iLaw! Parts 21-25

Part 21

Will left lunch at Chompie’s unable to shake a gnawing sense of unease. He knew he dared not ignore whatever his gut was trying to tell him. He had learned very early on, especially after he took over DDC, that his innate sense of foreboding was never wrong. He later learned that his father and his grandfather possessed and heavily relied on, the same internal warning system that was almost a physical gut-reaction. Time and time again the Darcy businessmen had walked away from an apparent “can’t miss” business deal only to find out later that the “sure thing” had ended up in ruins. What bothered Will the most was that he had no impending projects, nothing in negotiations; he had no idea what was wrong but he could not see any threat to his business on the horizon.

Lunch with Guy was an occasional occurrence and they hadn’t even talked shop. They only made small talk – with the notable exception of his relationship with Elizabeth. What relationship? He was three weeks into delivering on his bet. Once next weekend was over, he was a free man. He could drop all pretexts with Elizabeth and never have to go out with her again, he would be back dating some eye-candy. That is, unless he had an extra ticket to a game and wanted to enjoy it with some one who understood and appreciated the sport. I wonder if she plays golf? When Will thought more about this, the warning bells rang louder, his stomach began to churn. What was it about Liz that made him want to spend time with her rather than some of the lookers he had dallied with for years? He didn’t have any women he really enjoyed spending time with, talking with, arguing with, much less ones that he considered friends; relatives did not count. Would he miss her company too much if he totally abandoned her?

Thinking this over some more, he came to a satisfactory decision, he wouldn’t just drop her after the month was over. Besides, he thought smugly, she would probably be thrilled that he would still want to hang out with her, after all, she was hardly likely to be fending off dates for herself. Obviously there was no way he would ever tell her why he had ever asked her out. So far he had treated her in a strictly platonic way and he didn’t think she would consider his remaining just a friend to be a betrayal of intentions. As long as she did not embarrass him Saturday night, he was on his way to paying off the bet and securing a new buddy.

The unease remained.

*****

Liz had not returned to work that afternoon. She had called in sick, which she was…of men, well one man…. and so she’d gone home. Distance and perspective were what she needed – and she sure wished she had someone to talk to.

Calling Jane was out of the question. It was obvious from what Will had said that Jane and Charles had been plotting this whole game. Together they set Will and Luke up in a no-win situation. Charles had tricked his two friends into dating a couple of Betty’s and she and Char fit the bill perfectly. How in the world were any of them to make something out of the house of lies and deception that had been built by both parties? The fact was that William had needed her as much as she needed him. Jane and Charles had exploited their personalities to a T to ensure that they would see each other. Charles used William’s vanity and pride as well as his sense of honor, to get him to ask Liz out. Jane had tapped into Liz’s competitive streak to take on William for the chance to beat Char. She would get her dates in, but what happened when William’s month was up? Why would he ever want to see her again? She wasn’t his normal type of girlfriend and they both knew it, especially after that lunchtime revelation.

Thank heavens Char and Luke had hit it off so famously. Elizabeth was pretty sure that Luke didn’t give a damn about the one-month thing anymore. Besides once Charlotte solved the Betty-appearance issues, Luke would be in for a very pleasant reward indeed. At least this part of Jane and Charles’ manipulation was working out to everyone’s satisfaction; what a relief!

Liz toyed with the idea of calling Char and telling her what she now knew, but she stopped herself. That information could only hurt her dear friend and Charlotte deserved her happiness, even if it had a dubious beginning.

Then there was William. He was just as much a victim of underhanded matchmaking tactics as she was. Yes, he was vain and shallow about the women he dated, but was anyone perfect? What he said had hurt, but as she thought back to how he said it, she remembered how annoyed he sounded at Guy’s disparaging remarks about Liz. Plus. when he was drunk he had made a pass, well a lick really, at her. He could be interested if he would ever get past his eye-candy image requirements.

Liz realized that it that, above all else, that was bothering her the most – how she looked in William’s eyes. She was hurt, not so much that he was dating her because of a bet, but because he had not made an effort to defend her to his friend. He didn’t have to say that he was attracted to her, a nice little statement that she was a likable person that he was enjoying getting to know better would had sufficed. Then again, she didn’t stick around to hear if he said anything else. Gah! Suddenly the Gala on Saturday took on a whole new meaning. To be fair to him, she would give William a second chance. Elizabeth knew he would be shocked to see her in dressed-to-kill mode. His reaction to her unveiling would determine the course of the evening…and beyond. If he could accept her then as he had when she was nothing to write home about, he would be forgiven. If not … Elizabeth wasn’t sure when she would ever speak to Jane again.

*****

In a city filled with every kind of building you could ever imagine, one stands out as the most recognizable architectural landmark – Tovrea Castle. Mention it to any local and they might not know what you are talking about, until you call it the Wedding Cake House.

It started out as the dream of an Italian immigrant by the name of Alessio Carraro. In 1928 he bought 277 acres of land intending to build a resort amongst the cactus. A four-story castle, reminiscent of his homeland rose up on the top of a small butte. A spectacular cactus garden was built around it, transforming the land into a desert paradise.

Unfortunately, Carraro did not buy enough land. In 1930 the adjoining property was sold and sheep and cattle pens were built to supply a nearby meat packing plant. He knew his dream was over and the next year he sold his land to the owners of the plant, the Tovreas. Mr. Tovrea died the following year but his wife retained the castle as her home until she died in 1969.

Since the 1960’s, the house was largely unused. The gardens suffered from neglect. Eventually the City of Phoenix purchased the house and a total of 43 acres surrounding it. The stone wall surrounding the property was repaired and, in 2006, the work to restore the beautiful gardens began. The majestic saguaro cacti that stood as sentries on the butte were being attended to, the diseased ones removed and new ones have been planted to take their fallen comrades places.

It is hard work tending a such a garden, and dangerous too. Workers have to battle the sun and heat of the summer and the thorns that protect their charges. A full grow saguaro can weigh hundreds of pounds and can kill a man if they fell over on him. They grow slowly, as little as an inch a year, and won’t begin to sprout arms until they are 55-75 years old. The oldest giants have lived through nearly 200 hot summers.

But the real treasure of the multitude of cactus varieties is the cacophony vibrant colors each spring when they bloom.

Ask an Arizonan and they will tell you that on the surface the desert may appear rugged and harsh but, upon closer inspection, one can see a real beauty that one learns to appreciate and love. At no time of the year is that beauty more evident than in the spring. The rains of the winter turn the dusty browns into a lush pallet of greens. Sprinkled throughout the landscape are splotches of other colors; reds, yellows, oranges, purples, pinks and whites burst forth in a flowering sea. The browns of the rocks and mountains are in rugged contrast to the brilliant blue of a clear Arizona sky. Wisps of clouds add to the texture and when the conditions are right, the days end in a sky ablaze with the last kiss of the setting sun….it is truly a feast for the eyes.

High above all the vegetation, so high only the birds and the bees may see it, is the sublime ruler of all this beauty – the state flower of Arizona – the Saguaro Cactus Bloom. Regal, as the delicate white petals form a retinue around its yellow center, the blooms in the tops of the cactus mark the passing from the chilly spring nights to the heat of the summer sun.

*****

Into this glorious display of color and fragrance, the Tovrea Gala was well underway.

Luke and Will were the first to arrive, both extremely anxious to see their dates. Maria and Perry walked in just ahead of Jane and Charles. Will was about to go and greet them when he spied the other woman on Charles’ other arm.

“Will, darling! Charles told me you would be here.”

He stood stock still as Caroline Bingley, Charles’ sister, sauntered over and kissed him on the cheek in greeting. Will’s eyes flew to his friend’s who only answered in a sympatric shrug.

“I didn’t expect to see you tonight.” Will managed to say as Caroline slipped her hand through his arm. He just as quickly slipped his arm away before she had time to clamp on in a vice-like grip.

“I flew in today to surprise him, Will darling. I just knew I had to be here tonight. This is quite the social event of the season, you know! How could I ever forgive myself if I missed it?”

Her shrill laugh set Will’s already frayed nerves, even more on edge. Seeing his face, Charles managed to whisper a short apology. Caroline’s sudden appearance from the wilds of Los Angeles was just as much as a shock to him.

*****

Liz and Charlotte were amongst the last to arrive. Liz handed over her keys to one of the six valets fighting for the honor of looking after them, or at least their car. Feeling confidant that they looked as good as the valets indicated, the ladies went in search of their dates. Both Liz and Charlotte had been a bundle of nerves earlier, before they began to dress, but a half glass of wine later, they were as ready as they could ever be.

Showtime!

The picture of perfection, Char wore a one-strap, Grecian-style navy satin Proenza Schouler dress, accented with crystal embroidery that draped over her body giving her a tall elegant look. She had opted for minimal jewelry wearing only small sapphire and diamond earrings. She wore pale gray eye shadow and daring ruby lipstick. With diligent use of the straightening iron, her hair hung down her back as a glossy, shimmering sheath. The overall effect was amazing, Char looked liked she had stepped from the pages on a very classy fashion magazine.

While Char was elegance personified, Liz had opted for the WOW! factor dress. She wore her single largest clothing indulgence ever. The mission to Neiman Marcus had yielded a vintage-style Valentino-inspired dress. Liz tried it on and knew, at once, that she had to have it. Squashing all guilt, she handed over her plastic friend and took a huge chunk out of her credit balance. But now she thanked her lucky stars, and her low interest credit card, and donned the Work of Art. Her gown was a blush pink, almost nude, strapless dress with a very fitted bodice with intricate design and beautiful seaming. The tightly fitted bodice emphasized her assets and curves beautifully, hugging her perfect hour-glass shape. The full chiffon skirt, fell from her hips in graceful folds and swished around Elizabeth’s legs in such a delicate way that it almost made her look like she was floating. While the detail of the bodice could only be appreciated up close, the fit was such that her fabulous figure could be appreciated from a distance. This dress came with an iron-clad guarantee of a jaw-dropping entrance to any event. Her make-up was impeccable, delicate pink lipstick and faint blusher highlighted her flawless skin. Smoky eye shadow, black eyeliner and her favorite mascara made Liz’s fine eyes even more dramatic. She wore her dark hair pulled back into an intricate arrangement that Andre had spent 2 hours crafting with the help of 123 pins and 2 cans of hairspray and no small amount of dramatic hysterics. Interspersed throughout her intricate hair-do were tiny pearl pins that complimented the elegant drop-pearl earrings and matching necklace. The jewelry, a gift from her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner for her graduation, was her talisman and she knew they would bring her luck. In this ensemble, Liz had pulled off an amazing feat; she managed to look high-class elegant and drop-dead gorgeous all at the same time.

*****

Will’s party had made it to the far side of the main room. They were all waiting for Liz and Charlotte to arrive. The local celebrities were out in full force. Jerry Colangelo was conversing with a group of men, undoubtedly about the upcoming baseball season the approaching NBA playoffs. Both US Senators had come to town for the weekend. Alice Cooper was hobnobbing in another group. Wayne Gretzky stood next to his lovely wife, appearing to be spinning a tale of some long ago goal. Various other local politicians, including the governor paraded about. These were the familiar faces of Phoenix society. There was also the money that normally did not come out into the public view. Set against this backdrop of money and power, a gentle murmur was heard as gentlemen turned an appreciative eye towards the visions that had just come into the room.

Luke and Will turned to see what was drawing the attention of the crowd and saw Elizabeth and Charlotte walking towards them. Wills jaw actually dropped open as he gazed at this vision floating in his direction. The effect was that he had stopped breathing, paralyzed in awe and could do no more than gape, much in the same way as the young valets had when they too saw Liz for the first time.

“Who is that?” Caroline shrilled cattily.

“That” Luke said proudly, “is my date”. He quickly left the others and walked over to Liz and Char. He took Char’s hand and brought it to his lips for a kiss.

“You look magnificent, Char.”

“I’m glad you like the dress,” she replied demurely.

Luke leaned closer, so only she could hear. “You always look beautiful, the gown only accentuates what I see every time I have the privilege of being in your presence.”

As Luke locked eyes with her, Char felt lost in his gaze. An amused Elizabeth coughed quietly and a gallant Luke offered an arm to each woman and proudly walked them over to the rest of the party.

Will had still not moved but at least he had managed to bring his jaw back up and close his gaping mouth. My God, this is Elizabeth?

“Good evening,” Liz was enjoying the power she knew she held over William. “Charles, aren’t you gong to introduce us?”

While not as affected as Will, Charles had also been dazzled by these beautiful women in front of him. Good God he was a man after all! Elizabeth’s question snapped him out of his daze.

“Sorry, Liz, you and Char, eh…you look amazing.” He turned to Caroline. “This is my sister, Caroline. She flew in from LA today just to be here tonight.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Caroline.” Elizabeth extended her hand.

“Likewise, I’m sure,” came the tepid response – and weak handshake.

The band started to play a new number and Luke was quick to react.

“Shall we dance?” he asked his lady. Charlotte smiled with pleasure as he led her out onto the dance floor.

Seizing the moment before Caroline pounced on him, William quickly applied to Elizabeth. “Care to join them?” Smiling at him in such a way to stop his breathing yet again, she nodded and, with her consent, he placed his hand on the small of her back and led her to join Luke and Char and the others that were spilling onto the parquet wood square.

The singer crooned, “Luck be lady tonight.”

Part 22

Within a matter of minutes Elizabeth found out that William was the best dancer she had had the privilege to partner, ever. He guided her around the floor with an understated elegance and flair that threatened to undo all her anger and apprehensions. He used his hands as well as he used his feet, gently holding her, almost caressing her, as he swept her around the floor. Her head was spinning and it wasn’t just from the twirling. It wasn’t fair! In an effort to regain some lost ground Liz enquired about Caroline. She immediately felt Will tense up and a frown develop, but she had to give him credit, his steps never faltered.

“Caroline is a few years younger than Charles. A couple of years ago she decided to move to what she called ‘the more glamorous life’ in Southern California.”

“What does she do?”

“Believe it or not, she’s in the fashion industry.”

Elizabeth immediately looked back at the woman in question.…

While Caroline was tall, she was very thin, emulating the latest Hollywood trend of shapeless, angular and protruding bones. However, this could not be said of her boobs, which were about as abundant and bountiful as a silicone valley surgeon could craft. Caroline was fair skinned and she had brown hair with auburn highlights that nature had definitely not bestowed on her. Despite the chemical red luminescence of her hair, Caroline had opted to wear what Lizzy could only describe as an intense shade of tangerine orange. The red hair and orange dress were clearly at odds with one another and each shade clashed with, rather than complimented, the other. The gown itself was a backless, halter-neck silk sheath that was tied at the waist with a fuchsia band. Designed to flatter curves, on Caroline, the dress looked exactly like it looked on the hanger…limp.

“I’ll be sure to avoid her boutique if I’m ever in the neighborhood.”

“I think that’s wise.”

“What’s wrong, William. You looked like a spooked coyote when you look at her. Caroline-skeletons in your closet? Sorry, poor turn of phrase. I meant do you two have a history?”

“I have better taste than that! ‘Caro’ is like El Caro Golf course, not enough there to challenge a proficient in the sport. She’s uhhh….can we change the subject please? I’ve had about all I can stomach of Charles’ sister.”

They danced through another tune. Will’s attention was totally focused on the magnificent woman in his arms. The ugly duckling had turned out to be a beautiful swan. He was the luckiest bastard in the whole city. Not wanting any of the men scattered through the room, following his woman with their leery eyes, to try and cut in, he finished the dance and immediately led Elizabeth outside and onto a garden path.

“Liz, you look fantastic.”

“You look pretty good in a tux if I may say so?”

“Say away.”

By this time they had moved around a corner and out of view from the house. The smell of the desert in bloom, along with the scent of the woman on his arm became more than Will could bear. Under the clear night sky, William Darcy took Elizabeth Bennet into his arms and bent his head down to taste the ambrosia of her lips.

Elizabeth knew what was coming from the moment he pulled her from the dance floor. She squelched any tinges of anxiety, she wanted him as much as he now wanted her.

There lips continued to fuse, over and over again. Her arms wound around his neck, he pulled her closer to him. Possessively his tongue parted her lips and she opened them to welcome the visitor with her own. The heat increased between the two and suddenly Elizabeth could feel a second manifestation of his desire pressed against her midsection. Instead of being embarrassed, they pressed even tighter against each other, further inflaming the passion that suddenly had engulfed them.

She was the first to realize where they were and what this was leading to. She forced her mouth away from his…

“William…” she gasped as his lips followed a trail up to her eyelids. “William… please”

In the small recesses of his mind he heard her plea. He sighed and tucked her head onto his chest as they both struggled to regain their breath.

“Elizabeth. Oh God! You’re so beautiful. I couldn’t help myself.”

“You are the most handsome man I have ever seen, William.”

“When I first saw you tonight, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I mean, I knew it was you, but you have never looked this amazing before.” He raked his eyes up and down her body, coming back to focus on her fine eyes. “I don’t understand why you looked like you did before, when you really look like this.”

Warning bells started to go off in Elizabeth’s mind.

“What do you mean, what I looked like before? I’m still the same person,” she cautiously asked.

“But you’re beautiful! It’s almost like you tried to hide it before. I don’t understand why a woman would do that. It does explain a few things.”

“Like what?” Will missed the tone of her voice, delirious to find her so enticing.

“Like why I fought any attraction to you. I couldn’t believe someone so plain could be so appealing. I mean you looked so unattractive in those outfits, I could hardly believe I was going out with someone who was merely tolerable and definitely not up to my standards. Now I know better, you are a goddess in disguise! Please Elizabeth don’t go back into hiding. I want to be with you. Gorgeous, beautiful, sexy you.” His voice dropped when he uttered the last sentence.

At his words a full three-alarm fire bell went off in Liz’s brain, rattling her to the core. She pushed away from Will and took several steps backward. Elizabeth could not believe her worst fears had come true. Image was everything to William. Frantic, she sought to flee but he was standing in the middle of the path and there was no way around him. The cactus, whose blooms perfumed the night air, became an impenetrable border she could not pass; their stickers and claws would scratch and tear at her.

Tears welled up in her eyes and ran unchecked down her face; she turned and fled further into the garden and away from the house.

It took Will a few seconds to respond before he followed, calling out her name.

“Elizabeth, please! What did I say? What’s wrong? I’m sorry.”

She turned on her heel and faced him, her arms wrapped around herself as if chilled.

“Sorry? You don’t even know what you should be sorry for!”

“That’s not fair,” William defended, “You obviously were disconcerted by my ardor. I should not have allowed myself to get so passionate so quickly.”

“William, in case you didn’t notice, I kissed you back! It is not your “ardor” that is upsetting me, it’s you, you idiot! You tell me you fought your attraction because I was ‘plain’ and “definitely not up to your standards”. How do you suppose that makes me, or any woman, feel, you jerk?”

“I…eh…”

“Did it ever occur to you after seeing me tonight, that there was a reason I dressed the way I did around you? Did there?”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath; it was time the truth came out.

“I did it because Char and I had a bet about our ability to attract men because of who we are inside, not because of the way we look. We purposefully made ourselves “plain”, just to prove that guys like you can’t allow yourselves to be attracted to someone who doesn’t look the part”

“You were seeing me because of a bet?” he asked incredulously

“Yes. Just as you asked me out because you lost a bet to Charles. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

“How did you find out about that?”

“It doesn’t matter. By the way, did you know you were set up?”

“What?”

“How long do you think Jane and Charles have been dating?”

“Two months,” William shrugged, “since they met the night of the bet.”

“Wrong! They have been seeing each other for nearly four months now. You have been had, and Luke too.”

As William digested that bit of information, he became incensed at his friend.

“I’m going to kill Charles,” he spat.

“After I kill Jane, he’s all yours.”

“But where does that leave us? I’m not to thrilled about being the object of a bet, of either bet, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“You still don’t get it, do you?” she said sadly. “I would never have agreed to go out with you if it hadn’t been for the damn bet. You surprised me though. I liked getting to know you without the pressure of having to be beautiful enough to tempt you. When I was plain, you treated me as a person, not some eye-candy bimbo you wanted to bed. What would you do if tomorrow I went back to wearing the same type of clothes I have always worn around you? Would you be so eager to dance with me, or kiss me then?”

William didn’t answer.

Elizabeth sighed. “I’ve learned a lot about myself since I made my wager with Charlotte. Being unattractive has taught me how much I should value being liked for who I am in here,” Elizabeth pounded her fist against her chest, “and not because of what I wear or how I look. I like you William, I really do, but until you can get past your vanity and see me for who I really am, I don’t want to be with you.”

Liz took advantage of the stunned look on his face to brush past him to go back to the Castle. She found Char and Luke still dancing, totally oblivious to everyone else. She hated to interrupt them, but she needed to leave.

“Char, I’m going home now. Will you be able to find a way home?”

“I’ll make sure she gets home safely,” assured Luke.

Char was worried; she could see her friend had been crying. “Liz hon, I’ll go with you now if you want?”

“No, finish the evening. You win, Char. Congratulations, Luke’s a great guy.”

“But what about Will?”

“When he gets his head our of his ass, he knows where to find me.”

With that, Liz swept out of the room.

Charles, Jane and Caroline where standing in another part of the room and saw Liz speaking to Charlotte before rushing out of the building.

“Uh oh,” Jane cringed, “I had better go after Liz.”

“I’ll go find Will,” Charles countered as Jane followed her distraught sister outside.

“Liz!” Jane cried out, as her sister was about to get into her car.

“Not now, Jane.” Elizabeth warned.

“You’re upset, are you sure you should be driving.”

“Jane, I’m going to leave before I say something we will regret for the rest of our lives. I told William about the bets. Yes, bets. I know.”

Jane stood not knowing what to say.

“Don’t call me. I’ll call you when I am good and ready,” Liz said as she slammed the door and drove away.

Meanwhile, back inside the Gala, “I had better go with you Charles, William may need me.” pleaded Caroline, not willing to give up the opportunity of a Liz-free William.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Caroline.”

“Nonsense, William and I have a long history together.”

“No.”

“You can’t stop me!” she hissed and walked past him to go outside.

“Shit!” he cursed under his breath and immediately set off after her.

They found Will at about the same time. Charles could see even through the dim light that he was in a towering rage.

“William, darling! There you are, we thought perhaps you had become lost.”

Will carefully removed her arm that had immediately wound it’s way through his. “Caroline,” he snapped, “if you are wise, you will leave your brother and me alone.” She froze at the iciness of his words. “Now!”

That seemed to mobilize her unlike anything else and she teetered back inside as fast as her five-inch stiletto heels could carry her.

Charles and William were left alone. Without warning, Will let fly with a right hook that caught his erstwhile friend square in the jaw. Charles staggered and fell back against the wall. Turning to face Will with his jaw in his hand, he mumbled.

“What the hell was that for?”

“That was for setting me up, you bastard! You knew Jane before our bet. You made a fool of me,” and as an afterthought he threw out, “and of Luke.”

“How did you find out?”

“Elizabeth told me!”

“Is that why she left the Gala in tears?”

“Probably, though having learned that she has also been lying to me and using me to try and win a bet of her own is almost as humiliating!”

“She told you about that too?”

“Ah, I see that it is not news to you either. Are there any more secrets, bets or schemes you want to tell me about? I find myself in the mood to be crapped on tonight.” Will was clearly still very angry.

“Nothing that comes to mind. But here’s a suggestion – instead of slugging me, why don’t you try to stop your date before she leaves.”

“Elizabeth has made it quite clear that she would rather not see me again. Well, good riddance! Vain, ha! I need to talk to Luke about this.”

“You needn’t bother, Will” Luke said. Neither man had noticed Luke and Char approach. “You really should keep you voice down. We could hear you arguing the moment we stepped outside.”

Charles looked aghast. “I’m sorry, Luke, Char.”

Luke stared at his cousin and his friend. “We’ll talk about this latter. If you will excuse us, Charlotte and I are going to continue our walk.”

They left the two stunned men behind.

“We need to talk,” Luke began.

“I know.”

“You went out with me on a bet?” There was pleading in his voice.

“No, Luke, I dressed as poorly as I could on a bet. I don’t normally wear my mother’s clothing. Then again I don’t normally wear a gown like this, either.”

“So what you are saying is that you purposefully tried to disguise how beautiful you are?” Char nodded, he smiled. “It didn’t work. I have always seen you as a gorgeous woman. Your soul, your spirit, your personality are the most charming I have ever encountered.” He wanted to kiss her properly then, but he knew he had a confession of his own to make first.

“You also need to know that I asked you out the first time because of a bet I lost with Charles. We all tried to hit on Jane at Marjele’s about 2 months ago. Only Charles succeeded in getting her phone number that night. As losers of the bet, Will and I had to date an unattractive woman for a month.”

“But Jane and Charles have been dating for nearly four months now.”

“So I gathered. It was a set-up, a sucker’s bet and I lost. Funny thing is, I actually don’t believe that I lost at all, no I think I came out the winner in all of this.” Luke stopped and turned Char to face him. Gently he lifted her chin. “I met this amazing woman that I think I might be falling for. It was not long after we met that I thought Charles sucked at picking unattractive women, because I never considered you anything but a flower waiting to bloom.”

With that Luke leaned down and kissed her on the mouth, finally able to release all the longing he had long held in check into their very first kiss.

Part 23

One week later…

Jane and Charles met Maria and Perry for dinner at Jordan’s. A nice traditional Mexican Food dinner was in order, along with the Margaritas!

“You still haven’t talked to Liz?” Maria asked in amazement.

“Nope, she refuses to answer my calls” Jane confirmed. “I do know that she has been at work, though Stacy – she’s one of Liz’s coworkers – has told me she’s been pretty quiet.”

“That’s not good.”

“No. She’s usually the one joking around and organizing where everyone is going to lunch that day.”

“What about Will?” Perry asked Charles.

“He’s not taking my calls either. I’ve left messages at his home, but he hasn’t returned any of them. His secretary at work won’t put me through to him.” Charles looked at Jane, “I wonder if it’s time to call for re-enforcements.”

“Do you mean his sister?”

“Yeah, Kris, er Georgiana. Maybe she can get him to come out of hiding. What about Liz?”

“There’s only one person who she will listen to. I only hope he’s not furious with me after I tell him what happened.”

*****

The next afternoon someone knocked at the door of Liz’s apartment.

“Liz, open the door. I know you are home, I saw your car in the parking lot.”

The door opened as far as the security chain would allow.

“Daddy? What are you doing here?”

“Open up and let me inside.”

Elizabeth closed the door, unlatched the chain, and then unlocked the security screen door.

Fred Bennet walked through the door and gave his daughter a much-needed hug.

“Jane called. We had a very enlightening conversation.”

That did it, Elizabeth started to bawl.

“There, there. Shhh. It will be alright.”

“Oh Daddy! Why does this hurt so much?”

Mr. Bennet was none to pleased with the mess his eldest daughter and her attempts at matchmaking had wrought. However, his next eldest daughter needed him right now; he put his anger at Jane aside and focused on consoling Elizabeth.

After Elizabeth had stopped crying, her father got down to business.

“You fell for this William, eh sport?”

“Dad, I’m not sure what I feel. Sometimes, when I was talking to him, it was if we had known each other all our lives. We could just hangout like old friends and watch a game together.”

They walked over to the living room and sat down. “I think you had better start at the beginning.”

Elizabeth told her dad all that had happened, omitting a few select details he didn’t really need to know.

“Well?” Liz asked when she was done.

“What a tangled web you weave. Before you go and leave your William on the scrap heap, there are a few things you need to hear.”

Mr. Bennet rubbed his face with his hands. “Lord, I never thought I would be having this kind of conversation with you. Liz, you need to know that guys are very much visually stimulated creatures. I think that when William saw you as your less-than-attractive version, coupled with his promise to behave like a perfect gentleman, he saw you more like a buddy – not as a potential girlfriend. He acted accordingly and tried to forge a friendship based on mutual likes. Then when he saw you at the gala, those boundaries where suddenly stripped away and he was entranced.”

“But I don’t want to be just another pretty face,” Liz protested.

“I know, and as your father I would rather you be with someone who values you for who you are inside. All I’m saying is that William was overwhelmed and he probably was more honest with you than he normally would be.

“Liz, no one is perfect, you just happened to learn his flaws in a rather unusual circumstance. The thing is, when you care about someone, you learn to accept their blemishes. If you don’t, it will eventually tear your relationship apart. I knew what I was getting into when I married your mother. Instead of letting her tendency to histrionics bother me, I learned to enjoy the show and find humor in it. I’m a better man for it. I find that I tolerate people much more than when I was younger. And I fancy to believe that your mother is a better woman because of me. She’s learned to laugh at her herself and recognize her follies. Neither of us is perfect but we love each other and together we are much stronger than apart.”

“Are you suggesting that I go back to William and turn a blind eye to his arrogance and vanity?” Liz asked.

“Not necessarily, but I am saying that you now know where his faults lie and it is up to you to decide if he is worth it, and, if he is, to learn to accept them as a part of him. And don’t go back to him trying to change him. If he truly cares for you, and sees that his attitudes are a barrier to a deeper relationship, then he will try to change himself – for your sake alone.”

*****

Luke picked up Char for their dinner. He had told her before hand that they where going someplace rustic, and to be sure that she wore blue jeans to fit in. Luke headed south on 7th Avenue and then on Central Avenue, avoiding the light-rail construction, while Char tried to get him to reveal where they were going.

“It’s a surprise and I’m not going to tell you.”

Char leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Please?” she said in her most plaintive voice. Luke grabbed her hand and held it on his leg.

“No.”

She knew he was not going to tell her anything and decided to sit back and enjoy the ride. Therefore, she was surprised when they crossed under the I-10/I-17 underpass and continued south past the Salt River bed and into South Phoenix.

Phoenix, like many cities, has its different ethnic groups. The area south of the Salt River – which is south of downtown Phoenix – is home to a teeming Latino population. Spanish is the language most spoken there. The homes are older and smaller, and the residents have a lower average income than their neighbors to the north, but like every part of the city, its people still take pride in their community. It’s also a colorful place to drive through; the owners choose bright colors for their buildings, unlike the sometimes-monotonous beiges so prevalent in the trendier neighborhoods.

They continued south past the homes and business until they passed by the fields that bordered South Mountain Park. At the end of the road they pulled into the Ponderosa Stables.

“Fancy a ride tonight, Miss Lucas?” Luke drawled.

“Do we get to ride your horses?”

“Not this time. For this ride it is much better to ride the stable’s horses. Come on, they are expecting us.”

“Wait, I thought we were going to dinner?”

“We are in about an hour, but if you are that hungry we can skip this,” Luke grinned

“As if I don’t want to go for a ride. I think I can wait a measly sixty minutes.”

Char followed Luke in increased excitement. They were going horseback riding, at sunset, in South Mountain Park!

The Valley of the Sun is the term generally used to denote the Phoenix metropolitan area. Phoenix is not the only city. There are approximately twenty-four cities, towns, unincorporated districts and three Indian Communities that make up the entire Valley. Over 3.9 million people call this place home. The population lives mainly in the flat areas, but there are mountains and buttes scattered throughout. Very little housing is built up the sides of these rises in elevation. Yes, there are properties on the slopes, but most of the mountains are public property – parks and preserve land. South Mountain Park it the largest of the public spaces. At over 16,000 acres, it is often referred to as the largest municipal park in the country. In reality, it is a preserve – there for the people of the City of Phoenix and surrounding towns to enjoy. It is rugged and wild, a reminder of the peoples who lived in the Valley before the coming of the white man, and the westerners who eventually settled and tamed the land.

It was here that Luke had arranged a private horseback ride for Char. Their departure was timed to take advantage of the sunset, and on this night nature obliged. The sky was streaked with orange and red and purple as the day drew to a close.

At the end of the hour’s journey they arrived at one of Phoenix’s best-kept secrets. Against the preserve, and just far enough up the mountain slope for a wonderful view is a place called T-Bone Steakhouse. There are wood-shavings on the floor – sawdust is now against the health code – and red and white-checkered tablecloths on the tables. You are as likely to sit on a bench as in a chair. Outside a large fire pit crackles in the night sending smoke wafting into the sky. The thing that strikes you the most though, is the wonderful view at night of the lights of the city to the north. It’s quite a contrast to the blackness of the preserve behind the restaurant.

What else would they serve but juicy steaks and other grilled meats? You know the food is good and reasonably priced because often there is a police car picking up the policeman’s special for dinner; a tasty hamburger grilled just right.

They ate their steaks outside; the weather was a bit chilly, but the fire, and each other, kept them warm.

Char was leaning back in Luke’s arms “Are you looking forward to the game tomorrow?” he asked in a contented voice.

“Oh yeah. I love baseball.”

“I think Brandon Webb is getting his Cy Young in a ceremony before the game.”

“I forgot about that! The last time I went to Opening Day was in 2002. Randy Johnson got his then, I think. I remember getting a replica World Series Ring.” Char was becoming animated.

“Do you still have it?”

“Of course! We were at Game 7 of the World Series the year before, we had to be at opening day!”

“I was at the game too!”

“And with much better seats, I’m sure,” she teased

Luke laughed, “Yeah the company seats are in a prime location. You’ll see tomorrow night.”

“Well, we were in the upper deck and couldn’t see the right field corner. The nosebleed seats were all that was left by the time we got to the ticket counter.” Char paused then added, “You know, we camped out to get tickets.”

“You did?”

“Yeah! Me, Maria, Liz and Jane. Well Liz and I were the ones who actually spent the night. We slept with several thousand other people under the 7th Street Bridge. Probably the only time someone has done so without the police chasing them away.”

Luke laughed.

“Liz and I spent the night and then Jane and Maria came and relieved us so we could go home to shower and eat and go to some of our classes. Then we went back and took their places and waited several more hours before we finally made it to the ticket window. We had planned to buy four tickets for each game – you could only buy a total of four tickets per person – but by the time we made it to the window, they only had Game 7 tickets left. So we each bought our full allotment and sold the remaining tickets to family members, with a nice little premium attached.”

“That’s a great story!”

“We just hoped there would be a Game 7. I would have been pissed had there not, that was a long time wait just to have your tickets refunded to you if there hadn’t been a game.”

“Yeah. Hey! Did you get to see the Stealth Bomber Flyover well from your seats?” Luke asked.

“That was amazing, we looked up and saw this black triangle moving towards us and then after it passed overhead – boom! That was loud.”

“It certainly got people’s adrenaline going,” Char ventured.

“I’ll say. And the end of the game wasn’t shabby.”

“I lost my voice,” Char grinned, “but it was worth it!”

So are you. Luke said to himself. Tomorrow could not come soon enough.

Part 24

Mid-afternoon Monday found William sitting at his desk in his office staring into space. The inter-office phone line rang.

“There is a person here to see you, Mr. Darcy,” Mrs. Reynolds said over the phone.

“I told you I wasn’t to be disturbed,” Will said a little more pithily than he had intended.

The office door opened and Georgiana peeked her head inside.

“You should be a little kinder to your assistant, Will.”

“Kris! What are you doing here?”

Georgiana didn’t bother to correct him on her name. Her brother was clearly worse for the wear.

“I flew in for the night. You did say I could do that whenever I felt like I needed to come home.”

“What about your classes?”

“I left after my last one and I don’t have anything until 10:00 tomorrow morning. I’m booked on the 6:00am flight. Plenty of time to get to class.”

“I had plans tonight.”

“I know. You were supposed to go the ball game with Charles. Will, he called me this weekend and offered me his ticket. He said the two of you aren’t speaking right now and he would have felt very awkward going to the game.”

“What else did he say?” Will growled.

“He told me everything.” Will leaned back in his chair and ran his hands through his hair. “I knew when you visited last month that this Elizabeth was more than you where letting on.”

“She’s not. She is a woman I was seeing casually and now it is over.”

“Then why do you look so unhappy about it?”

“I’m not. I just have a lot on my mind with the business now.”

They both knew he was lying, but Georgiana decided it was not the time to press him.

“Sounds like you could use the rest of the day off. I’ve already spoken to Mrs. Reynolds and she has rescheduled today’s one remaining appointment for tomorrow. She says it’s nothing that can’t wait 24 hours. As such, you are officially done working. We are going home, chilling out until five o’clock when you are taking me to dinner at the Tee Pee Tap Room. I miss my Arizona-style Mexican food. Then we are going to Chase Field to do a little shopping before game time. I need an antidote for all the Dodger Blue I have to put up with in LA.”

****

Chase Field had undergone a minor facelift in the off-season. The new ownership had decided to abandon the copper, purple and turquoise color scheme for a black and brick-red version. They called the red “Sedona red” after the color of the sandstone Red Rocks of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. At first, Diamondback fans were skeptical, but once the new and revised logos were unveiled, they gained quick approval. The new logo and color scheme was as good a reason as any to get new D-Back, short for Diamondbacks, gear.

She insisted her brother buy a new home jersey and cap for himself to go along with her own stuff. The total was well into three figures.

“What good is all that money in the bank if we don’t splurge every now and then?” Georgiana said when the final damage was tallied.

“You know our parents taught us to live below our means.” Will gently chastised as they walked out of the team shop and down towards their seats behind the first base dugout.

“I know that, and I know that they also taught us to have compassion for those who may not be so fortunate as we are. That’s what has puzzled me the most about your situation with Elizabeth. Judging her by her appearance is not what our parents tried to teach us.”

Will was getting rather uncomfortable with his sisters line of reasoning and changed the subject.

“I wonder if Luke is here?” he said looking across home plate to a section near the third base dugout.

“Is he?”

“No. Wait there he comes. Oh.”

“What?”

“I should have guessed…”

“Is that Charlotte Lucas?”

“Charles must have told you about her, too.”

“Yeah. Aren’t you happy that Luke has finally found someone?”

Will furrowed his brow. “I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but yes. Char is a bright woman and Luke appears to be really interested in her.”

Georgiana thought her brother didn’t sound too thrilled, but let the subject drop.

*****

Across the way Luke led Char to their seats.

“Whoa! I’ve never sat down where you could actually see the dirt fly up when the runners ran the bases.”

“Don’t forget the wait staff. You can have anything you want to eat or drink without leaving your seat.”

“Now this is the way to see a ball game! There’s even plenty of legroom. Someone can walk in front of you and you don’t have to get out of your seat to let them pass by.” Charlotte traced the double zeros on the back of Luke’s Jersey. He had a new D-Backs home uniform with his name “Fitzwilliam” and the double zeros for his number. “Nice shirt, but why that number?”

Luke shrugged, “No reason.”

By the time they got to the top of the fifth inning Luke was starting to get on Char’s nerves. He had asked her several times if she needed anything to eat or drink, or if she had to use the restroom. He was acting rather odd!

Finally it was the middle of the fifth and Luke stood up and pulled Charlotte to her feet to join him. She was stretching her back when he whispered into her ear.

“Look at the video board.”

The stadium has three large scoreboards in center field. One is a simple mono-colored board that the score is shown on, as well as any simple text. The second has multiple colored lights and is used to show messages and other fun things. The last is a huge Video board that can show pictures, replay, and even live footage. That’s the board Char’s eyes fixed on. Right in the middle of a large heart were Luke and her.

Luke immediately dropped down to one knee; Char covered her mouth with her hand in disbelief.

“My dearest Charlotte. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy. My father always impressed upon me that if a man was willing to tell a woman that he loved her, then he should be ready to follow it up with a proposal of marriage. I know we haven’t known each other very long but I feel like I have known you for an eternity. You are what I have been searching for all my life, of this I have no doubt. We are meant to spend the rest of our days loving each other, you know this! I love you with all that I am, Charlotte Lucas. Will you marry me?”

Luke pulled a box out of his pocket and opened it to reveal a stunning diamond ring. And waited.

Charlotte was suddenly overcome with tears and love for the gentle man before her. Visions of their future together inundated her mind and she knew he was “the one”. Char nodded her head and then dropped her hand away from her mouth.

“Yes, you wonderful man, I will marry you.”

A smile of heartfelt delight suffused Luke’s face as he stood up and placed the ring on Char’s finger, and a cheer went up around them. Luke then sealed the moment with a searing kiss. A stadium attendant came to where they were seated with a bag from the team shop. Luke released Char and opened the package and pulled out a second D-Backs home jersey. This one was personalized with the name “Fitzwilliam” and the number 1 on the back. Luke showed it to her and then helped her into it.

They finally sat down and grinned like fools.

“I lied about my jersey number. I choose it because I wanted to remember today. The Zeros aren’t really a number, they represent the two rings we will wear as our wedding bands. Your number is representative of the place you hold in my heart. You are the first and most important thing in my life, from the very first time we met for coffee.”

An older woman who was sitting behind them leaned forward and touched Char’s shoulder.

“You best be holding on to that young man of yours. Any man who talks to a woman like that is a definite keeper.” She winked at Luke and settled back into her seat.

*****

Back across the infield Will and Georgiana sat stunned.

“Did Luke just get engaged?” she asked no one in particular.

*****

At Elizabeth’s apartment, she had just returned from a trip to the bathroom when the game came back on.

“We’ve just had out first proposal of the season,” the play-by-play man announced, “and what a perfect day to do it. The season’s just beginning, why not plan to start a new life together.”

They were showing a replay of Luke getting down on one knee.

“I’ve always admired a guy with the guts to do that,” said the color commentator.

Elizabeth looked at her television screen just in time to see Luke sitting next to Charlotte playfully admiring the addition to her left ring finger.

She dropped the remote control.

Part 25

Charlotte and Luke were sitting basking in their new found understanding when her cell phone began to play, “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match, find me a…”

“Hello Liz.”

Luke lunged forward and almost snorted his drink through his nose. Char put her hand over the microphone and told him she would explain later.

“Char, are you at the Diamondbacks game with Luke?”

“Yep, want to talk with him?” Char was in a great mood and not disinclined to tease.

“Not really. Char, you were just on TV.”

“Here too!’

“Oh. My. God. You really did it!”

“Did what?” Char said innocently.

“I saw you two just now on TV looking at the ring on your finger. You’re engaged!”

“The secret’s out then.”

“Char, you are in an entirely too good of mood.”

She laughed, “Shouldn’t I be? The most incredible, wonderful man I have ever known has just asked me to marry him.”

“I think I’m going to be sick if you keep this up. Ok, I just called to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Congratulations, Char. I couldn’t be happier for you two. Luke’s a great guy, if somewhat a quick worker. At this rate you’ll be married by the end of the week.”

“Not that fast!”

“I’ll talk to you soon, Char.”

“Bye, Liz.”

As soon as Charlotte closed her phone Luke asked about the ring tone.

“Oh that. I put that on just for Liz after we made our little wager.”

“Very appropriate. It worked in our case.”

“So it did, my love.”

“Say that again.”

“So it did,” she teased.

“The second part,” Luke pouted.

“My love.”

“When I hear you say that, it still is like I am living in a dream.”

“I’m no dream.” Char said in a rather husky voice before kissing him passionately, again.

It was now the end of the fifth inning and someone was now standing next to them.

“Ahem.”

Luke looked to see who the intruders were and a variety of emotions crossed his face. He stood to face them and pulled Char up to stand beside him.

“I suppose I should introduce you all. This is my fiancée, Dr. Charlotte Collins. Char, these are my parents, Curtis and Elaine Fitzwilliam.”

*****

Several minutes later, and after many promises to visit in between, and very dazed Curtis and Elaine Fitzwilliam headed back to their seats in the Clubhouse Level.

“He’s always been impulsive,” Elaine offered.

“But this is marriage for goodness sake!” her husband said in rebuttal.

“Curtis, we only dated about two months before you asked me to marry you.”

“That was an entirely different situation; we had known each other for years.”

“Look, I’m not saying that I’m entirely happy that our son has just proposed to a woman we have never seen before in our lives, but you have to admit, it does appear he is marrying way above himself. Charlotte Lucas has a PhD!” she cried!

“That’s why I’m so worried! How can someone so obviously intelligent fall for that oaf of our son?” Just then Elaine realized the mischievous look in her husband’s eye. Like father, like son.

*****

Luke suddenly turned serious.

“I hadn’t thought about this before I introduced you to Mom and Dad, but I hope you aren’t offended by the name on your jersey. I had just assumed you would take my name.”

“Why ever would you think that I would be upset?” Char asked in some confusion.

“I was thinking about when I said ‘Dr. Charlotte Lucas’ and I realized you worked pretty hard for title and that you might want to keep it.”

“I suppose I should think about it, but I always assumed I would take my husband’s name when I married.”

“I would like that more than anything in the world, but only if you do.” He was so honestly concerned that Charlotte couldn’t help squeezing his hand to reassure him.

“We have plenty of time to discuss this before we get married,” she said.

“Not too long,” Luke muttered.

“What? Do you want to elope?”

“No, but I don’t want to wait too long. We’re not a couple of 20 year-olds. We know what we want in life. I know that I know what I want in life and I see no reason to drag this thing out.”

“It takes time to plan a wedding, Luke.”

“Certainly not more that a few months!”

“When exactly were you thinking of getting married?” Char asked suspiciously.

“June sounds lovely!”

“June! It’s hot in Phoenix in June!”

“That’s why God invented air conditioning.”

“Luke…”

“Relax, Char. I never said we would spend our honeymoon in town.” He said suggestively before he nibbled on her ear.

“Oh, d-do tell me more.”

“Later.”

The crowd cheered as batter got a base hit. Like Luke, he was forced to stop at first base.

*****

“Should we go over and congratulate him?” Georgiana asked.

“Maybe in a little bit. It looks like Uncle Curtis and Aunt Elaine are just arriving,” he pointed out.

“Oh, yeah. Maybe a half hour to let them recover would be polite.” Georgiana started to giggle.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, just thinking about the next family gathering and all the stories that will be swapped about the ‘Fitzwilliam’ impetuousness.” Georgiana looked askance at Will.

“What?!”

“Just wondering when it will be your turn. It seems to me that the trait normally exhibits itself only in those Fitzwilliams with a Y chromosome,” Georgiana said with obvious glee. Will squirmed some more and then focused on the batter stepping up to the plate to begin the inning.

*****

Will was lying in bed after Georgiana had long been asleep. He really should be doing the same, since he had to get up at 4:30 to take her to the airport. However, his mind kept replaying the events of the evening.

His sister’s appearance at the office had caught him totally unawares. He had been ruminating over the fact that he would likely be sitting next to the man he had been avoiding for the past week. Charles, it seemed, had the same misgivings as he and had found a replacement. What a replacement! It was an act that Will knew was aimed at sending him a message. Will was still miffed at his best friend, but he also acknowledged that Charles cared enough to send Will’s beloved sister in his place. The only downside to this was that now Georgiana knew about his troubles with Elizabeth and, frankly, he wasn’t too pleased with her knowing all the sordid details of probably the most humiliating night of his adult life!

Georgiana did not know that he had spent most nights since then trolling the various local hotspots for women. He had in his possession a stack of business cards, torn bits of paper and napkins with at least a dozen names and phone numbers of women he had talked up. Yet when it came time to call one of them, he could not do it. In his mind he kept seeing a morphing vision of the different manifestations of Elizabeth Bennet telling him she did not want to be with him.

Why can’t I get past this? He asked himself. Tomorrow I will call one of the ladies and ask her out. I’ve done it plenty of times before, why should it be any different now?

At the game Georgiana had taken great pleasure in meeting Char. The were soon chatting like old friends while Will stood next to Luke unable to say a word. That was fine with Luke; he just stared with unbridled joy at the woman he was now pledged to marry. Will felt a stab of jealousy even now. When would he ever find such happiness? Was there really a woman who enjoyed just being with him be it at home, or out for a night on the town, or sitting in the stands at a ballgame?

Yes there was, and she wanted nothing to do with him.

*****

Tomorrow came very early. It was still dark outside when Georgiana came in to gently shake him awake.

“Wake up Will. If you don’t want me to miss my classes today, we need to get going.”

“F*** school!”

“You say that now, but if I don’t get to the airport in time you will be upset at me.”

“All right, all right.” Will rubbed his eyes and got out of bed. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

After splashing some water on his face and pulling on some clothes and his new baseball hat, Will met his sister in the garage.

“Next time, call a cab.” He growled.

“Last night you were the one who told me you would drive me when I said I was doing that very thing last.”

“I’m an idiot.”

“Yes, you are.”

Fifteen minutes later Will pulled up to the curb at Terminal Four. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come in with you?”

“No, I’m fine. Go home and get some more rest. And Will, call Elizabeth. Whatever you two said to each other, it’s time to forgive and forget.”

“You don’t forget those kind of things.”

“Then forgive and ask forgiveness in return. Even if you decide not to pursue a relationship, you will feel better if you part of good terms rather than bitter remembrances.”

“I’m not making any promises.”

“Just think about it. For me?”

“For you.” Will gave his sister a brotherly embrace. “Call and let me know you made it back to LA safe and sound?”

“I will. I love you.”

“I love you too, Sis.”

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