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What We Did on Our Holidays
[Modern/NC17]

Chapter 18

Charles leaned against the doorpost with his usual lazy grin as Elizabeth answered the door.

"Hi," he said, smiling. "You look well."

"Thank you," Elizabeth answered, sure by the wiggling of his eyebrows that he was meaning more than he was saying. "Had a good weekend?"

"Yeah, great, haven't we, Sam?"

"Yeah," Sam said as he gave a sideways smile to his mum and nudged against her slightly as he carried his bag into the house. It would take a very astute observer to note the tiniest contact between them and the little look of greeting that needed no words.

"So, did you see some stars?" Elizabeth asked the question choosing deliberately to be vague, knowing that she would provoke a reaction.

"Stars!" Sam exclaimed. "We didn't go for stars, we went for meteors and we saw loads!"

"Oh yes," Charles concurred. "It's not the Leonids but we saw some pretty good stuff, and we got a look at Venus too, very early this morning."

"Nice," Elizabeth said, grinning at Charles. "Well, I hope he has been good."

"Oh, Mum!" Sam sighed, exasperated. "Why do you always say you hope I've been good?"

"Yes, he's been very good," Charles said laughing. "Hey Sam, another weekend soon, yeah?"

"Yeah, great!"

They waved goodbye to Charles as he drove away, and went into the house to sort out laundry, discuss homework and settle back into routine.

Charles parked his car and ambled into the house.

"OK?" Jane asked.

"Yeah, Lizzie was home looking very happy and Sam was doing his 'I'm too cool to say I like you' act," he laughed.

"Has he said anything this weekend about this man Lizzie's got?" Jane asked.

"Not really," Charles answered. "He has a smart car and likes football, which is all Sam wants to know. And he thinks this guy likes his Mum and he doesn't mind."

"Oh Charlie, I worry about her," Jane said, as Charles took her in his arms.

"Don't worry," he said softly, and kissed her on the nose. "Lizzie would never do anything stupid, she's far too smart."

"I hope you're right," Jane murmured, deciding for the moment to keep her suspicions to herself. She needed a little more information before she talked to Charles.

"Anyway, come on, you must be hungry. Let's eat and have an early night."

"At your command, my darling," Charles said, laughing, as Jane swatted him playfully and led the way into the kitchen.

~ * ~

William got out of bed on Monday morning and winced at the ache in his thighs. Then a very smug look crept across his face as he recalled the reason for sore muscles.

Elizabeth also spent much of Monday being reminded of their exertions, grinning to herself despite the twinges from her aching legs. That evening, she had curled up on the sofa to read the newspaper when the phone rang. She glanced at her watch and guessed that it would be William.

"Hi!" she answered cheerfully when he greeted her and asked how she was. "I'm fine, how are you?"

"Oh, not so bad," William replied. "Bit fed up actually. I'm really snowed under this week so I'm going to have to work every evening."

"That doesn't sound like much fun. Poor you."

"Well, it means I get lots of work cleared out of the way before the weekend. And about the weekend." He hesitated. "I wondered if you and Sam wanted to come to Sussex with me on Saturday. It's Open House at Alice's school, which means family can go and visit."

Elizabeth paused slightly before answering. "Are you sure? We're not family after all."

"Oh, the school don't mind, there are all combinations of parents there."

"I was thinking more about whether Alice would mind. Are you sure she would want us there? Wouldn't she want you to herself?"

"I think actually she'd like you to be there. Someone else to talk to." This was as close as William was able to come to an admission that he did not know what to do to entertain a 14 year old girl for an afternoon. He tried to please her, felt awkward, and usually they ended up back at school early having run out of things to say to each other.

"She's playing in a netball match in the morning then I usually take her out for lunch. I think she'd like to see you both again."

"Well, if you're sure," Elizabeth said. "Can I get anything for her? A little gift? What do you take?"

"Umm, well, I usually take stuff for her tuck box. Sweets, a cake, that sort of thing."

"I'll get her some girly bits and bobs then, shall I?"

William was slightly taken aback by the idea of girly bits and bobs, not sure what Elizabeth might have in mind.

"I'll ask my secretary for ideas," Elizabeth said. "Eileen's got a couple of girls so she'll know."

"I'm sure Alice would be fine with anything," William said. "I'll have to get you early, say around 9. It's about an hour and a half to Sussex."

"No problem," Elizabeth said. "See you first thing on Saturday."

Next day at work, Elizabeth called into the general office as usual and picked up her files for the day. Eileen, her secretary, was busy on the phone, so Elizabeth waited for her to end the call.

"Sorry," Eileen said as she put the phone down. "What can I do for you?"

"Well, it's a silly question really, but you've got girls, haven't you?"

Eileen nodded.

"What would you say was a nice little present for a 14 year old? Something really girly, that a Dad wouldn't know anything about."

"Well, my two like little make-up and nail varnish sets, you can get them from Boots or Superdrug. Or body glitter, that sort of thing. Or if she's got long hair, some nice bobbles or scrunchies. Do you want me to pick something up for you?"

"That's very kind of you, thanks, but I think I'll nip out one lunchtime and look in Superdrug. What meetings have I got?"

They consulted Elizabeth's diary, and she realised that any shopping would have to be done that day. Every other lunchtime was filled with meetings or visits. She thanked Eileen for her help, and that afternoon returned to the general office to show off the bag of goodies that she had chosen, glad that Eileen and the other secretaries thought she had made good choices.

That evening, Jane phoned to invite Elizabeth and Sam for lunch on Saturday. Jane wanted to talk in more detail about the plans for Elizabeth's birthday dinner.

"Can't, sorry," Elizabeth apologised. "We're going to Sussex with William to see his daughter. She's at school there."

"This is the one who is about Sam's age?" Jane asked.

"Yes, Alice is 14, I think she's four or five months older than Sam. And very much more aloof and grown up than him, but isn't that the way with boys and girls?" she laughed.

Jane's suspicions were now as firm as they could be without direct proof. There was only one more question to ask.

"You never told me his second name?"

"Darcy," Elizabeth said.

"Oh." Jane paused, then decided that what she had to say would be better said face to face "Look, can we meet for lunch later this week? I want to talk to you."

"Not this week, my diary is full, I'm afraid. But it's a while to my birthday, there's no urgency. How about a week tomorrow? Wednesday?" Elizabeth said. "I know I've got a desk day."

"OK, Wednesday," Jane said. "The pasta place, as usual?"

"Fine," Elizabeth replied. "See you there at 12:30."

She put the phone down and wondered why Jane seemed so anxious about her birthday dinner. She shrugged and returned to reading the paper. Jane stared at the phone for a while, until Charles came to find her.

"Everything OK?" he asked, putting his arm round her shoulders.

"I know who Lizzie's boyfriend is," Jane said, a troubled look in her eyes.

"Go on."

"William Darcy."

Charles was taken aback, and gulped. "Are you sure?"

"She just said so. I'm going to have to tell her about him. What he did."

"Are you sure you want to raise all that again?"

"Not really, but I don't think I have a choice. I thought it was all in the past, but if she's serious about him, we're not going to be able to avoid him. And she has to know what he's capable of."

"Maybe he's changed, Janey. It was a long time ago," Charles said quietly.

"You're too sweet for your own good," Jane said, smiling as best she could. "Always want to see the best in people."

"As you only want to see the best for people, well, your sister at least. Come on, I'll make us a cup of tea and we can put him out of our minds."

Jane followed Charles into the kitchen, knowing that no matter how hard she tried, the return of William Darcy into their lives was not something she was going to be able to put out of her mind.

~ * ~

Traffic was heavy on Saturday morning, so by the time William, Elizabeth and Sam arrived at school, the various matches were already underway. Elizabeth and Sam followed William to the sports centre, Sam gazing round in wonder at the huge playing fields and state of the art facilities.

"Alice is playing indoors, on court two," William said, checking the fixture list by the door. He led the way into the sports hall, and managed to find space for the three of them to squeeze onto a bench.

"This is like a proper sports centre!" Sam whispered, nudging Elizabeth. His school gym didn't have any seating, never mind a bank of raised benches for spectators.

There was polite applause as the away team scored, and as the two teams took their positions for the restart, Alice glanced round and noticed the additions to the spectators.

The game moved quickly, and Sam found to his surprise that it was interesting to watch. All the girls were very skilled. Suddenly the home team had the ball and were advancing up the court. Alice ran into the semi-circle and shouted for the ball. It was passed to her, and she quickly lined up a shot, took it, and scored. Impulsively, Sam jumped to his feet and cheered, then just as quickly sat down when he realised that he was making more noise than anyone else. He squirmed in his seat and blushed.

"Is he your brother? Didn't know you'd got a brother," one of Alice's team mates asked.

"No," Alice replied.

"Is he your boyfriend then?"

"No," Alice repeated, and wondered for a moment how to explain, then gave up as the game was about to restart.

Once the match was over, Alice's team winning narrowly, parents and other family members swarmed onto the court to greet their girls.

"Hi Daddy," Alice said, kissing him on the cheek.

"Sorry we were late," William answered. "Bad traffic. Well played by the way."

"Yes, you did brilliantly," Elizabeth said, giving Alice a quick hug.

"Thanks. Hi Sam."

"Hi," Sam said, and blushed. "Didn't realise I wasn't allowed to cheer, though. We all yell like mad at school if one of us scores a goal."

"It was good," Alice said. "I wish I got more cheers when I scored. Well, I have to go and get changed now."

"We'll wait for you in the entrance," William said.

When Alice came back, she was dressed in jeans and a striped jumper, her damp hair pulled back into a ponytail. Elizabeth could see that if she did take after her mother, her mother must have been a very attractive model.

"I've got some supplies for your tuck box in the car," William said. "Shall I get them? Perhaps you could show Sam and Elizabeth around a little. I'll meet you at your dorm."

"OK," Alice said, as William strode away.

"I got you a little something too," Elizabeth said. "Just a little treat." She handed over the package that she'd wrapped up in shiny paper.

"Ooh, what is it?" Alice said excitedly, ripping the paper off to find a set of five metallic nail varnishes and some hair clips and bobbles. "Wow, this is brilliant, thank you!" She flung her arms around Elizabeth's neck and kissed her, then jumped away feeling awkward. "Sorry! Just, I hug my Aunt Ellen like that."

"Don't apologise!" Elizabeth said. "It's quite all right. Anyway, I'm glad you like the things I chose."

"They're lovely. I'll take you to my dorm, shall I? I tidied up my space this morning," she said proudly.

The three of them walked through the school grounds, Alice pointing out various landmarks and some of the different facilities. Elizabeth couldn't begin to imagine how much the fees must be for a school like this; more money than she could dream of having, that was certain. Alice's "space" was a little cubicle containing a bed, a desk, and shelves, in a large room which had four such cubicles down each side. It was, as she had said, very neat. Her books were lined up on the shelves and her teddy bear peaked out from under the covers. She quickly pushed him down the bed, hoping he hadn't been noticed. Elizabeth turned away to hide her smile. William appeared carrying a box, which Alice immediately opened.

"Yum, fruit cake!" she exclaimed. "And cheesecake! I need to put the cheesecake in the fridge, I'll be back in a minute."

"You've got your own fridge?" Sam asked, amazed.

"Each dorm has a kitchen, when you get into top school. Juniors don't," Alice said. "Do you want to come?"

"Yeah, OK," Sam said, and followed her out of the dorm.

"She seems well, doesn't she?" William said, once they had gone.

"Yes, she seems fine," Elizabeth replied. "This is a pretty amazing place for her to be."

"Yes, I think so," William said, and launched into a description of all the activities and facilities that were on offer to her.

Alice opened the door to the tiny kitchen area.

"We've got a fridge, and a kettle, and a microwave, and a toaster. So we can make snacks and things. But we get our meals in the refectory," she explained, making room for her cheesecake amongst the other items crammed in. "Trouble is on Open Day the fridge is always jammed! Are you hungry? He's given me some chocolate."

She took a bar of chocolate from her box, broke it in half and offered one half to Sam.

"Thanks," he said, and took a bite. "Isn't it weird, though, only seeing your Dad at a weekend?"

"You get used to it," Alice shrugged. "Some girls' parents live abroad and they only see them three times a year."

"I'd hate that," Sam said. "I like being at home. When I play football and we win, my Mum always takes me out for pizza, and last time your Dad came."

"My Dad went for pizza?" Alice said, sounding amazed.

"Yeah, we went to Pizza Express."

"He hates pizza. He never takes me for pizza." Alice scowled, more than a little jealous. "We always have to go to this really gloomy old hotel for a three course lunch and I daren't speak in case one of the old codgers in there dies from a heart attack."

Sam giggled and eventually Alice laughed too.

"Maybe you should tell him you want pizza?" Sam suggested.

"You are joking, right? Me, get my Dad into a pizza place? I'm not sure I even believe you that he went!"

"Ask him. Maybe we can get him to agree to go."

"Your Mum and him are going out together now, aren't they?"

"Yeah," Sam said, puzzled for a moment.

"So, he'd want to do things that make her happy? And your Mum likes taking you out for pizza?"

Sam grinned as he saw what Alice had in mind. He was more than happy to go along with her as he didn't fancy the sound of a stuffy hotel for lunch either.

"Is there somewhere we could go near here?" he asked.

"There's a Pizza Express in town. I saw it last time I went out."

They grinned at each other conspiratorially, and returned to the dorm.

"Hey Mum," Sam said, with a sideways glance at Alice. "Since Alice scored and they won, does she get to go out for pizza too?"

"Well, that would be nice," Elizabeth said. "What do you think, William?"

"We normally go to a hotel for lunch," William said, then noticed the two eager teenage faces in front of him. "But if you'd rather ...."

"Yeah, pizza!" Alice shouted, and grinned at Sam. That had been much easier than she had dreamt.

They left the school and drove into Chichester, walking through the shopping precinct until they found Pizza Express. As Sam's favourite place, he had insisted that they take Alice there. The four of them chatted easily about school and sports, and William was glad that he'd asked Elizabeth to come with him. Alice seemed to be smiling much more than she usually did, and several times during the meal she and Sam got fits of giggles. Eventually it was time to go back to school, after doing a bit of shopping for things Alice said she needed.

The car park was full of other parents saying goodbye, cars pulling away and girls standing on the steps in front of the school, waving. William got Alice's shopping out of the car, as she and Sam quickly wrote down each other's email addresses.

"I'll email you tomorrow," Alice said.

"OK," Sam replied. "And see if you can get an Instant Message thing set up."

"Bye Alice," Elizabeth said, giving the girl a quick hug. "It was lovely to see you again."

William kissed Alice and said goodbye. She hugged him tightly, then let go and turned to walk up the steps into school.

"Bye Daddy," she called and waved.

William waved and called back to her. "See you soon, Alice."

She watched him as he walked down the driveway, soon catching up with Elizabeth and Sam, who had waited a short distance away. She saw him put his arm around Elizabeth's shoulders, and say something to her that made her smile up at him. Then Elizabeth tousled Sam's hair, and his laugh carried to her on the breeze.

William pulled up outside Elizabeth's house after the long drive back from Sussex. He'd put the radio on in the car so that Sam could listen to the football scores, and had spent much of the journey encouraging Elizabeth to talk about her job, which he found fascinating."

"Thanks for coming with me today," he said, parking the car. "I'm sure Alice enjoyed herself today, and I certainly did."

"Yes, it was nice, thanks," Elizabeth said. "I'd never been to Chichester before."

"Well..."

"Would you like to come in?"

"Yes, I would, thanks," he said, breaking into one of what Elizabeth thought of as his trademark dimpled smiles. He followed them into the house, and Elizabeth went straight to the kitchen to make a pot of tea.

"Are we having a film tonight?" Sam asked. "What's for tea?"

"If you want and I don't know," Elizabeth replied, making William laugh.

"Shall we go round to the video shop?" he asked Sam.

"Yeah!" Sam replied. "What kind of films do you like? You are going to stay and watch it, aren't you? Two to one, then Mum can't make us have a soppy girl film."

William burst out laughing as he looked over at Elizabeth, waiting for a sign from her that it was OK for him to stay.

"Oh no, I have to put up with you two watching people blowing each other up do I? Please get something nice!"

He took that remark along with her smile and the look in her eyes as a sign that he was accepted for the Saturday night ritual. He ushered Sam back out of the house, calling promises over his shoulder about finding something she would like.

By the time they returned with Mars Attacks Elizabeth had made a big plate of sandwiches, put crisps in a bowl, and put some Indian snacks from the freezer into the oven. There was an enticing smell of spicy food wafting down the hallway as she carried a tray of drinks through to the sitting room.

"Oh great, more aliens," she groaned goodnaturedly. "Do you think we'll ever have a Saturday night with only humans for entertainment?"

"Nope," Sam said, and slotted the video into the machine. He curled up in his favourite position in the corner of the sofa and picked up a sandwich.

"Help yourself," Elizabeth said to William, indicating the sandwiches and snacks. "I poured you some tea, but there's beer in the fridge if you'd rather..."

"Shhh!" Sam hissed, and scowled.

"Oops!" Elizabeth whispered to William. "Sam's a purist, total silence during films!"

Sam glared at her then turned back to the TV. William couldn't help but smile as they all settled down to watch the film, and carried on being entertained as much by Sam as by the movie. He began curled up, then stretched his legs out, then sprawled across the sofa on his front, and finally ended up lying on his back with his legs over the arm of the sofa and his head twisted round to watch. William wondered how on earth he could see the picture, he contorted himself so much. At the end of the film, he rolled onto the floor with a thud, and grinned.

"Good film?" he asked, knowing that his Mum couldn't deny it as she had been laughing out loud.

"Yes, good film," she agreed. "Bath time?"

"Yeah, OK."

Sam left the room, and Elizabeth began to tidy up, gathering plates and mugs and putting them on the tray.

"Are you OK?" she asked, thinking that William seemed rather quiet and subdued.

"What? Oh, yes, I'm fine, sorry I was just thinking."

She sat down silently, gave him a moment, and sure enough, he began to talk.

"It's just that I always feel a bit odd when I come back from seeing Alice. I usually go home, sit on my own, and watch the news. And instead I'm here with you and Sam, and I think, I don't know, I just wonder ...."

"About what Alice is doing?"

"Oh, she'll be fine, they'll all be watching a film or playing games now," he said. "She wouldn't want to be stuck at home with me watching the news, but she might've liked the film. But the thing is, I don't know. Sam asked me in the shop what Alice's favourite film was, and I didn't know."

"I'm not sure I'd know Sam's favourite," Elizabeth said. "He likes lots of films."

"It's best for her, isn't it?" he asked. "School? Being properly looked after?"

"You have her best interests at heart," Elizabeth said, unable to agree with him about boarding school as the thought of sending Sam away was unbearable, but feeling sure that he wanted to do the best her could for his daughter. "I'm sure she's fine."

"Yes, she'll be OK," William said resolutely, and stood up. "Here, let me help you with that."

He took the tray from her and carried it through to the kitchen, where they quickly washed up and tidied everything away.

"Cup of tea?" Elizabeth asked. "Or would you prefer a nightcap? I've got a bottle of whisky somewhere."

"That sounds nice. What have you got?"

"Umm, not sure," she said, never having thought about the type of whisky before. She opened the cupboard, found the as yet unopened bottle, and offered it to him.

"Oh, this is a good one," he said, opened it and poured two measures out into the glasses that she had put in front of him. He followed her back to the sitting room, once again entranced by the vision of her bottom in tight jeans, and they snuggled together on the sofa, sipping their drink.

Sam came down in his pyjamas to say goodnight. William had his arm around Elizabeth's shoulders, and she was leaning against him while they watched the news as Sam came into the room. He had been wondering how long it would take for them to actually do something, as he thought it had been obvious for ages that they liked each other. He didn't mind. William had let him have free reign in the video shop, and didn't say much, not like some of the boyfriends his friends talked about, who pretended to be really cool and to know all about music and tried to talk as if they were 14. That type of boyfriend was just an idiot, Sam thought, but this one seemed all right. Besides, the little line than ran across his Mum's forehead, the one that got deeper if she was really worried, had hardly been there the last couple of weeks. He decided that it was due to her being happy, and if William made her a bit happy, then that would do.

"I'm going to bed," he announced. "Can I read for a bit?"

"Yes, of course," Elizabeth said. "Night night, sweet dreams."

"Goodnight Sam," William said.

"Night," he replied, and shut the door behind him as he left.

Elizabeth could hardly focus on the news. She was looking at the pictures but the words were going over her head, not in her ears. She had spent the last twenty minutes wondering whether to ask William to stay the night. She had been arguing with herself about wanting him to be there all night with her, and wondering how she would handle the morning. She had no idea how Sam would react to a new face over the breakfast table, although he and William did seem to be getting on well. She was torn, not knowing the right thing to do. William gave her shoulders an affectionate squeeze and kissed the top of her head when the news programme finished. He loved the smell of her hair.

"Are you going to stay?" Elizabeth asked, the words coming out of her mouth almost before she knew what she was saying.

"Do you want me to?" William asked, surprised but more than happy that she had asked him.

"I don't want you to go, put it that way."

"What about Sam? The morning?"

"It'll be OK."

"Well, if you're sure," William murmured, and twisted round so that he could kiss her. The feeling he had, of indescribable happiness at being asked to stay the night, was overwhelming. She responded to his kiss, and he could feel the stirring of passion between them.

"I'll find you a toothbrush," she said, and kissed him again, before leading the way up the stairs.

Far away in Sussex, it didn't take long for Alice's tears to soak her pillow that night, though by now she was so practiced at crying quietly that no-one else in her dorm heard her sobs.

Chapter 19

Alice was surprised just how easy it was to get out of school on Wednesday lunchtime. She'd run up to her dorm before lunch, saying that she'd forgotten a book, swapped her books for a tightly rolled pair of jeans and a T shirt, and followed some older girls into the town. Once at the station, she changed in the ladies toilets and got on the next train to London. No-one seemed to notice her.

William was having a late lunch at his desk reading reports when the phone rang. He quickly swallowed a mouth full of sandwich and picked it up.

"Darcy."

"Oh, hello Mr Darcy," a cultured female voice said. "I'm Alice's house tutor, Miss Brown. I'm afraid I have some worrying news. I have to tell you that your daughter appears to have run away from school."

William felt as if he had been punched very hard, and was unable to think straight for a moment. His mind was racing through possibilities and he was lost for words.

"Mr Darcy? Are you there?"

"Yes, yes I'm still here. What do you mean, she appears to have run away?"

"Alice was absent from the first lesson after lunch. If a girl is ill, Matron would let the class teacher know, but there was no note to say that Alice was ill. We've checked her dorm, and the library, and any other places she might be, but we can't find her. I asked her classmates where she might be and no-one has seen her since lunchtime."

"You mean she was seen at lunchtime and she's gone missing since then? When do lessons start?"

"No-one saw her having lunch. Lessons begin at 1:15."

"It's after 2, Miss Brown, how long has she been missing?" William said, a rising note of panic in his voice.

"She might have been missing since noon."

"Might have been? Why don't you know? What have you done to find her?"

"Mr Darcy, please be calm. We've searched through school, and one of my colleagues has gone into the town to have a scout around. And we think we should inform the Police."

Elizabeth was in a meeting, called at short notice, when Eileen popped her head round the door.

"Sorry to disturb you," she said. "Dr Bennet, there's a call for you. Urgent."

Elizabeth assumed that it was Jane returning her call. She'd had to leave a message earlier, cancelling their lunch date.

"Are you sure it's urgent?" she asked. "If it's Jane, tell her I'll call her back."

"It's a man who insists on speaking only to you," Eileen said.

"OK, I'll be in my office," she said, puzzled.

She ran across the corridor and picked up the phone when it rang.

"Elizabeth Bennet."

"It's me," she heard, and recognised William's voice. "I've got bad news."

She slumped into her chair as she listened to William describe his conversation with Miss Brown, and heard the rising panic in his voice. She tried to calm him, to no avail.

"I'd better go," he said suddenly. "There's a call coming through on the other line. It might be news. I'll call you."

He put the phone down before she could answer.

Sam and his friends walked across the school playground, pushing and shoving each other and laughing. They had had a football match after school, so were the last to leave, more than an hour after everyone else had gone home.

"You were useless, Bennet, couldn't hit a barn door!"

"Speak for yourself, Monkey! At least I scored last week!"

"Hey, one of us might score tonight! Who's that?"

The boys froze and looked at the pretty long-haired girl standing at the school gates. Sam was the first to move or speak.

"Alice?"

"Hey, Sammy, you never told us you had a girlfriend!"

"Shut up," Sam said sharply, and walked over to Alice, leaving the other boys giggling and nudging each other. "What are you doing here? Have you got a day off?"

"Yes," Alice said quickly. "I did some shopping, on Upper Street. Cool shops. And then I thought I'd see where your school was."

"Oh, OK," Sam replied, not questioning her story for a minute. "Well, we're going for chips, want to come?" He glanced round at his friends, still giggling. "They're alright really. I'll tell them you're my cousin, OK?"

"OK," Alice answered, relieved. She followed him over to the group of boys.

"This is my cousin Alice. This is Jack, Monkey, and Jonno."

"Hey Alice," Jack said. "Has he told you he's crap at football?"

Alice started to laugh, and the ice was broken. The five of them walked off together towards the block of shops where there was a small café that the boys often visited after school. Alice just listened as the boys carried on ribbing each other about the game.

Sam peered through the steamed up glass once they got to the café.

"Hey, Lucy's there, better check your hair, Monkey!"

The other boys burst out laughing as the one referred to as Monkey went red but began to smooth his hair down all the same. Sam pushed the door of the café open and led the way to the counter.

"Hey Lucy!" he called, then turned to Alice. "Right, what do you want?"

Alice stared at the board behind the counter, dumbfounded for a moment. She had never been in a chip shop or this type of café before, but was not going to admit that to Sam and his friends.

"Two lots of chips, please," he requested quickly as the girl behind the counter stared impatiently. "And two cans of Diet Coke, from the fridge. That OK?"

"Yeah, that's fine," Alice replied.

"You have to ask for the Cokes from the fridge, otherwise they give you warm ones from the shelf by the till," he said as he paid, passing a can to Alice. "Come and sit down."

Alice followed him to a table where two girls were already seated. They wore the same colour sweatshirt as Sam, and she guessed that they went to his school. The other boys joined them, and plates of chips were delivered. Alice was quite happy to sit back and listen as Sam and his friends chatted about school and grumbled about homework.

"How much do you get?" Lucy suddenly asked, and Alice realised that she was the target. "Do they make you do, like, two hours a night at your school?

"Yeah, about two hours," Alice said.

"Where do you go?" Jack asked.

Alice felt as if a huge silent gap opened up in front of her as she wondered what to say. Sam jumped in.

"She goes to this girls' school, not round here. It's not one we play against."

"Well, obviously, stupid!" Monkey said. "If it's a girls' school we're hardly likely to play them at football are we?"

Alice and Sam exchanged quick complicit smiles, Alice's of thanks for getting her off the hook, and Sam's as he took the flak for his error from his friends. The subject quickly changed back to that afternoon's football match, and Alice relaxed again.

"Come on then, we better go," Jack said, taking the last chip from Lucy's plate as Lucy smacked his hand. "I'm only stopping you getting fat!"

They all stood, gathering their bags and putting on coats.

"Are you going back to school, or back to your Dad's?" Sam asked Alice.

"Umm ..." This time she was lost for words.

"Want to come back to ours for a bit?" Sam said. "You can always phone your Dad from there. And I can show you my computer stuff."

"OK," Alice replied, and followed him out of the café, waving and saying goodbye to his friends as Sam did, once they all went off down different streets. They walked quietly for a while, Alice tracking Sam down various turns and short cuts. She shivered, and gratefully accepted Sam's offer to wear his sweatshirt, which he'd tied round his waist.

"Do you always go for chips after school?" she asked suddenly, feeling rather envious.

"No, only after a match, on Wednesdays," Sam answered. "And sometimes on Fridays. Depends what my Mum's doing, like if she's in from work. I usually do something, like computer club, or football, or going round to Jack's, 'til she's home."

"Don't you mind?"

"Mind what?" Sam asked, puzzled.

"Having to hang around til she gets home," Alice said, ever mindful of the lectures she'd had at school about the perils of teenage delinquency and the problem of latchkey children.

"I don't though. Hang about, I mean. I have a match on Wednesday, football practice on Tuesday, swimming on Friday, computer club is every night and you can do your homework there which is good. Mum thinks I do lots at home, she should see what I do at school!" Sam laughed. "We go in the library and do our homework or muck about on computers every night pretty much if we're not playing."

He stopped and fished about in his school bag for his key.

"This is ours," he said.

Alice followed him into the house, down the hallway and into the kitchen, where he dumped his bag and kicked off his shoes. She kicked off her shoes too, mimicking everything he did.

"Want some milk?" he asked, pouring out two glasses full. He handed one to her and picked up the biscuit tin. "Want to watch telly?"

She followed him into the living room, and the two of them crashed out on the sofa, Sam flicking through the channels until he found something they both wanted to watch.

The sound of the front door slamming made them both jump and stare at each other. Elizabeth leaned against the front door, sighed deeply and took off her shoes and coat. She had never been as glad to be home as at this moment.

"Sam, are you in?" she called, and walking into the front room stopped in her tracks. Two wide-eyed faces looked up at her from the sofa.

"Sam? Alice? What's going on?"

"Alice got a day off school so she came for chips with us," Sam explained, as if it was obvious.

Elizabeth was lost for words. To be faced with the cause of her anxiety was more than she could handle.

"A day off?" she managed to mutter before her feelings fully asserted themselves. "A day off?" she raged. "Why is she wearing your sweatshirt?"

"She was cold."

"Have you any idea what you have done?" Elizabeth said angrily, turning to Alice. "What you've put people through?"

"I'm sorry," Alice whimpered and began to cry, knowing now that she had been caught, but not being so unwilling to be caught.

Sam stared open mouthed, unsure what was to come next. He wasn't entirely sure what Alice had done to cause such anger from his mother, but he had sense enough to keep quiet. Elizabeth immediately regretted shouting. She walked towards the sofa and sat down on the edge, holding her arms out towards the sobbing girl. Alice collapsed against her.

"Sam, go and make me a cup of tea, would you? And make hot chocolate for you and Alice."

Sam knew better than to argue. He got up and left the room.

Elizabeth waited until Alice's sobs had subsided.

"OK, are you going to tell me what happened now?" she asked.

"I ran away."

"I know that, sweetheart. Your Dad is going ballistic wondering where you are. I should phone him right now."

"No!" Alice cried. "He'll tell me off. Please don't phone him."

"Alice, your Dad is worried frantic about you. Someone has to tell him you're OK. And we have to get you back to school."

"I'm not going back there," Alice wailed, and broke down in tears again.

"OK, OK," she murmured. "Why don't you tell me about it?"

"I ... I ..." Alice began to cry. Elizabeth cuddled her and rocked back and forth until eventually the sobs subsided. Sam crept back in with a tray of hot drinks. He pulled a quizzical face at his Mum.

"Alice just needs a bit of a break," Elizabeth said quietly. "She's not too happy about school."

"Hey, your school is pretty cool compared to ours," Sam said sharply, before Elizabeth could stop him. "You've got massive playing fields and everything!"

"Yeah but you go for chips with your friends," Alice mumbled.

"Sam, have you got homework?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yeah."

"Then perhaps you could pop upstairs and get going with it."

Sam flashed a mutinous look at Elizabeth. She mouthed for him to go, and that she would come up to talk to him. Once he had gone, she disentangled Alice from around her neck.

"Now, you have a little drink of this," she said, handing Alice the hot chocolate. "Sam's forgotten his, I'll just take it up to him."

She pushed a box of tissues across the coffee table towards Alice, picked up Sam's mug and left the room. Once outside, she took a deep breath and wondered how on earth she was going to handle this situation. When she got up to Sam's room, she tapped on the door and pushed it open slowly. He was lying on his bed, looking very bad tempered.

"You forgot your chocolate," Elizabeth said, and sat on the end of his bed. He didn't say anything.

"What's going on, Sam?" she asked, wondering if he was going to stare at the ceiling all night and refuse to make eye contact. "How come Alice is here?"

"Dunno," Sam shrugged.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Elizabeth asked, trying very hard to keep control of her voice. "She wasn't in the house when you got home, was she? You must have let her in."

"She came back with me."

"Back with you from where?"

"School."

"What was she doing at your school?" Elizabeth asked, amazed. "I've spent half the afternoon with William on the other end of the phone doing his nut because he's had a call from her school to say that Alice has run away, and I get home to find the two of you cosied up and watching TV! What's going on?"

"Nothing's going on! She never said she'd run away!" he shouted.

"OK, let's be calm about this. She's downstairs crying, I have to phone William and tell him she's here, so I'd like to hear your version. What happened today, Sam?"

"I played football after school. We came out after the match and she was by the gate. She said she'd had a day off and gone shopping, so I said did she want to come for chips with me and Jack and the others. We went to the café and then I said she could come back here to phone her Dad."

"That's it?"

"That's it," Sam said. "She never said she'd run away from school though."

"Sam, didn't it ever occur to you that people don't just get days off school?"

"How should I know?" he pleaded. "She goes to a posh school, maybe they get days off, I don't know!"

"Oh God," Elizabeth sighed, feeling completely worn down. "What am I going to say to William?"

Sam looked at his Mum. Suddenly she seemed very tired and lines of worry crossed her forehead.

"Sorry," he whispered.

"It's not your fault, Sam," she said wearily. "I suppose you did the right thing, bringing her back here. Better than having her wandering the streets on her own."

"Have I got to stay in my room? Are you cross with me?"

"No, I'm not cross with you," she sighed. "I think maybe Alice and I need a little chat, but why don't you come back down in 20 minutes or so?"

"OK."

Elizabeth got up to go, but just before she left his room, she had a thought.

"How come Alice knew where your school was?"

"I told her. You know we do emails?" Sam shrugged. "She asked stacks and stacks of questions but that's what girls do."

Elizabeth shook her head and smiled. "See you downstairs in a little while."

Alice had managed to stop crying but Elizabeth was still faced with a blotchy faced girl when she went back into the sitting room.

"Feeling any better?" she asked.

Alice nodded.

"Well, I know you think your Dad is going to be cross, but I have to tell him that you're here, Alice."

"No!"

"Alice, listen to me. He is worried sick. He has no idea where you are. Your school phoned him at lunchtime to say that you were missing and he has spent the last 6 hours thinking that awful things might have happened to you. Do you want him to be at home by himself worrying?"

Alice shook her head. Elizabeth knew that she had laid it on fairly heavily, but felt that she had to get through to Alice, and make her understand the consequences of her actions.

"Right. So this is what we are going to do. I am going to 'phone your Dad now. Then in the time it takes him to get over here, you can tell me what's been happening at school."

Alice nodded. Elizabeth left the room once again, and went into the kitchen to make the call. As the dialling tone rang out, she began to feel quite nervous.

William heard the phone ring and snatched it up.

"Hello?"

"Hi, William, it's me."

"Oh, hi, Lizzie. No news yet I'm afraid. Thought you might be school actually. Listen, would you mind if we don't stay on very long? I don't want the phone to be engaged if the school or the Police ring."

"No, hang on William," Elizabeth said, hearing the anxiety and tiredness in his voice. "I've got some news. Alice is here."

"What?" he shouted. "Where? What do you mean?"

"Alice is at my house. I got in from work and she was watching TV with Sam."

"She's at your house? What the bloody hell is she doing at your house?"

"William, calm down. Sam says he came out of school and she was waiting for him, so she hung out with his friends for a while, then he told her to come back here with him and phone you."

William was speechless with the turmoil of his emotions. The enormous relief that Alice was safe was combined with anger now she was found that she had caused him so much anxiety.

"Right, I'm coming to get her now."

"Will, calm ...."

The phone had been slammed down before Elizabeth completed her sentence. "Right then, young lady," Elizabeth said, returning to the sitting room. "Your Dad's on his way. So, what's so dreadful about school?"

"School's OK really," Alice said.

"So OK that you go tearing off across London to get away from it?"

"It's not that. It's just ..."

Elizabeth sat quietly, knowing that a little bit of time was all that was needed, hoping that William didn't get there too soon.

"I miss my Dad," Alice said finally. "And my Aunt Ellen and Sam and everyone. And I want to go to a school like Sam and go for chips after school and go to the shops with my friends."

"Does your Dad know this?"

Alice shook her head. "He wants me to go to boarding school."

"Have you tried telling him?"

She shook her head again and sighed. "He's not interested. He thinks so long as everyone gets brilliant exam results then everything is OK." Elizabeth couldn't stop an ironic little smile creasing the corner of her mouth as she remembered one of her very earliest encounters with William and their argument about education.

"You're laughing at me!" Alice wailed. "You don't take me seriously either!"

"Oh, Alice, I do! I was just remembering something your Dad and I had a falling out over. I wouldn't laugh at you. But I'm not sure a school like Sam's is quite what your Dad has in mind for you."

"Ha!" Alice said, and her voice began to break up again. "He just wants me to go away. I think I make him unhappy. Because of my Mum," she sobbed. "But I really really want to be at home, I hate school. No-one likes me."

Alice broke down in tears again and roughly wiped her hands across her face, then turned away from Elizabeth. Elizabeth's heart was breaking as she saw how much pain Alice was feeling. She put her arms around her, and after initially fighting, Alice's resistance caved in and she leaned against Elizabeth and cried.

After a while the crying stopped, and Elizabeth looked down at the pink faced girl.

"Feel a bit better now?"

"Mmm."

"What did you do this afternoon?"

"I came out of school and got changed at the station. I got the train, and wandered about a bit, and then I got an A to Z so I could find Sam's school."

"What were you planning, Alice? Where were you going to go if you hadn't found Sam? Where did you think you'd sleep?"

Alice shrugged. Elizabeth guessed that this escapade hadn't been particularly well thought through.

"Anything else you want to tell me?"

"No."

"Well, why don't you go up to the bathroom and have a little wash? Come on, I'll get you a towel."

Elizabeth led the way upstairs, getting a towel and a flannel out of the airing cupboard and handing them to Alice.

"There you are. Take your time, and come down when you're ready. Sam's just across the landing if you need anything and I'll be downstairs."

Elizabeth knew that it must be only minutes before William arrived, and she wanted to be downstairs and ready. The knock at the door came as she was half way down the stairs. She opened the door to see him standing on the step with a furious look on his face.

"Where is she?" he asked angrily as he strode into the house.

"Hello William, nice to see you too," Elizabeth said.

"Bloody hell, Elizabeth, have you any idea what she's done? How I've been feeling?"

"Yes, I have a pretty good idea what its like to be scared rigid for your child," she said sternly, leading him into the kitchen. "William, come and sit down. She's upstairs having a wash, she's been quite upset."

"So have I! What did she think she was doing? Running away from everything and scaring everyone! Just wait 'til I have words with her."

"What she needs right now is someone to talk to, not someone who is going to have words with her, William."

"She has to realise how irresponsible she is!" he said angrily. "And what about Sam? What was he doing? Have they been plotting this?"

"No, I get the impression that Sam was as surprised as anyone to see her, actually," Elizabeth replied, staying calm. "He just let her hook up with him and his mates and took her word at face value. He should perhaps have been a bit less dim, but I don't think there was any plotting going on. He brought her here so she could phone you. At least while she's been with him, she's been safe."

"What's she done?"

"Don't worry, nothing bad has happened," Elizabeth said reassuringly, watching the anger on William's face dissipate into exhaustion. "I think she wandered around for a while wondering what to do with herself, once she'd got out of school."

He sank into a chair and leaned his head on his hands. "I've been out of my mind with worry all afternoon," he sighed.

"I know. But it's all OK now. She's safe and sound."

"I need to speak to her. Where is she?"

"Upstairs. She'll be down in a minute. But William, don't get mad with me for saying this, but please don't be cross with her. She's in quite a state."

"What has she got to be in a state about?"

"Well, maybe if you ask her how she feels about things, she'll tell you. She's not a happy girl."

"Why not? What has she got to be unhappy about? I give her the best I can."

"You give her the most expensive. It's not the same."

William was still puzzling out what Elizabeth might mean when there was a scuffling noise at the door. He turned to see the two teenagers standing together, Alice having asked Sam to come down with her as she knew that his presence would diffuse the anger. For a moment William and Alice stared at each other, neither too sure what the other's reaction might be. Then Alice broke the silence.

"Sorry, Daddy," she muttered.

"Come here," William said, standing up and pulling her into his arms for a hug. The relief that she was safe flooded into his heart and he could not bring himself to be angry.

"I gather you took care of my daughter," William said to Sam. "Thank you."

Sam shrugged, too embarrassed to reply.

"Come on Sam," Elizabeth said. "Let's leave these two to have a chat."

"No!" Alice said suddenly. "I want you to stay." Her eyes darted nervously between William and Elizabeth. Elizabeth looked at William for a hint of what he thought, but could not make out his feelings at all.

He was speechless with dismay. Alice's face gave her feelings away all to clearly, and William was horrified to realise that his own daughter was too afraid of him to be able to talk to him about her troubles.

"Can't you tell me what made you run away from school, Alice?" he asked despairingly. "You had us all pretty worried, you know."

Alice stood silently, scuffing her toe against Sam's school bag and refusing to meet his eye.

"Come on Alice," Elizabeth said, walking over to her. She put her arm around her shoulders, and led her to the table. "Sit down. Tell your Dad what you told me. Sam and I will go and watch telly."

She turned Sam around and marched him down the hallway to the sitting room, knowing that William and Alice had to sort this out for themselves.

A little bonus as a thank you for all your lovely comments; wouldn't want to leave you hanging on in angst when there's so much more to come hehehe!

Chapter 20

William sat down opposite Alice, and wondered where to begin. She was fiddling with a piece of paper that had been left on the table, and was refusing to meet his eye. After a long pause, he spoke.

"What did you say to Elizabeth?" he asked. It came out much more sharply than he had intended.

"Nothing," Alice mumbled, still looking away from him.

"You must have said something. You've been here for a couple of hours."

He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. This was going badly wrong and he had only spoken twice. He wondered what he had to do to get Alice to talk to him, as she had obviously been able to say more than one word to Elizabeth. He was desperate to call Elizabeth back and ask her to mediate, but was not quite ready to admit defeat. He was tired, and felt drained, but sighed, and began again.

"Why did you run away? I thought you liked school."

Alice shrugged and mumbled something he couldn't hear, and his patience snapped.

"For goodness sake!" he shouted. "I am trying to understand why you caused so much trouble for so many people this afternoon and you are not helping! You seem to be able to talk to someone you hardly know, so you can start talking to me, right now!"

Alice stood up and walked to the door. She turned her tearful face to him and stared hard at him, a look that was so much like her mother that William was chilled to the bone.

"I hate you," she said forcefully, and slammed the door behind her.

Elizabeth and Sam heard the slam, followed by footsteps running up the stairs, and another bang as the bathroom door shut. Elizabeth was already wincing from the sound of William's raised voice. She sighed as she knew that this was going to be a painful evening.

"What's wrong, Mum?" Sam asked, looking at her with a very worried expression on his face. She knew he was asking for answers to the whole situation, not just the reason for her sigh.

"Alice and her Dad aren't getting on very well," she sighed. "As if you hadn't guessed. She told me she's very unhappy at school, but she doesn't seem to be able to tell him. What does she say when she emails you?"

"Not much," he shrugged. "She asked about my school, and I just told her about stuff we do, me and my mates. She never told me what she and her mates do, though."

Because she hasn't got any, Elizabeth thought.

"What are you going to do?" Sam asked.

"I don't know what I can do," Elizabeth sighed. "Sam, if you were really unhappy about something, who would you talk to? If you couldn't tell me?"

"Dunno," he shrugged. "I'm not unhappy about anything. But if I was ..." He paused and thought for a while. "Uncle Charles, maybe. Then he would tell Aunty Jane and she would tell you, and then you would fix it."

Elizabeth laughed and kissed the top of his head, making him squirm away, laughing. The door opened and Elizabeth looked up to see William standing in the doorway, looking so hurt that she could hardly speak. She and Sam fell silent instantly, and she felt guilty that he had seen them having fun when he was so obviously in pain.

"I can't do it," he said quietly. "I can't talk to her. What am I going to do?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth said, getting up and steering him back to the kitchen. She had a feeling that whatever happened next, Sam would be better left out of it. She would tell him what he needed to know later. "So, what happened?"

"She wouldn't say anything and I got annoyed with her. She said she hates me and I assume she's now locked in your bathroom."

Elizabeth leaned against the worktop and sighed. Right now, what she wanted most was a large glass of red wine and for all this to stop.

"All teenagers say they hate their parents at some point," Elizabeth said, trying to think of something placatory to say.

"Has Sam ever said he hates you?" William asked aggressively, fixing her with the sort of look that made Elizabeth realise why Alice might be frightened of him.

"No," she admitted. "But we're not talking about me. Right now we need to get a sad girl out of my bathroom and down here to talk. And you're not going to like this, William, but I'm going to be blunt. She's frightened and unhappy, and you shouting doesn't help things."

"I'm not stupid, Elizabeth!"

"Don't shout at me, William," she said firmly, wondering if she was ever going to get her life back to normal.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I don't know what to do. I've been so scared this afternoon. I thought I'd lost her, too. What am I going to do?"

Elizabeth caught her breath as she realised that he was talking about losing Caroline. He hadn't said very much to her about his previous life, and she assumed had never talked to Alice either.

"Tell her how you feel. She needs to know that you love her."

"I can't." To William, the thought of opening up about his feelings to a 14 year old girl was beyond the bounds of possibility.

"You've no choice," Elizabeth said. "If you don't, you will lose her. Maybe not in body, but certainly in spirit."

William leaned back in his chair, squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his face. His mind was jumping about, unable to think coherently as too many emotions were tumbling through his head. For the last eight years, ever since Caroline's untimely death and his assumption of sole parental responsibility, he had prided himself on being able to think things through, on his ability to be logical, rational, and not let himself be clouded by emotion. Now, just as he thought he had found a woman with whom he was able to feel warmth and joy as never before, he was faced with loss and fear. He wished he could shut himself down again, and although he was tempted to retreat, a little voice in his head told him that it wasn't the answer. Too much was at stake and in the time with Elizabeth he had seen glimpses of how things could be. He wanted more than glimpses, he wanted a life.

Elizabeth watched him, and saw emotions raging within him, his face a mirror to his soul. She knew he was in pain and wanted to help him. She let his anger at her go, knowing that it was his tiredness and strain that had caused it. She knew that he was going to have to deal with much more pain before this night was through, and for some time to come. She wanted to sooth him, to take him in her arms and whisper to him that everything would be OK. More than that, she wanted to make everything OK for him. Suddenly, she knew that she loved him.

Their eyes met across the table, and William managed a shaky smile. Neither needed to speak aloud about the thoughts that had been running through their minds. There was enough understanding between them now that something momentous was happening and although it might be rough, they could cling to each other. Elizabeth walked round the table and stood behind William, rubbing his shoulders as he leaned his head back against her chest. He felt tension drain from him, and was suddenly exhausted.

"We need to be practical," Elizabeth said. "The children will be hungry, for one thing. Alice can't stay in the bathroom all night, and poor old Sam is in the sitting room wondering what the hell's going on."

"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," William said, putting his hand over hers as it rested on his shoulder. "This is all my fault."

"We'll deal with fault later," she said brusquely. "Right now, we need a plan."

William couldn't help laughing as Elizabeth's professional and very practical manner took charge. "What do you suggest, boss?"

Elizabeth was cheered by the slight lifting of his mood.

"I suggest that you go upstairs and knock on the door and ask Alice to come out. Tell her you're sorry for shouting, that you wish you knew how to make her feel happy, and that I want to know if she's hungry. Meanwhile, I am going to go and cuddle my son."

William stood up, and hugged Elizabeth, giving her a quick kiss as he let go. "Fingers crossed," he said as he left the kitchen.

Elizabeth went back to the sitting room where Sam was watching television. He looked up at her quizzically as she flopped down next to him on the sofa. She pulled him towards her and hugged him.

"Promise me you'll never pull this kind of stunt," she said.

"Promise," he said, knowing from the tone of her voice that she was tired, and allowing her to cuddle him instead of wriggling away.

Upstairs, William tapped on the door and spoke the speech Elizabeth had suggested. Alice had been sitting on the floor wondering what to do when she heard him approach, and slowly opened the door once he had finished speaking. She saw his tired face, and came out of the bathroom.

"Downstairs?" William said. "Hungry?"

Alice nodded and followed him downstairs and into the living room. Elizabeth looked up and was enormously relieved to see two people walking in. Alice squeezed onto the sofa next to Elizabeth, and William sat down in the chair.

"Don't scare us again, OK?" Elizabeth said to Alice, giving her a quick hug. Alice shook her head.

"I think we all need something to eat," Elizabeth said. "Then we can get back to being serious afterwards. Let's get a take out. I think we're all hungry and I don't feel like cooking. Unless you feel like cooking, William?"

Alice giggled at the thought of her Dad cooking, and Elizabeth was pleased that the situation was beginning to lighten.

"Take out sounds good to me," William said.

"Chinese!" Sam said, and Alice joined in his chorus of pleading.

"OK, Chinese," Elizabeth agreed. "You eat Chinese?" she said, looking at William, then as he nodded, rooting about by the phone for the appropriate leaflet. "These will deliver and they're pretty good. Banquet for four?"

She dialled and ordered the food, then put the phone down. "Thirty minutes," she said. "Right, what does everyone want to drink? There's no Coke but I've got squash, and I think there's a couple of cans of beer."

"Squash please," Alice said.

"Is there an off licence near here?" William asked. "I'll go and get some beer, or some wine, whatever you want."

"There's one just up the road, past the tube station," Elizabeth said.

"OK, I'll be back in a bit," William said, and left the house.

Once outside, he strode along the road, flexing his shoulders to get rid of the tension. He was still in a turmoil, feeling angry, contrite for shouting at Alice, but essentially frightened. Until she had gone, he had not realised how much he feared losing Alice, how much he had assumed about her, and how much he had trampled over her concerns with the excuse that he was her father and thus knew best. He had seen from watching Elizabeth and Sam that it was possible to have a completely different relationship with a child but he had no idea how to get there. He longed for Alice to be as close to him as Sam was to his Mum. It was difficult but he finally admitted the truth to himself. He would have to ask for help. Then he might be able to get somewhere.

William arrived back at the house and carried two bags into the kitchen where Elizabeth and the children were setting the table and putting plates in the oven to warm. He began to unpack on the worktop.

"What on earth have you bought?" Elizabeth said.

"You didn't say if you wanted wine or beer so I got both," he replied. "And Alice said she'd like squash, so I got a couple of different flavours, and Sam likes Diet Coke so I got a bottle of that too. Everyone happy?"

Elizabeth knew why he had been rather excessive and wondered if Alice got it too. She thought she probably had. There was a knock at the door and she went to collect the food and pay. Sam put the warm plates on the table, and Elizabeth came back with a big box of food. She put the containers on the table, handed everyone a spoon and told them to dig in.

From the little that was left, it was obvious half an hour later that they had all been very hungry. Sam rubbed his tummy and burped.

"Sam!" Elizabeth said, appalled.

"Sorry!" Sam said, and pulled a face at Alice who was trying not to giggle.

"I wish we could do this every day," Alice said abruptly.

"What, listen to rude boys after tea?" Elizabeth said, teasing.

"No, have tea in the kitchen. Like this."

"Do you?" Elizabeth asked gently, sensing an opening.

"Mmm. I wish I lived at home like Sam."

William was holding his breath, hardly daring to intervene in case he put a foot wrong.

"What about school?" Elizabeth asked.

"I could go to school every day. And come home at night. Then I wouldn't have to be with people who are mean to me."

"Who is mean to you, Alice?" William asked, concerned and surprised.

"The girls in my dorm. They hide my things."

"Why didn't you say so?" William said, alarmed at this revelation.

Alice shrugged.

"Did you tell the teachers?"

"You can't do that, it's sneaking. It gets even worse if you sneak," Alice said. "I wanted to move to another dorm but I couldn't. That made it worse too."

Elizabeth picked up her plate and stood, nodding to Sam that he could leave the table. As Sam took his plate to the sink and left the room, William glanced up at Elizabeth.

"Perhaps you could stay," he said. "Maybe you would help us?"

"If it's what you both want," Elizabeth said, then sat down again as father and daughter nodded.

"Why didn't you tell me about this?" William asked. "If you were unhappy .... I never knew, I wish I did so I could fix it."

"You can't fix it though," Alice wailed. "I have to go to boarding school, you want me to, and I hate it!"

Elizabeth looked from one stricken face to the other, and spoke.

"Alice thinks you'd rather she was away at school," she said.

"But it's better for you," William said. "You have friends there, and lots to do, and you're not stuck at home with only me around."

"I haven't got any friends, not really," Alice sobbed. "And I miss you, and Aunty Ellen and all the Fitzwilliam crew, and Sam, and everything!"

William couldn't help but smile at her use of Richard's phrase for his family.

"I'm sorry I said I hate you. I don't really."

"No, I know," William said gently. He did what he'd seen Elizabeth do with both children - opened his arms. Alice fell against him, and pressed her face against his shirt. He felt her tears soak through to his skin, and looked pleadingly at Elizabeth for an idea of what to do next. She smiled encouragingly at him.

"I miss you too, Alice. But I thought you'd be lonely and that school would be fun," he said. "What are we going to do?"

"Can I come home?"

"When? At the end of term?"

"No!" she wailed again. "Don't make me go back!"

"Is it really that bad?" William asked.

She sat up and nodded. "I could come home now."

"But ... you're a bit old for a nanny, what about when I'm at work?"

"I could go to school with Sam. He doesn't have a nanny. He does stuff after school, and he has his own key."

"I don't think you could go to Sam's school," Elizabeth said, imagining William's reaction if he saw the place. "It's quite a way from where you live."

"There's a school near our house," Alice said. "I've seen it. And I could have an au pair all year instead of just in the summer."

"I don't know about this," William said. "It's all a bit sudden."

"Are you sure this isn't just a bad patch at school?" Elizabeth asked. "You know, maybe things will get better."

"You're ganging up on me, you want me to go away," Alice said accusingly.

"No, that's not true, Alice," Elizabeth said. "Your Dad is trying to think of what's best for you. And everyone goes through bad patches."

Alice scowled and William fell silent. Elizabeth felt uncertain as to whether her presence was having any benefit at all.

"I can't just take you out of school," William said eventually. "If for no other reason that you're supposed to go to school somewhere, whether it's boarding school or any other type of place. You can't just stay at home while I go to work. And we need to think about this properly. I don't want to rush into anything. I think you should go back while we sort out what to do."

Alice looked pleadingly at Elizabeth, who was beginning to wish she hadn't stayed. She felt caught in crossfire.

"When is your half term?" Elizabeth asked.

"We don't get half term, we get an exeat," Alice said.

"A long weekend," William explained. "It's in a couple of weeks, I think."

"Then how about you go back til then, and if you still feel the same, we'll spend the weekend working out what to do?" Elizabeth said, hoping that William didn't feel as if she was usurping his role. In truth, he was grateful for her interventions as she seemed to be able to calm Alice in a way that was beyond him. Alice looked at her father, and at Elizabeth.

"Do you promise?"

William nodded.

"And if I still don't like it, I can come home?"

"But you have to give it a go," he said. "Promise me you'll try, and we'll see how we go from there."

"OK," she said, sighing with relief. She could handle two weeks of school if it meant there was a chance she could come home soon.

"Where's Sam?" William asked.

"Watching telly, I expect," Elizabeth said, and glanced at her watch. "He needs to go to bed! Look how late it is!"

She went through to the sitting room and found him staring at the TV.

"Bedtime for you," she said, leaning over the back of the sofa to kiss him on the top of his head. He stood up, stretched and yawned.

"Is everything sorted out? Are they staying or what?"

"We're getting there," Elizabeth said. "They might stay the night."

"OK. Night night."

"Night night," Elizabeth said, smiling as he ambled past her, and she heard him plod up the stairs. It had been a strange night for him, and she would need to sit him down for a proper talk soon. She went back to the kitchen and found Alice and William talking quietly about school. In her relief she suddenly felt quite worn, and yet she felt she needed to have some time alone with William.

"Sam's gone to bed," she said. "And I'm feeling fairly tired too. But if you want to, you can stay here, and so long as you don't mind being woken up when Sam gets up for school, we can see how things go in the morning."

"Are you sure?" William asked, glad of the invitation as on top of his tiredness he had drunk half a bottle of wine.

"Yes. There are spare toothbrushes in the bathroom, and Alice can wear one of my T shirts, as long as you don't mind?"

Alice shook her head and yawned.

"OK, up you go," Elizabeth said. "You know where the bathroom is, I'll bring you a shirt in a minute."

When she had gone, William stood and walked across to Elizabeth. He took her in his arms and hugged her tightly.

"I don't know where to start," he said. "I don't know where I'd be without you."

"You would have sorted something out on your own," Elizabeth said.

"I love you," William said suddenly.

He was almost as surprised as she was by this unplanned announcement, but their short reverie was interrupted by a shout.

"Mum! I can't find a toothbrush for Alice!"

Elizabeth grinned and shook her head. "Sam has perfect timing, wouldn't you say?"

~ * ~

Later, with the house quiet and in darkness, Sam was squirming in his sleep in his room, Alice was flat out on her back making wheezing noises in the guest room, while Elizabeth and William lay together in her bed, their arms around each other.

"I meant what I said," William whispered. "I love you."

"I love you too," Elizabeth said quietly.

William felt as if his heart was going to melt. He kissed her, and for a few moments they enjoyed exploring each others' mouths, sighing contentedly.

"I couldn't have got through tonight without you," he murmured. "I don't know what I'm going to do to sort this out."

"Right now, there's nothing you can do, so try not to fret over it."

"But ..."

"Shh. No more talking. Let me set the alarm for the morning then we will sleep."

She leaned over and pressed the button on her radio alarm, then rolled back to cuddle up to him.

"We've weathered worse between us in the past, and it will work out OK, you'll see."

"Mmm," William sighed sleepily. The warmth of Elizabeth's bed made him relax, and the exhaustion caused by the events of the day left him unable to resist sleep. He curled onto his side and fell asleep as Elizabeth snuggled up to him, his arm around her waist and her hand on top of his, their fingers interlaced.

Chapter 21

Elizabeth awoke a couple of moments before the alarm went off the next morning, silenced it as it began to beep, and slipped out of bed without waking William. She woke Sam, peeked in to see Alice still fast asleep, and went downstairs to begin the day.

Sam stumbled sleepily into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He sat down at the table and drank the orange juice Elizabeth put in front of him. She made herself a cup of coffee, and put boxes of cereal and dishes on the table. Sam helped himself to rice crispies and began to eat.

"Have you got anything after school tonight?" Elizabeth asked.

"No," he replied. "Will they still be here?"

"I don't think so. William has to take Alice back to school at some point."

"She'll only run away again," Sam said in a very matter of fact way.

"How do you know?" Elizabeth asked, startled.

"S'obvious," Sam said, shrugging. "She wants to be normal, like us."

Elizabeth grinned, hardly considering the two of them to fall into many people's idea of a normal household.

"I might stay at computer club, but I'll text you," he said, finishing his breakfast and putting his dish in the sink. "Going for a shower."

Elizabeth leaned against the worktop, contemplating what Sam had said. She remembered how happy the two children had looked when they were all out together the previous Saturday. Maybe that's what normal family life is like, she thought, that's how it's supposed to be. Mummy, Daddy, one boy, one girl. Was that where she and William were heading? Surely it was far too soon to be thinking along those lines. But something had speeded up in the last few days, the previous night particularly and there was something about William ... something that made her feel as if this was the way it was supposed to be. He was the man she was supposed to be with. Ridiculous, she told herself. One true love, soulmates, Mr Right ... life didn't work like that. Did it?

She finished her coffee and decided she needed another one, still feeling as if her eyes were only half open. She felt as if she needed another few hours in bed, but that wasn't going to happen. She found her briefcase and began to contemplate her diary as she waited for the kettle to boil. The first thing on her schedule wasn't until 10am, she was pleased to note, although a bit of desk time beforehand would be helpful. At least that meant she wouldn't be rushing William and Alice out of the house.

Sam came back down, dressed in his school uniform, and picked up his bag from where it had lain on the kitchen floor, untouched, since the night before.

"Good job I didn't have much homework last night," he said. "Just got to learn a bit of French but I can do that on the bus. See you later."

"Bye, Sam. Don't slam the ..."

Bang! Too late. Elizabeth went upstairs with two cups of coffee, wondering if her guests were still asleep. There was no noise from Alice's room but William was awake, lying on his back staring at the ceiling.

"Brought you some coffee," Elizabeth said, handing him a mug and putting hers down next to the bed. "Hope Sam didn't wake you."

"No, I was already awake," William replied, sitting up and taking the mug from her. "Thanks."

She got back into bed, and he put his arm round her shoulders and pulled her close.

"I don't have to be at work until just before ten," she said. "So there's no mad rush to get up. Alice is still asleep."

"Good," William said. "She needs the sleep."

He put his mug of coffee on the bedside table, and snuggled back under the covers, pulling Elizabeth with him. "And I need more time in bed too." He kissed her, a little more passionately than usual for a good morning kiss.

"William!" Elizabeth giggled, as she felt him squeeze her bottom.

"What?" he murmured, pulling her against him, so she was left in no doubt about his intentions.

"Are you sure we should?"

"Why not?" he mumbled, slipping his hand under her nightshirt so that he could caress her bare skin, and moving his kisses down her neck towards her chest. "I thought we were pretty good in the morning, actually."

As his hand reached her breast and his fingers began to tease her nipple to hardness, she found herself unable and unwilling to resist. She laid back and allowed him to pull her shirt over her head, then slipped her hands inside his shorts as he moved back to kiss her full on the mouth. She cupped his buttocks in her hands and pulled him towards her, enjoying the feeling of his erection pressed against her stomach.

"See?" he teased, pausing between kisses. "I find mornings quite all right."

She had to stifle a laugh as he moved down her body and began to lick her nipple. The way he slid his tongue slowly across her breast, circling the nipple before gently taking it in his mouth made her groan in ecstasy. William loved the soft sound she made in her throat when he knew he was making her feel aroused, and by the way she was beginning to move her hips to press herself against him, he knew he was having the desired effect.

"Don't suppose you've got a stash under the pillow here?" he whispered.

"I put them in the drawer," she said, and rolled away from him to search her bedside cabinet. He ran his hand down her back, stroked her bottom, then stroked the soft skin of her inner thighs, slipping his hand between her legs. She gripped him tightly, her leg muscles surprisingly strong.

"Now, get out of that!" she teased.

"Easy," he said, grinning, and eased his fingers towards her core, feeling her wetness and heat. As he managed to touch her with the tip of his fingers, she sighed and relaxed, allowing him to roll her back towards him and continue his assault, but with better access.

"Not so hard to get, after all," he said, smirking.

"Is that what you think?" she answered, and clamped her legs shut. "Ha!"

He rolled on top of her, his legs astride hers, and pinned her arms behind her head. He leaned down and began to suck on her breasts, spending a few moments on one before moving quickly to the other one, increasing the vigour with which he was licking and nibbling at her. Soon she began to writhe underneath him.

"Ready to play nicely now?" he asked, leaning back for a moment, taking the condom from her.

"You're bad, you know."

"That's not what you said last Saturday night," William answered, grinning, and shifting so that he knelt between her legs. He leaned forward, lifted her hips and slid into her in one swift movement. She gasped at the feeling of fullness as he moved rhythmically in and out of her, softly rubbing her most tender spot as he did so. The intensity of his attention brought her quickly to the brink of her climax, and he slowed his movements knowing that she was almost there. Her eyes were shut and she was biting her lip, fighting the urge to shout out. She didn't want to make noise, and focused instead on what William was doing to her, the way he was thrusting into her, until she could hold back no longer.

"Oh yes," she moaned, pushing herself against him, wanting to feel him. "Now!"

He slammed into her, suddenly overtaken by his own climax, and moved quickly within her, feeling himself being squeezed tightly, throwing his head back and gasping for breath as he came with her.

They lay with arms and legs entwined, dozing for a while, until the sound of bare feet padding across the landing to the bathroom disturbed them.

"Sounds like Alice has woken up," Elizabeth said. "I'd better get up and sort out some breakfast for her."

"Thanks. I'll phone my secretary and tell her I'm not coming in today."

"Can you do that, just like that? Don't you have meetings and stuff?"

"Nothing that can't be rearranged," William replied confidently, forgetting for a moment that Elizabeth was not fully aware of the nature of his working life. "Jenny will sort it all out."

Elizabeth felt a pang of pity for Jenny, whoever she might be, knowing what a nightmare of a task it was to rearrange meetings that were already in everyone's diaries. She got out of bed and put her dressing gown on, then searched for her slippers under the bed.

"Anyway," William continued as he swung his long legs out of bed and stretched. "I have to take Alice back to school. We'll go home, sort out a few things, then I'll take her down to Sussex this afternoon."

Elizabeth couldn't help but notice how he could click into a business-like and very matter of fact mode very quickly. She thought perhaps it was a male thing, to think that way, that things could just be rearranged or sorted out at will. The playful, teasing side of him was not on show at all now.

After breakfast for Alice, and a quick shower for William, they departed for home and Elizabeth was left with just enough time to shower and dress then dash for work. Later, as she ate her lunchtime sandwich at her desk and scanned papers, the phone rang.

"So, you do exist then!" Jane said once Elizabeth had answered it. "I called you at work this morning to be told you weren't in, then at home but you weren't there. What a busy life you have."

"Sorry, I should've called you last night," Elizabeth said guiltily, hearing the slight reproach in Jane's tone of voice. "Sorry for cancelling lunch yesterday, a meeting came up, then last night we had a massive crisis at home."

"What, are you all right? Is Sam OK?"

"Yes, we're fine. But William's daughter ran away from school and turned up at our house, so we had a bit of an odd evening trying to sort her out."

"Your house? Why did you have to sort her out?" Jane said.

"Oh, it's a long story," Elizabeth sighed. "Basically, she managed to work out where Sam went to school, went to look for him, and he brought her back with him. William came over when I phoned him, and they stayed. So that's why I didn't phone you last night, sorry."

"Well, I was just wanting to rearrange lunch," Jane said, still struggling to take in the bizarre story her sister had just related. "How about tomorrow?"

"Surprisingly, yes, I can do tomorrow," Elizabeth said. "For once, a meeting has been taken out of my diary instead of being put in."

"Great! Back to Plan A, then?" Jane said, knowing that she had to summon up enthusiasm for a task she wasn't looking forward to, but was necessary.

"OK, Plan A it is," Elizabeth laughed. "Pasta place, 12:30 tomorrow. See you there."

Sam stared out of the window, longing for the bell to ring so that he could get out of school and go home. He wanted to be on his own for a while and had told Jack that he wasn't going to computer club. He wondered whether Alice would turn up again, and hoped not. The previous night had been too weird.

"Samuel Bennet!"

Sam jerked back to awareness.

"Perhaps you could tell us the answer," Mrs Noble said. "You have given the matter plenty of thought after all."

Some of the others in the class sniggered, although most were relieved that someone other than them was being picked on. Mrs Noble was notorious for not missing a thing going on in her classroom. Sam looked at the board, panicking, hoping for a clue as to the question he should answer.

"Errr..."

"You will remain behind when your classmates have left, Mr Bennet," Mrs Noble said. "Jonathan, perhaps you can enlighten us."

As Jonno shot Sam a look of sympathy and gave the required answer, Sam sank into his chair feeling completely fed up at being made to stay behind. He hoped he wouldn't get a detention, or a mark in his homework diary, because then he would have some explaining to do at home.

The bell rang and all but one of the chairs scraped back as everyone apart from Sam stood up and left the classroom. He sat in silence, scowling, listening to the happy chatter of everyone else being released from school. Mrs Noble walked over to his desk. Sam was a well liked student, and was usually hard working and conscientious, although with a capacity for mischief at times, so she couldn't understand his recent behaviour. As well as his maths teacher, she was his form tutor, and had noticed a change in him.

"Now, perhaps you could explain to me the reasons for your performance in class this week, Sam."

Sam shrugged and didn't answer.

"You are usually one of the first to answer a problem when we do them on the board, but this week you haven't had your hand up once. Are you finding it difficult?"

"No, miss."

"You're not concentrating on your work, Sam, that's not like you. I don't want to have to give you a detention."

"No, miss."

"Something else bothering you? Anything you want to tell me?" she asked in a kindly tone. She was a very experienced teacher, and knew by now just how hard it was to be a teenager sometimes. She watched him thinking. He had a sudden urge to pour his heart out to her and tell her why he couldn't think straight any more, but then stopped himself. His Mum had asked who he would talk to if he couldn't talk to her, and he'd said Uncle Charles, so perhaps he would see if he could get an invitation to Charles and Jane's this weekend.

"No, miss," Sam said after a long pause.

"OK. You can go. No detention. And Sam, no more day dreaming in class?"

"No, miss," he replied, and gave her a little half smile as he left the classroom. She was OK really, for a maths teacher. He walked home quickly on his own, and curled up in the corner of the sofa with his tatty copy of Lord of the Rings.

When Elizabeth got home, he was still in pretty much the same position. She said hello and got a mumbled answer before going upstairs to change. She was hungry and thought that they both should have an early night after the excitements of the previous evening, so she went into the kitchen and cooked a quick meal. Sam came when he was called and sat at the table.

"Good day at school?" Elizabeth asked.

"Yeah."

"Got much homework?"

"Nothing for tomorrow."

"Oh good. A quiet evening and an early night for both of us I think, don't you?"

"Mm hmm."

Elizabeth looked at him, saw the dark circles under his eyes, and wondered why he seemed upset. She thought it might have something to do with her, and knew she had to talk to him.

"Is everything OK, Sam?"

"Yeah."

"I mean, I know it's been a bit of a strange week, for both of us, and I hope you'd tell me if you had something on your mind. I don't want to have to chase you half way across the country before you'll tell me you don't like school."

She smiled, and he gave her a half hearted grin.

"Can I go and see Uncle Charles this weekend?" he asked, fiddling with the last bits of his salad.

"Yes, of course. Give him a ring and see when he's going to be in," Elizabeth answered, recalling her questioning of Sam the night before. "Sam, if you don't feel like telling me something, that's up to you, but you know I'd hope we can work things out together."

"Will you come swimming with me tomorrow?" Sam asked, acting as if he had not heard her last remark. "If you come straight from work, you'd get there when swimming club has just finished."

She contemplated him carefully, and wondered if he was feeling left out. A swim was very appealing notwithstanding her suspicion that Sam needed her to say yes. She hadn't spoken to him about William staying the night because she didn't know how to do it. She'd lectured William about the need to talk to his child about his feelings, and yet was failing to do so herself. She and Sam needed some time together.

"What a good idea," she sighed. "I'd love a swim. If I can skip off work early, I could have a sauna too."

He grinned at her and she knew she'd made the right decision. Now for the hard bit.

"It's strange for everyone when things change, people come and go," she said. "But if you're not happy then you can tell me, you know. I won't be cross. I'd rather you said it out loud or asked me about stuff."

"It doesn't make any difference whether I'm happy or not, though, does it?" Sam blurted out. "It's still going to happen."

Elizabeth's heart sank. She had thought that Sam liked William, and that they got on. She was going to have to ask him a difficult question, and depending on his answer, make a hard decision.

"Don't you like me going out with William?" she asked quietly.

"William? It's nothing to do with him!" Sam said. "Jack's moving. His Dad's got transferred to Leeds. And Monkey's going out with Lucy now so Jonno hangs out with Lucy's best mate. So when Jack's gone, who am I going to hang out with?"

Sam and Jack had been friends since primary school, and Elizabeth knew how much the prospect of losing his best mate must be hurting him. Still, a little part of her was relieved that he hadn't said he didn't like her going out with William.

"When is he moving?" she asked.

"Half term."

"Crumbs, that's sudden! But I'm sure you and Monkey and Jonno will still hang out together. Don't you all go about in a big gang anyway, you lads and the girls?"

"Yeah, we used to, but now everyone's getting into boyfriend and girlfriend stuff and I don't like it, cos you end up falling out with the girl and then you can't talk to her or her mates, and it's all just stupid. It would be better if people just stayed friends."

He looked up at her after his impassioned speech, and his eyes were troubled. Elizabeth felt for her growing boy and the pains he was suffering. He was young for his year, only having his birthday in the summer, so most of his friends were several months older than him, and rather more advanced, so it would seem, when it came to chasing the opposite sex.

"Oh," Sam said suddenly, as the implications of his words sank in. "I don't mean you. It's OK for old people to go out with someone." He giggled guiltily as she raised an eyebrow at him. "Not old, not really old, I meant older! Older people!" he said, backtracking rapidly and laughing.

"Does that mean an old woman like me can go out with an old man like William?"

"Yes, if you like him," Sam said, half laughing still at his blunder.

"I know it probably felt a bit odd for you, having him here last weekend, staying over." Elizabeth was almost holding her breath, wondering what his response would be.

"Yeah, it's a bit weird, but it's not like he's here all the time. Is he coming on Saturday again?"

"I haven't asked him. Perhaps we should have one of our video nights, just you and me," she said, beginning to tidy up after the meal.

"Yeah, OK," Sam said, happy to be sure of having his Mum to himself. He was glad that they lived the way they did, and that she didn't make him go away to school. He felt really sorry for Alice not living at home, and couldn't contemplate that life for himself. There was only one thing worrying him.

"If you and William get married, will I have to go to boarding school?" he asked.

"What?" Elizabeth said, so startled by the question that she almost dropped the plates she was clearing. "Who said anything about getting married? And no, you will never go to boarding school, whatever happens. How would I cope without the excitement of wondering where in the house I'm going to find your socks when I need to do laundry?"

Sam laughed. His habit of taking his socks off wherever he was when his feet felt hot was one of Elizabeth's continual bugbears. Elizabeth switched the kettle on to make a cup of tea while she thought carefully about her answer. Her sudden gut feeling of the previous night came back to her, that she loved William and knew that there was something drawing them together.

"It's a bit soon to be thinking about marriage, Sam, we've hardly been seeing each other for long, really. But I do like William, and I hope you like him too."

"Yeah, I do," Sam said. "Miles better than Lucy's step-dad, she hates him. But that's because her Mum got married to him in secret."

"Well I won't be doing anything secret," Elizabeth said, familiar with the story of Lucy's mother's return from holiday complete with wedding ring. "Just so long as you're happy, that's all I need to know."

"I'm OK," he said. "And anyway I like you best when you're a smiley Mummy, and he makes you smiley. Apart from yesterday."

"Oh, please, no more days like that!" she groaned theatrically, grinning at Sam's use of one of their family phrases that he had first come out with when he was only five or so. "Come on, let's go and sit down. Bring the biscuit tin, I need something to go with my cuppa."

Sam had gone to bed and Elizabeth had fallen asleep on the sofa when the phone rang later that night. With a dazed and sleepy voice, she answered.

"Are you OK?" William said on the other end of the line. "Did I wake you?"

"Mmm but never mind," Elizabeth said, yawning. "I must've dozed off on the sofa. What time is it? How are you?"

"It's about 10:30. I'm OK, bit tired."

He sounded drained of all energy, and in fact had been sitting staring at nothing for an hour after returning from Sussex, trying to put his thoughts in order before he phoned Elizabeth.

"How was Alice when you left her? I take it you did leave her at school," Elizabeth said.

"Yes, she's back there. A few tears, but she's OK, I hope. I had a long talk with the headmistress and her house mistress."

"And?"

"And they think she should try being a weekly boarder. Home on a Friday night, back into school on Monday morning. They think it might make her settle better."

"And what do you think?" Elizabeth asked, suspecting from his tone that he didn't agree.

"I can't see how her not being there half the time could make her settle better," he replied. "And she has to learn that running away isn't the answer, she doesn't just get what she wants by behaving badly."

"I don't think she was behaving badly, Will, I think she was desperate."

"She's 14, what's she got to be desperate about? She goes to a good school and is well cared for."

Elizabeth knew all too well from her work with teenagers that there was plenty for them to feel desperate about, even if it might seem trivial or irrelevant to an adult. And in Alice's case, none of her feelings were trivial.

"William, listen to yourself. She is cared for, yes I'm sure she is, but she needs to feel loved. How much time have you spent talking to her about her Mum?"

"Caroline? Not much. She was too little to understand, and then it was in the past, I didn't want to bring it up again."

Elizabeth wished she and William were face to face. This was too hard a conversation to have on the phone. She couldn't gauge his mood properly without seeing his face, and she needed to know how he felt about Caroline. Ellen had said there was no love lost when they divorced, but she had to know for herself. Elizabeth's conscience pricked a little bit as she remembered the things Alice had told her and wondered whether she should tell William. She decided that for the good of all of them, it had to be done.

"Alice thinks you want her to be out of your sight because she reminds you of her mother. She thinks that all you want is for her to get good exam results. And Sam thinks she'll run away again because she misses you."

There was a very long silence on the other end of the phone as William digested this information. If Elizabeth could have seen him, she would have seen a man with emotions raging over his face, clutching a whisky glass as if it was life support.

"She misses me? She said she hates me."

The hurt in William's voice tore Elizabeth apart.

"She doesn't hate you, she was angry and upset when she said it. And yes, she misses you. And to be honest I think she might just be a bit jealous of us."

"Jealous?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said, wondering if he was going to repeat one key word from every sentence she said, and whether he would be able to form a coherent thought again. "I was thinking about it, after you'd gone. I bet she looked at us walking away on Saturday and felt really left out, poor thing. I only thought about how nice it would be to see her again, not what it would feel like to leave her behind. She wants to be in a family, to see her cousins and her aunts and uncles and her Dad, to know what's going on and be part of things. That would be my guess."

"You could be right," William replied thoughtfully, conceding to Elizabeth's greater understanding of children. He had been upset to think that Alice could talk to Elizabeth more easily than to him, but now he was glad she had been able to share her feelings, and glad that she had shared them with the women he now knew he loved with all his heart. But then his rational, practical side began to assert itself.

"Elizabeth, how can I have her at home? How could I manage?"

"Why don't you ask some of the single parents of your acquaintance how they manage?" she asked sharply, becoming a little exasperated with him. "People who work all day and come home to their kids at night, muddle through with the help of their friends, sit at work doing something very tedious and hoping like hell that their little boy is having a nice time at Kid's Club because they sure as hell would rather be home with him doing finger painting!"

She paused for breath and wondered whether she was going to regret her outburst. William for his part was shocked too. He had never really thought about how Elizabeth's life might actually work in practice. He had only sat back in awe at her seeming ability to manage everything.

"How do you do it?" he asked quietly. "Sam is a great kid and you always seem so ... I don't know, on top of things."

"I don't know. If I stopped to think how I managed I would realise that it was, in fact, impossible to manage and then we would collapse, me and Sam. And I can't afford to collapse, for his sake. So we manage. We just do. Don't ask me how."

There was another long pause, and Elizabeth began to wonder whether William had put the phone down and walked away. She had no idea how he had reacted to her little impassioned speech, but really needed to know what he was thinking. She wished she could drive over to his house to see him, but not only could she not leave Sam alone, asleep upstairs, she suddenly realised that she wasn't entirely sure where William lived, apart from somewhere in Chelsea. William was wishing at the time that he hadn't swallowed two glasses of whisky in quick succession on his return to the house, otherwise he would drive straight over to Islington and seek the comfort he desperately needed.

"Are you still there?" she asked, uncertainly.

"Yes, I was just thinking, sorry," William answered. "I expect I'll find out soon enough how I'll manage because I agreed to the weekend plan and I'm picking her up tomorrow night. Shall we all do something together this weekend?"

"No," Elizabeth said. "I need to have some time with Sam, and you need to do some father-daughter stuff with Alice."

"What?" he said, sounding alarmed. "What's father-daughter stuff?"

"Spend a bit of time with her, let her tell you what's on her mind. Take her shopping, just have some fun together."

"Shopping?" William squawked.

"It won't kill you!" Elizabeth laughed. "You'll be fine. Just don't expect to solve everything in one weekend. It'll take time."

William sighed and sagged into his chair. He was tired and he knew that Elizabeth was making more sense than any other woman ever had in his entire life. She was wonderful, and he told her so.

"Don't be daft," Elizabeth laughed.

"I'm not daft," he replied, his mood lifting a little even with the weight of cares on his shoulders. "I love you."

The thrill of being told she was loved was marvellous, but there was one thing still nagging at her mind. She knew she risked spoiling the mood, but had to say something.

"Elizabeth? What's wrong?" William asked when she didn't answer.

"Can I ask you something?" she said, butterflies fluttering in her stomach as she uttered the words.

"Of course, anything." His rich voice was reassuring, but Elizabeth was sure that warm and inviting tone would soon fade. Still, she couldn't go on until she knew.

"Last night you said you thought you'd lost Alice too. Did the "too" mean Caroline? Do you miss her?"

"Did I say that?" William asked, shocked. "I don't remember saying anything about Caroline."

"You didn't mention her by name. But, William ..."

"I don't still love her, if that's what you're asking. We had very much fallen out of love when she left," he said with a bitter laugh. "I suppose the only feelings I have now are of disappointment that I failed."

"You failed?"

"Isn't every marriage a voyage of hope, and even if you don't love the person in the end and divorce is the best thing, it's still a failure of hope. You set out to do something and you didn't manage to do it."

"But .."

"Elizabeth, can we talk about this properly another time?" William asked. "I'd rather have hard conversations face to face, and you've been wonderful tonight, but I know we're both tired."

"Well, OK," she said, yawning and knowing that he was right.

"I love you, Elizabeth," he said. "Only you. I'll give you a call over the weekend. Sweet dreams."

In bed that night, despite the thoughts raging through her mind, Elizabeth was asleep within minutes through sheer exhaustion. William stood at his study window, gazing out over the square of park in front of his house, sipping one final whisky and feeling sure of one thing, at least. His next marriage would not be a failure.

Chapter 22

By the time Elizabeth made it to work next day, she was completely frazzled. She and Sam had overslept, then had spent half an hour rushing round the house looking for swimming togs, books, and all the other paraphernalia of the day. Sam was going to be late even if he had run for the bus, so she had dropped him off at school, then got stuck in traffic. She went into the general office to pick up her files and make a coffee.

"Thank goodness it's Friday," she groaned. "I've had enough of this week."

Eileen smiled sympathetically and passed her the biscuit tin. "Sounds like you need sustenance."

"Ooh, yes please," Elizabeth said, taking a chocolate biscuit. "We overslept so I didn't eat breakfast. At least I'll get a nice lunch, I'm meeting my sister."

"Any plans for the weekend?" Eileen asked.

"A big lie in, I think," she replied. "But apart from that, nothing. You?"

"I'm taking the girls to Covent Garden, they've been saving up for a shopping trip. And they're raving about this little make-up shop where Kylie gets her lipgloss, apparently, and they do make-up lessons for teenagers too. I think they're hoping to bump into a film star! So, we'll go and have a look at that."

"Really?" Elizabeth asked, the germ of an idea beginning to grow. "Make up lessons?"

"Yes, look, it's in here," Eileen said, pulling a copy of a magazine out of her bag and finding the relevant page. "Teenage skin care and beauty, it says here, look."

They both read the article, and Elizabeth wrote down the phone number and address of the shop. Once she was in her office, she made a phone call.

"The Pemberley Group, how may I help you?"

"Oh, hello," Elizabeth said. "May I speak to William Darcy?"

"I'll put you through to his secretary," the switchboard operator said. No-one went straight through to Mr Darcy, even if they did request him by his first name.

"I'm afraid Mr Darcy's in a meeting," Elizabeth was told when she finally got through. "Would you like to leave a message?"

"Tell him I'll email him," Elizabeth said, thinking that it might seem a little odd to leave messages for him about cosmetics. She rang off and sent him an email with all the details she had written down, suggesting he take Alice there. Feeling rather pleased with herself, she settled down to a foreshortened morning's work, until it was time to leave the office to meet Jane for lunch. She left a note on Eileen's desk saying that as her diary was clear for the rest of the day, she was taking the afternoon off. She packed a few papers into her bag and left work.

The little Italian restaurant that the two sisters favoured was busy as always, filled with the happy chatter of people who were beginning to wind down for the weekend. Jane was already there by the time Elizabeth arrived, apologising for being late.

"I don't think I'm destined to be on time today," she said, laughing at her own faults. "We overslept and I only just got Sam to school on time."

"I haven't been here long, so don't worry," Jane said.

"Is everything OK?"

"Oh yes, fine. The excitement of the week has worn us out, that's all," she replied, grinning ruefully. "So, have you ordered?"

"No, I waited for you," Jane said, as the waiter came to take their order. Once he had gone, Elizabeth grinned at Jane.

"So, what's the plan?" she asked. "You're not going to do a big surprise party or anything, are you? Just because it's a birthday with a 5 on the end."

"If I was going to throw a surprise party, I couldn't tell you, could I?" Jane said. "Otherwise it wouldn't be a surprise. But, since it's a significant birthday, I thought we should do something a bit special. Would you like a big party?"

"Not really. You know me, I'm not a great party person. Dinner as usual would be nice." Elizabeth wondered whether this was the moment to introduce William to her family, or at least those few of her family who would be at her dinner party. She would have to explain to him that Jane had begun the tradition of marking their birthdays that ended in zero or five when she was 25, saying that they didn't have enough parties any more. She looked at Jane, who was fiddling absent mindedly with the cutlery.

"Look I know you're up to something," Elizabeth said, grinning. "You always give yourself away. What's the plan this time?"

"No, there's no secret plans, don't worry, not for your birthday," Jane said cryptically, avoiding raising the subject uppermost in her mind. She still hadn't worked out exactly how she was going to broach the topic, what she might say to bring the conversation round to where she needed it to be. In the silence that fell between them, their pasta arrived, and they began to eat.

"Oh, before I forget, is Charles around this weekend? Sam wondered if he could come round to see him," Elizabeth said.

"Yes, we're not doing anything," Jane replied. "Tell Sam to give Charlie a ring. How is he, anyway?"

"He's fine, although he was a bit upset because he's just found out that his best friend is moving up north."

"Oh, that will be hard for him," Jane said sympathetically.

"Yes," Elizabeth said. "I think he feels like a man to man chat."

"Well, you know Charlie," Jane laughed. "He's always happy to spend time with Sam."

"Thanks," Elizabeth replied gratefully. She owed Jane and Charles so much for the support they had given her over the years, especially Charles who had seemed to step happily into being the man in Sam's life. She knew that things were bound to change if William became as important to herself and Sam as she suspected he would, and the last thing she wanted was to lose Charles' friendship, or make him feel he wasn't needed. He would have made a wonderful father, she thought, if only he and Jane had been able to have children.

"I wondered...." Elizabeth said, then hesitated, before Jane encouraged her to continue. "Well, have you actually organised anything for my birthday? Because if it's not fixed yet, I'd like William to come. You know, introduce the boyfriend sort of thing?"

Jane chewed her food carefully, swallowed, and took a sip of her wine before speaking, a pause long enough to make Elizabeth frown.

"You know that I don't begrudge you any happiness, don't you?" Jane asked. "That I only wish the best for you?"

"Yes," Elizabeth said with a puzzled smile as she wondered why Jane seemed to have become so peculiar all of a sudden.

"I don't think it would be a good idea for William to be at your party."

"Why not?" Elizabeth asked, quite startled at the firmness with which Jane made her statement.

"Because if he comes, I will not be in the same room as him."

"What are you talking about?" Elizabeth asked. "Why not? You don't know him."

"I do." Jane sighed and gazed up at the ceiling, dreading her sister's reaction to what she was about to say. "I knew him years ago. He caused me so much unhappiness, and I can't go on any longer without telling you what he's like. I don't want you to be hurt by him."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Elizabeth said. "How can you know him? Why would he hurt you? Or me?"

"I know him because he used to be Charlie's best friend. They went to University together, they were going to go into business together. And then we all had a massive falling out, because of me," Jane said, watching Elizabeth carefully. "And his daughter, Alice? Charlie's her uncle."

"No!" Elizabeth said. "That can't be right! Charles hasn't got any sisters. And if he was Alice's uncle, I'd have met William before now. At your house, at parties."

Jane had known all along that this was going to be difficult, and from the look of confusion on Elizabeth's face, she had been right. There was so much to explain, she hardly knew where to begin. She decided to go right back to the very beginning.

"Charlie hasn't got sisters, he had two step-sisters," she began. "After his Mum died, his Dad remarried, to a woman who had two girls, a little older than him. They didn't get on terribly well, so I gather. Louisa, the oldest, doesn't bother speaking to us now. Caroline, the youngest, is dead."

Elizabeth's mind was spinning. She was trying to put the facts together to make a complete picture but Jane wasn't telling her quite enough.

"When Charlie was at Uni, he made friends with William Darcy. I think William was a couple of years older than Charlie, and when he went down to Charlie's place one summer holiday, Caroline rather took a liking to him. He fell in love with her and they married quite suddenly. They were quite young. The following summer, they all came down to Meryton for a holiday and that's where I met Charlie."

"This doesn't make sense," Elizabeth said. "I can remember you meeting Charlie, at a party at the Assembly Rooms. William wasn't there."

"No, when you met Charlie in the summer hols, William wasn't there. He and Caroline had gone back to London. She was already established as a model, very much in demand. William had to go back for family business." A soft smile came over Jane's face. "I'd already met Charlie by the time you saw him. And I think we were in love with each other already."

"I know it was love at first sight with you two," Elizabeth said, smiling back at Jane. She remembered only too well how Jane had been besotted with Charles from the outset, and he with her, although they both had tried to keep it hidden, not thinking that anyone would take them seriously.

"Anyway, you went back to Uni, and Charlie and I got rather serious about each other. And that's when Caroline and William decided that it wouldn't do."

"What do you mean? It wouldn't do?"

"Do you remember me telling you about the gig we went to at the Assembly Rooms? Lydia got drunk and was sick in the ladies loo. Then Mum came to pick us up and made a huge fuss about Charlie. Then the party at the Netherfield Arms, when Kitty and Lydia got off with those two squaddies." Jane groaned, the embarrassment still etched on her mind despite the distance in years. "Well, Caroline decided that a family such as ours was simply not good enough for the likes of her brother."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous!" Elizabeth said. "You're talking as if we live in Victorian times!"

"No, I'm talking as if my darling husband was stuck with the most appalling set of snobs for sisters and a best friend!" Jane said angrily, her feelings finally getting the better of her restrained nature. "William told Charlie not to be involved with me. He told him that I didn't love him, that I was just after his money. Charlie and I ended up having a horrible row, and he went back to Uni to do his MBA. I thought I'd never see him again."

"But this can't be true!" Elizabeth said despairingly, hardly able to believe the story Jane was telling her, but knowing that Jane wouldn't lie. She must just be mistaken, Elizabeth thought. She'd got the wrong man.

"Oh it is," Jane said. "When Charlie and I got back together at Christmas, we went to a dinner party in London. Caroline and William were there, Caroline was pregnant by then. She made it very clear that she didn't like me, and spent the whole evening looking down her nose at me and whispering to William. Later, I overheard William telling Charlie that it would be a big mistake to marry into a family like ours, headed by a bloody awful woman for a mother."

Bloody awful woman. That's what William had once called her, Elizabeth thought.

"Maybe you've got the wrong William Darcy," she said desperately.

"Oh come on, how many William Darcys are there?" Jane asked. "How many men do you know who own a business so big and profitable that he only has to work for fun?"

"William doesn't own a business, he's an investments manager," Elizabeth said, relieved that Jane had obviously got him muddled up with someone else. "He looks after charitable funds, and makes grants, things like that. The Pemberley Group, or something like that. That's who he works for."

"Lizzie, it's his company," Jane said. "He is the Pemberley Group. He inherited it all. His father was a brilliant businessman, and so was his grandfather, apparently. I should know, we talked about it enough when he and Charlie were planning joint ventures, when they were still speaking to each other. How do you think he got the money to buy his house? Assuming he's still in that amazing Chelsea place. Not from being an investment manager, that's for sure."

"What house?"

"You've never been to his house? How long have you been going out with him?" Jane asked, sure now that she had heard how William had been hiding the truth about himself from Elizabeth that she was doing the right thing in telling this story. "Don't you think it's a bit odd that he's never taken you to his house?"

"It's easier for him to come to me," Elizabeth said.

"I've got Sam, I can't just go out and about as I please."

"And he's misled you about his job?"

Elizabeth couldn't answer. There must be an explanation. William couldn't have lied about ... almost his whole life ... could he?

"I don't believe you," she said eventually, trying to choke back the tears rising in her throat as she tried to dismiss the information she had heard. But there were so many little pieces of the jigsaw that could only fit if Jane was telling the truth, she was fighting a losing battle with herself. "It's not true," she said, trying to dismiss the build-up of evidence but failing to find much to cling on to.

"Oh Lizzie, I'm sorry, I didn't want to hurt you, but you had to know."

"Why didn't you tell me any of this before?" Elizabeth asked angrily. "If this all really happened, you would've told me, back in the day. We used to talk about everything!"

"I was going to tell you," Jane said. "Remember when I came up to see you at Uni? The weekend you found out you were pregnant. I'd come up to talk to you about Charlie, but we ended up talking about you. That was rather more important, I think."

Jane put her hand over Elizabeth's and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

"You went through so much that year, on your own, falling out with Mum."

"I didn't fall out with Mum, she decided I was an embarrassment ..."

"Yes, well, we've gone through that before," Jane interrupted quickly, not really wanting to open up those old wounds. She remembered the screaming matches and hysterics all too well. "And I didn't want to burden you with my troubles, especially once Charlie and I got back together. You had enough to think about. Then just before we got married, Charlie tried to talk to William. It was just after Alice was born. He had been William's best man at his wedding, and he hoped that William would be his, and that we would all be reconciled. William refused."

"He refused?" Elizabeth said, astonished.

"He made some excuse about not liking big gatherings, and not being able to make a speech. So that's why you never met him. You were away..."

"Banished."

"Not banished," Jane said wryly. "You were away in the run up to the wedding, then by the time you came home, William and Charlie had already fallen out."

"Do you remember when I arrived at your wedding? Big bump and no ring?" Elizabeth laughed, able now to find some humour in the situation at this distance of years. "It was obvious from the looks on everyone's faces that Mum hadn't told anyone, then the black sheep of the family returns to show her up."

She sat back in her chair, her mind racing. She remembered all too well the way she had felt that year; it had been made very clear that she would not be welcome at home, that she had shown her mother up. Even now, years after her parents had been unable to resist the knowledge that they had a grandson and had accepted Sam, she found it difficult to talk to her mother. To discover, on top of this, that Jane had gone through trials of her own, and that she knew nothing about them, came as something of a shock. And that her boyfriend should be the architect of those trials ... it was all too much to take in. She didn't want to believe Jane, but knew that it must be true. William had misled her about his job, his house, he had used those phrases that Jane had quoted.

"I'm sorry, Lizzie," Jane said, seeing the hurt and confusion on her sister's face. "I didn't want to do this to you."

"But I don't understand," Elizabeth said quietly. "For you never to have contact ever again?"

"When William refused to be best man, Charlie was very hurt. He asked William to reconsider, and said that it would be difficult for them to be business partners if they couldn't resolve it. William wouldn't reconsider. Charlie backed out of the business deal, and Caroline said some pretty nasty things about him. It was Bingley family money that he was investing, and Caroline would have benefited." Jane shrugged, and looked tired. "William never once said he was sorry for trying to come between me and Charlie. If he had, Charlie would have forgiven him, I'm sure."

"I don't know what to do," Elizabeth said.

"Just protect yourself," Jane said. "Make sure you don't get hurt."

"You think I should end it with William."

"That's up to you," Jane said. "But I wouldn't stay with a man who lies and schemes to get what he wants."

"He's not a liar!" Elizabeth shouted.

"Alright, a scheming manipulator, then, who hasn't even told you the truth about himself," Jane said. "Ask him, if you don't believe me. Ask him what Charles Bingley once meant to him."

Elizabeth stared at the plate of half eaten food, now cold in front of her. She pushed it away, unable to eat. She took her purse out of her bag, and put some money on the table.

"I'm going to go," she said and stood up, Jane half rising from her seat too. "No, don't come with me. I need to be on my own for a while."

"Lizzie," Jane pleaded, watching her sister as she walked out of the restaurant. Jane slumped back in her chair. She felt horrible, the means of destroying her sister's happiness, but if it hadn't been for William doing what he'd done in the first place, none of this would have happened. By the time she paid and ran outside, Elizabeth had disappeared from sight.

Elizabeth walked to her car in a daze, and somehow managed to drive home. Only one thought repeated over and over again in her mind. If everything Jane said was true, there was no way she could continue her relationship with William.

Chapter 23

Elizabeth was disturbed from the depths of her thoughts by the phone ringing. She answered, then put it down with an abrupt "not interested, thank you!" to the poor call-centre person on the other end trying desperately to sell her something. She glanced at the clock, realised that the afternoon had disappeared while she had been lost in thought, and ran out of the house. Her swimming things were still in the car, so she only had to drive like a woman possessed and hope for no delays in order to get to the pool in time to meet Sam.

By the time she arrived at the water's edge, swimming club had finished and "Family Fun Time" had begun. The pool was filled with cavorting children, inflatables and foam toys.

"Mum! Mum! Over here!" she heard Sam shout. "Help me get on this frog!"

She laughed at the sight of him trying to climb onto a large foam frog, and joined him in the water.

An hour of silliness and games left both Elizabeth and Sam tired, hungry, and relatively happy. Elizabeth pushed her nagging thoughts away as they climbed into her car for the short drive home. An afternoon had disappeared while she went round in circles trying to make sense of what she knew, and for a little while she wanted to stop thinking. When they got home, there were no messages on the answerphone, so she went into the kitchen to begin cooking while Sam ran upstairs to change out of his school uniform. She decided that after the day she had just had, a glass of wine was definitely in order, and opened a bottle.

Once Sam had gone to bed later that night, she wondered whether William would phone. She needed to speak to him, but at the same time was frightened at the prospect. If he confirmed what Jane had told her, how on earth could she carry on seeing him? She filled her wine glass and continued to stare at the phone. She wanted to hear him tell her that there had been a misunderstanding, that everything was fine, but she daren't risk finding out that in fact, everything was just as Jane had said. And too many of the pieces fitted together, in the puzzle Jane had presented. If nothing else, William had deceived her about his background, and who he truly was. A sudden memory of being in bed with him the previous morning flashed into her mind and caused her stomach to squeeze tight in a quick jolt of desire. He had said he loved her. He couldn't have done all those things, and yet be the man she loved in return, but what other explanation could there be? She had none. She poured herself another glass of wine, and noticed with horror that the bottle was now empty. She would pay for this indulgence in the morning.

~ * ~

William got up on Saturday morning feeling quite cheerful. He had picked Alice up from school at 5pm the previous day. They had driven back to London with her being relatively chatty, messing about with the radio while he groaned in exaggerated fashion at some of the more dreadful songs. He had said that they couldn't be classified as songs, and she had called him old fashioned. He told her that he had a surprise planned for Saturday, and when she smiled at him, he saw dimples and for a moment saw himself. He had only been able to see Caroline in her before, everyone had always told him how much she resembled her mother, but he knew when he thought about her behaviour over the previous week that there was more than a little of his personality in her. She seemed proud and arrogant, but in reality she was as reserved as he was, and just like him, much of her behaviour stemmed from her attempts at self-protection. Now, they seemed to have found a little chink of light that allowed them to begin opening up to each other. He smiled to himself as he knew who held the key to that opening. He almost sighed Elizabeth's name out loud as he thought about her, the woman he loved so much, and owed so much. He picked up the print out of her email message from his desk, and called for Alice. They left the house together to begin their expedition.

Elizabeth could hear the sounds of Saturday morning TV filtering through to her room and her sore head. She rolled over, groaned, and tried to go back to sleep. It was no good, she needed a cup of tea, a bucket of painkillers and a dose of common sense, she told herself. She got up and made her way downstairs, peeking in to see Sam settled in front of the TV with his Gameboy and his mobile phone. She had never understood how he could cope with so many things going beep at the same time.

She returned to the sitting room with her cup of tea and lay down on the sofa.

"What do you want to do today?" she asked.

"Nothing," Sam said absent-mindedly as he concentrated on his game.

"Totally nothing?"

"Totally nothing. I'm going round to Uncle Charles's tomorrow to help him finish the solar system model."

"Did you phone him already this morning? I hope you didn't wake him up."

"Mum, it's 11 o'clock," Sam said.

"What?" Elizabeth said, shocked that the morning seemed to have almost disappeared without her noticing. "I'd better get dressed. I'm going for a shower."

"OK," he replied, not taking his eyes off the game. He had no intention of getting washed and dressed any sooner than he had to.

"What's your favourite subject at school?" Will asked at lunchtime, making Alice look at him with a curious expression on her face.

"I confess, I don't know" he said, a smile creeping up the corners of his mouth as he took a chance on Alice being kind to him

"History," she said. "I like history. And art." She felt as if her heart had an ache around the edge as she tried to fathom out what was going on. Her Dad had spent money on her that morning, quite a bit of money too although not as much as some of the girls in her dorm boasted that they could get out of their parents. That wasn't the point, it wasn't the money. She realised that he was making an effort to be different. She looked at him and held his gaze.

"Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"Nothing," Alice said with a slight smile, after holding the stare for a while. If anyone had asked her to put into words what had just happened, she wouldn't have been able to do it. All she knew was that something just clicked.

William felt as if something significant had just happened. Nothing had happened, he reasoned, no words had been spoken. But via a glance and a quiet word, he suddenly felt as though he had been lifted one plane higher with his daughter.

"So," he said after a pause while they both struggled with their chopsticks. "What do you fancy this afternoon?"

"Dunno."

"We could go to have a look in the National Gallery, if you want, since you like history and art," he said, then noticed Alice's slight grimace. "OK, maybe not culture. More shopping then?"

"OK," Alice said, returning his smile.

Despite prolonging lunch as long as he could to stave off the inevitable return to shopping, William eventually had to leave the restaurant. Alice led him back the way they had already been.

"You've been in there already!" William said as they headed for Pout, the little make-up shop that Elizabeth had emailed him about.

"I know, but I want to look at lip gloss again. I might get another one."

"How many lip glosses do you need?" William said in astonishment, then shook his head and followed her into the shop. She had been thrilled when he had taken her there that morning, and had systematically worked her way round all the displays, while he had discretely asked whether there were any appointments available for a beauty session. When he was told that the appointment book was full, he was glad he hadn't said anything to Alice so she wouldn't be disappointed. That could be a treat for another day, he decided.

By the time they got home late that afternoon, laden with carrier bags, William was exhausted and his feet were sore. He had managed to take a little detour away from make-up and clothes shops into the Italian Delicatessen across the road from Pout, and had bought all sorts of very tempting food. He would cook something later, he thought, but first he needed to sit down and relax. He flopped into his chair and picked up the phone to call Elizabeth.

Elizabeth had eventually persuaded Sam that he should get dressed, and had then decided that they needed to go out. Sitting indoors all day just meant she had more time to think, and she had spent so much time thinking and not getting any nearer the answers that she felt her head would burst. They went to the cinema and for a while she managed to lose herself in the film. Calling into the supermarket on the way home and dawdling round the aisles meant that it was the middle of the evening when they got home. Sam ran upstairs and she took the shopping through to the kitchen to begin unpacking. She noticed the light flashing to tell her that she had a message, and pressed "play" on the answerphone. The sound of William's voice gave her a jolt.

"Hi, it's me. Just phoning to say thanks for your idea, it was inspirational. Alice was thrilled to bits. We're worn out now. Hope you've had a good day, I'll call you later."

She leant against the worktop, gripping it tightly. Just his voice was enough to stir up all her emotions once more. She loved him and yet had cause to dislike him. If she carried on seeing him despite his actions, she would lose her sister. She had to talk to him, and yet could not bring herself to pick up the phone. She switched off the answer machine, unplugged the phone and carried on with her domestic tasks.

Ellen was surprised by a knock at the door on Sunday afternoon, and even more surprised when on answering, she found William and Alice on the doorstep.

"What are you two doing here?" she said delightedly. "What a lovely surprise! Come in!" She hugged Alice and kissed her on the cheek. "I didn't think it was your home weekend yet, sweetie."

"Alice is a weekly boarder now," William said. "Home on Fridays, back to school on Mondays."

"Oh!" Ellen replied, surprised at this dramatic change in arrangements. "When did this start? Not when you went back in September?"

"No," William replied. "Day before yesterday."

"Right. Well, come in, Richard's in the playroom with the boys, Emily is snoozing, and Sophie's watching Monsters Inc again."

"Ooh, can I watch that?" Alice said, and ran into the living room to snuggle onto the sofa with her little cousin. William had a wry smile on his face as he knew now that he had an answer for Sam next time he was quizzed about films. He followed Ellen into the kitchen and perched on a stool as she began to make coffee.

"So, how are you?" she asked. "What's all this with Alice?"

"We've had an interesting week," William replied, and told the story of Alice's escapade, punctuated only by Ellen's sounds of astonishment and horror.

"It must have been awful," she said when he had finished speaking.

"Yes, it was," William agreed. "But what's worse is finding out that I'm not much good when it comes to being a Dad."

"Oh, don't say that, William!" Ellen said. "You're too hard on yourself."

"No, I don't think so," he said in a very matter of fact voice, giving away the fact that he had spent many hours in the last few days thinking about this very subject. "Ever since she came back to me, I haven't done a very good job."

"Well, it was such a strange situation," Ellen said sympathetically. She remembered William's bewildered face the first time she had seen them together after Caroline's death, and his confusion at having to deal with a little girl he had hardly seen for over two years.

"I hardly knew her," William said. "I thought I was doing the right thing, that she would be better off away at school, with lots of girls for company, lots of interesting things to do. And it turns out that I was causing her enormous hurt."

"But you weren't to know."

"I should have known, though, shouldn't I?" William asked, his troubled expression giving away the way he felt. "I never talked to her. I employed au pairs who would speak to her in French, housekeepers, nannies, all the time thinking that it was for the best. But sometimes they don't need everything money can buy, they need a Chinese take out and a cuddle on the sofa."

Ellen couldn't help laughing. "Yes, they do."

"You wouldn't send your children away from home, would you?"

"No, I wouldn't," Ellen agreed. "Even if they do drive me nuts every now and then. But your situation is different. You're on your own."

"People manage," William said. "I know most people think of single mums but I can't be the only single Dad in the world."

"No, I'm sure you're not," Ellen replied. "So, are you going to take her out of school? Where will you send her?"

"I'm not sure yet. I've made appointments to visit a couple of schools next week."

"So she is coming home?"

"Yes," William said, with a tone of finality. "She's coming home."

When he and Alice left Richmond after having stayed for tea at Ellen's insistence, William felt happier than he had in a long time. He and Alice had got on well over the weekend, much better than he had ever imagined possible, and he was beginning to feel that his life was changing in ways he had not dreamt of. He sighed as he drove, and Alice looked at him.

"Are you OK?" she asked.

"I'm fine, thank you," he replied and grinned broadly. "Are you OK?"

"Yes," she answered. This new version of Dad was weird, but it was one she could get used to, if only he could keep it up.

Charles couldn't help smiling as he watched Sam fixing bits of his model together with a look of intense concentration on his face. Jane had said that Sam felt like a chat, so Charles was prepared to sit and wait until he was in the mood. He assumed it would be something to do with the repercussions of Jane's talk with Elizabeth on Friday lunchtime, and he hadn't quite decided how he was going to handle it.

"I wish we did more about space in science at school," Sam said, sitting back and admiring his handiwork. "Then I'd be top."

"Whereabouts are you now?" Charles asked, as he carefully applied the glue to a crucial bit of the solar system.

"I'm usually in the top 10, but we did a test last week and I did really badly."

"Really? Why's that, do you think?"

"Dunno," Sam shrugged. "I forgot to revise though."

"Well, there's your answer," Charles said. "No revision. What were you doing instead, playing football?"

"No."

Sam went back to his model and began to fiddle about with it, glancing at Charles' model to see what he should do next.

"There's too many things going on at once," he said after a while. "And I just forgot."

"Too many things at school? Are you going to have to drop something?"

"No, just too much, full stop. My friend Jack's going to move to Leeds at half term, and Mum's got a boyfriend, and Alice ran away and came to our house."

"Your friend moving is pretty tough," Charles said sympathetically. "But you've got quite a few mates, haven't you?"

"Yeah, I suppose so," Sam replied.

"You've got rather a lot on your mind, then. I'm not surprised you forgot to do your science."

"It would be OK if one thing happened at a time," Sam said. He liked talking to Charles because he always gave him chance to say how he felt, and didn't try to act as if he knew everything. "But everything's changing at once and it makes me feel funny."

"Hmm, tricky one, "Charles said. "Sometimes that happens. It feels as if everything's gone crazy and then it all settles down. Everyone feels like that, at one time or another."

"And I don't mind Mum having a boyfriend," Sam continued. "He's nice, and he makes her happy. He hasn't been round this weekend 'cos he's looking after Alice, and she's OK too. And Mum said that if they get married, she won't make me go to boarding school, so that's OK."

"Getting married?" Charles asked, sounding alarmed. "That's a bit sudden, isn't it?" Jane hadn't said anything to him about this being discussed at her lunch with Elizabeth, and he wondered at the possible repercussions for Jane's relationship with Elizabeth if this was the situation.

"Yeah, that's what Mum said when I asked her if they were going to," Sam replied. "But I bet they do."

Charles was slightly relieved to hear that it had been Sam's question that had led to the discussion rather than an announcement from Elizabeth.

"Well, I think you just have to tell yourself that she will settle down," Charles said. "At school and at home. Sorry, I'm not being much help, am I?"

"That's OK," Sam said. He felt better already just being able to say how he felt and hear someone else say that it was normal to feel that way. He passed his bit of the solar system to Charles, and they continued building their model.

When Sam had gone home, Charles found Jane in the garden, finishing her autumnal tidying up, and told her what he'd said. Jane was stunned.

"Elizabeth never said anything about getting married!"

"No, I think it's Sam projecting things," Charles said. "But we don't know what effect your little revelations had, do we?"

"You don't think I should've said anything, do you?" Jane asked, forcefully throwing weeds at the compost heap.

"I'm not sure. Maybe you were a bit harsh on him, maybe he's changed."

"You're too soft, that's what it is."

"Probably," Charles said, and smiled at his wife standing defiantly with hands on hips. "I can't stand upset, you know that. And it was a long time ago. Maybe we should forgive and forget."

"You can only forgive someone if they're sorry for what they've done," Jane argued.

"So, let him say sorry," Charles replied. "It should never have gone on the way it did, we were both stubborn."

"Hmph," Jane responding, attacking the hedge with her clippers.

"Well, if they carry on seeing each other, are you going to fall out with Lizzy?" Charles asked. "I wouldn't want that to happen."

Jane didn't reply, but carried on pruning as she thought about Charles' words. She was now wondering whether she would regret her actions.

"And maybe you shouldn't attack that poor hedge, it's not done anything to upset you, has it?" he teased.

"Don't be silly," Jane said, turning to him and beginning to laugh as she saw him grinning at her. "Oh, I don't know, Charlie, how is this all going to turn out?"

"No idea," he said. "But one way or another, things will settle down. Come on, I'll help you put your tools away."

They tidied up and went indoors as the dusk fell and the cold began to nip at their noses. Jane ran a bath and as often happened, Charles couldn't resist joining her, and once more they ended up having an early night and rather damp sheets.

Elizabeth got through Monday on autopilot, much as she had on Sunday. Sunday had been easier, as she had spent the day doing laundry, cleaning, and all the other boring but necessary tasks. She was enormously relieved to get home after work on Monday as she had the beginnings of a spectacularly bad headache. She took some painkillers, cooked a meal that she didn't feel like eating, and sat down opposite Sam.

"Can I go round to Jack's after tea?" he asked, eating quickly. "We're supposed to be doing this project together for geography."

"Yes, as long as you're not late back," she replied, pushing her plate away. "I'm going to unplug the phone and lie down, I've got a dreadful headache. I don't want to talk to anyone tonight."

"I'll make you a cup of tea," he said, and finished his meal as she left the room. He was as good as his word, and brought her the drink before going upstairs to find his geography book.

William had wondered why Elizabeth's phone had rung out without the answerphone picking up the night before, and when he tried again on Monday, the same thing happened. He wanted to talk to her and decided that he had a good excuse to pop in. He was just about to knock when the door burst open and he was almost knocked over by Sam.

"Oops, sorry!" Sam said.

"No problem," William said, grinning. "Where are you off to?"

"Round to Jack's to do a project," Sam said. "Mum's in the sitting room but she doesn't feel very well. See you!"

He ran down the road, thinking that although his Mum had said she didn't want to talk to anyone, William might make her feel better.

Elizabeth heard the front door shut, and was surprised a moment later by a gentle tap at the sitting room door. She got an enormous shock when she looked up to see William.

"Hi, Sam let me in," he said. "How are you? He said you don't feel well."

"No, I've got a headache," she replied, feeling flustered. Although she had been preparing the things she needed to say to him, she hadn't imagined that she would have to do it that night.

"Can I get you anything? Glass of water, cup of tea?" he asked, walking over to her and kissing her softly on the top of her head.

"No, thanks, Sam made me some tea."

"Good." He sat down opposite her and studied her. Even though she looked pale and tired, he still thought she was gorgeous. "I think your phone's out of order, by the way. I left you a message on Saturday but its been ringing and ringing since then."

"No, it's not out of order, I unplugged it."

"Oh. Well, your idea for Saturday was brilliant, Alice thought it was marvellous."

"Good, I'm glad she enjoyed herself."

"Yes, we both did," William said, thinking that Elizabeth must be feeling quite bad as she seemed hardly able to talk to him. "I wondered what you thought about all four of us spending some time together next weekend. You know, I think Alice loves you almost as much as I do, and she and Sam get on, and I know maybe it's a bit premature to be acting like a family, but what do you say?"

Elizabeth pulled herself up into a sitting position as she tried to comprehend what he'd said. It was so at odds with the things she knew they had to talk about that for a moment she couldn't answer. William looked at her expectantly.

"Well, previously, I might have thought it a good idea," she said eventually. "But right now, I can't say I do."

"Oh, are you busy?" he asked, disappointed by her answer and puzzled by her behaviour and attitude.

"It's not that. I need to talk to you about some things," she said finally.

"OK," William answered somewhat nervously, guessing from her approach so far that this wasn't going to be good, and fearing the worst.

"Why did you keep your real job a secret?"

"My real job?" William said, feeling worried that he was about to step on very shaky ground. He knew he'd been evasive during their weekend away, but he'd had his reasons. "My day to day job is to look after a number of charitable funds and make grants."

"And the Pemberley Group?"

"Oh."

"I looked you up on the internet," Elizabeth said, in a resigned tone of voice. "Pemberley, one of the largest property owners in the south east, with holdings in the north and Midlands. Also involved in shipping, and the import and export business. Family company. Owned by the Darcy family. Chairman of the Board of Directors, William Darcy."

"You checked me out?" William said. "Am I going to be followed home by a private detective?" He was upset and annoyed that she had taken that approach to finding out about him.

"Don't be ridiculous."

"What's ridiculous is that you looked me up! Why didn't you just ask?"

"Why should I have to? Why didn't you just tell me who you are? William, you made me believe that you were the same as everyone else, but you're not, you're one of the richest men in London. I shouldn't have had to go online to find that out."

"No, you shouldn't." He sighed and leaned back in his chair.

"So, is that all the reply I get?" Elizabeth said in a tired voice. "I might expect a bit of an explanation."

"I'm sorry if you feel misled. I never intended it that way," he replied haltingly, pausing to gather his thoughts before continuing. "But it was nice that you didn't know anything about me, that you had no pre-conceived ideas. You made me believe ... that you liked me just ... just as I am, not because you read my name in the paper, or could get your photograph on the social pages of the Tatler."

"People aren't like that these days," Elizabeth scoffed.

"Have you any idea what it's like to be divorced at 29 and know that there are people who are glad you're divorced because it means you're back in the marketplace? Women who look at you as a bank balance first and a man second?"

"You have a very poor opinion of women," Elizabeth said sharply.

"No, I have a poor opinion of some of the people I've met in those circles."

"You thought if I knew the truth I would be after you for your money?"

William didn't answer. He was filled with regrets at not being open with her from the beginning.

"You don't trust me then. The fact that even though I knew nothing about who you really were or how much you earned, but still went out with you, still let you be the first man who's slept in my bed..." Elizabeth stopped, her throat choked with tears of hurt and anger.

William felt as if the most precious thing he'd ever come close to holding was slipping away from him.

"I have the highest regard for you. And that's one reason I didn't say anything, I suppose. I look at you, working hard, doing a really important job, doing well with Sam and having a lovely home, and I felt embarrassed. The truth is, I don't have to work. I do it because I need something to do. I like what I do but I don't have to go to work to survive. You do. If you're honest, you must have guessed that there was a big gap in our situations. Alice's school doesn't come cheap."

"Don't patronise me with some kind of superiority game about schools," Elizabeth said. "We've been down that road before."

"I'm not patronising you," William replied, feeling exasperated. "I'm trying to explain that there is a big difference in our backgrounds but I don't care. I love you and I admire you, full stop. And I thought you loved me."

"How can I love you now?" Elizabeth said, on the verge of tears after his declaration of love but still feeling hurt. "You didn't trust me, and you lied to me."

"I never lied to you. I should perhaps have been more open, but I never lied."

"Why didn't you tell me you knew my sister?"

"I don't know your sister," William answered, surprised by the sudden change of subject. "I've never met the one in Hampstead and your other sister's in Japan."

"My sister Jane. You do know her. She's married to your ex best friend, Charles Bingley, no thanks to you."

"I don't know what you mean," William said, confused by Elizabeth's statement, and startled by the sound of a name he hadn't heard in years.

"My sister went out with your best friend, and you tried to break them up. You managed it, once, but they got back together. She mended the heart you almost broke, but then you broke Charlie's heart too."

"No, this can't be right," William said, dredging up memories long buried, and beginning to feel alarmed.

"Didn't you realise that we're the same family?" Elizabeth said. "You must have known all along, but you said nothing. How did you think you were going to get away with it?"

"Hang on, how would I realise? You have a sister called Jane. A friend of mine married someone called Jane 15 years ago. How many Janes do you think I've spoken to in the last 15 years?"

"Do the sums, William. Bennet. Lots of sisters. How many Jane Bennets do you know with lots of sisters? Jane who's married to someone called Charles, your ex-wife's step-brother."

"You have two sisters, Jane and Mary. You've never mentioned Charles by name, you only ever refer to him as "my brother-in-law." And for all I know, Bennet could be Sam's father's name, you've never said anything about him."

"Leave Sam out of this!" Elizabeth said angrily. "I have four sisters. As well as Jane and Mary, I have two younger ones. We don't get on and I hardly ever see them."

"Well, you never told me," William said. "So don't get angry with me because I didn't know all the facts! You accuse me of being secretive, but you're just the same!"

William stood up, and strode away from her, too confused and angry to be thinking straight. Having fallen headlong into an argument he never expected, his mind was racing to keep up.

"I am not!" Elizabeth shouted, then winced and rubbed her head as she felt a jolt of pain. "And stop trying to change the subject. I want to know if it's true. Did you try to split my sister Jane from your friend Charles?"

William sighed, and turned to look at Elizabeth. The situation was bad enough already, and there was nothing to be gained by failing to tell the truth.

"Yes. If Jane is your sister, then I tried to split them up."

There was a silence so long it seemed as if neither of them would be able to break it. Eventually Elizabeth spoke.

"You don't deny it."

"No."

Elizabeth slumped into her chair. Jane had been telling the truth, as much as she had tried to deny it to herself.

"I think you should go now."

"But ..."

William stopped as Elizabeth looked away from him, the hurt in her eyes obvious, the rejection in her body language clear.

"Well, this past week has shown me to be a man with very many faults," he said, almost to himself. "I can see you don't want me here. I hope you'll be feeling better soon."

Elizabeth heard him leave the room, heard his footsteps recede down the hallway and the front door shut. She closed her eyes as the pain in her head came back with a viciousness she had not felt before, and allowed the tears to roll unchecked down her cheeks.

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