Home » , , , , , , » Emma + Elsie Meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (Emma + Elsie #1) by Maddy Raven & Monica Leonelle

Emma + Elsie Meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (Emma + Elsie #1) by Maddy Raven & Monica Leonelle


Her best friend paced back and forth in front of her dresser, mumbling to herself. "Garter, shoes, necklace..."

"Emma," Elsie repeated.
Emma + Elsie Meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (Emma + Elsie #1)
Emma + Elsie Meet Fitzwilliam Darcy (Emma + Elsie #1) by Maddy Raven & Monica Leonelle
"Surprise… oh my gosh, the surprise!" Emma made a fist at the air, like she was cursing it, before marking something on the small notepad she was holding. She set the pad on her dresser, scribbling furiously. "I can't believe I almost forgot to—" Elsie heaved a huge, exasperated sigh. "Emma!" Emma spun around. "Elsie, you're here." She tilted her head, letting her blonde, bouncy curls fall to one side. "Wait. When did you get here?" "Set it down." "What?" "The pen, the book, your body in a chair. Step away from the to-do list before your head explodes." "I am the maid of honor," Emma declared solemnly. "I will not rest until my list is complete and I've ensured that Annabeth's wedding is absolutely, one-hundred percent perfect." Elsie watched her friend, a light grin dancing on her lips. She flipped her iron-straight chestnut hair over her shoulder and plopped down onto her best friend's four-post princess bed, sprawling out across the crisp, lightweight comforter. She was bursting to tell Emma what she had just learned, but Emma was wrapped up in her own world, as usual. "But—" she said. "No buts," Emma said, digging through her purse. She pulled out tubes of lipstick, notepads with scratchings all over them, and dozens of tiny barrettes, hair clips, and bobby pins, before finding what she was looking for—her keys. Elsie groaned. Emma had once again invited her over just before having to run out the door. "Let me guess—you're leaving." Emma's lips formed an exaggerated pout. "I'm sorry... It's an emergency, I swear. A real one this time! Talk later?" "You're going to want to hear this before you go," Elsie said in a singsong voice. She sat up, slightly annoyed by Emma's dismissal. "Where are you going anyway?" "What time is it?" Emma made a point of looking at her watch, an heirloom of her mother's. Her mother had passed away when she was a child, and Elsie had rarely seen her without it on. "Time for you to listen to the exciting news I have," Elsie rang out. "Okay, okay. I have a solid thirty minutes before I absolutely have to leave, or Annabeth's wedding will be ruined. Do you want that on your conscience, Elsie? Ruined." Emma's eyes bulged open to demonstrate her point. "Go ahead, then. What's your gossip?" "Charles Bingley," Elsie said, not being able to contain her excitement any longer. When Emma raised an eyebrow at her, she heaved another sigh. "Remember when we looked up all the wedding guests to do the seating charts?" Elsie could still picture almost every detail of the Louisiana State University junior's Facebook profile, but Emma's eyes were completely blank as she tapped her pen against her notebook, fidgeting. "Remember? Charles Bingley—tall, handsome, older, extremely wealthy—totally perfect for you and your ridiculously high standards?" "My standards aren't ridiculous!" Emma exclaimed, bringing back an argument they had on a regular basis. "Why does everyone think I need a boyfriend? It's the summer before we whisk off to LSU, where I want to focus on a future that doesn't necessarily include studying for an M.R.S. degree." She smirked as she annunciated each letter in 'Mrs.' "Besides, I already have money. I don't need to marry into it." Elsie grinned at her friend's relentless determination to stay happily single—and her horrible habit of reminding everyone that her father was the richest man in Rosebelle, aside from their neighbors, the Knightleys. "Anyway… Charles—or Chuck, according to Lydia—" "Lydia?" Emma interrupted. "Please don't tell me your baby sister knows a college student. She does realize she's, like, fifteen, right?" Elsie shook her head. Her sister Lydia was a wild child, untamable and out of control—way past Elsie's influence. Their parents didn't exactly lay down the law either "One more year," she said, looking up at the ceiling. "In one more year, she will be driving. Driving, Ems." "As in, able to physically transport herself to parties she shouldn't be at where she will attach herself to age-inappropriate boyfriends," Emma said. She shrugged. "That little firecracker is one sexually charged—" "Not the point," Elsie said, cutting her off. She hated that her sister had such a reputation already, after only one year in high school. "Lydia said that Chuck is bringing friends to the wedding," she rushed out, before they could go off-topic again. Emma set her to-do list aside, finally intrigued by the conversation. Elsie smiled, glad to have her friend's full attention. "Chuck and his two sisters were supposed to come to the wedding by themselves, remember?" Elsie ticked off the facts on her fingers. "Old friends of Mr. Weston's first wife's family, the Churchills—" "I know, I know," Emma said, gesturing with her hands. "Skip to the good part." Elsie grinned at her impatience. The whole town of Rosebelle knew that Mr. Weston sent his baby son off to his brother-in-law to be raised after his wife died. "So, Chuck is bringing a friend…" Elsie said, delighting in the fact that Emma had sat down, purse and keys discarded, and was practically on the edge of her seat. "Who?!" Emma asked impatiently. Elsie smiled. "We don't know yet." "I see," Emma said, draping her body over the arm of the chair. "But…" Emma picked up a stuffed animal she was sharing the chair with and chucked it across the room, nearly creaming her in the face. "Elsie, you're killing me! Spit it out right now, or so help me—" "We do know that he's tall, handsome, older, and extremely, extremely wealthy—even richer than the Bingleys." Elsie beamed. "His boyfriend?!" Emma exclaimed. "Wow. Of course, Charles Bingley is allowed a plus one, but I wasn't expecting this." She stood up, grabbing her to-do list. "A gay couple in Rosebelle! This should get interesting." Elsie hunched over, her stomach in pain from how much she was laughing. "I can assure you they are both straight—Lydia does her homework. My point is that now there are two guys who will be fighting over the fabulous Emma Woodhouse, first-time maid-of-honor, newly minted adult a.k.a. legal, soon-to-be college girl, reigning prom queen of Rosebelle—" "Prom queen?" Emma repeated, clearly trying to hold back her smile. "I doubt college guys care about all that high school silliness." Elsie smirked—Emma had spent months quietly campaigning for that particular tiara, even once saying that it was 'by far the most important moment of her high school career.' Emma sat down next to her on the bed. "Besides, what about you?" She grinned mischievously. "Please, please, please let me set you up with one of them?" Elsie shook her head. "No way." "Come on! Look at how well I did for Annabeth." Elsie held one finger up. "Annabeth is one person you set up, and even that one almost ended in disaster. If it weren't for your scheming and a very lucky guess—" Emma waved a hand dismissively. "Successful women make their own luck, Els. Everyone knows that." Elsie widened her eyes with exasperation. "Not the point! The answer is hell no." "Then you're not allowed to set me up either!" Emma said. "It's decided, then. Neither of us will get swept away by tall, dark, handsome college men at Annabeth's wedding." "Fine," Elsie said. "Fine," Emma repeated. "So…" Elsie said, filling the lull in the conversation. "Do you have time to show me the wall?" "Yes—right!" Emma pressed a finger to her forehead. "That's why you're here in the first place. I swear, this wedding is making me lose my mind." "Come on," Elsie said, grabbing her friend's arm and dragging her out of the chair. "The wedding will be over tomorrow, but apparently the wall will be forever, immortalizing Emma Woodhouse's brilliant high school career." Emma laughed as they walked down the stairs, passing the first floor of the house and going straight down to the basement. "You make me sound so self-absorbed." "Hello—you basically put a shrine to yourself in your father's basement. I know the two of you are close, but really?" "You know my father can't live without me," Emma said. "I honestly don't know how he's going to take it when I leave for school." "Baton Rouge is only what—a two or three hour drive?" "We're talking about my father. A two or three minute drive is an ordeal for him." She was right, to some extent. Elsie had known Mr. Woodhouse almost her entire life, and he was by far one of the fussiest men she'd ever met. It wasn't that he was unkind, or incompetent. He was just… Specific. Particular. And, at times, implacable. He also rarely left their house, which had often left her wondering how he built an entire franchise of car dealerships during his youth. Emma said that things changed a lot when her mother died, and her older sister Bella was always saying that their dad wasn't the same afterward, but still—the Mr. Woodhouse that Elsie knew was definitely not a business mogul. Luckily, John Knightley had married Mr. Woodhouse's eldest daughter, Bella, and thus handled most of the day-to-day business decisions at the company in addition to whatever role he played in his own family's company. His brother, Jace, also helped out Mr. Woodhouse. He lived just down the street from Emma, so he was around all the time. At least, whenever he wasn't working on his Masters in Business Administration at Louisiana State University. The Woodhouses were filthy rich as a result of their chain of dealerships and whatever other investments they had acquired. Emma took full advantage of her family's money and connections to make the most of her high school experience. Many of the girls in their grade couldn't stand Emma because of it, but Elsie had never felt jealous. "Ready?" Emma asked when they reached the basement landing. "Do I have to cover my eyes or something?" Elsie asked. "Well, you're really only going to get a peek, because the actual unveiling is happening at my graduation party. Remember?" "Emma Jane Woodhouse, are you telling me that I walked all the way over here from the other side of town to get a lame peek at the Shrine to Emma?" "Psh. The other side of town is like, two miles away." "Two miles is far without a car!" "I told you," Emma said in the more serious voice. "If you want to borrow a car from one of my father's dealerships, we're more than happy to loan you one." Elsie stopped laughing. "You know my dad will kill me if he finds out I told you about our… situation." Her family used to be one of the more prominent ones in Rosebelle, with a popular and successful tourism business. They had nowhere near the level of wealth of the Woodhouses, but it had certainly had been a growing fortune. All of that was washed away with Hurricane Katrina, when tourists abandoned the area in droves. With her mother's determined marketing, things were finally starting to turn around, but the family had nearly depleted their savings and were still barely staying afloat, even with the recent growth. Now that they were about to have two daughters in college, the Bennet family was really strapped for cash. They had already sold much of their land and were even contemplating selling the house. Mrs. Bennet had already put out seeds of their cover story. According to her, they were tired of the high maintenance of their estate and were considering downsizing now that her daughters were leaving the nest. Elsie's younger sister Mary was going to be a junior in high school next year, and Jane was going to be a sophomore in college, so the storm of having three daughters in school all at once was coming—and they couldn't be certain that the tourism business would pick up quickly enough to cover all the expenses. Emma fidgeted with the curtains that really did cover an entire, large wall of her basement, pinning a small subsection of the curtains to itself to isolate the peek she intended to give Elsie. Elsie didn't even feel surprised by how massive the Shrine to Emma truly was. Emma always went all-out. Always. "Ta-dah," Emma said, holding up her hands in presentation as she stepped away from the wall and revealed her masterpiece. "Smart, beautiful, strong?" Elsie read the words blown up in huge letters underneath Emma's picture. "It's the quote from the yearbook, remember?" Emma grinned at her, completely clueless. Elsie bit her lip to keep from laughing. "It's… Lovely." Emma narrowed her eyes at her. "Shut up." A giggle escaped from Elsie's mouth. Emma frowned, glancing up at the wall as if for the first time. "Is it stupid?" She tilted her head, staring hard at her portrait and the words underneath it. "On second thought, I didn't realize how vain it sounded until you just read it out loud." Elsie couldn't take it anymore—she started laughing uncontrollably. To her surprise, Emma joined in. "It's a little much, isn't it?" she asked. "I think I'm just going to take this whole thing down. It's just—it's not the classy, elegant decor I want for my high school graduation party." Elsie picked up one of the neon pens that was resting in the tray lining the bottom of the wall. "Does that mean I get to sign the Shrine to Emma with a penis beforehand?" Emma snatched the pink pen out of Elsie's hand. "Don't be vulgar, Elizabeth Bennet." She put the pen back in the tray and walked to the other side of the room, staring up at the wall. "I'm imagining a completely redone design that emphasizes adulthood—and, truly, planning this wedding really gave me tons of ideas for how to redo the entire basement." Elsie knew she should have expected this—Emma basically ran her father's household, with her mother gone and her sister moved out. That meant that Emma spent an inordinate amount of time on Pinterest picking out new fabrics, drapes, furniture, accessories, light fixtures, and more, always identifying new rooms that needed 'a little something'. The only difference between Emma and a regular teenager was that Emma actually had the resources to redecorate her entire home every year, so their rooms were always in flux—that is, most rooms, since Mr. Woodhouse didn't appreciate change unless it happened gradually. The few rooms that he stuck to stayed relatively the same, aside from the little objects that Emma might sneak in here and there. The rest of the house, vast compared to most homes, was like a revolving door of Martha Stewart magazine layouts. "Oh, no," Emma said, her eyes wide. "I just realized—how many friends are the Bingleys bringing now?" "Lydia only mentioned the one—" "Ugh—this is a disaster!" Emma grabbed Elsie's hand and dragged her toward the steps. "One friend in rich people language is like an entire bus full of people. We have to rearrange it all again!" Emma ran up the steps, and Elsie knew that they could only be going to one place—to the seating charts! Chapter 2 – EMMA EMMA pulled Elsie by the elbow, dragging her into the dining room, where her neighbor, Jace Knightley, was speaking to her father. He ran his fingers through his jet black hair, messing it just enough to help it fall perfectly back into place. "The Ford Fusion has been doing particularly well this year," Jace said, "but—" "Good!" Emma exclaimed, bulldozing through their conversation. "You're here. We need to deal with this Chuck Bingley fiasco right now." She reached her arm around the door to the kitchen and felt her way to her father's medication. "Daddy, have you taken your pills today?" "Not yet," her father replied. "I have no idea what a 'Chuck Bingley fiasco' is," Jace said, irritated, "but I'm going to take a wild guess that it's another one of Emma's fascinating seating chart emergencies." "Jace Knightley, no wonder they let you into graduate school." She turned to her father. "Do you mind, Daddy? It's Friday. Your work talk can wait through the weekend, can't it?" "Of course," her father said, just as Jace said, "Actually—" Jace locked eyes with her, then glanced at her father, sighing. "Sure, that's fine. We can talk on Sunday after the wedding and all of its... intense duties are finished." "Oh!" her father moaned. "If you are talking about the wedding again, I don't want any part of it. Why Miss Taylor feels the need to get married is beyond my comprehension." Emma felt a twinge of guilt in her gut. Her father hadn't handled the stress of Annabeth's impending wedding and plan to move out very well over the last several months. Annabeth wasn't his natural daughter, but he was quite as attached to her as he was to Bella and Emma. Worse, Emma knew that this was only a prequel to what he would feel when she went off to college herself. She knew she would speak to him every day, but it wouldn't be enough for him. Since her sister had married, Emma had taken good care of her father. They had a routine and life, just the two of them—and now, she too was leaving him to start her own life. She had enough nerves just worrying about herself and her own transition; worrying about her father's well-being on top of that was something that she had pushed to the back of her mind to make room for the wedding. Once it was over, though, she'd have to give more thought to her father's arrangements—something she wasn't looking forward to. In the meantime, she did everything she could to quell her father's anguish and make him as comfortable as she could. "Daddy, maybe you should take your pills along with one of Annabeth's cupcakes to the patio. You can watch the birds. I think I saw some blue-winged teal outside earlier today." She hadn't, and her father likely knew that, but he did love the prospect of seeing a blue-winged teal. "Yes," he replied vaguely. "What would I do without you, my little Emmy?" She smiled, pulling one of their good china plates from dining room cabinet and placing a cupcake in the center of it, then dropping his medication next to it. She turned around to see that Elsie had already poured him a glass of milk from the kitchen, bless her. Elsie was one of the few people who understood the two directions she was pulled in—her love for her family versus her desire to grow up and be an adult. "Thank you, Elizabeth," her father said, taking the glass from Elsie and the plate from Emma. "What brings you to visit my dear daughter today?" "She was showing me her graduation party plans," Elsie said. "Daddy, it's going to be amazing," Emma gushed. "I have everything planned out, and I've invited almost the entire school—" "Is that wise?" Jace interjected, his dark eyebrows forming high arcs over his eyes. She stared at him indignantly. "You're invited too," she said. "Though you might scare some of the kids off if you go into chaperone mode again—" "Chaperone?" he said incredulously. "I kept your last rager under control, if I remember correctly—" "If by keeping it under control," she responded, flashing him a grin, "you mean cramping it up with your old, stuffy, grown-up-ness—" "This is coming from the girl who needs me to put air in her car tires because she can't be bothered to." "You did?" she asked, not missing a beat. "Perfect—I'm heading out to Mrs. Goddard's once this seating disaster is solved." "You will want to put gas in your tank before you go," he said. "You're on empty… you know you're supposed to fill it at the twenty-five percent point?" Elsie snickered, while Emma heaved a huge sigh. A fly on the wall would have no choice but to assume that Jace's favorite thing in the world was lecturing her on how to be a proper adult. "Yes," her father said slowly, "Do fill your tank before you leave town, Emma." He patted Jace on the back. "And thank you for taking care of my daughter." "Not a problem," Jace said. "It is for me," Emma muttered, not loud enough for her father to hear. Elsie snorted, and Jace turned sharply at the sound, eyeing the two of them suspiciously. Emma flashed him her most innocent look as her father left the room. When he was gone, Jace spun to face her. "You know, you could learn to check the pressure in your tires yourself. I can show you how." "Why would I want that," she asked, beaming her most innocent smile, "when you're so good at it already?" The truth was, she didn't know why Jace felt the need to check the pressure in her tires or chaperone her high school parties. She never asked him to do those things, and he didn't particularly seem to enjoy them—yet, he kept doing them anyway. Why wouldn't she let him make her life easier? Jace looked annoyed with her, but Emma knew that a bit of added cheeriness on her part could get him to overcome his bad mood. "Mr. Best Man," she said, "let's get down to business. What a lucky coincidence that you happened to stop by and I didn't have to track you down to deal with this." "Hah!" he said mockingly. "It's a good thing I'm not busy, having an actual life outside of someone else's wedding." Jace made a face at her, then turned to Elsie. "Don't tell me Els—Annabeth's cousin Rori tweeted about one of her male college friends again, and now Emma is convinced her boyfriend is going to leave her before the wedding, thus ruining the 'table energy' in the bride's section." "Rori is unpredictable!" Emma exclaimed. "It would be so like her to bring some devilish trucker just to piss her parents off. Plus, how was I supposed to know that she bought him tickets to a Kanye West concert three months from now as date insurance?" Elsie grinned mischievously. "Don't forget the 2 a.m. text I received during what I've now dubbed The Frank Stank Circumvention, when we had to seat Frank Senior's extremely rich great uncle in the corner because he's lactose-intolerant and the Dixons' granddaughter is in her honest phase." They both laughed, to which Emma replied defensively, "Okay, well, that is just common sense." She hated when Jace and Elsie got together—they were the only two people on the planet who had the nerve to think her silly at times, and the only two with enough ammunition to call her out on it. When they ganged up on her, the teasing was near-merciless. Jace cut the rubber bands off the huge seating chart and unrolled it out onto the dining room table. "Then there was the original draft of this when you miscalculated three hundred divided by twelve and accidentally put twenty tables into the layout instead of—" "Don't you even finish that sentence, Jace Knightley." Emma shot him a glare, her cheeks heating up. Elsie hiccuped through her laughter. "He doesn't have to!" she cried out, before bursting into giggles again. "Two whole days you tried to get that list of people to fit on the page—" Elsie coughed, unable to contain her fits. Jace smiled, clearly pleased with the damage he had caused. "Alright, Emma. You win. Please—what is the Chuck Bingley fiasco?" Emma pursed her lips, unsure if he deserved an answer—but the softness in his eyes told her that he only gave her a hard time because that was their relationship. They had been neighbors all her life, and her older sister Isabella had married his younger brother John a few years ago, tying the two families together infinitely. Jace was nearly seven years older than her and treated her like a little sister—always had, always would. That meant that he looked out for her, but also that he'd never hold back when it came to his raw opinion of her. She took a deep breath. "Since you asked so kindly..." "Let's not forget I'm doing this to help you, not the other way around..." he said, using her same inflections. She grinned, conceding. "Okay. Chuck Bingley and his two sisters are seated here,"—Emma pointed at a table near the middle of the room—"and his oldest sister is bringing her husband, so that's four, but we reserved an extra two at their table in case Chuck and Caroline bring dates that they didn't RSVP—" "Right, right, I remember the whole conversation. You two thought Chuck was too 'hot'"—he used air quotes—"to come to a wedding alone." "I stand by that," Elsie interjected. Jace glared at her. His voice hinted at annoyance, which Emma chalked up to impatience. In all the time she'd known him, he had never loved her wordiness. "So what's the problem?" "According to Elsie," Emma gave her a Look, which had her biting back more laughter, "Chuck Bingley is bringing friends. That's right. Friends, with a capital 'S'—" "A lowercase 's'," Jace corrected. "An ambiguous who-cares-about-the-case 's'!" Emma exclaimed, unsure why Jace didn't see the problem. "Rumor says there's at least one, which I've already prepared for—but what if it's three friends or four friends or ten friends? How am I supposed to plan a wedding when people think they can add little 's's to their party, without RSVP'ing or letting anyone aside from the town gossips—no offense Els—" "My sister takes her job very seriously," Elsie interjected solemnly. "—know about it!" Emma finished. She looked at Jace, who had his phone out. "Hang on one second," he said, holding up a finger. He paced into the adjacent living room, leaving them alone in full-on crisis mode. Emma looked at Elsie, mouthing can-you-believe-this? Elsie shrugged, still trying not to laugh. "Mm, hmm," Emma heard Jace mutter from the adjoining room. She snapped around to Elsie. "Why do you keep laughing?" Elsie pressed her lips together. "Because the two of you are just..." "Just what?" she asked. Elsie bit her lip, raising her eyebrows. "I don't know. Weird around each other." Emma gave her another Look. "We are not weird around each other!" "Tell that to him," Elsie muttered, before giving Emma a wide grin. "Okay, I'm sorry. You two have a completely normal, platonic relationship for two people of the opposite sex who spend an exhausting amount of time together." "He is like a brother to me," Emma whispered, cringing at the word 'sex.' "Don't be incestuous." "Just saying, sometimes teasing is actually a way—" "One additional person," Jace said, reentering and making Emma jump. She hoped to God he didn't hear any of their conversation. Elsie scrunched her nose. "What?" "One additional person," Jace repeated, grinning at them. "Chuck goes to LSU, remember? We… We know each other. Point is, I have his number and called him and—I know this sounds crazy—I asked him how many additional people he's bringing to the wedding. Disaster averted." "Oh," Emma said, finally recollecting herself. Her cheeks were still burning from what Elsie said earlier, and now she felt just as weird around Jace as her best friend had accused her of acting. She had to admit, Jace had grown up to be a good-looking guy; he was well-spoken toward everyone but her and well-liked by everyone she knew. But the insinuation that they were... flirting… "So," Jace said, as if he were looking for more of a response. "Is that it?" She blinked, shaking her head. Get it together, she told herself, launching back into work mode. Out loud, she said, "Does this one additional person have a name?" She held her hand poised above the seating chart, ready to fill it in, until the silent pause had gone on too long and she had to look up. Jace's face had changed, and he seemed irritated again. "Fitzwilliam Darcy. Another acquaintance of mine from LSU." "What?!" Elsie said, pulling out her phone. "Fitzwilliam Darcy?" Emma repeated. The name sounded familiar, but she couldn't place it. "Fitzwilliam Darcy," Elsie said, punching furiously into her phone, "son of the recently deceased George and former State Senator Darcy—God rest their souls—who not only served their state, but also owned Pemberley Manufacturing?" "Oh," Emma said, feeling less fluent than usual. She wasn't an 'oh' type of person—she was a poised, and graceful woman, sure of herself, elegant and charming, always ready for whatever anyone threw at her. "I saw that story," she said a little louder, more confidently. "They were lost in Katrina, trying to help the survivors. Those poor kids, only teenagers and losing their parents." "Fitz seems to have adjusted from it," Jace replied, still with a bit of edge to his voice. "Plus, it happened years ago. His uncle is taking care of his company while he finishes college, and his sister goes to some fancy private high school in New Orleans." "Emma," Elsie said, glancing at Jace. "Can you imagine starting at LSU with a few dates with Fitzwilliam Darcy under your belt? Maid-of-honor," she said, holding out one hand, "hot, older man on campus..." She held out her other hand to Jace, palm up, then winked as she brought them together in the center. "Stop," Emma chastised. She knew Elsie just wanted a reaction from him. To be fair, it was working. He looked extremely uncomfortable—but that could be related to anything! Two soon-to-be-college girls gossiping about hot guys he knew right in front of him, for example. After all, she was uncomfortable too, and that had absolutely nothing to do with unwarranted feelings toward him. "If that's all, Emma, I'm going to leave you two to your imaginary scenarios involving mysterious college guys whom you've never met and have no idea if you're actually compatible with." She smiled at him, nodding. "Thanks for calling, Jace." He nodded back as he walked out of the room. "You're welcome." When Emma heard the front door click shut, she chucked a fancy cloth napkin at Elsie, who was still preoccupied with her phone. "Why would you do that?!" Elsie looked up just as the napkin landed on her head. "Hey!" "Off limits," Emma declared. "Any jokes about me and Jace Knightley sitting anywhere near a tree are off limits." "Okay, okay," Elsie said, chuckling. "I mean it," Emma said. "Do you have any idea how awkward things could get for us? Our siblings are married to each other. We have a mutual nephew and share Christmas mornings with unbrushed teeth!" Elsie finally made a face that looked like a half apology. "Okay," she said, holding her hands up in surrender. "Not that I believe you would ever come down to Christmas morning without brushing your teeth, but I promise, no more jokes about you and Jace." She looked back down at her phone, typing something into it. "But if you're not interested, I guess you wouldn't mind if I—" "Do not," Emma said. "Off limits." Elsie pouted a smile. "Fine." She shoved her phone into her back pocket and started looking around. "You've got all of this, right? Jane just got in and she's downtown at Rosie's and I really want to see her. Don't worry about giving me a ride, I know you're in a hurry." Elsie adjusted her handbag over her shoulder and headed toward the door. "Of course. Thanks," Emma said, remembering that she needed to run too. She still had to grab that gift from Mrs. Goddard's to complete Annabeth's surprise for her soon-to-be husband. "And Emma," Elsie said mischievously, looking back. "Off limits, Els." "Flirting with Jace? Yes, that is off limits, Emma Woodhouse. I'm glad we're on the same page now." Before Emma could come up with a retort, Elsie was out the door, laughing. Chapter 3 – ELSIE AS Elsie rounded the corner away from the Woodhouse's neighborhood, heading back downtown, she couldn't help but think about Fitzwilliam Darcy and the potential opportunity to meet him at Annabeth's wedding the next day. She didn't know much about him, but his family was well known all over the state of Louisiana for a number of reasons—his mother served as a state senator, his family owned most of the raw sugar mills across the state, and his parents died in a horrific tragedy during Katrina, leaving their children orphaned. Both Fitzwilliam and his sister Georgina became some of the richest teenagers in the entire state overnight. Since then, they had stayed out of the press, but Elsie never forgot how she watched them on the news, so young, but so strong and so brave as their lives turned upside down in front of the entire nation. She was curious about him, though she would never admit that to Emma or anyone else. She couldn't believe that Jace Knightley of all people knew him personally, either—perhaps because she felt a little starstruck by the idea of him, it was hard to believe that they had any sort of connection. She couldn't wait to tell Jane the news, since even their mother didn't know about Fitzwilliam Darcy attending the wedding, and usually Mrs. Bennet knew everything that was happening in Rosebelle. Elsie stopped walking, realizing with horror that Chuck and Fitz weren't the only ones attending the wedding the next day—her mother was too. Mrs. Bennet had always been a social climber. While her father had done well enough, she knew that her mom, like most moms, wanted more for children than she'd had for herself. And what did Mrs. Bennet want? She'd always pictured her daughters settled with rich, powerful men, tending to their large mansions and jet-setting off to Europe for the holidays. Of course, her mother planned to tag along on these adventures, because Mrs. Bennet wasn't the type of woman who liked to sit at home—she always had to be in the thick of things. The problem with this was that there was no doubt in Elsie's mind that her mother would try to wrangle Chuck Bingley and Fitz Darcy into dancing with one of her daughters at the wedding. She got a little… overeager, at times. As curious as she was about Fitz, she would definitely have to keep her mother out of the picture. She knew for a fact that Jane was just getting over her first heartbreak at college and not looking for a boyfriend. Elsie was off to college in less than three months, and she wanted time to concentrate on school, make new friends, and figure out who she was outside of Rosebelle. Not worry about a boyfriend. Neither of them were in the market, but that didn't stop a force of nature like her mother. But between her mother and her younger sisters, Elsie could only hope that nothing too embarrassing happened at the wedding. She entered the downtown area, spying Rosie's at the end of the block. It was a tiny shop that had mediocre coffee and a limited food menu, but amazing, curl-up-with-a-book atmosphere and unlimited, free Wi-Fi. It was a perfect place to get Jane alone so they could catch up on all the gritty details of her recent relationship without the company of their pesky younger sisters. Not that she didn't love her sisters, but they were still at the age where Jane and she had to watch which they said. Some of the more adult stories that Jane had promised to tell her were not the kind that would get more compelling through filter. She peeked in the window as she came upon Rosie's storefront, but stopped in her tracks when she saw another girl sitting across from her sister, laughing. She could only see the back of her as she flipped her thick dark hair over her shoulder—not hair she recognized, though. Jane didn't mention that they were meeting someone else there; she had met most of Jane's friends from Tulane University, but this girl didn't look familiar. She entered Rosie's, waving at Jane before walking up to the counter to order. "Hiya, Elsie," the girl behind the counter said. Eleanor Dashwood was a few grades behind her in school and had never quite gotten along with her younger sisters. "Hello," Elsie said. She reached into her purse for her wallet. "Just my usual." "We'll bring it right out," Eleanor said cheerfully. Elsie paid, then made her way to Jane's table. "Elsie!" Jane stood up and gave her sister a hug as they greeted each other. "I've missed you so much!" "I missed you too," Elsie said. It had been hard to see Jane go off to college a year earlier. Staying behind in Rosebelle, especially with her mother and her sisters, hadn't been very easy without her big sister there to help her through it. That was one of the reasons that she has spent so much of her senior year hanging out with Emma and Charlotte. "This is my friend, Caroline," Jane said. "Caroline, you remember I told you about my sister, Elsie?" Caroline sat up and held out her perfectly manicured hands to Elsie. "Wonderful to meet you. I've heard so many good things about you from Jane." Elsie nodded, as she slid into her seat next to Jane. She was sure that she had never heard Jane mention the Caroline during the whole time she was at school. "It's nice to meet you too." "Caroline is a good friend of Mr. Weston." Suddenly, something clicked. "I see," Elsie said. "You must be Caroline Bingley, then." "Oh, right," Jane said. "Elsie is close friends with Emma Woodhouse, the maid-of-honor. You're helping her with the seating charts, right?" "You're friends with Emma Woodhouse," Caroline said, suddenly seeming slightly more engaged in the conversation. "I've heard so much about her from Mr. Weston." "How do you know the Westons?" Elsie asked. "Charles and I went to summer camp with Mr. Weston's son, Frank. I'm sure you've heard all about him." She had—Frank's aunt would not let him come to his father's wedding, and Elsie knew it was a source of frustration and heartbreak for Mr. Weston. She nodded and changed the subject. "You must also know Fitz Darcy, then." "Yes," Caroline said, her smile tightening. "Fitzwilliam is actually my date to the wedding." "Oh," Elsie said. There was something tense under Caroline's tone that caught her off guard. "He's also your brother's best friend, right?" "He's been a close friend of our family for years." She leaned in. "To be honest, he's very particular about who he spent his time with, you know, considering everything that happened with his family couple years ago." Nothing about Caroline's words gave her away, but Elsie couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't an offhand comment, but rather a warning to stay away. "Well, that makes sense," Jane said kindly. "I'm sure it was a trying time for him." Eleanor arrived with Elsie's drink. "So," Caroline said, her eyes brightening. "Since you're friends with Emma Woodhouse, you must have all the dirt on Annabeth Taylor." Caroline looked at her expectantly, but Elsie hesitated. "Oh… You haven't met Annabeth yet?" "Well, you know how it is. The engagement happened so fast, we couldn't even believe that Mr. Weston was getting married again! Obviously, his family doesn't approve—something about Annabeth's true intentions? Mr. Weston is far too smart to be had by a woman. But you must have heard, that's why Frank wasn't allowed to come." "Oh, no," Elsie said. "I didn't know that was the reason." "Yes. His sister-in-law is all about marrying within one's social circle. Also," Caroline added, "She doesn't exactly approve of the age difference between them. Mr. Weston is like an uncle to me, our families have always been so close. And Annabeth is what—twenty-three, twenty-four? Practically my age, and practically the age of his son." "Annabeth is a wonderful person," Elsie said, a little surprised by how easily the conversation had shifted. "She's extremely caring. She practically raised Emma—" "I'm sure she did! This isn't me, of course. I'm just telling you what Mr. Weston's family thinks," Caroline said, eyes wide with insisted innocence. But the tone in her voice was still a little off, and Elsie could hear how disingenuous she was. She seemed kind on the surface, but she was giving off this underlying vibe that made her wonder how her sister, Jane Bennet, the nicest girl in the entire world, ever became friends with her. "She must be absolutely spectacular for Mr. Weston to overlook her financial situation," Caroline drawled. "I guess some people just marry for love," Elsie said, growing weary of the other girl's jabs at Annabeth. It was a good thing that Emma wasn't there, because she was sure her best friend would go absolutely ballistic over Caroline's comments. "Yes, but not everyone should," Caroline said. "No matter, though. I can't wait for this wedding tomorrow—I've heard it's going to be one of the most beautiful weddings that Rosebelle has ever had." "Speaking of Rosebelle," Jane said, "do you want us to show you around?" "Yes, yes, yes," Caroline said. "Your little downtown is so adorable. There is a little shop at the very end, some sort of dessert store? I looked at the menu and it reminded me so much Serendipity." "Serendipity?" Elsie said. "You know," Caroline said, "Serendipity. New York?" Elsie shook her head—it was clear that Caroline expected her to know what Serendipity was, but she had never heard of it before in her life. "It's an extremely famous dessert shop really close to the Upper East Side in Manhattan. They serve huge sundaes. You have to try one someday." "Sweet Kisses serves sundaes too," Elsie said. "Actually, my friend Emma—" "Aww," Caroline said, giving Jane a patronizing look that irritated Elsie to no end. "Your little sister is so adorable." She turned to Elsie. "We're going to have to take you and Jane to New York so you can try these sundaes. They are to die for—you will never even think about Sweet Sundaes again." "Sweet Kisses," Elsie corrected. "Right," she said, flashing a smile. "Of course. Plus, we can go shopping and get some new clothes for when we're all at LSU together…" "You go to LSU too?" Elsie asked, attempting to sound happy about it. Caroline tilted her head. "Jane didn't tell you? We're both transferring there in the fall." Elsie looked at Jane. "You're transferring to LSU?!" Jane had dreamt of going to Tulane for years—but the look on her face told Elsie that now wasn't the time to discuss it. Elsie glanced back at Caroline, who was watching both of them with a hint of a smirk on her face. "I hope I didn't ruin a surprise," Caroline said, with big innocent eyes. "I assumed, because the two of you are so close—" Elsie didn't like what she was implying. "It's no problem," Jane said politely. She turned to Elsie. "It was a last minute decision, but I think it will be great to go to school with my sister." Elsie smiled, knowing there was more she wasn't telling her and secretly wishing Caroline wasn't there so she could find out what was really going on with Jane. She had loved her freshman year at Tulane, studying environmental science and working with some of the best professors in the country. "New York sounds fun," Jane said, changing the subject. "You are so kind to invite us. It would be nice to get out of Rosebelle for a few days this summer." "This summer?" Elsie said. "I thought you had an internship—" She stopped, watching Caroline's lips turn into a full-on smirk. "That's changed as well, hasn't it?" Elsie asked. Jane smiled, nodding. "Well," Caroline said, "Rosebelle should prove to be an interesting place to spend the summer, right, Jane? I know I'm looking forward to it." "Are you staying for the summer?" Elsie asked. "I thought you were only here for the wedding." "Our parents bought a summer home here years and years ago," Caroline said. "Put it in Charles's name so he would have some investments before he graduated. My brother and sister and I decided to vacation here until school starts up again." "Fun," Elsie said, mustering every ounce of fake enthusiasm she had left. She couldn't even get excited about the fact that if Caroline was staying, it meant Chuck Bingley was staying as well. She couldn't pinpoint what it was about Caroline that she didn't like. Nothing Caroline said had been particularly mean, but she still seemed like a snob. Jane didn't seem to see it, and that only worried Elsie more. The whole school year she'd been looking forward to spending some time over the summer with her older sister, one of her closest friends. But if Caroline was going to be there too, she didn't imagine she'd see as much of Jane as she had hoped. And she didn't want to see nearly as much of Caroline—but as far as she could tell, watching them make idle conversation, their affection for each other was both real and mutual. Elsie wasn't sure what to make of that. Chapter 4 – EMMA EMMA watched the gas needle drop just a tick above 'E' as she pulled into the dirt lot of Mrs. Goddard's. It'll be fine, she thought, ignoring the image of Jace's pestering I-told-you-so face popping into her mind. There was plenty to get back to town. Probably. She had too many other things to worry about at the moment, anyway. She hopped out of her mustang, silently congratulating herself once again on her excellent taste as she glanced around the pick-your-own organic farm. It had been her idea to help Mrs. Goddard do some updates once her husband passed away and she inherited his father's land; judging from the crowd of people on a Friday afternoon, the investment was paying off. Mrs. Goddard didn't run the farm by herself, of course, but had a staff to help customers, work the land, and run the restaurant and gift shop that greeted guests. Those had both been Emma's ideas too—the Goddards were long-time family friends, and she couldn't resist helping once Mr. Goddard died. She had spent nearly three years of high school securing the business loans from her father and a few of his friends, working with contractors, and picking out all the design elements, from inventory to menus to decor to branding. The result was a breathtaking experience that was perfectly on-trend with country chic, that could support Mrs. Goddard for the rest of her days. She was so grateful for Emma's help, that she had even revised her will to make Emma a part-owner when she passed. Someday, Mrs. Goddard's would be hers. She pursed her lips, suppressing her smile as she walked into the restaurant. A pretty, petite girl with a full face, red hair, and pale skin greeted her with a wide smile. "How many in your party?" she asked. Emma eyed her name tag. Harriet. She had heard Mrs. Goddard mention a Harriet Smith a few times, her niece who might be coming to live with her. The girl had lived with her father, Mrs. Goddard's brother, in the neighboring town of Ravensbelle just a few miles south. But the father was more interested in saving children in Africa than taking care of his own child at home. So Harriet had raised herself in some respects, until Mrs. Goddard talked her into moving to Rosebelle. "I'm not dining tonight," Emma said, flipping her hair behind her. "Are you Harriet Smith? I'm Emma Woodhouse, close friend of your aunt's." Harriet's eyes widened as she set the menus down at the hostess station. "You're Emma Woodhouse? Oh my gosh, my aunt has told me all about you. National merit scholar, honor society, state qualifier in track and field, prom queen! You are basically the reason I want to go to Rosebelle Prep next year. I want to finish out my education there just like you. And everything you've done around here too—I can't even imagine putting this entire business together." Emma laughed at Harriet's gushing. "Well, thank you. It wasn't easy, but I am planning to major in business when I get to LSU." "You will be so good at it," Harriet said, still wide-eyed, as if she were meeting a celebrity. "So it's decided then?" Emma said, finding herself both flattered and more curious than ever about the girl standing in front of her. She was pretty, sweet, and had good taste, judging from her admiration of Emma's work at Mrs. Goddard's. She had potential—potential that Emma could use in Rosebelle. She just wasn't sure where. Harriet's eyes blanked. "What's decided?" "That you're moving to Rosebelle to go to school," Emma said. "Oh, yes," Harriet said, her face lighting up again. "I'm starting my senior year there in the fall." A small smile crept onto Emma's lips. "Interesting," she replied, her mind surveying Harriet. As pretty as she was, she didn't exactly have a completed look—her nails were ragged from biting, her socks didn't match, and her hair could be styled differently to make her appear a bit more... feminine. "Oh my gosh!" Harriet exclaimed. "You're here to pick up the pie-in-a-jars for the Weston wedding! I'll tell Robby to load them into your car." Harriet rushed off, making it halfway to the kitchens before stopping dead in her tracks. "Keys," she muttered. "Sorry." She made her way back to Emma sheepishly, and Emma dropped the keys into the palm of her outstretched hand. "We will get this done as soon as possible, Miss Woodhouse," Harriet promised, scurrying off to the kitchens again. Emma suppressed her smile as she walked through the restaurant, observing the people eating and the servers waiting on them. She noticed a boy emerge from the kitchen, his shirt untucked, his tennis shoes dragging mud across the gorgeous oak hardwood floors she had picked out. She made a mental note to mention him to Mrs. Goddard. She had advised against Mrs. Goddard's decision to have a uniform-less staff in the restaurant, and judging from what she had seen between Harriet and the bus boy, the casual approach wasn't producing the desired impression on potential guests. She imagined Mrs. Goddard's one day gracing the covers of magazines, appearing on the Food Network, and franchising, just like her father's automobile business—but that would never happen if the little details didn't come together more readily. Any moment could be The Moment when someone important took notice and put Mrs. Goddard's on the map. She didn't want her friend to miss out on the opportunity. She walked around, dictating little notes about this and that on her phone, until Harriet came back with her keys. "All set, Emma." "Thank you," Emma said, taking the keys from Harriet. "Will you be attending the wedding tomorrow?" Emma didn't have her down on the guest list, but she had set aside an extra seat at Mrs. Goddard's table. "Oh, no," Harriet said, looking at the ground. "My aunt asked if I wanted to go, but I didn't have anything to wear." "I see," Emma said, wishing she had more time—she could have easily taken Harriet shopping, if only the wedding wasn't tomorrow. "Well, come by with Mrs. Goddard whenever you make the move to Rosebelle. We would love to have you over for dinner. And we could go swimming afterward with Jace and Elsie—" "Oh my gosh," Harriet said, her eyes sparkling with excitement. "I heard your house is, like, the house to be at during the summers. Lacey Bates said you even have a hot tub." Emma smirked, not surprised that her former classmate was raving about her house. "Lacey Bates is right. How do you know her?" "Oh, she works in the kitchen," Harriet said brightly. "She made all the pie-in-a-jars for the Weston wedding herself!" Emma nodded, remembering that Lacey Bates was going to community college the next year to save her family money. She was a nice enough girl, if a bit annoying, but definitely not the type of friend Harriet needed if she wanted to do well at Rosebelle Prep. "Are you close friends with Lacey?" "Oh, yes," Harriet said solemnly. "She's told me all about Rosebelle and is going to introduce me to everyone who lives there." "I see," Emma said, waving her hand. "She doesn't need to do that. I'd be happy to introduce you to people in Rosebelle, and I can connect you to all the smart and successful girls that you'll be going to school with." She tilted her head to the side. "I would hate for you to start off on the wrong foot at your new school." "Oh my gosh, of course," Harriet said, with a single wrinkle of worry across her creamy, smooth forehead. "I wouldn't want to start off on the wrong foot." Emma smiled, glad that she could be so helpful. "Great, here's my number." She jotted down her number on the back of a napkin and handed it to Harriet. "Can't wait to see you again." She walked out of the restaurant to her car and got in, checking to make sure the staff had secured the blueberry pie-in-a-jars properly. She set off, humming to Top Forty radio, watching the needle on her gas gauge carefully as the car puttered along. She still had ten miles of dusty swampland roads to go, with no gas stations along the way. She only hoped she could make it back to Rosebelle and get the desserts into the fridge at the reception hall in time. They would only last a few hours in the ice-packed coolers, and if she ruined them with her carelessness, Annabeth would be so disappointed. Her car made it nearly two more miles before it puttered to a dead stop, right in the middle of the road. Emma took a deep breath, holding her two index fingers to her forehead to remind herself to stay calm. She whipped out her phone and texted Elsie. "Car stalled on the 'R' about eight miles north of town. Can you pick me up?" Elsie replied quickly. "Mom is using our second car." Emma frowned. She had known that Elsie's parents were having to scale back their spending for awhile, but when her best friend didn't get a car for her sixteenth birthday and had to share with her older sister, Jane, she knew it was much worse than Elsie let on. There were five Bennet sisters total and recently they were sharing everything, even clothes—Emma, being practically an only child, couldn't imagine it. "Boo," she texted back. "Can you borrow a car?" Emma found it ironic that her father owned hundreds of cars, yet she couldn't get a single one of them now. "Text Charlotte—she's off work today." Charlotte Lucas, Elsie's neighborhood friend from childhood, was a year older than both of them, having graduated with Jane's class. Elsie had been best friends with Charlotte for nearly their whole lives, until Elsie and Emma grew closer. She liked Charlotte well enough, but wouldn't have been friends with her if Elsie wasn't in her life. Charlotte was fairly plain and, like Lacey Bates, not particularly motivated. Not the way Emma was. She texted Charlotte, who didn't respond—then again, Charlotte wasn't the type who had her phone on her at all times. Emma checked the time on her phone. She didn't want to call Jace, because that meant admitting to him that he was right, and she hated doing that. But she was running out of options. Swallowing her pride, she pressed a few buttons on her phone and listened to the ringing at the other end of the line. "Emma," he said, when he picked up the line. "Let me guess—you forgot to fill up your gas tank before you left." She sighed, hating how well he knew her. "Can you please pick me up? Annabeth's pie favors are in the trunk, and I'm afraid they'll start globbing together into a melted mess pretty soon." "Why can't you call a tow truck?" he asked. "A tow truck?" she repeated disdainfully. Tow trucks were dirty, clunky, and unwilling to help her finish her errand for Annabeth. "No way. I need you, the Best Man to whom the surprise is for, to drive out here and help me get these pies to safety as soon as possible." "Emma, I'm in the middle of something right now." "Something that's more important than two of our dearest, bestest friends marrying each other?" She bit her lip, glancing into her rearview mirror as she spoke. Coming up from behind, a red F-150 headed down the road toward her. "If you call a tow truck now, you can still get the pies to a fridge in time. This is a good lesson for you to refill your gas tank when the needle is pointing at the same letter your first name starts with." "Jace Knightley, now is not the time for a lesson," Emma said, scowling at his refusal. "This is a disaster! I'm going to ruin these desserts, Annabeth is going to want to kill me but won't because she's too nice, the Weston wedding will be ruined—" Jace laughed on the other end. "You're being ridiculous, Emma. Just call the tow truck and get it handled. You can do this." Someone tapped on her car windows and she jumped. Out the window, she saw the red F-150 stopped and two seriously handsome guys looking in at her. "Hang on, Jace." She rolled down her window. "I'm sorry I'm in the way," she told the two guys. "My car is out of gas." The guy closest to her window flashed her a huge grin. "Need a ride?" He reached into the car with an outstretched hand. "I saw you back at the Goddard farm. Can I help you get somewhere?" "Who is that?" Jace asked suspiciously through the receiver. Emma gave Chuck Bingley a grateful smile, knowing exactly who he was, even without a formal introduction. Elsie would be so jealous when she found out that they had already met, before Annabeth's wedding reception! "Sure," she said, shaking his hand. "If you could give me a lift to Rosebelle. It's about eight miles south, just down this road." "Emma," Jace said anxiously, "do not get a ride with strangers." She heard him shuffling on the other end, jangling his keys. "I'm coming to get you, sit tight." "No problem," Chuck said. "We're headed that way already. We can hitch your mustang to the back of my truck." "Emma," Jace warned. "Thanks for offering," she said into the receiver, "but I won't be needing a ride from you after all." "Emma, this is crazy and dangerous. Don't do something stupid just to—" She hung up, stuffing her phone back into her purse with satisfaction. That would teach her dear next door neighbor one of those lessons he was so fond of. She got out of her car and walked over to the two guys. "Chuck Bingley, right?" She tilted her head to the side; he was even more handsome in person, with dark skin and bright, blue eyes. "Emma Woodhouse, maid-of-honor at the Weston-Taylor wedding. My friend and I were just talking about you earlier today, trying to figure out who your mysterious guest was." She thought that would leave a good opening for the other guy with him, tall with dark hair, whom she could only presume was Fitzwilliam Darcy, to introduce himself. Instead, he held back, leaning against the truck, looking uncomfortable. "This is Fitz," Chuck said kindly, thankfully understanding social cues better than his friend. "Fitzwilliam Darcy," Emma said knowingly, holding out her hand. "I just added you to the seating chart this afternoon. I'm Emma Woodhouse." "Yes," he replied stiffly, his jaw set. "I just heard you say that." He gave her a brief handshake, letting go quickly before turning to Chuck. "We should move along." Chuck smiled easily, his cheek forming a dimple. "Right, let's get your car hitched to mine." Emma returned his smile. "Our cars can have a double wedding with the soon-to-be Westons." Chuck laughed easily, but Fitz didn't even acknowledge her joke, instead examining the front of her mustang with a very serious expression on his face. She tried not to let his chilly vibe get to her—her goal was to pull off a perfect wedding for Annabeth, not to impress every guy in attendance. Chuck seemed nice enough, so she didn't think she had done anything wrong, after all. The two men made fast work of attaching her mustang to the truck, and thirty-five minutes later she was back in Rosebelle, pulling into the driveway of Madewood Plantation. The equipment rental team was already there unloading chairs and tables for the wedding the next day. Jace was waiting for them at the doors with a darkness over his face, probably because of her. When they parked, he walked up to the truck and greeted them. "Chuck," he said, holding out his hand. "Good to see you here. Welcome to Rosebelle." He looked past him, his eyes landing on Fitz. "Fitz," he said, nodding in acknowledgement. "Jace Knightley!" Chuck replied with enthusiasm. They did a complicated handshake that Emma didn't completely follow. "What are you doing here?" Jace glanced at Emma, who smirked back. "Best man duties," he finally said. "I thought Emma could use some help unloading these." She scoffed, her noise not going unnoticed. "I think we probably have it covered," she said. "Chuck and Fitz have been extremely helpful." The other two guys began to unload the boxes of jars; Jace grabbed a box as well, but hung back. Emma knew what that meant; she caught up to him, hoping the scolding was over quickly. "I'm surprised you were able to tear yourself away from your very important something," she said, engaging him. He looked back at her, adjusting the boxes in his arms. "Don't do that to me again," he said. "Ever. I don't care how upset you are with me." "Whatever, Knightley." He stopped and she looked up, expecting to see his playful, teasing eyes staring back at her; instead, the hard lines in his face told her that he was dead serious. "I was perfectly safe," she said, fluttering her eyes in exasperation. "Did you really think I would hitch a ride with complete strangers?" His face didn't change. "I mean it," he said. "Don't do that to me again." "Pick me up next time," she retorted. He looked at the ground, his jaw set. "You don't get it, do you?" he asked, before turning his back on her and walking away, picking up his pace toward the mansion's front door. Get what? she thought to herself. She had expected him to be annoyed, but this—he was angry at her. But why? This was what they did—teased each other, joked with each other, tried to get the best of each other—why was he so upset over it this time? Maybe because she had beaten him, for once? She trudged after him, wishing that this uncomfortableness that had settled between them would pass so they could get back to normal. Their relationship was shifting, and she could feel it. She didn't like it. Not at all. Chapter 5 – JANE "ONE of my favorite things about this town is how everyone knows one another," Jane told Caroline, after passing by yet another friend from high school. She had shown Caroline the Rosebelle Prep, where she attended school, the entrance to the trails that she ran while training for the half-marathon, and most of the downtown shops. They were nearly back at Rosie's where they'd started, but Elsie still hadn't warmed up to Caroline… neither the person, nor the idea of her having other friends besides her sister. "Knowing all of your neighbors is so cute," Caroline said. "Quaint." She looked around. "Now, where is Ravensbelle in relation to here?" "A few miles south," Elsie said. "We're sister towns." "Ah," Caroline said. "Sister towns. Adorable." "Hardly," Elsie said. "Up until a few decades ago, Rosebelle and Ravensbelle were at war. Two sisters settled the towns; apparently, they hated each other." Caroline laughed. "Oh, come on, Elizabeth. That didn't actually happen." "It might have," Elsie said, glowering. Jane smiled, racking her brain for a change of subject. "Caroline, did I tell you about Mrs. Goddard's? It's a restaurant where you can pick your own food, and they prepare it for you." "Where is this?" Caroline asked. She opened her mouth to answer just as Elsie did—no doubt to tell Caroline that her friend Emma had come up with the whole idea—but before she could utter a word they heard, "Jane! Elizabeth!" Jane flipped around to see her mother and three youngest sisters, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, moving toward them. "Hi, Mom," Jane said, waving. They trudged toward her, Elsie, and Caroline with armfuls of shopping bags, as if they'd bought out the entire downtown. "Mom," she said. "This is Caroline Bingley, one of my friends from school. Her siblings are staying at Netherfield mansion for the summer." Caroline held out her hand. "Mrs. Bennet, so lovely to meet you." "Caroline Bingley," her mom said, dropping her bags and wrapping Caroline into a hug. "Oh, okay," Caroline mumbled, allowing her mother to do so. When her mom finally released Caroline, she turned to the other girls. "These must be the rest of the Bennet sisters. Let me guess—Mary, Catherine, Lydia?" she said, pointing to each one of the girls. "I'm Kitty," Kitty said, laughing to herself. "I hate 'Catherine.'" Mary looked up only long enough to roll her eyes and sigh, before pulling a textbook out of one of the shopping bags. Caroline raised her eyebrows. "Catherine is such a lovely name, though." "Catherine!" Lydia burst out, giggling. "Catherine," she said in a silly, British accent. "So formal. Catherine, finish your tea!" "Sounds a lot like Caroline," Elsie remarked, which sent the two girls into another fit of giggles. Elsie smiled at Caroline. "Not that Caroline is too formal. I'm sure when Kitty's a little older, she'll switch." "Maybe we'll even get you to switch someday," Caroline said. "Elizabeth is a lovely name too, and you're never too young. I've never personally preferred nicknames." "Well, 'Carol' is a bit old-fashioned, so no wonder," Elsie remarked. Jane tilted her head, hoping that Elsie kept her sharp wit in check. She didn't understand the tension between them; both girls were sweet, kind, and fun to be around, and she couldn't imagine why they would have conflict with each other. Thankfully, her mother put an end to their bantering. "Miss Caroline Bingley, you are the talk of the town at the moment," she said. "Everyone is abuzz about all of Mr. Weston's rich and prominent wedding guests, including Fitzwilliam Darcy, I hear? I wouldn't believe it myself if I hadn't just seen him driving into town with Emma Woodhouse." She leaned in. "You know him personally, don't you, dear? Might I ask if Fitzwilliam Darcy is single?" "You know, Fitzwilliam is a very private person," Caroline said. "Well, if he is single," her mother said, leaning in even closer, "I hope he's looking for someone a bit more interesting than Emma Woodhouse. Elizabeth will disagree with me, but she's quite spoiled. Many of the families around here don't think she's necessarily earned many of the things she gets, if you know what I mean." "She works harder than you think," Elsie said in defense of her friend. Jane knew that this was a point of contention between her mom and her sister, but Emma had always been sweet and kind to her. "I can't wait to meet Emma Woodhouse," Caroline declared. "Though I doubt she's right for Fitzwilliam. His last girlfriend was so worldly." "Who exactly was his last girlfriend?" Elsie asked. "Because Emma is surprisingly well-traveled." "I better not say," Caroline said. "Being that Fitzwilliam—" "Is a very private person," Elsie finished for her. "Exactly. Besides, she's yesterday's news. The better question is whom he's dating next, right?" "Well, I hope it's one of my daughters," her mother said boldly. "We haven't even met him yet," Jane said, blushing. Mary, the middle sister, continued reading her book, but the two younger girls couldn't stop giggling. Her mother gave her a funny look. "Nonsense!" she exclaimed. "Caroline, don't you think my Jane is quite beautiful?" "Jane is a very pretty girl," Caroline said agreeably. "Prettiest girl in Rosebelle, if you ask me," her mother said. "Miss Emma Woodhouse has nothing on my Jane." "Mom." Jane pursed her lips, her face burning. "We do have to run, Caroline, but I'm so happy to have met a Bingley! Maybe you and Jane can have a sleepover this summer," she continued. "Jane has always loved Netherfield mansion, but she's never seen all its rooms. And Charles is around the same age as my eldest ones, plus he'll probably have all those handsome, rich friends of his in and out all summer…" "Mom," Elsie said sharply. Elsie hated when their mother made comments like that, but Jane tried to be more patient. She knew that her actions came from a place of deep love of her daughters and their future happiness. She didn't want her mom's setups and schemes any more than Elsie did, but viewed them as harmless… well, mostly harmless. Still, it was a bit embarrassing—one minute, she was throwing her daughters at Fitzwilliam Darcy, the next, throwing her at Charles Bingley, the next, throwing her at all of their friends! Jane knew none of them. After what happened with her last boyfriend, she didn't know if she could handle more heartbreak. "There's no harm in looking, Elizabeth," her mom said. "Young men of good breeding must pick out wives eventually. How else do they become politicians, leaders, and businessmen?" "Through their qualifications and abilities…" Elsie pointed out. "And Jane—" their mother continued, not hearing her, "—Well, my Jane could not make a more perfect wife. Why, with access to all that money, she could start a non-profit!" "Mom…" she said. "I'm not sure that's what I—" "Elizabeth, I wish you'd learn to hold your tongue the way Jane does. Men don't like opinionated women." Elsie opened her mouth in protest, but before she could say anything, their mother turned back to Caroline. "Please do have my girls over, dear. We need to get my Jane in front of those handsome, rich young men. I keep telling her father, if she just had the right connections—" "Okay, Mom," Elsie said. "I'm sure the Bingleys have a lot of plans this summer, and we don't want to be a burden." "It's not a burden, is it, Caroline?" their mother asked. "Netherfield is the plan this summer, Elizabeth." "There's certainly a long summer's worth of events to look forward to," Caroline said in response to her mom's not-so-subtle and somewhat embarrassing hints. She was expertly non-committal, a political savant-in-training. Jane hoped that Caroline wasn't offended by her mother's implication that she should serve as a wife of a politician rather than in an office of her own. "And to hear that Charles helped so many people in the aftermath of Katrina," her mom said. "Did you know my Jane is studying environmental science so she can dedicate her life and career to saving the swamplands?" Lydia and Kitty burst out laughing at something they were whispering about, earning a confused look from Caroline. "Oh, my," she said, smiling. "It's been so long since we were that young, hasn't it, Jane?" She smiled, so thankful that Caroline was understanding of her mother. "It has. And Mom, Caroline and I are both studying environmental science. We share a lot of those same interests. Caroline hopes to serve at the political level, which is why she's double majoring at LSU next fall." Her mom beamed. "Even better. The two of you will be as close as sisters before long." She looked at the other girls. "Come on," she said. "So many people to tell—my Jane's new best friend is Caroline Bingley! Mrs. Lucas will die with jealousy when she finds out what her Charlotte is missing out on, not going to college—" "Mom," Elsie said, cutting her off. "Well, it's the truth. I told her as much myself." "We should be going too," Jane said, shooting Elsie a look. Their mother did, at times, have a way of making people who didn't know her as well a bit uncomfortable. She would hate to make Caroline feel that way. "Yes!" Elsie said. "On with the tour of Rosebelle. Caroline, do you want to see the bookstore?" The had already seen the bookstore, even stopped in. But Caroline nodded quickly, letting Jane know that she understood—that she didn't fault them for their mother's outlandish comments. "Oh, Jane—" her mother said. "We have to go," Elsie insisted, tugging Jane's arm and pulling her into the bookstore. "Bye, Mom!" Their mother looked a little surprised, but saw Mrs. Allen across the street, which promptly captured her attention. Kitty, Lydia, and Mary followed after her, the first two gossiping to one another, the last nearly running into someone as she snuck peeks at her book. "That was something," Jane said, grinning at Caroline. Caroline nodded, pursing her lips into a tentative smile as well. She only hoped that her mother's comments weren't a preview of the rest of their summer. And that Elsie warmed up to Caroline soon. Chapter 6 – JANE "WHAT about this one?" Caroline said. She held a gorgeous necklace to her neck, staring at herself in the mirror. Jane's mother had dropped her off at Netherfield that afternoon, and now she was helping Caroline choose what to wear for the Weston wedding. She smiled. "Perfect." Caroline smiled back. "Do you mind helping with the clasp?" Jane moved behind Caroline to help her with the necklace. As she fiddled with it, she couldn't help but notice how heavy it was. It was a wonder to her how different precious stone felt when compared to costume jewelry. Once the necklace was secured around her neck, Caroline spun around, showing off her completed outfit. "What do you think?" "I think you're ready to go to this wedding," Jane said. Caroline admired herself in the mirror. "Now let's get you something pretty to wear." She opened one of her jewelry boxes and examined the pieces inside carefully, as if considering each item individually and rating it on the merits of how well it would pair with Jane's dress. "I can't," Jane said shyly. She could tell just from a glance that every single piece Caroline had in that jewelry box cost more than her entire outfit… probably several of her outfits put together, in fact. "I insist," Caroline said, pulling out several selections. "Put these on." Jane took a pair of earrings that seemed the least expensive and self-consciously strung them through her earlobes. She glanced up into the mirror, tilting her head. "That's a lot better," Caroline remarked, her eyes trailing up and down Jane's figure. "Now, we should do something about those shoes…" She disappeared into her closet again. "Caroline?" A muffled, male voice floated up the stairs. "I'm back." Other voices echoed through the house, signaling several new arrivals. "My brother must be home," Caroline said. "Come on, let me introduce you." When Caroline turned her back, Jane quickly took off the earrings, laying them carefully back in Caroline's jewelry box. She abandoned her clutch on Caroline's bed and followed her down the stairs to Netherfield's first-floor foyer. As she walked, she couldn't help but take in the grand, mahogany staircase, the pale blue patterned wallpaper, the high ceilings, the stained glass windows, and the Victorian woodwork. Her mother hadn't been lying the day before—she had always loved Netherfield and everything the mansion had to offer. Until now, however, she had only truly loved Netherfield from afar. Being friends with Caroline had given her the chance to see the estate up close. She could gain true appreciation and experience of the grounds, the amenities, and the lifestyle. Caroline certainly had a good life—she had everything she could possibly want in plenty of comfort and convenience. Jane was lucky that Caroline was willing to share a part of it with her, and she hoped that she could get to know the Bingleys better over the summer. They reached the landing at the bottom of stairs, where the rest of the Bingley party had gathered. "Hello there," one of the males said. He could only be Charles Bingley—he was about 5'10" and had the same cocoa skin and bright blue eyes that made his sister Caroline so beautiful. And he was staring at her intensely, like he couldn't drink in her image fast enough. Her heart stopped beating. He was so, so handsome, with such an unassuming energy about him, that she couldn't help but stare back. She bit her lip, feeling her face flushing. The instant attraction between them felt irresistibly palpable and at the same time, completely inappropriate. Charles was surrounded by his family—Louisa Bingley, who looked just like her two siblings, and two other men, neither of whom Jane recognized. Could they tell? Her cheeks burned with embarrassment over both of their physical reactions. She wished that Caroline wasn't there, at the least—what would her friend think of her ogling her brother? Charles made his way toward them in a slight daze, extending his arm between them. "Chuck Bingley," he said, holding out an open palm. Jane placed her hand in his palm without thinking, flushing even more as he bent his lips down to kiss the back of her hand. He kissed her hand, as if they were in some fairy book romance. She'd never felt so swept away by someone in her entire life. "Charles, this is my friend from school, Jane Bennet. She lives here in town." Caroline turned again with a smile. "Please, ignore my sister and call me Chuck," he said, his hand still clinging to hers. "Jane, please excuse my brother. He flirts with all my friends like this." Still unable to find her breath, she slowly pulled her hands out of Chuck's. She couldn't find her words, but she smiled at him, hoping that she hadn't made too large a fool of herself. "And this is my sister, Louisa, her husband Jeff." She waved. "Nice to meet you," she managed to squeak out in a slightly higher tone than usual. Get a grip, she told herself, forcing herself to look away from Chuck. She could feel his eyes on her, but there had to be another explanation. Why would they feel so… drawn to each other like this? It had to be in her head, which meant that her actions were too eager. She was embarrassing herself. "And this," Caroline said, interrupting her thoughts, "is Fitzwilliam Darcy the second. He goes to school at LSU also, studying business, like my brother, so we may be seeing a lot of both of them in the future." Caroline winked at her so that no one else would catch it, and Jane immediately understood. She knew Caroline and Fitz had been flirting back and forth for months. She was hoping this extended stay at Netherfield would be the last boost needed to take the relationship further. Caroline planned to use the summer to convince her brother that a relationship between his best friend and his little sister could work for all of them—and to get Fitz locked down before the two of them moved back to Baton Rouge in the fall. Fitz gave Jane a nod, which she returned with the addition of a smile to help him feel more at ease. Caroline had mentioned a few times that Fitz was a bit closed off after what happened to his parents. She could see it in his wary eyes; he was shy, aloof. "Jane," Chuck said from behind her. Surprised to hear her name, she flipped around. Chuck had moved closer to her, or maybe she had moved closer to him… either way, they were less than a foot apart. "Has Caroline given you a tour of the property?" Jane nodded. "It's extensive," she said. "Beautiful." He smiled. "Has she offered you a drink? We just bought some more wine for anyone who wants to come over after the wedding reception, but I'm sure we can crack one of the bottles open early." "Getting drunk before a wedding?" Caroline scoffed, though Jane was sure she was just teasing. "Not the classiest move, even for you." "You're probably right," Chuck said with an easy smile. He glanced at Jane again. "Well, I do know one thing that Caroline didn't show you. She's skipped it on every tour she's given so far." "Jane doesn't want to see that stuffy greenhouse," Caroline said. "Her makeup will run." "Actually, I'd be very interested in seeing the greenhouse." "Great," Chuck said. "let me show it to you." Jane looked at Caroline, who smiled back at her. "Go, go," she said. "Like I said, Chuck does this to all my friends. When you got back, I'll help you fix your makeup." "I'll return her shortly," Chuck said, winking at Caroline and extending an elbow to Jane. Did he expect her to take his arm? Would it be rude of her not to? Probably. She accepted his offer politely, sliding her palm around his bicep, her fingers into the crook of his bent arm, and let him lead her off. "So," Chuck said with a grin, "What has Caroline told you about me?" She smiled back. "What makes you think she told me anything about you?" "Well, I do know she told you that I flirt with all her friends." "She did say that," Jane acknowledged. "It's not true," he said, still grinning. "Well, it's sort of true. But only the pretty ones," he said with a chuckle. She smiled wider, feeling shy. She felt like she couldn't stop smiling if she wanted to—Chuck was like the sun itself, daring anyone to have a bad day when it was providing such warm weather. "I'm sure all of Caroline's friends are pretty." "Most of them," he said slowly, his eyes lingering on her. She smiled back, finding it hard to maintain eye contact with him. She needed a more benign topic. "Caroline also told me that you do a lot of volunteer work." "Yep," he said. "I've started a foundation—though, I don't do much with it while in school." "That's really… great." She felt like she couldn't form words—a foundation? Caroline hadn't told her about her brother's foundation, which was odd, because she knew that Jane was looking for foundation support for several projects she had worked on that year in school. She had probably forgot to mention it though, or maybe Jane had forgotten. "Do you like to volunteer?" he asked, filling in the silence. She nodded, fully aware of her less-than-desirable conversation skills at that moment. "I love it. I have so much, and there are so many people who need so much more." "I'm the same way," he said. "I wouldn't be able to enjoy all this"—he gestured around him—"if I didn't give back. With what my family has built, I never have to earn money a day in my life if I don't want to. I owe it to society to make a difference—as much as I can, at least." Jane glanced at him, finally meeting his striking blue eyes. "I like that," she admitted. "We can all do a better job at repaying our debt to society." They neared the edge of the property, where a small path between the shrubbery and trees allowed them to pass through. "It's back here." He let his arm drift down, grabbing her wrist, tugging her down the path, through the trees. "Come on, I'll show you. Caroline hates it, but—" They tumbled out of the tunnel into a small, grassy field with a little exposed building and gardening tools strewn all over. "Oh." Jane stopped, amazed how petite and simple the greenhouse was. Netherfield itself was large, cavernous, extensive… but this little plot of land, tucked away at the edge of the property, was quaint, elegant, and romantic. "Cool, isn't it?" Chuck pulled her toward the door, right past the petunias and what looked like a cucumber trellis, which Jane had only seen once in her entire life. "Ladies first," Chuck said, extending his arm toward the doorway. Jane stepped through the door. The hot air immediately engulfed her, and she immediately understood Caroline's earlier comment about makeup. "I had no idea this was back here." The small structure was filled from floor to ceiling with flowers of all kinds. Primarily magnolias and pink roses, but she also recognized the red zinnias as being the same that she had seen in an arrangement in the hallway upstairs of the mansion. "Have you toured Netherfield before?" he asked. "I mean, before Caroline gave you the tour, of course." "Not exactly," she admitted, still looking around. "My sister and I may have snuck onto the property a few times when it was vacant, though." She wondered if he would think that was rude of her, but his laugh came easily. "A sister?" he said. "Four of them," she replied. "Ahh," he said. "I'm flush with sisters, too. One more thing we have in common." He winked at her, and she wasn't sure if it was the heat of the greenhouse or the way he kept looking at her, but she couldn't quite breathe. "My sisters are young," she said, turning away from him. "Elsie—she's the one I'm closest to. She's a year younger than me, and probably my best friend in the world…" He moved closer behind her, and her breathing hitched in her chest. "I have to meet this Elsie, then," he said, inching closer still. They were all alone, and she could feel the beads of sweat forming on her forehead. "She'll be at the wedding," Jane said, turning back to him. "Which we should probably get to. Caroline was right about this heat's effect on makeup." She laughed lightly and it worked to break the mounting tension between them. He smiled. "You still look good to me." She took a deep breath. "She was right about the flirting, too, it seems." She turned and walked back toward the door, hiding the corners of her mouth turning up. "Ah, don't be fooled. Caroline doesn't know everything about me." She nodded, running her hand along her shoulder to adjust her dress strap, using her other hand to open the greenhouse door. The cooler air outside helped calm her breathing a little. He stepped after her, but she resisted the urge to turn back; one more look between them and she didn't know if she could be responsible for what happened next. What was she thinking, though? She had just met Chuck, but she couldn't pretend the blood rushing through her body wasn't because of her attraction to him. It was so unlike her, though. She was the good girl, the naive girl, the generous girl. She didn't crush on men she'd just met—that type of behavior was better left to her younger sisters, Kitty and Lydia. They walked back toward the house, Jane managing to avoid making eye contact with Chuck. He followed her lead, not asking her any more questions, not telling her any more stories, and definitely not flirting so blatantly with her again. Did that mean she'd scared him off? Maybe he was offended by how little she'd said to him so far—how embarrassingly devoid of words she'd been during the small amount of time they'd shared together. "Charles! Hurry up!" Caroline shouted from the porch, interrupting Jane's thoughts. "What took you so long?" "We were only gone a few minutes," Chuck replied, clearly unfazed by his sister's tone. "Jane, your mascara is splotchy." Caroline ushered her forward, upstairs and into the large, double sink bathroom where she touched up all her makeup. Fifteen minutes later, the entire party was split into two cars, on their way to the wedding ceremony. Caroline and Chuck rode with her, while Fitz, Louisa, and Jeff rode in another car. Chuck still seemed curious about her as they rode. "What are you studying LSU next year?" he asked. Jane opened her mouth, but Caroline beat her to it. "Environmental science," she said. "Jane wants to save the bayou." "Ambitious," Chuck said, still watching her. "Yes," Caroline agreed. "Jane is so ambitious." There was an edge to Caroline's tone that Jane chose to ignore. She was probably just still irritated with Chuck from earlier. After that, though, Chuck didn't ask any more questions. They got to the wedding ceremony and reunited with Jeff, Louisa, and Fitz. "Where should we sit?" Louisa asked. "I should probably find my family," Jane said, seeing a large, plum hat toward the front that could only belong to her mother. "You're not going to sit with us?" Chuck asked. He looked at the others. "Why don't we sit with Jane's family?" "Oh, that's—" Jane paused, wondering how to put her concerns nicely. Before she could, the rest of the party shrugged in agreement, though Caroline pointedly looked away, scratching her nose at that exact moment. Chuck turned to her with a grin. "Lead the way." Chapter 7 – ELSIE "DO you need anything else?" Elsie pinned the last clasp of Annabeth's dress shut and stepped away from the bride so she could get a good look in the mirror. "This is perfect," Annabeth said, her eyes watering. She spun back and forth in front of the mirror, swooshing her train behind her. "No tears!" Emma cried out, adjusting a pin in Annabeth's hair to hide it better. "Your makeup will run." "Let Emma cry for you," Elsie suggested. "The maid-of-honor can't have better eyeliner than the bride." Annabeth laughed. "Thank you for your help, Els." "Lift your arms," Emma instructed. She gave Annabeth's dress a slight tug to the left. She stepped back, tilted her head sideways, and frowned. "Stop looking at me like that," Annabeth joked. "Hello? Bride standing here." Emma said nothing, stepping forward. "Arms," she said. Annabeth lifted her arms again and Emma gave the dress a slight tug to the right, moving it right back to the position it started in. "I'm going to let her fuss over you," Elsie said, winking at Annabeth. "I should have known better than to ask a perfectionist to help me get dressed," Annabeth replied, winking back. "You wound me," Emma said, though she smiled as well. "If you see my father out there, can you let him know that Annabeth is dressed and we are ready for him?" Annabeth had been part of the family and almost like a sister since Bella had married. Emma had needed a companion and babysitter, and Annabeth moved in for when Mr. Woodhouse had to attend to business outside of the home. A year or so later, Emma had outgrown the need for a baby-sitter, but Annabeth remained at Hartfield because the three of them loved the living situation so much. But in the last month Annabeth had slowly been moving all her belongings to Randall's, the mansion named after General P. Randall himself. It was a southern tradition to name large houses, and Randall's was one of the largest properties in all of Rosebelle. Emma adjusted the dress for the third time, this time tugging it up against Annabeth's chest. "Of course," Elsie said, grabbing a box of tissues near the door. Emma gave her a quizzical look. "For your father," she said, deadpan. "Poor Miss Taylor!" she moaned, hand to her chest doing her best Mr. Woodhouse impression. "He'll probably get through these on his way back here." Emma cracked a smile, distracted just long enough so that Elsie could slip through the door. She had tried to leave three times already, but each time, Emma came up with any other nutty, last-minute adjustments that she needed help with. She made her way outside, eager to finally see the ceremony area, since they were still setting it up when she first arrived to help Emma with Annabeth. She gasped. Guests were arriving, finding their seats and being escorted by the team of ushers stationed at the top of the aisle. But even in the midst of the milling crowd, the ceremony site was breathtaking. The altar itself was at the base of the enormous oak that shaded Madewood Plantation's front lawn. Hung from some of the lower branches, around where the ceremony would take place, were long pink and cream strips of fabric and a trio of elaborate chandeliers. Every few rows along the aisle stood a tall column with an overflowing arrangement of peonies in various shades of pink and delicate greenery. A thick, as yet undisturbed carpet of white rose petals lined the aisle. The soft strips of fabric added a touch of dreamy elegance to the whole scene and Elsie could immediately appreciate how romantic the bride and groom would look against that backdrop. Especially as the warm sunset light began to filter through the trees. Emma had outdone herself planning Annabeth's wedding ceremony; then again, this was Emma. Elsie marveled at every small detail Emma had thought of. All the decorations, from the flowers to the wide ribbon bows decorating each chair, matched the soft pink and cream color palette that Emma had picked out. Elsie had her doubts when Annabeth originally announced she wanted a pink wedding, but Emma had made it happen without it looking cheesy or girly. She spotted Mr. Woodhouse speaking to Jace and waved. "Mr. Woodhouse!" she called out. Emma's father, flustered and frowning, moved slowly toward her at the sound of his name. "Emma is looking for you," she said. "She wanted me to tell you Annabeth is ready." "Oh!" he said. "Elizabeth, promise me you won't marry too young. My dear Annie is too young to leave her home, too young. First Bella, now Annie, and soon my Emmy will be gone too." "I know," Elsie said, patting him on the arm, hiding the box of tissues behind her back. She wasn't sure exactly how to console the fussy man with a soft heart for the women in his life, but the tissues probably wouldn't help. Besides, her mom had a habit of bawling at weddings, so the box of tissues would not die in vain. "Randall's is too far from Hartfield," Mr. Woodhouse continued in his moaning, exaggerated way. "Annie says she'll visit, but so did Bella. And where's Bella today? At home, taking care of her sick boy. Always sick." Randall's was only about a mile away from Hartfield, and Bella was pregnant and had a toddler, which was likely why she didn't come by as often… but Elsie doubted any of that would be of solace to Mr. Woodhouse. "At least Annabeth is marrying a good man," she said. "Mr. Weston is kind, generous, and ri—" She caught herself before she said something too like her mother. "Annabeth will be well taken care of." "She belongs at Hartfield," Mr. Woodhouse whined stubbornly. Elsie bit back her laughter. "Well, she's ready for you," she said. "Try to enjoy walking her down the aisle on her big day." She patted Mr. Woodhouse on the arm one last time and released him, turning her attention to finding her family. It didn't take long; they were sitting on the groom's side, taking up two rows. Her parents and two youngest sisters sat in the front, while her other two sisters sat behind them with the Bingley party. Elsie did a double take, eyeing a guy she could only assume was Fitzwilliam Darcy in the flesh. Just as tall as she expected from watching him on television, but in the years since he had been in the news, he had broadened across the shoulders and grown into his height. His dark hair was thick across his forehead and he looked straight ahead confidently, rebuffing engagement from any of the other guests. He sat wedged between a guy who looked a lot like Caroline—Chuck Bingley, she assumed—and Caroline herself. Her older sister Louisa and another man—Elsie guessed her husband—sat on the other side of her. To her surprise, Jane was whispering to Chuck with a wide grin on her face, as if she had known him for years. And, a little less surprisingly, her mother was enthusiastically and obviously trying to insert herself into their conversation. Elsie greeted her parents, then slid into the pew between Jane and Mary, who sat at the end reading a book. "Elsie!" Jane said. "This is Chuck Bingley and his friend Fitz." She looked down the row. "And you know Caroline already—next to her is her sister Louisa and her husband Jeff—" Neither of them were paying attention to the introductions in the slightest. "Well, you'll meet them later," Jane said, shrugging it off. "Hi, Elsie," Chuck said, reaching to shake her hand. "Jane has already told me so much about you." "She has?" Elsie asked, bewildered. Jane knew Chuck already? Well, she did know Caroline, so…? Fitz nodded to her in acknowledgment, then glared past her at Mary, who was still nose deep in her book, ignoring her sisters and the general conversation. "Put that away," she whispered to her. Mary barely looked up. "What are you reading, anyway?" she asked, trying again. "It's the size of a bible. Which, by the way, is the only book that truly belongs at a wedding." Mary rolled her eyes, as she always did. She held up the cover to what seriously looked like a thousand page book. "Waters Dark and Deep?" Elsie said, reading it out loud. "It's based on parts of the Bible," Mary said. "It's about archangels." "The wedding is about to start," Elsie pointed out. "She's fine," her mother said, turning around. "Leave Mary be. Now Charles," she said, drawling his name, "tell me again about your father's company. It sounds very profitable." Chuck smiled at her. "Mrs. Bennet, you'd be surprised to hear that I don't know much about it. Louisa is the sibling to talk to, since my father is grooming her to take it over." "And do you intend to start your own company? Rosebelle is a lovely place to start a company, especially since you have one of the most prominent homes in the town in your own name. You know, Netherfield sat empty for years because very few people can afford such a huge, expensive piece of land." "Yes, Netherfield is a fortunate acquisition for me. However, I intend to work in non-profit, ma'am." He grinned, glancing at Jane, who grinned back. "Though the bayou that surrounds Rosebelle is something I want to learn more about this summer. I admire anyone who wants to preserve it." He looked at Jane again, and she blushed. Blushing? Elsie watched the two of them interact, feeling completely lost. Jane couldn't possibly be interested in him, not after that disastrous, embarrassing show their mother had put on the day before in the downtown—not when she was throwing them together so blatantly, so obviously. Jane had more respect for herself than that, didn't she? Their mother fanned herself, sending air toward them as well. "Did Jane tell you that she plans to dedicate her life to saving the swamplands?" Chuck and Jane shared a look again, and Jane giggled. "Yes, Mom, we discussed it earlier when I was at Netherfield." Elsie realized her mouth was hanging open. So she had missed something while she was helping Emma oversee the last minute wedding preparations. "You know what they say about marrying someone," her mother said. "It's important to share the same interests." Caroline made a noise that Elsie heard loud and clear, even with three people separating them. She grimaced at her mother's forwardness and considered whether she should slide in next to her dad and cajole him to rein her in. "I've never heard that," Chuck admitted. "But I trust you know what you're talking about, seeing as you have a strong, long-lasting marriage." "Us?" her father said in his joking voice, turning around. "The secret is separate bedrooms, separate bathrooms, everything. We barely speak to each other, really." "Oh, stop," Mrs. Bennet said, kissing him on the cheek. "He's teasing." Chuck smiled, but Fitz made a face as he watched her parents. Caroline whispered something to him, and he nodded. Elsie couldn't help but think it was about her family. Lydia kept staring at Chuck, whispering to Kitty, and laughing, and from the look on Caroline's face, they were talking about something inappropriate. Caroline turned to her sister, Louisa, who listened to her whispers. Elsie knew enough about whispers between sisters to know that it couldn't be anything good. Plus, every once in awhile, Louisa glanced at her two youngest sisters and pursed her lips in disapproval. Fitz wasn't any more forgiving, wearing a stoic mask in between his frowns at her family. They locked eyes for just a moment, but he quickly looked away—so much for making a good impression on him. She had no idea how they had ended up sitting next to the Bingley party and could only assume that Jane had invited them, because the alternative was to imagine the embarrassing way that her mother had steered them toward a chance meeting. Either way, it was a complete disaster, with her mom loudly intruding on Jane's conversation and grilling Chuck about his family fortune, with Mary reading her book, with the two youngest ones squealing at intervals… she had to do something. She looked around, realized that her teeny bopper sisters were the most offensive and unchecked at the moment, and stood up. Slipping through the empty row behind her, she snuck around to the other side. "What are you girls talking about?" Elsie asked, sliding into the seat next to them. Lydia and Kitty shared a glance and burst into laughter. "You can't tell her," Lydia said, which brought on a new round of shrieks. "You two are loud," Elsie whispered, trying to think of a way to calm the girls down, at least until the ceremony started and they were forced to be quiet. Lydia shrieked. "She's talking about—oh my gosh—" Lydia's words dissolved into laughter as she buried her head. Then, she turned to Elsie and mouthed, "Jane banging that boy," before shrieking again. "Lydia!" Elsie said, her face turning red. She looked back at the row behind her, locking eyes with Fitz again. This time, she's the one who looked away. She needed to ignore him and get her sisters under control before they ruined whatever was happening between Jane and Chuck. "Everything alright, Elizabeth?" she heard Caroline whisper behind her. She nodded, then glanced over at Jane, who was blissfully unaware because she was too distracted by both Chuck and their mother, who continued to ask him questions that were just at the edge of completely inappropriate. She rested her arm on the back of the chairs behind her two sisters and leaned in, hoping that she could literally shield their conversation with her body. "You two need to stop," she whispered to them. "Everyone can hear your conversation. You're embarrassing yourselves and ruining Annabeth's wedding." To her surprise, Kitty bit her lip. "Sorry, Els." Lydia kept giggling, until she saw that Kitty had stopped. "We didn't think we were talking that loud," she added, covering her mouth—presumably to stop from laughing. "Calm down a bit, act like young ladies," Elsie said, feeling like she was scolding them. She wished her mother would stop grilling Chuck long enough to scold them herself. Behind her, she caught some of the conversation between Caroline and Fitz. Thankfully, they had moved on from the topic of her family to gossip about another family, the Churchills. "It's so sad," Caroline was saying. "Frank isn't here to see his own father get remarried." "The Churchills have never truly accepted Mr. Weston, not even since Deborah passed," Louisa said. "I'm not surprised they don't approve of the marriage." Elsie knew the story well; everyone in Rosebelle knew. Mr. Weston had married a rich girl from up north named Deborah Churchill. But her family disowned her for not finding a better husband. He had been an officer in the Air Force at that time, but she wasn't happy with the life he could provide her, compared to what she had before. She passed away shortly after giving birth to her son, Frank. Frank was still a baby when Mr. Weston was assigned overseas, so he left him with his deceased wife's brother while he was gone. Through some mutual agreement, the Churchills continued to raise Frank as their own, while Mr. Weston finished out his twenty years of service and retired from the military, settling back in his hometown of Rosebelle. While Mr. Weston went north regularly to see him, Frank had never visited Rosebelle for reasons unknown. Elsie assumed there was still bad blood between the families, though Annabeth had mentioned a few times that Frank might visit that summer, according to some emails that they had exchanged. Then again, Mr. Weston had been saying that for years. "Frank should be here," Caroline insisted. "It's his father, for God's sake." Kitty squealed again, breaking Elsie's concentration. At the same time, the string quartet began to play. Thank God. Chapter 8 – EMMA "EMMA, stop," Annabeth begged. "I'm sorry," she whispered, adjusting one last bead on Annabeth's dress. "There, that's it. You look perfect." "Hmmph," her dad said. "Your cue is coming," Annabeth said, looking nervous for the first time that day. "Give me a hug." "I'm so happy for you," Emma said as they embraced. "Everything is about to change," Annabeth replied, a sadness in her tone. "I know," Emma said. "But we will handle it with poise and grace as it happens. Just enjoy today." She let go of her friend and grabbed her bouquet, choking back all of her emotion. She had to be happy today. She would never forgive herself if she ruined Annabeth's day in any way. She stepped outside, facing the bright sun of what couldn't possibly be a better day for an outdoor wedding. Louisiana was typically warm in May, but the day was an easy, cool eighty degrees, just right, and there wasn't a cloud in sight. All of the guests were now seated in the white rows of chairs on Makewood Plantation's front lawn, and she was pleased to see that the petals on the aisle remained undisturbed for the bride. The string quartet had begun to play her cue: Canon in D. Emma took a deep breath. She made her way to rows of chairs, pausing at the top of the aisle, aware that all eyes were on her. Slowly, she processed down the aisle, searching for Elsie in the crowd. She expected her to be on the bride's side, near the Lucases, but instead, she finally spotted her toward the middle, on the groom's side. Elsie grinned at her, shifting her eyes just slightly back to the row behind her, where Emma saw Chuck and the rest of the Bingley party seated next to Elsie's older sister, Jane. She gave Elsie the slightest nod she could before turning her attention toward the altar, where Jace and Frank Weston were waiting for her. Her eyes lingered on Jace, who cleaned up nicely. He normally wore hoodies, t-shirts and jeans, or, if he had a business meeting, a pressed blue button-down with khakis or gray slacks. Today, he looked sharp in a tux, and even Emma had to admit that he was extremely handsome. … And looking anywhere but at her. She kept her smile in place, trying not to feel slighted as she took her spot on the altar. Annabeth came down the aisle next, taking her place next to an enchanted Frank Weston. The ceremony continued and everyone played their roles expertly, right through the vows and kiss. She watched Frank and Annabeth walk down the aisle to a happy crowd's applause and stepped into place across from Jace. When she looked up, her eyes met his. He hadn't looked at her once during the ceremony, hadn't spoken a word to her since the incident with her car—though, to be fair, they had spent the moments leading up to the wedding focused on the bride and groom. She walked toward him, meeting him in front of the altar. He smiled at her, though she couldn't tell if he was happy to see her or if he simply didn't want to ruin the wedding. She took his outstretched elbow, wrapping her arm through it, resting her wrist on his forearm. "Hi," she whispered to him, hoping that she could warm the cold front between them with a little cheerfulness. "Hi," he whispered back. "You look nice." "You too," she said, nudging him with her shoulder just slightly. His tone was kind and warm—she took that as a good sign. "Are you still mad at me?" "You were mad at me," Jace said. "I wasn't," she replied. "I wasn't either," he said, glancing down at her. They stepped into the aisle, all eyes facing away from them, toward the bride and groom. She pursed her lips, wondering if he was being honest with her. "It seemed like you were mad," she said. He sighed. "I'm not. It's just—" he paused, looking out into the crowd. "You are growing up." "And that's a bad thing?" They walked forward. "Emma, you're a beautiful young woman. Guys—men—are noticing. And you can't just jump into some random person's car when you get to college. Some guys will take what they want, even if you're not offering it; others will manipulate you, charm you… I don't want to see you get hurt." "I was perfectly fine." She felt a little irritated that he thought her so stupid that she might hop into a stranger's car just to annoy him. "I'm not a little girl anymore. You don't have to protect me." "I'm always going to protect you," he insisted. "Count on it." She smiled at the wedding photographer, who was taking pictures of them as they reached the halfway point down the aisle. "Is this going to be a problem when we get to LSU?" she whispered. His arm tensed and his grip around her hand tightened. "I hope you don't make it one." She rolled her eyes. "Of course, I'm the problem." "No," he said carefully. "College is not like Rosebelle, though. I've seen it change people, and I don't want to see that happen to you." "Isn't college a part of growing up?" she asked. "I thought that's what you've been looking forward to for years, the day that I left high school behind and started focusing on my future." "You were focused a little too much on popularity in high school," he said. "Says you," she said. "Says everyone," he said. They followed Frank and Annabeth to the reception line, taking their place next to them, smiling as people left their seats and made their way toward them. As the guests came through and greeted them, she couldn't help but think about Jace's words. She knew he thought she was silly, and that the things she cared about didn't really matter. But she had done a lot more during high school than campaign for prom queen. She did tons of community service, she helped a number of local business owners achieve their dreams, and she put together her best friend's wedding, handling every detail to make the day flawless. She wished he could see that. She wished he could see that she wasn't a child anymore. He glanced over at her several times as the last of the guests filtered through. "Don't make that face." "What face?" she asked, forcing a smile. This was Annabeth's day—she wasn't going to let Jace's incessant scolding get her down. "That one," he said, gently guiding her shoulders until she had turned to face him. He lifted her chin with his index finger, forcing her to meet his eyes. "I didn't meant to upset you." "You didn't," she said. "But you need to know that things are going to change between us when we get to LSU this fall. I'm an adult now, and you have to accept that." He wrinkled his nose. "You'll still be the same person, though. Nothing needs to change." "I want them to change," she said firmly. "No more teasing me in front of other people or treating me like a child. I want people to take me seriously." He grimaced. "Is that really what you think I do?" "Yes!" she said, with a little more force than she intended. He ran his fingers over the top of his head—his jet black hair bent, then fell quickly back into place, as if he'd never touched it. "I will have to work on that," he said slowly, almost as if he still didn't believe her. "I thought you liked our banter." She took a deep breath. "I want people to know me for who I'm becoming, not for who I've been in Rosebelle." He nodded slowly. "I want that for you, too, Emma. I just don't want you to get into trouble." She wasn't sure what to say to that; luckily, Annabeth saved her by interrupting their conversation. "Are you ready to go?" she asked them. "Yes," they both said at the same time. She turned her head, eyeing them suspiciously. "We can give you a minute—" "Not necessary," Emma said, waving a hand. "Let's go." They both got into the front seat of the horse-drawn carriage the Westons—or rather, Emma—had picked out. The Westons sat in the back, higher up than them, and waved to their guests as the carriage rode down the long gravel driveway. If all went as Emma had planned, the guests would be greeted with an elegant cocktail hour on the lawn, while the bride and groom traveled toward the far side of Madewood Plantation, to the secluded grove Emma had picked out for photographs. The photographers followed behind them, stopping and slowing the carriage several times for pictures, capturing the Westons getting in and out of the carriage, as well as running through a field playfully, before arriving at their main shoot location. Emma immediately went into planner mode, making sure that both the bride and groom had perfectly smoothed clothing and no fly-aways. She used the emergency bag she had stashed away in the carriage to spray Annabeth's hair into place and remove pollen from Frank's suit. Jace hung back, probably still reeling from their earlier conversation. She hoped he snapped out of it before the reception, especially since she would have to spend a good chunk of time with him. They had to participate in the first dance together, to take pictures together, to give speeches together… "Hey!" she called out to him. "Come help me with this." He jogged over to them just as she finished with Frank's suit. "It doesn't look like you need my help," he noted. She handed him the lint roller and dug through her emergency bag to find the tube of lipstick that matched Annabeth's makeup exactly. "For the cameras," she said, unscrewing the top of the lipstick tube. Annabeth smiled as the photographers clicked away. "Emma," Annabeth said. "We were so disappointed that Frank Junior couldn't make it. Have I told you that he just graduated from high school as well, and lives in Baton Rouge, where you'll be going to school?" Emma hid her smile. "Yes," she said. "Several times." "He's very handsome," Annabeth said with a small grin. "Well, now you've convinced her," Jace said. "Emma's main problem when it comes to men is that there aren't any handsome ones interested in her." "You know that I don't do boyfriends," Emma said. "No, you do, you just don't call them boyfriends." Annabeth snapped her fingers, trying to remember something. "You went to prom with that—what was his name? Henry Crawford." "You went to prom with that guy?" Jace said. "Yes," she said defensively. "Going to prom alone is social suicide, and he was up for king, which was important for votes." Jace snorted. "Kind of like when celebrities date each other right as their romantic comedy comes out?" She shrugged. "Kind of?" He laughed. "I won, didn't I?" "Sure, but you didn't need him to win." "That's probably true," Emma said. "But I don't like to leave anything to chance." She looked at him indignantly. "And what would you know about prom—you didn't even go to yours!" "That's right!" Annabeth said. "I remember that. Quite the rebel, Jace Knightley." "There was no one I wanted to go with." "And you hate dancing," Emma added, stepping back from Annabeth. "Okay, you two look perfect." She turned to their photographer. "Can you get them like this?" The photographers clicked away, taking over. Emma and Jace watched in near-silence, only interrupted by Emma shouting instructions at the various players. When she had a break in her duties, she glanced over at Jace, who was still being more quiet than usual. He seemed so hot and cold lately, joking one minute, and sullen the next. "We're good, right?" He nodded. "Good. Great. We're great." "Great," she said, relieved. They still had the entire reception to get through. As they rode back to the mansion, she pulled out her checklist of last minute details that she needed to take care of. "When we get there," she whispered to Jace so Annabeth didn't overhear, "I'm putting you in charge of helping the photographers set up the projector, so everyone can see the shots we got this afternoon. I need you to veto—" she paused. "Actually, I should do this, I don't trust you to pick the right images." "Okay," he said, leaning back. "There's the music—we need to watch the DJ like a hawk. I already gave her the playlist, but I overheard PJ Elton say he was going to try to bribe her to play one of his high school band's songs to get 'publicity' for some album they are going to drop on Soundcloud—I tried to get him disinvited, but his father is close friends with my father so he's practically family to Annabeth. I've already warned his mother though, and she said she'd talk to him, but you know that I leave nothing—" "—Nothing to chance," he said, the corners of his lips turning up in a grin. "Emma, we're good. Everything is going to be perfect, just the way you planned it." "You have your speech written?" she asked. "You know, I still haven't heard it. Shouldn't I hear it?" "I hate to see you at your own wedding," he said. "You are a complete control freak." "I am prepared," she corrected. "I guess I don't need to hear your speech—I mean, I can definitely claim with credibility—" "I actually made you a copy," he said, handing her a folded piece of paper. "Jace Knightley," she said, taking the paper from him with a smile. "We may make a romantic out of you yet." "Don't get any ideas," he said. She peeked up to make sure Annabeth wasn't paying attention—she and Frank were too far up and completely lost in each other—and opened it, reading the words on the page. It was a short speech, only a few lines, but… surprising, and very not-Jace. I've known Frank Weston my entire life, and in many ways he is like the father I never had. I went to school with Annabeth Taylor and she is the kindest person I know, inside and out. Both were happy, whole people before they met. And yet, I've never seen either of them happier than when they found each other. Some people might think their love is unconventional, but I can't imagine two people who better model the love that we're all striving to find. That most of us never do. "At the end, I'll say something else to wrap it up," Jace said. "'To Frank and Annabeth,' maybe. I figured I could wing that part—" "This is… good." He laughed easily. "You seem utterly shocked that I could do something correctly." She raised an eyebrow. "I just… I wasn't expecting this." She handed the paper back to him. "Nope," he said. "That's your copy." "Hmm," she said, slipping the folded paper into her emergency bag. "I'll make sure it goes into the photo album." "I thought that might be where it ended up." "I'll have to clean up the presentation, of course. Something prettier, that matches the wedding palette." Jace tried to hide his smile, but she caught it anyway. "Of course," he said solemnly. They pulled up to the mansion and dismounted the carriage. He held her hand as she hopped down. "I'm going to talk to the bartender," she said, staring down at her list she was holding with her free hand. She still needed to talk to the chef, the wait staff, and caterer who had made the wedding cake. "Are you sure I can't help you with anything?" he asked. "I can check in on vendors if needed. And, of course, if you give me ridiculously detailed, step-by-step instructions in three, maybe four different languages, along with a translator for each—" "Okay, I get it." She tried not to smile and give him the satisfaction. Instead, she glanced down at her list, looking for something he could do, but came up short. "You know I won't be able to enjoy the party if I don't do each one of these myself. But that doesn't make me a control freak!" "Don't go too far," Jace said. He looked anxious at letting her out of his sight. "You know I can't do the first dance without you." She nodded. It was a simple three-step, but he had still asked her to practice several times over the past week. "I won't," she said. She pulled her hand away from his, though he seemed reluctant to let it go. "And Emma?" She turned around. "You did good today." She shrugged. "I'm Emma Woodhouse. All in a day's work." She winked before bustling into the mansion where the reception was ready to begin. Chapter 9 – EMMA "EVERYTHING is perfect," Annabeth said for the hundredth time that evening. "You outdid yourself, Emma." "Glad to be of service," Emma replied modestly, though of course, one could never hear too many compliments about her work. "Truly perfect," Frank Senior echoed, though Emma knew that he couldn't care a lick about the details of the wedding, not the way a woman could. He stared into Annabeth's eyes as he spoke, making obvious the fact that if she was happy with the wedding, he was happy with the wedding. Happy wife, happy life, Emma supposed. "We're thrilled for both of you," Jace said, rounding out the refrain that had been on repeat since the reception started. The Westons thought the venue was perfect, decorations were perfect, the food was perfect, the drinks were perfect, the lighting was perfect… and on and on and on. While the Westons couldn't compliment her enough, Jace had hardly complimented her at all. She knew she shouldn't be bothered by it, but she couldn't understand why his praise was so hard to come by. She'd done 'good'—was that all he had? It wasn't too difficult to give her a few more compliments, was it? Especially when there were a dozen things to compliment her on all around him. "It's only too bad Frank couldn't come," Frank Senior said of his son. He had been bringing it up a lot that night, especially as the drinks continued. "He did write me a nice email," Annabeth gently reminded her husband, who seemed only slightly cheered by the thought. "He's hoping to make an appearance later this summer, when your sister-in-law is feeling less ill so he can leave her care to others." She turned to Emma. "I can't wait for you to meet him." She winked. "I'm sure he'll be…" Emma glanced at Jace as she tried to find the right words. "… A valuable person to know as I go off to college." Jace snorted, practically choking on his drink. "I doubt that's what Annabeth has in mind for the two of you." "You would make the cutest couple," Annabeth gushed, tossing a knowing smile at her husband, who had also lit up. "And then we'd still see you all the time, holidays, baby showers…" Jace raised an eyebrow, mirroring Emma's thoughts exactly. "Matchmaker, matchmaker," she said, playing along. "However, I don't need you to make me a match. You know I'm focused on college right now." "I know," Annabeth said. "Which is why I want to make sure you meet Frank. He'll be at LSU next year, remember? Plenty of time to get to know him." She winked again. "He's very charming," Frank Senior added. "I think you'll be surprised what a match he is for you. You can't blame us for wanting the best for you, for wanting to give both of you a reason to come back to Rosebelle after school…" "Okay, okay," Jace said. "I don't think Emma is looking nearly that far ahead—" "Alright, folks! Frank and Annabeth would like to thank you all for coming tonight," the DJ cut in. "So, without further ado, please welcome to the dance floor for their first dance as husband and wife … Mr. And Mrs. Frank Weston." "After you," Frank Senior said, helping Annabeth out of her chair. She giggled, and the two of them made their way to the dance floor like two teenagers at a school dance. The music started and Emma stood up, moving toward the dance floor to watch. Frank Senior held his new, young wife as close as he possibly could, like he would never let go of her. Their love vibrated through the entire ballroom, and Emma had to admit that she was intrigued by the idea of love, if not entirely convinced it was for her. She was happy for her friend, of course, but relationships had always seemed like something other people did. She had heard a lot about Frank Junior over the past few weeks, even seen pictures of how attractive he was, but… She had never been in love and she didn't expect him to persuade her, should he ever show up in Rosebelle to begin with. "Ready to go?" Jace asked, coming up behind her, placing the tips of his fingers against her back. She glanced at him. He swallowed visibly as he stared out at the dance floor, his eyes on Frank Senior and Annabeth. "You'll be fine," she assured him as she smoothed his jacket. "No one will be paying any attention to us." He nodded. "I know," he said. "All eyes on the bride and groom." He laughed nervously at his own words, as if trying to convince himself of it. The song neared the second verse, which was when the two of them were supposed to step onto the dance floor. "That's our cue," she said, suddenly feeling her own nerves. They stepped out together, bravely joining the married couple. There were a small few seconds of clapping for them before others followed suit, easily transitioning the dance floor from a stage to a gathering area. Emma settled into Jace's arms, trying not to act as uncomfortable as she felt. She smiled, watching the crowd steadily over his shoulder, making sure that everything was in its place and on schedule. Jace stayed silent, his hands gripping her waist lightly, likely watching the crowd over her head from the other angle. At the bar, a woman who had graduated several years earlier, maybe in Annabeth's year, rested her eyes on them, looking away only when Emma caught her. "Kerri Hannigan is watching us," Emma stated to Jace, grateful for finding a subject of conversation. He gave her a funny look. "And?" The right side of her face turned up in a smile. "She's watching you, I should say." "So?" Jace said stubbornly. "So…" Emma prompted. "Maybe you should talk to her?" He said nothing. "That is, if you don't have a girlfriend already, of course," Emma said. "It's not like you would tell me if you did." "Why wouldn't I tell you?" Jace asked, so transparently in Emma's opinion; he was avoiding the larger question. "You treat me as a child who does not know how relationships work," she replied. "But now that I'm off to college, I'm officially an adult." "And that means…?" he asked. She sighed, exasperated. "You can tell me the truth about any and all the women in your life, silly." He gave her a curious look. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that." "But it's what adults do," Emma said knowingly. He didn't seem convinced. "And obviously," she added, "The reverse is true as well. I'll answer any of your questions about my life. Ask away." "Fine," he said, cracking a smile. "How is Emma Woodhouse's love life?" "Perfect," she replied. "No boyfriend, no dates, no one to get in the way of my inevitable success." "Sounds empty." "On the contrary, Jace Knightley. I am a whole person who does not need a partner in life. A boyfriend would try to change me, or at the least make me compromise." "You do struggle with compromises," Jace noted. "Exactly!" she replied. "I don't compromise. I know what I want and I find a way to get it." Jace laughed. "Well, it's a bit easier to get what you want from your dad, or the people of this town. I'm curious to see how long that lasts in your business classes." She rolled her eyes, opening her mouth to respond— "I'm doing it again, aren't I?" Jace said, before she could. "I can tell by that face you made." She sighed, nodding. "It's your way. You say whatever you want to me. I don't mind, most of the time." "Yes, you do," he said, staring at her. "This is what you meant earlier, when you said you wanted space to grow into your own person." She bit her lip and looked away, suddenly uncomfortable by the intensity of their conversation. It was easy to offer him a look at her love life, because she didn't have one and didn't intend to any time soon. But Jace never asked her about her feelings. "I didn't mean it like that," she said. "You did," he said, still staring at her. She locked eyes with him and he immediately looked away. "You know, you're right. I tease you way too much. I don't blame you for resenting me over it." "Well, 'resent' seems like a harsh word…" she smiled at him. "I'm irritated, annoyed… but resentful…" She trailed off, realizing that he wasn't returning her smile. "I'm going to do better," he said, determined. "You're right. You're not my brother's kid sister-in-law anymore. I want to stop treating you like a child." "Does this mean you're not going to chaperone my graduation party?" she asked with a smile. "How about this?" he said slowly. "I won't even come. You can spend time with your friends from high school without me interfering." She shrugged, trying not to feel disappointed. "You're still invited, you know." "No," he said, shaking his head. "If I come to your party, I'll just end up upsetting you again." "Jace," she said, an uneasy feeling in her stomach. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? "I still want us to be friends." Her grip on his shoulder tightened. "We are… friends, right?" His silence seemed unending. "Of course we are," he assured her. "Okay," she said, moving closer to him. "I was teasing about the chaperone stuff. I want you at my graduation party." She looked at him, smiling again. "It's my graduation party, you know? You have to come." He nodded, though his face didn't change. "I'll give you your space, though." "Fine," she said. "But you still have to come. You're obligated to come, even if you just stand around with the other adults and awkwardly eat hotdogs off of paper plates." Finally, he smiled back. "Obviously, I am at the wrong graduation party if I'm eating a hotdog off of a paper plate." "This is true," she replied, falling easily back into their banter. "That reminds me, I need to find a plate solution for my graduation party." "I think I'd better leave you to that," he said, looking around. Emma glanced around as well, realizing that they were completely surrounded by couples and groups dancing. The first dance was over, and they were well into a second song of the night. Their duties as maid-of-honor and best man were over. "Wouldn't want to dance any longer than absolutely necessary," she agreed. He looked over at the girl from earlier, who was still making eyes with him. "I think I'm going to take your advice and talk to her." "Go for it," she said, smiling again, realizing that she had a ton of stuff left to do. Her mind was already composing a list… "Find me later," he said. "I'll help you clean up after the reception and make sure all the vendors are paid." She nodded. "Sounds good. Thank you." It was good for him, talking to someone new—someone who could distract him from teasing her. She looked around, searching the crowd for Elsie. Where was that girl? She was supposed to be Emma's righthand woman, in case she needed her for something at the reception. But Elsie was— "Chef," Emma said out loud, remembering that she needed to double check on the dessert surprise. She scurried off the dance floor, into the kitchens, glancing only quickly at Jace to see him whispering quietly to Kerri. Just as he should have been. Chapter 10 – ELSIE "HOW does that happen?" Charlotte Lucas asked. Elsie sat up in her chair, trying not to look as sullen as she felt. Annabeth's wedding reception was gorgeous, but Emma was nowhere to be found. She hadn't seen her alone but once so far, and only for a minute before she rushed off to talk to the DJ, or the head chef, or the priest, or whomever. Jane was preoccupied with the Bingleys—primarily Chuck—and her mother was pointing it out to basically anyone who would listen. At least her younger sisters were mostly staying out of trouble, though she couldn't find Mary; she suspected that her younger sister was hiding out, making significant progress in Waters Dark and Deep. "It's unreal," Charlotte said. "Rosebelle has been the most boring place on earth for the entire year that Jane Bennet was gone. Now, she's in town for one day and is practically being courted by a hot, rich guy who just so happens to be staying here for the summer!" "She's not being courted," Elsie insisted, watching Chuck spin Jane around, watching them both laugh… They were cute together, but she was still in shock over the pairing, given that it played right into her mother's hand. "How would you know?" Charlotte asked. "You and Jane used to be inseparable. You started spending all your time with Emma and gave that awful Caroline an opening. And now look." "I know, right?" Elsie said, folding her arms across her chest and frowning. "Thank God there is at least one other person in this town who sees Caroline Bingley for the true snob she is." "Trust me," Charlotte said. "Everyone sees that. Jane is just too nice; either she's not picking up on Caroline's snobbery, or even Caroline can't find a reason not to like her back." "It has to be the latter," Elsie said, watching Chuck dip Jane on the dance floor—yes, dip her. "Caroline invited her over to Netherfield earlier today, which is where she first met Chuck. She didn't have to do that." "Maybe if I get in good with Caroline, I can land a date with Chuck's dreamy friend—" "Don't bother," Elsie said. "Caroline already called dibs. Plus, you'd still have to be friends with Caroline." "Could be worth it," Charlotte said, before shaking her head. "No, you're right. He's not that dreamy, and I'm not his type." As far as Elsie could tell, no one was Fitz Darcy's type. He had barely spoken to a single person there, aside from the Bingley sisters. The town of Rosebelle was completely abuzz over his visit, given his wealth, his family name, and his connections, but he had quickly made a bad impression with his manners. Caroline at least pretended to be nice; Fitz was just plain aloof, if not standoffish. Even Mrs. Bennet didn't like him, which was saying a lot, considering she was plotting to throw all of her daughters at him the day before. "Ugh." Charlotte slid down in her chair. "This is completely depressing. I love your sister, but I need alcohol if I'm going to continue to sit through this." She sat back up. "Do you want anything?" Elsie pursed her lips and shook her head; what she really wanted was to find Emma. She loved Charlotte, but sometimes found it hard to relate to her. Charlotte was Jane's age, but had stayed in Rosebelle after high school, doing… well, Elsie wasn't completely sure what Charlotte was doing with her life. When they were young, Charlotte had always been a bit more practical, but she had never imagined that Charlotte would opt out of college. Sure, she had a job managing some of the staff at Mrs. Goddard's, but other than that she just seemed… stuck. Still, they had been neighbors since childhood, so they would always be friends. Unfortunately, Charlotte's family had recently moved down the hill to one of the more affordable neighborhoods in town, and it took a little more effort to see her. Plus, Charlotte and Emma didn't always get along. Then again, Emma could be difficult, so this wasn't surprising. "Suit yourself," Charlotte said, traipsing toward some older girls that graduated from high school when Elsie was still a freshman. Presumably, she was going to ask one of them to get her a drink. She was only nineteen, after all. "Elsie," a male voice said. Elsie looked up, seeing Chuck staring back down at her with a wide smile on his face. "Wanna dance?" He had his arm around Jane's waist, and she as facing him, hanging off of his shoulder, grinning like crazy. Very un-Jane-like. Very. Elsie shook her head. "You two should keep going," she said. "You looked like you were having a great time." "Come on," Chuck said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet. "Jane's been talking about her lovely sister all night. Let's get to know Elsie Bennet!" He dragged the two of them out to the dance floor, Jane laughing, Elsie unable to help cracking a smile; Chuck's playful energy was infectious. She could see why Jane was a bit under his spell; any girl would be. The difference was, he seemed to genuinely have eyes for only her, too. Elsie only hoped that Jane didn't get swept away, especially when they barely knew anything about the Bingleys. Chuck twirled her around, encouraging her to dance to the indie music playing in the background. His moves were audacious and bold and silly, capturing the attention of everyone in the room. At the same time, Elsie didn't feel self-conscious, especially when even Jane was letting loose. When the next song came on, Chuck grabbed them again and corralled them toward Fitz, who was standing near the wall by himself. "Fitz!" he yelled over the music. "Come dance with us." Fitz said nothing, just shook his head. Chuck turned to them. "Excuse me while I talk some sense into this guy." He winked, then pulled away from them. Jane turned to Elsie, pulling her back onto the dance floor just next to the guys. "You having fun?" she asked. Elsie shrugged, not wanting to seem needy. The truth was, she wished Jane would make more time for her, but she wasn't going to tell her that, not now. "I wish Emma wasn't so busy," she said instead. It was partially true, at least. "You know Emma," Jane replied, glancing at Chuck. She was distracted, even now—as if she could barely be parted from him. "You two are spending a lot of time together," Elsie noted, wondering if her sister would open up to her. "Chuck is fun, isn't he?" Jane asked. "He is," Elsie agreed. "Also, Mom is ecstatic that her schemes finally seem to be working, at least on one of her daughters." Jane locked eyes with her. "Mom didn't have anything to do with this." "Yesterday, Mom pushed Caroline to invite you over, today, you went to Netherfield and got to know Chuck…" "It wasn't like that, Elsie." "I'm just pointing out that this is all going according to her plan," Elsie said. She didn't know why she felt so betrayed at the moment—maybe because of Jane and Caroline, or maybe because of Jane and Chuck. She only knew that there was a lot more Bingley in her summer so far, more than she expected—and it was starting to feel like an intrusion. "Dance with me," Jane said, grabbing her hands and twirling her in a circle. Elsie spun with her, but her heart wasn't in it. She knew Jane was avoiding the topic, because that's what Jane did. She hated conflict. "Dancing is a punishment, not a pleasure," she heard Fitz saying to Chuck. He wasn't speaking very loud, but the acoustics in the room must have made his voice carry to where they were dancing. "Come on," Chuck said. "There are tons of good looking girls here." "You're dancing with the only pretty girl in the room," Fitz replied matter-of-factly, his eyes brushing over her as he spoke. She felt her cheeks heating up, though Jane didn't seem to notice his slight to her. "She's gorgeous, isn't she?" Chuck said, still within earshot. "But about the dancing—I think you're wrong man. Her sister, Elsie, is pretty too—" "Not tempted," Fitz said with a slight grin on his face, like he was humoring his friend. "When the only other guy dancing with her is trying to hook up with her older sister, I doubt she has much to offer." That, Jane heard. Elsie tried to hide her indignation from her sister, not wanting to upset her, but Jane saw right through it. "Ignore him," she said, the cringe still etched into her features. "He's been acting weird all night. He's probably not feeling well." Elsie plastered the best smile she could muster across her face. She didn't want Jane to worry, not when she was obviously enjoying Chuck's company. "Totally," she said, swallowing her feelings. "I'm fine, really. I'm going to grab some drinks and find Emma." "I'll come with you," Jane said, just as Chuck popped up next to her. "Where are you two going?" he asked playfully. Elsie knew Fitz was right—Chuck would let her play third wheel for as long as she wanted, even if it interfered with him getting to know Jane. He was a nice guy, the same way Jane was a nice girl. She wasn't going to let that happen. "Oh, I'll be back," she said, even though she had no intention of returning to them. "I'm just going to grab some water." She tapped her throat and Chuck nodded. She ducked away from them and Chuck immediately turned to Jane, who quickly became absorbed in whatever he was leaning in to tell her. Elsie felt Fitz's eyes on her, but she refused to meet them—she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that she heard every insult he had just thrown her direction. She stood in line for several minutes before finally reaching the front of the bar. "Water, please," she said. The bartender glanced at he quickly between shuffling glasses. "You okay?" he asked. She pursed her lips. "Boy drama," she said. "Listen, have you seen the maid-of-honor? I can't find her." Elsie stood on her tiptoes, scanning the heads in the crowd, but Emma was nowhere in sight. "Nope," he said, slamming two clear drinks onto the bar. "But when you find her, give her one of these." "Sure," Elsie said, taking a sip from the straw of one of them, and nearly spitting it back out before she caught herself. Vodka. Of course Emma would swindle the bartender into giving them alcohol. "Already paid for," he said, grinning at her. "You looked like you needed a water." He winked. Elsie lifted the drinks in the air. "Thanks," she whispered, not bothering with the tip—she knew Emma had taken care of it already. She made her way back to the dance, spotting Charlotte Lucas across the room, still hanging out with the older girls, now with a pink beverage in hand. About halfway to them, she saw Fitz swaying with Caroline, bantering readily with her. She rolled her eyes, changing course—she didn't think she could handle any more of Fitzwilliam Darcy for the night. Caroline caught her eye, giving her a little wave, to which Elsie returned a friendly smile before jetting in the opposite direction so she wouldn't have to pass them. She made her way down the hall to the restroom, still looking for Emma along the way, still not finding her. It probably didn't matter though—Elsie could easily finish both the vodkas, as long as her mother didn't catch her sneaking them. The bathroom at Madewood Plantation was as large as some girls' bedrooms. She ducked inside and stopped short at the enormous, thickly carpeted powder room where two centuries ago ladies must have loosened their corsets to catch their breath between dances. The toilet was at the far end of the room, closed off in its own little space. Elsie closed the door behind her and sat on the covered toilet seat. She took another sip of her vodka, then another, while checking her phone for texts. She had one from Charlotte, asking where she was, and another from Jane, asking if she was okay. She didn't want to tear Jane away from Chuck, not when they were hitting it off so well, and Charlotte wouldn't be sympathetic to her, instead giving her hard logic about why she shouldn't worry about what a stranger said about her. No, she needed Emma at a time like this. She texted Emma, letting her know she had their drinks and where to meet her. Then, she waited. When she was nearly done with the first drink, a shuffle of women entered the bathroom, laughing loudly. "We can't say anything to him," one of them said. Elsie recognized Caroline Bingley's voice. The other one laughed. "I don't want my dear baby brother getting in with the wrong crowd this summer." "Oh, come on, Lulu. You know Chuck. He flirts with everyone, but it never means anything." There was a pause, and Elsie stayed very still, hoping that they didn't hear her. How had she forgotten to lock the door? She was past the point of announcing herself, and it was obvious that they were talking about their brother… and Jane? "Well, I like her," Louisa—Lulu—said. "She's very gracious, sweet, pretty… as for her family…" "They used to be wealthier, on their way up—but I guess Katrina did them in." Caroline smacked her lips together as she spoke, and Elsie could imagine her leaning over the sink, applying lipstick. "I heard that they can barely afford their house anymore," Lulu said. "Oh, God, her mother—" Caroline interjected. "Could you believe the questions she was asking Chuck? I would die if that was our mother." "I was a little more annoyed by her younger sisters. They would not stop talking during the wedding. I had to remind myself that I'm not old enough to scold them." "That's the father's job," Caroline said. "Obviously they've outnumbered him for so long that he lets all the women in that family walk right over him." "What did you think of the other one? Not Jane, the other girl who's close in age—" "Oh, Elsie." Caroline drew her name out with an exaggerated exhaustion. "She's tolerable, nothing special. Obviously not like Jane—" Like she needed to be reminded of that. "—But, I don't know… a little cold. Standoffish." There was a pause, and Elsie assumed that Lulu was nodding in agreement. "Either way," Caroline continued, "Chuck is his own man and we have to let him choose who he wants. We should try to be nice to them, invite her over to dinner—Jane, that is." Elsie heard a compact click shut, and shuffling between the two girls. "God—I can't believe we're spending the summer here." Caroline sighed. "At least Fitzwilliam is staying, too. Though I don't know why—he couldn't stop complaining about Rosebelle the whole time we were dancing." "You'll have to find some of the more romantic spots in town," Lulu said teasingly. "There have to be some small nooks and crannies the two of you can get lost in." "I know," Caroline said, sighing again, this time with a little more pep. "Stealing Fitzwilliam away from his company this summer was one of my more brilliant plans. Now that I have him all to myself in this sleepy little town…" "He'll be yours before the school year starts," Lulu said with a giggle. Elsie heard them opening the door, finally—her heart was practically leaping out of her body, she was so worried that they were going to realize she was in there, listening to their private conversation. What was that? And Caroline used nicknames for her siblings? Was that only in private or something? And standoffish? She was not standoffish! Elsie sipped on the second vodka, lost in her thoughts. To be fair, she hadn't exactly been as nice to Caroline as she could have been the day before. And it wasn't like Caroline knew she was listening… it was a private conversation with her sister, same as the one she had shared with Charlotte just before Chuck invited her to dance. Still. What the hell? The restroom door swung open again and Elsie held her breath, just in case. "Elsie?" Emma called out. "Elsie, are you in here?" She quickly emerged. "Emma! Thank God. Where have you been all night?" "What are you doing in here?" Emma asked. "There's a gorgeous party going on just out—" she paused. "Are you okay?" Suddenly, every hurt from the night flooded back to her, from Jane's distance, to Fitz's rejection, to Caroline's biting impression of her. Tears overflowed her eyes as she leaned forward to her best friend. "I liked him," she admitted, letting Emma embrace her. "I mean, I liked the idea of him." "Who?" Emma asked, patting her on the back. "It doesn't matter," she said, wiping a tear from her eye. "Because now, there is no one on the planet I could possibly like less than him." Emma tucked her hair behind her ear. "Don't cry," she said soothingly. "We are going to say goodnight to Annabeth, and we are going to get the hell out of here, and then you are going to tell me all about it." "You don't have to do that," Elsie said. "This is Annabeth's wedding. You're the maid-of-honor and the wedding planner. She needs you." "She's fine," Emma said, waving her hand. "Everything is taken care of. They have one more dance and then they're leaving, anyway." "I don't think I can go out there again," Elsie admitted. "So I'll go by myself and we'll meet outside," Emma said. "By the driveway? Five minutes from now?" "If you're sure," Elsie said. She really couldn't imagine that Annabeth would be okay with her maid-of-honor ditching her wedding. "I'll wait, and you can text me if you can't make it." Emma smiled. "You're my best friend, stop being ridiculous. Annabeth won't mind." She kissed her on the cheek and whisked off, back out of the restroom in typical Emma fashion. She hoped Emma was right. Chapter 11 – EMMA "ANNABETH," Emma said, leaning down and whispering in her friend's ear. "I'm sorry to interrupt you two, but I have to go. It's an emergency with Elsie. I got Mrs. Lucas and Mrs. Allen to handle everything that's left—" "Go," Annabeth said with a smile. "Go, help Elsie, have fun." "Are you sure?" Emma asked. "You work too hard taking care of us, Emma." "The wedding was perfect," Frank Senior said. "Thanks for making it just the way my sweetheart wanted." He kissed Annabeth on the forehead. "Thank you both," she whispered, wrapping her arms around both of their shoulders. "And have fun on your honeymoon." "Oh, we will," Frank Senior said suggestively, to which Annabeth laughed. Emma shook her head at both of them before continuing on, back to where Elsie was waiting for her. She thought she heard someone say her name behind her, but didn't bother to turn back. She had already made sure that Mrs. Lucas took the gifts back to her house for safekeeping, and that Mrs. Allen got everyone off of the plantation property by 11 p.m. She didn't want anyone else to notice her absence, especially when the wedding reception only had another hour left. She spotted Elsie outside, just where she had asked to meet. "Ready?" she asked. "Let's blow this joint." "Seriously," Elsie said, giving her a half smile. "Since when do you say, 'blow this joint?'" "Since now," she replied, linking arms with Elsie. "So, are we headed to Sweet Kisses or what?" "Of course," Elsie said, unlinking arms with Emma and pulling off her heels, fleeing barefoot from the plantation, toward town. "Wait, Elsie! You can't run there," Emma shouted, picking up her skirt, hobbling after her in heels, doing a prissy jog that she despised when she saw other girls acting so unladylike. Usually the two of them had rules about Sweet Kisses—go after hours whenever possible and run the entire way there so the calories wouldn't count. But running all the way into town from the plantation was taking it a little too far. They passed around the front of the mansion, where Chuck Bingley's sisters stood puffing on cigarettes. Elsie shot past them, heels in hand, not noticing their disdainful stares—but Emma shot them a dirty look back before doubling down on her stride. Emma flagged down one of the valets to bring her car around — Elsie might have had a vodka and a half, but fortunately she hadn't. She was in the perfect condition to drive. When they finally reached Sweet Kisses, Elsie hopped out of the car, holding her dress high and out of the way, not worrying about who might see her exit as unladylike as possible. The bottom of her dress was laced with dirt and the pits were stained with sweat from her jog. Clearly, Elsie was beyond trying to impress anyone. Emma pulled out her key and unlocked the door. Sweet Kisses closed at nine on the dot every night, but Emma had helped the guy who owned it by designing the place as a favor, so he had given her free access to use the space at any time, as long as she cleaned up and didn't eat too much of the ice cream. Even with all the lights off, the diner still sparkled. The black and white checkered floor gave the place the retro feel that made it one of Elsie's favorite places in Rosebelle. Deep, cushioned booths in shades of pink and white lined one side of the restaurant along the wall of windows. The opposite wall held the long white counter where customers could sit at pink stools and sip on milkshakes or order their custom dessert to take home. The wall behind the counter was full of glass shelves, holding sundae toppings in an array of colors. Tall, clear jars of rainbow sprinkles, crushed oreos and mini marshmallows made a visitor hungry with just a glance. "I'm going to stand in the freezer while you scoop," Elsie said, making her way toward the back of the restaurant. Emma slid behind the counter and pulled out two huge sundae glasses to begin her work on their usual order: one scoop of vanilla ice cream, chocolate chips, one scoop of chocolate, whipped cream, caramel, chocolate, nuts, M&Ms, and cherries—several cherries each to top it off. She called back to Elsie, who emerged with goosebumps. They sat down at the best table in the whole restaurant: a huge booth near the front window, where everyone walking or driving through the downtown could see and envy them as they talked and ate. "What happened?" Emma asked. "Tell me everything." Elsie sighed. "It's so embarrassing," she said miserably. "And it's not that I even care about his opinion of me—" "Whose opinion?" Emma asked. "That rich, douchey, stuck-up, pretentious—" "Whoa," Emma said, grinning. "Does Mr. Douchey have a name?" Emma narrowed her eyes. "Fitzwilliam Darcy." "Ugh," Emma said. "He's that bad, huh? He seemed unfriendly when I met him yesterday." "Yeah," Elsie said. "He's worse." "What did he say to you?" "That's the thing," Elsie said. "He didn't say anything to me. His best friend is trying to woo my sister, and he literally didn't speak to me." "He must have said something to you," Emma said, prodding her friend on. "He told Chuck that I wasn't pretty enough to dance with," she confessed. "What?" Emma said, scoffing. If there was one thing Elsie wasn't, it was unattractive. Yes, her eldest sister was very, very pretty, but Elsie had bright eyes, perfectly straight, lush hair, and a good figure. "He basically said I couldn't be interesting enough to dance with when no one else was trying to," Elsie continued. "Then, like two seconds later, I saw him dancing with Caroline. She gave me the haughtiest damn wave, as if to rub it in my face that he was hers…" Emma shook her head. "I am not a fan of her." "It was so embarrassing, Ems." She put her head down next to her sundae. "And you know—Fitz is right," she said. "We live in this tiny town where everyone knows everyone, and not a single guy that we grew up with wants to date me. I never thought it was weird until now, but it is. I'm eighteen, and I've literally never had a boyfriend." "Oh, come on," Emma said. "You went out with John Dashwood." "That was four years ago," Elsie pointed out. "I'd hardly count a crush I had when I was fourteen as 'having a boyfriend.'" "Everyone starts somewhere," Emma said, trying to get her friend to crack a smile. "Besides, I've never had a boyfriend either." "You don't want a boyfriend," Elsie said. "And neither do you," Emma replied, frowning. "I thought that was our thing—we're independent women who don't need relationships to make us happy." "I don't need a relationship to make me happy," Elsie said. "But it would be nice to actually have options if I did want a relationship." "Aww, sweetie, you do have options. Fitz Darcy is not the authority on how attractive you are to guys, whether they live in Rosebelle or outside of it." "I hate him," Elsie said. "He's rude, arrogant, and even my mother doesn't like him, Ems. My mother. The woman whose only two requirements for her future sons-in-law are—" "Rich and single?" Emma asked. "Exactly," Elsie said. "And guess what else I found out? It's not just the Bingleys who are staying in town all summer. Somehow, Caroline convinced Fitz to stay too." Emma frowned, having never seen her best friend so worked up over a guy before. Usually, Elsie let little incidents like this roll right off her back, but this seemed to be getting to her more than usual. "So we avoid him," Emma said, puzzled. "We snub him until he leaves and continue to have the best graduation summer ever before we go off to LSU. With our real friends," she added, thinking of what Jace had said to her earlier that night. "I don't want to disinvite him to everything when his friends are coming," Elsie said. "That would just be stooping to his rude, obnoxious level. Besides, Jane's maybe dating Chuck? I can't tell." "Ahh," Emma said. "I saw them making googly eyes at each other on the dance floor." "You know what that means," Elsie said. "My mother is going to invite the Bingleys to dinner regularly, and she'll probably extend the invitation to Fitz, too. How could she not?" "Then we'll go to plan B," Emma said. "Get back at him for what he said to you." "I don't know," Elsie said. "It sounds a tad childish." Emma smirked. "Oh, come on. It's not like he doesn't deserve it." "Emma," Elsie said. "I don't know. We're not talking about PJ Elton or Kitty and Lydia. We don't know Fitz well enough to start a prank war with him." "Who cares? We can plan the first one at my graduation party." Elsie didn't seem convinced. "Come on," Emma said. "It'll be fun. You love prank wars." "It's just…" Elsie sighed. "I don't think it's a good idea." "Everyone loves a good prank war, though. It brings people closer—even annoying, cold people like Fitzwilliam Darcy." "No," Elsie said. "I have to veto it." She pursed her lips, surprised at Elsie's reaction. "What's really going on?" she asked. "What are you not telling me?" "It's hard," Elsie said slowly. "Fitz Darcy is kind of a big deal. We'll be going to school with people like him next year—people that know people outside of Rosebelle. People that matter for our careers and futures. I want to make a good impression, that's all. And I don't understand why I didn't make a good impression on him." "Maybe because he's a jerk," she said. "Maybe," Elsie replied. "Or maybe my mother is right, and I'm not what society expects me to be. I'll never be Jane." "You can't compare yourself to your sister," she said. She looked around, in desperate need of an idea that would help cheer up Elsie. Elsie swallowed the last bite of her sundae. "I think I should go home," she said. Emma examined her friend, truly worried for the first time. Elsie never got this down on herself; on the contrary, her confidence was one of the things Emma loved about her. "That's probably a good idea," Emma replied, hoping that a little sleep would cure the cloud that hung over her best friend. "Tomorrow will look much better, I promise." "Yes, of course," Elsie said, nodding, though not quite as convincingly as she probably hoped. Emma drove Elsie home, then herself—though when she got there, Jace was sitting on her front porch. She parked her car, then walked around to the front door, pulling out her keys. "Jace," she said. "What are you doing here?" He reached behind his back and pulled out a small jar of blueberry pie. "Peace offering," he said, setting the jar down next to him. She picked up the jar and sat down on the top stair, holding it on her lap. "Thanks," she said. "But what is this peace offering for?" He shrugged. "I thought you might still be mad at me about not picking you up when you got stuck on your way back from Mrs. Goddard's." "I thought we resolved that," Emma said, still confused. He shrugged. "You blew off the wedding reception and abandoned me despite our plans to meet up and handle the rest of the best man and maid-of-honor duties together." Emma pressed her palm to her forehead, just now realizing how that must have looked. "Oh, I'm so sorry. I completely forgot." "It's okay," he said, exhaling. "Just covering all my bases." He nudged her shoulder affectionately. "Are we okay?" "Elsie had this run-in with a guy—" "Emma, it's okay, really. You don't have to explain." Looking relieved, he stretched out his legs, brushing some dust off of him pants. "Besides, Lacey Bates was more than happy to step in as substitute wedding planner." "I bet she was," Emma muttered. Lacey had had a crush on Jace for as long as she could remember. "Not that there was anything left to do," he said, chuckling. "She was very disappointed." Emma grinned. "It wouldn't be the wedding of the century if I didn't have every detail covered." "I also thought you should get one of the party favors, seeing as you put in a lot of work to make it all happen. Frank was so surprised by them, and Annabeth couldn't stop smiling. As much as I gave you a hard time over planning this wedding, it really was stunning, Emma. You did a good job." "Thank you," she said, a little surprised by his sudden praise. Jace hardly ever praised her—there's was more of an exasperating, playful, teasing relationship. He reached into his breast pocket and revealed a spoon. "Want to split that pie?" he asked. She handed it over to him, pressing it in his hands. "You can have it. I'm stuffed from Sweet Kisses and exhausted from dealing with the wedding and Elsie's situation. I think I'm just going to head to bed." She stood up. "Okay," Jace said, standing up himself. He lingered there, watching her. "Spit it out," she said. He raised an eyebrow. "Spit what out?" "Whatever's on your mind," she said. "Come on, Jace—I know you like you're my brother. You're rocking your pensive face, which means you have something else to say. So—what is it?" He studied her for a moment, before shaking his head. "I should go," he said. "You're right—we've both had a long day. We should get some sleep." "Okay," she said, feeling a bit dejected, though she knew she was being absolutely crazy. Jace didn't often confide in her, so she shouldn't expect him to share his thoughts freely now. "Goodnight, Jace." "'Night, Emma." She stood on her porch, watching him disappear into the moonlight, until she could no longer make out his shadow down the street. Chapter 12 – JANE "THE night's almost over," Chuck observed, pulling her closer to him as they slow-danced. "Yes," Jane said, though she felt like the time had flown by. "I'll turn into a pumpkin soon." "And I'll race after you with one slipper in my hand," he replied. She laughed. "We should have spoken to more people," she said. "I shouldn't have monopolized you," he agreed. "I couldn't help it." She didn't respond right away. "I feel it, too," she finally admitted, though she knew she shouldn't—she knew were it led, and she wasn't sure she was ready for it. "Do you want to get out of here?" Chuck whispered in her ear. "If we can sneak away without anyone noticing," Jane said. "I'm not sure Caroline would approve." "Fitz is distracting her," Chuck said. "He's a good friend like that." Chuck pulled her off the dance floor and they slipped away, through the crowd and into the kitchen, eventually finding a door that led to the side porch. They were able to find a valet right away, and jumped into the car before anyone noticed they were gone. "Did Elsie leave, too?" he asked, holding her hand, steering with the other, driving them away from Madewood. "She disappeared with Emma at least an hour ago." Jane didn't add that her sister hadn't said goodbye—it seemed a bit petty. Chuck must have sensed something in her tone, though. "Does it bother you that you and Elsie have grown apart?" Jane shook her head. "She needs a best friend at this phase in her life. Friends come and go, but sisters are forever. I'll always have my sisters." "Come on," Chuck said. "That can't be how you really feel." Jane pressed her lips together. Lies had been such a huge part of her last relationship, and when it ended, she had promised herself to stop holding back about her feelings. "Emma is a good person who is a lot more like Elsie than she seems on the surface. Sometimes, though, the two of them get into more mischief together than apart." Jane looked down at her hands. "I love my sister and I want what's best for her." "Your sister deserves the best of the best," Chuck replied. "I will say that Jace Knightley speaks highly of Emma Woodhouse. He's very close to her." "Yes," Jane said, grateful for the change in subject. "They grew up together, like brother and sister. How do you know him?" "He's tutored me a time or two," Chuck said with a smile. "Accounting, mainly. He's also a teaching assistant for one of my classes, though I'm better at that subject. The old man has drilled corporate finance concepts into me since I was a kid." Jane gave him a look of mock surprise. "You led my mother to believe that corporate finance wasn't your forte." He laughed. "I didn't want her to mistake me for a money guy—Lulu really is better at that. I'm not at all. The only reason I'm studying business is to make my parents happy. But my real goal is to find ways to make a difference in the world. If some of the business lessons come in handy along the way, so be it." Jane nodded. "Everything costs money. It's good to see someone with money using it to do good in the world." "I haven't done much good yet," he said. "I still have to do what the old man says, and he's not a proponent of corporate social justice." He touched her nose. "You, on the other hand…" They reached Netherfield mansion without Jane realizing it. She hadn't been paying attention at all to where they were headed, just trusting his driving, lost in her conversation with him. "What are we doing back here?" she asked, wondering if he expected her to sleep over. "Well, I never got to show you the rest of the greenhouse, if I recall." He winked, then led her to the back of the property, back farther still until they had reached the greenhouse again. He stopped and turned back, pulling her waist toward him. Without a word, she leaned in; he cupped her cheek and pressed his lips lightly against hers. His mouth was like fire itself and she found herself wanting much more than he was willing to give her. Just as the kiss was deepening, he pulled away. "Wow," he said, unbuttoning just the top of his shirt to let in air. "Jane Bennet. I didn't expect to meet you today." She didn't want his words though; she wrapped her hand gently around his neck and pulled him closer, kissing him again. This time, they both let it deepen until they were passionately entwined in each other. But he pulled away again, to her frustration. They stood like that for a moment, breathing heavily, their foreheads pressed together. "I didn't expect to meet you either," she said, responding to his earlier notion. She wished she could slow her flying heart, but his hot breath against her cheeks only sped it up. Every part of her body longed for more of him, even though she knew he was too nice a guy to let her have it. Who was she kidding? She was too nice a girl—a good girl, one who had only been with one guy in her life. And it had taken her a long time to get to the point where she felt comfortable enough to do so. Chuck, though—he was so different. Everything between them felt more intense than anything she'd experienced before. "I feel connected to you," he admitted. "Like I've known you forever." He grinned. "I should probably take you home right now, shouldn't I?" She shrugged, wishing the night didn't have to end like this. Wishing she could spend the rest of it with him. "You know," she said, "I'm not fragile." She trailed her finger along his neckline to his tie, wishing she had the guts to loosen it, or unbutton his shirt further. He locked eyes with her for only a moment before his mouth was on hers again, more aggressively this time. She took it as a cue, matching his level of intensity, letting him know that she meant what she said about not being fragile. She wanted him, all of him. She didn't know how far she would go to get it, but she knew that she didn't want any of it to end, not yet. His arm lingered on her shoulder, so she guided it to where she knew he wanted to put it—on her breast. She was right; he eagerly cupped and squeezed her body the minute she gave him permission to do so. The warmth between her legs ignited as he laid out his jacket on the ground next to them. They found their way to the jacket, the only thing protecting her from the soft, warm dirt, him on top of her. Slowly, he touched her nipples—first above her clothes, then eventually, underneath, seemingly letting her reactions guide him. More than once, he asked, "Are you sure?" to which she emphatically nodded, barely able to endure how slowly they were moving. She knew she shouldn't sleep with a guy she barely knew, but it was Chuck. He was right about their connection; it seemed like it had taken on a life of its own. She didn't want to be timid Jane at that moment; she wanted to let things unfold even further, even if they took her down a path she didn't normally travel. And it wasn't as if she was a virgin, anyway. She finally made her move, reaching up and loosening his tie. She locked eyes with him again, then slowly unbuttoned each button of his shirt. As she neared the bottom, he helped her, stripping himself of his button-down and his undershirt, then moving to his belt. She sat up, reaching back to her own zipper. She tugged at it, letting her dress fall past her shoulders. Then, she unhooked her bra, baring herself to him. He eagerly bent down and kissed her neck, then her collarbone, then subtly moved to her breasts, wrapping his mouth around each nipple in succession. Her entire body pulsed with electricity as he did it. She wrapped her fingers around the waistline of his pants and pulled down, making sure he knew exactly what she wanted. "Jane," he said, "I want to make sure—" "Yes," she whispered. "Please." She couldn't wait any longer to feel his warm, naked body against hers, to feel him inside her, to feel how deep their connection really was… He didn't need her to say it twice. He laid her back, working her dress all the way down her body. Next, he slid her legs out of her panties and set them aside, next to his discarded pants and boxers. He pulled out his wallet and found a condom. He ripped it open, securing it around himself as she watched. This was really happening. She was really going to have sex with Chuck, right then, in his backyard. He reached down to finger her, but it was unnecessary; she was already wet just from the anticipation and idea of what she was doing. She felt a mixture of emotions—naughty, liberated, free, sexy, and a little drunk on romance. "Come here," she said, pulling his neck toward her. He smiled, leaning down to kiss her. Then, he guided himself between her legs and eased himself in slowly. She cried out, feeling his bulge enter her. She was tight, she knew—she hadn't had sex in months—but it seemed to bring him more pleasure that way. The entire world opened up for both of them as they both echoed sighs of deep and soft pleasure. She wondered why it felt so natural for her, having sex—or making love—to a man she'd only met twelve hours earlier. For whatever reason, she felt closer to him than ever as he moved rhythmically over her. He kissed her over and over again, as if their passion couldn't end. She didn't want it to. She didn't think it was possible, but she wondered if she was falling in love with him. "Jane," he whispered to her. "I don't want this to end," she admitted. "Me either," he assured her, and he slowed down, presumably so he wouldn't come too soon. They spent the next forty-five minutes in that pattern, speeding up for pleasure, slowing down to make it last. He was surprisingly well-versed in it, but she was grateful for his experience, because it only meant that the feeling he was giving her could continue, could build, could reach every organ in her body with shuddering, guiltless pleasure. When he finally came, they were both exhausted. He pulled out of her, laying down next to her, gloriously sweaty. She wrapped one arm over his chest, not feeling the slightest bit self-conscious of sharing her body with him—another first for her. She couldn't believe that she'd gone through with it—that they both had. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever experienced in her life, something she would never forget. And even if she had gone too fast—even if things with Chuck went nowhere—she would not regret their one perfect evening together, dancing, laughing, sharing, and connecting in the most intimate ways possible. He cupped her face. "Jane," he said, before kissing her again. With a kiss like that, she knew she couldn't have made a mistake in his feelings for her. The night had been too perfect to be wrong. "I should get home," she said softly, stifling a yawn. She hadn't realized how tired she was after sitting in the heat all day, then dancing all night, then making love to Chuck… "Not yet," he begged. "Just a little longer like this." It was more than a little longer… they fell asleep in each other's arms. She woke up with the dawn, still unclothed. Chuck slept softly with the slightest grin on his face. She couldn't believe she had stayed out all night. She checked her cell phone for missed calls, but it was dead. She needed to get home as soon as possible before her mother reported her as a missing person. She quickly slipped back into her dress, brushing the dirt off it as best she could, and threw her panties into her small clutch. She could not do the walk of shame in Rosebelle, of all places—the town would never move past it. Jane Bennet, innocent, perfect, pure Jane, had stayed out all night with a man. Her mother would be planning the wedding if she knew. She kissed Chuck goodbye on the cheek, trying not to disturb him—his cut body was still mostly naked, though she tried not to look. She didn't know if she could face him with her hair tousled, her clothes wrinkled, her heels muddy. She took back alleys and yards all the way to her house, avoiding any streets where early morning drivers could catch her sneaking home in last night's dress. When she arrived at home, she used the tall trellis just outside her bedroom window to climb up. Just like they had in high school, Elsie had left the window unlocked for her—good, because it meant she didn't have to come in through the front door, bad, because Elsie had noticed her tardiness in coming home. She climbed inside; Elsie was rolled facing the other direction, breathing steadily. Jane tiptoed to their shared dresser, digging for a fresh tank top and shorts. She changed quickly, kicking off her heels and switching out her dress. "Where were you all night?" Elsie teased softly. Jane jumped, startled by her sister's awake presence. "Elsie!" Her sister sat up. "Did you spend the night at Netherfield?!" "Not so loud," Jane whispered. "I was out late with Caroline." Elsie glanced down at her rumpled dress on the floor. "Yeah, right. Are you sure you weren't out late with one of the other Bingleys?" Jane looked away, hating that she was lying to her sister. "Chuck and Fitz were there, too. It was perfectly friendly." "Oh," Elsie said, wrinkling her nose. Jane sighed, wishing that she could tell her the truth. "It's five in the morning. Go back to sleep, Els." "Fine," Elsie said, turning over again, away from her. Jane got into her own bed and snuggled under the covers, reliving her moments of pleasure with Chuck. She knew she couldn't tell anyone, not when Caroline disapproved, not when she needed to set a better example for her sisters, not when she liked Chuck for more than just a one-night stand. She needed to hold their night of passion close to her heart. Soon enough, she heard the steady breathing of her sister in the next bed over, and she fell asleep, wishing she could see him again.


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