When Elinor finally made it to the hospital, Marianne was already good to go. She was sitting on her bed with the baby in her arms and looked utterly content. Elinor was almost sorry to break up such a peaceful scene.
‘Dearest, I am so sorry I could not make it earlier,’ she said and sat down on the bed next to her sister.
Marianne gave a wide smile.
‘It’s not your fault this little lady was a bit eager to come,’ she said.
‘Fifty weeks of the year I’m in this hospital, and she chooses the one week when I’m having a conference over-seas,’ Elinor said. ‘How are you? How is she?’
‘I’m fine,’ Marianne said. ‘It’s all good. She’s fine, too. No problems at all. The doctors are very happy with us.’
‘Excellent,’ Elinor said and mustered the incredibly small, sleeping baby. ‘She’s adorable. What are you going to call her?’
‘Julia,’ Marianne said. ‘Julia Elinor Dashwood Brandon.’
Elinor could not let on immediately how touched she was by this and instead chose to focus on the obvious.
‘Bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?’
‘Well, seeing as her father hasn’t asked me to become Mrs Brandon yet, I thought it better if she had both of our names,’ Marianne said.
Elinor saw an emotion very much not maternal flit across her sister’s face.
‘Are you – are you mad with him, Marianne?’ she asked. ‘Is everything alright with the two of you?’
‘Oh, of course,’ Marianne said. ‘Not mad, just a little put out. Don’t mind me. We’re fine.’
‘Well, where is he then?’ Elinor asked. ‘Not by your side?’
‘Dearest, look at you, ready to defend my honour at every time,’ she said. ‘He’s just getting the bags to the car and bringing the car-seat. We’re going home.’
‘Why are you put out then?’ Elinor insisted.
Marianne fidgeted a little.
‘It’s silly, really,’ she finally said. ‘It’s only – I thought, you know, I thought, when I became pregnant, that he’d ask me to marry him, but he didn’t, and then I had the baby, and he didn’t and – I said, it’s silly, I know he’s not going to run, it’s just -’
‘Why don’t you ask him?’ Elinor asked. ‘You’re a grown girl, dearest.’
‘Oh, I know,’ Marianne said. ‘But where would be the fun in that?’
‘You know, the things one dreams of,’ Marianne said. ‘Lots of candles, or, I don’t know, a street full of roses, or a zeppelin in the sky – I mean, when else can you feel like a princess -’
She was interrupted by Brandon coming back with the car seat. Baby Julia was carefully settled in it and Elinor, in her first of very many precious auntie moments, offered to carry her to the car whilst Brandon lent Marianne his arm. Marianne then insisted Elinor come with them. Brandon seemed somewhat reluctant at this, something which hurt Elinor a little until they pulled into the driveway and she saw why. There was not a street, but at least a front yard full of roses, there were candles burning in windlights and though not attached to a zeppelin, there was a large banner hung from the attic windows. All that was missing was Marianne’s tiara.
Dame Catherine was most put out and she tried to convey this as best she could as she glared at her daughter and her – for lack of a better word – paramour.
‘But this was supposed to be just a phase!’ she said and she was most pleased to note that her clipped tones conveyed just the right amount of righteous anger. She still had it in her.
‘It was just a phase!’ she insisted. ‘I promised Mrs Bennet this would be done with once you grew up and got settled, and I never break my word.’
‘Well, so it was,’ Anne said. ‘Just a phase. And now we’ve grown out of the phase of casual cohabitation, and we want to do the real thing. The next phase. You can keep your word to Mrs Bennet.’
‘That is very much not the point,’ Dame Catherine said. ‘Does your obstinacy know no bounds?’
‘I am not obstinate,’ Anne said. ‘Only pointing out the obvious, mother. We have been together for twelve years, I am sure you have seen it coming ever since the new legislation passed.’
‘It’s not a real marriage,’ Dame Catherine said through clenched teeth. Inwardly, she cursed herself for using a contraction, but there was no time to dwell on this now.
‘No, it isn’t,’ Anne agreed. ‘But we will take what we can get.’
‘Does Mrs Bennet already know?’ Dame Catherine asked.
‘She has already begun to plan,’ Mary said. ‘So if you feel uncomfortable with any of the proceedings, please do not feel pressured to become involved beyond what you feel you can commit. My mother has everything under control. You know how she outdid herself for my sisters’ weddings. I am sure ours will just as splendid.’
Visions of prawn cocktails, napkin rings and invitations asking for monetary gifts danced before Dame Catherine’s eyes.
‘So kind of Mrs Bennet,’ she said, ‘but I cannot tolerate that she takes on the lion’s share of the work. I will of course observe everything personally.’
Whether it was recognised by the law or not, nobody was going to say Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter had had a tacky wedding.
When Edward came home, he found his fiancée in a mess of bridal magazines, colour swatches and what looked to him like doily samples. Her hair was piled up on the top of her head in a messy bun and crowned with her reading glasses. She looked up with a slightly desperate look in her eyes.
‘Your mother was here,’ she said simply.
She did not need to say more. Edward understood.
‘Did you know that white was not my colour?’ Elinor said. ‘Apparently, it does not work with my skin.’
She held up two swatches of fabric.
‘I now have to make the decision between eggshell and ivory,’ she said. ‘And it is vital I do it today, because my gown should have been ordered three months ago.’
She waved the swatches.
‘So what do you think?’ she said. ‘Eggshell? Ivory?’
Edward’s eyes flitted from one to the other.
‘They look identical,’ he said finally.
‘Exactly!’ Elinor exclaimed. ‘But if I pick the wrong one, it would ruin everything. It would be like picking cream - can you imagine the horror?’
Edward sat down next to her on the sofa, took the fabric swatches out of her hand and put an arm around her shoulders.
‘It’s just so freaking ridiculous,’ Elinor said.
She started hiccoughing.
‘I mean, I’m thirty years old, I’m a surgeon, you would think I’m qualified to decide what dress I want to get married in,’ she cried. ‘And I have other things to do with my time, I mean, I do want it to be nice, but if I have to spend another afternoon looking at white fabric swatches when I have patients I need to see and a baby niece and -’
She buried her face in his shoulder and started to giggle.
‘We don’t have to do this, you know that,’ Edward said. ‘We don’t have to put up with her if you don’t want -’
‘She’s your mother,’ Elinor said. ‘I’m glad you two are talking again, and she has her heart set on this and -’
She made a noise which to him sounded halfway between a giggle and a sob, but which was probably just the hiccough.
‘I’ll talk to her,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell her to come to me because you’re busy.’
‘Thank you,’ Elinor muttered. ‘And tell her I want a pink dress.’
‘I will,’ Edward said. ‘And hey -’
She lifted her head from his shoulder and looked up at him.
‘In spite of all this, I can’t wait to marry you.’
When Henry got to the little cafe, Catherine was already waiting for him, sitting at a table outside in the sun. She saw him approach and gave him a little wave, as if he would miss her otherwise.
‘Did you get something good?’ she asked.
Henry held up his shopping bag, not a little proud of himself.
‘New potatoes, green asparagus and the very first strawberries,’ he announced. ‘How did it go at the travel agency?’
‘I was thinking a cruise, perhaps,’ Catherine said. ‘Maybe in the Carribean?’
She leaned her head to one side and smiled at him and Henry was smitten all over again.
‘Mrs Allen took a cruise once and she said it was unbelievable,’ Catherine continued. ‘Here, I got a brochure from the agent -’
She ducked under the table and rummaged in her bag.
‘She said that alternatively, a Scandinavian cruise would be lovely in August -’ she muttered indistinctly.
‘Have you ordered anything yet?’ Henry asked.
‘Coffee and bagel for me, chai and cheesecake for you,’ she said. ‘Now, they say the Mediterranean is still very hot in August, but if we do decide on the Scandinavian, we’d really have to book now because they’re always very popular – of course, we could always go somewhere more exotic, but then the flight would be longer and when you only have two weeks that could be -’
‘My dear, I hate to burst your bubble,’ Henry said and his heart broke at Catherine’s sinking expression. ‘But we do not only have temporal, but also monetary constraints to take into account, and I’m afraid a cruise would be quite beyond our limits.’
Catherine bit her lower lip and was utterly adorable.
‘I got carried away again, didn’t I?’ she said. ‘I didn’t even mean to ask about cruises, but then when I got there, they had these lovely posters hanging there, and I thought just looking couldn’t hurt -’
‘Are you very much disappointed that it’s probably going to be two weeks on Majorca?’ Henry asked as casually as he could.
Catherine laughed and the wistful expression completely disappeared from her face.
‘The only thing that counts is that it’s our honeymoon,’ she said and took his hand. ‘It could be to Birmingham for all I cared.’
Anne mustered her reflection in the mirror.
‘Definitely the veil,’ she said. ‘Don’t you agree, Irene?’
Her godmother jerked her head in Anne’s direction.
‘I’m sorry, my dear,’ she said. ‘You were saying?’
‘I said, definitely the veil,’ Anne repeated. ‘Don’t you agree?’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ Irene said. ‘That diadem was outrageously vulgar.’
‘I like the embroidery on the veil,’ Anne said as the shop assistant helped her remove it. ‘It’s so delicate.’
‘Your mother had a veil just like that,’ Irene said. ‘I have a picture of it somewhere, remind me to show it to you.’
‘You already did,’ Anne said. ‘I’ll just pay and then we can go.’
‘Go where?’ Irene asked.
Anne picked up her many bags as Irene slowly extricated herself from her armchair.
‘I said we’d meet Frederick for lunch,’ Anne said. ‘Didn’t I mention that?’
‘Of course,’ Irene said. ‘I forgot.’
Anne followed the shop assistant to the till and handed over her credit card.
‘Isn’t your fiancé going to pay for that?’ Irene asked.
Anne had not heard her come near.
‘Of course not,’ she said and turned around. ‘Why would he?’
‘I was just thinking -’ Irene’s voice trailed off.
Anne signed the receipt, pocketed her credit card and purse again and took her bag.
‘I say,’ Irene continued, ‘have you given any more thought to the other matter?’
‘I have,’ Anne said firmly. ‘And the answer’s still no.’
‘Are you really quite sure?’ Irene asked. ‘It doesn’t mean you have to divorce him, only -’
‘I’m not going to ask him for a prenup,’ Anne said. ‘Have you got everything?’
‘I’m only saying, you never know what might happen,’ Irene went on. ‘In two or three years, you may be very happy to know you made arrangements.’
Anne stopped in her tracks and looked her godmother squarely in the eyes.
‘Has it ever occurred to you that Frederick has much more reason to ask for a prenup than I have?’ she said. ‘After all, I dumped him the first time, plus he’s now richer than I have ever been. I’m not exactly in the same position I was in eight years ago.’
‘He could pay for your dress then,’ Irene huffed.
‘Of course he could,’ Anne said. ‘But I don’t want him to, that’s the whole point.’
Irene huffed again. She did not say anything as they were leaving the boutique and crossing the street.
‘Well, whatever you like,’ she said finally. ‘Where did you say we were meeting your young man?’
‘He’s over there,’ Anne said and pointed to the street corner.
As always when she saw Frederick, her heart skipped a beat. He was coming towards them now, strolling casually, a broad grin on his face that almost took Anne’s breath.
‘Missed you,’ he said and kissed her.
Irene cleared her throat.
‘Good afternoon, Lady Russell,’ Frederick said and offered his hand, which Irene took.
Anne was pleased to note that they at least tried to be civil.
‘Let me take your bags,’ Frederick said, turning to Anne again.
Anne handed him all but the one containing her veil.
‘And what’s in that one?’
‘Well, wouldn’t you like to know?’ she said. ‘You’ll find out soon enough.’
Frederick grinned back at her.
‘27 days, ten hours, fourteen minutes,’ he said. ‘Not that I’m counting.’
Emma took a last look in the mirror and decided she had done all that was needed. She grabbed an elastic from the basket underneath it and put her hair in a loose braid while walking over into the bedroom. George was already in bed, sitting with his back against the headboard, concentrating on the heavy tome in his lap.
‘Churchill’s strategies again?’ Emma asked.
She only got a ‘mhm’ in response. With a little smile, she kicked off her slippers and sat down on her side of the bed. She reached for the bottle of lotion and generously rubbed it into her hands. When she put the bottle back on the nightstand, she saw that George had finally looked up from his book.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘Nothing,’ George said and looked at his book again.
‘You had this funny look in your face,’ Emma said.
She swung her legs up and let herself fall into the pillows, then dragged at the covers until she had freed enough to snuggle around her. She rolled onto her side and mustered her fiancé.
‘What were you thinking of?’
‘Just that this time next week, we’ll be married,’ he said.
‘So we will,’ Emma said. ‘Do you think it will be any different?’
‘Well, we’ll have to put up pictures of you in your dress and me in that suit,’ George said.
Emma boxed him.
‘Be serious,’ she said.
‘In that case, my love,’ George said. ‘I should hope that things will stay very much the same, and that our vows will be a wonderful celebration of our commitment to each other.’
Emma sighed and closed her eyes.
‘I’m so glad you didn’t say we will have to pay fewer taxes,’ she said.
Tom climbed up the stairs for what felt like the hundredth time that day and groaned in disbelief.
‘Don’t tell me that’s yet another one,’ he said.
Fanny looked up from the box she was just sealing shut with tape.
‘I’m sorry, Tom,’ she said. ‘I promise it’s the last.’
‘You said that with the last two of them,’ Tom said.
‘I know!’ Fanny exclaimed. ‘I keep finding more. But you don’t have to carry it if you’re tired, I’ll do it. It’s not too heavy, I can manage -’
‘No, you aren’t,’ Tom said and took the box before she could do anything about it.
‘Oh, Tom, now I feel bad – I really shouldn’t – I mean, I should have -’
‘What, bought fewer books?’ Tom laughed. ‘It’s okay, Fan, really, it’s no problem. When is that degenerate brother of mine coming?’
‘I’m here,’ a voice behind Tom said.
Tom saw Fanny’s face light up.
‘Edmund!’ she squealed and jumped up from the floor. ‘You’re back!’
‘Dismissed my last class early so I could help out,’ Edmund said and shrugged. ‘What have I missed?’
‘Your future wife has far too many books,’ Tom said and set down the box again. ‘You don’t know what you’re getting into.’
Edmund smiled in a sickeningly besotted fashion.
‘Oh, I think I do,’ he said and gave Fanny a peck on the nose. ‘Where’s Susan?’
‘In the bedroom, packing my clothes,’ Fanny said. ‘Really, I can’t thank you all enough for helping me -’
‘Darling, you’re moving your things into my house,’ Edmund said. ‘Our house, I should say. Of course we’re helping you.’
‘Fanny, are you taking the curtains in the bedroom or can I keep them?’ Susan called from the other end of the flat.
‘And I’d say Susan is reaping enough benefits as it is,’ Tom said with a grin.
‘Keep them,’ Fanny called back, ‘Edmund’s curtains are all new, I won’t need them.’
She gave Edmund an equally besotted look.
‘I can’t believe I’m really moving my stuff to your house,’ she said.
‘Our house,’ Edmund corrected her. ‘It’s going to be our house.’
‘I know,’ Fanny said and caressed his cheek.
‘We should get some lunch,’ Tom said hastily.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Fanny said. ‘I’d rather start with the kitchen stuff – I’m leaving all the pots and pans for Susan, but I’m taking the china -’
‘I ate something at school,’ Edmund said. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘Susan, do you want to grab some pizza?’ Tom called.
He had a feeling Edmund and Fanny were only too happy to see them go.
Fitzwilliam Darcy was nervous. That much was obvious to anyone who knew him. He had been pacing in his living-room for close to an hour now, always the same route, from the kitchen door past the table and up to the large window, then straight back to the kitchen door.
‘She isn’t going to say no,’ Charles said.
‘I know,’ Darcy muttered, running a hand through his hair.
‘And she isn’t going to make a run for it either,’ Colin said.
‘I know,’ Darcy said, turning on his heel and walking back to the kitchen door.
‘Are you going to say no?’ Charles asked.
‘Or make a run for it?’Colin added.
‘Of course not,’ Darcy cried.
‘Then for the love of God sit down!’ Colin said. ‘Drink something. Anything. Here, have some whisky.’
Darcy took the glass, but set it down on the table almost immediately.
‘I can’t,’ he said.
‘You can,’ Colin said. ‘Or else I will make you.’
He pushed Darcy down onto the sofa and pressed the glass into his hands again.
‘Drink this,’ he said. ‘Now.’
Darcy emptied the glass in one gulp and Charles refilled it immediately.
‘Where is Lizzy, anyway?’ Colin asked. ‘Why can’t she do this?’
‘With her parents,’ Charles explained. ‘Mrs Bennet believes it’s bad luck if they – you know. The night before.’
‘The number of things Mrs Bennet believes are bad luck are astonishing,’ Colin said. ‘Wasn’t that also the reason she had for a summer wedding?’
‘October is bad luck,’ Darcy said, draining the second glass.
‘Not to mention the decorations,’ Charles said.
‘Yellow is bad luck,’ Darcy muttered.
He held out his glass for a refill.
‘One more,’ Colin decided. ‘And then Charles and I will tuck you into your bed.’
‘I really do want to get married, you know,’ Darcy said, taking care to enunciate clearly. ‘ ‘s just nerves.’
‘Yellow is bad luck,’ Lizzy giggled. ‘And parish halls. Parish halls are the height of bad luck. So lucky they had an opening in the Meryton’s ball-room, otherwise -’
‘You’d have been doomed from the beginning,’ Charlotte said serenely. ‘More chocolate syrup?’
Lizzy held out her bowl.
‘And cream,’ she added. ‘Lots of cream.’
‘You’re going to be sick,’ Jane admonished her.
‘I’m going to be sick anyway,’ she said. ‘Might as well have some fun before.’
‘You’re – you’re not having doubts, have you?’ Mary asked. ‘Maraschino?’
‘Course I’m not having doubts,’ Lizzy said. ‘It’s just, you know. Big step and all that. Come the morning, I’ll be nauseous as hell.’
She looked around in her old bedroom, revived to its original purpose for one more night, taking it all in. Lydia, curled up in the armchair by the window, already fast asleep and snoring, Kitty sprawled on the floor, playing with the bridal shoes, Charlotte and Mary, decorating the ice-cream with Maraschino cherries, Jane and her sitting on her narrow old bed, all in their pyjamas, hairs up in curlers for the big day tomorrow.
‘I mean, will we ever sit here like this again?’ Lizzy asked.
‘Probably not,’ Mary admitted. ‘But we could be sitting elsewhere.’
‘Things are going to be different,’ Jane said. ‘But that doesn’t mean they can’t be awesome, you know.’
‘I know,’ Lizzy said.
‘Being married is great,’ Jane said. ‘You’ll love it.’
‘I think I will,’ Lizzy said. ‘I really think I will.’
The registrar’s office was surprisingly plain. Caroline could not even quite say what she had expected, but it was not this. There were no lavish decorations, of course, but she had not expected those. There was a small bouquet of wildflowers on the little table in the waiting area; someone had tried to cheer the place up, but overall, it felt more like a hospital waiting-room than anything else. Certainly, there was nothing here that reminded people they were about to take a momentous step. She pressed Colin’s hand.
‘Are you nervous?’ she whispered.
‘As hell,’ he whispered back.
‘None whatsoever,’ Colin said and gave her a lopsided smile. ‘What’s the plan?’
‘If anyone asks us a question, we say ‘I do,’ we sign any papers they give us, and when it’s over, we go to the pub and have a stiff drink,’ Caroline said.
‘Sounds good to me.’
Caroline took a deep breath.
‘Darcy’s still taking us to the airport tomorrow?’ she asked.
‘So he said.’
‘You didn’t tell him it was a honeymoon, did you?’
‘Goodness, no,’ Colin said. ‘We’d never hear the end of it. We’re not going to get really married, remember?’
‘Just for the bureaucracy,’ Caroline said.
Colin fumbled with his spectacles.
‘Seems that whenever there’s something important going on in our lives, you’re losing your contacts,’ Caroline muttered.
‘Do you mind?’
‘It’s fine,’ Caroline said. ‘You’re still pretty enough for me.’
‘You clean up nicely too, as a matter of fact.’
Caroline fumbled with her bracelet. It was only last night that she had remembered that she would want to at least look nice and presentable. Even if nobody else would ever know, she wanted the certainty that she had looked her best on her wedding day. In the end, after frantically going through her closet for hours, something which had amused Colin to no end, she had settled on the summer dress she had worn that day on the island, which seemed appropriate somehow. She had paired it with a cashmere cardigan, her favourite heels and her mother’s pearls, and it had seemed perfect in the morning, but now she wondered if she had not better chosen something grander.
‘Listen, Caroline,’ Colin said. ‘You know – even if this is just for the bureaucrats -’
‘This – I mean, us – it’s still going to be forever, isn’t it?’
Caroline looked up at him and in his eager, slightly anxious smile saw the future ahead of her. There was Italy of course to look forward to, two weeks of uninterrupted bliss and wine and pasta under the Tuscan sun. Then, when they were back and all the documentation with their new, married state was done and all the insurance policies necessary purchased, the world was at their feet, theirs to travel and explore and write about. She thought of all the places they would visit, the people they would meet, the foreign insect dishes Colin would urge her to try and the sights she would make him photograph so they could look at them when they were too old to travel and had to resort to reminiscences on the porch of their senior residence. Paying lip-service to a tradition in which she did not believe seemed a small price for the life that lay before her.
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said and squeezed his hand. ‘Of course it is forever.’
seven hours after
He knew not how, but Mrs Bennet had somehow convinced his friends to decorate the get-away car in toilet paper and shaving foam, because that apparently was the done thing. It seemed to take an eternity to clear it enough to climb inside, where they found that Mrs Bennet’s suggestion of a live pig had mercifully been replaced by an inflatable one. As he started the car and carefully drove off, he could hear the shoes and cans tied to the fenders clank, bizarrely in almost the same beat as that downright grotesque live band Mrs Bennet had chosen for them. Fireworks were still blazing in the air above them and he was pretty sure, as he slowly accelerated, that he heard his mother-in-law call for a conga line. He briefly smiled at the idea of his sister’s face right now, then left the golf club’s driveway and turned around the corner into the street. They had to stop at a red light and he looked at his beautiful bride, who smiled back at him.
‘Ready for the future, Mrs Bingley?’ he asked.
‘With you by my side, I’m ready for anything,’ she said, covered his hand on the gear-stick with hers and leaned in to kiss him. ‘Remember, this is just the beginning.’