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icons by Aimala

 

What We Did on Our Holidays
[Modern/NC17]

Chapter 29

The happy atmosphere that had surrounded Lambton Gardens and enabled Elizabeth to relax for an entire weekend was not to be found in Islington on Monday morning. Over the weekend, they had tried to draw family trees and had pored over school prospectuses. Alice had seemed cheerful and Sam had been in a good mood too. It had been a good, positive weekend for all four of them, Elizabeth thought, it was just a pity that it had all had to end. Annoyed at having to shout him three times, Elizabeth ran upstairs to find Sam still only half dressed.

"What are you doing?" she asked crossly. "You're going to be late for school."

"Don't care," Sam shrugged.

"Don't start, Sam!" Elizabeth warned him. "It's nearly 8, so get a move on. Everything will be OK when you get there."

She went into her own room to finish getting ready for work. She knew Sam wasn't looking forward to going back to school now that Jack had left, but it was unlike him to be quite this moody. Eventually he came downstairs looking sullen but at least he was dressed and had his school bag with him.

"Ready?" she asked. "Look I know it's going to be odd without Jack, but you're not on your own, are you? You've got lots of friends."

He shrugged and mumbled something she couldn't quite hear. She let them out of the house and walked to the end of the road with him where they parted, he to the bus stop, she to the tube station.

"Have a good day, Sam, do your best," she said.

"Yeah," he said, ambling away. She watched him go, feeling almost as bad as she had the first day she left him at infant school. But it was no longer possible to wrap him in her arms and kiss him better, and promise that Mummy could make everything OK, because she couldn't any more.

By Thursday the situation had not improved. Sam hadn't refused to go to school, but his reluctance was obvious. William had told Elizabeth of his feeling that Sam hadn't been entirely open in the car the previous week, but Elizabeth was lost for how to make things better. She couldn't bring his friend back, or magic up any new ones to replace the boys who seemed to spend all their time with girls. She had a feeling that he rather liked a particular girl, but if he wanted to spend more time with her, then it was up to him to sort it out. There was nothing she could do. She glanced at her watch, noticing that it was 4pm so he would be out of school now. She assumed he was going to Computer Club as he usually did, and returned her attention to the work in front of her.

Sam left school eagerly at 4, not wanting to go to the library and get called a geek again. When there had been someone to go with, it had been different, but now he no longer wanted to hang out with the computer club. Besides, he had to go shopping for the birthday present. He patted his pocket to check that his money was there, and set off.

He found the CD he wanted in Borders, and crossed the road at the back of the shopping centre to go into Marks and Spencers for a box of chocolates. Once he'd bought them, he stood outside the shop to count how much money he had left. He didn't register the shout or realise he was being watched until it was too late.

"Oi," he heard as he felt the first push. He looked up to see two older boys approaching him, and one close enough to push him. He felt frightened as he realised that the green sweatshirts they wore marked them out as rivals to his own school.

"You're from Highfield," one of the boys said. "Give us your money or we'll do you."

"No," Sam said, backing away, pushing his remaining money into his trouser pocket.

"He said, give us the money," the biggest one said as he shoved Sam against the wall.

"Leave me alone!" Sam said, pushing the nearest boy away from him.

"Don't you fuckin' touch me!" he swore, hitting Sam on the side of his head and grabbing at his shirt as the big one pulled his fist back ready to punch Sam. Sam jerked sideways out of the grip so that the punch when it came didn't fully contact. He swung his bag at them and ran. He had surprised them enough to get a slight lead, and dodged between cursing pedestrians as he sprinted across the road. He glanced over his shoulder to see that he was being chased, ran into the tube station and vaulted the ticket barrier. The guards at the barrier shouted at him but turned round just in time to see his pursuers. By the time Sam had bounded down both escalators and flung himself, gasping, onto the train that was about to depart as he arrived, the three boys who had chased him were being questioned by a policeman.

He leaned back in his seat, his chest heaving from a combination of fear and running. When he had regained control over his breathing, he wondered what to do. He didn't dare double back and return to Angel in case the other boys were waiting for him; if there had been a train on the other platform he would have jumped on that one and be heading to King's Cross now where he could change to the Victoria line and go home via Highbury and Islington station. But he was southbound and about to pull into Old Street. Bank was only two stops further. He realised what he could do, and began to search his bag for his travel pass. It was only then that he realised that he no longer had the CD. It must have fallen out of his bag, either when he swung it at his attackers or when he leapt the barrier. He touched his face where it was beginning to sting, and felt that a bruise was coming up. His misery was complete when he glanced down to see the rip in his sweatshirt.

Now that Sam knew what to do on arrival at The Pemberley Group, he buzzed the intercom and waited for a reply. He glanced up and noticed that he was being watched by CCTV. Inside, the receptionist glanced at her screen, remembered the shy boy from the previous week, and let him in.

"Please could I see William Darcy?" Sam asked politely.

"What on earth has happened to you?" she cried in alarm. "You're the boy who came to see him last week, aren't you?

"Yes, my name's Sam Bennet. I had a bit of trouble."

"Looks like it, son," the security guard said, also remembering Sam's quietness and polite goodbye the previous Friday. "What happened?"

As Sam explained the incident to Jim, Maureen phoned William's office and had a brief conversation with Jenny.

"Mr Darcy is in a meeting at the moment," she said after putting the phone down. "Jenny, his secretary, is going to come down for you. Jim, go and get the first aid box. We'll need to clean him up."

"No, I'm OK, honest," Sam said.

"Have you seen your face?" Maureen asked. "Needs a bit of attention."

Sam was saved from Maureen's mother hen instincts by the appearance of Jenny, who was also shocked at his appearance.

"The young man got attacked on the way home from school," Jim explained. "He's lost his Mum's birthday present too."

"Oh no!" Jenny said sympathetically. "Come with me, we'll soon have you patched up. Thanks Maureen, thanks Jim."

"Poor lad," Jim said as Sam was led away. "Is it right, the boss has got a girlfriend and he's her kid?"

"That's what I heard," Maureen said, settling into sharing what little gossip she had managed to acquire in the last few days.

Upstairs, Sam told his story once again as Jenny took him to the Directors' suite. In the little kitchen, she found the first aid box and dabbed gently at the grazes on his cheek with antiseptic wipes, making him wince and screw his eyes shut.

"You're going to have a bit of a black eye tomorrow, I think," she said.

"Who's going to have a black eye?" a familiar male voice said behind her. "Bloody hell, what's going on? What are you doing here, Sam?"

Sam opened his eyes to see Richard staring at him looking completely dumbfounded.

"He was attacked and chased onto the tube, and came here for help," Jenny said. "But Mr Darcy is in a meeting so I'm just looking after him for a while."

"No, we've finished, he'll be here in a moment," Richard said. "Come and sit in my office until he gets back."

Sam followed Richard into an office that was very similar to William's, except for the huge array of family photographs on the desk and bookshelves. Yet again he had to explain what had happened to him and why he had turned up at The Pemberley Group. Jenny brought him a drink, and shortly after her exit, William appeared in the doorway.

"Jenny said Sam's here, is he OK?"

"I'm OK," Sam said, turning round to face William.

"Bloody hell," William swore. The skin around Sam's eye was beginning to darken, and a graze ran across his cheekbone. "What happened?"

"Got beaten up," Sam said, bored now with telling the story.

"Does your Mum know where you are?" William asked.

"No."

"I'd better take you home," William said. "If she gets in and you're not there, she'll worry about you."

"Can I go to the bathroom?" Sam asked.

"Of course," he said, and told him where it was. Once Sam had left the room, William turned to Richard and was told the whole story. The irony of Sam running to William only weeks after Alice had run to Elizabeth was not lost on them. William's anger towards Sam's attackers was compounded when he heard that Sam had lost the present he had bought for Elizabeth.

"I'll take the kids shopping on Saturday," William said. "We'll get another CD."

He couldn't miss the smirk that Richard was giving him.

"What?"

"You're a changed man," Richard said, beginning to laugh. "Volunteering to take two teenagers shopping?"

"Well, I may regret it, but I suspect I'll be getting used to it," William replied as Sam returned. "Right then, let's get you home. How's your head? No headaches?"

"No, I'm fine, but Mum will kill me when she sees the state of my sweatshirt," Sam said, showing William the rip down one sleeve.

"I'm sure she'll understand," William said. "I'll see you in the morning, Richard."

"Bye, thanks for my juice," Sam said to Jenny as he left.

"You're welcome," she said, watching him go then turning to Richard. "He's a lovely boy, isn't he?"

"Yes he is. Takes after his mother," Richard replied, collecting his messages from Jenny's desk and returning to his office to finish the day's business.

Elizabeth had only been home for five minutes when she heard the key in the lock, and her relief at Sam arriving home was mixed with annoyance that he was late and had not told her where he was. However, before she could say anything, she noticed William behind him, and the state of his face.

"Sam!" she cried, her heart lurching. "What's happened? William, what are you doing here?"

"These kids tried to nick my money," Sam said. "And I wouldn't give it to them so they hit me."

"They chased him into the tube station," William said. "He came to my office, so we've cleaned him up a bit. Nothing I can do about the shirt though, I'm afraid."

"I don't care about the shirt," Elizabeth said, putting her arms around Sam and hugging him. "Where did they hit you? What hurts? Oh Sam, you poor thing."

"I'm OK, Mum," Sam said. "Do you think I'll have a black eye tomorrow?"

Elizabeth held him at arms length and inspected him. "Yes, it looks as if you will."

"Cool! I never had a black eye before."

"A black eye is not cool, Sam," Elizabeth fretted, looking closely at his grazed cheek. "Thanks for looking after him, William."

"No problem," William replied, as Sam wriggled out of Elizabeth's embrace and wandered towards the kitchen.

"Are you coming in?" she asked. "I've only been home a couple of minutes, but the kettle's on."

"I'd love to, but I can't," William said, glancing at his watch. "One of the organisations we support has a meeting tonight, so I'm going to hear what they've done with our grant."

"Oh, OK," Elizabeth said sadly. William realised that she was shaken by the incident with Sam, and pulled her into his arms, kissing her hair and stroking her back.

"He's had a fright but I think he's OK," William murmured, feeling her begin to relax under his ministrations. "I wish I could catch the little bastards who did it to him, but I don't suppose that would do any good. Look, this thing I'm going to will be over by 9, then there's a bit of mingling and chatting to be done, then why don't I come back? I'd be here by 10, if that's not too late?"

"No, that's not too late for me, but you'll be tired, won't you?"

"I'll be fine," William said. "It's you two I'm concerned about."

"Don't worry about us," Elizabeth said tiredly.

He put his fingers under her chin and tilted her face up to look at him. The warmth and sincerity in his eyes was unmistakeable. "I want to," he said quietly. "I don't want you to have to worry about anything."

"What a lovely idea," she sighed. "Not to have to worry about anything."

He kissed her softly and cuddled her again, feeling the tension diminishing in her body as he held her.

"I'll see you later, OK?" he murmured. "I'm sure Sam will be better now he's home."

"See you later," Elizabeth said, and watched him leave. He turned to wave as he got to his car, then drove away. She went to find Sam and hear the full version of what had happened to him. William meanwhile, was feeling disturbed and unable to quite pin down his mixture of feelings. He was annoyed that he had a prior engagement that he felt obliged to keep and angry that somewhere around here there were three louts responsible for scaring Sam. The sight of Sam's bruised face had sparked William's instinctive over-protectiveness and he had known at that moment that this slight, clever, funny boy meant as much to him as if he had been his own son. He was also slightly shocked at the realisation that he had almost proposed to Elizabeth. He had come very close to telling her that he would care for the two of them for the rest of their lives, if only she would let him. The words had been on the tip of his tongue but he had held back. He wanted the moment he asked her to marry him to be special, not be tainted with memories of the painful situation surrounding it. He drove to his meeting with his mind in turmoil.

Sam went up for a bath quite early, and was in bed by 9. He hadn't said much to Elizabeth about what had happened to him despite her gentle probing. There was just one thing that stuck in her mind. She had asked him why he went to William's office as she simply could not understand how a fight on Upper Street had led him there. He told her how he had run into Angel station in a frightened panic, realised that he had jumped on a southbound tube and that The Pemberley Group was only a few stops away

"I just knew I could go there," Sam had said.

When she was alone downstairs and Sam was asleep above, she rolled his words around her head again and again. The realisation that Sam's trust in William was absolute, that Sam felt he could turn to William without question, was like a piece of the jigsaw finally clicking into place. The sadness she had felt watching William walk to his car was softened by his promise to return, and the comforting knowledge that now she had someone to lean on. The quiet tap at the door came just as her ears were straining for noise.

"Good meeting?" she asked, opening the door to a tired looking William.

"Very good," he replied. "We support a great community group who use drama and music workshops to engage kids in their neighbourhood, so I've been watching dance displays, and a steel band, and all sorts of good work."

"Sounds lovely," Elizabeth said, drawing him into the house and shutting the door behind him. "One of my uncles is really into youth theatre."

"Really? You should tell him to apply to us for a grant. Anyway, how are you?" William asked. "And how's Sam been tonight?"

"Very quiet," Elizabeth replied. "He went to bed early and has hardly said a thing. He's not been happy all week, and this is just the finishing touch."

William pulled her into an embrace, wishing he could take all her worries away from her.

"I don't know if there's anything I can do to make everything better for him," she sighed. "I only wish I could."

"He knows he's got you to lean on," William said. "That's important."

"And you," Elizabeth said. "You took care of him when he came to you. Isn't it funny how our children seem to swap us over in a crisis?"

"I suppose they do," he replied thoughtfully. "I'm glad. It must be better for them to know they've got more than one person looking out for them, mustn't it?"

Elizabeth yawned, feeling overwhelmed with tiredness that had somehow overtaken her once she had William to lean on. He smiled and led her to the sitting room.

"Sit down," he said. "I'm going to make you a cup of tea. It's your turn to be looked after."

He returned with two mugs of tea after a little while to find her staring unseeing at the television. She switched it off and took the mug that he held out to her.

"Mmm, the luxury of having someone else make me my late night cup of tea," she sighed, smiling.

"Any time," William replied, sitting down next to her. "I was thinking, just now, about Sam. Have you thought about moving him to another school?"

"I'm not sure what good that would do," she replied. "He'd still be unsettled and would have to try and fit into a whole new set of friends, as opposed to just missing his best friend. And it was boys from a different school who beat him up, so its not as if he's being bullied in his own place. I have thought about it, but where would I send him? All the schools round here are pretty much the same."

"What about an independent school?"

"I can't afford that! Besides, I actually believe in comprehensive education, all children being given an equal chance to shine." She paused before speaking almost to herself. "But then, Sam isn't exactly shining just now. Poor thing, it's as if he's been defeated. All the joy has gone out of him this week."

"Do you think he's unsettled by us?" William asked.

"I don't think so," Elizabeth said. "He seems happy when we're all together, doesn't he? I did wonder whether he's been thinking about having secret uncles, you know, if this whole business with Charles has upset him."

William didn't really know how to respond, sensing that Elizabeth was on the verge of telling him more, but wondering whether to ask her directly, or just wait and see. The problem solved itself when she turned to him with a somewhat sad expression on her face.

"He hasn't, by the way," she said. "Got any secret uncles. Just the ones married to my sisters. His father didn't have any brothers."

William decided to take the plunge into this conversation. "You never talk about Sam's Dad," he said quietly.

There was a very long pause before Elizabeth spoke again, time she had taken to gather her own thoughts and put them into some semblance of order, to make a story that made sense for William. She drank the last of her tea and put the mug down. Taking a deep breath, leaning forwards with her elbows on her knees, she began to speak.

"His name was John. He was from New Zealand. I've always assumed that's why Sam is so sporty, because Kiwis are very sporty, aren't they? Swimming and outdoors and stuff." Elizabeth sounded tired as she spoke, as if she had spent many hours thinking about this, which, indeed, she had, but just that it had never been revealed to anyone else.

"So Sam is half Kiwi? Does he know?"

"Yes. He knows that his father went away before he was born, that he never lived with us. I always told him that I loved him enough for two people, and of course he's always been surrounded by lots of adults who love him to bits - Mary, Charles, Jane, my father."

"Your mother?"

"My mother tolerates small children," Elizabeth said, turning to look at William, her expression worn and sad. "And barely tolerates me. Sam asked about John a few times, when he first started school and realised that other kids had Dads. He wanted to know why he hadn't got one. Then, of course, being round here he's quite normal, there are so many single parents. So, it's not been something we've talked about much for a long time."

"Have you got a picture of him?"

"Of John? Yes. Sam's got it in a book I made him when he was small."

"Maybe you should talk to him, especially since the subject's kind of in the air anyway, what with Alice finding out she's got family she never knew."

"I don't know if I can," Elizabeth said, knowing that sooner or later she had to tell William all the details, and deciding that it might as well be now. "When I first found out I was pregnant, John said he'd stick around, but as things went on, it was obvious we weren't going to make it together. He had to go back to New Zealand, and we said we'd keep in touch, but I knew then that I was on my own. I don't know where he is now. I had an address for him, years ago, and I sent him a picture of Sam when he was one, and I said, here's your son. Let me know if you want to know how he gets on. And I never heard from him. How do I tell Sam that his father cared so little for him that he never wanted to know him?"

"I don't know," William said, his heart breaking at the thought of the hurt and loneliness Elizabeth must have suffered during Sam's early years. "You tell him its not his fault, it wasn't Sam who did anything wrong, it was John who couldn't handle it. It takes quite a bit to be a father. I haven't been one, for the last 14 years. Now I'm learning. Tell him that."

"Maybe you could."

"Me? No, I don't think so. I hope I'm close enough to him one day, but I'm not there yet."

Elizabeth yawned and rubbed her eyes. She felt completely drained by the events of the evening, but curiously lighter, as if she had unloaded a tremendous burden.

"You must be exhausted," William said, rubbing her shoulders. "You should go to bed."

"Are you going to stay?" Elizabeth asked, needing not to be alone.

"If you want me to," William replied.

"Yes," Elizabeth said. "Don't go."

He stood up and pulled her to her feet. He took their mugs back to the kitchen while she locked up and switched the lights off. He followed her upstairs and searched out the T shirt he had left there on a previous visit, while she brushed her teeth in the bathroom. By the time William returned from his turn in the bathroom, Elizabeth was curled up in bed, almost asleep. He slipped under the covers beside her, and she nestled against him as he put his arm around her. He kissed her hair and held her close.

"Night night," she murmured sleepily.

"Sweet dreams," he whispered. "I love you."

"Love you too," she mumbled, drifting into sleep holding William's hand tight, with no intention of letting go.

Chapter 30

Friday morning was the usual chaos as the three of them tried to get ready for school and work at the same time. Sam hadn't seemed surprised to see William emerging from the bathroom, although William had been shocked to see how bad the bruising was around Sam's eye. Trying to make arrangements as they dashed in and out of the kitchen grabbing toast and tea was impossible, so William left for work agreeing to ring Elizabeth when he returned from Sussex.

"I'll be back early," he said. "I'm getting Alice after lunch and we're going to look at Richmond Grammar."

"So you're going for there, then?" Elizabeth asked.

"Maybe," William said. "I'll tell you about it tonight."

"OK, have a good day."

"And you. Bye Sam!"

"Bye!"

William had phoned as promised, and informed Elizabeth that she was not to leave the house before lunch the following day. No matter how much she tried to persuade him to tell her what was happening, he wouldn't divulge any information, and made her promise not to quiz Sam. When she put the phone down, she couldn't help feeling a little twinge of excitement that she was going to be surprised on her birthday, that there was something special setting this birthday apart from any others.

She awoke on Saturday morning to the sound of Sam singing as he brought her a cup of coffee, the newspaper and a bundle of post, doing his best to negotiate her bedroom door without spilling the coffee or dropping anything.

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, oops, happy birthday dear Mu-um, happy birthday, ouch, to you! I stood on something!"

He put the coffee down and looked round. "Oh, it's your shoe," he said, kicking it out of the way as Elizabeth chuckled at him. "I didn't spill any coffee, I don't think so anyway. You've got lots of post."

He sat down on the side of her bed and handed her the envelopes.

"Did these come this morning?" she asked, opening cards from her parents, Lydia, Kitty and several aunts and uncles.

"Some did, and some came the other day and I hid them," Sam said. "Open this one."

She knew he was longing for her to open the card he'd bought her, and she kissed him when she saw the sweet teddy bear card he'd chosen.

"That's lovely, thank you," she said. "Nothing from Mary? Air mail's always a bit unpredictable I suppose."

"You can't have any presents yet though," Sam said, grinning. He knew what William was preparing because he'd been involved in the planning of it, along with Alice.

"Not even one?" Elizabeth said, pretending to be hurt.

"Oh, OK, you can have one," Sam said, unable to bear the suspense any longer. He dashed to his bedroom and brought back a wrapped package, and watched eagerly as Elizabeth tore the paper off the box of chocolates. He'd jammed them down the side of his books after he had bought them on Thursday, and unlike the CD they hadn't slipped out of his bag.

"Yum!" Elizabeth said. "Let's have chocolate for breakfast. Here you are, choose one."

"Don't eat too many," Sam said. "Can I have the sports pages?"

Elizabeth separated all the different bits of the newspaper and began to read the books section, while Sam sprawled across the other half of the bed reading the sports section. Eventually, having finished her coffee, she decided it was time to get up. She had only just finished getting dressed when there was a knock at the door and Sam ran down to answer it, leaving her puzzled as to who would call on a Saturday morning. She heard voices, and went down to investigate.

"Happy birthday!" William said, greeting her as she reached the kitchen.

"Thank you!" she replied, giving him a quick hug as he put his arm around her waist and kissed her.

"Happy birthday," Alice said, handing her a card.

"Thanks, Alice, oops, I mean Ally," Elizabeth said, opening the card then looking at the bags on the kitchen table. "What's all this?"

"Surprise," William said. "Sit down. We're doing everything."

She watched amazed as Sam turned the oven on and quickly got plates and glasses out of the cupboard, handing them to Alice who set the table. Meanwhile William slid a tray into the oven, then the three of them busied themselves at the worktop, their backs turned to Elizabeth so she couldn't see what they were doing. Eventually they turned round, and put a plate of smoked salmon, a bowl of cream cheese, and several little jars on the table.

"Caviar?" Elizabeth asked, stunned.

"Mmm hmm," William said, turning to Sam. "Got the juice? Ally, can you get the things from the oven?"

Elizabeth began to laugh with pure delight as Alice put a tray of blinis on the table, William popped open a half-bottle of champagne and Sam poured orange juice into the glasses.

"Buck's Fizz, blinis and caviar," William said, topping up two glasses of juice with champagne and adding just a little bit to the children's glasses. "And smoked salmon. Happy birthday."

He handed her a glass, and raised his to toast her as the children raised theirs.

"Thank you," she said, overcome with emotion suddenly, and needing to wipe her eyes. "Oh, the bubbles must have gone up my nose."

They all knew she was making excuses as they sat down to eat.

Later that day, having lounged over their brunch for ages, the four of them made their way along Oxford Street, threading their way through busy pavements full of shoppers.

"Right," William said to Elizabeth. "We have a few little errands to do, and we will meet you in the Ritz at 3pm."

"The Ritz?"

"Yes. Since we had a kind of brunch, and we're going out for dinner, I thought we'd have afternoon tea, just to keep us going. I booked a table."

"But .." Elizabeth began to protest, knowing how expensive it was.

"No buts," William said. "Go on, off you go for an hour. We're busy, aren't we?"

Sam and Alice nodded and looked smug. Elizabeth looked at the three of them and smiled.

"OK," she said. "See you later." She walked away feeling slightly odd, but not unhappy. She was feeling more and more certain as this week wore on that there was a rightness about the four of them, and all her earlier doubts about whether she could see herself having a normal family life were disappearing like early mist on a hot day. It was the sense that something was going to happen that was making her feel odd, and she hardly dared acknowledge her suspicion that William was going to suggest that they all move in together soon. She wished she felt able to talk to Jane, or that she had someone else to talk to, as she had a pressing need to articulate her feelings in order to make sense of them.

After dawdling down Regent Street and Piccadilly, she arrived at the Ritz just before three. She was shown to a table in the tea rooms, and sat reading her book, glancing up now and again as people arrived. She didn't need to glance up to know that William, Alice and Sam had arrived as she could hear the giggling and shushing as they approached her table. From the bags they were carrying and the looks of barely contained giddiness on their faces, she guessed that Sam and Alice had had rather a good time shopping.

"Hi, have you been here long?" William asked as he sat down opposite her.

"No, not long at all," she replied as a waiter brought over the menus.

"Afternoon tea for four?" William said, looking round the table to see nods of agreement.

Once the waiter had taken their order, Sam could no longer contain his excitement.

"Can we do presents now?"

"Yes," William said, grinning. "Better had, before you burst."

Sam produced a neatly wrapped parcel out of a bag, and handed it to Elizabeth.

"This is from me."

"But you already got me a present," Elizabeth said, as Sam flashed a quick look of gratitude at William.

"Well, we decided we'd all do our main presents together," Sam said, watching as she tore the paper to discover a CD soundtrack for "Shakespeare in Love".

"Oh lovely, Sam, thank you!" she said, and kissed him on the cheek. "My favourite film!"

"And this is from me," Alice said, passing her a bulkier parcel.

Elizabeth cooed with pleasure when she unwrapped it to find a selection of gorgeous looking bathtime treats. "Mmm, this smells lovely!" she said, opening one of the bottles for a sniff. "Aromatherapy too, I'm going to be so relaxed! Thank you, Ally." She leaned over and kissed Alice on the cheek.

Finally William handed her a smallish flat box, bigger than CD case but not heavy enough for a book. She shook it, and looked quizzical.

"Open it!" Sam and Alice pleaded.

She tore the paper to find a dark blue box embossed with the word "Asprey's" and could hardly stop her hands from shaking as she lifted the lid.

"Oh goodness," she sighed, gazing at the platinum and diamond pendant nestling in the box. "William, I don't think I've ever seen anything so beautiful."

"Then it's perfect for you," he said. "Do you like it?"

"I love it!"

"Then let me put it on you," he said, getting up and coming round the table to stand behind her so he could fasten the chain around her neck. He bent to kiss her as he did so, and whispered "Happy birthday."

"You've all spoilt me terribly," Elizabeth said. "I love all my presents, they're gorgeous. Thank you." She looked round the table at three happy faces, and felt such a swell of love and contentment that she could not continue speaking. The little spell that had suddenly wrapped itself round all four of them was broken as their afternoon tea arrived. They tucked into delicate sandwiches and tempting pastries, listening to Alice enthusiastically describing her visit to the Grammar School the previous day, and chatting about their afternoon's expedition, and the evening to come.

"Is it a really posh place?" Sam asked. "Do we have to dress up?"

"As long as you're reasonably smart, you'll be fine," Elizabeth said. "No jeans."

"Who will be there?" William asked, slightly nervously.

"Charles and Jane, an aunt and uncle of mine and probably two of their children. The other two are miles away. Perhaps Kitty will come, I'm not sure."

"Not your parents or your other sister?"

"No, they wouldn't come all the way to London just for a dinner," Elizabeth said. "I spoke to Charles earlier, we agreed that we would get there a bit early."

William picked up her meaning, and nodded his agreement.

"So, if I pick you up at 7?"

"That would be fine," Elizabeth said. "We'll have plenty of time to get ready."

As 7 o'clock approached, Elizabeth was still scooting round the house, looking for her favourite handbag and chivvying Sam to get a move on.

"What did I say about plenty of time?" she grumbled as there was a knock at the door. "Get that, please, Sam."

"You told me to put my socks on."

"Answer the door then put your socks on."

He ran down stairs, opened the door and yelled up the stairs, "It's William and Ally!" then turned to them. "Mum's not ready yet."

"I am now," Elizabeth said, walking down the stairs. She wore a long, closely fitting black dress with a neckline that plunged far enough to be suggestive, and just deep enough to allow her new pendant to sit perfectly above her cleavage.

"You look fantastic!" William said admiringly.

"Thank you," she said, smiling. "You two look great, too."

Alice wore a dark lilac blouse loose over smart grey trousers, and a pair of high heeled boots. Her long straight hair hung in a sheet of gold down her back. Elizabeth could imagine how she might take after her mother, so much did she look like a model. William wore a dark blue suit, a pale shirt and a dark silk tie. She felt a little tug of desire seeing him so formally dressed, while imagining undressing him. She smiled at her thoughts and hoped she wasn't blushing. Sam came running back downstairs, at last wearing shoes and socks. His pale blue shirt was tucked into clean pressed chinos and for once his shoes were clean.

"Right then, let's go," William said, proud to lead his little brood out to the car and into the encounter he had been both looking forward to and dreading for days.

They arrived at The Lodge, and saw Charles and Jane sitting together at the bar, conversing quietly. No other members of their party were present. William hesitated, suddenly overcome with nerves. Elizabeth walked over to Charles and Jane, and was spotted by Charles as she approached. He jumped off his stool and embraced her.

"Happy birthday!"

"Yes, happy birthday," Jane echoed, standing up to kiss her sister. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," Elizabeth answered. "How about you?" She could see that her sister's eyes were looking beyond her shoulder, so she stepped back and turned towards William. "You remember William, don't you?"

"Of course," Jane said, her smile frozen on her face for a moment. Then William stepped forwards, his hand outstretched. "Hello, Charles. Jane."

"William," Charles replied, taking William's hand for a heartfelt handshake. "It's good to see you again."

"Really?" William asked. "You don't know how many times I've thought about whether this could happen, and you're a bigger man than I for even having me in the same room. I can only apologise for the mistakes I made, for being so stupid."

"We both had our faults," Charles said, feeling a little uncomfortable but relieved that this situation would soon be over.

"But mine were rather greater."

"Let's put that aside," Charles said. "You know how much I hate fights, let's just get on with it, shall we?"

William grinned broadly. Jane stepped forward uncertainly. However much she wanted things to go well, she wasn't sure whether William felt any resentment towards her.

"Jane," William said, recognising her instantly. She was, if anything, even more beautiful, her serenity enhanced by the passing years.

"William," Jane replied coolly.

"I hope you don't mind me seeing your sister," William said. "It's just that I love her dearly and cannot begin to think of giving her up. "You always were very eloquent," Jane said. "Even when I wanted to give you a good slap."

"Perhaps you should have done," William said, sensing that he was part way to forgiveness. "That might have brought me to my senses sooner than 15 years later."

"Are you going to introduce us to our niece?" Jane said, smiling. In truth, she had forgiven him the moment he walked in and she had seen the love with which he had looked upon Elizabeth. The children had followed William into the restaurant and were standing by the door, feeling awkward.

"Of course," William said, feeling relieved that the initial part of the evening was over. He beckoned to Alice, and she walked across with Sam.

"Hi Sam," Jane said.

"This is Alice," William said. "Alice, Charles and Jane."

"She likes being called Ally, actually," Sam said.

Alice smiled shyly, feeling glad that Sam was near by.

"Hello, Ally," Charles said. "We're very pleased to meet you after all this time."

"She is the image of you when she smiles, William," Jane said, thinking that although the initial impression given by the girl was very much like her mother, there was a resemblance there to her father, one that was fleeting, like looking at a reflection in moving water. William glanced at his daughter and realised that she did indeed look like him when she smiled. It occurred to him that he was only seeing this now because she smiled so much more now.

"Well, shall we sit down?" Charles said, glancing at his watch. "Everyone else will be here soon."

As they all sat down, Charles went to the bar to order a bottle of wine, and soft drinks for the children. Just as he returned to their table, he noticed Elizabeth's aunt and uncle arriving at the restaurant.

"Uncle Edward! Aunt Fran!" Elizabeth said delightedly. "It's lovely to see you!"

"And you, my dear," Fran said. "Happy birthday!"

"Thank you," Elizabeth said, being kissed on the cheek by her aunt and uncle, and taking the present she was given. "Let me do introductions. Uncle Edward, Aunt Fran, this is William, and his daughter Ally."

"Mr Gardiner!" William said, surprised, as he shook hands with the older man.

"Mr Darcy!" Uncle Edward responded, equally surprised.

"You know each other?" Elizabeth asked, glancing from one to the other in amazement.

"Mr Gardiner is the Chair of the Board of Trustees that I visited last week," William said. "You remember, the group I went to see."

"Hang on a minute," Elizabeth said. "Did I miss one chapter of my life that you were in, and I forgot to turn up? You knew Charles, you know Uncle Edward, you even knew George."

"Looks like it," William said, jokily. "I wonder what would have happened if you'd read that bit earlier?"

"Goodness, Sam, what happened to your eye?" Fran asked, noticing him sitting next to Alice.

"He got beaten up by some boys from another school," Elizabeth said, before she was distracted by another arrival. "Charlotte?"

"Hi," Charlotte said as she walked over. "Happy birthday!"

"What are you doing here? How did you know?"

"Your brother-in-law asked the chef if he was related to me, and he is," Charlotte said, laughing. "He's my brother! So we thought we'd surprise you."

Elizabeth looked round at Charles, who was laughing too. "What else have you got up your sleeve?" she asked him, but was answered only by a shake of the head and a jolly grin.

"Oh, here they are at last!" Fran said, as her two oldest children, Joe and Kate, arrived. The final set of introductions was made, and the party was taken through to their table in the main part of the restaurant. They sat down to read their menus, and were joined for a few moments by Charlotte's brother.

"Nice to see you all," John said. "I can recommend absolutely everything on the menu!"

"This is Elizabeth, the birthday girl," Charlotte said.

"Well, I hope you have a lovely evening," John said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must get back to the kitchen, but don't hesitate to ask if there's anything you want."

Elizabeth smiled and thanked him. She glanced down the table to see Sam chatting happily to Joe, who had just returned from the round-the-world trip he had decided to do in his first year after graduation. Alice seemed engrossed in something Kate was telling her, probably about the fashion design degree she was doing. To her left sat William, who was talking to Edward, across the table. Fran and Jane were deep in conversation, and Charles was doing what she herself was doing - surveying the gathering with a very happy feeling. She noticed him checking his mobile phone, but after he'd tucked it back into his pocket, he didn't say anything about the text he must have received, so she assumed it wasn't important.

The food, when it arrived, was delicious, and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Elizabeth couldn't help but notice how William seemed to be much more comfortable than she had expected. The younger four were getting on well, and the older adults chatted happily. Charles and William didn't say very much to each other but their positions around the table didn't make it easy. Besides, Elizabeth thought, they probably needed a time and space other than a big party to reconcile properly.

Eventually, they finished their meal and coffee was served. Charles grinned as he called for quiet, then put a small cassette player on the table, and pressed "play" enabling the assembled group to hear a song sung slightly off key.

"Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear Lizzeeeee!
Happy birthday to you!"

"It's Aunty Mary!" shouted Sam happily.

"Her singing's still as bad as ever," Charles said, and was promptly nudged by Jane and told to be quiet.

"Hi guys," a cheerful voice rang out. "Happy birthday big sis, I hope you're having a good one. And hello to everyone else. Hi Sam, I bet you're eating my share of the birthday dinner, aren't you? Well, I hope you've left me a little piece of cake. And I hope you can squeeze in a place for me at the table."

Elizabeth stared at the tape in puzzlement, trying to work out what Mary meant. She was startled out of her thoughts by a shout of excitement from Sam.

"Aunty Mary! Woo hoo!"

He leapt out of his chair and ran across the room before anyone could stop him, dodging around a couple of tables and making other diners stare. Elizabeth turned round in time to see him nearly knock Mary over in his enthusiasm, and Mary laughed to see how much he had grown.

"Wow! I can't catch you any more!" Mary said, hugging him, and allowing herself to be dragged over to the table.

"What are you doing here?" Elizabeth asked in astonishment.

"I thought I'd better bring you your birthday present," she said, and grinned at Charles.

"Did you know about this?" Elizabeth asked, turning to Charles.

"Yes," he admitted. "But we couldn't say anything to you just in case Mary's flight didn't get here in time."

"When did you arrive?" Elizabeth asked.

Mary glanced at her watch and laughed. " Landed about three hours ago! Hi everyone! So, you must be the famous Mr Darcy," she said, turning to William.

"And you must be Mary," William replied. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Oh no, what have they been saying about me?" Mary said, grinning. "Am I famous?"

"Notorious, more like," Jane said. "She likes everyone to think she's straight laced then she pulls stunts like this!"

"You'd never believe she was a serious, pious teenager, would you?" Elizabeth laughed, thrilled to see Mary again after so long.

"Hey, shut up about me," Mary laughed. "The focus is supposed to be on the birthday girl today!"

Charles had asked for an extra chair to be brought, and Mary squeezed in next to Sam, much to his obvious delight.

"So, tell me what you've been up to," Mary said to him. "I've missed my favourite boy!"

Elizabeth turned to Charles, and squeezed his hand. "Thank you so much for this," she said. "I've had a fabulous evening. And you, Jane, thank you."

"You're welcome," she said. "It's turned out OK, hasn't it?"

Eventually it was time to leave the restaurant. Edward and Fran hugged Elizabeth, and promised to arrange to meet again soon. As Elizabeth waved them off, Charlotte came over to her.

"I'm so glad you could come," Elizabeth said. "I wish we'd had a chance to chat properly though."

"It's been lovely," Charlotte said. "I'm staying with John tonight, so I'll ring you tomorrow."

"OK," Elizabeth replied happily, just as she was hugged by Mary. "I can't believe you just turned up like that! What are you doing here?"

"I'm thinking about moving home next year," Mary said. "So I've taken a week's holiday to sort out a few things."

"Brilliant, you're coming home!" Sam said. "Are you going to come and live with us again? Please? Are you staying with us tonight?"

"I don't know about all that, Sam," Mary laughed. "I dropped my stuff off at Jane's before I came here, so I'm staying with them tonight."

"Why don't you come for lunch tomorrow?" Charles said to Elizabeth and William. "All of you. There's rather a lot of catching up to be done, I think."

"That would be lovely," Elizabeth said.

"See you tomorrow then!"

The two little groups went their separate ways, waving and calling goodbye, William leading the way to his car.

"Why didn't I know you all those years ago?" he asked, half-serious.

"I wasn't there," Elizabeth said. "The summer Jane met Charles, I only went home for a week. I'd got a placement in a health centre and it was too good a chance to miss because I wanted to be a GP. Then Sam came, and I never really went home again."

"So what made you choose not to be a GP?"

"It's hard enough being a GP when you're single, or if you have a partner," Elizabeth said. "For me, with Sam, it was all I could do to get through the training. It's better now, much more family friendly, but ten or fifteen years ago, it just wasn't possible. So I didn't choose not to be one, I just couldn't do it. I wonder what I would have thought of you if we'd met then."

"You probably wouldn't have liked me," William said lightly. "So I'm glad you forgot to read that chapter."

"Are you going to stay with us tonight?" Elizabeth asked as they reached the car.

"That would be nice," William said, a cheeky grin spreading across his face. "And I have to confess, I put an overnight bag in the boot just in case."

Elizabeth burst out laughing. "We need to get this weekend routine sorted out, don't we?"

It didn't take long to get back to Elizabeth's house, and as it was very late the children went straight up to bed. Elizabeth kicked off her shoes before fetching a bottle of wine from the kitchen. William sank onto the sofa as she opened the bottle and handed him a glass.

"Thank you for a wonderful day," she said. "It's my best birthday ever. And this necklace is gorgeous."

"I'm glad you're happy," William said, sipping his wine then placing his glass on the coffee table next to hers.

"Very," she sighed, sinking back and relaxing.

"I wanted to ask you something," he said, seeming rather fidgety. "I wondered what you thought, because it's something I've thought about a lot, and want very much, and I wanted to know, what would you think..."

He broke off, trying to get back on track, trying to return to the coherent words he'd gone through time and again in his mind which had now deserted him. Elizabeth watched him, feeling almost sure that he was about to say something momentous but so muddled by his confused remarks that she could barely follow his train of thought.

"You see," he said, sitting beside her and taking hold of her hand. "I love you very much. I can't imagine you not being in my life, and I think we make a good team, the four of us. I very much want to be part of your life, forever, so I wondered...."

He twisted round to face her, his eyes searching her face, a small frown giving away his annoyance with himself at being so clumsy.

"Damn! I'm not doing very well, am I?" he said, then fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a small box which he pressed into Elizabeth's hand. "Will you marry me?"

Elizabeth couldn't speak.

She couldn't think straight, either. It was all she could do to focus on the little blue box in her hand. She opened it slowly to find a single diamond sparkling in a platinum setting. She looked up at William, who had not been able to take his eyes off her, and nodded.

"Yes," she whispered, feeling overwhelmed with joy and unable to say anything else while she calmed her racing heart.

He carefully removed the ring from the box, took hold of her left hand and slid the ring onto her third finger. He raised her hands to his lips and kissed them softly, gazing at her all the time. She smiled and leaned forward to kiss him properly, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him close. William responded to the passion of her embrace and returned her kiss with an ardour driven by the overwhelming feeling of love filling his heart.

"I love you so much," he murmured. "Sometimes it hurts."

"I know," she whispered, placing her hand over his heart. "Here?"

"Yes. I don't know what it is."

"Yearning," she said quietly. "To be with someone so completely that you can hardly think of anything else."

"Maybe," he murmured. "So you really will marry me?"

"Yes, I will," she said. "Tomorrow, if you want."

"Tomorrow it is, then," he said, smiling. "If only."

"Bed?"

"I think so."

Hand in hand they climbed the stairs, in a world of their own where explanations were not needed, just glances, touches, and sighs.

Chapter 31

Elizabeth woke next morning, stretched and rolled over to see that William was already awake.

"Good morning," he said quietly.

"Good morning," she replied, smiling as she wriggled closer so she could kiss him. "Did last night really happen?"

"Mm hmm," William said. "There's a sparkling thing on your finger that seems to provide evidence."

"Oh yes," Elizabeth said teasingly, holding her hand up and moving it about so that the diamond caught a ray of sunlight creeping in through the curtains. They heard a door open and feet pad across the landing to the bathroom.

"Wonder which one that is?" Elizabeth said. "Sounds like Sam."

"When are we going to tell them?" William asked.

"Right away," Elizabeth said. "Is there a reason not to?"

"No, but we haven't really talked about what we're going to do. You know, when we're getting married, where we're going to live. That kind of thing."

"When do you want to get married?" she asked, snuggling against him.

"As soon as practical, I suppose," William replied, cuddling her. "Is there a reason why we would want to wait?"

"No, can't think of one."

"It will have to be a register office, because I'm divorced," William said. "Do you mind?"

"No," Elizabeth repeated. "Anyway, we never go to church and I always think it's a bit hypocritical to expect the vicar to do a wedding when you never go for anything else."

"Fair enough," William replied, never having really thought very much about it. "We could do it in a month, then, or six weeks. Before Christmas, anyway."

"Mum!" came a shout from outside their room. "I'm starving, can I go down and get breakfast?"

Elizabeth looked at the clock, noticed that it was 10 o'clock, and realised that they had all slept in after their late night out.

"We'd better get up," she said to William. "We'll never get to Charles and Jane's for lunch unless we get moving." She turned towards the door and called out, "Sam, we'll be down in a minute but you can get breakfast if you want."

"OK," Sam said, the sound of his voice through the door followed closely by the thumping of bare feet down the stairs.

Alice had emerged from her bedroom, looking very dopey, by the time William and Elizabeth had each showered quickly then dressed. Once she had stumbled downstairs to join the rest of them, William glanced at Elizabeth, saw her nod in agreement to his quizzical look, and took a deep breath.

"We've got something to tell you," he said to the children, making them look up expectantly. "We decided to get married."

"Oh, OK," Alice said, reaching out for a piece of toast.

"Cool," Sam added, looking up briefly before continuing to eat his cereal.

"Is that it?" Elizabeth asked, taken aback by their low-key response.

"Well, we always knew you would," Alice said. "It's not like it's a major shock or anything."

"Oh," William managed to say, also stunned by the way the children had taken the news.

"I mean, congratulations and everything," Sam said. "But yeah, we've known for ages that you would."

"How?" Elizabeth asked.

"Dunno," they both said in unison, shrugging.

"Right," William said, wondering what on earth he was going to say next. He had expected a few questions from them, at least. Sam had now moved on to buttering some toast, looking very thoughtful. Eventually, he spoke.

"So," he said. "Are we going to live here, or in Chelsea?"

"Can we all move in here?" Alice asked excitedly.

"You like it here?" Elizabeth said, amazed at the thought that Alice might prefer this rather untidy house to the lovely house in Chelsea.

"Yeah, it's nice here. Hey, are we both going to go to Richmond Grammar? Sam and me? That would be cool!"

Sam looked up, startled. "Am I moving school too?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth answered. "We haven't really decided anything yet, except that we would like to get married before Christmas."

"Yeah, but the Headmaster said ..."

"I think you're jumping ahead of yourself, Alice," William interrupted quickly.

"What did the Headmaster say?" Elizabeth asked, fixing William with a stare. Something had obviously been said at the visit to the school that had not been shared with her, and she wasn't sure whether to be pleased or not.

"Just that I mentioned that Alice already had a cousin in the school, and another cousin hoping to get a place in September, and he said that they were very keen on siblings staying together."

"I know what," Alice said. "We could get a house next door to Uncle Richard and we could all go to the same school, and in the summer Uncle Richard would do great barbecues and we could have parties, and everything."

"Yeah!" Sam said. "That would be good."

"Well, we have to think about all this," William said. "We haven't decided yet."

"Is that all the Headmaster said?" Elizabeth asked, getting the feeling that William wasn't quite telling her everything. "I mean, if we're all going to be the same family, I think we should talk openly amongst the four of us, don't you?"

"Yes, you're right," William replied, implicitly accepting her suggestion for the way things would run from now on. "I also mentioned that Alice might be gaining a step-brother soon, and if he was to apply for entry to the school, what would the position be."

"And the answer was?"

"Subject to the two of them passing entrance tests and an interview, there is room for them both in January. The school has a Year 10 intake in September, and although it's unusual to take children part way through a year, this is a small Year 10, so they could go."

Elizabeth sat back, thinking carefully. Although part of her was annoyed at William presuming to discuss Sam's education without her knowledge, she realised that all he had been doing was to be thinking of them as a family, and she was touched at his obvious concern for Sam.

"What do you think, Sam?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said, his head still spinning from trying to keep up with the discussion once he realised that he was the main focus.

"Look, this is all a bit much to take in at once," William said. "Weddings, houses, schools. Why don't you both have a think about it when we've all settled down a bit?"

"Yes, you're right," Elizabeth said. "Anyway, come on you two, have you seen the time? Showered and dressed quickly, please. We need to get moving."

Once Alice and Sam had gone upstairs to get ready, William turned to Elizabeth knowing he should explain himself.

"I'm sorry if I overstepped the mark," he said. "I should have talked to you first, but I didn't know what to do. The conversation arose at the school, and I just thought I should grab the chance while we were there to check things out, even though I hadn't asked you to marry me yet."

"I have to say, you took me by surprise talking about schools, and I was a bit annoyed with you," Elizabeth said bluntly, yet puzzled by one remark. "But why does it matter whether you'd proposed or not?"

"Well, if we were engaged, then we would naturally be talking about the future for all of us," William explained, trying to put his rather nebulous feelings into sensible words. "But since we weren't, at that point, I just felt a little presumptuous."

"You are funny," Elizabeth laughed, shaking her head. "Everything has to be proper!"

"Yes it does," he replied, laughing too. "I'd like a proper kiss this morning to show I am forgiven."

"Nothing to forgive," Elizabeth said, walking round the table to put her arms around his waist. "You were thinking ahead, thinking of all of us, and I appreciate what you do for Sam, you know."

He bent to kiss her, then cuddled her against his chest, enjoying the knowledge that soon he would be able to do this most mornings.

"I'd do anything for you both," he said. "We're going to be a good family, the four of us."

"Yes, I think we are," she replied. "Now, let me go and finish getting ready. What a surprise there's going to be at lunch today!"

~ * ~

Mary answered the door at Elizabeth's knock, giving her a quick hug before stepping aside to allow everyone to enter.

"Come on in, we're hanging out in the kitchen," Mary said, then noticed the bottle William was holding. "Ooh, champagne!"

"Trust you to spot the alcohol!" Elizabeth laughed.

"Don't say another word!" Mary complained good-naturedly. "You're going to give William a terrible impression of me, and that wouldn't be fair, would it, Sam?"

"No," Sam replied stoutly, sticking up for his beloved aunt.

"I knew I could rely on you," she said, and aimed a kiss at him, which he dodged, giggling.

William began to relax a little at the warmth of Mary's welcome, as he observed the easy fondness between the sisters. He followed Elizabeth into the kitchen, where Charles was peering into the oven at something that smelled delicious. Charles stood up and smiled broadly when he saw the visitors.

"Hi!" he said cheerfully, kissing Elizabeth on the cheek, punching Sam gently on the shoulder, then shaking hands with William. He paused, then smiled at Alice, unsure yet whether she would welcome a kiss from him as they barely knew each other. "Champagne, wow, thanks," he said as William handed him the bottle. "Look what we've got!"

Jane smiled as she entered the kitchen. "Lovely! Well, we could pop this one into the fridge and open the one we got."

"Well, actually, we got champagne because we have something to tell you," Elizabeth said, feeling as though she could keep the news to herself no longer. Besides, if she didn't say something, one of the children was bound to blurt it out. Charles, Jane and Mary faced her expectantly. "We're getting married."

"Congratulations!" Mary cried, surprising William by grabbing him and giving him a bear hug as Charles did the same to Elizabeth.

"Yes, congratulations," Jane said, hugging Elizabeth. "When did this happen?"

"Last night," Elizabeth said. "When we got home." She held out her hand and her sisters admired her engagement ring.

"Wow, that's gorgeous," Jane enthused.

"When's the big day, then?" Mary asked.

"We haven't decided anything yet, have we?" Elizabeth said, glancing at William, aware that he was being very quiet and wondering whether he felt rather overwhelmed.

"No, not yet," he said, as the cork flew from the bottle that Charles was opening.

"Mind out!" Charles said, laughing. "I'm not very good with these things."

He poured out the champagne and handed everyone a glass. "I think you two are old enough for a little sip, aren't you?" he said to Sam and Alice. "Well, a toast, to a very long and happy life together!"

"Thank you," Elizabeth and William said in unison.

"And since this is a day for announcements about our family getting bigger, we have some news too," Charles continued, glancing at Jane. "We're expecting a baby."

Elizabeth was so shocked she couldn't speak, and Mary broke the stunned silence.

"Congratulations!" she said, and almost grabbed Jane to give her a hug, then stopped, fearful of being too rough.

"It's OK," Jane said, smiling. "I'm not porcelain."

"Great, then I can hug you," Mary replied, and did so, then turned to Charles. "And you. Wow, this is amazing!"

"I don't know what to say," Elizabeth said. "I mean, congratulations, I'm thrilled to bits for you, it's the best news ever, but how?"

"You're the doctor, Lizzy," Charles laughed. "You should know how it works."

"No, I don't mean that!" Elizabeth protested as everyone burst out laughing. "When is the baby due?"

"In the spring," Charles said. "We're at 14 weeks now. We waited until we felt sure before we told anyone."

"Do Mum and Dad know?" Elizabeth asked.

"Not yet," Jane said.

"They're going to get a bit of a shock then," Mary said. "A baby, a son-in-law and a grand-daughter all in one weekend! Gosh, Ally, I bet you never thought you'd end up with such a big family this weekend."

"And half of them are nuts," Sam butted in as Alice smiled and shook her head. She was feeling rather overwhelmed herself, and was quite happy to stand quietly at the side of the kitchen watching the adults.

"Watch it, Samuel," Mary said, mock-sternly. "No pressies for cheeky boys."

"I never said you were nuts!" he protested.

"Come on, let's go and see what we can find," Mary said, leading him out of the kitchen. "You too, Ally, come with us, we'll show you round."

Once they had gone, Elizabeth turned to Jane.

"I'm so happy for you," she said. "But it's something of a surprise."

"You're telling us!" Charles said.

"I didn't even take any notice of the symptoms at first," Jane said. "It never occurred to me that I might be pregnant, you know, after so long, and being told it would never happen."

"But you're not having any treatment, are you?"

"No," Jane said. "A whole load of tests though, because of our past medical history." She smiled at Charles, pleased to have a secret between them that the tests had told them, but which they had decided not to reveal. "It's just happened. We don't know why now, but it has."

"And we're very happy," Charles said, putting his arms around Jane and kissing her softly. "It's a miracle."

"And your news too, that's fabulous," Jane said. "I'm happy for you, William."

William smiled at Jane feeling an enormous sense of relief. Finally he felt forgiven for the mistakes of his younger days, and that he was about to begin a most wonderful chapter of his life. Everything had fallen into place, and he had no worries about being able to face the future.

"So, when are you going to tell your parents?" Charles asked Elizabeth, unable to resist a smirk in William's direction.

"I don't even want to think about it," Elizabeth said, shuddering in an exaggerated fashion. "Change the subject. What's for lunch?"

Over lunch, Mary entertained them all with stories of her adventures in Japan, in particular at her local karaoke bar, where she had become something of a regular feature. Charles cringed at the thought of Mary singing, so Sam leapt to her defence and begged to be allowed to go to a karaoke bar with her. Elizabeth's protests were drowned out by Jane's laughter and Mary's threats to sing that afternoon. William sat back and observed the quick friendly banter between them all, and couldn't avoid a small stab of sadness that he had missed out on the previous 15 years. He was drawn back into the conversation when he heard his name mentioned by Sam.

"Can we show William the star loft after lunch?"

"Of course, if he wants to see it," Charles replied.

"What's the star loft?" William asked.

"It's our den, isn't it?" Charles said to Sam.

"Yeah, it's guy space," Sam replied, making William smile.

"I'd love to see it, thanks," William replied, feeling pleased at the invitation.

As Jane started to clear away the plates from the main course, Sam immediately began to help her, piling up serving dishes and following her out to the kitchen. William couldn't help feeling surprised when Alice picked up the few things that were left behind, and followed Sam. He remembered Sam's willing helpfulness on holiday, and Alice's grumpy acquiescence on being told to help. Smiling at Elizabeth as she glanced over to him, he felt a surge of love and gratitude that this remarkable woman had wrought such changes in him and in Alice.

"I hope you got a huge pudding," Mary said as Jane returned. "After all, Sam will need three helpings, and we don't know yet if Ally is a pudding champion."

Although she hadn't quite relaxed, Alice was learning rapidly that Mary's teasing was good-natured, and she smiled as she sat down. She didn't yet feel sufficiently at ease to join in, although she was enjoying listening to the lively conversation.

Once the lunch had ended, Sam having managed two servings of chocolate roulade before conceding that he was full, Elizabeth insisted that Jane should rest while she and Mary cleared up. Alice followed them into the kitchen while Sam and Charles took William up to the loft.

"You don't have to help out, Ally," Elizabeth said. "Go up to the loft if you want."

"No, it's OK," Alice replied. "It's a boy thing."

"We'll have a girly chat then, while they're gone," Mary laughed. "What's your favourite band?"

Elizabeth was thrilled that Mary seemed to have taken Alice under her wing and was treating her more or less as she treated Sam. The lunch as a whole had gone better than she could have imagined. William had been quiet but seemed happy, and Alice was beginning to unwind. Elizabeth remembered Mary being a quiet, serious teenager who had finally blossomed once she had escaped the constant sniping of their mother. She felt sure that Mary would be as good for Alice as she was for Sam.

Up in the loft, William was admiring the charts that were pinned to the walls and the model that Sam showed him.

"It's a great space," he said. "I'm honoured that you let me up here. Guys only, though, hmm?"

"Well, girls can come up," Sam said. "We let Aunty Jane come up here sometimes but she's not really into stars very much. Hey, can I get Aunty Mary?"

He ran downstairs before Charles had a chance to answer, leaving the two men alone for the first time that day. William turned to Charles.

"Thanks for everything," William said. "Today has been great."

"You're welcome," Charles replied. "I'm glad everything worked out for you and Elizabeth."

"With some help from you. You're more generous than many men ..."

"Look," Charles interrupted. "Why don't we just agree that water under the bridge is just that? New starts all round, for you two getting married, and for us becoming a family at last. No more mentions of the past?"

"OK," William said, relieved.

"Good," Charles said in a tone of voice that made it clear that the topic was closed.

"Just one other thing," William said. "I know Sam thinks the world of you, and I can guess how much he means to you. I want you to know that just because I'm marrying Elizabeth, I don't want to upset what you and Sam have together."

"He thinks pretty highly of you," Charles said, understanding what William was doing and appreciating his effort to say it. "I think that the more good men he has around him as he grows up, the better for Sam, really, don't you?"

They were interrupted by Sam reappearing with Mary, who admired the models and the charts. Despite not continuing their conversation, both men felt that they had achieved something important in their brief exchange, and were content. William excused himself, saying that he should see how Alice was, and Mary followed him downstairs. Sam put his model carefully back on the shelf as Charles waited, knowing that he had something on his mind. Eventually Sam broke the silence.

"If I go to live in another house, can I still come and see you?" he asked quietly.

"Of course you can."

"It'll be different though."

"Yes it will. It's a big change for everyone," Charles answered, trying to be as reassuring as he could.

"Mum's happy."

"Yes I think she is. She looks very happy. And now you know that someone will be looking after her as well as you have done, when you go off to University."

Sam looked puzzled.

"You wouldn't want her to be rattling round on her own when you're on your gap year, or wherever it is you're going, would you?"

"No, I suppose not," Sam said.

"You've done a good job, sticking together, you and your Mum," Charles said. "But sometimes it's nice to have someone extra to lean on. Both of you, not just your Mum. William's a good man."

"I never had a Dad before."

"Do you call William 'Dad'?" Charles asked, surprised.

"No. But it's like having a Dad," Sam replied. "I think so, anyway. What is it like?"

"Having a Dad? It's like having someone who always sticks up for you. Someone who is on your side, no matter what, and even if one day you are really mad about something he said or did, or he's really mad with you, the next day you can go fishing together and you don't even have to say anything because you know he loves you."

"Is that what your Dad was like?"

"Yes," Charles said, so choked that he could hardly speak.

"Then I think William is kind of like a Dad then."

Charles had to busy himself with tidying charts in the corner while he tried to compose himself. Sam's raw honesty had touched him more than he could fathom, and combined with his own feelings about becoming a father, he was quite overcome. After a while, he was sufficiently recovered to speak. He turned to see Sam putting books away.

"You know that Jane and I are having a baby," Charles said.

"Yeah."

"You'll still be my chief boy, though," Charles said, knowing that he was risking little in promising Sam that he would be the only boy for them, and deciding that a little deviousness could be excused. "If we get a boy, maybe we can teach him about the stars."

"Girls might like stars too," Sam said.

"So, if it's a girl, you'll still help her with models and maps and things?"

"If you want me to."

"You're a good man, Sam."

Downstairs, Elizabeth and Jane were strolling round the garden even though it was chilly.

"You've got it looking very nice," Elizabeth said.

"Thanks," Jane replied. "Charles won't let me do any heavy work now, even though I've told him I feel fine. In fact, I feel better now than I did a few weeks ago."

"When did you find out you were pregnant?" Elizabeth asked, thinking that Jane looked much better than she had the day of their fateful lunch.

"About a month ago. To be honest, I'd missed a couple of times and not even really registered. Silly, isn't it? I just thought it was my body being unhelpful again!" She laughed and turned to Elizabeth, the joy shining unmistakeably from her eyes. "Then I felt sick, and I've been so up and down, so Charlie said I should go to the doctor. And when I told him what she'd said, he nearly fainted!"

"It's wonderful news," Elizabeth said. "I'm so happy for the two of you."

"And I'm happy for you, too," Jane said. "Honestly. I wish I'd not said those things ..."

"Stop!" Elizabeth interrupted. "It's gone, past, done. Don't beat yourself up over it."

Jane sat down on the bench at the end of the garden and sighed happily.

"I love this, you know," she said, gesturing around her. "My house, full of happy people. I want it like this all the time from now on."

"I know what you mean," Elizabeth said, sitting down next to her. "I don't know where we'll end up, but I want it to feel like this."

Meanwhile, in the sitting room, Mary, William and Alice were swapping anecdotes.

"So, did you really live with Sam when he was little?" Alice asked.

"Yes," Mary said. "I moved in with them when I was a student. I was desperate to get away from home, and Lizzy was on her own with Sam, he was four or five when I moved in, I think. So it suited all of us. I had a decent place to live, Lizzy worked part time then, and there was always someone at home for Sam."

"I bet he was a handful, wasn't he?" William asked.

"Oh, he was lovely!" Mary sighed. "When he was little, he used to sit on my knee for his bedtime story and suck his thumb. He had a mop of lovely blond hair, and for a while Elizabeth wouldn't get it cut, so he was like a fluffy little angel."

"He sucked his thumb?" Alice scoffed. "Ooh, just wait til I tease him!"

"Shall I tell him about you blowing bubbles in the bath, then?" William asked.

"What's wrong with blowing bubbles?" Alice retorted.

"With your bottom?"

Mary fell about laughing while Alice went scarlet and William grinned broadly.

"I did not!" Alice insisted.

"Oh yes you did. And you used to think it was really funny, when you were two or three."

"Well, how do you know, anyway?" she challenged.

"I used to give you your bath," William said. "I used to race home from work whenever I could so that I could bath you."

"I don't remember," Alice said sadly. "Mummy never told me anything like that."

"Maybe she forgot," William said. His face glazed over as he remembered. "You used to have a towel with a little hood, and I used to put the hood on you and wrap you up." He moved his hands as he spoke, mimicking the movements. "Nothing better than the smell of freshly washed baby."

Alice slid along the sofa and put her arms around him. "I love you, Daddy," she said, her voice muffled because of the way she had pressed her face against him.

"I love you too, sweetheart," he murmured.

Mary slid quietly out of the room, not wanting to intrude. She went into the kitchen and put the kettle on to make coffee just as Jane and Elizabeth came in from the garden.

"Where is everyone?" Jane asked.

"Don't go in the sitting room!" Mary said quickly to Elizabeth, stopping her in her tracks. "William and Ally are having a few important moments. Sam and Charles are up in their den, I think."

"No, we're here," Charles said as he and Sam came into the kitchen. "Is someone making coffee?"

"Why does everyone always end up in the kitchen at parties?" Jane asked.

"Because that's where the booze is," Mary said.

"And you're worried about us giving a bad impression of you?" Elizabeth teased. "You can manage it quite well by yourself!"

"Well, who wants coffee, and who would like another glass of wine?" Charles asked.

"Coffee for me, please," William said, appearing in the doorway with Alice. "Why are we all standing in the kitchen?"

"My thought too!" Jane said. "Go on, shoo, into the sitting room where it's comfortable. Charlie's going to make coffee."

"Am I?" he laughed. "As you say, boss."

Elizabeth looked round at the assembled group, and realised that all the people she loved most dearly were here. There were bound to be obstacles to be overcome on the path she and William had chosen, but she knew for certain as he looked across and caught her eye with a smile that they were going to be easy ones to clear with him by her side.

Chapter 32

The following week seemed to be one long giddy round of phone calls and good wishes. As soon as they had begun to tell people their news, both William and Elizabeth had had to fend off questions about the details, which they hadn't begun to settle yet themselves. The time seemed to disappear without them having a private moment. By Thursday evening, Elizabeth felt as though her cheek muscles couldn't ache more than they already did from the amount of smiling that she had done. As arranged, she had collected Sam from school at lunchtime, and they had spent the afternoon at Richmond Grammar, being shown round by two very pleasant teenagers. Sam had relaxed once one of them had declared himself to be an Arsenal supporter, but hadn't said much on the way home. He was up in his room when there was a knock at the door and Elizabeth answered it to find William standing on the step.

"Hi," he said, pulling her into his arms for a kiss. "How did it go this afternoon?"

"Fine," Elizabeth replied, leading the way into the kitchen once William had put her down. "It looks like a great place, the teachers were nice, and the facilities are amazing."

"What did Sam make of it?"

"He liked it, I think," Elizabeth said, not entirely sure how he felt.

"Well, I've had a call from the Head of Year, and he says that the children can do their entrance tests and interviews next Tuesday. What do you think?"

"Goodness, that's soon! Do you think they'll be prepared by then? Revision, and so on?"

"I don't think they need to do much revision, it's only an hour each of Maths and English, just to back up the reports they get from the schools they're at now," William said. "The decision will go more on those reports and the interview, I'd say."

"I suppose we could do a bit of prep with them over the weekend," she said thoughtfully as she took ingredients out of the fridge and began to prepare food. "You don't mind if I get going with tea, do you? Are you going to stay?"

"There's something else I wondered if you'd like to do this weekend," William said cryptically. "I was thinking about what they said on Sunday, about us moving to Richmond, and I know we haven't really had a chance to talk things through, but what do you think about moving?"

"I don't know," Elizabeth replied. "I suppose I've half thought about it, but more along the lines of whether we would move into your place, if I'm honest. You've got more space than I have."

"True, but if the children are going to the Grammar School, what would you think about moving to Richmond? Or around that area, anyway."

"Really?" Elizabeth asked, surprised. "You'd want to leave your lovely house?"

"To be honest, yes," William admitted. "I really like the idea of us choosing somewhere together, making it ours."

Elizabeth didn't answer for a moment, savouring the idea of choosing a new home with William, particularly somewhere lovely on the Thames.

"My house is a house, that's all," William continued. "It's not warm and cosy like here."

"It makes sense to be near school, I suppose," she agreed. "And it would be nice to be a bit further out of the city."

"What do you think of this then?" William asked, pulling a paper out of his pocket and beginning to read aloud. "An Edwardian family home backing onto private waterway. Reception hall, two reception rooms, kitchen, dining room, six bedrooms one of which has an en-suite bathroom, two bathrooms, river view, roof terrace, patio, garden, garage."

"Wow," Elizabeth gasped, as her imagination began to work. "A private waterway? A garden? I've always wanted a garden, instead of the little yard we've got here. But it'll cost a fortune, won't it?"

"I don't think we need to worry too much about that," William said smiling, as Elizabeth blushed and felt rather silly at raising money as the issue. "Anyway, do you fancy going to look on Saturday? There's also this one, a Victorian house close to the centre of Richmond, it says here. Five bedrooms, four bathrooms. We could all lie in a different bath at the same time and shout to each other!"

"Don't be silly!" Elizabeth laughed, looking over his shoulder at the paper spread out on the table. "Four bathrooms, that's ridiculous. I like the sound of the first one better. But are you sure you want to move house?"

"Yes, if you're happy with the idea of Sam moving schools?" William asked.

"What are you saying about me?" Sam asked, entering the kitchen. "Is tea ready yet? I'm starving."

"We were wondering what you thought about the Grammar School," William asked.

"It's good," Sam said. "The science labs are really good, and the sports pitches are amazing. And I want to do rowing when I go there, and cricket."

William looked at Elizabeth and smiled, Sam's enthusiasm and certainty answering any doubts they might have had about moving him.

"So you don't mind leaving your old school?" Elizabeth asked. "What if we moved to Richmond too?"

"I don't mind leaving, school's rubbish now anyway. I don't have anyone to hang out with, and if you're on your own..." He stopped speaking, remembering suddenly that he had decided not to tell Elizabeth how nightmarish his days had become as a solitary bright boy. After all, she would only worry about him. "So am I going? Are we moving house?"

"You can do your entrance tests and interview on Tuesday, if you want to go to Richmond," William said. "Alice will be doing them at the same time. But it's your decision, isn't it?" He looked at Elizabeth for confirmation, and she nodded.

"I want to go," Sam said, leaning across and taking the paper. "Which house are we having?"

William laughed and pointed out the two adverts that he had read out. Elizabeth paused in her chopping of onions for a moment to look at the two of them leaning over the paper together, reading out the more outlandish adverts to each other. She knew she was lucky that they got on so well, and wished Alice was there to share the moment too. She smiled to herself as she thought that it wouldn't be too long before they were all together.

After the meal, Sam disappeared upstairs to finish his homework while Elizabeth curled up against William on the sofa in the living room. He twiddled with a stray curl of her hair as they talked.

"I told Dad on the phone that we would go for Sunday lunch," Elizabeth said, confirming the plan she and William had agreed earlier. "Jane and Mary are sworn to secrecy about us, and besides, Mum and Dad are in a state of total over-excitement about the baby."

"OK," William replied, feeling a twinge of nervousness about the thought of meeting parents, then telling himself off for being ridiculous. He was a grown man, not a teenager, but still he didn't feel any less nervous.

"It would be good if we could tell them about the house too, if we like it that is," Elizabeth continued. "We'll get a barrage of questions, you know that, don't you? All the when, where, how stuff."

"We'd better decide the when and where then. What about the Saturday before Christmas?" William asked. "We could ask someone to have the children, we could have a couple of days away, and then pick them up on Christmas Eve. I know it's not much of a honeymoon, but what do you think?"

"It sounds perfect," Elizabeth said.

"I'll phone the Registry Office in the morning and find out what we have to do, then," William said, pulling her closer to him. "I love you, did you know that?"

"I love you too," Elizabeth whispered as she turned to kiss him.

On Saturday morning the four of them drove out to Richmond to view houses. The first appointment they had made was to see one in the centre of the town, and from the way Elizabeth wrinkled her nose as they walked in, William knew she didn't like it. They politely allowed the estate agent to show them round, then made their escape as quickly as they could.

"No," Elizabeth said, shaking her head as they walked back to the car.

"I agree," Alice said. "It stank."

"Well, it would need a lot of work done on it," William said. "The decorating was pretty awful."

"The big bedroom was poo coloured," Sam said, giggling and making Elizabeth laugh too.

"Not quite the phrase I would have chosen, Sam, but pretty accurate," she said. "Right, where are we off to now?"

The next house on their list was as different to the first one as it was possible to be. Elizabeth had half fallen in love with the description that William had read out a few nights earlier, and fell the rest of the way as she walked in. The hall was light and airy, the dining room had a marvellous view across a garden that rolled gently down towards the waterway, but most of all, the house felt right. She was already redecorating the bedrooms in her mind as they walked out onto the roof terrace.

"This is perfect," she said. They looked down to see Sam and Alice running down the garden.

"Yes, it is," he agreed. "I can see us all living here, already. Great kitchen."

"You and kitchens!" she laughed as he put his arms round her.

"I can't help it if I find them irresistible," he murmured. "That's where I find you, most of the time."

"We'd better go back down," Elizabeth said, breaking away reluctantly from the kiss that was in danger of becoming rather too involved. "The estate agent will wonder where we've got to."

"So, shall we put an offer in on this one?" William asked.

"As long as the children like it, then yes," Elizabeth agreed, a little bubble of excitement in her chest making her feel quite giddy.

Sam and Alice had already planned where to build a little jetty for the canoes they said they wanted to buy, and had picked out which bedrooms would be theirs by the time Elizabeth and William found them. They had one more appointment to keep, which they did, politely nodding as the agent described the features of the house, but their minds were made up. Once they were back in the car, William found the details of the house they wanted, and prepared to phone up to make the offer. He shushed the children as he keyed in the number.

"Slow down!" William said as they chattered excitedly. "It's not ours yet."

"Then offer them buckets of money so they give it to us," Alice said.

Elizabeth listened as William offered the asking price, her heart thumping at the thought of spending so much money on a house. William rang off, and turned to her.

"OK, that's done. They'll get back to us," he said.

All through lunch she felt edgy, the anticlimax of having to wait wearing away her earlier excitement. She fiddled with her food and listened as Sam and Alice talked continuously, doing away with any need for her to join in. Afterwards as they strolled down the High Street, William took her hand in his.

"Your fingers are cold," he said. "Are you OK? You didn't eat much."

"I'm fine, just a bit twitchy, that's all," she replied.

"About what?"

"Everything. Having to wait to find out about the house, having to put the children through tests next week and then there'll be more waiting, having to go to see my parents tomorrow."

"It'll be fine," William said, reassuring her with a quick squeeze of the hand. "I'll do my utmost to get that house for you. And the children will be fine next week."

"And my parents?"

"I reserve judgement on that," he said lightly. "You and Sam have done a pretty good job of scaring me as far as your mother is concerned."

Elizabeth laughed and William felt pleased that his joke had worked and had seemed to relax her.

"Everything will be OK," he said. "You, me, those two mad creatures. Perfect. What more could a man want?"

Underneath his light tone, he was very serious. He had everything he wanted, and he intended doing all he could to secure the remaining elements that would complete his happy picture

Chapter 33

Elizabeth woke early on Sunday morning, having not slept well at all. She was dreading the forthcoming lunch with her parents, and wondered in what ways she was going to be embarrassed or infuriated this time. She was lying on her back staring at the ceiling when William stirred and woke up. He rolled closer to her, pulling her into a warm cuddle.

"I love waking up with you in my bed," he murmured, kissing her neck. "Did you sleep well?"

"No, not really," Elizabeth admitted.

"Not worrying about this afternoon, are you?" William asked. "It can't be that bad."

"Oh, it can," she replied. "Just promise me one thing."

"Anything."

"Don't go off me when you find out how awful your in-laws are going to be."

William laughed, but then realised that Elizabeth was not really joking.

"I promise, I won't go off you, no matter what," he said. "I love you."

"I love you too," she murmured, rolling to face him.

"Perhaps I don't say it enough, if you think a mother-in-law can scare me off," William teased, tickling her.

"I think you better tell me a few more times," Elizabeth giggled.

"I love you, I love you, I love you," he mumbled, interspersing each declaration with kisses to her lips, her neck, her ear. "Mmm, I could get to like this game," he continued, beginning to caress her and move his kisses down her body. "I adore you, I'm crazy about you, I desire you."

He was answered with sighs of pleasure as he reached her breast with his mouth and began to tease her with his tongue. The words ceased as their hands strayed under the bedclothes and they revelled in the feeling of warm bare skin, stroking and caressing, slowly edging each other towards bliss.

"Do you think we should?" she whispered.

"Oh yes," William replied, unable to resist her any longer. "We're the only ones awake."

~ * ~

"I could get used to lying in bed with you on a Sunday morning," Elizabeth said later.

"I should hope so," William replied. "I'd rather planned on doing it for a long number of years yet."

"Apart from the fact that, for the second Sunday on the trot, we have to get up and go somewhere."

"Shower time then," William said, sitting up and stretching, then yawning. "I think the children got up. One of them, anyway. You have a shower, I'll go down and make coffee."

He got up, put on his dressing gown and went downstairs, leaving Elizabeth to luxuriate in the warm bed for a few moments more, before she got up. Their weekends were developing their own easy rhythm as the habits of the four of them moulded to accommodate the others. Elizabeth felt as happy as she had ever been as she climbed into the shower.

As usual, Sam had been the first one up and was downstairs searching for cereal when William got to the kitchen. William had shown him where to find everything, and they had put the breakfast things out together by the time Elizabeth came down. Alice appeared eventually, last as always and needing to be reminded that they were expected for lunch so she had better get moving.

The journey to Elizabeth's family home at Longbourne, a small village in Hertfordshire, didn't take very long, just long enough for Elizabeth to imagine all the worst things that could happen. She had been rehearsing introductions and announcements in her head all week, but when it came down to it, could only hope that things went better than she feared they might.

She directed William to park on the driveway at the side of the house. Sam jumped out of the car and went through the side gate, into the back garden. Elizabeth followed with William and Alice.

"It's a nice house," William said. "Nice gardens."

"Yes, it is," Elizabeth agreed. "We tend to go in through the back, though, so I'll show you round properly later."

She was prevented from saying any more when her father came out, prompted by Sam's prior appearance in the kitchen. Wearing a baggy cardigan, corduroy trousers and an open-necked checked shirt, he looked every inch the off duty country gentleman.

"Lizzy!" he called enthusiastically, striding over and planting a kiss on her cheek. "Sam was the advance party."

"Dad, this is William," Elizabeth said.

"William," Mr Bennet replied, shaking his hand firmly. "I'm very pleased to meet you at last."

"Thank you, I'm glad to meet you too," William replied. "You've got very nice gardens here."

"Oh, do you like gardening?" Mr Bennet asked.

"I would like to do more of it," William said. "This is my daughter, Ally."

"Hello, Ally," Mr Bennet said kindly. "Sam's told us lots about you. Shall we go in and see what he's up to?"

He led the way into the house, Alice following shyly, and William feeling quite calm and wondering why Elizabeth had been so on edge.

"Where's Mum?" Elizabeth asked as they entered the house.

"Tom? Tom!" came the shriek of a banshee from upstairs, doing away with the need for an answer. "Didn't you hear the phone?"

Mr Bennet shook his head wearily as Elizabeth grimaced. They heard the sound of footsteps as Mrs Bennet came rushing downstairs, but her pace and the scowl on her face were instantly transformed to a pasted on smile and an attempt at calmness when she saw them all standing in the hallway.

"You didn't say our guests were here, Tom dear," she said, advancing on Elizabeth. She kissed the air somewhere near her daughter's ear, then turned to the visitors.

"And you must be William, and you are Alice."

"Pleased to meet you," William said.

"Well, go in, what are we all doing standing here? Tom, sherry!" she commanded, bustling them into the sitting room.

Mr Bennet went into the kitchen where Sam had been hiding.

"Come on, Sam, you can give me a hand with drinks," he said good-naturedly. "We're the waiters today."

By the time they took the tray of drinks into the sitting room, Mrs Bennet was about ready to draw breath after her first torrent of words, all of which had been about Jane and Charles.

"At last, everything will be the proper way round," she said, taking her glass of sherry.

"What do you mean, proper way around?" Elizabeth asked, puzzled by the remark.

"Well, they got married, now they're having a baby. I know it's a long gap, but everyone wants to get married then have a baby, don't they?"

"Did you say someone had phoned?" Mr Bennet asked, changing the subject before his wife could make any more barbed comments.

"It was Lydia," she answered. "They can't come to lunch after all. Poor George has to work today."

"You asked Lydia and George to lunch?" Elizabeth asked, startled.

"Of course, they almost always come to Sunday lunch these days," her mother answered blithely.

"Yeah, I bet they do," Elizabeth said sarcastically.

"Now then Sam, tell us what you're up to," Mr Bennet said, stopping the fight before it could begin. "How's school?"

"It's OK, Granddad," Sam said. "But I might be going to a different school soon. We're both going," he continued, glancing at Alice who was sitting quietly on the sofa. "Maybe."

"A new school? Why?"

"Because..." he said, then stopped, looking up at Elizabeth and wondering whether he had said too much.

"Because we might be moving," Elizabeth said, rescuing him. "And the reason we're moving is because William and I are getting married."

"Wonderful!" Mr Bennet said enthusiastically. "Congratulations!"

"You, getting married?" Mrs Bennet blurted. "Well, I never thought I'd see the day."

"Well, what a week this is for news," Mr Bennet continued, hugging Elizabeth and shaking hands with William again. "Welcome to the family, my boy. And you too, Ally." He turned to Alice who hadn't said a word yet. "Sam calls me Granddad, so you can too, if you'd like to."

She nodded shyly, not knowing how to answer. She liked Sam's Granddad but was unnerved by his Granny, and had realised very quickly why Sam described her the way he did.

The sound of the back door opening and someone coming into the house startled Elizabeth and she felt a lurching sense of alarm at who it might be.

"Hi!" a female voice called. "Whose is that smart car on the drive?"

She breathed a sigh of relief at hearing Kitty's voice, then Kitty herself appeared.

"Goodness, a house full! Hi Lizzy, hi Sam."

She grinned at Elizabeth then looked expectantly at William.

"And you must be William," she said. "Pleased to meet you at last. I'm Kitty. We don't get to see Elizabeth's boyfriends, usually."

Elizabeth turned scarlet with fury and embarrassment as William shot her a puzzled look.

"So, Lyds not here yet?" Kitty continued, seemingly unaware of the way she was cranking up the tension in the room.

"George and Lydia can't come to lunch today," Mrs Bennet said. "I told Lydia yesterday that Elizabeth was coming and bringing guests, and she phoned just now to say they can't come. Poor George has to work."

The sound of a timer ringing in the kitchen broke the awkward silence.

"All hands on deck," Mr Bennet said cheerily. "Dinner's just about ready. Who's going to give me a hand?"

"I will," Sam said quickly. "Come on, Ally."

Alice followed him, as relieved as he was to get away from a situation that was making her feel very uncomfortable. Elizabeth was desperate to follow them too but wasn't prepared to leave William alone at the mercy of her mother and sister.

"Do you come for Sunday lunch every week?" Elizabeth asked Kitty, trying very hard to be calm.

"We usually have a family lunch, don't we, Mum?" Kitty replied. "As you'd know, if you ever phoned me."

"I never know where to find you these days," Elizabeth said. "Not now you're footloose and fancy free again. Seeing anyone at the moment?"

"Yes, I am, actually," Kitty retorted. "George introduced me to a very nice friend of his, we often make up a foursome."

"Ooh, bring him to lunch next Sunday!" Mrs Bennet cooed. "Well, shall we go through and sit down?"

She led the way to the dining room as Sam appeared, carrying a pile of warmed dinner plates.

"You OK, Sam?" Elizabeth said quietly to him. "Can you manage?"

"Yeah," he answered, putting the plates down at the head of the table. "Save me and Ally places near you, will you?"

"Now, William, you sit right here by me," Mrs Bennet said, seating herself at one end of the table and patting the chair next to her. "Then you can tell me all about yourself. I need to know what my new son-in-law is like."

"Son-in-law?" Kitty screeched. "When did you get married, Lizzy?"

"We're engaged," Elizabeth said. "We got engaged last weekend."

"Ooh, I can't wait to tell Mary," Kitty gloated. "Now she really is the odd one out. Mind you, she's so weird no-one would ever take her on."

William glanced at his watch, having realised in the short time that he had been in the house exactly why Elizabeth had been so reluctant to come. He liked her father, who seemed like a perfectly amiable man, but was appalled at the way Elizabeth's mother and sister inflicted sharp wounds on her so casually.

"How do you make Mary the odd one out?" Elizabeth asked. "Jane and Lydia are married, I'm about to be. You and Mary aren't."

"No, but at least I was," Kitty said.

"Twice," Elizabeth muttered under her breath.

"So I know I can get married. I can get a man, unlike her."

Elizabeth was very tempted to stop Kitty in her tracks by letting her know what Mary had told her before she had flown back to Japan on Friday, but she had promised to keep Mary's secret, and could not break that promise. Sam and Ally brought dishes of vegetables and potatoes in, and Mr Bennet followed with a large plate of carved roast beef. He took his place at the head of the table and began to serve, as Sam and Ally took the only spare places either side of him. Thus Ally was seated between her Dad and her new Granddad, and Sam between his Granddad and his Mum. Sam passed a plate to Elizabeth who passed it on to Kitty.

"Help yourself to vegetables," Mr Bennet said. "Don't let it get cold. Lizzy, would you pour the wine?"

It was a relief to begin to eat and drink because it meant the conversation faltered. Not for long, though, as Mrs Bennet could not resist having William sitting next to her. For years she had wanted to see the man who had ruined her favourite daughter's husband, and had imagined herself putting him in his place. However, she was unnerved not only by his good looks but also by the aura of calm assurance he gave off. She sensed that she would come off worse in an argument, and decided to bide her time.

"So, William, tell us about yourself. Where did you meet Elizabeth?" she asked sweetly.

"On holiday," William answered. "In Spain."

"Oh, God, a holiday romance!" Kitty spluttered. "I never knew you could afford a package holiday to Spain, Lizzy. Where did you go? Benidorm?"

William was furious at the way Kitty spoke to Elizabeth, but knew he had to stay calm. He continued speaking to Mrs Bennet.

"My cousin owns a complex of holiday villas in a resort on the north coast, and it just so happened we were there at the same time."

"Your cousin owns the complex?" Mrs Bennet said, suddenly alert.

"Yes, it's not usually advertised widely. It's just a small set up, half a dozen villas, a pool. So, we met, and when we came home, we met up again."

"And what do you do for a living?"

William glanced at Elizabeth and smiled a little secret smile.

"On a day-to-day basis, I'm an investments manager," he replied. "But I own the company, along with my two cousins, so I'm also Chairman of the Board of Directors."

It was almost possible to feel the change in attitude as Mrs Bennet and Kitty both unconsciously preened themselves once they knew they were in the presence of money and power.

"Quite a demanding job, then," Mr Bennet said.

"It can be," William replied. "But I'm doing something I enjoy, which makes it easy, really."

"And what about your family?" Mrs Bennet asked, simpering. "Have you got brothers and sisters? As you can see, Elizabeth has a large and loving family."

Much as he was tempted to disagree about one element of that statement, William carried on as if he was conversing with a perfectly normal woman.

"I have a younger sister, who lives in Paris with her family. I'm close to one of my cousins and his family, and of course I have Ally, and that's it, really."

Kitty suddenly noticed the ring on Elizabeth's finger, and grabbed at her hand.

"Oh my God! Have you seen this ring?" she shrieked, pulling Elizabeth's hand so that Mrs Bennet could see the ring.

"Well!" Mrs Bennet gasped.

"Is it platinum?" Kitty asked, examining it closely, not letting go of Elizabeth's hand.

"Yes," Elizabeth said, pulling her hand out of Kitty's grasp.

"Well, what a lot of planning we must do!" Mrs Bennet said. "We need to book the church, and where will we hold the reception? Oh, we could have a marquee on the lawn! That would be lovely for next summer. Or shall we book the hall? And your dress, Elizabeth, obviously you can't marry in white, even though it is your first marriage, but ...."

"Mum, stop. We're not getting married here, it'll be at Chelsea Register Office. And it'll be the week before Christmas."

"What's the rush?" Kitty said slyly.

"No rush," Elizabeth said. "But we've found a house we like, and a school for the children, and to be honest, we're both old enough to know what we want."

She caught William's eye, and felt reassured by the look of pride he was giving her. He was amazed at the way she managed to remain calm in the face of such mean-spirited attitudes, and wondered why her father did not step in to defend her.

"We'll discuss the details later," Mrs Bennet said, finishing her dinner and blithely ignoring everything Elizabeth had said.

"Everyone finished?" Mr Bennet said, setting down his knife and fork. "Right then, you two, let's clear the table and then come and choose which ice cream you want." He beamed at the children and they eagerly gathered plates and dishes before following him out of the dining room. Once they had returned with the desserts and ice cream, William decided on a change of tack, and turned to address his soon-to-be father in law.

"Do you like gardening?" he asked.

"Oh yes," Mr Bennet replied. "Now I'm retired, it keeps me busy, and out of the house. Elizabeth and I used to do lots of gardening together when she lived at home."

"Did you say you're moving house?" Kitty said, butting in and not wanting to be left out of the conversation.

"Probably," Elizabeth answered. "We put an offer in on one yesterday."

"Where?"

"Richmond."

"Richmond? Boring suburbia?" Kitty said, startled. "Why?"

"We like it there," William said, fixing her with a determined look. "We rather fancied turning into boring suburbians, and now that I know how much Elizabeth likes gardening, I'm glad I can buy her a house with a big garden and its own river front."

It worked. Kitty was speechless.

"That was lovely, Dad," Elizabeth said, finishing her dessert. "You sit still, William and I will clear up, won't we?"

William jumped up eagerly, gathered dishes and followed Elizabeth into the kitchen. Once there, he closed the door and put the dishes down then gathered her into his arms.

"I don't know how you put up with it," he said, kissing her. "Don't think me rude, but has your sister got one tactful bone in her body?"

"Kitty's a scientific miracle," Elizabeth said. "She's the first human to have the entire DNA code for tact and sensitivity missing from her genes."

"Are you sure that you, Jane and Mary are actually related to Kitty?" William asked, laughing. "You're so different."

"When we were younger, we split neatly into sets," Elizabeth explained as she tidied up and got the coffee things ready. "Jane and I are close in age and made one pair. Then there's a gap to Mary, then another gap to Kitty and Lydia, who are also close in age. Mary tended to get a bit left out. I feel quite guilty about it now. Jane and I got annoyed with her because she was younger than us, Kitty and Lydia got annoyed because she was so very serious and they were anything but. It wasn't until she came to live with us that I really got to know her."

"I have to admit that I can understand your feelings now," William said.

"And you still want to go ahead with the wedding?"

"Oh yes. Nothing you can throw at me will put me off," he said, laughing as he grabbed her around the waist for a quick kiss. Just then the kitchen door burst open.

"Ooh, look at the lovebirds," Kitty cackled. "Don't let me interrupt, I'm just coming to see where the coffee is."

"Are you working at the moment, Kitty?" Elizabeth asked, for the sake of something to say.

"Me, work?" she laughed. "I'm not that stupid! That's the benefit of a good lawyer and a decent divorce settlement."

"Right, well you can do some work now, then," Elizabeth said. "You know where the coffee stuff is. Come on, William, let's go and see where the children are."

She steered William quickly out of the kitchen before Kitty could protest, leaving her standing open-mouthed watching their departing backs. They got back to the dining room to find Sam talking about the model he and Charles had built, but as soon as Mrs Bennet saw them, she talked over Sam, making him stop mid-sentence.

"Now, this nonsense about a rushed Register Office wedding," she said. "I've been thinking, and we must do it properly. There are so many people we simply must invite, and the Church will hold them all, and we could speak to your Aunty Phyllis about where they got the marquee for your cousin Susan's wedding."

"Mum, I said ..."

"And as for your dress, well, you and I must go shopping. Who will be your bridesmaids? You can't have Mary, obviously, but you'd love to be a bridesmaid, wouldn't you?"

Alice jumped as she realised that she was being spoken to for the first time by Mrs Bennet.

"Erm ..." she managed to mumble as Mrs Bennet carried on regardless and Kitty returned, scowling, with the coffee tray.

"Now, Kitty, who did the flowers for your wedding?"

"Which one, first or second?" Elizabeth muttered.

"Shut up," Kitty spat. "At least I didn't get ..."

"Get what?" Elizabeth asked, noticing Kitty glance at Sam before stopping speaking.

"Now, girls, no bickering. Where are you going to place your list?"

"I don't think we need to place a list, Mum, it's not like we're just starting out," Elizabeth said, a tone of desperation creeping into her voice. "We just want a quiet, straightforward wedding. No fuss."

"Nonsense, every girl wants a fuss! Isn't she being silly, William? You want to do things properly, don't you?"

"Actually, Mrs Bennet, I want to do things the way Elizabeth wants," William replied firmly. "And I've booked the Register Office, so we have the date and place." He turned to Mr Bennet. "Sorry if I've rather jumped ahead, but I thought at our age we could dispense with asking for permission and all that sort of thing."

"Absolutely," Mr Bennet agreed. "If Elizabeth wants to marry you, that's good enough for me."

"Tom!" Mrs Bennet spluttered, furious at having had the rug pulled out from beneath her feet.

"What, my dear?" he replied, in a tone of voice which indicated his weariness at listening to wailing and moaning about almost everything. "Now then, Sam, shall we get the old bagatelle out and you and Ally can have a game?"

"Yes please," Sam said enthusiastically.

The three of them left the room, leaving Mrs Bennet completely deflated.

"I'll show William around the garden, shall I?" Elizabeth said sweetly. "We mustn't stay long, actually, the children have homework so we need to get back."

Elizabeth hooked her arm over William's arm as they strolled around the garden, the air beginning to take on a chill and cause wisps of their breath to fog in the air. She sighed deeply, making a small cloud form in front of her face.

"Are you OK?" William asked.

"I am now I'm out of the house," Elizabeth answered. "Promise me something."

"Anything."

"Never leave me alone with her ever again."

"I promise."

"I love you, you know that, don't you?" she asked.

"Yes, I do," he replied, then smiled. "Can't wait to say those words, actually. 'I do'."

Elizabeth smiled and leaned against him as they strolled slowly round the garden. From an upstairs window, her father glanced out and seeing them together, sighed contentedly.

"You OK, Granddad?" Sam asked.

"I'm perfectly fine, young man," he replied. "Now, I wonder if I've got any sweets?" he said as he began to pat his pockets as if he had forgotten what might be in there.

Sam grinned broadly as he stuck his hand into his Granddad's cardigan pocket, playing a game that they had been playing since the days when Sam was so small that Tom had had to crouch down in order for Sam's hand to reach his pocket.

"Yum, humbug!" Sam said, triumphantly pulling out a black and white striped sweet.

"Now, Ally, would you like a toffee?" Tom asked, taking out an assortment of wrapped sweets from his cardigan pocket.

"Thank you," she said quietly, taking a Murray Mint and unwrapping it, then popping it into her mouth.

"Right, these are the rules," Tom explained, setting the bagatelle board up on the table. "You take this stick ..."

By the time Elizabeth and William completed a slow circuit of the gardens and returned to the house, Alice was making as much noise as Sam and the pile of sweet wrappers was growing steadily. Elizabeth followed the sound of cheering upstairs to the games room.

"Hey, Mum, Ally is just brilliant at this!" Sam said.

"Better than me?"

"She beat Granddad."

"Wow, we have the makings of a world champion," Elizabeth said, smiling. "But just wait 'til he takes you on at draughts, no-one can beat him at draughts. Dad, how many sweets have you given them?"

"Oh, it's Sunday, they're allowed sweets on Sundays," he answered, smiling indulgently.

"How do you play this game then?" William asked, coming into the room behind Elizabeth.

"It's like pinball," Sam explained. "Except, you don't have a springy thing to fire the ball. You put the ball in here and whack it with this stick."

He demonstrated, placing the ball bearing in the channel and prodding it hard with the stick so that the ball flew up the channel and bounced round the cups and posts, coming to rest eventually in a cup that scored 50 points.

"Everyone has 10 balls, and you add up the points," he said. "Ally's brilliant. Here, you have a go."

He handed the stick to William and lined up a ball. William prodded ineffectually and Sam burst out laughing.

"You're hopeless!"

"Sam! Don't be rude!" Elizabeth said sharply.

"Here, let me," Alice said, taking the stick and demonstrating why, at the next Bennet family Christmas bagatelle championships, she was likely to take home the prize.

The sounds of laughter filtered downstairs to where Kitty sat with her mother, both of them lost in their thoughts until they were disturbed by a particularly loud shout.

"Quite a turn up for the books, Lizzy getting married," Kitty said.

"And at a Register Office," Mrs Bennet moaned. "But, at least Chelsea is the one to get married in. I'm sure that's where Madonna or some pop star like her got married. Ooh, I wonder if anyone famous will be getting married at the same time as Lizzy?"

Suddenly enthusiastic, the two of them began to examine the latest celebrity gossip magazine that Mrs Bennet had purchased, making snide remarks about the clothing and appearance of assorted actresses and models.

Elizabeth was relieved to finally take her leave of her mother. Much as she loved her father, she could no longer cope with too much time in the company of her mother or either of her two youngest sisters. As they drove away, waving goodbyes out of the car windows, Elizabeth sighed and sagged exhausted into her seat.

"It's done," William said. "Hurdle jumped. And I think we made it plain that we'll get married our way."

"Do I have to be a meringue?" Alice said from the back seat, making Sam giggle.

"A meringue?" William asked, puzzled.

"Yeah, one of the girls in my dorm was a bridesmaid last year and her dress made her look like a peach meringue."

"Well, you can look like that if you want to," Elizabeth chuckled. "But I thought we'd go and buy you a nice dress, and get Sam a proper suit, and if you want to call yourselves bridesmaid and page boy you can, otherwise you'll be our supporters. How does that sound?"

"Cool," the two children said in unison as the car speeded its way back to London and home.

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