February tapered off into March: wet, cold and miserable. In truth, the blame could not be wholly pinned on the weather. It just so happened that any person, laidback or cheerful, could become a pessimist when rooming with one. Elizabeth's mood plummeted several notches down the ladder.
She had to get Jane out.
"I have to get Jane out," Elizabeth said miserably during lunchtime in the teacher's lounge. Kevin Zimmerman, a fourth grade teacher, looked up from his Caesar salad. "Seriously, Kev. I love her, but this is detrimental to my mental health."
"Is this the sister?" Kevin asked, chewing thoughtfully. "The pretty, heartbroken one who won't split the apartment's rent with you?"
"That's the one," Lizzy sighed, slumping back in her seat. "I mean, I suggested that she sell her own place. It isn't rent-controlled. But then she argues that it's her home. And then I argue…well then, go live in it!"
"Do you really?" he asked. Lizzy scrunched her nose and Kevin laughed.
"I can't. You don't know Jane. She'll give me this doe-eyed Bambi look and I'll just wither up and die."
"Not melodramatic at all," he muttered, capping his iced tea.
"She does go home on the weekends," mumbled Elizabeth, mostly to herself. "You know, to do housework, pay bills, and remind the neighbors that she isn't dead. What she really needs is companionship, and that scares me."
"Why?" Kevin raised an eyebrow. She watched him snap on the plastic lid of his salad bowl, empty now except for a few leaves of spinach. "Companionship's not so bad. We're not programmed to be alone."
"But it's Jane. She's always been fine, single or coupled. If Charlie fucked her up…"
"Elizabeth," Kevin said politely. "I don't know this girl, but that's probably all smokescreen. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, is fine with being alone. Everybody gets lonely. It's human nature. Life's better with companionship."
Elizabeth narrowed her green eyes at him skeptically, her mouth stretching into a sly smile. She set her fork down. "Well check you out, Mr. Zimmerman. Wisdom for the ages?"
"I do teach the fourth grade," Kevin smirked.
"That's right. I'm three grades behind you."
"Yeah. You need to catch up, squirt."
Lizzy giggled and Kevin grinned at her; he excused himself to throw his trash into the garbage. She watched him quietly and drummed her fingers against her mouth in thought. Kevin Zimmerman was pretty cute. Early thirties, she guessed. Not too tall, but taller than Jane. Curly brown hair, kind brown eyes. He coached Little League baseball—broad shoulders, kind of built. He probably even liked hiking and owned a Golden Retriever.
Wait, Jane hated hiking.
"Do you hike?" Lizzy asked, once Kevin was seated again.
He raised his eyebrows. "Uh, no. Not really. I've always been more of a swimmer."
"…You should date my sister."
"What?" Kevin began to laugh. "Lizzy…"
"You're not married are you?" she leaned in suspiciously on her elbows; her eyes flickered down to the tabletop.
"No," Kevin said cautiously. He dropped both hands into his lap.
"…Gay? We've had that problem before. Not that it's a problem; I'm actually in the market for a gay best friend. You know, Rupert Everett style. Or even Tim Gunn, which would be awesome. It's only an issue because Jane dated a guy who came out of the closet during the relationship—"
"No," Kevin cut in, laughing. "No, I'm not gay."
Elizabeth flashed him a half-smile and squeezed his hand. "I will bribe you to take my sister on a date." He started and she piped up quickly: "One date! That's all I'm asking for."
Kevin let out a sigh, drawn out and guttural, before he slouched in his seat. "You know, I swore to myself no blind dates this year. Stalkers will do that to you."
"Jane's not a stalker, she's pure starlight and Powerpuff girls. Come on. For me?" Lizzy jutted out her lower lip.
"You look demented," Kevin began to laugh.
"Shut up, I'm earnest and cute. Well?"
Lizzy cheered and leaped across the table to hug him. Kevin gave in to the embrace, right before she aggressively pushed him away. Two other faculty members were eyeing them across the lounge, by the vending machines. "Judy Thompson," Lizzy explained in a hushed whisper, "office secretary and rumor mill whore."
"That's her?" Kevin said a little too loudly, whirling around. She shushed him. "Didn't she start that one about the lunch lady who stole Barbara Kirkland's pension?"
"Damn," Kevin shook his head and slung the strap of his messenger bag over his shoulder. "I really miss Meatball Mondays."
"Me too," Elizabeth sighed gloomily.
Jane wasn't thrilled that her younger sister had gone ahead and set her up on a date. In fact, she was mortified. Lizzy found her camera, just to capture the girl's face: mouth hanging open, blue eyes saucer wide. Jane's hair completed the look. She had let her hair dry naturally out of the shower into a tangled, frizzy strawberry mane that Elizabeth hadn't seen since the seventh grade.
"You really do rely on that flat iron most of the time, don't you?" Elizabeth mused aloud, lowering her camera. "Be careful with that—don't want any heat damage."
Jane jumped out of her seat at the kitchen table. She was relatively numb to the fact that her sister had just taken her photo in such a state. Her voice rose, tight and controlled: "You set…me up…on a date."
Lizzy waited a moment, and then gushed, "He's really cute."
"Lizzy, I wouldn't care if you set me up with Mark Wahlberg, that's not the problem here—!"
"Um, you would care," Elizabeth politely interjected. "You would pee in your pants."
Jane raised a finger, paused and then exclaimed, "All right, provisions may be made for Marky Mark. But that's not what I'm talking about here! What on earth makes you think I'm ready to date somebody?"
"It's been over a month," her sister pointed out.
"So?" Jane crossed her arms defiantly.
Elizabeth whined and bounced on her feet energetically. "Janie, I'm not asking you to exchange vows with the guy. I'm asking you to do your hair, put on some makeup, get that cute butt of yours in a dress and have a Friday night out!" She hesitated, "And if you happen to get laid, more happiness to you!"
"Oh come on, how are you not attacking random strangers by now?"
Jane scowled and marched to the kitchen sink. She pushed up the sleeves of her cardigan and got started on a stack of dishes. "No. I love you, Lizzy," she said, scrubbing a plate aggressively, "but my answer is no."
Elizabeth cleared her throat and inched slowly towards the hallway, in the direction of her bedroom. "I um…"
Jane looked over her shoulder skeptically. "You what?"
"…I already told him to pick you up tonight at seven. Oh my God, what is that?" Lizzy cried, pointing out the kitchen window. Jane half-glanced, only for a second, and it was enough time for her younger sister to race to her bedroom and lock the door shut.
"Elizabeth Bennet, I will kill you!"
"You don't condone violence!"
"I will make an exception!"
The date went terribly. Of course, Lizzy didn't find this out from Jane. According to her sister, she had "a nice time" and Kevin was "the perfect gentleman" and "thanks for intervening, Lizzy." Elizabeth was smug for an entire weekend, and ecstatic when Jane finally told her that she would be going back to her own apartment. But Sunday night changed things. Her father had been there at the time, having driven over to drop off a duffel bag and a suitcase; Lizzy would be leaving for Southern California in three days for Charlotte's wedding.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen," crooned John, watching his daughter roll up her pajama pants, flap them out, and roll them again into a more compact cylinder.
Elizabeth smirked at him and brushed the hair out of her eyes. "I'm in no mood to talk about Charlotte right now, Pops."
"Who's talking about Charlotte? You, kiddo. What happened to packing lightly?"
"This is light."
"Yeah—for a forklift."
Elizabeth huffed and fitfully yanked things out of her bag, sending them flying across the mattress. John chortled but stopped when Jane appeared in the doorway. "I'm making tea. Dad, is peppermint still your favorite? I put cookies out, too."
"That's my girl," John winked. "Be right there."
Jane smiled, switched the basket of laundry she was holding to the other hip, and left towards the kitchen.
"You know, I expected much worse from our phone conversations," said their father slowly. "But Jane seems all right. A little quiet, perhaps, but definitely not the train wreck you painted her out to be."
"Oh ho ho," Lizzy straightened and glowered at John. "Just be lucky you weren't here two weeks ago. I had trouble getting her to shower. Hell, I couldn't get that girl out of bed for five days. I told her colleagues that she had mono." A beat, "Which is pretty bad, now that she's back at work. Wendy follows her around with a bottle of Lysol and a pot of boiled water."
"You're making that up!"
"You really couldn't get her out of bed?" John asked, stunned.
Lizzy pursed her lips and nodded, her head bent over the suitcase as she wedged in a stack of folded t-shirts. Her hair partially obscured her face and her father brushed it out of the way to see her eyes. "Hey," he murmured. "It hasn't been easy, has it?"
"I'm fine, Dad," said Elizabeth softly.
"I know you are. But Jane's always been your rock."
His daughter said nothing, simply exhaled slowly, looked up at him and smiled. "Thanks."
"The quiet support, as always."
He smiled, green eyes crinkly and warm. "It's always there if you need it."
"I appreciate it."
Her phone began to ring obnoxiously on her dresser. John Bennet breathed a sigh of relief, "Oh, thank goodness. That was getting too sentimental, I thought it would ruin my Cool Dad credentials."
"You wish!" Lizzy laughed, snatching her phone. "Yellow?" she chirped.
"And you still answer the phone that way?" muttered her father incredulously. Elizabeth rolled her eyes at him and he grinned back, mock-saluting her before he left the bedroom.
"Hi, Elizabeth. It's Kevin, from school."
"Oh hi, Kev!" Lizzy beamed and leaned back against the drawers. "Somebody got a rave review on Friday! OK, like two sentences, but they were two good sentences. I'm sure Jane's just dying for you to take her out again—"
"Lizzy, it was awful. She started crying into her lobster bisque."
Elizabeth's mouth fell open.
She heard Kevin sigh, and then he laughed nervously: "I like Jane, I do. It's clear to me why anybody would. She's beautiful, smart and kind. But Lizzy, I have never dated a more depressing girl in my life. She's just so sad. It was painful to watch her pretend-smile at my jokes. Brutally, brutally painful. I think you may have rushed this."
"Shit," Lizzy winced. "When did she start crying?"
"We started talking about television shows, and she mentioned Seinfeld, so I mentioned Friends, and I said I liked Chandler Bing, and she said she liked Phoebe Buffay. And then, the tears."
"Chandler Bing. Bing. Bingley? Damn it, Kevin! That's his last name!"
"How was I supposed to know that? And do you guys seriously not talk about him?"
"No, we do not talk about him!"
Lizzy pinched the bridge of her nose, paced a little, and then sighed. "There is no way you could have known. And truth be told, that is not normal behavior. Maybe it will take more time. I'm so sorry, Kev. I had no idea; she probably didn't want me to worry. I was really hoping you two would hit it off. You would have been cute!"
She could almost hear Kevin Zimmerman smiling sympathetically through the phone. "It's fine. At least I won't have to worry about the stalking thing this time around. I doubt she'll call me."
Elizabeth smirked wanly at his joke. "Yeah, there's that," she said quietly. "Well, thank you, Kevin. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Bye, Lizzy. Take care."
She waited until after John had left, towards the evening, to confront her sister. They sat out on the front steps of the building, huddled in bundled sweaters and jackets, since they had already stored their winter coats away. "Poor decision, if you ask me," Jane mumbled, hugging her knees to her chest. Beside her, a cup of tea was cooling on the cement step. "March has the trickiest weather."
"Janie, why didn't you tell me how badly things went with Kevin?" asked Lizzy quietly. Her sister looked up at her, wide-eyed and guilty. "He called me. He was worried about you."
"He's a nice guy," Jane murmured, plucking at a thread from her jean pocket. "I'm sorry, Lizzy. I didn't want you feeling sorry for me, or worrying yourself sick. Most of the time, I'm OK. Seriously, I am, when I'm not thinking about Charlie. But… it's too soon for me to see other people right now."
"That's fine," said Elizabeth. She hugged Jane around the shoulders. "I'm sorry if I pushed you."
"I was happy that you did," Jane said. She brushed a windblown strand of blonde hair from her face and smiled up at Lizzy. "I had a nice time, up until conversation lagged and I…burst into tears and made an embarrassing scene at a fancy French bistro."
Lizzy winced and ruffled her hair. "Over a Friends joke, no less."
"That's what Kevin said. Chandler Bing—Bingley."
Jane suddenly erupted in giggles. "Is that what he thought? Oh God, no. That's silly. No, it was that restaurant. It looked really familiar to me the entire night; it was driving me crazy. Like the lyric to a song you can't remember? And then, halfway into dinner, I remembered that Charlie had taken me there after one of our dates. We had cappuccinos and he kissed me in the corner booth." She took a sip from her mug of tea, and then rested it against her cheek. "I think it happened because I forgot about it," she murmured. "And then it hit me like a punch in the stomach. I missed him so much."
Lizzy enveloped her in a hug and squeezed tightly. "Sweetie, I'm afraid to leave you this week."
"Don't be," Jane smiled and kissed her cheek. "You've been so good to me while I was a mess. I'm much better. I meant what I said about going back to my apartment. I'll leave in the morning."
"Love you," Elizabeth murmured.
Jane grinned. "I love you, too."
Thursday, March 17th surprisingly came as a godsend for Elizabeth, even though she had made up her mind months before to be miserable about Charlotte's wedding. But there was something about airports that thrilled her, no matter the destination. She enjoyed the constant motion, the beat-up luggage and travel bags, the joy of setting off somewhere new. In her circumstances, she was very eager to escape Pennsylvania. Constant rain and taking care of Jane had wrung her out.
Her bags were packed and she had dressed nicely but comfortably for the flight. She had her dark hair pulled back with her bangs brushed to the side, and she wore a long gray cardigan, skinny jeans and black flats. Tess and John's luggage was pulling through for her as well—just under forty pounds. "Success!" Lizzy cheered, when she checked in her baggage. The attendant glanced at her suspiciously. "No, you don't understand how much clothes I had to get rid of to meet that limit. Talk about prioritizing."
The flight was delayed by half an hour, which dampened Lizzy's theory of airports being "in constant motion"; luckily, it gave her the chance to return some phone calls. She checked in with Jane, who was at a physical therapy conference in Delaware for the week. Then she left a message on Charlotte's voicemail to let her know what gate she would be at, and then rang up her mother for the standard "I'm alive!" phone call, which was necessary every two to three days.
It was only afterward that Elizabeth brought herself to look at Greg's text:
I miss you. Have you been busy or are you just avoiding me?
He had sent it that morning, when she was scrambling to find her wallet. Distracted, Lizzy had shoved the phone into her purse and continued the search for another fifteen minutes before she found the wallet in the refrigerator, next to the grapes. But now that she had time to spare, she didn't quite know what she should tell him. Lizzy bit her lip and finally texted back: A bit of both. I'm on my way to California for a wedding. I'll call you when I get back.
Not eager to wait for his response, Elizabeth powered off the phone and tossed it back into her bag. Then she slumped in the bucket seat, her face tipping forward so that her sunglasses slipped off of her head and back into place in front of her eyes. Lizzy laughed at herself and took it half-heartedly as a sign. "Time for some fun; accept no substitutes."
The flight was perfect, given the length of it—no turbulence and no mix ups with kosher and vegan meals. She slept three quarters of it through and watched half of a Tim Allen movie for the rest of it.
Lizzy waited patiently at the terminal for twenty minutes, a little groggy and cold. She hugged her arms and scanned the crowds in front of her for Charlotte's face. She thought she spotted her—a blonde, more waifish Charlotte—but it turned out to be somebody else. "Good," she thought decisively; Lizzy would have hoped that Collins hadn't changed Charlotte that much. Maybe there was still a familiar semblance to her best friend.
And then she saw him, and she felt all the blood in her body pool around her cheeks. Elizabeth's jaw dropped, and she suddenly hated her luck beyond anything in the world. There stood Will Darcy, lawyer and asshole extraordinaire, right beside the massive black and yellow chart of flight departures and arrivals. He was speaking on the phone, his other hand covering his ear.
"God, why are you testing me?" Elizabeth immediately turned her back to him and sought an exit. Maybe if she just slipped by that elderly couple right there, perhaps he wouldn't even notice. He was all the way over there, and he was on the phone, no less…
Lizzy froze. Goddamn. Slowly, she turned around. Will Darcy was only three or so feet away from her now. She had nearly forgotten what he looked like, but standing here, he seemed familiar as ever. The same unruly dark hair, the intense blue-eyed gaze, the serious mouth settled into a grim line. Lizzy had never seen him dressed down before; or she supposed, as dressed down as Will Darcy could be now, in a pale blue button-down and jeans.
He picked up her abandoned carry-on and slung it over his shoulder. "Let's go to baggage claim. Do you have everything with you from the plane?"
"Who, what, where now?"
Darcy raised his eyebrows and smiled—only a little, a twinge, really. But it was still weird. "You couldn't look more surprised. You didn't expect me to pick you up, did you?"
"Check your phone," he said in a monotone.
Warily, Lizzy dug through her bag. She peered up at Darcy through her eyelashes, so suspiciously that he actually snorted and turned away. Then she finally found her phone. And of course, a text from Charlotte: I just got your voicemail. I'm busy preparing the rehearsal dinner, sweetie. Didn't I tell you that Will Darcy is picking you up?
"No!" Elizabeth all but shouted at her phone. She sighed gravely and pinched the bridge of her nose. It was so typical; she had been so excited for a getaway. It was only natural that something would have to fuck it up. She didn't enjoy this particular brand of déjà vu, either. It rang a little too closely to that double date with Jane and Charlie an eternity ago. I should check my texts regularly.
They barely spoke through the terminals and gates they passed, nor at baggage claim. Elizabeth was too busy scowling and Darcy was preoccupied with being indifferent. But then he offered to take her luggage and Lizzy softened. He had her blue Jansport bookbag slung over one shoulder and a duffel bag in his other hand, so she took claim of the black suitcase from the carousel. It suddenly occurred to her to ask Will Darcy what business he had being invited to Bill Collins and Charlotte's wedding. Surely he hadn't picked an acquaintance connection through her?
"Of course not," said Darcy. "My aunt is his godmother."
"His?" Lizzy prompted.
"Oh—oh," said Elizabeth, with dawning comprehension. "Oh."
Outside, the air was crisp and fresh, and it surprised Lizzy that it was evening already, though she had very much expected it to be. A shiny, sleek black Audi was parked between two white vans at the curb, its emergency blinkers on; somebody was already inside the car. Darcy opened the trunk and Elizabeth helped him load her luggage in. Their hands touched for a fleeting moment—his were cold—and she pulled back instantly. "Thank you," Lizzy mumbled.
She met Richard Fitzwilliam thirty seconds later, after she had climbed into the back and clicked in her seatbelt. He was driving and turned in his seat.
"You're Elizabeth, the lady of the hour! Pleased to meet you, I'm Richard—Will's cousin."
She grinned, "Lizzy."
Richard Fitzwilliam was loud, extremely chipper and he had a watered-down British accent. Lizzy sensed either multinational parents or too many years spent here in Southern California. He was lanky as anything and a little shorter than his cousin, with a crop of messy blond hair and bright, eerily blue eyes.
"Right, I knew that." Richard smiled at her cryptically, "Lizzy, Lizzy, Lizzy. I've heard some stories about you."
"Uh-oh. Nothing too terrible, I hope."
"Nothing too terrible," Richard agreed solemnly. Lizzy laughed and he smiled at her reflection through the rearview mirror.
The passenger door slammed and Will settled in, fastening his seat belt with a heavy sigh. "Rich, I told you to let me drive. It's a stick."
"Relax. If we die, we die together."
"The biggest comfort in the world," said Darcy, glancing out the window.
"Will, that was beautiful." He gunned the engine and pulled slowly away from the curb, waiting a minute to slip into the flow of clockwise traffic. They were on the highway five minutes later, and Richard cranked up the satellite radio. "Come on, you guys! Cheer up. We're going to have a hell of a time this weekend."
"Hear hear!" Lizzy declared, laughing.
"It'll be a clusterfuck of a wedding, love," said Richard. "The laughs will be endless."
"That's the toast he's writing for the reception," Darcy told Lizzy.
Elizabeth grinned and leaned close, her elbows resting on either seat. "I like it. Are you writing one, Darcy?"
"Oh, he's got a bit of poetry tucked up his sleeve," Richard winked at his cousin. "Lord Byron, was it?"
"I haven't prepared a toast," said Will very slowly, as if speaking to a toddler. "I'm not…the best public speaker."
"Without Jägermeister, you mean," muttered Richard, weaving into the next lane. A Toyota SUV behind him honked and he grimaced and rubbed the stubble on his chin, as if contemplating whether or not he should flip the soccer mom off.
"No, just in general."
"Really, Darce?" said Elizabeth conversationally. "I thought you were always pretty skilled at talking out of your ass. You can definitely channel that into a speech. I have confidence in you."
She was testing him, trying to see if things were as tense as they had left it at Netherfield. It was important. She didn't like him by any means, but she was determined to have a good weekend, and perhaps that would only be achievable if she temporarily buried the hatchet.
Elizabeth saw the corner of Darcy's mouth pull up in a fleeting smile, before he shook his head disapprovingly. "Maybe you can help me write it then, with your Kindergarten teacher expertise."
"Darce," Richard echoed, amused. "That's cute; I might use that."