"Beth, please, you must come!"
"Charlotte . . ." Elizabeth looked into her friend's pleading eyes and finally gave in. An evening spent with Bill Collins and his boss, Catherine Dubarry, was an ordeal she could do without, especially after the annoying day she'd had at work, but she knew she'd neglected her best friend ever since Charlotte and Bill's engagement had been announced. "Okay, but I can't stay late. There's been a new sodding scare at the nursery and dad wants me there when the inspector comes in the morning."
"Not that camellia thing again?"
"Well, it's got to do with Sudden Oak Death as well, but this is worse. The BC Nursery Trades rep phoned today with the lab results and said there'd been a suspicious positive. Now we have to deal with the Federal Horticulture Agency - and you know what a jerk they sent out during the camellia fiasco."
Charlotte opened her mouth to say something, but then thought better of it and only nodded.
"Don't even try sticking up for him," said Elizabeth. "He said I was ignorant and clueless about running a nursery and that it was because of people like me that the disease was so widespread."
"Not to your face," said Charlotte.
"He knew I was close enough to hear him."
"Forget about him, and the nursery, just for one evening. Break loose! How about Maria picks you up, then you won't even need to drive - just drink strawberry daiquiris all night."
"And face Mr 'I'm Perfect and You're a Loser' Darcy Fitzwilliam with a hangover tomorrow? Yeah, right."
Charlotte grinned. "He might be easier to take like that. See you at The Rose and Ring at seven, okay?"
Elizabeth was relieved when they finally pulled into the parking lot at the pub. Maria had talked about nothing but how excited she was to be meeting Mrs Dubarry at long last. She'd heard a lot about the lady from Bill and she'd gushingly regurgitated every overblown fact he'd ever spouted. Elizabeth's relief was soon dampened by the sight of the neon sign flashing in the window.
Tuesday ~ Karaoke Night
'Heaven help us!' she sighed to herself as she got out of the car. Bill was one of those guys who mistakenly believed he could croon with the best of them. His rendition of My Way sounded like a sick cow that needed to be put out of its misery.
They entered the pub and saw Charlotte waving from a long table at the end of the room, close to the fireplace. It was a cool April evening, but the pub would have been warm enough without the crackling fire. Elizabeth was glad she had worn a camisole with a lacy cover-up instead of the cashmere sweater set she'd originally chosen.
"Why do we have such a big table?" she asked Charlotte after she'd been introduced to Mrs Dubarry and listened to Bill's first rambling joke of the evening. "Are other people coming?"
"Yes," said Charlotte, looking a bit cagey. "Mrs Dubarry's nephews and her daughter, Anne."
"Aha - you're up to something, I can tell. If this is a set up . . ."
"No! Not at all - it's just - oh, you'll find out soon enough. They've arrived."
Charlotte had a look in her eyes that seemed to be saying, 'Don't kill me.' Elizabeth turned slowly. The first person she saw was a slim girl in a black dress. Lank hair hung around a sallow face marked with large mascaraed eyes. Behind her was an athletic looking man with rough-hewn features. Elizabeth's gaze slipped easily beyond him and froze.
"Tell me he's not with them."
"Darcy Fitzwilliam is one of Mrs Dubarry's nephews. Sorry."
"You are evil incarnate - you knew all along."
"I thought you might not come." Charlotte admitted.
"You're damn right I wouldn't have come!"
Charlotte grabbed a glass of wine and thrust it into Elizabeth's hands. "Drink this and try to be nice."
Mrs Dubarry began busily introducing everybody.
"Elizabeth Bennet and I have already met," said Darcy. "In fact it's her nursery I'm going to tomorrow."
"I didn't know you were a nursery owner," said Mrs Dubarry, resting her steely eyes on Elizabeth with more interest than she had previously shown.
"It's a family business. I manage it for my father."
"Oh - one of those small ma and pa operations. Quaint." She took her nephew's arm and directed him to a chair. "Darcy - you must sit beside me and tell me all the latest news from Victoria!"
He cast Elizabeth a look of apology and did as he was told.
"You may have missed it, but I'm Colin Fitzwilliam," said the other man as he took the seat beside Elizabeth.
"Elizabeth Bennet. Call me Beth," she said, holding out her hand.
"So, you're who Darcy has come all this way to see on such hush, hush business. I understand now." He grinned broadly.
"Really! He wouldn't tell me where he was going or what he was doing. How do you explain that, then? Top secret espionage? He works for the FHA not the CIA."
Elizabeth laughed. "It's a confidentiality issue. Everyone is so freaked out about this disease, if word gets out in the industry that we are even suspected of having infected plants it could ruin our business completely."
"And he doesn't mix business with pleasure?"
"I don't think he knows how," said Elizabeth.
Colin glanced up the table at his cousin. "You don't say! So tell me, how does he act when he does an inspection? Pours on the old third degree?"
"Worse. I think he's one of those people who really lets power go to his head. Last time he was totally unreasonable."
"So he goes all Gestapo on you. Hmm. Sounds like he needs to work on his technique. I could set him straight for you."
"No - it's fine. Actually the last thing I want to talk about tonight is my work. I came out to forget my problems."
"Drink up your wine, then, and let me buy you another one."
Elizabeth took a sip. "What is it you do?"
"I've got a couple of boats up in Campbell River - I run a little sport fishing business."
"That sounds like fun."
"Reeling in a big salmon is always a thrill, but I work hard for my money, not like Darcy with his cushy government job and all those benefits he gets. I love being my own boss, though - so what if I can't afford to go to Hawaii every winter!"
"I know what you mean," said Elizabeth. "The nursery is hard work too - but at the end of the day I only have to answer to myself. Well, and my dad too, but he and I see eye to eye on just about everything."
They continued talking about all kinds of subjects, from skiing and hiking to books and movies, just like they'd known each other for years. Their conversation was punctuated with outbursts of laughter. Elizabeth couldn't help but reflect upon how different Colin was from his cousin. He wasn't anywhere near as good looking, but he had charm that was far more attractive than Darcy's aloof manner.
Elizabeth noticed Darcy looking over at them periodically. "Why does your cousin keep staring at us?" she asked.
"Probably wishing he could trade places with me. I get to talk to a beautiful, vivacious young woman and he's stuck with a crusty old lady."
"It's more likely that I'm doing something he disapproves of."
"Yeah - talking to me rather than to him," said Colin smugly. "Don't look now but the karaoke is about to start. Bill's going first."
"Why don't you sign up for a song?"
"Oh Beth," cried Charlotte across the table. "I put your name down for the next one, so you can't get out of it."
"Some friend you are!" said Elizabeth and then burst into a fit of giggles as she watched Bill strutting across the stage like Tina Turner as he belted out "Rollin', rollin', rollin' on a river."
"There should be a law against that," said Colin. "I just spewed beer out my nose."
Elizabeth looked up the table and noticed that Anne was trying hard not to laugh and even Darcy had a smirk on his face. Mrs Dubarry was tapping her feet to the rhythm. When Bill returned to the table she patted him on the arm and told him he was a born entertainer. Elizabeth decided that either Mrs Dubarry had no taste whatsoever or she could make a sarcastic comment and keep a straight face as well as her father, Mr Bennet could.
Elizabeth was announced but it took Colin agreeing to accompany her to get her onto the stage. She sat on a stool and he stood beside her. She sang Gordon Lightfoot's version of Bobby McGee in a clear, light voice and Colin joined in on the chorus. During the song, Darcy got up and walked up close to the stage.
When they were done, Elizabeth turned to him and said, "Good attempt at intimidating me, but I managed to get through the whole song without messing up the words."
To her surprise, he laughed. "I know you don't mean that. I liked your singing." He turned to his cousin. "Yours I could do without."
"Are you going to sing us a song, Mr Fitzwilliam?" asked Elizabeth.
"I can answer that for him," said Colin. "He may enjoy putting down my singing, but there is no way in hell you'd get him on this stage, or any stage, for that matter."
"Why? Do you think you are better than this?" asked Elizabeth as she got off her stool and Colin helped her from the stage. "I know I'm not a great singer, but at least I came up and did it, and so did Colin."
"It's not that he thinks he's better," said Colin. "It's just that he can't be bothered to do it."
"I can't just get up and sing in front of people I don't know." Darcy stood in thought for a minute and then continued. "I don't really have to make excuses about it. But I think it's great that you sang here, for everybody. I'm sure you don't normally perform for strangers either, but you did and you did it well."
"What are you all talking about?" asked Mrs Dubarry, even though they hadn't quite arrived at the table yet.
"I was just telling Elizabeth that she sang well," said Darcy.
"Your voice is untrained," said Mrs Dubarry, "but you weren't too pitchy. You do need to practice more. Anne has a lovely voice. If she weren't so prone to throat infections she would have had classical training. I could have had a career in the opera if I had learned."
Elizabeth mumbled something that could be termed complimentary and then moved down the table and sat beside Charlotte. "The old crow!" she hissed into Charlotte's ear.
"What're you going to do?" asked Charlotte.
"Two hot guys after you." She winked.
"They are. Darcy was practically drawn to the stage in a trance. What did he say to you?"
"Just that getting up on stage was more than he would do, but I sang well."
"He was only being polite."
"He didn't have to go over there. He likes you!"
"In your dreams. Anyway - I can't stand him, so who cares one way or the other?"
Colin came and sat beside Elizabeth again so Charlotte had to lay off teasing her.
"Have you ever met Darcy's sister, Georgiana?" he asked. "She's an incredible singer."
"No, I've never met her, but I've heard she's a lot like her brother. She must have been a handful growing up."
Colin looked alarmed. "What were you told about her that would give you an idea like that?"
Elizabeth decided that she'd come a bit too close to the mark. "Nothing at all. I was just speculating. Actually it was Darcy's friend Charles' sisters who were talking about her - and they couldn't praise her enough. Do you know Charles?"
"Sure - he's Darcy's best friend."
"Darcy must regard the responsibilities of friendship quite seriously - he takes great care of him!"
Colin leaned back in his chair and grinned. "Funny you should say that. He did get Charles out of a real jam last fall."
"Yeah, well, I don't think it matters if I tell you. There was this girl Charles met when they were up island doing inspections together during that big crisis. She was connected with one of the nurseries they were inspecting - one of those rinky-dink places. Anyway, she showed him around the nursery and spent a lot of time with him, distracting him from his work. Charles fell for her hard, but Darcy was sure she was coming on to him to get him to turn a blind eye to all the infractions."
Elizabeth could feel her anger building. It was obvious the girl was Jane, though the situation had been completely misrepresented. "Really? So what did Darcy do?" She had always suspected he'd had something to do with the break-up.
"Well he didn't want to see Charles hurt, so he got him transferred to the south island and then he convinced him that the girl was just using him."
"That seems a little interfering. How did he know for sure she was using Charles? What if she was in love with him too?"
"Most people don't fall in love that quickly. Anyway, I'm sure they're both over it by now."
"I guess, but that sort of lessens Darcy's victory, doesn't it?"
Colin shrugged. "It sounded better when he told it." He took a sip of his beer and then looked back at Elizabeth. "Hey - are you okay?"
"Suddenly I've got this blinding headache. I think I'd better go." She reached for her jacket from the back of her chair and at the same moment remembered that she'd got a ride from Maria. "Damn!"
"I didn't drive here and I don't want to make Maria leave when she's having so much fun with Anne." Both girls were on the stage pretending to be The Supremes, giggling more than they were singing.
"I could give you a ride."
"But you don't want to leave so early either."
"If you're going there's little point of staying," he said gallantly. "Just give me a couple of minutes to say goodbye to my aunt."
"Thanks. That's really kind of you. I think I'll go wait outside, if you don't mind. The cooler air should be good for my head."
Elizabeth said goodbye to Charlotte, waved to the rest of the people at the table without making eye contact with any of them, and pulled on her jacket as she got up from her chair. She needed to get out of the room and away from Darcy as fast as she could. It was bad enough that he'd done all he could to separate Jane and Charles, but bragging about it to his cousin, and who knows who else, just made what he'd done that much worse. Telling people Jane had been coming on to Charles to bribe him! It was outrageous. She'd never seen two people so much in love. Dealing with the aftermath, when Charles had stopped answering Jane's emails and phone calls, had been heart wrenching. Even now Jane was just a walking shadow, though she tried to smile and act normal, it was painfully obvious that she couldn't get Charles out of her thoughts.
Elizabeth slammed the front door on her way out and walked onto the long porch that overlooked Comox Harbour. "I could kill him!" she muttered, and then she leaned on the railing and took a few deep breaths. The sky was still streaked with pink, but it was darkening over the pewter water. One or two faint stars had broken through. At any other time she would have relished the tranquility of the scene, but her thoughts were in a turmoil that even the beauties of nature could not soothe. Once she got home she would probably pace the floor until dawn. The worst thing was that she had to face Darcy at the nursery in the morning, where he was probably going to impose a quarantine, or worse yet, have thousands of her plants destroyed. She bit back a sob at the thought, and then a voice spoke from behind that proved there was something even more terrible in store for her than anything she had already imagined.
"Elizabeth? I told Colin I'd drive you home. There's something I'd like to talk to you about before we have to deal with all the SOD issues tomorrow."
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