Dr. Lingstrom looked over Charlotte with the cautiousness she'd come to expect in the months since she'd been his patient.
"Any tightness?" he asked. "Any pain?"
"No," she croaked.
John looked at her with the beaming smile of a parent. It made her uneasy. What did he have done to me?
Visions of Master of the Game came to mind. She wondered if she would look into a mirror as Eve did, to find her face in ruins. It hadn't been a particularly beautiful face, but it had been hers.
Don't be an idiot. Look, your father's standing right over there with your mother and Carl. They're beaming, too. Clearly, they like what they see.
"Any tenderness at all?" The doctor was placing his fingertips around her face.
"No." Damn, but she wished she didn't sound like a frog. She'd been thrilled when her voice had come back enough to talk--which she'd saved for Carl. Her evenings with him exhausted her voice, but they were worth it in her opinion.
"Okay. I think you're ready to see how you look." Dr. Lingstrom stepped aside and John stepped forward, holding a hand-held mirror. He handed it to her.
"You look as gorgeous as ever, Charlotte," he said.
That's not what you said before.
Charlotte had thought a great deal about what a fool she'd been about John. Now she could see him for what he was. She thought of how she'd done what he wanted. She'd changed her hair style and color. She'd changed a couple of her routines because he hadn't liked them. She almost hadn't gone home when her father had been sick.
Although he might've been right about that last one. If you had stayed with him, you wouldn't be here now. But you also wouldn't know the truth about John, and about Carl, and mostly about yourself.
Charlotte's hands were surprisingly steady as she took the mirror and held it up to her face. She looked at herself for a good long minute before smiling. It was her smile.
It was all her, and it was a miracle.
"Thank you," she said to Dr. Lingstrom. "Thank you for everything."
"You're welcome," he replied. "Just don't get into any more plane crashes, okay?"
"Promise," she said cheerfully, wishing she could roll her eyes. What a stupid thing to say. Of course she didn't plan on getting into another crash.
The doctor left a moment later. Immediately, her father enveloped her in a massive crush.
"Papa, I can't breathe," she said.
He laughed, because that was what she always said. The moment he let go of her, her mother and Amy hugged her.
Then it was John's turn, though Charlotte wished she could avoid that. She looked over John's shoulder at Carl, who was standing by looking slightly less than thrilled by the sight. She rolled her eyes at him, and his frown dissolved into a smile.
"We need to talk," she said quietly to John. "Mama? Papa? Could you guys give us a minute alone?"
"Please, Papa?" Charlotte's eyes pleaded with her father. "There's something I've needed to talk to John about for quite a while."
Bobby wasn't blind. He knew that Carl Denny was in love with his eldest daughter. He had seen a light in the young man's eyes of late that hadn't been there before, at least, not since Charlotte had announced her engagement to John Thorpe. And he knew that Carl had been sneaking into Charlotte's room the entire time. He had been hoping that Charlotte had finally regained some sense and fallen in love with Carl.
Now it didn't seem likely.
"All right," he said. "We'll just be outside."
Carl nodded slowly to Charlotte and walked out with the Lucases, knowing what she was going to do. He would be just outside the door in case it got ugly.
John smiled as they left, knowing what Charlotte was going to say to him. She was going to tell him that she was sorry for everything she'd said the day of the crash. She was going to tell him she wanted to be married as soon as possible. She might even tell him that she wished she had gone ahead and had the improvements done to her face.
But most of all, she would tell him that she loved him. And he would be free at last to tell her that he loved her.
"I've thought a lot about what's happened between us," Charlotte said.
"I have, too. Charlotte, you have no idea what hell I went through when I thought you were going to die. I was here every day."
"So I heard."
John beamed and wondered which of the nurses had told her of his dutiful visits. He'd been a good fiancé to her.
"For ten minutes at a time, if that. And never more than once a day." Charlotte's voice seemed cold.
John's smile faded. "They wouldn't let me see you more than that."
"I know that's not true. You could've seen me once every hour. A person who went through hell, as you say you did, would've seen me once an hour."
"People go through hell in different ways. And I was here every day."
"You were here to see me out of duty. Plus, you never called my family like you promised."
"It slipped my mind. I was making sure I found the best plastic surgeon--"
"Saving my face was more important to you than reassuring my family that I was still alive."
"I knew you would live. I just didn't want you to worry for a second about looking terrible. I wanted to be sure that when you woke up you'd know that you were going to look as beautiful as you do now."
"You were intending to make me something I wasn't. I heard what you said when my family arrived."
John sighed. "Look, Charlotte, what I said that was is inexcusable. I know it was over the line, but we were all under a lot of stress. You'd just awakened and your family had just arrived--"
"Yet you'd gone ahead and made arrangements with the doctor to make me look 'better' than I did before."
"You weren't going to look radically different."
"That isn't the point."
"Look, I made a mistake. Would you like for me to apologize? I'll get down on my hands and knees if I have to. I'm sorry. Charlotte, I love you."
Charlotte closed her eyes. Four months ago she would've sold her soul to hear him say those words, because he said them so rarely to her. Now she knew that his words of love, just like everything else, were said to manipulate.
"I brought something with me today as sort of a present for having your bandages removed." John reached into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a jewelry box. "Actually, you've seen it before. In fact, the last time you saw it, you hurled it at me, but I'm willing to overlook that if you're willing to overlook my foolish words about the doctor."
As though the actions were even close to being on the same level!
John opened up the box to reveal her engagement ring in all its gaudy splendor.
Dear God, how did I ever think that was beautiful? That's the most ostentatious, vulgar ring I've ever seen in my life. Ugh!
She blinked, realizing that he'd been speaking. "Sorry?"
John got down on one knee. "I was getting ready to tell you how I feel."
"Today is a day of new beginnings for us. I know that in recent weeks we've had our problems, but I truly feel as though we can set them aside and start over. I know that we're already engaged, but I felt that with this new start should come a renewal of my offer of marriage. Charlotte, would you marry me?"
Charlotte couldn't trust herself to speak. John took this as a sign that she agreed and took the ring out of the box. He was about to slip it onto her finger when she spoke.
John stopped for a moment. Charlotte took the opportunity to pull her hand away. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"Why should I marry you?"
"Because you love me. Because I love you. Because that's what people do when they love each other."
"And it has nothing to do with the fact that I wouldn't sleep with you before the crash?"
"It started out as that, but it's so much more, Charlotte. I love you. I lo--"
"Please stop saying that. You don't mean it."
"But I do!"
Charlotte shook her head. "I'm sorry, John, but I can't marry you."
"You were eager enough to marry me before the crash! You were eager enough to almost sleep with me three days before you left."
"You were right about something, John. Things have changed. I've changed. And I've realized a few things that I didn't before."
"I think I have the right to know why you're suddenly saying you don't want to marry me."
"It isn't sudden to me. I've known I wasn't going to marry you since before the reconstructive surgery."
"Look, it's been a long ten weeks. I know you're probably still upset about the stupid things I said--"
"It's not about what you said to me. It's about everything you said to Carl."
Denny. He should've known that SOB was going to figure in somewhere. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do. Every little insinuation, every lie, every taunt. You never showed your true side to me, did you?"
"I was honest to you always."
"No. You showed your true side to everyone but me. Where were you the day of the crash?"
"I was still in the hotel room."
"No, you weren't. When I didn't arrive in Seattle, they said they called the hotel and you'd checked out soon after I left for the airport. Where were you?"
"I needed to be alone. I didn't want to stay there in case you called to make up. I mean, you did break off our engagement right before you left."
"Why did it take you nearly three days to get here?"
"I closed myself off from everyone. I didn't read the papers."
"John, no matter how upset you are by things, the one thing I know about you is that you always read the papers. Every day, from the front page to the classified ads. If you ever loved me, no matter how slight, tell me the truth."
John weighed his options. He couldn't very well tell Charlotte he'd been with Catie Morland. She'd never forgive him, and he knew he was perilously close to losing her now. But he wasn't sure he could afford lying.
"I was...with someone else," he finally said. "I was furious with you for leaving me. I wanted to hurt you as you'd hurt me. So I made a terrible, foolish mistake and I can't undo it. All I can ask is that you forgive me."
Charlotte grimaced. This shouldn't hurt, really it shouldn't. But it did anyway.
"How many other times?" she asked. "How many other little slights did I give you that you felt you had to get back at me by sleeping with someone else?"
"Little slights are a completely different thing from breaking our engagement," he pointed out.
"I know you, John. I knew going into this relationship that you weren't perfect and that you could be domineering and that you usually only went after women for one purpose. I had hoped I could change that. But it was a foolish hope. I know now that I could no more change you than I could make it rain. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to marry you."
"I suppose Denny's been spreading stories--"
"Carl didn't have much to tell me that I couldn't already figure out for myself."
"I suppose he exposed himself to you? Told you he loved you and all that?"
Charlotte smiled. "He did."
"What do you think I've been doing here?"
"I don't know, John. I'm not about to give myself a headache trying to figure you out. You probably do feel something for me, though I doubt it's love. You love yourself far too much to ever love someone else as you should."
John felt a rage unlike any other he'd known. If Carl Denny had been in the room, he would've killed him with his bare hands. He knew the man had to be standing right outside the door, and it was tempting to put him through a window.
But Carl wasn't in the room.
"You...you ingrate," he said, fury making his voice shaky. "I chose you, out of all the women in the world I could've had. I decided to marry you. And after this crash, when you were lying on this bed, a twisted heap, I went to find the surgeon who would put you back together. Even then, you wouldn't be grateful enough to take his recommendations on how to make yourself more presentable."
"Presentable?" Charlotte's eyes filled with tears. "I may not be one of my sisters, but I always felt as though I were pretty enough."
"You are nothing compared to some of the women I know. You were lucky to have me. You and Denny deserve each other. You're both a pair of losers. I mean, if you were anything more, you might've done better when you were competing."
"I see." Charlotte looked down. "I don't think there's anything more to say. You should leave and not come back."
"I don't intend to." John stood up and stalked to the door. He opened it with more force than it required to find Carl standing there. Before he could say anything, Carl reached up and punched him. John staggered back into the room and nearly fell on Charlotte.
"Now you can go," Carl said calmly, as John struggled to stand. He stepped out of the way as John staggered out of the room.
That evening, Carl and Charlotte were still laughing at the sight of the great John Thorpe drunkenly swaying out of her hospital room.
"You have no idea how long I've wanted to do that," he said.
"I have a pretty good idea," she replied. "Toward the end, I wanted to do that myself."
"Yeah." Carl sighed. "Charlotte, there's something I want to tell you."
He took her face--her beautiful, familiar face--in his hands. "I love you."
"I know," she whispered. "You've said it several times."
"Yeah, but this is really the first time I've told you when you haven't been pretending to sleep."
Charlotte smiled. "I love you, Carl."
She had barely gotten the words out before he kissed her. It was a kiss that seemed to last forever, a kiss that awoke so many emotions within her that she could easily believe she'd never truly been kissed before now.
It was a kiss so full of love that she almost couldn't believe it was real.
By the time they broke apart, they were both breathing heavily.
"Marry me, Charlotte," he murmured against her mouth.
She looked at him. "Try and stop me," she replied before kissing him again.
They were both too involved in each other to pay much attention to the person clearing her throat. Finally, because she knew they would ignore her unless she said something, Amy exclaimed, "Hi, Papa!"
Charlotte broke away from Carl and turned to look at her sister. "Drop dead, Amy," she said.
"Well, he is coming. I thought you'd prefer that he not catch the two of you trying to set the room on fire." She smiled. "By the way, congratulations."
"Thank you," they said in unison.
"Don't be scared. He's not a member of the mafia," she said. "He won't kill you."
"Are you going to be okay? I mean, he might disown you over this."
"Well, because you're going to have to leave skating. You'll miss the next Olympics."
Georgiana shrugged. "I don't figure he'll disown me over that. I mean, that's part of what led to this whole mess. If Frances Bennet had been the supportive type, maybe Lydia wouldn't have..." She swallowed. She had made a vow to herself when she married Bret that she wouldn't spend her time thinking about what could've been. It wasn't fair to him or to their future.
And it certainly wasn't fair to her baby. After all, if things hadn't happened the way they had, she wouldn't be pregnant.
Bret didn't say anything, though he knew what she was thinking. He could remember their wedding day quite clearly...
"You've got to be kidding!" Georgiana laughed as he pulled up to the place where they were going to be married. "The Wee Wedding Chapel of Love?"
"Hey, it beats the drive-through marriage place."
"You've been watching the WWF again, haven't you?"
Bret laughed. He had sheepishly admitted being addicted to pro wrestling one Monday night when he'd stopped at a hotel early.
"I suppose if we're actually going to get married in Vegas, it might as well be in some silly-named place like this. I don't suppose it comes equipped with an Elvis impersonator to marry us, does it?"
"I don't think so. If you really want one, though..."
"No, that's okay. I'm not really an Elvis fan."
Bret got out of the car and walked around to get her door. They held hands and walked into the chapel together.
"Hello?" Bret called. "Is anyone here?"
"Don't you idiots know it's too damn early to be gettin' married?" a voice yelled from the back of the chapel. "Why can't you wait until midnight, like all the other morons who get drunk and think marriage is a good idea?"
"Because we're here now and we don't want to wait," Georgiana replied.
"You gotta license?" the disembodied voice asked.
"Of course," Bret replied. In a low voice to Georgiana, he muttered, "I'm beginning to feel like I'm in Oz."
"I think Vegas is the modern-day equivalent. Just wait. We'll get outside and my brother will be on his broom writing SURRENDER BRET AND GEORGIANA in the sky."
"What a lovely thought."
A moment later, a small man in a dark suit appeared. He looked nothing like the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz but for some reason, both of them laughed.
"Somethin' funny?" he asked, his accent indicating that he was from New York.
"Nothing at all. We're just excited to be here," Georgiana said.
The man looked at her. "Are you sure you're old enough to be gettin married?" he asked.
"Would you like to see my driver's license?" she retorted, praying he wouldn't. The last thing she needed was him recognizing her name and passing it on before she had a chance to tell Fitz.
"We were issued a license," Bret pointed out.
"Good point. I'm Pastor Bob."
"Bret Sullivan, and this is my fiancee, Georgiana."
"Well, c'mon then, let's get this over with so I can get back to bed. I usually don't open until later in the evening. I get more suckers that way."
"Suckers?" Georgiana inquired.
"Yeah. Suckers who think marrying a Vegas showgirl is the best thing that could happen to them."
"I'm not a Vegas showgirl," Georgiana said huffily.
"I know that. You don't got the body for it."
"And just what is wrong with my fiancee's body?" Bret demanded, frowning.
"Absolutely nothin' at all, sir. She's lovely. I'm just sayin' that she ain't tall enough."
Georgiana knew, from the pointed way he looked at her chest, that she was lacking in other areas as well, but he did somehow manage not to mention her deficiencies.
"Let's get on with it," she said.
Pastor Bob led them to the front of the church.
"Now, my woman Anna Mae'll play the piano. She only knows one song, so I hope you like 'Amazing Grace.'"
"How appropriate," Georgiana mumbled.
"She'll also be your flower girl or matron of honor or witness or whatever. My boy Terry'll be the other witness. He can hold the rings if you want."
Georgiana looked at Bret, panicked. Neither of them had thought of rings.
Pastor Bob sighed. "We got rings for sale in the back. Flowers, too."
Bret looked down at his hands. He had a college ring, but that would hardly do. The problem was, he didn't have a great deal of money. Georgiana had paid for most everything up until now, but he would feel bad if he made her pay for her own wedding ring. She'd probably want something nice.
"We'll take a look at them," Georgiana said.
"TOMMY!" Pastor Bob yelled. "HEY, TOMMY!"
A young man of about seventeen or so appeared. "Yeah?"
"Take this nice young couple in the back and show them our selection of fine rings."
"Sure, Pop." Tommy stuck his hands and his pockets and slouched toward the back room. Georgiana and Bret followed slowly, neither one sure that they were actually supposed to be following him.
When the reached the small room off the chapel, Tommy turned and said, "We ain't got much, but it'll do for the occasion." He opened a jewelry box with a dozen rings in it. They all looked nice, but the prices...
Georgiana sensed that Bret wanted to pay for the rings himself. She asked, "Do you have any plain gold bands?"
"Sorry, miss. Only ones we got are right here Most of the people come in here like to buy the flashy stuff."
Georgiana sighed and looked at the flashing gems, trying to find the least expensive one. Her eyes, however, kept wandering back to a beautiful fire opal.
"That one," Bret said, pointing to the opal ring. "It reminds me of you."
"But Bret, it's more expensive than--"
"Do you take Visa?" he asked.
"Sure thing," Tommy said.
Bret grimaced as the boy rang up his purchase, but he believed it was money well spent and besides, he noticed that Georgiana looked happy. She kept looking at the ring in her hand.
"You shouldn't have, but thank you," she told him.
"I wanted to."
After Georgiana had purchased some flowers, they returned to the chapel. Bret led Georgiana down the aisle himself as Anna Mae played a terrible rendition of "Amazing Grace" at the piano. The flowers in Georgiana's hands trembled as she began to question just what she was doing.
Dear God, I'm actually getting married!
Taking a deep breath, she thought of everything that had led to this moment in The Wee Wedding Chapel of Love. She wondered what could've been--if only Frances hadn't been so manipulative, inviting Lydia to the wedding despite Lizzy's refusal to have her. If only Frances hadn't disowned her daughter for choosing to give up skating. If only Rich hadn't been the one to pull Lydia away from the wedding, to come to her rescue when Frances kicked her out and she had nowhere to go. If only she hadn't given that interview, and fought with Rich, and ended up in bed with Carl Denny.
If only Lydia had lived.
Well, she supposed the last one was irrelevant to her current situation. Lydia was dead by the time Georgiana had awakened in Carl's bed.
But she never could have imagined that she would be here, marrying a man she hadn't known until a couple of months ago.
"Uh...well, here we are, together in the Wee Wedding Chapel of Love to see these two get married."
Never again. Georgiana steeled herself with that thought. Never again will I think about the past. Never again will I wish things were different. Today marks a new beginning for me and for him. He's willing to take on a responsibility that isn't his. You should be willing to start over for him.
"Do you, Georgina--"
"Georgiana," she corrected. "That's my name, Geor-gi-a-na."
"All right, then. Do you, Geor-gi-a-na take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?"
She met Bret's gaze and smiled. "I do."
"Do you promise to love, honor, and cherish him all the days of your life--or until you both decide you've had enough of each other and get divorced?"
"Excuse me?" Surely she had misheard him.
"Well, I have to allow for every eventuality."
Bret coughed, trying not to laugh. Georgiana sighed. "I think maybe I should say my vows. I, Georgiana Renee Darcy, vow to love, honor, and cherish you, Bret. I will never again think of what has happened in the past and wish things were different. I will do my best to make you happy, and I hope I'm successful."
Pastor Bob glared at her and continued. "Do you, Bert--"
"Last name Maverick?" the pastor said, laughing hysterically at his own joke.
Bret glared at him and said, "I, Bret Rupert Sullivan, vow to love, honor, and cherish you, Georgiana. I will do my best to make you happy and I hope you will do the same for me."
Pastor Bob growled, "If you were gonna say your own damn vows, what d'ya need me for?"
"The last time I checked, you were still a preacher. We can't marry ourselves," Bret said.
"Right. Then can we get back to the rest of it?"
"Sure," Georgiana said. Anything to finally be married and out of the chapel.
"Give Bret the ring," Pastor Bob instructed his son. Tommy gave Bret the opal ring.
"Bret, repeat after me--With this ring, I thee wed."
"With this ring, I thee wed."
"Okay. Now give Geor-gi-a-na his."
"They didn't get one for him."
"Whaat? How can I finish this ceremony with only one ring?"
"Here." Bret slipped off his college ring and handed it to Georgiana. "We'll use this for now."
Pastor Bob didn't look happy about it, but he agreed. "Okay, Geor-gi-a-na, repeat after me--With this ring, I thee wed."
"With this ring, I thee wed."
"Okay, we've performed the ring ritual. Anything else you two wanna insert before we end this?"
"I don't think so," Bret told him.
"Okay. Then by the power vested in me by the great state of Nevada, I pronounce you man and wife. You can kiss her now."
Bret gave Georgiana a quick kiss on the lips.
"Congratulations, you two. When's the baby due?" Pastor Bob asked.
Georgiana turned pale as the pastor laughed.
"What made you say that?" Bret asked.
"Only reason two young kids like yourself would get married in a hurry--in the middle of the day."
"You mean you can't simply believe that two young people could be hot for each other and want to get married for the same reason your suckers marrying Vegas showgirls do?"
Pastor Bob shrugged. "No skin off my nose why you two got married. Congratulations," he said. "Now, all you gotta do is sign the license and that's it."
And that had been it. Now they were married, standing in front of the front door to the apartment.
"We can't put it off forever," Georgiana said. "We have to go in there."
"Do we really have to?"
"After Pastor Bob made that comment about how he thought my name sounded familiar? I give him and Anna Mae one more day before they figure it out and run to the papers with the story. I'm amazed they didn't figure it out earlier."
"True." Bret finally reached his hand out and pushed the doorbell.
A moment later, the door opened. Lizzy took one look at them and gasped.
"Hello, Lizzy," Georgiana said quietly.
"Oh, thank God you're safe! Georgiana Darcy, if you ever pull a stunt like this again--" Lizzy threw her arms around her sister-in-law, hugging her tightly.
"This wasn't exactly a stunt, Lizzy. I had to get away. Is Fitz here?"
"Of course. Fitz!"
Lizzy didn't need to shout. Fitz had heard his sister's voice and came storming out of the bedroom. He stood a short distance away from his sister, who had pulled out of Lizzy's embrace and stood there looking calmly at him.
There's something different about her, Fitz thought with a frown. Then he realized what it was. The anger and pain were gone. She seemed calmer in a way she hadn't been in the past few months. He didn't think she looked happier, exactly, just more content.
"Hello, Georgiana," he said. "No hug for me?"
"You're not going to strangle me the minute I get within arm's reach, are you?" she asked.
"No, but we do need to talk."
"You're right," she said, walking across the room and into his outstretched arms. He held her close for a moment, then let her go. Without even seeing where Bret was standing, Georgiana knew that her brother was staring at him.
Fitz walked over to Bret and extended his hand. "Thanks for keeping an eye on her for us," he said.
"But I didn't--"
"I know, but she did ask you to come along so she'd be safe, whether she admits it or not."
"I admit it," Georgiana said. "Maybe someday I will go off on my own."
"Not for a million years, you're not," Fitz said, his voice raising slightly.
"Let's discuss this the next time she gets really ticked at you," Lizzy suggested. "In the meantime, I think we should sit and discuss a few things--like adults."
"All right," Fitz said. "Again, Sullivan, thank you for taking care of her."
Fitz meant them as a slightly subtle hint for Bret to leave, and they both knew it. Fitz's anger rose a few notches as Bret just stood there, looking at him and then looking at Georgiana.
"This is a private family matter now," Fitz said to him, subtlety all used up. "Georgiana will call you later, if that's what she wants."
"He's staying," Georgiana said quickly. "He's involved."
Fitz made the wrong connection. When Georgiana said that, Fitz presumed that Bret was the person she'd spent the afternoon of the crash with. Without even thinking, Fitz allowed his fist to fly right into Bret's face.
"Fitzwilliam Darcy!" Georgiana screamed, running over to where Bret had fallen on the ground, a hand to his split lip. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"He's involved? What the hell am I supposed to think, Georgiana? The last thing we fought about was who you were with that day. When you say he was involved, tell me what I'm supposed to infer from that statement."
"You're a horse's ass, Fitz," Lizzy said.
Georgiana and Bret looked at each other. He nodded slowly.
"Actually...he's right," Georgiana said finally. "Bret was the person I was with that afternoon. We were in his hotel room."
"I knew it! You son of a--you got my sister drunk and then seduced her!"
"It wasn't like that, Fitz!" Georgiana snapped. "Would you shut up and listen for once in your life?"
Fitz glared at her.
"You never listen to me. Why do you think I left?"
"Shut up! This is what I wanted to avoid by leaving." She sighed. "I guess I should've known I was only putting off the inevitable."
"Where did you go?" Lizzy asked.
"We went all over the place. We went to St. Louis and Los Angeles and Houston. We went to see the Grand Canyon and then we went to Las Vegas."
"You're too young to be going to Las Vegas," Fitz said.
"Perhaps I was. I didn't do any drinking, if that's what you're asking. I couldn't."
"Well, that's a relief," Fitz said with a snort.
"No, not really. You see..." She glanced at Bret again. He nodded again. "I'm pregnant."
"Dear God, no," Lizzy murmured. Fitz didn't say anything.
"We were stupid and foolish and we know it. But...we're having a baby." Georgiana shielded Bret with her body, praying her brother wasn't about to kill them both. "And there's one other thing."
"You got married, didn't you." Fitz didn't even make it sound like a question.
"Yes. While we were in Las Vegas. It was hardly something to write home about--a truly terrible ceremony, nothing at all like what you guys had, but it was funny and sweet in its own way. We got married at this place called the Wee Wedding Chapel of--"
"Georgiana, what the hell have you done?" Fitz asked, his voice low. If anything, Georgiana inched closer to Bret. "You're going around getting drunk, having flings and getting pregnant. Now you've compounded the mistake by marrying this guy you barely know."
"I love him," Georgiana said quietly.
"Not long ago, you thought you were in love with Rich." When Georgiana and Lizzy both looked shocked, he smiled coolly. "I don't know why you two ever thought I don't notice these things, but I do. Now you're saying you're in love with this--this--"
"If you say one word against my husband, I'm walking out that door and never coming back. You don't know him well enough to cast aspersions about him."
"I know him well enough to know that he's an opportunist. I checked up on him at the Tribune. He's always looking for the next big break."
"Well, who isn't?"
"You can't trust him, Georgiana. Now, I don't know what he managed to get you to agree to do, but I'm sure there's still time for you to get an annulment or something. You're only eighteen. You can go somewhere, have the baby in private, give it up, and return to skating in time. You don't have to waste your life like this. You don't have to give up everything you've worked so hard for because of a mistake."
Georgiana looked at him with steady eyes. She knew he meant well. At least, she prayed he did, because he was starting to sound like Lady Cat.
"I'm sorry, Fitz, but it was my decision and I made it. Bret and I are married and we're having a baby. You're entitled to feel disappointed or whatever else you feel. I knew it was going to come someday. You always expected me to be perfect and I'm not."
"I never expected you--"
"You did. You may not want to admit it, but you did. Until you can accept Bret as a part of this family, as my husband, then I don't think we should see each other." Georgiana stood up and helped Bret to his feet. She did not look back as she left.
Bret weaved slightly as Georgiana led him to the car. "Are you all right?" she asked, her voice quavering.
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak.
Georgiana took the keys, knowing he was too woozy to drive. "Sorry about that. I should've known Fitz wasn't going to be happy. Maybe it would've been better if I'd seen him alone."
"Don't worry about it."
"As soon as we get home, I'll get some ice on your jaw. I guess Fitz's technique has improved since the last time he took a swing at someone."
"Rich. Remember? The two of them got into this monster fight about Lizzy at the last Olympics. Fitz wound up in the hospital."
Georgiana put the keys in the ignition and started the car. Before she could put it in reverse, Bret put his hand on hers. "Did you mean it?"
"What you said about loving me."
Georgiana took her hand off the gear shift and placed it in his. "Yes," she said.
Bret's smile cost him, but he didn't feel the pain at all. Georgiana smiled at him as well before squeezing his hand.
"I love you, Georgina," he said.
She laughed and replied, "I love you too, Bert."
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lucas
cordially invite you
to the wedding of their daughter
Charlotte Corinna Lucas
Carl Nathaniel Denny
on Saturday, January 20, 19--
It was later agreed that never did a bride look more beautiful than Charlotte Lucas, and never was there a more eager groom than Carl Denny. Charlotte walked down the aisle on her father's arm wearing a beautiful off-the-shoulder ivory gown, which made the most of her creamy complexion and once-again dark hair. Her gray eyes glowed with happiness behind her veil. Charlotte feared that she looked like a big meringue in her dress, which wasn't very frilly but still had a bell-like shirt that made her feel like Scarlett O'Hara as she walked down the aisle.
She didn't need to worry, for Carl only had eyes for her, and to him she was the most beautiful woman in the room. His own dark eyes shimmered with unshed tears. He had dreamed of this moment for so long that he had turned his arms black and blue from pinching them. Carl remembered something Lizzy had told him--that one's wedding day always seemed like a dream, and thank God there was a photographer from People Weekly taking pictures so he'd remember it all. There was a cameraman there, too, but he had been warned by the father of the bride that if he tried to make an extra copy of the tape to take to the tabloids, he'd be no better than roadkill.
But despite what he thought, Carl remembered every minute of his wedding ceremony without the aid of a video camera or pictures, because Charlotte was there beside him and that was all that mattered to him.
Although it had been rather heartrending to hear Bobby's unabashed crying from the front pew as he watched his eldest daughter get married. Many of the guests smiled at the display, but none thought badly of him. And every guest had a tear in their eye when the priest announced that Carl could kiss his bride, and at long last, Charlotte and Carl were married.
Just kiss me
And forget all about that other stuff
Your big red lips, I think, will be enough
Don't worry with your lipstick
I'm gonna kiss it all away
Throw away your lipstick
That ain't your color anyway
Five hundred guests had been invited to Charlotte and Carl's wedding, and it seemed as though all five hundred were crowded around the dance floor. In the center of it all were the newlyweds, dancing merrily along to Harry Connick, Jr.
Everyone shouted out the next line.
"My lips are your color! So lips, stick with me!"
At this point, Charlotte and Carl kissed and everyone around them laughed.
Close to them were the bridesmaids, identically dressed in silvery blue and each dancing with a devastatingly handsome man. Samantha, finally beginning to grow into her beauty (to her sister Mariah's disgust), was dancing with a young man named Thomas Forster, a friend of the groom's. Amy danced with Jeremy something-or-other--no one could quite remember his last name, but she was the envy of every single girl there because he danced only with her. Mariah danced the best of the three, but she was dancing with the best man, Richard Fitzwilliam, and looked good because he was a great dancer.
The maid of honor danced with her husband, and everyone who looked at them said they were able to move as well about the floor as they did on the ice. Lizzy and Fitz paid all the attention very little mind, and one would never have suspected that they were in any way nervous about the upcoming Olympics.
The song ended and everyone cheered loudly. Carl whirled Charlotte around in his arms until she was nearly dizzy, but she laughed all the same.
"This is the happiest day of my life," she said, kissing him.
"That goes double for me, Charlotte." Carl hadn't told her yet about his wedding gift to her, because even though she suspected he still wanted it to be a surprise. Their beautiful Victorian-style house was waiting for them when the reception was over, and he couldn't wait.
He knew she couldn't, either.
A hush fell over the members of the reception who were skaters, because at that moment, a young couple appeared in the doorway. When the young woman took off her voluminous hat, a crown of fiery red curls appeared.
"Georgiana Darcy..." The whisper went.
Everyone had heard the rumors--Georgiana and her brother had had a fight one day, and Georgiana had not returned since. No one knew that Georgiana had actually returned home two weeks later, because Fitz had opted not to tell anyone where she was. There were some in the crowd who thought she was hiding in preparation for the next Olympics, but two weeks ago the U.S. Nationals were held and Georgiana was not there. She was not on the Olympic team.
But she was here, now, looking far happier than anyone had ever seen her look in her life, with a tall, handsome blond man at her side.
"There she is," Lizzy told Fitz. "It's amazing how easy it was for her to disappear."
Lizzy didn't want to admit this to Fitz, but she'd known all along where Georgiana and Bret had gone. Georgiana had called her about a month after the fight to tell her how they were doing, and where they were, but begged her not to tell Fitz. Although Lizzy hadn't wanted to keep such a secret from Fitz, she knew it would be for the best. Fitz was still furious with his sister, she thought that once his anger had died down, she would tell him. Now it wouldn't be necessary.
Fitz's lips thinned as he looked at his sister. Her waist looked much as it had the last time he'd seen her, as she walked out the door of his apartment.
He'd known where she was, of course, though he hadn't told Lizzy. She'd have been furious to know that he'd gone against her wishes and had a private detective track them down, not that they were hard to find. Bret had already quit the paper before they'd gotten married, and the two of them had moved to St. Louis to live.
Fitz had been hoping that Georgiana would see the error of her ways, but according to his investigator things had been happy between the young couple. And on December 15, Georgiana had given birth to a little girl, Bridget.
The investigator, at Fitz's insistence, had gotten a photo of Bridget. Fitz had nearly cried when he'd seen it. The newborn looked so much like Georgiana, except it appeared her eyes were going to be dark instead of the beautiful blue of her mother's.
But Lizzy had been right. Georgiana's disappearance was easy to understand. She'd simply gone by her married name of Georgiana Sullivan, and as no one knew who Bret Sullivan was or thought that Georgiana Darcy was pregnant and married, anyone who might've recognized her chalked it up to coincidence.
People were now staring at both brother and sister, wondering if there were going to be fireworks at this wedding as there had been at the last big wedding they had attended. Georgiana ignore the stares--including that of her brother--and walked over to Charlotte and Carl.
"Congratulations to both of you," she said, hugging Charlotte. "I know things will be perfect for both of you."
Charlotte smiled. "Where on earth have you been?" she asked.
"Well, it's sort of a long story." Georgiana then hugged Carl, who seemed a bit stiff but that was to be expected. "Don't worry about it," she murmured in his ear before pulling away. "I want to introduce the two of you to my husband, Bret."
"Husband?" Charlotte and Carl said in unison, and loud enough so that everyone close by heard it. Very quickly, the word spread.
"When did you get married?" Charlotte asked.
"About seven months ago. We've been living in St. Louis while Bret finished his book." Georgiana didn't want to tell them the rest of it, not today of all days.
She had debated whether or not she should come at all, considering what had happened between Carl and her, but she hadn't been able to stand the problems with Fitz anymore, and she wanted to forgive him...if he would forgive her as well. She figured she might as well do it now, before the Olympics.
"I probably shouldn't have stolen your thunder by coming today," Georgiana said quietly. "I'm sorry, Charlotte."
"No! Don't be sorry. I'm glad to have you. I was so sad when Fitz told me he didn't know how to reach you, because I wanted you to be here."
"Then I'm glad I came."
"Congratulations, Georgiana, on getting married. And to you too, Bret." Charlotte hugged him.
"Well, I think we have some extra seating somewhere around here."
"Oh, we really can't stay too long. We've...got a few people to talk to, and then we have to get home. I just wanted to see you and say congratulations, and..."
"I insist that you stay. My mother and the caterers have cooked up enough food to feed everyone here for a month, and you haven't seen anyone in so long. Everyone's going to wonder where you went."
"I went to be alone with my husband," Georgiana said. "And after everything that had happened, I think it did me a lot of good."
"Please say you'll stay for a while." Charlotte looked at her friend with imploring eyes, begging her to stay.
"All right," Georgiana said. "I'll stay, but only for you, Charlotte. Congratulations again."
Georgiana took Bret's hand and attempted to lead him in the direction of a small table in a secluded (and isolated) corner. Well-wishers blocked her path, and numerous times she had to tell people a few things about herself. The big thing she hadn't revealed--Bridget was her secret, and she wanted to keep it as long as she could.
Finally, they reached the table she had been seeking. "Well, well," she said cheerfully, "if it isn't Bill Collins."
Bill had seen Georgiana approach with Bret Sullivan, though he hadn't heard the rumor that was nearly all the way around the reception hall--that they were married.
"Hello, Georgiana," he said with an oily grin. "How are you? Where did you go?" He looked at Bret pointedly when he said this, because he'd been furious not to be able to find them.
"None of your business," she replied. "I want to tell you something, and you'd better listen closely so you can repeat it to my cousin Catherine."
"Oh? What?" Bill asked, full of bravado.
"If you don't quit blackmailing my husband, I'll call the police and have your butt thrown in jail. It's a crime, you know."
Bill tried to bluff. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, you do, otherwise you'd have a little more color in your cheeks."
Bill smiled weakly. "I didn't know you had gotten married. To whom?"
"How else would I know you were blackmailing him if I hadn't married Bret?"
Bill glared at the man, telling him with every look that his secret was as good as revealed. "And what does he claim I'm blackmailing him with?"
Georgiana was grateful for the seclusion as she reached across the table and grabbed his tie. She yanked on it hard and shoved her face into his, trying not to gag from his reeking breath.
"Now you listen here. I know what you're claiming, that Bret killed his sister. I know that you and Catherine tried to use it in order for him to get close to me. I know that you were going to try to blackmail me into coming back to Catherine's fold. I'll bet you were going to try to get Fitz as well, and he'd have to leave Lizzy because she'd never take Catherine as a coach. So I want you to take this message back to Catherine. If she ever tries to insinuate that Bridget's death was anything more than what it really was--an accident--I'm going to send a copy of a rather incriminating tape to every sports journalist in the country."
"A tape in which Catherine admits that she stole Frances Bennet's good-luck charm in order to throw her off at the Olympics all those years ago. Catherine's always stood on her integrity. How would it look if everyone knew she won her gold medal because of a dirty trick?"
"Catherine would do no such thing."
"She did, and Frances Bennet has a tape admitting she did it. She's not going to use it because she no longer cares, but she gave the tape to Lizzy for protection in case Catherine ever pulled a stunt like this. Lizzy would be more than happy to use it."
Bill's already pasty face got paler. "A-all right," he stuttered. "Y-you won't hear from me again."
"Good. And if I ever hear that you've told this ridiculous story to anyone else, you'll regret it." Georgiana let go of his tie and walked away.
"God, I love you," Bret murmured in her ear as he led her onto the dance floor.
Georgiana laughed as they danced.
Rich watched from the sidelines thinking that it was funny, but he had spent the last big wedding he'd attended doing much the same thing. Until Lydia had shown up.
The dull ache in his heart reminded him that he still missed her everyday. But everyday, the memories faded and he knew he was going to survive. There would always be a small part of him that wished she could've lived and been happy, and that was good, because it meant her memory wouldn't die.
"You're not dancing and you should be," a voice said from beside him. Amy Lucas had appeared out of nowhere, it seemed.
"I should be, huh?"
"Yeah. You looked great out there."
"Thanks. You're not bad yourself."
"Aah...everyone in my family has two left feet, except for Charlotte. Papa used to joke that God had given her something far greater than beauty, and he was right. And now He's given her Carl."
"Don't tell me you're in love with him."
Amy shook her head. "I leave the hopeless crushes in my family to Mariah and Sammie. I like Carl, a lot. But I think I always knew that he was meant for Charlotte. I'm happy for them."
Rich smiled. "Yeah."
"You look like you'd rather be anywhere but here."
"It's not that. Just old memories."
He nodded. "Yeah."
Amy's eyes were sad. "Yeah. It's tough to lose someone you love dearly."
Rich looked at her. She had to be all of maybe twenty or twenty-one. Whom could she have lost? "Who did you lose?" he asked.
"My boyfriend was killed in a drunk driving accident the summer we were sixteen," Amy said, her eyes beginning to form tears. "It was so stupid. We were at this beach party and everyone was trashed, and someone suggested that we got out boating. My boyfriend--Jack was his name--offered to get his father's boat. He and a friend were driving back to his house to get the keys when they ran into a telephone pole."
"Oh, God," Rich said.
"Jack died a few weeks later. It was...just horrible, watching him suffer. That's why I think I was grateful that Charlotte was awake by the time we got to her in London, because I don't think I could've gone through that again."
"How long did it take you to get over him?" Rich asked.
"A lot longer than my family would've liked, that's for sure. They were always saying that I should be over him, that we were just kids and we really didn't love each other. Looking back, they were probably right about the whole thing, but at the time I really resented the way they made my feelings seem insignificant."
"I know the feeling." Rich smiled at her. "Hey, I know you're with that guy Jeremy, but would you like a drink?"
Amy looked down at her wineglass. "I'm not here with Jeremy. Jeremy is crazy about my sister Mariah and is using me to get to her."
"You're letting him do that?"
Amy shrugged. "I don't really care. Jeremy's a nice guy. I like him and all, but I don't really like him, you know? Besides, maybe now that Carl's married Charlotte, Mariah will wake up and realize how crazy he is about her."
"One can always hope. So how about that drink?"
"Sure, as long as we can talk about something more pleasant."
Rich's smile widened. "I can think of any number of more pleasant things to talk about," he said, gently taking her arm to lead her across the dance floor.
He had to admit, he was rather pleased by the tingle he felt when he did so.
"Go over there."
"C'mon. You forgave her months ago. I know you did."
"I'm not going over there. She'll have to come over here."
"Fitz, have I mentioned lately that you're a--"
"--horse's ass, I know. You've been calling me that since she left."
"I wasn't going to say that. I was going to say 'stubborn fool.'"
"Aren't you the least bit interested in knowing whether she had a boy or girl?"
"Keep your voice down. She hasn't told anyone about that."
"Yeah, I wondered about that, too."
"And I already know what she had."
"Fitzwilliam George Darcy, exactly how do you know this?"
"You hired a detective, didn't you!"
"Yes, I did! She's my sister, dammit, and although I was PO'd at her I at least wanted to know where she was."
"I'm gonna kill you when we get home."
"No, you won't. If you do, who will you find to skate with next month?"
"Good point. I'll keep you alive long enough to win me a gold, then I'll kill you."
"Nice to know I'm good for something."
"Well, there are a couple of other things you're kind of good at."
Fitz laughed. "Thank you, darling."
"I guess in light of your confession I should tell you something as well."
"She's been calling you."
"Yes--how the hell did you know that?"
"Well, how did you think I found her? My detective traced the call from our house."
"To hell with the gold. I'm killing you now."
"Don't worry. I won't hold it against you that you called me a bombastic simpleton to every single person who called wanting to know what had happened. I forgave you months ago."
"Well, if you think I'm going to forgive you anytime soon, you can think again."
"Yeah. And if I didn't know it would give people even more to talk about, I'd walk away from you right here on this dance floor."
"No, you wouldn't."
"Yes, I would."
"I bet you fifty bucks that I can get you to forgive me within three minutes."
"What? You think a lousy kiss is going to make me forget that you sicced a private detective on Georgiana against her wishes?"
"Think again, bud....mmm...mmm...dammit, Fitz, this isn't working. I swear it's...mmm..."
"Two minutes. You owe me fifty bucks."
"Sure. You'll get it as soon as you go talk to your sister."
Georgiana asked for directions to the restroom and walked that way, knowing full well that Carl was going to follow her. She had hoped her assurances would be enough, but clearly they hadn't.
She had gotten to the door when he tapped her on the shoulder.
"Hello," she said.
"We need to talk," he told her.
"I said everything I want to say on the subject. As far as I'm concerned, it happened and there's no use in looking back on it. It would only bring a lot of grief."
"I never got the chance to tell you that I was sorry."
"Sorry about what?"
"Sorry that I didn't even say goodbye to you after...after..."
"I didn't resent you for it. It was a pleasant afternoon, and I understood that Charlotte came first in your life. She was in a coma, near death. It's all right. If it had been Rich, I would've left you."
Carl sighed. "I don't deserve your forgiveness."
"Sure, you do. You..." Georgiana didn't want to tell him. She didn't want to burden him with the knowledge. "You didn't do anything wrong."
Carl looked over at Bret, who was talking with Charlotte. "Why did you marry him? Why were you gone so long?"
He was going to press the issue. With a sigh, she said, "Because we wanted to be alone. Because we had just gotten married. A lot of reasons."
"But why did you marry him so quickly? You barely knew each other."
"We knew each other well enough." Taking a deep breath, she said, "I had a baby."
The blood drained from Carl's face. "A baby."
"Oh, God. Oh...it's...you mean...it's mine?"
Georgiana looked at his tortured eyes. She knew that if she told him the truth, she would shatter him.
"No," she said. "It's Bret's."
"B-but you were...it was your first time, with me, and if you've already had the baby..."
She shook her head.
"Georgiana, please don't lie to me. If you're trying to protect me, I appreciate it, but this is important."
"Bret is the father of my child in every way that counts."
But Carl knew. "In every way but one," he said quietly.
"I shouldn't have come," she said, turning away. "I knew you'd be asking me why I was gone, and I'd have to tell you the truth. I thought I could lie, but even Bret said..."
"Bret? Bret knows?"
"Of course Bret knows. We didn't sleep together until after we were married." She sighed. "But he said you did have a right to know. I told him that you would feel obligated to tell Charlotte, and that would wreck everything. Maybe I..."
"Charlotte knows about our one night stand. We got to talking about things and I didn't feel it would be right not to tell her the truth. She deserved to hear it after all she'd been through."
It was then Georgiana's turn to feel sick. "She knows? And she still--"
"Well, I did explain that we were both crazy and drunk and stupid. And she had nearly slept with that creep Thorpe, so she forgave me."
"I somehow doubt this is going to be just as easy to forgive. I assume you're going to tell her."
"He won't need to," a new voice said. Neither of them had noticed Charlotte had come to look for her husband and found him talking with Georgiana.
Georgiana nearly passed out. "Oh, God, Charlotte, I'm so sorry. I'm going to leave. Forget I ever came here. Forget everything. I'm not going to return to skating and no one will ever need to know--"
"If you don't return to skating, then I'll never forgive you." Charlotte looked at her intently. "Carl told me the truth. I was upset--I notice that you didn't tell her that, dear--and I called Lizzy about it. When I told her that it was Carl you were with that day, she was so stunned she let it slip that you were pregnant. That Carl was the baby's father was obvious to us both."
"You mean you've known all along?" Georgiana asked.
Charlotte nodded. "And I didn't tell Carl because I didn't think it was my place to do it. It took me a while, but...when you love someone, you forgive them for being foolish."
Georgiana blinked back tears.
"Don't talk about needing to be forgiven, because it's unnecessary. I did it long ago, for both of you. Just...Georgiana, be as happy with Bret and your child as Carl and I will be."
"Facing death has a way of making you look at things different. It's a cliché, but it's true. Before the crash, I might not have been able to forgive it. Now I know what's important, and it's love. I love Carl. You clearly love Bret and your baby. It's as simple as that."
The bride and groom were off to see Italy, having been persuaded that it was a beautiful place by Rich, who had bought his villa. Charlotte had managed to let Mariah snag her bouquet, while Rich somehow ended up with the garter--though he had studiously tried to avoid it, he suspected Carl had aimed it at him deliberately.
Soon after they were gone, Georgiana and Bret had invited Lizzy, Fitz and Rich back to their hotel room so they could see the baby. Rich had spent most of the evening with Amy and had asked her if she would like to go. Amy, who felt very odd when she was around Rich, had agreed.
"She's so beautiful!" Lizzy exclaimed when Georgiana brought her out. "And all that hair!"
"Just like her mother," Fitz said, gingerly taking the baby when Georgiana handed her to him. "Oh, hello, baby."
"And to think, the world has no idea you're married or that you've had a baby," Rich said. "Hell of a secret you managed to keep, Georgiana."
"It won't keep much longer, though," she said. "I have no doubt that by tomorrow, the gossip sheets will be dying to know why I kept my marriage and my pregnancy a secret."
"What's her name?" Amy asked, peering over Fitz's shoulder at the child.
"We named her Bridget," Bret said softly, remembering the day she'd been born and Georgiana had suggested the name for their daughter. "Bridget Elena Sullivan."
"What a beautiful name. It sort of combines 'Georgiana' with 'Bret,' doesn't it?" Lizzy said, taking Bridget from Fitz.
"Yes, it does," Georgiana said, having never given the name that perspective before.
"Do you plan to return to skating?" Amy asked. "I know that Charlotte mentioned she'd kill you if you didn't, though I didn't know why."
A silence filled the room, the secret shared by all but Rich, Amy, and Fitz. "I'm going to give it some more thought," Georgiana said. "I may skate professionally so I can be with my family, but I don't think I'll ever skate competitively again. I have someone else to think about now."
Amy nodded. "Yeah. Charlotte's talked about giving it up to start a family, too, although since she's just come back, I don't see it happening anytime soon. She's more popular than ever."
"Whatever happened to John Thorpe, anyway?" Georgiana asked.
"He was indicted for tax evasion," Amy said with a satisfied smile on her face. "He had to sell the tour to someone else, who genuinely loves skating. According to Carl and Charlotte, he's a blast."
"Maybe if I come back, I'll give him a call."
Amy took the baby from Lizzy and cooed at her. Rich took her next, and Amy asked, "Are you going to miss not being on the Olympic team? I mean, do you fear you'll ever regret giving up the chance to medal again just for a family?"
Georgiana looked at the scene around her. Lizzy and Fitz would be celebrating their one-year anniversary soon, and they still looked as dreamy as the day they'd gotten married. Shadows haunted Rich, but they were beginning to fade away and Georgiana had a feeling that Amy might play a big part in that.
Georgiana could see now that her feelings for Rich had been everything he'd thought them to be--superficial, childish, immature. She hadn't realized just what love was until she'd fallen in love with Bret, and then when Bridget was born.
She had changed so much in the past year. She was now nineteen. She was a wife and a mother, but despite the new responsibilities in her life she could honestly say that she was more free than she'd ever been before.
I have everything I would ever want right here in this room, she realized.
With a smile, Georgiana said, "Not at all. I wouldn't change a thing."