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What We Did on Our Holidays
[Modern/NC17]

Chapter 34

On Tuesday, Sam woke early. He felt quite nervous, although he wasn't going to admit that to anyone. He heard his Mum getting up and going downstairs, then heard her come back up to go to the bathroom. The sound of the shower filtered through to his bedroom as he tried to recite as many maths formulas as he could remember.

"You awake, Sam?" Elizabeth called after a while.

"Yes."

He got out of bed and went down for breakfast.

"You'll be OK today, you know," Elizabeth said, nervously flitting around the kitchen.

"I know," Sam said, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

"I wish I could come with you, but there's no way I can get out of a District Medical Group meeting."

"That's OK," Sam answered, thinking that in fact she would only make him more nervous if she came, but at the same time longing for the reassurance she could give him.

"William will pick you up and take you both to Richmond," she said, reassuring herself as much as Sam by repeating aloud the arrangements they had made.

"I know."

She watched him eat his breakfast, wondering if he was as calm as he seemed, and marvelling at how much he had grown up recently. He was turning into a young man, no longer a boy, and was handling the huge changes that were coming to his life with an astonishing maturity.

"Finished," he said, dropping his spoon into the bowl and sitting back in his chair.

"Had enough to eat?" Elizabeth asked, suddenly feeling the need to feed him up, as if to give him extra resources to get through the day. Sam got up from the table, scraping his chair across the kitchen floor.

"Mm hmm," Sam said, putting his bowl and spoon in the sink.

"Go and get ready then," Elizabeth said, then as he was about to leave the kitchen, called him back.

"Sam?"

"Yeah?"

She crossed the room towards him and pulled him into a hug.

"You're not so grown up yet that you don't want hugs from your silly old Mum, are you?"

"You're not silly or old," he replied, hugging her close and resting his head on her shoulder. "Love you, Mum."

"I love you too," she said, kissing his hair. "You're going to be fine today."

The knock at the door came just as Elizabeth was glancing at her watch for what felt like the hundredth time. She and Sam stared at each other for a moment, both faces fixed in an expression of alarm, then Elizabeth shook herself and went to answer the door. She returned with William in tow.

"Hi, Sam," he said brightly. "OK?"

"Yeah," Sam mumbled.

"He's a bit nervous," Elizabeth said, fiddling with a button on her jacket.

"Don't be nervous," William said.

Sam looked up and their eyes met. William realised that Sam was indeed feeling rather frightened by the prospect of the day ahead of him.

"What are they going to ask me at the interview?" Sam said, sounding worried. "I can do tests but I've never done an interview."

"They'll talk to you about things you like at school, your hobbies, stuff like that," William said reassuringly. "Tell them about football, and the space stuff you do with Charles. Don't worry, Sam. Just be yourself."

Throughout the day, Elizabeth could barely concentrate. She knew Sam's timetable by heart. Half past nine, maths test, followed by an informal chat with the housemaster. Then lunch. One o'clock, English test. Then the formal interview. She knew it would all be over by four, and spent the whole day trying to send positive thoughts his way and wondering if telepathy really worked.

Meanwhile in Richmond, Sam and Alice had sailed through their maths tests and were enjoying lunch with people who might become their classmates after Christmas. Several times they were called upon to explain why the two of them would be coming part way into an academic year, and that no, they weren't brother and sister, and that yes, their parents had met on holiday and had a whirlwind romance. Girls sighed and boys grimaced, and Sam and Alice found that they were quite enjoying themselves. After the English test, they sat together in the old oak-panelled corridor outside the Headmaster's office, waiting to be called for interview.

"Your Dad told me not to worry," Sam said. "But it's OK for him, I bet nothing ever worries him."

"What did your Mum say?"

"Nothing. I think she's as scared as me."

"There's nothing to be scared about," Alice said. "Your Mum's just worried about you. I love your Mum."

"Yeah, I do too," Sam said, smiling at Alice.

"What do you think of my Dad?"

"I was scared of him," Sam admitted. "But now I think he's OK."

"Same here," Alice said, grinning. "I like your Granddad, he's really nice."

"Yeah he is," Sam agreed. "And he's your Granddad too, now."

"But your Granny ...." Alice said, pulling a face which indicated just what she thought of Mrs Bennet.

"Yeah, I know."

"She's so mean to your Mum."

"I hate it when she's horrid to Mum but I can't do anything about it," Sam said forcefully. "And it's all because of me, really."

"Because your Mum had you on her own?" Alice said. "That's hardly your fault."

"I know that," Sam said. "But still..."

They stopped speaking as they were approached by the Head of Year. He smiled at them in a kindly way, and then spoke.

"Samuel, would you like to come in for a chat?"

Having rushed home early, Elizabeth was pacing the sitting room and trying not to look at the clock when there was a knock at the door. She rushed to answer it to find a happy-looking but tired bunch of people on her doorstep.

"At last!" she said. "I wondered what had happened to you!"

"We're not that late, are we?" William said as the children stumbled towards the kitchen. "Traffic wasn't too bad."

"How did it go?" she asked.

"Fine, as far as I can tell. They both said that the tests were OK, and it sounds as if they handled the interviews well."

"Now what?"

"They'll let us know within a few days."

"Any other news?" Elizabeth asked. "I don't suppose the estate agent has phoned."

"No, not today," William said. "I'll give him a ring tomorrow. The only reason there's a delay is because they need to talk to the executors of the estate. Richard said it's sometimes slower when you're dealing with a sale after someone's passed on."

Elizabeth sighed and rubbed her face.

"Are you alright?" William asked, concerned.

"I'm fine, just tired," she said. "I think I'm stressing more about school than Sam is."

"He'll be fine," William said. "He'd be an asset to any school, of course they're going to take him. Have you done anything about cooking a meal yet?"

"No."

"Good," William said firmly. "Where's the leaflet for that Chinese place? We'll phone and get something."

Later as Elizabeth glanced around the table at three happy faces, chattering away as they ate, she relaxed for the first time in days. She had not admitted to herself just how tense she had been about the visit to her parents and Sam's application for the Grammar School. William's stream of phone calls, messages, little reassuring kisses and touches, the knowledge that she was truly loved by a devoted man, had slowly seeped far enough into her soul that she could really begin to trust her feelings. He kept telling her that everything would be OK and finally she could believe him.

On Thursday in both Chelsea and Islington, the thud of post landing on the mat yielded nothing but bills and junk mail, to the frustration of both houses. On Friday, Elizabeth waited for as long as she dared for the postman to arrive, grumbling to herself about the randomness of his timing, before she had to rush to work empty-handed. She met Sam after school for Family Fun Time at the pool, and by the time they arrived home, William and Alice were sitting in his car waiting for them.

"Have you been here long?" Elizabeth said. "I said I'd get a key cut, and I never did do it, did I?"

"Not much point now," William said, unable to keep the smile from spreading across his face. "You'll be moving in a few weeks."

"We got the house?" Elizabeth squealed excitedly. "We got it?"

"Yes, we got it," William said delightedly. "I tried to phone you after the estate agent had phoned me, but you'd left work, and your mobile's off."

"It's flat," Elizabeth said, laughing and feeling quite giddy with excitement. "Forgot to charge it. Anyway, let's go in instead of freezing out here on the pavement."

She led the way into the house, noticing immediately the white envelope sitting on the mat. She snatched it up and ripped it open, not seeing William's contented expression. She scanned the letter quickly.

"You did it!" she shouted, grabbing Sam and hugging him. "Oh you fabulous boy, I'm so proud of you!"

"What, I got in?" Sam asked. "Am I going to Richmond? Is Alice going?"

"Yes," William said proudly. "You're both going. Well done."

Elizabeth read the letter again, more slowly, as the four of them made their way into the sitting room.

"Goodness," she said. "Look at this uniform list! I think I'd better start making a list of all the things we've got to do."

"Don't panic," William said, giving her a hug. "We'll do all that another day. I think we should go out to celebrate tonight, what do you think?"

"Yes!" said Alice and Sam in unison.

"After all, it's not often we buy a house and find out we have two very clever children, all in the same day!"

"Yes, let's," Elizabeth said. "Where shall we go?"

"How about going to The Lodge again?" William said. "Where we went for your birthday. Somewhere a bit special, as we're celebrating?"

"Why not?" she concurred. "Why don't you ring them to book while I go for a quick shower, and Sam can go and get changed out of school clothes."

"Sounds like a good plan to me," William said. "I'll make a pot of tea as well, shall I?"

As Elizabeth went upstairs, she remembered Jane's comment about wanting a house full of happy people, and knew exactly how she felt.

They arrived at the restaurant to find that John Lucas remembered them and came out of the kitchen to greet them.

"Charlotte told me about your engagement," John said. "Congratulations! And let me help you celebrate by offering you a bottle of wine on the house."

"Thanks, John," Elizabeth said, kissing him on the cheek. "We have other news too. We've just heard that our offer on a house has been accepted, and these two have just won places at a new school."

"Goodness!" John said. "We really are celebrating! So, when are you moving, and when are you getting married?"

"We're getting married on the 21st December," William said. "We're not sure yet when we're moving."

"The 21st? That's only a month away! Have you got it all planned?" he asked in alarm.

"Not at all," Elizabeth laughed. "We've got as far as booking the Register Office and we think we'll have the reception at William's house."

"Well, if you need caterers, just let me know," John said, laughing. "Anyway, I must return to my kitchen. Enjoy your meal."

"We have got an awful lot to do, you know," Elizabeth said as they sat down.

"One less thing now, though," William said. "We've just found the caterer!"

Back at Elizabeth's house later that night, all four of them feeling full and contented after a delicious meal, they discussed how to spend the rest of the weekend. It was agreed between them that shopping for the wedding was the top priority.

"Hang on," Elizabeth said. "I'm going to write a list."

By the time they went to bed, she had filled a page with lists and notes to herself. The children had gone up an hour before, having become bored with the details of planning once they had added their requests to the list. Elizabeth locked up, and followed William upstairs. He was in the bathroom reading the instructions on a bottle of aromatherapy oil when she went in to brush her teeth.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"This is massage oil," he said, a playful smile on his face. "I thought it might be a good time for me to learn how to massage."

"Really?" Elizabeth asked cheekily. "And you want to practice on me?"

"Well, I can't practice on my own shoulders," he replied, taking her hand and leading her to the bedroom. "So, take off your clothes and lie down."

"Gosh, you're so masterful when you decide to be," Elizabeth teased, whilst feeling a little frisson of excitement. She did as she was told, while William stripped down to his boxers.

"Is it normal for the masseur to take his clothes off too?" she asked with feigned innocence.

"In this establishment, it's a rule," William said, enjoying the game they were playing.

Elizabeth laid face down on the bed, and William knelt beside her, pouring a little oil onto her back. He began to rub her back gently, enjoying the feeling of Elizabeth's warm, oiled skin under his hands. He stroked her shoulders and upper arms, making her sigh as she began to relax.

"I think you're supposed to be a bit firmer," Elizabeth said.

He moved so that he straddled her hips, and leaned against her.

"Is this what you mean by firmer?" he murmured, leaving her in no doubt that he was finding the massage as pleasurable as she was.

"Not exactly," she replied. "You haven't earned your reward yet."

"Oh really?" he asked, beginning to massage her shoulders more firmly. She groaned with pleasure as she felt the knots of tension unravel as William worked on her shoulders, then began to move his hands down her back.

"Oh, that's nice," she groaned, making William feel even more aroused. He swept his hands down her sides, and lifted himself off her so that he could caress her bottom.

"I don't remember asking for a bottom massage," she teased.

"It's a special offer," he said. "For special bottoms only."

He rolled her onto her back, leaned down and kissed her passionately, unable to resist any longer. Breaking the kiss eventually, he poured a little more oil into the palm of his hand and slowly stroked her body, making her arch herself towards him as her excitement mounted. The sheen of her skin in the dim light made him look at her with adoration.

"You have a fantastic body," he murmured.

"So do you," she whispered, running her hands down his chest and across his stomach, stopping at his boxers. She ran her fingers around the inside of the waistband but the teasing was too much for William. He tugged them off, laid down beside her and pulled her to him.

"I love making love to you," he sighed as their bodies joined and they began to move in the slow rhythm that they had found together.

"So do I," Elizabeth murmured, pulling him down to her so that her oiled skin made them both slippery as they pressed against each other. The feeling of sliding against each other brought them to a peak together as they both groaned their pleasure out loud, clinging tightly as waves of excitement rolled through their bodies.

"I think I'll use this massage parlour again," Elizabeth said later, as they curled damply against each other.

"But next time, I'm the customer?" William asked.

"We'll see."

Chapter 35

Saturday was counted as a successful, if exhausting, day of assault on the list. By lunchtime, Sam and Alice had been fully kitted out with the uniform that they would need for the Grammar School. After lunch, wedding outfits for the children had been purchased - a delicately pretty pale grey dress for Alice, and a dark grey suit for Sam. William had insisted that they should visit a proper tailor in Jermyn Street for Sam's first suit. Elizabeth had tears of pride in her eyes as she watched Sam standing in front of the mirror, the tailor taking measurements before offering him a choice of fabrics and colours. Sam was glad William was there to advise him, otherwise he wouldn't have had a clue what to do. On their way back to William's house to spend the night, they even spotted a small florist's shop with a gorgeous window display, and called in to arrange for the florist to visit them later that week.

The following Saturday was spent in much the same way, although without the children, who had gone to Richmond to spend the day with Richard and Ellen. One phone conversation with Elizabeth had made Ellen feel quite exhausted at the mere thought of everything that had to be achieved in less than three weeks, so she had invited the children over to give Elizabeth a clear run at the shopping. By the end of that day, almost everything on the list had a little tick next to it.

Half way through the following week, William called round at tea time.

"Got some news," he said, smiling broadly. "Can you get out of work tomorrow lunchtime?"

"Yes, I think so," Elizabeth replied. "Why?"

"So we can go to sign some papers and pick up the keys to the house," he answered, picking her up and swinging her round.

"Already?" she asked, laughing as he put her back down. "That was quick."

"The Legal Department at work had the conveyancing as one of their top priorities," William said cheerfully. "There are one or two advantages to being the boss!"

The following lunchtime, as arranged, Elizabeth and William met at the estate agent's office to sign for the keys to their new house. Elizabeth had managed to alter her diary so that she could have an extended lunch break, and once the keys were handed over, William suggested they go to look at what was now theirs.

"Here we are," William said, after parking his car and meeting Elizabeth as she parked hers. "Number 5, Lyme Crescent."

Lyme Crescent contained only eight houses, each set slightly back from the road itself, and each having a back garden running down to an offshoot of the Thames. Although it was handy enough for Richmond town centre, it was a quiet branch off a none too busy road, a rare luxury in TW10.

They walked up the path hand in hand, then once William had unlocked the door, he paused.

"Is this where I carry you over the threshold, or do I have to wait until we're married before I can do that?" he asked, amused.

"I've no idea!" Elizabeth replied, laughing, then squealed as he swept her off her feet.

"Well, we'll do it now then," he said, and stepped inside with her in his arms, both of them laughing delightedly. "Here we are, home. Not much like a home yet, but it will be."

He put her down, and they looked round. The house had been cleared and seemed rather bleak and echoey with no furniture and few carpets, but as they wandered round, deciding what would go where, Elizabeth saw in her mind's eye just how things would work out.

"We need to work out how and when we move in," William said. "The removals people will do as much packing and unpacking as we ask them to."

"Oh good!" Elizabeth said. "I must admit, my mind is fixed on getting married and it's hard to think about what happens next."

"I know what you mean," he agreed. "We need to make a few decisions and make a plan, don't we?"

"Yes, boss!" she laughed, and kissed him on the nose, making him laugh. "Come on, I'd better get back to work."

"OK," he said, following her out of the house and locking the door behind him. "Shall I come round tonight and we can sort a few things out?"

"Good idea. Come for tea. What would you like?"

"Spag bol."

"Is that all?" Elizabeth asked, surprised that he would request something so basic.

"I like your spag bol," he said. "It has good memories. I'll bring a bottle of wine."

They parted to go their separate ways, Elizabeth back to work and William to visit one of the projects supported by the Pemberley Group charitable foundation. All the way back to north London, Elizabeth felt as if she needed to pinch herself to remember that all this was true.

That evening William arrived carrying a bottle of wine and a bunch of flowers, feeling as happy as he had ever felt. He too sometimes had to pinch himself to make sure it wasn't all a dream. Sam let him in, then disappeared as he usually did. William found Elizabeth in the kitchen, reading the evening paper as a wonderful aroma filled the room.

"Mmm, smells good," William said, nuzzling the back of her neck. "And the food smells nice too!"

She turned and kissed him properly, then arranged the flowers while he searched for a corkscrew and opened the wine.

"To us in our new house," he said, raising his glass after passing a glass to Elizabeth.

"One big happy family in our lovely big house," she said, taking a drink. "Part of me still doesn't quite believe it, you know."

"What?"

"That all this has happened," she said reflectively. "If you had told me in the summer that by Christmas I'd be married and moving to the sort of place I never dreamed I'd be able to live in, and that Sam would be moving to a rather posh school, I'd've told you not to be ridiculous."

"Is it bothering you?" William asked, concerned that she was trying to find a way to tell him that she was worried. "Do you feel it's too fast?"

"No!" she said happily. "Don't worry, I'm not having second thoughts. I just need to pinch myself every now and then to prove it's real. I really am this lucky."

"Me too," William admitted, then continued thoughtfully. "There is one thing we haven't talked about, though, not really."

Elizabeth guessed the subject he was about to broach, and let him carry on.

"When you said a big happy family ..." he said, then paused.

"Yes," she said softly. "I did mean children."

William pulled Elizabeth into an embrace and held her tightly.

"It's me that's the lucky one," he managed to say eventually. "To have found you, and to have all this happen. You've no idea how happy you've made me."

They were disturbed from their little self-contained bubble by a strategic cough at the doorway. They broke apart, realising that Sam was there, and Elizabeth blushed.

"No need to blush, Mum," Sam said cheekily. "I've known about you two snogging in the kitchen for ages."

"Sam!" Elizabeth spluttered, embarrassed, while William burst out laughing.

"Warmer than behind the bike-sheds, Sam," William teased.

"Don't have bike sheds at my school," Sam retorted quickly. "Though I think they do at Richmond, so, you know..."

"I can't believe I'm hearing this," Elizabeth said, pretending to be a little more shocked than she felt, although she was surprised at Sam's cheekiness. He had been much happier in the last week or so, and she put that down to him feeling more certain as the various interwoven threads in his life became more settled.

"Tea ready yet?" he asked, deftly changing the subject whilst amusement danced in his eyes.

"Thank goodness there will be another woman in the house when Ally comes home," Elizabeth said, draining the spaghetti. "You two are too much like naughty boys sometimes."

"And that's why you love us," Sam said, sitting down at the table and beaming happily. William put the dishes on the table as Elizabeth passed them to him, and sat down to eat, sure that he had never been happier than at this moment.

~ * ~

Elizabeth had been very pleasantly surprised when her house had been valued at a considerable amount more than she had paid for it, and was then stunned to find that the number of people making offers was pushing the price up steadily. When Charlotte phoned her on the Friday evening, she was still reeling from the previous call.

"At last! You're in!" Charlotte said cheerfully. "I seem to be talking to your answerphone an awful lot recently."

"Sorry," Elizabeth said. "I can't believe how busy I've been, there's so much to do."

"Are you OK?" Charlotte asked, thinking that Elizabeth sounded slightly distracted.

"Yes, I'm fine," she replied. "I'm just a bit stunned. You know we put my house on the market once we knew we'd got the Richmond place?"

"Mm hmm."

"Well, I've just had an offer from the people who saw it yesterday, and I'm just about to faint at the amount they're prepared to pay. It's ridiculous, given what I paid."

"Yes, but you said yourself, the house was a dump when you bought it, you've done loads to it, and prices have gone up phenomenally in London in the last ten years," Charlotte said, being as calm and rational as ever. "Listen, if it means you and Sam have a bit of money in the bank, that's great. You'll need it when he goes to University anyway! Take it and don't worry about it."

"You're right," Elizabeth said, although after her discussions with William, when he had calmly informed her that he had established a trust fund for Sam's education on the same basis as Alice's, she knew that paying for University was not going to be an issue.

"Anyway, how's the planning going?" Charlotte asked brightly. "Anything I can do to help? John told me he's doing the food, you lucky thing."

"I know, we're very flattered," Elizabeth replied. "Loads of people are very envious that we got him, when they'd heard he didn't do outside work any more. And thanks for the offer, but I think everything is under control."

"Good! Well, I'll be at John's next Friday, and I'll see you a week tomorrow."

"A week tomorrow," Elizabeth said. "I can hardly believe it."

"Get used to the idea!" Charlotte said, laughing. "You two are going to be so happy, and you deserve it."

"See you on Saturday then," Elizabeth said, thanking Charlotte for her good wishes and ringing off. It wasn't until later, when she was checking the list of replies to wedding invitations, that she realised that Charlotte hadn't mentioned Billie at all. She made a mental note to phone her over the weekend, and carried on working through her lists.

Next morning Elizabeth made her way to William's house for the final Saturday of planning before the Big Day. Even in her mind, the phrase had capital letters. Sam had gone to his final football match before he was to leave school the following Friday, so Elizabeth was alone when a very giddy Alice answered the door.

"Yes, you're here!" she shouted happily. "Dad, it's Elizabeth! Hey, I'm home, I'm home, no more stinking boarding school!" she sang as she skipped down the hall.

"You seem very jolly," Elizabeth laughed, following her into the lounge. "Glad to be back?"

"Oh yes," Alice said. "Where's Sam? Has he broken up from school yet?"

"He's gone to play football," Elizabeth replied. "He doesn't break up 'til Friday."

"Oh, poor Sam," Alice said. "Tell him I'll do his Christmas shopping for him."

"Will you do mine for me?" Elizabeth asked, half joking. With the wedding, Christmas shopping had been rather neglected.

"Yup, just give me a list and some money and I'll do it all."

"What are you going to do?" William asked as he entered the room, immediately going over to greet Elizabeth with a kiss.

"Elizabeth's going to give me a list and some money and I'm going to do all her Christmas shopping for her."

"Isn't that what we're doing today?" William asked. "Nightmare idea, you know, shopping two Saturdays before Christmas. Can't we do it all by mail order?"

"No, Dad!" Alice chided. "That's not the spirit at all. Are you ready? Shall we go?"

William laughed as he looked at his two favourite women. "What was that you were saying last week about us men dominating you?" he asked ruefully. "I don't stand a chance with you two, do I?"

"No, so you might as well give in now," Alice said, leading the way out of the house.

Later that afternoon, having picked Sam up from football, they headed for Pizza Express for tea. Elizabeth couldn't help but reflect on the first time she had been there with William after Sam's tournament.

"Funny to think this is the last time we'll be doing football and pizza," she mused as they were shown to a table.

"We can still go for pizza when we move, though, can't we?" Sam said, sounding alarmed.

"Of course," William said, laughing. "They do have pizza places south of the river, you know!"

Sam sighed with relief as the four of them fell silent whilst they perused the menu.

"So, have we done everything we need to do before Saturday?" William asked once the waiter had taken their order.

"I think so," Elizabeth said. "Flowers, catering, clothes, cars, all sorted."

"I'm picking up the rings on Thursday," William said.

"And I'm collecting my dress then, and no, I won't tell you what it's like!" she said, chiding him playfully. He had spent the previous fortnight trying to extract information from her about her wedding dress, and she had resisted, saying it was unlucky. In turn, he had refused to tell her where they were going for their honeymoon, saying only that she should pack lots of warm clothing.

"When are you going and when are you coming back?" Sam asked. So much had been going on over the previous week that he had lost track of where he was supposed to be on which day.

"We leave for our mystery destination on Sunday," William said. "Richard will take you two back with them after the reception, and we'll collect you on Christmas Eve."

"Cool," said Alice. She had already made plans to rope Sam into some Christmas shopping so that between them they could get something special for Elizabeth and William. "Do you need me to do any shopping this week or did we get everything this afternoon?"

"We got pretty much everything, I think," Elizabeth said, recollecting the amount of money they had spent at Hamley's, not only on toys for Richard and Ellen's children, but also at William's insistence on something for Jane and Charles' forthcoming new arrival.

Their food arrived, and they began to tuck in.

"So, is everyone coming who you wanted to come?" Alice mumbled through a mouthful of pizza.

"You could say that," Elizabeth said. "I've had a 'regret' this morning."

"Oh?" William said, eyebrows raised.

"Lydia wrote a note to say she's terribly sorry but she and George will be out of the country."

"Really?"

"A strategic weekend away, I think," Elizabeth replied.

"You're probably right," William nodded. "And for the best too, I'd say."

"Aunty Mary is coming home, isn't she?" Sam asked. He wasn't upset by the non-appearance of his youngest aunt, who had never had much time for him, but he was hoping desperately that his favourite aunt would manage to attend.

"She is," Elizabeth said, having had an e-mail the previous night from Mary. "And for good."

"Really?" Sam said excitedly. "Brilliant!"

"And she's bringing a friend with her to the wedding," Elizabeth added cautiously. She hadn't known whether to tell Sam about Mary's secret, fearing that it might upset him to find out that he would have to share her attention.

"Cool," Sam said. "Another English teacher?"

"Yes, I think he is."

"Are they staying with us?" Sam asked, seemingly oblivious to the gender of Mary's friend.

"No, with Jane and Charles. But don't worry, Mary will be around for a while yet."

"Georgie phoned me last night," William said, aware of Elizabeth's concerns about Sam and Mary, and gently deflecting the subject. "They're flying in on Thursday so I'll pick them up at the airport."

"It's going to be a bit manic, this week, isn't it?" Elizabeth said. "I think we're right to postpone moving until the New Year."

William nodded in agreement as he ate. They had decided that to try to combine a wedding, Christmas and moving house would most likely be a recipe for disaster, so had agreed to have Christmas in Islington to say 'goodbye' to Elizabeth's house, New Year with Richard and Ellen at their customarily huge and chaotic party, and finally to move in the first week of the year, just in time for the start of term. Despite William trying to persuade Mrs Reynolds that she might like to consider his move from Chelsea as an opportunity to retire properly, she had insisted on appointing herself as overseer of removals.

"You don't want the worry in the first weeks of your married life," she had said firmly. "And neither does your new lady wife." William had given in. He knew better than to argue with Mrs Reynolds.

"It'll be total madness," William said, sounding cheerful as he took a drink of his wine. "And I can't wait!"

A young couple in the corner of the restaurant noticed the laughter coming from across the room, and smiled shyly at each other, hoping that one day they too would be as happy as the family who were so obviously having such a good time together.

Chapter 36

When Alice returned on Thursday lunchtime from an impromptu shopping trip to find William at home, she squealed in alarm, hid a bag behind her back and ran upstairs.

"Are you alright?" William called, and hearing no reply, went up to her room.

He found her in the middle of chaos.

Alice had decided that she would spend the first week of her school holiday clearing out her room, as she, like Elizabeth, didn't want removal men packing up her belongings. Between them, she and Mrs Reynolds had managed to fill four black bin bags with junk for the charity shop, and another two with rubbish.

"Everything OK up here?" he asked, as she turned slightly pink cheeked having hidden the bag containing a present for him under her pillow.

"Fine!" she replied brightly. "We decided to clear out some stuff."

"So I can see," William said. He stepped further into the room and looked around, remembering for a moment how once it had been decorated with pictures of cute little furry creatures, and now was plastered with posters of handsome and alarmingly young looking film stars.

"Who is this one?" he asked, pointing to one of the actors, who seemed to be represented by more photos than any other.

"Orlando Bloom, of course," Alice said in a slightly exasperated tone.

"Of course," he replied distractedly. After a moment's silence, he spoke again. "Looking forward to moving?"

"Oh yes," she replied enthusiastically.

"Good."

"Cos Lyme Crescent will be our real home, won't it?" she continued, making him look at her enquiringly. "I mean, I know this house is nice, but it's not like I've lived here properly. Not with boarding school and everything. So, yeah, I want to move."

William had mixed feelings as he contemplated how she must have felt being away at school along with her enthusiasm for their new home. He gazed out of the window as Alice, in turn, contemplated him.

"I'm glad you found Elizabeth," she said suddenly. "She's really great and I like her a lot."

"I'm glad you do," William said, turning and smiling.

"And she's good for you."

"What?"

"She's good for you. You're loads happier since you met her, aren't you? It's obvious."

"Is it really?" William said, amused now by his daughter's firm convictions about matters of his heart.

"Oh, Daddy, I'm nearly 15, and I'm not daft, you know. I can see that you're in love, and so is Elizabeth."

"Well, as you're the expert," William laughed, waving his hand towards the many pictures of Mr Bloom.

"I'm not in love with him," Alice protested.

"Of course you're not," William teased. "That's why you have, oh let's see, a dozen pictures of him on your wall. Anyway, I'm going to the airport to get Georgie's gang. Do you want to come?"

"No, I've got things to do," Alice said, thinking about wrapping up presents. "See you later."

"OK."

William was still smiling at the recollection of their conversation as he drove along the M4 to Heathrow, hoping that there wouldn't be too many delays with flights.

Elizabeth arrived home on Thursday having finished work at lunchtime and then gone to collect her dress. There had been one or two last minute bits of fussing as the dressmaker made tiny adjustments, so by the time Elizabeth got home, she knew Sam would be in from school. However the house was eerily quiet. She took her dress upstairs, hung it up in her room, then found Sam in his bedroom. He was sitting on his bed, surrounded by boxes, looking at a book laid open across his knees.

"Everything OK, Sam?"

"I found this."

She sat down next to him, and looked at the book he held.

"It's the book you made me when we came to live here."

"I didn't know you still looked at it," she said as he turned over a couple of pages containing photographs taken at his nursery, and various little scraps stuck in as reminders of day trips and nursery parties.

"I don't," Sam said. "I haven't looked at it for ages." He turned the page to a photograph of a group of laughing students and pointed to one of them. "That one's John, isn't it?"

"Yes," Elizabeth answered slowly, wondering what was going on in Sam's mind.

"I don't look much like him."

"No, you don't. But he had light hair, and yours is much lighter than mine, so I think you get your hair colour from him."

"You said we'd never move house," Sam said, taking Elizabeth by surprise with the abrupt change of subject.

"Don't you want to?" she asked, startled.

"I don't know. Yes, I do, but ..."

"I know what you mean, Sam," she said gently. "This house has been a good house. We've been happy here, haven't we? But I think we can be happy in another house."

"Do you know where he is?" Sam asked, as Elizabeth began to work out what was on his mind, and why his thoughts were hopping all over the place. She knew that now was the time to tell him everything he wanted to know.

"No, I don't," she replied. "The last address I had for him was in New Zealand, and that was when you were one."

Sam didn't say anything, but just stared at the photograph for a little while longer, then spoke again.

"He knows about me, doesn't he?"

"Yes he does. I wrote to him and I sent him your photograph. That one." She leaned over and turned the pages of Sam's book back, pointing out a photograph of him that had been taken by a nursery photographer when Sam was one.

"Did he write back?"

"No."

"But if you sent him that picture, that's from before we lived in this house," Sam said thoughtfully. "He doesn't know we live here, does he?"

"No, he doesn't," Elizabeth replied as the possible reasons for Sam's questioning finally dawned on her. "Moving to Richmond won't make any difference."

She put her arm round his rigid shoulders, and cuddled him as best she could.

"Sam, he's not going to come and find us. Is that what you're thinking about?"

Sam didn't answer but just played with the book. He didn't fold in towards her as he used to do when she cuddled him.

"If he had wanted to find us, he could have done it. Granny and Granddad haven't moved since I knew John," she said, hoping that he wasn't being hurt by what she was telling him. "But he isn't going to. Not now, not after all this time. If you want to try and find him, that's a different matter. When you're 18, you're perfectly entitled to do it."

He leaned back against the wall, escaping from her embrace, and closed the book firmly.

"I don't want to," Sam said defiantly. "He didn't want us so I don't want him."

Elizabeth knew that if she tried to speak, her voice would be squeaky and it would be obvious that she was fighting back tears, not of sadness at John's absence but of hurt on Sam's behalf and fierce pride in her son.

"Cos you love me enough for two," Sam continued. "And I love you, and so does William, and you're the best Mum in the world."

That was more than she could handle.

"Oh Sam," she mumbled as two fat tears rolled down her cheeks. "I love you too."

He passed her a slightly grubby hanky and smiled a rather wobbly smile, then when he thought she couldn't see him, wiped the tears from his own eyes.

The sight of tiny Sylvie furiously struggling to get out of her father's arms as they came into the arrivals lounge made William laugh. Finally Stéphane conceded defeat and put her down, at which point she shot over to William at a surprising speed.

"Goodness!" he said, picking her up and swinging her in the air. "What a big girl you are now!"

He shook hands with Stéphane, and kissed Georgie on the cheek.

"Good flight?"

"Yes, thanks," Georgie replied. "Although Madam here would not go to sleep and insisted on standing up for the whole time."

"Oh dear," William said, and tickled Sylvie. "Have you been wearing your poor mummy out?" He got a gummy smile in response as she gurgled at him. "Come on, car's just outside."

They loaded luggage into the car and drove quickly back to Chelsea, where they found Alice and Mrs Reynolds busy in the kitchen.

"So, what's the plan?" Georgie asked once another round of greetings had been completed.

"We'll eat in tonight, if that's OK with you," William said. "Tomorrow we're invited out to Richard's if you want to go."

"Yes, that would be nice," Georgie said. "Where's Elizabeth?"

"At home. Her sister's due back tonight, so they're having a bit of a family gathering."

"What about tomorrow?"

"Ah, well, I'm told it's bad luck for us to see each other the night before the wedding, so in fact I won't see her now until Saturday."

"But he'll be on the phone all night, going 'sweet dreams' and making kissy noises," Alice said, making Georgie burst out laughing, as William's embarrassed expression made it clear that Alice wasn't far from the truth.

"So, how was the concert?" William asked, turning to Stéphane. "We'll make sure we're at the next one."

"It was very good," Stéphane replied, letting William off the hook as he launched into a description of the evening, entertaining his little audience with imitations of his fellow musicians.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, was sitting quietly by the phone and was beginning to feel worried. She was expecting to have had a call from Heathrow by now, but Mary had not rung yet, and Elizabeth didn't want to pick up the phone in case Mary then tried to ring. Finally she could wait no longer, and rang Jane.

"Has Mary rung you?" she asked, hardly giving Jane time to answer.

"No, but I just phoned the airline," Jane answered. "There was a delay so they missed a connection. They're not going to be here until tomorrow."

"Oh no!" Elizabeth groaned. "Poor Mary! At least she's got company."

Jane was the only other person who knew that Mary was not alone. Both she and Elizabeth had received an e-mail from Mary earlier in the week confirming to their delight that she would be bringing someone home with her. It hadn't seemed at all strange to them that Mary had been so secretive, having a fear of jinxing her budding relationship by letting it be known about too early. They knew only too well the potential damage that could be inflicted on Mary's feelings by their heartless younger sisters, not to mention their mother.

"I can't wait to meet him," Jane said. "I do so hope she's found someone lovely."

"He sounds very nice," Elizabeth said. "I just hope he knows what he's letting himself in for."

"I'm sure Mary will have warned him," Jane laughed. "Anyway, how are you? You will still come for dinner tonight, won't you?"

"Yes, we'll come over now. Poor Mary, you'll have to save her a doggie bag so she knows what she missed!"

Laughing, she rang off and called for Sam to come downstairs. He was very disappointed when he was told that Mary's flight had been delayed, but cheered up when Elizabeth said they would still go to Jane's for dinner.

Jane was buoyant when they arrived, having had a check up at the hospital earlier in the day where it was confirmed that her pregnancy was progressing very well. She had a contented glow about her, as did Charles.

"So, all ready for the big day?" Charles asked.

"Pretty much," Elizabeth said. "Don't feed me too much tonight though, otherwise I won't get into my dress."

"I'm sure you'll look gorgeous," Jane said. "Whereas I will look like a blob!"

She smoothed her hands over her bump, not at all unhappy with her changing shape. Charles stroked her tummy, making it clear for all to see that he was quite delighted with this version of Jane. Elizabeth smiled to see them both so happy.

"What do you need me to do tomorrow then?" Jane asked.

"Nothing, really," Elizabeth replied. "It's all under control, fingers crossed. I'm not going to work, Sam finishes school at 2 and is then going to the pictures. Shall we have a quiet tea when Mary gets here?"

"Me too!" Sam said. "I want to have tea with Mary too."

"Don't worry, you're not being left out," Elizabeth said as he protested.

"You don't want to be fussing at your house though, do you?" Jane said. "Come round here again, once Charlie's got back from Heathrow."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, of course. We'll just have a quiet night in."

"A quiet night? With Mary?" Elizabeth laughed. "But that would be lovely, thanks."

Once that was agreed, they settled down to their meal, the four of them having a quieter evening than the lively one taking place in Chelsea, but just as contented.

Late on Friday night, William stared out of his window, nursing a glass of whisky. Everyone else was in bed, and the house was quiet, but he knew he would not be able to sleep for a while yet. He remembered other nights when he had stood here, alone and contemplative, nights when he had wondered whether he would ever find anyone to love ever again, nights when he'd known he had found the one and others when he had thought he had lost her. He sipped his drink as the street lamps twinkled in the frosty night, and smiled indulgently as a small black cat padded across the grassy square in front of his house. A sigh of contentment escaped from his lips. He glanced at his watch and decided that it was not too late. He picked up the phone.

Elizabeth had been thumbing idly through a magazine when the phone rang. She glanced at the clock and knew who it would be.

"I'm not breaking any rules, am I?" William asked when she answered.

"I hope not," she replied. "I think we're just not allowed to see each other. Speaking is OK."

"Good. So, did you have a nice day? Did Mary finally arrive?"

"Yes, she did, along with her new man, who is very nice. Mind you, if we hear snoring at any point tomorrow, we know where it will be coming from!"

"Are they badly jet-lagged?" William asked, concerned.

"They're both shattered, they had a hideous journey," Elizabeth said. "They almost fell asleep at the dinner table."

"Your mother will keep them on their toes tomorrow, I'm sure."

"Ooh, I can't wait to see the look on Mum and Kitty's faces," Elizabeth said with relish. "It will be so funny. Anyway, did you have a nice evening?"

"Yes, thanks, noisy though," William replied. "Richard and Ellen send their love, Ellen says she's all geared up for having the children to stay."

"Good."

"And I had to congratulate her on not spilling any beans despite your best efforts."

"Oops," Elizabeth said guiltily, having tried to prise information out of Ellen about William's honeymoon intentions.

"So, are you all ready for tomorrow?" William asked, smiling as he did so.

"Yes, are you?" Elizabeth answered, smiling too.

"Yes. I love you, you know."

"I love you too."

"See you tomorrow, then."

"See you tomorrow," she replied. "Sweet dreams."

"And you."

Elizabeth put the chain on the door, switched off the lights, and went upstairs. She peeked in on Sam, unable to resist although she knew she no longer had to check on him. He was flat on his back with the covers half kicked off, fast asleep. His new suit was hanging up on his wardrobe door; a smart silk tie ready tied for him by Charles so that he could slip it on easily the next morning lay next to the matching silk handkerchief for his jacket pocket. She smiled softly and went to her own room. Undressing quickly, she slipped between the sheets and turned out the light. A shaft of light from a street lamp cut through a gap in the curtains, giving just enough of a glow for her to fall asleep gazing upon the outline of the dress she would wear the next morning.

Chapter 37

Richard fastened a protesting Emily into her car seat while Georgie did the same with Sylvie. As Ellen persuaded Sophie and Daniel to fasten their seat belts, a taxi cruised past looking for a place to pull in, as Lambton Gardens seemed to be full of vans with the names of florists, caterers and party suppliers painted on the side. Richard waved and shouted at the taxi, then ran up the steps to the house.

"Ally, Stéphane, are you ready?" he called. "Tom, Michael, come here now please."

Tom and Michael emerged from the kitchen, where they had been plied with cake by Mrs Reynolds to keep them out of mischief in the busy household.

"Taxi's here," Richard said as Alice appeared. "Are you sure you'll be OK taking the boys? Where's your Dad, Ally?"

"Upstairs getting ready," Alice said.

"I'll tell him you've gone and that you'll be back for him shortly," Mrs Reynolds said, dusting her hands on the apron she wore to protect her best dress from crumbs and the sticky hands of small boys.

"OK, Mrs R." Richard said. "See you there then."

"Off you go," she said, shooing them out of the house, which was a hive of activity. Richard and his people-carrier were an asset in terms of ferrying people to and from the Register Office, but it was time the caterers and florists had a chance to do their jobs without being hindered by small children everywhere. She watched as Richard followed the taxi out of Lambton Gardens and onto the main road, then went upstairs.

"Everything under control, Mrs R?" William asked, emerging from his room.

"I think so," she replied, looking him up and down, and nodding in approval. "My word, you do look handsome."

"Thank you." William smiled, a little shy at the compliment.

"Mr. Richard will be back to pick you up shortly. I'd sit in your study, if I were you, it's rather busy downstairs." she said. "There's a pot of coffee ready for you. I'll just have one final check with the staff before Mr R. and I set off."

"Thanks," William said, his smile only slightly strained by the way his nerves were beginning to make him feel. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

"And there you are trying to make me retire," she teased.

"Fair point," William laughed. "But you're off duty this afternoon, remember? I want you and Mr. R. to enjoy the reception, not be worrying about things. That's why we've got John Lucas and his staff, to do all the hard work."

Mrs Reynolds nodded as she went back downstairs, but they both knew that she wouldn't be able to resist keeping an eye on how things were running. William went to his study and poured a cup of coffee. He picked up two little blue boxes and opened them, knowing that the rings were inside but still wanting one last check. He smiled as he looked at them, and wondered whether Elizabeth had set off yet.

~ * ~

"Get the door, please, Sam," Elizabeth shouted, hearing a knock.

Sam scampered downstairs and peered round the door to find Charles and Jane on the step. He opened it fully to let them in.

"Morning!" Charles said cheerily. "Everything under control here?"

"Sam, you're not dressed yet!" Jane said in alarm, seeing him clad in a T shirt, boxer shorts and socks.

"Yeah, but I've had a shower!" Sam said. "And every time I start getting dressed, the phone rings or there's someone at the door."

Charles laughed as they followed Sam into the house. "Right, you go and get ready, we'll do doors and phones."

"I'll see how Lizzie is getting on," Jane said, as Sam ran back up to his room and Charles went into the kitchen to inspect the box of flowers that had been delivered earlier that morning. He pinned a carnation to his lapel and switched the kettle on in case anyone needed an input of caffeine.

Jane went upstairs to find Elizabeth in her room, pinning up her hair.

"Anything I can do to help?"

"Hi!" Elizabeth said, turning to see Jane looking radiantly pregnant in a very nicely cut dark blue dress and jacket. "You look great! That outfit really suits you."

"Thanks. Shall I do your hair?"

"Oh, yes please," Elizabeth said, sounding more than a little tense. "I just can't get the twiddly bits to stay in place, I'll look like a haystack when I get to the Register Office."

"No you won't," Jane replied evenly. "You will look fabulous. I'm here to make sure of it. Charlie's downstairs manning the phones and the door and Sam is in his room getting dressed, so everything is under control. Now, sit still."

"Yes, big sis," Elizabeth replied, as they laughed together and got on with the task at hand.

~ * ~

Mrs Bennet and Kitty walked into the foyer of the Register Office and looked round to see who they knew. Mrs Bennet tutted loudly as two small boys shot past, playing tag. She concluded that as they recognised almost no-one, most of these awful children must belong to William's side of the family.

"I've always thought there's a good reason for not having children at weddings," she said to Kitty, but did not receive a reply. Kitty wasn't listening because she was staring open-mouthed at a tall, good looking, tanned man who was standing alone at one side of the room. She nudged her mother.

"Who is that?" she gasped. "He must be one of William's relatives. I wonder if he's single?"

Mrs Bennet turned to look. The man was certainly handsome, she thought. His light brown hair was cut short, and as he turned, the light caught little streaks of gold where the sun had bleached it. He was slim, and looked very smart in a charcoal grey suit.

"You must find out, dear," Mrs Bennet said. "If he's from that side, he's bound to be well off."

As they spoke, the object of their admiration saw someone he knew and smiled broadly, confirming in Kitty's mind that he was indeed rather gorgeous. She pasted on her best smile and walked over towards him, but stopped in her tracks as she saw who had been the recipient of his smile. She could not believe what she was seeing as Mary walked up to him, smiling and holding up the flowers she had collected. From the way he rested his hands on Mary's waist as she fastened the carnation into his buttonhole, it was clear that they were more than just good friends.

"Hi Kitty," Mary said, turning to see her younger sister looking dumbstruck. "How are you? Oh, this is Nick."

"Hi, it's great to meet you," Nick said, holding out his hand.

"You're Australian," Kitty managed to say, taking his hand and shaking it rather feebly.

"Yes, that's right," he said, smiling.

"Are Mum and Dad here?" Mary asked, wondering if Kitty was going to spend the entire day doing an impression of a goldfish. Kitty pointed to where their mother was standing, waiting for Mr Bennet to return from parking the car. Mary led the three of them over, noticing how her mother began to preen at the approach of a handsome man she didn't yet know.

"Hi, Mum," Mary said.

"So, you're back, Mary," Mrs Bennet said abruptly, then beamed at Nick. "Well, we haven't been introduced but I see you've met my daughters, Kitty my youngest unmarried daughter, and Mary."

"Hello," Nick said politely, just managing to get a word in.

"Are you a relative of the groom?" she continued. "What a fine man, and a lovely family too. Kitty will look after you, I'm sure. Mary here is a wanderer, can't settle down, can you dear? She doesn't know anyone."

"Actually...." Mary said, but was thwarted by her mother's ability to talk in whole paragraphs seemingly without the need to draw breath.

"Is Elizabeth here yet? I suppose not. But then I can't see William either and it won't do to have the bride arrive before the groom. Gosh, aren't weddings lovely?" she simpered, giving Nick and then Kitty a sickly smile. "Makes you wonder who will be next."

"Yes, we'll have to see who catches Elizabeth's bouquet, won't we?" Nick said, taking Mary's hand in his and lifting it to his lips for a tender kiss. Mary had to stop herself laughing at the way her mother's face fell instantly.

"You've got a boyfriend?" she gasped, staring at Mary as she saw her husband approaching. "Mary's got a boyfriend!" she shrieked, in one of those moments where a hush falls on a gathering just in time for the loudest voice to ring out clearly. Everyone turned to stare as Mr Bennet smiled broadly at Mary.

"Well, well, how lovely to see you, Mary my dear," he said, kissing her on the cheek before turning to Nick. "And you are the lucky man, I take it?"

"Dad, this is Nick," Mary said, enjoying the way her mother was so obviously discomfited by the situation.

"Pleased to meet you," Mr Bennet said, shaking hands with Nick.

"Why doesn't someone control these awful children?" Mrs Bennet hissed angrily, completely put out by the way her instantaneous plans for Kitty had been foiled by Mary, as three small children now shot past.

"Daniel, come here!" Alice wailed, following the three little ones, then skidding to a halt as she recognised the Bennets. "Hi!" she said brightly to Mary, then clammed up as she saw Mrs Bennet glaring at her.

"Hey, Ally, how are you?" Mary said cheerfully, giving her a little hug.

"Fine, except I'm supposed to look after the little ones and they're driving me nuts."

"We'll help," Mary said, glad of a reason to escape. "Come on Nick. See you later, Dad."

Kitty could only stare in dismay as Mary and Nick went off hand in hand, laughing as they gathered small children and chatted happily with Alice.

~ * ~

"Ready to go?"

William turned from the window at the sound of Richard's voice to see him in the doorway, looking at him with an air of expectation.

"Yes."

He walked over to the desk and picked up the two little boxes he'd been examining earlier.

"So, here's the rings," William said, handing them to Richard. "Everyone there?"

"Not quite everyone," Richard replied. "When I dropped Ellen and Georgie with the kids, it looked more like a primary school outing than a wedding."

"OK let's go."

"You're not nervous, are you?"

"Not in the slightest," William said, then laughed. "Petrified, actually."

"Don't know why," Richard said. "This is the best thing you did in your whole life."

"Just don't lose the rings, OK?"

"Don't worry, mate. Everything's going to be fine."

When they walked into the foyer of the Register Office, William understood exactly what Richard had meant. Although there were plenty of adults waiting, the impact of five young Fitzwilliams and Sylvie was enough to raise the noise level considerably. He made his way over to where Ellen, Georgie and Alice were standing, to find them chatting to Mary. He was introduced to Nick, and was quite happy to let the conversation swirl around him, taking his mind off his nerves whilst not requiring too much participation. Mr Bennet noticed that the Gardiners had arrived, accompanied not only by Joe and Kate but by their younger two children, Chris and Helen, both home from University for the holidays, so went to talk to them. Charlotte arrived and scanned the room quickly, taking in the two happy groups and Mrs Bennet and Kitty standing slightly to one side and muttering to each other with slightly sour expressions on their faces. She only just had time to wave a greeting to William when the foyer fell silent and everyone turned to see the final arrivals.

Elizabeth walked up the steps to the Register Office feeling the butterflies begin to cause trouble in her stomach.

"You look fantastic," Charles said, as they approached the door. "Come on, Sam, are you going to escort your Mum?"

"OK," Sam said, and held out his arm, smiling broadly. "This is how I do it, isn't it?"

"Not sure how conventional it is for teenage boys to escort their mother to her wedding," Elizabeth said doubtfully.

"Who cares about convention?" Charles said cheerily. "Do what makes you feel happy."

"You're right," Elizabeth laughed, and rested her hand on Sam's arm, glad to feel supported by him, as well as by Charles and Jane. Charles opened the door for them and gave her a reassuring smile. She needed it as she felt the whole room turn to look at them as they walked in. She searched the gathering for William, and smiled lovingly as she saw him turn towards her.

For a moment William felt as if he was frozen, unable to breath as the vision of Elizabeth came towards him.

"Wow," he managed to say as she got nearer. "You look absolutely wonderful!"

The off-the-shoulder fitted ivory silk bodice that she was wearing, combined with her hair having been pinned up, showed off her slender neck and shoulders. The embroidery seeded with tiny pearls on the front of the bodice was echoed in the embroidered border of the long slim line skirt she wore, and he thought he had never seen her looking more elegant

"So do you," she said, admiring his dark grey suit with its dark maroon silk waistcoat and matching cravat. The cream carnation in his buttonhole had slightly more fronds of greenery behind it than those of the guests, and her bouquet had been designed to match.

They were prevented from speaking any more when the Registrar's assistant came into the foyer.

"The Darcy/Bennet party? Mr Darcy and Dr Bennet, please?"

William signalled to her and she came over.

"Mr Darcy? Good morning. If you and Dr Bennet would like to come through and complete some formalities, then your guests will join you."

"OK," William said, and offered his arm to Elizabeth. "Shall we go?"

"What's happening now?" Mrs Bennet hissed as she caught up with Mary.

"They go in and fill in forms then we all go in and listen to the vows and stuff," Mary said.

"Shouldn't your father be in there, giving her away?"

"Doesn't work like that, Mum," Mary said, guessing that her mother felt more than a little peeved to have been done out of a prime role as 'mother of the bride' despite being so snide about Elizabeth's wedding.

Shortly, the door to the ceremonial room opened, and the guests took their places. William and Elizabeth sat side by side in the front row, and Richard and Jane took their places either side of them, as they would act as witnesses. Charles helped Alice and Tom settle Michael, Daniel and Sophie, while Ellen sat with Emily on her knee and Georgie had Sylvie on hers. Mary sat between Sam and Nick, having embarrassed Sam by telling him how good-looking he was in his smart suit and tie. Eventually everyone was settled and quiet, and the Registrar began. William and Elizabeth stood to say their vows, Richard caused a moment of nervous laughter by patting the wrong pocket and looking up in alarm before locating the rings, and Mrs Reynolds was observed dabbing away an emotional tear from her eye as William and Elizabeth slid the rings onto each others' fingers. The new husband and wife kissed, and turned back to the Registrar.

"If you would like to come round to this side of the table to sign the Register, then afterwards you can have your photographs taken."

They did as they were bid, accompanied by Jane and Richard. But just before the photographs began, there was a pause as Emily and Sylvie, hand in hand and encouraged by their mothers, toddled nervously to the front of the room.

"Go on," Ellen whispered.

Elizabeth and William looked down as the tiny girls approached them, clutching a horseshoe decorated with ribbons.

"Gugga luck!" Emily announced loudly.

"Goo 'uck," said Sylvie.

"Oh, thank you!" Elizabeth cried with tears in her eyes as William bent to kiss his two nieces. She looked up to see Ellen and Georgie smiling happily, glad that their surprise had worked.

"Hang on," Joe Gardiner called. "Let me take a photo!"

And Joe's flash going off was the herald for a whole battery of guests to begin to take pictures, leaving Elizabeth and William feeling slightly dazzled.

They left the room to find the next wedding party gathering for their ceremony, and amongst a blizzard of shouts of "you can come in my car!" and "I'll take a couple of you kids!" climbed into Richard's people carrier for the short journey home.

Chapter 38

Elizabeth knew how the house should look for the reception, as she had done the planning along with William. However, when she arrived to find the plans put into place, she was thrilled with just how lovely everything looked. On each step up to the front door stood a cream standard rose with cream ribbons wound round the stem. A wreath of laurel and holly hung on the door, which swung open to reveal the hallway filled with arrangements of lilies and more roses. John Lucas greeted them bearing a silver tray holding two glasses of champagne.

"Congratulations!" he said heartily. "Everything go to plan?"

"It went wonderfully, thank you, John," Elizabeth said. "I saw Charlotte but I haven't had time to talk to her."

"I'll just nip back to pick up the rest of the crew," Richard said, leaving them at the door. "You enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet before the madness begins!"

Richard shut the door and John departed, discretely murmuring about checking on progress in the kitchen. William turned to Elizabeth and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her towards him gently. He kissed her softly, a lingering and tender kiss.

"That's better," he murmured. "Can't kiss properly in a Register Office."

"No," she whispered, kissing him back.

"Happy?" William asked.

"Mm hmm," Elizabeth replied, laughing.

William picked up two glasses of champagne from the tray John had left behind, and handed one to Elizabeth. "To us."

"To us," she agreed, and sipped.

"Want to see how everything has worked out?" William asked, taking her by her free hand and leading her into the dining room, which had been set out as the main reception room. A long table ran down the middle of the room, which itself was the length of the house, and another table was set at right angles to it. Small arrangements of green winter foliage and white flowers ran down the centre of the tables, between the place settings of gleaming silver cutlery and sparking glasses. At the kitchen end of the room, a serving table had been set up, and dishes for the buffet were being put in place by John's staff. They had agreed that in order to accommodate the tastes of a party that ranged in age from under two years to over sixty, some of them more than a little picky, a buffet would be better than a set meal. As the first course would be set out in advance, Elizabeth had worked out a seating plan and warned John where the vegetarians would be sitting.

"This looks perfect," Elizabeth said, following William into the large lounge at the back of the house, which seemed much bigger now the chairs had all been pushed back along the walls. More Christmassy foliage decorated this room, and a Christmas tree stood in one corner.

"It's all worked really well, hasn't it?" William said. "All your brilliant planning come to fruition."

"And Mrs R, couldn't have done it without her," Elizabeth said, as they heard the front door opening and the first arrivals being greeted by the staff John had employed to take coats and give assistance.

"Ready?" William asked.

"Ready," she said, and walked arm in arm with him to greet their guests.

In no time the house seemed to fill with people, who having kissed and congratulated the happy couple, were directed to the lounge and offered champagne, which contributed to the rising volume. Sam and Alice arrived with Nick and Mary who had all squashed into Kate Gardiner's new car; Richard returned with all the Fitzwilliam crew, Georgie, Stéphane and Sylvie having accepted the offer of a lift from Charlotte. Mrs Bennet was speechless for once at the sight of William's house, and could only pluck at her husband's sleeve while gazing round in admiration. Eventually everyone had arrived, and William and Elizabeth could leave their receiving line in the hall, and mingle with their guests in the lounge. Elizabeth searched out Charlotte, feeling a little guilty as she realised that she hadn't rung her back after their conversation the previous week.

"Congratulations! You look amazing, Elizabeth," Charlotte said as they kissed on the cheek.

"Thanks. So, how are you?"

"I've got some news, actually," she said. "I've got a job down here. Remember that seminar I went to, when we met at the Barbican?"

Elizabeth nodded.

"Well, I had a phone call from one of the people I met, wanting to know if I wanted a post as Literary Manager come education person come all round theatrical dogsbody, and its not great money but it's a good opportunity, so I said yes."

"Brilliant!" Elizabeth said, hugging her. "Well done! When do you move? What does Billie think?"

"Ah," Charlotte said, and paused. "Billie isn't really that interested in what I do now. We split up."

"Oh, Charlotte, I'm so sorry," Elizabeth said.

"Don't be," she replied. "I'm not. I'll be staying with John for a while then looking for a place of my own. Anyway, enough of me, this is your day. You look great, and look at Sam. How grown up he is."

Elizabeth turned to see Sam chatting with his great-uncle Edward, and realised that he was almost as tall as the older man.

"He's shot up like a weed recently," Elizabeth said. "I can't feed him enough to keep up. Come on, I'll introduce you to a few people."

As Elizabeth led Charlotte through the crowded room, introducing her to her cousin Helen who was a drama student, and reintroducing her to Joe and Kate who had been at the birthday dinner, William waved her over. Elizabeth left Charlotte with her cousins and made her way towards William, who was with a small, dark haired, slender woman.

"Elizabeth, this is my cousin Ann," William said. "The only one of the Pemberley Group you haven't met yet."

"Pleased to meet you at last," Ann said, shaking hands with Elizabeth. "And congratulations. I hope you're both very happy."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said.

Of course, I had designs on him myself, you know," Ann said, with a twinkle in her eye.

"Really?" Elizabeth asked, somewhat astonished at a comment of that nature at her wedding.

"Oh yes," Ann laughed. "When I was 6, I thought he was the most handsomest boy in the world!"

"And she used to follow me round every summer holiday asking me to marry her, until I threatened to throw her in the pond," William said.

"Which made my mother, who was a fearful tyrant, chase him through the house with an old walking stick!"

"My goodness, your mother used to terrify me!" William said.

"Me too," Ann agreed as Richard joined them.

"Are we talking about Aunt Catherine?" Richard said. "Wow, she was a fearsome woman. She's probably looking down from heaven shaking her fist at us all for laughing too much at this moment."

"She probably is," Ann agreed. "But still." She held her glass up. "To loved ones who aren't with us."

The three cousins and Elizabeth clinked glasses and quietly agreed with Ann's toast.

"Anyway," Richard said, having taken a sip of his champagne. "I just came over to tell you that John says would we like to go through."

"Right," William said. "Give Michael and Daniel the little gong from the hall, I said I'd let them bang it."

"Great," Richard muttered as he went in search of his two naughtiest children.

After vigorous banging of the gong by the boys, who gave up only when threatened by Richard with having their footballs confiscated, the guests made their way to the dining room. Everyone found their places and the meal began.

"So, you've seen my dress," Elizabeth said to William between courses. "When do I find out where we're going?"

"All in good time," William said, grinning.

"You are determined to torment me!" Elizabeth protested.

"I hope you're not falling out," Richard said. "You've only been married an hour!"

"I won't fall out with him if he tells me where we're going on honeymoon," Elizabeth said. "He's being so secretive!"

"Oh, don't worry, you'll enjoy it," Richard said, winking at William. "It's a really cool plan."

"It's true, boys never ever grow up, do they?" she complained good-naturedly. "They just get bigger."

Eventually, after a short speech from Richard as the best man, and an even shorter response from William, concluding with his thanks to everyone for coming and his conviction that they would much rather chatter and drink than listen to him, the formalities were over. Mr Bennet at last had some time with his daughter as the party broke up.

"You look simply wonderful, my dear," he said, giving her a little hug. "Have you enjoyed your day?"

"Yes, I have," she said. "Did you? Is Sam OK?"

"He's fine, he and Mary had a good chat, I think he's hanging out with Edward's kids now."

"How's Mum?"

"Well, you know," he answered, shrugging wearily. "I made the mistake of saying it was a good job Lydia decided not to come today, so she had plenty to complain about in the car on the way here. Still, I wouldn't know who I was living with if she suddenly stopped grumbling. Her complaints have kept me company this many years. Anyway, enough about me. I must go and congratulate William."

Elizabeth watched him go, and began to circulate amongst her guests, determined to talk to everyone before they left. Eventually the conversations became goodbyes and promises to be in touch soon until only Bennets, Darcys and Fitzwilliams were left.

"Well, we must go," Mrs Bennet announced. "Come along Kitty. Thank you for a lovely day, William, and we'll see you soon, won't we?"

Elizabeth couldn't decide which was worse, the usual hostilities or this simpering forced niceness. She did her utmost to banish mean thoughts as she kissed her parents goodbye, and watched Kitty follow them out like a sullen adolescent.

"We should go too," Charles said as Jane nodded and yawned.

"I feel as though I've hardly spoken to you," Elizabeth said, hugging Jane.

"Always the way when you're the centre of attraction," Jane said. "But we'll see you all on Boxing Day, won't we?"

"Of course," William said, shaking hands with Charles. "We'll look forward to it."

"Bye," Mary said, grabbing Sam for a playful hug before he could escape.

"Nick, make her let go of me!" he protested, squirming. Nick tickled Mary making her squeal and let go of Sam. "Haha, see," Sam laughed. "Nick's on my side!"

"Well, maybe some of the time," Nick said smiling as he put his arms round Mary and kissed her hair.

"Come on, you two, we'll never get home at this rate" Charles said, ushering them out of the door, before returning with the bag that Elizabeth had packed for her honeymoon. "Mustn't forget this!"

"Thanks, Charles," she said, embracing him. "For everything."

"You're welcome. Enjoy your holiday, and we'll see you soon."

Elizabeth and William waved them off from the top off the steps, pausing to admire the fairy lights threaded around the railings and the roses which were now twinkling in the dusk.

"I think I've forgotten to tell you something today," William said, standing behind Elizabeth with his arms round her.

"Yes, I think you have," she said, thinking that at last she would find out whether she had packed the correct clothing.

"I love you."

"I love you too," she replied, waiting for the rest, but he turned and went inside, laughing.

"OK, I give in," he said when they were back indoors, unable to resist surprising her any longer. He turned and produced an envelope from his inside jacket pocket, which she opened. She stared uncomprehendingly at the flight tickets in her hand.

"Where on earth is Kiruna?"

"Look at the previous ticket," William said. "That's where we transfer."

"OK, I know where Stockholm is," she said. "And you're right, I'd need my winter woollies there."

She continued looking through the envelope and found one last piece of paper.

"Wow, so that's Kiruna!" she said, staring wide eyed at a photograph of the ice hotel sparkling in the short hours of sunshine, and another of it set against the background of the Northern Lights. "Is this where we're going?"

"Mm hmm," William said, handing her another picture. "And that's where we're staying for two nights. We fly out of Heathrow just after half past ten tomorrow morning. I didn't think you'd fancy the 6:45 am flight."

"Our own log cabin, with our own sauna and an outdoor Jacuzzi?" Elizabeth gasped excitedly. "Wow, this looks gorgeous! Where are we staying tonight though?"

"Here," William said. "John's team have cleared up, John's left us something to eat, Richard's taking his lot and Stéphane has hired a car and will follow him down to Richmond with our two, Georgie and Sylvie."

"You've thought of everything, haven't you?"

"I hope so," William said, as they returned to the lounge to find a room full of sleepy children and yawning adults.

"I think I had better take my crew home," Richard said. "Are we ready, everyone?"

Eventually, after arguments about who was sitting where and searches for lost toys and mislaid coats, all the small children were loaded into cars, and all seatbelts were fastened despite protests. Sam hovered at the bottom of the steps into William's house, watching the chaos resolve itself. Elizabeth saw him standing by himself, went over to him and hugged him tightly.

"You OK?" she asked quietly.

"Yeah," he murmurmed, hanging on to her for just a moment longer than he usually did. "You look very pretty today, Mum."

"And you look very smart," Elizabeth said. She held him at arm's length for a moment, then smiled softly. "I'm so proud of you, Sam."

He shuffled his feet and grinned, a little embarrassed, until she pulled him close once more and kissed him.

"See you soon, Sam," she said.

"Have fun," he said, hugging her in return, then taking his place in Stéphane's car. "Don't worry, I'll be good."

"I'm sure you will."

William kissed Alice goodbye and stood back to wave off the little convoy as it wended its way out of Lambton Gardens and towards Richmond. William and Elizabeth were alone together for the first time in days. They went indoors, revelling in the quiet, and into the miraculously tidy dining room, where a stack of presents took up one corner.

"Coffee and pressies?" William asked.

"I'll take them into the lounge while you brew," Elizabeth said.

They spent an hour opening presents, talking and unwinding from the day, not realising until they began to relax just how tense they had been. The little glances and touches of hands as they passed cards and presents from one to the other seemed to contain all the love and happiness that they felt for each other. It had been a good day, but they were glad to be alone together at last. Eventually they felt a little hungry, and went to the kitchen, where they found that John had left them a half bottle of champagne, some smoked salmon with a small green salad, and pannacotta with raspberry coulis.

"That looks delicious," Elizabeth said, as William set it out on the table and they sat down to eat.

"I think everyone had a good day today, didn't they?" he asked.

"I think so," she replied. "Everything looked wonderful, and John did a fabulous job."

"The children looked happy."

"Yes, they did," Elizabeth agreed, remembering Sam laughing at something Nick had said and feeling relieved that he seemed to accept Mary's new man.

"So, Mary next, do you think?"

"Who knows?" Elizabeth said, then suddenly looked aghast. "I never threw my bouquet in the air!"

"Post it to her," William laughed. He poured out some more champagne and raised his glass for one last time that day, gazing at the woman he loved. "To you, for making me a very happy man."

"And you, for today and for everything," Elizabeth said, smiling softly at the man she loved.

He leaned over the table to kiss her, and any thoughts of tidying up were forgotten as they laughed and ran upstairs hand in hand to begin their married life.

THE END


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