“Come on Janey, pleeeeaaase?”
“No, Lizzy! I am not a thief! I do not break into other people’s property… anymore!” Each statement was punctuated by the slap of a folder as it landed on a desk. “I’m a teacher now! I have a respectable job!”
Lizzy followed her sister down the aisles of empty miniature desks.
“We really need you, Jane. You know I wouldn’t ask if we didn’t. And you don’t have to steal anything. We just need you to be a diversion.”
“Why can’t Lydia do it?”
“She’s not his type.”
“Since when is Lydia not every man’s type?” Jane asked incredulously.
“He likes subtle. She’s too busty.”
“Are you calling me flat-chested?” Jane asked indignantly.
“No! Jane! It’s just…Lydia’s too obvious for him.” She searched her mind. “And a little too tall. He’s only 5’10”.”
“What about you? No one’s ever called you obvious.”
“He likes blondes. And I need to be in the field.”
“So Lydia’s obvious sexy, and you’re action sexy, and I’m what? Kindergarten sexy?”
Lizzy made a sheepish gesture. “Sweet sexy?”
Jane sighed. “You’re not going to give up, are you?”
“Fine. Who’s the target?”
“His name’s Bingley, he’s head of Bingley Steel. What we need you to do…”
Darcy looked around his bedroom and, finding it empty, went into the kitchen, then the living room and the library. No one was there. He took a warm shower and stepped back into his room, looking around for signs of an intruder. Seeing none, he sighed and climbed into bed.
An hour later, Darcy was still tossing. He kicked off the sheets and looked at the clock, then cocked his head when he heard a sound. Smiling, he slipped on his robe and headed to the kitchen.
Stopping in the doorway, he leaned against the jam and watched the show. In front of him was a lycra-clad bottom popped up into the air while its owner leaned over and rummaged through the fridge.
“You can stop staring now.”
“Why? I so seldom get to.”
“Haha.” Elizabeth turned from the fridge and placed the turkey and lettuce she’d been looking for on the counter. “You get plenty.”
“Hungry?” he asked, ignoring her remark.
She slathered mustard and mayonnaise on a slice of bread while Darcy poured two glasses of juice from the fridge.
“How was your day?” she asked after a couple of bites.
“Good. Uneventful. Yours?”
“Good. Eventful,” she answered.
He reached over and pulled a blade of grass out of her hair. “Did you get caught?”
“I can’t talk about work. And no, I didn’t get caught,” she said with a smug smile.
“I gave a friend your number a few weeks ago. Charles Bingley? Did he call you?”
“I can’t talk about work,” she said as she rose and put her plate in the dishwasher.
“I know. Let me just tell you this. Charles is a very old friend of mine. Please take good care of him-” he raised his hand as he saw she was about to speak – “if he calls you. Which I’m pretty sure he already has. And try not to freak him out.” He said the last with a smile and a suggestive lift of one brow.
“What? Don’t want me leaving a tube of lipstick in his medicine cabinet?”
“I don’t want you leaving anything in anyone’s medicine cabinet.” He stepped in front of her where she was leaned against the sink and pulled her to his chest. “Are you tired yet? Because I’m ready for bed.”
“Yeah, I just need to take a quick shower. I smell like dirt and grass.” She pulled away and began walking out of the kitchen, Darcy flipping off the lights and following behind her.
“Yeah?” she replied as they headed up the stairs.
“I need to ask you something.”
“What is it, baby?”
He stopped in the middle of the stairs. “That’s new.”
“You called me baby.”
She looked over her shoulder at him.
“You’ve never done that before.”
“Do you not like it?” she asked.
“No, I like it fine. Call me anything you want.”
She gave him a look and continued down the hall. “I doubt you really mean that.”
Remembering who he was talking to, he quickly agreed. “There’s a big company event in a couple of weeks. We’ll be doing a demonstration of some new features – it might be interesting for you.”
He grabbed a towel out of the linen closet and set it on the counter, then leaned against the marble as Elizabeth opened the shower door and fiddled with the multiple heads.
“Do you want me to talk about security or something?”
He looked confused and shook his head while she adjusted the water temperature. “No. I want you to be my date.”
She stopped with her black tank top half way off, her face obscured. She turned her back to him and finished taking off her top, then quickly shimmied out of her running pants and looped her bra over the towel rack before jumping into the shower and closing the door tightly behind her.
“Isn’t it a bit soon?” she called from the shower.
“Soon? We’ve been together over a month now. I think it’s okay if we let people see us on a date.”
“Would you call us together?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t you?”
She was silent a moment. “I don’t know. We hardly ever go anywhere together. Don’t you have to go out to really be considered dating?”
“I thought we were talking about together, not dating?”
“Don’t they mean the same thing?”
“I don’t know! I guess. Does it matter? You’re here three nights a week, and I’ve seen you naked. Doesn’t that qualify as together?”
“Will!” she called as he opened the shower door and stared at her.
“And now I’ve seen you washing your hair. That sounds pretty together to me.”
She huffed and tried not to smile. “Fine, we can be together, but I’m still not telling anyone.”
“Why not?” he asked as he took off his robe and stepped into the shower with her.
“Because you’re a client and it’s unethical! I have to set an example for the staff.”
“The staff are all related to you.”
“Not all of them! Marge isn’t family.”
“She handles payroll. I doubt she’ll care who you’re sleeping with. Besides, I’m not a client anymore.”
“Not right now, but if something happens and you need another system check-”
“We’ll deal with it when it comes. Quit stalling. Will you come with me or not?” he asked as he scrubbed her back.
She let her head hang down as Darcy began kneading the knots in her neck and shoulders. “I can’t think straight when you do that.”
“Why do you think I’m doing it?”
“Ugh! Fine! I’ll go. What do I have to wear?”
“It’s a cocktail party, so something sexy, and preferably short.”
“With those heels you love?”
“Yes, with those heels I love.” He kneaded lower down her back and she started to relax. “If you want, we can do a dry run.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a wedding to go to next weekend. You can be my date and save me from having to dance with all the desperate bridesmaids.”
“Maybe they won’t be desperate. Maybe they’ll be hot and easy and you’ll wish you’d gone alone.”
He turned her around to face him and tried not to smile at the stubborn look on her face. “I know you don’t mean that, Lizzy. We both know you’d claw the eyes out of anyone I even thought about sleeping with.”
“I wouldn’t claw her eyes out,” she said as she played with the hair on his chest. “Maybe just break into her house and steal all her make-up and hair supplies.”
“Not her underwear?”
“The little whore probably doesn’t need any.”
He laughed out loud and drew her against him. “So you’ll go to the wedding with me next Saturday?” he asked quietly.
“Of course. I can’t let you get cornered by desperate, whore-y bridesmaids without underwear.”
They toweled off, brushed their teeth, and walked to the bed.
“So whose wedding is it?” Elizabeth asked as she rubbed lotion on her arms.
“Louisa Bingley, Charles’s sister.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes and sighed.
“Yeah?” he answered as he climbed into bed and flipped the lamp off.
“Do you remember earlier when you asked about my day?”
“Uh huh. You said it was good and you can’t talk about it.”
She exhaled loudly. “I still can’t talk about it, but something stressful came up today, and my mind’s all over the place.” She stared blankly at the ceiling above her.
“How about I help you to forget about work?” he said as he nuzzled her neck.
“Mmm. Sounds good.”
“Just relax, Lizzy. I’ve got you.”
“We’ve got a problem,” Elizabeth said as she plonked her bag down on the table and flopped into a chair.
“What kind of problem?” Lydia asked as she looked over the top of the magazine from the other side of the table.
“We have to move up the first test.”
“To when? Why?” asked Lydia.
“How far up?” said Mary, finally slipping off her earphones and turning away from her computer.
“Before Saturday,” Elizabeth said.
“He wasn’t scheduled ‘til Tuesday. What happened?” Lydia asked, setting down her magazine and pulling her feet off the table.
“Louisa Bingley happened.” At their questioning glances, she continued, “She’s Bingley’s sister and she’s getting married this weekend. Bingley is giving her away. And I’m attending the wedding.”
“Why? Surely he didn’t invite you just because he hired us.”
“No, he hasn’t even met me, as usual Dad handled the consult and set everything up. But I am going with a date,” she trailed off on the last part.
“A what? Did you say date?” Lydia asked, all interest.
“Yes, I said date. Don’t act so surprised. I’ve gone on dates before.”
“Not in the last year, you haven’t!”
“Thanks for the update, Lyd. This guy is an old friend of Bingley’s and I agreed to go before I knew whose wedding it was.”
“So are you going to tell us who the mystery guy is?” taunted Lydia.
“No, I’m not.”
“You know we’ll just bug you and listen in until we find out on our own, right?” Mary said.
“Gah! Some sisters you are! Fine! It’s William Darcy. Happy?” Elizabeth blurted and crossed her arms.
“Ooooooooh! This is even better than I thought!” Lydia exclaimed.
“The one who said a girl couldn’t do this job?” questioned Mary.
“Who cares what he said! He’s hot and loaded!” Lydia jumped in. “On a scale of one to ten, one being like making out with braces in junior high and ten being mind-blowing, earth-shatteringly good, how is he?”
“I’m not going to rate him! It’s bad enough that I even told you about it,” Elizabeth said as she rose and made for the door, ignoring Lydia’s eye roll.
Just before she left the room, she turned to look at the expectant faces of her sisters. “Solid nine point five. Now get to work on the Bingley case!”
Elizabeth rushed out and Mary and Lydia high fived each other to squeals and bad impressions of Darcy talking mushy to Elizabeth. She shook her head and went to her office to call her sister.
“Hello, this is Jane.”
“Hi, Jane. It’s your annoying sister.”
“Hi, Lizzy. And you’re not that annoying. What’s up?”
“We need to move the Bingley job up. Something’s come up and we need it done before Saturday.”
“So when do you need me to flirt with the steel tycoon?”
“Friday afternoon. There’s a tour of his factory we can get you on, and you’ll meet him there. I’ll fill you in on details later.”
“Alright, I can leave school at two, but no earlier. And Lizzy?”
“This is the last time. I mean it.”
“I know. I haven’t forgotten.”
Elizabeth wearily hung up the phone and held her head in her hands until Lydia came in with the Bingley plant blueprints.
“Are you sure we’re up for a job this big?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure. We can handle it. We’ll just need to be full steam ahead until Friday.”
“Great! Can’t wait,” Lydia said sarcastically, looking darkly at the calendar proclaiming it Monday.
Mary and Jane quietly followed the tour guide through Bingley Steel, half listening as she explained what happened where and who was responsible for what. After an hour of walking through the large factory, they entered the administrative end of the building.
“This is where the executive offices are located…” Jane wasn’t listening to the tour guide as she kept her eyes open for Mr. Bingley. She’d memorized his picture and was all set with her cover story.
“You ready?” Mary whispered.
“Always,” Jane whispered back, not realizing she’d shifted completely out of teacher mode and back into the girl who loved a good break-in.
Mary stifled a smile and pointed to her left. “Target sighted.”
Jane threw her shoulders back, tossed her hair and stepped away from Mary into the middle of the large hall. Mary quickly withdrew against a far wall and pretended to read a framed history of the company as the tour guide’s voice faded farther away. She kept an eye on Jane from the corner of her eye.
Jane stood in the middle of the hall, at first looking at a collection of prints in front of her, then turning and looking around in circles as if she were lost.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” asked a masculine voice.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Jane answered, looking flustered. “Maybe. I’m afraid I’m a bit lost.” She bit her lip sheepishly and looked so adorably embarrassed, he couldn’t help but smile at her.
“No worries, I get turned around in here sometimes, too. It’s all like a big maze.” She smiled sweetly at him and he stepped a little closer. “What are you looking for? I can show you the way.”
She tried not to smile at his contradiction and looked at her shoes before glancing up through her lashes. “That’s alright, I don’t want to be any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble, really. I’d like to help.” Seeing her wavering, he held out his hand. “I’m Charles. What’s your name?”
“Jane.” She took his hand and he shook it gently but firmly. Good grip. A light blush rose in her cheeks as he held her hand a little longer than necessary, and they both half-laughed self-consciously when he finally let go.
“So, Jane, where can I lead you?”
“Actually, I was looking for a drink and the ladies room. Someone told me there was a café this way but I’ve gotten completely turned around.”
He grabbed her elbow lightly and began leading her away from the offices. “You’re not too far off, really. The café is just that way. It’s actually not bad, even though it’s in the middle of a factory. The coffee bar is excellent.” Charles continued to babble on as he led Jane away, walking right past Mary.
Mary winked at her sister and consulted the video on her phone which was tapped into the company’s security feed, a panel of nine screens that showed various angles and sections of the factory offices. When it changed to another view, she quickly headed toward Bingley’s now empty office. The outside was protected by a lock that opened with a ten digit code and Bingley’s fingerprint. Mary quickly removed a magnetic strip from her pocket and slipped in onto the bottom of the keypad. It would record Bingley’s code when he returned. Getting the fingerprint was Jane’s job.
Jane had not been happy when her sister told her that she not only needed to be a diversion, but had to acquire his fingerprint as well. That had not been part of the deal, but Jane was nothing if not a team player, so she stifled her grumbles and told herself it would all be over soon. Besides, it was fun to play cloak and dagger once in a while. Teaching was great, but nothing got her adrenaline pumping like a job.
Being the daughters of a man who broke into other people’s property for a living had given the Bennet girls a taste for adventure. She wouldn’t call herself an adrenaline junkie, but Jane definitely enjoyed a good B&E every once in a while. At least I’m not as bad as Elizabeth. If she doesn’t crawl through three windows a week she goes into withdrawal.
Jane stopped her wandering thoughts and focused her attention on Charles as he returned with two steaming cups and set them on the table in front of her.
“It’s not Starbucks, but it’s pretty good,” he said affably.
“Thank you, I’m sure it’s great.” Jane kept an eye on his cup, knowing the print left on it wouldn’t be good quality.
After a few minutes of small talk, Jane took out her phone and surreptitiously wiped the surface under the table. She looked at it, apologized and said she’d thought she heard it vibrate, and set it next to her cup. They continued talking and when Jane reached for her coffee, she accidentally knocked the phone onto the floor. Charles reached down to pick it up and handed it to her. Jane smiled and grabbed it by the edges, carefully placing it in a pocket of her purse.
Mission accomplished. They chatted on until they’d finished their coffees and Jane looked at her watch reluctantly, surprised that she was actually enjoying herself.
“I really have to go. It’s been nice meeting you,” she said as she stood.
“Oh, that’s too bad.” He stood on the other side of the small table and rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen, I know this is short notice, but I’d really like to see you again. Are you free tomorrow afternoon?”
“Um,” she hesitated, clearly unsure of what to say.
“I’m going to a wedding and I thought maybe you could be my date.”
Jane looked at his sweet smile and the adorable dimples it brought out. Crap. Everyone knew Jane couldn’t resist dimples.
“What time is it at?”
“Four. I have to be there early, but I could send a car round to pick you up?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I can drive myself. Where is it?”
“So you’ll go? Great!” His grin was so bright and joyful that she couldn’t resist beaming back at him. “Come with me to my office – I think I’ve got a spare invitation lying around. I’ll give you all the details.”
She smiled shyly and followed him down the hall. Damn. Lizzy is going to kill me!
Jane walked into Bennet Solutions and dropped her purse on the table in the planning room. “Here you go. Should be a clean set,” she said as she gingerly passed the phone with Bingley’s prints on it to Mary.
“Thanks.” Mary got to work on extracting the prints while Jane sat heavily at the table.
“She’s right here,” Elizabeth said as she walked in the door. “How did it go?”
“Fine. No hiccups. But there is one small problem.” Jane fidgeted until Elizabeth shot her a look. “Bingley asked me out.”
“That’s not so unusual. Did you let him down easy?”
“That’s the thing… I didn’t. Let him down, that is.”
“Well, I don’t really work here, not anymore. This was just a favor, a one-time thing. Technically, there’s no professional compromise. My part of the job is over and now I’m free to see him in a personal capacity.”
Elizabeth looked at her incredulously.
“As long as we don’t discuss the job, there’s no conflict of interest. So just don’t tell me anything about the case, okay? Then, if he ever meets you, which he probably won’t because who knows if it’s even going to go anywhere, the job would probably be long over by then, if it even happens. And it probably won’t. But if it did, you don’t even usually meet your clients – he wouldn’t even know who you are!”
“Oh, no. You like him!”
“I do not!”
“Do too! You’re babbling and not making any sense, and you always do that when you like a guy,” Elizabeth said accusingly.
Jane huffed. “So what if I do? I’m allowed to like a guy,” she stated indignantly. Then her voice dropped to a whisper. “And he has dimples.”
Elizabeth let her head roll back and slumped in her chair. “Oh, no! Janey, Bingley is going to meet me. He’s meeting me tomorrow. I’m his friend’s date to his sister’s wedding!”
“You’re going to the wedding, too?”
“He invited you to his sister’s wedding? Won’t he be too busy giving away the bride for a date?”
“He’s giving away the bride?”
“Oh, brother. You had to fall for the target!” Elizabeth threw her hands in the air in exasperation and Jane looked a little guilty, but was clearly not willing to cancel her date.
“Sorry. But it’s really not that bad. I didn’t even tell him my last name. With any luck, it won’t come up tomorrow. And Bennet is pretty common if it does. Are you using an alias?”
“No, I was just going to ask Will not to use my last name at all since I’m breaking into Bingley’s factory tonight and all that.” She waved her hand in front of her. “This is getting so complicated.” She put her fingertips to her temples and closed her eyes, exhaling slowly. “Okay, you and I probably look the least alike of all of us, so if we don’t tell them, it’s likely no one will know we’re sisters. So let’s just act like we’re meeting for the first time tomorrow. I can explain to Will after this job is done, but he knows I keep my identity under wraps so it shouldn’t be a problem. If you and Bingley last, you can tell him my confidentiality is why you didn’t tell him we’re sisters. Otherwise, be honest about who you are and what you do. I’ll use my usual cover if I need to.”
“Okay, so everything will be okay. We can get through one measly wedding, right? What could happen?” Jane smiled and practically bounced out of the office. Elizabeth let her head drop onto the table and groaned.
“Famous last words,” said Mary.
“Don’t start,” Elizabeth grumbled.
“Wow, this is really beautiful,” Elizabeth said as she and Darcy pulled into the long winding drive of a country estate.
“It’s Charles’s family house. His great-grandfather built it in 1915 I think. He said they’re having the whole thing outside. Should be nice.”
Elizabeth nodded absent-mindedly and continued looking out the window.
“So how did last night go? I didn’t hear you come in.”
“It was almost four. Probably why I slept until noon,” she smiled. “It went well. It was challenging but we achieved our goal. And before you ask, no, I didn’t get caught.”
He grinned back at her. “I’m beginning to think that’s a stupid question to ask. So let me double check this,” he said as he parked the car. “You want me to introduce you as just Elizabeth, and if I have to use a surname, use Gardiner.”
“And you’re an aerobics instructor.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you’re going to choose a fake job, don’t you want one more interesting? And aren’t you a little smart to be an aerobics instructor?”
“Hey, my mom’s an aerobics instructor!”
“Yes! That’s how she and my dad met. She was teaching a stretch and strengthen class and he needed to limber up for work. And I even taught a few classes for extra money in college. It’s a lot of fun and not everyone who does it is a complete idiot.”
“I know, but when you tell people, doesn’t it make them look at you as, I don’t know, a sex object?” He asked uncomfortably, clearly embarrassed.
“This might surprise you, but that’s kind of the point.” His brows shot up and he looked at her with confusion. “I don’t want to come off as a strategist or an adrenaline junky when I meet potential clients or possibly former clients. If they’re thinking of me as a ditzy aerobics teacher in spandex, they aren’t thinking of me as a potential threat. For all I know, I’ll have broken into half these guests’ offices at one point or another. Which is why I don’t usually meet my clients in person – present party excluded, of course.”
“Of course,” he said as he leaned across for a quick kiss. “We should get going. They’ll start seating soon.”
Elizabeth watched peacefully as the elderly female family members were ushered in. She saw Jane sitting near the aisle on the second row, an empty seat next to her, presumably for Charles. Jane looked lovely as always in a pale blue dress that matched her eyes and her hair pulled back, little wispy curls dancing on her neck.
“Do you know her?” Will whispered in her ear.
“The blonde in the blue dress.”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“You were staring at her.”
“Was I? I like her dress.” She smiled at him. “She’s very pretty. Everyone here looks lovely, actually,” she said as she glanced around at the soft pastel dresses blowing in the spring breeze.
“Not as lovely as you.” He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. “This dress, you really shouldn’t have worn it, Elizabeth.”
“Why not?” she asked, looking slightly offended. The pale pink looked perfect with her skin tone and contrasted beautifully with her dark hair, which was held back from her face by an antique comb and hanging in loose, looping curls down her back.
“Because you’re putting every other woman to shame,” he said sincerely. “And I am entirely too distracted to focus on the wedding.”
She gave him a crooked grin, but before she could reply, the string quartet began and the first bridesmaid sashayed down the aisle.
An hour later, Elizabeth and Darcy were toasting the new couple in the large tent set up behind the house. Various guests came by to greet Darcy and he always introduced her as his date, Elizabeth. When Charles walked up to him with Jane on his arm, Liz smiled kindly but without recognition at her sister.
“Will! So glad you came! What do you think?” Charles raised his arms to the side and looked around the tent.
“It’s great, Charles. I’m sure Louisa will be very happy.” He smiled at his friend. “Have you met my date Elizabeth?”
“Not yet. It’s nice to meet you, Elizabeth. This is Jane.”
The two women acknowledged each other and when Charles pulled Will aside for a moment, Jane stepped next to her sister.
“How’s it going?” she asked quietly.
“So far, so good. No one’s made us.”
Jane nodded and sipped her champagne, then turned back to Charles, who led her off to meet someone else.
“I know what you were doing last night,” Will whispered tauntingly in Liz’s ear.
“Charles just told me that he was missing a certain antique letter opener from his desk this morning. Any idea who could have taken it?”
“No idea at all. He probably just misplaced it. Weddings are so hectic, the mind’s all over the place – he should just focus on his sister and enjoy the day.”
“Hmm,” Darcy was unconvinced, but he didn’t press her.
“That poor thing.”
“That bridesmaid. I think she was the maid of honor. The bride picked out such a tight dress for her! She looks like she can hardly breathe.”
“That’s Caroline. She’s Charles and Louisa’s sister. I’m pretty sure she picked out her own dress. She’s known for wearing things like that.”
“Really? It leaves so little to the imagination. And the color. Whose idea was that?”
Darcy chuckled. “Stop thinking about Caroline and come dance with me.” He pulled her onto the floor and she gladly followed, a bright smile on her face.
Darcy was an excellent dancer and they laughed and danced through three songs in a row before Caroline asked to cut in and dance with Darcy. Elizabeth acquiesced kindly and stepped back. Darcy threw an angry look over his shoulder at her while she just laughed and headed towards the bar. Caroline wasted no time pulling herself as close to Darcy as she could possibly be without actually climbing inside his gray suit.
Elizabeth watched Darcy dancing with Caroline from the side of the floor. He was frowning and trying to hold himself as far from her as possible while Caroline talked incessantly and kept trying to lean in and whisper G-d knows what in his ear. Elizabeth was smiling at the scene when a man approached her.
“Would you care to dance?”
She turned to the blonde haired stranger and nodded. “Sure.”
“Are you enjoying the wedding, Elizabeth?”
“Yes, it’s a lovely event,” she replied as he led her smoothly around the floor.
“Are you a friend of the bride’s or the groom’s?”
“The bride’s. You?”
“Bingley and I went to school together. Known each other for years.”
She nodded and continued dancing silently.
“So what do you do, Elizabeth?”
“I teach group fitness classes.”
He nodded in appreciation and tried to check out her body without her noticing, but she did.
“What about you?” she asked.
“I’m in quality control.”
“That sounds interesting. Where do you do that at?”
“At Pemberley Enterprises.”
Realization dawned on Elizabeth and she wondered how much longer the song would last.
“Something about you seems familiar. Have we met before?” he asked.
She smiled coquettishly and said, “I think I’d remember that.”
He turned her under his arm and she gave him a playful look over her shoulder as she whipped around, working her hips a little for good measure.
Richard was clearly enjoying the show when the music stopped and she said she had to get back to her friend. She was a few steps away from him when she felt a firm grip on her upper arm and was propelled to the side of the floor.
“What was that caveman routine, Mr. Darcy?” she asked when they were alone in a corner.
“What was going on with Richard?”
“What do you mean?”
He batted his eyes dramatically and wiggled his hips as he spat, “The little show you were putting on over there!”
Elizabeth tried not to laugh at his fit and poor imitation of her. “I was just flirting. Relax.”
Darcy looked like he’d been smacked. “Flirting?” he said carefully, obviously struggling for control.
He let out a breath and said quietly, “I thought you’d deny it.”
Elizabeth finally understood the problem and stroked his rigid arm. “Oh, baby! No! Not like that! I was trying to distract him. He said I seemed familiar and I was afraid he recognized my voice from our phone conversations when he was handling your security. I wasn’t interested in him.”
Darcy seemed somewhat mollified but still upset. He forced a smile and pulled her close. “Sorry I overreacted. Dance with me?”
She nodded and he led her to the floor just as a slow song began. She wrapped her arms around his neck and stood close enough for her breath to tickle his skin.
“Do you always flirt when you’re trying to get out of trouble?” he asked.
“One of the best ways to neutralize a male threat is to turn him on. Everyone knows that,” she said saucily.
“Is that so? And how would one neutralize a female threat?”
“Why don’t you try something and I’ll let you know if it’s working?”
Darcy laughed and began walking off the dance floor and out of the tent, pulling Elizabeth behind him.
“Where are we going?”
Darcy led her into the house, through a hall filled with aproned catering staff and up a set of stairs. He looked around and pulled her into a bathroom, shutting the door behind them.
“What are you doing?” asked Elizabeth.
“You’re not the only one who can be sneaky,” he answered.
Elizabeth laughed as Darcy quickly lifted her and placed her on the counter by the sink. He kissed her for a few minutes, then pulled away. She lifted a brow in question to which he only gave her a look in reply as he slowly sunk to his knees before her. Her eyes widened as she realized what he was about to do and she leaned her head back against the mirror, her hands gripping the counter ledge for support.
Caroline Bingley stood in the hall outside the bathroom, fuming as Elizabeth’s voice carried through the door. That little slut! She paced back and forth a few minutes, refusing to leave until she’d seen Darcy and could separate him from the little tart he was… with in the bathroom.
Several minutes later, the door opened and Caroline turned, as if she was just coming their direction.
“Darcy! There you are. Charles is looking for you. He said it’s important. He’s downstairs.”
Darcy looked at Elizabeth as he debated whether to go meet his friend.
“Have you seen the view from the balcony?” Caroline asked her. “It’s spectacular! Why don’t I show you?”
Caroline took Elizabeth’s arm and started to lead her away.
“I’ll just find you downstairs. Go see Charles,” Elizabeth said.
William squeezed her hand and headed down the stairs while Caroline led Elizabeth the other direction.
“The balcony is part of the original structure, completed in 1915 by my great-great-grandfather, Hiram Bingley.” She opened a set of French doors and stepped out onto a wide balcony with an iron railing and an amazing view of the valley below. “As you can see, the view is incomparable.”
Elizabeth stepped toward the railing and sighed. “Wow. It really is lovely. Is that a church over there?” She pointed toward a tiny white dot to her left. “Caroline?” She turned around and saw she was alone on the balcony and the door was closed. “Caroline?” she called louder. She tried to open it but it was locked from the inside. She put her hands against the glass to see inside more clearly, but the hall was deserted.
She reached into her hair for a pin and huffed when she realized she didn’t have one.
She looked over the side of the balcony, searching for footholds to climb down. Of course, climbing down would likely ruin her dress, and while she did briefly consider taking it off and throwing it over, she didn’t think a woman climbing down the side of a house in a strapless bra and thong would go unnoticed, nor was it good for business or her relationship with Darcy.
She was on the opposite side of the house from the tented reception and she hadn’t seen another person the entire time she’d been out there, but it was still too risky. If someone came around the corner and saw her, her cover would be blown. She dismissed the idea of yelling for help. No one was likely to hear her over the band and something in her balked at the idea of crying out like a helpless child. She could take care of herself. Reluctantly, Elizabeth realized she was stuck until someone found her, Darcy realized she was missing and came looking, or the party died down enough that she could climb down without being seen.
Elizabeth was good at waiting. She’d spent enough time crouched outside in the dark and she knew how to be patient. She had been listening to the birds for a few minutes when she suddenly remembered something.
Listening carefully for a break between songs, Elizabeth stood near the rail and whistled into the quiet. She just hoped her sister remembered their old call system.
“Did you hear that?” Jane asked as she stood talking to Charles and one of the groomsmen on the side of the dance floor.
“Nothing.” She craned her ear and listened. There it was! “Excuse me for a minute, gentlemen.”
Jane walked calmly out of the tent, a serene expression on her face. But inside, she was on full alert. She mentally catalogued every person she passed into ‘safe’ and ‘possible threat’. She scanned the surroundings for escape routes and weak points, all the while desperately looking for her sister.
Jane was approaching the house when she heard the whistle again. She followed the sound around to the side of the house and there, leaning over a railing twenty feet in the air, was her sister, perched like a swallow on a branch.
“What are you doing up there?”
“I’m trapped! Caroline locked me out here! Come let me out!”
Jane huffed and went inside the house, eventually wending her way up the stairs and to the locked door.
“She must have taken the key with her. The lock’s empty.” Jane said through the glass.
“Can you pick it?”
“I don’t know. These old locks are heavy and I don’t have any tools. I’ll try, but don’t get your hopes up.” Jane pulled a pin out of her hair, a golden lock falling over her brow, and got to work on the door.
After several minutes, Jane gave up. “It’s not going to work, Lizzy. I’m sorry. Is there a way down from your side? Maybe I could find some rope and throw it to you. I saw a barn over by the pond.”
“Ugh!” Elizabeth sighed and pressed her forehead to the glass.
“I can just go get Charles. Surely he knows where another key is. Or maybe Darcy knows.”
“And how would we explain your presence? You were just wandering upstairs – alone – in the private part of the house that was closed to guests and found a woman you’ve never met before locked outside on the balcony? I don’t think so.”
Jane looked down and nodded. “Can you climb down?”
“Not without ruining my dress.” Elizabeth’s eyes lit up. “Want to watch my back?”
Five minutes later, Jane was standing guard below the balcony, ready to head off anyone that came their way, Elizabeth’s filmy pink dress and heels were on a bench next to the house, and Elizabeth herself was scaling down the ivy and trellis in her underwear.
“I cannot believe I’m doing this.”
“Just hurry! Do you want to get caught?”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one with her ass on display in broad daylight at a WEDDING!”
“It’s only a display if someone sees. So. Hurry. UP!” Jane hissed. “Oh, crap! I hear someone coming. I’ll go stall them. Move it, Lizzy!”
Jane ran around the corner to head off whoever was coming and Elizabeth crept down quickly, trying not to fall or break the trellis.
She dropped nimbly to the ground and scrambled behind a bush to pull on her dress and heels. She took a moment to straighten her hair and wipe the dirt off her hands, then walked in the opposite direction her sister had gone. She walked back to the tent as calmly as possible, but inside she was seething.
Nobody pulled one over on Elizabeth Bennet. She’d let her guard down for a minute, thinking nobody knew who she was and she could just have a good time with her boyfriend, but that clearly wasn’t a possibility.
She was able to conceal the direction of her thoughts and smile at other guests as she entered the tent and scanned the crowd for Darcy. Luckily, he was tall enough that it was easy to find him and she was at his side a moment later.
“Hey, there you are. I was about to come looking for you. Where have you been?” he asked.
“Just enjoying the view. Did I miss anything interesting?”
“Not really. Bingley’s cousin made an embarrassing speech and the buffet was refreshed.”
“Sounds fascinating. Is the food any good? I’m a little hungry.”
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t eaten anything.”
“You know when you’ve eaten something really good and you don’t want to eat anything else and ruin the lingering flavor?” She looked at him incredulously. “You’re too good to ruin, Elizabeth,” he whispered hotly in her ear.
Elizabeth felt her cheeks burning and looked down, not knowing what to say.
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.
He took her hand and led her out of the tent, waving to Charles as he passed by. Elizabeth gave Jane a look that showed her surprise and approval of William’s plan, and they almost ran to the car.
“What was that?” Jane asked in the car the next day. The Bennet sisters almost always met for brunch every Sunday morning, unless one of them was in jail, but that rarely happened. Elizabeth had picked up Jane at her apartment and they were on their way to meet their sisters.
“Leaving the wedding early or getting locked on the balcony?”
“I think I can figure out why you left early,” Jane smirked. “How did you get locked outside?”
Elizabeth sighed. “Caroline offered to show me the view after Will went to talk to Charles, which I’m sure she just made up to get him away from me, and I wasn’t out there three minutes before she locked the door and ran off with the key. Will told me last night that she’s had a crush on him for years but that he’s never shown any preference for her. They’ve never even dated! She’s delusional.”
“So what are you going to do about it? I know you’re not just going to let it go.”
“I haven’t fully decided yet, though I have had a few fantasies involving honey and fire ants.”
Jane laughed. “God help anyone that messes with Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Like you aren’t feeling all protective over there, big sister?”
She shrugged. “Nobody messes with my little sister and gets away with it.”
“Let’s talk to Lydia and see what she thinks before we make any concrete plans. She’s more experienced at revenge than we are,” said Jane.
Elizabeth smiled wickedly. Oh, Caroline. You don’t know what you’ve started.
“We could turn off her water so she can’t take a shower,” suggested Mary.
“Too easy to fix. I say we steal all her cosmetics and skin creams, and hair supplies, too. See how she looks au natural,” said Lydia.
“Replace her perfume with vinegar,” said Mary.
“Replace her designer wardrobe with Salvation Army finds,” added Lydia.
“Dye everything orange!”
“Shave off her eyebrows while she’s sleeping!”
“Replace her shoes with ones two sizes too small.”
“Break into her calendar and cancel all her appointments so she thinks she’s constantly getting stood up.”
“Should we jump in?” Jane asked Elizabeth.
“Probably. Okay,” she said louder, “we can’t ruin property that’s too expensive, and preferably not ruin anything at all. And nothing that hurts the entire Bingley family; it has to be limited to Caroline.”
“I know!” Jane said. “Let’s create an online dating profile for her and somehow get her to go on all the hideous dates.”
“How would we do that?” Lydia asked.
“Good point.” Jane slumped.
“Does she live in the Bingley home?” asked Elizabeth.
“I’ll find out.” Mary began tapping away on her keyboard and soon spun around. “No, she lives in a villa across town.”
“Lydia, watch her. I want to know everything she does, everywhere she goes, who comes, who leaves, her habits, everything.”
“Got it.” Lydia hopped up and began gathering her camera and other supplies.
“What are you thinking?” asked Jane.
“Let’s wait and see. You know what they say: revenge is best served cold.”
A week later, Lydia, Jane, and Elizabeth were creeping across Caroline’s backyard while Mary worked the security system from the van.
“Are we all set?” asked Elizabeth.
“I’m ready,” answered Jane.
“Me too,” said Lydia.
“You’re good to go for five minutes once the lights go off, then I have to turn them back on,” came Mary’s voice over the earpieces.
Three pairs of eyes watched the floodlight on the back of the house, waiting for it to switch off so they could rush into action.
As soon as the light was out, Jane sprinted to the door outside the pool house and quickly picked the lock. She made her way to the electrical box on the back wall and shut off the jets and filter system. Once she was done with that, she went into the dressing room and made a slight adjustment to Caroline’s tanning cream. Meanwhile, Lydia was opening the filter system canister outside while Elizabeth tinkered with the timer.
“Are you all set, Lydia?”
“Almost. Two more to go.” Lydia was carefully dumping small packets of a powdered substance into the chemical container on the filter. “Okay, all set.”
“I’m almost done.” Liz was carefully listening to Mary who was telling her how to override and reset the system’s battery-powered time panel. “Got it. Jane, turn it back on.”
Jane flipped the power back on and the system hummed to life. Liz checked the new settings and seeing everything was in order, gave the signal to leave.
Four exhausted women collapsed on the couch in Liz’s townhouse, happy, tired, and giddy with success.
“I can’t wait to see what happens. Caroline’s going to flip!” said Lydia.
“Did you tap into the security cameras?” asked Jane.
“Of course,” answered Mary. “The feed goes directly back to the office. We can watch it live in the morning.”
“Then let’s get to bed. I don’t want to miss the show,” said Elizabeth.
Lydia nudged her sister as they walked down the hall to the guest room. “Are you sure you don’t want to come back, Janey? See how much fun we have together? The Bennet sisters, back together!”
Jane laughed. “Thanks, Lyddie, but I’m happy where I am. If I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
The next morning, four groggy but excited Bennets filed into the planning room and sat down in front of Mary’s collection of screens. They could clearly see the back of Caroline’s house and her pool. The scene was devoid of movement but after a few minutes, Caroline emerged from the house. Like clockwork, she slid her robe off her shoulders and walked to the deep end of the pool to commence her morning swim, just like she had every day this week when Lydia was watching her.
Caroline had just dived in and completed her first lap when they saw movement in the water as the jets suddenly came on. Caroline kept her head down, her goggles on tight, and continued swimming. Thirty minutes and forty laps later, Caroline emerged from the water and pressed a towel to her face as the Bennet women scooted to the edges of their seats. She rubbed the towel in her hair for a moment before beginning to dry the rest of her body. Soon, Caroline let out a bloodcurdling scream.
Her entire body was a bright, hideous shade of orange.
Will and Elizabeth were having dinner at his house the next day when Darcy remembered there was something he wanted to tell her.
“Charles told me the craziest thing today.”
“He said that somehow a bunch of orange dye got in his sister’s pool and she somehow went swimming without noticing it and now her entire body is orange.”
“Seriously? How could she not notice an orange pool?”
“I don’t know, but Caroline isn’t the most intelligent person.”
“Is she okay?”
“Yeah, she’s just terribly embarrassed and won’t leave the house. Apparently she’s had a chemical peel and done a whole body exfoliation, whatever that is, but it hasn’t gone away. Charles said it will just have to fade.”
“Oh, no. That’s awful.”
“Yeah, but pretty funny, too,” he said with a smile.
“I didn’t want to say, but since you brought it up…”
The pair laughed until William spoke, “He may ask you to check on her security.”
Liz stopped laughing.
“You ready for bed?” She quickly changed the subject.
He grinned and led the way up the stairs.
“It was really sweet of you to invite me for lunch,” Jane said.
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” answered Caroline with a false smile. Her normal color had returned and the faintest traces of orange were only visible on her elbows and knees. “Charles wants us to get to know each other better.”
Caroline led the way through her house to a table outside on the patio. They ate salads with flavorless chicken under the shade of the umbrella and talked about fashion, celebrities, and beauty treatments. Well, Caroline did most of the talking while Jane listened politely and commented where necessary.
After they ate, Caroline suggested they sit on lounge chair next to the pool to get a little sun. Jane quickly agreed and settled in next to Caroline, large sunglasses perched on her nose.
“Charles tells me you have a large family.”
“Yes, I have four sisters,” answered Jane.
“What do they do?”
“Mary’s in IT. Cat is a receptionist and Lydia and Lizzy are group fitness instructors.”
Caroline perked up. “Oh, like Zumba and Tae Bo?”
“Yes, they do a little bit of everything. Our mother owns a fitness studio. Kickboxing, aerobics, cardio dance – Lizzy taught a class on rock climbing last year and Lydia did a pole dancing workshop.”
Caroline looked intrigued and disgusted at the same time. “You know,” she said slowly, “I’ve been thinking of trying that. It’s very vulgar of course, but it’s not like you’re doing it in public. It’s exercise!”
“Of course.” Jane concealed her snigger. “I can give you Lydia’s number and she can tell you when the next workshop is. I’m sure she’d love to have you in a class.”
“That’d be great. Thank you!”
Carline picked up a familiar bottle of tanning cream and began rubbing it into her bare legs and arms. She offered the bottle to Jane.
“No thank you, I’m good.” Jane hid her smile and leaned back to enjoy the sun.