I knew Chad Bingley was a lost cause when he told me he was going to Provo for Christmas. Provo. "What the heck is in Provo, Chad?" I was well aware every living Bingley relative was within 15 miles of where we stood at that moment.
At least he had the courtesy to blush as he said, "Jane Bennet's family."
"Jane Be...the new account manager?"
"She's been with us three months, Will." I had often seen Chad in deep like before. He stepped into infatuation more often than most men stepped into the shower. It was like he was born without any defense against a sweet smile or a tinkling laugh. Thank heavens he was likewise born with an insurmountable fear of commitment. Each sweet smile was an infatuation and nothing more.
So to hear that he was going to spend Christmas with her family set off alarms. I'm going to have to watch this Jane Bennet, I thought.
As it turns out, account managers and CEOs don't run into each other much in the course of a workday. As Sales VP and the liaison for all new clients, Chad was frequently thrown into company with all the account managers, including Jane. But I never saw her except when she was with him. Hard to make an impartial judgment based on that. I needed to find a different method.
When Chad invited me to Provo to have dinner with Jane and her sister, I jumped at it. "You bet," I said. "When?"
"Friday. We'll leave here at...5:00?" He seemed ready to adapt to my wishes.
"It's your date, Chad. I'll accommodate your schedule."
I rode in the back seat of Chad's Toyota 4Runner. I don't even remember the last time I was in a back seat; on the rare occasions I'm not driving I'm in the front passenger seat. But not when I'm a third wheel on Chad's date. I have to say, in an hour of travel, I couldn't find anything to dislike about Jane Bennet. She spoke softly, but intelligently. She made more effort to include me in the conversation than Chad did. And while she had a sweet smile and a tinkling laugh, not to mention a beautiful face and attractive body, I had to admit that she was substantial. Not just fluff. No wonder he's beyond infatuation this time, I thought.
We drove right past anything remotely metropolitan in Provo and straight through toward the mountains. We passed gas stations and convenience stores less frequently. Houses started to thin, and I could see open fields behind what houses there were. We pulled up in front of a very small house--a cottage at best. I couldn't imagine there would be room for more than one person inside--two if all furniture were removed. We knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Jane pulled out her keys and let us in.
We sat in the very small living room--there wasn't even room for a coffee table, only a loveseat and an overstuffed chair--and waited. Thankfully, we didn't wait long. The door flew open and a ball of energy barreled inside. Suddenly, the room seemed claustrophobic, like there wasn't enough space for all of her liveliness. She had brown hair piled, twisted, and clipped haphazardly to her head, and her face was smeared with dirt. She was wearing baggy sweatpants, a loose shirt, and a cavernous fleece jacket; she looked like she must weigh at least as much as I do, despite being a foot shorter. Jane smiled and said, "Hi, Lizzy!"
Chad walked over and pulled her into a bear hug, laughing. He whispered to her. In a room that size, I couldn't help but overhear: "Lizzy, did you remember I was bringing a friend?"
She slapped him on the backside and responded in a stage whisper of her own: "I guess I'm not making a good first impression, huh?" She walked the three paces to the chair where I sat and held out a grimy hand. Now that I was closer, I could see she had a film of perspiration on her face. "I'm Jane's sister, Elizabeth," she said. She had nice lips and white teeth. Her eyes were even sort of striking. (Okay, really striking.) But where I come from (which is an hour north of Provo) we call girls like Elizabeth sweet spirits. They're the kind of girls whose exteriors are so repellant, you hope what's inside can compensate; meaning that they might have a good personality--or fine eyes--but no other redeeming qualities. The sort of girl you go out with only if you're roped into a blind date.
"Will Darcy," I said, grasping her palm with my fingertips and shaking it like I'd shake dust off a rag. "A pleasure."
She flashed me a grin and said, "Clearly."
Jane, who seemed truly concerned, said, "Lizzy, we don't have very long tonight, since we have Mr. Darcy with us..."
"Please, Jane, call me Will."
She cleared her throat. "Will...iam..." She stumbled, apparently concerned about calling her boss by such a casual name. "...probably wants to get home at a decent hour."
Elizabeth curtseyed, pulling her sweatpants wide. "I'll hurry, milady. Do you guys want to show Will the greenhouse while I shower?"
"Sure!" Chad enthused.
It was a very nice greenhouse, as greenhouses go. It was about two miles from Elizabeth's cottage, and the sign outside said "Bennet's Greenhouse." Succinct. Boring. Inside were row upon row of flowers and greenery: springtime and summer in the first week of January. Each row introduced new floral scents to mix with the fragrance of moisture and soil and trimmings. Jane led us to a door, through another, smaller greenhouse filled entirely with seedlings and planting trays, and into an expansive greenhouse filled with vegetables. Tomatoes ripening on the vine, grow boxes filled with carrots and cabbages and spinach, whisky barrels filled--Jane informed me--with potatoes; all this with two feet of snow on the ground outside the transparent green windows. In addition to selling plants to the public, Elizabeth evidently had a very lucrative business providing fresh produce to local restaurants in the winter.
We arrived back at the cottage a little more than a half hour after we had departed and Chad tapped on the horn. Jane jumped out of the car, but before she got to the cottage the door opened and her sister emerged. At least I assume that's what happened--Jane was blocking my view. They stood talking in the cold for a few moments, then turned around to walk to the car.
I couldn't have been more surprised. In clothes that fit, Elizabeth was less than half the woman she had appeared to be. She was wearing khaki pants and a brown coat unbuttoned and revealing a thin v-neck sweater the color of emeralds. Her damp hair hung in waves well below her shoulders.
They opened the doors, Jane sitting in front and Elizabeth sliding in next to me. Now I could see her hair was halfway down her back and had auburn highlights. I could even smell the clean scent of her shampoo. She turned and smiled at me; without dirt on her face she was not bad looking. Until she smiled--then she was almost pretty. "Sorry for the delay, Will. My distributor was late for pick-up. I ran home as fast as I could after the truck was loaded."
"Jogged. Whatever," she shrugged. "It's just two miles. I only drive when the weather is really awful."
We went to an Italian restaurant. All four of us ordered the salad and pasta bar dinner, but Chad and I finished filling our salad plates first. "What do you think?" Chad asked excitedly, in a hushed whisper.
I spoke in my usual volume. "Jane is nice. Pretty, too, although she smiles too much. Is she a good account manager?"
"The best. Clients love working with her," he said in his hoarse whisper. "And...?"
As much as I wanted to feign ignorance, I couldn't. I abhor lying and games. "And Jane's sister is a sweet spirit." Chad's eyes went wide; then he looked determinedly at his salad plate and started eating, neglecting the etiquette that bid us to wait for the ladies to return.
"You know, Will, coming from you that just might be a compliment," Elizabeth said amiably, sitting down in the chair on my left. She looked up from her plate, flashed me a smile, and started talking to Chad. In fact, she conversed effortlessly with Chad and Jane all through the meal, but never said another word to me. Miraculously--somehow--she managed to snub me thoroughly without being offensive. She answered questions intended for me; she turned the conversation toward people I didn't know and places I'd never seen so I couldn't participate; she expounded at length concerning whether our waitress was a sweet spirit or a sweet dish, all while smiling innocently. Chad and Jane had to redouble their efforts not to laugh at me outright.
When we dropped Elizabeth back at her cottage, she said, "I'd invite you all in, but I wouldn't want to keep Will past his bedtime. I've already inconvenienced him enough." Never mind that it was only 7:30 pm. She opened her door so the interior lights came on, turned, and looked unblinkingly at me with her dark eyes. "Thanks for a great evening, Will Darcy. It isn't often a sweet spirit like me gets to have dinner with a buck like you." She winked saucily. "G'night, Chad. G'night, Jane," she said. And then she was gone. I had half a mind to see her to her door, but she was inside the cottage before I could even get out of the truck.
Chad and Jane made every effort to include me in their conversation as we returned to Salt Lake City, but I was too distracted to follow their train of subjects. By the time we returned to the freeway, I realized that Elizabeth was pretty when she wasn't smiling, and darn near beautiful when she was. After ten minutes I was silently laughing at some of her jokes and admiring her wit. Twenty minutes later yet, I realized I had been reviewing everything she'd said in depth, and I was impressed with her vocabulary and the way she strung words together. By the time I was back home and had brushed my teeth she was so vividly implanted in my mind I could even imagine her in a nightgown. Enough of that, Will, I said, banging my head on the wall--both to clear her out of it, and to knock some sense into it. I had behaved terribly, and I knew it.
I hoped that Chad would invite me again to Provo. I didn't detest the town so much now, knowing that she lived there. No place could be entirely bad if she liked it. But nearly two weeks passed, and Chad didn't even mention her name. On Thursday morning I waited, watching for him to pass my office door. When he finally did, I called, "Chad!" trying to sound more casual than desperate.
He walked backward until he was framed in the doorway. "Yeah?"
I cleared my throat. I had not prepared a satisfactory speech, so I was going to have to wing it. "How...uh...is the greenhouse?"
He smiled. It was almost imperceptible, but I could see the corners of his mouth quirk upward. "The greenhouse is fine," he said, making like he was going to walk away.
"Well." This time he waited outside my door, his eyebrows raised.
"Great. That's...uh...just great." I think I heard him gag back a chuckle. "When did you...uh...see her...last?"
"The day before yesterday. She came up and had lunch with Jane and me, and spent an hour here watching Jane do her job. She's fascinated by people who shower before work and spend all day in a cubicle or an office."
All I could think was She was here Tuesday. In this building. For an hour. "Are you going to Provo tomorrow night?"
Chad was smiling openly now. "Jane and I don't have specific plans yet."
"Because I'm not doing anything. I could come along and..."
"Was it that fun intruding on our date last time?"
"Well, if I came then Elizabeth wouldn't feel so awkward."
Chad laughed out loud. "Awkward? Hardly! She is one of my favorite people, and Jane is her sister. It's almost like the three of us belong together."
"She's one of your favorite people? Chad, you're not..."
With a knowing smile, he said, "No. I'm dating her sister. Seriously, I might add."
I released the breath I didn't even know I was holding, oblivious to the carrot he was dangling about his relationship with Jane. "So what do you think about tomorrow?"
"You are welcome to come with us wherever we go," he said, smiling. "But Lizzy already has a date, so she won't be joining us." Darn. Beautiful girl like her--of course she has a date. She probably has a boyfriend. Maybe even a fiancé. I focused on Chad, who was stifling laugher as he watched me. "However, Saturday she is coming here to spend the afternoon. We'll probably go to lunch and a movie, then hang the rest of the day at Jane's apartment." I held my breath again, waiting. "You can come if you want."
Saturday was only slightly more successful than the Friday two weeks previous. I managed not to insult Elizabeth again. And she said very few words to me--even though we were next to each other for nearly six hours straight--but she softened the rejection with the genuine smiles she gave me, and the comforting pats on the knee when I said something totally idiotic (which happened every half hour or so).
I didn't wait two weeks before mentioning her again. Monday morning I walked to Chad's desk and asked if he could get us all together again the next weekend. And thus began our weekly dance: for the next three weekends I tagged along with Chad and Jane, who, by some stroke of luck, convinced Elizabeth to join us as well. We made some little headway: Elizabeth would speak right to me, would allow conversations about which I could cogently converse, and mocked me occasionally rather than constantly. I could tell by the sparkle in her eyes when she was going to tease me, and I was flattered that she had learned enough about me to know how to jab me in the ribs. I was falling hard for Elizabeth Bennet.
Wednesday of the following week was Valentine's Day. Chad had been dating Jane for at least two and a half months, which had to be a record. In fact, I suspected it beat his old record by a month, if not two. Naturally they had plans together for Wednesday evening.
I'm not much of a sentimentalist--at least, up to that point I hadn't been. But I found that as the day approached, I wanted to spend it with Elizabeth. (None too surprising, since I had begun to want to spend part of every day with Elizabeth.) I needed to spend it with her. Chad looked up from his stack of invoices as I approached his desk Monday morning. "What are you and Jane doing on Valentine's Day?"
"No way, Will."
"It's Valentine's Day. I want to be alone with Jane. If you want to see Lizzy, you call her and ask her out yourself."
"I don't have her number," I said, hoping he'd do it my way.
He scribbled out a number on the blank corner of an invoice, ripped it off, and handed it to me. "Now you do."
I walked straight to Jane's cubicle. "Hi, Jane."
"Hi Will...er, Mr. Darcy." Like I said, we hardly see each other at work. Spending so much time together on weekends, she had finally gotten used to addressing me casually.
"What are you and Chad doing on Valentine's Day?"
"We're going to Sundance for dinner. Why?"
I cleared my throat. Chad was used to my pestering, but Jane wasn't. "Does Elizabeth have any plans?"
She smiled. It was almost imperceptible, but I could see the corners of her mouth curl upward. "I honestly don't know."
"Would you mind if she and I joined you?"
"Not at all," Jane said, blinking sweetly.
She smiled. "Sure, Will."
Chad was angry that I had intruded on his date, but he forgave me the moment he saw Jane in her red sweater and black wool pants. (More accurately, he forgot me the moment he saw her.) He gave her a vase of roses and we set off for Sundance. Since it was located between Salt Lake and Provo, Elizabeth was going to meet us there. After we pulled into the parking lot I searched wildly for her car. As we walked into the Tree Room, I looked all over for her. When I couldn't find her, I decided to wait for her by the doors, leaving Chad and Jane settled into our table with candlelight and a menu.
I wandered into a shop, always keeping my eye on the main entrance. I watched her sweep through the door. She pulled off her wool coat, revealing a light pink sweater engineered to mirror her curves exactly without being too tight. The color emphasized the blush of her cheeks and the soft pink of her lips. She took my breath away.
My feet were rooted to the floor. I couldn't make myself move. I would have just let her walk away, if she hadn't looked into the shop that very moment and locked eyes with me. She smiled with her eyes as much as with her lips, looking for all the world like she was happy to see me. I was tempted to pull her into my arms right then, but settled for holding her hand and escorting her to the table.
Dinner was lively, as it always is with this group. Elizabeth was clearly in a good mood, which was all I needed to be happy. After dinner we set off across the wooden bridge and stone walkways to explore the buildings and grounds of Sundance, even though it was buried under snow.
After a minute, Elizabeth placed her hand on the crook of my arm, exerting gentle pressure backward. Toward her. I was eager to follow her lead. We slowed our pace, and in two more minutes Chad and Jane were completely out of sight. "There," she said triumphantly. "Let's stay here."
I realized that she had put her hand on my arm to benefit Jane; that knowledge did nothing to temper the electricity I felt at her touch. We wandered back to the bridge and stood side by side, looking at the snow and watching the river, which was still trickling past though ice crusted the surface along the banks. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her, however much I wished to converse, but our silence was a comfortable one.
"It's cold out here tonight," she said, puffing condensation clouds into the air.
She looked at me out of the corner of her eye. "Are you one of those men who never gets cold?"
"No, I get cold. I'm just not noticing it tonight."
Her cheeks and the tip of her nose were red. "Not noticing it?!"
"Not right now."
"Well I promise you, there's no better time to notice it. It's freezing. I'm tempted to wait inside. In fact, maybe I'll head home. I can warm up in the car..." She turned, but before she could walk away, or even move, I reached out and grabbed her hand. She looked at her hand in mine, then at my face. "What?"
I put my hands on her shoulders and gently turned her toward me. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I traced a finger along the curve of her cheek and across her jaw line. I had the unmistakable feeling that I had loved her forever. It didn't matter that I'd only known her six weeks, and it didn't scare me that I hadn't realized until that moment that I loved her. I ached to hold her. A cold breeze was blowing her hair over her shoulder. I touched one of the waves as it wisped toward me.
Her eyebrows knit, and her beautiful dark eyes looked at me questioningly. Slowly, slowly I leaned forward and dropped my lips to hers, kissing her lightly while my soul stirred deeply. She looked at me with a mischievous glint in her eye and said, "Why did you do that?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why did you kiss me? I mean, you don't even like me..."
I interrupted. "Yes, I do."
She thought for a moment. "Are you sure?"
"I thought you only tolerated me because I'm always around when you hang out with Chad and Jane."
"I only hang out with Chad and Jane if I'm sure you'll be around."
She raised her eyebrows and the look on her face was doubt mingled with surprise. "I find that hard to believe! I have never caught any hint of you..."
If she wanted one, I was going to provide her with an obvious hint. Interrupting her sentence, I kissed her again. I put my arm around her and pulled her gently toward me, caressing the back of her neck before twining my fingers in her hair. The very air I breathed changed somehow--it became sweeter. Warmer. All sensation of cold disappeared as her petite body nestled close to mine. We were bathed in warmth and light. New life flowed through my veins--new purpose, new joy. New love. Everything else seemed to fade away, as though Elizabeth and I were alone, the only two people that mattered. The river trickled past, carrying with it any neutrality I might ever have felt toward her. All I wanted was to give my heart and my life to her. I pulled back only a little and whispered, "Now you know."
I walked her to her car that evening with my hands in my pockets. She watched me carefully; I don't know if she wanted or expected more, but she did seem... almost disappointed when I turned away to cross the parking lot. The instant I climbed into the 4Runner I asked Jane for Elizabeth's cell phone number and dialed. It had been less than five minutes since I stood next to her, but I was glad to hear her voice when she said "Hello?"
"Hello, Elizabeth. This is William."
She was silent for a few seconds. "Hello, Will."
"May I call you?"
I heard a snicker. "I believe you just did."
"No, I mean when I return to Salt Lake, and you get back home. May I call you there?"
Again a silence of several seconds. "Sure. Do you have my number?"
Memorized. "I think so. Is it 801-555-8085?" Jane giggled softly in the front seat; I couldn't be sure if it was connected to something Chad said, or because I knew Elizabeth's phone number.
"I'll talk to you later, then."
I called Elizabeth as soon as I got home. Despite having just spent an evening together, we spoke for 30 minutes. It took a while to ease into meaningful conversation, but this was the first time we really talked--just the two of us. I called her Thursday and Friday, as well. Saturday I drove to Provo on my own, without Chad and Jane, and spent an evening with Elizabeth in her cottage, eating her fresh spinach, surrounded by her art and books, sitting on her furniture, cozily embraced by the tight quarters. I realized it suited her perfectly.
I called Elizabeth every night. Sometimes we had disagreements, but I never stopped calling her. Even when George Wickham--an old friend of the family and an employee--quit his job, making very sure to spread every plausible lie about me before he left, I called her. Jane told Elizabeth everything, distressed about the rumors she had heard. She didn't want to believe it. She hoped it wasn't true. Elizabeth accused me of every terrible thing that night, and hung up on me. I called her back and explained as long as she would listen. The next night she almost didn't answer when I called, picking up after 15 rings. I explained more. Even when she was angry with me, I didn't stop calling. It took five evenings to resolve, but I never stopped calling her.
When Chad finally experienced his single brief and minor episode of fear to commit to Jane, Elizabeth blamed me. She hinted that I was driving Chad and Jane apart, that I didn't think she was good enough for him. Still, every night I called her. I told her that I thought Jane was wonderful, and that if Chad didn't snap out of it he was the imbecile. I never told her that I took Chad to lunch and lectured him about growing up, but when he apologized to Jane and proposed, she gave me half the credit anyway.
After I met Elizabeth's mother and younger sisters, I had to dial her number three times. The first two attempts I imagined her mother answering the phone and gushing about her fine son in law and that Elizabeth was quite a catch, too. I hung up before it even rang. But the third time I saw Elizabeth smiling at me, jokingly calling me proud and spoiled as she held my hand in hers. My heart was pounding when she answered the phone, and her voice flowed around me like warm water. Without thinking, without imagining her mother, I said, "I love you."
And somehow, miraculously, with nightly phone calls and dates as often as we could get together, she fell in love with me, too.
Thursday, February 14th dawned cold and clear. I woke early, well aware that it was Valentine's Day...remembering the first time I kissed Elizabeth exactly one year before. The wan light spilling through the window illuminated her soft face, one round cheek pillowed against my arm. Her hair tumbled across her pillow and mine, her legs tangled around me, her warm body pressed close to me. I never knew I could be so happy. I opened and closed my hand, trying to urge some blood to flow back into my arm, but reluctant to move lest I wake her. Elizabeth's dark eyes fluttered open and she smiled, snuggling in even tighter. "Good morning," she said in a voice thick with sleep--a voice that only I hear.
"Good morning, Mrs. Darcy."
She lightly rubbed my chest, her fingers plucking playfully at the hair. "How did you sleep?"
She kissed my cheek. "Very well."
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