked!” Anne’s tone was one of feigned insult. She giggled when he reddened. “I was only teasing, Will. Believe me, I do understand. My suitemates—Charlotte, Jane, and Lizzy—gave me a ‘make-over’ shortly after they arrived at Longbourn University in August. Charlotte cut my hair, and they gave me tips on how to apply a little make-up the right way.” Anne turned her head away, he assumed to hide a blush. “When they finally let me look in the mirror, my reflection surprised even me. As for the clothes—Jane aspires to be a fashion designer, and she is very talented. Since Charlotte, Lizzy, and I are so dissimilar in body type, we are the guinea pigs for some of her designs. As compensation, we get to keep the clothes she makes for us as long as we model them for her classes. It’s too bad your visit wasn’t scheduled for next week; we’re going to put on a small fashion show.”

“But…” He searched for a way to express his thoughts without offending her. “You are going to get up in front of a group of people you don’t know?”

“Yes! I dare anyone to live with Lizzy for six months and not have some of her self-confidence rub off on them! She has a certain way about her…” Anne shook her head. “You’ve got to meet her to understand. But I told you about most of this already. Don’t you ever pay attention to my emails or phone calls?”

“You’ll have to forgive me, Anne. I have never even met Lizzy or Jane, and I’ve had just a couple of things on my mind lately other than your roommates.” Frowning, he motioned toward a very plain-looking car and opened the passenger door for her.

“You’re kidding! You rented this?”

“It was the safest one they had.”

Once he settled into the driver’s seat, Anne said, “I can just picture you standing at the rental counter with your laptop open, searching the Internet for the latest safety ratings on the list of available cars.” She tried not to smile at his grimace. “Did you check the VIN number histories for accidents, too?”

William stiffened, uncomfortable that she had taken the joke too far. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her bite her lip.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

William nodded. “It’s my fault. Nobody should have to be so careful with their words around me. You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now.”

Anne directed him out of the maze of campus streets and parking lots. Once they reached the open road, she asked, “How’s Georgiana doing?”

William’s expression darkened. “It has been two years since the accident.” He shook his head. “My sister has healed physically, but she’s still so withdrawn. I thought by now she would have stopped blaming herself for living when our parents didn’t…” his voice trailed off. He didn’t want to talk about this subject any further just now.

“I’m sorry. Would it be okay if I came to visit her during spring break?”

“Georgie would love that, and so would I. Thanks.”

She nodded. “How’s everything at Darcy Construction going?”

“At least I have good news in that part of my life. Exactly as my father predicted, the local Native American tribe is expected to win the support necessary from New York State and local officials to build a casino. The area will be growing quickly, and new residents will need a place to live. Monday, I’m meeting with the architectural firm that I’m almost positive will be working on Lambton Village. Though it may take a while before we begin construction, my father’s dream community will be realized—and you’ll have to put up with seeing me more often.”

“It’s been your dream, too.” Anne smiled. “That’s wonderful, William! But if you take too long to start, I might not be here. Don’t faint, but I’ve finally made a decision about a major.”

“Again?”

“This time, I’m absolutely sure. I always treated my fascination with a microscope and biology as a hobby, but I’m taking it up to the next level. I am going to be a microbiology technologist, helping doctors find the correct medications to prescribe for their patients.”

“That sounds…” He hesitated. “Well, it sounds… good.”

“Just good?”

“To be honest, Anne, I think you should do something with your photography.”

“But, that’s only a hobby.”

“Last year, you said microscopes were a hobby.”

Anne huffed out a breath and crossed her arms over her waist.

William seemed to become lost in thought for a couple of minutes. After practically growing up together, he knew Anne would not interrupt his train of thought. “Jane and Lizzy are sisters who won scholarships, correct?”

“Ah, so you were paying attention to at least some of what I’ve told you.” Anne chuckled. “Yes. Lizzy is three years younger than Jane. Lizzy graduated high school early like you did. I keep forgetting she’s seventeen because she seems at least as old as her sister.”

“If Jane is three years older, why did she enter college at the same time as Elizabeth?”

“Well, Jane had some difficulties in school because of a hearing problem. Unfortunately, it wasn’t diagnosed until she had been left back. It took her a little while to get used to her hearing aids, but once she did, she did great at school.”

William raised his eyebrows. “Sounds a lot like what happened to my friend Charles Bingley.”

She cocked her head to the side. “You know, now that you mentioned Charles, I think they would make a great couple.”

He knitted his brow. “You think they’d go well together because they both have a hearing loss?”

“Of course not, Will. That wouldn’t give them enough in common to be a good couple. It’s their personalities. They’d be perfect together.”

Glancing at Anne, he could see the matchmaking wheels turning in her mind. William cleared his throat to remind Anne that he was there.

“Oh, sorry. Mama was in Paris for the holidays, so I went to Jane and Lizzy’s house before my visit with the Fitzwilliams. It was very different living in the midst of a large family after being an only child. I really like their father and brother, but their sister and mother are a little…” Anne wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know…strange.”

Anne pointed to a side street and directed William to park the car. Once they were seated in the restaurant, William continued their conversation. “I’m sorry your visit didn’t go well.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to give you that impression. I had a lot of fun. Their younger sister, Lydia, is kind of an airhead and the biggest flirt I’ve ever met—I don’t remember ever hearing so much about boys in my life. Their mother spent her time either telling me every intimate detail of the lives of people I don’t know or had just met, or trying to set me up on dates with men from the area. She reminded me a little of my mother in a way, listing each man’s earning potential, and pushing them at me.” Anne laughed. “I guess it comes with the territory—being in my mid-twenties with no boyfriend in sight, with ‘student’ my only career path up until now. Lizzy joked that if her mother found out that I have money, she would push her brother Tom at me, even though he is so much younger than I am. He is Lizzy’s twin.”

William’s eyebrows rose high up on his forehead. “I would feel much more comfortable if you had your own apartment instead of sharing a dorm room with strangers.”

“Living with strangers has done me nothing but good. You know that my mother would leave me with a nanny whenever she went away on one of her monthly trips, always too worried that I’d become ill to take me with her. Even after the doctor told her my immune system was stronger than it was when I was little, it continued the same way—I think it had become a habit for her. The only places I was allowed to go were to visit the Fitzwilliams and your family. Then, once she allowed me to be around people, she only let me near people she thought worthy of notice.”

William nodded. “She’s like that in business, too. It’s not easy having her on the board when she only wants us to take on clients who have her idea of the right kind of reputation.”

“I’ve never told anyone this before.” Anne spoke hesitantly. “I was so shy that when I was with the super-self-confident socialites my mother insisted I hang out with, all I’d do was just sit there and listen. The few times I did find the courage to speak, they ridiculed me. I tried reading the gossip columns, but even then, I still couldn’t exchange years’ worth of gossip like they did. It was all about people I’d never even met. I read up on cities all over the world that they had mentioned visiting and watched movies and TV programs about them, but it didn’t help. Instead of trying to find a topic that I was interested in or help me to find a way to belong to their little clique, when they thought I couldn’t hear them, they’d laugh at what I’d said. Those girls tolerated my company because of the size of my bank account and my family name, and that’s it. Much of what they said was nasty and cruel. Even thinking of them now, I still can’t figure out why my mother considers those people superior.” She shook her head and glanced around the restaurant. “That’s why I wanted to meet all kinds of people, not just the ones my mother decided were the ‘right kind,’ and I asked your parents and the Fitzwilliams to back me up when I decided to go away to college. With all the money my family has donated to my father’s alma mater, by selecting Longbourn University, I had my pick of dorms and chose one that provides a private bedroom for each student, with a shared common room.

“It took years—and yes, I’ve been exposed to a few girls who were not very nice or ‘good role model’ material—but look at me, Will. When I first left home, I never thought I’d be able to speak above a whisper, let alone model my friend’s designs. I feel like I’m a different person. People listen to what I have to say and take me seriously now, and not just because I’m a de Bourgh.”

“When will I meet your new suitemates?” William wanted to assess the girls she was living with, hoping they wouldn’t take advantage of Anne the way so many people had tried to use him through the years. The Darcy protectiveness had just kicked in.

“It will have to be on your next visit. Jane and Lizzy went home this weekend. If you don’t trust my opinion of them, ask Richard. I’ll send some photos of the three of us and Charlotte by email. You do remember what Charlotte Lucas looks like, don’t you?”

William nodded and took a sip of coffee.

Anne continued. “She asked if she could join us for dinner, you know, but I told her I wanted you all to myself. She’s got a crush on you.”

William stiffened and cleared his throat. “Charlotte is a nice girl, but between Georgiana and work, I don’t have time…”

“Relax, Will. It’s not a serious crush—she just thinks you are about the hottest man alive.”

William replied with nervous laughter.

Conversation ceased as the waiter delivered their salads. After a minute, William feigned innocence and prodded. “A few minutes ago you mentioned that you had no boyfriend?”

Anne smirked. “Well, I had no boyfriend at the time I was visiting there.”

“Richard told me he visited you here for Valentine’s Day weekend.”

Anne’s face lit up expectantly. “And?”

William chuckled. “It seems you’ve finally done it, Anne. Whenever he talks about you, he’s overcome by such a sappy look, it’s absolutely sickening!”

“Excellent!” She beamed with happiness.

~%~

After he dropped her off at her dorm, Anne set about emailing the photos of her roommates, but refrained from adding any information, eager to see how he would react. In her opinion, William and Lizzy were perfect for each other. There was no doubt in her mind that William would be interested in Lizzy from the first moment he saw her.

She’d wait a while before letting them meet in person—until Lizzy turned eighteen—because Anne knew that once they met, they’d both fall hard. Of all people, Anne understood what it was like to fall in love and have to wait years before there was any hope of being with that person, as had happened with her and Richard. Well… her, anyway. Richard’s noticing her was much more recent.

On the other hand, it couldn’t hurt to plant the seed by sending him photos of her with her friends every once in a while. After all, she’d already started showing Lizzy plenty of pictures of William.

~%~

William returned to his hotel room and set his laptop on the counter in the kitchenette. While it booted up, he tried to decide which variety of flavored coffee pods provided by the hotel he should try this time around. What happened to coffee-flavored coffee? He expected to make his way through all the flavors—as long as they were caffeinated. If he’d be busy with Anne during the day, it was pretty much guaranteed he’d get little sleep if he wanted to catch up on work this weekend.

Monday’s upcoming visit to the future site of Lambton Village with a prospective architect was one that William had a good feeling about. He had specific ideas for Lambton Village, and up until now, nobody else he had spoken to was on the same page as he was. Surprisingly, when he described the hospital over the phone to Edward Gardiner, within a few days, Gardiner had emailed him a rough sketch of almost exactly what he had already envisioned. William hoped Gardiner’s staff would do the same for all of the buildings he had planned, especially his own residence, for which he was even more demanding in his specifications.

Adding to the attraction of using this firm, Gardiner seemed to understand and respect his fastidious nature. William knew what he wanted, and nobody was going to talk him into anything else unless there was a darn good reason for the change.

Hearing the distinctive sound he had assigned to his email inbox, he turned back to his computer. The clatter of letters dropping through the mail slot at Pemberley Manor in Derbyshire County, England, always reminded him of the happy summer vacations he had spent there while growing up. Answering several business messages first, he clicked on one from Anne. The preview of the photo she sent was too large to fit on the screen, but what—or who—was visible chased all other thoughts from his mind.

Those eyes!

The bells of a nearby church chimed the hour and broke William’s trance. Opening the attachment to view the entire photograph, he didn’t recognize two of the girls pictured. While he had to admit the blonde was beautiful, the girl with the emerald green eyes and the long, silky, brown hair was perfection itself. He prayed this was not the seventeen-year-old.

Before he realized what he was doing, William had dialed Anne’s cell phone, and he heard a very sleepy, “Hello?”

“Anne? Did I wake you?”

“William? Is something wrong?” When he told her that all was well, she grumbled, “Of course you woke me up! When you dropped me off, I told you I was going straight to bed.”

“I’m sorry. Everything’s fine; I just didn’t realize it was so late. Why don’t you call me when you get up. It isn’t important.”

“Don’t you dare hang up on me! I’ll be up all night wondering why you called. Tell me.”

He hesitated a few moments before blurting out, “I received your email… which is which?”

“Which is which what, William?”

“In the photo. Who is who… which girl is which…?”

“Oh!” At least Anne tried to cover her giggle by clearing her throat. “The girl with the blonde highlights is Jane. Elizabeth has dark hair.”

William didn’t answer right away; he was too busy swearing silently. “But you said… how old are these girls? Neither of them looks seventeen. They don’t even look like sisters.”

“I know Lizzy doesn’t look that young, and she certainly doesn’t act it either, but she’s seventeen. Jane just turned twenty.”

“How’d you become suitemates with these girls anyway?”

“They grew up in Charlotte’s home town, and she thought we’d get along well. After having the ‘party animals’ as suitemates last year, we wanted roommates that took their studies as seriously as we do and requested Jane and Lizzy. You know the university won’t deny me anything within reason.” She laughed. “They fear that if I’m not kept completely happy, I’ll put a stop to the de Bourgh family’s donations!”

William sighed deeply.

“You still there, Will?”

“Yeah. Sorry I bothered you, Anne. Sleep well.”

“Good night.”

He hit the “end” button on his phone and returned his attention to the photo that was still on the screen. The formal “Elizabeth” fit her much better than “Lizzy” though his opinion might change once he met her.

Charlotte’s neighbors, eh? They probably couldn’t afford to go to university any other way than scholarships, William thought with another sigh.

Even before he had been old enough to consider girls as anything more than annoying pests, Anne’s mother, Catherine de Bourgh, had already begun to badger him about what she named as his “duty to connect their ancient, noble, and superior families” with a marriage between Anne and him. The two were such good friends, it really was too bad they had never felt that way about each other. However, it could never have worked. Anne had always been like a sister to him, and she had been in love with his cousin Richard for as long as he could remember.

Because William was the heir to the business empire that the Darcy family had built over many generations, even as far back as high school, he had been chased by quite a few girls.

At first, innocent and ignorant of the motive behind their interest, he’d thought himself lucky. After several disappointments, William saw a pattern developing—their pursuit of him had nothing to do with him. Their attention was completely mercenary in nature, although Anne continued to insist that his looks had something to do with it, as well.

The quest to win his affections continued once he entered university. Even though he was younger than the majority of college girls, he found they were willing to sacrifice almost anything to gain the prize of his fortune. A part of him died when he overheard the girl he had been seriously dating tell her friend that she would use her talents to make sure William never asked for a prenuptial agreement, making sure she would get a nice settlement when they divorced.

That’s when William decided he would never find someone who could meet his requirements for the perfect woman: one who cared for him, not his money or status, and did not put up a façade to attract him. He vowed never to trust another woman so long as he lived.

When his parents were lost in the car accident two years ago, he found there were only three women alive he could depend on—his sister, Georgiana; their housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds; and his friend Anne.

Even before his parents were buried, the hunt doubled in intensity under the pretense of offering him comfort. Unlike those men he could name who used their “friendship” with him to obtain favors from these women, all the while promising to put in a good word with William, he cringed inside at the thought of using a woman’s greed for his own satisfaction.

The overwhelming demands of suddenly becoming a businessman and an employer when his parents died, as well as the responsibilities of his new role as guardian to his sister, kept him so busy that he barely had time enough to sleep and eat, let alone do anything else, like date. Earlier this year, when a very popular and well-respected magazine had named him as one of the “Top Ten Most Eligible Bachelors,” he found he couldn’t turn around without gold-digging women practically chasing him down the street. Thinking of entering into a relationship with any woman left a bitter taste in his mouth.

His cousin Richard teased him from time to time, saying that his “all work, no play” attitude was turning William into a “dull boy.” He always shrugged off the comment, claiming contentment. Truly, he had been somewhat content—right up until the very moment he first saw that photograph.

“Seventeen!” William sighed and moved to close the message, but not before he saved the photo to his hard drive.

~%~

Monday morning, William climbed into Mr. Edward Gardiner’s SUV, and the two rode out to the land that William’s father had bought a few years prior, when the local Native American group was first petitioning for Federal and New York State recognition as a tribe, and rumors were circulating that the tribe was considering opening a casino.

William’s excitement mounted as they rode through the area that would one day be Lambton Village. Every time the two men stopped and spread out the survey map on the hood of the truck, Gardiner made notations as to where William would like to place each building.

The most beautiful parcel of land, William intended to keep for himself, with plans to build the American counterpart to Pemberley, his estate in England. Though he did not wish a duplication of the manor house, he wanted to incorporate many of its features into Pemberley Deux.

A multitude of fields filled with wildflowers surrounded a small lake. As William stood on the rising ground where the house would be built, his chest expanded with pride. From here, he would witness the sun rise and set over the woods that edged the property, which were guaranteed to exhibit a glorious display of color in the fall. He could see it, as if time had sped up and the seasons had changed swiftly all around him.

“It’s perfect.” He sighed.

Gardiner caught up to him. “You know, I’ve spent a bit of time on this land. My niece enjoys hiking, and she comes here whenever she gets the chance, so she wanted to show it to me and my family. I hope you don’t mind, but she brought us here to picnic by the lake several times. As there weren’t any ‘no trespassing’ signs posted, we didn’t think we were doing anybody any harm. She’s a very talented architectural student, and it’s been her dream to buy this land and build a house of her own.” Gardiner looked around at the scenery. “It is beautiful here.” He hesitated. “If you’d like, when we return to the office, I can show you the model my niece is building for a school project—it’s the house she imagined for this land. It’s not quite complete, but it will give you an idea.”

“Yes, I would. Your family may continue to use this as a picnic spot until the construction begins.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Darcy.”

After a few more stops, the pair returned to Gardiner’s office. Gardiner seemed surprised when William asked to see the model.

“My niece’s office is down here.” Gardiner led William down a hall.

“I thought you said she is a student?”

Gardiner nodded. “At the university, yes, but she has been working here part-time as an intern. Her ideas are wonderfully creative, and some have been the basis of almost as many of our firm’s designs as any of our senior architects. Actually, she sketched the hospital that I faxed over to you the other day—the one you were interested in developing further. After seeing the model, perhaps you’d like to see some of her other works. She would make an excellent addition to the team for your project.”

Gardiner stopped at a door and flipped on a light switch. William could only stare at the model while Gardiner gave a “tour” of the grounds. Gardiner removed the roof to show William the features of the inside of the building.

“How…?” William sputtered out, almost a whisper. “How did your niece know what I have pictured in my mind every time I think of that land? I’ve never even made a sketch of the house, and yet here it is, perfectly built in miniature!”

Gardiner raised his eyebrows high. “Really?”

Too choked up at the moment to say anything more, William only nodded.

“Well, that is interesting!” Gardiner rubbed his thumb across his chin. “You see, what you described is exactly the way Lizzy works. After familiarizing herself with the type of building the client needs, she gets the feel of the land and then designs what she sees in her imagination—something that will fit in with the surrounding landscape. When she looks at your land, this is what she sees.”

Lizzy? A shiver ran down William’s spine. How many architectural students named Lizzy can there be?

William’s attention moved to the model once again. “There are a couple of additions I would make on the outside—a tennis court for instance—but this is almost perfect.”

“Actually, here are the plans.” Gardiner motioned towards a drafting table behind William. “There is a tennis court.” He pointed. “Right here.”

William nodded. It was exactly where it belonged.

Gardiner continued. “Lizzy hasn’t had a chance to build it onto the model yet.”

William looked over the plans and chuckled when he saw the stables were also precisely where he thought they should be. He straightened his spine and looked Gardiner squarely in the eye. “Is there any way your niece would part with her ambition to build this for herself?”

Gardiner took in a deep breath. “As I said earlier in the day, it was just a dream of hers. While she might have eventually saved the money to buy the land, realistically she knows she will never be able to afford to build the house as she has envisioned it. I would think she’d be thrilled to know that her mansion will be built on the plot of land it was meant for.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s too bad she won’t be able to come into work this afternoon—her classes run late tonight.”

Speechless, William only nodded once again. A photograph on the wall above the drafting table caught his eye. It was obviously a job site; Gardiner was in the picture, along with a few other people he did not recognize, and there was the beautiful face of the woman—no, girl, he reminded himself—whom he had found himself staring at for a good portion of the weekend.

“Elizabeth Bennett,” William breathed.

“Why, yes! Do you know her?”

William’s heart skipped a beat. What an incredible coincidence. He cleared his throat to give him a moment to recover from his shock. “I know of her, Mr. Gardiner, but I’ve never met her. She shares a suite at university with my friend, Anne de Bourgh.”

Gardiner smiled widely. “Ah, Anne. What a lovely girl! I’ve come to know her quite well since Jane and Lizzy met her at the university.”

If I choose to have it built, will I ever think of my house as anything other than “Elizabeth’s mansion?” No, Mr. Gardiner, it’s good that I won’t have the opportunity to meet her.

~%~

~The following weekend

“There he is, Anne.” Elizabeth pointed toward the door and called out, “Richie!” The other girls stood and called out, as well. It was obvious by the way he looked around Club Speakeasy that he’d heard them. Recognition dawned in his eyes, and he picked his way through the crowd, heading in their direction. The closer he got, the more anxious Anne seemed to be. As Richard drew near, Elizabeth gave her a little nudge. Anne ran into his arms, practically tackling him. It warmed Elizabeth’s heart to see both their faces light up with such joy, the same as they did every weekend when he came to visit her. It was too bad they lived so far apart. They belonged together.

Knowing their staring into each other’s eyes could go on all night, she piped up. “I don’t know about you girls, but I think it’s rude that we don’t even rate a greeting before they start acting like they’re the only two people on the planet.”

Richard chuckled and turned to face Elizabeth. “Hello, Squirt! The color of your kiddie bracelet clashes with your outfit.”

Speakeasy was a dance club for anyone age sixteen and over, so everyone had to wear a colored bracelet to indicate whether or not they were old enough to order alcohol.

“Ah, that’s better.” Elizabeth smiled brightly. She never minded his teasing references to her deficiency in age or height. “Your honorary sisters don’t rate as high as your girlfriend, eh?”

“Honorary sisters?” Richard raised his eyebrows.

“Yes. After you did such a wonderful job of chasing away that pest, Collin Hunsford, from stalking me the last time you were in town, you were officially declared our ‘big brother.’”

“I’m honored, ladies.” Richard bowed slightly before holding Anne’s chair and then taking a seat himself.

Thinking of the greasy young man whose eyes never strayed from her chest and whose conversation consisted entirely of suggestive comments and empty flattery, Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. “He never bothers me when we’re out somewhere near home anymore, but in Longbourn, he does.”

Jane shared a knowing glance with Charlotte. Charlotte said, “That’s because he knew he was safe here, so far away from Dan. Now he won’t bother you again at Longbourn, either, knowing Richie might be in town.”

Elizabeth nodded. She had tried to forget her old friend Dan’s reaction the night Collin had hung all over her when they all attended a concert. It upset her too much. But Elizabeth was not one to stay in a bad mood for long, so a few minutes later, she goaded Richard into joining them all on the dance floor.
Chapter 2

~Meryton – May 30 – a little more than 2 years later

On the afternoon of her twentieth birthday, while sharing a celebratory slice of pizza with a group of friends, Elizabeth heard her cell phone make a sound it had not made before. Curious about the noise and surprised that she could hear it over the crowd in the restaurant, she excused herself and stepped outside to check her phone. When she looked at the screen, the displayed read *New Photo*.

She had not seen this message previously. There were no missed calls or text messages. The sound she had heard was not the one her phone would normally make at all. Maybe someone changed my ringtones?

Elizabeth opened the photo album and found not one, but several new photos.

The first was a picture of an artfully wrapped gift on the balcony outside her room. Elizabeth laughed. Someone must have sent her the photo so she would hurry home.

The second was a photo of her family in their beautiful new home, and she could swear they were seated around their brand new dining room table, which had just been delivered last night–but they had eaten in the kitchen the night before. When could this have been taken? Her sister Lydia was pouting, probably because she had a large stain on her favorite shirt. Her mother was very upset, and her brother Tom was bending down. Jane was absent.

The third confused her even more—it was a picture of Anne’s friend William Darcy.

Living with a photography nut like Anne, Elizabeth had seen plenty of photos of all Anne’s friends and family, including William Darcy. Anne had even framed the full-page photo she had taken of him, which was published alongside an article naming him as one of the top ten bachelors of the year for the second time. Every time Elizabeth saw a photo of him, she was shocked to find that she ached to lose herself in the clear, crystal blue of his eyes. This time, as she stared at his image on the phone, the longing went much deeper, and an unfamiliar warmth coursed through her. It was some minutes before she could tear away her gaze.

Since nobody knew about her secret crush on William Darcy, and none of her friends or family knew the man except Anne, Elizabeth had to assume Anne was trying to tell her that she had surprised her by coming to visit for her birthday. Maybe she was waiting for her at the house right now?

Still, that didn’t explain why Anne would send a photo of William… unless she had brought William with her. Why on earth would she do such a thing?

Elizabeth returned her attention to her phone and sighed wistfully. How could any woman not be attracted to a man who had the physical attributes usually found on a statue of a mythical Greek god?

From all the photos Anne had shown her, she knew he was tall. In this picture, his dark hair was cropped short, and his beard had grown in just enough to make him look the slightest bit scruffy, which she thought extremely sexy on a man usually seen in the tabloids all spiffed up, sporting an expensive suit or tuxedo. The polo shirt and khaki shorts he wore were tight in all the right places, accenting his muscular build. Her hands twitched—she’d love to run her fingers through his hair.

If those tabloids ever got ahold of this picture, she was sure it would be plastered all over the front page. She giggled, thinking she could already see the headlines “Darcy Dressed Down.”

Elizabeth cocked her head to the side and decided she preferred him this way. It really was a shame William was so unpleasant—even with a scowl plastered on his face as he was shown in the picture, he was the best looking man Elizabeth had ever seen. The frown fit right in with Anne dragging him along to a place he didn’t want to go. Judging by how rude he was whenever she answered the dorm room phone, he must dislike her, though she could never figure out why. If Anne had brought him along, he was probably feeling as happy to be there as Elizabeth would be to see him.

Knowing her friends were still waiting for her, Elizabeth forced herself to return inside. Figuring out the photos would have to wait a while longer.

~%~

A few hours later, as she always did whenever entering the Bennetts’ new house—the first of her architectural designs ever to be built—Elizabeth smiled widely. “I’m home.”

Jane popped her head out the kitchen door as Elizabeth entered the great room. “Don’t come in the kitchen, Lizzy!”

“I’m going up to my room to change. I wasn’t expecting it to be so hot today.” Elizabeth headed upstairs.

The first thing she did was look on the balcony for the gift pictured in the photo, but it wasn’t there. She smiled.

Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to wait to open it, Anne must have moved it after taking the picture.

Elizabeth threw on a comfortable T-shirt and pair of shorts. Usually, she’d head straight into the kitchen to help with dinner preparations, but since it was her birthday, she was exempt from that duty. Instead, she kept busy flipping through the channels on the television for a few minutes.

Jane startled her when she seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Happy Birthday!” Jane handed her a small box. “Everyone is home for dinner tonight, but I wanted to give you this while we’re still alone.”

Elizabeth opened it to reveal a lovely set of earrings. “Jane! How did you remember? We saw them such a long time ago. Thank you!” Elizabeth hugged her sister. “Is Anne in the kitchen?”

Jane shook her head. “Why would you think Anne was here?”

“Oh, I got some pictures on my phone, so I automatically thought they were from her.” Elizabeth reached for her cell phone, brought up the photo of the gift on the balcony, and then showed her the others. Jane only glanced at the first two but stopped at the third.

“That’s strange. Why would Anne send you a picture of William Darcy?”

“I have no idea, but she’s the only person I know who also knows William.” Elizabeth chuckled. “Since all these photos came in together, I expected the first was a gift from her and that she must have showed up to surprise me.”

“Not unless she’s hiding from me, too.” Jane laughed. “Come on. I’m supposed to take you into the dining room. Lydia went to get Tom and Dad from the library.”

~%~

After enjoying a combination of Elizabeth’s and Tom’s favorite meals, Elizabeth sat with Tom and her father at the dining room table.

“The best thing about my children’s birthdays is that I get a break from clearing the table so that I can keep the birthday child company.” Her father teased.

Elizabeth smiled. “I don’t mind getting out of it, either. I’d much rather make the mess than clean up afterward.”

Tom agreed. The three discussed Tom’s new plan to continue on to get a master’s degree in business after his graduation next year.

Tom turned to Elizabeth. “How are things going with the Lambton project?”

“The area has been re-zoned, and the plans for the hospital and medical office building have been approved by the Planning Committee and the Town Board. Uncle Ed isn’t optimistic about the construction beginning as soon as it should, because the Commissioner of the Planning Committee is retiring.”

Her father nodded. “Ed told me he doesn’t have much confidence in the new commissioner.”

“He feels it may take the new commissioner a while to become acclimated, especially taking over in the middle of a project as large as this.” Elizabeth sighed. “I’m glad to have a few days off, but there are quite a few buildings to work on. I really should head back on Tuesday and work full-time for the two weeks before summer session begins.”

Her father placed a hand on hers. “You deserve a break, Lizzy.”

Glancing toward the kitchen, Tom smiled and gestured toward the door.

Elizabeth had to stifle a giggle when she saw a feminine hand groping the wall, obviously searching for the light switch. The lights dimmed, and in came the remainder of the Bennett family. Their song wishing her and her brother a happy birthday filled the room. Her mother placed a cake covered with candles before Elizabeth and Tom, and they blew out the candles together.

Elizabeth’s and Tom’s preferences were usually so different, but their taste in cake was the same—Triple Chocolate Truffle. Born three minutes before her brother, Elizabeth traditionally received the first piece of cake, and then Tom was served. Lydia impatiently snatched the third slice from her mother’s hand as soon as she plated it. The dessert slid off onto Lydia’s blouse and landed on the floor.

Elizabeth’s head began to spin, and a chill made its way up her spine.

The photo!

She examined the room. Though what happened next was very typical of her family whenever something went wrong, everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion.

Her mother screeched, Lydia huffed and pouted, Tom leaned over to scoop the remains of Lydia’s cake off the floor, Jane rushed into the kitchen to grab something to clean up with, and her father watched his family’s antics with amusement. Usually Elizabeth would be helping either Jane or Tom, but she couldn’t move.

When Tom straightened, his expression changed to one of concern. “Lizzy? Are you all right?”

Lydia proclaimed loudly that it was Elizabeth and Tom’s fault that her favorite shirt was ruined, since they had asked for a chocolate cake, and she stomped out of the room, passing Jane as she returned with cleaning supplies.

Elizabeth blinked several times in confusion. Movements returned to normal speed.

“Lizzy?” Tom repeated. “You’re so pale.”

“I was a little dizzy, but I’m okay now.” Or maybe I’ve gone insane!

“I hope you aren’t coming down with something.” Jane knitted her brow.

“No, really, I’m fine. I’ll be right back.”

Elizabeth rushed up the stairs to her room and pulled her cell phone from her pocket, unable to catch her breath as she paged through the menus. There, she found it—the photo.

She stared at her phone for a long time before admitting to herself that it really was that exact moment captured in the photo—one that had been sent to her hours before it actually happened!

How is this possible?

She jumped when the phone made the same noise it had made while she was eating pizza earlier in the day. Printed across the display was *New Photo*

Hands shaking, she found that more pictures of William Darcy had been uploaded.

The first was William, taken from a different angle than the one she already had received. The painting on the wall looked just like one in their common room at the dorm. It seemed that he was speaking to someone while looking away from the camera.

When she opened the next picture, she gasped. He was in their common room at school… and he was speaking to her!

This never happened. I would never forget meeting him.

The next was of Elizabeth heading toward her bedroom, either upset or angry, her arms crossed over her waist. William was in the background, watching her walk away with such a look of regret on his face that it caused a pang of sympathy in her chest.

Anne is probably showing off a new program she bought to alter photos, she rationalized. He must have helped her move in at some point and merged that picture with one that included me.

The intercom in her room beeped. Elizabeth could barely hear Jane’s voice over the pounding of her heart.

“Lizzy, are you coming? You didn’t eat your cake, and you have gifts to open.”

But no matter how skilled Anne may be with a camera or the computer, she can’t predict the future.

Elizabeth hesitated a few moments before punching the power button on her phone. Dropping it into a drawer, she slammed it closed with a bang. Yes, I am going insane, but maybe it’s only temporary. I can’t mention this to ANYONE.

She opened her closet door and looked down at the trunk she had come across in the attic years ago. She had found it in her closet the day they moved into the new house and assumed the movers had placed it there because it had her name on it. Repeatedly, she had been tempted to go through it, but every time she decided to open it, she became too nervous to follow through with the plan.

It was a joke—none of this can be real!

“Lizzy?”

Elizabeth pushed the “answer” button on the intercom. “I’ll be right down, Jane.”

~%~

~Mid-August – six weeks later

Anne held up her sticky hands and frowned. “Can you answer my phone, Lizzy?”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes at seeing the caller ID on Anne’s phone. She swiped the screen to answer it. “Hi, Will. Can Anne call you back in a few minutes?”

Silence.

“Will?”

Silence. “Uh… yes?”

She sighed deeply before speaking carefully and distinctly. “Anne will call you back in a few minutes, okay, Will?” She waited a few seconds and then ended the connection.

~

William groaned, placed the phone down on the desk of his home office, and stared at it.

It had not been necessary for him to ask who had answered the phone because that was a fact of which he was painfully aware. It had been Elizabeth Bennett. In fact, he would recognize her voice anywhere, anytime, for it affected his soul like no other. How could he forget when it haunted him for days each time he heard it?

He rose from his office chair and paced over to the window. Maybe something on the street below his townhouse would distract him. He sighed. Barring an emergency, there was little chance of that.

Anne had a habit of forgetting to charge her cell phone, so she had a landline installed in the common room of her suite at school. Whenever he called that number, by either coincidence or design, Elizabeth answered. The rich timbre of her voice had affected him even before he put it together with her name, which was immediately after he had seen her photograph.

The images from the countless photos that Anne continued to send to him of her friends, combined with the stories and descriptions of her that he would hear from Anne, Richard, and Edward and Madeline Gardiner, invaded his dreams almost every night.

Everything about her seemed perfect… perfect for him.

But it was all an act. It had to be.

William ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head.

Whenever Elizabeth answered the phone, his mind went completely blank. Not able to speak coherently, he would barely get the idea across that he wished to speak to Anne, and then he would spend the next few hours chastising himself for being so pathetic. Eventually, he resolved never to call the landline again, but his fingers betrayed him and dialed it anyway—every time. Once summer session at school was over, he was forced to call Anne’s cell phone.

Now Elizabeth was answering Anne’s cell phone, too? Would it never be safe to call Anne again?

He was twenty-seven years old, in charge of one of the largest construction companies in the nation, on the board of several corporations, and he socialized with some of the most important people in the world—when he had to. Meanwhile, he could barely find the words to say “Hello” to a twenty-year-old student who had absolutely no claims to fame or fortune or anything else he dealt with on an almost daily basis. The entire situation was ridiculous.

This time, Elizabeth’s saying a simple thing like “Hi, Will” had put him deeper into a stupor than ever. She had said his name for the first time—times three—and for some reason, he knew he would never be the same. Hearing her say it in an annoyed tone the second time and a condescending tone the third made no difference; it was still a heavenly sound.

This girl was going to drive him insane, and he hadn’t even met her yet.

William noisily huffed out a deep breath and walked over to the coffeemaker he kept in his office. As he waited for the single-cup to brew, his thoughts returned to Elizabeth Bennett.

If she could do this to him from a distance, he was sure she could manage an alarming amount of harm to him in person. A few correctly placed words, paired with the right flash of those incredible green eyes, and he knew very well that he’d be completely under her control. It was frightening enough that part of him longed to experience what he thought she would do to win him. However, no matter how hard he tried not to give in, another part of him hoped she would save him, which left him utterly terrified when in a more rational frame of mind.

Elizabeth Bennett was as dangerous as anyone he had ever known.

No! She was worse. Just like the others, if he let her, she would use him. But with the way he reacted to her, she would be the one who would hold all the power.

When she eventually realized she’d have to sign a prenuptial agreement as a stipulation of his inheritance, the thought of marrying him would lose its appeal. She would chew his heart to bits and spit the pieces right back into his face.

William nodded vigorously.

He had to hold onto that thought. He would refuse to allow it to happen. He had to meet her and stay strong to prove to himself that she was as bad as those who had come before.

I wonder if she would pick up again if I called back?

William closed his eyes and sighed. “Pathetic!”

~

When Anne returned the call a few minutes later, her voice betrayed her anger. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to put a tiny bit of effort into being nicer to my friends. Lizzy has never done anything to you, but from what I hear, you’re very rude to her when she answers the phone at our suite. From the look on her face when she handed me my cell just now, I’d bet you just repeated that performance.”

“That wouldn’t have been necessary if you had picked it up yourself.”

Anne huffed. “I asked Lizzy to answer my phone while I washed the gunk off my hands. What’s going on, Will?”

Since the truth was too embarrassing to admit, William’s answer was delayed while he took a sip of his coffee, giving him a few moments to think. His answer had to be something that was true, but would actually make some sense. “I have to be very careful that I don’t lead anyone on, Anne. From what I understand, the delusions that Charles’s sister, Caroline, had about me began the moment I said hello to her.”

Anne gasped. “Will! When did you become so conceited that you think every woman you meet will think of marrying you?”

“Except for you, the sum of my experiences with women is that they’ve either fawned all over me or acted a part to trick me into liking them for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me if I’m expecting it to happen with others I meet,” William snapped. “I thought summer session was finished. Why are you with her?”

“I’ll let you get away with avoiding the subject of your attitude this time, but when I visit you and Georgiana next week, we are going to have a long talk about it, Will.” Anne sighed. “Summer session is over, but Richard is away at a job site, as I’m sure you know, and Georgiana isn’t in the city yet. And Mama… well, Mama is off traveling somewhere or other, as usual. I was so lonely that I decided to visit with Lizzy and Jane.”

“Oh.” William needed to change the subject, and soon. “What gunk?”

“Huh?”

“You said you had to wash gunk off your hands.”

“Oh… I’m learning to cook!”

“You’re cooking? Miss I-can’t-even-toast-bread-without-having-to-call-the-fire-department?”

“Yep! I’m enjoying it, too.” She hesitated only a moment before changing the subject again. “Hey, Will? Richard is coming here to visit this weekend. Why don’t you come with him? He says you like the Meryton area… the Lambton Village project will be built near here.”

“You’re kidding? She lives there?”

“She?” Anne giggled. “Jane and Lizzy live here, Will, and Charlotte lives nearby, too. Come on… I’ll even cook a meal for the two most important men in my life.”

William massaged his temple, trying to ease the headache that had been his constant companion these past few days. He was tempted to go just to get away from his troubles, but how could he go to meet her without inviting even more trouble? Perhaps bursting his concept of “perfect Elizabeth” and proving to himself once and for all that she was a mercenary shrew would be a good thing. But he didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of his cousin and friend by turning into the blabbering idiot that he became every time he heard her voice. “Thanks, but I can’t. I’ll take you up on the offer of a home-cooked meal when you come to town.”

“I swear that Richard and I won’t try to set you up with anyone, if that’s what’s preventing you from coming.” The last time they were all together, Richard suggested a blind date. William had become very angry at the suggestion. “After what you told us about Caroline, I can definitely understand why you’re unwilling to go out with someone you’ve never met. Why would Charles expose you to a woman like that in the first place?”

“You don’t know the whole story, Anne. Please don’t ask him that question. Charles feels incredibly guilty as it is. Not only did he expect to be fired, but he also thought he’d lose our friendship as a result. I can’t blame him for what Caroline did, and besides, who would suspect that from his own sister? Actually, that’s what I called about—I really need to talk about all this, if you wouldn’t mind listening, and I think you should be prepared in case the press gets wind of any of this. The judge tried to keep the news people away from court, but you never know who will leak news.”

“You know I don’t mind. You never did tell me the details of what happened with her.”

“Well, it sounds even worse when all the pieces of the story are put together, as the attorneys have been doing in court during the past few days.

“Caroline had been pestering her brother for years to have us spend time together. Knowing his sister was a little—intense was the word he used on the witness stand—Charles had tried to avoid it, but finally he asked me to do him a favor and have dinner with the two of them just to get her off his back. Charles had no idea his sister would turn into a crazed stalker and couldn’t have predicted that she would snap the way she did—if that’s really what happened. You already know that for a couple of years, she would show up almost everywhere I went.”

“How could I not remember? Whenever she’d come up to us at an event I attended with you, you’d beg me not to leave your side.”

“As it turns out, my instincts were correct. Charles kept misplacing his cell phone whenever he was at home, which I always thought was odd since he didn’t lose it anywhere else. Personally, I think Caroline was hiding his cell phone so that he would have to use the house phone, but there was no way of proving that in court. The police found something attached to the telephone system at her brother’s house. She had told her brother that she hired someone to install equipment that would supposedly help stop the feedback on his hearing aid, but it turned out to be monitoring equipment. She must have been listening in on the call when I told Charles that I was going to my beach house on Long Island for a quiet weekend alone.

“You can’t imagine what I found in the Hamptons, Anne. Her lawyer claims that she went nuts and honestly thought she was my wife. When I arrived, I found several trucks for workmen that I had not hired.

“Caroline had contracted with a construction crew to redecorate my house, including my mother’s favorite room—the very room that I had just gone to so much trouble to restore to its original condition after the water damage from flooding from the super-storm. Caroline was in the backyard, sunbathing in the nude, within view of half a dozen workers.

“As bad as it was, it could have been a lot worse. When the police tried to take her into custody, she turned absolutely wild trying to get to me. If she had been carrying the gun she had used to threaten the staff, I’m positive that someone would have been shot. I try not to think about what could have happened if Georgiana had been there.” William sighed. “This morning, Caroline Bingley was officially declared insane by the court, and she’ll be forced to get some much needed psychological help. I honestly hope it does her some good, but I doubt it will.”

“You don’t think she is insane?” Anne asked.

“Not in the way she was portrayed at the trial.” William was furious. “The part I don’t understand at all is how, if she really had been insane, did she have the presence of mind to learn how to get the better of my state-of-the-art security system and think of providing food and other essential needs to the two staff members she locked up? Why would she have locked them up in the first place if she really thought she was my wife?

“And think about all the planning she had to do. The construction company verified that they’d had a work order sitting around for weeks. They had been promised double the amount of the estimated cost to come over the moment she called—as long as no questions were asked. She must have watched the house for several days to know that it would be empty at the time of day she had someone come to give her the estimate. I can’t figure out why the jury didn’t seem to be as impressed by any of this as the District Attorney and I were.”

Anne did not wait for him to finish before making a comment. “Wow!”

“Since she will most definitely lie to her doctors, I’m sure the therapy she receives won’t be very helpful. I can only hope that she won’t be released until after the doctors find out what is truly going on with her.”

“I had no idea it had been anywhere near that bad, Will. After hearing all this, it sounds like you need to get away even more than I thought.”

“Maybe next time, Anne.”

“I can understand why you’re putting it off right now, but you do know you’ll have to give in and meet my friends someday. Jane and Lizzy are beginning to think you’re a figment of my imagination.” Anne laughed half-heartedly. “Well, maybe not Lizzy.”

“I should go. It’s been a very long day. Thanks for listening.”

“Call me anytime you need to talk, Will. I’ll see you next week when I come to help Georgiana get ready for university.”

Why’d she have to remind me of that? William furrowed his brow. “Are you sure you don’t want to get an apartment with Georgiana? I still have doubts about letting her stay in the dorm.” His opinion on this subject kept flopping around like a fish out of water.

“Sometimes you make me so angry, William. Why don’t you just say it like my mother did? ‘A de Bourgh will not live in a dorm with commoners!’” Anne imitated her mother’s haughty tone so well, William almost laughed. “We’ve gone through this often enough already, but I’ll explain it all again.” It almost sounded like she was ticking off items on a checklist as she went on. “You know what living in the dorms and being exposed to more people did for me, and I was even shyer than Georgiana—at least she’s had some contact with the outside world, while I’d had very little. I’ll be there. Charlotte, Jane, and Lizzy are very nice and will be protective of your sister. We’ll all help her with her studies, though I doubt she will need it. Please believe me; the experience will be good for her. You know that Georgiana met Charlotte years ago, and they got along well. She really enjoyed the weekend with Jane and Lizzy when they were in the city last month. One of the reasons I suggested that you join us this weekend was to meet them, so it would set your mind at ease.”

William felt a pang of guilt. When he had first heard that Elizabeth would be in the city staying with Anne and Richard for the weekend, he had worked himself up to the point of frenzy, torn between anticipation and fear of finally meeting her. One reason he had forced himself to agree to meet her was that he was becoming alarmed and frustrated by what he perceived as his cowardice. The deciding factor was his need to protect Georgiana—he really should meet the girls that his sister would be living with. When he had become ill with the flu, there was no choice but to bow out. He still wasn’t sure which part of his reaction had been more potent, his relief or his disappointment to have missed the opportunity. When the stories he had heard of the things Elizabeth had enjoyed most while in the city matched his irrational expectations of her flawlessness, disappointment had won out.

But, after sitting through the trial for the past few days, he was definitively not at his best. If there was the slightest chance that Elizabeth really was as wonderful as they all said she was, he didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Why can’t I just accept the fact that she could not be that perfect without it being a façade?

“I just can’t right now, Anne. You and Richard wouldn’t urge me to trust them if you thought there was any chance that Georgie would be harmed. I feel obligated to try to support Charles through the verdict for his sister. It was partially my fault—there had to be something I could have done differently. Maybe I shouldn’t have feared insulting her because she was my friend’s sister, or maybe I should have been more forceful when letting Caroline know that I had no interest in her. I—”

Anne interrupted his self-bashing session. “Stop! You can’t take on the responsibility for everything, Will. What Caroline Bingley did was not your fault.”

Nothing Anne can say will ease my worries right now. William was disgusted with himself. “I have to go. Enjoy your visit. We’ll talk again in a few days, when you get here.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Thanks for reading this sample of
Foundation of Love!

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7 thoughts on “Foundation of Love (The Gypsy Blessing 2)

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