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icons by Aimala

 

What We Did on Our Holidays
[Modern/NC17]

Chapter 24

William began to regret leaving so abruptly almost as soon as he was in his car. However, he rationalised to himself, in the mood she was in Elizabeth was unlikely to have listened to him trying to explain himself. He drove home, unable to shift her final words to him from his head. Once he was home and searching for the corkscrew in his kitchen, he couldn't stop himself thinking about how much he preferred Elizabeth's slightly chaotic but warm kitchen to his fashionable modernist one. He poured himself a glass of wine and went to his study, again a tidy functional room with no disorder in sight. He sat down, switched on his computer and sipped his wine. He looked at his surroundings with a fresh eye these days. His house was not ostentatious but it was clearly the home of a wealthy man. He corrected himself. It was the house of a wealthy man. Elizabeth's was a home. He knew he should have been open with her from the start, but somehow once they were in the middle of things, it had never seemed the right time to say anything. Besides, he pondered, what would he say? How would he announce to someone who was not accustomed to moving in the sort of circles he had moved in that he was more than amply qualified to hobnob with the rich and famous whenever he wanted to? The fact that it had never been his idea of fun, that he had been dragged along to more London Fashion Week parties than he cared to remember, launches of glamorous shops and even a few film premieres was beside the point. The first argument with Caroline had begun over a party. To get from there to a divorce had not been terribly difficult for them, he reflected, just a couple of years of increasing animosity until she had announced that she was leaving him to move to the South of France with her now widowed mother, taking Alice with her.

William thought back to the day he had heard that Caroline's step-father, Charles' father, had died, and how he almost phoned Charles to offer his sympathies, and how Caroline had stopped him. It was not long after Charles had married Jane. That was the first time he had seen Caroline's vicious side, and more than once since then he had bitterly regretted not ignoring her, and regretting that she had got to the telephone first. His fingers went to the small scar just underneath the hairline of his temple, invisible to anyone who didn't know it was there, but a reminder of Caroline's accuracy at hurling household objects. He had been stupid and short-sighted to interfere in his friend's life, and too proud to be the one to back down, and now he was left with no best friend and no girlfriend.

"Be sure your sins will find you out," he muttered to himself as he went back to the kitchen to refill his glass. He laughed, a short, sarcastic bark as he remembered his grandmother scaring him with that phrase when he was a little boy. She had turned out to be right, after all.

He logged on to his email account and found a message from Alice, sent from school.

Hi Daddy
Thanks for a brilliant weekend, all the girls in my dorm think my Pout stuff is great and that you must be a really cool Dad to take me there. School was OK today but I still want to come home on Friday. Say hi to Elizabeth from me. Lots of love Alice

There was also one from Richard and Ellen's home address, inviting him to Emily's forthcoming birthday party along with Elizabeth, Alice and Sam, and one from Georgie, saying that she had been invited and asking whether she, Stéphane and Sylvie could stay with him. Georgie's expressed hope that she would be able to meet Elizabeth at the party, in two week's time, only served to deepen the pain in his heart. He settled down to answer as briefly as he could, not yet wishing to admit that it was over with Elizabeth. It occurred to him how naturally she had fitted into his life and been accepted without question by everyone dear to him, as evidenced by her being mentioned in every message. He went back over every word she had said, unable to recall her saying to him that it was over. She was obviously hurt but a tiny glimmer of hope flickered in his heart. If she didn't tell him it was finished, then perhaps it wasn't. Perhaps if she allowed him to explain, he could make things better. With renewed energy, he began to compose the hardest email he had ever had to send.

~ * ~

As the weekend approached, the tumult of different emotions being felt by the two little families of Bennet and Darcy intensified. Alice was excited about going home for the weekend again, wondering what her Dad would have planned this time. Sam was relieved that it was nearly time for school to finish. All Jack had talked about all week was the huge house they were getting in the countryside when they moved north, and he found it hard to share his friend's enthusiasm. Elizabeth was tired, ground down by having had to force herself to get through a hectic week at work while in a state of misery. At least she had been so busy, she had hardly had time to sit at her desk and mope. William's optimism had diminished steadily each day as his inbox failed to indicate the arrival of the response he desired most eagerly.

Most of Saturday for the Bennets was taken up with football, and Elizabeth couldn't help but contrast the previous football tournament and the pizza that followed with this one. She missed William, the way he would phone at night to say goodnight, or the way he would pop in at odd moments with some excuse or other about just passing by. She had spent much of the week going over the things she had said, remembering everything he had said, wishing it had been different and breaking her heart anew each time she remembered him saying that he loved her. Jane had phoned midweek, but she hadn't felt like talking and had ended the call abruptly to avoid breaking down in tears in front of Sam. She was sure he had guessed that something was wrong but knew that she couldn't tell him without crying.

Saturday for the Darcys had been a lazy day. Alice had seemed very tired when William had picked her up the previous evening, and had slept in most of the morning. During the afternoon, she had worked on a project for school, and in the evening readily agreed to William's suggestion of a video. Once the film had finished, she stretched and yawned, and announced that she was going to bed.

"What are we doing tomorrow?" she asked. "Are we going to see Sam and Elizabeth?"

"No," William said sharply, then immediately regretted his brusqueness. "They're busy. Have a think about what you'd like to do as you doze off, and you can tell me in the morning."

"OK," Alice replied thoughtfully. She was used to her father being fairly quiet and reserved but his response just then had confirmed her suspicion that something had gone badly wrong. He hadn't mentioned Elizabeth once in the previous 24 hours which was a sharp contrast to the previous weekend. Instead of pondering how to spend the next day as she fell asleep, her thoughts revolved around what to do with her Dad. The happy version of him was too closely tied up with Elizabeth for Alice to let it go without a fight.

Elizabeth woke on Sunday to find that the weather matched her mood exactly. It was raining, overcast and miserable. She had hoped to persuade Sam that they should drive out somewhere and go for a walk, but she didn't feel like dragging herself outdoors. Sam spent much of Sunday doing the homework he hadn't completed the week before.

"Can I go online?" he shouted half way through the afternoon. "Is the internet working now?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth replied, wondering if all families conducted their business at top volume instead of coming downstairs to ask the questions. "I'll do my emails later if it is. I haven't looked for a few days."

It was teatime by the time Sam had finished and Elizabeth got online. She opened her email account and felt her hands begin to shake as she noticed an email from William with "Please read me" as the subject. He had sent it in the early hours of Tuesday morning. She stared at his name in the inbox for a while, and then opened the message.

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you for opening this message rather than sending it straight to the bin. Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest any cosy family outings, as it hardly seems appropriate in the circumstances. I just request that you allow me to explain a little more.

First of all, you're right, I should have told you more about myself and my business, but somehow it never seemed the right time. I know that's my own fault, I keep things to myself that perhaps I should share. On top of that, I was brought up to believe that talking about money was rather vulgar, and I could never quite find the words to begin telling you. So please let me tell you now.

The Pemberley Group is an umbrella for a group of family companies, mainly myself and my cousins. Richard's company, Fitzwilliam Estates, is part of the property arm of the Group. Another cousin, Anne, runs an antiques and fine arts business, DeBourghs. We have in fact just sold off the shipping segment of the company. My great-grandfather, who took over a small family concern and built it up to a large empire, was a typical Victorian philanthropist and established several trust funds to finance charitable works. That is the segment of the business that I run. I am also Chairman, as you discovered, and Richard is vice Chairman, although most of the important day to day business decisions are taken care of by our Managing Director, who is not a family member. Nowadays, the family tend to take a smaller role in the company and we are lucky enough to be able to indulge our preferences for the work we like to do.

I'm sorry that you found out the way you did, and I hope that my reasons made sense. In no way did I mean to slight you by anything I have done, and I am sorry if I hurt you. I'm sure Richard would be happy to talk to you about the business if you would rather talk to him than to me.

As for your other accusation, I can only hold up my hand and say that yes, you were right again. Many years ago I did something I never should have done, I interfered with a friend's love life. At the time I thought I was right, but now I realise that I was young and foolish and the consequences - of losing a dear friend - have caused me to regret my stupidity many, many times. I can remember your sister and would surely have recognised her had you introduced us. She was beautiful and rather serene, as I recall. To be honest, I thought that she might be fond of Charles but no more than that. I never saw her excited to be with him, in fact she seemed rather cool. And he is a sweet and gentle man, as I am sure you are aware, and had been taken for a ride and hurt rather badly a few times at University. I suppose I sought to protect him from more hurt. Caroline agreed, but now I realise her motives were pure snobbery. She never liked your sister, and for the life of me, now, I can't remember why she took such a sudden dislike. However, it wasn't helped by two younger sisters who were very rowdy and quite badly behaved. I'm sure I don't remember you being there that summer, but I do remember coming out of a party to find a rather young girl in a compromising position with a soldier from the local regiment. I assume this is the sister you don't get on with.

The fact that Charles and Jane married, and are together now, is proof of my utter wrong-headedness, and I am happy to know that they are still a couple. If there was a way that I could put this right, I would. But my own pride and stubbornness has probably prevented me from being able to right a wrong that I so wish had never happened.

I hope your headache didn't last long, and that you are soon feeling better. Thank you for getting this far with this overlong email. Take care of yourself, Elizabeth.

With love William

Elizabeth read it several times, mulling over the points he had made. If he thought talking about money was vulgar, and he had overheard the outburst that Jane had reported their mother coming out with in front of Charles, then he might have been drawn to think that Jane was interested in Charles for his bank balance, and would have been justified in calling their mother a bloody awful woman. Elizabeth had to admit to herself that she'd thought worse than that over the years. And Jane was serene, that was a very good description of her ... and she and Charles had tried to keep their relationship quiet at first .... and if William had seen the incident with Lydia ... Elizabeth's mind was racing as she tried to compare all the different versions of events. Nevertheless, the ultimate fact remained - he had interfered where he should not have done, and caused harm. However, the fact that he seemed very remorseful about it was in his favour.

She sighed and read the email again. None of her thoughts mattered anyway, she reflected, as he didn't give any hint in the message that he wanted them to remain together. Now that he associated her with her two youngest sisters and her mother, he wouldn't want to know her anyway. Besides, she had gone over the fateful evening so many times in her mind that she was all too painfully aware that she herself had not been as open or as fair as she should have been. She could hardly demand things of William that she was not prepared to give of herself. She closed the message and went downstairs to finish preparing the evening meal.

~ * ~

It had been clear to Sam for several days that his Mum wasn't her normal self. Once, he suspected she had been crying, but she had blamed it on watching a weepy bit on the telly. His suspicions were confirmed when he checked his email after school on Monday, glad that his computer was functioning properly once more and he could go online again. Alice had sent him a message when she had returned to school earlier that day.

Hi Sam,
How r u? Thought we might c u this weekend but my Dad was in a funny mood. Has he fallen out with ur Mum? Can u chat tonite on IM? Ally

PS I'm changing my name when I move school. Don't tell NE1 tho

Sam reread the message thoughtfully as he went over the previous week's events in his mind. William hadn't been round since the previous Monday, and he hadn't been there when Sam got home from Jack's which he had thought was a bit odd. They must have had an argument. He sent his message back to Alice.

hey ally (cool name).
not sure if I can chat, got loads of work to do. But I think they had a row last week. Mail me back. sam

He logged off and got on with his homework. When he checked just before tea, there was a reply.

thanks about the name. do u think they will get back 2gether? I like ur mum and my Dad's way cooler when he's with her.

He responded quickly as Elizabeth had just shouted for him to come downstairs.

dunno. Hope so tho cos she is miz at the mo and ur Dad is cool. Was going 2 take me 2 football next week but guess that's off now. Got 2 go 4 T, c u, sam

Both Sam and Alice felt better now that they thought they knew what was wrong. Alice immediately started working out what she might be able to do to get the two adults back together. In one very clear way, William had been right when he had thought to himself that she was like him. She was very much cast in the Darcy mould in her determination to make things go the way she wanted them to.

Once they had eaten, Sam offered to make Elizabeth a cup of tea. She had told him she was tired, and accepted his offer gratefully, leaving the kitchen to head for the sitting room and a collapse onto the sofa. As soon as she had gone, Sam picked up the phone.

"Hi, Uncle Charles, it's me. Yeah, I'm fine. I wondered if I could borrow the book we were looking at on Sunday, it'd be good for a project. Oh, thanks! Brilliant! See you tomorrow then."

Sam put the phone down feeling very pleased with himself. If his uncle brought the book round, he might cheer Elizabeth up a bit too. She was usually pleased to see him. Sam made the drinks and took them through, and the two of them spent the rest of the evening watching TV.

William was feeling very morose at home alone on Monday. He missed Alice, he realised now. Having her around for two weekends now made the weeks seem rather empty. He also missed Elizabeth almost more than he could bear, but was resigned to going back to his single status as it seemed clear now that she wanted nothing more to do with him. When his deep reverie was disturbed by the phone ringing, his heart leapt and he felt quite nervous picking it up.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Will, it's me."

William swallowed his disappointment at the sound of Richard's voice.

"Listen, you haven't forgotten about this football match on Saturday, have you? What time do you want us to come up to you?"

William groaned as he had forgotten, then felt sick as he realised the implications of the football match.

"Damn!" he said. "Yes, I'd forgotten. And there might be a bit of a problem, in fact two problems."

"Oh?"

"Alice will be here on Saturday of course," William explained. "And I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to take Sam."

The gloomy tone of William's voice told Richard that there was something badly wrong, but before he could ask, William told him what had happened the previous week.

"Oh, bloody hell," Richard said. "And you haven't spoken since?"

"No. I thought there might be a chance we could sort it all out, but she hasn't been in touch. I emailed her and she hasn't answered. Taking Sam to the match had completely slipped my mind. And I don't suppose I can take him now anyway."

"I'm not surprised you forgot," Richard said sympathetically. "It doesn't seem like Elizabeth to just cut you off though. Maybe you should try again."

"I don't know." The weary resignation in William's tone was loud and clear. "How?"

"Well, for one thing, you don't want to disappoint Sam, do you? So phone her, remind her about the football and say you'd like to take him, if she doesn't mind. See what happens."

"You've been taking lessons from Ellen, haven't you?" William said, laughing for the first time in days.

"Some of her loveliness must have rubbed off on me," Richard said, as Ellen walked past him and gave him a playful nudge. "But we both think you and Elizabeth are great together and it would be a shame if it was mucked up."

"If I've mucked it up, you mean."

"You said it!" Richard laughed. "Anyway, do it. Call her."

"And Alice?"

"She can have my ticket."

"What?" William yelped. "Me, take three kids out for the day?"

"Three's nothing," Richard laughed. "At least they can all go to the loo by themselves. Anyway, got to go, I'm needed upstairs."

Richard had put the phone down before William could respond, leaving Richard grinning and feeling pleased with himself while William's turmoil began all over again.

On Tuesday night, Sam was late home after football practice but Elizabeth was even later, having been held up in a meeting. Sam noticed that the answerphone was flashing, indicating that there were two messages so he played them.

Sam, it's Mum, I'm going to be half an hour late, sorry! See you as soon as I can.

He couldn't help grinning and ruefully shaking his head at her thoroughness. She had already sent him a text message. Trust his Mum to double check everything, he thought. The machine clicked and the next message played.

Oh, hi, it's William. I was just phoning to say ... umm ... to see about Saturday. The football match. If it's still alright for Sam to come. Could you call me? Or I'll call you later. Bye.

Sam dialled 1471, hoping that it was William's number that had been stored last. He wrote it down, then contemplated the piece of paper. If he and Alice were right, and the adults had fallen out, his Mum might not let him go to the football match. He decided that pre-emptive action was necessary. He deleted William's message, and dialled the number.

"Darcy."

"Hello. It's Sam."

William had jumped out of his skin when the phone rang and it took his brain a few seconds to stop racing and work out who was speaking.

"Oh, right, hi Sam, how are you?" he asked, hoping his voice didn't sound as shaky as it seemed, and wishing his arms didn't feel quite so odd from the burst of adrenalin that had shot through his body.

"I'm fine thank you," Sam replied politely. "I was just phoning up to say that I can come to the match. Mum's working late tonight so I'm phoning instead."

"OK," William replied. "That's good, that you can still come. Are you on your own in the house?"

"My Uncle Charles is coming round in a minute. I'll meet you at the ground on Saturday. There's a burger van just outside the main entrance to the East Stand. I'll be there at half past 2."

"Right," William said, still not really thinking straight but going along with Sam's instructions. "We'll see you on Saturday."

"OK, bye!" Sam said cheerfully and put the phone down. He felt very pleased with himself now, and went to email Alice to tell her the latest developments.

Elizabeth climbed wearily out of her car and was momentarily confused to see a tall man walking purposefully towards her. She felt a lurch in her stomach as she wondered whether it was William, but heard a cheerily familiar voice call out.

"Hello! Just getting home?"

"Hi Charles. I got stuck in a meeting that dragged on and on. What are you doing here? Not that you're not welcome, of course."

"I'm delivering a book for Sam," Charles said, holding up the book to show her. "He said he needs it for school."

"Well, come in," Elizabeth said. "He'll be in the house somewhere, I'm sure. Probably on the computer now it's fixed."

He followed her into the house, and they found Sam in the kitchen, desperately trying to mop up milk and wiping the microwave.

"What's happened here?" Elizabeth asked in a resigned tone.

"Well, I got it a bit wrong when I pressed the button on the microwave," Sam said, trying to be surreptitious as he threw half a soggy kitchen roll in the bin. "Sorry."

"Oh Sam," Elizabeth grumbled. "Charles is here, he's brought you a book. Shoo while I finish cleaning up."

"Brilliant, thanks Uncle Charles!" Sam said, and began to leaf through the pages as Elizabeth shrugged off her coat and picked up a cloth.

"Put the kettle on, Charles, have a cup of tea while you're here. If Sam's left us any milk, that is."

Sam decided that it was a good moment to make himself scarce, leaving Charles and Elizabeth alone in the kitchen.

"So, how are you?" Charles asked. Elizabeth had her back to him as she carrying on wiping up milk, but he could see her shoulders tense.

"Fine," she managed to mutter. She wished people wouldn't ask how she was in such caring voices as she always felt fine until someone was kind towards her, and then somehow the floodgates seemed to be opened.

"Really?" Charles asked. In some ways, Jane and Elizabeth were alike, and he could tell something was very wrong. He had suspected as much after Jane's report of her curtailed telephone call, and probably would have called round to see Elizabeth even without Sam's request.

"No," Elizabeth said in a rather squeaky voice as she turned round. "Actually I'm not."

"I can see that," Charles said sympathetically. "Come here, sit down. I'll do that."

He guided her to a chair and took the cloth from her, quickly cleaning up the last of the mess that Sam had made. He made the tea when the kettle boiled, and set a mug down in front of her.

"Now, tell Uncle Charlie what's wrong," he said, trying to make her look at him directly until finally she did so, managing a rather shaky grin.

"Well, I suppose you know what Jane told me," she said, and continued as Charles nodded. "I asked William about it, and we ended up having a row. He admitted that Jane was telling the truth. I just froze, and couldn't think straight, and then I told him to leave."

"Right," Charles said slowly. "And this was when?"

"A week ago."

"And what's happened since?"

"He sent me an email, but he wrote on Tuesday and 'cos our computer's been playing up I didn't read it 'til Sunday."

"And what did the email say?"

"Some stuff about work, and some things about you and Jane, about what had happened from his point of view."

"Oh," Charles replied, thoughtfully. "And what do you think now?"

"I feel so muddled," Elizabeth said. "Some of what he says makes sense, but I can't quite get beyond the fact that he interfered in yours and Jane's life. But I miss him, Charlie, and yet I can't reconcile the things I feel with the things I know about him."

"He will have told you the truth about himself, I'm sure of that. Half the problem in the past was that he can be brutally honest. The other half was that he was as stubborn as a donkey, well, we both were," Charles said. "He only had to say he was sorry before our wedding, or even afterwards would have done. It's so stupid that it's gone on like this. But that's William for you. Never wrong."

"What if he admitted he was wrong now?" Elizabeth asked, sensing a lifeline being thrown.

Charles thought for a while before shrugging and replying. "I suppose, if he said he was sorry, he and I could at least try to get on."

"You'd speak to him, if he apologised to you?" Elizabeth asked in amazement. "I got the impression Jane would cut off vital bits of him if he came near."

"He wouldn't be much use to you then, would he?" Charles laughed. "No, I think she dredged up a lot of pain along with those memories, some of it got taken out on you, and I'm really sorry about that. And you both know I hate arguing, and if it made you happy then I would be glad to see William again. It might be a bit strange at first, but certainly a lot less unpleasant than falling out with you."

Elizabeth got the now well worn email out of her bag and pushed it across the table. She watched him as he read it, until finally he looked up and smiled at Elizabeth.

"Why couldn't the silly bugger have said this 15 years ago?"

Elizabeth gulped back a mixture of tears and a giggle as she felt her worries fade. At least one of the obstacles seemed easier to clear.

"Oh, Charlie, I've been so tired this week," she sighed wearily. "And I have to keep myself going when all I want to do is crawl under the covers and never come out. I've been trying so hard to keep going and not let Sam see what a state I'm in, but I'm sure he's guessed."

"He knows," Charles said. "I guessed it wasn't the book he wanted when he phoned me up."

"You're too good to us," Elizabeth said quietly, feeling quite exhausted by the emotional turmoil she had been going through.

"Not at all," Charles said as he smiled and stood up. "You know I'd do pretty much anything for you and Sam. Anyway, I better be going, otherwise the ferocious harpy that I married will have my guts for garters!"

Elizabeth burst out laughing at Charles' description of Jane.

"There, I knew you could do it," he said. "More of that and no more tears please."

Elizabeth nodded as she followed him to the front door.

"Bye Sam!" he shouted. "Enjoy the book! And Lizzy, just let me know if there's something you want me to do, OK?"

He gave her a hug, then walked swiftly down the road to his car, turning to wave before getting in and driving home. Elizabeth waved back, and went indoors, pondering on Charles' words. That he would accept an apology from William was remarkable, she thought. The main obstacle now was whether William was prepared to reconsider all the dreadful things she had said to him, and indeed whether he could get past the fact that the girl exhibiting shameful behaviour was her sister.

William half listened to the news whilst reflecting on his conversation with Richard the day before, and his phone call from Sam. Taking Alice to the football match might be alright, he thought, and certainly he didn't want to have to leave her with anyone when their relationship was at such a fragile stage. Georgie and her little gang would be arriving late morning, and although her initial response to him telling her that he was going to a football match was to hoot with laughter, she had calmed down enough to tell him that they would amuse themselves for the afternoon. The call from Sam was more puzzling. Perhaps Elizabeth had heard the message and agreed that Sam should go, in which case he thought perhaps he was back in with a chance, but if that was so, why had Elizabeth not called? Perhaps Elizabeth didn't want to disappoint Sam but could not bring herself to call. William became despondent again as he went round and round in circles. Unable to come to a conclusion, and far from the correct conclusion, he wandered into his study to email Alice.

Alice read her messages on Wednesday evening and immediately replied to William to say that she wanted to go to the match. She logged onto the Arsenal website, determined to learn the names of the players so that she wouldn't look stupid in front of the boys. As she scrolled through the pages, an idea formed in her mind, and just before she had to log off and go up to the dorm, she emailed Sam. That night she fell asleep with a little smile on her face.

Chapter 25

Elizabeth had been rather startled when Sam had announced that he was going to Highbury on Saturday afternoon, and demanded that he explain himself. Discovering that William had left a message and that Sam had responded left her speechless for a moment. William had phoned, and she knew nothing about it, but meanwhile she had been torturing herself with thoughts about phoning him, planning what to say, and never quite finding the right time to phone. She wasn't sure whether to be cross or relieved.

"Tell me again what he said," she insisted, and Sam repeated the message.

"And you've arranged to meet them there? At the ground?"

"Yes, and I have to go in a minute."

"But you didn't think to tell me anything about this?"

Sam had been deliberately evasive to minimise the chances of being told he couldn't go.

"I forgot," he said. "Anyway, I can go, can't I?"

"It's a bit of a fait accompli, Samuel," Elizabeth said sternly, letting Sam know he was in serious trouble. His full name was only used on such occasions. "Presumably they will have set off by now."

"Sorry," he said, genuinely apologetic but still hopeful.

"You can go," Elizabeth said, not really wanting to deprive him but still feeling annoyed with him. "But no more sneaking about after today, OK?"

"OK," he agreed. After all, the next bit of sneaking about would be over by the end of the day.

"Do this again and you're grounded."

"OK. Why don't you go to the bookshop while I'm out, and read stuff so you don't have to buy it?"

"Samuel Bennet, you are pushing your luck!" Elizabeth said, only half crossly as she couldn't resist his cheeky grin and he knew it. "If you're going to be late back, I'll go for a swim and the ladies only session at the Turkish baths."

She gave him what he thought of as one of her fierce looks, although he knew he was forgiven, or very nearly so.

"Have you got enough money?" she asked.

"Yes, I think so. I'll see you later then," he said, and set off down the hall.

"Sam!" Elizabeth called. "Be careful. And be good!"

Sam groaned and shouted goodbye as he left the house to make his way to Highbury.

Alice opened the door at lunchtime to see Georgie, Sylvie and Stéphane standing on the step. Amidst much noise of chatter and laughter, she let them in and shouted for William.

"Daddy! Georgie's here!"

He came downstairs and another round of greetings and chatter ensued.

"Come in, I'll take your bags upstairs," he said, amazed at the amount of luggage they had brought. "Are you planning on moving home?"

"No, silly," Georgie laughed. "You've forgotten what it's like to travel with a baby."

"Just wait 'til you have to travel with a teenager and their 37 nail varnishes and 100 lip glosses!"

"Oh Daddy, I haven't got 100!" Alice replied.

"I see you don't deny the 37," he teased in response.

Georgie watched the ease and the banter between them with amazement. She had never seen William this relaxed with Alice before. She wondered whether it was the influence of the change in school arrangements, or, more likely, the influence of a certain woman.

"So, home at weekends now?" she asked Alice.

"Yes, it's really good," she replied enthusiastically. "Much better than being at school all the time. And when I'm at home all the time that will be even better."

Georgie cast a quizzical glance at William. The last time she had spoken to him, he had said this change was a possibility, not a definite.

"I'm looking at day schools round here," he replied in response to Georgie's raised eyebrows. "It's not finalised yet. Anyway, you go on in to the living room, I'll try and get all this stuff upstairs without giving myself a hernia."

When he and Stéphane returned, they found Alice playing with Sylvie on the floor while Georgie gazed out of the window.

"I always forget what a nice peaceful spot this is, right in the middle of London," she said. "And you've got the garden looking lovely."

"Don't give me the credit," William replied. "It's Mr Reynolds who does it."

"Oh, how are Mr and Mrs R?" Georgie asked eagerly.

"They're fine," William replied. "He likes to keep up with the garden, and I don't think he'll ever really retire. And she still keeps an eye on me, although she doesn't come in every day as she used to."

He was saved from answering Georgie's question about whether Elizabeth liked the garden by another knock at the door. He excused himself to answer it, and found Richard and Tom on the doorstep, Tom kitted out with Arsenal scarf and a very excited expression on his face.

"Perfect timing," William said. "Georgie's here."

"Excellent!" Richard said and made his way into the house to greet his youngest cousin. The volume seemed to increase exponentially as the numbers in the room increased, and William could hardly make himself heard.

"Would you like something to eat?" he eventually managed to ask Georgie.

"No, thanks," she replied. "We had a snack on the way over." She turned to Richard. "So, have you met Elizabeth? What's she like? Come on Richard, spill the beans!"

"She's very nice," Richard replied, flashing a puzzled look at William.

"Right, time for us to get going, I think," William said quickly. "We need to allow plenty of time to find somewhere to park and look for Sam. Georgie, the spare key is in the usual place and you know where everything is in the kitchen. Help yourself. Alice, get your shoes and coat."

Richard followed him into the hallway.

"What's all that about? Are you and Elizabeth back together?"

William shook his head.

"And you haven't told Georgie what's happened," Richard said, shaking his head with exasperation at William. "But you're taking Sam to the game?"

"Yes. I took your advice and phoned, he phoned me back to say he could come. I wasn't sure if that meant Elizabeth thought everything was OK, or if she couldn't bear to talk to me. Since she hasn't phoned back, I suppose it's the latter."

"Do the kids know what's going on?"

"No. I haven't said anything to Alice," William said despondently. "I didn't want to until I was sure it was final. I suppose I'll say something later."

"Come on kids!" Richard called as Alice reappeared at the top of the stairs. "William's ready to go!"

Again the noise level rose as the goodbyes were said and arrangements made for dropping Tom at home later on. Richard dug into his pocket and gave Tom £5, then handed a £5 note to Alice.

"Just a bit of spending money," he said, waving away William's protests and giving another note to Alice. "And Alice, give this to Sam, tell him it's from his Uncle Richard. Then you've all got the same and everything's fair."

Finally William's little excursion set off, Tom chattering excitedly in the back about how he was going to spend his money. Alice sat quietly, looking forward to having a chance to compare notes with Sam.

Sam finally spotted William, Alice and Tom making their way along the crowded pavements leading to the stadium. William heard a shout and noticed him jumping up and down, waving madly. He wrinkled his noise at the sickly hot smell emanating from the burger van, and once they had all said hello, urged the children towards the turnstiles. It occurred to William that Sam didn't seem surprised to see Alice, and he recalled that they had swapped email addresses when they met at the Open Day. Only three weeks ago, but it seemed so much longer to him.

"We need our tickets," Sam said. "And you go through there. You're an adult, we're juniors," he explained patiently, pointing to the different turnstiles with the signs above them.

"Do as Sam says, Daddy, he knows what to do."

"OK, Sam, you're the boss here," William said, making Sam grin proudly.

"We'll see you inside," Sam said, and led his little band away. Once inside the stadium, he collected William and led the group to a programme seller. Before he could get his own money, Alice remembered the £5 note and handed it to him.

"This is from your Uncle Richard," she said, and shrugged in response to Sam's quizzical look. They bought their programmes and Sam pushed his way through the crowd followed by Tom and Alice with William bringing up the rear, somewhat worried amongst this mass of people that he was going to lose one of the children. They climbed the concrete steps that went up the back of the stand, hardly able to see ahead of them because of the number of people around them, until they suddenly emerged from a short tunnel onto the East Stand.

"Wow!" Tom sighed, completely awe struck at his first glimpse inside Highbury. Alice gazed around the ground. Beneath them, the pitch was a bright emerald green, and a few players were jogging across the grass, warming up. On all sides, the rectangle of grass was surrounded by banks of seating, rapidly filling up with thousands of people, some waving flags and some setting off small waves of chanting. The buzz of conversation around them added to the excited air of anticipation around the ground. Sam checked the numbers on the tickets and led the way to their seats, pointing out bits of the ground as he went.

"That's the Clock End, and that's the North Bank," he explained. "I usually go over there."

He pointed to the front rows of the lower tier opposite them, almost at ground level. This time, they had seats near the front of the top tier, half way between the centre circle and the penalty spot.

"Perfect," announced Sam as he sat down, giving William a very satisfied smile. There was a break in the pop music being blared from speakers around the ground as the teams were read out. Sam checked the team listing on the back of his programme, and clapped as the stadium announcer read out each name.

The two teams ran out onto the pitch to a roar from the crowd, and William felt his skin prickle with anticipation. He wasn't even terribly interested in football but he understood how easy it was to get caught up in the atmosphere.

Once the match began, Sam followed the movement of the game avidly, muttering encouragement under his breath and groaning when something went wrong. The Liverpool fans in the opposite corner of the ground began to sing, so in response the Arsenal fans in the North Bank starting singing. The noise level grew as one of the Arsenal players got the ball and took off towards the goal.

"Come on, Vieira, come on," urged Sam, on the edge of his seat.

Vieira jinked around a Liverpool defender as the roar of encouragement in the stadium became almost deafening, and shot at the goal only to miss narrowly. Sam howled with despair and slumped back in his seat. Tom, much to William's amusement, was half a second behind Sam as the younger boy copied everything the older one did. Alice meanwhile, was watching the game intently, much to his surprise. Moments later, it was Liverpool's turn for an attack, and as Sam and thousands of others yelled "Defend, Arsenal, defend!" Owen scored a goal. Sam put his head in his hands and groaned, while the Liverpool fans cheered loudly.

At half time, with the score still one-nil to the away team, William went to get refreshments. Alice turned eagerly to Sam.

"So, what's happened this week?"

"Nothing, your Dad's not been round. What's this 'Uncle Richard' thing anyway?"

"That's what he said when he gave me the money to give to you," Alice said. "I'm sure he and Daddy were whispering in the hall before we came out."

"Well, my Uncle Charles came round the other day, and my Mum definitely seems a bit happier."

"What are you talking about?" Tom asked as Alice and Sam fell silent while they had a think.

"Nothing, Tom," Alice said. "You stand up and watch for Daddy coming back, OK?"

"What are we going to do, then?" Sam asked.

"Stick with my plan," Alice said.

"OK, but my Mum's gone out."

"Doesn't matter. We'll just hang about a bit 'til she comes back."

"OK," Sam said, as Tom announced that William was returning.

The match resumed and William found that he was watching Sam almost as much as the game. His absorption was complete as he shouted encouragement and joined in with the chanting. As the time ticked by and the score remained at one-nil, the Liverpool fans were becoming exuberant as the Arsenal fans became quieter. Then uncharacteristically, Hyypia in the Liverpool defence stumbled and lost the ball which was quickly collected by Henry for Arsenal. The Arsenal fans began to shout as he passed to Pires who shot and scored. Sam leapt to his feet, yelling and jumping up and down with his arms in the air. Tom and Alice did the same, and William was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people cheering, hugging, and dancing with delight. He looked at the three children bouncing and singing with their arms around each other, and got a lump in his throat at the sight of them so joyful. With only five minutes to go after the restart, Arsenal packed their defence and soon the Liverpool fans began to whistle, hinting to the referee that it was time for the game to end. Eventually the ninety minutes were up, the referee blew, and the players left the pitch to cheers and clapping. The Liverpool fans were pleased with an away point, and the Arsenal fans glad to have salvaged a point after coming back from a goal down.

William turned to the children.

"Enjoyed that? Shall we go?"

To choruses of "brilliant!" and "yeah, really great!" he led the way out of the ground. Once they got outside, he turned to Sam.

"Can we give you a lift home?"

"Yes please," Sam replied, glancing at Alice who was looking very smug. She had predicted that he would be offered a lift. They followed William to his car, and began the slow crawl through the traffic.

William turned into Sam's street, and parked a little way up from the house.

"Thanks for taking me to the match," Sam said. "It was brilliant."

"You're welcome," William replied. "I'm glad you could come."

"Daddy, I need the loo," Alice said, as planned.

"Come in then," Sam said, also as planned. "You can use our bathroom."

William realised that the children had no idea that there might be a problem with going into the house as it appeared that neither he nor Elizabeth had told their children the truth of what was going on. There was no way of getting out of the situation.

"Won't your Mum mind us all trooping in?" he asked. "You'd better go and check."

"She's gone out," Sam said. "Bet she isn't back yet."

"Daddy, it's getting urgent," Alice whined as Sam tried to stop himself grinning, and got out of the car.

"I've got my key," he said, walked to the house and opened the door, followed by Alice and Tom. William had no option other than to follow.

Alice ran up to the bathroom as Sam led the way to the kitchen.

"Do you want some juice, Tom, or some milk?" he asked, then turned to William. "I'll put the kettle on for you." He knew Alice would take her time in the bathroom, and he had to delay things downstairs, now that it was clear Elizabeth wasn't at home.

William sat down at the kitchen table, feeling slightly dazed. He couldn't tell Sam that there was a reason for them not being able to stay, so he would have to go along with him and hope for the best.

Elizabeth spent Saturday afternoon in a blissful warm fug, first of all having a leisurely swim, and then lounging in the Turkish baths. She decided that a massage was a necessity not a luxury, after the week she'd had, so had one of those too. After a completely indulgent afternoon, she drove home and managed to get the parking space directly outside her house. She went indoors noticing that the lights were on so Sam must be back, and walked to the kitchen, pulling her little woolly hat off her damp hair as she went.

"Elizabeth!"

"William!"

They both jumped in shock at being confronted by the other one so unexpectedly.

"Sam said you were out," William blurted.

"I was," Elizabeth answered, her mind racing as she attempted to comprehend that he was there, in front of her, sitting at her kitchen table.

"Alice needed the loo," he said.

"Are they all OK?"

"Yes, fine.

"And was the match good?" she asked, feeling embarrassed and awkward that he should be here, and see her with wet hair, wearing her baggy track trousers and sweatshirt.

"Yes, they all enjoyed it, I think," he said, entranced by merely seeing Elizabeth and not really noticing that she was in her weekend sloppies.

"Where are they, anyway?"

"Upstairs, I think. Sam took Tom to see his computer. I'll call them, we should leave."

"Oh, OK."

They were interrupted then by the three children reappearing.

"Hi Mum," Sam said. "It was a brilliant game!"

"Hi Elizabeth," Alice said, and walked over to give her a kiss on the cheek. Tom stood shyly to one side.

After a moment of awkwardness, Elizabeth asked them all if they had had a drink, and on hearing that Sam had provided everyone with drinks, asked whether they would like to stay for tea.

"That's really kind, Elizabeth," William replied. "But we can't just descend on you, and I have to get young Tom here back to Richmond."

"But you are coming to Emily's party tomorrow, aren't you?" Alice asked.

Elizabeth was confused and looked at William for an explanation.

"Oh Daddy!" Alice chided. "Don't tell me you forgot to invite Elizabeth! Really, men are hopeless!"

Elizabeth couldn't help laughing at her as she stood there with her hands on her hips telling William off. The last two weeks had clearly done them the world of good.

"I didn't know about it," Elizabeth said. "So I don't think we can come."

"I'm sorry," William said. "I was supposed to have asked you, but Alice is right, it somehow was forgotten. I seem to have had quite a bit on my mind recently." He looked to Elizabeth for a sign that he should continue but she looked at stunned as he felt by these developments. "Emily's two tomorrow, so Ellen's having a bit of a gathering. It's family really, more adults than children probably."

"Emily's friends from Tumble Tots are coming," Tom chipped in.

"If you would like to join us, that would be lovely," William said. "My sister Georgie is over from Paris with her family. I'd like to introduce her to you, if you'd like that."

"Oh please come," Alice said. "It'll be fun."

Elizabeth looked at the row of appealing faces in front of her, William's included, and agreed, wondering what she had let herself in for.

"Excellent!" William said. "It's at two. There's only one problem, I have a car full already so I can't offer you a lift."

"We'll make our own way," Elizabeth said. "Don't worry about it."

They smiled at each other, smiles that spoke of relief and a certain wary happiness. In their eyes, each had an appeal for something - understanding, acceptance - that the other was willing to give. Alice and Sam observed the looks that were passing between the two adults and gave each other satisfied smiles.

Chapter 26

William drove down to Richmond with his carload of happy passengers just after lunchtime on Sunday, ostensibly so that they could help prepare for the party. When they arrived, the house appeared to be in chaos, although Ellen insisted that she was in control. She hugged Alice and Georgie, then cooed over Sylvie who was wriggling furiously in her mother's arms.

"Oh Georgie, she's simply gorgeous!"

"She's turned into a real handful," Georgie said ruefully, and set the baby down on the floor. "Watch this."

With a squeal of excitement, Sylvie set off down the hallway in the wobbly fat-bottomed gait of a toddler who has just found her feet, much to the amusement of the adults.

"What's all this noise?" Richard said, appearing from the playroom. "Hey, you're here at last! Come on in!"

"So, what do you want us to do?" William asked, following the others into the front room.

"Well, I was thinking of videos and table football in the playroom for the bigger kids, and games in here for the smaller ones," Richard said. "What do you think?"

"Sounds good," William said as Stéphane nodded in agreement. "How many are you expecting?"

"Not many," Ellen said. "I invited Emily's best friends Daisy and Poppy who are twins, along with their Mum and Dad, and another friend Cora whose big brother Harry is in Michael's year at school, and their Mum. Richard, was there anyone else? Oh, my friend Laura and her four year old, Josh." She ticked them off on her fingers. "So, about a dozen kids and 9 adults, counting all of us."

"That's not many?" William asked, horrified. He had told Elizabeth that it would be a family party and was hoping that they would be able to find time to talk. He had spent so much of the previous night thinking about what he needed to say that he was bursting with the need to see her.

"Try controlling 35 ten-year-olds in the village hall," Ellen said, laughing. "Come into the kitchen to help me, William."

"Shall I do the music for the games?" Georgie asked.

"Oh, that would be great!" Richard said. "Stéphane, fancy giving me a hand in the playroom?"

William followed Ellen into the kitchen as everyone fell to their appointed tasks. Ellen wanted to speak to William as she had not had a chance the previous evening when he had dropped Tom at home after the match, as he had to get back to Chelsea to spend the evening with Georgie. William, in turn, felt a need to talk to Ellen.

"So," Ellen said in a tone of voice that made it clear that the whole truth, and nothing but, would do. "Tell me what's been going on."

"Richard's told you that Elizabeth and I had a bit of a falling out?" William said lamely, taking the knife that Ellen handed him and beginning to butter the bread she placed in front of him.

"A bit?" Ellen asked incredulously. "Sounds like you really put your foot in it."

"Yes, well, anyway," William said, feeling awkward. "I made some big mistakes a long time ago. I told her I'm sorry, that I'd do anything to put it right, but I hadn't heard from her."

"Then Sam turned up at the football match."

"Yes, he phoned me. It worked out well, actually, all the kids seemed to have a good time."

"Oh, Tom loved it!" Ellen said. "And you know how much he likes Sam."

"So, we gave Sam a lift, Alice wanted the loo, and as I was sitting in the kitchen waiting for the kids, Elizabeth came home and found me there. Bit of a shock for both of us, I think."

"I bet," Ellen muttered as she carried on making sandwiches with the bread that William had buttered.

"And, we didn't really say anything," William said slowly, remembering the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sight of her after such a long gap. "But she didn't seem angry to see me, and she said they'd come today."

"Oh good!" Ellen sighed. "So, do you think you are back on track?"

"I've no idea," William answered. "But I'll do anything to get us there."

Elizabeth and Sam arrived on Sunday afternoon to find the party in full swing.

"Sorry we're a bit late," Elizabeth said. "My car wouldn't start so we got the tube, then when we found a taxi at this end, I couldn't remember if it was Rosings Park Crescent or Avenue!"

"You should have phoned!" Ellen said. "Richard would have come to get you. Anyway, come on through."

Ellen led them to the relative peace of the kitchen while small children ran around shrieking.

"There's videos and table football in the playroom, and games in the front room," Ellen said. "And all the adults are hiding in the kitchen drinking wine to get through the afternoon!"

Sam escaped to the playroom as soon as he could, while Ellen introduced Elizabeth to her friends. Richard was busy organising drinks for everyone but broke off to greet her with a kiss on the cheek.

"We're so glad you could come," he said, as William came into the kitchen and saw her.

"Hi," he said, slightly nervously. "How are you?"

"Fine thanks, and you?" Elizabeth replied, sure that Ellen was studying the two of them closely.

"Fine, although I wish I'd brought earplugs," he replied, smiling. "Georgie's in the front room organising games, and I'm sure she's invented a rule that says noisiest child wins."

Elizabeth smiled at his description and the slightly pained expression on his face.

"Come through," Ellen said, leading the way into the front room. As William entered the room, Elizabeth saw a tiny, very pretty little girl break away from the rest of the children. She beamed and toddled to William, and he picked her up and swung her in the air. As he cuddled her, she planted a big sloppy kiss on his cheek. Elizabeth was surprised to feel her eyes fill with tears at such a sweet vision. She hoped no-one had noticed, but she had reckoned without Ellen's eagle eye. William turned to Elizabeth as she tried to compose herself.

"This is my niece, Sylvie," he said. Georgie came over to them, having spotted Elizabeth and being very curious. "And this is my sister, Georgiana."

"Oh William don't be silly," Georgie said. "You must be Elizabeth. Call me Georgie, everyone else does."

Elizabeth smiled and shook Georgie's proffered hand as William put Sylvie down and allowed her to lead him over to the toys.

"It's so nice to meet you," Georgie continued. "I've heard so much about you!"

"Goodness!" Elizabeth said. "Have you really?"

"Oh yes, when Will was in Paris last month he couldn't stop talking about you!"

"And my lovely wife couldn't stop questioning her brother!"

Elizabeth smiled as she was introduced to Stéphane, who had walked across to join them. "Well, I hope he found some good things to say," she replied.

"Oh, it was all good, and since my brother is honest to a fault, I'm glad to meet you at last. Is your son with you?" Georgie asked.

"Yes, he scarpered to the playroom as soon as he could," Elizabeth replied, casting a puzzled look in William's direction but unable to catch his eye. "Would you like a hand with the games?"

"Oh, yes please!" Georgie said eagerly. "Shall we do musical bumps first?"

Richard found some music while Georgie explained the game to the children. They were a little too young to play properly, but soon the noise levels began to rise again as they threw themselves enthusiastically into dancing and falling on the floor. Elizabeth glanced at William, who was sitting down now with Sylvie on his knee. Georgie noticed her watching him, and smiled.

"It's funny," she managed to say to Elizabeth at a slightly quieter moment. "When Will came to Paris, Sylvie took all weekend to smile at him, and yet this weekend she won't leave him alone!"

"She's a Darcy through and through, then!" Richard said, overhearing them. "Has a good think about it, but once she's made her mind up that she loves you, that's it!"

Elizabeth didn't have time to ponder on this comment as in the next minute she felt an arm snaking around her shoulders. She turned to see a beaming Alice.

"Hi Elizabeth," she said, suddenly slightly shy as if she had realised that she was being a little forward in putting her arms around Elizabeth.

"Hi Alice, how are you?" Elizabeth said, hugging her in return.

"I'm fine thank you," she said, smiling. "The football was good yesterday."

Elizabeth couldn't help laughing as she remembered Alice's grumbles on holiday.

"What's funny?"

"I was just thinking about how mad you were with the boys on holiday for talking about football."

"That was a good holiday, wasn't it?" Alice said, then untwined herself from Elizabeth and went to sit next to William and Sylvie. She snuggled up to him and he put his arm around her shoulders as Sylvie reached out to her big cousin. The image of William with the girls was more than Elizabeth could handle. She felt faint as the desires and fears of the previous fortnight threatened to assail her. She made it as far as the kitchen where Ellen was buzzing about getting drinks and bossing Richard.

"Are you OK?" Ellen asked, concerned at Elizabeth's pale complexion.

"Would you mind if I went out to the garden?" Elizabeth said. "It's rather hot and noisy in there and I could do with some air."

"Of course not," Ellen said, and opened the doors that led onto a small balcony with steps going down to the garden.

Elizabeth leaned on the wall at the top of the steps, gazing unseeing across the garden to the river. She took a few deep breaths and walked down the steps, glad to be outside where it was cool and quiet. She strolled round the garden, progressing slowly as she tried to make sense of her thoughts. She hardly knew what she was doing here, and yet she felt at home. She put that down to Ellen and Richard, the warmest and kindest couple she had ever met. She felt welcomed, a part of what was happening. And yet there was William, and all the uncertainty that he might bring. Seeing him had made her realise just how much she had missed him, and seeing him with Alice and Sylvie had been too much. After he and the children had left the previous night, she had tried and failed to make sense of her feelings. The shock of finding him in her house, and the tumult of emotion that had caused, had done nothing to improve her peace of mind, already in a state of confusion after finding out that he had phoned and she had known nothing about it. After a fortnight of misery without him, the sight of him today with the two girls had caused her mind to be assailed by all the images she had tried to dismiss so many times. Before "that night" as she thought of the evening of their argument, the number of times she had tried to rationalise the feeling of him being "the one" were beyond counting. Now she could only wonder how he felt, and hope that somehow they could talk about what had happened. She sank onto a stone bench at the end of the garden, playing with a leaf between her fingers as she tried to make sense of her thoughts.

William noticed that Elizabeth had gone, and passed Sylvie to Alice so that they could continue their game of peek-a-boo. He went into the kitchen thinking that he would be able to scout out where Elizabeth might be without giving himself away. Ellen noticed him, and nodded towards the doors.

"She needed some fresh air."

William smiled and went outside, wondering how it was that Ellen could know him so well. He couldn't keep anything hidden from her. He saw Elizabeth sitting on the stone bench at the far end of the garden, and made his way across the damp grass towards her.

"Can I join you?" he asked.

Elizabeth shuffled along to make room for him. They sat quietly for a while, neither really knowing how to begin to talk about the things they really needed to discuss.

"You look nice," he said, feeling more than a little lame as he said it. She was wearing black jeans and a black ribbed polo neck jumper that fitted her beautifully. Her hair was pulled up and fastened with a clip, but a few strands had escaped, and William longed to twine them round his fingers.

"Thank you," she replied. "So do you." She liked the chinos he wore, and his crisp blue shirt set them off perfectly. "Alice seems well."

"She's fine," William replied. "And we're getting on much better than I could have dreamed." He looked at Elizabeth, who was still gazing at the view, although she wasn't taking it in. "I have to thank you for that. I never had much of a clue before, really, but seeing you and Sam ..."

"I'm sure you would have sorted it out yourself," Elizabeth said, feeling uncomfortable with his gratitude. She looked up at him, and saw in his expression a mixture of confusion and longing, the appeal in his eyes impossible to miss.

"I got your email," she said. "Not straight away, though. Our computer had a few bad days."

"Oh," William replied. "I did wonder."

"It was a bit of a shock seeing you yesterday," Elizabeth continued. "I didn't really know what to say or do, especially with the children there."

"Same here," William said, thinking that he must have been mistaken to think that there was any hope. She was being too cool and matter of fact. "I thought you would be out."

"Is that why you went in, because you thought I would be out?" Elizabeth asked sadly, feeling more confused than ever now.

"It wasn't that I wanted to avoid you," William said. "I just didn't know how you would feel about me being there. I mean, I understand why you want us to be over, and I'm sorry about that, it's all my own stupid fault. And I wouldn't want to hurt you any more and obviously just by turning up I have done."

"No, you didn't hurt me," she said. "Just surprised me."

They fell silent again, struggling to be able to say something meaningful that would break through their confusion. Eventually William could stand the tension no longer, and deciding that nothing he could say could make matters any worse than they already were, took the plunge.

"Look, Elizabeth, I'm sorry but I've just got to say this. I don't know what's going on today, and I assume that since you got my email and didn't answer that it is over between us. It's not what I want, because I love you and I've missed you like crazy these past two weeks, and seeing you here looking gorgeous has just reminded me too much. But if that's what you want, then I have to accept that. I've spent too much of my life being a selfish bastard and thinking about what I want. All the mistakes I made and hurt I caused, I'm sorry, more sorry than you could know, actually, but..." he shrugged, having run out of steam and not knowing what more he could say. "Whatever you want," he said quietly. "I'll do whatever you want."

"I missed you too," she whispered, so quietly that William almost missed what she was saying. "The last line of your email was so final. I thought ..." she choked back a sob and was unable to continue speaking.

"Elizabeth?" he said, dropping off the bench to crouch down in front of her so he could see her face. "You thought I wanted us to finish?"

She nodded.

"Never!" he said vehemently. "The last two weeks have been awful without you. But what do you want? Just say, and I'll make it happen. Anything."

"You," she sniffed.

He took her hands in his and pressed his lips to them, too overwhelmed to speak for a moment. When he looked up at her, his face almost glowed with happiness. He turned her hands over and placed soft kisses on each palm, then faced her again.

"I'm yours," he said, simply. "Always have been."

He resumed his seat next to her, and as she leaned against him he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. The sudden release of tension that Elizabeth felt, and the relief of thinking that they might be able to solve their problems, made her sigh.

"OK?" William asked quietly.

"Mm hmm," she answered, content but aware that there was one major issue to resolve. "I just have to ask you one thing."

"Go on."

"If you could say what you said in the email to Charles' face, would you?"

"Yes," William said after only a moment's pause.

She reached out and took hold of his free hand, entwining her fingers with his. "We've got a few things we need to talk about," she murmured.

He released her shoulders and turned to her, stroking her cheek with his fingers. "I know." He leaned towards her and softly kissed her lips. " But I think we're going to be OK."

Ellen glanced out of the kitchen window, and nudged Richard. They saw William and Elizabeth walking slowly towards the house, hand in hand.

"Thank goodness," Ellen said. "They seem to have sorted themselves out."

"Good," Richard said. "William would be a fool to let Elizabeth go. She's the best thing that ever happened to him."

"You're an old romantic, aren't you really?" Ellen laughed.

"Less of the old, please," Richard said, smiling. "Now, look busy and pretend you haven't been watching them!"

"Just in time!" Ellen said as William and Elizabeth came back into the kitchen. "We're just about to eat. William, take these plates through, would you?"

As William followed Richard into the dining room with plates of party food, Ellen turned to Elizabeth. "Feeling a bit better now?"

Elizabeth nodded and smiled. "Yes, thanks, much better."

"Good! Right, let me round up the big ones, Georgie is sorting out the tinies. You go on through and grab something to eat."

All the smaller children had been seated at the dining table, while the adults and bigger children stood around the table, either helping the little ones with their food or helping themselves to the buffet set out at the side of the room.

"This is lovely, Ellen," Cora's mother said. "It must have taken you ages!"

"I had a bit of help from Mr Marks and Mr Spencer!" Ellen laughed.

At the end of the tea, the birthday cake adorned with candles was produced, and everyone sang before Emily blew the candles out, with a little help from her brothers. Richard put his arm round Ellen, pulling her close before kissing her.

"What do you think?" he whispered, seeing Stéphane lean over Sylvie to kiss Georgie, and William standing very close to Elizabeth. "A wedding or a pregnancy as the next family event?"

"Shh, Richard," Ellen said. "Someone will hear you!"

"What do you reckon?" Sam asked Alice, observing the adults from the other side of the room.

"They're all too soppy for words," Alice replied. "And my Dad's been up to something, his trousers have got damp patches on the knees."

Elizabeth noticed the two teenagers burst out laughing, and just before Sam turned away she caught his eye. She wondered whether she would ever find out exactly what it was that they found so funny, but she was sure they had been up to something.

Eventually the party wound to a close, and guests began to depart. Once Emily's friends had been taken home, Elizabeth prepared to say her goodbyes and asked Ellen to order a taxi. Although she was glad she had come to the party, she was frustrated at not being able to speak to William, as there were too many people around for them to easily be alone together. William for his part felt much the same, and played for time.

"Don't rush off," he said quickly. "Isn't Sam on half term tomorrow? No need to get up for school."

"Yes, don't go yet," Ellen said. "And don't worry about a taxi, William or Richard will take you home."

"Oh, no, to the station would be fine," Elizabeth said.

"I can do that, and then come back for my lot," William said.

Elizabeth conceded, and sank into one of the armchairs. In truth, she was glad not to have to rush off as she felt quite worn out after the party. Georgie sat on the floor, cradling Sylvie in her lap.

"These things are fun, but I'm exhausted now!" she said. "And so is this little madam."

"She's lovely," Elizabeth said. "How old is she?"

"Fourteen months," Georgie replied. "How old is Sam?"

"Fourteen years," Elizabeth grinned. "Alice is four or five months older, I think." She looked up to see William watching her, and flashed a smile at him before looking away. The intensity of his gaze sometimes unnerved her. The spell was broken as Richard brought in a tray containing a chilled bottle of wine, a bottle of lemonade and glasses, Ellen following with a coffee pot and mugs. As the adults talked about their plans for the rest of half term, in particular Georgie's ever-expanding scheme to spend a day being a tourist in London, Elizabeth and William each felt more contented than they had in a very long time.

"Well, I think we should be making a move," Elizabeth said eventually.

"OK, I'll get my coat," William replied.

"You will come out with us tomorrow, won't you?" Georgie asked.

"Well, if you're sure," Elizabeth said. "What do you think, Sam? Fancy being a tourist tomorrow?"

Sam looked up and shrugged. "Yeah, OK."

"Great!" Georgie said. "See you tomorrow then."

After a round of hugs and kisses, William led the way to his car.

"Are you sure you're OK with being dropped at the station?" William asked. "I should take you home, really."

"Don't be silly," Elizabeth said. "The station is fine."

"I'm glad you could come today," he said as he drove.

"Yes, it was fun," Elizabeth said. "And your sister and her family are lovely."

"Yes, Georgie's great isn't she? She used to be painfully shy but moving to Paris and meeting Stéphane was the making of her. She seems ... I don't know ... fulfilled now, I think."

He pulled up in front of the station and turned to Elizabeth. "So, we'll see you tomorrow? Georgie's plan is to take Sylvie's photo in front of every London landmark as some kind of proof that she's half English, I think," he said, laughing.

"Yes, that sounds fun," Elizabeth replied.

"OK, well, would you like to meet us at my house, say, half past 10?"

"Ah," Elizabeth said. "I can't."

"Oh?" William's face fell.

"You haven't told me your address," she said, unable to stop her mouth from curling into a teasing smile.

"Lambton Gardens," he said, grinning with embarrassment. "Number 3. It's marginally nearer South Ken tube than Gloucester Road."

"We'll find it," Elizabeth said. "Come on Sam, let's go. Thanks for the lift, William."

"Any time," he said, as Sam got out of the car. Just before Elizabeth got out, he grabbed her hand, and as she turned back to him, he leaned over and kissed her quickly on the lips. "See you tomorrow," he murmured.

All the way back into London on the train, Elizabeth could feel her lips tingling with the suppressed passion of that kiss, and the look of desire in William's eyes.

Chapter 27

Turning into Lambton Gardens, Elizabeth and Sam froze and gaped at the large detached houses facing onto a small square of park.

"They must be divided into flats," Elizabeth said as they made their way along the street, peering at the numbers on the doors. She found Number 3, and they went up the steps, stopping at the top to look for buzzers or doorbells. Before she could begin to worry about there not being a block of buzzers and an intercom, the door was flung open, and William stood on the doorstep.

"You found us, come on in!" he said cheerily, kissing her on the cheek. "Hi, Sam."

Elizabeth stepped warily into the hallway as it dawned on her that this building had not been converted into flats but remained as a house. A large room on the left seemed to run the length of the house, and stairs curved imposingly away to the right. She followed him towards the back of the house, past a dining room, and into a large living room where Georgie and the girls sat on the floor, playing.

"Hi!" Georgie said, smiling broadly. "Recovered from the party?"

"Just about," Elizabeth replied. "It was fun but I was shattered when I got home."

"So were we," William said. "Stéphane's just making coffee. He says I don't know how to do it properly. Would you like some?"

"Yes, thanks," Elizabeth said, unable to stop herself wondering how many times her living room would fit into this one.

"How about you, Sam? Glass of milk? Or some juice?"

"Juice please," Sam said politely, feeling somewhat awkward and out of place.

"Come through to the kitchen with me," William said to him. "Then you can see what we've got."

Sam followed William out of the room as Elizabeth sat down to watch Sylvie. When William returned, he couldn't help grinning. Elizabeth looked at him quizzically.

"I thought that would work," he said cryptically. "Stéphane's a bit of a football fan too."

When Sam and Stéphane appeared with coffee and glasses of juice, they were arguing good-naturedly about the merits of various European strikers, the other adults shrugging and shaking their heads when asked by either one for corroboration for their particular argument. Once drinks were finished, and Georgie had planned her route, she chivvied the rest of the party to get their shoes and coats on, and the outing began.

They began at Buckingham Palace, where Georgie lined them all up for photographs in front of the gates, then took more in front of Queen Victoria's monument. They walked into St. James's Park, strolling alongside the lake, Sylvie in her buggy pointing and shouting.

"Ack, ack!"

"It's a duck, Sylvie, say 'duck'," Alice said.

"Ack!" said Sylvie.

"Duck!" said Sam, giggling. "Quack, quack!"

"Ack!" said Sylvie pointing at a goose.

"That's a goose, say 'goose'," Alice said.

"Ooo."

"Honk, honk," Sam said, flapping his arms and doing a passable impression of a goose, which made Sylvie giggle. Alice joined in so that Sylvie was entertained not only by the real ducks and geese, but by the two teenagers nearly in hysterics in front of her as they tried to outdo one another with animal impressions.

"They're going to make themselves sick if they carry on like this," Elizabeth said, shaking her head at their antics. She turned to look at William to see that he was laughing almost as much as the children. He put his arm round her shoulders and pulled her close.

"Happy?"

"Mmm. You?"

"Oh yes."

After another set of photographs at Horse Guards Parade, where, like every other tourist they stood in front of a Guard and tried unsuccessfully to make him grin, they walked to Trafalgar Square, where Alice squealed and ran away from the pigeons, and Sam almost fell into the fountain while attempting to show off how good he was at balancing. Sylvie tottered round after the older children, and William felt as if he hadn't laughed as much as this for a long time. After lunch they took a trip on a river boat, and ended up on the South Bank, at Festival Pier. As they walked past the Royal Festival Hall along the path towards the London Eye, William took Elizabeth's hand in his.

"Remember when we first came here?"

"How could I forget?" she said. "That was a lovely night out. I can't believe so much has happened since."

"I know," he sighed. "What are you doing for the rest of half term?"

"I'm taking another day off tomorrow, then Jack's Mum is taking the boys out for the day on Wednesday, on Thursday he's signed up for some kind of study day at the Science Museum, and on Friday I think he'll have to come to work with me. How about you?"

For one moment William was slightly taken aback as he was reminded forcefully of the complexities of Elizabeth's life. "Nothing so complicated," he said eventually. "Georgie's going home tomorrow and I'm taking Alice back to school first thing. Then I'm working all week 'til Friday when I have another trip to Sussex."

"How's that going?" Elizabeth asked.

"It's fine," William replied. "She seems happier, I'm happier too." He smiled at her and squeezed her hand, then bent to give her a quick kiss.

"Oi, stop all that mushy stuff and keep up with us!" Georgie shouted from twenty yards ahead. "We've got a set time to be at the Eye!"

William burst out laughing. "You would never know that when she was 16 she wouldn't say boo to me, never mind boo to a goose, would you?"

They got into their capsule and began to rise up into the air. It was clear enough to have a reasonable view, and Georgie was soon snapping more photographs. Sam was telling Stéphane about beating his school's greatest rivals at his best friend's last match, and Alice was pointing out landmarks to her oblivious little cousin. William and Elizabeth sat together and watched London spread out beneath them.

"Have you decided what you're doing about schools?" Elizabeth asked.

"Not really," William replied. "It's difficult. Not many take new pupils part way through a year, particularly the smaller ones, like Godolphin. Nowhere in Kensington and Chelsea has a place."

"I think he should consider co-ed," Georgie chipped in, having already had this conversation with William the night before. "What kind of school does Sam go to?"

"Mixed comprehensive," Elizabeth said.

"See?" Georgie said to William, as if this proved her point about mixed schools. "Ellen thinks he should look at co-ed schools too."

"Yes, but Ellen suggested Alleyns, or Richmond Grammar."

"But only because they're bigger schools and there's more chance of a vacancy coming up," Georgie said. "And even though they're south of the river, they're not difficult to get to."

Elizabeth couldn't help laughing. "I get the feeling this isn't the first time you've had this conversation."

"You're right," William said, glad of her intervention. He knew why Ellen had suggested those two particular schools, and what she had been hinting at, but although he had been prepared to think of a joint future for himself, Elizabeth and the children, the previous two weeks had made him realise the dangers of rushing.

"You have a future star of English football, I think," Stéphane said, rejoining the conversation.

"No," Sam said. "I'm too old, I would've been picked up by a club by now if I was good enough. I might be a sports journalist though. Or do sports science."

"Or be a doctor like your Mum and be the medic for a football club," William said.

"No chance!" Sam said adamantly. "Way too much hard work to be Mum!"

He couldn't quite understand why all the adults burst out laughing, but he was glad to see them looking happy, and that at last his Mum was laughing again.

"I'm glad you came out with us today," William said quietly as they prepared to go their separate ways at Embankment underground station later that afternoon.

"So am I," Elizabeth said, and smiled. "Even though we didn't get a minute to ourselves."

"Might we, soon?" he asked hopefully.

"Come for dinner on Wednesday," Elizabeth replied impulsively. "Come round fairly early, Sam won't be back 'til after tea."

"I'll look forward to it," William said, grinning broadly. He pulled her towards him, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her full on the mouth.

"See you on Wednesday," he said as they broke apart, Elizabeth still looking somewhat stunned and a little embarrassed. She glanced over his shoulder at Georgie and everyone else waiting a discreet distance away.

"They'll just have to get used to us," he said. "Especially the fact that I can't resist you."

He rejoined the rest of his family, and they headed towards the District Line platforms.

"Bye, Elizabeth, bye Sam," Georgie called, waving.

"Bye, Ally!" Sam shouted, causing William to look quizzically at Alice.

"Bye, have a safe trip home!" Elizabeth replied. "Oh, and William, on Wednesday? Bring your toothbrush!"

She burst out laughing at the sudden flash of embarrassment on his face, and went to catch a Northern Line tube with Sam. She sat down opposite him, and noticed his smug look.

"I think you've got something you need to tell me, young man," she said, trying not to laugh.

"You and William back together again, then?" he said.

"Back together?" Elizabeth asked, remembering Charles' comment about Sam knowing what was going on.

"I'm not stupid, Mum!" Sam said, grinning.

"Never said you were," Elizabeth replied, remembering the looks she had been getting from Sam and Alice yesterday at the party and all day today and wondering what exactly they had been up to. She stretched and sighed. "Thank goodness we've got another day off tomorrow, I'm worn out."

"Me too," Sam agreed, as they settled into a companionable silence for the rest of the trip home.

~ * ~

As William approached Elizabeth's house early on Wednesday evening, he began to feel quite nervous. He felt almost as if it was their first date all over again. His grip tightened on the bunch of flowers he was carrying, and he shifted the bottle of wine into the crook of his arm lest it slip from his suddenly sweaty palm. He managed to knock on the door without dropping anything, and shuffled from foot to foot while telling himself not to be ridiculously teenage.

Elizabeth heard the knock at the door, felt her stomach lurch with nervousness, and took two deep breaths while smoothing her skirt and trying to regain some semblance of calm. "Everything's set," she muttered to herself as she glanced quickly round the kitchen and went to the door. She opened it to find William smiling nervously, and felt somewhat relieved to see that he seemed to feel as tense as she did.

"Come in," she said, and shut the door behind him as he walked past her into the hallway. "Go straight down to the kitchen, you know where everything is." She followed him, wondering how long it would take for this night to stop feeling like an awkward first date.

"Mmm, something smells good," he said, sniffing the air appreciatively as he handed her the flowers and wine. "Small contributions."

"Thanks," she said, and read the label on the wine. "Ooh, a Merlot, lovely. Fancy a glass?"

"Yes, please."

She opened the bottle and poured the wine, handing him a glass and raising hers.

"Cheers," she said.

"To us," he replied. Elizabeth smiled and nodded, then sipped her wine.

"Mm that's nice," she said. "Now, I must get these flowers into some water."

She noticed as she snipped through the paper that it seemed to be scrunched very tightly round the stems of the flowers, and smiled to herself. William watched her busying herself and couldn't resist stepping close behind her and softly kissing the back of her neck. She sighed as her skin tingled, which only encouraged him to do it again. She leaned back against him as he put his arms around her and nuzzled her hair.

"You've no idea how much I've missed your kitchen," he said, grinning, as she turned to face him.

"I've never understood this thing you have with the place anyway," she teased.

"Me neither," he admitted, and bent to kiss her properly. As the tension and pain of the previous days left them, they gave themselves completely to the kiss, caressing each other and sighing their pleasure.

"How long 'til dinner?" William murmured.

"About half an hour if I turn the oven down," Elizabeth replied. They gazed into each other's eyes, their agreement unspoken, and ran laughing upstairs.

"Is this too late in the day to count as afternoon delight?" Elizabeth giggled as William pulled her top over her head and she fought with the buttons on his shirt.

"No, I think this counts," William replied, so eager to pull off his tie that he nearly choked himself. He kicked off his shoes and lay down on the bed, pulling Elizabeth with him and running his hands up her thighs, under her skirt. She managed to undo his trousers and they fought off the last remaining articles of clothing. Once naked, their caresses and kisses became fierce and passionate, their hunger for each other born of a desperate need to reconnect. Wordlessly, but with small sounds and murmurs of encouragement, they drove each other to the height of arousal, until they could remain unconnected no longer. Elizabeth handed William the protection he needed, and watched him as he rolled the condom onto himself. She reached around him, and stroked his firm buttocks, pulling him towards her. He leaned over her so that his mouth was next to her ear, and as he entered her, he whispered "I love you."

Once more they began to move to the rhythm they thought they had lost, revelling in the slow building of intense feelings until they could resist the forces that were taking them no longer. Elizabeth's whole body was becoming as tense as a coiled spring and so tight around him that William knew he would soon be helpless. As she arched her back and cried out his name, he gave in and drove them both over the edge.

They clung to each other, planting small kisses on damp skin, reassuring each other of their love with soft strokes of their fingers and murmured endearments from their lips.

They were disturbed by the phone ringing downstairs.

"Let the answerphone get it," Elizabeth said. "But we should move, really. We do need to eat."

William sat up and began to laugh as he looked around the room.

"I'll get up if I can find all my clothes," he said, wondering how his tie managed to end up at the top of the bookcase. Elizabeth got out of bed and threw a tangle of trousers, socks and boxer shorts at him.

"I'm just going to have a quick wash," she said, and left the room with an armful of clean clothes. William sank back on the pillows for a moment, savouring his contentment, until Elizabeth returned, washed and dressed, to chivvy him. He obeyed, and followed her downstairs. She checked that the dinner wasn't burned, pressed "play" on the answerphone, then froze at the voice that pierced the air.

"Elizabeth it's your mother. Are you there?"

"Oh no," she groaned, as Mrs Bennet paused.

"Obviously not," she continued. "I think your phone is broken, I've been ringing and ringing. Anyway I simply must speak to you ..."

"She'll go on and on until the beep cuts her off," Elizabeth said to William. "Just pretend she's not there."

"... so I told Lydia what Jane had said, and she knows this dreadful man, and you simply must see sense, Elizabeth, I forbid you to see him ..."

Elizabeth and William both froze, staring at the answerphone, Elizabeth white faced with horror and William completely stunned.

"It was because of him that darling George lost his job, they wouldn't be in such a mess if it wasn't for this Darcy..."

Elizabeth managed to break out of her trance and pounce on the answerphone, thumping it hard so that it conked out with a squawk.

"Wow," William managed to gasp. "Do you often get messages like that?"

"Regularly," Elizabeth said. "I'm sorry, I've no idea what she's on about. And don't worry, she hasn't twigged yet that anything she forbids me doing, I'll do twice as often at least."

"Who is darling George?" William asked, curious to know how he might have been linked to this man.

"My sister Lydia's pathetic husband. Fraudster, conman, all round sweet talking waste of space. My mother, of course, thinks he's wonderful because he's so charming," she said, her voice laden with sarcasm. "The lovely Mr George Wickham."

"Wickham?" William said, stunned.

"You're not going to tell me that you know him?" Elizabeth asked incredulously.

"I'm afraid I do," William said, wondering whether this was yet another echo of his past that was going to blow up in his face. "Well, I did, a long time ago."

"Are you sure?"

"What does he look like?" William asked warily, getting the feeling that Elizabeth didn't seem angry with him.

"Tall, dark hair, kind of good looking but gone to seed a bit, I suppose. There can't be that many George Wickhams about, it's not a common name."

"No, that must be him," William agreed.

"So, how do you know him?"

"He used to work for us," William said. "I'd known him for years, his father was a close confidante of my father, and we were friends for a while. We went to University together, and the assumption was that after we graduated, George would join the company, which he did. But it didn't work out."

"Really, why not?" Elizabeth said, beginning to think that she was going to enjoy this story.

"Well, amongst other things, for a trainee accountant he had a rather loose way with finances."

"Did you sack him?"

"Yes, I did," William replied carefully, only to be amazed when Elizabeth burst out laughing.

"Oh I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thinks he's a fraud!"

"What? You're not mad?"

"At you?" Elizabeth asked. "No, never. Oh, I've thought for years that he was fiddling the books at every place he's worked but stupid Lydia and my gullible mother always find some excuse for him every time he gets sacked. He could charm the birds out of the trees, that man, but he's always rather wary of me. I think he's guessed that I know what he's like."

William sank into a chair, still feeling rather overwhelmed at hearing Wickham's name again after so long, and rather taken aback by Elizabeth's reaction. He sipped his wine thoughtfully.

"This the sister you don't get on with, I take it?" he asked eventually, watching Elizabeth as she began to serve the dinner.

"Mm hmm," she replied. "We have an unspoken agreement to be polite to each other as necessary, and no more than that. We don't go out of our way to avoid each other, but neither do we make any effort to see each other."

She put a bowl of salad on the table, and handed him a plate of lasagne.

"Sorry, it's a bit crozzled round the edges," she said apologetically. "But that's not entirely my fault."

William grinned. "I'm sure it will be delicious," he said, and began to eat.

"When's Sam due home?" William asked after a while.

"Late, I expect," Elizabeth answered. "Jack, his best friend, is moving to Leeds on Saturday so Jack's Mum is throwing a bit of a going away event for the boys."

"How does Sam feel?"

"Resigned, I think," Elizabeth said. "He's really going to miss Jack. I'm glad he's close to Charles, it means he's got a man to talk to."

"What about Jane and Charles' children? Does he get on with them?"

"They haven't got any," Elizabeth said as it dawned on her that William knew absolutely nothing about his former best friend's life. "They can't have children."

William felt a wave of sadness grip him as he realised that his estrangement from Charles had been so total that he had missed the most vital elements of his friend's life.

"They tried for ages, and had all sort of tests," Elizabeth continued. "Jane had a couple of cycles of IVF but it was incredibly distressing for her, so they gave up."

"That must have been awful for them," William said quietly, and Elizabeth realised that the pain he felt for them was genuine.

"It was. I think they've given up trying now altogether."

William fell silent for a moment, and poured out the last of the wine in lieu of being able to say anything.

"I meant it, the other day, you know," he said suddenly. "I would like to make amends with Charles, if he'll accept me."

"He will," Elizabeth said.

William sighed and looked contented. "That's some of the best news I've had for some time," he said.

Later, having cleared up and moved into the sitting room with a second bottle of wine, they curled up on the sofa together to watch the news. Just as it finished, they heard Sam come in.

"Hi!" he said, bursting in through the door. "Guess what?"

He was hopping from foot to foot, hanging onto the door handle.

"What?" Elizabeth asked, amused at his inability to stand still. "How much Coke have you had to drink?"

"Oh, loads, we went to this place with free refills! But anyway, guess what!"

"Tell us before you burst, Sam!"

"Jack's Dad's going to get tickets for Elland Road when Arsenal play there, and he says to ask you can I go for the weekend, so I can, can't I? Please?"

"Well, I suppose since you've given me more than five minutes warning, I'll think about it," Elizabeth said.

"Oh great, I knew you'd say yes," Sam said, backing out of the room. "Need the bog."

Elizabeth groaned as he slammed the door and disappeared. William smiled. He liked Sam, and couldn't help but reflect on how much things had changed since their early encounters.

"Ooh, that boy!" Elizabeth said with mock exasperation as the slamming of the door was followed by a sound akin to a small hippo thundering up the stairs.

"He's a fine boy," William said, continuing to speak after a moment's thought. "Since we seem to be having a bit of an air clearing session, there is one thing I want to say. I've done quite a bit of soul searching over the past couple of weeks and I've seen things that I really don't like."

"What do you mean?" Elizabeth asked, realising from his tone and the dark expression on his face that he was very serious.

William leaned forward and poured them both a glass of wine, stalling for time as he gathered his thoughts.

"When we first met, I was arrogant, and selfish, and thoughtless," he said. "You've been hurt by my lack of thought and I am truly sorry for that. I should have told you everything ages ago, but I didn't. I went about things in an incredibly stupid way, I don't know why. Feeble excuse, I know."

He paused and looked at her, trying to work out her feelings. Her expression was open and warm, and he felt encouraged to continue.

"You said on Sunday that we have some things to talk about, and so I suppose this is me trying to begin talking. Rather clumsily, I suspect. But I want you to feel that you can ask me anything. I love you too much to risk losing you through my own fault again."

Elizabeth for once was lost for words. She sipped her wine and thought carefully before she spoke, feeling as if William had stripped his soul bare before her eyes and knowing she must reciprocate.

"I love you too," she said softly. "And there are things I need to tell you. I was unfair on you, that night, so you should feel free to ask me anything too."

William took the wine glass out of her hand and set it down on the table. He took her hands in his and gazed into her eyes. "I feel like I've loved you for ever," he said quietly.

"Me too," Elizabeth replied, leaning towards him as her kissed her. She could not resist a slight tease.

"So, when did you first decide you loved me?" she asked, grinning cheekily.

"I don't know," William shrugged. "By the time I realised, I was in so deep that I was helpless."

The sparkle in his dark brown eyes gave away the fact that he was teasing too, at least a little, and they smiled as they kissed again.

"Sam will be down any minute," Elizabeth said. "You realise that we have quite a bit of talking to do as far as the children are concerned?"

"I know," William said. "Perhaps another big session round your kitchen table would do the trick?"

"I suppose you guessed that he and Alice were up to something last week?" Elizabeth said as she nodded in agreement to the kitchen table suggestion.

"No, what do you mean?"

"He never told me you'd phoned. He announced he was meeting you at the match about 5 minutes before he had to leave. And there were enough sly looks between the two of them this weekend ... I'm sure they had been plotting together."

"Does that mean we have their seal of approval, do you think?" William asked, thinking that Elizabeth was probably right.

"I think it probably does."

"Good," William said, pulling Elizabeth to him for a cuddle and kissing her hair as she leaned against him. "Because I don't intend giving you up for any reason."

Elizabeth snuggled into him as he wrapped his arm around her and held her close. She felt more secure and more loved than at any time in her life, and had no intention of giving William up either.

Chapter 28

Although Thursday was part of half term, Sam, Elizabeth and William were all up early as if it was a school day. William and Elizabeth were going to work, and Sam was going to a study day at the Science Museum.

"I can give you a lift, if you like," William said to Sam as they sat at the table eating breakfast. "I need to go home before I go into the office."

"Thanks," Sam said, then turned to Elizabeth. "Are you going to be busy all of tomorrow? Do I have to stay in your office all day?"

"I'll be in the building all day," Elizabeth said. "I've got a couple of meetings and some office work."

"You could come down to Sussex with me in the afternoon, if you wanted," William said impulsively. "I have to drive down to pick Alice up, it's not very exciting but if you wanted a change from sitting in an office ..." He glanced at Elizabeth, wondering if he should have cleared it with her first. Sam looked at her, and she nodded.

"Up to you, Sam."

"You could come down to my office after lunch, I'll show you round the place, and then we'll go," William said.

"OK," Sam said, thinking that a run out in William's smart car would be preferable to sitting in Elizabeth's office all day. He liked going in with her for short spells but he knew he'd be bored rigid by lunchtime.

"Good! Well, you take the Northern Line to Bank, then make sure you come out of the exit for Lombard Street. There are 8 exits, all numbered and each one says which street it leads to. Walk down Lombard Street, and our building is on your left. There's a plaque on the door saying The Pemberley Group. Buzz for security to let you in, then ask for me. I'll tell them to expect you."

"OK," Sam said.

"Right, we'd better get moving," Elizabeth said. "Go and brush your teeth, Sam."

He left the room, and Elizabeth turned to William.

"Are you sure you can be bothered taking him to Sussex?"

"It's no bother," William said. "If it's OK with you, that is. You get a clear afternoon to work and he gets a change of scene. And I have company on the drive."

"Well, if you're sure," Elizabeth said. "Perhaps you can all come here for Friday night then?"

"Why don't you and Sam stay with us for a change?" William asked. "We're always imposing on you."

"You're not imposing at all," Elizabeth replied. "But that would be nice. Ring me when you get back from Sussex and I'll come straight over."

"OK."

"And you know the other things we've been talking about?" she said hesitantly. "Well, Charles, mainly. Umm ... how would you feel about coming to my birthday dinner, a week on Saturday? He and Jane are organising something. I'll speak to them, and test the water."

"I'd be happy to, as long as everyone else knows I'm going to be there and why," William said, feeling slightly nervous at the prospect but willing to go along with any plans Elizabeth suggested. This was a hurdle he would have to jump, and a high one at that, but he was determined to prove that he could clear it.

Sam came back downstairs with his backpack.

"Ready to go?" William asked. "Come on then, Sam. I'll ring you tonight and see you tomorrow, Elizabeth."

He kissed her, a quick, gentle parting kiss, the kind of kiss shared by couples the world over every morning and every night.

"OK, see you tomorrow. Sam, be..."

"Don't say it, Mum!"

She laughed as he dodged her attempt to kiss him goodbye. "See you tonight. Enjoy the day."

Once Sam and William had left, she quickly tidied the kitchen, humming absent-mindedly. She felt content, and a small sigh of happiness escaped her lips as she picked up her briefcase and set off for work.

In the car, Sam was explaining the day he had ahead of him to William.

"If you're predicted A or A starred at GCSE Science, then your school can put you in for this study day. You don't have to go, but it sounded pretty cool."

"And your teachers predict that you'll get top grades in Science?"

"Yeah, well, I'm usually in the top ten," Sam replied confidently.

"Well done," William said, trying to drive through the London rush hour at the same time as hold a conversation, not something he was accustomed to doing. "What else are you good at?" he asked.

"Geography and Maths. And I'm pretty good at French. Media, too," Sam mused, thinking about school and drifting from his subjects into remembering that he wasn't looking forward to going back. He fell silent, and for a while there was no conversation as William negotiated a string of busy junctions.

"You OK?" William asked, noticing Sam staring out of the window with a rather glum expression.

"Yeah," he said, snapping back to attention. "Just wondering what to get my Mum for her birthday."

William was fairly sure that Elizabeth's birthday hadn't been the foremost topic on Sam's mind, and he stored the thought away, intending to mention his concern to Elizabeth later. He grinned at Sam, hoping to keep the mood light.

"Well, let me know if you get any bright ideas," he said. "I need to think of something too!"

"Don't get her anything useful," Sam said. "My Granny always sends her useful things and she pretends to like them but I know it drives her nuts. Get her something really, like, mushy. Girls like that."

William burst out laughing as he pulled up at the side of the road, opposite the Science Museum.

"Mushy things?"

"Yeah, girls at school buy each other stupid birthday presents all wrapped in shiny paper, and ribbon and stuff."

"Right," William said, still laughing at Sam's rather pained expression of girls' desires. "So, you'll be OK for getting to my office tomorrow? You're alright on the tube on your own?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine. Thanks for the lift."

He slammed the car door, and William watched in the rear view mirror as Sam jogged to the pedestrian crossing, ran across the road, and disappeared into a throng of early morning tourists. He pulled back into the traffic and drove the short distance home, quickly checking his messages and picking up the post before heading for the office. As usual, the first thing he did once in work was to glance over his diary, and having done that he picked up the phone. "Richard, it's William," he said when the call was answered.

"Morning," Richard replied cheerfully.

"You're planning on coming in for the meeting this afternoon, aren't you?" William asked.

"Yes of course."

"Is there any chance you might get here half an hour early? I wouldn't mind talking a couple of things over with you."

"Oh bloody hell, William, what have you done now?" Richard groaned.

"What do you mean?" William asked.

"If you've buggered things up with Elizabeth again, I'm going to come over there and knock some sense into you right now," Richard said, his bantering tone suggesting that he was perhaps only half serious.

"Hang on a minute," William replied indignantly. "I have not buggered things up, as you so charmingly put it, in fact it's exactly the opposite. And I could just do with running a few things past an understanding person, so goodness only knows why I thought of you."

Richard laughed at William's remark, knowing that anyone overhearing them would think them sworn enemies rather than the best of friends. He agreed to bring something in for lunch, so that the two of them could eat and talk in private before their business meeting.

Richard arrived as arranged at 1pm bearing a Pret A Manger bag, which he dropped onto William's desk before taking off his coat. By the time he turned back, William was already pulling sandwiches out of the bag.

"What did you get? I'm starving."

"Help yourself," Richard replied, waiting for William to choose a sandwich before picking one himself. "So," he said between bites. "You wanted to talk to me."

"Mmm," William mumbled, chewing and swallowing quickly. "I wanted your advice."

"Fire away."

William took another bite of his sandwich, deferring the moment when he had to speak. It had seemed a good idea when he had phoned Richard earlier, but now that he was faced with expressing what was on his mind, he was incapable of actually doing it. Richard waited patiently. He knew William well enough by now to be able to deal with the long silences.

"Well, I've been thinking recently," William said eventually, and Richard had to curb his instinct to make a sharp remark in response. "I know that I want to marry Elizabeth, and what I want to know is whether you think it's too soon to ask her."

"Isn't it how you feel and what she thinks that matters?" Richard asked, not surprised to discover that this was William's desire, but a little surprised that he had chosen to express himself so openly.

"I feel that I've found the person I am meant to be with," William said. "I don't know what she thinks, precisely."

"Do you think she might turn you down if you ask her to marry you? Is that what's bothering you?"

"No, it's not that."

"Well, you need to find out how she feels about you, if you're uncertain," Richard said, feeling rather uncertain himself about the conversation as a whole. William seemed much less sure of himself than he usually was.

"I know she loves me, because she says so," William replied carefully. "But she's never been married before. I have. I don't want to repeat the mistakes I made last time, after all Caroline and I did get married in something of a hurry."

"Elizabeth isn't Caroline, and you're older now," Richard said. "I don't think you're confusing lust for love this time."

"And it's complicated because of the children," William said, choosing not to respond to Richard's comment but knowing that as usual, he was accurate. "It's not simply a question of asking her if she'll marry me, is it?"

"No, you're right about that. It is more complicated. You are taking on a teenage boy, and asking her to accept a teenage girl. You all seem to get on well, but who knows what it will be like when you're all living under the same roof? There's no way you can predict that for sure, and you will be taking a risk." Richard paused and studied William carefully for a moment before continuing. "But you're not risk averse. Ideally, what do you want? Think of the ideal situation and work backwards until you reach something feasible."

William couldn't help smiling at Richard's way of looking at things. He approached life as methodically as he approached his buildings, but given that he was one of the happiest and most fulfilled men William knew, he had to concede that Richard's practical nature had something going for it.

"Ideally, I'd like to be married to Elizabeth, have Alice and Sam living at home with us and going to school together. And I'd like us to have a child of our own some day."

"That sounds perfectly feasible to me," Richard said, unable to keep a small smile from creeping onto his face as he realised just how much time William had given to thinking about this. "How much have the two of you talked about the future?"

"Not at all," William admitted.

"Ah. Now that is a bit of a problem. So, if you propose, it's going to be something of a surprise," Richard mused.

"Exactly."

The two men munched thoughtfully on their sandwiches. "And I don't suppose you've discussed the possibility of Sam switching schools either, have you?" Richard asked after a while.

"No," William replied. "Obviously Elizabeth knows about Alice moving, and the possibility of co-ed has been mentioned, but not in the context of Sam moving too."

"You've got to do some talking, then. Nightmarishly complicated."

"I had managed to work that bit out for myself," William said, slightly exasperated.

"Look, I think the two of you are perfect for each other," Richard said. "You're happy when you're with her, and you're a miserable bugger when you're not. Technically, you haven't known each other that long, but somehow I don't think that matters so much. You know yourself better, being a bit older. You need to be upfront with her and tell her your feelings. If you propose and she says yes, and to be honest I'd be bloody amazed if she said no, then the questions about where to live and where the kids go to school follow on from that."

"So you think I should propose?"

"Yes," Richard said.

"At last, a straight answer," William said, grinning broadly. "Come on, we'd better head for the Board Room."

They brushed the crumbs away and threw the empty lunch packaging into the bin before setting off for their meeting. Just before Richard pushed open the door to the Board Room, he turned to William.

"Let us know when you have news, won't you?" he said, smiling. "And good luck."

~ * ~

On Friday morning, Elizabeth and Sam went to work together. He was used to having to go in with her at various points in school holidays, although this was the first time he had been to this particular office. He followed her into the general office and shuffled his feet, feeling embarrassed as he was observed by half a dozen secretaries.

"Hi Eileen," Elizabeth said. "I thought you were taking the whole week off?"

"Well, I was, but my sister's got the girls today in return for me having her two yesterday. Thank goodness for sisters!" she laughed. "And this must be Sam?"

"Yes, he's going to be in my office doing homework until lunchtime," Elizabeth replied. "Sam, this is my secretary Eileen. If you need to find me when I'm in a meeting, ask Eileen, OK?"

Eileen smiled at him, noticing his cheeks turn a little pink as he nodded and mumbled a greeting.

"I've got the chocolate biscuit stash too," she said to him in a conspiratorial whisper before turning back to Elizabeth. "Here's your post, and a couple of messages, and here's the article you need to read before your 10 o'clock meeting."

"Thanks," Elizabeth said. "See you later."

She and Sam made their way to her office, being waylaid twice for introductions to be made. Finally she was able to clear a space for him to get on with his homework while she got on with her work. Eileen's remark about sisters came back to her, and she resolved yet again to phone Jane that day. She had put it off so many times over the last week despite knowing how stupid it was for a rift to develop between them. She only needed to think about the harm that had been done years previously by Charles and William refusing to get over their difficulties to realise that she must confront the problem before it got any bigger.

Sam left the office after lunch to head for Angel and the Northern Line. He felt very full because he had been called down to the general office by Eileen to help the secretaries finish off a large platter of sandwiches and buffet food left over from a meeting. There had even been cake, and he had laughed as Eileen explained to him that the importance of the meeting could always be judged from the type of food that was ordered for lunch.

It didn't take him long to get to Bank, one of the busiest City tube stations, and he was momentarily confused by the thronging mass of people and the number of corridors leading off in all directions. He managed to read the signs by the exits and make his way out to Lombard Street, jostled by impatient businessmen who seemed to know exactly where they were going and to have no time to spare. He walked down the street as he had been instructed, looking in through plate glass windows at stern security guards and receptionists and quickly scanning nameplates until at last he found The Pemberley Group. He pushed at the door, but it was locked, and he stepped back for a moment, confused. A man in a suit coming out of the building opened the door, and Sam slipped inside. The floor and walls were pale marble, and four stylish leather chairs were arranged around a heavy glass-topped coffee table, which held a complete set of the main newspapers of the day. He hadn't noticed the security guard glaring and striding towards him as he walked up to the reception desk and stood behind another man in a suit who was talking to the receptionist.

"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked Sam, just as the security guard reached him. Her name badge identified her as Maureen.

"Come on, son, out you go," the guard said. "You can't just sneak in here."

"I'm here to see William Darcy," Sam said quickly, feeling rather scared all of a sudden.

"And you are?" Maureen asked, scanning a list on her desk.

"Samuel Bennet."

"Take a seat for a moment, I'll put a call through to him," she said, nodding to the security guard to back off. "It's OK, Jim, he's on my list."

Sam sat down on one of the leather chairs, wondering whether he should have put smart trousers on instead of jeans and trainers. Everything around him, from the furniture and walls to the murmuring men and women in smart outfits, told him that he was out of place. He hoped William wouldn't be cross with him.

William turned the corner into Reception and saw Sam huddled in a chair as if he was trying to take up as little space as possible. He smiled and hurried over to him.

"Hi Sam!" he said cheerfully. "Glad you made it. Let's go up, shall we?"

Sam jumped to his feet, relieved that he didn't have to sit by himself any more. Maureen handed him a security badge as he passed, and William showed him how to clip it onto his jacket. They disappeared down the corridor leading into the heart of the building, unaware that they were being watched.

"Who's the kid?" Jim, the security guard, asked.

"No idea," Maureen replied. "But I had strict instructions to tell the man himself when the boy arrived."

They went back to their posts pondering on Sam's identity and wondering how soon they could get to the staff room and find out what was going on.

Meanwhile, Sam had followed William into a lift that had taken them to the fourth floor, where they had emerged into a large open planned office filled with computers and the industrious hum of busy people.

"This is where most of the crucial business is done," William said. "This is where we keep track of investments and so on. This is a 24 hour office, always someone here. If you like Media, you might like the stuff these guys are doing, in Presentations."

Sam noticed a small group of young men in a subsection of the room, who were putting together a display of charts and tables. As William continued to explain what happened in various parts of the building, they took another lift past the floor that housed the legal department, and the next floor which was the home to the finance department. Finally they reached the suite of offices that housed the Directors, and Sam noticed Richard's name on one door. William introduced Sam to Jenny, his secretary, and took him into his office.

"And this is where I spend my day," he said, as Sam took in the comfort of the surroundings. Not only was the desk huge, but there was enough space for an extra table with chairs around it, and a long sofa in the same leather as the smart chairs downstairs in Reception.

"It's nice," Sam said, a little lost for words.

"Glad you like it," William said, smiling, aware that Sam was somewhat overawed. "Richard has his office here too, and I have another cousin who runs her company from here."

"Oh, so it's not all the same business?" Sam asked.

"Not quite," William said. "The name of the company is the Pemberley Group, and the crucial bit of the business is the fourth floor, the one I took you through. They're the guys who make the money. But Richard runs his business from here, as does Anne, and they're both part of the Group, so they have full use of legal, financial, and any other departments they need."

"Oh," said Sam, feeling completely muddled.

"And any other family member who wanted to start their own business could do so, under the umbrella of Pemberley, and they would have immediate access to all the facilities."

Jenny knocked on the door and brought in a tray containing a coffee pot, two cups, milk and sugar, as well as a glass of milk and a carton of orange juice.

"Thanks," William said, as Jenny left to continue fending off people who insisted that they should have immediate access to her boss. "You have a choice, Sam, coffee, milk, or juice?"

"Milk, please."

William handed him the glass of milk and poured himself a coffee.

"Say, for example, when you and Alice leave University, either of you have an idea for a business," William continued. "You would talk it over with us, then set up an office here knowing that you already had everything you need to hand - admin, accountants, and so on. You get on with doing what you want to do while the mundane stuff is taken care of."

William stopped talking, suddenly aware that he had once again let his imagination run away with him and he was getting much too far ahead of himself. However, Sam didn't appear to have noticed as he still seemed somewhat subdued.

"Anyway, that's enough business talk for a Friday afternoon," William said. "Do you want to have a look at the internet while I just sort out which papers I need for the weekend? Then we'll go."

"OK," Sam replied, moving round the desk to where William pulled a chair out for him. He checked out a couple of his favourite sites, while William signed the letters that Jenny brought in for him and quickly read through a sheaf of papers. Eventually William was ready, having filled his briefcase with folders crammed full of papers and drained the last of the coffee. Sam followed him out of the office, said goodbye to Jenny and tried to keep up with William as he strode down the corridor.

"We have to hand in your badge and sign you out," William said as they took the lift back down to the ground floor. "We have to be pretty tight on security these days. What do you think of the place?"

"Umm, pretty amazing really," Sam said, rather stunned at everything he had seen, and beginning to understand from the way everyone looked at him curiously, and deferred to William, that he was in the presence of a rather powerful man. It didn't scare him so much as stir his curiosity about William. He couldn't quite square the power with the man who kissed his Mum in the kitchen when he thought Sam wasn't looking.

They handed in Sam's badge, and Sam echoed William in saying goodbye to Maureen and Jim, then left through a back entrance leading into a very small car park with room for only 3 or 4 cars.

"So, what's your Mum doing this afternoon?" William asked as he pulled out of the car park and nosed out into the traffic.

"Paperwork," groaned Sam.

"Oh dear, poor Mum," William said sympathetically. "We'll buy something nice for tea then, shall we? Give her a treat."

"Yeah, good idea," Sam said, settling back into his seat.

Elizabeth raised her head from the pile of papers in front of her and gazed out of her dusty window. She wondered what Sam was doing and hoped that he and William were getting on well, although she had no reason to think that they wouldn't. William seemed genuinely fond of Sam, and she was pleased that it had worked out so well between them after such an inauspicious start. She forced her attention back to the work on her desk and began to plough through her remaining tasks. If she could get away by 5pm, she thought, she would be able to go home, phone Jane, and still have time to get changed before William and the children arrived back from Sussex. She paused and rolled the phrase around her mind once more. 'William and the children.' It had a nice feel to it, even if it did provoke a slightly nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. They had agreed to sit down and explain the complicated past history of William and Charles to the children, but it had occurred to Elizabeth that there was rather more than the past to talk about. The weekend to come would be setting a pattern for their future.

It was odd for Elizabeth to go into her house alone and find it quiet. She was so used to having Sam around that she felt rather lost when he wasn't there. She made herself a cup of tea and went upstairs to put a few things in an overnight bag for the two of them. Staying at William's house would also be odd, she thought. Waking up with him in a house that wasn't hers and not knowing where anything was would be new and strange. She unfastened the clip holding her hair in place and shook her head, savouring the feeling of unwinding from the week as she took off her office clothes and pulled on her comfy stuff. She glanced at the clock and guessed that Jane would be in. She listed her tasks in her mind: the phone call, a shower, and a taxi to Lambton Gardens. Sipping her tea thoughtfully, she went back downstairs and picked up the phone before she could change her mind.

"Hello?"

"Charles, is that you? It's Elizabeth."

"Hi, how are you?" Charles replied. "Haven't heard from you for a while."

"I know, I'm sorry, I should've phoned," Elizabeth said apologetically. "But I've been a bit busy. And we're OK, thanks. You?"

"We're the same as we always are," he said cheerfully. "So, do you have news for me?"

"If you mean about William, then yes, I do."

"Good news, from the sound of your voice. I take it you've worked things out?"

"Yes."

"I'm very glad to hear it," Charles said. "And Jane will be, too."

"Will she? Are you sure about that?" Elizabeth asked. "Because I wanted to ask you something, and I'm not convinced that she will like it."

"Ask away."

"William wants to settle accounts, to apologise and put the past behind him. He really wants to make things right with you. I know it's a big thing to ask, but would you allow him to come to my birthday dinner?"

"I'm not sure 'allow' is quite the right word," Charles said. "It's your birthday and you should be able to invite whoever you wish. So if you want him to come, then he comes. And as I said the other week, I'm quite willing to see him. I hope we can get on together, for your sake as much as for me."

"What about Jane?" Elizabeth asked, her tone of voice making it clear to Charles that she was worried.

"I think Jane will be OK about it too. We've talked about it, and she knows how I feel. But you two need to talk to each other. She's here, I'll pass you over."

Before she had time to gather her thoughts, Elizabeth heard Jane's voice on the other end of the line.

"Lizzie, I'm glad you phoned," Jane said, sounding a little bit wobbly and emotional. "I should have phoned you sooner."

"Don't worry about it," Elizabeth replied.

"No, I mean it. I'm sorry, I think I put my foot in it with Mum. She phoned and caught me feeling really awful about what I'd done to you, and I blurted out why I was upset, and then she went on and on about Lydia, so I think she might be ringing you soon."

"She already has."

"Oh no," Jane said as she stifled a sob.

"Jane, are you OK?"

"Yes," she squeaked.

"Fibber," Elizabeth replied.

"I'm sorry, Lizzie, I shouldn't have been so brutal and I upset you, I know I did, but I couldn't have kept it a secret, could I?" Jane bit her lip knowing that she had almost done what William did years before, by interfering with another's relationship. Although she had mainly been concerned to protect her sister from William on the basis that she had only ever seen him being unpleasant, she wasn't sure whether Elizabeth would accept that explanation. She knew that the really vital thing was an apology, and could only hope that Elizabeth would accept.

"Lizzie? Please, say you'll let me say I'm sorry."

"Don't cry, please don't cry," Elizabeth said. "Not for me."

"Charles told me about the email," Jane said, sniffling as she got herself under control again. "He was right, he always is. I should've given William a chance to prove that he'd changed. I'm so sorry."

"Look, I think you had to tell me what you knew," Elizabeth said. "Maybe in a different way, but it's all out in the open now. And to be honest, I think it's made me and William look closely at ourselves, and we'll be OK."

"Will you?" Jane asked, feeling enormously relieved. "Do you really think so?"

"Yes, I really think so," Elizabeth said, getting the secure feeling she was beginning to become accustomed to whenever she thought about William. "And I'd like him to come to my birthday dinner. That's what I want for my present. I want us all in the same place, being friends."

Elizabeth heard the sound of a chair scraping back, then Charles came back on the line.

"Hi, it's me again."

"Is Jane OK?"

"Yes, she's fine. She's been a bit up and down recently, and she's a bit tearful right now. I think things are a bit much for her to handle at the moment."

"Are you sure she's OK?" Elizabeth asked, thinking that although Jane was a soft hearted person in general, it was unlike her to be this upset about anything.

"Yes," Charles said firmly. "Nothing to worry about. Look, I'll get her to ring you when she's feeling up to it, and meanwhile should I add two to the booking for next Saturday? Will William bring his daughter, as you'll be bringing Sam?"

"Charles, you are too good," Elizabeth said. "Two extra places would be perfect. Where are we going, by the way?"

"Well, there's this new restaurant called The Lodge, it's been getting rave reviews because they've got one of these flashy young chefs running it, a guy called John Lucas, so I thought we'd go there. Ever heard of him?"

"No, but I had a friend at Uni called Charlotte Lucas who I bumped into again over the summer," Elizabeth said. "Do you think they're related?"

"No idea," Charles said. "Might be, it's not that common a name. Anyway, I'd better go. Jane might need me."

"Yes, of course," Elizabeth said. "Tell her not to worry, and I hope she's feeling better soon."

"OK, have a nice weekend, and say hi to Sam from us. Bye!"

"Bye," Elizabeth said, and put the phone down, feeling both happier and more perturbed, happier because she and Jane seemed to have resolved any lingering differences but perturbed at Jane becoming upset so easily. She glanced at her watch and wondered how soon William would be home, attempting to calculate the effects of Friday night traffic on his journey time. She decided that she had plenty of time for a shower, and ran upstairs.

William signed Alice out of school and took her bag out to the car, followed by the children. As William put Alice's bag into the boot, she and Sam reached for the front passenger door at the same time.

"I always go in the front," Alice said.

"I went in the front on the way here."

"Then it's definitely my turn. You go in the back."

"I don't want to go in the back."

William stared at the two of them, completely thrown. He hadn't expected them to squabble and didn't know how to handle it.

"I'll be sick if I go in the back."

"No you won't, you're just making it up!"

"Stop this now!" William said loudly, shocking them into silence. "You can both go in the back."

They both protested vehemently until William held up his hand. "OK, you toss a coin and take a chance to see who gets the front seat this time, and from then on you take turns. Or you both go in the back. Your choice."

"Toss the coin," they both mumbled grumpily.

William tossed and Alice called 'heads'.

"Heads it is," William said, holding out his hand so they could both see that he had been fair.

Alice got into the front of the car triumphantly while Sam slid onto the back seat, scowling. William sighed, wondering whether he had made the right decision, and not looking forward to almost two hours in the car with two moody teenagers.

"So, how was school this week?" he asked as he reached the main road and accelerated past a slow lorry lumbering in the inside lane.

"OK," Alice said. "But it's half term now, isn't it? That's why Sam came today."

"Yes, it's half term," William agreed.

"So, you said if I stuck it out until half term, we would talk about a different school, and I've done it, so when can I go to a different school?"

"We need to discuss that," William said. "In fact, Elizabeth and Sam are staying with us tonight so we can all talk about .... all sorts of things," he said falteringly as he began to wish he wasn't beginning this conversation on his own.

"Like what?" Sam asked, perking up on the back seat.

"Like, what are we three going to do for your Mum's birthday," William said, mentally congratulating himself on his flash of inspiration. "Did you decide what you're going to buy her?"

"Yeah, a CD and some chocolates," Sam said. "It's always good to get girls chocolates because they go 'oh no, it'll make my bum really big' then they let you eat them."

Alice's howl of protest was drowned out by William bursting out laughing so hard that he had to slow down and compose himself before he could get back up to top speed.

"If you ever buy me chocolates, I'll eat them all," Alice told Sam.

"I'll never buy you chocolate then," Sam retorted.

"If you two carry on like this, I'm going to pull into the next Sainsbury's and leave you to make your own way home," William said.

"Are we getting something for tea from Sainsbury's?" Alice asked.

"Actually, yes we do need to get something," William said. "Sam and I decided Elizabeth needs a treat, so what shall we have?"

William was enormously relieved that the next half hour of the journey was taken up by Sam and Alice discussing meal options fairly amiably. By the time he pulled into the car park of a phenomenally busy supermarket they had agreed upon what seemed to be a rather elaborate menu. He was so relieved that they weren't fighting each other that he followed them round the supermarket pushing the trolley that they filled enthusiastically with items William had no idea he needed.

At last he pulled into the space in front of his house, calling the children back to help him carry bags of shopping. It was already beyond dusk, and he glanced at his watch thinking that Elizabeth must be wondering what had happened to them.

Elizabeth was startled out of her reverie by the phone ringing. She snatched it up, her heart racing somewhat.

"Hello?"

"Hi, its us, we're back," William said. "Took us rather longer than I expected, sorry."

"No probs, I'll call for a taxi and be right over."

"A taxi?"

"Yeah, the car's conked out, remember?" Elizabeth said. "It's at the garage. Anyway, have they been OK?"

William sighed, giving away his feelings without even saying anything.

"OK," Elizabeth laughed. "I get the picture! See you soon."

"Yes please."

She was laughing as she put the phone down, quickly checked the number of a taxi firm and rang to order a cab.

As she was driven through the centre of London on a Friday night, seeing excited groups of people thronging along the pavements, she felt a little pang of nostalgia for her younger days. Then she remembered the horrible flats she'd lived in as a student, the dives she and her friends had gone to, and contrasted it with her quiet almost suburban lifestyle of nice meals and quiet evenings in her own house. Much as she might ponder upon the thrill of being young, she knew that nothing on earth would make her be 19 again. The taxi pulled up in front of William's house, and she picked up her bag and paid the fare. Only the second time she had been here, she felt rather overawed still at the magnificent façade fronting what was a rather grand house, after all. She walked up the steps and pressed the buzzer.

William opened the door and pulled her into an embrace, making her giggle at his impulsiveness.

"Everything OK?" she asked, hearing screeching noises from the living room.

"Fine," William replied. "I was persuaded to buy a treble length version of Lord of the Rings, or something like that, so they're in front of the TV right now."

"It's an extra half hour of footage," she said, laughing at his pained expression.

"Whatever," he sighed, making her giggle again at his unconscious adoption of the teenage phrase of the moment. "Anyway, come in, give me your bag. Shall I show you where everything is, since those two don't exactly need us right now?"

"I'll just tell him I'm here," Elizabeth said, needing to see Sam as much for her own sake as to reassure him. He acknowledged her briefly as she appeared in the doorway to the living room, and then returned his attention to the film.

"OK, well, he seems fine," Elizabeth said. "Lead on, Macduff."

William laughed and led the way upstairs. From the top of the grandly sweeping staircase, Elizabeth looked down on the hall and could imagine ladies and gentlemen arriving in their finery in days gone by, handing their hats and coats to the maid or the butler. Several doors led off the long corridor at first floor level.

"OK, my room, my bathroom, the guest room, the other guest room, my study, the main bathroom," William said, pointing at each door in turn. He dropped Elizabeth's bag by his bedroom door, and carried on to the other end of the corridor. "I'll just show you the top floor, then you can unpack."

Elizabeth followed him up to the second floor, another landing and another set of doors.

"Alice's room, her bathroom, the play room. I had these two rooms made into a bedroom with an adjoining en suite bathroom for her nanny," he said, indicating each door in turn as he spoke. "And that's it. Oh, apart from the box room, which is full of clutter, as you'd expect"

Elizabeth was speechless. This was all normal to him, this enormous house with spacious rooms and perfect decor. It was in such sharp contrast to her own house, which until then she had felt to be perfectly adequate if a little tatty in places, that she didn't know where to begin a comparison.

"Everything OK?" William asked, concerned at her silence.

"Yes, fine," Elizabeth said. "It's a very nice house. You've got lots of space."

"That's true. I rattle around a bit on my own, actually. I use hardly any of the rooms. Come down to my room and I'll show you where you can put your things."

He led the way back down the stairs and into his bedroom, taking Elizabeth's bag in with him. She felt almost as if she was intruding on a private side of him, going into his personal space. He opened one of the wardrobes, which was empty apart from a few hangers on the rail, and a package on one of the shelves.

"This one's yours," he said. "And this is for you."

"What is it?" she asked as he handed her the parcel.

"Open it and you'll find out," he said, grinning at her. "An early birthday present."

She tore open the paper to reveal a pair of silk pyjamas and a huge fluffy dressing gown.

"Oh, William, they're gorgeous!" she said, holding the dark red silk to her cheek. "Mmm this feels lovely, I never had real silk before!"

She held up the dressing gown, then cuddled it to her.

"And this is wonderful too! Thank you! You shouldn't have, really."

"Why not?" William shrugged, and smiled. "I wanted to get you something nice, and it is nearly your birthday, so I thought we'd start early. Now you can lounge around luxuriously, or snuggle if it's chilly."

She smiled at him, and leaned over to kiss him, trapping the dressing gown between them. He took it from her and threw it onto the bed so that he could hold her close as he kissed her properly.

"Don't you think we should get back down to the children?" Elizabeth said, breaking away from him after a while.

"Mmm, if you insist," he murmured. "One more kiss first."

"You are impossible," she giggled as he bent to place little kisses under her ear and down the side of her neck.

"You are irresistible," he replied. "But you're right. We should go down before I get addicted to being here with you."

"I'll put our things away," she said as he released her from his embrace. "Where is Sam going to go?"

"I thought he could have the room next to the bathroom at the end of this corridor."

"OK," she replied and quickly sorted out her clothes, then took Sam's things to the room William had given him. Back downstairs, they found Sam and Alice still engrossed in the film, so they left them in the living room and went into the kitchen, where there was a delicious aroma of warm bread.

"Mmm, have you been cooking?" Elizabeth asked, sniffing the air appreciatively.

"Not me personally, I'm afraid," William said. "Those two picked tonight's menu at Sainsbury's on our way back."

"I got the impression that they misbehaved?" Elizabeth asked.

"Not exactly. They had a bit of an argument about who got to sit in the front of the car."

"Oh dear," Elizabeth laughed. "I suppose neither of them are used to having to give way."

"It's something they'll have to get used to, then, isn't it?" William said without thinking.

"Yes, I suppose so," Elizabeth said, thoughtfully.

William opened a bottle of wine and poured them each a glass.

"Happy Friday," he said, and tasted the wine. "Mm, that's good. Alice asked me when I'm going to take her out of school on the way home, by the way."

"And what did you say?"

"That we had things to talk about this weekend."

"I talked to Charles," Elizabeth said. "He thinks it would be good if you and Alice would come to the birthday dinner."

"Then we definitely need to tell the children what's going on," William said. "This is going to be interesting."

Eventually Sam and Alice were persuaded that they should abandon the TV and pay attention to the food they had insisted on buying. They covered the table with the huge selection of tasty dishes they had chosen from the delicatessen, filled a bowl with green salad and got the bread out of the oven.

"This looks lovely!" Elizabeth said, making the two of them beam with pride. "All my favourite things, too."

They sat down to eat, chatting about what they had each done during the week and what they might do over the weekend.

"Next weekend it's Mum's birthday party," Sam said. "Are you going to come?"

William and Elizabeth glanced at each other, and knew that this was as good an opportunity as they were likely to get to introduce the complexities of the situation.

"Well, there's something we need to tell you about," William said slowly, causing Sam and Alice to exchange worried looks. "Alice, you know your Grandma was married two times, don't you? First of all to Caroline's father, and then to her second husband, who you don't remember."

Alice nodded, assuming that he was going to tell them that he was planning on being married twice as well, while Sam looked puzzled, wondering what this was all about.

"Well, your Mum had a step brother called Charles, in fact it was through him that I met your Mum, Alice. We were very good friends. But we had a row and fell out, and I haven't seen him since you were born."

"So, I've got an uncle I don't know?" Alice asked.

"I suppose he's not really your uncle because he wasn't Caroline's actual brother," William replied.

"Yeah, but what's this got to do with Mum's birthday?" Sam asked.

"It's to do with my birthday because the friend that William fell out with is Uncle Charles," Elizabeth said, causing a stunned silence around the table. "And next Saturday, when we all go out together, will be the first time they've met in a long time."

"So are you and this Charles guy friends again now?" Alice asked.

"I hope so," William said.

"Hang on," Sam interrupted, having managed to put the pieces together. "My uncle Charles is Ally's uncle too?"

"More or less," William said.

"Cool!" Alice said.

"Weird," Sam added.

"And what's all this Ally business, anyway?" William asked.

"I'm changing my name when I go to my new school," Alice stated firmly. "Hey, so we really are cousins?"

"I'm not sure," Elizabeth said. "I never can work out first and second cousins and all that stuff."

"I still don't really get it," Sam said. "How many Grannys has Alice got?"

"She used to have the usual number," William replied, smiling at the question. "But neither are still living."

"Oh. Sorry," Sam said quietly, then perked up. "I've got one, you can share mine, she's nuts."

"Sam!" Elizabeth said sharply, but unable to stop herself laughing.

"Well, she is," Sam said defending himself, before turning to William. "Have you met her?"

"No, I haven't," William replied, although from the evidence of one phone call he was leaning towards Sam's interpretation.

"So, Mummy had a step brother called Charles, and he was your best friend, then you fell out and he married Elizabeth's sister," Alice said after a few moments' thought. "So why haven't you two known each other all along?"

"Because Charles and I fell out before I had a chance to meet Elizabeth," William said. "And that's what I'm going to put right next Saturday by saying I'm sorry."

"OK," Alice said.

"Have I got any secret uncles?" Sam asked.

"Not unless Aunty Mary has got married in Japan without telling us," Elizabeth replied, wondering not for the first time whether Sam would demand to go and search out his father when he was 18 and thus find a whole new family. She pushed the thought to the back of her mind to be dealt with another day, and began to help William clear the table. Alice got the dishes out of the cupboard and Sam got the pudding out of the fridge, and they sat down to finish their meal while counting up uncles, aunts and cousins.

"That was easier than I thought it was going to be," William said later, when the children had gone to bed and he was reclining on the sofa with Elizabeth leaning against him. He played with a stray curl of her hair as he talked, enjoying the feeling of having her warmth against him.

"Much easier," Elizabeth agreed.

"Tired?"

"Not really."

"Good, let's go to bed then," William said, pushing Elizabeth's hair aside as he bent down to kiss her neck. "I love your neck," he murmured, kissing it again, making shivers run up and down her spine.

"Only my neck?" Elizabeth teased, almost groaning aloud with pleasure.

"No, I love your shoulder too," he said, easing her shirt away and kissing the little bit of exposed skin, as he ran his fingers lightly down her arm and took her hand in his. "And the palm of your hand," he said, raising it to his lips.

"Anywhere else?" she sighed, prolonging the exquisite torment.

"I'll tell you upstairs," he whispered, manoeuvring off the sofa so that he could stand up and pull her to her feet.

"Give me one minute," she said, leaving the room and running upstairs.

William waited for as long as he could bear, then went upstairs. He opened his bedroom door to find Elizabeth fastening the final button on her new silk pyjamas. She smiled at him as he came into the room.

"These feel lovely," she said.

"You look lovely," William replied, stepping close to her and running his hand down her back and over her bottom. "And you feel very nice too."

She began to undo the buttons on his shirt as he continued to caress her. The feeling of the silk moving against her skin as William barely touched her was more exciting than she could have imagined. She pushed his shirt off his shoulders and ran her hands over his bare chest.

"I love your chest," she murmured, leaning against him and wrapping her arms around him. "And your back."

"Oh, yes, we were doing an inventory, weren't we?" he said. "I love all of you, but I'm rather fond of here," he murmured in her ear as he began to move the silk against her breasts, softly stroking the backs of his fingers across her nipples. She moaned with pleasure and pulled him towards her, kissing him deeply. He pushed her pyjama bottoms to the floor, quickly removed his own trousers, then scooped her up in his arms.

"I've wanted to do this for ages," he sighed, laying her on the bed and kneeling next to her. He began to unfasten the buttons on her top, caressing and kissing each bit of bare skin that he revealed, until by the time they were both completely naked, they were also aroused almost beyond restraint. He reached under his pillow but Elizabeth stopped him.

"You don't need one," she murmured.

"Are you sure?"

She nodded. "I started taking the pill."

For the first time they connected with nothing to come between them, joined together in a rhythm that was becoming second nature, giving and taking as they understood each other's needs, driving each other upwards with their groans of pleasure and encouragement. To have her wrapped around him completely, to be able to truly feel her, was almost more than William could bear. He looked down at her flushed cheeks, her breathing becoming rapid as the tension of her own excitement built until she could only focus on one thing. She grasped his bum and pulled him hard against her, producing an explosion of light behind her eyes as she felt him fill her, driven by her own orgasm to lose any final shred of control he might have had.

When their breathing rates returned to normal, he kissed her softly. "It's never been like that before," he murmured. "I love you."

"Love you too," she replied, curling up in his embrace. The exhaustion of the day finally caught up with them, and any lingering tensions having been released so pleasurably, they soon fell into a peaceful and fulfilled sleep.

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